interview

 

Excerpts from a Studio Conversation with Artist Luke Gray, Author Daniel Pinchbeck, and Gary Snyder of Gary Snyder Project Space in NYC, 2010

Daniel Pinchbeck is the Editorial Director of Reality Sandwich (www.reality sandwich.com) and the author of Breaking Open The Head: A Psychedelic Journey Into The Heart Of Contemporary Shamanism and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl

from catalogue accompanying exhibition Luke Gray: Deep Skin and Strokeworld Paintings at David Richard Contemporary, Santa Fe, N.M. in 2010

entire ISSUU catalogue here

L.G. (speaking of a personal library of books on psychedelia, shamanism, and paradigm shiftsÖ) I did all this reading, back in the 80ís and early 90ís, when I was in my twenties and early thirties. You try to situate yourself in your culture, and you try to figure out where youíre located, where your spirit is located, where your thoughts are located, and itís a long process, and eventually your work fuses with your thoughts, in the sense that you donít really need to think anymore, beyond a certain point. And I think thatís the whole intent, of the project, to get to that point where your work fuses with your thoughts. Sometimes I feel dumb, because I donít read that much anymore toward my work, but I donít feel like I have to, until I have a new crisis, and my work has to be redefined. Itís really just a question of getting to that point where the work comes from, in all the tumultuousness of my daily life. Iíve always believed in speed of execution as a way of short circuiting a certain analytical process. I think it started with seeing Keith Haring in the subway in the early 80ís, just do his thing in 15, 20 seconds, and just walk away. And that was the work. There was something about the immediacy of that and the power of not looking analytically at what youíve done, and trying to figure out how to make it better. I was really just trying to cultivate a process inside myself where all these things would work themselves out internally before the work was done.

G.S. Daniel, Lukeís process of painting is an extremely spontaneous one, very much about being in the moment, and I always, somewhat naively I see now, thought it was about being in the moment, almost like a jazz musician, but Iíve come to see that a little differently now. I used to see it as a world that was out there, like a weather system, or a quantum field, but I now see it as a world that heís created, that is very diverse and very complex and very meaningful, a world that I donĎt quite know yet. What I do know is that part of the power of the work is in itís rapidity, and in itís attempt to almost vibrate on the same level as other things.

D.P. How quickly do you do these? L.G. These paintings are done inÖabout 20 minutesÖ D.P. Wow! (laughter) L.G. When theyíre done theyíre done. I just step away and never touch them again. I think basically the thing is resolved inside before itís put out there, and obviously I canít work that way all the time, I have months when Iím able to access that and I have months, or even years, when Iím not able to access it. For me paintings happen in little moments. Iím not about to punch the clock in my own studioÖ G.S. Luke paints in seriesÖand my observation is that thereís always been this build-up of energy which releases itself in a series of paintings, then Luke may not paint for a long time. He doesnít paint again until something builds up again and it releases, and heís very very tough on himself about that. Heís not one of those guys who comes into the studio every day and has to paint. Itís much more of an intuitive, mysterious process, and sometimes a deeply disturbing processÖyouíve gone through long periods where you havenít been able to paint.

L.G. Basically Daniel, what Iím trying to do in these paintings is create extremely associative spaces that every viewer will bring their own history to, theyíre own vision to, itís all about a world in flux, a world that is mutating and isnít static in any way. There are a lot of things that are just on the cusp of being, but theyíre not solidified. Each painting is almost like a frame in a never-ending film, which is all about transformation and change, which is what I feel our world is about. So itís about trying to capture thatÖthat fleeting moment and make it solid for a second, and then to make it an object of contemplation. Another one of the foundational thoughts is the idea of the brushstroke as a kind of pixel, or building block, of all painting. And then, trying to re-imagine a world where that brushstroke is set free to do what it wishes to do. Not in the service of describing something, necessarily, but just being unleashed to become almost like an actor on itís own stageÖflying through the space, stopping, building structures, dismantling structures, this whole notion was very important to me. I wanted this world I was imagining to be a very illusionist one also, not the two-dimensional space of Greenbergís New York School. I still believe that illusionism is The Holy Grail of painting, and always will be.

D.P. Luke, weíre both sons of painters. What kind of a dialogue did you have with your Dad about painting?

L.G. We actually didnít talk so much about painting in general, although we were very supportive of each other. I think an artist of our generation has to me more self-aware. An artist of my Dadís generation was able to just dissolve themselves into their work, but we have to straddle both sides of the line between the conscious and the unconscious because weíre post-modern. Itís a completely different relationship to painting. What was required of my generation was to be both inside and outside of the painting at the same time.

D.P. A job I had in my late twenties was writing for art magazines, for example, the Art Newspaper of London, and then I got into, you know, psychadelic shamanism, I went to the Burning Man Festival, and I got less interested in the traditional containers of the art world, and everything thatís involved and associated with them, and what I loved about Burning Man is that the art thatís made there is kind of anonymous, you can look it up, but itís mostly sculptural, and itís mostly made to solicit the maximum amount of enjoyment and community interactionÖ

L.G. Öand be a spark for ritualÖ

D.P. Exactly, exactly, the construct of the art world is so much more involved with making this object thatís going to have an archival lifeÖone of the most liberating things about Burning Man is that a lot of the stuff gets burned at the end of the festivalÖitís like a release of oneís attachmentsÖto this idea that itís going to be something permanentÖ

L.G. Like a Tibetan sand paintingÖ

D.P. Exactly, itís like a ceremony that our culture has constituted, like a Lakota sun danceÖ

L.G. The fact that you mention anonymity is very important to me because I think really from the very beginning my greatest influences were always tribal, whether it was Mayan, Egyptian, or Australian aboriginal painting, which first came to New York in the early 80ís at The Asia Society, I remember that really opened my eyes, and I was always trying to develop a language that had the anonymity that tribal art has. Itís not the anonymity of a technological society, which is a very cold and isolative one, itís the opposite of thatÖitís the anonymity of an artist in a group of people where individuality is not celebrated to a certain extent, and painting is a vehicle for ritual, so there are certain types of marks and certain ways of producing work that can be individually interpreted by each artist, but itís pretty much all subsumed in a common vision, and one thatĎs very familiar to the tribe. In my work, by reducing the painting stroke to this kind of unit, this dna-like building block, it becomes a neutral, anonymous structure, itís not my brushstroke, not my signature, itís the brushstroke.

D.P. My question is this: could the creative impulse that goes into making beautiful works such as these, be shaped into a tool that helps bring about a different kind of engagement? How can that be harnessed at a time of species-level crisis to bring about a transformation in practice and habits?

G.S. One could argue that being moved by a work of art, the feeling of humanity, the touching of something real, is working in itís own way toward that goal.

L.G. Daniel, in some of the discussions on your website and in your writing youíre talking about alchemy, and the transformation of matter. This is important, and Iíd like to talk about it. When Iím doing paintings, I want the work to be about paint, and the essential language of painting - the brushstroke. When Iím doing drawings, I want it to be about the essential language of drawing, which is the line. And thereís always been this attempt to make the narrative in my work about genesis, which is transformation of matter, so in the paintings you have these kind of building blocks, or brushstrokes, which are in the process of building something. The drawings are all about the line, which is in the process of creating something. Itís animist, you know, which again betrays my deep relation to the tribal, to tribal art. Speaking of animism, Jose Arguelles, in his book The Transformative Vision, showed a very intuitive understanding of painting. He spoke about the watercolors of Turner (JMW) in the same terms Iíve always thought of them. Especially at the end of Turnerís life, he did paintings on paper where it appeared that the watercolors had become the very elements that he was describing in his paintings. The watercolor became the clouds, became the ocean, so thereís this very animist thing also happening there, a one-to-one correspondence between paint and phenomena. This relates to what Iím talking about because itĎs connected to a post-modern way of thinking and working. While youíre creating, while youíre in the moment of creation, you have to have this kind of hyper level of awareness of the significance of the tools that youíre using. This is what focused my efforts on trying to question, at the beginning, what the building blocks of the language were, be it painting or drawing, and using that as a kind of animistic tool that took on itís own life, almost as if it were happening by itself, building itself, as opposed to being controlled by an external force. There is also an aspect to post-modernism where it is breaking through the illusion of the utopian dream of modernism, accepting itís failure. Never again dissolving oneself in a kind of absolute vision which would not allow any type of self-criticism. Clearly I felt that I couldnít just paint. You couldnít just paint and lose yourself in the painting the way Pollock or DeKooning did. You had first to go through a certain amount of deconstruction of the tradition that you were involved in, and take responsibility for your choice, and somehow work another level of awareness into it all. This often took a purely intellectual turn at that time, but the deconstruction taking place was absolutely necessary. Drawing had been deconstructed to the line, painting had been deconstructed to the brushstroke, and I thought, letís now take those elements and build a whole new world out of them. And I think thatís very much what happens Daniel, when you have a shamanic experience of the type youĎve written about, you do go through a kind of deconstructive experience, where the reality that existed for you before is no longer, and itĎs then up to you to piece it back together again. I really felt, by the late eighties, that analysis and deconstruction had just sapped the art of any life force whatsoever. I felt the only way I could take up the brush with meaning would be to take the work that had been done and use it to build a new world. Thatís what postmodernism meant to me. It was a period of severe analytical thinking where things were stripped of their meaning and historical context.

D.P. What comes next?

L.G. Well thatís exactly it. For a lot of people it was the end of something. For my dadís generation it was the death of something, like an ice pick in the heart. For my generation it was an opportunity to remake art.

 

Excerpts from an Interview with Gary Snyder, 2008

Gary Snyder: People who have seen your large mural at 1500 Broadway who then see the SpaceCollector paintings ask about the differences in your painting styles.

Luke Gray: The two contexts are dramatically different. One is a wall painting, and one is a painting on canvas. For me, the history of painting on canvas is primarily the history of the brushstroke, and the history of wall painting, particularly 20th century wall painting, is the history of flatness.

I would also add...that there are alot of connections in the way things are happening spatially on the canvases and in the mural. There are alot of illusionistic things that happen in these canvases that are camouflaged by the fact that they are hiding behind, or that they are built by, brushstrokes. I want the paintings to look slapdash in a way - to the extent that people who are looking at them are not even aware of why they are drawn into them or why they are fascinated.

GS: The feeling that I have from these paintings...is that the work is frozen in the moment - a crystallization. It's as if you were to imagine looking through a microscope at some kind of unknown energy field - a field that is flowing, amorphous, generating - and then you were to photograph it - stop it.

LG: I want the feeling in my paintings that one has from a well-composed photograph...as opposed to something that is "all over".

GS: I think that is crucial to a certain understanding of your work.

LG: Which points to the photo works that I did in 1993 which are literally meant to be snapshots of a process...I had a funny thought about this the other day...I was reading something where the author was saying that the environmental movement began when people began to see photographs of the earth from space. This shocked people into a more external perspective on their own situation...gave them the ability to look on their own planet with distance, the kind of distance that brings wisdom. I think that the photo work I did in 1993 where I made paintings on paper solely as models for photographs...I realize now that was my own way of giving myself a similar distance from this essential language of painting. A contemporary painter has to be inside and outside at the same time. It took me some time, after doing this photo work, to be able to paint freely with that distance, and without the necessity of photography as an interface.

GS: If you are open to the idea of an artist being able to see, feel, or perceive a reality that exists in some form, if you can have access to that then it makes sense that you can open yourself to that energy and capture it, collect it, portray it in some way. That's what has drawn me to your work - it always feels like it stepped outside any notion of what abstract painting was thought to be. There was always this notion of making abstract painting...dealing with formal issues...that your work seems to slip right past. One of the ways you do it...is to put this emphasis on spontaneity, speed, and effortlessness so you don't get stuck.

LG: I think the other thing is just the illusionism of the space which subverts Greenbergian formalism, the sense of light in the space, sense of dimensionality, volume, air, all these things that really do give the viewer the feeling that they are looking at a strange but real world - a world which may be made only of brushstrokes, but it's not an abstract world, it's a real world I travel to and come back with images of, in a way.

GS: Tell me more about this world.

LG: Well, I would only say that it began with the idea of positing the brushstroke as something real, as something hyperreal, in the sense that the whole history of painting had been deconstructed down to the smallest unit which was the brushstroke and we were left with that, almost as if the history of painting had been stripped bare. I think that's why there was a sense of great deflation in painting by the late 60's and early 70's, that there was not that much left to do. Then the trans-avante garde movement began, which was not even purporting to do anything new but was just rummaging through the trash heap of history looking for different mannerisms to evoke. So I felt like...if painting has been deconstructed down to that unit then why don't we take that unit and build a whole new world out of it? This notion came at a time when I was reading about new perceptions of natural order and processes. This whole new landscape was really revealed to me. So I guess in a way, I created this fictional conceit where paint was an element like earth, wind, fire, or water, and the brushstroke was the molecular unit of formation and I just imagined this world that was made of these elements. Once you have absorbed the incredibly liberating concept that randomness does not exist, that lack of order does not exist, that all these traditional polarities have been erased, I think, once again, the whole realm of possibilities in painting looks infinite. We are no longer held in check by traditional notions of harmony or balance or composition or anything like that. I don't know, a lot of it probably happens when I am walking in nature and I am seeing things in a new way, absorbing the structure of things. It liberates me to create these paintings, which hopefully have this open sense of order.

GS: You can imagine a painter doing everything you are saying but taking days, weeks, and months to create a painting, and yet your way is to work quickly. Why do you think that is so, what is it about this way of painting that seems to be important?

LG: I was exposed to a certain type of painting when I was young. The artists in my family approached painting with great spontaneity and they were part of a certain philosophical tradition which came out of surrealism and abstract expressionism. It always seemed very clear to me that this was the most modern approach. That question ever really wavered in my mind. I always connected the idea of speed of execution with modernity, and if anything, at this point it has to be turned up another notch or two. And I think I have always felt that the best things come from some place very deep inside of you that isn't rational, that isn't preconceived. I have always wanted to be able to reach that place inside myself...I learned that I didn't have to make a conscious effort to put things in my work, or to put these mental constructions in my work, that all this happened very naturally if I allowed it to.

I think also many other things...living in the city, absorbing the speed of the city, I always wanted to reflect that in my work. Not like the futurists who depicted speed, I wanted speed to be really incarnated in my work. I have always been obsessed with the idea that a painting is a frozen object and I have always wondered in this age of film and the moving picture - how can painting compete with all this other technology, virtual animation, and so forth, with these very sensual, at least visually sensual, experiences. My interest in film plays into it - I have always wanted to capture a sense of filmic time...of movement, of framing and reframing the same thing.

The other thing about spontaneity is that I have spent a lot of time looking at graffiti on the city's walls and thought of the power and immediacy of that - and sometimes felt that it was among the most immediate and necessary art being done in the city. What also interests me about graffiti is that, in most cases, whenever a graffiti artist tried to bring graffiti in to the gallery or on to a canvas, it didn't work, so obviously graffiti relates to a territory in a very specific way and can't just be transposed to another territory. So I think in my paintings on canvas I have taken for granted that the territory of the pseudo-graffiti that I am carrying out is the rectangle of the canvas. So it has to be dealt with in a highly conscious way, as opposed to many graffiti artists who just transposed their free-floating signatures on to a canvas, and they would just sit there, and there wouldn't be any kind of tension with the boundary of the canvas itself. And thinking about graffiti and absorbing it, helped me a lot with the Times Square mural because I really did tattoo the ceiling in a certain way that was totally site specific, that played off of the various architectural and territorial qualities of the place. That's why it was so important that I was given the freedom to spontaneously compose the piece on site, the way a graffiti writer would on the street.

GS: There is a fascinating relationship of your work to abstract expressionism...and to a lot of the debates that were going on in the 80's about authorship...in the 80's we had this whole notion that there is no such thing as individuality and that the whole thing is a social construct...and yet you kind of flipped it on it's head by being very ego-less...there isn't this sense of you doing, rather a sense of you receiving...so much other work in comparison feels like it is struggling, or working...or...

LG: or strategizing. I guess what I felt was what every painter was feeling in the 80's, that we were in this kind of theoretical bind that seemed impossible to get out of...I felt like one way or the other I had to find a way to bust that open and paint freely again. I guess what I realized was, what many painters have realized since the beginning of time, was that nature is the only real teacher. So for me it was really just a question of approaching the natural world kind of like a scientist trying to find a new way to refame it which would allow for a new explosion of freedom, of openness. It had nothing to do with constructing something, or even with a great material struggle - the way one feels with Pollock's painting. It really had more to do with dissolving oneself and feeling certain energies and letting them come through you and being patient enough to wait for all of that to enter into the process...and it took many years before I was able to paint this way. But I had to be patient for it to find it's own shape as opposed to working off of concepts and forcing the matter of the paint to describe something or to conceptualize something. The basic parameters of this world that is taking place in these paintings have very wide possibilities because each element, whether it is the color or the line or the mass or the format, has a kind of natural freedom built into it.

GS: ...so much of your work deals with larger issues of time and space. The nature of the present moment is addressed so much in the frozen moment, in the spontaneity, in the rapidity; the space seems to be...a primal world of space - representing the elements that make up all space, that make up all spatial relationships...

LG: I've always thought in those terms, that's why I think when I was still in school a part of me really wanted to be a filmmaker...that seemed to me to be the most direct way of dealing with those issues...But a lot of my thoughts about contemporary culture have always come back to those fundamental metaphysical issues of time and space...How are we experiencing time in a way that is different from any other point in time? How are we experiencing space?...and these paintings represent my answers to those questions. In a way, I sometimes feel like I am trying to create spaces that can be almost like meditative guides towards understanding what we are confronted with now...at this given point in time.

GS: I know that you have been influenced by and drawn to a body of writing that speaks about the possibility of paradigmatic change that is occurring right now...the sense that the world can be looked at anew...that somehow these new ways of looking and thinking just make the old ways heavy handed or artificial. Tell me about the type of reading that you have been drawn to...and how it connects with your painting.

LG: I think for years I willfully avoided reading certain theoretical texts, I knew that they existed and I knew just through hearsay and conversations with people...what ideologies were being unveiled...but I never wanted to read those texts because I wanted to arrive at a point where I felt secure that whatever shifts in direction I made in my work or whatever choices I had made were mostly internal ones, my own primary responses to my environment...Now I feel freer...now that I am in a place that I feel I have created myself...to go back and read alot of those texts so that I can more easily contextualize what I am doing in relation to the thought of the last fifteen or twenty years. But the reading that I did do during those years was about paradigmatic shifts in how we view the workings of the natural world...I immediately realized that there was this whole new landscape that had to be described and...this revealed a whole new world of possibilities. So I have read alot of stuff through the last ten years that was reinforcing that first whiff of a new landscape, but through different voices. I read people like Ralph Abraham and Ilya Prigogine, and Stuart Kauffman...the book that I read by the physicist Prigogine was very important because it made me understand the ethical dimensions of accepting this new paradigm, which meant that we completely give up the idea of domination...we give up the idea of control. Alot of these ideas were...watersheds for me. They made me understand this wasn't just about seeing nature in a new way and opening up a new landscape for art but it had this whole ethical dimension to it...whereby I could start to glimpse what were my own ideas about the best possible society or even my own feelings about a utopia...

March 1998