Excerpts from an Interview, 1998


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 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 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 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 if 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 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 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 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: 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 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 that I am in a place that I feel I have created 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