JIM GAYLORD INTERVIEWED BY CHRISTIAN MAYCHACK
March 19, 2013
CHRISTAN MAYCHACK: I was thinking about the title of your last show with Gregory Lind, Skipping Over Damaged Area, and about that sort of technological breakdown that happens with the damaged area of a DVD, and it seems like that moment you’re picking is also about the fallibility of our perceptions, like we sort of smooth over that moment and don’t really notice it.
JIM GAYLORD: Right, and when that actually happens on a DVD you don’t see it at all. It’s missed and isn’t even perceived, but there is something very pertinent about the way we see moving images in cinema and television, where it’s a series of frames and our minds fill in the spaces to create the illusion of motion.
CM: It sort of happens in our day to day, too. Our peripheral vision is mostly made up of a smoothing over of details that we don’t really see, but we make sense of them narratively. Do you see that as something similar?
JG: I think that we have to tune out a lot of that information in the periphery just in order to function. If we paid attention to everything—every piece of visual stimulus detected by our eyes—we would go nuts and we couldn't move forward. In the bigger picture, part of what I’m interested in is those things that might be in the periphery of understanding, where you think you know what you're seeing just because there's an intrinsic logic in the way that it was put together, and also there is a very deliberate specificity in everything, but there is really no final way to piece together a complete narrative out of that information. It just keeps turning itself over, leading you back to different parts of the image so that you have to keep second-guessing your assumptions about it. So maybe there is a kind of false sense of understanding in the initial perception of the image and then you realize, “Oh, I really don't know what that is.”
CM: It seems with this work, you’ve stopped giving as many clues to a viewer about what things are.
JG: Yeah, I’ve really lost my interest in representation in painting. There was a phase when I was using realism as a way to counter the abstraction that I was playing with, and then the realism slowly disappeared because I realized there were two different languages trying to operate at the same time, which was confusing. The work tries to confuse the viewer in some ways, but I think that was and unhelpful kind of confusion because it was disrupting the way that I wanted it to be read. I want it to operate as abstract painting, but I also want there to be something really evocative about what's going on in the picture.
CM: Also, it seems that getting rid of representation frees you to be more in the moment—that you're not trying to make this thing that looks like some other thing, and you can improvise more when you get rid of anchors to reality.
JG: And in a way that can be more frustrating because you don't always know the rules of the game you're playing. Going back to what I was saying about combining representation with abstraction, I just decided gradually that those two sets of rules existing together in the same game were too confusing. So I just had to say, “I'm going to operate within this set of rules for now," and then the choice of medium is another rule, and the way you paint is another. So just having some idea of what the rules are before you start the game helps.
CM: Well, you let go of representation, but the way these things are cut out, they still can’t help but reference representation. I just went to see the Thomas Nozkowski show, and in that same way he’s sort of probing representation without actually going there, and I feel like your new work does that without going towards the object that was its source.
JG: Nozkowski is definitely an important reference. I often have difficulty with the idea of simply abstracting a representational image and making it into something else, which is why the film stills were interesting to me. I’m finding frames in these movies that are already abstract, so there’s something about them that’s more honest in a way, versus abstracting something from life. And Nozkowski is coming up with interesting relationships between forms that don’t necessarily come from observation, but there is something very bodily about the work in his two shows that are up right now. Something that I’ve often thought about with abstract painting is that people ultimately look for a figure.
CM: People can’t help but Rorschach.
JG: Right, and that ‘s a really important concept for me right now in terms of the symmetry that’s happening in some of the work. I’ve thought about Rorschach inkblot prints in relation to my work for a while, but there was never a direct relationship to it, at least not on the surface because the work never had an element of symmetry before. I was thinking about why a Rorschach image is symmetrical, and there seems to be a reference to the body—our bodies and faces are symmetrical, and we’re used to seeing symmetry in life. So, I think a Rorschach image is such a provocative psychological device, and makes sense to us on such an instinctive level, because of that. If we saw half of a Rorschach, it would just be meaningless blotches, but when there is order imposed on it via symmetry, our mind says that it’s something we should recognize, and we make the next leap.
The kind of symmetry that I’m working with isn’t reflective, but “point” symmetry, like you would see in a playing card. But there are portions that I obstruct with forms that aren’t referenced in the other half, so it is deliberately disrupted. Symmetry is sometimes too easy of a solution for a composition, so I’m grappling with it and trying to decide how it serves the work, as in the sense of rightness vis-à-vis the Rorschach concept.
CM: I think symmetry can really ground an image and make it static, but there is something about this process, the way you use collage that’s not flattened. All the pieces seem as if they could return to movement at any moment, which makes sense given that the source materials are stills from films. And your history with film—you went to school for film and studied animation, right? The symmetry doesn’t become static; it can operate both ways.
JG: It’s volatile. I think the surfaces of the cutout pieces are important. With the first one I did, I flattened it out completely and now I realize that it’s so much more interesting to leave the fragments popping out a little bit. To me, the newer pieces are almost becoming sculpture, and that was part my thinking in having this conversation with you, because of your work going from floor standing sculpture to the being on the wall, so they are read in both ways, as sculpture and painting. I like the way that you can see the shadows that the edges of the paper are creating.
CM: They do, from a distance, flatten out and the closer you get to them the more they relate to your physicality and your body.
JG: And I've been thinking about how the way most people see art is on the computer, and how the three-dimensionality of this work isn't really as apparent that way. Their overall appearance changes depending on the lighting in the space, and the lines around each shape could be more or less prominent. It’s interesting to me because it’s going back to that idea of the volatility of the imagery and, like you said, the pieces having the potential to return to motion.
CM: Especially with the symmetrical ones, something reminds me of a stage set. They seem sort of theatrical to me in the way they used to light theater sets by candlelight, and they were painted in such a way that it would create movement. I see something similar in the way light reacts with the surfaces of these that gives them a theatricality.
JG: My first job ever was as a scenic painter for the theater, and I’ve actually thought about the possibility that some of these could be adapted as theatrical sets. I don’t know where that idea will go, but you’re right that there is something similar about the way sets are constructed, where there are a lot of flat planes in front of each other to create a sense of foreshortened space. For example, the old trick of the waves moving back and forth, so yeah, there’s something about the effect of each layer that’s kind of like that.
CM: I just read the Lawrence Weschler book on David Hockney and his obsession with perception and the camera, and how we see as compared to a camera and compared to painting. He started designing sets for operas based on similar ways of thinking. I could see these being backdrops, or developed in such a direction.
JG: Well, there’s also a reductiveness developing with the work where I’m trying to think of each mark in the cutouts as a separate piece of paper, so that any element that would describe depth or light in an artificial way is avoided. It’s flattened out by each area being on a separate plane, a separate layer.
CM: There’s a back and forth as seeing it as a cohesive image and then being reminded of its separate parts.
JG: It's important to me that any kind of nuance of light and darkness is simply a byproduct of what the medium is doing, and not a contrived attempt at illusion. I’m thinking of the most honest way to adapt my source material.
CM: With your pre-collage work, it seemed like there was a lot blending between areas, trying to get this one "object" over here to transition to this other part of the painting. There was a lot of transitioning back and forth and it seems like you are letting the materials do more of that for you. And there's more work for the viewer to do, which I think is much more rewarding in a way.
JG: That goes back to what I was saying about honesty, because to me the blending was becoming a lazy strategy. I have to really consider the structural integrity of the cutout pieces because the transitions have to be built out of the material. There are also struggles with gravity as I construct the image on the wall (I can't work on a flat surface because I can't get far enough away from it to see it clearly) and things are constantly falling off onto the floor and have to pick them up and tape them back in place.
There is a serious need for planning, which is returning in a sense to a kind of tightness that always used to grapple with in my work. But in the process of rearranging the shapes as well as how I paint the surface, there’s an element of improvisation and play. So I don't just stick to the initial plan in all cases. You have your study and this idea of how it's going to look, and then you make it with different materials and then you have make adjustments.
CM: It seems to me, I might be wrong, but with your older work a lot of it was in the planning and then when you had a direction and set about making the painting and there wasn't much room for improvisation in the painting. Now I think it's a much more fluid back in forth between your studies and the final product that allows that room for you to improvise but also to keep a freshness and energy that is very similar to the studies. You go from one kind of study to computer to the (acetate) cells, back to collage. It seems more open to you.
JG: I was thinking a lot in the last few weeks about the recent Matisse show at the Met where you get to see several solutions that he tried out for one piece. To me that was really exciting because the results were totally different in each case, even down to the kind of style that you would identify as being Matisse or perhaps somebody else. You make a plan in the study, but the only way to work it out is to do it, and then you can make your ultimate decisions based on that. So that process of just trying something out has been something I’m more open to.
CM: Can you explain the Keyhole project?
JG: It's an ongoing series that I started a few years ago as a way of taking a break from my broader body of work. It's a participatory project, and I ask people to give me a black and white photograph to work from, but there’s an element of mystery to it because I don't look at what they give me except for a small area about ½ inch wide. It's kind of like an exquisite corpse done by one person, and I paint the photo as a larger image. I look at the half-inch section and paint it larger through a 2-inch hole, basically moving in a grid to repaint the entire picture. Everything is covered up except for that one portion that I'm working on at any given time.
CM: So you're acting as a human scanner?
JG: Exactly, a human scanner that's making inaccurate decisions and judgments based on what I think I'm seeing. I'm just coming up with the colors intuitively, and thinking of the person who gave me the image while I work. It's very much a gamble because I don't know how it’s looking throughout the process, and only in the end do I get to see what I've been working on for all that time. So it could turn out to be a total failure, and I'm also putting a lot of trust in the person who gave me image that they chose something that's going to be an interesting painting. I was interested in that risk and surrendering control. At the same time there is a lot of obsessiveness and restraint.
CM: I was thinking about your history as a film student and how you work with stills. There are moments of breakdown where, whatever is happening in the film—the emotions—you can’t understand. It's almost as if you're doing a similar thing here by just picking a moment in the image. They’re just little slices where it’s an abstraction, and you're trying to understand it and put the image together.
JG: That makes sense because every representational image is essentially made up hundreds of abstract images.
CM: The Impressionists understood that pretty well.
JG: Yes, and this is just a way of me looking at a part of the whole and seeing it as an abstraction, basically painting dozens of abstract paintings one after the other. And the ultimate result is a representational painting, which isn't what I usually make. I think some people look at that work and wouldn't recognize it as mine, but that’s what is kind of interesting to me about the project: what if I did something in my studio that didn’t look anything like my other work?
CM: Visually it's unrelated, but conceptually it’s very related in the way we piece together reality, and it makes sense to me.
JG: I thought of the Keyhole project when I was sitting on an airplane waiting to take off, just looking out the window and feeling kind of confined by this circular hole that I was seeing the world through. I thought it would be interesting to set yourself up with this obstruction to work with. Then there's the problem of what to paint, which is kind of always the problem with painting. Part of the solution with the Keyhole paintings is that I’m not making that choice; the person mailing me the photograph is.