Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Barry Schwabsky in Conversation with Anne Sherwood Pundyk

Anne Sherwood Pundyk, "Small Tower Window,"2012, Oil and Acrylic on Linen, 60" x 63"

The following dialogue will be published in the upcoming catalogue for the exhibition, "Stadia: New Work by Anne Sherwood Pundyk," at Susan Eley Fine Art, New York, NY, November 7 - January 5, 2014.

Winter 2013-2014

A Conversation 
with Anne Sherwood Pundyk   

Barry Schwabsky

When you don’t know you should ask. And as I began to become aware of Anne Sherwood Pundyk’s multifarious activities around her exhibition “Stadia” as well as the magazine she co-edits, Girls Against God—and I don’t mind admitting that I was immediately seduced by the joyfully refractory tone of that title—I had to wonder: How did these gutsy, energetic paintings with their eccentric amalgamation of gesture and geometry or her more restrained and allusive figurative watercolors relate to her installation Rented World or her collaborative efforts on the magazine and elsewhere? So I decided to ask. And as many of the most rewarding conversations, it seems to have started right in the middle of things and ended somewhere very nearby, having in the meantime taken in more terrain than I might ever have expected and leaving me with the happy premonition that the dialogue is not yet over.

Anne Sherwood Pundyk: This might be a place to start: on November 17th I wrote in my journal: “The stage is not stable. Carnivore—kill or be killed. If there is something you want this is what you have to be able to do.” 

Barry Schwabsky: For a minute I thought you wrote, “The stage is not a stable.” Like, it’s not a place for the horses of instruction. You see yourself, rather, among the tigers of wrath?

ASP: That’s funny. I like misreads; I also like your phrase, “horses of instruction.” We learn to ride on that set that of monumental creatures. Who is teaching whom? The rider learns the animal’s language (or a tamed dialect) by recognizing her own wildness. When I said the stage is unstable I meant that having a platform for expression of voice once attained isn’t then necessarily a given.
            If not horseback riding lessons, I would like further instruction for the stage: how to make an entrance naturally and engagingly or how to command the stage with humility and humor all the while planting subversive truths. Getting comfortable there seems like one way to ward off the tigers, wolves, or wild boar waiting in the wings. As you and I spoke about in the gallery, the work in “Stadia” melds my experience with collaborative projects outside the studio with my solitary work within its sanctum. As a way to celebrate this crossing over and share it with the audience, I included in the exhibition’s program two performance events linking both modes. In so doing, the show creates an opportunity to perform and learn from having more experience “on stage.” The large painting in the main room is titled, “Self-taught” – perhaps the truest form of learning. I am also taking my cues from the performance artists with whom I have recently worked, including Suzanne Lacy, Kembra Pfahler, and Bianca Casady.
            The first performance at “Stadia” on November 10th, revived a 70’s consciousness-raising format for group conversation. I lead the discussion with my co-editor of Girls Against God, Bianca Casady. Fifteen of us sat in a circle in the gallery. Speaking and listening in turns, without interruption or judgment, everyone recounted his or her experiences related to feminism. Suzanne Lacy, an activist-artist based in Los Angeles led a project with Creative Time and the Brooklyn Museum this fall called “Between the Door and the Street.” It was a performance with over 400 people engaging in this type of feminist dialogue. I had participated in the piece with other’s from GAG and wanted to continue the conversation at a smaller scale.
            Collage as a process is core to my approach to painting. I underscore this connection with the “My Atlas” books and videos composed of collected source material included in the show. Last summer, during a launch party at Printed Matter for the first issue of GAG, we gathered several of the magazine’s contributors including Kembra Pfahler. That afternoon, she lectured on “how to do a performance.” (Step one: set a date. Step two: make a poster. Step three: tell your friends.) She practices Availibism; use what is on hand to make your art. What better example of Availibism than collage? Enter: “Drinkollage,” a community collage-making collaboration between artists Rachael Morrison and Jamie Gaul. Rachael Morrison, who is also a librarian, most recently at the Museum of Modern Art’s library, invited me to visit MoMA’s stacks. While sitting on the floor surrounded by artist’s books, I learned about her interest in collage and her collaboration with Jamie. Having subsequently experienced the communal bliss of collage making during one of their “Drinkollage” events I knew I wanted to invite them to “Stadia.”
            The second event took place on December 10th. In the morning I went to my studio and pulled up the large canvas drop cloth that had been covering the floor during the making most of the work in “Stadia.” I brought it to the gallery and spread it on the floor. Jamie and I then set up the tables, chairs, source material, scissors and glue. That evening, the audience/participants for “Drinkollage”/“Stadia” worked upon the flooring of my studio, transposed to the gallery. During the event, the 20 collagists in unison readily fell under the meditative spell and solitary pleasure of searching for connection to the subjects in the magazines and books spread over the long center table.
            So, Barry, do you think we need the killer instinct to fully realize our endeavors and take center stage?

BS: My phrase is from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” He also taught: “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.” So when I hear about your consciousness-raising session I worry that it may not be—in Blake’s sense—evil enough. I understand the value of suspending judgment (and practice it a lot) but never want to be without judgment. I’m sure that when you work along in your studio on a painting, you allow yourself great freedom without self-censorship—but then you exercise ruthless judgment. Is it harder or easier to do the same when you are working in collaboration with others?

ASP: The two-step of any creative endeavor you described for the solo artist, unfettered origination partnered with critical excision, requires a different type of management during collaborative projects. It feels harder to me, although I realize that the work involved becomes the basis for an education. You learn the equivalent of street smarts, but also, you are exposed directly to other artists’ processes and orientations. I don’t think this valuable intimacy could be attained any other way. The difficulty I feel while working collaboratively could be that I am more practiced as a solo artist. Each subsequent multi-player project has had its own distinct challenges, but I am gradually becoming more familiar with the stresses of group work.
            To address your point about the consciousness-raising piece, it was designed to isolate that first, free state of the creative process so that as a group everyone could savor what was said before censoring. I know I had critical thoughts during the 2-hour discussion, but as with meditation, I watched myself on occasion being judgmental, registered it and then worked to remain open to the stories being told. Bianca and I have talked about hatred – the severest form of judgment – and found its roots in self-hatred. Consciousness-raising, like meditation or prayer, is an on-going endeavor. The shared conversation is designed as the starting point for personal activism. It was meaningful for me because it transferred the practice of opening up I feel in my studio to a group experience.
            I want to go back to the stresses. Alongside those who are generous and inspiring, there are divas. There are slackers. There are saboteurs and spies. There are lazy and weak institutional authorities. It’s tough being the captain. And for everyone involved there is the duality of the collective needs alongside, and sometimes competing with, the urge for individual recognition.

BS: Have you always done collective work alongside your individual studio practice, or is that a fairly recent thing? Do you see the impulses or desires that go into each one as quite different, or do they feed into each other?

ASP: Alongside my own drawing and painting, I made super-8 films about magic with the cartoonist Paul Karasik, when we were thirteen. At the Rhode Island School of Design I met artist Karen Yama; after school we successfully collaborated on a project called “Oma Minion” shown at Minor Injury Gallery in Brooklyn (documented in Exit Art’s Alternative Histories, published by MIT Press, 2013.) Despite the gratification of creating the story, documentation and artwork of this fictional, forgotten artist, it was here I began to feel the conflict of collaborative work versus my own individual painting.  For the next ten years I pursued my own work. In the last five years, in response to outside invitations, I’ve resumed projects with others as a counterpart to my studio work. Lenny Cassuto, an English Professor invited me to work on "Captivity," a multi-disciplinary art exhibition and writing project with students at Fordham University. Following this came three more multi-artist pieces with Tara Mathison, Curator and Director of the Queens College Art Center: “Express + Local,” “Utopia,” and “Rapunzel in the Library.” Kara Rooney subsequently asked me to do a large site-specific piece for a show she curated called “MATERIAL TAK” at Panepinto Galleries in Jersey City.
            I have always been naturally content to work alone. Growing up, we moved every few years. While it was good to have exposure to different parts of the country, it shredded any cohesion in my social life. Learning to be an expert, “new girl” meant entertaining yourself, observing the new social scene and patiently waiting for the right friendships to gel. Making friends became a craft to practice and hone, just like life drawing or collage. This awareness and conscious effort kicks in for my collaborative work. I would be happy as a clam in my own embryonic world but there is an equally strong imperative to engage with others. 
            Ideally, the relation of my solo work to the group work I undertake would be modeled on the relation between team members in a relay race. You have to be a strong contributor on your own, which is where your solo practice comes in. You have to hone your own perspective, techniques and methods for realizing your vision. My solo work stands alone, but through my work in a team, I experience the work of others while contributing to a larger effort where we each have a role, defined by our interests and strengths. You learn from each other’s stories and experience this way.

BS: A lot of your recent paintings seem to be collaborations between abstract, planar space and volumetric, perspectival space. Or maybe not a collaboration but a dispute between the two? For a lot of artists and art lovers these days, just being interested in pictorial space seems to be something that can be dismissed as a hopelessly formalist pursuit. (I'm not one of them, by the way.) How does abstract painting fit into your gamut of artistic pursuits?

ASP: I paint with a consciousness of the medium's tradition; its span from earliest depictions of goddesses and goats on the walls of caves to Kandinsky’s discovery of the expressive potential of disembodied form and line in 1908. As part of my academic instruction in art, I encountered the mind-dulling categorization and hierarchic judgments related to figuration and abstraction in painting. These two modes can both be attributed by the viewer to any one of my paintings, alone or together. But because of the way I approach my work that in and of itself is of no concern to me. What you first see when looking at my work are objects made using a vocabulary of materials associated with a traditional painting process (oil and acrylic paint, charcoal, linen, and stretchers) but before I manipulate these elements my work originates within a non-material, interior realm. I am drawn unconsciously to a string of images each representing a moment of recognition. The selection of one visual creates the context for the next decision within the creation of any one painting. I believe the essence of who we are can be distilled from these moments.
            My paintings are made of overlaid, figuratively intended responses to these selected images. Depicting a pictorial space per se is not my ultimate intention; I am interested in conveying the consciousness of experience. The art historian Christopher Wood has written about this phenomena in his essay, “Painting and Plurality.” Wood asks, “Can we picture to ourselves, when we hear of a plurality of images, not a collection of discrete individual images but an abundance unsurveyable and without internal differentiation? Just as one hears in so many languages of the waters: die Wässer, les eaux. . . . In the flux of experience it may be no more possible to isolate a singular ‘image’ than it is to isolate a singular ‘water.’ The waters, according to Roberto Calasso in his meditation on Hindu mythology, Ka, symbolize the glittering flow of inner images, the ceaseless proliferation of specters and simulacra, that constitutes consciousness.” In a new form, my paintings house the sequence of recognized moments, ready for reception and interpretation by my audience. Embedded in the string of images layered within each painting are my own essential stories. They overlap with older stories such as myths, fables, and fairy tales. In so doing, they begin to communicate to others the inaudible truth of the inner self.
            The collaborative, communal work I did over the last three years alongside my studio practice was the catalyst for the observable changes in my work shown in “Stadia.” By comparing my experiences responding to the two work environments – studio and public space – I became aware of their differences. One specific manifestation of this awareness in my paintings was the addition of a new set of tools. Along with the brushes I have been using for years, I added a selection of scraping tools such as spackle knives and spreaders. The hard, stiff nature of these tools creates an unbroken plane of color on my painting’s surface indicating, perhaps, a less mutable realm or space in the paintings. I also began to mix different shades of grey to use with the knives. I have found that these neutral, emotionally cool tones serve as a foil for the spectrum of colors applied with a brush. For the paintings in “Stadia” I transmit personal experience within a painterly proscenium; the unbroken applications of paint frame layered, avian brushstrokes of saturated color. The paintings are a record of my work to assert and test my own ideas on the larger, public platforms and confirm where my subjective voice connects to a collective consciousness.

BS: Yes, I can see that in these paintings, you want to connect a private, interior sense of experience with, as you say, a public platform. To me, that’s a project that can be connected to the so-called Abstract Expressionists. What you say reminds me of Mark Rothko: “I do not believe that there was ever a question of being abstract or representational. It is really a matter of ending this silence and solitude, of breathing and stretching one’s arms again.” Or even Barnett Newman: “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings”—isn’t that what you call the subjective voice connecting to a collective consciousness?
            I’m curious, therefore, about the fact that in sketching your tradition you leap from the caves to Kandinsky. I assume that encompasses a lot of what came in between, but what about the century since then? Do you also feel connected to more recent occurrences in painting—Abstract Expressionism or anything else? And if so, or even if not for that matter, what is it that your tradition has nonetheless failed so far to accomplish? In other words, do you have a sense that there is any necessary and unfulfilled project for art today?

ASP: I have to ask, why “so-called” Abstract Expressionists? Do you question or object to the use of art labels generally? Is it the term itself? A favorite reference book of mine is Herbert Read’s, A Concise History of Modern Painting. It is well written, conceptually sophisticated, and while you might quibble about his use of any given term, he presents a clear justification for its use. Fittingly for our discussion, the seventh chapter is called “The Origins and Development of an Art of Internal Necessity: Abstract Expressionism.” Both Rothko and Newman are included in this chapter. The directness of Rothko’s statement appeals to me; melding painterly expression, natural motions of the body, and communion with others. Newman proposes the inversion of self over any one of several spiritual stages.
            Another approach to the paradigm of self and stage I often think about is based on Kant’s Critique of Judgment. He constructs an argument for the justification of a judgment of beauty. It is initially a unique, subjective, individual experience. Kant finds a basis to broaden it to a subjective requirement for everyone – the communal collective stage. He states that a judgment of beauty “resembles” a logical judgment because it asserts a quality of necessary universality, although this universality is subjective rather than logical.  
            I stopped my trajectory at Kandinsky because beyond Kandinsky a stylistic pluralism bloomed that proliferates to this day. Photography, film and mechanical means of representation and reproduction both have a secure place in this conversation, as do more recent technologies and the Internet. I see this pluralism as tied to Newman’s inversion of self and institution.
            I only have real patience for painting that melds experience with a presentation of context forming a nuanced sense of reality: Manet, Morisot, Seurat, Matisse, and de Kooning. The sensations produced by the marks of these artists as they become line, shape, color, discernable form, and space are understood through the artist’s body first, incorporating the artist’s vision of him or herself, and later through the viewer’s body.  Using the body as the source and the destination of sensation recorded and perceived opens the possibility of genuine experience. Among the many contemporary painters I admire and learn from include Joan Mitchell, Cecily Brown, and a friend Sangram Majumdar.
            What is left to accomplish? At the artist’s reading at The MoMA Library this week, Jon Hendricks read a chapter of Adventures in the Arts: Informal Chapters on Painters, Vaudeville and Poets a book by Marsden Hartley written in 1921. Hartley was struck by the potential of the Dada movement for engendering a perpetual questioning and renewal of ideas. He spoke of the “fatality of habit” in art. The artist Diana Puntar talks about using her art as a way to resist and question society’s “programming.” My hope for the work in “Stadia” is to represent by example, a willingness to question and see art as functioning outside the confines of the art world.

BS: I do think the term “Abstract Expressionism” is misleading. De Kooning’s Woman I might be expressionist but it’s not abstract; and Newman’s Onement I might be abstract—though not, he insisted, in the way that a painting by Mondrian was abstract—but it’s not expressionist. And it seems odd to make them part of the same “movement” just because they worked in the same city at the same time. They were worlds apart in so many ways.
            By the way, given artists’ recurrently expressed intention to resist programming, resist habit and convention—have you noticed how little most seem to resist the art world’s own programming? And what conventional ideas we have of what an artist’s career looks like? No one thinks that it’s odd that a poet might be an insurance executive like Wallace Stevens or a baby doctor like William Carlos Williams, or even a cleaning woman as Lorine Niedecker was for a time—but it’s seemingly not allowed that an artist today should have any other life than one devoted to producing for the art market. “Outsiders” are much appreciated—as long as they are safely dead.
            Of course there are some who contest this. But I’m usually not satisfied with their ideas either. People who speak, as you just did, of art operating outside the art world usually sound to me like they mean giving up on art. Maybe something more like social work. In your case I know that’s not what you mean. I think you are insisting on a broader sense of what art can be. I like what you say about the body as source and destination. To me, that has to do with intensity—with sensations that can’t necessarily be categorized as pleasurable or painful, and that are both impersonal and intimate. Maybe that’s what Matisse understood by volupté. What do you think?

ASP: I referred earlier in our conversation to the “the mind-dulling categorization and hierarchic judgments related to figuration and abstraction in painting.” Likewise, I concur with your point about the limitations of labels for “movements” in art. They become one step in the packaging of the art experience thus further removing the viewer from her own individual response to the work. I think it is helpful to be informed about art history; knowledgeable about the context for experiencing artwork in the time it was produced, but shrink wrapping together great batches of works, as you point out, doesn’t serve the audience, which includes artists. It does serve the market, however, by helping to pre-digest the vast diversity of output. When you were asking me before if I think of my work in relation to past movements, I don’t think of the labeled groupings. They don’t serve me. I do relate to an individual artists’ struggle to articulate and give meaning in the time each artist was working. These stories are instructive to my own work.
            Holland Cotter recently wrote about programming in the art world: “Lost in the Gallery-Industrial Complex, Holland Cotter Looks at Money in Art,” (NYT, January 17, 2014). He focused on money as the hypnotic elixir convincing artists, collectors, gallerists and museums to conform. He makes the case that when art can be easily packaged and sold, it can thus be treated as a commodity. Artists, especially white men, using the traditional forms of painting, sculpture, photography and drawing have an advantage in the art world; traditional media and identifiable movements will be amply rewarded by the market. These artists can live off the money they make selling their artwork. Cotter calls attention to the less tangible, time-based art such as performance, installation and video that are harder to quantify and sell. Furthermore, as Cotter says, “[We need] to get a global mix of voices into some of New York’s big, rich art museums.” I would include women’s voices in that mix.
            The art world is very similar to the visually-based fashion and entertainment industries where often so-called creativity is a rapid recycling of previously endorsed ideas. Perhaps poetry is immune from pre-programmed ideas in its immateriality and written format. The fields of art, fashion and entertainment are especially harsh on women. From my own experience both within and without of the art world, whenever I say I am an artist, the next question is, “Is your studio in your house?” The presumption is that my art is a homebound hobby. To your point about programming, I would say an artist’s lifestyle choice and how they earn a living has no bearing on the quality of work they produce. Of course, having time to work both alone in a studio, or in a collaborative mode, is crucial. Good work can be starved if there isn’t enough time devoted to it. I’ve been thinking about labels or movements as they apply to women artists lately. The terms “feminist” and “feminist art” can be useful; Girls Against God is a “feminist” arts publication. The label is used primarily as a starting point for discussion, but I seek to avoid dogma once the conversation is underway.
            The cultural theorist Viola K. Timm digs further. She has written about the role of war and conquest in the formation of museum culture. Museums were created to house looted, “exotic” booty. Connecting the production of contemporary art to museum acquisition—the benchmark of acceptability—means it also feeds off war and its glorification. Immortality for an artist means bankability. Bankability can thus be connected with destructive, dark urges. This idea ties to Cotter’s point about the object versus the experience in art. You could say that a painting or sculpture, as an object suitable for museum display, is a conceptual “dead end.” Time-based, experiential art such as performance cannot be acquired in the same way as an object. Experience is part of the flow in the cycle of Life/Death/Life we associate with matriarchal values. It is tied to a stronger connection to nature and a life enhancing association with the earth—a guaranteed immorality through biological processes. It is acquiescence to the inevitability of death that provokes conformity?
            You might ask at this point, “But, don’t you make paintings?” Yes, I do! This conversation is based on my exhibition of paintings in “Stadia.” The context for the show was my engagement with many other experience-based projects. I am weighing the experience of making the paintings and the experience my audience will have viewing the works with the knowledge I’ve gained working outside my studio. They feed each other as I deeply question the value of each even as I am engaged in the creative process. So let’s look to the glittering flow of inner images Woods described, to Kandinsky and the river of stylistic plurality that followed him, at Hartley’s hope to avoid the “fatality” of habit-based artwork, at Puntar’s resistance to programming and consider your question about Matisse. My friend, the musician Yasmine Hamdan, who lives in Paris used the term volupté at dinner this week. In France today, the word is used on the packaging of bath soap. I asked Yasmine what the term means to her. She couldn’t find an equivalent in English. She tried, “sensual” but said that wasn’t quite right.  The heightened and developed appreciation of sensation and aesthetics you find in the French culture, certainly in Matisse’s work, could correlate to an understanding of how rich as an expressive resource the living body is.

BS: It seems we’ve spiraled back to where we started from: the “carnivore—kill or be killed”—art as cultural plunder, war trophy. This versus the volupté of the life-giving body. Art involves us in that too.

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