Conversation with Mary Mattingly, at Greg Lindquist’s studio
Jan 11, 2012
Mary Mattingly: Why don’t we start with the title— why did you choose this title?
Greg Lindquist: I texted an image of the iPhone painting with a cracked, spiderweb screen to Ali Banisadr, who cleverly replied, “You are nature.” I thought: that would make a great show title! Then, I thought about the implications of his statement. It talks about the dialectic of nature and culture that I have been thinking about since my art history master’s thesis. And like any dialectic, it’s not very clearly defined. This work is about the middle area between those two points of nature and culture.
Mattingly: Do you think there is a difference between nature and culture?
Lindquist: There is only as we perceive it. What do you think?
Mattingly: I might argue that there isn’t, that nature is an all-encompassing term. So I would clarify by saying that humans are nature; humans manipulate nature like nature manipulates the human. Maybe we create perversions at best, at most. Maybe we’re just remodeling natural things and making new things. I don’t know if I would set up a nature versus culture dichotomy. I am curious about what you think.
Lindquist: The other origin of the quote is Jackson Pollock’s famous statement in response to Hans Hoffman. When Hoffman challenged Pollock’s drip paintings, telling him that he needed to be working from life or from nature, Pollock retorted, “I am nature.” For me, that speaks of human agency.
Mattingly: I think that’s a really poignant and important quote. So, would you see yourself that way?
Lindquist: I think it’s more about challenging the viewer’s place in relation to nature and being confrontational, with some sense of urgency and provocation.
Mattingly: Do you see landscape painting as fetishizing nature? I’m thinking about romanticizing some ending of our natural surroundings: forests, the countryside…
Lindquist: I think painting will largely fetishize and I hope to create a tension between romanticizing and an alienation or negation of those sentiments.
Mattingly: Is that as a way to record – is it at all nostalgic for you?
Lindquist: I think of a nostalgia in Milan Kundera’s discussion in Ignorance, as the suffering for the unappeased yearning to return. But what are we returning to?
Mattingly: And is it just suffering?
Lindquist: I guess it’s a pining too.
Mattingly: Is the act of painting pining or suffering?
Lindquist: You could say that. Painting is such a visceral, primitive thing. You’re pushing pigments around on a vertical surface. We’ve done this as humans since cave painting. It’s fascinating as it raises questions about why we have to leave a record of our activities behind.
Mattingly: It’s fascinating to think about these paintings as a record of nature because we are leaving this phase behind. Are you thinking about the future of nature? Or particular instances of nature’s future?
Lindquist: It’s hard not to think about the past when you think about the future, so the future becomes an ambiguous temporal space that is aligned through a remoteness or removal from a present moment. I titled the last exhibition “Nonpasts” because of the ambiguous state of architecture. The paintings and sculptures expressed neither the past nor the present, but somewhere in between.
Mattingly: I think architecture has more of a fixed time frame than a lot of the things that you are now painting. I don’t know what the time frame is in most of these: when is that tree from or that structure from? Is that Stonehenge? [Looking at The Shape of Remote Futures, 2011] I can’t tell.
Lindquist: That’s what Elizabeth Harris said when she saw the painting. Why do you think architecture has a fixed place, because of its stylistic characteristics?
Mattingly: And its decay. Its natural tendency is to decay after a certain amount of time.
Lindquist: You can imagine how long it took for that decay to take place.
Mattingly: Yes, and some architectural structures easily defy that decay, and that also alludes to their time frame. So the pyramids defy decay. But things that go on living, with an umbilical cord attached to soil or water—some of the nature you are painting does that.
Lindquist: I like your description of roots as umbilical cords to the mother. How this body of work is also different is that in the last show, I used architecture to represent a safe space, where a building is neither alive nor dead. This allowed me to project a conflict about loss, a conflict about not wanting to let go, a conflict of keeping feelings about life and death in a safe, controlled space. The image croppings were at a similar distance from the architecture, whereas these new works have varying points of view. This work has to do with a freely growing development of painting, too. I’m curious to hear more about why you think that these paintings appear they are underwater.
Mattingly: Underwater is a combination of life and death—people can’t survive for long underwater without the proper tools. The way you are painting is so murky that even though they are subjects about life, they read as death.
Lindquist: The idea of free diving, like you said, is almost a near death experience.
Mattingly: There is the sublime feeling of being two minutes underwater, diving to great depths and your body is in a state of blackout, but you have a transcendental experience.
Lindquist: It’s almost a union of a human with nature. Also, I think that the ocean is the future. It’s the final frontier in our uncharted territory.
Mattingly: The paintings are about life underwater, if I can be presumptuous. And we previously discussed how difficult it is to survive underwater, but maybe in the future it will not be – maybe we will re-learn how to be more amphibious.
Lindquist: Norm Paris imagined that the iPhone painting has water gushing out of the screen.
Mattingly: And you said that painting is so loose—
Lindquist: What do you mean?
Lindquist: It’s alchemic. Artist Matthew Wilson described Peter Doig’s painting as a both optical and chemical in how paint is mixed on the surface in wet, bleeding layers. Chuck Close once said on the Charlie Rose show that painting is magical. It’s such a simple, profound insight—how we can suspend disbelief that we are looking at a two-dimensional image and looking into a window. Even though Clement Greenberg championed Modernist abstraction, he still believed that painting is a window into an illusionistic space— how that illusionistic space is defined in terms of representation and abstraction is a conversation I am interested in. Also, in how I use media, photography is the surface and painting is the depth!
Yet, in this work, I am revealing the photographic reference and its artifice in various ways.
Mattingly: Ha! Your quote, “photography is the surface and painting is the depth” is a longer conversation we have been having, and of course I completely disagree. Are you revealing the photographic reference by the way you are controlling the painting’s frame?
Lindquist: Yes, for example in Meditation/mediation, 2011, when I projected a slide that was not completely key-stoned, I painted this edge as a slivered shadow. The paintings have become more self-reflexive in terms of screens within screens: for example, the iPhone or the in-flight television monitor. We see these things as screens but as paintings they slow down and complicate that read of the screen and technology.
Mattingly: Because it’s a translation of your memory to the hand–
Lindquist: To the canvas, the eye of viewer, optics and the mind. For those who view painting with that kind of curiosity and patience, the process of seeing is prolonged. Maybe other kinds of screens like smart phones, web browsers and digital billboards are quick reads.
Mattingly: I wanted to bring up the point you made about splattering as a type of veil and the veil of water or a mask you might use while viewing underwater.
Lindquist: It calls attention to another window or screen that you see through, into an image, and the mask can fog and obscure seeing.
Mattingly: Since we are talking about screens, maybe we should move back to our conversation about the surface. It’s interesting to me on several levels: the surface as it relates to capturing light on a series of planes with photography and the depth of the surface is a really interesting conversation. Let’s relate it to the surface in terms of water and buoyancy since you’re doing this painting of a diver that is breaking through or coming to the surface. Obviously the painting goes through a series of layers and you’re left with a messy surface—or what I would consider a surface but you consider depth, because of the dimension of the paint?
Lindquist: Not necessarily the dimension of the paint but also the illusion it creates, which—
Mattingly: Photography creates that illusion too.
Lindquist: I was just thinking that.
Mattingly: Can you talk about the surface?
Lindquist: Photography and painting can both accomplish illusionistic space whether by scale, proportion—
Lindquist: The difference that I see is the psychological depth and empathic aspect of the hand present in a wavering residue of touch created by the hand. By nature of the flesh—
Mattingly: I guess I just want to argue about photography, because it’s doing the same thing, but just using a different tool. You’re using the camera versus the brush.
Lindquist: Right, yet there’s certain things that painting privileges in doing so. It’s fleshy. Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented, as de Kooning famously said. Photography is produced by a chemical reaction of light on a photosensitive paper. Do we have some weird competition about—
Mattingly: [laughs] I get really aggravated about the “flesh” argument, it’s as if the hand doesn’t control the camera.
Lindquist: The only point I was making in the statement that photography is on the surface and painting lies beneath is that what I use photography as structure, sketch, or cartoon. Once I have that structure in place, I remove the photograph and it becomes about resolving the image as painting. I’m not saying that there’s a hierarchy between painting and photography, although I’ve always personally fought with the role the photographic reference has in my work.
Mattingly: We associate the natural world with a kind of pluralism, and Minimalism is often associated with a process of reducing nature. What about the connection between nature and Minimalism you have made and continue to make in your work?
Lindquist: I love that we discussed earlier how Robert Smithson viewed Donald Judd’s pink boxes as crystals from another planet. Smithson was the most interesting person involved with Minimalism in terms of nature. Smithson ripped into ideas of nature and human-made in the 1960s and early 70s. He was thinking about this internally and externally and at the same time in Hegelian dialectics. Perhaps Smithson’s earlier work was about those two dialectics and the later work was about the third stage of those dialectics, the synthesis. So Spiral Jetty was then about fusing those opposite ideas, shapes and forms.
His earlier work, like the tiered mirror stack at MoMA, looks like a Mayan temple, an alien sculpture and, of course on the surface, what was characteristic of the Minimalist aesthetic at the time. Yet, on the one hand, you have these regular, ordered, geometric sheets of mirror that are squares and rectangles stacked to a geometric form. You’re looking at this very organized form yet the molecular structure of glass is amorphous, chaotic. The polished, cool look was obviously influenced by Donald Judd. Then, Smithson used rock salt, which inverts the relationship. Instead of looking at the internal disorder, he is looking at the external disorder in the heaping, irregular piles of rock salt, even though when you look at rock salt under the microscope it is a crystalline structure, which is organized and geometric. My work, through the lens of painting, is looking at order and disorder, organization and disorganization, too.
Smithson, too, wrestled with writers that came before him who addressed these internal and external contradictions about nature. Smithson discussed Wilhelm Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy, in which Worringer locates Byzantine and Egyptian art as being created out of a psychological need to escape nature. Smithson argued though that abstraction was a part of nature. We might look stereotypically at nature as amorphous, organic and encompassing curves– things without a regularity, rigidity, or rhomboid-like shape. Smithson said there is no difference between the two—all those distinctions collapse. And his work demonstrated that. He ferried these human-made ideas out into the landscape, mixing and fusing those things that we think of as separate.
Nature and culture are not separate. Nature is culture and culture is nature. My art history master’s thesis discussed how we have since the Hudson River School recorded through painting how our culture has conquered the landscape.
Mattingly: Nice, I like that. I think that was what I was trying to say at the beginning of our interview.
Lindquist: Will Cotton’s candyscapes, which I discuss in my thesis, comment on the final frontier of nature and culture in the wake of virtuality, when everything is more an image than a tactile experience. One of the last sensual pleasures we have is eating and enjoying food, or as Cotton declares, delicatessens, candy and confectionaries. We could back this up with some French philosophy—
Mattingly: Please do.
Lindquist: French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan said that our desires are based on lack.
Mattingly: Are you saying that our desires are becoming more extreme as our culture evolves?
Lindquist: I think more disconnected. The problem is that we look at so many images and representations of images—or images as representation rather than as reality—that we become confused about what is real and unreal. Yet, one of the interesting things about painting is that it’s real and unreal at the same time— that it’s an illusion. We willfully suspend our disbelief for an image that’s physical, tactile, and present. In the past, I was looking at painting primarily as image and not surface. I don’t think that surface should have a negative connotation, although depending on how we talk about it, we definitely have that implication. But the surface is what carries the depth, contradictorily because that’s what carries the information and gives us the illusion, gives us that experience in whatever weird way—
Mattingly: Right, the information included on or in the surface gives us the depth.
Lindquist: Absolutely. And the painter I have been most obsessed with lately has not been Luc Tuymans but Peter Doig, whose concerns with a hallucinatory quality of color I traced to Pierre Bonnard in an exhibition review [See “Pierre Bonnard and Peter Doig,” March 2009 issue of The Brooklyn Rail]. Doig is a painter who obscures the way that he makes the painting so that there is a mystery to the craft. He does it so well that when you look at it, it’s really hard to tell how he did it. That’s one of the qualities that makes painting so appealing, important and urgent for me. Someone said in grad school so as long as there are walls, there will always be paintings to be hung on those walls. This must have been said in response to the revolving cycle of the “painting is dead” anxiety that has become an art school mantra. And photographs also can be hung on walls!
Mattingly: I like the idea that there are no walls—
Lindquist: You would like the idea that there are no walls! But there are still walls and there are still paintings, maybe I could go back and completely contradict myself in the beginning, which is that—
Mattingly: Well, you already did—
Lindquist: And it will all be apparent when I transcribe this at nine o’clock in the morning rather than nine o’clock at night. But I was thinking about something you said earlier that you questioned: why do we separate painting from photography, nature from culture, surface from depth?
Mattingly: We put things in boxes and separate categories in order to more easily understand things. Maybe more abstractly and more within today’s context, to create markets?
Lindquist: Sure. Recently, I dug out records by Milemarker, a brilliant late 1990s post-hardcore band. They had a song with the refrain, “There’s a product line attached to every form.”
Mattingly: That’s what I’m saying.
Lindquist: I know that’s what you’re saying, but the most ironic and fascinating aspect of their Marxist and Situationist perspective was meanwhile they were selling records that were pressed with fossil fuels. This is a very Pop art dilemma. You use the medium to attack the medium. It’s like institutional critique. You are just as dependent on the institution to critique it. You can’t critique it without the institution. Maybe in the end, it’s a lens through which to critique the larger surroundings.
Mattingly: Why do you think you made all of these paintings underwater?
Lindquist: Why do I think I made them all underwater?
Mattingly: Yeah, you made them all underwater: unconsciously, maybe?
Lindquist: I don’t think I made them underwater, I think that you’re seeing them underwater. But I think that they are all underwater, if you want to extend the metaphor. They descend to different emotional, psychological and conceptual depths.
Mary Mattingly has participated in exhibitions at deCordova Sculpture Park, the International Center of Photography, Palais de Tokyo, and the Neuberger Museum of Art. She has had solo exhibitions at Occurrence Espace d’art et d’essai Contemporains in Montreal, Robert Mann Gallery, New York, NY, the New York Public Library, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and Galerie Adler in Frankfurt, Germany. In 2009, she launched the Waterpod Project, a floating sculptural living system and public space in New York City. In 2010, she participated in the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation residency (NYC), Skowhegan (ME), and was awarded an Art Matters Foundation travel grant. Currently, Mattingly is a fellow at Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology and a Jerome Foundation grantee. Her work has been featured in ArtForum, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Financial Times, Le Monde Magazine, ICON, Sculpture Magazine, Aperture, BBC News, and MSNBC.