Conversation with Norm Paris via Skype from Vermont, January 12, 2012

Greg Lindquist: A great place to start is the relationship of my paintings to the installations that I’ve been doing and talking about how the wall paintings can engage in a physical space, in like an experiential way, maybe vis-à-vis Merleau-Ponty and his ideas of phenomenology. One conversation that you and I have had consistently has been about how you install either 2D or 3D work in a real space and give an experience that’s outside those individual objects.

Norm Paris: You’ve moved from depiction to direct experience using projection and thinking about projection, being self-effacing in terms of how you arrive at a depiction within the painting through photography. Now it becomes even more evident that you’re acknowledging the half-mechanical aspect of what you’re doing, even when it is a self-contained painting. But the wall pieces are so exciting because it’s this idea that there is now a remnant of light and shadow that is no longer present, or never was present, that you’re importing and then placing onto a wall—these shadows that come through and then become, as I understand them, back-drops, a sort of external cadence for the painting.

Greg Lindquist, You are Here Forever, Acrylic on sheetrock, 2011

Lindquist: But it’s not really a shadow, it’s the ray of light that’s being depicted.

Paris: It’s the inverse, right.

Lindquist: But it’s going to be delivered onto the wall by method of shadow, it becomes subverted like a photographic negative, which is exciting.

Paris:  That’s right. There’s still a traditional landscape component to the paintings that we’ve talked about. Even as the work is moving forward and acknowledging contemporary or even modes of recent past mechanical reproduction, it’s still gaining even more traction within the history of painting in relation to Impressionism, artists like Monet and Seurat. These are references that I think for some painters they would maybe avoid, but it’s important to acknowledge those paintings and those painters and to then take what you can from them. And I think that idea of the experiential, the phenomenological— it’s really interesting to reassess Impressionism through that lens, through an interactive, experiential, almost a relational lens.

Lindquist: In terms of Impressionism, there’s a sense of light you can see come through Peter Doig’s work, for example. But you mentioned Seurat, who was using dots in a very controlled, mechanical way, and the paintings where I’ve used dots have been not by intentional mark-making, but by chance, by splatters. Do you think that that complicates the idea of Impressionism?

Paris: Yes. [Laughs] To me it seems like your hands are in many different cookie jars and so you’re taking, you’re looking at the Impressionists and at the same time you’re dealing with modes of mechanical reproduction through an Abstract Expressionist methodology of splatter –  as a way of getting in touch with some idea of Impressionist light. You are in love with painting and modes of representation. As much as the work gets abstract, there’s always a reference—there’s always some relationship to, not just a physical action like a splatter, but what the projection gives you is an indexical relationship to the photographic image, to the film, to the subject. It’s not as physical but it’s a trace of something. A machine has taken as an image of the world and then you’re projecting that for painting. So we have three different scrims of experience, three different experiences of art history, and one approach is seen through the other.

Lindquist: Can you think of an example of other painters who might be engaging in some similar issues?

Paris: Peter Doig is using painterly mark-making and some color-layering to obscure the reference, but your work doesn’t obscure the photographic reference. Your work embraces the graphic qualities the photographic reference provides. The gesture of mark is not meant to obscure the photograph, it’s meant to be another layer of experience upon the photographic. The photographic source is not the end in itself but there are layers of experience built in front and behind it with paint. In Doig, the photographic quality of the painting is obscured and it just becomes about a sense of place. For you, there’s a different relationship to the photographic now.  If we talk about other histories of painting’s relationship to the photographic, if we think about Richter, if we think about photorealist painters, where it’s a direct acknowledgment of the rendered seamlessness of the photographic—your paintings are certainly not that.

Lindquist: What about in terms of your work using the photograph to base these sculptures that do you think they transcend, obscure, reinterpret, reconfigure— how would you describe that?

Paris: The photograph is specifically about sport and action, it is the only way to freeze, to crystallize the kind of moments of heroic athleticism, in a way that becomes still and architectonic. So the capabilities of the photograph to do that and to then take identities and reconfigure them is my interest in the photograph. That it crystallizes the ephemeral into an architecture that I can then reinterpret. Maybe that happens with you, in terms of the ephemerality of light, becoming an object, becoming an object in the gallery. Maybe an “object” is the wrong word but it becomes calcified, instead of this light, it’s divorcing the idea of the temporary from the experience of light, it’s trying to freeze it on the wall. That’s Roland Barthes’s relationship to photography: that “this has been.” His idea, of course, has been challenged— that the photograph is somehow this fact that remains even as time passes. Even if we divorce the idea of absolute truth from the photographic, there still remains an attempt in photography to present some sort of permanent record, even if that record is flawed and could have been manipulated. Even if we know that that experience is false, we, in this age, especially as part of out experience of virtual space, engage in spectacles we know are false all the time. Maybe that’s a generational thing. And so with you, it’s the idea of a theatrical enactment of light in a gallery even knowing that it’s a false record.

Norm Paris, installation view of "The Wall Still Stands," 2011, Courtesy of the Proposition, NYC

Lindquist: Let’s talk about the relationship between technology, digital photography, painting, and how that changes painting and photography. One thing is the difference between these screens we have in technology now—the smart phone, an iPad, a computer screen—and whether it’s any more a window than a painting is.

Paris: A screen is a producer of light. I mean, this is one of the most archetypal, fundamental to how the screen operates, and fundamentally different from—

Lindquist: It’s additive light.

Paris: It’s additive light, and a painting is not. The screen is changing, malleable and moving. We can relate this to video art also and the idea of kinetic versus still, so there are all of these differences wrapped up in it, especially the way we were talking about screens and touch screens now. The screen is totally flat and is absent of textural surface, and yet it elicits a tactile response, especially now with the advent of touch screens. I’m on this iPad and I can feel as though I’m manipulating a surface. Of course, am I really manipulating a physical surface? No. But there is a virtual sort of component that now in our contemporary experience is as real. The virtual space is as real, it becomes as real and actually has real reverberations in terms of how we exchange information.

Lindquist: So do you think because we’re interacting with these screens in a way that engages in some kind of quasi-physical virtuality, do you think that changes the way we look at painting in any way?

Paris: The more important way to frame it is not does it change the way we think of painting, has it changed the way you think of painting? I think different painters have a totally different register in relation to technology and it has changed the way you think of painting—

Lindquist: How?

Paris: Maybe the touch screen is a bit of a stretch—that somehow it has created some new way for you to think about painting. But just in a general sense the idea that the painting is a surface that you can layer and encase— you’re projecting light onto a surface that becomes the armature for the image, and then touching on top of that surface. Obviously the painting is not a screen, it’s different than a screen, but is your relationship to that painting like an idea of applying films onto a screen, applying films of a sort of painterly affect onto the projected and traced image? It’s important to note that you’ve used different types of projectors and not just digital projectors that are connected to a computer screen, but overhead projectors, too.

Lindquist: The overhead projector with transparencies. And I think that that was a really important distinction to make because I’ve used slides for a long time, and not only is that a kind of an antiquated technology, but it required a lot of unnecessary steps such as taking a digital image then having it turned into a slide. I became so accustomed that it grew into me and I wouldn’t let go of it, like I absorbed it as part of myself rather than part of the process. It was important to shake myself of that habit by using different tools and make me more accountable in order for the mark-making to feel more mine.

Paris: Thinking about our relationship to a screen and that we’re just addressing it in relation to super modern technology and touch screens. This is not the way you’re thinking about your specific relationship to technology, that you’re not just looking at the most recent technology, you’re thinking about paint as a form of technology. It’s an older form of technology but it is a technological production, to create paint. You’re using paint, you’re using light coming through a window as a mode of light passing through a screen, that is a screen, so all of a sudden there’s a reassessment of, again, Impressionism. This idea of light and the window itself as being a screen is maybe like looking at a window as if it’s a computer monitor casting light onto something else. Maybe that’s a stretch but there’s slippage between different sort of technology vis-à-vis 1880 technology, there’s the 1950 technology, 2012.

Lindquist: Rob Storr recently told me that some of the best artists pick up where the most recent artists left off and explored possibilities that these artists didn’t explore, took other paths. Do you agree with that? Because how far can you reach back? In your work, you’re obviously looking at Piranesi as much as you’re looking at Rauschenberg, for that matter, David Smith, in terms of parts in relationship to the whole. In terms of what Donald Judd said about European painting and Clement Greenberg said about things always having a relationship to the whole and what you do about sense of balance as well.

Norm Paris, Bridge/Fortress/Hillis, 2011, Courtesy of The Proposition, New York, New York.

Paris: I don’t disagree with Rob but I would just add, we all have to look at sort of what is happening currently and what has recently happened. But I see our search as artists as being an act of synthesis as much as it’s an act of contemporary recall. So synthesizing: I get excited in my work when I can look at Piranesi but then I’ll look at a contemporary stadium and I’ll think about Rem Koolhaas and I’ll find these unexpected combinations of things, from recent to distant sources. If you look at artists, a lot of our colleagues, their references are certainly of the recent past but also looking way back, looking at the sources, looking at—it’s like a rabbit hole, how deep does the rabbit hole go? The minute you look at somebody from a generation previous to us, you’re realizing who they were looking at and who they were looking at. It can go back very far. You just brought up in passing your relationship to Minimalist sculpture and that’s the other little important terrain of your work and then the other aspect of this is thinking about Robert Smithson who’s also a big fan of synthesis of sources.

Lindquist: Donald Judd discussed [in a catalogue for the original 1989 Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-baden show that was recreated at David Zwirner last summer] a kind of painting that could be interesting if painted directly on the wall almost as a fresco in which the recognition of painting fades away and becomes something else. I was thinking about that in terms of the shadows that I’m going to be painting, or the light from windows and the shapes those create, as a way of dissolving the painterly nature, and make it into something that more purely resembles light itself. I love Judd’s engagement with light in this Zwirner show [See “Donald Judd,” in the July/August 2011 issue of The Brooklyn Rail]. Light is so much about painting, but Judd would not acknowledge that in the beginning, and towards the end I think he was aware of the contradictions of his extreme position. It’s a little known fact, also, that in the 1980s in his late career, Judd returned to making paintings.

Paris: Painting directly on the wall becomes a way of dissolving painting but it’s also a way of visually fracturing architecture. So that the ground is unstable where the wall is, recalled as a screen, as a deposit of light, and then on top of that we have another kind of space represented. I’m wondering how you think about this idea of representation in light of that? Is it unstable? Is the kind of representation you’re employing an unstable representation?

Lindquist: What do you mean by representation?

Paris: These are iconographies of landscape that you’re using— these are representations.

Lindquist: But they’re also abstractions.

Paris: That’s true and where the paintings are interestingly unstable, that they fracture a formalist shape and recall an outdoor space while we’re in an indoor space. There’s a slippage there that is really exciting.

Lindquist: Robert Smithson was always thinking about nature and abstractions of nature on multiple levels: molecular, conceptual, geological, scientific, science-fiction. I am interested in how he took these icons, symbols and mythologies and turned them into large abstractions in the landscape, like Spiral Jetty. What does the spiral mean? Why did he choose a spiral? Charles Darwin proved, for example, that plants grow in spiral motions. What does it become in the landscape other than a huge, mythological symbol that has been almost fused with the character and the materiality of the landscape? Am I completely going out on an outer orbit?

Paris: Are you saying that Smithson took all these sources and this idea of the geological phenomenon as seen through science fiction and art history and science itself and created this grand piece which then, now, exists? But most people experience it through photography and in that sense his statement has become a different kind of fodder for us, for you specifically. We can say it’s ironic except that he fully expected that to happen. It would be ironic if he just thought this was a grand and lasting statement but of all artists in art history he’s the most aware that his work was going to—

Lindquist: To fall apart.

Paris: Cease to exist.

Lindquist: He wanted it to fall apart, he thought that was part of the process. For him, the idea of entropy was always paramount. And it transcends materiality, it transcends the physical nature of the work.

Paris: So when you use an image like Spiral Jetty in your paintings, the monumentality of that, but seen through a photographic image, and then interpolated into a painting—what is your relationship to that image?

Lindquist: Wow, that’s a really good question and a really hard question.

Paris: Is it too big?

Lindquist: I feel like I’m in it right now and I haven’t figured it out.

Paris: What brought you to that image?

Lindquist: Spiral Jetty was the untouchable thing, for me as a painting— it was always the hands off of a specific period of art history. A friend said to me a year ago, are you ever going to paint Spiral Jetty? I said, no, I can’t, it’s too big. I can’t touch it. Now I think, well, why not? It’s part of this vocabulary that I’ve made for the landscape and when you talk about how people know Spiral Jetty through a photograph, you have no idea in the sense of scale of how it expands. Being in the landscape, it looks really small from far away and reasonably close even. Then, you walk into it and you’re inside of it and it’s huge. But you can’t be inside of it and outside of it at the same time and that’s also an interesting problem of painting, too, in terms of scale. When I take a photograph of Spiral Jetty and I make it into a painting, I’m bringing it back to life where the photograph freezes it in that moment. It brings it into the present and it brings it into an animate, living being again. Painting can do that.

Paris: The way you described the relationship between the direct experience of Smithson versus the photographic experience of Smithson—is the photograph a faithful document? In some sense it is, but it’s also alive, the photograph is serving to mythologize Smithson probably in a way that he would acknowledge and you’re even acknowledging, the distance of your narrative to that photograph. There are ways in which the actual landscape is small and then it’s large, and ways in which you’re outside of the piece and then you’re inside the piece. There’s an experiential quality that cannot be reclaimed in the photograph nor, I wonder, if you are able to reclaim that. I don’t think it’s the goal of your painting to somehow reclaim the “true” Smithson experience.

Lindquist: No, but to reinvigorate in some way, or to reinterpret, reconfigure. What would be most compelling for you?

Paris: I like thinking that you’re developing a lexicon of terms that are art historical, at times very personal, idiosyncratic. And that your relationship to Smithson as a sort of god figure, as a myth – it is at once an intellectual pursuit but I also see it as something more than just an engagement with his ideas.

Lindquist: Smithson’s ideas on the landscape and entropy were an idiosyncratic constellation of far-reaching influences, from science-fiction to Frederick Law Olmstead. Can we acknowledge the elephant in the room of this conversation, that Smithson abandoned painting? Like many of those artists at the time, he hated painting.

Paris: That’s true and he had a very conflicted relationship to painting and it sounds, the way you put it, sort of Oedipal in a way, if we think about painting as a sort of patriarchal tradition.

Paris, Lindquist: [Laughs]

Paris: He’s dismissive, at the very least—

Lindquist: But yet, Smithson discusses in his essay on Spiral Jetty that the jetty at sunset recalled Van Gogh’s light. And when I went to Spiral Jetty, I saw Monet in the sunset [See “23 Hours at Wintering Spiral Jetty,” February 2011 issue of The Brooklyn Rail]. It’s fascinating that even though he wants to distinguish and divorce himself from painting, he’s still thinking about it in indirect ways.

"Spiral Jetty" at sunset, January 4, 2011, 1970, Great Salt Lake, Utah. Collection Dia Art Foundation. Photo ©Greg Lindquist. ©Estate of Robert Smithson/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

Paris: That’s true. I don’t know if he felt one way about painting, I would suspect his idea of painting shifted more, as is your idea of what painting is, and so, to go back to your use, are you working on that painting currently?

Lindquist: Not yet.

Paris: [Laughs] You can strike all of this from the record if it doesn’t bear fruit. Smithson is a part of a lexicon of references, but I don’t see it as you necessarily reinvigorating Smithson through a contemporary painting lens, I see you using painting to engage in the myth of Smithson, and then at the same time acknowledging the strange and amazing synthesis of the experience of Smithson through a photograph as a way of reclaiming a relationship to Impressionism.

Norm Paris is an artist who lives and works in New York and has exhibited throughout the United States. His most recent solo show, The Wall Still Stands, was exhibited at The Proposition Gallery in New York. He has participated in exhibitions at The Jewish Museum, San Francisco, CA, and The Jewish Museum, New York, NY, The Print Center, Philadelphia, Pa., and the Weatherspoon Art Museum, Greensboro, NC. His work is also included in numerous collections including The Jewish Museum, New York, NY and the West Collection, Oaks, PA. Norm is an Assistant Professor at Rhode Island School of Design and has been core faculty at the Yale Norfolk Summer School of Art in Norfolk, CT. He received his B.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design and his M.F.A. in painting and printmaking from the Yale School of Art.