SL: As I have watched your work over the years, I am truly stunned by your painterly invention and your use of material. With a complete embrace of differing and often competing painterly and artistic styles-from still life, to appropriation, to expressionist mark making-you consistently and surprisingly create complex painterly fictions based on what you refer to as "discredited" texts. In the current work, based on (William Shakespeare's) Timon Of Athens, you have moved into performance and music as well, but I see these as extensions of a painterly practice and this leads me to my question. This commitment to using paint and eschewing other methods that would make the work easier to produce does not seem to be strategic in your work. It reveals itself as a deep commitment to the practice of painting; I would even go as far to say that you have an "ethics of painting."
I am wondering how what I sense to be an ethical commitment to painting informs the development of the kinds of imagery that appears in Timon of Athens.
CD: Steve, Thank you for such a plump and thoughtful question.
I made a previous wobbly attempt to respond to the part regarding an ethics of painting. I’m now sitting in a coffee shop in Atlanta with a pencil and a sketchbook, formulating a new answer. I’m flanked at the counter by a pale woman quietly playing Hey Ya! on a ukulele, in a way Andre 3000 might not recognize. There’s a painted mural on one wall depicting a sea monster drinking coffee through its tentacle-trunk. Three young men have laptops connected to outlets by power cords that in this context look like feeding tubes. And the young woman who poured my coffee has a tattoo of a radio tower on her thin left arm. I ask her if it’s a specific radio tower and she says, “No I drew it. It doesn’t exist.” Somehow this all seems relevant.
So as I prepare to answer your question properly this time, I have to admit that it never occurred to me to consider my attitude toward painting as an “ethics.” But I realize that it is, though perhaps not in an obvious way. The unexpected mutability and mobility that painting provides are both core qualities to me. Painting always has one foot in the 15th-century and one foot in the current moment, and its tools are mostly slow, inefficient, and difficult to learn. These generally discredited qualities are the ones I like the most. This is probably why one of my favorite paintings is Picabia’s The Handsome Porkbutcher.
Thomas Lawson wrote an essay in 1981 called “Last Exit: Painting” where he suggests that conceptually savvy artists transplant their artistic agendas into the discourse of painting. His logic was that the entrenched audience and a marketplace for painting made it a perfect location for transgression. However, as time has passed it’s increasingly doubtful that conceptually based transgression is going to make anyone’s day. But the important subtext of Lawson’s essay is that painting is infinitely adaptable with an inherent ability to purloin from other media. Then in 2000 Douglas Fogle curated an exhibition called Painting at the Edge of the World, whose catalog essay compares painting to a virus due to its capacity to continually mutate in response to new challenges, returning more resilient each time. I am convinced that the anachronistic materiality of painting allows it—like the simplicity of a virus—to acquire data from other disciplines and constantly recalibrate its own status. Mutability equals survival, and painting’s dogged shape-shifting capacity provides a durable artistic vehicle for me, and one seemingly without limit.
Mobility is another issue, and painting provides it in multiple ways. First, painting can be a portable, mobile orphan tumbling though time into a sequence of unpredictable environments, the eternal outsider. But there’s another type of mobility that’s even more important to me. Painting remains buoyantly resistant to the seduction of new technologies that only promise additional new technologies. As you say in your question, I could make work that’s “easier to produce.” But to do so would diminish my own self-reliance and hook me into a system of technological life support that reduces my mobility, just like the men here whose laptop cords prevent them from roaming the room as freely as I can with my paper.
It’s even worse when artists mechanize their artistic thought processes. The machine aesthetic values speed, efficiency, and predictability. It produces urges where there were none, such as the urge to partition the past and make it as orderly as cutlets. It can soothe artists into believing they can anticipate the future to make it less indeterminate and frightening. I might love Sol LeWitt, but I hate the way the working method for his wall drawings turned art into computer programming: the successful completion of instructional sequences producing identical outputs. This creates the illusion that the future should be knowable, that one should only produce artwork according to prior plans within predictable time frames. This always strikes me as a poisonous mindset and one that would never allow for the creation of a piece like Picabia’s The Handsome Porkbutcher.
In 1981 Rene Ricard wrote an essay called “Radiant Child” that correctly describes graffiti as a form of painting suited to the (then) contemporary moment because it transformed artists’ names into recognizable brands. It’s a grim trajectory to watch the modernist quest for a subjective signature style morph into an ‘80’s desire for artist branding. Any artist who avoids experimentation because it might disrupt their brand identity has agreed to willful immobilization. I gravitate toward artists whose unpredictable movements make them difficult to brand, as with Picabia’s The Handsome Porkbutcher.
When I started the Timon of Athens project, I did so because wanted the continual discomfort of making paint do new things. And I wanted to treat a 400-year old play like it was current, relevant, and obvious. When deciding to make different types of painting for each character in the play, I purposefully avoided a full plan of action. The heterogenous practice I initially wanted unfolds itself intuitively as I continually fatten it with new work. The constant change from character to character also removes the expectation of stylistic consistency, and deposits me outside the corral of a solidly recognizable brand. (If anything, I constitute a corruption of the Shakespeare brand.) I move though the characters in no order and with no narrative goal. I make a different number of works for each character. Some characters might produce fifty pieces. Others might produce one. I’m careful to advance without strategy, instead creating a mental environment where thinking, as (Jean-François) Lyotard says, “…Is almost no more than letting a givable come towards you.”¹ This way of thinking through paint provides me the combination of discipline and freedom that I find necessary as an artist. The continual drive toward skill acquisition can be demanding, but so was smearing out a bison on a cave wall. And so is butchering pork.
Painting is both fast and slow, one of the oldest art techniques and one that’s continually renewed. It has a creative template that accepts that if something can be imagined, it can be made visible—which is now the standard operating system for photography, video, and film as well. Painting permits its users to hold disparate thoughts at the same time, the way theatergoers can recognize Meryl Streep onstage while also completely believing the character she portrays. The strip of wood depicted at the bottom of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna is both simple paint on canvas, and also the coffin of Pope Sixtus. It is both. The pantied crotches in a Balthus painting or in Alice Neel’s Wellesley Girls are both incidental slippages, and not. A scrap of paper really can be a portrait of Iris Clert. And not.
The marks I’ve made on this paper may outlast this coffee shop, its mural, its ukulele player, its underfed barista, and me. It may outlast the laptops in the room and the computer screens on which readers will eventually see my notes transcribed. This is the mutability and mobility that painting provides me, a nourishing code of ethics fed by the likes of Picabia’s The Handsome Porkbutcher.
¹Lyotard, Jean-Francois (trans. G. Bennington & R. Bowlby). "The Inhuman: Reflections on Time." Stanford University Press. 1991. p. 18.
Craig Drennen is an artist based in Atlanta, GA. He is represented by Samsøn in Boston and Saltworks in Atlanta. His most recent solo exhibition was at Ellen de Bruijne Projects in Amsterdam, and he is currently featured in the “SCORE” exhibition at MOCA GA in Atlanta. His work has been reviewed in Artforum, Art in America, and The New York Times. He teaches drawing and painting at Georgia State University, served as dean of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and is on the board of Art Papers magazine. He has worked in the exhibition departments of the Guggenheim Museum, the Jewish Museum, and the International Center of Photography, and others. Since 2008 he has organized his studio practice around Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens.