A CONVERSATION: ROSS BLECKNER
This interview took place on the occasion of Bleckner’s solo show, “Find a peaceful place where you can make plans for the future” at the Dallas Contemporary.
Arthur Peña: You have decades of not only painting behind you but also teaching. What’s your relationship to education and working with students?
Ross Bleckner: Number one, I like it. I find that as you get a little older there is only so much information you can absorb. I think that you kind of want to absorb less so that you can focus your priorities. Teaching opens it up again in a way that gets closed off to you. I don’t really go to openings much anymore and I don’t really keep up as much as I used to. I’m always interested to know what they’re interested in, what they think is important and why. It really has to do with establishing a relationship with what someone is trying to get out of their experience of getting an MFA. What that means to the life that they want to lead. There’s a romantic and pragmatic idea about being an artist. I try and take a bit of the fantasy away, the myth making and the language around it so that somebody can approach it seriously but also learn that the terms they define for themselves can be enough. They don’t have to sound like a press release that was written by a French philosopher.
AP: How do you discus the romanticism tied to painting and art making to your students?
RB: It depends on the work they are doing. Just from the point of view of teaching I’m open and interested in what they are interested in, not what I’m interested in. I’m just referring to the fact that there is a difference between the mystique of being an artist and the practical reality of being an artist which is actually developing a clear sense of yourself and a work ethic around that.
AP: I tend to think that you have to be somewhat of a romantic to be a painter. I think it’s because of the role that tragedy plays in romance and the tragic nature of making a painting; your work can or will outlast you.
RB: That is a narrative arc. The reflection of the world is what’s actually tragic and romantic. And that’s what I think is embodied in an artist’s mind. There is a multiplicity of layering; emotionally, psychologically, an ideology, which includes politically, that to follow that trajectory visually and to somehow represent that covers a lot of space. So it goes from a romantic to an analytic. A documentary to a kind of fantasy. So all of those spaces that have a lot of leeway in them are what goes on in your mind all the time. Having confidence and having doubt. Reflecting all the differences in thinking in your mind as an artist. This gets expressed in polarities; light and dark, deep and shallow space. I try not to do one thing in my paintings. I try to change the mood or the tone through these processes. The imagery is a place holder for the chemistry.
AP: What happens when things become clear to you and that tension is released or when there is another objective force that muddles the trajectory?
RB: The trajectory has so much mutation in it. The whole reason to work on something is to see whatever ideas are contained in it. Everything is a failure in the sense that it is always incomplete. Because you didn’t solve the problem. You didn’t resolve the issue so then you have to make more work to try and solve the problem that you’re never going to be able to solve.
AP: What happens when the real world interrupts that process? I’m sure most artists are contemplating how to make work in this political climate. You’ve painted through so much. Help me understand paintings responsibility when things are going how they’re going.
RB: That’s a big and a small issue and it all depends on the artist. Painting in itself, as a category, has no particular responsibility. There are many artists who will continue to paint color scales and be extremely happy. There are artist whose work is about all the kinds of fissures and fractures of the environmental and/or political world and there are artists who express their concerns obliquely. I’m one of those. My work has always had a dystopic and melancholic quality. Guston talked about the notion of what kind of person would he be just caring about what red goes next to what blue when so many terrible things were happening in the world. He felt the futility of it and his late work addressed specific ideas more directly. I think that kind of change is built into my work because I went through it already in the ‘80s when I was making paintings that were optical, hallucinatory. They really had to do with looking and not looking. When AIDS came along the light in my painting took on a darkness because the world changes under your feet sometimes. It had to do with my lack of confidence in modernity; the inability of medicine to really address the epidemic which was compounded by the political situation that became very polarized around it. It was like we were living in the middle ages with this plague. I began to address it a little more specifically. I didn’t want to make political posters but I wanted to do it in the way I liked to do things.
AP: Relating to what you said about Guston, he also said that he didn’t have a say in the matter of what he was painting and that he was just “trying to stay alive.” In the studio we navigate the things one must do or not do in order to keep moving, keep working. Painting gives us something to do when we wake up.
RB: That’s the kind of environment the studio creates. I feel like it’s almost a scientific method. There’s always an observation, a hypothesis, a possible conclusion, an experimentation. But there is very rarely a drug that has the right effect. You always have to remix, recreate, reanalyze, reinvestigate, one thing leads to another and suddenly a bad moment will become a good idea. That’s what you’re looking for.
AP: If the paintings are the physical manifestation of the energy in the studio and holding content tied to various explorations, do you think paintings are vessels for something that go beyond the object or is everything we need in the work?
RB: It’s in your mind. There’s nothing literally beyond. I think its provocative and it can set off different kinds of feelings and that part I like. I like specifically that it can key you in to the Buddhist idea that we are locked into an interconnected contingency that both involve suffering and compassion. I’m more interested in painting that reflects that dynamic than painting that is affected by the dynamic of advertising and popular culture. I don’t really call that religious. I don’t really think things have religions to them but that doesn’t mean that looking for spirituality as an artist can’t still be relevant. Or that an artist should stop looking for that because it’s said not to be relevant.
AP: In your work, is there something that hasn’t changed or something that has surprised you that’s been long lasting? Have you found a sustained truth to painting?
RB: There is a thing inside a thing until it gets smaller and smaller. And when you take away all the layers of the thing, what you’re left with is what I’m trying to get at and it’s the emptiness and the rawness, the brightness of awe. That’s it. There is a little part of us that no matter how many skins grow, and scars grow, and layers grow, how much knowledge grows, there’s a little part in us that wants to crack it open and look at things as if you’re looking at them for the first time.
AP: It’s interesting to think about this regeneration in relation to your cell paintings. It makes them seem optimistic and very hopeful for what’s possible.
RB: It’s like being inside the thing you can’t be inside. It’s a little bit like these kind of inversions. There’s some place in our mind that tries to break through or loop around all of the acquired defenses and symptoms, ideologies to find that place that opens to curiosity, newness and light. That’s the sense of spirituality because what it does is allow the artist failed attempts to alleviate a suffering in themselves and sometimes for other people as well.
AP: Artist as conduit?
RB: I think so. It’s like laying out a program, a methodology. I don’t think that anything is going to heal anybody but I think that artist can have an energy and resonance which, even if it’s dark and doesn’t seem fun, it kind of brings people to a place of questioning that’s hopeful, optimistic. It’s hard to say what your work does.
AP: If it’s clear to you now that this “thing” you’re looking for is always over there, why keep going?
RB: That’s the sadness an artist has to bear. I suppose I want to invent something, visually, that’s absolutely better than anything that anybody can invent. Anything other than that is a disappointment. So get ready to be disappointed.
Ross Bleckner, “Find a peaceful place where you can make plans for the future” at the Dallas Contemporary runs through March 12.
Arthur Peña is a painter, writer and founder of music label Vice Palace Tapes. He is currently the Visiting Lecturer in Painting at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX.
All photos courtesy of Dallas Contemporary and Kevin Todora.