The Quest of a Painterly World: Q and A with Cable Griffith

It is hard not to like Cable Griffith’s landscapes. They invite you into their fantastical scenes with a bright sense of familiarity that permeates the patterned, pixel-like worlds and is almost instantly recognizable from one of recent generations’ favorite past times—video games. Quest, the artist’s new show at G. Gibson Gallery in Seattle, continues the digitally-inspired lands for which the artist has become known, but buried beneath the solid, white clouds and systematized, geometric trees, a more serious pursuit reveals itself.  As Exhibitions Curator at Cornish College of the Arts, Griffith has an abundance of experiences and networks that parallel the complexity of the landscapes he builds.   I caught up with the artist to uncover more about Quest and to talk about an exhibition of northwest painter Robert C. Jones’s work on view at the gallery he oversees at Cornish. — Erin Langner, Seattle Contributor


Cable Griffith | Terra Terma, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 18 inches, image courtesy of G. Gibson Gallery.

Erin Langner: Have video games always been a factor in your work, or can you identify when they started becoming such an integral part of your visual language?

Cable Griffith: There was a painting I did about four years ago called, World One Overview.  At the time, I had been doing these invented landscape paintings—a set of works that explored things like form, space and environment, through accumulations of stripped down, rudimentary marks. My main interest was creating a paralleled ecology of parts that make up a landscape. Rather than rendering or shading, in more illusionistic qualities, I wanted to create a place by accumulating actual depth. These works ended up being somewhat improvisational; I was responding to the edges and eventually locating myself in a place that became the landscape.


Cable Griffith | World One Overview, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, image courtesy of the artist.

Going through that process reminded me of going exploring in the woods and the way people are compelled stop at a certain place.  There are places you pass and the there are places you stop, for whatever reason—there’s a view or there’s just a vibe about that place.  As a kid, I spent a lot of time in the wilderness, and we would name certain places, while the rest were just passageways to get to the places that might be named. So, I started thinking about painting through that lens, with each painting taking on the qualities of those stopping places. I also thought about tracking these landscapes, not as separate worlds but as otherworld; I also wanted to investigate where those worlds might exist in relation to each other.

This led to World One Overview, my first map painting. In that piece, I constructed these little pockets of different environments—one would be sort of like a desert, and one would have waterfalls and mountains, and another would be pastoral. That was when the painting started to remind me of video games, particularly the part when you would press “start” on your controller and the view on the screen would pull back to the map, revealing the worlds that made up the game. The different landscapes I created within that piece also reminded me of the way you would encounter themed worlds in video games, like “Chocolate-land,” where these specific things and adventures would happen. I think I just connected that to the named places and other experiences that were part of my childhood.


Cable Griffith | Gallatin Passage, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 inches, image courtesy of G. Gibson Gallery.

EL: Your paintings bring together two things people do not often compare—video games and painting.   What are some of the ways you investigate that relationship?

CG: In Up-Up-Down-Down-Left-Right-Left-Right-B-A-Start, the show I did last March, at Kittredge Gallery in Tacoma, I was really starting to experiment with the ways different modes of video game techniques and systems of landscape representation parallel Modernist painting. For instance, when you see Josef Albers’s paintings and early Atari games side by side, they look almost identical. And, there were other interesting parallels, so that show was a way of exploring that relationship very directly.  Different pieces addressed different aspects of video game conventions and painting conventions; I wanted to play around with those systems.


Cable Griffith | At the Wall (Exotica), 2013, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 18 inches, image courtesy of G. Gibson Gallery.

When I was working on the paintings in Quest, there was no intention to have a focused theme. I really just wanted to experiment again and to not have to feel like I was adhering to something. So, I was working with different approaches—pattern work, canvas hangings, maps. I was also thinking about glitch images, in terms of finding a landscape feeling from a glitched image and using that as a starting point to improvise. These paintings that were seemingly unrelated started stacking up, and I began seeing them all within the frame of the quest, of the pursuit of something; I realized they were bound by a desire to find out. And, that became this metaphor for painting—and for being an artist. 

To me, the show is really about being a painter and claiming a space and staying with it, even if the result is seemingly divergent. But I wanted that to be the binding part—the search for something.


Cable Griffith | Above the Clouds, 2013, acrylic on 25 canvas panels, 36 x 36 inches, image courtesy of G. Gibson Gallery.

EL: Do you see this idea of “claiming a space” as a painterly pursuit?

CG: I don’t think it is strictly a painterly pursuit, but that’s the way I relate to art making comfortably. And I think it was also a declaration much like claiming land: “I’m going to stick with painting.” Because I was academically trained and having that kind of background can be a kind of ivory-towered, siloed feeling at times, I didn’t really think about painting in that way until later, in contrast to seeing that the world was happening, seeing what artists were actually doing, and experiencing all of the crossover that was going on.

It wasn’t until I was became a curator that I started to see so many other ways of looking at art making. There was a period when I realized there were so many options, I was almost embarrassed to be a painter.  Privately, I was asking myself, “What am I doing?” People were doing all of these other things, and the question was not an insignificant one to keep considering, because it seemed almost like an absurdity to stay with this very old way of working. But, I came to be okay with being a painter.  I came to see how, through the painters I admire and through their devotion to the pursuit of something, that something becomes unlocked.  I believe that is true, and that does not just go for painting. I think it is probably true for everything.  But there’s something about staying with that thing, pursuing it for so long, that it continually gets more mysterious as it unfolds; that is the reward.


Cable Griffith | Desert, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 inches, image courtesy of G. Gibson Gallery.

EL: You very much work in a dual role as both an artist and a curator, as Exhibitions Curator at Cornish College of the Arts. Do you find your curatorial and artistic practices feed off one another?

Working in both roles has definitely influenced my relationship with art and my ideas about what’s possible.  Just being connected with so many different artists, from studio visits and all of the shows I have done, whether I have curated them directly or just worked with them or hosted them—all of that is exposure to different ways of looking at things. But, for all of those obvious moments when influence can happen, the two roles are very separate.  I have a job to do as a curator, and I am largely self-taught in curatorial practice, so I think there is a separation between my personal goals as an artist and my goals for curating.  I am speculating here, but if I imagine if I were solely an art historian and my only relationship to art was in the role of curator, I would expect to have a focus and a passion that drives through my work. But for me, that passion is painting, and it might make me less of an interesting curator, but the independent voice part of my practice always been satisfied with making art. I approach curating more as a job I have to do at a specific place, and it is my job to understand the relationship of the space to its audience.  Every space I curate is very different, and they each have their own challenges and opportunities—and I like that. I like trying to understand and play with what each space dictates, or at least my interpretation of what it means and what it can do.


Cable Griffith | If Not Now, When?, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 36 inches, image courtesy of G. Gibson Gallery.

Although, looking back on the shows I have curated, there were times when they served my interests, to be quite honest.  I guess I can’t say that there is no voice coming through. The two big shows that I curated at Cornish were Game Theory and Old Ghost Ranges, Sunken Rivers, Come Again, which was about the woods.  So, those were clearly a blend of my interests.

EL: The show currently on view at Cornish (guest curated by Beth Sellars) is a retrospective of Robert C. Jones’s work, another painter who merges a personal visual language with more traditional modernism.  Are there ways you connected with this work after spending so much time with it?

CG: Yes, definitely. Half of the work in my show was done in three weeks of 8 to 12- hour days over winter break, when I had available time, which actually turned out to be the best situation.  It also happened to overlap with the work we were doing to prepare for Jones’s show. About one third of the paintings in that show were from lenders and collectors, so we were driving to Tacoma and all around Seattle. At the same time, I was still finishing my work for Quest, and my head was in painting-land.  I still hadn’t really officially come back to work, I was still living this dream of being a full time artist for a while, so gathering Jones’s works and seeing them all together—paintings from 1976 and 2012, coming together into the story—was inspiring.


Robert C. Jones: An Update.  Installation view.  Image courtesy of Cornish College of the Arts.

And then his paintings—there are some that feel like they could have been made today.  Some are definitely are of a specific time in painting. But, there are some specific paintings in that show that speak very directly to what I’ve been thinking about, in terms of digital representations and the breaking down of imagery into pixels and bits and distortions and noise and glitched data.  Some of them I found to be very interesting in the way that he disrupts information to create a static feel. And I think we are coming at it from pretty different points of view, but it still has that affect. Seeing the works all together also brought out some of the bigger ideas I have been thinking about, of pursuing and unlocking this thing, and making connections and discoveries along the way.


Robert C. Jones. Trace, 1980, oil on canvas, 77 x 77 inches, image courtesy of Francine Seders Gallery.

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Quest is on view at G. Gibson Gallery in Seattle, WA through March 1. Cable Griffith lives and works in Seattle, where he is also Exhibitions Curator at Cornish College of the Arts.  He holds a BFA in painting from Boston University and an MFA in painting from the University of Washington.  His work has recently been exhibited at Kittredge Gallery (Tacoma, WA), SOIL Gallery (Seattle, WA) and Aqua Art Fair (Miami, FL). His work is included in public and corporate collections, including the Washington State Arts Collection, the Microsoft Art Collection, and Swedish Medical Center’s collection.

Robert C. Jones: An Update is on view in the Main Gallery at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, WA through March 8.  Curated by Beth Sellars, the exhibition features paintings and drawings from the artist’s prolific career, over the last 50 years.

Erin Langner is a writer and museum professional based in Seattle, WA.

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