Q&Art with Russell Pirkle

This week: Ed Pinkston, who has a show opening tonight (Thursday September 22) at Gallery Fine Art Center in Bossier, with an art talk at 5:30.

One of the other abiding influences in my work is man-made versus nature, or freedom versus control. Societal issues that we face, laws and regulations. Where you can ride your bike and where you can’t. Can you ride at night. Versus childlike freedoms that we all enjoy, especially in this country. A lot of my work is about that, so the way my work begins is it starts out very childlike and spontaneous, and I do the large broad issues in literally broad paint applications with brushes or squeegies or scrapers. And I use a lot of combinations. So I start out with this sense of freedom in my pieces, and then as I go on, I start to constrain or confine and refine them somewhat. And they develop more man-made like rectalinear elements like squares or straight line passages. So I like to have a duality between freedom and control. And in some pieces, the fulcrum is more under one end than the other. Some pieces will have a lot more spontaneity in them. Others will be more sober and controlled. Of course, in art publications, one of the main ways they talk about this is Apollo and Dionysius. The idea of the sober good god versus the party Bacchus god. I always try to keep that dichotomy in mind, and I try to juggle those two and make them reconcile. And that’s where my fun comes in is playing off those two extremes against each other and seeing what happens.

Yeah, it seems like the sort of abstract expressionism that you’re working from is a really good way to deal with those questions about freedom and self-determination.

I’ve been greatly influenced by abstract expressionism, but mine are not wholly that. A piece like mine might look a little bit like a Hans Hoffman, but it still has more constraints and more rigidity in it than his pieces did.

It almost seems as if you move through the abstract expressionism in the beginning and start to become more representational with the shapes and lines and things.

That’s fair. And sometimes those rectangular shapes are windows and sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they open up a space, and sometimes they’re ‘don’t go there. Stop there.’ And that’s the way Hans Hoffman used them too. Sometimes they would be a window into the depth of the painting, and other times they would be a confrontational thing that said ‘no, you’re not going there. You’re not going back in space. This is not a landscape.’ So sometimes if I see something getting too spatial, I’ll do something like that to bring us back up to the picture plane and say ‘Whoa, this is all illusion. It’s all flat stuff for the most part.’

I read in your statement you used to do figurative and landscape painting. What caused you to move from that to non-representational work?

I don’t know. I have always given myself permission to change my stripes. I’m not one of those artists whose work evolves very little over time, maybe just gets better in quality but they do the same basic painting over and over. Or maybe their work gets more expressive or gets bigger or whatever. But I seem to go through cycles of seven or ten years’ work. In graduate school, I started out doing abstract expressionism, then I went to hard-edge abstraction. And then when I got out of graduate school, I did abstraction again for a while. Then finally I said I need to get back to realism, that’s what I’m teaching in my classes. My drawing classes are all about learning to see. You know, perceptual experiences. Let’s get back to that. So I went back to doing drawings and landscapes with charcoal and pencil. And then I decided I wanted to get back to color again, but I didn’t want to go back to being a full blown abstract expressionist so I went to pastels. I don’t have many pastels to show you. In fact, this one’s sold, but this was one of them. After I went to abstraction and things like that, I wanted to come backt o more realistic experience with color. And I said well, pastel would be a good way to do that. I’d never worked with pastels, and I didn’t realize how tremendous they were. Not for just bringing out a color experience, but also just for markmaking properties. ‘Cause I’ve taught drawing for so many years and taught a lot with charcoal. I was kind of naïve and slow to realize ‘Hey, pastel is just charcoal in color. I can make the same kind of expressive marks. I can break the color surface up into local color. I can break that local color down into broken color. I can do all kinds of things with it. To answer your question, I just don’t ever like to be bored. I like to keep going. There is a common thread to my work, but as I shift experiences, some other people have had difficulty seeing that. And then after I did these for a while, I did pastel landscapes and still-lifes. And even abstract pastels for some time. I did those for about ten or twelve years. I had a retrospective at Tech somewhere around 2000, and looking at that show on a whole, there was so much pastel work in it. I said ‘I want to get back to painting again. I want to get back to that viscosity and that liquid feel.’ And it was just that simple. I just wanted to go back to a more temporal kind of liquid idea, and so I stopped doing the pastels and started doing abstract painting again for the first time in many years. And it was very difficult at first. I don’t know if you’ve done any abstract work yourself. Do you ever do any? But you work without a net, you know. You’ve got no subject matter to refer to. You’ve got nothing to bail you out. It’s just you and what you know about the principles and elements and things you want to express with them. And I had a real tough time for a couple years when I went back to abstract painting. I just said I can’t do this. I’m no good. And I really struggled. But after a while, I slowly started making some gains and feeling like ‘well yeah, ok.’ Part of my problem wasn’t just me, it was my materials. I have never in an enclosed space like this, even using odorless mineral spirits, I’ve never been able to work with oil paints. I’m very hypocritical: I always made my students use oil paints whenever I taught painting at Tech, we always used oil paints because of the slow drying time and the ability to intermix and rework and things like that. Oil painting’s far superior to acrylic. But my head just can’t take it. So I’ve had to use acrylics all these years. And that’s a tremendous limitation because of the fast drying time. You don’t get that opportunity to rework. At first, trying to do abstraction with acrylic paint, it’s tough. But after a time, I started learning how to work with it, and I can use retardants to get a longer drying time where I can go back and rework. But also I just learned how to make my spontaneity work. So the acrylic made me speed up. It made me more spontaneous, because the clock is ticking. And I had to work with it very rapidly. That was part of my struggle. I was part of the problem, but my materials were part of the problem too. But after I got more back into it, both of those sides started to come around, and I started to see results.

I think that’s something about abstract art that people who say they don’t get it aren’t seeing is that rich narrative of the process that’s in there. Oftentimes it conveys at least as much meaning as a representational work if not more.

I love to hear you say that. That is exactly right. Abstract painting has its own studio autobiography. It can be just as rich in historical experience or personal experience as any pictoral piece can. Whenever I’ve been in any kind of group and people have asked me ‘what’s the best way to understand or explain abstract expressionism?’ I’ve said part of the trouble is people worry about understanding it. I used the analogy of music. Listening to a melody is abstract. There’s no lyrics there like a country song. It’s like opera, where you don’t understand the language. I could listen to an aria in Italian and probably enjoy it more than if I understood Italian, because they might be saying ‘I went down to the store, bought a loaf of bread.’ Well that’s so pedestrian and everything. So the abstractness of music, it’s the same kind of thing in the visual arts. You have to enjoy it on that level, just for what it is. And you don’t have to read interpretations into it. You can, but you don’t have to. So many people feel like they have to understand abstract painting, and I say you just open your eyes. Just like you open your ears to music. One time, when I was in front of a woman’s group, and they weren’t getting it. I had a real good friend in the audience, and I knew it wouldn’t embarrass her. A very nice looking lady who was very well dressed. I said if you wouldn’t mind come up here and stand for a moment. And she came and stood beside me. And I said now, what did you do this morning when you got dressed? You made the decision to put this skirt with this blouse. To put this piece of jewelry here. These earrings. You were doing abstract art. You were making decisions about color, line, shape, form, texture. All the things an abstract artist does, you do it every morning. And they said “Oh!” That really broke the ice for them.

I guess one thing about abstract art is, in a lot of ways you have to avoid meaning. You have to avoid representation in order to be non-representational. That has a sort of tyranny to itself, you know?

Absolutely. That’s why I fight the spatial issues so hard, because I know any time I do a lot of overlaps, I’m going to start to get a landscape read out of the piece which I probably don’t want. Sometimes I go ahead and give in to it and let it go that way. I give myself permission to let realism creep in or pictorial space creep in sometimes. But for the most part, I try to keep it on an abstract plane because of this very pitfall you mention. And you don’t want it to lapse too easily back into conventional that’s a landscape, that’s a still life, that’s whatever. I do my best work when I really keep my thinking on abstract and don’t let them become to spatial or spatially illusionistic.

Let me ask you about yourself, as an artist who’s worked for multiple decades, how do you keep from becoming stagnant and from imitating yourself? And on the other side of that coin, how do you keep from abandoning all the things that you’ve done before and the progress you’ve made?

Those are good questions. And they’re not easily answered. But I think you know part of the answer is what I do is I change materials and approaches, and that keeps me fresh. On a singular level of individual painting basis, I try to do what Diebenkorn said he used to do. They said how do you begin a new painting? He said ‘I begin a new painting as far away from the last painting as I can, because I know what’s going to happen as I work. I’m going to gravitate back to what I’ve done before, to what I am, what I know and all the experience I have.’ And he said if you don’t you’ll wind up repeating yourself. That’s what would surprise people a lot of times about artists. This is what drives artists crazy about art historians. Art historians will say ‘this must have come from 1892 because it’s painted just like this one over here.’ No. Maybe that’s true, but many times artists will leap back in time as well as leap forward. And a lot of times my paintings are done at the same time and have very little correlation, and that’s deliberate. People say these two magenta paintings down here must have been painted at the same time. No, they were painted several years apart actually. What I try to do is the same thing Diebenkorn did. Whenever I started a new painting, I used different materials, different techniques. If I painted real thickly with brushes on the last one, I’ll start with glazes on the next one. I’ll use scrapers instead of brushes, or something like that. I’ll use a very different palette to begin with. I don’t usually put down a dominant palette colore first. That just happens. So whatever dominant palette color resulted in the last one, by god it’s not going to be in the new one. It’s going to start in some place totally elsewhere. And that’s why my paints are not organized. In some artists’ studios, every paint is perfectly lined up and organized, and they know exactly where everything is. I keep my paints moving around and disorganized to keep me disorganized, to keep me fresh so that I don’t revert back, hopefully, too much too soon to what I already know and the methods and techniques and things I know have worked in the past. This color relationship worked with this color relationship last time, let’s use it again. No, I don’t do that. I try to go to another part of the palette, start with some funky color over here and say what if. So it’s just like a child will. I try to put myself in a childlike mode and say let’s just try. What if. And then you go from there. Waste a lot of paint. Waste a lot of time. But that’s the only way to go. That’s the frustration of working abstractly, but it’s also the joy. It takes you places that you can’t preordain. Some people say do you have any kind of image in your head when you start painting? I hope not! When I’m doing this, absolutely not. Evenwhen I was doing these, I did about forty or fifty of these pastel still lifes. Only two of them were done from life. All the others were made up. You might say well I can tell that from the end result. Haha. But I deliberately tried not to put too much form on my apples or tomatos or whatever I’m using. To stay fresh, I’ve gotta change. I’ve gotta evolve, and I’ve constantly gotta challenge myself and surprise myself to keep from getting into stereotypes.

What happens prior to the beginning of the painting? Is there any sort of planning stage, or do you think there is any subconscious work that goes on?

There must be. You know, you can’t ever relax the subconscious. There must be something going on. But I try to avoid that. Sometimes I will have a strong idea I want to try, but who knows where it comes from. It might be just an abstract pattern I saw on a wall in downtown Ruston or something. Or sometimes I say what if I try that color with that color? What will happen? But of course it never turns out that way. Matisse had a good way of expressing that, and you may have heard this story before. They asked him the same question you asked me. When you begin a painting, how does it begin? He says let’s just say sometimes I have a real strong idea what I want a painting to be, but it’s like I’ve got a train ticket from Paris to Marseilles. And he says sometimes you get on that train, painting, and sometimes you make it to marseilles just fine and it’s turned out just the way you planned it. But more often, before I get to Marseilles, I find I want to take another train. I divert off. Or sometimes, I get to Marseilles, and I realize I don’t want to go to Marseilles and I keep going past. That’s the way I think about it too. Okay, I may start out with a strong idea that’s going to take me to Marseilles. I may get there. I may get there and not like it. Or I may never get there. And all of those are fine.

 I think one thing that most people and probably a lot of artists don’t realize too is so often the meaning comes after the work. After you finish making the work, you then think okay, what does this piece mean? What was I actually thinking and trying to do?

That happens all the time. I think it’s very common. Art is usually poorly served if you start out with too much meaning. Occasionally we’ll get a painting where an artist is really passionate about an idea. Like, say Picasso’s Guernica after the bombing in Spain. It turned out to be a good painting. It was a dramatic, forceful editorial, but it was also a dramatic, forceful piece of artwork. A lot of times, when you take that on your shoulders at the very beginning, a load of meaning, it can weigh you down and overrule you. We see that a lot with some of the muralists. The idea would get in the way of a good paintings. Deigo Rivera, people like that were great painters, but their painting would be so weighted down with the monumentality. I’m going to express this about the world’s state of affairs. You lose your sense of optics. I don’t worry too much about meaning. I know what they mean to me, and what I see in them. But I love it when other people have alternate interpretations of what they mean. And that’s where they should be I think. And that should be true of realistic painting as well as abstract painting, whether you use recognizable imagery or not. I like the idea of meaning coming after the fact. People worry, especially in today’s culture. You’ve run into this in school I’m sure. Now it’s become very prevalent and very important for an artist to find his voice. For him to be able to articulate verbally what his work is about. Well that, just between you and me, that’s all well and good. It’s nice if an artist is verbally articulate. What I want is a visually articulate artist. If an artist is articulate enough visually, he doesn’t have to open his mouth. I don’t need for Cezanne to tell me one thing verbally. Or Matisse. Or Diebenkorn. It’s all there. It’s visual, not verbal art. We’re getting a lot more blurring of that and overlapping in art, with video and god knows what else going on. So many cross-disciplined kinds of art made now. But just talking about a one on one kind of experience of you with the painting or piece of sculpture. If the artist is visually articulate, that’s all I need. The meaning will come through from that.

Could you tell me about your process of making a work? When do you like to work? Do you like to listen to music?

I always listen to music. I’ve gotta have music going. Sometimes the music is a direct influence and many times a subconscious influence as well. So I’m always listening to music. Just like changing my approach and my palette, whenever I start a new painting, I go to a different music. Just to see where that takes me, how it influences me. When do I work? I work best early. I don’t work well at night at all. When I was younger I could. But I’m an old man now. And I can’t do that. What I do is I have a daily routine. I get up and I go for a two and a half mile walk around the neighborhood. I come back and eat breakfast and I come down here. And that’s where I do my best work when my mind and body are really fresh. I literally can’t wait to get down here in the morning because I know that’s when I’ll do my best work. And then as the day goes on, it’ll tend to be diminishing returns, or it’ll go in waves like that. If you charted it, I’d say in the AM hours I do my best work. But I take breaks too. That’s the great thing about having my studio at home. I used to have my studio at Tech. I found out after my teaching duties and administrative duties and committee work and all that was out of the way, I would have to have a big chunk of time before I would go to my studio. Here I don’t have to have those big chunks of time. When I moved my studio here, I was amazed how much more work I got done. Because, you know sometimes I could just come down and work for ten minutes. But a lot of times what you’d do is you’d come down and just look for ten minutes. And that’s just invaluable. And then you’d go out and do something else. A lot of times I go out and walk in the yard. Especially when I’m struggling with a painting. I always work on that wall, and I can go walk around the yard and eventually I’ll wander over to this window and look at the painting from out in the yard out there. And by diminishing it not only in size but also it diminishes it psychologically. I look in the window at that little painting over there from the difference and I say ‘what’s your problem? Why can’t you fix that? What are you afraid of?’ I love the in-between times, the broken times, the casual times, that you get when you have your studio at home. My productivity when I’m in my studio at home, boy did it go through the roof. I didn’t realize how important those little snippets of time were. One of my favorite stories. Diebenkorn always had his studio separate from his house. He got off in the morning, and he’d come home in the evening. And his wife would say how’d it go dear? He never talked much. He came home one day in abject depression, and she said what is it? And he says I can’t paint. It’s the worst painting I’ve ever done. It’s terrible. Just terrible. He had a drink, and she commiserated him. And then the next day he gets up and goes back to the studio. And then in the evening he comes back home, and she says ‘how’d it go today dear?’ He says well, I just sat and looked at it all day, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. Hahaha. Sometimes it’s a little something about perspectives. That’s what I like about having my studio at home. I can walk away and give my mind and spirit time to refocus and regain my objectivity, whatever that is. So that’s what the little journeys I take are meant for, getting away from it, and coming back and seeing it afresh and deciding it’s the best thing I’ve ever done or the worst thing I’ve ever done. The hardest thing about coming in first thing in the morning is that you have to guage your objectivity. You’ve been away for many hours. So when I come back in the morning, I can always look at what I’m working on and know whether it’s any good or not. So I come down with great anticipation but also a feeling of dread because I know that my objectivity is returned and I’m going to be very critical. And I’m going to say, what were you thinking? That’s a piece of crap! I can’t believe you liked that yesterday at five o’clock. Or what’s really nice but maybe doesn’t happen as often is oh! I still like it. If I like it when I come down the next day, that’s a good sign.

How often do you work?

Everyday. I was administrator for twenty years, graduate coordinator for twenty years. I always taught a full teaching load. I always taught freshmen. I always taught drawing. Teaching freshman drawing is one of the most demanding courses on the curriculum. It never kept me out of the studio. I don’t think I’m a particularly gifted artist. I’m a hard-working, consistent artist. I’m a bulldog. And I still enjoy it immensely, I don’t know what I’d do without it.

I know that interpretation is a tenuous and subjective topic, but what advice might you have for how someone should approach your paintings if they want to get a deeper understanding of them?

Just stand back and look. And then look some more. You don’t have to ask any deep, penetrating questions. Just look really, really hard. And do what I do sometimes, use a mirror. I’ve walked many a mile in this studio. The main thing is to get back far enough. Even my smaller work, I judge them from back here. And then I use a mirror all the time to see them backwards, upside down, diagonal on this edge. Anything that helps me see it afresh. For an audience, someone looking at my work, I would just say walk a lot. Stand back a lot. If you don’t see anything there, move on to something else. Come back again later. You have to be tenacious and be a bulldog as a viewer to get it too. I would just tell people stand back and do a lot of looking. You don’t have to ask a lot of questions. You can if you want to. Just look. People don’t have enough confidence in their eyes. Like I said before, it’s no different than music. If you enjoy a melody, you know you enjoy it. If you enjoy something visual, you know it. I can try to figure out why I like Mozart, but I don’t have to.

I think that’s all the questions I have. It was a pleasure speaking with you.

I’m glad you came over. I’m glad to get to know you better.