Burrard Arts Foundation was pleased to host Antoni Wojtyra as artist-in-residence from October 2014 to January 2015. Wojtyra, no stranger to toil in the studio and analytical inquisitions into the essentiality of painting, spent his residency ardently researching his fascination with surface and the concealed, dual nature of two-dimensional works. The resultant paintings are large-scale, monumental explorations of form, fold and shape on twice-painted paper. Wojytra speaks with Elliat Albrecht about the sublime, doubles, Matisse, and tears in art below.
His show Basic Research is open until February 28, 2015.
Elliat Albrecht: Tell me about double surfaces.
Antoni Wojtyra: That’s a biiiig question. The work is so close to me, and I may be the primary interpreter but I’m only one interpreter. As creator, I can only be a kind of liar. At least half of a painting is never seen. It’s a funny way to begin to speak about visual phenomena but maybe we could talk about the unseen?
EA: What is it about the unseen that interests you?
AW: Well art in general is more important than painting specifically and I don’t think “art” is a specifically visual energy. Most of the process of making a painting cannot be seen in the end product. As viewers we rarely see how the thing was made or where it comes from. Pictures always hide their back. A coat of paint itself can hide its substrate. Further, the construction of meaning within the experience of viewing is an imagined one but also unseen. Within the intellectual and emotional space of processing a picture, art as an energy may or may not percolate. It doesn’t reside in the object as an essential ingredient. If it did, then I would feel the “sublime” or whatever of a Barnett Newman painting every time I see it. But I don’t. Art is far more nebulous and anomalous than what an artist intends or what is obviously seen.
EA: Then what is it about a painting that provokes the sublime? James Elkins opened his book Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings by describing the first time he saw the Ecstasy of St Francis:
“When I was thirteen or fourteen, the [painting] was almost too much to look at: I recall thinking I could only take in a few details on each visit. It wasn’t a painting, really: it was a dream of what a painting might be…. Somehow, [it] resembled the way I thought… When I looked, it was as if words had been swept out of my head and replaced by brushstrokes and colors. The word “magical” doesn’t do justice to what I felt, but then again I can hardly remember what I felt: I was attached to the painting in a strange fashion that I have nearly lost the ability to recall.”
AW: I don’t know what stimulates the sublime. Who does? It’s interesting that Elkins says he can barely recall it, that feeling. The sublime – and really that’s another word for “art experience” or just “art” – can’t be pinned down with a prescription. When something is fresh to us or we are fresh to it, and we can sense integrity and creativity in a thing – it doesn’t have to be a painted object – it has the potential to form a disjuncture and “move” us. Elkins’ experience with that particular painting would perhaps not be there for you or I.
EA: Sure. A reaction like Elkins’ might be a perfect mathematical combination of what we intellectually and emotionally bring to viewing a work, the lighting in the room, who we’re with, if we like them, if our coat is wet, what we had for breakfast and if we missed the train that morning. But those experiences don’t happen (or with far less frequency) when we look at a menu or a newspaper. If there were tally marks of all the sublime moments that happened inside buildings on the front steps, museums would probably have more than most.. Don’t you think that good paintings possess some “moving” quality regardless of discernible formula?
AW: I dunno. I am often moved sunsets and I can’t pin down why. It’s the light and the end of day and all. I’m not sure what you mean by “discernible formula”. If there were formulas then any could follow it and make a good painting. The challenge remains though and that quality is remarkably mysterious to me. In the studio, I definitely fail far more than I succeed.
EA: Why are you working with paper?
AW: Paper is cheap. In the spectrum of painting’s possibilities, paper is generally considered a lower form compared to canvas, linen, steel, aluminum, plexi or even the wall. Maybe paper is considered less durable? I don’t know. Paper is used to make printed matter: books, newspaper and all. As a material it has properties that allow it do things that other substrates do not. Paper has a memory that can’t be steamed out or fixed. True love leaves no traces and all? It’s considered a lower form though. I consider it a kind of responsibility – perhaps I’m naive or even a paternalistic one – as an intellectual to work on behalf of the low and the poor. My people, you know? It’s also clear that some of the best modern art is frugal and simple. Manet’s economy of brushstrokes; Emily Carr’s modest sized oils on paper are admirable; so are Wilhelm Sasnal’s ink on paper and his more recent paintings with thinly diluted oil; or how David Hammons’ makes his Brooklyn dust drawings: he bounces a basketball on Brooklyn and then onto paper in repetition; the dirt becomes material. I adore that kind of frugality. It doesn’t have to be a Hollywood production.
EA: You’re also sticking paper to paper – a form of collage, historically a low-cost form of art production (found materials, clippings, newspapers, tape etc)
AW: Yeah true. If we’re gonna use French words then more accurately, it’s découpage. It’s paper that’s been painted, cut up or cut-out, and pasted back to painted or unpainted paper. Découpage as a form is largely unexplored since Henri Matisse re-invented in 1937 and played with it until he died in 1954. My contribution to the form is that I add a fold to the composition.
EA: Don’t talk to me about Matisse.
(Don’t talk to me about Matisse
the European style of 1900, the tradition of the studio
where the nude style woman reclines forever.)
Just kidding, let’s talk about Matisse. Why do you think découpage is largely unexplored?
AW: It boggles my mind. Mostly I think because découpage is found in folk art, first of all. I know modern art history fairly well and I cannot think of more than two artists who have exhibited découpage. Matisse is one. He died in 1954. Some time after that, painting as a whole category, suffered its mythic death in the 1960s. There’s lots of terrain in painting that has been unexplored because the camps that deplore painting still think it’s dead. But that’s all nonsense. Collage – which is concerned with photography mainly – has been used extensively by artists. Photoshop is a collage tool. Collage and photography are ubiquitous. Not that it isn’t interesting; Geoffrey Farmer is doing incredible service to re-understanding collage and its historical shape, for instance. I applaud him. But painting and découpage? Paint can’t be transferred digitally the way a photo can; it’s a weaker form in that sense. And because of that weakness, it is somehow more sensual and joyful to me. I didn’t start considering the differences or thinking about Matisse at all. I painted some paper on both sides because I was thinking about double-surfaces. I had paint and paper. I was studying. That was 2013. I saw the Matisse Cut-outs exhibition at the Tate and MoMA in December. The show will breathe life to the form. There’s lots of work to be done.
EA: I like that you say it’s sensual and joyful to you. I remember the first time we talked about Matisse’s cut-outs, I mentioned that Peter Schjedahl wrote that the show of the works this winter at MoMA “will give you as much aesthetic pleasure as you can stand and then some. When Matisse is at his best, the exquisite frictions of his color, his line, and his pictorial invention—licks of a cat’s tongue—overwhelm perception, at which point enjoyment sputters into awe.”
AW: I was so happy seeing that show. I cried. Twice.
EA: Twice, really?
AW: :””) :”””’)
EA: Tell me more about an artist’s responsibility.
AW: I’ve only recently begun to think about this and I don’t know if responsibility is specific to artists’ because well everyone’s an artist (Beuys). Right?
The planet is in crisis isn’t it? Our first world global lifestyle is consuming our planet and our environment. I’m certainly a part of it. Who isn’t? Each of us has some burden of responsibility to alleviate the pressure. I have two young nephews and a younger niece and I feel a pressure to leave them a better planet. We, the global intelligentsia or the intellectual one percent, I think that we hold more responsibility than most. Having a talent for painting isn’t a ticket to business class and hedonic transcendence. Those kind of pursuits are so unambitious and ultimately so boring. As an intellectual, I’m beginning to understand that a nimble imagination is supreme power; it’s certainly more powerful than physical power and way more profound than financial power. Knowing this, I realize I have a capacity and a responsibility to exercise my talent with integrity. Recently, I do so by painting. Painting may seem like it has no direct effect on reality or society; it may also seem that a painting is pretty thing to hang on a wall. But billionaire’s don’t pay millions of dollars for paintings solely because paintings are unique commodities. They are bought also because as a global culture we assign enormous value to the constellations formed by cultural objects and the narratives they exercise to us. The narratives and politics formed by pictures, literature, storytelling and so on create and re-create our imaginations which creates and recreates the world. It’s subtle over a day but intense over a lifetime.
EA: ‘I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum. / I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero. / I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top.’
Co-editor of Frieze Dan Fox calls the first sentences of Claes Oldenburg’s “I am for an art” a serious exhortation to appreciate life beyond what is cosily called the ‘art world’. He says they should be ceremoniously read aloud at the inauguration of every biennial and carved into a stone tablet and buried in the foundations of every new mega-museum.
AW: I agree. Art, as an energy and source for potential, has nothing to do with the art world; or art doesn’t need the art world, the art world needs art. You know what I mean? In a way that’s the buzz of responsibility: to do the knowledge and recognize your talent. To produce what Tristan Tzara described as “An art more art.”
EA: I like the thought of art not requiring the art world, but without its institutions, exhibitions, market and money, how would artists get paid? While recognizing that the market and funding bodies fail many, some some of economic ecology must exist in order to keep the lucky ones able to continue working.
AW: I hear you. To me, you’re addressing what Northrop Frye calls a “pragmatic reality.” That’s the reality where we pay bills with money, fill up the tank with gas, stop at red lights, vote for the new mayor etc. We all exist there but you’ll never find art there. And if you only live pragmatically sooner or later you realize you’re only a parasite. Art, still in Frye’s terms, resides in another but simultaneous reality. He calls it the reality of the imagination. Within the imagination we can toil for hours and barely be hungry for pragmatism; we can do so because we are contributing and reimagining both realities – the pragmatic and imaginary – at once. Meaning – like art – is a requirement. Food clothing and shelter is a bonus. That may sound dreamy, but it isn’t to me; I guess I’m a dreamer and I’m okay with that. William Blake wrote that “what is now proved, was once only imagined.” Tupac updates Blake on record and raps right: Reality is wrong, Dreams are for real.