In December I posted Part 1: Where is Joshua Abelow, and readers may recall that Abelow, painter and editor of ART BLOG ART BLOG, currently has an exhibition at Dan Devening Projects & Editions in Chicago. Here is Part 2 of our conversation, which includes edited excerpts from a rambling discussion we had about painting and process.
Butler: Your work is often about the art world. When you opened ART BLOG ART BLOG ( the gallery), did looking at the art world from a different perspective generate new material? Your earlier work seemed to be about “The Powerless Artist,” but you’re not really a powerless artist anymore…
Abelow: I guess a lot of my work, the crux of it, came out of frustration, not necessarily with the art world, but with my own work. I used make hundreds of paintings and destroy them all because I disliked them so much. I don’t know what my work is about now. I don’t think of myself as a powerless artist but there are still levels of frustration about success. I never thought of my work as being about powerlessness, but more about frustration.
The themes in my work haven’t changed dramatically. They will evolve and morph and twist, if anything I’ll poke fun at myself for having any level of success. For me it’s about the routine of art making. The daily practice of being an artist—whether in the studio, going to other artists’ studios, going to shows—I’m interested in how it all connects. Doing the blog is interesting because I get to steal other people’s images and combine them any way I want.
Butler: Talk a little bit about your process.
Abelow: I make paintings and drawings, and the relationship is important—they fight with each other. My work has always had elements of text, the figure, and geometric abstraction in varying degrees. I have some paintings that are purely geometric, some are just text-based, some are just figurative, and some incorporate all three. Most of what I do comes out of a systematic investigation of color. I write notes and then I follow the instructions. (See Part 1 for images of Abelow’s instructions in his sketchbooks.) I’ll work on twenty, thirty, or forty paintings all at once. Sometimes I follow the instructions, and sometimes I veer in a different direction that leads to sets of rules for new paintings. The rules have to do with how I mix and apply color. If an image appears, it is a response to the color in the moment–but sometimes the idea for an image is preplanned. Certain types of paintings, like the cell phone paintings, are determined in advance.
It’s an endless game. It could start with something like cadmium yellow medium, mixed with iridescent white, mixed with silver, and I’ll write notes about how the paint should be applied and layered. When I first started painting this way, it was all trial and error. I would do the steps spontaneously, and record the results after the fact. Now it’s evolved into a process to develop color alphabets. It’s like creating a language. I’ve created sets of alphabets and now I’m creating words and sentences using the alphabets.
Butler: But your work seems so spontaneous.
Abelow: It’s deceptive. It’s like cataloging a spontaneous process. The paintings are planned, but the drawings are spontaneous and come out of self-portraiture, a critique of the heroic male artist character. I take imagery and ideas from other artists and insert myself in situations with them. I’m drawn to nostalgic and glamor imagery from the 1950s. I’ll juxtapose a crude, ill-behaved character with one who’s more glamorous and civilized. In the same way, using the rules sets up a tension between something that is planned and something that is out of my control. I set up rules and expectations and then undermine them. Kick out the legs.
Butler: Let’s talk about scale. You work fairly small. Why?
Abelow: I used to work larger but I got sick of it. I ran out of space. But also the nature of my work shifted. Everything became more specific, the needs of the paintings shifted. My work is more about production. My studio is like a one-man factory of activity–instead of making one large painting I try to set up visual rhythms by arranging small work on the wall. I also like that small paintings are more intimate, like buying a book or a record. I have very little stuff—I don’t like accumulating things. In general I feel like I see ego, not thoughtfulness, when I look at large paintings. I’d rather look at something thoughtful than something large and flashy. Nowadays there are so many prominent painters who work at small scale, like say, Tomma Abts, that critics aren’t as dismissive.
Butler: Do you see your paintings as humorous?
Abelow: I try to get at dark themes in a humorous way. Again, it’s about having multiple levels of entry. If someone laughs, that’s fantastic because that’s a response. Humor is one way to get at something, even if it’s not laugh-out-loud funny. Yes, I see my work as funny and I’m absolutely amusing myself as I make it. The text usually comes out of real life experiences I’ve had.
Butler: Are you more drawn to painters who are interested in process than painters who have a more conceptual approach?
Abelow: I’m most interested in artwork that blurs all the boundaries, that takes a while to get a handle on. You think you know what’s happening, but you’re never quite sure, and you’re always seeing new meaning. I like B. Wurtz. I like work that’s economical and unpretentious. Someone like Martin Creed is fantastic. The way he approaches his practice is really interesting because anything can be art. If it looks like art it’s probably not art.
Butler: Do you have any advice for young artists?
Abelow: Don’t underestimate the power of the Internet!
“Joshua Abelow: Songs from a Room,” Dan Devening Projects & Editions, Chicago, IL. Through March 3, 2012.
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