August 24, 2012

Bohemian myths and other storytelling: Gretchen Bennett and Matthew Offenbach

Back in July, Gretchen Bennett and Matthew Offenbacher two insightful artists whom I met on my trip to Seattle in May, talked about their ongoing projects and collaborations with artist-critic Amanda Manitach. Here are excerpts from their fascinating conversation, which was originally published in the blog at New American Paintings. Sorry I didn't post this sooner--it's worth a read.

In Matthew Offenbach's studio. Image courtesy of Amanda Manitach/NAP Blog

Amanda Manitach: I want to start off talking about Gretchen’s Windfall Alphabet. How did that come about? You both have practices rooted in painting and drawing, but your projects often diverge from those, in very interesting directions.
Gretchen Bennett: Windfall Alphabet came about when I was on a residency with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council on Governors Island in the fall of 2010. There was an almost hurricane-grade storm there the month after I arrived. The island has a dozen or so tree varieties on it, so when I went outside after the storm there was literally a windfall of twigs on the ground. I had started thinking about Ruskin right before I left Seattle, so I decided to spell the word — to literally make a landscape out of Ruskin’s name. It led to the collection of the whole English alphabet and I think now it’s moving from collection to examining walking as an art practice and the people who have come before me doing that.

 In Bennett's studio. Windfall Alphabet. Image courtesy of Amanda Manitach/NAP Blog

AM: You both seem to have a literary influence on your work. A knack for subtle storytelling.
GB: Interestingly it’s Matt who introduced me to John Ruskin by way of his essay “Green Gothic.” That’s when I started researching him and his writings, particularly his writings on J. W. Turner.
AM: So it has to do with the Romantic?
GB: I think it has to do with looking at Romanticism while not feeling very Romantic! I like the idea of Ruskin and Romanticism, and walking tours in general are really Victorian and Romantic. But they’re also a way of closely observing things. I like Ruskin’s essays on directing you to a walking tour. The Romantic walking tour is an insular experience, yet it can emanate outwards and leads to group participation.

AM: One of the reasons I mentioned storytelling is Matthew’s upcoming show at SOIL Gallery, Decor for Interstellar Flight, which has this elaborate backstory about space travel. Then, Gretchen, you are literally spelling out stories with twigs and your drawings reference pop culture narratives.
Matthew Offenbacher: I love words…in any form really. So I guess that makes sense. It’s funny because I never really think about story. Do you think of story as a component of what you do?
GB: Yeah, I think about narrative all the time and lately I’ve been focusing on private and public and elements of my own personal story and how they intersect with public experience. I mean, I’m just describing an art practice in general right there, but then I have my own specific entry points, and so does Matt.
MO: I think a lot about the power of language to create value of many kinds. I’ve tried to write fiction before and failed, and I think I associate storytelling with that ability to spin a yarn, which is something I’m terrible at, even at a dinner conversation. A fact to which Gretchen can attest.
GB: That’s not true!
MO: When I tell a story it just meanders and then twenty minutes later people are like, wait, what’s the point? 
AM: That is a kind of storytelling!
GB: I think that brings up a beautiful point, that there are different kinds of storytelling.

AM: Another thing you both do very effectively is interweave public engagement in your practices. You engage people through publications, you take them on walks. How did you get started publishing Norda? Was that an extension of your painting practice in any way?
MO: It was a way to connect to the community. I’d only been here a few years (I moved from San Diego in 2008), and my understanding of the artists here and what they were working on was still evolving. At the time I was thinking of painting shows as installations and giving a lot of thought to the supporting materials, written things like press releases and statements. The zine came out of this desire to create community as well as a consideration of how powerful words can be when used to talk about artwork. It was an attempt to take some of the power from people who traditionally have that role, like art critics and dealers, and put it back in artists’ hands.

AM: You also have made things like the Ke$ha broadsheet that you’ve included in your shows. Do you consider that an artwork or a supplementary object? Or is that line blurred?
MO: That line did get blurred really quickly because I think of the aesthetic of the publications, the layout, the design, in the same way I think about paintings.
GB: I think writing allows things to come into focus, helps them come into being. I was just reading this essay by Jeff Wall that discusses how the written description of a work is the one enduring thing. It is the remains of the art.
AM: Like a witness.
GB: And I like the idea of not having to say what a narrative is. Maybe as you explore a format you can help push it forward.

AM: Matt, what are you working on right now?
MO: They are paintings made on paper glued onto styrofoam. They have to do with science fiction novels. I’ve loved sci-fi since I was a teenager, even though it’s embarrassing to admit because they’re so often kind of pulpy and not great literature. I like the abstract aspect of science fiction, how it takes current day circumstances and projects them forward. It makes you think differently about the present. So lately I’m trying to not be ashamed of my science fiction love and embrace it. I recently read this trilogy about the colonization of Mars that includes long passages about the voyage from here to there and what that would actually be like to experience. I’ve been thinking about the conditions onboard a spaceship that would have to travel a long distance, especially the decorative problems that that poses. The important stuff!
GB: This relates to your depictions of flowers, which are usually the decorative element of an exhibit, but you make them the exhibition.
MO: I hadn’t thought of that, but yeah, I’m always super interested in the decorative things that are nearby but aren’t considered art. So I’ve been thinking about the conditions aboard a spaceship and then making paintings that would be successful in that context. I realized early on this is a great metaphor for the white cube gallery space: it’s a funny way to talk about the social and physical isolation that can exist in a space like that.
AM: Maybe you’ll get a commission from NASA!
MO:  Apparently people go a little crazy in those environments without natural cues of time passing. So these paintings are calendar paintings, a sampling of what would be a year’s worth of paintings, one painting for each day of the year. The astronauts would take down a painting every day and put up a new one, and the colors and textures would gradually shift over the course of a year to cue seasonal changes. And they’re on styrofoam, so they’re super light, because it’s expensive to get things out of the earth’s gravity….
GB: Wait, you said you’re not a storyteller!
MO: That was a super-meandering story! And the other thing that ties in is bohemianism and bohemia. It’s an interest in the Romantic that I think Gretchen and I share, this romantic notion of what artists do and how they live. One of the myths about artists is that they’re surrounded by beautiful, ornamented things....

AM: Gretchen, is there anything you’re working on besides Windfall?
 GB: I’ve been thinking a lot about the color grey. The formal aspects of it seem to have more credence for me now than they ever have. I think about Jasper Johns and how all these colors in Matt’s studio you can find in Jasper Johns’ greys. Johannes Itten calls grey the vampire of colors. It sucks in all the other colors. I don’t really know where I’m going with this except I’ve been thinking about grey, and in that context I’m working on a suite of drawings in my studio: their particular narrative is their greyness, otherwise there’s a little Cobain in there, there’s a little Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, there’s a bit of the TV show The Killing. So it’s kind of like a field guide in a way.

 Drawings from The Killing on Bennett's studio wall.

See more pictures and read the entire conversation here.

Related posts:

Seattle studio visits: Arnold, Molenkamp, Offenbacher (May 2012)
Gretchen Bennett's love letters to Kurt Cobain in Seattle(April 2008)


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