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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