Contributed by Sangram Majumdar / I have known Gideon Bok’s paintings from before I knew Gideon. Like many of his musical idols, he has an unusual cult following that eagerly awaits the twists and turns in his work, which manages to maintain a thematic focus while, at the same time, finding new territory to explore. His latest exhibition, “Blackstar,” at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, precipitated a conversation about how his process, raising kids, extended looking, and the closeness of death have changed his work.
Sangram Majumdar: These new paintings have a strong connection to your prior body of work. They continue the conversation between the motif of an inhabited interior and a sense of protracted time. But something feels markedly different.
Gideon Bok: Lately, the biggest impact on my paintings has been having kids. I can’t spend all day and night in the studio making paintings anymore, so if I do get some time in the studio I have to be really efficient with the time. It can sometimes help to have clear goals for that time. I could just use a couple of hours of studio time to mix a specific color and scumble it over and then look at how it changes the space and light. Being out of the studio so much might also be making me more objective about the work. I’m not sure about that. It’s a confusing time. During this pandemic situation I’ve been with the girls a lot, so mostly when I do go to the studio I just look at the paintings.
SM: Hearing that, I wonder if you think your fragmented and episodic approach to image making and space building strangely fits the reality of your lived life right now.
GB: Definitely! The diptych Portrait of Ada/Portrait of Helen, 2020 in the show was one solution to that problem, because I used it as an excuse to get some painting done while hanging out with the girls. The left panel is a portrait of my older daughter Ada (9 years old) and the right is of Helen (6.) During those sittings I would record them and paint them in the paintings as they sat and made drawings and paintings at their desk in the studio. The girls were very wiggly so they are not very well defined. Ada is wearing her Cheetah outfit and Helen has her signature blue and white striped dress and bog boots. If you listen to the different sound pieces you get a pretty clear sense of their personalities.
SM: You’ve used the word ‘shimmering’ a few times in referring to the recent changes in your approach to color. What’s that about?
GB: I think when I used that term “shimmer” I might have been thinking of the way that a neutral color (the grey of a white wall in shadow or a brown wall or floor) shimmers with all kinds of conflicting colors. When I was a kid and saw this I thought I was seeing molecules of air, then later thought it was photons exploding in color as they hit a surface. It’s really beautiful and thinking about color can make staring at a ‘white’ wall for a long time really fun. The trouble is that it’s hard to translate that into oil paint when working literally.
SM: You and your partner, Meghan Brady are both painters. How has that affected your work?
GB: I steal from Meghan every chance I get, and always have. Ever since I first met her she has been my favorite painter and I”m consistently baffled and amazed by what she does. For a long time I’ve wanted to get her energy into my work, especially the color, but have felt constrained by the need to paint the color I see in the space.
After the women’s march of 2017 I stole Meghan’s sign that she made for the march, which had some of her signature colors of neon pink, bright blues and orange. I love the colors and the spirit of the sign, which depicts the classical feminist fist and the words ‘sisterhood is powerful’. I put the sign in my studio and include it in the paintings. Its fluorescent colors forced me to figure out ways to get the more neutral colors to come up in some way to the colors of the sign.
SM: The fist sign also makes me notice how other similar sized forms like windows, heads, and album covers feel like ‘signs’ in space. It creates a kind of displacement but also a frontality that negates the depicted interior.
GB: YES! I’m so happy to hear you say that. That’s something that intrigues me, too.
One of the moments from grad school that sticks with me is when Frances Barth, who just consistently blew my mind open every time she talked to me, was critiquing my new stuff I was working on. I had a moment of pure Cadmium Red in the painting and she was explaining that pure hued color jumps up to the surface of the painting and does not sit in the space of the painting because it’s unmediated by other pigments. I think about that a lot, and how so much of the time I was working in a fenestral way of looking at the paintings, making it so that everything receded into this unified color world. But in the past bunch of years I’ve noticed that the painters I’m most interested in, like Meghan, and like Nicole Eisenman, Dana Schutz, Matt Phillips, use color that comes up to the surface and jumps out of the space of the painting, so that the painting inhabits sculptural space rather than “painting space.” By “sculptural space” I mean the painting inhabits and impacts the space that the viewer is in rather than inviting the viewer to inhabit its illusionistic space.
SM: And within this “sculptural space” there’s also the shifting figures and forms that animate what would otherwise be a fairly still interior. The very nature of ‘change’ seems incredibly important in your work.
GB: I do like change, and I also hate it. Changing the figures as they moved gave me the freedom to push the painting more than I was inclined to, because I suffered from the inability to revise something I liked. Setting the rule for myself that if the sitter or person moved, or moved something in the studio, or even if the light changed, the painting had to change in relation to it. This loosened things up and allowed me to discover stuff about the painting and about the materiality of oil paint I wouldn’t have otherwise.
SM: Is this in any way related to the audio piece in your current exhibition?
GB: I’ve always been obsessed with recording and overdubbing tracks of music and sound. With the sound piece I wanted it to sound like the hubbub of a party or a large crowd of people, but that it was a party of all one person’s voice; also that you just heard the overall sound of specific voices but could not pick out any linear conversation. I like listening to these pieces as they are at this point, because there are some parts that get really chaotic and then other parts where a nice phrase or moment of conversation jumps out of the chaos. I didn’t manipulate the recordings in any way, although it was tempting to boost sections that I particularly liked.
SM: And yet, stillness also seems to play an important role in the studio, especially when you bring up the importance of sitting with a painting.
GB: Bailey always said that a lot of the act of painting was sitting and looking at the painting. John Hull used to call this ‘watching’ the painting, which I also like. It really changes the role of a painting from a still object to a time-based medium in a fun way. I also think about the way Stanley Lewis talks about how paintings transform as you look at them.
SM: Why did you choose Blackstar as the title for your show?
GB: Blackstar is the title of David Bowie’s last record, which came out I think two days before he died. Basically these paintings were made during the time between when Bowie died and now, about four years, which also coincides with the Trump presidency. It’s a term that refers to a particular type of cancer cell, I think, which is partially what Bowie was referring to, but also seems to imply that there is a black star over the world that affects us. I don’t necessarily believe that sidereal events affect our lives, although I don’t rule it out, but it just seems like bad news and events have really cascaded at a pretty shocking pace ever since Bowie died, and it’s hard not to notice patterns.
After he died there just seemed an endless stream of deaths of similar heroes of mine, Umberto Eco, Prince, as well as people whom I knew well and felt supported by, such as William Bailey. When a parent or mentor like this dies it tends to unmoor you, and makes you realize that these people out there were providing an anchor for you in some way, and now you’re adrift.
“Gideon Bok: Blackstar,” Steven Harvey Fine Arts Project, 208 Forsyth Street, New York, NY. Through October 25, 2020.
About the author: Born in Kolkata, India, Sangram Majumdar is a Professor of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art.