Interview with Elizabeth Youmans for SVPN Magazine Ketchum, ID for the March exhibition at Gilman Contemporary
Do you primarily work with paint and collage? What about these media inspire you?
I am a paper person. Some people love wood or fabric or metal or clay, etc. I love paper and ink or paint or pencil on it and the patina of use and surface and stains and repairs. As a person interested in paper this would also lead to all things related to paper like a fascination with libraries and archives, documents, postage and correspondence, books, posters, language, organization, files and systems and the architecture and infrastructure built for things related to paper. However, I am a visual artist, so I am also interested in studios and galleries, museums, collectors and collections, art objects, ideas, color, composition and form. Combining all of these things together you have the practice of collage which then grows into a process for creating studies for larger scaled paintings. So my own little world is a complex one for which there are not enough hours in the day.
· What about your current work is different from your previous work? L’Anne Gilman said she found your paintings more “lyrical” than those she had in the 2008 show of your works.
A lot has transpired over those eight years artistically between then and now. I would conclude that the main difference between then and now is 8 years of deepening in the ideas that were emerging at that time and a continuous striving to explore the breadth of this idea of Typographic Abstraction. During this time there has been an explosion of interest in text related art such as asemic writing, book arts and a resurgence in concrete or visual poetry as well as Fluxus, collage art and photo montage all of which are related to my work in general. I am a participant and even an instigator in many of the different groups of artists and poets working in these areas and collect and curate exhibitions in these areas of interest.
In relation to the term ‘lyrical’, that has a wide range of possible interpretations so far as works of art are concerned. This could conjure up the idea of being deeply impassioned or even rhapsodic. I tend to be fairly logical and methodical. I don’t depend on ‘inspiration’ but I take advantage of it when it descends upon me. Then there is the backdrop of the wide ranging styles of Lyrical Abstraction. I will pin things down a bit for myself by switching the conversation over to the term ‘musicality’ and yes, I would say there is a lot of musicality evident in my work as an artist. To compose works of art by the principles of both music and poetry are certainly of great interest to me personally. My ideas in this regard span all the way back to my earliest beginnings. Once I had mastered drawing skills to the point that I felt confident to translate anything I saw before me into marks, I quickly decided that what I really wanted to draw were things I could not see and music seemed the perfect challenge. For some years I tried to figure out how to ‘translate’ music into visual expression but eventually I concluded that the best thing was to make works according to the principles of music such as repetition, development, rhythm, theme, melody, motif, etc. The idea is to give the eye a way to experience a painting or other work of art in a dynamic, musical way, like we hear a symphony. I usually think of modernist and contemporary classical music starting, I would say, with Stravinsky and on up through the minimalists like Phillip Glass or Steve Reich or John Adams. I hear ideas and then I see what I can do as a visual artist to create something visually akin to that idea. Since that idea is of interest to me I have a tendency to arrange even my collages with a sense of the musical or poetic. However, though I use bits of letters as the building blocks of many of my compositions, there is no reference to the representational nature of letters and words. They are reduced to abstraction, to their physical nature as forms with the intention of short circuiting any reference to the literary value of them. Still, the fact that I am using letters, which refers to language and to linguistic systems of communication, also suggests that I am contemplating and commenting on these things; things such as consciousness and knowledge and possibly the Sublime – that, about which, there are no words or possibility of adequate description.
· Please provide some background. When did you decide to become an artist? Why?
I would say that I am a natural born artist. I never had a different intention than to become an artist. It was really just the difficulty as a youth to understand that I was an artist within myself, figure out what that meant, become confident in that knowledge and then navigate a bee-line to that lifestyle and figure out how to make it sustainable from an economic point of view. I did not suffer from the kind of confusion that a lot of young people do when it is not completely clear to them what their path is in life. In most other occupations the trail, once you find it, is well laid out and fairly clear such as being a plumber or a lawyer or a nurse, etc.
An artist – for whom creativity is a given – doesn’t ask WHY he is an artist, it is more a question of how to become an artist. An artist needs to grasp the idea of being an entrepreneur and/or a capitalist as opposed to an employee or a laborer which is a totally different mindset. As a capitalist, an artist produces intellectual property, if that intellectual property is then converted into objects such as paintings or music, etc. that are then offered on a market then that is production and distribution. Most artists, as capitalists, exploit themselves as their own laborers, producing their own artworks. Artists then take their goods to market so to speak when they place the works in a gallery for sale. So that is what I mean by making one’s work economically sustainable (as opposed to go get a job as a teacher or whatever).
This part of figuring things out, so that I might work full time as an artist, I did mostly in my late 20’s and early 30’s. Without a foundation in business it is hard for an artist to figure it out especially, in the world of art, where the rules are somewhat different than selling a typical commodity like, let’s say, a million boxes of cereal. In the Art World the elements of business are subdued in favor of the generally luxurious and leisurely nature of art as a subculture by artists, spectators and collectors alike. In my own case working at other occupations, which I had to do early on, was torturous. It is so difficult to go work at some other occupation in which you have no interest, attend to family, friends and the duties of daily life and still have time and energy to pursue one’s artistic vision. Any artist will attest to the great burden of this split in one’s attention and purpose.
Once I had tentatively achieved a foothold on the possibility of working in my studio as a full time occupation it then became important to establish certain habits and boundaries. My approach was to think of what I did as a business, as a manufacturer of unique objects. I set up and worked in my private studio my ‘manufacturing facility’ where I could spend as much of my day as possible – during ‘normal’ working hours – making art. In this quest one of the things an artist has to figure out is how to separate the creative practice from the business practice and still have one inform the other when needed. A balance has to be struck. There is a tension for an artist between staying true to one’s artistic impulses and making a living. Your studio has to be an artistic sanctuary but when out of the studio you are a sales representative of the body of art. It is best if those two sides of yourself are separate yet good and trusted friends.
· Describe your journey as an artist. In what ways have you grown, changed? How is this reflected in your work?
From 1977 through 1983 I worked on the idea of musicality related to Kandinsky’s ideas in large part. I studied in college beginning in 1974 fresh out of high school but since I saw no use for having a degree, which you only need if you are planning to get a job, I saw college as a facility to be taken advantage of for equipment use and studio space that I could not possibly afford on my own and by the way, instruction in technique when I felt that my skills were inadequate for what I wanted to do next. So I enrolled in college at various times in the 1980’s and 1990’s for this purpose and did not actually finish a degree until 2009 which I felt inspired to do since my children were close to finishing their college degrees.
While I had made a number of collages in college it did not become a serious medium for me until 1983. At first I was going to use collage as a form of visual journal and I made what seemed at the time an ambitious plan to make a series of 500 collages. I set my permissions in a very broad way intending to explore whatever came to me as I went along, circle back around if I wanted to, go far afield if that was which way the wind was blowing but mostly to just experiment and see what happened. I got to 500 after several years but by then I was well set on my trail and so I just kept on going making on average, over the years, about one collage roughly every other day. While I continue to experiment, I have identified several major trajectories most of which I continue to explore with the typographic abstraction style being one of the major veins at this time. I see this series of collages called the Fusion Series as my main body of work.
From the beginning I made collages from found materials in the tradition of Kurt Schwitters. I would find the material on the street, at a flea market, in an antique shop, tear posters off of walls in Paris or Berlin or central Mexico, gather material from bill boards when it fell from the sign after a strong rain in Texas. I have a massive collection of materials to potentially use. But on a few occasions, especially after I started making the typographic based collages, I would make a few collages from a certain material and then not be able to get more and could not continue to make variations on those works. At a certain moment when contemplating the unfortunate problem of not being able to get more protest posters I had found on the streets of Paris that made some especially wonderful collages; I thought to myself; “This is all just printed matter after all, why not make my own version of this poster?” and that is what I did and this brought stability to certain aspects of my production. I figured out how to identify the typeface, how to create the abused patina on the paper, and pretty soon I had a new, endless source of potential material. I could design material at various scales and in various fonts and colors according to my needs.
Somewhere along the trail, back in the latter part of the 1980’s I began to think of the collages as possible studies for paintings and eventually I came to see them in a Fluxus way as being ‘event scores’, to see the collages as visual instructions for larger scaled paintings like a recipe. Virtually all of my paintings are performances of one of the collages and sometimes I may perform the same score multiple times, making new unique paintings based on the same collage composition. I might alter or refine the composition, change the colors, experiment with the surface treatment, change the size or proportion, there are a multitude of possibilities just as with a musical performance of a score. Every performance is unique and has its own character.
What has been most rewarding/challenging about being an artist?
The most rewarding and challenging element is the ability to maintain a sustained practice, to be able to work every day, all day and be completely saturated in what I am doing. Because of this an artist can go very deeply into one’s work because it is continuous and uninterrupted.
A studio practice is a lonely and isolated business where long hours are spent in solitude however it has also been very rewarding to have my wife Rosalia work with me in the studio. We have been married for more than 25 years and spent nearly all of those days together. She did not start out as an artist but she learned techniques from me and studied art history and art restoration in central Mexico and this has enabled her to work on much of the preparatory elements of my paintings, the kind of things that would allow me to spend as much time as possible on the creative part of being an artist. It can be demoralizing to do every task in the studio by one’s self because making works of art is a slow, demanding process. If you have a partner that you love and enjoy spending time with and who can lighten the work load and be a sounding board for ideas, it can encourage an artist to strive toward a higher plateau.
Over the years Rosalia has been finding her voice as an artist and works on her own art work as well. In the last few years our daughter Noor-in-Nisa has learned much of the process and we are able to sometimes work as a whole team in the studio. She also makes art, studies photography and is now in college studying documentary film. My older son Zach also works in the arts as an actor, painter, screen writer, composer and performer in Los Angeles and is in the process of opening a gallery there. So, all of this is deeply rewarding for me.
What do you hope visitors to the Gilman Gallery will experience or take away from this exhibit?
That is a difficult question to have any sort of definitive answer for. I hope of course some of the visitors take away the paintings to their homes, that is what they are there for – to bring joy, to be loved and cherished on a daily basis. I try to make each work something that I myself can love and enjoy in my own environment, possibly for a lifetime. I hope that these collectors will derive as much sustained pleasure from the works as I do. I anticipate that there are different kinds of visitors to an art exhibition. Most often the visitors are other artists. My hope is that these artist visitors, at least those who have an interest in my work will be intrigued and feel that their time viewing them was well spent. Art is really a conversation among artists across generations. The artworks stand outside of time in many ways and are brand new on every occasion that they are experienced for the first time. So my works are in conversation with other works either from the past or present or anticipate conversations in the future with other artists. The more rich a person’s knowledge of art history, the more clearly they will hear the conversation.
· In what ways does art enhance/enrich people’s lives?
A life that includes the arts is a life style choice, it is a discipline, it is a pursuit that goes on through one’s lifetime that can never be exhausted. It is one thing the pursuit of happiness but another thing the pursuit of the enjoyment of the excellent and the elegant. Art is deeply personal and, when thoughtfully collected, helps one flesh out one’s inner life. Art encourages awareness of one’s surroundings and subtlety and richness of thought. A person’s own mind is their greatest treasure trove. It is where we find and collect together what is most precious to us, our memories, our insights, hopes and dreams – our awareness of ourselves and everything around us. Art. music, poetry and theater are the physical expressions of those things.
· Oscar Wilde said “Art is the most intense form of individualism that the world has known.” Do you agree with that statement? What is your interpretation of that statement?
This is a quote from Oscar Wilde’s essay called: “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” where Wilde is arguing a point about a Libertarian Socialist individualism and is discussing the idea that an artist, because he makes a work of art for his own individual purposes, for his own personal artistic development without regard of doing a thing according to someone else’s desires but rather to fulfil his own vision, makes the practice of art ‘the most intense form of individualism’ as compared to let’s say a commercial artist who is working for a client or a hack artist whether a painter, a writer, etc. who is working to satisfy the low expectations of the general public such as, in many places, making ‘tourist art’. Yes, I would say there is some truth to it and he makes an interesting argument. There are many quotable thoughts in that delightful essay. Art very well may be the ‘most intense form of individualism’ in western culture or civilization. But I am not sure how many artists avail themselves to the intensity of that individualism or how individuated most strive for or become. If each creator of artistic expression truly became an imaginal world unto themselves, pretty soon no one would be able to communicate with each other or understand each other. So there has to be some common ground. In the early part of the 20th century artists tended to work in association with each other along with architects and engineers, publishers. poets etc. with a revolutionary fervor to recreate the artistic culture and the world generally, inspired by political thought and scientific inquiry not unlike the ideas expressed by Wilde in this 1891 essay.
· Whom do you consider to be an influence on you and your art?
I look to the entire milieu of the modernist/post-modernist era. I am always looking for the keys, exploring the root ideas that have motivated the last century of work that has been taking place. Most of what has happened, most of the driving force may not have even been truly articulated yet. I remember hearing a line in a movie where a teenage girl said something like; “Nobody talks about the things that everybody knows.” I thought that was an incredibly insightful line of dialog from the script writer. I think in different periods artists have an intuitive understanding of certain things that are ‘in the air’ that they express in their art and which seem a given to them at the time but become an enigma later possibly even to themselves. There is often an unspoken element especially in visual art which is made more by intuitive reasoning than by logical progression and these are the things I am often looking for in the artworks of my predecessors. It is something like looking at the flames of a fire not the logs that are burning.
Now that we have the internet, it becomes clear that there is such vastness to the world of art and so many participants that have produced so much amazing work it is hard to boil down a list of influential artists other than to say everybody! Human activity over the last 100 years and our ability to be aware of it has been at a scale that has no comparison in the past. We are living in a creative deluge of epic proportion that future generations will no doubt be mystified by.
· From what do you derive your inspiration?
I might say that a spirit of urgency inspires me; to not let time escape without having captured the evidence of it in work: carpe diem, tempus fugit. Meanwhile there is the idea of spending all the time needed to contemplate ideas and work out things in leisure, to not be hurried. So my attitude is that: ‘There is all the time in the world but none to waste.”
· What are your artistic goals?
I have an old metal sign that I really like that says merely; CONTINUE in Spanish. In art there may be short term goals here and there but I think for most artists the goal is just to keep going like an explorer. I am not sure there is any ultimate goal in art that doesn’t turn out to be a mirage by the time you get to it so making the most out of your journey at any given moment, that is probably the best that can be done.
· You create visual poetry and abstract poetry. What about words is particularly intriguing to you?
The most intriguing thing I would say is language as a technology. Language remains one of the greatest mysteries of science. No one can figure out how it is that humans developed complex communication skills. Most of us never think about it. In a certain way, we can’t think about language without standing on a linguistic platform. We have to use words to think about words. I noticed this problem as a teenager. I used to spend the summers with my grandparents. My grandfather always encouraged me to ‘read’ the dictionary as a book not merely as a reference. I often would do that as a pastime just for fun. Soon, when thinking about it, I realized that I could not understand the meaning of any word except though other words and that if you did not have some feeling of familiarity or knowledge of a word that was being used as a descriptor then you were no closer to understanding the word you were trying to understand. So it takes whole clusters of words to support the meaning of any word and many samples of the use of that word in practice before you can understand its meaning enough to have practical use of it. So language is circular in nature and completely hermetic. As a system it can’t escape itself. Our mind however can experience things outside of language. Upon close observance of one’s mind almost everything we experience is outside of language. We create language to interpret the world around us. Most of what we experience no one has yet invented words for or ways of describing those experiences so they remain in a kind of private, wordless darkness. I think this is a part of the message in my work with language; to point at that place from which words take form or dissolve back into the unspoken, the indescribable.