One can’t help getting caught up in your designs, your stories —the visual tangle of thoughts is at times terrifying. There’s a link, too, to Outsider Art with your brand of compulsiveness — the inner rollercoaster, a descent downward perhaps, but also inward.
I do feel those feelings, but by discarding much of what I learned in art school, I began to consider the mental mechanics of creativity — the struggle for dominance between the conscious and unconscious.
In your early pieces, you covered objects with lead: children’s chairs, tricycles, a dissecting table. A series of small, dark paintings of angels, people carrying off dead friends and relatives were all sober, all black and white, each loaded with a narrative of death and survival.
Most were made in the late 1980s at the University of Texas graduate school. I’d read a lot about the concentration camps and then visited Oświęcim, where Auschwitz and Birkenau were located. The Holocaust permeated my work at that time.
I was taken by the child’s ballet slipper, a pillow that looked like someone had slept on it, an isolated arm — all intimately sculpted from white marble. I found some white marble tombstone blanks in East Austin in 1989 and just dove into this beautiful, luminous material. Eventually, though, carving marble became too time consuming, the work too fragile. It was then I started the first quick and simple collages to gain back spontaneity, to work through ideas in a more direct way.
In the film, a collector cites your collage — a pair of two of hearts playing cards mirroring each other, citing their poetry, their symmetry.
That was made when I first met my wife, Mary — a love note to her.
How did you go from the light poetic pieces — tea- stained cloud and graphite flower collages to the large organized riots of color and narrative in your current work?
It happened over an 18-year period. The work evolved gradually with a couple of breakthroughs, but mostly the changes happened in doing the work.
Which artists influenced you along the way, and what was it about collage that stirred you?
I read about Egon Schiele when I was about 11; my mother had art books around the house, and years ago I discovered Hannah Hoch; importantly, too, I discovered the quilts from Gees Bend.
The African American women’s quilt-making collective from Gees Bend, Alabama…
Yes. These ladies prized innovation, amazing palettes and geometric compositions. Plus, art based on utility is very appealing to me.
I know from the film that the suicide of your father had a very powerful impact on you— and your work.
Well, that was the source of the angst…I spun out mentally over the first three years, then periodically into the present. Insomnia, physical pain, panic attacks, two psychotic episodes, suicidal thinking — a rough ride.
Yet, your control of the chaos is dizzying. “Window Study,” 2017, is a precise and exquisite study in illusion. “Sunday Painter,” 2017, is a kind of right brain/left brain see-saw. One can’t help but see the works as metaphors for the conscious and unconscious mind…
I follow color, line and perspective to create movement within the composition. The expressionistic qualities arrive on a different train — not the conscious mind. With the collages, I’m driven by what’s at hand — so the windows allowed me to play with the illusion of depth, gravity and vertigo. Themes come through the cutting — that’s 95 per cent of the work. Then I try to coax the evolution along. The works sort of detach themselves from me… and become kind of a dream within a dream.
Interview by Matthew Rose for Blouin Modern Painters
This article appears in the November 2017 edition of Modern Painters.