I saw Greg Drasler’s work www.drasler.com online and knew I had to chat with him. His work is very cinematic, nostalgic and is really a tribute to old-style coloration. I wanted to find out what inspires and motives him, so I contacted him and here’s our cool chat below.
MICHAEL: Hey Greg. You know, the colors in your paintings seem very retro. Based upon what I've seen on your website, they seem like Technicolor from the 1950s/1960s. Am I right? How do you achieve this?
GREG: Hi Michael, I build paintings with color grounds and glazing. I think of paintings as constructions. I spent some of my formative years as a photographer, but I didn't much like darkrooms. Obviously that is no longer a limitation, but the development process had a big influence on me in many ways. One way is that I loved to watch the image emerge in the development bath. I developed a corresponding way to develop paintings with transparent glazes. This allowed the picture to come up slowly and gave me lots of time to think in the process. This evolved into my understanding of painting in order to see what I am thinking. A nostalgic effect of color appeals to me. It gives a sense of home, grounding, return, rerun or retrofitting while triggering an emotional response. I like to think of myself as working within the familiar as if from the inside out. Color, because of its indefinable and capricious qualities, is a secondary effect; not to say that it doesn't describe, but it builds in the way that I use it. It delimits with emotion, other sensory and conditional effects of an almost sonic environment of depth. Placing the image in a register of time is a reflective act that aims for the drives of desire. I enjoy your recognition of the color effects in my paintings as related to period film-making like Technicolor or color by DeLux. Nostalgia too is an after the fact effect, within an absence, and contains the homeward glance to attachments. I think of color in a general sense as a kind of selective memory update with breadth of capacity. I believe there is a future for nostalgia. It feels like an old consideration of painting after optics, composition, iconography and social space. Color speaks to privacy in its subliminal consequence. Color distracts and attracts in equal measure. It pulls one away from a fixed rational knowledge of what is being depicted and it opens a free associative access to reflective appetite.
MICHAEL: I've just looked again at all of the works on your website and to me, they all have very strong narratives. However, the true narrative seems to be what we don't see on canvas that leads up to ... or even follows the moment you've created. It's very Hollywood.
GREG: Yes, there is a narrative drive implicated in my paintings. Place and evidence, inspired by the vacancy of film sets, with principals waiting or remaining off camera, reflect a speculative action. My interests teeter between containment or place and projection as the delta of implications, packed into a format. The apparatus of film making or the production of the big picture fascinates me in its engineering of the suspension of disbelief - or the buy in. In being concerned with the viewer's occupation in pictures through social conventions, object relations, displacements and social signs, I have worked to unify often disparate elements into a conditional and dimensional unity of parts. Lately it is a vehicle. Of course this is what big studio or Hollywood film making has been doing for almost a century. I find myself working to fold the departmentalized contributions, temporal dynamics and montage effects together, back into paintings. Motivated and inspired by a post-minimalist appetite of the 1970's, pictures, in their production of meaning, empathy and solicitations of viewership held great interest for me. Studying the history of Hollywood film making was not only a revelation in the departmentalized production (an ability to include a compound self), but offered a translation of techniques into the pyrotechnics and capacity for painting. The "less is more" of Miles van der Rohe modernism receded into an additive investment of contextualizing pictures into a state where more is more. I wanted depth, resonance, multiple entries and the tangential readings. The correspondence of these interests with time and itinerary within a picture set the ball in motion. An example: Contemporaneous discussions of identity politics informed with a spirit of updating 19th century painters animating my interest in the allegorical figure during the 1980's. To follow are Baggage Paintings, Cave Paintings, Tattoo Parlors, Hats Paintings and Auto Interiors. These genres in my work are corollaries to the productions of costume dramas, thrillers or domestic dramas in serially working within a framework of the categorical. Finally there is an effort to pull one into the picture, to solicit occupation. Interaction in an era of radical individualism is to build a place that solicits reflection, a moveable site in the case of painting, perceived a bit differently on multiple viewings. Then at other times, I feel like a singer-songwriter, certainly independent.
MICHAEL: I love your paintings that depict the hats for numerous reasons. You could do an entire series on that theme for the rest of your career ... kind of like Jim Dine's robes. Anyway, I love the fact that you give the paintings names that have nothing to do with "hats." Again, it forces people to think beyond the actual works themselves.
GREG: I have been making paintings of crowds of men in hats since the mid 1980's. The first one was titled “Reading a Crowd” which set in motion a projective drive in each subsequent painting an occupation to deliver an extendable continuity in each canvas that reads like a detail of a larger scene. Remembering the time when men wore hats in all seasons for work, play and participation, a legibility of intention and movement adds up differently in each variation. Part weather pattern, part picturing a market, these paintings emerge from the canvas first as a consolation of a legacy remembered, then as the manifestation of accumulated interest, attention and empathy. I resist over-identifying the event drawing the crowds together, intending open interpretation, to allow them to operate as an opportunity for projection. I name them for practical reasons, but mostly to record economically that moment in making when the composition starts to talk back at me. A degree of ambiguity with an all over description and jostling movement satisfies my fascination with connecting the dots, doing the math and reflecting on whether this is a parade, middle management, a market crash, a political rally, the ticket line, a funeral, the circus, a line to get in or a line to get out, etc. Conformity vs. the individual in a man's world instigates a random access scene of motivations.
MICHAEL: You've just touched on something that continues to intrigue me, leaving art open to interpretation. Many people who don't understand art or artists often feel that a single work of art always has ONE non-negotiable message.
GREG: I can't answer that since it is the opposite of my intentions.
MICHAEL: What do you mean?
GREG: I don't believe in the premise nor is it my experience that anyone is looking to an art work for ONE non-negotiable message. Rather than the infinitely variable capacity that art can present for the subjective occupation by an imagination, to begin a discussion or give a response to the lowest form of meaning attached to an artwork, speaks down to the viewership and does a disservice to the opportunity for interpretation that art provides.
As a negotiated reach from inside to out, or visa versa, human expression cannot be reduced to being one message. As language animals, we're constantly striving to squeeze more into and out of our communications, art and literature for greater depth, resonance, significance and value. Art works are probably the most extreme examples of layered meaning. I also don't know anyone who doesn't understand art. It is a human condition of empathy, appreciation and communication. Many people may not understand my art, but the desire for wider capacity and for abilities to communicate are universal expressions of having an imagination. Even tools, signs and symbols are lightly veiled placeholders for our imaginations.
MICHAEL: Whenever everyday people ask me about art, they always do so with this air of intimidation or dismissal. It's usually because they feel (as they tell me) that they have to have an art history degree or be wealthy or "highly cultured" to even discuss art. I always advise them to seek out a personal relationship as a means of opening the door. It's usually a 50/50 proposition.
GREG: You are of course right. My use of the familiar is in part to open this territory of relationship with the image. I can assure the people that you speak to that neither an art history degree, nor wealth nor culture necessarily helps the discussion of an artwork. Self-confidence does. I find most conversations instigated by my work to be completely fascinating and engaging. It is generous to share your thoughts. I have a very active associative mind operating while I am working on a painting. I think of the act of painting as a way of looking at what I am thinking. When viewers can pick up on and relate to these accumulations, I feel very gratified. I tend to feel that the build up of authority, expertise and value around art works is in partial response to the fact that on the most basic level it is just a matter of opening your eyes. Of course there are other factors at play such that the $100 million auction sales must acknowledge. To speak up is to begin or express a desire for a dialog. It is a compliment.
MICHAEL: Don't you also teach at Pratt? Lots of people today, maybe more than ever, are questioning the value or practicality of an arts education. I know this is way old for you, but what do you tell those people?
GREG: I am currently teaching at Pratt. I believe everyone should be encouraged to first pursue a Fine Arts Education. When facing a life's calling, when searching for the interface between individual desire and community, to find and use the elegance of material economy in communication, all within a dialog and studio practice is what an arts education aims to deliver. With respect for history and tradition and an eye toward progress, one is encouraged to collect oneself, find an accommodating voice and see what it has to say. "Lots of people" are intimidated and frightened by the responsibility and demand of their own creativity. Fear of losing control or becoming obsessed can be as much a limiting factor in people’s lives as humiliation can be. Besides the potential for self-fulfilling prophesy, these fears are the fodder for much nervous humor. I think that language making and communication is our species’ unique capacity. It is driven by something compelling to share, something you just have to find a way of saying or getting out. That is the gift. Practicality, as a value, is good for survival. I don't see it addressing the aspirations for meaning, significance or achievement that are my goals for education. Winning and losing deliver a judgment on practical standards, but one winner requires many losers. I think that cost is too high. The study and development of subjectivity, appreciation for multiple perspectives and conversant relativity are the core of an arts education. Obviously they hold social benefits. How can we afford to not encourage this?
MICHAEL: What's your earliest art memory? Also, when did you decide or say that you were going to become a professional artist?
GREG: I was 7 or 8 years old. My father was an architect and bought a small drafting table for me to work on right next to his. I was building something with hammer and nails (I think it was a boat) on my small drafting table when my father came home from the office. He exploded with anger that I had been using hammer and nails on my drafting table. As a punishment, he officially took the table away from me. That is when I realized I was fine with that. I moved my project to the floor and felt somewhat relieved that I didn't have to conform to his expectations. This would be my earliest memory obviously with no concept of what it meant to be a professional artist. I was open to what that could mean. By age 10, I was oil painting and used a corner of the basement as a "studio." At the age of 19, I made another choice that addressed a commitment to being an artist when I dropped out of school rather than continue in a Graphic Design Program. My parents were not willing to fund a Fine Art Degree so I did it myself over time. I made a determining decision in 1983 to move to New York and have a go at it. So far, so good.
MICHAEL: Do you think a completely untalented person can become an artist with hard work? In other words, nature or nurture?
GREG: Most of it is hard work and determination. I don't believe in untalented. Nature nurtures and visa versa. The spark of ignition is that moment when one has an idea. Holding on following and pushing the implications of thinking is the work through determination. One has to have an interest in looking at their own thinking, desire and doubt.
MICHAEL: We're seeing an increasing amount of technological and event-oriented concepts invading contemporary art. How do you think painting will evolve as a result?
GREG: It will evolve in contrast. The infinitely variable range of touch, expression and presence imbedded in the practice of painting that can be accessed without an IT consultant or a party planner will give painting an added value over time. The very singularity of its existence, the readability of human to human making, desire and aspiration has not only inspired the development of photography through optics, narrative in motion pictures, format sensibility in screen culture, but portability of devices as in the portability of paintings. It is a value added vista for painting.
MICHAEL: Interesting. You know Greg, we're living during a time when everyone seems to be chasing wealth, overnight success, fame, etc. We're in this "American Idol" frame of mind. Do you ever talk with students about this and how it relates to the art world?
GREG: These are factors of aspiration in a contemporary mediated life. There is no avoiding desire for wealth, success (overnight or otherwise) and fame as they are implicit promotional promises for creative work regarding history and market share. This can certainly be a burden, a limiting factor in realizing that there is a long way from here to there. We begin to discuss how careers are built and mostly tailor-made by artists for themselves, consciously or not. Living, working and teaching in New York City gives the opportunity of being in potential closer contact with the people in the news, art stars (of the moment) and celebrity dealers. Meeting your idol at an opening, at a party or in a bar often delivers a leveling effect on the perceptions one can have contrary to the mediation of promotional celebrity. Yes, we speak of these intentions and aspirations for acknowledgement in the context of what occurs in the studio. How you're thinking and making relates to similar allusions represented in the world is (can be) motivating. A survey of art magazine covers over the past 30 years is very effective in shedding perspective onto the publications and promotions of the present. When 20-something students don't recognize the featured artists of decades past, it’s a wake-up call to reassess their plans for what comprises a sustaining career. Contrary to the legend of overnight success, interviews with artists, closer looks at their biographies and if possible, a familiarization of their personal motivations, goes a long way to balance the media hype of the "Idol." Manufacturing of a public persona reveals itself as advertising or as a product of entertainment feeding, if not building, a market. Andy Warhol touched so much of this territory so many years ago and indeed it has been consumed by promotional operatives in an international art world. What seems to have been overlooked in his vision is the hollow center that seems almost necessary as a precondition to commodification by a market. The less there is in the center, the wider the potential dispersion. His breaking the spell of the sell is what makes his production such a “Trojan Horse” in the market. I don't know many young artists who aspire to be hollow. The tabloids usually mop up after the "Idols."
MICHAEL: That’s for sure. And so given all that, what do you aim to do for students?
GREG: I work to bring back into focus through these discussions in the studio the necessity of finding a place for oneself as an artist. I believe building, maintaining and continuing to operate in a place, a locale or a conceptual framework that collects and holds an individual artist where the rubber hits the road, with a concentration on the work, as the essential responsibility to creativity. The on-line social networking now available provides connections with artists in dialog around the world. The imagination of the status of "Idol" for artists is not based so much on being a celebrity but in what is imagined as the benefit package that comes with it. No one wants to be hounded by photographers infiltrating private living. But that balance between public and private is a large part of how one figures out how to publicly present their work while maintaining a necessary degree of privacy. The desire to do whatever you want is the conditional freedom of the studio. The bridge from this individual subjectivity to an audience, market or world is a creative construction project that looks for acknowledgement, feedback and relational positioning. Ultimately the examination of individual satisfaction in making as a reward in itself is where the rubber hits the road through self reflection and projection out into the world. I defer to Barbara Kruger - Protect me from what I want.
MICHAEL: Finally Greg, where do you think contemporary art is headed and where do you hope your work will fit?
GREG: Thank you Michael for your attention and patience with my correspondence in this interview. I don't think it is possible to know where contemporary art is headed. That is one of its many pleasures. In this time of radical individualism and rapid technological development, I see a greater interest in the artist's hand in making. Evidenced through the touch, a pulse and the thought process of an artist, I see an advantage in communicating in this interpretive and personal emotional bandwidth. Certainly a heightened appreciation for narrative in all of its speculative and familiar forms has been on the rise. I see this as continuing and am excited by it. An ideology of an avant garde model for the future has morphed into a promotion of the incessant new with limited shelf life and a shadow of obsolescence in its ambition to capture "now." This has served me well as I have focused on what is old, outdated, discarded and abandoned as the basis for retrofitting, displacements, re-purposing and reoccupation. Painting and more specifically, picture making has accommodated me. I believe that painting in particular works one person at a time in engaging inter-subjective correspondence as a moveable site simply through seeing. I also need to live with art for this reason. It requires and illuminates time. It takes me back, stretches me out and inspires reflection and insight. My work is primarily collected by private collectors and enthusiasts who find a place of privacy that they wish to spend time with. I embrace these interests celebrating the future of nostalgia and locality. Everyone comes from somewhere and re-remembering and translating this fulfills aspirations and benefits connections.
MICHAEL: Thanks Greg. Stay in touch!
Check out Greg Drasler’s work at www.drasler.com