TB-Do you remember one of more moments of crossing the threshold, and realizing what was out there, and not the Bronx? Was it going to Manhattan, or was it something else- a person, an experience you had?
GG-I think I had to leave to really see it first hand. I think it was when I got older and I started to spend more time around people strange to me. I saw some of the things inside me which hadn’t been allowed to manifest…music was one. Art too- no one in my neighborhood was doing music or art. But there was one kid down the block, who I am still friends with, who was a musician. He had an influence on me, even though he was younger. He went with me to get my first Yamaha guitar and we used to write songs and make music together. Now I own about 16 guitars, which all began with my friend David Gonzalez from White Plains Road…a dear friend and inspiration. My baseball and handball coaches at Monroe High School had some influence on me… we weren’t close, but they inspired me to believe I could be something. And some teachers thought I had half a brain. I was in the honors class. Everything is defined within context, and in my context I was one of the smarter kids. I was led to think that I’d be OK. At a certain point I knew I wasn’t going to stay where I was. It was a sense inside of me, not a sudden realization. I stayed in the city and went to Queens College, then I left college- I dropped out, and that was when a lot of stuff opened up. I started traveling through the states and by myself for 1 ½ years, meeting a lot of new people. I was lost, but looking. That was a wild time in my life, and that’s when art became my lifeline- I started to do art, wanted to study art, thought that this might be something I might be able to do. Later I met my wife, who encouraged me to finish school.
TB-You speak of your family often with devotion. How do your family members see your artistic activity?
GG-Well, they see it as necessary. They see it as meaningful. They don’t see it much day-to-day, they just see results here and there. They don’t really come through the studio, but they believe in me. And that is important to me. I never feel like the family is suffering because I’m an artist- which is probably something I wouldn’t be able to really accept. As my son gets older I think there will be more conversations to be had. But he’s the kind of kid who takes things in- like me maybe – he doesn’t put a lot of words to things but when he does he tries be direct and sincere. I’ll see what conversations happen. Lori is just a big supporter and always has been. She thinks I make special things that are valuable. She is unquestionably biased.
TB-I know you have made 3-D objects off and on. How has this been for you?
GG-Enjoyable. It’s another way to look at myself, because a lot of the same kinds of things end up in the 3-D things. They are not totally an outlet, but they are a way to escape the confines of a 2-D experience. Sometimes it just gets to be too much to dwell in the realm of illusion. And whether I make objects or I build things that have utility, I like spending a certain amount of time working 3 dimensionally, instead of always covering a surface with a liquid. So, it serves a physical need, and it also gets me to see my way of thinking manifest in a different zone. It’s akin to seeing yourself interact with another person. I think I give myself a little more freedom with the 3-D work. A lot of them are even unfinished, and sit around the studio and linger, sometimes for years, not knowing what they want to be The paintings I feel a little more of a commitment to.
TB-It seems like it would inform what you call “physical intelligence”, that it, too, would be useful.
GG-Exactly. I can’t say how, but putting things together in 3 dimensions helps building things in 2 dimensions. I believe things have to be built. I don’t think its best to have things just be made. There’s a rigor and an internal kind of integrity to something that gets built. And I mean that not just in physical terms. Relationships have to get built. Trust has to get built. Everything has to get built.
TB-Everything of value…
TB-A lot of things get made.
GG-Yeah, a lot of things get made, but if they are not built well, they don’t really earn our respect in terms of their integrity. A built relationship has integrity. That’s good.
TB-It is good.
GG-It’s obvious. (laughs)
TB-Not always said, though.
TB-Surface and space seem to me to be a part of every painting. How are you using them?
GG-I don’t want the paintings to be flat. So I am still interested, once again, in the distance between things, and most of my work has been involved with figures and a ground of some sort. I am interested in animating that ground. Sometimes it’s ambiguous- it’s not clearly way behind, it’s not stuck to an image…but I am constantly involved in a front and a back space. Sometimes things get jammed up, and sometimes I’ll allow that. It’s not like I have a doctrine about it, I simply try to take notice and decide whether to accept a condition or decline it. That’s my interpretation of space: that it’s necessary to try to have it be a compelling condition. Sometimes if it sticks I can live with it, other times I want it to be clear. It varies. Sometimes I just don’t want to control it – so that gets into it also. I don’t want to control every painting. I will allow an accumulated chaos at times.
TB-Is that part of the lightness you were talking about earlier?
GG-Yeah and it is also part of the feeling that I don’t know enough yet that I can just trust my will. It will take over, so sometimes I just have to let things not arrive at a place that I know. I want them to be on the thin side. And I want the size of the surface and then what’s put on it to feel like they are inseparable. That is very hard. I treat paintings, I think, similarly to the way someone who is making painted sculpture would. It is a more overt problem…painted sculpture. Paintings have the same problem to conquer of how loud and insensitive color going down on a surface can be. So how can I make my color to feel like it is in the surface, rather than being applied onto it. It is the same as painted sculpture- I would hope that the color is in the form, rather than on top of it. It was a big problem that very few people could solve. So that is part of my attitude about surface. And it’s also probably why, even though surfaces get built up, I don’t want lumps on my surfaces. I don’t want thick emotionalized surfaces-I want them to be, for lack of a better word, sound and in the cloth. In the fabric, physically and metaphorically. I want the paint to be incorporated into the surface.
TB-If I understand what you are saying- it’s not a painted body, it’s a body made of paint. It is not a body with paint applied, it’s a body formed from paint.
GG-I don’t think any of them are right yet. It’s not a painted body, and it’s not a body formed by paint-it’s like us, you know, we can’t take away a part of our body and still be a complete person- so a painting can’t take away any part of it, and still be a painting. I am always saying- it is not cosmetic, it is not on the surface. But I’m taking you literally, and maybe that’s where the problem is. Because the support is cloth and wood and paint primarily, I’m saying that they all add up. So it’s not built out of paint- they all add up. It might be similar to this: you are 5’11” and this is 16” high. You have clothes on , this has paint, you know, and the paint could be changed, just like clothes could be changed. But it is not cosmetic. In other words, the clothes help me identify you. Clothes are identifiers. Similarly, the paint is an identifier. You can’t take one away from the other, because then you’re not you. Then the painting isn’t the painting. I don’t know if that is convincing but I am trying to find an analogy.
TB-Well I like clothes, but…
GG-I don’t mean that you can just put it on.
TB-I know, you are calling them identifiers.
GG-Yeah and the colors get chosen, and the form gets chosen, and it teaches me who you are.
GG-Like certain kinds of things, they tell us. So the paint I use, and the colors, or lack thereof, informs, and tell us that this is a painting. But it is not separate from the body of it. I would call the body the cloth and the wood. And as soon as I touch it and imbue it with a feeling- speed, gloss, whatever- that I’m calling the mind: I would have to throw everything else on top of your skeleton. So the wood and the canvas is the skeleton, and the value is the paint. But the paint has to be put into that particular skeleton or otherwise it won’t work. They’re inseparable.
TB--The paint is the life or the heart?
GG-Yes, the paint is the life of the painting. Yeah. The paint is what makes the painting alive. Until I touch it, it is neutral and generic. I don’t know if we are making progress here but…
TB-Yeah it’s interesting.
GG-They’re inseparable. They are inseparable by definition because one is attached to the other, but I don’t mean it that way. Ideally they are inseparable because we are led to believe “this could be no other’.
GG-Or- this does not need to change… not just you stand back and see a picture that works but you come right up in front of it and you see materiality that works.
TB-That has life…
GG-That has life but it also has precision…with flaws. It gets complicated.
TB-All those qualities you were talking about before.
GG-Yeah. It holds, and it zaps you a little bit. Even if it is quiet. We have all seen work that is almost hard to even see but it really pops, because of its precision and its understanding of itself. In that sense the paint has to understand what it is going into…it is going into that playing field, not on it. Because that’s too dainty. It must be like a field getting gouged out during a game. It gets used… the result indicates what happened. This paint shows that this game was actually played. It is a simple metaphor, but this painting has to say that this game has been played within these parameters, and they are forever bonded. Wedded. One doesn’t separate from the other. That’s classical for me. And nowadays there is a lot of covering of surfaces. So be it. It is a different interest group. That is a kind way to put it.
TB-Thought, feeling and emotion. As mental activities, I find it very hard to separate them. But sometimes when I am looking at your work, I can get a glimmer as to how to do that. I believe I can see how you are holding them, maintaining them, juggling them. You have spoken of a lot of qualities. Thoughts on these three?
GG-I would just take out the emotion, and leave it to feelings and thoughts. Not that there aren’t emotions in them. But to me, I would attribute the moments when I lose control to emotion, which is not something I’m after. The thoughts happen. The feeling is pretty much always in operation when I’m working. The thoughts, sometimes. I am in a physical realm and I am responding by speaking through physical responses. And I trust that process. Thoughts happen in between those moments. I’ll look at something and say “Huh…look at that…that bird looks like it needs a friend’…that’s a thought. Or…”wow, gee, that bird seems meek”…that’s a thought. Maybe I’ll add the conqueror. Or maybe I’ll put a strong, confident, aggressive bird in there. Or maybe I’ll let it just sit there as a meek situation. But those are some of the thoughts I’ll have. Other thoughts are-“That red is too loud, I need to quiet this down”. The thoughts are driven by the condition of the painting rather than being driven by a desire to attach them to something else. So it is a kind of in-house, self-generated conversation. I don’t paint to advance history or be a bridge from one side of the river to the other, or explain someone else’s work. Those might be byproducts of what I do, due to influences and living today, but the thoughts are usually things that happen in this room as a response to what goes on in here and in my mind, in a localized way. I am excited by, and trust, that process. It keeps me ignorant of a lot of things, but I choose to, or need to, do it that way. I am conflicted about keeping myself ignorant about most things, but I haven’t made much progress with it.
TB-That is very humble for you to say that- it feels like that is a strength.
GG-It’s a choice. I have decided to put more of my energy in here than to go out and seek out more interactions or influences or complexities. I feel like I have enough to work with, if I could just stay focused.
TB-What role does criticism play for art?
GG-You mean from critics, or in the studio?
TB-Both. Just your thoughts about criticism.
GG- I think that anything someone could say about something has a certain amount of truth in it. It is rare when I have heard someone say something where I couldn’t imagine why they would say that. So right off the bat I think there is a certain legitimacy for all criticism or responses, even if I would prefer some to others. What it does, though, is that it intrudes. I can understand why a lot of actors and actresses don’t even read any criticism. I’m sure it’s not because they think everybody is stupid. And I am sure they are not afraid to see negative criticism. I think it all gets put in the same pot of being potentially intrusive upon a process I think is best to not be ruptured. It makes me feel good when someone says “oh your work is strong, or these are some interesting ideas”, but I’m not sure whether it’s helpful in most cases unless it really gets probing and someone spends some time to try to walk through the work. It has more to do with self-esteem in a lot of cases or vanity or whether you’ve been publicly humiliated or aggrandized than the severity of the intellectual component. That’s my experience, even in the magazines. There are places where it gets deeper but in terms of the newspaper reviews, the short reviews, the magazines and maybe some reviews on the internet now, a lot of them are interchangeable and don’t really get up a head of steam. Flipping through the newspaper, stopping and reading the article quick, and then you just turn the page, relatively unchanged. So it’s not an area in which I invest much time. I’ll read the article or review if I come across it, if it’s about an artist I am interested in, or someone I know. I think it does have a value, obviously culturally and in the larger community, if nothing else to perpetuate, almost like advertising. It perpetuates energy around art, which we need. Again, I think for unfortunate reasons writers write too many reviews, too quickly and that’s never a good way to do things. Too many catalogs have gotten written without any interest in the artist per se. I’ve got my hands full, I feel like I have enough to work with, I’m a devoted family man, and I spend a lot of time with my son. I teach, which I am passionate about, committed to, so at the end of the day I am more apt to maybe do some things that are in relaxation mode or read the newspaper, rather than seek out the arts section. It’s not something I do. ‘Cause it’s , and American culture in the creative realm is very choppy. Like the music industry. There are some great musicians who are not supported in huge ways, so it is hard to read the media in terms of something that you hold so dear. It’s just not equitable in a lot of cases. So I’ll avoid it, I’ll confess. I’ll avoid reading a review of an artist who I think is OK at best, who gets seen as being extremely important. It doesn’t do me any good. That’s my feeling about criticism for several years. Too much of it has been mercenary or an advertisement for someone. It’s not academic enough for me generally. That’s the way I would put it. It’s not selfless enough. It always seems to be tied to the business, rather than just thinking. And that’s uncomfortable.
TB-How about artist-to-artist? At any point for you was that important?
GG-Artists writing criticism?
TB-No, in the studio.
GG-It was more important when I was younger. I don’t have very many people by now, and when they do come by, I don’t know if it is because of my behavior or theirs, but not a lot is said, I think a lot of people take in what’s around them, maybe something is said later. Maybe you wait and see what sticks, wait to see if you carry a thought through after being in someone’s space. I think that happens with just getting a little older, a little more mature, and not needing to give someone a response, or receive one. When I was younger I would wonder-“What are they thinking, why don’t they say anything? How could they not be looking at it more, how could they not be responding? “ Doesn’t matter that much anymore in terms of having that kind of interaction- “oh let’s go to each other’s studios and give each other a crit”. For me it is more interesting to go to somebody’s studio and experience their life, and take it in, without having a critical mindset when I walk in. I am interested in it, whether it looks great or horrible, whether it’s sparse and clean, or whether it’s a mess. What they have hanging on their wall, what kind of objects they have around it’s always very informative. I’m more interested in those kind of exchanges than artist-to-artist criticism…petty shoptalk. To me the best artists are taking care of their shop pretty well, and I’m trying to do the same. So maybe you’ll have some thoughts, but it’s not what I’m there for. If asked, of course. If I’m troubled by something, or want to know what someone thinks. I am somewhat scared of people’s responses as having too much of an effect on me. That’s certainly true. I want to just see it through.
TB-What does teaching mean to you?
GG-It certainly means helping someone. If I can inspire and motivate- it is very important to me to be that for some artists. Obviously it is only going to be a handful of them, but that’s the greatest reward when I can help somebody feel capable of doing this. Because doing this is hard. And its a challenge, always a challenge to see how to handle a situation or a person, a particular person with a particular work. There’s some fear, some arrogance or complacency. You are constantly dealing with something they hold very close to their heart, something they are very vulnerable with. So it’s an exciting challenge to try to see if I can help, rather than just inform, or criticize, without that kind of compassion. Even if I’m saying something that might sound tough, it’s because I believe this is the thing to say to this person, now. It’s not a perfect science. Sometimes I wish I said something, other times I wish I didn’t say something. It is also a matter of how, and how much energy you want to give to someone. You can’t give the same amount to everybody. Some require more, some you might even think deserve more. These are private thoughts that go on. But we can certainly help, any of us who are teaching. We can help a young artist believe they can do it. That to me is the biggest thing in the world, because often they don’t believe it, and often a lot of people are either telling them, or implying that they don’t have a shot at it. Anybody who truly wants to and needs to be an artist can be one. But then there are other conversations to be had, as we have had today. What kind, what context, what kind of qualities do you have, what are your strengths. All those things. Teaching is always changing, because the students change. I’m always changing trying to be as sincere and as truthful as I can be given that it is a somewhat volatile situation being in that role with somebody. Sometimes I think teachers have more responsibility and more force than they’re aware of. You have got to learn how to handle that.
TB-On both sides you are dealing with a huge amount of subjectivity, from the student and inside yourself.
TB-It’s a management problem often to know how to use it, what to say, what not to say.
GG-You have to learn how to be selfless as a teacher, or you’re not going to be very good. You got to say-“you know what, I don’t really like that, but I think I could help with it.” That’s hard cause most people want to be around the things and people they like. “I like looking at you, I like the way you think, I like the work you make, therefore I want to be here. You, I don’t like you” (laughter), so you are up against it because that person is also in your class. You have to sleep at night. Me, I’m crazy enough to think that my job is to help every single student in my class. I can give them information and visual help, etc, essential help, but one of the first things I try to do is get them to trust themselves and trust me in that I will support them in them trusting themselves, will not want to tinker with it or have any big role in forming it, or deciding how it gets formed ideologically or physically. I’m not here to change somebody into what I prefer to see. I’m here to support them, and try to drive them to see their own potential. Some form of altruism, but also challenge. Presenting challenges and provocations that are constant tests for them. People need to test themselves and see what they can come up with. And again, fail and succeed. Do a project that they don’t have any idea how to access. “OK maybe it’s not going to work for you. So what did you do? Did you fold, did you take an easy path?” It is a fascinating thing.
TB-Sometimes I think success comes when they are willing to tell you what their limits for you are. You have given them the strength to be able to tell you- “Enough of you, for the moment. Come back, but right now I’ve heard enough.” (laughter)
TB-That’s a real success.
GG-That’s good- I laughed, because I know what you mean. I can certainly see them saying-“I’ve had enough of you!” (laughter)
TB-Is there anything else that we want to cover?
GG-I think we’re good.
Thomas Butter has been living in NYC since 1977, and showing since 1981. He is currently on the Adjunct Faculty in the Fine Arts Department at Parsons the New School for Design, and has taught at many colleges and universities on the east coast, including RISD, Harvard, Yale, Tyler, MICA, University of the Arts, and many others. firstname.lastname@example.org website: www.tombutter.com
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