From the archives: Conjunctions, Addenda, Commutations
A Conversation with Raphael Rubinstein and Sharon Butler
I sat down with noted poet and art critic Raphael Rubinstein to discuss “Next Moves,” my solo exhibition at Jennifer Baahng Gallery in New York. We explored conjunctions, addenda, commutations, and the many ways artists navigate the passages from one body of work to the next. The following is an edited transcript of the 2022 conversation.
Raphael Rubinstein: When I saw these paintings first in photographs, some of them looked very different. On a computer screen they looked very pixelated with lots of little squares, but the moment I saw one in real life, this one for instance, it didn't seem that way at all. To me, that’s the thing about painting. You’ve got to experience it in person, and you also must be able to move around the space. We are not cameras, we are bodies within a space looking at paintings and after the pandemic lockdown, that’s something that’s great to have back in our lives again.
Thanks for reading Sharon Butler Notebooks. Subscribe for free.
SB: Right. This series of paintings is based on digital drawings I made on my phone. When I was enlarging them, one of the little drawings had a fake canvas background and, when I blew it up, this canvas pattern became a big grid. I thought it was amusing to paint the fake canvas onto a real canvas. That’s where the grid started -- from this translation of the digital into the handmade. Then, of course, as I worked with the squares, they became more resonant and picked up meaning. I should also add that the reason I started making those drawings on my phone and posting them on Instagram was because people would always show me their pictures on their phones, and I got the idea to make something that was meant to be seen on the phone. The drawings weren’t printed out, there was no place to see them except on Instagram, and so it’s kind of ironic that the paintings, based on the drawings that were created to be seen on the phone, are meant to be seen in person, but end up for many people, just being seen on Instagram -- and not translating very well. (laughs)
Rubinstein: What you describe is part of the long history of painting, as it has been confronted with and challenged by other means of representation, with photography, with film, with digital media. Often people have worried that painting will be superseded, it will become obsolete, but one of the remarkable things about this medium is that it’s able to assimilate and absorb whatever new technology is thrown at it. I think you, like a lot of artists, increasingly erase the lines between digital and analog – this distinction is not really relevant. Another thing I noticed is that that these are multi-panel paintings. Is that something that came as a result of the imagery you were using?
SB: Yes, I think that the idea of the multi-panels began once I started considering the grid. I realized that the grid is infinitely expandable, and, after many years of working reductively on unstretched canvas with very little paint and a bit of pencil, until finally it was just a little scrap of tarp with nothing on it, I wanted to make the work more complex somehow. I didn’t really know what that meant. The minute I started thinking about the grid, it seemed like an incredible opportunity to expand the work in interesting ways –it was a portal. Brighter Than Grass was the first multi-panel piece and it felt like the panel at the bottom could be placed anywhere else at the gallery -- it doesn’t have to be attached to the painting to read as related. Placement and installation could contribute different meanings. So, the grid expands the imagery in the painting, but it can also be used as a way of physically expanding the work itself. Once I became attached to that idea, I started adding panels onto all of the paintings.
Rubinstein: Well, I think that working with these incomplete structures makes me think of some of the work that the French painter, Martin Barré did in the 1970s: single-panel geometric abstractions that you want to read as complete, but in fact there’s another similar canvas that extends the composition. The implication here is that it’s not a question of being finished or unfinished. It’s an arbitrary cut off, the edges of the canvas, the support. It’s not as if this was given by God, it’s contingent and these paintings could go on endlessly. I think that’s one of the effects of your new work. Even the four-paneled painting where there are a lot of different styles at play -- geometric abstraction, there’s something more painterly and biomorphic, there’s almost like a floorplan, and then there are things that may be suggestive of a body. Are you pursuing some kind of freedom where you’ve come to a fork in the road and you can take both forks and turn back and go in another direction?
SB: After my last show, I was looking to make the work more visually complex, and these paintings were all made in that period as separate paintings. When I was moving my studio, I had them lined up against the wall, and that seemed to make sense, given their history, their beginning as daily drawings on Instagram -- the great grid-maker of all imagery, the great consolidator, or joiner of all pictures. Separately, each panel is named after the day that the drawing was made and posted on Instagram. I love the idea of putting all the days together – like a calendar.
Rubinstein: In the last space in the gallery, there’s a selection of smaller paintings, works on paper, text pieces, collages. Some of them look like they were going back to the 2000s and there are a lot of different styles. Earlier when we were talking you told me how someone had come into your studio and said that these paintings were “transitional.” You said weren’t happy with hearing that, and not surprisingly because to label something as “transitional” is seen as negative. But isn’t all art transitional? Hopefully it’s leading somewhere. Isn’t the “transitional” what every artist is aiming for? Work should always be coming from somewhere, and going somewhere rather than being fixed and predictable. I like that you seem to be owning the “transitional” nature of art.
SB: Well, going back, putting old panels together with new pieces, thinking about previous work and, of course, moving to my new studio, I saw a thread running through a lot of those older pieces. Transitional periods are anxiety provoking, but they’re also the most exciting. I’m not the type of artist who can paint the same thing year after year. To me, the most exciting points are the spaces between.
Rubinstein: Being inclusive is a lot more positive than labeling certain pieces “transitional,” which implies somehow the artist became dissatisfied, as if what they were doing before was problematic or unsuccessful. That implies a kind of judgment, and also suggests that the artist should somehow be able to stand back and see their own work objectively, which any artist knows, is not only impossible, it’s usually not a good thing to do. But we can’t help it, we’re always trying to think, how would X, Y, or Z see this work and, in the end, I think you have to just let that go. The connotations that terms like “transitional” carry with them can be really damaging and not good for the artistic process.
SB: I agree. When I go to galleries, it’s always more exciting to see work by artists who are in the process of changing somehow than to see ten more pieces like the ten they had in their show last year. It’s exciting to see where their mind went, and where the making and the process took them.
Rubinstein: Some artists change their work abruptly like Picabia who had four different ways of painting throughout his career and there’s no gradual shift. It's as if, one day, he says, I’m going to stop making this, and start making this other kind of painting, and he does that for ten years. And then, eventually he stops that, and he does something else for ten years. In the 1960s, curators like Bill Rubin at MoMA ignored everything Picabia painted after 1920 because there was a sense that everything beyond that point was decadent. Of course, MoMA doesn’t think that anymore. The museum’s 2016 retrospective gloried in Picabia’s diversity.
SB: Some artists take small steps, making incremental changes, and those artists are the ones who move forward primarily through process. And then you’ve got artists like Picabia who are more cerebral and not necessarily directed by the process. I’m a little bit of both, and when I was younger had a hard time reconciling the two. Sometimes my head would get in front of the process.
Rubinstein: Sometimes artists are responding to things happening in their lives or something in the world. A war or a death or something - an illness. There are also artists who respond to changing fashions, changing discoveries. The classic example of an artist who embraces transition is Philip Guston. In some ways, the most interesting period of Guston is the late ‘60s when shapes in his abstract paintings began to congeal into something like heads. But we only know that by reading backward. He soon becomes an explicitly figurative painter, and then we can read these shapes as heads. He didn’t know that at the time, but he was willing to venture into the unknown, and take that risk of failure -- not knowing where the paintings were going to go. In his later work, he painted so quickly as if he couldn’t keep up with his imagination. In the last ten years of his life he painted like a madman. A case has been made that he killed himself for his work because he wouldn’t follow the advice of his doctors. Like many artists, he wasn’t interested in his past. They’ve already done that, they’ve already made that body of work, but one thing that I find interesting is when artists want to buy back some of their work that’s been sold. Then there are artists who are only interested in what they are doing right now. Do you ever feel like there are paintings that you need to have around you, almost like talismans?
SB: I think artists tend to work and live in the present. I don’t really think about the past, but I don’t really think about the future, either, especially now with the climate crisis. When I give artist talks, I tell my story, reducing it to certain benchmark points. I always eliminate certain sections (work that I thought wasn’t part of the thread), and in going back for this show and looking at some of the older work -- even in the work from grad school -- still had the elements that I’m still very much interested in. I’ve begun reclaiming the digital work I made from the 1990s and early 2000s that I put aside when I came back to painting. I never talk much about the early digital work. At the time, the output options were so disappointing that I moved back to painting. Painting was the best output method (laughs). I remember doing a piece using text from Moby Dick, called Dickathon. I animated passages from the book, and I wanted to project the piece onto a building for a festival in New Haven, but I couldn’t get a projector that was powerful enough. Of course, now artists project at that scale all the time. If only I’d had that equipment back then! So, the narrative changes as I move forward. It’s all still there, it’s just a matter of what I choose to include.
Rubinstein: But painting presupposes some kind of future that will outlast the artist, that it will have some kind of afterlife. There are some artists who make their work as ephemeral as possible, who don’t want that, who would take what you’re saying, the idea of it being in the moment as that should be the common goal, that trying to hold onto something is investing too much in the physical object, in the value of the thing, an object that people will buy and sell, and preserve, and conserve.
SB: It’s no longer, really, about longevity for the work, or the work outliving the artist. Maybe there will be a solution to the destruction of the planet, or maybe not. Should we all start carving in stone? I guess I’m drawn to the absurdity of painting, compelled somehow to keep doing it, and finding stability in the process, completing one small square at a time. I think these new paintings, with their focus on accumulation and transition strategies, speak to the current political climate. Everything seems in flux right now. But it’s not as though I’m trying to illustrate specific ideas about politics -- they’re just reflected in the work.
“Conjunctions, Addenda, Commutations
A Conversation with Raphael Rubinstein and Sharon Butler”
Saturday, October 8, at 2 pm at Jennifer Baahng Gallery
Raphael Rubinstein is a professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art and author of Negative Work: The Turn to Provisionality in Contemporary Art (Bloomsbury Academic).
“Sharon Butler: Next Moves”
Sep 22 - Nov 22, 2022
Jennifer Baahng Gallery
790 Madison Ave.
New York, NY
Thanks for reading Sharon Butler Notebooks. Subscribe for free.