My friend and artist Sebastian Black recently debuted a series of paintings, and one mesmerizing video, at Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts in Chelsea, so Sebastian and I sat down to discuss the ideas behind his sphinx-like puppy-dog paintings, which seem to morph into different figures the longer you stare at them. Check out some images reproduced from the show, a short video, this link to a conversation between Sebastian and artist Adam McEwan in Interview, and my conversation with him below. The show is up until October 9 - don't miss it!
Jesse Hudnutt: Where did the initial idea for this collection of works come from?
Sebastian Black: The idea for the dog came from reading De Kooning's biography and discovering the modernist tradition of white male painters trying to paint primitives, or children. During the modern period, these very academic artists were looking to the essential elements of a painting, looking at so-called "primitive" cultures, folk art, and children's art. In retrospect, it's problematic to label these art forms as primitive. So instead of going back to this pre-symbolic language that they were trying to get at, I wanted to get to the point where you first learn about symbols. The dog is a basic image that you draw when you're seven years old.
JH: Like stick figures.
SB: Like stick figures and houses with picket fences... But I went with the dog because it looked the most satisfying - and it also looks like a torso. Doing the figures on a small scale, they became a series and I discovered a dynamic of doubling images.
JH: Like instances of a type.
SB: Yeah, exactly. They also begin to look more like masks.
JH: So figuratively, then, these paintings could be dogs, torsos, faces...
SB: Yeah, the face of whatever. These sleeping, liminal, hovering figures could be anything. It's also why the titles are kind of weird and ambiguous. They act as another way of situating the paintings, because when you title something, it becomes a distinct point. I could have titled them Untitled 1, 2, 3, 4
to emphasize the seriality, but they're paintings - it's important to acknowledge that they're discrete objects in the world. Also, it's fun to make up titles and steal them from books.
JH: So what's the title of the one you held up to your face at the gallery (pictured)?
SB: It's called "Mystical Wayside Marker." It's loosely associated with the mythologist and cultural historian Lewis Hyde, who wrote this book called The Gift
. He writes about the trickster as an artist figure in different cultural mythologies. I like humor and the idea of tricksters, and I wanted of reference that.
JH: You've described the paintings as silly, childlike, primitive, and as depicting a figure that's almost uncontrollably stuck in your head. Are the paintings meant to be an unselfconscious personal expression?
SB: It's interesting that you say "unselfconscious" because it reminds me of Josh Smith. He's the master of unselfconsciously pumping out paintings over and over again. I'm interested in that because I envy it in a way, but I feel that when I'm making paintings it's important to be aware that ultimately, they're sort of silly. But you don't want to present just silliness.
JH: Because it's kind of throwaway at that point.
SB: Yeah, it's throw away.
JH: So how do you make it so that they're not silly and bordering on frivolous?
SB: It's all in the technical work behind them. They're silly but serious at the same time, because I care a lot about them. They're also super additive - the painting has been in my studio for about 4 months, getting changed, pushed around. And it may not particularly look like a dog or anything - but it looks labored.
JH: Do you feel that your usage of color is intellectual and referential, or is it more immediate and personal?
SB: It's instinctual, or like a reflex. For the dogs, the color rescues them from being just silly. These muddy grey palettes descend into almost being dirty-looking, but then a weird ultramarine pulls it out and contextualizes everything as being intentional. At the same time, I love looking at other artists' use of color. It makes you look at things differently. A weird color combination could set a light off in your head. Right now, I'm really into green and orange mixed - I'll get this really gross mud color, but somehow it's both hot and cool, and almost glowing. So I think it's a little bit of both. You start with your pre-disposition, but then you have to learn and train yourself to experiment with anything. I imagine it's the same with clothes.
JH: Like your magenta Air Maxes.
SB: [Laughs] Exactly. I never would have thought of these colors together, but some dope Japanese designer at Nike figured it out!
JH: You've been painting since I knew you as an art student at Vassar, and even before that as a young kid. How has your art progressed over time?
SB: I've been painting since age 9, being forced to go to art classes every Saturday. I was not into it. At Vassar, my senior show was filled with "I LOVE PAINT" oil painter paintings - loads of big, wet, squiggly, messy, fake Philip Guston paintings. In retrospect, I like some of them, but I'm also done with that. There's a whole world out there of amazing conceptual artists like Felix Gonzales Torres. It's a world where you can fucking twist a piece of paper into a cone and put it on the floor, and maybe that's awesome. I spent two years trying to do that, something besides painting.
JH: So, something purposefully conceptual.
SB: Yeah, because I had it in my head that that's what serious art was, because that's a lot of what you see. And I realized that I sort of suck at it. I had some quippy one-liners, but I realized that I didn't have anything that was going to develop into a real project. Eventually, I realized that I needed to find my way back to painting when reading this biography of De Kooning. So these paintings are just as much a gateway into making oil paintings as my paintings at Vassar, but they're very different.
JH: What other painters do you get really excited about?
SB: In terms of contemporary artists, I like Josh [Smith] a lot. I like Joe Bradley. I like serious/unserious artwork. Of the amazing masters, it's [Phillip] Guston and [Giorgio] Morandi. For me, Morandi is really important to think about because he was a surrealist, but then he began painting bottles on a table for the rest of his life - in a way, he out-surrealed the surrealists.
SB: By being a complete weirdo! And it was a practice that people looked at and said, "What the fuck was he doing?" But over time gains this weird power, or maybe the importance was intrinsic to the paintings but took time to become apparent. And having made 20 variations of the same painting, painters who also have ongoing serial projects, like Morandi did, are important for me to look at.
Through October 9th.
Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts
526 W. 26th Street #605
New York, NY 10001