An interview between Save It For Later curator Ryan Steadman and artist Graham Collins
Ryan Steadman: While your new body of work represents a significant shift from the work in your last exhibition at The Journal, there is definitely a continued thread of salvaged or "revived" materials that is noticeable. What drew you to utilizing other people's artworks as a medium?
Graham Collins: I do like the idea that I'm reviving these old paintings. I've always wanted a kind of specific anonymity in my tinted glass works, so for me that’s sort of the link to these new re-stretched found paintings. And this idea of making a sculpture of a painting. But with these works I get to focus on more of the basic elements that can constitute a painting: the stretchers are really important since that's my main contribution, shape, color, paint handling and of course the image.
RS: Those are two very central ideas to your process. Let's start with "specific anonymity." Now that you're using other people's paintings as a material, do you feel as if the question of authorship has become significant in your work? Simultaneously, I feel like this work also addresses the complexities of failure in art, finding value in the unseen mass of unused artworks that languish in a sort of purgatory.
GC: Well I think the tinted paintings have a weird sense of authorship already – I consider myself the author of this system that incorporates expressionistic gesture and sentimentality, but I've never felt like the author of the marks themselves – they are either random or found or just intrinsic to the material. The re-stretched paintings work in a very similar way for me. I try to coax these new forms out of the existing ones, the way a sculptor might follow marble veins or wood grain for inspiration. And I like very much that these pieces might breathe new life into old work. There are a lot of paintings out there, so it's nice to sort of conserve aesthetic energy this way.
RS: Yes, there does seem to be an interesting similarity between how you use these paintings and how a sculptor uses wood, for example. Wood is a common material that comes in a wide variety of looks (pine, maple, cedar, etc.) and yet it’s always “wood” and can always be manipulated – more or less – in similar ways. I think what is staggering about your new series is witnessing how a supposedly emotive and individualistic object like a painting can be treated like any commonplace building material with a particular set of known parameters.
GC: Over the past couple years we've seen paintings become so interchangeable, contemporary strains of abstraction and cartoonish figuration in particular. Whether it's an effect of the internet or the market or whatever. So rather than adding to the pile I thought maybe just pull from it. It's like living in New York City – so diverse, so many beautiful unique people and so easy to be anonymous in the crowd, no one cares in the best way. I started seriously studying and working with wood about seven years ago, totally learning on the fly, on the job. It's actually a great analogy for this – there's this extremely general idea of what it is, how it's used, but there are also many separate, detailed and diverse taxonomies which you can draw out; wood species, wood finishes, milling styles, structural properties, etc. Painting is similar just more psychologically charged.
RS: As a sculptor, your work – even much of your three-dimensional work – relies heavily on the history and referents of painting. What fostered your interest in this medium?
GC: I like all kinds of art but painting was the first thing I really got into. The first pieces that I made that I consciously considered contemporary art was a series of monochrome oil on board paintings. This was in 2001, I think. So I've been looking at the barebones mechanics of painting for a while. I've also worked with wood, ceramics, photography, found objects – lots of different mediums. But I'm interested in art being a conversation, and people can have incredibly short attention spans these days so what I like about paintings right now is that it's an instant signifier of art. People know they are looking at art when they look at a painting.
RS: Yes, it’s a comfortable format. This approachability is important because the viewer eventually realizes that the “art” of this work isn’t painting at all. It’s sculpture. It’s an interesting about-face. Since Warhol, painters have been desperate to mine commercial art in an attempt to draw viewers into the world of painting. You more or less do the opposite by alluding to painting while actually giving them a wall piece made with trade skills.
GC: Yeah that makes sense. And that's another way this new series connects to the tints – all the labor is somewhat skilled but generic. This is something I've been thinking about for a while – it's about accessibility and a way to spotlight the poetry within the works physicality. It's just one way of working and is particularly effective in paintings I think. I've made several series of ceramics with a deskilled/DIY approach which is super fun, but recently I've been learning traditional wheel throwing techniques and trying to get really good at just making pots. It's an inverse of these new paintings in a way – the pots follow a traditional format but are completely from my hand whereas the paintings are found and I just alter them.
RS: I’ll look forward to seeing those. Your partner Jennie Jieun Lee primarily works with ceramics, a medium once considered a minor one, but one which has recently found new life in contemporary art, as have other applied arts. I’m curious: do your concepts come out of these common skills that you’ve acquired, or do you learn skills in order to flesh out an idea? Or is it both?
GC: The ideas definitely flow both ways. Jennie actually had taken a long hiatus from ceramics but I had some clay in the studio and she messed around with some one day and got really excited about it and started taking it really seriously. We watch YouTube ceramics videos a lot – I had been trying to figure out a new ceramic project and it was watching these videos, and setting up a little studio in our house that made me realize how this could connect with some of the other work I was making. In a way I'm trying to make the ceramic equivalent of a monochrome painting, in the way that I want a monochrome painting to work. But actually, "vessels" are already the monochrome paintings of the ceramic world I'm just trying to draw this idea out along my own lines. So the existing conditions and knowledge brought this idea into shape but now I'm learning the specific skills to articulate it.
RS: Which brings me back to these new shaped paintings and the skills used to make them, mostly canvas stretching and stretcher bar making. It’s a bit of an inside joke that these are the skills primarily learned while working for other artists. In that way, you sort of glorify the anonymous labor behind artworks, much in the way your tinted work glorifies framing. Are these conscious reversals drawn from your personal experience?
GC: I don't know if they're conscious reversals but yeah, in part because of my work experience and partly just natural curiosity, I try to be really tuned in to the conditions of an artwork, it's makeup and physicality. I can't look at a show without noticing all the stuff around the edges, how things hang on the wall or sit in space. And lately I've been focusing on these aspects in work I make. I think of it in three parts – a meditation on the conditions of production, the physical production itself, then the way it is viewed.