Last Year I was interviewed for a group exhibition in Moscow. It’s a good primer for my take on Stuckism.
1. What does it mean to you—to identify yourself as a stuckist painter?
I don’t know if I am a Stuckist entirely. I would tell someone who paints regularly to read the manifesto. Does he/she agree with most of its precepts? I do. I paint recognizable figures mostly, but am open for change. I think my limitations keep me where I am, which is good for now. Still, I believe the word “whim” should be printed above any creative door.
Sure, I am a Stuckist, but I am also an abstract painter if the urge requires it. And I would take that abstract painting on a canvas and film it kissing his wife and kids good bye while boarding a train—I also feel a kindred connection to the absurdity of Dada. Humor is one of the few luxuries I can afford. Like Sartre, I believe that Hell is other people. Still, philosophers could balance their outlook from time to time while on the receiving end of a pie in the face from some expressive clown like me.
Communion is what matters most. Stuckism is a path for me to share my humanity.
In effect, I don’t care about art. I want to be understood.
I like this from the manifesto:
“The Stuckist paints pictures because painting pictures is what matters.”
“The ego-artist’s constant striving for public recognition results in a constant fear of failure. The Stuckist risks failure wilfully and mindfully by daring to transmute his/her ideas through the realms of painting. Whereas the ego-artist’s fear of failure inevitably brings about an underlying self-loathing, the failures that the Stuckist encounters engage him/her in a deepening process which leads to the understanding of the futility of all striving. The Stuckist doesn’t strive — which is to avoid who and where you are — the Stuckist engages with the moment.”
And my favorite:
“The Stuckist is not mesmerised by the glittering prizes, but is wholeheartedly engaged in the process of painting. Success to the Stuckist is to get out of bed in the morning and paint.”
2. What does painting give you, and why is it important for contemporary art today? What kind of painting are we talking about?
The process of painting can bring temporary untethered freedom, the future promise of practice, growth, self expression, liberation, eternity in an afternoon, trancing, the joy of man’s desiring, judgement, forgiveness, laughter, and a very content and satisfied melancholy.
Obviously, these feelings experienced are nice to have, and any modern people would be happy to possess them. A painting is not necessary for contemporary art, but painting is. Got to get back to the basics. After food, shelter, fuel, and clothing, only the intangibles need to be sought after.
I am enamored with the Russian Stuckists because from my seat 5,000 miles away I see what the people of my town and country need… Communion, contact, conversation, understanding. Put three expressive painters out in the cold to recreate the stern look of a government building, and what happens? Some needy American gets struck down by a humility fist.
3. Is stuckism a big movement in American contemporary art? Who joins this movement? Are the members of the group communicate with other art-groups?
No and yes. First of all, there is no press on Stuckism. It is completely ignored. Established galleries and institutions want nothing to do with it. I have had several shows purporting Stuckism, and none of the usual suspects of art scene incorporated have ever heard of the movement. Charles Thomson, co-founder of Stuckism, believes I am the first person ever offered a grant through a government organization. Since 1999!
I believe Stuckism goes against the American gallery platform and business model. America wants to be told who the successful individuals are. Jeff Koons is successful. What does he paint? Well, it doesn’t matter—he’s rich! And rich means successful. The two words are interchangeable. A New York City Gallery needs to pay exorbitant rent in order to stay afloat month to month. It needs big name players, or must be a big name itself in order to “make” new players. The last thing any gallery desires is a humble painter. This is America, land of big agribusiness. Monsanto rules! No more sustenance farming. I met a self-proclaimed “farmer” at an October opening. I was offering free harvest from my home garden. She didn’t know what a “tomatillo” was. I told her it was a favorite in Mexican cooking. She said her workers might like them, and filled up a bag to take home. How could anyone be a farmer and not be curious of vegetables? Same with art. How could a gallerist or art professor not be curious about painting? As with experimental onions, established galleries rarely want anything to do with something not tried and tested. I suspect this is nothing new.
Well, that’s how art works here in the United States. Few gallery owners are curious enough to risk having a subjective opinion about visual art. It is easier to follow trends and hope for the best.
You asked who joins this movement. I would say that with Stuckism there is no joining. All figurative painters are Stuckists. It is the manifesto that makes Stuckism. It closes with a short list of honorary members. Vincent van Gogh is one. He didn’t know it at the time, though. He just got up and painted. For me, Stuckism is a feeling first, and at times a trusted guide. Like rock n’ roll. Impossible to ‘join’. Incredibly easy to participate. Three chords and a guitar. Paint, brushes, and canvas, and the mantra, “just keep painting”.
The Stuckism Facebook page is a good place to “meet” other painters who perhaps interpret the manifesto similarly. There are some who obviously do not. Stuckism needs to go further. It must work often to shake off the creeping arrogance of art. It needs to commune physically more. Cyber art depresses the hell out me. Trading paintings among Stuckists regularly would bring balance back to art. Painters the world over might not admit it, but many still dream of financial success, knowing in another, more rational part of the brain, that just a modest sustainable income is a crap shoot in this “highly competitive” racket of self promotion. Children don’t put a price tag on creativity. And children aren’t children unless they are happy. Stuckists, like all artists everywhere, need humility. Passion and humility. Otherwise, they might be great artists, but failures as men and women. And who wants that eternal label? It’s so 20th century.
The Stuckist must know by now… Nobody wants him or her to succeed.
4. Why is it important for you to communicate with your Russian colleagues? How did you meet each other? What does this communication (online and via mail) means for you as an artist?
I met Alexey Stepanov online on the Stuckism Facebook page in early spring of 2015. One day I messaged him to ask if he would sell me one of his paintings. He suggested we trade instead. Through social media, I began to encounter his world of painting as well as the talents of other Russian Stuckists. Alexey would post pictures of his makeshift apartment shows, painting gatherings and get-togethers. He and others would paint a model for the night and finish with conversation and a glass of wine. I was so excited about their camaraderie. I nosed in on their business as often as I could, and dreamed a better life for the image makers here in The United States.
Then he took the triptych I sent him and hung it from trees. A forest exhibition in late summer. Oh, too much! I was smitten!
I shall have this quote from the French writer Jean Giono answer why it is so important for me and the Russian Stuckists to, not only communicate, but become good friends for a lifetime.
“…The present time disgusts me, even to describe. It is sufficient merely to endure it. I wanted to make a book with new mountains, a new river, a country, forest, snow, and men all new. The most consoling thing is that I have not had to invent anything at all, not even the people. They all exist. That is what I want to say here. At this very time when Paris flourishes—and that is nothing to be proud of—there are people in the world who know nothing of the horrible mediocrity into which civilization, philosophers, public speakers and gossips have plunged the human race. Men who are healthy, clean and strong. They live their lives of adventure. They alone know the world’s joy and sorrow. And this is as it should be. The others deserve neither the joy nor the sorrow. They know nothing of what they are losing. They think only of adding to their comfort, heedless that one day true men will come up from the river and down from the mountain, more implacable and more bitter than the grass of the apocalypse.”
I need to engage with men and women who are not immersed in the “horrible mediocrity” Giono speaks of. If they happen to be half way around the world, then so be it.
Also, I must mention the call from psychoanalyst Erich Fromm that a man (and woman) must be born again. Man’s main task is to give birth to himself. Connection with the Russian painters has steered my life onto a more humble and enthusiastic path that I thought hit a dead end long ago. I made a left turn and won’t look back.
5. Works by the Russian stuckists differ from the works of their colleagues from other countries, for example, from Britain. Russian stuckists focus on our everyday life, local themes, appeal to relevant political issues. How do you imagine modern Russia, when you see the pieces of your Russian colleagues?
Oh how I wish I could translate the subtleties of humor, protest, and joy that go into so many of these Russian paintings! I want to talk to Makarov in his native tongue. I need to congratulate him on his recent wedding. I want to know his politics. Obviously Alexey is a deep and sensitive thinker, and Ulanova a genius. Alena Levina (not represented in this exhibition) is an artist through and through, and so unlike, as far as I can tell, anyone I have met in the United States. Am I projecting? Maybe.
Still, the language barrier forces my imagination to take control. Should it be any other way for an artist? I imagine a better world. I sense it gestating in the hearts and minds of these Russian painters. Therefore I wish to nurture their prospects. They represent the future. I see no comparison here in the U.S.
Stepanov, Makarov, and Ulanova painted a series of four (maybe more) Russian government buildings. There are photos of their plein air efforts that fill me with an admiration that is infectious. One in particular captures Makarov from behind, outside a complex, at what looks to be rush hour. Near dusk. Cold. And not a car in Moscow could give a damn! Absolute perfect poetry in motion. Nothing comes close here in the United States. Nothing yet anyway. I can take up the torch. I have learned a better humility from Russia.
6. You painted the Russian White House in the context of the series of plein airs near the buildings of Russian governmental institutions. Then you joined (using Skype) a session of sketches the artists made from a real Russian policeman, posed in his uniform. What does this action mean to you? Is it a some kind of a political message?
I have been told by friends and colleagues, many gallerists and other art professionals that I am too political—that is, I have opinions about my culture which I express in my painting. The establishment does not want its representative artists to have profound opinions. It tends to glorify the deviant artist like Paul McCarthy. Sure, I can say, write, or paint any political blasphemy I desire, but must be prepared for the silent backlash from my community. There is no communication here. None. Everyone is afraid to talk!
Maybe no one wants to be reminded that he or she could actually be a hollow person. It is an eerie silence. I have a blog where I post my written and visual thoughts online from time to time. When a post is dark themed—even just a little bit—anti anything really, it receives what we call here “the song of crickets”. Human silence. Not one “like” or comment. Well, maybe one. Richard Bledsoe understands the need for communion. And the Poet Robert Okaji. Of course, close friends as well— But other than these, just crickets chirping.
When I painted the Russian Whitehouse I was dreaming of a Moscow I wish to meet one day. It was more about love and new love. The title, “I Would Miss You Too Much If I Did What I Wanted To” sums up a feeling dreamers might have when thinking on a new life in a new land, but knowing how difficult to bring such a move to fruition. I already love very well here. Now to construct paradise.
The Moscow policeman was a political trip for sure. I have an old friend who is a policeman. Although a rarity, he would pose just the same. I would want to know if it is a political act in Moscow to paint a policeman. I should think it an honor if I were a cop. And our model that day was incredibly patient and obviously enlightened. Who wouldn’t want an original portrait to take home? It’s not like we were painting a parakeet on his head, or giving him a clown nose—although I bet Ulanova was thinking of it.
7. There was a short conversation between you and Russian stuckists during the closing of the exhibition in the library #52. Then you said that you are primarily a writer, who turned to painting. Why did it become important for you as a writer to start painting? Do you think that there is a some kind of a connection between words and images? What king of connection? Could you tell me a little more about your background?
I began an expressionist career as an autobiographical writer, revering the American masters Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Henry Miller. The latter would paint whenever the writing blocked his freedom. I too found this to be very helpful. When I write, I am tight. When I paint, I am light. Painting is never frustrating. However, writing is a lot like bricklaying. It is linear, and sure, there is a place for that in my psyche, but it must make room for physical play and surprise. I can express so much more in a painting, especially one with a pertinent title. Kenneth Patchen did this with what he called “picture poems”. He is worth looking up to get more of an idea about what moves me. For pay I worked many jobs in the restaurant business as a cook and chef. I also tutored at home both of my daughters until their teenage years, and then enrolled them in school. My children came first, always, so my lust for expression (which is terribly strong), often sat on the back burner until it boiled over. In my early 30’s I began to nurture it into a regular regimen. Found a feel and haven’t looked back. No more line cooking for me. I am too old for hollandaise.
I believe that words and images are easily connected. Text, like anything in a painting, can be used to promote the painter’s propaganda. Craft and ability have their place, to be sure. But please make me think. I do not want art that cannot make me think! I have a television for that.
I like titles. It gives me, the painter, the last word. You want to see something else and not be told what I am thinking? Go make it yourself.
For instance, I believe a painting titled “untitled” is a waste of some prime real estate. Surely the painter isn’t just some kind of camera gone a bit awry. She has hopes and dreams doesn’t she? Every painting produced by a human being came from somewhere above and beyond the image produced. Try to paint a sylvan scene without thinking of the itchy bug bite behind your ear, last night’s presidential address, what’s for lunch, etc… Impossible! I accept the image, but want more than ever to know the image maker. Make me think about you as much as you want me to know your painting. I for one, don’t want to die alone.
“Sylvan Scene” is a title, yes. However, “Last Night In the Forest Nothing At All Cared About My Planter’s Wart”, is absurd poetry, unacademic, very human, and rather joyous I think.
Great painters don’t need so much embellishment. They can use paint to deposit profound subjects into the viewer’s mind. I am not a great painter. I need all the help I can get.
Henry Thoreau from Walden:
“Tom Hyde, the tinker, standing on the gallows, was asked if he had anything to say. “Tell the tailors,” said he, “to remember to make a knot in their thread before they take the first stitch.” His companion’s prayer is forgotten.”
8. What are your impressions from the Russian exhibition of stuckism you took part in?
My first impressions of last year are cemented and fully cured with this exhibition. I have found kindred spirits who can point me to a higher plane, above and beyond the holdings of my spent and narrow-minded countrymen. Your exhibition I was told, is off the beaten track, on the outskirts, far from the train line, beyond the established circles of Moscow. This is as it should be. I suspect that art and culture in Russia, like the United States, is monitored and controlled by the elite guard. I want none of that. I rather walk 10 miles to this show than have a free pass and an overnight at the MoMA. I am tired of art’s past stories. I am alive now and participating. Your show is a success because of the artists in it and those who came to celebrate with them. It has delivered newness. That is the best any gallery can do.
We shouldn’t stop there. We need more camaraderie! More communion! More rabble-rousing, even if it’s only a small group of enthusiastic painter-poets sharing promises of a better tomorrow. Tonight, however, we toast our aliveness! Forget the public. Know each other. The public will learn by example after it voluntarily lowers itself to our level. In the mean time, let us discuss everything and nothing. What else is there to do?
Lastly, I want to thank Skolkovo Gallery and you, Ella Rossman, for a beautiful exhibition. I will visit Russia soon just to pay homage to these other fine painters. It’s like an itch that won’t go away. But an itch I enjoy scratching so very much.