HOW FAR I ALLOW MYSELF TO GO AWAY FROM THE WORLD: A Micro-Interview with Rick Fox
ES: Until recently your exhibited work has been oil on canvas, close to abstract seascapes and landscapes, shapes on the edge of being identified as such. This new work, the subject of a recent faculty show at the University of New Hampshire, is a departure. Would you say a few words that led you to working in charcoal, first, and secondly, the move to step into more figurative work?
RF: I like how you phrased “shapes on the edge of being identified as such,” this has been a big preoccupation. This idea of things “on the edge of identified as such” is something the artist William Kentridge speaks about as witnessing “the man behind the curtain,” increasing pleasure by exposing tricks. It is interesting to me what happens when the physicality of paint/charcoal clearly exists along with the shapes created on that flat surface, along with the hints of sensations of space-solidity-direction of light through the relationships of those shapes, and simultaneously with the organization of it all creating the illusion or symbolic reference to things familiar to us in our experience of “the world.” Juggling all of this at once and allowing the process to play a big part in the creation of the image also presents the opportunity for doors to open up for surprises of an unexpected “more.” (This is something that for me has been recently re-appreciated in a more conscious way, and I have been enjoying seeing this at play throughout the tradition of painting/drawing, it seems, since the images in the caves of Chauvet, France.)
I completely understand the experience of a “departure,” but it is also a surprise to hear that word. I don’t ordinarily show my drawings, but drawing has always been a parallel activity with my painting. “Departure” is also a surprise because I feel my way through the next step. So often this feels completely obvious and necessary to me. Fifteen years ago I was excited by the figures and the half-understood stories that were emerging out of my charcoal drawings. So, I began plein air painting as temporary “research” to create potential environments for the figures. But something happened and the figures never came in. My desire for narrative was put on the back burner. I didn’t expect that plein air (the re-organization of “the world” on the flat surface) would become so challenging and satisfying, and I have been working with this re-organization ever since. This past year, however, I felt a need to check in again … to see if I could let figures come into my painting. These new drawings came from a very recent desire to mine possible figurative imagery for my painting.
ES: You call this new work, “Organized Affections.” These drawings bring to mind the work of Phillip Guston, particularly some of his late studio paintings, with the exaggerated human figures in bed, for instance, and body parts morphing with or emerging from furniture. His preoccupations were often fairly clear and but clearly different from yours. What would you say your concerns are in picking these subjects, these settings?
RF: Guston, yes definitely. I was not thinking of him consciously, but after working on this series I smiled as I was very aware of Guston’s influence. I also saw residue of Crockett Johnson’s “Harold and the Purple Crayon” and Maurice Sendak’s “Mickey in the Night Kitchen,” specifically Mickey engulfed in that crude, sensual, primordial dough.
I love the challenge of choosing a subject. Choosing a plein air painting spot in the landscape has become less about a literal place and more about a sensation or idea. Out of the corner of my eye, I might get a taste from a pair of color relationships or intriguing violence from two colliding shapes; and, then with a starting point to jump off from, I see if things can unfold enough to build a painting. With plein air, keeping a balanced collaboration with “the world” is important to me, even though I am conscious of the complete reconstruction that is inherent. I am in a constant ethical and perceptual battle with painting about how far I allow myself to go away from “the world.”
The drawings present a similar ethical battle, from a different end of the same thread. The conflict with the drawings is about how far I can bring non-visual ideas or elusive sensations into a physical/solid representation before straying too far from the original “hook.” To quote Guston about his motivation for painting some of his late imagery, “I wanted to see what it looked like.” I identify with the cavalier simplicity of this quote, but I have also become acquainted with the complexity of the “oxidation” process that transforms everything into a compromise as soon as the glimmer of the idea hits the physical.
All of the drawings were made intuitively. The big-eared figure in bed in “Ears,” was a semi-familiar/amusing idea that came when I was opening a can of seltzer. The two-headed figure “Nudge” originated from two conflated ideas — one from a specific memory of a friend, the other an un-reflected curiosity. All the drawings went through multiple iterations to get from the initial fleeting impulse to the final image.
As I made the drawings over a period of a few months, I began arranging them on my studio wall. Again, the process did not seem far from plein air painting. I was experimenting with these little thrills or ideas in which I had made a deliberate choice to invest my attention (affection), and like organizing the mutually dependent thrills (affections) of the landscape. Each new image on the studio wall began to be supported or began to evaporate depending on the drawings surrounding it. As I was organizing and re-organizing I was aware of the possibility for narrative but at the same time a sentence I had recently read by the poet Mary Ruefle was sticking with me (to paraphrase): how does one make a poem that doesn’t cohere yet at the same time doesn’t disappear?
Rick Fox lives in Kittery, Maine. Represented by Gallery Naga, Boston, he will be exhibiting in the February 2016 show “A Dysfunctional Family: Portraits by Gallery Naga Artists.” During the summer of 2015 he lived on Cranberry Island, ME as a participant of the Heliker-Lahotan Foundation painting residency. The summers of 2013 and 2014 were spent teaching and painting in Ascoli-Piceno Italy. Recent exhibitions include: the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh UK, the Hampden Gallery, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the Museum of Art, University of New Hampshire, the Prince Street Gallery, NYC and the Grunewald Gallery of Art, Indiana University. Twice a recipient of the Elizabeth Greenshields Grant (Montreal), Fox also received a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts and the William James Association to administer and teach a painting and drawing program at the Federal Prison, FMC Devens. He has been teaching painting and drawing full-time at the University of New Hampshire since 2010. For more information, visit rickfoxpaintings.com and gallerynaga.com.