Inteview with Alan Crockett
Interviewer: Valerie Brennan, Studio Critical
First published: Nov 11, 2011
What are you working on in your studio right now?
First I must say that I work part of the year in my studio in Columbus, Ohio and part of the year in my studio 8 ½ miles up Elk Creek near the small town of Happy Camp, California which is located in the heart of the Klamath Siskiyou National Forest. I spend summers and part of the fall in California and the remainder of the year in Columbus. This summer and fall (in California) I have made seven paintings that range is scale from 36 x48 inches (2), 32 x38″ (2) to 18 x24″ (3). I find that when I am in my California studio I almost always allow my work to challenge the work I have done in Ohio. I think that this is partly due to the fact that in my California studio I am not surrounded by the work I have done and therefore, in some sense, I tend to re-invent myself. The last two pieces that I have been working on are titled: “Painter’s Dream” 36 x48″ and “Emergence” 32 x38″. They are somewhat antithetical. “Dream” for example is loose, free, and open with the feeling of being rather freely arrived at. The white of the canvas; it’s beginning point, plays a dominant role and allows the colors of line and shape to have an almost pre-ordained quality. “Emergence” on the other hand evidences a summer’s worth of struggle, ideas, found and then erased, destroyed, re-incarnated. Very little of it’s beginnings remain except, I think, the original spirit with which the piece was begun.
Can you describe your working routine?
I am addicted to painting. I paint and draw virtually every day and additionally keep what I call a “painter’s journal” which includes drawings, images from various sources (newspapers, magazines, comics, my own photos, etc.), quotes that I find meaningful or inspirational, my ideas about art, life; in short anything that I feel is or might be a part of what I need to say as a painter. Often I will paint in the morning before going off to teach. If I do something awful I will think about it all day, looking forward to where it’s undoing may take me. If I do something “good” I will think about it all day, wanting to see where I will go with that. Usually I will begin painting again around 9pm and work late. The next morning a visit to the studio will tell me what sticks, what doesn’t and it’s back to work. On days where I can just paint, that’s what I do. I should also note that drawing plays a significant role for me. I often make dry pastel drawings on 22 x30″ Arches paper. These drawings often inform the paintings and vice versa. I also make small 9 x11″ watercolor collages that often inspire my painting as well. I find myself just as committed to the drawings as to the paintings. I often move from drawing to painting or painting to drawing during the course of a day.
Another thing that is a part of my practice is to revisit and revise previously “completed” pieces. It is not unusual for me to, in effect, work on a piece over a period of years and even when I don’t revise my work it will typically take several weeks to come off. The smaller paintings, say 20 x16 18 x24″ etc. seem to take me just as long as the larger work and in some ways are even more difficult for me to make.
Can you describe your studio space and how, if at all, that affects your work?
My Columbus studio sits behind our house with a very short walkway that I call the Avenue ‘d Studio. To the right is my coy pond with 7 very large old coy that beg for food whenever I approach the studio. This always puts me in a rather joyful mood. The studio is spacious and well lit both with skylights and artificial lighting. Many current paintings are hung on the wall and stacked about within view as well as a few old paintings that remind me of potential paths to re-examine. A cut out dog from a painting by my old friend, Roy DeForest (he did the cutting) is pinned to the left of my working wall. Many more pieces are in the painting racks. My drawings are also hung about and usually a current drawing is pinned to the drawing table near the north facing windows.
When I enter the studio, the piece I am working on instantly confronts me. I have large tables with shower glass palettes to the left and right of me. Paint tubes are cluttered about; brushes, palette knives, auto body putty knives, etc. are in cans at the ready. Actually the somewhat cluttered atmosphere of the studio is my friend. I will, for example think to use some ultramarine blue but in going through the clutter of paint tubes find an Indian yellow that suddenly seems even more appropriate to use or instead of a No. 4 filbert brush find a No. 20 flat just by chance that will totally change my ideas about where or how I need to take the work. An older painting in view may prompt me to pull out a painting journal from around that time and then I may find myself playing with some aspect re found in the current painting I am working on.
My California space is quite different. As I have mentioned, I have no old paintings to remind me of who I am as a painter. The space itself is rather small but soon too becomes cluttered with paint tubes, cans, paint rags, and so on. Even though it is a small space I can do pieces up to around 60×68 inches. Often here I will unstretch the canvas and work with it stapled directly to the wall. This too changes the feel of the surface and also allows me to be a bit rougher in the way I may scrape away paint. The incredible beauty in the nature that surrounds me here also creeps into my work and stays with me even when I return to Ohio. I guess growing up on the west coast, the unique quality of light and color, the feeling of being a bit outside of the New York Art world has always been a part of how I work, how I feel, how I think about art. It is, in a sense, a feeling of the freedom to be irreverent. That the type of work that I do in our cabin near Happy Camp is, for the most part, either not understood or misunderstood also seems to affect my work in a very positive sense.
Tell me about your process, where things begin, how they evolve etc.
Typically I will select a scale that I want to work in, say 60 x72 inches and apply several coats of gesso to the surface scraping each coat in such a way that I can get a smooth surface on which to begin the painting. This process takes me several days. Finally, when the support attains a sort of perfection, I begin to paint. I begin by using oil paint mixed with solvent and Galkyd Lite so that it is very liquid and flowing. Typically I will begin by drawing with the paint in a way that, in effect, defaces the pristine surface I have previously crafted. I usually begin a painting or drawing influenced by some other piece (a painting or drawing) that I have previously done. Sometimes I feel a need to keep going with some idea or feeling that a previous piece has dealt with. Invariably however, I find that my ideas get in my way, they hold me back rather than propel me forward. It is through erasure, destruction that I seem to be able to find new possibilities, new paths that lead to each painting or drawing being a new adventure.
Usually, through the process of painting very little will remain of where I began with a painting and yet, in some way, to contradict myself, the traces of what was left behind are very much a part of where it is that the painting needed to go. Quite often something will arrive on the canvas that seems so fresh, so real that I want to stop. Typically however, I won’t. I’ll lose it and have to begin again but now with a surface that has become bruised, soiled, perhaps even ugly. Maybe I need to put myself in this place so as to allow the painting to arise out of resistance rather than acceptance. I almost never give up on a piece but allow it to come out, as it has to come out.
What are you having the most trouble resolving?
Probably everything. I wonder at times about the very act of painting; its necessity or validity in our work. I worry about the fact that my work seems to be a bit allover the place and yet, it really does, in the end, seem to relate to itself and to who I am as a person and an artist. I need the work to come to some point of what I call “prefiguration, a place that is somewhat known and yet unnamable. I want things to be suggested without being absolutely definable; is that a face, a foot, lips, a thought bubble, a map, a hat, all of the above, none of the above and I just can’t and don’t want to say.
Small paintings too often give me a hard time. I can’t just make a smaller version of something that exists at a larger scale for example. I seem to have to allow myself to go about their making in a somewhat different manner. Part of this is perhaps that I am very much more aware that what I’ve done in one part of the painting is having a rather direct effect on all other parts of the painting. In a larger piece on the other hand, I can allow for spatial disconnects to be a more evident part of the work; something that I want all of my work to possess. When I read a current art magazine I often think, “I’m so out of the conversations about art, so irrelevant” and yet, what can I do, I just have to do the things that I have to do. I must say too, in all honesty, I am terrible with the art business part of being an artist; I don’t like contacting galleries, etc. and, truth be told, I even hate to see my paintings go when I do sell them. But of course I do want to share my work, to feel that what I’m doing is meaningful not only to me but to others as well.
Do you experiment with different materials a lot or do you prefer to work within certain parameters?
I experiment with many different tools, paint mixtures, palettes, you name it. I love to create new brushes for example by taping an old brush to a long weed tree branch so that when I make a mark or line I am not only standing 3 or 4 feet away from the painting, which affects not only how I see and experience what I am doing but my touch, control and so on are dramatically affected as well. Autobody putty knives of various dimensions are great for mark-making and smooshing paint or scraping away unwanted passages. Gloved fingers and rags of various textures can also be used to both apply and remove paint and make marks, lines and shapes. Often such experimentation will amount to nothing; will be erased and replaced by a more traditional painting mark. One never knows what is or isn’t going to work. With my watercolor collages I cut up old drawings in whatever shape I want and use the now interrupted line or shape to lead me in new directions that may create image scuffles and face-offs. This is the same attitude that I use to propel my paintings toward the unknowable as well.
What does the future hold for this work?
Because my practice invites adventure, the challenge as Beckett would have it to “fail, fail again, fail better” I must keep going off the trail to see what I may find, and perhaps even who I am. It is personal and real for me and so I feel that it may reach out and ask the viewer to experience its playfulness as well as its challenges.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Henry Miller once said: “without puns and puzzles there is no serious art, that is to say there is nothing but serious art.” I want my work to be unabashedly pleasure giving, to be fun, irreverent, playful, filled with psychic spills, lot’s of oops, slips and anything else that gets me to some place I’ve not yet been.