Painter Joshua Abelow (Brand New Gallery) has new work featured in our current project space: “In the Gallery | A Curated Summer.” Born in 1976 in Frederick, Maryland, Abelow creates paintings that “exercise autobiography, color, rigid geometric abstraction, text and expressive figuration. The works on paper are self-portraits that mock a perverse persona of himself as a painter.” Abelow had the chance to sit down with artist Ella Kruglyanskaya, who currently has an exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, to discuss his work, how he paints, absurdity and more!
Ella Kruglyanskaya: You approach your two practices, drawing and painting as if from different halves of your brain: the drawings are free form, stream of consciousness, one shot, the paintings are systematic, done in multiple steps with periods of waiting in between. How does drawing inform your painting practice if at all?
Joshua Abelow: Well, it’s a funny thing. As you point out, the drawings and the paintings are usually quite different. When I have the impulse to put something down quickly I find a pencil works much better than a paint brush. I like the simplicity and the immediacy. Painting allows me to have the exact opposite experience. I often work on a painting for an hour or two and then wipe the whole thing down just to find I prefer the ground color. It can be extremely frustrating. It is a frustration with painting which led me to the artist character you see in my drawings. So in this sense, they are very much connected. I don’t think I could do just one or the other — for me, painting and drawing are very much connected.
EK: What is the role of the absurd for your work?
JA: I’ve been pushing my drawings in more and more of an absurd direction and I think that’s pretty clear. The paintings too, but perhaps that is not as obvious. I think the paintings become more or less absurd depending on the presentation. I like showing my paintings and drawings together because I think there is a tug of war that happens – a type of argument or weird conversation. About six years ago I read Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot and that book influenced my thinking. Recently, I have been interested in Richard Brautigan – he too has a great sense of the absurd and his precise, abstract use of language is inspirational to me.
EK: What would a giant Abelow look like? Here’s my idea: take all of your recipes from the backs of your paintings and make one giant quilt-like painting using them.
JA: I made big Abelows almost exclusively for a number of years. Some of them were pretty good, but many of them didn’t turn out. Suddenly, I was stuck with a large number of crappy paintings and no place to put them. Most of this stuff was in a basement studio and one day there was a flood and fortunately the majority were badly damaged and I got rid of them. I don’t really know what a large Abelow would look like now, but I am curious and sometimes I think about making big paintings. I think I might like to make some directly based on my drawings and I see these as being big, brushy, and kind of ugly. I also have a desire to have drawings fabricated into big neon light sculptures, but I can’t tell how committed I am to that. I’ve never had anything fabricated, but there is something very appealing about it.
EK: I just pictured those neon drawings, like some sort of signage for some fun and slightly obscene night clubs.
JA: Oh, that sounds great! I’d like that.
EK: What are the qualities in a work of art that prevent you from becoming jaded from so much looking at art. What sparks long lasting interest?
JA: I take little breaks, but I always come back to it. I think great work unfolds over time and it is often the stuff I find unappealing at first that I end up coming back to. I love looking at work online because it’s easy. It’s interesting to see what galleries in New York, LA, Berlin, London, etc. are showing simultaneously from the comfort of my house. There are any number of qualities a work of art might posses which hold my attention over a sustained period of time, but I think art is contradictory by nature. So, if I were to name a few qualities which make a work of art interesting I could also find another work of art and say it holds my attention for the opposite reasons. The work I like best is full of the inexplicable. I think great work has a kind of magic about it.
EK: I agree about the magic. Though I am ambivalent about looking at art online. The convenience is great, it’s like a shortcut, but sometimes I feel there’s a shortcut that happens also in the experience of the work, it can become a bit uniform. Also sometimes things that are not great in person can look much better on the screen. But I like having that little caveat, in conversation, if you really didn’t like someones work and they happen to be a friend of a friend, you can always say, “well, I only saw it online, so…” That said, I look at your blog every day and discovered many things I didn’t know as well as great reminders of things I knew but forgot.
JA: I don’t think viewing art online is a substitute for the real thing and I know what you mean about work sometimes (often?) looking better online than in person. But, I tend to see the Internet as an additive element, which I think has great potential to extend and complicate the meaning of works/exhibitions. I know a lot of young artists are taking great care with the design of their websites and blogs and their attention to detail informs the way we look at their work. The galleries are doing this too. Optimistically, I think the Internet can be used in such a way as to breathe new life into art. In a way, that’s what I’m trying to do with my blog by putting stuff together in unexpected ways. The blog has a fairly extensive archive at this point with over 7,000 posts and as time passes I think it will be interesting to go back and see what’s there on any given day.
EK: Sometimes when artists mature, their work evolves in smaller increments, which I think is fairly normal for most people. How do you see your work changing currently? Although I totally understand if it’s hard for you to verbalize something that’s still happening.
JA: That’s an interesting question. I know some artists feel a great amount of pressure to constantly shift gears and come up with something entirely “new” all the time, but I don’t really worry about that. My work is usually in the process of becoming tighter or looser and then tighter again and on and on. The work is in a state of flux and I am here to guide it, but also to be sensitive to the direction it wants to go. I think it’s important to let the work tell me what it whats to do. Lately, the work wants to be “messier” – this is true of the paintings and the drawings. The drawings are more and more like crazy scribbles. The paintings are also looser — a lot of blobs and drips. I think my work has a lot to do with a kind of balancing act between control and spontaneity.
Be sure to check out more work from Abelow in the project space here!