Interviews

An Artist Channels His Anxiety About Painting into Painting

Paul Gagner, "Hypnotizing Curators" (2016) (all images courtesy the artist unless otherwise noted)
Paul Gagner, “Hypnotizing Curators” (2016), oil on canvas (all images courtesy the artist unless otherwise noted)

“So, the best approach [to wooing galleries] is, as you suggested, crawling on your hands and knees,” writes renowned art-world insider Howard Moseley, M.D. His recent advice column for Art 21 Magazine is the self-help guru’s latest addition to a pool of material intended to offer budding young artists safe passage through the personal and professional trials of creative production. If crippling self-doubt has not dampened your resolve, I recommend the following titles: Coping with Imaginary Foes; Don’t Fuck It Up: When Success Is Arbitrarily Handed to You; and When Art Attacks and How to Defend Yourself. But, if you are ready to pack it in, Enough is Enough: How to Quit with Dignity will walk you through the process of bowing out of the art world gracefully.

Unfortunately, none of these books actually exists, and Dr. Moseley’s advice is universally terrible. He is, in fact, Brooklyn-based painter Paul Gagner’s inner critic and, as such, is born of the same anxieties and turmoil that the doctor is meant to dispel. The confessional nature of the self-help titles does more than just betray and make productive Gagner’s own frustrations and acknowledgement of the pressures placed on young artists; it also forms an integral part of his program of demystifying the persona of the artist, studio space, and creative process.

Paul Gagner, "Abstraction as a Second Language" (2014), oil on canvas (click to enlarge)
Paul Gagner, “Abstraction as a Second Language” (2014), oil on canvas (click to enlarge)

Gagner often depicts abstract paintings — found in textbooks and on other canvases — surrounded by what he calls “dumb” objects (e.g. remnants of snacks, a tape dispenser), creating a humorous tension between the canon and the lived experience of its younger aspirants. Across his work, he has a distinct talent for capturing the pressures young artists face to find their way in a network that demands unique creative expression that’s also somehow easily packaged, like a brand. Perhaps Dr. Moseley said it best: “I like to think of creativity as a precious egg: it’s hard on the outside and gooey on the inside. You see, our egos are the brittle shell holding our gooey creativity together. We need to be very careful how we handle our eggs. You wouldn’t want a brute like Picasso handling your precious eggs, would you?”

I met Gagner — who was recently included in a show at Driscoll Babcock Galleries and will soon be in another one at Lesley Heller Workspace — in his studio to discuss how a painter whose work grapples with the creative process actually begins the process of creation, as well as the origins of Dr. Moseley and who he turns to for humor in art.

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Nathan Jones: I wanted to begin by asking about your working process, given that so many of your paintings are about the creative process itself. In them, I notice numerous references to the studio space, as well as to art-related texts. Your painting “Abstraction as a Second Language” (2014), for example, features not just an abstract painting but also a coffee cup, a notepad, and a textbook. The objects suggest a time that predates a finished painting. 

Paul Gagner: My process varies a bit. The paintings of the textbooks and of abstract paintings in my studio are a little different from how I’ve been working recently. They both started off with generic-looking abstract paintings — that faux-Gerhard-Richter-looking texture [in “Making Sense of Nonsense” (2015)] is from edge to edge. I’m literally spreading paint around. It started off as an exercise to just loosen up, starting from nothing and building from this messy nonsense of painting. I never saved these; I would always just paint over them. I didn’t think of them as being particularly interesting, but then, at some point, I started providing a context for them. So they become abstract art with quotation marks, or a painting that acts as an illustration of an abstract painting.

Paul Gagner, "Making Sense of Nonsense" (2015), oil on canvas
Paul Gagner, “Making Sense of Nonsense” (2015), oil on canvas
Paul Gagner, "Brancusi's Broom" (2014), oil on canvas (click to enlarge)
Paul Gagner, “Brancusi’s Broom” (2014), oil on canvas (click to enlarge)

But I found it frustrating to speak about my work as paintings within paintings. They were, instead, a way of talking about my anxiety about the act of painting. I like to just smear paint around until something starts to come to mind. I don’t draw, so it’s kind of like drawing or sketching. I heard this story a long time ago, of how Brancusi would supposedly walk into his studio, and for the first hour or two, he would sweep. I love the idea of him getting into a mental state of preparation, because you can’t just walk in off the street and say, “I’m gonna paint.” It doesn’t feel quite right. So you do something to get yourself into it, and doing something mindless becomes, for me, that way of drawing or moving into …

NJ: An entrance into a certain headspace to be able to complete something.

PG: Yeah. I mix a lot of cold wax into my paints, so it feels really malleable, something that can be shaped and pushed and sculpted. That’s how I like to think of my painting process and the paint itself — as an endlessly malleable process. So that also plays into starting with nonsense and then pushing it into some form of a painting.

Wax mound in Paul Gagner's studio
Wax mound in Paul Gagner’s studio (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

NJ: It seems like there is a demystification of the studio space and the persona of the artist in your work. I really like the painting “Studio Windows” (2014) — the title seems to play with Alberti and the idea of the canvas as a window onto the world, but it’s like this is the studio version, where everything still harbors latent potential. “Studio Windows” is a finished painting, but it depicts a process that hasn’t started yet — an empty pane, not yet a window. I mentioned that your subject matter often predates a finished painting, insofar as your end goal is capturing what happens during the process of creation. This leads me to think about Abstract Expressionism. When we think of Abstract Expressionism, we think of the canvas as a recipient of the artist’s psychological state. But in your paintings, it seems that there is an interruption of that sense of immediacy. It’s an interesting and humorous tension — the representation of an abstract painting, perhaps understood as emotionally “real” or “authentic,” but leaning up against the studio wall or printed on a torn page in a textbook.

PG: That’s a really interesting point. I admire those artists. But there is a myth about them that persists: of this outpouring of emotion and the idea that somewhere in that expression there is something subconscious. When I go to paint abstractly, I don’t get the intense rush of anger, sadness, or happiness; I get frustration and boredom from creating abstract paintings. I look at it, and I don’t know where to end. I don’t know if it’s good. I don’t know why anyone would give a shit about this abstract painting. That’s my reaction to painting abstractly, and I suppose I’m probably doing it wrong [laughs].

Paul Gagner, "Studio Windows" (2014), oil on canvas
Paul Gagner, “Studio Windows” (2014), oil on canvas

At some point I realized what was more interesting to me was to sort of dispel that myth, reveal that we’re all melodramatic. We’re not magicians, and behind the artist is a lot of insecurity and frustration. Part of the demystification I am after is showing the mundane and ordinary things that an artist does — I eat pretzel sticks and cookies. It’s to make the whole thing seem very ordinary, or almost “dumb.” I love that word, “dumb.” Not in a way of lacking intelligence, but “dumb” in the way that it’s quiet, there are no words, it’s blunt, like dumb objects. What I like about my work that features abstract paintings is that the artifice is the stuff around it, the dumb stuff. The abstract paintings are the most honest part — “I’m just doing whatever, and we’ll see what happens.” What is sort of flimsy and fake is the stuff surrounding the abstract painting. I always liked that, because it sometimes feels like my work is a criticism of abstraction, and I never intended for that to happen. I wish I could be that kind of painter, but I don’t feel confident enough. What makes me confident is the stuff around it — the artifice, putting lipstick on it, dressing up the abstract painting to make it presentable.

Paul Gagner, "Interference" (2014)
Paul Gagner, “Interference” (2014) (click to enlarge)

NJ: So you’re channeling self-doubt, self-criticism. I was first able to see that in your work when looking at your paintings of fictional self-help books. Self-help books sell you this idea of hope and control: if you follow these steps, then you can achieve your goal. You might buy a self-help book thinking you will gain leverage over a situation that is, in reality, impossible to control. When I look at your self-help books, it seems like you are offering control over seemingly uncontrollable scenarios, whether that’s being a famous artist or controlling your image after death. There is a likelihood that these will be futile endeavors.

PG: I like that it provides a kind of hope and it offers some sort of action, but the action is futile. There are times when, as much as I love what I do, I have these moments when I feel like I might be making luxury goods for an elite class. I’ve been fortunate enough to where that hasn’t really been the case. But you can feel like, what am I doing here? [My work isn’t] really changing the world.

The books came about [because] there was a need for them, frankly. Friends of mine run a gallery, Transmitter, and had a booth at the Select Art Fair during Armory Week 2015. They set up the size limitations for the artists they wanted to include, and it was about 12” x 16”. They asked me [to contribute], and I thought, “Well, fuck, that’s the perfect size for a book … I’ll do a self-help book.”

Paul Gagner, "Hexes, Curses, and Spells" (2016), oil on canvas (click to enlarge)
Paul Gagner, “Hexes, Curses, and Spells” (2016), oil on canvas

I’ve read plenty of them, so I’m familiar with the genre and thought it felt perfect and funny. It had everything I wanted. One of the questions that came up was, “Who is the author of this?” I thought it would make sense if it were some sort of fictional, idealized, authoritative figure. Within all of us, there is the voice that seems to know more than we do, the inner critic. I felt like these books were the critic inside me, the person who supposedly knows more, but he really doesn’t [laughs]. His advice is terrible or nonsensical. The name — I don’t remember exactly where Moseley came from, but Howard is from Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. He’s British, and I imagine Howard Moseley to be British. He’s an art historian, and he’s a really smart but bumbling guy.

NJ: There is a very dark, somewhat cynical humor present in these self-help books, so I wanted to wrap up by asking if you had other artists you look to for their humor.

Paul Gagner, "Muta Domum Herba" (2016), oil on canvas
Paul Gagner, “Muta Domum Herba” (2016), oil on canvas (click to enlarge)

PG: Oh, absolutely. One artist that’s particularly hot right now: Nicole Eisenman. She’s wonderful. Dana Schutz I think has got a really wonderful sense of humor. Another one, a sculptor, actually, who you wouldn’t think I would have a direct relation to: Rachel Harrison. She’s great. She makes these really large, blobby-looking sculptures that usually have some sort of thrift-store found object on it or leaning against it. You know, you wouldn’t think she was funny, [but] hearing her interviews, Amy Sillman’s got a good sense of humor. I absolutely adore her paintings, but I really like how she talks about her work. She wrote about how she broke up with abstraction, and it’s really funny. She made it sound like a “Dear Jane” or “Dear Joe” letter — “I’m breaking up with you because … ” It was really witty, and in the humor, it made perfect sense. It wasn’t just humor for humor’s sake. It was instead a funny way to talk about how abstraction wasn’t providing enough substance or nourishment for her paintings, and that she needed to move on. That’s cool.

Paul Gagner’s work will be included in the exhibition Common Room, running September 7–October 16 at Lesley Heller Workspace (54 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan).

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