I’ve gotten to know Craig Stockwell because he lives in Keene, New Hampshire, which is close to where I spend time every summer. When he visits New York City, it feels as if he’s bringing that air and sense of place with him. There is an earthy clarity to his intelligence and manner. Stockwell’s abstract painting — with its playful rhythms and linear structures — acknowledges the co-existence of mathematical order with the bodily, geometry tempered by blood and decay. It is a combination we are forced to confront in nature, but perhaps can more easily avoid in urban life.
Stockwell and I met recently in his Keene studio, which is a sequence of rooms in a converted office space. The smaller rooms are where Stockwell keeps drawings, older work, and piles of reproductions and books. Painters who lived and exhibited in New England, like Jake Berthot and Porforio DiDonna, are highly represented. They, like Stockwell, have straddled the line between tough material abstraction, nature, and the figure. These smaller, darker rooms open up into his working space, where several different series of paintings happily co-exist.
Stockwell’s work explores sensual and intuitive possibilities within self-prescribed systems. He establishes rules for sets of paintings, such as making nine panels based on one recurring rhythm or shape. In much of his work there is a vertebrae-like form that often morphs into a more voluptuous, feminine body. It suggests a kind of adventurous interchange between people, forces, and sexualities.
Stockwell was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1952 and studied at Dartmouth College and Rhode Island School of Design. For several years, while living in Minneapolis, Boulder, Boston, and New York, Stockwell made sculptural installations with glass. Stockwell gradually transitioned into a painting practice while living with his young family in New Hampshire, and received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2000. Stockwell was awarded a Fellowship from the Sharpe-Walentas Space Program in Brooklyn for the years 2013-14. He has been the subject of several recent solo exhibitions at Gallery Benoit and Genovese/Sullivan, both in Boston. Stockwell is currently the Director of the Visual Arts Program at the low-residency MFA at New Hampshire Institute for Arts. His work is now on view as part of the 2016 deCordova New England Biennial, at the de Cordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, Massachusetts.
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Jennifer Samet: You grew up outside of Boston. Was art or art-making part of your childhood?
Craig Stockwell: My oldest sister could draw beautifully from life. She would copy the covers of pop music magazines and draw the stars. But, other than that, there was no art in my family. By the time I was in high school, cultural information was really intriguing to me, and I had this feeling of being shut out. I didn’t want that.
My graduation gift from high school was a huge Andrew Wyeth book. I had been interested in Wyeth since I first saw his work. We spent a lot of time in Maine, and I knew there was something about Maine — the farmers and the poverty — that was really sad. There were still many farmers, and lot of poverty. So when I first saw “Christina’s World” (1948), it resonated because it had that beauty, but real pain and sorrow too.
I think that during my senior year in high school the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston had a big Wyeth show. And I think I did go and see it and that’s around the time that the big book came out. So I put the two together and said, “I want that.”
JS: When did you begin making art?
CS: It was not until I was at Dartmouth College, when I signed up for an art class on a whim. Then, after a year and a half, I transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design. I went there to study painting, but because it was 1972, the painting department was in complete confusion.
One day I walked by the glass shop, and there was Dale Chihuly. It turned out to be the most vital place on campus. Dale was attuned to the New York art world and conceptual art. He would bring wonderful visiting artists to the program, essentially introducing an element of play and experimentation. He was good at bringing a lot of people together to try things. That idea of collaboration challenged my youthful idea of the romantic artist, and the solitary studio practice.
After school I lived in Minneapolis, Boulder, and then Boston. I was doing process-based conceptual sculpture. In 1980, Alanna Heiss invited me to do a large installation at PS1, in a show of eight sculptors including Richard Nonas, Mark di Suvero, and Louise Bourgeois. Because of that show, I moved to New York, and, quite accidentally, to Williamsburg.
I became involved with artists who were part of the Whitney Program. The issues of identity politics, which were on everyone’s mind, made me really question my voice. I had been working along intuitive lines, and I pulled back from that.
At the same time, since it was 1980, the work of people like Julian Schnabel and David Salle led to a reinvention of painting. Of course it was problematic, but it was also thrilling to see paint alive again. So I began to intermix sculpture and painting. I would put big masonite panels on my wall, paint on the wall, paint on the panels, paint on glass. I participated in an exhibition in the East Village in an abandoned school, and covered an entire hallway — painting on the walls, spray paint, sheets of glass. I moved more and more into painting, and the work became more expressionistic. The culture of New York and the East Village — places like the Mudd Club — was monolithic.
But I left New York in 1986, and stopped making work. I lived in Spain for two years, then moved to New Hampshire, and got a degree in elementary education. I completely assumed that my life was headed in another direction. But in my early 40s, after a terrible year of teaching middle school, I set up a table in the garage and started drawing. I was coming back to things out of a clear emotional need. Eventually, I went to Vermont College, for an MFA. Again, it turned out to be a very difficult time to study painting – the faculty was very resistant. So I had two years to find out why painting was right for me.
I realized that what I needed at that point in my life was a container. The flat painting surface represented that container. I thought about the playing field it represents — what can happen in there, how it is loaded by tradition and clichés. I thought about how it is actually a place to develop language.
I worked in series, on rule-based projects – like twelve paintings of the same size. I would create situations, like nine elements to start with. There would be a limited vocabulary, but there was always an element of the unknown. I was also working with charcoal and cold wax.
JS: You have also written extensively on art. How has that influenced your work and career?
CS: In 2000, I saw an exhibition at the Aldrich Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, called Glee: Painting Now. A number of things resonated with me, and I sat down to start writing about it. I had seen an ad in Art New England that they were looking for writers. So I wrote a review of the show and sent it to Carl Belz, who was the editor, and former director of the Rose Art Museum. We had a wonderful dialogue for a while, and I began writing for the magazine. He introduced me to the people who became my gallery in Boston. It opened a lot of possibilities.
I was living in New Hampshire, and it can be painful to be out of the conversation. Writing was a way to be part of the conversation. I began to realize that the work I do in the studio is also part of this. Studio work is what we offer to be invited into the conversation.
JS: In a recent interview you mentioned that most of the painters you admire are women. Why do you think that is?
CS: That first came up in relation to Katherine Bradford. I have realized, that, especially in the last few years, many of the painters I’m enthralled with are either women over 60, or artists of color. I realize that the common thread is they are people who were shut out of the conversation in their 20s and 30s. So, they actually had time to develop a serious practice, with depth. Stanley Whitney’s exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem last summer was just amazing to me. The paintings were so playful, and they also had that deep, inherent intelligence that comes from having worked with something for a long time.
JS: Doug Ashford is an artist who seems especially important to you. What interests you about his work?
CS: Ashford was a teacher of mine at Vermont College and is a close friend. I find his work fundamental to much of what is going on right now. For Documenta13, he built a Danish modernist-looking cabin on the grounds, with a glass-walled cabana. It included small paintings with pure color and line, and photographs of a dance performance that he commissioned. The performance was a re-enactment of a New York Times photograph of a tragic event. A couple was arriving at the scene where their children were discovered dead in the trunk of the car. The man is catching his wife just as she drops and falls and breaks down.
The conversation between photography, the dance performance, and the painting is a contemplation of the relationship between formalism and empathy. I thought Ashford made a wonderful connection between the two — by using the expressionism of this deeply painful moment juxtaposed with formalist painting — to address how they inform each other.
JS: I notice reproductions in your studio of artists like Jake Berthot, who balanced modernist formalism, the grid, and nature-based expressionism. Can you talk about any other painters who were important to you in terms of this conversation?
CS: There’s Porforio DiDonna and Gregory Amenoff, who exhibited, along with Berthot, at the Nielsen Gallery in Boston. The gallery, along with Boston University, sustained a lineage of painting. Chris Martin was important to me as well. In the 1960s and 1970s we lived our lives thinking that we could move into the ecstatic. But we can’t. Half the people burnt out; half the people died. I said to Chris, “Ecstasy isn’t possible, and yet you have decided to pursue the ecstatic nonetheless. ”
Peter Acheson was also really intriguing to me. He would say, “I’m going to make 30 bad paintings. Any time they begin to become aesthetic, or beautiful, or interesting, I move on to the next one.” His goal was to constantly beat down the Apollonian.
JS: In recent work you are addressing the theme of Civil War battlefields, represented by a kind of abstract map or grid structure. How did you begin this work?
CS: I did a residency at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in the fall of 2015. It is seventeen miles from Appomattox, the site of one of the last battles of the Civil War. I became curious. When I left the residency and was driving back home, I spent seven days visiting the battlefields and taking long walks. I was thinking about how the place carries history, and also how the soldiers were able to keep moving forward.
On the battlefield, the essential battle is between the controlled forces and the uncontrolled forces. The different armies and troops have moments of being brilliantly in control, but most of the time they are working in the dark. There is confusion, and things are falling apart. This was especially true in the Civil War, when communication was so difficult.
In our contemporary political moment, there is a conversation about control and freedom happening — on both sides. The conversation between expressionist and formalist painting is a metaphor for this. It is a way to re-enact that conversation between control and loss of control on the painting surface.
JS: Your paintings tend to layer and create networks of forms, which can be both geometric and biomorphic. You have also written about the idea of “network painting.” Can you talk about this?
CS: I’m interested in David Joselit’s idea of network painting. “Social Networks” was a component of the major painting exhibition, Painting 2.0: Expression in the Information Age, last year at the Brandhorst Museum in Germany. As a viewer, these are the kinds of painting exhibitions that are interesting to me. There is a lot of continuity but also contradiction between the elements. It is about conversation, rather than everything supporting each other and adding up to a whole.
The first essay Joselit wrote on the subject was “Painting Beside Itself” (2009). Jutta Koether was a main exemplar — in terms of how she brought art history and performance into painting and installation. Other artists working in this mode include R.H. Quaytman and Richard Aldrich. It is about our contemporary mode of receiving and digesting information through a network, as opposed to the modernist idea of moving towards a culminated object. It is expanding out. It is installation-based.
JS: You also have an extensive history of working with the figure and the bodily. Can you talk about the bodily presence in your work, the spine-forms in earlier paintings, and your use of images of George Mallory, the English mountaineer?
CS: George Mallory was an officer in World War I. He survived. Seven years later, he was again in a terrifying situation — attempting to climb Mount Everest. But he was there on his own agency. It is about a magnificent death instead of an awful death, in a way. That has been a recurrent psychological subject for me over a long time. Freud’s concept of the Death Drive has always been a deep metaphor for me.
In graduate school, I did body-based, earthy, physical painting. I made the spine series around the time my mother was dying of cancer. I think that, at its best, Western Christian thought acknowledges disgust, mortality, and empathy for the fallen body. It is a beautiful line in Western thought. To engage your own disgust, and live with your own disgust, is a realm of empathy and love.
Of course, in our current political moment, that is exactly what Trump is so solidly against. He’s basically saying, “That’s disgusting. Don’t you hate that stuff? I hate that stuff. Let’s get it out of here.”
I have thought about my own relationship to my mother, and to women. As the four-year-old boy moves into the eight-year-old, you begin to realize that your mother — this person who represents total love — has a body that is different from yours. That body is all kinds of things; it stinks, at times. Then, at age 15, I discover total fascination with the female body — discovering girlfriends. Beyond that, in adulthood, when you live with and care for somebody, there also can be an element of disgust. If you can’t live with that, relationships don’t survive very well. This is true of the intimate world, but also the larger world of how we live with each other.
I think about this in terms of working with rigorous geometric abstraction. When you create any pristine world, it fails to acknowledge the dark underside.
JS: This reminds me that you did a group of works in the early 2000s called The Monogamy Project. Why did you give it that title?
CS: I knew it was a word in such disfavor, and it was related to the insight, in my 40s, that painting could represent a container. I had survived the first ten years of marriage. I had feared that container. I believed the idea that relationships start with passion, and then go into long decline, where all erotic interest is lost. I thought it was the container of monogamy that makes this happen.
But, in fact, that wasn’t the experience I was having. My experience was getting richer. I began to consider whether monogamy was perhaps more radical than ecstatic experimentation. The same could be true of art. I thought about how, if Eros represents life force, working within the limitations of the container was an invitation to all the erotic possibilities of painting.