What is the kernel of art? Does it lie in the form or subject, or in the shifting territory between the two? When do you manipulate the medium, and when do you follow its lead? Where are the parameters, if any, delimiting what art can contain?
A painter like Ben La Rocco doesn’t ask these questions; he lives them. His paintings are condensations of states of being, spiritual interrogations, cultural scavenging. They can be ecstatic and unforgiving, discordant and seductive — anything but easy and comfortable.
I’ve known La Rocco since 2006, when we became Managing Art Editors at The Brooklyn Rail. Over the years our dialogue has continued unabated, and his current show, Fugue State, at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, offers an opportunity to take it in yet another direction.
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Thomas Micchelli: As I was thinking of ways to approach the works in Fugue State, I found that my questions addressed them as “these paintings” instead of “your paintings” — a false but telling distinction —
Ben La Rocco: I love that. I love it because it speaks to the possibility that a painting comes through the painter, not from the painter. Then it might be something other than “his” or “hers.” Maybe even something more — that it might come from someplace else than just inside, someplace beyond our individual grasp.
TM: I keep circling back to the abrupt shift that they signal in your conceptual and painterly approach — a line of thinking that you happen to disagree with.
However, as you explained to me at the opening, you pulled the show together in a very short period of time, while your solo last year at John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York, was selected from several years’ worth of work.
BLR: That’s right. The show at Janet’s materialized in my mind. I had enough paintings to do the show according to my usual custom of just selecting from recent work. Instead, about six months out, I had a vision for the show consisting of long, narrow horizontal paintings, and not too many. Along with this came a sense of how the paintings would be painted. The two were inseparable.
TM: Those earlier paintings seemed to proceed through a process of material accretion: slabs and slithers of paint evoking landscapes, planetary systems, vegetation and cosmological symbols. The paintings differed markedly in imagery from one another, but they were unified in their improvisational choices, extreme painterliness and organic complexity,
BLR: That’s right. You see those paintings very clearly. I’m glad.
TM: With regard to those works, I brought up the term ‘metaphysical’ to characterize their manipulation of paint as pigmented matter — a compounding of textures and thicknesses encrusted, slathered, scraped, squeezed, mashed and brushed, often in the same painting.
The earlier works’ materials aggressively carry their own set of meanings. The panels of Fugue State, whose relative cohesiveness of surface defies the heterogeneity of the previous pieces, convey a strong graphic element that prompted me to describe them as more cartographic than metaphysical.
BLR: Here, our understanding diverges. Either that, or this a semantic matter. Let’s find out. You speak of one type of painting — slathered, thick, encrusted, etc — as carrying its own meanings. As far as I am concerned, any and all painting, any mark on a surface even, carries a raft of meaning. Is it intentional? Or unintentional? What was the instrument of its making? Does the mark seem ideated or more instinctual? Was the maker invested or uninvested? To me, all of these questions apply all of the time. We are dealing with a visual language and the speaker cannot ever hide.
This is an incredible thing to me because it means that I am incapable of making anything radically different from anything else except in so far as I, myself, actually change inwardly. That is one of the great beauties of painting. It is always and in all manifestations revealing self. ‘Revealing soul,’ as James Hillman would say of an image. I would argue that this is true in the most graphic types of geometric abstraction as well. The surfaces are always communicating. So in this sense, nothing can be more metaphysical in painting to me than anything else. All painting is de facto metaphysical.
TM: The press release for Fugue State asserts that the paintings “reveal the possibility of a visual space-time continuum” and that they induce “a mode of contemplation concerned with the theoretical origins of knowledge and the known universe.”
By the theoretical origins of knowledge, is it referring to the constructs formulated by the ancient alchemists? What is meant, as I read further in the statement, by “formal decisions [that] astutely reinforce [your] appropriation of ancient graphic symbols”?
BLR: Well, that is DeShawn Dumas’, who wrote the press release, interpretation of my paintings, and I decided not to impose my own words on him or it. I’m glad of this because what he writes opens things up in a different direction. I think what he’s seeing is there, but my way of working is more quixotic. Basically I just wanted a format where I could take a bunch of things I’d been looking at – manhole covers, my own geometric constructions, atmospheric space, spectra – and just arrange them in specific relationship to one another to see what they would yield. I interpret the “once known” to refer to archetypal knowledge shared by many ancient cultures. The formal similarity between my work and certain ancient symbolisms is a coincidence of a good kind for me. I just think most of those peoples had a deep, specific cultural iconography to draw from when making images. Their cultures were rich enough to create deeply significant imagery. Everything in their imagery is there for a reason. I want that same state, but my imagery is speculative. A cosmology from scratch.
TM: For me, the alchemical aspect of the show came to the fore only after touring the show with our mutual friend Craig Olson, who is well acquainted with the work’s roots and evolution. When I first walked into the gallery, however, the paintings seemed to be more aligned with the investigations into physics and astronomy that another mutual friend, Linda Francis (whose recent show at Minus Space was the subject of your Brooklyn Rail interview with her in February} has made the cornerstone of her art.
BLR: Ahhh. Craig Olson is a great interpreter of my work, as we have had an ongoing conversation about painting for the past several years — which also includes Peter Acheson, whose work is yet another touchstone for me. I like the sense of a continuum that you set up.
TM: I sense that there is some kind of double tracking here, with trains of thought running simultaneously to hard physics on one end and to a poetic evocation of unknowability on the other. If you don’t look at the titles of paintings like “Yellow Earth” and “Generating the Zodiac,” they appear to evoke astronomic entities. But once you do know what they are called, they take on a second identity as — again to quote the press release — “cosmic and astrological signifiers [that] represent a tension between science, religion, philosophy and art.”
DeShawn’s text also posits that your “reference to such a synthesis” — a synthesis, presumably, of scientific observation and “astrological signifiers” — “is an invitation if not a bridge that can be used to potentially span the illusion of time and space, in order to recall what was once known.”
Are you on board with this narrative? It is one thing to accept that the density of the universe’s mysteries will never be unraveled, but another to invest iconography with the capacity to span “the illusion of time and space.” Is it too malleable a vessel for that? Is painting too circumscribed a language?
BLR: Speaking of poetic … I have to say, I think you’ve got me here. When I speak of what painting is, it only pertains to me. This should be clear, I guess, but as we move ever further out onto the generality branch, I feel I should state it.
In answer to your question I have to say: I don’t know. All I can say is that everything always seems imminent in paintings, mine and others’. Double tracking: more than likely. When I look at a painted image, if I’m really present, time stops and things just open up. Personal things. Vast things. I don’t even have to like the painting. It’s like for some reason my mind is constituted to see the world through the lens of painting, to understand spirituality and existence primarily through it. For this reason I have difficulty contextualizing paintings. What seem like differences to others often seems like the same thing to me. But it’s not iconography. Iconography doesn’t matter. It’s the being of the maker as the thing is made. It’s what they allow into and through them that can make a painting extraordinary. It’s not iconography that can span time. It’s painting.
TM: While discussing the show with Craig, we paused for a considerable time in front of two paintings, “Eleven” and “Pavonis.” The former, a long, narrow, horizontal panel, featured a bituminous black diagram of a manhole cover on the far left and two sets of eleven vertical crescent-like slivers painted across the surface. Intersecting diagonals form a diamond shape in the middle, and ray-like lines emanate from the center of the left and right edges. There are also a couple of ghostly pink arcs on the right end that seem to be moving toward the left.
The significance of the number eleven seems to call out for attention, as well as the title of the latter work, “Pavonis.” My imperfect recollection of Craig’s definition is that pavonis is a kind of membrane formed during a state of transformation.
BLR: That painting is just all about eleven. You mentioned the two sets of eleven emanations. The painting is eleven inches tall. The emanations divide the panel into three squares, growing slightly smaller or larger depending which direction you are moving in between the squares. Eleven is two ones, the fist prime. One is the original building block and eleven doubles it in a literal way. It’s the first prime outside the ten counting digits. It’s ten plus one, balance into imbalance. Imbalance connects the fundamentally balanced forms of the squares and also, oddly, balances them. And then there’s that great Tony Smith sculpture “Elevens Are Up,” but that’s another story.
Pavonis is the peacock’s tail, the spectrum. I was thinking of it as a kind of painter’s philosopher’s stone: to find the full vastness of color in all things from mud on a board. So that painting is a meditation on how things are transformed.
TM: “Pavonis,” the painting, has the most destabilized composition in the show. The horizontal/vertical interplay of the other horizontal panels is gone, replaced by a white field occupied by two yellow arcs on the left and eleven black circles on the right, though one of the dots is sliced off at the panel’s top edge. Eleven again. Could they be read as the circles on a peacock’s tail, but with the tail’s colors combined inside them, producing black? Is the white field the absence of pigment, or is it the complete spectrum fused into white light? Does the inverse relationship of pigment, composed of mineral granules, to light, composed of photon particles, play a part in your thinking?
BLR: Yeah, eleven is all over this show. With “Pavonis,” I was interested in those black circles being a very dense, kind of impenetrable substance. I wanted each one to seem monadic, yet related to the others by virtue of its form. I wanted to contrast their impenetrability with the emanating light on the opposite side of the image, which is meant to evoke permeability or openness: the spectrum. I wanted to see what would happen if the two were brought into proximity with one another. The white field was the most neutral ground I could come up with. I wanted it to support but not interfere. I like the idea of all combined colors being opposed to discrete colors in the spectrum. That is in line with how I thought about the painting. Integration of opposites again. I’m glad that the few elements in this painting can be read as you read them. In working, I always proceed from a vague notion of how structure and feeling connect, and then interpretations such as those you put forth begin to accumulate in my mind, like reading backwards. I don’t really affirm them or reject them. They form the painting’s life-world existence.
Ben La Rocco: Fugue State continues at the Janet Kurnatowski Gallery (205 Norman Avenue, Greenpoint, Brooklyn) through April 21.