Speak Speak: Erling Sjovold and Emily Weiner

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Every month, Grizzly Grizzly will posit questions to our exhibiting artists. These will be big picture questions, designed to give context to their work and working process.

We hope that you will enter the conversation and give us your thoughts as well. This month we speak to Erling Sjovold and Emily Weiner about their January 2013 exhibition ‘The Pre-existence of Landscape.’  

CINDY STOCKTON-MOORE:  Grizzly Grizzly has a history of pairing artists who have not shown together… and often never met.  For us, part of the lure of putting together a two-person show is finding a pair of artists whose work relates on some levels but is distinctly different.    What do you see in each others work is relevant to your practice or where does it diverge?’

ERLING SJOVOLD: I see in Emily’s work, and especially in her video, our obviously shared interest in artifice as applied to landscape. Self-conscious use of color, surface and composition underscore concepts of nature as culture bound, a product of human projection and technological evolution, and not something outside of us. Illusions of deep space or trompe l’oeil meet their contradictions in painted/videotaped passages that flatten, antagonize or disrupt space. Nature is not a passive portal to pass through, nor a space to seamlessly colonize, as much as desire, nostalgia, or will may be invited to do so. A backpack trip turned bad, a seizure in the middle of the Sierras, makes this clear more than any theory. The interest rests in this tension between the rhetoric of transportation and its denial. 

For example, it’s possible here to put a taboo such as escapism on the table where “nature”, or its relatives “spirit” and “authenticity”, is often the foil, as in Richter’s landscapes talking back to Friedrich’s. Less metaphysical, one’s transportation fantasy may be the capitalist fetish of unfettered mobility. The question is less one of escapist or not escapist, but of acknowledging escapism as a widespread cultural impulse. The better question is one of self-awareness, of consciously toying with escapist constructions as if reminding oneself to stay in the present, on tasks at hand, in Camus’ absurdity. 

My paintings diverge in their topical concerns. Displaced birds frozen on perches, unable to gauge the distances of synthetic spaces. Global pilgrim flying out of the sky or into vertigo, all legs and mobility, no head, its own hurricane, claiming the world of foxes. Desert trash as contemporary western told through sprawl architecture and rationalized torture presented as fine porcelain ware. I’ve always liked reconstructed political cartoonists and symbolists like Ensor and Guston. Also, in my fondness for surrealism I find the uncanny a resonant idea through which to explore landscape rather than the obligatory sublime or picturesque. Anthony Vidler’s appropriation of Freud to interrogate space is liberating.

EMILY WEINER: When I encountered Erling’s work, I felt an immediate connection to what I was trying to do with possibilities for light, depth and space through painting. His palette is rapturous… beautiful, and maybe even a bit overwhelming to belie its bright aesthetic. And the imagery, particularly that of landscape, nods to the traditional sense of the sublime in painting.

Actually at the opening, Erling and I talked briefly about landscape and the sublime—particularly as it has traditionally been tied up with the politics of its time: as with the Hudson River school artists of the nineteenth century, for instance (whose dazzling vistas also visualized the ideology of Manifest Destiny), or even with contemporary advertisements (the painter Marc Handelman makes a great reference to the defense corporation Northrop Grumman who in their ads use sunset-sky views to promote war machines).

But meaning in landscape is slipperier in my work, and I think probably Erling’s too. While acknowledging the sublime and its historical power, I also think that landscape can point to a more singular memory or personal occurrence—Like that little glowing corner in one of Erling’s paintings: it immediately reminded me of my own experience in the suburbs, with its lonely but still kind of poetic quietude (When I mentioned it, Erling explained he painted that passage while overlooking a parking lot). I like to consider the many different ways we experience place and time, and I think landscape is a good stand-in for that. For example, my painting of Sulfur Mountain in Banff: While I painted that this summer in a studio with views of the actual mountain, the image was actually modeled after a viewmaster slide from the 1948, owned at one point by my father. 

In regard to differences between my paintings and Erling’s, the other immediate thought I had was that I need years ahead to catch up with him technically. He is using paint, color, and material with this crazy fluency, and often on a large scale. I’m okay with that though, because my makeshift way of creating illusionistic form often leads me to something kind of alchemical, even if naive. I guess like most painters, I have taught myself technique, so those naive moves of mine (like painting with plastic wrap, irregular splatters, or blobs of paint made with sticks and feathers) inform the next move on a canvas and allow me a certain surprise to make up for the technical things I don’t know.

And while the way we apply paint is often very different, I think a notable similarity we share is a receptiveness to art that has come before: Imagery in the works like Erling’s painted China (he explained also at the opening that the imagery actually came from a European woodcut), my Egyptian hieroglyphics or the momento mori of a gravestone I photographed in France—together gave a sense to me that our work collectively was like this cycling machine, subconsciously digesting and rehashing some well-trod and well-traveled subjects.

JOSH WEISS: The depiction of a landscape is an observation of a real or fictional space. Both of your works blur the lines between these types of spaces. What does this ambiguous space mean to you in relationship to the contemporary landscape?

ERLING SJOVOLD:  While thinking on this question I heard by chance the Velvet’s “Some Kinda Love” with its great line, “between thought and expression lies a lifetime” which cooly and erotically calls out this gap, between ideal and real that ambiguity may fill, as a seduction. Go Team Lou.

Situating landscape as an ambiguous space seems appropriate at any time regarding the construction of place. Thankfully Emily addressed place, and eloquently, since we share this fundamental interest. Most of my paintings are built around some sense of place or time, and their making always entails some level of ambiguity even if it’s not outwardly apparent. The ambiguity may be in my memory or history of the process, private, as though each painting houses its secret version of Giacometti, where a truce is simply called to the reality of perpetual questioning. Place eludes clarity and invites messy definitions every bit as much as defining its constituents such as the moment, or memory, or identity, which are simply other moving targets. Place is so profoundly mediated, internally and externally, and the circulation of place within virtual networks only adds to the ambiguities. But the mess begins often enough in the benign low-tech palette where color relationships create unique expressions of light, and that sense of interior illumination conveys place as much as the ostensible subject. I once set out to paint Savannah with absolute fidelity to its light and it came out “Los Angeles”, where I was born. Truth mocking will. It is precisely this imprecision and ambiguity that propels and suits painting’s mercurial and flexible nature between subject, object and materiality. These paradoxical displacements of time and subject play out poetically in Emily’s richly layered conceptual process of painting the mountain in Banff.  My painting “Western: Night”, with the purplish electric atmosphere and foreground bird, features a corner painted faithfully from observation, en plein air, of a parking lot in Richmond, VA (as Emily mentioned earlier) that is folded into an invented space recalling Southern California, its houselights climbing the hills and day’s heat cooling with night. It is both and neither of those places, becoming, as most paintings do, its own place. 

Regarding contemporary culture specifically, for us to express landscape as ambiguous seems productive if not unavoidable. Thinking broadly about space and geography, the ambiguous blurring of real and imagined is the realm of displacement and memory, the hybrid space of mobility and migration, like the “non-site” spaces of Smithson that anticipated the uncanny nowhere/everywhere expression of our virtual society. More concretely, the extraction industries alter landscapes daily, such that yesterday’s image is lost to today’s, and today’s to tomorrow’s. Mountaintop mining is a dramatic example. Fracking is a perfect landscape subject to address this gap between real and fictional, or, better, real and imagined, since it involves the seen and unseen, immediate action and delayed (unknown) consequence, starting with gas as its subject but inevitably ending with potable water as its subject, high hopes and bad dreams. How should I paint an aquifer? How do I paint it tainted by invisible toxins? How do I paint the still life with my glass of drinking water? How do I return to paint the topography where it all started? Will depicting a drilling rig really say anything? Curiously, the enlightened actions of restoring landscapes, from uninhabitable to habitable, also produce the same ambiguities framed in this gap between real and fictional. A state may blow up a dam to restore steelhead spawning upriver but that doesn’t erase history, it only makes the landscape more difficult to read and more ripe for fantasy. What if Hetch Hetchy Dam is removed? Will we discover the grand valley that John Muir mourned losing? Whose Hetch Hetchy? Our country’s debate over climate change produces related ambiguities and tensions. Where the weather, or climate, was once assumed to exist outside of us and our agency, the anthropocene era insists that this weather/climate is an expression of us and demonstrably within our agency. Those are two very different landscapes at play in a, loosely speaking, reverse Copernican revolution with humankind returned to the center of its universe. A genuine paradigm shift or deja vu?.  While I have many good reasons for imagining landscapes as ambiguous, some highly subjective and idiosyncratic, for the sake of play alone is enough for me, I find plenty of tangible examples in our country’s contemporary give-and-take over natural resources and in our debate on climate change. Climate or canvas these are human drives being expressed.

EMILY WEINER:  I’d say that the landscapes I depict are psychological spaces, which are neither real nor fictional exactly. Places I depict might have some reference to a real, physical space in the world—be it the mythologized memory of something I witnessed myself (here, a moonrise over Tunnel Mountain); a projected destination (only witnessed through a Kodachrome slide); or some hallucinatory place (a gradient which could equally represent some state of meditation and a sunset from an airplane).

I wish I could say I intend my work to have a message about the environment in some socio-political sense, but it’s not quite so practical. The contemporary landscape I’m pointing to is not that of the earth’s malfunctioning ecosystems—not directly, at least, though of course we’re all part of that. Rather I draw from a spiraling, interior life that’s constantly filtering the collective “out there,” with all its history, competitive contemporaenity, faux-finishes, ecstasy, and angst. That said, though, I think painting turns that interior view inside out, back into the collective conscious—so it’s never totally apolitical.

I think that Erling just said eloquently what I’ve been circling around forever, in my studio and in the everyday: “ yesterday’s image is lost in today’s, and today’s to tomorrow’s.” A good example of that from my own surroundings, is Lower Manhattan. Psychologically and structurally, it feels so different there today from how it did living here in 2000, 2001, or 2005. It seems to me that in one’s own head, that phenomenon exists just as brutally and beautifully. Building an image in paint is the best way I know how to articulate those seismic shifts: the epiphanies and catastrophes that appear, get layered, and get lost or found over time. For me, right now at least, that’s the point of painting.

To view photos of the exhibition ‘The Pre-existence of Landscape’ and find out more about Emily and Erling’s work, please visit our website.

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