October 22 marks the opening of R. H. Quaytman's show, New Work, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The exhibition features a new series of paintings commissioned by the museum and made specifically for the exhibition at SFMOMA, the artist's second solo museum exhibition and the first presentation on the West Coast. Modest in scale, Quaytman's paintings on beveled wood panels proffer richly conceived, multilayered subjects.
MutualArt spoke with the show's organizer Apsara DiQuinzio, SFMOMA assistant curator of painting and sculpture, about how Quaytman examines the fascinating and complex terrain between text and image.
MutualArt: This show is the 18th chapter in an ongoing meta-narrative of the artist's own creation. Can you speak about the other chapters and the development of this chapter?
Apsara DiQuinzio: Quaytman produces each body of work in "chapters" that relate to the specific location where the paintings will be shown. Like two of her most recent bodies of work--Exhibition Guide, Chapter 15 shown at the ICA Boston, and Distracting Distance, Chapter 16 shown at the Whitney--this newest chapter responds to both the collections and spaces of institutions. Quaytman is very interested in the local and how aspects of it can be integrated into her practice. She is also highly invested in the notion of the archive. She mined institutions' archives and made paintings knowing that they will eventually compose part of her own archive. There is a slippage here that occurs between institutional boundaries that is quite compelling.
Her exhibition at SFMOMA will debut the body of work titled I Love--The Eyelid Clicks / I See / Cold Poetry, Chapter 18, which consists of roughly 30 paintings. The paintings address the fact that they are being displayed in this specific institution, within this specific city. She has selected photographs from SFMOMA's collection mostly by unknown photographers, and one by Jay DeFeo, that have been transferred into some of the paintings through her unique silkscreen process. The primary subject for this work is the poet Jack Spicer, who she has described as "the ghost that haunts the paintings." In effect, Spicer becomes a cipher for San Francisco; she considers this chapter a letter to San Francisco.
What techniques does Quaytman employ and how is medium (or mixed media!) experienced to the current set of works?
All of Quaytman's work operates both conceptual and formal levels: she builds identifiable layers that are culturally relevant, historically researched, and personally reflective, interpolating elements of time, place, perception, and memory. Collectively, her paintings portray a rich range of patterns and surfaces, and are often installed to purposively propel the direction of the viewer's movement in relation to the architecture. Moreover, myriad perspective points are represented in her paintings, importantly compelling viewers to assess their own position in relation to the paintings.
When viewed together in the gallery, optically dense geometric patterns are seen next to flat monochromatic surfaces, gridded photographic images, or faint contours disappearing under layers of sparkling diamond dust. Her ability to move fluidly between abstract, hand-applied oil and layered, photo-based silk screenings causes one to optically weave in and out of the compositional picture planes she constructs, thus drawing one's attention to the shifting relationship between figure and ground. Before applying the silkscreens to the wood beveled panels, she coats them with rabbit skin gesso, which helps to create the wonderful sense of luminosity her paintings possess. Also, the paintings are scaled according to seven different sizes utilizing the golden ratio, which makes her production very methodical and systematic. There is always a well thought-out reason for her choices.
Why and how did Jack Spicer's story, poetry, image became the inspiration for this particular exhibition?
Jack Spicer was an important poet associated with the San Francisco Renaissance during the 1950s and 60s. In 1954 he opened the Six Gallery in San Francisco, where he would often display poems on the walls alongside work by artists such as Wally Hedrick, Jay DeFeo, and Deborah Remington, among others. In 1955 Ginsberg first read his famed poem "Howl" at the gallery, an event that is widely regarded as launching the Beat movement. Spicer, however, is more under-recognized and is considered a poet's poet. There are many similarities between the way that Spicer and Quaytman work, and this was a feature she wanted to draw out in this chapter. Both of them produce a system of "composition" whereby each new body of work develops as a serialized unit in an ongoing narrative structure. For Spicer this was the book, for Quaytman it is the chapter.
A fantastic new compilation of Spicer's poems was released last year, edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, which won the American Book Award, for anyone wanting to seek out his poems. Quaytman has been following Spicer's work for many years, and is very interested in poetry in general, including the work of Robert Duncan who was a teacher of hers at Bard, a friend of Spicer's, and a central figure of the San Francisco Renaissance. Her mother is also the poet Susan Howe, so poetry has always been a part of her life. For this chapter, the primary challenge she set out for herself was how to make painting and poetry (or image and text) work together simultaneously, without privileging one medium over the other. She has actually inserted two of Spicer's poems into some of the paintings, and the title of the chapter is from Spicer's poem, "Imaginary Elegies," her favorite of his poems.
How are some reoccurring themes of Quaytman's - light, optical illusion, perspective - treated in this new group of works?
This group of paintings are very specific to San Francisco and SFMOMA, but there are some common themes that recur, such as shifting perspective lines, the edges of the wood beveled panels that are hand-painted in trompe l'oeil over the surface of the paintings, hand-painted abstractions which she refers to as "captions," intense optical patterning, as well as directional motifs such as arrows. There are several new motifs as well, such as baseball bats, snakes, mirrors, and the moon. These are all subjects that resonate with Spicer's poems. She has used the photographs as a method to reflect on his poems. In this way his poems become intertwined with her paintings in a lyrical way. Many of Spicer's poems manifest a doubling effect, where serialism becomes a structure for the poem. This doubling effect will also be reflected in the installation.
Does the exhibition include any works that might allude to previous chapters of the artist's work?
Well, as I said, yes, in that these paintings are made in similar ways as her previous paintings, but the motifs she has employed for this body of work are very distinct from the others. An interesting characteristic of her work, however, is that each of her chapters relates to one another in different ways. Like Jack Spicer, she is interested in building a community of resonances. The chapters uniquely echo one another to create a range of dialogues among them that reflect her many different influences and interests. She is currently in the process of making a book that will encapsulate all of her chapters thus far. I'm looking forward to seeing the relationships that emerge between the chapters in this book and her upcoming survey.
Written by MutualArt.com staff
All images by Jeffrey Sturgess and courtesy of the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York