A few days ago, I mentioned Mark Grim’s show at the Soularch Gallery. I finally got a chance to interview him yesterday. We met at the Corner Cup coffee shop, and were already talking before I dug out my tape recorder. We finished the interview down at his studio, a few blocks from the ocean, in the outer Sunset district.

ALC – So, you were saying something about floating images and color fields…

MG – Yeah, I’m challenging myself here, because if I say I do this, then I’ll try to find ways I don’t do it … I’m not a purist in any way. Color field painting is still a viable way to approach painting, or at least start the process rolling. But when I do use images, they’re separate from one another on a field, and they’re not recognizable – they’re abstract signs. A lot of what I do is subconscious, but it seems to flirt with the idea of images coming into being.

ALC – What do you mean by the phrase, “abstract signs?”

MG – Well, they’re like things that are real, but the “sign” part of it has to do with being seen as connections to our visual references in the world. For instance, in one of my paintings I did a kind of a proscenium or stage-like form, and I needed a shape on the stage. I had a palette knife and I liked the way the blade, when turned at an angle, had an interesting shape so I copped that shape. So it’s a sign that’s both abstract and flirts with things around me. I still think that you can draw on your environment to make paintings that are both visually cognitive as well as abstract.

My early work was based on what I really saw, and I admire people who do that, but I found that for me, temperamentally, I kept wanting to “mess it up”, experiment with this or that… So I realized, in a sense, I was… I hate to use the word “abstraction” because it sounds like nothing’s there, but I’m more interested in modes of building pictures. When I use the word abstraction, it sounds so empty. It doesn’t give people an idea. The way I’ve started to see it is that painting can be more inclusive of different styles and approaches, rather than exclusive.

ALC – Do you see abstract art as exclusive?

MG – No. I see the term “abstract” as exclusive. It doesn’t really encompass what I’m interested in. It doesn’t really tell people anything about what you do. It almost sounds adversarial in terms of realism, and I don’t buy that. To me, all the kinds of mark making, building surface, creating light, comes from my experience of painting realistically. Yet, I’m interested in applying that to other things. Taking all of those ways of creating surface, form and depth and explore with it, from the subconscious. But still with a rigorous kind of training so that you don’t just do whatever the hell you want, but that it’s based on looking at what the materials are doing… what if I put this color over that, what if I scumbled this, or dry brushed over that… what kind of relationships am I going to start to set up… then stand back and consider the options… bringing all these painterly attacks to a more personal, exploratory kind of painting.

I paint fast, but I’m a slow digester, so that’s why I work on a lot of things at one time. I keep rotating them. I can’t always see it while I’m working – I need to get some distance on it. It’s interesting to me, to tinker with it until it gets lop-sided and weird and then, if you work on it long enough, it comes back to a kind of universal familiarity. It doesn’t always work and very often I repaint things. But the best way for me to work, so that I get out of my head, is to keep working on a lot of things. I need to keep working, otherwise… When I was younger, I used to freeze, and I would go through these periods when I couldn’t work.

For a long time, when I was younger, I didn’t really trust my intuition. I was really a formalist. I tried to learn, for years, how the Dutch painters did it. Here are a couple of pieces from about 30 years ago, when I was just trying to pare it down to the bare essentials (still life at right, and head at upper right.)

ALC – Don’t you think that’s appropriate for a young painter?

MG – It is… but at the same time, it came out of my lack of trust in what I had to say, and in always being critical about learning it right. I think I could have benefitted from letting go a little bit more. For a long time I was bogged down, feeling I had to learn how Cezanne did it, I had to learn how Matisse did it. It was so hard… you know, you look at the great painters and you feel like a minnow. So now, I’m in a place where I have the balance… I have this knowlege I can bring to bear on image-building. It’s like you have to earn your right to express yourself, in that way by learning all this stuff ahead of time, and sort of forgetting it as you paint. But it’s still all there – the awareness of depth, light, tone, the weight of color… all that formal stuff we all have to learn. You have to be honest with yourself and express yourself, and I wasn’t able to do that until 15 or 20 years ago. I read this quote by Al Held and he was talking about trying to make paintings that were both subjective and objective. He wanted the subjectivity of Pollock and the objectivity of Mondrian. He said, “If it’s going to be shit, I’m going to dot the i and cross the t.” And I thought, OK, if you’re going to do something, go for it, no matter what anybody says.

ALC – So what finally inspired you, convinced you, or gave you permission to go ahead and express yourself?

MG – I think I just reached a point where I was getting older. I knew I had to do it. I don’t know what it was… I think it was around the time I moved in with Carol, and that helped stabilize me. My early work was very no-nonsense, nothing romantic or ornamental – just what needs to be there. For me, there was a lot of wrestling with certain emotional issues around making art. When I was kid, I could draw, and it was such a huge part of my life. My father and I had a difficult relationship and the only way I could be accepted by him was to be special in that way. And then when I got older I wanted to shed that idea of associating making art with needing acceptance. I thought that if I did a terrible painting that I was terrible. So that’s why I didn’t trust myself to let go. But I was in therapy for a while, and dealt with it and finally one day I realized, “hey – I’m doing this for myself.” This is just what I do.

ALC – Do you know anyone else who paints the way you do now, with that mixture of the real and abstract?

MG – Yes, there’s Thomas Nozkowski – he was a big influence on me. I had the good fortune to meet him at a show in New York. We had a good talk. Gary Stephan and Jonathan Lasker are also big influences. They’re all New Yorkers… and they all influenced me with this idea of merging abstraction and recognizable images.

(Peter Schjeldahl wrote about Gary Stephan: “Stephan practices what Clement Greenberg called, apropos abstract paintings with suggestive elements, “homeless representation.” Another epithet comes to mind, Marianne Moore’s definition of poetry: “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”)

MG – I like some of David Salle’s things, but I’m not so much into the recognizable image. You know, I think it’s just temperament – we don’t know why we do these things… Jasper Johns once said he wanted to find out what was impossible not to do. He wanted to do only what he had no choice but to do. So then art becomes a process of therapy or a spiritual pursuit. Like Nozkowski said, at a lecture he gave at CCAC (a couple of days after a show he had at Stephen Witrz Gallery) … he said he was walking with his son in the woods and saw some apples that had cracked open from freezing. They had this marvelous white jagged flesh sticking up through the red – it was a remarkable image and he actually used it one of his paintings. so he said to his son, “look at this!” But his son said, “that’s alright, Dad, but look at that sunset!” Different people are turned on by different things… I’ve noticed with my stuff, that the things that are more tonal, more Dutch-based, with more recognizable atmospheres and that sort of thing, people gravitate to. But I’m convinced that it’s largely because of the visual cues that I give them. It’s part of my nature to find out what people want and then subvert it – maybe it’s a bit of the Trickster in me..

For instance, take this piece… it’s more tonal, it’s a more 17th century palette and I think there’s certain serenity in that. A lot of my pieces are a little more raucous. The one in particular that everyone is drawn to is at the gallery – it’s called the “The Frequency of Light” (a triptych of paper on board, image at left, lower painting ) and it’s full of atmospherics. They also seem to like this one over here called, “Sweet Twist” (below, right.) You’ve got these warm tones coming through, and these segues to all the stuff behind and in front of… it’s kind of a mixture of Cezanne and the Dutch painters. It’s really a traditional painting – I mean, it’s figure/ground. I sort of flattened it out, on purpose, but it’s just this thing on an atmospheric ground. So I guess what I’m saying is, it’s OK that people like it, but now, do I want to make 40 more of them? So I experiment with things that have more to do with surface and flatness. I like experimenting with wet-into-wet candy-colored paint, and mixing it up with a little bit of trompe l’oeil with meticulous glazes, and then globby modeling paste… I’m always conscious of figure/ground, I use rhymed forms, I use a sort of code I’ve made up… but it’s all improvisational.

This one, called “Karaoke For Experts” was a real turning point for me. It’s small painting, but it really meant something to me at the time. This form on the upper left was a linear drawing – it didn’t have the modulation of form or color. Then I started to see possibilities for telling quasi-narratives in abstract. In other words, you see this form floating on a field of stripes. this drawing had both spacial recession and it was flat, at the same time, because of the overlapping lines. Then I flipped a copy of it horizontally and hid the bulk of it behind some of the stripes. So, it’s not a story-telling kind of narrative, but it does say something about how I use these elements like characters in a play.

ALC – What can you tell me about these two? (image at right, upper paintings)

MG – I was working on this (on the left) as an underpainting and I liked the way it felt, so I stopped, and after a while I realized it was finished. The one on the right is called “Winter’s Edge” – it’s two panels. Sometimes I think about the two panels as foils to each other.

ALC – How do you work with these multi-panel pieces?

MG – Well, it depends. They develop in different ways. Sometimes I have the idea of doing a multi-panel piece and I’ll rotate the panels democratically as I work on them. Then other times I’ll do one panel and then think, “This is nice, but it seems like part of of a bigger whole.” This one is an interesting example. This inset was done first and then I saw possibilities for it being part of a bigger composition, so (shows me the back) it kind of grew organically… I added the other panels and then had to re-work the first panel because the relationships had changed.

ALC – What does color mean to you?

MG – Well, it’s a component. One of the things about painting now, is that color has fallen out of favor. A lot of the art magazines devalue it these days. It’s a fashion thing. Obviously I like color, but it’s just an aspect of my work. I do like “sweet and sour” color combinations. I don’t mind of a painting’s little bit over the top, a little out there, in terms of saturation, as long as it works, as long as it’s cohesive.

I question why it always has to be about beauty. In northern California, there’s a huge emphasis on beauty, because of the wealth here. It comes from the French school, mostly. Germanic painting, for example, which is like reading Tolstoy or something, is about the horrors and trials of hard life. It’s not accepted here because people are so full of their beauty… but it’s OK to do things that ungainly and strange. Pull it back from the brink and try to make something of it. My motto is, “Clash the particles, then go in and edit it the debris.”

ALC – What are you working on now?

MG – Well, here are some things in progress… I’ve been doing these little ones, This is “Klaatu Barada Nicto” (lower right.) It’s from the movie, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” This one is called “Colonial Life” (upper right) and it reminded me of this odd little head thing, but it isn’t really that. This reminded me of a scarf, but it isn’t really a scarf. The light is naturalistic, around the form with warm and cool buildup… but what is it? So again, it’s giving people clues, but then taking it away. Can’t it be about the mystery of things? Does everything have to be so literal all the time? Can’t painting be a parallel to the mystery of life, the mystery of existence? Can you try to shoot for that? Is it worth trying to put on canvas?

Mark Grim is planning on getting a web site, but in the meantime you can reach him by phone (415)665-6352, or email him or visit the Soularch Gallery at 4033A Judah @ 46th Ave, San Francisco. (see below)

November 30, 2004 (Tuesday)
“Real Symbols for Virtual People”
paintings by Mark Grim
at Soularch Gallery
4033-A Judah @ 46th Ave.
Mon – Fri: 10am-5pm
Sat: 12-5pm

This little gallery is in my neighborhood, in fact I walk by it on my way to the beach. It’s one of those narrow, old-fashioned, little store front places with a window in the front and back. This one is between a Thai restaurant and a dog-washing outfit. It’s actually an architect’s office, but the office space only takes up the back third of the space, so the architect has kindly converted the front to a gallery.

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I first met Mark Grim a few months ago when he came to one of my shows. He said he painted in acrylics and he had studied with Robert Bechtle, although he wasn’t doing representational work any more. This show at Soularch was the first time I’d seen his work. Mark’s a fun painter to talk with, so I asked him if I could do an interview with him sometime, and I think we’re going to do that next month. Here’s a review of his previous show in this space.

Mark’s work is painterly, and very appealing (to my realist eyes.) It’s absolutely abstract, but I keep getting the sensation that I’m seeing something representational out of the corner of my eye… but then, when I focus on that area, whatever it was vanishes. I took a lot of photos, which I’ll post with the interview – (see top of page.)