Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Mind In The Body: Thoughts On A Conceptually Oriented Material Practice & The Studio of Clayton Merrell

Adam Grossi

Ground Floor Exhibition at Hyde Park Art Center

I received a fantastic undergraduate art education from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. CMU was a relatively forward-thinking institution, rather agile on its pedagogical feet considering its size and history, when it transitioned its traditional studio arts program into a more conceptually oriented studio program in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. By the time I arrived as a contemporary-art-ignorant first-year student in 1999, the undergraduate curriculum was well established. Traditional media courses like “2D Media Studio” were (and are) requirements alongside courses called “Concept Studios” which are designed to introduce young artists to the idea of thinking about art as a discipline in its own right.

It is not without difficulty that I developed and sustained a focus on painting in this environment. My commitment to the disciplines of painting and drawing had little to do with any judgment on my part of their perceived relevance in the artistic discourse, nor was my continued interest in these traditional forms some kind of implicit protest against newer models of practice; in fact I was incredibly taken (and still am) by video, performance, and various forms of social practice that were emerging within the school at that time.

The difficulty I experienced was an internal one: while the curriculum had me parallel processing material-based and conceptual practices, I was having a hell of a time synthesizing them in my third and fourth years of study. Painting, in particular, felt just about impossible to engage with, event though on some other level I desperately wanted to continue painting. Of the traditional disciplines, painting is probably the quickest to wilt under intense exposure to flippantly applied Marxist economic critique. The cognitive dissonance I experienced while absorbing eloquent lectures on critical art theory and concomitantly observing the powerful possibilities arising out of my own art-object-producing studio practice was paralyzing. In a sense, my body wanted to paint but my mind would not let me.

It was at this point in my development that the artist Clayton Merrell became an invaluable guide, resource, and example. Clayton is a painter and professor at Carnegie Mellon, and I credit him with providing a formative example for myself and other students of a materially based conceptual artist. In his studio classes, painting was not defended from conceptual practices; it was just another form of conceptual practice, one that relied on thinking through materials in a particular way. Of equal importance was his understanding that the intellectual or theoretical realm of painting involved the theory of painting but was not confined to it; that paintings have subjects beyond their own navels, and that perhaps painting is a discipline uniquely suited to grappling with certain concerns in the realms of representation and the production of cultural meaning. His own work is absorbed in the nature of landscape, both its construction and perceived appreciation, and he was always working on a couple paintings in his on-campus office/studio that students could have the privilege of seeing in person as they met with him to discuss their own work. I developed an appreciation for the clarity and geometry of his paintings, and to this day, some ten years later, I still find my own evolving painting practice to be heavily indebted to my admiration of his methods.

In March of 2009 I had the opportunity to visit Clayton’s home studio for the first time, and after years of absorbing his paintings it was a revelation to see how he cultivates the site in which they are produced. Over the course of our conversation Clayton was generous enough to allow me to photograph anything that interested me. If a conceptual painting practice is a form of thinking through materials then it follows, as these photos demonstrate, that a conceptual painter’s studio is an arrangement of materials and space that can ably encourage the body and stimulate the mind.

“I use the simplified and codified languages of landscape painting and mapping as means to examine context and world-view in general. The bewildering multiplicity of the natural world is equaled by the multiplicity of explanations and systems (scientific, pictorial, psychological, etc.) which purport to represent the world. These systems are interesting to me largely by virtue of what they omit, and what those omissions reveal. So, in a sense, landscape is my medium because its unassuming quietness is a kind of transparency through which structural differences and subtle systemic shifts can be more clearly apprehended.”

--Clayton Merrell

Clayton’s studio is a two-level house-like building that sits on the steep slope of his backyard. He shares the studio with his wife, Valerie, who is a ceramicist.

Valerie’s workspace is the first area of the building, and without knowing much about her work, it’s already apparent the influence of sharing space with her has on Clayton’s practice. From her materials and works in progress I deduce that Valerie is forming curvilinear vessels and covering them with mineral glazes, which can only further ignite Clayton’s fascinations with pigments and non-flat pictorial surfaces.

Here’s Clayton standing in front of a few of his paintings in progress. The photo is taken from the second floor, and you can see the openness of the space allows for a multitude of angles from which to view the work, which must be helpful in exploring the different geometries and perspective shifts he employs.

The paintings occupy available space, and at the same time, the form of the space seems to encourage some of the spatial distortions in the work. At left, a sky seems to fold in on itself, and on the right, a horizon line is mirrored along the central axis of the canvas.

On the second floor we have a kind of relaxation area, for reading or conversing. Hanging on the opposite wall are finished works that straddle sculpture and painting; the shiny golden areas are actually hand-carved wood that is painted with gold leaf. As we get to talking, it turns out that Clayton has also carved the table that sits in the middle of the chairs.

A bench he’d been carving. I had seen the carved paintings in a gallery, but seeing the carved furniture reframed my understanding of the paintings; it now seems like the carving may have been initially peripheral to his practice, possibly as a form of productive procrastination (we’ve all got those), that then worked its way in the actual paintings.

Smaller paintings, studies, and works on paper hanging in close proximity. The small works on paper at right look like they may have been cut down from larger paintings and repainted, always an incredible advantage to using paper. Evidence of sanding is apparent on the two panels, presumably functioning as a way to reclaim the surface after some kind of failure, but also serving as a texture and method of application as the painting is reconstituted. At bottom left is an actual map adhered to paper and embellished with painted icons.

Intricate assortments of collected odds and ends, variously categorized and uncategorized, occupy several tables in the back of the second floor. This area looks to be designated for tinkering. I see that some spherical forms are painted, so they must have served at some point as research for other works. I’m not sure if the beakers are interesting to Clayton as objects or if they are tools. I know he mixes his own pigments and maintains an interest in alchemy (which is, essentially, what painting is) so they could function as both.

More of Clayton’s work can be seen on his website:

Adam Grossi is an artist who relies heavily on images and words, which usually take shape as paintings and texts, though occasionally become other things. He hails from Reston, Virginia and is nearly 30 years old at the time of this writing. Adam received his MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2009 and five of his recent paintings are currently on exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center as part of the show "Ground Floor." He lives and works in Chicago.

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