Douglas Florian – Seeing Words

Douglas Florian, Beowolves, Oil on linen, triptych, 96″ X 95″ 2015-16

Douglas Florian‘s paintings resonate with hypnotic chants – repetitive texts or letters resemble spells or curses, a child’s scribbles, or ancient liturgical notes. His marks and vibrant pigments form altogether abstracted and rhythmic fields which entice you to take a close look, read, and simultaneously listen to your own inner voice. Douglas Florian shares with Art Spiel some background and ideas behind his work.

AS: Can you tell me a bit about your art journey – what do you think brought you to writing and visual art?

Douglas Florian: My father was a painter of landscapes, sandscapes, seascapes, and assorted living things, but he was forced to retreat into the ruthless world of advertising to support the family. My mother had a great love of literature and was a voracious reader. When I was about 6 years old she took me to MoMA where I participated in a collage workshop for children that still seems vivid to me. I remember that there was a wide array of papers for us to choose from, including shiny metallic ones, transparent ones, and textured ones. When I was older my father would take my brother and me to MoMA to view art. I recall encountering the work of such artists as Robert Ryman, Ad Reinhardt, Matisse, Picasso, and Magritte. I wound up studying art at Queens College with the teachers Charles Cajori, Mary Frank, Clinton Hill, Eli Friedensohn, and Lois Dodd. I found the experience there quite valuable but was thrilled to graduate and be free of some “twenty years of schooling.”

Douglas Florian, Big Fat Liar, Oil on linen, 50″ X 48″ 2016

AS: Can you tell me about a typical day in your studio? How do you start a body of work?

Douglas Florian: I like to think there is no “typical day in my studio,” as I attempt to always come there with fresh and current expectations. I don’t work by formula or on automatic pilot. I normally get there about 7 AM and leave 7PM with an hour or two for emails, social media, lunch, and draft dodging, but mostly just painting, as my work is labor intensive and frequently fermentive. As Rothko said, “A painting lives by companionship.” A body of work usually starts from things I see or remember seeing, poems I read, songs I hear, or angels I wrestle with. My work can feed off of older work I’ve done but almost always drastically departs from the source.

Douglas Florian,Tata: Venus Squared, Oil on wood, 19″ X 19 1/2″, 2012

AS: In a recent Hyperallergic review of your painting exhibition at BravinLee Programs, John Yau says that “In repeating the letters and words, Florian is conducting an exorcism or attempting a magical reversal.” Can you talk about your use of words?

Douglas Florian: Yes, I am a board-certified exorcist and a court-appointed magician. Actually, my love of words goes back to the fifth grade when I devoured the pithy poetry of Ogden Nash. I love word play and dwell upon the sounds of words as they roll off the tongue or other parts of the body. I’m intrigued by foreign languages such as Hebrew, Japanese, Russian, Polish, and Spanish for the way they sound, the way they look, their hidden meanings and the way they can express culture. A word can evoke so many meanings and emotions since no two people see a word exactly the same way. And the meanings of words can change over time. Just think of the word “pink.” I’m also intrigued by the way letters can be hand written.

Douglas Florian, KafkaKabukimo カフカカブキム, Oil on linen, diptych, 84″ X 132″ 2015-16
Douglas Florian, Mr. & Mrs. Mojo Moto: Lost in Zero Gravity モジョ・モト氏と夫人,Oil on linen, diptych, 84″ X 132″ 2015-2016

AS: I would love to take a closer look at some paintings from that show with you. Can you tell me about Little Espinoza for example – what is the genesis of this painting?

Douglas Florian: Little Espinoza is actually a small study, 50 X 26 inches, for a later larger painting called “Spinoza’s Lost Lens,” a diptych 84 X 126 inches. The oil paint here is thinned out a great deal so that the work resembles a watercolor, and is quite luminous with complementary colors that vibrate to some degree. I prefer to let the viewer decipher the meaning and interpretation of the painting, but I will say it is based to some degree upon the life of Baruch Spinoza, also know as Benedicto de Espinosa. He was a Sephardic Jewish Dutch philosopher of the 17th century whose family was expelled from Portugal. His ideas about God, free will, and rational thought were many years ahead of his time, but were so controversial that he was banned from Jewish society. He spent his few short years on earth grinding the lenses of microscopes and telescopes and writing his great work “Ethics.”

AS: I am curious to know more about your choice of color. Yau for instance, mentions in relation Little Espinoza that Organe is the color of the Dutch royal family, traced back to Willem Van Oranje, who led the revolt against the Spanish, resulting in the Dutch independence in 1581. Do you often use color as a metaphorical layer for political and social consciousness?

Douglas Florian: I may start a painting with a group of colors in mind, say a light pink, a viridian green, a burnt sienna, and a bright red. I believe in a limited palette, as I think if you have too many colors they tend to cancel each other out. I usually select colors for formal reasons rather than for “political and social” agendas. The only works I’ve created with an overt political bent were the paintings “Big Fat Liar” and “Big Fat Loser.” I think the art world is overly politicized now to an authoritarian degree.

Douglas Florian, Little Espinoza, Oil on linen, 50″ X 26″ 2016

AS: The repetition, rhythms and form in your paintings make me think of illuminated manuscripts or liturgy that at times goes out of control but still project a solid spiritual core. Does this make any sense to you? What is your take on that?

Douglas Florian: I do enjoy looking at illuminated manuscripts, especially the detailed initial letters, which may have a ferocious narrative in them. And if they “go out of control” so much the better. In fact, going out of control is one of the most difficult things for an artist to do. We like to say we are working intuitively, and that’s fine, but sometimes you need to think in a counter-intuitive manner in order to grow and change. I also relate to Asian miniatures, outsider art, or even photography. The repetition and rhythm in my work align with music as well as poetry.

AS: What are you working on in your studio these days?

Douglas Florian: Currently I’m going at it with a fairly large canvas. The first attempt failed after three intensive weeks, and I had to take the canvas off the stretcher bars, but so far the new incarnation seems to be working well. 

Douglas Florian, Looking Worse, and Worse, and Worse, Oil on linen, 54″ X 50″ 2016