‘Fabrications’ at George Billis

Art Spiel in Dialogue with Steve Hicks

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Installation image, from left to right: No Exit, In Flesh, Night Sequence. Image courtesy of the artist

Painter Steve Hicks shares with Art Spiel his reflections on the body of work he is currently exhibiting at George Billis gallery, focusing on how he sees these paintings within the wider context of his overall work.

AS: Tell me a bit about the body of work in Fabrications, your current solo show at George Billis?

SH: A decade ago I made a radical 180-degree shift from completely empirical painting toward a purely abstract approach. The change wasn’t completely intentional. I was musing in my studio while a show of my urban landscape paintings was up at George Billis Gallery, and I gave myself some time to try something I had been thinking about for a while. I had no idea how long the project would last.

I had been dissatisfied with the integration of drawing and painting in my work. This is one of those ever-present problems in painting (the Florentine “disegno” vs. the Venetian “colore”) that is rarely resolved but inspires so many great efforts. I came up with an exercise that approached the issue. It progressed from white squares and scribbling. The idea was formal, rules based, and omitted any hint of recognizable image. The process followed from a bare bones consideration of what I believed were the minimum requirements of drawing and painting. It was necessary but difficult to make a clear and precise distinction between drawing and painting. What worked best was to think about drawing as the “where” (location) and painting as the “what” (material).

My first two shows of abstract work were the result of this process driven method. The rules became more elaborate and ambiguous as I constantly adjusted or broke them. It was a little like “lets build this box, put these basic ingredients in, shake it this way, submit it to these elements and see what emerges.” I was looking at Sumi-e brushwork, Klee, Mondrian, Ryman, and late de Kooning.

While making the work for this current show I was definitely out of my comfort zone. It spotlights the evolution of my paintings from a rigorous, process driven abstract language to a more open, forceful and physical dialect. I had a significant pause in my work after my last show in 2016. Developers demolished my old studio of 25 years
in TriBeCa and I found a new one that was very different. I felt I was starting from scratch once again although that is never really the case.

I changed my medium back from acrylic to oil and forgot the rules. Similar to the way I used to look intensely when I painted from observation, I began to look harder at each painting I was working on. The painting itself has begun to replace the process. It is very difficult without those lifelines. The only remaining semblance of a directive is that I often begin two paintings of the same dimension and related palate. I am curious to see how they might diverge or not. A surprise is that they often become diptychs.

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Studio image before delivery to George Billis Gallery, December 6, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist

With this work I am on a precarious edge between opposed conditions. One was between feeling uncomfortable and feeling in the grove. This is a fact of painting well: doubting yourself and breaking habits yet trusting intuition and not overthinking. It’s thought versus insight. Or as Mel Bochner mentioned, “the idea versus the mess.” Both are essential.

Another was between consistency and progress. Letting go of an explicit process created the risk that the work would be all over the place with no thread tying the body together. I had to trust that it would hold and didn’t realize it until I was able to curate it in a gallery setting. There were many surprises upon hanging the show. The greatest was how much room each painting needed not because they were so different but more so because they displayed so much energy.

I also feel an edge between being influenced and being derivative. I began to look harder at precedents and expanding my gaze to include Murray, Pollock, Krasner, early Rothko and Gorky. When doing this, one is always treading this line. Again, this is a condition of making art: finding your place in a bigger context. Making something yours involves a lot of work.

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Note to Self, 20 x 24”, oil on canvas, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist

AS: In your essay for the catalogue, you write that your choices are in some ways analogous to Merce Cunningham’s Fabrications, “To the extent Fabrications [Cunnigham’s] is abstract, it’s moving, but to the extent it is descriptive, there’s no plot.” How do you see your paintings in that context?

SH: My choices are similarly focused on completely abstract relationships. I don’t like the word “formal” only because of its hint of organization, rules, closed or worked out results. I like the mess of work and exploring accidental, arbitrary or random events. Sometimes it seems that everything is an accident and sometimes that nothing is accidental. I love the involvement of dichotomies such as intention vs. accident, geometry vs. gesture, the essential vs. the arbitrary or theory vs. mess.

As each painting moves along, I find an unintended direction or non-verbal narrative that surprises me. Cunningham, a choreographer so well known for his purely abstract approach, would never have admitted this intention, but it emerges in his work nonetheless. I’m interested in how opposing aspects can emerge in art. For instance, for me the aesthetic composition of Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs is as powerful as his conceptual idea. Sometimes, hopefully most of the time, a creation takes on its own life despite the will of its creator. This is another dichotomy; an artist must be simultaneously willful and open. I’m hardly describing anything new. Artists, architects, writers, composers and choreographers have described this in hundreds of ways. Lou Kahn famously asked a brick what it wanted to be. For me it’s almost a requirement for something to be a work of art. It has to have gotten out of one’s hands at some point.

I was drawn to the title of my show from an unusually emotive period of Merce’s choreography when his choreography flirted with narrative. Fabrications is the title of a 1987 piece of his that most demonstrated that characteristic. The word can also suggest a literal construction, a fictional invention or even a lie. I am constructing a realm that feels both real and imaginary to me; a way to see the unseen. The fabrication is like making sense of a confusing dream where the images and facts become tangible and plastic.

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False Surrender, 16 x 24”, acrylic & charcoal on canvas, 2019.Image courtesy of the artist

AS: Tell me a bit about your painting process.

SH: Although my “process” is now less distinct, I generally move from intuition and accident to intention. For the accident to occur, I need to have a structure that gives it context. Usually an overall relationship between two or three colors provides the structure. Color is wonderful in that it begs for analysis but always gives way to intuition and association. I have my private theory of color that I struggle to let go of. My first choices of color relationships can come anywhere from theory or from a painting or observed situation I’ve seen. Although that will set a chromatic course, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the context that follows.

The accidents are primarily linear coming from squirted paint that also drips or sprays. I squirt only because I want a long, direct and impulsive line. The lines are really more imprecise than accidental as they naturally go off course from a hunch I have about their direction. I then typically go back in and edit the lines by combining and redirecting them with planes of color. Lately I’ve been letting them build up in clusters along with the spray and drips and then edit in order to let the clusters interact on a larger scale with the lines and color planes.

For the intention to take hold, I need to look hard at what is happening on the canvas. As the painting develops, the accidents and rules give way and respond more to the will of the painting. I am probably most in debt to Andrew Forge for this notion. I am not alone in considering him to be one of my most influential mentors. I have no doubt that I may have misinterpreted what he meant to say, but most great teachers leave a lot of room for that.

I struggle to keep everything as open as I can. The minute I feel the painting closes down, I get bored. I try to leave it in an open state. Those terms (open and closed) are somewhat ambiguous and I’m sure I’ll be always be redefining what I mean by them. They have to do with will and intuition, which initiates my effort to ignore as well as listen. When I painted empirically the simple idea was to paint what I saw rather than knew. I loved that because the results always surprised me. Surprise is still mandatory for me. Now, instead of looking hard into real space, I’m looking hard at the canvas. It’s difficult because it’s almost like looking hard into a mirror. But it’s rather a deep forest with a story to tell.

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Insomnia, 34×40”, acrylic on canvas, 2019, Image courtesy of the artist

AS: Let’s take a closer look at a painting of your choice in this exhibition – what would you like to share about its genesis, your idea, and your choices.

SH: Insomnia probably has everything I’m talking about in it. It began rigorously with a clear secondary color structure of intense green, violet and orange. I then begin to randomly squirt lines on it. “Randomly” might be better described as intuitively because randomness is a limit we can never really achieve. What goes on in my brain while I squirt is far from random. This is in part why I paint this way. I like bringing into question the nature of terms such as accident, intention, arbitrary, abstract and representation. These are platonic ideals. We move somewhere in between those absolutes. The only thing that is clear is that everything is relative to its neighbor. Each painting is a fabrication of relative events or places that build their own world and conditions.

At some point I got to an interesting place but couldn’t move on so I gave up on it and turned it to the wall to continue on more promising paintings. I often work on several canvases at a time hoping that they will feed off each other. Melissa Meyer came for a studio visit and suggested I do the opposite: concentrate on each painting in isolation from the others. This suggestion stuck. There is a place for both and going back and forth from working on several canvases at once to each in isolation. In this way the development of a body of work is similar to the development of a single canvas as one moves back and forth from accident to intention.

After a month or two I was determined to make something of it. When I left it out of the context of my other work, I saw possibilities. There are times when a painting or a passage in a painting can become too precious. It seems too risky to change it for an even higher goal. It’s important to work through that. In this case it took me several weeks to turn back to it and be irreverent. I can’t remember exactly what I did but it began with lots of scraping and big changes in black and white. In the end I left several areas alone that I thought were too wonky, but that’s the way it insisted on being. It is my favorite.

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Between Memory (and a Dream), 40×68”, oil on canvas, 2019. Image courtesy of the artist

AS: What would you like viewers to take away?

SH: It’s a bit naïve but I don’t have viewers in mind when I paint. That is a work in progress. Unfortunately because I am too self-conscious, I feel that I need to preserve a thin divide between my studio and the art world. And although I take in as much historical and contemporary art as I can, my ideas or inspirations are ultimately nurtured and directed by work alone. I set up problems and try to solve them, and it’s very important to work as if no one is looking because I want to focus on the possibilities between me and the canvas. Yet at the same time I understand it’s pointless to work in a vacuum. This is yet another opposition in painting: the individual vs. zeitgeist.

If a painter sets out to do something they know how to do, it’s easier to keep viewers in mind during the process but I think both they and their audience will end up bored. As I’ve described, I don’t have a destination, but I do set a course. If I am not surprised by a destination, I move on. I have no idea if I should expect my audience to see what I do. But if I’m surprised, I hope they will be. I want each painting to be open enough for several readings and expect the effort and choices I make to come through and seem right.

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Steve Hicks, Image courtesy of the artist

Steve Hicks, Fabrications, December 10, 2019 – January 11, 2020, George Billis Gallery, 521 West 26th Street, NYC.

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