It was hard to stay ahead of artist Liam Everett in our recent conversation at Paulson Bott Press where he was making a series of new intaglio prints. He reached whatever point I wanted to make long before I did. During our extended conversation, he was reluctant to make any conscious link to Buddhism, yet his work is all about practice, about showing up and being present for whatever may or may not come.
Q: What motivates your work?
Liam Everett: I think it’s dangerous to make art out of a blind movement towards making things—out of the need to make things manifest into form, make something beautiful. I don’t have that. For me, the doing is really the key for me. Not what gets done, but the doing. But it’s very hard to create the optimal place and state to make that rise up. It’s like a dinner party. You just never know if it will click. And to make that happen in the studio on a regular basis is excruciating. The times I pat myself on the back are the times when I’ve got the right ingredients, I’ve got the right ambiance, I’ve had a good night’s sleep, it’s a sunny day, and I get out in order to breathe. It’s totally evasive. And it’s a responsibility I find to have. It’s like watering your garden.
Q: Do you throw out a lot of work?
LE: Throwing out is the last resort. I’ll reuse things and reuse things. Sometimes things will start out as tools and then become the art object. And then vice-versa, sometimes I will start working on large paintings, and they become so problematic that I’ll put them down on the floor, and I’ll use them as a drop cloth, and I’ll start painting on top of them. And then sometimes, through a year or a months of being a drop cloth or a blotter, if you will—because I blot some of my paintings, just like prints, and they start absorbing all this residue from all this other work—all of a sudden they come back into the thicket and they are put back up on the wall!
I try and set up mistakes that happen. I have to almost feel like my studio is booby-trapped. I’m building booby-traps for good mistakes, to collect things, whether they turn into a natural art object that goes out into the world or just a reservoir of research. It’s very rare I’ll throw a painting out. But it’s very common that I’ll rework it, or that it’ll get folded and go into a bucket of water and get put to the side and sit there for months. Some large paintings get cut down into these circles. Supports that I use to carry my inked and soaped paintings inside get used for sculptures. Sometimes the buckets themselves get used.
And it’s not because I don’t like throwing things away. It’s not driven by a concept. What I think is interesting is when all the elements that create the reality of the studio are forced to incubate together. I think the denser it becomes, the more interesting it becomes. And when they leave, of course, the reality changes.
Q: Are you sometimes reluctant to let them out?
LE: No. I let things go easily, often as soon as I finish it.
|Untitled (Nuxibuxbaase Awadee)
Q: How do you know a piece is done?
LE: As soon as it shows up as a foreign entity, that’s when I’m okay with letting it go—as soon as the dominant content of this object asserts itself. The paintings that almost seem to make themselves, I’m ready to let go of.
Q: So is it like a dance? In the middle of the dance, at some moment, you know it’s over?
LE: Yeah, as soon as it stops being familiar. That’s when I know, “Oh, I can let that go now.” It’s ready to be in the world by itself without my autobiographical thumbprint all over it, and I think that’s the challenge. How to erase the self-self from the painting or the print. Where is that threshold? I think it’s quite difficult to remove all the decision-making, all the contrived patterns, behaviors, habits that are riddled into my psyche, my genetic makeup. It’s not comfortable. If it was comfortable, I wouldn’t want to be here. I find it very disconcerting. When I’m here, I don’t sleep well, and I wake up early in the morning frustrated and freaked out.
LE: The tradition of print making…. Oh, the studio etiquette, and this kind of scientific ambiance of it, I find very intimidating. Intimidating because I don’t want to let it dictate how the making occurs. So the stress for me is how can I push it and disrupt it enough, create a fission, get my foot in there and make something offbeat. It’s very difficult. My brain hurts.
Q: But you’re not afraid of that?
LE: No, because for me, this is all proof that I’m alive. I need that. If I fear something, it’s complacency.
Q: What about the relationship between this printing work and your painting? Do you care if the prints looks similar to your other work?
LE: We all wanted to stay somewhat similar. We wanted to see if we could create a link to what’s happening in my studio now. There are little ways we did that, by working with materials, folds, transparencies, and similar colors. I follow my action into work. One of the problems that often arises is that you can really move off in a different direction quite easily. I have a very 9-to-5, Monday-through-Friday studio practice. I have to create very clear restrictions for myself. I ask the printers, “Please don’t show me too many options, because I’ll take them all.” I’m an adventurer. And often you fall on your face, and it’s embarrassing, and you hurt. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not that I’m brave. It’s that I’m addicted to the adventure, so I’ll do it again and again. And that can be destructive. So I have to restrict myself.
So that’s also why we stayed in tune with what’s happening on the paintings right now in the studio—to create a limitation, a context and cohesion. And it’s a crude limitation, but within that, we can do all sorts of variations and improvisations each time. It’s a system of support to get it funky.
Q: I was going to say because failure is also part of the process here.
LE: Oh yeah.
Q: Some artists come here and try something and just hate it.
LE: How many times I’ve heard, from painter friends, “I did a month-long painting residency, it was a total disaster.” I don’t refuse failure, because I fail all the time in the studio. If I fail, I just want to do it again. Maybe it’s a little masochism. Maybe failure is a primitive reminder, a proof, that I’m here, I’m a thinking, feeling, tasting, hearing entity.
Q: There’s a lot of movement in your work.
LE: Everything involves a lot of movement, a lot of sanding. In the paintings, most of the marks are made from reducing paint, so that means heavy sanding, power sanding, or I’ll take a painting and dunk it in salt water—I use these huge salt lick blocks, these ten-pound blocks. So I’m lifting, dunking, taking the paintings outside, hanging them from poles or fences that I fabricate, and then laying things on top. So it’s crazed, constantly physical. I’m willing to go to great lengths, great physical lengths, to find the opening. And that’s what happens once a piece is successful. There’s an opening, something reveals itself, and what’s revealed is foreign to me. Then I can learn something from it. Then I can let it go.
All images courtesy paulsonbottpress.com.