Interview With Artist Curtis Goldstein

With New American Paintings coming to a close on August 23, artist Curtis Goldstein - whose work Hurricane is featured in the exhibition - agreed to satisfy my curiosities in an interview. His work is timely in a way that goes beyond typical conversations around environmental change and consumerism in media and government. It probes personal use of material that informs a larger, global conversation that is nuanced in its universal application and relatability. At a time in the museum when we will be focused on similar issues for the coming months, I am pleased to share this enlightening interview with Goldstein.

Hurricane, 2014, collage of post-consumer material.

Peter Guardalabene: As New American Paintings is a publication and exhibition specified by a medium, Hurricane stands out. Definitions are elastic in this exhibition, which makes it so interesting, and I would say the same goes for your work. Looking at your body of work, you seem to have shifted away from the use of traditional painting materials toward an innovative use of refuse and collage. I, and I’m sure others who have visited the exhibition, am curious to know whether you consider Hurricane a painting and, looking at your trajectory, if you identify as a painter?

Curtis Goldstein: After years of painting with oil, acrylic, shellac, and my own paint concoctions, as well as making public murals I am a painter, in the usual sense. Now, I mostly work with other materials, especially paper and refuse, and make what could be called collages. Yet, I do think that all those years of interpreting the world through the plastic medium of paint has led me to seeing things as big shapes of color, and quickly recognizing 2 dimensional compositional possibilities, which I apply to my working with other materials. Furthermore, I believe that the impulses in art to imitate experiences, to “make this look like that” and to “Make this feel like that” goes all the way back to the beginning of art, but that the creation of flat images of things with shapes is by definition being painterly, whether pursued through the medium of paint or other materials. It stops feeling like painting when I allow materials to break free from pictorial space and assert themselves as real objects. Then, it’s more like curating. But when you do that with paint, that is, let it break free and be itself, then you are being another kind of painterly. Paint’s defining characteristics can be as interesting as its imitative ones, and with great depth I have explored both qualities, and now do so with other materials.

PG: How did you come to using refuse in your work? I think trash is one of the best materials an artist can use to make work; it is something exciting to find in a gallery, yet abject in almost every other context.

CG: I personally don’t find junk mail, magazines, and discarded packaging to be abject, because it’s everywhere, and while one can feel disgusted by the global waste one imagines from my work, I don’t necessarily make work that looks disgusting. I think a Dieter Roth or a Thomas Hirschhorn deal with the abject more directly than me. In my work, repulsion only becomes part of the experience after some amount of reflection. I came to post-consumer materials because of its sculptural, associative and symbolic possibilities, and also because of its real-world aesthetic. I connect everyday consumer material to issues faced by humanity, like over-consumption or pollution through waste (e.g., plastic bags swimming and disintegrating in the ocean), showing that they are ultimately connected, and encouraging viewers to feel connected and responsible.

PG: Materiality is important, not just in Hurricane, but many of the works in New American Paintings. In this piece, the associations that derive from material are seemingly boundless. The abject quality I found when looking closely, suddenly realizing the physical qualities and smells of material that was once invisibly littered across a landscape now made concrete, highly visible, and beautiful. Was this transformation from the repulsion or anonymity of trash into attraction and visibility a quality intended to evoke in viewers?

CG: Mostly yes. I believe that the invisible or rather, overlooked world—stimulus that gets tuned out, or doesn’t make it through our filters (culture, language, values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations, and intentions), is actually the material with which we create our realities. It is not liminal, but in fact the very fabric of our everyday-ness. Trash is not something burning underground in a dump 20 miles south of the city. It sits rotting in a container in the kitchen. It’s not always strewn across the landscape. It is delivered every day to your mailbox. We bring it home by the bagful. The things that make up our everyday world are becoming trash, sometimes gradually, sometimes unexpectedly and instantly. I don’t make it any more beautiful than it actually is, only visible and recontextualized in such a way that people can see it differently. What remains invisible to us is nonetheless buried in our thoughts — part of us and part of our everyday experiences. Even as we sit in traffic in our air conditioned cars a little fragment of a memory enters into our stream of consciousness of a news clip of a villager somewhere in Africa walking twenty-two miles each way each day for a bucket of water. Without actually experiencing it we are capable of knowing what alienation, hunger, and pain is, and a certain measure of how it feels. Artists can, and in my opinion should, invigorate perception and enlighten society by messing with the filters that limit our experiences, and hence our sense of responsibility towards the environment and society.

Fire At Sea (After Turner), 2014, collage of magazines and packaging.

PG: Despite the absence of human figures in Hurricane, humanity, or the impact of humans, abounds in the landscape it depicts. It works on a couple of levels for me: the constant presence of humans in material and in an urban scene, even where there are none depicted; and the struggle between humanity and nature in that both cause environmental destruction and create natural and artificial beauty. This tension occurs daily as we discover more about Anthropocene phenomena and environmental impact caused by humankind, and is perhaps what I find most timely and compelling about Hurricane.

CG: People want comfort, freedom from suffering, and longevity, even immortality, through what they create (and that includes, of course and perhaps even especially artists!). We are endlessly inventive, and often ruthless, when it comes to achieving these goals. As sentient beings, we cope by filtering and reconfiguring reality. We pretend to be supernatural, which was perhaps initially as a means to survival.

People often see things as they want them to be, because they feel they can take no more added responsibility and guilty feelings, or because a different interpretation threatens their ambitions. So, while we will regard nature as sacred, parent, or muse, we will also proclaim it profane, or even demonic (Hurricane!), or a mere instrument, to control and abuse at will.

The Grand Tetons, 2014, collage, photographs, frames, glass, cardboard. Similar to his painting Envision Cincinnati, the scene here depicts the most photographed view of the Grand Tetons mountain range in Wyoming.

PG: Moving forward both globally and in our own galleries at Elmhurst Art Museum, with our upcoming exhibition Lessons From Modernism: Environmental Design Strategies in Modern Architecture, 1925 - 1970, sustainability is the word of the day. The term has almost become trite in daily usage, but it is nonetheless an important reality. Is environmentalism a message we as viewers are to take from Hurricane, or is it a zeitgeisty effect?

CG: We need to be considerate as thinking individuals, and I believe artists might be most susceptible, not to dismiss important realities as trite. This would be counter-productive. When we allow trends in language or art criticism to filter out important subjects from the conversation, we are no more than obedient consumers of a limited and controlling market of ideas. A “Zeitgeist” is a way of holding the world—it is a filter. Yes, environmentalism, which is currently en vogue, is one important message from my work, but the questions why environmentalism, and how people treat and perceive the world, including themselves, in short, the origins of our current epoch—this is the deeper subject of my work.