I first came across Giles Lyon’ s work a couple of years ago at what was then Feigen Contemporary – now Kinz, Tillou & Feigen. Giles’ work hinted at a new feeling in abstraction. You could see a real examination of emotion in his work. He was able to merge Abstract Expressionism to a new media sensibility without falling back on the distancing visual devices of Pop art. These works had a similar visual energy to the early Modernists’ works. Like them, Giles transformed kitschy contemporary culture into a new form of classic abstraction. It was a step away from Postmodern appropriation and mannerism, and it was fun to see. These were paintings to look at, to savor and discover. We caught up with Giles and asked if he would answer a few questions about his work.
MARK STONE: I see your work as a re-examination and a re-thinking of the moment when Abstract Expressionism lost out to Pop Art. I think this is a key moment for painting at the end of Modernism and the beginning of the Postmodern movement. How did you come to see this historic juncture in abstraction and how does it inform your painting practice?
GILES LYON: I don’t agree with the phrasing “lost out.” The next generation couldn’t beat the masters at their own game, so they changed the rules. Ab Ex was so dominant it was oppressive to the younger artist, in part because it was so fiercely romantic. Inspired in part by Duchamp, artists like Johns and Rauschenburg saw that one way out was to be arch. As Pop Art became ascendant—which by the way takes nothing away from the Ab Ex masters whose stature has never faltered—you had people like Saul and Guston taking the language and tropes of Ab Ex and retooling it with pop plug-ins, which is a lineage to which I feel connected. The way this informs my practice is that I don’t think gestural abstraction has been exhausted; it just has to be reconfigured to be generation-ally appropriate, and that is what I have tried to do. The taboos regarding style cross-pollination happily no longer exist.
MS: The line drawing in your work that bounds and determines the physical limits of the Action Painting can be visually jarring. It pulls a different experience out of the viewer. It’s as if you want to twist the painterly forms around and through the false spaces of your expressionistic technique. What are the intentions behind the outlining in your work?
GL: I see the outlining as policing the gesture. The gesture is an outlaw and the line is a cop, but the line is also another gesture. The outline is also a type of automatic drawing as well. The outline allows me to tease out spooky figuration without giving up a kind of flatness that keeps the space of the painting open to multiple reads.
MS: Your paintings are also a step away from the irony of Postmodernism. Your work is very personal—in the past you’ve used imagery to express aspects of your life—the neckties in Poppa’ s Last Party for instance—this is a departure from the irony or parsing of visual language used in POMO theoretics. Pollock was adamant about the meaning of his imagery beneath the skeins of paint and so are you. How much meaning do you ascribe to the imagery in your work and how does that relate to a personal quest for expressing meaning beyond the techniques you use?
GL: “Poppa’s Last Party” is the most personal painting I have ever exhibited, so I am glad that read came through. I never felt that comfortable with the ironic stance of most PoMo work. It just doesn’t suit me. At the same time Postmodernism is part of our cultural bedrock and there is no escaping it. That said, I ascribe a great deal of specific meaning to my work, but I try not to hit the viewer over the head with it. I find it can shut the paintings down if I am too specific in terms of imagery. That is why I have always done lots of drawing on the side to get the poison out of my system. The ink work I have been doing for the last few years has been much more overt, and I have found that very liberating. I admit it is a constant challenge to try to be honest enough in the work. That is to say, that there is enough in the work that I feel I am at least bearing witness to the present moment and how fucked up everything is—politically, economically, culturally , environmentally—and my complicity from inside the castle walls.
MS: I believe your work also takes a two-fold ethical stance. The first is the ethics of paint itself. You’ve used techniques of ABEX painting, but self consciously, with the realization that those sorts of techniques no longer carry the same meaning. Second, by investing the work with personal imagery you address the idea of the political human – someone that can use painting to comment on society, or better, on one’s own life – much as Guston did in his later career. Even after the emptying of meaning in painting by POMO theoretics do you still find that painting can create ideas and visual images? Does painting allow you to find a breadth of meaning in both the act and the visual imperatives of vision in the electronic 21st Century?
GL: Yes, of course I think painting is still relevant. I feel very strongly that painting has a great deal of power and vitality. Painting cannot compete with digital media in the same way that ballet cannot compete with the UFC octagon. They are just very different art forms. Film and digital media are fast and portable, painting is slow and cumbersome, but that is also its strength: Painting requires active engagement and presence from the viewer. Also, I think it is important to remember that we as animals have not changed in any biologically significant way since we originated in Africa 200,000 years ago, give or take an eon. So I think we are hard-wired for painting, and those compelled to paint follow a very rich and mystically powerful heritage. You can blow it off, but you can’t deny it. While we are enthralled with technology it is destroying our biosphere. I predict that painting will outlast techno-industrial civilization—unless humanity changes in very radical ways how it relates to our planet. In other words, even if the species hangs on somehow and doesn’t destroy everything, painting will still be there. Just like writing and singing and dancing and storytelling around a fire. Painting and looking at handmade images are a human constant.
MS: There is a preponderance of imagery from lenses in a lot of work today – it is the age of re-presentation, but your work is eyeballed in the wonderful way that Hockney described – a kind of peripheral vision determined by consciousness. You’ve also used techniques from the electronic world – a kind of cartoon line, high keyed hues, a sort of photographic capture of imagery in your compositions. I especially like the way your media images emerge from the more fluid “reality” of the ABEX techniques. How does the media imagery play into your work, how do you personalize it and how do you find the balance between the “reality” of ABEX painting and the mediated Pop imagery?
GL: I look at a lot of stuff. One of the beautiful things about the internet is that an image omnivore is not limited by the constraints of American propaganda/media. So I periodically look into the liquid crystal ball at all the horror and beauty out there. It can be rather painful, but I think it’s part of the job description. Sometimes I draw directly from downloads. Other times I work more impressionistically, trying to get at the feel of the information or image. Then I do my ink work, which helps me to metabolize and internalize the flow. By the time the pop images make their way into the paintings they are virtually unrecognizable, but I hope still carry an associative charge. I think the hardest part is trusting the authority of the process even when it seems ill-suited to address the urgency and tragedy of the moment.
MS: Abstraction in the US has eschewed the figure in recent years in favor of a post structuralist approach to the mechanics of painting . You and other artists like Carroll Dunham, Terry Winters, Joyce Pensato, Fabian Marcaccio and Matthew Ritchie have all been exploring new ways to incorporate an abstract figuration in their work. I believe figuration connects directly to the history of Western Visual Art and opens possibilites for space and form that can confront the Minimalist preoccupation with surface and side. How do you use figuration in your work and what implications does it have for your ideas about painting?
GL: Some form of figuration has always been in my work. I think of figuration like a corpse that keeps emerging from the depths of a frozen lake. It just keeps floating up no matter how many rocks you tie around its neck. So I’ve grown to accept it. Often it comes up in the shape of some weird gooey intestinal thing. For me, a form is always spookiest and most interesting just before you know for sure what it is. In that moment, it can be a trigger or a phantom that completes itself inside the viewer’s head.
MS: How important is the confrontation with the figure?
GL: The figure has become very important and often central to my ink works, but remains submerged in the larger paintings. The challenge for me while working is to care less about false dualities and more about the impulse and needs of the moment.
MS: Do you see it as an existential encounter or are you working in more of a formal technical mode?
GL: Both and neither. The key is to be up for anything as it presents itself and destroy it later if that is what is called for. The goal is to have as open and emotive a space and process as possible.
MS: What issues does figuration bring up that pure abstraction can’t?
GL: My work has almost never been purely abstract, so it’s hard for me to say. Right now, I’m interested in exploring the territory where figuration and abstraction overlap.
Abstraction is finding a new urgency in the 21st Century. A few artists have started to question the academic legacy that has stifled innovation and engagement. Giles’ work offers some interesting and exciting possibilities for painting. Click here to see some additional works and here for more information about Giles.