My studio is in Sunset Park – it’s the 2nd stop if you catch an express train into Brooklyn from Manhattan (N or D). The entire space is 28′ square, but I had a half-wall built in the center and rent out one side. It has windows which face north, plus it’s the tallest building in the neighborhood, so when it’s sunny the light is nice and even all day. I recently had a 4′ x 6′ x 8′ storage rack built in the corner. I’ve been there for just over two years.
There’s a table I made from a single sheet of 4′ x 8′ plywood which is on casters. When I’m working on the wall (the one on the left as you face the windows) the table is usually kept on the window side, perpendicular to the wall. When I’m working on the easel, which I keep close to the windows on the right side, the table stays in the center of the room. There are shelves, two folding tables, a chop saw, and various pictures, notes, and clippings on the right-hand wall as well. I try and keep things neat – clutter clouds my thinking. If I have more than one painting in progress, it’s sometimes hard to keep things organized, but I’ll pause and clean up if it starts to get too messy.
I returned to painting in a serious way in 2005, after a long period of playing jazz as my main creative project. When I finished grad school in May of 2000, I was obsessed with the idea of making a painting that was perfectly abstract, with no referents external to the painting. This is, of course, an impossibility – everything in a picture, no matter how stripped down, evokes something you’ve seen in the physical world. I had always played music, but at that point decided to make it my main focus (it had always been secondary to picture-making) because the natural condition of music is pure abstraction. I dropped painting for five years.
Toward the end of my stint as a jazz musician, I had several realizations:
1. I was a very good jazz drummer, but my real strength was picture-making. It’s important to link up your hard work to your greatest aptitudes.
2. Jazz makes for a miserable life – far worse than the fine arts. You need to get so much from the music that it makes the life bearable. I was not getting sufficient satisfaction from the music.
3. Being the drummer means that you are contributing one component part to group expression. I really prefer working on my own.
4. Making a picture that is perfectly and utterly abstract is not that important.
This last realization made returning to painting much easier (although it’s never easy). I felt free to explore a more traditional figure and ground relationship, and to depict the so-called “illusionistic space” even though I was using abstract figuration. I really prefer the fictive space of painting-as-window to the two-dimensionality of painting-as-object.
That said, figure and ground have to interact in a different way in abstract painting than they do in representational painting; it doesn’t work to hang squiggles or geometry in front of a flattened background, the two have to have a more intrinsic relationship. The circle and stripe paintings (my first series after getting back to work, and what I consider to be the beginning of my mature work) solved this problem by making the figure out of the same stuff as the ground.
I worked on these paintings for just under two years. When that was beginning to wind down, I started to try and develop a new series that I could sustain for an extended period. Because of this, 2007 was a frustrating year – I only kept one canvas even though I was painting quite a lot. Trying to find a single approach or motif that would encompass all I wanted to show was too much of a daunting, high-stakes game.
When I got the space in Sunset Park in June of 2008, I made a firm decision to do something I had been thinking about for several months – reject the notion of series and of signature style. I wanted to approach studio practice much like Richter; arrive at the space each day and decide what to paint, not worrying about creating a cohesive body of work, but making compelling single works. It turned out to be a much better modus operandi for me, and I must say that I was actually a little disappointed at the cohesion of the work taken as a whole – I was hoping it would be even more far-flung. Apparently, something like signature style doesn’t materialize until you stop looking for it.
My best ideas emerge from the process of working. Pictures always turn out to be something different than you thought they would be – sometimes they’re better, often worse (into the trash they go), and more often still, they present a new idea to be elaborated. Some of these things turn out to be blind alleys, and some fruitful. I rarely dream things up at home and go out to Brooklyn and paint them – the work itself begets more work. Because of this, it’s critical that I go to the studio as much as I can, whether I feel like it or not. I’m a very disciplined person.
Finding something new is a thrill, and finishing a painting that I know is good is a thrill. The rest of the time spent in the studio is work – mixing paint (which takes me a great deal of time), applying tape, stretching canvas, etc., is not romantic or glamorous. I listen to jazz while I’m working, and it’s particularly important during these more workman-like days (which are many). Thelonius Monk is my favorite.
For me, Monk is the prime example of humor playing an important role in art – Monk’s performances and compositions are playful, but not a gag; even the most casual listener can identify this. Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman are both a close second in this regard. I flatter myself as someone with a good sense of humor; in fact I think it’s a key component to my personality, and I spend quite a lot of time thinking about the extent to which I should exercise humor in my work. I hate art that presents itself as a cynical joke, which is common coin and has been for a long time. But to leave the playfulness out, as I tried to do when I was in grad school, seems dishonest.
The flip side of humor as it relates to my studio practice is death. When I’m in the studio, I often think about death and meaninglessness. I grew up Roman Catholic, and have a homey nostalgia for the incense, the architecture, the solemnity, the summer feasts, and so on. But deep down, I’ve always had a cold, creeping suspicion that there’s nothing – no meaning, no point, no redemption, just biological process. I’ve been dogged by this from the time I was a child. I’m not the kind of intellectual who can simply shrug and learn to live with it; l feel the need to find a point, to search for and create meaning.
I don’t think this is unusual, although I think in the current climate it might be considered old-fashioned. Art presents the possibility of assigning significance to one’s existence, has the capacity to stave off the fear of inevitable mortality, and to passionately express one’s essential humanity and individuality to others. I should hasten to add that I don’t consider myself a tortured artist, like Van Gogh or the Abstract Expressionists. I just think that it comes with the territory; most artists, whether they are consciously aware of it or not, have some version of this as an animating factor.
The work itself is a lot more about life than death – not in terms of subject matter, but in terms of its direct appeal to perception, specifically vision. I feel as though just about anyone with normally functioning vision will not only find something in the work, but that something will be not dissimilar from what I want them to see. The idea in some quarters that art is a kind of text makes me bristle. The visual precedes, and I believe supercedes, language.
My paintings are mainly about color. More specifically, the articulation of space using diminishing and increasing color contrast, and the illusion of spreading light. During my frustrating period in 2007 and the beginning of 2008, I came to understand that my work didn’t really rely on any specific figuration, or geometry, or purity, or anything like that – I was much more concerned with light, and the depiction of that hazy, atmospheric space so common to Venetian Renaissance painting. As such, all I needed from my figuration was sufficient blandness to make color the star of the show – color will almost always assume a secondary role when paired with highly active figures. The other necessity for making color the primary aspect of a picture is the conscious suppression of the hand, which, like biomorphic figuration, can diminish the importance of color.
The other benefit of the concealment of the artists’ hand is that it allows the viewer to have a relationship with the picture, not the maker. Gestural abstractions often feel like psychological self-portraits or autographs. I love Ab Ex and I’m not criticizing this phenomenon, but it’s not for me; I want to be relatively invisible when a viewer apprehends one of my pictures. My method for hiding the artist’s hand (and hence the artist) is the use of miles and miles of very expensive masking tape. When I dreamt of being an abstract painter, my fantasy did not entail the painstaking application of masking tape for hours and hours. But I think one must, to a large extent, allow the work to lead and to follow it to its logical conclusion. You can’t lie about who you are when you’re in the studio – there’s no one to lie to but yourself.
My students routinely ask me how long it takes to finish some of my more intricate paintings. After I tell them, they usually make a face and ask if this is my idea of fun. Of course not, but assigning meaning to one’s existence is rarely a laughing party, right?
For More Information: Paul Corio’s Blog No Hassle At the Castle is here. His website is here. Facebook page is here.