This week I had the opportunity to photograph local painter Chris Willcox in his Brooklyn studio. We spoke about the influence that neuroscience has on his work and he let me in on some of his process and artistic inspiration. It left me with a lot to think about, and some great videos to watch and rewatch about the amazing processing power of our brain.
If you're in New York this weekend, come check out his exhibition with Emily Hartley-Skudder in No Home Gallery Saturday evening. They'll also be hosting an artist talk Sunday that I'm very excited to attend. Details and directions after the interview.
B: So first off, I’m really interested in your neuroscience background and how it influences your work. I stumbled on this TED talk by Pawan Sinha http://www.ted.com that explained how babies are essentially born blind and must learn to differentiate patterns in movement to make assumptions about what they are looking at. Can you talk about this research as it relates to your abstraction?
C: Before I was doing art full time, I spent about three years working in the lab of Dr. Eric Kandel at Columbia University. My first big project was assisting Dr. Kandel on The Age of Insight, a book that brings contemporary neuroscience to bear on art and aesthetics, so my art practice has always rested on some neuroscientific awareness. I’m glad you brought up Pawan Sinha; I also worked on The Charlie Rose Brain Series, where Pawan Sinha has appeared as a guest (http://video.mit.edu). What the work of Dr. Sinha and his colleagues makes abundantly clear is that the eyes are not a window to the world. Seeing involves an enormous amount of processing and guesswork by the brain far beyond the raw information coming in through the eyes. Our brains are constantly guessing at what we’re looking at, through many different processes like, as you mention, movement and assumptions based on previous experience. We get this right, for the most part, which is why we’re able to have a generally reliable visual experience. What’s so interesting about abstraction, and why it can be so difficult, is that it subverts all of these hardwired processes. The brain is guessing and guessing about what the image is, but there is no image to guess at. I think, through this rupture of normal visual experience, abstraction can take us somewhere we haven’t been before, away from the thing that is seen and towards, I hope, something more primary.
B: The size of your canvases and brushstrokes really evoke a physical presence, or maybe more accurately there is a labour apparent in the size of your paintings. Do you use your body gestures to further block the viewer’s sense of pattern recognition?
C: Quite the contrary, actually. Though the marks don’t add up to any particular representation, we recognize pattern in the gesture and physically identify with it. This recognition of and identification with the paint’s movement is probably one reason why you’re feeling their physical presence. I like to think of the works as just as much somatic or proprioceptive as they are visual.
B: Once you have a painting in mind, are you meticulous about planning the execution or do you allow room for chance and experimentation? When is a piece finished for you?
C: Both really. I need to stick to the plan in order to achieve the color I’m after, but as far as the gesture goes, that all comes from accident and improvisation. I like to explain this using the jazz metaphor – a jazz musician begins a piece with a plan, sheet music, and this provides a container in which there is a tremendous amount of improvisation. There’s no hard stop for when a painting is done, but the principle is that you work it until you’ve done everything necessary and anything else would be extraneous.
B: The colors in your paintings are so arresting. I’m curious to know if color is something that initially inspires a piece, and where they are pulled from.
C: Nothing excites me more than big, bold, luscious color. I’m constantly searching for new color combinations, appropriating it everywhere from old master paintings to soda ads on the subway. But I also take a very “materials-first” approach, so generally the palette for a painting begins by finding a particular pigment that I want to work with. I could talk for hours about quinacridone red.
B: Mirrors and reflections show up throughout your studio. When do you pair one with a painting?
C: Like every decision you make in a painting, it’s an intuitive thing. It relates to the quality of light and color in the piece, and when I think a material disjunction would be useful.
B: I’d love to know some of your artistic influences, and also who is making work that inspires you lately.
C: I recently picked up a catalogue of Tantric paintings from north India that’s been really inspiring (http://theimagista.com). There’s a tiny group of mostly anonymous painters who have been working in this tradition for centuries, which, remarkably, bears some uncanny similarities to some work made in the west over the last 50-or-so years. Beyond their formal qualities, I’m interested in the way these paintings are not made as “art,” but as tools for meditation. We could learn a lot from that approach.
Chris will be hosting a joint exhibition with Emily Hartley-Skudder this Saturday at No Home Gallery, you can RSVP here. They will also be giving an artist talk Sunday at 7pm in the same location.