LG What role does the drawing play in your work. What are some things you think about when making your small notebook pencil drawings. Do your paintings follow the drawing closely or is the drawing just a point of departure, an entry into the motif?
SS Yes, drawing is really the heart of what I might call perceptual craft and, it is an entry into the motif. But even more than that it’s a door into itself – which is different than the motif – it’s about the motif on the one hand, but also about its own process of inventing an independent world of notations on the page, and those things are inter related but not exactly the same. A motif cannot really exist until it assumes graphic presence, otherwise it’s just an observational anecdote, a conceptual tourist moment, NOT an active reconstruction of a glimpse of awareness. So what this means is that a “motif”, “out there” is not just one sided or passive, it requires our response to make it substantive. Until something goes down on paper nothing really exists. Unless I put the pencil to the paper I really don’t exist either; well what I mean is that I really can’t understand where I am or what my relation is to something or someplace unless it’s given form other than just saying, oh isn’t that nice over there. Of course the material world “out there” exists but when we draw we are not only remaking it (by way of our own sense of modulation and point of view) but we are remaking ourselves as well. There is so much freedom in working on paper, I feel like a kite that has escaped its string when doing almost anything on paper with pencil or crayon or some kind of stick dipped in ink.
LG What are the compositional strategies you think about when you first sit down to paint.
SS Well I know this may sound ridiculous and like an excuse for getting out of an explanation, but I don’t plot my way into painting as a tactician or strategist and the idea of compositional strategy doesn’t sit well with me. I didn’t study illustration at school and in fact, I’ve always been oriented to not consciously doing any of those things because they very easily become shticks and limiting, and I’ve tried to keep my work as simple as possible in terms of very low-key pictorial appeal. I’m interested in, and this is intentional, a kind of painting that doesn’t necessarily say, “hey you, come on over here”. And I realize that might make for boring paintings, but the mundane and ordinary is very intriguing and I have tried to avoid self conscious calculation, especially with regard to what people might like or what might “sell”. I’m aware though of the fact that perhaps my work is confined by it’s own limitations but i can only find my way in or out intuitively, not by planning.
Ok, I’m the first to admit how ironic it is that to closely understand what we are doing in the visual world we must develop and strengthen our analytical verbal and conceptual skills to find words for not only things seen and made, but also for intangibles like how something feels. And one of the things I try to emphasize as a teacher is a certain kind of totality of awareness for so many different tiers of the painting experience. But to tell you the truth, and I mean this in my own life, not in the classroom, when talking to some painters or reading magazines or some exhibition catalogs, I get tired at a certain point of all the blah, blah, blah because so much is about words, concepts or strategies for getting attention.
When working, mostly I try to absorb what it is I’m looking at, to try and feel it inside and then see how it takes form on canvas by dictating to me what it wants me to do. Of course I’m aware that this sounds all too simplistic and, that I cannot tell a student “well just paint like you eat”, and that in fact (and not ironically) I’m bringing an extreme analytical self awareness to bear. During the early summers on the Irish coast, I realized that I worked best in a kind of trance state. But that is not as detached or vague as it sounds, of course behind every effort is an awful lot of analytical interrogation and inquiry, mostly I try to approach painting by way of the senses, and my desire is to kind of bite into the place as if it is either a ripe melon or someone’s delicious arm. And I don’t mean that to be funny. Sure I closely and extensively consider aspects like the structure of spatial movement within the painted space, organization of forms and tones, how the eye is moved around by way of color shapes and qualities, editorial and perceptual hierarchies, etc, but at a certain point I’m also doing something else and not “thinking”. If I start to think in certain ways it undermines intuition and leads to things I’d rather avoid, like what some people say or will say about the painting and with regard to that, maybe even someone I want to throw down a well. While in a setting with students I can be as analytical and as confrontational as anyone, when it comes to an explanation of my own work the quote that always comes to mind from de Kooning is when someone asked him how do you paint and his response was, do I ask you how you make love with your wife?