Drew Williams interviewed by Paul Echeverria

May 24th, 2013. Boulder, CO


PAUL: So, here we are in your studio and I’ve seen much of your work outside of the studio setup, in various exhibition locations. But, I’ve never seen it in the studio, I’ve never seen your process and right away, I noticed the setup of your studio and how it seems all about the work, which I think is a good idea, a good approach, a good way to come into the studio and get down to business.. But, I want to hear from you. How would you define your studio space for people who can’t see what I’m able to see right now? And the intentions behind it, as well.

DREW: You know, I’m trying to redefine what my studio space is supposed to be. Up until now it’s been a workspace/storage unit/place to keep random objects like my mountain bike. Things that really don’t belong here and I had someone call me on it recently. One of the visiting artists, Matthew Day Jackson, he said, “You know, you need to clean this place out and get rid of old work because its always looking over your shoulder saying “Hey, make another one of me!””, and he said, “Get rid of your bike. Your bike doesn’t belong here. You need to turn this space into a cathedral.” Or, what was his word? I think he called it a chapel. He said, “This needs to be a chapel. Like a sacred, creative space.” So, I’m working on that, I’m working on that. I’m getting it cleared out. As it stands now, its wrapped, the whole perimeter of the room is wrapped in paintings that are either finished or in the process. Even the floor has a couple pieces on it. So, this is me working away. Waiting to get organized.

PAUL: Do you do your work exclusively in this space or do you have multiple work spaces that you like to apply?

DREW: No, this is my space. Some day I’m going to have a much larger studio. The process I’m working on now involves floor space. I need a lot of floor space because I work on the floor and I need water. The painting that you see behind you, the big one, is part of a series that I’m developing that is more process based and I’m actually applying layers of drawing and then paint and many, many layers. And then I put it underwater, I put it in a big bath and wash away the paint. Since acrylic is water soluble, it wants to dissolve and move around the surface of the canvas or the paper. And, as a result, I get some very serendipitous interactions of color and of shape. This piece you see next to you, that’s the turquoise piece. That’s how that was made and there’s no water bath that I have access to that is big enough to put these in. So, I ended up having to fold them and they get wet, they get saturated, they get really heavy with water. And taken out of the water baths, they almost feel like ER patients that I’m trying to rescue, that I’m trying to save. And, you have to be so tender with them, so ginger. Because they just want to fall apart. Your carefully laying them down on plastic and unfolding it like a precious flag. By the time you get it completely unwrapped, there’s going to be tears in it, there’s going to be damage, but that’s part of the process now.

PAUL: Well, what I love about this piece is the sense of age. There’s a patina to it. History. It almost feels like a sacred scroll, in a way. Visually, it has that allure to it. I also feel that this process that your describing is actually tied to experimental filmmaking, where reticulation is a way to break the emulsion so that you create visual patterns. When I see these, it makes me think, in a way, of experimental flmmaking and I wonder, have you ever thought of making films with the process of sinking and shifting chemicals, emulsifying and manipulating?

DREW: Yeah, I guess I need my Hans Naimuth to come in and record my process for me. I should do that for myself, it’s a really good idea.

PAUL: Yeah, there are some filmmakers who will bury the film in the ground so that the earth and the salt can affect the emulsion. They’ll bring it out and it will have this age, this weathered effect. It’s similar to what your going for here.

DREW: Invariably, its going to look like an aging process or like the layered history on walls. Not necessarily graffiti, but the reduction of layering, of paint. But, I’m seeing them more as a surface that is intended to be reduced to the plain of the paper. So, I’m really not, and this is not something extraordinarily innovative, but it is for me. I feel like I’m finally getting rid of quote, unquote symbols in my work. There’s no crosses. There’s no push and pull of objects. Everything is right on the plane of the paper now. Part of the reason behind this series is to create works that can be experiential. That I want people to stand in front of and attempt to appreciate them, for the sake of them just being.

PAUL: We’ve had a few discussions about Clement Greenberg and the notion of flatness. Do you feel that it’s similar to what you’re trying to achieve with these works. To revere painting as a flat plane and that is what’s special about it or is it something different?

DREW: Yeah, flatness for me, I need to understand more of what Greenberg’s dogma of flatness is all about. I’m learning about that. For me, the flatness is more important because its emphasizing the lack of illusionary space and that, for the sake of getting away from representation, which I feel is impossible, it’s a frustrating dream that you want to leave representation, but its not possible. Even the flatness of objects still bares representational power. Where to go from there? I’m working on this series now, where I’m making a color field, but it’s going to be 100’ long x 20’ tall, comprised of individual sheets of paper that I’m staining with various objects. All of them will make red. Most of them won’t be art tools. The one that you’re looking at on the floor is pomegranate juice, pure pomegranate juice that you pour on and it looks like this felty, burgundy color. There’s one behind you, the one that looks orange. That’s actually the brightest cough syrup, like Robitussin, and you pour it on and it turns that strange orange color. But, the concept behind this will be that everything will start out as red and however it turns out, I leave it that way, and it will be this massive red color field once I’m done. Tiled together in a grid like fashion. The idea is to create a color field that is all consuming. You stand in front of it and you’re overwhelmed by its redness. There will also be a didactic next to the piece that will be important because it will describe all of the materials that went into this. There will probably be human blood involved, there will be lipstick. I’m finding a cross section of red. Everything I can possibly find and my commentary goes beyond that. It’s more like a philosophical idea about red.

PAUL: That scale is pretty impressive, 20’ x 100’. Tell me about where you plan to exhibit and how you see it being experienced with that scale.

DREW: I’m looking for a space right now. I guess I shouldn’t stick to my measurement until I find the space because I want it to be an installation. It needs to fit the space that its in, but I’m looking at buildings on campus. I’m looking for a place to show it. If I need to I can reduce it down and show it in the lobby downstairs. That wall might be big enough to still be this overwhelmingly large red plane…

PAUL: It’s about 40…

DREW: Is it about 40-long?

PAUL: Yeah, right around 40. I know because the scroll was 50, so that’s half of what you’re looking to deal with, which is why I’m imagining, “Wow, I thought 50-feet was huge.” You may have to go down a long hall. Like the side halls if you want to use all of it.

DREW: It will be tricky because I want people to step back and see it from a distance, but then be drawn in by the various textures. We will see. I might have to find a different place altogether rather than compromise the idea. Also, I want to use as many varied tools as possible so that I’m getting a true cross section of red.

PAUL: Yeah, There’s a few interesting things in thinking about your pieces. You have some abstractions which are clearly abstract. Then you have abstractions that contain geometrical forms, particularly rectangles and squares. I’m thinking of the piece in Valerie’s office that she rescued. But again, playing with color within the rectangle and the effect it achieves, juxtaposed with each other. Then this piece expands that notion. When you decide to do a piece is your thought process more of an abstraction or is it more of a geometric, color-based simplified process where you can say – Oh, I’m going to delineate 100 rectangles and choose a single color. The simplicity of it, there’s something nice about that, but I don’t see simplicity in this piece.

DREW: There’s something, there’s something about the rectangle, there’s something about geometry that calls to me. As we talk about, I’m thinking of class yesterday in Albert’s class about Alfred Barr’s diagram. I didn’t bring this up, but it seems like a really clear division, the way he had it. I know that its flawed and its controversial, but this division ­­down­­­ the quarter side of the page. Everything goes to fauvism and then from fauvism it breaks to geometric abstraction and then organic or non-geometric abstraction. That’s interesting to me because it relates back to other diagrams that I’ve made where I’m trying to understand the division of the human psyche, in a sense. Where you have – you’ve seen this before?


DREW: Where you have the romantic on one side and the intellectual on the other. I’m still trying to work this through, like the sublime and the absurd. Really, I see geometry as a very rational concept. This probably isn’t very groundbreaking either, but it comes out of me naturally – to think of rectangles as the structure, or the ration, the logic behind the work. What goes inside of that becomes the romance. Becomes the expression. I mean, that thinking was present before I came to grad school. That’s the work I was doing before I came here, so I’m trying to break out of that. I’m trying to feel like I’m pushing the limits a little more. This piece that I’m discussed, the giant red color field, it’s so much more conceptual than my early geometric work. Even though, in the end, it might end up looking visually similar, it’s conceptually much more grown up.

PAUL: I can visualize it. I know that its not in its full state right now, but I can tell that I’m going to like it already without having seen it. If that eludes to the idea of concept, of idea – that I can visualize it and that I can enjoy the pleasure of the scale, the color, the geometric pattern – I feel like that is a depiction of the idea coming through before the work is even finished. Whereas, if you say you’re painting a landscape, you can kind of visualize the landscape and get a sense of the idea of landscape, but until you see it, you’ll always ask, “Well, what kind of landscape? Where’s the sun? How green is the grass? How big are the mountains? It has some clarity to it, just by explaining the idea of it and I think that’s really interesting.

Getting back to your the chart, I find those interesting as well, behavioral charts. If you go into business or you work a corporate job they will use personality tests where some are gimmicky and label a person either as a beaver or a dolphin or a fox or whatever. Others are more specific. They assign a number and you’re placed on a circle and you find out where on the circle you’re tendencies are. Have you ever taken tests like these?

DREW: I have.

PAUL: OK, you have. ­Do they relate to your chart? Because when I saw your chart, thought, “That’s one of those personality tests”. I thought that was interesting because when they cross over into that realm, it’s a quirky thing to identify yourself with the results. When it crosses back into art, It’s an interesting blueprint that maybe the art signifies, but this gives text, this gives a definition in a way that maybe the art is unable to.

DREW: Absolutely, yeah, I think in a way it’s like a compass for self-understanding. Coming to grad school, I met some people that put into question this idea I have that art is an expressive endeavor, that it’s about a feeling. I suddenly realized that its one part of art. There’s this whole other, much more rational, sometimes bizarre, sometimes Dadaist, sometimes surreal – it can be so many things. So, I wanted to expand my quadrant. I wanted to understand more about what goes into art making and thinking about art. Having said that, I still find myself very much in one of those quadrants. I still find myself dealing with sensation and with feeling and with visual perception. My work is a sensible work. Meaning its about sensation, its about perception, its about experience. Is that romantic? Is it on that side of the human psyche? I think it is. I think it is. So, we will see what I do with that. I don’t know how it’s going to help.­

PAUL: It interesting because I know in the past we’ve had discussion in critique about injecting the personal in the work or the personal in the work. Or, removing them completely and some people, there goal is to remain completely out of the work and its not connected to the artist in any way other than it was made by the artist. And then there’s the reverse, where, “No, I want you to look at the work and get a better understanding of who I am.” I find that so interesting because I know what side of the scale I sit on, but the other side, its unfathomable for me. I couldn’t imagine working in a way that, well, I’ll just say it, does not recognize me through the art. But, for some other people, that’s the foundation of their practice. No connection personally, at all. How do you feel about that?

DREW: I’m becoming a staunch believer that art should be less about art and more about life. How do you make art about life if it’s not your life? Because that’s where the understanding comes in. If you’re trying to see through the lens of someone else’s experience there’s benefit to that. Seeing art through empathetic eyes, I suppose. But, at the same time, I feel like, I don’t know if my work has to be strictly autobiographical because I want to expand who I am as a person. I don’t want to be confined to who I am right now. So maybe this attempt is to broaden my own psyche, if that’s possible.

I’ve definitely always had a philosophical side and that’s probably why I’m still an artist. I feel like it’s my way of still being a philosopher. I came into this program as seemingly a strict formalist and that didn’t do justice to who I am as a person, because there was a lot more underneath. Art is a great place to be. It’s visual philosophy.

PAUL: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think I have a pretty good concluding question here that will hopefully lead into part 2 of our interview. It’s based around this notion of identity, of adjective or description. I just heard you refer to yourself as an artist and a philosopher. You’re someone who works within a painting department. So, getting on to another topic that Is constantly brought up in discussion, how do you describe what it is you do? Whether its painting, artist, philosopher, how many adjectives do you incorporate, or do you draw from and why do you choose those as descriptors?

DREW: That’s a good question. It’s kind of a tough one.

PAUL: ­­Or, do you feel that it’s even important to describe yourself with these adjectives? Obviously, would be another choice.

DREW: One of the things that Walid Raad mentioned to me when he was here recently is that – and I think we’ve already talked about this but I’ll say it for the record – I’m trying to put everything I have into the work and it never occurred to me that these paintings were really autobiographical. There’s sort of a futility in that. I was recently at the Clifford Still museum and I’m standing in front of his massive scale paintings with all of these colors and these strange jagged curtains that he makes. I was hearing a discussion behind me where people were saying something to the effect of, “Now what do these paintings mean?” They were reading the didactics on the wall and they were trying to understand these paintings. They wanted to know why he used blue and I sort of wanted to turn to them and say, you know what, “You could read every book ever written on Clifford Still and you’re not going to find out what his intention was because he carefully guarded that.” If these painting were autobiographical, that description went with him to the grave, or its trapped in his little box of paints that’s still on view behind the case. That his intention was to put something of himself into his paintings but then let other people have their own experience with it. So, he was very careful, very guarded about not saying blue is not this, yellow is not this. I admire that, I admire that art doesn’t necessarily have to be about something. Eventually this gets ­back to the conversation we had with your interview, where its this utter frustration that art has to be about language. When really, art was invented so that we didn’t have to use language. And, that’s the thing, you’re in art school, there’s something in the education system where everything has to be verifiable, and for a thing to be verifiable it has to be tied with linguistics. So, its not enough to put a painting on the wall and say “There it is. Enjoy it. I made this.” It’s meant to be responded to without language. But, have we really gotten to the bottom of that? Is that really something that previous artists have exhausted, so now we need language again? It seems a little pretentious, a little ridiculous. Not that language is bad. I think that conceptual art is very dependent on language and its very powerful in the way that it mixes visuals and language, but there’s that other thing that’s still alive and well and I’m still involved with that. That didn’t answer your question very well.

PAUL: Well, there are no descriptors, there’s no accurate descriptions there, but that’s fine. I feel that we can start the next interview with that. It is interesting to think how art, as we know it, if we define cave painting as art, how it, basically, did precede language based on the carbon dating studies they’ve done. If you’re talking 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, then that’s before language, and it’s before written language. When we say “language”, what do we mean? Well, a structured, clear language that is understood, that isn’t just the creation of sounds. So it really brings up this interesting notion of, did mark making precede sound making? That answer, I don’t know if we will ever know, but it’s a possibility, right? But, these are the kinds of things that interest me when we’re talking about art is this connection to history, this fact that we’re not the only layer of the spectrum. We are a layer in a trajectory that precedes us and that will follow us.