*The following article is, as of yet, unpublished. It was written as a grad school seminar paper. Footnotes appear as such: (1) with the reference at the bottom of the article in a separate post (End Notes).
“An infinite number of sentences can be generated from a finite number of words which undergo a finite number of transformations of order.”
Noam Chomsky’s First Principle of Transformational Grammar
After only a cursory glance through John Kissick’s twelve page CV I am struck by two glaringly obvious facts:
1. That despite the strong reputation that Mr. Kissick enjoys in this country, he still remains wildly under-recognized for his achievements.
2. In asking him for this interview I am in way over my head.
John Kissick earned his BFA from Queens in 1985, his MFA from Cornell in 1987 and attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2003. Through basic arithmetic I figure him to be between 42 and 45 years old and yet he has already presented a paper to the Whitney Museum in 1989 (1) and had a book published in 1992 (2). He was tenure track at Penn State in 1993 and was tenured in 1999. He took the job as Dean of the Ontario College of Art and Design in 2000 and left to become the Director of the School of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph (a position that he still holds) in 2003. The following blurb, however, is not meant as a celebration of John Kissick’s impressive career as a writer/critic/academic because to do so exclusively would be to entirely miss the point of these activities. John Kissick is a painter and as such he is one of the best, here or anywhere. His work has always been good: smart, sophisticated and accomplished, but it is in his work of the last five or six years that the latent potential of his early work has become fully realized. He is an artist in full stride where each of his large leaps leaves a large indentation on the evolving surface of Canadian art.
The following interview has been annotated; various ideas and sources have been cited and (hopefully) illuminated. Not meant as a mere stylistic device or as a form of pseudo-intellectual-scholarly-name-dropping (3), these references have been included at face value for the purpose of dialogue and exchange because painting (and the various discourses that surround its practice) is not a secret. It’s a conversation.
Me: As a painter deeply concerned with art history broadly and with a lean towards abstraction specifically, what was your thinking on the recent Shape of Colour exhibition at the AGO?
John: I liked it and I liked it because, now this is typical painter talk, but there are a lot of venues that continue to show a great interest in contemporary painting. The AGO hasn’t been one of them and that’s been a little bone of contention for me. I think, in terms of timing, that there is this soft underbelly of the art world, this vulnerable spot of the art world. Within its discourse there is the continued insistence of painting and the art world’s funny relationship with that discourse. I’ll give you an example. Canadian Art: Karin Davie’s (4) on the recent cover (5). Why is Karin Davie on the cover? Well, because John (6) wrote an essay about Karin Davie but also because nine tenths of the readers of Canadian Art Magazine are interested in Canadian painting.
Me: A Canadian showing with Mary Boone (7) also might also have something to do with it.
John: Sure. And the fact that painting reproduces really well in a magazine.
Me: Especially work like Karin Davie’s.
John: Yes, but there is also the acknowledgement that painting is a series of codes and conventions that have some elasticity to them. They have both meaning inherent in them and also the ability to transfer meaning in a way that allows people to enter into the discourse. It’s something that I think painting does really well and I think that’s something that the AGO pursued really well. In terms of timing, the reality is that painting is healthier now than it’s been in a long, long time and it’s a case of the AGO being a couple of years behind the times (which it usually is). It’s catching up to the fact that painting is once again exploding. That’s a pretty typical timing thing with any major institution: two or three years behind the times.
Me: Well, perhaps even more so. For me, the two major overarching texts that informed that exhibition were the 1998 Art Forum with the cover story “The New Color Field” (8) that was all about Monique Prieto (9) Laura Owens (10) and the ACME (11) crew. Prieto was included in the AGO show. The larger text historically was, of course, Robert Rosenblum’s The Abstract Sublime (12). They even included Milton Avery (13) as a pseudo-Friedrich. Clearly the couldn’t get a Friedrich (14), so they had to go with an Avery. (It was, however, a really nice Avery.) But in extending that Abstract Sublime trajectory, they grouped together some things that were historically viewed as quite different from each other (15).
John: Sure, but also colour has emerged as a topic that within the last three years seen the publication of Victoria Finlay’s book “Colour” (16) and David Batchelor’s “Chromophobia” (17). It is the very slipperiness and the slightly intangible qualities of colour that painting has brought to the fore. It is not alone in doing it, but it has brought that discourse up repeatedly. It seems to have created some living space, some working space (18) for contemporary artists. You never used to be able to talk about colour because it was a little funny, a little squishy, a little unseemly. It was like crying in a movie because you had to bring up all of those signifiers that come with it like the Sublime (19). That was dangerous territory for thirty or forty years. Personally, I think that the trauma to painting from 1960 through to the 1980’s was the reductivist notion of the theory of the period where gesture, which had in the 40’s and 50’s suggested some kind of existential mark or some kind of ontological change, became reduced to some kind of misogyny or white hegemony.
John: Exactly. But what was lost in that was that it’s a convention. When I was young I fell hard for language theory and I always recognized in painting that it was a set of codes and conventions. It is how I speak to the world. I am quintessentially post-post-modern (or whatever you want to call it) in that I am very aware of the fact that I am not working with highly individualized marks but am working within the world of language and its conventions. I believe that painting functions extremely well that way. What is interesting about painting is that it functions that way but is also, to some extent, kind of slippery. Colour is one of those areas where the system of signification gets slippery (20). It is within those fissures, those cracks that things can happen. At the end of the day I made a decision. Back in the late eighties I made the decision that I was going to make paintings. The reason for it, after experimenting with a whole bunch of different stuff, was that I was aware of the extraordinary conventionality of all artistic practice. In the first generation after painting when people were doing video or a variety of different conceptual practices, there was still this notion of the “Avante-Garde” or of progress or in the novelty in “new kinds of things”. Like when artists starting using computers and thought that this was some kind of “new thing”, but really all of it was locked in the same kinds of conventions. So if everything is going to inevitably collapse into a set of conventions, then why not work with the one language that has the ability to extend itself through the history of artistic discourse? And that’s painting. There’s more to work with in that.
Me: And potentially at risk.
John: Yes. So I chose painting because it seemed to be the conversation that I wanted to have with history and with ideas. That was a landmark thing in my life, the realization that it’s all basically been done. So if the language is richer then you have a far greater ability to have a conversation. In other words, think about learning a new language like French. Your capacity to expand the discourse is very limited when all you can say is: Pizza and thank you. That’s where painting is so incredible. It’s such an incredibly rich and historically varied set of conventions that it enables its discussions to be much more interesting.
Someone once asked me: “What makes a painting contemporary? What does contemporary mean?” I said that basically contemporary painting is like the car wreck of Modernism. Maybe that’s what I’ve been doing. My career is like a traffic crash investigator that circles around a collision at an intersection.
Me: That forms a nice little segue way into my next question. Your early work and much of your scholarly writing is very rooted in political strife, particularly in the case of Northern Ireland. Can you describe this interest?
John: There were a couple of things. One is that I’ve always been interested in the intersection between politics and art production. That’s a fairly general answer, but a more specific one was that I had gone to Ireland to do a talk on Leon Golub’s (21) work. I had done something at the Whitney Museum and was asked to go do it in Ireland (22). At the time I was doing a lot of paintings, or painting like things, that were based on issues of language. I was very interested in what happens when you take a personal experience and put it into the public realm and specifically the notion of pain. What happens when you take something private and fundamental like pain and try to express it, when you enter something that is so primal into a social discourse? What happens to that experience? This has been the problem of empathy, the inability of language to adequately express or describe the experience of pain. This is the problem of language, so again it comes back to language for me. I was really interested in this thing called the McGill-Melzack Pain Question (23), which comes out of McGill University. It happened in the 70’s. They used language as a diagnostic tool of pain management for burn victims. Before they could be medicated they had this check list and they would have to check off how they were feeling in an attempt to describe their pain: searing, freezing, boiling, agonizing, piercing, all of this kind of stuff. I was doing a lot of text based work on that while doing the work on Leon Golub and his interrogation series. I was very interested in a particular painting wherein one of the figures is not only blind folded but gagged so basically the body is being tortured but has no ability to do anything. It just implodes. The self just implodes.
But I was giving this talk on Leon Golub in Northern Ireland.
Me: At a highly tumultuous time. Things have settled down significantly since then.
John: Yes. When I was going there, when I started going there, it was the most violent time since the seventies. I thought that I was going to be able to see artists dealing with this whole issue quite fundamentally because Belfast is both this active Western city with an art community and guys in lofts and at the same time having this whole civil strife. But when I got there I was so unbelievably disappointed because everything I saw in Belfast in artist’s studios was whatever was hip in Art in America or Art Forum the month before. Basically the reproductive media that we use today has collapsed the art world into relative homogeneity. The notion that I was going to go into this region where the art would be constructed around these actualized issues was thoroughly naïve on my part. It thoroughly opened me up to the reality of what the art world was now. There was a kind of disassembling happening. A kind of disassembling of meaning and of self and of personal experience was going on in a lot of art. It was copied in art schools everywhere. That was the late eighties and everybody was doing David Salle (24) stuff over and over and over again. Even in Belfast. But the only stuff that blew me away in Belfast were these murals that seemed very real. They were thoroughly conventionalized. They were not made by professional artists. Some of them were more graphic than others. But implicit in the murals was a whole set of social relations that I thought were really interesting including the notion of audience. These things are commissioned by the paramilitaries. They’re put in communities where they’re actually protected. The big game for the other community is to try and destroy these murals. Some of them last over night. Some of them last for years. There was a whole social dynamic to these images that I found very compelling and thoroughly at odds with a contemporary western European city where there’s billboards and stuff like that. Why do murals? Why do a mural when you’re competing against big Guinness ads? And so it made me get really interested in the periphery of art practice. It wasn’t that I was going there as a sociologist, because I really didn’t have the skills, but I was interested in them as images and in the kind of discrepancy between the world and the construction of imagery and art making within these anachronisms that were in Belfast. So I looked at those very seriously and wrote extensively on them for four or five years because I’m really interested in visual images. I’m interested in art production in a wide variety of ways. I think that the world is way too interesting to just sit in a studio. I would never have made those murals, but I’m really interested in how they were constructed. So I came back here really thinking about the relationship between those codes and their communities and that influenced a body of work that I did that were based on children’s playground schematics (25). That’s a long winded way of telling you how I ended up there but again it was all about looking for that relationship between a community and its conventions but also the thorough disappointment that I found with the highly conventionalized work being produced by the professionalized art community.
Me: Your recent work is quite different.
John: It’s funny. You go and you revisit your older work and you think that you’ve really changed. You look at your artist statements and that. But the issues haven’t changed at all. The text based work was about trying to create a degree of interference between how someone was able to read the text. I did this text based work where I’d hammer text, like rifling, onto lead. Lead is so soft that whenever you put a letter down and then put another one next to it, it kind of oozes over to the other letter. What I did was I looked at a variety of kinds of conversations and then put them together. The series of text based work that I did in the early nineties was all based on a combination of human rights reports from Amnesty International, Victorian lover letters that dealt with sentiment and rules from a text on children’s playground games. What I would do was take one sentence from each text that I found interesting and put one from another. Through the act of hammering them in, what would end up happening was something that looked like cuneiform, something as old as ages, but with just words coming out. Words would just blurt out. You couldn’t read anything except for little fragments. So there was this collage or this superimposition of a kind of information or of sentiment that created a unified field of disparate quotations. What I didn’t want these things to be was pure collage wherein you would read one sentence and there’s this disconnect with another sentence. Instead the act of producing the work produced a new or a different piece. You would be able to see bits and pieces like “scarring, tissue, Danish Rounders, children’s voice, I love you”. Through the act of creating a template or situation wherein these kinds of collisions of language could occur, bump up against each other, through the act of actually engaging the language through writing it became very compelling to me. It was all about those little spaces, those fissures. When I look at the new painting, that is exactly what I’m doing but I’ve removed the text and am instead using the language of painting (and its conventions) to collapse and to create those kinds of fissures.
Me: Yes. That’s quite interesting. Going back to the notion of language, in 1992 a young John Kissick wrote:
“One reasonably certain aspect of communication is that its codes embody and are susceptible to the pressures of change. This should make sense: language incapable of adapting to new situations would simply become irrelevant” (26). How do you think the language of painting has changed over the last fifteen years?
John: One of the things that is pretty clear to me is that, and it might be feigned, but there seems to be a lot more freedom in contemporary painting then there might have been ten or fifteen years ago. I think it’s been the generation that’s coming up now that’s basically said “I’m tired of irony. I’m tired of cynicism It’s an endgame. It doesn’t go anywhere” (27). There was this sense in and around painting, especially in the early 90’s, that the best attitude to have was to be ironically detached so that nothing really meant anything and you weren’t really committed to anything because to be really committed to anything was dangerous. There was a great line from Peter Schjeldahl (28) wherein he was describing the Rothko exhibition and he said something like how: “In the last great tide of faith Rothko, like Mondrian before him, lacked the wisdom of today’s art stars that know that to believe in anything is messy and dangerous and that does give us an edge on them.” That was very compelling for me. Of course he was saying it tongue and cheek because thank God that there was this “tide of faith” when commitment really mattered. There was this period we went through where there was so much joylessness in painting. How much of yourself could you remove from your work? (29) John in the Karin Davie piece brings up a good point in that a lot of the joy came back into painting when a lot of young women painters started moving beyond the discourses of first generation and even some second generation feminist theory in order to reengage painting on their own terms (30). I think it gave license to a lot of people to move back in and to talk about notions like play and small ‘m’ meaning, to engage ones interests again and to put the ‘self’ back into painting. I think that today’s painting practices bear a little bit of that which I think is nice. I think we’re at a stage right now where one can find painting interesting again in a wide variety of ways. There are multiple voices out there now where as a decade ago there was this sense of a unified field of irony. Now the other side of the coin is that if you’re one of those people that, at an impressionable age, lived through those wars of the 80’s and early 90’s (31), you have to wonder about the rigor. There is this willful blindness to those issues and how they came to function. I feel like a weary veteran that’s been in the trenches too long and has the shell shock of experience.
Me: In your Ben Reeves catalogue essay (32) you describe this reluctance as potentially “mid-career fatigue”.
John: Well on the one hand you have this pair of glasses that you see the world through that makes me skeptical, not cynical but skeptical of this kind of “whatever-ness” that goes on in contemporary painting. At the same time I’m thankful that a lot of good young painters have given license to mid-career practitioners to be able to do be able to do what they want to do without having to obsessively justify it. It’s a funny thing because painting was the sacrificial lamb of Postmodernity. It was the big boy on the block and arguably the bully. It was seen to be needed to be knocked down. But I think that we’re in an interesting time right now. I think that there are opportunities for painting once again. It seems to be that the problems that were inherent in the first phases of post-structuralist thought (33) were an end game and there was a lot of painting that seemed to illustrate that theory. Painting is not a good vehicle to illustrate theory. It sucks at it and painters aren’t theorists.
Me: Nor should they be.
John: This is one of the things that happened in the 80’s. Everybody started reading these texts and this is one of the things that pissed me off. It’s why I wrote that book. You’d have students who are supposedly talking about Derrida but had no stinking understanding of basic semiotics. They had no idea of where semiotic literature came from, nor of how to look at ideology in different fashions. I found that everyone had become a dilettante. Artists are to some extent the greatest dilettantes in the world. They’re experts at everything because they’ve read one book on it. But they’re not philosophers. They’re not historians. They’re artists but somehow they believe that it’s ok for them to take all of that on. They’ve got all of the ideas and there is a level of dilettantism that has always concerned me. That’s all the more reason why my practice has tended to become more and more focused. I just want to know something well. That’s all I want. I want to know something well. I want to learn something completely in the old traditional notion of ‘a practice’. This runs counter to some other people’s notion of how art making works today. I just have found that there is a tendency within the art community for a rarified, “aren’t we special”, view of the world and I don’t think that the work always hold up to it.
Me: I think that a lot of those 80’s discourses were a very powerful rhetoric filled with some very convincing arguments. (34)
Me: And although a lot of artists in the early/mid-nineties sought to reject those arguments, it seems to me that there has been no similarly convincing argument put forth to counter or refute that rhetoric. I think that a lot of contemporary painters and young painters especially, seem to feel that sheer irreverence for those dialogues is a good enough strategy for its negotiation. I think of artists like Laura Owens.
John: To some extent there’s a slightly Oedipal thing that goes on from generation to generation. You get a crop of artists that are “the new evangelists” for the Postmodern theory that came out in the 80’s (35). They’re schooled on it and they become the parent-figures for the next generation of artists. They give all of the readings. They give it to all of their classes. What happens is that they initially buy into it. They accept it. It’s like Piaget’s “Three Levels of Child Development” (36). At first they don’t understand it at all. Then the rules matter all of the time. Then they react against the rules and finally they subsume the rules and invent new opportunities. I think that Piaget model is very much what happens in a social sphere.
Me: It also seems to relate to the classic Hegelian Syllogism of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis (37).
John: Yah sure. It’s interesting to me how profound an influence education has. Art schools are really the pressure cooker for where you get all of that information. It’s the one time in your life when you do and then it gets awfully lonely out there in the art world. That’s where those kinds of collisions occur. What is next? I don’t know. But I do know that, in how you were talking about there not being a convincing counter argument to the 80’s, the arguments of the 80’s really called into question the possibility of art production at all. So that either means that the artist dies as an irrelevance or an eccentricity, and maybe we are an eccentricity of culture right now, or you just simply ignore the message and go on. I mean civilization is based upon a whole bunch of prophets of doom that everybody accepts and understands and nods their heads. You’re actually a good example. You’re going to be a father (38) and we’re living in the twenty first century where we’ve seen everything from the collapse of religion to Nietsze to Freud (39) and all the rest of it. Somebody might argue to you that your love for your child is either genetically programmed into you but the fact remains that you would still throw yourself in front of a bus to save that child and you wouldn’t think twice about it. Despite all of the discourse that would tell you that it’s nothing more than a social coding or a kind of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Parenting is very good analogy for how we construct our world. I believe that more now than ever. Despite what we know, we do what we think is right. We do what we do because of sentiments and such despite all of that other stuff that we know. Art production is the same way. This was part of the joke of the 80’s, the hook line and sinker adaptation of certain parts of Deconstruction (40) or of hard core Post-Structuralism like Baudrillard and that, ended the art realm. It was a complete end game. Once it’s been done once you’ve illustrated the theory and thank-you-very-much. You either decide that’s it or you move on. But to move on, after that gesture has been performed, is in some ways an act of faith again or a Sysiphisian “rolling the boulder up the hill” knowing that somehow it’s going to come back down. The art act is the act of the exertion of rolling that boulder up because if you don’t roll it up, it just lands on you and you’re crushed by it. You are crushed by the weight of its discourse. To my mind, if what’s offered you, if knowledge of a Godless conventionalized world is all that’s left to you and you sit and putrefy, then I think that I make the choice, despite what I know, the very human decision, to move forward. That’s one of the reasons that, despite all of the rhetoric and the theory that comes along with the writing today, the bottom line is that when you look at the work in the art magazines of today there are smatterings of stuff that was done in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s. What makes it contemporary is that everything is gobbledygooked (41) together in the same magazine whereas it wouldn’t have been ten or fifteen years ago. There’s a kind of flattening out of hierarchies perhaps but the stuff is still out there.
Me: For sure. So I guess my last question is this: You are teaching a fourth year undergrad course called “The Language of Painting”. How much of that 80’s stuff (42) are you going to give them?
John: That’s a good question because one of the things I have to do this week is to construct the course. I don’t know. It’s a good question because on the one hand I’m conscious that this is a studio course and I don’t want it to become a reading course. On the other hand there has to be a series of convincing essays that people can read in order to get their minds around the notion of language itself. It’s kind of a weird one. Truth be told, I’m trying to trade out of it.