New York painter David Geiser produces work that explodes
with drama, viscera, sensuality and several other qualities in
short supply at the gutless 2003 Oregon Biennial--and arguably
in the Northwest art scene as a whole. Harrell Fletcher, Brad
Adkins, Amos Latteier and others of the unassuming
artiste-as-mensch axis would well aspire to Geiser's
extroversion and fearlessness as a painter and thinker.
After living in SoHo, Geiser and his wife, actress Mercedes
Ruehl, recently moved into a home a mile away from Jackson
Pollock and Lee Krasner's one-time pied-à-terre in the
East Hamptons. The painter jokes that ever since the move, the
Ghost of Abstract Expressionism Past has been haunting his
studio. I spoke with Geiser by phone as he finished up
preparing for his September show at Butters Gallery, where one
of his paintings, Red Thorn I, now hangs in a group
Willamette Week: Do you consider yourself
David Geiser: The way I work is a blend of Abstract
Expressionism and the element of surprise or the subconscious,
like the automatic painting of the Surrealists. It's
abstract--it's not pretending to be a face or a human
being--but it's coming from a real place; it's a real thing;
it's paint on wood. And it can evoke something universal like
ether or something primal like mold growing on a piece of
bread. God is in these things.
You're familiar with the whole "finish fetish" movement
in painting, where painters obsess over getting these
preternaturally smooth surfaces?
But you really exploit surface. Your canvasses look like
you splatter them with blood and guts.
I really strive for that, which is one reason I think oil
paint is the only real paint to work with. It's where the real
story is. It's a metabolism that somehow connects with human
metabolism. The thing that's always moved me about paint is
that pigment is earth in solution.
When you say, "the metabolism of paint," what do you
mean by that?
With each material I use--varnishes, turpentines, linseed
oils--there's a different drying process. As they dry and
pool, they take on a life of their own, and there seems to be
a metabolism in how they move, which I discover by a sort of
alchemical trial and error. The canvas becomes a petri dish,
and you see what grows out of it.
You're well-known nationally and internationally, but
you come to Portland every year and have been for, what, 15
years or so?
Right, since the inception of Butters Gallery, and it's
been a wonderful journey. Jeff Butters has an extraordinary
eye and sensitivity, and I love the physicality of Oregon, the
ruggedness of the coast. And in terms of Portland, for a
relatively small city, it has an amazingly good intellectual
profile and collector base.
The Oregon Biennial is up now, and it's troubling to see
what a lot of young artists are coming up with: these
Fraggle Rock-looking puppets and cutesy work that's
reaching for whimsy, as if our generation is reliving
Saturday-morning cartoons in lieu of making serious art.
There's a lot of that goofy pop imagery now. It's
throwaway, often somebody else's throwaway, reconstituted.
That's why you don't hang in front of an art work for a long
time anymore. There's no resonance that compels you to stay
there. It's like flipping through the channels of TV. So many
artists have lost sight of what the possibilities are.
Everybody's looking at the next big thing, trying to get their
foot in the door instead of exploring who they are. As an
artist you don't just reflect pop culture and the banality of
existence; you've got to show that there's something
extraordinary here, not just an easy-access image.
That's certainly a Romantic conception of the
Christ, that's the only thing left! I don't want cool and
glib and wry and absurd reflected back at me! I want to go
beyond, into that mystery and magic that compels you to look
at a sunset or the serpentine rivers underneath you when
you're flying in a plane. It's the theories of Expressionism
versus Pop; it's passion versus soup cans. But you know, the
worse things get in the art world, the more potency I have in
my work. We should be out there, feeling
self-righteous, carrying the spear into war. It shouldn't come
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