Mark Fox: MFKPMQ
Robert Miller Gallery, New York City
16 January – 22 February 2014
by NATASHA KURCHANOVA
Fox’s philosophical bent led him to experiment with various media, including puppetry, to arrive at the present body of work. MFKPMQ consists mostly of works on or with paper – drawings, watercolours, inks and oils on paper, as well as paper sculptures. The installation also includes one autonomous video and one site-specific stainless steel sculpture.
The thread that runs through Fox’s work is the idea of manipulation. In his 2D work, this is usually explored through a meticulous reworking of accidental drops and spills, resulting in mesmerising labyrinths of seemingly chaotic, but still distinct, agglomerations. In his sculptures and installations, he uses various texts that deal with the fundamental dogma of the Catholic faith. In his earlier work, Fox would paint the words on a piece of paper, then cut them out and rearrange them into confusingly jumbled up “clouds” of information, presented either in the form of sculpture or relief-like “painting”. In his later creations, the texts pertain either to his personal life or the broad philosophical issues of perception and understanding. The personal texts are made invisible, embedded into the handmade cardboard that he has used as the material for his recent sculptures. Phenomenological and epistemological inquiries are spelled out in Fox’s steel works, but made partly illegible and invisible because of the reflective nature of steel and the cursory style of writing, which resembles hand-drawn squiggles.
He has graciously agreed to give an interview to Studio International on the occasion of his opening at the Robert Miller Gallery.
Natasha Kurchanova: Mark, I am interested in the beginning of your career as an artist because I would like to trace the transition between painting, in which you majored at Stanford University, and puppetry, which you started doing almost immediately after your first exhibition. In 1993, together with Anthony Luensman, you founded Saw Theatre, a puppet theatre company. What led you to switch from painting to puppetry?
Mark Fox: It actually goes back further. I was doing painting in graduate school. The transition from painting on canvas to puppet theatre was not a clean break. When I was doing puppetry, I was still painting very minimal, almost colour-field paintings. This happened in about a two-year period while I was on a very intense programme at Stanford University: it had only seven graduate students that year. So those colour-field canvases were distilled down from the very narrative Surrealist landscapes I was doing prior to the abstracted ones. They always had quasi-religious overtones. And then I became interested in the choice of colour for symbols of religious iconography: for example, in a medieval manuscript, we see a gold band for heaven or a blue band for Earth. And I started using that, and the figures worked their way out. And then the painting became just bands of colour, turning into colour field when one colour eventually took over the surface.
NK: So even when your painting was colour field, it was still symbolic?
MF: It was. It’s a long way of starting to talk about the fact that, when I got out of graduate school and was doing these paintings, they became so based in thought and colour theory that it made me feel I had lost this gut, intuitive reaction to narrative and figures. I was asking myself what had happened to those figures that I had loved to paint and was beginning to question whether painting was the right medium for figurative work, or whether it was better to do it through film or video. So I decided I wanted to get back into narrative storytelling, to figures. I did not want to paint figures, though, because in an image of a person you have to go from a meaning that is very specific and is already there. I did love the open-endedness of colours. So I started making little things that looked like dolls – weird little figures that normally would have been in paintings. I made them out of wood, clay and fabric. They were carved. There were castings, and a lot of sewing was involved. They looked really like handmade, unpolished, dirty dolls. They were an attempt to get back to the intuitive mode of creating figurative images that I could no longer achieve with painting. I started doing videos with them. Then there came a point when it made sense to start moving them. At that juncture, I turned to doing paintings again, with figures. The experiment was really to make these works narrative. In these paintings, I had figures that were movable on a canvas through magnets and strings. If you went into a gallery to see a painting, I might have come in and moved the figures, so they would be in a different position. This technique led to me performing these paintings in front of an audience. I made a series of paintings that I could perform in this way.
Then I started really obsessing about puppetry as an art form. I totally immersed myself in that. The thread that carries it through is that these early paintings of Surrealist figures and these quasi-religious overtones had a lot to do with my upbringing, which was strictly Catholic. The puppet theatre was a way for me to understand certain aspects of the world. I was not only reading about it, but also going to see performances. In New York at the time there was the International Puppet Theatre Festival. It was produced by the Henson Foundation and, every two years, they would bring in these amazing people from all over the world where puppetry was considered an adult medium. One performance in particular moved me to tears, but I could not understand what was moving me so much. Gradually, it became clear to me that all these different forms of puppetry grew out the way these cultures thought about their deities and gods: the way their religion worked in the world really came through their puppetry. In the west, the marionette became the predominant form: a figure moved by unseen forces from above, with strings and a distant connection to the manipulator. In the east, the puppeteer was visible – he was seen working alongside the figure. The performance became more of a dance. There was a direct relationship between the puppeteer and the puppet – they usually addressed each other. I became fascinated with that. It also tied in to the scenes of what my earlier paintings were about, although I do not think I knew it at the time. They were about manipulation: figures were being manipulated by forces beyond themselves. These forces were either cultural or religious. I was brought up in this extremely strict German Catholic family, so, for me, the puppet theatre became a very obvious form of addressing the theme of manipulation. They were not narratives, in a way – the first four or five had no words, except words that would flow on screen or on stage, but there was a narrative arc. And it was usually about a character coming to terms with the fact that he was being manipulated, or the Pinocchio story of trying to get away from manipulation. It was done in very Surrealist terms – I do not know if people ever came away thinking that – but that was my intention in making them. For 10 years, I was doing that. I was also painting and drawing, but not exhibiting the work; I was just working on live performances. Preparation of one performance took approximately a year. It took so long because the performances were very intricate and nuanced. It started out with myself and three friends. Anthony [Luensman] composed original music and soundscapes and he collaborated in the direction of the pieces. By the end, our works were full-stage, with text, music and light operation. But, broadly speaking, it was all about manipulation.
NK: I read one interview, which you gave a few years ago, where you said that you thought of your performances as paintings.
MF: I did. These performances all came about foremost through drawing. I did not have a script. We were not thinking of how to work in a text or a scene – it was not about that. It was me creating my early paintings and then figuring out the arc of a particular character.
NK: So you had in mind a general subject matter, such as Paradise Lost, for example, and then you went from there?
MF: Paradise Lost was one of the most direct pieces we ever did and it was also the last piece. We started with a known text and a familiar narrative arc – Milton’s text. We, Saw Theatre, did not illustrate it, however. We created a kind of an atmospheric portrait around the excerpted dialogue of Satan and his fellow fallen angels. The other text-based work was called A Criminal Story. The text was created by David Zaza for a Saw Theatre production. In this case the text, a poem in several parts and recited live as part of the performance, came about through a lengthy collaborative process where David and I shared ideas about a violent act.
NK: So, why did you abandon puppetry?
MF: Honestly, it became too onerous financially. I had to start a non-profit organisation to keep it going. The operation was very complicated logistically. Our puppet theatre became very popular, and we were on the road for almost a year with Account Me Puppet. I found myself fundraising and organising trucks, hotel rooms and venues. This was not what I wanted to do. But if I had found the way to keep the theatre going without doing organisational work, I might still be doing it. I love it. Now I am getting back into it a little bit. The theme of my puppetry carried directly into my visual work.
NK: Yes, because your recent visual work is still based on narrative. You work with words now, correct? What was the trajectory of the turn from puppetry to visual production?
MF: First of all, there was the theme of manipulation. After a performance, people would come up to me and talk about how delicately and beautifully the figures were manipulated. But when performing, I was much more aware of how I was being manipulated by the puppet, because I knew what it could and could not do – I knew its limitations. I had to be constantly aware of what I was doing. All performers and puppeteers were on view: I had to direct them, and we all had to work around each other. We were all being manipulated by the scene. I became used to that. When I was doing artwork for the puppet theatre, I would always work out formal drawings of the stage sets. I would do it on a piece of paper, and have another piece of paper next to it, which would accumulate pencil shavings and paint spills. Those kinds of things that accumulated on the side of the paper became much more interesting to me than what I was actually doing with the piece of art. I became attentive to the fact that this accidental byproduct of my work had less status than the work itself and decided to work with all these pieces of paper with stains and spills instead. I was spending my time in the studio being manipulated by these things that were complete accidents. I was spending hours working around every little spill. The first exhibition of that work had all those “accidents” reworked. That was in the early 2000s, at Linda Schwartz Gallery in Cincinnati. A larger, more comprehensive installation of this work was shown at the NeuRathaus Gallery in Munich, Germany. I was still involved with puppetry at the time. So this aspect of my work became predominant – the physical manipulation of artistic materials.
Besides doing this, I was also constantly doodling, making notes and lists to myself. It came to the point when the words started attracting me as visual phenomena. Anything that would appear on paper in the studio was fair game for me to manipulate further – to sit down and cut it out, for example. These things included phone numbers and shopping lists. I fell in love with the words, the form of the words and I wanted to work with that. That’s when the text-based work appeared. I wanted to choose text that, again, had something to do with this idea of manipulation, which goes all the way back to the themes of dominant culture or religion manipulating individuals. So the first texts that I studied for this purpose were religious. I went back to the fundamental texts of Catholicism, which were the basis of my upbringing, because I wanted to learn what they actually said. I grew up thinking that the Virgin giving birth to the Son of God was the truth. So I read these fundamental texts, the dogmas of Catholicism, which contain the beliefs that Catholics not only have, but are obliged to have – for example, that the Virgin mother never died, and her body was assumed in to heaven. When the Pope says these things, you have to believe them or you cannot consider yourself a Catholic. I found these official papal documents and I read them. Then I painted them in words, spelling them out on the surface. I wrote them out in full, word-for-word, and then cut out each word around its painted edge. Then I would glue these paper words back together in a random configuration, turning them into gibberish. I would get clouds of gibberish. But if you look at them carefully, you could get an inkling of what the text was about. It became obvious to me how obsessed the Catholic Church was with the female body. These works resemble the imaginary cloud of an intuitively understood doctrine, which was taught to me as a child. You do not know what it is, but it has presence in your life, which you cannot avoid. This is where the text comes in.
NK: You quit puppetry around 2001 and you never really went back to painting?
MF: Not painting on canvas. Everything I have done from that point on was paper-based.
NK: Why with paper?
MF: I always loved paper. Even when I painted, I always started my paintings with drawing. Also, there was this big move from Ohio, where I had a gigantic, 5-6,000 sq feet studio (it was a big warehouse, which contained a theatre and a studio), to New York, into a studio that was the size of this table. I then decided to work with materials that would allow me to create smaller works. Paper became this material. As you can see, now these paper creations have transformed into larger structures. I love the malleability of paper and its ephemeral nature. The canvas and the panel seem so immutable and fixed, and paper is easier to manipulate.
NK: So, this narrativity that has always been the the focus of your work, does it express itself in any other way, apart from the works with jumbled-up words … When you do an installation, do you create each piece separately or do you think about the installation in general? Do you think about the theatrical aspect of the installation, a viewer coming into space and moving through it?
MF: No, not anymore. I just think of the work. When I was doing larger installation-based pieces, I had to think of that. The series that I have been doing for the past three years has been more sculpture-like and modified painting. I just think of them in series now.
NK: So, when you think about an exhibition, you think of it in terms of presenting a specific series of work?
NK: This leads me to my next question. You have had so many exhibitions – more than 30 solo shows since the late 80s, when you started your career. How is the exhibition at the Robert Miller Gallery different from others?
MF: It’s different because usually when I have a show, I present just one body of work. In fact, I think it has always been one body of work. It’s like a museum show, such as Dust at Cincinnati Art Museum in 2003, where I created work specifically for that exhibition, which is usually the case. Or when I joined Larissa Goldston Gallery in New York, I knew a year or so ahead that I would have an exhibition. Then I could make a body of work and show it. The show at the Robert Miller is much more of a mini-overview of the past six years of my work. It is bringing together a lot of works from different series. At first, I was hesitant to do this, because I was not used to showing my work that way. I thought it could end up looking as if it was done by five different people. I was happy and surprised to see that it does hold together. Most of it has not been seen, because it was in my files or storage, but the exhibition spans a long time.
NK: I want to ask you one more question about the works that hang on the wall and look as if they are cut out from cardboard. Is that what they are?
MF: Yes, now I make cardboard. The work that you see here is made out of this material. Before, the text was hidden in this jungle of cloud-like forms. Now, I am writing text or making drawings that are either highly personal or confidential in one way or another, and then I embed them in sheets of cardboard, which I then pile up in stacks. You cannot see the drawings or the messages, but I also cut them up into strips, so that bits and pieces of them become visible, but still illegible. There are two cardboard sculptures and two or three works made out of cardboard cutouts at the Robert Miller.
NK: Will there be any steel works?
MF: There is one steel piece. Most of my steel works are site-specific. I create the text based on where they are going to hang. Again, this work is all about manipulation, about how your standing in a specific space is affected by forces in that space beyond your control or knowledge. I am spelling it out in front of you, but you cannot see it, because it is reflective. The piece at the Robert Miller is a diptych. It is a reflective panel. Fifty percent of it is cutout, which allows you to see the environment beyond. The text is about you looking into a mirror and seeing yourself – not the outside, but the inside of your body. It is about how fast your heart is beating, how much blood is circulating and how much hair you are losing – everything invisible, but actual that is happening in your body at the moment of looking at the work.
NK: So, the work is also about perception and conception, the union or the division of our mind and the body. Thank you, Mark, for this very informative interview. I am looking forward to seeing the exhibition.