Interview with Carl Ostendarp
Artist Carl Ostendarp's exhibition "Works on Paper" is being shown until February 22 in the Klemm Gallery of Studio Angelico. Carl has had over 33 solo exhibitions and has participated in over 170 group shows internationally. The New York Times described him as "a master of comic minimalism." Madison LaRoy, a junior, sat down with the artist to discuss his inspirations, style, advice, and changes in the art world.
LaRoy: Is there a central meaning or message for this installation?
Ostendarp: It's really a kind of survey, so it would be hard to boil... I mean there are some drawings here that go back twenty years. It would be tough to boil it all down to one thing, but I think the visual language is pretty consistent, you know? And there are themes that run through it. There are a lot of gouaches that use language, specifically onomatopoeia language, like words that sound like what they refer to. There's also drawings of punctuation. There are some drawings of drawings. You know, there's a range. I end up putting them in four or five different categories. Try to install it so they are dispersed pretty evenly.
L: What are some of your sources of inspiration?
O: Oh, wide. It's really wide. I'm especially interested in, as far as fine art is concerned, a group of artists between like 1964-65 to 1976-77 who end up being outliers. They don't come up in art history class. Because art history class has to show you the best example of the category and then the work. So you'll see the Warhol Marilyn and you'll see the Lichtenstein Girl with the Ball, you'll see the Rosenquist F-111. But you don't end up seeing John Wesley. Or you don't end up seeing Paul Feeley, Ralph Humphrey, or Rosalyn Drexler. So there's a lot of artists whose work was involved in minimalism, abstract art, and hard edge geometric painting or hard edge painting, and pop at the same time. They don't do a great job of representing hard and fast categories, but they end up being really interesting to me.
I like the places where those things get confused and blend. But then I'm also really interested in a lot of visual culture, particularly cartoons. I was born in 1961, so I got the brunt of the Hanna Barbera cartoons and Saturday morning cartoons and packaging. It was a really common thing for cartoonists to put out books on a regular basis to collect all of their cartoons. Mad Magazine was huge when I was in junior high. There would be a sign up sheet to get to look at the magazine in the school library. Don Martin, Theodor Geisel, who is Dr. Seuss. And what I'm interested in about those kind of colloquial visual languages...I think has to do with formalism. I think there is a kind of formal language in them. In a funny kind of way, what I'm interested in, in fine art, is content. Even though the way that it gets talked about and the way that it used to be talked about when I was in school was, you know, how does this function compositionally, more formal things. I'm interested in content. And the thing I'm interested in...kind of...popular visual culture is its formal language. And there's a lot of places where, like in animating and cartooning, where there is a kind of abstract language going on--speed lines or, if somebody is supposed to be anxious, they will do those sweat marks coming off of them. All those things are representational. What they do is that they make looking and reading confused. We read those ideograms and so the same time we are looking and having empathy usually for like characters that are animals being humans. You know, the Cat in the Hat is a person but it's a cat. So they bring up a kind of complicated empathy and they seem to be involved with this idea of the uncanny. Even the word animation suggests that the entire field is about the uncanny. There are drawings that are alive, that are functioning. So, those are some sources of inspiration for me.
L: What advice do you have for aspiring artists and designers?
O: I don't know if I would have much advice for designers. I mean, I don't know if my advice would be much. I guess I have an awareness that the nature of the economy for designers is you're independently employed and you're constantly seeking work and things are short term and all of those things.
The advice that I would have for artists is make way more than you think you need to, kind of constantly be doing it, and if you can get yourself to the point where you're... Like I do this thing, I walk to work. It's about a 25 minute walk. I used to use it to think: "well what am I going to cover today in class? don't forget to go to the bank, don't forget to pick up milk at the grocery store." The walk home would be like, you know, "thank God that's over," or whatever. But several years ago I started devoting the walk to thinking about what I was doing in the studio. And super simple things like always leave something not done, so that when you get back, you can start right in, finishing the thing that you left. I think one tough thing about being an artist is that you have to find a way to balance management and labor, both. There's so much romanticism sort of surrounding it as a role, that it's very easy to start falling in love with your studio habits and your rituals and to think of your work as somehow a representation of you.
You know, rather than thinking of yourself as an author and the point of what you're doing is to make work for the experience of other people. So, I turn this walk into a way of thinking about the work really closely, and I got pretty good at thinking the same thing. You know, like, how do I want that edge to look? I'm imagining how I'm supposed to do... so that the process of making wasn't like "I'll paint this little shape yellow and then I'll respond to that and then I'll think of something to put in." So the process of making wasn't like this improvisational thing, but that I had done a lot of work thinking about how I wanted it to be ahead of time. And then further than that, try to think similarly about bodies of work, about groups of things, and being open to it. There's teaching, there's my family, my kids. There's always a lot going on.
So, I think being selfish about when you have the time, to have it be an ongoing thing is important. And I also think making is really important. That you learn and teach yourself what to do next by noticing what has potential as you're making. It's very hard to make decisions about objects that don't exist yet. I also found that there's some things that people don't decide about, like the canvases come in this size, or this is the color of the paint in the tube anyway. You know how you buy like a tube of Ultramarine Blue? And it says blue on it. But it just looks really, really dark. It looks black! It would be easy to just like put it out of the tube and it says blue so you put it down thinking it's blue but it reads as black. So, I guess a certain kind of paying attention or a certain kind of noticing about how you really want it to be and not accepting givens. You know how all art students use 18- by 24-inch drawing pads? They get assigned them when they take their drawing class? Almost anytime I see anything that's 18 by 24 inches, right away I'm thinking that. Even if it is made by somebody who's 80 years old. Like oh, it's that proportion, that size. So, I guess that's my advice. Make more than you think, also look at it. It's very easy to think, well, "I'm working when I'm putting the pencil on the paper, brush on the canvas, or moving the mouse, or chipping away at the rock, or whatever. That's when I'm working. All the other time I'm not working." And so, once you finally lift the pencil off, you think, okay that's done. Now it's a part of my archive and its value is showing where I came from.
I would give people advice, especially art students the advice of hanging on to what you make and stop every once in a while and look at it. Also ask your friends to come and tell you what they see without giving them too many ques. The hard thing is to tell, how is the work coming across? Like what's the nature of the experience that people are having with it? That's what I got.
L: How would you describe your style?
O: You know, I've had reviews that say pop minimal, I've had reviews that say it's a synthesis of color field painting. There are lots and lots of, sort of, descriptors. Obviously the work is... The work in part comes out of that time and those artists that I mentioned, but I'm aware it's not 1970. I was nine years old in 1970. I think part of the reason why I'm interested in the visual language of art in that time has to do with the difference between the way that...I mean back then, people really self-identified: I'm a painter, I'm a sculptor. People talked about, is it a good painting? Is it a bad painting? And if you got really old, or if you died, then they started talking about art. But it seems to me something happens at the end of the '60s and early '70s; there's an explosion of mediums: performance, video, earth art, new forms that seem to be about increasing a sense of imminence. You start to see that in the '50s, where like painters are getting rid of the frames of their paintings, or sculptors are getting rid of the bases to make art more close. And then you see the invention of these forms that are like real time, performances happening as you're seeing it. It's not like this dusty object that comes from the past or stands from the past. And after that point you start hearing the work that gets made talked about like this artist using painting, this artist using sculpture, using video. So the nature of the medium changes. And I'm really interested in that turning point. That's such a big change. And it seems it's still affecting the way people think about... artists think about what they do. So that's part of the reason why I use that language.
We get so much of our education, especially now with Google Image Search and gallery websites, through the screen. It's very easy to assume, that the first thing with any art is the image, the picture, the subject. And then all other decisions, how big, what kind of material, what sort of mark making. All those other decisions come after deciding on an image. What an artist's work is about is the picture, and then the style, and then its presence. And I guess I've found... I've been painting for a long time and showing since 1989. And what I find in the studio is sometimes it's a color that starts it. Or sometimes its a feeling about a certain proportion or certain size. The image isn't always the first thing and in a funny kind of way, even though we are used to saying things like oh that's a Pollock, that's a Frankenthaler, that's a Cady Noland, what have you. We get a picture in our minds and the picture is an image of the work and we associate a style with that picture. It's easy to forget that style is yet one more thing that's a means, as opposed to an ends.
It's not that artists are looking for their style. Although God knows I know that feeling because I teach. Like I'm going to experiment in the studio because maybe something will happen that will reach out and slap me in the face and say, "You've been looking for me! Here I am! Now you just do me!" And I wished it worked that way. But really, these visual languages, these styles, they are all means for the experience. In a funny kind of way, like, the object isn't the art, the object is just like the transceiver or something. Like the art is what happens between the person looking at it and the thing. And so style is just one more of those means. The older I get, the more I think, well maybe art is actually... even though we talk about it as if it is a noun, a painting, a sculpture, maybe it's really a verb. Maybe the challenge of making art is to make something that is a verb, that does things rather than is a thing. And so those choices about the means you're going to use, how you're going to deploy them, how to combine them, I think has to do with trying to get it to function. To be a verb, to be active. To increase that sense of that when somebody is standing in front of it, that something is happening back and forth. That's my crackpot theory.
L: How do you think the art world has changed since you first started exhibiting art?
O: It's probably about ten times bigger. It's far more global. I mean people showed internationally, but it was a tight...you know. At the time, Cologne was a big city for art, now it's Berlin. There's so many more venues and so many more circumstances. So that's one change, it's much larger. Also, the way that galleries function is much different than it used to be. There were a handful of art fairs: Basel, and Cologne, and Chicago. Now there's just dozens. Most commercial galleries make 70-80% of their income at art fairs, which means the way in which they serve artists is far different. The arrangement used to be dealers would represent a certain number of artists, their "stable" of artists for a period of time, usually a fairly long period of time back then. And that artist would give over 50% of sales and, in exchange, the dealers would make arrangements for them to show in other cities; they would store work; they would document the work. A lot of that artists do by themselves now. And a lot of what the galleries are doing is paying the fees for the fairs and traveling to wherever.
Also, I think the art world tends to be much more event focused now. When I first got to New York, there was the East Village and Soho. Chelsea was still pretty much abandoned. Galleries would open up. There would be crowds in the streets going from opening to opening on the night that shows opened. And you would expect to see people hang out at the bar afterwards and argue about what you had seen. It was pretty close and pretty social and much smaller. It's also much more expensive now for artists.
I got to New York in 1985, and the city was in pretty bad shape which meant that rents were kind of affordable--a lot of crack, a lot of crime. Studio space now, when I hear about people moving out... I've been out of the city for seventeen years now teaching up in Ithaca, and one thing that I've noticed is an explosion of residencies. A couple summers ago, I was asked to be a faculty member at the Skowhegan Program up in Maine. It is a school of painting and sculpture. And a lot of the participants moved to Skowhegan, which isn't formally a residency, it's a school, but it's somehow in between. And then they would go to the Vermont Studio Center or some other place, they had things stacked up. So I think a lot of artists are finding that sense of community at these residencies, which is great, but it is also a far more bureaucratic...you know. You have to say what you are going to do at them, they are for specific periods of time. They really support the idea of artists working in terms of projects...you know...research projects, rather than a kind of ongoing studio practice. So that's very different. That's changed a lot.
It's great that structurally there is a way for people to have community because it's essential. Doing it all by yourself is impossible. That's been a really major change in a very short period of time. It's also become... It's funny, the dialogue has become much wider, but also more complicated. There was a real sense of hegemony about New York. Sometimes I would be invited in the late '80s or early '90s to go and do talks in art schools around the country. And every once in a while I would get a question from a faculty member after a talk like "Well what's the big deal with New York?" And I would always feel silly like "Well there's a lot of artists there and a lot of galleries there." But there was a sense of, like, oh well if it's not New York or LA, maybe Chicago. And somehow it's lesser. Which wasn't true. But then there weren't a lot of opportunities to see work that wasn't right from that small community. Artists are much more mobile now. And there's much more work being seen in different places. It doesn't mean it's understood as fully and it doesn't mean that it's experienced in the same way. But that's a big change too.
L: Is there anything that you would want to change about how things are now in the art world?
O: Oh no. I mean, you know, I'm old (laughter). I think younger artists tend to be more interested in the significance of their work. Right? The context that it's made in, and I think older artists tend, not like as a rule but generally speaking, to be more interested in the nature of the experience, how this experience is meaningful. And those are two different ideas or two sides of an idea about authorship. And I think that they correspond with age in a certain way. It's a really round-about way of answering your question. First, I can't imagine how I would go about changing things, so that's a tough one to answer. I guess what I would say is that between the art fairs and the rise of this role of the curator, who is often considered the author of the exhibition.
One thing about my interest in the artists of that period of 1965-75 is that part of that thing of taking control of the context of the way the work is seen, taking the frames off, taking the base away, having it more immediate, has to do with taking more control of the circumstance. And it's not something... you make objects and put them into the system, whether it's a non-profit system or a commercial system, but also that you feel like my job is wider than just producing these things I hand over to be seen in the walk-in catalog of the art fair... you know... it's like an auto show or something. Or some curator is doing a show about black and white, or about this, or about that. They want this because it fits in their theme. I'm much more aggressive about...honestly I'm much more of a control freak about installing my shows. Making the size of work that is for the specific architectural space. I'm getting used to the idea that, if it's true the art is what happens between the viewer and the piece, that circumstance, that exhibition circumstance is one that I really want to have a handle on. And I want that to be the primary thing, in a way. And I'm used to the fact that the documentation of the exhibition is really like a rumor about it. It will give you some idea, but it's nothing like the experience. You know, it's like reading about falling in love or something. So honestly, I'm really like anal retentive about planning how many works, where they go in the space, what size, how they relate to one another. I build little models of the space. I drive my dealer crazy because the measurements of my painting are always absurd. It's not like 18 by 24 or 5 by 6, it's like 126 3/8 by 234, you know. It's hard to make a standard set of prices for them. But it's really all about making that experience as full as I can when people are there.
I think about when I was a kid, and we would wait for like Led Zeppelin to put out the next album. And you would buy it, and bring it home, and stare at the pictures, and the cover and the back, and read it while playing it. You would play all of side one and then flip it and play all of side two. I've got like a vinyl problem. Like I'm one of those middle aged men. I don't have a Lamborghini, you know that's the usual middle age crisis. But I do have a lot of records and I spent a lot of time, if I'm showing in some city, I'll find out where their record shops are. I don't listen to them in the studio, I listen to them at home and I put them on and I sit there. Sometimes I'm doing the dishes or something. But I really like the idea that the thing that you're offering, a novel, or a poem, or a book, is this full set, it's not just the single off of Spotify. That it's authored. Authorship seems to me to have a lot to do with art. To that extent, to the extent that I continue to try to be a total control freak and drive dealers crazy by not letting them do the thing that they often want to do. Like, oh lets move that over a little to the left, lets pull that out. That's my version of how I would change things. It really has to do with how I do it.