Martin Wilner WITH PHONG BUI

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

On the occasion of his exhibit A Life in Days, on view at Sperone Westwater from January 8 to March 20, 2010, the artist Martin Wilner dropped by Art International Radio to talk to Rail Publisher Phong Bui about his life and work.

Phong Bui (Rail): You were on the scene in the heydays of Williamsburg, particularly Pierogi’s circle, leading to your first show in 2003.

Martin Wilner: January 2003.

Rail: But I didn’t really get to know you until the following year when you did the cover for the March issue of the Rail, which was an important one because it featured John Kerry right after winning the Democratic nomination and before selecting John Edwards as his running mate in July, and your cover was of a calendar map.  It was so politically subversive, unreadable visually, and personally I liked the strange texture created by the stippling point of pen and ink technique that reminds me of the way in which certain textures that were left on a copperplate after having been bathed in acid for a certain period of time. Let’s begin with how you developed such a distinct technique with pen and ink?

Wilner: Although I really didn’t study drawing formally at any point, I worked primarily with pencils, probably crayons like most children, and I kept drawing continuously and eventually in my teenage years, I was influenced by all forms of media, especially comic books like MAD Magazine, which graphically lends itself to that kind of pen and ink style. I was thinking about the way pop art incorporated comic book imagery using benday dots like Roy Lichtenstein. But in my own way I wanted to use the stippling technique as a way of conveying a certain kind of intensity to the work while creating interesting texture at the same time.

Rail: In looking at the color reproduction of your early oil painting, “Self-Portrait as a Boxer” (1999), which was included in your first solo exhibit at Gallery Schlesinger, it seems that the painting was painted almost monochromatically. In other words, if you look closely to the texture of the skin, it predates the way that you would eventually transfer that kind of oil technique into pen and ink.

Wilner: That’s very accurate. I remember early on I had a studio visit from Jack Tilton a year or two before my exhibit at Gallery Schlesinger, and he looked at my work with some degree of interest—he actually was one of the first people to buy a painting of mine—and said, “If you don’t mind my saying so, your work is not as much about painting as it is about drawing.” Although initially it took a while for me to process what Jack had said, and I think he was right. I think that other comments made by other artists and friends helped lead me back towards realizing that my interest was mainly in drawing and that’s where I started and that’s where I decided to focus and narrow my scope into just pen and ink rather than trying to work in many different media.

Rail: Did you teach yourself how to paint with oil?

Wilner: I never received any formal training other than some manuals telling me what color paint and what types of brushes to buy and so forth.

Rail: You mean you didn’t watch Bob Ross’s program on PBS? [Laughs.]

Wilner: Not really.  I didn’t even respond to those ads on the backs of comic books with an image of some short that said, “if you can copy this you can be an artist”—but in fact I did take some classes at the Art Students League. One teacher who I remember fondly was Robert Beauchamp. So I was thinking about abstract concepts, which I think was very helpful and influential, but again, I always gravitated back towards something more representational.

Martin Wilner, Making History: May 2008, 2008. Double-sided drawing: ink and graphite on paper. 11 1/4 × 11 1/4 inches. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater. Private Collection

Rail: One of the more pronounced features of your work is the use of the surrealist exquisite corpse, but unlike their use of maximizing surprise elements— where whatever the previously drawn image is supposedly folded over before the next one to be proceeded—in your case it’s fairly visible. I mean, do you or don’t you cover the previous image, I’m referring to the “Making History” series?

Wilner: I don’t cover previous images. I do see it as a variant of the traditional exquisite corpse game of the Surrealists, which I always admired. I remember there was a great show The Return of the Cadavre Exquis in 1993 at The Drawing Center, which featured over 600 collaborative drawings by international contemporary artists based on the Surrealist parlor game, but the way I see it is I’m sort of playing it in a kind of solitaire form, so to speak, and I’m playing against time. I can’t predict the next events so while I do know what I drew yesterday, I don’t know what I’ll be drawing today so I’m sort of put in that kind of game-like position of having to work with what’s already there and move the drawing forward based on what preceded, and that’s in a way analogous to the process of history. History builds upon preceding events in precarious and strange ways and these sort of Surrealist strange drawings are, for me at least, a representation of that kind of a process.

Martin Wilner, Making History: October 2008, 2008. Double-sided drawing: ink and graphite on paper.11 1/4 × 11 1/4 inches. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater. Private Collection

Rail: Which is interesting because when we think about calendar being a subset listing of a certain set of things to do, planned events, and so on, which was one of the impulses behind illuminated manuscripts. I mean, whether it was commissioned with Christian text to be read throughout the day, like, for instance, The Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves, which is actually going to be on view at the Morgan Library in a week, or those with elaborated depictions of the life of men and nature throughout the months of the year, like that of The Book of Hours by the Limbourg brothers, it’s something most of us no longer do. Yours, however, seems to be, as you described, unpredictable, combines both things that you see in the media, television, internet, or things that you read in the newspaper, and so on, with images that derive from your own imagination.

Wilner: I do have a set of parameters in which I do my work on both projects, but the conditions of “Making History” series is one that is time-based so I do a drawing everyday based upon events of that day and I complete it before I go to sleep. But most other times I do it when I can, for example, between breaks with patients. As you know these works are fairly labor intensive, starting from the very beginning when I go through a series of newspapers, various sites on the internet and so forth and that usually takes at least one to two hours until I come upon something that would strike me. Sometime there’s some glaring news event that IS so overpowering that it’s hard to even look at other stories. Today (January 15th), as we speak, THERE’S the incredible earthquake in Haiti and its aftermath. But at the same time, I still would like to see what else is going on in the world and how those other events relate to this focus of interest. Sometimes the story strikes me immediately and other times it’s kind of a struggle.

Rail: Could you tell us about how and when the calendar became your chosen format?

Wilner: It sort of developed in part as an outgrowth of the first project, the “Journal of Evidence Weekly,” which began at the end of 1998 and it literally was the result of a dream that I had. It was Sunday night, and I dreamt that I had missed a deadline for a publication called the Journal of Evidence Weekly and I woke up in a sweat. I didn’t realize I was dreaming, I thought, what happened? How did I miss this deadline? Then I realized that this was a dream, and as a psychiatrist I immediately began to analyze the dream by my first association, not so much in terms or archetypes or anything of that sort in particular.

Rail: More of Freudian than Jungian method.

Wilner: Exactly. So my first thought was: What is the the Journal of Evidence Weekly? And my first association to it was the acronym. J-E-W. I’m Jewish by background and I’m a child of Holocaust survivors and for me just the word Jew is a loaded subject. That was how I began thinking about books and the dream stayed with me. I thought I had to do something with it and you know, over a period of months I evolved it through these books of journals, really just chronicling the spaces in-between my activities of the day. Primarily on the subways. And so that went on for a few years and I was trying to think of another related project. In the midst of that September 11th came - which literally happened down the street from where I lived - and since I had already been thinking about doing something more about world events, global warming, political crises in different parts of the world, and I also had always been preoccupied with the notion of time and the passage of time and whether it was possible to incorporate the dimension of time in my work. And so at some point in the weeks after, it was actually early January because I began the project the day it crystallized in my mind, I realized that the calendar is a representation of time and simply by using the Roman calendar as a structure of time I could tell a story over time, not a linear story per se but a story structured over the way the Western world thinks about time. So that’s sort of how that model developed.

Rail: In the case of your calendar, the minute details are just as intense. One may need a magnifying glass to look at those drawings. There is a level of metamorphosis, where, let’s say a face, a hand, or other body parts would fuse into this strange network of what appear to be umbilical cords running out of the nose into the eyes, mouth, and ears. In other words, there is a physical sense of the body being fragmented, or what’s being considered to be grotesque. The first time I saw your work I thought of both Robert Crumb and especially Philip Guston.

Wilner: I have a tremendous admiration for Guston. I can’t say I was consciously thinking about him when I developed these ideas and using these kinds of umbilical cords as you put it, or filaments, or what I think of as tubules. I do think of them as some forms of metamorphosis and dismemberment for sure, but again, these ideas evolved in the aftermath and the destruction of September 11th and the war in Iraq. So to me it’s not just about things coming apart, it’s also about things coming together and reconfiguring in different ways and I use the sensory organs, the ears, nose, eyes, and mouth, to depict this connectivity, the way that we experience the world through these portals, and that they create ways of connecting events, ways of people connecting with each other, ways of objects and animals connecting with humans and that there is this experiential sense of, this is how consciousness works, this is how we experience the world through our senses. These are visual depictions, metaphors, of how things morph continuously as a result and how events are built upon preceding events endlessly.

Rail: I also felt there is a density in your drawings, which of course has to do with the use of black and white and the stippling technique of the pen, that makes me think of the lightness of Mark Lombardi. In a deeper sense, you both share a desire to connect things or events in the world as one unified constellation.

Wilner: Mark [Lombardi] was a very influential artist for me. I greatly admired his ideas and attempt to really try to understand global events and to schematize them in a way that was both comprehensible and poetic. His understanding was he could explain a conspiracy, he could put things together and if you followed him step-by-step it would all become comprehensible, which is almost a more reassuring approach than mine. Mine is almost the opposite. I’m facing what I view as a very chaotic world, trying to make some order of it in some way, but also at the same time portraying that things can go off in any number of ways continuously and it’s not always easy to bring things into a tidy picture.

Rail: I agree. Not to mention the use of text or the combination of texts and images?

Wilner: Well, as I was developing the project I realized that I was almost deconstructing, literally, the newspapers. What is a newspaper or a magazine composed of? There are images, and there’s text, there are charts, there are graphs, there are maps and so on, and I started thinking about how I could use the building blocks of these media structures to create my work and so I began with representational images based on photographs and drawings. Then I thought I could tell a story with text. You could take—and I’ve done this now quite a number of times—headlines and string them together in a way analogous to the same calendric sort of process and you can create a kind of poetry by editorially choosing texts that are seemingly unrelated but then if you read them in this new representation they take on a different kind of meaning and they create a kind of order and a kind of ironic, humorous chaos.

Rail: Like concrete poetry.

Wilner: Yes, exactly.

Rail: But at times they conform into a certain geometry on their own, which I find quite fascinating. As far as when both imagery and texts are infused, how do you decide what goes first and second, and vice versa?

Wilner: I usually began with images first and then added the texts. Recently I began to even add music in the mix, I would use them individually or in groups. I would on some occasions have texts float above images, or texts alternate above and below, therefore the images can become more mysterious and cryptic, which elicits even deeper imaginative readings.

Rail: And even though I can read from one square to the next on the calendar from up close, I have a harder time grasping them all together as a whole from a distance. And the opposite does happen.

Wilner: I want the drawings to be able to be experienced holistically from a certain distance, but at the same time I want to draw the viewer in and look more closely and have their eyes travel across the page. And because of the nature of how the work is done, it doesn’t quite rely on a traditional sense of composition where a central image relates to everything else or vice versa—I trust my own automatic process, which I think is more mysterious and fun. And I hope the viewer feels the same way as I do.

Rail: In that sequence, is there a relationship with films in your drawing?

Wilner: I have seen a fair share of experimental films and I do think of the “Making History” series almost as kind of strange filmstrip that recalls the films of [Joseph] Cornell and [Stan] Brakhage in the sense that they, too, would take disparate objects and people and ideas and put them together in unusual combinations. I conceive my way of drawing as a form of collage, taking preexisting objects and reassemlbing them as one unified construction.

Rail: I’m thinking about your subway drawing in relationship to Cornell’s film The Wonder Ring, which is about the then soon-to-be-dismantled 3rd Ave L, and which Brakhage did the camera work for.

Wilner: Which he did in reverse. I think that the nature of the relationship between the moving image and the world is beautifully expressed in that film, in both my subway drawings and my calendar drawings I attempt to convey a sense of sequential motion through my incorporation of the parameter of time that is analogous to these collaged films.”

Rail: We also had talked about Bill [William] Anastasi’s subway drawings in relation to yours. Unlike his where he allows the tip of the pencil to record the irregular movement of the train (I think it began as a daily practice when he took the subway to John Cage’s loft to play chess with him from 1977 until Cage’s death in 1992), which is of course what makes the drawing so amazing, yours is very controlled and constant in speed. Can you describe how it all gets done so beautifully and neatly? There are no spatial discrepancies!

Wilner: It’s a matter of discipline and practice. I’ve been doing this work on the subways for 12 years now and I’m probably into maybe my 155th volume of the series so I think I’ve learned over time how to develop a very steady hand. One time, recently, I was on the train and some police detectives were observing me as I was drawing and they said that they could use me for their bomb squad. [Laughs.] And I thought, well, I’ll pass on that offer.

Rail: So you basically lift the pad above your knees so you can control your own motion.

Wilner: Yes, so I work against the motion of the train. Whereas William Anastasi does these beautiful abstract drawings based upon the motion as he maximizes the gravity, I minimize it. My aim in doing the drawings is really to report on, to diarize, something about the experience of the spaces of my day—going to my practice, going to galleries, or anywhere else. Every trip is chronicled. Again, that’s one of the parameters of the project, making everything have meaning and investing meaning into time that ordinarily is viewed as empty time where you might stare off into space or listen to your iPod or something like that.

Rail: And do you normally draw with a pencil first or draw directly with the pen on the paper?

Wilner: The subway drawings are done directly with pen on paper, which means I can’t and don’t rework the drawings.

Rail: How about with the calendar?

Wilner: With the calendar I usually draw loosely with a pencil first to sketch out what I’m trying to do and work from there in pen and ink and then erase the pencil marks. One way to think about the way the two projects relate is a musical metaphor: the subway drawings are the improvisation that contributes to the more formal compositions of the calendar drawings.

Rail: That’s another way of seeing their differences. In any case, some of us know that you and Jacob El Hanani have been close friends and that you both share a similar interest in the highly minute, repetitive, and compulsive way of drawing, which can be seen as a kind of micrography. However, the obvious difference is that his is generally invested in abstraction while yours is more representational. Can you tell us about your initial rapport with Jacob, and how both your and his work were seen in relationship to the emergence of the so-called Microwave series, #1, #2 and #3, which began in 1999 at 123 Watts Gallery, before its former Director Josée Bienvenu created her own gallery in 2004, and it still continues?

Wilner: First of all, I’ve always valued Jacob’s work, as well as his friendship. He’s been very supportive of my work from the very beginning. And as far as our similarities and differences are concerned, I would invoke the analytic concept of how in the unconscious opposite becomes equal. He’s chosen to eschew representation to achieve a kind of abstraction whereas I invoke representation ultimately to be  less representational. In other words, our maximalist impulses are similar yet the personal feeling toward form and content are quite different. Secondly, the Microwave series, which is perhaps underappreciated, was an important document of that artistic temperament. As to my own work, there is a complete other strand of my work that is very close to the Neue Sachlichkeit (the New Objectivity), which include George Grosz, Otto Dix, Karl Hubbuch, Christian Schad, and Rudolf Schlichter. I feel a stronger kinship to their raw, intense satirical nature, as well as the way narratives being essential to their work.

Martin Wilner, Journal of Evidence Weekly, vol. 123, 2005. Artist's book with 31 folded pages: pen and ink on paper.5 5/8 × 116 3/4 inches. Courtesy of Sperone Westwater. Private Collection

Rail: I see. The other question, which has been on my mind for quite some time, is that as most of us know, you’re a full-time practicing psychiatrist while maintaining another full-time practice, namely being an artist—so what compelled you to go to medical school, I assume before being qualified for studying psychoanalysis and other related requirements in the first place?

Wilner: It’s not an easy question to answer. I had an affinity for the sciences as well as the liberal arts. I did a concentration in English as an undergraduate but having come from a New York middle class Jewish family, going into a profession was expected as a norm, which I did almost reflexively. I followed along what I could do and what I could do well was science and medicine and I always thought, because I grew up with parents who survived the Holocaust, that there always were many questions about how the world worked and why did awful things happen to people? And trying to understand all of those issues was always part of my nature. Naturally I gravitated very readily and easily into medicine and from there I knew before I started medical school that I would probably be going into psychiatry. Although I was recruited into going into plastic surgery because the plastic surgeons saw that I had a lot of manual skills.

Rail: You certainly have the right hand for it.

Wilner: Right, but I still decided, because I always thought of myself as an artist, and I always knew that somehow that was going to enter the picture and I wasn’t really sure going along in my education how it all fit, but somehow it made sense to me and luckily it worked out in some way. It might not have but I thought of myself from my childhood as an artist and medicine was just the sort of obvious career path given what I was able to do academically and so forth. I enjoyed it and I had something to offer to it. So it wasn’t a difficult decision in that sense; the difficult decision was how to integrate making art into it. I remember my first semester at medical school at New York University I was taking anatomy in the first semester and my main frustration was that there was no time to draw the cadavers, so I was spending all this time trying to memorize all the parts of the body and completely infused with formaldehyde and smelling of it for six months and it was awful. But my grades were suffering because the rigors of the curriculum were so demanding that I had no time to draw or paint, and I almost failed anatomy as a result.

Rail: Which is ironic.

Wilner: Yes, and I said, I have to do something about this. Luckily around the corner was SVA on 23rd Street so I signed up for once a week painting class at night and that class saved me. My grades went up dramatically through painting. So it was always something I had to do. I had to make work. I didn’t fully consciously understand it but I knew I was unhappy if I didn’t make work so that was where the impulse to make art came from. It was always there and I could do a lot of other things as long as I was able to make some art and that, as time went on, became a more important part of my life and my time.

Rail: That really marvels me. I could only think of a few doctors in the arts. One is Brian O’Doherty who was trained as a medical doctor in Ireland, though as soon as he migrated to the U.S. in 1957, after a year or two conducting medical research at Harvard University, he gave his medical career up to become a full-time artist under the name Patrick Ireland. He also wrote novels, art criticism, and ran the Visual and Media Arts Program at the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts). The other doctor was, of course, William Carlos Williams, who was a prolific pediatrician and medical doctor. It’s said between 1910 and 1952 ,when he retired, he supposedly had delivered over 2,000 babies, and as a poet, he had published 25 books of poetry and another 25 books of prose, so you’re in good company. But how do you negotiate your day? Is it a full-time psychiatry practice, which normally accounts for how many days per week?

Wilner: It varies but now I see patients only part of the week. About three, three-and-a-half days a week and then I have other clinical responsibilities. I do some teaching at Cornell medical college and so forth, so it’s a pretty full schedule, but I still make time everyday to draw.

Rail: And now you have a child.

Wilner: Yes I have a 12-week-old child, Her name is Amalia Frida.

Rail: How did your recent show at Sperone Westwater come about?

Wilner: The show is called A Life in Days, which is a word play of the Beatles song “A Day in the Life” from their eighth album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The interesting thing about “A Day in the Life” is it begins with the line, “I read the news today, oh boy.” And I read the news everyday and, “Oh boy.” It’s a lot to read about. The other interesting thing about this song in particular, John Lennon based his lyrics upon news events he read in the newspaper, while Paul McCartney’s came from personal reminiscences. So in my drawings I combine daily observations of the news with my own personal associations. The stories that I tend to choose usually have some personal significance for me in some fashion. So this was a show of work primarily from 2007 to 2008 and it includes a large six-part map piece where there’s, again, the maps that I draw in this calendric format are really not maps in the conventions of latitude and longitude, they’re maps of events over time. So it’s breaking down the world into different components and reconfiguring them based upon a way we see the world. We think about the world, a lot of us don’t even pay much attention to geography formally anymore, but we do think about the world and what’s going on where at different times—if something’s going on in South America, or Europe, or the Middle East, or Southeast Asia or wherever it might be. In these maps, the events are related over time and therefore, for example, you might find Brooklyn adjacent to Beijing.

Rail:  To a large extent your work is a subversive overview of globalization.

Wilner: I hope it is subversive because for better or worse the process of globalization is inevitable.  And without an element of subversion, it would not be art.

Martin Wilner's exhibition Making History: UK will run from April 16 - May 29 at Hales Gallery in London.


Phong Bui