Mike Womack with Ben La Rocco
On the occasion of Mike Womack’s first one-person exhibition at ZieherSmith Gallery on West 25th Street in Chelsea, the Brooklyn Rail’s Ben La Rocco visited the artist in his Clinton Hill studio to discuss his work.
Ben La Rocco: Let’s start by talking about your past a bit. How did you become an artist? Where did you study?
Mike Womack: I was born in Houston, Texas, and moved to Atlanta when I was ten. In high school, I was always making things—a fly-below-the-radar art kid. I wanted to study art in college but didn’t really know about art schools. I was lucky enough to be going to college as it was. My girlfriend did my application and I got into the University of Georgia. Later I was pleased. I studied mostly with a painter by the name of Richard Olson but also a painter named James Herbert who had been in New York for a spell, I believe in the ’60s. He made films that are now in museum collections but he really considered himself a painter. There was a little bit of trickling down in terms of knowledge of New York—what people do here. James Herbert told us how to get gallery owners into your studio. He said what he would do is save up his money for six or seven months, pull up front in a limo, dressed in a rented tux, walk in and tell them he has a limo waiting out front and one hour to spare.
Rail: And that worked?
Womack: Surprisingly. I learned many tricks about New York from my professors. It painted a kind of bleak picture of the city. I graduated in ’99 with no intention of moving here. I really just wanted to see where the dust settled. Four months later, I was working a lousy job, living with my mom to save money when I was offered work in Utah. I moved there, got a studio where I lived and worked for four years before I began applying to grad schools. It was a very committed thing. I spent excessive hours in my studio because I didn’t think my portfolio would get me into any schools. I’m still shocked that it did.
Rail: You’ve told me that you’re a rock climber and your use of anchors to get large, complex, pieces to stay on the wall is impressive. I’ve noticed a very careful attention to craft in all your work. Where did you pick that up? Are you an autodidact?
Womack: Being a rock climber is what took me to Utah but that doesn’t really surface in my work except in an oblique way, in terms of control and trying to maintain a certain level of intensity. I grew up with my mom—it was just me and my mom—and I’ve often wondered if all my building had something to do with not having a male influence—an unconscious need to make up for the fact that I don’t know how to repair a broken lawnmower or work on a carburetor. I always want to know how to do things with my hands. Now, a lot of my studio practice is dictated by buying material, bringing it back to my studio, and learning how to use it.
Rail: That’s a really good place to be. I remember an early work of yours: a chair with a pile of bricks on it. You combined the bricks and the chair by drawing the lines of the obscured part of the chair over the brick. I read the piece through quantum theory—on an atomic level, all objects interpenetrate. The delicacy of the lines over the rough bricks heightened the drama of the material interplay. How much does math and science enter into your work?
Womack: That piece is called “Untitled (Chair).” It was the beginning of the work I’m making now. I had never rigorously thought about the conceptual underpinnings of art—how imagery and material relate to content. Once I began to reexamine something as simple as line, so many prospects opened up to me. Mathematics took on a major role in my work. I am interested in math primarily as a mode of thought. It is a concrete way of quantifying, understood by nearly everyone, and yet it lives only in the abstract space of our minds. A math equation that signifies an idea takes you directly to that mental space. It is like being able to hold a chunk of someone’s thought. A line is a fixed point moving in a fixed direction in two-dimensional spaces. Up until the chair piece I always considered abstraction to be an aesthetic decision, and I wasn’t interested in making decisions based solely on aesthetics. When I understood abstraction’s relationship to how we perceive, and its pure accessibility through math, it then meant so much more. There was another dimension to this discovery. At that time I was really struggling with my background—the two places I had lived were fundamentally ideologically grounded cultures—the South and Utah—and I was trying to reconcile my beliefs with these cultures. The thought that something could be abstract and still quantifiable by math or science was very appealing in this regard. I began to understand the enlightenment of abstract thought and found it more desirable than the dogma of faith in a particular aesthetic. I consider “Untitled (Chair)” to be one of my first successful art pieces which is funny because I was trained as a painter and it’s sculpture. It’s made in the round, but it projects itself, through the drawing, to be attached to the wall. I stacked a 300-lb. cube of bricks on a specially constructed chair bottom. The drawn lines of the chair were left unpainted. I think a lot about the void between our detached thoughts and the real world delivery of thought in speech. Objective truth, if any such thing can be said to exist, lies somewhere in this gulf. The traveling red line drawn by the masking of the brick is the extension of a point in space. I wanted to call attention to that with the most recognizable material object possible. This weighty, cumbersome material that they make buildings from is used to define something with no physical existence—an outline.
Rail: When I saw your installation, “Heat is Not Made of Tiny Hot Things” at Real Art Ways (RAW) in Connecticut, I noticed that you had massed together multiples of ready made forms into organic shapes. I thought of the individual objects as being robbed of their specific forms within these greater accumulations which were, in turn, divested of their respective colors through refraction in the wall of mirrors that you saw when you entered the space. So I thought of it as a gradual process of dematerializing the original object.
Womack: One of the things I want to do is really connect color to object so that I can later play on that connection. When you see a particular color, you associate it with a particular object. I’m trying to do two things at once. I’m trying to let you see color in a pure, two-dimensional way, and at the same time hammer into your head that a particular object is a carrier for that color so that when you see the color, you recognize the materiality of it and at the same time you experience it as a purely visual phenomenon in the mirror wall. With “Heat,” the original objects couldn’t be transformed so much that they lost their identity.
Rail: You were trying to stress a dichotomy. We naturally associate the color of a thing with the thing itself but, in fact, an object’s color has to do with the type of light it reflects—the particles it excludes. Now I’m thinking along the lines of the wave structure of light.
Womack: That has something to do with it. I recently read of the invention of a quantum processor where scientists at MIT and Michigan have a working computational model that is operating on quantum theory. The binary processor can be 1, 0, or both at the same time—very exciting. I am really drawn to the idea that something can be two things at once. When I first started trying to do other things with painting, I was confronted with the idea of local color. Traditionally, local color is a sort of obedience to naturalism, using color as it presents itself atmospherically. Cultural associations dictate what color we think certain objects should be. When you paint a fire engine blue, even if it appears that way due to atmospheric conditions, it becomes difficult to recognize as such. I thought, hey, instead of making a painting which attempts to render objects naturalistically, why don’t I use the objects themselves to create painterly space so that their color is absolutely associated with them. So there’re several objects I used this way—in “Heat,” it was the yellow rope and the blue tarp. Other times I try to get the color of raw material to evoke a painted color—the yellow of wood or the red of brick for example.
Rail: This reminds me of the language of post-painterly abstraction and Greenberg’s late writing in which a surface and the color on that surface had to be totally inviolate and uniform, so that the painting references nothing outside of itself. When you talk about the necessity of knowing that a color is associated with a particular object, you’re entering into that dialogue but dealing with three-dimensional forms.
Womack: I think my concerns are a bit less esoteric. I really try to toe a line in abstraction, to stay as concrete as possible. I’m gravitating toward a more sculptural methodology and trying to maintain a connection to painting. I use objects that are known to us from American culture. We grew up around them. When I think of red, I think of apples, fire engines, and Radio Flyer wagons, and so on a social level these things become more than just what they are. As soon as I have a hermetically sealed chamber in which to work, I lose myself too quickly. I need something to keep me grounded.
Rail: That brings us to something that you mentioned earlier, which I felt very strongly with “Heat,” and that is the role of Pop Art in your work, intermingled with the pure, abstractionist thought.
Womack: As soon as you become interested in objects and their native color, you walk down the cereal aisle and you fall into a trap, right? And so I’ve been working hard not to be seen as a Pop artist because, man, popular culture makes a lot of bright, colorful things. I’m trying to avoid getting sucked into the 99-cent store and just grabbing everything I can.
Rail: The thinking behind Pop Art and the thinking behind late modernist abstraction certainly were very much opposed to one another. But I feel an artist can pull on whatever they need to as they work. How do you see these different strains of thought relating in your work?
Womack: I think you’re asking a question about modernity and postmodernity here…
Rail: Yeah, I guess we’re headed there.
Womack: I really subscribe to the tenets of modernism. If pressed, I would consider myself a modernist and not a postmodernist. My heroes are the modernist artists, not the Pop artists.
Rail: Could you name a few of them?
Womack: Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and, probably my favorite artist, Philip Guston. He had one foot firmly in the modernist art world, and then they threw him out. He has nothing to do with Pop Art as we know it. I would like to say that it’s all one big soup, but I think the historical contexts of these things are too important. I want to pay homage to what’s come before me. I’m trading in popular culture to some degree, but I’ve developed my own take on it and I find beauty in the ideals of modernism. I find them utterly poetic in speaking to humanity’s pageant. They are inaccessible though. It requires some education and engagement to consider ideals of beauty apart from empirical reality. So my vision of what the Pop artists rebelled against was not so much the message as the inaccessibility of the message. The large flaw in Pop art is not that they tried to make the message more accessible. They just took what was already accessible and made it the message. So as far as my practice goes, I’d say I’m using postmodern techniques and materials in the service of idealist, modernist thought.
Rail: In terms of what we’ve been talking about—the relationship of sculpture to painting and late modernism to Pop—does the work of Jessica Stockholder or Tara Donovan have particular draw for you?
Womack: Sure, also Judy Pfaff and Phoebe Washburn. I know that Stockholder and Pfaff were coming from painting. I find it interesting that so many artists were driven toward this non-painting methodology by fielding the answers to painting questions.
Rail: In this light, you have to go the last little leg of the journey and consider Pollock. He was the one who challenged people to enter this space.
Womack: Maybe he did, but purely on an intellectual level. Those were still paintings he was making. You’re talking about a metaphysical extension of the gesture. I’d be reluctant to let Pollock enter my thinking too much. But Stockholder totally blew my mind. I recognized immediately that she was making sculpture without giving up painting. It’s all about color and the pictorial. I thought, “Wow, you can do that?” There’s so much hybridization now, but I think people are finally leaning left or right. Lee Bontecou was dealing with the image, the wall, and a lot of rectilinear designations but she had a real metalsmithing kind of practice that, for me, veers toward sculpture. Someone like Kapoor, whose work deals with color so distinctly, seems to veer more toward painting.
Rail: We’re constructing a history of where to set your work. You’re about to have a show at ZieherSmith. I’d like to talk about the work you’re going to show there and how you see it entering into the art world at this particular moment in which so many different histories are coming together at once.
Womack: I’m a textbook hybrid. I want to have my cake and eat it too.
Rail: Can you tell me about the work as it will appear in its final stage at ZieherSmith?
Womack: Sure. With “Heat,” you walked in and saw the reflection of the assemblages first, then, as you turned around, the sculptures themselves. As you moved through the space, your own reflection became visible in the mirrors as you’re caught in the crossfire. For the show at ZieherSmith, I will build a wall that will house the mirrors in such a way that your line of sight will be bounced through the wall to the space beyond it, a periscopic situation with multiple angles of sight. When you come in you see a wall of pixilated abstraction like “Heat,” but this time the reflected materials are behind the wall. Now you’re out of the crossfire. You can then walk around the wall to see the sculpture and enter a refracted image that another viewer might see from the front side of the wall. You’ll never see your own reflection.
Rail: This is further into the language of painting. You’re first forced to deal with a picture plane before gradually entering the pictorial space that composed the original image. You’re inviting people to move bodily into a painterly type of space as Stockholder did.
Womack: I’m trying to fully separate the image from the object. The two are only reunited after the fact, when you pass around the wall. This in turn affects your viewing of the original image. The apparatus for seeing through this wall has become so complicated that I’m just hoping it works. The wall I’m building is so large I can’t build it in my studio. I’m ship building in the basement. I’ll show up at the beach, put it together and hope it floats. It’s 14 feet square, leaning 59 degrees off of center with mirrored nodes inside it. There’ll be 2,304 mirrors, all told. Building it in pieces is a great challenge.
Rail: For all our talk about modernism, something in this new installation gives me pause. We’re confronted with an image and denied knowledge of where and how it’s generated. Then we’re given the object of the representation without the image. There’s a break implicit in the piece between image and object that lands me thinking along the lines of postmodernism and its fixation on the fiction of representation.
Womack: It makes me think of looking under a microscope and saying: Oh yeah, that’s what that’s made of? There’s an act of discovery in there. From a social perspective it invites you to look beyond the surfaces of what you’re seeing.
Rail: When it comes down to it, the separation between object and perceiver was around long before postmodern theory got a hold of it.
Womack: Yeah, It’s elemental. Very empirical. All I have is the stimulus coming in and I constitute reality inside my head. How do I know the stimulus that you internalize isn’t completely different? So few things lend themselves to scientific understanding. Color wavelength is one—when a ray of light hits your retina and is turned into an electrical impulse that shoots to the optic nerve center in the brain. How do I know something hasn’t changed between your grasp of a color and mine?
ContributorsBen La Rocco
Mike Womack is a visual artist.