INCONVERSATION

RICHARD VAN BUREN with John Yau

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

After Hurricane Irene prevented them from meeting at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, Maine, where a selection of his sculptures was on exhibition, Richard Van Buren and John Yau met in New York to discuss his work and his upcoming show at Gary Snyder Gallery (November 10 – December 17, 2011).

John Yau (Rail): I thought we should start with the story that you were telling me just a few minutes ago. You grew up in L.A., and you went to school in Mexico City. Who did you study with in Mexico City?

Richard Van Buren: Nobody famous. Siqueiros was there when I was there. In fact, I was there when he got arrested. He knew it was coming and he told all of us not to do anything. But I can’t say that I was a student of his. I mean, he was there and I’d go into his class. I was just taking ceramics there—ceramic sculpture. I was going to Mexico City College, which in those days was in Toluca just outside of Mexico City. You live in Mexico City, and you take a bus out there.

Rail: Did you speak Spanish?

Van Buren: My Spanish was terrible. I knew about 4,000 nouns and two verbs. [Laughs.] I even studied philosophy; it was really interesting. [Laughs.] But it was Spanish existentialism, so it was kind of cool. But I didn’t study with anyone really well known. Mexico—it was the maestro system, you know, the master. He would basically come by and give you verdicts, you know, but to me, it was where I started because I went down there. I had gotten out of the military; it was all fucked up. I was raised in the film business, and so things were kind of happening that way for me, and some people wanted me to go into that business and sign me, and I started freaking because I knew I didn’t want to do anything like that. So I went to Mexico after the military, and I took I think like two art classes, and about three philosophy classes. The following quarter—they were in the quarter system—I switched to art. I just didn’t care anymore; I just kept on my art.

Rail: Right. Then you ended up in San Francisco and showed at the Dilexi Gallery, which was started by the remarkable Jim Newman and Robert Alexander in 1958. It was Newman’s baby by the time you showed because Alexander left in 1959. The roster of artists is impressive for Newman’s catholic taste. He showed Craig Kauffman, whom he knew from L.A., Jeremy Anderson, Deborah Remington, Jay DeFeo, Robert Morris, Ron Nagle, Irving Petlin, H. C. Westermann, and others.

Van Buren: I remember seeing Franz Kline’s telephone book drawings there, and work by the L.A. guys Joe Goode and Ed Moses. The terrific Bay Area artist Sam Tchakalian—toilet paper man. And Roy De Forest.

Rail: Roy was your teacher, wasn’t he?

Van Buren: Yes, he was. I learned from him, too. It was funny because, at the time, when I lived in San Francisco, Roy came to my house and tried to talk me out of moving to New York, because he thought I should stay and get my degree and teach. Because I was in California, and that’s what you did as an artist in California. And I had no thought of—or wanted to teach at all at that time.

Rail: Who were your friends then?

Van Buren: My friends were Ron Nagle and a guy named Joe White who still paints and lives in Washington, D.C.

Rail: And you were into ceramics?

Van Buren: No. I was just around. I mean I did some stuff in ceramics. I did a couple of walls. And Peter Voulkos ended up giving me a studio in Berkeley, in the Women’s Housing Office, illegally. I couldn’t wear my shoes during the day. But I wasn’t doing ceramics; I was making sculpture. Ceramics was always stuff that was pretty interesting. I felt close to it, even though that’s not literally what I did—that whole firing business didn’t interest me. It was a great place to get a good cup of coffee—the best coffee was in the ceramics department. And Voulkos was an older guy who really did encourage—as much as he was out there with his ego and stuff—he really did encourage a lot of young artists. He smelled them out. That’s what he did with me. He gave me that space up there. I eventually got kicked out; they found me putting stuff in the dumpster, and I was gone. But it’s funny,  I went down to L.A., to the Ferus Gallery, and I saw Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans.” I went down there just for that; it was really remarkable because I didn’t understand it at all. It was like, what? Which I think is great.

Rail: That moment of “I don’t know what I’m looking at” is certainly an interesting one.

Van Buren: And he didn’t even paint them that well.

Rail: [Laughs.]

Van Buren: The Bay Area was a great place to be a young artist because of the economics.

It was easy to survive. You could pay $35 for a storefront, live in the back, and work. I didn’t want to go the academic route and become a teacher. At the same time, I didn’t like Bay Area painting particularly. I mean Joan Brown, some of them I liked, but I didn’t really relate to figure painting. David Simpson, that kind of geometry, I didn’t really relate to, either. It was more just trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. You know, just figuring things out. And not having a lot of, you know, stimuli around me in that sense. I mean, I have this feeling: you don’t move to New York—you get kicked out from where you’re from. I had really good friends, but they wanted to go surf casting or smoke a joint. I would say, I want to work in the studio and it was like you’re on an ego trip. I was working really hard, and it didn’t seem to make sense. Every time a New Yorker would come and talk, it seemed like they were on speed, and kind of hardcore. But it was interesting because these artists didn’t do anything but make art. That’s what got me really attracted to New York—you know, they do art. They’re not there to become art teachers.

Rail: So you moved to New York. What year was that?

Van Buren: I went to London first for a year, and then moved to New York. I moved to New York about ’62 or ’63, around then. It was a great move for me. All of sudden I was being stimulated by all kinds of stuff. External stuff. Living on a grid pattern. It was really very different for me. I had my life ordered like that too. You know, pick up some work, make some rent money. It became very geometric in that sense. I had Frank Stella’s old studio, on West Broadway and Broome, it was Stella’s and then it became Carl Andre’s. I don’t think I got it right after Andre, I may have, I don’t know—but it was the same studio because both Frank and Carl told me that later on. It was $35 a month. I just started working right where I left off in San Francisco, and my life had changed so much, and the work didn’t really reflect it. I was like doing memory stuff. It was like stuff I was doing in San Francisco—and with all these changes here, and guys like Ronnie Bladen and George Sugarman, who were really supportive.

Rail: The Park Place and Brata people.

Van Buren: Park Place came a little bit later. But yes.

Rail: In the early 1960s—during Minimalism and Pop—Sugarman was completely on his own track, apart from both. Further apart from Minimalism than Bladen, say.

Van Buren: I had seen a Sugarman piece in a travelling show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art before I got here. At the time, I thought how crude it was. [Laughs.] I mean I remember—I later even named a piece “Sugarman.” He became really important to me in terms of his thinking. He was just a good guy. That whole group was very supportive. And Bladen and I played music together for years.

Rail: He loved the saxophone. And you played the saxophone.

Van Buren: And other instruments. And Park Place was going on at the same time, they had just opened, and they invited me to join after they had already set their core group. That’s when Klaus Kertess was starting Bykert or was beginning to, and he asked me if I’d be interested in going with him, and I thought, “Yeah, I would,” because there was no history, it was fresh. Not that Park Place was old; it’s just that I knew that history already.

Rail: That was in the late ’60s, after you had work included in the 1966 Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors show at the Jewish Museum. Robert Smithson, Andre, Anthony Caro, and Ellsworth Kelly were in it, as were the British artists William Tucker and Gerald Laing. Were you making resin pieces then?

Van Buren: Yeah.

Richard Van Buren, “Olongapo,” 2011. Thermoplastic, acrylic paint, and shells. 37 × 52 1/2 × 33”. Courtesy of the artist and Gary Snyder Gallery, New York.

Rail: When did you start doing that?

Van Buren: On West Broadway and Broome. I actually started doing that as a kid in L.A. because, in my day, you couldn’t buy a commercial surfboard, you had to make your own. We used to do it with fiberglass, so I knew how to do that as a high school kid. I knew the material. But I didn’t use it in my art until I got to New York.

Rail: John Duff has some of that, he grew up in California and made surfboards.

Van Buren: I think he is a little bit younger than me. We don’t know each other. We have some mutual friends in California. And he was using that material. Robert Mallary was, too, of course— —

Rail: Robert Mallary, a terrific sculptor, would immerse clothes in liquid plastic—polyester resin.

Van Buren: Tuxedos. And he was killing himself.

Rail: Because he got cancer and moved to UMass and then started working with a computer. He was very good friends with Wayne Thiebaud.

Van Buren: When I first came to New York, Phil Wofford had a job painting Allan Stone’s gallery. I went up there—he hired me to help him—and I broke a Mallary. I was painting underneath the tuxedo and I came up and cracked it. [Laughs.]

Rail: That’s a variation on Ad Reinhardt’s definition of sculpture as something you bump into when you back up to see a painting.

Van Buren: I knew of Mallary because of his work, which I only saw in photos. Of course, he became an icon in terms of using materials which are dangerous. But he was using it in such an obviously wrong way—in terms of health—that I never got into. But I was doing something else that was just as stupid. So I started using resin. The artist David Weinrib was working with resin solely at that time. He gave me a lot of help in terms of materials, Mylar. I remember I learned that from David. He was using Mylar as a mold, but he was doing it in a more traditional way. Like really making solid molds. And using Mylar as a separator. I like the idea of what the meterial did in terms of itself—I would just lay it on the floor, prop things underneath, and just get something up on and off the horizontal plane and use Mylar as an open mold. My molds were not tight.

Rail: The first time I saw your work was in the mid-’70s, at Paula Cooper.  I attended a dance performance one night, and your pieces were on the wall. They were fairly high up, as I remember, and the ambient light passed through them, and there’d be this prismatic spread of colors flickering on the wall. I was mesmerized by both the work and the dance. I think that you were playing the saxophone, which I didn’t realize at the time, having just gotten to New York.

Van Buren: I was too young to realize that I couldn’t play the saxophone. [Laughs.] My wife Batya Zamir is a dancer and I worked with her. In those days there were a lot of dancers because everything was energized. Everything was going in different directions really quick. It was great. And we were all living in close proximity to each other. You know, lovers, wives, husbands—it was very close. I worked with three or four different dance companies, because they were looking for people who were not trained in dance, so you didn’t carry any of that mannerism with you. We all have body mannerisms, but mine wasn’t coming from modern dance. I would move with these people, I mean because I come from sports, my neck would be so locked. [Laughs.] So you were talking about the show at Paula’s—there were musicians, I mean I’ve played music a long time in New York, with friends, some who are very great musicians, but all of them had some kind of visual connection. They were either a painter or a sculptor. A couple were primarily musicians, but still made visual art. So probably what you saw was Richard Peck, who was with Philip Glass. Dickie Landry would be in and out, and then there were guys like Phillip Wofford, Ronnie Bladen, and Bobby Grenier, who was one of my best friends, he’s passed now. He was a real musician in the sense that he travelled with Van Morrison, and started drawing and making artwork on tour. Anyway, there were some card-carrying musicians. We were playing jazz improvisation, and then movement was always important to me because of sculpture. The idea of music and movement and sculpture to me was not a big jump in that period of time. I still think about it. Put some sound in there. [Laughs.] Maybe not. But movement is always really, really important to me.

Rail: You showed at Paula Cooper a number of times and then you moved out of New York.

Van Buren: No, I stayed in New York, but I moved out of the art world, in terms of making sculpture. I just got involved with performance, primarily because of Batya. Because I designed systems for her, she came out of the tradition of modern dance, and she left all of that. These major companies, like Alwin Nikolais and Murray Lewis, she ended up leaving and Yvonne Rainer was a big influence on her. And after we came back from India, we lived in India for a while, she was interested in dancing off the floor and going into the air, so I started designing systems for being able to dance in the air, off of architecture, between buildings, up in the air. So I stopped making sculpture-sculpture, you know, objects— —

Rail: When was that?

Van Buren: Well that’s when I left Paula’s.

Rail: Like ’79?

Van Buren: I don’t remember when I left Paula’s. Part of it too was physiological; I had a studio at PS1 and I was getting ready for my show at Paula’s, and I’d go to the Y everyday to work out. Anyway, I started smelling polyester coming out of my skin. And I turned myself in to a toxicologist, who checked me out, and I had to run. Two years I ran five miles a day. And it worked. But that was definitely a big part of it—skin poisoning. I did a lot of research. I had all the proper tools to work with this material. But even after you finished casting all that sculpture, you’re still breathing—even six months afterwards, you know? It became really destructive, physiologically. So I was looking for another material for a long time, to find another material I felt comfortable with. And I put a lot of energy into performance. We had started doing performances at the Kitchen and Studio 54 and different venues that were around then. The Bronx Zoo. You know, we took it outside. We did a European tour, Italy. We did it in Australia, which was really interesting.

Rail: And Batya wanted to dance up in the air?

Van Buren: Yeah, she was really good at it. She still wants to go back up, but I’m very resistant to it. It’s just dangerous. It’s hardware, it’s going to break at some point. She’s been pretty lucky. It’s been years— —

Rail: You’re talking about wires?

Van Buren: Shock cords and cables. I did a piece in Milan, in La Scala square in front of the opera house—they gave us the whole square—and I hired a small family circus to put up vertical posts in the street. I ran two thousand feet of aircraft stainless steel cable—have you ever seen those pictures of Il Duce, where Mussolini is giving that speech on the balcony? Well, it’s the same balcony. I had my choice of anywhere. Batya Zamir’s dance company was commissioned by the city of Milan. They were taking us around, showing us these different sites, and I’d spotted that balcony and I just remembered the old black-and-white footage. I asked about it and they said sure, that was the City Hall. I went up there, and the Mayor’s desk was this heavy hardwood thing, and I tied a noose around—a hemp noose, you know, a rope—around his desk and went out the balcony, and took the stainless steel cable out from there onto the verticals the circus placed, and I designed a little stage because the street was cobblestone—to dance on, because Batya starts on the floor and goes up. It was really fun, it was really interesting, because we were so naïve as Americans. It turns out Milan, its colors are red and white. And Betsey Johnson here in this country, you know the clothing designer, she’s an old friend of ours, and every time Batya was ready to do a concert, Betsey would give her a whole bunch of clothes. Like she’d make clothes for Batya to dance in, so Betsey gave her all these clothes and we showed up in Milan—we did Rome first—and they had all this bunting around the square that was red and white. And Batya’s wearing red and white. She’s got red and white socks on. We did a few concerts, but after one night, when the city planners and Italian artists took us out to dinner, they were like “That’s pretty great what you guys did with the red and white!” and I said, “What?” I mean I knew by that point that it was the city colors, but their point was that the Italian sickness was they couldn’t possibly do that because of respect. It was so nice to see somebody do that. And the thing that was interesting for me too was that when the concert was over—one of the things that they’d seem to dislike—because Batya would start on the floor, work her way up, and go as high as whatever sculpture I built, and then she would end it on the floor. She made this circle. But they wanted her to stay up there. They had this fantasy— —

Richard Van Buren, “Shula’s Dance,” 2011. Thermoplastic, acrylic paint, and shells. 36 × 65 × 32”. Courtesy of the artist and Gary Snyder Gallery, New York.

Rail: [Laughs.] They’re Christian after all! They’re Catholic! They have to go to heaven.

Van Buren: [Laughs.]

Rail: So you stop making sculpture, and then you came back into it. Was that after you moved to Maine?

Van Buren: No, no. I started working here before—I mean I was working here because eventually I tried a lot of different materials. And then I got the thermoplastic, which I started working in. But I was working in conjunction with steel and aluminum, but steel was for structure.

Rail: It’s interesting to know that you grew up in California, and your family was in the film business, you went to Mexico and moved to San Francisco before coming to New York, because it gives a background to this work, which is idiosyncratic and doesn’t really fit in.

Van Buren: To me it does. [Laughs.]

Rail: Well, it has connections to Eva Hesse, say, and work made by Lynda Benglis, but I remember that when I saw your shows at Paula Cooper, I felt like there were affinities with others, but your work stood completely on its own in some way. It seems to me that you just kept following your own muse, so to speak. It’s not work that makes concessions to the pressures of what you’re supposed to do. It’s not abject or a product of a “de-skilled” approach.

Van Buren: Oh, I was never good at that.

Rail: [Laughs.] I can see. So thermoplastic becomes the material you work with.

Van Buren: I worked with it quite a bit before I got to Maine, and continued up there. The whole idea was that you could put material together and play with light and color at the same time, was what the resin allowed, which really interested me. I thought of colors in terms of artists using it, you know, as a material, but just breaking down structurally what is paint, which is basically a binder holding pigment or dye of some sort. So a long time ago I started working with other materials with the resin that created a kind of physical situation, which would give a color that is not found in paint.

Rail: And that was obvious even in that performance I saw. I mean, you couldn’t predict—I was thinking, “Are the people causing the light to move through the sculpture onto the wall?” I couldn’t tell. I told you when we first talked that it was one of those moments where I felt, “What just happened to me?”

Van Buren: Great!

Rail: I associate it with the moment in New York history where you could discover things like that. I remember also going to a Philip Glass concert in the Alexander Hamilton Custom House, where Herman Melville once worked. He and his group played in this room, where there were murals on the ceiling.

Van Buren: Yeah, I remember that. The acoustics—because of those high ceilings.

Rail: Right. The audience ended up lying on the floor listening. There were no chairs to sit in. Or you go to some event taking place in the landfill, which is now Battery Park City. I forget who did it, but there was this abandoned structure where, when you walked through it, the sound changed. All these different experiences seem connected. They weren’t segregated from each other.

Van Buren: I think a lot of people were working with each other in those days. That’s really what we’re talking about a lot, right?

Rail: Right, collaborations, working with each other— —

Van Buren: And I didn’t think about it, collaborations. You were just there.

Rail: So let’s talk about these works. How long have you been working like this?

Van Buren: Well, you mean with the shells?

Rail: Yeah, with the shells.

Van Buren: It’s been a few years now. It’s funny because a friend called up from New York and asked me what am I working with now, meaning material. And I could easily say, you know, acrylic paint, thermoplastic. But when I get to shells—I don’t know what to say. I’m like, “…and shells.” You know, the cliché of that, right? I’ve been working with shells, just not that long now—maybe two or three years. I’m bad with time. Before that, along with thermoplastic and paint, I was working with stone. That got to be a pain because to drill a hole in the stone, in order to physically connect it to the cast, was just too hard—I was using different glues, I just wasn’t happy with it. And then I just happened to try some shells for the hell of it. And that opened it up, and then the whole fact, you know, I don’t want to make too big of a deal about it—but living next to the sea is not a big jump. I mean, none of these shells were in the water around me. They’re all from the Philippines, and beyond. I get them online. But I would say probably in terms of materials, what you’re looking at right here, you know it’s been about the last two or three years probably.

Rail: And they can go on a pedestal and the wall?

Van Buren: No, these can work in different ways, but these three are designed to go on the wall.

Rail: Okay.

Van Buren: You know, it has to have one plane to start with, and so I’ve been working more on the wall than on the floor, but now that’s changing. I recently did a 25-foot floor piece, and now the floor is really interesting me again, more. Its movements really, when I have a piece on the wall, I know by just looking at the viewer looking at the piece, depending a little bit on the piece, but most of the pieces, I know whether they see it or not. Because if you don’t change your position, you’re just not going to see my language. You’re just going to see one perspective on it. With the floor, you know, you’re forcing—I mean, to me, because I said earlier about movement, dance, and stuff, to me—it’s a stretch to say I’m a choreographer, but to me it’s important for the sculpture to create movement.

Rail: Okay, and the pieces on the wall move through space.

Van Buren: Yeah.

Rail: I mean, in all different ways. On that level you have to think of it formally, that it cuts and twists through space, it’s like a drawing in 3D.

Van Buren: I think it’s very traditional in that sense.

Rail: And color-wise, it’s a lot about close value tones with some sharp contrasts. Your use of metallic colors made you think of scuba-diving, for instance, where the diver realizes that there is this other world of color, and it’s very different than the colors one sees while walking around.

Van Buren: Yeah, well, that was part of my history, being underwater. And diving. A lot of the color or the thinking about the color also has to do with the fact that I’m really trying to manipulate light. It’s the same with placement and form. One of the justifications for using the metallic is because it activates light so quickly. When it’s up on a wall, I’m dealing with the kind of density of layer, layer, layer, layer—just the obvious three-dimensional aspects of it are going to create shadow and value. But the metallic will activate the light a lot. That’s part of it. And the other part of it is from being raised in L.A. I don’t like to think that way—I mean, I don’t feel connected to guys like Craig Kauffman and DeWain Valentine, even though I’ve shown with those guys, because I was a plastic guy in New York and they were the plastic guys in California. They were always very clean and neat in terms of surface, and I always felt like there was a much bigger and wider range of language in terms of surface.

Rail: Well, it’s also about texture and the visceral. It’s both, not one or the other. Our attention keeps refocusing.

Van Buren: Yeah, and I’m also not trying to develop a perfect form—it’s outside of Brancusi. I’m trying to use forms that are so basically human that, you know, sometimes you might have some clay in your hand, and you squeeze it for a while—it’s what a human would do. You know, a very humanistic kind of touch, without trying to show off. I still try to show off, but not with form. I had a show up in Calais, Maine, and to me it was probably one of the most important shows I ever had because I learned so much from it. I was trying a lot, I was trying to establish sculptures and forms that people could relate to from their own history without doing the Rorschach test—I mean that they could identify with and take it into their own worlds. In other words, their baggage, their own history would have some kind of connection to it. It’s there anyway, so why limit it? It’s something there that can stimulate their own history without them feeling, “Oh, I don’t get it” or “I get it.” So that was part of the idea. When I had the show in Calais, Maine, it was in this tourist bureau place, which was architecturally interesting, that they took apart for me for the show. All these people came, including members of the Passamaquoddy tribe, and they came and really got off on it. I mean, they understood, they related to it. And to me what was important about it was that it worked. In other words, the work got to a place where people—I don’t know about identifying with it—but they didn’t feel separate from it, you know. It stimulated their interest, and their activity. One day the director, Alex Markoff, who was running this space, called me and said, “Richard, would you come up? ’Cause a whole busload of kids from the reservation is coming.” And I said, “Yeah.” So I went up and these kids were great. They’re all grammar school kids, there were probably some junior high kids, but mostly young kids, and they asked me questions, and I told them what I was doing and all that stuff, and finally I relaxed a little bit and got a little bit better at it, at talking to kids, and they got it. And this one kid says to me, “Hey, come here. I want to show you something.” I had about 12 pieces up. He pointed and said, “You missed a spot.” He was right. And that’s just like, whoa, terrific, he understands. So that to me was really an important experiment. In the old days, when someone would come up and look at my work and say, “Oh, it reminds me of a rhinoceros,” I’d say, “Fuck you.” I mean there’s no rhinoceros there. Whether I said it or not, that would be in my head. And now I’ve embraced that. If you want to make a cartoon out of it, or if you want to see an elephant or something, that’s fine. Go ahead and do it. It’s not an elephant to me, but that’s okay.

I used to think, when I was working, okay, I’m going to do this, I’m going to take a chance. And now I don’t think I’m taking a chance. You know what I mean? But it’s the same deal in that I’ll have an idea or a concept or a concern with the materials in my hands, and I’m going to do whatever that is, that need that I have. And then something happens just in terms of the way I touch the material or change the material and it’s not what I anticipated and I get off on that. Then I go in that direction. This has been happening more and more of late, where I take my so-called intellect or my consciousness, at certain stages, and just throw it away, because I realize that my hands are smarter. So the hand, the touch, is a big part of vocabulary—the feeling and moving and manipulating. Everything here is built with my hands, with the exception of, well even that’s my hand, when I use a knife. Like this thing, you get this mark, you know, I made this with my hand and a knife—but that’s the only tool that I use.

Rail: It’s thermoplastic, but you connected it to clay.

Van Buren: Oh yeah, pretty much so.

Rail: But also the other thing—the colors are really Rococo; it’s like Watteau. It’s the kind of color that people don’t know how to take seriously, yet if you look at Watteau, adds gravity to his pastel colors, his pinks and blues. It’s interesting because we make cultural assumptions about color. It’s like we have to remove those assumptions in order to see it fresh.

Richard Van Buren, "Gatekeeper" 2010. Thermoplastic, acrylic paint, and shells. 59 1/2 × 45 × 33". Courtesy of the artist and Gary Snyder Gallery, New York.

Van Buren: I think we artists have to admit we use really seductive stuff. Paint is seductive. You could make mud out of it, but even the mud is seductive. It’s pretty charged material. And then you throw history on top of it, and what all these people have done with it. If you walked into the woods and saw a pool of cobalt blue, you’d, shit, you know, that’s a very impressive image. I remember the first review I ever got in New York, I think it was even a positive review and they said something about Richard Van Buren’s California color sensibilities. Right, well when I started doing art, I was doing it in San Francisco, and I didn’t have California color sensibilities. I’m saying that color—paint, forgive me—paint is a very seductive material. And to go ahead and disguise that, or to pretend that it’s not, that’s bullshit. I’m saying this stuff is beautiful—I mean, using shells, that’s probably the hard part, because you take something so classic in the culture, like this pretty thing, right, and then try to make it something other than just that, it puts a bit of responsibility to make it transcend the material, to make it more than that. So working with the shells to me is hard, you know, it’s supposed to be easy, they have this attractiveness and seductiveness—forget art, just as an object. And then to use that in conjunction with sculpture, material, paint, to me that’s the hard part. You know, how do you make it still have its own life, its own character?

Rail: You’re putting two different things together: shells and plastic. And you’re saying, they are different but they’re the same. They’re connected.

Van Buren: Exactly. In Maine, I remember years ago when we first bought our farm up there, before we moved there fulltime, because we’re right on the water—a barge showed up, and it was full of herring scales, opened to the sky. It was a barge with tons of herring scales. And it was a sunny day. It blew me away—the intensity of that. That’s what metallic is. It’s coming from the ocean. The sea, 70 percent of the earth is that. It’s not a big jump—the idea of using herring scales or metallic paint, which is made with herring scales, and using seashells. I never made that connection as a kind of philosophical connection, but there’s a reality to that. It all comes from the sea, in that sense. I don’t come from the sea. Maybe I do. But I mean the seductiveness of the sea, or the stimuli of the sea, is still really important. I don’t think I lived in Red Hook, Brooklyn, by chance, you know, near the water, or in San Francisco by the water. You know, I have a show up at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockport, and we had to do a talk. The director Suzette McAvoy who ran it, asked me, “Are the surroundings, the environment, really important to you in terms of your color?” And it is. But my answer was, and I wasn’t being sarcastic, “So is David Letterman’s necktie.”

Rail: I know what you’re saying. You don’t want to be reductive and literal: I see this, I do that. We’re more complex than that and people sometimes want to make it simple, like, “Oh, this happened, and that’s why you wrote that poem,” or “You saw this thing and that’s why you made that sculpture.” You know, there is something oddly grotesque about these pieces, but in a way that doesn’t fulfill our packaged notion of the grotesque. It’s grotesque and beautiful. It’s grotesque and something else. On some level, we’re not sure of what we’re looking at. Something that washed up from the sea, part organic and part man-made. It doesn’t suddenly fit into a conventional notion of a sculpture. It’s an object, but then, what kind of object? It opens up a space in our head. Just as when I first saw your work, it opened up this space in my head that I still remember.

Van Buren: Great, man.

Contributor

John Yau

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