EMIL LUKAS with Harry Philbrick
SPERONE WESTWATER | JANUARY 9 – FEBRUARY 23, 2019
On the occasion of Emil Lukas’s fourth exhibition at Sperone Westwater, the Rail’s new editor-at-large Harry Philbrick met the artist at the gallery talk about this recent body of work, which includes his landmark bubble wrap paintings, larvae paintings, thread paintings, and the enigmatic stack structures that evoke the artist’s archeological index of broad interests in what lies between art, science, alchemy, as well as other materials and matters. The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.
Harry Philbrick (Rail): The first thing that jumped out at me about this new body of work, especially the bubble paintings, was the difference between seeing them up close and seeing them far away, and how the viewer’s perception of color changes based on distance, and also angle. One of the magic things about this space in the gallery is that you can see the bubble wrap paintings on the ground floor right in front of your face, and then you can go upstairs onto the second floor and look down and see them from a totally different angle, and they’re completely different works of art from those different angles. From above you become more aware of them as convex objects. Can you describe the relationship between the concave and convex nature in them, and how that affects perception of color?
Emil Lukas: The concavity or convexity refers to, first, the structure; the domed surface has more rigidity than a flat surface. Secondly, in its complexity, the dome allows each bubble to be at a slight angle to the viewer, except the one bubble of color that is perfectly aligned with the viewer. Certainly, the architecture of the gallery offers opportunity to play with perception. The bubble paintings—like the thread paintings—are using the smallest measurable mark. These marks, whether they are thread, bubble, or larvae, break down and dissolve with distance and angle. Perhaps how we perceive color is the most vulnerable to change.
Rail: Why do you call them paintings? They’re sculptural objects, and the effect of the work that you’re describing is one that a sculpture usually has, not a painting.
Lukas: That’s a very good question. I tend to call everything painting. But you’re right, the thread and bubble paintings are very sculptural, but I call them paintings. I think it’s because in both of those series, the process of the brain taking the color apart and putting it back together is more connected to painting, and I think that the viewer is engaging with the work with the possibility that the infinity of color cannot be exhausted, and I attach that to painting.
Rail: Well, in making a painting, first you stretch a canvas, prepare a ground, then you make physical marks on the canvas, generally using a brush, mark-making, and that’s what we look to in painting. We often talk about mark-making. You kind of outsource the mark-making to the bubble wrap. The bubble wrap is making the mark. It’s a series of grids. It’s a grid with a series of concave dots that you then color. But the physical mark-making part of the work, both in the bubble paintings and, to a certain degree, in the thread paintings, is taken over by the material.
Lukas: I think the paintings are taken over by structure. In both the thread and bubble paintings, working within the structure, to me, becomes limitless. Something else happens with the bubble paintings. There are two surfaces within the bubble structure, the grid across the front and the round bubbles where the color is applied. These two against each other amplify the painting’s complexity.
Rail: So, there is mark-making that you are doing, but as a viewer perceiving the work, it appears that the mark-making is made by the bubbles in the plastic.
Lukas: Right. And that’s a curious position, to start with a mechanical structure that is so dominant. All the work is very much made by hand. However, for the most part, the gesture of the hand is completely removed. You don’t see the hand in the larvae paintings, you don’t see the hand in the bubble or the thread paintings. That remains a curiosity for me. I’m not sure why I’ve taken my hand out of the work when it’s completely there all the time.
Rail: Your process of creating these objects is pretty low-tech, but they appear that they could be made through some incredibly high-tech process.
Lukas: It’s so low-tech, intuitive, and immediate. Sometimes with the thread paintings, I think of it as the accumulation of a hundred thousand easy decisions—where you can see where the mark is going down before it goes down, and it’s a simple decision. Once it’s made, the decision is final and it informs or directs future decisions in a cumulative way.
Rail: So do you mean, “Do I wanna have blue here or should I actually do red?” Or “Do I want it to be here or half an inch to the left?”
Lukas: Exactly, well more like 1/16 here or there.
Lukas: What is the balance or imbalance? Should it run parallel or on an angle with the existing? How does it all stack up? In the end, something needs to happen! My hope is what happens with the process is greater in the viewer’s reception and perception than in the making of the work in the studio. Perhaps the process of accumulation best aligns with the process of perception.
Rail: Those decisions are about manipulating materials, physical objects—except with the larvae paintings, where, in that case, you have literally outsourced the mark-making to another creature, a different kind of studio assistant. What’s your role in that mark-making?
Lukas: Working with fly larvae, my first role is to mature ten thousand or so and decide how many to paint with: one, some, or all. What is a given is that they move with intention. What the intention is doesn’t matter so much; what matters is that we recognize intention in the painting. From there what do we react to? There are multiple instruments influencing the painting, temperature, light, shadow, vibration, humidity. Those could be natural conditions or made in the studio.
Rail: So when you’re working with the larvae, how much intentionality is there on your part when you start?
Lukas: Oh, enormous. First, am I going to paint with one larva or ten thousand at a time? Am I going to keep a mark or erase a mark, will the surface be fogged with moisture or relatively dry or will transparent layers be added between the marks and the viewer?
Rail: So you can just wipe a mark off?
Lukas: Yes. It’s completely plastic. Marks can be added, subtracted, made more powerful or made transparent to almost invisible. Orientation can be changed underneath the larvae. So, it’s a full-on decision-making process, even though I have no control over whether they are going straight or turning left or right—everything else is painting.
Rail: Have you learned from them?
Lukas: I must have. I don’t know if I can answer that question. The most important thing to do is simply observe, in order to understand how the painting’s going and what the painting is and will become.
Rail: You have a limited amount of control over what they do. You do have control over, as you said, how translucent or how dense the mark’s gonna be, whether a mark will exist or not, but you can’t control what mark they make, and it seems to me that one of the things that connects all of your work is exploring limits and really searching for limits in terms of the particular material you’re using. This brings me to the series of sculptures that you’ve been making for several years with short sections of tubes where you create a structure that looks almost like an insect’s eye, it sort of splays out. And if you are on one side of the piece, you can look through all these tubes and see everything, and the sculpture almost disappears. You go around to the other side of the piece, you can’t see through it at all, except in one round circle that moves as you move, and so you’re zeroing in on one part of the space behind the sculpture. That work demonstrates a lot about perception, and how the physics of light and sight work. But what did you learn in the process of making that piece about the limits of the material? You’re working with very unyielding materials, steel or aluminum, and trying to control them.
Lukas: What I’ve learned from this new lens Fabric of an Upward Gaze is that there are cumulative structures that we’re all involved with. I feel that these structures are part of our optics, they’re what we see and how we see. Quite often, I think they’re embedded so deeply that they precede our memory. This lens, at Comcast in Philadelphia, is the most recent and most ambitious structure; it has grown out of the large-scale wood and cardboard lens shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in 2016. Both of these sculptures rework basic one-point perspective so sight lines converge to one point in space through all of the tubes. As you said, when the viewer finds the spot of convergence they have a clear vision through all of the tubes simultaneously. As their focus and attention goes out through the lens, the sculpture seems to disappear, denying its own physical presence.
Rail: Well, that’s certainly true with the space and the two large round thread paintings in the show at Sperone Westwater. The accumulation of threads and what they achieve visually, and how the viewer can perceive that accumulation, leads to a really remarkable experience. When you’re up close to those works, you can see that there are thousands of threads in seemingly dozens of colors, and the work is extremely colorful and quite bright. Then if you walk away from the painting, it goes from bright and colorful to a little bit monochromatic to black and white, and that is so hard to understand. But it is that accumulation and distance…. The interaction of those two things creates this remarkable physical effect, or perceptual effect, I guess I should say.
Lukas: I think in general, human beings explore the world through pattern. We search and we perceive what’s happening in front of us through patterns and interruptions in patterns. That accumulation of thread is something that surrounds us everywhere. I was shocked the other night, when many of us went out to see the lunar eclipse. The Northeast was cold and clear, so we could really observe it. That proved the same thing. I’ve never seen a lunar eclipse like that one, but it was so familiar. I think the process of taking that painting apart, as you’ve described, and putting it back together is very similar. It’s something that we do all the time. We decipher what we see and we put it back together. So in one way, it’s a little bit startling how that painting reads when move away from it, but in another way it’s completely familiar.
Rail: That’s interesting, because I took it a very different way, which is the difference between an immediate experience and that experience in memory. When you’ve stepped away from the painting, if you’re just eight feet away from it, and it’s reading as black and white, it truly is black and white, and you kind of take it for granted as that. And I think with a lot of life experience, you boil it down to black and white and that’s what it is.
Rail: And then you don’t think about the nuance. Step up and take a really close look, and it’s a lot more complex. There’s a lot more to it than black and white.
Lukas: In observation, value is the most powerful thing we see, that’s where you’re reading that painting as a physical object and as you get closer detail reveals the infinity of color relationships.
Rail: What’s so clear and visible in your work, and these recent pieces are great examples of it, is that one can follow the process of how things get made very slowly. So I’m thinking about a James Turrell piece, one of those pieces where there’s a cut-out in the wall, and it looks like a solid object, and then you get up close, and you realize it’s a void, but unless you climb into the thing, you don’t know exactly how it’s made.
Rail: I mean, there’s no hidden tricks to your work. The metal armature behind those works is self-explanatory, the fact that it’s a plaster dome, the fact that there are threads that are attached to nails, it’s all spelled out for you. But it still has that mind-blowing perceptual affect of, “What am I looking at?” And even once you’ve seen the whole process, you still have that magic feeling of something being created that couldn’t possibly be created, just with that simple stuff I’m seeing.
Lukas: That means that everything is available for you to read and I hope that it adds to the taking apart and putting back together. Perhaps this is most complicated in the stack pieces because there so much to see while the majority remains hidden.
Rail: So, the viewer might not know that those are works that can be performed. Can you describe how they’re performed?
Lukas: The stacked sculptures are large books that stand at a human scale, on the floor with you. It’s a body of work that I’ve been making since the late ’80s. The stacks are held together with gravity. To view them is a performance, the top section is removed, flipped and place on the floor. Layer by layer each section is revealed as a pair and placed on the next. With this cadence it takes a few minutes and the entire stack is now standing in its new location, inverted. Typically, they have about 40 to 60 surfaces, and these surfaces are linked together conceptually, aesthetically, and structurally. The stacks are the archaeology of investigation.
Rail: How so? Please elaborate.
Lukas: I would like to think that we learn something with every work made and viewed. The stacked sculptures trap these events and what happens in between. Making one section can push the next one, or multiple sections might need to be added to satisfy a void in the stack. The process of making the stacked sculptures drives me into uncharted places that are both addicting and demanding. So, I can only make one or two a year. On the third floor of this show at Sperone Westwater are three stacks. I want their density of seen and unseen information to be heavy, incomprehensibly dense.
Rail: To go back to the bubble paintings, in many cases, a concave surface will be paired with a convex surface, so those two things are inseparable from one another. What’s the difference perceptually for the viewer between a concave and a convex structure?
Lukas: It depends on how the paint is applied in the bubbles and what decisions are made, but basically the difference is when you get close enough, you discover which way it is, and quite often, it’s not the way that you first saw it.
Rail: And the overall surface of those pieces can be concave or convex, but the bubbles themselves are always concave.
Lukas: They’re always concave. That allows for what I was calling a double-undulant, in that colors appear to be infinitely complex in relationship to one another as they sit behind a front grid. That front grid is one of the first things you perceive. The relationship between the front pattern and the color in concave bubbles amplifies the complexity of the painting.
Rail: And the given structure in the bubble paintings is, from time to time, flawed. The particular piece of bubble wrap you’re using might have a missing bubble. Somehow in the manufacturing process, it’s missing.
Rail: But you embrace such imperfection.
Lukas: Right. In the manufacturing process there can be mutation and flaws, glitches in the system, whether mechanical or natural. They create new possibilities. I would never take a manufacturer’s flaw or defect and try to perfect it. I would leave it exactly where it is and work with it.
Rail: Okay. So, we’ve talked a little bit about the grid of dots in the bubble paintings and I mentioned that your work can look very high-tech. I think one of the reasons it looks high-tech is that that grid of dots can remind you of the old Benday dots for the printing process in the newspaper, or the dots on a television screen or a computer screen that create the image that one sees. But as we talk about your work, it’s really an analog process, and that quality we mentioned of the work revealing its process, the physicality of the work showing you how it was made, I think makes the work seem to urgently refer to our current condition of technology. Because when you look at an image on your tablet or iPhone, you have no idea how it’s made. It’s magic.
Rail: It’s so seamless. On one hand, it relates to physics and chemistry and engineering aspects that are so complex, yet on the other hand you realize that with these simple materials, with some thread and some plaster, you can create this amazing optical experience.
Lukas: I also think about how these simple materials accumulate into complex paintings quickly, partly because I think they have roots in hallucinations. Perhaps depictions of basic hallucinations from childhood, geometric pattern shifting through phases of color and value. One reason these practices are fascinating to me is the balance between simplicity and complexity. Like a hallucination that’s not an image pulled from memory, it’s the complete unexpected event that happens in the brain, possibly involving all of the senses. I don’t know, but where does hallucination share a border with meditation? Over and over, back and forth, with miles of thread or paint in thousands of bubbles, it becomes a meditation for sure. Perhaps magic lies in-between hallucination and meditation.
Rail: Well, that gets me back to my question about whether you have learned anything from the larvae. And I was wondering about the process of working with these animate creatures with whom you can’t communicate. You can influence their environment, but you’re not really communicating with them at all.
Rail: But there is, nevertheless, an exchange happening between many animate creatures sharing an experience. And I don’t quite know how to articulate this question, but that somehow it seems to me somewhere between a hallucination and a meditative experience.
Lukas: Yeah. The focus with the larvae painting is in attending to what’s happening in front of you, and it’s always something different. They have an intention and it’s relentless. If they’re going to move away from light, they are going to move away from light.
Rail: So that gets to the idea of interacting with a creature that has an agenda and a mental and a physical repertoire that’s completely different from yours. So, you have to put yourself, and most of your abilities to the side because they’re useless. You can’t charm them into moving the way you want them to or persuade them or intimidate them into it. And all of the human tools are useless.
Lukas: They are. My schedule is also useless. I want to be very careful about talking about larvae too much: where they come from, how I raise and paint with them, and at the end of the painting how they fly away. It’s both poetic and tough to stomach. If I talk about that in too much detail it takes away from the paintings. I think it detracts from what happens when you see the painting. I hope the first time you saw one you thought “a human being didn’t make these marks,” but you also look at the paintings and say, “these are really human.” Because they’re what we see when we look up into the trees, they’re what we see in vascular systems, systems of dissemination, how tributaries gather or delta regions branch out. This is all something we know so well. And I want the viewer to get pulled into this mysterious equation. That’s what I want the viewer to get involved with. So, I’m hesitant to talk about larvae and the actual process of how this all comes about. But what you’re saying is absolutely true, and what I started saying is that even a schedule is useless. I can’t do certain things at certain times, because when they’re perfect to paint with, I have to submit to them, which could mean that I have to cancel dinner with a good friend for a bucket of larvae. And that’s also a very peculiar position to be in. Or you don’t paint and you just let them go after weeks of nurturing.
Rail: And so, there’s a seasonality to it, too.
Lukas: Oh, completely. Climate, season, temperature, all of that is in play. I can only make these paintings in late summer to early fall.
Rail: We understand the overview of how migration works, but we don’t really understand what it could possibly be like to be a monarch butterfly, and have four generations of butterflies to travel thousands of miles. But you are partaking in that natural rhythm in a way. You’re becoming... you’re moving along with that.
Lukas: I’m moving along with that as it’s really powerful in the summer when it’s hot and their life cycle is fast, intense, and short. In a weird way that is something I have an affection for, seeing generations go by every two or three weeks when it’s hot. It’s a bit daunting how quick their life cycle is in the heat of summer. And that’s been a lesson.
Rail: What about your sense of color—I mean, on one hand, there is the Newtonian theory of light and colors that refers to a scientific basis, and on the other hand, something closer to Goethe’s psychological and emotional reading of color?
Lukas: The thread and bubble paintings work with something all their own. Of course they must sister with Newton’s theories of light and color and Goethe’s evaluations of color’s emotional and psychological effects to color. I never see it as a law, instead these paintings continue to prove infinity in color and emotional relationships. A shift in any aspect of color (hue, tint, value) pales to the power of relationship. I think that’s why it’s important to work with the smallest measurable mark. A mark or single element that can be easily taken in as an individual. As thousands of these marks take location and the viewer takes distance, the painting accumulates into a complex system of shifting color and emotion. In this way color has physicality and any theory is unique to a specific practice. In short, nuance matters, with complexity of relationship it becomes highly personal.
What I don’t understand is the role that red plays. Red can simultaneously be the darkest, deepest hole on a painting while showing brilliance. Often this plays out around the opaque edges of thread paintings. This is where the paintings side with Goethe, they prove that darkness can be a vehicle to brilliant color. All of this plays out in color, in or on the fabric of the painting. As for the atmosphere in front of the paintings or behind the threads, that belongs to science and Newton’s theory of light and color. This is proven again and again when I make the work and talk with people that live with the painting. The perception of the painting’s color, shape, or atmosphere changes with the surrounding light.
Rail: Last question: given the domed structures of the bubble paintings and thread paintings, I wonder if there’s a component of sound in them—especially the new large domed thread works?
Lukas: Yes, and if we look back though the archive of painting titles the words hum, ring, pitch, and tone reoccur, however, I don’t think that’s what your asking. To your question, the paintings come into our space or take us into theirs, by doming outwards or drawing inwards. The decision to curve surfaces affects the viewer’s senses. The large round thread paintings do this by triangulating sound off of the reflector back to the viewer. Often at a surprising moment, right at the place and distance when the fact is revealed that the painting is just an accumulation of thread. The concave reflector amplifies the viewer’s voice back at them or picks up a distant sound and presents it in the ear, completing a sense of hallucination. Another event happens when paintings involve a cacophony of accumulated marks. When the viewer visually enters the surface, the sound can be so loud that it’s deafening.
Harry Philbrick founded Philadelphia Contemporary in 2016. Philadelphia Contemporary presents cross-disciplinary art that reflects the diversity and vitality of Philadelphia; it is based on a dynamic and sustainable model of collaboration and partnership. From 2011 - 2016 he was Director of the Museum at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, known internationally for its collections of 19th- and 20th-century American art, and from 1996 - 2010 was Director of The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.