A Conversation with Paul Behnke

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© Paul Behnke and Figure/Ground
Paul Behnke was interviewed by Brian Edmonds. September 15, 2014.

Paul Behnke (b. Memphis, TN, 1965) received his BFA from the Memphis College of Art (1999). He is currently represented by Kathryn Markel Fine Art in New York.In addition Behnke has shown in group exhibitions in Brooklyn, Manhattan, London, and Dublin. In November his work can be seen in the group exhibition, Form and Facture curated by Karen Levitov for the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery at Stony Brook University and in 2015 Behnke will present his second one person show at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts. In October he will be an artist in residence at the Sam and Adele Golden Foundation Residency in New Berlin, NY. Behnke lives in Manhattan and maintains a studio in Brooklyn.

(from L to R) Bobbie’s Bluing, Magenta Vampyr, and Young Lochinvar.

Our conversation begins on the last day in your studio here in Bushwick.  How often do you work in the studio?  What is your ideal set up.  One that allows you to paint large?   Do you prefer a studio near where you live or one that forces you to spend ample time in your studio due to the commute?

Yes, it’s tough moving out of the studio in Bushwick. There’s the loss of space but also the fact that Bushwick, the community, has been the center of my painting practice since we moved back to the city in 2010. The community has been so supportive of my efforts. I can’t imagine a better place for a painter at this moment. Hopefully, I’ll find another space in Brooklyn or Queens in the future but for now there are many reasons that it makes sense to set up shop in my home on the Upper West Side.

When the studio was a thirty or forty minute subway ride away I would spend about four days a week there.  I really prefer to live with my work. My ideal setup is a live work space.  Working from home, I will be sacrificing the space to make really large work and to work on multiple pieces at a time. I like being able to see the work in my peripheral vision and getting up in the middle of the night to sit and look at the work – trying to figure out what my next move will be.

And my wife never made it out to the studio in Brooklyn that often and it’s very important to me that she has that connection to my work. She’s the only person I’d ever ask for an opinion about a` painting in progress.

I am always interested in the responses to these questions.  Some want a few days in the studio.  Others want to show up and paint in a workmanlike manner.

It’s really important for me to be around the work every day even if it’s only to sit there and look.  My natural work ethic is not that great and painting is about the only thing in my life that I force myself to be disciplined about.  I’m sort of like an alcoholic in this way. If I have one small drink (more than a couple of days away from the studio) I spiral into a bender of inactivity that’s hard to recover from.  It’s better for me to stay on the wagon. I don’t do well with balance. It’s sort of all or nothing.

I’ve said this before but I don’t believe in inspiration. Work comes from work. It’s very important to minimize the periods of inactivity so that the work evolves rather than progresses in fits and starts.

Paul’s Bushwick studio, 2014.

Do you desire to have a studio with natural light or the hum of fluorescent bulbs?   It would seem that working with color in the manner you do lighting, natural or fluorescent, would cause you to see color in a different way.

I can remember reading about Richard Diebenkorn and Willem De Kooning.  How the light from the ocean affected the way they used color.  Could you imagine working in a studio like Francis Bacon?  One light bulb dangling down from the ceiling.  

I think light has more of a psychological effect on me more than it affects my color. Natural light is important in the studio because it helps my mood and feels expansive to me. I’ve worked in small, cramped spaces and it just doesn’t feel good. Windows also give a sense of connection to the outside world. If you have a window you don’t feel so isolated. Painters spend a lot of time alone and in their own heads. It’s nice to be able to take a break and look out your window and think. “If I wanted, I could go across the street to that bodega and get some coffee – maybe say hello to someone – run into a friend.”

Diebenkorn and de Kooning were concerned with light and color in a different way. Nature was a great source for them and in certain instances part of the subject. It makes sense that they would draw from that and it would affect their painting.  My color is influenced by certain media not by nature and it’s also informed by an interior “landscape” and my desire to communicate that.  My current work is concerned with combining a more serious and personal aspect of Pop Art and pop culture with the formal and Romantic qualities of Modernism. So these concerns drive my color decisions.

Have you always strived to create paintings full of bold, imposing fields of  color? (It seems that you once mentioned working in black and white for a time.)

I started working in blacks and whites during my last two years of undergrad and continued in that vein for about six years after school.  When I first began painting non-objectively I was intimidated by all of the possibilities. My background was in observational drawing and figurative oil paintings. The freedom, or what I thought of as freedom, of working abstractly was daunting. To get a handle on it I had to limit my options and set up some ground rules. So I decided to work with an ovoid form and the grid and limited my palette to blacks and whites. This was a way into abstraction and taught me a great lesson about the possibilities that come about through restraint.

After some years, I slowly began to add one or two colors to a composition until I arrived at the point I’m at today.  I am still drawn to black and white work though. It can be very powerful and I respond on a deep level to work by Moshe Kupferman and Frederic Amat.  But color can communicate so much that after a while I began to feel hobbled by excluding it. It began to feel like I was denying myself something that I wanted and that never lasts for long.

One thing that strikes me is the intensity and purity of your palette.  Do you mix your color or work straight from the tube?  

Most of the colors I use come straight from the tube or jar. I do occasionally mix a color if I need something specific. But in any mixing a certain amount of purity is lost.  When I use colors I’m looking for a striking clash that makes my compositions seem anxious, and my forms antagonistic to one another.  I don’t enjoy mixing color, taking notes or acting as a scientist in the studio. I’m for paint, the act of painting and directness.

The surface of your work is very deceptive. You have this handsome build up of surface, this great movement beneath it all.  Do you use brushes or a combination of methods to apply the paint?

I use different tools during the process but for the most part what you see on the surface is applied with a brush.  I often use yardsticks, palette knives, forks, paint scrapers and pottery tools to apply paint and manipulate the surface of a painting.  I like direct painting with as little fussiness as possible. And I don’t want to become too enamored of a specific technique.

Some painters become so entranced with a certain technique or surface quality that the work becomes about that. And they get very caught up in trying every new gel, medium, paste or wax that is on the market. All of these things, or most of them, have their uses but it’s important to approach each canvas as it’s own entity. The technique must service the painting not the other way around.  I also like to keep the number of colors in a work to around four or five at the most.  Too many colors take too much of the focus away from my forms and disrupts the sense of a hierarchy that I’m trying to establish within each painting.

Dark Form (for Alan Davie) 2014 acrylic on canvas 48×50 in.

Do you strive for a painting devoid of imagery or reference to the real world?  

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I have noticed that a certain type of imagery has been more present. And nowadays, I’m less inclined to paint it out or disguise it in some way.  When I began to paint abstractly (about 17 years ago), I was influenced by the attitudes of the painting and writings associated with the New York School. But as I’ve gone along I’ve discovered and digested influences that better represent me as a person, and a painter. For instance, I’ve always been interested in Pop culture, magazines, films and comics – the work of people like Saul Bass, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko, Fritz Lang, Val Lewton, and John Huston.

And I’m very interested, at the moment, in the work of Nicholas Krushenick, Ralph Humphrey, Hassel Smith, Miro, Norman Bluhm, Allen Jones, Stewart Hitch and work from the 1970’s by Elizabeth Murray. Artists who are able to bend Pop or figurative elements into a unique version of abstraction.  When I was younger I didn’t think that pop culture subjects were serious enough or had enough gravitas. It was an immaturity on my part.  Of course as you get older you still care how you and the work are perceived but you stop posing as much and your painting becomes more honest.

That being said any “imagery” that is noted in my work comes about as a result of my process and sub conscious. I never begin a painting with an image, idea or color palette in mind but, now, if something shows up in the final image I’m more likely to let it stay. It’s important that I don’t force the work – that the paintings change as I do.

Do you have a set of self-imposed rules you follow?  For example, do you want a tension filled painting?  One that creates harmony or discord?

I’m mostly interested in a sense of conflict in the work – clashes of opposites, strife and competition among the forms.  I use the way the paint is applied,  high key color, and off-kilter, tension filled compositions made up of precarious and compressed forms, to get this across.  But harmony and discord themselves are opposites. I think the most interesting work is not all one or the other but expanses of harmony or calm punctuated by sharp discord or anxiety. A rupture in the surface or a distortion of what is figure and what is ground can keep me and the viewer interested and off balance.

I don’t, consciously, work with any rules in place but of course I do have ideas and preferences about what I think good painting contains or is. At times this can lead to a dangerous sense of security. It’s important to be aware when that’s happening. And when you recognize it, to somehow shake things up in order to move the piece forward.

How do you feel about the time you spent in art school?  Do you feel that art school is a necessity? If you had not gone to art school do you feel that you would be making the same sort of work?  I know it is a difficult question to answer but worth thinking about.

I’m a big proponent of a good undergraduate education.  I was thirty when I went back to school for my BFA.  Prior to that, I had been making work and exhibiting it for about 3 years.  But when I looked at other artists’ work, I felt that mine wasn’t as good.  I thought I could get my work where I wanted it to be on my own, but I knew it would take me a lot longer. And I was already starting late. So I decided to go back to school and a obtain a degree in painting to accelerate my development.   I went to a small private art college in Memphis, TN.  Personally, I didn’t enjoy school.  But I wanted to be a better painter.  Most of my painting classes were with a professor named Fred Burton.  Fred was the first person I had ever met who lived his life as an artist. He was a great influence in terms of talent and personality.

Fred’s attitudes about what it meant to be an artist, to make work, seemed to coincide with mine. And I responded very well to his method of teaching.  His critiques taught me to be very critical of the work I make and to distrust easy and quick solutions to painting’s problems. I think it’s because of him that I also tend to distrust effusive praise of my work.

At that time, I was making figurative work, but had a keen interest in abstraction and of course the American AbEx painters.  Fred encouraged me to pursue abstraction in my own work (seeing that it better suited my personality) and introduced me to the work of many British Abstract painters that really sparked an interest and influenced my early development.  So, because of this instructor, I feel my time spent getting a BFA was worthwhile and did change the course of my work.  It didn’t alter my core sensibilities or change deeply ingrained attitudes that I had about art and artists and what it meant to live your life that way, but it did reaffirm those attitudes and ideas and gave me encouragement and concrete examples of how to move forward in my life and work.

Studio view with paintings in progress.

What are your thoughts on the current state of painting, abstraction in particular?  

I’m very pleased that painting seems to be having a resurgence at the moment, though I don’t feel entirely connected with a lot of what is being made, or rather, what is being presented as a pervasive style. I think there is too much attention in the press on labels and the market. Terms like “zombie formalism,” “new image painting,” and “provisional,” only serve writers and critics. Not painters.  Once something is labeled, it’s killed.  We all know that. And I would think that the last thing any serious painter would want is to be lumped with others under the banner of an -ism.

My attitude about the current state of abstract painting is the same as it is for art, music, and culture in general. There seems to be a vast ocean of “crapstraction” punctuated by buoys and, in some cases, lighthouses that are meaningful.

Is there an artist(s) you feel that is overlooked for the work he or she does?  

Recently, Brenda Goodman and her work have been on my mind.  A couple of weeks ago, I took a trip up to Hudson to see her latest show at John Davis Gallery. I was blown away by her painting and enjoyed meeting her.  I’d been aware of her work since around 2009 or 2010, but this was my first opportunity to see it in person.  Brenda is someone that every painter should be aware of and she has certainly had no shortage of successes.  She is by no means “overlooked,” but when I saw her work in person – she’s the real thing, as they say.  She doesn’t fuck around. Her work is strong formally, personal, and taps into a universal consciousness. Honestly, the first thing that popped into my head as I walked into that show, was why am I not seeing this work at Cheim and Read.

But there are so many painters that I admire and feel they don’t get their due –  Thornton Willis, Larry Lee Webb, Tom Evans, Bob Witz.  Painters who have had successful careers, in terms of producing good work, but who don’t seem to receive the attention that their work demands.  But as far as the current state of painting, this type of work isn’t really in fashion. The thoughtful, the considered, the sensitive, the passionate – these things resonate less and less in a time that promotes and values a shallow approach in thought and presentation.

Thornton Willis, Jack Whitten, and Frank Bowling are three that come to mind.  Older painters that are still making strong work.  

Ed Clark, Peter Pinchbeck – God, there are so many that are known but don’t have the exposure or recognition they should.  Yes, Bowling! I really love those “poured” paintings he was doing in the mid-seventies. Also: Howardena Pindell, Guy Goodwin, Whitten (I admired his last show at Alexander Gray), and Robert C. Jones.  A lot of these artists were fiercely active at a time when painting was dead and I think that critically myopic stance caused a lot of their efforts to be overlooked. Of course, the fact that a good number of these were people of color and/or women didn’t help either.

Black Backward Zee, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 48×50 in.

Paul, you are one of a number of painters I know that blog, curate, paint, and write.  Julie Torres, Jason Stopa, Todd Bienvenu, and Sharon Butler are also great examples of this.  How do you feel about the current generation of painters that do more that just paint?   

Yes, Sharon, Julie, and all you mention above do amazing jobs as curators, writers, bloggers, AND artists. I would add Joanne Mattera and Annie Russinof to that list.

I think it’s great that painters can take advantage of blogs and social media to get their own ideas out and have a voice – to be part of the dialogue.  There’s a lot I enjoy about the process of editing my blog.  First it keeps me out and about, looking at new work and shows. It allows me to meet and become familiar with the work of so many artists in the New York community and the world. I think that it’s such an important tool in a time when painters can’t depend on mainstream media outlets or galleries to get their work and the work of their friends seen and considered. But it does take up time and energy so you have to find a balance and make sure it doesn’t cut into your studio time too much.

BE:  I feel that I am a painter first.  Everything else, the writing, blogging, curating, etc. is just a natural extension of it all.   I think back to artists like De Kooning and Mitchell.  They were concerned with painting and that was pretty much it.  I think that model is somewhat broken now.  

I still like that older model. I have a fondness for the myths anyway. And maybe that’s part of the reason that generation kicked our ass painting wise. And I think that if that model is broken it is because we broke it or have allowed it to be broken.  Still, you know, as well as I, that even though we have many other things to attend to during the day, we are always thinking about our work. The painting on the “easel” is constantly in the back of our minds like a mantra. And I also think that all of the writing/editing, curating and gallery hopping that we do helps us to clarify our thoughts and feelings about our own work and painting in general.

For me social media/blogs are just an extension of my real world social life. I see it as an enhancement and a tool for the good.  Basically, I like finding good work and promoting it, in whatever small way I can, whether that’s on my blog or through curatorial opportunities. I like looking at art and I like talking to artists. These are some of my favorite ways to spend time. My blog helps with that and so I’ll keep it up as long as I enjoy it and have the time.

behnke                                                                         Paul Behnke in his Brooklyn studio, photo by Robin Stout.

©  Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Paul Behnke and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Edmonds, B. (2014). “A Conversation with Paul Behnke,” Figure/Ground. August 8th.
< http://figureground.org/a-conversation-with-paul-behnke/ >

Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com