In Conversation with Chris Ashley

An in-depth interview originally published online by Minus Space, December 2005.

Martin, 2005
Douglas Witmer makes paintings with a purpose. I mean this in two ways–he makes paintings purposefully, and his paintings have a purpose. This is not to say in the least that his paintings are predetermined and strictly didactic. Despite their apparently structured appearance they are expressive rather than merely planned and executed, and porous rather than closed in meaning.

Witmer’s varied and improvised use of color, surface, form, and material is surprisingly expressive. Anyone who spends time with Mondrian’s signature paintings, for example, knows that they are not rigid repetitions. Similarly, the viewer will find that Witmer’s paintings are individually achieved, and this is part of where his purposefulness lies: geometry is not something always precisely measured; it can be nuanced and emotional, and it often breaks rules or has unlikely sources. My mention of Mondrian of course risks a misunderstanding via an assumed derivation or inheritance, so perhaps a more appropriate and useful reference might be Klee’s sensitive, playful, and inventive qualities.

As for the purpose of Witmer’s paintings, this is always the tricky part–society generally wants to know what a piece of art is about, what it means, and what it is good for. But what does it really mean to understand art? Does it mean to know something with certainty, to explain it definitively, and then to move on? There usually isn’t a single answer to art’s meaning. Most good art is slippery–the meanings we try to catch and hold instead make us return to an art object again and again for confirmation and renewal.

Willem de Kooning’s oft-quoted statement is apt here: “Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It’s very tiny–very tiny, content.” What we get from art may come in fragments, on the periphery and over time, and is often unexpected, indirect, and personal. Not only are Witmer’s paintings open to viewer associations, but they intentionally invite these associations. This, I think, is part of the purpose of Witmer’s art: these beautifully crafted, carefully considered paintings bear graphically clear but ambiguous images that make pictorial and physical spaces for the viewer to see, feel, and think. These spaces, handmade and shared, where nuance and touch are important, and where close-up observation of details matter, are where glimpses occur and meanings arise. These paintings involve the artist and the viewer in an intimate collaboration of looking. In a poem called Telling You All Rilke writes: “Let’s invite something new/by unifying our silences;/if, then and there, we advance,/we’ll know it soon enough.” Meaning is found in the experience of looking at Witmer’s paintings, not just in explanations, and in that looking a kind of knowing is possible.

The following conversation between Douglas Witmer and Chris Ashley was conducted via email between late August and early November 2005, and supplemented by extended conversations and studio visits in Philadelphia during October 6-11.

Chris Ashley: I first became familiar with your paintings and drawings through digital images, and now after having recently seen quite a bit of your work while in Philadelphia I can say that the digital images are plainly not an adequate substitute for seeing the real thing. For example, there is subtlety around the edges of your shapes, nuanced brushwork, and small shifts in size between similar shapes, each with unique edges from the hand-placed taping. Because often a valuable starting point for looking at and comparing art objects is simply to take note of what you see, I thought it might useful for you to describe some of the essential material and physical characteristics of your recent paintings and works on paper, and some thoughts about how and why you chose these.

Douglas Witmer: I sort of break it down into a short list of dualities: horizontal versus vertical, light versus dark (more recently I might call this “color” versus “white”), brushstroke versus lack-of-brushstroke, shape versus field, and gloss versus matte. When I first started exhibiting my work it was quite gestural and “expressionist.” There came a point when gesturalism lost its meaning for me. I rejected the improvisatory way I painted at that time and began a process of isolating and examining the choices I make in painting. Eventually I reduced my painting to a single repeated mark.

This might sound funny, but I enjoy watching cooking shows, and I especially like overhead views of chefs working with all the ingredients pre-measured in separate containers. As I took my painting practice apart, I began to think of my painting choices this way. It had a clarifying effect, because I could feel like I knew–or was conscious of–what I was doing.

By rejecting gesturalism, I effectively eliminated my hand from my painting for a number of years. More recently I came to realize how much I enjoy the feeling of brushing and how I missed seeing it in my work. And so, to use my cooking show analogy, reintroducing a visible brushstroke was a matter of looking at the ingredients/components of my work and making choices in order to find a new balance.

CA: Following this analogy, every painting requires a unique recipe or you’re just making the same thing over and over, which would be a violation of your past declaration that, “painting is not a statement,” but is instead an ongoing, evolving relationship. Elsewhere you wrote, “Perhaps contrary to their first impression, my compositions are not pre-planned or measured ahead of time.” Few of your current paintings seem to share a constant size, and color varies quite a bit from work to work. Can you say a bit more about how you actually go about making a painting?

DW: I work under the assumption that within simplest dualities there are infinite and complicated possibilities. I try to treat every piece as an individual, and I like the challenge of working out the decisions directly on the pieces. With processes like mine that involve handiwork and an emphasis on touch and tactility, even if it is quite subtle, I don’t think I could repeat the same painting twice if I tried. I don’t think of myself as especially prolific. There’s a lot of time spent just looking and considering and mentally thinking through possibilities. You could say that I have made some definitive choices about the things I do in painting and the things I don’t do, but I’m not systematic about those choices. Nothing I do is meant to be preparatory. I make sketches, but they’re just notations and they rarely go directly into anything. Occasionally I make a painting on paper and I will repeat its basic components on a canvas. Size, scale, shape and color are determined according to what feels right. Recently I made a large and small version of the same painting, but they were just very similar to each other and very different from each other.

Finally, there’s something I can’t explain about myself when I work. No matter how much planning, scheming, ruminating or whatever I put into a work, when it comes to the painting action, I never do what I thought I was going to do. Or perhaps I should say, I’m never prepared for what happens in painting.

CA: An encounter with paintings by the mid-15th Century Sienese painter called the Osservanza Master was very significant for you, and led you to identifying a kind of geometry that has become an important aspect of your work. How did that happen?

DW: In 2000 I was in the midst of a frightening dry spell with my work, and I was terribly ambivalent about the meaning of any kind of painting gesture. One day I was in a used bookstore thumbing through a catalog from an exhibition some years back at the Metropolitan Museum called Painting in Renaissance Siena. I was particularly excited by the work of the Osservanza Master, and then came across the reproduction of a painting that’s here in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one that I was always fond of in a very basic, naive, like/dislike kind of way. I really didn’t know anything about the painting, but something about seeing that painting on that day in my life enabled me to move on.

Christ Carrying the Cross

Master of the Osservanza, Italian (Siena), active c. 1430 – c. 1460, Christ Carrying the Cross, c. 1440-45, Tempera and tooled gold on panel with horizontal grain, 14 1/2 x 18 3/8 inches (36.8 x 46.7 cm), Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection.

I still had no idea of what to do next. In those Sienese paintings I was attracted to the beautifully warm and radiant colors and the tight geometric compositions. But the most meaningful part is how, despite their attempt to depict space on the flat panel, each and every one fails, at least to my 21st Century eyes. It was like there was this visual longing trapped inside the limits of the painter’s body. To me they completely expressed the crisis I felt I was in, a sort of breakdown of seeing versus belief. There was so much devotion or desire, but in the end no way to fully represent that visually.

I tinkered a lot during the next months. I traced the reproductions in the catalogue to see if I could isolate the compositions from the religious scenes they were depicting. What came out of that process was the use of a trapezoid shape, usually anchored to an edge of the image. It easily connoted a receding plane, but could be handled so as to make it not function the way it seemed like it was supposed to, and so it became a “space symbol.” In terms of an image with a personal emotional significance I thought of it as pushing my painting down into itself in order that I could re-enter the process, like walking out onto a platform into a new unknown. It seemed right at the time to make the paintings large enough to feel that you could physically enter them. So I had these paintings that were kind of spatial. And around that time I started investigating the issue the opposite way, by making tiny wooden reliefs–the “Fruitville” series–that projected out from the wall, but were subtly manipulated to make them appear flatter.

Casino, 2001 Fruitville, 2001

Casino, 2001 and Fruitville, 2001.

All that work made between 2000 and 2003 was very involved with the idea of the perception of space, how that impacts one’s sense of reality, and more symbolically, one’s belief in something. Today I think I’m working with much less of an idea. That is, I’m not trying so hard to make a painting achieve a desired result. I rely much more on intuition, with components that I allow to move or that I guide into place. I work from the visual relationships and personal associations that occur during the process. I feel like they come out of having a lot more faith in painting. I don’t have a need to make them present questions of themselves. And they are quite a bit flatter.

CA: What do what you mean by “pushing my painting down into itself in order to re-enter the process.”

DW: I was making a huge overhaul of my painting. The body of work that was current at that time (which is very different than what I do today) had a distinct identity. I suppose you could say I had formed an identity around it as well. My own work became a kind of barrier for me. I liked the idea of pushing the painting down, but into itself. It enabled me to learn that I can exert a lot of personal will into painting, but that painting can also respond to and hold that. And that is when I began to use the word “relationship” a lot in reference to my practice.

CA: I’m interested in what you called “space symbol,” and how this occurs or is used in your work. I think you mean something different than a repeated or signature image, not just a device. Do you mean symbol” as something that comes out of culture, or is even archetypal? Some of the shapes you use are found in lots of places; for example, you’ve acknowledged an interest in Indian painting, too.

DW: In earlier work I think the trapezoid actually was a device for me. In our time, the idea of one-point perspective is so completely ingrained in our minds that we take it for granted. It’s like we assume the view of the camera’s eye–the lens–when we think about seeing. We forget that this is not the way we see naturally with our two eyes, and that something is functioning physically in our brain to blend both views into what we perceive. It’s easy to see a trapezoid and automatically think “receding plane,” whether or not it actually operates illusionistically. My intention was to use it to fool the mind more than the eye. That’s what I mean by it being a “space symbol.”

CA: You talked about devotion in Sienese painting as both an act and a “visual longing trapped inside the limits of the painter’s body,” which I think of as a feeling of striving towards something. We have also talked about devotion and reverence. How does this figure in your work?

DW: I aspire for my work to convey a sense that it is grounded in a personal spirituality. This spirituality is not clearly delineated for me in a way that I can put into words. But reverence and devotion are components of how it manifests itself. Devotion can simply be seen as practice, and reverence as an attitude within that practice. For me reverence connotes something very quiet, a kind of hushed awe in the presence of something larger than oneself. This larger presence could be nature, history, or an ideal. I have been trying to make my work seem quieter and quieter, even if it is strident in terms of its design. I would like to think of it as silent. Silence is a precarious balance that can be broken; it’s a situation with so much potential.

In terms of devotion, I just resonate with the idea of a constant, even, but not closed and not unchanging practice, a momentum that is built up by making, considering, even loving one’s work. Tending to, caring about, cherishing the work, working joyfully–do these seem like passe values? Or is this the big secret that artists keep from one another because it’s not smart enough to pass through the critical threshold, that we do it because of love and devotion? Does it go without saying? Should it go without saying?

CA: This seems like the right place to ask about your Mennonite background, aspects of which you’ve referenced in statements and conversation as being important in your art. I’m particularly interested in the notion of the word “plain-ness” and the attitudes and practices that go with that.

DW: I grew up pretty steeped in the Mennonite culture of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Plain-ness is a practice that arose in 19th Century America as a material acting out of earlier Mennonite ideals. It was a primary way of distinguishing oneself from contemporary society. Being plain meant forsaking expensive clothing, accoutrements, and conveniences in favor of living a simple life and demonstrating humility rather than pridefulness. There are still traditional Mennonite and Amish groups who would use the word plain to describe themselves. My family didn’t dress plain or drive a buggy or car with all the chrome painted black, but there were vestiges of that in the church where I grew up.

Erisman Mennonite Church

Erisman Mennonite Church, Manheim, Pennsylvania.

Plain-ness was also prevalent as a sort of “anti-design” principle in Mennonite architecture. For instance, looking at the church I attended growing up, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish the front from the back except for the double doors on one end. It’s just a red brick rectangle with a simple pitched roof sitting on top; no ornamentation, no steeple. No images inside either, and in fact, Mennonites prefer the term “meetinghouse” to “church”. The architecture of houses and barns is similar, and these kinds of structures are all over Lancaster County. It’s almost a “minimalist” look, except using that word evokes a kind of high-minded aesthetic which of course the Mennonites had no clue about. From a plain perspective, it’s just about having a decently built, simple and functional structure. It’s not a design principle. I think plain-ness comes from the literal way Mennonites approach the Bible. Mennonites take the example of Jesus’ life literally, and growing up in this church culture I didn’t learn how to think in terms of metaphor.

So when I started becoming an artist I found myself drawn immediately to the basic components of painting. I had little or no interest in depicting subject matter, but a lot of interest in terms of how a painting could be made. And I think I took it for granted that a “well-made” painting was in fact a message in and of itself. These days I find myself trying to do things in ways that are very clear. I like when actions sort of “name themselves” in a painting, such as brushwork that just declares itself as brushwork, or a color that is simply itself, not an in-between kind of color. Or I like when certain components of a painting show you what other components are, such as a matte surface calling attention to a gloss surface.

The more I consider it, I think the tendency towards plain-ness comes out of a desire for a mindset of purity and humility that is integrated in a way that is always guiding one’s thoughts and actions. Whether or not this is still the way plain-ness is practiced materially by current Mennonites, I believe it is an ideal that guides my painting practice.

CA: Where do your current images come from? Do any of your paintings contain shapes borrowed or derived from the farms, landscape, or crafts around Lancaster County? There are kinds of framings and structures in your current work that can be read as fields, boundaries, foundations, skeletons and scaffolding.

DW: This is a really difficult question for me to answer. Earlier this year Linn Meyers asked me a similar question–“What are your paintings pictures of?” In retrospect, I answered somewhat flippantly. I said I don’t paint pictures of any thing; I make paintings. This was kind of a half-answer, of course, because the images I end up making absolutely come from very personal places for me. What are the names for these places? I’m as ambivalent about answering a question like this for you as I am for myself. On the one hand shouldn’t I scrutinize this in the same way I scrutinize the mechanics of my painting? Or is it better that I leave it unsaid, wordless, in a way protected even from myself, to be simply felt in my (or your) act of seeing it, whatever “it” is? I guess I would feel badly if I knew that things I said about my work would become a stand-in for someone’s actual experience of seeing my work.

I’ll reiterate that when it comes to my imagery I don’t think in the types of words you have just said, though I welcome those associations. I tend to focus on the obvious materiality of what I have made. So what I would call a glossy white rectangle you might read as a boundary. Nevertheless, I care that I make the material specifics of the glossy white rectangle have the potential to convey feeling that is quite immaterial.

I will also tell you about something particular I’ve noticed recently while I work. To a degree, I have always been an observational painter in that things I see or fragments from things I see undergo a process of distillation in the studio. I photograph a lot of things for future reference. But there has been a shift in my thoughts from this kind of observation towards visual memories from my early childhood.

This is relevant as we talk about where and how I was raised. Lancaster County and the Mennonite community there have both changed drastically since I was a child. It was a much more distinct and, I think, special kind of place and culture than it is today. Just as an example, off the top of my head I can think of at least a dozen families my family knows whose once-pristine farms have been paved over and developed into McMansion subdivisions. My own family’s greenhouse business, begun in 1898 by my great-great grandfather, was forced to close this year; the land has been sold to developers. Every time I drive back from Philadelphia it breaks my heart to see and experience it dissolving into the mainstream American culture of affluence and consumption. Talk about innocence lost.

You could say that I idealize or fantasize my memories of that time and place, which is probably true. But it’s a useful fantasy for me. It generates a feeling of an ideal that I can paint towards.

CA: Where do you see your work fitting into the continuum of abstract art?

DW: Once I heard someone refer to some artists including Agnes Martin as “heaven painters.” I can’t recall the context, but I remember thinking I wouldn’t object to someone using that term for me. To an extent, I see artists falling into two very generalized groups: those who go for layering and complexity, and those who go for distillation and simplification. Of course, I am among the latter. People still argue abstraction’s validity. I assume they focus on the arc of 20th Century abstraction practiced in Western civilization as codified by Western art history. The fact of the matter is that abstraction, and geometric form in particular, has long been–has perhaps always been–connected to human spiritual aspiration.

CA: As we’ve talked several topics have been raised that seem to share a religious thread. You’ve talked about Sienese religious painting, Mennonite culture, and ideas about devotion and reverence, and you said, “I aspire for my work to convey a sense that it is grounded in a personal spirituality.” All of this has been instrumental in the formation of your current work, but you haven’t made any claims that your work is itself spiritual, or aids a viewer’s spirituality. Instead, you say that your work is very much rooted in the material, with color and form being nothing more than what they are. The experience of looking is important for you. You want this experience, as I understand it, to be for the viewer about observation, time, and presence. I see that as realism. I see your work as perhaps secular, but certainly not agnostic; instead, I see your work as trying to reach people, and I think of that as social, as serving a purpose. I wonder if you see your art in that way.

DW: You’re right. I do not and cannot make a claim that the work itself is spiritual. At one time I would have also suggested that my paintings were not necessarily art–that all I could do was do the best I could to make the visual situation and then release it in hope that another person could have an art experience in relationship to it like I did. This attitude was formed during that period of profound questioning, and I was reacting exactly to what you bring up in terms of the paintings being “nothing” but fabric stretched over wood with pigmented liquefied plastic applied to it. The Mennonite culture has produced a lot of highly skilled functional craftspeople, but few studio artists. Warren Rohrer was an enormous exception— no surprise that his life and work have been great examples for me. I think the assumption is that a painting doesn’t do anything, and that attitude dogs me all the time, from within myself. Add to that the more contemporary notion of “art for art’s sake” and painting can quickly stand for isolated self-centeredness, which is a complete affront. But then there are all these examples–the Sienese panels are just one instance from human history–of painting having a real use to a community or society. One of the things I love about some of those Sienese panels is they actually exhibit use: people would scratch at the eyes of the evil spirits portrayed.

So I have these related questions: What use is there for my painting? What can my paintings do? I realized at some point that the simple act of seeing, in a situation where you can actually feel or perceive yourself seeing, is where all the power in an art experience is for me. It’s a sort of para-intellectual experience. It doesn’t turn its back on anything that you know, but in the moments of this kind of seeing, processes of explanation or definition are suspended. In my mind it has everything to do with the material specifics of the art object. I assume that if I feel the need for this kind of experience then others do as well. Maybe that thought forms a kind of statement of purpose, perhaps a statement of faith that I didn’t always have for painting.

Chris Ashley is an artist and writer based in Oakland, California.