Thomas and I are listening to the radio and enjoying the drive. I always think of this area as Steinbeck describes it in The Red Pony, golden grass on rolling hills. But now the greenery shows no traces of the writer from Salinas. The hills are moist emeralds.
We drive down the aptly named Foam Street but we don’t see any whalers, fishermen or cannery owners. The smell of sardines is long gone; the rutty, unpaved coastal road from Monterey to Pacific Grove has become a charming themed retail center.
He: I never liked the book Cannery Row
I: I did. I enjoyed its simplicity.
He: You like simplicity and I can see that in your work. But in talks and interviews you don’t always speak in a simple and accessible manner. Does that seem strange to you? Are you aware of it?
I: Sometimes it’s not good enough to say something in simple terms that only conveys ninety percent of what I mean. Those times it’s necessary to sacrifice some simplicity and accessibility for precision. I’m not going to claim that it works or that my words are very precise, but that’s what I’m trying to do.
He: Do you think that art audiences want precision?
I: No, the amount of work required to convert vagueness into clarity is major…it makes sense that few want to do it. And it’s not only the intensity of the labor that keeps people away from precision, it’s also time; it may take years for someone to master information and skills that only come into play in the rarest of cases. To know something pretty well seems inefficient in modern life. In most disciplines, ten percent of the knowledge base will be enough to do ninety percent of the work, but in art, the fine distinctions are what counts.
He: When you speak of precision are you using the term in the way that it’s used in mathematics or science?
I: I mean exact, accurate. More-or-less is very useful to get things done but sometimes it’s not good enough and someone should say that more often.
He: The argument has been made that the role of the artist is doing his work, instead of worrying about what people like or dislike. If your work is more precise then that will become apparent. If the work of an artist is good it will become its own cultural force, and the artist doesn’t need to be that force.
I: This idea is very alluring and I think about it often. The problem is that those who instead of quality want fashion, glamour and prestige, are always talking, always selling. Without opposition we risk the extinction of very important ideas and the cycle of artistic possibilities will eventually be exhausted. These people’s agendas won’t survive but in the short term their activities can make the production of art even more difficult than it already is. Resistance is very important for something different to start taking place. I think it’s a romantic notion that under-appreciated ideas always find the light; the light has to be shined on them. Now is a good time because the well of cleverness and shock is running dry.
He: I see a very interesting relationship between your opposition to the existing power structures and those who attack structural racism and sexism.
I: I don’t think our positions are so similar. The mainstream of alternative thinking doesn’t seem to get past trying to access the current structure of mediocrity. I don’t see most alternative luminaries working on a revolution of quality.
He: How does it make you feel that you have been recognized and rewarded by the very system that you criticize?
I: I ask myself regularly if who I am and who I say I am and what my work is, are in alignment. No one is infallible and everyone is hypocritical sometimes. The key is not to be hypocritical with what is most precious to me. However, I do disagree with you that the system I criticize is the one that has rewarded me. There are many worlds within the arts. The people who have shown me the biggest support are people who operate on their own. And this is not just a self-serving observation. My work doesn’t lend itself well to the disco of gallerinas
, slick art operators and politically savvy curators and critics.
I am trying to sort out if I am speaking with disgust or with resentment. I think with neither. There is something else in my words.
I: Outside of the commercial system, the support for the arts is even more disturbing. No trust whatsoever can be put into the panels and committees that pick important shows or fellowships because they tend to gravitate towards the selections that serve them and their agendas.
Everything boils down to the fact that very few people in the arts would stand for something that may leave them without comrades and attention.
I figure it out. I am speaking with a mixture of disdain and amusement. Sadness, I guess.
He: But you still participate. Why not remove yourself entirely?
I: I don’t know. I think about it often. I guess that while the annoyances have gained terrain, the art community still has some redeeming people and opportunities that I need in my life. Do you think I should remove myself?
He: I think you should.
He: It would be good for your work.
I am surprised to hear him say that. We both look to the road straight ahead without saying a word and we stay like that for a long time.
He: I’ve been wanting to ask you this for a while. Would you rather be a philosopher than an artist?
I: No. I have nothing to contribute as a philosopher, I don’t know enough to say anything useful.
He: But philosophy is a foundation of your work. It occurs to me that two of the fields that have influenced you, philosophy and science, seek explanations. Isn’t your work also concerned with explanations?
I: In art, what can be gained by explanations? To build a bridge? To justify the right of an artwork to exist? Would the work be more valid if I were to talk of trace and memory in terms of biogenetic structuralism? Or would it be more palatable if I were to trade my metaphysical claims for the immediacy of prettiness?
In my work there are a great deal of questions but not so many explanations. Not in the way that there are explanations for phenomena in science, or for certain outcomes in philosophy.
He: Is reason the only way to transcend limitations?
I: We both know that it isn’t. Reason can remove many illusions but it also has a limit of usefulness. This limit is a boundary that art can cross.
He: What illusions? The distinction between appearance and reality?
I: For me, the illusion that is most difficult to overcome is permanence. When I try to differentiate between the permanent and the temporary, I realize that I need a give and take between reason and feelings. That’s the only way that I get anywhere.
The truck in front of me has big letters on the roll-up door that read, "Can you say Ross Swiss without a smile?" I smile. The line puts something in my head that makes it impossible not to smile. I try for a few minutes to control my lips. I realize between lip exercises that I need a break from this interview.
He: I’m intrigued by your willingness, at times, to trust words and thoughts and then at other times you seem very suspect of them. Typically, artists are either one or the other.
I: I’m comfortable talking about ideas and concepts but there are many things that happen in and through my work and life that I deliberately exclude from discussion. What remains in the dark must be illuminated differently.
He: Does art provide this other illumination?
He: Is this illumination an urgent task or a more contemplative endeavor?
I: I’m always afraid to miss what matters the most in an experience. Art is a way to placate that fear by doing something about it. Since time is never on my side, art is always urgent.
As our conversation stops I imagine two long trains passing each other, one going to the past, the other to the future. In the train going to the past, the passengers are all the people, events, settings and choices of my life. The one going to the future is empty except for me. I look out my window and for an instant the passengers in the passing train are looking at me. I see my wife and newborn daughter, the trees in my neighborhood, my dog and my notebooks, and realize that this is the present. And then they move past me.
I drift from my train to the cabin of Thomas’s truck. I wonder what I am doing so far away from home.
Since Thomas pulled a neatly folded paper from his pocket with the directions to the farm, each road we have taken after we got off the highway is smaller than the previous one and soon the word “road” doesn’t apply anymore. We are traversing fields with trenches so deep I feel I am sailing a schooner across a rough sea. With great relief we stop at a small orange house that doesn’t look like a farm at all. But Thomas assures me, in a tone of confidence, that here they breed the best Guernsey cows in the state.
I look at the house. The woman inside is looking out the window to the mountains through the naked sycamore branches of December. Her eyes are swollen and her milky arms are crossed, held by little silver fingers. She is waiting for the old man to finish washing his hands on the white basin by her side.
They come out to greet us with thick Russian accents. Their manner seems very rough but it’s only in contrast with Thomas's pleasant British demeanor. They insist that we have some coffee before looking at the cow. I can tell that my companion is anxious but he says, "I would love some coffee, thank you." The old man goes back inside the house. We stand quietly next to the woman until he comes back carrying a big white pot and a wood basket of sugar cookies.
Not much happens during this stage of pleasantries. We say a few words about our trip and they say a few words about the recent rains. I don’t drink the coffee but the cookies are good. After the prelude, we walk towards the pasture down a long dirt road with deep tire marks. The air smells of manure and grass.
A few hundred cows are grazing in the field. The farmer opens the fence and gives us a sign to stay put. After a few minutes of silence and smiles, he comes back holding a rope attached to a cow’s neck.
I don’t know anything about cows but when I see her I’m immediately impressed; you don’t have to know anything about cows to know that this is a good one. Her eyes are, like most cows’ eyes, gentle but attentive. Her head comes to my shoulders and looks small compared to the size of her strong body. She has short brown fur everywhere except her legs and tail which are white. She also has a white patch on her shoulder that looks like South America. Her spine is almost perfectly straight, certainly much more than a horse’s. But the thing that strikes me the most about her is the huge pink-and-white udder. I wonder how she manages to walk.
Thomas looks at the cow for a while. Then he asks the farmer about her milk production and if she is sound structurally. He looks at the legs and how the udder is attached. He walks around her, pets her on the side and nods his head. He kneels and looks at the udder and the placement and length of the tits. He looks at the thick vein running down her belly. He gets up and says "this is the one." The breeder tells him the price and Thomas shakes his hand. He doesn’t bargain. He gives the farmer the asking amount in cash, and an additional seventy-five for the delivery.
When we get back in the truck, he puts his hands on the leather dashboard, closes his eyes and smiles. We wave at the Russian couple and get on the road again. Thomas draws a cow in his notebook with a few annotations. The page looks the way I imagine the original drawing for the Trojan horse. He closes the book and leans his head out the window. He remains like that for a few miles. When he faces me, his eyes are clear and his face looks content. Almost happy.
I: Thomas, why didn’t you bargain? Two thousand dollars is a lot to pay for a cow!
He: It’s a bit high but that’s a very good cow. She’s solid, a great producer and has perfect tits for hand-milking. She is very sound. Maybe I could have found a cow for fifteen hundred or so, but I trust this breeder.
I: Why do you want a cow?
He: You know I have a water well and I grow most of my own food. But I have always depended on other people for dairy. This cow will allow me to be more self-sufficient, which is important to me. We live in a time of unprecedented greed. The worst excesses and consequences of our capitalist system are conditions that our society accepts as part of life. Confronted by this greed and consumerism I have made the choice of living with less money. I don’t owe anyone for my farm or my truck and my only expenses are utilities, taxes and a pair of pants or a shirt once a year. Doing that’s not hard. What’s hard is getting rid of the belief that rejecting excess makes me a good person. Vanity is an insidious demon.
I: You don’t strike me as vain.
He: But I am. Look at how far I have traveled to satisfy my desire for a Guernsey.
There is a sadness in him that I can't figure out. There is something very old about it. It must be the other side of Thomas.
I: Why did you insist on a Guernsey instead of a Holstein or some other breed?
He: Well, Guernseys are not too big so they need less feed than other breeds per pound, and their milk is very tasty. They’re also good grazers, which works with my situation. But probably what I like the most is that they have a nice temperament so they’re an easy breed to work with.
I: I was impressed with her.
He: Thank you. I’m glad you liked her. Next time we see each other I will teach you how to milk her. It’s easy.
I: I would like to learn. Five or six years ago I did a cast of my arm in plastic and then filled it with milk. It wasn’t about milking but now milking reminds me of it.
He: I've never seen this work. What happened to the arm?
I: Strange things started to happen to the milk. I didn’t seal it properly and the milk started to go bad, which was interesting in itself but difficult to have around. I should redo that piece. It was a precursor to the Saint Catherine heads, except there was no suggestion of blood.
He: Enrique, I don’t respond to the blood or blood-like color in your work primarily as evidence or residue of violence. I don’t see it the way I saw the blood in the mouth of the dog. In the heads of Saint Catherine, it seems to me that the red in them reflects something like the life fluid at the very center of a person—blood, or belief-as-form. Perhaps, because of my background, these images remind me of the biblical notion of blood as the essence of life; the blood of the slain lamb as a protector on the homes during Passover; the blood of Christ as redemptive; the wine being made into blood so that it can be “the life of the world.” Am I misunderstanding you?
I: You’re stirring ideas and contradictions that are part of the work.
He: But—not misunderstandings?
I: There are conflicts in the work, there are contradictions in me. And then, there are the problems that arise when trying to articulate something about the work. It goes back to the question of precision. A few words are not precise enough, and by the time I write or talk enough to be precise, it’s also obtuse.
He: But you often speak and write about your work. Is the process frustrating?
I: By talking about my work I try to sort out what’s not important about it, and from time to time words create a bridge to what’s important. I try to provide some leads, some common ground, but some things resist any talk about them. That resistance is where I look when I start making my work. It’s there that the heads of Saint Catherine started.
He: How important for you is the process of making the work?
I: It’s very important.
He: Go on.
I: An artwork means something because of how it’s made. Sometimes there’s no better way to realize the dumbness of an idea than trying to see it through. My ideas can sometimes be disorienting, working always grounds me.
He: In your work, the material plays a significant role. Are you concerned that it may become a seductive obstacle?
I: I try to resist seduction.
He: How do you avoid it?
I: It’s inevitable that at moments the largeness of the process of making will become intoxicating. The key is whether or not at some time later, I can stand outside of its circle of influence.
He: Do you think that your approach to making and meaning is unique?
I: It is, to the extent that every artwork is a unique theorem about making and meaning. For each artist, each passage, each gesture, worked and re-worked or left unfettered, is a postulate of what’s good.
He: In addition to your paintings, you create environments, take photographs and make sculptures. But in talks and interviews you call yourself a painter. Why is that?
I: I see most of the other work from that point of view. Paintings have presence and reference, I started to make sculptures to understand presence better and photographs to understand reference. But as I think about it now, “painter” is not a useful label.
He: Do you feel that you are most successful in your paintings?
I: I don’t think so. I have more facility with other media. In the past few years painting has been much harder than anything else.
I: I want my paintings to be immediate and permanent and I don’t find that easy to do.
He: Can an artist know if there is permanence in his or her work?
I: I try to take out of my work anything that would make it temporary.
He: Many have argued strongly against universality and timelessness, which are two qualities that you strive for.
I: I know. But some things are not signs to be decoded by a specific culture. Take the heart-wrenching image of a mother with a dead child in a Kollwitz drawing. This suffering will always be true. If art is centered in these types of fundamental experiences then it will always have meaning. If it is about fashion or culture then it’s unlikely that it will survive. It’s also unlikely that all the theory we discuss will be relevant in four generations. But basic human emotions and desires, and things like trees, animals, landscapes, the sun, the moon, and so on, will still matter and will still define human experience.
He: But do paintings need to bear the weight of the world? Isn’t pleasure also a basic human need?
I: I don’t know if pleasure is a human constant, but even if it is, the way we experience it is heavily dependent on context. And that’s why pleasure, particularly banal, fashionable pleasure, has a short life. I would rather fail at trying to make a painting that holds the weight of the world, that succeed with a piece of pleasurable fluff.
He: Isn’t pleasure seductive?
I: It can be. I think it’s also a much safer aim for our time. It is not more intelligent or new, but it often appears so. But its insights are never permanent. Pleasure always feeds its own extinction.
He: Do you feel that immediacy and permanence are necessary for a painting to be good?
I: Yes, but it’s hard to have both. That’s why it is so hard to make paintings.
He: Yours tend to be monochromatic, more often than not either black, gray or white. Is this important?
I: It’s intentional. Other colors seem to lead the paintings to a certain place quickly, they create a murmur that is too constant and too decorative. Maybe in the future, my paintings will be colorful. But now I want paintings to be like donkeys; they should move slow and kick hard.
Thomas laughs and I am pleased. I said the donkey thing for his benefit. I like to see him laugh.
Return to part 7
Continue to part 9