Keith Miller talks with artist Casey Ruble, whose solo show opens October 16, 2008 at Foley Gallery in New York.
Keith Miller: Your current work seems to have a broad range of subject matter. What is the origin and source of some of the images?
Casey Ruble: Well, with the exception of the abstract Japanese crest paintings, all of the paintings are battle scenes between horsemen, set within natural environments. I grew up on a ranch in Montana, bird hunting with my dad and riding dressage with my mom. Dressage is a form of horseback riding that originally derived from cavalry movements but now is used to keep the horse fit and limber. It’s aesthetically beautiful – it looks like “horse ballet.” I think both of these childhood experiences influenced my choice of subject matter – the hunt and the idea of a set of movements that are both beautiful and militaristic. In terms of source imagery, the battle scene paintings were originally inspired by a pair of Edo-period Japanese screens depicting the Genpei Wars, and from there I looked at Western traditions like Romantic painting and the Baroque period. Rubens – who, as an interesting side note, was a major player in promoting peace between England and Spain – painted some fantastic hunt scenes where the horses and riders almost seem to collapse into a greater centrifugal force. Some of the major turn-of-the-century American painters from the West, like Frederic Remington, do a great job of capturing a moment of suspension in the midst of chaotic movement, something I try to achieve in my work.
KM: Throughout your work there is a great mix of playful narrative qualities and a more purely formalist approach. How do you approach this? How important is it for the viewer to ‘read’ the story?
Ko, 2008; Courtesy of the artist
CR: The combination of narrative and formal composition is extremely important. Although it’s not immediately apparent in looking at the work, I almost always start the paintings with a strict idea of a formalist composition – a Barnett Newman “zip,” a Kenneth Noland-type target. Ellsworth Kelly is one of my personal favorites … I love the way he arranges his paintings so that they are just slightly off-balance. Once I’ve decided on the formal composition – say, a white vertical line embedded in a field of blue – I insert the figures into it. But the figures always have a mind of their own – in order to keep them anatomically correct, and to depict the narrative of the battle, I am forced to break somewhat from the dictates of the formal composition. This is one of the things I love most about making the paintings … I see it as being kind of like the messiness and unpredictability of life butting up against the life plans you’ve made for yourself. Or like what you intend to say – the ambiguous set of thoughts you have roiling around in your brain – getting altered by the language we all have to use, with its rules of grammar and proper punctuation. The strict structure reins in the chaos of the “narrative,” but the chaos undoes the structure, too. The tension between the two is something I love exploring; it’s a little war of its own.
KM: What made you choose gouache over other painting mediums?
CR: Gouache gives a clean, flat, consistent color. There’s no modulation in the paintings; it’s all hard-edge. The interaction of colors is a very important part of the paintings, and the precision and consistency of color that gouache allows makes it easier for me to achieve the interactions I want. Yves Klein once said, “As soon as there are two colors in a painting, combat begins.” A basic principle of color theory is that colors always sit in relation to each other – they look different depending on which other colors they are next to. In fact, they try to move away from each other, so that a light green, for example, will look lighter if you put it next to a dark green. Put that light green next to a dark green and a medium red and a gray, and the light green is going to get tossed all over the place as it tries to move away from all these other colors. Each of the paintings has one dominant color, and all the other colors within in have to grapple with their desire to get distance on that main color. I try to keep the colors in a distressed state. Another plus with the gouache is its flatness. Space – its articulation and its collapse – is a major part of the paintings. I try to achieve a certain suggestion of volume through the rendering of the figures, but also collapse the space through the flatness of the paint and the color choices. One of the things I learned while hunting with my dad was that the moment of pulling the trigger and hitting the prey was a moment of intimate contact with the bird. You have to feel like you’re “one” with the bird – if you don’t, you’ll miss it. So even when you have an antagonistic relationship with something or someone, there is also a profound degree of closeness. Anyone who’s been through a bad breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend knows what I mean!
KM: What is the nature of your practice? Be as specific as you can here: what time of day do you paint, for how long, do you draw or work on the computer first, etc.
Fire Go Round the Meat, 2008; Courtesy the artist
CR: Oh, god! Well, I’ll tell you a story. A few years ago I was trying to sublet my apartment, where I also have my studio. The space, as I saw it, was very desirable – big and bright with a nice view of downtown Manhattan from across the East River in Brooklyn. I had an appointment to meet with a girl who was interested … she arrived in her little wrap skirt and round-toed flats and bravely climbed up to my fourth-floor walkup. When I opened the door she got this look of horror – like How could anyone live this way?! – and politely asked me where the couch and television were. Uh, there isn’t a couch. What would I do with a couch? I have a studio, a table where I work and eat, and a bed. Pitifully basic, like a lot of artists living in New York. Whenever I’m not working to pay the bills or seeing the occasional friend, I’m in the studio. Sometimes I forget to eat, something my mom is constantly chastising me for. I like to work at night, but when I’m pulling a 12-hour day it’s all day, too. Thank God for NPR and Dr. Joy Browne! My paintings are really detailed, so they take a painfully long time to complete. I spend quite a bit of time on the drawing – I have a thick stack of tracing-paper drawings of single figures that I combine in different arrangements to produce the final drawing for the painting – and then the painting process begins. I start by filling in whatever the dominant color of the painting is – the colors of the natural environment surrounding the figures. Then I do the figures, and finally I do the patterns on the costumes. This takes a long time because, as I said, I try to choose colors that will be in exactly the right kind of conflict with each other. I have over 40 palettes with 10 colors in each of them, and I spread them all out on my table as I try to choose the perfect color. On average, I can do about two square inches of painting in an hour. Anyway, needless to say, the pretty girl in the flats did not sublet the apartment. I finally reduced the price and got a nice lesbian couple from Boston with pet rabbits to rent it.
KM: Who are some of the artists, historically, who you feel a kindred relation to, even if only aspirationally?
CR: Well, “kindred” might be too strong a word to use, but there are many, many artists whose work I find inspiring for different reasons. Whenever I come away from a show feeling like I should just give up making art because that person has already done it so much better, I know I’ve just been inspired … and have learned something important. I had that experience a couple of years ago seeing the Egon Schiele show at the Neue Galerie. His work is nothing like mine, of course, and I was like, God, I’m such an idiot! Why have I abandoned line in all my work? Obviously I didn’t go back to using line, but that idea continues to percolate subconsciously and probably will come out at some point. I guess if I had to pick one artist, it would be Ellsworth Kelly. My favorite works of his are the gray paintings from the 1970s. They are deceptively simple like the rest of his work – a light gray slab next to a lighter gray slab – but they were his reaction to the complex emotional tone of the US during the Vietnam War. They have none of the perkiness of his more colorful work; the gray just sort of spreads out like indecision, even within the confines of his structured compositions. There’s also a fantastic tension in them between dominance and acquiescence, with neither side ever ultimately winning out. Whenever I’m feeling stuck in my work, I go back to look at Kelly. He probably seems like an odd hero for someone who packs her paintings with so much visual information and is working representationally, but that’s exactly why he helps – he gets me back to the basics, at least a little!
KM: And the contemporary artists?
CR: Contemporary? Well, I guess Kelly would object to my having just called him historical! Honestly there aren’t many contemporary artists whose work I would look to for guidance in the same way that I look to Kelly or to traditional Japanese, Persian, and Indian painting. But a few artists whom I think are addressing similar themes would be Julie Mehretu, Shahzia Sikander, and Raqib Shaw. … I know that a lot of people are tired of the hoopla about contemporary Chinese art, but I actually find the work coming out of that country pretty fascinating. And it makes sense that a country in the midst of such economic, political, and psychological change would be putting out art that has a real edge. A lot of it feels – at least to me – engaged with the here-and-now in a way that I feel like I don’t see as much here in New York. That’s something I’d like to move more toward in my own practice.
KM: We have discussed our common interest in film and I was wondering if you see your work as having a relation to the cinematic.
CR: That’s a great question. I studied film theory extensively in college, so that background certainly informs my thinking. But I think I’ve actually tried to move away from that in my painting. The paintings are really about painting – space, color, abstraction versus representation. But that said, I do think my work could be compared to films that are more painterly in nature – Zhang Yimou’s work being a case in point. I actually thought a lot about House of the Flying Daggers when I was figuring out the overall look for my show at Foley … Zhang will have a “green” scene, and then a “blue” scene, and then a “yellow” one, using each color to establish a strong emotional tone. I tried to do something similar in selecting the works for my show. I’ve also been thinking a lot recently about the interaction of color and narrative in film – when it’s used to help move the action forward in a certain direction, when it arrests the progression of the narrative. I recently re-watched Antonioni’s Red Desert and was totally blown away. Most of the color in the film is extremely unsaturated – he actually painted the trees and grass where he was shooting gray. Then you’ll get these bits of intense color at unexpected moments, and you find yourself looking to them for some kind of hint of where the narrative is going. But the narrative just spreads out aimlessly across the gray, and if it has any relationship to the saturated colors, it’s really to just knock against them and ricochet off in a different aimless direction. Actually, that film would make for an interesting comparison to Kelly’s gray paintings.
KM: Do you see your work within a political context? If so, how?
CR: Wow, well that question certainly opens up a huge can of art-historical worms! Can abstraction be political? What’s the relationship between abstraction and the decorative? I once had a guy in my studio who told me my paintings were “too decorative.” Really? But they’re of people trying to kill each other! The abstract works in my Foley show are based on Japanese crest designs. Many of these crests are purely abstract – they look like symbols, even though they are usually derived from things in the real world, like feathers or sickles. I’m fascinated by these crest designs because they’ve had radically different uses historically. During peaceful times they were used as ornamentation to adorn the costumes of courtiers; during wartime they were used to identify opposing factions on the battlefield. Their meaning was entirely dependent on their context. The guy in my studio was partially right – the work is very formal, and I think almost exclusively about formal issues when I’m making it. In that way I actually see the work as being abstract. But I think abstraction exists within a political context – everything exists within a political context, even when it claims to escape it. The escape is political in itself. We see what we want to see in art, what we need to see at the time we’re looking at it. A month ago, before everyone started watching their life savings being wiped out by the global financial crisis of the past couple of weeks, someone might have looked at one of my paintings and thought Wow, that would match perfectly with my couch. Now they might look at them and see more content, see more of the struggle in them. I’ve always seen both; I think it’s a false dichotomy.
KM: I was struck by the small piece you did, the green Mondrian, how much of your work functions for you as the site of a response to history?
CR: That piece is one of my older works. I actually did a few of them. They were really about the meaning of color – Mondrian famously hated green and never used it because he thought it was too close to nature. I love green because I find it to be a very flexible color. I wanted to see what green would look like in the context of Mondrian’s linear arrangements of elements. Interestingly, the paintings ended up seeming to reference technology, the innards of a computer. So yeah, my work really has been as much about looking back as anything else. And I think that that might be starting to change for me just a bit. With everything that’s going on in the world right now, I’m getting more interested in the present and future. We’re in pretty unfamiliar territory with this current financial crisis. Maybe all the various government leaders will get their acts together and figure out a way to avert the impending disaster, and the anxiety of the past few weeks will seem like a distant nightmare in a few months. Or maybe it won’t. Global recessions combined with a climate of fear seem to spawn particularly brutal wars. It’s hard to know where we’re going right now, and that uncertainty is something I’d like to begin responding to more in my work.
ArtSlant would like to thank Casey Ruble for her assistance in making this interview possible.
- Keith Miller