Chicago, Dec. 2013: David Corbett is a Portland, Oregon based artist whose current solo exhibition Old Order is on view now at 65GRAND gallery. It’s full of animated, often raw-edged and pop-y colored pieces, all engaged in serious play. Although there are works on paper and sculptural objects, each piece functions as a sort of hybrid sculpture/painting, comically messing with one’s spatial perception.
Corbett was kind enough to take time to discuss it with me below, and our conversation caroms between his recent return from an artist residency, to the artists that influence him, to his fascination with anomalies and deviations within systems or patterns. Corbett is a maker of patient, sensitive work that’s both deep thinking and light-hearted. As you’ll see, his probing of a medium, discipline or subject evolves into an endlessly inventive practice.
David Corbett, Dutch Landscape, 2013, ink, acrylic, glue and wood, 40 x 61 x 3-1/2 in; Courtesy of the artist and 65GRAND.
Thea Liberty Nichols: You recently took part in the Djerassi Resident Artist Program—tell us more about it and how you feel it impacted your recent work.
David Corbett: My experience at Djerassi was pretty amazing. The facilities are nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains, in California, on an old cattle ranch. The ranch is covered in hiking trails through rolling hills and old growth forests lined by a rocky creek. I was surrounded by incredibly supportive staff and residents that made my time there perfect.
When I left for D.R.A.P. I consciously wanted to make a change in my studio practice and revisit two-dimensional space. I often use landscape as a starting point in my work. The landscape I experienced for the month while I was at D.R.A.P. was great inspiration to say the least. The sense of history there is astonishing. The repurposed, older buildings and the hiking trails through ancient forests strengthened my excitement for looking at the way nature is used and controlled. Whether it’s through forcing my direction to walk on a road or shoring up an old barn that would have collapsed due to age and neglect. The ranch and forest trails were full of examples of rebuilding and imagination.
TLN: That's right—I remember the presence of the natural landscape in your work for a long time now, including some of your earlier pieces that were shown at 65GRAND's first official exhibition in its old space in owner Bill Gross's kitchen! I recall discussing the influence romantics like Caspar David Friedrich had on you—have those interests shifted at all?
DC: I am still interested in those 19th century paintings and the Sublime. Those ideas are certainly there in the work. I see those older influences still evident while newer interests are added. I like that these works can lead a viewer in multiple directions, although sometimes the directions may overlap.
TLN: There's always been a push and pull for me between your paintings and work on paper versus your sculptural objects, but the 2-D and 3-D works in this show all seem to be in conversation with one another in a very droll, interrelated way. Talk more about the modernist grid—what it represents to you, how it's employed in these pieces, and what you're doing to problematize it.
DC: The grid presented itself last year in a couple of sculptures. I used the pattern of the grid in two pieces that compared an intuitive and organic system to a regular and predicable system. These works spoke of a balance between two distinct ideas. After seeing how the grid worked as a regular pattern I felt like the regularity might be something to explore. Finding a deviation in that regular pattern is fueling the new work.
TLN: The deviations you're speaking of certainly manifest very clearly in pieces like Dutch Landscape, where dozens of colored twig-like elements sprout at irregular angles from this very austere, black grid formation—but maybe I'm seeing elements of the natural world in all of your work now! Do you ever find the "predictable systems" or "regular patterns" you mention in the natural world itself, or is there a very distinct difference between nature and culture for you?
DC: I certainly find regularity and predictability in nature. What is becoming interesting to me has more to do with isolating a deviation. It could occur in nature or other systems. Noticing a change is where I am finding questions.
TLN: I really like the balance between disparate or dichotomous elements you’ve alluded to, and I think the work in this show strikes that balance with wit and confidence, but also with a sense of humor. It's that humor, combined with the color palette and a slippery sort of pop sensibility that makes me think of various "New Folk" artists, like Margaret Kilgallen, Chris Johanson and Jo Jackson, in relationship to your practice, as well as various other outsider or street artists. Am I right in thinking you grew up on the West Coast? Do any of those artists or sort of work hold meaning or relevance for you?
DC: I did grow up in the San Francisco Bay Area and I do like all those artists' work. I went to college in San Francisco and I certainly was influenced by the work being made there in the 1990s as well as past movements in San Francisco. I found the Bay Area Figurative Painters of the 1960s especially influential. David Park and Joan Brown made great paintings of banal subjects, painted in thick and efficient brushstrokes. Those works still get me so excited when I see them.
TLN: Talk more about your palette, because bright, juicy color is back in your work in a big way. What inspired its return?
DC: Over the past two to three years I've been making work that is absent of bright color. The return to using color has really been about wanting to revisit the language involved in conversations with painting. Removing color was important to me to help guide the conversation away from painting to be more about sculpture. I'm coming back to color because I feel like certain concerns about painting are important to me and I want the work to make those references again.
David Corbett, Old Order, 2013, enamel, glue and wood, 93-1/2 x 4 in.; Courtesy of the artist and 65GRAND.
TLN: I really love the painterly, dripped edges of Point Load and the light and shadow implied by the alternating colored segments of Old Order. But by mounting all of your sculptures in this show flush to the surface of the wall, it seems like you're working overtime to pin these pieces down and flatten them out. What compels you to call them sculpture in the first place?
DC: I like that the flat objects can exist in a place that describes both painting and sculpture. The attempt to exist with both definitions, sculpture and painting, complicates the read of the work. That difficulty of definition seems awkward and funny to me.
TLN: I can definitely tell that all of these works have a sense of humor. What jokes are they telling, and are we in on them, or the butt of them?
DC: You are certainly in on them. Classic one-liners! Or maybe multiple liners?
TLN: Lets talk about the works on paper for a minute, because although they echo the color palette and pattern work of the sculptures, you introduce the circle, and it becomes the big, round, porthole-like focal point of these pieces. There's what seems to be a very specifically engineered ink splash located just to the left of each circle—am I right in thinking it was intentional? It's a very small gesture, but it's kind of jarring, and feels like a bit of a provocation or tease.
DC: The important part of these ink drawings (Viewfinder series) for me is the cropping of the pattern by the circle. The circle encroaches on the pattern thus leaving the viewer to make up the rest beyond the masked area. I started to think of the grids within the circles in the way a photographer might crop an image.
David Corbett,Viewfinder 2, 2013, ink on paper, 30 x 22 in.; Courtesy of the artist and 65GRAND.
TLN: I see, so rather than a porthole which would force you to peer into an illusory or deep space, you're working with cropping, and the covering over of information that is metaphorically masked by placing a circle around it. I think that helps me understand a lot of the sculptural work better too, because they resist deep or illusory space as well. No pun intended, but circle back to what you said earlier about the kinds of conversations painting can have—can you give us some examples of those and explain how they apply to concerns you're also addressing in the sculpture?
DC: It's funny you describe the sculptures as resisting deep space. That exploration of pictorial space is the big interest for me and what I'm most concerned with in bringing up a conversation about painting. The sculptures attempt to exist in pictorial space, but settle into a weird middle ground.
—Thea Liberty Nichols
ArtSlant would like to thank David Corbett for his assistance in making this interview possible.