When Hernan contacted Paulson Bott Press to purchase a print by Tauba Auerbach, I took the opportunity to invite him to make etchings. For many years I had been enthralled by Hernan’s paintings and extremely curious about the man responsible for many of the “Renaissance in Detroit” stories I had read.
Hernan grew up in Florida and became widely celebrated as a Miami artist. His more recent move to Detroit was motivated by his need for escape and discovery. These same desires are evoked in his paintings. Detroit has become a lonely, abandoned city, now haunted by the ghosts of America’s failed promises, the perfect muse for Bas and his depictions of boyish exploration, supernatural landscapes, death, and rebirth.
Hernan can push paint. The skill with which he draws and paints is astounding. His bold palette and confident mark-making is fast and detailed.
He pushes boundaries as well. He breaks through to the other side, chases pleasures here, and digs treasures there. His embrace of sexuality and a queer perspective is bold and unapologetic.
Hernan and I came of age in the same decade, and I connect with his work in the same way that I connect with the post-punk, alt rock mood of the nineties. My dream dates were once Layne Staley and Kurt Cobain, and there lived in me a deep longing for a life on the fringe, a feeling of alienation, a rejection of some idea I had of the mainstream. It was all “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.”
It is no surprise that Hernan has been influenced by the writings of Joris Karl-Huysmans, who first defined the Decadent Art Movement. Karl-Huysmans’ book Against Natureillustrated disgust with modern life and deep pessimism. As art historian Otto Urban put it in an interview in F Newsmagazine, “there was much that that decadence introduced for the first time, above all themes that had been taboo (sexuality, Satanism and Anarchism).” In Urban’s words, “The portrayal of the horror and madness of the modern world became a key theme of Decadence. Decadence no longer had utopian visions of change, but only a grimace of ridicule and a longing for isolation.”
Yet Hernan’s paintings have a redemptive power to remind us of our utopian dreams. Hernan takes this loneliness and spins it into gold. He is the contemporary artist whose self-imposed solitude inspired the alchemists of old.After long hours in our studio, Hernan returned to his hotel and continued to work. He’d arrive back the next morning with a fresh group of drawings to inspire his prints, playfully experimenting with every technique intaglio has to offer. The resulting body of work reflects an ongoing transformation between nocturnal longings and the glories of a new day.
This post is part of an interview I did with the artist/illustrator Maira Kalman for Paulson Bott Press in Berkeley. She is more comfortable with an assignment and a deadline than the process that takes place at a fine art press like Paulson Bott. But she used her skill of observation to gather a series of images that work together in a kind of grand collage.
What’s been the process of determining what prints you are going forward with?
We took all of these images and snippets and staticky things and put them together in one sheet. And then we went from there to doing individual plates and then putting them together and then separating. Back and forth.
How is printmaking different from working at home? What does it feel like?
When you’re alone in the studio, you have to make your decisions, for better or for worse. Here, when there are people who can give you feedback, I find myself in a bit of a fog, but not in a bad fog—in a very, very good fog.
So at home you don’t have assistants?
No. I have negative assistants. I have resistance. I’m just in my studio wandering around.
Does this have chin-collé on it then? Is this a sheet of gampi?
That’s a whole new thing then. It’s a new effect, but it has luminosity.
Yes. I could paint on this. And I tried drawing some. This paper drives me crazy with happiness. I want like my whole life to be this.
Whose idea was it to print on cloth?
I wanted to print on cloth because I do a lot of embroidery stuff. And I thought, okay, it’s cloth, and then we’ll draw, and maybe try some embroidery. But the embroidery that I’ve tried feels unnecessary.
I love the use of the fabric.
For me that’s part of the process—that we went to a nearby fabric store and saw what they had—and they had wonderful things.
Can you talk about some of these images you brought with you to use for reference?
This is an airplane. It’s like the early airplanes.
Like Kitty Hawk?
Exactly, but it may be upside down. I’m not sure. And this was a dancer from New York. I cut out a lot of photographs, so this is a woman that performed a few years ago. Half the time I don’t know where I cut out the images from anymore, but she’s a dancer, and this is also a dance troupe. So the movements of people making it through the day, both intentionally as dancers, and then just how we move around really fascinates me a lot. There’s a man behind her in the photo, holding his hands on her shoulders. But she’s a little bit awkward.
There’s a stiffness, yes.
I’m always watching how people are walking, and following them and photographing how people walk and really struggle—a lot of yearning to be okay, and dignity, and being brave. Basically I think everybody’s very brave for getting up in the morning and continuing through the day. Sometimes people walking, people sitting and eating, are just heartbreaking. I love Diane Arbus when she went to visit the people in the home and the Halloween images of those people. That’s also a Lartigue, but the photo is of a woman looking up at this ball, and then it became something else. It became a woman holding a stick. And then there is the rollercoaster after Hurricane Sandy.
With these images, are you drawing into the copper plate?
I’m always drawing into the plate, either the hard ground or the sugar lift. It only took me four days to remember those four words—hard ground, sugar lift.
And now you’ve got chin-collé and gampi too!
It’s like a nice poem.
I was going to ask you, does it feel a little bit like poetry—these scattered images or fragments that you’re tying together?
Yes. I think that the problem is, putting the word “poetry” on it—it depends what kind of mood you’re in: poetry can be a wonderful thing to say about something, and then, as a critic once said about me, “unnecessarily poetic.”
It’s a very different poem here in this arrangement than it might be in that arrangement.
Yes. I don’t want to forget the idea of a sense of humor along with the yearning and the sadness. There’s a lightness balancing the heaviness. And so poetry would imply one thing, and then just saying “I don’t know” would be the other.
Have you worked with poets?
No. But a lot of the things that I write or things in the books are poems. The dog says, okay, I’m going to write a poem now. I’m going to close my eyes and think of three things and then make a poem out of that. So there’s a lot of poetry and there’s a lot of songwriting in the children’s books. But I am collaborating with Gertrude Stein [in the set designs for the Mark Morris Dance Group’s production of Stein’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts]. So yes, I’m collaborating with a poet whom I never met.
She won’t get in the way.
I hope that if she were alive she’d go, “Great,” as opposed to, “Don’t you dare.”
Where did your idea of illustrating Elements of Style come from?
I found a copy of the book one summer and thought, “Oh my God, this is a crazy great book, and I need to illustrate it.” It’s the randomness of each sentence. The continuity comes from[Strunk and White’s] wit and the vivid cinematic images that they use. You don’t have to worry about a plot.
Do you want to come back to Paulson Bott Press and make more prints?
Of course I want to come back some time in the future when it all makes sense. I’ll go home and I’ll be able to moan and go, ugh, what was I thinking, or what was I not thinking? Really, it’s the beginning of a conversation.
You’ve been to Berkeley before?
I’ve been to Berkeley some other times, and I spent time in San Francisco installing the show at SFMOMA [about her late husband Tibor Kalman]. And then I came here to this gallery, and I said, “This is an amazing space. I love being here.”
Have you been able to explore a bit?
Well, I walk from my bed-and-breakfast in the morning. It’s over a mile. But that’s also the graph of the day—that sometimes you’re just sitting there like a stunned animal, not knowing what’s going on. We are animals that sort of freeze, and then—well I guess it’s like a possum, but a possum plays dead for something else. But I feel like sometimes I’m an animal that all of a sudden is dead. And then all of a sudden I come back to life.
So much of your work depends on observation. What do you see on your walks?
One of the things I did in Rome was go watch people pray, because I was trying to say, “What exactly are you doing? What are you doing on your knees? What do you think is going to happen here?” The intensity of people publically displaying their emotions and their grief and their hope, it’s incredible. Plus in Naples there were a lot of places where people are in confession and the priest is just sitting up, kneeling opposite them, not in a little contained cubicle, just open.
I think the concept of prayer is so interesting, because it’s one idea that can’t be defined, because each individual completely changes it.
The thing is that if you’re in the formal construct of a church or a synagogue and you’re praying to a deity, as opposed to praying for the strength to deal with whatever tragedy might befall you, and you are looking for a deity to save you, that feels delusional. I say “Oh my god” a thousand times a day. Then I say, “But I don’t believe in God.” And i am really not sure which statement is true.
I met Erik Heywood a little over a year ago, soon after he launched his website Book/Shop.com. The website offers seasonal reading lists, library furniture and fittings, art, books, and delicious chocolate.
I was struck immediately by Erik’s passion for literature and books and his exquisite eye for design. His extensive knowledge of books and obscure publications provides a refreshing break from the culture of “insta-knowledge” and onscreen reading. Erik studied English but soon left school to sell antique furniture. He worked briefly making props for Martha Stewart, then pursued both interior design and retail branding.
In March, Erik took the keys to a quaint, 250-square-foot space in the thriving Temescal neighborhood in Oakland and set up the brick -and-mortar Book/Shop. In addition to acquiring books, he is amassing and designing several lines of merchandise related to reading: beautifully handcrafted canvas book bags detailed with fine Japanese leather, small portable bookshelves made from a variety of beautiful woods, (we bought five for the press and some for home too!), stackable bookshelf components, modernist furniture, art, and lighting.
Erik’s enthusiasm about our gallery program spurred us to collaborate. He is currently featuring five of our new Maira Kalman prints on the north wall of Book/Shop, and he has invited Maira Kalman to curate a pop-up bookshelf at the press in late September. (We will keep you posted about the date.) I hope you take the time to visit Erik’s shop. His attention to fine detail is truly extraordinary.
BOOK/SHOP 482D 49th Street, Oakland, CA, 94709. Tues.-Sat. 12-5. 510-907-9649
I can remember years ago, when I first interviewed for the position at Paulson Bott, my friend and former colleague, Sherry Apostol encouraged me by stating, “What a great place, Rhea. You have got to work for them; they work with Martin Puryear!”
Before I had met Martin in person, another colleague compared the experience of his company with that of being in the presence of the Dali Lama. When I met Martin in 2002, I realized that she was right. His grace is remarkable. In his company, one knows they are in the presence of greatness. Martin is very soft spoken, but when he speaks, people listen.
We also listen to his art– the vibrations, the emotions released from his sculptures.
They speak of the natural world, the human spirit and world history. They nod at, bow to and break down our notions of the object. Like Martin, they are quiet, magical and sublime.
Martin employs wood, mesh, stone and metal to create forms that resist identification. They evoke the future and the past, both forging ahead and leaning back. They excite and provoke and comfort.
It is my greatest pleasure as Gallery Director at Paulson Bott, to introduce his work to those who have yet to discover it. I often resist my temptation to scream, “What? You don’t know who Martin Puryear is?!” “Haven’t you heard, the critic Robert Hughes has only declared him to be ‘America’s Best Artist’!”
Martin’s first comprehensive show in the California bay area was in 2001 at the Berkeley Art Museum. Sadly, it’s opening day was September 11th and many missed the exhibit for obvious reasons. Slight redemption took place in the fall of 2008 when his retrospective,Martin Puryear, traveled to the SFMOMA. It was an exciting chance for the bay to experience his impressive oeuvre. I remember speaking with a friend who had just seen the show, and she stated, “I’ve always admired the images I’ve seen of his work but standing next to the sculpture in person literally gave me goose bumps.”
After the opening, the SFMOMA hosted a spectacular dinner at the St. Regis to honor Martin. Neal Benezra spoke to the group and expressed how fortunate we all were to be sharing such a momentous occasion with an artist of his caliber. It is indeed our privilege at Paulson Bott Press to engage with an artist that we know will mark our time and leave a lasting legacy in the art world and beyond.