The Chicago-based artist talks abstract portraiture and transforming online rabbit holes into painting.
As an abstract artist, how do you approach making portraits of real-life people?
I guess if I lived by myself on a desert island, I would just make abstract paintings of atmosphere and geometry. But I’m a professor, and students often tell me about problems that I have an opinion on. Years ago, a student was trying to make portraits of people that would elicit sympathy. I started trying to make portraiture within the limitations of my being an abstractionist. It made me interested in figuring out how to continue the trajectory of abstract portraiture, which kind of stopped when photorealism took over as the basis at some point in the early 20th century.
How do you go about choosing your subjects? In your works offered on Platform, for example, you portrayed Adlai Stevenson and Jay Pritzker—a politician and entrepreneur.
One of the limitations on contemporary portraiture is to have a political function, which is to celebrate virtuous people. I think a contemporary painter would have difficulty making a portrait of a good person and a bad person standing next to each other, because there's a kind of political demand on portraiture to make distinctions between good people and bad people. Good people wear nice clothes and have a halo behind their head or whatever. And bad people? You just don't paint. If you paint Donald Trump, you have to make it apparent that he's bad by making his eyes big or something.
As you mentioned, in addition to being an artist, you’re also a professor—currently at Northwestern University, and formerly at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
I'm influenced by all my students. I was a student once, and my professors challenged me and gave me provocations. It took me five or 10 years to be able to make work in response to those ideas—to become a colleague of theirs, or become a professional with serious ideas. I guess sometimes my students frustrate me. They have these questions they want to figure out, which I know is going to take 10 years for them to ever do. So, I try to do it myself as just a kind of prototype of how one might do so within the limits of their practice—which in my case is that I'm an abstractionist and impatient and improvisational and kind of clumsy. A student may be struggling with how to make erotic art, especially in the complicated sexual politics of today. So I may be tempted to go back to my studio and try that sort of thing out too. Unlike my professors, some of whom had a late modernist practice, I’m free to address any kind of problem that comes up.
And you've had some pretty high-profile professors—Kerry James Marshall and Peter Halley, to name just a couple.
Mel Bochner, Byron Kim, Sylvia [Plimack] Mangold… yep, some amazing painters.
In an essay for ArtForum a few years back, you wrote that as a student, part of your goal was to be critical of them. How much did that feel like a risk? Were their names as big as they are now?
Oh, they were bigger at the time—but I always assumed that that was the point of being taught, because you can only transcend what you are taught. For example, I can't transcend traditional Chinese ink painting because I'm not in it, so I can't grow beyond it. Maybe I could figure it out and then grow beyond it, but it would take me another lifetime or something. The only thing worth growing beyond is what I am, and what I am is what I've been taught. So I’m just trying to grow beyond, you know, Kerry [James] Marshall’s concept of Blackness and post-Blackness and Peter Halley's concept of late modernism and Mel Bochner's ideas about conceptualism. Those are the things I was taught and those are the things that I am, so those are the things that I try to grow beyond.
What is the intersection between the very tactile nature of your work and its frequent subject matter of your online rabbit holes?
I build paintings, right? So the first thing I need to do is put the stretcher bars together. Sometimes when I do, or when I lean two paintings against the wall so I can make another painting, I'll realize that they look like something. They may look like a rocket ship, so then I’ll research rocket ships—like, what was the name of the first SpaceX rocket that was able to land safely? If I went to SpaceX's website, it would take me a long time to find where that section was, so I’d start with Wikipedia but end up at an authoritative source. I think about wholesome or useful things on the internet—things that are not unhealthy or tend towards conspiracy.
Your wife, Nyeema Morgan, is also an artist, right?
Yep, so we'll never want for money because we have two artists in the family. Now, if our kids become artists too, then we'll have it made. [Laughs]
And you essentially share a studio. Do you listen to anything while you work?
I was once on a panel discussion where they asked what kind of music we listen to while we make art. Somebody said that they listened to podcasts, and I was like, I never want my work to look like I was listening to a podcast while I was making it. A lot of art nowadays, especially kind of late modernist abstraction, looks like the artist was listening to a podcast while they were laboriously making all these circles or whatever. So, I don’t listen to anything. I always want my work to look immediate—like I ran in, made it, and ran out.