Conversation Pieces
Alison Green talks to Alicia Paz

AG: Maybe I’ll start by taking up the question of painting languages by raising the issue of signature style. A “signature style” was really important for Abstract Expressionist painters—it was partly about making an authentic and real mark, one that signified presence, and partly about a very deep drive to innovate. The next generation of artists staged their work against a signature style, on one level because it seemed so blatantly egocentric—so much chest beating. The French group BMPT called a press conference in 1960 to announce that from that moment on each them would only paint in one way (e.g. Daniel Buren in stripes, Niele Toroni in square brush strokes). No more decisions about style had to be made. For Buren in particular the question became about context. For Frank Stella, too, the job was to make a painting where no decisions had to be made once he’d started. So this was a gesture against style being equal with identity. But still, each artist pursued a painting language that was more or less unique to him or her, and it also remained important to be “of one’s moment,” i.e. linked with the period in which you were working.

Now the situation is clearly different again. Artists treat painting style as something not particular to them, but out there already. I’m thinking of painters like Laura Owens or Karen Kilimnik who bring anything and everything into a work, recognisable painting styles as well as images from popular culture. Owens in particular resists the need—which I think still haunts anyone who makes paintings— to have a singular, identifying style that is unique to her. To me, your painting is not against style, rather you like seeing all the different painting languages that exist as an open field. More specifically, you’re playing off the representational function implicit in each style. There’s a productive meaning that generates out of including different languages in the same painting, and across different series. Technique is part of this, too: you employ different ways of laying on the paint, different tools for doing so. And of course there’s the collage element, which is another type of borrowing. The paintings always seem to work rather than fall apart—even as there are so many discrete parts that are each doing their representing differently.

AP: The first time I saw Kilimnik’s work was sometime in the early or mid-nineties at Gallery 303 in New York. I was surprised and excited by the unsuspected potential of kitsch and the fresh look of willingly “amateur” painting, somewhere between Franz Hals and a car-boot sale “croûte”. I was working in France at the time, where the lingering end-game situation of painting was, to many, stifling. However, I am now more interested in Kilimnik’s subject matter and various aspects of social satire that arise in her work, rather than in her formal approach. Of course, her way of appropriating art history is different from mine...hers has something to do with the contemporary (bourgeois?) consumption of luxury goods, as part of an imaginary (or real) life-style. Stubbs’ horse as a kitsch commodity? I think my own relationship to art historical imagery is more mental, or perhaps platonic, as in the “idea” of a Goya, or the “idea” of a Dubuffet, ideas which are then placed in some kind of context entailing juxtaposition. In my early work I was also looking at Louise Lawler, and at Malcolm Morley, for his idiosyncratic use of destruction/iconoclasm.

AG: Kilimnik’s work is about how we form our identities through consuming. I see your work as wanting to make specific points about the relationship between different cultures and historical periods. Your earlier work was more explicit in this way, such as the series that juxtaposed European decorative arts with tribal artifacts. But it’s there in “Chinoiserie”, where you’re interested in the way culture gets represented as distinct and with integrity in some instances, or as exotic and alternative in other ones. Someone wrote that your work was “eclectic”, but I disagree. That’s the soft side of postmodernism; I see your work as much more specific about geography, history and representation. I’m remembering a quote from Walter Benjamin which explains it. It goes like this:

 A historical materialist views [cultural treasures] with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is not document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. . . .A historical materialist . . . regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.

I’ve always really liked this idea of brushing history across the grain—the image of taking something so definite and realigning its metaphors with the sweep of the hand. It’s there in your deliberately awkward alien paintings. You’re clearly playing with the idea of cultural identity, although it’s not fixed to your exact nationality and geographical itinerary.

AP: In regards to languages (in painting but also in general) I’m interested in the multifaceted, in the polyglot, in a meta-language made up of loads of languages. The accent with which one speaks a foreign language colours that language, bringing another layer to it. (Can one paint in the way of an "abstract expressionist" with a "pop art" accent? etc.) The challenge lies in allowing each language to incarnate one's voice in it's particular way, to merge with it and use it for what it does best, but also to not let the language become a hollow shell, a mask without a purpose.
 A minute ago I turned to the internet to see If I could find a note on Pessoa's literary alter egos (interestingly, his name In Portuguese means both person and persona), but I was distracted by the news of Baudrillard's death which appeared on the top of Le Monde online. Simulacra dead? Not for a while, I'm afraid, but our relationship to representation is changing all the time. I suppose I consider both culture and identity as hybrid and in constant flux, made up of intertwining levels of truth and artifice. Sometimes within the components of that hybridity, there can be a tense friction.

The "Chinoiserie" piece is very much about a masquerade, a dressing up as something else, and about the enjoyment that nonsensical (self-) reinvention can bring. The "mountain" is an assemblage of hill-shaped flat little walls, casting optical shadows upon each other in a succession of trompe l'oeil effects. All the characters in this tongue-in-cheek, far-East fantasy are playing a part. They are actors extracted from Kabuki theatre, "Big brother"," Kung-fu", American salt and pepper shakers, as well as my own imagination. There is even one Asian female character with her hair dyed auburn, masquerading as a Westerner. The trees are “pretending” as well—they are all cut-outs from a Bonsai book.

AG: Let’s talk more about the recent tree paintings. You use the tree as an armature on which to hang different images. Growth is a theme, but it’s not all good: angry women, nefarious blobs and corporate logos are there alongside leaves and flowers. You and I spoke about the mystical quality of trees—the idea that they are inhabited by spirits. So from Greek tree nymphs to the English legend of the Woodwose to the Tree of Enlightenment in Buddhism, trees are about life and knowledge, but also a kind of untamed darkness. In the modern world mysticism is considered pure projection of human fears and desires onto nature, but there’s a return, now, to a situation where nature has power again. We’re more critical (certainly self-conscious) about our purported ability to control nature and put it to our own use. In these paintings, as in the ones with aliens, the figure isn’t merely represented, it’s somehow self-generating, an automaton, perhaps.

AP: While working on these series, I was aware of how they could potentially tap into the long history trees have in cultures around the world, but at the same time I wanted the process to remain close to my own (collective?) unconscious. The ornamental labour (as in the dressing of a tree) led to a kind of hypnotic state which allowed things to simply “come out”. In a kind of anthropomorphous manner, I like to think these trees talk and sing. Their oracular quality stems from a chattering, tree-dwelling community of semi-neurotic characters. Perhaps these are possibilities, versions of myself, playing out ambiguous narratives among the branches. Could the works be understood as trees of life, drunken genealogical conundrums? I was inspired by the scene of the cherry trees becoming people in Kurosawa’s “Dreams”, which also relates to my long-time fascination with puppets and masks.

The voice and actions that a ventriloquist or a puppeteer can present are doubly complex, and function as a mirror both for audience and artist. The need to engage in such a self-reflexive practice on my part probably reveals (reflects!) some kind of life-long quest for identity. In my recent work this Cartesian “split” seems to operate in a more synthetic, denser way than previously. In some of the “alien” works, the artists merge with their gooey medium, with their tools. The mirror is imploding?

AG: Returning to the idea of painting having a language, you’ve written about your desire to make paintings that spur a dialogue, or that might constitute or facilitate discourse. I came up with the term “Conversation Piece” to use as the title of this dialogue between the two of us. Conversation pieces, strictly speaking, are 18th century Dutch and English group portraits of people in social situations (Hogarth for example). They depict scenes where the “art of conversation” took place, but they were also meant, as paintings, to spark conversations amongst viewers. Outside of any problematics of all that privilege supporting a century or more of chatter, the idea of verbal discourse is really compelling. We don’t take anything seriously unless it’s written down, but writing is a pretty dull instrument for capturing complexity. So this verbal-visual model that precludes written language opens up to non-linear discourse, erudite but inclusive, consisting of embodied social types whose identities get worked out in direct response to context, community, political situations, etc. It’s happening in the painting, but also, possibly, in the social space outside the painting.

AP: That is a very interesting metaphor—we could even imagine witnessing photorealism passing a cup of tea to a thick impasto section, while a less noticeable collage piece surreptitiously steals something out of both their pockets!


Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969), pp. 256-7.