Art of Conversation | Sarah Faux and Martha Tuttle

Art of Conversation, October 10, 2018



SF: I was thinking about all the rocks and the addition of rocks into your paintings and how that's connected to Zen gardens and things. And I'm wondering what you're thinking about that. And I had more specific questions for you. 


MT: I had questions for you too do you want to switch off or I don't know how to do this -- 


SF: -- or I can ask you about rock stuff and then you could see if there's anything that's interesting? 


MT: Sure. So yeah, I mean first I feel like the act of walking and collecting anything is such a human impulse and it is a meditative one, like looking at the ground, understanding your surroundings on a very small scale, so that's how the rocks first started coming into my work, just through purely picking them up and having them in this studio. Then I was just thinking about the kinds of objects that you hold with you and thinking about worry stones and prayer beads and then having the fantasy that through such extreme emotion one could transform something through touch into another material. That the transformation would be the record of intense emotion or a thought -- 

SF: Within paintings or works? 


MT: Specifically with the stones from stone to steel. With this last project that I've been doing for the gallery in Italy there's 250 cast stones and 400 real stones and in my studio I've been enjoying taking off my shoes and socks and and making constellations with my toes and that feels good. Like Zen Gardening or dancing. And I think a lot of Joan Jonas preforming and painting-- 


SF: Are you going to make people walk over the stones? Is this something you've been thinking about? 


MT: Well yeah I've been thinking about it a lot because even in my space when I know they're there, I accidentally kick them places like often it takes a little bit of adjustment to realize that there are small things on the floor. So I imagine that people probably will kick them. I'm not worried about them being damaged because they're stone and steel, but I have been thinking about it. It might be stressful for somebody to feel like they kicked art -- 


SF: Or it could feel really gratifying that they're encouraged to step on things. Like when I was like 18 and realized that you are allowed to step on a Carl Andre. I would go to the museum to step on it and then tell the guard 'I'm allowed to step on it!' 


MT: Does it make you feel anxious though? It makes me feel really anxious because I really want to do it and then I have to work up the courage and every time in every setting -- 


SF: -- it feels really. Yeah. I think it makes me feel triumphant. Like, 'Ahaha you're not so precious after all!' I don't know. And I, I think I felt some kind of triumph that I knew I was allowed to, I felt like I had an insider knowledge that I'm allowed to do this, the artist intended this. 


MT: That is a hidden part of it - in Marfa -- there the Andre's go over the stone path so they feel like rocks in the river. And you stand on them outside, and can look out into that West Texas landscape. They're kind of unnatural works in general, but seeing them in that context. That humanized them a lot for me. I think after that I became more comfortable with stepping on them in an artificial space or a gallery space. 


SF: That makes sense. Well I was thinking about with rocks I feel like your work is clearly connected to meditation and thinking about your paintings as facilitating meditation or -- have you been to Japan? You've probably been -- 


MT: I went to Japan a year and a half ago. 


SF: Oh, you went on your own, right? Yeah, I remember. 


MT: Yeah, I had a free ticket voucher. 


SF: So did you go to Kyoto? Did you go to the rock garden? Ryōan-ji. It's the most famous Zen rock garden. 


MT: I did and I was prepared to -- I think the tricky thing with Zen, is that it's had such an impact in my life and then there's a big part of me that feels still inappropriate to love it -- 


SF: Because it's not the culture you're born into or? 


MT: Yeah, I think because it's not the culture I was born into. 


SF: But aren't you practicing Zen meditation? 


SF: We have gone together before - I know your secret! 


MT: When I was in Kanazawa, I went to see D.T Suzuki's museum. He was the guy who kind of brought Zen Buddhism to the US so to speak and he gave a bunch of lectures at Columbia - I think in the fifties which Reinhardt, John Cage and Agnes Martin went to and were influenced by. It always fascinates me how like one lecture can really shape the course of things -- 


SF: That is crazy to think about, especially when the way that information spread was less rapid! 


MT: Totally but maybe even more so because of that or, I don't know, like one summer of Black Mountain and being at Black Mountain and Cage and Cunningham being able to dance together there. I think it really did shape the course of 20th century art history, but it's just one little moment of probably drinking beers and hanging out. Anyway in the Suzuki Museum, there are these beautiful pools of water and it started raining and it dropped these ripples in the water and in my memory, those little ripples and the rock gardens are very conflated. 


SF: I saw that garden when it was Fall, so the leaves were insane in the park around the Temple. So that's when I remember it, the colour was so, so intense. It was really overwhelming. It's the most intense natural colour I've ever experienced - to be in Japan in the Fall, or Kyoto in the Fall. 


MT: You lived in Japan for a year? 


SF: Less than a year, but I was there for half a year - 


MT: So still pretty intense. I mean you were in your early twenties, right? What made you want to go to Japan? 


SF: I studied Japanese when I was in high school and college and was really interested in modernist Japanese literature and how they were in a repressed culture where things, especially sex and violence would be so intense in these novels. Like there's a lot of like BDSM stuff in Mishima or other modernist writers that I feel really appealed to my angsty high school self that it was just, it felt just kind of explosive - the way teenage energy is kind of explosive. So I was really into that. 


MT: Can you -- is there an example that sticks with you? Like a book or a scene from a book? 

SF: I mean there was a lot that I was into at the time - there's a book that Mishima wrote called 'Confessions of a Mask' -- Did you read that? 


MT: Yeah 


SF: It's repressed homosexuality and then mutilating his own body and all this intensity. I remember more of the feelings from it. You maybe remember more than I do -- 


MT: No, I read it a while ago. You're making me think also of Mishima's The Temple of the Golden Pavillion. That ability to show an internal complexity of a person is just mind blowing to me. And even in translation, I'm sure you were able to read it partially in Japanese. 


SF: No - my Japanese was at a middle school level --- let's say 6th grade. But yeah, no, that one. And the guy has a club foot. I think there's something grotesque that comes through in that and in Japanese modernism, with him dragging his foot around and feeling that he's undesirable in society -- 


MT: and post-war -- 


SF: yeah, but the scene from that stuck with me forever and that makes me crazy is, at the beginning his dad has been telling him about this temple and he goes to visit it for the first time and it's disappointing. But there's a model of the temple in the lobby of the temple and he's way more into the model than the temple itself. I read that in college and I thought, oh my God, this is about art. Like the symbolic construction of something can be better -- 


MT: Yeah of course! Well it's also and maybe that is in my limited experience, a hallmark of Japanese modernist literature is the ability to see something very simple, which is that an idea or a model of a thing can mean so much more than the actual experience. But then, in that simple thing, being able to show how much it can wretch your heart or call to action -- 


SF: Well there's something really poignant about identifying more with the model. It is almost like him not being able to be fully in the world or something there's some, there's some kind of weird distancing that happens if you are the type of person who would prefer the model. There's a loneliness to it - that I can identify with. 


MT: Have you read that book? I'm trying to think of the title. Um, it's by Kenzaburo Oe...? 


SF: A Personal Matter? 


MT: Yeah 


SF: Yeah that one's crazy! 


MT: Yeah and the idea of this deformed baby, but it actually was fine. And that the two things totally coexist, this feeling of something being horribly and irreparably deformed and then actually salvageable. That's really interesting to me. But then that last part where that teacher told them to look up hope in the dictionary or something. And then in the end, like the last line of the book is like "and he opened the dictionary and he decided I'm not going to look up hope I'm going to instead look up the word for forbearance" I don't know -- that really gets me. So one of the questions I actually had for you is - how has your relationship to meditation shifted in the last year and also do you see it affecting your practice? 


SF: That's a good question. When I started meditating it was with you and Marcela probably almost two years ago, which is cool. But, um -- 


MT: I guess then my question should be how has your relationship to meditation developed in the past two years? 


ST: I feel like I always thought that I should be meditating and then I started doing it with you guys. It was like everything that I think about in painting made manifest in this real experience because it's so much about the connection between physicality and emotion and experiencing your own thoughts as sensation which I've always thought about in painting and it's like I have to make paintings that are experienced both primarily as sensory abstract experiences, but also they have to have more cerebral image constructions in them. Because that's how reality is to me, you know, so it has to be both things at once to feel like it's doing what I wanted to do. But I feel like meditation - it's kind of clarifying. It's like everything I learned in meditation will be like, Oh, right. 


MT: Can you say again this distinction, the sensorial experience, the real or the referential? Is that the distinction you were making? 


SF: Yeah, I feel like within painting or -- Yeah, I want my paintings to be on the edge of being experienced as something that someone could process cerebrally, like this is an image of a woman and she has her legs open. Then at the same time not being sure if actually it should be processed as "the centre of this painting is just a throbbing red area" or some kind of pulsing warmth or something like that. And I think meditation just helps. It helps me connect my emotions to the physical sensation. I mean the most obvious thing that I think everybody knows if they have meditated is if you're getting stressed out to try and relax your stomach -- to know that somewhere in your front body, is holding the tension of your stress, and so to be aware that your physical tension actually controls partially how you're processing your emotion and vice versa. 


MT: And that the boundaries are very porous between the two. 


SF: Yeah, so I find that it helps me identify kind of a floating, ambiguous --- to tune into what is actually good -- 

MT: Which feels very significant for the moments that you choose to paint or not. It's a moment of, well, of two things coming together or extremes -- I've been reading Ovid a lot, the Metamorphoses and I love, love, love that it's page after page of extreme emotion or sensation - shifting matter from one into other matter, through fear of running away from Apollo, turning into a tree or through the anger of competition, Athena turning Ariacne into a spider. That idea that one thing goes into something else by sensation, emotion, sensorial experience feels very related to your work. But also I love - if I'm understanding you correctly - that meditation or maybe finding this spaciousness can make you aware of your own experience of it while you're working. 


SF: I love what you're saying about shifting matter because that seems a connector in both of our work, like thinking about what you're doing with materials like wool and silk. How I would think about it all through oil paint but it would be a similar kind of impulse of this painting needing to have an area that's really loose and washy and kind of slipping away and something that's really concrete and hard and it's a flat surface. There's some kind of meeting there - because our work looks so different from each other. But I do feel like we think about similar things sometimes. 


MT: Yeah. I guess I'm always really interested in what is that instance when they touch. Because anything can get used to anything else, but but to think about the charge of the first touch between two different matters and the emerging space between them after that moment -- that feels very erotic, not just in a sexual way, but I feel like maybe both of our works deal with this.


SF: Do you think of your work as erotic? 


MT: Yeah, I think about the erotic a lot, I think. Well I'd be curious about what your definition of erotic is because mine is always shifting -- 


SF: I'm not sure because I feel like it's such a wide category. The erotic can become like the erotics of blah blah blah. Like the erotics of material. The erotics of anything really. But I mean, my work like has sex in it so - images of sex - so I feel like it has to inevitably come up -- 


MT: But I feel like the erotic in your work is, yes images of sex but it's also in the materiality of it and the exploration of touch and one quality next to another. 


SF: Well, all of the paintings that I'm making right now for the Shanghai show are all one figure on each canvas. So I mean they're abstract paintings, but each one is based on one body. So what you're saying is maybe even truer right now where it's like within one body, what if part of you feels soft and part of you feels hard or part of you feels like it doesn't want to be seen and part does want to be seen. So thinking about how people present themselves and when they're constructing themselves, how -- like I guess I think about veils and transparency and what do you show and what do you hide, what do you want, where do you feel concrete? So each painting has kind of a different take on that for me. 


MT: I guess that relationship between distance and absorption gets to where I define erotic. I think desire, desire is a lot of it, but desire is to me both, the existence of distance somehow also closing it. How desire or longing can bring a person closer to something that if they already possessed it, and took it for a given. 

SF: It's actually really related to something I was thinking about. I think -- but I couldn't articulate it, but I'm thinking about distance. It's similar to the thing that we were talking about before, about the temple that there's some way in which you standing in it is less powerful than it being apart from you. 


MT: Exactly. Exactly. And I think that there can be this experience of being apart that actually makes you feel more with. For example, maybe it's the moment between a hard material on a soft material where they just comes together before the distance is completely melted. Touching with the tips of your fingertips rather than fully grasping and suddenly the space becomes charged. Does that make sense? 


SF: It make sense to me. Yeah. I've been thinking a lot about hiding and concealing cause I want the ambiguity in my paintings to be really in your face, but then there's this weird thing of this dual impulse of -- being ambiguous is not being in your face. Being ambiguous is being a bit cagey and kind of evading being categorized. It's sort of a sneaky way to work around a quick read of your paintings 


MT: Do you know what the etymology of ambiguous is? I mean, ambi is both. 


SF: Shall we look it up? 


MT: Yeah. Do you feel like it's dishonest to be ambiguous? 


SF: No. I feel like it's more honest to feel -- it is a driving force because it feels more true to my own experience in thinking about sexuality. I think a lot about being both objectified and then objectifying yourself and then being lost in sensations or really detached. There's so many different roles that people play in relationship to other people. 


MT: Most practically for me, the way that I see my work as erotic - is because the way I've learned how to touch material is through touching other people and vice versa. At the same time, however I find a huge sense of empathy when I read someone like Teresa of Avila, Hildegard von Bingen, who talk about an intense desire for a union with God, especially after experiencing small moments of God's presence through prayer or other ecstatic experiences. How that kind of experience of closeness can evoke an overwhelming desire to be closer to things -- but way more intimate than the boundaries of skin or the boundaries of material allow. Erotic closeness becomes defined for me as a kind of intimacy of spirit. That's what gets really interesting. To me this is an interesting ambiguity. Both closeness and distance at once. 


SF: To drive in both ways. Ambi means both ways and gere in Latin means to drive, to waver or go around - and then ambiguous: it meant doubtful and now it means obscure. 


MT: Interesting. 


SF: But I like to drive both ways. I mean when I think about being in between figuration and abstraction, which I guess are the terms I end up having to use, but um, my drive is in both directions and sometimes those impulses are more in harmony and sometimes they're totally clashing. Sometimes the abstraction, the paint itself and the narrative image in a painting are just not connected with each other, which is a way that I experience reality sometimes. But I was thinking about when you were talking about touching material and thread -- about how you were like an ER person or like an EMT. And just kind of how maybe that healing touch can be connected to developing the work that you're now making. Do you see that as connected or? 


MT: That's such an interesting thing to say - yeah, yeah, I totally see it as connected. Because as an EMT it's coming into a person in an extreme situation and not knowing anything about them other than what their body needs at that one moment and in that split moment thinking about how you can help them alleviate stress or pain. I'm interested in medicine in general, but I think in a way that quickness is really interesting to me. Also the quickness of having to assess what's going on with someone and if you only have this one moment- like what can I do for you in this one moment that we have in this emergency situation? Then of course it gets very practically broken down. Like if your heart is in spasm, then you can shock it, which is extreme and whatever, or more mundanely if you skin your knee then I can give you a band aid. But in both situations it is the act of coming at something, knowing so little and just taking the information that a body is telling you that, a pain is telling you, and reacting to it. I feel like that was extremely informative. 


SF: Pain is so ambiguous. I'm doing physical therapy right now because I injured my back and the doctor asked what level is your pain, and I'm like, I don't know, like a 7? I don't know, what level is other people's pain? And then you don't remember exactly how pain felt afterwards. 


MT: What we learned in our EMT training is that that pain scale is only relevant in thinking about the individual. If we have these 20 minutes together, I can say Sarah what's your pain? And you say seven, and then I asked you in 20 minutes and you say nine, then I understand that you're getting worse. But yeah, as you say one person's seven is another person three. It's totally a vast scale but I think that's also really beautiful in a way it's this universal measuring device that actually is only relevant when it's related to a one person.


SF: Yeah. That was the thing I was going to ask you about. I was thinking about the work that you made a few years ago at the end of school and the way that you were connecting things to each other with a tube, like the material choice was literally connected to medicine and the body in that work, and I was just wondering if you think about physical pain within the work you're making now. 


MT: That's a big question. It's a very important question. Just quickly, I went to the Bronx Botanical Garden yesterday with Brook, and I saw the orchids and there were these really elaborate tubing systems to get them water. They were spread out. That was so beautiful to me and I guess a tube obviously is something that moves liquid from one place to another and that is a medical device, but it's also --- 


SF: I mean maybe I'm projecting something into it -- 


MT: No no. I mean, one of the most important books for me is the The Body in Pain by Elaine Scarry, um, which we've talked about. I mean, I guess the most direct question that I'm interested in answering is what happens when you're in extreme pain? and I think it's related to meditation in that you can -- you switch into this singular focus. That's really interesting to me, also that pain transcends. It's purely experiential. It's such a primal experience. I think often I go out through the day and don't remember that I'm a physical being and when you feel pain, that's the only thing you're aware of. But I think what's still unclear to me is the relationship between extreme physical pain and extreme emotional pain. And as you say, there's the sensorial experience and the mind experience are they are not actually different ones. Can I ask you how you would answer the same question? 

SF: The question was about pain? Yeah, I mean, I guess in my own work, there's always a fractured sense of reality and the reality of being in a body. Not everybody feels fractured in their day to day. I think some people feel really whole all the time. But I don't, and I don't mind feeling fractured - I like the way that I experience the world. It's interesting to me. I think it comes from when I was a kid having health issues and then I had surgery when I was young so -- like my body was a porous thing that somebody cut and sewed again when I was really little and very impressionable. And there's something in that that then has shaped the way that I experience body awareness -- maybe having some kind of awareness from an early age that you have organs - 


MT: And then when you think about your kidney, you imagine a kidney in a textbook rather than this thing you're extremely intimate with. 


SF: Yeah. But I never make paintings that are about physical pain. 


MT: But it's interesting when the body is the subject matter in an artwork or -- I don't mean to speak for you but just that what happens to my body becomes like 'interesting' instead of this other thing. When I feel pain. It's like, oh that's so interesting. 


SF: Yeah when I'm going to physical therapy I think: "this is very interesting" and also it's mildly erotic. Feeling my body move in a new way. 


MT: Yeah. I have been getting acupuncture and it really affects me. I know for some people it doesn't affect them at all. And whether it was psychosomatic from me or not - but this idea of like energy points -- I got treated for cold and right after I shot up with fever and was sick and then it went away. 


SF: The one time I got acupuncture for back pain and it didn't cure my back pain, but it released this torrent of emotion that was so intense. I was super disoriented. I was in Boston and went to my mom's acupuncturists in the suburbs and then driving back to her house I got lost and was crying and just couldn't handle my shit at all and it was because of the acupuncture 


SF: But in talking about distance and things that aren't touchable, do you think there's something weird about the fact that we can't touch our organs. Know what I mean? 


MT: Yeah. Well, you're touching them all the time, but what is actually --- that was the question I have for you. Well, what is touch? Do you think about training your touch and if so, how do you do? 


SF: So within paintings? 


MT: I guess however you want to answer that question.


SF: Yeah, I mean I think I've been really into this absorbent ground that Dani helped me develop. everything gets absorbed really quickly and I feel like the surface that I'm working on is more responsive than other surfaces - because a regular gesso you could wipe it off and it'd be like you'd never touched it at all. But this surface -- you can't get rid of your touch, you touch it and then it's there. 


MT: Well I guess just in talking about how we don't think that we touch our organs, it's hard to feel intimate with the insides of your body. Touch and sight are so connected for us that it's hard for us to feel like we're touching things that we don't see. That feels very related to both of our work and why it needs to be a visual experience. 

SF: Is there something like really specific that you're thinking about? 


MT: Um, I think I experience touch in my work as a physical sensation more than I would in a daily sense. And that's kind of why I would look at a painting - to have something more than I could experience on a day to day sensorial level. 


SF: Yeah, I mean I guess there's the idea of mirror touch and that when you're painting or when you're looking at a painting, your eye follows the way that the mark was made. So even if you don't quite understand how the mark was made, you're still, kind of following the trajectory of moving up and down or things dripping. There's a feeling of gravity and movement and weight and that you are simultaneously experiencing that sensation. Sort of like if you had a dream and like you can't fly, but you sort of know what it feels like. I feel like that about painting sometimes. If I'm looking at a painting and the visceral way that it's been touched, there's a sort of simultaneous re-experiencing.


MT: Does the state of mind that you're in affect the work you're making? If you're thinking about something or distracting, can you tell it when you look at the painting -- an actual moment? 


SF: Oh, I have to be in a certain state of mind that's much more - like I'll be listening to NPR all day and then when I actually have to paint I'll put on some kind of music that's really familiar to me. That's really comfortable. That evokes a weird nostalgia or an extreme joy. Do you feel like you have to be in a certain state of mind? 


MT: Yeah. Well at the very least I feel like it shows like if I'm distracted it just feels tighter or looser. It's so affected by my body movements that if my muscles are tight because I'm stressing about something, it shows up in the work - but I'm also so easily emotionally influenced that it's actually kind of easy to trick myself into being in the right mood with a particular song reading a passage -- 


SF: What are you listening to now? Like what music were you put on or is it mostly secret? 


MT: I've been really obsessed with Alice Coltrane. What about you? 


SF: I think I like tend to want to be in a hyper emotional state, so whatever it is, to be feeling it a bit too much. sometimes I'll put the same song on repeat or two songs that are book ends of each other and put that in a loop. One is the happy part and one is the sad part. I feel like that works pretty well, but a lot of times I'm putting on something really upbeat and pop-y that gets me the energy that I need, and it's a little hyperactive. But yeah. I don't know. Wouldn't it be different though if you're sewing? 


MT: Well with spinning or weaving I don't listen to anything - but when I'm actually making the pieces and I am more careful about what I have on. 


SF: Like if you're arranging? 


MT: Yeah because then the energy that your body is feeling by hearing music affects the choices and the compositions that come out of it. And I used to feel kind of like, oh that's not as serious. But recently I have been feeling differently. Even whatever the most popular songs are, they are popular for a reason. Like the definition of popular is that they affect many people. And so to be one of many feels actually really important when making work. 


SF: I thought it was so cool that your image was used for that Claudia Rankine play because that felt like your work was accessible to -- if we're thinking about pop, -- it made me really happy to see that somebody outside of the art world could feel super connected to your work in this literary way - 


MT: Thank you. Well really any time where I feel like my work can go out and be felt or understood in a way that can speak to our current culture. I don't think that at every moment in history art and community have always needed each other, but my personal feeling is that at this moment right now art and people are so inextricably linked and it's important to me in my practice that it can reach out and touch other people or link to this world. Do you think about that? 


SF: Yeah, I mean I feel like I want to make things that suck people in and then they're in it and they have to battle it out, that's important to me. 


MT: Who do you feel in dialogue with contemporary artists or musicians or even an idea or a song, or a book? 


SF: I mean Maggie Nelson. To make something that's inspiring on so many different registers. There's theory, there's personal narrative, there's reverberations of that into literature, art history. I like to think that the paintings that I'm making, they're very collage based in their origins. And painting is just like that - really rhizomatic you know, where it's connected to a million things at once and referencing a million things at once. 


MT: but I think that's actually really interesting to me because so much of the way Maggie Nelson is about questioning appropriation. The texts that she takes from incorporated into her own and that your paintings in some ways -- could be appropriating from your collage and I think that's how I imagine her practice would be: reading and collecting moments and how they all come together. 


SF: -- and it's, I mean, I guess allowing things to be inconclusive, just kind of an unspoken, an amalgamation of things. Do you have people that you're want to be connected to? 


MT: Yeah. I made a list of artists whom I was most influenced by recently - contemporary from our generation. And for the most part they were young women, uh, working with material based sculptural practices. Um, but ones that showed perhaps the porousness of things, so someone like Anicka Yi, I love her. Anything that evokes malleability of matter or boundaries not being set really gets my heart fluttering. So you, where do you think you're going - with your own work or in life? Just in general. However you feel like answering. 


SF: I feel like I've felt this drive that I had to say everything all at once, immediately, especially leaving school and then putting work out in the world. Now I feel a lot more slow. That could be an effect of meditation also, but I feel like this group all deals with one type of absorbency and the next group might have a really different surface. Like maybe before I'd make 20 paintings that were all different from each other and now I can make 20 bodies of work out of each one. 


MT: My first thought is that is a beautiful meditation -- one thing at a time and I imagine that the more you do it, the more it would be broken down more and more and more, but in another way it feels like that not needing to be everything, just needing to be one thing and one thing being able to carry a whole body of work or a whole show. 


SF: Yeah and I spent years wondering when I would develop a body of work, but what is a body of work? It's also interesting that it's called body -- See I find that fundamentally weird. If there's this assumption of body and wholeness, I don't know if I can get with that -- 


@marthatuttle @fauxsarah