Todd Gilens

Drawings and Messages from the Confluence Project, 2017
Installation view
Greening Gallery
Marin Headlands Visitor Center
Golden Gate National Recreation Area


In 2015 Todd Gilens began the Confluence project, investigating stream ecology in the Sierra Nevada and developing materials for public installations in cities whose water is provided by these mountain sources. The project explores intersections between the layered, lively dynamics of streams and the perhaps vanishing craft of cursive handwriting. Over the past several years Todd has made extended visits to Sierra ecological field stations to meet with field scientists and take part in observations and data gathering. He has also searched archives for historic handwriting samples that he will convert to digital fonts to create outdoor text installations about stream science and urban water use.

Todd’s exhibition Drawings and Messages, on view at the Marin Headlands Visitor Center from March 4 through May 15, 2017, includes some of the works on paper that he has developed in the course of the Confluence project.


Knowing by,
Berkeley, 2016
Graphite and pastel on colored paper
10 x 8 inches


Micro to Crowding (Truckee at Reno),
Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL) and Berkeley, 2015
Graphite and pastel on paper
10 x 11 inches


Articiple: Looking at the material for this exhibition and the writings you’ve published about the Confluence Project, I’m intrigued at how the grid becomes the site of convergence for two very ungridlike phenomena, stream ecology and writing. Of course the Cartesian grid is the matrix most often used to represent data about the measurable world, and most forms of writing, from pictograms to digital type, are arranged in some linear, orthogonal format. Still, what you’re exploring seems often to fall outside of what the grid can capture, as you wrote in December 2016:

The process was a study in the tensions between protocol and variability. And it made clear that the bulk of experience lies outside data points, that in leaping from the known to the inferred we set aside most of what goes on before us.

Those tensions and leaps of faith are part of any act of making sense. They’re especially key to this project where you’re looking so closely at how moments and nodes coalesce into complex understandings. How do those tensions motivate or shape this project?


Drawings and Messages from the Confluence Project, 2017
Installation view
Greening Gallery
Marin Headlands Visitor Center
Golden Gate National Recreation Area


Todd: Yes, difference is experience, so it is a question of how to arrange contrasts whether of visual, historical or conceptual origin. In designing this project, I have been looking for the right proportions and contrasts that set associations in motion, that invite the sort of very human experience of engaging through curiosity and being rewarded with discoveries. I’ve piled a lot into it, but each has a good reason to be in the work and is articulated with the other parts.  I’m looking at natural systems and in human culture, field science, writing systems and urbanization. These are the content, and also my models for complexity and contrast.


Approximate Landscape,
Valentine Camp, 2014
Lithography crayon on paper
10 x 11 inches


Grids are stable frameworks against which nuance and complexity can be highlighted, whether in data plots or down the lines of a poem. And there is the urban grid, largely facilitating transportation and building technologies, which is laid over another system, the shapes of land and streams. Buildings and roads hide the nuances of the landscape: the tension between the two is built-in.

One of the key experiences in developing the project was being at the experimental stream network at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL) near Mammoth Lakes. Nine identical zigzag channels were constructed in the 1980’s for experimenting with different flow volumes. Mountain streams are so variable and researchers wanted a way to compare effects side by side. I recognized these channels as an intermediate step between mountain streams and urban stormwater systems, which also regularize the flow of water into zigzags in pipes underground. I also sense that science practices are intermediaries, as they translate phenomena to frameworks of understanding something of complexity is shut out and something of control is gained. In good science though, the complexity remains accessible, and the control is light-handed and humble.


SNARL and Berkeley, 2016
Pastel and chalk on paper
11 x 10 inches


Articiple: There’s an interesting variation in relationships to the grid among the different drawings in this series. In the gridded letter pieces, the grid explicitly imposes a non-hierarchy, treating the letters as unplotted data points. Only the letters’ sequential arrangement shows their relationship or their collective meaning. In the drawings of stream paths and other natural patterns, forms are hierarchical but non-sequential. Relationships between points are pronounced, but our eye can take any path we choose through the pieces. The cursive curvilinear drawings are a third thing: we have to follow the linear path of the text to understand its meaning, but the overall images are non-sequential. What were your thoughts or intentions about these various explicit and implicit relationships to the grid as you made these pieces?


Streams receive,
Berkeley, 2016
Charcoal and graphite on clay-coated paper
10 x 8 inches


Not Impossible Pathways,
Berkeley, 2016
Pastel and charcoal on paper
10 x 11 inches


Water takes,
SNARL, 2016
Charcoal on paper
10 x 11 inches


Todd: The gridded letter pieces need to be engaging at the level of what they say as writing, but they also give an overall impression without being read in the conventional sense. In typesetting that overall look is called the ‘color’ of the page – even though it’s black on white.

The other pieces play across that spectrum but each one has multiple kinds of meaning.  For example, the India ink squiggles (“Ridges and Valleys”), riffs on topographic maps, describing a fundamental condition of high and low land surfaces. The title gives a clue, but the drawing doesn’t say whether black or white is higher – that is left to interpretation, as is the scale. And the pattern can also suggest skin, or undersea forms. So we should be able to move between kinds of hierarchies, different systems of value. There are no limits, and I want to have a range of approaches in the work, and to test my own limits and habits as well. I think it’s an important skill to be able to read things in multiple and often contradictory ways.


Berkeley, 2015
India ink on paper
10 x 11 inches


Articiple: The culmination of the Confluence Project will be the installation of mile-long texts along city curbs, communicating ideas about water and stream science. You’re using handwriting samples from historical archives in the Sierra to design fonts for these texts. What process do you use to create a standardized digital font from an idiosyncratic, even archaic writing sample?


Curb installation prototype
Reno NV, 2016


Todd: The process is simple but fussy. I’ve gone through dozens of examples of historical handwriting at archives all around the West, looking for cursive that is legible and done by a person representing something historically interesting – not famous people but individuals who have had a role in the local culture. There needs to be enough written material so that they will have used all the letters of the alphabet. About ten pages seem to work, though it depends on their vocabulary of course. I’ll photograph the pages, then using Photoshop isolate each letter, trimming the start and end of each stroke to where it will mostly meet up with the beginning of the next letter. Most writers have variants on letters like s’s, whether they are placed at the beginning or in the middle of the word, so I’ll try to capture that too. I look for typical examples, and have to hunt to find letters like z, x and j. It’s an interesting way to read, for letters, rather than for meaning at the level of words and sentences.  Once I have an alphabet, including capital letters and some punctuation, I put it into a template, upload it to an online service that assigns the letter images to keyboard keys, and a few seconds later I receive a font file that I can load onto my computer, and type away in the handwriting of that deceased person. The process goes through several iterations to get the letters to connect well, and there is still a lot of fussing with letter spacing and kerning.


Handwriting sample of Claude Dukes, Federal Water Master for the Truckee and Carson River systems from 1958 to 1984.


Articiple: How does the use of these historically specific and very individual archival materials intersect with the other themes of the project, the interpretation and communication of complex ecology?

Todd: There is an interesting regularization that happens as handwriting becomes a font – it goes from responsive to consistent. The handwriting-to-font process parallels the regularization of urban water flows and the simplification of phenomena for understanding. Since I needed some kind of a font for the project, I wanted to bring in a very personal level, an individual voice, because the work will meet pedestrians one at a time as they read. That sense of individual experience is important to me in crafting work, the audience of one. I wanted a certain intimacy to speak about these vast processes. Cursive was an obvious choice for its continuity and for the way it expresses the unique condition of an individual through the collective medium of writing. It’s another way a material, in this case a font, can have meaning in a work, even if largely hidden. I don’t expect anyone will recognize the handwriting of so-and-so. It will be part of the backstory.

Articiple: You created some of these drawings at the field stations, sometimes using local found materials. How did these site-specific criteria influence the works?


SNARL, 2015
Lithography crayon on paper
11 x 10 inches


Todd: As I’m working on understanding our concepts of landscape, working out of field stations has been an enormous advantage. Informal conversations with researchers is really at the base of the project, and I was lucky to cross paths with many interesting people who were also quite generous in talking with me. There are the field stations, and then there is field work out in the landscape, where mostly I was making notes and drawings in a journaling kind of way.

Working this way means bringing the subject and its representation closer. Using site materials is another way to do that: the material becomes another layer in the mix of meanings. Found charcoal is extremely lively. These are pieces left from burn piles where forests are thinned, it doesn’t have an even texture or shape. It’s hard to control so I work with it freely and also carefully; there are always surprises in the marks. I also used rainfall on some of the lithography crayon pieces, just setting them out on the porch and snatching them back at a certain point. Some of the pieces were done in David Herbst’s lab at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory near Mammoth Lakes. They gave me desk space and I could call Dave or his co-worker Bruce Medhurst over to clarify an idea or discuss a drawing from their point of view. That kind of access is extremely enriching to the work.


Approximate Cobbles,
Valentine Camp, 2014
Lithography crayon on paper
10 x 11 inches


Articiple: Viewing this project, I’m left with a sense of the incommensurate—incommensurate scales of time in geology and biology, incommensurate scales of complexity in natural processes and human comprehension. I think one achievement of this project is to engage with the incomprehensible, even as you measure and interpret and search for order. What, for you, is the place of the incomprehensible or the immeasurable in the quest for scientific integrity and environmental responsibility?

Todd: Actually, I’m not sure human comprehension is so far off the complexities of natural processes – we are a natural process too, after all. I would set ‘comprehension’ against ‘description’ and ‘understanding’, which are limited, whereas comprehension can be synthetic, open, and include contradictions.


Slow Water,
SNARL, 2016
Charcoal on paper
10 x 11 inches


Even though in the big picture we’re tiny, short-term specks of life, the world from our vantage point does revolve around us – it’s even produced by us in the fundamental sense that whatever is out-there registers through our senses and understanding as the thing we call the world. Looking after oneself and looking after the environment align, and that goes for looking after other people too. There is certainly a lot of ignorance and deceit.  We have limitations, and our confusions and frustrations get played out in how we imagine and shape our environments. I do have a moral sense for developing my understanding, and a social sense for sharing what I’m doing. Maybe curiosity and responsibility are two sides of having a focus on how things work, not forcing into theory but opening to what comes up.

As for integrity in science practice, science is, in my view, a remarkable discipline, a craft for building understanding. It is meant for circumstances that are measurable. Enlarging the field of measurability has been a big technological effort – lasers, mass spectrometers, data analysis software. It will be interesting to see where human agency moves as automated tools take over more of the sensing tasks in research. It’s one of the reasons I’m interested in field science: what does it mean to engage with a place as a person? One evening last summer when I was out surveying streams with researchers, I suggested that understanding was overrated. Everyone’s jaw dropped and one of them said, “Well then, we may as well go home.” But I feel that both understanding and incomprehensibility together make a picture of experience; and there are other things too, such as hunches, love, lots of human stuff that is happening in parallel. Science is an evolving, collectively defined method or form of inquiry and exchange, just as ballet is a form of training and dance performance. There are a lot of ways to do it.


Path Dependency,
SNARL and Berkeley, 2015-17
Graphite and colored pencil on paper
10 x 11 inches



Truong Tran

Black As a Color Is Absolute, 2016 Acrylic on panel 38 x 38 inches

Black As a Color Is Absolute, 2016
Acrylic on panel
38 x 38 inches


I met Truong Tran when we both identified as poets with an interest in making art. In the years since then we’ve each given more time to our art practices until now the balance is effectively reversed. In Truong’s poetry I admired the clarity and specificity, the vulnerability that never veered into the maudlin, the recombinatory structures that wove different contexts and intensities into new wholes.

Truong has transposed those poetic sensibilities in an art practice that takes the detritus of our manufactured lives–overstocked plastics, leftover house paint, discarded porn–in works that go beyond the juxtaposition of collage or assemblage. These pristine works may attract us first with their brightness and precision, but the meaning of these pieces is borne in the unsettling and unresolved questions that motivate the work. Truong’s art brings us a language by way of objects.


Truong Tran with Black As a Color Is Absolute, #5 and #4 (opening reception for How Touching/In These Times with Mary Burger, Working Space Projects, Jan. 2017 Photo: Alan Bamberger)

Truong Tran with
Black As a Color Is Absolute, #5 and #4
(opening reception for In These Times,
Working Space Projects,
Jan. 2017
Photo: Alan Bamberger)


Truong: This is my new exploration. It’s house paint. I need to ask you about how to preserve things like this because—someone reminded me of the character in the Kurt Vonnegut novel where he was painting with house paints and he sold his paintings for millions of dollars, and then at one point all of them started deteriorating.

Articiple: Well, a lot of paintings made with house paint have held up pretty well. Pollack and Rothko used house paint!

Truong: It’s a strange space between controlling and letting go. I use ketchup bottles, squeeze bottles.

Articiple: So you have your whole palette of colors lined up in bottles, and you just grab and squeeze?

Truong: I buy the squeeze bottles and I do it right in my kitchen. I don’t use a brush, so I feel like I have more control. There’s an idea of somehow being able to control it. But then, even when you think you have controlled it, you walk away and come back and something’s changed. Sometimes you like it, and sometimes you go, aghh, no. There’s always that anticipation of control, how much you put on or whatever. And then the surrender of it, because it’s never going to fully follow your will.

At some point, something will ultimately get screwed up in the process. I’m always like, what is that moment? Do you try to cover up your mistake or do you just let it exist? And I find that if I leave it alone and walk away, usually when I come back, that’s the art.

Articiple: Exactly. Finding the shift in your expectations.

Truong: Each one of these has a different feel. I did one last night that I kind of fucked up. And then looking back at it, I think I’m ok with it. Because, looking back at some of these pieces, there’s some hemorrhage.

Articiple: Is that what you mean when you say fucked up? Where the paint bled, instead of staying in perfect circles?

Truong: Yeah. And I kept adding more to try to fix it, within these really clean areas there were a couple places that just felt wrong.

But there’s something really meditative. I don’t know how you work, but I love finding methods of working that allow me to meditate while I work.

Articiple: So you’re not planning every move, you’re kind of repeating a technique.

Truong: Everything is done instinctively in some sense. And with the butterflies it was muscle memory. You sit there and cut and after awhile your hand just moves through it.

Summer Bliss, 2014 Mixed media 49 x 69 inches

Summer Bliss, 2014
Mixed media
49 x 69 inches


Bang Bang, 2014 (detail of butterflies cut from vintage pornography)

Summer Bliss, 2014
(detail of butterflies cut from vintage pornography)


Truong: You know, that probably is my favorite part of making art, you spend all of this time thinking about an idea. And then when you get to the work, it’s almost like you turn off that part of yourself. In poetry, it doesn’t happen like that for me. It feels like every word has to be thought through. In art, it’s almost like there’s this movement through the work.

That’s the beauty of allowing your hands and the act of making guide your thinking. The thinking is evolving as it happens.

Articiple: And using your eye. Your physical relationship to it, moving back, stepping away, coming back.

I can see that in a lot of your work, the hands take over. You’re not rethinking every move, you’re kind of playing out something from an idea you had before you started.

Truong: And with these paintings, it’s just the dropping. After awhile you just automatically think through the process.

Last night I didn’t like what happened. I was trying to scrape off some paint and it was kind of a mess.

Articiple: You’re probably very sensitive to the little variations that someone else won’t notice.

Truong: Yeah, people won’t fully understand that.

Articiple: I like the fact that there is variation. It shows that it wasn’t completely planned—that there was some surrender, like you said.

That’s what I like screen printing. I use it as an improv technique so there are always surprises. I don’t ink the screens perfectly, I don’t make perfect contact between the screen and the canvas or whatever. I control certain things and let other things just happen.

What’s the substrate for the paintings?

Truong: It’s birch panel. And before I paint, I go over the wood with probably six coats of black India ink. I’m trying to get the blackest black.

Articiple: Right, the totally absorptive black, like the ‘Vantablack’ that Anish Kapoor got the rights to.


Two identical bronze casts, one painted with Vantablack (image: Surrey NanoSystems)

Two identical bronze casts, one painted with Vantablack
(image: Surrey NanoSystems)


Truong: Yeah. That’s the starting point. The idea is, I wanted to start the point of entry with the color black as the surface.

Articiple: And totally matte.

Truong: Yeah, almost like you sink into it.

This was one of my first prototypes. The one I’m working on now has text on it.

Articiple: And you use press-on type for the text?

Truong: I use Letrasets, which is how graphic designers used to do all of their work. It’s all contact. I have thousands of them, I just started hoarding them, because I knew it was going out. At some point they’re not going to have any more. So I just grabbed all that I could. I have a giant box.

I incorporated the lettering because I can control the lettering. What I don’t get in trying to control the paint, I can get with the lettering. It’s very precise.

Black As a Color Is Absolute #5, 2016 Acrylic on panel 25 x 25 inches

Black As a Color Is Absolute #5, 2016
Acrylic on panel
25 x 25 inches


Articiple: And there’s so much signification associated with text. It makes a good counterpoint to using color by itself.

Truong: It was also really interesting to work with letters as an art material, as opposed to language. I love that part of it, and the different font sizes and all that.

I started working over the summer with thread. I created a landscape with it. I also tried to do a little embroidery. I embroidered the first poem I memorized. It’s a Robert Frost poem. I could never teach this poem, but somehow it felt ok to put it in a piece of art.

Articiple: Language takes on a different quality when it’s used visually. It doesn’t have the same pressures of analysis.

Truong: It doesn’t have the same scrutiny.

Articiple: Like, it’s ok to use the word ‘eden’ in a piece of art.

Truong: Yes!

Articiple: And this is on velvet?

Truong: Yeah, like an upholstery fabric. J-Ha (writer Jennifer Hasegawa) helped me with this a little bit. She started it. But, being that I’m a control freak, I was like, oh, I’ve gotta do it myself.

The first half of the summer I was completely immersed in doing this Mylar work. These pieces light up.

I always have to figure out the best lighting. Flourescent lights are the best. They give off the best light. LEDs are problematic. I used LED strings for these.

Solids, 2013 Mixed media 12 x 48 inches (early pieces with mylar and light)

Solids, 2013
Mixed media
12 x 48 inches
(early pieces with mylar and light)


Articiple: That looks great, light catching all the surfaces.

Truong: I did an experiment last year where I made these pieces, these light sticks. This was when I was over at the Norton Factory Studios. At the time all these things were happening to me in the world and in the art community that I was kind of thinking about as I was making them.

Installation view of light sticks, 2015

Installation view of light sticks, 2015


They’re made with these things called pixel blocks. They’re these tiny pieces of translucent plastics, they look like pixels. And it was a great design idea, you could use it to build three-dimensionally. But it became a choking hazard for kids. And it’s not very conducive for people who have bad dexterity. So it came and went in a heartbeat. I discovered it and I started playing with it. I did a series of them.

And then I had that moment at completion, I was trying to figure out what to do next with them, do I name them in a way that gives people entry into them? Or do I just let them exist? Because that moment when I name it—I think Mark Bradford does this in his work, names it in such a way that frames the thinking of it. It’s a really interesting way to work, because his work is completely abstract. And it’s beautiful. But he always gives it a title that guides the thinking of it.

Mark Bradford Lights and Tunnels, 2015 (from the solo exhibition Scorched Earth, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles) Mixed media on canvas 84 x 108 inches

Mark Bradford
Lights and Tunnels, 2015
Mixed media on canvas
84 x 108 inches
(from the solo exhibition Scorched Earth,
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles)


Truong: I was thinking about that in my work. Do I give that name to it, or is it an undermining of the visual endeavor of it?

Articiple: And did you end up giving them titles or giving them a context?

Truong: I did give them titles. I gave them titles that framed the thinking of the time for me. But part of me always felt that that undermines the visual endeavor of the work.

Articiple: There’s always the question of how much of context you want to create for the work. Do you just want to say ‘untitled’ and put it out in the world, or give it more back story?

Truong: And that’s the fear. If I say ‘untitled’ the work becomes decoration.

Articiple: I think titles really are part of the work for me. Naming a piece is part of figuring out what’s at stake in it. It’s a process of drafting and revision, just like any kind of writing. And like any writing, I might throw out a lot of ideas as I go along before I get to the final version.

It’s the same when I’m looking at someone else’s work. A title gives another way to enter into the context of the work. You can get context from a lot of sources, like knowing about the artist’s process or the issues in their work. But maybe since I’m a writer I like it when some of the context comes as a piece of language.

Truong: But sometimes it feels very false. I watch a lot of Art 21, I use it as a way of studying techniques. But I also got to a point where I feel like those artists, those 1% artists, I’ll call them, because I think they’re the epitome of success—they have all that rhetoric. And it’s almost like there is an obligation on their part to speak to the kind of social condition that frames their work.

Articiple: And it’s sometimes like that obligation is only in the title or in the artist statement. The work itself can be filled with ambiguity, but the title might have a much more explicit or direct political message.

Truong: It’s not resolved for me. I always feel as though I’m at risk of being invisible if it doesn’t have a statement that frames it to guide your thinking around it. I feel like people will see it as decorational…

I look at Rauschenberg and you know, a can of paint, a goat’s head, a tire, and it suddenly is this great work of art. But I don’t think I could do that.

Robert Rauschenberg Monogram, 1955-1959 Mixed media 42 x 63 x 65 inches

Robert Rauschenberg
Monogram, 1955-1959
Mixed media
42 x 63 x 65 inches


I don’t think I could ever create something from that perspective of pure aesthetics or whatever, and put it out there and get a pass. I feel like there’s going to be a questioning of how I position myself in relation to that art. I think that happens for everyone. It happens for women, it happens for people of color. I think the white dudes in society still get to have that pass. They still get to do this thing based on ‘innovation and inquiry’.

It’s almost the same in writing. Too often I see how writers of color or women writers are framed within the context of existing as that being that reflects and documents history, as opposed to getting to innovate. ‘Innovation’ is still somehow handed to white men.

I always have that struggle when people look at my work and they see the image in my work. And often it’s the found image of the male body. There’s always the question of, where are you in it? As though somehow, if I put images of people of color in that framework, then somehow it eases the tension of questioning my relation. Because they see a person of color as a representation of myself in the work. I get that question all the time.

Butterfly Boy, 2009 Mixed media 57 x 42 inches

Butterfly Boy, 2009
Mixed media
57 x 42 inches


So I guess my response is, as a gay Asian man walking around this world being very conscious of who I am, I don’t think that ever is outside of my consciousness. It’s always a part of my work. I make very specific decisions about how to work with my materials. One, I don’t feel comfortable cutting into the image of a person of color and fragmenting that, sometimes. And two, more often than not, when I go looking for images, and looking as a response to the expectations, I end up in this framework of fetish. You go into a store to buy this material. There are several vintage spaces in the city where you can buy this material, if I get to that point. They’re all categorized by fetish. This is found material. I’m not working to seek out a fetish.

Articiple: The representations are already packaged as products. You’re repurposing them as a commentary on what you’ve found.

Truong: Reproducing the problems of it too. It’s problematic. It’s just really interesting to me that people, when they look at the work, they want some resolution.

I’ve had several occasions where people approached me about the butterfly work and wanted to buy it but asked that I do an edit on it.

Articiple: To remove the porn?

Truong: To make it more rated R, as opposed to rated X. I was like, you want me to go through and pinpoint the pieces that you think are not appropriate?

Articiple: I want to shift gears a little to talk about the issue of displacement–which of course is closely related to hierarchies of representation and control. Artist displacement in the Bay Area has become part of the city’s narrative. You were one of 70 artists who lost space at Studio 17 in the Mission in 2015 when the owners decided not to renew the artists’ leases. You were very involved in publicly advocating to protect the artist space. (KQED reported on the eviction and the aftermath.) How did that all play out?


Redlick Building, formerly Studio 17 17th and Mission St, San Francisco

Redlick Building,
former site of Studio 17
17th and Mission St,
San Francisco


Truong: We got kicked out on the premise that they were going to retrofit the building because it was unsafe for us, but they never offered us a way back in. And as soon as we vacated, they moved over the rest of that tech company that was lurking across the hall.

Articiple: Without even renovating?

Truong: Without renovating. Because it turns out it was an optional retrofit.

I went to the Arts Commission and said, hey, can you help us? Is there anything you can do or speak to, to advocate for us? And they said very clearly, we’re a city organization, so therefore we can’t get involved. We have to take a neutral position. And then, on the day of the hearing at which the Planning Commission votes to approve it, someone from the Arts Commission shows up and speaks really fast—they read off a statement that was so fast that you couldn’t even pick up on it, but basically they said, “We’re here to support whatever decision the Planning Commission arrives at. We want to say that we have already been in touch with the developers. We’re here representing the artists, trying to get them these things.”

I’m like, hold up. You never talked to us about this. You’re not representing us. The question is, how much did they pay you? Because that’s really what it comes down to. Someone’s pocket was filled. That’s the thing, in city politics. It was almost like they pulled a fast one on us. They wanted to do it really fast, hoping nobody would even notice it.

And sure enough, that’s happening all over the city. Back in the 60s and 70s, artist studios were zoned as PDR spaces (Production, Distribution, and Repair). And now they’re all being rezoned as office spaces. And everyone is making the same argument, which is that they’re trying very hard to accommodate the artists. So they’re finding other spaces to offer to the artists. But those spaces that they’re finding are all spaces that once belonged to non-profits or the service industry or mom-and-pop stores. These folks just disappear overnight.

Articiple: It’s this folding over of the city fabric.

Truong: Because it’s easier to talk about supporting the artists than it is to talk about displacing the larger community in the city. Take away the services to these communities that need them and sure enough, they start to move out. Because they don’t have the services to support them.

I almost compare the art scene now to the Truth commercials for cigarettes. All those damn commercials are made by the tobacco industry.

Articiple: As their fine for defrauding the public for decades.

Truong: They make these really shocking commercials, but they’re the ones making them. And the nonprofit arts community is doing the same thing. They do shows about displacement with one hand, but then you see support from the tech companies on the other.

Anne Subercaseaux

  Anne Subercaseaux finds substance in the insubstantial, in paintings that freeze the ephemeral patterns of reflection and shadow.  In her muted, almost monochrome palettes, images seem familiar but still elusive.  The precise silhouette of a bridge girder or a windblown branch moves into focus and out … Continue reading

Toni Gentilli

Toni's studio at The Compound

Toni’s studio at The Compound

Articiple: Over the past few years, I’ve watched photographer Toni Gentilli expose cyanotypes in the parking lot, make photo emulsions from plants growing in the alley, use blood sugar chemistry to create cameraless prints, and generally engage in a tireless practice of curiosity and re-invention. In Toni’s own words, she “combines anachronistic materials and techniques with contemporary sensibilities to explore the interrelationships between technology, nature, history, and identity.” Toni holds an MFA in Photography from the San Francisco Art Institute. She currently manages the photography lab at Solano Community College and curates the Studio Artists Gallery at the Compound in Oakland.  I sat down with her to hear more about her projects, and incidentally learned the words pareidolia and apophenia.

An update, October 2016:
Toni is leaving the Compound Gallery after 4 years, to become the Residency Program Manager at the Santa Fe Art Institute in New Mexico. We’ll miss her energy and vision at the Compound, but look forward to seeing what she’ll do at SFAI!


 Perihelion 2015, from the Evidence of Absence Series (Cyanometer Project.)

Perihelion 2015, from The Evidence of Absence Series. 2015, cyanotype on cotton rag paper. 6 x 36 inches.

Winter Solstice 2014

Winter Solstice 2014, from The Evidence of Absence Series. 2014, cyanotype on cotton rag paper. 6 x 36 inches.

Vernal Equinox 2015

Vernal Equinox 2015, from The Evidence of Absence Series. 2015, cyanotype on cotton rag paper. 6 x 36 inches.

Toni: This project is something I’ve been working on for a few years. I call it my Cyanometer project, but the actual title is The Evidence of Absence. The process involves a quasi-scientific recording of light and time, where I expose a roll of 120mm film in a series of partially overlapping exposures to recreate an 18th-century device called a cyanometer, that was used to measure the blueness of the sky. The cyanometer was a circular monochromatic scale of cyan made using Prussian Blue pigment applied to white paper, invented by a Swiss professor of natural philosophy named Horace-Bénédict de Saussure. The cyanometer was simply held up to the sky as a qualitative reference to determine its hue.

The cyanometer isn’t scientific. It was later proven that light scattering causes the sky to appear blue. I’m sort of reinventing that device. My pieces are linear instead of circular, so they have a feeling of time passing, almost cinematic, but they’re also pretty abstract. They don’t really represent anything from the physical world because I’m playing with the idea that people always expect a photograph is “of” something.

Articiple: Exactly. That’s what’s so interesting to me about your work. Photographs were originally meant to be documentary, but they’re also invented images.

Toni: Right. And in a way, my cyanometers are documentary. What I do to make them is photograph the sky the day before one of six annual solar events and then I process the film and expose it on the cyanotype-coated paper for the duration of the solar event the next day. So, however much sunlight there is for that day is recorded on the paper. Let’s say its vernal equinox, which is coming up next Saturday. I’ll go out on Friday, which is the last day of winter, and I’ll take pictures of the sky, then process the film and expose the entire roll in the sun for nine hours or however long between sunrise and sunset on the first day of spring. Through the cyanometers, I compress longer durations of time into smaller arbitrary segments.

Articiple: How long is each frame exposed when you’re shooting?

Toni: There’s an accumulation of exposures per frame. The first frame contains one exposure, and then the second frame contains two exposures, and so on. The amount of light that hits the film builds up the density of it, so it ultimately lets less light through when I’m printing it, that’s where the gradation of tones comes from.

Articiple: And whatever the shutter speed is set to is the exposure time?

Toni:  I use a Holga, which is a plastic camera that doesn’t even have a shutter speed. It’s not very technical or systematic at all. It’s just me clicking, one two three, so the shutter speed varies by how fast I click and so the way I advance the frames is somewhat irregular. The cyanometers are actually a series of partially overlapping exposures; a compilation of systematic irregularities combined into one project. I give myself these parameters to work within, but yet the process itself isn’t really controlled.

There was another version of the project I did at first. The frames were separate, rather than a panorama. The progression of the tones was more prominent, but the separation created an emphasis on movement, so I stopped working in that way. I’ve stuck with the version of overlapping exposures because I feel like it conveys more of the ideas I’m exploring: the relationship between photography and light, time and documentation, and the ways that a photograph is not always what we think it is.

Articiple: Right. It doesn’t translate into a replica of something observed. So is this an object in the landscape (in one of the images)?

Toni:  Yeah. Sometimes I’ll choose a subject and abstract it to look vaguely like mountaintops. The inventor of the cyanometer was a mountaineer. He would use his device at different elevations on mountain peaks throughout Europe. So that’s my homage to him, just interjecting that little reference, but my pieces don’t ever really identify what, exactly, is in the frame or where I am.

Articiple: Is the choice of site for shooting the film also part of the planned process?

Toni:  It’s pretty random. Ninety percent of the stuff I’ve shot for this project has been right around the Compound studios, because I do all my film processing here, I expose the prints in the parking lot, and I often walk from my house to the studio. There are some photographs in the project that were taken further afield. Two years ago on the summer solstice I was up in the redwoods near Eureka. I was developing film at my campsite, mixing chemistry on a picnic table, washing the film at the water pump, and hanging it to dry from a tree. Then I had my prints strapped to the top of my car, exposing them for the day. I think people thought I was cooking meth!

Articiple: Working with chemicals, living out of your car…people probably imagined all kinds of things!

Toni:  There are some photographs in the project that were taken in different locales, but most of them are from close to home. I’m trying to work out a way to present the cyanometers that offers some of the background information I record, like the time of sunrise and sunset, the angle of sun, the locations I shoot the film, and the dates I expose the prints. I’m working out a design to integrate the prints into a large mural reminiscent of a 17th or 18th century astrological map.

Installation mockup for The Evidence of Absence Series. 2015.

Installation mockup for The Evidence of Absence Series.

Installation mockup for The Evidence of Absence Series.

Installation mockup for The Evidence of Absence Series.

It’s rewarding to have a project that allows me to enjoy and reflect on the process. I spend a lot of time outside with the prints observing the sun and taking pictures of the sky as I’m exposing the prints. And it’s interesting because the chemistry really stands on its own as part of the work. You can see the color shifts that occur as a result of different exposure to sunlight and moisture, the density of the film, etc. There are all these things that affect the tonality and the color of the chemistry itself.

As part of my graduate thesis exhibition, I began experimenting with chlorophyll printing, a process invented by Binh Danh who transposes images directly onto leaves using photographic negatives. But I chose to use hand-drawn negatives made with India ink on mylar sheets instead.

Transplant: Islet of Langerhans grid of 6. 2012, chlorophyll prints from hand-drawn negatives on nasturtium leaves.

Transplant: Islets of Langerhans, selected prints. 2012, chlorophyll prints from hand-drawn negatives on nasturtium leaves.

Transplant: Lungs. 2012, chlorophyll print from hand-drawn negative.

Transplant: Lungs. 2012, chlorophyll print from hand-drawn negative.

Now, I’m also integrating the use of plant-made emulsions into my practice. I’ll collect different leaves and flowers, like nasturtium, and grind them up with my mortar and pestle and a little distilled water to make emulsion from them. There’s no other chemistry involved. I’ll coat paper or cloth with the emulsions and put negatives on top and expose them to the sun.

Anthotype process with nasturtium pigments.

Anthotype process with nasturtium pigments.

I seem to be going down the rabbit hole of researching about nasturtium in particular. It’s a plant that is all around me, in my yard, at the studio; it’s pretty much everywhere in the East Bay. I didn’t know of it before moving here. I never saw it in Arizona or Wisconsin, where I lived previously. Initially I found that it had good leaves to make chlorophyll prints on because of their broad flat surfaces, but after researching the plant, I learned all these great things about it. The whole plant is edible. It has medicinal properties. Because of the mustard oils in it, it’s an antiseptic and an antifungal. Bioengineers are interested in the waxy surface of the leaves because they repel water. And there’s also its colonial history. Nasturtium originates from Peru. It was taken over to Europe, and then it came to North America. It was named by the botanist Carl Linnaeus.

Christina von Linne. 2012, anthotype from hand-ground nasturtium pigment on paper.

Christina von Linne. 2014, anthotype from hand-ground nasturtium pigment on paper.

This is an image of his daughter, Elisabeth von Linné. It’s from a hand rendered negative I made in India ink on mylar of an historic painting of her. She thought that the nasturtium plant emitted sparks at dusk. This was around the time that electromagnetism was being investigated. But what she was actually seeing was a contrast of green and orange in low light. This phenomenon was later proven to be an optical effect; there’s no actual electricity being emitted by the plant, of course, but it was recorded as a legitimate phenomenon by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences at the time. So I made anthotype portraits of her using pigments crafted from orange nasturtium flowers, and green leaves.

Articiple: So the pigment itself is photosensitive?

Toni:  Ultimately it’s a process of fading. I put the pigment-coated paper and hand-drawn negative in a contact print frame and place it out in the sun. In the case of the plant emulsions, whatever’s behind the black of the negative will retain its original tone and everything around it will fade and lighten.

It’s really not a photographic process per se in that there isn’t a chemical reaction, but there is a light reaction. This process of making prints, called anthotype, was invented by Sir John Frederick William Herschel, who also invented the cyanotype process. Herschel provides a common thread through many of my projects.

Articiple: You’re retracing the early history of photography.

Toni:  Yeah, I think what really what started me on this path is that so many early photographers were tinkerers and chemists and astronomers. They were trying to invent photography for practical purposes of reproducing images more easily than hand-rendering and etching plates. So there’s this trajectory, a relationship from drawing to printmaking and then photography.

One of the famous stories about William Henry Fox Talbot—who invented the positive/negative process—he got into photography because he was a poor draftsman! Ironically, I’m going the opposite direction, doing everything manually.

Articiple: Returning drawing to the process.

Toni:  Right. I could very easily render these images digitally and print digital negatives, but there’s something I really enjoy about the idiosyncrasies and process of making them by hand. Everything I make tends to be really labor-intensive, but the process itself allows me to mediate on the things that I’m investigating and what I’m learning about them.

Articiple: Is the anthotype process very durable? Will these prints maintain their color?

Toni:  They’re completely ephemeral. They’ll fade away over time. That’s something that also really engages me, is their impermanence. The capacity for the image to fade back into the source (light) from which it came is something that’s intriguing to me.

Articiple: The reflection of time in the artifact itself.

Toni:  Exactly. Working with anthotypes and Herschel’s other processes, I can observe and participate in some of the rich, multi-layered connections between science and technology and the history of photography. I’m really getting into those themes and dissecting them and reassembling them into something I can make sense of.

In addition to experimenting with chlorophyll printing and emulsions made from nasturtium and other plants, I’ve made black and white photographs in my darkroom by putting the plants directly in my enlarger or plant emulsions and other natural materials on microscope slides or in petri dishes in lieu of negatives. It’s my variation on another early photographic technique called cliché verre, which involved sooting a plate of glass over a candle so that it was totally blackened, then sgraffito drawing on it and using it to make a contact print on paper. That’s the best way I can describe this technique of putting objects in my enlarger instead of negatives. There isn’t really a name for that.

Articiple: And printing from the slides of the plant material?

Toni:  Yeah. The way I work with photography is usually experimental, so I do some documentation of my process because it is so important to me, but the documentation is all rather rough, mostly captured on my iPhone, so I’ve never integrated it into a project. I guess I also worry about being overly explanatory—I don’t want to just say, “This is how I do this.” and give away all of the mystery.

Articiple: But there’s so much back story in your work that’s important to know! It’s all part of the project. Like the Transmutation series, where there’s a connection between alchemy and body fluids and your own history and the history of photographic processes, and so on.

Toni's MFA installation

Toni’s MFA installation, with Ouroboros (left), Transmutation (right), and Transplant (foreground.)

Toni:  That’s something I struggle with, how to convey that information, what information, how much, and in what format. I think it will be an ongoing issue for me because my brain is full of ideas and information, and I don’t necessarily know where I’m going with it all! In my mind, it’s all inter-related, but how to convey that to others is a challenge.

There are two interrelated psychosomatic phenomena that interest me. One of them is called pareidolia, where you see faces in random patterns. That’s part of where my ink blot-inspired works in the Mimesis project come from. Most of my work is abstract, and I like to play the line of offering information to viewers but in such a way that they can come up with their own conclusions. I feel like abstract work allows for that more so than representational work, but even with representational work, everything is left up to subjective interpretation, regardless of the artist’s intentions. Art is a dialog between people really. My use of abstraction and patterning is partly a commentary on the nature of art, but it’s also about cultural and physiological influences on perception. That is the basis of my Mimesis series.

Mimesis, selected prints. 2014, liquid silver gelatin emulsion on cotton rag paper. 4 x 6 inches each.

Mimesis, selected prints. 2014, liquid silver gelatin emulsion on cotton rag paper. 4 x 6 inches each.

I make the images in my darkroom using liquid silver gelatin emulsion, which I pour, drip, and draw onto paper, fold in half, expose under the light of my enlarger, and then develop like a photograph. I continue to manipulate the emulsion as it is drying. So, the process again entails equal measures of randomness interjected by the materials I use and how I use them, and control resulting from my deliberate interventions with the materials.

The related phenomenon called apophenia is where people perceive patterns in data and experiences when none exist. There are neurological, cultural and social factors that all contribute to these phenomena. Pareidolia and apophenia are actively being studied by anthropologists and neurologists who are debating over what aspects of perception are physiological and what’s cultural or social. I think it’s fascinating!

At some point I’m hoping all the ideas, techniques, and materials I’ve been playing with gel into an anthology of inter-related projects. I envision putting my work together literally as a book, but also as a website that draws connections between all of my research and artistic experimentation. Whether the connections actually exist or I’m making them up, I want to map out the tethers that I’m following from one thing to another. I am a self-proclaimed apopheniac!

Articiple: I’m interested in the archaeology aspect in your work. What you just described is archaeological— you want to put this body of work together that tells this history.

Toni:  Yeah, that proclivity stems from my former career as an archaeologist, and I just can’t give it up. I’m constantly researching, reading books, learning about different natural, cultural, and social phenomena. I’m never bored, that’s for sure!

Articiple: Since we’re on the history of photography—did it emerge only in Europe, or were there other parallel developments somewhere?

Toni:  Funny you should ask. Simultaneous invention is something else I’m really interested in, because it’s so prevalent in the Victorian era and the history of photography specifically. But there wasn’t anything related to the development of photography in America or Asia that I’m aware of. There was knowledge of optics and light, and how images project through a pinhole, as early as circa 500 BC in China and Greece, then later in what’s now Iran and Italy. But creating a device itself that could capture an image and transfer it onto a substrate that would make it permanent was a French and English innovation.

Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, a Frenchman, and William Henry Fox Talbot, an Englishman are usually credited for inventing photography, but there was another Frenchman, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, who made the first fixed image that we know of in the late 1820’s. He created a photochemical process using a pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea. It’s similar to the asphaltum used in lithography and etching (Niépce was a lithographer). He put the plate into a simple box camera and made a several-hour exposure out his window. Then he processed the plate with lavender oil. The bitumen not hardened by the sun washed away. It created a positive image on the metal plate.

The plate was lost for a long time, but it was rediscovered in the 1950s and technicians at Kodak made black and white prints from it. This is the version of Niépce’s photograph you will likely see on the internet, but there are various permutations of the original image. That kind of iterative copying is something that I’m interested in too. I used asphaltum and gum Arabic to create a drawing of a digital image of Kodak’s silver gelatin print of Niépce’s metal plate on a lithograph stone which I printed.

Preparing stone for Lithograph After Niepce.

Preparing stone for Lithograph After Niepce.

Lithograph After Niepce. 2012, lithograph on paper.

Lithograph After Niepce. 2012, lithograph on paper.

Anyway, the origin of photography is definitely rooted in Europe. Sir John Frederick William Herschel, who invented cyanotype, lived in England. Herschel also discovered fix, the chemical component that allowed Fox Talbot’s photographs to be made permanent. This was the primary quest of early photography. There were several people involved in this quest before and around the same time as Herschel and Talbot, like Thomas Wedgewood, who documented his creation of photographic images using silver salts, but he was never able to fix the images he created.

Articiple: They figured out something was light-sensitive, but they couldn’t preserve the image?

Toni:  Yes, most of the first photographic images were fugitive. They would over-develop or fade away with time. It was Herschel and his discovery of sodium thiosulfate, or fix, which allowed photographs to be made permanent. There was preexisting knowledge of light and optics that came before photography, and there were a number of people other than Herschel attempting to produce permanent photographic images, and oftentimes these individuals were in conversation with each other or working together. In our contemporary minds, however, we usually simplify history and attribute inventions like photography to one person on a specific date, but its way more complicated than that.

Articiple: What did that chemistry come out of? How did the discoveries come about?

Toni:  Herschel’s chemistry is predominantly iron-based, the discovery of which happened partly by accident through several different stages. About 100 years before him, during the 1700s, the first synthetic blue pigment, called Prussian Blue, was made serendipitously using potash containing iron from animal blood. This is a huge deal because the color blue rarely occurs in nature. Today we’re finding out that most plants or animals that appear blue look that way because of structural color, or reflected light; the things themselves aren’t actually blue. Over time, through experimentation, different people using Prussian Blue for various applications realized that it had light-sensitive properties, but it was Herschel who ultimately transformed the chemical constituents of the pigment into a photographic process.

Articiple: I know you also have a couple of residencies coming up.

Toni:  Yes. I have one residency in June at the Lucid Art Foundation, outside Inverness in Point Reyes. It’s a beautiful place with a long history. Gordon Onslow Ford, a surrealist painter established his studio up there. He and another painter, Fariba Bogzaran (she teaches at JFK University) shared ideas about art and consciousness and eventually they established the Lucid Art Foundation to support other artists investigating those ideas. So, I’ll go up there and stay in the woods for three weeks and have Gordon Onslow Ford’s amazing studio to work out of. But what really drew me there is that they have a pigment garden!

My plans for that residency are fairly open, just me continuing to experiment with some of the techniques that I described earlier. The Lucid Art Foundation supports people who make non-objective work, with some level of automatism involved in what they’re doing. So, I’m primarily going to engage in the process of experimentation more so than a content-driven project and see where it takes me. I’m hoping my focus on natural materials and process will help to further develop some of the ideas and methods that I’ve been dabbling with over the last couple years and maybe provide a springboard for something new.

Alleleopathic Talisman 1. 2015, mixed media on paper, including the artist's blood, insulin, cyanotype photochemistry (undeveloped) and other materials.

Alleleopathic Talisman 1. 2015, mixed media on paper, including the artist’s blood, insulin, cyanotype photochemistry (undeveloped) and other materials.

In late July and early August, I have another residency at a place called Chalk Hill. It’s a fairly new program, but again, it’s on an old property that has a lot of great history. It’s on Warnecke Ranch, which includes a working winery with about 500 acres on a bend of the Russian River up in Sonoma County. I’m really excited about possibly using some of their grapes to make pigments, but the project that I proposed for that residency is more specific and conceptually based. It utilizes multi-media, which is a new way of working for me, realizing within one project permutations of an idea in different media. It’s going to be an investigation of the landscape that references old technology and blends it with contemporary technology. I’m using the idea of reflection and the Claude Glass (a small tinted mirror used in the 18th and 19th centuries for viewing landscapes, named for the 17th century landscape painter Claude Lorrain.); I want to look at the iPhone as the contemporary Claude Glass.

Articiple: Right! The way we’re always mediating what we’re looking at through that screen.

Toni:  Exactly. My project is about the mediated experience of the landscape, and uses reflection as a metaphor. Those are the concepts that I’ll be playing with. What I intend to do is to take the iPhone and make an enclosure for it that’s like a traditional Claude Glass with a velvet lining in a wood case.

Iphone as Claude Glass. Proposal for Chalk Hills residency for summer 2015.

Iphone as Claude Glass. Proposal for Chalk Hills residency for summer 2015.

I have a vintage wooden tripod and I’ll mount the phone onto there so that it doesn’t have to be hand- held. Then I can photograph it embedded in the landscape, and take close-ups of the landscape reflected into it. I’ll use a separate digital camera to photograph the reflections in the iPhone. Then I’ll translate some of those photographs into drawings on mylar for use as negatives and I’ll print them with Van Dyke chemistry in the sun out in the landscape itself. I’m also going to process the Van Dyke prints in the river, so I’ll integrate elements of the landscape itself into the work. I chose to use Van Dyke brown because of its tonal relationship to the history of 18th Century landscape paintings, which is what the Claude Glass was made to replicate. And also because it is a process invented by Herschel! So again, I’ll be creating a compression of time and history into one project.

Claude Glass case for iPhone. Proposal for Chalk Hills residency for summer 2015.

Claude Glass case for iPhone. Proposal for Chalk Hills residency for summer 2015.

Articiple: Also, the way that people in more urban parts of the Bay Area (and tourists from everywhere, I guess) see Sonoma County and “wine country” as a pastoral retreat–that goes along with the history of the Claude Glass as a way to view landscape as a curated aesthetic experience.

Toni:  Right. I’m also planning to capture short videos and still images on iPhones, and then display the devices with the imagery on them. This will further incorporate current digital technology with the analog photographs I make from my drawings which reference an historical genre of painting. It’s going to be a multi-faceted commentary not only on landscape, but on how a subject or place is experienced through technology like the iPhone, and how contemporary photographs are transmuted across the internet into a million different versions of themselves, and nobody ever knows what reality is.

Articiple: There’s no original.

Toni:  Just simulacra! So that’s the project. The residencies will be really great because they’ll provide concentrated time away from work, and laundry, and walking the dog, or whatever else, and not be distracted. I almost look at them as spiritual retreats. I feel especially lucky and I’m very excited for what’s on the horizon.

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Mel Prest

MIrror Zigg+.  2013, acrylic and metallic acrylic on panel.  28" x 22" x 2".

MIrror Zigg+. 2013, acrylic and metallic acrylic on panel. 28″ x 22″ x 2″.


Mel Prest is a San Francisco-based painter whose geometric-patterned works of charged color create such energy, they almost seem audible.

Mel’s past exhibitions include solo shows at Gregory Lind Gallery in San Francisco and B Sakara Garo in Sacramento.  In October 2014 her solo show MoonBrightChime/Portmanteau will open at Galleri Urbane in Dallas.  Mel is also a curator and art instructor working with numerous arts organizations in the Bay Area and throughout the world.

Articiple: The color relationships in your paintings carry so much energy—colors chase each other around the surface, reverberating in one area and then another, changing with the lighting, the viewer’s position, or even a tilt of the head. Of course color is inseparable from pattern in these pieces.  The basic elements of the patterns seem simple at first—diagonal lines in parallel, intersecting and overlapping—but they get more complex the longer one looks.  The patterns create alternating areas of density and openness, rest and activity, that move around the paintings.   The color/pattern dynamics continually animate the paintings and undo any fixed sense of composition.

Crossed Arrows

Crossed Arrows. 2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 14″ x11″ x2″.



Crossed Arrows. Side view.


Music for Limbo. 2014, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 14" x 11" x 2".

Music for Limbo. 2014, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 14″ x 11″ x 2″.


Music for Limbo.  Side view.

Music for Limbo. Side view.


Mel: Even though I stick to color and line in painting I feel like I’m constantly being surprised by what can happen. I don’t think it shows so well in the photograph but this piece with the fluorescent yellow so bright that makes the white look gray/ beige/ violet made me really excited. Just something so simple can be sort of magical—sneaking up on me while I work.

More Thought Work. 2014, acrylic on panel, 14″ x 11″ x 2″.


I painted in sets of parallel lines for many years, and allowing the lines to cross and meet has made the work much more alive. I’m most excited by glitches and where the pattern starts to break down—subtle things like reloading the brush with paint or a momentary jitter become visible and affect the work immediately.

Crossed Arrows Apocalypse OK.  2014, 28" x 22" x 2".

Crossed Arrows Apocalypse OK. 2014, 28″ x 22″ x 2″.


RF Arrows. 2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel.  12" x 12" x 2".

RF Arrows. 2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 12″ x 12″ x 2″.


Reverb.  2013, acrylic , interference, metallic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel.  14" x 11" x 2".

Reverb. 2013, acrylic , interference, metallic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 14″ x 11″ x 2″.


Articiple: A few years ago you shifted from oil to acrylic paint, and recently you’ve been including phosphorescent and metallic paint in some works. What has that shift meant for you?

Mel: Now, using acrylic, I feel I can do anything. I paint over things all the time and can get much stranger colors and physical effects. The glow in the dark is the most fun—it’s something that’s culturally attached to 70s black light posters and crafts, so using it feels naughty. I mean I was trained very classically and so things like metallics or fluorescents weren’t available in oil paint, or if they were they weren’t found on the “Master’s palette.” The best thing about these paints is that they shift with lighting conditions and proximity. It’s weird but I think working with acrylic has reaffirmed that nature is one of my strongest reference points—I’m looking and finding the effects of late afternoon sunlight flooding through a stand of trees by using silver, for example. It flashes at you when you walk by silver lines—goes from light to shadow instantly—like the sun going behind a cloud.

Falling Indigo Diamonds.  2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel.  14" x 11" x 2".

Falling Indigo Diamonds. 2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 14″ x 11″ x 2″.


Falling Indigo Diamonds.  Side view.

Falling Indigo Diamonds. Side view.


SF Radiation.  2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel.  36" x 36" x 2".

SF Radiation. 2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 36″ x 36″ x 2″.


SF Radiation.  Lights off.

SF Radiation. Lights off.


Articiple: The British artist Bridget Riley seems like a sort of artistic soul mate—your engagement with perception, your use of rhythm and variation, overlap in a lot of interesting ways.  I’ve also been thinking about Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, the Hard-edge work of Helen Lundeberg, even  Agnes Martin, as possible influences or co-travelers. Do any of these resonate for you?

Bridget Riley, "Cataract 3."  1967, PVA on canvas.  87" x 87-3/4".

Bridget Riley, “Cataract 3.” 1967, PVA on canvas. 87″ x 87-3/4″.


Bridget Riley, "In Attendance."  1994, oil on linen.  89" x 65".

Bridget Riley, “In Attendance.” 1994, oil on linen. 89″ x 65″.


Mel: I like Ellsworth Kelly, Bridget Riley and Agnes Martin! But I was profoundly influenced by Robert Irwin—I remember walking into Dia:Chelsea and seeing his Excursus: Homage to the Square3 installation and being transported.  And his book Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. It was a book I read annually for a while and it got me super un-stuck in grad school. I like his approach—still—to his work, to phenomena, and to seeing. For me, he is the most important artist in my life.

Robert Irwin, "Excursus: Homage to the Square(3)."   1998.  Installation, dimensions variable.

Robert Irwin, “Excursus: Homage to the Square(3).” 1998. Installation, dimensions variable.


Agnes Martin, her stubborn kindness in discussing work, and her own work, is exciting. I relate to her focus with line, and to the very direct work—no mediation with a straightedge or representation. The quality of the work being that it is what it is—how it is what you bring to it—that there is no story, only what you see. I also appreciate her writings and how they speak so directly, plus address Zen Buddhism.

Agnes Martin, "The Islands."  1961, acrylic and graphite on canvas.  72" x 72".

Agnes Martin, “The Islands.” 1961, acrylic and graphite on canvas. 72″ x 72″.


I like how Ellsworth Kelly uses shapes, and also the possibility of chance, like Dada poetry, cutting and re-forming the image/work. La Combe is based on a photograph of light and shadow on a Parisian stairway that inspired a wellspring of paintings (like these and these.) This seriality that he uses—mining an image or an idea over and over again—is also something I hold close, admire and relate to.

Ellsworth Kelly, “La Combe I.”  1950, oil on canvas.  38" × 63-3/4".

Ellsworth Kelly, “La Combe I.” 1950, oil on canvas. 38″ × 63-3/4″.


Josef Albers’ work is thrilling too—the idea that color is always deceiving and must be in relationship (to other color) to be truly seen makes me think of color as phenomena and experiential. His book Interaction of Color reads like poetry.

Joseph Albers, from "Interaction of Color."  Published in 1963.

Joseph Albers, from “Interaction of Color.” Published in 1963.


I love Bridget Riley—and I so appreciate that you picked up on her in relation to me/my work. I like that much of her color relates to viewing nature and phenomena. Also that her iterations are visible—I see different versions of similar works and imagine I can see what she was seeing.

Bridget Riley, "Saraband."  1985, oil on linen.  54" x 65".

Bridget Riley, “Saraband.” 1985, oil on linen. 54″ x 65″.


And I have really fallen for Katarina Grosse’s work lately.  I feel like her work is always about to fall apart and that the color holds it together. Her large-scale pieces on erratic and non-traditional surfaces have been rolling around in my mind so much lately. I like that they feel too big to understand somehow.

Katharina Grosse.  2009, from exhibition at Temporare Kunsthalle, Berlin.

Katharina Grosse. 2009, from exhibition at Temporare Kunsthalle, Berlin.


I also like Mark Grotjahn, because he pushes the work till it becomes kind of ugly and also kind of like a ceremonial object—like it’s been carved or woven or somehow “built.” Also El Anatsui—how all the small objects add to a whole, creating different viewings/ perceptions based on distance; how all the small parts flow together rather than create so much pressure or feel picky. I think I could go on for a long time thinking about artists I like and for all different reasons.

Mark Grotjahn, "Untitled (Black and Cream Butterfly."  2006, crayon and mixed media on board.  48" x 35".

Mark Grotjahn, “Untitled (Black and Cream Butterfly.” 2006, crayon and mixed media on board. 48″ x 35″.


El Anatsui, "Gravity and Grace."  2010, aluminum and copper wire.  145-5/8" x 441".

El Anatsui, “Gravity and Grace.” 2010, aluminum and copper wire. 145-5/8″ x 441″.


I’ve also become interested in space or spatial relationships within 2D works that create and crush spaces. On a personal level I think this comes from the way I see, which, like many artists, is non-stereoscopic. I also see this in looking at West African fabrics from Senegal and at Japanese landscape painting. And living in San Francisco, where you are constantly looking At, Through, and Around layers of things—space contracting with fog, folded by hills and unfathomable at the ocean’s edge. Looking at nature has become a really important part of seeing—that it is constant and at the same time always changing—seeing trees that bloom, dry up, drop their leaves and those veils of leaves removed revealing an altered space.

I feel like there is a big push by artists within this space now. I’ve curated a couple of shows that dealt with this strange space between 2D and 3D, and having these contemporary artist colleagues and friends whose work relates helps me stay on my path (details here and here.)

Doppler.  2013, group exhibition curated by Mel Prest.  Parallel Art Space, Brooklyn.

Doppler. 2013, group exhibition curated by Mel Prest. Parallel Art Space, Brooklyn.


Sara Dykstra


Rift. 2014, oil on linen. 60″ x 72″.

I first saw Sara Dykstra‘s paintings at the California College of the Arts 2013 MFA Thesis Exhibition, and again at the Root Division Introductions 2013 Exhibition.  I was struck by her subtle mastery of color–seemingly achieved without glazing–and by her mysterious, tissuey forms that were neither completely opaque nor transparent.  

Sara’s solo exhibition Revolving Around You is on view at Patricia Sweetow Gallery in San Francisco from May 6 through June 21, 2014. The artist’s reception is Saturday, May 31, from 3 to 5 p.m.

I asked Sara about her process, her color palettes, and the space between things.

Articiple: In your current painting process, you create fragile sculptural installations that serve as models or points of departure for the paintings.   The paintings’ diaphanous shapes hold a tension between precision and ambiguity.  Can you talk about your interest in that space “between”—between life painting and abstract painting, between resolved and unresolved forms?


Arnolfini. 2013, oil on linen. 60″ x 50″.

Sara:  The space between things emerges in many ways. One way is, as you mentioned, the space between abstraction and representation. My installations are abstract, yet the paintings allude to the light and space of the set. So I don’t know where the work ultimately lies, and that is welcome in my practice.

Once the painting is done, there is a tension between knowing that I’m looking at something that exists, because it’s resting in space and its form is illuminated by light, but not knowing what it is. This is the space of ambiguity that interests me—the uncanny—something which is foreign, yet oddly familiar.


Revolving Around You #2. 2013, oil on linen. 40″ x 40″.

Articiple:  In recent paintings such as the Revolving Around You Series (2013), there’s an overall effect of controlled exuberance.  Colors are complexly layered yet distinct.  Shapes have ragged but discernible edges.  The paintings have unified, soft matte surfaces.  There’s a quiet certainty to each composition that I’m sure belies the effort behind it.  What can you tell us about your process that is not visible in the final paintings—the dilemmas or struggles that go into the work?

Sara:  Each painting begins with a process of discovery that takes place while I’m making the still-life. I never really know how it will turn out. I sometimes have an idea or a color in mind that I want to begin with, but they always end up looking completely different than imagined. This part of the work is done intuitively, so it seems as though the set-ups have a life of their own and a direction they follow outside of what I think will happen, or try to make happen.

The still-life, the subject-matter of the painting, is then painted from life. It’s never ready until there’s something unusual about the light, color or sense of space that makes me want to paint it. My still-lives are almost completely made of translucent material. I layer transparent color or form upon form so they can be seen through to the back of the set-up, then they are lit from various angles.


Chroma Key. 2013, oil on linen. 50″ x 60″.

Ultimately, I want the work to emerge unbidden. This is a difficult task because it’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of the process, such as getting the values and hues of the painting right in order to create the illusion of transparency. Sometimes I spend hours struggling to get one color right, painting it in and wiping it out. The color I think I see in the still-life and on the palette might not necessarily work in the painting. An optical illusion takes place on the canvas once the color is surrounded by other colors. So, the color that doesn’t necessarily make sense to me optically on the palette, might actually make sense in the painting. There is a lot of trial and error in undoing one optical illusion in order to make another one work. I’m amazed every time this happens and think a lot about Josef Albers.

Articiple:  The dis-Integration Series (2012) includes portraits with faces partially concealed by aluminum leaf.  The decision to step away from fully figurative work is pretty clear.  What lay behind that decision?  How did the dis-Integration Series set the stage for your recent work using sculptural installations as models?


dis-Integration 1. 2012, oil and aluminum leaf on canvas. 20″ x 20″.

Sara:  The dis-Integration Series marks a clear transition in my work. It was an important series of paintings to go through. I’d been painting the figure for quite some time and sensed I was getting ready to move on to something different, but didn’t know what or how to get there. During periods of transition I tend to work serially, painting the same thing over and over again in the hopes that I will discover something new about it that I hadn’t seen before, or a new way of painting it. In this instance, I was working from a model. I did several paintings of her from the same vantage point and in the same pose to the point where I could not go on without making a change. I then built a screen made out of scrim fabric and situated her chair behind it. I did paintings of her looking through one, then two, then three layers of fabric. I wanted to create a situation with the screen such that each time I painted her it was as if I was painting her for the first time. The fabric visually altered her, so every painting was a new challenge. When it became impossible to see her, I began to cut holes in the fabric. I became interested in how the paintings were about my experience of sitting with her, my own subjectivity, and what I thought I was learning about her even though we were mostly silent during our sittings. Ironically, the more difficult it became to see her, the more the portraits began to resemble myself. After a few months, I began placing objects behind the screen. I made small still-lives of things found laying around my studio. From here, the screen expanded into a large theater and the possibilities became endless.

Articiple:  In the Revolving Around You Series and many of your works from 2013, there’s a unified color palette—neutral mid-tones are set against assertive hues of cyan, orange, or magenta that feel almost like geological intrusions.  The palette derives from the materials you used in the sculptural still-lives.  It seems to have a connection to the skin tones in the dis-Integration series and earlier work.  What motivated your color choices in these 2013 works?


Revolving Around You #1. 2014, oil on linen. 40″ x 40″.

Sara:  I try to allow my color choices to be unconscious. Perhaps because I’d been working from a model six months prior, various skin tones stayed with me. In making the Revolving Around You series, I was still thinking about subjectivity and the idea of looking at the same subject matter, but from multiple vantage points and how different and complex it can be as a whole.

I’m sure living in San Francisco also has an impact. The vibrancy and color of the city becomes part of you, as does the incredible geology of this part of the world.

Articiple:  In some of your recent work, like Cave (2014), there’s a color shift to deeper blue tones.  A “cave” suggests a retreat or shelter, but also an exploration into the unknown.   Is this new palette motivated by any of those associations?  What else does this palette mean for you?


Cave. 2014, oil on linen. 30″ x 30″.

Sara:  Some of the paintings are beginning to look like places or landscapes to me. I see the figure in others. However, I never pre-plan any of my installations. The installations unravel on their own and are in a constant state of change for about a week. There were probably three different versions of this one. This piece took on the feeling of a shelter or cave and the colors came about naturally.

Articiple:  For your pieces in the recent exhibit SURVEILLANCE: Everyday (at Studio 110 Projects), you said that you were thinking about the experience of being surveilled—the emotions of vulnerability or even shame that arise when we realize we’re being watched.  It seems like these paintings, and the installations that preceded them, take on an almost narrative quality—characters (however slight or minimal) respond to something in their environment.  Do these new works feel like a shift to something more story-like in your work?  Or, has there been an implicit narrative element there all along? 


Exposure. 2014, oil on linen. 20″ x 16″.

Sara:  The works all have the suggestion of a narrative running through them, but the SURVEILLANCE: Everyday exhibit was different because the entire show had a theme and the work was made with that in mind. I was asked to make works which respond to the idea of transparency and being watched. So, I began these pieces differently than I normally do. I wondered, how would I show an element of curiosity, secrecy and intimacy between two things? What would it look like if they suddenly realized someone was watching them? As a response, I made two paintings, “Exposure” and “Cover Up,” which create a mini-narrative. The forms in these paintings are figurative and much more emotive and animated than in previous works. Body language was on my mind. This was an interesting and fun way to work.

Cover Up

Cover Up. 2014, oil on linen. 20″ x 16″.


To learn more about Sara Dykstra’s work, see her website at