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Introducing: R. H. Quaytman and Shannon Ebner

Shannon Ebner, RAW WAR, 2004. Chromogenic development print. Frame: 20 1/2 x 23 1/2 x 1 1/2 in. (52 x 60 x 3.8 cm)
Shannon Ebner, RAW WAR, 2004. Chromogenic development print. Frame: 20 1/2 x 23 1/2 x 1 1/2 in. (52 x 60 x 3.8 cm)

A conversation between artists R. H. Quaytman and Shannon Ebner. The dialogue took place in person at The Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, California. This is the first time the two have spoken.

Marco Kane Braunschweiler: I’d say my interest in both of your work stems from there being a systematic process that yields a universal result. There is the immediate textural part of it, and then other semantic elements you can break down. My first question to start out is–how do you create the system?

R. H. Quaytman: [Looks at Shannon Ebner] You start.

Shannon Ebner: Well, for me it’s a different system every time. In terms of publications, there’s always this underlying grid and not a free composition, but establishing the terms, or the form the system will take is what I find most compelling each time. This is different from how you approach your work, no?

RHQ: Well, I had come up with a system so that I could have a lot of different functions together, that was it, and not lose what happened before in the mayhem of contemporary art world life.

SE: There’s a lot of freedom within that.

RHQ: Yes.

SE: Once you lay track down, you can go…

RHQ: Yes, because I wanted to make a different kind of image always, that was my problem.

SE: I am always trying to get off the grid and away from the system, but somehow it’s always pulling me back. Would you say for you that the experimentation then comes in around this idea of making a new kind of image? So the system is the lattice?

RHQ: I was very shocked over the last sixteen years. I’ve been using that sort of method, and I find it incredibly liberating to have it in place because so many things could be found through it, surprisingly. I never expected that when I started painting my method would come about slowly. I’m interested in the difference between the idea of a system and a method. The system is often locked down, and the method is a way to get to something. So it’s a method or technique. I feel like you don’t need to know that at all about my work. Sometimes people get quite caught up in the chapter book thing, and they don’t need to in order to “understand.”

SE: Right. Well, that’s what’s really intriguing about systems or methods, that something really surprising can arise once the system is in place and you are following its logic. Then, all of a sudden, all of that falls away, and people just experience the work for what it is. I rather enjoy that about—I don’t know, this…

RHQ: Grid.

Shannon Ebner, XSYST, 2011, 63 x 48 in. (160 x 121.9 cm), black-and-white photographs

SE: Yes the grid and certain oddities that can get generated by the grid or system.

RHQ: I used to get all these—in the late nineties—remember when book design went kablooey with all these fancy, fancy books about books coming out?

SE: Yes.

RHQ: I got into that. Actually, from my friend Christian Philipp Müller, who used to be really into book design, he taught me a little bit about it. So I’d buy those books and think, “Oh, you could design a painting like a book page,” I mean, not design it, but figure out composition.

SE: Yes. I just picked up Grid Systems by Kimberly Elam a few weeks ago, and it has that beautiful vellum. You know that sits above the page? It shows you the grid placement for graphic treatments that break from just straight up horizontal/vertical axis, and it rotates the grids; it has triangles and circles as part of the underlying system.

RHQ: That’s good. Transparency is always good. Never fails. There’s this guy—you’re good with names…Josef Müller Brockmann, a book designer. Basically, you have to go to the Swiss.

SE: Yes, it’s true.

RHQ: I always love the way photographs can be framed in a book with no edge and then this white space at the bottom.

SE: Yes, right.

RHQ: Why is that so good? I don’t know, but it’s good.

SE: I was excited to talk with you about landscape and the role of photographs. You gave a talk at USC a few years ago, probably longer than that—you made a statement about photography, and it stuck with me, you said that you really don’t like photography. Did I make this up?

RHQ: It’s not that I don’t like photography because there’s nothing I’d like better to do than look at photographs. I love it, like that Harry Shunk Archive [at The Getty], I could get lost in that archive for months. I would be happy, shut away in a room with those photographs, but I feel it’s very hard to understand what a “good” photograph is…like every photograph is good.

SE: Yes, right—I know what you mean.

RHQ: Also, the photograph is isolated in itself, away from the space in the room. If I use a photograph in my work, I’m very wary of its pull as a photograph.

SE: Yes. That makes a lot of sense.

RHQ: Look, I just bought a camera for the first time, a real camera, only I don’t know how to use it.

[Takes out camera]

SE: Nice. Ooh la la, good for you.

RHQ: Normally I use this Polaroid camera I have.

SE: I’m very interested in that Polaroid camera.

RHQ: I love that camera.

Installation view of R. H. Quaytman, Morning: Chapter 30, October 16, 2016–February 6, 2017 at MOCA Grand Avenue, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photo by Brian Forrest

SE: In your Polaroid images and silkscreen paintings there are always these surface defects that seem just right. These marks, do you manipulate them so specifically?

RHQ: Well, I scratched into it, yes. I wet it and then scratch into the emulsion and make a mark.

SE: Okay, because that was a question that I had. You know how sometimes when you peel away the emulsion from the Polaroid the surface sticks? This pattern repeats in your work. They’re…

RHQ: Scratches.

SE: It has this…almost parentheses-like shape, and those I didn’t know if they were markings that you had made or—

RHQ: Are you talking about the little Polaroids in the vitrine at MOCA?

SE: Yes. I wanted you to talk more about that piece.

RHQ: A landscape.

SE: Yes, Morning: Chapter 30, and landscape in general, as a subject I guess. I was intrigued that you photographed the landscape because this idea of framing has been so important to how geometry plays out in your work. I was thinking about that repeating motif that is in The Sun, Chapter 1 and how that shape works as a framing device for the architecture, for the subject [K8 Hardy], and for the viewer of the painting. What is that shape?

RHQ: Oh yes, orthogonal?

SE: Orthogonal…but there’s all this play on framing. Then I think about you making this pilgrimage to the Michael Heizer piece [Double Negative] and having had that experience of living out west where you’re like, “the enormity of the landscape,” you know, you’re just like, “holy crap.”

Michael Heizer, Double Negative, 1969-1970, 240,000-ton displacement of rhyolite and sandstone, Mormon Mesa, Overton, Nevada, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Gift of Virginia Dwan, photo by Tom Vinetz

RHQ: I love that.

SE: Yes, it’s so amazing.

RHQ: It’s so amazing.

SE: But I was so curious about how you framed the view. Were you just out there, with no crisis? You just directed the camera and...

RHQ: I was out there, it was so windy. I was with two teenagers. They couldn’t have been less interested. I’m like, “Can you help me a little bit with my tripod that’s blowing over in the wind?”

SE: Yes, harsh conditions in the desert.

RHQ: And then you have to try to pull that thing on the camera…and I never could get the exposure right, but then it worked…they look so good. That surprised me.

SE: They’re so beautiful.

RHQ: It was one of the best times I ever had with that Polaroid camera. Have you ever done a really big piece like that? It’s hard.

SE: Yes, it is hard. The Venice Biennale piece was like that.

Shannon Ebner, from the electric comma series (a.l.n.g.u.e.*.f.x.p.s.r.), 2011, chromogenic print, 240.2 x 123 in. (610 x 320 cm), installation view, "Illuminations", 54th Venice Biennale

RHQ: When did you do that?

SE: In 2011. I did this piece that was called From The Electric Comma Series (A.L.N.G.U.E.*.F.X.P.S.R), and it was the largest poem piece that I’d made before. I’d written this thing…a lot of times I find the language.

RHQ: What do you mean find?

SE: It’s like an analogous process to the taking of images by finding them in the world. Sometimes I go looking for certain types of language. Something I did more recently was a project called Auto Body Collision, which started in Rome. That was all found auto body collision advertising copy, finding it was like driving through the internet, finding this different vernacular language and then editing it into something; but for the piece for Venice, I wrote this poem called The Electric Comma.

Then I just took this little, little piece of that poem that said, “a language of exposures,” and made the piece for Venice with that phrase, and then I paused for a long time because I had to find a different vocabulary for it essentially because the first part from Venice was with the STRIKE alphabet, the photographs of letters made from concrete blocks. So, it took me a couple of years to finish the poem in space, to realize it visually and materially because the language needed a new form which ended up being electronic images from portable changeable message signs, the highway signs you see that are neon orange and have programmed transportation messages. I ended up completing the piece once I started working with those signs. But the piece for Venice was maybe, 11 x 23 feet, something like that.

But let’s go back to what you were saying before about the framing of the photograph in your books, thinking of the treatment of photographs from your book Spine or this catalog for this show [flipping through books] which is basically all photographs. Your photographs sit on the page in the most beautiful way and have that same sort of resonance as being in between what feels very contemporary and moiré-like and something that’s a textile and rather timeless. It’s really incredible.

RHQ: I love photographs in books. That’s my favorite place for them in a way.

SE: Yes, I know. Yes, I have to say I share that with you.

RHQ: But I get nervous about paper on the wall.

SE: I know. Well, that’s the thing. How do you translate the energy of the book to the wall?

RHQ: Yes.

SE: The book has so much energy with the way something can occupy a page, but you want to get rid of the paper.

RHQ: Or occupy your brain and focus.

SE: Yes, exactly. It’s interesting about these [photographs in the book] because a lot of them have this way of being anchored off-center; it reminds me of your comment about enjoying the white space at the bottom of the page.

RHQ: Yes.

SE: That’s quite nice.

RHQ: These [pointing to images from R. H. Quaytman: Spine] are from the SFMOMA photography collection. They have this incredible photography collection, but I couldn’t use a lot of them, I could only use the anonymous ones.

SE: Oh, I see. Yes.

RHQ: So I went through and found these images to respond literally to the Spicer poem I was using.

SE: Yes, I saw that show actually. It was one of the shows of yours I did get to see in the past. Yes, there’s all this crazy surrealist imagery that sometimes…

RHQ: I usually have an eye in most chapters.

SE: Yes, I love that—it’s like the folded eye. It’s very Bataille-like.

RHQ: I feel a little guilty about that kind of painting that I occasionally let myself indulge in.

SE: Oh yes. I love the caption paintings from I Love-The Eyelid Clicks/I See/Cold Poetry, Chapter 18. They’re so intriguing.

RHQ: Those little ones.

SE: Yes, those little ones, the alphabet ones are really beautiful right when you walk into the show. That ribbony…

RHQ: They’re called banderols, those ribbons that have texts in them.


SE: What’s the origin of those banderols?

RHQ: It was a way to put the word into the image. There is a beautiful history of those banderols. I bought a print in Rome, that’s when I went to visit. That’s where I got that image.

SE: Oh really? That alphabet one?

RHQ: It’s from a little print shop that I love there, and I love print shops. You can just go through those bins of images, and I got this tiny, tiny, little engraving with the alphabet and two little putti. So I just copied it without the putti. It’s very fun to paint those things. You feel like you don’t care about other people…and I’m just going to get lost in this for a while.

SE: They’re really free.

RHQ: I think you’re into the letter as well—what is it about the letter for you?

SE: The letter—in terms of time. Right, that’s the thing. I’ve always been much more interested in something that doesn’t necessarily telegraph time, but has a way about it. No artwork can escape its time. It’s always going to be giving away certain—

RHQ: Sometimes it can.

SE: Yes, well I guess that’s what I’m always striving for.

RHQ: Me too.

Installation view of R. H. Quaytman, Morning: Chapter 30, October 16, 2016–February 6, 2017 at MOCA Grand Avenue, courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, photo by Brian Forrest

SE: But you know, even its process of making reveals something of its time in the history of how things were made. I do strive for that in the work, though, and I have tried to take away informational components that would lock an image to those types of signifiers. So yes, I was working with the letter A for a while. The letter A is just the letter A, and you can have this indeterminate moment with it where you can’t quite locate it in place and time, but it’s an article and always about naming.

RHQ: Especially the letter A.

SE: Especially the letter A, yes. How about for you?

RHQ: I’ve been thinking about that because when I went to Israel, I thought a lot about Hebrew, I never learned to read it and I tried to teach myself. I found this incredible new singer, Victoria Hanna, who made this wonderful alphabet song in Hebrew.

I got into the whole idea of the Hebrew alphabet and the directionality and the drawing of it, and the sounds and the numbers. It’s important to me that these twenty-two paintings for the landscape have the same amount of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. That was just good luck. But it was a lucky accident also because that was the number of panels that I could fit on the long wall [at MOCA].

SE: Really, that was good luck?

RHQ: Really, it was good luck.

SE: Were you thinking about the Kabbalah and numbers at all?

RHQ: Yes, definitely.

SE: Getting mystical. It can happen.

RHQ: Yes, it happens occasionally. I do think paintings have a much different relationship to time than any other medium because they are like little ships sent out into the future. Let’s just hope they stick around. Basically, that’s what you want them to do.

This conversation was organized by Marco Kane Braunschweiler and edited by Antonia Pinter. Thanks to Nevin Kallepalli.