Pleasant 9, 5 x 6 (oil on canvas), 2003
JL: What inspired your "Post war domestic" series and who are the people
in "Pleasant 9"
To answer this question, I have to go back to the past, when I was a
graduate student in photography at the San Francisco Art Institute. I
was fascinated with the domestic photography being done. I
was entranced, visually, with the way suburban landscapes captured some
essence of a lost utopia. I came to art with a literary and
American culture studies background. Now, for the first
time, in a purely visual way, I saw how gender
and suburban housing shaped and reimaged family life. How
suburban life was a restoration of the American dream. I
was drawn to this type of work probably for unconscious reasons
too. For many of us growing up in the 1970's, the suburban world
was our first world, the house with the lawn and the little backyard
was our first experience of intimacy. This world achieved a
primal, mythic power in our imagination. I think it became almost
sacred -- that little house, next to all the other similar houses, the
nearby playground, the carefully planted trees and gardens -- this was
our first and only safe and insulated little garden of Eden.
Whether it was false, or broken -- and competing ideas as to
whether it can be somehow reborn -- like a Phoenix rising from the
ashes -- these are the issues we struggle with for the rest of
The most sacred thing to a
child is the house. Think of it -- it is the first thing almost any
child draws with her crayons. As an artist, this to me had many
implications. That primitive connection, the symbolism.
You ask about the people in "Pleasant 9." I think it is important in my
process that I generally work within a somewhat populated landscape. It
is important to identify with a figure in the paintings, and then riff
off strange places in the landscape. So the figures, or characters, in
these works are important. There is a story there -- a topic inside
those pieces. Those particular people in the painting called "Pleasant
9" are the family of a good friend. One day he happened to show me
Kodachromes of his family that his dad had taken years before -- a vast
storehouse of wonderful images. I immediately felt a huge kinship with
the way this family looked and interacted in the photographs, and I have
used them a source for my paintings frequently over the years.
Evergreen, 5 x 6
(oil on canvas), 2006
JL: Drifters and
Evergreen both look like something out of the bunker building
50s or sixties. Also brings to mind David Lynch and Alfred
Hitchcock films for some reason. Something idyllic about them,
but also sinister at the same time. What do you think?
PS: Well, I'm not
sure what you mean exactly. "Evergreen" has no building in
it -- it is a garden with two people. That said, I do think there is
something equally sinister and idealistic and naive in the
I do think that
the images convey a sense of some unnamed threat -- something
nuclear and vague at the same time. The paintings pose bits of
Americana against vacant land and an even deeper and more
generalized vacancy. This indicates or suggests something
as well as some social themes and political issues. It is not
just the images but how they are painted. With "Evergreen" the
way the garden appears so hyper-detailed in paint becomes
disturbing, I think.
5 x 7 (oil on canvas), 2006
I also pick up on an
environmental factor. What about politics? Do you see this
work as addressing political issues
PS: I do see
this work as political. The first reaction from viewers is
sometimes deceptive -- they see the work as strangely
mysterious, but they also tend to comment on the sweet sense of
nostalgia imbedded in it. That element lives in the work, but it
is significant that I began this series in earnest in the
winter/early spring of 2003, when I was fortunate to enjoy
an artist residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts in
Sausalito, California, during the first days of the
Iraq. The utter wrongfulness of this act stunned me
-- as did the fact that most Americans were quietly wiling to go
along with the war and the status quo at the time. As you
notice, much of the series involves visual representation of the
1960's and 1970's.
administration's efforts have been aimed at dismantling the
social and democratic achievements of the 1960's and 70's to the
greatest extent possible. In this series, we are "looking back"
at a time that is many ways was much more liberal,forward-thinking,
free of prejudice. optimistic and invigorated than the society
will live in now in 2006. That irony was not lost on me in
painting these pieces.
gives one a respect for all the meanings of "revolution,"
including that of going in a circle. There is
something sad in looking back at this time in history.
There is also something immensely relevant.
I also would say this work is political because it is involved
in a dialogue about democracy and the family. It is
involved in exploring "Americanness" and what that means.
It also looks at certain elements of American life and the
mythology of the "American Dream" -- that is, significant
leisure, one's own house and garden to set up as an individual,
personal paradise, prosperity, kids and family
relationships as the most meaningful and relevant ones to have.
These are not the icons of every society, certainly. Even
in such a turbulent time as the 1960's and 70's, one sees these
elements held up again and again for veneration and for
24" x 36" (oil on canvas), 2003.
about these archetypes and psychology behind this work?
PS: Each painting takes place in a setting -- a generating
image. There is a broad sense of a story, and in it, for
me, are particular images of people who demonstrate
certain universal qualities of human experience. These are the
figures I draw on to convey the universal.
There is the
young innocent -- and the the protector .... But more than that,
I think that I often draw on a gateway figure, poised between
domesticity and wilderness or vast incandescent landscape.
A real "Errand into the Wilderness." That is a
particularly American motif, as Perry Miller's book
demonstrated, but in these particular paintings, both options
seem threatening. There is subtle menace in the enclosing
family as well as the empty, vast meaningless
landscape, each one communicating with the other. What I
am working with is a psychology of fear. A mass psychosis of
fear that may drive the American character.
4' x 4' (oil on canvas), 2003
JL: Who are the two people in Cats Cradle?
Is that a Forma scientific book by the way?
PS: Cat's Cradle -- Think Kurt Vonnegut. Ditto re:
"Forma." It does not matter who the people are; they are
archetypes. My work is not autobiographical. Cat's cradle
is about counter culture.
5' x 6' (oil on canvas), 2006
What is going on now in American painting right now as
opposed to what is happening in Europe? Do you sense
some kind of a major shift in painting and art in
general?. Towards something other than post modernism?
Overall I think
there is a cultural divide, reflected in world-views,
between art in America and art made elsewhere, including
Europe. You take your political imprint
with you. In the U.S, a lot of art decisions are driven
by money -- who to show, who will sell, what to make
based upon what will sell -- a lot of art in America is
about recouping investments -- on all sides.
Moreover, simply in subject matter, there is a dichotomy
between the Old World and the New. Americans are
escapees of rigid class culture and crave constant
change. Art has to change and change and change,
and the constant emphasis on something new means that
exploration is not, by consequence, very deep. It also
means that no artist wants to stick to enduring themes.
Europe, I think, centuries of experience has
shown that change is not always the answer, and that
transformations can bring chaos or worse. Change
can also be deceptive and lead quickly back to
restoration of a prior destructive order.
My paintings want to have a conversation about American
culture and society, while most new American art from
the last ten years does not really seem engaged in
having any such public conversation. The
very idea seems antiquated. A great deal of contemporary
art is about the internal experience of the artist. When
it isn't, it does seem to focus on trends and
subcultures -- skateboard culture, street art,
queer experience, goth and so on. There is always
a big emphasis on whatever is currently out there and
in fashion. In fact, art has been very intermingled with
fashion publications and fashion trendsetters in the
Overall, the consequence is a loss of seriousness in art
that bothers me, a loss of scope and ambition, of big
questions, and disturbingly, a growing agreement that
art is just one more commodity for mass consumption with
its target audiences. The focus for young artists
is on selling, not arriving at the level of some
profound thinking. Intellectual curiosity seems to
have been supplanted by the desire for celebrity
and money. But art can and until now has
been used to make people think in very large terms
about serious issues, and artists made work, at one
time, for people in generations they would never meet,
Is it different in Europe? Maybe. A little
bit. I think you can see in some European art,
particularly German art, a focus on deep cultural
questions, an exploration of broad and serious themes.
This tradition in
Germany goes back to Joseph Beuys, and his
influence as an art teacher and philosopher at the
Dusseldorf Academy. German artists, in particular,
have been engaged in a profound dialogue with their
heritage. Germans have had to deal with the Nazi past in
their work, and that has created a generation of
self-consciously, deliberately "German" artists: Anselm
Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, even a newer
painter like Neo Rauch -- who seem to be mining the
mythologies of their cultural heritage. But in the
very newest artists, even in
Europe, you see a growing emphasis in art on a
new interiority and separate , fragmented, spheres of
I think this shift goes beyond the leap from Modernism
to Post-Modernism. I think it goes to a real loss
of paradigm in art-making right now.
Just Born Peeps, 5 x 5 (oil on canvas), 2003
Can you please tell me about your creative process. How
you make a painting. Do you always work from
PS: In terms
of my creative process, I guess I need a certain milieu
(a suburban lawn, a row of roadside restaurants, 1970's
macramι, a dreamy desert landscape with a certain
philistine group of children out front). Usually I find
types of images in old photographs -- but not always.
Heartrendingly American scenes are all around us --
containing what Nabokov once described as " a quality
of wide-eyed, unsung, innocent surrender." I work
pretty intuitively. Something catches me, and then I am
interested in the image -- and how to paint the image.
I think my paintings start to get interesting when the
paint is added -- because the paint is adding something
new to the
sense of an old picture, or a scene of Americana. A
feeling emerges, a sense of danger and emptiness often
comes through -- and if it doesn't, the painting
probably doesn't work. I often change the composition
around. Sometimes I work over or cannibalize old
canvases and an unplanned element or image emerges that
can be evocative and useful. I am a very literary
person, and I think a lot of American literature runs
through these pieces, but hardly in obvious ways. I
like to think the paintings have a subtle mystery,
because they are distillations of so many pieces of
American literature and culture, and when I am lucky,
that all resonates.
JL: What else are you working on?
PS: I am continuing to work on this series.
I am also making new work around the themes of
technology, isolation and identity. And, because I am
still a writer, I am finishing up a novel that has been
in the works for a long time.