Excerpt of interview with Craig Drennen
CD: Are you showing primarily drawing in all these exhibitions? And on that note, could you describe your artistic processes for the first-time viewer?
MS: Yes, mostly drawings. Much of my work right now consists of drawings of photocopies of books.
I’ve found that some first-time viewers of these drawings don’t realize they’re looking at art at first. They think they’re looking at a photocopy of a book rather than a drawing. And I haven’t been able to reconcile myself to that yet because to me they’re not really trompe l’oeil objects, although they sometimes get categorized that way. I immediately concentrate on all the imperfections, all the handwork, even though some viewers may not immediately recognize those things.
My technical process is very simple. I make a photocopy of a book and then make a drawing from the photocopy. A lot of the process involves selecting the books—most of my sources come from art history, philosophy, and literature—and then playing around with the photocopier. Then, to begin the drawing I place a sheet of graphite transfer paper between my drawing paper and the photocopy to get a light outline of the text. Then I go back in and usually I have to go back over the text to make it readable and then fill in all the other detail, like the banding of the photocopy.
The drawing is a faithful copy of the copy. But, if you were to hold up the original copy to the drawing it would be quite clear that there are significant differences and even flaws in my version versus the original. Those flaws are important.
I’ve also started using photocopies in slightly different ways. For my recent show at Transformer—which was organized around the life and work of William Henry Fox Talbot—I made stencils cut out from photocopies of Talbot’s writings, cut in such a way to evoke the plants or lace that Talbot would have documented in his early photographs. Using those stencils and the photographic processes that Talbot himself developed, I created calotypes or Talbotypes of his writings.
CD: So who is Fox Talbot, and why have you organized so much of your current practice around him?
MS: Talbot was your kind of typical nineteenth-century English gentleman scholar type who was very intelligent, very intellectually curious. During his life, he pursued a number of disciplines (calculus, physics, the translation of cuneiform) in which he made important discoveries, but he’s best known for inventing the process of negative-positive photography.
What initially interested me was the story of how the idea of permanently fixing an image occurred to him in the first place. At a time when good drawing abilities were considered a standard skill for any well-educated aristocrat, Talbot was a self-confessed poor draftsman. While he was on his honeymoon in Italy, he tried sketching the landscape with a camera lucida, but was very unhappy with the results. It occurred to him that—wouldn’t it be great if he could somehow make the projected image from the camera lucida permanent on the paper?
And so when he got back to England after his vacation, that’s what he did. He began experimenting with various techniques and the end result is that today we’re able to reproduce multiple copies from a single negative—meaning we can have printed books, photocopying, scanning, etc.—and, in a way, it can all be traced back to a single bad drawing. In fact, Talbot called his early photographs “photogenic drawings” and considered them drawings. The camera was thought of as a kind of drawing aid, like a camera obscura or lucida.
Of course, Talbot wasn’t the only person to make photographic discoveries, and he owes a lot to his friend and collaborator Sir John Herschel. But one of the things that made me really interested me in Talbot after I started to do further research was that he really foresaw and understood the significance that his process would have for future modes of reproduction.
As I mentioned, before I became interested in Talbot I was (and still am) making drawings of photocopies of books and among all of the issues I was interested in was this notion of reproduction, the line between reproduction and the original, and the various meanings that reproduction has for an image. And Talbot is the person who really made it possible for modern photographic reproduction to happen.
CD: It’s clear that you see a conceptual advantage in positioning your content in this way. I was hoping you could talk about that a bit more--how an anachronistic subject allows you to comment on the present more thoroughly. Or perhaps you don't find Talbot anachronistic at all.
MS: Well, I guess I don’t find him to be anachronistic in the sense that what he was doing at the time was really forward-thinking and way ahead of his time. You can read Talbot as a kind of philosopher of technology if you want. Also, a lot of his own photographs were incredibly sophisticated visual images that look surprisingly contemporary. His actual processes may be anachronistic, but his ideas aren’t.
But you’re right to point out that I’m using historical subject matter to try to create a dialogue between the past and the present. There don’t seem to be many people like Talbot around anymore—people who ask big questions and then set out to answer them. I also do think looking at historical examples can force you to think about the present in a way that you might not otherwise have thought about it.
CD: One of the reasons I have such an affinity to your work is how you use so-called “traditional” media as a delivery system for conceptual ideas. In fact, your work looks at first glance like old school conceptual art with its reliance on the photocopy format as the means to recontextualize information. But then you recontextualize the information yet again through drawing. How do you think the act of drawing affects the ideas presented in your work?
MS: I think that’s a really great way of putting it. I started using photocopies for a number of reasons but one of those reasons was certainly a way of referencing their use in late ‘60’s/early ‘70’s conceptual art. One of the first books I starting photocopying and using as source material was Lucy Lippard’s Six Years: The Dematerialiazation of the Art Object, which chronicles a lot of that practice, with images of both photocopy-art and various kinds of early conceptual drawing and mark-making. So when you photocopy that and then draw it, there’s immediately a kind of double or triple or even quadruple referencing that happens.
There’s also something transformative about drawing. A photocopy can be beautifully dry and banal, and it’s technology that’s already itself become anachronistic. I hope that through the act of making a laborious drawing, which is very personal and intimate, I’m able to transform something that is seemingly dry and detached (a photocopy of Hal Foster’s Return of the Real, for instance, which if you’ve ever read it, is really dry) into something else.
I really don’t want to specify what the effect of the drawing will be on the viewer—that should be up to the viewer—but I hope that something of the pathetic futility of what I’m doing comes across in people’s aesthetic experience of the drawings.
CD: Are you also interested in drawing’s role within the culture of contemporary art?
MS: Sure. I think a lot of the most exciting contemporary work being made today is drawing, or work that tests the limits of what we usually define as drawing. We’re long past the point of doubting whether drawing has come into its own as a medium on par with painting or video or installation and I’ve definitely benefited from that evolution. But, at the same time, there’s always something refreshingly immediate about drawing that you don’t get from other media—something that reveals a very direct brain-to-hand connection. I guess drawing is the most pure conceptual medium: There’s very little standing between the idea and the execution.
CD: The theme of the last issue of DRAIN is ‘Sisyphean Desire.” Do you ever feel like Sisyphus in the studio?
MS: Absolutely. My work is very labor-intensive—“painstaking” is a word that seems to come up in reviews—and I seem to almost want to make things unnecessarily difficult for myself. Why else would I take simple photocopies and spend weeks copying them by hand?
Recently, I’ve started working big, making drawings that are 4 x 6 feet. In my photocopy drawings I have a known end point. I know that the drawing has to end up looking like the photocopy and there’s ultimately a clear way to get there. But these bigger drawings don’t necessarily have that clear end point and I’ll work all day rolling the boulder up the hill and end up back where I started. It’s been very frustrating, but I think it’s good for me to work outside my comfort zone occasionally.
CD: The theme for this issue of DRAIN is ‘Horror Vacui.’ Somehow that seems just as appropriate for your work.
MS: Um, you think so? Maybe you could explain how! Actually, I can relate to it in this sense: When I make a photocopy drawing, I don’t just focus on the object that was photocopied. Instead, I fill the entire surface of the paper and concentrate just as much on the filling in the “background” of the photocopy—the noise and distortion created by the machine, the banding effect it creates, etc. So, in that sense, I relate to the urge to fill the space and not leave any stone unturned. Also, in its overall obsessiveness and laboriousness—labor for its own sake—my work has an affinity with traditional horror vacui. But in the medieval or gothic sense of filling everything up with gargoyles and stuff—no, not so much.
CD: Last question. How do you like working in D.C.?
MS: I love living and working in D.C. Many people don’t know this, but it’s actually a very beautiful and livable city that’s full of smart young people who are interested and passionate about all sorts of things—not just politics.
D.C.’s art scene may be tiny compared to other cities, but I haven’t found that to be a disadvantage. We have some of the best museums in the world and I can walk in the door for free. I also have a lot of close friends here that are very supportive of my work. I really don’t think you have to live in New York, or even in Los Angeles or Berlin, to be an artist; you can live in one city and show in others.