Conor Backman

 
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INTERVIEW BY ALLISON FONDER

 
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Time-space compression is a loaded topic to ponder. An abstract geographical theory that found relevance in the rise of evolving communications, this concept is one that ultimately speaks to you of globalization while also making you snowball into a slew of highly philosophical, more personal meanderings. Our world is shrinking as information takes less and less time to circulate. How do we take the time for context when we can now be everywhere in no time? Does this not only make materiality, but also time itself, seem anachronistic? In Western understanding of time, there’s often a linear history that leads to a phenomenon. But for example, fashion trends move from past to present but then back again, which means we also can’t forget about cycles. How we culturally find ourselves going from point A to point B and somehow force-fielded back to point A once again is a paradox perpetuated over time. There’s an explanation for this, encoded in context, but finding that explanation doesn’t seem to be a concern to the majority.
 
Given the ADD nature of things, it seems difficult to stand as a painter right now; this is something I wonder if artist Conor Backman grapples with on the daily. How do you justify the time taken sitting down in front of a canvas, worrying about surface, about color relationships, for the purpose of caring for this one standing object in the modern world? For one, because now one object never just stands as one object: it always has the potential for exponential growth. Images no longer exist as simple relics, they also live as intellectual property. On a contrary note, painting even now still holds the power to take us out of “space” (ie. internet, social network) and back into “place” (gallery, salon, bedroom, etc.). After all, yes, the virtual world reigns but we all still have to eat breakfast. Our theories remain printed in actual books or housed in metal computers. Evidence of humanity and the hand responsible for shaping it manages to live on.
 
Backman is an artist who expertly and sensitively explores this zone. In his interview with WUT, he discusses his summer 2015 show focusing on “invention, representation, origin and iteration” and the inseparable relationship between history and image.

 

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Allison: A unique detail of some of your pieces in your show at James Fuentes this past year was the reflective gray surface that swathes the outside of the painting. This layer obfuscates the original image, something rendered in reality by your own hand as I understand it. This barrier does give the viewer a surreal perspective when viewing it in person, but also takes it to a further dimension by inevitably making any picture taken of it rendered “false”, “ingenuine”, not true to life. I’m fascinated to hear the cultural significance in your eyes to the function of these pieces.

 
Conor: There were three large oil paintings in the show framed behind varying shades of tinted glass. The tints were applied to the glass at a commercial automotive window shop and each emit a percentage of visible light ranging from 35 to 70 percent, 70 being the lightest. The paintings were based on two photographs I took of a rose bush, and a third that is a photoshopped hybrid of the two. I first became interested in tinted glass as a way to address the idea of representational painting as a window into the world. The dark glass created an effect of looking through a window into an interior from outside. The first piece I made from this series used the image of a palm tree, which came from a photograph of a houseplant, but looked like it might have been taken in a rain forest. I thought this created a nice push and pull between ideas of interior and exterior. When I photographed the first painting, I realized I was more interested in the way the work documented. To get a ‘correct’ image I had to overexpose the photo using a longer shutter speed. The works point to the problem of accurately capturing the world in photograph, while making the process more difficult.
 
The latest works use the image of a rose bush for its relationship to presence, light, and time. Its widespread use in the history of painting also makes it neutral in terms of content and allows for the framing device of the glass to hold equal importance in the work.
 
You work in painting but the subject matter and materiality of your work certainly references photographer, lens, screens, which in a way are viewing devices but not necessarily a work of art; they are a ways of a seeing, a means to vision. Whether they are a lens, a window, a filter, the work references the eye and its interaction with surrounding realities – does this use of technological mediums added speak to our relationship to technology or more simply to how our minds or perspectives skew the view of certain events and situations?

While working on the tinted glass pieces, I started reading about the use of black glass in painting, specifically the Claude Glass, which were small black convex mirrors used by 18th and 19th century landscape painters. Artists would face away from the landscape they were attempting to portray and instead paint from a mirror, which reduced the scale and amount of visual information of the subject, making it easier to paint. The glass gets its name from Claude Lorrain, a 17th century painter, because it was thought that the dark glass made the world within it look like one of his paintings.
 

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Claude Glass.

 
This process of reduction is similar to making a painting from a photograph. I think it also has an interesting relationship to Instagram, which allows users to add filters to their digital pictures to give them the appearance and weight of analog film. Around the same time that painters were first using Claude mirrors, it was popular for tourists in Europe to carry a set of various colored glass ‘filters’ that would accentuate the landscape, enhancing sunsets, fog, clouds, or other natural phenomena. I’m most interested in the way in which these tendencies have existed throughout history regardless of the technology available at a given time.
 
What interests you in particular about imagery and information in the modern age? I’ve read something you said in an earlier interview about how your work often comes full circle when a painting is viewed or edited on a phone. What added layer does our present bring to the absorption of historical cultural information?
 
There’s a funny loop that happens when my work incorporating tinted glass is viewed on screen, but in most cases, particularly with my works that involve sculptural objects, a lot of information is lost. A website like Google Art Project is useful in that it can allow one to view important works of art from around the globe on any computer at an extremely high resolution. This gives the potential to see details that are not possible with the naked eye, and is the next step in the evolution of the art history textbook.

Yeah, that is fascinating. But your work seems to embody a pov antithetical to something like the Google Art Project in that it can’t be experienced to a full effect without being viewed in person. There are barriers to the reality of the image, and taking a picture of that makes your awareness of it float to the surface.

 
You implement a quite literal voice at times in your work— for example, a paint can is plopped in the center of a canvas, barely a subtle symbol for how you’re playing with the idea of painting to discuss a higher concept. For what reason do you employ this direct visual language?

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In this group of works I’ve stretched a canvas over panel, cut a circle in the center, and inserted a modified paint can containing a piece of rear-painted plexiglass. It simulates the look of a newly opened can of paint, and is a way of introducing another sense of time into the work. It is a literal representation of painting, of self-referential flatness, which seemed interesting in contrast with realistically rendered figurative imagery on the surrounding canvas. The cans also start to reference anamorphic imagery, camera lenses, clocks, and pools, which opens up new readings of the surrounding painted imagery.
 
Interesting. It’s almost as if the viewer, instead of finding content within the piece, paints the pictures through context- their own personal context that is.
 

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You seem to have a constant fascination with surface, which is inevitably correlated to your explorations related to screens as well as painting. In what ways do you utilize surface and texture, literally or even referentially, to further painting practices as a whole? What does this sense of tactility supply to the viewer?

My recent paintings on canvas have been rendered with a very mechanical, even surface, that is further exaggerated when the works are framed behind glass. I think there is an interesting kind of compression that happens when the works are viewed and processed at once like a photograph, but an understanding exists that the image has been built over an extended period of time.
 
In the past you have employed several different referential, historical symbols within your work to explain an idea. To note a few: maps, lemons, I would even count screens as a more modern reference. What lies within the power of a symbol and the inseparable connection between symbols and humans’ pre-conceived notions about them? What do you personally find interesting about universal symbolism or the way it makes us perceive the world (culturally, visually, internally, etc?)
 

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“The Sun Never Sets (World – Climatic)”, 2014

 
I recently read that when the Chinese first developed traffic lights, green was used for ‘stop’ because it signified calm, and red meant ‘go’ because it symbolized action and energy. I’m not sure if this is true, but I like to think that basic symbols like this may not be as universal as we think. I’m most interested in symbols that relate to formal ideas central to art making, such as scale, abstraction, color, or presentation. In the case of the map and orange peel works, I wanted to use a set of symbols that could oscillate between abstraction and representation. I think that in my best works, I begin with a set of formal concerns and the multiplication of symbols generates meaning that is greater than my original intentions with any one object, subject, or symbol.
 
In that way your work is almost like a contextual puzzle; it wouldn’t make sense without the knowledge of certain histories. Which I suppose can be said for any piece of work within art history, but people viewing the art don’t always take that into account…

I’m really fascinated actually by something you said about your research relating to the Claude glass and it’s inherent connection to our tendency toward Instagram filters. You should explain this research trajectory a bit for readers, but I’m also wondering, is a big part of your practice finding these kinds of connections that traverse across eras but show up in different formats and context relevant to the the time period? With your work, do you find that as our culture evolves that there are more similarities or differences to our behavioral tendencies and thought patterns?
 
My research around the Claude glass followed a formal interest in black glass. It was easy to see connections to the way in which we are taking and viewing photographs today, as the Claude glass was a proto-photographic tool. It was used to reduce the landscape and aid in creating an easier translation of the world. It also attempted to relate a new technology to an older one – a modified reflection to the look of an old master painting – much like an instagram filter attempts to add the weight of old film to digital imagery. I’m interested in the time period around the beginning of the first photographs as it relates to painting and the application of pre-photographic technology by painters. One example is Daguerre’s dioramas, which were a really wonderful joining of camera obscuras, painted canvases, and theater.
 
Your work visually and referentially ties back so much to language, to me it is that much more enhanced when a lovely statement is attached. On the other hand, as Berger has once mentioned, “there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.” How would you describe your work’s relationship with language, and how do you tackle the dynamic between written concept and employment of visuals?
 
My work often begins with seeing. I find that language is useful moving forward from the beginning stages of developing a work to further build an idea and create a structure. I’ll often try to organize an idea for a new show or body of work around a title or set of words, which tends to open up new references and understandings and push the work into new directions.

Out of curiosity— have you ever wanted to do any projects that live exclusively in a digital sense, or do you believe that’s completely besides the point within your practice?

 
In 2010, when James Shaeffer, Ross Iannatti, Edward Shenk, and I were running Reference Gallery in Richmond, VA, I built a 1-inch to 1-foot scale model of the space. At first I didn’t have a plan for the model, it was just something I wanted to make. As I worked on the model, and realized I could get it really close to the actual space, I got obsessed with reproducing every detail to the point that it would photograph identically to the gallery. We had one show take place in this model. I like the idea that someone looking at our website would not know which show this was. I also like that the show is neither entirely digital, nor fully truthful to what one expects from a photograph.
 

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See more of Backman’s work here