The American Buffalo-based artist Charles Clough paints his colorful abstract works using his “big finger” painting tools. He sat down with Robert Kotasek and Sabrina Möller to talk about his working process, his influences and his plans for the future.
In many of your works, you mix paint of different colors using finger painting or the so called “big finger” painting tools you came up with. Can you tell me more about how the idea for this technique came to be?
When I was a teenager, I painted with brushes. In 1969, I went to the Pratt Institute in New York City, and a few months after I came there, there was Henry Geldzahler’s New York School of Painting 1945-1970, which helped me to understand post-Pollock painting in terms of paint as a material. Before this point, I had used paint conventionally to depict things, representational subjects, etc. But in encountering paint as a material, it became clear that how the paint was applied and manipulated was a crucial aspect of painting of the 1970s. I got rid of my brushes and I was using my hands and fingers to apply paint. It was a kind of a regressive move, but it was also primal. Initially, I was finger painting on top of art book reproductions. Then I used photography to enlarge these finger paintings and I would paint on top of the color prints. In 1985, I painted works for a 20 by 60 feet wall at the Brooklyn Museum. Inkjet printing wasn’t as sophisticated as it is now to make color prints that would have worked in the space. It didn’t seem like an option. It occurred to me that if I make big fingers, I can make paintings on a much bigger scale, but using the same technique as in my finger paintings of smaller formats. It turned into a signature tool and I used it from the mid-1980s until 1999 when I moved from a New York City studio to Rhode Island. There I began to experiment with painting on inside-out sleeveless T-shirts that I would put on the ground and pour and apply paint to them. Then I would use a grinder to grind through the layers and polish them. I stayed in that studio for almost 15 years and then I was offered a studio space in Buffalo. There I started using the fingers again.
So you don’t use brushes or any traditional painting tools anymore?
For the time being at least, I am trying to explore other techniques of applying paint with squeegees or brooms as well. The variety of applicators and applications is of great interest to me and I see it as an area in which invention can unfold.
How would you describe your work process? What is the beginning of a new work?
When I moved to Buffalo, I had a conceptual realignment. In 1996, I chose the name “clufff” for my URL when I found out, how many Charles Cloughs are out there. When I was returning to Buffalo for my show at the University at Buffalo, it occurred to me that I was on the way to “Clufffalo”. I now think of my paintings as Clufffalo paintings, and there are three types: Locations, Seasons and Numbers.
In the Numbers, I’m the sole author of the painting. In that case, I have an array of colors and I “dump and push” – I make a puddle and I take a finger and move it from one puddle to another. The blend is very important to me, I see it as a metaphor for life, perception, etc.
The Season Clufffaloes are made by participants who come to my studio in the suburbs of Buffalo at a location called the Roycroft, which is historically connected to the Arts and Crafts Movement. I let the public have their way with painting the seasons. I started in September last year, so I have an autumn and a winter painting that I’m going to show at ArtHelix. The autumn painting was painted by 59 people in 27 sessions. I documented the participants and the state of the painting when each of them are finished with it and then I make a book out of the documentation.
The Location Clufffaloes are intended to be executed in the context of a museum. The first one is called Clufffalo: Hamburg. I worked with the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and we set up a platform on a stage at a local college and the Albright solicited 150 people to come and paint over the course of 8 hours to produce a mural for a library, which is the resting place for the painting. I videotaped the painting process from above. All of my paintings are made horizontally – gravity makes pools of paint, but it does not make drips. At the end of the 8 hours, we had the mural for the library, an 8-hour video and using the documentation, I made a 300-page book.
In terms of technique, periodically since the 1970s, I would set up circumstances where the public would have the opportunity to paint with me. When I was a kid, I would look at the Abstract Expressionists at the Albright-Knox or the Metropolitan Museum and I would think: “I could do that, anybody could do that.” People say: “My kid could do that.” So I set up situations, where people who want to, can paint with me. I see myself as a conductor of generosity. In reality, artists need to gather material, a place and time to execute their work. I set up circumstances where anybody who wants to can jump in and do as they please. With the Location Clufffaloes, I’m the last to paint and I determine the final appearance. In the Seasonal Clufffaloes, I grind through the layers of paint and polish the surface, as with the Zodiac T-shirts I did in Rhode Island years ago.
Do you have certain criteria in choosing the individual colors?
It is intuitive, it’s not like there is a formula. I use my intuition, my 65 years of experience with painting.
You use bright colored paint, which you mix together using your painting tools directly on the surface. Do you set out knowing what you want to achieve, how the colors will mix, etc.? Are there any taboos as to what colors you mix and how?
No, there are no taboos. As I say, for me, it’s purely intuitive. For others, they may come with a strategy. I imagine that as people become aware of the circumstances that I’m making available, they may come up with strategies to distinguish what they’re doing within the series of the states of the painting. There have been professional artists who came and painted and they would do things like whiten out everything that’s on the surface before they take their own turn painting. But it’s always within the realm of experiment. I want to see what happens, I want to be surprised. With children, it typically turns to mud, but even painters like Richter or Twombly used mud or grey blended paint in their own contexts.
You founded the Hallwalls Center for Contemporary Art with Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman, among others – have their individual artistic approaches have an impact on your own work? Which artists in general do you see as your biggest influences?
We developed our practices in proximity of each other. There are clear stylistic differences amongst us, however, there are certain conceptual approaches that are similar. The situation with Hallwalls came because I had dropped out of school. One of my art professors presented to me that to be an artist, you need to make the artwork, you need to see exhibitions, you need to visit artists’ studios and you need to read the literature that surrounds it. So I dropped out to be an artist. In Buffalo, an artist had a very large building and he wanted to rent out to other artists. Eventually, local art professors took spaces there and they brought their students. This was at the beginning of the age of alternative spaces. I realized we could use the walls in the halls that were between our studios as an exhibition space. I was extremely lucky that Robert Longo came into the picture. With help of other people, we were able to fix the walls and we came up with a program of visiting artists, including Vito Acconci, Richard Serra, etc. They helped form our context that we could work out of.
I made a list of 500 artists, who I consider to be my favorite artists. My work has an obvious relationship to Gerhard Richter, to Howard Hodgkin, Willem de Kooning, Hans Hoffman, Henri Matisse, etc. The list is pretty much endless. I like to cram as much as I can into my brain.
You work on the horizontal plane, on the floor. How does the physical approach of being able to move around the artwork and working with the various tools influence the creative process?
The clearest precedent for me is Pollock and also Rauschenberg with his Bed Painting. I can’t think of painters who use horizontal orientation to make their work that precede those examples. It’s about subverting gravity – if you paint vertically, the paint drips down, if you paint horizontally, it puddles. The thickness of paint, the viscosity of paint, etc., are the main issues. In some of the group projects, the amount of paint can get out of hand and I had to install gutters around the platform on which the participants are working to drain the excess paint.
The subject of the work O My Goodness are different religions in history. How did that come up?
Many artists think of art as being morally neutral. I wanted to bring these questions into view. I did these 12 T-shirts for a year at the Rhode Island studio. Then I went into a mode of doing a lot of watercolors. I let go of my rules in terms of strictly using the fingers, I was responding to a lot of other artworks – making copies, using brushes, etc. There was a phase where I transitioned from the brushed watercolors to layered brush paintings. I would add up layers, obsessively photographing them and their details in the process, so that one painting would equal hundreds or thousands of images. The collision of the concern of how to mix religious and moral concerns came about after 40 years of working. There is a movie online showing all of the photographs I made when I was painting the work and there is the book with a selection of the images along with notes I was keeping at the time of the making. Since the early 1970s, I have kept notes – there are probably about 50 000 pages of my journal or, as I call them, studio notes. Some of the aspects of the work O My Goodness correspond with the notes I was keeping at that time.
What I found interesting about the series O My Goodness was the fact that after documenting the painting, you repeatedly removed parts of it with a grinder and painted over the whole image. To use a grinder is quite a brutal technique – and considering you usually work with thick layers of paint, how did it structurally influence the next phases of the painting process?
I am a big geology fan. The region that I grew up in is greatly affected by the last ice age. The idea of building up and grinding down, changing the surface in terms of both addition and subtraction is a method that makes me happy.
How did you choose which parts to erase and which to keep?
That is a part of the intuitive process.
To what extent are the individual painted images from the different stages of the process visible in the final artwork? Does it influence the next layer?
It does, but not in a way that I can verbalize. It’s intuitive. It’s like when I’m watching my grandchildren play. It’s hard to say how they go from one activity to another, how they are going to play next. There is a naturalness at play that I think my painting reflects.
When do you know the work is actually finished?
I either get tired of working on it or I become thrilled with the look of it. Sometimes, it’s a combination of the two. It makes me think of a phrase used by the filmmaker Michael Snow “remains to be seen”. To me, it’s connected to geology, to fossils. Fossils are remains to be seen. What I leave as an artist are remains to be seen. When I was twenty years old and decided to be an artist, the key to that was knowing that I needed to leave something behind. I needed to actualize my artwork – that’s how you make meaning and how you make history. The meaning in my abstract works can’t really be verbalized, they are emotions, energies, etc.
How would you define your approach to painting?
What’s next for you in terms of next exhibitions, projects, etc.?
I was offered the ArtHelix space, which coincides with the moment of getting the Guggenheim fellowship. I see it as a wonderful opportunity to sort of re-emerge in context of New York City and international art. Because I have moved my studio 400 miles away from New York, I’m using local regional context to bring content into my work. But I don’t want to miss out on the opportunity on operating and showing in New York City and internationally. In Europe, I am quite unknown, aside from the shows I had in the Netherlands and Italy. I would like to pop that door open.
Artistically, I’m thinking about using stones in my works. From the time that I was very young, I liked picking up stones. Which is common, people like the colors, the shapes and the textures. I’m thinking about 3D scanning and 3D printing surfaces where I can extract the texture of these materials and use them as painting surfaces. Fifteen or twenty years ago, I was painting on rocks and using abrasion and polishing to achieve particular effects.
Thank you for your time!
// Robert Kotasek and Sabrina Möller
Charles Clough: Three Types of Clufffaloes
April 29 – May 22, 2016
Opening: Friday, April 29 | 6-9 pm
Art Helix • 289 Meserole St • Brooklyn • NY 11206