Until recently, the depth of Brian Gaman’s oeuvre has been unknown. Among many exhibitions in his lifetime, (Gaman died suddenly in 2014) the first truly comprehensive show of his art was An Exhibition of Works: 1987-2014 at ArtHelix in Brooklyn. Gaman’s sculpture and works on paper are currently on exhibit in Brian Gaman: Vanishing Point at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, NY. In the following interview with Robert Kotasek and Sabrina Möller, the artist and writer Janet Goleas talks about her knowledge of Gaman’s work, his inspirations and investigations into the nature of seeing.
How did you know Brian Gaman and what was your collaboration like?
I met Brian as a friend and I knew him for a year or so. I had seen work in his studio, but I had not seen it on exhibit. The first time I saw his work fully installed was at the Parrish Art Museum in the 2013 Artists Choose Artists exhibition. I was overwhelmed by his work. It was stunning and a bit baffling – my response to it was visceral, but I didn’t feel I fully understood it. I’m an artist and writer, and wanted to delve into the work by writing about it. So I asked Brian to meet with me and talk about his work. Our conversation was wonderful, but Brian was a man of few words when it came to his art, and he was not likely to offer an analysis. My perception of his work had a lot to do with literature, specifically Samuel Beckett. I talked about this with him and we discussed filmmaking, Beckett, and other things. But I also posited to him that I thought, like Beckett, he was a bit of a prankster. And in his own way, he confirmed that and it offered me a kind of a keyhole to his process and his career.
What interests you in Brian’s works the most? What do you see as their most interesting aspect?
Brian’s vision since the beginning – it’s as if he emerged from undergraduate school a fully formed artist – remained constant, which fascinated me. I was interested in his use of ‚telescopic vision‘. And he spoke of what he termed ‚perceptual endgames‘, which of course brought forth all my thinking about Samuel Beckett. And we talked about that. He did numerous inkjet prints on a very large scale. They were somewhat unknowable – not that there wasn’t imagery but it was nearly impossible to define it. That was of incredible interest to me. Often, he would insert tiny little 35 mm images into these large prints, just clipped to the larger image. I something in the works that took place in the transition from micro to macrovision. Within these small images, which were often excerpted from his own video works, he would telescope in, getting closer and closer as if he went past the visual field and really expanded on the type of vision that is fleeting, minimal and impossible to describe. I found that absolutely fascinating.
Brian was interested in the nature of seeing for a long time, since the 1970s. Has there been some sort of an origin of this topic?
I think that very early on, Brian was extremely interested in structuralist filmmakers like Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton and in the way, for instance, that Michael Snow used the camera in zooming in to an indeterminate focal point. I think that affected Brian, and in his own way it became one of the cornerstones of his own artistic vision. Michael Snow’s landmark film Wavelength, which is about 45 minutes long, slowly zooms toward an eventual conclusion, eternally, it seems, until it finally stops at a focal point that in the course of the film you would never have guessed would be that ‚perceptual endgame‘.
What role does the format play in his works?
The role of the format was very important for Brian. And I think it was in a sense deeply personal. I have some concepts about Brian’s work that have very deeply to do with perception and the physicality of vision. I’m not sure that it was a part of Brian’s thinking – I suspect his approach to his work was much more intellectual. But I think it was an undeniable part of his work. The sort of viscera that exists within both his sculptures and his works on paper is very compelling.
Where did the inspiration for Brian’s work come from? What was the process like?
Well, I don’t know, really. His studio practice was a private one. He was a very affable and social person, but in his work he really didn’t give anything away. Not unlike Samuel Beckett, who never offered analysis of any kind in any of his writings. And yet, Samuel Beckett – like Brian – was a bit of a prankster. In Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the waiting in and of itself does not exist in a vacuum – it’s an equal activity. Activity that is almost like a third party in the play and that becomes full and as rich. In Brian’s work, the act of seeing is also like a third party. That the very act of telescoping into these images becomes a kind of a metaphor related to Beckett’s waiting.
How would you define Brian Gaman’s relationship with the American post-war avant-garde?
I think by the time Brian was maturing as an artist, the concept of the avant-garde was really in question. But I think it’s fair to say that people placed artists like Michael Snow in that avant-garde. Brian produced many videos, although they are not included in this current exhibit. I think that concept of putting parentheses around the act of vision by actually filming it, taking that snippet and getting closer and closer to the essence of the film work was something you might call avant-garde in the 1970s.
Why didn’t they include videos in the exhibition? They seem like an important part of Brian’s work.
I’m not really sure. It’s possible the videos have not been fully archived.
How important was the material aspect of the sculptural works to Brian?
It was very important. I think there was an aesthetic that was connected to minimalism and the idea of finding a means of expression that did not rely on Abstract Expressionism. The minimalists turned to industrial materials and focused more on the concepts behind a blank canvas. But as you know, from looking at the early works by artists from New York and elsewhere, there was a very definitive aesthetic within the sculpture, the site-specific works or the works on paper that often evidence of the manufacturing process. I think for Brian, the material presence is as important as the objects themselves. Early on, Brian created a set of lenses that he cast himself. He went to Corning Glass and worked with technicians to come up with a clear glass that was optic-grade. In this process, he actually cast huge lenses, about two feet in diameter. Unfortunately, in the process the lenses broke, but it seems that was integral to the process as well. He then created works that looked like eyeglasses or spectacles. When you encounter work by an artist like Brian Gaman, you don’t leap to any conclusions. The sculptures look like spectacles, the viewer is sort of called to arms in an effort to run through the variables of sculptural relationships. The first time I saw these works, they were installed outside. They lay horizontally – as if the spectacles and the implicit vision behind them was staring straight up at the sky. For me, they provided a departure point to examine his work. To the uninitiated, his work can hard to grasp, but on the other hand it‘s crystal clear. There is no divisiveness involved. It is what it is and I think that’s one of its powers.
Did he produce the sculptures himself or was the industrial process important to him?
I believe – although I am not sure – that he probably worked with people who helped him produce these works in various fabricating situations. In some of his works, the result of the industrial process is so apparent and so seductive that it’s clear he wanted the process to be alive. And it he would have been very involved in the production process.
Brian had a memorial show presented at ArtHelix in Bushwick. I can imagine it must be quite emotional to curate and organize a memorial show. What was it like for you to see the exhibition?
It was absolutely breathtaking. One of the fascinating things about Brian is that because he was such a private artist, we didn’t realize his studio practice was this robust. As an artist, having an active exhibition schedule often means as much work as actually creating art. If one abandons the exhibition process it doesn’t mean they stop working. In fact, it usually means they’re finding more in their work, and locating its center. I’m sure Brian felt there would be many exhibiton opportunities – he probably wasn’t tremendously concerned about it. Still, I think everyone was thrilled at the depth of his vision, the quality of his work and at the extraordinary set of visual circumstances it created.
How were the artworks chosen for the show?
The show was curated by two brilliant people: Bonnie Rychlak, Brian’s wife, and Peter Hopkins. And they did a phenomenal job. Brian was so specific in how he wanted his works installed – where they were supposed to be positioned, where the pushpins would be, etc. And he would be very disappointed if they weren’t installed that way. I think the ArtHelix exhibition was as close to Brian’s aesthetic as it could possibly be. Bonnie – who knew Brian for four decades – was the perfect person to make these aesthetic decisions.
Did you have a favorite piece in the exhibition? Or one that was in some way surprising to you?
They all were surprising. The show was astonishing. It was breathtaking. I think one of the most surprising things was the single red piece. In the show, it was the only color other than black, white and grey. And because up until that point, no one was familiar with Brian’s works in color, it was riveting. It is a vertical piece maybe 7 or 8 feet high, but the top and bottom of it are white. The image – or what we perceive to be the image – is in the center of that swath of paper. And I learned recently that the white paper in the piece is actually inked. Whereas in other works, Brian utilized empty space or the blank page to convey his message, in this one particular piece the white is not vacant — the white of the paper — but ink. I find that both mystifying and really fascinating.
You are also an artist and a writer. Are you influenced by seeing other artists or writing about them?
I don’t think my art is that influenced by it, but yes, everything I see influences me. Everything that moves me, that is. In Brian’s case, the endpoint of vision or the point at which he chooses to freeze vision is captivating to me. It’ll be a part of my life forever. I think he’s a very important artist and I’m so glad his art is in the broader world now. I certainly wish Brian was here to enjoy it with us. It is an amazing body of work.
// Robert Kotasek & Sabrina Möller