by Pac Pobric
PP: Your latest paintings are much more frontal than they used to be, they’re flatter than your earlier work. But still, it’s almost as if they’re about figure/ground relations. But the China photographs are taken from more oblique angles, they’re never really frontal.
SP: Well, the newer paintings are more about how colors are interacting, and the use of and dark forms on light grounds—and vice versa—heightens the interplay, I hope. In my photography, I’m more interested in addressing architecture and shapes in real space. And I am more turned on by the “bad” neighborhoods, the tired buildings with shit in the foreground and awkward paint jobs. I don’t like to shoot beautiful or iconic buildings, I would prefer the burnt out ones, they are much more peculiar.
Those sorts of architectural moments influence my painting, but I think my painting is a bastardization of real architecture. To say that my painting “deals” with architecture is not really fair to architecture. The photography is not a studied thing. It’s simplified. If I go into a neighborhood and I see a building I am attracted to, like a boarded up house or something, I can try to take a picture of it from the front, flatly, and make it an “art” photograph that vaguely looks like one of my paintings. But that’s not what I’m trying to do out there. For me , it’s more effective to get a sense of the whole thing, to take a few photographs from those oblique angles. It’s a study, I suppose.
A lot of the artists I really like are painters who took photos: Kelly, Sol LeWitt, Ruscha. Their photographs do what painting cannot. They capture reality. It is all there, a real thing at a real place at a specific time in history. Painting does not exactly do that. Hopefully painting does something more magical and mysterious. Painting concerns itself with making something completely fresh and new, or “out there,” and photography, for me, is sort of about catching the “out there” in things and moments that actually exist in reality. By their inherent qualities alone, photography is more about capturing and painting is more about creating.
PP: How important is it that these photographs are taken in China in particular?
SP: Well they could be in China, or L.A., or Memphis…and they’re kind of generic, in some sense. But I think it’s important that they are taken in China. And having travelled to mainland China in particular, I think one immediately gets a sense of that specific place from these images. The dusty haze over Beijing in the summertime is very distinct, and a lot different from what I’m used to in coastal California.
Being a person who makes reductive work was challenging with this project because I might have been interested in, like, close-up shots of a wall, any wall. If I saw a bright orange wall, I could have sent you fifteen photographs of it, close-ups. But with disposable cameras, I’m not in that mode, I’m not trying to get rich monochromes or make really carefully composed images. A monochrome painting is a lot different from a monochrome photograph, and I like to use photography to do things I can’t do with my painting. And I guess a lot of times I’d rather take pictures of things than draw them. They’re different stories, photography and painting.
I wanted a project in China to enrich and inform my travel experience. It would have been great to say “I’m a painter and I’m going to paint en plain air in Hong Kong Harbour.” I mean, it’s 2011, and you can still haul around your watercolors and set up shop and that’s totally great. But it’s also romantic to shoot with film and explore more of the city while you work. Digital photography is too easy, it’s nothing. But shooting with the disposable is efficient and an excellent complement to the act of drawing, which I also was tending to throughout the trip.
Still, it’s not that hard. I shot six or seven rolls of film and it cost something like 90 bucks. But when I look back at the China photographs I am happy about the story they infer. I could write an essay on my experience in China—and I probably should—but I found that this project forged a link between what I was experiencing there with what I’m continually looking for in my painting. China is an incredible place and I was really fortunate to be able to spend some significant time there. China is intense and great and so different from the United States in so many ways, these pictures don’t even scratch the surface. But there you have it, I guess we might call it “reductive photojournalism.”
All photos are “Untitled” (2011), by Steuart Pittman; 4″ x 6″, C-prints