Dying Merging Multitasking: An Interview with Mike Cloud
Ortega y Gasset Projects (O y G) was launched in May 2013 as a gallery and curated project space in the Bushwick/Ridgewood neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. Formed by artists currently living in California, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York, O y G operates as a cross-country collective and an incubator for dialog and artistic exchange.
In this ongoing series, different members of the collective will conduct interviews in conjunction with work seen in O y G exhibitions. Here, member Karla Wozniak talks with Mike Cloud about his art practice, his relationship to painting and his thoughts on its current identity, and his role as an educator.
Mike Cloud has been featured in solo exhibitions at MoMA PS1, New York; the Gallery at Lincoln Center, New York; and the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Omaha, Nebraska; as well as in group exhibitions at the Studio Museum, Harlem, New York; and White Columns, New York. His work can also be found in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Eileen Harris-Norton, Santa Monica; and the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery. Cloud earned his MFA in 2003 from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he was awarded the Barry Schactman Prize in Painting. Mike Cloud lives and works in Brooklyn, New York
Karla Wozniak: Dying Merging Multitasking at Ortega Y Gasset Projects, in which your work is featured, presents painting as an expanded, flexible discipline that has the power to absorb other media. How do you think about painting?
Mike Cloud: Painting is the contemplation of a skin, a painted film. Whether a painting is on a cave wall, canvas or wood, you can always conceptually separate a painting from its support. Wall space is sacred; it is the space of windows, doors, mirrors, and other kinds of portals. Sculptures are different; they have to share a space with living things, as does architecture. A chair could be either mundane or a work of art, so could a building. But all paintings are contrivances. They are all set apart.
KW: The definition of painting has been expanded since modernism. Where do you think the boundaries of painting lie? And how far can they expand?
MC: That’s like you’re asking where do the boundaries of dance end, and when are you just making a fool of yourself? I don’t know if it’s something you can really explain, but you know that the boundary exists. There is a point at which you simply aren’t making a painting, but something else. Part of the skill of a painter is in proposing those boundaries. This comes from experience. You have to paint for a long time to understand it.
KW: If you could compare paint or painting to any other substance or activity, what would it be?
MC: The old one is alchemy, and then there is the old one of necrophilia. How about surgery? Maybe that’s a new one. Surgery is necrophilia, but the subject is still living. Or maybe a better one would be a magic trick.
KW: So painting is not dead?
MC: No, although I think painting is about death. In the olden days, when someone would die, you’d cover all the mirrors in the house. Mirrors are portals to the dead, and so are paintings in a lot of stories, like the portrait of Dorian Gray. Often in fiction, paintings are portals to the land of the dead. I think it’s because they’re placed on walls. We don’t physically interact with paintings; you never bump into one like you would a sculpture. You don’t have to dust them. They exist in a weird place. They just sit there. I think television used to be a sculptural problem, because televisions used to sit in the middle of the floor. But now they’re on walls and have become a painting problem. They are so much better than paintings in a way, because they do stuff, and you can turn them off. Paintings are always on.
KW: Except people don’t turn them off. I was at the dentist recently and there was a TV on in every room in the office, including the examination room.
MC: I was at the dentist yesterday. There was a television on the arm of the machine that they put up to your face while you get your teeth cleaned. It was showing a children’s program. Now, what if all those TVs were paintings? [Laughs.]
KW: Could you talk about the specific pieces you have in Dying Merging Multitasking? Where did the idea of painting on cutup clothing come from?
MC: I used to paint on grids and squares. I did that because the grids were textural and they would prevent the painting from becoming a scene. You couldn’t look into the painting, because surface was so insistent. I then started to use hand prints in my work, because hand prints can’t be infinite; you know how big a hand is. Clothing also has this property. The viewer roughly understands how big a shirt is. Using clothing also allowed me to use the body in my work, which as an artist who works mostly in abstraction I don’t often get to do. Using clothes was also a way of using signs in my work. Generally in painting one assumes the signs come from the artist’s inner life, that the artist is the author of those signs. But signs on clothing don’t function that way. When you see a car with an over-sized can of Red Bull on it’s roof, it looks very odd. But if you see a person with a Red Bull t-shirt on, it doesn’t.
KW: Do you think that’s because the context is different?
MC: I’m not sure why that is. If you see that Red Bull car, you think they must be paying the person who’s driving it—no one would choose to drive it on their own. But for some reason people just wear Red Bull t-shirts. That’s just the convention. I figured if this convention was already there, I’d just go for it. So there are lots of signs on clothing in the paintings—teddy bears, unicorns, rabbits. Nobody ever asks why these appear on clothes, or where the images come from. They’re just there.
KW: It seems that in some of your recent work, the traditional painting support has disappeared. Is this something you’re thinking about?
MC: I’m probably trying to weaken certain aspects of painting. The problem for me in being a painter is the victorious nature of painting. Because painting is considered so victorious in our culture, it’s hard to say anything other than that painting is awesome and I like this or that kind. In order for painting to be an actual medium instead of a message—the message being how awesome it is—you can’t use all of it.
KW: Speaking of painting as a material, I’m curious to hear about how you approach the actual paint in your work.
MC: I try different approaches. The clothing pieces in the show are more drawings to me than paintings. The paint doesn’t really create a surface, or it does only in small areas. I wanted to personalize them. I was also thinking about representation—meaning literally to present something a second time. Usually the original thing is missing, like if you make a painting of a mountain, the actual mountain is not there. But I was thinking about the endless representation nowadays—like TV sets all over the dentist’s office. There’s an echoing effect. I’m using paint to echo the mass-produced items that appear in the painting. For example, if I put a Care Bear in the painting, then I would paint an abstract picture of a bear. It’s similar to the process of copying comic books. I think about the process of how things infect your imagination, how certain signs have the capacity to bring an image of something into your mind. If we were both asked to imagine a unicorn, we’d probably imagine the same thing. In fact, I think we are both imagining roughly the same thing right now. My unicorn horn is silver, I don’t know what color yours is.
MC: Actually, that’s what I meant, sort of iridescent white. So it actually was the same unicorn. [Laughs.]
KW: Is your work autobiographical?
MC: From teaching for a long time, I’m pretty good at interpreting art, but I never try to interpret my own art, and I especially don’t try to interpret it before I make it. So I don’t know what it’s about.
KW: That’s interesting. I talk to my students all day about interpreting their work, but the longer I make art, the less I understand my own.
MC: The things you can control as an artist are the issues of the medium. I can’t make myself a more interesting person. So the autobiographical part of painting is certainly there but it’s not something I have control over and it’s not something that I agonize about as much as I agonize about color, or exactly how this canvas could be shaped.
KW: How much do you plan out your pieces?
MC: I have to plan out what they will be shaped like, if they’re going to have an odd shape. That’s an issue of construction. I have very vague desires when I start a painting, like I want the pallet to be pinkish, or I want to use a certain kind of text. But exactly what the painting will look like is an aesthetic thing. I have to see it to know whether it’s working or not. I’m not conceptual at all.
KW: Do ideas come to you that end up in another work in a more intentional way? Or is it always about playing around and seeing what happens?
MC: The unconscious part of me, or the childish part of me has things it wants to do—I’ve always wanted to make a painting about fractals, or I wanted to make a painting about Georgia O’Keeffe, or I wanted to make a painting about holidays—my heart wants those things. The part of me that is a professional artist tells that other part of me if the idea will work in a particular painting. When I find the painting that’s the right shape, or I find some color relationship that will facilitate a Halloween painting, I’ll make it. I have a backlog of ideas for paintings. When I figure out how to make them work I make them, which is why a lot of my paintings are different from one another.
KW: Are there artists or artistic traditions that you feel inspired by, or in a lineage with?
MC: I’m a big fan of primitive art, and also of identity art—Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, Keith Haring. I don’t make work that looks like their work, but I think about the function that their work served in the world or in their lives. Take Felix Gonzalez-Torres—I would like to make work that functions the way his does, for me or for the world. But the rub is that I make paintings, and most of the artists I admire aren’t painters. Something that happened with postmodernism is that since painting is such a victorious medium, all of the non-victorious thoughts translated into other media. Performance can be about failure, pain, and things like that, and a painting is just a twenty-foot blue rectangle. Maybe that was an impetus for using children as a theme, children’s clothing and stuff.
KW: Because it would never feel like this big, victorious gesture?
MC: Because children aren’t winners, right? [Laughs.]
KW: I know that you studied education in undergrad and have taught college since getting a graduate degree. How has teaching affected your art practice?
MC: Maybe part of my suspicion of the triumph of modernism and the medium is due to having to teach people from non-victorious backgrounds. Having a postmodern classroom made me reevaluate what I was taught, because I found I couldn’t really teach it to other people. Quality in art is not an objective thing—it’s part of a story that we’re told over many years. And having to tell that story to different people has given me a different relationship to quality.
KW: Something I struggle with in teaching is figuring out what’s still important and what may now be irrelevant for a certain population or age group.
MC: It’s an unavoidable question. I’ve taught people who were never going to be professional artists, people who looked at painting as an interesting pastime. And I’ve taught people who want to be painters, and people who want to be art stars. Education is an important thing right now. Peter Halley once said that he felt a greater sense of continuity as a teacher with artists of different generations than he would have simply being an artist in New York. Which I can imagine, because Peter Halley and I don’t hang out at the same coffee shop. So if in art history they ever talk about the day that Mike Cloud met Peter Halley, it would be a day in school and not in a coffee shop. Nowadays artists come from different classes, genders, races, and nationalities. We don’t all go to the same coffee shop anymore.
KW: Do you think teaching art has changed how you make art in the studio?
MC: Well, it causes me to make less. [Laughs.] But actually teaching hasn’t changed how I work in the studio, it’s the other way around. Because I’m an artist, teaching is a kind of performance that is related to the way that I make art. So I think that it works in the opposite way—making art affects the way I teach. I’m not sure how much teaching people how to paint makes me a better painter. But I have to read a lot more now, so maybe that makes me better. [Laughs.]