Interview with Sebastien Worsnip

Sebastien Worsnip
Real Men Don’t Look at Explosions
Joyce Yahouda Gallery
June 8-July 16, 2016

Sebastien Worsnip is exhibiting his strong new series of paintings at Joyce Yahouda Gallery this June and July.  These works are similar to Worsnip’s usual modus operandi, with a twist–they deal with spectacle in a quantum way, presenting us with visual meditations on time and paradox. These highly-layered, complex abstractions are generously painted, the viewer is likely to wish to revisit them again and again and look for a long time.

Kara Williams: Why did you choose explosions for the theme of this exhibition?

Sebastien Worsnip: It was a convergence of several things. I think I’ve always worked with time, even though when I was doing more landscapes there was always the idea of time. I always liked the idea of even when I was doing abstract work you could sense when time was passing. It came together. There was a time when things were a little difficult for me, and I was thinking about stability and instability, and my daughter showed me this video “Cool Guys Don’t Look at Explosions” and it was that coincidence, a flash in my head, what if you walked into a room and every painting was exploding? All around you things were disintegrating and falling apart or moving. I started with straight up explosions, Hollywood movie things, sketching these things.

KW: Did you work from a still frame from a video, the film itself or from your memory of those movies?

SW: I was looking up images of explosions and came across natural disasters, Burning Man even, anything spectacular, but very quickly I realized it wasn’t that interesting to me to represent that, it was just interesting to sketch, what was more interesting was to have that feeling. I think that’s even what I’ve always done with landscapes, because I prefer the feeling of something. Where I can transmit that in a more oblique way where it is more open, where the story is not necessarily told, there is an openness to interpretation, in way an ambiguity. It became much more about these structures deconstructing then maybe coming together again. The last two paintings were the most explosive that I did, Skyfall and Piège de Crystal.

KW: Did you use a masking liquid on some of your pieces? Such as Les traces qui restent?

SW: I used a pouring medium and a tube that was flattened out on a turkey baster, so I could draw long lines like that. I was trying to find a way to draw on the painting and originally I hadn’t thought of doing those kind of lines, I made the turkey baster to do like you do with a bamboo stick, like Van Gogh’s kind of drawing, that nervous line. That’s what I was trying to get.

KW: It looks like you have a natural facility with line.

SW: I like it. I like the contour. I was seeing if I could get the energy of a small sketch, that immediate energy. I’m still working on that. The movement is so different.

KW: I admire that since my line is so different from yours.

SW: It actually that has to do with the tool, you have to hold it with two hands, and my whole body is moving, it becomes very linear and sinuous.

KW: While we’re talking about line, would you say that your education in industrial design informed the way you make art?

SW: Yes, yes and no. I finished school as a sculptor and painter. I worked as a prop maker and set painter, a lot like Peter Doig. I stopped sculpting and started painting because I was doing all my sculpture commercially. I started to not want to do it, it didn’t feel authentic. When I would go see installation shows, I could feel all the fussiness behind it, and it drove me crazy. It made me think of all the stuff I was doing professionally, and it turned me off sculpture, except really raw, raw sculpture.  I think that when I paint now I look at it a lot of times as a sculptural thing. I’m trying to imagine the space sculpturally in my head and try to work it. That’s why I like the detail so much of having the thick and the thin of the paint work. On the one hand you have this space that you can imagine projecting yourself into, but at the same time they’re so big and textured, I want people to be aware that it is an illusion, paint on canvas. I like that tactile feeling. Working with the masks and stuff is a lot about that. I’ll mask off one area, it’s a bit like surgery. How can that area be as interesting as it can possibly be? That one little spot that I’m working on it has to be as dynamic as it could be.

KW: How much planning goes into making a piece?

SW: There’s a lot more planning now than there used to be. On the one hand some of the paintings in this show were really well planned out with sketching and photoshopped and as I work I  continuously photoshop between what I’m working and what I’m trying to get to. So I have this photoshop sketch of what I’m trying to get to and what I’m working with. So some of the more layered ones were definitely like that because I had to plan the layers I wanted to get to.

KW: Roughly how many layers would you say do you make in the average painting in this exhibition? How many times do you go in?

SW: I would say about six. Roughly the big layers.

KW: We spoke at your opening about the unusual palette, the contrast between the explosive content and the softness of your colours. Do you want to talk about your use of colour in this series?

SW: People comment that the work is very soft and pastel and meditative. For example, one of them, All Sunshine and Rainbows, is using very manga colours. I used a fluorescent pink and phthalo green as a base. They’re very violent colours to start off with but they cancel themselves out, which I find fascinating. As you’re working with them, they become grey. In this show, I went back to some more earthy colours. With this other series I wanted to work with colours that are not natural. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. How can I make something interesting with colours that I find absolutely garish? That’s where the beauty comes in. To start off from a point that is difficult for me and I try to get myself out of it. Now I changed my work so I can’t go over it so much, but when I used to paint over things, a lot of times at the end of the day I would mix up whatever was on my palette and just randomly put it on the painting to spook myself the next day.

KW: What is the most engaging or satisfying part of painting for you? What excites you the most?

SW: It’s really basic but creating something out of nothing. Creating this world that almost seems real but you know it isn’t. Still to me, especially with abstract stuff, I wonder, why is this interesting? Why is this abstract space or thing interesting? I can’t even define it. I’ll leave sketches and scribbles around my studio and people will come in and be like, that scribble is really interesting. And I’ll be like, I know and I don’t know why. Why is that interesting? Doing this process now where I’ll hide things and then paint on them and take it off, that’s really exciting. When I take off the masks, all of the sudden POW, it’s just there, living with everything you did before. You had an idea of what it would look like but you didn’t really know.

KW: Like an explosion on the canvas.

SW: Like a shock. My wife and kids sometimes will be at the studio and they’ll be like, can we do it can we do it? It’s fun. You’re discovering this stuff underneath. It’s very similar to when you develop black and white photography when it starts to come up. My mother was a commercial photographer and I spent a lot of my early life in darkrooms. It has that same feeling, she just let me play with stuff.

KW: I’d like to hear more about your thoughts on abstract art.

SW: I sometimes think of doing more figurative things, although in a way, I think right now the abstract stuff I’m doing has structures that are figurative in a way because they’re very defined, and then I’ll mess with them. They’re not referring to something that’s absolutely there. I like the idea of having it open. Of letting someone be able to dream with it. It’s kind of meditative too. I’m a big fan of Rothko, that kind of experience of painting where you sit in front of it and let it wash over you, although mine are more dramatic. I used to share a studio with an older painter who did minimalist work and he used to tell me, you’re very dramatic. There is an openness in suggesting something where somebody can bring their own experience to it. It always surprises me when someone describes to me their experience of my work, how close it comes to my intention.

I don’t look for meaning very deeply. When I go see work, even very figurative work, I’m not looking for symbols or meaning, that’s not the way my brain works. I tend to look at it more visually and look for poetry in it. I’ve seen people analyze something and look for links and meanings and I realize I’m not doing that at all. It’s not my go-to way of being. It’s different ways of thinking, different ways of being. I think I very much follow a tradition of looking. Of being more visual, more tactile. That’s where my interests have always been. It’s a different way of communicating. I’m definitely communicating something with what I’m doing it’s just not something I’m able to put into words.

KW: That’s why you put it into paint.

SW: That’s funny because I teach, and I sometimes have a hard time describing what it is, but I have an easier time describing someone else’s words than my own.

KW: What are some of your other influences? You mentioned Rothko.

SW: I was really a fan of Kirkeby, but at one point I stopped looking too much at the work because it was blocking me, my work was too close. This was earlier on. He’s a Dutch painter. I look at work but I try not to look at it too much.

KW: Not to the level of being influenced.

SW: Yeah. It does scare me. With Kirkeby I found if I did a line, I was like, that’s like a line in his painting. Especially with abstract stuff it can come so close to what you’re doing, you’re like, oh God. One of the influences of this series was Peter Eisenmen. He’s not a painter, he’s an architect, his emphasis is on structures, so I really drew on his structures.  Digital architecture is part of my teaching, you were asking how design fits in here. A lot of digital architecture is about spaces, I find it interesting that the spaces that are done digitally are very cold, they don’t have much humanness to it, and when I draw them they become more human, more organic. So I’ll take that as a starting point for the sketches and sometimes even incorporate it. That’s the skeleton on which everything is built. I might keep doing that because it is efficient. The basic structure is there.

KW: Do you find that sometimes paintings get away from you? Sometimes go in other directions? You mentioned you do a lot of planning and Photoshop, with many layers and stages. Do you find they go their own way sometimes?

SW: Yeah, the other thing I’ll do is I’ll always start two paintings, sometimes three. Different sizes, big, small, little.  The medium one is almost as big as the one I’m working on so I’ll do all the stuff I’m scared to do on that.  A couple of the paintings that were in the show were those ones. They’re sometimes much fresher.  I was having a really hard time producing work, and I thought this was a way I could increase production and not be scared.

KW: What is the most difficult part of the process of artmaking for you?

SW: I would say that it is what makes it interesting too…the fear of not knowing exactly where you’re going. When I start it I have an idea and its only by working through it that = it starts to define itself and to make sense, but when you first start it you don’t know where you’re going with it and you’re not even sure if it’s going to be any good, so there is self-doubt.  The uncertainty that you’ll even have enough work for a show in the time given.  Three-quarters of the way through the year I had a couple of paintings that I thought were quite good and quite pertinent for the show and then I relaxed. Usually I don’t until the show opens but I felt it’s okay, I have something here.

KW: A couple of your pieces, After the Rain and Lover’s Leap don’t seem to be of explosions in the literal Hollywood way. They also feature orbs floating in the sky or water. Tell me about them if you wish.

SW: That was a little off-topic but I liked them so I put them in.

KW: I was just wondering how they fit in with the idea of explosions or time.

SW: I fear saying something, they mean something to me, I’ll tell you and you’ll tell me if it breaks the painting for you or not. To me, it is a waterfall, and the bubbles are like all the energy of that waterfall going back up, like the little bubbles on a river.  I thought they were really nice like that, all the colourful bubbles. I just like that painting and I wanted to put it in. It’s kind of a landscapey with a quirky element to it, and I would possibly like to do more with that kind of work.

KW: Is that something you’re thinking of doing next?

SW: Yeah we’re going off to France in a few weeks, what I was thinking I’ll taking my camera and look at a lot of landscape paintings and seeing if I can rework them.   Even in my own paintings I will sample a part of it to work on the next one. I will take my camera really close and find a detail and sample it.



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