Artist and Landscape Architect Rebecca Krinke speaks with fellow Rosalux member artist Frank Meuschke about his relationship to the outdoors, shifting between photography and painting, and the path to making onsite landscape sculpture projects.
How have you been doing? How has COVID, the struggle for racial justice, the election, and all of 2020, and now into 2021, been affecting your life and your studio practice?
I’m going to add these events to my list of cortisol-raising experiences like watching the towers fall on Sept 11, the 2008-09 economic collapse, and post Hurricane Sandy in New York. Of course, Covid has lopped off my in person teaching like most of us, but also social contact from most everyone but the occasional delivery person or my neighbor dropping off some eggs. I had some photography travel plans, but those were nixed. That’s all okay -there’s plenty to do in the time wrenched open and I am privileged to be out in the woods through it all. At the beginning of the pandemic I had a hard time concentrating, so that would have been back in March and April. I don’t think I made much work then, although I remember heading out to a park to photograph and it was so busy that I avoided that over the following months and concentrated on the space outside my house.
Every time another soul is taken by law enforcement (or by anyone), wholly unnecessarily, I am taken back to Amadou Diallo, shot at 41 times, and pierced by 19 bullets, by four New York City “plain clothes” officers and then again, Sean Bell and his friends, 51 bullets, and of course, Eric Garner, whose last words carried forward to George Floyd’s dying words. It’s heartbreaking. I am worried about where things will go after the trial and verdicts. You could see this trial as a trial of all police killings of the last decade, not just here, but all over the country.
Who were the artists that inspired you as a young person?
My high school art teacher would take interested students to NYC to go to the Met or SoHo, back in the middle 80s. The art world was raging with Wall Street Money. Impressionists were being snapped up by Japanese collectors for millions -so I saw a lot of that. At fifteen, we had a field trip to see the Van Gogh at Arles exhibit at the Met. In SoHo, we’d loiter inside the Think Big store -we knew it wasn’t art, but you know, teenagers. We’d go to Pearl Paint. There was a lot of paint on canvases in the 80s and I loved the smell of oil paint. If you stopped at Leo Castelli, you’d smell the oxidizing oil paint in those unventilated lofts.
I really got into Keith Haring as a teenager. He was on the walls, on the streets. I thought, yeah, I could do this! He was one of the reasons I wanted to go to SVA. Of course, we didn’t have the internet, or any art books or magazines around, so my introduction to SoHo was really important to seeing anything newer than Picasso. Even if I had no idea what I was looking at, I got to see things outside of dimestore (that dates me, eh?) prints, cartoons, and encyclopedias. I was pretty sure I could draw that turtle, too, so I knew there had to be more to it.
Was being an artist something that your family supported or understood?
No, not at the outset. We didn’t know any, so artists were the “starving” caricature, and that wasn’t seen as a good path. My uncle married a musician, and she was supportive, although her parents essentially disowned her for that decision. It wasn’t that bad for me. They just didn’t have much experience with it. You could say I brought art to them.
Did you go to art school? Were there individuals who had an impact on your point of view as an artist during your education that you still think about, apply lessons from?
My first year of art education was at School of Visual Arts. I was lucky to do well on their scholarship tests, and got a finalist round interview with Silas Rhodes, the school’s founder. I dragged my giant portfolio onto the train to Penn Station, was jacked by a cabbie scam. It wasn’t my first time in NYC on my own, but I’m sure nerves had something to do with that. I could hear the conversation going on with another finalist and I knew I wasn’t prepared. I was firing on luck and ambition, not how well-read I was or my list of extracurricular accomplishments. So I ended up taking out loans and working at an electrical distributor to cover costs.
Our painting instructor, Peter Heinemann, was not too wordy, so there isn’t much to remember, but he once said that he wasn’t an artist, he was a painter. That there could be a difference stuck with me. He sent us, weekly, to shows around town, which we had to write about and make sketches. I remember being blown away by an Anselm Kiefer exhibit, at MoMA. Dark, architectural, giant paintings, the smell of paint, I had no idea what they were about, walking in, but it made an impression.
I ended up leaving SVA just after starting my second year, primarily because I got sick, but also for financial reasons. I transferred to the New York State University system which had a whole different paradigm, namely -the liberal arts. I spent a semester at SUNY Stony Brook, and then transferred into sophomore year at SUNY New Paltz, in the Hudson Valley. My painting professor, Hank Raleigh, told us that a painter can do anything. He meant that this doesn’t work in both directions, so learn to paint, and then practice another discipline if need be. I guess I took that at face value, although I can’t defend the notion; it’s not easy to shift among media. Raleigh had the most influence on my thinking, and not all good; as the link above references, he was a complicated man. He advised me against two things: whatever you do, don’t paint landscape and never let green dominate a painting. I made sure to do both!
Did you establish a studio practice right off the bat, go to grad school; what were the early days of your career all about?
I graduated with my B.F.A., had a summer art teaching gig at a place called USDAN Center for the Arts, saved a little money, and eventually rented an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where some friends from school had moved. You could live alone, then, so I converted the bedroom to a studio. I applied to a bunch of art-related jobs, but none panned out, so had to accept working well-removed from my education. I joined the union, as was required, to work for an electrical distributor on W18th St. I chose the lighting department because that was as close as I could get to anything to do with my knowledge.
To connect to my field, I applied for an internship (aka, no pay) at Foster-Peet Gallery on Crosby Street in SoHo. I worked weekends and openings. Kim Foster’s background was in banking, which funded the gallery. Peet came off as a grifter. The interns did all the low-level work, which you may be surprised to hear included looking at all the slide sheets that came into the gallery and deciding which should be placed on Kim’s desk. We also wrote and rewrote gallery artists’ statements for their upcoming exhibitions.
Meanwhile, I painted at night, and on weekends, went to museum shows, hung out at friends -they all had studio rooms in their apartments. We were 23, had no connections, so we painted for ourselves and our friends, worked in odd jobs like night watchman, warehouse workers, cooks. The art market tanked after the stock crash, and the economy went on a white collar job shedding spree for five years. So there wasn’t a lot of opportunity, but we made all kinds of things. I was drawing directly on my plaster walls, making furniture, light sculptures, and also painting canvases.
An ex-girlfriend saw an ad for a gardener at a NYC garden design company and I applied. The owner, Bill Wheeler, interviewed me at his Upper West Side apartment. He opened a case of 12v outdoor lights and said he had problems with these not shining bright. Ah, well I could tell him something about that, so I got the job. We gardened for the actor Mary Stuart Masterson, pornographer Al Goldstein(Screw magazine), a “penthouse” brothel in Chelsea, screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, Princess Bride) and a lot of anonymous wealthy. Maybe the best view into New Yorker City’s rich and famous was through the garden.
One day I was watching True Romance at my friends and got this terrible urge to get out of New York. I was depressed, honestly, but I had no words for that back then. After that garden season, in January, I got on a train to San Francisco to visit a college friend, a poet. After staying with her for two weeks, she sold me her Ford Escort for a hundred bucks and I drove it north, along the coastal highway, sleeping in the car, until I got to Portland, Oregon. I lived there for 8 months or so, painting, gardening, traveling around the state, seeing things, got a job with a landscaper when my savings ran out.
My girlfriend, in Portland, wanted to return to the East Coast, so we headed back. After a side journey to Joshua Tree and the Grand Canyon, we highwayed through New Mexico and I told her I would like to live there someday. After 18 months back in Brooklyn, more lousy economics, and a failing relationship, I applied to grad school in a number of places. It is no surprise that I chose New Mexico, where I earned an MFA in painting and minor in landscape studies.
Tell us more about your photography practice. When and how did it start? And how has it evolved over time? You have done paintings as well --tell me more about that and its relationship to photography.
I think my photography is mixed up with painting in a way that makes it hard to delineate an evolutionary line. That’s not just with me, it’s a terribly entwined history. Photography took up the genre of landscape around the turn of the 20th century, curiously just after landscape painting had crested and was in decline. If you want to engage with 20th century landscape, in two dimensions, you will largely be looking at photography. You have the Pictorialists contending with painting early on and later, you have painters dealing with photography in a hyper-realist manner. The dialogue has been constant since the inception of photography, and earlier if you consider the place of the lens in painting.
I recall a studio visit with the painter Tom Nozkowski in the summer of 2000. I didn’t have much new painting available, so he got to looking at my slides. He asked me, “Are these photographs?” I understood at that point that, although I was painting, I had a kind of photographic eye and sense of composition. Drawing for me had always been a search for compositions, and photography could operate the same way.
One summer, maybe 2003, I had a studio visit with Carrie Mae Weems. She could see I was struggling with painting and suggested I consider taking photographs instead, or at a minimum, work from photos. Later on that day she told a table of folks that she would like to see a painter making photos -whatever she meant by that, I took it at face value, she was speaking to me -not the photographers at the table. I had to consider changing something, but I had little interest in the quality of photographic prints at that time and hated the process of painting from projected slides.
Not long after, I began taking photos with a four megapixel Canon Sureshot and making prints on my home printer to use for paintings. They were terrible! But I used that terrible color in the paintings. Honestly, I thought about it as if I was still working en plein air. Instead of an environment before me, it was a print pieced together from several 8.5 x 11 sheets, fixed above my painting panel. The head motion -look up, paint, look up, paint, look up, was exactly the same as the plein air experience, but with a flat picture, low-fi color, and less flies. This way of working began around 2006 and lasted until 2016.
Eventually I gained access to a large scale inkjet at the college where I was teaching. I began to make larger prints from these small megapixel files. Occasionally, I would find myself taken by a pixel “stretched” print intended for painting but never was painted. A photograph I enjoyed, that kept my interest, didn’t need to be a painting. So that first image that didn’t become a painting was the beginning of my transition to photography.
In August 2007, I decided to start up a blog about my gardening, landscape, and nature in New York City. Initially I thought of it as a multimedia garden journal and way to connect with other local gardeners. Photos were often the instigation for posts and the drive to keep posting kept the camera with me. This led me to new places with the camera, new images, and new posts. I've written nearly 2000 entries since 2007 and my site has well over a million unique visits, so a modest success by website standards. If anything, the real success has been growth in my writing, photography, and editing skills through the process. I still write, not quite as often as the previous decade, under the new heading, MOUND.
I have seen your work at Rosalux and online -all the photographs I’ve seen from you are made outdoors, some at night, some intriguing blurry. Can you tell us more about your relationship to the outdoors?
The wilderness experience, alone on a mountain, sometimes extreme activities in extreme environments -that isn’t my outdoors, I stay close to the road. I was raised in what amounts to suburbia, and its unpopulated, wild places were waste spaces between housing tracts, underused parks, empty baseball fields, weed patches between misaligned fences. Landscape, for me, is always a peopled place, either physically present, by the artifacts of our presence, or by the abstract landscape idea itself (even wilderness requires our participation).
Working outdoors, or with the outdoors, is my natural state of being. I sometimes joke that I was raised by the yard. We were those early “latchkey” kids. We didn’t have a word for it, we just had a lot of time without parents around and I preferred the yard. It was full of weeds; my mother had no interest in it and my father was not very skillful with it. It was a bit of a micro paradise of bugs and pokeweed. I made spears from dried weed stalks, collected caterpillars, made cities for ant colonies, built a swimming pool with a shovel and clear sheet plastic. My parents never knew that [laughs].
Nature time with my parents generally meant time at the beach, either Long Island Sound or out near Montauk, on the ocean. I miss that now, the smell of salt marsh muck, the harbor. Those spaces, the elevated bluff overlooking the flat horizon, salt haze, those were peaceful spaces where, after I could drive, I would go to center myself. Those spaces had a big influence on my earlier abstract painting.
Had I not stretched myself toward the unlikely, had I not gone to college, or imagined being an artist, or had a supportive high school art teacher; had I rejected my parent’s notion of what I ought to be (an electrician), I may have become a landscaper. That was in the realm of possibility within my familial and cultural context, at that time, in that place. Maybe not mowing lawns and throwing mulch, but in some form because, outside of art making, my other interests were plants, gardening, landscape, and weather. I never thought of horticulture or landscape architecture, nor were these ideas placed on the table, although I was gardening in high school and messing around with plants and dirt and bricks since I was quite young.
In my early twenties I gobbled up nature writing and garden books, had subscriptions to Garden Design and Landscape Architecture magazines, grew tomatoes on the tar roof. At that time, these were an escape (pulled me out of Brooklyn concrete and soot), and they also dealt with contemporary problems around our relationship to nature that I wasn’t getting from NY arts mainstream at that time.
Tell me more about your photography practice. How has working outdoors through a camera affected you?
In comparison with painting outdoors, photography frees me to roam. When I am painting on site, I can roam for a bit to find what it is I will set about painting, but the changing light, building the surface, in a sense, that is how I roam when painting. Photography allows me a different temporal and spatial engagement with the world. I first became aware of this while artist in residence at Weir Farm National Historical Park. I spent each day exploring the park, making a lot of pictures with my little Canon, which led to playing with making a photo for each step I took, which slowed things down but created a record, however incomplete, of my attention.
Whatever draws me out to use the camera, the visual stimulation that says -grab the camera and get outside, is usually not the thing that works through the camera. I’ve learned to look through the viewfinder to witness the world. Things that are visually compelling often become less so through the camera, and I move on. In that way, the original stimulus is like a clue toward further investigation, and that may lead to compelling photographs, which are often revealed later on, in the studio. I also think that the idea of a series is more important to my photography than in my painting. An individual painting might stand on its own, but I think my photographs need each other’s contextualization.
A camera can be distancing, which can be useful or a barrier to experience. I always think of September 11th, the terrorist attack, when I think of this problem. We had a direct view of the towers. My friend Mark, myself, and two neighbors were standing on the tar roof, aghast, and occasionally talking through it. But one of the neighbors, Tony, grabbed his camera and through the entirety of the experience, he continued to photograph. I don’t think he ever looked up from the viewfinder through roll after roll of film.
Isn’t this a way not to deal with something, a way to distance oneself -to become an observer as opposed to a participant? I’m not immune to that, I’ve practiced that in certain large social settings. In general, however, I don’t think that my practice of photography feels like an avoidant act; if anything I am looking to create an experience of what I am experiencing. If I were to be photographing people, which I have, I think that sense of distancing has become apparent. The confrontation, the discomfort with something, that can be an idea to work with, one which I think I’ve approached in my Prospect Park paintings and may do so again.
Are you always taking photos with your phone?
I do take a lot of photos with my phone. These tend to many different visual needs ranging from prosthetic memory to visual stimulation. So I might have a bunch of photos of plants I want to ID, insects in flight, night shots, or someone’s work I saw at a gallery. It’s truly never ending. I consider it a tool for everyday, functional and intended for screen viewing, although I think I approach my artwork most when I push the phone's limits by photographing at night.
Have you ever been a darkroom photographer? What is the term - you know - not digital.
In my first year in art school, I took a basic photography course, and I did learn the darkroom. For my final project, I made a series of black and white photographs looking at people looking at paintings in museums. The following summer I was hired on as the night manager of SUNY Stony Brook’s student darkroom. No one ever showed up, so I had the space to myself and I printed nightly. And I never got much better at it. At the time I was reading the Anselm Adams book of letters. You could say that Adams was a master of printing more than photography (see some failures in the government archives). I think it may have been there that I picked up the idea that one needed to be a printer as well as a photographer, that one could not exist without the other.
You have a section of your website dedicated to “Landscape Projects,” in which you are making site based works in and with the land. Tell me more about this body of work.
As someone interested in landscape, not to mention gardens and landscape architecture, I had spent a lot of time looking at earth art, land art -that sort of thing. Whether it was Agnes Denes’ Wheat Field, Smithson -who I’ve always admired, or smaller bits like Time landscape by Alan Sonfist -an artwork I passed so frequently, it had such invisibility, it became just a park one couldn’t access, which leads me to a well-known local work -Revival Field. I think these earthworks capture much of the discourse we are still having regarding land use and ethics.
In undergraduate school I worked with the artist Steven Siegel. I helped him build what he’d probably term an environmental sculpture with recycled newspapers and soil on our college campus. That was probably my first involvement with that kind of art making. Smithson takes on entropy in this abstract way where Siegel can be didactic, illustrative in materials and process. His forms are not that compelling, but I remember an excitement about digging as art. Being in the Hudson Valley, then, I was also tipped off to Storm King by a professor. I spent a good amount of time there and it is still one of my favorite places. I remember bumping into Ursula von Rydingsvard and her crew of chainsaw wielding men while she was installing. That was pretty exciting, big art, outdoors, wow. I was also lucky to meet Vito Acconci by posing as a sculpture student.
In grad school, I used to drive around on BLM land, through Chihuahua Desert canyons and across the mesa, looking for painting spots. One time, it got quite late, and I ended up taking an arroyo downhill that I had never been through before. Well, it got kind of rough and it was dark, I slammed the rear end of my truck down on a rock ledge. I was lucky not to get hung up on it, and continued on. I was run down by the border patrol and they searched the vehicle because I came out of the hills adjacent to their control point. I realized I had lost my spare tire, which had been mounted underneath the rear of the truck. So the following day I thought I should make my way back up the caldera, go as far as I could go with the truck, stop, and walk until I found my spare. I found it, well down the arroyo, and had to roll it back uphill. While I was rolling this giant tire, just like you would imagine, kicking it with the heel of my palm, steadying it so it didn’t flop, in the heat of a desert day, I thought to myself -what the hell am I doing! This is like an art project, rolling a giant tire uphill through a sandy arroyo, over stones; man and his petroleum tire. Sometimes life feels that way, like you’ve unwittingly burdened yourself and make great efforts to keep the burden going. So maybe that was my first performative land artwork. I’m laughing, but seriously, maybe it was. I wish someone was there, out of sight, filming it.
When I was at Skowhegan, I was there as a painter -and a landscape painter at that. I was still working out of doors, on site, and several of the other artists found that novel and kind of intriguing. I was being exposed daily to radically different methods of artmaking. This happened through my peers, faculty like Kim Jones, and weekly visiting artists presentations, and I had a sense that this was an opportunity to stretch myself. I just didn’t have a project, or know where to start.
I was reading a book, Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, given to me by one of my housemates there, Matt Northridge. Thoreau says that the Maine woods grows in right behind him as he cuts his trail. Curious about this hyperbole, I kept it in mind. Janine Antoni was on campus that summer and it is safe to say that my work was perceived as rather opposite of her work -couldn’t be more different. I remember watching her slide presentation and I got stuck on one sculpture, “And,” made there, at Skowhegan, a few years before. The process of making her work developed tangential visual material that was never considered part of the work.
I became intrigued by that material, which was a circular path worn into the sod of an old cow field. Thinking of Thoreau, I wondered -could that circle still be there? Or did Maine grow right up behind her feet like Thoreau suggested? So I went sleuthing up in that field. I found a book in the library with the same imagery from Antoni’s slide presentation, and used its images to triangulate a possible location. Narrowed down, I was able to locate a divet in the field where timbers held the stone sculpture in place. I had honed in on the precise location. Now what?
I had in mind that story where Rauschenberg asks DeKooning for a drawing. Dekooning complies and Rauschenburg sets about erasing the drawing. Why is the art world so antagonistic?! I thought, what about the opposite of that; what about bringing back what had been discarded? So I set about analyzing the images and site so that I could recreate the dimensions of the worn circular path. Then applied my conclusions to finding its center, and with the aid of a stake and string, walked and walked and walked until I had re-drawn the circle. It took about three weeks. This nugget began a process of me making work out on the land each summer I was at Skowhegan because I found that I rarely felt compelled to paint while there -for once I had access to all this space, land, and that was what intrigued me. Back in NYC, I had little space to work with, but I created project proposals, applied to opportunities with them, but rarely, if ever, did they come to fruition outside of my summer Maine projects, with one exception at Socrates Sculpture Park.
How might you describe your aesthetic?
I don’t know that I have an aesthetic. For many years I have been telling people that my medium is landscape, more so than painting, photography, or otherwise. I try to speak through landscape, and this idea allows a freedom to shift across media.
My newest work, its “sfumato,” which comes from the Italian fumo, or smoke, is the result of my process of making the initial image, not an editing process. This blurred quality ties my photography to painting, which I hadn’t thought about until someone said that these new photographs look like paintings. I’ve also heard that my paintings look like photographs, but I prefer the former. I also really like color, more specifically -individual colors. I’ve never had an internal color sensibility, or even the impulse to apply color theory rigorously. It was only when I started painting from life, directly, that I then felt, for the first time, a purpose in choosing colors. That changed my relationship to color in a way that felt really good. Photography fits that bill, too, for the obvious reasons.
There’s an idea that, say a farmer (or any laborer on the land), doesn’t look up and see a beautiful moment, the sunset, say, while working -he sees the end of a hard day, a termination of toil or tomorrow’s hard work tearing up the sod or what have you. Somehow aesthetics, beauty and its conception, is solely the product of an urbane existence. I have a hard time with that -I don’t believe it for a second. Although I see this quite differently than ideas about nature that are born of the city, of culture, of an urbane education.
Who inspires you in photography and what are they doing that attracts you?
I’m attracted to art that is idiosyncratic; work that is personal and complicates common narratives. Immediately who comes to mind is artist Wendy Redstar, who works across media in a way that is true to herself and upends preconceptions and projections. I’ve been following painter Joe Noderer for a couple of years now, for similar reasons, but manifested differently.
I’ve liked Richard Misrach for some time. I admire his On the Beach series, but Desert Cantos in the way that it considers without judgement or didactics; the work creates beauty out of the most human-altered environments, despite what ails; despite what is fraught in the relationship.
Another example is Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner. This world isn’t one you’d want to be a part of, probably not at all, but still we are confronted by the most stunning urban-industrial visages. It’s almost romantic and I get hooked on this complication.
What do you hope viewers will feel or think when experiencing your work?
I find myself pointing at things, composing against conventional landscape scenes, sometimes to reflect the abstraction inherent to landscape, or to think of landscape as a container of human ideas, not just a pleasant view, reminder of a favorite locale, or a set of pleasurable formal properties.
In my Prospect Park series of paintings, viewers could experience the park landscape as a place of awkward repose. I had in mind that this artificial nature is our nature, that there could be romance in that, but that there was also discomfiture in the experience. It was the first work where I painted space explicitly peopled, which made sense given the place depicted. There is a separation there, in looking at others from afar. It was probably the work that coursed most closely to my internal, psychological space.
My last exhibit, Invisible Present, made during my residency at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve, would have people wonder what they are looking at, despite much of it being recognizable. In a way, that is an experience of ecology -we know what we are looking at, its parts are clear, but we do not understand how it comes together. So a sense of mystery, and although I began to filter my experience through the idea of haunting, I didn’t intend the work to be or display as haunted. I wanted to approach the difficulty of hauntedness in our experience of the land. So I pointed toward artifacts of scientific activity that operate as an occultation. Those objects, in concealing their purpose, suggest something less concrete than an understanding of science should allow. Science can be a talisman working against haunting, so this was a challenging way for me to approach Cedar Creek.
Do you work in bodies of work? Color photos only? What size prints? How do you like to show them?
I work in series, although there are specific projects I set about doing and then there are other subjects that I work with, sporadically, over many years. I tend to group these bodies around a place, or, if not a place, an idea. For example, I have a group of photos I take of artists in the landscape, another of empty sports fields, and these have been ongoing as the opportunity to photograph them reveals itself. Other projects are more concentrated, like my Cedar Creek work or Prospect Park paintings. My first series of photographs was taken, in black and white, of Brooklyn’s “only remaining forest.” I was still painting at the time, and I never intended to show them, but when I was asked to be in an exhibit of artist zines, I put the group together for a zine, in black and white.
My history as a painter has informed my ideas about size. People would look at my image presentations and imagine that the paintings were big, even though they were quite small. I felt that a big painting of a vast space was a kind of mockery, or at least, silly. So I made small paintings, you had to get close, to experience the vastness. It made sense practically, but also conceptually. With photography, it makes sense to me that one would print the size that manifests the ideas you are working with. In my last exhibit, at Rosalux, that meant 22x30 inches -big enough to see the details I wanted you to see, but not aggrandizing.
That said, I don’t think I have found the best photography display “fit” yet. Modes of display are a perennial concern, as are issues of commerce. I’ve been thinking about projection of photographs lately, but do I sell prints? What does that do to the intent of the work? It feels as if it can easily get out of my hands, and honestly I would rather be in better control of how I present than allow commercial circumstances to dictate presentation. So, it’s a good question that is hard to answer for a broad spectrum of work.
When I teach color theory, I introduce the idea that color in photography marks time, much like film or fashion can. Even if you should eliminate all the visual cues to time, like a style of clothing or hairstyle in a photograph, the color print will dictate its time period. Black and white does this earlier on, but by mid-century it had stabilized, so that -again, styling aside, a black and white wet print, today, could be confused with one from 30 years ago. You can’t say the same for color, as it has been progressing. It is only now beginning to stabilize with inkjet printing -but for how long?
When photographing outdoors, have you thought about how we as white settlers are on land taken from indigenous peoples? Does that or could it affect your practice?
My work doesn’t come from that point of view, although that is not to say that it couldn’t. It’s not too far a stretch to see photography, particularly of land or people, as a kind of stealing. The language, itself, refers to taking, capturing, grabbing a shot, and then, if there’s commerce involved, profiting off that taking. I’m conscious of using the words “making a photograph,” although that doesn’t absolve me of responsibility.
Living where I do now, I don’t think there is a day that I don’t think about being on and caring for land that isn’t mine. Coming from New York City, despite the butchered indigenous names everywhere, that awareness of being on native land isn’t present like it is here, in Minnesota. If one is sensitive to it, you know there is blood on every stone, and you cannot walk the woods without that presence. There could be something spiritual in that experience; there is grief and continuing on, but also the haunting.
I suppose if I were to deal with this in the making of work, I would want to leap straight toward American Horror, which is a genre that has dealt, in a more or less direct form, with our American sins and crimes. Whether it's dumbed down, pop movies like Poltergeist or smarter films like Get Out, the horror is often tied to land, place, the American-ness of it. This haunting is hard to escape. The projection onto others, in what may be an unconscious attempt to escape the haunting, is deeply concerning. It’s best to face it, directly, but isn’t that scary?
Which makes me think of my take on Perseus’ means to slay Medusa. To face the Gorgon directly, you would be scared stiff (turned to stone) and that would be that. So, in order to conquer that horror, Perseus makes his approach utilizing the reflection of the Gorgon visible on his shield. If you accept that a reflection could be analogous to visual art, then couldn’t art operate as an effective approach to the horrific? Art is an indirect way to face our fears.
If you were given a large grant with no strings attached (like a MacArthur grant) - what would you do with it?
Make a film and have a show at Storm King. Storm King would get me out on the land to make physical spaces and objects, likely with plants and other landscape construction materials. Maybe I could make a horror movie at night at Storm King -that would include a lot of things I could play with.
What are you working on right now? Where is your work headed? Any plans to show?
In summer of 2019, I replaced a rotten window in our basement and I had polyethylene sheeting hung to keep the dust contained. It was still up in November, and you know how low the sun is here, at that time. Trees cast shadows onto this clear plastic sheet and it surprised me, so I photographed it with my phone and posted it to Instagram. That eventually led to making new photographs where the lens looks through polyethylene film. Given the state of the U.S. and the world, the haunting of climate, the lack of clarity my images present feels like the right place to be.
As for upcoming exhibits, right now it’s pretty quiet other than online showing. I really want to develop this new body of work, so having the time to do that is important. I think I’ll be ready to show these before my next exhibit at Rosalux. I’m always exploring venues around the country, too, but again, the work has to come first and I want to show new work. At the cusp of the pandemic, I was supposed to have a show of my last series of paintings in Brooklyn, so that may come back around, if we can whip this thing.
I’ve been using some of this time to expand on my curriculum because I would like to get back to working with college-age students more so than I have since our move to Minnesota. I run a business building landscape structures and have a nursery starting up this spring growing woodland species for gardeners. I also continue to manage the photography programs at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, where we have a ton of webinars and occasional, socially-distanced, in-person photography experiences. In other words, I’ll be deep into landscape for some time to come.
Frank was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant for 2019 for his photography work made at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. You can see more of his artwork by visiting his website, Frankmeuschke.com. Read his landscape and garden writing, see thousands of garden, insect, and landscape iPhone pics, and find links to his business at his blog, MOUND. You can follow him on Instagram @frankmeuschke and @artist_and_builder.