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 posin