Artist 2 Artist with Frank Meuschke

Updated: Jan 30

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.

As for the election? Well, let’s just say that New Year’s day came a little late this year, January 20, to be exact. For more of my thoughts on Nov 3 to Jan 6, read here and here.

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.

Vincent Van Gogh, Pollard birches, 1884, Pencil, pen in brown (once black) ink, on wove paper

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.

Peter Heinemann, Self-Portrait, circa 1980, oil on canvas

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!

Horizon I, 1993, oil on canvas mounted on panel, 18 x 90 inches
Horizon I, 1993, oil on canvas mounted on panel, 18 x 90 inches

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.

Hand-Crafted & Stained Coffee Table (Detail), 1995, dimensions variable
Hand-crafted, Stained Coffee Table (Detail), 1995, birch, douglas fir, charcoal, oil, and urethane, dimensions variable

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.

Mountain View, 2000, oil on panel, 9 x 13 inches Frank Meuschke landscape painting
Mountain View, 2000, oil on panel, 9 x 13 inches

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.

Maine Farm, 2006, oil on panel, 12 x 24 inches Frank Meuschke Landscape Painting
Maine Farm, 2006, oil on panel, 12 x 24 inches

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 exp