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An Interview with Darren Waterston

Berggruen Gallery

April 25, 2024

Darren Waterston Where I Found You, 2024

Darren Waterston
Where I Found You, 2024
Watercolor and gouache on rag paper
6 5/8 x 43 1/2 inches

On the occasion of A Life in Fields, Darren Waterston's first exhibition at Berggruen Gallery, the artist sat down with us to discuss his philosophy on landscape, his artistic heroes, and how he's experimenting with color in this exhibition.

Berggruen Gallery: I like to begin these interviews with a brief overview of the artist’s process. How do you approach making a painting or a body of works?

Darren Waterston: The physical architecture of building the painting, the process of beginning the work, really informs every layer and every part of the process along the way. So, in the beginning, it’s really a call and response with the materials. I’m so activated by feeling part of a much longer story of the history of painting. I’m just one spoke of the wheel, but I really do find this deep connection to particular movements, periods of time, and places.

BG: You take inspiration from a diverse set of art historical references, balancing between Flemish art, the Symbolists, and the Surrealists, just to name a few. You not only use visual motifs from places as disparate as Byzantium and interwar Paris, but also incorporate Renaissance and historical techniques into your painting—for example, your use of rabbit skin glue and bole underpainting. Do you feel that you’re paying homage to these art historical traditions by replicating their processes, or were these techniques adopted for practical reasons?

DW: I think it’s both. It’s about feeling part of a longer narrative. So there’s definitely an aspiration to actually work in some way with subject matter of the sublime or of the fantastical or surreal. With painting, there’s this expectation that it’s a transformative, or potentially transformative, object in some way.

But the practical part is that I really like interacting with materials in this way. There’s real pleasure in that.

BG: Do you feel that by using those materials that you’re building a relationship to these movements? Do you feel you’re forming a bond with those histories in the present?

DW: Totally. When I see a particular painting that I’ve visited throughout my whole life, or I come across an artist that I have a great affinity for, it’s a physiological response. It’s a recognition. It’s sort of like dancing with ghosts. You’re conjuring and creating the memory of an artist, or imagining what they must’ve been thinking or feeling.

BG: We talked a bit about this particular body of works being “palette-driven.” How have you been experimenting with color and glazes in the artworks for this show?

DW: In this body of work, I want to find this saturation of palette that still feels like colors coming out of a dream sequence. I was feeling like bringing out all these colors that I’d never used before, everything much more jewel-like, much more saturated. Where I feel comfortable is much more kind of denser, more muted colors, but once I felt that it was okay to let the color be, then the color becomes object in a certain way. I’ve really been thinking that it’s not just representing a particular quality of light or a particular illumination, but the color itself that becomes the object in many of these paintings.

BG: I was interested in the use of the clay bole underpainting. Historically, clay bole was used to warm gold leaf, but it seems the clay bole is used throughout the paintings, even the works that don’t have gold leaf. Why are you attracted to that as a material for the underpainting?

DW: Often, depending on the drying time of the gesso, the bole will absorb differently, sometimes a little more bit splotchy or there’ll be different values of the bole. I always wait for that, because that’s the little backhanded gift of using the material this way. All of a sudden, there’ll be formations that come true just in the initial staining of the panel. That particular beginning is revelatory because I’ll respond to it. Certain shapes will come through in the bole that I’ll [say], “This is interesting.”

BG: I’m also curious about the methods through which you’ve been choosing and pairing colors.

DW: Certainly, [I’m] thinking about color theory and certain color vibrations that come together, but also the colors have a slight discord. You don’t want it to be so harmonious. I’m always trying to find the acrid up against a color that we can all generally agree upon as pleasing to the eye. I want to put it against something that all of sudden makes you experience it in a very different way. I’m always looking for a slight discomfort in the color vibrations.

BG: What’s surprising is that so many of the influences you’ve provided are highly representational, at least at first glance, even though your work is abstracted. It’s a bit of a hackneyed cliché that abstract or nonrepresentative artworks represent the “emotion” or “psyche” of an experience (of course, this is an oversimplification of Abstract Expressionism, and not necessarily true of all abstract works), but it seems that you’re more attracted to the psychological underpinnings of these representative painters than their subject matter—how they use a portrait, landscape, symbol, etc. to say something greater. How do you go about making an abstracted painting that still honors these artists’ ambitions and traditions?

DW: In religious paintings and Eurocentric devotional paintings and biblical narratives—there is still so much complete abstraction in them. It’s either abstraction or the fantastical ways in which a particular pathos [is evoked]. And it’s not just that they’re using representation or the body in some way to conjure that, but there’s so much more in just pure, abstracted form and in line and in shape that you can kind of find throughout in a lot of early painting.

More and more I find myself blurring the distinction between the abstract and the representational and that I’m kind of very comfortable in this sort of liminal space between the two. I rely on aspects of each as being in my toolbox as needed. I find by watching what the mind is expecting as having something that’s referential, or this object represents this thing, that you can actually create a narrative that feels almost like there’s representation in it and yet there’s actually not.

BG: I was interested in a line from a profile that your alma mater, Otis College of Art and Design, provided in a series of its “Outstanding Alumni.” The profile reads: “Waterston admits that if he'd been slightly less interested in art, he could easily have become a naturalist or scientist.” Can you speak to the role of nature and flora in your artworks? Do you see painting as a tool for investigation, just as research or experimentation is a line of inquiry for a scientist?

DW: Every day there’s something in the natural world that finds its way into the studio. There’s been a couple of painting in this show that a certain light would hit the wall in the late morning would just hit this painting, this unfinished painting, in a certain way, and I’d [say], “Oh my god, that’s how to finish it.” It’d be phenomenological things like that, or it’ll be I walk by a mossy rock in the garden or something, and I’ll [say], “Oh, thank you, that’s the answer to this one little area of the painting.” The main thing is that I always want to be in a state of wonder. I just want everyday to have one thing that I am awestruck by. And if there’s always wonder, then that’s what goes on in the studio ultimately.

BG: In a meeting with us, you described these landscapes as “psychological gardens,” which is such a rich description for both the formal and psychological aspects of these works. Could you expand on why landscapes are a compelling psychological and emotional metaphor? What separates a dreamscape from a landscape?

DW: Landscape is a pictorial construct. Landscape is not a real thing in the world. Landscape is the way we want to arrange our perceptions of the world. I feel there’s more liberty to look at the idea of landscape as how we arrange ourselves in it and how we represent it. And because landscape just gives way to abstraction so quickly, so easily, it’s very seductive that way as well.

BG: Ironically, it almost seems that in using history, you render this emotional space atemporal—the “landscape” is either absent of time or exists just beyond it, which makes the works feel purgatorial. The calligraphic style of painting, which has the antiquarian atmosphere of scrolls or illuminated manuscripts, furthers this effect. Do you think of these works as ahistorical, or of history and time as fluid in psychological “spaces” like memory or emotion? Can you speak about how some of the historical motifs and references (the oculus or evil eye, the “diffused” forms of your flora and fauna, even the alchemical richness of the gold, etc.) contribute to a feeling of timelessness in your paintings?

DW: Even though I have all these references to art history and painting and the history of landscape, I do want the experience of the paintings to be that the viewer feels untethered a little bit, not really grounded in a particular time or place. That all is simultaneous and contrary, that the sense of time and space is really ruptured in some way. I do think about that a lot as I’m painting. I’m not really interested in painting this sort of pastiche of representations of landscape. More and more, I feel as though I’m thinking about these psychological spaces than I am, you know, an actual [elements]. You know, there’s a horizon line, foreground, background, middleground. There’s this particular time of the day, there’s this particular quality of light, it’s this season. And these are things I’ve really been hyperobservant of. Certainly, using some of these somewhat timeless motifs as the emotive eye, or the disembodied eye in this case, or trying to depict refraction, or trying to think about how does something feel, if it’s wet or dry, or there’s a temperature to it, there’s a moisture to it…through paint, how does that get articulated in some way?