The Conversation: Gretchen Bennett and Matthew Offenbacher
The following is a conversation conducted between Seattle artists Gretchen Bennett and Matthew Offenbacher on July 11, 2012 in Offenbacher’s studio. Bennett and Offenbacher are both prolific artists in their own right and have been collaborating on a variety of projects, including exhibits, publications and business, since 2009. - Amanda Manitach, Seattle Contributor
Amanda Manitach: I want to start off talking about Gretchen's Windfall Alphabet. How did that come about? You both have practices rooted in painting and drawing, but your projects often diverge from those, in very interesting directions.
Gretchen Bennett: Windfall Alphabet came about when I was on a residency with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council on Governors Island in the fall of 2010. There was an almost hurricane-grade storm there the month after I arrived. The island has a dozen or so tree varieties on it, so when I went outside after the storm there was literally a windfall of twigs on the ground. I had started thinking about Ruskin right before I left Seattle, so I decided to spell the word — to literally make a landscape out of Ruskin’s name. It led to the collection of the whole English alphabet and I think now it’s moving from collection to examining walking as an art practice and the people who have come before me doing that.
AM: You both seem to have a literary influence on your work. A knack for subtle storytelling.
GB: Interestingly it’s Matt who introduced me to John Ruskin by way of his essay “Green Gothic." That’s when I started researching him and his writings, particularly his writings on J. W. Turner.
AM: So it has to do with the Romantic?
GB: I think it has to do with looking at Romanticism while not feeling very Romantic! I like the idea of Ruskin and Romanticism, and walking tours in general are really Victorian and Romantic. But they’re also a way of closely observing things. I like Ruskin’s essays on directing you to a walking tour. The Romantic walking tour is an insular experience, yet it can emanate outwards and leads to group participation.
AM: One of the reasons I mentioned storytelling is Matthew’s upcoming show at SOIL Gallery, Decor for Interstellar Flight, which has this elaborate backstory about space travel. Then, Gretchen, you are literally spelling out stories with twigs and your drawings reference pop culture narratives.
Matthew Offenbacher: I love words...in any form really. So I guess that makes sense. It’s funny because I never really think about story. Do you think of story as a component of what you do?
GB: Yeah, I think about narrative all the time and lately I’ve been focusing on private and public and elements of my own personal story and how they intersect with public experience. I mean, I’m just describing an art practice in general right there, but then I have my own specific entry points, and so does Matt.
MO: I think a lot about the power of language to create value of many kinds. I’ve tried to write fiction before and failed, and I think I associate storytelling with that ability to spin a yarn, which is something I’m terrible at, even at a dinner conversation. A fact to which Gretchen can attest.
GB: That’s not true!
MO: When I tell a story it just meanders and then twenty minutes later people are like, wait, what’s the point?
AM: That is a kind of storytelling!
GB: I think that brings up a beautiful point, that there are different kinds of storytelling.
AM: Another thing you both do very effectively is interweave public engagement in your practices. You engage people through publications, you take them on walks. How did you get started publishing Norda? Was that an extension of your painting practice in any way?
MO: It was a way to connect to the community. I’d only been here a few years (I moved from San Diego in 2008), and my understanding of the artists here and what they were working on was still evolving. At the time I was thinking of painting shows as installations and giving a lot of thought to the supporting materials, written things like press releases and statements. The zine came out of this desire to create community as well as a consideration of how powerful words can be when used to talk about artwork. It was an attempt to take some of the power from people who traditionally have that role, like art critics and dealers, and put it back in artists’ hands.
AM: You also have made things like the Ke$ha broadsheet that you’ve included in your shows. Do you consider that an artwork or a supplementary object? Or is that line blurred?
MO: That line did get blurred really quickly because I think of the aesthetic of the publications, the layout, the design, in the same way I think about paintings.
GB: I think writing allows things to come into focus, helps them come into being. I was just reading this essay by Jeff Wall that discusses how the written description of a work is the one enduring thing. It is the remains of the art.
AM: Like a witness.
GB: And I like the idea of not having to say what a narrative is. Maybe as you explore a format you can help push it forward.
MO: You mean with writing?
GB: With Norda it’s arguably helping establish a new format or platform for writing, or even a new format of writing.
MO: I like that about your writing. You push the form of an essay; you often build your argument with these little stories that circle around the subject. Like your most recent piece for the zine on Czech cubism: it really wasn’t about Czech cubism....
GB: Mine wasn’t about Cubism. But it was tangential to Czech Cubism, and that was the whole point of the essay, is things that are connected but don’t touch. Which is what the Windfall Alphabet is. It is to establish language but it’s not for storytelling, that language. Whatever language comes out of the Windfall Alphabet is just tangential to the physical sticks.
AM: Matt, what are you working on right now?
MO: They are paintings made on paper glued onto styrofoam. They have to do with science fiction novels. I’ve loved sci-fi since I was a teenager, even though it’s embarrassing to admit because they’re so often kind of pulpy and not great literature. I like the abstract aspect of science fiction, how it takes current day circumstances and projects them forward. It makes you think differently about the present. So lately I’m trying to not be ashamed of my science fiction love and embrace it. I recently read this trilogy about the colonization of Mars that includes long passages about the voyage from here to there and what that would actually be like to experience. I’ve been thinking about the conditions onboard a spaceship that would have to travel a long distance, especially the decorative problems that that poses. The important stuff!
Matthew Offenbacher | panels for Decor for Interstellar Flight, 2012, acrylic, pigment, and collage on polysteyrene, 48 x 36 inches each.
GB: This relates to your depictions of flowers, which are usually the decorative element of an exhibit, but you make them the exhibition.
MO: I hadn’t thought of that, but yeah, I’m always super interested in the decorative things that are nearby but aren’t considered art. So I’ve been thinking about the conditions aboard a spaceship and then making paintings that would be successful in that context. I realized early on this is a great metaphor for the white cube gallery space: it’s a funny way to talk about the social and physical isolation that can exist in a space like that.
AM: Maybe you’ll get a commission from NASA!
MO: Apparently people go a little crazy in those environments without natural cues of time passing. So these paintings are calendar paintings, a sampling of what would be a year’s worth of paintings, one painting for each day of the year. The astronauts would take down a painting every day and put up a new one, and the colors and textures would gradually shift over the course of a year to cue seasonal changes. And they’re on styrofoam, so they’re super light, because it’s expensive to get things out of the earth’s gravity....
GB: Wait, you said you’re not a storyteller!
MO: That was a super-meandering story! And the other thing that ties in is bohemianism and bohemia. It’s an interest in the Romantic that I think Gretchen and I share, this romantic notion of what artists do and how they live. One of the myths about artists is that they’re surrounded by beautiful, ornamented things.
GB: And the decorative arts are given so much weight.
MO: It’s not the kind of decoration that’s luxurious, materials-wise. I like the idea of artists being able to take poor materials and transform them into richness in some way, that’s the big myth of what artists do in our society: create value from things that are valueless.
AM: So you’re perpetuating a bohemian myth?
MO: I think there’s a misperception, a gap that exists between the perception of how artists live and the reality. I wouldn’t say I’m trying to perpetuate these ideas, or even make fun of them, but rather trying to figure out what are the unhelpful parts of these myths, and what are the parts worth embracing as utopian ideals. I’m been interested in some of the thinking from around the turn of the last century, attempts to fuse decorative and fine arts, to think about the utility of art, to bridge the gap between art and life.
GB: Launching bohemia into space kind of does that too, right?
AM: Gretchen, is there anything you’re working on besides Windfall?
GB: I’ve been thinking a lot about the color grey. The formal aspects of it seem to have more credence for me now than they ever have. I think about Jasper Johns and how all these colors in Matt’s studio you can find in Jasper Johns’ greys. Johannes Itten calls grey the vampire of colors. It sucks in all the other colors. I don’t really know where I’m going with this except I’ve been thinking about grey, and in that context I’m working on a suite of drawings in my studio: their particular narrative is their greyness, otherwise there’s a little Cobain in there, there’s a little Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, there’s a bit of the tv show The Killing. So it’s kind of like a field guide in a way.
AM: How do you pick your pop culture fascinations?
GB: I look for things that describe the psychology of the landscape. For instance The Killing seems to be about the rain working on the landscape and that working on the psychology of the players. It’s set in Seattle but it’s a remake of the Danish tv show so there’s that dark Scandinavian aspect. Sometimes I feel like it’s rained all spring here and then I think that must really be colored by the fact that I’m watching The Killing — because they’ve got the hose over the camera lens the whole time!
AM: Hollywood Seattle.
GB: I just read E. M. Forster’s Howards End and there are something like twenty references to grey. Some are allegorical, some are literal but it’s all about coloring the greyness of life with literature and art. It’s amazing, all these references to grey. I didn’t know that’s what I was going to find in E. M. Forster.
AM: Anything else?
GB: It’s been a year and a half in development and application so far. One of the things someone said earlier made me think of the word “becoming.” Which I hesitate to put out there, yet it could be a kind of meaning embedded in both the Romantic and science fiction. It’s kind of like Frankenstein. I think that the action of forming Sea-Cat and thinking of a set of ideas that includes value — in a sense that examination and process is the project.
Matthew Offenbacher has shown work at Howard House, Greg Kucera Gallery, Seattle Art Museum, Prole Drift, ACME (Los Angeles) and Pulliam Gallery (Portland). He is the founder, editor and publisher of La Norda Specialo and co-founder of Sea-Cat. His show Decor for Interstellar Flight will be on view at SOIL Gallery in Seattle August 1 - September 1, 2012.
This year Gretchen Bennett’s work was included in the show Guts at Ditch Projects. In 2011 she developed a temporary work for the Seattle Art Museum Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, and her work was featured in the exhibition HEEL GEZELLIG at the Grimm Gallery, Amsterdam with Matthew Day Jackson. In 2010, she was awarded a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council residency on Governors Island. She was recently awarded a residency with The Corporation of Yaddo. She received her MFA at Rutgers University in 2001. Bennett is part of the art collective Sea-Cat.
Amanda Manitach is a writer and artist based in Seattle.