Commentary, Gallery, Interviews

“A Whole Interwoven Host of Things”: A Conversation with artist Gala Bent

bent_58Poetry Northwest staff writer Nari Kirk interviewed Ms. Bent via email during February and March 2013.

NK: I’ve read other conversations of yours in which you’ve expressed admiration for the Northwest’s forests, the plant life that’s constantly in flux, the stony fixtures that provide counterpoint to the transitory. In your work, particularly last year’s, I see textures and shapes that remind me of the many days I’ve spent in the Olympic Mountains and Columbia Gorge. Tell me how you infuse your love for the outdoors in your art.

GB: Being outside is a necessity that, for me, registers almost as a nutrient—psychologically, physically, spiritually. Without it, I languish! For that reason, when I am conceiving a conceptual focus for my drawings or paintings or other projects, I often find I’m drawn to investigate why the “wilderness” is so important for me. Many artists have tried to capture something of the character of water, wind, rock and plant, so I have good company. In my current view, I try to express both my ecstatic love for all things wild, as well as a certain tension as a city-dweller who must travel to get there. I realize there’s something fictional about the land until you’re actually standing on it. Even then, you’re a packet of preconceptions, and the process of peeling back layers of sight becomes a mental project. I find this frustrating and really interesting.

NK: Many poets investigate wilderness too—Denise Levertov, for instance, whom you quote on your blog. The poem you reference, “Sojourns in the Parallel World,” explores the transformative power of nature, and I like to believe that art holds this power as well. What do you think should be the role of visual art in the human experience? Say a person gazes at a painting and submits herself, fully opens herself, to what the painting can do within her. What might happen? Or in this scenario is our gazer too passive?

GB: The Levertov poem expresses something for me that helps define what I am often after. While I don’t see a distinct line between nature and culture, I do experience a distinction between the “civilized,” human-dominant environment and the wilder spaces where other players are more active. The conclusion to the Levertov poem is significant: Like a tourist bringing back a memento, a piece of art can be a remnant of that experience, even if it can never be fully communicated. In any case, I’m an enormous fan of any art experience that shifts my sense of self-importance and exposes me to a much larger world. The work of newly-discovered artists like Ajay Kurian and long-time favorites like Wolfgang Laib, Ann Hamilton, and Kiki Smith are an inspiration to me in that way. I also think of a poem “The Lives of the Artist” by Kary Wayson, excerpted in the Fall 2012/Winter 2013 Poetry Northwest, that I had the pleasure of hearing her read in person. I love her description of trying to write a poem based on taking a walk, and I love, too, her confession of how difficult it was. The result feels like a very convincing picture of the urban brain as it wanders over and between bits of road and grass, moving between autobiography and observation and wordplay even as she moves past houses under sky and tree.

NK: I like what you said about art challenging our notions of self-importance. Poems do that—they pay deep, sometimes excruciating, attention to other-ness. But they have to do it not just through words but also through form, and in that sense, they’re a visual art. For example, the unit of the line can, in its discrete form, call attention to surprising juxtapositions of sounds and images. How does a print or etching (or any non-verbal visual art) reflect or complement this function of poetry by reimagining, reorganizing, or complicating the familiar?

GB: Just like any of the arts, drawing and painting can act as signifiers for thought and experience that people have in common. Poetry often makes me hear language afresh. The same words that I might use in everyday speech gain a vibrancy and potency in the hands of a great wordsmith that takes me by surprise. At my best, I hope that my drawings can do that. They point at recognizable things—rocks and hair and architecture—and they’re made with recognizable materials—pencils, paper, paint, pixels—but my goal is to remix them into something revelatory. That doesn’t always happen, of course. But what a rush when it does!

NK: As fantastic as it can be, art really is composed of the familiar, though as eager learners we like to make it more complicated. This reminds me of a comedic Venn diagram I’ve seen where one circle represents “What the Author Meant” and the other represents “What Your English Teacher Thinks the Author Meant”; these circles barely overlap. Below them is the hypothetical literary sentence, “The curtains were blue.” As the joke goes, an English teacher would argue that the blue curtains symbolize a character’s inner turmoil; however, the author simply meant, “The curtains were fucking blue.” As an English instructor who’s been guilty of hyper-analysis, I had a good laugh, but I also wondered if that distinction might be true. People who see your art probably want to know what it means. They probably ask you a lot about its significance. Do you find that they read more into your art than you did when creating it? Is there a point at which analysis—as helpful as it is—dismantles the spirit of art or obscures it to the extent that it loses its truth?

GB: That joke is funny. What I face is twofold: First, I am always trying to explain my own work to myself. Even if I have specific intentions, the process of working visually seems to come with constant surprises, and part of the joy of work that isn’t fiercely pragmatic is its ability to contain logical leaps and unexpected implications. Working in a series, I slowly uncover new possibilities and realize what I’m thinking of. Second, when I explain my art to others or am asked questions about specific meanings, I tend to either oversimplify or pour on the whole complicated conundrum. The truth is, when I’m working I think about a whole interwoven host of things, and that can sometimes be difficult to translate into an elevator speech.

NK: Talking about one’s work, especially the why of it, can be tough. So let’s talk about the how. In your work I notice a fascination with geometry, perhaps a few nods to cubism (pardon the “-ism”—any “-ism” is dangerous, I know), a movement interested in dissembling then reassembling reality. Talk to me about how you render the third dimension and then shock it, play with it.

GB: Your point about nodding to cubism is valid, even if it is also by way of other sources as diverse as graffiti murals or paper architecture (architectural plans that are seldom, if ever, built). In my obsessive doodling life, geometric planes begin to pop and fold out of flat patterns, and that has the addictive effect of giving the surface of the paper a life of its own. One of my pieces from last year, “The Illusion of Depth and the Four-chambered Heart,” has a psychological theme as well as an aesthetic one. There’s a tension present when trying to project a dimensional world into, or out of, a flat surface, while being acutely aware of last century art’s obsession with flatness itself. I find myself wondering why I am always mixing the approaches of implied optics (perspective drawing and other tricks to imply depth) versus more direct tactics (surface, gesture, and material to draw attention to the object itself). In our visual day-to-day, we measure and read the world based on a wide variety of diagrams, so it makes sense to me that they should exist in the same painting. I found myself comparing this set of tensions to the way that we know ourselves and one another through an elastic and expansive set of information types.

NK: I love the phrase “my obsessive doodling life.” A writing professor I know carries around a notebook in his shirt pocket; anytime he hears a snippet of dialogue or observes an image he wanted to recall, he’ll jot it down, even if on the move. While the word doodling may carry whimsical connotations, it still seems to be an act of witness, a way to remember not just external events but internal ones as well—what we care about enough to put in physical form before memory or desire mutates any further. How do you indulge your obsession?

GB: By keeping endless sketchbooks, but also by drawing on anything in reach (Heidegger’s ready-to-hand model, perhaps?). I think this process is crucial, at least to my way of working, since in those undirected interstitial periods some of the best new ideas are born. I often think about a description the writer Kathleen Norris shared about keeping a journal of phrases and shreds of ideas. She thought of it as putting seeds in the ground and then waiting, sometimes for years, until they might sprout and grow into finished work. When I go back over my old sketchbooks, I see this sprouting phenomenon at work.

NK: Sketching sounds like a vital component of your artistic process. Speaking of process, I recently read this great book about writing, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop. The author, Stephen Koch, devotes an entire chapter to “The Writing Life,” in which he references the writing habits of accomplished authors ranging from Chekhov to Susan Sontag. What I gathered is that the artist’s life is a confluence of order and disarray—discipline and practice merge with nonsense and blind roving, and somehow, in the end, something worthwhile is produced. How does your artistic life work with or against this rather watery definition?

GB: It sounds just right. I couldn’t describe it more accurately than that! It’s always comforting to read about someone else’s process and realize that the winding path of inquiry and work and thinking and critiquing and scrapping and doodling and finishing and starting again is common. Rather watery. Rather true.

Find more work from Gala Bent here: