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R.H. Quaytman, I Modi, Chapter 22, 2011
Courtesy: Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York. Photo: Jeffrey Sturges

I Modi

by David Joselit

Research on mythology and Marcantonio Raimondi brought R.H. Quaytman into contact with I Modi, a book of pornographic sonnets illustrated by the master engraver in 1524. This was the impulse for the new “chapter” the artist will show in Venice, which attempts to find a thread leading through the labyrinthine paths of the original work. David Joselit investigates the literary principle involved in the artist’s research.

David Joselit: You make series based on chapters.

R.H. Quaytman: I started in 2001 working with the structure of chapters. Each exhibition is a new chapter. After the initial exhibition all the individual paintings become dispersed and can be shown separately in other contexts. But, in general, every time I do an exhibition it’s a new chapter. A chapter can be anywhere from one painting to as many as the situation warrants. The rules are that each new exhibition is a chapter in an ongoing archive that I plan to continue without end. Secondly, each painting is made in one of seven consistant nesting sizes on plywood panels which are gessoed with the same rabbit skin glue gesso. Those are the basics laws. There are some other minor ones but we don’t have time to get into here.

DJ: Do you worry about the legitimacy of the rules, as it were? Not beyond your own system, but as a kind of constitution-making. You generate a constitution and then you act on it. And there are amendments, and exceptions.

RHQ: It’s been pointed out that there is a disjointedness to my rules or system. That the way I have established the rules is perhaps less methodical than some other rule based practices.

DJ: This is one of the big paradoxes of the 20th century in terms of the way rule-based art is made. If you look at Sol LeWitt or any rule-based practice, the rules are fairly arbitrary. They only appear to come from some neutral place. There’s always this moment of deciding what the rule will be. I think that’s one of the profound things about such art, because it has to be authorized or legitimized by something outside the system, right? The system doesn’t make its own rules.

RHQ: My system kind of does make its own rules. It’s different from how Sol LeWitt or Judd or On Kawara would make rules, because those rules were based, I think, on a dialectic that was going on at the time, and they were made as a kind of protest against preconceptions of particular mediums. My rules were also made as a protest in a sense, but as a protest in favor of a medium – specifically painting. Maybe it was more of an accommodation than a protest. The rules come out of accommodating contextual facts that seem so unavoidable or endemic that they are not even seen anymore.

DJ: Is this why you choose a literary principle of division or collection?

RHQ: On a very simple level I came to the literary principle of collection because I envied how a book is both put away and still displayed as compared to a painting.
I didn’t want accumulating work to go in storage without reason or thought. I was not having many shows, and not selling work. So I thought simply, how can I accumulate work in a way that isn’t depressing. I was reading an article by Antek Walczak about poverty and Paul Thek. I think he really hit the nail on the head when he writes: “The fear and terror of the artist – what makes my work relevant and not junk, or how to escape garbage collection and end up in the collector’s house? The motion of art, both as waste and as valuable product”. It was from an acute sense of this reality that I veered towards a literary system.

In addition the exhibition event itself seemed too weighted, out of proportion to how artists work. Enforced, no doubt, by the downgraded status of a “studio practice”. The truncated exhibition event, through a literary principle, could be broadened to something much more durational and in sync with what I was living. The chapter structure stands in opposition to the power of the gallery system and the schedules it dictates. I thought or hoped it could be possible to keep continuity with or without exhibitions or sales.

The other problem I have always thought about is how to insert or graft subject matter onto a foundation of abstraction.

DJ: By “foundation of abstraction” do you mean the classical avant-garde developments in abstraction?

RHQ: Abstraction in that the first reading or concern about the painting is itself, why and how it’s working as a painting – not as a picture, but literally as a painted object hung on a wall, put into storage, or inserted alongside other art objects and events. A painting whose first reference is its own reality, the here and now of you looking at a painting in this space via reduced deployments of color, line and surface. Of course it turns out that its ‘own reality’ is not so simple and in fact also mired in assumptions outside of its bounded self.

DJ: So why introduce the picture, then? Why did you feel that was necessary?

RHQ: I first started inserting the “picture”, to think about perspective. Perspective was at the heart of what had been contested via abstraction. I began using the idea of pictures first as mirrors. The space the painting was meant for would be mirrored in some way. Also the moving viewer was mirrored. I was Dan Graham’s assistant at the time it occurred to me to use photography as a mirror and I’m sure was influenced by his work.

DJ: We’re sitting here looking at your project for the Venice Biennale, I Modi, Chapter 22. Do you want to describe this chapter?

RHQ: I began work on this chapter by researching master engraver Marcantonio Raimondi. The title I Modi comes from a book of the same name written in 1524. Composed as a set of 16 pornographic sonnets, it was a collaboration between two venetians, the satirist and journalist Pietro Aretino and Raimondi. For three of the paintings I have sourced images of the only known surviving fragments of the original now in the collection of the British Museum.

Marcantonio Raimondi, I Modi, 1524
Courtesy: Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Venezia

I also use a small selection of Raimondi engravings that I found in the Correr Museum Library in Venice (fig. A). One image in particular grabbed my attention from the very beginning of my research. It is called The Dream of Raphael (1507-08) (fig. B). No one is sure exactly what it depicts. Confusingly it is apparently a copy not of a Raphael but of a lost work by Giorgione. The interpretation I like best says that it depicts Hecuba, the mother of Paris who while she was pregnant with Paris had a very bad nightmare that prophesied giving birth to a flame that sets Troy on fire.

But then who is the other woman? It has been suggested that it is Hecuba looking at herself dreaming. Like she had a dream she had a dream. But it seems also to suggest masturbation in an apocalyptic Venetian landscape.

Marcantonio Raimondi, The Dream of Raphael, 1507-08
Courtesy: Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Venezia

Ultimately however, although I adore this image so much, it was just too powerful an image for me to active the way I need to activate pictures. So I ended up cropping it down to simplify it and open it up. I also see the features of a large head in profile in the grassy hill behind her (fig. C).

R.H. Quaytman, I Modi, Chapter 22, 2011
Courtesy: Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York. Photo: Jeffrey Sturges

This image logically lead to another Raimondi engraving called the Judgment of Paris (fig. D). You can see what Manet was referencing in Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
I like the androgynous appearance of the nymph who looks back out at us. If paintings could have a posture this would be it.

Marcantonio Raimondi, Judgment of Paris, c. 1517
Courtesy: Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Venezia

DJ: What do you mean when you say “activate pictures”?

RHQ: I need to flatten the image so it can reverberate with other paintings around them. When a picture is too powerful or busy, it sucks up into this kind of aloneness and self sufficiency which I try to avoid. I don’t want paintings to behave like film in dark rooms.

DJ: However, each work does exist on its own terms, and yet they also exist as vectors out to other things, either other spaces or other paintings. Almost always other paintings in the context of their initial presentation, right?

RHQ: Yes, they have to be a good neighbor. They have to be open to disruption and shifts in legibility. They have to be open to a shift from rectilinear plane to orthogonal object. The title I Modi means the ways or the positions. I like how that resonates with this aspect of my installations and also with Venice being a city of itineraries which must be adhered lest one get completely lost which inevitable one does anyway.

DJ: Is there something about this resistance to entering into the image that you think is meaningful in your work? Keeping everything rigorously on the surface?

RHQ: I think this avoidance of the centrifugal images has loosened somewhat in my work. At first I had a kind of horror of the representational. Feelings of guilt wash over me when I attempt depicting objects outside the painting in paint. On the other hand it’s always a temptation and you could say that the paintings are elaborate exercises of avoiding that fundamental mimetic gesture. I keep this gesture confined to the smallest caption paintings. And on occasion a small painted eye will appear.

DJ: Do you think there’s a kind of eroticism related to cruising in your work? I’m interested in this kind of looking that is always gliding toward somewhere else yet at the same time is really focused on an object of desire.

RHQ: Yes, I guess you could say that. Although I unfortunately can’t claim experience to sexually exciting experiences like cruising at the moment. I, like everyone, loves to look at and depict on occasion a nude body, most recently with K8 Hardy at the Whitney Museum and again with Thomas Beard for Bergen Kusthalle. Neither of these models lead the somewhat dreary heterosexual life I do. So in a way I was gazing at something I don’t have access to and thus I would say it’s more voyeurism than cruising.

These nudes are represented, in ways that are not distinctly contemporary. This is something I worry and wonder about. I mean my disinclination/inability to depict contemporaneity.

DJ: Then there are landscape images. And a life and death opposition?

RHQ: Yes, in researching Raimondi and mythology, I was reading Agamben’s essay “Warburg and the Nameless Science”. In it he quotes a Warburg diary entry which goes like this: “It looks to me, as if, in my role as a psycho-historian, I tried to diagnose the schizophrenia of Western civilization from its images in an autobiographical reflex. The ecstatic “Nympha” (manic) on the one side and the mourning river-god (depressive) on the other”. This thought resonates with me very much in terms of thinking about how to tie I Modi’s maze like itinerary together. I thought maybe the visitor could enter by one door and see the manic or pornographic Nympha, but upon entering from the opposite door the depressive river god. Those kinds of ideas feel good to have but in practice don’t always work. I can only figure out I Modi when I’m in the actual room hanging the paintings.

R.H. Quaytman, I Modi, Chapter 22, 2011
Courtesy: Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York. Photo: Jeffrey Sturges

DJ: The diamond motif occurs quite a bit in this chapter (fig. E).

RHQ: At Buchholz gallery in Cologne I found a checkerboard pattern in one of their books. And then when I was in Venice I realized it was almost exactly the same as the pattern of brickwork on the Doge’s Palace. So I tried to repeat that pattern (fig. F). Anyway, I tried to figure out that pattern for a week on Illustrator, and I did do it. There’s that thing where if you put a line through, it does this optical trick where the line becomes very wobbly. And I like that very much, you have this very rigid geometry, but optically it makes straight lines wavy.

DJ: So that’s also watery.

RHQ: And then I use literally a kind of water pattern, you know that big one that also reminds me of Raimondi’s engraved lines.

DJ: The perspective of the bodies, their spatial orientation, is unknowable. They look like they’re foreshortened, or ceiling paintings, but not exactly. They’re not really on the ground in any way.

RHQ: In general I’m much more geometrically inclined. There’s very few circles or curves in my work. This chapter has much more of that. It was just so beautiful, Venice, and going there, I mean... In winter it was like a dream. The fog, the buoys... the past.


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