I have known Mary Temple for 7 years and during that time have watched as projects have begun, ended and overlapped. Though the conceptual underpinnings of these projects all connect, the finished product varies widely. From site specific installations, to serialized portraits relaying current events to text paintings with deep impasto (and this is only in the time I have known Mary, much more has come before) Temple’s work evolves.
I launched Atlas Discussions partially because I had hoped to discuss how an artist and her work evolve and Mary is emblematic of this change. Seeing true enough (her exhibitions at Mixed Greens in 2014) come together from studio to exhibition has been instructive to me as a writer about art.
Jeff Bergman: I wanted to start not with what your art looks like, or how it is made, but rather how you approach a project or body of work. In the last few years, you took out your oil paints and began making paintings (or rather individual panel paintings rather than installations) again. With a project like this, how do you start? Is it the concept first and the medium after?
And once there, how do you know you have “hit your stride” and gotten comfortable with the materials?
Mary Temple: In the case of the recent paintings, it had been about 15 years since I’d worked with oils and I was longing for the physicality of that medium. Using text in the daily political drawings (my Currency project) piqued my interest in making work that would be emphatically text-based. I didn’t know whether painting could communicate what I was after, so I carved out some time in the studio to find out. I began by using words and phrases I’ve been collecting from social and political observation. There were many things I wasn’t sure about, including the support– should they be canvas/panel or more sculptural supports, or even installation-based works? As it turned out, at least for the first group of these paintings, I responding to the idea of restricting myself to the four edges of a canvas or panel. I think that was, at least in part, because so many other elements were up in the air! It took at least 6 months of long studio days before anything began to click, and several more before I hit my stride. Even that phrase (to hit one’s stride) is misleading–because the one thing I know going into the studio, is that I don’t know what is going to happen with a painting until it needs to happen. I love working that way, and it is different than most of my previous projects where I’ve defined the parameters a bit more before beginning. Agnes Martin described this not-knowing in the famous (and rare) John Gruen interview about her process, saying that she was “permanently derailed…For months, the first paintings don’t mean anything — nothing. But you have to keep going…”
JB: I imagine this theme of trial and perseverance rings true for many artists. It is good to hear it expressed so candidly. So much art writing speaks to an object as though it were born fully formed.
Aside from this most recent group, when else have you found yourself exploring a medium like this?
MT: In 1999, I attended Skowhegan as a painter working on stretched canvas support, when I left the residency, I was making paint installations with architecture as the support, using poured acrylics and polymers. I approached that body of work in a similar explorative way. Now, when I’m in the planning phase of a project, I’ll try out a material–spending a few weeks or months manipulating it in the studio. As often as not, those experiments are failures and won’t work for the idea I had in mind. Also, some mediums sort of insist on exploration, because they are inherently tricky and difficult to handle. Paper pulp, for example, or the hardwood floors I made for many years–they looked very controlled–but actually, the wood pulp takes stain in unexpected ways, so you have to be open to responding to the material. But those are surprises within the medium, which I feel is fundamentally different than the approach I’m taking with the new paintings. In this case I’m starting with a word or phrase and trying to coax the paint into inhabiting that word, occupying it completely. This coaxing or conversation can be months long, and it is very give-and-take. I don’t mean to make it sound spiritual, it isn’t, but it has everything to do with core intuition. It is a way of working that requires me to be really responsive and open.
JB: Once the materials and concept feel prepared to be exhibited, how do you negotiate working in several bodies of work in the same time? I am thinking about doing the Light Installations while also painting word paintings. Do they have a dialogue or are they wholly separate practices once you have them defined?
MT:I think the shift in attention and frame of mind helps cross-pollinate each of the individual bodies of work, as well as keeping me on my toes. Also, I really enjoy that one body of work may be quiet—parameters predetermined, while others demand a visceral, physical interaction which allows me to find the structure of the piece on the fly. Keeping the cadence lively in the studio is critical, because there is no other way to put life into the work. It also guarantees that there is no place I’d rather be.
JB: When you and the pieces are out of the studio and you are showing your work, what does that transition feel like?
I ask because I am very interested in the way an artist feels about putting their work out in the world, whether it’s an installation or a painting show or hundreds of drawings of news worthy people.
MT: I’m happiest when I’m exhibiting work, and I never want the end of the exhibition to come! The entire reason I make work is to communicate with people–when the work is shown, people are in conversation with it and the process comes full circle. If it weren’t for the viewer, I would NOT be making art. I want to be in dialog, so it is essential to have the works in public. I’ve recently heard two very good artists say how relieved they are when their shows come down–I’m the opposite–I dread the show’s closing. It is as if I’ve been talking to the person I care for most in the world and we’ve been cut off mid-sentence. It is one reason I’m happy to have a public art practice–the pieces are permanent, so the conversation continues. As far as being out of the studio myself, as I’ve said, the studio is where I want to be.
-Jeff Bergman and Mary Temple in conversation, Summer and Fall 2015
Currently, work from Mary Temple‘s photo-collage series Postcard Skies can be seen in Natural States, at SUNY Cortland through December 11, 2015. Temple’s new print portfolio, Madame Secretary, has just been published—all sixteen prints will be on view at Odetta Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn, January 7 through March 6, 2016. In addition,Temple is presently working with NYC Cultural Affairs and Percent for Art to install a large site specific permanent artwork at the Landmark Preservation site, McCarren Park Pool. And in the spring, Into the Life of Things, a permanent 20’ x 24’ painting will be sited in the newly completed “Building of the Future” wing at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.