Monday, January 28, 2008

Art Space Talk: Michael Banning

Michael Banning was born in Boulder, Colorado. He attended the University of Colorado, Boulder where he received his BFA degree in 1989. During his undergraduate studies he also studied drawing and painting at the Atelier of L.V. Davis in Boulder and traveled to Italy to study art history in 1988. In 1995 Banning moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota. He received his Master of Fine Arts degree in Visual Studies at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in 2004, and taught drawing and painting at the college in 2005-06.

In 2005, Banning received an Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. He has also received two Minnesota State Arts Board Career Opportunity Grants and a Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant, which allowed him to study fresco painting in Detroit, Michigan.

In 2001 Banning participated in a two month Artist Residency at the Mill Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He has also exhibited work in Chicago, Denver, and New York where his paintings were exhibited in a solo show at the Chuck Levitan Gallery in 1998.

Banning has been represented by the Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis since 1998 where he has had four solo exhibitions. He currently lives and works in Chicago, Illinois where he teaches drawing part-time at Columbia College and The Illinois Institute of Art, Chicago.

Houses Near Smoke Stacks - Northeast Minneapolis, 2007, Oil on Panel, 9" x 9"

Brian Sherwin: Michael, you studied art at the University of Colorado and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Can you tell us about your academic years? What kind of student were you? Who were your instructors?

Michael Banning: I started out as an architecture student. In some ways studying studio art was an accident. I was unable to get into the architecture studio classes twice as a freshman, so I elected to take care of all my art foundation and elective classes in the art department. I really enjoyed the freedom of the painting and drawing classes I took and this, coupled with my less than stellar performance in calculus and physics made me reconsider my career choice and I eventually changed to studio arts. Also, my mother is an artist and I grew up in a household focused on art and creative endeavors, so this seemed like a natural course of action.

The environment at the University of Colorado in the mid-eighties was one of extreme freedom and experimentation in painting and drawing and the school maintained close ties with the kinds of "post-modern" work that was happening in New York at the time. I was inspired by my professors, Linda Herritt, George Woodman, and particularly Chuck Forsman a painter of realistic yet conceptual western landscapes. I remember spending most of the time of my undergraduate years in the studios at the University of Colorado. There were a core group of students who were serious about painting and this early artistic community was important to my development.

I attended MCAD many years after receiving my BFA from the University of Colorado and after having lived in Minneapolis as a working artist for many years. My goals in going to graduate school were to explore the conceptual concerns of my work as well as to study realistic painting in a more in-depth manner. With this in mind I studied at MCAD with Mike Kareken as my mentor. Mike was a great teacher for me and is also a painter of realistic yet conceptual landscapes and figurative works.
Houses Near Railroad Tracks - Northeast Minneapolis, 2007, Oil on Panel, 18" x 18"

BS: You have experience teaching as well. You have taught at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Columbia College, and the Illinois Institute of Art. How has teaching influenced-- or inspired --you as an artist? Has the experience enhanced your personal study of art?

MB: Teaching has been great for me. I was really terrified at the prospect of teaching at first. However, now it has become a comfortable situation. One thing about teaching for me is that it forces me to constantly review my knowledge base in painting and drawing; often forcing me to do assignments before I teach them. I learn a lot from working with students and find myself constantly trying to improve my mastery over certain skills and techniques in an effort to teach them better.

BS: I understand that you've been represented by the Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis since 1998. Will you be involved with any exhibits at the gallery in 2008? Do you have any advice about sustaining artist/gallery relations?

MB: I've been really lucky in terms of the Groveland Gallery. They are a very stable gallery and have been really supportive of my work from the beginning. In particular, they have been good at finding a market for the work and also at being flexible and supportive through changes in my artistic direction.

I think the important thing about working with a gallery is to think in terms of a long-term relationship. Galleries make markets for an artist's work over a period of years, not just a period of months. It's also important to find a gallery where the prevailing aesthetic fits with your direction and where the gallery isn't just looking for the same kind of work over and over again.

I think a lot of artist's approach a gallery kind of like applying for a job, with this idea that they are trying to get a gallery to accept them as a "good fit" for their programming, however, I think it's equally important to find a gallery that is a good fit for your artistic direction. It's really a partnership.

I will be exhibiting at group shows at the Gallery and other venues in 2008.
Dumpster in Empty Lot, Near Stevens Expressway, Chicago, 2007, Gouache on Paper, 13.5" x 18"

BS: Michael, your recent work in painting and drawing focuses on images that are both natural landscapes as well as depictions of the built environment. These works are are very honest in that they don't deny what most people would consider an eye-sore-- industrial ruins near homes, bits of trash upon the ground-- do you strive to give the viewer a true depiction of these spaces, so to speak? Can you go into further detail about this interest?

MB: The images I've been working with recently are all about exploring so called "eyesores" or even further what I call "blind spots", places that are so ugly and banal that we often don't really see them as we pass by. In addition, some of the places I've been depicting are so out of the way - along side roads and service roads - that one would never encounter them unless they were trying to.

Yes, I would say I'm trying to give the viewer a true depiction of these places. On the one hand, I'm trying to bring into the spotlight things that we do see everyday but choose not to think about. On the other hand, I'm also trying to depict subjects that ,although we may not see them unless we seek them out, are nevertheless there.
I often feel like we are living in a kind of Disneyland movie stage kind of society - where things look cheery, perfect, and optimistic, from the front view, but if you go behind the scenes you find that what you thought was reality is in fact a fa├žade- unsubstantiated by a stable structure and often being undermined by abandonment and decay.

BS: What are the specific themes that you explore within the context of your work? Is there a certain philosophy behind what you do?

MB: I've been focusing on depictions of urban decay, post-industrial abandonment, and the presence of nature within these kinds of spaces - basically searching out places that are literally "going back to seed" - as the expression goes. For me, this work is very much concerned with how to represent what is real.
Baudrillard's notions of the simulacrum and his idea of hyper-reality come to mind- for instance the relation of photography to reality, and of photography to painting, and full circle back to the relationship between painting and reality. I'm also very interested in finding spaces that have not yet been subsumed, altered, and re-presented by consumer and popular culture to the point that they no longer bear a resemblance to their source.

BS: How do you select a scene? Do you work from memory? From photographs? Tell us about your process...

MB: I currently work from photographs. Most of my recent work has focused on abandoned urban area on the west and south sides of Chicago. Also, lately I've been investigating Gary, Indiana, Detroit, and some of the smaller industrial towns on Lake Michigan.

Basically, I drive around, learning the city as I go. Although, I do sometimes use Google-Earth to identify areas that seem to have potential for exploration. A large open area within the midst of an otherwise densely populated urban space shows up fairly clearly on Google-Earth and I have found some sites in this way.
Behind Abandoned Building, Gary, Indiana, 2007, Gouache on Paper, 20.5" x 29"

BS: Can you tell us about your influences? Have any artists or art movements influences you?

MB: I've been influenced by many artists and movements. I've certainly been influenced by the well known American Realists such as Edward Hopper, The Ash Can School, Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, George Caleb Bingham. Also, I'm very intrigued by the work of some of the French painters such as Courbet and Daumier, and Northern European Symbolists like Casper David Friedrich, Villhelm Hammershoi from the 19th century.

I also feel there are many contemporary artists whose work has an affinity to my concerns. Painters such as Antonio Lopez Garcia, Rackstraw Downes, Andrew Lenighan, George Nick, Nicholas Evans-Cato, Morgan Craig, Michael Kareken, James Stephens, Chuck Forsman, Yvonne Jacquette, Rebecca Silus, and Carolyn Swicz among others; and contemporary photographers like Camillo Jose Vergara and Richard Misrach.

BS: What do you find interesting about landscapes in general... compared to say-- figurative works?

MB: I really love figurative work as well as landscape. For me, though, the depiction of landscape without figures is a first person experience for the viewer. In other words, the viewer is not watching someone else interact with the landscape, but rather they "are" the figure in the landscape. Also, much of my work simply is more about the landscape itself, almost in the sense of the landscape "as" figure.

BS: What are you working on at this time?

MB: I'm working on several new paintings - As a group I would say they differ slightly from my most recent work because they focus almost more on the "nature" that is reclaiming abandoned urban spaces more than the decaying urban infrastructure itself. They palette is switching more to various hues of green rather than a focus on somber hues of grey. I'm painting lots and lots of leaves and weeds.
Empty Lot near Stevens Expressway, Chicago, 2007, Gouache on Paper, 13.5" x 18"

BS: Michael, you've been the recipient of several grants... do you have any advice for emerging artists who are seeking grants?

MB: I think when applying for grants one of the most important things to make sure of is that the work you present in support of your grant proposal actually relates to the concepts you are presenting. It's very easy to get carried away with explaining concepts about future work and where it might go to the point that it no longer bears a connection to the actual work you are presenting. The artwork is the most important part of a proposal - and your ideas should have a clear connection to your images.

BS: Finally, do you have any further suggestions for emerging artists? What advice do you have for a student who is thinking about applying to art school?

MB: My only advice to emerging artists and students trying to get into schools is to simply keep trying. You can't let yourself be discouraged and put off by rejection letters to the point that you stop working. If you apply for a 100 opportunities you may only get one, or a few, and the more opportunities you apply for, the more likely you are to get some of them.
On a related note, I would also say that it is really important to research the opportunities you are applying for, and make sure your kind of work is within the focus of what is being sought. This is especially true of galleries - don't waste your time sending your work to a gallery that focuses on work that's totally unrelated to what you do.
You can learn more about Michael Banning by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin

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