Thursday, October 09, 2008

Art Space Talk: Saul Chernick

I learned about Saul Chernick while reading Paddy Johnson’s Art Fag City blog. In many ways Saul Chernick flirts with the basics of why the practice of creating visual art came into being. He explores a unique purposes of art in that artists have long given physical presence-- as in drawings or paintings-- to the thought of metaphysical entities. Chernick is interested in the visual interpretations of such things because they uncover the beliefs and mindset of those who devised them.

The artist has stated that many of his ideas originate from depictions of miraculous events and figures-- as they appear in Judeo/Christian mythology-- and that he utilizes drawing to revisit, reinterpret, and reconfigure them. The end result is a body of work that meshes old with new in that contemporary issues and secular viewpoints come together with the convictions of past fears and desires that have remained with us in since the Renaissance.

A Perilous Way, 2007, Ink on Paper, 15" x 18.5"

Brian Sherwin: Saul, you studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. Can you discuss your academic background? For example, did you have any influential instructors? Also, do you have any advice for students interested in those programs?

Saul Chernick: I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great people over the years. Thomas Mills, Andrew Raftery, Carrie Mae Weems, Ardel Lister and Tom Nozkowski.

In many ways what I learned at RISD has made the deepest impression, perhaps it’s because it’s where I started so I was more of a blank slate. Thomas Mills in particular helped me get a lot of critical distance. He gave me the tools to measure my own artistic progress, which is like getting a compass after wandering around a forest for days on end.

A Vampyrous Youth, 2006 - 2008, Ink on Paper, 21" x 14.5"

BS: From what I’ve observed you work primarily with ink on paper. What attracts you to ink as your dominant medium?

SC: I’m very interested in the language of marks, how they behave, and how they can assume such varied personalities. Marks never simply depict things rather they describe them. It’s these descriptive properties that convey conjure associations and generate meaning. Take a drawing of a dog for example, getting something down on paper that we can recognize as canine is easy, showing the character of this dog in particular—its nature, its physicality, it’s state of mind, that’s where things get interesting. Representations are an illusion but marks reveal the truth.

BS: Saul, you are interested in the metaphysical, correct? Can you discuss this interest and how it is reflected not only in your art, but in how you define art as a whole?

SC: I’m interested in how the metaphysical, miraculous, and otherwise supernatural is represented through art. On the face of it, representing the world as it otherwise might have been is a total rejection of worldly limitations, which is at the very heart of the creative ethos. Additionally, how one constructs that which can only be seen through the imagination reveals as much about the maker’s values, and world-view as it does the subject.

BS: So is there a spiritual side to your art as well?

SC: I suppose each viewer can judge that for them selves.
An Autumn Ride, 2008, Ink on Paper, 20" x 32"

BS: Tell us more about the thoughts behind your art...

SC: One of the things I’m interested in how the past connects with the present. I think of many of my drawings as period pieces in a way. In film, the production crew may take great pains to simulate the past as accurately as possible but the lens through which we see it is inextricably tethered to moment of its creation. A film about the Renaissance from the 70’s inevitably looks like a 70’s version of the Renaissance. A present day film on that same period might appear more authentic but as it recedes into the past it will begin looking increasingly of its particular moment. In this way my drawings never attempt to slavishly imitate the past, nor are they nostalgic, in fact they are just as much about the present as they are about the past. It will take the distance of time passing to truly see what this means.

An Autumn Ride detail

In some respects I’m trying to see what happens when an older model of drawing is infused with contemporary ideas. In An Autumn Ride, the proportions of the paper are the same as a flat screen TV. This creates a visual tension because the artists who developed and practiced the graphic style I use would never have composed images to work with these dimensions. I had to use many of the conventions of cinematography to make it work. The tree bisecting the horse is influenced in equal measures by photography and Modern painting like Barnett Newman’s zips. The narrative is similarly altered—it doesn’t quite hit the same notes a typical demon slaying might.

An Autumn Ride detail

With Man of Sorrows, I was thinking in part about anime. I love how anime made cute cool. Usually to be cool, in a cutting edge sense of the term, things need to be a little badass or transgressive in some way but anime introduced adorability into the equation. Anime has made cuteness more relevant than ever. And then there are those anime eyes, there’s something about the way they’re constructed that really captures this transcendent spiritual quality. It made me wonder what would happen if these ideas were mashed up with traditional Christian iconography…turning adoration into adorable could it work?

Man of Sorrows, 2008, Ink on Paper, 11.5" x 9.5"

BS: Tell us more about your process. For example, do you keep a journal of sketches… do you do preliminary drawings? Or do you work intuitively, so to speak?

SC: I make a lot of fast sketches in marker on office paper to generate ideas. At this early stage anything goes, sometimes the imagery is intuitive other times I come to it with the intent to work out a particular idea. In most cases, finished drawings are developed from the studies I find most compelling.
A lot can change between sketch and final draft, all kinds of additions, subtractions, adjustments and rearrangements. The editing is guided by the content of the piece; I try to eliminate anything arbitrary. By that I mean anything that isn’t supporting my intentions with the work, however, I don’t necessarily mean things I don’t understand. Sometimes the things I find most mysterious or confounding are actually the most powerful. It’s the stuff that forces you to break your own rules that keeps things interesting.

BS: What can you tell us about other influences? For example, are you influenced by any specific artists or art movement?

SC: I look at a lot of old master prints and drawings. I really admire the works of Durer and Breugel. I also really enjoy scientific illustration, medical, botanical, and zoological stuff like Albinus and Haeckel (or rather their assistants, the folks who toiled in obscurity to give birth to the images their known for). I see a thread of commonality that ties classical Renaissance drawing to contemporary comics and I tend to be sweet on most things that share that particular strand of DNA.

On the Edge of the Woods, 2008, Ink on Paper, 20" x16"

BS: What are you working on at this time? Can you give our readers some insight into your current work?

SC: Drawing is still at the heart of my practice but I’ve been branching out a bit lately. I’m in the process of working on a sculpture which I hope to edition and I also started making some animated GIFs.
The materiality of sculpture has allowed me to explore some of my usual themes but from a different angle. In this case they are less narrative and more about the ideas associated with certain aesthetic movements.

As for the animations, I’m not sure I have a good grasp on it yet but in this early stage I’m thinking about how the moving image has come to dominate the still one in our contemporary culture. The animated GIFs seem to inhabit an in-between space, they possess movement like a film but the action repeats itself with such frequency that a viewer spends about as much time with them as they would a painting or drawing. Also, the narrative is restricted to what could be conveyed by a still image. One can just as easily regard them as if they were a painting or drawing as they could a film or video. There’s deliberate mark making like we find in drawing but there’s also movement.
Totentanz 2.0 (After Heinrich Knoblochtzer), Animated GIF, 2008
BS: Finally, you have exhibited at several galleries, including exhibits at Max Protetch Gallery and Rush Arts Gallery in New York. Where can our readers see your work in person at this time?

SC: Protetch always has work on hand in the gallery for those in NYC. I also have a couple of pieces in a group show called Tabula Rasa at the Parkland College Art Gallery in Champaign IL, on view until October 25th. Folks can also check my website periodically for new work and exhibition updates.
You can learn more about Saul Chernick by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor

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