Whatness: A Conversation with Pat Adams and Mariel Capanna
Artists Pat Adams and Mariel Capanna—whose work will be presented alongside one another in a dual-artist booth by Adams and Ollman and Alexandre Gallery at Independent New York—discuss their own unique practices, shared interests and inspirations, and the pleasure of painting.
Pat Adams: Looking at your work, the early pieces that I saw, looking at the marks you were making I noticed that there were certain figurations. I wondered about that—were you concerned with timing between looking at and discovering things that were nameable?
Mariel Capanna: That’s such a good question and I’ve thought a lot about “nameability.” I also saw that in some of your writing, this idea of “nameability” or “unnameability” came up. In my earlier paintings especially, the work is really an accumulation of nameable things. The titles of my paintings point to that as well—they’re usually some sequence of three to five nameable things you can find in those paintings. And usually the titles end up having a nursery rhyme-like rhythm, so they’re sounds and syllables as much as they’re words [describing the] things that are pictured. The nameable things end up being all of these little distractions that end up becoming an engine for shape and color and some kind of compositional structure. They’re usually gleaned from moving images, so I’ll watch some series of films or videos or slideshows and I’ll grab whatever it is that catches my attention and place it down. It often is as much a word as it is a color and shape. So, sometimes I’m noticing a shape of red in the upper left hand corner of the screen, but sometimes I’m remembering the word “car” or “hat.” So I’m naming things in the process of painting, but then they become an occasion for color and shape.
PA: In a way I understand what you’re saying and I have a variation of that in my work. I call it quiddities, which means “whatness,” which means it doesn’t have a name but it is a something. I, too, just grab things—whether it’s purple or anything else that comes in through whatever sense of mine I’m attending to. I feel very close to that idea. I’m wondering what you’re thinking about as you have this diverse selection of things that you’re gathering together. Simultaneity in your mind is a good thing, yes?
MC: Yes, totally.
PA: When I think of simultaneity, it means that things are moving toward some kind of oneness.
MC: I’m so glad you’re mentioning this because this quality of all of the little disparate things and quiddities in your paintings and the feeling of wholeness and oneness is something I admire in your work and really aspire towards, so it’s been a really special pleasure to have this occasion to spend some time with some of your paintings.
PA: I have always used the word “multinaeity,” which is a made-up word in relation to simultaneity, because I’m always headed towards some sense of one—where everything all comes together rather than, say, where one style of art will try to diminish the qualities of the style that went before, and sort of piques a change of direction as a revolution. I myself don’t feel that at all—I look at what went before as having ideas that really relate to my sensibility, and I want to absorb them and bring them forward into some kind of great embrace.
MC: The other day, I woke up at 5:30 shortly after sunrise here and I decided to use the early morning to take a short jog that ended at a small beach here on campus that looks out onto the lake. Consistently in the morning here there’s this sheet of mist that pulls the water and the sky together into just one off-white color, and it really looks at first like a flat page. So I was on this beach looking at this seemingly opaque white, and then saw a reed sticking out of the water and then I saw its shadow, and then a heron flew by and also cast a shadow and that helped me see a pine tree in the distance, and then I saw the horizon line. All of these things were there—and then I could see thousands of minnows swimming by, and it was very quiet.
It did remind me a bit of what I’ve experienced in looking at your paintings. There’s this kind of vibration back and forth between seeing the embrace of the whole thing and then also these shimmering little parts that are very different from one other but also part of its whole. Something that I noticed this morning at the lake was this feeling that every movement that I made was so loud in the midst of this quiet misty morning, and I felt really aware of my ability to disturb the whole thing and throw it off.
This is something I’ve also been feeling in my studio more than usual—an overactive awareness of how a mark that I make can throw off some potential of wholeness. I’ve been thinking about some of your writing, about the ways in which a painting can become limited or constrained. I wonder if you ever feel hesitant about making a mark when you paint?
PA: Oh, constantly! I easily have about twenty or so works on paper up on a wall and I work from one to the other, one to the other, because it’s as if I’m waiting for the painting to tell me what it demands. [Creating these works can] take a couple of years.
I will say I love your description of your experience on the water that early morning, because what you said is really just like painting, isn’t it? We stand in front of the emptiness and things just start to become visible, where one leads to another. It is splendid to hear you speak about how you can acknowledge your own experience. This is the thing that bothers me terribly about the art world right now: artists are not really attached to themselves. They seem to be pushed around by whatever the world is doing around them, rather than spending time registering what one’s own inner direction is asking for. And to hear you talk about things this way is very encouraging to know that these things go on a little bit—thank you for that.
MC: Wow! I’m sure in many ways I’m also affected by whatever patterns you’re noticing—reactionary patterns. I do try to return to my sensory experience because it really is the thing that brought me to painting in the first place. I need to remind myself of that and learn and relearn that that is why I’m here and what I want to be doing. Your work and your writings are one of the things this summer that reminded me of where I want to be.
I was looking through your paintings again today, and I saw how rich the world of color is in each one and also just so different from painting to painting. There really is a huge variance in color and saturation in your work. I wonder how you happen upon each of those distinct color worlds. Are those things that you gather outside of your studio?
PA: I think a lot of what I do is intellectual, in a sense. I read that Titian at one point said something about wanting no color—and I identified with that because at a point red, yellow, and blue just became appalling to me. It just looked like store paint or something, I couldn’t really bear it. I read somewhere else that he would glaze forty or sixty times over an area to bring it to the point that he wanted. I was very moved by those two statements—they fed into how I think about doing things.
MC: The slow build-up of color over time?
PA: Over time, or the rejection of just squeezing something out of a tube and thinking that color is green. I just find painting is such an incredible way of celebrating the richness of sensation. We really could have such a good time as an artist if we just added up all the greens that are outside the window. Maybe my sense of pleasure is bizarre, but I wish people had a little time to enjoy existence.
MC: I thank you for this very refreshing reminder. I arrived at painting—not exactly considered late in life—but I was an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal and I was almost debilitatingly stuck in my head. I was studying mostly the sciences and was not doing any kind of work within the realm of art. My dad very generously recommended a semester off, which I hadn’t realized was a possibility. During that time off I took a drawing class at the Pennsylvania Academy for the Fine Arts where we were working [from observation of] plaster casts. I just remember that it felt like pleasure was possible again because of the connection to my senses. As long as there were shapes and colors and light and shadow around me, there was always going to be something worth noticing and considering. I’m long-windedly agreeing with you that painting is a pleasure! Thank goodness for that.