AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL BEHNKE
Paul Behnke was born in Memphis, Tennessee and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Painting from the Memphis College of Art. Behnke’s work has been exhibited widely in the United States and internationally. He has had solo exhibitions in New York, Heidelberg, Philadelphia, Saint Augustine and Memphis, as well as group shows in San Francisco, Honolulu, London, Dublin and the Republic of Cyprus. He has been awarded residencies at the Sam and Adele Golden Foundation and the Vermont Studio Center. Behnke’s work has been reviewed in The New Criterion, Hyperallergic Weekend and The New Republic. Behnke currently maintains a studio in Brooklyn, NY.
You have established a unique language in your paintings – incorporating loose geometric shapes and fields of color. These can be seen as completely abstract, or one might read occasional reference to landscape or the human figure. Can you talk about the forms in your work – do they arise from an intuitive working process, or are there ever direct references to things in the real world?
When I first began making abstract paintings, it was important to me that the work be viewed as non-objective--that it be evaluated mostly on formal terms: the application of paint, mark making, color interactions, that sort of thing. As time went on, I started to feel that the work could do a better job of representing me as a person and a painter if I allowed other content in, and this also made the development of a more personal language easier.
I’ve never started a painting with an image or color in mind. So any form you see, any content that can be read into the forms, originates in the process. This includes building up layers of random marks placed over and under translucent veils of paint, until the surface becomes a kind of Rorschach test--a puzzle to figure out--and I begin to pick out forms I want to work with. And once I begin to zero in on those, wipe away some and emphasize others, relationships and a composition begins to come together.
And, at least for a time, the same forms tend to reoccur. It’s only when I’ve finished a body of work--seven, eight, ten, twelve, fifteen paintings—[and] when I see them all together [that] I may start to figure out what a shape means to me (if anything).
That being said, I don’t feel this is information the viewer needs to have. The content is mostly for me.
We love your use of color – you make such bold and unexpected choices and combinations. Please tell us a bit about the importance/significance of color in your work.
Color is always problematic. While I recognize that it is perhaps the predominant element in my painting (definitely the first thing most viewers notice), in my mind it’s just another tool. I don’t use color to evoke an emotion or set a mood or tone, and I’m not concerned with creating a harmonious surface. If anything, it is my hope that my color combinations are a little off- putting, that they be seen as garish. But even with the prominence color has in my work, it’s a tool and certainly no more or less important than the forms or the compositions or the hierarchy and roles that the forms set up and play. Color helps to bring a sense of adversity or animosity to the way the forms interact. My color combinations give the forms an anxious stew to swim around in.
We’re interested hear about your painting process. How do you begin or enter a new work; what are the decisions you make during the actual painting, and how do you know when a work is done?
In the beginning the process is very intuitive, as described earlier, and the periods of intuition are alternated with periods of looking critically, making corrections to color or forms, and reacting. Decisions are often reactions, and shape of a form will dictate the size of the next, and a large area of unbroken color may indicate the need for its opposite. So you end up making decisions based on what was previously put down. In this way, I’m sure I’m like any other painter.
And at some point you get to a place when you just think, this is enough. But the trick is to leave it in a place where it’s still open-ended. I read somewhere that to finish something is to kill it. The trick is to stop when the painting is still breathing, and that’s a difficult thing to do. I think experience helps, and luck.
Your paintings have such interesting titles. Titles like White Goblin, The Mother Thing, Saint Michael’s Win, and Young Lochinvar. How do you come up with these great names that are so evocative?
The titles can really come from anywhere.
I used to title all of my paintings after phrases picked randomly from Spoon River Anthology. They made such suggestive titles, and the phrases were so open-ended, so romantic, that they left plenty of room for the viewer’s and my imagination. Edgar Lee Masters’ words created a title, without locking everything down. It set or reflected a mood that I felt the painting had.
Now my choice of titles is even more arbitrary and I often get ideas from comic books, advertising, literature, religion, or old movies. Rarely do the titles refer to the painting’s content.
In addition to your own work, we know that you are heavily involved in the larger art community in various ways (as a curator, writer, etc). Who are some of the other artists you feel closely aligned with, and can you tell us a bit more about the outside projects you're involved with?
There are a few artists that I feel a connection with personally as well as professionally, and all of our work and approaches are very different. I really admire the work of friends like Dale McNeil, Matthew Neil Gehring, Debra Ramsay, Rebecca Murtaugh and David Pollack. We all share the same depth of feeling for our respective practices and art in general, and I believe we all hold a certain amount of ambition for our work: to make it good and to get it out in the world and communicate with like-minded viewers.
For the past year, my wife Robin Stout and I have been busy running an informal exhibition space in Brooklyn called Stout Projects. The idea is to focus primarily on one-person exhibitions, with an emphasis on artists living and working in New York. Last year we put on nine shows that we are very proud of, and though we are taking a brief break for the holidays, we will be back in March with three new shows that we can’t wait to present.
Co-running the space can seem like a lot of work sometimes, but it feels good to be able to create opportunities for art and artists that I admire.
That makes it fun and worth it.
Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up, and where you studied?
I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee and received a BFA from the Memphis College of Art. Memphis is a great place for an artist to live and make work. It’s comparatively inexpensive and has a supportive arts community. It’s rough around the edges and reminds me of Philly in a lot of ways.
Growing up in the South I was immersed in religion and a kind of steamy Faulkner-esque absurdity that holds sway over me to this day.
We’re interested to hear about what inspires you and your work – both within the art world and outside of it.
A lot of outside interests find their way into my work to varying degrees.
A few things that inform my aesthetic are Zola’s The Masterpiece, Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth, Neo Expressionism, German Expressionism, Jack Kirby, Ernie Bushmiller, Saul Bass, Christianity/world religions, ritual, and old black and white movies. I’m currently thinking a lot about the work of Thornton Willis, Amy Sillman, Tal R, Jonathan Meese, Meredith Sands, Sally Gabori, Calvin Marcus, Albert Irvin, Roy Oxlade and Rose Wylie.
What are you working on in the studio right now, and are there any recent or upcoming projects you can share with us?
This spring I’ll be participating in a show in Norfolk, VA. Art Historian Vittorio Colaizzi has put together a great group of artists that I’m looking forward to showing with. A few highlights from the last year included a one-person show in Heidelberg at Boecker Contemporary, and two group shows: If Color Could Kill at Long Island University and Vassar, curated by Jeff Frederick, and New New York at the University of Hawaii, curated by Debra Drexler and Liam Davis.
In the studio, I seem to be in a transitional phase at the moment. Figurative elements are starting to enter the compositions, and right now they can be pretty blatant. I don’t know yet whether they will stick around. It’s too early to tell.
And again, I’m trying to come to terms with how “finished” a painting has to be: to be enough and to hold its own in the world.