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A Few Minutes with Ed Paschke

A Few Minutes with Ed Paschke

Chicago Social, August 1997 - A Few Minutes with Ed Paschke

What is the most outrageous thing that has happened to you in the course of your business?
Doing a TV commercial. Because I used to have such a problem with just speaking to another human being --let alone to a group or a class or a camera--the whole idea of my doing TV commercials is kind of outrageous.


What drives you?
My self-criticism and my Toyota.


What is your greatest fear?
Arlington Heights. I went to school out there.


What is the one thing that you have always wanted?
The source of all unhappiness is wanting.


What is at the top of your list of things to buy?
An Italian beef sandwich.


What is your favorite book?
The Yellow Pages. Everything is in there.


What is your favorite film?
Taxi Driver.


What is your favorite Chicago hangout?
The Green Mill.


What is your best childhood memory?
Going to Riverview. It was this amusement park right in Chicago. It was every child's fantasy comes true.


What is your proudest moment?
The retrospective of my paintings at the Art Institute in 1990.


What was your most embarrassing moment?
As a kid I was the first person eliminated in the spelling contest. The word was "petal"--I thought they were talking about peddling a bicycle, but they were talking about flowers.


What was your first job?
Inspecting feet at swimming pools. I had to make sure no one had bacteria or athlete's foot.


What is the greatest obstacle that you have overcome?
Fear of interviews.


What was the first love of your life and why?
My dog, a German shepherd named Ginger. It was total uncompromising loyalty.


How would you like to die?
In a farming accident.


How would you like to be remembered?
As a guy who worked hard.


If you were granted one wish, what would it be?
To have the ability to dunk with either hand.


What is your motto?
Here today, gone tomorrow.


What worries you most about the world today?
Stagnation. The only thing that's inherently true, or should be true, is the change going on. If things become stagnant or come to a standstill, that's probably the worst thing that could happen.


What gives you the most hope about the world today?
The Home Shopping Network.


Describe your art in one world.


What quality do you most admire in a man?
Big ankles.


What quality do you most admire in a woman?


On what occasions do you lie?
Halloween and percussion recitals.


What is your nickname?


In your opinion, what is the most beautiful thing in the world?
A woman's body.


What talent would you like to possess?
A contortionist's flexibility.


How has your work been influenced by Chicago?
I try to be responsive in my work to the rich ethnic and racial mixture of people. They bring with them such diverse cultural legacies and when they get together, this mixing, this cross-fertilization goes on. I just try to be a filtration system.


What is art?
Organized chaos.


Which artists have influenced you most?
In order: My dad who was an artist and got me started, the animation of Disney, the French Impressionists, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol.

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On Art & Artists: Ed Paschke

On Art & Artists: Ed Paschke

The text that follows is a transcript from the videotape interview produced by Lyn Blumenthal and Kate Horsfield in Paschke's studio in Evanston, Illinois, 1983. Kate Horsfield interviewed Ed Paschke.

When were you first aware that you wanted to be an artist?

As a very small child. There seemed to be something about it that really attracted me. A kind of magical quality. My father used to make things with his hands, wall plaques, things out of wood, animals out of clay. These things would not be regarded as so-called 'high-art'-but it was a very fascinating thing for him and I really respected his capacity to make these things with his bare hands. Again, it was kind of a magical process and I think that as I grew up I attempted to emulate him in some ways. I think we all learn through the mimicking process; that children learn through their parents. Over the years, while growing up, I always was very turned on by the idea of doing things like that so I explored a lot of different ways of going about it. And it always seemed to be kind of a pre-destination thing on my part that someway or another I would wind up doing something like this later in life. All through school I seemed to exhibit a little bit more of a capacity to do it than the other students, and as my ego developed through school, high school and so forth, I really couldn't wait for the next opportunity to get involved in an art-related process of one sort or another at school. And invariably when there were positive strokes, as a response to whatever I may have done, I just loved it and I couldn't wait for the opportunity to do it again. I seemed to develop the capacity to be a relatively good mimic. And through this process I equipped myself with a variety of technical means and approaches.


When I first went to the Art Institute, straight out of high school, it was quite a shock for me to realize that in some of the classes the purpose was to simply repeat and duplicate what was before me-whether it was a model or a still-life, etc.-I could pull it off with a certain flair, a certain technical virtuosity. On the other hand I knew nothing about design or what composition was or what structure meant. Terms like relationships between forms and shapes, colors, textures, etc., etc. They are all very dry abstract concepts that really meant nothing to me at all. And it was a long, painful growing process of absorption until about the fourth year in school I began to sense what it was all about in terms of the necessary structure upon which all the accessories are implied or added. I loved to do this kind of work a great deal. In a sense, it was a source of therapeutic catharsis. I was a very introverted individual and this became an important outlet for me to express myself, to communicate, to take positions, make statements, take stands and so forth. But I never really thought I had much future at all. I sensed the reality of it all: that once you left the somewhat unrealistic environment of a school, and these structured situations, that nobody really cared about whether you ever did a painting again or what it was about. Then came a kind of dues paying period of time in which I went through a succession of jobs, most of which were art-related in some sense, but it was very, almost humiliating to realize that I had perhaps squandered four years of education and come away with something that wasn't really practical or couldn't be utilized in the realistic world of working and surviving.

While I was in school I did realize that the philosophy of tapping as many people's brains as possible was a good approach. And I became a kind of human sponge. In the sense that I tried to absorb as much information from as many teachers as possible. Perhaps because of this, in later years I had more flexibility, more directions I could go into, more combinations of things that I could employ. And this is something that I have attempted to pass along to the students that I've had in the ensuing years: that it is a mistake to focus as soon as possible on a particular point of view or style. I think a singular focus is limiting. Your perimeters are much greater the more variety of input you've had. And I have always tried to approach it in that way.

What years were you at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago?

I went straight out of high school. I started at the Art Institute in 1957 and went straight through and graduated in the spring of 1961. I was coming from a place in which I had a very low self-image. I generally felt that everybody was better than I was. At anything. Not just art but anything. I never learned how to swim, I always felt very inadequate. So the thing I had to do was to really go inward and really work super hard in the hope that someday something or other would pay off. And in using that term I don't mean necessarily money but just the fact that I would have more depth and dimension. Both as a human being and as an artist. It was quite depressing.


As I said earlier I was a fairly good mimic, and that is all I really knew how to do when I began art school. And it was almost a taboo to be dealing with things in a somewhat representational way. So I became kind of schizophrenic in the sense that during school I was learning how to paint based on certain principles of abstraction, Gestalt, Expressionism and all that. But in private at home at night, I was drawn towards things that had more of a content-oriented approach. It was near the end of my four years of undergraduate studies that I began to synthesize these things. And also, with the explosion of Pop Art which I admired a great deal. It gave a real solid sense of credibility that it was okay to deal with form in the sense that it conveyed something beyond the formal aspects that were involved.

It was a big shock to realize upon graduation-what are you going to do now? How do you survive? Where do you go? I did receive a fellowship through which I traveled for a time in Mexico. I subsequently got a job in a commercial art studio running errands, matting work and changing the water for the "real" artists. I guess I learned a few things through those experiences. But it got to the point where I really couldn't tolerate it much more. I knew I was going to be drafted into the military and I always harbored a fascination for human abnormality. So I proceeded to get a job in a mental institution as a psychiatric aid. I just wanted to find out what happens inside the confines of those walls. It was a very potent experience for me. I didn't do it all that long but I think that the energies that I absorbed during that time have left a great mark on my soul and consciousness and sub-consciousness. To this day, I still draw upon that experience from time to time. I did that for a few months and then I was drafted. I spent a couple of years in the army and I was pretty bitter about that whole experience because there I was at the age of 21, 22, 23 and I felt that some of the best years of my life had been taken away from me. It seemed as though most of the friends or contemporaries from art school had in one way or another, found a way to circumvent the draft by getting a shrink to say "this is a very unstable person," or that "he has metal plates in his head." They all usually got out of it. But I felt somehow that because my father and my brother had gone through the experience that I was obligated to do the same thing. In retrospect, I did have a variety of experiences that have later been beneficial ones. Those experiences have given me a degree of discipline by virtue of the fact you have to learn how to wait for things. You develop the ability to bide your time and profit from it as best as possible. And I did see certain parts of the country that I ordinarily would not have. I spent most of my time in the Deep South. It is like a foreign country down there. A whole different thing. I grew up basically in cities and you assume over the years that everyone has pretty much access to the media things, magazines, books, TV and so forth, and that this constant ongoing degree of sophistication and development is going on everywhere. But when you go down to the rural areas you find time has stood still to a great extent. I think it broadened my scope of what people have been and are about. I made friends and spent a lot of time with people I would not have ordinarily crossed paths with. And I think that made me appreciate time and how to use it. It focused my thinking a great deal.

Upon leaving the military I went to Europe, came back, stayed in New York for a while and began a series of collages that really have been the basis of everything I have been doing ever since. Those collages were basically black and white images that I found in various media sources. I would create collages, and paint over parts of them, so that later I became interested in the idea of blowing some of these up, isolating certain parts and so forth. Black and white pictures led to the technique that I continue to use in my paintings, starting with a black and white understructure and subsequently introducing layers of transparent glazes and colors. It was a slow steady progression from that point until now.

When you came back to Chicago after being in the service for two years, you already had a vague idea of what your interests were in terms of content. How did you start to visualize this? What kind of images did you start choosing from the very beginning?

Well, there was an interest on my part in images that were unusual, exotic and different. Things out of the norm and circus life appealed to me a great deal. I liked the idea of the heightened sense of realty of the exotic and the unusual. So I began to use those things as elements, as source material. I just combined them in all sorts of incongruous ways. Setting up states of dissonant energy that would play off of each other in somewhat peculiar ways. I began to work and experiment with the structure, rather than finding something here or over there. I put them together hoping that there would be some sort of chemistry between the two. Gradually I began putting more of myself into these things by changing the structure, by editorializing more and proceeded along those lines for the next few years.


Another question about being a student: what other influences were coming out of the Art Institute that you sort of caught on to or related to in some specific why?

Well, I know that the teachers like Kathleen Blackshire and Whitney Halstead had a lot to do with stimulating people's interest in Primitive and Native Art. I was somewhat interested in that but not as much as a lot of other people who came out of school during that same time period. My interests were more oriented toward the kinds of information that comes to us through the various forms of media. As time went by I flirted for a brief time with the idea of being a filmmaker. For me, the potential was so much greater with the idea of sound and time involved. But I realized that I really didn't have the equipment necessary and I had no money at all, so I went back to painting.

The whole business with the Hyde Park Art Center was beginning about that time. The Hairy Who people created a splashy happening kind of thing. Myself and a few other people thought that this was not a bad strategy and a few of us banded together to try a similar kind of thing. It was a promotional concept of packaging ourselves and going forth with it as a way of getting our work seen.


So you wouldn't say that there was any kind of group discussion about mutual ideas or of developing images from similar kinds of source material or of being anti-New York, for example. There were not direct issues like that involved in these artists being seen together as groups?
No. I don't think that anyone consciously sat down and said okay, we are going to direct ourselves towards these and not those. I think that there was a kind of mutual support system where energies were bounded from one person to the next. We tried something like that and it worked to some degree; there was a succession of shows that got things rolling a little bit. And as soon as it was possible, a lot of the artists began to branch off individually. It was probably a good and useful strategy for a while. Group strength is greater than individual strength.

I always felt like an orphan in the sense that everyone else seemed to share an enthusiasm for a lot of these concerns and I wasn't really as interested in those things. Yet I was included in group exhibitions because I thought it was fine to get the exposure. But I think it was necessary to break away and establish a sense of individuality at a certain point. I know that a lot of people recoil from the idea of still being thought of as the so-called "Imagists" or Chicago School. There was a time when that description had a degree of validity but people have gone on their own separate paths. Loosely you could still group them together, but I think that as a group idea it has served its purpose. To some degree the stigma or association still lingers.


Let's talk about the source material and how that translated into images.

Well, the service had something to do with that. I used to try to drift around through various ethnic neighborhoods and pick up on whatever visuals were indigenous to them, like attitudes of different cultures. I loaded my studio walls with all kinds of visuals that I would find and look at them as a kind of psychic resource. In the beginning there was a specific concern for things that had a degree of aggressiveness, sensationalism, oddity, that which provoked confrontation. I didn't have a particularly clear-cut intention. There could be a variety of interpretations as to what a particular painting meant. My theory was and still is that the viewer more or less completes the circuit like electronic energy. The paintings send out certain vibes, or degrees of energy, and there is no one correct response to it. This interpretation hopefully will vary based on the differences in the makeup of the people viewing the painting, where they are coming from and what they are bringing to it.


What about "Holy Stick Man", a painting from this period of time. Why would an image like this be chosen? What were your reasons for choosing it? How did you feel about the person viewing the painting or owning the painting looking at it?

Well, the subject matter is not the usual kind of thing that one would see in a painting. I liked the idea of provoking in a fairly aggressive way the soft spots or the weak areas of someone's defense mechanism to the world. I have found over the years, particularly regarding the early work, that people either really responded very favorably to what I had done or really hated it. But they were rarely indifferent to it. And that was just fine with me. Because I think that the worst sort of a put down that one can experience both as an artist and as a human being is the fact that people are basically indifferent to you. There were a lot of those thoughts. A certain kind of satirical edge I think was part of the motivation as well. It had something to do with incongruous things that somehow existed in a collective relationship. And the elements of unpredictability, surprise and provocation. I wanted to provoke people in a fairly confrontational, aggressive and direct way. Over the years therefore, I have been going about things in a more oblique way that to my way of thinking, allows for a greater latitude of interpretation.


Could you talk a little bit about the way that you would use color in terms of these very early 1967-1968 paintings?

They were basically theatrical and charged with a heightened sense of reality. I thought that the appropriate thing to do would be to use a sense of color that was charged in a somewhat garish way to be consistent with that heightened sense of reality. That was part of the thinking there. Very confrontational, very aggressive. Not at all subtle. To reach people's nervous systems. That was primarily the motive for using that kind of color. And also a sense of luminosity. The technique of establishing a black and white under-painting with subsequent use of color has to do with establishing a sense of luminosity that is possible only in that technique. The idea that what I was depicting in a painting wanted to in a sense be noticed. As opposed to fading into the woodwork.


In these earlier paintings you were really focusing on images from the underbelly of society, people on the fringe, and in some cases people who you know most other people would think were monstrous. How were you using the image? What kind of comments were you making about the way these people would be either used or seen as images?
It was a certain kind of display of self that was involved there. A certain kind of narcissism. Role-playing-clich� role-playing. Just these kinds of cliche stereotypes. People, as you say, that are the underbelly of society, don't often get the chance to be given a degree of credibility on so-called more legitimate levels. And this was a way of maybe giving them their due. And I think there is also something about energy that usually filters up from the lower levels, and winds up near the top. Very rarely do the people at the top influence the people at the top bottom. It usually works the other way around in terms of trends and styles and that sort of thing. That happens to be my personal theory.


You began to use collage and you were taking images from various different sources and putting them together. How were these meant to be read or were they just compositional devices? Lets take for example "Dos Criados."

The intention was to set up something in which there was not one particular or correct way to interpret it. It was charged with a lot of possibilities depending again on where the observer was coming from and who would supply the additional necessary ingredients to complete some sort of a meaning to it. But again my feeling was that once a painting was finished, my interpretation was no more correct than anybody else's. They are all as valid as mine.


This very early work seems to be carrying maybe not a message but a charge that is not usually a part of painting. Did you think about this at the time?

Oh yes, I always thought I was really up against it in terms of the so-called establishment because in the 1970's, when the type of art that was being given a lot of attention was very contrary to what I was doing. There were times when it was very devastating and depressing. But my feeling was, "this is what I am all about, this is what I do." And therefore, I just have to persevere with it. That's all.


In the late 1960's when you first started painting these sorts of peripheral type people there was a revolution in consciousness going on in the whole country concerning social issues. Was this an influence on you at all?

Sure. I think that the work is basically autobiographical. The kinds of social concerns that were prevalent in the late 1960's had a great deal to do with the kinds of things I was involved with. Again the idea of confrontation, the implication of violence or various aberrations of psychological responses in given situations did have a lot to do with it. But not in an illustrative sense. I tried to do it in such a way that no one concise conclusion could be drawn. It was done so that there was intentional ambiguity about a specific interpretation. So that you are walking that tightrope between: is it about this or is it about that? You could slant or weigh it toward one side or another depending on your point of view. And that was really my intention. It was to be walking that tight-rope and charging these things so that they would be responded to in various ways.


Lets talk about the painting "Ramrod" which you did in 1969. You just used the word ambiguity and in this painting the ambiguity is sexual. Could you talk about this?

Sure. I think it had to do with role-playing. The idea of establishing kind of a cliche butch or macho sort of a stereotype. And at the same time I introduced other kinds of elements, sexual elements, that would create a kind of dissonance with the major starting point, taking the wind out of that phony, excessively narcissistic role playing that frequently occurs.


In this painting you also used a mask and you used a tattoo on the chest. And the tattoo represented a certain kind of body adornment. The mask suggests layers and psychological covering. This is something that is repeated variously throughout your work on different levels. Could you talk about this as a beginning of a certain sort of undercurrent or theme?

Sure. That particular painting has been very important, a pivotal painting for me in the sense that I did two things for the first time. One was the mask and the whole reason for the mask was that, in painting the face, I couldn't get it quite the way I wanted to get it and I wondered how I could conceal my inadequacy. I came up with the idea of camouflage-to mask something. I also thought that the chest area in a fairly abstract sense needed some sort of linear embellishment. Tattoos are an embellishment. I used those two devices for the first time in that painting. And subsequently it was a way to solve a problem or a series of problems. After having used it and solving the problem, another thing occurred to me. I had introduced another level of psychological energies in the painting. And beyond that point it became an intentional device that I used for a while.


Another part about this particular painting has to do with paradoxical issues of gender-in terms of using female images that had such an edge to them that you couldn't really tell whether they were males dressed as females or if they were real females. Issues of the 'real' and the 'false' were raised in this work.

Well, again I think that the idea of ambiguity and the things that have the capacity to vacillate or the properties of two things combined, have to do with the idea of...I mean none of us are completely male or completely female. We will have percentages of both. Let's say a painting had started out with the intention of being a female, somewhere along the way in my attempts to introduce elements that would solve things compositionally, the painting would take on a life of its own and go in a certain direction. Sometimes that direction had connotations of gender that were contradictory to the starting point. I have experienced many accusations of the fact that I was anti this, pro that. But again I think that the interpretation reflects the person making those statements.


Let's talk about creating a painting. How does that start? What is the first thing that happens?

Well, usually mostly the things are media oriented in the sense that the trigger mechanism on the point of departure somehow does originate in one form of media or another. Or a combination. Going back to those early black and white collages, to this day my paintings invariably start with a black and white statement. I have drawers full of visuals and images, and so forth, that may or may not be used in the paintings. Some have been used more than once.


Like what? What kind of things are you talking about? Photographs? Clippings from magazines?

Yes. Newspapers, magazines, sometimes things from T.V. And I'll save these things because for me there is something in there. Now if I find something that already is an exquisite, visual statement, perfect the way it is, I wouldn't want to use that because it would be very intimidating. Like 'who is little old me to try to improve on that.' So I try to start with things that are flawed. They allow me the psychological capacity to introduce my own elements in an attempt to take this beyond a point and perhaps create a more heightened visual statement. It starts that way. There is a degree of mechanical projection involved in which I play around with the idea of scale, size relationships and all that.


How is the mechanical projection made?

Well, I use an opaque projector. I put something under there and project it and see what it looks like. Move it back and forth to change the scale and size of it. I juxtapose things. The staring point is very random and allows me more latitude in decisions. I think that the more clarified the starting point is, the less latitude you have in developing it further. Once you establish the major structural and compositional elements, the basic value relationships, there is a process of introducing layers of transparent colors of oil paint on top of that. Gradually introducing other textural elements. It goes through three or four distinct stages: the first stage being black and white, the second stage simply covering the whole surface with thin layers of color, the third stage emphasizing textural things or linear elements built on the top and certain surface bits of information about the play of light on surfaces, differences in the degree of paint.


When you have a prepared panel ready to paint on, what do you know about that is going to be on that painting?

I know that it will probably be somewhat related to what may have preceded it but I purposely try to approach it with few hard and fixed determinations. Again, I think you have more flexibility in the beginning of the painting than you do later on. Everything is wide open. Everything is possible. Beyond that it is just a matter of that the painting gets underway, that the problem-solving process...I try to set up things that may be very problematic in the beginning and rely on my experience and ability to bail out of some of these problems. I think that those usually wind up to be the better paintings-the ones where there was more of a struggle. In doing so, in starting with something that is almost a self-destructive premise, things that, by all reasonable standards, shouldn't co-exist in the painting wind up with a tension-filled compatibility, juxtaposition kind of an idea.


How would you describe the completion of the idea in the painting? What is that like for you?

That is a very interesting question. It is a question that frequently comes up in art classes. And the only valid answer that I can give is that I look at the whole thing as though it is an orchestration of a variety of simultaneous systems. Some of these systems can be what the color is doing, what the textures are doing, what the black and whites are doing-I look for the life in the painting. The condition of life within the human body has to do with lots of simultaneous systems working in a concerted way. So there has to be that interrelationship of things working in a united sense and, if there are things within that painting that are not contributing, they should probably not be there. It is a kind of knowledge you can only arrive at through ruining some paintings. By going too far. It is a feeling you develop in the pit of your stomach by sensing how all these things are all affecting each other in a collective sense.


Does this mean that you have a way of completing each piece or do you have pieces that simply don't work and you have to get rid of them?
I love paintings that don't work because they are a big problem. A big challenge. I used to throw out some work. Not so much lately because somehow I view that as an opportunity to do things that I would not ordinarily do. And thereby set a new precedent. I think that is how growth and development occurs within a given painting. I have had the experience of doing two paintings simultaneously. With one, everything feels right, feels comfortable, while the other is very problematic. Invariably the problematic painting turns out to be the better painting because you have broken new ground somehow. A pivotal painting. The opening up of a lot of other things.


You just made a statement to the effect that paintings have a life of their own. So it makes me want to ask you about the course of the change during the painting, how you use accidents and odd things that come up?

Well, first of all the painting process is for me kind of a problem solving process. If everything is going well in my painting I get very suspicious of it because what that tells me is that everything I am doing in that painting I have done before. I'm not really breaking any new ground. And it seems as though it is necessary to have a problem to respond against to try to invent some new way to circumvent that problem. As I said, the taking off point is an important one for me. Beyond that, the paintings do, in a sense, take on a life of their own. Later the painting will tell you what it wants you to do to it. And you have to be responsive enough and also flexible enough to be able to deal with that, and utilize it in some sense. It is always a tricky question as to when the painting is finished. The decision about whether or not a painting is finished has to be arrived at after a period of time, when you can be more objective. When you are involved with a painting you are very emotionally tied to it. I tend to work on several things at one time so that if there are other things happening I can spin away and work on those and be much more objective about them all. Different processes work best for different people. Some people like to plan things out a great deal. Other people prefer to work completely spontaneously. Others, with a degree of both. And you simply have to find the best way for yourself.


You work with several paintings that are very similar structurally, and then all of a sudden you make a certain kind of major change. Could you talk about how you view change in your work?  Do you see those changes as being abrupt?


No, sort of like changes in emphasis.
Well, all right. For me when things tend to become predictable, I tend to become somewhat suspicious. And when those kinds of changes have occurred, I suppose they are preceded by a certain growing disenchantment with what I was doing. And the element of surprise is there less and less and at a certain point I decide that I would like to shift gears and go to something else. Invariably there are carryovers. Sometimes I view these as self-imposed exiles. Not that I have lost interest in a particular area of ideas. It is just that my way of dealing with them has become too predictable and repetitious. I don't know, I have always been interested in the idea of being receptive and responsive to almost any variety of source material that finds it way into the work. This new material tends to stimulate and invigorate things that follow and these are healthy changes. I feel I am my primary audience. If I become bored, if I become lackadaisical about what I am doing, I think that that lack of energy, enthusiasm and commitment is transmitted into the work. And it suffers as a result. I have to maintain as much as possible a peak interest on the part of what I am doing and try to sustain that as much as possible. Sometimes change is necessary in order to facilitate the constant growth pattern. Growth doesn't occur, at least on a consistent basis. Sometimes it goes in spurts. Sometimes things level off. Sometimes you get stale. And I think you have to be objective enough and possibly courageous enough to venture off into new territories that you met with a certain amount of resistance before. I think you have to follow your instincts because, again, you are both audience and performer at the same time.


In the early 1970's you started to do a series of small paintings and drawings, one title was "Hairy Shoes," which had to do with certain kinds of meditation on objects. The quality of leather. Living qualities, like the growth of hair and warts were superimposed on shoes, baseball mitts, etc. Could you talk about that series of works a little bit?

Yes. I was caught up with the idea that human beings frequently treat themselves in an object-like way. Like tattooing, etc. And the idea that flesh and leather are pretty much related. And things manufactured out of leather, such as baseball mitts, shoes, handbags, etc., could in some sense reassert living qualities that had perhaps been dormant for some period of time. And by the same token, people in being depicted as objects were the opposite sort of thing. I had an exhibition devoted to those interwoven ideas. I went through that whole she thing for a period of about two years or so, and during that episode I think that I was able to divorce myself to some degree from certain constraints about dealing with the figure. And because these were presumably inanimate objects, I was able to begin to physically alter the structure of these things. Whereas dealing with the figure in that way was a bit more difficult. So I felt that I made a lot of progress by doing this. When I went back to working with the figure I was then armed with the capacity, or the willingness to make those same kinds of structural changes, distortions, changes of scale, etc., and apply those to the figure. Which I subsequently began to do.


The paintings that you did subsequent to this whole series of leather objects began to take on very different sorts of liberties with the human figure which you could really call abstraction. Distortions into abstraction.

Yes. I think those were primarily motivated by an interest on my part in the surfaces of the paintings. is kind of a classic concern. The illusion of some degree of depth on what is basically a flat surface. And also the implication that perhaps these things had certain peripheral references to the human condition, in the way that the shoes had. But they were exploratory exercises in technique and the ways in which one could deal with that classic concern of depth on a flat picture plane.


You were using clothing and adornment as a way of moving into abstraction on a certain level too.

It was almost like a zoom lens close-up of some patternistic clothing, costume kind of things. And just expanding that into a whole concept that occupied the entire picture plane. I just felt that I want to really investigate and improve certain aspects of my technique and at the same time divorce myself from some of the constraints and limitations of working with obvious subject matter. Which I felt began to be a little bit of a trap at that time.


And yet these people seemed to be very specific individuals. Like let's say, "Yolanda" and "Red Sweeney." Were they real people? Were they people that you created?
People I created. In some instances there were fragmentary photographic sources. In other instances it was just a matter of accumulating experiences of seeing a variety of people and sort of playing Dr. Frankenstein in the sense of creating my own people. It was fascinating to me because, in the course of developing those paintings, they gradually took on personalities and identities that were not part of my initial conception at all. It was really a sense of discovery and fun as to how they would turn out. Because I never knew what the final result would be. If I knew what a painting was going to look like when it was finished I probably would have never started it in the first place.


So these people are figments of your own imagination?

Yes. Partially. I think that they are prototypes. There are certain cliche aspects to them. But there is a great deal of imagination involved with those paintings. Again, I never really knew what they were going to look like when they were finished. It was really a lot of fun to work on those paintings.


Was there any kind of change in source material of the images that you started out with at this point?
Well, I started out with a series of paintings concerning themselves with women, primarily. And as you alluded to earlier, some of those paintings tended to drift into areas of sexual ambiguity. Which is fine. And others did not. And I never really knew what that was going to happen. After a period of that, I switched over into paintings that again began as male images, prototypes, etc. They were singular, they were confrontational, they were sort of show biz oriented. Eventually I began to get involved in the idea of the multiplicity of relationships. I went from the idea of the singular image, whether it be male or female or ambiguously so, into the idea of two, sometimes three, sometimes four figures interacting in the painting.


Once again, there was no intent to make any kind of social commentary, who these people were or what their lives were like?

No. I think in my mind I was dealing with what I would regard as the fringes of show business. But as far as a specific sociological statement, it wasn't my intention. I did get a lot of flack. A lot of accusations from people who were infuriated by what they perceived as a very direct assault on one thing or another. And all I could say was that you have to supply a lot of the answers and maybe your response is also saying a little bit about where you are coming from as well. Because we all do tend to view things through the conditioned eyes of our own experience.


What kind of criticism were you getting about this in terms of the selection or treatment of people? Lets take "Women" as an example.

A particular piece that sticks out in my mind pretty strongly was an exhibition that I had in Chicago of basically all women paintings. And I think there happened to be a conversation of women psychiatrists in town at that time. And at the opening I was suddenly confronted with a group of women who were pretty upset about what they construed as being very negative put-downs, whatever, on my part, towards women and I don't know. I like women a lot. I didn't set out to...all I could say was well, maybe you better think about your perceptions and particular points of view and the way in which you, the viewer, may have perceived and concluded some of that information. I simply try to throw out clues. Bits and pieces of information that could be again assembled in a variety of ways. Maybe some were more overt than others. Hopefully there was enough of a diversity there to circumvent the idea of being on a mission to make all kinds of negative statements about women. I try to give equal time by the way, whenever I am working on a series.


Continue about the evolution and change in your work.

Well, again, I got to the point where I felt that things were not breaking new ground as often as I would like. They were a little too comfortable and predictable. I felt that the degree of obviousness was something that could be edited out to some degree. I began to remove, initially, some of the facial characteristics. And my attempt, initially at least, was to deal with things in a perhaps more classic timeless sense as opposed to things that were indigenous to a particular time period. And thereby allowing a wider range of potential responses.

So it began with the idea of removing and editorializing the facial features. There were a lot of hijackings during that time. A lot of terrorist activities. And I used to see a lot of people in pictures, in the news media, people with ski masks, pillow cases with just four holes cut in them. And there was something about that that appealed to me quite a bit. As a convenient way to remove some of these specifics.

I was working with singular images of people in paintings and it was around this time that I decided to do it in numerical progression from one to two. And I did a whole exhibition of things that were based somehow on the number two and that involved those kinds of facial simplifications. It progressed from there...I think it was this time, that I began to be more concerned with a sense of proportion. A sense of overall orchestration with things like the electrical charges. Shiny surfaces as opposed to dull surfaces. And really rationing things out in a proportional sense. Because all the texture in the world cancels itself out. All the bright colors in the world in a painting cancel out each other. Selectivity became a part of it and with that a concern for electronic energy coming out of the idea of media and the concept of video. That seemed very interesting to me.


I began looking at a lot of television. Not so much on the basis of the "Dukes of Hazard" or "Quincy" or something like that, but the way it all looked. Not so much the content, just the formalistic aspect of how it was all put together. All those horizontal lines collectively compose a picture. And also in many cases the way some sets are tuned in but they are not really registered in sync. You get maybe a red edge around somebody over here and a blue edge over there. Snow or static. I began to utilize those visual things more and more and at the same time, I was concerned with the times when there was a real believable sense of 3-dimensionality there-depth. And other times your attention is called to the fact that this was just a flat, glass surface and a very 2-dimensional image. So I was interested in the 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional fluctuations within a picture plane-and also the horizontal side to side thing that was happening with all those scanning lines and pulses of energy. It was kind of a rhythmic concern on my part for this back and forth fluctuation co-existing with the side to side things. I used those to further the degree of abstraction and the particular image in the sense that some parts were developed in a fairly believable e-dimensional sense and other parts were flat. Other parts faded into the background.


How would you say there was a change taking place in the way that you were treating the images, the figures, the faces, the hands, etc., in the paintings? Who were these people now in relation to the people that you had done in the past?

They were more ambiguous and they are less specific. They are like frozen moments in a theatrical sense. I'm getting more involved with the idea of gesture and the implications involved with those things. As I said, I like to start with almost an off-the-wall fragmentary starting point using only part of the original image. And more recently it seems like I am involved in a more photographic negative look, changing lights to darks, black and white reversals as a way to deal with some of these changes. I try not to see or look into the future as far as where things are going. I don't think there is any one particular thing...I think that most of my work has always been urban and mostly been nocturnal. I still see it operating in that vein.


One interesting thing to me about these recent paintings is that the source of light is a completely electronic source, whether it be neon, or a reference to television. It has no trace of real light or real representational life in it any longer. It seems like it has really moved into a totally abstract space. And there is something very distant and almost frightening, even more frightening about these paintings than the beginning ones.
Yes. I think that maybe there is something involved there with computer technology, with what they are doing with genetic construction of living organisms, radiation. All those kinds of unnatural things. And it is important to me that there be a slightly threatening quality. A slightly unsettling quality about these things in the sense of humanity versus science. And this is polarization or in some cases a synthesis of those two extremes.


Also the way that the space works in these paintings, the figures are not really on top of the background at all. It is like you are looking through various different layers and getting different kinds of information. So that the figure has really sort of dissolved into deep space or into middle space. Is there a specific content reason for that or is it a formal device?

Well, I think that maybe it is a formal device in the sense that I wanted to orchestrate things in such a way that there was this rhythmic pulsation between what these images are doing spatially in the picture plane. There would be degrees of recognizability. And some things exist on the picture plane, and some things in a sense project beyond the picture plane. Other things recede back to a lower depth. That is somewhat of a conscious concern on my part to create this sense of lie and a breathing-like quality.


A lot of these paintings seem to have a very great emotional distance. But when you look at something like "Nervosa" which you did in 1980, there is also something deeply moving and it seems to be very deeply personal. Do you see these specifically personal to yourself on any level?

Yes. I think it varies. I think some are more so than others. I think the "Nervosa" painting had to do with a kind of introspective attitude. I think that for me all good work is autobiographical in that sense. I think that it is a reflection of and an outgrowth of the kinds of things one has been experiencing during the times when you are doing those paintings. But it is not always reflective at the same level or to the same degree. But if the paintings are honest, sure, they always involve that sort of thing.


Well, how do you see your paintings reflecting you?

That is a tough question. Part of what I do happens on an intuitive level. Part of it is conscious. So to the degree that the conscious part is known to me, I guess it has to do with...I don't know. I think films, I think television has had a lot to do with forming our ideas and sense of self. They are about relationships. They are about isolation. They are about reaching out beyond that isolation for me. Sometimes I really cherish my privacy. Sometimes I really crave social interaction with people. There are a lot of people that drop by the studio from time to time. In fact on some occasions I even hand my brushes to other people and just say do something on these paintings. Because I view that I am programmed in a certain way. We're given a stimulus and we react in a certain way based on our program. Somebody else is going to be programmed in a different way. They can introduce that difference into the paintings. And then I have to somehow correlate and utilize that. It gives the paintings more dimension. So I don't think these paintings are only about me, but I think they are mostly about me. I am trying to set up this chemistry, this energy between what it is about me and what it is about outside sources. Psychological programming.


Would you say that your paintings have a very definite viewpoint of the world?

Yes. I am not really trying to project or promote a particular political or sociological point of view. I am simply responding to things that I find of most interest to me. I think there is a difference between illustrating and painting. I think that illustration has a particular focus on what it is trying to communicate in a fairly general sense. For me a painting, hopefully, has a sense of internal life that allows for the possibility of interpretations differing within the same person from day to day. And also of any group of people responding in a variety of ways to the same basic stimulus.


What do you hope that some gets out of looking at your work?

Well, I just hope that they meet he works half way and allow themselves to be responsive to the kinds of energies that are being projected by the painting and also realize that there is no one correct way to respond to the painting. Hopefully it will be an experience that will in some way reach some part of the nervous system and beyond that, that is all one can hope for.


I'm interested in asking you a question about success. I do have something to say about the success thing. After showing since the late 1960's, I would think that you felt that you have achieved a certain level of success. I would like to ask you what that means to you and how it has affected your work?

Well, I think the term success is of course a relative term. It would vary from person to person. Perhaps by some people's standards what I have achieved up to now might be regarded as a success. By other standards it might not. My own view of it is this. Things like success, whatever that may mean, can be very seductive and very destructive. Because I think that if you do arrive at a point where you feel you have achieved some sort of status or level of success, it can seriously undermine your future growth and the development of your work beyond that point.

Because of the tendency to become conservative. Of repeating previously established things that did get you whatever measure of success you experienced. And I think you have to be somewhat hungry, somewhat insecure. For me success, whatever that means, is something that is way out there somewhere. All I know is that I love to paint more than ever before and, in spite of the agonies of problem-solving and the rest of it, it is an ever increasing sense of wonderment for me about what is going to happen to the painting. I never know. And I think it is important to maintain that sort of perspective in order for growth and development to continue to take place in somebody's work.


What do you see happening with your work for the future?

I have no idea. And I prefer to keep it that way because I am painting more or less for the moment. I am a different person today than I was a year ago. Therefore, what it takes to satisfy the audience part of me as opposed to the performer is different than it was. A steady diet of the same thing becomes boring. So my life is, in a sense, an outgrowth of the experiences that I have been subjected to during my life at a given time. And I don't know where my life is going therefore I really don't know where my work is going.



Various forms of the popular visual media-newspapers, magazines, film, television and so on-have always interested me and, to a great extent, have influenced my work. Radio was the primary point of departure for my imagination during childhood. T.V. came into my life around the 6th grade. With reality or fantasy, fact or fiction, there was, and is, with radio the automatic response to translate the audible information into a visual impression. The same could be said of another nonvisual form of communication-reading. This "translation" or conversion of signals into visual impulses is the central mechanism in my work process. The way that reality is transformed or stylized into the characteristic form of each medium is the result of the same phenomenon. An example would be: object/photo of object/reproduction of photo/individual's translation. Perception-what we experience through our sensory apparatus-is being affected by the rapid acceleration of media-related technology. Our view of the world is changing as the global environment expands by means of media accessibility, and as our information reservoir gets deeper. My belief is that these elements, for better or worse, have woven their way into the collective fabric of our lives. For me, the distinction between direct experiences and those which are modified through mass media is becoming smaller and smaller.

I believe that my artist works within the context or conditions that are indigenous to his or her time and reflects the energy, temperament and attitudes of that climate. In response to this my recent paintings have become a kind of orchestration of electronic visual impulses fluttering between three-dimensionality and two-dimensions. This back and forth rhythm exists within the horizontal lines that collectively compose a video image. The medium in which I work is oil paint on canvas-a seemingly antiquated method in contrast to recent technology. This dichotomy appeals to me and seems an appropriate way to explore and "freeze" these visual impressions. It also allows more time to explore, develop and refine the emerging multiple relationships. I first employ an under-painting in black and white, then a series of glazes or layers of transparent and opaque colors. To a degree, this sequence parallels the progression from black and white to color in the historical development of printing, film and video or television. This layering process could also be a way of describing the "message" or content of them as pictures. I attempt to weave a multiplicity of meanings and clues so there is never one correct or absolute interpretation but rather a Rorschach-like series of possibilities. Sender and receiver the circuit can be completed in a variety of ways depending on what the observer brings to the confrontation.


Ed Paschke
August 1983


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A Conversation with Ed Paschke

A Conversation with Ed Paschke

By Dennis Adrian



DENNIS ADIAN: I know that you, along with the curatorial staff at The Art Institute of Chicago, were involved in the selection of your show. Did you work with the French museum people too?

ED PASCHKE: I worked with the Art Institute people; we did have a meeting in France. The basic concern there was that the show consist of a substantial number of conceptually related works-the French seemed to feel strongly that you can't just put up works; you have to have some major philosophical premise to manifest in the exhibition.

DA: Did you feel that the exhibition ought to have a certain structure?

EP: It was really difficult for me in such a position to have an overview of my own work. What we tried to do was to put together the strongest possible body of work. There were many considerations flowing through my mind as I tried to do this. One was, should there be a kind of uniform sampling of the work? There might be stronger or weaker periods. Should certain collections, museum or private, be favored in terms of the weight that so doing might give the whole enterprise? But the primary goal was to have the strongest group of paintings.

DA: When you say the strongest possible work, do you mean the most representative images of some periods, or is there a level of quality you have aimed at or certain works that you feel to be really at the heart of your artistic and painterly considerations? Specifically, when you think about the early work, what do you think characterizes the most representative and best works?

EP: The very early work was about a kind of confrontational dissonance, a societal dissonance. I think there was an involvement with certain aspects of gendera playing around with issues of gender identification.

DA: The period you're talking about would be 1968 to 1972?

EP: Yes, works such as Ramrod and Hophead [cat. nos. 6, 7]. This earlier work is sometimes described as being concerned with the underbelly of American society. Then there was the shoe period, the woman series, and the man series. Then there was the couples series. This last series was confrontational. By degrees I was coming closer not only physically but psychologically to the point where in the group of cropped, close-up heads of the mid-1980s I felt I was penetrating the surface, the societal facade, the gamesmanship and the role playing, to get into that subterranean part of the mind that deals with the inner versus the outer self.

DA: Do you feel that these concerns begin really with the works having forms that suggest electronic media, where abstract forms and bandings start to be a kind of language of feeling and begin to articulate a state of mind?

EP: Yes. I think that the media, where all these sources originate, act as a trigger mechanism in my mind. I then project, fantasize, put together various component parts. For a while I was very concerned with the surface appearance of electronic communication. Eventually in my work I came to the point where forms and images disintegrated, broken apart in the fabric of electronic disturbance and its surface. In the most recent work, forms are becoming more solidified, getting back more toward certain kinds of psychological presences or to an edge or tension that characterized some of the earlier work.

DA: In some of the most recent images, bands or rectangles of color appear arbitrarily as though there are overlays or gels over part of the picture; also, there are disjunctively scaled images that recall similar paintings of the late 1960s.

EP: More recently I've been trying to investigate aspects of religion, violence, sexuality, and combinations thereof, stated in a more solidified way.

DA: In other recent works, there are quotations from images having specifically to do with art or even cliches such as the Mona Lisa, or images that are related to familiar sculpture and painting. I don't recall any such visual quotations in the earlier work.

EP: I am using the ideas of symbol, metaphor, or icon-ideas that bring with them a baggage of referential information. Certainly Elvis or the Mona Lisa are images that have recognizability and a certain referential arrangement that affects the way we see and understand the subjects behind the images. This potential grows out of a cultural fabric, and I guess what I want to do is to take some well-known images as a starting point and maybe try to combine them with others or to break down these images, maybe to dissect what sort of phenomenon broad popular recognizability is.

DA: I've always felt that even some of your early paintings are concerned with making philosophical points about how one sees and understands things, and about elements of painting.

EP: Central to my work is what I refer to as the law of opposites; I believe there are polarities between things; one gets from one extreme to the other by intermediate stages and steps. This law applies to issues of gender identification, which characterize much of the earlier work and which float in and out of my work over the years. Positive/negative, the idea of pacing a painting in terms of complexity and simplicity, the idea of public versus private, are elements that have always interested me and that I've always tried in some way to build into the character of the paintings. In my most recent work, there are ideas concerning religion, which can be seen or used in a positive or a destructive way. I think that the element that makes them united is the pulse of life. I think one of the first thoughts that mystified me when I began to study at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago was a critique about "life in the picture plane." "This painting has life in the picture plane, this one does not, this one has movement, this one does not." It was a year or so before I realized that the "life in the picture plane" had to do with the forces operating between the various elements that create tensions in the eye and mind as the observer investigates and considers all the different facets. All the pictorial elements-some with references, some with overt meanings, some with subliminal ones-somehow play upon the perceptive apparatus of the viewer so that movement, light, and so forth are going on inside his head.

DA: When I look at your paintings, I'm always stuck by their formal variety. In certain periods there seem to be sets of compositional concerns that are dominant; they gradually shift or give way to something else. Are these shifts of the formal situation the by-products of these interactive factors you mentioned or is formal structure something you consider independently? From time to time you've changed your way of working or the texture of the paint. You've even had other people introduce things in the paintings in order to alter your process. Do you do these things only in order to change the formal structure?

EP: Sometimes I've been concerned with consciously addressing certain formal issues, and the consequences are various metaphorical, symbolic results. At other times I've been concerned initially with certain metaphorical images and ideas and the formal invention is a consequence.

DA: About 1970-71 I remember the first quite large paintings of yours that I saw, Pink Lady (cat. no. 8). The scale seemed a big change because the earlier works, while not really small, had the scale of easel and cabinet pictures, comfortable or even intimate.

EP: I would compare the bigger scale to the experience of watching something on a movie screen where it's larger than you are. I think people who paint illusionistically have three basic choices of scale: to paint something smaller than it is, the same size it is, or larger than it is. I made a conscious decision to go larger than life because I wanted this almost overwhelming move-screen scale to happen-and to investigate it.

DA: Monumental figure painting as a category in itself is often considered apart. It's an undertaking not different in artistic quality from smaller-scale works, but it does belong to the upper range. The analogy I've often used is to music. One can write songs, chamber music, concertos, or symphonies and operas. The composer or the artist may want to demonstrate command of the artistic structure in all scales. The big scales often give an amplitude that makes the statement very profound, as well as large.

EP: Yes, the epic scale. It's almost like boxing; the heavy-weight division is the one that attracts people because this is as big as you can get: it's more powerful.

DA: Do you ever find that what you're doing picks up some hint or suggestion of something that appeared earlier and is them amplified in a continuation of the initial impulse?

EP: This happens quite often. Some element that I was involved with earlier, but never quite exhausted, is there still.

DA: Artists sometimes discover that issues in their current painting were dealt with earlier. In your own case, do you feel the issues raised are durable enough to sustain this sort of reexploration, or do you feel you might be merely "running the loop" again?

EP: I once heard somebody say that you can break an artist's output or working life into three basic categories. One is when you first strike out, everything is new and there's a first rush of raw ideas. The second phase is characterized by an obsessive concern for technique. The third phase is a regurgitation of phase one. So when these earlier things pop up again I have this panic that. But then I think everybody has a visual vocabulary of elements that always interests him. You may have used a particular element early on and set it aside because you haven't quite exhausted it. I think when you exhaust something, you throw it out of your bag of tricks. One of the cornerstones of my philosophy has always been that painting is not only autobiographical, but as well it's a problem-solving process. Problems feel awkward.

DA: Or they wouldn't be problems.

EP: Right. If you're dealing with issues that are old friends and that feel comfortable and you're not doing anything new, you have to pose problems for yourself. Creativity and innovation are how you solve those problems and, if you're only addressing those you've already solved, you're going to spin your wheels and stay at the same point in terms of growth and development.

DA: Would this open new possibilities that you might not otherwise consider?

EP: Exactlynew possibilities. Sometimes, if people are visiting me in my studio, I offer them the opportunity to do something to a painting in the hope that they'll present some awkward problem for me. They usually do.

DA: Some of them probably feel you are presenting an awkward problem top them!

EP: Some people refuse to have anything to do with this suggestion, but some accept the challenge. That's exactly what I want: another mind doing something to my painting that I would not have thought to do.

DA: It suggests that being a painter, or your sense of yourself as a painter, is a kind of mechanism that occasionally you want to test.

EP: No matter how many times I pose that as a problem, I always have the same degree of anxiety and uncertainty about whether I can "pass." It's almost like proving myself again.

DA: There was a strange transitional period in your work that is not represented in the exhibition, during which you made abstract paintings without figures in a variety of compositional types. Some are quite symmetrical, some appear randomly composed, some have deep spatial effects, some are quite flat, but all seem investigations of pure painterly possibilities without any sense of beings or of the psychologies of individuals that is in all your other work.

EP: That's exactly right. I was getting more and more involved in a concern for surface, ornamentation, texture, and formal development. I decided to take the figure out altogether and just focus on what I could do technically, illusionistically, by playing with surface, texture, and light. It was a short series, and then of course I went back again to the figure but armed with a new awareness of surface and technical possibilities.

DA: Another category of paintings that isn't in the exhibition is the portraits, specifically portraits of private individuals. Why was it decided not to deal with them? How do you feel your portraits fit into the work overall?

EP: One can say they present problems and challenges. The commissioned portrait paintings brings with it certain constraints, limitations, or directs one's thinking in a particular way-or at least it does for me.

DA: The invention in them is certainly on a par with your other paintings. Is one of the challenges that you don't necessarily always work directly from the model? There has to be some dealing with the specific personality of the sitters at some point, especially if they are the patrons or you are required to meet them. Is that what puts constraints on your autonomy of invention? Also, I've always felt that there is a distinction between your paintings that are portraits and those that just happen to contain a likeness. In all the portraits, even if the bodies have been reworked or modified in some way, the body remains within the realm of the physically possible; the pictures that simply contain likenesses often have features that are impossibilities by any stretch of the imagination.

EP: With commissioned portraits, I've always felt a need to adhere to a fairly consistent logical portrayal of the person. In other works, not commissioned portraits, I include the likeness of a specific person within a freer kind of pictorial invention.

DA: When you first approached theater design, doing sets and costumes for Charles Ludlum's Turds in Hell, you used slide projections of paintings on paper rather than large-scale designs. Did this experience suggest investigating the possibilities of very large formats?

EP: Those paintings on paper were small scale, but I did them thinking that they would actually be experienced on a large scale through projection. Probably big canvases entered into my thinking then. I think you're right, though I never really made that connection before.

DA: The Turds in Hell designs have a lot of inventive and imagistic freedom, which was rather different from the work you were doing just before them. I recall that there were many designs-twenty-three or twenty-four-and they took quite a while.

EP: I think those designs are probably also related to the illustrations I did occasionally for Playboy magazine. These also were combinations of my own ideas and some from outside.

DA: For the Turds in Hell d�cor, you designed objects and props such as furniture. Certainly this cannot be described as an excursion into sculpture, but did it get you thing about objects?

EP: I think so, although I hadn't really had that much experience with objects.

DA: I ask because so many painters of your generation in Chicago have also at some time or other gotten involved with objects. Their paintings are often objectlike. Roger Brown has done it, Philip Hanson, and Karl Wirsum. I wonder if your involvement with objects was different because of your work with the theater company. Was this how it happened?

EP: I think that is true, but also the experience of working in fairly close cooperation with the theater group let me see the underlying principles that relate all art forms. As opening night approaches, all these people are developing and perfecting their contributions. Somehow the various parts congeal into a oneness on opening night.

DA: Has the possibility of again working in the theater intrigued you? Have you had any nibbles? I have often thought that you would be terrific for opera as well as other kinds of theater.

EP: I have done a couple of things with Stuart Gordon at the Organic Theater in Chicago. It wasn't as extensive an experience as I had with Turds in Hell. I have never had an opportunity to do anything with opera, although I'm always intrigued by it. I did have the experience of working with some people at the Art Institute a few years ago. We produced a multimedia experience involving a videotape, a performance piece, a band show in Grant Park, and "Dos Egos" in the museum's auditorium. Those kinds of things do interest me a great deal. So, all you playwrights out there, look me up!

I think new things are always a source of rejuvenation, cross-fertilization; although you never know what the by-product is going to be, you know it's going to affect your thinking beyond the present experience. It's an important part of growth to allow oneself to be open to different kinds of experience.

DA: The scope of the exhibition is limited to paintings, but I wanted to ask you about the role of drawing in your work at various periods. Your drawings always seem independently conceived as autonomous works.

EP: A group of large drawings shown in Paris a few years ago are a combination of media-pencil, oil stick, wash, etc. I think I've always had a view of drawing as something very essential to painting. I've never done drawings that led to a painting, although some of my drawings have reflected ideas similar to those in contemporaneous paintings. But for me drawing is something that exists in its own right. Sometimes after I've done a painting I'll do a drawing based on certain related ideas. If I want to find out more about an idea in a slightly different way, I'll approach it in that fashion.

DA: Some artists feel that there are certain kinds of artistic issues, concerns, or undertakings that don't quite all fit in one work or that have various aspects that require realization in more works in the same medium. Is this part of your idea of the function of drawing?

EP: I think so. A drawing usually doesn't take as long to do as a painting, although certain of my drawings have taken quite a while. There is another way to think about this whole subject of the relationship between drawing and painting: my paintings are developed initially with a black-line underpainting.

DA: At that stage the work is almost a drawing.

EP: Yes. In a sense the drawing is in the painting.

DA: Well, it's a very economical way to proceed, because if there is any kind of a fiddling around or developing of the idea at that stage, it's at least already on the canvas. I think drawing and painting are closely tied together in your work, although there aren't many elements in the finished paintings that can be called drawing, despite the presence of some writing or a detail that is in itself linear. The underpainting is a kind of tonal drawing beneath the color that affects the final hue because the layers of pigment often remain transparent.

EP: Some of the underpaintings and the drawings mentioned earlier have an intricacy similar to the finished paintings. Now, I often try to force myself to do things that are more haphazard, more quickly stated, in order to capture the initial nervous impulse, the gesture and its spontaneity. I have felt that I was excessively involved with drawing to the point where I might lose the spontaneity of the lines, and that I should somehow learn to limit myself to a shorter period of time in which to work on a drawing.

DA: The recent paintings seem to have even more intense color than before. There is a more resonating clang to the colors of the work now. Is this something that you have consciously developed?

EP: I'm using more layers of colors on top of the black-and-white underpainting now; as a result, I think there is a patina or build-up of multiple layers, sometimes two or three layers of the same color, that gives the hues a depth or richness. In the earlier years I would just put one layer of color over the black-and-white underpainting.

DA: Have you thought of this layering as a conscious analogy to techniques such as glazing or older techniques of slowly developing the color by means of washes or thinned pigment layers of this kind?

EP: It took a few years for me to realize that I am doing underpainting and glazing-like the "big guys" used to do. I didn't always use black underpainting I used various dark colors. When I really because aware of it, I began to try to play to that as a strength. I explored and experimented with the idea of two, three, and four layers of the same color over a given spot to see what depth and luminosity one could achieve with such a multiple layering.

DA: Because such a technique probably takes more time, do you feel that you have to slow down to the pace of the development of the invention as it evolves on the canvas?

EP: When I do the underpainting, I intentionally try to avoid the presence of detail. I use larger brushes so that I can't really get much fineness but can see the major things.

DA: Then not many of the image's grosser aspects are changed or developed later? Once you get it where you want it in the black, then things are set to a certain degrees?

EP: Because I use oil paint, it takes time for one layer to dry; only then do I go on to the next one. I work on several paintings at the same time to use my time more efficiently. Because the process occurs over a wide range of time, I feel there is also a possibility for more layering of ideas to take place; I hope the layers of ideas are being built into the layers of paint.

DA: With this kind of layering and more intricate technique, do you find that at a certain point you pretty much know the final form? How exactly do you know when the work is finished?

EP: That is one of the most intriguing questions of artistic involvement: how do you know when the thing you're working on is finished? That question always comes up in art class, and it's one of the most difficult to answer. The best answer I can give is that the work is done when there is a sense of completeness there. It goes back to my earlier mention of the art-school question: "Is there life in the picture plane? How do you know when it's alive?" It's like the moment in Frankenstein when a lightning bolt comes out of the sky. Within a painting, a film, a book, or a dance, lots of decisions are collectively built up and everything affects everything else. When there has been engendered a sense of interdependency, a sense of completeness to this circuitry and all is connected in some way, then the work is self-sustaining and you can walk away from it. After that point I realize I don't have to support it any more, it can stand on its own. I don't think I can calculate it and say: "Well, in ten minutes I'm going to be done when I get this one psychological element in place." It just suddenly strikes me that it's all there. I have to be responsive to the work, to listen to its ability to say that it is finished. For me there has to be the possibility of invention every step of the way; even though I set up the major elements with underpainting, critical decisions still remain.

DA: Right up to the last touch?

EP: Right. Sometimes those decisions are the most difficult of all because it's just some little twist of something and it's there.It's a magical thing.

DA: Some painters I've known finish a group of works in a period in which they're working very well and hard, and it is the period itself that comes to an end. Then they keep the paintings around, looking at them critically for quite a while, editing, perhaps rejecting some. Does this ever happen to you, that something you thought was alive was only artificially maintained or on batteries as it were?

EP: There are variations in any artist's work; some are not so good, some are good. Some paintings I feel are not as functional as others. Dealing with them at this stage is a challenge. Such work provides me with an opportunity to do things I might never otherwise try in a painting: it's a desperation move, in an attempt to bail out a painting, I'll reach out for something that perhaps I've never done before and possibly find a new element for my bag of tricks.

DA: What would you say is the success rate of your emergency-room technique?

EP: I would say nine times out of ten the results are very exciting to me and they provide me some of the most important breakthroughs in terms of growth and development.

DA: Have you ever had a memorable struggle with a problem painting?

EP: There's a painting in the show called Mid American (cat. no. 5). I gave up on that painting three or four times, then tried to revive it-mouth-to-mouth resuscitation-several times over a period of about a year or more. I finally arrived at the state that it's in now. I think painting is an autobiographical activity. Sometimes one takes on certain challenges, certain problems, at a given time yet is not equipped to finish them at that time. Later, perhaps because of greater maturity, experience, or a different perspective, one can complete the painting. The kind of mind-games one plays with oneself are very interesting. One may at times have to trick oneself into a state of thinking or into doing the things necessary to solve a problem.

DA: Your recent exhibition at the Phyllis Kind Gallery here in Chicago [1988] seemed very aggressive.

EP: The paintings shown are high-impact paintings.

DA: These recent paintings bear annotations or graffiti. It looks as though there are notes on them, such as an artist might write on a drawing, when he makes notes about color or wants to remember this or that. These handwritten notes are quite small in scale in relation to the rest of the image.

EP: They create sort of an aftereffect. The intention here is to set up a kind of time-release factor, giving different levels of information. There are certain things one doesn't confront immediately in these paintings. The first impact is there, followed by a delayed perception or realization of other aspects.

DA: In these paintings, particularly the large ones, the effect is so striking and splendid that one doesn't on first sight just march right up and start examining the surface for small things. One wants to take it in at one focal distance. Then curiosity about the facture brings one closer. Have you deliberately varied the handling of paint to refresh the compositional gambits?

EP: I think that some of those kinds of changes are motivated by an interest in formalistic change of pace, in other cases, if I want something to be more ethereal, less concretely stated, I'll intentionally alter the technique to be loose, tight, or varied, as the case might require.

DA: Like a number of other artists of your generation from Chicago, you've shown internationally for quite a long time. You showed in Scotland-in 1973, wasn't it? When you have traveled occasionally to exhibitions abroad in France or Switzerland or the United Kingdom, do you find that your paintings are perceived differently there than they are in America?

EP: Because the work reflects societal forces or elements-dynamics-in this culture that may vary in respect to another culture, I think that abroad there might be an absence of some of the associational information that is contained in the painting. This information might go unperceived, or unresponded to. Conversely, some things in the work might provoke a more acute reaction.

DA: But recently you have incorporated likenesses of universally recognized figures such as Elvis and Hitler.

EP: I did those to try to transcend societal and regional differences. I start with the premise that everybody knows who this is, everybody has a certain framework for this, and then I go from there. It's a societal, iconic, almost religious significance that some of these faces have in terms of how widely distributed images of that face have been. We all have a certain way of associating with them. From that as starting point, I proceed to destroy the image by what I do to it. I purposely painted Hitler with pastel colors, it's almost like the musical number "Springtime for Hitler" in Mel Brooks's film The Producers. I did Washington and Lincoln twice and tried to set up a time-release factor with parts of the painting intentionally colored to look almost like the work of an Old Master and other parts painted with the garish glow of more contemporary color.

DA: Now that the exhibition of your work is more or less set except for a few final choices and issues to be resolved, would you characterize what you think the exhibition is about? In other words, what does this selection of your work address in a broad way?

EP: I think it shows what I was all about at all these different times during my development as an artist starting in 1968 or so. I think one way to look at an exhibition is that just as the component parts that go into the making of one individual work all produce a totality, an exhibition can be thought of as component parts, a totality of various ideas that have concerned the artist. It's a reflection of the interest, the hang-ups, the preoccupations that I had at different times. Some of these things perhaps were a response to what was happening around me. The social unrest and upheaval that characterized the late 1960s show up in the work from time to time. I think it's just my path, my journey as a human being evolving within the sociological/societal framework.

DA: If you were describing your evolution as a kind of progress, what territories have you gone through and where do you find yourself now? You mentioned the impact of societal forces and events that all of us were responding to at the end of the 1960s, where the exhibition begins. Are there philosophical, metaphysical, and other private concerns in it too?

EP: I would say the early work was about my relationship as a young adult emerging into the turbulence of those times. In the intervening years I've gone through these various changes and have become more introspective; therefore the work has as well, in terms of psychological motivations and other concerns.

DA: After the societal issues of the 1960s, what would you say have been your overriding concerns and where do you find yourself now?

EP: Well, this is probably one of the hardest questions one could possibly try to answer, but I'll try because in a sense I feel that whatever my work is about is perhaps better judged by others rather than by myself. I'm too close to it. I think as the work progressed up through the 1970s, it was involved in various aspects of role playing, societal role playing, gamesmanship, interpersonal relationships, and gradually evolved into more and more of an inward, introspective, psychological sort of thing. What I feel is happening recently, or beginning to happen, is that maybe there is developing a little bit more of a concern for issues outside of self toward religion, weapons, societal violence, and art. I think that there had been a swing of the pendulum in terms of early societal concerns that progressed into inward concerns. Now the pendulum is swinging back out again.


This conversation with Ed Paschke is drawn from a single interview session lasting about two-and-one-half hours that took place at the artist's home on the evening of October 19, 1988. The conversation commenced without an agenda and without notes but with the understanding that the topics would range over the artistic and interpretive issues raised by the retrospective exhibition at The Art Institute of Chicago, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Dallas Museum of Art. Paschke asked the interviewer to "put the text into English," excising repetitive sections, clarifying ambiguities, and deflating windiness.

In accordance with the artist's instructions, the present text is an assembled reduction of the interviewer's questions and the responses and remarks of the artist. Instead of a record of the actual conversation, it is a concentrated and rectified presentation of Ed Paschke's thoughts about his work in its artistic and technical aspects and some of his reflections on the scope and nature of his career to date and as it is presented in this exhibition. The artist has read and approved the "interview."

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