In Conversation with Wynn Kramarsky & Rachel Nackman
March 2012, New York
Rachel Nackman: How did the Laid Line drawings develop?
Karen Schiff: The Laid Line drawings came out of my concern about being able to relate directly to the physical world. Before I started this series, I was making rubbings of floors, getting a sense of a texture that isn’t immediately available to the eye. The Laid Line drawings were an attempt to get at the texture of paper, which one also can’t necessarily see. But I knew that I couldn’t just rub my pencil over the surface of a sheet of paper and make that texture visible. I had to articulate it more closely.
Both the rubbings and the Laid Line drawings perhaps grew out of my practice of meditation. A lot of people think that meditation is about going somewhere in your head—a nice beach or some fantasyland. But my experience of meditation is that it’s simply and literally a practice of being in touch with what’s actually happening and with the world that’s around us. And it’s “practice” for doing that all the time. The techniques that I use in my drawings are material ways of bringing that practice into my art making.
RN: So you’re trying to “get in touch” with the paper, to enhance your own understanding of its character?
KS: Yes, I want to “understand” the paper but through the senses. And I want to give that sensory experience to the viewer as well. Paper is the underlying substrate of so many drawings. In the Laid Line drawings, the physical object is highlighted. The drawings invite viewers to have a visceral experience of what is immediately in front of them.
RN: Does the drawing act as a scrim over this object: a screen through which you hope people will see the paper in a different way?
KS: It is a scrim—in the sense that I’m layering graphite over the paper. But I actually want that layer to act as more of a conduit. I want to lift a veil between the viewer and the object.
Wynn Kramarsky: Clarifying is probably a good word for that.
KS: Yes. I highlight or articulate the paper, clarifying our view of what we can’t so easily see.
WHK: For a fairly general audience, I think it might be good to distinguish between laid and wove paper.
KS: Sure. The laid paper I’m working with is made on a mold, with a mesh of very fine wire ribs. The resulting paper is embedded with a perpendicular grid that looks like books on bookshelves. That laid texture intrigues me—maybe because it reminds me of Agnes Martin’s grids but also because it’s a clearer texture than you can see in wove paper. Papermaking molds for wove paper have a very dense, interlocking wire structure, which results in a more uniform, allover texture.
RN: When you make other drawings, do you work primarily with laid or wove paper?
KS: Neither. I actually avoid making other types of drawings on textured papers because I find the texture so distracting. One of the sources for this idea was a Vincent van Gogh drawings exhibition that I saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art [Vincent van Gogh: The Drawings, October 18–December 31, 2005]. I kept looking at the papers Van Gogh used because their textures and colors were so intriguing. I was thinking, “How can he be making all of these marks on the paper, when there are already so many marks in the paper?”
RN: When did you make your first Laid Line drawing?
KS: It was in 2006, when I was on a residency at Jentel in Sheridan, Wyoming. The drawing in this exhibition is from the pad of paper on which I first started tracing the Laid Lines. I had the idea maybe a year earlier, and as with lots of my ideas, it sprang fully formed into my head, but I let it simmer for a while. In this case it finally reemerged because I found this particular pad of paper—and I make Laid Line drawings only on paper that speaks to me in some way. If the paper is materially intriguing, then I want to work with it, to bring attention to whatever it is about it that I find qualitatively interesting.
RN: Why was this particular pad of laid paper intriguing to you?
KS: It had nice proportions—I liked the seventeen-by-fourteen-inch size. It had a good color, a good weight. For those reasons, I bought it, but when I got back to the studio and looked at it more closely, I realized that there were all kinds of anomalies in this paper that made it even more interesting. The columns in this main space of the paper—they’re called chain lines—are not always evenly spaced. Sometimes they’re bending or curving! That’s what intrigues me so much about this project. When I engage with real paper, it’s not ever what I expect. My goal is to bring out those anomalies.
I should say also that this is machine-made paper. I use only machined papers in the Laid Line drawings; I don’t use handmade papers. I have a sense that daily, seemingly boring materials are actually quite unusual the more you look at them. These machine-made papers, which try to be so regular in their manufacture, actually contain surprising details. The more we look at our daily surroundings, the more surprised we might be.
I want to show the human quality in machined material. That human quality comes out of the paper—not only in the bending chain lines, but whenever I clarify or articulate these details, my hand also makes mistakes. Variations come from me as well as from the machine.
RN: By applying graphite to the paper, you bring all these imperfections to the surface.
KS: Yes. I use only tools that will respond to my hand—graphite, ink—but applied with a brush or a dip pen so that there is variation in the mark.
RN: How do you decide where on the page you’re going to begin drawing?
KS: I hold the paper up to the light and examine it. What I’m looking for are the places where there are bends in the chain lines, where the widest and narrowest columns are. . . . This particular pad of paper had an anomalous horizontal seam that fell at a different place on each sheet—an extra bit of raised texture. In this drawing, I found where that horizontal seam fell within the field of the sheet, and I used that to determine the location of the top edges of these two columns.
RN: Is that sort of decision based in any additional way on the formal composition that you’d like to develop? Or are your choices based entirely on the conditions of the material?
KS: It’s some of both. In this drawing, the dark column is the narrowest column in the whole field, and the lighter column is the widest column in the whole field. I was really interested to see what it would look like to make a drawing of just those anomalous columns.
When I make drawings in which more standard columns are involved, I annotate those columns in a medium gray, in terms of the density of the graphite. I decided that if I were to squeeze the graphite—to fit into the narrower column—it would get denser and therefore darker. And if I stretched it out like taffy—to fill the wider column—it would get lighter. That was my color-coding key for this series.
RN: Do you feel that it’s important for a viewer to understand what you are doing on each page, why your marks are arrayed in a certain way?
KS: I think that each drawing—if it’s working—has its own life. I don’t need to say anything about it. Ideally, if somebody looks at it long enough or hard enough, the source for the marks will reveal itself.
WHK: That assumes that people know enough about paper to begin with.
KS: In a way, I don’t assume that people know anything about paper.
WHK: Do you hope that your drawings will teach them something?
KS: Yes, or bring them to appreciate the paper visually, even if they don’t know how those creases are made.
WHK: It’s a leap of faith.
KS: It’s a hope. I’m really interested in bringing out the art in the everyday or the artisanship in the machine. That’s partly because I’m distressed at the way that culture seems to be veering so far away from valuing craftsmanship. Through these drawings, I’m saying, “There is actually craftsmanship here—even in the stuff we think doesn’t have it.”
RN: What do you think about while doing the repetitive work involved in a Laid Line drawing?
KS: I’m thinking both of keeping track of where I am and of anything else that happens to be in my head. I hope that the process reveals not only the actuality of the paper but also the moment-by-moment engagement of my hand.
Paul Klee used to say that drawing is taking a line for a walk, but when I make these lines, I feel like I’m walking hand in hand with the line. When you’re walking with somebody, holding hands, you are aware of holding hands with that person, but your mind can be anywhere. If I’m too fixated on these lines, the whole process feels so tight that I get exhausted, and I think that the drawing suffers as a result. If I’m too loose with my attention, I’ll go beyond the margin, or I’ll otherwise lose track of where I am on the paper. I need to have my mind somewhere in between paying attention to the physical act and not paying too close attention. It’s like a light touch—an awareness with an aerated quality.
RN: Is this a frame of mind that you enjoy?
KS: Yes. It’s relaxing, both because I enjoy working with the paper and because it’s a frame of mind that feels generous toward my own thoughts, which could involve anything.
RN: These drawings do so much to clarify and annotate your materials, but are they ever about you?
KS: I was just thinking about the word clarifying and how it relates to butter. When you clarify butter, you separate out the parts, but also it becomes much more rich, and it tastes good. That’s something about me that I hope comes through in these drawings: an expression of my appreciation for these materials. Even though the genesis of these drawings is conceptual, they also come from a deep love of material that I hope people will pick up.
WHK: I think any good drawing is a self-portrait. Maybe it’s totally abstract, but it is an expression of whatever that artist is trying to communicate. It is very important that you’re a part of this, intrinsically, because without that involvement, the drawing would not exist.
KS: I’m showing you my priorities here—and my priorities are, to some degree, getting beyond myself. My contribution is to say: “Look at this paper! Isn’t it cool? There’s so much to it.”
WHK: It’s interesting that, even with that kind of concern for the material, you decided to use machine-made paper rather than handmade paper. For many people, the idea of paper being handmade is very important, and they want to communicate that. Your approach is more twenty-first-century.
KS: Yes. Well, I’m not just concerned with this piece of paper. I’m concerned with the world to which it belongs. If it’s handmade, then the world that it belongs to feels almost hermetically sealed—enclosed in craft. This paper does belong more to the twenty-first century.
RN: While you were beginning this series, you were also conducting research on contemporary music. I imagine that as you make each drawing you develop a rhythm of making that drawing.
KS: Yes. That’s so true. The tool changes the rhythm, and it develops into a way of spending time or thinking about time.
RN: Or marking time.
KS: Yes, literally. That’s another way I think about these drawings: each of these lines is a separate moment. Each is like a character in a language that we don’t yet understand. Each character is unique, even though it’s the same type of mark.
RN: You’ve said that perhaps what attracted you to laid paper was its reference, in your mind, to Agnes Martin’s work. Agnes Martin has been very important to you throughout your practice.
KS: For me, Agnes Martin is a model of rigor and of honoring a certain aesthetic standard and work habit. Her works exhibit a mixture of a human touch and a regular, quasi-mathematical sense of proportion.
My Laid Line drawings are gridded, as much of her work is gridded, but the sources for our grids are completely different. She would have a feeling, an “inspiration,” and she would wait until she could envision whatever geometry was going to make manifest that particular feeling. This was a romantic activity, and in a way I’m a romantic too. But my romance is with something very real-world. I look to material reality for my inspiration. It’s my contact with reality that inspires the work.
Play to hear Karen Schiff discussing awareness and intention in her work.