In Conversation with Rachel Nackman
New York, April 2012
Mark Williams: I decided to work with verticals and horizontals in the early 1990s, and I have stuck with them ever since. At that time, I was making paintings with lots of diagonals and jutting planes. In reviewing some of my sketchbooks, I noticed that all the sketches I was making were actually details taken from my dynamically constructed paintings. These details tended to be little boxes of activity that I pulled from the original work. One day I gave myself permission to make just the detail—maybe, I thought, everything that’s in this whole wild, elaborate construction is also in the detail. So I did that, and I really liked it . . .
I become interested in different materials as I come across them. This untitled piece from 2010 (fig. 1) is made on drafting film. I remember putting my hand on and under this translucent, frosted material, and thinking, “What would I do with this?” The quick internal response was, “I’d like to paint on both sides.” I thought about creating a new kind of space for myself, in which I’m looking through the material and seeing different surfaces of paint. I wanted to create a sense of atmosphere—not quite a fog but a density.
To make these works, I place horizontal and vertical strips of tape—of various widths and kinds—on the surface of the polypropylene. Then I paint over the tape structure, let it dry, and remove the tape to reveal the image.
Rachel Nackman: These works are made with oil enamel paint?
MW: This is oil paint applied with Spackle knives—like what construction workers might use to put a compound into seams in walls. I tape and paint one side at a time and let it dry. This takes only a day or so, because the paint layer is very thin. Then I flip each sheet over to work on the other side. In a way, I’m responding to whatever I can see through the first side. But I’m never sure which side is going to be my priority side—or if I’m going to find it interesting at all.
The oil paint tends to be opaque. I’m really interested in the translucency of the support and what I can do with it. The drafting film is a grayish color with a rather matte finish. The oil enamel I use is very glossy; I like the contrast. The enamel is mostly scraped on and scraped off, and I guess it stains the drafting film.
Wherever a piece of tape sits up high enough on the surface of the film to disrupt the movement of the Spackle knife, there’s a slightly darker area where paint has collected. That’s incidental.
Some of the little things that are going on in here happen because I make the piece right on my worktable, where there are drips of paint and things stuck to the surface. When I work directly on the table, I start to get a frottage or rubbing, like a manhole cover when you put a piece of paper on it and draw. It doesn’t look like a table at all, but some of the bumps or glitches that happen constitute the residue of this table, which I’ve had forever.
Little accidents or unexpected events can be okay. I like a little bit of visual incident. I accept it and then I start to work with it, so the result is not totally out of my control. I select when I stop and adjust.
RN: You understand your materials well enough to be able to manipulate these things, but some elements are left up to chance as well?
MW: I leave some things up to chance. But whenever I change the steps in the process, I get a different result. I’m interested in the results or consequences of my artistic actions—and not so interested in making masterpieces. Curiosity about different materials is something that drives me.
RN: You’re interested in trying something and seeing what happens as a result.
MW: And I’m interested in seeing how I might respond to the result, and what I choose to do or not to do with that.
RN: The edges of your works are what people tend to focus on—there’s a very individual quality to the edges of these planes. The pieces might be made through a relatively mechanical process, but they have a human edge.
MW: I like that. I really think of these works as handmade. There is a mechanical aspect—perhaps one would see that. But I know that all sorts of decisions have gone into each piece—so many decisions that it makes me a bit crazy to think about it.
RN: How do you choose to apply the tape to each side of the sheet?
MW: First, I know I’m going to use only vertical and horizontal elements. That is a rule I’ve adhered to since around 1994—so for quite a while. Also, every line or element is anchored to at least one edge of the drawing, sometimes top and bottom or sometimes just one side.
Why is that? At some point, long ago, it occurred to me that if I were going to use a rectangular surface—a stretch of canvas or a piece of plywood or paper—then other rectangular elements would fit quite nicely within that framework. How could I work with those? I decided that every element would need to be activated and have a kind of fit within the whole of the space. I didn’t want anything floating across the surface independently. So all the painted areas are anchored to at least one edge of the work.
RN: In terms of serial processes in your work, then, the one real constant is the compositional rule that you’ve set for yourself—that everything is anchored to one side. And that rule is applied throughout your work.
MW: It sounds simple and silly, perhaps, but it has made for endless possibilities. It seems very restrictive. “Why would you do that? You just eliminated a lot of possibilities.” But I’ve found that it allows me to explore.
RN: You’ve also said that you started working only in verticals and horizontals because they impart a sense that you’ve interrupted planes that continue elsewhere.
MW: In each work, you just see the nexus where things come together. I use the title Join from time to time. I know it sounds like it could be a carpentry term, but I think that it’s more about how you bring elements together or bring people together. You generate possibilities for something more interesting to occur.
RN: You’ve said many times, “I make the rules and I can change them.” I wonder if you’ll ever change the rule that you have of anchoring things to one or both sides.
MW: I don’t know if I’ve ever given it a second thought. I think maybe I have changed it. I don’t really start there anymore. With these works on polypropylene sheets, I just create a structure, an armature, which lies behind any visual element, literally beneath the surface of the works. That structure is modified or augmented or interrupted or messed up by these gestural elements—and also by its connection to my worktable.
In a sense, I want to say that everything arrives at a point where it’s a fabric woven together. It’s all there in one shot, but it took a lot of shots to get there.
RN: Do you make preparatory drawings for this type of work?
MW: No. I see them as an end in themselves. They stand—or don’t stand—on their own. I like the idea of making things. I like to get things out into the world and see what happens.
RN: You don’t create barriers between yourself and your process in the form of preparatory drawings.
MW: I don’t know what I would be preparing for. Why prepare? Why don’t I just play the game? Playing the game gets me just as much feedback as practicing would—maybe more. If you’re just playing in your little studio all the time, you never know how your work is going to affect somebody. If you’re trying to communicate with other people, then communicate with them.
I follow things that are interesting to me. And in a sense that’s what I’d like to do in turn: to interest somebody else. Then maybe they can make something in response to my work.
Play to hear Mark Williams discussing the concept of chance in his process.
Play to hear Mark Williams discussing preparation in his practice.