Doug Argue (b.1962, Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA) lives and works in New York City. Chris Rawcliffe talks to him about his work.
Chris Rawcliffe: Could you explain the process of producing your paintings?
Doug Argue: It really does vary for each painting and idea. I shape and create the letters I use on the computer and I have vinyl stencils printed for each one. It is the only way to get the variety and precision I need. One of the things I have always loved about painting is how from far away one sees an image, let’s say a face, and when you get close it breaks down into brush strokes. Up close, my images convert into letters.
Would a new painting begin with a scribble in a sketchbook?
For a long time now my sketchbook consists of lists of words or phrases that strike me, like marginalia, murmurings, where the Tigris and Euphrates meet, silly, ekphrastic, pork and so on. These words or phrases often become titles for my paintings.
What prompted you to borrow letters from prose or poetry and insert them into your paintings?
I was doing a series of paintings featuring speaking chickens and I was working with stencils for which I had to cut out the letters. I didn’t want to throw them away, so I stuck the loose letters randomly and without direction onto the wall. When the chicken paintings were done the discarded letters created their own universe and I loved that concept. Around the same time, I had the idea for Genesis (image on front cover), which was to take an old text apart and create something as a metaphor for the ability of every generation to use language and ideas to fit the times they are living in.
I have always listened to poets reading their poetry while I work on my paintings, even in my early twenties, I have always had poetry in my studio. No matter how tragic, poetry fills me with life.
The use of segments from Moby-Dick and poems, such as the Odyssey, adds an emotional and metaphysical depth to the works. Is this why you picked those texts in particular?
I started using Moby-Dick because I thought it was very American. I had just moved to the East Coast and it seemed like Mark Twain doing a ‘big fish that got away story’, but with a different sense of humour than Twain employed, more New York than Midwestern. The book itself has an interesting overall personality. I also liked Melville’s courage in writing the book. I believe in courage and taking risks as very important factors in creativity, but in the end it was a very unpopular book and ruined his career during his lifetime.
In the Art of Translation, I took the same passages in both Greek and English from the Odyssey and mixed them together in an image that feels a little bit like a sea, a swirling of history. The story of the Odyssey made the transition from an oral culture to a written one, a kind of translation in itself, and it shares a common ancestor to the English language, Indo-European. Sounds and meanings have been shifting between these cultures for a very long time.
A biography said your paintings explore the realms of science, math and infinity in time and space. Is your work formulaic, does it employ a set of rules or equations?
No. What interests me is the particulate nature of the universe and the elaborate patterns and meanings that can be created from an infinite number of possible combinations. During their first year of life, infants learn the phonemes in their language group. The amazing ability of the human mind to absorb complex patterns starts from the very beginning of life, even without the use of language and understanding.
The first paintings of mine to use letters (letters are not language) atomized written texts and scattered them throughout the universe, making a metaphorical connection between the letters and atomic matter. In painting we are dealing with photons of light being devoured by the mind to create images of the world.
From a distance your paintings could be labelled as abstract expressionism, yet with a seemingly controlled chaos, made up of fluid colourful strokes. As one looks closer, the letters, which seem to be mechanically printed, make up words that convey comprehensible content, negating the definitions of both abstraction and expressionism.
From a far enough distance you would not be able to see my paintings at all! Cosmologists talk of the universe as being homogeneous and isotropic; essentially the same even pattern of matter within any swath of space, as long as the area is large enough. In many of my paintings I am interested in this overall use of space and the feeling that the painting will continue expanding onward in all directions. I cannot think of one abstract expressionist painting that looks like one of mine in particular; but I think in some cases they do share this overall use of space. Pollock used a similar sense of space and flow as Thomas Hart Benton, or even Tintoretto for that matter, but as we know they are very, very different artists. I am not very interested in positioning myself within painting history, within the context of abstract expressionism or any rearguard action against them. That is a very boring pattern that reminds me of scholasticism on a subject like ‘Do animals have souls?’
I have made few paintings where you can read any words. In addition to one that says, ‘Please! No Painting’, another is Little Sorrows in which the word ‘sorrow’ is literally small and spread randomly throughout what might feel like a universe. Otherwise, I can think of none I have done that fit the description. Certainly you are right that I play with the convention of brush strokes and the idea that they are the hand of the artist, but my stenciled letters are very expressionistic. They are also built up slowly over long periods of time. Each of my thousands of letters are painted one at a time in multiple colours and tones, this is not mechanical. The use of stencils not only gives a precision and variety I find important, but it also uses a recognisable image. In the newest paintings I am working with weaving brush strokes and texts together, I am very curious about how we think with and think without the use of words and text, and how all of that blends together in our minds.
Can you explain the importance of scale in your work?
I like working in all scales, but people tend to focus on the larger paintings in discussions. In my early twenties I visited Venice and fell in love with Tintoretto’s paintings, in particular Crucifixion, which hangs in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. There was something profound in my experience of moving backward and forward and from side to side, following that painting’s almost endless patterns and rhythms that could not have been achieved on any other scale. I wanted to make larger paintings to try my hand at creating a similar feeling.
When do you know they are finished?
Mark Twain is attributed as saying that ‘quitting smoking is easy, I’ve done it many times.’ It is easy to finish a painting; I usually finish a painting many times before it is done. The key is to keep the painting in the studio long enough for the memory of what I last did to the painting to fade, and see it in the moment. At some point you understand that there is nothing you can do to make it better and so it is time to stop.