An Interview with Artist Mark Emerson

September, 2010

Mark Emerson received an Associate of Arts degree from Sacramento City College, California in 1974. He studied at the California College of Arts & Crafts (now the California College of the Arts) in 1975 with a concentration in painting and film. He received a BA from California State University, Sacramento in 1979, and an MFA from the University of California, Davis in 1984. To date his work has been featured in 24 solo exhibitions and numerous group exhibitions. Emerson has taught art since 1986, most recently at California State University, Sacramento from 2002 to the present, and The Art Institute of California, Sacramento since 2008. Emerson’s work is found in many private, corporate and public collections, including in California: the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento; the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley; the University of California Davis Medical Center, Sacramento and Roseville; California State University Art Department, Sacramento; the University of California Art Department, Davis; Sacramento City College Art Department Permanent Collection, Sacramento; Kaiser Hospitals of California; and in Ohio, the Progressive Insurance Art Collection, Cleveland. Emerson lives and works in Sacramento, California.

Julie Karabenick: You often refer to the importance you place on responding to the picture plane in your painting.

Green, acrylic on panel, 51 x 51 cm (20 x 20 in), 2007

Mark Emerson: How can you not pay attention to it? It’s the form on which we artists generally do our business, and I refer to it constantly. The painting surface is not just where a painting ends—it’s integral to the whole structure.

Untitled #206
Untitled #206, acrylic on paper, 41 x 51 cm (16 x 20 in), 2006

I find the two-dimensional picture plane a remarkable opponent. How can I resolve what to do on this picture plane—generally for me a square or rectangle? It’s always a struggle. Yet there are so many possibilities—painters haven’t been able to exhaust them.

E. M. E., acrylic on panel, 46 x 46 cm (18 x 18 in), 2004

I believe the geometry of the picture plane lends itself to geometric work. One of the things that has always struck me about the process of making and viewing art is honesty. Confronted with a painting, sculpture, film or drawing, I ask: Does the artist own it? Are the marks or ideas his own? Is he being straight up in his intentions? I’ve always responded to squares, stripes, and rectangles. Therefore, my honesty is held in the persistent reaction to geometric form as the compositional basis of my paintings.

A square or rectangle would seem to be the antithesis of forms in our organic world. Nothing in nature is rectangular or square. Nonetheless, we base our human lives on these shapes—buildings, formats on which we write and produce visual expressions.

Untitled (Triangles)
Untitled (Triangles), acrylic on paper, 38 x 38 cm (15 x 15 in), 2008

I believe that the job of an artist is not to respond to all that is witnessed, but to hone and present a judicious response to visual experience. For example, look at Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie. The forms in New York City at the time were not exclusively rectangular, and the colors were certainly not limited to black, white, red, yellow and blue. Mondrian’s presentation reduced the rhythm and flavor of the scene to a personal and effective structure.

Acrid, acrylic on panel, 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 1997

 JK: You’ve most frequently used the grid as your organizing structure.

ME: My interest in the grid began in high school and continued into junior college where I was a commercial art major focusing on graphic design. Graphic and interior design use both geometry and the grid. The grid both breaks up and unifies at the same time. Repetition is a unifying structure, and the grid repeats and unifies the picture plane. It also produces many formats and multiple opportunities to work with more than one image.

Sooner or Later
Sooner or Later, acrylic on panel, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 2005

JK: And you’ve often used repeating bands or the grid to capture sights and impressions of the natural world—even those as ethereal as the quality of light or the night sky.

Night Sky #6
Night Sky #6, acrylic on panel, 46 x 46 cm (18 x 18 in), 2000

ME: My attention to the picture plane has led me to translate organic form into a geometric structure. And I think there’s visual structure in nature, perhaps not purely geometric, but a natural thrust—for example, trees grow straight and tall vertically and rivers flow horizontally, setting up a very direct vertical and horizontal dynamic.

Horizon, acrylic on canvas, 46 x 46 cm (18 x 18 in), 2001

JK: Your more recent work seems to have less to do with capturing qualities of light and atmosphere and more to do with vibrant juxtapositions of pattern.

ME: Yes, the newer work represents a different direction—trying to compartmentalize and break up space.

One More Minute
One More Minute, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 2005

In One More Minute and Away We Go, I’ve divided the canvas into squares or rectangles. Each has its own pattern and color scheme.

Away We Go, acrylic on panel 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 2005

JK: Were you interested in art as a child?

ME: As a young child, I could draw representationally very well. I was always considered the class artist from elementary through high school. My art education in the public schools was poor—primarily making crafts or copying magazine photos. I showed some talent and was left to work independently. I learned next to nothing.

I recall that in seventh grade, an art teacher displayed the famous Life Magazine piece on Jackson Pollack. I still remember those images vividly. Instead of making fun of the work or being repulsed by it, I thought it was remarkable that someone could actually make art by throwing paint around. I was excited by the possibilities. Of course at that time, the process also looked like fun. A few years later, I saw a photo of a work by Bridget Riley. Again, I was taken by the fact that this remarkably non-objective image was indeed art.

My parents responded to my interest in art. By the time I was in junior high, we would visit galleries or museums to see their master works. Of course, neither my parents nor I had studied art history, so we were at somewhat of a loss to understand what we were looking at.

I entered junior college at Sacramento City College as an advertising major. I took drawing and painting classes, and I knew I wanted to become an artist and teach. I excelled at a class in rendering—descriptive drawing—but I felt something was missing, that I just could not make art in this way. Abstract art held mystery and uncertainty for me; it seemed so open to possibilities. My own paintings have always been abstract. We often visited the Berkeley Art Museum where they had a large collection of Hans Hoffman paintings. I was drawn to his dynamic use of color and value in resolving problems of composition.

The work of Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, David Park, and Joan Brown were on view in regional museums and had a broad influence on teaching in this area. By the end of my undergraduate studies, I was doing brushy abstract expressionist paintings that I tamed into a Bay Area style. I was exploring different methods of paint application, here using broad joint taping knives. In these paintings I was starting to respond to landscape—not the literal landscape, but the power of atmosphere and light.

Untitled, enamel on canvas, 152 x 152 cm (60 x 60 in), 1980

Once again, I felt that something was missing in these works. As I’ve said, I’ve always been concerned with structure in painting and its relation to the picture plane. I wanted to establish clear boundaries separating areas of color and pattern, and in graduate school, I began to use masking tape to create crisp mechanical edges. It was at that time that geometry started to play an important role in my work. I was looking at a group of Los Angeles painters—painters like Karl Benjamin and others—who were involved with visual structure based on geometric patterning.

I made two large folding screens of four panels each. To this point I’d done little sculpture, and this was a brief attempt. But I found that what I really responded to was the frontality of the picture plane, not the all-around nature of these screens. I folded the screens in different configurations and tried to translate their three-dimensional nature onto the flat picture plane, as in these paintings of the screens, below.

   Untitled  Untitled
Untitledenamel on canvas,
213 x 152 cm (84 x 60 in), 1983
Untitled,enamel on canvas,
213 x 152 cm (84 x 60 in), 1983

JK: Next we see you beginning to use the grid to structure your work. These paintings seem to prefigure, if in a more simplified form, the juxtapositions of discrete areas of pattern that characterize your more recent work.

ME: After graduate school, I rented a studio in the downtown area of Sacramento. I made a set of large paintings about location or mapping. Their structures refer to the very strong grid layout of the city.

Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 244 cm (60 x 96 in), 1986

At the time, I hadn’t really begun to explore color, and my palette consisted of either pure or neutralized hues. In the painting below, the black, grey and white areas match the values of the corresponding colored areas on the left.

Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 213 cm (60 x 84 in), 1987

A teaching job at a local junior college opened up for which I was well qualified, but I didn’t get the job, I decided I wanted a change. I moved to Los Angeles, leaving a house and ample studio space for a small apartment where I had to drastically reduce the scale of my work.

While in Los Angeles, I had an epiphany. I was living in Venice, which is just south of Ocean Park, the area on which Richard Diebenkorn based his Ocean Park series. I loved that work—its scale, color and geometry. One evening at dusk while driving through Ocean Park, I really saw those paintings spread out before me. I saw how they captured a sense of place—the atmosphere, the local color, the telephone poles and wires. It really hit me how powerfully the color of light in a specific location had been affecting me for some time. I felt it was something that couldn’t be captured literally. I’d have to show it though non-objective form. Working on a traditional two-dimensional plane, geometry seemed the right choice.

Untitled, acrylic and paintstick on paper, 28 x 38 cm (11 x 15 in), 1988

I began a series of small works on paper that would reflect the local color and atmosphere of Los Angeles. There the Southern California, smog diffuses the light, muting colors and reducing value contrasts. And not only did I look at the sky, I was also looking at the color of buildings, which is also rather idiosyncratic to the region—aquas, pinks and corals are prominent in the architecture and decor.

               Untitled                        Untitled
Untitledacrylic on paper, 28 x 38 cm (11 x 15 in), 1988Untitledacrylic and paintstick on paper,
28 x 38 cm (11 x 15 in), 1988

I was also exploring texture. To this point, I’d used acrylic paint in a very flat manner. In Los Angeles, I tried to push the paint and make it do as much as I could. I was using glazes, impasto, dragging paint with a comb, contrasting matte to gloss, using very thick next to very thin paint applications.

               Santa Monica I                        Santa Monica II
Santa Monica Iacrylic on masonite,
25 x 33 cm (10 x 13 in), 1989
Santa Monica IIacrylic on masonite,
25 x 33 cm (10 x 13 in), 1989

JK: In 1990 you moved back north to Sacramento.

ME: I returned with a better sense of what I was working towards. I was still responding in my painting to the color of light. In Northern California the sun shines very brightly, making strong contrasts of light to dark colors with a broad range in between. Shadows are deep and dense in color and value. I also continued a path of process, pushing the medium. In fact, I often manipulated the painting surface to the point of abuse, then moderated these effects, making the textures more subtle. And I was interested in the idea of palimpsest—evidence of markings below the surface that have been obscured by the treatment of the top surface. And the textured surfaces also referenced the surfaces of the landscape.

Vox was the first of what I called my “ying-yang” paintings, in which I limited myself to a single division of the picture plane so I could concentrate on color and texture. I wanted two sides that were very different, but of equal visual weight. Vox is one of my infrequent black and white paintings. It contrasts a dark matte side against a creamy, textured and glossy side. I was trying to capture and flatten the magic of the atmosphere.

Vox, acrylic on linen, 30 x 41 cm (12 x 16 in), 1991

These paintings evolved through a layering process—texture upon texture and color upon color until I felt the two sides both competed with and complimented each other. These paintings were of medium size, but they were also about three and a half inches deep. They projected out from the wall to slightly invade the viewer’s space. They felt a bit like sculpture.

PrimaryPrimary detail
Primary, acrylic on linen, 30 x 41 cm (12 x 16 in), 1992Primary detail

At about this same time, I happened to see some large vertical paintings that had two treated sides and hung perpendicuIar to the wall. This led me to do several two-sided works that hung on edge at right angles to the wall. They were indeed sculptural pieces. The title of one—Liberté—suggests the liberation of the picture plane from the wall. But I felt confused about how to enter and view these works. These two-sided works didn’t have that same confrontational aspect that a painting does. They didn’t feel quite honest enough for me.

                         Liberte                        Liberte
Liberté, acrylic on masonite,
30 x 30 x 6 cm (12 x 12 x 2.5 in), 1993-94
Liberté (reverse side), acrylic on masonite,
30 x 30 x 6 cm (12 x 12 x 2.5 in), 1993-94

Bedim was the first of a number of paintings that were a direct response to the night sky. Evening, dusk or early morning—the variations are quite stunning. The night sky isn’t really visible in Los Angeles due to the smog. In northern California, the sky is alive with color and texture. In this painting there’s a depth of color as the surface opens to a new reference to space.

Bedim, acrylic on linen, 102 x 102 cm (40 x 40 in), 1994

After the two-sided paintings, I began to divide the format into thirds for a stable, but unequal structure. This was really the beginning of my interest in visual rhythm, which I’m involved with today. And I was still exploring textural elements that would draw the viewer to the picture plane.

Median, acrylic on linen, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1995

I was also exploring the rhythm and speed of the forms. For example, thin stripes placed close together seemed faster than blocks of color and wider stripes.

Muzzy, acrylic on linen, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 1995

Juxtaposing complementary colors produced tension as did opposing the geometric and the organic. The grid in Alluvium contains an implied grid that produces a very strong sense of space.

Alluvium, acrylic on linen, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1996Alluvium detail

Candide is a seminal work from this period, one of those occasional paintings that seems to paint itself. The left half is dense and lush with warm colors, while the right half is cooler with a fog-like atmosphere.

CandideCandide detail
Candide, acrylic on linen, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1996Candide detail

JK: Night Sky III is quite vibrant, with an upward thrust despite its grid.

Night SKy III       Night Sky III detail
Night Sky IIIacrylic on linen, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1997Night Sky III detail

ME: I’m looking at both the landscape and the atmosphere. When I say “atmosphere,” I always look up, as people do when they say, “Let me think.” Is the answer in the heavens? Is the atmosphere in the heavens or right in front of you? These vertical bars are directional and active, almost strident.

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