An Interview with Artist Mark Emerson

September, 2010

JK: We see your work increasing in complexity.

ME: At the time, I was questioning my approach to color and trying another direction. I wanted to step away from surface treatment as theme. I was after a more geometrically derived color arrangement. Colors were at this point referencing not only the atmosphere, but flora found in the area.

Addendum, acrylic on linen, 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 1998

I began to reexamine the work of Georges Seurat. I have felt for a long time that Seurat was born a bit too early. From his scientific approach to painting, one might expect him to have been an abstractionist. I was interested in how Seurat achieved very different visual effects when his work was viewed up close and from a distance.

JK: In a painting like A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, Seurat’s tiny drops of different colored paints optically blend when the viewer stands back from the work.

ME: Yes. I was interested in creating a very vibrant and active surface, a field that would come alive when viewed up close and that would almost melt into solid areas of color from a distance. If yellow dots next to blue dots would optically mix to produce green, it made sense that yellow stripes paired with blue stripes would produce a similar optical effect. Thus began a series of paintings that dealt with color relationships and rhythms on a given field.

Bell Ride       Bell Ride detail
Bell Ride, acrylic on linen, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 1999        Bell Ride detail

These paintings function on two levels. Up close, they work as arrangements of small color chips that expose separate and distinct forms. From a distance, they blend to create areas of a third color, while maintaining a wiggle effect from the color dynamics. The diagonals also contribute to a sense of movement. In Night Sky #5, juxtaposing complementary colors yields a vibrational quality, and the aqua green shapes appear to hover in front.

Night Sky #5Night Sky #5 detail
Night Sky #5, acrylic on panel,
91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 1999
Night Sky #5 detail

The color arrangement has—for lack of a better word—pixilated. These small color areas suggest texture, though I applied the paint in a flat, even film—no brushstrokes, no variations of hue. The bands of color are “woven” together as in the weaving of fabric.

JK: A number of works completed over the next two years would be shown at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento in an exhibition entitled Optimum Rhythm.

Dancing Men
Dancing Men, acrylic on panel, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 2001

ME: These paintings contained a visual rhythm that was related to my interest in music. I respond to music and its abstract nature in that music doesn’t have any literal translations. It’s always surprised me that there’s an acceptance of music that’s quite abstract, while abstract art, whose practice is over 100 years old, is still met with some objection.

I play at the drums and have a simple kit in the studio that I often play while paint is drying. I look at rhythm shifts and tempo in classical music and jazz to inform my paintings. Music is based on math, and my paintings use many elements of math—scale, fractions, division and multiplication of form and color.

PerryPerry detail
Perry, acrylic on panel, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 2000Perry detail

These paintings are also about process and were very labor intensive. They contain 23 to 24 layers of stripes. I made no drawings and had no preconceived notions of their final outcomes. I applied layer after layer, and, since I couldn’t see under the masking tape, every step was a surprise or a disappointment when I’d lift the tape.

FiascoFiasco detail
Fiasco, acrylic on panel, 46 x 46 cm (18 x 18 in), 2001Fiasco detail

JK: Here we see you removing tape from a newly painted area. You’ve used acrylics for most of your career.

ME: Because of the nature of my work, acrylic is the best paint for me. I can mask an area off, lay paint down, dry the area with a hair dryer and remove the tape fairly quickly. Marcel Duchamp said he gave up painting because it was too much filling in. I’m the opposite—I love the act of painting, the filling in.

Mark Emerson in his studio
Mark Emerson working on a panel in his studio

JK: You sometimes incorporate a contrasting rectangle or square of contrasting pattern into a larger field.

ME: I enjoyed how Sean Scully created large fields of stripes and would then insert a small change-up of pattern, texture or color. In Nip & Tuck, I was thinking about Scully’s work, creating a box that appears to hover over the field and that actually disappears when you get up close.

Nip & Tuck
Nip & Tuck, acrylic on panel, 46 x 46 cm (18 x 18 in), 2002

JK: You continued to incorporate contrasting areas into larger paintings.

ME: I had to opportunity to exhibit at the Huntington Beach Arts Center, an enormous space that I got to share with Karl Benjamin. I felt that it was time for a change in scale and approach in my paintingI wanted to work larger and break up the space on the picture plane in a different way. The only door into my studio was 71 inches, so I built eight panels that were 70 by 70 inches. These paintings are for me a body-size format—they’re as tall as I am.

Huntington Beach Arts Center installation
Huntington Beach Arts Center installation, 2003

The work from my Optimum Rhythm show had dealt with surface, texture and color. In this new work, I intended to break up the picture plane with rectangles and squares to create an illusion of space and depth. These new paintings were “built” by laying down an area to establish a pattern or grid, evaluating its visual effect, and then laying in adjacent forms that either complemented or acted against the previous area.

Everyday, acrylic on panel, 178 x 178 cm (70 x 70 in), 2003

In Centcom, I began by dividing the painting into four squares filled with very fine textures. The two boxes that appear to hover were added last and are filled with patterns composed of larger shapes.

Centcom, acrylic on panel, 178 x 178 cm (70 x 70 in), 2003

In 3-Way, I returned to an earlier format in which I would divide the field into 3 vertical areas. The left and right panels are composed of 1/4″ patterns and tend to recede a bit behind the central checkerboard.

3-Way, acrylic on panel, 178 x 178 cm (70 x 70 in), 2003

In Let Me Know, I decided on the compositional structure in advance, so I could focus solely on the resolution of rhythm and color. I set up eight vertical bars, each filled with different patterns and rhythms. I tried to create a certain speed of color and pattern in this painting—a constant buzz across the picture plane.

Let Me Know
Let Me Know, acrylic on panel, 178 x 178 cm (70 x 70 in), 2003

JK: Animal Dance is also structured with vertical bars of pattern that contrast quite strongly with one another.

ME: In part it’s the similar hues within the two left- and right-most panels that help give the work cohesion.

Animal Dance
Animal Dance, acrylic on panel, 178 x 178 cm (70 x 70 in), 2003

JK: In addition to continuing to work with the grid and discrete areas of pattern and color, you made some more allover paintings.

In & Out
In & Out, acrylic on panel, 46 x 46 cm (18 x 18 in), 2004

ME: I was trying to get more depth of space. The tempo and rhythm of the painting is equal over the surface. Also, I’m trying to make the picture plane arbitrary, that is, the image is contained only by the physical boundaries of the surface, but could continue endlessly.

Roadside Attraction
Roadside Attraction, acrylic on panel, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 2005

JK: You were also making works that were strongly grid-based.

One for the Road
One for the Road, acrylic on panel, 46 x 46 cm (18 x 18 in), 2005

ME: I was thinking a lot about music, specifically jazz—its improvisation, shifts of beat and tempo, color and phrasing or patterning. I wanted to set up verticals and horizontals, changing each section as in counterpoint.

It's About Time
It’s About Time, acrylic on panel, 46 x 46 cm (18 x 18 in), 2005

JK: In a series of works on paper, you began to allow diagonals back in.

ME: Untitled #906 was the first in a new body of work that I made in the new studio I built in 2006. In every other studio that I had worked in up to this point, another artist had occupied it. Now I had a studio with no ghosts of previous creative spirits. I wanted to plant my own spiritual seed. I decided to move away from dividing the picture plane equally. I removed chunks of larger areas of pattern and used diagonals to alter the speed and flavor of the work.

Untitled #906
Untitled #906, acrylic on paper, 41 x 51 cm (16 x 20 in), 2006

JK: Where does the title Utfart comes from?

MEI was in Sweden in 2006, and this word appeared everywhere by doorways. It’s Swedish for “exit.” Utfart was informed by the changes I had introduced in Untitled #906. I was trying to get as much information as I could into these paintings. Diagonals zip around three sides and move the eye around the work. I was exploring patterns and shapes I hadn’t used before. A rectangle of four different patterned areas floats above the others. I included framing elements, partially disrupted, to reaffirm the picture plane—just as Suerat had done when he painted the actual frames.

Utfart, acrylic on panel, 178 x 178 cm (70 x 70 in), 2008

My daughter has books with mazes that she can solve almost immediately as I could as a child. The formal structure of Pussy Wiggle Stomp uses a maze structure. I began with the middle section and continued around it. I limited myself to a color palette of around 9 colors. I wanted to set some limits and explore the possibilities available within them by using different juxtapositions of color.

Pussy Wiggle Stomp
Pussy Wiggle Stomp, acrylic on panel, 51 x 51 cm (20 x 20 in), 2008

 JK: Tears of Joy looks like a grid that’s been fractured by cross-cutting diagonals.

ME: This is the first painting of this nature. I was doing quick sketches, trying to break up space and leave my comfort zone of hanging onto the grid. This is the first painting based on diagonals, triangles, diamonds.

Tears of Joy
Tears of Joy, acrylic on panel, 51 x 51 cm (20 x 20 in), 2008

With Momentum, I’m using triangles and diagonals to try to create a circular rhythm.

Momentum, acrylic on panel, 46 cm diameter (18 in diameter), 2009

JK: With Ollerchoke, you’ve clearly entered new terrain.

ME: The rhythm of Ollerchoke is much more fluid and gives the feeling of varied time signatures. The diagonals are directional lines that create movement. I’ve gone from the broad patterned areas that abut one another in the grid-based work to little pinch points that I equate to small areas of percussion, flashes of cymbals here and there.

Ollerchoke, acrylic on panel, 51 x 51 cm (20 x 20 in), 2009

I’ve been painting seriously for almost 40 years, and sometimes I forget why I’m doing what I do—I just do it. It’s my job; I can’t wait for the muse. As Chuck Close says, “Inspiration is for amateurs.”

The thing about making art is that it, like life, changes constantly. Paintings start in a certain direction, an idea or sketch. As we draw the forms, apply the paint, if we are paying attention, the work reveals things about itself, things that cannot be seen or touched by any other means. In painting, these things are visual not verbal. The very essence of art is the visual experience, and that experience changes as fast as life itself. Some—particularly students—find this constant inconsistency frustrating and give up too soon. The rewards and pleasures come over time, and with constant looking, we find ourselves actually seeing.

Mark Emerson in his studio
Mark Emerson in his studio
Photo credit Greg Kinder


More about Mark Emerson at

Interview images and text copyright©2010 Julie Karabenick and Mark Emerson. All Rights Reserved.

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