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Action Painting is Alive and Well in Baltimore: An Interview with Greg Minah by Joan Cox

Greg Minah’s Solo exhibit Shifting Ground at Goucher College’s Rosenberg Gallery contains thirty-two abstract works spanning six years of the artist’s journey with paint on canvas. From this dense overview, it is easy to pick out the small groupings that make up different bodies of work over the years.

There is consistency within each cluster and a connectedness amongst all the paintings. From even a short visit, it is obvious that Minah is not an artist with an identity crisis, but rather a painter on a clear path of carefully layering, changing, subtracting, modifying, and then layering again and again, all while subtly shifting gears.

JOAN: “Shifting Ground”— what a great title for your work, Greg. “Shifting Ground” describes the countless layers of overlapping background, foreground and middle ground that shift and dance and trade places as I look at each painting, trying to find some beginning or end to the explosively delightful colors reeling out in all directions on the canvas.

“Shifting Ground” also concisely refers to the method by which you make these paintings — pouring and dripping paint onto the surface and then shifting and spinning and turning the canvas, allowing gravity to work its magic on the thick liquid color. How many layers do you typically add to a canvas before it hits that sweet spot somewhere between being finished and being overworked? Or should I ask, can a canvas painted in this way even become overworked in the traditional sense experienced by most painters?

GREG: Thanks, Joan, that’s exactly what I wanted the title of the show to convey. Additionally, since the show covers a selection of my work from the past six years, the changes­­ or shifts ­­in my paintings can be traced back and connections drawn between the different series. In terms of the layering, it seems like the more recent the work is, the more layers it has. That’s been the direction of things lately.

I like how the increased layers (I once counted about 60 applications when I made this short film of a painting from start to finish in 2011) create subtle peaks and valleys on the surface of the painting that the eye picks up on upon close inspection.The paintings, ­­or rather the paint, ­­can and does become “overworked” but not in the traditional sense of the composition or subject matter, but in the actual breakdown of the material. Eventually the cummulative effect of these acrylic layers can create a surface that feels very much like cured clay and is subject to same kind of cracking and crazing. Sometimes this bugs me if it occurs in the wrong spot, other times I enjoy the effect.

JOAN: Clearly, you have a love for paint and surface interaction. I feel like you enjoy the act of painting as much as the result of painting. I know you have a strong affinity for abstract expressionists and action painting… How do you feel your work in 2014 continues the exploration of artists like Jackson Pollack working the 50’s or Damien Hirst explorations of Spin Art in the 90’s? Do you feel your work continues on a path begun by these artists or does it veer off onto a new path?

GREG: Yes, couldn’t have said it better – ­­both the act and result of painting are paramount for me. I really do feel that my painting process is a collaborative performance between the natural forces acting on the material and my own authorial intentions. I think my work definitely continues the exploration of the medium begun by the Abstract Expressionists and Color Field painters but my use of digital imaging technology takes it down another road entirely.

In the early stages of my painting process, the pours and applications of paint are very free and intuitive and almost whimsical. I’m building a foundation for the painting and I don’t dwell too long on my decisions at this stage. However, as the painting progresses, decisions about color and composition become increasingly difficult and that’s when I turn to technology. I’ll take a quick shot of what I’m working on and bring it into Photoshop. I have a file with dozens of differently shaped pours that I’ve isolated over the years and I’ll drag them onto the image of the painting in progress and then I can play with their shape, position, size, hue, saturation­­­really every possible variable. Then, once I’m settled on the next move, I’ll mix paint to match what I’ve done on the computer and take the actual step with the material. You’d be surprised at how closely I can match what I’ve “sketched” on the computer with the actual paint but something unexpected will always happen when I start to turn the stretcher.

JOAN: As a painter myself, there are two elements of a painting that I look for and respond to most strongly: color and content. You have a knack with color that seems to be getting more and more refined in the recent canvases such as the dominating presence of white in “Our Present Notions” and the palpable electricity of the hues in “One Short Moment.”

It is difficult to add such an overwhelming quantity of layers of paint to a surface and somehow keep those layers in conversation with one another, building and interacting rather than separating and fighting each other. Your canvases feel uniform and cohesive and yet they contain areas of intensity and tension and space that keep them open and fresh. How do you choose these color palettes and what, in particular is driving the formation of white clouds across the most recent works? Are you creating the white ones alongside the electric ones or are the white ones a new direction for you?

GREG: Well I should say first that I work on these in series of maybe 3, 4 or even 6 at a time, depending on the size. There is so much drying time required that I like to have several pieces going at once. And, the newest, whitest work is definitely sometime of a departure from most of the work in the show. In terms of choosing the colors, this is where it becomes difficult to put the thinking/ feeling/reacting process into words… In fact, it’s not until I have a series of paintings finished and documented and can see their thumbnails in the context of all my previous paintings that I can even see the shift that has occurred.

Sometimes I’ll start a series with something in mind like “I’m going to start on a black ground this time” or “I’m going to try to make these more like this series from 2010,” or something like that, but inevitably the paintings and the process will take them where they were going to go anyway… that’s how it feels to me, anyway. So, in some respects, I’m a experiencing these paintings along with everyone else, ­­wondering about the changes in form and color that I see over time just like you! Long ago I may have tried to formulate a more academic and long­winded answer but these days I feel comfortable and confident in saying that I don’t know.

JOAN: It sounds like you let your instincts rule in the studio. That brings me to the question of content in your paintings. At first glance or when looking at reproductions of your work in the catalog, I find myself searching for the content, but when face to face with your work, I find content spilling out into the room faster than I can collect it: correlations to spray­ painted graffiti with hot­spots and leggy drips, Spirograph art of the 70’s, coral ­reef colored sea creatures, back­lit digital art, molecular ­level growth patterns of nature, images of the cosmos, the human spine, rocky seashores, landscapes on other planets, and even patterns that might be found within The Matrix! What are your intentions about content when you create the work? Your titles give viewers mysterious hints, are these paintings images of the internal workings of your mind on a particular day/week/ year in time?

GREG: Those are great connections to make! And I love hearing what people see in the paintings and I encourage these kinds of associations to be made. Content and meaning for me are hard to pin down. You asked about whether the paintings reflect something going on with me and I think they do, but in two very different ways.

While I am actively working on the paintings, my relationship to the work is firmly grounded in the formal and non­verbal realms of color, composition, line, etc. There is an ongoing process of discernment at this stage­­making decisions about when to spray down the canvas, how long to allow it to dry, how much to pour, which way to tilt, and at what speed to turn. I am guided in these decisions by something intuitive that’s triggered when things line up a certain way. This intuition is born out of experience as much as it is a gift of the present moment.

It’s not until I am between steps, or when the painting is finished, that I enter into a contextual relationship with the painting. At this time, I can see what I’ve just done in relation to previous pours, or, if a painting is finished, in relation to previous paintings. This is the first stage at which the painting begins to take on meaning beyond the formal elements of color, composition and line. Memories, thoughts, emotions, and connections can all be triggered at this point but they were not part of the authorial intention of the piece while I was making it (at least not to my knowledge). Here, I am simply experiencing the work as a viewer.

The titles I take from a treatise on art that Mark Rothko wrote called “The Artist’s Reality.” It’s a very interesting read, but I use it as my source for other reasons. Rothko worked on the treatise privately and it was only published by his family posthumously. He stopped working on it when he started to make the color field paintings that he’s known for. The work finally spoke for itself so he no longer had to try to speak for it. I like this idea and tend to agree. So, when I finish a series of paintings, I’ll flip through the book and circle combinations of words that I find intriguing. I don’t pay any attention to their context in the book, just to the words themselves. Then, when I have about twice as many as I need, I’ll start looking at the list and looking at the paintings, assigning certain titles to certain works. I love the collision of the words with the images. It gives the viewer one more thing to chew on if she wants to. But in the end they are just names for the paintings, like Joan or Greg.

JOAN: I love that approach for creating titles, especially for abstract works. How important is the element of line in your work? I see what looks more like detailed drawing with thin overlapping mazes of lines in many of the recent pieces. I have to admit that those delicate lines woven like a web through bursts of solid color really pulls me in. How do you create those fine lines? It almost appears to be a stencil effect.

GREG: Line is very important. Aside from the central areas of the pours, lines are basically what I use to make the painting. When I turn a painting and the paint first breaks away from that poured area it’s very exciting – ­­decisions have to be made quickly and spontaneously. Then as the paint spreads, it slows and I have more time to think about where the lines are going, what they might be covering up or interacting with. By the end of an application I’m rotating the stretcher very, very slowly to make that last little hook or curl, or to wait patiently and allow that one bit of paint to reach that one particular area.

Sometimes I’m going for something very specific, with where the lines end up on a pour and I’ll immediately remove the whole thing and try again if it’s not right. This brings me to the removal part of my process. Sometimes I will remove a layer with pressurized water before it fully cures, this is what causes those delicate lines you mention. The acrylic paint dries from the outside in, so I’ll keep my eye on the paint as it dries and, if I’m going to remove the layer, I’ll watch how thick the dried portion of paint is. Once it gets to where I want it, I put it up on a support in my studio that has a big drainage trough underneath and I’ll take it off with water, leaving behind what’s already cured.

JOAN: I was hoping you would tell me about any subtractive processes you use! Your heavy use of white gives the viewer the feeling that something has been subtracted but I really couldn’t determine whether or not your paintings were created with a strictly additive process.

GREG: Yeah, it’s back and forth between additive and subtractive the whole time. And I use photoshop here, as well. I mentioned those paint pour templates I use to sketch out the color and composition, well I also can use layers in Photoshop to decide whether or not I want to remove a layer, or let it dry completely. I’ll duplicate whatever layer I’ve sketched onto the image of a painting and then erase out the middle to give me a sense for whether or not I want to take it off, or not. This way, even after I’ve poured over a large portion of the painting I can still see what’s underneath in Photoshop. Sometimes I spend more time then I’d like to admit just toggling back and forth between these virtual layers… on/off… on/off, etc.

JOAN: In your exhibition statement you mention the pivotal importance of the Artist Residency you had in 2008 at the Joshua Tree Highlands Artist Residency in California. How or why do you think the residency had such an impact on your work? Was it the location or was it the uninterrupted time you had to focus on your work or was it the intense interaction with other artists that helped you transform your work? You have continued to transform your work since then. I can see a clear shift between the earlier (2008/09) work in this exhibit and the later work. Did you attend any other residencies? How do you sustain your creative growth in your home studio? How much time do you spend in your studio?

GREG: I think it was the total experience of the residency that had such an impact­­: the isolation of the desert, the uninterrupted time to work, just being in such an alien landscape so far from home, being alone. In terms of my actual painting process, the climate of the Mojave Desert in July/August was a major factor. Acrylic paint already dries fast, but in such dry air and high temps, it dried even faster, allowing me to work with layers very easily. And, I think that the crazy rock formations out there must have influenced the composition of the Joshua Tree paintings.

But I think the biggest effect that Joshua Tree had on me was that I learned that painting was truly very important to me. I knew I couldn’t return to Maryland and not give it everything I had and I’ve been painting full­time ever since. I haven’t attended any other residencies but it’s not for lack of applying! Rejection letters are a staple of my diet as a full time artist. So, yes, the work has continued to change but from my home studio in Mt. Vernon, where I spend basically all my time. But I would love to attend another residency someplace to see what other shifts might occur in my life/work.

JOAN: A few of the canvases in this exhibit are rather large compared to the others. I can’t imagine how you turned, tilted and rotated those in your studio. Do you think you could make even larger works? I would love to see a single wall length, all ­enveloping piece from you. Where do you see your work going from here?

GREG: When the paintings get above 5’ or so, I’ll build an additional cross brace that extends in front of the canvas, so I can see what’s happening as I turn the stretcher. When they are smaller I can simply peer over the edge to see what’s going on. And, yes, it can be quite a challenge to work on the large paintings in my studio. When I’m actually rotating and manipulating the canvases I can only stand in one orientation because the room is long, but narrow.

And then, when, say, three of them are drying at once horizontally, I have them propped up at different levels and I have to crawl on the floor to get out, being careful not to knock anything over. I actually just finished a commission for an architecture firm in DC that was 10’ by 5’ which is pretty much the upper limit of what I can do in the studio here… I only had about an inch of clearance when I would turn this stretcher. But I would love to get into a space large enough to work on something even bigger. I like the larger works because the viewer is able to step into the painting and let it wash over them. Also, on the larger works, I can really let the storyline of a pour spread out and develop.

JOAN: I have to say that I really enjoyed “The Sum Total” — the one painting in the exhibit that is on a circular canvas. Did you make other circular paintings and not include them or is this the only one? Your work seems even more endless, edgeless and more akin to a sprawling universe of marks and line and color bursts when contained by a circle. Somehow it feels less contained and more like I am looking through a telescope into space or at a planet.

GREG: Thanks, yes, this was one of three paintings from a series I did in this round format. A friend suggested to me years ago that I ought to play with the round canvases and I finally got around to it last year. I must say it was quite a challenge to work this way. Not in terms of the actual painting process­­­ – this was actually even easier since I could just rest the stretcher on the floor and slowly roll it to control the paint.

But it was difficult, I think, because I had grown accustomed to the four corners to play off of. Often on a traditional painting I’m open to it working in all four orientations. I’ll settle on one for documentation’s sake, but I’ll often change the way they are hung. But with the round stretcher there are about a million possible places to turn the painting, actually it’s infinite, isn’t it? I almost need a slowly rotating mount that turns the painting for me in the gallery­­ – that’s an idea.

I remember feeling pretty disoriented working on the round paintings, almost vertigo-like feelings. But I would like to further explore this format (and others) in the future.

JOAN: It seems from your resume that you have had a good amount of success as a painter regionally. You’ve received several awards and grants. On the career­ side of being a painter, what is your next goal?

GREG: Basically to just keep painting, keep working. My priorities tend to shift. Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of a series of paintings and things are going well (i.e., just made a sale, or two, and really enjoying the work I’m making) I don’t want anything to change and I truly feel like I’m fully satisfied. But other times, I’ll crave more attention, more opportunities, more of an audience, bigger projects, different projects, bigger galleries, more sales, and museum shows. But I’d be happy to do exactly what I’m doing now for the rest of my life. I think you need to be motivated, inspired and fulfilled first and foremost by making art. There is always the threat of dissatisfaction with everything else (sales, shows, etc) but as long as you’re truly enthralled by what you’re making and how you’re making it, I think that’s all you can ask for.

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*Action Painting is Alive and Well in Baltimore: An Interview with Greg Minah by Joan Cox*Action Painting is Alive and Well in Baltimore

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