Paint, men, power, big stories,
scale, film, theme tunes

Pamela Golden, David Sedaris and Andrew Renton in conversation...

Pamela Golden, Artist

  Pamela Golden Were you at the School of the Art Institute one of the times Anthony Quinn was making sculpture? Or Peter Falk? Falk came to the life drawing class I was teaching once. I like the images of them with their work more than I like their art. What do you think?

  David Sedaris I wasn’t there for Anthony Quinn but saw Peter Falk once or twice, wandering the halls. What nice thick hair he had. I remember the students sort of rolling their eyes. You call that art – but I’m not sure that was the point. Perhaps it was just a discipline thing, or maybe what he liked was that it was so far removed from the theatre. As far as celebrity artists go, I always liked Red Skelton, who painted clowns. I own something by Phyllis Diller. It’s a place mat she gussied up and wrote her daily affirmation on. What pleases me about celebrity art is that it exposes the person’s weak spot, and makes them vulnerable.

  PG Red Skelton was so clever to use a colour for a first name. I think his clown paintings were all self-portraits, I also like them. I loved that Peter Falk wore a white lab coat in the life drawing class. Like a one eyed medic. Anthony Quinn, so much more macho. I think he used a blow torch. I agree with you about the vulnerability. I too have felt embarrassed when people ask what I do. In the past I’ve said I was a lecturer/artist, only on the phone have I said I was minister or accountant. When I was a teenager attending Saturday classes at the School of the Art Institute, one day a group of us in the performance class donned berets, decorated a bucket, wore Y.A.S. (Young Artists Studios) badges and stood on State Street. Nobody asked what the charity was. Our instructor wasn’t happy. Somehow boundaries or codes were broken, it was all very vague. We kept the money.

  DS It’s a real dilemma. If you have a degree and do people’s taxes you can call yourself an accountant. If you have a degree and fill cavities you can call yourself a dentist. Calling yourself an artist, on the other hand, calls you into question, degree or otherwise. I didn’t call myself a writer until I had three published books and ten things in the New Yorker. Before that, I either called myself a typist or simply said, when asked, that I wrote. It seemed the world should label me that before I started introducing myself that way. The question, I guess, is who is ‘the world?’ An institution? Your friends? If we can call Peter Falk an artist, is that enough?
  Andrew Renton Apart from the celebrities, there was an important group of artists in Chicago at the time, very much centred around the Art Institute. Did it feel like a coherent group?   PG The Imagists were incredibly important for me. I love that they began as the Hairy Who. Christina Ramberg was an enormous influence. She taught me at the school as a teenager and also later as a graduate student. Ray Yoshida and Phil Hansen were also so important in shaping my ways of seeing and making. Christina was so smart, technically brilliant, but at the same time she would remind me that it was only paint. Their work is often so uncomfortable and funny. Yes, I too imitated them, more through small mixed-media constructions like one entitled, In Drag (1982), a found used turquoise toothbrush which was then bejewelled and given a fluorescent pink satin cape and hung like a painting. I also made large mixed-media installations that sometimes used sound, film and even performers. They always had titles. They often fell apart or components went missing, like a piece made on the traffic meridians for some outdoor installation festival, with mannequins in bathing suits arranged in dance poses.

I think some of the backlash came about because their style was so in your face, at times making you feel awkward.

Phyllis Kind’s gallery was such a big influence at the time, as was the Museum of Contemporary Art. There was such a buzz about the place, it became more like a club and the openings were such a scene, packed with all sorts of different people and full open bars. At that time the School of the Art Institute was still physically connected to the Art Institute. I still feel like certain works in the collection are mine, like family – for better or worse. There is a Ferdinand Hodler painting that looks like one of my uncles. Also, an old African sculpture, a headless mud animal, a single portrait by Manet, Edward Hopper’s, Nighthawks (1942) and Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930). And of course Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884).

  AR Can you see a connection to the type of work you were making at the time?

  PG Yes. It forced me to confront the history of painting whilst attempting to explore it further. The type of work I made in response was directly on the wall, not on stretched canvas. Sometimes it consisted of an installation with too many ingredients (for example, sound, film, furniture and paintings.) After a while I edited and began producing large (cinema-size) figurative paintings in encaustic/oil on roofing felt (tar paper). Their narrative images derived from small studies I made on found photos, which I began to collect. These photos were people from other places and gave off a sense of the exotic. Here I was certainly influenced by Eugene Delacroix’s Arab Horseman Attacked by a Lion, 1849–50, which is at the Art Institute of Chicago.

  DS I loved those miniature rooms at the Art Institute. The Thorne Rooms – isn’t that what they were called? I was as enchanted by them as a little girl would be. I also liked the de Kooning paintings, and wasn’t there a Balthus or two? Or perhaps I saw them on a field trip to the south side, when we visited the home of an elderly collector. It was the first time I’d seen famous art in situ, relating with furniture and normal things like newspapers and silverware. It was a much richer experience than seeing something in a museum, though the absence of a gift shop bothered me.

  PG The Thorne miniature rooms have haunted me for decades. I love how you get submerged in their historical time, culture and style. The Balthus painting (Girl with Cat, 1937) is eerie in a different way and I feel she is in dialogue with the other works in the room. The trash/treasure element was truly a gold mine and it had a great impact on my work at the time. I even made a series of paintings out of found baby onesies. Being able to play with so many resources became essential to my practice. David, I vividly remember your sculptures and thought they were incredible. They gave a nod to the Bauhaus in their craftsmanship and beauty.

  DS As for my own art work at the time, the best I can say is that some of it doesn’t embarrass me now. The paintings do, but there were a few sculptures I think are OK. What I’d do is take the motor out of a wind-up toy, encase it in pine, and make a model of a human heart that, when wound, would move awkwardly, like a bird that had flown into a window and broken a wing. I also made little books. The writing in them hasn’t held up, but I like the pictures, bits of found trash mainly. Chicago in the 80’s really was a gold mine for interesting trash.

  AR Interesting trash and miniatures! Pam, were you working at a very small scale even then?

  PG Yes, walking through the museum I watched how long people would look at works – in terms of engagement, I guess. I did some works in slide mounts, very intricate collages – fiddly to make and easy to lose. Small in scale, large in title. Often working in sequences or series, and arranged like musical patterns. Walker Percy’s book The Moviegoer was deep in my mind. Have you read it?

  DS The first things of yours that I remember were portraits on tar paper. I want to say they were of dictators. Can that be right? I’m talking 1986? ’88? I saw them at Feature, which was such a great hanging out spot, so different from the other Chicago galleries at that time.

  PG Yes, dictators at Feature. I think it was 1986. It was such a terrific place; Hudson [Director of Feature] brought in unusual work and took risks. I actually worked there when he opened the gallery. My job was to be informed. It was truly the end of an era and we all were moving on. The spirit shifted, close friends lost to AIDS, and the art world became more about commerce.

  AR Do you see a connection between this era and the new work you have made for this show?

  PG Curiously there seems to be a connection; paint, men, power, big stories, scale, film, theme tunes. Hopefully the work appears as unanswered questions.

  AR And there’s always a story there… A narrative backstory – maybe one we don’t know in full? Your paintings seem to fill the gaps, or maybe play up the enigma of images detached from their origins. Can you talk a little about the “Good Morning! Mr. Williams” series? Where do these images come from?

  PG The images are loosely based on a 1912 photo album of a children’s choir that went on a camping holiday to the seaside town of Abergele, Wales. The title “Good Morning! Mr. Williams” introduces the characters who play out the story from a type of haunting, evoking memories of the Welsh Prince, Madoc. According to legend, Prince Madoc sailed to America landing in Alabama in 1170, centuries before Columbus, before eventually returning to Abergele. It has been said his ship has been sighted as a ghostly reminder of his erasure from history. Maybe the story will come back to life through juxtaposing the erasure of history with a contemporary relic?

There are several layers that are interwoven alongside the myth of Prince Madoc and the boys’ holiday. These led me to the Led Zeppelin song The Battle of Evermore, J.R.R. Tolkien and La peine du talion (Tit-for-Tat) 1906, an early colour stencil film fairy tale in which an entomologist in pursuit of rare insects gets his own back.

  AR Is this story interesting because it links your home country with the one you adopted as home?

  PG I really dislike being called an expat. How do you feel about it, David? How does living in the UK impact you? Years ago I thought that Americans were better at communicating visually and the British through language. Now I wonder if this is the case?

  DS I hear ‘expat’ a lot more in France then I do here. Whether in Paris or London, though, it always makes me shudder. I think it’s a romantic and ultimately outdated term. The people who use it are the same ones who ask what café I write in. As if, I always think. ‘Expat’ suggests that, like a pre-operative transgendered person, you were born in the wrong country, like you were meant to be Italian but instead grew up in Saint Louis. In fact, nothing makes me feel more American than living outside the United States. Our nationality is so deeply ingrained. Maybe that’s the romance of ‘expat.’ The word suggests that the old can be cast off with a simple move to Hackney.

  AR But that move to Hackney… It must have affected your work. Can you pinpoint anything specific that has changed by making that move? How did the context impact on your practice? That’s a question for both of you…

  PG Yes, it surely did affect my work. I lived in Hackney before it was cool. Hackney physically felt isolating, desolate and sinister. Every evening on the corner stood a man, a shadow in a dark overcoat and trilby hat. We referred to him as Gregory Corso, which somehow made it feel safe. At the same time there was an incredible community of artists. Specifically due to the difference in scale of physical space in London, my focus became making smaller paintings with larger stories.

  DS I’m much softer than you are, Pam. Then too, you moved to England when you were young. I was already old, so chose to live in Kensington. I appreciate that it’s quiet here. After New York and Chicago I’ve had it with other people’s loud music and barking dogs. I can’t write with all that going on. My world is actually very small. I go between home, the grocery store and the post office. There’s a program now that allows you to print your own stamps but I don’t dare try it as it’ll leave me with one less place to go.

  PG Do you remember Andrew how we met? At an opening I was carrying a book that I was reading, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, by Jonathan Spence. You noticed the book and had either read it or others by him. So we met over a big story.

  AR Now you remind me… Yes, I’d read it! I was interested in a couple of things. Firstly, a new way of writing about history. But also I loved this idea of the memory palace; a mapping of memory, which seems to make recollection something material, almost independent of its origins. Would it be too much of a stretch to suggest that there’s something of that in your work? I’m thinking of the new series of paintings that have as their origins the type of photographs we’ve all taken in order to remind us of a moment before it is gone. You can certainly piece together a bit of narrative that ties the images together – a schoolboy trip, camping, singing, the sea, etc. But over time, the reason for making the image fades away, and you are left with an image somehow freestanding and no longer connected to where it came from. It’s still a memory, not yours, but you’ve taken possession of it…

  PG I love that idea of taking possession of memory. Sure there is the element of collective unconscious in terms of the types of photographs we have all taken. That then puts you as the narrator and puts you in the image.

- January 2014