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Life Is a Highway: Greg Drasler on his new show at Betty Cuningham Gallery

Installation view of "Greg Drasler: Road Trip," 2016, at Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BETTY CUNINGHAM GALLERY

Installation view of “Greg Drasler: Road Trip,” 2016, at Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BETTY CUNINGHAM GALLERY

Back in 1980, Greg Drasler received an arts fellowship from the University of Illinois to spend a year in Japan. He returned home a changed man. “My emersion in this ancient civilization increased my interests in how location and context built identity,” Drasler recalls in a bio on his website. Ever since then Drasler, an adjunct arts professor at Pratt, has been applying this notion to his paintings, some of which sit today in permanent collections at New York’s New Museum and Emily Fisher Landau Center, the Krannert Art Museum in Illinois, and Dow Jones Inc. amongst others.

In 2014 Drasler received another fellowship, from the Guggenheim Foundation. This time around Drasler stayed at home, embarking on two “lengthy drives” exploring his native Midwest. Drasler’s fourth solo exhibition at the Lower East Side’s Betty Cuningham Gallery, Road Trip, evokes a sense of nostalgia for the two-lane blacktop highway that shaped modern America. As with his previous journey, Drasler rediscovered what fueled his artistic inspiration on these trips, synthesizing his experience down to two resonant symbols: expansive landscapes and the Americana “vernacular architecture” of the roadhouse.

The result manifests in “Stratocaster Suite,” a series of six luminous 70 x 400 inch oil-painted panels Drasler created for the show. Stretching across the length of a room, “Stratocaster Suite” is an ode to the open road.

Drasler is fond of metaphors. For instance, he once noted in an interview, “I think about the car as a camera, and painting as a vehicle.” But a vehicle for what? In a conversation, condensed and lightly edited below, Drasler expanded on this metaphor and other symbols contained within his work.

What attracted you to the image of the roadhouse?

I feel like that two-lane blacktop highway architecture is in danger of being lost. It’s this interesting half-sign, half-building construction which brings you to a full stop.  I think of painting as being a kind of full stop too, which meant the two sort of attached themselves to each other and started vibrating in my imagination.

In terms of the landscape in those paintings, you mentioned that the ground was inspired by a “crazy quilt” you’d found in Virginia a couple years back. What was your thinking here?

I wanted these two very distinct orders. The ground still has perspective aspirations but it’s a bit wonky and you’re pulled onto the horizon. The subtext to this was about how the car has divided landscape up into property and how the crazy quilt in this usage sort of hinted at that division of the land as a man-made formation.

Installation view of "Greg Drasler: Road Trip," 2016, at Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BETTY CUNINGHAM GALLERY

Installation view of “Greg Drasler: Road Trip,” 2016, at Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BETTY CUNINGHAM GALLERY

How did your experience on the road trips inform this work?

My modus operandi was that I could stop anywhere I wanted on the trips and I did, liberally. When I got back to the studio I was still infected with this idea of the panorama and the Muybridge effect—just stopping the motion of the drive. So I decided I was just going to start a bunch of the landscape panels all at once. But then I also had these extra paintings I’d done of the roadhouses lying around, so I started slipping them in, and once I did that it activated the constructed landscape, triggering that element of stoppage or continuation. The paintings started to read like a sort of harmonica because they play with time. Even viewing them from a distance, your focus can really only be on one, maybe two panels at the same time. That sort of back-and-forth play of them really attracted me subliminally.

How so?

I’m interested in how they will serialize into something that resonates and holds a kind of attention, even though it’s playing with the idea of time and motion. And it’s sort of expanded and opened up. It becomes a metaphor for life: one thing after another, one foot in front of the other, one day at a time. All of these vernacular phrases point in a similar direction and I’m attracted to that because I like playing with the familiar, while throwing it just a little out of balance so that it has to be reconnoitered.

Installation view of "Greg Drasler: Road Trip," 2016, at Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BETTY CUNINGHAM GALLERY

Installation view of “Greg Drasler: Road Trip,” 2016, at Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BETTY CUNINGHAM GALLERY

Kind of like how you’ve described your landscapes in the past as a “liminal space?”

In this set of work I think about that as the threshold between driving and staring at the road while also looking laterally. It’s that phrase “the sidelong glance” that’s always been interesting to me. Looking one way and picturing another, which is a sort of cerebral construct.

In the middle of these paintings I read Oliver Sacks’s book Hallucinations. It was really interesting to hear him speak about the pervasive aspect of hallucination in human species that happens way more often than you think. It isn’t always drug-related and he was positing that it’s kind of a feedback-loop in the brain with one of the most common hallucinations being the standing pattern. When I read that I just thought, “Bingo, I got standing patterns.” It felt like a sort of validation for me.

That makes me think of how often humans replicate patterns we see in nature.

It’s the story of painting all the way back to blowing paint on the wall of a cave. Which is another kind of stoppage in a way. In that, “O.K. the bison are running that way and we like it because we can hunt them, so we’re deifying them, we’re going to put them on a wall and fix them so that we can come back to them and remember.”

It’s funny to think how that base artistic impulse remains to this day.

Our technology has changed. So that’s what is interesting to watch and what’s interesting to me about the car as almost a filmic apparatus. Driving down the road can feel like a great movie if you’re not destination-driven. This whole idea of “in between” kind of opens up this huge chasm, like a reversal of Ockham’s Razor.

It seems like that sort of thinking could become existentially overwhelming, but in a way I could see how it would also put you at ease?

I think that’s part of my, I want to say “drive,” in this work. It’s presented itself as this open road that in some ways is wanting to be stopped but also has this two-lane blacktop highway, which is just continually going off into the distance and is why these images have a drive for me in how they’re organized and what they do, and how they work.

I could think of worse things to be preoccupied with.

You know sometimes you don’t have a choice and you feel really out on the gangplank waiting to be sawn off. The studio has been part of me for fifty years. I call it being “occupationally disabled.”

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