When New York Times art critic Ken Johnson went to review Paul Sietsema’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, what he found there—in a David Lynch-ian moment—was himself. One of Sietsema’s black ink drawings was of a page of the Times that contained a review bearing Johnson’s byline. Sietsema had also reproduced a review by Johnson’s colleague Roberta Smith of Sietsema’s own exhibition “Empire,” at the Whitney Museum in 2003 (his New York debut, which included drawings, a model of Clement Greenberg’s New York apartment based on photographs from a 1964 issue of Vogue, and a film based around that model, would appeal, she wrote, to those who “like their Conceptual art funky yet obscure”). This kind of archival mise en abyme is Sietsema’s stock in trade. He is interested in relics, whether that means newspapers, or rotary telephones or Abstract Expressionism or the entire modernist project. Born in Los Angeles in 1968, he returned to his hometown in 2011 after a stint in Berlin; it was there that he had begun to develop an interest in using euros, and other relics of 20th-century history, as the basis for a new series of hyper-realistic paintings. Connie Butler, now chief curator at the Hammer Museum, was the organizer of Sietsema’s 2010 MoMA exhibition. She recently visited Sietsema’s studio in L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood to talk with him about his most recent works, including those paintings incorporating currency, which were on view this past fall at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York.
Connie Butler: Your recent collages are actually paintings of torn euros, layered on found, anonymous abstractions.
Paul Sietsema: I start by looking at paintings listed on auction aggregators, mostly European sites that compile information about objects from many smaller auction houses throughout Europe. They’re relatively inexpensive paintings, 100 [euros] to 200 euros at most, made by painters [who] are either unknown or, perhaps, forgotten. I think of it as starting at the end of a production process, evaluating finished paintings based on composition, color, and perhaps what style they most adhere to. It is an activity that I enjoy and think of as assembling alternative histories of painting, of art, by inserting work that has fallen by the wayside back into the mainstream, or whatever it is that I am a part of, by using these found paintings as carriers for my actions. This is part of the reason I call them “Carriage” paintings, they are works that are asked to do additional work, but maintain their autonomy to varying degrees.
CB: You are actually buying them?
PS: Yes. I bid, sometimes by phone, often using online intermediary platforms, and have the paintings mailed to me. There’s a lot of negotiating, trying to get the people who work at the auction house to put the paintings in a box and walk them down to the local post office. The canvases are mostly between 30 and 100 years old, the newest one in the show was painted in the 1990s. I suppose I’m interested in the idea that being a bit more in the spotlight or in a certain part of the art world is partially chance, and that my own current position showing in a gallery in [New York’s] Chelsea [art district] allows me to influence this chance and insert some of these artists into a scene they weren’t a part of before. I bring these paintings into my studio, there’s an action that’s performed on them by me and then they’re entered into a new kind of circulation. . . .
I’m also thinking about displacement of value. Most of the found paintings have an expressionist style to them. Expressionism and abstraction in painting are sort of like the new Doric column. While they were once sociopolitically complex and activated (and thereby functional) gestures, they are at this point symbols, for value, and for art itself, in a generalized sense. They seem quite classical and for the most part have become the decor they were working so strongly to resist in the beginning. Once I’ve chosen a painting I then enact a kind of rote image-making on top of it. I’ve always loved currencies—I collected them when I was a child, coins as well. They seemed doubly magic since they had a value based on their denomination and then a secondary value based on their rarity or historical importance. This redundancy I think is similar to the redundancy of an image-based object being painted, copied, as a painting. There is the value inherent in the image and then the value inherent in the painting, and the activity of painting which, perhaps in its rarity as a hand-based activity, also gains value. The engraving marks of the currency are like road maps of how to lay down the paint strokes, like painting by numbers, the painting paints itself. Of course, currency itself is produced in high numbers, large editions perhaps, and then there are copies made, counterfeit versions, passed off as the real thing to steal the value represented. An abstract painting these days is perhaps the same thing, a counterfeit object that steals the value of the original movement. The term “carriage,” in financial terms, refers to the value of an entity that is carried forward in time.
As my own expressionist gesture to build the images, I tear the currency into strips, 5 pound notes, 500 euro notes, releasing the value of the object. The torn strips are dropped onto a scanner bed and captured in a digital file that I use for the paintings.
CB: You continue to return to a European history of modernist abstract painting, and you are preoccupied with the idea of composition.
PS: I am playing the part of the retro formalist when I lay the imagery from the digital files of the torn euros over the found abstract compositions. I like to get into the headspace I imagine I’d be in if I were making an abstract painting: a pool of purple here, a swoosh of pink there, a dab or two of turquoise placed just so. Intuitively, I’d be balancing elements of the composition, perhaps trading this off with pure gesture, keeping one eye on light and dark relationships, weight, those types of things. But instead of doing this primal, perhaps existential, perhaps purely formal activity, relying entirely on intuition, I start with a painting that isn’t mine but that I have chosen, or rather shopped for. On top of that I choose an object that represents itself which, like a flag, is what currency does; the way it presents itself graphically is completely inseparable from its function as an object. The paintings are chosen with the colors and designs of the currencies in mind, and vice versa. Although the currency is being painted, copied really, by hand, which creates a physical link to the hand of the painter of the found painting, neither the currency nor the painting are bringing much to the table on their own. They each have a kind of vacuous quality to them, and the formalism, the intuitive decisions that lock them together also has a vacuous quality—it is not something that has value on its own. The work itself for me is never quite in the object but hangs perhaps just outside it, a juncture of the energies that find their vectors elsewhere throughout the object. I suppose this aspect might separate me from formalist/materialist painters a bit, but I do think all good painting now has an activated aspect to it, a conceptual element, and that not all good painters are using paint.
CB: Your telephone panels are exquisite and strange painting objects. They remind me of the beautiful green monochrome from your last show in Los Angeles. The phones are nearly photorealistic but through a sense of touch, with cold, yet almost erotically charged, finished surfaces.
PS: Well, first off I should mention I’m not interested in the rotary phones in any kind of retro or nostalgic way. I do remember them although when I touch them now I don’t have much of a tactile memory for them. I remember them as lines of communication—it seemed the cord itself reached to the other person—a slightly enhanced sense of physical connection and intimacy perhaps, compared to the iPhone. There was also the “nobody’s home” aspect of them, a sort of spatialized absence: with an unanswered phone, you knew a bell was ringing in space somewhere. And the busy signal. Was the phone off the hook? Were they purposely shutting out the world? Or was someone just on the phone for a long time? The absence or presence of the body on the receiving end, the embrace of the answered or the rejection of the unanswered phone, all felt a bit more emotional, physical, attached to a body and a person. If you think of painting as an even more heightened version of these kinds of connections, the object of communication from which the person cannot be fully separated, whose body lingers, is tethered somehow to the object: I felt for the painting as interlocutor—as open or closed portal, as object of relay for ideas or phenomenological passages, the phone image provided a redundancy that could replace the aura of painting with its mute double—reinforcing what an image is in the first place.
CB: Not to fetishize the making, but describe how they are constructed. It’s almost a reverse forensic process.
PS: I first gut the telephones (the loss of weight, I think, shifts them closer to being an image, and their functionality is removed). They have strange organic contents; gooey gels surround some of the wires, etc. This takes some time and makes a mess. I then wipe them clean with isopropyl alcohol so the paint will stick to them. This massaging and tracing of the surfaces of the object is always quite enjoyable—possibly in part because they are designed to interface with a body and of course have bodies themselves. I then mix enamel paint to match the color of the phone and pour it over the phone. The paint must be dripped very slowly and evenly over the phone to allow the object to render itself well when the paint is dry. The paint cures and shrinks over a few weeks in the studio, things from the studio sometimes get stuck in the paint—bits of dust or lint or hair, small air bubbles pop or remain. After the paint coating has cured, the phones are propped up and shot in 3/4 lightning, the standard for modeling objects in space, for drawing but also in the digital realm. I then use the same paint to render the image from the image file, by hand. Layers of the paint are built up on the canvas first, to give me a good surface. This creates air bubbles, makes texture, traps lint and dust and hair, the same things as in the image that will be painted on this surface so that there is a fairly even mix of rendered and real bumps with highlight and shadow. This for me has the effect of destabilizing what is real, and also destabilizing what is painted. It pulls both into a more ambiguous, floating space.
CB: There’s something about analog knowledge and process in the paintings.
PS: Maybe 20 or so years ago I read an article about the future of digital information storage that stuck with me. It talked about quantum computing as a model for storage, that certain types of ambiguity could be used to nestle bits of information together in a smaller amount of space. I guess I think about these telephone paintings in a similar way, the various ways I think about them perhaps expands/multiplies the surface area of their experience or engagement for me. And I like that the phone is basically one cell, a bottle without a message in it, with an expanded surface area of engagement.
CB: As is usual for you in recent years, a film is a pendant to each body of work. Can you talk about Encre Chine from 2012 that was projected as part of your Matthew Marks show?
PS: When I was living in Berlin I came across a type of printing ink that was very thick and kind of iridescent. I thought it was very beautiful. I bought a tub of it and started coating things that I was going to throw away in my Berlin studio. The coated objects would dry out and start cracking and get dusty and then I would throw them away. When I was back in L.A. I came across one of the tubs of black ink I’d brought back with me. I started coating things I hadn’t used in a while. I liked the ink when it was still wet before it dried and got dusty and cracked. So I shot the things that I was coating with my Bolex and made a film. I liked the redundancy of the surfaces of the objects that were coated in the ink, being caught up again in another field of goo, the emulsion of the 16mm film stock. I was thinking about objects losing their function after they’ve been coated. How this is like an image and also something that couldn’t exist outside of the record of it. I was photographing it to stabilize it. The objects I was coating, including my mother’s camera which she’d given me decades ago so I could document my work, were being turned into images of a kind, having their function removed, and also being defined by their surface. But the surface was defined by the shine of the ink and its iridescence rather than the objects underneath it. The objects were related to things I was doing in the studio: a hammer and chisel I used to break images of sailboats out of their frames, and some of the frame pieces and mats that were the leftover husks of that activity.
As for the camera I’d had for so long, it seemed like a nice way for it to be stopped and also continue, and for it to become an image even though it’s an image-producing device, which I guess the tub of ink with the brushes was also, a working tool and an iconic image that connotes work—a symbol for painting.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of ARTnews on page 38 under the title “Busy Signals.”