Alan Ebnother in conversation with George Lawson

George Lawson
Dec 4, 2015 12:31AM

Alan Ebnother makes paintings using closely hued colors, often one color over another contrasting ground, with dry pigments hand-ground in oil on linen canvases and on wooden panels. For many years Ebnother constrained himself to only green, and subsequently broadened his palette to a full range. His paintings initially assert themselves as pure color and then come into focus as gestured compositions full of incident and very physical marking. They are characterized by rich impasto, densely applied pigmentation and intuitive, athletic brush work.  Although most of his painting career has developed abroad, Ebnother could be considered a product of the San Francisco Bay Area. He grew up here and attended High School in Palo Alto. He now maintains studios outside Santa Fe, New Mexico and near Leipzig, Germany. This conversation was conducted via email in December of 2015.

14, September 1st 2015, 2015
George Lawson Gallery
#15, September 12th 2015, 2015
George Lawson Gallery
#1, March 2nd 2015, 2015
George Lawson Gallery

George Lawson:  Somewhere around the mid-80s, you became associated with a group of one-color painters that might be considered a school of sorts. The term that Joseph Marioni and Gunter Umberg coined, Radical, seems to have stuck to this collective. Like all schools of painting it was comprised of individuals, of course, with their own ideas, but I'm wondering how, with the hindsight that several decades of painting now provides, you view their influence on you, and the degree to which you've kept some of their collective ideas alive or moved beyond them. Was it just the coincidence of the painters you ended up getting to know or did something of the concepts shared in conversation appeal to you?

Alan Ebnother: "Became associated with" is in itself perhaps an exaggeration. I knew two of these painters, Phil Sims and Joseph Marioni. Phil knew of my interest in paint and was kind enough to teach me about the basic qualities of pigments and oils, literally mixing paint or grinding pigments. The drive to embrace color and the color experience was quite strong in the two, and this love of color was generously passed on to me. In hindsight I view this time as my schooling, my education to color and materials, while in reality many of my present beliefs about painting itself stem from my own personal rebellion against the dogmatic and rigid thinking of the Radical Painting manifesto. In the early years my paint was always a bit thick for the "Radical” painters, besides the fact that my paintings were round (tondos), and I was a younger painter. Times change and people move on, but we as human beings, we must at least acknowledge our past experiences as these form the foundation of our personal tastes and morals, which is really what painting is all about. Creating rules and then stretching and breaking them is what a painter does every day.

GL:  What about the drive to stretch for something new?

AE:  Growing up in Western Society, I admit that my youth was partially a search for the new, and the new experience. These painters were attempting to create something new, attempting to carve a niche out in the painting world, and I was in reality their student. For years I secretly pushed myself not to paint flat, boring, colored rectangles and to try and bring painting one step further into its own materiality.  As time has moved on and I have become mid-career, middle-aged, the word, new does not enter my conscious. Exploring paint in my mini corner of the art world, I embrace the knowledge that the general practitioner is gone, and that this is an era for the specialists. It is no longer really important what you do, simply how seriously you do it.

GL: Well put. In addition to Marioni and Sims, I'd imagine your time with John Meyer and perhaps some of the other painters that Natalie and Irving Forman were collecting at the time you knew them provided some affirmation for you, maybe a sense of continuity. I understand what you mean about dogma, but at the base of it all, were there some shared ideas that were less rigid, the concept of color-light for example?

AE: I was not intentionally seeking affirmation from others painters. If it came, then it was a pleasant surprise. In order to start painting I was forced to study and experience science and pigment properties as they relate to painting. I spent a good deal of time in the laboratory of a pigment producer in Den Haag, where he taught me the basics of paint and painting structure. This information was shared with John Meyer and John and I worked together over the years sharing technical information. There were simply no other painters at the time who shared such a strong interest in paint structure, or at least not that I met. 

With my love of a paint structure thicker and heavier then history provided me, I was forced to study and learn how to create a thick paint that would not crack and self-destruct over time. The affirmation that I needed was found in Rembrandt’s impasto whites, and Van Gogh's rhythms. Seeking painting that included one step more than a flat, colored plane, I really have spent the last 30 years attempting to merge structure, rhythm, surface, and color into paint that offered not an explanation, but a small world in itself, a world that hangs on a wall and waits for a viewer to spend the time pondering it. 

I firmly believe that color/light should be left to James Turrell and others who are capable of creating a total walk-in, stand-in, color experience. The only painter I am aware of who is capable of creating a perfectly contained color/light phantom is Roy Thurston. Roy's light distorting/reflecting paintings serve as a wonderful reminder of the mysteries available through painting. In reality our positions in painting are as different as night and day, but we happen to share many unspoken artistic morals. Natalie and Irving Forman were very hungry collectors who supported my exploration in paint and painting morals, emotionally and financially. I basically viewed them as my ersatz parents, and attempted to continually broaden their paint horizons when possible.

GL:  You mention painting being about morals. I'd be curious if you could say anything about how this might translate visually. What aspect of your own painting carries your ethical position? I know this is a tricky one, but where do your values allow you to go and where do they keep you from going? Perhaps you could describe a rule that you adopted and then subsequently broke.

AE:  The amount of rules created to be broken is astronomical for a painter. Every mark or trace left on a painting support is a purposeful decision or choice by a painter. Each painting that a viewer views is capable of containing thousands of such decisions. All of our choices in life and painting are filtered through our moral value system. This moral value system is an extremely personal, experience-based, filtering system. Let's not forget that color is a sense, like taste or smell and to describe even a fleeting experience with words as our medium is impossible, and admirable.  A few rules I made for myself and then broke: The painting plane must be flat and run parallel with the wall plane. Green is the color to explore. A painting must be round. There are still many personal rules that I will someday also break. 

GL:  When you make a distinction between general practice and specialization, do you see this also as a moral, or value-based position? When you are looking at someone else's painting, what clues you in to how serious they might be as a doer?

AE: I do not completely understand what you mean by "value-based position." Every position is a moral based position in paint and painting. I am a bit embarrassed to admit that most art does not interest me at all. When I have the chance to be moved or my curiosity sparked for even a split second, I am impressed. This split second of relief from the normal trials, pains and joys of life is art, and is valuable. When I said studying paint, I meant looking at the structure of various paint films and different pigments with a microscope, realizing that commercially milled modern pigments have a round smooth particle structure, as opposed to pigments produced 100 years or more ago, which is why I often include crushed glass or pigments with a long, needle-like particle structure in a painting. Imagine trying to create a mountain of golf balls; then imagine slipping crushed glass or multifaceted particles between each ball. This is one simple example of what I mean by studying paint.

GL: I know you admire Robert Ryman. Given your interest in the structure of paint, how about some of your colleagues who are also working with a pronounced impasto, Michael Toenges or James Hayward or John Zinsser for example?

AE: I really am hesitant to discuss or critique the work of other painters. My work does not resemble any of the painters you mentioned, so, the topic is of limited interest for me. Painting is about a painting, not about categorizing paintings. If you wish to discuss a certain painting, then fine.

GL: I’m not so concerned about categories or critiques. Nor am I exploring influence with this line of thought. I want to shed light on your particular concept of structuring paint, and how it guides you to build an image, a paint image. I thought some consideration of other approaches to thicker paint structures might provide a foil and some focus, through juxtaposition. I picked three painters whose work you know, and who use thick paint, but I’m interested in your own priorities.

AE:  You are asking about the structuring of paint, and for me this is an area without too many verbal descriptions. I am thinking that a discussion about high, low, fast, slow, bass, treble, thick, thin, beauty, tension, round, straight, edge, space, could possibly be interesting for anybody. Anyway these are all words that pertain to the instinctual decisions that a painter makes during the act of painting. The sum of these choices is, of course, The Painting, but the actual conversation takes place during the act of creation, a conversation between painter and painting. Every mark on a painting is a choice, as is the feeling of the texture, or the hue, the rhythm, the tension, and so on. James Hayward, Michael Toenges and John Zinsser are three quite different.

GL:  Could you venture a few words about the differences in your positions?

AE:  I see the value and pitfalls of each, including myself, but we are just painters painting. If one was to line up the works and study them, what would slowly stand out are the small differences that become monumental in relationship to the information offered. I can recognize a James Hayward by the rhythm of the strokes and the density of the color. Yes, the rhythm could be changed, the paint could be thinner and thicker, but no, he is making and creating what he believes in. He is following his paint morals. A painter's goal is to paint in the way and manner in which they believe to be best.

James once told me that he often closes his eyes while painting, to feel the rhythm and space, and this made perfect sense to me. This painter has created his own small corner of the universe to work in. Wonderful. The paintings are not about impasto; they simply use impasto as an element. About Michael Toenges, I cannot speak, as I have really only seen two paintings and both in fleeting circumstances. I have looked at a few works by John Zinsser, and was very interested in the middle-format paintings, around 36 to 50 inches. The small works lacked a presence for me but the middle-format paintings I found to be wonderful. Perhaps the size was large enough for him to use his body to paint with. These are paintings that tackle the problems of a mid-career artist continuing the tradition of art history in 2015, and are as much about my issues as about the act of painting. He touches upon the physicality of paint just enough for me to feel it, but not enough for me to wallow in it. 

GL:  Rather than title your paintings, you name them after the date you finish them. Sometimes, as is the case with the group you’ll be showing, you maintain a particular focus from one painting to the next over a long period of time, perhaps with same-sized stretchers or with pigments that share a chromatic connection to one another. This series, for example, are all roughly 25 inches square and use complex, tertiary colors, earths and so on. They really do seem like a familial group. Are you ever tempted to name the group or series, beyond the date designations of the individual paintings, something referencing the time or place or the nature of the focus you sustained for so long?

AE: The titles of the paintings have never been an important piece of the puzzle for me. For a few yeas I simply used the glossary found in the back of a bible, and used each word in the order in which it appeared. This worked for me for some time. The randomness mixed with the strength of some of the words was quite odd, but eventually people on the outside of the work began to add imaginary content from the titles and so I stopped, and switched to a system far more mundane. In my mind, the minute a viewer adds imaginary content to the viewing experience, the search for seeing the painting actually stops and an acceptance starts. Curiosity is far better then acceptance. The paintings in the upcoming exhibition are a family, painted with my accumulated knowledge one after the other, with the lessons learned from the past works pushed forward into new works. Sometimes I push against the last painting to distance myself; sometimes I embrace the last painting in the new painting. Either way, the last painting is always the starting place for the new painting, a progression of painting experiences.

GL: So far you've seen these in the studio and when you come to San Francisco the show will be installed in this different space. Does it surprise you when you see your work for the first time out in the world like that? Do they seem like new paintings? I ask, both to understand how you see your work, and out of an interest in the life of a painting, studio to gallery to collector to maybe museum and so forth. What changes?

AE:  When I work on a painting there is no other finished painting to be seen; there is simply the memory of the last painting. I work on a painting until it is finished and then put it away to dry, and start the next. I am not working on two or more paintings at the same time. Also at the moment I do not have the room to really hang the whole family and view them. So when I come to San Francisco I will see these painting for the first time. Achieving the distance from the work is always a problem for me, and seeing the work in a new space helps with this. These works were painted in a moody, dismal, grey, German light, and the silvery, moving light of San Francisco will add quite a bite to them. What usually changes is that I have a chance to see my paintings in relation to the work of others. 

GL:  Before starting to paint in the early 1980s you were a ballet dancer and later a dance instructor. You have a deep knowledge of classical ballet and its application to contemporary dance. Speaking in conversation of your paint marking and composition, I’ve been prone to freely use corollary terms from the dance world such as elevation and extension. I imagine this terminology would be problematic for you, given your technical understanding of their specific use in dance, but in a broader sense, do you feel your experience with ballet has influenced your physical approach to painting? Are there any useful comparisons that could be drawn between what you look for in a successful presence on stage and one on the wall? 

AE:  Actually, I am just a physical and highly disciplined person. This did not come from dance; this led me to dance, and to painting. I tend to not make comparisons between dancing and painting, but viewing both of the art forms is something else again, as the eye that views them both is the same, even if the process of creation is completely different. The more one views the more one learns, about both.

George Lawson