Jul 11, 2017 5:04PM


A painting is made of paint—of fluids and ground-up stones.

James Elkins

I began making paintings on velvet in 2005. The initial impulse came from a book on incunabula (printing before the invention of movable type). In most cases these books and broadsheets were woodblocks printed on paper, but a few were printed on cloth. That gave me the idea of trying to print directly on various kinds of textiles—linen, cotton, silk, etc. Unfortunately, without a primer, the paint was absorbed into their porous surfaces. Velvet, much to my surprise, was the only material that kept the paint from soaking in. And while it wasn’t my intention, the kitschy aura of paintings-on-velvet (Elvis!) was an unexpected, but not unwelcome, bonus.

Since Jackson Pollock, one of the directions painting has taken has been to exploit the materiality of paint itself. But while Pollock proclaimed “no chaos, damn it!” it is the surrender of control that frees the paint to express its paint-ness. In my paintings on velvet the paint is delivered to the surface indirectly. First a computer-controlled laser engraves the text into a thick acrylic sheet, which will serve as a printing matrix. Then, letter-by-letter, the words are hand-filled with pure oil paint, sometimes up to a pound per letter. Finally, the velvet is laid face down on the plate, placed in a hydraulic press, and subjected to 750 tons of vertical pressure. With so many uncontrollable variables (temperature, humidity, viscosity, and pressure) there is no predicting what the paint will do. The paint’s chemistry, its “fluids and ground-up stones,” determines, beyond any dictates of good or bad taste, what the final painting will look like. Under all that pressure, the paint, with nothing to prevent it, bleeds freely into weirdly unpredictable, marbleized puddles. The more viscous colors spurt out of the letters, while the densely pigmented ones emerge in wrinkled globs. The random smudging and smearing renders some words unreadable, obliterates others, and further estranges them from any responsibility to meaning. When the velvet is pulled off the plate, the painting literally bursts into being. The result is always a surprise, sometimes a real shock.

Must we say what we mean?  - Stanley Cavell

I’m often asked, “What do the Blah, Blah, Blah paintings mean?” But the real question

is: must everything mean something? We live in a world oversaturated with empty language—small talk, tweets, texts, leet speak, chitchat, pop-up ads, telephone-answering messages (“your call is important to us . . . ”), warnings on medicine bottles (“if you have an erection lasting more than four hours . . . ”). While there’s no escaping this linguistic tsunami, the Blah, Blah, Blah paintings subvert it from below. By the incessant repetition of that one innocuous syllable, they seek to escape the gravitational pull of bullshit. They say nothing but they can mean anything, or everything, or nothing. Operating at a sub-linguistic level, they are simultaneously sublime and ridiculous, hilarious and aggravating. Just another confirmation that Language Is Not Transparent.