Usyk: Notes from the Interview (September, 2007)
1.0 Attacking The Canvas: Tiny Weapons
The following quote, credited to Alfred Levitt who lived to the ripe old age of 106, is one of Michael Usyk's favorite:
"I wish I was 85 again. At 85 you can still do some damage."
Although our discussion of Levitt was rather tangential to the rest of our conversation, damage is an important element in Usyk's work. Usyk prefers to describe himself as a "sculptor who does painterly things." But you won't find the traditional tools of a sculptor in his studio. There are no scraps of metal lying around, no blow torches or protective face masks. Rather, you'll find paper and canvas, paint and brushes. It is in the process of creating his paintings that Usyk does, in fact, function much like a sculptor. He attacks a canvas in the way that a sculptor may attack a piece of metal, but the assault is slower and uses smaller tools, some that are almost invisible. A Usyk canvas will often be subjected to razor blades. It may have toilet paper, tissue, or the elements of a used tea bag fused into it. The artist "charges" his paintings by creating mixtures of various liquids that actually eat away at the canvas while it is being worked on. He "assembles" his work much like a sculptor.
1.1 The Cells Within: On Language
"A painting is basically a rectangle or a box," he told me. "That is the most basic form." Within his paintings, you will notice, there are collections of rectangles and boxes. This is Usyk's language coming through. He has developed a hierarchy for these boxes, which he refers to as "cells." The understanding of how these cells function within his canvases--and how they relate to one another--was developed early in his painting career. It is as if he has his own personal chakra system for paintings; they are not as much about subject as they are about tone. They are about creating tension within a space and then breaking that tension with natural "breaths" (Usyk's term) in the painting. Color decisions, spatial decisions, and mark-making: these are the elements of the language and order that he has created for the empty planes that he works within.
But something new has been sneaking into his work. "Text has been trying to creep in for a long time," he told me. Usyk has been inspired by the poet Wislawa Szymborska, a woman who writes "great painterly poems. She can juggle a feather and an anvil at the same time," he said as we discussed Szymborska, and cited her collection *Nothing Twice* as one of his favorite books. Although Michael has a strong relationship to literature and spends a great deal of his studio time reading, the text that is used in his paintings is not meant to be interpreted in a traditional sense. The words have to do with the space that they take up on the canvas, how they relate to the rest of the objects in the space. They are meant to be interpreted in terms of their visual power rather than their traditional meaning. With a chuckle, Usyk told me, "They are sort of like the ramblings of a mad man."
2. The Fire Escape Thief: The Early Years
"When I was in my teens," Usyk told me during our interview in his Chrystie Street studio, "Gordon Matta Clark asked a bunch of us at his loft if we wanted to steal a fire escape from the side of a building. It was the '70s, and parts of the East Village, such as Avenue D, were like Dresden after the war. But I was only fifteen, and I had to get back to the Bronx!" However, artistic acts involving massive pieces of steel inspired Usyk; his first medium was metal. But that only lasted for about four years. In fact, he only has a few pieces of his sculpture in his studio today, and they seem to function more as memorabilia than representative work. Although Michael originally worked in metals, circumstances had him switch smelters for paint brushes. Sculpture and the kind of shop that is required to create it is a rather expensive endeavor. It was simply more economically realistic for him to paint; but he decided to paint with a sculptural spirit.
After our interview, I asked Michael to send me a list of his favorite books and artists. The following (with his notes included) is a wonderful place to start if you are looking for a) some good reading b) a sampling from the artist's library c) great gift ideas. Enjoy!
Painters Richard Diebenkorn(for tensions he created in his 1970s paintings) Hannelore Baron (just because) Juan Usle (a poet of paint) John Walker (painting as history) Stanley Whitney (because of his visual strategies and colors in gravity's pull)