Cy Gavin: Hacking the Eye with Paint

We talk to artist Cy Gavin about hacking the eye with paint and the propaganda of the Hudson River School...

In 2016, after moving to a rural stretch of Dutchess County, two hours north of New York City, the artist Cy Gavin experienced a prick of déjà vu. It took him a while to realize that he’d seen the landscape surrounding his two-story barn—a valley between the Berkshires and the Hudson River he describes as “glacial, ancient and sort of bizarre”—depicted by the Hudson River School, a movement of landscape painters in the mid-19th century who romanticized the American frontier. He came to regard their output as a form of propaganda. “I think [those paintings] fostered a sense of entitlement to that land, which is completely unsubstantiated by history,” he says. “Living up there, I felt an overwhelming desire to undo that.”

The result is a series of paintings showing at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (GBE), in Harlem, through April 14th. The nocturnal landscapes upend the sentimental idyll of both the Hudson River School and Bermuda, where Gavin’s father is from. Most prominent is Bish Bash Falls, a massive 12-by-28-foot painting of the waterfall that feeds into the Hudson river, depicted under January’s full lunar eclipse / super blood wolf moon. As punishment for committing adultery, a Mohican woman was said to have been killed there, “but that story might not be real,” says Gavin. “It's a totally contestable mythology perpetuated by white settlers at a time when people were making narratives around their ideas of ‘the noble savage.’” Elsewhere, in Untitled (Gibbet Island), Gavin eerily depicts the shoreline where Bermudian slaves were hanged. In lieu of figuration, the paintings are fleshy and eerie proxies for human bodies.

The 33-year old has established himself as a kind of maverick in the art world, even as he inches towards the center of it. As an MFA student at Columbia, Gavin opened a secret short-lived gallery in the locker rooms of an abandoned Harlem building—located a few blocks from GBE. As a kid, he harnessed an appreciation for art at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art, sneaking in through an underground entrance. “I still do that. I did that a month ago,” he says. “I just think it's overpriced and alienating.” The day before we spoke, the museum purchased one of Gavin’s paintings for its collection. dawn and dusk there's a shift where the cones in your eyes stop seeing red, yellow and orange.

This show just went up a few days ago—does it feel surreal to be sitting in the middle of it?

I don't know. I have such a detached relationship to things that I make once I make them. It's weird because these paintings weren't really done until I was installing them, so I was working on almost all of them until maybe Friday and a little bit on Sunday, the day the show opened. I slept overnight here to work. 

Very Project Runway.

Definitely. There’s paint on the floor. When you're imagining something in your studio it's so different than actually having it in the space.

This space is incredible. I don't remember the last time I saw a ceiling this high.

I think it's 38 feet. The space is so unconstrained and with the natural light, it almost feels like being outside. It changed how I could work. It’s been fascinating to see how a painting evolves throughout the day, but to also make a painting for that purpose. All these paintings are made to function with this physiological thing that happens with your eye called the Purkinje shift, which is something I realized when I was at my studio upstate. It's a barn on 130 acres in the middle of nowhere, no light pollution. I’ve always lived in cities. Last year, I was carrying groceries into the studio and these bright red plants looked grey to me, even though it was still sort of daylight out. I was like fuck, are you serious? I thought something was wrong with my eyes. So, I went online and realized what was happening: at dawn and dusk there's a shift where the cones in your eyes stop seeing red, yellow and orange.  And that was really exciting to me because I realized that the properties of moonlight were just a fabrication of the brain. It made me think about how I could mobilize that in the service of making a painting that would also hack your eye. 

Picking up on that kind of subtlety is something that would be really hard to do in the city, not only because of the light pollution but the sheer amount of distractions. Was that part of the desire to move upstate?  

If you're making work that is in America or in spaces with America in the name, it felt important to have an idea of what America looks like outside of a coterie of friends who may share political beliefs or come from a similar socio-economic background. I moved to Dutchess County shortly before Trump got elected, so I'd see barns painted with Trump. I did research for about 3 weeks before I moved the studio. I would go to a gas station or a grocery store and see how people treated me. I talked to a police officer.

Would you say you moved to be uncomfortable?

[pause] No, I moved to feel realistic. I moved to, like, see what a dollar means to people who don't spend $20 on a cocktail. I don’t feel like I have to make saleable work to survive. I paint every day. But I didn't want people having me by the balls. I had noticed that some collectors and galleries seemed to want an artist in a state of needing so they’re obliged to give them work to sell just in order to survive. But that means you're sort of beholden to them in a really precarious way that can affect the integrity of your work. I can experiment. I can make work that sucks. I can make a painting that I'm embarrassed about. I don’t feel any pressure to reproduce a successful thing again and again and again. No one knows where I am, I'm on a dirt road somewhere.

Where's the nearest grocery store?

18 miles.

And yet you’ve said that you’ve felt more connected to current events and the world at large after moving upstate, that it wasn’t a means of escape.  

I still have my apartment in the city. Disconnecting would be irresponsible. You can't really do that now. I mean get real. When I was in grad school it was the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, all these things that made being in the studio feel like a possible misuse of time in a way. Like it's between going to Union Square and protesting Trump versus being in your studio alone making something that will maybe one day go on to effect some change in the world. Everyone I know had to figure that out. We really had to examine how we used our time and our energy. Having my studio upstate has concentrated my attention and limited distractions. I think we also had to take a look at our implication in whatever global economy we're dealing with when we're showing at a fair or whatever. I think you have to find ways of operating within that regime that don't just turn you into a manufacturer of luxury goods, and it's totally doable.

Part of being upstate is a disempowerment of that regime. I don't need that money because my cost of living and working is so low.

So, you’re not going to be in a Gucci campaign anytime soon?

No. I get asked all the time. Part of being upstate is a disempowerment of that regime. I don't need that money because my cost of living and working is so low. It's so much lower than my friends’ in the city.

Another upside to moving is probably the scale of what you’re able to produce. This painting, Bish Bash Falls, is massive.

I painted that on the ground. There's toe prints on it. Shoe prints everywhere. This waterfall was once a sacred place for Mohican people, like so many places upstate. I was interested in how a space that could've been considered sacred is now a leisure space for people who want to swim in the summer. And how there are mechanisms for suppressing histories that allow people to luxuriate in places like that. 

Do you consciously try to work from the subconscious?

I do, because I don't want the work to be fixed, rational and boring. I really want a painting to be an enactment rather than a depiction: so, it’s important that the work feel inevitable. I really have to respond to what happens and trust that there's something there that is more important than just what I thought I wanted to do.

Is that part of why you said you felt detached from your work?

Probably. These pieces painted themselves in a way. There were “accidents” in the material that I let stay, for example, because they weren’t really accidents. It was just what the denim or canvas did as it dried. I'm always trying to be sensitive to the feedback a painting gives.


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