In the Studio: Peter Schenck

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In early June, T&D stopped by artist Peter Schenck‘s East Williamsburg studio to discuss his work as he prepared for an upcoming exhibition.

T&D: When looking for a studio space what do you look for? How did you find this space?

PS: Good question. It was kind of organic – I had 6 weeks to find a new studio before getting kicked out. I had a number of leads from fellow artists offering up spaces to look at, but the most promising space came from a studio ad in NYFA (New York Foundation for the Arts). After checking out the building and the studio, it seemed like a great fit. Also, being closer to Bushwick and Greenpoint seemed like a good thing.

T&D: Are there any neighborhoods you wanted to be in?

PS: Yeah, even before finding the space I’m in now, my thoughts were directed towards Williamsburg or Bushwick. The two and half years I spent in Gowanus were great and it has a great gallery scene, but Bushwick specifically had galleries and project spaces I was interested in being closer to.

T&D: Has this space affected the way you make work – like the scale of the work?

PS: Actually yeah, I like a lot of different sizes – there’s smaller stuff there’s bigger stuff – when I did come to New York I started working regularly on paintings that were 5 feet by 5 feet and this and that. Back when I was in Philly, my scale got a lot smaller – 2 feet by 2 feet, 3 feet by 3 feet – because even if I had space I was still working in an apartment.

Working in Brooklyn, you’re making artistic professional connections and the art community, as we both know, is so small. It feels like everyone you meet – it feels like everyone knows everyone. You have that upper hand of connection.

PS: Yeah, certainly in Brooklyn, I started showing a little more and more in Brooklyn and curating. If you’re making solid work, showing up and being part of the scene, you begin to see which community your work is best suited for.

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T&D: Since you’re art handling and experiencing a lot of other people’s work – do you feel like that’s changed your work at all?

PS: In a way, because I’ve been doing it really since I hit the ground running living here, it’s become enough of my life in the last 3.5 years that I’ve almost forgotten the time before that. Even if you’re in work mode you still have time to look at surface quality of the work and see when work is good or when it’s bad and all that stuff kind of stays with you, so at least on an aesthetic level I’ll absorb a lot. Whether I thought about it seeping through or not, it was just happening, you’re just looking at so much stuff. There’s a time when it’s mind numbing because maybe you don’t want to look at stuff or it’s not the stuff you really want to think about but it all just comes in, more or less in a good way.

T&D: Do you ever get a moment where you’re looking at someone else’s work and saying “I think I would have done it this way”? I guess it’s different with art because you have your own personal visual language but maybe you could say like “oh I like how so and so used a gradient here but I would do it differently if I were working with it”.

PS: I’m fairly critical with my circle…when going to shows that’s a good thing you get with a community of serious artists, it doesn’t mean you’re an asshole to be look at work that’s really esteemed and to look at it for what it is, what’s the image, what’s the quality of the making, is it good or not? And I think that’s been going on organically, where I’ve been a lot more critical. Not a “hater” of more successful artists, but you can just look at stuff because you’re separated from the money aspect and you can be like “is this well made?” and that’s a good dialogue that I have almost all the time when I’m looking at work.

T&D: Right – or maybe you catch a piece towards the end of a show where you’re like “oh this other one makes sense now”. It’s so fun to go into an environment and have an open discussion. I think having a verbal dialogue about it versus going alone and thinking about it just opens up so many more avenues of considering the work. I think you could parlay that into – say you have artists you’re really inspired by – if you went and saw their work, what would you try to be taking from it? Would you take it in, or say “I want to look at this critically because it will inform my own practice”?

PS: I like to think it’s a critical thing. There are a few artists I could name off the bat who are doing what I want to do, but at the same time I want to make my own work something else. Like a big artist – George Condo – with him he had an amazingly cool, ambitious show at Skarstedt Gallery last fall and I’ll go as a big fan, liking his work, but I hope that I’ve been doing it long enough that I can say “ok what’s really good that I can just take away from this?” You look at those guys that are just up there and part of it is fandom and part of it is “what makes this guy so good?”, but not everyone is fantastic all the time, so where does it miss?

T&D: Yeah, it makes them fallible.

PS: Yeah, and everyone has that.

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T&D: Let’s talk about your work some – I see that you have studies. Do you always do studies before you paint?

PS: Mostly in the last few years I’ve sometimes done drawings – the scale is something that changes. The subject in my mind, even though it’s abstracted, is a stand up comedian. That became the underpainting, but initially maybe just a painting when it was going off the drawing. Then when I got home I decided to make another drawing based off the now painting that existed and then add it – re-use forms from that. I have a study for pretty much everything and sometimes the painting sticks pretty close to that study. Other times, I’ll do a drawing or even a few but really since grad school I’ve worked more on intuition – just to sort of get my mind a little more focused I’ll do a drawing before. If it’s a painting I treat it differently, but it’s still looking at the drawing that existed before. New for me in the last six months I’ll work from a drawing, but also bring the drawing into the painting with a brush stroke or a pencil mark.

T&D: So do you draw in pencil or pastel…?

PS: I went to Vermont Studio Center a year ago and I used to be very strict: pencil drawing and nothing else. But I don’t hold myself back as much anymore. There’s pencil, acrylic, oil pastel in there, and that’s translated then into a fairly large painting of oil pastel, charcoal, and acrylic. But some are fairly conventional drawings that’s all colored pencil. It’s lent itself to the work, where most of the newer stuff takes from the drawing.

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T&D: How did you decide on a style?

PS: In grad school they were kind of cartoony and laughed at this machismo kind of like…mid-century 50’s abstraction in my own way, but it laid the seeds for these cartoony abstract shifts. When I got out of grad school all these goofy dudes and imagery were flooding back into my mind. I copied a lot of drawings when I was a kid. I was a big graphic copier of cartoons – like Garfield. I would make him have funny Mohawks or things that had no reason to be there. I think even actually Condo’s gone on the record of not even particularly loving cartoons but you do stuff that you kind of think is very stupid – he’s said he hated cartoons he just kind of did it almost to mine the territory. This imagery, for better or for worse, was more or less just flooding into my mind like what’s a stupid, dumb idea? Take a pizza slice and make it a head and make a body connected to that pizza slice. And can that hold a picture? But then in the back of my mind it’s whether I like it or not – I’ve got an education how a painting more or less can work.

It’s kind of like pushing your own bounds of absurdity.

PS: Yeah.

T&D: Like, “I know what I can do but how can I do this even weirder”.

PS: Right. Figuration is out but everyone is doing so much of everything if you can mine out your own territory it can also enhance what you’re doing. What I’m trying to do is sort of back myself into a corner of this weird figuration. Maybe people use pizza slices but I’m trying to make it my own as this recurring head. Here’s a painting from 2014 and it’s generally much more tighter but I had this idea like oh it’s a pizza slice which is a recurring element, it makes a ball which is a man’s torso, so you know, here’s the pizza slice and it just never got away, but it also translates into “that’s just a shape”. People can see a wedge or a pizza slice, I kind of don’t care anymore, I just took it and went with something else.

T&D: I kind of see you as saying “I like looking at these elements so lets let them be recurring” but the more you work with them the more they change. “I like working with the pizza slice so let’s bring that back, work with it again and push it a little further each time”. Cut to a year and a half later where the pizza slice has become a pizza slice that has faces on it…it’s taking your own imagery and pushing it a little more with every piece that you make.

PS: Yeah, I think that was very well said. Most artists – myself included – you’re in New York so you’re seeing everything so you can instill that. With enough years behind your belt, it all takes time but you’ve built up your own kind of language, just keep looking outward, say “what do I have here” and keep looking around, keep yourself occupied. And that’s why old school artists might have made four years worth of work out of like that particular thing, but you see it all connecting, and then go somewhere else.

T&D: It’s taking a theme and working it to death and then being like “yeah I’m done ready to move on from it” which is totally acceptable – but here you use it once or twice and then say “now how can I play with it because I’ve used it”. So it’s kind of like condensing where people used to work on the same thing over and over and now it’s like “this is my style” and you move on. But I think you’re collapsing that time period. You have the ability to process something you want to do and then go to the next step from that.

PS: I think for the most part for me…work 6 or 8 months and then press forward. You make enough work in a way that’s still cohesive enough in your mind, basically make a show in your mind. For me, going into the summer I’m going to shoot to make anywhere from 3 to 5 really good ambitious works that could be tied together but, yeah, I can’t help but change a little bit and go somewhere else and then maybe there’s a bigger change.

T&D: I feel like there’s a difference – you can see this two ways – like where you’re hitting your groove and experimenting within that same groove, but then maybe if you hit a groove you can work in it enough to be like “I’ve got a decent show out of this” and then say “I’m satisfied with that” – it’s kind of working to your own satisfaction.

PS: Yeah that’s correct to say. Right now I’m making work with a show in mind, I have 10 or so pieces that are cohesive. It still won’t be shut off and have everything brand new but that’s something and then you can go somewhere else. When it’s happened it’s been this really good cohesion where you’re given a show or a summer or group and then –

T&D: You have a goal to work towards.

PS: It takes a few years to get the discipline to be like “ok this is what I’m aiming for”. One thing, because I think it’s so relative when you’re in your own mind and in your studio as the artist as opposed to someone just seeing it – you’re wondering about cohesion and having something like set sizes – here’s a 30 inch by 30 inch here’s a 40 inch by 40 inch and then when they get a little bit weirder but they’re all there.

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T&D: Do you like working with square canvas or is it just what’s available to you?

PS: I want to say that I like it; I like the democratic quality of the square canvas where some people find it funny or difficult to work with. I find that even if I have this figure and there’s a centrality to it, a reason I brought in these abstract elements was to then push it out to the corner so it felt like…almost the feeling of an old school abstract canvas. I’ll change it up but I try to do more of these medium sized guys, they’re literally portraits but also a more conventional portrait kind of rectangle. But the other answer is ever since I went to grad school I just started really enjoying squares. I love the almost…inherent kind of dumbness of a square. It’s an intentional thing with the shape.

T&D: The thing about the square and the circle also is they have an inherent geometry to them. I mean obviously they’re geometric shapes but the ways you can divide a square evenly…I think it works in your favor because you have this crazy abstract asymmetric element but then having a square kind of allows you to divide those geometric elements better.

PS: You’re looking for corners; you’re looking for edges. It’s a different relationship. The line doesn’t extend but it shoots your eye out.

T&D: There’s something nice about having these segments.

PS: It’s a love hate thing, because then you have to stare at it for the next 2 months. It’s the game of “how I can make this interesting” because it’s just in the center or slightly off center… yeah squares have always been there. Obviously I get outside of that every now and then which is healthy to do but still it’s such a small relative jump, but for anyone that has their go to, which is the square, it’s a big enough jump to work in a rectangle.

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T&D: So you have this guy with paintbrushes – are these self-portraits?

PS: Yeah to an extent, you kind of paint what you know. It’s like a Philip Guston kind of self-referential – I’m a painter and I’m in here all day with brushes. It’s something that kept popping up, but I’m also interested in branching out into something else – even if it’s just a standup comedian. But it’s also about owning what I’ve already done. Trying to make an interesting goofy painting just about being in the studio. That painting is a funny monster headed dude but it’s a kind of a more conventional studio space. I’m wondering how they hold up to a viewer outside of myself. I had this figure for months and then decided to give it, almost in a stigmata form without any blood, these toy paintbrushes. The toy like knives are a playful nod to destruction, they are also meant to counter the energy and positivity of the brushes. I think these objects and their play between each other is really interesting, but I don’t think I have quite answered what they are totally capable of yet. These are things that resonate with me, but I also can’t reflect so much on them that they loose their playfulness.


Peter Schenck’s exhibition “Clear and Present Danger” is on view at Arts+Leisure Gallery through September 11, 2016.