first published in San Francisco Call, December 17, 2001
Portrait of Jenny Blaebaum by Felix Macnee, oil on canvas, 1995.
Their rubber hammer strikes the sea
Artist Felix Macnee interviewed by Supervisor Matt Gonzalez
“Sixteen paintings by Felix Macnee,” an exhibit at the City Hall office of Supervisor Matt Gonzalez, is open to the public until January 15.
Felix Macnee was born in Chicago and raised in the Bay Area. He graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute last year and has shown in numerous galleries, including the Carmichael Gallery, Figure 5, and Bucheon Gallery. He currently has an exhibit of one thousand drawings, which he created in collaboration with Paul Spencer, at the Nico Gallery in Seattle.
Matt Gonzalez is the Supervisor for District 5, which includes the Western Addition, Haight/Ashbury, and Inner Sunset neighborhoods. He is a board member of Intersection for the Arts. Recently, he has turned his office into an exhibition space, with alternating two-month shows. Felix Macnee’s show is the second in an ongoing series.
On November 14, 2001 the painter and the politician sat down to exchange a few words…
MG: I suppose I should ask you about where you went to school and what your artistic influences are, but that would be too contrived and expected. Why don’t we start by talking about the new show that’s up at City Hall? Is there a common theme in the work that you’ve recently done? Are you moving away from the figure and perhaps emphasizing elements of landscape in your work, and otherwise moving toward abstraction?
FM: Well, the paintings could lead you to believe I’m moving in a couple of conflicting directions at the same time. And I think I’ve been interested in manifesting that in a single painting. So the figures tend to show some disintegration, or pulling apart. And abstract elements edge their way into the spaces. But really, there is a lot of abstraction in figurative art. And a lot of meaning in abstract art. What you see is not what you see, to misquote Frank Stella.
MG: Some of the work has a traditionally defined landscape while in other cases it seems to become visible through the figures in the respective paintings. Literally, as if bleeding through the figure itself. Should someone looking at the paintings be focused on the intersection of the figure and landscape or suppose some other purpose in the work?
FM: I didn’t decide beforehand that the landscapes would intersect the figures, and so I had no feeling of purpose in that sense. I began to want the figurative elements to function as signs, as visual moments that reflected only on themselves in terms of how I thought they were beautiful. But of course that’s impossible. There’s always some other intention, even if I try to erase it.
MG: If the beauty in the figurative elements was something you were reaching for, why then are the figures purposefully disjointed, missing parts? Are you trying to call attention to the unfinished quality in them or making a statement about the beauty to be found in parts rather than in an explicit whole?
FM: I’ve always felt like there was greater beauty in damaged things than in perfect things. And pulling a figure apart is a way of treating it less as a representation and more as a thing in itself. There is no pretending that the painting isn’t a painting. Of course there is a certain violence in the pulling-apart as well. I don’t try to censor myself anymore. Sometimes I’m a bit worried that some of the paintings seem so violent, that this should seem beautiful to me.
MG: Well, I would strongly disagree that there is violence in the paintings; rather, I would say that the missing qualities may be missing only explicitly. In other words, just as the landscape fuses into the figure, perhaps the figure is falling through the landscape. Maybe we should take down the paintings and look on the other sides of them, no? Perhaps we’ll find the rest of the figure there.
FM: Yeah, you’re right. I should probably double the prices, now that you mention it.
MG: There is an ephemeral quality in the work. Is that something you’re striving for? And if so, how do you know when a painting is finished?
FM: Well, I like the idea — of a sense of passing being in something that will remain unchanged for hundreds of years. As for when it’s finished, it’s hard to say. It’s more like the painting finishes me.
MG: Kind of like in the work of Felipe Alfau, when the characters of a novel take control of the novel?
FM: Yes, exactly. Like in Locos, where the narrator surrenders to the will of the characters.
MG: I’ve always been interested in how a painter, or musician for that matter, works through a difficult component in the work. Do you find yourself relying on certain devices that push you through to resolving a particular painting or trouble area in it? Would it be too much to suggest these devices are tricks of the trade? And is that what they taught you in art school?
FM: Yeah, there are tricks that everyone uses. But I’m not sure if everyone has the same gimmick. The idea is to make a work without tricks. And if you seem to be relying on something, to be brutal with it and let it go, get rid of it. There are a million crutches to throw away in painting. What you have left will be more honest, maybe not as slick, but naked and good.
MG: You are primarily a visual artist, but I know you’ve participated in dada performances. Could you say something about that? Particularly, how it informs your work.
FM: Well, I’ve always been a clown of sorts. Or should I say performer, or actor? For me, I think I get to express different moods in different mediums. I would find it terribly confining to be limited to only one. The dada performances allowed me to vent in a way that’s impossible in painting. Also, it’s more social than sitting in a studio.
MG: I never saw the performances. I’m wondering if you could give your remarks a better context perhaps?
FM: Well, I’ve performed with Cheryl Leonard, who’s an intensely soulful composer. She has a great love of nature, and that comes out in her music. It connects me with the kind of person I want to be. And I’ve performed with Paul Spencer and Todd Barker, at the Dada Festival and other more personal venues, like the Adobe Bookshop. Paul and Todd are masters of language and movement. When we get together, we have a lot of fun. Todd has an incredible subtlety that I think a lot of people miss, and Paul reveals himself in a personal way that’s very risky. It’s a challenge to be as intense and thoughtful as they are. Performance demands it immediately. You either work or you fail, and everyone sees it. There are no revisions.
MG: But what did you do exactly?
FM: With Cheryl I’ve done all sorts of crazy things. Once we buried ourselves under three feet of sand at Ocean Beach. We stayed under there for about a half hour, breathing through plastic tubes, until midnight, when a brass band we had assembled began playing in a semicircle around the burial site. We then dug ourselves out and crawled into the sea. And the brass band followed us. We were like a couple of newly hatched sea turtles. Thankfully the sea gulls didn’t eat us.
MG: Now I see why there are birds in so many of your paintings.
FM: That’s right. Birds are good luck. If you paint them enough, you get to fly in your dreams.
MG: What do you generally say to someone when they tell you they like the work, but then say something you disagree with? In other words, when they compliment a component of the work you think they’ve misunderstood. Do you let it pass?
FM: I tend to just say thank you. I think a simple approach is best. If someone likes something, I don’t want to ruin it for them. And there’s a good chance they’re right and I’m wrong. But I guess I’m not sure what you really mean by “misunderstood.”
MG: Well, who do you think should get to set the aesthetic the painting has? Shouldn’t someone complimenting you on your painting know that they didn’t get it, if that’s the case? Or do you think that is being too rigid?
FM: A compliment is either insincere or correct. Besides, I think there’s nothing to “get,” in the sense that you can get a joke or get the gist of an argument. The “getting” is in the seeing. It passes through, so that if someone likes something, that means they got it. They might change their mind later, but that just shows that there’s more than one picture in a picture.
MG: Certainly if someone wanted to buy a painting you didn’t think was finished, though, you wouldn’t sell it to them, would you? How do you reconcile your respect for someone else’s aesthetic with your own?
FM: OK, I see what you mean. Yeah, I wouldn’t sell an unfinished work, only because I would consider it stillborn. I can’t let something out in the world if I don’t think it’s strong enough to survive. There’s a difference between finishing and interpreting. Finishing is my job, and interpretation is the prerogative of the viewer.
MG: On the night of the opening party, you sold two works right away. One was the profile of a woman’s face with an aleph over her head. It sort of reminded me of what a character out of a Dino Buzzati story might look like. Do you know his work? I was hoping you might say something about that particular composition.
FM: I like Dino Buzzati very much. He’s like a more romantic Kafka, or gentler. There’s a feeling of a nearly forgotten warm winter night in his stories. But the aleph painting came somehow more from thinking about Bruegel’s Tower of Babel paintings. The notion of the confusion of language exploding in the silence of painting interests me. The aleph functions graphically and also as the idea of this beginning.
MG: The aleph as iconography appears often in Wallace Berman’s work. Were you influenced by that? And how much importance should a viewer give to a particular choice of a symbol or object like that in a painting? I mean, do you think the painting would be different if you had painted the roman numeral five for instance?
FM: I don’t know Berman’s work, actually. A lot of choices are almost random, but in this case, I chose the aleph because of its Kabbalistic symbolism as well as its elegance as a graphic element. But the heavy intentionality of the symbol makes me think it might have been a mistake. I might have trusted something less loaded and obvious, like a roman numeral, for example.
MG: I want to ask you some of the more mundane biographical questions. Can you say something about where you’re from and about who told you you could be a painter anyway?
FM: Mundane? What are you talking about?
MG: OK, OK, not mundane. But seriously, I know your grandfather was a painter and your father is a musician. Can you say something about them?
FM: I’ve always thought what my family needs is more bankers and fewer artists. But not really. I learned a lot from my grandfather. Nothing about the technical aspects of painting, but a great deal about why it’s right for me to be an artist. He died before I really started painting seriously, but the memory of sitting behind him as he painted one day still remains clear. I think he taught me then that something magic was going on, beyond what was simple and obvious about the mechanics of making an image. I was lucky too with my father. He’s a working musician now in New Orleans. He plays flute and saxophone in various jazz and latin bands. One of the last times I visited him, we talked about the alchemy of music. How unexplainable and amazing it is that you can just blow into a metal tube, and it begins to talk. This is like painting, when it’s good. You form it so that it says something. It’s not a human language.
MG: It’s funny, I have a vague memory of seeing you in a New Orleans casino, near the French Quarter, recently. By the roulette table, I think. I should have asked you this earlier, but is gambling dada?
FM: If dada is a sickness that shits people through the large intestines of a dead horse, then gambling is dada. I don’t like my chances at the poker table as much as I do at the easel.
MG: Anything else you want to add? Any hobbies people should know about before seeing the work? Do you have bad table manners or anything like that?
FM: I’d like to have bad table manners, actually, because that would mean I was eating with friends and family enough for it to be an issue. I love games. Word games, poker, chess. I love how they create an invisible arena that hovers over our world. It’s a shame. I used to have a chess partner that I played with regularly, but ever since he got into politics he hasn’t had time for a game. Or maybe he’s just ducking me.
MG: Let’s end this on a serious note. This past summer, the artist Margaret Kilgallen died. I’m wondering if you would say something about her?
FM: I first met her ten years ago when we were both working at the San Francisco Public Library. She worked in the book restoration department, and I think that had a large impact on her paintings. The beauty of the books themselves, and the artistry that went into making them, found their way into her work. Her paintings also seem to carry a witty narrative profusion, which could have come from this literary relationship. I was upset to hear of her death. She was so young and still had so much to do. It’s a real loss. But I suppose since she was an artist, there is an element of her that is still alive in her work. Do you know the Hulsenbeck quote, or maybe it’s Tristan Tzara? “The best artists are the ones who, in every work of art, snatch the tatters of their bodies out of the frenzied cataract of life.”