TW: I don’t believe that I have ever approached making an artwork consciously considering the marks I would make or the tracks I would leave. Does any artist? I have heard people say about a particular painting that the artist made “good marks.” To me, “marks” connotes a certain physicality. For example, the action of a pencil on paper, the application of paint with a brush, or the sculpting of clay on a potter’s wheel. In contrast, the making of a photograph, either instantaneously or labored, in general lacks that physicality. Yet, a photograph is comprised of marks.

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Todd Watts, Perfidy 1-2-3-4, photographs, 61 x 46 in. (each), 2010.

“Tracks,” by most definitions, suggests the past tense, and like “marks,” its use is remarkably broad. Both imply action, taking an action, and the result of that action. Like marking a trail, clearing the trail, and then walking the trail. Or building a rocket, calculating its orbit, and then following its track. Or my neighbor’s cat, who, like the mouse it is chasing, leaves marks in the snow, leaving a track for me to interpret. It seems to me that marks are everywhere, evident, and endless. They are at once subatomic particles and the notes a guitarist plays to form a new melody. In Abstract Expressionist painting, one could say that every stroke the painter makes is a mark becoming a track. In the history of representational pictures, depictions of tracks in the form of roads, rivers, streets . . . are devices used to guide the viewer. They also carry weight and carry meaning. In your work, you have used tracks to great advantage. In your paintings there are paths both intentional and incidental—logging roads, the disturbances of animals, the wakes of boats, and the track of weather—all used powerfully, with weight and meaning.

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Todd Watts, The Caterpillar’s Conundrum, photograph, 46 x 46 in., 2008.

AB: When I hear the term mark making in regard to painting and drawing I think of action or direct painting when each mark that is made is expected to stand alone as an integral part of the finished work. This is too narrow a definition, of course, as many ways of mark making constitute the language of visual representation whether direct or indirect. Looking at a Fra Angelico or a Lorenzetti has never sent me into a reverie of mark making. Looking at a Dennis Pinette however surely does.

I work in a very indirect manner where each mark that I make constitutes a step toward a finished form that will be an accretion of hundreds of tiny brushstrokes that are subsumed into the final form, almost indistinguishable one from another. It may require a thousand horizontal stokes to paint a vertical form so there is a disconnect in terms of direct mark making. So for me marks and tracks are more about content than process.

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Alan Bray, Trails, casein on panel, 18 x 22 in., 2020.

Marks and tracks on the landscape however have been a compelling narrative for my work from the beginning. The verge where human endeavors meet the natural world is a mysterious and dynamic space. There is no satisfactory word to describe the sense that we are part of what we are looking at. This otherness provokes the need to engage with nature and the marks and tracks we leave behind are the evidence of that engagement. Some are ugly and destructive and some are beautiful and worshipful but it seems that they are all transitional. Permanence on this world is a flight of fancy.

When our kids and their cousins were young there was a worn path from their grandparents’ house that bent around the swimming pool and came straight to ours. I made a drawing of the remains of a game that they used to play in the yard that featured that path. After thirty years or so since the kids left, the path is no longer there. A short-lived phenomena. A compressed example of what has befallen whole cities and great works.

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Alan Bray, Northern Boundary, casein on panel, 8.5 x 11 in., 2019.

TW: You seem to be saying that for you marks are just a means to an end. I know your paintings comprise hundreds of thousands of marks. An artist once said to me that the first mark made is irrelevant, it is the second mark that matters. After you make a thousand marks are any of the individual marks relevant? It takes a great deal of time to make that many marks, and although we work with different mediums, time is a major part of our practice. We are both picture makers, and when done is done, we present finished work. Does it matter to the viewer that your paintings are made with many brushstrokes, or my photographs many layers? I don’t think so. With some artists it may matter. Vija Celmins’s work, for example, where her methodology takes precedence over her subject. In all art, there is no absolute best practice. Many artists work quickly. We both work slowly. I find that I need to let my pictures breath as I do. To become as integrated in the time of their making as I am. They inform me more than I inform them. We have spoken about this, and I believe your work evolves similarly. One could say that the process over time is a track. Time itself is a track, but there is also an emotional journey implied. I am not the same person when I finish a picture as I was was when I started. I may look mostly the same, but I have had an emotional shift. The same is true when looking at art. I have not returned to who I was after seeing Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, and the same is true for hundreds of other artworks. They send me in many directions. Artworks send viewers in many directions. Like tracks that go in every direction on an interchange on the LA Freeway seen from an uncomfortable window seat. As you said, tracks like those are transitional and easily forgotten, especially when searching for your bag in the arrivals terminal. Of course, the image locked in memory might return, like the paths made by children that bent around the swimming pool, to become the beginning of a new work.

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Todd Watts, Our Fires Their Flames, photograph, 61 X 46 in., 2010.

AB: Yes, your emotional presence in your work is apparent and seems to open up a space that is difficult to categorize as photography. I really don’t know what to call it but having seen a few on the screen while in progress and noticing that there were 70 or 80 layers at play it was clear that time plays a significant role as well. One of my favorite statements of intent is this Thomas Mann quote:

We shall tell it at length, thoroughly, in detail—for when did a narrative seem too long or too short by reason of the actual time or space it took up? We do not fear being called meticulous, inclining as we do to the view that only the exhaustive can be truly interesting.

I too take a great deal of time to make a painting but it is an essential part of letting the idea take a turn or two that I hadn’t considered and of finding the kind of marks that will get me there. There is nothing rote or mechanical about the search for patterns in the phenomena I choose to examine. At times they might seem random, but random is just a concept that admits to the limits of our understanding, so the search continues and the marks pile up.

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Alan Bray, Over Midday Pond, casein on panel, 18 x 22 in., 2009.

Marks and tracks leave traces on their way to oblivion and most often that is the source of my work. From an overlook you might see a barely visible line of trees taller than their neighbors that hides the existence of an old stone wall that was once an obvious boundary, or the surprise on finding a fragment of barbed wire embedded in a tree in what you thought were wild woods. Man-made geometries often lay awkwardly on the natural world but it’s never dull. As you said earlier, marks are everywhere, evident and endless. A painting is a rumination that came to an end.

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Alan Bray, Brief Divergence, casein on panel, 14 x 19 in., 2009.

TW: “A painting is a rumination that came to an end.” I like that line. I would add that an artwork has a beginning, a middle, and a beginning. The artwork’s second beginning starts when the artist lays down the tools. When the artist’s rumination ends, it starts for someone else. Artworks can disappear, can be destroyed, but they don’t get old. They are like time machines on a journey. For the sake of the subject of this conversation, artworks are collections of marks sent on a track, to be discovered again and again.

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Todd Watts, Different Kinds of Air 10, photograph, 66 x 46 in., 2020.


Image at top: Todd Watts, Naked City, photograph, 66 X 46 in., 2021.