R.B.L. What year was it, that we met up, Sean? Probably at the instigation of George Burk . . . 1998 or ’99 . . . anyway, it has been 20 years easily.
S.H. It was the winter of 1996 to ’97 that I drove down to your studio in Berwick in a snowstorm to meet you the first time. I was in the process of figuring out what to take for classes my last semester at USM. I was planning on taking a second-level printmaking class, and yes, George advised me to have an independent study with you in order to help set up your print studio and then make some monotypes.
R.B.L. What propelled our work together was a “Good Idea” grant from the Maine Arts Commission to set up a small etching press and monoprint studio in my stable barn. We both had carpentry experience to bring to the project. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it did energize us to turn out a ton of monoprints. Our mutual interests made working together over the years turn into a deep friendship and mutual exchange of ideas to this day.
S.H. I remember us putting the print studio together and making prints. Then my life got a little complicated and in order to enhance the complication, I moved to NYC for a few years. We stayed in touch while I was away, and then when I moved back I reached out to you, and we started to work together regularly on carpentry projects.
R.B.L. Over the next few years we worked together on several upgrades to that stable and the larger cow barn that became an art storage and display facility that we shared with the bats.
S.H. I view the work that we did together to enhance your studio and living space as peripheral to the real reason for spending time with you. The real reason was to be around a person who had built their life around the practice of making art—to witness a visual language developed over 60–70 years of working with paint.
R.B.L. I hope it communicated the saving grace of a life-long search for the experience of self-discovery. As well as the burden of living with self-doubt, the paradoxes, and impossibilities built into that journey.
S.H. When I make paintings or sculptures, I am torn between two competing intentions. The first is to soothe my mind and heart by forming a thing that I find beautiful visually. With all the physical, mental, and emotional garbage that surrounds many of us, I feel that “making” is an attempt to create a different world that can feel gentler and kinder. The second intent is to call out any number of social/political incongruences that I see. Of course, the last four years have presented many opportunities for this kind of messaging…
R.B.L. That statement expresses perfectly the central paradox since modernism, since Goya. The contradiction between content and the beauty inherent in the medium to communicate that dislocation. This tension can be a great motivator . . . witness the work of Francis Bacon or the late work of Guston.
S.H. I fear that both of these intentions are at their core selfish. The first allows a middle-class white man to shutter himself in his studio and soothe himself with paint. The second allows him to cast a disparaging eye outside of the studio and make commentary without action.
R.B.L. There you have it! The dilemma—how do you resolve those demons and keep working with the guilt, with the necessary level of dedication required to produce art? I believe it was D. H. Lawrence who said, “the important thing is to feel deeply.” A life spent actuating our true identity is not selfish even if it limits the impulse to engage politically . . . it’s an important personal decision for the artist. Over the years it has been a balancing act for me. To integrate the pull toward activism. Have you read The Responsibility of the Artist by Jacques Maritain?
S.H. I haven’t read that book. It seems to me some things don’t resolve. Some things remain mysterious. Some conflicts return again and again. I am guessing, based on your response, I will continue to concern myself with this question for a while longer. Part of the way I deal with a lack of resolve or ever-present cognitive dissonance or mystery of life is through abstraction. I say abstraction though I am not 100 percent sure what that means. It is very difficult for me to make work that I do not in some way associate with something or place even if I don’t know just what that thing or place is. The work I do that is overtly sociopolitical is immediate of this world. My more abstracted work feels like a world, but perhaps not this one. The abstracted work sometimes feels that it exists between the cracks of this world, or is the abstraction of the real world and this immediate world is between the cracks of that one . . . oh dear.
R.B.L. Now that we have gone through a year of lockdown, quarantine, isolation, and what have you . . . how has the past year affected your work? And your vision of the future? The so-called “new normal”?
S.H. If I view the past year, living in the pandemic and isolated from friends and loved ones as an extension and culmination of the preceding four years, in that scenario, it seems very clear to me that the pandemic’s effect on my work has been profound. Many of the issues that came to the forefront in the few years preceding the pandemic—race inequity, monetary inequity, sex abuse and exploitation, gay and trans rights, gun violence, war, vicious propaganda barfing from the mouth of our “leader” designed to divide and crush public opinion, and more—all of these issues have been exacerbated during the pandemic and many have made their way into my work.
R.B.L. For me, this past year of chaos and deprivation has not changed the direction or the content that much . . . being into the later stage of a career, I am moving into a period of consolidation of previous decades of work, a paring down and simplification of my ideas over many years . . . looking more inward and less affected in my paintings by the turmoil of the political period I’ve lived through. To sum it up, I see in the work now a return to the poetry . . . the feeling of abstracted “thingness” in my work of the ’60s . . . the metaphors are more mystical and less narrative. I was deep into William Blake in the 60s, universal and timeless, great qualities to shoot for.
That said, I am in a new natural setting out here in California, seeing cacti strangely suggestive of the COVID ball.
S.H. I don’t know if “new normal” is an appropriate descriptor for the circumstances we find ourselves in now. I am afraid that what we live in now is the old normal, it is just more normal than it was. It can be a painful truth to see more clearly where one comes from or how one’s nation has behaved. The challenge of presenting these subjects with an emotional, analytical, and engaging visual language that doesn’t manipulate the viewer but rather, commiserates with the viewing, thinking, feeling person, is at once an oppressive and liberating task.
R.B.L. As to the transition to the “new normal,” I see the pandemic having speeded up the process of decentralization of the art world from New York City, which I see as a good thing. The digital revolution plus the forced need to work from anywhere has opened up new worlds. . . . This might change the oppressive grip of the capitalist, star system art economy towards a new localized community support paradigm based on cooperation. Museums throughout the country have the opportunity and responsibility to search out and promote authentic art wherever it happens.
On the other hand, the virtualization of the experience of artwork has a detrimental effect on its basic ability to give the observer an intimate experience of human touch. We are seeing the deprivation of touch in the forced isolation of COVID. If we are faced with more and newer strains of viral infections—if that is the new normal, then I think we are looking at a progressive dehumanization of art. . . . Art that lacks that authentic feeling of touch photographs well, as any painter knows. Paintings by Mondrian, when seen up close in person, have a passion in the feeling of the brushstroke. That doesn’t communicate in a photo but comes from a deep in-body experience. Obviously, there are other aspects of art which communicate, such as scale, lost in virtuality. But for me, touch/feeling are indispensable.
S.H. I hear what you are saying about the touch, feel, and presence of a work of art. There is no computer image or photograph that is ever going to convey what it feels like to stand in front of Michelangelo’s slave sculptures. There is nothing that is ever going to reproduce the smell of an oil painter’s painting studio. There is no way to understand what it feels like to sit in one of George Nakashima’s Conoid chairs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, unless you sit in one. There is no replacement for actual experience.
R.B.L. Amen, back to the studio.
Image at top: Richard Brown Lethem, Seed, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30 in., 2020.