Interview: Tom Prochaska at Froelick Gallery, Portland

by Sarah Vaeth, November 2011

Tom Prochaska’s dreamily private gray paintings are arrived-at, gradually. The figures—vaguely folkloric peasants, dancers and musicians—coalesce out of the mark making. Paint daubs come together like pieces of a puzzle and come apart as figures dissolve. Fore- and backgrounds reverse. Prochaska labors from within an interior world, a source acknowledged more by artists when they talk to each other than by contemporary discourse on art. His process instinctively seizes upon resonant associations, the prized material of his own being. It is hardly the self-conscious manipulation of visual culture or the trafficking in textual quotation. I caught up with the artist at Froelick Gallery, as his show At Last was winding up.

SV: The title of the show At Last suggests a culmination and long-sought reward in your work. Can you tell me about the source of these images?
TP: The title At Last has less to do with anything but, first of all, that I’m retiring [from teaching at Pacific Northwest College of Art], and this is a major show for me. I had never put together a totally black and white show and I’d been working—along with these little papier-mâché people I make—I’d been working on this show about two years. I’ve never painted anything this big [So Much to Do, 66” x 88”]. One other thing: I had hurt my shoulder about a year ago, and I couldn’t reach the top of the big paintings. The last six months before the show I could get my shoulder to where I was able to deal with the top of the paintings. Up to then, I had them down on the floor so I could reach the top of the paintings. At last! But mostly it had to do with a completely black and white show that I’m happy with.

Why black and white?
I think it’s my history as a printmaker. There’s something about seeing the structure of a painting in black and white. There’s no color seduction. I go back and forth between color and black and white, but there’s something about the seduction of color that pulls me away from what this is about, which is pure composition.

You have what I assume are related etchings from this year.
Yes, those are a series of double-plate etchings. Those are all two plates. I take the back of other people’s old plates and polish them up so they have a little foul biting on them, then draw. Sometimes it’s two separate drawings and then I put them together. Sometimes they’re sugar lifts. This one [Jumpers, an image like Siamese twin dogs] is sugar lift painted on one plate and then I pressed the plates together. I pulled the sugar off of one plate onto the other, so I had these Rorschach images. That’s the last one of those left. It’s funny; people chase my paintings, more than they do my prints. But my heart’s still… painting is the major movement of my work, but once or twice a year I go into the basement. I have a print shop in my basement and I run a little cooperative print shop called Atelier Mars.

Do you think the paintings read more spatially for not having color?
Could be. Everything’s a little more dramatic. Maybe the space is a little different. Maybe the figures are more dramatic. Maybe there’s more mystery.

They are very mysterious. As a viewer I can read a lot into them, and I wonder if they stay open for you, or if you’re very sure of the story?
No, I have no idea when I start. Most of the time I have no idea what I’m doing when I begin, I just start painting. And then there are recurring themes that happen over and over again. Mostly in the beginning it’s about material and trying to establish composition and forms and line. There’s no subject matter right away; the subject matter takes a long time.

The narrative comes out of form?
The narrative does, yeah. But then I see some things like: I know I chased Scottish Bull. I saw a dead bull when I was in Scotland, and I know that came creeping in and I chased it.

I gather that a lot of these images are sourced in traveling you’ve done.
Traveling that I’ve done and artists that I’ve liked. I love James Ensor. I love Goya. And I love Philip Guston. But, you know, I fish, so there are boats recurring. I used to smoke and often there are smokers in the paintings.

Do you feel these are autobiographical?
Sure. They’re just stacked up parts of my life, of all the stuff that’s happened to me. They’re not specifically memories. They’re peripheral memories. They’re from my peripheral vision, so there’s very seldom a real intention. But then again I can look at things. I lived in Switzerland for a while, and there are qualities… in this small painting, the buildings remind me of some buildings in Switzerland. And I love group dinners. Tables are a recurring theme. There were people in Le Mouche but I painted them all out and left a fly by the table. There are dancing figures. But you know, if a painting starts to work abstractly, the figures almost happen naturally.

I feel these images could be from any time or no time at all, and that’s interesting to me.
Yeah, I mean, I want to leave it open because the process is open, and I want it to be open to the viewer too, for your interpretation. So it’s intuitive, there are no hints. I don’t see the hints until afterward. The math thing [in So Much to Do]: that was because I saw the movie A Serious Man. Remember when he’s drawing on the blackboard. I needed some kind of calligraphy to balance out the right-hand side of the piece, and it was the day after I saw that movie. That area looked like a blackboard, so I just wrote those equations and it worked. And everybody’s real curious about it. [laughs] That painting’s got a year and a half in it; there are four paintings underneath. The material’s got to be right. The paint has got to be of a certain character before the painting reaches what it’s going to be.

I’ve been looking at a little bit of your plein aire work, too, and I’m wondering how this work departs from that or relates to it. Are you getting at different things?
Well, I have something to look at. It’s like fishing: I’ve got my tackle box, my paints. I set up the easel, I look at something and I go through that two-hour struggle of painting. And I do color: It’s completely removed from the studio paintings. But it’s still the exercise and the material of paint. I think this exercise, when I go back to my studio, is beneficial to my studio painting. The landscape painting is a whole other thing. It puts me in a landscape, takes me to someplace new. Something looks interesting. You cross your fingers, you’ve got two hours. In the studio I’ve got all the time I could ever want. When you’re out in the landscape everything’s changing; the wind’s changing, the sun’s changing, time is changing. You’ve got to be someplace at five o’clock. You give it your best shot for two hours, knowing you need to take some risks with materials, that you need to push yourself. I used to paint in ungodly weather. I’ve had friends who wanted me to go paint in the snow. And I’ve painted in the rain, where I couldn’t get the paint to come off my brush because the canvas, the paint underneath, was so wet.

What should be known about your work?
I think the key thing is that it’s a discovery for magic. I’m looking for magic. And the magic’s got to be compositional, it’s got to be paint. If there’s magic in the subject matter, that’s fine; but I’ve got to surprise myself. And that process of leaving the painting open, not knowing where I’m going, seems the best avenue for me to ending up someplace where I go, “Whoa, did I do that?” I’ll be on a run, you know. I’ll have struggled with a painting for two weeks, and all of a sudden I can feel myself moving into this other world where I’m on a run and… I don’t know if it’ll last, and I’ve got to just stay there and paint or it’s going to go away. I’ve gotten the magic for a while. I think that’s the main thing, aspiring to some kind of magic.

Tom Prochaska: At Last
4—29 October 2011
Froelick Gallery
714 NW Davis Street, Portland