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Art In Conversation

Simon Frost with John Yau

On the occasion of Simon Frost’s recent exhibit, Nimbus, at Peter Blum SoHo, which will be on view till May 10, 2008, the artist welcomed Rail Art Editor John Yau on-site to view his new body of work.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

John Yau (Rail): This is your first solo show in New York, which I hadn’t thought about, because you’ve been in four other shows.

Simon Frost: Yeah, it’s kind of strange, but now it’s great—I’ve suddenly got the whole gallery to myself, all these years later. Being able to see my work for the first time on its own in this gallery is very satisfying.

Rail: How many works are in the show?

Frost: Approximately fifty. This piece, that we’re looking at now, is 21 pieces that comprise one piece. There are about 35 in the main room.

Rail: You’ve expanded the way you work, opened it up. In your earlier work you made small marks that you repeated, a V shape, for example. And there were the materials that you used to get the marks onto a piece of paper.

Frost: I have a collection of brushes that I have bought over the years, and I’ve worked with graphite, sharpening very very very fine points, whittling away pencils and really exposing the lead, and also metal point, such as using silver or iron, and sometimes even copper on paper surfaces coated with casein.

Rail: But in this work you don’t use a brush or pencil to get your medium onto the paper, and you aren’t making the same marks over and over again.

Frost: Right, it’s a one shot situation, and I have started using found objects in the work.

Rail: Right, you’re using a kind of rubber circle that you apply watercolor to.

Frost: That’s right. I found the rubber circle. I was cycling along with my daughter and I saw it in the road and thought that is interesting, and the next day I came back and it was still there, and I thought “okay.”

Rail: If it’s still there you gotta pick it up [laughs].

Frost: [laughs] Yeah if it’s still there, that’s a good sign. It was not just any circle; it was very particular.

Rail: It has a little notch.

Frost: That’s right. And it had a certain thickness that gave it a rigidity so that I could pick it up. So I realized that I could maybe print it, so I basically just used some watercolor that I was very interested in.

Rail: It’s pretty viscous this watercolor. You said it had honey in it? Is that right?

Frost: Yeah it has honey in it. And it’s not quite watercolor, it’s definitely not watercolor—it doesn’t seem to resemble other watercolors or gouache… maybe it has a closer relationship to oil paint. But luckily it’s not oil paint.

Rail: And it dries pretty fast.

Frost: Well within 2 or 3 days.

“Untitled #82” (2006), watercolor on paper, 8x8 inches. Courtesy of Peter Blum Gallery.
“Untitled #82” (2006), watercolor on paper, 8x8 inches. Courtesy of Peter Blum Gallery.

Rail: Ok. And you press the circle against the paper, so you have to get enough medium on the circle to at least leave an impression.

Frost: Yeah, I am using a lot of paint. I would sometimes put on more than necessary and even use newsprint to release some of the extra liquid, but basically I would paint the disc, put it down on the paper, get up on the table, stand on it and apply a lot of pressure—it’s a hand-made print, and trying to control it was difficult and sometimes the surface of the paper would come up with it. So it was tricky to control.

Rail: You have opened up your process.

Frost: I’ve definitely allowed myself to bring a little bit more into my working process. I feel as if it’s not new in a sense because I’ve worked with so many materials over the years, but in the last fifteen years or so I’ve made drawings, and there was a point where I really put everything to one side. I got rid of all my materials that I’d gathered as a sculptor. It marked the end of a particular era. And then I had a new space, and I purposely made it very empty, and I started just drawing. It was very nice to have that emptiness. What happened was I remember going away one summer back to England and I came back to New York and picked up a piece of paper and drew on it.

Rail: Oh the rose-like form, where each section is repeated.

Frost: Yeah.

Rail: And it’s done in pencil.

Frost: It’s pencil. And that paper was just right; it was just a piece of ledger paper with lines going through it. That became number one and literally everything followed after that drawing. I was able to make works on paper, and I stuck to machine-made paper at that time because I was a little wary of using handmade paper—I had been using industrial materials like copper sheet, and I wasn’t comfortable with the craft element of handmade paper.

Rail: Right.

Frost: I had grown up as a student sort of thinking that “craft” was a dirty word [laughs].

Rail: [laughs] I know what you mean.

Frost: I had started to look at handmade papers at art stores, and bought a few. I’m mentioning it because in this show there is a large variety of paper from Japan, India, and 18th century antique paper.

Rail: I mean this piece, the 21 pieces are all handmade paper, they’re all nearly square, and there’s different kinds of paper, there’s a darker paper here....

“Untitled #133” (2007), watercolor on paper, 28x27 1/2. Courtesy of Peter Blum Gallery.
“Untitled #133” (2007), watercolor on paper, 28x27 1/2. Courtesy of Peter Blum Gallery.

Frost: It is one paper, but each batch varies in color, and there are three distinctly different types of paper, but it’s from the same papermaker.

Rail: I think a lot of your work is about getting yourself into a situation where you have to have a lot of control but you also have to accept what happens.

Frost: Well I suppose I’m really looking for that point between myself and the work, where I am involved with precision but allowing the material and certain chance elements to play their part, which is really important, particularly with this particular work where there’s some seepage and I’m applying the paint quite loosely; and there’s a build up in one area or another. I really want to allow the touch of the hand to be evident.

Rail: That has been a constant in your work. And yet, at the same time, while the touch of the hand is evident, it’s also like you’re trying to step aside from manipulating the materials to some degree.

Frost: Yeah, definitely. I would place the disc on the paper quite randomly, knowing that I wanted the circle to be in the paper but not worrying too much about where it landed, and enjoying all the accidents that happened in the making. I certainly didn’t set out to make twenty-one pieces. I made one piece, I made two, and I thought ok maybe I’ll have six of these, and then all of a sudden the piece expanded. So it was a learning process. I wasn’t comfortable in it, necessarily.

Rail: I never feel like you’re comfortable with anything you do. If anything, you want to be in a place that’s slightly uncomfortable.

Frost: Definitely. I’m always very close to the precipice of disaster. It’s the tension that interests me, particularly when I’ve worked with some of these recent drawings, and in some of the drawings in the past where I’ve made a drawing that takes more than a year, and I’m not erasing anything; I’m just accumulating marks. That’s what it’s about.

Rail: It’s about time going on, and accepting that condition. I don’t think there’s any work that I’ve ever seen of yours where you could go back.

Frost: Definitely.

Rail: You can only go one direction. It either ends or it doesn’t end, right?

Frost: Yeah, unfortunately. I was eating a sandwich over a drawing [laughs] and I have stopped doing that. But on the whole, you start to develop a certain confidence, I don’t know if that’s the right word, but you start to rely on knowing something’s going to happen. There’s a lot of insecurity in making a drawing, particularly over such a long time period, but you begin to get a sense of it over a certain amount of time, and just by looking at what you’ve done, it allows you to do a little bit more.

Rail: Now in this other piece, you’ve used safety netting, the ubiquitous orange safety netting that you see all over New York City, and you’ve covered one side with a very dense blue etching ink. And you’ve got a sheet of paper, which you attached to the floor, I would guess, or some hard surface, and you pressed the inked netting against it.

Frost: That’s right. That’s pretty much how it was made. There was very little room for error in making this piece, but as I look at it—

Rail: But there’s a fingerprint there…

Frost: [laughs] Well, okay.

Rail: No, no, it’s not an error because you feel like it’s a necessary part of the piece.

Frost: Yeah, that’s true. And in fact all my concerns and worries when I was making this piece, the various things that you can see now, such as where the ink has moved away from the fencing, all of a sudden the ink is pressured out of the fencing or there’s some sort of finger mark or… you know now those are the things that I find most satisfying about this piece, because I think it would be very uninteresting without these irregularities because it would just look like a machine-made piece. I really want you to see the ink, and the ink is much denser in places, and there was a cut in the fencing here. I want the human presence to be very evident.

Rail: But at the same time this kind of activity can become fetishized, right? This piece doesn’t have that. It seems like it’s repetitive, the mechanically cut lozenge shape, but then you notice that each one is slightly different from the other.

Frost: That’s very true. I mean there’s safety fencing and there’s safety fencing, and this one I have a particular love for. Basically they tend to be grids. The more I have looked into it, though; I have found that there are many kinds, but this one is different.

Rail: Yeah I think of them as a grid, I mean this one is a grid but it’s a grid of individual lozenges.

Frost: That’s right. Each shape is like a pebble, stone-shaped, lozenge-shaped, each one is entirely different. In relation to my work it’s something that I recognize as being my own. And that’s what drew me to it. The organic nature of a piece of pre-fabricated industrial material that’s used in a very mundane way, that you can use. And the color always appealed to me.

Rail: Right, the orange.

Frost: Yeah, for years I’ve looked at it. And then all of a sudden you know one day I was standing outside the door to my daughter’s school and I saw on it on the other side of the street—there was probably about 30 feet—and I just envisioned a section of it being printed, simply as that, as a horizontal, and it was that easy. But what allowed this to happen at this time was I had used the disc by then, and I was starting to think that everything is sort of printable, to some degree. I was thinking about this on the way here, and I thought well of course you can print many things. But I’m being very selective about it.

Rail: Well you’re trying to print the most mundane things. I mean a disc, which we wouldn’t even know what it’s used for.

Frost: It’s something that fell off a truck.

Rail: Right, a rubber disc and plastic fencing.

Frost: There’s another object that I have used to print with that seems to fit very well with the disc and fencing; and it is a floor sanding screen, once again an object with a grid. With the floor sanding screen, when you ink it and press it against the paper, you end up with a very unique surface with a variety of marks and different shaped openings similar to the fencing, which is organic in nature.

Rail: Yeah and you also get us to look at something that we wouldn’t otherwise generally look at, I mean we’ve walked past a lot of fencing in our life, particularly if you’ve lived in New York or Brooklyn in the last 8 or 9 years.

Frost: [laughs] yeah.

Rail: You kind of see it and recognize it, but you don’t really look at it. I mean I probably wouldn’t have known that there are different kinds of shapes because I never really thought about the openings that are in those grids. When you see it, you just kind of know you’re not supposed to go past it. [laughs]. And I think that’s one of the extraordinary things about your work is you get us to look at things that are done over and over, that gets repeated and yet it doesn’t become boring because there’s a joyousness in it. It doesn’t seem dull or mechanical, because there’s a real pleasure in it. There’s something quite touching about that. You know the size of this is quite large and then right nearby is that very small watercolor that’s just different colored drops from a brush. There’s a connection between the two that’s very strong, and yet they’re completely distinct from each other, and I think that this activity of doing something over and over but making it fresh each time—it’s the freshness that finally pulls somebody in because all human beings are involved with doing something over and over again, I mean that’s part of our existence. And in your work, you’re saying, well these activities can be fresh each time, even though you’ve done it over and over again. In a way it’s kind of philosophical—you know how do you see the world fresh each time you see it, that you don’t come to it with a habit. And somehow a habit is thought of as a repetitive activity that’s non-thinking, but you’re making drawing both thinking and doing. You’ve connected them; you have to be precise and at the same time there’ll be a kind of randomness, not an accident, a variation or change or something. Does that make sense? Have I just gone off the edge? [laughs].

Frost: Well, you know, I’m definitely interested in the possibility where you can do something perhaps without too much thinking, or being dragged down by burdensome thought.

Rail: Is this fencing piece one of the largest things you have ever done?

Frost: It is. Many years ago, as a student I made larger works, but in the last few years this is definitely the largest one. In a way, it is slightly determined by the size of paper which is 77 and a half and the safety netting is not much wider, so it’s really the paper determining the size here. I couldn’t have used another paper. But in a lot of these works, it’s really the marriage of the medium and material, finding paper that I know is going to work well with the subject, process, and materials.

Rail: This group of graphite drawings also seems like a breakthrough.

Frost: I would say it’s a kind of breakthrough. It’s not one that occurred over night. There are a few different types of works made in different ways in this show.

Rail: Yeah, I would say there are a few different types.

Frost: With a thread that links them. At the same time, I feel this is a slight backlash against all the years where I’ve literally sat at the table for ten to twelve years pouring all my attention into a very small area. With this show, and these pieces, it feels good to have gotten up [laughs]

Rail: [laughs] Yeah you got up from your desk! You’ve got things on the floor.

Frost: Right. Things have been changing for me. I felt a need to do something else, and expand. You see other people working very directly, and I’ve worked directly before, to make some of these drawings. I’ve really dedicated a huge amount of my time to individual drawings, and I hadn’t been able to do other things that I thought about doing. This time I’ve got out, away from the desk and I’m standing, I’m doing things, I’ve found materials on the street outside of my daughter’s school. And in a way I feel a little less insular, but then I recognize that for me being insular or being slightly cut-off has been necessary.

Rail: Let’s talk about this thing of being alone. Your practice is really about being alone in a room. I remember when I first went to your apartment; the largest room which is your studio was the emptiest room in the entire house—it was like stepping into a monastery; there were a few things, but it was really the table which was the situation.

Frost: Yeah, as you say, a lot of open space… and yeah, that was always something… for me that’s a pleasure… and I think for a lot of people involved in visual arts. And also I had a child, and that changes your life.

Rail: I’ll second that.

Frost: But so I’ve got to share my time, but that’s been good for me because being alone is very natural, and as a student I was in very rural situations, and you know I would go a long time being alone.

Rail: Years ago, when we first talked about your work, and I am thinking of a drawing you did using gum Arabic and an orange medium to make rows and rows of similar marks, you said that when you were doing them, your daughter was sitting at the same table with you.

Frost: That’s right, yeah.

Rail: And somehow you still had to be precise [laughs] as she was drawing next to you.

Frost: [laughs] Yes, she was, and I probably wouldn’t have made that drawing if had she not been there. And we’ve worked on a few projects together.

Rail: Oh that’s nice.

Frost: Yeah, that’s been wonderful. I must admit it’s been incredible watching her develop, a real joy to me, because since the time she was born I have given her every material. I have drawings by her from when she was one, done with a ballpoint pen, just making these intense scribbles. So I’ve sort of been able to witness an artist-like problem, and its development. And I must admit I’ve developed a great pleasure in looking at children’s art. Perhaps more so then before.

Rail: So you look at them differently now?

Frost: Yeah. And I derive a lot of inspiration from it even, even now we can make a drawing together and I could do something and she’ll fill it in, and I realize that I couldn’t have done that.

Rail: Right, I understand what you’re saying.

Frost: Children have a directness, that as an artist you realize well okay you’re supposedly this person that is creative, but then with children around you notice that perhaps you have limitations, that in this very activity that you’ve developed and built upon, that you’ve also developed limitations for yourself. Maybe what I am attempting to say is that I had recognized a few of those and I’d made decisions in the past to make a certain type of work and there were other things that I wasn’t doing and other approaches to making art, and this time I’ve done a few other things, and hopefully increased the possibilities for myself to make work. I don’t know where quite where I’ll go from here.

Rail: Well I think one of the things, if you look at your work carefully is that a sense of texture always comes into play, even though it’s not emphasized—with these graphite drawings, it’s by the way the lines overlap or are next to each other, and the shift, that you feel like it’s something you can touch, right, I mean it’s not just something you can look at. There is a quietly insistent materiality in your work; things, like etching ink and graphite dust, tell you that have a physical existence; they are not image, but thing.

Frost: True. When I first made these transfer drawings I was working with a lot of transfer paper, it was always a little frustrating because the amount of pigment that you could really transfer from one surface to another. I started just using graphite transfer paper, but even then it’s a little dissatisfying. And so I thought about it for a long time, and I realized that I wanted to pursue this type of work, and I found a way of creating my own transfer paper, where I was coating sheets of Mylar or paper with an oil stick, oil pastel, and that really brought it back to life, and allowed for a lot of the other drawings that you see in the show where, in some of them, I’m just building pastel on perforated surfaces, and so texture became much more important.

Rail: Except it’s not fetishized again. I think that’s really… I mean some people really fetishize the texture—it’s like “look at this look at this”—but in yours it’s not calling attention to itself but it’s apparent at the same time.

Frost: Yeah, well it’s not worked over and over. It’s literally just the density of the pastel releasing onto the surface. With the other drawings, yes I worked them much more, but it’s not labored.

Rail: Right. I remember when I came to your place you were experimenting with making lines with the chalk line?

Frost: That’s right. When I first arrived in New York doing various sorts of jobs like construction, not that I was very good at it [laughs], to see someone cut a piece of sheetrock using a chalk line is quite interesting because it’s very close to studio activity. particularly if you like drawing or line. It was a tool that I was very attracted to, and then I later found out that the Japanese make and use one in cabinet making that is a much more refined version of the chalk spool, they make one for ink, using ink, and a finer line, and once again as with the safety fencing, it was something years ago I’d seen. I mean it’s strange how these things curve, come back, it’s like your interests are always sort of feeding on themselves, I find that reassuring. You don’t ever waste your time.

Rail: Yeah well, you don’t waste your time, and in your case you don’t even waste the dust [laughs]. I mean I was thinking, it seems to me that as you have an ecological art practice [laughs]

Frost: [laughs] that’s interesting.

Rail: You know not that that means anything, I mean it may mean something to somebody but it seems to me just out of who you are that you’ve developed this practice where nothing gets thrown away. You’ve saved graphite dust and used your fingers to press it into paper and make a drawing.

Frost: Yeah. Well I mean for some people not throwing things away can be a huge problem [laughs].

Rail: [laughs] Well for you, I mean I just wanna say this now, you may not throw anything away, but when I came to your house it was very Spartan.

Frost: [laughs] Well maybe, talking about collecting things, I started off by saying that a lot of things that you’re collecting are experiences, but now I’m bringing more things in the studio.

Rail: I’m sure you’re studio’s that cluttered now. One notched rubber disc and one piece of safety netting [laughs].

Frost: I found what I needed. And in fact even since the show’s opened, I’ve been discarding some of the things that I might have used, and that’s a good feeling because I don’t want to be burdened by having things around, and I also feel that the things that I had found or thought of using for the show I could just let go of them because I feel like I’m going to be doing something else.


John Yau


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2008

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