Grider talks hot wax, flotsam, and Assyrian reliefs

Assistant Professor of Studio Art Logan Grider spent much of his sabbatical on an Irish beach at low tide, digging up plastic. He and his two young sons would carry bags of refuse — broken bottles, torn children’s Wellingtons, fragments of fishing buoys — back to his studio and sort the trash into stacks: yellow pieces on one table, a pile of smaller pieces on the floor. Other artists on his floor complained of the smell, but Grider saw potential. He would move between piles of trash like a chef, he says, filing, sanding, and super gluing the pieces into a whole.

“The students in the room knew that I would bring up Morandi,” he said, drawing laughs from the audience, mostly faculty, that filled the Scheuer room. They were there for his presentation, “Shifting Shapes: Scale, Surface, and Relief-like Space in Abstract Painting.”

Grider, dressed in jeans and a blazer, self-consciously jabbed a thin wooden dowel rod towards the projection screen, which displayed a 1949 still life by Giorgio Morandi depicting vases clustered on a beige table against a yellow background.

“If you look at the wall to the left of the vessels, it’s in a deep space. It’s actually the deepest space of the painting. As you let your eye move across the vessels and down the right side, though, you see that all of a sudden, the wall becomes a positive space.”

The yellow wall to the right of the table, painted in a slightly lighter yellow, seemed to draw forward, even advancing in front of the vessels.

As with the Assyrian reliefs, Italian oil paintings, and neo-impressionistic pointillism he discussed earlier in his talk, Grider focused on the way shapes and colors lead the eye around the piece, creating what he calls a piece’s “internal rhythm.”

“[Relief offers] the fluidity to negotiate illusion and the physical reality of an object.” That interplay shapes his own work.

Three of Grider’s paintings, each about five feet tall, rested on white pedestals at the back of the room. They were perfect examples of the drawbacks of digital reproduction that Grider warned of at the beginning of his presentation. In real life, you can see what’s lost in the powerpoint: the texture. A bright blue is streaked with red, white, and gold; a glass-smooth brown runs up against a blue that looks like it’s been splashed with acid.

The effect is the result of Grider’s use of encaustic, or hot wax, painting. The technique, popularized by Egyptian funerary portraits, demands speed; Grider can paint only a few strokes before the wax cools. Combined with the ease of scraping off the wax — the floor below his easel is covered in a pile of colored shavings — that tempo makes for a process marked by revision, one that follows no clear progression. Grider’s wax-splattered daily sketches of each piece, drawn over the course of the weeks required for completion, often chronicle radical shifts in a painting’s form.

Much of Grider’s sabbatical work centered on using techniques from sculpture and relief in his paintings. That meant getting comfortable with failure. After returning from his month in Ireland, he worked with wood, carving, painting, and layering. Grider found that his paintings didn’t translate well — he describes them as, more or less, total disasters. The experimentation, however, was invaluable.

“The work I was doing before the sabbatical had very flat forms, really mundane shapes, not a lot of translucence,” he says. During his time away, however, he began to explore effects like transparency and faded color.

“It could become really interesting in terms of creating space or subverting an expectation of space.”

Grider received his MFA from Yale, where he trained as a figure painter. Moving in the direction of abstract work, he says, wasn’t that much of a departure.

“The distinction between abstraction and representation is really meaningless. I think of all forms as more or less abstract, and composing has everything to do with the rhythm of the form.”

He still begins each painting as he was trained: staking out his territory on the canvas, saturating the surface as quickly as possible with intense colors. The rest, he says, is a matter of making the colors get along with each other.

His presentation closes with the first slide he showed us: the ninth century BCE Assyrian stone reliefs. When Grider went before a funding board to propose his sabbatical, he said he wanted to explore what he describes as deeper space in his paintings. In Ireland, he ended up doing the opposite.

“You’re right on the Atlantic coast in the wildest, most rural part of Ireland, and there are literally cliff faces [going] a couple hundred feet into the ocean. I don’t think I’d ever seen deeper space,” Grider confessed. It pushed him away.

He speaks with a muted reverence of visiting the Assyrian panels, which are only an inch deep at most, in New York over and over again — recalling the dark room, the sheer size of the eight-foot-tall slabs. He looks backwards in time, he says, much more than he looks forward.

“I’m not terribly interested in a lot of the conversations that are happening right now inside of art,” he says. “The things that were made before me, [though], I can’t get enough of it.”

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