Bad at Sports

Interview with Chris Doyle

By Bad at Sports December 5, 2012

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.

Image: Thomas Cole. The Savage State, 1834, from The Course of Empire, 1833-1836; oil on canvas, 39.5 × 63.5 in. Gift of The New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society, New York.

Artist Chris Doyle's exhibition, Idyllwild, was on view at Catharine Clark Gallery, in San Francisco, from September 1 to October 28, 2012, as part of the larger programming for the 2012 Zero1 Biennial. Bad at Sports contributor and Art Practical director Patricia Maloney spoke with Doyle at the exhibition's opening, which prompted the further conversation in the artist's Brooklyn studio on October 17, 2012. Two weeks later, Hurricane Sandy hit the New York metropolitan area to devastating effects. The "fulcrum moment of disaster" that Doyle describes in his 2009 animation, Apocalypse Management, would play out in image after image taken in New York City and New Jersey as residents reeled from the damage wrought by the storm. This abridged version of their conversation is part of the ongoing collaboration between Bad at Sports and Art Practical. You can listen to the full conversation on the podcast in an upcoming episode.


Patricia Maloney: The first thing I notice in your studio is a large work that closely resembles one included in your recent show at Catharine Clark Gallery—although that work was much smaller and on Duratrans, and this is a watercolor.

Chris Doyle: It’s an eighteen-by-four-foot watercolor triptych called The Larger Illusion. The central panel depicts a Minotaur of sorts: part-animal and part-plant. It’s a dead tree that appears to have a bull’s head as its base. So it has all those Minotaur references, including the labyrinth; a viewer is under a very large, very elaborate, very twisted set of trees, some of which appear to be straightforward while others twist into interesting shapes.

PM: What I noticed about the work at Catharine Clark—and it is certainly true here—is how your color palette is alluring and deceptive. The image of the massive entanglement of dead branches immediately presents itself as a labyrinth, suggesting that it would be prohibitive for one to enter the depicted space. But the colors are so vibrant that they enable one to get caught in this space.

CD: I have struggled with trying to get watercolor to be as vibrant as I want it to be. The imagery is fairly menacing and the color does pull you in to where you are simultaneously attracted and repulsed. The color palette itself is meant, more than anything, to underscore the light, and the light is intended to create a sense of space. When I use color in these large-scale pieces, I think about carving space out of and deeply into them; I want to simultaneously pull you into them and push you out in front of them. In The Larger Illusion, the experience of being immersed in it relates so much to its origin as an image for me, which goes back to childhood and hanging out under trees, making little weird spaces that no one else could be in.

PM: In the right panel, the light is dappling across the branches, which does suggest this languid ease, in which you are studying the light and allowing it to move while you lay still. There is a fantastic contradiction between that stillness and the dynamic movement of the branches, which, as you mention, are pretty menacing. It suggests entrapment, which echoes across a lot of your work: the underlying threat of the landscape.

CD: Especially over the past few years, I have been thinking a lot about the menace of the landscape, which echoes back to Romanticism but is anti-Romantic. The animation series I’ve been working on relates to a series of Hudson River paintings by Thomas Cole called The Course of Empire. The series considers how our understanding of our relationship to the environment has created this sense of menace.



Chris Doyle. The Larger Illusion, 2012 (full image, top; detail, bottom); watercolor; 216 x 48 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

PM: The Course of Empire (1833–1836) is the series of paintings in which Cole starts with the landscape in an Arcadian state and goes through an industrialized landscape to finally arrive at a landscape in ruins.

CD: The first one is actually The Savage State: the landscape untouched by man—although Cole includes what are, to our modern eyes, fairly kitschy men in animal skins with spears. The second painting is The Arcadian or Pastoral State, which includes a small architectural structure in the landscape. The third one is The Consummation of Empire, where that little bit of architecture has blossomed into a full-fledged city. Then we have Destruction, where we see some kind of disaster going on, and then finally Desolation, which is the city in ruins and taken over by nature again. It is a cycle. Interestingly, cycles in general are having a lot of reverberations right now: economic cycles, for example, and in the apocalyptic, end-of-the-world thinking that was prevalent a couple of years ago when we were being visited by various hurricanes, tsunamis, and environmental disasters while deeply enmeshed in various wars. That prevailing apocalyptic sense made me feel like The Course of Empire was something to look at again. I had studied the paintings in-depth, a long time ago. When they came back into my thoughts and started to reverberate, I decided they needed more investigation.

PM: The series of animations that you are producing actually starts with the decimation.


Chris Doyle. Apocalypse Management (telling about being one being living) 2009 (still); single-channel video: projected digital animation on Mac Mini; edition of five; 5:33-min. continuous loop. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

CD:  I am not following the painting series closely; it is more like the animation begins with some core idea that interests me, and I dig deeper along those lines. The first one in my series was a Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) commission in 2009 called Apocalypse Management, and it is the moment when destruction has just happened. It’s stunning and horrifying; the beginnings of grief and digging out are stirring but haven’t quite happened yet. It’s the fulcrum moment of disaster.

PM: I’ve always been interested in the psychology of apocalyptic thinking, and while we understand many experiences cyclically—the cycle you describe of Cole’s is one that we understand to exist at different scales—there are these cultural, economic, and political moments that erupt with apocalyptic foreboding. It becomes impossible for us to understand things progressing beyond their current state of crisis. Things can’t move forward; they are just going to collapse.

Chris Doyle. Waste_Generation, 2011; digital animation on Mac Mini; edition of five; dimensions variable ; TRT: 6:28 min. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

 CD: That is the origin of this piece, almost precisely. It is this sense that, “Oh, we are in this apocalyptic moment; the world is going to end.” I am weirdly very bleak but naturally an optimist. I automatically think, “Yes, it’s incredibly apocalyptic, but in this context, it makes complete sense that we’re at this point.”

I had developed a few more skills by the time I started the second piece, which is called Waste_Generation, but I also wanted it to be fairly complex, and there are a lot of ideas packed into it. I started with the core concept of Cole’s—that nature takes over—and the piece got very, very dark at times. But I kept thinking, “Don’t worry, nature takes over. It’s hopeful.” That play of darkness and optimism creates a lot of tension in the work.

PM: I remember when we met in San Francisco that I told you about my camping trip to Mount St. Helen’s, thirty years after that volcanic eruption. Where we were camping was in the blast zone, so we saw all of these petrified trees that had fallen and the pattern of the blast because of the direction of the trees on the ground. Nothing is growing yet; the soil is still this crumbly ash. But then we descended down not even two miles on a hike around a lake that was formed when the blast damned a river, and life has just grown up around it. There were so many wildflowers; there were beaver dams and these tiny, sapling trees growing.

CD: When you first told me that story, I thought, “I have to go there,” and you can see why.

PM: To come back to the entanglement in The Larger Illusion, it is evident that this is a composition rather than a depiction of something occurring naturally. Is it important that you tip your hand, to reveal the human imprint on what might be perceived as an unfettered landscape?

CD: One of the issues that comes up when thinking specifically about landscape rather than nature—and by landscape, I mean an artistic interpretation of the land—is that our relationship to nature changes all the time. I am much more interested in the cultural interpretation of nature than nature itself. In Waste_Generation, for example, much of the landscape is completely stylized through design—specifically the influence of William Morris and the representation of the acanthus, which is the plant on the dollar bill. I am interested not just in natural elements but also in the way we interpret them through design and the way we control the natural world through designing it into submission. In this particular piece, I remind you that you are not looking at nature; you are looking at landscape and bringing a cultural interpretation into the piece in a knowing way.

PM: Design frequently responds not only to aesthetic considerations but also to political ideologies. How does that come into play in your landscapes?

CD: Design always has some relationship to authority. Washington, DC, is the simplest example of the way classicism is used in urban design to evoke a sense of power. I became very interested in the design of currency; the ultimate emblem of power is this little piece of paper that you trade for things. One of the themes that weaves through Waste_Generation is paper: the design of that paper and the way nature is interpreted on the design. In the animation, there is a paper mill, a jungle, and all these things related to the cycle of paper.  That interest ties back to the fact that the entire animation, which is six-and-a-half-minutes long is drawn on the computer screen and not on paper. At some psychological level, I was also thinking about missing paper.

PM: In Cole’s cycle, there is nostalgia for a preindustrial age. What nostalgia is at play in your series as it’s evolving?

CD: That is a good question because The Course of Empire is so much about the Industrial Revolution just as it is getting underway. There is clearly nostalgia for an agrarian society. There is no question in my project that the nostalgia is for the postindustrial landscape. I am romanced by the moment that industrialization has given way to digital culture.

I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, and I have a soft spot for abandoned factories. The nostalgia going on here is so much about the moment when our industrialized culture has given way to information technology.

PM: But many of these spaces, MASS MoCA being one of them, get repurposed as cultural entities, so does that equate artists to a savage state?

CD: Spatially, there are some amazing things that bubbled up from the architecture that was necessary to make that industrial production happen. The objects and spaces and the way they came together was really unprecedented. It’s a type of urban design. In the same way, I am interested in a really great medieval city; a great factory has exactly that same quality. It does have a savage quality, I suppose, although after Waste_Generation was finished, I knew I was going to swing back to the beginning of the cycle, the savage state, and begin that section. In parallel, I knew that I needed to empty out a lot and create a clean slate.

The central element of the Catharine Clark exhibition is Idyllwild, a two-channel projection piece; there is a wall projection and a floor projection that are working in tandem and constantly changing shape. We are essentially looking at shifting pieces of light on the wall and on the floor. That light is actually made from compositing footage of watercolor bleeding on paper over and over again to create what is appears to be a turbulent sky.

The two pieces always have a relationship to each other. They look as if an Ellsworth Kelly work has been projected onto the wall that slowly changes into another shape while a corresponding floor shape also changes. Sometimes, it may look like a piece of light on the wall that is casting light onto the floor, and there are other times when it appears more abstract than figural.  The piece is never the same twice.


Chris Doyle. Idyllwild, 2012; two-channel projected generative animation, Mac Mini, speakers; music by Garth Stevenson and produced by JoeArcidiacono; edition of three + two AP; dimensions variable; continuous loop; installation view, edition 1/3, Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

PM: While Idyllwild resembles a turbulent sky, the colors are soft and muted, and the landscape itself is entirely absent. The room steps in and replaces the landscape. Whereas in The Larger Illusion the encouragement is to go deep into this other space, in Idyllwild the suggestion is to remain interior to one’s self.

CD: In moving from a very complex animation such as Waste_Generation—where we are drawn into it in a conventional, cinematic way—to Idyllwild, I wanted to shift from working in two to three dimensions. I wanted to make the immersion stronger and put us in the same space as the projections. So much of what I do is about that visceral, spatial experience. The savage aspect of Idyllwild hearkens back to the Minimalists wanting to pare down to just an essential presence. Emptying the content paralleled wanting to strip back to a savage state. Ultimately, that savage state ended up being about interiority, in which we are immersed in this three-dimensional landscape of changing, shifting light. I removed all the landscape except the sky, and that was as raw as I could take it. Now we’re inside something and we’re alone with it. It becomes intensely visceral, to watch it.

PM: This visceral, spatial experience is not just about encouraging a phenomenological encounter but also about situating viewers in an experience that has all of these ideological and cultural implications. We have to align where we are positioned in relation to those implications.

CD: What was your experience of that?

PM: Idyllwild is much more meditative than what I just described; the cultural implications are not immediately apparent. It encouraged me to step into the rhythm of the changing light. The soundtrack was more dissonant than the images were.  But any experience that strives to accomplish a certain level of immersion encourages one to go through states of being unaware and then hyperaware. It was coming back into that hyperawareness, and understanding this work in the context of the other pieces in the series, that raised the question, “What are the implications of my being present here, at this point in the series?”

CD: I really want things to operate so you need no information to begin with. At the very simplest level, the primary experience is of watching pieces of light. At another level, Idyllwild resembles a sky but not quite, and every so often there is a drip, and we see that it is paint and the texture is the texture of paper. So there is another layer of information that might speak about the technology at work to make the piece, including consideration of what is done by hand. And then there is the level of being part of a landscape cycle and thinking about the relationship between the landscape and the room itself. We peel away the layers, and maybe the experience of being in that room recapitulates the experience of discovering one’s relationship to landscape.

PM: In relation to The Course of Empire, you start at the moment of apocalypse and you are at the savage state now, but that means you are going to end up at the rise of empire, which of course, depicts structures of power. I realize there are these elements at play in your work that are about restructuring and rearticulating spaces of power.

CD: Yes, I have to confess—and I grew up Catholic, so of course I begin all sentences with “I have to confess …”—that it comes from the fact that I grew up Catholic. Many of my most intense early spatial and artistic experiences were the quasi-religious experiences of the cathedral, of being in that space of power. What space exists in the world that better represents the power of God or, really, of the Catholic Church? One goes from the unbelievable experience of being in the Vatican to being in the confessional in the dark. That is a pretty broad spectrum of spatial experiences. When that is introduced to you as a little kid, you don’t have the capacity to figure out what’s happening to you, and yet those are pretty formative experiences.

As an adult, I am able to unpack all of the negative baggage that comes with religion, but I am left with a residual experience of space and ritual that I have nowhere to put.  All of the meaning has been taken away, and we are missing something, or we are trying to recreate something that has the same impact. Because we are so young when this stuff happens, it has a real, biological impact on one’s body. As much thinking or art historical references that I might bring to the work now, a lot of that thinking is in service to getting at this other, very visceral experience.

PM: What are some of the things that you bring into the work?

CD: Across the work and the media, there is always immersion, physicality, and usually a layer of art historical references, which I bring in because those are part of my everyday life. Those are the things that move me the most, and I have the urge to share them in the work. I have dealt a lot in spectacle, and I want my spectacles to fill me up in this way that overwhelms me. I often have that experience when looking at a very small painting, but I also want to put one in a space that feels overwhelming. So I’ve made some projects in which I’ve attempted to do that. And then there are some very intimate experiences; I’ve made some tiny paintings. I think that level of scale and intimate experience is a spectacle in its own right. It draws attention to itself by pulling you so close to it and wanting to envelop you in a very tiny world.

PM: That makes sense if you think of spectacle as any event or encounter that creates a disruption in your sense of your own scale.  But your watercolors are frequently of a very large scale.

CD: I started doing large-scale watercolors a long time ago, as an undergraduate. At the time, I had these painting instructors who told me it was not a legitimate medium; one absolutely had to paint with acrylic on panel or oil on canvas. Watercolor was a medium for Sunday painters. I wanted to butch it up a little and make them big. It happens to coincide with something I’ve always been interested in, which is to make things as immersive as possible.

PM: I am always curious how artists who work across different media and work with different tools shift their thinking as their tools change. That question is especially applicable to you because there is a consistency in terms of the imagery and the aesthetic across bodies of work.

CD: Each tool has this implicit set of behaviors that come along with it. It is very hard to use a tool against itself sometimes, to pull myself out of what that tool can do. In shifting media, it helps me to think differently about the tool that I am using. If I spend a long time working with a paintbrush, I start making things on the computer that are more painterly. Simultaneously, producing very elaborate things on the computer has had a profound impact on the way that I make watercolors. I feel that the shifting is so much of what it is about. It is so refreshing and liberating to shift media all the time. It also implies restlessness; I do get impatient and annoyed. Sometimes I make large projects that involve public interaction, and that gets exhausting over a period of time. It makes me want to rush back to making hand-drawn animations that are ridiculously labor-intensive over and over again. I am trying to harness the restlessness for the good.


Chris Doyle. Smokescreen, 2010; Duratrans on LED light-box; edition of five + two AP; 14 x 24. 5 in. framed. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

PM: Given that restlessness, are there things you consistently return to? Are there things you are always looking at?

CD: There are things I am always looking at, it’s true, and things that I forget but rediscover, which is always exciting. At the core, there are some Northern European paintings that I always look at. Bernini is a secret god for me. You can understand The Larger Illusion in relation to the twisting and turning of Bernini. I am a guy who is very interested in Baroque architecture, but the problem for me for a long time was that I didn’t know what to do with all these contemporary heroes that didn’t fit or make any sense in terms of the aesthetic. I’m speaking of people like Robert Irwin and Ellsworth Kelly. I find it so weird that I am interested in this overwrought, intense twisting, pushing, and pulling, and the textural intensity of a Breughel or a Hieronymous Bosch as well as this more austere space. They don’t resolve themselves easily.

PM: But Kelly and Irwin are both there in Idyllwild. They’re in your savage state.

CD: That’s such a big change for a lot of people to experience in one show, to flip between Waste_Generation and Idyllwild. One needs to understand what we’ve been talking about here to understand how this has taken place. They’re pulled together by the thematic content, the paint, and the sky—the Hudson River sky is present in both. This is my way of emptying out some stuff and taking a breather from it. If I start with the savage state and rebuild, I can see how I get from that empty space to Empire. I have no actual idea how that is going to happen, which is exciting.


Chris Doyle is a multidisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn, New York. He received his bachelors degree in fine arts from Boston College and his masters degree in architecture from Harvard University. In addition to recent solo exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, and at The Taubman Museum of Art, his work has been shown at The Brooklyn Museum of Art, MASS MoCA, P.S.1 Museum of Contemporary Art, The Tang Museum, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Sculpture Center, and as part of the New York Video Festival at Lincoln Center and the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Doyle curated 50,000 Beds, a large-scale, collaborative series of video installations involving forty-five artists and presented simultaneously by The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield; ArtSpace, New Haven; and Real Art Ways, Hartford. His work has been supported by grants from New York Foundation for the Arts, NYSCA, Creative Capital Foundation, and the MAP Fund. His temporary and permanent urban projects include LEAP, presented by Creative Time; Commutable, commissioned by The Public Art Fund; as well as recent commissions for Culver City, California; Tampa, Florida; Kansas City, Missouri; and Austin, Texas.

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