Roy Tomlinson: Re-Mapping

August 22, 2016

Interview with Director of Foundation and Associate Professor, Roy Tomlinson

LR: We’re doing this interview as you have a solo exhibition coming up at the Center for Contemporary Art & Culture. You’re making an installation. I know that the bulk of your practice has been making drawings and paintings. Where did the seed of this work come from?

Roy Tomlinson:  It is difficult to tell from which direction the seeds were blown, yet here are a few possibilities:

Even as I child I somehow felt that there was more out there than that which I could see. I even felt that perhaps what I was seeing actually worked against me, and prevented me from fully seeing. Everything I was seeing seemed so damn real, so solid, so undeniable. And everyone around me seemed to pay so much attention to this thingness, without questioning it. Yet, I always felt there had to be something more, something different, and I found myself wanting to experience that which I couldn’t see -- that which I didn’t understand. I have always liked the dark, even though it can scare the hell out of me. In the dark, something else becomes my eyes and I see different things. I believe that art making is also a vehicle to use to see new things.

Between my undergraduate work at SFAI and graduate work at UC Berkeley, I had the opportunity to work on large-scale installation projects with artists including Vito Acconci, Alice Aycock, Howard Fried, and Robert Irwin.  While working on the fabrication of their works, I was often directly involved with their creative processes, both on a material and on a conceptual level.  This was especially true for the weeks I spent with Robert Irwin, and I feel that this experience had a profound effect on my thinking.  Using space as his medium, he would tweak the way in which it was both encountered and perceived, often without the viewer even being aware that anything was happening.

While at UC Berkeley I became frustrated with the limitations of my painting process. It seemed as though I was stuck in a conditioned loop where I kept ending up making the same thing. I eventually stopped painting for an extended period, and started making objects. The objects took the form of probes, insulated shields, and markers, all of which pointed to my interest in new environments, and the process of investigation, discovery and mapping. It was during this period I first made a rather crude version of the installation I will be presenting at PNCA.  Driven by how dysfunctional the studio space I had been given by the college was for painting, I found myself ripping out fixtures, covering the windows with plywood, painting everything black, and using afterimages as the only visual source from which to navigate this new environment.

I have been thinking about this piece for over 25 years.

LR: Can you talk about the questions this piece raises about how we humans are commonly moving through and experience the world?

RT:  Both physics and Buddhist psychology are of significant interest to me.  Where I see these two subjects interconnecting, I can find a response to your question.  How we see the world is not how the world actually is… and how we see the world affects the way we respond to the situations we find ourselves in. It is this deluded state that attaches us to the world of illusion, and this causes us suffering. We attach ourselves to that which is in flux and impermanent, and we see ourselves as separate and independent beings.

Through my work I try to create situations that are new and unfamiliar. I like the dark, and I like working in spaces that are challenging to navigate. In order to make decisions about how to react in these new situations, I am hoping to challenge response systems that work to maintain this delusion.

LR: You are also showing a set of your drawings. You mentioned to me that you like Terry Winter’s notion of drawing as “manual imagination.” How do you understand this phrase as it relates to your own way of working?

RT:  For me, “manual imagination” speaks to moving beyond that which is known in order to realize new circumstances through the physical process of making work. This means that the mind’s eye is activated and influenced by what is happening on the page during the act of making. In my practice, I am responding to information such as the physical nature of the materials I am using, and to the unexpected situations created by the layering of information. The residue of all the decisions I have made leave an imprint on the page, and I constantly attempting to bring this information to a more active state. This process is one that cannot be preconceived.

I see my drawings and paintings as both objects and images. Often, one of my goals in making a piece is to try to position it right on the edge that works to delineates these two categories. I find it problematic to locate this edge ahead of time, as it seems to be something that I have to discover, often by falling over it numerous times. The tension and ambiguity created by playing with this edge becomes a goal of my work – to find a place where a flat surface, over which simple and inert materials are applied, can also be read as active and infinitely spatial. For me, this formal problem is one that must be realized through the physical making process.

I am also interested in processes that lead to the transmutation of materials, a repetitive practice of pushing materials to the point where they take another form (water to vapor to water, for instance). Through this practice of obsessive work and observation a change occurs, not only in the materials, but also in the practitioner. Here again exists this connection between the physical and the psychological – the engagement in a working process that challenges and alters the mind through the repetitive manipulation of materials and the close observation of their physical transmutation.

LR: You work with a very constrained palette. Is there something about setting constraints materially or in the process that you find to be particularly generative?

RT:  I feel that working constraints are critical to my making process.  Not unlike running experiments as a scientist, I need to be able to see what is going on, to map results, and to realize the way to best utilize the information that is revealed through my work.  Without constraints, I believe there would be just too many ways to solve a problem, and the work would head in far too many directions, losing its focus. For me, constraints paradoxically create opportunities, for as I repeatedly push up against the set parameters, I must look deeper into the ways I am using my materials and/or processes.

By restricting my palette to black and white, I am forcing attention onto other factors such as the nature of the material I am using and the kind of mark that it leaves behind. When color is taken out of the equation, and scale and orientation is the same for a body of work, there is automatically a sameness applied to all the pieces in a series. Interactivity therefore becomes a key factor that can move the works forward.  Because of the given similarities in a series, I must look both at the entire body of work and a specific piece, and ask how that specific piece is informing and affecting the whole through its unique qualities.

Roy Tomlinson: ReMap opens September 1 and runs through September 22, 2016 at the Center for Contemporary Art & Culture at PNCA. Find his installation and drawings in PNCA's New Commons on the Second Floor.