Jens Petersen: You live and work in Harris, New York. I’ve heard it’s desolate, especially around this time. Do you ever feel like you are surrounded by strange energy? Do you even believe in that stuff? Whenever I am in places of isolation, especially in nature, I always get the sense I am seeing weird stuff out of the corners of my eye. Is this true for you and does it channel back to your paintings?
Joshua Abelow: I'd say the vibe where I live is unique. It's a forgotten kind of place. The heyday of the area was in the 1950s and 60s when New Yorkers came to spend their summers at resorts like Kutcher's, Grossinger's, or The Concord. At one time there were hundreds of resorts, but now they are ruins or missing altogether. There are definitely ghosts here. I think the strange beauty of this particular area has informed my painting practice a great deal. It teaches me to look at what's been forgotten or overlooked and to remember that nothing is permanent.
JP: Helen’s Costume is situated in a garage, and you are known to exhibit in some ‘non-traditional’ spaces. How do you feel your works shift or transform between formal and more ‘casual’ settings? Recently in the show Overlook Mountain House Ruins in Woodstock, all the works are exhibited outside. Perhaps casual is the wrong word too, is ‘outside’ casual or dead-serious?
Abelow: In general, I'd say the emergent art world consistently supports my work while the established commercial art world ignores or overlooks my work. As a result, I've been open to exhibition opportunities outside of white cubes in large cities. When artworks are exhibited in traditional gallery spaces there is the issue of money and how it informs the work. I find that many contemporary galleries function primarily as luxury shops with expensive items for rich people to buy. In this context, any legitimate conversation about art is undermined. Exhibiting outside of the traditional gallery context is a way to sidestep this issue and, in doing so, becomes a subversive act that cannot be separated from the meaning of the art object itself. I'm interested in this.
JP: You often work with the same motif or image multiple times. Do you consider these images part of a ‘network’ that you are creating? As in – are the witches related to the worms, or is E.T. Connected to the falling stick-man character. Do these figures interact, or do you view the structure of the paintings as a sort of confinement for these figures? Like a St. Elsewhere snow globe situation.
Abelow: All the motifs in my work, including the geometric abstractions, are characters in an abstract non-linear novel. A sustained painting practice is conducive to this sort of thing because it is cyclical - you leave a little behind when you venture into new territory and when the new territory becomes more familiar you go back and bring what you were doing before and introduce it. In this way, new situations are created. This is the way I move forward in painting. It's a research project that involves a great deal of intuition. Your use of the word "network" makes me think of that essay, Painting beside itself (2009), by David Joselit. I think I read it around that time and found it very interesting.
JP: I was thinking of the Joselit essay! I also think the idea of 'the network' becomes interesting when it comes time to archive or 'systemize'. I love that you mention everything as being part of the abstract novel. In my own practice I'm thinking of the same issue, but I keep coming back to the idea of a stage play. However this performance also exists in a very abstract space. As if it was never documented, it just happened. In a way I'm trying to work backwards and rearrange whatever this play was. I think of Trisha Donnelly's 2002 performance at Casey Kaplan where she rode in on a horse, then swiftly left. The 'documentation' of this only exists as word of mouth renditions, like old folk tales. Perhaps there is not any particular question I am trying to ask, but how 'open' is this novel, does it function to archive your work? Tell a narrative, or is it metaphorical?
Abelow: Yes yes I love the idea of a stage play too. Makes me think of Samuel Beckett. Back in 2007/2008 I was thinking a lot about Bruce Nauman's work (particularly the early work from the 60s) and how he was so interested in art as activity and how the documentation of the activity essentially becomes the art. I think what is particularly interesting is the way social media platforms have turned all of us into public performers. Collectively, as a society, we "show" the public what we have curated and arranged all day long via our twitter, facebook, instagram, tik tok accounts.
I think of art making as a kind of game that I am playing with myself but also with an imagined audience. It's a bit like chess - the rules of the game remain the same, but there are an infinite number of variations. The complexity of the game evolves as the player develops their skill. The novel is very open. I think most good paintings allow a lot of room for a viewer to project their own ideas and experiences onto them. If a painting is too didactic it doesn't allow for the projection I am talking about. It's important to create images (abstract or not) that point to ideas or feelings without explaining them. I think this is the sweet spot.
JP: There is a hobgoblin whose name is Robin Goodfellow and who is featured in a lot of 16th and 17th century English literature. Goodfellow is not necessarily one ‘guy’ but an entity that shifts through time and might be several other people. He is portrayed as a lively trickster that could shape-shift to confuse the people he encountered and uses his shapeshifting to play cruel jokes on people. He’s a helper, but also a disruptor. I interpret your paintings as sometimes referencing a sort of shapeshifting, or shifting of personas, you often refer to yourself and your own name in your work, is that a shapeshifting tactic? Is “Abelow” referenced in the paintings different from you as a person, and how are they different?
Abelow: I wasn't familiar with Goodfellow until you brought him up, but I'd say there is a strong connection between Abelow and Goodfellow. I love this idea that Goodfellow is an entity who shifts through time and might be several other people. That is very much how I think about "Abelow." Goodfellow also relates to Freddy Krueger, the unofficial protagonist of my curatorial endeavor. The best way I can try to answer your question is to say that as a person I'm not interesting. I'm extremely limited by my gender, personal experiences, financial situation, genetics, location, education, etc. Similar to creating an online persona, painting allows us to expand ourselves into any shape, form, or idea we can imagine. It allows us to commune with the dead and to invent the future. But, it's important to note that painting is not entertainment. Entertainment is the industry of sedation. Its intent is to lull society into a state of passivity as an escape from reality. Art is intended to wake us up ("Don't fall asleep!"), to inspire with limited means. The same means that have been available to human beings since the birth of civilization.
Artist Profile: Joshua Abelow
interviewed by Jens Petersen
Joshua Abelow, Worm Painting, 2022 Oil on linen, 20 x 14 inches
featured in Hog Gob at Helen's Costume.
Joshua Abelow, Untitled (Abstraction “HHEE”), 2022, Oil on linen, 12 x 9 inches. Featured in Joshua Abelow at Overlook Mountain House Ruins, Woodstock, NY.
Joshua Abelow in Harris NY.
Joshua Abelow, Untitled, 2020, oil on linen 12 x 9 inches, From the exhibition Anti Magic at Et al San Francisco, CA.
Joshua Abelow, Untitled, 2020, oil on linen 12 x 9 inches, From the exhibition EDM at King's Leap, New York, NY.