Neoteric Art: Give us some background information on yourself including when you decided to be an artist.
Michael Behle: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri in a working-class family. My father’s family owns and operates a materials supply company in which I worked on and off as I was growing up. In many ways, that experience has informed the sensibilities of my work. Like many artists, I remember back to my early childhood and always being enamored at the idea of drawing (creating) images. I decided to study art (graphic communications) after high school and soon realized that I was only truly interested in having a greater sense of autonomy in my work, and then switched my focus towards painting. Transferring to Maryland Institute College of Arts, I set off to become a painter but towards the end of my junior year felt as though there was no resolution in my efforts. This is when I began to work with clay and generated my BFA thesis show as well as my portfolio that would serve as my entrance into the MFA program at Rutgers. There I continued to work in a sculptural mode all the while looking to painters for information. Upon graduation I moved to NYC and slowly began to find painting again. Now I move between the two modes.
NA: Discuss your different approaches to painting, drawing and sculpture.
MB: I have a great love for ideas and pay attention to those that resonate with me. Sometimes I take a very logical/formulaic approach and at other times a very intuitive one, to determine how these ideas will become something. I like to pose the question. What if? It is very useful for me in developing my work, maybe akin to Jasper John’s saying, “take something, do something to it, do something else to it.” I also find a familiar comfort in the words of Albert Camus, “being on a slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art those images in whose presence our hearts first opened.” Martin Kippenberger is an artist I have been looking at for many years. Recently I saw his retrospective at MOMA and fell in love with his use of titles. One in particular was that of a series of paintings titled “Dear painter, please paint for me,” and it continues to resonate with me. Kippenberger plays on his place as the painter/artist and cultural critic. In this series, he commissioned another painter (a sign painter) to paint for him, a concept which explores the reciprocal nature of our beings.
I take a kind of engage and detach approach in developing ideas. I am a part of what I often times comment on, but I will retreat from it to gain a perspective that may have been skewed by the moment. Juxtaposition of color, image and form provide me with a vocabulary that begins to get at these areas that interest me. Trying to make a visual for something that does not have one or putting an image to the idea of how we interact with our realities is what I try to do. These visuals give us documents to spend time with and to consider—an opportunity to contemplate.
NA: You say that you are interested in the human condition. Elaborate.
MB: There was a round table discussion in Vienna about art (Positions in Art, Mak-Round-Table, published for the reopening of the MAK in Vienna, 1994) including Chris Burden, among others, and he shared several thoughts I identify with on the purpose/antipurpose of art. He said, “[a]rt is an inquiry, a search, like what physicists do in a laboratory. It’s looking. To expect solutions all the time subverts what art is. Nobody really knows why [our ancestors] started to paint on caves…. It was an attempt to solve something that they didn’t understand. It was about gaining power over things that are mysterious and frightening.” Also, the painter Philip Guston suggested that, “You see, I look at my paintings, speculate about them. They baffle me, too. That’s all I’m painting for.” I feel these ideas are very much a part of the thinking in my work. A lot of what I do is based on personal narrative, this provides a starting point, and the finished pieces may or may not convey that origin. The initial ideas are cultivated from my history and interpretations of memory and emotion, but I do not hamper the work’s ability to change and become less specific. I look for images and thoughts that offer contrasts that resonate with me, taking cues from the realms of literature, song, music, visual languages, and pop culture. All of these areas offer a rich landscape through which to navigate, leading to works that explore fragility, harshness, honesty, and deception among many other themes that are a part of the human condition.
NA: Are you working on a new series or ideas?
MB: I have a show scheduled at Hogar Collection in New York City in early 2010 and another at a college near St. Louis in the Fall of 2010. For both of these shows, I am continuing my exploration of dualities and their ability to illuminate thoughts, situations, memories—the human experience. However, how these concepts will be resolved remains to be seen.
NA: You live and work in St. Louis. Discuss the St. Louis art scene.
MB: As St. Louis is a Midwestern city, there is a certain amount of insulation from more progressive art scenes, either coastal or international, but there are institutions as well as individuals working toward creating a dialogue with the whole of contemporary art.
NA: Who are some contemporary artists that you admire?
MB: I happen to have an ongoing list, as this question has come up in other contexts. I’m sure there are more I might mention, but here are some (in no particular order): Lisa Sanditz, Kate Shepherd, Philip Guston, John Baldessari, Ann Hamilton, Peta Coyne, Mary Heilman, Ana Mendieta, Richard Diebenkorn, Tim Hawkinson, Martin Puryear, Martin Kippenberger, Roxy Paine, Susan Rothenberg, Jim Hodges, Robert Goetz, Robert Motherwell , Jonathon Lasker, Bruce Nauman, Pepon Osorio, Not Vital, Gillian Carnegie, Andy Warhol, Eva Hesse, Greg Edmondson, David Hockney, Terry Winters, Franz West, Jenny Saville, John Currin, Amy Sillman, Glenn Ligon, Tomma Abts, Stacie Johnson, Brian Dehart, Lauriston Avery, Albert Oehlen, Stanley Whitney, Forrest Bess, Cecily Brown, Juan Usle, Walton Ford, Jules de Balincourt, Richard Prince, Joan Mitchell, Dave Kearns, Erin Rachel Hudak, José Lerma, Donald Baechler
NA: Concerning your art career, please share a short term goal and a long term goal.
MB: I hope to put together great shows for the upcoming year, and a long term goal would be to continue engaging in poignant discussions with/in the realm of contemporary art.