Pataphysics Magazine Interview with Donald Baechler
from the Kitten issue
Donald Baechler: I was in Japan working on some print editions. I did the usual shopping for books, art supplies and work clothes for the print studio. I bought Japanese work clothes in Xtra Large, which turned out to be anyway too small. I found out you’re supposed to get your work clothes made to order. I also went shopping for modern Japanese fashions, but I didn’t get any as they are cheaper in New York.
I went shopping for porno once in Shinjuki District. The Western porno had all the private parts carefully blacked out with a magic marker. The Japanese porno I found didn’t have any sex organs at all, but lots of blood, very violent, usually some school-boy raped and bludgeoned in a toilet, things like that.
I went shopping for cigars and I didn’t find any, just some old White Owls in the Imperial Hotel lobby.
But actually I was working all day, so I did my shopping at night, and mostly I went shopping for a drink.
Pataphysics: Did you take any photos in Japan?
DB: There exists a photograph of myself with Martin Kippenberger in a sort of Geisha bar in Tokyo. It was taken with my camera but is not my photograph.
I took many photographs of billboards and hand-painted signs, which exist in great numbers in the suburbs around Tokyo and Nagoya, but rarely anymore in the big cities themselves.
In the Temple gardens and public parks in Kyoto there are a number of hand-painted maps showing the locations of various shrines, landscaping features, and Buddhas. I photographed a few of these.
But this is kind of a silly question. Everybody takes photos. I took very few photos that turned out to be useful for my work. Once or twice I forgot my camera and shot a few rolls with those new disposable cameras from Fuji, which take a pretty good snapshot.
P: Did you collect any ‘anonymous’ work in Japan?
DB: No, I didn’t actually collect much of anything in Japan. There doesn’t seem to be the same tradition in Japan of so-bad-they’re-good amateur artists. There’s no tradition of so-called Art Brut that I learned about. There are these great Zen paintings by Buddhist Monks, who get drunk before they start painting, but these aren’t anonymous, and I didn’t manage to buy one.
As I said earlier, there wasn’t much in Japan in the way of interesting hand-painted signs, everything was photographic or very mechanical, nothing I felt like stealing. Even the children’s drawings I saw in Japan were for my taste over-refined.
One of my favorite things used to be to have drunks in bars do drawings for me. This was difficult in Japan, by the time someone was drunk enough to be friendly they were too drunk to hold a pen.
P: In relation to your work, what is it you recognize in the ‘anonymous’ work you collect?
DB: Well, the works I collect mostly aren’t actually anonymous. In the case of a drawing that I ask a guy in a bar or one of my assistants or somebody I meet on the beach to draw for me, the drawing has a meaning for me relating to the time and place and circumstances of its execution, so even if it’s unsigned or its author is unknown, it’s loaded with meaning for me.
In the case of the African Haircut paintings I collect, they’re all signed, and the artists have recognizable styles. I have a large collection of drawings by psychiatric hospital patients and other disturbed individuals, acquired mostly from doctors and teachers, but these are often signed, and again I am very aware of the author.
So all of this stuff wouldn’t really be called ‘anonymous.’ The few things I have, like some hand-painted Coney Island memorabilia, that really are anonymous, also have such a specific history that it takes the place of a signature.
But I have all this stuff around me for fairly obvious and conventional reasons. They provide direct and indirect sources for the images I deploy in my paintings and drawings. They provoke me and inform my decisions while I’m working. I am always re-evaluating the way my hand moves.
P: To what extent can you re-evaluate the way your hand moves?
DB: Well, I’m terrified of the capacity for complacency and conventions in most lines. I’m afraid of familiarity; if I’m doing something too well, I stop doing it.
P: To what extent do you see your images as being involved in repetition?
DB: There are small, medium and large versions of some of my paintings, and occasionally I’ll paint the same object in red and then in black, but that’s not repetition is it? There are a couple paintings with floating vegetables and beach balls, but these are also not ‘repeated’; similar vegetables and similar beachballs, but not actually the same ones repeated.
The word ‘repetition’ carries with it the idea of the same thing done over and over. I am, hopefully, rather, reinventing these same things every time I deploy them.
P: For you does the recognition of traces of yourself bear on the success or failure of your work?
DB: I don’t understand the question.
P: Do you see your self-portraits as being separate in intention from your images of what you have called ‘self surrogates’?
DB: No, the intention is pretty much the same. I have never attempted anything really resembling self-likeness in a standard sense. The difference is the ‘self-portraits’ have as a starting point my own feeble attempts at drawing myself, or drawings of myself by others, including my teenage assistant, the guy I met in a bar last night, or whoever. But you wouldn’t want to organize a manhunt for me based on the likeness in one of my ‘self-portraits.’
On the other hand the so-called ‘self-surrogate’ pictures have other starting points, including drawings on toilet walls, telephone doodles, children’s drawings, African sign paintings, the whole standard repertoire.
Whether or not the figure is nominally a self-portrait, it functions formally in the same way as other figures. If there is a ‘subject’ in my pictures, it might be man’s awkward relation to Nature and the artificial world, and any figure will play pretty much the same role in this particular little drama.
P: Do you feel that what you have called the ‘supression of meaning’ in your work is transient?
DB: I am quite uninterested in narrative readings of my pictures. However, I don’t at all intend the pictures to be ‘meaningless.’ Meaning derives from an accrual of small episodes, the way a cucumber floats over the bald guy’s head, or whatever. ‘Supression of meaning’ may be ‘transient,’ in that a meaning, or several meanings will be revealed over time to anyone who wants to bother thinking about it. But I guess most art is like that.
P: What failure does your work deal with?
DB: The failure to get it right the first time.