XIX. Interview with… David Molesky, artist.

Interview by Robin Scher

David amongst the saguaro in early 2022.

In his conversation with The Empty Set below, Molesky speaks about his recent series of ‘unfinished’ works on linen, the precarity of perception in relation to reality and how art offers us a way to understand that better.

What have you been working on recently?

I’ve been painting on clear-primed linen and using the sandy linen color as a tone in the composition. These paintings are left “open,” so that you can see the various stages of the painting.

Oh yeah, how did that come about?

I’ve always found that starting a new painting was an opportunity for experimentation and discovery. The beginning is really the most exciting part of the process for me. About a year or so before the pandemic, I’d often find myself letting a painting sit — often for weeks — after only one session. There was something interesting happening. I was hesitant to cover it up by developing the composition in the direction of photo realism. My painter pals who would visit the studio would notice these starts and would comment: ‘you’re not going to work on it anymore, are you? Please don’t.’

So you followed their advice? 

At first, I was resistant. It’s hard to change old habits overnight. Some works I wasn’t so sure about and I’d continue with them and then feel a sense of loss when I painted over some of these interesting beginnings. But there were a couple that served as breakthrough pieces that helped me feel more resolute about this new direction. One painting in particular had a greenish-gray undertone that was visible throughout the composition, that was a stunner — I called it “Unfinished Breakfast.”  I tried it again on a huge wave painting and used the tone of raw linen to act as the sand in the foreground.

And the works you made more recently continued that trend?

Yeah, It was during a residency in Iceland last year when I thought to combine what was happening in these two breakthrough paintings. I made several 4×6 foot compositions allowing the raw linen to come through, and to leave elements of my process visible from the raw unprimed surface, through drawing, light paint marks and into more rendered and layered areas. The results reminded me a bit of Post-Impressionist drawing.

Oh yeah, how so?

Those drawings by Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec done on cardboard where the tone unifies and solidifies the loose and rapidly executed marks. My foundational painting vocabulary was largely influenced by the collection at the National Gallery in D.C. which has an amazing Post-Impressionist collection. One thing that I really appreciated about those works, is that you can see how it was made — evidence of the process that built up the image. I’m still influenced by these works. It’s especially visible in the first layers even when I intend to paint a more polished looking painting that mimics the look of the old masters.

So you sort of bridge the two styles?

Yeah, I love the compositional structure of historic classical paintings and the openness of post-impressionist drawing.

And so how did that lead you back to the more unfinished works you’ve been doing of late?

I studied contemporary art history with Hal Foster at Berkeley and my take-away understanding of postmodernism was that it allows the artist to access all layers of art history and remix it to your liking.

I began to realize that in my own process, I’d been burying my unique intuitive approach beneath a silly desire to compete with old masters such as Rembrandt and Titian.

So you’ve found a way to bring that influence more to the surface, so to speak?

Yeah, I’ve been making the various layers, stages, and beginnings more visible. I’m showing the viewer the blueprint of my process. And this leaves entry points for the viewer to be mentally involved with the painting process and to finish it in their mind’s eye.

Which comes back to what you so enjoyed about your experiences as a young artist seeing the mechanics visible in the work of the Post-Impressionists?

Yes. Important to those mechanics is the haptic sense of the brush caressing the canvas and dragging paint. When we see something like a brush stroke that was created by a particular movement, we relate to it subconsciously by imagining that our own muscles have gone through the motions of making it. I think these phenomena are harder to elicit when a painting has a very polished finish with no brush strokes visible.

Yeah, which leaves you sort of closed out from it. So opening it up and making it so that people can really get involved while they’re looking at it?

Yes. Especially when paint is applied generously. It gives something to sink your teeth into. Paint has its own physicality and presence that can engage you viscerally.

Could you expand a bit on the subject matter of your recent paintings?

I want viewers to empathically sense the state of being where the boundaries between yourself and your environment seem to dissolve — to begin to understand and reflect on what it feels like to be connected to the world around you. I was in a recent therapy session and I was talking about how I find it hard to ignore things around me that need attention. For example, I find it impossible to ignore a plant that looks like it needs water. In general, I appreciate states of connectivity to my surroundings. The concept reminds me of the Lakota way of giving gratitudes. It’s an expanding metaphor, which translates to “all my relations.” Saying it reminds you that you are related to everything and it inspires a sense of responsibility to everything around you because everything is your relative.

This comes back to your work and ideas around connection to nature and the artificial construction of the separation between humans and nature and different species and rather trying to bridge that gap. 

Yeah. I try to show the beauty in connectivity to the environment. I do this visually by allowing the figures to share much of the same color as the surroundings as if they are composed of the same material.

I experienced this phenomena once in college while camping on Northern California’s lost coast with some friends. The sun had just set and I was feeling a melancholic pang while walking on the beach in the twilight, when I had a very peculiar feeling. My friend who was with me intuited this and asked, “Molesky, how do you feel? And I answered, “I feel like a worm of dirt coming out of the Earth looking at itself.” I felt like I was Earth’s periscope.

I like how you found a way to translate that idea into the process of your painting. Exposing that raw canvas and its material quality you’re sort of peeling back the layers in the way that you’re saying, like, you know, this is the underlying material.

Yes. The differentiation of things is really a human construct. For example you can observe this in human vision. Reality is constructed from narrow bands of electromagnetic energy that is bouncing all around us. What we see and experience is a projection of the concepts that we’ve formulated about the world that serves to support our biological survival. We naturally create more information and differentiation about our environments than actually really exists.

Then I guess all you are ever actually looking at is a facsimile? What does that tell us about what we’re observing to be material reality, that it’s all just like a mirage in a way, or a projection?

Yeah, it’s a projection shaped by our human experience. Our constructed reality has evolved with us and is shaped by a long history of experience. I feel like maybe my purpose as a creative person is to remind people of the magic and mystery that’s all around us even though we live in a largely rationalistic society. It’s a great experience to tap into that mysterious element once in a while and to remind people that everything isn’t as you see or as you think you see all the time. You need to keep the door a little cracked open to let in the larger vision.

Encourage them to have the experience for themselves?

Yeah, there’s this old tale a painting mentor told me about this person who goes to visit a farmer, and the farmer is showing them his house, and he has a painting of a sunset above his fireplace. After they observe a sunset together the guy asks, ‘why do you have a painting of a sunset when you’ve got the real thing outside’. And the farmer responds, ‘Well, sunset was never as beautiful before I had the painting, its taught me to appreciate it more deeply.’

Painting is one of the oldest ways in which humans can share concepts about reality and experience. It’s a tool for deepening our understanding for things that are hard to explain in other means of communication. Some cultures for instance have more words for colors and apparently that can make people from that culture more aware of the existence of various hues.

Well, yeah language is central to building connections. Returning to the experience you described, can’t psychedelics create a novel experience when certain connections are blocked, right?

Totally. There are a couple of things that can produce those effects. Experiencing big nature can do it as well as certain plant compounds that mimic our largest neurotransmitters, psilocybin for example. When we experience awe, we effectively turn off the default mode network, which is the background activity of the brain which pulls all the activity of the nervous system together to create a consistent narrative concept of ourselves in this life.

Sometimes we can have an experience that upsets this narrative, that can be like a virus in an operating system. When we refresh this system momentarily, it can bring clarity and help us address the things that might impact patterns of behavior.

Relating these concepts back into painting, when a work is very finished it can close off some room for interpretation. When things are more open-ended, it allows for the perception of the periphery to come in, giving the chance of seeing something else. It can lift the blinders.

I mean, that’s a great argument for both the act of painting and for the act of looking at paintings. It’s sort of a good argument for the utility of painting?

Painting is our old friend who’s been with us a very long time and helps us conceptualize the world around us, even before language.

Well put. It’s been a way of telling our story. And that story has been constantly up for debate and that’s what’s awesome is that like in some time in some chapters, painting has been this very literal, realistic thing. It’s been elevating God or doing something else, but all the while, it’s also been a way of processing reality, I guess.

Yes, a conceptual tool for contemplating our experience and the world around us — our existence, if you will. The idea of being conscious is basically a great mystery. Consciousness is something that’s just shared and universal.

What is it? I mean, is it energy? Electricity?

If you consider panpsychism — the idea that consciousness is in everything — it can sound a little like god is everywhere, but another way of seeing it is that all matter has this kind of information and there are just different levels of complexity to this information.

Colloquially we think of consciousness as it relates to our own experience of awareness. But awareness is not consciousness, it’s an emergent property that arises from our complexity. Rocks have consciousness but not awareness for example.

Maybe in some distant future when the nanobots that start organizing all matter in the universe, they’re going to be working with the information/consciousness found in all matter. 

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