February 2011: Thomas Butter Interviews Michael Caines

Perfect Happiness, 48" x 48", oil on canvas, 2010

Interview between Thomas Butter and Michael Caines

Caines is having a ten-year survey of his work at the Art Gallery of Peterborough (January 14 - March 6, 2011), and recently showed his newest paintings at Mulherin Pollard Gallery in NYC, (December 1-31, 2010). Several of these will be included in a show titled called "Bodies and Politics" at Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects in Toronto. (January 15 - March 6, 2011).

Tom Butter: On your podcast made at the Bemis Center you got into some very serious and particular topics. I guess I’d like to talk about a few of those to start. Your show at the Art Gallery of Peterborough is your first solo museum show, right?

Michael Caines: Yes!

TB: In the podcast you said some beautiful things. You talked about the body, caressing the body, and the understanding that the body is “covered in skin”.

MC: Yes.

TB: There is something deep there about the way that you draw, and what drawing is to you. The shock of recognition that the body is covered in skin is parallel to the shock of recognition we get from the way the surfaces work in your pictures. We realize we are looking at a continuous surface, one that is moving…whether it is made up of elements (like many animals) or is actually an entity with a continuous surface made by the act of caressing. The moving surface is a revelation to us.

MC: It is interesting you picked that out because it was a weirdly obvious, but profound thing for me- I remember that so distinctly when I was painting large nudes. And I think part of the complexity of that experience for me, maybe the poignancy of it, was related to the notion that I felt touch was so forbidden on so many levels-I came of age in a really repressed community: the East Coast of Canada, at a very repressed time in relation to gay sexuality. The expression of the most profound desire to touch is embedded in sexuality. That is the most loaded kind of touch, and seemed the most unavailable. That, combined with being an allergic person, so that the touch of the sensual world-whether it was animals or grass- was also very loaded for me. There is an intensity of being able to delve into touch especially around the male body, but also around animal bodies. The most freedom I have felt around the issue of touch employs the remove of making art: I can observe minutely, I can touch minutely, but I am actually not touching. That poignancy is very connected to what makes my art work, its tangibility combined with its intangibility.

TB: It is very interesting to connect the forbiddance of touch in both areas to the freedom of doing it in your work...

MC: It is hard to remember, and I don’t feel self-pity now, but there was a lot of suffering. I remember being a kid, having allergies, lying in bed, and having my face next to a humidifier and thinking I was going to die because I couldn’t breathe. It is interesting for me to remember that because I couldn’t really move then. I was immobilized. It is an odd gift, in that it creates intensity for me around what art making can be. It draws so much attention to the boundary between my body and the world. It would be really easy to see those experiences as terrible: for example, “How terrible to be growing up in a homophobic time.” But there are odd opportunities in those tensions. Finding those points of tension I think are what we all look for in order for the art to be “right”, or exciting.

TB; Right. You solve those tensions in a transitory way, even if just for the moment in the work. Briefly.

MC: Yes, and we only ever really solve those things in a transitory way in our life. Right? Those moments always seem to pass- moments of connection, and disconnection. We seem to have more control over the situation when we make art- but even there we don’t control when it is successful, because I think it always depends on a bunch of happy accidents. We try to direct the experience of solving those problems…

TB: Another interesting issue is the notion of tenderness as it applies to politics. When you spoke about this at the Bemis Center, you were working on a show that is currently being exhibited at Mulherin Pollard Projects in NYC. You were talking about a book you read- “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America”, (author Rick Perlstein)- and saying you have these biases and prejudices that are manifestations of a collective psyche, and that when your work is particularly political you try to reveal and disrupt those assumptions in some way.

MC: I would like to understand history more, but I also find psychological and emotional reactions really interesting. It is really easy for me, and most of us, to demonize political figures. For example, I am more left, so George Bush is bad, maybe Obama or Kennedy or whoever are “OK”. Someone on the right would say exactly the opposite. But neither of these political positions construct political figures as human…they are purely symbols. So making work with political figures involves a bit more looking at my reactions.


MC: For example in my painting of Karl Rove, he has a baby head- and if you really look at him, he does…look at a six month-old infant. Basically that is what Karl Rove looks like. I am really interested in that. I don’t think it is an accident. I don’t want to do some cheap pop-psychology thing about Karl Rove, but I don’t think his physicality is an accident. Wanting to understand that, or place him somewhere else, to problematize my own knee-jerk ways of constructing him…and also when I play with those images I am being naughty or provocative, but it is also wanting tenderness for the really ugly parts of myself too. The hardest thing for any of us is to feel more tenderly about the ugliness in ourselves. We tend to externalize it in someone else and hate them. Politicians and our parents can take these roles. There is in an odd way I find sympathy for my own humanity in feeling tenderness or empathy for politicians I find really ugly or frightening.

TB: You have a word which accompanies that tenderness, which is “melancholy”. I understand melancholy as the sadness that accompanies the realization that this ugliness is inside of us. The ugly parts you work on and represent bring a sadness- not a sadness that breaks you, but a sadness that tinges things, that colors things.

Little Lamb of the GOP, oil on panel, 36” x 24", 2010

MC: That might be part of it, but I think that actually the deeper melancholy I feel about politicians, and also celebrities is that they represent our greatest fears, and our greatest aspirations. I have been thinking particularly about public figures, because when they are in office, when they are at the height of their power, they are, for good or ill, transcendent figures. But that passes; they become “the past” really quickly. When I stumbled upon an image of Ronald Reagan on the internet, I thought “Wow, his face is so vivid to me, it is so burned into some part of my consciousness from his time in power. But he seems very melancholy to me now, an “emptied out” image. The image was so vivid, but now…I remember a photo of him when he was having brain surgery, and he and Nancy were on this little stairway, going into their jet. He was waving, and Nancy Reagan was standing behind him. He had taken off his hat to salute the crowd, with a big smile on his face. Half of his head was shaved, and Nancy is standing behind him with her hands outstretched, with this look of horror on her face. I still kind of hated him at the time. (laughs) Now, I am kind of embarrassed to find it funny, because it is incredibly painful. But the play that is being acted out is a symbol of the trajectory we all go thorough in our lives. We are fully in flower, and then we fade. There is something about politicians that becomes loaded with the poignancy of a great aspiration- this can be very ugly, too. And then that fades. Like Sarah Palin, who is a very cunning and disturbing figure. She is very pretty; she has all these things right now that make her a fixation. But let’s see in a decade from now. She probably will have passed. I am surprised I am feeling more compassion for these politicians, because I am interested in what is being acted out in public. It is like going to see professional wrestling, or gladiators. Being in the audience for something being acted out that is actually symbolic for all of us.

Swaddling of a New Rule, oil on panel, 36” x 24", 2010

TB: It becomes larger than life. And that is what draws us to it?

MC: Yes. And we forget ourselves in those moments. When I am hating Karl Rove I am not thinking about the trajectory of my own life, I’m just hating the devil. (laughs) Holding up the cross and throwing the holy water and hoping he’ll go away!

TB: Your show in NYC that is up right now is particularly involved with individuals in situations, a lot of familiar political people. Could you give me a list of all the people represented in your paintings from that show?

MC: Sure. Karl Rove, Glenn Beck, the young and old Ronald Reagan, Nixon, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Helms, as a bit of a curveball, Dr. Laura, Kim Jong Il,

TB: Dr. Laura is on TV, right?

“Tea Party”, oil on panel, 36” x 24", 2010

MC: Yes she just got in trouble for using the “N” word. She stuck in my mind because I saw her on Larry King, and, wow, the shocking narcissism she displayed! A young black woman in a mixed-race relationship called her up, and she was talking about how upsetting it was to her that her white husband’s friends used the “N” word in a joke. What fascinates me about Dr. Laura is that people call her in the first place, because she abuses everybody. Everyone who listens knows on some level they are going to get abuse. So perhaps it is about finally getting love from that parent who has always been unkind, acting that thing out. Because if you have listened, you know Dr. Laura is mean. And yet you call, hoping that you are going to be the special one, the one she is going to be kind to. That fascinates me! It is so strange, I mean maybe it is not so strange. Anyway Dr. Laura goes on this tirade about the “N” word, saying to this woman: “you shouldn’t be in this relationship if you can’t handle a joke.” And then on Larry King, she is saying she is going to end her show, as if she is apologizing. Then she comes up with the idea that her First Amendment rights are being infringed and that is why she has to end her show! So she can regain her first amendment rights! I mean that is just astoundingly narcissistic, with absolutely no sense of what she has done, or of her position of power, or anything! (laughs) I thought, this is a perfect “mad hatter”- I mean just so crazy.

TB: Yes, the mad hatter is a little abusive, isn’t he?

MC: Oh, yeah! (laughter)

TB: So given this role of an artist you have devised for this show, one involving mixing and matching the faces with the bodies and putting them into these very layered situations with tremendous impact- what happens for you when the work is successful?

MC: My hesitation in directly using characters like this is based on my reaction to certain brands of political art. I ask, “Who is this really for, and what is it really doing?” Part of my reaction is: “If you want to be politically active, go do something in the world.” For me, political action was being a therapist, or doing community development with queer kids. That was the way I could relate to political action. A lot of artists it seems to me, are very self-indulgent to think: “I’m going to make these political images and stick them in the Guggenheim.” And so what. I am very leery of strategies that can be seen as being about leveraging oneself in the art world, more than creating some actual change. I think politics is very grassroots. Using imagery like that is tricky. I feel most of us have spent so much time absorbing images from the world: images of politicians, celebrities, countless things. It is so utterly trite to say that we are living in an incredibly media saturated moment. But I want to have some agency in relationship to the images I absorb. I want to be able to do something to them. I don’t kid myself in a grand way that this changes anything politically in the world. It is a much more intimate moment for me, much about my visceral relationship to that image, and the humanity of that image and how it relates to my own humanity. I remember walking down the street and listening to a podcast interview with Karl Rove, and flipping into a rage about how he was just so unable to acknowledge any of his errors. I can’t do anything about that, I am as impotent as anybody. Even more so because I am not a citizen here, I can’t vote.

On one level, the concept for this show we are talking about is very base- if you google search say Sarah Palin, you will find images where people have taken some sort of obscene or funny “whatever” and stuck her head on it. I relate to that kind of base humor. That is an entry point for me. There is something very fundamental about sticking images together in a very unsophisticated way on one level, and on another level letting that lead to a kind of play. It is on a very “South Park” kind of level, but I relate to that kind of humor. I was also looking at 18th Century cartooning, those big heads. I love very basic simple humor. I was looking at Sir John Teneille, who illustrated “Alice in Wonderland” and was a political cartoonist. I still really love those drawings. I think all of us, whether artists or not have books we looked when we were kids where the images are burned into our minds. His images create this world. One of the things he does is make big heads and they are funny! In some ways what I think I am doing is not very sophisticated, and I hope that in other ways it is. I hope that it opens up into something a bit more complex. In the act of art making I would like to set myself apart by delivering a level of pleasure from the skill employed and the image itself that many people wouldn’t be able to do. But I am not trying to position myself as if I had some kind of really incisive idea that no one else has. I am really trying to open up to ask –“What are those urges to spray paint over a ____or stick someone’s head on someone else’s body. I relate to that urge.

TB: But for me it makes me reexamine what I think I know about the person, because all of a sudden they have been pushed into the 18th Century. They don’t belong there, so then questions come up- “why not, what do I do when you make me think about the Goya painting of the boy, there is Nixon’s head on him, yes, this was a prince, he represents a certain kind of state power I don’t know too much about, and I don’t know too much about Nixon, really…other than he is a political figure…a public image.

“Cats Vs Dogs”, oil on canvas, 48” x 36", 2010

MC: I can say some things about that one specifically. The thing that happens making art is that it takes a while for me to realize why I made the connection. And after I made that image, I realized one of the connections is very specific: Nixon was very obsessed with his humble background and class. The story about him, apocryphal or not, the story he told, was he got a scholarship to Harvard, but he didn’t go to Harvard because his family didn’t have the bus fare to send him. He had this real thing about the imagined or real east- coast elite, and he felt he represented regular folks. He coined the phrase “silent majority”. He always felt like an outsider, I think, that is the portrait that has been painted of him and the one he constructed of himself. So I think there was something about giving him the little prince’s body that was an effort to create some other space for him. I don’t know- Nixon has become very melancholy as a figure to me, partly because he left office so abruptly.

Most politicians leave office and fade, it is a little sad but he was humiliated and I guess I am constructing a psychology- whether it is true in a literal sense or not…but thinking about letting Nixon be the little loved and adored prince is what that image is about for me. And what is interesting is I did an artist’s talk and mentioned this. Nixon is probably the first politician I knew as a kid, I was born in 1964. I have had curious and surprising reactions in the public interactions from folks of an older generation. They have had very particular feelings. If someone comes to an artist’s talk, chances are they are a little more to the left. And if they are 65 or 70, that era is very specific for them. This one woman particularly spoke with me after the talk, and she said, “I do not have any tenderness towards Nixon.” (laughs) But for me it is an act of imagination, as I said before. As a therapist, and a client of therapy, I believe one of the fundamental things about healing is finding love and compassion for those ugly parts. They don’t go away. Hopefully we can change our relationship to them and care about them in a different way. Also I think there is a lot of energy and _____and power that comes out of the ugly places. In a broader cultural way, making that painting is a literal act of care and tenderness for someone who is symbolically about ugliness.

TB: So making the painting is an act of kindness or redemption.

MC: Yes. I didn’t entirely realize that when I made it, I got it afterwards. I went back to the book “Nixonland” and realized that was the connection. That was the painting that started this series, it was with that painting that things started to shift and open up in this new body of work. The moment when I thought “I’m going to stick Nixon’s head on this Goya painting” started this whole body of new paintings. I had one of those moments, a “light bulb moment” when I thought, “Yes that really works, that is something I really like.

TB: Where will these images be shown next?

MC: They will be shown in Toronto.

MC: Some images succeed, and some of fail. You were talking about looking at my own psychology, but I am not thinking about this when I am painting. What became clear in my most recent work, what got a bit more distilled, is the impulse to try to make something simultaneously convincing and utterly fake. You are willing to buy in, and the same time it is ridiculous and impossible, and the artifice is fairly obvious. But yet, it is convincing. I hesitate to think about what that means about me psychologically. (laughs) I struggle

when I talk about meaning. This came up when I returned to school. Meaning is very slippery. I feel like I am trying to create a field for the possibility of meaning. I don’t know if I am always struggling with the belief in meaningfulness. I really believe in the idea of meaningfulness, and then don’t at the same time. With the newest work, in some ways it is so not political, even though I am using political images. In a deeper way it is about something else entirely. There are hundreds of people in the world who could say more interesting things about politics than me. I can say interesting things in other areas. But my work is a bridge into wanting to believe and the failure to believe...but a wish for something. I guess politicians are another kind of celebrity; they represent some really deep wish about, or for, meaning...That’s how I construct them for myself.

“Afterlife”, oil on panel, 36” x 24", 2010

MC: Talking about bringing political figures into my work is relevant to this show, because during this last decade of my art practice I have been very engaged with my own psychological processes. I was in therapy for a decade, and then became a therapist. There was a lot of self-reflection, which can be seen in my work. One thing that has shifted for me in the last couple of years in the process of trying to get to a different place is the desire to turn my eye outward more. The internal processes are ongoing, but taken care of. I have focused there for a long time, and I think the emotional aspects will come out of the work regardless. So now I am focused on what happens when I try and look outward, and look at history. But now I am going to spend the next stretch of time looking at American history. I am very interested in seeing what that yields. I want to introduce elements that are really outside of myself to see what gets stimulated. That is exciting to me right now. I have never thought of myself as a student of history or politics. The way I am well prepared to do that in that that I have had experience with for example gender politics. The politics of power in the world is new for me. I sit where most people sit, we read the paper, discuss issues, listen to the news, and we react.

TB: Your work deals with male roles, power relations between men. You have been very clear about this subject over a long period of time. Is there a painting you would like to talk about in that regard?

MC: Yes, “Sleeper”. In the first body of work where I started to actually articulate my own thoughts. I remember I was doing paintings of figures larger than life. I started to think of really basic things- if someone is lying on the ground as opposed to crouching, what do those physical positions mean? They were often male figures. My gateway into thinking about “maleness” is triggered by me being gay and being forced to reflect on my identity as a man from that perspective. But now I would say that my preoccupations with male sexual identity are probably not primary. Culturally we get so fixed on sexuality: gay, straight, and the differences between them…but I think whatever realm your sexual identity is, gender identity is something else. Maleness, regardless of what your sexual orientation is, is this area of exploration that men share.

MC: Let me give you an example. I have always struggled with my identity. When I was younger, I was very socially oriented towards women, I had a lot of women friends and that is where I felt comfortable. I went to a party attended by mostly gay men, and I noticed most of the men were telling war stories about sex. Later in this fancy condo, I went upstairs and walked past this little exercise room. These two guys were seeing how many chin-ups they could do. I just thought, you know, with this kind of male boasting, and chest-pounding and showing off, it doesn’t matter I am at a party with a bunch of gay men. It is no different. So I think my exploration of male gender is triggered by my sexuality but I think I am just interested in maleness. What is specific to me being gay is that the process of growing from a boy into a man is murky. I felt very much at sea, there wasn’t very much to guide me in terms of my relationship to male gender.

TB: Speaking of identity could you tell us a bit about an earlier series “Purgastoria”?

MC: The starting point for this series titled “Purgastoria” is Dante’s Inferno. This was the first time I was drawn to narrative. I recognized that my narrative impulses were quite strong and the cultural context I was coming out of was very specific. I had studied modernism, I was in Toronto in the early 1990s where narrative painting was absolutely of no interest or importance. Very devalued. Toronto, like most places, had its own cultural identity. It is a larger city that had a, relatively speaking, small art scene. It has grown a lot since then. At that time installation art was really king, or queen. Narrative painting was really not considered important. When I started doing these drawings I thought I would embrace my interest in narrative.


From "Purgastoria", 15" x 18", ink and watercolour on paper, 2004

MC: What I was exploring was the inferno. Dante wakes up in this wood, and doesn’t know where he is. He goes to Virgil and Virgil takes him on a journey into the nine circles of hell. I thought of the skeleton as the Dante character as a jumping off point. I was thinking about mortality and dying, I had a lot of health problems that year, and was thinking about fragility and my body. And remembering the sense of being 8 or 9 or 10 and wondering if I would have recognized that mortality. My idea was that the skeleton was on a quest to become a boy. A reversed mortal image. A search in order to flesh himself, discovering how to become mortal. And this little ghost takes him on a journey. Virgil and Casper the ghost combined.

TB: The skeleton and the ghost are quite striking. I see that as an evocation of childhood and thinking about the pleasure to be had in the disguise or costume. And then the painful realization that this is not going to do it! Also, to bring it back to the beginning of our discussion, we are revisiting flesh from a different angle.

MC: Yes. This series was very fruitful; there are probably 100 drawings from that time.

TB: Wow!

MC: It was a real explosion to me and I think really an important key for my work. I had previously made these large scale, relatively realistic figure paintings. Then I started to take apart my practice. This was partly feeling stagnant creatively and professionally. There were few options in terms of exhibiting in Toronto in the early 1990’s. A lot of artists at the time would create warehouse shows. We would get a warehouse rented for a month and have a show. I was in a couple of those. That was really fun. There was this confluence of feeling what I was doing was considered irrelevant, but that also became an impetus to really challenge my ways of working. I had this desire to take apart my practice and I went back to very basic drawing, very simple drawing, and these drawings emerged out of that. I have always used photo sources for my image making. I don’t look at life directly. At that time I felt really tied to the photo in a way I didn’t like. I knew what I was making wasn’t about the photo. There is something conceptually off about not analyzing the nature of the photo, but also being so tied to it. I wanted to get some kind of freedom and space away from that. What is interesting now about the body of work that I am showing in NYC is letting back into the work much more detailed realistic ways of painting.

Technology has really served me. When I was younger and wanted photo references, I would have to shoot pictures or get a bunch of old National Geographic’s and search for images that would fit my idea. Now I can have an idea for a picture and find 50 images on the internet and amalgamate them. I have access to more images, but also manipulate them with both my computer and my mind. Often I have several photos, and I am using all of them for one image. I am both using the reference, but also free of it. That has been liberating!

But the “Purgastoria” series is kind of in between- I was free of the photo reference. I knew my work was imaginatively driven, but I had been handcuffed by my dependence on photography. And that wasn’t conceptually or creatively good.

TB: So it came straight out of your head.

MC: Mostly. I let myself refer to a few images very loosely but yes, out of my head. I constructed space differently, it gave me a lot of freedom.

TB: Generally in your work, the objects define the space, the objects are not defined by the space. Thinking about Bonnard as an extreme example, in the paintings of his wife in the bath, she is completely defined by the space around her. In your work, the objects make the space come alive. They articulate the space. My sense in your work is that the world is vast, and we are looking at a small part of it always. Nothing happens in a room in your work.

MC: Yes. You can feel the vastness. In these drawings, where that started to happen, I was thinking about limbo, about liminal space. That space “in between” where something can happen. As I said before, entering into big issues can be a result of dealing with very technical questions. I was trying to create something convincing with as little means as possible. The brown paper became a psychological and even a physical space.

From "Purgastoria" series, 15'' x 18'', ink and watercolour on paper, 2004

MC: It is a kind of existential feeling for me of having to do with the “not quite real” and “not quite fake” aspect of my work.

TB: William Carlos Williams, an American poet says in a poem “ A Sort of a Song”, “no ideas, but in things.” I interpret this as proposing that the physical things in the world are what matter for art.

MC: Yes. Getting the surface of shape of something in the right place, so that the texture feels right, the shape feels right. “Right” is a weird word, because I don’t know why it feels right…but I know what feels right when it is there. This is crucially important, and when that happens, when the color, texture, form is right and situated correctly, in the right space, very specifically, it is really satisfying. I feel a kind of relief. Even though something grander seems to be at stake. In this case a brick, a little sock monkey, and a ghost.

TB: And the edge of that pyramid leading out of the frame.

MC: With drawing, and painting too, because things get corrected, I will be working and draw the outline on the paper, and I will start it over and over because it is not quite right. That can get really neurotic and nuts. At a certain point I know I need to let things be flawed. But there is some specificity I need, and may be as trite as a set of internalized rules I have learned by looking for years of Renaissance painting. (laughs) I don’t know. It is hard to understand why I know something is finished…do you feel that?

TB: Yes.

Thomas Butter has been living in NYC since 1977, and showing since 1981. He is currently on the Adjunct Faculty in the Fine Arts Department at Parsons the New School for Design, and has taught at many colleges and universities on the east coast, including RISD, Harvard, Yale, Tyler, MICA, University of the Arts, and many others.  
thom.butter@gmail.com website: www.tombutter.com


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