Sky Glabush and the Art of Self-Interrogation
The art of painting necessarily engages the act of questioning. The questions can be material ones: What surface do I paint on; what do I paint with; what kind of painting do I want to make? But there are also bigger questions, ones that are consequential in a different way: What is a painter; how is painting different from other art practices; why do I even paint? It becomes apparent as you read the following interview with London-based artist and teacher Sky Glabush that over the course of a practice moving into its third decade, he has posed all these questions, and many more. What is clear is that whatever answer he came up with has been as thoroughly engaged as possible, at which point he moves on to the next question. His natural mode is the interrogative.
Recently he asked himself a question that sits at the core of his being. Glabush has been a member of the Bahá’í faith since he was six years old, but he admits that for a long time he separated his art and spiritual belief. His metaphor for this process was that he “kept the scaffolding of my belief under wraps.” So when he asked, “Where do I locate the spiritual in art?” it was the first time he had posed the question so directly. His answer was that “it was in getting up, going to the studio, putting on some music and beginning the process of moving things around and trying something. It wasn’t in an image and it wasn’t even in the story; it was in my body in the studio.”
The discovery represents a double embodiment: it was spatial and corporeal. It allowed him to move forward by “enacting something visceral and immediate.” His studio practice, then, became a process of shape-shifting in which he was constantly moving from one art form to another; he would work with clay or weave, or make sculptural objects. “I had my loom, and my weavings were influencing my sculptures and my sculptures were being influenced by furniture. I was actually making furniture.”
His principal model in this mobility of categories was the Bauhaus, a moment in the history of modernism he describes as “poignant and important.” Glabush’s understanding of modernism is that it was less a rupture than the period when constructing art out of the idiosyncratic, the personal and the hybridized was possible. It is a possibility that continues today. In his studio he enacts a free-flowing conversation between the decorative and the fine arts. He calls what he is doing an activity “that puts quotation marks around modernity.”
The following telephone interview was recorded on July 12, 2018, to the artist’s studio in London, Ontario.
Border Crossings: When you look at your work over the last number of years, are the changes as dramatic for you as they seem to be for viewers who have been following it?
Sky Glabush: Is another way of phrasing that question, why is your work disjointed and all over the place? The answer is I’m not sure but I think it is based on those big landscape paintings that I did when I came to London in 2006. They created a picture of me as an artist that I was ambivalent about and I’ve never really been able to shake it. But if you were to take that period of time out of the picture, which lasted about five years, then you’d see that the work I did before I came to London occupied a space in between the social design of buildings and furniture and was more like process-based abstraction. I had done a whole series of paintings when I was in Amsterdam that explored the housing projects on the edge of the city in relation to modernist design, and before that I was making abstract paintings. So if you were to see my career over that span, I don’t think it would seem quite as radical or as disjointed.
I’m not always an enthusiast for the significant moment that marks a change in an artist’s trajectory, what James Joyce would call an epiphany, but am I right in thinking that the trip we took to Israel in 2011 was shaping for you in some determining way?
Why was it so significant?
I think because I grew up in a Bahá’í household where my dad took his religion and faith so seriously, I had to actually live two separate lives. I always kept the scaffolding of my belief under wraps and it wasn’t something that I spoke about much with my artist friends. So when I went to Israel with you and Meeka and her family and Neil Minuk, I was outed, in a sense. There was no way for me to play it cool or to ignore the connection between my identity as an artist and my identity as a believer. Over the course of those two weeks I was being confronted with that, and when we went to all the Bahá’í holy places in Haifa, it did have a significant impact on me. There was actually quite a dramatic change in the body of work I did after I came back from IsraeI. I tried to reconcile these competing forces in my own life and in my own psyche and bring them into a closer alignment. A lot of that had to do with the fact that I went there with people who were my friends but, more importantly, people who were deeply aware of culture and art.
So your coming back marked a real engagement on your part in the relationship between art and spirituality. Were you conscious of what was happening?
The word “conscious” is tricky because there is a difference between what you think you think and what you actually enact or perform. Sometimes a concept seems really valuable in your mind, but then it changes when you start to explore it in your body. One of the things I came to trust and to explore more as an artist was enacting the process in my body. Conditions would be created in the studio to ask these questions with my hands, which is very different from trying to explain them or think them through in my mind. I’m not saying there is a split between the mind and the body. I’m saying that thoughts are not abstract, as we think. Thoughts are actually the things that guide action and action demonstrates what you are thinking.
When you call an exhibition “A New Garden,” I can’t help but assume that the meaning of that name stretches outside the confines of horticulture. The idea of the studio as “a greenhouse or a garden” makes it a fecund arena for the kind of investigation you’re talking about.
“A New Garden” is obviously a very loaded metaphor, so loaded that it becomes didactic. It has this almost evangelical ring to it. I wanted a hint in the title of that desire to transform the world and transform yourself, but the works in the exhibition were actually very open and quite generative and loose. There were these sculptures in the middle of the gallery that were very minimal, but they could also be like planters or the kinds of things people stick their cigarette butts into outside a movie theatre. Here I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent. I was thinking about the story of John the Baptist where Salome entrances King Herod to grant her any wish and what she asks for is the head of John the Baptist. So they cut off his head and it’s presented on a platter. So then I thought, “What grew from that, what grew out of that when it was put in the ground?” I never told that story in the exhibition, but the portrait of John the Baptist’s decapitated head was in the show. One of the things that grew was my painting. I think it is misguided to decide that only one thing could grow, that the religious is somehow predictable, that when you plant that seed you get this one-dimensional, clearly defined institutional answer, where the parameters are very clear and everybody knows who’s in and who’s out. I think these stories are actually the stories upon which consciousness depends. So it has this radical existence. The story is in the blood. What I’m saying is that the idea of a story has this range and potential, and it’s ridiculous to think that we have moved away from the radical transformative power of story. It is misguided to separate art from these other deeply rooted, archaic and traditional narrative structures.
How does that generative process work? What is it that generates one thing or another when you go into the greenhouse of the imagination?
I don’t know. The show I had in 2011 at MKG127 was the one where I tried my best to come to terms with who I was as an artist. I’ve never laid it out like that before, and that exhibition, while I wouldn’t call it schizophrenic, did have about it a radical polarity. When I look back I realize I had put in motion about 10 different things and none of them were resolved. To make sense of that, in the next exhibition, which is the one that followed our trip to Israel, I did a drawing from a photograph in The Bahá’í World. I discovered that the image was from 1963 and it was in Toronto. I had blown the drawing up and I wasn’t really happy with that, so then I put a mesh grid overtop the drawing. The grid was 2 mm by 2 mm and within these two-millimetre squares were five points, one on each end and one in the middle. The process ended up taking nine months, and I had people helping me with it because I could do only a little section in an eight-hour day. In that drawing I was exploring all these processes of ritual and time and labour and meditation and repetition. It was painful to make physically—I developed all kinds of issues with my wrist and hand—but it was also painful conceptually because the piece had a huge banner across the front that said, “Say all are created by God.” It was an embarrassing literalization of belief and faith. This thing was confronting me every single day, and three-quarters of the way through I decided I hated it. I had a razor blade and I was going to slice the drawing in half. I called my wife, Julie, and said, “I’m going to slash this drawing so that I can be done with it,” and she said, “Okay, you can do that, but just sit on it for a day. Don’t do it right now. Go back to the studio and do it tomorrow.” I didn’t cut it in half and I kept the drawing. Long story short, this drawing was about the incommensurability of language to articulate what I believe—my faith, my spiritual identity. It couldn’t be done in language and it couldn’t even be done in an image. What was at stake in the drawing was the play between image, picture process and the ineffable. I had dealt with those things not by putting them together, but by totally separating them. They are brought together in the drawing, but they are never in the same place at the same time; if you get close enough to see the dots, you can’t see the image, and if you get far enough away from the image, you can’t see the dots. But when I actually saw it up on the wall, I couldn’t believe that I’d almost cut it in half because it was such a powerful evocation of the things I was grappling with. It caught me totally by surprise. When that show was done I said, “Where do you locate the spiritual in art? If it’s not here and it’s not here, where is it?” I had never asked myself that question before and I realized that where I located it was in the studio. It was in getting up, going to the studio, putting on some music and beginning the process of moving things around and trying something. It wasn’t in an image and it wasn’t even in the story; it was in my body in the studio.