Upon all of their tomorrows... 04 (detail), 2016. Inktense Pencil, Prismacolor Pencil and Gesso on Mylar. 64" x 40"
DOUG RUSSELL piles ruins, both real and imagined, on top of one another in layered drawings and stereoscopic photographs. His
practice rests firmly on a foundation of direct observational drawing
of architectural forms. Combining this onsite experience with
constructed and projected ruins in his studio results in work that
explores the ever-changing, evolving nature of the world. Doug earned a
BFA at Columbia College in Missouri, followed by an MA and MFA at The
School of Art and Art History, University of Iowa in Iowa City. His work
has been exhibited in solo shows at the Missoula Art Museum, the Helen E. Copeland Gallery in Bozeman, MT, the Leedy Voulkos Art Center in Kansas City, and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Kaybolan Suretler (Lost Forms), his upcoming two-person show with Gabrielle Reeves Oral, will open on October 17, 2017 at Istanbul Concept Gallery in Turkey. Two of Doug's drawings have recently been accepted into the permanent collection of the The Museum for Architectural Drawing at the Tchoban Foundation in Berlin. You can read his thoughts on travel drawing in Bali and Java in a recently-published guest post for Urban Sketchers. Doug lives and works in Laramie, Wyoming.
OtherPeoplePixels: In your statement, you say, “I build improvised and invented realities born out of my love of direct observational drawing and architectural form. The imagery and process express the perpetual cycle of human construction and natural decay in the tradition of the architectural capriccio.” Tell us about the “tradition of the architectural capriccio.”
Doug Russell: A capriccio was initially an architectural fantasy, in which buildings— archaeological ruins and other architectural forms—were composed in fictional and often fantastic situations. This interest in depicting ruins (whether real or imagined) was, as I understand it, a Baroque response to the Renaissance vision of resurrected, revered and perfected antiquity. Instead of a shining new version of soaring and complete Roman buildings, the capriccio in all of its forms was an acknowledgement and romanticizing of the broken nature of the past. . . the past as it exists and persists in our present, fragmented and incomplete.
Later the architectural
fantasies of the capriccio become backdrops for incidental interactions
between foregrounded human characters. The most famous of these is
Goya’s series of 80 etchings entitled Los Caprichos.
Related visually and conceptually to the capriccio is the architectural
folly. Many wealthy European landowners had real ancient Roman ruins on
their land : pieces of aqueducts, a few pillars from a temple, etc.
These often became highly valued aesthetic moments on their estates,
with gardens and other features eventually constructed around them.
Wealthy landowners, who didn’t have any authentic ruins, began
commissioning architects to design and construct fake ruins on their
land. These fake ruins (made to look as real and old as possible) were
The Persistence of Ruin 06, 2017. Inktense Pencil, Prismacolor Pencil, Gesso on Mylar between multiple Plexiglas layers. 17" x 11"
OPP: How does your work participate in that tradition?
DR: Both my drawings and my explorations with the Styropolis model exist within this tradition of fake and fictional ruin compositions and constructions. Even if some of the elements depicted in my large Mylar drawings are pulled from real sources and locations, they are arranged together in a completely unreal and impossible ways. And Styropolis itself is a complete fantasy and folly. It is meant to both fool the viewer—if only for a moment—into believing that it really existed, and to be honestly what it is… a collection of discarded modern day debris.
Styropolis 3, 2015. Styrofoam and Acrylic Paint
OPP: Was Styropolis your first foray into sculpture? Do
you think of it as a sculpture in its own right or merely a set on
which to project photographs of real world ruins for your series of Stereoscopic Photographs?
DR: Styropolis is the first large scale three-dimensional work I’ve created. In the past I made small individual architectural elements out of foam core and cardboard to help observe and better understand the form. For now, the piece is a jumping off point for traditional photographs, stereoscopic photographs, projections and drawings from observation. I’m sure I will eventually exhibit part or all of it, and so I can envision it as a sculpture in its own right. However, it really grew out of a need to play and manipulate architectural forms in a three-dimensional environment. Styropolis helped me bring a physical version of the ruined places I love exploring while traveling back into my studio. Ideally, I would build a working studio on the grounds of Angor Wat, so that I could go out every day and draw from the real thing. This is as close as I can get in reality.
Projecting images of imaginary (Tower of Babel) and real (Homs, Syria) places onto Styropolis continues the sedimentary process of layering, overlapping and obscuring that pervades much of my work. It confuses and conflates the real with the fake, the imaginary with the physically constructed and the important with the meaningless. As I stated above, Styropolis is meant to both fool the viewer and be honestly what it is. It is once again, a collection of discarded fragments coalescing for a period of time into a coherent whole before being broken and forgotten again.
Stereoscopic Styropolis 07, 2017. Stereo photograph. 4.3" x 7.5"
OPP: What role does travel play in your process? Tell us about the Travel Drawings you’ve been making since 1995.
DR: I first traveled abroad in 1995 to Venice as a graduate student at the University of Iowa. I returned the following summer as a teaching assistant. After Venice, I knew I needed to spend more time outside the United States. In 1997, I moved to Bursa, Turkey for two years to teach at Uludağ University. Living abroad changed my view of myself, the world and my place within it. As a professor at the University of Wyoming, I have led four study-abroad classes to Turkey. In addition to nine trips back to Turkey, I have spent a month traveling through Cambodia, another month in Indonesia and two weeks back in Venice (after twenty years). I am currently planning a four week trip to Peru for spring 2018.
Traveling and drawing on site in a new and unfamiliar place is a very powerful experience. It has a visceral quality, a sense of immediacy and being fully present. If you are drawing from a photograph or memory, you have all day. . . or all week. . . or all year. That infinite amount of time can sometimes lead to procrastination and/or boredom. . . or even overworking. In real time, the light is changing, the weather is changing and you are changing. There are bugs and people, wind or rain. It makes every choice more powerful, individual, unique, exciting, frustrating, challenging and scary because it is either going to succeed or fail in that moment. As opposed to other studio work that can take months, a drawing done on location is either going to work or not work. That drawing becomes a more complete and lasting memory of that new place for me.
The combination of drawing from direct observation and drawing a new and wholly unfamiliar place heightens my sense of who and where I am. . . in this world, in time and space and in history. I carry that feeling back to my studio.
House Plant 01, 2017. Prismacolor pencil on gray Stonehenge paper. 30" x 22"
OPP: Can you talk about the interaction of architecture and plant life in your work?
DR: At the core, my work is about complex structure, growth and decay. I have explored this through organic forms in Entangled Worlds (2009), Medusa (2007), Another Nature (2007), Conglomerations (2009) and through architectural forms in Empire, Edifice (2005-2011), Ebb and Flow (2010-2011), Upon all of their Tomorrows… (2016), The Persistence of Ruin (2017). In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino writes “…and after dismantling the city piece by piece, he reconstructed it in other ways, substituting components, shifting them, inverting them.” I enjoy the way Calvino playfully offers us a window into how broken elements can be rearranged or reoccupied for new and unexpected purposes. This of course is the true state of all things. Every thing is a coming together of parts into one form before eventually dissolving again into fragments, only to be reformed with other pieces into a new whole.
In my most current series, House Plants, I bring together the organic and architectural bodies of work. I depict the familiar architectural vernacular of American ranch and split level suburban houses in bright sunlight and strong colors. They look new and essentially “un-ruined,” but they are not fit for human occupancy due to the fantastically impossible explosion of plant life rooting in and emanating from them. As with all ancient ruins, the houses have moved on from their intended purpose. Like a fallen tree in a forest, host to numerous fungi and insects, these houses have become homes for other lifeforms. The houses represent the initial and narrow view of human intention and needs, now subverted and allowed to take on a new more expansive and non-human purpose.
Upon all of their tomorrows... 14, 2017. Inktense Pencil, Prismacolor Pencil on gray paper. 30" x 22"
OPP: In your recent series The Persistence of Ruin, you’ve begun using gesso on Mylar and multiple layers of Plexiglas. How does this support your conceptual interests in ruins?
DR: The layered Mylar and Plexiglas create an atmospheric effect of depth. There is also a conceptual aspect to the layering that echoes archeological and geological sedimentary strata. History is built in layers, with each new level partially or completely hiding those underneath – both physically and in our memories. The drawings are primarily done with Prismacolor pencil on the front side of the Mylar – with thin layers of white Prismacolor pencil or washes of gesso on the reverse side of the Mylar to create opacity. The series is meant to be evolving and ever changing.
As William Kentridge writes in his book Six Drawing Lessons, “The land is an unreliable witness. It is not that it effaces all history, but events must be excavated, sought after in traces, in half-hidden clues. There is a similarity to the land and what it does, and our unreliable memory. Things which seemed so clear and so embedded in us fade; a shock, an outrage that we should live by, becomes dull. We have to work to find that first, true impulse. We need the terrain of the half-solved, the half-solvable riddle, the distance between knowing and not knowing, and being aware of our own limits of understanding, the limits of our memory, but prodding the memory nonetheless.”
The Persistence of Ruin 05, 2017. Inktense Pencil, Prismacolor Pencil, Gesso on Mylar between multiple Plexiglas layers. 17" x 11"
OPP: How will this new work evolve and change?
DR: I have settled on ten
compositions for the show in Istanbul. Each framed piece consists of two to four layers of Mylar
and Plexiglas. After this show, I will add new elements and recombine
the existing layers in new ways. The continuing evolution of this body
of work mirrors the way in which historical moments and places are
obscured, revealed and re-hidden over time.
I see The Persistence of Ruin
series as yet another version of the continual flux of forms coming
together temporarily, just to fall apart and be rearranged again into
other forms. In this way, it echoes Styropolis, but in a more dynamic and interactive way. Eventually The Persistence of Ruin series may include House Plant elements as well as portions of other previous drawings from my studio practice.
To circle back to travel and travel drawing, working on location around the world helps me to stay focused on the idea that I am just another momentary collection of fragmentary physical and psychological elements, searching for a place within it all to just be. At its best, it can be a profoundly humbling experience.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006 Stacia was a 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (Michigan 2013), Heaven Gallery (Chicago 2014), the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago 2014), The Stolbun Collection (Chicago 2017) and Indianapolis Art Center (Indiana 2017). In March 2018, her solo installation Where Do We Go From Here? will open at Robert F. DeCaprio Art Gallery (Palos Hills, Illinois). In conjunction, the atrium will exhibit two-dimensional artwork by artists who were invited by Stacia to make new work also titled Where Do We Go From Here?