CARLTON SCOTT STURGILL's paintings, mosaics, and sculptures combine branded materials that evoke the upward mobility of the American Dream with appropriated imagery from amateur porn sites and Craigslist to explore the discrepancy between public persona and private desire. Sturgill received his MA from Chelsea College of Art and Design in London, and now lives in Brooklyn, NY.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell me a little about your history as an artist… before you were working with paint chips as your palette.
Carlton Scott Sturgill: I started out as a painter, working mostly with oil, acrylic, and household paint. My first cohesive series of work consisted of paintings that juxtaposed pornographic images, which were concealed within color fields, with wholesome scenes appropriated from 1960’s advertisements. Third Date (2004) would be a good example from that series. I would paint the background image as a grisaille using acrylics, and then apply thin layers of tinted household glaze —the kind that you would use for faux painting techniques, such as ragging and sponging—until the background image was barely visible. I would then paint the 1960’s scenes in oils on top of the color field, further obscuring the background image.
When these paintings were seen in person, the viewers’ eyes were immediately drawn to the “top” image, so much so that a large percentage of the time people would walk away without having seen the more explicit “bottom” image. Only people that were patient enough to spend time with the paintings were eventually able to see what was concealed within the color fields. The paintings were like a one-way door; it took time to notice the background image, but once you did you would never be able to look at the painting again without seeing it. It was that observational shift that I became most interested in. I think that people looked at the paintings in much the same way they observed their friends, family, and others that populated their everyday lives. We often accept without question the public face that each one of us shows to the outside world, but if you look beyond the symbols that we use to piece together our personas—logoed clothing, nice cars, homes with manicured lawns—then you’re likely to see a very different person behind closed doors. My interest in the dichotomy between person and persona developed in this first series of paintings, and, to this, day, I’m still exploring it through my work.
OPP: Could you talk about the specific materials you use now?
CSS: Yes. During the period I was just referring to, I started to place greater importance on the materials that went into creating my work. I began using Ralph Lauren brand household glaze, not because of a personal affinity for the brand, but simply because I needed large amounts of glaze and I could buy it at Home Depot in one-gallon cans. The first hint of meaning came when I realized that I was using interior household paint to separate the 1960’s images (the persona) from the pornographic ones (the person). To me, that thin layer of paint came to represent the barriers that we erect between our private spaces and the public sphere and the difference in behavior one exhibits depending on which side of the divide they happen to be on.
Working with a particular brand’s products enabled me to borrow and work with the associations inherent within the brand. I began working with Ralph Lauren paint by happenstance, but over time I realized that the brand was a symbol of many of the traits that people cobble together to create their personas: financial success, upward social mobility, suburban happiness—all the things that feed into the American Dream. By using their products as a medium, I’m able to connect with the audience at a gut level. They know what these signs, symbols and signifiers mean, because they’ve become part of the American vernacular. This urge to impart meaning through medium is another aspect of those early paintings that has become central to my work throughout the years.
OPP: What are the sources for your imagery and titles? Are they the same?
CSS: The evolution of my source material closely tracks my change in medium, so much so that a shift in the source pushed me into dropping paint in favor of using paint chips. In that early series of paintings, the “bottom” images came mostly from Hustler Magazine. It was a nod to my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, and the city’s rather complicated relationship with sexual imagery. After the obscenity trials of the late 1970s (portrayed in the film The People vs. Larry Flynt), the magazine was banned for over twenty years in the city and surrounding county. In 1999, the controversy was sparked again when Flynt decided to take on the city and was once again tried for pandering obscenity. (Ironically, the squeaky-clean married prosecutor in the case was later involved in a sex scandal with a subordinate, which only intensified my curiosity about the differences between public persona and personal behavior.)
After the first series of paintings, I began to question whether my source material was appropriate for the work, especially with all of the associations that come along with commercial pornography. In the hope of finding something more “genuine,” I turned to online sources and began appropriating images from amateur and swinger websites. I was often working with small pixelated thumbnail images, which when enlarged, reminded me of the beautiful in-store displays of perfectly square paint chip samples that I would see every time I went to Home Depot to buy glaze. Once the connection was made, I became excited about working with the material and began collecting them en masse. I liked the fact that they were part of the suburban landscape and almost anyone could recognize and relate to them. After I began working with the paint chips, I continued painting for a few years, but over time I came to believe that the chips were a better medium for the work, and eventually I quit painting altogether.
The websites where I source my images have evolved over the years. I’ve used images from websites that specialized in swingers [easygoing4424 (2006)], leaked celebrity photos [drlaura1.jpg (2006)], and amateurs [ba0606.jpg (2006)]. The titles have changed as well. Some reference the poster’s handle, while others are named after the computer file. For the last few years, I’ve been getting most of my material from the "Casual Encounters" section . The titles for these works come from the subject line of the post [Gorgeous Wife....ISO Stud Tonight – mw4m – 32 (North Cincy) (2011)]. Craigslist postings have become my preferred source for subject matter. They often include both images and text, so you get a better idea of the subject as a person looking to explore their sexuality.
OPP: You've talked about the pixelation in earlier pieces, such as easygoing4424 (2006) and Self-pleasure #1 (2005). Newer works, like Muscles1111 (2011) and bananas725 (2009), are more posterized. Can you talk about this shift?
CSS: In 2004, I moved to London for graduate school and ended up living in the United Kingdom for three years. I had already started working in the pixelated style when I moved overseas, but not long after the move, a couple of factors converged, pushing my work in another direction. The first was a matter of process. I enjoyed the effect that the pixelated work had on the viewer: the images were completely invisible from up close and only became clear through distance. But once I developed a solid technique for building the image, the challenge of creating the works quickly diminished. There’s only so many ways that you can put one square next to another. To put it frankly, I began to find the studio work excruciatingly boring. I needed a technique that would challenge me throughout the creative process.
The second factor came about from the amount of travel that I was doing while I was living abroad. For the first time, I had the opportunity to see an incredible variety of artwork that spanned millennia. In London, I could spend the morning at the Tate Modern looking at the Young British Artists from the 1990s and then hop the tube to the British Museum to see the Elgin Marbles. I can point to two types of art that had a dramatic effect on my work, one ancient and one contemporary. The first were the Byzantine mosaics that I had the opportunity to see at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and especially those at the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. I found the craftsmanship involved in shaping and piecing together these intricately designed mosaics inspiring, and it helped me to break away from the square format that I was using at that time.
The other influence came from the street art that I was seeing in Paris, Berlin, and all around me in my neighborhood in east London. I grew up seeing New York-influenced freestyle graffiti. But in the mid-2000s, stencilled street art was really beginning to dominate the urban landscape, especially in Europe. It felt like you couldn’t walk down a city street without seeing work that was breaking down images in a new and interesting way. Once I began carving the paint chips using scalpels, my style landed somewhere between the two: a simplified image that still has the intricacy and attention to detail of traditional mosaics. I think that this is where that posterized effect first emerged.
OPP: Can you break down the current carving process for us?
CSS: It has changed dramatically over the years, which is apparent if you compare my first “carved” work born2boogie (2006) with a work like Muscles1111 (2011). Some of the changes are obvious: the expansion of the palate from four to hundreds of colors, the increase of the size of the overall work, and the reduction of the size of the bits of cut paint chip, which can sometimes be less than one millimetre square. Other changes came about simply because I had to create my own process; after all, I didn’t have a resource to teach me how to carve paint chips so that they fit perfectly together or how to adhere them to the board without tearing the painted surface and exposing the white backing. It’s a fairly detailed process, but basically it involves breaking down the image into an outline drawing, choosing a palate of colors for each section from the 700 or so in the Ralph Lauren collection, using the drawing as a guide to cut each piece using an extremely sharp medical scalpel, and fitting them together to build the image one piece at a time. It’s a slow process, but I will say that I never find it boring.
OPP: The abstract color bar "paintings" are especially interesting, because they are more subtle than the recreations of porn imagery. They tie sexual desire to the art world in an unexpected way, because they reference modernist painting. They make apparent that aesthetics emerge as a result of desires—desires that aren't usually named in the work itself. Do you agree or disagree?
CSS: I agree . . . mostly, but for different reasons than one might expect. In order to explain, I’ll need to go into the evolution and a bit of the process of making stripped mosaics. If you’ve ever seen one of the Ralph Lauren brand chips, you might remember that it’s a solid square of color with the name of the hue and a cataloguing code printed on the front in a metallic ink. From the very beginning I was interested in utilizing the text. In the pictorial work, it allowed me to communicate to the viewer that the work was created using paint chips instead of paint, but I had always wanted the text to have a more central role. Seven Decorating Schemes (2007) was my first attempt to slice the chips and rearrange the letters. Color names like "Linen" and “Rust" were merged to become “Lust," and, in the process, I created a striped composition. Unfortunately, after I finished that piece, I didn’t really know where to go with the process. I considered using several sources for text, but nothing really fit so the process stayed on the back burner for a couple of years, until I began using Craigslist as a source and found the text just as fascinating as the images.
In order to create the work, I had to match each grouping of letters from the Craigslist text to a corresponding grouping from the paint chip names, which already had a hue assigned to them. Therefore, the Craigslist text helps to determine the colors used in the work. For example, there is only one hue name that has the word “sex” in it—“Essex Cream." So if a person (or a couple) used the word “sex” in their Craigslist post, the final composition would include a pale yellow. By adding color to black-and-white text it was almost like I was visually representing the personality of the poster through their words. So yes, I agree that the aesthetics emerge as a result of desires.
Having said that, it was not my original intention for the striped works to reference modernist painting. That was just a happy accident that came about as a result of the process, but it was something that I learned to exploit. You mentioned that these works are more subtle. I like the fact that if ten people walk into a gallery filled with the striped pieces, nine of them will think “modernist painting” and not investigate further. I’m interested in that small percentage of viewers that are willing to take the time to question their initial assumptions and dig a little deeper to find out what lies beyond the facade. In this case, the resemblance to modernist painting is simply a way to camouflage the sexual desire embedded within the work. I like the fact that someone could hang a work like this in their home, and, depending on the light in the room, almost no one would discover the text hidden within the composition.
OPP: I think you are right, but it's pretty sad that so many people have so little attention for detail. To me, if you haven't noticed the text, then you didn't really look at the piece. At the same time, this inattention to detail can also be viewed as turning a blind eye to hidden truths, and that resonates with some of the themes you've already talked about. Plus, in the context of your work, modernist painting becomes just like the Ralph Lauren brand: something that confers status on the owner.
CSS: I tend not to think of people’s lack of attention for detail as something sad, but instead as an opportunity to give the viewer a feeling of delight—or shock, or disgust, or arousal—when they finally see something that they hadn’t noticed before. The French street artist Invader is a good example of someone that is an expert at hiding things in plain sight. I remember seeing his work for the first time in a busy neighborhood in Paris. It was a small, brilliantly-colored mosaic that was placed on a building just above everyone’s line-of-sight. I felt like I was the only person on that crowed street that was seeing it. I had stumbled upon a secret that I could keep to myself or share with others, depending upon my mood. A few people noticed that I was looking up and glanced to see what I was looking at, turning the experience into a social activity. Since then, I’ve seen his mosaics in Berlin, London and New York. I look out for them now, so seeing his work has fundamentally changed the way that I view my surroundings.
The same thing happens when I show the striped mosaics. If there are only a few people in the gallery, then people are more likely to miss the text and stick to the work’s persona as a modernist painting. But if they see another person reading the text, then it usually prompts them to investigate further. Or better yet, a viewer might actually bring a friend over to the work and show them the text, making it an even more intimate experience. In a crowded gallery, it’s like a nuclear reaction. People discover the text and then show others what they’ve found; then they show more people and so on. So it really doesn’t bother me when someone doesn’t notice the text. I just think of them as someone who hasn’t seen it...yet. The delay in seeing makes the eventual discovery all the more interesting.
OPP: The Bridle Creek Casket (2008) stands out as so different from the rest of the work, although I see the connection to the bouquets made from Ralph Lauren shirts, because they look so funerary. What is being mourned in these pieces? What led to the building of the casket?
CSS: The casket and the flower arrangements came from a series of work titled Afterlifestyle, which I worked on after moving from London to Brooklyn in 2007. Living overseas during a time of war was an eye-opening experience. In the United Kingdom, I was constantly aware of developments in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Discussion of the wars was everywhere; you read it in the papers, heard about it on the radio, and it was a common topic of conversation amongst friends and colleagues. Ironically, the only time that I escaped the coverage was during visits to the United States. With the exception of the occasional faded yellow-ribbon car magnet, you could go weeks without realizing that you were in a nation that was embroiled in two wars. I would go to restaurants and stores or watch television and see very little evidence of shared sacrifice. It was as if everyone had taken the “go to Disney World” advice and applied it to their everyday lives.
With the Afterlifestyle series, I wanted to explore the theory that widespread over-consumption can result in a self-induced social blindness. I was questioning whether the pleasure that comes from excess can trump grief and anxiety, even in the most extreme circumstances. Can one really reflect on the geopolitical situation during a trip to IKEA? Is it possible to worry about your own mortality while selecting a sofa? Consumer products seemed to be the materials with which people build and adorn their own private suburban oases in order to separate themselves from the perceived dangers of the outside world. I wanted to see what would happen if you extended the good feeling that comes with the “Good Life” beyond the normal clothing, furniture and the other accoutrements of material success. It was my way of envisioning a society where the American Dream extended beyond life. If I could create a product that made preparing for one’s own death more like picking out a new pair of shoes or selecting a wallpaper pattern, would the experience become more enjoyable?
So to answer the question, I made The Bridle Creek Casket to see if purchasing a coffin has to always be a sorrowful experience or if it is possible to take the buyer’s mind off of their ultimate demise if the coffin is made from reclaimed heart pine siding with a 400-thread-count Egyptian cotton percale lining and hinges from a century-old barn in Maine.
OPP: Anything new in the works?
CSS: Yes, in fact I’m in the middle of what might be the greatest periods of change since I stopped painting and started using paint chips. I’m on schedule to show with my gallery, Masters and Pelavin, in New York every other year, so I have a full two-year period to develop a body of work between shows. I haven’t had this much uninterrupted time in the studio since graduating with my BA, so it has given me the opportunity to completely re-evaluate my studio practice. Lately I’ve been fascinated with the role nostalgia plays in consumer culture, especially with brands such as Ralph Lauren and Anthropologie. I’ve made several road trips between New York and Cincinnati, stopping at antique stores along the way and picking up objects to incorporate into my work. When I show again in 2013 you’ll see many of the mosaics housed in vintage mirror frames, some of them double sided, incorporating both the text and images from Craigslist posts.
Sculpture is something I’ve dabbled in over the years, but in my current work, it has taken a starring role. With the sculptures you’ll see the flower arrangements made from Ralph Lauren shirts combined with micro-paint chip mosaics—often composed inside of R.L. gift boxes or on the back of shirt hang tags—and vintage items such as tables, shelves, and blown-glass taxidermy display domes. The palate of the entire collection of work is very floral, with lots of greens, pinks, violets, and yellows. I’ve also become interested in the variety of ways gardens have been depicted as sexual sanctuaries throughout the ages—from the more judgmental themes in Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights to the lighter depictions of medieval Gardens of Love in 15th century art and poetry—so there are also strong religious themes emerging in this body of work.