March, 04, 2008
Calm Chaos and Paper Beauty
Robert Walden in conversation with Lara Kristin Lentini
For just over ten years, Robert Walden has been creating intricate, detailed line drawings, eerily reminiscent of the topography of the world's great, familiar cities. Graceful, spacious, elegant, the drawings capture the eye as maps, but when the viewer draws closer—thinking, perhaps, that this is Amsterdam, Paris, or London—she finds not a legible map, but a sort of ghostly vapor trail—an afterimage, mysteriously stripped of all identifying features.
Walden himself is like his drawings—quiet, but with a presence that manages to be both understated and powerful. On a recent cold day in Queens, where he has his studio, I spoke with the artist about his inspirations and sources, the advantages of abstraction, and how to draw calm out of chaos.
LKL: Talk about the phrase you use in your artist's statement: ontological road maps. Can you tell me more about what that means?
RW: Well, I usually answer that question by defining each of the words. Ontology is one half of metaphysics—the other half being cosmology, which is the study of the origins of the universe. Ontology is the study of being: "the science or study of being; that department of metaphysics which relates to the study of the being or essence of things, or to being in the abstract." So that study of being or essence involves using principles like time, space...
LKL: The tools that we use to know our world.
RW: Exactly. Now a road—this is where it gets interesting. One of the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary states that a road is "an ordinary line of communication used by persons passing between different places, usually one wide enough to admit the passing of vehicles as well as horses or travelers on foot." Now that, to me, is a very interesting definition of road. It's not the first in the list of definitions, and it's certainly not what most people would think of first were they asked to define a road.
Robert Walden, Ontological Road Map 090107.207, 2007, ink on paper, 8 x 8 inches (courtesy of the artist and Marcia Wood Gallery, Atlanta; photo: Henry Chung)
LKL: That is part of it though, isn't it? A road is a way of getting from one place to another. But it also encompasses that idea of a line as the shortest distance between two points.
RW: Yes. And then a map, in a definition that was common in the seventeenth century and is now almost obsolete, is "a detailed representation in epitome; a circumstantial account of the state of things." A representation in epitome— epitome is the dictionary's word—is a very nice way to put it.
LKL: That leads me to a question I wanted to ask about maps. They've become layered systems of information: you can click through to more detailed references, or create a new map today based on updated data—maps are becoming more fluid and complex artifacts. In light of that, do you feel like your work is located in the past in some way? Or does none of that relate to your work at all?
RW: No, it's related. One of the reasons I choose to call my work maps is that in every society, from primary cultures to the most advanced, the concept of a map exists—whether you draw something in the sand or look it up on the Internet. The concept of the map itself is so essential that it encompasses the contemporary notion of mapping. Is my execution sort of old-school, if you want to call it that? In some ways, yes. But then again, people often ask me: did a computer do this? On the one hand, it's kind of an annoying question. But on the other hand, it cuts to one of the crucial dimensions of my work: here is something that is actually handmade.
LKL: What is your thought process while you're drawing? Are you thinking about specific places?
RW: In some cases, I think about specific places that I've visited, or that I know from looking at maps or aerial photographs. But it waxes and wanes between this sort of specificity and thinking about creating a drawing or composition, to thinking "Jesus when the hell is this going to be over," to "gosh that was quick." Some of the drawings come fast and some of them are slow. It's often a painful process, particularly with the larger pieces.
LKL: Part of what makes them compelling is their beautiful, focused composition. There's nothing to distract you—sometimes if you look at a photograph, you don't notice composition at all because you're distracted by the subject matter.
RW: Right. That's the advantage of abstraction—you're not encumbered with recognizable objects.
LKL: Yet, they are personal because they are handmade. And the precision of your mark-making is something you've arrived at over a long process of refinement and really intensive practice.
RW: It is. I started making maps when I was ten or eleven years old. Designing cities. Reading—well, I won't say reading. But looking at primarily two areas of source material. One was aerial photographs of the Italian towns and medieval villages found in the tourist picture books that my father—an Italophile—had brought back from Italy. The other was the plans and the drawings of the great modernist architects of the twentieth century, the International Style—Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Niemeyer.
But my intent is to make something multi-layered: complex yet accessible. And that's another reason for a map—I hate to use the word universal, but it is almost that. There are people who walk by, take a look at the work, and keep going, but most people tend to respond to it in some way—although maybe just to its insanity, its obsessiveness.
LKL: The work of certain artists does put viewers in that insane or obsessive place emotionally—Henry Darger and Yayoi Kusama, for example. But your drawings don't feel crazy at all. While the works obviously demand an almost fanatical attention to detail, they don't feel frantic or obsessive at all; in fact, they have a meditative quality. Does that reflect your state of mind when you're working on them?
RW: Sometimes, when I'm working, I fill in something that I'm not supposed to because I get lost in the process, the act of making. It's a kind of meditative "wax on, wax off" state. Time—and my work is about time: about the time it takes to make it, about the time depicted on the map—is fluid. A map is a snapshot of a particular locale and a given date and time. It's a time capsule of the era of its publication—when the photographs were made, when the map was made from these photographs, and so on. It's a moment of understanding.
LKL: Another thing comes through, I think: mapping as a way of organizing knowledge. Since your drawings do feel organized, I must ask you: what are you mapping?
RW: The other part of the title, which we haven't talked about yet, is the number that follows the phrase ontological road map. Each work has a number, which represents the date it was finished. This one is 051606. In a way, each work, at least conceptually, leads to the other. It's also sort of a diary. I forget much of the thought that went into the works, if there was an idea of a specific locale—you know, as I'm doing them, I also think of neighborhoods, traffic flow, and this sort of thing, when I'm not thinking about composition and just making a drawing. But eventually that is all forgotten. I have no recollection when I look at the finished piece.
LKL: Almost like you're just getting them out of your system.
RW: Exactly. So I guess I'm mapping myself. Which is no different from any artist. All work is obsessive. All artists are self-obsessed. It is an indulgent endeavor to create.
LKL: Part of my response to your drawings comes from the fact that no one else could do this work.
RW: It's true. I can't hire staff to go install a piece like Sol LeWitt. The mark-making is a major part of it, the making of the mark, the process.
LKL: Is the "beautiful" aspect of your work important, or is that loathsome to you?
RW: Not at all. In fact, one of the best compliments is when people say the work is elegant.
LKL: It is elegant. It's funny, that word has a specific nuance in computer code: an elegant code is the solution with the least moving parts, the fewest loops, edits, and wasted lines.
RW: Some computer types and mathematicians ask if it represents the plotting of fractals. This is why the Santa Fe Institute is also a link on my website. The researchers there do complex things—which are way over my head—around fractals and chaos, and complexity theory as a way to explain how things rise out of nothing and how chaotic systems obey certain laws.
Still, Le Corbusier would be the primary influence I would name. That school of thought was so beautiful on paper, and so violently wrong in reality. There's something I admire about that. Perhaps that's very telling.
Lara Kristin Lentini writes about art and design for ART PAPERS, Metropolis, and Stop Smiling and authors The Laraverse blog (http://laraverse.blogspot.com).