As an idea and word, “curator” continues to suffer a death from overdose. Still, I am tempted to place this burdensome phrase upon Conny Purtill and his chosen allies—that is, if we can agree that curating involves working with someone else’s objects to elucidate a concept. The exhibition The Ground, recently on view at Adams and Ollman Gallery in Portland, Oregon, began with Purtill gifting canvases toned with alternating layers of gesso and ink to five artists: Felix Culpa, Jay Heikes, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Barry McGee, and Todd Norsten; he asked them to work on these prepared canvases as they would any other “ground.” Each of the five artists approached this process in a unique way, and Purtill then laid the final works out along the perimeter walls of the gallery, surrounding an X-shaped partition installed in the middle of the space. Upon the central partition, Purtill installed works he made himself, including a gestural drawing, a set of puppet legs, a collage, and four Handheld Grounds—works made on both sides of planks of wood that are created for both visual and tactile experiences. All of this made for an enigmatic and energizing show. To emulate the generative process of this exhibition, I asked Conny a question and then had Jay Heikes, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, and Todd Norsten comment on his reply.
Mack McFarland: Conny, I am wondering about language and how it operates in your process and work. The press release has some phrases in quotes such as, “…until the ground is exhausted, at which time it is ‘neutralized’ with pencil marks…” And later, “available spaces,” and even the title of the show, “ground.”
Conny Purtill: A phrase like “the ground” generates a specific force that pulls me toward things and ideas and people. It is a force that I’ve come to accept as natural and profound (and I would say it has no less an impact on me than a force like gravity). Words naturally push and pull against a thing or a person or an idea—these forces are attractive to me probably because they take such little energy to generate, and once they are generated, give so much energy back. That might be how language operates in the process and work.
MM: Do you share this language with your collaborators? Do you think of Culpa, Heikes, Jackson Hutchins, McGee, and Norsten as collaborators?
CP: Yes, I do share these phrases with the people I choose to have relationships with. But that said, I do not expect my found phrases will generate useful forces for other people the way they do for me. I share them only because it is what I have to share.
And no, I don’t find the word “collaborator” represents the relationship I’m having with any one of these people. I gift people neutralized grounds as a way of generating a force that pulls us together. The object itself (and what ultimately happens to or with it) is not something I care too much about. I’d rather find a word that represents the relationship—maybe “love”—or a word that represents that specific force…um, I might go with “love” again.
Jay Heikes: I love you too, Conny! For me, a white ground has always seemed suspect. I work so hard to produce the patina of an aged authenticity in my work, which can feel satisfying aesthetically but also ironic in the faux tribal sense. When Conny first approached me with the idea of gifting one of the “grounds,” I was relieved that I didn’t have to start from a bleached space. Instead I was challenged with the thought of whether I should touch the ground at all. But after some contemplation, I realized that a certain kind of all-over painting had been beaten to death for me, rendered as powerful as a swatch of fabric. If I was given this incredible ground, my job was to provide an incredible figure for that ground so they could harmonize like a band, like Wings. So in that way I see it as a collaboration, but I would assign to Conny the role of an inspirer, a McCartney.
Todd Norsten: I think that Conny had told me about the process of making the grounds, but I never thought about them as regimented to the degree articulated in your question, Mack—they just looked really cool. So Conny’s description of the collaboration as more like love is appropriate for me. Plus, Conny is like Yoda without the gimmicky talk and green, wrinkly skin.
I was more interested in another idea that Conny and Jay were talking about, that was mostly a joke but discussed somewhat seriously—the idea of making a one-stroke painting. Sort of the Holy Grail of painting that exists somewhere between children’s books and sophomore painting class, but only achieved through years of training and Bill Murray’s enlightenment in Caddyshack. The paint that I put on the ground was informed by conversations with Conny and the one-stroke painting idea, so the force that he explains as love seems like an apt description of the interaction.
Jessica Jackson Hutchins: Force, the ground, gravity, love—such beautiful language, Conny: simple, profound, and totally apparent in those works. I thought of Conny the whole time I lived with his ground. It felt like something between us, and that was an inspiration. It was always a conversation with him. The size is such a factor in this, too. It’s intimate and every inch of it has been combed over—that kind of attention is felt. I think it contributes a lot to this force he speaks of.
MM: Conny, your Purtill Family Business is well known, perhaps even infamous for the design of artist and exhibition catalogs. The structure of your exhibition included a built-in, X-shaped partition in the middle of the space, which seems to echo the pages of an open book or even the fold-out pages of the 2006 Whitney Biennial catalog that Purtill Family Business designed. Do you approach an exhibition layout in the same way you do book design?
CP: Regardless of whether you are thinking about a book space or a room space, they are both, in my situation, about servicing the art. Design that does not function as a service to something is not design—they are the same in that way. For the space of the exhibition, I set up a group of isolated triangular spaces that one would circle through. The fundamental element—the space that most interested me—was the individual triangular space. In each triangle, one single work appeared on each plane of the triangle, with just enough room for one person to stand in the middle of the triangle. This was the only space I was interested in building. This simple construction was the best way I could imagine to build a space that illuminated the specific forces we were speaking about earlier and offer the opportunity for a single person to be immersed in the dynamic in an intimate way, hopefully compounding the energy. Keeping the architectural form simple was really important because I wanted the space to be as much about the forces generated as it was about each individual work. I wanted to build a space in which one could see and feel complexly.
Mack McFarland is the curator of the Philip Feldman Gallery + Project Space at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Since 2006, he has organized or curated over 30 exhibitions, with a focus on artists whose practices involve social or politically engaged themes.