Patrick Todd






Interview with Patrick Todd and Sarah Schmerler

Most artists use 'surprise' as a helpful element in the making of a work of art -- they talk about having 'happy accidents'; experimenting with color, finding new forms. For you, though, the real sense of discovery seems to come at the end, when you're done. Has your own work ever surprised you?
If you look at all my work, even my installation work from way back, it all started with an idea first. I'd see it, fully formed in my mind at the outset and my process went something like this: I'd put it on paper, and then I'd build it. It wasn't until after I built it that I'd really experience it, and in some cases it wasn't until three years later that I would know what I had made. So yes, my work always surprises me. That kind of work takes courage to make because you don't know what you're doing until it's out of your hands, your control, and you've got some distance. Even the paintings I'm making now come directly from that methodology -- from that place of trusting -- and not questioning. I'm not 'saying' something but I am learning something from my output. Does that make sense?

Yes. You make something so as to 'see'; you don't see something in the world first, and then 'make' it. That's going to rub people the wrong way in terms of what they commonly think of as 'depiction,' but ancient cultures that viewed shamanism -- channelling, essentially -- as a valid artistic role carried it off without a hitch.
An art-making idea has to become a part of my subconscious to become part of my creative activity. Essentially it has to come from the back door in order to come out the front door. 

Could you walk us through a specific example? Tell us about 'Cloud Sitting,' the installation you did in 1997 at CV Post University's Hillwood Museum. Do clouds need to be 'sat'? What's it made of, and why?
That piece was originally intended to be the illustration of an idea, and every piece of material in it represented something specific -- even when that something was a state of consciousness.  First off, I should explain that I videotaped myself meditating in a business suit -- from above, so that's where the video footage came from. I sited the TV on which this video was playing in a rubber-lined box, suspended upside down, from the ceiling such that it pointed at a copper plate that I'd burnished to a mirror finish on the floor. So, you were forced to look at me meditating through a copper sheet, and it wasn't a 'clean' image; you were seeing the reflection of the TV but not the TV, itself. At the time I was making these installations it was really important to me that every element should mean something for me, down to the last nut and bolt.

Okay, that's the floor section. Tell us more about the part that's on the wall.
That same image of me meditating in a business suit was reproduced in a series of photos, all identical, stacked a foot deep and hung solar-plexus height. 

Where are the clouds?
In the video they're superimposed, ghostly, shifting, over my meditating form. They stand in for the constantly shifting attention to the now that we experience during meditation. The still photos have no clouds or any backdrop whatsoever. 

Why stack those photos like they're in some sort of horizontal archive, in a metal frame against the wall? And why do we view you in them only from behind? There's something about that chunk of repeating images that's compelling, and kind of unsettling.
Photos are frozen moments in time, snapshots of your life, that you can learn from. As a person you can only look back, you can't look forward; meanwhile, as you're meditating you're trying to be in the now and that now is always shifting. By siting them into a horizontal small frame like that, I tried to create this fetishized object, this symbol of a person, anybody, looking backwards in time. The way I see it the wall, is the ultimate past. Somebody who has their back to you looking into the wall is looking into their past.

Thats a lot of ways to engage the 'self' in a single sculpture.
Actually, it keeps going. There were casts of rubber balls on that steel plate on the floor. The plate represented to me the physical barrier of our existence, while the rubber, which is malleable, placed on top of it, represented our mental reality. In the video, the clouds represented how we're functioning in a constantly moving and changing stillness, and they way I displayed them -- or rather, displaced them -- by shifting the direction from which people viewed them, was intended to literally convey to passersby that they can't experience what I, or anyone else, is experiencing directly. 

Can you sum that up in another way?
Meditation has been written about in books, related as an experience, spoken about, but you can't know it yourself without really doing it.

Did you learn a lot from that piece?
Actually, I thought it was the least interesting piece in the show.* More personally interesting for me was the one with the street warning sign, and lots of light reflected on the wall, and lots of feet cast in paper and suspended above the ground ["Deer in the Headlights"]. The reflected light created this visual space, which you couldn't get a handle on. You couldn't tell where it stopped; it just seemed to go further and further back…

Sounds a bit like a Robert Irwin.
Yeah, I curved the wall behind it so it added to the very weird phenomenon of the way the light came off the ground and bounced around the wall. 

Why'd you like that one so much?
I liked it because I understood it the least. And yet I felt compelled to make it, and when I finally did make it for me, visually and physically it was the strongest experience.

Compulsion is a good place to come from for making art, but a difficult one to explain. How did people react to that show?
I was working through past traumas and such that were super personal, but they are also universal as well, and a number of art therapy people who came to see that show really 'got' it. So many people make themselves intellectually available to you in life. Well, here I was trying to make myself emotionally available while carrying out that emotion in an intellectual way. I was striving to be personally honest, and people appreciated it.

I'd say people are probably pretty hungry to have an art experience that does something for them that most art doesn't typically do. How'd you translate the personal stuff in a way that made it intellectual, as you say, and not too threatening?
I used my body in a way, as a ruler, for instance. And I gave a lot of thought to materials. In one installation I cast a child's body in clay (it had an unformed face held on by wire), then placed it in a tar-lined steel box, and hung the box at sex level to make more of a point about birth, and trauma.  I try to use myself, represent myself, but have it also be universal and universally human. That piece was called "Cocophnia plus Copopsia equals Ecstasy", and in it i used lot of strobe lights, and their flashing created a disruptive viewing experience. I was thinking about how your soul transfers to your body from wherever it is before, and of what the flashing agony, what the sheer pain of that, must be like. In a number of other works, I hung the elements at solar plexus level. These are cues that anyone can pick up on in a nonverbal way because they're contextual. 

It sounds like you hit on a formula for making what I can only call cathartic illustrations, or maybe landscapes of places that we can only go to by ourselves. But you stopped in 2003.
I often wonder, 'who am I to make art; who am I to bring that thought into reality?' There's a tug of war between my desire to make stuff and the desire to not have other people go through my stuff. At some point I decided I was not going 'there' and I didn't want to take people there.

So you're making paintings now -- lots of them. Brightly colored ones that are pretty fun to look at.
I wanted to make work that was less emotionally personal and raw, and more whimsical and playful that people can live with and exist with -- those are the paintings. But they still come from the same methodology, really. I had to be playful myself to get there, and it was a long journey to get to that.

Will you ever go back to installation, or to put it another way, to making gut-wrenching work?
Sure, when I have more studio space. I've got about ten more installations in me that I want to get out. 

Why's that?
I want to see what they look like.


*At the Hillwood Museum, CW Post University Campus, Brookville, NY, 1997.