Richard Garrison working in his studio in the Hudson Valley of New York. ©2019 G. Garrison
In September of 2019 we visited artist Richard Garrison in his studio in the Hudson Valley of New York to see new work, find out more about his history and discuss his working process.
RHC: Where did you grow up and where did you get your professional education?
Garrison: I was born in 1971 and raised in Albany, NY. I earned a degree in Studio Art from The College of Saint Rose, which also is in Albany in 1993. Immediately after my undergraduate studies I attended Cornell University where I earned an MFA in painting in 1995.
RHC: What ideas or which artists or teachers have had the biggest influence on your work?
Garrison: I was fortunate to have some really great teachers that were extremely influential. Probably one of my most memorable moments was in Sculpture II, taught by Paul Mauren at The College of Saint Rose. Class assignments were based on historical movements after 1945.
Richard Garrison, Untitled, 1991, Wood, copper nails, rubber bands, 48” x 48” x 5” (1.2m x 1.2m x 12.7cm), ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: That seems like an interesting place to start...specially considering current events about Confederate Monuments and the like. Do you remember a specific project that still has bearing on your work today?
Garrison: The last project of the semester was process art which I despised and initially resisted creating. The entire concept of allowing the final result be defined by process was something I just at first couldn’t get my head around. As I remember it, Paul was bemused but patient regarding my attitude towards the project. After seeing sculpture by Eva Hesse and Jackie Winsor, I decided I would unenthusiastically give it a try. An abandoned wood shipping palette I found on a street corner would serve as my base. I then begrudgingly hammered in thousands of copper nails to its surface. Lastly, I stretched hundreds of rubber bands between the nails. Eventually, while constructing this sculpture, I started to see the inherent beauty and potential of process art, forever changing my own artistic practice.
RHC: How would you describe your interests or art you were interested in making early on?
Garrison: In undergraduate school, I was heavily influenced by the work of Jasper Johns, Phillip Guston, and Robert Gober. Once I started graduate school, my interest and ideas changed rapidly. Like Gober, I started to think of my work in terms of installation. Individual works that could essentially stand alone, but when shown in the same space, they spoke to one another, creating a stronger voice. Art history classes I took with Hal Foster exposed an undercurrent of modern art and further developed my interest in art theory that was initially introduced to me by Thom Lail at Saint Rose.
Richard Garrison, Untitled, 1994, Mixed Media, 8’ x 4’ 6” x 8’ (2.4m x 1.3m x 2.4m), ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
Garrison: Within the realm of art theory I was introduced to Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp and Robert Smithson’s A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, NJ. Both of these essays were so incredibly important in shaping the development and understanding of what it meant to be an artist.
RHC: What made them so important to you?
Garrison: Both authors were cultural observers that balanced their perspectives with a mix of critical perspective, history, humor, and fantasy. How Smithson interacted and documented the contemporary landscape has and continues to be very influential. It was in my second year of graduate school that I finally started to construct the beginnings of my own voice through the work of Smithson, Gober and an artist whose work I saw at University at Albany Art Museum, Gayle Johnson. Johnson faithfully repainted paperback pulp fiction covers. How she studied and personally recreated book covers depicting various female stereotypes deeply resonated with my own interest in masculinity and identity construction seen through the lens of pop culture.
Richard Garrison, Star Wars Copy Project (Han and Leia), 1995, Acrylic on cardboard, 5” x 7” (12.7cm x 17.8cm), ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
Garrison: I did a series of 4 ½” x 3 ½” paintings where I “copied” selected Star Wars trading cards that I collected when I was very young. I selected cards depicting the male heroes in the movie and repainted them on thin cardboard sheets, just like what the trading cards were printed on. Looking back on the The Star Wars Card Copy Project, I believe this was my first attempt at mapping.
Richard Garrison, Star Wars Copy Project (A Crucial Moment for Luke Skywalker), 1995, Acrylic and ink on cardboard, 2½" x 3½” (6.3cm x 8.9cm), ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: What ideas were most prevalent in your thinking after you completed your MFA in 1995 and how are these evident in the work?
Garrison: Between 1995-2000, I created a number of site-specific installations that addressed ideas related to masculinity, fantasy, and landscape evoked through images of fictional film and literature. I utilized elements that evoked cinematic special effects, like blue screens and bubble machines in installations with audio and visual textual works.
Richard Garrison, Bluescreen/Special Effect, 1999, Drywall, wood, chroma key blue paint, audio recording and fabricated bubble machine, installation view at The Arts Center of the Capital Region, Troy NY, 10’ x 28’ x 2’ and 2’ x 3’ x 2’6” (3m x 8.5m x 61cm and 61cm x 91.4cm x 76.6cm), ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
Garrison: For some time I was also incorporating a “giveaway” into my work, such as popcorn-filled white paper bags screen-printed with the words “desire” or “despair”, and blueprinted bookmarks with quotes from various forms of literature exemplifying male stereotypes.
Richard Garrison, Blueprints, 1997, Plexiglas, wood, paint and blueprinted bookmarks, Installation view at Hudson Valley Community College, Troy, NY, 3¾” x 3” x 18' (9.5cm x 7.6cm x 5.5m), bookmarks 7¼” x 2” (18.4cm x 5cm), ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
Richard Garrison, Blueprints (uncut sheet), 1997, Blueprinted bookmarks, 7¼” x 2” (18.4cm x 5cm), ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: When did color begin to be an important element in your work?
Garrison: I started teaching Color Theory at Saint Rose in 1998, and became very interested in the presence and abstraction of color, but had no idea where to go with it. It wasn’t until July 4, 1998 in a Kmart just outside of Buffalo that I saw firsthand how I might be able to use color.
RHC: That must have been a revelatory experience to remember the exact day! What happened?
Martha Stewart’s Everyday Colors for KMart paint chip sample
Garrison: It was on that day I was introduced to Martha Stewart’s Everyday Colors. This was her house paint line produced specifically for Kmart. The color chips were not your typical design. Instead of listing different values of the same color on a paint chip, Stewart selected four colors she felt went together, creating a formula or color scheme for design and decoration. And what really blew me away was HOW the color chips were displayed. I discovered them on a partition wall end cap encased inside a minimal clear Plexiglas container. It looked like a conceptual artwork! I was instantly captivated by this visual presentation, but had little direction on where to go with it. It wasn’t until 2001 that I found a subject for the color chip concept.
Richard Garrison, Parking Lot Color Scheme (Toys-R-Us), 2001 Collage watercolor, graphite and ink on paper, 9½” x 9½” (24m x 24cm), Collection of Albany Institute of History and Art, Albany, NY, ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: And what happened then...?
Garrison: I was exiting the highway in Colonie, NY on an elevated ramp when I saw a brand new parking lot with red lampposts that was built for a newly constructed Target. The store building wasn’t complete yet, so the pristine empty parking lot had a presence I’ve never experienced before. It reminded me of Tony Smith’s drive on the New Jersey Turnpike before it was officially opened. For the first time, I saw parking lots for what they really are, landscape. So using Martha Stewart’s Everyday Colors and Ed Ruscha’s Thirty-four Parking Lots in Los Angeles as a starting point, I drove to 16 retail parking lots in the vicinity of Albany and matched the colors of the asphalt, painted parking lines, mulch, and lampposts with watercolor en plein air.
Richard Garrison, Parking Lot Color Scheme, 2001, Collage, watercolor, gouache, graphite and ink on paper, Installation view at the Albany Institute of History and Art, Albany, NY, ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
Garrison: I was very interested in how to “see” these landscape spaces that I would simultaneously utilize and disregard. I then took these color samples and created a screen print for each “parking lot color scheme”.
Richard Garrison, Parking Lot Color Scheme (Toys “R” Us), 2001, Screen print ink and graphite on paper, 11” x 11” (28cm x 28cm), ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: Your encounters with the Martha Stewart paint chip display and a bird’s-eye view of a Target parking lot sparked a shift in your thinking from identity to landscape and mapping…but it also seems to have exploded, so to speak, the number of permutations or directions you could explore. It led you to numerous new series. Would you say this was where you “found yourself” artistically as the old cliché goes, and what were some of the earliest series to explore these newfound ideas?
Garrison: Yes and no. The development and realization of Parking Lot Color Schemes was a huge breakthrough for me, and led to many new series and processes of observation and comparison. But oddly enough, besides Storefront Color Schemes and Housing Development Color Scheme, very few involved the element of color. After Parking Lot Color Schemes, I became interested in measuring elements of big box stores and suburban landscapes.
Richard Garrison, Storefront Color Schemes, 2004-5, Watercolor and graphite on paper, 12" x 87" (30.5” x 2.2m), Detail, ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
Richard Garrison, Storefront Color Schemes, 2004-5, Watercolor and graphite on paper, 12" x 87" (30.5” x 2.2m)
©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: This is interesting considering how important the element of color is to your work today…so, what did the other series you created involve?
Garrison: First, I used simple devices like a tape measure/measuring wheel and compass to record shadows cast from a Toys “R” Us building, my own home, and the widths of aisles in Walmart, Target and Kmart. Eventually, I started to use a hand-held GPS as a measuring tool. My fascination with parking lots continued with Parking Lot Perimeters and Lot Walking. For Parking Lot Perimeters, I walked around and recorded the contours of 53 parking lots in and surrounding Albany, NY using a GPS. The collected data was then translated into scaled CAD line drawings. I then cut the line drawings from ½” (1.3cm) stacks of tarpaper, so a shallow void was created to define each parking lot shape. Lot Walking was a bit more personal. For that drawing I measured the distance between my parked car and shopping destination for six months. The distances were arranged in a circular pattern, color-coded and labelled.
Richard Garrison, Parking Lot Perimeters, 2004, Cut and stacked tar paper, Dimensioons variable
©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
Richard Garrison, Lot Walking, 2005-06, Graphite and ink jet print on paper, 36” x 36” (91.4cm x 91.4cm), Detail, Collection University Art Museum, State University of New York at Albany, Albany, NY
©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: At first look your Spirograph drawings seem like a bit of an anomaly…but on second look are very much tied to suburban life. What led you to switch from work derived directly from measurements of landscape and architectural elements to these more referential drawings?
Garrison: It was also around this time, between 2003-2005 that my wife and I purchased a home in the suburbs outside of Albany, NY, and welcomed the births of our two daughters. I became more interested in elements of domestic life and suburbia but found I had less time to be in the studio. I started making process drawings using a Spirograph drawing kit. The fact that there was a system to making Spirograph drawings really interested me. I also liked the time-based/repetitive element that resulted in dense line drawings that for me were reflections of landscape.
Richard Garrison, Spirograph No. 9, 2004, Ballpoint pen on paper, 36” x 71 ½” (91.4cm x 1.8m)
©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: Did these more process-oriented drawings…made with a rudimentary machine, no less, lead you in another new direction?
Garrison: Just before the birth of our second daughter, I was experimenting with a drawing device that would record my movement while I was grocery shopping. Literally with not a moment to spare, I finally figured out the drawing device for what I call Shopping Cart Inertia. Like Lot Walking, these drawings were more about my life as a consumer. Each drawing was labelled with the date, time, and grocery list I shopped for while the drawing was being made. Each drawing was made with a black marker, and consisted of meandering lines and ink spots. And the best part was that I was making art while grocery shopping—making the most of my limited time.
Richard Garrison, Shopping Cart Inertia No. 16, 2006, Ink and graphite on paper, 12” x 12” (30.5cm x 30.5cm), private collection, ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: So you shifted from measuring and analyzing suburban shopping environments to recording your movement through these landscapes as you went about your daily life…basically, you shifted from observation to participation.
Garrison: I feel that with all of my work there is a participatory element with how I interact with all of my subjects. But with projects like Shopping Cart Inertia and Lot Walking, it was less about observation and more about how my personal life coexisted with these consumer environments.
Richard Garrison, Measured Hallways, 2006, Folded and printed paper, 21’ x 11’ (6.4m x 3.4m), Installation view detail at University Art Museum, State University of New York at Albany, NY ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: It seems measuring your environment has less importance now that it did in the past.
Garrison: One of my last measuring projects was at the State University of NY at Albany. I was invited to create a work that somehow interacted with the University campus. Measured Hallways was what I ended up developing by carefully measuring every doorway and angle in the hallways of the four centrally located buildings on the University campus designed by Edward Durell Stone. I used the data to make scaled folded paper printouts that were hung adjacent to the notes I took while measuring the hallways. The final installation was measured over 20’ tall.
Richard Garrison, Aisle Lights, 2006, Seventeen unique Pinhole camera exposures on photographic paper, 16” x 20” (40.6cm x 50.8cm ) each; 9’ 6” x 4’ 6” ( 2.8m x 1.4m) overall, DETAIL ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: Were there any other participatory or performance influenced series from this period?
Garrison: Another project involving a shopping cart was Aisle Lights. For this project I created a pinhole camera that was set inside a shopping cart. Images of every celling light inside a Kmart were patiently documented with the camera. The photographs of the ceiling were essentially negatives, so the fluorescent lights appeared as black lines on the paper. Photography continued to be a tool with the project Shopping Center Lawns where I photographed various grassy areas in the vicinity of twenty-five shopping centers.
Richard Garrison, Shopping Center Lawns, 2006, Digital C-print, 29” x 29” (73.6cm x 73.6cm)
©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
Garrison: Also at this time I was making some drawings while watching television. The first was Ronald Reagan Lying In State Color Scheme, a drawing made by matching significant colors while watching the continual broadcast of Ronald Regan lying in state at the Capitol rotunda on CSPAN. The second was a series of blind drawings made while watching the evening news. These blind drawings consisted of a tangled layer of red, green and blue lines made while watching the local and national news between 6:00-7:00 PM.
Richard Garrison, Ronald Reagan Lying In State Color Scheme, 2004, Collage, watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, 16 ¾” x 30 ¼” (42.5cm x 76.8cm), ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: Time, through photography and performance, has grown increasingly important as an element in your work in addition to color and landscape. In hindsight was there a point where these different directions seem to coalesce?
Garrison: I think probably one of the most important projects for me during this time was Drive-Thru Color Schemes. I was invited to participate in an inaugural exhibition at The Teaching Gallery at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, NY where I have been teaching 2D Design for twenty years. I chose to document and analyze every drive-thru menu found on my commute to the college. First, I photographed each ordering, purchasing, and pickup area of each fast-food restaurant encountered on my commute. Then, I developed a series of rules to interpret the photographs of the drive-thrus before matching and painting observed colors onto a grid. This was for me a return to contemporary landscape painting.
Richard Garrison, Drive Thru Color Scheme (McDonalds) 583 Columbia Turnpike, East Greenbush, NY (7.27.07), 2007, Watercolor and graphite on paper, 22" x 23 3/4" (55.8cm x 60.3cm), Private collection
©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: Speaking of landscape painting...the Hudson Valley, where you live has a long tradition of landscape painting, namely the Hudson River School of the 19th century. The connections and contrasts between your work and the heroic, somewhat grandiose visions of the Hudson River School are interesting. What are your thoughts about that relationship?
Richard Garrison, Parking Space Color Scheme (January 2 - May 13, 2014), 2017, Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, 25" x 25" (63.5cm x 63.5cm), ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
Garrison: Honestly, the only time I thought about my work in the context of the Hudson River School was when I was initially made my en plein air color studies of parking lots back in 2001. A few years before I saw a show at the Clark Art Institute called The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature, 1830-1880. It contained many works by Hudson River School artists that were studies of the landscape they did on site and were used as a reference for more elaborate, large scale paintings. I really responded to these works, how they were evidence of a personal interpretation and interaction with nature, and sometimes the encroachment of industry, progress, and its aftermath. Parking lots seemed to be the contemporary parallel of the traditional landscape subject.
RHC: Definitely...this seems where the irony of your work lies...in the comparison of contemporary landscape painting of the 19th Century compaired to contemporary landscape painting of the 21st...meaning, when we think of landscape we most likely think of a pastoral scene rather than a parking lot. It is also a reflection of what humans have done to a once pristine environment. How do your parking lot landscapes manifest themselves?
Richard Garrison, Parking Space Color Scheme (January 2 - May 13, 2014), 2017, Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, 25" x 25" (63.5cm x 63.5cm), ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary, Detail
Garrison: Over the past few years, I have completed a number of Parking Space Color Schemes. Instead of on-site painted sketches, I photograph my parking space. I then match the colors of numerous parking space photographs, paint them in a chronological grid and list the time, date, and location of each color. So I guess in a way I am now working similar to the Hudson River School artist by recording glimpses of “nature” on site and using it as a reference in the studio.
Richard Garrison, Weekly Ad Color Scheme Walgreens, November 30-December 6, 2008, Pages 40-41, 2008, Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, 23" x 14 1/2" (58.4cm x 36.8cm), ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: What lead you to your Circular Color Schemes?
Garrison: One Sunday my wife was at the kitchen table making shopping lists while looking through the weekly ads that came inside the newspaper. The presence of weekly flyers from Walmart and Target inside my home made me start to think of them as extensions of the “big box” landscape. I became really interested in this idea, and started to look very carefully at their structures and patterns. My first interpretations of the weekly ads were various “dot” drawings, where I scaled the advertised items in terms of small, medium and large dots.
Richard Garrison, Weekly Ad Color Scheme Walgreens, November 30-December 6, 2008, Pages 40-41, 2008, Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, 23" x 14 1/2" (58.4cm x 36.8cm), ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary, Detail
Garrison: Like the Drive-Thru Color Schemes, I color matched and charted observed information from the weekly ads. A good friend of mine who is also an artist, Bill Bergman, suggested I be more precise about measuring the advertised items, and use Excel to create a comparative framework for the measured information. Instead of dots, advertised graphics and items could be transformed in degrees and arranged in circular grid. I then created rules on how arrange and lists observed colors.
Richard Garrison, Circular Color Scheme: Rite Aid, January 3 - 9, 2010, Pgs. 10 – 11, 2010, Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, 30 1/4" x 22 1/4" (76.8cm x 56.5cm), ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: How did you connect these to landscape?
Garrison: Circulars are rendered in watercolor as a way to connect them to their origins as landscape. The series name, Circular Color Schemes was partly brought to my intention by another friend and artist, Paul Corio, who always referred to the weekly ads as “circulars”. The title functioned as a pun, describing the visual structure of the work and its point of reference. The original proportions of the Circulars were based on the Target logo. The hollow or empty center of each Circular is in some ways the most important part to me. The drawings can be very active and colorful, but the empty center for me reflects on the essence of the subject.
Richard Garrison, Circular Color Scheme: Target, September 24- 30, 2017, Page 4. “Casual Classics For House and Home”, 2017, Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, 24" x 24" (61cm x 61cm), With Target sales circular, ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary/Target
RHC: How long have you been making this series and what has changed as you have made them?
Garrison: They have over ten years gone through many changes. This was the first time I was able to work on a series and not feel it was an endgame. Seeing what would be printed in the weekly ads was and continues to be a surprise. And like On Kawara’s Today date paintings, where he clipped a section of the days newspapers and kept it with the matching date painting, I keep the weekly ad with the matching Circular drawing.
Richard Garrison, Circular Color Scheme: Walmart, March 2-17, 2018, Pages 1-28. “Ready. Set. App.”, 2018, Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, 40.5" x 40.5" (1m x 1m), ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: There seems to be a political, albeit subtle, angle to your work too...relating to the environment, recycling, over-consumption, etc. Is this intentional?
Garrison: Yes, I do agree there is a subtle political angle to my work. My perspective is not one of an outsider. I live and interact with the sites and materials I use in my work. I have seen how the “big box” landscape both serves and damages a community. Almost all of my Product Packaging series is made from recycled packaging cardboard used by my family. I am an active participant in regard to the subjects I work with, and it is amazing and horrifying to see how much one consumes and how much there is available to consume. By working comparatively this information can be presented in a way that allows the viewer to come to his or her own conclusion to the subject.
Richard Garrison, Product Packaging/Square Color Schemes (Garrison Household, April –July, 2014), 2014-15, Product Packaging cardboard and graphite on paper, 40" x 40" (1m x 1m), ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
RHC: What are some current projects in development that you can share with us?
Garrison: I am still very interested in working with the weekly ads, and have moved in some different directions in how I interpret them. For example, although I have always considered the Circulars to be extensions of landscape, I never thought they literally look like landscape. I’m working on how to make work that evokes more of the the visual presence of landscape In a return to working with parking lots, I recently completed a project titled En Plein Air (Short-Term and Long-Term Parking). As part of a group show at the Albany International Airport, I observed and matched color and placement of parked cars over a six hour period. I rendered the parking lot grid in 2-point perspective so it provided more of a landscape sensibility, which also echoed the airport runway. I really enjoyed working on site again.
Richard Garrison, En Plein Air (Short Term Parking Lot, Albany International Airport, May 28, 2019, 8:17AM-2:54PM), 2019, Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, Six drawings 15 1/8” x 26 1/8” (38.4cm x 66.4cm) each, ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary
Garrison: Besides Engaging Patterns at the Albany International Airport, my work will be included in Dataism, which opens November 3rd at ArtsWestchester in White Plains, NY and SUM Artists: Visual Diagrams and Systems-Based Explorations at Ruth and Elmer Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College in February 2020. I’ve also been experimenting with the representation of advertised items that breaks from my distilment of measurements and color. Time will tell where this will take me.
Richard Garrison, En Plein Air (Short Term Parking Lot, Albany International Airport, May 28, 2019, 8:17AM-2:54PM), 2019, Watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, Six drawings 15 1/8” x 26 1/8” (38.4cm x 66.4cm) each, ©2019 Richard Garrison/Robert Henry Contemporary, Detail