In the Studio – Michael Boonstra

In Parallel Processes, Michael Boonstra brings us new work from an ongoing series of mixed media drawings created with an ink evaporation process. Invented aerial landscapes, the drawings are meant to occupy the same visual vernacular as satellite images. The evaporation of the ink is a parallel process to the geologic forces that form the surface of our planet. The geometry is overlaid, mimicking manmade incursions upon the surface of the Earth.

MB Interview-37Duplex: Tell us a little bit about your background.
Michael Boonstra: I was interested in architecture, I spent a lot of high school in technical drawing and drafting classes because I thought that was what I was going to do. I was taking pre-architecture classes and then took a photography class and thought, “you know, I think this is more interesting, I’m changing directions.” I started going that route concentrating in photography, drawing and ceramics. At the time it wasn’t the most common combination. I lived in New Mexico for a while and Los Angeles until I decided I wanted to pursue graduate school at the University of Oregon.

D: Your drafting experience really comes out in your work.
MB: I do like how I can use it in a completely creative way. Even in my installations I get to play with space, another way in which my interests have come full circle.

MB Interview-10D: Explain the evaporation process you use.
MB: The drawings at Duplex are made on Duralar and the base layers were created during a residency at Djerassi in 2014. I find an outside location that has some table or other flat surface that I can work on. I then search for some non-absorbent materials that are in close proximity, usually rocks, pebbles, etc., and with those materials I create some sort of intuitive composition. Most times, this composition has something to do with the location I am working in, but with varying degrees of directness. I then slowly pour diluted carbon based ink over the entire surface, submerging the rocks and pebbles in a shallow black puddle. Then, I watch and wait as the heat, wind, and humidity takes control of the process. The evaporations in this series of drawings took between 1.5 and 4 days as the environmental conditions varied quite a bit during the month in which they were made.

D: How long have you been using this sort of process? It’s almost like a laminate finish, its so smooth, but without covering the top.
MB: I’ve been experimenting with evaporation for a while, but only using this process of mounting the drawings directly on panels for about four years. I like these drawings to be objects because they refer to physical sections of landscape. Because they have these really sharp edges, it does it really seems like a quadrant or segment. It could be from a satellite, grabbed, which makes a lot of sense for the way that I think about the work.

D: I was going ask, if you reference satellite imagery at all!
MB: Absolutely! I guess I should back up; satellite imagery is, in this whole body of drawing work and the photo based work as well, what I’m interested in. Our perception of landscape and how we see it, and how that is dramatically changing and what possible questions that raises. It is very new, this aerial viewpoint. It really started to come about in the 1700’s and 1800’s, but very limited in terms of people having a direct view of the landscape from above. The two big turning points were the middle of the 20th century, when air travel became available to the public, and 2001 when Google Earth became available. Now every time we want to look at where we are, we look at it from an elevated perspective looking down at our smartphone. Sometimes its just mapping lines which has a long history, but often its actual satellite images, and we’re getting really used to that. I’m interesting in contextualizing that with the history of landscape painting–and landscape photography–avenues that have questioned how we see things. It seems as though we are not really thinking about looking at the landscape from a completely indirect mediated viewpoint. It became part of what we do, and how we behave very quickly. There are a lot of things going on there namely, whose landscape are we looking at, from when, does it really look like the image I’m seeing? Because it’s not a direct experience, it’s always mediated. Is it possible for us to look at landscapes on an immensely vast scale while still retaining the intimacy of human experience? Can we expand our perceptual experience to allow both at the same time? I don’t have answers for that. That’s just what the work is about and what I think about. I don’t think we know if we can do that.

D: Human beings disappear at that level.
MB: Yes we do, but the marks we make are evident. Grids, circles, and lines and everything else that we make on this vast scale, the biggest visible marks that we create. But there is also a kind of contextual ambiguity, contradiction, or disconnect when looking at these images. A few months ago there were two consecutive posts on Facebook. One was from NASA: looking in real time at 4K the views from the space station. It’s eye candy and that’s what the post was ‘sit back, relax, look at the splendor and beauty of our planet.’ The very next post was almost an identical image, all these luscious blues and organic lines and the post was about freshwater gushing into the Gulf of Alaska and how it’s wreaking havoc environmentally. And it’s almost the same image. Do we think these images are visually beautiful just because we don’t actually know what were looking at, because the scale is so immense, because the view is so new? Were talking like three generations, that’s nothing in the history of perceptual evolution.

MB Interview-16D: What kind of work were you making before these evaporation drawings?
MB: I’ve always done site-based installations. But in terms of portable work, I was using a lot of found marks but it was more like wood grain. That idea of using marks that weren’t entirely a part of my own creation has always been a part of my drawing practice. Starting with a blank white canvas or piece of paper doesn’t interest me. I just find that any marks that I initially make aren’t as interesting as the marks that other materials and other processes make. Making responsive work, whether it’s drawing or installation is what I’m interested in.

D: Sort of working collaboratively with nature?
MB: I wouldn’t use the word nature because a lot of that early work I was using materials such as the end of a two by six piece of lumber, so it was always something in between our idea of nature, and our processing of the material, which those drawings are too. But that comment that you made was perfect and it’s consistent with how people responded too much of that work. People would say “it’s feels so natural”, And I’d say “Everything here is from Home Depot, do you say the same thing when you go in there?” That was really fascinating; people see wood grain and have these responses, but when was the last time you ever saw that in the forest? You didn’t! Unless someone is clearing a trail with a chainsaw, otherwise it’s nonexistent. Those types of associations really fascinated me. How much we still describe things as natural even though they’re really displaced and foreign to their original context.

D: How much of the drawing is planned in the evaporation step? When you are finished with the evaporation step, do you go in and subtract?
MB: This drawing has about 2-3 hours of erasing on it, so the original pieces are very much just marks and subtle gradations. There are no sharp lines so a lot of these pieces have quite a bit of subtraction in them. They have additive marks as well.

D: Do you ever have an evaporation that comes out that you feel failed? Like you can’t do anything with it or is there always potential because you don’t have an expectation?
MB: There are always possibilities, for instance if an evaporation didn’t have visual characteristics that are eye catching, that to me actually make the drawing a bit more interesting to work on in the studio. Putting limitations on my process is definitely something I do. The evaporations happen wherever I am working on them and then I bring the back into the studio. At that point I have to work with what I have. The other thing about it is, in terms of the amount of ink and water; I’m not terribly mathematical or technical in the way that it is mixed. I mix the ink with water; hold it up to the light to see how transparent it is. The differences that result make the drawings much more interesting to work with, some of the newer ones have quite a bit of contrast and some of the earlier ones are more subtle.

D: Are the ink lines naturally occurring during evaporation?
MB: A scientist saw these the first time I showed them and started talking to me about respiratory cycles and evaporation. In evaporation even though you have constant temperature it isn’t going to be constant because the energy builds up and it exudes. It has to catch up, so there’s always this retraction. Those are things that I love, its fantastic when someone starts to explain the visual characteristics of your own work to you. When I start to do the next series of drawings, the process just becomes even more interesting.

D: When you’re starting each drawing, do you limit yourself to using whatever you find around you or do you bring in materials?
MB: I don’t bring anything in because I want it to be about the place they are being made. I like the idea of drawings that are site and time specific because again that’s similar to landscape. I mean you go on Google Earth; there are no two sections of landscape that are exactly the same.

D: Have you made any of these drawings here at your studio? If so, what materials did you find here?
MB: Not a lot, some of these older pieces were made in Eugene, but very few. I like the idea of having the initial process not be in a place that I’m completely familiar with. Even with my installation work, going into a space and figuring it out is something I really like to do. But also I can’t do evaporations in Oregon for much of the year, because they’re not going to happen. So I collect marks from somewhere else and bringing them back here and being able to work in the winter, my mind is somewhere else when I’m working on these. I like making that work that is not just a product of the studio but is connected to other places.

MB Interview-24D: Do you reference the location at all in the marks that you add?
MB: I do in most cases; sometimes more directly than others. There’s couple of these drawings where there are some subtle soft lines that are derived from the landscape of Djerassi. I’m interested in aerial work, but sometimes I reference things that I see from a terrestrial viewpoint cause that’s what’s around; ridgelines, boundaries, contours, etc. But there are a couple that have something akin to drainage systems seen from above. The landscape there is primarily grass covered hills and redwoods valleys, there’s not a whole lot in between.

D: Do you study the places you go to aerially beforehand?
MB: A lot of them I do. Study might be a bit hyperbolic, but I definitely look at them. But I’m not really interested in replicating places that actually exist in the drawing work. It’s more replicating the process of how the landscape is formed. I look at satellite imagery all the time but it’s never something where I try to represent an actual place.

D: Do you keep a sketchbook?
MB: It’s mostly full of words.

D: What is the practice of writing the words for you? Is it like a journal or note taking?
MB: For me actually taking photos is my sketchbook. I know people that don’t like this idea, for but the ability to collect images just with my iPhone is much more valuable to me than sketching ideas out. So I write ideas down, but the images that I’m using and referencing are already out there. Having a collection of images that I can peruse through every now and then, that for me is my sketchbook. My process is not necessarily consistent, but I’ve never been a big sketchbook person.

D: If so much of your work is the process, it seems it would be redundant to keep a sketchbook.
MB: Yeah, my beginning drawing students always look at me with wide eyes when I say that. And I had a lot of professors and mentors tell me that your sketchbook is the best process you’ll ever have. But most of those ideas came about before digital technologies really took hold. For me it’s a little antiquated. It doesn’t have to be like that. Sometimes I take notes while drawing, but referring back to that isn’t that important to me. Making calendric work isn’t interesting to me necessarily, but having each piece be specifically tied to the days it was created is. It’s mainly the idea that these are completely specific to a place and a time. So the marks that are made are completely irreproducible because our weather is never the same, the humidity is never the same, the wind is never the same, and the heat is never the same. This base layer is a micro geology, in the same way that the landscapes I’m referring to are formed. Obviously volcanism and plate tectonics don’t come into play, but everything else does: water, erosion, evaporation, heat, and wind. I like how that process is very similar, how they are the same. I’ve had people ask if I use this process metaphorically, and I don’t think of it metaphorically. Its extremely direct, its not a metaphor. It’s the same; it’s just at a different scale. After this initial evaporative process my part of the drawing begins. Some of marks I make are more akin to maps; some of them are more like direct incursions on landscape. I’m interested in gridding parts of the drawings out because that’s what we’ve done to the American West, which is the landscape I’m most familiar with. The Public Land Survey System that was set up by the U.S. government paid very little heed to natural topographies or geographies, it’s just an overlay.

D: How often do you come into the studio?
MB: It depends; I’ve never been that person where your studio discipline means you should come in every day. I don’t work like that. I don’t do anything like that. I might come in to the studio for a couple days in a row and then it can be that I don’t work for a week and a half, two weeks. That’s just the way it is, and sometimes with teaching and kids, its even more than two weeks. It just doesn’t happen. But then when I do have the time, it’s very focused. For me the level of intentionality gets ramped up considerably because of that.

D: That’s good, sometimes there’s a lot of guilt associated with not being in the studio.
MB: I’m over that; there are more important things. Maybe you’re not producing the amount of work that you like, and I definitely feel that at times, but at the same time, you’re still making work and that’s the big thing. Even reading and doing research and just figuring your work out, is part of my process. It’s not necessarily studio time but you’re still working on it. I feel I’m engaged with my work most of the time but often that means I’m thinking it through, figuring it out.

D: What other shows do you have coming up?
MB: I have solo shows at the Fairbanks gallery at Oregon State University in April of 2016 and also at the A.N. Bush Gallery in Salem in May/June.

See more images here.

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