Paul Sietsema, Empire, 2000
Paul Sietsema, 16mm film still from Empire, 2000
Paul Sietsema, 16mm film still from Empire, 2000


A Conversation between Raymond Pettibon and Paul Sietsema

Raymond Pettibon
(born 1957)is an American artist known for his comic-like drawings with disturbing, ironic or ambiguous text, Pettibon’s subject matter is sometimes violent and anti-authoritarian. From the late 1970s through the mid-1980s, he was closely associated with the punk rock band Black Flag and the record label SST Records, both founded by his older brother Greg Ginn. In addition, Pettibon has designed the cover of the 1991 Sonic Youth album, “Goo.”

Paul Sietsema
(born 1968) is an artist based in Los Angeles and Berlin. Sietsema uses photographs and other objects that reference specific bodies of knowledge as starting points for his carefully crafted drawings and sculptures, which he then films. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow since 2005 and a German Academic Exchange Service Fellow since 2008. Paul Sietsema is represented by Matthew Marks Gallery in New York.

Raymond Pettibon has paid a visit to Paul Sietsema in his Los Angeles studio to discuss Paul’s new project in progress. They stand in front of a large reconstruction of Clement Greenberg’s living room that is part of Paul’s upcoming 16mm film, Empire.

Raymond Pettibon: So [the models] you are making for this film are “once removed” images—actually “several times removed”—between the original interior of Greenberg’s living room, and the photograph, and then the model, and then the film version of it. Are they going to be like set pieces that disappear into the back lot, maybe to be broken down and reassembled later? Do they have any personal or sentimental value? One of the things about making something with your hands is you get this attachment from that.

Paul Sietsema: Yeah, I guess I would say that, partially because of the time it has taken me. Making these models was another way to understand the spaces, because when you look at a photograph you don’t necessarily see everything. I like to think of the photograph in the magazine, which is also a representation, as a little window onto the apartment, which I can’t go to—I can’t go to 1964 and look at Greenberg’s apartment. When I was making this model, after six months of working on it, I would still see new things in the photograph. I would be working on something and not be able to figure it out, and realize that I had been seeing the photograph wrong. In that sense it opened up the space of his apartment and I had to fill in a lot of blanks, so there is probably some of me in it too. Actually physically working on it, I think, makes me a bit less attached to it—I don’t know why. I think of the model as sort of stationed between his apartment and the final film. Some of the things in front are a little bit too big. I was building it to match what a lens could do, so this isn’t even architecturally correct—the floor plan doesn’t really match his room at all.

RP: It’s very detailed, though.

PS: Yeah, it is, but, in a way, it only exists for the camera. It’s not a true architectural space.

RP: For some directors their attention to detail and “reality” almost becomes metaphysical. For example, in directing a western they want every little stitch in the cowboy or the Indian’s clothing to be the exact same cloth and handmade. I asked you the other day whether your work is the films, the props. This model will never be shown, right?

PS: Yeah, no. . . One thing I realized about what I was trying to do in film, and why I use 16mm film instead of something else, is that the grain is big enough that it obscures a certain amount of detail. What I usually do is exceed the amount of detail that the film can render so your mind is never pushed back by a lack of detail or information. There is always more information than you’re getting access to. The films are supposed to be a little bit about becoming immersed in something—partially me doing it, and then somebody watching it.

RP: I don’t know if it’s going to come across how much detail there really is. I’m also wondering how much, if any, detective work is involved in building models like these. This is to the people who aren’t going to be seeing this: the verisimilitude is really impressive.

PS: A lot of it is filling in. This painting was cut in half. I guessed it was an Olitski, and the sculptures in the back were very small and difficult to make out, but you get a feel for this aesthetic. I finally saw another view of the room that showed this painting and I got it almost exactly right in the model.

RP: Why Greenberg’s apartment? He’s one of the major figures of art criticism, but why him? I imagine it’s not just because you were turning the page in a magazine and the image appealed to you.

PS: A lot of it was that I thought the room looked really nice, and the paintings and the furniture were integrated in a way that struck me as being fairly . . . I don’t know . . . acute. I don’t know what you call it, but the room was completely integrated. There are other reasons, like formally the image really pulled together. The main reason for using him and this particular time period is that there was a lot of cultural change, you know, the Beatles in music, and the changeover from geometric abstraction to Pop. There was this sort of letting go of the idea of a utopian society Le Corbusier and others had been designing for. I think in abstract art, there’s also a bit of a social agenda. I was thinking about how Greenberg championed all these artists and ideas. He really seemed to make a lot of things happen, rather than just recording the moment. That was very interesting to me, to think of him sitting at his desk, thinking, writing, and convincing other people—that’s the true utopian moment of the time period, one of the last ones. In his head maybe he was living it for quite a while.

RP: So looking at the photograph, there was a clear integrated aesthetic. You could discern the message of his writing from his own home?

PS: Yeah. He also writes in the article that accompanied this image [Vogue, January 1964] about how the paintings affected the space of the living room. So he believed that they had a certain perceptual effect on him when he was in the room. He wasn’t just like, “Hey, check out my Ken Noland . . .”

RP: I think with most collectors, when you walk in the door, what’s on their walls and tables and floors is supposed to say something about themselves, whether it’s personal taste or the equivalent of having the latest model car in their garage. It’s like when the O. J. Simpson jury visited his home and his lawyers had rearranged all the pictures on the walls. They took down the photographs of him with rich white celebrities and put up that Norman Rockwell picture of the girl going into the desegregated school for the first time with the National Guard surrounding her. I imagine with magazines like Architectural Digest, or even, the art magazines that feature collectors, there is a fair amount of rearranging—buying, borrowing, stealing, that goes on. Greenberg would probably be happier with this as a portrait than a photograph of himself at this period. Is this in effect a portrait of him like that?

PS: I think it certainly is. I believe somebody’s environment and their house and the objects that they surround themselves with reflects, or is equal to the choices they would make in other situations. I don’t think there’s any way you could say that his writing was a totally separate activity from his choosing a chair. They’re both aesthetic decisions, but at some point, especially for him, it becomes very intuitive. In this film there’s also a grasshopper that sits on a branch among leaves. It relates to sumi ink drawings and Chinese screens and that sort of thing, but the reason I put it in the film is that Greenberg’s room is sort of the opposite, formally, of the grasshopper on the branch. I’m interested in applying Darwinist ideas to cultural evolution. Greenberg’s environment is a reflection of him, and the grasshopper evolved to match the leaves so the birds wouldn’t come along and eat it. It’s a reflection of its environment. The direction of aesthetic flow is the opposite.

RP: Greenberg also wasn’t a passive collector. I imagine his interior was duplicated among people who read his work, and the art was in many respects was “critic driven” as much as it was the other way around. If you took him out of the equation, I think there would be more gaping holes in some individual pieces. I saw you had slides of different types of abstract and architectural spaces? Are these all going to be in the same film?

PS: Yeah, so it’s basically going to be many different spatial experiences. And also this thing here that turns [points to an abstract geometric frame structure]. I film it as it turns, close enough so that you can’t quite put the shape together. Your brain really struggles to put it together. When you talk about space, or architecture, or I guess now computers, it’s the point-line-plane thing that everyone operates off of in perception. If you put three lines together on a plane, then you have the side of something or a two-dimensional form. Then do that again and pretty soon you have a three-dimensional form. As I was making it, I was filming it and I was trying to make a shape that would be illusive enough that you could never actually put it together, but coherent enough that your brain would really try. The film explores how the way things are represented can be representative of the ways that different types of space throughout art history function. So, like this one with the colors changing on the wall, it’s very flat. It’s just this color projection on the wall. Whereas with the projection of his apartment, the perspective leads you into the projection. You see it as spatial, while this one flattens out and colors everything in the room. So people sitting in the room are tinted by the colors that are changing. There is another section where these single-frame shots of color just blink. It’s sort of annoying as hell, but what it does is push the space forward from the wall, pushes you back. So for me, there are different ways of entering into the space of the projection.

RP: There’s no soundtrack. . .

PS: No, no sound. One thing I like, and the more I read about film I realize this is sort of a cliché, is the sound that the projectors make when you put them in a gallery. I don’t like the projector as like a sculptural object at all, but I do like the way the sound meters out what you’re looking at. This sound just telegraphs the images so you have this constant meter that relates to all of these different types of movements throughout the film. It makes you think about the machinery a little bit, which I like.

RP: Does it bring you back to grade school . . .

PS: In grade school we watched films when it rained. I don’t know. If it does, that must be a subconscious thing. The only time I saw films at school was in auditoriums and the soundtrack masked the sound of the projector. Film has this really juicy aesthetic and it also has this sort of retro aesthetic, which I don’t like, but for me the film is really like making the model. It’s like drawing, sculpture, collage. For me, it’s this hands-on thing that you can manipulate so many different ways. Video’s good quality is that you point and shoot—it’s like a snapshot. But I like the number of decisions that you are forced to make whenever you’re editing something together, how that leads your perception of something over time. I like the complexity of having to think about formal and structural qualities over a certain period of time.

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