Owen Gump

Only Sand, Only Water

An interview with Diango Hernandez

We can’t be too faraway if we are still walking on earth but certainly we can get lost. Islands occupy a very special place in our most beautiful fantasies. For many people islands define not only the ideal freedom but also a way to escape what continental civilization has created. In 1932 Ernest Hemingway rented his first room in Cuba at the Hotel Ambos Mundos (Both Worlds Hotel) and in this hotel, located in the old Havana, he stayed until 1939. In between ‘both worlds’ E. Hemingway wanted to live and literally he did until his last day. Watching carefully an arrangement of images made by American artist Owen Gump I thought about leaving the continent. I was tempted to separate myself from the mainland and all its implications and to go back to a little piece of floating land whose biggest treasure is actually its sea. Gump’s delicately printed and framed images contain fragility and desire, they appear to us as a gentle wish of loneliness. Especially ‘In situ’, 2010, confirmed to me that the desire to escape is actually more powerful than escaping itself. Last summer I visited E. Hemingway’s room in the Ambos Mundos Hotel and while I was walking into it I held my breath.   -DH

Owen Gump: Growing up on the California Coast, I was always aware of being on the edge of a continent. It was a feeling I knew during childhood but couldn’t pinpoint until later–the sense that there was this huge mass behind me, pushing me towards the sea and whatever lay beyond. I grew up in a part of California that, geologically speaking is not part of North America. I was wedged on a small peninsula between the Pacific and a mountain range  along the coast. My world then was a small sliver of land, very isolated, very much like an island. The social history was very much a place people had created to escape the norms of “continental civilization,” sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

This idea of fantasy, of escaping to somewhere else, was very much in my mind while making these works. While I didn’t consciously draw on this place, reading what you write about Hemingway wanting to live in “both worlds” brings a lot together–the idea of paradise only works because you know you’re separate from the rest of civilization. It’s more projection than reality.

Diango Hernandez: Subjectivity always leads me to a very particular way of freedom. In a subjective way of thinking our attention is permanently busy with dilemmas that are clearly expressed through the confrontation that exists between reality and its representation. For example an Island is not a disconnected small piece of land surrounded by the sea but instead an island is that isolated piece of (x). Following this example the dilemma is definitely not only associated with subjectivity but also with relativity. Nevertheless this dilemma as usual remains without a solution. Because I think is really up to us to define what is an island and what is not.

It might be interesting to see your ‘clouds of images’ as dilemmas. There is a fatality that still can’t be avoided. The place where we are born is disconnected, it floats together with us and it follows us without rest, like one of your ‘clouds.’ Your presentations always contain a ‘floating’ and gentle power. The power of an artist that seems to be more interested in literature than in the language of visual art itself. I’ll bring here a thought of Eliseo Diego: – …It is not by chance that we are born in one place and not in another; it is just to give our testimony. Eliseo Diego (Por los extraños pueblos).

OG: Parts of my artistic practice stemmed from a very early interest in literature. I’ve always read a lot, both fiction and essays, and before I started making art I always assumed I’d become a writer. What I loved about reading was being able to create my own world within a book. There’s a Nabakov essay where he talks about the author and reader meeting somewhere on the top of a mountain, each having labored to reach the summit, but both more enriched once they arrive. Creating this type of space, this room for interpretation or imagination is something I try and do in my work.

The clouds and “clouds of images” you mention are a good examples. That metaphor can be positive or negative, and I like it when a work can be read both ways. We define things based on what we know. When the Spanish first landed in California, they were in Baja and assumed the whole landmass was an island. There are even early maps showing California completely separated from North America. Eventually they filled in the gaps, but I find this willingness to project fascinating–one acknowledges that discovery involves not knowing, that you must first embrace the clouds of doubt.

DH: I really like the Nabakov’s thought. It is certainly a very especial place where the reader meets the writer. It is also an imaginary place that words can’t build. And is using that endless space between non existing words and imaginary places where visual art can deliver its best contribution; a contribution that in many cases help us to understand what is the meaning of what we all do everyday.

It is very interesting what you say about California and its early assumption as an island. It reminds me the fabulous history of La Gloria City. In the beginning of the XX century an American company operating under the name of The Cuban Land and Steamship Company was selling luxury properties and extraordinary parcels of land in what they described as a prosperous and modern metropolis. The company named this marvelous place ‘The Gloria City’ which was located on the northeast coast of the island of Cuba. In 1901, after paying huge sums of money, two hundred American men and a single woman, got onboard of the Yermouth steamboat heading ‘La Gloria City’. The same day they arrived to their final destination and after half a day walking through a rough and dry landscape they realized that The Gloria City didn’t exist. These American men with a single woman built in the following 20 years what is today The Gloria City; an small little village in the middle of nowhere. Do you believe photography encloses in someway doubt? There is a moment of hesitation which art expresses in a fundamental way, but photography it appears to me so certain and confident in front of a reality that we know is the opposite.

OG: Yes. For me photography can and does express doubt, though I think this is a more recent phenomenon in the history of the medium. What photography did for painting around 100 years ago is now happening to photography itself through digital media, especially video. While the duality you mention was always present in photographs, it is more pronounced now because we’re expected to question the truthfulness of what we see. For me, this gives straight photographs a kind of ‘magic’ quality, where you can believe in or  comprehend what you see without fully "understanding" it. This process embraces doubt and acknowledges it as an integral part of the medium. To what degree this is present is, like literature, more related to  narrative. The artist or photographer can certainly steer it one way or another; I try and address this by combining dissimilar images to leave the narrative more open and allow more space for the viewer’s own associations. ‘Doubt’ for me means refusing the notion that a photograph or work of art has a single underlying message. Ambiguity and continued discovery are far more interesting.

DH: For some reasons, that I am sure you are also familiar with, I prefer to see your practice as non-photographic. The complexity of your discourse, not only in terms of narrative but more important in term of process, transcends the medium itself; directing what you do towards the installation’s field. I know contemporary photography has embraced ‘doubts’ and even to say has developed a sort of cryptic language. The history of photography interests me a lot; something that was born as an extraordinary tool very soon became a very conservative and limitative medium. Do you consider necessary to go back to the beginning of photography? (I am not referring here in aesthetic nor technical terms). I find interesting in how different ways especially painters use photography; for many painters photography is not just a mere reference or pattern to follow but a source of ideas and concepts. Have you ever considered introducing a painting (for instance) inside of one of your ‘clouds of images’?

OG: Personally, I’ve learned a lot from the ‘beginnings’ of photography, in particular landscape photographs from the late 19th Century. The way space is depicted, the clarity and isolation of forms, for me his era represent the first kind of ‘photographic seeing’ that–it’s interesting to note–wasn’t always thought of as art. These impulses are important to re-examine, though as you mention I wouldn’t do this through aesthetic or technical means. What remains significant is this way of looking, that the medium can lead the artist to certain subjects and ways of putting them in a larger context.

Introducing a painting into this series is a wonderful idea and something I’d not yet considered. When I began this series I was thinking more about reproduction techniques, how content is preserved or lost within them, and how this can differ between print media and photography. Viewing my photographs next to offset prints was night and day, but over time I became interested in this duality and decided to work with both types of media. Around this time I also found a nautical chart and reproduced it as a screen print, this being really a three-dimensional medium in how the ink is layered and interacts with the printed surface. This is perhaps my most ‘painterly’ work to date, both in form and content. Generally, I feel paintings are singular, original objects, and with this series I was more interested in the reproduction of objects. I imagine introducing a painting would have to be done with great care–painterly imagery can be so loaded and I don’t want the works to become a string of references. If I did it would also have to ‘transcend the medium,’ as you say, in this case both painting and photography. It would have to have its own language, perhaps speak more to language itself rather than the grammar of visual art.

DH: And the last question… How do you think a ‘fragile’ practice like yours can survive the ‘size demanding’ ambitious collectors, the entertaining museums, the over scaled galleries and the ‘pimped’ art fairs? -I think it is important to remark that your work (talking about single printed images) is mostly small. Do you think is still possible to find out there some room available for delicate works and more important for intellectual fragility?

OG: I had a thought after we met that's pertinent to this conversation: large art works perpetuate this idea of art as a kind of spectacle, as a kind of event. Works produced on this scale are often pre-conceived for a specific context, and this has become a kind of unspoken deal between artists and their audience—the audience expects a spectacle and the artists deliver it. My formats are a direct result of my own experience. This included an early aversion to art being synonymous with entertainment, and from early experiences viewing small format works in museum spaces; where in spite of the context I was able to have a kind of private communion with the works, an exchange face to face. It’s also no doubt due in part to mostly exhibiting in smaller spaces, spaces where every centimeter counts. This unquestionably influenced the scale at which I see. The show in Münster was important for me in that I realized my work can function in larger spaces, and that in the future I’d like to work more with this. The solution, as always, is balancing the number, arrangement of works and types of media along with the exhibition’s architecture and not creating pre-conceived works to ‘fit’ specific spaces.

The second part of your question is more nuanced. Dialogue, the movement of ideas from realm of human experience to another, and above all freedom from dogma and the willingness to change your mind—we could call this ‘intellectual fragility’ but I prefer to call it humanism. Whatever you call it, it’s an essential part of art and of the humanities. These disciplines are not science. The pseudo-scientific or investigative thinking one often sees in art today serves one form of critical discourse, but not form of discourse I’m interested in. I believe timeless works, in art, as in literature or music are those where meaning at first remains elusive, which keep giving even after repeated reading. All too often, we look for answers too quickly, to simple explanations that reinforce what we already know. I’m more interested in touching an unknown realm, in touching it the same way you would touch the edge of an unknown ocean.

www.inspire-me-again.com / www.lonelyfingers.com