Alec Dartley spoke with Zoe Pettijohn Schade about chaos theory, the ecstatic properties of math, how we would react to being in space by ourselves, creating an oil slick of possibilities and why limitations create shapes.
There are progressions or proportions happening in the work. The layers end up coinciding with each other as they go down, and I’ll end up being really surprised how they’re lining up.
When I just went to your show at Kai Matsumiya’s gallery, I really expected to be taken by the materiality of the work, and I didn’t even notice it. I just had this weird experience where I felt like I was just X’s and O’s. You were delivering this powerful message to humanity, like some sort of new optic to see the world through. I know you’re interested in math; it’s a part of your work, right?
Zoe Pettijohn Schade
It is, but it’s a very intuitive kind of math. All of the works tend to have families of numbers. It’s not like I know the number, but what I’m saying is there’s progressions or proportions that are happening in the work. The layers end up coinciding with each other as they go down, and I’ll end up being really surprised how they’re lining up or acting in relation to one another, and I end up realizing that there is almost a family of relationships in the work. But I’m not a mathematician myself, so it’s almost like a physical kind of math. There are mathematical ideas that I’m interested in, but actual mathematical formulations are difficult for me.
For example, in 100th Monkey, there was math that I had to do in the most basic way. There’s this figure of a monkey that’s in repetition, and I was realizing that a way that that structure of repetition was weak or that it could allow for discrepancy was where the monkey overlapped the next monkey. There were seven places in the way that those figures were arranged that they overlapped the monkeys around them. I wanted to figure out all of the permutations of how those monkeys would sit in relationship to each other. That’s a logarithm; there are seven points and however many combinations that are possible within that seven.
Of course, I didn’t know how to just do that, so I actually had to label each one, one through seven, and then write on a piece of paper one, one two, one two three, all the way. And, of course, I messed that up several times and ended up realizing that there was 200 and something, but I actually had to write them all out. So, it’s kind of basic math like that. That’s a total mathematical problem, and I probably could have looked it up, but it was almost like feeling my way through it.
Then, I drew it so there isn’t a repetition of the way I was representing them. There’s only 99 monkeys in the painting, but those 99 are taking different positions to each other. There’s not a repetition of how they’re sitting. I was using that as a map. Like, this one is going to be one, five, six, like that, and putting little pieces of tape on them. It was just crazy. Anyway, that’s an answer to involved mathematics that is done using the most basic principles and techniques from scratch.
When you’re starting the paintings, do you ever reach a place where you’re not really sure what you’re doing?
Every time and all the time. I’ll put it this way. There are certain things that I know, but there’s always more that I don’t know, and I never know what it’s going to look like. In order to start, I need to know the structure of the first layer, and then I need to know the structure of the next layer. So I need to do that, but oftentimes I’m doing that while not knowing the dynamic or how the one that follows it is going to look or be or act. Sometimes I know a couple layers ahead, and sometimes I really don’t. And then there’s too much information for me to be able to track how things are going to be falling on top of each other or reacting as a whole. I never know what it’s going to exactly be doing.
But I know some things! For example, I think I’ve definitely gotten more complex in my structures as they go, but in older ones like Rainbow Tornado, the structure of the repeats, the X’s and O’s that you mentioned, the ones that are the deepest have an accordion structure to the repeat, so they stutter. They start and then stop just a little way into the repeat and then they start again, and then they start again, and then it’s like an expanding accordion thing. All the way back they do it, in the vertical and horizontal axis, and then as you go forward through the painting, they do it only in one or the other, and it starts to stabilize out. At the “X-O” level, it’s totally undisturbed.
So, I was kind of aware that I was going to be working with this accordion stutter. I wasn’t necessarily aware of how that was going to play all the way up. I kind of forget since that was a long time ago, but I think that basic dynamic was there from the start.
So you continued to repeat, but stopped at a certain point? It’s not a complete repetition?
It eventually is, but if you go from left to right, it goes a little ways and then it starts again from the beginning. And then it goes a little farther and it starts again from the beginning. Then the whole repeat’s there. It’s a stuttering thing.
If we were actually out in space without the umbilical cord to a ship or a planet, we would perceive it as an empty black void within a pattern of space, infinitely and equally far away in every direction.
Can we talk about your childhood? How does it relate to your paintings now? Can you make connections?
Autobiographically, some of the big paintings in that show reference my parents. Father’s Space is very much about my dad. He studied physics and ended up being an inventor, and would tell me this story about outer space. He would get really angry about Star Trek, when they would show the stars going by as these trails of light and, to him, that was some bullshit. That was us comforting ourselves. He said that space is so vast and we are so tiny. Our minds need the tether of a relation to even function. If we were actually out in space without the umbilical cord to a ship or next to a planet, if we were out in space by ourselves, we would perceive it as an empty black void with a pattern of space, infinitely and equally far away in every direction. With nothing between us and this pattern of light and space, within that void of no relation at all, we would just lose our minds instantaneously.
It’s funny. He was a very difficult man, and he had a very hard time with relationships. In a way, I came to see that almost as a parable about him, but also, that idea of this dazzling repetition that is a way that you completely lose yourself and your senses was a big part of that painting and a lot of my thinking about repetition. It definitely had to do with him.
I think about the ramifications of repetition a lot. I think lot of the longing for repetition, or the reason why it’s so soothing or seductive, is that it makes us feel like we know what’s going to happen. That longing to know, or that there’s a structure underneath what’s happening. Both sensations are very powerful in me, and I think that definitely came from my childhood too. A desire for stability, structure or safety.
I was just reading the scaffolding of the universe, which I think is built on dark energy, but we can’t really know what it is. But I guess they found a universe which is devoid of this dark matter.
I’d like to read that article. That stuff is so fascinating. Some of these kinds of concepts are definitely influential, too. I’ve thought a lot about phase space, which is part of chaos theory.
It was so immensely and structurally patterned, but it was a kind of pattern that you could not see or perceive in any way, experientially, because it was so bird’s-eye.
It seems to do with an idea of fate. The description of it is: say you have a way of measuring things. You feel like this dynamic or ecosystem that you’re looking at is an infinite thing, but it’s actually not infinite. It has limitations, and any limitation creates a shape. But it feels infinite because it’s just so large, you know? So, the way that they’re measuring this thing that feels too large to measure is that they break it up into each variable. My memory of it is that they take a pond, for example, and they measure each of the flies. What is the population of each of these flies? And then they do that for each of the grasses, and then they do that for the fish, and then they say, what about water? And what about rainfall? And what about moisture? And what about algae?
They think of all the things that they can think of that are happening in this population or change or weather happening in this little system, and they give each one its own plane in space. And they measure, they map all of the variabilities of this thing in the cycle. Which they say is a year, or whatever, but you can name the cycles anything. And each one has this kind of shape, which is the variabilities it goes through. And then when they layered it all out, they said it was like paisley, basically. It was so immensely and structurally patterned, but it was a kind of pattern that you could not see or perceive in any way, experientially. Because it was so bird’s-eye.
The idea that all of these things are forming this immensely elaborate visual pattern; there’s almost like an oil slick of possibilities. Any particular individual in that system would just be winding some path through that.
That’s a nice image. Well, sort of. As long as you’re not too stuck in the slick.
That’s the thing, right? It contains all of that possibility, from terrible fortune to amazing fortune.
It seems like there’s an infinite amount of things you could do or be. There’s also an infinite amount of things you can’t do or be. I’m never going to be a politician. I’m never going to be an astronaut. I’m never going to be a runner. I’m never going to be a skier. I could go down the list and probably talk for the rest of my life about the things I’ll never be.
Let’s say your foot gets run over by a car. And it’s like, okay, I’ve got to go on with this imitation or a change in the set of rules. I’ve got to live my life with a hurt foot now.
It changes the shape of the whole caboodle. It’s another mathematic idea that has sort of an ecstatic side to it.
I remember reading that if you just had a room, like a square of air, the air would usually follow these normal patterns. But if you leave it for millions and millions of years, they’re saying that all these weird variables would come in with air patterns. Every possibility could potentially happen if it had enough time.
Ideas of infinity are so strange. The whole thing about these monkeys being part of the imagery in the paintings reminds me of a story that my mom was telling, which is kind of the reason I included the monkeys in the “crowd” paintings.
I was complaining about some kind of worry in my life, and she’s like, “Oh, you know, it’s like the hundredth monkey.” I’d never heard this phrase; I asked what it was. She’s like, “The first monkey can’t do it, and the second monkey can’t do it, and the third monkey can’t do it. But the hundredth monkey will do it.” There was something about that idea. On the one hand, it’s this cheery idea of progression, but then there’s that Darwinian kind of ruthlessness, which is like, 99 of the 100 are going down. I thought that dual idea about a crowd like that was super fascinating.
Curated by: Alec Dartley
Conducted by: Phone
Transcribed by: Morgan Enos
Published: May 18, 2018
Total questions: 9
Word count: 2007
Reading time: Seven minutes
accordion, Alec Dartley, algae, amount, autobiographical, axis, Brooklyn, chaos theory, combination, cord, cycle, dark matter, Darwinian, dazzle, design, discrepancy, flies, gallery, horizontal, infinity, intuition, Kai Matsumiya, mathematics, moisture, monkey, overlap, painting, parable, pattern, perception, permutation, pond, possibility, potential, principle, progression, proportion, rainfall, repetition, seduction, soothe, space, Star Trek, stutter, surprise, technique, umbilical, variability, vertical, water, Zoe Pettijohn Schade
About the curator
Alec Dartley is a painter and sculptor working from The Palisades in New Jersey. He received his BA from Parsons School of Design in 1995 and was later awarded a Skowhegan residence. He was born in 1973 in Englewood, New Jersey. Alec is also the founder of Aagoo, a record label for emerging musicians.
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