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Interview with artist Phillip Buntin


Phillip Buntin is another artist with whom I became acquainted via Facebook. The word that springs to mind with Phillip is "intelligence": it was the intelligent discussion on his Facebook page that led me to look at his work, which revealed itself to be a body of highly intelligent abstract mark-making. As a teacher at Kent State University, Phillip clearly tries to instill in his students the same application of critical intelligence that he applies in his own work. I think you will see the same qualities in the following interview. 

(Note: Because I am Philip interviewing someone called Phillip, I used our surnames in transcribing the exchange.)

Hartigan: Your work seems to play with notions of scientific precision, drawing from mathematical and scientific diagrams, yet you also seem to value open-endedness in art. In practical terms, how do you balance these impulses in your painting?

Je me deux, enamel on plexiglass, 20" x 16", 2011
Buntin: My use of diagrammatic imagery is largely metaphorical and they are used to allude to our strivings to understand the phenomenal world.  In my decision making process, I am looking for a visual connection first, an embodied reaction.  It has been a long term visual interest to seek out experiences that are simultaneously complicated/complex, yet also have a barely discernible order.  I was originally interested in this relationship phenomenally, but over time have developed a more reflexive understanding as to why I am drawn to such experiences.  Put simply, I am interested in how we come to terms with complexity and how complex phenomena always, on some level, elude our grasp.  The balance is struck by driving the images to the point of elusiveness, through fragmentation, the degree of complexity, or obfuscation of various sorts.

Hartigan: You have also quoted Roland Barthes’ phrase “a thinking of the body in language”. How do you relate that to your studio practice?

Buntin: I don’t know if I could successfully argue this point for all, but I think that building understandings/interpretations in language is a fundamental part of the beneficial aspects of both studio practice and the engagement with artworks.  Artworks in their creation and reception are vehicles for sensorial communication.  Coming to terms with what happens in those sensorial communicative moments in language is a means to make our inchoate and nascent experiences manifest to reflexive consciousness.  In making them manifest we deepen our conscious relationship to the reality of self, body and our external world.  In essence we are setting up a feedback loop.  If I can understand in language why I am drawn to one visual experience over another, I can better understand myself and the world in which I am situated.  This is true, in my thinking, of both studio practice and also the reception practices of the viewer, with the same benefits for the viewer.

My thinking in this is influenced by philosophical hermeneutics, which speaks to the importance of interpretation and communication as the means by which we weave a space for the creation of situated subjectivities through situated communicative praxis.  Studio practice as a personally motivated intensive communicative praxis aims to communicate sensorial content that is seen as intersubjectively important.  In doing so, one learns to “think the body in language,” to seek to “think the body in language” for others, but also (maybe) to learn in that dialogue what is important to strive to communicate in relationship to both self and others.

Hartigan: At the moment, I am particularly interested in artists and writers who cross-over into the ‘opposite’ medium. Have you tried to express your ideas in extended written form? Your statements at the very least seem to suggest an equivalence between written language and painting-as-language.

Buntin: I do think there is a beneficial relationship between the two, as I am sure the above reveals.  Writing is something that I would like to dedicate more time to and see the two as having a reciprocally beneficial relationship.  Generally there seems to be reluctance among many artists to write or acknowledge the benefits of writing.  I am not of that mindset at all and think that it is important, in the right measure, to sit down and try to get clear about what it is that I am trying to do.  Often the fear is that written interpretations close off experience, but I have found that the exact opposite is true.  I would like to move beyond just writing about my own work eventually, although I am still coming to terms with what it is that I might have to offer.  Right now I am particularly interested in becoming more familiar with phenomenology, hermeneutics and mindfulness practice so that I might be able to write about their interrelationship with art making and viewing.

Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking, enamel on plexiglass,
20" x 16", 2011
Hartigan: Why express these ideas mainly in painting rather than in other media?

Buntin: I think that the painted line as opposed to the printed line brings a sense of embodiment to the process, and creates an interesting contrast.  Trying to understand a diagrammatic schematic through the body speaks to the limits of the differences between qualitative and quantitative understanding.

Hartigan: How has teaching at Kent State University affected you as an artist?

Buntin: Teaching has primarily taught me the importance of teaching!  It is so much more direct in its effects compared to the making and exhibiting of artwork, and subsequently, I take it very seriously.  The teaching itself though does not have the same degree of influence as working as an academic does.  The environment and pressure of the tenure and grant writing processes leads to a particular modality of artistic practice that may or may not be in line with individual interests and inclinations.

Hartigan: You have a very lively Facebook page (which is how, in fact, I first encountered you). In what ways do you use social media, and how do you see their use developing for you in the future?

Buntin: In spite of its limitations, I have found social media to be of extreme importance.  I have used it primarily as a means to build and feel as though I am part of community.  The conversations have been of surprising depth and breadth.  This has been particularly beneficial and enriching as the area I live in is relatively rural and the nearest urban areas are at least an hour away.

Although Facebook is more overwhelming than it was two years ago, I expect to continue there in much the same way.  In relationship to my comments on writing above and certainly taking some inspiration from your fine blog, my next step might be to start a blog.

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