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INTERview: Steve Budington

By Lee Ann Cox and Elise Whittemore-Hill Article published November 5, 2008

Budington
"A lot of this for me is having fun with painting," says Steve Budington, assistant professor of art about his current exhibition, The Pioneers. "They're not so serious. There is a bit of lightness and humor and kind of absurdity." (Photo: Sally McCay)

Steve Budington, artist and assistant professor, asks curious questions in his new exhibit of paintings and drawings in the Williams Hall Colburn Gallery: “What would happen if the physical body could evolve at the rate of cultural novelty? How would it compensate? What would it become?” Budington has had a number of exhibitions in New York City and elsewhere around the country and abroad. In advance of his Nov. 6 gallery talk for this show, the view had a private tour with Budington and a chance to turn the questions on him.

THE VIEW: You’ve said that in these paintings you are exploring ideas of the human figure generating new body parts or responding to the environment or to a new cultural development — the body breaking down boundaries. Tell us about what led you to this kind of investigation.

BUDINGTON: The primary engine for these is a disconnect, it seems to me, between our understanding of our bodies physiologically — we know so much, and yet our embodied experience is still so highly subjective. You have your physical body but your experience of the world is so much more. So I started looking at early anatomical studies from when (people) were essentially guessing about what was going on in the body, and then I look at accurate physiological forms such as the muscles here (in this painting), the kneecap, heart, skin, all of those things that we know about. But I’m obviously unwinding them, exposing them to the elements to open up some aspect of the embodied experience of the world. I think of these (painted figures) as really human beings having experiences. And in a sense they’ve been made strange in order for viewers to be able to think about those things in a way they wouldn’t from a normal representation of the body.

And you are also looking at equipment in some of your work. What’s that in response to?

I think our current embodied experience in the environment is extended in a sense with prosthetics. To get closer to nature, people today are wearing Gortex, ski goggles, all sorts of things which basically serve as a prosthetic for our bodies. It’s interesting that in order to get closer to nature we in effect seal ourselves off from it using those kinds of devices.

How much is planned and how much is instinctual when you attack a canvas like this? There’s real gestural abstract work; there’s clear representation. Some are looser in movement, some finely articulated. Does that play into this equation?

Absolutely. I could never have planned that (painting). I have some intentions, maybe a few elements that I want to work with and I basically start mixing colors and putting paint down on the surface. What happens is the painting has its own demands. I have an intention, I put paint down, and the paint is somewhat chaotic; it doesn’t always act how you would expect so I have to respond to what the painting is telling me. I’ll respond to the painting, the painting will respond to me, it goes back and forth for a long time and basically I start to interpret what’s happening in essentially abstract forms and these figures just kind of emerge out of that.

You have two seemingly contradictory ideas — the wrapping yourself up with some form of prosthesis and the body unwound which feels unprotected. Are those different ideas that show up in different paintings?

The whole idea of being exposed and being protected is something that interests me. When is exposing ourselves actually beneficial and when does protecting ourselves maybe not benefit us? I’m not trying to make a statement on those but to activate questions about those kinds of relationships.

Someone wrote that you "address issues of human vulnerability in a seemingly 'post-human' culture and precarious natural world." Can you talk about your perception of “post-human” and how that affects your work?

That’s a complex idea and there are lots of theories about what it means to be post-human. One has to do with the cyborg. What is a cyborg? Some people say a lot of us are already cyborgs in a sense because we have such strong relationships with technological prosthesis including our laptops and so forth. People have artificial knees, artificial hearts, pace makers; in a sense we’ve already become that. There are nonhuman elements that have already become humanized in some way. Again, it’s very elaborate and there are many ideas about what a post-human might be so I’m thinking a lot about those kinds of issues as I paint.

We’ve heard anecdotally that you are making a huge impact on students when you teach. What are you trying to do in the classroom?

First is to break down any preconceptions students might have about painting. Painting is a strong force in our culture. We all have ideas about what a good painting is, what a bad painting is and I want to unpack some of those. I’m also really interested in art history. In my own work I’m constantly looking at and drawing from old masters and contemporary masters as well. So I expose them to that. One class just finished a transcription project where they were given a masterpiece to transcribe — which is not the same as making a copy. I ask them to think about certain ways of painting in relation to this masterpiece. It allows them to evaluate the formal structure of the painting, how the space is laid out, a lot of those basics of how you mix colors, how you lay out your palette, how light affects color and space and atmosphere. It all breaks down to how you see what you see. Not just what you’re seeing, not just mimicking what you see, but how you see it and how is your perception being influenced by a whole number of factors and how do you become aware of those.

What does transcribing a painting mean?

If you’re a musician, you can transcribe a symphony piece for a chamber orchestra or a duet or transcribe oral music, the sound into notes. You’re translating — it’s not just a copy, you’re actually creating a new language or transcribing into a different language other than the original. So that’s what they’re doing. They take a masterpiece and I’m asking them not to look at the style of the painting, all the surface facture, how it’s styled depending on when the painting was from, but to look at the underlying structure. I’m asking them to transcribe this one very set masterpiece into another language in order to unpack the pictorial structure of that piece.

Is it a successful assignment?

Incredibly. I’ll hang some in the hallway at the opening of this show. When I was an undergrad I had fantastic teachers but I also had some classes that were not very rigorous. I think people may think our classes are a free-for-all, that it’s all about expression. But really in order to express yourself you have to learn the language to be able to be articulate within that language. So I really want to give them concrete tools. Visual tools, perceptual tools — things that I wished I had had more of and that I had to really work hard at different points to get. I try to teach what I would ideally have been taught.

You were teaching at an art and design school before you came to UVM in 2007. What brought you here?

I was especially attracted to the liberal arts aspect. I really enjoy working with students who are coming from philosophy or biology classes; they bring that into the painting class and that makes a much more interesting conversation about art. Especially at the undergraduate level I think it’s crucial. I want my students to be exposed to a broad range of topics. To be a painter is not to be hermetically sealed in your studio. I think to be a successful artist you have to be in the world; you have to know about what’s going on and respond, to be in conversation with those things. The best painters in history have done that, always.


The Pioneers will be on exhibit in the Colburn Gallery in Williams Hall through Nov. 14. Budington will give a gallery talk on Nov. 6 at 4:30 p.m., followed by a reception from 5 to 7 p.m.