Born and educated in Canada, David Eustace has been working for over almost fifteen years in an international context, including exhibitions in Germany, Italy, and Croatia. He has received various grants and awards both in Canada and the United States. His mixed media practice includes painting, collage, printmaking, and site-specific installations. He currently lives & works in the Hudson Valley/Catskills Region.
1. At what moment in your life did you realize that you were an artist? And how did that shape the important decisions you needed to make from that point forward?
I try to avoid realizing that I’m an artist, somehow it gets in my way. That’s as precious as it sounds, but I come by the sentiment honestly and it remains an important touchstone. Academically, I’m a Lit major and for the longest time my sole ambition was to be a writer. And while I wrote plenty, I couldn’t get the horse in front of the cart long enough to finish anything – in other words, my ambition to be a writer, a Writer, psyched-out my ability to write, to do what Maupassant said was the first job of the trade, “to get black on white”.
I was thirty-five when I shot that horse – Exeunt Writer. Living in New York with a ‘day job’ at a great fine arts printmaking shop in Brooklyn, Axelle Fine Arts , I had learned quite a bit about printmaking; I’d also mucked around in the book arts years previous, had some experience with ceramics from another day job, and in general, had always liked exploring materials. One day, post-writer’s life, I went to my roof with a big canvas drop-cloth I had laying around, a roll of masking tape, and an assortment of printmaking chemicals to play with and, eventually, I used the daily rising and falling water levels of the nearby tidal & toxic Gowanus Canal to ‘print’ things on large bolts of canvas. I mark that project as the beginning of my visual arts practice and combine the first lesson – just get ‘black on white’ – with an abiding interest in the way everything changes, including our own identities. I suppose, too, from that point on I’ve been cautious about too strongly identifying with anything that might get in the way of me doing what I like to do – which is to look for literal and metaphoric chains of cause and effect in the world around me, transforming materials and creating experiences that communicate something salient about our limited time on the planet.
2. Do you believe that art can be taught?
It’s a great, complicated question and my short answer is: yes, of course; like in any other field, the skills needed for the various art forms can be taught, ideally by someone skilled in the art of teaching. But the word ‘art’ contains more tension than the short answer belies, as the word contains two complex ideas – our contemporary notion that art is something, whether it’s an action (e.g. sculpting) or product of an action (e.g. a sculpture), and a much older idea of art being the practice or way of doing of something, like teaching or shoemaking.
So, to circle back, if the question becomes can the art of ‘art’ be taught, then I’d say no, I don’t think so; that while the techniques and knowledge for this broadly defined activity are rooted in teachable things, the art of them is embedded in the practice of those skills. To make a quick distinction, writer Malcom Galdwell proposes 10,000 hours of doing an activity to gain mastery of it, and I’d agree most any skill can be learned through dint of repetition – that’s my understanding of how all learning works, through mimicry and repetition. But I’d argue practicing the art of something is not just about mere mastery of skills but also requires a particular knack, or talent, for them. And recognizing how fuzzy the idea of ‘talent’ gets, I’ll leave it at this – that I don’t know anyone who would argue, for instance, that all doctors practice the art of medicine; some of them are just doctors, no matter how good an education they’ve had or how long they’ve been at it.
3. Can you please describe your creative process and how it has changed over the last 10 years?
One of my favorite stories about artistic process comes from the late Italian writer Italo Calvino, in Six Memos for the Next Millennium. It’s relatively short, so I’ll quote the whole thing:
Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. “I need another five years,” said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.
I love this story, and not just because of the country house and helping hands. This radical acceptance of inactivity as a legitimate means to good work (perfect even!) is so entirely the opposite of my own process, where in a pall of anxiety about ‘productivity’ I’m constantly grabbing whatever’s at hand and just trying to get something happening. Done in fits and starts for varying durations, at some point I exhaust any combination of the supply of ad hoc materials, nascent ideas, time at a given site, or simply myself, and grudgingly move onto the next thing (best case scenario) or give up altogether (as often the case). This is the only point where my process might line up with the Chuang-tzu fable, insofar as sometimes as much as a year or even two might pass before I revisit a work, usually to find meanwhile something else has taken over either in myself or the work proper. And then I’m presented with a choice: stick to my original intentions of whatever it is I thought I was doing at the time or begin to see what’s actually emerged from those initial efforts. Either way, from here I work more deliberately, with focused attention on just what’s in front of me.
What’s changed over the years is that while to make work I still tend to feverishly grab whatever’s at hand, pitting materiality against concept or vice versa, I’m increasingly less invested in the fable of free will & chimera of control that drives our culture at large, more intent on trying to see clearly the forces governing the process a whole. From the specifics of the site where the work is being made to the ever-fluctuating levels of my own volition and interest, rather fight circumstances or myself the goal is to accept what’s actually in play in the moment. For me, this seems to be an easier way to discover ways to strengthen the work, or to decide when to move on and tend to something else that’s on the go.
4. How do you experience failure in your work and what are your coping processes?
I still react to it poorly, mostly because it never comes in a guise I’m prepared for. An Installation not working out how I had hoped, realizing I’ve over-painted and under-delivered, a technique gone awry, bad idea after bad idea – I call these things ‘setbacks’, so maybe my coping mechanism is to reframe failure as something else. But I encounter these sorts of failures so often that they really do seem like old friends, who remind me how often I make mistakes but ok, it’s also fine, too. Shit happens, begin again. What I’m referencing is what I think of as ‘real’ failure, which for me is the failure to show up and be open to the process in the first place. This sort of failure wears a million faces and is precipitated by unseen forces, at unpredictable intervals – once detected, it’s miserable, intractable, and all you can do is wait it out, patiently & gently if possible, with intense self-loathing & great agitation otherwise. I also have a decent daily meditation practice right now, which helps, but sleeping for days on end when possible will also do.
5. As you look back on your career if you could do it differently, what would you change?
With dualling figureheads of Courage & Obstinacy on the bow of my ego, I want to plow through this question and say – nothing! Which is to say I’m not sure I have the humility or perspective yet to answer this honestly, though certainly there’s a ton of things I could’ve done better, been ‘smarter’ about – particularly around the idea of a career itself, like networking and whatnot. I suppose. But it’s a dirty word to me still, ‘career’ – a 20th-century ideological obscenity that preys on people’s uncertainty about what a ‘good life’ means and is anathema to the project of holistic human development. Thankfully the opportunity for one passed over my generation (Gen X) but the concept still fills me with derision & dread.
Instead, I prefer the slightly twee idea of a ‘vocation’, which for me just means doing something you’ve been drawn to, and renders hindsight a moot point – while careers are carefully plotted trajectories that can be parsed, vocations are usually arrived at in fits and starts and once found, it’s hard to see how you could have gotten there any other way. Messier, for sure, but I’d argue more satisfying in the end.
6. What are you currently working on?
For the past year I’ve been working on a studio project called this is the work this machine does, a mixed and multi-media experiment in my studio space in Hudson. Begun on the spring equinox last year, the project is roughly divided into four parts, each a season long, and I’m in the last season. Under the circumstances, I might extend it another few months but ostensibly I’m synthesizing a series of gestures and ideas garnered from the last year in the space. I received funding from (to give a shout out) the Canada Council for the Arts to work on it and the elevator pitch is that it’s an exploration between process and product, or outcome …
Which means I’ve stepped back a bit from the core of my practice – using environmental forces like weather and light to create work on canvas and paper that chart the local alchemy of change on site – and am thinking more about how these process-orientated and often durational installations are in and of themselves ‘works’. Part of this has been using trail cameras to capture time-lapse recordings of both specific installations I’ve rigged up as well as things like the ambient movement of light or moisture in the space over longer periods of time, from weeks and months, to whole seasons. In kind and intent, it’s a new frontier for me, like the way I’ve been playing with the architecture of structure itself to create certain effects inside the space, such as removing a strip of roofing to let the weather in or repositioning windows to capture seasonal effects of, for instance, the sun on site. It’s been a lot of fun and I’m also looking forward to seeing what comes from it.
7. What other art forms have inspired you in your work?
My practice has drawn on a bunch of different forms of graphic art, like printmaking, drawing, and painting, and over the years has slowly expanded into sculpture, the ‘media arts’, like video, and more recently, architecture.
But the two which most inspire me, I don’t use in my work: music and performance. Both these forms have a purity to them, a way in which form and function work seamlessly to produce a totality of experience which is the music or the performance. And it’s different from the linear momentum of video or film, or even poetry or literature, which are likewise ‘time-dependent’ and of course, only activated through our engagement with a succession of frames or words . But with music or performance, you don’t have split hairs or argue your way to their temporal integrity and unity – they actually only come into existence one note, one movement at a time, rising and falling in the warp & weft of the same spacetime fabric we habit (or as often fail to inhabit); unlike even our own consciousness, they can’t slip willy-nilly into the past or future, emerging only in the present tense and so inviting us to join them in the truth of the actual moment likenothing else does. It’s wonderful, and never ceases to amaze me.
8. Would you give us an example or two of other artist’s works that you admire and tell us why?
My original answer was the Italian artist Giuseppe Penone, who was part of arte povera , a 20th century art movement which I identify strongly with and from which I drawn a lot recently. But in terms of pure admiration – Wolfgang Laeb, a German artist whose work a friend introduced to me a few years ago. Primarily identified as a sculptor, in the early 1970’s he became known for his ‘Milkstones ’, where he sets up a deeply moving conversation between two simple but incredibly metaphorically rich materials – fresh milk and white marble. Milk is gently poured into a shallow indentation on the top of the stone and forms a smooth seamless plane to restore the polished stone to its six-sided geometric perfection.
I remember liking this work immediately – this a keen and palpable sense of the materials while using a gentle sleight of hand (white milk on white marble) to create this illusory unity of such disparate things. I’ve never seen them in real life but reading about a curator whose day began with pouring fresh milk onto the stone(s) and ended with a lightly ritualized removal of it, I also immediately liked that the work needs to be tended, and specifically that it has to be refreshed and removed daily.
Other works of Laeb’s use pollen, loads of it, which he painstakingly harvests by hand over years before arranging it into huge stunningly sensual works. I’m not sure Laeb associates these temporary pollen arrangements with the following factoid, but as a layer of pollen created by our agrarian ways is slated to be one of the last traces of human existence in the geological record after we’re gone, when I’m feeling low and petty I love to hate his work, on account of how perfectly it captures tension between the ephemeral and the enduring.
9. What is the hardest thing about being an artist?
Finding and tending to your own work while controlling envy for the powerful antecedents of whatever vien you’re mining, the temptation of envy being to co-opt another’s process or point of view. Although imitation can be a great anodyne for what critic Harold Bloom called the ‘anxiety of influence’, it can also scramble your internal compass and lead you away from what you should be working on.
10. What is the best thing about being an artist?
Not being a writer.
11. If you were reading a review of your work — what would you want it to say?
With dualling figureheads of Courage & Obstinacy on the bow of a ship craftily fashioned from planks of the arte povera movement, Eustace has plowed through the obfuscating theatrics of theory and art-speak that frequently dog conceptual art and, like the great Wolfgang Laeb, his often simply beautiful and always interesting work offers complex but uncomplicated access to deeply human concerns stemming from our relationship to the natural world and the impermanent nature of things embodied by it.
That would be the gist of it, anyway …
I mark that project as the beginning of my visual arts practice and combine the first lesson – just get ‘black on white’ – with an abiding interest in the way everything changes, including our own identities. I suppose, too, from that point on I’ve been cautious about too strongly identifying with anything that might get in the way of me doing what I like to do – which is to look for literal and metaphoric chains of cause and effect in the world around me, transforming materials and creating experiences that communicate something salient about our limited time on the planet.
[add info/ call to action about David’s upcoming exhibit}