Saturday, March 23, 2024

The Ballad of 박은빈: The Age of Youth

The tenor of The Age of Youth is heralded in its opening theme, Dick and Jane, by Sydney York. The bubbly, even frenetic tune takes you on a journey that, at its end, pulses with dissonance. Most dramas I've watched over the last nine months have dark themes running parallel to romance, yet none have managed to weave together five distinct character threads, each with its its own trauma, as well as The Age of Youth, directed by Lee Tae Gon and written by Park Yeon Sun. Although each character, aged 20 to 28, is on their own path with work, school, friends, family, and love, they come together at their shared apartment called, ironically or not, Belle Epoque. Over the course of a season they learn how little they know about each other's past and present. As one character slowly unfolds in the presence of their housemates, so do the others, with varying levels of conflict and resolution.

Yoo Eun-jae
The show begins with Yoo Eun-jae, played by Park Hye-su, and her first day in Seoul, on campus, and at Belle Epoche. She is insecure and terribly yielding, and as anyone who has found themselves inserted into the lives of others knows, no less in the personal space of home, the experience can be intimidating. But Eun-jae is also troubled by her past and suppresses it, and with that, her emotions. Her subdued lead character is contrasted, at the end of the first episode, with the appearance of effervescent Song Ji-won, played by Park Eun Bin, whose only concern appears to be an inability to land a boyfriend. As it happens, these two opposite personalities are drawn to each other as the younger Eun-jae looks up to Ji-won and finds, maybe, a mother or sister-figure who is willing to stand up for her. 

Song Ji-won

Ji-won is outgoing and vivacious, but she does not know what troubles her, and her buoyant character can feel superficial, at times, in comparison to her housemates whose issues are revealed more quickly than hers. Ji-won's metered reveal comes in the form of her fictions, shared at home and at school, across several episodes deep into second season. Despite this, you like Ji-won -she's smart, outspoken, witty, brings people together and in so many ways seems to have it together, if only it weren't for that unknown nagging at her. 

Good question, Jung Ye-eun
The stories of Eun-jae, Jung Ye-eun, Yoon Jin-myung, and Kang Yi-na drive the first season. As their secrets unfold, bonds are built, and believably so. Voice-over is used to convey the thoughts of all the housemates, although I was particularly drawn to Yoon Jin-myung's internal dialogue. I imagine, at this age, that I would have found these portraits insightful throughout the psychological tumult of my twenties. Although the program had low AC Nielsen ratings in its broadcast season in Korea, its excellent script and word of mouth have kept it alive on Netflix.
Yoon Jin-myung
When people ask which Korean drama they should watch, The Age of Youth always lands among my top five. I think this is because it bests most shows in the young friends genre in Korea and even globally, but also because it disposed of so many common Kdrama vignettes filled with umbrellas, wrist-grabbing, and the lot. It is a show that takes the time to develop each Belle Epoche character so that each has her own specific gravity; all are relatable, even if you do not share their story.
Kang Yi-na
While much is resolved by the end of the first season's 12 episodes, what ails Ji-won only began to rise to the surface by then. So The Age of Youth returned with a second season to further explore the lives of Belle Epoche's young women. However, I found that the majority of the second season's 14 episodes to be, at best, sufferable. The replacement of actor Park Hye-su with Ji Woo as Eun-jae was jarring, but that combined with the narrative focus on her emotional, internal struggle with feelings for her ex-boyfriend was exhausting. What was previously relatable in Eun-jae became just shy of pathological, and although her troubles somewhat understandable, I think the writers simply gave us too much of it. At least they made space for character Jung Ye-eun to deal with her post trauma stress and Yoon Jin-myung to discover how to reach outside her tightly-defined boundaries, as well as the entry of a new member of the household, Jo Eun.

Yi Na is a novice driver...
The second season begins memorably with the first episode's comedic car ride and then, leaping over much of the middle episodes, finishes well with Ji-won's growth into a mature, investigative journalist in the final episodes. If it weren't for her story, I would have found it difficult to complete season two. When first season success leads to demand for a second season, the excitement doesn't always translate into production. Beyond the demands business can place on creativity, the original project can also exhaust the creative energy needed to breathe life into a second season.

This may be the case for Extraordinary Attorney Woo, too, although I have yet to hear much recently about that possible second season. As much as the character Attorney Woo placed Park Eun Bin on a global stage, Ji-won was her break-through role -one in which you will see hints of the future Attorney Woo. But don't get me wrong -the entire cast of The Age of Youth makes the show worth watching, and watch you should.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Ballad of 박은빈: Judge vs Judge

By the time I watched the 2017 series Judge vs Judge (aka Nothing to Lose), starring Park Eun Bin, I was a bit weary of her pure-hearted characters -strong-willed, tough when necessary, sensitive to others, things happen to her, she doesn't hurt others, she is the noble poor, hard-working, has something to overcome, and so on. For a young audience, maybe her characters can be an impactful role model, but for mature audiences, those of us who've lived long enough to have hurt others and feel regret at least once, her characters become an impossible person. These characters embody the self we wish we could be and with that, I wonder, what do we do? Aren't these actors capable of greater complexity? I think so, but they are hamstrung by an industry that insists on modeling mores.

But let's entertain the possibility that the lead character, the working class Judge Lee Jung-joo, wasn't prescribed the task of exonerating her brother for the heinous crimes for which he was framed? If only Lee Jung-joo, instead of displaying moral character by immediately disowning her brother and later fighting against power to prove his innocence, had to find a way to accept that her brother committed heinous acts. Could she not show courage by navigating her colleagues at court while shouldering the burden? Is there moral character in coming to terms with loving a family member that made such a grave mistake? Can a show ask how we live with those we love who've made terrible choices? The challenge to the screenwriter is modeling forgiveness in a way that doesn't diminish the severity of the crime, but also offers a path forward that isn't as black and white as imprisoning the criminal and forgetting they exist.

Toward the end of the series, as the real perpetrators are exposed, we are confronted with the possibility that those who are close to us are also capable of the greatest harm. The most difficult scene of the series was the confrontation of Park Eun Bin's Judge Lee Jung-joo with her mentor Judge Yoo Myung Hee, who (spoiler) was responsible for several crimes including pinning them on Judge Lee Jung-joo's brother. Korean dramas are good at rendering tearful emotion, but the contempt and disgust Park Eun Bin had to muster to deliver this scene must've been extraordinary and I found it the most memorable event of the series. 

Despite my criticism of writing that only models pure good and evil, it is difficult to imagine confronting such betrayal and finding within oneself any grace or forgiveness. Although it is easy to think the string of criminal acts presented is absurd, or that Judge Yoo Myung Hee's motives were not convincing, one can also imagine one self-serving misstep catapulting towards another, and yet another, until one has gone too far to see a path toward extricating the good person from the crimes they've committed. As Judge Yoo Myung Hee reveals in that scene -she was not herself and yet she was -the cognitive dissonance of being a good human being and criminal simply too great. I applaud the writers for attempting to relay this internal conflict. I also continue to ponder Judge Lee Jung-joo's struggle with her inability to think her brother was anything but guilty of the crimes he was framed for. We never get an answer to that -it's a question possibly intended to hang in the air.

In several scenes we see a blurred Christmas tree at the end of a courthouse hallway, a reminder that Christianity has a significant presence in South Korean culture. Not to make too much of the display, but notable that Christianity made space for contrition and grace, two ideas that are virtually meaningless in contemporary criminal statutes. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve (forgiveness, release) and not getting what you do deserve (incarceration or worse) and contrition is honest remorse and the deepest sorrow (with god as their witness) for hurting others. Neither of these come into play in Judge vs Judge, although I could argue that it shows in the acts of the son, Do Han Joon, of convicted Judge Yoo Myung Hee. Feeling shame, we find him dutifully helping the family of one of the people wronged by his mother.

Do Han Joon, played by the actor Dong Ha, is probably the most compelling character in the series. You are not sure what to make of him, at first. He is cocky and aggressive toward Park Eun Bin's Judge Lee Jung-joo, but eventually you feel pity for him as you learn he had little to nothing to do with the crimes of his parents. Korean dramas typically translate the shame of parents to the children, and the reverse is also true, and it is no different in Judge vs Judge. 

Judge Lee Jung-joo and Judge Sa Eui Hyun

Of course, he is also one leg of a love triangle, but never really had a chance, certainly not after it is revealed what his mother did to his love interest Judge Lee Jung-joo. The other leg is provided by the rather dull, but cocky Judge Sa Eui Hyun, played by actor Yeon Woo Jin. Fortunately, the love story takes a back seat to the behind the bench court proceedings and crimes. There is little fire between the two and Judge Sa Eui Hyun is awfully paternalistic. I can only imagine his ego has been constructed by his legal pedigree -his father, a lawyer and grandfather, a judge. Yet, he does deliver one romantic line in one of the final episodes while walking, at night, with Judge Lee Jung-joo. I won't share it -you'll have to watch.

Should you choose to watch -note that this series really begins like a slapstick comedy, even as it aims to deal with serious issues. Most of this is to model the change in the Park Eun Bin's Judge Lee Jung-joo from vulgar working class youth to mature and distinguished in her role as a judge. Issues of class play a role in almost every Kdrama, so it would be no different, if not heightened, in a court drama. 
Next: Ballad of 박은빈: Hello My Twenties

Sunday, March 10, 2024

A Few Thoughts On Past Lives


As we approach tonight's Oscar ceremony, we should congratulate the writer director Celine Song for the success of her film Past Lives. You can stream it if you want to see it via Prime and probably others. I have not been following the Academy Awards and don't know more than a couple of films in contention, but we know it's competitive, and Song may not be the winner. I decided to write out a few thoughts of Past Lives in the context of the many Kdrama series I've watched over the last nine months. If you've watched Korean drama, you'll recognize the themes of fate and romance, the love triangle, and formative childhood experience. This felt rather familiar, and I began to wonder how those who have not watched Korean TV programs would see this film versus those who have.

I became aware of this film via a public radio interview with Celine Song, heard while driving, and decided to stream the rental. With anticipation built up by that interviewer, who described a scene with such great emotion -he was choking up as he described it. Wow. So I waited for the scene where Hae Sung, played by Teo Yoo, first meets Arthur, Nora's American husband, played by John Magaro. But, the scene came, and went and I could not ascertain what it was in Arthur's expression that caused the interviewer to experience such emotion. I paused it, rewound, played again, paused on Arthur's look, but for me, nothing. 

To heighten the tension, we are told, the actors playing the male leads had not ever met before acting that scene. I think Teo Yoo's Hae showed more discomfort, more visibly anxious, than Magaro's Arthur. Surely it would be an awkward moment and thankfully it wasn't charged with testosterone. Haven't we all met a former love of a partner at some point in our lives? Inevitably it leaves a question about what it is they still hold onto. I think a more difficult scene was where Nora and Arthur lay in bed and he expresses that question, why she married him, and whether she would rather be with her old school friend, Hae. She answers to the effect of "This is where I ended up." Not exactly a love poem to her husband, but on some level, entirely understandable to think of it this way. 

The film is largely quiet, with times of little dialogue, and so there is room to breathe. But that room also seems to come from the distance between Nora in her new world, and the old world represented by Hae (He is very Korean, she says). She is free of that old world and as much as it wants to pull her back, there isn't the strength to do it. At first I was disappointed in the lack of overt emotion -after all, this is something Kdrama does so well, but now that I think about it, the director may have been working to push away from the emotive strain so common to Korean TV.

Hae, the former boyfriend, is a rather melancholic figure I couldn't help but compare him to stoic male lead counterparts in Kdrama. Is he this way because he cannot bring the past he desires into the present or is it because there is a blues about the old Korea he represents? Probably both. Nora seems empowered by her escape, even if it's at the expense of feeling detached from her Korean identity. In a globalized society, especially among the people in the arts, the rewards of living and working outside of one's cultural heritage are a mixed blessing. 

Celine Song addresses this in her movie, but also in the interview when she states this film is the first non-white, fully Korean script she has written/directed. Always wondering what themes and moments in Kdrama are truly representative of Korean culture, I have inched a little closer to an answer with Song's words.

Friday, March 1, 2024

An Interview With Artist Frank James Meuschke

This interview was published during the pandemic year of 2020.

Artist and Landscape Architect Rebecca Krinke speaks with fellow Rosalux artist Frank Meuschke about his relationship to the outdoors, shifting between photography and painting, and the path to making onsite landscape sculpture projects.

How have you been doing? How has COVID, the struggle for racial justice, the election, and all of 2020, and now into 2021, been affecting your life and your studio practice?

I’m going to add these events to my list of cortisol-raising experiences like watching the towers fall on Sept 11, the 2008-09 economic collapse, and post Hurricane Sandy in New York. Of course, Covid has lopped off my in-person teaching like most of us, but also social contact from most everyone but the occasional delivery person or my neighbor dropping off some eggs. I had some photography travel plans, but those were nixed. That’s all okay -there’s plenty to do in the time wrenched open and I am privileged to be out in the woods through it all. At the beginning of the pandemic I had a hard time concentrating, so that would have been back in March and April. I don’t think I made much work then, although I remember heading out to a park to photograph and it was so busy that I avoided that over the following months and concentrated on the space outside my house.

Every time another soul is taken by law enforcement (or by anyone), wholly unnecessarily, I am taken back to Amadou Diallo, shot at 41 times, and pierced by 19 bullets, by four New York City “plain clothes” officers and then again, Sean Bell and his friends, 51 bullets, and of course, Eric Garner, whose last words carried forward to George Floyd’s dying words. It’s heartbreaking. I am worried about where things will go after the trial and verdicts. You could see this trial as a trial of all police killings of the last decade, not just here, but all over the country. 

As for the election? Well, let’s just say that New Year’s day came a little late this year, January 20, to be exact. For more of my thoughts on Nov 3 to Jan 6, read here and here.

Who were the artists that inspired you as a young person?

My high school art teacher would take interested students to NYC to go to the Met or SoHo, back in the middle 80s. The art world was raging with Wall Street money. Impressionists were being snapped up by Japanese collectors for millions -so I saw a lot of that. At fifteen, we had a field trip to see the Van Gogh at Arles exhibit at the Met. In SoHo, we’d loiter inside the Think Big store -we knew it wasn’t art, but you know, teenagers. We’d go to Pearl Paint. There was a lot of paint on canvases in the 80s and I loved the smell of oil paint. If you stopped at Leo Castelli, you’d smell the oxidizing oil paint in those unventilated lofts.

I really got into Keith Haring as a teenager. He was on the walls, on the streets. I thought, yeah, I could do this! He was one of the reasons I wanted to go to SVA. Of course, we didn’t have the internet, or any art books or magazines around, so my introduction to SoHo was really important to seeing anything newer than Picasso. Even if I had no idea what I was looking at, I got to see things outside of poster prints, cartoons, and encyclopedias. I was pretty sure I could draw that turtle, too, so I knew there had to be more to it.

Vincent Van Gogh, Pollard birches, 1884, Pencil, pen in brown (once black) ink, on wove paper

Was being an artist something that your family supported or understood?

No, not at the outset. We didn’t know any, so artists were the “starving” caricature, and that wasn’t seen as a good path. My uncle married a musician, and she was supportive, although her parents essentially disowned her for that decision. It wasn’t that bad for me. They just didn’t have much experience with it. You could say I brought art to their lives.

Did you go to art school? Were there individuals who had an impact on your point of view as an artist during your education that you still think about, apply lessons from?

My first year of art education was at School of Visual Arts. I was lucky to do well on their scholarship tests, and got a finalist round interview with Silas Rhodes, the school’s founder. I dragged my giant portfolio onto the train to Penn Station. I could hear the conversation going on with another finalist and I knew I wasn’t prepared. I was firing on luck and ambition, not how well-read I was or my list of extracurricular accomplishments. So I ended up taking out loans and working at an electrical distributor to cover costs.

Our painting instructor, Peter Heinemann, was not too wordy, so there isn’t much to remember, but he once said that he wasn’t an artist, he was a painter. That there could be a difference stuck with me. He sent us, weekly, to shows around town, which we had to write about and make sketches. I remember being blown away by an Anselm Kiefer exhibit, at MoMA. Dark, architectural, giant paintings, the smell of paint, I had no idea what they were about, walking in, but it made an impression.

Peter Heinemann, Self-Portrait, circa 1980, oil on canvas

I ended up leaving SVA just after starting my second year, primarily because I got sick and for financial reasons. I transferred to the New York State University system which had a whole different paradigm -the liberal arts. I spent a semester at SUNY Stony Brook, and then transferred into sophomore year at SUNY New Paltz, in the Hudson Valley. My painting professor, Hank Raleigh, told us that a painter can do anything. He meant that this doesn’t work in both directions, so learn to paint, and then practice another discipline if need be. I guess I took that at face value, although I can’t defend the notion; it’s not easy to shift among media. Raleigh had the most influence on my thinking, and not all good; as the link above references, he was a complicated man. He advised me against two things: whatever you do, don’t paint landscape and never let green dominate a painting. I made sure to do both!

Horizon I, 1993, oil on canvas mounted on panel, 18 x 90 inches

Did you establish a studio practice right off the bat, go to grad school; what were the early days of your career all about?

I graduated with my B.F.A., had a summer art teaching gig at a place called USDAN Center for the Arts, saved a little money, and eventually rented an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where some friends from school had moved. You could live alone, then, so I converted the bedroom to a studio. I applied to a bunch of art-related jobs, but none panned out, so had to accept working well-removed from my education. I joined the union, as required, to work for an electrical distributor on W18th St. I chose the lighting department because that was as close as I could get to anything to do with my knowledge.

To connect to my field, I applied for an internship (aka, no pay) at Foster-Peet Gallery on Crosby Street in SoHo. I worked weekends and openings. Kim Foster’s background was in banking, which funded the gallery. Peet came off as a grifter. The interns did all the low-level work, which you may be surprised to hear included looking at all the slide sheets that came into the gallery and deciding which should be placed on Kim’s desk. We also wrote and rewrote gallery artists’ statements for their upcoming exhibitions.

Meanwhile, I painted at night, and on weekends, went to museum shows, hung out at friends -they all had studio rooms in their apartments. We were 23, had no connections, so we painted for ourselves and our friends, worked in odd jobs like night watchman, warehouse workers, gardeners, cooks. The art market tanked after the stock crash, and the economy went on a white collar job shedding spree for five years. So there wasn’t a lot of opportunity, but we made all kinds of things. I was drawing directly on my plaster walls, making furniture, light sculptures, and also painting canvases.

Hand-crafted, Stained Table (Detail), 1995, birch, douglas fir, charcoal, oil, urethane, dimensions variable
Hand-made, stained coffee table (Detail), 1994, birch, douglas fir, charcoal, oil, urethane, dimensions variable
An ex-girlfriend saw an ad for a gardener at a NYC garden design company and I applied. The owner, Bill Wheeler, interviewed me at his Upper West Side apartment. He opened a case of 12v outdoor lights and said he had problems with these not shining bright. Ah, well I could tell him something about that, so I got the job. We gardened for the actor Mary Stuart Masterson, pornographer Al Goldstein (Screw magazine), a “penthouse” brothel in Chelsea, screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, Princess Bride) and a lot of anonymous wealthy. Maybe the best view into New Yorker City’s rich and famous was through the garden.

One day I was watching True Romance at my friends and got this terrible urge to get out of New York. I was depressed, honestly, but I had no words for that back then. After that garden season, in January, I got on a train to San Francisco to visit my college friend, Erin, a poet. After staying with her for two weeks, she sold me her Ford Escort for a hundred bucks and I drove it north, along the coastal highway, sleeping in the car, until I got to Portland, Oregon. I lived there for 8 months or so, painting, gardening, traveling around the state, seeing things, got a job with a landscaper when the money ran out.

My girlfriend, in Portland, wanted to return to the East Coast, so we headed back. After a side journey to Joshua Tree and the Grand Canyon, we drove through New Mexico and I told her I would like to live there someday. After 18 months back in Brooklyn, more lousy economics, and a failing relationship, I applied to grad school in a number of places. It is no surprise that I chose New Mexico, where I earned an MFA in painting and minor in horticultural studies.

Mountain View, 2000, oil on panel, 9 x 13 inches
Mountain View, 2000, oil on panel, 9 x 13 inches
Tell us more about your photography practice. When and how did it start? And how has it evolved over time? You have done paintings as well --tell me more about that and its relationship to photography.

I think my photography is mixed up with painting in a way that makes it hard to delineate an evolutionary line. That’s not just with me, it’s a terribly entwined history. Photography took up the genre of landscape around the turn of the 20th century, not too long after landscape painting crested and was in decline. So, if you want to engage with landscape in the 20th century, you will largely be looking at photography. You have the Pictorialist photographer's contending with painting, early on, and much later you have painters dealing with photography in a hyper-realist manner. The dialogue has been constant since the inception of photography, and earlier if you consider the place of the lens in painting.

I recall a studio visit with the painter Tom Nozkowski at Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture in the summer of 2000. I didn’t have much new painting available, so he looked at my slides. He asked me, “Are these photographs?” I understood then, although I was painting, I had a kind of photographic eye and sense of composition. Drawing for me had always been a search for compositions, and photography could operate the same way.

One summer, maybe 2003, I had a studio visit with Carrie Mae Weems. She could see I was struggling with painting and suggested I consider taking photographs instead, or at a minimum, work from photos. Later on that day she told a table of folks that she would like to see a painter making photos -whatever she meant by that, I took it at face value, she was speaking to me -not the photographers at the table. I had to consider changing something, but I had little interest in the quality of photographic prints at that time and hated the process of painting from projected slides.

Maine Farm, 2006, oil on panel, 12 x 24 inches
Maine Farm, 2006, oil on panel, 12 x 24 inches

Not long after, I began taking photos with a four megapixel Canon Sureshot and making prints on my home printer to use for paintings. They were terrible! But I used that terrible color in the paintings. Honestly, I thought about it as if I was still working en plein air. Instead of an environment before me, it was a print pieced together from several 8.5 x 11 sheets, fixed above my painting panel. The head motion -look up, paint, look up, paint, look up, was exactly the same as the plein air experience, but with a flat picture, low-fi color, and less flies. This way of working began around 2006 and lasted until 2016.

Eventually I gained access to a large scale inkjet at the college where I was teaching. I began to make larger prints from these small megapixel files so that I could scale up the paintings. Occasionally, I would find myself taken by a pixel “stretched” print I intended for a painting. A photograph I enjoyed, that kept my interest, didn’t need to become a painting. So I'd say that first image that didn’t become a painting was the beginning of my transition to photography. I remember it too: gray, largely sky, and also the bridge to the Rockaways, as seen from Floyd Bennet Field, Brooklyn.

In August 2007, I decided to start up a blog about my gardening, landscape, and nature in New York City. Initially I thought of it as a multimedia garden journal and way to connect with other NYC gardeners. Photos were often the instigation for posts and the drive to keep posting kept the camera with me. This led me to new places with the camera, new images, and new posts. I've written over 2000 entries since 2007. If anything, the success of blogging has been growth in my writing and editing skills and I still write, just not quite as often as the previous decade, under the new heading, MOUND.

Prairie-Savanna Garden, planted near our studio, 2017
Prairie-Savanna Garden, planted near our studio, 2017

I have seen your work at Rosalux and online -all the photographs I’ve seen from you are made outdoors, some at night, some intriguing blurry. Can you tell us more about your relationship to the outdoors?

The wilderness experience, alone on a mountain, sometimes extreme activities in extreme environments -that isn’t my outdoors, I stay close to the road. I was raised in what amounts to suburbia, and its unpopulated, wild places were the beach, waste spaces between housing tracts, underused parks, empty baseball fields, weed patches between misaligned fences. Landscape, for me, is always a peopled place, whether bodies are physically present, or by the artifacts of our presence, and sometimes by the abstract landscape idea, itself (i.e. even wilderness requires our participation).

Working outdoors, or with the outdoors, is my natural state of being. I sometimes joke that I was raised by the yard. We were those early “latchkey” kids. We didn’t have a word for it, we just had a lot of time without parents around and I preferred the yard. It was full of weeds; my mother had no interest in it and my father was not very skillful with it. It was a bit of a  paradise of bugs, lambsquarters and pokeweed. I made spears from dried poke stalks, collected caterpillars, made cities for ant colonies, built a swimming pool with a shovel and clear sheet plastic. My parents never knew what I was up to [laughs].

Nature time with my parents generally meant time at the beach, either Long Island Sound or out near Montauk, on the ocean. I miss that now, the smell of salt marsh muck, the harbor. Those spaces, the elevated bluff overlooking the flat horizon, salt haze, those were peaceful spaces where, when driving age, I would go to center myself. Those spaces had a big influence on my earlier painting.
Had I not stretched myself, had I not gone to college, not imagined being an artist, or not had a supportive high school art teacher; and had I rejected my parent’s notion of what I ought to be (an electrician), I may have become a landscaper. That was in the realm of possibility within my familial and cultural milieu, at that time, in that place. Maybe not mowing lawns and throwing mulch, but in some form because, outside of art making, my other interests were plants, gardening, landscape, and weather. I never thought of horticulture or landscape architecture, nor were these professions placed on the table, although I was gardening in high school and messing around with plants and dirt and bricks since I was quite young.

Grove, Prospect Park, 2015, oil on muslin mounted on panel, 18 x 27 inches

Tell me more about your photography practice. How has working outdoors through a camera affected you?

In comparison with painting outdoors, photography frees me to roam. When I am painting on site, I can roam for a bit to find what it is I will set about painting, but the changing light, building the surface, in a sense, that is how I roam while painting. Photography allows me a different temporal and spatial engagement with the world. I first became aware of this while artist in residence at Weir Farm National Historical Park. I spent each day exploring the preserve, making a lot of pictures with my little Canon, which led to playing with making a photo for each step I took, which slowed things down, but created a record, however incomplete, of my attention.

Whatever draws me out to use the camera, the visual stimulation that says -grab the camera and get outside, is usually not the thing that works through the camera. I’ve learned to look through the viewfinder to see the photograph. Things that are visually compelling often become less so through the camera, and I have to move on. In that way, the original stimulus is like a clue to further investigation, and that may lead to compelling photographs, which are often revealed later on, in the studio. I also think that the idea of a series is more important to my photography than in my painting. An individual painting might stand on its own, but I think my photographs need the contextualization of the series.

Yoko, Bish Bash, 2009, Digital Photograph

Isn’t this a way not to deal with something, a way to distance oneself -to become an observer as opposed to a participant? I’m not immune to that, I’ve practiced that in certain large social settings. In general, however, I don’t think that my practice of photography feels like an avoidant act; if anything I am looking to create an experience via the photo. If I were to be photographing people, which I have, I think that sense of distancing has become apparent. The confrontation, the discomfort with something or someone, that can be an idea to work with, one which I think I’ve approached in my Prospect Park paintings and may do so again.

Are you always taking photos with your phone?

I do take a lot of photos with my phone. These tend to many different visual needs ranging from memory to visual stimulation. So I might have a bunch of photos of plants I want to ID, insects in flight, night shots, or someone’s work I saw at a gallery. It’s truly never ending. I consider it a tool for everyday, functional and intended for screen viewing, although I think I approach my artwork when I push the phone's limits by photographing at night.

Arboretum Light, Night, 2019, iPhone Photograph
Have you ever been a darkroom photographer? What is the term - you know - not digital.

Wet photography? Sure. In my first year in art school, I took a basic photography course, and I did learn the darkroom. For my final project, I made a series of black and white photographs looking at people looking at paintings in museums. The following summer I was hired on as the night manager of SUNY Stony Brook’s student union darkroom. No one ever showed up, so I had the space to myself and I printed nightly. And I never got much better at it. At the time I was reading Anselm Adams book of letters. You could say that Adams was more a master of printing than photography (see some failures in the government archives). I think it may have been there that I picked up the idea that one needed to be a printer to be a photographer, that one could not exist without the other.

You have a section of your website dedicated to “Landscape Projects,” in which you are making site based works in and with the land. Tell me more about this body of work.

As someone interested in landscape, not to mention gardens and landscape architecture, I had spent a lot of time looking at earth art, land art -that sort of thing. Whether it was Agnes DenesWheat Field, Smithson -who I’ve always admired, or smaller bits like Time landscape by Alan Sonfist -an artwork I passed so frequently, it had such invisibility, it became just a park one couldn’t access, which leads me to a well-known local work -Revival Field. I think these earthworks capture much of the discourse we are still having regarding land use and ethics.

Agnes Denes, Wheatfield, 1982, Image Credit: John McGrail, courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects

Robert Smithson, Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio
In grad school, I used to drive around on BLM land, through Chihuahua Desert canyons and across the mesa, looking for painting spots. One time, it got quite late, and I ended up taking an arroyo downhill that I had never been through before. Well, it got kind of rough and it was dark, I slammed the rear end of my truck down on a rock ledge. I was lucky not to get hung up on it, and continued on. I was run down by the border patrol and they searched the vehicle because I came out of the hills adjacent to their control point. I realized then that I had lost my spare tire, which had been mounted underneath the rear of the truck. 
The following day I thought I should make my way back up the caldera, go as far as I could go with the truck, stop, and walk until I found my spare. I found it, well down the arroyo, and had to roll it back uphill. While I was rolling this giant tire, just like you would imagine, kicking it with the heel of my palm, steadying it so it didn’t flop, in the heat of a desert day, I thought to myself -what the hell am I doing! This is like an art project, rolling a giant tire uphill through a sandy arroyo, over stones; man and his petroleum tire. Sometimes life feels that way, like you’ve unwittingly burdened yourself and still you make great efforts to keep the burden going. So maybe that was my first performative land artwork. I’m laughing, but seriously, maybe it was. I wish someone was there, out of sight, filming it.

When I was at Skowhegan, I was there as a painter -notably, a landscape painter. I was still working out of doors, on site, and several of the other artists found that novel and kind of intriguing. I was being exposed daily to radically different methods of artmaking. This happened through my peers, faculty like Kim Jones, and weekly visiting artists presentations, and I had a sense that this was an opportunity to stretch myself. I just didn’t have a project, or know where to start.

I was reading a book, Thoreau’s The Maine Woods, given to me by one of my housemates there, Matt Northridge. Thoreau says that the Maine woods growth fills in, right behind him, as he cuts his trail. Clearly hyperbole, still, it kept in mind. Janine Antoni was on campus that summer and it is safe to say that my work was perceived as rather opposite of her work -couldn’t be more different. I remember watching her slide presentation and I got stuck on one sculpture, “And,” she had made there, at Skowhegan, a few years before. I understood this work was about a relationship; one of brutal grinding until finally, each wore the other into mated parts.

Tracing And, 2000, performance, 20 foot diameter circle
Kind of dark, really. In spite of what Antoni considered to be the artwork, I became intrigued by the other, cast-off relationship -between her body and the earth. This mating of body and earth manifested into a circular path worn into the sod of the old cow field. Thinking of Thoreau's words, I wondered -could that circle still be there? Or did Maine grow right up behind her feet like Thoreau suggested? So I went sleuthing up in that field and in the library. I found a book with the same imagery from Antoni’s slide presentation, and used its images to triangulate a possible location. Narrowed down, I was able to locate a divot in the field where timbers held the sculpture's stone in place. Once I had honed in on the precise location, still I wondered "now what?"

What came to mind was the story where Rauschenberg repeatedly asks DeKooning for a drawing. Dekooning begrudgingly complies and once in Rauschenburg's hands, he sets about erasing the drawing. Why is the art world so antagonistic?! I thought, I'd like to consider the opposite of that; what about bringing back what has been disregarded or discarded? So I set about analyzing the Antoni's documentary images, making assumptions about her shoulder width, lever length, and common timber lengths so that I could recreate the dimensions of the worn circular path. With the aid of a center stake and string tied to my waist, I walked for one hour, daily, until I had re-drawn the circle. It took about an three weeks. It is not as easy as it sounds to walk in a circle for an hour, and it put me in a trance-like state. 
People were really unsure about what I was up to, some thought I was making fun. Seriously -a bit too much effort to be funny. The truth is the work came out of a rather stream of consciousness process and I needed to trust it. Ultimately, it was one of the most interesting things that happened that summer.
This nugget began a process of me making work out on the land each summer I was at Skowhegan because I found that I rarely felt compelled to paint while there -for once I had access to all this space, land, and that was what intrigued me. Back in NYC, I had little space to work with, but I created project proposals, applied to opportunities with them, but rarely, if ever, did they come to fruition outside of my summer Maine projects, with one exception at Socrates Sculpture Park.

Husbandry, 2001-02, plants and various materials, 12 x 8 x 10 feet
How might you describe your aesthetic?

I don’t know that I have an aesthetic, or have a way to describe it clearly. For many years I have been telling people that my medium is landscape, more so than painting, photography, sculpture or writing. I try to speak through landscape, and this framing allows me to shift across media. I've never wanted to stay in my lane.

My latest work, its “sfumato,” (from the Italian fumo -smoke) is the result of the process of making the photograph with custom filters; it's not from an editing process or the lens being out of focus. This diffuse quality ties my photography to painting, which I hadn’t thought about until someone said the new photographs look like paintings. I am enjoying the dialogue between my painting and my photography, although nothing new -the conversation has been going on for 175 years. 
I really like color, more specifically -individual colors. I’ve never had an internal color sensibility, or even the impulse to rigorously apply color theory. It was only when I started painting from life, directly, that I  had a purpose for choosing colors. That changed my relationship to color in a way that felt really good and I think this easily shifted over to photography, which is defined by the intersection of technology and local color.
You know there’s an idea that, say a farmer or any laborer, doesn’t look up and see a beautiful moment, the sunset, say, while working -he sees the end of a hard day, a termination of toil or tomorrow’s hard work tearing up the sod or what have you. Somehow, the appreciation of beauty, or any aesthetic concept, is the product of only an urbane existence. I have a hard time with that -I don’t believe it. I know we learn aesthetic concepts, we pick them up as children, and we learn them through training and cultural reinforcement. Yet, I am struck by the far off sound of a softball clinking off an aluminum bat on a humid day or the moment the dewpoint shifts, cool air seems to descend upon my skin, and the odor of soil and plants becomes potent. I'm sure the farmer experiences these things, he just doesn't usually have the time, energy, or will to communicate them. 
Richard Misrach, Submerged Trailer-Home, Salton Sea, 1985, pigment print, dimensions variable
Who inspires you in photography and what are they doing that attracts you?

I’m attracted to art that is idiosyncratic; work that is personal and complicates common narratives. Immediately who comes to mind is artist Wendy Redstar, who works across media in a way that is true to herself and upends preconceptions and projections. I’ve been following the painter Joe Noderer for a few years now, for similar reasons, but manifested differently.

I’ve liked Richard Misrach for some time. I admire his On the Beach series, but Desert Cantos in the way that it considers without judgement or didactics; the work creates beauty out of the most human-altered environments, despite what ails; despite what is fraught in the relationship.

Film Still, Blade Runner, Ridley Scott, director, 1982
Another example is Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner. This world is probably not one you’d want to be a part of, but still we are confronted by the most stunning urban-industrial visages. It’s almost romantic and I get hooked on this complication.

What do you hope viewers will feel or think when experiencing your work?
In my Prospect Park series of paintings, viewers could experience the park landscape as a place of uneasy repose. I had in mind that this artificial nature is our nature, that there could be romance in that and also discomfiture. It was the first work where I painted space explicitly peopled, which made sense given it is a park. There are two kinds of distance painted there: the painted space and looking at others from afar. It was probably the work that represented most clearly my internal, psychological space.
Prospect Park (Dogwalkers), 2011, oil on canvas mounted on panel, 12 x 17 inches
My last exhibit, "Invisible Present," showed work made during my residency at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. I wanted to have people wonder what they are looking at, despite its components being recognizable. In a way, that is an experience of ecology -we know what we are looking at, its parts are clear, but we do not understand how it all comes together. So a sense of mystery, and although I began to filter my experience through the idea of haunting, I didn’t intend the work to be a display of the haunted. It's not scary, there are no monsters or ghosts -it's not that kind of haunting.
I wanted to approach our hauntedness in our experience of the land or the natural world. So I pointed toward the occult appearance of the artifacts of scientific activity. Those objects, their purpose concealed, suggest something less concrete than we expect of science. Science abhors the supernatural, so this was a challenging way for me to approach Cedar Creek. As the notion crept up on me, I questioned it too, but the more time I spent walking the lonely sand roads of Cedar Creek, it became too hard to resist. In the evening I found myself reading up on folk horror, hauntology, and enjoying MR James ghost stories -especially Whistle and I'll Come To You from the BBC. Ultimately, this led to my current work.

Unidentified Forest Apparatus, 2019, archival inkjet print, 22.5 x 30 inches
Do you work in bodies of work? Color photos only? What size prints? How do you like to show them?

I work in series, although there are specific projects I set about doing and then there are other subjects that I work with, sporadically, over many years. I tend to group these bodies around a place, or, if not a place, an idea. For example, I have a group of photos I take of artists in the landscape, another of empty sports fields, and these have been ongoing as the opportunity to photograph them reveals itself. Other projects are more concentrated, like my Cedar Creek work or Prospect Park paintings. My first series of photographs was taken, in black and white, of Brooklyn’s “only remaining forest.” I was still painting at the time, and I never intended to show them, but when I was asked to be in an exhibit of artist zines, I put the group together for a zine, in black and white.

My history as a painter has informed my ideas about size. People would look at my image presentations and imagine that the paintings were big, even though they were quite small. I felt that a big painting of a vast space was a kind of mockery, or at least, silly. So I made small paintings, you had to get close, to experience the vastness. It made sense practically, but also conceptually. With photography, it makes sense to me that one would print the size that manifests the ideas you are working with. In my last exhibit, at Rosalux, that meant 22x30 inches -big enough to see the details I wanted you to see, but not aggrandizing.

Brief History of the Woods, (Zine Detail), 2014, digital photograph
That said, I don’t think I have found the best photography display “fit” yet. Modes of display are a perennial concern, as are issues of commerce. So, it’s a good question that is hard to answer for a broad spectrum of work.

When I teach color theory, I introduce the idea that color in photography marks time, much like film or fashion can. Even if you should eliminate all the visual cues to time, like a style of clothing or hair in a photograph, the color print will dictate its time period. Black and white does this earlier on, but by mid-century it had stabilized, so that -again, styling aside, a black and white wet print, today, could be confused with one from 30 years ago. You can’t say the same for color, as it has been progressing. It is only now beginning to stabilize with inkjet printing -but for how long?
Lindeman Hall, Cedar Creek ESR, Winter Night, 2019, archival pigment print, 30 x 40 inches
When photographing outdoors, have you thought about how we as white settlers are on land taken from indigenous peoples? Does that or could it affect your practice?

My work doesn’t come from that point of view, although that is not to say that it couldn’t. It’s not too far a stretch to see photography, particularly of land or people, as a kind of stealing. The language, itself, refers to taking, capturing, grabbing a shot, and then, if there’s commerce involved, profiting off that taking is there as well. I’m conscious of using the words “making a photograph,” although that doesn’t absolve me of responsibility.

Living where I do now, in the woods of Minnesota, I don’t think there is a day that I don’t think about being on and caring for land that isn’t mine. Coming from New York City, despite the butchered indigenous names everywhere, that awareness of being on native land isn’t present like it is in Minnesota. If you're sensitive to it, you know there is blood on every stone, and you cannot walk the woods without the presence of that history. There could be something spiritual in that experience; certainly there is grief, but also haunting. In this way the Hudson Valley haunts its residents, past and present. And aren't we too, in Minnesota? So, in this way, my current exploration of hauntedness, as we look at the land, ties to environmental and colonial crimes. Can these be separated? I don't think so.

Water Manipulation, Biodiversity and Climate Experiment, 2019, archival pigment print, 22.5 x 30 inches
If you were given a large grant with no strings attached (like a MacArthur grant) - what would you do with it?

Make a film and have a show at Storm King. Storm King would get me out on the land to make physical spaces and objects, likely with plants and other landscape construction materials. Maybe I would make a horror movie at night at Storm King -that would include a lot of things I would enjoy playing with!

Shadows on Plastic Sheet, Basement, 2019, iPhone capture
What are you working on right now? Where is your work headed? Any plans to show?

In summer of 2019, I replaced a rotten window in our basement and I had polyethylene sheeting hung to keep the dust contained. It was still up in November, and you know how low the sun is here, at that time. Trees cast shadows onto this clear plastic sheet and it surprised me, so I photographed it with my phone and posted it to Instagram. Eventually, that led to new photographs where I place polyethylene and other plastics between the subject and the lens. The subject is in focus, but the plastics diffuse the image. So I've been expanding on this process.

As for upcoming exhibits, right now it’s pretty quiet other than online showing. I really want to develop this new body of work, so having the time to do that is important. I think I’ll be ready to show these before my next exhibit at Rosalux. At the cusp of the pandemic, I was supposed to have a show of my last series of paintings in Brooklyn, so that may come back around, if we can whip this thing.

Polyethylene no. 3, 2020, digital photograph

Frank was awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant for 2019 for his photography work made at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. You can see more of his artwork by visiting his website, Read his landscape and garden writing, see thousands of garden, insect, and landscape iPhone pics, and find other links at his blog, MOUND. You can follow him on Instagram @frankmeuschke and @Shelterwood_gardens