Interview with John Seal

Nilo Goldfarb

6/16/20179 min read

CONVERSATION WITH JOHN SEAL PART 1: You can slay me with a bowl of strawberries so long as you have really struggled with them, and I can taste that struggle– the taste of hard-fought empathy.

John Seal’s work is currently on view in a show at Johann Koenig in Berlin from June 7th to July 9th.

Nilo Goldfarb:

on the wordplay in the title of your last show, is While There is Still Life to Live a provocation?

John Seal:

The title, While There Is Still Life to Live, is meant as a reminder of the physical world around us. I wanted some device to initiate a discussion about the tentativeness of the act of looking at and experiencing the common everyday “other”– that universe outside ourselves. Not the fantastic and terrifying “other” that is always coming to get us in politics, religion, and movies; but the infinite, the infinitesimal and the myriad things of the universe. For example a teacup that lives on a shelf in our kitchen may, in a certain sense, belong to us, but is not a part of us. It is merely an object in the universe. It needs to be observed, handled, and talked about to become a part of our world. It needs to be communicated to become a part of us. But even then, the object-spoken (the mediated teacup, the teacup I told you about) is only ever extremely partial and incomplete. It is not the original object, nor is it an echo of that object. The teacup I told you about is a teacup in its own right, and the original object that I tried to relate will always find ways to thwart one’s best efforts to reconcile the two, to merge them into one. It will always find ways of reminding one how poorly one understood it; how it is actually a different teacup now, or you are a different observer, or the light has changed, or the shelf that it sits on has changed its role as an ordering force in the universe and has subtly altered the meaning of all other objects within its influence. This game of cat and mouse is the basis of what we might call experience. It is a beautiful, inexhaustible process that is always overflowing with opportunity to create meaning.

“While There Is Still Life to Live” is meant to remind the reader or viewer that this is an ongoing process. It is active: an activity. It takes effort and energy. What, for example, a pineapple is, is not a forgone conclusion. I think that there are far too many situations in which we are too quick to let the object become an entirely epistemological entity, a piece of information. We are, perhaps, too often too happy to let the encyclopedia entry on pineapples stand for the specific and actual pineapple in our lives. It is so deliciously easy and satisfying to let a quick Internet search define something for us– to feel that we know it, to feel that we conquered it (knowledge is funny this way). The ubiquity and ease are the dangerous part. This is the part where we need the reminder. The digital world is an extremely partial, limited and very human “world”. It is merely a collection of what its various contributors have told us they have observed, and for the most part they have merely observed what someone before them had reported to have observed. These definitions can be handy pointers for further meditation or first-hand observation, but when we cling too tightly to them our worlds quickly become ossified and we cease to live. We love to consume. It is very easy to consume and very difficult to create. The universe as a tidy network of information tidbits is an attractively safe viewpoint to take.

To get back to your question, the title, including the punny play on words, is meant more to taunt or goad rather than provoke. Provocation sounds too “radical,” as though there is some specific direction I am trying to push. I more want to irritate one into disagreeing with me just enough to be forced to squirm around my assertions– to try to press the viewer/reader into trying to put the evidence back together the way they thought it was supposed to fit; and hopefully see how ill the fit is, see how many gaps are left. I am not meaning to be diabolical; it is not meant to be some kind of empty irony. The urge comes out of a deep sense of concern and, well, love, really. Love for humans, and love for all the little things in the universe.


WHEN still is an adverb, TO WHAT, and are you thinking about the total devaluation of life?

from Beckett’s Malone Dies:

i began to play with what i saw. people ask nothing better than to play, certain animals too. all went well at first, they all came to me, pleased that someone should want to play with them. if i said, now i need a hunch-back, immediately one came running, proud as punch of that his fine hunch that was going to perform. it did not occur to him that i should ask him to undress. soon enough i found myself alone.

John Seal:

If i understand your question correctly, “Still” is an adverb to “Live,” which in this instance becomes an invocation of ongoing activity into an uncertain future. So, in this sense, the adverb as it is used in the title (there is even yet now Life to Live) is directly in opposition to the notion of stasis that is suggested in the alternate reading of “Still” as an adjective describing “Life.” I intended this to work in a couple different ways. One is to suggest that the quietude of still-life is not at all a stasis, but a labored activity. The still-life painting itself is a point (or set of points) on at least two distinct trajectories. There is the trajectory of the painter: the looking, the thinking and the effort to translate or express that brought her/his brush down on the canvas. And there is the trajectory of the viewer who must interpret the painter’s activity and carry whatever of it that she/he can into the future. At no point is the still-life a fixed entity. It is never an image, per se. The brushstrokes are a set of questions posed by the painter, challenging her/his own abilities to perceive, and testing the validity of received wisdom on how to see and paint: how to reduce, codify and quantize. It is also a test of the ever-changing notions of what constitutes the important and essential aspects of an object–what about an object is worth talking about? A still-life is quiet, but boiling. Even as a small child, still-life struck me this way: anything but still. The other way I had hoped the still/still equation would work was to press the urgency of looking. To press the urgency of the possibility that there may come a time when a painting is just a picture, and all objects will be reduced to mere information. This is a centuries-old fear, but not invalid. Just like the fear of falling off a cliff while walking along a narrow, crumbling mountain ledge is not invalidated just because thousands of people before in the same situation had the same sinking feeling. In fact, it is probably one of the many things that have kept humans here, alive.


WHEN still life is a noun, does the provocation hang on an apocalyptic prognosis? or, after humanity, what will be to make of still(-)life?


Apocalyptic? No. It is more, “look both ways before crossing the street” than “The End Is Near. Cower Before My God or Be Damned!” The apocalypse is a monolithic event, a fable, a stick to reinforce the carrot. What I am proposing is an ongoing vigilance, multi-veined and constantly recurrent. Though, it’s not that I am trying to flatten it all out by making it pedestrian, it’s just that the pedestrian is the site of my argument. Our world happens in front of us, all around us, near to hand. All that is human is not just the echoes of the gods on Olympus. This is the importance of still-life. You can slay me with a bowl of strawberries so long as you have really struggled with them, and I can taste that struggle– the taste of hard-fought empathy.


i am struck by the awkward persistence of convention in the show. despite the fact that the frames have become the boundaries of the objects that might conventionally be delimited on the surface of the canvas, there is a careful attention in your material choices to maintain the conventional plausibility of the “frame” and the “canvas.” that is, everything from the oversized screws on the giant canvas to the exposed nesting of integral canvases inside the frames, bespeaks the plausibility of the these paintings as conventional objects.

then there’s a way in which the stratification of domains – frame / canvas, skin / support – is extended to allow for convention to become a totally conscious, symbolic gesture. your suggestion of a cat and mouse game seems apt in describing the mimetic play in the work. i am thinking first about how these objects seem to appear as pictographic representations of objects – stark graphic representations as literal frames. the frames literalize the presence of the signifier. the dramatic lighting upsets the ability to measure the paintings against each other, or even to understand the difference between what is being affected with paint, and what is the “effects” of light. this makes the spatial appearance of these paintings pretty turbulent and difficult to resolve. it is difficult to contain the painting then, in the way that a painting is usually contained. so part of what i sense happening is an upsetting of the order of things. can we stop there? did i go far enough? am i getting it wrong?


Hmmm. I do not think you are wrong in pointing out the the topsy-turvy-ness of the interplay between painting and frame, the container and contained, symbolic representation and material fact. However, I would not say that upsetting the established order things was my goal, really. It is more that I wanted to work with established conceptions about framing, and language (verbal narrative as well as painting’s many visual conventions for mimesis and representation) to test, and perhaps tease, our preconceived notions of how these things work– just how rigid are our assumptions about a frame’s role in domesticating a painting? What do we feel is the proper relationship between verbal language and the coding and decoding of the interplay of brushstrokes? On the one hand, I feel, at a base-level, that these conventions draw very silly boundaries, utterly factitious divisions between painting and sculpture, content and container, even symbol and fact. On the other hand, I know that these are the very suppositions through which an artwork generates meaning; these divisions are meaning itself, as in Genesis where the birth of the world is told as the narrative of “the word” making finer and finer divisions among things until an entire Earth is revealed. So, tradition must be preserved if critique is ever to take place. This doesn’t mean that one must blindly or mutely honor tradition but, without some shared concepts, it is very difficult to engage in a meaningful conversation. The cultural conventions are the materials we work with and build on, they are indispensable. They may be flawed, annoying, even destructive, but without them we wouldn’t have much. The humanities are a game based on the examining of our limited abilities to understand anything; or at least I wish they were viewed this way.

Your point about the lighting, well, it is always confusing looking at a painting. The decision on how to light the work was based on trying to highlight that, trying to highlight the inherent honesty of that; and to battle the almost de facto notion that the grayish-green wash of fluorescent light is somehow any less a dramatic device, is somehow more truthful and democratic than directional, controlled spot-lighting. In the 1960s when fluorescent light was still fairly new, and connected in aesthetic terms to science and positivist advancement, I think it was genuinely believed to be the light of reason, washing away the imaginative assertions of a painting to expose the object for what it truly was empirically. This is patently silly, and can be dismissed as theatrically idealistic posing. Paintings are susceptible to very small changes in light. Light can alter not only the look, but the reception and meaning of a painting. This is one of the most delicately beautiful potentials of the medium, and it was something I wanted to exploit.


is it possible to talk about the work by talking about what is happening at different levels (i.e the surface, the frame, the installation) or are you trying to evince a messier semiotics of painting?

Because of the above, I’m not sure we have any other way of discussing the intricacies of any artwork without resorting to delimiting terminology like surface, frame, and installation, etc. I’m not sure if I have any interest in getting rid of the divisions, actually. To me, at this moment in time, the goal would seem more a reordering of the connections between these terms–and their implications. So, yes, I would say that one would need to begin by looking at what each “level” is trying to achieve, and how that might connect with and alter its bordering properties (i.e. what influence a frame shaped like a banana might have on a non-objective patchwork of color, and so on). Think of it as a mosaic. Each thing must be contemplated individually in order to see its place in the whole. Sorry. This is such an obvious statement, but so necessary to make.