Late in December, 2005, Art & Ideas Magazine had the opportunity to interview Louis Ebarb. Mr. Ebarb's career as painter is intertwined with the urban milieu of Brooklyn, where he lives and works and with his Native American heritage. His work has and continues to be an exploration these two powerful realities upon which his identity is grounded.
Dorcas Gelabert – Let me start with some basic facts. Where did you study?
Louis Ebarb - Pratt Institute. I graduated in 1976.
DG - What kind of work were you doing at the time? In which direction did you think you were headed?
LE - When I finished up at Pratt, I was working with color rectangles on top of different types of grays. I was trying to create movement that ran through the canvas, through the one inch by one inch squares. The smallest canvas was six feet by six feet. The next steps I took beyond that was a movement towards a more natural... I guess it was an evolution... I started looking at the way light fell through trees...
DG - You mean the patterns created by that?
LE - Yes. My paintings were already starting to reflect a movement from light to dark. The grid stayed the same, but the colors within the grid changed. They often looked like they had a source of light. But in my next stage I was doing charcoal drawings and paintings that had to do with gradations, and the intermixing of objects that moved from light to dark. And then I stopped painting.
DG - Let me stick for a minute with that period right after school, before you stopped painting. Whose work were you looking at during that period of time? Were you looking at the work of people like Chuck Close and his use of grids, for instance?
LE - No. I was using the grid more in the abstract, not to create a realistic image — not as a basis for creating an illusion — but to explore the surface of the canvas.
DG - Were you interested at all in Mathematics at that point?
LE - Yes!... Which is strange, because I was not very good at mathematics when I was younger. But I got very good at it when I needed to do it.
DG - What kind of Mathematics where you interested in?
LE - Well, Geometry. Stretching every canvas became an adventure in mathematics, because, depending on how many squares I wanted per canvas, I had to figure out — before I even built my canvases — what the size should be. Just a second. [Reaches for a medium sized canvas]. I just happen to have one here. This makes it easier for me to explain. [Places the canvas in front of us.]
Grid, oil on canvas, 45" x 45" 1976
Image: courtesy of the artist.
DG - I see. Here are the pre-stretching one-inch markings... [Pencil lines, one inch apart, running along all four sides of the stretched canvas.]
LE - This shows exactly what I was doing.
DG - So it was a little bit like Op-art...
LE - Well, by that point Op-art was passé. But yeah... I was asked if I used metallic paint, because of the gradations. Depending on what color I'd choose to put inside, the whole canvas seemed to glow. People were experimenting with all sorts of materials at the time, and they would ask me what I was using. This was more of an extension of my color classes at school.
DG - Yes, well, it's almost like an exercise in color theory, and...
LE - My goal was to make it pleasing to the eye and to be able to perform movement with the color.
DG - What interested you about the shapes generated by this grid?
LE - At the time, I was just trying to find a constant image that I could have infinite possibilities with.
DG - Something solid to stand on, so everything else — like color — could be in experimental flux?
LE - Yes. But what I have come to see in more recent times is that a lot of that repeated the quilt patterns and the images I grew up with.
DG - Right. So you go through this period when you're doing this very abstract work, which is visually and intellectually pleasing and then, as you mentioned before, you stopped painting altogether. Why? What happened?
LE - I stopped painting for personal reasons. I had a couple of deaths in my family, and at that point I decided to readjust what I was doing. I started to do things to anchor my life, to secure it — I bought a house, I was raising a family, I was busy house painting and fixing things, and making sure that the second floor of the old house didn't fall on the first floor...you know, stuff like that...
DG - How long did this period of non-painting last?
LE - About ten years.
DG - And then you came back to painting. How did that happen?
LE - Very interesting. The family, once again, played a role. It brought me back to it. My father and his brother were Choctaw Apache, from Louisiana. My godfather, Joseph (Buck) Ebarb followed his brother, my father, to Brooklyn. Buck found a photograph of his father on the farm, in front of the house that he, my grandfather, had built. It was a photograph from the 40s. It was very blurry, barely visible, and he asked me if I could paint a large version of it so that he could have it. It took me a year to complete that painting! I mean, a year of work! — Not a year of putting it aside and going back to it later! I used acrylics, because I wasn't used to oils any more. I wasn't ready to do realistic paintings in oils. Acrylics allowed me to let it dry and paint over it again and again. I remember at one point I actually peeled the sky away! I spent days carefully splitting the acrylic, peeling it off — because I didn't like how thick it was getting, and I wanted to paint it some more. Everything in that painting was painted carefully, you know, with 00 paint brushes. I fussed over every blade of grass — whether it was the right type of grass for the area (I had been there many times when I was young, so I remembered it). On August 8, 1988 — I had held off finishing it so that I could paint on 8, 8, 88 — I finally put my name on it and presented it to him. It still hangs in his house. It's very nice to see it once in a while. That started me painting again. But it wasn't just the painting — it was the subject matter. It spoke a lot more to me than what I consider my academic painting.
DG - You mean more than your earlier abstract work?
LE - I mean, I didn't feel as in touch with painting then as I did with my uncle's painting.
DG - So that request from your uncle didn't only bring you back to painting. It also opened you to a different kind of painting — to a different approach and understanding of painting?
LE - Yes!
DG - What did you do next?
DG - I proceeded to paint things that were near and dear to me. The next painting was of my back yard. The painting after that was of the Brooklyn Bridge. I saw the potential of what I was doing. I painted the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge — CUNY Tech is there, and I think also a Watchtower building — and the cars coming across the bridge. That really demonstrated to me that I could bring something that I enjoyed — like going over the bridge, and having the cars go pass you as you're casually strolling in the pathway. Then I proceeded to do buildings, streets, and people...I became more and more people in front of buildings. Then the buildings became less and less important, but always the structure behind the people...
Cable Crew , Oil on Canvas, 18”X24” 1994
Image: courtesy of the artist.
DG - You mean the structure of the place that you lived in and that you know, and that you are in every day?
LE - It was either where I lived, or where I worked, or where I was passing through every day.
DG - Did it ever occur to you at that time, when you were discovering that whole new world of painting, that something in and of this new work might be very much about a search for identity — or, more to the point, an reckoning with your identity?
LE - At that point that's exactly what was my motivation!
DG - Here's why I say this, it seems to me that you started from something that was 'self-imposed' or 'superimposed' (namely, the art of that moment, of the 70s and 80s). You took that in and intellectually understood and developed it to its last consequence. Then, life brought you to a point where, as you said, you stopped. The point is that the early work is about ideas, while the work that comes after you start painting again is about life, your life. It seems like the latter is the work of someone who is looking into a mirror...
LE - More than looking into a mirror... It is letting people see through my eyes.
DG - Yes, through the mirror of your eyes. But in the process, which does involve the viewer, it seems to me that the main event is your internal, personal process of rooting yourself beyond the practical things that you had sought to root yourself in during the ten years that you didn't paint. The question is, What were you now seeking to root yourself on? I think the answer has something to do with rooting yourself on a certain identity. Does that make sense?
LE - Oh, absolutely!
DG – But now, on which identity where you trying to root yourself? I mean, beyond the ground of identity that is comprised by your family, your home, your neighborhood, etc., is there something more that informed your art when you started to paint again?
LE - Well, I'm not a member of any group. I mean, I'm not a "group" person. In the course of the ten years that I wasn't painting, the secret of my Indian heritage was becoming public. We weren't allowed to speak of it. To my father's generation — to his brother — it was considered a very bad thing. I don't want to make this a sob story, because it isn't, but the idea of denying who you are, the idea of keeping things secret...
DG - The idea of a double identity?...
LE - Yes... and then to have that secret come out, is very interesting, because it's not a shameful secret. It's always been something to be proud of, but not in my family. In my family it's been something to be scared of — scared that you'd be taken away. This affects the figures that sit in my paintings. It affects the way I see the figures. My best paintings are of people who are apart — not from the world, but from other people. Solitary figures, standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, on a street corner... I see myself in all those people, but not necessarily. It's not that I don't need anybody, or to have any fellowship of any kind. But I'm perfectly content without it. That's how the sense of self is expressed visually for me.
The Wait, Oil on Canvas, 30”X40” 1994
Image: courtesy of the artist.
DG - In these paintings, when you're beginning to work out your particular kind of "realism" in painting, how do you go from your house, your neighborhood, Brooklyn, the people in the street — all of which is so very tangible and immediate — to that other older, more traditional part of you that is buried deeper in the mind? How, through the painting, do you get to your Native American heritage? How does that happen?
LE - That's about a very conscious decision to break with something I was very comfortable with.
DG - Namely?
LE - The street scenes...and to start doing portraits of people who were of mixed blood who I'd see at the powwows, more than people who are outstandingly or 'classically' Native American — because when I go to the powwows I don't see the Remington version of Indians. I see people of every shade, dancing together in a circle.
DG - All claiming some part of that heritage?
LE - Either claiming it or celebrating that part of their heritage. Now you can dance in the circle if you're not Native American, but I'd be very surprised if that wasn't some part of your culture. But just to do the faces seemed somehow not enough. It seemed not quite the point I wanted to make.
DG - Was it not enough because it was too literal on account of the literalness of race, and realism?
LE - Yes. That's why I began to introduce the quilt backgrounds with the different models. It worked out very nicely. I mean I must have done, I don't know, twenty paintings with quilt backgrounds. But now I've come back to the street scenes again, and I've yet to blend the two types of paintings, but I know it's going to happen — this blending of these two traditions (the Indian and the Western). One thing I didn't mention before is that one of my earliest influences was my mother's brother, who was a painter. He was an electrical engineer by trade, but he painted his whole life, and he was in the Italian Renaissance tradition. My mother was Italian. He had a very European art. The quilts allowed me to feel in touch with the Native American heritage, with the European heritage, and they also made me feel in touch with the realism in the painting. DG - How did the quilts do all that? How, in particular, did they allow you to be in touch with the European tradition? LE - They allowed me to use abstract patterns as part of the work — as part of the portrait — not like Matisse's use of pattern, though. These quilts are just backgrounds. I didn't want to make the portraits part of the street scenes. I was trying to separate the street scenes and the portraits, to move on from the street scenes. Now of course, I realize that I don't want to move on from the street scenes...But they're really on parallel tracks still. They haven't meshed yet. On the other hand, the portraits allowed me to get away from the European Renaissance composition with triangles and golden sections. It allowed me to just take an object (a figure) and plop it in the middle of the canvas.
Marianne , Oil on Canvas, 30”X40” 2003
Image: courtesy of the artist.
DG - So, here you are, using Native American iconography and dealing with this part of your history and identity in a very conscious and concrete way. It would seem at this point that you had moved far away from the grid paintings of he 70s, but had you really?
LE - I thought I had, but looking at it now the paintings of the 80s are almost the same as those of the 70s!
DG - Exactly...
LE - But I have moved forward in a way, because now I am conscious of this.
DG - Well, I think you did move on in the sense that, although these images are in many ways alike, the meaning of those little squares of the 70s is very different from the later quilt patterns. What I would like to get at, though, is the role of tradition for you, as a contemporary painter. I mean, how do you use the tradition you identify with and embrace, to create a piece of artwork? How do you make tradition and modernity coexist in art?
LE - I don't use tradition. This is going to sound corny, but tradition uses me. In whatever I'm doing, the tradition is already imposed on me.
DG - Which tradition, the Native American or the Western?
LE - The Indian tradition is part of my culture. I can't sloth it off like a snake's skin. Everything I do reflects my culture. I am now again at a transition. I'm waiting to see where my experience plus my culture, plus my education and my practice will take me. I'm waiting for them to take me some place. I don't know the next step. All I know is that I can't avoid taking it as a major part of what I'm doing. The last couple of works I've done are going back to the Western tradition of composition, and I'm curious to see how the Native American is going to pull through—because I'm going to see it one day in a shape... because that's what I'm looking for right now. I don't mean to sound cliché, but right now I'm looking for a non-intellectual answer to something that I already recognize intellectually. The painting I'm doing now is a street scene with a couple of people of different races, walking along the street, and the background is this bold staircase with a sharp diagonal shape in it.
DG - So, if you had to summarize it at this point, what has the embracing of your Native American heritage brought to your painting?
LE - The short answer, I think, is that it has allowed me to have more to express, and it has brought more that I feel I have to express — that I want to have people see in my canvases — versus just ‘personal’ stuff. I want them to see my vision as a Native American person.
DG - And the Western Renaissance painting tradition, what has it done for your painting?
LE - You see, the Western tradition has given me a format. In terms of the realism and the composition, it has given me a style and a structure.
DG - Thanks.
Louis Ebarb – lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
Dorcas Gelabert - NY-based artist, independent curator, professional graphic designer.
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