Paul Rouphail’s work conflates trompe-l’oeil painting and depictions of graphs within domestic interiors, window panes, condiments, and neon. In referencing Otis Kaye’s images of the 1930’s and 40’s, as well as the American Precisionist painters, Rouphail’s images reimagine spaces where emojis and analytics confront and consume each other.
Interview with Paul Rouphail
Questions by Beatrice Helman
In what ways have you noticed your work evolve over time, or perhaps how has your relationship to it changed?
What can I say? I think, and hope it has changed substantially. I would say that I no longer feel the need for each painting to express a complete idea. I can allow new paintings to say as much or as little as they want. That wasn’t the case a few years back.
Can you talk about your use of materials and how you choose what to work with? What are the advantages of oil and acrylics, using them together, and the use of linen versus a canvas? It seems like texture and material is so essential to the larger work in this collection.
I always prefer to use oils. Acrylic underpainting allows me to work faster. I use linen because it’s a finer material, and because I think the warmth of it’s color looks fantastic on the edges of the paintings.
You’ve said that your work “conflates trompe-l’oeil painting and depictions of graphs within domestic interiors, window panes, condiments, and neon.” Could you talk a little bit more about that, and elaborate upon what drew you to these seemingly very different things?
I think this question refers to a specific body of work I made for my show at Smart Objects, Los Angeles in 2017. I was interested then and I am now in making paintings that depict spaces that have been corrupted. Walls are carved out like bathroom stalls. Condiments and various food or domestic items spell out words, emojis, or sometimes faces. The forms are often made to look anthropomorphic. This is certainly the case with the “pointing hands” and graphs which often invade or obliterate each other in the images. All of these materials have a particular domestic use. I like the idea of entertaining a bizarre and often vicious narrative set piece (the emojis, and faces) that is seemingly incompatible with the familiarities of domestic life.
What initially drew you to Otis Kaye’s images of the 1930’s and 40’s and American Precisionist painters? How has this influence shown up in your work?
I’m a sucker for skilled painting. Otis Kaye is in some ways convenient for contextualizing my our work too. Discovering his work was like discovering a primary source of didactic images from the middle fo the century. He was making his trompe l'oeil paintings during and after the Depression, way past the time this kind of painting was in fashion or culturally relevant. I’m intrigued by his painterly methods but mostly intrigued by his urgency: political, personal, etc.
Space is almost a character in your paintings—in that it seems so essential to the work as a whole. Can you talk about your relationship to space in your work? Does it mimic your relationship to space in real life?
Yes, certainly. I paint images of spaces that I know. They are often spaces in which I live or have lived. There is a fantastic excerpt from J.W.T Mitchell’s book Landscape and Power in which he describes “'space’ as practiced ‘place.'” That is, that space is a location that is exercised or activated by people and / or natural events. I’m fond of this definition as I think it applies well to my own work.
How do you find your physical environment affects your work? For example—living in a city, in a place that is based on gridlines and organization. Do you find that the tension between nature and culture is something that shows in your work?
No, not particularly. I am not so interested is these kinds of comparisons in painting.
I read an interview in which you said that you “try to engage in what can be described as an uninterrupted apprehension of things in my work.” What do you mean by ‘uninterrupted apprehension’?
I stole that quote from somewhere. Though, I cannot remember from where I first heard it. To express an ‘uninterrupted apprehension’ in an artwork is to rigorously examine a subject from all angles. I think of an artist like Edward Hopper, or a poet like Zbigniev Herbert and his “Mr. Cogito” series. These are artists who subjects metamorphose from work to work. What is constant is their fixation and awareness of their subjects. There is a directness in their translation from observation to expression as if you are watching them think through a problem in real time. I am attracted to work of this sort. Goya too, is a painter close to me in this respect.
OK,OK,OK,OK and Rondo have similar (ish) hand figures, and I was wondering about the relationship between the two works, and if they were meant to interact or if it is purely coincidental.
Both of these paintings were made during the last few months of graduate school. They depict the same hand gestures in each image, but I think of the paintings as being very different. I like to think of the paintings as indices. If a subject reacts one way in its environment in a painting, it might react differently in another. The paintings together provide context for the subject(s). However, I am not always looking for consensus among the disparate paintings.
You use color in such an intense way, I was wondering if you elaborate on your relationship to color in your painting, how you approach it, and to what meaning it adds to the larger work, if any?
I decide on color and “atmosphere” in the paintings like a director of photography will decide on a particular speed of film, lens and camera with which to shoot a film. These are technical questions for sure, but they are foremost in service of the story being told. Ultimately, a film’s mise-en-scène cannot disguise poor acting or direction, or a confused script. Therefore, color is usually the last thing I think about before starting a painting.
Can you take us through the creative process that you go through before you start a new piece of work?
Well, the process is rather fluid. Sometimes new work comes from a desire to break the mould of previous work. Sometimes new works emerges from the desire to reexamine the failures of previous work. A lot of times new ideas are generated through reading or talking with my wife and my peers about painting or literature. Mostly my desire to make new work seems to appear out of thin air.
Are there any other contemporary artists who have influenced your work or have inspired you to attempt new directions in your own work? Or, who do you just love right now?
I look at contemporary artists and writers all the time. In figuring out new directions in my work I mostly look to musicians and writers, not always painters in particular. The music of Leo Brouwer, George Antheil, Wojciech Kilar, and John Adams has gotten me through my recent work.
In terms of paintings, however, the recent exhibit of Grant Wood at the Whitney Museum has been especially helpful.
What is a typical day like for you?
I work everyday that I am not teaching. My studio is about a 4 minute walk from my house. I work at least 8 hours a day during normal months, and about 12 hours when I’m prepping for shows. There are occasional exceptions, however. It all depends, really.
Along those lines, what are you reading? What are you listening to? What are you watching?
I’m always reading the poetry of Zbigniev Herbert. I also just finished a wonderful book of non-fiction called “The Great Derangement” by Amitav Ghosh.
What are some of your other great loves outside of art?
I watch a substantial amount of German soccer.
What is your process in terms of deciding whether something is finished, or at least ready to be seen by others?
That’s hard to determine. It’s finished when it’s finished. Sometimes paintings take a week, sometimes they take 4 months. It really depends on the size and content of the image. Some paintings are simply more demanding than others. They are ready to be seen in their entirety when and if a gallery decides to exhibit them.
Have you ever found that you need to look to other materials or mediums to create? Do you find that you’re ever drawn to something such as photography or sculpture?
I have recently began using CNC machining as a way to create custom non-rectilinear frames and canvases. A selection of these new paintings will be exhibited in the fall.
What is your personal relationship to social media? Do you find that it supports your work, and your growth, or that it’s dangerous to your creative process? Do you use it solely personally or for professional reasons as well?
I use social media to the extent to which I think it might keep some people outside Philadelphia connected to my studio and vice versa, though I don’t always enjoy doing it. Considering how tethered the art world is to Instagram, I feel obligated to maintain my account. I do, however, try to keep my distance as best as I can. I think, and hope, that this has no calculable effect on the work I make, though it’s hard to say at this point.
Are there any accounts you follow that you love?
My good friend and fellow artist, Laura Jasek, runs the account @verbumplacet which features books recommended by other artists. It’s a fantastic resource.
Do you have any projects, shows or residencies coming up?
At the end of June I’m in a couple a group shows. One here in Philadelphia at Pilot Projects, and another in Brooklyn at Fisher Parrish Gallery. In September I’ll have my second solo show at Smart Objects in Los Angeles.
Thank you so much for talking with us!
Thanks! My pleasure.
To find out more about Paul and his work, check out his website.