The somber artist greets me with a friendly smile as he wipes the concentration from his eyes. Having been at work for hours prior, one immediately senses the amount of dedication he puts into his art. The gentleman walks me up to the second floor, a two bedroom railroad apartment, neatly organized from the second you enter at the kitchen. Clean dishes laid out for drying, bookshelf organized for future research delving, desk unconsciously laid out in grids for ease of use, and walls covered by the work of friends and colleagues who have graciously traded works with a mutually respected artist.
We further the tour through his minimalist bedroom, and onward to his studio where Conor Backman is working on a new chapter of his art. Having moved here less than a year ago, it is apparent that he had come to New York with a very clear plan, and intentions of maximizing his productivity as an artist through whatever limited means possible. A poster child for midnight oil burining, he makes the most of his modest studio space through partitioning of scale and process to his multi-faceted works.
In one corner sits a 20 x 24 painting hanging to dry on a wall, while an empty eisel sits pensively, as if waiting to be put to use. At the opposite corner is a wall of tools and a small desk, upon which sits another painting the size of a postcard, equally as detailed as its counterpart across the room, carrying the same amount of realism, despite the limitation of space. Finally at the next corner sits a nearly untouched, yet equally deceptive, life-size painting depicting a window that has been covered with brown paper. In the middle of it all sits the conductor of this orchestra.
From the room’s center he works on whatever he has set out to complete for the night, and from there he can easily float around the room to his other creations as needed, reflecting on prior nights’ creations whilst still managing to produce an idea that lay at his fingers. It’s this sort of diligence and organization that speaks to the artist that is Conor Backman: extremely well-versed in art history, and possessing a skilled hand that allows him to paint like a classicist and think like a contemporary.
None of this comes as any surprise, having known Conor since our days at Virginia Commonwealth University. He’s always had his hand in the creative consciousness of the moment, including his co-founding of REFERENCE gallery in Richmond, Virginia, which offered something new to a city not necessarily known for its export of contemporary art. Now living in New York, Conor has entered a new stage in his career, showing his work internationally, and is determined to continue iterating on his past thoughts while seeing what the life of a New York artist brings. Conor and I sat down to discuss his transition from South to North, the common themes carried across his works, and where he sees himself and his art career going next.
cover photo and interview
by Mauricio Vargas
Hey Conor, how’s it going? Let’s start at Virginia Commonwealth University. How was that?
I grew up in Virginia, about two and a half hours north of Richmond, but had never been until I applied to college. I had a good feeling about Richmond the first time I visited, and still have very warm feelings about the city. VCU offered time and space to develop my work without many of the pressures that New York presents. Richmond is a small city, but it has a very supportive and strong art community.
What initiated the opening of Reference Gallery?
I opened Reference along with James Shaeffer, Ross Iannatti, and Edward Shenk in 2009. It grew out of a set of shows I hosted in my apartment the year before. Those first two shows were very well received and made us realize there was a need for a venue that could show the type of work we were interested in making and seeing and was not being exhibited by other galleries in the city. We also wanted to bring work from other places, both as a way to introduce new artists to Richmond, and as a way to expose Richmond artists to their communities.
You have a show coming up in the fall at Mixed Greens Gallery. How will this show differ from the past few solo shows?
I’m working on focusing the ideas around a theme and building the show from there. In previous shows I’ve had an overarching idea either through an installation, or a title that came about after producing disparate works, but the works within the show did not necessarily relate to each other, and weren’t conceived of in relation to each other.
For this exhibition, I’m starting with the idea of the diorama, which will also be the title of the show. I’m interested in the word as we use it today to describe a sculptural theatrical window space, and the early use of the word in describing a form of camera obscura used by Daguerre.
On the thought of art history, your work reflects a heavy respects for the classics while still upholding a contemporary approach to art making. Is there any particular school of thought that you would say you relate to most?
I tend to focus on representational painting, while also thinking of the paintings primarily as objects rather than only images. I try to make work that can move between these readings. I’m interested in using previous artistic conventions and traditions as a raw material within the work, and the idea that a painting from 500 years ago can have the same presence as a painting made a month ago.
You showed a few pieces from your drum series at our show META this past Bushwick Open Studios. For the show it worked great as a poster image for the idea of continual self reflective, but tell us more about what that series means to you personally.
The drum paintings deal with the process of painting in relation to the structure of a drum. When one stretches a canvas, it’s best if it’s “tight as a drum”. There’s also a connection between the paintbrush and a drumstick, each striking the surface and leaving evidence of their use in the form of a mark.
I was also thinking about the tradition in abstraction of making musical paintings, something Kandinsky describes in his work. I think of the drum paintings as “meta” as they are paintings about painting, about both the way a painting is executed and structured.
So that’s an older painting of yours, how would you compare that to the paper, the window covering, the more recent ones?
There are some similarities because I’m interested in a space between representation and abstraction, between a three dimensional object and a flat surface.
In the drum paintings I was creating a representational painting of a flat object on a flat surface that was then manipulated in the same way as the object being represented. A similar process occurs in the paintings of window covering. I’m rendering an image of paper that has become sculptural due to crumpling and folding. To make the paintings the canvas in crumpled in the same way that the paper would be, only instead of the shadows and highlights being a result of a play of light they are occurring because of the color of the pigment.
I wanted the window paintings to exist somewhere between a traditional idea of trompe-l’oeil and a mid 20th century idea of the monochrome.
What about the case of the cave paintings, tell me about the conception of those pieces.
The cave paintings came out of thinking about the first steps of creating a painting. The imagery opens many potential meanings, but a few that I’m interested in are the cave as the home of the earliest known paintings, the cave as a symbol for the unconscious, and the cave as an analogy for the photographic dark room.
I made a few paintings of caves in which I mixed my palette directly on the surface of the canvas along with the imagery I was rendering. I liked the connection to the palette as a non-conscious space, where the painting begins. The palette also builds pigment over time in a way that is similar to processes in the cave – liquid that is carrying minerals accumulates generating forms.
OK, shotgun round…
Favorite cheap eat in New York?
Vanessa Dumplings, the one in Chinatown.
Favorite Ben & Jerry’s?
In a perfect world, where would you live? If you could be completely self sustaining?
I would go to L.A., I hear the driving sucks, but if that wasn’t a problem then L.A.
Thanks for chatting, Conor.
To see more of Conor’s work, visit his website at: