Time, Perception, and Fractured Narratives: A Conversation with David Aipperspach

By Meredith Sellers

David Aipperspach, 7-10pm, oil on canvas, 2021. Photo by Neighboring States.

David Aipperspach is a Philadelphia-based artist whose work I’ve been following for some time. His paintings, materially lush and meticulously rendered, consistently push up against the boundaries of perception, lending a sense of unease to the everyday. I recently caught up with David to discuss the works in his first New York solo exhibition, Prologue to a garden dark, at CHART. The exhibition ran from March 18th to April 30th.

Meredith Sellers: The paintings in your exhibition at CHART, Prologue to a garden dark, represent a departure from your previous works both in terms of style and content. Can you talk a little about the impetus for this change? What was the catalyst?

David Aipperspach: Like many artists, I was away from the studio for a while in Spring 2020.  Whenever I’ve had a period away from the studio in the past, it’s compelled a reset. This time was no different. Also, I had the opportunity to attend a residency that summer. I spent three weeks with my partner, Sarah, in an old farmhouse and garden in rural northern Pennsylvania. I made a bunch of small painted studies onsite to bring back to the studio and use to cook up this new series of large paintings. Themes emerged as I worked and the sense of light as it relates to time of day became increasingly important. Pretty early on I decided on the framework of a sequence of paintings depicting domestic and garden spaces that fit into a progression corresponding with afternoon, dusk, and evening light.

It’s interesting speaking with you because you’re familiar with my previous work. On the surface, these do seem like a departure. But while the process and paint handling are different, I think the mood and ambiance are consistent, as are some of the domestic subjects and formal treatments of light and pictorial scale.

Sundial, oil on canvas, 2022. Photo by Neighboring States.

MS: Time is a constant theme in your work, from sundials in patches of grass to images of perpetually setting suns. In these new paintings, youve included striped squares, which you refer to as clocks.” How do these devices operate and how do you engage with the concept of time in these new paintings?

DA: Yes, I’m fascinated by the ways in which time gets recorded and encoded in painting. It’s fundamental to the medium. Paintings are like visual batteries that are charged with the duration of their making. They turn that visual energy back to viewers when they are observed. That time-charge can often distinguish paintings from other types of images. Slow paintings that record and embody looking, like these, emphasize that attribute.

The “clocks” stitch everything in this series together while adding a curious diagrammatic language to foil some of the more seductive, illusionistic elements. They came from color studies that I made outdoors from the same views at each hour throughout the late afternoon and evening, 4 pm to 11 pm. They appear abstract but they’re actually pictorial when read as essentialized landscapes. The top three bands of color in each were observed in the sky, and the lower four were observed in two receding ridges, a nearer band of trees, and an expanse of lawn in the foreground. The painting Sun Chart, 4-11 pm is a sort of master key that diagrams the colors of each clock painting as vertical columns, with the passage of the setting sun imposed on top.

Several of the rectangular clocks appear in each large painting to mark the hypothetical duration of time represented in each, 6-9 pm, 8-11 pm, etc., suggesting that they record the passing of a few hours in each space, beyond just a single moment. Provided the titles and the clocks, I thought viewers might project action into the space that is not wholly present, or that the objects and characters in the paintings moved around during each pocket of time. Like, perhaps the deer and figure approached the door at different times in the painting 5-6 pm, or the four chairs in 7-10 pm are in fact a single chair, pensively moved around throughout the evening.

Sun Chart, 4-11pm, oil on canvas, 2021. Photo by Neighboring States.

MS: You described your new paintings as happening in two parts: a preparatory study to bear witness to the act of looking, and a second part where you reflected on that act and combined it with a sort of psychological memory, which became embedded in the paintings as a sub-narrative. Could you explain that process of embedding narrative into the works?

DA: Your description of the process is spot on. These originated from small observational studies. I love plein-air painting, simply setting up to spend a few hours looking and recording the visible. It’s an oddly profound activity. I don’t put too much pressure on this front end. They’re just notational. I start by wandering around with a small rectangular viewfinder, looking for subjects that are pictorially compelling and that have some metaphorical potential as images.

Then, I make iterative drawings based on the studies that serve as schematics for the large paintings. This is often when the narrative potential emerges, as I make associations, add additional elements, and reconstruct the spaces. Many of these started with a study of a detail, leaving the rest of the image to be invented in the drawing process. 8-11 pm started with only the lamp, for example, and I built the drawing out from there based on my memory of the room it was in.

8-11pm, oil on canvas, 2021. Photo by Neighboring States.

This process of pivoting back and forth between observation and imagination manifests in the paintings. They contain some passages that are concrete and rational and others that read as more hallucinogenic. 

I also enjoy reading fiction and I listen to audiobooks while I paint, which feels like it informs some of my decision making, if only obliquely. The image of the deer was in part inspired by a short story called Beast by Samantha Hunt. The hose in 7-10 pm was always the primordial “snake in the garden” in my mind. The doorknob in 5-6 pm represents the prospect of crossing a threshold. Turning on the faucet and filling the bathtub helped “narrativize” the space in 4-7 pm.

4-7 pm, oil on canvas, 2021. Photo by Neighboring States.

MS: The works in Prologue to a garden dark have a literary or filmic quality, which could also be extrapolated from the title of the show, which refers to a prologue,” a piece of writing typically understood as a precursor to the main action of a story. The paintings often have an evocative quality of something dream-like, or vaguely sinister, which feels somehow familiar. What kind of imagery do you look for in your paintings and how is it impacted by other media? 

DA: Yes, I wanted “prologue” to imply a literary quality and add some dramatic action and consequence. It’s also flatly descriptive: afternoon, dusk, and twilight as daily prologue to darkness. The lyrical rhythm worked too. It’s a trochee—Pro-logue to a gar-den dark.

I like your phrase “vaguely sinister.” As anyone might form a sensibility, mine is probably just a product of biography + personality + the art and culture I consume. I think my sense of dark, quiet humor has something to do with growing up in the Midwest. I’ve always liked Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, Gregory Crewdson. I mentioned the writer Samantha Hunt.  I’ve also been reading a bunch by Don DeLillo and Rachel Cusk, who both use sparse prose and lapses in action to profound effect. I don’t illustrate this stuff or make overt references, but I suppose it’s all baked into the hundreds of little decisions made while making a painting that add up to a result with a particular mood and ambiance. 

The familiarity of the subjects is important—chairs, doors, lamps, etc.  I’m describing a lot of esoteric painting stuff here, but I also want the images to be widely accessible. Some people might engage with the esoteric painting stuff, others won’t care, but it’s fairly safe to assume that most that will ever see these paintings have felt humidity in a bathroom, or clutched a doorknob, or peered into a room through a window. Hopefully, the paintings can illuminate and give some gravity to these banal experiences and sensations.

Handle, oil on canvas, 2021. Photo by Neighboring States.

MS: Your previous paintings have relatively mark-less, smooth surfaces, but these works seem to employ multiple mark-making styles throughout, resulting in a somewhat schizoid image. How do your paintings reflect on art historical imagery?

DA: The mark-making expanded in this body of work. The light holds each painting together but the marks are fairly diverse. I am skeptical of the idea of a painter “finding” some signature touch or style that they have unique access to. That claim of authority is dubious. And, since these paintings are in part about the interference between observation, memory, and projection, I was thinking about how we assign different levels of trust to things that are painted differently. That front patio chair in 7-10 pm is a credible representation of a chair in space. Yet, it’s sitting on a pad of gravel that’s recorded just as a pattern of bluntly painted dots and is wrapped with a garden hose that is impossibly long. 

The stylistic variety came about naturally as I executed different passages of the large paintings via different means. The shells in 4-7 pm were painted from observation from a bunch of shells that I composed on a table in my studio. That process yielded a chunky, dense visual description because I had a lot to go on. The water was invented, and I think the bleariness of that passage likewise reflects how it was made.  5-8 pm may have the most stylistic pastiche. I started working from the small plein-air window study, but in the large painting the objects are highly rendered, the stylized rain feels like it’s lifted from a comic or a Japanese woodcut, the window reflection is dense and smeary like a Bonnard, and the siding is layered with a bunch of pointillist dots. 

The hard-edged “clocks” add an additional stylistic rupture to all of them. They interrupt the surface and sort of break the fourth wall of the painting, as you said in our previous conversation—they encode the duration of time but they also poke at the illusionism of the adjacent, more painterly passages. Painting those little numbers in the upper left corner of each to mark the hour was oddly satisfying. Once that diagrammatic element was added, they commanded the surface and pushed on all the other parts of the painting.

6-9 pm, oil on canvas, 2021. Photo by Neighboring States.

MS: What are you currently exploring in your studio, and where do you think your next paintings might go?

DA: I’m currently completing the series of sundial paintings. Two of them are in the show and I have a few more that round out the sequence with different micro-environments, light, and weather.  And, I’m making drawings and studies for the next big series, scouting some outdoor painting locales, and working on new time-diagram structures. Still loose on specifics, but I learned a lot from this show and have more to expand on.

David Aipperspach is a painter and educator based in Philadelphia. He earned an MFA in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design and a B.A. in Landscape Architecture from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently an Assistant Professor at Ursinus College. His work has been shown in a variety of gallery and academic contexts, including the Woodmere Art Museum, Anderson Ranch Art Center, RISD Museum, West Chester University, UC Berkeley, Berman Museum of Art, Newport Art Museum, Pilot Projects, Fjord Gallery, Nancy Margolis Gallery, and elsewhere.

Meredith Sellers is an artist and writer living and working in Philadelphia. She holds a BFA in Painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art and an MFA from the University of Pennsylvania. Sellers has exhibited at Young Space, Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at UArts, ICA Philadelphia, Lord Ludd, Take It Easy, Vox Populi, Icebox Project Space, Pressure Club, Fleisher Art Memorial, and others. Her curatorial projects include Chewing the Scenery at Crane Arts, The Midnight Sun at Pilot Projects (both co-curated with Jonathan Santoro), and Edith at Esther Klein Gallery. She is an editor for Philadelphia-based online arts journal Title Magazine; her writing has appeared in publications including Hyperallergic, ArtsJournal, Pelican Bomb, and American Craft Magazine.