In the studio with Garrett Pruter.

Words by

James Ambrose

In the studio with Garrett Pruter.

What was your childhood like in relation to art? Did it play a big role and what was your exposure to the art world?

Art didn’t play much of a role in my childhood, but I think about my upbringing a lot when I’m making things. I grew up in Ventura, California, which is a suburban beach city about an hour north of Los Angeles. When I was a child I remember mostly watching a lot of daytime television and whichever movies I had access to, things like horror movies, soap operas, erotic thrillers, reality TV, detective stories, that kind of thing. When I was a teenager I was really into music, and thats when things started to open up a bit more. And then when I was 17, I went along with a friend to see this Edmund Teske show at the Getty Museum. His work was unlike anything I had seen before… it opened up the whole world of spirit photography to me. I remember there was a portrait of Kenneth Anger in the show, who had a really big impact on me after I got home and started looking at him, especially during at time when I was coming into my own sexuality. So yeah, that Teske exhibition had a huge effect on me.

The Birds (2022) Digital video, sound. Installation photo from The Birds (Part 2 of 3), Trafalgar Avenue, London, May 13 - June 11, 2022

How did you come to making video work? Did this come first or was your painting practice your initial first love?

I’d had a few jobs in video editing and animation when I was younger, but I didn’t really start making video work until I was studying painting at the RCA. The first video works came out of the delirium of the early 2020 lockdowns when I went back to Los Angeles for a few months. The kind of painting I had been making beforehand was still fresh on my mind and it started attaching itself to all these other things I was consuming at the time, especially horror films and soap operas. That’s when I made my first full video work, Halloween, which is John Carpenter’s horror film but with all the violence removed.

Installation view, Picture House (2021) Brigade Gallery, Copenhagen, a duo show with Garrett Pruter and Nicole Coson.

Do you feel the video works inform your painting practice or do you see both mediums as distinct tracks of work?

Yeah, I really do start viewing my paintings differently after spending a lot of time working in video. My paintings are made out of many fragmented images overlaid on top of each other. I’ve worked this way for years. But recently, I’ve started describing with language like collapsed timelines, montage, static and white noise… terms you would normally associate with video.

But the videos inform the paintings as well. In The Birds, for example, there are many different ways in which the birds could be erased.  But the priority for me, more than removing any evidence of my hand, is trying to recreate the texture and marks that would be left on the original film. It comes down to simulating the grain and attempting to replicate the soft lens inherent to the film. This, in many ways, lends itself to painting.

Your latest video project has seen you rework a full version of the Alfred Hitchcock classic “The Birds” Can you just explain a little why you chose this particular feature to work with and what it means to you.

I knew I wanted to work with an older film. Something that pre-existed within the public consciousness, but in a hazy, distant way. I initially started thinking about The Birds because it was the most absurd application of this premise of ‘erasing the threat’ that I could think of because their presence in the film is so constant that it feels nearly atmospheric. It felt maybe… impossible? And I think that can be an interesting place to start.  

So I started doing some research into the film. The making process is one of the most striking aspects of The Birds. The film is based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier which was published in 1952. When Hitchcock obtained the rights to turn it into a feature film, he spent a considerable amount of time there and took an obsessive deep dive into the real town of Bodega Bay. He sent someone to take photographs of the townspeople to get ideas for the costume and created exact replicas of the buildings. The original story was set in Du Maurier’s home county, Cornwall, UK, but there was a very specific, creative decision to shoot and create the film in Bodega Bay. Knowing that, I think it becomes an interesting document of that time and of that town.

This film is also impressive for its technical assemblage… many of the scenes were created through a compositing method where you layer multiple frames one on top of the other to create the illusion of a cohesive image. In this case, the illusion of hundreds of birds. And so there is another level of absurdity in the erasure of the birds… it’s like bringing the film back to the way it was filmed, before the post-production editing. The actors are reacting to invisible birds because the birds were always invisible.  

So those were the reasons I began, but of course other themes have come up in the process of actually doing it. For example, in some scenes, especially in the attack sequences, the birds take up the majority of the foreground of the frame, so in erasing the birds there are these voids of missing actions.  So a lot of the project inadvertently becomes about figuration… it’s this process of filling in the voids and reconstructing the missing frames of actors, environment and architecture left behind by the birds’ erasure.

Garrett Pruter, The Birds (01:11:16), 2023, Inkjet on 310 g. German etching paper Aluminum frame 144 x 96 x 3 cm. Photography by Peter Dalgaard

There seems something about the horror genre as a whole across different mediums that radiates throughout your work? Would you say that is fitting comment?  

Definitely. Especially in horror tropes like collective memory, ghostly spectres, melancholia, doppelgängers, repetition, ambiguous states, absurdity, dark comedy, etc.  Its more obvious in my video works, but I’m looking at a lot of the same themes abstractly in my paintings. Freud wrote somewhere that melancholy operates as an “open wound.” I’m really drawn to this, especially as it relates to the photograph, contents oozing out from its surface.   My paintings utilise photographs in a somewhat violent way, approaching at them as a skin that can be penetrated, extracted, liquified, distorted, transformed, reconfigured. In that way, I think my paintings could be seen as a kind of body horror.

The process of composition for you “paintings” is very interesting and intricate and involves the removal of surface material from analogue photographs, with this “material” then being used as ink for the work. Can you explain this process and how you came upon it.

My picture paintings are essentially paintings made out of the extracted emulsion of large batches of printed photographs. It’s a process of wetting the image, and then removing its surface with gestures of scratching, rubbing, and smearing and compiling the liquified emulsion in these separate containers. Though time, the inks bleed together and are mixed together with an acrylic binder, which I then apply onto canvas as paint. I do this thousands of times in order to generate enough pigment to cover the entire canvas. It originally started as a kind of poetic gesture, reducing collections of images into singular hues. But it’s turned into something that is perhaps the opposite of poetry — these large fields of chaotic excess, like static or white noise. It’s everything all at once.

Garrett Pruter, The Birds (TIME), 2023. Photography by Peter Dalgaard

How do you come by the source material used in your practice as a whole?

Most of the photographs I use to make paintings come from a single box of 35mm slides and negatives that I purchased off eBay about ten years ago. It was from an anonymous seller in Indiana, and it’s a collection of family photographs that span about 30 years. Of those 800 images, there are about five that I use repeatedly, reproducing them by the thousands. I just keep going back to them.

Being born in the States, is London a better fit for you practice at this time than New York or Los Angeles?

I don’t know! Have to say, I love London. It’s given me a whole new perspective. I never realised how American my practice is until I moved here, for better or worse. With some distance, I’m starting to understand more about what my active references are and where my impulses originate from. That’s been really great for both broadening the scope of my practice.

What are your upcoming plans for 2023?

I’m working on a few things at the moment, the first is a solo show at Brigade Gallery in Copenhagen in January. After that, I’m part of Brunette Coleman's inaugural offsite show in February in London at Fitzrovia Chapel with Jack Connolly. After that, a group show at Union Pacific in April.

Installation view, Garrett Pruter, The Birds at Brigade, Copenhagen.

What does a standard day in the studio look like to you?

It really varies based on the project I’m working on. Right now, I like to work every day, starting in the late morning and going until quite late. Since my work is quite repetitive and labour intensive, there’s always something to do. One of the things I like about working this way is that it’s easy to pick up exactly where you left off. So usually when I get in I’ll put on some music and just get to it. With The Birds being such a long term project with no end in sight, it can sometimes feel overwhelming, so I like to put on a film or series in the background. I don’t end up absorbing very much from whatever is playing because the editing requires a fair amount of concentration, but it’s a way of marking time and tying the labour to something finite.  

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Photography by Sofia Hallström