A Conversation About Conversations With Martin Wilner

Martin Wilner, “The Case Histories | March 2018: Sarah Walker,” 2018, Pen and ink on Bristol board, 16.5 x 17.125 inches (Courtesy the artists and Pierogi Gallery; Photo: Martin Wilner)

It was a quiet Sunday afternoon of perusing exhibitions around the Lower East Side, and somewhat of a synchronistic moment to meet the artist Martin Wilner in midst of his current exhibition The Case Histories at Pierogi. Wilner invited each of the gallery’s artists to produce their own “responsa” to his dialogue with them, each work of which is included in the exhibition. Wilner’s works are like the glial cells that hold the neuronal complexity of each individual response in place. His imagery alone is densely intertwined with archetypal figures, ranging from ancient mythology to contemporary thinkers and popular culture, moving seamlessly from Medusa to Freud to Fred Flintstone. There are visual clues around each conversation–some witty, others more abstract, all of them alternated with Wilner’s cartoonish interpretations, giving an overall impression of aesthetic cohesion and conceptual mirroring.

When I asked to exchange contact details, Martin gave me his embossed business card with fancy Park Avenue address. He just so happens to also be a psychiatrist and makes this fine art in his spare time. Having recently embarked on a psychoanalytic journey myself, I took the floating signifiers throughout the exhibit as a sign to request an interview, unto which he generously obliged:

Jessica Caroline: The dream for Freud was more like a rebus than a picture, a surrogate experience that expends itself through images. This is how I perceive your work in a way. How do you derive inspiration and can you articulate your thinking process when creating the drawings?

Martin Wilner: The best articulation is the simplest one–free association. Of course, true free association is an impossibility, but as in art, it is all in the striving. I would contend that all of my work emerges from the dream-like state that I enter in my work process. As dreams are composed of personally symbolic sequences, my works are similarly developed. A significant difference in The Case Histories is that the subject of each month’s correspondence becomes the primary point of departure for my free associative dream-like search for meaning. Inspiration is the outcome of application of effort consistently over time, not some mystical force that emerges out of the ether.

Daniel Zeller, “Doughnut Mold,” 2019, Ink and acrylic on paper, 16 x 16 inches (Courtesy the artists and Pierogi Gallery; Photo: Joe Amrhein)

JC: Regarding The Case Histories, can you describe the experience of being in ongoing exchanges with the other artists at Pierogi? What were the aspects of these daily correspondences that were the most rewarding and challenging?

MW: I often enjoy developing groups of subjects that are related by some context. There is potential for greater hermeneutic enrichment by working with a group of psychiatrists or scientists or artists that goes deeper by the grouping. It allows for a level of lateral exploration that enriches my archeological work within each subject.

Pierogi is a unique artists’ community in the guise of a gallery. Having “grown up” with these artists for almost two decades, this part of my ongoing efforts was also a tribute to this special place. My familiarity with my subjects in this setting is both an asset and a liability that I had to continually calibrate. You might say that my individual investigations reflect a more Freudian examination of the state of mind of an individual artist in the time frame of this process, while the grouping introduces a more Jungian perspective of the collective experience of being an artist with all of its challenges, terrors, and rewards.

JC: There are too many conversations to squish into this interview of course, but I wanted to ask about your conversation with Daniel Zeller, in regard to the fractal forms and doughnut motifs in both of your works. I wondered why he titled it “Doughnut mold” and whether you two had been talking about the “Doughnut theory of the universe”?

MW: There was a good deal of correspondence between Dan Zeller and myself that emanated from his interest in the “Doughnut Theory of the Universe,” which in the context of this situational process had relationships to the psychoanalytic notion of the absence of negatives in the unconscious. From there, it led to a flowering of images and icons that reflected and mirrored how these ideas became manifest in our month together. His elaboration of this theory was followed by reference to the double helix of our genetic code, itself a fractal spiral that was, at once, another doughnut, but also a metaphor for my process as the result of the two of our unconsciousnesses bound together (often symbolized as a spiral) for the purpose of this work.

Martin Wilner, “The Case Histories | April 2018: Daniel Zeller,” 2018, Pen and ink on Bristol board, 16.5 x 17.125 inches (Courtesy the artists and Pierogi Gallery; Photo: Martin Wilner)

JC: Though I imagine it highly individual and specific as in a therapy session, how in general did you go about instigating your conversations with each artist? Is it an image, thought, or inspirational passage from you or them? Or was there such a familiarity already there that it was more like an ongoing liaison? And did your work take any new directions in terms of your topics of interests through these discussions?

MW: If anything, I am inclined to view my familiarity with my subject as a complicating variable that I treat more like clinical grist for the mill. I approach each month with the aspiration of documenting in a peculiar form of portraiture the state of mind of my subject in that particular frame of time with my listening instrument as a means of visualizing the experience. Upon inviting a subject to participate in this process, I request that they agree to correspond with me daily, and that they assent to sending me a message of their choosing about something they find of interest to them on that given day.

One of my conscious intentions in beginning to invite the participation of others into my work process, after doing it on my own in a form of self-analysis for a decade, was to allow my work to travel in new directions. I see my work as undergoing a steady evolutionary progression that has a sort of life of its own. The parameters and conditions of my work process facilitate this sort of steady and incremental growth.

JC: Could we address some of your recurring visual motifs, the critters and the split portraiture?

MW: While I make use of an array of motifs and symbols, many of which are pleasingly recurrent (in that this speaks at once to their iconic specificity and to their potential for broader implications at the same time), their deployment is also the result of an interplay between free association and a grounding in the richness of recognizable images. The hybrid portraits are a sort of visual portmanteau that are indicative of points of transference and/or countertransference in the correspondence. Late last night I did a drawing based upon the Venus of Willendorf, another motif that I have drawn upon in the past. This mysterious ancient figure is believed to represent a maternal deity. I enjoy the fact that its meaning is one that we ascribe to it as I appropriate it and ascribe elements of my subjects messages to this larger concept, rich in psychoanalytic implications. It is like love, the mystery of the notion of mother that is fascinating. Microscopic critters, such as tardigrades, can refer to endurance both in reality and fantasy. The art historical concept of the memento mori figures are also unsurprisingly prominent in my work. In this time-based situational process, the pressure of an impending conclusion to each and every monthly cycle inevitably stirs up related concerns about death and loss.

JC: Let’s touch upon the psychopathologies of our present moment. If we can make a distinction, as Zizek does, that hysteria is fearing the loss of the master and paranoia is fearing the overpresence of the master, do you think that a noble aim of the psychoanalytic process is to make conscious these contradictions, to aid us in living with contradiction to some extent, but not to reconcile contradiction?

MW: I would like to think that it is a noble aim of psychoanalysis to help people come to a greater sense of comprehension and reconciliation of the unconscious narratives that drive their lives. One of the great challenges is being more tolerant of the inherent contradictions of everyday life, and the ability to juggle these incongruities in a more adaptive manner. One of the “experimental” questions I deliberately raise in my art is what happens when you bring things back from the realm of language and talk into the more primary process of visual representation. That may contribute to a greater clarity and reconciliation.

JC: What are your broader thoughts on how to describe our present day psyche–the hyper-alertness and manic emotional states, with regard to daily media and politics?

MW: Hard to know where to begin: one can explore it from the perspective of an age of pathological narcissism, or from the perspective of a world under radical stresses due to rapidly advancing technologies and climate change that are polarizing societies enormously between the wish to regress back to childhood paternalistic family structures, on the one hand, to a complete abrogation of these selfsame constructs.

Fred Tomaselli, “March 26, 2019,” Gouache and collage on paper, 8.5 x 11 inches (Courtesy the artists and Pierogi Gallery; Photo: James Cohan Gallery)

JC: James Hillman spoke and wrote about how we dream less with age and that we must learn to “live with the defeat of our desire to know.” Do you concur with this sentiment?

MW: I am not familiar with the statement and am unsure of its veracity. Do we dream less with age? Age is one of the variables that must be contended with and to which we struggle to adapt. Aging foists upon us the reality of limits, but learning to create within the inevitability of parameters and constraints is what my efforts are about.

JC: In The Dream And The Underworld, Hillman goes on to describe the way dreams are not confined to the self/ego, so much as the realm of the psyche. He attends to our assumption that dreams are to some extent a benevolent unraveling:

“We sense that dreams mean well for us, back us up and urge us on, understand us more deeply than we understand ourselves, expand our sensuousness and spirit, continually make up new things to give us … It is like the love of an old man, the usual personal content of love voided by coming death, yet still intense, playful, and tenderly, carefully close.”

It’s such a curious analogy, “the love of an old man…” don’t you think?

MW: It is a poetic metaphor. It is also curious in light of Freud’s notion of the maternal nature of the “dream screen” upon which we project our unconscious fantasies.  

JC: What do you would consider a suitable analogy for our relationship with the unconscious in the wake of consciousness?

MW: Not sure. Perhaps the unconscious evolved to allow us to maintain the illusion of free will. The seeming contradiction here is that it is the exploration of this very concealing structure of mind that facilitates a greater degree of free will. At the same time, we need to maintain an unconscious in order not be continually overwhelmed by everyday life circumstances.

Martin Wilner, “The Case Histories | August 2018: Kate Gilmore,” 2018, Pen and ink on Bristol board, 16.5 x 17.125 inches (Courtesy the artists and Pierogi Gallery; Photo: Martin Wilner)

JC: Jung was a mystic, and Lacan was very much against romantic or humanist notions of the self. Where on this spectrum do you reside?

MW: I would simply see myself as someone resistant to parsing out ego development and subjectivity into precise phases and stages. I see the development of the psyche as a more organic and fluid process.

JC: What did Freud get right?

MW: That’s a big question. Freud got the basic model down quite elegantly along with the notion of a dynamic unconscious that dictates most of our actions. He helped clarify the manner in which narrative shapes us and how modest adjustments to the tales we repeat to ourselves in the actions of our lives can lead to constructive changes in adaptation.

JC: And what did he get wrong?

MW: He got of bunch of things wrong, or at least less correct. Most of them he himself acknowledged as limitations in his own ideas. Perhaps the most important thing he got wrong, which we still get wrong today, is the impact of culture and social mores upon how we perceive thought and behavior.

JC: What did Jung get right, and what did he get wrong?

MW: Jung got the notion of a collective unconscious right, but in more of a metaphorical sense. I think of it more in keeping with the thinking of Humboldt in realizing that we are all part of a larger ecosystemic organism that we generally are comfortable believing. Jung also got the importance of symbolism in our unconscious landscape, but he got it wrong in heavy handedly applying it in a one-size-fits-all situations manner. Another thing that Jung got very right is his remarkable illuminated manuscript, The Red Book. For me, that places his achievements closer to the realm of art than the science that Freud desperately aspired towards.

Kate Gilmore, “Hard Work,” 2018, Bandana, acrylic paint, 18 x 19 inches (Courtesy the artists and Pierogi Gallery; Photo: Joe Amrhein)

JC: I’m pleased that you mentioned The Red Book. It would be remiss to not address this for readers that are not familiar. To me, it is a kind of surrender to Jung’s demons and deeply personal trauma. It was published posthumously, and it’s a quite difficult work given it was created during what some may describe as a mental breakdown. Yet I would argue this discredits its profundity. How was The Red Book illuminating for you personally?

MW: You may have hope for something for didactically profound, but my appreciation of The Red Book revolves on the axis of its function to me as a kind of rare precedent to The Case Histories. The revelation to me was how Jung took his own theoretical constructs back into the visual realm and produced a great work of art. That is my ambition as well.

JC: I should point out Hillman’s lecture on The Red Book is excellent. He talks about the human psyche and the way fantasy is its primary activity–dreams are prior to our thinking. The mind manifests itself in images. The mind is not rational; it is driven by direct and indirect desire, and thus a rational therapeutic approach to the mind does a discredit to it. Emotions can find their form in images. He says in his lecture:

“In our time this book is absolutely freakish because we live in such a narrow, technical, rational, explanatory, causal mindset… we have shrunk our mindset tremendously when this book was not as strange. After all Jung wrote his dissertation in 1900 on occult phenomena for a medical degree, think of that in today’s medicine.”

Do you think, as he argues, that what we consider to be our private lives, our childhood memories, our daily experiences, are not so much private as they are collective? It seems that whatever happens in the privacy of the therapy room will have a recursive looping effect within our public lives. But I wonder, given all of your recent conversations, to what extent do you consider the psyche to be collective?

MW: I believe the private and the collective are inextricably bound to each other–that is one aspect of the connectivity evident in my work. That being said, there is still the uniqueness of the individual and their experience. The differences from subject to subject in my work speaks to this individuality. The consultation room is an endangered sanctum of individuality that I hope will survive. The virtual consultation room of my art is another form of that effort to preserve and chart the ineffable unique nature of each of us.

JC: In a book I’m currently reading called Passion in Theory by Robin Ferrell, she remarks that it would be “disingenuous for psychoanalysis to deny that the patient’s love for her doctor is genuine… She is in love; it is not fraudulent, it is artificial.” Could you articulate the dynamic of transference and the nature of love in the analyst/analysand relation?

MW: I would put it the other way around. An understanding of the transference/countertransference matrix of the analysand/analyst relationship allows for an understanding of what love means to a given analysand. The experience of love is a highly individualistic one.

JC: Do you believe we should abandon the idea of catharsis through the creation of art?

MW: Hope springs eternal. I would not go as far as to suspend them but to temper the expectation of catharsis.  

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