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Michael Ambron in conversation with Amanda Millet-Sorsa

Image: "Dream Beings" (2022); 48 x 54 inches

Decomposed soil, pigment, stone chalk, acrylic, cellulose, and pastel on panel suspended over painted wooden walll installation approximately 12x8ft.


Michael Ambron’s work is highly engaged in the play between pigments, binders, and additive mixtures as well as the exploration of substrates and surfaces. He arrives at complex color languages and textures made possible by his deep understanding of the alchemy and craft of paint making. The images, marks, gestures, and fields of color sit in between repetitive marks and symbolic imagery in an expansive dream space, often with a particular pigment he’s exploring at the inception of the work. Ambron experiences both closed and open-eye hallucinations when sleeping and records these visions in dream journals, which then make it into his painting. Ambron and Amanda Millet-Sorsa sat down at Ortega y Gasset, an artist-run non-profit gallery located in Gowanus, Brooklyn to speak about his work. The exhibition “Michael Ambron: No Time” was curated by Zahar Vaks and Lauren Whearty. It is the first solo presentation of the artist’s work.


Amanda Millet-Sorsa: As a dedicated paint maker, alchemist, chemist, and much more, you have a wide and expert source of knowledge for painting materials. How do you absorb all this knowledge when making your work? What kinds of materials are you using? 

Michael Ambron: The majority of the paintings come from just pure pigment. I also work with pre-made paints, but the more I expand this practice, the more interested I am in being really specific about my pigment choices. A lot of times I'll get really obsessed with a particular color because it's doing a certain thing or it mixes in a unique way. For example, copper blue is a copper carbonate that has a unique way of reflecting light. In the middle of Boundaries (2022) there is a rectangular grid that has copper blue in it, and it is also mixed into the gray and the pink neutrals as I’m seeking to give the painting more luminosity.


AMS: Why is copper blue so particular in bringing luminosity to the painting?  

MA: It's unlike any pigment I've really worked with other than synthetic malachite, which is also a copper-based pigment. It has a lushness to it and spreads in a buttery way. There is beautiful transparency and the way it holds its form in paint allows you to make it very opaque, and layer it on thickly. When light hits it, it just vibrates in unique ways, so I've been using that a lot. 


AMS: When you mix it with more neutral colors, the gray and pink are indeed unusual. I can’t recall seeing these particular hues for those colors before, so I can see how the copper addition really gives them even more brightness.

MA: The pink is actually coming from a really special pigment, PO73, Pyrrole orange. It's a cool orange. When you add white, chalk, or something like copper blue, which is very pale, it pushes into pink and salmon instead of orange-cream colors. I wanted to include some of the coolness of the copper blue mixing with the coolness of pyrrole orange. It yielded some interesting purple-pinkish colors. 


AMS: How do you begin a painting? Is it with the obsession of a certain color like copper blue?

MA: This purple painting Rain (2023) for example was an ultramarine pink I was figuring out how to use by varying the shifts in color based on the amount of binder and fillers. How much dimensional quality could I extract from one pigment by doing a bunch of work with that ultramarine pink? I'm using a lot of acrylic with different combinations of cellulose. Cellulose is a material that can be derived from plants and it's very slippery. You can control the viscosity of it to make the paint flow freely, you can spray it, or you can use kinds that are so viscous you could mold them into sculptures. I'm usually playing around with it as a base. Then I use various types of polymers to get different effects, matte or glossy, giving different kinds of texture and adding different types of aggregates: granite, marble dust, sand, and cork. 

All of the drawings I see in my head might be composed of 1 or 2 colors. I might do a series of works on paper or on canvas where I explore the tension or harmony between two colors which then could exist in the form of a painting.


AMS: Do you find that certain colors have different personalities?

MA: It's interesting to think about color through personality because they have such unique qualities. There is often a correlation between what the pigment is doing, literally and maybe metaphorically. When your view is obstructed, things are very opaque, some colors dominate other colors, and the way I might lean into those characteristics can really determine how a person is able to enter a painting, or how much the painting itself resists your being able to see what's behind it. 


AMS: I noticed that sand is present in this one as is marble dust in Dilation (2022). 

MA: This is a very heavy painting with 50 pounds of marble, sand, granite, cork, and glass beads. By the time I got to the layer with cork, which was the lightest material, it still felt as heavy as it was, which I thought was really interesting. Marble dust depends on the particle size, but it would give some absorptive quality so the color could sink in. It would remove any excess sheen there might be in the acrylic. I wanted it to feel like a ground that had texture and surface where the color wrestles with its environment and topography. I never think of painting as two-dimensional. It's always very physical, very three-dimensional. How the paint or the pigment seeps into the crevices and grooves you find on the surface, I think, lends itself to the imagery that comes after. 


AMS: Topography is a suitable word to understand your painting. It does seem as though there are mountains, troughs, and crevices, familiar with how we see and navigate geography. I'm curious about this little board here Idle Hands (2022), which has so much texture to the point of being a relief as you're carving into its surface. 

MA: It is a clay ground. I became interested in making clay grounds over 15 years ago because they resemble a tabula rasa. I could draw on it and then feather it all back to flat, just with a wet brush. I'll use kaolinite, pencil clay, or English clay, adding various pigments to it as well as mixing in cellulose and acrylic. 


Idle Hands (2022) is pencil clay because it has a brown base. Sometimes I would use hard stone chalk, like marble dust, and just try to find the right balance so it would stay wet long enough for me to do some sort of inscription, and it would have the ability to absorb dry pigments. I might draw and then try to freeze the painting in place by sealing it with marble dust from one or two directions. If you get the balance just right, the clay stays in that space frozen in time. If you don't get the balance right, it can force the clay to stress out, dry, and crackle. 


AMS: It seems the life of these works starts with powder where you’re starting from scratch, and close to nothing. It’s a complete other sense of nothingness where you’re creating unique solid heavy surfaces from these fine light powders and painterly layers. 

MA: It drives me in a lot of ways because I'm always trying to discover something, whether it's about materiality, about myself, or about society. By working from scratch, just with the barest essential ingredients to be able to find so much mystery and discovery from something so basic is really the core of making for me. No matter how much knowledge I have about materials, I'll always be practicing some form of bricolage because I would find something that has an animate quality. Then I see how it lends itself to the practice or to the work that I’m focusing on. I think it's about potentiality. When you can find something unique in the materials at the most basic level, then there's hope for the rest of the painting.


AMS: I think your work carries a lot of mystery in the abstract image symbols, but also in this direct relation to dreams. We can see the word DREAMS being written very openly in “Sell Your Dreams,” 2024. It also points to a dream space and dream images. Could you elaborate on your relationship to dreams and how it relates to your work? 

MA: For the majority of my life at this point, I've been having hypnopompic and hypnagogic hallucinations, so I have a complex relationship with sleep. When I was 16, I started having closed-eye hallucinations where my body would suddenly fall asleep, but my mind would be alert, so I was basically paralyzed and I would see flashing lights on the backs of my eyelids. Over the years, that developed into further episodes of sleep paralysis, where I would open my eyes and see hallucinations of shadow figures walking around the room coming to my bedside and observing me. Now I mostly wake up paralyzed in a partial dream state as the dream unfolds in the space around me. The thing that's interesting to me is the dream often conforms to the environment I'm in, so something might be moving across the ceiling and when it reaches the wall, it moves down the wall, it can turn corners, it can move around furniture. This could be a shadow figure or some type of cartoon being. I might recognize the shape of a person, but upon further inspection, it's just like a void, as if looking into a cave. I see a lot of figures and forms that suggest a living creature of some kind because they seem to know where they’re going. There's also this experience where I see a red light in the upper right corner of my field of vision and a blue light in my left field of vision. A lot of times, when I'm splitting up the palette, I'm thinking about these sorts of tensions between left and right, between colors that oppose each other. 

There have only been two instances where I was able to move and the vision stayed suspended in space. Once, I woke up and saw a web of translucent gray diamonds hanging in the window, and I realized I could move my body. Usually, when I can move, the vision disappears and evaporates into space. This time it didn’t, so I sat up and stared at it longer. The diamonds were concentric and they were breathing. As I stood up and walked closer to them, I could see little translucent droplets around the diamonds before the entire vision faded. In other instances, I've woken up to a field of ovals taking over my entire visual field. The experience of the diamonds was very calming and actually very beautiful. It's not emblematic of how the experience usually goes but waking up to a field of ovals is somehow scarier than waking up to a shadow person walking around the room. Maybe seeing something so abstract that has the autonomy of a person and having dozens of them in my field of vision made me question agency and how they’re operating in my subconscious and in my psyche. 


AMS: It sounds as though some of that energy going through you and those visions are manifesting in your work. At what point did you want to translate those experiences? 

MA: I've always tried to keep a dream journal and sketchbooks near me most of my life because when the paralysis breaks, I’ll take a moment to recover from that experience, and scribble down some of the things I saw. I think somehow that moment of sitting up and scribbling down the experience is a way of reclaiming the event, or at least marking it to show that it happened and trying to capture some details or elements from the experience so I can think about it, because it's often very disorienting and there's a lot of questioning if you're really having that perception if your eyes are actually open. Because it's such a prevalent experience for me, it feels like I should engage with it in the same way I would when I make discoveries in the world, if I see something that I've never seen before. I want to mark it in some way, capture it, and write it down. Sometimes I'm gathering information based on the way things move. I'll see things that seem to be very fluid as if they're made of water and can change shape. That's how raindrops or water droplet-looking forms appear in the work. A lot of the forms and imagery in my work come from these visions. 


AMS: You’ve sought art as a way to make sense or to understand what some of this is about so are there certain artists that you have looked into for answers or as a guide?

MA: I always ask artists about their perceptual experiences, because I feel like I learn a lot from other artists. I don't encounter too many people working through this in their practice, but I do look at artists like Charles Burchfield, who was clearly having some kind of elevated experience and trying earnestly to describe it, whether it's a kind of amplification of emotion or someone like Forest Bess, who's pressing on his eyes and looking for bits of data and trying to understand this internal space. I get inspired by the courage I think it takes to try to truthfully render one's experience for others to see and share in it. To describe what you're seeing in any sort of real way is impossible, but if there are elements that stand out, it may be possible to give someone a sense of the energetic experience you’re trying to depict. 

AMS: An energetic experience seems appropriate for some of these paintings, especially because the energy is from another realm, it carries us into another world and that's part of what dreams do. It's not clear which world we’re in so I was curious about this all-over mark present in some of your paintings compared to those carrying more form and symbolism. It perhaps approaches the visual language in Aboriginal art with meditation and repetition and how that brings certain bodies and spirits into different realms, similar to Paleolithic cave painting. 

MA: Aboriginal art is among the work that I look at the most. The meditative quality makes it so there's no need to conjure up a recognizable image to transmit something about space and movement in time. When you reduce the palette to one or two colors and you are just marking your way through space, something happens, for me at least, where I'm able to turn off the thinking in the studio. 

The chaos that sometimes ends up in the work is a product of too much thinking about what's happening in the world and the environments around me. When I work with this all-over approach, I restrict myself to a specific proximity of less than one foot for the duration of making it. I don't let myself see the painting from a distance. It's really difficult when working like that to know when a piece is finished. It kind of just runs its course. When the marks stop coming, I have to decide if it's time to look at it as a whole and to see it as a complete painting. In this case, I felt like the forms held together just enough and disintegrated at the edges, just enough to feel like it had that quality of an ethereal vision. 

When I'm working in that way, if I stop, I'll often just look at the floor and turn away from the painting until I'm ready to come back to it. I won't photograph it in those stages. I don't want the painting to become an image of a painting. I don't necessarily want to know what forms are emerging in that process. I feel like it is a way of becoming as present as possible with abstract qualities of just light and space with mark-making, boundaries, and edges. 


AMS: That impulse reminds me of what Philip Guston sought to do when he was making his 1950s Abstract Expressionist paintings to be as close as he could to the canvas and see what paint could do, also without getting that distance, and become completely immersed. 

MA: I love Guston because he was able to go from that and back to contour and I don't think it's necessary to limit ourselves to either or. They're both ways of getting into something very real in the making without having to relegate one's experience to a particular aesthetic. 


AMS:  Do you believe you are building on the legacy of past artists particularly those who have engaged in making their own paints? And if so, do you have any people in mind? 

MA: I think it's unavoidable as we're always building because of the work of the artists that came before us. I do love Guston. I really love Jack Whitten’s paintings as he's someone who was extremely experimental with raw materials and used them to make a wide range of work that do not adhere to a specific aesthetic. I gravitate towards artists who are willing to just push the limits of materiality, image, and form. 


AMS: Jack Whitten is unique in pushing those boundaries as he had so much breadth in his work and his mark, but also the extraordinary tools he would invent for those long studio days. Do you have any weird tools that you've made for yourself over the years? 

MA: Dozens! Many times, I make tools for carving through clay grounds by gluing different brushes to the existing handles of other brushes. I also have this square block with a bunch of holes drilled into it, and it can fit specific sizes of sticks and nails and grinding tools and things like that. There's a particular stick that I found that's covered in graphite, I use it to do drawings. A lot of the tools I make are made at the moment they're needed and not refined. They're the thing that's near me in a moment when I have the impulse to move or make a mark in some specific way. They're imbued with whatever the energy of that moment is, and they're not necessarily things that you would find for sale anywhere. 


AMS: I was wondering if we could go into the other gallery, with Dream Beings (2021) as I'm curious about what you were saying when you just focus on two contrasting colors: an almost black and white-gray against this magnificent matte violet fuchsia wall, a color you will never find with Benjamin Moore or Home Depot. Can you tell me a little bit more about the dual-tone painting and the installation here and what you were thinking about? 

MA: In the piece itself, I was thinking about the web-like structure of the visual field upon waking up to these kinds of hallucinations. I wanted to use chalk for the white ground as something translucent and ethereal. It is layered over a series of colors so they can bleed through the white surface slightly. The black is made of Cassel Brown or Van Dyke brown soil and it has this textured quality. It contains trace elements of quartz and silica that make it sparkle when you move around it. When displaying it, I wanted to think about how the light changes and shimmers when you move around the piece. When placing it against black vertical slats that are dissecting the fluorescent violet, allows the luminosity of the space behind the painting to push it forward as if it's emerging in front of your eyes. I'm interested in this kind of parallactic effect. 


AMS: Was this something that you were thinking about as you were making the painting, or was this something that came to you as a result of installing the show? 

MA: It was during the installation. I painted the wall fluorescent violet mixed with polymer binders and a cellulose base. I wanted it to be matte so it really rubs against your eyeballs and gives you that intense luminosity and feels otherworldly. It's not a color that you encounter normally. It does exist in nature. A lot of tropical fish and birds will have these kinds of colors, but I think there's something special and magical about it, so I wanted to share it.


AMS: This is a hugely successful installation wall. How were you involved in other ways for the installation of your show? These black walls for your work are really making all of them pop in the same way. 

MA: I knew I didn't want to hang the show on white walls and I had a sense that I wanted it to be Cassel Brown because it has this quality of warmth, texture, and shimmer that feels like it insulates the space. When I've used it on paintings, the way it absorbs light feels interesting because of its surface and its texture. If it's not mulled properly, you get a lot of cast shadows, so I wanted to think about a space that could absorb not just the light, but also the shadows. There's a lot of color in my work so going from an intense, vibrant painting back to the white of the wall can leave a trace of afterimage that I think is interesting, but can be disruptive when you're viewing a lot of these works together. I wanted to give a point of rest for the viewer's eyes. 

AMS: The trace illusion of the painting on the white wall after staring too long and blinking is perhaps as close as we might get to what you experience in your hallucinations.?

MA: [laughter] Maybe. 


(left to right…)
-“Boundaries” (2022)
63" x 66" x2" pigment, glass, stone chalk, acrylic, cellulose, marker, & pastel on canvas
-“Looking Glass” 62 × 62 x 2" pigment, stone chalk, glass, acrylic, cellulose, airbrush, marker, & pastel on canvas
-“Gate” (2021) 64x64 x 2" pigment, stone chalk, acrylic, cellulose, wood, airbrush, marker & pastel on reverse canvas

Images courtesy of the gallery taken by Chanel Matsunami

“Rain” (2023)
60 × 48 x1" - pigment, glass, stone chalk, acrylic, cellulose, marker, & pastel on canvas

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