This is the last week to see L.A.-based artist Mark Hagen’s solo show “The Big Hole” at Marlborough Chelsea, up through April 23. The exhibition title illustrates the show’s organization around archeological screens—a porous barrier that controls movement but remains transparent—an object that is both seen and seen through. Hagen’s centerpiece is a built floor-to-ceiling aperture made of aluminum and titanium that has been anodized and consequently colored, using a combination of soft drinks and electricity. Whitewall was curious to ask Hagen how he came up with this very peculiar process.
WHITEWALL: How did you start making this work?
MARK HAGEN: About five years ago I started a body of work in which materials determined color and I started getting curated in these shows that were about monochrome. But I wasn’t particularly interested in the monochrome, and I didn’t think my work was addressing the monochrome. So I set out to purposely introduce color to the practice but it had to follow certain guidelines. I didn’t want to go to the store and just buy a can of green. I had to make color—open up the “black box” of color so to speak.
I spent about a year researching color, and spent about six months creating my own pigments. I started out with this one pigment called Egyptian blue. It’s the world’s oldest synthetic pigment (5000 years old); a scientist in Berlin reversed engineered it from some samples in a tomb and published the recipe online. I recreated it in the studio with an assistant using a special kiln. We successfully got it but were unable to get large quantities, so it was a dead end. I kept on researching and I found this blog for camping and mountain biking enthusiasts who used titanium carts in a lot of their gear because it’s lightweight and strong but they were complaining about losing their tent sticks or losing their parts when they had a crash. One guy wrote, “Well, you can color them using electricity and Coca-Cola.” They didn’t really explain why, but they explained how: by using 9-volt batteries and Coco-Cola. This was a revelation. It wasn’t just one color it was all the colors—not necessarily all of the tones, like adding black or white—but all the colors. I went down that road and started anodizing titanium starting with wire and scaling it up to strips of titanium to make the frames and then larger sculptures using big sheets.
WW: So, that’s how you do your frames, but what about the rest of the painting?
MH: The support is burlap, which is kind of re-examining a fundamental, as it is a precursor to canvas. It’s a lot less refined; you can easily see its material origin and twigs. I was interested in its instability because it changes color if it’s exposed to light. It’s almost like a photogram. You can create these very crude photograms with burlap by basically exposing it to light. That’s what I was originally doing, exposing them to sunlight to create these images with it. It was this way of introducing image-making into the painting without having to pick up a brush.
Before the burlap I was making these trompe-l’oeil oil paintings and after there was a break because of the 2008 recession. I was here in New York and I saw the Lehmann Brothers New York Times cover with people carrying their stuff out of the building and that same week the Damien Hirst skull with diamonds was up for auction and had set a record price. It was this crazy disparity and I was so grossed out by the material, the bling that was in the art world, so this was a kind of a “fuck you.” It was pathetic and unrefined.