Donald Moffett

January 11, 2021

Since cake decorating led him to take up painting in 1994, Donald Moffett’s materially suggestive surfaces of extruded pigment and poured resin have addressed environmental collapse and political turmoil. But the artist, AIDS activist, and former Gran Fury member’s current exhibition, “The Hollow,” at Marianne Boesky Gallery’s Aspen location, circles back to pandemic time, when, once again, a virus has made touch deadly. Though our current crisis has traded the overt stigmatization of AIDS and its communities for a more collective-minded “we are in this together” spirit, the US government’s catastrophic failure and inaction persist. After spending most of the quarantine in Central Texas, away from the “great Atlantic breeze” of his Staten Island studio, Moffett talks about the politics of sterility then and now, and his recent perforated paintings, which, to the mischievous eye, resemble glory holes.

UNTIL THE AIDS COALITION to Unleash Power (ACT UP) insisted that it would not be, the AIDS crisis was certainly a much more private catastrophe than Covid-19. Back then, the person sitting next to you on the train was either absolutely oblivious to your cause, was aware but didn’t care, or ran away. Early on there was a great lack of media coverage of AIDS. ACT UP functioned as a clearinghouse of information. Everything was grassroots and we were desperate to be educated. We would bring in Xerox copies of news articles and updates on the latest research and pass them around. Even though Covid is much more in people’s consciousness, there are again great political divides: between those who must risk their health and those who can afford to isolate, and between those who wear a mask and those who refuse, which is a tension I’ve been witnessing here in Texas, and everywhere really.

I started the “glory hole paintings” in this new show before the pandemic, but my intention in pursuing them has changed, to some degree. There’s no worry of Covid in a glory hole, where breathing takes place on opposite sides of the wall. But masking is another form of anonymity—less sexual, maybe mysterious, but still very heightened in a social context. This virus is about the mouth and the nose, not the genitals. Sterility is again politicized, but operates in a different way. When I first started making the glory hole works in the show, right before the pandemic, it was, for lack of a better term, a more emotionally open situation where the works’ sexuality was raw and more direct. Since then, they’ve blossomed somewhat; they’ve gained a floral aspect—the sex of botany. A couple of pieces allude to a guttural moan. You can choose to read them as being about genitalia, or nostrils, or the throat. There’s a uvula there, if you want to see it that way. Even “The Hollow”—the title of this show—has expanded from referencing a fuck hole to evoking a broader take on nature (which includes fucking).

Lately we have been witnessing an outpouring of compassion toward one another as much as toward climate and the environment, which have long been parts of my work. Like art, science is a slow-moving discipline. I’ve always been concerned about the split between the two, how they’re not able to regroup, reformulate, or sit next to each other comfortably. My investment in climate change has not changed much since the pandemic hit because the two are intertwined. On top of the crisis that has been going on for decades, add mismanagement, bad politics, and incomplete science. Covid is just a subset of a larger aberration in nature with people as vector.

The tactile impulse of my extruded paintings comes out of my intention to intrude further into the viewer’s space—literally and physically. I wanted to push them off the wall in a slight show of aggression. This doesn’t negate their bodily warmth. Everything in this show is off the wall. My decision to maintain a stringent language of Minimalism and monochromatism helps me narrow down incredibly broad global and biological issues into very specific shapes, forms,  colors. Epoxy resin has a baffling depth effect in person. My assistants and I achieve that by laying down a layer of paint, doing multiple pours of resin on top, and in certain works darkening the subsequent tinting of the resin. The result is translucency and material buildup, maybe only by an eighth of an inch, but within that, serious visual depth opens up. The surface splits both ways: it can be the chroma of drying blood, or the antiseptic beauty that is inherent to resin.

I numerically name the works after the dates I start them to mark their initial moment of intent, maybe even as proof of the days that roll out across a lifetime. I fix a point in time so that the social, political, and broader historical considerations of the artwork can always be located.

Regarding histories, I will always advocate and believe in being on the street—because it’s a winning strategy.

— As told to Osman Can Yerebakan