artist conversations

Robert Kelly writes to Ashley Garrett's "Melding Madrigal"

 
Melding Madrigal , 2018, oil on gessoed paper, 11 x 8.5 in.

Melding Madrigal, 2018, oil on gessoed paper, 11 x 8.5 in.

MELDING  MADRIGAL

                                   from & for Ashley Garrett

The painting is as clear

as the morning daylight

it reveals the creation of,

the world of forms pouring

out of clouds,

                            birth of a world.

 

But what does the painter mean

by the words she knows the painting by?

Melding seems to be the first word

and madrigal is certainly the second.

 

Meld seems to be a term from poker

where all your cards in get displayed,

your power manifest,

showing your hand—

                                   from German melden,

‘to announce, proclaim’.

 

But in our American ears

it sounds like melting,

reminds us of colored wax

dripping slow down the candlestick,

crayons, mixing colors,

blending.   

                     We think it means blending.

I hear the German word, though,

and know it means

the Hidden Deity

is proclaiming the actual,

this visible world.

  

Madrigal is harder—

is it the strict

 polyphony of creation?

All our loves and sciences

to chart, chant, cherish

the trillion voices of its structure,

and maybe colors are

 the melody we hear best?

 

Madrigal I forms madre,

the matrix, the mother,

cosmos of all living,

                                          the womb-song,

wild hymn of what we are.

 

She makes us hear it in the swirl of now.

 

                                   -Robert Kelly

                                   10 December 2018

 

A poem for "Velamen" by Robert Kelly

 
Velamen , 2018, oil on paper, 6 x 4 in.

Velamen, 2018, oil on paper, 6 x 4 in.

Children worship the sun,
think it is something to eat,
something they could eat
if they could get it out of the sky
that blue mother, who keeps
fruit and cake and sprinkles
out of our hands, children
are always hungry, we are
always hungry, we try to gorge
on music and language,
on touching each other softly
but the hunger lasts, at least
we have colors to play with,
coax them with our red mouths.

--Robert Kelly

27 January 2018
for Ashley Garrett

 

Interview with Brenda Goodman

By ASHLEY GARRETT, MARCH 2015

Brenda Goodman is a painter living and working in Pine Hill, New York. Born in 1943 in Detroit, Michigan, she attended the College for Creative Studies from 1961 to 1965. After a number of successful shows in Detroit, she moved to New York City in 1976 and was included in the 1979 Whitney Biennial. Since 1973 she has had 35 solo shows and her work has been included in over 200 group shows in galleries and museums throughout the United States, including Edward Thorp Gallery, Nielsen Gallery, John Davis Gallery and Pamela Auchincloss Gallery. Her work has been reviewed in many publications including the New York TimesArt in AmericaThe New Yorker, the Los Angeles TimesHuffington Post, the Brooklyn Rail and most recently in a review by John Yau for Hyperallergic. She received two New York Foundation for the Arts grants and the National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Agnes Gund Collection, NY; the Carnegie Museum of Art, PA; the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Birmingham Museum of Art, AL; the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, MI; and the Elaine L. Jacob Gallery of Wayne State University, Detroit, MI. Recent exhibitions include “Another Look at Detroit” at Marlborough Chelsea/Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York, NY in 2014, solo shows at John Davis Gallery in 2014, 2012, 2010 and 2008 and an upcoming retrospective at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan in 2015. Her work is currently on view in her solo show, Brenda Goodman: New Work, at Life On Mars Gallery in Brooklyn, New York through April 19th and also in the American Academy of Arts and Letters Invitational Exhibition through April 12th, 2015. Goodman is the recipient of a 2015 Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

 
Brenda Goodman at the American Academy of Arts and Letters Invitational Exhibition with Stone Memories, 2014, oil on wood, 72 x 80 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Brenda Goodman at the American Academy of Arts and Letters Invitational Exhibition with Stone Memories, 2014, oil on wood, 72 x 80 inches. Courtesy the artist.

 

Can you talk a little bit about the work in terms of the paintings that you’ve put together for this show, how you see it as a group?

I’ll tell you why these in particular, it’s because these are the only ones I have! I had a show at John Davis Gallery in July 2014 and in the fifteen minutes before the show opened, almost all of the sixteen paper pieces sold. Some of the people who bought them were old friends, some of them were new people, some of them were friends who had never bought my work before, and then the paintings started to sell, so by the end of that show there was one painting left and one paper piece.

Brenda Goodman: New Work  installation view at Life On Mars Gallery, Brooklyn, NY, April 2015. Courtesy the artist and Life On Mars Gallery.

Brenda Goodman: New Work installation view at Life On Mars Gallery, Brooklyn, NY, April 2015. Courtesy the artist and Life On Mars Gallery.

Wow, that’s great!

A little while after that, I think in the fall, Michael David offered me a show after looking at my website, which was wonderful and amazing. So I had that scheduled, and since I had nothing left in my studio, I started painting. I had to create a whole new body of work since September or October, and I did. I made nine paintings and ten 6 x 8 inch oil on paper pieces. Call me focused, call me very intensely focused! I was planning on three big ones for Michael and then the ones that were picked for the Academy were three big ones and so it was like – I’m just so sorry I’m having these problems!! So that’s why these particular paintings are on the wall, because these are the ones that I’ve done. Some people don’t believe I did them all in seven months.

Everyone does it differently.

Everyone does it differently, yes. I think one of the things that makes it go a little bit better then someone who hasn’t painted as long is that in 50 years I’ve learned a lot of things not to do. I’ve already gone through a lot of things that I know won’t work, although every painting has it’s little moments where you have to let go and give it over and surrender, but it’s not fraught the way it used to be. When you’ve painted a long time you get to know what mud is, and I know how to avoid it, stuff like that.

I started art school in Detroit in 1961, and that was for four years, since then I’ve had a serious studio practice. There were two times when I didn’t go in the studio for about 9 months. The first time was when I tried quitting a three-pack-a-day cigarette smoking habit, and there was no way I could be in my studio.

Why not?

Because the association of smoking and looking at paintings and working was huge! I was a chain smoker, so I had to not work until I was free of the feeling that I needed a cigarette, and then I was fine. And the other time was more recently when our 15-year-old dog died. Even though I’ve always painted my pain–if I have a signature it’s that– whatever I go through on some level, I paint. But when she died, I just couldn’t even do it. So I didn’t. And then I did go back.

I think it’s really interesting when you respect what your pain is asking for, or your process, and when something in you doesn’t want to work right then, that’s a thing that’s really interesting to listen to. Even when you think you should be working or doing and actually to just take the time off, it’s a risk.

You have to trust that. To do this amount of work in seven months is pretty amazing, and when I work I’m extremely focused and I get a lot accomplished, but when something’s going on, like when I quit smoking, I just cried a lot for all those months and released feelings that the cigarette smoking covered up. And the association was so strong to sitting and smoking and drinking coffee and looking at the painting, there was no way I could do it. So it was interesting when I went back to it and decided I wanted to do some free automatic writing just from my unconscious and a whole new series of wonderful abstractions happened, they were from 1985, I was showing with Ed Thorp at the time, I loved doing those. Something opened up, but I do trust the whole process. And more recently when my dog died – I still can’t talk about it, it’s still so hard. I couldn’t paint. But nine months later I finally did a painting where she was on a blanket after she died. It was one of my self portraits, it’s called Quandary and I’m looking out and I didn’t know where I was going to go with my work, what I was going to do but it was a beginning to enter the work again.

 
Quandary, 2011, oil on wood, 72 x 72 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Quandary, 2011, oil on wood, 72 x 72 inches. Courtesy the artist.

 

We moved upstate five years ago, and that was a huge change to my work.  My partner’s son died, and that was nine months from beginning to end, and it changed our lives as something like that does.  We’d always come up during the summer and I’d paint in my studio, and then lug everything back to the Bowery with four flights of stairs, and then in June, we’d go back to Pine Hill and paint for the summer, and that’s what we did for a long time.  But then when Jon died, we decided just to stay upstate.  So we left everything in the loft, we only had what we would take for the summer, just my paints and some clothes, everything else wasn’t touched for a year in the loft, we never even went back.  It was amazing how you can do with so little when you think you need so much and now it’s my full time studio!  We settled into a life upstate and got my studio renovated and heated and insulated and now it’s my full time studio.

Although there’s more of a community for artists and painters up there now.

That may be, but I live in a pretty rural area.  Although I have a couple painting pals and we share our work on a regular basis. My whole life I’ve been identified as a painter and it took a while when we moved up here to adjust to the fact that I’m just Brenda, and to let go of the other identity a little bit.

Two years ago – I’m bringing you right up to date – I weighed 185 pounds.  I lost 70 pounds.

 
Soul Talk, 2014, oil on wood, 48 x 64 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Soul Talk, 2014, oil on wood, 48 x 64 inches. Courtesy the artist.

 

So now having lost the weight, something happened, because this time I’ve kept the weight off for almost two years and I haven’t done that before, I’d always lose it and then put it right back on.  It gave me a confidence internally, the confidence was always in my work, but not in me necessarily.  I held back – I wasn’t animated, I wasn’t playful, I joke around and I’m lighter now than I ever was before in my life because something shifted, having dropped all that weight.  And in the process the work shifted.

I was definitely going to say something about the palette shift in the paintings here…

The fine line between horror and humor is never going to go away in my work, because I spent my whole life on the dark side!  But it’s definitely lightened up and it’s more animated to some extent.  So when I started these paintings I just said each one’s going to be what it’s going to be, I never repeated myself over and over anyway in my work, and so every one of them is different, although you could look at some of these and see a connection to something that I did in the 70’s or when I was in school, it’s all so connected to me.

With the paper pieces, do you work on them at the same times as the paintings?  Or are they a separate practice?

I’ve gotten into a kind of routine, I do a body of work and then just sit down and enjoy doing the small scale paper pieces.  With the paintings I’m always standing and moving.  But with the works on paper I set up a different palette.  I did all of these works on paper for the Life On Mars show after the paintings were finished, so they were the last things for the show.

Sometimes my paper pieces don’t always connect to the paintings in the show, but in this particular show what pleases me is that the paper pieces really lock into the paintings.  The paper pieces from my last show at John Davis had a whole variety of things going on, and in these they’re really more connected to the paintings, which really pleases me.

And they also look like they’re a little more abstract, so in each one you’re got a very particular kind of invention.

 
Soul Talk, 2014, oil on wood, 48 x 64 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Soul Talk, 2014, oil on wood, 48 x 64 inches. Courtesy the artist.

 

Right, these are actually more abstract.  Some of the ones at John Davis did have specific figures in them.

What was your first encounter with art? How did you know or discover that you were an artist?

I didn’t know when I was really young – it started in high school, I started drawing and then I started taking a drawing class at the Society of Arts and Crafts in Detroit, now called the College for Creative Studies. I did that for a little while in high school, and I got a scholarship to go there full time. I wasn’t even sure I was going to be a painter, I was doing sculpture, painting, and ceramics, and then it became clear that I was going to paint. So from ’61 to ’65 I went to school, and I taught there for a little bit. But I knew after that I knew if I didn’t quit I would probably still be there because that seems to happen to people. So I quit and I’ve been doing this for 50 years.

During your opening someone mentioned that the heavy black shapes in this painting (Soul Talk) are based on your early sculptures – that you were painting the sculptures into images. Is that something that you’ve done?

Those particular heads have come and gone for a long time in my work. When I first moved to New York, I had only lived in Detroit. I moved here and I didn’t do what I should have done which was to get a job and network right away, I sort of stayed by myself and there was a four year period where I felt pretty alone and isolated. I did some sculptures – they were sort of reflective of how I was feeling at the time. These beings that couldn’t really look out or look in. I used tar and feather on them, I still own one, but they were pretty intense.

What’s interesting is that certain things come back in the work, and it may not exist for ten years and then all of a sudden it pops back in and it feels so familiar, and then of course if I go back into my work, I say yes, I can see that connection. It’s because they mean something, and other times I use a shape that I’m just crazy about and resonate with and then I never see it again. And I find that so interesting! If you walk on the beach with someone, you might pick up certain stones you love and you resonate with, and the person you’re with picks up entirely different stones, why is that?

 
3 Sculptures, 1977, canvas strips, tar, string, wire mesh, approx. 67 x 12 x 11 inches. Courtesy the artist.

3 Sculptures, 1977, canvas strips, tar, string, wire mesh, approx. 67 x 12 x 11 inches. Courtesy the artist.

 

Something I really love about this work is that you seem very emotionally present in each one, I feel like you as a human being are putting yourself in a very vulnerable place with each one in a very particular way. I’m wondering if there was a decision on your part to put yourself out there in the painting or if that naturally developed?

That’s an excellent question because it does come up. I think there was only one time I felt some vulnerablility when I did a series self portraits from 1994. These self portraits – I still have one, no one can take it away from me. I could have sold it ten times by now. I’m learning, it’s still hard for me, to hold on to certain paintings for myself. Sometimes I’ve bought them back at auction and they’ve cost me five times more than what the person paid for, and I’m buying them so it doesn’t seem right!

When I did this series, I weighed 210 pounds. I had just come off of doing about ten years of the abstractions that I was talking about after I quit smoking, and it just wasn’t giving me what I wanted after a while. Abstraction for me is so loose and free and comes from another place but after a while it leaves that personal element out. So I wanted to deal with my weight, and I wanted to have something I could look on and reflect on where I was at. And these pieces certainly did do that! Then I did lose the weight, although I put it back on afterwards, but nevertheless, when I was showing these paintings, I was very heavy, but I didn’t feel as vulnerable as I did when I made the ones from 2003 to 2007. First of all they were more naturalistic, and I did four of these self portraits with a mask covering my head. Because I was so vulnerable and felt shame about my body but after four of these I took the covering off my head.

My mother was very critical of everything, she was not a warm and fuzzy mother. She would criticize everything I did but she also saved all the cards I sent her, so I got to see them after she died. There was one I found that I had written when I was fourteen years old, in it I said: “Maybe I’d be nicer and everything would be nicer if you didn’t criticize everything.” And what fourteen year old says that to their mother?! But when I saw that card it reminded me even back then that I’ve just always said what I felt. And sometimes I say way too much how I feel and I get in trouble. As David Brody said the catalogue essay, I wear my heart on my sleeve. I just say how I feel. And sometimes it’s very admirable because a lot of people don’t do that, or they fake it and they say things they don’t mean, and sometimes it puts me in the position of being too outspoken or demanding or whatever. But it’s who I am. And in my work I’ve always dealt with what was going on in my life. People say my paintings are so from the heart. I used to give intensives to people who had creative work blocks. And I was really good at intuiting people’s issues of what’s causing those blocks. And it’s usually that they won’t go to the dark side in their work. They’d rather paint nice.

 
Self Portrait 4, 2004, oil on wood, 64 x 60 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Self Portrait 4, 2004, oil on wood, 64 x 60 inches. Courtesy the artist.

 

I like that expression, ‘paint nice’!

Paint nice – like getting praise, or nice colors, or it looks like something, it’s realistic, or something like that. I’d say – what’s the worst experience you’ve ever had? It often has to do with your mother for some reason, and I’ll say let’s paint that. And people will react: “I can’t paint that! That would be awful!” Like they would die if they painted what they felt. And I always said no, unless you can go there – you don’t have to stay there, like I have for so many years – but if you go there you can come back and paint how you want to paint, but it won’t be out of fear anymore.

I don’t get in front of a painting and think I’m going to be open or I’m going to be vulnerable or I’m going to be light or I’m going to be pretty or I’m going to be sad, it’s so who I am to the core. What I don’t like about work is when I look at it and there’s a wall between me and it. And that’s what happens when I do the intensives with people who have creative blocks, that wall is going to disappear the wall between the painter and the viewer. Everyone comes from a different place and there’s great things in the different ways people work. But I can always spot when someone has this wall. I strive in my work to have no wall between my painting and the person looking at it. You should want to be seen! I mean, what’s the point, what’s the wall for? Who are you? Be vulnerable! When people see my work it feels real to them, it’s not bullshit, it’s from the heart, there’s no barrier between me and them. When you meet me, who I am is what you get. I don’t have that kind of facade.

I’d love to talk a little bit about the mesh form in this painting (Almost A Bride) and how it developed. In this one it looks like its moving away from a kind of architectural structure and becoming more like a mesh or a screen, there’s an all-over quality to it, it seems closer in proximity to the picture plane and has all these wonderful variations in these kind of patchy forms.

The first one on which I started to use that kind of grid was in Soul Talk, it just sort of happened in that painting when I squeezed the paint out of a small squeeze bottle. I just started doing it and let it happen and I really really loved it. This was the first one where I really went crazy with the grid. I just really love it! And what it actually means, I don’t know. Sometimes, most of the time, I have no idea. All I know is when it works. And if something works, then I know it’s right!

 
Almost A Bride, 2015, oil on wood, 80 x 72 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Almost A Bride, 2015, oil on wood, 80 x 72 inches. Courtesy the artist.

 

In every one of these paintings I start by filling up the surface with marks and then I look at it and find some shapes, and then it just starts taking off and becoming it’s own life force.  In this one (Moma…Please), the marks on the whole right side then became part of the finished painting.  In some of them it’s completely hidden, you don’t see those original marks anymore.  And in that one, there’s still some.  So that’s the beginning point, and that’s why I think every one is so different, because the marks are different and then I interpret them differently in each painting.

In this painting (Stone Memories) there is the original gesture, and I put some washes over it and then it looked like a figure which seemed important.  And then when the other shapes emerged, I knew it was a mother and child at that point.  And that’s how it got the title “Stone Memories.”  In a lot of my work I have an observer that’s watching and there’s a balancing act that’s going on–

And a pulling or resistance…

Yes, I like those dualities.  In my last show I did a couple of small ones with the grid, and then I moved into these new paintings.

I thought Almost A Bride was finished in an earlier stage. It was more of a cross form, it had a figure, but a few people saw it and I got a ho-hum reaction. I usually pay attention to people’s reactions, if one person doesn’t like it and five people do, I’ll listen to it but I’ll go with what I feel. But for this one there were a few people who just didn’t respond well to it and then I looked at it and it I knew I hadn’t developed it enough. It was a cross but I knew it didn’t have the complexity I wanted. I felt like I could do more to it. So I went into Photoshop and I started experimenting with how to change it, Photoshop is very helpful to work out some ideas. And I decided to rework it. So I got rid of the arms of the cross…It got me mad that I didn’t see it myself!  Because most of the time I see these things myself.  But I changed it and I worked on it, and look what I got!

As far as the screen form goes–I wanted to emphasize it more, I wanted that form to be more dominant.  And then all those formal decisions – my work is as much about emotion as it is about formal issues. (I have a very traditional background, my painting teacher wouldn’t let us use paint for the first six months, we had to use thumbnail sketches and then we had to use earth colors and then eventually we were allowed to use color.)  I learned the fundamentals of painting inside and out and I still believe in them.  And I always use deKooning as an example. You can be as free and emotional as you want but then you have to go in and light up your cigarette and make some formal decisions!  Those clean, sharp lines, like in the women series, those were there to clarify the chaos around it, they were very intellectual, formal decisions.

Those paintings had both the emotional and the formal held really intensely together, you could feel the painting-mind at work and the thinking through but that didn’t cloud or distance that feeling of fear of women, the mother issues, those were all right at the surface.

That was the initial impulse, but then he sat back and said okay, there’s areas here where I have to make this a better painting, it can’t just be about this – although he would probably deny all those things you said–

It’s all over that work!

Yes, those are important things!  And I think you see so much work now that lack depth and rigor. There’s not a lot revealed.  No risk, no presence, just tossing one out after another, posting eight of them a day to social media, and getting the wows and going onto the next, and I hate that.  It has to be more than that.

My life has been full of people who feel they receive something from my work.  I did a series of empty room paintings in the ’80’s and they always had a little chair in it or a little something to say this is the story, and then there was one where it was completely empty with only a small shape and there was an opening and light coming in and onto the floor, it was very simple.  And a friend of mine, who was dying of bone cancer bought that painting, she said that it gave her a place where she felt peaceful.

And I thought at that point that I could throw my brushes away!  I’ve arrived at something important.  And I guess I just feel that there’s so much work that’s just empty.  There’s nothing there and there’s no risk, just ‘nice.’ And I think how long it took me in years to let go of a precious shape in a painting–you’ll relate to this, every artist will relate to this–you work around it and you work around it and you change this and you say to yourself – that area, I can’t let go of that area, it’s just so wonderful, everyone is going to love it, and I love it!  And you go nowhere with this painting until you’re ready, and then you eventually have to give up that shape, and as soon as you give up that shape, guess what–

Haha, the painting gets a lot better!

The painting finishes itself in 10 minutes—and you feel like “oh, how did that happen?  What’s all this called?”  It’s called trust and surrender.  And so, in the old days when I would have one of those areas it would sometimes take a week or a month to give it up because there’s so much will involved.

It takes a lot of artists even longer than that!

Yes, and then once you give up that area and it all falls in place, then you say: “oh, I wonder if I’ll do that again!”  And it happens again and it stills takes a long time to give it up, and you’ll say to yourself, “it happened again!”  And so fifty years later, when that happens to me, I know in a matter of minutes, maybe an hour, and then I know what I have to do.  I think one of the most important processes of being an artist is how long it takes you to let go of your ego and surrender to the piece and trust that it’s going to be a better painting, and that’s huge.  How long does it take you?

It depends on the painting.

How old are you?

I’m 30, about to be 31.

I’m 41 years older than you.  So how long does it take you?

It depends on each one.

Well, approximately.

Each one is pretty different, but I’d say a week, two weeks, a month or so – it’s a whole range.

But you know the feeling.

Oh yeah, of course!  It’s obnoxious.  But it’s really interesting too because it also feels like the key to the painting.  And so much of it is like, as you’re saying, dancing around resistance, but in paying attention to that you may end up with some other interesting things. It’s always in the back of the mind, knowing that you’ll have to go there eventually, but I’m not quite ready or I don’t feel like it, or I know it’s going to be a battle–

You can talk yourself out of it, it’s easy to do.

There was one painting that I did in ’85 that was in a show at Ed Thorp’s, and the whole painting was almost done, it was just one area that was not working and I was afraid to do anything to it, and yet I didn’t like it.  I felt like I was in the darkest hell that one could possibly be in–the abyss was so dark and so deep and I didn’t think there would be light at the other end of it, although there always is, I didn’t think there would be light, and once I let it go it fell into place and that’s painting is called the Breakthrough–

It’s so educational, having those experiences, and they’re not all like that.

Of course not.  That painting sort of painted itself.  Some of these paintings don’t paint themselves.

Do you work with palette knives in addition to brushes? The textures of these paintings are so varied.

When I was a student I wanted to experiment with different textures and materials right from the beginning. And I would take all these notes on all these materials that I used to mix in the paint and through the years it’s just sort of become my specialty. I wanted to experiment with as many different tools and stuff to do my paintings because I feel that the more ways you can handle the paint with as many tools as possible you have more ways to communicate your feelings. I also want people to think they’re as wonderful close up as they are far away. Sometimes if you only know how to use wash brushes and make pretty skies and you want to make a dark intense something-or-other, how are you going to do it? You have to stop your practice and go learn a new technique, which might take a day or it might take two years. I don’t want to do that, so I learn all these things as I go along.

There was a series of big triptychs I did in 2002 that have a lot of washes—I was watching television and happened to see a program about home and gardening, there was a woman on a ladder with one of those foam rollers and she was painting bamboo leaves. So the next time I went to the hardware store, I got a couple of those. And all of a sudden all this new stuff started to happen in the work, like I was able to put a warm and a cool wash wet in wet in a whole different way. So over the years I’ve built up techniques and tools, for those thick marks I have cake decorators with different tips and I have squeegies and I have foam brushes and I have foam rollers and I have Q-tips and I have palette knives—I just use whatever I feel I need to use. Also I mix pumice and ashes from our wood stove into some of the surfaces. I use whatever I think is going to work emotionally—like for these grid forms/screens, I squeezed the black out of a small plastic bottle.

I can really tell!

But I knew it was going to create a certain feeling, so I had to do it. And contrast is extremely important to me too. Busy, active, surface variation–all those formal things, thin, and thick. When I was a student I would paint one side of a wall with sand and the other I would glaze, and yet visually it held together, and that was a real challenge. And I still think about things like that—how many different things can I do and still make it visually work and create the feeling that I want? So materials and tools have always been a really important part of my process, I spend a lot of time preparing my studio setup. I have really thin white oil paint, I have thicker white paint, so it’s all ready to use as I need for a particular painting.

Is there a risk of taking the emotional/feeling part of making these painting too far and into a kind of therapy? Is it about changing how you feel or is it about working through or resolving it or is it something else?

Good question. No one’s ever accused me of using my work as therapy.

It came up in one of your other interviews from 2010, the one with David Brody for Artcritical. You were talking about this painting (Self Portrait 16, 2005), and he said: “It’s refreshing to hear an artist so committed to the painting process and the materials of painting talk about a therapeutic value to art…” So I was wondering about that, do you feel like when you’ve worked on something that it’s solved therapeutically for you?

It’s happened a couple of times. Sometimes early on some people said I was using art as a cathartic thing, because it was right on the edge. There’s only been two times when my painting changed something in me. I wish it was more often but I guess that’s not bad in terms of one’s work.

One was when my mother died on my birthday when I was 29 and she was 52. When I turned 52 I got really angry at her because I was afraid I was going to get everything she had, because those are what genes do. I started to do a series of paintings that I thought were going to be very angry and ugly, and all of a sudden I was using all these bright colors and I had no idea where all of that was coming from! And my mother loved color and I didn’t. I was using a lot of praying figures at the time and I was also anchoring in a combination of the abstract and the figurative. So I started using all these colors and I thought, “this isn’t right, these are supposed to be dark and ugly!” And then I realized that when I was doing them that the color was for my mother. Something released in me, and the series became “Songs for My Mother” instead of “You Bitch,” or whatever else. I never felt that particular anger or resentment or fear of her illnesses again. It released me of feeling all of that.

And then the second time was that painting, Self Portrait 16—she was not a warm, affectionate mother. Her own mother died when she was five years old, she was raised by her sisters, I never touched anyone or hugged anyone either, and I was just like her. She got lung cancer and when she was dying in bed in the hospital, I didn’t even know to be able to sit down next to her and hold her hand. So that little character at the end of the bed, that yellow one, was me watching her. She had an oxygen thing over her and she died. And it was in this series in 2005 where I finally dealt with that, I wanted to paint that. And recreate it and see if I could heal it. So I painted that painting and put myself next to her bed and held her hand. With the other character still there just watching, but it healed something in me. I couldn’t do it while she was alive.

 
Self Portrait 16, 2005, oil on wood, 48 x 40 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Self Portrait 16, 2005, oil on wood, 48 x 40 inches. Courtesy the artist.

 

Wow. That’s what is so magical about painting, it can change personal history.

Those two paintings changed me. It brings tears to my eyes even now, because it did do that. I watched people who were able to hold their parents while they were dying, I just couldn’t do that.

But you did get to. Thank you for sharing that, I think that’s amazing. I also think it s a kind of testament to how many people really respond to your work because you’re very direct about that. These are feelings everyone has at some time in their lives–everybody has a mother, everybody suffers, everyone’s parents die at some point—I think it’s a really special thing when you’re able to communicate that to yourself and other people.

Absolutely. People feel it. That’s basically what I do, and it’s also an accumulation of painting for fifty years. When people get frustrated when they’re younger, and they can’t do it, they just haven’t lived long enough yet! The paintings will fill up and develop if you let them, you have to have that whole mixture come into you that you can put in the work. Losing your mother is the biggest thing, you don’t get over it ever. You internalize it and hopefully something comes out that’s meaningful that other people can get something from.

I really enjoyed your essay on the Painters on Paintings blog about Guston, and I’m so sorry to bring up Guston but I can’t help myself…

Go ahead, bring him up!

I know this has come up for you in other situations, the whole question of influence and you probably get really tired of hearing that all the time, but I feel like you’ve integrated him and addressed all of that head-on…

I didn’t always, Ashley. Sometimes, in the 80’s if someone said I see Guston in the work, I would get defensive and say “well if I was older and he was younger you’d say his work is like Goodman!” And I was defensive because I knew he was an artist I resonated with. It wasn’t like he had something and I was taking what he had, I had that in me too. After a while I decided to let go of being defensive so now when someone says they see Guston I just say thank you. I was also Dubuffet for three years when I was a student, every time I picked up a pencil I was Dubuffet. I’m someone who believes in influences and yet sometimes I was wondering where I am in all of that. And I remember my teacher saying “walk like him, talk like him, paint like him, be him” and I started to do that and it finally got out of my system and as long as I was fighting it or fearful of it or reacting to it, it didn’t go away.

That’s the interesting part for me, that you’re not fighting it or trying to get rid of it anymore, you haven’t made Guston into a painting nemesis. You’ve accepted him and moved through him.

Yes, because I think my work has moved on. There was a time when it was more of an issue. I had a lot of telephone anxiety at one time in my life and I did a series of black telephones on a table and a couple of years later I see a book of Guston still lifes and he had a painting of a telephone called “Anxiety.” An identical black telephone! And in a bigger way no one can use red, black, gray and white and not have someone say Guston. I don’t care if you’re doing a photographic vase with flowers, someone will say they see Guston in it. When I quit smoking and I wanted to paint myself with a cigarette, someone came in and said well Guston had—you know the one where he has the cigarette hanging out of his mouth. And I was like “well I’m so sorry, I’ll never do that again!” The work has changed, in the one that was in that “Guston Curse” article, Not A Leg to Stand On, there is a recalling of Guston, but in a very different way, it doesn’t look like a Guston. But it’s always going to be there, as will some of Dubuffet, some of Gorky, some of deKooning and even Morandi who I love more than even Guston, is part of the artists that I carry with me. In Not A Leg To Stand On, after that painting was done I said “Well here we are, me and Mom.” She was so big and I felt like I never had a leg to stand on. She was stretched across the whole thing and then there was this little figure with this head and it had one yellow leg and I said “oh shit, there I am without a leg to stand on.” And I was so excited that I wasn’t even upset, that the painting revealed that to me, I love when that happens, I wish it happened more but when it does it’s just so fulfilling.

It’s great to have some kind of externalized forms for all these massive feelings that can take over and be too heavy.  It takes some of the pressure off.

We’re lucky that we have this, I mean, what do you do if you don’t have this?

What advice would you give to a young artist just starting out?

Learn your craft. Experiment as much as you can, try as many ways of working as you can.  Let yourself be influenced by as many artists as you can.  Take risks, paint mud, paint beauty, paint life, paint death.  Paint your best every day in your studio.  Don’t compromise to others and don’t compromise within yourself.  And always follow your heart and let it take you where you need to go.

Published in Figure/Ground April 11th, 2015

Interview with Katherine Bernhardt

By ASHLEY GARRETT, JAN. 2015

 
Katherine Bernhardt on Instagram

Katherine Bernhardt on Instagram

 

Brooklyn based painter Katherine Bernhardt is well known and loved by both critics and artists for her iconic gestural paintings, which have evolved over recent years from brazen fashion models to textile-based abstractions to patterned pop imagery. I was curious to speak with Bernhardt after critical response  to “The Forever Now” show now on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York mentioned artists, including Bernhardt herself, who may have been included in the show. We spoke via email in December 2014.

You were mentioned in recent press by both Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz about “The  Forever Now” show at MoMA, where almost as much of the coverage has been about  which painters were not included.  It’s an interesting place to be in, being both inside and  outside the conversation about contemporary painting simultaneously. What are your  thoughts on “The Forever Now” show, and what’s your response to the critics? 

Painting is a real art, and it is great to have a show about painting but that show could have been  done five years ago with those artists. All of those artists are already well known and part of the establishment. It’s not really a show about painting today, it’s about painting yesterday. Also, most of the artists in that show are my friends. I like several of the works there. But I don’t care that I’m not in it. Obviously it would be great to be in a show at Moma, but there will be other  shows. There could have been about five more shows since that one about the current state of painting. Also that show is all crammed in it but’s good though that Laura Hoptman gave 50%  of the space to female painters. But since the critics are all talking about how I’m not in that show, it’s like I’ve been reeled into the show anyway. Moma and PS1 should have been doing painting shows constantly. Gavin Brown is doing a big group painting show in January, and he will include much more of what’s really going on in the painting world; it will be much more  inclusive and a reflection of what’s going on in painting today. You can see my work there.

 
Katherine Bernhardt, Valley of the Roses, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy of CANADA.

Katherine Bernhardt, Valley of the Roses, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy of CANADA.

 

Can you talk about your transition from figuration focused on fashion models to abstract patterns based on textiles and collaged with fabric to patterned pop imagery, such as the  work in your last solo show at Canada gallery? What drove this shift for you? 

It just happened naturally. Work evolves. I just get interested in different things. After the fashion model women I made giant Swatches, then I went to Morocco and looked at carpets and saw amazing design patterns and colors in them, and I started painting them. I have a really good quote from the movie Adaptation that kind of explains how you can go from one thing to another, this is the scene: 

Susan (journalist): “So how many turtles did you end up collecting?”
Laroche: “Oh, I lost interest right after that. Dropped turtles when I fell in love with ice age fossils. Collected the shit out of ‘em. Fossils were the only thing that made sense to me in this fucked-up world. Ditched fossils for re-silverin’ old mirrors. Mom and I had the largest collection of 19th c. Dutch mirrors on the planet. Perhaps you read about us: Mirror World, October 1988. I have a copy here somewhere.”
Susan: “I guess I’d just like to know how you can detach from something that you have invested so much of your soul in, I mean, didn’t you ever miss turtles, the only thing that made your ten-year-old life worth living?”
Laroche: “Look I’ll tell you a story, ‘right. I once fell deeply, you know, profoundly in love with tropical fish. Had sixty god-damn fish tanks in my house. I skin dived to find just the right ones. Anasiltriumus virginicus, paulcanfaciliers, traiterdon capostratus, you name it, then one day I say, fuck fish. I renounce fish. I vow never to set foot in that ocean again, that’s how much fuck fish. That was 17 years ago and I have never once since stuck so much as a toe in the ocean, and I love the ocean.
Susan: “But why?”
Laroche: “Done with fish.”
Susan: “If you really loved something, wouldn’t a little bit of it linger…?

Laroche goes from one thing to another, and things evolve naturally through interests, you become less interested in certain things and fascinated with other new things. In my case looking at rugs for so long made the collages happen after looking at tons of shapes. And after  that other things came. From walking around NYC one day I saw graffiti near Union Square, graffiti that included a popsicle, a smiley face, a watermelon, a dollar sign and something else. I thought, wow, that’s a good graffiti and I took pictures of it. So I appropriated those images and then I made paintings in that fashion. The first one I made was of smiley faces, bananas, and it became a crazy smiley face banana painting. I have always tried to use images in my life that I always see. I was trying to make the dumbest or the funniest painting that I could make. The stupidest dumbest craziest and funniest—combining imagery out there from today and based on my love of textiles and patterns and of traditional African fabrics. I love those fabrics, and I wanted it to be something like those African fabrics. So I came up with my idea for my current  paintings. The second one I made was of watermelons and telephones. Overload of imagery in Flatbush, things in my daily street life, African fabrics, Moroccan rugs, graffiti – I put it all in one painting.

 
Katherine Bernhardt, "Stupid, Crazy, Ridiculous, Funny Patterns" Installation View, CANADA, 2014. Courtesy of CANADA, New York, NY.

Katherine Bernhardt, "Stupid, Crazy, Ridiculous, Funny Patterns" Installation View, CANADA, 2014. Courtesy of CANADA, New York, NY.

 

What was your first encounter with painting? 

I made an oil painting in 9th grade in art class at school. It was messy, and I didn’t understand how the paint moved or worked. I only had black, blue and white as colors available, and I  didn’t understand how to make colors, shades or tones. So it was really difficult to make a good picture. In relation to looking at other people’s paintings, as a child I remember being dragged around by my father through museums and churches all around France and Italy. But I don’t remember any of them.  

What are you working on now?

Every second I look at things and think about them. I’m really looking forward to the Gavin Brown show, then I’m doing a major installation in a private collection, and I’m going to have a solo show in September at Venus over Manhattan.  

 
Katherine Bernhardt, Tropical Fruit Salad, 2014, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 78 x 79.5 inches. Courtesy of    CANADA   , New York, NY.

Katherine Bernhardt, Tropical Fruit Salad, 2014, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 78 x 79.5 inches. Courtesy of CANADA, New York, NY.

 

What do you think about the role of painting today?  How does it function now and how do you see it developing in the future?  Do you think there are possibilities left in abstract and figurative painting?

Yes, obviously there are possibilities left in painting. People are inventing new things every day. Painting and drawing is the basis of all art in the world, and it will always be like this, and it is always changing.

Published Jan 2015 in Whitehot Magazine

Interview with Ann Craven

By ASHLEY GARRETT, SEPT. 2014

Ann Craven lives and works between Manhattan and the banks of the Saint Georges River in Maine. With a particular perspective on nature as her subject, Craven’s most recent show that opened at Hannah Hoffman in Los Angeles last weekend brings forward Craven’s point of view of rural nature vs. urban color. In the studio, Craven uses both digital and direct observation as sources for her Moons, Birds and Flower paintings.  She recently had her first retrospective, titled Time, at Le Confort Moderne in Poitiers, France this past summer. Other recent solo exhibitions include Maccarone, New York, and Southard Reid, London. Her work has been exhibited internationally and reviewed in publications including Art in America, the New York TimesArtforumFlash ArtThe New YorkerFrieze and Modern Painters. Her paintings are in the public collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum, the New Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, among others. Craven is represented by KARMA, New York.

 
Ann Craven in her New York studio, November 2012. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio.

Ann Craven in her New York studio, November 2012. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio.

 

When we first spoke on the phone you mentioned the group show you were in that was organized by Retrospective Gallery in Hudson and curated by Erin Falls – the Ambulance Blues show at Basilica Hudson. That show closed mid-August, so I missed seeing it in person, but I did find nice installation pictures online, so I was able to look at those and read a little bit about Erin Falls’ idea behind the show. You mentioned the installation of your moon paintings was a little different for this show – I was really curious about that, knowing how you have shown the time-based moon paintings in a large array. Here you showed only blue moons rather than black moons, and it looks like the blue moons are more of a shortened sequence rather than a long group of the phases of the moon. This feels more like a deliberate sequence. Did you choose this particular sequence of moon images for this show? They all look relatively full. How do you see your work relative to Falls’ conception of the show?

 
Ambulance Blues installation view at Retrospective Gallery at Bascilica Hudson, New York, August 2014. Courtesy Retrospective Gallery.

Ambulance Blues installation view at Retrospective Gallery at Bascilica Hudson, New York, August 2014. Courtesy Retrospective Gallery.

 

It’s interesting that you’re saying that they look as though they are sequential because that group of paintings were painted in two evenings in 2012. I think we gave them to her in the 2012 series, actually from two nights in June of 2012, so I painted one after the other after the other, and I had four or five easels set up. Where I am in Maine you have to catch the moon at a certain time and it’s spectacular! It’s like watching the most amazing performance that’s on this Earth, the moon rising. You have to be ready for it. All the canvases are primed and ready to go in order, and I just grab them and put them on the easel, usually at least two easels going at once if not four, and sometimes I’ll finish one and twenty minutes later I’ll finish the next one, and twenty minutes or an hour later I’ll finish the next one. My titles are the times the paintings were made. Each work describes the exact time I stopped painting, so it’s “Moon (Place, Time), Year.” It’s a system, so the hanging can also be a system.

For that show, the paintings were hung like one long sequential thought. One continuation, but with fragmentation. Erin placed this work within this incredibly heartfelt show – I think the fragmentation of the evening was something so poetic and how occasionally you look up and see the moon if you’re not painting it – most people don’t paint it – but it’s just a documentation of time so it’s a different fragment of different parts of an evening, or a day or a month or a year. So they were hung higher than usual. We discussed that because the space was so huge and high that we decided to hang the paintings a little higher so that people would have to look up instead of just being given the paintings. They’d have to look up as though it was the moon in a physical form.

I was wondering about the title of the show – it made me think of the Neil Young song of the same title, although there was no direct reference to it in the press release, but then in listening to the song again, reading the lyrics and a little bit about it, it totally fits the work. It’s a nine-minute song from the album “On the Beach.” In it there’s storytelling, both personal and cultural trauma, and sequencing, but also how trauma can instigate and develop change on a really fundamental level. I’m just reading the lyrics – and I thought it related to your work in an interesting way:

“I guess I’ll call it sickness gone

It’s hard to say the meaning of this song

An ambulance can only go so fast

It’s easy to get buried in the past

When you try to make a good thing last”

So I was thinking about the way you work, and the repetition of your paintings, and it’s a really nice dovetail into the way you’ve built up these images many, many times. What is the relationship between the past and present for you?

People are being conceived under this moon, people are being born under this moon, people are dying, living, crying – so for me, the moon – I don’t often talk about the emotional side, because it does become a system for me too, I hide in the system. The size is always the same, like a song, a repeated mantra so it’s also like a prayer.

When I say a song I mean I can always revisit it again but it always sounds a little different. It’s something that I know will be there for me always, that I can revisit, and that it will always be both different and the same. I started painting the moon a long time ago and I was very embarrassed about it. I come from an Irish Catholic family in Boston that believed in me so much as a painter. When I told them I wanted to be an architect in college, they were like “Why? You’re a painter! What about the smell of oil paint?” I love my parents so much, I’m so thankful they said that, because what I’m doing now is because of them.

 
Moon (Cushing, 7-21-13, 11:05 PM), 2013, oil on linen, 72 x 72 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

Moon (Cushing, 7-21-13, 11:05 PM), 2013, oil on linen, 72 x 72 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

 

What was your first encounter with painting? How did you become an artist?

I started painting with oils when I was six. Believe it or not, I was given a set of oil paints and canvases and canvases to finish, because my aunt had passed away and my mom naively let me use them. She let me use oil paint and I had to use turpentine, but I had to be but careful enough that it wasn’t a bad toxic experience. It wasn’t like she made me be – oh no, you can’t do that, she was more like, oh yes, you can do that! And not only that, she put me in an art class with adults, so I got to learn how to paint at night with these very intelligent older women who would give me hot chocolate and they would be drinking coffee. I learned about oil painting. I’ve never used acrylic in my life, oil is in my blood, I know it so well. I’ve been painting for a long time, so the subject matter came later but the process was always something that I understood and was almost kind of embarrassed about because I knew so much about oil painting as a kid and into college. I never took it for granted but it was just always there, that I know so much about this material – now what do I do with it. What do you do with it? And that’s a question for every artist, I think.

Exactly. The subject matter has to come out of the paint itself.

Yes! It has to come out of the paint, that’s exactly right. Especially wet on wet – oil paint is so much easier for me than thinking about waiting for layers to dry. It’s so immediate.

Your work is very rich in the handling, the brushstrokes, and the color. You’re working with imagery that might seem sentimental, such as the deer and flowers and birds. You were also saying that you’re interested in systems, and the titling is always important in reading any work, in terms of classifying how to look at it – at what point do these become conceptual paintings? How much is conceptual and how much is it painting because you love painting, using images that might make you vulnerable or taking risks? Are these conceptual paintings? Or are they a balance between conceptual and something else?

Great question. The painting process for me is deep, it’s my blood, so it’s always going to be something that’s so emotional.

It’s so interesting that you asked this question because I really feel that when I fell in love with the work of Agnes Martin, it was because I understood her scheme, a beautiful scheme to kind of turn her back to the world, and be like get out, get away from me, this is my time and my hand going across this canvas. So I really related to that way of thinking. And at the same time, making sense of the lists, I love to make lists and I need lists, I’m a constant obsessive list-maker– my lists are an archival project as well, to archive my body and where I am. The way that I title the moon paintings has everything to do with where I was at that certain moment, and a sequential timing of my presence in this world. In a way it’s a documentation of the fact that I was here.

 
Poppy (Early June, Cushing, 7-2-13), 2013, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Le Confort Moderne, Poitiers.

Poppy (Early June, Cushing, 7-2-13), 2013, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Le Confort Moderne, Poitiers.

 

I think that the conceptual part of my work is going to always be this sort of list-making, and the more emotional will always be the paint, it’s my blood, it’s my heart, it’s my soul, I can’t deny that. So, when I title my work and put it in front of me, I see it also as though it were a diary, because it shows the timeline.

When you’re doing the observational painting, like the moon, and you then repeat those paintings, what is it that you learn in that exchange of information, what is the change that happens between observational experience in the painting, and then repeating the image that’s already been painted, is there anything that you acquire or learn or let go of in terms of your experience in the paint, or information in the image?

That’s really interesting, in a way for me it’s like how a poet revisits a poem, and then wants to change a certain word or a comma or a fluctuation in a sentence or something but then doesn’t. In a way I feel really lucky to be able to revisit something again and again and again, being each time that it’s different – it’s a different time, it’s a different place, it’s a different motion, it’s usually an attempt at all the same colors, although it’s always a different mixture but it’s very similar, and I want always to have that availability to go back and revisit and re-mix a certain color. But – everybody does this! I really feel that every artist, and everybody who is practicing things in terms of form, I feel that people revisit their ideas, you revisit your notions.

I paint from life, like the moon, but each painting is done on the same 14 x 14 inch canvas, so I do have a system there – I have rules that I can break within the surface of the canvas. But by repainting my Puff Puff series of bird paintings, that I revisited many times because it was an interesting subject, I changed the background color, I changed many things in that one series.

 
Ann Craven: Time at Le Confort Moderne, Pointiers, France, 2014, installation view. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Le Confort Moderne, Poitiers.

Ann Craven: Time at Le Confort Moderne, Pointiers, France, 2014, installation view. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Le Confort Moderne, Poitiers.

 

When you’re painting the moon – is it different painting from observation versus painting these pre-established, kind of sweet images of the deer and birds, the found or culled images? What is your attraction to painting those images at the same time as the moon, which has a sort of totemic symbolic quality? How does that relate to the deer and the birds and flowers? I’m referring to the figure/ground relationship between seeing things “in the round” versus flat photographs.

I love to print out images that I like from the internet.I constantly find postcards and I go to postcard shows all over the country when I can find them. It’s one of my favorite pastimes, postcard shows — you’ve got to go sometime, it’s incredible! For me, those images hold so much value for my inspiration.They are flat because they’re reproductions, but they’re reproductions that are sort of off key. I like vintage postcards of birds, because the print quality is off, it’s wonky, it’s not going to be perfect, and I value that. And so I have thousands of images that I save – weekly, monthly, yearly – and I’ll take those images with me in suitcases, I have certain images that I need with me as inspiration that I lay out on the floor. A lot of the flowers from the series of bird paintings that I’ve done have been painted at one time from observation. And I then mediate it myself by printing them out.

It’s like one feeds the other. I grew up painting from observation, and so I learned how to paint in the round, I learned how to paint looking at the glass and seeing the water, seeing the light going through it in three ways, and painting that. And the awe of being able to paint that – I always want that, I need that in my work, and so they both go hand in hand. They have relationships on both ends, all the time.

 
Dear and Daises (Life of the Fawn), 2004, oil on canvas, 72 x 108 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

Dear and Daises (Life of the Fawn), 2004, oil on canvas, 72 x 108 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

 

I was thinking about the repetition and how you were repeating whole shows after years have gone by – repeating series of paintings many times. And then I read that you had a studio fire in 1999, and I was wondering if there was a connection between that and the impulse to repeat your work. Is the subject or purpose of your work to document and preserve memory itself? Is this work about time travel or the refusal to acknowledge the passage of time in the face of terrible loss? Did the fire push you towards wanting to reacquire memory in a different way?

That’s pretty profound stuff you’re saying – do you have like a week or so? Let’s hang out! Then we can really talk and talk!

I hide from the mere fact that somebody might see that and see through it and see through all this repeated stuff to see that I’m acknowledging the passage of time. I’m looking it in the eye and trying to actually come to terms with death and life at the same time. And not go too close to admitting it – you can’t say it, because you don’t know what everything’s like after or before, and if you can grasp it right now in front of you then that’s being in the moment and being in the moment is so scary. Or stillness, quiet, silence, there’s frightful things in silence as well, so I like to think that my work is memory or that I can paint something and I can always revisit that and I don’t have to remember it, I can always remember it if I need to go back to it. The fire was definitely an eye-opener wake-up call to the fact that I am coveting my work again, in the event that this does happen again at least I have another one! But I was making copies before the fire.

As a matter of fact, at the time I was working on a huge series of deer paintings, and one was at a gallery. After the fire everything was gone but one deer painting, titled “Deer and Daises,” which was returned back to me about two months before my first come-back show in 2002. The fire was in 1999, and I was just devastated for a few years. But that deer painting – I repainted that deer painting and had to show it in the show. Then two years later I repainted that whole show and tripled the size of the paintings and hung the paintings in the same place and space. It was again a re-claiming of time and also a passage of time, in itself being that “hello, wake up,” to myself, to the fact that I’d shrunk myself as well, because everything was bigger, the brushstrokes were bigger, all the work was magnified.

I think most human beings are profoundly afraid of change, because as you said, it brings forward the fear of death. I think your work invites a conceptual reading, but also because of the way it’s painted, the feeling with which they’re painted, it’s hard to not see that other side. So I actually don’t think it’s quite as hidden under the conceptual guise. But I do think you’re inviting multiple readings, although you’re touching a very particular nerve of humanity: I don’t want things to change, I want them to stay the same. Stability is so important for human beings.

I grew up in a family from day one where it was always about us not being here — “You know, we’re not always going to be here,” kind of thing, and so it’s in my psyche to always try and hold on to the ‘what’s here.’ The heartfelt stuff is something that I’m almost – you can only show it so much, but as a learning experience for myself, and as a sort of protection element for myself, it’s all of these learned ways to hold on, and give up, and let go at the same time. And it’s so interesting; it does come out of suffering.

 
Ann Craven, installation view at Klemens Gasser + Tanja Grunnert, New York, 2002. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio.

Ann Craven, installation view at Klemens Gasser + Tanja Grunnert, New York, 2002. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio.

 
 
Ann Craven, installation view at Klemens Gasser + Tanja Grunnert, New York, 2004. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio.

Ann Craven, installation view at Klemens Gasser + Tanja Grunnert, New York, 2004. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio.

 

You’ve said that your stripe paintings are coming from your palettes or are your palettes. Why do you make the colors into stripes? What is your interest in transforming them into that particular form?

My palettes are pretty much as close to my gut as you’re going to get, because that’s where everything happens. And it’s something that as I’ve learned as a child, this constant mixing, and making color –what’s a color? And I really understand mixing. I come from a roofing family, so there was a lot of process going on there, and covering – I learned a lot of continuum stuff from my grandfather who had to do the same thing a lot. But the mixing of the palette came from the way that my grandfather would do this black mixing of the tar.

I use small stretched canvases as my palettes because they hold up better. I get these really cheap canvases and put them on my studio table.And I keep the palettes because I always need to revisit the paint, to mix the color again in two years or a year or less. So there again, it’s a list, it’s documentation. My palettes have always been a list. It’s always interesting for me to see my palettes, to see how many I have – I have hundreds of them. For the stripes, I was taking the paint from the palette and making it a line. And making the next color a line, and the next color a line, and the next color a line. So that I could see what I just painted, actually see it, instead of mixed up into the painting. I had just painted flowers or the moon or deer, I had a palette in front of me and the paint came off and went straight onto another canvas, so I could see the color. The mixing of the palette is a very unconscious process and so the stripes will always remain that too. It’s hard – I just want to paint stripes sometimes, and that’s it! Or nothing on the canvas, I’m so jealous of people who do that. So in a way the stripes are the closest I’ve come to of my realization of Agnes Martin’s realization of form and time, so the stripes are pretty potent.

They feel like a nice foil, where they’re related – they look like the same hand when seen together, but maybe not separately. They look like you’re taking a breath from the imagery.

That’s interesting, because it is the last thing I do when I’m working, and I think, “I can make my stripes now.” They’re bands of color, so they’re band paintings.

 
Stripe Triptych (Black, Blue, Purple; Orange, Blue, Brown, 2-01-08; Green, Yellow, Purple, 1-31-08), 2008, oil on canvas, 60 x 148 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

Stripe Triptych (Black, Blue, Purple; Orange, Blue, Brown, 2-01-08; Green, Yellow, Purple, 1-31-08), 2008, oil on canvas, 60 x 148 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

 

That makes a difference in terms of the art historical reference of stripes, where you might end up in the same territory as Daniel Buren with the authority of the stripes. But these don’t look like they’re charting that territory at all.

Exactly, I hear that sometimes from people, because Daniel Buren’s practice was definitely about stripes and about that sort of repeated image, but my stripes which I now call bands, are different because they’re born of the palette, it’s much more about giving birth to the color, or letting it free, rather than containing and going a different route. It’s a totally different process than Daniel Buren sort of gender-oriented work that he did. So this is non-gender, but they are very much about more of a birthing and coming from something else and something so private.

Ann Craven at Maccarone Gallery, New York, 2013, installation view. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

Ann Craven at Maccarone Gallery, New York, 2013, installation view. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

Speaking of abstraction and figuration, because there seems to be and probably will always be, this over-arching conversation about progression in painting, or the death of painting, I’m wondering what your take is on the possibilities in painting in the future or in the present, because it’s always being talked about – what’s allowed in terms of image or in description and detail, in figuration or abstraction. You’re making these very particular figurative paintings and at the same moment painting these other works that feel related but also different, it’s something that might be seen as abstract although you might not see it as abstract, so I’m interested in your take on the future of painting, or the present of painting – what do you think are the possibilities for painting?

Well it’s such a great question Ashley, because you know, sometimes I get really insecure about the idea that it’s just paint, and what am I doing? Why would you be doing this now? And I turned a deaf ear to all that stuff about painting being dead but I always found it so fascinating, the discussion of how that essay has resonated through so many different passages of painting. And it’s really allowed painting to lean on when it was sort of a real statement of death. It’s a very hard question, I think people have to be – and I say this to my students too – if you’re there for any kind of market reasons, painting is something that has to be your life and your blood and you have to live and breathe it and if you’re doing it for any other reason then you have to stop, don’t do it, do something else. I think it all comes out in the wash at the end, you see through things. I mean obviously you believe in painting!

I do, it’s no secret.

Haha! You obviously believe painting is alive and it’s still right here. You’re proof of it.

I think it’s as alive as any of us will allow it to be. Because there are still people my age, younger than me, and older than me, who believe that – and there are – then it will always be around.

Left: Flowers installation view at Maccarone Gallery, New York, 2010. Right: Roses (Black and White Fade), 2010, oil on linen, 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

Left: Flowers installation view at Maccarone Gallery, New York, 2010. Right: Roses (Black and White Fade), 2010, oil on linen, 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

I don’t think it could ever go away. Sometimes I hear on the radio about the idea of something being handmade, and it’s relationship to the digital age now and the screen, and I always laugh because painting is so universally ageless, it can’t possibly go away, because the handmade will always astonish and freak people out, because you have the guts to make something!

Marie Howe, the poet laureate of New York, was talking about homemade food, how that can strike people really intensely – like wow, homemade food! With McDonalds being around and still attracting people but homemade food is always going to be very special.

And the most deeply nourishing thing you could eat, assuming it’s well-made and it’s good, the actual homemade meal, made by whoever it is, with that level of consideration and care, then it feels like the most nourishing item you could put in your body. Like the physical expression of love.  

Yeah – exactly! And it will always shock you that somebody made this amazing thing from hand, in the same way as painting.

I saw your work this summer in a group painting show at Zach Feuer – two of your bird paintings alongside some young artists. And I think you also showed at Essex Flowers recently – because you’ve been showing alongside young artists and in artist-run galleries, I’m curious how you see the dialogue developing between established artists such as yourself and young artists. What do you think established and emerging artists are sharing with each other? Why are you interested in participating in that dialogue?

I love that question! It’s so funny because the majority of these shows that I’m in are because of my former students who are now either running an artist-run gallery or curating an interesting project online. I just find it fascinating to be surrounded by these young thinkers who I worked with lot before they were making their more mature work. Heather Guertin was my assistant for four years and we’ve talked about so many things, and she’s a complete artist from head to toe, but she’s also really caring about what other people in her community are doing. So is Joshua Smith who works with her at Essex Flowers. And Heather is a very clear thinker and in addition to her painting practice she also does performance, which is for me both entertaining and shocking and great, but her paintings are fabulous. Heather doesn’t need to perform, but she does, and I love it! And then at Zach Feuer, one of the curators for that show, Jesse Greenberg, was my student at Columbia. He’s great, he’s running his own gallery, churning new things through painting – and there we go again, painting! But it’s coming out differently. That to me is the painting that’s not going to die, that whole show was Jesse and MacGregor Harp’s thoughts on their own work. They’re coming in the back door, it’s very interesting.

And at the same time they are part of the establishment, because I think some of them are doing art fairs this year, and even last year – but I think that’s really interesting because they’re claiming territory that’s both inside and outside the system, which I think is actually a new idea from plain old rejection or just trying to accommodate what the system already is.

Exactly! I really feel the same way. The art fairs were so poo-pooed by so many of the older artists, like the “I’ll never go to an art fair” kind of thing, and these young artists are embracing that whole system and using it to their best advantage. I love it, it’s fascinating to me to see this.

And speaking of this – what advice would you give to younger artists? Young painters in particular – how to sustain their voice? What would you say to a young painter starting out who is trying to figure out how to be an artist?

I think that as an artist, one knows that there’s a higher sense to what you’re doing and there’s a way to climb in – you either come in through the skylight or you come in through the front door or the back door. You need to get inside the house, or the place where you want to be in terms of your own work. The house is usually a safe place, but if you forget your keys you’ve still got to get inside. So you’re home, you’re inside, but you need to feel that you’re allowed to be someone who’s an artist and not have to hide it. I’m talking about myself in a way because I’m still shy about being an artist – how do you justify it? But there are a lot of young artists who are vulnerable enough to know that it’s not easy, so my advice is if you think it’s easy, then you have to be careful, because you need to be aware that it’s not too fun. But you should try to have fun, and stay true to your soul and yourself, because I think the soul is there, it sticks around, so you should want to make it something that’s physically available to yourself and vulnerable enough to yourself, but also that you know it’s something that’s going to stay if you want it to. By telling your story so many times you can make people believe it whether it’s true or not. The fake story will always come out eventually, but if it’s a real story and you really want it heard, it will get out there.

Published in Figure/Ground Nov. 28th, 2014.

Interview with Lisa Sanditz

By ASHLEY GARRETT, NOV. 2014

Lisa Sanditz spray painting outside her studio in Tivoli, NY. Photo by Tim Davis, courtesy the artist.

Lisa Sanditz spray painting outside her studio in Tivoli, NY. Photo by Tim Davis, courtesy the artist.

AG: When we were scheduling this interview you said you were back and forth between the city and upstate, and that you have your studio there. What do you like about working upstate?

LS: My studio is behind my house in Tivoli, NY. I like walking outside and going right to the studio. When I’m at work in the city, there are so many things that might be happening between my apartment and getting to the studio, I’m always kind of rattled by the time I get there, which I know is a very normal New York experience – passing through many different people and situations. So this is more focused. The studio is not that big actually, but here I get to look at leaves and chipmunks.

AG: In some of your other interviews you’ve told stories behind each painting – if there’s a legend or myth that inspired the work, like the one with the broken heart in the creek, and also with the black balls in the lake – what role does storytelling play in your work? Do you feel that it enriches the paintings when you tell the stories? Do you think the paintings need the stories? 

LS: I don’t have any control over how people read them. So whatever a person’s response to it is their response to it. And anybody’s response to any art is informed by that person’s experience, so if I’m making a painting about a place and that painting is shown in that location, then those people are inclined to know what it is. The painting with the black balls in it, which is the Silverlake Reservoir in LA, I showed it in my studio in upstate NY and people had no idea what it was, they just thought it was this intense, overwhelming strange disruption in the landscape, which is what I’m thinking about a lot in terms of sites that I’m painting. But when I showed it in LA, 75% of the people I talked to said they knew exactly what it was when they walked in. So those viewers bring something totally different to it and it means something different for them. I like both the general and specific reaction. I’m always kind of excited if someone can put together the specific narrative, because I think about that a lot. Also, that’s such a weird location, there’s nothing like it, so why would anyone necessarily know that it’s a reservoir that’s filled with 400,000 black balls - it’s not something as iconic as a Christmas tree farm, for example. But I think a lot about narrative and the input, too. Clearly I like to paint, and draw, so why not just make anything? Whenever I try to do something that’s abstract or a still life, I don’t know what to jump off from. I need a narrative to give me an idea of how to visually enter something or even just keep my interest in it piqued. So the narrative functions both in the backend - my end - and in the output too.

Silverlake Reservoir, 2010, acrylic and oil on canvas, 90 x 70 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Silverlake Reservoir, 2010, acrylic and oil on canvas, 90 x 70 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

AG: That’s interesting because I feel like there’s a push against narrative in painting. Sometimes people look at work and instantly want to be told the story behind each painting in order for them to even be interested, and that’s always a weird dynamic. I just wonder if it disallows people from having their own experience with the work that’s separate and autonomous, where someone can attach their own story to it. I just never quite know – where is the line, when do you tell? If someone asks, that’s fine, that’s straightforward, but if it’s on the edge or not clear, do you step in and maybe mediate someone’s experience?

LS:  Are you ruining or enhancing the person’s experience? I always assume enhancing, because the more information I get about anything, the more I’m just kind of intrigued about it. I remember in grad school at Pratt hearing Thomas Nozkowski coming to talk about his work. He was showing his work and then telling us these specific narratives, or more like experiences rather than narratives, that inspired a painting, and he was showing us a painting of blue and white squares, and he’s giving this detailed story. And it just kind of blew my mind, it didn’t ruin or enhance my experience with the work, I just found it perplexing. It didn’t sway me either way. I wouldn’t have gone there with that painting. That work is much more obtuse, there aren’t the visual indicators of specific things that I put in my paintings. I think people are really interested now too in just the narrative of painting itself. I think that is also more difficult to talk about – it’s easier for me to talk about visiting a cactus farm and what I experienced there than something like: I gessoed the canvas, and then I splashed some acrylic on the background to give like a feel of the atmosphere and tried to pull more representational elements out, trying to relate to the more formal elements in what I see. And I don’t know what artist can talk really well about the narrative process of painting. Obviously narrative is bound to language in a way that painting is not. I don’t know if that’s the limitation or if it’s just the painting magic that’s hard to talk about, or we don’t want to reveal it because we’re magicians, in the same way magicians don’t reveal their tricks.

Power line tree drawings in Lisa Sanditz’s studio in Tivoli, NY. Courtesy the artist.

Power line tree drawings in Lisa Sanditz’s studio in Tivoli, NY. Courtesy the artist.

AG: I think talking about your process is different from talking about the art historical justification for some kind of abstraction. Not that you necessarily have to tell me a story, but let me have the opportunity to tell myself a story with this imagery if I want to. I don’t think we need to hold back from narrative. I don’t think it’s a bad word. I was talking with two other artists this week about narrative and they were both adamant about it not being in their work! I feel like with your work, I could go there if I want to but I also don’t have to necessarily. I feel like I’m given the choice, that you’re interested in that yourself but you’re not forcing me down a particular road.

LS: I think so. More recently I’ve been working on some work that’s still representational but the narrative is broader, maybe less specific and seeing what that means to me or to the viewer too. So I’ve been working on these works on paper of trees that are cut to make room for power lines. They make these weird shapes, sad shapes, over-arching shapes, funny shapes, and it’s one solid narrative throughout. So it’s less about going to a place and then a story or experience happened. As a matter of fact I'm having a show of these tree drawings that are half of trees cut from power lines up here where I live now and the other half are trees cut for power lines around where my parents live in Missouri.  In the installation the trees will meet, they’ll be installed in the corner in the middle and they’ll descend like a vanishing point, they'll get smaller and smaller towards the middle and bigger and bigger as they go out.

It certainly has been interesting for me to play around with materials and a narrative that’s a little more specific and doing it over and over again. I tend to work on a painting of a place and a totally different painting simultaneously. So for example a compost pile in upstate New York and then the next painting I work on will be farms I visited in Arizona. So I jump to totally different subjects and formal explorations, so this new work is a more unified narrative from piece to piece. I don’t know if it’s good or not but I’m having fun, so we’ll see. For now, anyway. I’ll let you know how people respond!

Pearl City Study, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Pearl City Study, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

AG: Do you travel in particular to look for these weird transitional moments that you’re working with in the landscapes or do you just happen to come across them when you’re traveling personally?

LS: Definitely both. And some are researched in advance and then I’ll go. For example the work in my last show was stimulated by my interest in circular farms that are in the west, in Kansas and Nebraska and Colorado, especially because I was doing a series on farming and how to get around just having giant green rectangles everywhere. So I went to Colorado and hired a plane to fly low over those circular farms, so that was something really specific that I went out there and planned. On the other hand the drawings I’m doing now of trees started around the tree in front of my house – it’s the most half-tree ever, and the half-tree that remains is leaning towards our house. It’s a huge Maple tree that’s half of a Maple tree – at what point does this tree decide that it can’t keep going without it’s other half, and it’s going to fall on the house? So that literally couldn’t be more outside my front door and I’m also noticing that in other locations. And it could also be something I’ve read in the news, the painting of black balls in Los Angeles I read about first in the Times, and I was going out to LA a week later and I knew I was having a show there in a year, so it all fell into place. But I think I definitely get a lot from going places that I wouldn’t otherwise, so that seems to be part of the whole process too. Happenstance, you know.

AG: Do you make the smaller studies and the work on paper alongside the paintings or do they come first? Where do they figure in to your process?

LS:  Sometimes I make them on location, so again, that LA painting I painted for like three or four days – the landscape was flat, it was hard to get a good vantage point, so I painted just with watercolor and paper. And then I also sometimes work on the studies when I’m trying to figure out how to resolve something, like in the last show I had at CRG I had this painting Crop Duster, which had the red, white and blue spray paint on it, and it took a while to figure out how to resolve the painting knowing that the spray paint would be the last thing on the painting and all in one shot. I was trying to figure that out on a more modest scale before I did it at 4 x 6 feet. Small failure to prevent big failure, big failure happens anyway.  So I work on them in advance, in tandem, and on the go.

AG: The way you’re handling watercolor and the acrylic on paper looks very different, the touch is sensitive and fluid, and the finished acrylic and/or acrylic with oil painting has a very different look to it - there’s a quality of a kind of “grossness” in the handling of the paint in the bigger work, in the big heavy drips and some of the clunky shapes, the dirty colors, heavy textures – does the mark-making match the subject of the industrial and commercial landscape that you’re depicting?

Spray Tree, 2014, spray paint, colored pencil, marker and gouache on paper, 38 x 50 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Spray Tree, 2014, spray paint, colored pencil, marker and gouache on paper, 38 x 50 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

LS: I think both, I think it’s part of the work and then part of the material limitation and generosity. I’ve been working on paper mostly for the last few months, and the way that it absorbs the wet material and the dry material feels so rich and present, while working on canvas is like painting on the surface of the moon! I’m not someone who gessoes the canvas 20 times, but I do it six or eight times, and the paint still gets sucked in and it doesn’t record marks in the way some of the other mediums do.  Watercolor shows every single drop of the pigment. So I like both for what they can and cannot give you. And sometimes it’s a little bit of an attack and the painting gets kind of fucked up and sometimes that’s good and sometimes it goes overboard. But I definitely think about finding some of the glory and the grossness of these sites, and then I definitely want to get that into the paintings.

 AG: In looking at the work online, I really thought your paintings were all oil but it looks like you work primarily with acrylic and occasionally use oil, and then I was watching your interview that you did a little while back with Gorky’s Granddaughter and you were talking about doing more work with oil, so are you working with oil now, and what’s the relationship between the two for you?

LS:  I definitely work more with acrylic. It’s funny that earlier you said working with acrylic is hard  – I think working with oil is hard! It’s just whatever you do or don’t do – like, I can drive a car but I’m sure racing one is really hard (that’s definitely not something I want to do). And I just think it’s what you want out of your paintings or your temperament. You know how some people say they have a fear of commitment? I think I have a fear of non-commitment, so when I started working in oil again recently, just the ability to change your mind and go over it – I have so many bad, terrible, mushy oil paintings. And with the acrylic I’m locked in and it has it’s own problems, but I think it can be exciting, you just have to work with what you’ve got, building your own situation that’s working well, and that’s it. So the speed and the inability to change has been good. And then I also like that I’m painting landscapes that have a natural topographical element to them but are also definitely being compromised by or changed by the built environment, and so using a plastic or artificial paint material seems good for that. Either one is harder depending on what you do. I’ve worked now solidly for ten years, so I’m pretty knowledgeable about acrylic and how to make it ooky-gooky like oil, but even in the last show there were a couple moments where I just couldn’t get the lushness, and so I did do some delicious oil gum drops on top, which I’m always a little leery of doing, because you can see when people do that.  I don’t know why that’s a problem or not, I guess as a painter you are tempted to pick it apart and see how it’s put together, and it stops being a painting and you just want to find which is which. You probably do that, I do that! And then stop thinking about the painting as a whole. But I had a painting that had corn in it, so I guess if I could do that, I could do anything with oil and acrylic too.

 
Rotting Jack-O, 2012, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Rotting Jack-O, 2012, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

 

AG: What is your interest in working with imagery from post-industrial American landscapes and towns? It looks like you’ve been working with that for a long time, American industrial and commercial things in the landscape, a push-pull between the two in the short history of this country, I think it’s really interesting territory. I’m curious about your relationship to it and why are you interested in depicting it.

LS: I don’t know that it’s the industrial landscape, I think it’s more the commercial landscape. I think of industrial as factories, which I’ve done and some office parks, but my interest in and headway into that was when I did paintings of the industrial landscape in China for a couple years and how that related to our industrial landscape and our consumer society here. So I think the emphasis has been more of the commercialized landscape, the built environment. My interest came from growing up in the suburbs and seeing and feeling the emptiness and problems with the way that the landscape is structured through highways and streets and cars and big box stores. The first paintings I did outside of grad school were dealing with that and I've been dealing with that more or less over the last few years. And I think those spaces reflect a lot about how we organize ourselves and how we move around and how we value or don't value the landscape itself.  And also exploring different ways to use landscapes as entry points to make paintings, whether that's the desert or oceanside or expansive Midwest. Not as much urban landscape, maybe because it's harder for me to paint buildings that don't look totally weird, or maybe being from the Midwest and being used to more open spaces, not urban spaces.

AG: You were talking about working from observation on site, but I thought I also read somewhere that you were working from some images from the internet, so do you work from a combination of observation, found images, photographs, imaginative stuff, and what role does memory have in that? Does experiencing something and then having your own experience in the studio add something to it?

LS: Obviously memory and imagination are both a part of it – there are no faithful photographic renderings in the paintings, not that photographs are faithful either, but there's obviously a lot of interpretation and exaggeration in the work.  So for example the drawings that I'm doing right now, the ones that are from here are done on location. I did them on location or I drew them in the studio right when I got back that day, so even if it was from memory it was very close to the experience. Then the drawings of the trees in St Louis are from photographs that my parents took with an iPhone, plus memory and kind of making it up even more than I do in other circumstances. So it's definitely kind of a big soup of all of those things. I’ll find images on the internet if it’s something that I can't really remember and I need to look up something again, but it's not just working from a picture online and then making a painting. Plenty of people do that, it's fine, but for me it's just a part of the process I guess. Lots of input, lots of output.

AG: You were talking about working with ceramics – I saw in your show last year at CRG, you showed sculpture and ceramic work along with the paintings. Is that the first time you were working with the medium? What made you want to do that and how do you see them in relation to your paintings?

LS:  Sculpture – that's what they are. I have other ideas of things to do in ceramics but I haven't done anything else except that. It just seemed like it had to be that way, so I had to make it in ceramics. And I didn't even know what they were in relation to the paintings until I saw them in the gallery, because in the studio there's so much dissonant 2-D and 3-D information. They became so much more figurative in the gallery. They became these characters. But I liked that, and I was able to take some of the figurative information out of the paintings and put them into the ceramics sort of subconsciously. So I think some of those paintings were a little more open than other paintings of mine – open space-wise and fewer details, which I liked. You were asking about oil before. I kind of got a little dead-ended with acrylic, so I started using oil. And then that was also not working out, so then I tried something else. I just started working with ceramics and I didn’t really know if it was going to go anywhere. It took a year and a half to get that work together for the show. This is a good example of a reason to visit a location and what can happen. It was in response to cactus farms that I visited in Arizona – the night that we got there was a once in five-year cold snap. The growth in the cacti is in the tips, so in all of the nurseries the farmers everywhere were running around all night long putting Styrofoam cups on all of the tips of the cacti. You can’t wrap a cactus in a sweater obviously, but the cups can save them. So we got to this farm and I was wondering why every cactus, thousands and thousands of cactus in every direction, had Styrofoam cups on the tips. And that was only because the once in five-year temperature drop happened when we were there. I tried to make it into a painting and it just wasn’t working, and then I realized that each of these is like a sculptural object with the Styrofoam cup on them and that could be an interesting way to go about it. So I built a cactus garden based on that. That needed to happen and it was a very clear reason. I’ve thought of other things to be made out of ceramics. I like some of the ideas but nothing has clicked in the way that did.

 
Slumped Cactus, 2014, glazed ceramic, plywood, sand, agate spikes, 41 x 16 x 14 in. Courtesy the artist.

Slumped Cactus, 2014, glazed ceramic, plywood, sand, agate spikes, 41 x 16 x 14 in. Courtesy the artist.

 

AG: It's interesting when the subject itself drives the decision-making, and you just come to that realization that it doesn't want to be two-dimensional, it wants to be three-dimensional. And it only needs to be one or maybe a few instead of a whole farm or group of repeated images. It's not always your decision – this thing itself knows it would be articulated better in another form, that's interesting.

LS: It was fun. I recommend it. The modular aspect I liked, I'd make a top and bottom, and I wouldn't like how they worked, so I would switch them with other ones, and in painting...

AG: You can't do that as well in painting!

LS: You can, but I'm not cutting my canvas in half and attaching it to another canvas.  And it was so great to be able to move things around physically. And to be able to change the color, it needed to be pink stripes instead of green dots and then re-glazing it.

 
Cacti Display, 2014, ceramic, found materials, porcupine quills and semi-precious stones, 57 x 46 x 58 in (detail). Courtesy the artist.

Cacti Display, 2014, ceramic, found materials, porcupine quills and semi-precious stones, 57 x 46 x 58 in (detail). Courtesy the artist.

 

AG: I wonder how that would then inform the paintings, having had that physical and spatial ability to move stuff around, you might have a different kind of sensibility. You might be able to see the limitations of painting in a different way.

LS: Yeah, since that show I did a couple small paintings that I liked, but I've basically been working in paper where I have been able to cut the paper or just scrap it and not feel devastated in the way that painting can really hurt your feelings. So I hadn't even thought of that, although painting has been feeling kind of heavy lately, I haven't quite gotten back into it, for whatever reasons. In some ways you would think paper would be the least like sculpture.

AG: I could see that though, it's so much more immediate and you can change things around, even if it's a large-scale drawing, it's more changeable. Painting is so permanent, it's such an investment, it's a heavily loaded object, it's historical, and you're investing so much time and material. And with work on paper it is just a piece of paper, you can always throw it away or turn it into something else. Crumble it up and then it's an object, even.

When you were working on the Sock City series, you were focusing on the Chinese industrial landscape. I’m wondering how you resolved the issue of being a Western person going to do that work in an Eastern country – how did you deal with the history of colonialism when you're taking your impressions away and bringing it back to this country, and then dealing with that in a painting context? How do you resolve the history of going to the strange foreign lands and making images of their things and Americanizing them?

 
Crop Dusters, 2013, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 70 x 54 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Crop Dusters, 2013, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 70 x 54 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

 

LS: When I work on bodies of work I get very clear about what I want to do and I have to do it. I was very curious about the post-industrial landscape here in this country and then seeing where the industrial landscape is and of course practically everything you touch and own is made in China, or at least some aspect of it. So of course, I was like this is maybe a really bad idea, but I'm going to go anyway, I'm going to go and just see what happens, and I'll make work or not. And then I made the work, and I thought about a lot of that – orientalism and colonialism. And then even to make the paintings, how to make them or not make them anthropological, another aspect of how Western and other cultures interact. And I didn't really know and I just did it, and I felt like I took it seriously, and then put the work out in the world and I felt like it was received in a respectful and intriguing way too. All of those things that you brought up I didn't ignore. I was totally aware of them. I thought through them. I felt that this is such a big part of our world –this exchange of commodities. So it's not like it's reverse colonialism. But again it's like this completely absurd exchange of objects between China and the entire world. There's this very historically significant exchange happening, and I felt like it couldn't be overlooked, no matter where I was coming from and how I was looking at it. I'm sure some people are critical of that – even taking that on. I would say that the paintings are of single-industry cities in China from my perspective. I'm not a journalist, so it's obviously very subjective. But I was curious enough to go there twice and think about it and make work about it.

AG: Because you're working with very traditional forms in the paintings –landscape and architecture –what do you think are the possibilities today for that kind of figurative painting?

LS: I'm thinking about that a lot. I mean on some level the landscape is perpetually changing and so is architecture and so is human movement. At the time that I was working on those paintings in China, it was the world's largest migration from rural to urban in human history. I don't know what the statistic is on that now, because in the last few years between the times I went, the migration was reversing because of the economic crash. So it will happen again in some other form. No matter what happens with technology and styles, people are going to keep moving around and keep building things and it's going to reflect our values. That always changes and what does it mean in painting? And also if you've got to paint, you've got to find something to paint, I think. Those things are all good subjects for books and movies too and people do it well, but I don't know how I would approach it that way.

 
Sad Tomatoes, 2013, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Sad Tomatoes, 2013, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

 

AG: I've had the pleasure of interviewing several established female artists such as yourself. A peer of mine, another young woman artist/painter, mentioned to me that I haven't addressed or asked the question of an established female painter who has been able to manage a family at the same time as their career and a continuing studio practice.  So I'd like to ask you about that – how do you manage it all? Do you feel like it's enriched your life, do you feel like it takes away from your practice?

LS: I'm happy you're asking this question, even though it's the question you're not supposed to ask!  It's almost this anti-feminist question – no one would ask a male artist that. But it's kind of all I think about, because I have one kid and I teach, and I'm an artist, and I'm married, and I have a social life. So it's like five enormous bubbles of energy that I float in. I think also in terms of feminism we're in this kind of complicated super-mom world, you're supposed to do it all –cook your own food, make the amazing playhouse, and have a job and a great career, and toned thighs. But then we can't talk about it. So I do feel like it's hard to do it all. And I feel like I can't do it all at the same time but I just might pop one or two of those bubbles. So our kid is two, and yes it's enhanced my life amazingly and he's amazing. And I did have a show when he was a year and a half old, and I did it, but it was really hard. And basically six months after that I had no energy to do anything creative. So you've got to figure it out. He's two and I’ve already had a big show, so I don't know what that means for the whole career trajectory yet, but I also think someone shouldn't tell you to have a kid or not, you should do what you want. I think both children and careers are fickle. And if you want to do it, have a kid or a career or both, you've just got to do it, but they both take a lot of time and energy. That is no joke! It's hard but not like in a pushing a rock up a mountain kind of way, although maybe pushing a small rock up a mountain, but it's a lot to manage.

AG: In a way I feel like it's not fair for your privacy to ask that kind of question, but I think if you look historically ,for example big deal male painters like Guston, they had kids and then didn’t worry about it because the wife is understood to be the primary caretaker and does everything and [she] isn't an artist and it's not his problem anymore. It's not like that for most women. Especially if both parents are artists, it's not easy. You don't have the straightforward caretaker type who's just going to do all the work, and you can do your own thing. And I think even now, the female role is that that is expected. It's great to have these examples of someone like you who's making it work and I think younger women starting out need to see this being talked about and hear what you have to say. And because it's amazing that you can handle it, and if you can do it, maybe we can too.

LS: Thanks, that's nice to hear. It doesn't work everyday, but without kids doesn't work everyday either. I mean, I think I had more unhappy days before him where I spent a certain amount of time dragging my feet. And now it's just more running around than that.  And not that I have to be a big advocate for men's rights either, but I think that the expectation of fathers is different today too. I think a Philip Guston parenting approach  right now as a dude would be disdained. That would not be pretty either! I mean, he could still be a famous artist, but I think it's hard for men to not take an active role with their kids and just smoke and hang out with Philip Roth and make paintings either. You can't get away with that anymore. That's not to say that women don’t have to carry a lot of what having a kid is in many regards too. We don't have a nanny but we do have family and babysitters. It's a lot easier to manage it upstate than the city family scenario. There is that difference, but I have lots of incredible artist friends in the city who have kids too, so it can be done.

AG: What advice would you give a young painter just starting out today?

LS: Because I teach, one big difference is this phenomenal debt that students leave school with, and I have a hard time with that as a teacher. This college debt is a new thing that needs to be managed in a bigger way. So that requires much more monthly income to pay back. I tried to always get as high of a paying job as I could with as few hours, so my first year out of college was working at an insurance company, where like twenty years ago I made like twenty dollars an hour –which was pretty good– and I worked twenty hours a week so I could work in my studio. Other friends worked at hipster coffee shops and that was cool too, but then they had to do that for fifty hours a week. I think essential elements outside of the economic part are having a studio and making work and to keep cultivating a group of artists around you to stay in dialogue with. So if that's graduating in the city and keeping up with those pals to have crit groups, or moving to other cities and making a new team. I think that wherever you are, that is essential and you've got to keep working. You've got to keep your mind in it and be excited about what you're doing. 

AG: When I read your Art21 interview you said you wanted to be asked what you're reading, so what are you reading?

LS: Well, I'm slowly reading “Stuffed and Starved,” a book by Raj Patel about food scarcity and abundance in America and India and internationally. But I can only read nonfiction for so long and then I start to wander, so the book I want to read next is the new book by David Mitchell, the author of “Cloud Atlas”. So that's what I'm going to buy at the bookstore this week –I'm resisting purchasing it on Amazon!

Lisa Sanditz lives and works in Tivoli, NY. Her new tree drawings will be on view in a two-person show opening December 5th and on view through February 21st at Duet in St Louis, Missouri.

Published in Painting is Dead Nov. 20th, 2014.

Interview with Joanne Greenbaum

By ASHLEY GARRETT, MAY 2014

 
Joanne Greenbaum in her NYC studio. Photo courtesy    Exhibition A

Joanne Greenbaum in her NYC studio. Photo courtesy Exhibition A

 

Joanne Greenbaum is a painter and sculptor living and working in New York City and Berlin, Germany.  Born in NYC in 1953, she earned her Bachelors of Arts degree from Bard College in 1975.  Her work has been included in many solo and group exhibitions in the United States and abroad.  She has been reviewed in The New York TimesArt in America, Artforum, and Hyperallergic. Her awards include the Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 2014, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Fellowship, the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Pollock Krasner Grant, and the NYFA Fellowship in Painting.  She is represented by Rachel Uffner Gallery in New York, greengrassi in London, Shane Campbell Gallery in Chicago, IL, Nicolas Krupp Contemporary Art in Switzerland, Galerie Crone in Berlin, Germany, and Van Horn in Dusseldorf, Germany. She has an upcoming show of new paintings at Galerie Crone in Berlin this November, 2014.

Can you talk a little about your background and where you grew up?

I’m from right outside of New York in Westchester County. I was actually born in New York City and then my parents moved north to the suburbs. I’m from here, I went to school upstate at Bard College, and I’ve always lived in New York. The last five years or so I’ve been living some part of every year in Berlin, which I really like, and I think it just took me a while to figure out that you’re allowed to leave New York. I just never thought I was allowed to leave, and also for many years I had job. But even after that was over in 2001, I’m just kind of a homebody, I kind of stay where I’m put, but I think now I’d just like to go to more different places. So now I spend part of every year away, and it really makes a huge difference in how I feel when I’m back here, and it’s better.

What do you like about Berlin?

It’s quiet, I would say mostly the quietness and the silence, and the slower pace, but yet it’s a city. It’s also green, meaning lots of parks and since I have a dog it’s nice to be able to take him out without a leash everyday and have him run around. I think mostly it’s just the quiet—I mean for me Berlin is a city with a country feel, so it’s almost like the country in the city. There’s plenty to do, I know some people there, yet it has more of a laid-back feel. Plus there’s a lot of great art there.

Is there anything in your experience growing up that comes into your work or affected your development into the artist you are today?

I think I was probably born an artist, because I’ve always felt like one, even though I didn’t necessarily know what that meant. But in terms of psychology, I think it was a place for me to retreat to escape from my surroundings. I mean you don’t know what came first—either your surroundings making you want to escape, or the fact that I was just kind of a quiet girl who wanted to just draw. I don’t really know, but I think that it had something to do with always feeling sort of intruded upon as a kid, and that I have this incredible desire to just retreat into something else, so I think that’s how I developed this habit of drawing a lot. It was a place I could go.

What was your first encounter with painting?

I always did stuff from age five on. My parents sent me to oil painting lessons from a local artist lady in Larchmont who was an oil painter and she did oil painting lessons in groups in her basement. I remember going to that and encountering real oil paint for the first time. I must have been around 10 years old. I went to her for some years and I really liked it, and she was nice, and as somebody who was coming from a family that was very judgmental, and the teacher wasn’t, that allowed me to just do what I wanted to do.

 
Untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

Untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

 

I did that too when I was kid, going to lessons—

With the local lady! She was a real artist, and I remember she had this beautiful big old house—

There’s something really nurturing about that, and being in a group where everyone is just learning—

I don’t even remember the other people, I think I was probably the youngest one. But that was probably my first encounter with oil paint.

And you were saying you were always drawing a lot—and it looks like you draw a lot.

Yeah, I always just draw. Even if I’m just watching TV or talking to somebody I’m always drawing.

And it’s interesting how that translates into the painting.

Well, it never used to. That’s relatively new in the last seven or eight years that I incorporated drawing into my work. I always had it separate – there was the painting and there was the drawing. The painting was always more minimal and spare and then there were the drawings, and then I think somehow they merged in the work.

What drove this shift for you?

There was this feeling that I wanted to take the intimacy of drawing, especially the way that I draw. I do a lot of ballpoint pen drawings which are kind of just about my handwriting energy and scribbling, I’m not going to use the word doodle because I really don’t like that word.

They don’t look like doodles to me.

They’re not doodles. Some people say they are, but they’re really not. Taking that intimate type of thing and use it on a big painting it monumentalizes it. You could say these small drawings are not so important because it’s just a notebook drawing let’s say, but then giving that a lot of importance by putting it in a really big painting and trying to translate it in the same way. So in these drawings it’s the hand that’s doing the movement, but in the painting I use my body in the same way to create the same type of energy on the larger scale. It’s not like I take this and blow it up, but I’ll take that same type of energy and use it on a canvas with different materials. But I have been using some drawing materials directly on the canvases as well.

It looks like you’re really getting that, the line is intensely felt on both scales.

Right. I think it just took a while to transfer it, because I used to remember looking at people’s artwork where people drew on the canvas and it always looked funny to me, I can’t really describe it, it just looked fake, or too self conscious. I’m trying to have it be very natural in the process of making the painting, that this is part of that, the drawing is not explain anything, the drawing is not an outline for anything, the drawing is the content, in a way, of the painting.

I know what you mean, I don’t see a lot of painting on this larger scale that has that kind of purposeful drawing in it, searching and full of discovery, free and open. There’s something about that—that the drawing would somehow interfere with the rest of the painting. And I think you’re getting the elements together and truly integrated.

Well, I think the artists I look to the most, or maybe the ones who I relate to the most who achieve that are Basquiat and Twombly. I think those are two examples of artists who used drawing as painting, or painting as drawing. And so when I look at those people, I really understand.

 
Untitled, 2014, oil, ink, acrylic and flashe marker on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

Untitled, 2014, oil, ink, acrylic and flashe marker on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

 

And with Twombly it’s so spare, but so confident and purposeful, the way it’s done is that you don’t second-guess that the line and the drawing is itself the painting.

Right, it’s just coming from him and you don’t question it. Same with Basquiat as well, who was just an incredible drawer. His thoughts just went right on the canvas, there was no filter going on to make it into “art,” it just came out and that was that. And I think that’s why he’s so good, for him that filter just wasn’t there. I think Twombly is more elegant in a way and more refined. I remember a show years ago he had at the Brooklyn Museum and I remember going to that and it was so weird because it doesn’t happen to me very often—I just burst into tears when I got there. I think right at that time I was starting to do drawing in my work. And then I could see, it was like, Oh my God, this guy did it.

There was no strategy in his work. And I don’t work with any strategy whatsoever. As I’m going I figure it out, there’s no plan going on. And that’s why everything’s different from everything else. I’m not making the same thing in five different colors. I just don’t work like that.

In your Art in America interview you said that you see the forms in the paintings less like maps and more like still life spaces.

Yeah, it’s not necessarily traditional still life space where there’s a vase and things on a table, but because I make sculpture now which is kind of vaguely vase-sized, objects that do go on tables, or bases/pedestals, or the floor. Someone was over today and she asked how I would display sculpture and I told her that at this point I would want one in a vitrine. Like an object in a cabinet of curiosities. So basically I think what I mean by still life space is that since I’ve been making sculpture I think of the forms as three-dimensional things even though maybe to other people they don’t look like that, but to me, this painting that we’re looking at—with the white that was knifed on, to me that’s creating a sculpture. And the red is some sort of shelf or platform for those forms, so I think that I work a lot with a structure that functions as some kind of holder or platform for these other things that I’m putting in the painting, so I think that’s what I mean when I say I’m putting still life space in the paintings.

I don’t see maps. I know people do, they say they see maps in my work, and I never do.

I find that so funny how people get fixated on these really easy readings of people’s work.

A while ago, I think it was when Julie Mehretu got on the scene because her paintings are kind of map-like—I think the word “mapping” became a big buzzword about ten years ago. And so anything abstract was like “oh, you’re mapping the universe, or you’re mapping this, or mapping that.” If I’m mapping anything it’s just my mind, but I still don’t like the word mapping, it’s not something that I think about. People always say that and that they look like subway maps, but no, they don’t. That’s not what these are, and I think they’re getting more and more away from that. I don’t even really know what direction I’m going in because sometimes I want to make more minimal work, but it just doesn’t seem to be going there. Like in this painting that’s unfinished, this morning I thought I was just going to be covering the whole thing in black except for maybe that area in the middle there and just see what happens. So each painting has it’s own life. Mapping is not where I’m at.

Sometimes my small ballpoint drawings are called obsessive too, but it’s just that I like to make them. That doesn’t translate into that I’m obsessed with them, I just like to do it. It has nothing at all to do with obsession.

There’s no subtlety in that, when people get these categories affixed to their work, and it simplifies it and prevents other readings. And so many artists have these collections of buzzwords that people have said or written about them that seems to follow them around. And you’re always having to reopen the conversation.

Well, I think that the art world as it is wants to categorize you into these boxes and I’ve pretty much fought my whole career to not be categorized and not be in a box and not be in a group, and not identify with a school of thought. I just don’t want to do that.

You were saying in your Art in America interview that you’re really attracted to Modernism. Can you talk a little more about that?

First of all I’m not trying to make Modernism. I think there’s been a lot of talk lately about this fake modernism or people quoting modernism in their work, or sort of retro-modernism. I’m not trying to do that. I just think there was so much that happened in classic Modernism that I still find really interesting. I still find Cubism fascinating. Basically it’s the breaking up of space and that’s super interesting to me. That’s not something that ever really went out of style. I’m interested in the breaking up of space, and then I’m also interested in color. I mean I’ve always looked at Matisse’s color, in terms of Modernism; those are sort of my heroes.

 
Untitled, 2014, oil, ink, and acrylic marker on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

Untitled, 2014, oil, ink, and acrylic marker on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

 

I’m seeing your books and you have a lot of the Modern masters here.

Yeah, I like a lot of good books but I also have a lot of books on contemporary artists. In Berlin I saw the Hilma af Klint show which was amazing. It traveled to a few other European cities, I don’t think it came here. I think the last venue was in Denmark. It was an amazing show and she made those paintings in 1905—before Cubism. She did that before Picasso. It’s kind of mind blowing, even just from a feminist point of view, that she made this incredible monumental revolutionary kind of work and nobody saw it.

There are a lot of these brilliant women artists that are sort of tucked under the legacy of these huge names like Picasso, like Paula Modersohn-Becker is another one. Picasso was looking at her work, actually being influenced by it, and now we’re getting to know the real history a little bit.

Right, and it’s so interesting and also how the canon as defined by the Museum of Modern Art is not necessarily true, even though we were told it was true, and I think it’s really interesting how history is now starting to be rewritten to include people that were very influential or forgotten or ignored. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, and she was saying how MoMA has a Joe Bradley in the lobby now and a Sue Williams in the lobby too, and that’s pretty cool. If they just had the Joe Bradley that would be wrong because they’re trying to contextualize him into the male canon, but they didn’t –they had a Pat Steir, they had a Sue Williams up, and I think the imbalance is changing but it’s going to be a really slow change. The art world is incredibly sexist at the top levels.

The recent Isa Genzken show is a good example of some of that evening out. I mean how many women have had these huge retrospective shows there?

That was an amazing show. And there’s also the Lygia Clarke show, that’s wonderful. Yeah, I think things are changing, but slowly.

And then there’s this whole trend with these really highly priced very young men, with inflated prices at auctions.

But if you look at the work there’s no content in it, the work is a technique or a process. Someone said the work looks exactly the same in reproduction as it does in real life. And there’s something weird about that. So the work is made to be reproduced. The whole topic honestly gets me, I never know what to say about it, because I don’t want to just dismiss all young men as talentless, because I’m sure there are some that are really good, there always have been and there always will be, but there’s a lot of young women who are really good too.

But it’s not that young women should aspire to that necessarily, because I don’t think it’s good for artists to try to become that.

Right, I think it doesn’t matter the sex. When I graduated college, I had a full fifteen years if not more of nothing. Of just doing my work, developing, making tons of mistakes, making shitty work, making some good work, but nobody saw it, and I just think you need those years. You need to fuck up. You need to imitate your heroes and then you need to reject those heroes. And you need to try lots of different things and I think this brings us back to what’s being called Provisional Painting. I think a lot of that, especially from the much younger artists, it’s all trying stuff out. It’s just trying out things. And eventually if you work hard enough you’ll find your own way. But if you get a lot of attention for this kind of stuff that you’re just trying out you may never find your way because you’re blindsided by the other crap.

 
Joanne Greenbaum’s Tribeca studio.

Joanne Greenbaum’s Tribeca studio.

 

So do you think there was less pressure for artists to make their work public before it was ready at that time versus now?

I don’t think there was less pressure, I think there were always artists that started showing when they were really young, I just think that economically there wasn’t as much opportunity, so there weren’t as many galleries as there are now and fewer artists in New York even though it was super cheap to live here. I think that when I was in school my teachers always said—and in a way we hated them for it—they all said don’t even think about showing—I mean you have 20 years! No one ever talked about the market with us. I know now there are classes on the marketplace. When I graduated from college and moved to New York I was starting my life and I knew it was going to be a long, hard slog. You got jobs and you cleaned houses and you waitressed and you did other things. I mean I ended up working for fifteen years in an office and had a responsible position and I liked it for a while just because it was allowing me to do my other stuff. Eventually things got confusing because I started to show my work and I couldn’t do both, I mean I really had to make a decision. I mean I guess nothing was handed to me—when I was a young artist I didn’t know about anything, I didn’t know what Skowhegan was. I didn’t apply to anything, I just went to a job everyday and I couldn’t take a month off and go to an artist residency, that wasn’t career path stuff in those days. Maybe it was for some people, but I didn’t even know about it. I was just a real head-in-the-sand kind of kid. I lived on the Lower East Side during the ‘80’s, and honestly I didn’t even know what was going on in terms of the East Village scene, I was so periphery to that. It just wasn’t my time. Sometimes you just instinctively know that this just isn’t your time, and even though I’m the age of a lot of people who were showing then, it wasn’t my time. And I just waited it all out and worked, and I worked on painting when people weren’t even looking at painting. And I just kept doing it because I really believed in what I was making, and then eventually I did start showing it. And honestly it’s still not easy, it’s tough out there.

Going back to when you were describing the forms in the paintings–are these images?

No, they’re not images, I mean the whole thing is an image, but no they don’t represent anything in particular. Everything functions for the painting, so whatever’s in it functions as it exists in the painting, it doesn’t really exist outside the painting. Obviously I’m interested in some sort of structure, and I think that the real subject matter of the painting is sort of my participation in making that painting. Kind of the slowness, even some of those things that look they were made fast, the paintings actually come together very slowly. I take my time. I might scribble something on it that’s fast, but getting to that scribble, I might have I lived with it first for a couple weeks or a few days. The accumulation of all of this stuff over a period of time is the subject matter of the painting in a way. There are formal decisions that go into it but in a way that’s what I mean when I said I have something in common with Josh Smith, I mean I think he’s really good at saying he’s just going to do whatever comes into his head and he’s not editing for good taste—there’s no editing whatsoever. When I start a work I make a point of starting from a totally empty slate where I don’t have any preconceived idea of what’s going to happen. Even if something is just a big disaster—that gets me all excited. Because then it’s just like, “oh okay, this is just a big disaster, I love it, good!” I don’t want to make something that makes sense. I’m not trying to make things that don’t make sense but I feel like I’m at a point now where I’m using that part of my brain that allows just something else to kind of be there and make the work. I’m certainly going for something, it’s just that I don’t necessarily know what it is until it happens. I want to keep the paintings open and I want to keep them fresh and I don’t want to make paintings that are resolved, so I’ll probably stop a painting before I even know what it is. Like this one, at some point I stopped it thinking I’ll get back to it when it dries, and then it dried and there wasn’t anything else I really want to do to it, so I guess it’s done. And sometimes the opposite happens—sometimes I’ll just hate it. Or sometimes I’ll turn it upside down and do one thing to it and then that’s it, that’s all it needed. So I try to keep myself kind of open to whatever’s going to happen. And I say that not referencing anything Abstract Expressionist, or gestural, or any of that. I don’t think about that stuff at all.

There are gestural qualities in the work.

Yeah, but I’m not interested in gestural abstraction as a thing. I’m using my hand and arm in making the painting. But I’m not interested in the historical aspect of what that gesture means—I think it’s been long enough to be able to use a gesture without it having to mean the ‘50’s or have it mean the New York School, that’s over. People in Germany were making gestural marks, Sigmar Polke made gesture. I think it’s time to give that up, just the way I think it’s time to give up that provisional mark making, it just doesn’t mean anything anymore.

So do you think there’s a lot of possibility left in abstract painting?

Sure, yeah. Because it’s just painting. I mean, I don’t see a difference right now, even though there’s no recognizable imagery in my paintings, I don’t really preference abstraction over figure. There’s no difference, it’s just all painting. I don’t privilege one over the other. People will still write novels, people will still make paintings. And I think it’s up to each individual to make it happen. Everyone’s different and everyone has something different to say. You just have to work really hard at it to get it to the point where you can say what you want to say. It doesn’t just happen on it’s own.

Besides being away from the studio and in a sculpture studio with a kiln, is there a difference in approach when you are beginning a painting from when you are beginning a ceramic work?

I go once a week at a specific time, because I take a class. And usually I make one or two sculptures for that session. I don’t carry the sculpture over to the next week, even though I’m told I should do that, but I don’t want to. I like making them in one session. I make it from a five or six hour time period that I’m there, and I’ll make one or two pieces during that time, and then that’s it, they’re done. There’s no going back, even though there could be, but I choose not to keep the clay wet for the following time, it’s just a decision I’ve made. I like the immediacy of the clay even though you could keep clay wet for a hundred years—you can keep clay wet a whole lot longer than you can keep oil paint wet. You can work on something forever and ever, but I choose not to. I just take clay and just start working and making stuff. I try to think of it as drawing almost, three-dimensional drawing, and as in the painting I don’t really know what it’s going to be, I don’t plan it out. It’s almost like I don’t care what I make, I just want it fired so I can paint it, either with glaze or paint. What I’ve been doing lately is—and you can see the one that I have here, this white porcelain—making them and then firing them and not glazing them at all, and then taking them back here to the studio and hand coloring them with markers or oil paint or ink. In a way it’s almost like they become kind of vessels for me to hand color or hand work or draw on.

 
Untitled, 2014, marker and glaze on porcelain, 13 x 8 x 7 in., Courtesy the artist and  Rachel Uffner Gallery

Untitled, 2014, marker and glaze on porcelain, 13 x 8 x 7 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

 

It’s amazing how different these look, the glazes and the hand worked ones.

Sometimes I feel like glazing and sometimes I don’t. Lately in the studio I have a whole bunch going and some are glazed and some are going to have nothing on them and I’ll take them home and work on them. Like that purple one, that’s oil paint on porcelain. Porcelain is so beautiful, it’s high-fired, and there’s nothing on it, so the oil paint soaks into it and creates this beautiful kind of matte surface because the oil just disappears into the porcelain. So there’s a lot of potential—it’s just another way of making that I like. I know that a lot of people are doing stuff in clay now, which I think is great. What I’m not interested in is having one define the other. Yes, of course the painting and sculpture are related, but nothing is explaining each other. Somebody asked me recently why I didn’t show the sculpture alongside my paintings in my show, and I said I didn’t need to, I just wanted to show the paintings.

I think it was John Yau who was saying something about you no longer being a secret ceramicist.

Well, I’m not secret now but I was. I’ve started showing them now but before when I started I was secretive about it. I didn’t know what I was doing—I had never touched a piece of clay before so I needed to learn from the bottom up. I’m not presumptuous enough to think I was any good at it for kind of a long time. I was secretive about it just because I was learning and it was primitive, and also I think there was this thing where I was thinking “who am I to be making this sculpture now, like what is that about?”It just took me a while to process the fact that I was interested in something else. And also, it’s sounds so silly, but I was embarrassed in front of my sculptor friends. I wasn’t secret exactly, I just kept it quiet because I didn’t feel entitled to show it. And then in 2008 and 2009 I had a museum survey in Europe in two museums, and when the curators were here, I had the sculptures here too, and when they came to choose the work they saw the sculpture and they wanted to take them too. So I ended up having a couple rooms where there were paintings and a little installation of some of the sculpture, and it was great. But that was actually the first time that I showed it. And also the gallery that I used to show in that closed wasn’t interested in them.

 
Untitled, glazed porcelain, Courtesy the artist

Untitled, glazed porcelain, Courtesy the artist

 

I think it’s really interesting to have a practice that’s just for yourself.

Yeah, I think I started making it because I had a need to make them. It was something I was making for myself, and I still make some of these for myself. I also make stuff with this paper clay that self-hardens, and I paint them, I just have them on my painting table and whenever I have extra paint I just go over and paint on them. And that’s something that’s kind of a private thing.

Everything’s become so public now that it’s quite difficult to carve out a private space or practice that’s just for oneself that feeds or sustains you.

Right, but you can! You don’t have to show everybody or anybody everything you do. People do, but you don’t have to, you can hold things back. I think it’s okay to hold things back or keep things quiet, we’re sort of taught not to, everyone’s so self-promotional. I just think I don’t want to be like that.

Do you think that making the sculpture has changed your painting practice?

I think it did. I think the clay lends itself to a kind of fluidity and I think after a while those forms just ended up in the paintings. It wasn’t a conscious thing, it just happened, and with the clay there was something loosening up, and maybe I was struggling with that in my painting. I was somehow struggling with what I was painting and it needed something else and I think somehow instinctually I felt like I had to make sculpture, and then eventually it found it’s way back into the painting. And so I think that my paintings were much more geometric and hard-edged before, and now they’re kind of not.

You’re a developed, mature artist who has figured something about being a painter. What advice would you give on how to develop and sustain a painter’s voice throughout a lifetime?

I just think if you’re a real artist you will know it and you’ll keep working. I think if it means moving out of New York there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that unfortunately it’s just super expensive here now and why kill yourself to be just one of hundreds of thousands? You could go somewhere else where you could make your work without having to sacrifice your soul. I can’t generalize, because people want to be where everything is, but there are a lot of other places that are really cool besides New York. I mean if I was a young artist starting out, I don’t know if I would come here. I know lots of young artists who went to Europe, who went to Berlin, and other places. I just think the most important thing is to just figure out a way to make your work. My feeling is if you can just figure out a way to make your work, then you’ll be fine no matter where you are. If I had to do this over again now, I wouldn’t be able to do it here, because I don’t like living with other people, because I don’t want to have five roommates and share a studio. I didn’t have to do that–I had a little apartment on the Lower East Side and the living room was my studio and I slept in the little alcove room and it was great. But I don’t know how many people who can find their own apartments now for not so much money. I think because it’s a different world, meaning that because of the internet and globalization you don’t need to be here. You can go to New Orleans, or Detroit, or Berlin, or Dusseldorf, or Madrid, or Miami–there isn’t just one way to do things, or one path. You don’t have to do the whole grad school to cool gallery to being rich and famous. It doesn’t work that way because those people who have done that, when they’re 40, no one is going to care. You need to be in it for the rest of your life. Just be in it for the long term and don’t think of the short-term rewards and don’t go to graduate school and don’t have debt, that’s my feeling.

Published in Figure/Ground Sept. 5th, 2014

Interview with Judith Linhares

By ASHLEY GARRETT, JAN. 2014

 
Linhares in her Brooklyn studio

Linhares in her Brooklyn studio

 

Judith Linhares is a painter living and working in Brooklyn, New York.  Born in Pasadena, California in 1940, she earned both her BFA and MFA at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.  Her work has been included in 53 solo exhibitions and more than 175 group exhibitions.  Her awards include the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Fellowship, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Adeline Kent Award, three National Endowment for the Arts grants, Anonymous Was A Woman grant, a Pollock Krasner grant and an Adolph Gottleib grant.  Her work is in numerous public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution of American Art in Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Museum of American Art, San Francisco, CA, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, Berkley Museum of Art, CA, and the Frederick Weisman Collection, Los Angeles, CA.  Linhares is represented in New York by PPOW and in Los Angeles, California by Various Small Fires.

Special thanks to Brian Wood for his assistance with this interview.

Before we get to the questions I had a thought from seeing this vase of flowers—do you paint from life?

I do not make my work form life. I like to have a vase of fresh flowers in the house and I have cultivated a large flower garden in our farmhouse upstate to get ideas about color and form.  I’ve thought about this process of painting from life a lot when I started painting flowers I thought I’d just set up some flowers and paint them. That worked for a while, but then I just started making them up. The paintings made from inventing and constructing the flowers have much more intensity. Now I know every flower by heart.

 
Pink and Yellow Daises, 2006, 26 x 22 in., oil on linen.

Pink and Yellow Daises, 2006, 26 x 22 in., oil on linen.

 

I actually find that’s the case too, there’s some kind of real magic in remembering or imagining.  And then you have the complete freedom to make up your own world and you’re not attached to the real world in front of you.

Yes, absolutely. There’s something about internalizing the form and repeating it that’s good.  I miss that my students used to really like to work from the model, and now you can’t force them to do it. I would work along with them in this atmosphere of concentration. I guess I’ll have to hire my own model and do it on my own time.

They’re not doing it as much in school?

In the foundation class I have them paint from the model because it’s just required, and they’re willing to accept that idea as freshmen, but after that they’re really not interested.

So it’s the students that don’t want to do it?

Yeah. There were always at least a few people who would give me an excuse to have a model in the classroom and then I could sneak in a few little gouaches or something, but that just is not happening.  I don’t think you can apply it generally to all schools, I think it’s particular to SVA.  I mean, there will always be somebody who’s really interested in pursuing representational painting, but even those people now will get their own models or work from internet photographs.

Which class do you prefer teaching, Foundation or Third year?

I like them for different reasons.  Directing people through a process and getting to know them is critical in the first year.   I just really like the process, believe in working, and it’s a good way to spend your day.  I don’t think these students at this time are really interested in working like that, they don’t see working in your studio and making discoveries in the physical process as a way to develop their work. Perhaps they will feel differently when they graduate and have their own studios.

Most of my second year class at SVA was based around the model, and the rest of the class was still life—particularly painting the skull. 

I get so much guff from the freshmen who think art is all about the subject.  I think it’s good for your character to have to paint from life —you learn a kind of discipline by sitting still and struggling in a gap between what you see and what you can actually make.  It’s good for you; everybody should have to do it!

How did you know or discover that you were an artist?  What was your first encounter with painting?

My grandmother raised me and she had this painting of a bucolic scene with cows by a lake.  I still remember it, as it was the only painting in the house. We were quite poor, so we didn’t have a lot of paintings or books—we did not have a television in the house until my teens. Books with pictures really impressed me like Currier and Ives 19th century popular prints; they’re very kitschy.  There are couples kissing in the forest and going for sleigh rides, as well as their political cartoons.  The other book that we had with pictures was an illustrated Bible and some connection between the stories and the pictures was resonating within me.  As far as discovering I was an artist, basically, I knew that I really couldn’t do anything else, ever.  I was fairly athletic but nothing extraordinary.  In the fifth grade, I was the only one who could draw a Conestoga wagon and I received some attention for this skill.  I was constantly trying to improve my drawing skills by drawing the desert yucca plants or coping scenes from Wonder Woman in grade school composition books. The desert landscape is very deeply embedded in my roots.

I’ve heard that from other artists—that they were singled out to draw things in an early childhood class environment, and they decided that that’s their identity.

That’s right and my family was not in any manner traditional types.  My grandmother was a musician. She went to a music conservatory and later in life enjoyed playing the organ in a retro movie theater to epic Hollywood Westerns shot on the neighboring rancheros turned film sets. My grandfather also fancied himself a writer—he would go camping with his dog Poncho in the High Sierras sometimes for six months typing these long letters about his experience. As they all had artistic ambitions of sorts, my discovered talent for drawing made sense to them.

So they were happy to hear that you were becoming a painter?

Well, mother had my life figured out for me—being a painter was just fine because I could become a high school art teacher and have the summers off, which would be really good, as I would be able to spend time going to the beach, because that’s what SHE liked to do!

Where in California did you grow up? Were you or your mother into surfing at all?

Southern California. First, raised by my grandmother in the High Desert town of Newhall where my great-grandfather arrived in 1900 as a blacksmith, then Manhattan Beach near Venice Beach when my mother remarried.  My mother was involved in physical culture.  Her boyfriends were body builders and she took me with her to Santa Monica where they lifted weights. My uncle was into flexing his muscles on the beach lifting me up into pretzel-like show-off poses.  It’s funny–I’m hearing about all my friends  going back to the Middle West for the holidays and remembering how repressive their childhoods where, my childhood was not repressed at all!  There’s a goofy sense of freedom that goes on in California that’s about the enjoyment of nature. It is our birthright.

 
Wave, 2010, 60 x 84 in., oil on linen.

Wave, 2010, 60 x 84 in., oil on linen.

 

How did growing up in California inform your work?

Hugely, in all kinds of ways.  I was a mature artist when I moved to New York and my roots show.  Growing up in California has so much to do with my attitude on so many levels.  One of them has to do with the fantasy of being a survivor in nature that every Californian entertains. People move to California to enjoy outdoors like swimming in the Pacific, camping, hiking, hunting, fishing, and all of that.  I think people in the east presume that if you’re an artist you’re just dying to move to New York, but actually Californians think very highly of themselves.  Especially in L.A. where they do take care of their artists very well.  It’s a different kind of environment and it isn’t the trading post the way New York is.  There isn’t as much opportunity. L.A. is vast but there aren’t as many galleries and there isn’t this incredible commercial scene.  Dealers often truck paintings to Hollywood homes for clients to live with before purchasing. Paintings compete with the views out the window. But people have been developing their work living outside of New York, remaining free from the hierarchy of the East Coast.

Living in Los Angles as an adult really wasn’t a possibility for me because my family lived there and I just wasn’t going to live in the same town.  But as my parents were declining I spent a lot of time there, in the last six years I was there a lot, four or five times a year at least and all holidays. I really got to like it and how it sees itself, with the Modernist architecture and the ideal of living inside and outside at the same time.  I grew up there in the 50’s when Modernism was just beginning to be entrenched in America.   Design was a big interest in California, and I realized that the Eameses lived just up the hill from my parents.  Modern design as a way of imagining the future and moving away from the comfort of tradition. In the big picture, I couldn’t imagine myself living there and having to get into my car every day, that part I don’t like but there is a lot to like.  There’s something about the vast yellow hillside fields and twisted black oak trees, and, of course, my desert landscape, that enters you forever, so it’s always going to feel like home.

You’ve said that you’re interested in fairy tales and mythology in your work–depicting those figures in domestic situations, such as napping or cooking, often in an environment bathed with strange light.  What is your attraction to the context of the domestic life?

One of my struggles has been—how do I make something that’s narrative or suggests a story so the viewer can enter it with their own ideas of what’s going on?  So, I do not  like to start with  known fairytales in mind , my first interest was psychology. Carl Jung was interested in the original source of narratives and his ideas about the collective unconscious led to my interest in fairytales. I realized, with the help of Marina Warner, Anne Sexton, and Maria Tatar, who write about fairytales, that mythology is like the grand narrative and fairytales are oral reinterpretations after the myths, a lot of them are very parallel.  But the difference is they’re not taking place ‘on high,’ they’re taking place ‘on Earth’ in these very humble circumstances.  So I think it’s the humbleness of domesticity that I’m interested in—it’s sort of anti-heroic.

I used to paint a lot of narratives with skeletons. Everybody understands that the skeleton is a figure with a certain kind of meaning. I would see other work with skeletons and I would think, “Did I make that?”  The skeleton was so general and anonymous; I realized that I had to get away from it, to paint the figure more particular, more sexy with flesh.

 
Cook, 2005, 57 x 78 in., oil on linen

Cook, 2005, 57 x 78 in., oil on linen

 

Can you talk a little bit about your process, do you add and subtract on the canvas?  How do you know when a painting is finished?

I’m laughing because I hope they look like they were made with great ease, but they were not!  I work a lot on paper and have literally thousands of small gouaches.  Some of them start completely abstract and then I read into the painting and pull the figure or the subject matter out of something that’s just a few different shaped rectangles.  So they definitely develop—that’s part of my issue with illustration, if it comes full-blown as an idea then you’re just illustrating something out of your head.  It’s really important to me to have it come to life before my very eyes and surprise me.  I guess I’m not really that ambivalent about the process but sometimes I wonder how I arrived at this process. Working from the general to the specific and then getting it more defined … a little more defined … a little more defined, and that’s just my process. My paintings evolve over a pretty long period of time.  I had an epiphany around the work of the German painter Gunter Forg. His work is done mentally as he sets the stage with the plan in his head of what he is going to do and what he is not going do, then he just makes the work. It is what it is. I love that. I just love it! However, I want a picture … I want an illusion … I want specificity … and it’s just never going to happen that way in my studio.

I’m such an admirer of Hopper. I’m interested in the mythology around what it is to be American, and he’s so emblematic in so many ways. It’s interesting that he was influenced by the movies. This makes perfect sense the way every frame is really constructed and thought out as far as relationships of parts to the whole and what emotional effect those big empty spaces might have.  At a certain point, I just realized I’m not Edward Hopper!

 
Hunger, 2010, 22 x 26 in., oil on linen

Hunger, 2010, 22 x 26 in., oil on linen

 

You’ve been in many group painting exhibitions recently, including cross-generational shows where young painters are seen in context with well-respected and accomplished painters such as yourself.  How do you see this dialogue developing and do you think it’s important for different generations of painters to speak to each other both through their work and in a social context?  What do you think we can share with each other? 

Well first of all, I like young people. I really enjoy teaching—it gives me access to people I’d never have access to if I weren’t teaching them.  And I like the teaching context because I find it very moving to see people and their struggles to make meaning in their lives.  It’s very life-affirming.  I think that every generation has a different take, because you’re coming in to consciousness at different points in history.  I’m interested in the shifts that happen in response to economics and social awareness. I’m interested how people feel about their lives at this moment in time and what is art for and who is it for.

I feel like the art world is really changing, especially over the past five years. There is a new idealism in younger people with a multigenerational effect as part of the desire to be inclusive. We live in a community of artists, and one of the great things we have is the ability to talk to each other. That’s got to be a good thing! I see the phenomenon of curators putting different generations together as part of the promotion of a dialogue.  Some time last year I read Louis Hyde—he had a big article in the Times called “Who is Art For?” and I think especially in view of economic inequality this is the question to be asking. I came of age in the civil rights era and we were very idealistic. It was about seeing the future as non-hierarchical and people being really equal. I think art might be seen as captured by the elite in some way.  Who is art for? is not a subject that gets much attention. These questions are now beginning to be asked and implemented by younger generations.  I really get a kick out of this new job description for an artist—being both the community activist and the gallerist, I mean that’s pretty amazing. It reminds me of the alternatives that went on in California the 60’s then again in Lower Manhattan in the early 80’s where there was a lot of dialogue because the money issue was put aside.

You were included in the seminal 1978 New Museum exhibition “Bad” Painting curated by Marcia Tucker, who was saying that “bad” painting might mean freedom, ie:

“The freedom with which these artists mix classical and popular art-historical sources, kitsch and traditional images, archetypal and personal fantasies, constitutes a rejection of the concept of progress . . . By passing the idea of progress implies an extraordinary freedom to do and to be whatever you want. In part, this is one of the most appealing aspects of “bad” painting – that the ideas of “good” and “bad” are flexible and subject to both the immediate and the larger context in which the work is seen.” 

What do you think of the term “bad painting” today? Do you think it still has currency or potential today? 

Yeah, I think it was a really interesting moment.  Marcia was definitely of the same generation I’m from and she and her parents were active in Civil Rights and feminism.

I think that her vision was to see the New York scene open up to changing forces—to invite in these artists from all over the country to decentralizing New York in terms of the generational flow of Modernist painting. Abstract Expressionism is fantastic, it’s still way up there in my mind as the greatest art ever made, but there was a kind of tyranny around it, where so many possibilities had to be repressed in order to execute the party line. And I think that everybody felt that. I was coming from California, the land of total permission, so I didn’t exactly know; I didn’t have a real feel of where she was coming from.  I hadn’t experienced first hand the tyranny of this kind of Old New York School, but I think that’s what she was pushing against, or she could see the artists were pushing against it.  That we could open the door and let in these other possibilities—it would challenge and topple the old authority. She started a wave of interest not only in painting but a dialogue with the individual artists. This morphed into the bad-boy styles of “Neo-Expressionism” and continues to re-merge in the work of young artists.

Do you think there’s something else that’s like “bad painting” that’s going on today?

There’s a lot of interest in ‘outsider’ work, and certainly that was going on in California fifty years ago! I was collecting, teaching at community centers with Vietnam Vets and at The Creative Growth Center, as well as participating in the 1967 San Francisco Museum of Art “Dia De Los Muertos (Souls and Spirits)” 1979 exhibition. Nobody had a problem with that.  It’s great that there’s more people invited to the party.  I think outsider work represents work that’s done spontaneously, it’s done with a certain compulsive urgency, and it’s mostly done with a pure heart because of the needs of the maker.   This is a wonderful thing to keep in mind.  I’m not sure that it’s important to aspire to, but it’s a nice kind of marker to keep in mind. When I see a lot of work made by outsiders, it makes me long to see a Matisse, it will make me long to see somebody who’s intellectually engaged.

Many of your paintings are of or have female figures in them.  Do you consider yourself a feminist?  What is your interest in the female figure?  What does it mean to be a female painter right now?

I think I was born a feminist!  I come from a long line of Amazons and the revival of feminism in the nineteen seventies was a very revelatory moment for my work—it gave a framework for my thinking. And it gave a context for my previous experiences, which were pretty horrendous.  There’s still a lot of work to be done, I can’t wait for Hillary Clinton to run for president and see everybody go nuts!

The women in my work are just going about their business; they are really not posing. A young painter mentioned recently that my women look like they escaped from the Demoisselles d’Avignon or a Cezanne painting and are now on leave pursuing they’re own futures.  I think about their body language and what their appearance might signify in hedonistic reverie and how their presence is different than the presence of the female figure in premodern painting where it was presumed that the male gaze owned the women. In my paintings, the women own the real estate. Jennifer Riley described this idea about women and real estate in a review of my work, and I love that.

 I LOVE the HBO show Girls! I think that show is revolutionary! The character Hannah [Lena Dunham], is always seen au natural and often scantily clothed, she is not trying to be an ideal beauty. I think she is making a case for “this is the way women actually look you deal with it” and one does not have to live up to impossible ideals off beauty.   The territory of the idealized female form brings to mind the paintings of Lisa Yuskavage. Now that I think about it, Lisa is combining the idealized (the smooth skin conveyed by the wonderfully crafted surface that represents the women’s skin) and the poses that are less than flattering and idealizing.

There has been a conversation about postmodern or ironic painting versus an emerging desire for emotionally honest painting, sincere painting. Thoughts? What do you think about the role of postmodernism and irony in painting?

There’s a lot of art I like that is ironic. I think it’s fine to strategize ahead of time but it’s just not for me and I don’t know if I can make any blanket statements about irony. I will say being overly earnest and naive is not a good option either.

Seeing Christopher Wool’s show this fall was food for thought.   He has a certain distance in his work that could be seen as ironic and it reminds me that a paint stroke doesn’t mean the same thing as it did in 1955.  I quite like the results and the show at the Guggenheim. You see a mind working through thirty years of painting.

I like really risky work, work that’s embarrassing and makes you uncomfortable.  And certainly his work isn’t embarrassing, it’s incredibly elegant I think one of the particular things that painting offers—is that it is visual and physical.  I see the danger –if you’re a painter and you’re painting on a rectangle you have thousands of years of history to contend with.  Your work will submerge in that history if you don’t do something to distinguish it. I don’t know how you address that. Certainly one way would be strategy.

Personally I like the confines of traditional painting.  I think Poussin’s paintings are like miracles.  I can get so many ideas and be so stimulated from this simple rectangle—it gives me hope that I could make something that good, or that significant.

I am not sure I know what emotionally honest painting is but there is an idea of working through the process little by little and not looking for short cuts. Developing your relationship with the work over time is present in all good art be it Sigmar Polke or Fairfield Porter or Leonor Fini or Frida Kahlo.

I remember getting a letter in 1972 asking for my comments on the death of painting.  This notion has been around forever, that painting is done and let’s move on and it’s not a possibility.

But here we are and you’re still making still lifes!  What do you think are the possibilities in figurative painting with “traditional” elements and structures such as the still-life and the nude?

I guess I’m just really confident that I bring something unique to it!  Because it isn’t really just a still-life and I paint naked figures in action, not academic nudes.

I find the patronage aspect a little troublesome…the idea that the really wealthy get the first access to buy good paintings unless you’re really smart with a good eye!  That is problematic.  It’s so easy to commodify.

There was a big article in The New Yorker about Theaster Gates who has a Community Art Center in Chicago that is really brilliant. The artist’s work is actually changing his rust belt neighborhood into a new Eden, and bringing more voices into the conversation as an activist.  I mean it’s amazing and really something to aspire to.  He will not need to be alone for eight hours a day!

Do you feel the same way about Bushwick?

Oh yeah, it’s definitely an amazing phenomenon and it’s so great!  All of these things are fabulous and I am pleased to be included in new gallery shows at Elgin Gallery, Heliopolis, and Fred Valentine’s gallery.  I mean I actually thought about this when I was getting out of art school, because it was the time of civil rights, and I was teaching in Oakland public schools.  I really felt like art could save people’s lives and wouldn’t it be great to just go around and give people art materials and show their work in Oakland, and how would you begin to do that?  So I think it’s fantastic that there are these artist-run galleries that give their fellow artists an opportunity to show their work because it’s what is needed to make good work—it’s part of the process.  And there were real forerunners like Pierogi.  I mean there was a strong history in the New York 70’s and 80’s alternative art worlds operating with the ghost of money and the enthusiasm has spread with the Artists’ Space and White Columns philosophy to other venues like Zurcher Studio, Brian Morris Gallery, and Lesley Heller Workspace. It’s great to see artist-selected groupings.  So there are these Gowanus, Bushwick, and Ridgewood galleries with a community-oriented “y’all come” kind of thing.  And the fact that these artists’ run galleries are so numerous gives it a certain credibility.

 
Arctic Hare, 2010, 18 x 14 in., oil on linen

Arctic Hare, 2010, 18 x 14 in., oil on linen

 

What advice would you give on how to develop and sustain a painter’s voice throughout a lifetime?

Well, I guess I’m not big on giving advice!  You should do what you personally can do.

For me it’s important to make a mess every day. That’s kind of at the core of my involvement, as a process of working through poverty and single motherhood, everything is to make sure that I’m working, that I never stop working.

I have always relied on community, as the first line of being visible and finding encouragement. This started with the informal women’s groups in San Francisco. The move to the more intensely verbal and overtly competitive New York art world has helped me develop my work and clarify my ideas. To be in an environment where every one believes in the importance of art really puts wind in my sails.

Published in Figure/Ground April 14th, 2014

Interview with Lori Ellison

By ASHLEY GARRETT, JAN. 2014

Lori Ellison was a nationally exhibiting artist and writer living in Brooklyn, New York.  She received her BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1981 and her MFA from Tyler School of Art in 1996. She attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1993.  Ellison worked with notebook paper and pen in addition to gouache on panels, and she has also worked with egg tempera, enamels, and glitter.  Ellison was also a poet and aphorist.  Recent group exhibitions include The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, CA, Philip Slein Gallery in St Louis, MO, and the UB Art Gallery at SUNY Buffalo.  Her work has been reviewed in The New York TimesNew York MagazineArtcriticalHyperallergic, and numerous other publications.  Ellison’s drawings are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.  Her paintings and drawings are now on view in a solo exhibition entitled “Lori Ellison” at McKenzie Fine Art in New York through February 16th, 2014.

I first encountered Lori Ellison’s work and writings on Facebook. Special thanks to painter Ben Pritchard for introducing me to Ellison during Ellison’s opening reception at McKenzie Fine Art on January 10th, 2014. Thanks also to Brian Wood for his help in the development of the interview questions and to Valerie McKenzie of McKenzie Fine Art in New York for her help with this project.

Can you talk a little about your background and upbringing? How did you become an artist?  What is your first memory of acknowledging/discovering art and finding your place in it?

I drew all the time when I was a child and the womenfolk in my family said I would be an artist when I grew up and I tended to believe them.  I grew up in the DC area so my parents took us constantly to the museums there so I had a lot of early exposure to art.

When the time came in my senior year to apply for college, my father and I decided going into commercial art would be practical and so I applied to Virginia Commonwealth University and got in to the Communication Arts and Design department.  What I learned about design I use intuitively with the work I do in abstraction.

 
Untitled, 2013, ink on notebook paper, 11 x 8.5 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

Untitled, 2013, ink on notebook paper, 11 x 8.5 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

 

What effect did moving to New York City have on your work?

The first summer I was here, in 1996, (right after graduating from my MFA at Tyler School of Art) I was subletting a space without a studio or an air conditioner.  I had discovered myself doodling motifs from my paintings in my notebook during lectures and artist’s talks.  I had a college ruled notebook and started making serious drawings with a Papermate ballpoint pen in cafes and diners for the air conditioning.  I took my work to Pierogi and met so many artists in the neighborhood of Williamsburg, and some collectors and artists bought my work.

Kasia’s was a Polish restaurant I went to frequently for lunch and coffee and an artist named Greg Stone pointed me out to art critic Sarah Schmerler and she wrote an article called “Working in Brooklyn” for Art on Paper Magazine including my work and four others who worked in what has often been termed an obsessive style.  Due to this article my work was purchased by the Rothschild Foundation for a works on paper sweep donated to the Museum of Modern Art.

New York was hard on me in the early years though, I was getting hourly wage jobs that didn’t last very long and my art was selling for very low prices.  Through sheer determination I kept making my work on weekends and in the morning before I went to work and was included in group shows here and there, enough to keep my hopes up.

The turning point was in 2008 when I had a two-person show at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg and Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith came and both wrote about me for New York Magazine and the New York Times respectively.

Why do you choose to make your drawings on notebook paper? There is a shared public history with most everyone understanding the meaning of lined paper—as doodles or notes or related in some way to language, a shared intimacy of writing, both public and private.  Do you see the materials as a bridge between your visual work and your writing and aphorisms? 

I started with notebook paper and have resisted change.  I like the blue lines showing and everyone can relate to doodling in a notebook while stuck in classes all those years of schooling.  I write poems and aphorisms and think of them as quite separate from my drawing and painting life.  I did do a series of ballpoint pen drawings of my aphorisms with a goth girl lettering I came up with and combined the two that once.

 
Untitled, 2013, ink on notebook paper, 11 x 8.5 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

Untitled, 2013, ink on notebook paper, 11 x 8.5 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

 

A lot has been said by you and others about the concept of scale and the effect it has on the making of your work. Can you talk a little bit more about your attraction to what you’ve called the humble scale and how you discovered that a smaller intimate scale is right for your work?   

To best answer this, I will share an essay I wrote on humility and making small work:

In Richmond, Virginia there once was a gallery named RAW for Richmond Artists Workshop that had an exhibition of many works entitled “Small Art Goes directly to the Brain.”

If one is lucky, Small Art goes directly to the heart. For this it must be humble and on a suitably modest scale – in this way some work can be crowned Great. (Golda Meir once said “don’t be humble, you aren’t that great.”) To work with humility, one must acquire some of the practical virtues artists need: diligence, temperance, modesty, bravery, ardor, devotion and economy.

To work with humility it is better to strive for the communal if not the downright tribal; for wisdom in choices rather than cleverness; good humor in practice; and practice as daily habit. Phillip Guston famously said he went to work in his studio every single day because what if he didn’t and “that day the angel came”? Henry James once said, “We work in the dark, we give what we have, our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.” Doubt is humility after a long, long apprenticeship.

Small works dance a clumsy tango with one’s shadow. Huge works can ice skate over one’s nerves, file under fingernails on a chalkboard – I can just hear the screeching.

If our work is so small and reticent that one doesn’t enter the space of the painting, no mind – we just might be making work that enters straight into the viewer’s ribs. I am weary of art that tickles my forehead for an instant and is gone – I am looking for the kind that thrums in my chest and lodges there, in memory, like those souvenir phials of the air of Paris Duchamp proposed.

Proportion based on the lyric, not the epic – that is where the juice lives. Stirred, not shaken. Duchamp once said that art is the electricity that goes between the metal pole of the work of art and the viewer, and I don’t need shock treatment. Art that is the size and resonance of a haiku, quiet and solid as the ground beneath one’s feet – not art that wears a monocle and boxing gloves in hopes of knocking other art out of the room. A discrete art, valiantly purified of the whole hotchpotch of artist’s tricks and tics.

 
Untitled, 2012, gouache on wood panel, 12 x 9 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

Untitled, 2012, gouache on wood panel, 12 x 9 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

 

That, that is what I am looking for.

In looking at and reading about your work, I don’t feel it’s about repetition or obsession or even meditation (as understood in the more casual sense of reverie) at all.  To my eye it is an extreme, razor-sharp precision of seeing, of knowing another space physically and deeply, a little like in your poem Tondo of a Goose Chase: “selfdeaf and selfblind.”  Can you talk a little bit about your process?  Do you work and write in tandem or does one feed the other?

First, I would like to thank you for not finding my work obsessive.  This has been the knee jerk reaction to it for many years now.  Recently James Kalm posted his video of my show on Facebook and called my work obsessive.  Two people defended my work saying it was not obsessive.  I was grateful to both of them.

My process varies from drawing to drawing or painting to painting – sometimes I work from the center outwards, sometimes from the edges inwards, and sometimes up and down or left to right.

I write from one area of my mind and make visual art from another area of my mind.  I have never come up with what to write while working on a drawing or painting.  They are quite separate operations.

 
Untitled, 2012, gouache on wood panel, 12 x 9 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

Untitled, 2012, gouache on wood panel, 12 x 9 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

 

You’ve used Facebook a great deal as a way to both create dialogue with others and to share writings about your work as well as your poetry and aphorisms.  When did you join Facebook and what effect did that have on your work?  How do you see the development of the social network and communicating about your work and dialogue the way you do as an important part of your practice?  What kind of dialogue are you looking for?

I joined Facebook in 2010 after making a drawing entitled “Facetime Not Facebook.”  I was resisting before I joined up but liked it right away when I did join.  It has been very important to me – the first time I came out as a poet.  (I had never told anyone in the art world that I also wrote poetry.)  I had not written many aphorisms since my original burst of over 100 in the year 2000 but found Facebook a perfect platform for them.  I only post my artwork, my aphorisms, my poems and share political things on my newsfeed normally.  No updates of microchanges in my emotional temperature or chat about the weather.  My husband says I have a cult following on Facebook.

I came across your work in that same way—by noticing the conversation that other artists were having with you when you said “Formalism is not without content.” It’s very interesting, because a lot of people jump in to just agree with you, or show their own biases or thought processes, and then it breaks open when someone asks what the word ‘formalism’ means in the first place.  I think it was George Rodart who was trying to pin down a definition and said that no one knows what it really means.  What is formalism to you and what is the content that emerges from it? 

I went to Wikipedia because though I know what formalism is through practice and discussion, I couldn’t form it into a brief definition.  Here is the first paragraph:

In art history, formalism is the study of art by analyzing and comparing form and style—the way objects are made and their purely visual aspects. In painting formalism emphasizes compositional elements such as color, line, shape and texture rather than iconography or the historical and social context. At its extreme, formalism in art history posits that everything necessary to comprehending a work of art is contained within the work of art. The context for the work, including the reason for its creation, the historical background, and the life of the artist, is considered to be of secondary importance.

 
Untitled, 2013, ink on notebook paper, 11 x 8.5 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

Untitled, 2013, ink on notebook paper, 11 x 8.5 in., courtesy the artist and McKenzie Fine Art, New York

 

I often write aphorisms and poetry over my head so to speak, although I do know what they mean, I share them to see what others make of them.  I find myself resisting explaining them unless it has come across unclear in a specifically addressable way.

I loved this aphorism of yours:

“I love works that are so simple yet no one has done before. There is a sense of recognition as if the idea had been waiting for the right artist.”

It made me wonder what your take on postmodernism is? Can you talk a little bit about making art that’s of your own voice in this particular moment, one of prevalent postmodern ironic art? As you said recently on FB—Formalism ends where postmodernism begins. What did you mean by that?

Postmodernism was something we read about in graduate school, although our instructors were mainly abstract artists and chose not to speak in that language.  Kierkegaard said “Earnestness is acquired originality” and I hold on to that in making and looking at work that I respect.  Irony is needed in life, especially when one is younger, but it doesn’t need to go into the work.

I had to explain the aphorism Formalism ends where postmodernism begins: I mean in individual practice formalism ends when one starts making things from a postmodern point of view.  Several people thought I meant it historically whereas I meant it in an individual’s practice. It led to a good discussion on Facebook.  It came out of the discussion started when I posted Formalism is not without content.

Published in Figure/Ground Jan. 27th, 2014.

Interview with choreographer Molissa Fenley

By ASHLEY GARRETT, OCTOBER 2013

Choreographer and performer Molissa Fenley has created more than 75 dance works in her ongoing career.  Her work has been presented throughout the United States, South America, Europe, Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Born in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1954, she earned her BA in 1975 at Mills College in Oakland, California, and in 1977 she formed the Molissa Fenley Company in New York City.

Molissa Fenley performing 9 4 Feathers , 2010. Photo © Julie Lemberger.

Molissa Fenley performing 94 Feathers, 2010. Photo © Julie Lemberger.

Fenley has collaborated with many visual artists throughout her career, including Kiki Smith, Richard Long, Francesco Clemente, Merrill Wagner, Keith Haring, and Roy Fowler; and she has also incorporated the musical compositions of Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and John Cage. Her work has been commissioned by the American Dance Festival, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, the Joyce Theater, DIA Art Foundation, Jacob’s Pillow, Lincoln Center, the New National Theater of Tokyo, the National Institute of Performing Arts in Seoul, The Kitchen, Dance Theater Workshop and many others.

She is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome and a Master Artist of the Atlantic Center of the Arts. Recent awards include the NEA American Masterpieces Initiative for the reconstruction of Regions. Fenley received a New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award for Choreography for Cenotaph (1985) and State of Darkness (1988).  She is Professor of Dance at Mills College, in residence each spring semester, and often teaches choreography at the Experimental Theater Wing of New York University and repertory workshops at other universities, most recently at Bennington College.

Recent works include The Vessel Stories, with music by Philip Glass, Credo in US, with music by John Cage and Cross Bridge: a collaboration with Holley Farmer, John Jesurun, David Moodey and Rosemary Quinn. I sat down with Molissa at her loft in Tribeca, New York on October 8th.

I’d like to start by responding to your recent performance for New York Live Arts. Program B began with a re-staging of Witches’ Float, the collaboration you did with sculptures by Kiki Smith, which originally debuted in 1993.  There was a reddish-brown body paint on the torso, arms, neck and face of the dancer. The contrast between the texture of the skin of the dancer and the sculptures was really interesting—the sculptures had a desaturated quality or lack of color.  As the dancer sweated the body paint texture changed and it melted off, it seemed to be an expression of bleeding. I’m really interested to hear about your thinking and decision making that went into that piece.

Body paint is really its own sort of business.  It’s really hard to know what it’s going to do on a body. When I danced Witches’ Float years ago, the body paint that we used was either another type or my skin is of a very different texture than Holley’s and also I’m not a big sweater, so it pretty much stayed intact through the duration of the dance, which is about an 18 minute-long piece. Holley sweats a lot more, and I think this is also a very different type of body paint - we actually sprayed it with a fixative.  For the performance on Friday night we did the fixative first which was not how you’re supposed to do it—haha!  We learned over the night. The fixative first on her skin made it actually hard to apply the body paint, so we figured out that it’s the other way around. And of course the instructions are tiny and we didn’t have a magnifying glass and we just said, well, it must go on first!  So it turns out for this particular brand you spray it on after you have the body paint intact and then it acts as a seal. The night you were there, it was running, and one point in time it probably looked like blood—so she actually looked bloody…

 
Holley Farmer in Fenley’s  Witches’ Float , 2013, New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Holley Farmer in Fenley’s Witches’ Float, 2013, New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas.

 

Yeah, that’s what we were thinking!

The idea of that piece was really interesting. Kiki and I were talking about how everyone’s outer skin is of a particular color, whatever their race or heritage, but if you were to flay that, the inside of everybody is bright red.  It was a means of getting to an idea of the “every body.” This shamanic figure could really be anybody—male, female, and the idea of the costume suggests that too.  The dancer is bare-breasted but covered in body paint, which is kind of like a costume in and of itself. And on the bottom she was wearing pants that look both masculine and feminine, the top is feminine and the bottom is masculine—the pants are a kind of dhoti, designed by Gabriel Berry. It’s like a human form of both female and male being presented. And it’s of any race, because it’s flayed, a very raw idea.

Where does the ‘witch’ element come into that?

Kiki and I had been discussing the women (witches) tried during the Salem Witch Trials. Women were tied to chairs and thrown into the river—if they floated they were a witch, and if they sank they were not a witch, but they were dead.  Well of course everyone dies! If you notice in the title, ‘witches’ is possessive, so it’s like the float of the witch—well now, what would that be? We started thinking about a kind of shamanic transformation that might take place during a possession, being immersed in something in a very deep way. The practitioner starts underneath the floating witch, whom is a sort of overseer; this is where it all begins.  And then once some kind of transference has taken place, the practitioner travels into the middle of the space to where two halves of a sculpture lay side by side—one upside up, the other upside down. It’s as if two halves of the same person, but it also a kind of mold.  And in essence, it is: it’s the mold that the floater came out of.  The dancer then continues to stand in front of the sculpture as a standing witness, which is actually a plaster cast of me.  Kiki and I made the original work in ’93.

It has a slight angle forward, right?

Yes, she’s really staring in and watching.

It has an aggressive feeling to it.

There’s a confrontational feeling to it, yeah. There’s sort of like a “you’re being watched” feeling, and then at one point the practitioner comes very close and puts her arm around the witness, leans in and listens to what the witness is “saying”, a very intense moment, I love that moment!

I loved the way it was lit, the viewer’s frame of reference was so molded around it, shaping the way we see the sculptures and the dancer.

My lighting designer David Moodey has been working with me since 1986. He has a really uncannily completely clear idea of how to light my work. And I explained that this dance is really in three parts—around the floater zone, then it’s around the cocoon zone, and then it’s around the witness. The witness is ultimately sort of ‘all-seeing,’ perhaps, and then at the end of the dance the floater sculpture lowers to just hovering above the stage floor. I’m not sure what the significance of that is for me but certainly the practitioner takes on the authority of the space. There’s nothing over her anymore.

I’m really interested in the way you’re describing the dancer as a practitioner. Can you explain your choice of language?

For that piece in particular, when you think of shamanic rites, you think of a subject that goes through the practice. And so the practitioner is the person who is undergoing this journey, this rite of passage, or this rite of entrance into another world. So practitioner makes sense to me in terms of that piece. I wouldn’t use that term for the other dances.

Witches’ Float, 1993, Molissa Fenley. Music by Alvin Lucier, “Music on a Long Thin Wire.” Sculpture by Kiki Smith. Commissioned by the Krannert Art Center, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.

I can see what you’re saying about the transformation in the movements in Witches’ Float, the movements start out really slow and intense and they build up to these rapid, jagged movements—

It’s interesting, I made that piece right after I’d been in India for two weeks and in India everyone’s going around like this—and I’m shaking my head in the way that the practitioner does in Witches’ Float.  Everyone’s doing it all the time! And if you ask someone a question, it’s just like—well, are you saying yes or no, or—what are you saying! I can’t understand what it is exactly, but it’s an Indian trait that I noticed when I was there and so I wanted to use that because I found it to be so reverberate.  And the music is very beautiful, by Alvin Lucier, “Music On a Long Thin Wire,” and it’s built on the idea of vibration. And so this idea of a vibration inside the body really manifesting in the neck and head, I thought was just fascinating.  And that whole thing of the stirring hands, again very kind of spell-like. Not necessarily casting a spell because I don’t think of the dancer as a ‘witch’ as such, but she is inside of some other kind of worldly presence or other worldly state of being. And then her movements—you called them jagged, that’s right. There are a lot of very staccato actions, meaning very abrupt and percussive. There are two very different actions that are going on, two different types of movements. The legato versus a very tight gesture.

It seems to come out of nowhere, it breaks the space in this really gestural way even though it doesn’t feel gestural. It’s sort of severe, and very intense.

A lot of that is taken from my idea of a kind of Hindu dance. I’ve also really been interested in Asian art for a very long time, and in Indian art the dancers are always like “this,” they call it tribanga, it’s three bends—there’s a bend at the hip, a bend at the torso and a bend at the neck, so I really like that idea that the body is seen almost like a river—as a serpentine form. In Hindu dance the positions of the hands are called ‘mudras.’ If you think of Hawaiian dance, the hands are saying some kind of communicative message or telling a story and I wanted to really abstract that but to have an other-worldly thing going on in the hands and the upper body that is eluding to something coming from a whole other ethnography.

In Found Object which debuted at New York Live Arts, you were responding to other artists’ instructions while also responding to dance notes of your own as a kind of instruction?

It started with a piece I did in 2012 called Cross Bridge which started from looking back at one of my choreographic journals in my archive at Mills College. I found a series of phrases that had been written out in language but had never been made into a dance. I’ll show you some of the language—not necessarily of those pieces but just in general:

Arabesque out to the right and tilt back.

Place, reach left arm, end in plie, extend legs and torso,

Arm twist, lunge forward on the right and elbow forearm twisting.

This is the language I use to write down my phrases. That’s how I memorize them—I sit on the subway and read, almost like memorizing lines. And once the piece is performed a video is made, and that’s how the piece is documented, between the notes and the video. For those particular phrases that formed the source of Cross Bridge there was no video made to actually show exactly what the language meant. The phrases were written around the year 2000, and I was looking at them in 2012, so it’s twelve years later and I have no idea exactly what it means.  I found that very interesting because it was like finding some instructions that I knew had been made by me at some point but their meaning was not clear anymore. I made a new translation interpreting what the language described to me.  I thought that was really interesting following instructions, and so enjoying that, I decided that for this new piece I would ask for instructions from others and I wanted to work with writers for this found object. I wrote to each writer, Joy Harjo, John Guare and Rudy Wurlitzer and asked if they would send instructions that my working on or solving would come up to about five minutes of stage time. Also in asking for instructions, I made the stipulation to myself that whatever they give me I accept, so that it really becomes in essence a found object. If you find these instructions buried somewhere and just use them, then you don’t really have a judgment about them. I really like that.

I like the idea of the piece’s title. That it’s a found object, but it’s not an object at all. It’s abstract instructions that can be interpreted and even though they’re specific, it’s still completely up to you how you do it—that’s sort of the opposite of a real object.

Right. And in John Guare’s found object instruction, there were the two instructions—one about drying flowers, and one about your rights as a POW under the Geneva Convention. In part of the language of drying flowers, when he says what you need—you need scissors, you need string, you need a ruler, you need newspaper, and you need two small vases. I was memorizing my lines one day and I just thought it would be hilarious if all of a sudden two GIGANTIC vases arrive on stage! So I asked painter Roy Fowler to paint a backdrop of some vases and he almost immediately got into that idea of the Rubin vases which is the trompe l’oeil thing–if you look at it one way, it’s a profile, if you look at it another way, it’s a vase. So there are two of them, one is Rosemary’s profile, the actress I was working with, and one is mine. And then at the end, the last statement is “place arrangements in small vases, display or give as a gift,” and we place ourselves in front of the canvases. I love that!

Found Object , 2013. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

Found Object, 2013. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

In the fourth part—those two things, flowers and POWs are objects, they’re things to be acted upon, they don’t have their own wills, really. So that’s sort of another interesting interpretation of it.

Yeah. And in the very beginning of the dance were the hand props made by Jene Highstein who made them for me for a piece in 2010, called Pieces of Land, which was one of five of the Prop Dances, and the idea was that when you look down from an airplane, and see the topography of the land – there’s a square there of farmland, there’s a diamond over here of forest, you see things in geometric forms. That was the idea—that these were pieces of land that we’re carrying on our bodies. And they’ve just been sitting in my closet, so they were another found object for me. I just found them in my closet and Jene had just recently died of an illness and so it was a nice remembrance of him to wear them.

Found Object , 2013. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

Found Object, 2013. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

I loved Energizer. I loved the repetition in the piece, the music was fabulous, and I read that it was recovered from your archive and the sound recording had to be baked in the oven in order to recover the quality.  Can you talk a little about that?

Yes, the tape is one of those big reel-to-reels, and when Maggi Payne, who is a professor out at Mills—she’s a wonderful conservator of music as well as a music professor and composer—she put it on to listen to it and there was nothing there. The music was composed in 1980 and this is 2013, over the years what had happened was that the music cells embedded themselves inside the tape, into the inner workings of the tape, the cells get “lost.” It’s hard to explain but they are not apparent anymore, they’re not at the surface so you can’t record them anymore.  She baked them at 110 degrees for twelve hours.  The heat coaxes the cells of the music up to the surface of the tape so that you can re-record it. She did such an incredible job and the music sounds like it was made yesterday. That was the really fun thing about bringing a piece back like Energizer, choreographed in 1980, not danced since 1982, so 33 years old. And not having been even thought about for 31 years. That’s just like one of my pieces that’s just been sitting in the video can all these many years and so to bring it out I wanted to do a pure reconstruction of it—the costumes, the movement, the music, all but the lighting was new—the lighting was by David Moodey. The original lighting had been by Phil Standstrom. It was just amazing to do.

I was wondering that—what is it like for you to see your work from when you were first beginning and now restaged?

Well it’s just fascinating! And I wanted to do it so that it was a true translation, I didn’t monkey with it, make it so-called “better” or come at it with a more mature choreographic eye or anything.  I thought that the mathematical construction of it was really interesting and there are these different variations of things—I mean, it’s a very dense piece. Very complex—there’s a lot of vocabulary in there that’s minutely different each time it’s danced and then phrases were cut up so that sometimes you get part of phrase A and ended it with phrase B and then sometimes you’d get one measure of phrase C on top of that.  I mean, it was really complex!

Members of Molissa Fenley and Company performing  Energizer , reconstructed in October 2013 at New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

Members of Molissa Fenley and Company performing Energizer, reconstructed in October 2013 at New York Live Arts. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy New York Live Arts.

Really ambitious, just so packed.

Yeah, and I was just 25.

The layeringthe movement and the energy, it kept unfolding and coming and coming, I really enjoyed it.

The thing that was funny was that when it was made Anna Kisselgoff really loved it and gave it a big boom, but everybody else just derided it. Saying it was like marathon dance, and a flash in the pan, and all this stuff, it was just so confrontational.

The new lighting was really interesting, the projection in the back had a landscape quality, almost twig-like but at the same time abstract, and it had a strange visual interference to it. It wasn’t a straight projection, it had sort of a weird pixelated feel to it.

Yeah, that was on a scrim. And then the pattern on the floor was really interesting. We all worked on that dance really hard all summer. Peiling and Becky and I started working on it last March when I was at Mills. Peiling got her MFA at Mills in 2010 and she lives in Oakland, and Becky is at Stanford working on her doctorate in performance studies. And so we would get together once or twice a week and just pour over the video and put it on slo-mo and try to figure out what the steps were. Then I got back here in the summer and I started with Cassy and then Chris came in about halfway through the summer, and it’s just painstaking to reconstruct it. It was so much fun, it was so rewarding when we finally found a phrase and then we’d do it and then we’d look at the video one more time and correct ourselves and then figuring out who went where, it was just really great.

Molissa Fenley in the original staging of  Energizer  in 1980. Photo © Paula Court, Courtesy Special Collections, F.W. Olin Library, Mills College.

Molissa Fenley in the original staging of Energizer in 1980. Photo © Paula Court, Courtesy Special Collections, F.W. Olin Library, Mills College.

That’s what I was wondering, as a visual artist myself, wondering about the differences between that and what you do. How do you make work? What’s your working process? How do you self-edit?

Well it’s really different for each piece. It’s hard to know exactly what the working process for that piece was because it was so many years ago.  But I doubt it would be too much different from now. The way I work now and have for as long as I’ve been aware of how I’m working is that I start making phrases of movement, and they get written down. And they get memorized and uncannily enough I almost always work chronologically, it starts at the beginning and just goes. I rarely start with music, music comes often quite a bit later. I start with my own forms of rhythmic structuring. In Energizer, it’s just a real solid base of 4/4 all the way through. Dances made after that would be rhythmically all over the place, you know, a measure of 5, a measure of 7, like the piece I did in 1983 called Hemispheres with Anthony Davis was really polymetric, so that formatting changed. I’m pretty sure at that time, in 1980, I would have dancers come in probably maybe an hour or two after I’d been working by myself and then I’d teach them what I’d made, and then I would set it spatially. For Energizer I was really interested in a circle, and then within that there’s the square of the axis, so there’s this sort of pie thing going on—there’s the top axis, the horizontal axis, the vertical axis and then the diagonal axes, and there’s a sense that a rotational idea is going on, and then there’s also a big square around the whole thing, so there’s an outer perimeter square and then an inner circle. It gets cut up and re-seen over and over—a dancer will do something and then another dancer comes immediately and does the same pathway but then maybe has a different ending and goes off and does something else, and then that might be echoed by another dancer. So it’s very intricate, moment by moment. And then as I said, I work very intuitively. I’m sure that in Energizer, once I would get something done—and we didn’t have video back then! —you just did stuff, and you either remembered it or you didn’t. Of course the piece was video taped, because that’s how I was able to reconstruct it. The piece that was playing out in the lobby (at New York Live Arts on October 2nd-5th) was the original, that’s the tape that we reconstructed from, so you could see it was really fuzzy, but we managed. As far as daily doings or daily remembering of what we’ve made, it’s all just memorization. It’s writing it down and memorizing, and then the dancers will do the same thing, come in day after day, and you just drill over and over and over and over until it gets completely intact and completely known.

What is it like to work with other dancers? Do you see their bodies and their energies as yours? How do you form other people to make the spatial expressions that you want?

Well I work with people who are really well trained; they have a lot of physical ability. I don’t want them to look exactly like me necessarily, I don’t teach my dancers class every day or something like that. People come to me already warmed up, and either they’re from a ballet background or a Cunningham background—whatever their dance background is, what I take into consideration is the means of how they will translate. And everybody tries very hard to do exactly what I’m doing—I’ll put my hands like that and they do it. But it looks different on everybody because it’s a different body. I really love that. I’m not interested in having everyone look the same, I’m interested in there being a vocabulary that’s translated from person to person in their own idiosyncratic way. In terms of a commonality, we’re all working towards this very particular vocabulary and how to present it in its most clear form from person to person.

What was your first memory of wanting to move through space to express yourself?

Well when I was a little girl I used to make dances for my dog and me. I had a dog named Shadow and I used to dance around the living room with Shadow all the time. I grew up in Nigeria and was always outside, and I saw a lot of Nigerian dance. I just felt really at home in moving my body.

The Energizer piece seemed to really express some of that rawness, that sort of grounded excitement about learning how to work as a dancer. Is that right?

Yes, that’s exactly right. There’s a total exhilaration there. And also you have to understand, I graduated from Mills College in 1975. I was 20, I got on a bus and came  here to New York, and my first major piece was in ’77, and then in ’79 The Kitchen commissioned a work. So it was very quick, I just jumped in and started being a choreographer right away. I came from a training that was modern dance—we studied Graham technique, Cunningham technique, and Limon technique. I had one semester of ballet, from a woman named Paulette Sears, who was one of the MFA graduate students. I’m not from a ballet background whatsoever. The movement is coming from my interest in the upper body being a very translational mechanism of communication. I guess you could say it started off referencing Egyptian hieroglyphics that I then I twisted into three dimensions. I started forging this vocabulary on my own.

Can you talk more about growing up in Nigeria and attending high school in Spain? What was that like and what made you decide to come back to the states to go to college?

Well I went to high school in Spain because I wanted to go to an American college and the high schools in Nigeria were not accredited. All the American embassy kids—my Dad worked with USAID— kids from North and West Africa went to high schools in Spain at American air force bases. The first year I was there I was in Sevilla, which is in the south and the second year which was my senior year I was in Zaragosa in the north. On an air force base, which is so-called “American soil” in Spain, we would take weekend trips into the city. I saw a lot of flamenco dance, which I was very influenced by, and although I didn’t study it, I really loved the whole extension of the back and the hands behind the head. There’s a lot of that in my work, particularly in my early work. I really loved the extreme verticality with really flamboyant arms. You know when you’re a kid, you just grow up where you grow up, and you don’t really have an opinion about it. When I got older I realized how lucky I was to have grown up in Nigeria. We were in Ibadan, which is about 90 miles inland of Lagos when we first got there, and then later we moved to Lagos on the coast. Our house in Ibadan was right up next to the bush; my brother and I were always on the bush paths. It was a really magical life, and I think about that now, I just think I was so lucky to have had that kind of nature around me, that deep, dark rainforest. Deep and complex and thick rainforest, beautiful—it was absolutely beautiful.

The earlier work that was restaged for the performance felt like that—it felt really grounded in real stuff, the landscape.

The landscape, there’s also a lot of social dance, dancers coming together a lot in these circles.

You’ve done a lot with props and projections and live feeds, and that’s all in addition to working with other creative people. What was the first inanimate object you put into one of your pieces and why did you decide to go in that direction?

I guess the first one—well you saw in the lobby the video of the piece I made with Keith Haring, that was my first piece. That was 1979, I think. The first object though was by the artist Steve Keister for a piece called Boca Raton at The Kitchen for an event called Dance Day. The piece was a small sculpture attached to the ceiling, that was probably the first object. I didn’t relate to it, except that we were underneath it.

He was a substitute for one of my sculpture classes at SVA, he’s really nice and an interesting artist.

Yeah, I actually know him now; he’s a very good friend of Roy’s. But as far as an object that I dealt with—in 1983 there was a project called Hemispheres and it had a series of drawings by Francesco Clemente. The drawings came in packages of ten and when the audience came in they were handed a package of ten —there were four different sets, so the idea was that you got package A and your friend got B, then the next person got C, and D and so on. So the person sitting next to you if you came in as a pair would get another set. Francesco liked this idea of possible commerce; it was the idea of the set design being actually in your hand rather than on the stage. That was very interesting.

Molissa performing a re-staging of  Hemispheres  in 2006. Photo © Paula Court, courtesy the artist.

Molissa performing a re-staging of Hemispheres in 2006. Photo © Paula Court, courtesy the artist.

And an audience participation which doesn’t overshadow the performance.

Yeah. So the drawings were there for that kind of intimate feel of looking at something that’s small. And actually I unfortunately don’t even have one package left. Somebody walked off with my last one. Francesco probably has a package somewhere.

I read that you’re referred to as a “postmodern” dancer. What does that term mean as it relates to dance?

Yes, it’s a very unclear term. Modern dance would be the so-called pioneers. Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Anna Sokolow, Pauline Koner, Doris Humphrey—Isadora Duncan is the mother of them and Balanchine is sort of in there, but he’s in the ballet world. It’s an era. And you would think of that era as spanning the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and then the era of the Judson Church people started—Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Valda Setterfield and Steve Paxton. They were called postmodern because they were after modern. Then you have people like me who aren’t really postmodern because I am not of that group. The original postmoderns were dealing with the idea of a much more ‘pedestrian’ movement, less trained movement. They’re dealing with task-oriented things, coming out of Happenings a little bit, they would have these events and experiments—so that’s a particular type of investigation. And my investigation was once again going back to a more virtuosic physical technically trained expression, but not modern dance, so not coming out of Taylor, not coming out of Graham. I’ve always found it to be a very confusing term and prefer to use the term ‘contemporary,’ but then that’s gotten commandeered. That now can mean hip hop, “So You Think You Can Dance,” all this stuff is now floating around with categories, it’s really hard to say. So when I’m called a postmodernist it doesn’t make sense to me either.2-d,

It’s very interesting in the art world for that word; it becomes so open that it means everything, so it then has no meaning at all.

Yeah, I think it’s the same in dance. Now it’s sort of like a catch-all, not sure what to call it—it’s not modern, it’s not ballet, those are two distinct forms. So then uh, what is it?

What drew you to work with visual artists—in dealing with a static two-dimensional or three-dimensional work, paintings or sculptures, what attracted you to that in your work?

Well I just I really love the idea of the stage space being a volume, I’m talking about the ‘true stage’ in the sense that the theater stage space is there and the audience is out here. Not site-specific work, rather thinking about the volume of the stage area itself as a thing to be filled—you can fill it with light, you can fill it with movement, you can fill it with sound. And I really like the idea of objects or other ideas coming in—like for instance the Richard Long setting for the circle of stones, of where the actual space itself is completely shifted. And that I as a choreographer then not only deal with whatever choreographic concepts I have going on in my own experiments in phrasing or movement vocabulary, to being placed inside this space that’s changed, it’s not empty space anymore. I love empty space, but I also really like the idea of being challenged by either responding or not responding or working in tandem with a thing, of having another flavor in the space. How that space is now different because of this thing that’s inside it. What I do I as a choreographer to make either a larger picture or a smaller picture. It moves me along choreographically, it’s a challenge, it’s like using a piece of music—it has a flavor, it has a sense of structure. It asks: do you use that structure, do you make something in parallel to that structure? It’s like that. I find it as a great soundboard that I can hit off of and get ideas from.

Before I came over I was watching some clips of 94 Feathers, and I was wondering about the props used in that piece. It’s so beautifully integrated and the objects don’t seem to have any natural weight.

I love that piece. 94 Feathers was part of the Prop Dances, which also had the Jene Highstein objects with feathered props made by Merrill Wagner. For the Prop Dances I asked five visual artists to give me something I could either carry or wear. And whatever they gave me, again, I said okay to. Merrill has a huge table in her living room with a big bowl with glass top, in the bowl are all these feathers of birds she’s had over the years—parakeets, turkeys, hawks—feathers she’s either found or they’re from pets. She was interested in using those feathers and she had these metal trays that she had found in a steel foundry near where she lives in Pennsylvania that had holes in them, they were some kind of leftovers. She put the feathers into the holes and made these beautiful forms, they were just extraordinary. I was dancing at that time with Cassie Mey and Katie McGreevy, two dancers that I’d worked with for quite a while and they’re not in the company anymore. ?They moved on in their lives—that’s the other thing, dancers come and go—Cassie worked with me for ten years, and Katie for two or three, so you know it’s a solid group—and we made these pieces. When 94 Feathers was made, it was probably my first instruction piece. Where I made a dance and wrote it down, I was at Mills teaching and they were here in New York. The premiere was going to be here in New York in March during Mills’ spring break. And so I sent them the language of the phrases and asked them to make up what they thought the language was. It was really wonderful. That was the first idea of the method of following instructions and I have just continued further along with that.

Yeah, I really liked that piece—when you were lying down with the feathered object on top of you–

Oh I know, beautiful.

Part 2 of the Prop Dances Joyce Soho, New York city November 14, 2010 Choreography by Molissa Fenley Music by Cenk Ergün Set by Merrill Wagner Performed by Molissa Fenley, Katie McGreevy, Cassie Mey Commissioned by the 92nd Street Y Video by Mark Robision

When you’re co-choreographing with other dancers how is it different for you?

Well for instance, in the third part of Found Object is the poem by Joy Harjo. The poem had instructions written within it, and those instructions I gave to Peiling and Becky and myself to interpret. We each came up with movement for those instructions and then we put it all together. They showed me what their phrases were, what they’d come up with, I’d asked them to make something that’s within the stylistic body of what I might do. Not that I wanted them to make what I would make, but to make something that’s within-the-family-of—

Right, stay in the language.

Right. So they both did and then I thought okay, as one more unifying thing, there were two phrases that I taught of mine that they could do at any time during their rendition of what they were doing. We set it, they dance their phrases, and they insert my phrase 1 somewhere, and then later on insert phrase 2. Then I wanted to add the instruction of where you could replace somebody, or might echo someone for a second. There’s a part where Peiling is standing like this, and I come up and put my hand under hers, I replace her hand and she goes off and I stay there for a second. I really enjoy this method of working, which started with 94 Feathers—to trust. These dancers are all so lovely and they all work so hard and they make really good decisions. They’re very responsible. I can trust the art in them is what I’m saying. I can trust that they will carry the art feeling—my art feeling through their bodies, and that they will make the right choreographic decisions. I found that really interesting to allow that, to have another way of working.

Do you plan on continuing to work with other artists in different mediums in the future?

Oh yeah, always!

So what’s next for you?

I’m going on a really nice residency at the Bogliasco Center in Genoa. I’ll be there from November 18th through December 20th. As a sort of clearing zone, I always find when I’m starting to make a new work I have no idea what it will be, but I know that I will almost always start with a vocabulary. One big source of vocabulary for me is Greek and Roman sculpture of the body. I’ll get a bunch of books and mimic whatever the sculptures are doing, and I’ll find that suddenly I’ve got some phrases—that’s always been a big source material.

Molissa and Company rehearsing at Topaz Arts for their Jacob’s Pillow performance in 2012. Photo by Alyssa Wilmot, Courtesy the artist.

Molissa and Company rehearsing at Topaz Arts for their Jacob’s Pillow performance in 2012. Photo by Alyssa Wilmot, Courtesy the artist.

How long does it typically take you to start something, finish something, work with it, or is just all completely different from piece to piece?

It’s different. For instance I was at the American Academy in Rome in 2008 for six months and I made a pretty major work there called Cosmati Variations. It premiered there in June. I made four parts there but only performed three, towards the end of July I made another part. I worked with Italian dancers, I had an audition and people came in. So it varies. I know that in Bogliasco being there a month I will not necessarily come back with a completed pice but certainly with material.

Thanks Molissa!

I think we cooked it!

Published in Figure/Ground December 6th, 2013.