dialogue

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 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.