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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 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