Work by: Billy Gruner, Deborah Dancy, Ellen Weider, Jason Travers, Michel Carmantrand, Ulla Pedersen
(in alphabetical order by first name)
Painting is an animal that lives and thrives under a very big sky. It is eternally half feral, adapting to the world that it finds itself in but refusing to be fully domesticated by it (even though it has been known to enjoy the privileged status of being hung on a freshly painted wall). And despite multiple claims to the contrary, painting has not yet died. Quite the opposite- it's currently having a great deal of success and is arguably more confident and unapologetic than ever before about what it is and what it can do. It would be a mistake to think of this achievement as somehow requiring the exclusion of another art form. Embracing painting does not mean rejecting photography, sculpture, or digital art; it only means embracing painting, with all that it offers as well as its shortcomings. And it is the acceptance of both its attributes and limitations that opens the door a little wider for the guest of personal expression to be welcomed in.
One area of exploration within the world of painting that has held my attention for decades is the impulse to reduce and abstract. It’s a challenging and ultimately intimate experience to interact with a modified surface that simply refuses (or almost refuses) to illustrate something that we could immediately recognize and attach to a story. Instead, the message is in the materials, colors, lines, and textures themselves. The meaning is about what happens when we are faced with an image that asks us to look without naming, to experience without the help of a narrative, to be present without the expectation of clarity.
I recently invited six artists to participate in The Semi-Finalist’s second summer group post. It’s an international gathering with strong, independent voices that I admire so much. They approach their materials from varied- but always personal- points of view, and each is engaged with what could be considered issues of contemporary abstraction, from the playfully suggestive to the insistently non objective. I want to thank Billy Gruner (Sydney, Australia), Deborah Dancy (Storrs, CT, USA), Ellen Weider (New York, NY, USA), Jason Travers (Providence, RI, USA), Michel Carmantrand (b. France, working in Berlin, Germany) and Ulla Pedersen (Copenhagen, Denmark) for their generous visual and written contributions to this post. Their work moves me both emotionally and intellectually and I’m thrilled to feature each of them here on The Semi-Finalist.
Nonobjectform (Art & Architecture Series), 2021, metal and wood,
approximately 24" x 24"
Billy Gruner's description of his work and his process comes in the form of a video at: Nonobjectform.
(At one point Gruner references RNOP, which is the Reductive Non Objective Project and can be found on facebook.)
(Storrs, CT, USA)
Mapping an Afterthought, 2021, oil on canvas, 38" x 34"
Smoke Signals, 2021, oil on canvas, 66" x 60"
Trapped #10, 2020, acrylic on paper
Age of Aquarius #1, 2021, acrylic on paper
I move back and forth between painting on canvas and works on paper. 2020 was brutal, and the work took on an agitated, fragmented sensibility- there was a sense of the elements being incomplete, like a puzzle where the last pieces are missing. As a concept this became more elemental in the paintings- with color playing a more significant role. I enjoy having lushness meet with the abrupt and the unexpected.
It's Now or Never, 2021,oil on canvas, 22" x 22"
Morass, 2021, acrylic on paper
(New York, NY, USA)
Short Story, 2019, gouache, acrylic, and graphite on linen, 16” x 20”
Triplex, 2020, gouache, acrylic, and graphite on linen, 16” x 20”
Square One, 2021, gouache, acrylic, and graphite on linen, 16” x 20”
Open House, 2021, gouache, acrylic, and graphite on linen, 16” x 20”
My images float in an undefined, ambiguous space. Some suggest houses, buildings, rooms, and other architectural or geometric structures. There are no inhabitants, but the structures themselves sometimes evoke human presence and human interactions, and can also be seen as metaphors for internal states of being. My paintings explore issues of isolation and connection; whether they are interpreted as pure abstractions or as self-contained narratives, an ironic humor with a meditative, existential, transcendental bent informs them.
Weider's studio in NY, NY.
(Providence, RI, USA)
Cathedral, 2021, oil on canvas, 35"x49"
Liminal State, 2019, oil on canvas, 36"x58"
Masquerade, 2021, oil on canvas, 35"x34"
Dreamer, 2018, oil on canvas, 48"x109"
I began painting following in the tradition of plein air painters who studied light and color differences embodied in the landscape. Though literal references to nature have diminished in my paintings, I continue to seek a deep visual connection rooted in Romantic impulses that began in 19th century experience.
I seem to always be preoccupied with the concept of part-to-whole. It’s a kind of visual game that I enjoy playing as long as the solutions are visually enticing, or even perplexing. Many of my paintings are diptychs and other multi-panel configurations, creating relationships that impart a sense of tension. An interesting byproduct of using multi-panel configurations is how the canvases veer away from a traditional illusionistic picture space and into the realm of being objects. I have become interested in the way the canvases imply a more sculptural experience. I like my paintings to play with the viewer’s spatial awareness, rather than having them hang passively on the wall. Though they may appear to be simple on first glance, given time I would like them to slowly open to the senses.
The Frog Prince, 2021, oil
Travers in his Providence, RI studio.
(b. France; currently living in Berlin, Germany)
STAR'S CASE, 2020, mixed media, 72.8" x 72.8"
TOTEM, 2021, mixed media, 72.8" x 72.8"
RESTRAINED BURNING, 2021, mixed media, 72.8" x 72.8"
Flashback: it was in 2011, and at the invitation of my gallerist in this era, that i curated a group exhibition for the first time at the Zweigstelle-Berlin gallery. Other ones followed over the years. This movement (commitment), which involves quite a few studio visits, seems not to need to stop. It’s here that i allow myself to approach my point, let's say, from the ‘outside’, insofar as this activity has proved extremely nourishing, both aesthetically and humanly, since year after year i have been able to gauge the grandiose narcissistic indifference of colleagues as much as their wonderful ability to achieve a profusion of forms that i would have been hard pressed to conceive on my own.
The upcoming in-person group show, which should take place (if the virus plays it soft) at the end of April 2021, brings together ten artists and is titled “Absent.” This time around there will be more objects and sculptures than actual ‘classical’ paintings, which is a change I couldn't foresee, certainly due to a kind of personal modification, this being probably the consequence of everything i have seen and done here.
MIND THE GAP, 2020, mixed media, 67" x 67" x 1.6"
In the same vein, for example, the titles (therefore the relationship to language) have become more important recently, to the point that it can make me decide to paint even if i don't really need special inputs for this. The title can become the subject, the motif, which has never been the case so far. The effects of this slight twist in perspective are that it is no longer the previous practice that decides the method and the tools, but the object, the motif, the subject of the painting to come. But nevertheless, this shift must come from further back in time, since it has been several years since i stopped working in a series, or even imagining that the next painting would be in part the result of previous paintings, that it will resemble the others in one way or another. It seems to me today that the dialectic brings me more fruit than the sequential arrangement. Actually, i'm not at all a specialist painter, quite the contrary. The works are supposed to capture and reflect the most distant echoes, whether these signals come from the history of art (which does not prevent History from being stories, from my point of view) and or from reality, political and social, past or future.
So, as much as possible, no visual identity, but a permanent critique and self-criticism, insofar as it seems to me that a successful painting contains the elements necessary for its destruction in and through the eye and brain of the ‘other’. The ‘specificity’ of each painting is therefore not a specificity linked to aesthetic presuppositions, but an approach making each of the paintings a singular object, aiming at an individual goal, which would be to cross, to go through, to percolate as many different mirrors as possible.
Caption: The artist fumbling on the table in search of some tool.
Caption: The artist pictured from the studio's window as he was about to go buy food in his familiar Neukölln district.
Untitled (Wall Sculpture), 2021, acrylic paint on MDF and canvas
Untitled Paintings, 2021, acrylic on canvas
Untitled Paintings, 2021, acrylic on canvas
Untitled Paintings, 2021, acrylic on canvas and MDF
“I work with acrylic paint on many different surfaces, including canvas, wood, paper and cardboard. My process is reductive. When painting a composition, I tend toward a limited color palette, often reducing the composition to minimal, hard-edged shapes on solid-colored fields. When making my assembled pieces, I cut shapes away and then re-combine them into new configurations, using both the positive elements (the shape I have cut out) and the negative elements (the part that was left behind). I use everything, juxtaposing notions of "form and non-form," and always leaving room for discovery and surprise.”
Untitled paintings, 2021, acrylic on canvas
Like A Mountain (two fists of solid rock CM)
2021, acrylic, flashe, oil, graphite, and pastel on panel
65 ¼” x 83”
Photo by Mario Gallucci
The Not-Center and Synthesis
Seeing Michelle Ross’s recent show at Elizabeth Leach was an hour of joy that almost felt tailor-made to mark the arrival of spring in Portland, Oregon. Ross is not a landscape painter, but her paintings paralleled the light outside on that day, from the atmospheric pools of indigo and silver to the punches of vivid color which act as stabilizing forces in her often tempestuous compositions.
Ross’s recent paintings are, in her own words, de-centered. Visually, this means that the linear energy in her compositions is pushed out to the edges, leaving an interior space that is largely -but not entirely- atmospheric. The more concrete elements often suggest a geometric structure, but habitually avoid any obvious solutions. Buttresses - small, nearly solid shapes of vivid color - also make their way to the edges of these allusive forms. And like architectural buttresses holding up thin walls of stained glass in a gothic church, Ross’s small, colorful supports dutifully stabilize planes of luminous, ethereal color.
One of Ross's many strengths is her willingness to embrace both the haptic and the literary. Her paintings stand on their own, but the titles - alternately poetic, clever, timely and suggestive - grant access to another level of her aesthetic stronghold. The titles function not so much as an open front door, but instead an unlocked window on the second or third floor. Scaling the trellis and shimmying over the sill is undoubtedly going to take time and energy, but it’s an effort worth making. Once inside, it's as if the space of the unapologetically visual begins to expand, opening up plenty of room for the conceptual framework that holds it in place. This is also the point where you’ll realize that you’ve just snuck into a fantastic party and you won’t want to leave.
This month on The Semi-Finalist I’m pleased to present my interview with Michelle Ross. In it she talks more about de-centering, her competing aesthetic impulses, and making sense of the last four years.
Michelle Ross in her studio.
The Semi-Finalist: Michelle, we first met back in the 1990’s, but I have to admit that I still don’t know your full origin story. How did you get started with painting and when did you make the decision to forge ahead as an artist?
Michelle Ross: My first art classes were at the Oregon School of Art and Craft (later known as the Oregon College of Art and Craft) – when I was 19 or 20. I had wanted to pursue writing when I was a high school student and I read a ton- but I never took any art classes. It was because of a dedicated mentor who basically challenged me to go to art school after doing some independent study work with them. I had returned to Portland after a year at an alternative college program in Bellingham, Washington called Fairhaven College. It was an insular little bubble and again I was trying to get started with writing but felt restless and unsatisfied. So I returned to Portland and eventually enrolled at PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art) – which was at the time still embedded in the Portland Art Museum as the Museum School. I graduated from PNCA in '87 and went up to Washington State University in Pullman for my MFA in '91.
2021, acrylic, oil, paper, silver leaf, graphite, pastel and
colored pencil on panel, 24” x 30”
photo by Mario Gallucci
S-F: This next question comes out of our conversation about how one's temperament is connected to whether an artist's work is the result of slow accretion, spontaneous improvisation, or something else entirely. It's really a question about being true to oneself in the studio. So, with that in mind, can you talk about how you see yourself as a painter in relation to materials, techniques and the impulses that drive your work?
MR: I think I often operate in a kind of dialectic between those poles you mention, and in the process of the back and forth some kind of synthesis emerges. At times I yearn to proceed in an either/or, fully committed, one way or another fashion, but I know that what drives the work is a kind of problem-solving mentality – so that neither approach totally satisfies what I want to see and therefore needs to be modified by the opposite approach. Which often creates a mess. This is true with materials as well – when I start to feel burdened with the preciousness and weight of the history of oil painting I end up introducing “low” materials- paper, textiles, scraps of detritus. Drawing materials also intrude into those surfaces. These things complicate the beauty and sensuality of the painted surfaces. Recently I have been using more aggressive techniques like pouring, smearing and staining, which then need to be corralled or harnessed with an overlay of geometry. This acts as a collision that results in the synthesis I am looking for.
Twelve Twenty-One Twenty Twenty
2021, acrylic, flashe, oil, graphite, and pastel on panel, 65 ¼” x 83”
photo by Mario Gallucci
S-F: Your titles often insist on evoking the here and now while your paintings seem to enjoy navigating the intangibles of life. Can you talk about that?
MR: Sometimes that is true, especially with this last body of work, for example False Flag – which smacks of the current political conditions in the US. That painting in particular was a thorny problem to solve, meaning I thought I could keep it simple and concise and it became quite convoluted with many competing forces- color, directionality, asymmetry. I had to accept those contradictions while resolving the painting. That struggle seems to mimic the intangible, perhaps mental struggles of a year living through the pandemic and a nerve-wracking political climate.
2021, acrylic, oil, vintage canvas, vinyl, silver leaf, pastel chalk,
and graphite on panel, 30" x 40"
photo by Mario Gallucci
At other times the titles are quotations from poetry, or print media text. And with that the “here and now” and the “intangibles” can vary quite a bit. I think of titles as a way to point to a territory or context or lens through which to consider the abstraction of the paintings.
Above: Lamplight Surprise
2017, acrylic, oil and graphite on panel, 12.5”x 10”
Below: Chicken Little
2017, acrylic, oil and graphite on panel, 12.5”x 10”
photos by Mario Gallucci
S-F: You’ve talked a lot about the concept of de-centering in relation to the body of work you made for “I Am Your Signal,” your recent solo show at Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Can you expand on that concept and how you see it manifesting itself in your paintings?
MR: De-centering is a literal and formal strategy in many of the newest works. I noticed the tendency emerging with this and other recent work. I seemed to be inclined toward the periphery. I was drawn to engage and activate the edges of the paintings with a compression of shape, compressed energy and hot, saturated color. This got me wondering about empty(-ish) centers and unreliable or unstable centers that shifted, that weren’t clearly grounded or appeared unanchored. In relation to constructing pictures, I was considering how we are supposed to address the center, have a hierarchy of focal points, a balance of centralities.
In some ways this visual thinking about the center and the not-center may reflect certain power dynamics that are currently at play between progressive, reparative, social activism (the hot periphery?) and repressive conservative politics (the unreliable center?). These paintings were made at a time in late 2020 with this intensified backdrop playing out. I think we absorb these social dynamics as experiences from our own vantage point and often they get echoed in subconscious ways. For me it seems to be playing out in this formal dynamic of not-center /compressed periphery. I think Jan Verwort is pointing to something like this in his essay on the painter Toma Abts, The Beauty and Politics of Latency:
“In one moment, abstract art might hurl itself forward in time towards the yet unrealized and unthought. In other moments, however, abstraction only works because its enunciations reverberate with latent memories of things once seen or ideas once thought and then forgotten… In this sense, the space of abstraction is an echo chamber in which each enunciation resonates with intuitions of the yet unthought and the presently forgotten… Abstraction…treasures the latencies of thoughts, memories, and feelings as a source that is inexhaustible precisely because its content can be neither instantaneously nor ever fully actualized.”
2021, acrylic, oil, pastel chalk, and graphite on panel, 65 x 83"
photo by Mario Gallucci
Or maybe it - the de-centering idea – is a parallel to my own very lateral way of associative thinking. I am always interrupting my own thoughts with adjacent next thoughts to the point where every idea feels like an edge, pressed outwards and up next to something else equally compelling. Where is the center in that? The center is a moving target and always contingent on what the quality or clarity of the periphery is.
Anyway….below is a list of stream-of-consciousness thoughts that I think contribute to an understanding of what the paintings manifest:
Installation shots of Ross's show, I Am Your Signal, at Elizabeth Leach Gallery.
Photos by Mario Gallucci.
Keep2021, acrylic, oil, Korean hemp linen, canvas, silver leaf, tape,
and graphite on panel, 30" x 40"
Bathyscaphe (for CM)
2021, acrylic, oil, paper, silver leaf, graphite, and pastel on panel, 24” x 30”
photo by Mario Gallucci
2021, acrylic, oil, vintage canvas, vinyl, silver leaf, pastel chalk,
and graphite on panel, 30" x 40"
S-F: Who do you count as formative influences on your work and who have you been looking at recently?
MR: Formative: Twombly, Stella, Judd, Diebenkorn, Noland, Joan Mitchell, Frankenthaler, Joan Snyder, Hilma Af Klint.
Recently: Harvey Quaytman, R.H. Quaytman, Prunella Clough, Svenja Deininger, Elizabeth Neel, Yunhee Min, Tala Madani, Shara Hughes, Amy Bay, Lois Dodd, Julie Mehretu, Vivian Suter, Torkwase Dyson, Tormory Dodge, Monique Van Genderen, Pia Fries, Marina Adams….
Talking about formative influences.
S-F: What’s next?
MR: More experimental works, drawing paintings, affective color studies, simplification or a push more deeply into maximalism. I want to work on repetition.
Returning to some older unresolved works, possibly shaped panels, more textile works.
I want to do an artist book also – from the magazine page interventions. I have several different categories of works from those pages that form an organizing principle that could be a book.
Below: The studio.
Below are more shots of Michelle Ross's work. You can also find her...
at her website
on the Elizabeth Leach Gallery website
on Instagram: @michelle_ross_studio
Winter Bloom (1)
2015, oil, spray paint, house paint, paper, plaster, linen, chalk,
and graphite on birch panel, 45” x 42”
photo by Mario Gallucci
As is, So There
2015, acrylic, oil and graphite on panel, 12.5”x 10”
photo by Mario Gallucci
The Inexperienced Miracle Worker
2015, oil, flashe, paper, plaster, chalk and graphite on panel, 62”x 65”
photo by Mario Gallucci
Mario Gallucci's photography website can be found at: https://www.mariogallucciphoto.com/art-documentation
Unless otherwise stated, O'Keefe's paintings are untitled, acrylic on panel,
about 24" x 30" and recently made.
I was struck by a Suzan Frecon quote that I came across recently while endlessly scrolling through the idealized microclimates of Instagram: “I think the truth of a painting is the paint itself.” In a world where the truth feels slippery and elusive, there’s something so rational and so radical in that notion- that material and looking can be connected to reality. When I visited James O’Keefe last fall at his studio in Joshua Tree, CA, I had a similar feeling, but I didn’t know how to put it into words. Several months of mulling later, I'm simply going to paraphrase Frecon’s insight to express what I felt about O’Keefe’s spare works as I was standing in front of them: the truth of his painting is in the object itself. Less concerned with painterly techniques than most, James O’Keefe instead plays with space and form by contrasting his minimalist’s palette with understated transformations to his supports. The finished works hover somewhere between painting and low relief sculpture, defying easy categorization and confidently presenting the simple truth of their own unique shapes and colors.
For this installment of The Semi-Finalist I'm happy to present my interview with James O'Keefe. In it he talks about Nothingness, life in the Mojave Desert and the impulse to work in a reductive style.
The Semi-Finalist: Let's jump right in. We talked a lot about nothingness and openness when I was in your studio. Can you explain how you approach those themes in your work?
James O'Keefe: I really enjoyed our conversation about Nothingness and Openness, and it rests at the heart of my painting process. Let me first say that I did study the practice of meditation for many years, but for this conversation I will emphasize how it applies to my painting practice. The contemplation of Nothingness (or Emptiness as the Buddhists would say) is really about removing issues about yourself, for example self-doubt, self-criticism, self-editing, etc. The goal, for me, is to get a calm and clear state of mind in front of the painting. If you can be comfortable in this study of Nothingness, so much will flow into your mind and into your work.
In the studio, I also call this being Open in front of the painting. Openness means letting the painting tell you what it needs. The series of work I call Open Paintings take as their theme this concept of Openness. Very often in the Open Paintings the frame is left open on one side, or if the framing is complete it covers only a portion of the painting. Both, in my view, are illustrative -in a painter’s way- of this state of Openness.
"Openness means letting the painting tell you what it needs."
The S-F: Visiting your studio and home in Joshua Tree, CA was such a treat. I was so taken with the understated beauty of your surroundings and I felt it being echoed in the spareness and confidence of your work. Am I reading too much into that, or has the desert landscape that you live in had an impact on your work?
James O'Keefe in his studio in the Mojave Desert.
JO: The desert takes getting used to. At first it can seem like a wasteland until you start to see it's hidden beauties. Small micro flowers, colorful rocks and the cactus that bloom in the spring. It is a place of vast vistas and rugged mountain ranges. It is not uncommon to have visibility of distant ranges 30 to 40 miles away.
My wife and I came to the small town of Joshua Tree on our way back to Oregon from Arizona. Joshua Tree is about 3 blocks long but has 3 Art galleries, a Natural Food store, a Thai restaurant, an Indian restaurant, and is just 3 miles from the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. Since establishing ourselves here it has influenced my paintings in many ways. The first thing you notice is the light, about 340 days a year of it. After living on the Oregon Coast for over 30 years, it was very bright. So when I built my studio I put modestly sized windows in it which gave me a more workable light.
"I think the desert is also a teacher of monumental and minimal concepts."
Other influences on painting from the Mojave desert is a changing sense of scale and space that begins to enter your work in very subtle ways. I think the desert is also a teacher of monumental and minimal concepts. You could also include understandings of balance and imbalance. I must also mention the quiet here. Quiet contributes greatly to my ability to focus on and contemplate my work, and that is quite a gift.
Work on the studio wall.
The S-F: I think of your work as existing in that wonderful space that sits between painting and sculpture. How do you see yourself- as a painter, a sculptor, or something else?
JO: I take your point, David. There probably are similarities between my paintings and some contemporary sculptures. I suppose I could point to the minimal angularities and the mono-color usage of these new paintings as related to sculpture, but overall I think of myself as a painter. I love that painting can still be an intimate and thought provoking experience for the viewer, like sitting down with a good book.
I am a painter who is led by ideas. First an idea, then a concept that is worked out in my sketchbook, and then the painting begins. I know some artists that start a painting and then begin to figure out on canvas what the painting is. I have worked like that in the past but now I like knowing more before I start. My paintings are non-objective and reductive in that I try to make them very simple. I want them to be clear enough for the mind of the viewer to rest comfortably in them, but complex enough for the viewer to maintain an interest in them. I choose placing my works on a wall directly in front of the viewer, and for this reason I call myself a painter.
"Open Painting," acrylic on panel, 25" x 32", 2020
The S-F: Who are the artists that inspired you in your formative years and who are you looking at now?
JO: When I think back to the early days of my interest in art, the first artist that comes to mind is Picasso. I found his portraits, and particularly his treatment of the face, the most interesting. Later on in life I found in many people that it was his depictions of the face that was not liked, but for me that was his genius.
Then there were the surrealists and out of those it would be Magritte that I still admire to this day. It was the curious shape of his mind and how he staked out his own very independent variation of surrealism. Above them all, for me, was Juan Miró. My wife and I flew to New York in 1995 just to see his retrospective at the MOMA. I have always admired the painter’s language that he invented and how he invested so much of his soul in each piece.
There are many others of course - Klee, Jasper Johns etc. - but since Covid the gallery scene is shut down and I just Instagram. Simon Callery and Susan Frecon are two very good artists I have encountered on Instagram.
"I must also mention the quiet here. Quiet contributes greatly to my ability to focus on and contemplate my work, and that is quite a gift."
S-F: What's next for you?
JO: Not much happening right now. Covid has pretty much shut down our galleries here in Joshua Tree. I have some pieces in Asher-Grey Gallery which is an online gallery out of Venice, CA. I may buy a forty foot shipping container and convert it into ½ gallery and ½ painting storage. We’ll see.
S-F: I can't wait to see that!
Below are more images of James O'Keefe's work. You can also find him...
- on Instagram @jamesokeefestudio
- at Asher-Grey Gallery
Practical and inspirational elements of studio life.
The other obsession.
Writing about art hints at what is there, but it almost always, and quite understandably, falls short. To stand in front of Laurie Danial’s work is a reminder of this. Experiencing her paintings feels like a non-verbal form of visual absorption; they just sort of pour into my eyes and are linked immediately and almost exclusively with my emotions. I still find myself thinking about the intellectual side of what Danial does- the way she coaxes the viewer to look this way or that with the curve of a shape; the way space opens up in her layered compositions; how she hints at something recognizable, only to pull back before it’s elusive sense of form has solidified into something real. In the end, however, I’m less concerned with naming exactly what it is that I’m looking at in Danial’s paintings than I am with simply being engaged with them.
For this installment of The Semi-Finalist I’m happy to present my interview with Portland, Oregon based artist Laurie Danial. Despite their inadequacy, both Danial and I will use lots of words to help give some insight into what makes her tick. And I highly recommend having authentic facetime with one of her paintings as soon as possible.
Talk Space, 2020, oil on panel, 36" x 36"
photo by Rebekah Johnson
The Semi-Finalist: Your path to painting is a bit unconventional. Can you talk about how you got started and what your early art career looked like?
Laurie Danial: I grew up in upstate New York in the 60's in a second-generation Italian household with minimal resources and few cultural interests. Despite that, our home was a visually interesting place, full of family artifacts and lots of sensory input. Drawing, painting, sewing, and whatever else I could actually get my hands on was basically how I survived childhood. By high school, although the concept of a studio practice had never occurred to me, it seems I had one.
Although I had intentions to go to art school after graduation, it was not meant to be. Ambivalent about higher education in general, my father, as well as most art departments back in the 70's, had little visionary bandwidth when it came to offering a woman a formal education in the arts. Consequently, I soon left home and took the path that many of us back then took--I went out west, first to the Bay Area.
Laurie Danial in her North Portland studio.
What could be regarded as unconventional came 15 years later. By then I had moved to Portland and started to get serious again about art school. I started to pursue classes and a year later I took the leap and enrolled in a degree program at PNCA (the Pacific Northwest College of Art), which back then was called the Museum School. I loved the foundation year. However, being an older student, I sometimes felt like I needed a more rigorous program. With that in mind—as well as still feeling financially insecure—I started to look for an alternative to the four-year program. Before dropping out of PNCA, I signed up for a second year of painting and, because I also wanted to learn how to make prints, I enrolled in a printmaking class taught by Jim Hibbard, a highly respected printmaker at Portland State. Somewhere in all of this, I took a class or two at Oregon School of Arts and Craft, as it was known back then, and a few summer intensives. Finally, I then threw myself at the mercy of the painting department at Reed College. Michael Knudson, the department head, allowed me to audit his painting class, and with that, access to a summer studio space.
Arms Length, 2020, oil on panel, 14" x 11"
photo by Rebekah Johnson
This was the long and winding road that was my art education, cobbled together over four years, at four different schools. I was antsy at that point, I wanted a studio practice, a career and a family, not necessarily in that order. Events would ultimately fall into place and soon thereafter I found my first real studio and joined a printmaking co-op where I spent over 15 years making prints. I also obtained representation at Quartersaw Gallery, which was a really fortunate opportunity for an artist such as myself so early in my career. Now I could continue to develop and exhibit alongside the many talented artists in my community.
"I also like to change the order of how I initially begin to build the surface, moving paint and shapes around, drawing and doodling, until something coalesces around structure and elements start to fall into place."
(Studio with Outside Heart, 2020, oil on panel, 15" x 13")
From a recent series of works on paper.
The S-F: I think of you as a painter that evolves slowly. You seem to dig in deep with a palette, with gestures and mark-making, allowing yourself to really explore all the possibilities that you can come up with. As a result, your paintings over time have a wonderful consistency to them. I could see one of them from across a room and know instantly: “Laurie Danial did that!” Talk about how you see your work developing.
LD: My work is slow to develop for sure. It’s not unusual for me to spend six months or even a year on a painting, so if consistency is showing up in the work, I’m glad. That just might be a testament to a process that involves a whole lot of trial and error. I try not to get too caught up in any particular strategy other than a few vague references, mostly having to do with color. I also like to change the order of how I initially begin to build the surface, moving paint and shapes around, drawing and doodling, until something coalesces around structure and elements start to fall into place.
"It’s not unusual for me to spend six months or even a year on a painting..."
Kings and Queens, 2020, oil on panel, 36" x 36"
photo by Rebekah Johnson
I once had a teacher tell me that I didn’t have to put everything I know into a single painting. That was a good piece of advice, because I tend to be compulsive in that way. That’s where erasure and editing come in. Buried in every painting are 50 other paintings. I’ve lost some good ones along the way, but it’s a process that most of the time leads me somewhere. A painting isn’t something I can know ahead of time; I have to find it, make it, and remake it over and over again until it begins to feel like it’s a “thing”, an entity that knows what it wants to be. I am less interested in reigning in beauty for beauty’s sake. If it happens, great, but I’m more interested in the prospect of discovering and experiencing something new.
"...I have never felt compelled to exile figuration from my work altogether."
The Messenger, 2020, oil on panel, 36" x 36"
photo by Rebekah Johnson
The S-F: In some of your recent work there are allusions to representation- the hint of an arm or folded cloth, the suggestion of a landscape. Where do these come from and how do they fit into your aesthetic vocabulary?
LD: As a kid, I had always loved to draw and render images. Later, while in school, I broadened my appreciation for line quality, looking at artists like Schiele, Klimt, and Degas, and in the many years that followed, I worked on a lot of line etchings. Some years back and still somewhat today, there has been a running dialogue scrutinizing the synthesis of abstraction and figuration in contemporary painting and the tension surrounding those artists that embrace both, rather than choosing one over the other. Popular catch phrases like, “With the juxtaposition of abstraction and figuration,” or “Hovering between abstraction and figuration,” have been used to cue the viewers to what many artists now consider a non-issue. I’ve used these types of phrases to describe my own work, but what was once considered a conceptual clash no longer seems terribly important. With that said, I am aware of how a representational element can hijack a narrative, but I have never felt compelled to exile figuration from my work altogether. One way or another it always pops in and I’m glad for it. I view it as an anchor for content or another vocabulary for experience or complexity. When the work seems to be adrift in painterly effects, I often randomly grab something from a book and just start drawing it into the painting.
Little Guy, 2020, oil on panel, 15" x 13"
photo by Rebekah Johnson
The S-F: I know that you have a hungry eye for art. Who influenced you in your early days and who are you currently looking at?
LD: In my teens, I mostly gravitated to abstraction. I was obsessed with Kandinsky and Paul Klee. The “spiritual in art” was a subject that they explored, and in those days, I was interested in that. The Post-impressionists, the New York School, de Kooning, Guston, Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Gorky, then Leon Golub, Rauschenberg. Larry Rivers, because he could draw. Later, Susan Rothenberg, David Hockney, and Diebenkorn. Really, there’s no end.
Installation view of Navigating in Place at Froelick Gallery.
Goya’s The Disasters of War and two books on Japanese printmaking are mainstays in my studio. Compositionally, they blow my mind. A few other artists (but honestly too many to mention): Thomas Nozkowski, Tomma Abts and painters like Albert Oehlen, Per Kirkeby, Joe Bradley. And in the last several years, so many great female abstract painters that have been enormously validating and influential: Mary Heilmann, Louise Fishman, Amy Sillman, Charlene Von Heyl, Dana Schutz, Jackie Saccoccio, and Cecily Brown to name just a few. And lately, following a renewed interest in pattern, I’ve been looking at contemporary Australian aboriginal painting. Apart from that, there are times when I attempt to turn a blind eye to the current trends in contemporary painting, especially when I’m actively working. Images online are so seductive and I want to be careful not to completely lose myself in everyone else’s business.
“Content emerges from the act of making, and not the other way around.” -Per Kirkeby
(image: recent works on paper)
The S-F: The quote you shared with me when I was in your studio really resonated with me: “Content emerges from the act of making, and not the other way around.” That's an almost mystical -and maybe controversial- thing to say. Talk about that.
LD: “Content emerges from the act of making, and not the other way around” has been a fallback axiom of mine for some time. There are so many big and small aspects to making a painting--instinctual, analytical, and conscious and unconscious--that it seems nearly impossible to verbally categorize the process. Fundamentally, until I begin to engage with the materials, I can’t realize an outcome.
The artist who speaks to this is the Danish painter, Per Kirkeby. In his interviews and in the film, “We Build Upon the Ruins,” which is another metaphor that I love, he says, “It’s not enough to find a thing of beauty, painting is layer upon layer, and it is in that process content and structure slowly emerge and develop.” Further to that point and loosely paraphrasing, he goes on to say, “You can’t begin with structure. The right structure slowly emerges from the painting, content comes into being as structure comes into being.” I hang my hat on that, especially when I’m struggling with a painting. Controversial? I suppose for a conceptually-based artist, but for the process-driven investigator like myself, it makes a lot of sense.
Danial in her studio.
The S-F: What’s next for you?
LD: Apart from working for the next show, in terms of experiments, I currently want to work on slowing down my critical eye. I often have a knee-jerk response to something that I have just painted because it is all too new and unfamiliar. I jump in and change or destroy whatever progress I’ve made before I’ve had enough time to live with it. I’m also interested in working with a limited color palette. I want to see how simplifying my color range will shift my focus from color relationships to spatial relationships, and any other surprises that may arise from the experiment.
Below are more shots of Laurie Danial's studio and work. You can also find her...
at her website: https://lauriedanial.com/
on the Froelick Gallery website: froelickgallery.com/
on Instagram: @lauriedanial
Cock of the Walk, 2020, oil on panel, 26" x 23 1/2"
photo by Rebekah Johnson
Installation view of Your Garden is Their Den, 2020, oil on panel,
diptych with each panel measuring 60" x 36" (overall 60" x 72")
photo by Rebekah Johnson
Installation view; left: The Courtship, 2020, oil on canvas, 20" x 16"
right: Mr. Shuffle, 2020, oil on canvas, 20" x 16"
photo by Rebekah Johnson
Recent works on paper in the studio.
Rebekah Johnson's photography website can be found at: https://rebekah-johnson.format.com/home
On a recent trip to southern California I had a morning open in my schedule and one goal in mind: seeing the Yucca Valley Material Lab in person. I'd heard rumors about its sun-bleached beauty and seen pictures on social media, but none of that had prepared me for experiencing the remarkable setting that Heidi Schwegler has been developing on a two acre site that sits halfway down a dirt road in the desert. I only had a few hours to spend there, but what I saw was a residency and teaching facility that encourages both rigor and experimentation as well as an artist that is learning how to start over while remaining dedicated to her own artistic process.
Below is an exchange between Schwegler and myself as well as photos of her work and the residency that she runs.
Schwegler's work on the grounds of the YVML.
The artist with one of her many muses.
The Semi-Finalist: Your decision to leave Portland after 20-odd years and to reinvent yourself in the desert is both bold and inspiring. Talk about committing to doing something new and what the early days of the Yucca Valley Material Lab were like.
Heidi Schwegler: Immediately following graduate school in 1998, I was fortunate to receive the studio manager position in the Metalsmithing Department at Oregon College of Art and Craft (OCAC), along with a few adjunct classes. I dedicated myself to OCAC, said yes to every opportunity and what began as a piece-meal job over time turned into a full-time teaching position in several departments. When the MFA in Applied Craft + Design (AC+D) was launched in 2009 (a joint graduate program between OCAC and Pacific Northwest College of Art), I began mentoring and teaching classes there. By 2013 I was promoted to Associate Chair of AC+D and ultimately Chair in 2015, where I remained until leaving Portland in 2018.
Originally "...a two-acre junkyard on the Mesa in Yucca Valley," the YVML is now an oasis for artists, rabbits, and more than a couple of Joshua trees.
I loved every minute of my multifarious career at OCAC, mostly because my position continually evolved. In a way, I remained a student, as it was important to me that I constantly discover and learn through my job and studio practice. In the AC+D program, having administrative experience was surprisingly inspiring. However, after 3 years I began to crave something new -- I no longer wanted to have the answers, I wanted to be a beginner again. It was around 2017 that I began to think about what this could mean. I admit there have been moments in my life in which I have made impulsive choices. During an overnight stay in Joshua Tree, CA in 2018, my husband and I suddenly put an offer on a house. This was not a planned event by any means. The sale fell through (thankfully), however three days later we found the house that is now our home. A two-acre junkyard on the Mesa in Yucca Valley. It needed work but it was a mid-century cinder block ranch with tons of potential, surrounded by Joshua Trees, creosote, cholla and home to jackrabbits, coyotes, road runners, lizards and rattlesnakes. A complete 180 from the Pacific Northwest. As soon as our offer was accepted, I began writing the business plan for what is now called Yucca Valley Material Lab, an artist residency and public workshop program based in the hi-desert.
The view from the water tower.
To give you a little bit more context, during my time at OCAC I was also dedicated to maintaining a full-time studio practice. Because of this, I attended residencies at MacDowell, Yaddo, 18th St Arts Center (Santa Monica), Red Gate in Beijing, Anderson Ranch Art Center and Nes (Iceland). In 2016 I was awarded a Bullseye Glass residency in Portland, which gave me a month of full-time access to their facilities, technical support and a $1500 material stipend. Glass was absolutely new for me and my success rate was about 30%. When I got over the shame of failure, I began to realize that this humbling experience had completely ignited my practice. Especially when I began to realize that the accidents were much more poetic that my original intentions! I tell you this because it has laid the foundation for YVML. This is a technical residency much like Bullseye, in that I invite artists, writers, composers and performers who are interested in learning something new for 2 – 3 weeks. And I am incredibly proud that we are now partners with Bullseye as they generously give the artists in residence material discounts and stipends.
Outdoor studio spaces and the glass grinder.
S-F: What can a resident or student expect when they come here?
HS: Artists in residence and students of the workshops can expect to be a part of a supportive community that encourages curiosity and material exploration in a Quonset facility surrounded by the desert landscape. Students are mostly local while others drive in from Palm Springs and LA (with more and more travelling in from other states). All of the workshops are geared towards the beginner, though we also cater to those with more experience. I have four campers on the property, so if they need lodging and if one is available, it’s always an affordable option for them. But being so close to Joshua Tree National Park, there are tons of Airbnb’s in the area. The artists in residence get priority over the campers: a 1977 Wilderness camper and a 2001 Nomad with private kitchenettes, showers and toilets, and a 1971 31’ Airstream and vintage Terry camper with private kitchenettes and toilets and a shared outdoor shower. Sometimes it seems it’s harder for the artist to say goodbye to their camper than the studio! Each residency lasts 1 – 3 weeks and the artists receive three hours of instruction. This gives them ample time for exploration in the studio and the surrounding region and plenty of solitude.
A resident residence- the tricked out 1971, 31' Airstream.
S-F: You mentioned wanting to offer the opportunity to work with diverse materials to a diverse group of people. How is YVML meeting this goal? And how do you plan to build on what you're already doing?
HS: In the beginning I was curious about inviting not only visual artists but those from other creative disciplines such as writers, composers and performers. I strongly believe that learning something new, and using your hands to directly explore material, image and form will allow you to reconsider habitual approaches in the creative process. Whether the resident continues with what they discover in their time at YVML isn’t a concern. I’m more interested in providing a platform through which they can take a few chances and “dent” their practice per se. If you have an opportunity to throw your process off kilter, this experience can garner inspiration and fresh insight.
As attention is being drawn to social movements such as Black Lives Matter and #metoo, and as we become more aware of the prevalence of deep political strife, I realize that YVML must be actively responsive as a young non-profit and community-based platform. Rather than rush the process, however, I feel that it is important that our response is genuine and thoughtful in order to have a sustainable and positive affect within the community. This has motivated me to begin to investigate the diversity already inherent within the region. Since the beginning of the pandemic I have been reaching out to organizations and educational institutions that may have not yet heard of YVML or whose constituents don’t have the financial means to engage with the program. Currently I am in conversation with Copper Mountain College and Los Angeles Valley College to set up several scholarships for their students. There is a relatively large Marine Corp Base in 29 Palms, a neighboring town. Because of this I have been working with Mil-Tree, a local non-profit, whose mission is “to bring veterans, active duty and civilians together through arts and dialogue to help transform the wounds of war”. I would like to have the means to offer a fully funded workshop for veterans by the end of 2021, and I will be kickstarting a fundraiser in the next month to make this and the college-based scholarships a reality.
Please keep your eyes out for our Instagram blasts on this endeavor, I’d love your support!
Schwegler's work on the grounds of the residency: "...I acknowledge that objects, whether art objects or otherwise, have been issued a conceptual death sentence the moment they enter the world."
S-F: Your own work is often about combining an appreciation for the fragility of life with materials and processes that are meant to withstand the test of time. Can you talk about your impulse to make sense of these seemingly opposite concepts?
HS: Most of my work addresses the potential for aesthetic pleasure and conceptual content found in the discards of our everyday landscape. Surveying the ignored, the abandoned, and the ruined, I acknowledge that objects, whether art objects or otherwise, have been issued a conceptual death sentence the moment they enter the world. However well-made or well-intentioned, the stuff of the world is inexorably marred by this finality. At its grandest, my work seeks to create new ways of thinking about ordinary objects and their inevitable fragmentation.
As mentioned above, I travel for residencies, and through these experiences I learned a few things about myself. As a tourist, I find that I am not interested in the designated ruin that is forever maintained and held in suspension of time. Instead, I am drawn to the peripheral ruin; the detritus that delineates the fringe of the attraction. I compulsively take note of the stuff caught in the chain link, shoved between buildings, rolling down the street and slumped in the gutter. A crushed paper cup, a single green flip flop, a twig in a hairbrush, a flattened mayonnaise packet; scattered across the sidewalk, dirtied and damaged, they play a part in this new narrative as they now float together in a living death. We recognize them for what they once were. They no longer do what they once did, and yet, they are still here; they haven’t been hauled to the dump.
Ironically, as the artificial object slides towards its organic state, I often feel that this is when it truly becomes one of a kind. The fragment, bearing its cumulative damage, can appear more loaded with meaning than when it was intact and a part of the whole. In 2002, at the Metropolitan Museum, a five-hundred year old marble sculpture of Adam fell from its unstable pedestal to the floor, shattering into hundreds of fragments. The museum was faced with a choice: either leave it broken or commit to a restoration, as if the event had never occurred. In the former case, suspending the shattered parts with an elaborate scaffolding system would render the accident as its defining moment. Instead, the museum’s conservationists and forensic specialists spent the next ten years painstakingly repairing the artwork, returning it to its near-original state. Things break. They no longer do what they were designed to do. Surface damage and wear and tear are visual cues of a thing’s history, its former life of use and purpose. My work amends broken things by recasting and embellishing their materiality. I am reproducing their original ordinariness and reorienting their presence in terms of aesthetic value.
" I seek to synthesize my own experience with the classical paradox that humans are both a part of and apart from nature."
S-F: I was really moved by your sculptures that are installed on the YVML property. The relative sparseness of the desert functions in a way that is similar to a clean, well lit gallery. By that I mean that there's a contrast that exists and it allows the work to be seen on it's own terms. In that setting, however, it's also impossible not to think about how the sculptures relate to their surroundings. Their humor and banality are front and center, with more than a hint of the apocalyptic lurking right behind them.
So...this is just a long-winded way for me to ask you how your new surroundings are affecting your process and ideas. Talk about that.
HS: Shortly after moving here, I quickly developed a connection to the numerous and varied creatures of an alien and difficult landscape: black ravens, cactus wrens, cotton- tail rabbits, coyote, green Mojave rattlesnakes, gopher snakes, great horned owls, jack rabbits, kangaroo rats, lizards, owls, pigeons, quail, roadrunners, squirrels. This experience and the impact of the surrounding desert has inspired my current work under the title Zoonosis, which addresses my relationship with the wild animals living and dying on our two-acre compound.
Zoonosis is the process by which infectious diseases are passed from animals to humans through vectors that carry pathogens. Notable zoonotic diseases include anthrax, cat scratch fever, dengue fever, human immunodeficiency virus, malaria, and swine flu. Though there is little chance of contracting a zoonotic illness from our desert neighbors, I have testified to a kind of emotional zoonosis through these encounters. I seek to synthesize my own experience with the classical paradox that humans are both a part of and apart from nature: killing an animal is when we become most animal; witnessing the death of an animal is when we become most human.
Along with Zoonosis, I have been pulling older pieces out of storage in order to install them among the chollas, Joshua Trees and creosote. It’s been incredibly refreshing to see this older work in a new context that is very different from the expected white walled institution and market.
"It’s been incredibly refreshing to see this older work in a new context that is very different from the expected white walled institution and market."
S-F: What's next for both you and the residency?
HS: As if building up a compound and starting a non-profit were not enough, I have recently started a 64 square foot micro-project space on the property called Lazy Eye Gallery. I had lazy eye in both eyes as a child, and I love the seemingly oppositional relationship of the visual arts and a wandering eye. The gallery will be based in the original water tower which has been updated with a hand cast glass skylight, interior lighting and a new roof. The roof of the building is now a watch tower with incredible views.
Because of the pandemic, our workshops have nearly come to a standstill, but the residency program has exploded. We are in a rural area with low numbers in terms of the virus, and with only a handful of people on the property at a time, YVML is perceived as a safe place for artists to set their roots for a few weeks. We are now booked up until May 2021!
As for me and my studio practice, I never stop making and exploring. I am currently working on a relatively large cast concrete water feature in the shape of a crushed kiddie pool, in which distorted glass squirrels squirt water at each other from various and unexpected orifices.
The Lazy Eye Gallery will be housed in the original water tower on the YVML propery.
Below are some professional shots of Heidi Schwegler's work and the residency grounds.
You can also find Heidi...
on Instagram @heidi_schwegler and @yuccavalleymaterial;
on her website: www.heidischwegler.com;
in an online exhibit with Mark Moore Fine Art: https://bit.ly/2IJnHfX;
on the YVML website: https://www.yuccavalleymaterial.org/residencies
In a break from studio visits, this entry of The Semi-Finalist centers on Rachael Zur’s tactile and moving show, “Artifacts of Affection,” at Gallery 114. The exhibit showcases her willingness to be fearless and tender as well as her ability to be experimental and grounded in tradition. I’ve become familiar with Zur’s work over the last year or so and I’m always drawn to the way her shaped paintings of everyday objects take on an otherworldly presence and defy immediate categorization. The mix of ordinary objects with disembodied arms, wings and organs suggests stories and relationships that I want to know more about.
Ghosts I Make About You, plaster, wood, acrylic, spray paint, resin, 2019
Zur is also a poet, and I thought it would be fitting to start off this interview with a poem that implies through language something similar to what she’s getting at with her inventive and expressive paintings.
905 Second Street
By Rachael Zur
in the shed, crooked nails left to be hammered out
tell me of that person’s life during the Great Depression
I found a wooden block in there with “be my valentine” carved on it
I kept it, because its clumsiness felt familiar
under the house my husband found a gas pipe plugged with a wine cork
I guess this is how people solve problems
when I painted over the wallpaper in the bedroom
I could see that there was a second layer of wallpaper beneath it
our relationship with homes is symbiotic
the building shelters our bodies, and we slow the house’s demise which comes long after us
The Semi-Finalist: When I was at your show, "Artifacts of Affection," I was thinking about how fearless you are with materials. Usually I can tell if something is a painting, a sculpture, etc., but I couldn’t immediately figure out what your objects were made of. There’s a blending of materials and sensibilities in this show that’s really exciting; can you talk about how you arrived at this stylistic choice?
Rachael Zur: It’s probably helpful for me to first explain what the paintings on the walls are made out of; often enough, when looking at a photograph, people assume the work is entirely ceramic. However, the forms are cut out of corrugated plastic or wood and then wrapped in plaster gauze. Most often I paint into the plaster while it is still wet, with acrylic or spray paint. Sometimes I attach a ceramic piece or fabric into a larger work, but the plaster is wonderful for blending the edges between materials.
The stylistic choices that I’ve arrived at now were born out of wanting to hold together both an enthusiasm for multiple ways of handling materials and media, and my love for painting. For a couple of years, I’ve been interested in my paintings occupying a space between sculpture and installation—while primarily being in the language of painting. Elizabeth Murray, Frank Stella, and Sam Gilliam have been influences for me in thinking about the structures that can hold a painting. While I’m invested in constructing irregular structures to paint on, I’m equally interested in how a simple contour line can convey a form on a flat surface.
1936-2019, plaster, acrylic, spray paint, resin, fabric, 2019; detail of 1936-2019.
"The stylistic choices that I’ve arrived at now were born out of wanting to hold together both an enthusiasm for multiple ways of handling materials and media, and my love for Painting."
S-F: I saw that Amy Bay described your show as “tender” in a post on Instagram. I thought that was such a perfect word to sum up your subject matter. Tell me about your work's relationship to people, domestic spaces, and memory.
RZ: Traces of the love that people have for each other lingers long after they are gone, it’s something that can be felt in old buildings or domestic objects. I’m interested in how affection can be held in the most humble and outdated objects.
I am specifically drawn to depicting the objects in living rooms, whose predecessor in pre-Civil War America is the Parlor Room. Out of the many functions that the Parlor Room served, one of them was preparing the bodies of loved ones for burial. I do find a tenderness in those preparations being carried out at home. Lacking those customs, I’ve turned to honoring those whom I’ve lost through depicting items from their living rooms. I have allowed for the spaces belonging to different loved ones to merge in the work, and as my grief eased, I saw that I was in fact making work about the affection held in homes belonging to (mostly) women who had profoundly impacted my life.
Immemorial Couch, plaster, wood, netting, acrylic, spray paint, resin, fabric, 2019
I’m also interested in how memory relates to the function of seeing. Much of what is seen is reduced to an abstraction in the eye before it is understood by the brain, the brain compares the abstraction to memories of similar, known objects in order to see the new object. It’s a very precarious process! The white forms painted on the walls are abstractions of the plaster paintings. At the same time, those forms increase in their legibility when the viewer looks at the works hanging on adjacent walls.
Longing Syndrome II, plaster, wood, acrylic, spray paint, resin, 2020
S-F: I’m always intrigued by artists that can turn a gallery into a theatrical setting for their show. I don’t think of you as making installation art (maybe I’m wrong!), but you’ve managed to transform Gallery 114 into a space that amplifies the themes that run through your work. How did this come about?
RZ: To borrow from what you said about the theatrical setting, color sets the stage. The lavender walls allow the silhouettes of the plaster paintings to be very legible up close, but fainter from further away. The painted walls definitely amplify the main theme of the show: the residue of lives lived and the affection that can still be felt in humble objects. The lavender color shifts from grey to pink depending on where one stands and in relation to the works that it's near. The shifting in color works well with the elusive feeling of work that holds both the presence and absence of an individual.
"...color sets the stage."
After developing the visual language for this body of work, I began looking for ways in to make works that related to pieces I had already made. I thought about how these works could exist both singularly and directly next to each other. Leading up to the show, I spent a lot time in my studio placing these works near each other at different heights to see how that impacted how I moved from piece to piece.
I don’t want to take anything for granted with how a show is installed. I consider the space fully and respond to the architectural features that I will be forced to work with. One of my favorite moments in the show is the placement of Small Ghost End Table above the vent in the gallery wall. The vent is not really something that can be ignored, so I embraced it, placing the work above it as if it had just landed there.
Small Ghost End Table, plaster, corrugated platic, acrylic, spray paint, resin, 2019; Rachael Zur at Gallery 114.
"The vent is not really something that can be ignored, so I embraced it, placing the work above it as if it had just landed there."
Installation view with Matriarch (foreground) and A Place to Rest Your Crown (middle ground); wall drawings.
S-F: I know that you’ve had a chance to work with some really amazing people as part of your recent MFA program. Can you talk a bit about that as well as your background, education or any other formative experiences that you think are relevant?
RZ: My bachelor’s degree is from the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. I completed my MFA in the Low Residency MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago last summer. I learned so much from each teacher that I worked with in grad school and feel very fortunate to have studied with each of them. I worked most closely with Jessica Jackson Hutchins and Kristan Kennedy--my mentors for the parts of the year I was in Portland. Kristan helped me to move my painting practice away from rectilinear supports, and to consider how works can relate to each other in an exhibition. While working with Jessica, I was building sculptures to hold my late father’s ceramics. It was a challenging project emotionally, but also formally, because my father’s work was already complete and in an aesthetic that doesn’t immediately pair well with my own. While working with Jessica, I was able to better understand what my standards are with regards to art making, and to tune in to my own voice.
In addition to my formal education, my father’s ceramics left an indelible mark on me as an artist. My dad passed away when I was an infant. I grew up longing to connect with him. His ceramics were a way for me to have a connection. I could trace where his hands had been on a piece, or spend time looking at the work to learn how he built it. At an early age, I learned that an art object can tell a viewer a lot about its maker--this is one reason why I’m so invested in texture and leaving traces of my touch, because that’s part of the legacy that my father left for me.
The Other Side of the Door, metal doorknocker, wood, plaster, gauze, acrylic, spray paint, 2020; wall drawing.
S-F: You also write poetry and have some on your website under the appropriately understated tab: "unseen labor." I think it's so interesting when an artist has a strong connection to language because it seems like such a different part of the brain! Did these interests - the visual and the literary- develop side by side or at different points in your life?
RZ: It’s a very different part of the brain. Having a writing practice is a recent development. I’ve struggled with dyslexia since I was a child and that has made it difficult to have confidence in my writing. Initially I was hesitant to go to grad school because I was terrified of the writing component. Gregg Bordowitz, who is the director of the Low Residency MFA Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, told me during my first semester in the program that he thought writing could become an important aspect of my practice. At the time, I completely disagreed with him. After working with Pamela Sneed and Corrine Fitzpatrick, I found ways of working with language that felt akin to my visual art practice by finding odd couplings of ideas, and by being earnest and direct.
Even the wall color surrounding the title of Zur's Gallery 114 show was carefully considered.
S-F: What’s next for you?
RZ: This December I’m in a group show called Domestic Landscapes curated by Carissa Burkett at Chehalem Cultural Center, in Newburg, Oregon. My husband and I are homeschooling our three kids this year and I will be taking them with me on a residency at Stay Home Gallery in Paris, Tennessee in spring of 2021. I have a two person show with Ruth Ross in June of 2021 at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida.
You can see more or Rachael Zur's work at https://www.rachaelzur.com/ and on Instagram at @rachaelzur.
Below are a few more images of Zur's show at Gallery 114, courtesy of the artist.
Work by: Altoon Sultan, Andrea Borsuk, Ashlynn Browning, Benjamin Terrell, Karen Schifano, Tom Bunnell
(in alphabetical order by first name)
The painters that I am drawn to all seem to have a few things in common, even when they’re not exclusively painting. They make work that insists the visual is as intellectual as the verbal. Their paintings demand real looking, the kind that only comes from spending time with an artwork. Their work refuses to sacrifice beauty for the sake of content. And, to loosely paraphrase a line from Karen Schifano’s artist statement, they are abstract painters that flirt with narrative elements and representational painters that fully embrace the abstract qualities in their work.
When it became clear a few months ago that I wouldn’t be able to visit studios due to Covid-19, I decided to try and get artwork to come to me. I reached out to six artists whose work both inspires me and makes me think about paint’s ceaseless adaptability in the hands of creative people. “Here and There, Mostly There,” The Semi-Finalist’s first summer group issue, is the result of their willingness to share images of recent work and a few thoughts about their process and subject matter. I also asked them to describe -if relevant - how the pandemic has changed their approach to making art. I am both thrilled with and grateful for the thoughtful contributions of Altoon Sultan (VT), Andrea Borsuk (CA), Ashlynn Browning (NC), Ben Terrell (OR), Karen Schifano (NY) and Tom Bunnell (DC). Whether their work is engaged with representation or abstraction, social issues or the aesthetic investigations of a quiet poet, these six artists are continuing to make compelling and meaningful work at a time when we need it most.
Yellow Curves, 2020, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 9" x 12"
Above and Below, 2020, painted porcelain, 9 7/8" x 12 5/8 x 1/2"
Transparent, 2020, dyed hooked wool, 16 1/4" x 14 3/4"
I work on paintings and drawings at a table upstairs in my house, under a skylight. This isn’t because of Covid-19: I’ve been working here for about 10 years, since I began making small paintings and no longer needed to be in my large studio building. I work on relief sculpture downstairs in my kitchen. The virus hasn’t changed my work process in any way.
In my various mediums, my work explores a range of imagery from representation to abstraction; with textiles being non-objective; paintings closer to representation with their clear form and light; and relief sculpture, paradoxically, in between.
- Altoon Sultan
Sultan's studio in The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
Without the Slightest Sound, 2020, oil on wood panel, 24” x 36"
A Silver Lining to All that Darkness, 2020, oil on wood panel, 24” x 36”
These paintings reveal my own efforts and tensions to quiet the mind and acknowledge that this moment is here. I am trying to stay in it and rise above it. When I began this series of paintings, I was thinking about my own discomfort in a world that is hurting.
I see the figure as a barometer of this moment and its physical contortions as a reaction to the irrational and fluctuating temperature of our situation. Existing within a toxic “garden”-- a place of unfamiliar forms and fluids— requires balance, patience, acquiescence, hope, positivity, humor, and basic survival “snacks” (such as air and water) to endure challenging periods in our history.
Drawings and watercolors on Borsuk's studio walls in Santa Cruz, CA.
Untitled, 2020, oil on wood
Untitled, 2020, oil on wood
Untitled, 2020, oil and pastel on wood
For the past few months I've been continuing to work in oil on wood panel but have also been incorporating oil pastel to get more gestural, drawing line qualities into the mix. I think it's been giving some new life and energy to the geometric forms. I'm going to continue working with this organic/geometric hybrid which for me speaks to the control and calculated decisions that go into the paintings, along with the freer, more intuitive side that ultimately leads the process.
All of this work is very new and untitled thus far...but they range in size 10" x 8" to 20" x 16."
Browning's studio walls in Raleigh, NC.
Paperbacks, 2020, oil on panel
Guston , 2020, oil on panel
Doig, 2020, oil on panel
My father was given a Cherokee name at birth but changed it legally when he turned eighteen.
Life like art is a process of naming and renaming.
Soon after, he traded his .22 caliber rifle to a Pawnee friend named Myron Echohawk for a Corona No.3 folding typewriter.
That exchange started my father on his life long path as a writer.
There is a relationship to who we are and the things we collect.
Lately I’ve been painting my old LP's, books and Indian trade blankets.
Art like life is a process of forgetting and remembering.
I paint them for their objectness, for their spirit and so that I might recall my original name.
Terrell in his studio outside of Eugene, Oregon.
Yes, Go, 2020, flashe on canvas, 36" x 28"
Inner Limits, 2020, flashe on canvas, 36" x 28"
Wholely, 2020, flashe on canvas, 36" x 28"
My work over the last few years has jumped between reductive images of simple iconic shapes, and a series that is more pointedly concerned with race relations. Even though those issues are in the news right now, I am actually feeling more drawn to shapes that reflect a place that is timeless and beyond contingencies. The pandemic has drawn me inwards again.
Schifano's studio walls in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, NY.
Dark Gem, 2019, oil on canvas, 60" x 64"
Extra Viti, 2019, oil on canvas, 60" x 64"
Fortune Teller, 2020, oil on canvas, 58" x 60"
In these most recent paintings (last two years) I have been allowing for different patterns and impulses to coexist in the painting. It's not a new idea, but it feels right as a direction currently. All these observed and fragmented systems in our lives! The paintings are about these systems. Some are repressive, some are comical and some are subliminal.
Bunnell's DC studio.
Untitled Work in Progress, oil on linen, 9" x 12", 2020
A couple of months ago I came across this wonderfully succinct Edward Hopper quip: “If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.” I only recently learned who the quote is attributed to, but it’s one that I’ve heard variations on over the years, used by artists and teachers to make the point that painting is its own language. Painting exists to help artists say something visually, and the paint in turn helps to shape the understanding of what is being said. Ground pigments on a flat surface can clarify meaning, but they can just as easily muddy and obscure it. In the right hands, however, this is where things get interesting.
I don’t actually see the influence of Hopper in Brenden Clenaghen’s work (not at all), but I do love how Clenaghen's colors and shapes are frequently unnameable. In fact, when I’m in front of one of his paintings I often find that I'm not sure what I’m looking at. I just know that in my head words are momentarily silenced and I am able to privilege a visual experience. Whereas one of Hopper’s paintings might clearly and literally illustrate a moment of quiet contemplation, one of Clenaghen’s will suggest fragments of daily life while never fully confirming my suspicions about what is being depicted. He hints and implies but resists the obvious, a quality that I admire in his small but densely packed canvases.
Below are images of Brenden Clenaghen’s work as well as a short interview that was conducted via email. The studio visit took place prior to the regional form of quarantine that currently exists in Portland, Oregon, but we still performed the awkward dance of trying to stay six feet apart. It was not easy.
Brenden Clenaghen in his studio.
The Semi-Finalist: Tell me about your early days as a student and an artist. What were you interested in? Who influenced you?
My early (teen) visual influences were tied to music scenes I was involved with. I played in bands and produced drawings for various local 'zines in the early 80's. Artists I looked to from this time included Pushead, Raymond Pettibon and Winston Smith. Additionally, I was looking at 60's "psychedelic" poster artists. In 1986 I moved to San Francisco to attend SFAI and becme interested in Bay Area Figuration, various strains of Expressionism, Performance/Video Art and George Kuchar (in particular G.K.'s video diaries).
Untitled Work in Progress, oil on linen, 14" x 11", 2020 and a corner of the studio.
S-F: When we spoke at your studio you mentioned that you sometimes work on paintings for years before calling them done. Can you talk about your process and how time plays a part in it?
BC: I start many paintings at a time. At the beginning I work quickly to get information on all of the surfaces. Sometimes there are reference sketches, and sometimes I paint whatever comes to mind. Moving forward there is a lot of adding, editing and restructuring. I’m looking for something surprising or unknown, living with the paintings for extended periods allows for that. Also, the types of surfaces that are a byproduct of so much editing produce a physicality I value in the work.
Untitled Work in Progress, oil on linen, 11" x 12.5", 2020
"The tactile surfaces suggest various types of corporeality, maybe promoting physical responses to the work: can you feel this dry, rough wall? are you touching your leg?"
S-F: Your surfaces are tactile and your imagery is fragmented. Talk about that.
BC: A lot of the work presents bodies existing in, and responding to, various structures. The tactile surfaces suggest various types of corporeality, maybe promoting physical responses to the work: can you feel this dry, rough wall? are you touching your leg? I think of things falling apart, being dismantled, folding in on themselves and then being remade in different ways. Some of these paintings seem like depictions of an in-between state within that imagined process. This in-between space, to me, is one of intimacy, raw self-regard, privacy, meditation, escape etc.--someplace where definitions are slippery. I resist claiming my work is about anything--it’s not a novel, it’s not hard research. It is a personal response to visual culture, and my life, and materials, and the history of painting and being alone in a studio, or a bathtub. There is meaning, but I hope it is in a state of flux.
Untitled, oil on linen, 12" x 9", 2020
S-F: You’ve been working as something of an outsider to the Portland art scene for years. How has that impacted how you think about larger trends in art and what it means to make a painting?
BC: I’d say I’ve just not shown in a while. I teach. I’ll show up to events. I still talk to art pals. A friend of ours recently introduced me to someone as an “underground” painter, and I loved it. The idea that one could be mythologized for not participating has a romantic appeal. And obviously I’ve not grown past my teen punk self. I’m always looking and thinking about paintings, of now, of then. The biggest impact has been not exhibiting, and what type of headspace that surplus of time -and lack of audience- presents. The work will be shown at some point, though.
Untitled, oil on linen,12" x 11", 2020
Untitled, oil on linen, 12" x 12", 2020
S-F: How do your color relationships develop and how do you arrive at a final decision?
BC: The color develops through editing, just trying things out. But the decisions are driven by thinking about color in its various modes (iconic, as signifier, naturalistic, phenomenological, etc.) and how these might intermingle. The color should describe a type of lighting situation, vibrate in a particular way and/or be of questionable taste.
Untitled Work in Progress, oil and pastel on linen, 13" x 12", 2020
"The color should describe a type of lighting situation, vibrate in a particular way and/ or be of questionable taste."
A detail and a portrait of the artist.
S-F: Whose work are you looking at and what kind of an influence do you think it’s having on you?
BC: Very recently, I’ve been thinking about Maria Lasnig, Bonnard, Forrest Bess, early 90s hip-hop producers, 70s body art etc. But I have greedy eyes and look at a lot of things, paintings and other. Every move in the studio has a link to something. It’s a favorite part of the process to see what appears and think about sources, and what stays and what goes.
Untitled Work in Progress, oil on linen, 9" x 12", 2020
SF: Tell me how teaching and parenting have influenced your artwork.
BC: Teaching keeps me in the pocket: thinking and talking about the essential components of painting/making, with students, on a regular basis. Plus, consistently being around people who are producing such a wide array of responses to the world around them, often in very fresh ways, is an incredible experience. Parenting seems to have made the work more personal, intimate and domestically oriented. Broader cultural concerns have a way of falling away when faced with the chaos, beauty and immediate concerns of being a parent. My children make me laugh, a lot.
S-F: What’s next for you?
BC: More painting. More teaching. A show on the horizon.
Below are some earlier works by Brenden Clenaghen, and you can see even a bit more on instagram: @brendenclenaghen.
Untitled, oil on linen, 12 x 9", 2020
One Between Nothing, oil on linen, 11"x 13", 2012
Amplifying , oil on linen17" x 16", 2012
Follow Blind, oil, acrylic, plastisol PVC and joint compound on panel,
16" x 24", 2008
The moment that we're in can be strange, frightening and full of uncertainty. One bright spot for me, however, has been communicating with past Semi-Finalists and finding out that they are all doing reasonably well. Schedules, routines, and access to materials may have been upended during the quarantine, but the urge to make something relevant has not been diminished. In the words of Tia Factor (featured below), the key to being creative in this time is learning "...to make a reduced world work, to be resilient, remain patient, practice kindness, and find moments of joy wherever you can."
I recently asked past S-F participants to send studio snapshots and a brief description of how they are navigating art and life during the pandemic. The results filled me with so much hope and I'm happy to be sharing these updates from an unstoppable group of artists.
Stay inside, stay healthy, and I hope this issue of S-F brings you a few moments of joy and inspiration.
(The following Semi-Finalists appear in alphabetical order. Click on the artist's name to be directed to their website or gallery.)
"I’m starting to plan for my 2021 show at Melanie Flood Projects. Making some larger paintings for this show and possibly some wall paintings. Lots of ideas swirling around in my head right now that are informing the work: histories and cultural ideas around wall coverings and ornamentation; the history of witch-hunts; menopause, aging and disease; homage; vanity; kitch; friendship; girlhood, etc." -Amy Bay
"Going to the studio every day even if it is just to clean. It is fundamental to keep my creative practice flowing. Working from home gives me the opportunity to discern and contextualize the content of my art.
Right now I am working on a life size ceramic sculpture for a public space and also on differently scaled sculptures. By working on this larger piece I'm learning how much I can push the material while solving technical problems." -Iván Carmona
"I've been staying in Eugene at my in-laws' house for the past three weeks, separated from my Portland studio. The pace is slow and simple with a focus on improving the home and property. Creatively, I'm mostly thinking about which trees to plant and how they will provide future benefit for both the urban wildlife habitat and the aesthetics of the neighborhood. Projecting into the future is keeping me distracted from our overwhelming current situation.
My ongoing "Citadel" series leads me to find or produce images of simple structural shelter and calm order, with an appropriate mood of meditative solitude. Here are a few recent linocut prints and photographs." -Doug Davidovich
"I'll admit I've indulged in a fantasy of using this quiet, seemingly simple time as if it were at an artist residency. This dream lasts only moments before I'm reminded that I am extremely far from that lovely place of focus and solitude. With all schools closed, I no longer have any break from my 11-year old child. Overnight I've become her full-time companion, her ad-hoc home school teacher, and even her PE teacher! And I'm reminded that my one week off from teaching college art for "spring break" was the same week I was tasked with figuring-out how to transform my art courses into a remote format.
This has been a creative time for sure, but definitely not in any of the ways I might have anticipated (or actually wanted). Its creativity is in how to make a reduced world work, to be resilient, remain patient, practice kindness, and find moments of joy wherever you can.
*Images are from my home studio and a new painting I'm working on from the Private Places series, based on conversations with folks who live in gated communities. The other images are ways we've found to cope during this crazy time, from writing-up a schedule (we never seem to stick to), to making bread and making slime." -Tia Factor
"I have been making a series of hand-drawn posters and shirts. I really like being able to make quick things at the moment since I am still doing school work." -Ralph Pugay
"What my studio practice looks like now:
Drawing. I have been drawing with ink on paper a lot. I find that it calms me and doesn't require the commitment of painting which is so difficult right now with the dull ache of anxiety that pervades each day. I made a little nest in my studio and use leftovers of ink, paper, crayons, and just meditatively build forms sometimes listening to music, sometimes to news. I have also been using my studio to start seedlings and sew masks for Sew to Save.
I am still teaching and working really hard to make painting relevant for my students through the thin medium of Zoom. The crazy expectation that I would have more time in the studio during the pandemic has not come to pass--I am busier than ever--home farming, teaching full-time, parenting, cooking, caretaking a parent from afar, staying sane. And like everyone else, trying to understand this moment and what it means. Daily responding is necessary. 4/7/2020" -Cara Tomlinson
Oil and spray paint on acrylic dyed canvas over board, 48" x 60" 2018
Photo: Dan Kvitka
My introduction to Tia Factor's artwork was Private Places, her show at Oranj Studio that was curated by Pamela Morris in 2018. At the time I was reading about Nicolas Poussin, the 17th century French Baroque painter known for elegantly balanced landscapes as well as biblical and historical scenes. Poussin often depicted an Arcadian countryside whose beauty was undercut by the suggestion of danger and the reality of death. What struck me about Factor's work was her personal approach to a similar theme, using the genre of landscape painting to document the darker side of utopias and communal living spaces. Like Poussin, she's not interested in simply illustrating pastoral views. Instead, the landscape is a vehicle for talking about instability and the human condition. But in Factor's paintings, instability doesn't come from nature or war, it comes from within. It is our own desire to create perfect environments and gated communities that contributes to the isolation, segregation, and conspicuous disparity that we see in our culture. Despite the gravity of her subject matter, Factor's paintings still manage to be beautiful and inviting. It's a jarring combination that makes me enjoy her work visually even as it leads me to consider troubling issues like inequality in America.
Tia Factor recently agreed to be interviewed for The Semi-Finalist. Below are some questions, answers, and images of her work.
The artist in her studio.
Semi-Finalist: Let’s start somewhere near the beginning. How did you get started as an artist?
Tia Factor: Both sides of my family had a real appreciation for art, especially on my dad’s side. There were a lot of artists in my dad’s family. My dad’s aunt Anne was a well-known artist in Israel and had supposedly even worked with Diego Rivera on a mural or two. With all these artists in the family it wasn’t a surprise that my dad and his brother both became artists. I also loved making art growing-up and got a lot of encouragement from my parents. However, I don’t think I ever envisioned a future for myself that included becoming an artist in the career sense of the word.
Can We Just Live Here?
Oil and spray paint on acrylic dyed canvas over board, 30" x 40" 2019
Photo: Jim Lommasson
Having grown up with parents who embodied the classic archetype of hippies, I wanted a more conventional life for myself. I tried that on for a while in high school but eventually moved to the Bay Area and basically followed in my parents’ footsteps, who also moved from Chicago to the Bay Area as young adults, forging a non-conventional path for myself. I lived out in the country and hung out with the alternative folks, hippies, punks, artists, who all prioritized self-discovery above anything that might resemble a “responsible” career path. Not surprisingly, I ended-up in art school where the most obvious career path was to become an artist. What is surprising, though, is that I stuck with that path. The relationships with professors and peers from that period in my life were so meaningful and influential that I felt I had found “my people” as well as a guiding sensibility of how I wanted to be part of this world. While I don’t believe we are ever fixed in one identity and all of this is still evolving, I do know I will always be a person who values and finds satisfaction from the creative process and a sense of kinship within the art community.
Can We Just Live Here? (Detail)
S-F: You seem to love exploring the tension between privilege and alienation, beauty and ugliness, reality and artificiality. Can you talk about the origins of these themes in your work?
TF: These are definitely ideas that circulate around my work. In unpacking the origins of these ideas, I’ve often looked at my own previously mentioned “coming-of-age”. I look at these oppositional forces in my upbringing that were imprinted on me: on the one hand I was born at home under the redwoods of Northern California, the only offspring of two young and idealistic hippie artists. The beauty of that rural place and the ethos of the time cut a deep groove in my psyche. When I was only seven years old we moved back to where my parents were from, to the urban expanse of Chicago and its endless suburbs. My parents slowly cast-off their 60’s identities; meanwhile, my cultural context and physical surroundings also shifted pretty radically.
It's What Life Should Be
Oil and spray paint on acrylic dyed canvas over board, 30" x 40", 2019
Photo: Dan Kvitka
"Privilege/alienation, beauty/ugliness, reality/artificiality. All those concepts exist simultaneously in these constructed, aspirational, environments and, as you noted, in my paintings too." -Tia Factor
The cultural values in suburban-Chicago were more conventional; the overall aesthetic of the built environment there was also more predictable and defined. The shift in surrounding landscape and the cultural context that came with it became a tangible symbol of the impact that the external landscape has upon a person’s internal landscape. Once I identified this belief, I had found my creative thesis, so to speak. This was around thirteen years ago. Since then, all my work looks at the environments that people create as a signal of their values, beliefs, fantasies, and aspirations. I look at how these environments impact how we feel- psychologically, emotionally, spiritually. Some call this psychogeography, but I feel the term topophilia more closely reflects what I’m after in my work because, as it’s defined by Yi-Fu Tuan, topophilia points at “the affective bond between people and place or setting” and it often becomes mixed with a sense of cultural identity and a love of certain aspects of place. Looking at projects like No Place, a series in which I interviewed folks who grew up in utopian experiments of the 70’s and 80’s, I think about how an environment like that separates itself from the larger society, creating an idealized place that simultaneously alienates its members from the larger culture.
Details of It's What Life Should Be.
This project continued on but evolved into a darker iteration with my series Private Places. This project emerged in November 2016 when Trump was elected and I just happened to be staying in a gated community in Hawaii. I stopped romanticizing communal life and began seeing the significance of the self-segregation Americans engage in as they isolate and protect themselves in cultural cocoons, converging and finding comfort among people whose values reflect their own most closely. While this is going on in places like Portland, where I’m writing from, the most blatant manifestation of this takes the form of a gated community which can also be seen as a contemporary version of a utopian experiment; at heart we find the same impulse to live among like-minded individuals who share in our values and usually look a lot like us. Members of the community, which may or may not have an official covenant, appreciate the benefits of shared resources and closeness with other community members. While this may sound wonderful, I always have to look at the flip-side and ask the question: who is excluded in this scenario and how does that lack of diversity and challenge limit the thinking and potential growth of those who have chosen to live behind walls? Privilege/alienation, beauty/ugliness, reality/artificiality. All those concepts exist simultaneously in these constructed, aspirational, environments and, as you noted, in my paintings too.
Oil on acrylic dyed canvas over board, 30" x 40" 2019
Photo: Jim Lommasson
S-F: It was really exciting to see so many works in progress in your studio. Tell me about your painting process and how it’s evolving?
TF: All my work tends to start with mark-making that is loose, ambiguous and amorphic as the underpainting. I like responding and conversing with that underpainting, or visual noise, which I also feel sets the overall tone for the work. The shift that my work has undergone lately has to do with content, as I explained earlier, as well as the general tone or emotional space that the deepest layer of the painting creates. In my current work you can see this shift in terms of my palette, which is now mostly warm hues with high-key values (lots of whites, yellows, and pinks). I stopped using the indigo dying process –indigo created a cool, internal, down-tempo atmosphere– which unified and set the emotional tone for Escapism, a series I worked on throughout 2016-17. Now I begin each painting with a Helen Frankenthaler-esque, gestural staining process with fluid acrylics. The stains flow and move across the pre-soaked canvas like pools of watercolor on paper. I love starting a painting with this sense of abandon and lack of control. When I leave the studio, the paint continues to flow, spreading and eventually drying in ways that are completely unexpected. It’s a chance-derived improvisation. I need this sense of surprise to keep myself truly curious since what I paint on top of it is fairly representational, derived from a photographic source.
The backside of one of Factor's canvasses; something being started and something near completion.
TF (continued): Another new way I’m building-in less prescriptive processes is by working with my source images in design programs first. I abstract them by applying filters and unrealistic colors and then combine the underpainting stains with the photographically derived imagery. I’m excited to see how much weirder and more abstract the work is becoming because of this process. I want the work to exist in that liminal zone between recognizable places and emotionally disorienting, seductive and abstract spaces.
Inside, The Good Life
Oil and spray paint on acrylic dyed canvas over board, 48" x 60", 2018
Photo: Dan Kvitka
S-F: How does drawing play a role in your process?
TF: Drawing is not really playing into my painting process these days. I used to print out my photo sources and make big composite drawings that were sort of drawn collages. I’d use these drawings as a jumping-off place for the painted works. But now I’m bringing the imagery into a digital program and creating a mock painting which becomes the blueprint I build the real painting from.
Small studies and a corner of the studio.
S-F: Your studio is filled with books and images that you refer to as sources of inspiration. Who are the artists and what are you learning from them?
TF: I’m really into contemporary painting and have so many favorite painters. Peter Doig is way up there in my pantheon of painters because meeting him when I was a grad student at Berkeley completely influenced my creative trajectory at a crucial moment. Seeing his work gave me permission to make landscape painting, which has so much historic baggage that it can feel a bit fraught. Doig made the landscape feel fresh, relevant, personal and weird all at once. I also admire Doig’s pal Chris Ofili. Ofili’s work is also weird, honest, authentic and sometimes just straight-up awkward. I want all of that to be more present in my work and what others might say about my work. I’m also really interested in Hurvin Anderson and Michael Armitage. They both articulate that drippy, colorful, magical-realism that directs the viewer into liminal landscapes while delivering cultural commentary on an almost subliminal level. A few more painters who do this and who I admire tremendously are Kerry James Marshall, Mamma Andersson, Hernan Bas, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby.
Sources of inspiration.
S-F: Getting to know you and your career as an artist, it’s become clear that you do not sit still for very long. Talk about the projects that you are involved in outside of the studio.
TF: A few things that come to mind are the gallery space I co-curate and my ongoing engagement with the Berlin art world in the form of leading students from Portland State University (PSU) each summer there. The gallery is called Erickson and I’ve been involved with that space for close to two years now, mostly curating emerging artists and talented recent grads from the School of Art + Design at PSU. We’ve just brought-on a new curator who’s programming shows throughout the year of work made by incarcerated artists at the Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI), a minimum security prison here in Portland. As a painter and curator, I’ve been a guest of the CRCI art program and plan to start going more regularly to teach classes.
Going to Berlin is an amazing experience for my art and design students; it provides inspiration and connection to a broader and more diverse art scene that operates in a really different way than our regional scene here. For me, and the students, Berlin is inspiration, education and personal connection to a different art world. All of that helps me get out of my comfort zone and make better work.
Pushing the limits of the studio space.
S-F: What’s next for you?
TF: Something that’s coming right up and is pretty exciting is the painting symposium and exhibition, Making A Better Painting: Thinking Through Practice, at the Hoffman Gallery (Lewis & Clark College, Portland). I collaboratively curated this exhibition and symposium with a number of other Pacific Northwest painters and educators and we’ve invited Molly Zuckerman-Hartung to deliver the keynote. As part of the exhibit we also created a parallel juried student show guest curated by painters Tatyana Ostapenko and Amy Bay (a former SF interviewee). All of us who organized Making A Better Painting are having a show called A Better Painting Pop-Up at Erickson Gallery that will be the culminating event of the symposium on Saturday, March 7th. Hope to see you at one of these events!
S-F: The entire S-F team is planning on attending. See you there!
You can see more of Tia Factor's work and geek out on her CV here. Below are a few more paintings.
Harmony Cocoon, Factor's installation for the PDX Contemporary Window Project.
Installation view: Vinyl on glass, oil on unstretched, acrylic stained canvas, 139 ½” x 94” x 63", 2019
Photo: Dan Kvitka
Perfection Awaits You
Oil on acrylic dyed canvas, 47.5" x 48", 2018
Photo: Dan Kvitka
Oil and spray paint on acrylic dyed canvas, 48" x 48" 2018
Somewhere In Canada (from the series Escapism)
Oil on indigo dyed canvas over board, 48" x 60", 2016