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
When I visited Ralph Pugay’s studio last month, I was immediately drawn to a small painting of a partially dressed man in a desert at night. He is sitting on the ground near the top of the picture, casually reclining under the light of the moon. Three figures -presumably in graves- are buried deep beneath him, exposed by a cutaway composition that lets us peer into the earth. In a surreal twist, each figure has a phone held up to the side of his or her face, so that even in this nocturnal and underground setting they are all dramatically lit with a familiar glow. The image, at once funny and somber, suggested to me the near universal need to feel connected to a world beyond our own. But rather than being blandly ironic, it speaks to a very real desire to maintain an open line of communication with people even after they are gone. The half-dressed man and his buried companions all have their phones pressed up to their ears, but it’s still difficult to tell if anyone is actually trying to talk. They are all, at the very least, listening.
Below are some photos, questions, and answers from a recent visit to Pugay's studio in NE Portland. You can see more of his work at Upfor Gallery and http://www.ralphpugay.com/.
The artist in his studio.
Semi-Finalist: Let's go back to the beginning- how did you get started as an artist?
Raph Pugay: I dabbled in photography in high school but never really took it that seriously since my teachers would always tell me that my pictures weren’t that good. I moved to Portland State to pursue an architecture degree. That plan fell through after a week of moving to the city and after a week-long snow-storm derailed my course schedule which was already off-track to begin with since I began school in the middle of the academic year. I decided to change all of my classes and committed to dabbling in different courses for a bit. Took a drawing class and fell in-love with it, so I just decided that I would commit to art as a major.
"I like having a number of projects laying around..."
S-F: Can you talk a little bit about your creative process?
RP: I am not much of a planner when it comes to my paintings. I wish I was. With being a full-time professor, it would help me optimize my time better. I like having a number of projects laying around to work on so that I have some options in terms of finding what I can accomplish. If I can keep the momentum of being excited about working on something, then that is usually conducive to being excited about other potential projects. Working small-scale leaves the opportunity for feelings of excitement to keep going through the duration of realizing work. If I get bored with accomplishing something half-way through, I leave them behind in the meantime until I can imagine them having other possibilities. I have worked on project-based works that do not allow for that kind of liberating schedule, though. It is nice to have both going. Inspiration comes from listening, reading, writing, talking, and experiencing. I was working exclusively with acrylic for awhile but I have grown to love and play with other materials as well.
"I think humor is really good in drawing people in in an unguarded way..."
(acrylic and paint pen on paper)
S-F: You have a way of making absurd, comical, dream worlds that somehow illustrate elements of the human condition and our near universal concerns as a species- what’s up with that?
RP: I think humor is really good at drawing people in in an unguarded way and I like the idea that a still image amidst all of these technological advances can still disarm people. I think that is really useful especially at a time when people are always distracted. The paintings can sometimes be about having a place to put all my anxieties and fear about the world; but they can also be about being brave and finding moments of beauty in murkiness. I like that my work kind of starts out foundationally from a place of feeling how topsy-turvy the world is, but I like that making something like paintings from it can ground you into feeling like you can still make something that is real, that is born out of a real feeling, despite how momentary feelings can be.
Works in progress.
RP (continued): Humor is really good in helping us acknowledge how fragile our rules and guidelines for living are. Sometimes these guidelines provide us with a narrow viewpoint which can crystallize in our psyches and our bodies in a way that can make people rigid, angry, and ugly. I like the idea that humor is a good way to shake all of that off. The painting process in its duration actually is a really good way to determine how funny something is. If you’re painting something for a really long time and you are still interested in it by the time it’s done, then you probably have something that is really good.
Ink on paper
S-F: Your drawings take on a life of their own that is quite different from the finished paintings. How do you see them fitting in to your overall body of work?
RP: They’re studies that have a life of their own. They come from the same place-- but processed through a different kind of durational experience.
A corner of the studio.
S-F: I know that you have a diverse range of projects that you’ve worked on, from botanical installations to animated gifs. Are you currently working on any projects outside of your paintings and drawings? If so, what are they and when can we expect to see them?
RP: I will be doing a show in the Philippines and I’ve always wanted to do a project there. I have some ideas of what I would like to do as an excuse to visit more but you never really can determine if it is potent until you’re at that place. So suffice it to say, I am excited to go.
The artist and a model.
S-F: You recently did a mural for Facebook. How was the experience of scaling up your work?
RP: I really liked it. It took awhile to figure out how to make it work, but I really loved the large scale and makes me want to do more projects like that.
S-F: You have so many great art books in your studio and a deep appreciation of art history. Who have you been looking at lately (living or dead) and are they having a visible impact on your work?
RP: I am geeking out on some Horace Pippin right now. I love how muted his palette is and some of the narratives have a whimsical yet quiet quality about them.
Works on paper. Maybe done, maybe not.
Works in progress; acrylic on canvas.
S-F: What’s next for you?
RP: I have a couple of group shows in Oregon and a group show in New York and in the Philippines which are all happening this earlier part of the year. I am currently in the process of signing up for a summer residency to work with a master printer too which I am pretty excited about.
Below: More Pugay
In the studio.
Works in progress; acrylic on canvas.
Drawings, drawings, drawings.
Acrylic on canvas.
In the studio with a nearly finished piece.
My first encounter with Iván Carmona’s work was seeing Imprint of Place, the two-person show that he was in last year at PDX CONTEMPORARY ART with Liz Rob. I went during the first Thursday opening and the gallery was filled with supporters, collectors, and casual onlookers, but I remember immediately feeling like I was the only person in the room. Rob’s wall pieces maintained a commanding presence from the outer edges of the space and a long table full of Carmona’s intimate, brightly colored sculptures pierced through the winter coats shuffling across the gallery. Seeing that table was like unexpectedly seeing an old friend at a party who I hadn’t realized I was missing and having them call me over for a private reunion.
When I think about that moment, I don’t remember hearing a single conversation taking place in the gallery. In my mind’s eye it was as quiet as slipping under the warm, soapy water of a bath, and I can see myself walking towards the table of painted sculptures that felt like they had been conjured into existence specifically for me to look at. It was, quite simply, a transfixing visual experience.
Iván Carmona recently let me visit him in his Northwest Portland studio. Below are some Semi-Finalist questions and Carmona’s responses. Many of the photos are by Mario Gallucci courtesy of PDX CONTEMPORARY ART.
Left: works in progress in Carmona's studio.
Right: Flamingo, flashe on ceramic, 2019. Photo: Mario Gallucci
Semi-Finalist: Iván, your work is often deceptively simple. How do you arrive at a given form?
Iván Carmona: My forms are inspired by nature, fruit, tree leaves, pebble- stones. Sometimes it is from my Puerto Rican culture or a specific time from my childhood memories.
SF: Can you talk more about how memory plays a role in your creative process?
IC: I think that my new body of work comes from a romantic idea of nostalgic memories of a past childhood, my first impressions of nature and cultural experiences.
Works in progress.
S-F: Have your abstract vessels and shapes always been on the minimalist side, or did you arrive at this language over the course of several years?
IC: No, I was always attracted to the minimalism movement. Before that my work was concentrated on human and animal figures and then I slowly turned to abstractions.
S-F: I’m very drawn to the color in your work. It’s bold, direct, and completely approachable. Can you talk about your color choices and the inspirations for them?
IC: In my process, sometimes the form and color emerge at the same time. The form and color activate a specific moment, a memory of my life.
Left: Abrázame, flashe paint on ceramic, 2019. Photo: Mario Gallucci
Right: A corner of the studio.
Iván Carmona talking about form and memory.
S-F: You’ve mentioned Alexander Calder and Isamu Noguchi as influences. What kind of impact have they had on your work?
IC: The use of materials on their own and how the history of that material speaks. His (Noguchi’s) innovative work, he experimented with biomorphic forms to create unexpected aesthetic combinations.
S-F: Are there other artists, living or dead, that you’re currently looking at? And what are you taking away from them?
IC: Ellsworth Kelly: his use of vibrant, saturated colors and his use of negative space. Anthony Caro: suggestive shapes which he then painted with uniform colors, linear in form, and prominent in character.
Left: getting ready for the kiln.
Right: Cacique, flashe paint on ceramic, 2019. Photo: Mario Gallucci
S-F: What are some of the other projects that you’ve been developing alongside your cohesive body of abstract forms?
IC: I love the symbolism of everyday objects and tools. With them I like to deconstruct them and create a new narrative, a personal or political statement.
An example of Carmona's interest in using found and modified objects to create new narratives.
S-F: What’s next for you?
IC: I’m working on a new body of work.
S-F: What’s your dream project?
IC: My dream project is to make a colossal piece for a public space.
S-F: I can't wait to see it.
Above: Llanura, flashe paint on ceramic, 2019. Photo: Mario Gallucci
Below: Huella, flashe paint on ceramic, 2019. Photo: Mario Gallucci
The artist in his studio.
Left: Pavo Real, flashe paint on ceramic, 2019. Photo: Mario Gallucci
Right: Ventanita, flashe paint on ceramic, 2019. Photo: Mario Gallucci
You can see more of Ivan Carmona's work here.
Sublime opens on December 4th, 2019 and runs through the end of the month.
Full disclosure: I live with an Iván Carmona original and it makes me incredibly happy every time I look at it.