2023, oil and hardware on wood, 14" x 11" x 2"
Stacy Fisher’s paintings have a directness about them that initially intimidated me when I thought about writing this introduction. What can one say about objects that already present themselves so clearly? How can words possibly reveal anything when nothing is hidden to begin with? Had she been poured into the body of a writer instead of a painter, one could imagine Fisher producing the shortest of short stories and the briefest of poems, all hitting the mark with just a few well chosen words. What more could I add to that?
Fisher’s paintings, however, have a thingness about them that I am temperamentally drawn to. They are singular in both their originality and in the sense that they don’t act as metaphors (at least not to me). They are what they are and that, I think, is something I can put words to. That’s a starting point.
A captivating mix of structure, improvisation, and understatement, Fisher’s paintings hold my attention as they shift in space like restless performers on the thin line between form and its opposite. At times her paintings playfully whisper, at others they state their intentions with a clarity composed of vivid colors and decisive contrasts. She wisely shies away from anything resembling an earnest lecture stiffly or monotonously delivered. Instead, it’s as if she’s realized that casualness is its own hungry beast and she’s let it out of its cage.
Fisher is an artist adept at articulating the personal and the subjective in a way that makes both seem inevitable and true. Her off-kilter forms and soft touch fuse her materials with her supports, suggesting an airy effortlessness that any painter knows is hard won over years, if not decades. Her paintings lean into a visual language that is more like Saturday-feral children rolling down a hill in a park and giggling wildly; much less like a formal team practice focused on rules and technical ability. Both have their place, to be sure, but I get the sense that Fisher is more excited by the idea of losing a bit of control than by obsessively cultivating it.
This month I’m very happy to share my Semi-Finalist interview with New York based artist Stacy Fisher.
Stacy Fisher in her studio.
The Semi-Finalist: Stacy, thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I really appreciate it. I like to start most of my interviews by asking about an artist’s formative years. How did a life in the arts begin for you?
Stacy Fisher: I grew up in Norwalk, Ohio, which is a relatively small town, and have been drawn to art and music for as long as I can remember. While I was a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art we took class trips on a bus to New York and I immediately fell in love with it. We had a literature teacher who had an apartment on Mercer Street, she made us all subscribe to the New Yorker and I think we watched Slaves of New York in class like three times. But it was through doing a residency at the Chautauqua School of Art that really sealed the deal, most of the teachers were based in the city and gave us great info on how to move there. It’s funny to look back at those years and how information was so precious. We didn’t have all the internet resources, so meeting the right people was key.
2023, oil on wood, 16.5" x 17" x 1.5"
S-F: When I recently visited your studio, you mentioned that at some point your work transitioned from being sculpture-centric to being painting-centric. Tell me more about that.
Stacy Fisher: I’ve always had a foot in both worlds, but the starting and finishing points were previously aimed at being sculpture. I made abstract paintings for years on the side and hid them away because they didn’t necessarily have the same intent as my sculptures. They were more of an outlet for painting in a freer way since painting on sculptures can be so tricky. But in the early stages of the pandemic, I found myself at a bit of a loss in the studio. I’d run out of materials and wasn’t in the right frame of mind to bother with restrictions. I did find a stash of oil paint and was really inspired by Fortnite, which my son had just started playing. I was blown away by the look of it and the skins, I had never really appreciated the virtual world. With the insanity of the lock down on top of the political anxiety in the air, I figured if there was ever a time to explore painting that this was it- not only because the process of painting can be so pleasing (even like traveling), but I discovered a new way of setting up and exploring ‘moments’ by painting on wood. It had never occurred to me that I could build my own structures to paint on and they didn’t have to be flat. This was the beginning of the shift- when my focus became oriented towards pattern and using color, and I was making structures with the intent of painting them.
2023, oil on wood, 20" x 11.5" x 1.5"
2022, oil on wood, 13.25" x 10" x 1.75"
S-F: You also talked about your interest in making paintings that avoid the illusion of form and instead privilege literal form. That idea really resonates with me. Can you talk about the importance of that in your work?
Stacy Fisher: The first iteration of these works were made pre-pandemic and were all white with minimal pencil markings. Layers of wood were stacked one on top of the other, or a strip would jut out to one side- whatever marks I added were in response to the shadows, sides, and edges. When I started painting them I followed the same strategy, with the structures being very much a part of the narrative. I found that if I added an illusion of space that all those little structural details would get lost. In many ways, the entire point to this work is found through what happens to the shifting spaces and how each work changes as you move around it. This idea of layering and the picture changing has really stuck with me as a metaphor for a point of view. I love to read fiction written in first person that specifically narrates day to day tasks. It seems so boring but I am really interested in how the mind works and responds to what’s happening around us, how certain events have huge effects on us and others don’t.
2023, oil on wood, 9.75"x 6" x 1.5"
2022, oil on wood, 12.75" x 9.5" x 1.75
S-F: Your work is such a wonderful blend of rigor and play, geometric structure and casual brushwork, simple materials and sophisticated color choices. Stacy, I don’t know if I even have a question for you here! But maybe a good prompt for this section would be: “Where does your impulse to fuse opposites come from?”
Stacy Fisher: I have always done this in my work- looked for some harmony between opposing parts or added something that didn’t seem to belong. I have a natural tendency to go against. It’s in my nature. If something I’m making seems too straightforward, I have to intervene. This leads to a lot of failure in the studio but I don’t think I could do it any other way.
Where and how it all gets done.
S-F: Who are you currently looking at (living or dead)?
Stacy Fisher: I really loved Gedi Sibony’s last show at Greene Naftali. He is a master of making something/nothing come to life. I love Joanne Greenbaum’s paintings because they go against every impulse/instinct I have in composition, they mystify me, I could never make them. I also love Richard Aldrich’s work, he touches on something very personal by having a narrative that’s slightly out of reach, but you can still sense it. That’s all I need in art, really, that sensation that you’re being communicated to. When it starts to get too specific I tend to lose interest.
A studio wall
S-F: What’s next for you?
Stacy Fisher: I was thrilled to be in my first painting group show at Mother Gallery in Beacon this summer, organized by Paola Oxoa, Trudy Benson, and Russell Tyler. I’m going to be showing work at 57 W 57th Arts new space in the fall- I've been a fan of their programing, which focuses on showing minimal, abstract artists (like you!). I’m looking forward to that, as well as a group show at the University of Vermont curated by Steve Budington that opens in September.
2022, oil on wood and craft stick, 11.5" x 8" x 1.75"
You can see more Stacy Fisher:
- on her instagram: @stacyfffisher
- on her website: www.stacyfisher.net
- in I Am the Passenger at Mother Gallery in Beacon, NY
- at Left Field Gallery in Los Osos, CA
A work in progress on the studio wall.
2020, oil on wood, 11" x 7.25" x 2"
Above and below: Untitled
2022, oil wood, 11.5" x 8" x 1.75"
04.03.23, Light Orangey Red on Indian Red
2023, oil on canvas, 30" x 30"
I thought a lot about Gwen Hardie’s work on a recent trip to northern Spain and southern France. For about two weeks I found myself stumbling daily (hourly, even!) upon beautifully crafted and emotionally stirring images and objects, not to mention the dazzling structures that house them. For someone who’s not particularly spiritual, I found it all to be so beautiful and uplifting. Any barriers I might normally have to being seduced by the trappings of organized religion were also on vacation, and I was left with a feeling of fervor, even if its source couldn't be accurately credited. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for someone who is a true believer: heads and hearts must spill over with joy when pilgrims replace tourists and prodigal children make their way home.
I had a similar feeling in Gwen Hardie's Brooklyn, NY studio when I visited her last March. Not of being an enthusiastic sightseer or an appreciative outsider, but of standing in the presence of work that is both resolutely physical and communing with the unknown. Hardie’s canvases have a glow that transitions subtly like the slow curves in the arches of a Romanesque church. Her canvases are lit from within, reminiscent of an icon or distant piece of stained glass placed lovingly in a window 100 feet above anyone’s ability to make out the subject matter embedded in it - in the end, it’s just light hinting at form. Hers is the work of an artist insisting on a quiet, tender and bewitching moment in a ridiculously loud, cruel and frenetic world. It’s an attempt at making sense of - or perhaps coming to peace with - the unexplainable. In front of it I become a true believer in stillness and beauty.
It’s been months since Hardie welcomed me into her luminous, dazzling studio, and her work is still with me - a persistent glow lingering in my head and in my heart. I’m so happy to be able to share my interview with her here.
Gwen Hardie in her Brooklyn studio.
The Semi-Finalist: How did you get started as an artist and what were those formative years like?
Gwen Hardie: My first ‘Artwork” probably happened in my post graduate year at Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland. I had been studying the live model for 4 years, and then was given a private studio and a model - how generous of the Art College when I think back!
Suddenly, I found a new freedom - I zoomed into the model, expanding scale to much larger than life and experimented with how to apply the paint, seeking a way to use it that evoked atmosphere and body as interchangeable. They were large paintings and the result was like stepping into the field of the face or figure. The practice of sustained looking at the life model felt oddly privileged. Existential questions about self, other - what divides and connects us - arose out of it. At that time, I couldn’t convince myself of anything I painted if it weren’t from direct observation. I also recognized that I didn’t want to become a figurative painter and had no idea how I could bridge the gap to the kinds of work I was attracted to in galleries and museums. (A good example are Rothko’s Seagram paintings at the Tate). Now, I understand that this act of being ‘convinced’ is to do with how color reverberates and creates an illusion of life/living. These paintings at ECA (Edinburgh College of Art) were successful to my surprise - they all sold in London - yet I felt like I was just at the beginning. I wanted to broaden my base of knowledge and understanding in art.
A DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst) scholarship enabled me to move to Berlin, 1984-1990, studying briefly with Georg Baselitz and testing new approaches to painting. Influences came and went - I subjected the single figure to expressionist color (decided I wasn’t an expressionist exactly!), split the figure in two, made huge sculptural wall reliefs of abstracted single and multiple figures interwoven. Offers to show my rapidly changing work also came and went - I had to create a kind of distance between my creative journey and the public’s response to it. I was lucky to gain the attention of Keith Hartley at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, who gave me a solo show there of this work. These are some of the most formative experiences in my beginnings as an artist.
04.13.23, Venetian Red on Indian Red
2023, oil on canvas, 30" x 30"
S-F: Your abstract paintings from 2018 on are so rooted in a tradition of visual experience that is consistently non-narrative. Does language trip you up when you try to describe your work? And how do you describe it?
GH: Actually yes, language can trip me up …on the one hand I feel that all my previous studies, experiments, struggles, discoveries are what enables me to create my current work - on the other hand, for the viewer, it’s not important to know the background history. Indeed, as you suggest, it can get in the way! In my language of color and tone, it's as if I see through a magnifying glass. I blend colors in a way that is connected to how light and shadow move across and through surfaces, evoking varying densities and depths of field. Colors have their own peculiar interactions with each other and I discover their possibilities while making the painting, continually adjusting the temperature and tonality of both grounds until the foreground reverberates in the way I am searching for. Background references can interfere with this open ended, perceptual experience. I keep my titles deliberately simple - referring only to the date on which they were painted and their foreground / background colors. I am considering omitting the colors, as they are often too ‘hybrid’ to summarize! I keep notes for my own reference to remember the color ‘events ‘ that happened at the time of painting.
Above: Three works on a studio wall.
Below: 04.20.23, Muted Violet on Umber Grey
2023, oil on canvas, 36" x 36"
S-F: When I visited your studio I was struck by how much variety you’ve been able to tease out of your minimalist tendencies. It was really exciting to see. Can you talk about how you developed your current working method and how you push the boundaries of this process?
GH: Thank you! My practice feels very rooted in the present while I am working - but there’s this thing where one painting suggests another - there’s a sweet spot for a moment of completing a painting to my satisfaction - often after a struggle - but almost a second later - I mentally start imagining the next work… there’s a …”what if I try the foreground a little darker/lighter ” or …”bring the radiance of the foreground out to a greater or lesser extent..” etc., etc. I also tell myself that I have no investment in the result, that I am happy to try again tomorrow - its fine to get rid of the paint at the end of the day - this allows me to push forwards in a kind of free abandon (the dark patina of my studio floor bears witness!). However, to your question - the longer answer might be that there is an accumulation of inner resources that are sustaining my ability to "tease out variety." Elements of past research and work resurface in different ways. For example, looking back, my ‘inner library’ of color and tone likely began in the life class at the aforementioned Edinburgh College of Art. More recently, between 2008 - 2018, this ‘inner library’ grew with my tondo project of magnified portions of skin. I expanded the reach of my palette to include the full range of skin tones from darkest to lightest, coolest to warmest. The fascination in each painting was the subtle beauty of an individual’s skin tone - in particular how the skin tone ‘glows’. I bring that animated radiance into a more distilled and abstract language now.
Another resource of infinite variety is the full spectrum of light and shadow in nature. I am particularly interested in the variations of temperature (from warm to cool) that sunlight, moonlight and their corresponding shadows produce in any given 24 hour cycle on the earth, both on surfaces up close and in open vistas across great distances. A new fascination is with how foreground colors appear to absorb or reflect light. The interaction between background and foreground determines this - in some cases it’s possible to create a foreground that appears to do both. These kinds of perceptual effects are so subtle and can only be realized in the moment while painting.
Above: work on the studio wall.
Below: edges and corners.
S-F: As reductive as they are, your paintings always seem to be leading dynamic, layered lives: first, as atmospheric and mysterious portals to nowhere in particular; and second, as objects with a strong physical presence. Can you talk about how you balance these two tendencies in your work?
GH: I love this incisive question! Holding these two fundamental elements in balance - the physical and the non physical - are somehow what it’s all about - in life and in art! Your own work, if I may mention, really comes to mind! My painting is an alchemic process. For me, the transformation from the flat shape to a three dimensional illusion is what brings the painting to life. I like the taut canvas, the folded corners, the flat shape. When you look from the side, you see a trace of the stain of the background color, but the oil film stops at the front edge- revealing exactly what it is in physical form. The act of painting is very time pressured for me- the film of oil paint starts to stiffen at a certain point while blending - I also think of the oil film as a concrete thing that has its own integrity. The magic occurs for me when the colors start to reverberate and somehow come to life within this film of oil paint. Each painting presents a floating foreground color over a background color - but rather than just floating - the foreground color seems also embedded into the background color and by extension the actual canvas. I keep manipulating / blending the gradients of color saturation and tonal levels until the foreground radiates both outwards and inwards in space. The transitional ‘walls,’ as I think of them, play such an active role in achieving this illusion. In fact, sometimes I think these transitional walls are the key to everything, and yet they engage almost on a subliminal level! It's here in the interstices between grounds that the transformation between the physical and the non-physical can be realized.
Finishing 05.04.23, Venetian and Napthol Red on Indian Red
2023, oil on canvas, 52" x 52"
S-F: I’m drawn to the way your paintings confidently exist as quiet alternatives to a world filled with noise, lies and a million reasons to be anxious. Can you talk a bit about how you see your work in relation to the moment we’re in right now?
GH: Thank you! Indeed the world is so polarized, unjust and violent, though I wonder if it has always been like this ..maybe it’s just that we are more aware now in this digital age? To your question: I can’t find much in the current socio-political moment to be inspired by, actually, so I look for inspiration where I can find it - I look to a broader context across cultural and historical divides to find connections. At the moment, I am reading Dore Ashtons book, “About Rothko.” Interestingly, most of the liberating steps towards abstraction in the New York School of painters in the the 50's grew out of the context of despair after World War two. It’s true, too, that Buddhism is a source of inspiration to me. Maybe I should say ‘was’ in that I hardly ever meditate now - the daily practice of painting bears some connection to meditation though it’s clearly also very different.
One amazing human being who inspired me towards Buddhism was the late Vietnamese zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who was very active in promoting peace after the Vietnam war (and was expelled from Vietnam for being too neutral as a pacifist). I went to several mindfulness training retreats in France with him when I lived in London. Ultimately, I felt a bit of an imposter as I knew that I wanted to take the revelations I was experiencing through meditation and the dharma back into my life as an artist (the more noble goal in this context - and rightfully so - is to bring the practice into the community through engaged buddhism). Nevertheless, the experiences I had through meditation were profound - they gave me a depth of sense perception that I cant ‘undo’ and that are always present and pushing forwards in various ways in my work. Buddhism - in particular zen - is a way of thinking and being - a devotion to practice, the importance of cultivating awareness rooted in the present.
I can see connections between this way of thinking and certain art practices, throughout history and in our time - the insistence on the present, reducing language to essential components, engaging in actual experience rather than narratives of experience. The possibility of seeing for the first time - being able to see and experience beyond mental constructs - is something that both art and buddhism share. It’s not necessary to declare it. Indeed, another way of "tripping up" (to use your phrase) might be to draw emphasis to any spiritual practice in relation to art, as the word ‘spiritual’ is too loaded with preconceived ideas.
02.09.2023, Reddish Black on Pthalo Green
2023, oil on canvas, 24" x 24"
S-F: Whose work have you been looking at recently?
GH: Recently, I am grateful to 57W57 Arts for showing my work here in NYC and connecting me to a community of artists such as yourself, where I find strong aesthetic connections. The notion of relativity, for example, embedded into your work, where the outer edge determines how the interior of the work is perceived, strikes a chord with me. I also continue to be inspired by the New York school of early abstract expressionists - in particular Rothko - also Albers, Ad Reinhardt and the Light and Space movement artist James Turrell. Beyond the US, some of the artists that inspire me are the late Morandi and the contemporary South Korean artist, Taik Kim Sang.
S-F: I love that list of artists and I appreciate the shout-out. Thank you.
In the studio.
S-F: What’s next for you?
GH: I will be showing with Arden and White in New Canaan, Connecticut from July 5 July to August 20th, then in October at The Hague Art Fair in the Netherlands, represented by ASAP Gallery and Chabot Fine Art. I am collaborating in upcoming new projects for larger scale works with Dolby Chadwick in San Francisco and will be represented by The Finch Project at The London Art Fair in January 2024. My work will also be available with Dimmitt Contemporary Art in Houston and in ongoing collaborations with The Spaceless Gallery, based in Miami and Paris.
Gwen Hardie's studio in Brooklyn, NY.
You can see more of Gwen Hardie's work:
- at Arden + White Gallery, New Cannan, CT
- at The Spaceless Gallery
- at 57W57ARTS in New York (and @57w57arts on instagram)
- at The Finch Project in London
- on her website: https://gwenhardie.com/
- on instagram: @gwenhardie1436
Above: 06.23.23, Radiant Pink on Indian Red
2023, oil on canvas, 60" x 60"
Below: 04.21.23, Pale Lavender on Warm Umber
2023, oil on canvas, 54" x 54"
2023, oil and stain on wood panel, 12" x 9"
In Benjamin Terrell’s compositions we are habitually positioned as an elevated observer, viewing his invented worlds from upstream and up in the air - a vantage point shared by intrepid clouds and stoic mountain tops. His distant horizon lines can often be caught inching their way towards the upper registers of his intimately scaled compositions, suggesting a vast calm that stretches beyond the borders of his wooden panels. Spatially, however, the magnitude of Terrell’s invented scenes is customarily upended and reversed, and all of the idyllic calm associated with a peaceful landscape or seascape is suddenly infused with a subtle churning. His bodies of water - oceans, rivers, and gravity defying waterfalls - often look as though they are about to break through the surfaces they are painted on and pour into the space of the viewer, dampening shoes and pant cuffs along the way. The source, it would seem, is ready to flow back into us. The reflection of midnight’s stars or a setting sun on the ocean’s tranquil surface transforms into a thin, delicate skin barely covering something deeper and incomprehensibly complex. Thin slices of sky and land are pieced together on a stage set for a play ready to unfold in geological time. As peaceful and idyllic as Terrell’s landscapes may initially appear, these are depictions of a world in motion, of a universe whose inner clockworks are momentarily revealed to show us that the laws of physics don’t always apply.
When standing in front of a painting by Benjamin Terrell, I am always aware of being the viewer, of being positioned in front of a poetic distillation of the rural Oregon that he knows and loves. They are visual evidence of the fragile theory of perpetual motion: exterior expressions of an interior world that is informed by a deep connection to a very real place. When standing in front of a painting by Terrell, I also see an invitation to step into his world and be reminded of the journey that each of us is on: we are the log on the back of a truck, the impossible to see inhabitant of a small dwelling tucked into its surroundings, the boat sailing downstream, the restless cloud and the occasional tree.
For this edition of The Semi-Finalist I'm excited to share my interview with Oregon based artist and writer Benjamin Terrell. In it he talks about his process, past and present influences, and his relationship to place.
Benjamin Terrell in his studio.
The Semi-Finalist: Let's start off with a boiler plate question that I still find to be useful when I'm interviewing an artist, even one that I've known and admired for close to 34 years: tell me about your formative years. Who were your influences and what was your path to becoming both a writer and a painter?
Benjamin Terrell: We find ourselves here, all sent to the same odd, opulent wilderness with similar yet unique sack lunches. Painting and writing about painting are the ways I unpack what I was given and how I process getting to the bottom of a bottomless bag. Expression is the yardstick that can measure between the specific and the universal. My Mother was a painter and my Father was a writer. These days, in their absence, I do both things as a dialogue between writing and painting and to feel close to both of my parents. Although I was born in Portland, I was raised in Memphis, TN where I was introduced to the work of Walter Anderson and Carol Cloar. I met Cloar once; I would walk past his house and one day we had a brief curbside conversation about a bird hopping between us and the sidewalk. It was a short yet slow, typical southern exchange, as if taken right from one of the artist's paintings. Also, Cloar wore the best ugly shirts. In college (at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) I was still thinking about artists I had discovered while living in the south, like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. Standouts from the Art Institute collection were the paintings of Marsden Hartley (the intimacy of the outdoors) and Edward Vuillard (vast relational interiority).
Above: Mountain with Boat
2023, oil and stain on wood panel, 14" x 11"
Below: Mountain and Shore
2023, oil and stain on wood panel, 14" x 11"
S-F: I’m also interested in how you currently balance writing and painting. Do you keep them separate, or do they overlap in some way?
BT: I am fortunate - I am always painting and I write about painting, so there is a natural, easily accessible segue between the two things. One separation: I mostly write about other artists. But, for me, writing is like sending fan mail to the act of painting, and in the honoring I bring back depth and perspective to my visual practice. I walk a lot and am always reading and looking at other artists, so it feels like I am always processing. Also, Instagram - and even Covid - has created additional closeness and online intermingling of artist and admirers, and I think that has led to more expansive conversation. Finally, having a habit (like painting) and having your habit have a habit (like writing) allows a necessary inversion of interior and exterior voices. These days painting for me feels plural, whereas writing is more intimate and singular. Or perhaps writing feels like a second child - my expectations of it are different and it gets to wander outside of the expectations given to the firstborn, my visual practice.
2023, oil and stain on wood panel, 10" x 8"
Below: Home in the Gorge
2023, oil and stain on wood panel, 8" x 10"
S-F: At times your work features isolated homes tucked into impossibly grand landscapes; at other times the main event is a log truck cruising down a highway. Can you talk about your connection to these symbolic subjects and why you keep coming back to them?
BT: Living in the Willamette national forest I see many log trucks, especially after the big fire a few years back. It occurred to me that we, like the logs on the truck, exist in a state of in between and are always in a process of becoming. The trucks moved through the painted landscapes as a nod to the type of transformation that can occur when we recapitulate the slight, malleable and fluid relationship we have with our surroundings. The little houses, too, are like impermanent stances, our temporary lenses that look out at something grand, hard to name, unique and ultimately unexplainable. The landscape I want to paint is a meeting place, somewhere where something immense meets something immeasurable.
House Between Two Cliffs
2023, oil and stain on wood panel, 10" x 8"
Log Truck Overpass
2021, oil and stain on wood panel, 10" x 8"
S-F: Over the last few years you've been developing a deeply personal approach to painting. Can you talk about your technique and how it came about?
BT: I've been painting on wood panels for three or four years now. Originally I covered them with canvas to create a more taut surface to push back against the brush. But I liked the grain and the give of the porous wood beneath and the way the paint would both sit and soak into the surface. I bought different stains from the hardware store to highlight the natural patterns specific to each board. Somewhere along the way the wood became as important as what I could put on top of it. For me, a more interesting dialogue occurred when I approached the blank wood as a work already in progress rather than a conversation that began with my voice or assuming anything is ever a blank page. When I applied the stain thin it felt like watercolor's relationship to paper. Also, I occasionally carved into the surface and that reminded me of wood block prints - both things I like. Different, less traditional techniques felt inexhaustible and less controllable, whereas when I built up with too much oil paint it felt too straight forward, like I was forfeiting a sense of discovery. I love it most when a material surprises me or doesn't do exactly as I want.
Benjamin Terrell in his backyard studio in Springfield, Oregon.
S-F: In our conversations about painting and creativity, you’ve talked a lot about nature and your interest in unknowable origins and unanswerable questions. Can you talk about how you approach these subjects when you’re in your studio?
BT: I think to have a path or practice asking or answering important questions by creating something new requires a willingness and a foolishness to perpetually begin again. Because invariably every creative effort will fall short, every mood or moment is often obscured by egoic cloud cover and you are sent back to the studio to rename and recommit. "Deciding" is both enemy and awkward officiant of the dance necessary to advance beyond knowing and not knowing. I was told recently "not knowing" is intimacy, which I imagine as the ultimate open and unarmored place where oneness can occur (the place prior to the mind's limited explanations). I see oneness as a natural state, but art is always a byproduct of that, always a ripple away once a stone is thrown. Ultimately, art isn't evidence of a self, it is a self-annihilation, the realization that the ripple was never the rock. I remember a poem where the author proclaimed that he felt sorry for those who skated the surface of the pond, never to fall in. Rather than an analogy suggesting creativity requires pain or is born from misfortune, I understood it to mean that life is about infinite immersion and that a goal is to be ok with the merging that occurs on uncontrollable and unknowable terms.
2023, oil and stain on wood panel, 10" x 8"
S-F: Who have you been looking at recently (living or dead)? And who have you been reading recently?
BT: I think a lot about Ken Price, John Dilg and Umetaro Aziechi in terms of their personal iconography and regionality. I often return to and admire the worlds of Bill Lynch, Thomas Nozkowski, David Milne and Bernard Leach. Contemporary artists I admire are, Erin Okeefe, Kaitlyn Eichwald and Sean Noonan. I benefit from being in orbit with Uwe Henneken, Spencer Shakespeare and Brian Scott Campbell. I love reading Cole Swensen, John Yau and Annie Dillard. I think Barry Lopez’s and Peter Schjeldahl's voices have been tremendously important to me. My friend Dan Gluibizzi once told me there were certain painters from history he "wouldn't let in the studio." I love that idea and think about it often. I do spend much of my time in parallel with people I admire. But I think of creativity as a choir, and I can easily imagine between the singing, in the silences, are the richest, most important parts of the song.
Mountain and Cloud
2023, oil and stain on wood panel, 10" x 8"
S-F: What's next for you?
BT: In June I will show work with John Richardson at One Wall Gallery in Eugene. I am also looking forward to traveling this year and to some new writing projects, some known and others yet to be known. I am always looking for new voices and venues for other opportunities, I encourage feedback if this speaks to anyone reading.
You can see more of Benjamin Terrell's work:
- on his instagram: @benjamin_terrell_painting
- at One Wall Gallery in Eugene, Oregon: @one.wall.gallery
- Terrell has also shown work at BARK Berlin Gallery (Berlin, Germany), Meyer- Riegger Gallery (Berlin, Germany; show curated by Uwe Henneken) and was recently included in an online show with MePaintsMe (on instagram as @mepaintsme).
House and Cloud
2023, oil and stain on wood panel, 10" x 8"
2022, oil and stain on wood panel, 8" x 10"
Little Boat Big Boat
2021, oil and stain on wood panel, 16" x 20"
2021, oil on canvas, 58" x 60"
Tom Bunnell’s work hints at both the strength and fragility of systems and organization in a series of paintings that often put the merciless evolution of their development on full display. Nothing is sacred or safe from a temperament that relishes destruction as much as creation. What is destroyed, however, is often done so in a way that softens the blow through ethereal, thin layers of paint or the gestural wipe of a studio rag. The brush in Bunnell’s hand is at times a skilled creator of soft mists and staccato marks that suggestively blot out portions of meticulously arranged patterns and designs. At other times it is a wrecking ball that- instead of making his paintings uninhabitable- cracks open a portal to a universe where the structure of repetition and its chaotic opposite can coexist in a mature, understanding relationship. These opposing forces are like a couple that has stumbled upon the revelation that true love is about embracing and celebrating differences, not just accepting or tolerating them. The contrasting forms and styles amplify one another rather than cancel each other out; a sort of alchemical transformation takes place and the resulting whole is so much more than the individual parts ever dreamed they could be.
I'm so pleased to be able to share my interview with Washington, D.C. based artist Tom Bunnell. In it he talks about his early days as an artist, his current process, and his ongoing interest in pattern and design.
- David Schell
Tom Bunnell in his Washington, D.C. studio with
2023, oil on panel, 16”x20”
The Semi-Finalist: Tom Bunnell, thank you for doing this interview with me. I’m such a fan and it’s been a joy to spend time with you and your work. This is a bit out of character, but I’d like to jump in and start with a couple of questions that came up as we were talking in your Washington, DC studio a few months ago: what does a painting do? What is its function in contemporary culture?
Tom Bunnell: What does a painting do? What is its function? Well, I guess they just kinda sit there, don’t they?! Sit there and make us crazy. No, I’m kidding. Sort of. Maybe the function of a painting is to be that mute thing that holds light and pigment in its skin and holds us captive. We make paintings- human beings make them. I’m always fascinated at the beginning of the painting process and how much is happening inside my head (when really nothing is happening in the big scheme of things). It’s like a secret little melodrama kicking off. I think the “function” is up for grabs. I think paintings have their own lives that we coax out of them through time. I don’t think the images or what you end up painting is as important as how it’s painted.
We live in such a visually over stimulated world. Look at us crossing busy streets while staring into the chasm of our cell phones! We so want to be in there. Not here. I think paintings are the opposite of the cell phone screen. The surface is made up of pigment and cotton, wood, or linen (if your fancy), and though we want it to be a fixed thing, it’s constantly changing. Reacting to whatever light it’s in or if it’s cold or warm- it’s reacting.
2018, oil on canvas, 58" x 60"
S-F: Now we can backtrack a bit. Talk about how you got started as a painter. What did the formative years look like for you?
TB: I was really fortunate to have gone to the University of Oregon for my undergraduate degree. I actually got my BA in art history. It was required to take some studio classes and that’s where I really fell in love with painting. But I was awful! I hadn’t really painted before. So it was a super steep learning curve. But working with professors like Ron Graff and Frank Okada was totally key. They were tough, but they both brought this level of seriousness and excitement about painting that I really reacted to. And the other students in the classes were so vital. Many of whom became my friends. Man! I learned so much just from watching them paint. They seemed so chill and fluid with the whole process. But also very serious about their craft. It was a very formal and inspiring environment. But we had lots of fun. I went to the Chautauqua Institution right after getting my BFA. That was a critical summer. It was a great environment with loads of super talented young artists from all over the world. I got my butt handed to me from the various visiting artists coming through…it was tough. Again, I had a lot to learn. In desperation, I ended up making a large scale painting of a small, scrubby tree outside of my studio. The tree was like 4 feet so made a painting roughly the same size. So literal!! Hilarious. Anyway, It felt like I was making a painting that was truly mine. From there I went to American University for my MFA. I had the honor of working with people like Deborah Kahn, Stanley Lewis, Don Kimes, and Luis Silva. It was a very painterly grad program at the time, which I loved. Wonderful visiting artists like Bill Jensen and Ron Gorchov came through.
2021, oil on canvas, 58" x 60"
S-F: You engage with pattern, repetition and seductive color palettes in many - if not most- of your paintings. Can you tell me about your relationship with decoration, beauty and the joy of looking?
TB: The idea of a painting being decorative is a big no-no, isn’t it? Or it was! Not anymore, thank god. What a silly rule to have in the back of one’s head. I guess I started using a kind of grid in my drawings and paintings as a way just to think about holding the picture plane together. I’m so good at making bad first choices in my work. So I felt like the patterns and grids would allow for some logic or rationale at the outset. I don’t necessarily stay true to the first sort of grid I lay down. I find a way to undermine it during the painting process. I do actually look at a lot of decorative patterns in textiles, medieval decorative designs, and of course nature. Everything from Marimekko dresses to honeycomb patterns are up for grabs, I suppose. I’m trying to let more things in lately. There are so many ways of looking. Of seeing. I think if you’re being honest, it takes a lifetime to really learn how to see and know at the same time. Or see and feel, rather.
2022, oil on canvas, 58" x 60"
S-F: Tom, when I visited your studio you talked about a sense of inevitability in your process, about things feeling right (or wrong) as you work. Talk about that.
TB: You know, when I start a painting, I do try to have some underlying grid or pattern that creates structure. But almost always, when I come back to the painting, I’ll have second thoughts, third thoughts, 15th thoughts!! And then I begin to undermine my original idea. Like wiping it all down or inverting some pattern or color. It’s not like I want to do it. It’s more like it’s a call and response with the painting. I guess I’m really not conceptual at all with my work. It’s always a scruffy search. If something is found in a painting, I seem to have a moment of doubt. And this is the cycle I find myself in. The idea of something being inevitable in my work is that the paintings kind of “arrive” at a place that seems genuine and their own. It’s the result of a lot of chasing one idea down only to see it disappear over the horizon! It sounds angsty - and it is at times - but it’s really joyful, too.
Above: the studio wall with paintings in various states of completion.
Below: where the scruffy search happens.
S-F: Your work often has a cartoonish edge to it that I really respond to. There’s a bounciness and comical energy mixed in with the creation and destruction that are a part of your process. Where does that come from?
TB: I have a painting in my studio that I did in graduate school. It is a very dark, scraped up, and humorless peice. It was the kind of painting one does in graduate school when there’s just too much going on mentally and you feel like everyone’s up in your business. I keep it around to remind me of how low we can feel with our work. About ten years ago, I really started to make an effort to let more into my work- more goofy marks or shapes, colors that would be better in a cartoon. I had to be honest about my love of things like 60’s psychedelic art and all that. But also taking comedy seriously. Like with Shakespeare. His comedies are so wonderfully constructed but they also always have a moment when they could turn tragic! I love that fine line. There are very few paintings that are just funny. Like anger, it’s probably hard to sustain that the whole time you’re working on a painting.
"About ten years ago, I really started to make an effort to let more into my work- more goofy marks or shapes, colors that would be better in a cartoon. I had to be honest about my love of things like 60’s psychedelic art and all that."
Above: Red Line, 2019, oil on canvas, 60" x 64"
Below: Green Diamond with Pink, 2023, oil on panel, 8" x 10"
S-F: Who are you currently looking at (alive or dead)?
TB: Well, you’re always looking at someone or something, aren’t you? Artists don’t and can’t exist in a void for long. You gotta go have a look. But galleries and museums aren’t the only places we should be looking. Or on our Instagram feed, for that matter!
Like everyone else, I was super excited to see the Hilma af Klint paintings. I knew of her drawings, but not those big paintings! Whoa! I’ve sort of cooled out on looking at Cezanne and those guys for a while. I feel like the concerns in a post-impressionist painting aren’t mine at the moment. There’s just other stuff that’s more exciting. Like Japanese Sashiko Stitching! Annie(my wife) got me to look at that work. So amazing. Light years beyond me aesthetically but it’s great to study it. About 5 years ago we were in Santa Fe visiting friends and family and we went to the New Mexico Museum of Art. They happened to be having a show of Agnes Lawrence Pelton’s work. I was completely blown away! I had never heard of her and the paintings just really moved me. They’re so personal and transcendental. And so much a meditation on her spiritual experience in the west! I love her. And the fact that her work was rediscovered by a person who bought one of her pieces in a garage sale in California!?! Now I know the art market loves a good “rediscovery” story to help line its pockets, but with Agnes Pelton’s work and Hilma Af Klint you just get this sensation that their paintings were just sitting patiently. Waiting for us all. Quietly humming in this great vastness.
Tom Bunnell in his studio.
You can see more of Tom Bunnell's work:
- on his instagram: @electriczither
- in a Studio Visit interview
- in Holy Inventions at DC Addison Ripley Fine Art (curated by Isabel Manalo)
- on Artsy
left- The Curtain, the Sky, and it’s Ghost (I), 2022, oil on canvas, 30”x36”
right- The Curtain, the Sky, and it’s Ghost (II), 2022, oil on canvas 30”x36”
Funny field (black and white), 2022, 16”x 20”, Oil on Panel
Candy-O, 2022, 16”x 20”Oil on panel
On table: 3am Drawings, colored pencil, graphite on black Rives BFK
Tom holding Mirage, 2022, oil on panel, 8”x 10”
Maria T.D. Inocencio and Mark R. Smith in their shared studio space (Portland, OR).
In the work of both Maria T.D. Inocencio and Mark R. Smith, beauty and visual delight never exist for their own sake. They are always present, but as pathways to a better understanding of the human condition, doors that open up and reveal something about our manners, habits and ways of being. Both artists have strong formal sensibilities that I immediately respond to – they each play with geometry, symmetry, bold and undifferentiated blocks of color, and unexpected material choices (discarded clothing, hair on rocks). And they each have an ability to navigate both representational and abstract impulses. Found photographs, for example, are as much a mainstay of their finished artworks as painted shapes or squares of fabric. Their comfort and confidence in both worlds is inspiring and a reminder that they each build their work on solid conceptual foundations. Their starting points – filled with essential questions about people and the world we inhabit – allow their work to take shape in ways that best suit the subject. Rigidly adhering to a medium or aesthetic gives way to simply bringing ideas to life. The way the artists describe their processes, it’s almost as if their materials and techniques at times rise up with agency and announce themselves as obvious choices for illustrating a given concept. In these moments, it is the job of the artist to listen, and both Inocencio and Smith are able to hear what few others can.
For over two decades I have both admired and been fascinated by Mark R. Smith’s and Maria T.D. Inocenio’s careers in art. They have individually developed strong and personal voices as artists. Each is also able to occasionally set a healthy portion of their independent vision aside in order to work together as a team. Collaboration in the visual arts usually appears risky to me, maybe even unpleasant. I’m fond of long hours alone in the studio, and the thought of sharing that space with someone else immediately takes me to a place where I imagine the pitfalls – clashing egos and dampened creativity – much more easily than the benefits – the amplification of ideas and the ability to scale up that comes with shared passion and shared labor. Maria and Mark land squarely on the latter, and spending time with them makes it clear that part of the reason for their success is that they truly like working with each other. It might also help that each artist creates work that is linked to process oriented art, a strategy that lets them side-step a bit of themselves and arrive at something that can only be achieved by letting go of hubris and vanity. They’ll be the first to admit that compromise is a well known traveling companion on any shared journey and that their occasional joint efforts are not without their struggles. For them, however, the joy that comes with a common sense of purpose is more buoyant and uplifting than any baggage that might otherwise slow them down.
I'm so pleased to be able to share my interview with Maria T. D. Inocencio and Mark R. Smith. In it they talk about their individual inspirations and processes as well as their collaborative projects.
- David Schell
The Semi-Finalist: Maria and Mark, what were your formative years like? I’m curious about teachers, classes or experiences that influenced you.
Maria T.D. Inocencio: Art school in New York in the early 1980's was amazing. Everyone was talented, rents were cheap, there was so much going on, so much diversity and it felt like anything was possible and you could do whatever you wanted and call it art.
The teachers that influenced me the most were Niki Logis and Reuben Kadish. Niki was no nonsense and had a great sense of humor; she taught me how to build smart and how to persevere. Reuben was solid and steady; he taught me to see better and to look beyond the western tradition for artistic predecessors and for inspiration.
The thing that had the most influence on me was my independent study in the Philippines. While there I spent time with the Bontoc, an indigenous people who live in the mountains of Luzon. The Bontoc women use backstrap looms to weave clothing that is worn on special occasions or in ceremonial settings. These fabrics have various symbols woven into them. The women also have tattoos on their arms. They explained that the symbols and tattoos represent important things in their lives and in their environment; chevrons, dashes and zigzags are mountains, rice crops or water. That principle of how imagery works – that it can be integrated into everyday life, as well as at significant moments, that it can hold meaning that is specific yet universal – and that how an image is made is as important as what it depicts, is a principle that guides how I make art.
Above: examples of Bontoc weaving in the Philippines.
Below: Symbolic tattoos on the arm of a Bontoc woman.
(photos courtesy of Maria T.D. Inocencio)
Mark R. Smith: I had two types of formative experiences in education, originally studying at Western Oregon University in the town where I grew up and then at The Cooper Union in NYC (1980), where I met Maria and lived for fifteen years. My first group of professors at WOU were all military vets and had gone to school on the GI bill in the 1950s. They had been shaped by Abstract Expressionism and SF Bay area Funk. A lot of that rubbed off on me in terms of making one's own work both friendly and eccentric. My professors James Kirk, Larry Stobie, James Mattingly and John Casey were all wonderful and supportive people living quiet lives as makers who helped their students believe that it was possible to call oneself an artist.
At Cooper Union, my big regret was to never have found a true mentor, since I was only there a couple of years before graduating. I doubt he would have remembered me, but I did feel I had a real connection with Jack Whitten, who at the time was a figure in the margins of the art community. He was one of the few (very kind) teachers I've had, who seemed to want to see through your eyes as an individual and help you get to a place where you could best express your ideas. And he supported the notion of making formally abstract, process-based work that could convey personal as well as cultural and political experiences. I hardly knew or understood his work back then (there was no internet and unless someone had an exhibition, it was hard to see the work) but now it's amazing to me how closely I align with his micro-collage assemblage methodology. It's great to see his work being celebrated now, even if he isn't around to enjoy the accolades.
Maria T.D. Inocencio and Mark R. Smith, Significant Movements
1985 , Enamel paint, wood, copper tubing, vines
Mural with trellis 49' x 60'
Sculpture 14' x 30' x 4"
Mural by Smith and trellis and vine installation by Inocencio.
S-F: And I know that you two did at least one project together early in your art careers. Can you talk about that experience?
Maria: Our first project, Significant Movements, at the Pleasant Village Community Garden was a wonderful experience. New York City had a program, Operation Greenthumb, where they leased empty lots – in economically challenged areas to neighborhood groups for $1 a year – to create community gardens. The Artists in the Gardens program paid artists a small stipend to make art in those gardens. I don't remember why we decided to apply as a team, but it was a great idea because the space was so big.
Mark: We met with the residents and went to work on a mural and sculptural installation that incorporated climbing vines. It was a life-changing experience and we made life-long friends there--our daughter is named after the garden's principle organizer and beloved neighborhood activist, Rose Gardella. We even got married immediately afterward because the experience gave us confidence that we could get through anything together. It was a perfect moment and it didn't seem to matter much then who had the agency to be there, it was such a mix of collaborators.
Maria: Mark painted a mural, and I built a sculpture of trellises and vines. So, while we collaborated on ideas, we were still working on separate pieces. The artworks were pretty good for a couple of first timers, but for me the best take away was the engagement with the people living in the East Harlem neighborhood. We worked closely with the gardeners and got to know about their lives. One gardener, Manuel, helped me a lot with digging holes and pouring concrete, but I could only speak high school Spanish and he had limited English. Mark worked with a Vietnam vet who helped him with scaffolding for the mural. After the piece was installed, I taught summer art classes to some local kids.
Mark: And as far as our collaborations are concerned, I think Maria and I just liked connecting with people. We met and fell in love in art school and we were living in these vibrant but infrastructurally challenged neighborhoods, the East Village, Long Island City, and Greenpoint, which were full of a cultural mix. In the early 80s New York City was just emerging from the urban collapse of the prior decade and artists were doing all kinds of improvisational things in taking over abandoned spaces and creating place. When we do work together, it is a challenge to sync up our creative ambitions, but we manage all right-- one of us usually speaks up if the other seems to be going off the rails. We're both hard workers and are each very process-oriented. Process is how we imprint ourselves on the work. As a result, our projects usually end up involving a ton of labor, but hopefully there is a sense of love and commitment that emerges as a result.
Maria T.D. Inocencio and Mark R. Smith
Significant Movements, 1985
S-F: Maria, over the years you have employed a variety of creative strategies and materials to make work that incorporates geometry, abstraction, representation, radial symmetry, collage, text and more. I’m alway surprised by each new direction and in awe of how your results are without exception so formally striking. Can you talk about your various approaches and how they developed?
Maria: At Cooper (Union), we were required to take foundation courses in every medium and a shop techniques class that introduced us to various materials - wood, metal, plastic, etc. As a result, I feel a flexibility to use whatever means is appropriate to get my message across. When I make something, I come up with the message first, then decide what method and materials to use.
For example, in Remembering Every Day, I wanted to express my feeling of loss when my mother-in-law, Jean, passed away. So, I created a process: every day for a year I tried to remember something about her, then make a color association, and paint the color in gouache on a square of paper. I chose gouache because it is easy to use in a daily exercise, and because it is so warm and velvety. Using that material made the experience of recording my memory pleasant, and the experience for the viewer more inviting. I used the geometric forms of a grid and a spiral because they are familiar and common; the spiral in particular is meant to draw the viewer into the piece.
Maria T. D. Inocencio, Remembering Every Day
2018, paper, gouache, Flashe, glue, colored pencil on wood panel
113" x 113"
(Photo: Stephen Funk)
Maria (continued): In Come Together as Light I wanted to create a feeling of shelter and comfort, while talking about time, and the idea of reflecting on one's daily experience. The audience for the piece would be workers in an office and I hoped that the art could function as a way to take a break, while continuing to engage after many viewings.
I chose photography because it is a literal representation of a moment, and as a medium, it is easily manipulated in designing for symmetry. The trees convey shelter, nature and comfort; the symmetry represents reflection. Collage makes sense here for the ease of installation in a large space, but also because of the idea that time is made up of parts, equal and unequal, similar and different. I used stitching as a reminder of the hand, the individual, and the quirkiness and unpredictability of each step as we move forward each day.
Above: Maria T. D. Inocencio, Come Together as Light
2022, digital prints, wood panels, paper, paint, glue, thread, 10' x 20' x 7'
(Photo: Dominic Nieri)
Below: detail of Come Together as Light
S-F: Mark, one of the distinctive elements of your work is how you often transform something so ordinary (fabric swatches, a zipper, etc.) into completed objects of monumental beauty. Can you talk a bit about your relationship to repurposing materials in a world that is so full of discarded objects?
Mark: I've always been drawn to taxonomy and collections of sorts. I've gathered things forever and really started thinking about it as an aesthetic after visiting the bird and insect collections at the NYC Museum of Natural History. When I returned to Oregon, I got busy collecting artifacts and little bits of decaying debris from a farmstead that was still in our family's possession. There were some old quilts and clothing there too. That process somehow evolved into what I'm doing today, in going to the Goodwill bins and digging out discarded clothes to make into art. I like the idea of fixing or rescuing these items and having the opportunity to respond to a pre-existing palette of colors, textures and patterns to work from. It seems like less of a responsibility than starting from scratch. There's always some kind of history embedded in these things which is powerful whether it visibly surfaces in the art I make or not. I'm not a hoarder, but I have lots of stuff at home that is invested with so many histories and residual content. It's an overwhelming sensation at times but very potent and worth exploring as art.
Mark Smith, Stress Formations ( Pyramid Assembly)
2023, Laser engraving, acrylic paint, laminated papers, 13" x 13"
Hand-cut paper figure cutouts and crocheted doily. These items are directly scanned and assembled into an image file for engraving.
(photo by Stephen Funk)
Mark (continued): Another part of me is drawn to sports and its ritualized conflict. In another life I would have enjoyed designing athletic uniforms. When I look for clothing, I'm always after the perfect stripe and for the past few years I've worked almost exclusively with striped fabrics, cutting and reorganizing them into segmented, interlocking forms. Thinking about the collective history of all these materials, I've been organizing my forms based on communal dwellings and gatherings, Fourier's visionary phalansteries and sports arenas, also beehives and termite mounds from the natural world. These are spaces where conflict and cooperation play out. I'm really bothered by all our cultural rifts. This is how this concern manifests in my work I suppose.
Mark Smith, Large Tent with Lanterns at Half-light
2023, repurposed textile construction, 94 x 96 in.
(Below: detail of Large Tent with Lanterns at Half-light.
Note: the concentric moon design in the upper left can be removed from its pocket.)
(photos by Stephen Funk)
S-F: Mark and Maria: It looks like you both use a lot of systems, math and planning to engineer your finished pieces. I’m so curious about how you each balance organization and improvisation.
Mark: I use very minimal math in organizing my work--only to the extent that I need to plan out the scale progressions of shapes. Ultimately, I tend to work very intuitively, based on structural relationships and color interactions, already having that social collectivism content as a driver. The recent large fabric collage work you saw in our studio resembles the shape of a beehive, but more specifically, an enormous tent. The neighborhood where we live has a large concentration of urban campers. It has prompted me to remember the Democratic "Big Tent" philosophy from the Clinton years, where social priorities were all about inclusivity and making all voices matter. Obviously, we've failed miserably in meeting that mark. But as a meditative rumination on that ideal, I designed this work by stacking mitered fabric squares, large to small in progressively diminutive rows until the tiniest square of all, at 1/4 in. scale, rests by itself on top. I had to figure out the math of making the squares in each row smaller, while still conforming to the overall shape. I used a calculator to figure it out, but it was still a somewhat comical process. And certainly there is no perfect symmetry in the piece, intentionally so.
Mark Smith mapping out one of his fabric constructions.
(photo by Dominic Nieri)
Maria: I love math! My dad was an engineer, and I was a good math student. In the past, making work while raising children, and now, while taking care of my mom, requires planning because there is no time to waste. So, my strategy is to create a process and then follow through. The process may be "sew for 100 days" or "take a photo while you walk" or "record how long it takes to do a task." But within each process there is variability built in. In Thirty-One Days I took a walk or drive every day for a month, found a color that caught my eye, took a picture and recorded the time and place. I painted the colors and arranged them on a square panel, one per day, in the order that they happened. Then I put the squares together as a calendar of days. That is the organizational part. The improvisational part is that I didn't control what I saw on my walks, I didn't control how they were arranged on the squares or how the colors interact when put together. The planning made the painting without me making design decisions, which can be stressful and take up a lot of time.
Above: Maria T.D. Inocencio, Thirty-One Days
2011, wood, acrylic paint, paper, glue
72" x 84" x 1.25"
(Photo: Maria T.D. Inocencio)
Below: A glimpse of Maria's process for a project she is currently working on.
S-F: Neither of you shy away from incorporating overt beauty into your work. Can you each talk about your relationship to this elusive, subjective and at times fraught subject matter?
Maria: I was always concerned about making something beautiful; as if it is a dangerous thing to pursue, that maybe by trying too hard for beauty you might create something empty or cloying. I try to set up situations that sidetrack my ability to make the artwork beautiful. Following a predetermined process helps with that.
I am often inspired by a beautiful idea and want to make art about it. So, I make a plan and trust that the result will succeed in conveying that beauty. For example, Where We Touch is based on my volunteer work at the two schools my children attended. Teachers, students, parents, neighbors all worked together to build large projects - one for each school. I was struck by the cooperation, accomplishment and enjoyment among the wide variety of people. They were different in every way - culture, politics, colors, ages, but were able to work together towards a common goal. That was beautiful, and I wanted to share that beauty through an artwork.
Maria T. D. Inocencio, Where We Touch
2006, string, paper, thread, 93" x 100"
(Photo: Aaron Johanson)
At the time my daughter and her friends were middle schoolers making friendship bracelets for each other, which seemed like a lovely gesture. So, I decided to make the artwork with friendship bracelets. Each bracelet would represent an individual in the community. My process started by asking each person to measure their wrist and choose their favorite colors. Then in the studio, I hosted bracelet making parties and people came, had cookies and coffee, and sat side by side helping each other make bracelets. It was so much fun. I sewed the bracelets together (in a grid) so that each person's bracelet was connected to the bracelet of a friend or family member. The elegant result was reminiscent of a safety net. It was a nice metaphor for the community of relationships that we create around us.
In Heirloom Waterfall I wanted to honor the women who came before me – the tradition of weaving, stitching, sewing and everything that is called "women's work", their earnest labor, their knowledge – all handed down for us to appreciate. It made sense to place the handmade linens and dresses in layers and descending from the oldest on top to the most recent at bottom, flowing like a waterfall. (By the way, none of the pieces was damaged by the installation.) It's hard not to find beauty in the detail, the intricacies, and the material delicacy of the heirlooms, each containing a story and asking the viewer to connect it to their own.
Mark: When I engage with art, I tend to enter through its physicality, looking at and thinking about how something is made. I like to be affected viscerally. There's so much information embedded in the physical manifestation of a work and that point of entry leads me to the content. It's just how I make sense of things. So beauty tends to be synthesized with the process of making and if I can demonstrate some kind of deep commitment to realizing a visual form, I feel like it's my most potent tool. I wouldn't want to deny or withhold anything from someone who's willing to consider my work.
Mark R. Smith, Stress Formations (Small Tent Beating Heart)
2023, laser engraving, acrylic paint, laminated papers, 13 x 13 in. each
(photo by Stephen Funk)
S-F: As an occasional creative team, you both seem capable of setting your egos (at least partially) aside and working on a project together. How did you get started collaborating and what’s it like to go through that process as artists that each have such strong, independent and well developed voices?
Maria: We've been making art and have been together for over 30 years and have evolved as artists together and honed our communication skills. We respect and admire each other's work. I think we have complimentary skills; I can do some things he can't and vice versa. We are mindful of celebrating each other’s ideas and talents. Most importantly, we want the piece to work, so every element that goes into the artwork has to contribute to its success.
Typically, the reason we collaborate is to accomplish a particular project with a specific purpose. We approach the project from the same starting point, so there isn't one lead and we are equal contributors. The great thing is that his strengths and perspective are different enough from mine that the process is additive, and we often get more than if either of us worked alone. It gets layered, more complex and hopefully more effective.
Above: Mark R. Smith and Maria T.D. Inocencio, I Used to Think I Knew Everyone
2017, muslin, paper, newsprint cutouts, thread, glue, 84" x 83.5"
Below: I Used to Think I Knew Everone (detail)
S-F: Both of you do work that is so engaged with notions of human connection and relationships at a time when a lot of people appear to be giving up on humanity in general. Talk about where that comes from.
Mark: Maria and I are both very empathetic people and that condition just seems to be getting more acute as we age. I can't speak for Maria, but I am most comfortable straddling the art community and culture at large. I think I'm good at being a bridge. While I have so much appreciation for my artist colleagues, gallerists, writers, arts activists and patrons who drive this whole enterprise, I've never been wholly relaxed as an inside participant. I'm always concerned about the person who doesn't get it and needs to be brought into the fold. I've served as a community college art instructor for twenty five years and I've realized over time my real function there is to be a facilitator. I work with a lot of people who feel like they're on the outside and might not be deserving of or just don't know how to get access to this broader world of information and education and ultimately empowerment. So I try to help them build their confidence and find their voice and it doesn't matter so much in that context if I'm making work of my own, beyond providing the vocabulary. I love these students I work with and I think I'm effectively functioning as an art regular guy.
Above: Mark R. Smith, Stress Formations ( Circle Meet-up)
2023, laser engraving, acrylic paint, laminated papers, 13" x 13"
Below: Mark R. Smith, Stress Formations ( Ornate Tower)
2023, laser engraving, acrylic paint, laminated papers, 13" x 13"
(photos by Stephen Funk)
Maria: I was born in Manila, lived in Nigeria, then came to the states and, as a child, lived in 3 vastly different neighborhoods in different parts of New York. I have met so many different kinds of people from a variety of cultures, and each time lived within their worlds and adapted. There is always commonality to be found, always a friend to make. The work at Pleasant Village and then my volunteer work at my children's schools were experiences that deepened my belief that people are a lot more alike than they are different, and that they want to work together and can accomplish great things. Cooperation and accomplishment can encourage more of the same. Meanwhile, people have a good time and build goodwill and trust. I've done work that literally engages many individuals, and work that just presents the things we have in common. It's fascinating for me and I hope what I do is helpful. I'm happy if my work can connect, even if it is just one person at a time.
Maria T. D. Inocencio: projects underway in the studio.
(photos by Maria T. D. Inocencio)
S-F: Who are you looking at (alive or dead)? Who is inspiring you in early 2023?
Maria: In my job, I get a chance to look at a lot of local artists and it's especially good to see the work of people who are younger than I am. Zeinab Saab (@zeinab.saab on ig), makes thought provoking pieces on paper and she manages to talk about important ideas like identity, in such an elegant way. David Torres (@djtorresll on ig) is a media artist whose work I was recently introduced to. Both of them have amazing energy and I'm looking forward to seeing what they make in the future.
People who are inspiring me include: Michele Obama, for her work and her representation of women of color; Tamar Benzikry, for her ability to raise two small kids while working in a corporate setting; my daughter Rosa, for her fearless pursuit of her art and her desire to have a positive effect on the world; and my son Richard, for his brilliant facility with all things technical and his steady commitment to a job well done.
Mark: I greatly admire the work of George Johanson, who was always a hero for me through his full embrace of color, use of pattern and the general experimentation and playfulness of his work. He was also a genuinely kind person and perpetually curious about everything. I wish I had been his student. I've been inspired forever by the symmetry of lace and crochet patterns, quilts and all that hand work produced anonymously by women for time on end--the patience and commitment required to produce these works is astounding. Maria has a collection of crocheted doilies at home that has crept into my dreams. I have been a big fan of Brice Marden's Gonshi-inspired works--what I call his spaghetti paintings--featuring interlocking webs of calligraphic marks. They are wholly enveloping and mesmerizing to experience. Louise Bourgeois' fabric works are uncomfortably familiar and deeply psychologically felt. And finally the collage-based work of Jack Whitten, who I mentioned before, is monumentally elegant, quiet but expressively powerful. It serves as excellent proof that abstract work can be both beautiful and embody a social conscience.
S-F: What’s next for each of you?
Mark: I am working on an exhibition at Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Portland scheduled for March-April '23. The working title is Stress Formations. The idea came about by considering the events of the last few years punctuated by the covid pandemic, the large public demonstrations surrounding Black Lives Matter, the Women's March and of course, the January 6th Capitol riot. There was a fascinating contrast between what people were doing privately at home to cope with stress and the mass events that were unfolding in public. Our daughter Rosa had written a short essay about historical periods of stress such as the Irish potato famine and the two great world wars, where women (for the most part) turned to handcrafts, both as a coping mechanism, and as a means of income and production--think of Irish lace and Victory knitting. I used that as a starting point. My project will include a number of laser engravings which feature groupings of figures (cutouts from the NY Times) overlaid by scanned examples of Maria's doily collection here at home. The figures symbolize the crowds and public manifestation of our collective angst.
Maria: Right now, Mark and I are working on a commission for a private client, and I've got a large-scale commission that is supposed to be completed by September. I also have a show scheduled for November of this year.
S-F: Is there a text that you would consider a touchstone or that acts as a sort of scaffolding for your work?
Maria: Lucy Lippard's Overlay is important to me in the way it connects the art of prehistory to that of the present. Islamic Art by Lucio Mozzati is a book that I turn to often. It's an overview of art and architecture from the Islamic world over the centuries and it's gorgeous. It has an explanation of the relationship between geometry and spirituality that is so poetic, and diagrams of how geometry was used in creating the beautiful tile mosaics Islamic architecture is known for. Also, I read whatever I can find on the subject of time (most recently, Carlo Rovelli's The Order of Time) to try to better understand what time is and how we experience it.
Mark: There is a book I've been informed by for several years, (first recommended to me by art historian Sue Taylor), Crowds and Power (1960), by Elias Canetti, which I've used before as source material that is also informing this show. It's a huge poetic treatise on crowd psychology and dynamics which continually returns to the notion of touch as a fueling mechanism. It's a hard read but is full of compelling imagery. As a person of Jewish ancestry in Europe, who somehow escaped the Nazi pogrom prior to and during WW II, he writes with a lot of generous compassion about unruly mobs of people.
You can see more of Smith's work:
- at Elizabeth Leach Gallery
- on his website
- on instagram: @markrsmithstudio
You can see more of Inocencio's work:
- on her website
- on instagram: @mariatdinocencio
Above and below: Maria T.D. Inocencio,
Stones from her installation at Nine Gallery: Sometimes It's Hard To See
2021, stones, glue, hair, varnish, dimensions variable
Above and below: Mark R. Smith, Portals and Rabbit Holes
2021, installation at Meta headquarters, Seattle, WA
Maria T. D. Inocencio, Heirloom Waterfall
2018, linens, baby clothes, 108" x 77" x 7"
A corner of the studio.
A corner of the dining room.
Brenda Mallory was recently awarded a 2022 Hallie Ford Fellowship in the Visual Arts.
2019, Deconstructed thread spools and cores, 70" x 34" x 4"
photo by Mario Gallucci
I find Brenda Mallory’s sense of craftsmanship to be endlessly appealing, in part because it never wades too deeply into the still and sterile waters of perfection. She instead opts to explore the swiftly moving stretches of a twisting river that brims with life and unpredictable currents. Mallory’s process is rigorous and exacting, but her finished products retain a handmade sensibility that is both idiosyncratic and graceful, equal parts animated and refined. Even when her work veers towards geometric abstraction, Mallory avoids the outer extremes of austerity and instead puts her energy into breathing new life into old objects, a process she refers to as “disruptions.” It’s an undertaking that is as much about a creative alteration as it is about telegraphing an optimistic take on humanity’s ability to mend what’s been broken. The treasures she creates out of rejected scraps are the result of hours of dedicated labor; they are also evidence that we can transform physically and conceptually. Through Mallory’s work I see a path forward that involves both caring for what was once neglected and placing what was previously discarded at the center of an essential conversation about our collective future. On top of all that, her work is just beautiful.
When I visited Brenda Mallory’s studio in NE Portland, it quickly became clear that she’s a natural raconteur who effortlessly narrates the story of her life and work with an uncommon command of details and nuance. One of my goals with the Semi-Finalist interview series is to create a space where artists get to talk about their work on their own terms. Mallory makes that easy and this month I'm honored to present my interview with her. In it she talks about her Cherokee roots, making do, materials, process and more.
Photos without credits are by me.
Brenda Mallory in her studio with a piece from her iconic Reformed Packings series (honeycomb paper, paint, encaustic) and a detail.
The Semi-Finalist: Brenda, let's jump right in. Can you talk about any formative experiences in your life that had an impact on your work and career?
Brenda Mallory: Growing up in Oklahoma as a child gave me an awareness of truly living in the land. My dad was a farmer, a hunter, a gardener. My grandfather was a beekeeper and also fished a lot so there was always good food on our table. We butchered our own meat, grew and canned a lot of our own food, gathered wild greens and mushrooms. We were pretty broke most of the time I think, but I didn't really know that. Living with those resourceful, scrappy relatives who truly held things together with baling wire informs who I am to this day. Visiting Oklahoma feels like a very different time and place to me now, but then it was a rural existence that left a bold mark on who I am and my visual language.
In the 1980s I got a degree in Linguistics and English at UCLA. After that I worked as a preparator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was an exciting experience to handle the work of artists like Bourgeois, Nevelson, Hesse, Kounellis, works from Arte Povera movement - artists who I now consider big influences on my own work.
Reformed Packings #27(Emergent)
2022, honeycomb packing sheet, paint, encaustic, 18" x 18" x 2"
photo by Mario Gallucci
S-F: So much of what you do involves the transformation of ordinary objects (and sometimes literal trash) into objects of beauty. Where did the concept for this come from and how did your process and style develop?
BM: I like the challenge of working with literal trash and found materials. It's like alchemical magic when something goes from looking like trash to become compelling, beautiful, "valuable". If it still looks like it came from the dump when I'm done, then I don't think I've succeeded. The idea that an object has more than one use, more than one life in it is what appeals to me. I talk sometimes about the idea of "making do" with what you have on hand as a survival technique - and in the bigger picture, that "making do" isn't only about objects - it can be about learning a new place as displaced immigrants have to do, learning new plants and weather patterns, new ways to function in a new society to make a place your home. Some of this comes from thinking about the Cherokee side of my family with the history of forced removal from historical homelands to an unfamiliar place. Resourceful people turned what no one else wanted (at least until they did) into a new home.
Above: Scraps in Mallory's studio that will inevitably have more than one life.
Below: Seeds embedded in handmade paper (WIP).
S-F: During my visit to your studio you expressed some frustration with one of your unfinished pieces and casually mentioned your desire to make it “sing more.” Later you stated that for you the studio is a place where “meaning is emerging.” I love that evocative language in reference to form and content. Can you describe what you mean by “singing” and “emerging” in relation to your work?
Brenda Mallory in her studio.
BM: In that particular red piece I was talking about, I did end up repainting it and adding two bands of black. Honestly, I'm not quite sure what is going on formally that it is better now - maybe it was too much of the same thing before without enough variation. Or maybe there was too much variation! Perhaps these bands of black became an organizing device. I like to think of my work as complicated minimalism. There's so much going on in every piece, but it's often a repetition of the same shape or form - like a field of wheat. It's lively, full of motion and variety, but really just a field.
Works in progress in the artist's studio.
"...the patterns, the repetition, the material richness are all compelling aspects in the same way an ocean view is pleasant, or a box full of blueberries."
S-F: At a time when a lot of art is overtly engaged with social and political themes, your work remains largely abstract. Talk about that.
BM: I think a lot of information can be found in abstraction and I think it engages your brain in ways that allow for nuances and multiple interpretations. I'm not interested in the "overt." There are definite social and political themes in some of my work, but maybe it's not obvious at first glance or without reading my statement or without knowing my history. That said, I think any viewer can access my work in some way - the patterns, the repetition, the material richness are all compelling aspects in the same way an ocean view is pleasant, or a box full of blueberries. But some of the ways I put things together (the hog rings, the nuts and bolts, the obvious seams) are unexpected and a little "wrong", and those elements move the pieces out of just the "pleasant-view" realm and cause questions to arise.
Reformed Packings #23 (Star)
2022, Honeycomb packing sheet, paint, encaustic, 32" x 32" x 2.5"
photo by Mario Gallucci
Firehose Experiment #3
2015, deconstructed linen firehose, paint, threaded rods, nuts, 24" x 28” x 3”
photo by Mario Gallucci
S-F: You recently spent a bit of time on the east coast for a residency and a theater collaboration. What were you doing in each and what kind of impact are they having on your studio back in Portland, OR?
BM: I collaborated with Christopher K. Morgan and Artists on set design for his work, Native Intelligence/Innate Intelligence. My first residency was with this company at the The National Center for Choreography Akron back in 2018. We built sets in 2020 at a two -week residency at EMPAC (the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center) in New York and then boom, COVID hit and everything shut down. It's finally scheduled for a premier in DC in October, then will travel to multiple venues. Working on a collaborative project has been a real growth experience and different from how I usually work. I’d like to do some more work with him.
From the performance at the end of Mallory's EMPAC residency in NY. The set design was the result of a collaboration between Mallory and Christopher K. Morgan and Artists.
photo by Brenda Mallory
S-F: What's next for you?
BM: I am working toward a show that opens in April 2023 at the Heard Museum in Phoenix and also a show at Russo Lee opening in May.
At the Fringe
2019, waxed cloth, paint, nuts, bolts mounted on wood panel, 33.5 x 74 x 2 inches
photo by Mario Gallucci
Zen Scrubber #1
2015, Nylon industrial scrubber pad, rubber drive belt, plastic cable, 60" x 18” x 6”
You can see more of Brenda Mallory's work:
- On her website
- At Russo Lee Gallery in Portland, OR
- On instagram @brenmallory
- At Atlanta Contemporary (through September 4, 2022)
- and many other places (see links on her website)
Below: More Mallory.
Above and below: Mallory's studio in the basement of her NE Portland bungalow acts as a staging ground for all phases of her process, from research and initial drawings to packing work up for shows happening locally and around the country.
Firehose Experiment #15 (black_red bioform)
2022, Linen firehose, paint, hog rings, 13" x 15" x 2.5"
photo by Mario Gallucci
Brenda Mallory in her studio.
Work by: Beverly Rautenberg, Gwen Hardie, Ingela Skytte, Josh Mitchell, Osamu Kobayashi, and Stacy Fisher
(in alphabetical order by first name)
Some artists have a way of conjuring up a sense of relevance in their work even when it does not overtly depict the social and political narratives of their era. I’m in awe of how the reductive sensibilities of Beverly Rautenberg, Gwen Hardie, Ingela Skytte, Josh Mitchell, Osamu Kobayashi, and Stacy Fisher are able to quietly nudge open doors to their temperaments and reveal points of view that suggest something universal in part because they are so intensely personal. Through their work we are at once invited into the intimate world of these discerning artists’ pared down aesthetics; at the same time their sincerity and vulnerability form a perch from which we can look out and catch a flickering glimpse of something true.
The artists in this summer's group post initially caught my eye and have sustained my interest in part because their work engages with the precarious concept of beauty- celebrating it in novel and unique ways, teasing out new sensibilities, or undermining it unsparingly. But it also celebrates our complexity as people and is often tied to how we think about and navigate our way through life. The decisions made to bring this work into being suggest an optimistic framework for conceptualizing a better future. These are paintings and assemblages that reject the absurd cruelty that surrounds us without conspicuously referencing it. Instead, they quietly advocate for a world that could be through the joy of a color, the frankness of a texture and the subtlety of a shape. They are reminders that we all have interests, hopes and needs that exist outside of the perpetually and unsustainably urgent 24 hour news cycle. In the hands of these sensitive painters private, poetic and very human concerns feel -for lack of a better term- timeless.
I want to thank each of the artists for their contributions. In addition to sending me recent work, they were also asked to respond to the question "How do form and content mingle and share space in your work?" Their thoughtful responses are included below.
(Chicago, IL, USA)
Father / Daughter, 2018 , enamel and rubber, mounted on wood.
I am an Interdisciplinary Conceptual Artist. My practice is focused mainly on making
Objects. My Work is very small and intimate and invites a ‘close look’ by the viewer. It
combines the reductive formalism of a minimalist aesthetic (influenced by the work of
Donald Judd), with autobiographical subject matter.
My Work is more about how ‘material, surface and color’ (rather than ‘form’) mingle with
content. ‘Form’ is usually a ‘constant’ – My Work is almost always square or an extension
of the square (i.e., a rectangle). I have had a passion for the square form for more than
ten years-- and it will not go away! Material, surface and color are used as signifiers to
communicate a personal narrative. Wood is the main material I use for most of my Work.
It is my ‘canvas’. I then add other materials such as enamel, aluminum, rubber and
various hardware. Even though I reference personal experience throughout my process,
it is important to me to have the viewer bring their own subjectivity to my Work, rather
than accepting mine as the only interpretation.
[ Moving ] FOREWARD, 2021, enamel on archival board, mounted on wood
Solo Exhibition at 57W57ARTS, NYC, 2018
Photo: Riley Palmer
PAGES [ 1, 2 & 3…], 2022 , enamel on archival board, mounted on wood
-My Father’s Tools
My Father was an excellent woodworker. As a child, I used to watch him work and hand him his tools. I saved his old tools (he never knew this) and use them every day, as I make my Work. In this way, I feel like he is always with me and a part of each Work I make.
An Unexplained Paradox: Studio of a Minimalist
Over the years, I have tried, many, many times, to organize my Studio. I always thought it would make me more efficient as I worked, but I finally realized that I was wrong. This is how I am meant to work and I gave up trying to analyze why.
(Born in Scotland, currently living and working in Brooklyn, NY, USA)
07.06.21, pale cool pink on raw umber, 2021, oil on canvas, 20" x 20"
I love how color and tone can transform flatness into an illusion of three dimensional space in painting. This alchemical process corresponds in my work to the action of bringing the painting to life.
Each painting presents a color-field which appears to oscillate between presence and atmosphere, gently expanding and contracting like the act of breathing – mirroring the viewer as they look into the painting. To achieve this effect, I build up a unified film of oil paint by blending one dominant foreground color over one background color.
The gradients between the two grounds are manipulated and blended until the radiance of the foreground asserts itself and appears to glow in a subtle way that resists stasis and appears to be alive.
- Gwen Hardie
05.02.22, venetian red and naples yellow on indian red, 2022, oil on canvas, 16" x 16"
04.13.22, darkest orange on warm blue-green, 2022, oil on canvas, 36" x 36"
02.18.22, radiant venetian red on raw umber, 2022, oil on canvas, 16" x 16"
Above and below: Hardie's studio in Brooklyn, NY.
Sharing Fields Black, Rumfang (volume), Copenhagen, 2019
Photo: Torben Petersen
I’m working with limitations and systems which control my work and give it direction. It means that I have rules for what I can and can not do. It gives me a freedom in the limitation and helps me to define the task. I consistently and methodically try out every possibility and position and make mathematical calculations to obtain the final composition. The single work itself does not concern me as much as the total system it’s a part of. What interests me is what happens with my work as an ensemble. I continue with a volume as long as I have something to investigate, sometimes a project can go on for years. Thus for around a decade now I have been working with themes titled: “Sharing Fields”, “Primary System”, and “In Addition."
In the series “Sharing Fields Black” I have been working with black to accentuate the edge of the painting. I paint both the surface and the edge white, and then I continue only with black, which I bevel against the edge of the painting, whereby various degrees of asymmetry occur and the paintings appear crooked against the white wall. The black paint is applied layer upon layer with broad strokes by free hand, controlled only by a thin line drawing. The square is a benchmark form from which I choose my fibre board formats. It can be single, double or triple squares.
The installation of my work is of great importance to me. In several of my exhibitions I have been working with colored walls, both with my black and white work as well as in exhibitions with my colored paintings. As a consequence of my occupation with the mutual relationship between my paintings, the hanging of them often suggests an installation. In the case of the series “Sharing Fields Black” I colored a wall red. Here the white wedge shapes accentuate the edge of the painting.
I repeat different compositions with small displacements. Elements such as scale, symmetry and asymmetry are constantly shifting. Small differences become big differences.
SHARING FIELDS, Cross, Black on Black 37", 2021, acrylic on MDF, 40cm x 40cm
SHARING FIELDS, Cross, Black on Black, 36", 2021, acrylic on MDF, 25cm x 75cm
Intervaller (Intervals), Konstepidemin, Gothenborg, 2020.
Photo: Lina Ikse
SHARING FIELDS, Cross, Black on Black, 39", 2021, acrylic on MDF, 40cm x 80cm
SHARING FELDS, Cross, Black on Black, 38", 2021, acrylic on MDF, 58cm x 29cm
Ingela Skytte in her studio (Copenhagen, Denmark)
(Santa Cruz, CA, USA)
blue walker, acrylic/canvas, 9 x 12”
I’ve been fascinated by ambiguity for as long as I can remember. In daily life I sweep this fascination under the rug in order to function socially. However, when I enter my bedroom studio I delightfully swim in The Ambiguous. Painting is a zone where I play with meaning and muddle dichotomies such as:
figure / ground
picture / presence
black-white / rainbow
kitch / classy
improv / plan
this / that
and so on.
And so yeah, I take cheap, conventional, easily accessible materials and work with them over a spare bedroom’s dirty desk with the goal of getting beyond -or at least getting even with- my language soaked, binary brain.
screen play, acrylic/canvas, 9" x 12”
side step, acrylic/canvas, 9" x 12”
green room, acrylic/canvas, 12" x 9”
The "...spare bedroom’s dirty desk."
(New York, USA)
Snake II, 2021, oil on canvas, 46" x 52"
My forms have no fixed meaning. They start as spontaneous and intuitive drawings. The shapes are then tweaked and refined until they capture a freedom in idea and movement that are my own. I find logic in their points and curves and interactions. Tension and release is a common theme as well as the known and unknown. The right balance unearthing deeper truths. Specific subjects may be alluded to. However, life is found in ambiguity.
Hills, 2021, oil on canvas, 16" x 24"
R, 2021, oil on Canvas, 12" x 10"
Sea Breeze, 2022, oil on canvas, 122" x 134"
Photo by Alberto Petrò
Above: Osamu Kobayashi in his studio.
Photos by Alberto Petrò
Below: The studio.
(Brooklyn, NY, USA)
Untitled, 2021, oil on wood, 11.5 x 8 x 1.5 inches
I have used wood in my work for many years in functional and non-functional ways, and in tandem with sculpture or works on the wall. This current series is the first time I’ve used it to build supports for oil painting and where the components are combined into one. Merging the parts made color and pattern more accessible and allowed me to incorporate a kind of fantasy space, one with random brushstrokes and marks made by chance. The supports each have a raised section that can be interpreted differently depending on how they’re painted- as an additional boundary or border, an appendage, interruption, or continuation, as a piece within a piece, etc. I'm interested in this suggestion of narrative and the process of plotting what goes where.
- Stacy Fisher
Untitled, 2022, oil on wood, 13.5" x 12.25" x 1.75"
Untitled, 2021, oil on wood, 9.5" x 7" x 2"
Untitled, 2021, oil on wood, 9.5 x 7 x 2 inches (side view)
Above and below: Fisher's studio
2021, watercolor, acrylic and colored pencil on paper, 36" x 30"
The work of Dan Gluibizzi refuses to be superficially defined by its subject matter, a trick that seems almost impossible to pull off given its overt nature. Instead, Gluibizzi leans into his preferred themes of sexuality, identity and human connection, giving his paintings a solid conceptual foundation that supports both their depth and complexity. What could have easily become a simple homage to prurient interests in another artist’s hands is instead a tender yet comical investigation of our desire and willingness to be exposed; what could have been a cheap punchline turns into a poetic story that slowly unfolds, allowing its characters to be seen as whole human beings.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why Gluibizzi’s paintings resonate with me, a process that has resulted in an ever expanding list rather than a succinct, clarifying statement. They are of course fun and cheeky. And the directness of them - even the portraits- is somewhat shocking in an era when it is nearly impossible to be shocked. But I’m also drawn to Gluibizzi’s unapologetic use of bold colors, simplified shapes and compositions that resist predictable hierarchies. He is an artist that knows how to deliver a graphic punch that is both technically rigorous and visually seductive. I’m charmed by how his figures interact with one another, retaining their humanity even as they are reduced to an essence that sits somewhere between characters in a village scene by Brueghel and individuals populating the pages of a Tintin comic book. They are anonymous yet specific, immersed in a bath of color that merges the projection of confidence and unabashed sexuality with the fragility and insecurity that at times makes a home in all of us.
This month I'm pleased to bring you my interview with Dan Gluibizzi. In it he talks about his process and shares some thoughts on intimacy and human connection.
The artist in his SE Portland studio.
The Semi-Finalist: I’m always interested in an artist’s first steps. Can you talk a little bit about how you got started?
Dan Gluibizzi: I grew up surrounded by art, art books and art magazines. My father is an artist and my mother is passionate about art and early childhood education. I grew up in Lancaster, PA. Museums and galleries in Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and New York City were regular family destinations. Family friends were artists and I enjoyed listening to the banter and debates. I loved drawing. As a child, I received a lot of encouragement with endless art supplies and dedicated spaces to make a mess. I spent countless hours in my father’s studio watching him draw and paint. I equate the smell of turpentine with childhood. It felt like a seamless transition to art school and early adulthood. I worked for over 10 years in galleries, museums and auction houses in Boston, LA and New York City. I participated in the logistics of the art world and art market while slowly learning what kind of artist I wanted to become.
2020, watercolor, acrylic and colored pencil on paper, 40" x 32"
S-F: During my recent visit to your studio you mentioned being grateful for the opportunity to put in a lot of studio time. What does a typical day look like for you?
DG: My studio is in our backyard in a detached oversized garage. My wife leaves for work very early. I do the morning breakfast and off-to-school routine with our child. I turn on the studio lights around 8:30-9. I create daily to-do lists to attempt to hold myself accountable, I always have one or two top-of-mind projects in the works. Depending on deadlines I will be making things in the studio all morning or prepping for future projects, organizing and looking. I am chatty, and though I enjoy working alone, I need conversation. Thankfully I have a network of friends and colleagues that are willing to share a few minutes of their day for regular phone conversations. I like talking while I work. After school pickup and family dinner I return to the studio to tinker and consider what I did during the day. The flow of continuous shorter sessions keep efforts in the studio feeling fresh. I often do a few hours throughout the weekend. I especially enjoy predawn studio time on a Sunday if I can force myself to get up.
A corner of the studio.
I keep the studio simmering if not boiling at all times. Something must be new, in-the-works and almost done. I drag out old work often to remind myself what I was thinking about and striving for weeks, months and years ago. I have piles and piles of works on paper. All holding potential for rediscovery. A confirmation of my current direction or a reminder of alternative directions. My studio feels like my childhood bedroom: a workshop, a laboratory and a hideout.
I aspire for my studio life to measure up to these lines by Robert Frost:
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
S-F: Your work makes me think so much about how people open up to others and present elements of their private selves in relatively public forums. Can you talk about how the role of intimacy and exposure entered into your work and how it’s developed over time?
DG: I watched my father make countless portraits of friends and family as a child. Though I did not understand fully at the time, I was witnessing an act of intimacy between the artist and the sitter. Conversations about the intimate relationships between artist and subject continued when we visited museums and galleries. I vividly remember peering through the hole in the door of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés at the Philadelphia Art Museum around twelve years old and wanting to know more. Voyeurism, intimacy and art began to blend.
Six Men at Camp
2021, watercolor, acrylic and colored pencil on paper, 40" x 34"
I’ve long been an avid collector of images. Found snapshots, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks and pornography piled up as source material. As a young artist I would seek out the lurid and transgressive. The explosion of online imagery allowed for image collecting at an industrial level. I found titillation in the sheer volume and repetition of imagery. Despite the staggering abundance of available imagery, drawing hundreds of nudists at the beach and exhibitionists exposing themselves at box stores has felt like an intimate experience.
Six Women at Camp
2021, watercolor, acrylic and colored pencil on paper, 40" x 34"
S-F: One of the things that I really appreciate about your work is how you resist automatically lumping together nakedness with eroticism. That conflation is something of a default setting that we often see in movies, television and on social media. But there’s something more nuanced happening in what you present. Can you describe what you’re going for in your paintings and drawings that feature a lot of skin?
DG: Thank you! I certainly enjoy drawing and painting all manner of frolicking and canoodling however I am not making entirely prurient works. I aim to make associations between my source material and the depictions we have made of ourselves over thousands of years. Especially those of nudity and joy. Distilling images and creating unlikely pairings makes me feel like I am connecting to the continuum of human expression.
Left: Studio drawings
Right: All Elbow
2017, watercolor, acrylic and colored pencil on paper, 60" x 42"
S-F: During my visit to your studio you stated that some of your recent paintings and drawings use computer generated portraits as their source material. The final images, however, still adhere to your distinct (albeit developing) style. I find these recent pieces to be graphically seductive and at the same time conceptually really curious. Tell me about what’s going on with them.
DG: I employ a lot of repetition in my work. Recent bodies of work feature a recurring cast of characters drawn from social media, current events and vernacular imagery. I enjoy how, with just a few changes, the recognizable can be obscured while still holding on to a sense that this is a real person.
I am intrigued by computer generated faces. I want to engage with them. A.I. is now creating new beings. They may only exist for a moment or they may become stock characters for ad campaigns. The A.I. generated faces remain uncanny. Our eyes are so good we can read the slightest bit of wrongness in these nonhuman faces. Yet when I draw them they come to life. I am excited about the potential. A viewer might not see the difference but I think I use the material in a different way. I feel I can push and pull the faces in ways that I resist when the person is real. It is a curious and energizing feeling.
Above: Small Cast
2021, oil on canvas, 50" x 42"
Below: Two Groups of Three
2021, oil on canvas, 11" x 10"
S-F: Talk a bit about your new 3-D work. What inspired you to try turning your unapologetically 2-D paintings into sculptures?
DG: I have been making cut-outs since art school. I enjoy making carvings and low relief sculptures but rarely exhibited those efforts. I’ve always admired painted sculptural works by Alex Katz and Tom Wesselmann.
For a recent exhibition in Tokyo, I designed a small sculpture created with laser cut transparent acrylic that captured the look and feel of my works on paper. The table top size was very appealing as I am a fan of bric-a-brac. I am also beginning to see the possibilities for large scale pieces that can move into large spaces. Now I look at finished 2-D work and wonder how will it could become a sculpture. Still developing…
Studio shot with cut-outs and MFMF (Pink)
2019, acrylic and baltic birch, 16" x 6" x 9.5"
S-F: Which artists are you currently looking at (alive or dead)?
DG: Like many of us I scroll Instagram often. I enjoy following my friends and discovering artists I have not seen before. The phone is frustrating as I know it is not providing an accurate experience but I still feel like I am making a connection with art outside of my sphere. Recently I have been looking at Pace Taylor and Nora Riggs. Also Nicolas Poussin, Frans Hals, Jared French, Joan Brown and Ellsworth Kelly drawings, especially his lifetime of self portraits,
I am currently listening to an engaging biography of Rene Magritte. I feel connected to the discussions about Magritte’s image sourcing, the approach to making an object and the ways personal experiences enter a work of art.
2021, watercolor, acrylic and colored pencil on paper, 38" x 21"
S-F: What’s next for you?
DG: I just curated a spread for Math Magazine, an inclusive sex-positive publication that features a range of art and eroticism. I was delighted to feature works by Amy Bessone, Howard Fonda, Trulee Hall, Jo Hamilton and several other wonderful artists.New paintings are underway for my next show in Portland at Russo Lee Gallery.
You can see more of Dan Gluibizzi's work:
- On his website
- at Russo Lee Gallery in Portland, OR
- On instagram @dangluibizzi
2021, watercolor, acrylic and colored pencil on paper, 30" x 40"
Above: Nine in the Waves
2020, watercolor, acrylic and colored pencil on paper, 36" x 32"
Documentation of work by Rebekah Johnson and Dan Gluibizzi.
Studio photos by David Schell.
Silence and Revery
From The Virtues: Surviving a Pandemic
2020, mixed media on paper , 11’ x 15”
From my first visit to her studio in the early 2000’s, I have felt that Andrea Borsuk’s core personality is being mirrored in the compositions that she builds from memory, photos and observation in her Santa Cruz studio. Borsuk is honest, open, and radiates a warmth that immediately makes anyone in her orbit feel like family. It shouldn't be a surprise, then, that she also approaches image making with a deep well of compassion for human relationships and a seasoned skill set that allows her to depict them. She understands that life’s big moments can often seem ordinary, even lonely. And with the keen eye of an illustrator and the sharp wit of an editorialist she’s also capable of showing us how simple gestures and the mundane can somehow feel monumental. Her depiction of a boy mowing a lawn has stuck with me since I first saw it a few years back. The scene is a small moment embedded within a larger composition (A Life Span), but in Borsuk’s adept hands the quirky adolescent doing his chores becomes an awkward sisyphus performing what to any young person feels like an eternal task. Striking a more serious tone, her 2016 paintings of embracing figures are more relevant than ever and are the perfect antidote to a world built around various forms of isolation. The small but tender gestures of consolation have an immensity of feeling that stretches far beyond the modestly scaled surfaces they are painted on.
Andrea Borsuk’s gracious acceptance of both the joy and absurdity found in so much of life is infectious and ultimately up-lifting. Even at its most surreal, the work is often infused with the sense that the good gals (and occasionally guys) are winning. And when they’re not, they are depicted with the respect that they deserve. My personal theory about the optimistic tenor of Borsuk’s work is that it comes in part from the poses that her figures take. From the quotidian to the stylized, isolated or in groups, they always seem resilient enough to take on what life is offering up, which alternates between run of the mill malaise and the truly apocalyptic. But I also sense optimism in another part of Borsuk’s practice: her unapologetic embrace of decoration, flourish, pattern, design and all things beautiful. It’s as if the work itself is saying that no matter what sort of shit-show we’ve found ourselves in, we’re going to pull ourselves together, rise above our circumstances and build something wonderful for tomorrow and the tomorrow after that.
Well, today I am very pleased to have the opportunity to bring you my interview with Andrea Borsuk. In it she discusses her process, what inspires her and the never ending allure of Italy.
Andrea Borsuk in her studio.
Santa Cruz, CA
The Semi-Finalist: Tell me about your formative years. How did this all get started and who influenced you early on?
Andrea Borsuk: I learned to how to appreciate art and paint while studying in Florence, Italy as an undergraduate almost forty years ago. Before leaving, I took a landscape watercolor class and I fell in love with painting outdoors. I discovered the work of artists, Piero della Francesco, Giotto, Caravaggio and Pontormo while studying and I traveled around a lot, painting small on-site watercolors. When I returned to California, I finished my art degree at UC Santa Cruz, then left for 20 years, and now I am back again in this beautiful town.
From The Virtues: Surviving a Pandemic
2020, mixed media on paper, 11’ x 15”
That pivotal year in Italy was when and where narrative painting was planted in my heart. Storytelling would continue to be meaningful to me. I discovered at a young age that paintings could be loaded with content and beauty and it was the first time I was introduced to the power of allegory— people might not have been able to read words but they sure could read images! So I became a die-hard figurative/image- based painter all through graduate school and “allegory” was my middle name. When I attended Columbia University for my MFA in the late 80’s, the artists I was looking at were David Salle and Eric Fischl, Cindy Sherman, Nancy Spero, Ida Applebroog, Marlene Dumas, Annette Messager, Sigmar Polke as well as abstract artists, Terry Winters and Brice Marden. They were all my heroes in the art world. While living in NYC for a number of years, needless to say, I drank up the art and devoured dance performances, in particular, Pina Bausch. Her poetic, dramatic and physically humorous stories on stage were riveting. I witnessed the popularity of video art, especially the work Bill Viola and his non-linear ways of story telling and his fondness for greater themes tied to human gestures. These influences confirmed my connection to the human body, performance, dance and narrative art.
Above: Wind Has A Mind of Its Own
2011, oil on wood panel, 36" x 72"
Instructions Not Included
2010, oil on wood panel, 30" x 40"
My work developed using concepts of seriality and multiple styles. I wanted to paint the figure, but not in a traditional narrative way. I was interested in exploring the female body, but with an acknowledgment of feminist discourse and the complex history of its portrayal in art. What I really wanted to do was stage performances but I loved painting, so I stuck with that. I have continued to be intrigued by possibilities of imbuing a painting with signs and messages about psychological and social issues concerning mortality, love, and what is it to be human. I also love abstraction about as much as I love figuration, so the combination of all of these things continue to be important to my work.
Above: A Life Span
2016, oil on wood panel, 24" x 30"
Below: Life Graph
2016, oil on wood panel, 24" x 30"
S-F: I know that Italy is a big part of your life. Can you talk a bit about how traveling and periodically working there has impacted your painting?
AB: The food is better in Italy… and a well-fed artist is a happy artist! I have been traveling back and forth to Italy for many years, mostly out of a pure love for the culture, the landscape, the museums and churches, and the improvisational “dance" that I observe on the cobbled-stone streets and piazzas. Talk about inspiration! I am fortunate that I also teach there in the summers, so it’s a good excuse to spend time in a place that is so dear to my heart. I can’t walk by a church without stepping inside in order to surprise myself with so much beauty. I feel like a tiny person in a HUGE jewelry box! The architecture and its ornamentation, the site -specific artwork, those in-situ narrative paintings and sculptures (REAL LIFE installation projects) have certainly had a big impact on me, despite the fact that I am Jewish and had never set foot in a church until I was 20 years old! I never knew the biblical stories and, no surprise, I am way more attracted to the formal aspects of pattern and ornamentation, pictorial structure, color and light, than religious messaging.
From The Virtues: Surviving a Pandemic
2020, mixed media on paper, 11’ x 15”
I’ve looked at a lot of Renaissance and Baroque painting and so many amazing ancient relics throughout the years. I realize that everything I am attracted to eventually finds its way into my work, even if it is not intentional. For example, the predellas in Renaissance altarpieces, which are usually a series of small- scale narrative paintings depicting events from various lives (usually in a horizontal format on the bottom or side of paintings) have found their way into my work. I have been drawn to this format and aspect of storytelling, which is often intimate, forcing the viewer to come close and read the work like a scroll or like story boards that show sequencing and a disruption of pictorial hierarchies.The figures are usually small and the backdrops are dramatic. I am nuts for the over-the-top embrace of elaborate, decorative, frescoed or tiled walls, artifice and embellishment surrounding beautifully painted images AND, of course, the flowers, candles and sacred objects that dangle like jewelry in every nook and cranny, the beautiful altars, cameos and charms, the sacramental ornaments and the overabundance of memento mori, reminders of our fragility— all of these symbols of mortality have become part of my vocabulary. I am fascinated with the rituals and talismans that are regularly used in quiet places of prayer, but I also love the fact that we wear good luck charms, rosary/prayer beads, or animal teeth (!) on our bodies as personal prayers for the health and safety of those we love.
2016, oil on wood panel, 18" x 18"
Museums in Italy and the Venice Bienalle are also a bonus for learning and inspiration and I can say that viewing so much art informs and inspires me on multiple levels. I love looking at art probably as much as making it and I see it as a gift, especially as a teacher and as an artist. I can’t remember dates or times, but I can recall an artist’s name and their work!
When spending time in Italy, I treasure the details of life with the streets as “backdrops”, observing daily life as people who go about their routines like an improvisational dance or play. There is a quality of life that is so PUBLIC and essential— the eating and socializing, kissing in random places, putting laundry on the line, or watching elderly couples holding hands while taking an evening pasegiatta— these human gestures don’t seem to have changed much in all the years. Yes, it feels like I am in a Fellini movie- I love the ritual of parades and all ages walking and eating together, the piazzas filled with so many generations. There are not as many places to watch this where I live, and certainly being in travel /observer mode while in Italy makes me more aware of life cycles and family rituals— essential actives within a life span. I sketch a lot when I am there, but mostly as an excuse to sit quietly and observe. I am happy that I got to grow up in LA in the 70’s, but in an alternate universe I would have loved to have grown up in small Italian town. I am super fortunate that I can spend time there and I also love coming home to the studio to process it all.
2021, water media on paper, 22” x 15”
S-F: I think of you as a storyteller that loves to hint at a narrative through your paintings rather than spell things out. You often present a fragment of someone’s ordinary day, a moment of stylized dance, or a quick peek at a surreal fever dream. Can you talk about these glimpses into the lives of your subjects?
AB: I have often thought that if I weren’t a painter, I’d be a fiction writer or a film maker. I love observing people and I am equally keen on human interest stories. All of the figures I choose to insert into my paintings are significant to me for one reason or the other. In every work I usually incorporate some aspect of human representation, trying to connect to a common thread in the long history of storytelling in art. The dance of human movement throughout the world, it seems, is a type of pre-verbal or primordial gesture. I see the figure as a hieroglyph or part of an alphabet of human emotions, like symbols from ancient calligraphy. I was recently looking at Egyptian drawings at the Met and I was amazed at the relevancy and universality of the human form. We are still eating, touching, fighting, dancing, and making love (ok, we weren’t using our phones yet). I am continually searching for ways to paint or draw a gesture showing how a person can be doing something with a simple posture or how an interaction with another figure or an object begins a story. My figures are often de-personalized or “generic” and often dislocated from the rest of the space. Generally, these are not portraits of specific people. They are instead archetypes of people or an action that might reference a psychological state of being —like an adjective or an expression.
Gestures and postures on Borsuk's studio walls (2020).
In my search for the essential postures of being human, I wonder how a gesture can communicate meaning that is open- ended, timeless and possibly universal, like movements that evoke a state-of- mind, like love and sorrow or what it feels like to be a baby (comfort), a toddler who is just learning to walk (precarious balance, growth and confidence), teenagers and how they stand while talking to each other (posture and rebellion), a parent or grandparent holding their first grandchild (pride, aging, love), people embracing (empathy, passion), or someone who is sick and being cared for (fragility, mortality). These are some of the characteristics that I am interested in depicting— humanistic symbols of our emotional connections as well as stages in life and how we age together. The figures that float in and out of my work often refer to themes that address mortality and fate, perhaps a direct reference to my own life (and middle age), parenting and watching my own family evolve, or references to current events that affect all of our lives, such as climate change, personal survival, and where we happen to live in the world. I do think of the evolution of my paintings and mixed media works are like ancient frescoes, where there are representations of the human form that have survived the elements of weather and time. What we are left with are fragments of people, landscape, color, textures and patterns. And we are left with the mystery of the message. As a painter using imagery and the figure, it is difficult to avoid being didactic, which is why I try to avoid more traditional narrative painting devices like putting figures in a specific place and spelling out a storyline. European classical tradition would be only one strand in my work, which feels constrictive to me. I certainly use images to tell parts of a story and by adding things and taking things away- a process of covering and uncovering- a new story is invented. The choices of what I bring into a painting (all of the elements) are very cloudy until they interact with a brush stroke, a color, a pattern or a drip. There are certain characters I use again and again, because they are like a word or a mark that needs repeating. The “story’ or content is not what it is all about for me— representation of the human figure is just one of many elements that I can use within the structure of a painting. I approach painting like a collage, with many disparate ingredients that could be read as surreal by the fact that there is disjuncture and an irrationality to the order of things, but I like to have open-ended conversations with paint.
Above: Waiting to Breathe
2020, oil on wood panel, 24” x 30”
Below: Trouble In Paradise: The Covid Gates
2021, gouache on paper, 11” x 18”
S-F: One of the things I really respond to in your painting and drawing is your confidence with a broad range of techniques. It’s almost like you’re continually trying to coax these distinct modes of expression into living together on a single surface when many artists would rather be searching for one coherent, singular style. Talk about that.
AB: I want to have it all in my work. I am greedy. As I approach a painting, it is always with an awareness of paint application and how many choices I get to use with paint. I am equally compelled to look at and create formalist, decorative, expressive, systems-based AND representational, narrative work. I don’t want to have to choose. Paint can do so many things and I know that I am never satisfied painting “consistently” within one frame (and one frame is often limiting to me as well!). It's a great challenge for me to figure out how the different approaches and applications with paint can coexist in one space. From a drip to a gestural mark with the brush, allowing accidents, creating contrasts with patterns and textures, introducing extraneous collage bits, and also rendering highly articulated forms— these are on my menu of options from the grand smorgasbord of painting techniques.
From The Virtues: Surviving a Pandemic
2021, mixed media on paper, 11" x 15”
I want to create disjuncture AND harmony — how can these marks coexist to create beauty and meaning? The ingredients of the painting can consist of references to the ordinary, every- day life, or broader mythical stories, but these are also about using paint and celebrating its properties. Ultimately, I ask, how can these events —brush marks, stains, drips, and gestures, create a new order of existence and conversation? My painterly challenge is to utilize contradictory elements that speak to each other within a space. I am aware that ultimately, painting is an activity that can also have a life after it is created— to be read and interpreted — that there is not just one message. This aspect of forcing the viewer to do some of the work, to make connections between, for example, a brushmark that can mimic the human gesture or that stylization and repetition via paint can also be a metaphor for our own patterns of behavior, is what interests me.
The Perseverance of Chance
2020, oil on wood panel, 24” x 30”
The S-F: Who are you looking at (living or dead)?
AB: I’ve seen a lot of shows this past year— between New York, San Francisco and Italy, there was a lot of see, post-pandemic. Recently (as in the last month) Gustav Klimt—the influences of Byzantine and Renaissance art within his work are so obvious, but it didn’t occur to me how much abstraction co-exists with the figure. Bruce Nauman— talk about using such simple ideas with gesture, seriality, format and symbolism! Hands down, he understands and delivers. I’ve always cherished the decorative and symbolic with Shazia Sikkander, Wangetchi Mutu, Leonora Carrington, Nick Cave, Nicole Eisenman, Firelei Baez, Inka Essinhigh, Etyl Adan, Jennifer Packer, Marcel Dzama, Salmon Toor, Hannah Hoch, Joan Mitchell, David Park, Piero Da Francesco, the ceilings at the Uffizi, The Giorgio Vasari House in Arezzo and Cy Twombly… to name just a few!
Materials and inspiration.
S-F: Whats next for you (shows, collaborations, teaching, etc.)?
AB: I’m in a group show right now, called “Don’t Shut Up” at the Newhouse Cultural Center in New York. That was supposed to follow the election cycle, but was postponed 2 years because of Covid. I love the concept of participating in interesting- themed shows because I cover lots of topics in my work and usually something relates to something else. I am collaborating with a lighting designer and metal artist who have a beautiful new gallery in downtown Santa Cruz, which makes me excited to create more public work. During Covid, I have loved the time and space in my studio to create small works on paper, lots of experiments and also works that reflect what we have been through these past few years. Not having the pressure to produce for a show has actually been a good opportunity to re-evaluate my goals and to play with new topics as they arise. I will be teaching my Mixed Media Art (and yoga) workshop in Tuscany this summer, which will coincide with the 2022 Venice Bienalle —the exhibit this year is called, “The Milk of Dreams” and will focus on humanity and the body, so I will be curious to see that show.
2021, watercolor, graphite and collage, 11" x 15"
Pink Scaffold in the Rann
2019-2020, painted scaffolds, dimensions variable, Kutch, India
photo by Arpan Films
When I was asked last winter to create a satellite event in Portland, Oregon (USA) for “Que des Femmes/Only Women,” the 6th biennial of non-objective art in Pont de Claix, France, I immediately hoped for the opportunity to showcase the work of Heather Watkins and Avantika Bawa. Neither are exclusively non-objective artists, but both make work that defies easy classification and often resists the ever present prospect of rendering an illusion on a flat surface. Their work embraces it’s own objectness, even when it is alluding to something else in the world. There’s more about Heather Watkins’ work in the preceding post, but this one is all about Avantika Bawa.
In a recent Instagram post featuring one of her 3-D printed modular scaffold sculptures, Avantika Bawa (@avantikabawa) wrote with understated precision: “#Scaffolds as Scaffolds.” Reading that short line was a moment of both comedy and clarity for me. I wanted to laugh out loud and at the same time I felt more deeply engaged with Bawa’s work than ever before. The phrase’s declaration that the scaffold simply is what it is was serious, cheeky, honest and transparent. As a sculpture, the scaffold makes no claims of mimicry or illusion. It simply asserts its ability to be two things at once - both a sculpture and a scaffold - and I was left wondering why I’d ever thought of the two as being distinct from one another. And this is how Bawa works- engaging in a sort of alchemy that, rather than producing gold, imparts a renewed perspective with which to see an ordinary object and its surroundings in an entirely new way.
This month on The Semi-Finalist I’m pleased to present my interview with Avantika Bawa. She talks about her formative years, breaking down material hierarchies and allowing something to simply be itself.
photo by Sam Gerhrke
The Semi-Finalist: Your early years as an artist were filled with both the conventions of art school and the risks of moving to a foreign country. What impact did those experiences have on you as a young artist?
Avantika Bawa: As the child of a naval officer in India, travel, geography, and the ability to constantly relocate nationally and internationally (New Delhi, Mumbai, Vizag and Baroda in India and Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia among others) were always an intrinsic part of my life and have consequently shaped my art practice.
In my early 20’s I moved to the USA for an MFA degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). The city’s orderly grid was a stark contrast to the chaos of the major cities in India where I was born and raised. Back home the built environment shapes and grows in response to people, whereas in the US it seems like the people are shaped by the built environment. In America, I was confronted by a layout full of repetition and redundancy: every US city has a Main Street, an MLK Street, and strip malls full of big box stores repeating like base pairs in the urban DNA. I realized that beneath this seemingly modular and redundant lifestyle there was something worth exploring artistically: the sameness that was never quite the same. Soon site, space and place, permutations and combinations of a single idea, became the core query of my practice. Since then, I have explored the diversity of topographies, the presence or absence of color in local environments, and the range of visual, tactile qualities of locally sourced and fabricated materials.
A Yellow Scaffold on the Ranch
2021, painted scaffolds, dimensions variable
Art Beyond, Ashland, OR, USA
photo by Grace Prechtel
S-F: How did your interest in minimalism - or a reductive aesthetic- develop?
AB: In my formative years I was a bit of messy/ gestural artist. My line work was loose and organic, and my color palette earthy and full of chromatic greys. This aesthetic continued when I first arrived in Chicago, but soon I could see shifts in my colors, forms and choice of surfaces for both drawing and painting.
During this time, I was working in a studio with clean white walls. Although it was just drywall, I loved that I could keep repainting it to maintain the starkness. This studio was one of several on the 15th floor of a building belonging to SAIC (The School of the Art Institute of Chicago). The common space of these studios was adorned with huge windows that overlooked lake Michigan and downtown Chicago.
Office paper, ballpoint pens, mis-tinted house paint from Home Depot, etc., were much easier and cheaper to obtain than traditional art supplies. As a young artists, the abundance of low cost, manmade and everyday materials encouraged new ways of making. Realizing that the gestural, organic and messy were no longer interesting to me, I spoke with my advisor who challenged me to nail ten tacks in a row perfectly, and in a straight line. I did, and thought it looked beautiful. After a bit more pondering, I realized I really just needed 5 nails, but spaced further apart so they would engage the pristine white walls in the work. That may have been a turning point.
And then the aesthetic grew. Or should I say reduced!? Or should I say I nailed it? I guess that would be tacky.
Above: an early, gestural painting from 1993.
Below: Box Blue, 2003, cardboard, tape and latex paint, 6’x4’x3’
photos by the artist
S-F: Your past work has engaged explicitly with a location’s prior use, but your recent scaffolds suggest a different way of thinking about a space. How do you see them as being distinct from your past work and where are they headed?
AB: From the late 90’s to fairly recently, I have been largely focused on site-specific installations. Bearing in mind a location’s prior use, I create wall drawings and/or paintings, and repurpose and rearrange functional objects to create temporary installations on-site. Often accompanied by field recordings, these installations create immersive experiences that invite viewers to experience the crossroads between the utilitarian, historical, and aesthetic qualities of the space they occupy.
2016, paint, scaffolding, looped audio, 68'x43'x23'
photo courtesy of Disjecta
The Scaffold Series is an extension of the same sensibility but purposefully uses only scaffolds. I have made several iterations that take the scaffold beyond its functional purpose to an aesthetic engagement with space, thus allowing me to explore the endless possibilities of a single structure. I can do this by pushing permutations and combinations of color, form, scale and location while responding to the topography and geography of site. I intend to expand upon this series by exploring new terrain and different ways of configuring these installations.
A Pink Scaffold in the Rann
2019-20, painted scaffolds, dimensions variable, Kutch, India
photo by the artist
S-F: When I was at your studio I asked you about how your work differs from decoration and you replied, “It is stoically itself.” I love that response and I've been thinking about it ever since! Can you expand on that?
AB: I mean exactly that! The works are always or ultimately about the time and space in which they exist. All previous narratives, sentiments or prompts that may have initiated or informed the work become secondary or inconsequential. The work is then about itself. Stoically and unapologetically.
Above: a small scaffold on a stool in Bawa's studio.
S-F: The intersection of the sublime, design and technology. Talk about it.
AB: Well, the intersection of these three as such is kind of a general idea, but if I were to talk about them in the content of my work, I’d say they all inform my practice, and I prefer not to create hierarchies. Drawing vs painting, art vs design, the sublime vs the ordinary, the functional vs. the non, are all opposite sides of the same conversation, but when they intersect, or even collide, good stuff starts to happen in the studio.
432 Park Avenue
2019, #2, Graphite on paper, 40”x27”
photo by Mario Gallucci
Where reference and object collide.
Above and below: recent experiments in glass completed at the Yucca Valley Material Lab.
S-F: What’s next for you?
AB: This past August I installed work at the University of Kentucky (Lexington) Museum for Template Days, a two-person show (May Tviet and myself), curated by Stuart Horodner. I was very, very pleased with this pairing and curation since May’s work and mine express similar ideas, using the same language, but in a very different dialect.In mid-September I will be part of E/MERGE, an inaugural group show at the National Indo-American Museum in Chicagoland, curated by Shaurya Kumar. My piece for it involves a lot of pink, echoing my 2019-20 installation, A Pink Scaffold in the Rann.
Later in October I will be installing work remotely for The Show Windows, Mumbai, India, curated by SqW:Lab and TARQ, and finally in November I will showcase more scaffolds for a group show at the Bellevue Art Museum titled Architecture and Urban Design. I have few other shows for 2022, but I will wait to talk about those!
As for teaching, my University (Washington State University in Vancouver) just resumed in-person classes. It’s good to be back as more than a pixel and I hope it stays this way.
Below: a few more shots from Bawa's studio.
A small scaffold at Sørvágsvatn Lake during a recent trip to the Faroe Islands.
"I have made several iterations that take the scaffold beyond its functional purpose to an aesthetic engagement with space, thus allowing me to explore the endless possibilities of a single structure. I can do this by pushing permutations and combinations of color, form, scale and location while responding to the topography and geography of site." - Avantika Bawa
More Avantika Bawa:
Photos by David Schell unless otherwise stated.