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.
still-opening, 2020, linen and silk thread, 15 3/4" x 15 3/4"
photo by Mario Gallucci
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’ll be more about Avantika Bawa’s work in an upcoming post, but today is all about Heather Watkins.
During a recent visit to Heather Watkins’ studio, the multi-disciplinary artist shared that finding titles for her works can often take a long time and be something of an arduous process. If one is not careful, she suggested, the title of a piece can limit a viewer’s interpretation of it. References to places and things other than what the object is can anchor a viewer’s response that might otherwise be free to explore limitless possibilities. It’s in the expanse- goes the thinking- that one can be guided to an emotional truth rather than be tied to a mere description. The title, then, has the opportunity - or maybe even the obligation - to function like a poetic map rather than a fixed set of coordinates. And this goes to the core of my interest in and adoration of Heather Watkins’ work and process. She has an ability to sit with and ultimately celebrate the unknown and the unnameable. Her work is an invitation to experience with her the beauty that exists in a lack of clarity; it is a reminder that we don’t always have answers and that answers aren’t always needed.
This month on The Semi-Finalist I’m pleased to present my interview with Heather Watkins. In it she talks about her formative years as an artist, her inspirations, and how waiting became a part of her creative process.
Heather Watkins in her SE Portland studio.
Tell me about your formative years as an artist. Were you drawn to abstraction early on, or did that develop over time?
I think of several starting points, each related to a different medium or practice. From the age of 10, I had a camera of one kind or another. In high school, I took all the darkroom classes available to me. I loved everything about it, the immediacy, the technical knowledge, the craft, the process—it felt like I had found a new language. My undergraduate studies were focused on the liberal arts (I majored in English and World Literature; and Classical Studies with emphasis in Art & Archaeology), and while I didn’t have access to a darkroom during those years, I always carried a camera. Photography has continued to be one of the ways I engage the world around me, even though I rarely show photographic work in my exhibitions. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately—how photography informs the other aspects of my work.
After graduating from college, my work-life led me to a position as Publications Coordinator at the then-named Oregon School of Arts & Crafts. I took full advantage of a benefit extended to staff members: one free class per term. I worked through most of the Photography curriculum—all darkroom-based at that time, a lot of alternative processes (Arboretum, below, was made during that time). I also took a lot of Book Arts courses as well as some printmaking and fibers classes and workshops.
1997, contact print from spliced medium-format film negatives on
silver gelatin paper, 5 x 8 in.
After three and a half years working at OCAC, I went to graduate school at the Rhode Island School of Design to pursue an MFA in Graphic Design. I was attracted to this program in particular because of my interest in working with images and text. RISD’S MFA in GD offered a grounding in how we make meaning visually, how visual language operates. I also loved the fact that photography and book arts courses were embedded within the graphic design studio curriculum. For me, graphic design became an interdisciplinary field where I could both deepen my grounding in craft—book arts, typography, photography, printmaking—and expand my work in more conceptual ways that blurred or dismissed categorical distinctions as to whether something was "design," or "art," or "craft."
Desire Path (1-4)
2021 pigment print on archival rice paper, 10" x 7.5" each
Artists often see themselves as "painters," "photographers," etc. in relation to their creative identities, but I don't get that sense from you and your work. You seem to embrace process more than any one material, which is really interesting to me. Can you talk about how you see yourself as an artist?
You’re absolutely right. Process is key. My work is rooted in material investigation—looking at, say, how different inks flow on different surfaces, or working with the drape and twist of certain fibers. My studio practice involves a lot of experimentation to construct a situation that will lead to unforeseen results, which I can then participate in, observe, react to, transform. Often I begin working on something without realizing where it will go, without a plan, just working from a curiosity about a certain material, form, or technique. At other times, newness grows out of a desire for variation in the ritual of the studio—some shift or growth in the energy or gesture.
I sometimes describe drawing as the core of my art practice, but I think it’s more accurate to say it is driven by an interest in the process of drawing—both how I can make a line myself, and studying how lines appear and occur in the world: twisted tree branches; ruptured cracks in sidewalks; rippling reflections in the surface of water; tangled threads, etc.. I think of these as inadvertent drawings, and it’s that kind of aliveness, that raw energy that I want to access and generate in my work.
In the early 2000s I was working a lot with found materials that were all lines—snags from beaches, netting, twisted wire I’d pick up on the street, and all kinds of yarn, ribbon, cording, string, rope, thread. I made installations, sculptural wall drawings, and table-top scenarios that built on the inherent energies of these materials.
Arranging objects as a way of investigating material relationships has been a part of Watkins' studio practice since the early 2000's.
Around 2007 I began to make drawings by pouring fluid ink onto surfaces and bending and tilting them to make the ink flow across the page. This process opened up several things to me: first, it was physical, very embodied work. A way to short-circuit my brain, by limiting my absolute control. I was part of the formation of a line or a drawing in a way that felt different, more collaborative. A coherence would surface as I made drawing after drawing in this way. Things like whether and how lines would run off the page; how slow or fast different inks moved; whether the drawings would be presented horizontally or vertically; whether they would be presented as a grid, or in a more organic/erratic arrangement, or singly.
Above: Surfacing (no. 15)
2010, pigment and dye based ink on paper, 22" x 30"
Below: Surfacing (16)
2010, pigment and dye based ink on paper, 22" x 30"
photos by Dan Kvitka
The ink-flow drawings—although works on paper—also felt very three dimensional, especially how the paper absorbed the ink and began to warp and bend the surface. At the same time, I was working with a different drawing process, stitching thread loosely through translucent papers, and allowing the huge floppy stitches to accumulate into on both sides of the paper into amorphic shapes. I love this kind of restlessness between two- and three-dimensionality. I think I was basically trying to find ways to free the drawn line from the surface itself. This observation led me into more sculptural work with fibers: saturating soft materials, especially cotton cord—in kiddie pools full of ink in my studio, then arranging it to dry in tangled and twisted formations between sheets of paper and cloth. I used all the resulting materials in different ways: the cording became large-scale sculptural wall drawings and installations; the imprinted paper became suspended scroll-drawings.
A moment of process.
Photo by Abigail McNamara
A moment of product.
(my photo from a recent studio visit)
In 2019 I was invited to create an installation work at Front of House Gallery in Portland, an installation space and program founded by Jessica Helgerson, housed within the building where her interior design studio is located. The characteristics of the space were both exciting and daunting (18 foot ceilings!). I began to see a way to shift from creating an object to creating a space, working with the same materials I had been using to make sculptural wall drawings. I freed the line, finally! This was new territory and I am still thinking about the possibilities of working with space in a more intentional and immersive way.
2019, installation using cotton cord and india ink,
Front of House, Portland, OR (USA)
photo by Dan Cronin
In 2014 I was invited to work on an artist’s book with the Portland-based publisher Container Corps—an opportunity to extend my process-oriented working methods in exciting ways. After many conversations with Gary Robbins and Zoe Clark about possible, I began to focus on the color blue, and on a specific type of book: the medieval book of hours, one of the earliest books available to the laity in Europe. Books of hours are companion books, usually small, intimate, personal—and functional: a device to guide meditation, prayer, devotional acts. I created a series of twenty-four “images” on polymer offset printing plates, using substances that would adhere to the surface and hold the ink. We scanned images of book ribbon traversing each page or spread. The final book, Hours, was printed in twenty-four different shades of blue, had no words (other than the title and the colophon), and a dozen actual book ribbons.
2014, artist's book, printed offset in 24 colors, 384 pages,
sewn binding cased in cloth-covered boards with foil-stamped cover
4 1/2" x 6" edition of 150, published by Container Corps
photo by Heather Watkins
S-F: Tell me about the conversation that takes place between your studio work and your love of language. Is it tense? Tender? A bit of both?
HW: Definitely both! So much of my work feels like it comes from a silent, wordless, maybe pre-verbal place. And yet language surrounds it, and sometimes defines it. The task of titling artworks and exhibitions or writing artist’s statements—I would say that process can be extremely tense and tender. It’s a balancing act—trying to find language that offers entry points that feel true to me, without enclosing or trapping the work in a set of associations that are too specific. I try to leave room for what else might be lurking in the work—what else might it say? I am always interested in readings of the work that are hiding in my blind spots.
Then there is the work that is literally made with language: works on paper that feature hand-drawn or traced phrases that offer a layered, evolving reading, like a mantra. “this is the only one,” or “it just is,” “not like anything.” I’m interested in how language begins to operate as abstraction—how these words, infused with meaning, start to slip from their definitions, how language turns in the mind.
this is the one (verso)
2015, carbon tissue, 10 3/8" x 12 3/4"
photo by Evan La Londe
My newest work, Oracle, also employs language that hovers at the edge of comprehensibility. The video installation emerged from a simple studio ritual: drawing two or three words from a box of hand-written words and photographing them on an inked surface that I use to make drawings. The words were culled from two sources: past artist’s statements discussing my studio process; and the Prologue of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which describes creation - the world coming into being. Over time, these images began to feel incantatory—like a message with no singular interpretation, a meditation on the act of interpretation itself. Answers to unknown questions.
Above and below:
Video installation presented at PDX CONTEMPORARY ART as part of the
solo exhibition still—moving.
2021, digital video, no sound, 9-minute loop, projected onto a drawing.
photos by Mario Gallucci
S-F: I'm really intrigued by how your work slows down everything in its orbit and where that deliberateness comes from. Can you talk more about waiting rooms, your tumor, or just thoughts on marking time?
HW: In 2008 I was diagnosed with a brain tumor near my optic nerve. I have had numerous surgeries and treatments over the past thirteen years, and fortunately, my condition is currently stable. While this experience has never been an explicit subject in my work, the waiting, watching, and living with something I cannot control has no doubt informed my work in ways I continue to learn from.
In 2018, I presented an exhibition titled Waiting Room, a series of densely hand-stitched abstract forms that were “made in waiting rooms of one kind or another,” as I described in my artist statement. Shape, color, density, pattern, rhythm—these decisions were determined by an urge to distill and integrate a variety of influences, information, ideas: how textiles carry meaning; the growth patterns of organic forms, both in the body and in nature; the visual structure of a text; images generated for diagnostic testing; how our senses, emotions, and intellect intersect; the sensation of reading.
Two embroideries from Waiting Room, Watkins's 2018 show at PDX CONTEMPORARY ART.
Above: Recording, April/May, 2015, 2015, thread and linen, 14 1/4" x 16 1/2"
Below: Recording, March (no. 1), 2016, 2016, thread and linen, 14" x 16"
photos by Evan La Londe
The act of making small stitches repeatedly, following the regular yet imperfect structure of woven cloth, is at once meditative and obsessive—it requires and reveals different kinds of attention. This work activates waiting. It records the labor of being (a) patient. This work is made of time and representative of it.
My recent series, still—moving, charts a period of suspended time and stalled movement. Twenty embroidered orbs ring a room. Viewed close-up, variations between stitches become visible, tender, imperfect. Halos encircle their stilled/spinning forms. Propelled by a rotational energy, each seems to float or drift. Together, they echo the movements of planetary orbits. Their scale slips and shifts: near/far, macro/micro. Turning the embroidery hoop around and around over weeks and months, I begin to see them as portals out of this moment, opening into a yet unknown future.
Two embroideries from still - moving, Watkins's 2021 show at PDX CONTEMPORARY ART.
Above: still-humming, 2020, linen and silk thread, 15 3/4" x 15 3/4"
Below: still-shimmering, 2019, linen and silk thread, 16" x 16"
photos by Mario Gallucci
When I think about how my work might meet the crises that are affecting our world with such force and speed, I think part of my response has been to listen and watch for what needs care and attention—to make room for rumination, quietude, renewal. To make time, and also to make time feel different.
S-F: Who are you looking at (living or dead)?
HW: Always returning to: Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly, Sheila Hicks, Tantric painting, Ann Hamilton, Helen Frankenthaler. Roni Horn: especially how language and literature inhabit her work, like her sculptural retooling of Emily Dickinson’s lines in Earth Grows Thick, or the running footnotes in Another Water. Rachel Whiteread: drawings in particular. Cecilia Vicuña: especially her extraordinary exhibition About to Happen at The Henry in 2019)
Always reading. Recently: Eliot Weinberger, An Elemental Thing; Arthur Sze, Sight Lines; Terry Tempest Williams, Erosion; Anne Carson, Decreation; Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things; Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Allen Mandelbaum, translator); Nina MacLaughlin, Wake, Siren; Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer.
I’m a big fan of David Naimon’s podcast “Between the Covers.” His deeply-researched conversations with poets and writers are energizing.
S-F: What's next for you?
My solo exhibition still—moving just opened at PDX CONTEMPORARY ART (September 1 - October 2, 2021). It includes series of twenty embroidered works and a video projection/installation.
Top, middle and bottom: works on paper in the studio.
More Heather Watkins:
Photos by David Schell unless otherwise stated.
2021, acrylic on canvas, 24" x 36"
I’ve always had a soft spot in my personal canon for artists that embrace a certain sense of illustration in their work. For some reason this term - illustration - carries with it a bit of the pejorative. It’s as if a clear depiction is somehow not to be trusted, the directness of it is ironically seen as a form of deceit. Maybe it’s that, for many, the word conjures up notions of simplicity or mere entertainment. But in the right hands - I’m thinking of Charles Burchfield, Charles White, Wayne Thiebaud, and Kathe Kollwitz at the moment- the ability to illustrate is a way of amplifying an emotional state. These artists are (or were) keen observers of the natural world that we are tethered to as well as the social-political world that we are embedded in, and their chosen techniques help to bring their observations to life.
Portland, Oregon based painter Kendra Larson is an artist that does not shy away from her technical ability or her desire to illustrate the feelings she has for the natural world and our place in it. She’s a painter that deals with the everyday- holidays, natural disasters, a drive through the woods to who knows where- and often uses photography to get started. But the source is just a starting place in Larson’s capable hands, and she rarely (if ever) feels the need to mimic what has already been recorded. Instead, her aim is to pull the viewer into a heightened reality made from a mixture of recognizable details and intuitive - almost impulsive- decisions about color, line and shape. What is photographically real becomes abstracted, and that abstraction is in turn more emotionally alive than the image that she started with.
This month on The Semi-Finalist I’m pleased to present my interview with Kendra Larson. In it she talks about her formative years as an artist, her inspirations and process, and how her relationship with nature helped her to develop her voice as a painter.
Two small works on the wall and Kendra Larson in her SE Portland studio.
The Semi-Finalist: Can you talk a bit about your formative years? When did you start seeing yourself as a painter and who were your influences during that time?
Kendra Larson: Painting and art have always been a part of my life. My mom always encouraged me, signing me up for all sorts of art classes. She was also an interior designer, so I grew up surrounded by her collections of geodes, masks, and etchings. Art was something I felt good doing. When things were bad it lifted me up and provided a welcome constant for me.
I grew up in Salem, Oregon and have a little sister, Ashley. My parents divorced when I was young and we moved around town a lot. My grandma has owned a wig shop downtown for 50 years, so that felt like my true home.
The artists I met in my early teens made a strong impression on me. Their courage and dedication to honesty was what I wanted to achieve in my life. I remember taking art classes at the Bush Barn Art Center in Salem and later interning with a glass artist, Wendy Brockhaus, in high school. She taught me how to make a white Russian. She clearly loved what she did and had a deep passion for art. Around that same time, my art teacher, Ms. (Shirley) Giesbrecht, became an awesome mentor for me. I admired her blunt honesty and approach to life. One time she asked if I wanted to fulfill a commission. I was so honored that she would ask me. I spent weeks painting a portrait of Miles Davis for the unknown patron and she encouraged me every step of the way. That’s when I started to think of myself as a painter. I don’t know where that painting ended up, but I still keep in touch with Shirley to this day.
2021, acrylic on canvas, 24" x 36"
Other formative moments in my life appear in my memory as vignettes. They often happen outside on trips, camping and hiking. Some that come to mind are:
2021, acrylic on canvas, 36" x 24"
S-F: Your daily drawing practice with oil pastels is both impressive and an inspiration! How did this get started and how does it impact your other work?
KL: Awe thanks. This practice started with the pandemic. Being at home so much made me want to create smaller, more intimate work. I also thought of the drawings as a preliminary step towards larger paintings. Then, I fell in love with the oil pastels and it kind of evolved into its own thing. Oil pastels are so physical. It’s not like painting with a brush – there is nothing that separates my hand from the material. Perhaps this visceral process is a healthy antidote to all that time on Zoom.
Then the wildfires started. I was deeply moved by the destruction. The smoke was a constant reminder of the loss of Detroit (Oregon), a place we have visited every summer since I was a kid. I found a photo from that fire and drew it. Noticing that the color was off, I drew it again. Then again to capture a more accurate feeling. After that, I just kept drawing the same scene almost daily. It kind of became a meditation on the fires. I’m not all that confident with my use of color, so it also became a way to explore different approaches to color. I mimicked other artists’ palettes, tried manipulating the colors digitally before drawing, and aimed to connect color with my moods. I tried to make ugly and cheerful and dreamy color palettes.
2021, 24" x 36"
So, the oil pastels began as sketches (and still are), but have also evolved to include this meditation on our place in nature, wildfires, and climate change. The drawings have made my paintings more layered, playful, and abstract. The thick oil pastel drawings have really highlighted how luminous thin layers of acrylic can be. The brush strokes, pours, washes, and scrapes take on a new, exciting character in the paintings. Sometimes chance and other times control dictate my actions and process is always a part of the work’s meaning.
An oil pastel sketch from a series of daily drawings.
What commitment looks like.
S-F: I’m drawn to what I can only describe as the magical realism in your paintings. Sometimes it manifests itself as a blend of very specific places bathed in supernatural light and color; at other times you invent vast spaces inhabited by small, somewhat anonymous figures. How did you get started with this series and what can you tell me about it?
KL: So, I started drawing and painting landscapes back at Caldera in 2005. Despite trying my hardest to make serious, realistic pieces they have always had a playful quality to them. The trees kind of dance, I think it’s just how my intuitive hand wants to depict them. I then moved to Wisconsin to go to grad school and watched my work become more nostalgic. All the paintings I created there were specific places I was missing and emblematic of events I didn’t want to forget. When I returned to Oregon that nostalgia shifted to an exploration of mankind’s place in nature. I was trying to seek out what makes the Pacific Northwest unique and where that fits into the larger discussion/ history of Landscape painting. I painted specific places, locations tied to NW literature, and collaged amalgamations of places. Geometric abstractions sometimes embodied the spirit or sound of a place.
2021, acrylic on canvas, 36" x 24"
A few years back, I took stock of my past work to better understand my trajectory. I noticed a through line of light in my work, so I pursued it more with paintings of night skies, fires, and fireworks. The fireworks paintings were partially sparked by a conversation I had with another painter about imagination versus creativity. I had mentioned that I love the moment when your logical mind steps aside to let your imagination take the wheel. Like when you are watching fireworks and your eyes relax and you can almost imagine the lights are tiny sparks a few inches from your nose. We all know they aren’t, but the contrast of the light against the night sky can trick our perception in just the right way.
2019, acrylic on canvas, 36" x 48"
Anyway, that conversation helped inspire my interest in light and other ephemeral parts of nature as painting subjects. Some people may not realize the complexity enveloped in landscape paintings. Our psychology and sense of identity is strongly tied to the place we call home. Dreamy and mysterious, landscapes can hold our deepest fears and enchanting hopes. A season or time of day can shift the mood. Landscapes can be a symbol of commodity as well as the sublime. Our past and futures are tied to landscapes. The Group of Seven Artist, Walter J. Philips once said “A landscape painting is essentially emotional in origin. It exists as a record of an effect in nature whose splendor has moved a human heart, and according as it is well or ill done it moves the hearts of others.” I do not take lightly the subject I am pursuing, but I often try to amplify what magic is already in a place. The way I move the paint or mix the colors heightens the mood. This reminds me of another Canadian painter, Emily Carr, who once said “Do not try to do extraordinary things but do ordinary things with intensity.” I feel that if my work can mirror (even just a little of) the wonder in nature and get the viewer interested in sublime places, then empathy will grow and spark positive changes for our environment.
As for the figures in my recent paintings, I am secretly always thinking of the figure. My undergrad thesis was all large-scale portraits. I have taught figure drawing for 14 years, so I know and love the history and psychology wrapped up in the figure. In my recent paintings, the figures stand in for the viewer. That’s why they are anonymous – so they can be anyone and everyone at the same time. They are often lonely or contemplative or awkwardly interacting with nature. This kind of mirrors myself and how I feel outdoors.
"In my recent paintings, the figures stand in for the viewer. That’s why they are anonymous – so they can be anyone and everyone at the same time." - Larson
2021, acrylic on canvas, 24" x 36"
Breitenbush Hot Springs
2021, acrylic on canvas, 36" x 24"
S-F: When I was visiting your studio you talked about becoming obsessed with a theme in your work (haunted places, for example), but also wanting the freedom to move on when it feels right to do so. Can you describe that process in your work?
KL: I think of painting all the time, every day, but my work comes in spurts between teaching, mom-ing, wife-ing, and acting as general contractor to our ongoing house rehab. These short bursts force me to act quickly and take breaks, which allows for an unexpected freshness. I am now more likely to notice and leave a gorgeous drip or accidental wash than I was when I was younger with endless time to overwork a painting. Why was I saying this? I guess I just wanted to point out my process since it kind of explains why I so often work from intuition.
I feel lucky that I have found a concept in my work that allows me the freedom to explore, invent, and play with a variety of subjects and varied paint applications. My paintings often belong to small series of 10 – 20 pieces centered around a subject like fireworks, celestial bodies, moths, etc. Some subjects I try once but don’t revisit because it either failed completely or felt dishonest or was complete with just the one piece. I know that my interests and concerns connect all my work, so I’m not too worried about whether a series will fit into my larger oeuvre. I work intuitively a lot, then critique my ideas in order to decide if I want to move forward with them or let them fail. And I love every part of this process.
The Witch House
2021, acrylic on canvas, 36" x 40"
S-F: You seem to love to invent and have an ability to get what's in your head onto a canvas or piece of paper. Can you talk about how that skill developed and how you see it in relation to your work now?
KL: I do love to invent and follow my imagination, but it can’t be too hokey or ingenuine. In school I learned about ready-mades and this got me questioning what defines paint. Could caulking or tar or fur be considered paint as long as it was on canvas? This led me to experiment with those materials as well as beads, thread, beans, and other non traditional painting supplies. With all my inventing, I try to make everything I add to my paintings count - no frivolous additions. I had some great teachers who helped me find the courage to try things out. If a piece goes south, I can always paint it out. Reworking something often adds a sense of history to the surface. It’s kind of the embodiment of what Arvie Smith once told me about painting – that ‘things always get worse before they get better’. As a viewer of art, I seek out that history, that evidence of struggle. So, to me that skill of self-expression has come from my natural curiosity, then was developed through trial and error over years of practice and critique. Always seeking that kind of art honesty.
2021, acrylic on canvas, 36" x 24"
S-F: Who are you currently looking at (alive or dead)?
KL: As a teacher I have a huge list of artists that I enjoy and love to share with my students: Alice Neel, John Singer Sargent, Mickalene Thomas, Elizabeth Peyton, and so on. As far as artists I connect with in my own work: Georgia O’Keeffe, Lucinda Parker, and Michael Brophy come to mind. In graduate school, I was given an assignment of writing about an artist from each century since 1500 that I align my artwork with. I can’t remember all of them, but I saw my work connecting to the poetic nature of William Blake, the Romanticism of Casper David Friedrich, and the playful relationship with nature of Charles Burchfield. The color and materiality of paint in Van Gogh's or Frankenthaler's work also resonates with me. The Group of Seven is also an influence. William Mackinnon, Kim Dorland, Robyn O’Neil, and Dan Attoe are contemporary artists I have come across recently and whose work I adore.
S-F: What's next for you?
KL: I have a solo show of my drawings at the Newport Visual Art Center from August 7th through the end of September. Also, I'm in a group show at AMcE Creative Arts Gallery in Seattle during March of 2022.
Below are a few more shots from Larson's studio walls. You can also follow these links to see more of her work:
Above and below:
A wall of works in progress.
Work by: Billy Gruner, Deborah Dancy, Ellen Weider, Jason Travers, Michel Carmantrand, Ulla Pedersen
(in alphabetical order by first name)
Painting is an animal that lives and thrives under a very big sky. It is eternally half feral, adapting to the world that it finds itself in but refusing to be fully domesticated by it (even though it has been known to enjoy the privileged status of being hung on a freshly painted wall). And despite multiple claims to the contrary, painting has not yet died. Quite the opposite- it's currently having a great deal of success and is arguably more confident and unapologetic than ever before about what it is and what it can do. It would be a mistake to think of this achievement as somehow requiring the exclusion of another art form. Embracing painting does not mean rejecting photography, sculpture, or digital art; it only means embracing painting, with all that it offers as well as its shortcomings. And it is the acceptance of both its attributes and limitations that opens the door a little wider for the guest of personal expression to be welcomed in.
One area of exploration within the world of painting that has held my attention for decades is the impulse to reduce and abstract. It’s a challenging and ultimately intimate experience to interact with a modified surface that simply refuses (or almost refuses) to illustrate something that we could immediately recognize and attach to a story. Instead, the message is in the materials, colors, lines, and textures themselves. The meaning is about what happens when we are faced with an image that asks us to look without naming, to experience without the help of a narrative, to be present without the expectation of clarity.
I recently invited six artists to participate in The Semi-Finalist’s second summer group post. It’s an international gathering with strong, independent voices that I admire so much. They approach their materials from varied- but always personal- points of view, and each is engaged with what could be considered issues of contemporary abstraction, from the playfully suggestive to the insistently non objective. I want to thank Billy Gruner (Sydney, Australia), Deborah Dancy (Storrs, CT, USA), Ellen Weider (New York, NY, USA), Jason Travers (Providence, RI, USA), Michel Carmantrand (b. France, working in Berlin, Germany) and Ulla Pedersen (Copenhagen, Denmark) for their generous visual and written contributions to this post. Their work moves me both emotionally and intellectually and I’m thrilled to feature each of them here on The Semi-Finalist.
Nonobjectform (Art & Architecture Series), 2021, metal and wood,
approximately 24" x 24"
Billy Gruner's description of his work and his process comes in the form of a video at: Nonobjectform.
(At one point Gruner references RNOP, which is the Reductive Non Objective Project and can be found on facebook.)
(Storrs, CT, USA)
Mapping an Afterthought, 2021, oil on canvas, 38" x 34"
Smoke Signals, 2021, oil on canvas, 66" x 60"
Trapped #10, 2020, acrylic on paper
Age of Aquarius #1, 2021, acrylic on paper
I move back and forth between painting on canvas and works on paper. 2020 was brutal, and the work took on an agitated, fragmented sensibility- there was a sense of the elements being incomplete, like a puzzle where the last pieces are missing. As a concept this became more elemental in the paintings- with color playing a more significant role. I enjoy having lushness meet with the abrupt and the unexpected.
It's Now or Never, 2021,oil on canvas, 22" x 22"
Morass, 2021, acrylic on paper
(New York, NY, USA)
Short Story, 2019, gouache, acrylic, and graphite on linen, 16” x 20”
Triplex, 2020, gouache, acrylic, and graphite on linen, 16” x 20”
Square One, 2021, gouache, acrylic, and graphite on linen, 16” x 20”
Open House, 2021, gouache, acrylic, and graphite on linen, 16” x 20”
My images float in an undefined, ambiguous space. Some suggest houses, buildings, rooms, and other architectural or geometric structures. There are no inhabitants, but the structures themselves sometimes evoke human presence and human interactions, and can also be seen as metaphors for internal states of being. My paintings explore issues of isolation and connection; whether they are interpreted as pure abstractions or as self-contained narratives, an ironic humor with a meditative, existential, transcendental bent informs them.
Weider's studio in NY, NY.
(Providence, RI, USA)
Cathedral, 2021, oil on canvas, 35"x49"
Liminal State, 2019, oil on canvas, 36"x58"
Masquerade, 2021, oil on canvas, 35"x34"
Dreamer, 2018, oil on canvas, 48"x109"
I began painting following in the tradition of plein air painters who studied light and color differences embodied in the landscape. Though literal references to nature have diminished in my paintings, I continue to seek a deep visual connection rooted in Romantic impulses that began in 19th century experience.
I seem to always be preoccupied with the concept of part-to-whole. It’s a kind of visual game that I enjoy playing as long as the solutions are visually enticing, or even perplexing. Many of my paintings are diptychs and other multi-panel configurations, creating relationships that impart a sense of tension. An interesting byproduct of using multi-panel configurations is how the canvases veer away from a traditional illusionistic picture space and into the realm of being objects. I have become interested in the way the canvases imply a more sculptural experience. I like my paintings to play with the viewer’s spatial awareness, rather than having them hang passively on the wall. Though they may appear to be simple on first glance, given time I would like them to slowly open to the senses.
The Frog Prince, 2021, oil
Travers in his Providence, RI studio.
(b. France; currently living in Berlin, Germany)
STAR'S CASE, 2020, mixed media, 72.8" x 72.8"
TOTEM, 2021, mixed media, 72.8" x 72.8"
RESTRAINED BURNING, 2021, mixed media, 72.8" x 72.8"
Flashback: it was in 2011, and at the invitation of my gallerist in this era, that i curated a group exhibition for the first time at the Zweigstelle-Berlin gallery. Other ones followed over the years. This movement (commitment), which involves quite a few studio visits, seems not to need to stop. It’s here that i allow myself to approach my point, let's say, from the ‘outside’, insofar as this activity has proved extremely nourishing, both aesthetically and humanly, since year after year i have been able to gauge the grandiose narcissistic indifference of colleagues as much as their wonderful ability to achieve a profusion of forms that i would have been hard pressed to conceive on my own.
The upcoming in-person group show, which should take place (if the virus plays it soft) at the end of April 2021, brings together ten artists and is titled “Absent.” This time around there will be more objects and sculptures than actual ‘classical’ paintings, which is a change I couldn't foresee, certainly due to a kind of personal modification, this being probably the consequence of everything i have seen and done here.
MIND THE GAP, 2020, mixed media, 67" x 67" x 1.6"
In the same vein, for example, the titles (therefore the relationship to language) have become more important recently, to the point that it can make me decide to paint even if i don't really need special inputs for this. The title can become the subject, the motif, which has never been the case so far. The effects of this slight twist in perspective are that it is no longer the previous practice that decides the method and the tools, but the object, the motif, the subject of the painting to come. But nevertheless, this shift must come from further back in time, since it has been several years since i stopped working in a series, or even imagining that the next painting would be in part the result of previous paintings, that it will resemble the others in one way or another. It seems to me today that the dialectic brings me more fruit than the sequential arrangement. Actually, i'm not at all a specialist painter, quite the contrary. The works are supposed to capture and reflect the most distant echoes, whether these signals come from the history of art (which does not prevent History from being stories, from my point of view) and or from reality, political and social, past or future.
So, as much as possible, no visual identity, but a permanent critique and self-criticism, insofar as it seems to me that a successful painting contains the elements necessary for its destruction in and through the eye and brain of the ‘other’. The ‘specificity’ of each painting is therefore not a specificity linked to aesthetic presuppositions, but an approach making each of the paintings a singular object, aiming at an individual goal, which would be to cross, to go through, to percolate as many different mirrors as possible.
Caption: The artist fumbling on the table in search of some tool.
Caption: The artist pictured from the studio's window as he was about to go buy food in his familiar Neukölln district.
Untitled (Wall Sculpture), 2021, acrylic paint on MDF and canvas
Untitled Paintings, 2021, acrylic on canvas
Untitled Paintings, 2021, acrylic on canvas
Untitled Paintings, 2021, acrylic on canvas and MDF
“I work with acrylic paint on many different surfaces, including canvas, wood, paper and cardboard. My process is reductive. When painting a composition, I tend toward a limited color palette, often reducing the composition to minimal, hard-edged shapes on solid-colored fields. When making my assembled pieces, I cut shapes away and then re-combine them into new configurations, using both the positive elements (the shape I have cut out) and the negative elements (the part that was left behind). I use everything, juxtaposing notions of "form and non-form," and always leaving room for discovery and surprise.”
Untitled paintings, 2021, acrylic on canvas
Like A Mountain (two fists of solid rock CM)
2021, acrylic, flashe, oil, graphite, and pastel on panel
65 ¼” x 83”
Photo by Mario Gallucci
The Not-Center and Synthesis
Seeing Michelle Ross’s recent show at Elizabeth Leach was an hour of joy that almost felt tailor-made to mark the arrival of spring in Portland, Oregon. Ross is not a landscape painter, but her paintings paralleled the light outside on that day, from the atmospheric pools of indigo and silver to the punches of vivid color which act as stabilizing forces in her often tempestuous compositions.
Ross’s recent paintings are, in her own words, de-centered. Visually, this means that the linear energy in her compositions is pushed out to the edges, leaving an interior space that is largely -but not entirely- atmospheric. The more concrete elements often suggest a geometric structure, but habitually avoid any obvious solutions. Buttresses - small, nearly solid shapes of vivid color - also make their way to the edges of these allusive forms. And like architectural buttresses holding up thin walls of stained glass in a gothic church, Ross’s small, colorful supports dutifully stabilize planes of luminous, ethereal color.
One of Ross's many strengths is her willingness to embrace both the haptic and the literary. Her paintings stand on their own, but the titles - alternately poetic, clever, timely and suggestive - grant access to another level of her aesthetic stronghold. The titles function not so much as an open front door, but instead an unlocked window on the second or third floor. Scaling the trellis and shimmying over the sill is undoubtedly going to take time and energy, but it’s an effort worth making. Once inside, it's as if the space of the unapologetically visual begins to expand, opening up plenty of room for the conceptual framework that holds it in place. This is also the point where you’ll realize that you’ve just snuck into a fantastic party and you won’t want to leave.
This month on The Semi-Finalist I’m pleased to present my interview with Michelle Ross. In it she talks more about de-centering, her competing aesthetic impulses, and making sense of the last four years.
Michelle Ross in her studio.
The Semi-Finalist: Michelle, we first met back in the 1990’s, but I have to admit that I still don’t know your full origin story. How did you get started with painting and when did you make the decision to forge ahead as an artist?
Michelle Ross: My first art classes were at the Oregon School of Art and Craft (later known as the Oregon College of Art and Craft) – when I was 19 or 20. I had wanted to pursue writing when I was a high school student and I read a ton- but I never took any art classes. It was because of a dedicated mentor who basically challenged me to go to art school after doing some independent study work with them. I had returned to Portland after a year at an alternative college program in Bellingham, Washington called Fairhaven College. It was an insular little bubble and again I was trying to get started with writing but felt restless and unsatisfied. So I returned to Portland and eventually enrolled at PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art) – which was at the time still embedded in the Portland Art Museum as the Museum School. I graduated from PNCA in '87 and went up to Washington State University in Pullman for my MFA in '91.
2021, acrylic, oil, paper, silver leaf, graphite, pastel and
colored pencil on panel, 24” x 30”
photo by Mario Gallucci
S-F: This next question comes out of our conversation about how one's temperament is connected to whether an artist's work is the result of slow accretion, spontaneous improvisation, or something else entirely. It's really a question about being true to oneself in the studio. So, with that in mind, can you talk about how you see yourself as a painter in relation to materials, techniques and the impulses that drive your work?
MR: I think I often operate in a kind of dialectic between those poles you mention, and in the process of the back and forth some kind of synthesis emerges. At times I yearn to proceed in an either/or, fully committed, one way or another fashion, but I know that what drives the work is a kind of problem-solving mentality – so that neither approach totally satisfies what I want to see and therefore needs to be modified by the opposite approach. Which often creates a mess. This is true with materials as well – when I start to feel burdened with the preciousness and weight of the history of oil painting I end up introducing “low” materials- paper, textiles, scraps of detritus. Drawing materials also intrude into those surfaces. These things complicate the beauty and sensuality of the painted surfaces. Recently I have been using more aggressive techniques like pouring, smearing and staining, which then need to be corralled or harnessed with an overlay of geometry. This acts as a collision that results in the synthesis I am looking for.
Twelve Twenty-One Twenty Twenty
2021, acrylic, flashe, oil, graphite, and pastel on panel, 65 ¼” x 83”
photo by Mario Gallucci
S-F: Your titles often insist on evoking the here and now while your paintings seem to enjoy navigating the intangibles of life. Can you talk about that?
MR: Sometimes that is true, especially with this last body of work, for example False Flag – which smacks of the current political conditions in the US. That painting in particular was a thorny problem to solve, meaning I thought I could keep it simple and concise and it became quite convoluted with many competing forces- color, directionality, asymmetry. I had to accept those contradictions while resolving the painting. That struggle seems to mimic the intangible, perhaps mental struggles of a year living through the pandemic and a nerve-wracking political climate.
2021, acrylic, oil, vintage canvas, vinyl, silver leaf, pastel chalk,
and graphite on panel, 30" x 40"
photo by Mario Gallucci
At other times the titles are quotations from poetry, or print media text. And with that the “here and now” and the “intangibles” can vary quite a bit. I think of titles as a way to point to a territory or context or lens through which to consider the abstraction of the paintings.
Above: Lamplight Surprise
2017, acrylic, oil and graphite on panel, 12.5”x 10”
Below: Chicken Little
2017, acrylic, oil and graphite on panel, 12.5”x 10”
photos by Mario Gallucci
S-F: You’ve talked a lot about the concept of de-centering in relation to the body of work you made for “I Am Your Signal,” your recent solo show at Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Can you expand on that concept and how you see it manifesting itself in your paintings?
MR: De-centering is a literal and formal strategy in many of the newest works. I noticed the tendency emerging with this and other recent work. I seemed to be inclined toward the periphery. I was drawn to engage and activate the edges of the paintings with a compression of shape, compressed energy and hot, saturated color. This got me wondering about empty(-ish) centers and unreliable or unstable centers that shifted, that weren’t clearly grounded or appeared unanchored. In relation to constructing pictures, I was considering how we are supposed to address the center, have a hierarchy of focal points, a balance of centralities.
In some ways this visual thinking about the center and the not-center may reflect certain power dynamics that are currently at play between progressive, reparative, social activism (the hot periphery?) and repressive conservative politics (the unreliable center?). These paintings were made at a time in late 2020 with this intensified backdrop playing out. I think we absorb these social dynamics as experiences from our own vantage point and often they get echoed in subconscious ways. For me it seems to be playing out in this formal dynamic of not-center /compressed periphery. I think Jan Verwort is pointing to something like this in his essay on the painter Toma Abts, The Beauty and Politics of Latency:
“In one moment, abstract art might hurl itself forward in time towards the yet unrealized and unthought. In other moments, however, abstraction only works because its enunciations reverberate with latent memories of things once seen or ideas once thought and then forgotten… In this sense, the space of abstraction is an echo chamber in which each enunciation resonates with intuitions of the yet unthought and the presently forgotten… Abstraction…treasures the latencies of thoughts, memories, and feelings as a source that is inexhaustible precisely because its content can be neither instantaneously nor ever fully actualized.”
2021, acrylic, oil, pastel chalk, and graphite on panel, 65 x 83"
photo by Mario Gallucci
Or maybe it - the de-centering idea – is a parallel to my own very lateral way of associative thinking. I am always interrupting my own thoughts with adjacent next thoughts to the point where every idea feels like an edge, pressed outwards and up next to something else equally compelling. Where is the center in that? The center is a moving target and always contingent on what the quality or clarity of the periphery is.
Anyway….below is a list of stream-of-consciousness thoughts that I think contribute to an understanding of what the paintings manifest:
Installation shots of Ross's show, I Am Your Signal, at Elizabeth Leach Gallery.
Photos by Mario Gallucci.
Keep2021, acrylic, oil, Korean hemp linen, canvas, silver leaf, tape,
and graphite on panel, 30" x 40"
Bathyscaphe (for CM)
2021, acrylic, oil, paper, silver leaf, graphite, and pastel on panel, 24” x 30”
photo by Mario Gallucci
2021, acrylic, oil, vintage canvas, vinyl, silver leaf, pastel chalk,
and graphite on panel, 30" x 40"
S-F: Who do you count as formative influences on your work and who have you been looking at recently?
MR: Formative: Twombly, Stella, Judd, Diebenkorn, Noland, Joan Mitchell, Frankenthaler, Joan Snyder, Hilma Af Klint.
Recently: Harvey Quaytman, R.H. Quaytman, Prunella Clough, Svenja Deininger, Elizabeth Neel, Yunhee Min, Tala Madani, Shara Hughes, Amy Bay, Lois Dodd, Julie Mehretu, Vivian Suter, Torkwase Dyson, Tormory Dodge, Monique Van Genderen, Pia Fries, Marina Adams….
Talking about formative influences.
S-F: What’s next?
MR: More experimental works, drawing paintings, affective color studies, simplification or a push more deeply into maximalism. I want to work on repetition.
Returning to some older unresolved works, possibly shaped panels, more textile works.
I want to do an artist book also – from the magazine page interventions. I have several different categories of works from those pages that form an organizing principle that could be a book.
Below: The studio.
Below are more shots of Michelle Ross's work. You can also find her...
at her website
on the Elizabeth Leach Gallery website
on Instagram: @michelle_ross_studio
Winter Bloom (1)
2015, oil, spray paint, house paint, paper, plaster, linen, chalk,
and graphite on birch panel, 45” x 42”
photo by Mario Gallucci
As is, So There
2015, acrylic, oil and graphite on panel, 12.5”x 10”
photo by Mario Gallucci
The Inexperienced Miracle Worker
2015, oil, flashe, paper, plaster, chalk and graphite on panel, 62”x 65”
photo by Mario Gallucci
Mario Gallucci's photography website can be found at: https://www.mariogallucciphoto.com/art-documentation
Unless otherwise stated, O'Keefe's paintings are untitled, acrylic on panel,
about 24" x 30" and recently made.
I was struck by a Suzan Frecon quote that I came across recently while endlessly scrolling through the idealized microclimates of Instagram: “I think the truth of a painting is the paint itself.” In a world where the truth feels slippery and elusive, there’s something so rational and so radical in that notion- that material and looking can be connected to reality. When I visited James O’Keefe last fall at his studio in Joshua Tree, CA, I had a similar feeling, but I didn’t know how to put it into words. Several months of mulling later, I'm simply going to paraphrase Frecon’s insight to express what I felt about O’Keefe’s spare works as I was standing in front of them: the truth of his painting is in the object itself. Less concerned with painterly techniques than most, James O’Keefe instead plays with space and form by contrasting his minimalist’s palette with understated transformations to his supports. The finished works hover somewhere between painting and low relief sculpture, defying easy categorization and confidently presenting the simple truth of their own unique shapes and colors.
For this installment of The Semi-Finalist I'm happy to present my interview with James O'Keefe. In it he talks about Nothingness, life in the Mojave Desert and the impulse to work in a reductive style.
The Semi-Finalist: Let's jump right in. We talked a lot about nothingness and openness when I was in your studio. Can you explain how you approach those themes in your work?
James O'Keefe: I really enjoyed our conversation about Nothingness and Openness, and it rests at the heart of my painting process. Let me first say that I did study the practice of meditation for many years, but for this conversation I will emphasize how it applies to my painting practice. The contemplation of Nothingness (or Emptiness as the Buddhists would say) is really about removing issues about yourself, for example self-doubt, self-criticism, self-editing, etc. The goal, for me, is to get a calm and clear state of mind in front of the painting. If you can be comfortable in this study of Nothingness, so much will flow into your mind and into your work.
In the studio, I also call this being Open in front of the painting. Openness means letting the painting tell you what it needs. The series of work I call Open Paintings take as their theme this concept of Openness. Very often in the Open Paintings the frame is left open on one side, or if the framing is complete it covers only a portion of the painting. Both, in my view, are illustrative -in a painter’s way- of this state of Openness.
"Openness means letting the painting tell you what it needs."
The S-F: Visiting your studio and home in Joshua Tree, CA was such a treat. I was so taken with the understated beauty of your surroundings and I felt it being echoed in the spareness and confidence of your work. Am I reading too much into that, or has the desert landscape that you live in had an impact on your work?
James O'Keefe in his studio in the Mojave Desert.
JO: The desert takes getting used to. At first it can seem like a wasteland until you start to see it's hidden beauties. Small micro flowers, colorful rocks and the cactus that bloom in the spring. It is a place of vast vistas and rugged mountain ranges. It is not uncommon to have visibility of distant ranges 30 to 40 miles away.
My wife and I came to the small town of Joshua Tree on our way back to Oregon from Arizona. Joshua Tree is about 3 blocks long but has 3 Art galleries, a Natural Food store, a Thai restaurant, an Indian restaurant, and is just 3 miles from the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. Since establishing ourselves here it has influenced my paintings in many ways. The first thing you notice is the light, about 340 days a year of it. After living on the Oregon Coast for over 30 years, it was very bright. So when I built my studio I put modestly sized windows in it which gave me a more workable light.
"I think the desert is also a teacher of monumental and minimal concepts."
Other influences on painting from the Mojave desert is a changing sense of scale and space that begins to enter your work in very subtle ways. I think the desert is also a teacher of monumental and minimal concepts. You could also include understandings of balance and imbalance. I must also mention the quiet here. Quiet contributes greatly to my ability to focus on and contemplate my work, and that is quite a gift.
Work on the studio wall.
The S-F: I think of your work as existing in that wonderful space that sits between painting and sculpture. How do you see yourself- as a painter, a sculptor, or something else?
JO: I take your point, David. There probably are similarities between my paintings and some contemporary sculptures. I suppose I could point to the minimal angularities and the mono-color usage of these new paintings as related to sculpture, but overall I think of myself as a painter. I love that painting can still be an intimate and thought provoking experience for the viewer, like sitting down with a good book.
I am a painter who is led by ideas. First an idea, then a concept that is worked out in my sketchbook, and then the painting begins. I know some artists that start a painting and then begin to figure out on canvas what the painting is. I have worked like that in the past but now I like knowing more before I start. My paintings are non-objective and reductive in that I try to make them very simple. I want them to be clear enough for the mind of the viewer to rest comfortably in them, but complex enough for the viewer to maintain an interest in them. I choose placing my works on a wall directly in front of the viewer, and for this reason I call myself a painter.
"Open Painting," acrylic on panel, 25" x 32", 2020
The S-F: Who are the artists that inspired you in your formative years and who are you looking at now?
JO: When I think back to the early days of my interest in art, the first artist that comes to mind is Picasso. I found his portraits, and particularly his treatment of the face, the most interesting. Later on in life I found in many people that it was his depictions of the face that was not liked, but for me that was his genius.
Then there were the surrealists and out of those it would be Magritte that I still admire to this day. It was the curious shape of his mind and how he staked out his own very independent variation of surrealism. Above them all, for me, was Juan Miró. My wife and I flew to New York in 1995 just to see his retrospective at the MOMA. I have always admired the painter’s language that he invented and how he invested so much of his soul in each piece.
There are many others of course - Klee, Jasper Johns etc. - but since Covid the gallery scene is shut down and I just Instagram. Simon Callery and Susan Frecon are two very good artists I have encountered on Instagram.
"I must also mention the quiet here. Quiet contributes greatly to my ability to focus on and contemplate my work, and that is quite a gift."
S-F: What's next for you?
JO: Not much happening right now. Covid has pretty much shut down our galleries here in Joshua Tree. I have some pieces in Asher-Grey Gallery which is an online gallery out of Venice, CA. I may buy a forty foot shipping container and convert it into ½ gallery and ½ painting storage. We’ll see.
S-F: I can't wait to see that!
Below are more images of James O'Keefe's work. You can also find him...
- on Instagram @jamesokeefestudio
- at Asher-Grey Gallery
Practical and inspirational elements of studio life.
The other obsession.
Writing about art hints at what is there, but it almost always, and quite understandably, falls short. To stand in front of Laurie Danial’s work is a reminder of this. Experiencing her paintings feels like a non-verbal form of visual absorption; they just sort of pour into my eyes and are linked immediately and almost exclusively with my emotions. I still find myself thinking about the intellectual side of what Danial does- the way she coaxes the viewer to look this way or that with the curve of a shape; the way space opens up in her layered compositions; how she hints at something recognizable, only to pull back before it’s elusive sense of form has solidified into something real. In the end, however, I’m less concerned with naming exactly what it is that I’m looking at in Danial’s paintings than I am with simply being engaged with them.
For this installment of The Semi-Finalist I’m happy to present my interview with Portland, Oregon based artist Laurie Danial. Despite their inadequacy, both Danial and I will use lots of words to help give some insight into what makes her tick. And I highly recommend having authentic facetime with one of her paintings as soon as possible.
Talk Space, 2020, oil on panel, 36" x 36"
photo by Rebekah Johnson
The Semi-Finalist: Your path to painting is a bit unconventional. Can you talk about how you got started and what your early art career looked like?
Laurie Danial: I grew up in upstate New York in the 60's in a second-generation Italian household with minimal resources and few cultural interests. Despite that, our home was a visually interesting place, full of family artifacts and lots of sensory input. Drawing, painting, sewing, and whatever else I could actually get my hands on was basically how I survived childhood. By high school, although the concept of a studio practice had never occurred to me, it seems I had one.
Although I had intentions to go to art school after graduation, it was not meant to be. Ambivalent about higher education in general, my father, as well as most art departments back in the 70's, had little visionary bandwidth when it came to offering a woman a formal education in the arts. Consequently, I soon left home and took the path that many of us back then took--I went out west, first to the Bay Area.
Laurie Danial in her North Portland studio.
What could be regarded as unconventional came 15 years later. By then I had moved to Portland and started to get serious again about art school. I started to pursue classes and a year later I took the leap and enrolled in a degree program at PNCA (the Pacific Northwest College of Art), which back then was called the Museum School. I loved the foundation year. However, being an older student, I sometimes felt like I needed a more rigorous program. With that in mind—as well as still feeling financially insecure—I started to look for an alternative to the four-year program. Before dropping out of PNCA, I signed up for a second year of painting and, because I also wanted to learn how to make prints, I enrolled in a printmaking class taught by Jim Hibbard, a highly respected printmaker at Portland State. Somewhere in all of this, I took a class or two at Oregon School of Arts and Craft, as it was known back then, and a few summer intensives. Finally, I then threw myself at the mercy of the painting department at Reed College. Michael Knudson, the department head, allowed me to audit his painting class, and with that, access to a summer studio space.
Arms Length, 2020, oil on panel, 14" x 11"
photo by Rebekah Johnson
This was the long and winding road that was my art education, cobbled together over four years, at four different schools. I was antsy at that point, I wanted a studio practice, a career and a family, not necessarily in that order. Events would ultimately fall into place and soon thereafter I found my first real studio and joined a printmaking co-op where I spent over 15 years making prints. I also obtained representation at Quartersaw Gallery, which was a really fortunate opportunity for an artist such as myself so early in my career. Now I could continue to develop and exhibit alongside the many talented artists in my community.
"I also like to change the order of how I initially begin to build the surface, moving paint and shapes around, drawing and doodling, until something coalesces around structure and elements start to fall into place."
(Studio with Outside Heart, 2020, oil on panel, 15" x 13")
From a recent series of works on paper.
The S-F: I think of you as a painter that evolves slowly. You seem to dig in deep with a palette, with gestures and mark-making, allowing yourself to really explore all the possibilities that you can come up with. As a result, your paintings over time have a wonderful consistency to them. I could see one of them from across a room and know instantly: “Laurie Danial did that!” Talk about how you see your work developing.
LD: My work is slow to develop for sure. It’s not unusual for me to spend six months or even a year on a painting, so if consistency is showing up in the work, I’m glad. That just might be a testament to a process that involves a whole lot of trial and error. I try not to get too caught up in any particular strategy other than a few vague references, mostly having to do with color. I also like to change the order of how I initially begin to build the surface, moving paint and shapes around, drawing and doodling, until something coalesces around structure and elements start to fall into place.
"It’s not unusual for me to spend six months or even a year on a painting..."
Kings and Queens, 2020, oil on panel, 36" x 36"
photo by Rebekah Johnson
I once had a teacher tell me that I didn’t have to put everything I know into a single painting. That was a good piece of advice, because I tend to be compulsive in that way. That’s where erasure and editing come in. Buried in every painting are 50 other paintings. I’ve lost some good ones along the way, but it’s a process that most of the time leads me somewhere. A painting isn’t something I can know ahead of time; I have to find it, make it, and remake it over and over again until it begins to feel like it’s a “thing”, an entity that knows what it wants to be. I am less interested in reigning in beauty for beauty’s sake. If it happens, great, but I’m more interested in the prospect of discovering and experiencing something new.
"...I have never felt compelled to exile figuration from my work altogether."
The Messenger, 2020, oil on panel, 36" x 36"
photo by Rebekah Johnson
The S-F: In some of your recent work there are allusions to representation- the hint of an arm or folded cloth, the suggestion of a landscape. Where do these come from and how do they fit into your aesthetic vocabulary?
LD: As a kid, I had always loved to draw and render images. Later, while in school, I broadened my appreciation for line quality, looking at artists like Schiele, Klimt, and Degas, and in the many years that followed, I worked on a lot of line etchings. Some years back and still somewhat today, there has been a running dialogue scrutinizing the synthesis of abstraction and figuration in contemporary painting and the tension surrounding those artists that embrace both, rather than choosing one over the other. Popular catch phrases like, “With the juxtaposition of abstraction and figuration,” or “Hovering between abstraction and figuration,” have been used to cue the viewers to what many artists now consider a non-issue. I’ve used these types of phrases to describe my own work, but what was once considered a conceptual clash no longer seems terribly important. With that said, I am aware of how a representational element can hijack a narrative, but I have never felt compelled to exile figuration from my work altogether. One way or another it always pops in and I’m glad for it. I view it as an anchor for content or another vocabulary for experience or complexity. When the work seems to be adrift in painterly effects, I often randomly grab something from a book and just start drawing it into the painting.
Little Guy, 2020, oil on panel, 15" x 13"
photo by Rebekah Johnson
The S-F: I know that you have a hungry eye for art. Who influenced you in your early days and who are you currently looking at?
LD: In my teens, I mostly gravitated to abstraction. I was obsessed with Kandinsky and Paul Klee. The “spiritual in art” was a subject that they explored, and in those days, I was interested in that. The Post-impressionists, the New York School, de Kooning, Guston, Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Gorky, then Leon Golub, Rauschenberg. Larry Rivers, because he could draw. Later, Susan Rothenberg, David Hockney, and Diebenkorn. Really, there’s no end.
Installation view of Navigating in Place at Froelick Gallery.
Goya’s The Disasters of War and two books on Japanese printmaking are mainstays in my studio. Compositionally, they blow my mind. A few other artists (but honestly too many to mention): Thomas Nozkowski, Tomma Abts and painters like Albert Oehlen, Per Kirkeby, Joe Bradley. And in the last several years, so many great female abstract painters that have been enormously validating and influential: Mary Heilmann, Louise Fishman, Amy Sillman, Charlene Von Heyl, Dana Schutz, Jackie Saccoccio, and Cecily Brown to name just a few. And lately, following a renewed interest in pattern, I’ve been looking at contemporary Australian aboriginal painting. Apart from that, there are times when I attempt to turn a blind eye to the current trends in contemporary painting, especially when I’m actively working. Images online are so seductive and I want to be careful not to completely lose myself in everyone else’s business.
“Content emerges from the act of making, and not the other way around.” -Per Kirkeby
(image: recent works on paper)
The S-F: The quote you shared with me when I was in your studio really resonated with me: “Content emerges from the act of making, and not the other way around.” That's an almost mystical -and maybe controversial- thing to say. Talk about that.
LD: “Content emerges from the act of making, and not the other way around” has been a fallback axiom of mine for some time. There are so many big and small aspects to making a painting--instinctual, analytical, and conscious and unconscious--that it seems nearly impossible to verbally categorize the process. Fundamentally, until I begin to engage with the materials, I can’t realize an outcome.
The artist who speaks to this is the Danish painter, Per Kirkeby. In his interviews and in the film, “We Build Upon the Ruins,” which is another metaphor that I love, he says, “It’s not enough to find a thing of beauty, painting is layer upon layer, and it is in that process content and structure slowly emerge and develop.” Further to that point and loosely paraphrasing, he goes on to say, “You can’t begin with structure. The right structure slowly emerges from the painting, content comes into being as structure comes into being.” I hang my hat on that, especially when I’m struggling with a painting. Controversial? I suppose for a conceptually-based artist, but for the process-driven investigator like myself, it makes a lot of sense.
Danial in her studio.
The S-F: What’s next for you?
LD: Apart from working for the next show, in terms of experiments, I currently want to work on slowing down my critical eye. I often have a knee-jerk response to something that I have just painted because it is all too new and unfamiliar. I jump in and change or destroy whatever progress I’ve made before I’ve had enough time to live with it. I’m also interested in working with a limited color palette. I want to see how simplifying my color range will shift my focus from color relationships to spatial relationships, and any other surprises that may arise from the experiment.
Below are more shots of Laurie Danial's studio and work. You can also find her...
at her website: https://lauriedanial.com/
on the Froelick Gallery website: froelickgallery.com/
on Instagram: @lauriedanial
Cock of the Walk, 2020, oil on panel, 26" x 23 1/2"
photo by Rebekah Johnson
Installation view of Your Garden is Their Den, 2020, oil on panel,
diptych with each panel measuring 60" x 36" (overall 60" x 72")
photo by Rebekah Johnson
Installation view; left: The Courtship, 2020, oil on canvas, 20" x 16"
right: Mr. Shuffle, 2020, oil on canvas, 20" x 16"
photo by Rebekah Johnson
Recent works on paper in the studio.
Rebekah Johnson's photography website can be found at: https://rebekah-johnson.format.com/home
On a recent trip to southern California I had a morning open in my schedule and one goal in mind: seeing the Yucca Valley Material Lab in person. I'd heard rumors about its sun-bleached beauty and seen pictures on social media, but none of that had prepared me for experiencing the remarkable setting that Heidi Schwegler has been developing on a two acre site that sits halfway down a dirt road in the desert. I only had a few hours to spend there, but what I saw was a residency and teaching facility that encourages both rigor and experimentation as well as an artist that is learning how to start over while remaining dedicated to her own artistic process.
Below is an exchange between Schwegler and myself as well as photos of her work and the residency that she runs.
Schwegler's work on the grounds of the YVML.
The artist with one of her many muses.
The Semi-Finalist: Your decision to leave Portland after 20-odd years and to reinvent yourself in the desert is both bold and inspiring. Talk about committing to doing something new and what the early days of the Yucca Valley Material Lab were like.
Heidi Schwegler: Immediately following graduate school in 1998, I was fortunate to receive the studio manager position in the Metalsmithing Department at Oregon College of Art and Craft (OCAC), along with a few adjunct classes. I dedicated myself to OCAC, said yes to every opportunity and what began as a piece-meal job over time turned into a full-time teaching position in several departments. When the MFA in Applied Craft + Design (AC+D) was launched in 2009 (a joint graduate program between OCAC and Pacific Northwest College of Art), I began mentoring and teaching classes there. By 2013 I was promoted to Associate Chair of AC+D and ultimately Chair in 2015, where I remained until leaving Portland in 2018.
Originally "...a two-acre junkyard on the Mesa in Yucca Valley," the YVML is now an oasis for artists, rabbits, and more than a couple of Joshua trees.
I loved every minute of my multifarious career at OCAC, mostly because my position continually evolved. In a way, I remained a student, as it was important to me that I constantly discover and learn through my job and studio practice. In the AC+D program, having administrative experience was surprisingly inspiring. However, after 3 years I began to crave something new -- I no longer wanted to have the answers, I wanted to be a beginner again. It was around 2017 that I began to think about what this could mean. I admit there have been moments in my life in which I have made impulsive choices. During an overnight stay in Joshua Tree, CA in 2018, my husband and I suddenly put an offer on a house. This was not a planned event by any means. The sale fell through (thankfully), however three days later we found the house that is now our home. A two-acre junkyard on the Mesa in Yucca Valley. It needed work but it was a mid-century cinder block ranch with tons of potential, surrounded by Joshua Trees, creosote, cholla and home to jackrabbits, coyotes, road runners, lizards and rattlesnakes. A complete 180 from the Pacific Northwest. As soon as our offer was accepted, I began writing the business plan for what is now called Yucca Valley Material Lab, an artist residency and public workshop program based in the hi-desert.
The view from the water tower.
To give you a little bit more context, during my time at OCAC I was also dedicated to maintaining a full-time studio practice. Because of this, I attended residencies at MacDowell, Yaddo, 18th St Arts Center (Santa Monica), Red Gate in Beijing, Anderson Ranch Art Center and Nes (Iceland). In 2016 I was awarded a Bullseye Glass residency in Portland, which gave me a month of full-time access to their facilities, technical support and a $1500 material stipend. Glass was absolutely new for me and my success rate was about 30%. When I got over the shame of failure, I began to realize that this humbling experience had completely ignited my practice. Especially when I began to realize that the accidents were much more poetic that my original intentions! I tell you this because it has laid the foundation for YVML. This is a technical residency much like Bullseye, in that I invite artists, writers, composers and performers who are interested in learning something new for 2 – 3 weeks. And I am incredibly proud that we are now partners with Bullseye as they generously give the artists in residence material discounts and stipends.
Outdoor studio spaces and the glass grinder.
S-F: What can a resident or student expect when they come here?
HS: Artists in residence and students of the workshops can expect to be a part of a supportive community that encourages curiosity and material exploration in a Quonset facility surrounded by the desert landscape. Students are mostly local while others drive in from Palm Springs and LA (with more and more travelling in from other states). All of the workshops are geared towards the beginner, though we also cater to those with more experience. I have four campers on the property, so if they need lodging and if one is available, it’s always an affordable option for them. But being so close to Joshua Tree National Park, there are tons of Airbnb’s in the area. The artists in residence get priority over the campers: a 1977 Wilderness camper and a 2001 Nomad with private kitchenettes, showers and toilets, and a 1971 31’ Airstream and vintage Terry camper with private kitchenettes and toilets and a shared outdoor shower. Sometimes it seems it’s harder for the artist to say goodbye to their camper than the studio! Each residency lasts 1 – 3 weeks and the artists receive three hours of instruction. This gives them ample time for exploration in the studio and the surrounding region and plenty of solitude.
A resident residence- the tricked out 1971, 31' Airstream.
S-F: You mentioned wanting to offer the opportunity to work with diverse materials to a diverse group of people. How is YVML meeting this goal? And how do you plan to build on what you're already doing?
HS: In the beginning I was curious about inviting not only visual artists but those from other creative disciplines such as writers, composers and performers. I strongly believe that learning something new, and using your hands to directly explore material, image and form will allow you to reconsider habitual approaches in the creative process. Whether the resident continues with what they discover in their time at YVML isn’t a concern. I’m more interested in providing a platform through which they can take a few chances and “dent” their practice per se. If you have an opportunity to throw your process off kilter, this experience can garner inspiration and fresh insight.
As attention is being drawn to social movements such as Black Lives Matter and #metoo, and as we become more aware of the prevalence of deep political strife, I realize that YVML must be actively responsive as a young non-profit and community-based platform. Rather than rush the process, however, I feel that it is important that our response is genuine and thoughtful in order to have a sustainable and positive affect within the community. This has motivated me to begin to investigate the diversity already inherent within the region. Since the beginning of the pandemic I have been reaching out to organizations and educational institutions that may have not yet heard of YVML or whose constituents don’t have the financial means to engage with the program. Currently I am in conversation with Copper Mountain College and Los Angeles Valley College to set up several scholarships for their students. There is a relatively large Marine Corp Base in 29 Palms, a neighboring town. Because of this I have been working with Mil-Tree, a local non-profit, whose mission is “to bring veterans, active duty and civilians together through arts and dialogue to help transform the wounds of war”. I would like to have the means to offer a fully funded workshop for veterans by the end of 2021, and I will be kickstarting a fundraiser in the next month to make this and the college-based scholarships a reality.
Please keep your eyes out for our Instagram blasts on this endeavor, I’d love your support!
Schwegler's work on the grounds of the residency: "...I acknowledge that objects, whether art objects or otherwise, have been issued a conceptual death sentence the moment they enter the world."
S-F: Your own work is often about combining an appreciation for the fragility of life with materials and processes that are meant to withstand the test of time. Can you talk about your impulse to make sense of these seemingly opposite concepts?
HS: Most of my work addresses the potential for aesthetic pleasure and conceptual content found in the discards of our everyday landscape. Surveying the ignored, the abandoned, and the ruined, I acknowledge that objects, whether art objects or otherwise, have been issued a conceptual death sentence the moment they enter the world. However well-made or well-intentioned, the stuff of the world is inexorably marred by this finality. At its grandest, my work seeks to create new ways of thinking about ordinary objects and their inevitable fragmentation.
As mentioned above, I travel for residencies, and through these experiences I learned a few things about myself. As a tourist, I find that I am not interested in the designated ruin that is forever maintained and held in suspension of time. Instead, I am drawn to the peripheral ruin; the detritus that delineates the fringe of the attraction. I compulsively take note of the stuff caught in the chain link, shoved between buildings, rolling down the street and slumped in the gutter. A crushed paper cup, a single green flip flop, a twig in a hairbrush, a flattened mayonnaise packet; scattered across the sidewalk, dirtied and damaged, they play a part in this new narrative as they now float together in a living death. We recognize them for what they once were. They no longer do what they once did, and yet, they are still here; they haven’t been hauled to the dump.
Ironically, as the artificial object slides towards its organic state, I often feel that this is when it truly becomes one of a kind. The fragment, bearing its cumulative damage, can appear more loaded with meaning than when it was intact and a part of the whole. In 2002, at the Metropolitan Museum, a five-hundred year old marble sculpture of Adam fell from its unstable pedestal to the floor, shattering into hundreds of fragments. The museum was faced with a choice: either leave it broken or commit to a restoration, as if the event had never occurred. In the former case, suspending the shattered parts with an elaborate scaffolding system would render the accident as its defining moment. Instead, the museum’s conservationists and forensic specialists spent the next ten years painstakingly repairing the artwork, returning it to its near-original state. Things break. They no longer do what they were designed to do. Surface damage and wear and tear are visual cues of a thing’s history, its former life of use and purpose. My work amends broken things by recasting and embellishing their materiality. I am reproducing their original ordinariness and reorienting their presence in terms of aesthetic value.
" I seek to synthesize my own experience with the classical paradox that humans are both a part of and apart from nature."
S-F: I was really moved by your sculptures that are installed on the YVML property. The relative sparseness of the desert functions in a way that is similar to a clean, well lit gallery. By that I mean that there's a contrast that exists and it allows the work to be seen on it's own terms. In that setting, however, it's also impossible not to think about how the sculptures relate to their surroundings. Their humor and banality are front and center, with more than a hint of the apocalyptic lurking right behind them.
So...this is just a long-winded way for me to ask you how your new surroundings are affecting your process and ideas. Talk about that.
HS: Shortly after moving here, I quickly developed a connection to the numerous and varied creatures of an alien and difficult landscape: black ravens, cactus wrens, cotton- tail rabbits, coyote, green Mojave rattlesnakes, gopher snakes, great horned owls, jack rabbits, kangaroo rats, lizards, owls, pigeons, quail, roadrunners, squirrels. This experience and the impact of the surrounding desert has inspired my current work under the title Zoonosis, which addresses my relationship with the wild animals living and dying on our two-acre compound.
Zoonosis is the process by which infectious diseases are passed from animals to humans through vectors that carry pathogens. Notable zoonotic diseases include anthrax, cat scratch fever, dengue fever, human immunodeficiency virus, malaria, and swine flu. Though there is little chance of contracting a zoonotic illness from our desert neighbors, I have testified to a kind of emotional zoonosis through these encounters. I seek to synthesize my own experience with the classical paradox that humans are both a part of and apart from nature: killing an animal is when we become most animal; witnessing the death of an animal is when we become most human.
Along with Zoonosis, I have been pulling older pieces out of storage in order to install them among the chollas, Joshua Trees and creosote. It’s been incredibly refreshing to see this older work in a new context that is very different from the expected white walled institution and market.
"It’s been incredibly refreshing to see this older work in a new context that is very different from the expected white walled institution and market."
S-F: What's next for both you and the residency?
HS: As if building up a compound and starting a non-profit were not enough, I have recently started a 64 square foot micro-project space on the property called Lazy Eye Gallery. I had lazy eye in both eyes as a child, and I love the seemingly oppositional relationship of the visual arts and a wandering eye. The gallery will be based in the original water tower which has been updated with a hand cast glass skylight, interior lighting and a new roof. The roof of the building is now a watch tower with incredible views.
Because of the pandemic, our workshops have nearly come to a standstill, but the residency program has exploded. We are in a rural area with low numbers in terms of the virus, and with only a handful of people on the property at a time, YVML is perceived as a safe place for artists to set their roots for a few weeks. We are now booked up until May 2021!
As for me and my studio practice, I never stop making and exploring. I am currently working on a relatively large cast concrete water feature in the shape of a crushed kiddie pool, in which distorted glass squirrels squirt water at each other from various and unexpected orifices.
The Lazy Eye Gallery will be housed in the original water tower on the YVML propery.
Below are some professional shots of Heidi Schwegler's work and the residency grounds.
You can also find Heidi...
on Instagram @heidi_schwegler and @yuccavalleymaterial;
on her website: www.heidischwegler.com;
in an online exhibit with Mark Moore Fine Art: https://bit.ly/2IJnHfX;
on the YVML website: https://www.yuccavalleymaterial.org/residencies
In a break from studio visits, this entry of The Semi-Finalist centers on Rachael Zur’s tactile and moving show, “Artifacts of Affection,” at Gallery 114. The exhibit showcases her willingness to be fearless and tender as well as her ability to be experimental and grounded in tradition. I’ve become familiar with Zur’s work over the last year or so and I’m always drawn to the way her shaped paintings of everyday objects take on an otherworldly presence and defy immediate categorization. The mix of ordinary objects with disembodied arms, wings and organs suggests stories and relationships that I want to know more about.
Ghosts I Make About You, plaster, wood, acrylic, spray paint, resin, 2019
Zur is also a poet, and I thought it would be fitting to start off this interview with a poem that implies through language something similar to what she’s getting at with her inventive and expressive paintings.
905 Second Street
By Rachael Zur
in the shed, crooked nails left to be hammered out
tell me of that person’s life during the Great Depression
I found a wooden block in there with “be my valentine” carved on it
I kept it, because its clumsiness felt familiar
under the house my husband found a gas pipe plugged with a wine cork
I guess this is how people solve problems
when I painted over the wallpaper in the bedroom
I could see that there was a second layer of wallpaper beneath it
our relationship with homes is symbiotic
the building shelters our bodies, and we slow the house’s demise which comes long after us
The Semi-Finalist: When I was at your show, "Artifacts of Affection," I was thinking about how fearless you are with materials. Usually I can tell if something is a painting, a sculpture, etc., but I couldn’t immediately figure out what your objects were made of. There’s a blending of materials and sensibilities in this show that’s really exciting; can you talk about how you arrived at this stylistic choice?
Rachael Zur: It’s probably helpful for me to first explain what the paintings on the walls are made out of; often enough, when looking at a photograph, people assume the work is entirely ceramic. However, the forms are cut out of corrugated plastic or wood and then wrapped in plaster gauze. Most often I paint into the plaster while it is still wet, with acrylic or spray paint. Sometimes I attach a ceramic piece or fabric into a larger work, but the plaster is wonderful for blending the edges between materials.
The stylistic choices that I’ve arrived at now were born out of wanting to hold together both an enthusiasm for multiple ways of handling materials and media, and my love for painting. For a couple of years, I’ve been interested in my paintings occupying a space between sculpture and installation—while primarily being in the language of painting. Elizabeth Murray, Frank Stella, and Sam Gilliam have been influences for me in thinking about the structures that can hold a painting. While I’m invested in constructing irregular structures to paint on, I’m equally interested in how a simple contour line can convey a form on a flat surface.
1936-2019, plaster, acrylic, spray paint, resin, fabric, 2019; detail of 1936-2019.
"The stylistic choices that I’ve arrived at now were born out of wanting to hold together both an enthusiasm for multiple ways of handling materials and media, and my love for Painting."
S-F: I saw that Amy Bay described your show as “tender” in a post on Instagram. I thought that was such a perfect word to sum up your subject matter. Tell me about your work's relationship to people, domestic spaces, and memory.
RZ: Traces of the love that people have for each other lingers long after they are gone, it’s something that can be felt in old buildings or domestic objects. I’m interested in how affection can be held in the most humble and outdated objects.
I am specifically drawn to depicting the objects in living rooms, whose predecessor in pre-Civil War America is the Parlor Room. Out of the many functions that the Parlor Room served, one of them was preparing the bodies of loved ones for burial. I do find a tenderness in those preparations being carried out at home. Lacking those customs, I’ve turned to honoring those whom I’ve lost through depicting items from their living rooms. I have allowed for the spaces belonging to different loved ones to merge in the work, and as my grief eased, I saw that I was in fact making work about the affection held in homes belonging to (mostly) women who had profoundly impacted my life.
Immemorial Couch, plaster, wood, netting, acrylic, spray paint, resin, fabric, 2019
I’m also interested in how memory relates to the function of seeing. Much of what is seen is reduced to an abstraction in the eye before it is understood by the brain, the brain compares the abstraction to memories of similar, known objects in order to see the new object. It’s a very precarious process! The white forms painted on the walls are abstractions of the plaster paintings. At the same time, those forms increase in their legibility when the viewer looks at the works hanging on adjacent walls.
Longing Syndrome II, plaster, wood, acrylic, spray paint, resin, 2020
S-F: I’m always intrigued by artists that can turn a gallery into a theatrical setting for their show. I don’t think of you as making installation art (maybe I’m wrong!), but you’ve managed to transform Gallery 114 into a space that amplifies the themes that run through your work. How did this come about?
RZ: To borrow from what you said about the theatrical setting, color sets the stage. The lavender walls allow the silhouettes of the plaster paintings to be very legible up close, but fainter from further away. The painted walls definitely amplify the main theme of the show: the residue of lives lived and the affection that can still be felt in humble objects. The lavender color shifts from grey to pink depending on where one stands and in relation to the works that it's near. The shifting in color works well with the elusive feeling of work that holds both the presence and absence of an individual.
"...color sets the stage."
After developing the visual language for this body of work, I began looking for ways in to make works that related to pieces I had already made. I thought about how these works could exist both singularly and directly next to each other. Leading up to the show, I spent a lot time in my studio placing these works near each other at different heights to see how that impacted how I moved from piece to piece.
I don’t want to take anything for granted with how a show is installed. I consider the space fully and respond to the architectural features that I will be forced to work with. One of my favorite moments in the show is the placement of Small Ghost End Table above the vent in the gallery wall. The vent is not really something that can be ignored, so I embraced it, placing the work above it as if it had just landed there.
Small Ghost End Table, plaster, corrugated platic, acrylic, spray paint, resin, 2019; Rachael Zur at Gallery 114.
"The vent is not really something that can be ignored, so I embraced it, placing the work above it as if it had just landed there."
Installation view with Matriarch (foreground) and A Place to Rest Your Crown (middle ground); wall drawings.
S-F: I know that you’ve had a chance to work with some really amazing people as part of your recent MFA program. Can you talk a bit about that as well as your background, education or any other formative experiences that you think are relevant?
RZ: My bachelor’s degree is from the College of Creative Studies at UC Santa Barbara. I completed my MFA in the Low Residency MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago last summer. I learned so much from each teacher that I worked with in grad school and feel very fortunate to have studied with each of them. I worked most closely with Jessica Jackson Hutchins and Kristan Kennedy--my mentors for the parts of the year I was in Portland. Kristan helped me to move my painting practice away from rectilinear supports, and to consider how works can relate to each other in an exhibition. While working with Jessica, I was building sculptures to hold my late father’s ceramics. It was a challenging project emotionally, but also formally, because my father’s work was already complete and in an aesthetic that doesn’t immediately pair well with my own. While working with Jessica, I was able to better understand what my standards are with regards to art making, and to tune in to my own voice.
In addition to my formal education, my father’s ceramics left an indelible mark on me as an artist. My dad passed away when I was an infant. I grew up longing to connect with him. His ceramics were a way for me to have a connection. I could trace where his hands had been on a piece, or spend time looking at the work to learn how he built it. At an early age, I learned that an art object can tell a viewer a lot about its maker--this is one reason why I’m so invested in texture and leaving traces of my touch, because that’s part of the legacy that my father left for me.
The Other Side of the Door, metal doorknocker, wood, plaster, gauze, acrylic, spray paint, 2020; wall drawing.
S-F: You also write poetry and have some on your website under the appropriately understated tab: "unseen labor." I think it's so interesting when an artist has a strong connection to language because it seems like such a different part of the brain! Did these interests - the visual and the literary- develop side by side or at different points in your life?
RZ: It’s a very different part of the brain. Having a writing practice is a recent development. I’ve struggled with dyslexia since I was a child and that has made it difficult to have confidence in my writing. Initially I was hesitant to go to grad school because I was terrified of the writing component. Gregg Bordowitz, who is the director of the Low Residency MFA Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, told me during my first semester in the program that he thought writing could become an important aspect of my practice. At the time, I completely disagreed with him. After working with Pamela Sneed and Corrine Fitzpatrick, I found ways of working with language that felt akin to my visual art practice by finding odd couplings of ideas, and by being earnest and direct.
Even the wall color surrounding the title of Zur's Gallery 114 show was carefully considered.
S-F: What’s next for you?
RZ: This December I’m in a group show called Domestic Landscapes curated by Carissa Burkett at Chehalem Cultural Center, in Newburg, Oregon. My husband and I are homeschooling our three kids this year and I will be taking them with me on a residency at Stay Home Gallery in Paris, Tennessee in spring of 2021. I have a two person show with Ruth Ross in June of 2021 at Valencia College in Orlando, Florida.
You can see more or Rachael Zur's work at https://www.rachaelzur.com/ and on Instagram at @rachaelzur.
Below are a few more images of Zur's show at Gallery 114, courtesy of the artist.
Work by: Altoon Sultan, Andrea Borsuk, Ashlynn Browning, Benjamin Terrell, Karen Schifano, Tom Bunnell
(in alphabetical order by first name)
The painters that I am drawn to all seem to have a few things in common, even when they’re not exclusively painting. They make work that insists the visual is as intellectual as the verbal. Their paintings demand real looking, the kind that only comes from spending time with an artwork. Their work refuses to sacrifice beauty for the sake of content. And, to loosely paraphrase a line from Karen Schifano’s artist statement, they are abstract painters that flirt with narrative elements and representational painters that fully embrace the abstract qualities in their work.
When it became clear a few months ago that I wouldn’t be able to visit studios due to Covid-19, I decided to try and get artwork to come to me. I reached out to six artists whose work both inspires me and makes me think about paint’s ceaseless adaptability in the hands of creative people. “Here and There, Mostly There,” The Semi-Finalist’s first summer group issue, is the result of their willingness to share images of recent work and a few thoughts about their process and subject matter. I also asked them to describe -if relevant - how the pandemic has changed their approach to making art. I am both thrilled with and grateful for the thoughtful contributions of Altoon Sultan (VT), Andrea Borsuk (CA), Ashlynn Browning (NC), Ben Terrell (OR), Karen Schifano (NY) and Tom Bunnell (DC). Whether their work is engaged with representation or abstraction, social issues or the aesthetic investigations of a quiet poet, these six artists are continuing to make compelling and meaningful work at a time when we need it most.
Yellow Curves, 2020, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 9" x 12"
Above and Below, 2020, painted porcelain, 9 7/8" x 12 5/8 x 1/2"
Transparent, 2020, dyed hooked wool, 16 1/4" x 14 3/4"
I work on paintings and drawings at a table upstairs in my house, under a skylight. This isn’t because of Covid-19: I’ve been working here for about 10 years, since I began making small paintings and no longer needed to be in my large studio building. I work on relief sculpture downstairs in my kitchen. The virus hasn’t changed my work process in any way.
In my various mediums, my work explores a range of imagery from representation to abstraction; with textiles being non-objective; paintings closer to representation with their clear form and light; and relief sculpture, paradoxically, in between.
- Altoon Sultan
Sultan's studio in The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
Without the Slightest Sound, 2020, oil on wood panel, 24” x 36"
A Silver Lining to All that Darkness, 2020, oil on wood panel, 24” x 36”
These paintings reveal my own efforts and tensions to quiet the mind and acknowledge that this moment is here. I am trying to stay in it and rise above it. When I began this series of paintings, I was thinking about my own discomfort in a world that is hurting.
I see the figure as a barometer of this moment and its physical contortions as a reaction to the irrational and fluctuating temperature of our situation. Existing within a toxic “garden”-- a place of unfamiliar forms and fluids— requires balance, patience, acquiescence, hope, positivity, humor, and basic survival “snacks” (such as air and water) to endure challenging periods in our history.
Drawings and watercolors on Borsuk's studio walls in Santa Cruz, CA.
Untitled, 2020, oil on wood
Untitled, 2020, oil on wood
Untitled, 2020, oil and pastel on wood
For the past few months I've been continuing to work in oil on wood panel but have also been incorporating oil pastel to get more gestural, drawing line qualities into the mix. I think it's been giving some new life and energy to the geometric forms. I'm going to continue working with this organic/geometric hybrid which for me speaks to the control and calculated decisions that go into the paintings, along with the freer, more intuitive side that ultimately leads the process.
All of this work is very new and untitled thus far...but they range in size 10" x 8" to 20" x 16."
Browning's studio walls in Raleigh, NC.
Paperbacks, 2020, oil on panel
Guston , 2020, oil on panel
Doig, 2020, oil on panel
My father was given a Cherokee name at birth but changed it legally when he turned eighteen.
Life like art is a process of naming and renaming.
Soon after, he traded his .22 caliber rifle to a Pawnee friend named Myron Echohawk for a Corona No.3 folding typewriter.
That exchange started my father on his life long path as a writer.
There is a relationship to who we are and the things we collect.
Lately I’ve been painting my old LP's, books and Indian trade blankets.
Art like life is a process of forgetting and remembering.
I paint them for their objectness, for their spirit and so that I might recall my original name.
Terrell in his studio outside of Eugene, Oregon.
Yes, Go, 2020, flashe on canvas, 36" x 28"
Inner Limits, 2020, flashe on canvas, 36" x 28"
Wholely, 2020, flashe on canvas, 36" x 28"
My work over the last few years has jumped between reductive images of simple iconic shapes, and a series that is more pointedly concerned with race relations. Even though those issues are in the news right now, I am actually feeling more drawn to shapes that reflect a place that is timeless and beyond contingencies. The pandemic has drawn me inwards again.
Schifano's studio walls in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, NY.
Dark Gem, 2019, oil on canvas, 60" x 64"
Extra Viti, 2019, oil on canvas, 60" x 64"
Fortune Teller, 2020, oil on canvas, 58" x 60"
In these most recent paintings (last two years) I have been allowing for different patterns and impulses to coexist in the painting. It's not a new idea, but it feels right as a direction currently. All these observed and fragmented systems in our lives! The paintings are about these systems. Some are repressive, some are comical and some are subliminal.
Bunnell's DC studio.