I first met Amy Bay about a year ago when I attended one of her ART HOUR discussions at Private Places, an exhibition space in northeast Portland. The show, Teeth and Consequences, was both thoughtfully curated and rough around the edges in all the right ways. It was an exhibit that avoided easy ideas about beauty and instead celebrated rawness mixed with a personalized approach to craft that I'm often drawn to. A glass cast of cat hair by Heidi Schwegler, for example, deftly juggled being banal, gross and funny in a piece that couldn't have been more than 7" x 9". It's a work that crawled under my skin and it's still there 12 almost months later.
(above: I Am Curious, oil and marble dust on canvas, 18"x19", 2019)
Over the course of the Art Hour, Amy had us talking about the show in a way that cracked it open and allowed me to peer in and see it in a new light. Every member of our small group was offering up insights that I'm sure I would not have made on my own. Amy, a skilled teacher as well as a dedicated artist, pulled this out of us.
I bring this up because it all seems relevant to the work that Amy Bay is doing in her studio. She questions beauty without completely disregarding it and she is interested in carving out a rough, expressive style that is both physical and intellectual. Below are some photos of her work and a short written interview that she was kind enough to do with Semi-Finalist.
(the artist Amy Bay)
SEMI-FINALIST: In an era of tumultuous politics, quickly transforming technologies, and an increasingly warm planet, you’ve recently been making flower paintings. Talk about that.
AMY BAY: Flowers and other decorative imagery have come in and out of my work over the years. One of my first paintings, even before art school, was of a giant messy flower in encaustic. A few teachers and mentors openly discouraged me from pursuing this type of imagery so I always felt that it wasn’t valid subject matter. In 2016, I felt a kind of urgency about going back to flowers. I had a sudden awareness that women didn’t really matter as much as I had thought, which compelled me to use overtly feminine imagery in my work. Flowers are so closely linked to women- socially, art historically, etc., it felt right to unapologetically embrace them and all of their associations.
(detail of I Am Curious)
S-F: The work of yours that I know best is from your show at Melanie Flood Projects: “Yes Please Thank You.” When I was doing a deeper dive on your website, however, I was surprised and kind of thrilled to see how much of your past is rooted in abstraction. How did the transformation take place?
AB: I had been making these grid paintings that were heavily worked - with maximal color and body and about as much chaos as a grid can hold. I was trying to infuse some imperfect quality into the structure of the grid -- trying to make it more flawed and carry more meaning. I would pair paintings with titles that pointed to intimate email exchanges or bits of conversations or lyrics from the songs of my girlhood and teenage years -- basically things that functioned as carriers of sentiment for me. I ultimately realized that much of this was lost on the viewer and it’s another reason that I returned to the flowers. They have always been carriers of sentiment. But they also have a not-so-happy history for women. As a “serious artist” I felt I was supposed to hate them because they are beautiful and frivolous and easy. So I started to integrate them with the grids and they kinda took over. Elements of the grid can still be seen in a lot of the paintings -- sometimes a trellis-like structure in the background, a floating diamond, or a diamond-shaped center of a flower. I haven't completely let go of it. The way I use it now is much more fluid -- it can still function as an organizing structure at times, but it can become a motif or embellishment within the composition as well. It's not as static and authoritative that way. But the paintings always lean towards abstract concerns even though there are recognizable forms in them.
(Top: Every Morning You Greet Me, oil and marble dust on canvas, 11"x11", 2019
Bottom: Another Green World, oil, graphite powder and marble dust on linen, 18"x19", 2019)
(resources and materials)
S-F: I’m interested in knowing more about the decorative sources that you draw on for your paintings. Are there time periods or regions in the world that you feel specifically connected to? Do you see yourself lifting directly from existing artworks, or are they simply starting points, springboards for your own ideas?
AB: I sample and borrow imagery from greeting cards, wall coverings, textiles, still lives and such. I love patterns and always have -- it’s actually what led me to the grid in the first place! Sometimes I just pick a flower form or a pattern because it’s beautiful or strange and I feel compelled to render it in paint - the compulsion to do this can be very strong. I’m particularly interested in Early American craft traditions like Fraktur, theorem painting and embroidery. These were some of the only educational options for young girls for a huge part of our history. While that makes me feel really angry, I am also moved by the sentiment behind these objects and the ways they record familial relationships and the deeply held beliefs of the women who made them. They are markers of birth and death and love and I think that is powerful and important stuff.
(Left: La Foule (front view), oil, graphite powder, and marble dust on unstretched burlap, 11"x11", 2018
Right: Fancy Fool, oil and marble dust on unstretched linen, 11"x11", 2019)
I’m not illustrating any ideas about the flowers, I’m just interested in their history, their forms and what they can conjure up for people. I’m always probing at beauty and the picturesque and wondering where they end and begin. Decorative imagery has gotten such a bad rap and I really don’t understand why.
(Last Dance Last Chance, oil and marble dust on canvas, 19"x18" 2019)
S-F: In past conversations about your work you’ve alluded to the fact that you have a love/hate relationship with elements of painting. Can you talk about that tension and how you try (or don’t try) to resolve it?
AB: I came to painting late -- after 20+ years of working with lots of different media. I just felt somehow that painting was not mine. Part of it was temperament; I felt out of control when I painted and did not like that feeling when I was younger. But I also didn’t see many women painters in the history of painting, or in contemporary art. It’s hard to envision following a path when you don’t see yourself reflected in it.
Now I see myself as a painter. I am fully committed to the idea of medium specificity and diving deeply into the history, techniques and critical dialog surrounding painting. And that chaos that I mentioned is something that I now embrace. Maybe it has come with maturity, but I can weather the ups and downs. Not knowing where a painting is headed can be very sustaining to me, even while it can be terrifying!
(moremoremore, oil, marble dust, graphite powder and glitter on canvas, 29"x30")
-"And I'm also pretty smitten with glitter..."
AB (continued): That said, I do value experimentation with other media. I find that I have trouble always sticking with painting on a traditional substrate, so I sometimes branch out to unstretched burlap, or wooden blocks or the wall. And I’m also pretty smitten with glitter, which winds up in many of my paintings. This kind of play keeps me from getting too set in my ways.
(Here I Am Where I Must Be, graphite on paper, 9"x12", 2018)
S-F: Who or what are your influences? Are they contemporary, long dead, or somewhere in between.
AB: I’m going to give you a big, sprawling list of women painters -- my foremothers! It feels important to name them. Some have just recently surfaced from obscurity, some are new, some well-known and some are probably younger than I am. Some don’t paint exclusively. They are in no particular order:
Florine Stettheimer, Hilma af Klint, Paula Modhersohn-Becker, Carol Rama, Nicole Eisenman, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Dana Schutz, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Lynne Woods Turner, Alma Thomas, Vanessa Bell, Agnes Martin, Anni Albers, Gunta Stoltz, Anne Truitt, Susanna Coffey, Lois Dodd, Loie Hollowell, Shara Hughes, Mary Heilmann, Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner, Laura Owens, Howardina Pindell, Gina Beavers, Cheyenne Julien, Amy Sillman, Katherine Bradford, Rose Wiley, Sylvia Sleigh, Moira Dryer, Frida Kahlo, Alice Neel, Summer Wheat, Holly Coulis, Sonia Delaunay, Barbara Rossi, Gladys Nilsson, Anne Vallayer-Coster, Rachel Ruysch, Lynda Benglis, Yayoi Kusama, Sarah Cain, Rebecca Morris, Alicia Gibson, Vaginal Davis, Susan Bee, Joan Snyder, Alice Tippit, Varvara Stepanova, Christina Quarles, Janet Sobel, Maia Cruz Palileo, Pat Passlof, Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, Joanne Greenbaum, Jenny Saville, Joan Mitchell, Keltie Ferris, Judith Linhares, Pamela Fraser, Charline von Heyl, Deborah Kass, Clarity Haynes, Brenda Goodman, Louise Fishman, Jay Defeo, Maria Lassnig, Etel Adnan, Polly Apfelbaum, Vija Celmins, Miriam Schapiro, Joan Semmel
S-F: I love that list! Our interests definitely overlap and you’ve also named a few artists that I’ve never heard of. I need to sit down with a computer and do some research.
What’s next for you?
AB: I have a few works on paper that were just in The Barker Hangrrr at the Other Places Art Fair in San Pedro, CA, but I’m still getting back into the groove in my studio after my show at Melanie Flood Projects last summer. Painting requires so much time and I’m trying to stay open and see what unfolds as I work. I’m also following all the impulses that come to me, even if they don’t totally make sense within the work. Some I will likely abandon after a while, but I just need to let myself do it all.
You can see more of Amy's work and nerd out on her CV at HTTP://WWW.AMYBAY.COM/ .
(flowers, flowers, flowers)
(Below: more Bay)
Installation View, 'Yes Please Thank You' at Melanie Flood Projects
Shangri-La, flashe on wall, 2018
Kindest Regards, oil, flashe, marble dust and graphite powder on linen, 19”x18”, 2018
photo credit: Mario Gallucci
Oil and marble dust on linen, 19”x18”, 2018
photo credit: Mario Gallucci
Oil and marble dust on canvas, 7”x5”, 2018
photo credit: Mario Gallucci