Transmission, oil on linen, 36" x 34", 2019
A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to visit the studio of Cara Tomlinson for a Semi-Finalist interview. I've followed Cara's work since the early 1990's and have always been drawn to her subtle use of color and the scale of her forms. She somehow makes her compositions appear both intimate and monumental at the same time, a combination that has kept me coming back to look at her work again and again.
Below are some Semi-Finalist questions and Cara Tomlinson's responses.
Left: Skinning, oil on linen, 20" x 18", 2019
Right: Generator, oil on linen, 20" x 18", 2019
Talk a little bit about your background as an artist. Where did you study? Who influenced you? What were your formative years like?
I grew up in San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. As a young kid, I identified early that art was my thing. I got up early every morning before anyone else was awake to draw and paint. My mother was creative and had lots of art supplies around. She even had a studio in the basement. After my father died suddenly when I was seven, art became a place of refuge. I was that shy girl that drew horses. In high school, I was selected to take classes at the Corcoran Museum School in DC. The summer I spent in DC opened my eyes to the rigor of making art as well as the history of art. I wandered the National Gallery daily (sometimes a little drunk since I found out that the cafeteria didn’t card), looking at 17th-century Dutch painters, Impressionists, and Italian pre-Renaissance masterpieces.
Back in Portland, I took evening classes at the Museum School (now PNCA) at the Portland Art Museum. Making art in close proximity to historical art has always interested me. The idea of context, building a dialogue with the past, engaging history, both cultural and personal, is the way I’ve created the language of my work.
Above: Facthum, oil on linen, 34" x 32", 2017
I got my undergraduate degree from Bennington College in Vermont. The art department there was fierce. Many of my teachers were New York School second-generation Abstract Expressionists and still engaged in showing in the city. It was an intense environment with an expectation of pushing yourself as far as you could. After graduating, I moved around a bit. I was in San Francisco for a while and in Minneapolis. I got a studio and started working as an art preparator at the Minneapolis Art Institute. After surviving several winters there, I was ready to come back to Oregon for graduate school. I was accepted at the University of Oregon where I was so lucky to study with three very gifted painters: Ron Graff, Jan Reaves, and Frank Okada. This was a medium-centric education, exploring the deep craft in painting. We thought about paint, made paint, worked with the alchemy and magic of paint equaling light and color, and even made our own paintbrushes out of roadkill! All three of these artists where amazing colorists and materialists.
After graduating with my MFA, I was lucky to land a teaching job reasonably quickly. I ended up at Dartmouth College for a bit and then at the University of Iowa, teaching undergrad and grad students. It was at the University of Iowa that my work really started to coalesce. At the time UI had a big and active painting program with over 30 students and seven faculty members. In the Midwest, I experienced a sense of irony, humor, and pathos that deeply affected my work then and now.
Above: Backhand, oil on linen, 36" x 34", 2019
Below: Companion, oil on linen, 36" x 34", 2019 and paint pile.
One of the things that I’ve always found interesting in your work is your relationship to space and form. Can you talk about that and how it has developed over time?
Starting as a representational painter, I was fascinated by the process of translating what I was experiencing in landscapes to the 2D form. I painted plein air, often seeking spaces that were in-between natural areas and industrial spaces. There is a special kind of alchemy that happens when mud becomes light—oil paint basically is oil and earth-- yet it can replicate the luminosity of light. Landscape painting was my best color teacher. Experience always supersedes comprehension—the sense of being in space can’t be narrowed to the 2D picture plane without a series of compromises—these reveal a lot about the conventions of painting. All painting is flat and abstract, even representational work. In my recent work, I’m much more interested in embracing flat planes with shallow depth. There are references to figures or bodies that are both open and closed—permeable and impermeable that have evolved into an interchangeable alphabet.
The movement in the work comes from the color and from the linear striped elements. One of my longest-lasting questions is how to represent the human and animal body from the perspective of being one. Where do our bodies end and begin in the mind and the environment? How do I create a symbolic form for experience as a living body interacting with other bodies?
When I visited your studio, you talked about how much you still love working within the confines of a rectangle, how relevant it still is for you. What is it about straight lines and 90’ angles that keeps you coming back?
Yeah, the rectangle is this really harsh limit that is completely artificial and yet deeply intrinsic to how we live our lives. It is all around us: in the grid of city planning, our architecture, in the things that fit into architecture like tables, chairs, books, and pictures. Since the painting originates as an artificial window, it makes sense that we still haven’t transformed it since it fits so well into our architecture. I mean, think about those 17th-century Dutch interiors--there are rectangles built upon rectangles. The interior is replicated in the exterior and then again in the painting as a rectangular object. This is the best kind of painting pun. Sure, it is possible to make a painting that avoids the rectangle, but the convention is so rich-- why not take it on? In my work I am interested in how this limit puts pressure on the image. The formal tension of such a rigid boundary creates a symbolic image, separating and making activities within the canvas fixed and still. I want there to be a tension between separation and the longing to belong. To this end, I strive to get the color to move and occupy a space beyond the rectangle.
Above: several rectangles in the studio
Below: Coming Off, oil on linen on wood, 20" x 18", 2019
What role does drawing play in your process?
I’m so glad you asked this question. I draw constantly, and when I was going through all my work recently, I realized how much! I draw from life (mostly figure studies), and I draw from my imagination. The drawings are separate from the paintings. They aren’t outlines or cartoons to make a painting, but they often become the inspiration. Because it’s so immediate, drawing can be very intimate. For many years I had a diary (daily) drawing project—this was a space of complete safety and allowance. Many of these drawings were pretty raw and intense, mostly terrible, but occasionally there are a few that really rise to a different level. Drawing is a parallel practice that is really necessary to me, it's where movement happens-- in the painting, the drawing's energy becomes distilled, formalized and symbolic.
Above: Drawings, ink on paper, each 12" x 9", 2019
I’m a big fan of your color palette. You employ a wide range of hues in your work, but there’s often an overall coolness that I associate with the region that we live in (the Pacific Northwest). How has that developed over time?
That’s interesting you see it as a cool palette. I think you are right, color works on us very unconsciously and is deeply a part of our environment. I remember when I was painting landscapes, and I would get into a zone of feeling and mixing color. It felt as if there was no separation between my experience of environmental color and the material color of the paint. The way I build paintings now is quite different, but I still rely on intuition. Each color is mixed in relation to the next one. Once I have a whole series of these strips, I start carefully considering the choices of color that I put in other places in the painting. I taught a color course for many years and learned a lot about the rules of color, so I do think about compliments, value, simultaneous contrast-- all of that is in my toolbox. There is a lot of calibration, mixing, and re-mixing. I strive for balance, an emanation-- for the sense that the color steps out of the confines of the painting and goes beyond its limits. This is an exceptional quality of color—it hits us before form. It’s a body feeling, not a head thing.
Above: Hapty, oil on linen, 36" x 34", 2017
You recently finished an artist residency in Wyoming at Ucross. Can you tell me a bit about that experience?
Ucross holds a particular space in my heart—it was the second time I did a residency there. I felt so lucky to have been granted this one--at this moment in my life—I really needed it. What is so special about Ucross is the open space--the sky constantly changing the color and light. It is in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains, 20 miles from the nearest town and wildlife is everywhere. There’s nothing quite like being given a gift of studio space, food, and support to do something as seemingly futile as making art. Working intensely and being fully supported is a pleasure like no other. I would paint and draw from early morning until late evening every day, bike home under the stars, sleep like a log and start again. Every other resident is so engaged, working so hard that when we all came together at dinner, there was a tenderness and vulnerability to our interactions. It is really possible to make deep connections to others and work. It makes the effort to move studios for a month really worth it!
Above: Faceoff (WIP), oil on linen, 52" x 48", 2019
Who are you looking at - past or present- that’s currently having an influence on your work?
I haven’t really been looking at very many artists in the last three months. I have been more in the just do it and trust mode. Which is kind of weird for me. I suppose right now the artist that is resonating with me is Hilma Af Klint, whose work I finally saw at her spectacular Guggenheim show last year. I am also looking deeply at some of the other women artists from the 19th century who made paintings in trance states: Georgiana Houghton and Emma Kunz. I am so glad this work was preserved and is now accessible. But I have so many influences at this point, most are subconscious and deeply resonant—artists whose work I have been following for many years: Paul Klee, Hans Hofman, Philip Guston, Jacob Lawrence, Amy Sillman, Brenda Goodman, Thomas Nozkowski, David Humphrey, Tom Burchardt, Sharon Horvath, T.L. Solien, Myoko Ito…to name a few.
Dammit, your studio is organized and clean! Was that just for Semi-Finalist or are you always like that?
Okay, it really was because you were coming over… but I also had just finished an archiving project where I took inventory, photographed, archivally wrapped and uploaded all my old and current work to a database. I was in super organizational mode. I’m so embarrassingly proud of my neatly labeled storage stacks!
Above: The artist Cara Tomlinson.
What’s next for you?
I’m getting ready right now for a January show in NY. This came out of the blue, and I’m really honored to show at the BDDW Annex-- a beautiful new gallery in Soho. I’m also putting together a regional (Cascadia) painting symposium which will be held at Lewis and Clark College this coming March. This will give painters a chance to get together and talk craft and everything else. It always seemed crazy that all other art mediums (Photo, ceramics, printmaking, sculpture) have conferences or have places for practitioners to discuss the practice--all except painting. Probably because painting is considered the mother of all disciplines in art? But now more than ever it feels as if the craft of painting is exciting to discuss. I’m working with some great collaborators from Washington, Oregon and Montana: Elise Richman, Cynthia Camlin, Kevin Bell and Tia Factor. We will have a keynote speaker, panels and exhibit—it should be amazing!
Below: More Tomlinson.
Above:The Artist, oil on linen, 52" x 48", 2019
Below: Yokem, oil on linen, 34" x 32", 2019
Above: Work in progress with brushes and a paint pile.
Below: A corner of the studio.