Rock Wall, 2009, 9′ x 7′, oil on canvas
Claire Sherman, it seems, has finally got some free time. Since I got in touch with Sherman about doing a Q&A for us, she’s come off a solo show at DCKT Gallery, moved to Brooklyn for a residency at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation, opened another solo show at Pippy Houldsworth in London and taught an intensive painting course at Oxbow. And what’s she going to do with that time? She says she is “looking forward to making some big bad mistakes in the studio, and having time to clean up my own mess,”—which I think needs to be one of the 10 Commandments of painting for all of us from here on out. Read on to see what else she’s thinking about.
Please give our readers a little bit of information about yourself.
I grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, and it was a wonderful place to grow up – there are always concerts and plays at the college, and the Allen Art Museum is a gem. I went to the University of Pennsylvania for my BA, and I received my MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2005. I teach painting and drawing at Knox College in Illinois, and am currently on junior leave to be a resident at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation’s Space Program in DUMBO, Brooklyn.
I have always drawn, and studied with a painter in Oberlin while in High School, and also took summer courses at the Cleveland Institute of Art and the School of the Boston Museum School. I am really lucky to have supportive parents, who signed me up for classes, and took me to see museum shows. However, I didn’t decide I wanted to be an artist until I was in college.
What is a day in the studio like for you?
A day in the studio is a mix of drawing, working on smaller studies, reading, rotating work on larger paintings, and a lot of looking at the work. On days when I am starting a large painting, the process tends to be a bit manic. I generally start in the morning and may work quite late, in order to change things in the beginning stages of the painting when everything is still wet and malleable. Once the paintings dry, I usually begin a process of small and slow revisions.
Are you an improviser?
Although I tend to plan out large paintings with small oil studies and drawings, there is inevitably an element of chance and play involved in making the large works from smaller studies, as I don’t use a projector to enlarge. I think you have to account for the sense of bodily scale in painting, and projectors don’t account for this in the translation of an image. A large painting has different requirements to be successful than a 10 x 12 inch study, so I have to be willing to improvise and allow for the unexpected when working.
Chalk Cliff, 2006, 7′ x 5 1/2′, oil on canvas
What is the hard part of painting for you? What is the fun part?
The hardest part of painting and the fun parts of painting merge in my experience. When I’m in over my head and trying to work my way out of a hole in the studio, that’s when interesting things can start happening. I generally enjoy starting works more than I enjoy finishing them, as the beginning has a greater sense of tension and nervousness. I think painting can be the most terrifying and fun when I know the least about how to solve a problem in the studio.
What is sketching for you? How do you prepare for paintings?
I make small mixed media drawings using gouache, watercolor, and water-soluble crayons and colored pencils. These help me generate ideas while still thinking about color, as I have a hard time sustaining drawing without color. They are also an outlet for trying things that I might not turn into large paintings, but which can exist as independent works and ideas. In addition, I also make small studies in oil to get a sense of how a subject might translate into a painted surface.
I’ve recently started making collages, which I haven’t done in a long time, and am enjoying the sense of openness that is built into the process of moving things around in collage.
Woods and Snow, 2008 6 1/2′x8′, oil on canvas
Do the paintings refer to a specific place, is it possible that somebody can go and stand somewhere and see the subject you painted? Is there a type of place you go out looking for? Do you have an idea for a painting and go looking for it, or go out without preconceptions and wait until something you see makes you curious?
Until a year ago, I was working exclusively from sources that I collected, mainly from kitschy books from thrift stores with pictures of landscapes, both American but also from other locations around the world. I have files in my studio that are labeled for categories, such as “ice”, “mountains”, etc, and I would combine several sources to generate paintings. Conceptually, I liked that I had never been to the places that the paintings were derived from. It allowed for distance from the subject, a certain amount of ambivalence, and room for invention because I wasn’t tied to some sense of an original location.
More recently, I have begun taking extended road trips to gather source material. My husband and I have now taken two, 6000 mile trips to various national parks across the country, ranging from Big Bend, TX to Zion, UT and Death Valley, CA. I’m planning to take some trips that will also present a more varied landscape, i.e. tropical or glacial, etc. I decided to take more of my own source material because I felt that some of the images I was working from were too generic. The landscape was presented in the same way across categories, so I wanted to try to upset this a bit and work with images that were more harsh, peculiar, and beguiling than those offered through standard representations of beautiful and sublime images of the landscape.
When I am taking images, I usually have an idea of something I might want, but that is usually displaced by something found that is more interesting than anything I could have preconceived.
It isn’t usually possible that someone can go and find the exact place that I painted from. I hope that the works are ambiguous, as I don’t want people to be able to say, “I went there on vacation last year”, so I try to avoid postcard moments or spaces that too closely mimic traditional notions of landscape. Many of places I have visited are well known – Arches National Park, for example. I might take 1000 images around the park, but only a few will include actual landmarks, and those usually don’t get used for a painting. More often, it is the images of things where the space becomes less recognizable and representational that are interesting when I get back to the studio. It is less about representing a specific place, and more about how paint can create an experience of a space that is both alluring and terrifying. My interest is in a space that falls apart as it begins to congeal and questions our relationship to the conventions of landscape.
Hole II, 2009, 36″ x 40″, oil on linen
There are a couple of formal strategies that you seem to use often: a shape isolated in the center of the picture plane, or one big shape wedged under or between smaller shapes. Containment is running theme in your compositions, and it kind of denies the viewer that fantasy of entering or moving about the place depicted. Can you tell us how this kind of composition works for you?
This is a good observation – I think about the structure of the painting in relation to how I want the space to address the viewer: both to entice in, and reject. The surface and construction of a painting is integral to what it means. Sometimes I want a painting to be less concerned with composition, and to be flat footed, so I put something in the middle. It is straightforward without frills. I like painters who can be casual and clumsy, so sometimes putting something in the middle is a way to be completely obvious. Alternately, I also gravitate towards active spaces that are claustrophobic, and don’t allow the viewer to fully enter.
How do you approach color? In a lot of recent landscape painting, there’s a trend toward hallucinatory/psychedelic/Symbolist/apocalyptic color. Your color seems kind of uniquely keyed-up but totally plausible. There is some sense that we’re seeing a subjective state of mind and observations about distinct atmospheric conditions, but we didn’t do peyote or live through the Big One to do so.
Yes! Thanks – that’s what I want. You said it better than I would.
Hill and Trees, 2009, 7′ x 9′, oil on canvas
What are you looking lately? What are you listening to? What are you reading?
A couple of my favorite recent shows:
Van Gogh, Colors of the Night (who knew the sky could be yellow?!?)
Francis Bacon at the Met
Ann Truitt at the Hirshhorn, Washington D.C.
Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim
The Samurai Armor show at the Met – they have mustaches attached to masks!
I’m listening to just about anything and everything under the sun – music is really important to me while I work.
I’m currently working my way through everything that William Faulkner ever wrote. I’m currently stuck on his complete short stories, which are fantastic. I would also highly recommend Wild Palms.
I’ll watch anything by Werner Herzog or the Cohen Brothers.
We always ask artists about these three things–reading, listening, looking at. I wonder is there anything else we should be asking about that would talk more about your creative activity: What are you eating? Where’s the best place for coffee around there? Do you ever see deer in your yard? etc. etc.—-Is there anything else we ought to be asking you about?
Hmm…I can’t say that my work is particularly influenced by the specific environment of my studio. That said, there is terrific energy in New York, and I think that is coming into my work.
Tell us about what you are up to in New York.
I’m painting and reading as much as possible. I’m in the studio with a stretch of time to figure some things out in my work. I’m looking forward to making some big bad mistakes in the studio, and having time to clean up my own mess.
Sound fun. Thanks so much.