Stephanie Pierce grew up in Memphis, TN, and has lived in Boston, MA, Asheville, NC, rural Tennessee, and Seattle, WA. Right now, she lives in Fayetteville, AR. Her paintings are currently showing in Sound and Vision: Circuit, Tube, and Prism, an exhibition at the Space Gallery in Portland, ME, which was curated by Gideon Bok. Later this spring, she will have a solo exhibition at Wynn Bone Gallery in Annapolis, MD.
Usually MWC interviews are conducted at a bit of a remove, but Stephanie and I actually live in the same town, so I went over to her house and recorded a conversation with her.
When did you know you were a painter?
I actually intended on becoming a painter when I was a little kid. I think I was in the 6th grade. My dream was, I’m going to be a painter and I’m going to live in the mountains. I would draw pictures of what my house would look like, and I had this image of painting next to mountain streams. What’s funny is I wasn’t surrounded by artists. I knew one artist, my friend’s mom.
I know for you painting is primary. Yet we’re living in a place where you can say painting isn’t primary, and never has been primary, unlike some other places. Do you feel like, living here, that there’s some kind of gap we have to close? Traditions, galleries, museums…
Yeah, there is a gap. I don’t show here. I have to get the work somewhere else. I don’t know the answer to the question, really. It’s so broad. It’s a relevant question, because you’re putting it on a website that’s about being in the middle of the country. When I started studying painting in Memphis, I was in that situation. There was nothing around us that was feeding our knowledge about painting. It was the person we were working with that was feeding us information, showing us lots of art, steadily.
What are some places that have been more restorative or provided more of a direct connection?
When I was just up in Portland (ME), I felt like painting could be relevant. The show held a wide range of approaches to making art, including painting and interactive sound pieces that were audio plus visual. I felt like people there were supportive of painting as well as experimental media. People seemed genuinely engaged in responding to all of the work.
Sounds healthy. I think one problem with working in unproven ground is the excitement of the new thing makes it easy to think that I’ve gotten somewhere when I’ve really only gotten one step out the door.
That’s really true. Sometimes switching the medium you’re working in can just come back to the same problem in another medium. I do think really interesting things can happen when you move outside of what you do, though, that you can bring new things to your work that way.
I guess for myself, I like the challenge of searching out a new way of doing what you do, within the context and history of painting. Just writing it off seems like an easy way out.
What are some of your influences?
As far as other painters go, my long term influences, my biggest influence is probably de Kooning. De Kooning and Guston, I’ve looked at and thought about since I was pretty young. I think about Cezanne, Gwen John. I think Agnes Martin’s paintings are really powerful. Rembrandt, El Greco, Morandi, Antonio Lopez Garcia. The other thing that’s really influenced me a lot is the lifestyle that I’ve lived and my experiences growing up. There’s always been this sense that everything is constantly in a state of change and abrupt disruption. I think that helped me in painting to take bigger risks. How I live my life has to be a part of how I paint.
Is there an art/life gap?
I don’t know. For me, I don’t think there is.
I’m thinking of the Rauschenberg thing, working in the gap between. It’s something I’ve wondered, should there be a gap between life and art? Is there a point to that?
I don’t think there is a gap. Maybe I don’t know about Rauschenberg’s whole idea. I don’t want there to be a gap. Though, obviously, I’m working in a pretty formally constructed thing.
Maybe the problem a lot of people have is that their exposure is not broad enough.
It’s different when you’re in conversation with something, following something, really thinking about something. You couldn’t understand a sentence if it weren’t something you’d practiced.
It’s always been exciting to me that things could, potentially, radically change. It might be ho-hum for a while, but then it gets to a point where all of a sudden there’s this moment of possibility. It allows everything to be altered.
That’s when it starts giving back, why it’s addictive. Painting is a uniquely intellectual activity–I don’t mean academically intellectual–because it’s sensory, it’s based on perception, based on a relationship to something that is outside you, but the meaning is something that’s in you, that you build.
Continuing it is such an act of faith.
Yes. Whereas an image is something that points to something else, paintings also point to themselves. They are self-aware in a way. I want to talk about your recent work: The motif is a bed. It’s your bed?
It’s pretty much my bed. It started out using the one I sleep in, but I can’t paint in here, my ceilings are too low. And when I was painting my bed, it was changing every day, so I had to deal with that. I realized I hadn’t worked from observation–admittedly dedicated myself, allowed myself to do that–in years. I guess I re-approached it a few times in graduate school, but couldn’t really come to terms with it then. [More recently] I was doing things where I was trying to work with perception in different ways, but I was really doubtful and suspicious of it being a possibility anymore. I felt like I had to question it. When I started painting from perception again, it was with reluctance, and, well, terror.
I remember talking to you about that. Going further with the description: Usually there’s a prominent vertical partition that implies two presences, or, possibly, two human presences in absence. The paintings have a quiet urgency, which I’d say comes literally from how they’re constructed. Things seem to be either dissolving or just forming. It makes them compelling, and it also makes them intimate and enigmatic. Is that a fair assessment?
It is. The division thing came first as an impulse. I knew the bed was a representation of my husband and me. There’s this ongoing, almost comical struggle between our personalities. The bed is the place where that culminates. I think a lot of people would assume that has to do with sex, but that’s not really what it is.
…More about being day people vs. night people? “I’m tired, I want to go to sleep,” vs. “I want to stay up and read all night.”
Yeah, exactly. We are polar opposites in terms of when we have the most energy to be engaged and awake. At night I’m fully awake and most alert and for him this is the morning.
There was this other thing between the two sides, a formal thing about light and shadow. What would happen as these forms passed from the light to the shadow? Sometimes I could see them, and other times I had to push them. Making decisions about location, color, light, value, and mark. Something’s there, it exists as one thing, but then pushing it one direction or another to do what you want it to do in the painting. It sounds a bit too controlled, but everything’s in response to the painting, and there’s accident involved, too.
There’s one painting where there’s a kind of note, a Borges book at the bottom of the composition.
When I brought in objects, I first brought in the plant. Bringing in an object at all was scary because I didn’t want to just go back to just looking, piling it all in, passively. I was selective. So I brought the plant in. Later I brought the book in. It is a Borges book. When I was in Portland, Gideon [Bok] asked me if I meant for that to be part of the painting. I’d say, yes, but subtly. In his writing, Borges changes what reality is, in an unexpected way. There are all these levels of meaning and reality.
There was also a basic need for that book, I needed that blue. I tried to edit the words because I didn’t want it to be totally blatant. Someone thought it was Berger.
That’d be heading somewhere else, I think.
I don’t want things in the paintings to be easy props. That’s partly why I obscured the words.
Are you an improvisor?
If I can come to terms with the fact that I’m making paintings that use representation and perception to some degree, then I have to figure out where I draw the line: where do I step in, where do I step back. Does “improvise” imply that when you’re looking you can alter and invent, or that you’re winging it and there’s no intention in what you’re doing?
Maybe more like, Do you have a plan and execute it and then you’re done, or do you start and find your way?
I start and find my way. From the start to the end of the painting, the paintings change terribly drastically. If I set out on a path where I know what I’m going to do before I make a painting, it shuts down pretty fast.
When I discover a structure and I try to repeat it, it doesn’t work. It’s like making a photocopy of a photocopy, instead of finding something new to put on the machine.
Exactly. That becomes a real problem, because I could make a painting, and make one in response to that first one, and by the time I’ve made 20 paintings, they’d be pretty different. The challenge is that if you’ve located an interesting problem to deal with, how do you stay inside it, instead of freaking out and going on to another idea.
What are you looking at, listening to, and reading right now?
Looking a lot at Gwen John. Also, Vincent Mastracco, and Tine Lundsfryd. Listening to Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, over and over again. And Black Flag, Damaged. I’ve got losts of mixed tapes with a broad range, eclectic old punk bands and world folk music, some of it’s moody, dissonant, some chaotic, pieced together in interesting ways. Music influences my paintings when it’s a kind of beautiful chaos, when it’s dissonant and strange and on the verge of coming together and falling apart. There are some great old eastern European punk bands that do it so well, like Sarlo Akrobata from Yugoslavia. It is so amazing how loose but well-structured it is. Everything circles around, barely holding onto this thread.
I’ve been reading a book called Art and Physics by Leonard Shlain. That’s been really interesting because it’s got so much in it. It’s pretty much going over the history of ideas of painting and the beginnings of scientific thought. And various essays related to painting, because of teaching. I also just started reading Art In Its Own Terms, the Fairfield Porter book.
I read that David Hockney book [Secret Knowledge] last fall. It was really good. I always think about photography having interestingly similar but also very different problems from painting, but that book gave me a lot to think about: image and imitation and emulation, the idea of something being fixed and how to grab it, or not working with that. For that last big painting I did, that’s in the show in Portland, I used four points of view–instead of having a fixed single point of view, which seems to have been the goal in perceptual painting. Usually, the image you end up with is pretty fixed. But even if things are still, you’re not still. That could be a basis for a painting.
It could be, and it is. View more of Stephanie Pierce’s work at her website.