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grow-drawing

Kathy Liao, “Growth (drawing)”, 2015, mixed media, 58″ x 42″

 

The Borders of Itself is an exhibit I put together for the Campanella Gallery at Park University in Kansas City.  The exhibit includes artists Kathy Liao Misha Kligman, Damon Freed and Stephanie Pierce .

The title of the exhibit is taken from the last stanza of the R.M. Rilke poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”.   Rilke’s sonnet is drawn on a sustained and thoughtful look at the eponymous sculpture housed in the Louvre, written after getting some advice from the sculptor August Rodin.  Rodin’s advice: write less about insubstantial and ephemeral inner moods and try to ground one’s words in the real and material world.

 

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installation view of Misha Kligman, “Closeness”, 2016, flashe on canvas, 67 1/2″ x 47 1/2″

 

That idea of an artwork that exists as a cooperation between material and idea is really appealing to me.  That’s what we learn to do as painters, right?  Not master or control or force our materials to submit to our will,–no, we learn to work with the properties of paint and pigment.  That seems to me an incredibly contemporary idea–to cooperate with, rather than master or rebuff, the physical world.

When Rilke looks at his archaic torso closely, he realizes this immobile fragment of marble tells stories.  Not just A STORY about a long since de-deified mythological character, but many complimentary stories, layered and simultaneous.  Yes, the character of Apollo is a story.  Then too, the unknown sculptor,  and the very act of making this statue, is a story.  What drove this artist, what goals, standards and values did he apply to the making?  What accidents  and learning occurred through the process of making?  It can’t be forgotten that the long life of this ruined fragment is a story.   And of course, the way these forms act upon the viewer is a story–and the poem is loaded with various excitations, arousals and meditations the physical presence of this storied object elicits in young Rilke.

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installation view of Damon Freed, “Chapter XII: Infinity Shape”, 2016, oil, acrylic and ink on canvas, 34″ x 34″

 

To me, that’s what all these works have in common: layers of histories and stories.  Some of those stories seem to be depicted in the paintings.  Some of these stories are made as the paintings are made, in every action and every decision the artist makes (this is the reason so many of these paintings heavily telegraph the artist’s process).  Some of these are stories about the artists’ relationships to their source material–whether that be memory, observation, photography, or drawing. Some of these stories are about the physical, phenomenological relationship between the painting-object and the viewer-subject.

 

 

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Stephanie Pierce, “Long Lapse”, 2014, ink, vellum, graphite on paper, 18 1/2″ x 17″

 

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Stephanie Pierce, “Discordant Wave”, 2014, ink on paper, 13″ x 14″

 

Spending some time with these works it’s occurred to me that another common thread is a distressed relationship between simple Figure and Ground.  In Stephanie Pierce’s drawings, layers and layers of words overfill the page around a simple image of a radio, allowing the negative space to be neither peaceful nor lonely.  Layers of differently-intentioned painting keep the background in Kathy Liao’s painting from settling into a passive role relative to the massive snake plant in the foreground.  Misha Kligman uses four drippy disembodied arms to frame a grid of close-value queasiness that threatens to overwhelm what appears to be a shock of long blond hair.  Damon Freed pushes hard edged negative shapes that appear to sit on top of the thinly painting figure/forms.  Figure and ground can be a simple relationship and all of these complications start to seem like alternate versions of Rilke’s strategy of choosing a headless torso.  So many of the best metaphors do spring from a flawed protaganist–whether that be the headless torso of Apollo, one-legged Capt. Ahab,  nearly-blind Beowulf or Saleem Sinai and the various deformities Salman Rushdie inflicts upon the character in Midnight’s Children.

In the paintings the distressed figure/ground relationship is a tragic flaw that increases both the romantic appeal and the metaphorical depth.  When we, the audience, acknowledge that the Other has stories and histories and struggles–many, many layers of stories and histories–we start to engage in the process of understanding that Other.

 

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installation view of two paintings by Damon Freed, on the left is “Chapter XIII: Angel”, 2016, oil, acrylic and ink on canvas, 34″ x 34″ and on the right, “Chapter XIV: Mother, Father and Holy Ghost”, 2016, oil, acrylic and ink on canvas, 34″ x 34″

 

Lately it seems like one can’t be in a room with other artists without someone starting to talk about empathy.  We live in a culture of easy dismissals, of easy “Likes” and crass comments, and on those occasions we do try to engage, we’re all vulnerable to being overwhelmed by images of refugees and stories of brutality, hurt and loss.  Making empathy plausible–or, re-sensitizing we, the de-sensitized–is one of the more compelling missions undertaken by contemporary art.   “Archaic Torso of Apollo” speaks out of the past to these contemporary concerns by ending, abruptly, with the words: “You must change your life.”

That’s what Empathy really asks of us, to sustainably adjust one’s thoughts and actions to the acknowledgement of an Other.  We have to see that both objects and people we encounter are, yes, for a moment, a part of our story, and at the same time, stories and histories of their own.  Further, we have to be able to maintain that feeling over time.  In thinking that paintings might be a useful tool put toward this goal, I’m reminded of Susan Sontag in “Notes on Style” addressing art as a nourishment for our moral faculties as well as the story Lawrence Weschler recounts of the war crimes tribunal judge who restores his peace of mind with a daily visit to the Mauritshuis to see the Vermeer paintings there.

When I have the opportunity to put together exhibits, it’s always my hope that the theme is applied lightly.  The viewer should be able to simply enjoy the artworks for all their own reasons.  There’s a thread tying these works together, an idea that I think is worth thinking about, and an idea that allows the artworks to offer their own stories.

 

 

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installation view of works by Kathy Liao, Misha Kligman and Stephanie Pierce

 

I want to thank the artists for being involved in this show, as well as Park University and the gallery directors I worked with–Matt LaRose and Dr. Andrea Lee.  Not possible without these individuals.  To see more MWC Curatorial efforts, look here.

 

 

 

 

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Norbert Marszalek, “DC Hotel Room” from the series Hotel Room Paintings, 2009, oil on canvas, 48″ x 60″

 

Here is another (long overdue) installment of our series, On Finishing.

Norbert Marszalek, of Chicago, tells us about his experiences this time.  I asked Norbert to write this for us, intrigued by the fact that he has worked in a number of different modes over the course of his career.  This is not a gadfly approach.  Marszalek’s no dilettante.  With each body of work, he spends years developing a palette, a way of moving the paint around, and a way of responding to subject.  When a way of working plays itself out in the studio, he goes in a distinctly different direction. In addition to a long and respected career as a painter,  Marszalek runs the popular online art magazine, Neoteric Art.

 

 

Are you a good closer?

When I was younger I had great difficulty finishing a painting. Not from an emotional standpoint but more, I hate to admit, out of boredom. Paintings would begin with great intention mixed with gusto but as time went on my focus and direction would be lost. That all changed as I matured as an artist. I see painting and actually the act of finishing a painting much differently now.

 

I’ve let my intuition take over and gotten out of my head. That was a huge positive step for me in the making of art. Now my work is always moving. It’s never static.

 

Once a painting is deemed finished it is done. All the struggles and conflicts end with each finished piece but that’s not to say I don’t continue my battles with the next painting. So yes, I consider myself a good closer.

 

Is it easy or difficult for you to be finished with a piece?  Do you make a clean break or let it go kicking and screaming?

Some pieces take longer than others. Sometimes the solution comes quickly while other times it lingers. I feel the painting being finished from within. Either way, I don’t really struggle—it’s a clean break and the search starts again with the next piece.

When you call it done are you smiling?  Is your relationship to finishing troubling to you at all?


I’m smiling. Hey, I’m fortunate enough to be able to create. This isn’t a bad gig. There is always a new painting for me to work on … thank goodness!

 

How do you see yourself compared to your peers, in terms of how easily you call an artwork finished?  How much does the idea of calling things finished affect the type of painting you make or how you define yourself as a painter?

Everyone has their own process. I see peers hit blocks where they can’t work and others just keep cranking them out. Every artist finishes their work differently. For instance, there is a difference between finishing a tightly rendered representational piece as opposed to an abstract work—at least there is for me.

 

Any other thoughts on finishing?

In the broader sense, finishing a piece is a very personal endeavor. Every creative person does it their own way.

 

Thank you, Chris, for including me in your project. These questions were very interesting!

 

Thank you!  

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Norbert Marszalek, “Man with a Yellow Teapot”, ca. 2015, oil on canvas, 16″ x 20″

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Buoyant-4, acrylic on canvas, 40_ X 40_, 2016

MWC friend Emil Robinson has written a review of Frank Hermann’s exhibit “The Liminal Landscape” at Marta Hewett Gallery in Cincinnati.  Here’s a link to the review.

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Mark Lewis’s paintings and drawings develop frequently (but not exclusively) out of direct observation of his surroundings. His collaged paintings and drawings, which together comprise a significant and long-running aspect of his studio activities, are simultaneously bold in their composition and intricate in their execution. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Kansas City Art Institute in 1982, and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale in 1984. Also he attended the Yale-Norfolk summer program in 1981. He has served as Applied Associate Professor of Art at the University of Tulsa since 1998, and his exhibition record is too long to list here (but easily viewed on his own site: http://www.marklewispaintingstudio.com/about).

Robert Hughes once wrote “drawing never dies, it holds on by the skin of its teeth, because the hunger it satisfies—the desire for an active, investigative, manually vivid relation with the things we see and yearn to know about—is apparently immortal.” This reminds me of something you said about painting, more than a decade ago: that it satisfies “visual hunger.” In your own painting, has that hunger evolved? If so, how? If not, would you care to comment on its consistency?

The hunger or desire hasn’t changed—it’s still there but possibly my visual appetite or my visual cravings have changed a bit. Using the words “visual hunger” is my way of being sort of vaguely specific—trying to be particular about my needs for the work, and also satisfying the visual necessity in the work, without illustrating a presumed or measured outcome. I’m not as eloquent as Hughes, but I can tell you I love Ruth Miller’s drawings.

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Strictly speaking, it’s not really possible for language to replace the visual/tactile. Also: people say observing a process will change it. Perhaps there’s a danger in getting too analytical with some things. I think this was part of why I was so surprised and, ultimately, satisfied by your Street Fiction paintings. They use words paradoxically, to point out how useless words can sometimes be. Can you talk about where those paintings came from?

I’m glad that you say it’s not really possible for language to replace the visual, the tactile. I’ve always felt that way but at times it seems the general art world (whatever that means) seems to be dominated by the literary—conceptual illustration—rather than the visual. At this point in my life, having established a personal studio history, I’m as not personally overly analytical as I was, say, 20 years ago. That could be good or bad.

It seems like I regularly have a studio crisis of some sort or another every few years. At one point I was wondering if it was time to work less directly from observation. But to go back further: every 3 or 4 years I’ve always had a body of work developing in the studio that wasn’t based solely on perception. They were paintings of street scenes and paintings of male and female figures in interiors. I didn’t always exhibit those paintings but now I do—or I have recently, anyway. Working perceptually and from a blank canvas seem to be complimentary studio practices—a nice way to feed the work or stir up the work.

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Ten years ago I thought of this body of work as “studio signs.” Riffing on the man-made object found in nature. Lately, I’ve been titling them or thinking of them as “street fiction” paintings: a real-false place that might reveal something truthful.

I’ve enjoyed reading plays lately too. A theatre class on campus invited me to read a play by a visiting playwright, to think about the artists that I’m interested in that relate to the play, and to share those artists’ work with the group in order to create a conversation with the work for the class and the playwright. I’ve really enjoyed this opportunity. If you remember my early work, you know that I was a still life painter. I’ve always thought of the tabletops as stage sets (but not in an obvious way) and now I think of the streets as stage sets too—a place where I enjoy observing daily life. I enjoy thinking of plays as fictional truths—not a big stretch, of course, but I like the opportunity they provide. The street fiction paintings provide an opportunity to explore in a different way.

Any occurrence in observation can be used in my studio paintings or street fiction paintings, like words observed in the street scenes that I draw and paint. The story line of the words doesn’t add up in my field of vision either. This realization gave me the freedom to employ words in a different way, possibly in a more abstract or poetic way. When I listen to music—whether it’s Mozart’s Requiem Mass, Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR,” or the Black Keys’ “Little Black Submarine”—I like the presence of the sound of words, the human voice. I don’t listen necessary to the story narrative, but I like their presence and recognition. In the Beatles tune I mentioned above, it’s the rhythmic beat of the words. In the Gorecki composition, I don’t understand the language, but I still understand. I think all paintings should have a face—not a picture of a face, but recognition found in paint from a hand. Philip Guston’s early abstractions, like Dial, and late paintings come to mind.

 

I feel nostalgia sometimes when I think about my time spent at University of Tulsa. It was before the Internet had ascended so fully as the go-to format for image sharing. I shot real slides of my work, wandered up and down the stacks of McFarlin Library looking at art monographs, and in the painting studio, you shared exhibition catalogs with us. Seeing and handling the catalogs felt special, rare, and also very matter-of-fact: they were objects, and there were only so many of them made. That kind of moment, that feeling, is something I hope to create for my own students, even if the tools have changed. What do you think about the shift in the material culture of being a painter? Maybe not just catalogs—paint, supports, online shopping vs. brick and mortar storefronts…

They are both relevant. I just hope we don’t throw out all of the old, sensory objects and try to replace them with only new opportunities via the internet and assume that is all that has to be done. The library is still best in most situations. I still follow the same practice in the classroom/studio, showing books and catalogues. I buy books for my library and for the university library. I do share a list of blog sites with my students and a list of reviewers or writers that I like to follow too. The tactile is important. I want to share this by saying something to you, by placing a book in your hand.

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Most of your painting develops from direct observation of your surroundings. How has living and working in Tulsa affected your work?

I remember when I first moved to Tulsa—back to Oklahoma—I thought I would start by working in the landscape. I had been working with the landscape on the east coast. I grew up in McAlester, which is located in southeast Oklahoma. It is known for the state prison and was a former coal mining community. But even though I grew up in Oklahoma, my way of seeing had evolved. So the landscape seemed very foreign to me when I first returned. Within a couple of years I started to make new discoveries in the Tulsa landscape, not relying on the type of choices that I was making when I was painting in DC or Charlottesville, for example. There I was working with landscape more as interior space. In Tulsa, I became attracted to open and public spaces.

Does “landscape as interior space” mean unpeopled space, an effect of architectural surroundings, or something else?

Unpeopled and architectural surroundings both, but mainly as private space or a room, like space in the landscape; also, like a studio space claimed in the landscape with a particular view to work with.

Do you think place changes the work in other ways? I’m thinking of practical issues, like scale and cost of rent; also, of artists per capita in a city like Tulsa vs. New York or Los Angeles.

I moved back to Oklahoma after a one-year sabbatical replacement position at the University of Virginia. I had been living in the DC area and had lived on the east coast for approximately 9 years. I would like to think that there would not be that much difference in choice other than the different opportunities that the landscape might provide. Moving to Tulsa was a practical choice, initially. I thought it would provide a greater opportunity to spend time in the studio (lower cost of living, etc.) which I think has been true.

I like to discover places to paint. I like to be stimulated by something that I have seen as a starting point for a work. It’s not practical to make the large graphite drawings/collages outdoors but I prefer the experience of being on site and I suppose I would find a way to continue this practice if I were located in NY or in LA.

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I’m usually working on site or starting a painting with a blank canvas in the studio. I’ve worked large in small studios and worked on a smaller scale in bigger studios. I simply try to find a way to support the work when necessary.

I’m not sure how my work would be different if I had moved to a larger or coastal city. I’m sure there would be some external influences but I’m generally a very private person and the studio dialogue is more internal for me. I’ve found that I don’t need the energy of an art scene or a current trend to respond to—to work—I just need more time in the studio. New ideas come from working, and there is never enough time to explore those ideas.

Thank you Mark!

 

From top: An untitled graphite and paper collage from 2016; detail of same collage; Why?, oil on canvas 2011-12, 91 x 66″; Boston Avenue Looking South, graphite and paper collage, 2014, 75 x 50″; Studio, 2007, oil on linen, 72 x 64″‘ video tour of ML’s 2012 exhibition at Bowery Gallery, New York. All images courtesy of the artist; video courtesy of Ty Smith.

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Neil Callander is a painter and Assistant Professor of Art at Mississippi State University. He was born in Louisville, KY, and attended Indiana University (BFA, 2003) and Rutgers University (MFA, 2006). Additionally, he attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2005. He worked as a studio assistant for Jeff Koons, LLC, 2006-7. Recently, Neil was selected by William Bailey for inclusion in Made Realities/Real Situations: Recent Paintings by Neil Callander, Russell Horton and Marc Roder, on view at the Washington Art Association in Washington CT, April 9 – May 7, 2016.

I want to start with something obvious: your paintings reward the viewer who really likes to look at stuff. One would assume that this issues at least in part from your own enjoyment in long engagements with particular corners of this world. I’m curious: are there any significant non-visual motivators in your paintings? Is there a pattern or overarching strategy in your selection of content?

Oh shit Sam – so much here to untangle.

Maybe the first thing to say is also one of the first things I realized about myself as a painter. I have a real aversion to the frivolity that can surround fine art painting. A formative process for me was learning how to navigate around that ethos. Painting is honest, hard work; I fashion myself a craftsman of objects that have images painted on one side – a builder of cultural artifacts.

To the extent I have a strategy for selecting content it’s driven by impulse not intellect. Painting as a proof of concept seems a limiting endeavor. Although sometimes I wish I did, I don’t have a tidy concept to prove. In fact, I have no concept at all – only intent.

Objects come and go in a painting, in the studio, as I search for the right ones that support my intentions. I enjoy old objects imbued with human contact because their meanings are multifarious. The repurposing of mundane objects also intrigue me – like a coffee can holding paint brushes or a TV screen as a mirror. The big paintings can take more than a year to complete and the whole process is organic (objects moving around, being painted out/painted in). I have to stay excited about the damn things so I’ll toss in whatever I’m into at the moment or even what I just got finished eating. Too often still life painting feels like an assemblage of knick-knacks – lifeless and trite.

A realist painter must contend with the fact that narrative is unavoidable. The viewer will always manifest some sort of narrative meaning, and since the viewer is who brings absolution to a painting I fully support their interpretations over my own.

There are instances where you impose a bit of fiction, too. I’m thinking of Dusty’s Table, Dusty’s Stacks, etc. Care to talk some about the moments of more deliberate narrative invention? 

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I do enjoy creating set-ups that conjure characters. Dusty is a character defined through still life paintings. The still lives exist naturally and are extracted from his life. I made an effort not to write about him or think about him outside of a painting context. He came into existence from a need to get out of my own way. It’s not good to take one’s self too seriously – and I’ve definitely been guilty of that. Dusty’s only purpose in life was to fuel new painting ideas. He allowed me to follow whimsy. I painted Dwight Shrute from The Office adjacent to Julie Andrews on the cover of The Sound of Music – what a match made in heaven!

Let me quote you to you: Experiencing dense paintings that slowly reveal their nature can help us cope with the pervasiveness of fast-talking, slick images. In a media-riddled world, painting is a stabilizing force. You’ve been in Mississippi for the last several years. This gets me thinking about cadence—the pace and rhythm of Southern-inflected speech, of the studio, of paint. Is there any kind of useful intertangling for you between cadences? I’m thinking of place in the geographic sense, of painting as a discipline and a dialogue, of the sense of a precise moment, of the more intimate cycles of home and studio.

I’m convinced that if painting is to have a place in our future it is not through copying the modes and manners of popular culture. There is no way painting could stay relevant. Cinema is the king of narrative. Photography is a much more efficient form of documentation. Music is superior at catharsis. Television and the Internet own propaganda. That leaves painting the domains of materiality and ambiguity.

For those readers who haven’t moved around the country and may not know through comparison, the rural South is a kind of paradise. I’m a lowly Professor of Art and living in a mansion (by international standards) on three acres of woods. My wife and I made a decision to sacrifice a degree of cultural complexity for quality of life. My studio is in the basement of my house along with my lawn equipment. Using the leaf blower is a helpful break from painting.

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I’m not a certain-minded or directed painter but I am a confident painter. In other words, I never really know what I’m doing but am confident I’ll be able to find my way in the end. This kind of uncertainty allows for richly painted surfaces. I scrape, sand, wipe, scratch my paintings – subtracting paint happens about as often as adding paint. In moments of frustration I also spit on them, step on them or smear food into them so that they don’t shut me out. That sounds weird but there’s a strange control dynamic that painters know about and deal with in different ways. There comes a point when the painting starts talking back and telling you what it needs to be finished. That’s a dangerous time because doors start closing, avenues of discovery and spontaneity disappear. And one can just proceed on the easiest path towards completion – the one they have trod before. I detest that feeling and so fight to be open to a painting flipping to completion in an instant.

That is a pretty spot-on take of what painting still offers best in the midst of so many options. What drew you into painting in the beginning? When did you know that you had to be a painter?

I think about that a lot actually. I’m a regretful person and can’t help dwelling on past decisions. If not a painter I could have been an arborist or some sort of plant biologist.

But(!) painting does allow the unique experience of making something that is entirely one’s own creation. You’re responsible for every mark, every millimeter of the picture plane. As an entire world is created the painter feels what it must be to be a god.

Having that kind of raw manifestation of one’s abilities and frame of mind has just become a part of how I live life.

Following up on cadence, perhaps: are there artists (or writers, musicians) to whom you regularly return—whose work continues to unfold? If so, who are they?

Without exaggerating, I have watched the American tv series The Office all the way through at least 15 times. The same for The Andy Griffith Show and Star Trek The Next Generation. All three are hopeful shows that balance crassness with kindness in a way that I enjoy getting to know well. It’s like the company of a reassuring friend; that sounds sad but the studio can be a necessarily lonely place. I also reread John Steinbeck and will for the rest of my life. My favorite is The Winter of Our Discontent.

Of course there are painters too, but with painting I am a voracious consumer and learn just as much from what I dislike. To just plug a few that have affected me and whom I feel I share some territory with: De Kooning and Rembrandt, Peter Blume, Catherine Murphy, Fairfield Porter and Lois Dodd, Frans Snyders and Philip Guston.

Please share a piece of good advice you were taught or told, and something useful you had to learn for yourself.

I’m an observer by nature and often fail to realize what’s going on because I’m engrossed in noticing details and thinking in image not words (some people mislabel this as “daydreaming”). I had a professor in college, Barry Gealt, who taught me so much because he is a very different type of person than I am. One thing he said, “I have opinions and you should too!” I thought, “Of course! That’s what I’ve been doing all along – forming opinions.” I needed someone saying the words to realize.

Thank you Neil!

Images included (all courtesy of Neil): Sleeping Porch, 2015, oil on muslin on panel, 48 x 48″; Dusty’s Workspace, 2012, oil on muslin on panel, 38 x 38″; Lindytron 1978 (off), 2015, oil on panel, 25 x 20″. View more at neilcallander.com

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“Double Valentine with Silenus”, 72″ x 84″, oil on linen, 2011

To paint the observation of a thing with care is to evoke tenderness, and to assume a posture of humbleness about one’s relationship to that subject.  Jessie Fisher’s paintings–seen recently in a survey in Kansas City–are made up of many such moments.  Virtuosity through generosity.  Taut linework creates both tension and resolution–a ribcage pushing outward against the skin covering, a folded cloth gently covering a man’s shoulders, a lock of curly hair.  Layers of paint create slightly-flushed skin tones.  A lot of these things defy reproduction, but are essential to the experience of the paintings.  
At the same time, the paintings are monumental-sized and deal with epic themes and narratives.  Moments of subtle and not-so-subtle pictorial ambiguity occurs in nearly all of the paintings–the reality of the studio in harmony with, and in conflict with, the subject of the paintings.  In The Vexations of Art, Svetlana Alpers writes about such occurences in the work of Vermeer and his contemporaries, “Pictorial ambiguity had, of course, been entertained by painters before the seventeenth century.  The difference that the studio makes is that it frames the ambiguity as originating under particular circumstances.  In the studio, the individual’s experience of the world can be staged as if it were at its beginning.”   Alpers concludes the section with a statement that seems especially appropriate to Jessie Fisher’s paintings: “This gives to studio painting its probing, forward lean.  It is a matter of discovery, not demonstration.”
In the interview that follows, Fisher discusses her studio practice, whether or not its useful to be conservative,  her use of pictorial ambiguity and other ideas that drive her work.  

Many of us don’t grow up with painting and art as part of our daily life, especially many of us away from the coasts and our routes into the fine arts are circuitous.  Was that your experience?  How and when did you say, ‘I’m going to do this?’
I was born in Omaha, Nebraska and after 6 months my family moved around a bit and found ourselves in Minneapolis where I grew up in a suburb called Wayzata, and to my mother’s excitement, attended college at the University of Minnesota, first as an architecture major, then mathematics with a Studio minor and then as a Fine Art major. When I made the switch to the art department I had planned on finding another school to attend but was offered an apprenticeship with a fresco painter which pretty much finished my undergraduate credits in Minneapolis. I attended the first year of the MFA program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with Scott Seebart (The painter whom I have been with since we were 17. We sat next to eachother in an art class. I asked him to come over to my house after school and help me paint a reflection on a blue bottle.) Realizing this program was not the right environment for us at the time, we dropped out, lived in a lovely green microbus, drove around the country visiting friends at various MFA programs.  We settled at the University of Iowa where I was finally able to take my first life drawing and painting courses at the age of 29. I had always wanted to be a figurative painter but had no methodology as to how to approach the subject, and in Iowa, I was able to sit in on numerous classes taught by Ron Cohen, as well as teach life drawing myself for several years which was essential as I was able to put into words what I had been struggling with. Teaching essentially allowed me to began my life as a serious painter. I applied for a position at the Kansas City Art Institute and am currently an Associate Professor in Painting where I teach amazing students in their sophomore year in painting and elective drawing courses that focus on Life Drawing and Sculpture.

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Suzanne Dittenber, “Untitled”, 2015, oil on canvas, 60″ x 96″

We began this interview with Suzanne Dittenber over a year ago.  Shortly after agreeing to participate, Dittenber’s work started to change.  We decided to put off finishing the interview while she focused on her studio.  Once Dittenber felt ready, she came back to the original questions, though a few didn’t really apply to the new work.  In responding to the out-0f-date questions by addressing the changes that had taken place in the work, the focus of the interview becomes assessing change, the effect of place, and the core concerns rooted in an artist’s work that might grow in any number of directions over the course of a life and career.

Visit Dittenber’s website to see more of her work.

Please give our readers a little bit of information about yourself (upbringing, education, location, news, etc.):

 

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio where I received my BFA from Columbus College of Art and Design, and spent a semester studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After graduating from CCAD, I moved to southeast Utah where I spent a summer working for the National Park Service as a park ranger – a great experience and visual feast.

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Teresa Dunn, “Cleaning Out the Rabbit Hole”, 30″ x 24″, oil on panel, 2009

 

Here’s another installment of our series, asking a painter how she or he decides a painting is “finished”.  This one comes from Teresa Dunn, a painter living in Lansing, MI.  Her most recent solo exhibition were at Hooks-Epstein Gallery in Houston and First Street Gallery in New York.  In this interview, Teresa counters with the idea of being good at lingering on painting, and how it is exciting to make an object that feels like a move toward rather than an end itself.

Are you a good closer?

I have been both a good closer and a not so good closer. I am not convinced it is a good thing for me to be a good closer. In fact, being a slow closer seems to be a more positive and productive experience for my paintings. At recent body of narrative paintings work that I had developed over the last few years ended with the paintings coming to a close too quickly. Perhaps this was due to too much solving in collage studies, maybe I’d lost touch with observation, or the story telling ideas had just lost their luster and I was painting to the image. Since ending that body of works I have made an abrupt and clean break from almost everything familiar to my previous processes and ideas. This has effectively made me a bad closer but a good lingerer. I linger in surface, color, and the sensation of a fresh discovery. I hope to simultaneously maintain the drama of initial and frantic notation while developing a deeper connection to the senses. This means leaving many discernable traces of imagery behind, abandoning (for now) the story and the figure, and placing roadblocks in my way when I am in danger of knowing and showing too much. I am enjoying the space of discovery, the unknown, risk, keeping closure at bay.

Is it easy or difficult for you to be finished with a piece?  Do you make a clean break or let it go kicking and screaming?

Currently it is difficult to call any of my works finished and difficult to want to be finished. While in the past I have been committed to working one painting at a time until I can do no more, it seems almost necessary to juggle multiple pieces, moving back and forth between differing degrees of open and close. Although when I find resolution or certain satisfaction, I can let the work go, even if everything isn’t solidified. If a painting points to something else engaging I move towards that. I need to re-open the new question in a fresh surface where it has room to run and breathe.  

When you call it done are you smiling?  Is your relationship to finishing troubling to you at all?

With this new work I feel both relief and an enduring itch when I set a piece aside. Ideas that are still unresolved, or maybe questions that emerge during the painting process are wide open to be explored in new work.

How do you see yourself compared to your peers, in terms of how easily you call an artwork finished?  How much does the idea of calling things finished affect the type of painting you make or how you define yourself as a painter?

Finished and resolved are two different things for me. A degree of polish used to be a marker of finishing a painting, or pushing an image to an envisioned zone. That is not important to me now as an overall goal. I prefer to gauge my work through resolve. Am I resolving the painting through surface intrigue, unexpected mark making, variety in tightness or looseness, breadth of pattern and texture, atmospheric sensibility, and sensuality in color and touch. What this adds up to for my current paintings are making images that are abstractions or moving towards abstraction. Yet I am much more in touch with observing the world around me than I have been in years. This is not to say that there isn’t a sense of object-hood or figuration. Only that thingness and the narrative are taking a back seat.

Any other thoughts on finishing?

Perhaps the figure, the story, and illusion will filter back into the work in more discernable ways. Maybe I will find more importance in closing again. But I am relishing the world of lingering. Being immersed in the painting stew where colors and surfaces simmer and bubble is a really exciting place to be.

Great!  Thanks, Teresa!

UPDATE:  Here’s one of the recent paintings referenced above:

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60″ x 118″, oil on paper mounted on canvas, 2015

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Paul Sattler, “Remedy”, 66″ x 66″, oil on canvas, 2015

Artist Paul Sattler has a new exhibit opening at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY, titled Remedy: About a Decade of Painting.  The show includes 20 paintings made over the last ten years, including 10 from a super-productive 2015.   You can read our 2009 interview with Sattler here.

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Full Phase

“Full Phase”, 2014, oil on canvas, 78″ x 96″

Eric Sall returns to Kansas City with an exhibit, Full Phase, at Haw Contemporary.  Sall is an artist we have followed for a long time.  We have discussed enthusiastically here on MWC; and we reprinted an interview he conducted with late Kansas City artist Lester Goldman, but we have never spoken to Sall himself.  With this new ambitious body of work, it seemed like time to reach out.  The paintings in Full Phase has a lot in common with the paintings he’s made in the past.  The Day Glo colors, stripes, gooey paint, more stripes are all there. He’s also absorbed some new forms.   The most exciting new twists evoke traditional blankets and patchwork quilts.  Key parts of the interview that follows discuss his process and the material parts of his paintings.  I want to thank Dennis Helsel for suggesting a question or two in this interview.

 Please give our readers a little bit of information about yourself.

I grew up in the small city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. In high school I lived out in the Black Hills in the Lead-Deadwood area, where Western legends Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane used to reside. I then went to the Kansas City Art Institute for college and later on went to [Virginia Commonwealth University] for my Master’s in painting.

 Many of us don’t grow up with painting and art as part of our daily life, our routes into the fine arts are circuitous.  Was that your experience?  How and when did you say, ‘I’m going to do this’?

I always loved to draw as a child but I probably really got into art through skateboarding. I was pretty bad at traditional sports so it makes sense that I was so drawn to the culture of skateboarding which seemed to embrace all the “different” kids, especially back  in the late 80’s/early 90’s when skateboarding was more counterculture. Plus my older sister Emily was hanging out with all the punks and skaters and I desperately wanted to be cool like her and her friends. It turned out that I was actually pretty good at skateboarding, and like most teens I thought I could become pro and that was my dream. Skateboarding introduced me to new forms of music and different styles of visual art, and most importantly it gave me a sense of independence, focus and determination that I hadn’t had before. That is probably when I first started thinking like an artist without even knowing it. A big part of skateboarding is about learning your way through constant exposure, absorption, interpretation, trial and error, and lots of failure. In a way it is very similar to painting.

Coinciding with that, I attended a pretty small high school but I had a fantastic art teacher who gave me a lot of freedom in class to try knew things. I remember having huge amounts of Utrecht oil paint available to us, and I was one of the kids who liked to use a lot of it up, so I was experimenting with texture and surface and process all through my four years of high school. I knew about the Kansas City Art Institute after having spent a year living in KC during my early teen years, and I basically just assumed that I would go there after high school. Fortunately I got in because it was the only college I applied to.

Frazada

“Frazada”, 2014, oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″

What is a day in the studio like for you?

 I don’t have a set routine as far as hours spent working or anything like that, but I do have a routine when I get in there.  I change into work clothes, put on my Crocs, put on some music and then just get busy. Sometimes I have to clean up a mess left behind from a previous session. Or sometimes I just want to spend some time looking at what I’m working on.  I don’t have a lot of leisure time in my studio so I try to make the most efficient use of any time I get. My wife [Rachel Hayes] is an artist too and we have two small kids at home still. We both work full time on our art, so we have to find a balance of being in the studio and being with the kids that is pretty organic. Sometimes I go for weeks not being in the studio if Rachel is working on a deadline and vice versa, but that is okay, because there is always plenty of work to do that doesn’t necessarily take place in the studio. Emailing, researching, working on applications, sourcing materials, running errands, etc, etc etc.

Tell us about one useful thing you were taught or told.

How to build a stretcher. Something we were taught as sophomore painters at the Kansas City Art Institute. I made my own stretchers for years, and then when I lived in Brooklyn I payed someone to make my stretchers out of pure convenience. Time is everything there and I never seemed to have enough. But there is something deeply satisfying about building your own great stretchers and I’m happy to have made several recently.

What is the hard part of painting for you?

Walking away from a painting and calling it finished.

What is the fun part?

The beginning of a painting, making the first moves on a new canvas.

What are you getting better at?

Walking away from a painting and calling it finished.

Are you an improviser?

Definitely.

Hodgepodge

“Hodgepodge”, 2014, oil, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 78″ x 96″

A friend suggested I ask what your thoughts are on the current state of abstract painting.  It’s a great question, but let’s put it a little less “wide angle.”  Thinking about larger contexts; about the ideas and forms being used or neglected by current abstract painters; about pressures to be allied with, or opposed to the work or motivations of one’s contemporaries– how useful is that to you?  Does that way of thinking have a role in your work?  

 I definitely like to be aware of what’s going on with contemporary painting and think it is important to know about, especially since I have been living in the middle of nowhere for a while. But honestly it has almost zero affect on me in the studio. I actually make better work when I’m not obsessing about other painters or comparing my work to other work. There is just so much work being made now, good and bad, abstract and not, painting or whatever. And we can see it all so easily online, on our phones, on Instagram. Sometimes I see work that I think of as being a similar type as mine, and then I see work that seems so different than mine. I think you kind of find the things that you’re drawn to and that move you regardless. I guess I’ve never really felt like I had to take a stance against a certain type of painting or had to align myself with a certain group. I just don’t think it is that important anymore.  

Your paintings overall have kind of a friendly, playful, maybe nostalgic vibe.  But there’s often a little gritty, grungy bit in there some where, in terms of color or texture, things that look wiped down or scraped out.  I am curious to know more about those bits.  Is this something that’s done totally intentionally, like you walk into the studio one day and say, “now I’m painting the messy part?”  Or is it more a part of the process, evidence of an earlier state that’s been interrupted or overridden?

It’s a little bit of both, but I might describe it a little differently. I  wouldn’t say that it is an attempt to paint the “messy” part per se, but there are times where I feel like things need to be agitated in a way…that could mean doing something like dragging thick paint over the top of a flatly-painted area, or scraping out a specific shape in order to obscure it somehow. These things also happen when I think something is failing in a painting and I just want to wipe things away or scrape off bad areas. It is just a gut reaction, and often those bits are just a real part of the process. Wet paint drips. Thick paint clumps. Colors bleed into each other and make new colors. Sometimes chunks fall down and land somewhere else on the canvas. But then I’ll do something intentional like painting a hard-edged geometric shape on top of an area of thick texture or heavy impasto. It is a constant dance between intention and accident, and that is one of the reasons why I am such an improviser.   

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“Grey Painting”, 2013, oil on canvas, 66″ x 50″

Is there anything else we should be asking you about, that’s relevant to your work right now?  Do you ever see deer in your front yard, or where’s the best place for coffee around there, anything like that we should know about?

I’ve been living in Roswell, NM since last summer with my wife Rachel Hayes and our two kids while Rachel and I attended the Roswell Artist-in-Residence program. The compound is pretty rural, all of the houses and studios sit in the middle of 40 acres of desert brush landscape. So yes, we do see deer, fox, roadrunners, lots of lizards, scorpions, tarantulas and plenty of other exciting stuff! There is an incredible sense of open space here, which for me feels great. I feel very free in life and very focused in my studio. But that will inevitably change and who knows what the effect will be. We seem to move somewhere new every year or two, and from here we are moving to Tulsa, OK for another residency where we will live and work right downtown, and I know that will have a different influence on my work. Each place does.

 

Thank you, Eric!  Best luck on the show!

 

Read more MWC artist interviews here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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