What art are you looking at during this time? How has your studio practice shifted?
A month ago, PoP sent me these questions. It’s taken me a while to sort out my answer, because “this time” isn’t just now. Four years of political pounding has wrecked my studio habits. I used to be so private, as in never-interrupt-me-I’m-in-the-zone-do-not-knock-on-my-door-go-away. Now, I disrupt myself all the time with my own anxiety.
To illustrate, in a quiet corner, on my south studio wall, is a Janice Nowinski I bought last fall. This painting is a tiny knockout, awkward, intimate and private. I should hang her in the house, but I see her more here. She keeps me company and taunts my paintings. “Be this good,” she says.
Janice Nowinski, Nude with Long Black Hair, 2019, oil on board, 7 ½ x 9 ½”
Janice and I are in the same tribe—the slow nudgers. We spend eons mulling over the same few inches, pushing paint back and forth like tuning ancient radios. For the last 30 years, my studio practice has meant slowly, privately, painting this way.
Facing east, here’s my painting wall today. If all goes well, I dig in and paint for hours, but lately that’s the exception.
Peter Williams, Sandra Bland, 2016, oil on canvas, 72 x 6o”
This is Peter Williams. This is also the world hitting me over the head. I’ve been looking hard at Peter’s work this year. I’ll add, Peter owns several of Janice’s paintings, so we love the same painter. But Peter—and by “Peter” I mean “the world”—is so demanding. Janice’s work comes from the quiet corner; Peter’s is brash and noisy. His paintings are deft, fluid, abrasively musical, and not private. They begin with personal pain but their impact is political and epic.
These two artists represent my dilemma: private vs. public, personal vs. political. To paint, I stretch a membrane of concentration around myself, but this now keeps ripping. I feel terrible fear that if I stop paying attention to the world, we’ll fall off the edge of the earth and it will be my fault. For me, pandemic quarantine is more of the same, but now the explosive urgency surrounding George Floyd’s murder makes my introspective paintings feel… to me… irrelevant.
Peter Williams, Specimen, 2017, oil on canvas, 72 x 60″
So, I think about Peter’s paintings. I think about their fundamental contradiction. They are an exquisite gutting. He paints, with reverence, the eviscerated body of monumental oppression. His artistic kin include Grünewald, Kahlo, Salcedo and Marshall. I think about what Peter refuses us—illusion and comfort. And I think and about what he gives us—empathy, and a deep love for painting. These gifts then push me back to work. And, when I’m working, worry disappears. My introverted pleasure over-rides everything
Matthias Grünewald, The Small Crucifix, c. 1511/1520, oil on panel, 29 ¼ x 23 ¼”
Kerry James Marshall, A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980, egg tempera on paper, 8 x 6 ½”
Frida Kahlo, My Birth, 1932, oil on metal panel, 12 x 14”
Doris Salcedo, Installation, 8th International Istanbul Biennial, 2003
A few days ago, I was zooming with my friend, the painter Tully Satre, about all of this—white guilt, fear, ruined concentration, hating Trump, activism, and loving painting. Tully consoled me by quoting Susanna Coffey. She said to him, and so he said to me, “If you don’t make your paintings, who will?”
Anne Harris, Portrait (Newborn), in progress, oil on panel, 11 x 9″
Anne Harris’s work is in such public collections as the Fogg Museum at Harvard, the New York Public Library and the Portland Museum of Art. Awards received include a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA Individual Artists Fellowship. Harris teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is Chair of the Exhibition Committee for the Riverside Arts Center. Harris is also the originator of The Mind’s I, a traveling expanding drawing project she does with other artists. Mind’s I events have taken place across the country and internationally. Harris lives with her family in Riverside, IL, just outside Chicago. Her studio is behind her house.