Greetings from my separate studio to yours.
A note about what this next chapter will look like for Painters on Paintings: we are starting an Art in Isolation series. We are asking for your thoughts on art that is helping you through this time and also how your own practice is shifting. If you are interested in writing for us, please send an email.
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I’ll start with some words about my last few months. I’ve spent them with artist friends upstate. As a single person, I’ve had the rare opportunity to live with three of the closest women in my life and their partners, closed off from the rest of the world, turned in towards each other.
My days have been strung through with gratitude. Not the kind that sits in the drawer collecting dust next to the ball of ennui, but the bright, county-fair-at-night gratitude, that shoots fireworks up my spine and waterworks down my cheeks at the smallest things.
There was an evening not that long ago (March 11th, says my calendar), when Julie and I (your co-editors) were standing among Kyle Staver’s comic, monumental figures in the Zurcher Gallery in the Lower East Side. I drove us there on empty streets. It was a room full of friends — our particular multigenerational painter community prone to unhip dance parties and general silliness. But the dj was sent home. We knocked elbows timidly and stole glances at each other over small glasses of white wine. Distance had sprouted up between us. We were already on the other side of something.
A few days later, an email informed me that Pratt classes would not resume in person this semester. I thought about this for a minute and then called Julie. “Mind if I move in with you?” I took the next day to pack my Subaru with a month’s worth of groceries and the essential art supplies – the ones that make the cut for residencies. I left the sculpey, the fish tanks, the half-renovated dollhouse and drove north.
I took the familiar route to Woodstock, to Julie’s home, which she has opened to me more times than I can count. Woodstock was a welcome sight – familiar from my time with her as well as a long stint at the Byrdcliffe Artist Colony. So, although the sidewalks were empty, each turn in the road was populated by a lively memory – teetering cones of Nancy’s vegan ice-cream, a surreptitious kiss behind Byrdcliffe’s pottery barn, the flailing bodies of the full moon drum circle, the bright bell of the door at Catskill Art and Office Supply. I paid the latter a visit on one of its last days and bought their entire stock of primed and unprimed canvas.
Even though I had oils and those endless virgin scrolls, I found myself working small. I gravitated to my friend’s 3-inch watercolor kit and a couple of half-dried gouache tubes and began making little drawings and washy sketch-paintings of the people I was with and the spaces I was in. What I didn’t sketch, I wrote down, in long fractured Word documents, documents which spawned other, longer, more fractured Word documents. I noticed I was collecting intimate moments and the memories of intimacy they recalled. I was an old lady collecting sea glass. If it was shiny, I picked it up.
My paintings are usually fanciful. They deal, not in flights of fancy, but in amalgams, imagined futures, chimera structures, and spliced landscapes. Some are warnings, some contingency plans. Most are spaces that have undergone some trauma and are in the process of rebuilding. I teach a class on world building at Pratt, with unit on utopian/dystopian literature and art as well as the apocalyptic and what comes after. I’ve been a devout reader of speculative fiction since before it was cool and dream about natural or manmade earth-altering disasters weekly. It’s in my bones, a child of ecologists who heard the canary call early. I shuffle and reorder destruction as a way of bearing witness to the real ills of the world and how they are doled out constantly and unjustly.
But now my hyperactive “what if” asking has slowed and my hand is gravitating more to the here and now. Julie too, who I consider a master of the imaginary, has been working on a longform piece of non-fiction. I won’t say more because that is her story to tell. But it makes me wonder, who else has turned to record keeping?
After a chapter at Julie’s, I drove to an artist friend’s house perched in the chilly foothills of the Catskills. As soon as I had set my last of fourteen grocery bags down, she announced that she was pregnant. We spent the next few weeks charting the changes in her body with awe. I sketched her napping, which she did quite often, and taking baths, which she did when she wasn’t napping. I liked mapping the swell of her body. I liked the finite time and energy exchanged over the course of a sketch. I talk about this in my drawing classes but had somehow forgotten its power. I also drew all kinds of other things: a friend’s Instagram livestream, my dream about the mermaid from Splash, goldfinch feathers I found by the pond, and the novel The Goldfinch.
Zaria Sleeping, 2020, Pencil on paper
At the same time, I’ve been drawn to other people’s non-fiction, confessional works. I’m listening to Perfume Genius on repeat and devouring Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Here is Ocean writing about Perfume Genius:
“Can disruption be beautiful? Can it, through new ways of embodying joy and power, become a way of thinking and living in a world burning at the edges? Hearing Perfume Genius, one realizes that the answer is not only yes — but that it arrived years ago, when Mike Hadreas, at age 26, decided to take his life and art in to his own hands, his own mouth. In doing so, he recast what we understand as music into a weather of feeling and thinking, one where the body (queer, healing, troubled, wounded, possible and gorgeous) sings itself into its future.”
I suppose I am looking both for advice on how to live through something hard, and how to spin art from it. I’m also weaning myself on Sugar Calling, a podcast where author and advice columnist Cheryl Strayed turns the tables and asks her Elders in the literary arts, including George Saunders and Margaret Atwood, for advice on processing and making work during this time. Saunders reads an email he wrote to his MFA students:
“This is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds… We are, and especially you are, the generation that is going to have to make sense of this and recover afterwards… Are you keeping records of the emails and texts you’re getting, the thoughts you’re having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living? It’s all important… What you are able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you are paying now and what records you keep. Also, I think, with how open you can keep your heart.”
I have no conclusions to draw. I will keep drawing what I see. And we will use this platform to archive other voices during this time. Thank you for helping grow this collection.
Elizabeth Thompson, Calling the Roll After An Engagement, Crimea, 1874, Oil on canvas, 36.7 × 72.2 inches, Queen Victoria’s Royal Collection
I wanted to draw your attention to the first episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, in which he looks at the career of painter Elizabeth Thompson as a way to think about tokenism, moral licensing, and being the first outsider to enter a closed world. Thompson painted the masterpiece The Roll Call in 1874, and it was hung in a coveted position in the front gallery of the Royal Academy of Art – an honor unheard of for a female artist. At the time when paintings were equivalent to blockbuster Marvel movies, The Roll Call traveled the continent drawing hundreds of thousands of eyes. With that much popularity, she should have been a shoe-in for membership in the Academy. But she lost by two votes and her next masterpiece was hidden in the Academy’s rafters. She then disappeared from the art world stage and it would be 60 years before a female member was elected. Gladwell’s interpretation of why is worth a listen. Link HERE.
Shifting the focus of Painters on Paintings temporarily, I wanted to share with you this episode from the podcast The Ezra Klein Show where he interviews Jaron Lanier. For those of you who might not be aware of him Lanier was a pioneer in virtual reality and coined the term. He was part of the contingent of thought leaders emerging from the ashes of the 60s who rejected psychedelics as a mechanism for broadening and deepening human consciousness, championing instead the then incipient fields of cybernetics and electronic technology. Since then he has remained on the frontier of electronic technology, defining, and lately redefining, the radical and revolutionary role it plays in human evolution.
Lanier is very critical of how social media has been engineered to optimize traffic for profit through appealing to our lesser natures, i.e., our brain’s penchant for favoring negative emotions over positive ones. He contributes some important ideas about social engineering, using examples from the Arab Spring, women within video game culture, and Black Lives Matter, describing how what starts out as very positive social movements by individuals rallying to improve the lives of a subset of the larger culture quickly gets subverted by groups who are against such change, through their negative social media posts. Due to our greater attraction to negative emotions those posts ultimately eclipse the initial positive ones as they gain traction in the social media swamp. Because the design of social media maximizes those posts that get more hits and retweets, any positive social gains from the original movement get quickly transformed through the algorithms of social media into a negative backlash. And Twitter and Facebook thereby profit. “You engage people by ruining society and that is the current business model,” says Lanier.
— Julie Heffernan
Painters on Paintings Editor Julie Heffernan reflects on three current painting shows in New York City.
Photographs as tools for artmaking are as common and tacit as the pencil, but for many years, when I was young, I believed that painting based on copying photos was the death of creative invention. I thought that because I, myself, was so dependent on them, and knew they had me too much in their thrall. Using a projector was even worse, I thought – nipping in the bud the development of the eye; only purely conceptual artists could get away with it. Even then, most of those, whether Photo-Realists or Pop artists, seemed to have abdicated some important aspect of their own potential as creative weirdos, the kind of peculiar inventiveness that would have been theirs alone, was my belief. In the hands of great artists –Bonnard, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas — the photograph might jumpstart the painting to become something unique and other; otherwise the ghost of the photo often felt too evident, intruding into the final artwork, weakening it with the photograph’s greater technological star power.
It was when artists started telling stories again, in the 80s, that I began to understand how to use the photograph, now as just a tool. How could Eric Fischl tell us all his great adolescent male secrets without them, or Angela Dufresne wade into the goo of her painterly love affairs with Gina Rowlands, or Ellen Harvey mark the transitions of a life using all her driver’s licenses over time? In the hands of an adept, the photograph became as necessary a conceptual and technical tool as the palette knife.
Rather than detracting, that very ghost lurking behind the scrim of the image radically informs the work of several artists showing now in New York. Three artists with NY solo exhibitions that stand out in this capacity are Doron Langberg at Yossi Milo Gallery, Polina Barskaya at Monya Rowe Gallery and Heide Fasnacht at Dorsky Curatorial Projects, opening on September 29.
Doron Langberg, Daniel Reading, 2019, Oil on linen, 96 x 160 inches
In his work, Doron Langberg slides right past the photograph, using it only to surf the high seas of liquid paint with encrustations of denser matter that together tell stories of friends and family, tales that rupture from within as flagrant paint and shape take over the dictates of resemblance. He uses the ubiquitous family photo to take us into domestic settings where, now, rapture trumps the quotidien, and we are all invited to the scene of seduction.
Polina Barskaya, Vence, 2019, Acrylic on panel, 20 x 24 inches, Courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery, New York
Polina Barskaya uses the flattening properties of acrylic paint to create dual worlds — interior and exterior. Light and color are harnessed to describe intimate moments that invite you into their whispering intricacies. Interiors groan with dull palettes of gray while some exterior event seen through the window glows with the kind of radiance that only a framework of tertiaries could conjure.
Heide Fasnacht, Mid Ocean Explosion, 2000-2001, Graphite on paper, 22 x 30 inches
And Heide Fasnacht uses the photograph’s function as record keeper to explore phantasms of destruction. The Devil is in the details, and hers bring home their lessons on what man has wrought. Her fine use of subtle tonality and suggestive touch allow the viewer to feel up close and personal to events whose destructive potential would otherwise overwhelm.
Upcoming: Painters on Paintings Panel at the National Academy with Eric Fischl, Peter Saul & Dana Schutz, moderated by Julie Heffernan
Please join Painters on Paintings Co-Founder Julie Heffernan for a panel with Eric Fischl, Dana Schutz, and Peter Saul at the National Academy of Design on Sept 25th. These celebrated artists will discuss the work of other artists they admire.
In David Humphrey’s first post with Painters on Paintings in 2014 on James Ensor’s Protrait of Augusta Boogaerts, he talks about misreading as a way into insight. Mistaking Nietzsche’s thoughts on revelation as “flesh of light,” (instead of the correct but much less interesting “flash of light”) Humphrey sees into Ensor’s work in a new way, with that epiphanic flesh of Augusta Boogaerts igniting ideas for both him and Humphrey about Ensor’s deeper relationship to his partner.
Similarly Sarah Slappey, in her post about James Ensor’s Tribulation of St. Anthony from 2016, sees the paint-made-flesh of Ensor’s demons and monsters as distinctly different from those of Bosch and Breughel in paintings of the same subject. Ensor’s are more the stuff of psychic horror, nightmares of the mind, than graphic representations of the horrors of hell. In Ensor’s world, the “flesh of light” turns something potentially prosaic into the stuff of the visionary.
Barry Nemett, in his 2016 post on Gwen John’s A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, explores how the light dissolves form and allows us to see even the most humble and utilitarian of objects — a chair or parasol –as revelatory and transcendent. All the various objects in John’s room lose their individuality and materiality, as they leave the world of solid form and become themselves a kind of flesh of light, reminding Nemett of lullabies wafting in from the open window of his childhood.
Many of my favorite powerful women friends are tending towards the hating end of the spectrum when I ask them what they think of I Love Dick, the new 8-part Amazon series directed by Jill Solloway. I direct them to this or that review, almost all overwhelmingly favorable, but Facebook comments sum up their consternation with comments about the Chris character being just so uncomfortable to watch. Solloway has put herself to the task of defining the female gaze in this show, and one thing Chris is not going to allow is to be made into the object of any *#$@& male gaze.
Most of you know by now I Love Dick is based on the book by Chris Kraus, played by Kathryn Hahn, inspired by her infatuation with the media theorist Dick Hebdige, now a Donald Judd-esque character named Dick Jarrett, played by Kevin Bacon. Chris is holed up in Marfa, TX, having accompanied her husband, Sylvere, on his residency there after the Venice Biennale rejected her film. After one conversation with Dick at a reception she becomes obsessed with him and starts writing a series of highly unladylike letters addressed to him, that she eventually turns into her art and plasters all over town. She has made Dick her muse, and he doesn’t like it one bit. (“It’s humiliating,” he says.)
Kathryn Hahn plays Chris as a highly verbal, highly emotional, uncorked headcase, but she’s wonderful- my kind of woman. She’s the id in all of us who were brought up not to rock the boat, to be gracious, self-effacing and even demure where need be. Not so Chris. She won’t be silenced, and she won’t lie about her passion either, to her husband or to Dick: it’s precious and she nurses it like a woman unscorn-able, with no concerns about how others might see her or what the object of her affections might think of her. But she’s super vulnerable too, and can feel the pea under the mattress as well as any princess.
Beyond that though, there is something for every member of the art world here, television and movies pretty much always getting us wrong (think Daryl Hannah in her super sized loft studio playing a starving artist in Legal Eagles, or how in Red, the Mark Rothko character primes his canvas with red paint rather than white, necessary for maintaining luminosity of later layers of paint). Along with earthworks there is conceptual and performance art, and a single brick laid on a pedestal like a piece of perfect form (“A straight line is perfection,” says Dick), and the Institute itself is filled with minimalist painting and sculpture that, by the end of the show the African American female curator Paula (Lily Mojekwu)- sick to death of all that dry and withholding (read “male”) work, replaces all of it with work by Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon, among other distinctly non-withholding artists. Hoots from the audience in our tv room!
But it was the ending that I really loved-spoiler alert! Kraus finally finds herself alone with Dick in his farmhouse, his attraction for her made plain at last. As they mutually engage in wild fondling, Dick murmurs lustily, “Oh you’re so wet,” but it turns out that she’s started her period and all that male-thrilling vaginal wetness is really menstrual blood. Rather than going with it and wrapping himself in all her various juices Dick instead excuses himself to go clean up, at which point Chris takes a breath, picks up his ten-gallon cowboy hat, puts it on her head and walks out of his house, into the dawn, blood smeared all over her inner thigh.
Ladies, any of you who have had a guy get turned off at your lady-time – take heed! Blood is life and Dick is only a fledgling in that deep sea of knowledge.
— Julie Heffernan
The editors of Painters on Paintings are traveling this summer and thought we’d share some observations on the art we’re seeing abroad. Virginia is attending Documenta in Athens and Kassel and will be painting in Berlin through August. Julie will spend a month at the Bau Institute arts residency in Cassis, France. Here are some musings on Frida Kahlo from her recent visit to Mexico City.
According to a Mexican acquaintance of mine Frida Kahlo is considered south of the border, nothing more than kitsch, in the same vein as Norman Rockwell here, her popularity a signal that her work shouldn’t be trusted since it is simply too likeable. She offers so much to so many different interest groups: mediocre paintings for beginning painting students (Marxism will give Health to the Sick) and great paintings for the connoisseurs (Broken Column, What the Water Gave Me), upbeat quotes for the footless (“Feet what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?”), a brilliant fashion sense for Rei Kawakubo and Ricardo Tischi of Givenchy, profound sorrow and rejection in love for the double-crossed and cuckolded alike (Diego screwed her sister!), and affairs with Trotsky for Oberlin students. What else do you need from an artist to win the love of everyone but the suspicious intelligentsia?
I went to Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul while on a recent trip to Mexico City and found myself regretting that I had ever heard about her haters from my colleague, wondering why crossover art tends to trigger so much disdain and whether Kahlo might just be that rare thing: the artist that is truly popular and serious. If I wasn’t convinced by the work (which I am) I became so by her kitchen. She filled it with ceramic pots and painted the floor bright yellow with blue and yellow wooden counters. She and Diego rejected conventional stoves, using instead a huge clay pot with a wood fire beneath it– the indigenous chimenea–which infused everything they cooked with the fragrant nuttiness of pecan wood, or the delicate sweetness of mesquite. And there was a recipe for mole on her kitchen wall that had more flavors and spices than I ever could have imagined combining within the same pot.
I’m aware that Kahlo isn’t lacking in fans. I just want to put it out there, as Mary Oliver says, that it’s ok to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. And in 2012 Patti Smith had the press conference for her first show in Mexico City at the Casa Azul. So, there you go, doubters – no one could ever accuse Patti Smith of being kitsch.
“Intimacy, says the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, is the highest value. I resist this statement at first. What about artistic achievement, or moral courage, or heroism, or altruistic acts, or work in the cause of social change? What about wealth or accomplishment? And yet something about it rings true, finally—that what we want is to be brought into relationship, to be inside, within. Perhaps it’s true that nothing matters more to us than that.” – Mark Doty
Gazing at a painting invites a deep sense of intimacy. At the Met, looking at Dieric Bouts’ Virgin and Child, I am thinking about the image of Mother and Child as one of the central icons of pre-20th century Western art. Christian indoctrination aside, gazing upon this mom and baby as tropes for pure innocence and fusion– our own original innocence and that of humankind’s, and our core relationship with the other in the form of mother— all of those stimuli together have the capacity to short circuit our questioning natures and bring us to a place of pure, infantile responsiveness, before the formation of human subjectivity through representations of class or identity and all those factors that produce the category of self. What is most powerful about that painting is how the immediacy of my apprehension of it is central to the experience of seeing it; the fact that I can take it in in an instant, like a kiss or a sock in the nose. It is so intimate. Unlike all those art forms that depend on time to reveal their content and pleasures –music, theater, literature, installation art– painting allows the brain to experience the thrill of instantaneity; I know immediately if I am moved or not, even if later reflections offer up different responses– and I feel the intensity of that return to my own inwardness. I experience subjectivity itself, immediately and unmediated, like the children we once were.
Dieric Bouts, Virgin and Child, 455–60, Oil on wood, 8 1/2 x 6 1/2 inches
Welcome readers to our newly re-designed Painters on Paintings website. We will be using this section as a weekly column to highlight current shows, art-related events, cultural zeitgeists, and what we’ve seen lately, or wish to see, in the New York art world.
Our new website allows us to showcase the wisdom of our contributors in our large archive of Painters on Paintings essays in a way that provides more visibility and context. A big thank you to our web designer, artist Sara Bouchard.
We are launching this site with an essay by Barkley Hendricks. Hendricks, who has worked since the 1960’s in many mediums, including photography and fashion, is a living icon of figurative painting. He is most lauded for his portrait work featuring primarily African American subjects from cities in the Northeast. His style and subject matter are as much personal as political, but his role in opening the door for figurative artists, artists of color, creating space for black bodies in museums, and impacting a generation of young artists cannot be overstated. Your PoP editor, Virginia, is one such artist, who had the pleasure of working with Hendricks in 2006 at the Yale Norfolk residency.
We (Julie and Virginia) participated in the Women’s March on Washington in January and since have dedicated a great deal of energy to thinking about art and activism, engaging in local protests and grassroots campaigns. We are troubled by the new administration’s racist, xenophobic, anti-art, anti-science, anti-women policies.
We hope that our work as teachers and painters can contribute to building supportive, inclusive spaces and visions for progressive change. On this platform, we look forward to a continuing dynamic discussion among artists about what drives and inspires them. Please share your ideas and send us your essays about art that challenges, expands, and makes an impact.
Virginia and Julie