Monday, January 12, 2015

Melissa Brown

There are lots of things I like to think I might be able to do if I tried, knowing full well that I will probably never do them. Directing a play, for example, or making a beef wellington. I recently visited with Melissa Brown while she was getting ready for her solo project at Essex Flowers that opens this Sunday, January 18th. I was reminded that not everyone merely thinks about what they might be able to do, but some actually do it and do it really well. Brown has been making stop-animations and paintings in tandem for some time now, not to mention the fantastic prints that are also part of her repertoire. It seems like an easy enough transition from making paintings to animations, but as I discovered on our visit, it takes a lot of finessed imagination, makeshift mastery, and patience to actually do it. We got to work right away, seeing as she had a deadline and I had a drawing to make.

Melissa had three paintings in three different stages of completion up when I visited. They stood long and tall against her walls and I immediately got tangled up in their hot colors and intertwining patterns and shapes. Having followed Brown's work for awhile now, I was very aware of how her newer paintings were taking me to an even more fantastical place than ever before. The story of this place was now being fleshed out by fuzzy edged objects and suggestions of characters or possible situations, as opposed to the more naturalistic landscape references of the previous work. We talked about Melissa's interest in gambling and casinos and the fantasy and spectacle that surround both. Her imagery picks up on that particularly bizarre energy —literally—through the depiction of things like lotto tickets that seem to vibrate in their pre-scratched off state and card suit symbols dancing with bling. It also alludes to the low roller's dream of what "could be,"  after hearing the sounds of a winning slot machine, with tripped out palm tree mirages suggesting destinations for the newly rich. From what I saw of its completion, her animation also closely relates to the subject of gambling culture using some of the same players as the paintings. I imagine the show might put you right in the middle of one of Atlantic City's casinos on a Monday night at 3 am.

It was pretty cool to look up from my drawing to see a single click of her camera before she made a slight change in her composition and clicked again. Only occasionally did we glance up at one another as our conversations went from art to travel to food and back to art again. A couple of glasses of red wine helped us keep warm, even though she had warned me it might be cold in her studio. Located in a predominately Caribbean neighborhood, Melissa also set me up with an amazing and self-proclaimed "best" jerk chicken. Obviously, I am trying to figure out a way to draw her studio again. To see more of her work go here and don't miss her opening this Sunday the 18th at Essex Flowers.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Saira McLaren

 I was glad to be able to sneak in an evening visit with Saira McLaren just before settling into all the holiday hullabaloo a few weeks ago. We met at Graham and Meeker to walk the last few blocks to her new studio space while dodging the cold rain that slowly began to fade in our favor. Housed in a building whose second floor was recently built out for studios, fortuitously by artists, McLaren and her Husband Mike Hein have spaces side by side. Saira, knee deep in preparation for her solo show at Sargent's Daughters opening January 8th, set me up with a cozy seat and quickly got to work. We commented on the dry cleaner's radio station choices that we could hear through the walls as we settled in for the night. Decidedly, we liked it when they landed on the soft rock.

Like much good painting, McLaren's deceptively effortless process convinces the viewer that the cool and composed serenity of the canvas comes from no more then a few moments of deliberation. In actuality it is a collaboration of many thoughtful moments, pure pigment stains and perfectly timed drying sessions that eventually lead to her paintings' satisfying end results. This is where spending an evening drawing (and watching out of the corner of my eye) allows me the added benefit of changing my perception of how things are made. The saturated layers of color seem to dance on the surface while they are simultaneously being sucked deep into the canvases' textures. Pushing and pulling any sense of perspective into an endlessly hypnotizing cycle. McLaren's contemporary take on post-impressionism, as she breaks down objects to their basic shapes while heightening their colors, gives flora and fauna their deserved dues. A bush or a tree, as McLaren explained, are some of her inspirations. Much like those of my favorite century old french predecessors.
We broke halfway through our session for dinner at the noodle shop that is hidden half way up an industrial street near by the studio. I couldn't belief how satisfying a bowl of hand pulled noodles and stewed pork could be as it disintegrated in my mouth. While we ate we chatted on the ins and outs of the art world. McLaren's show, just weeks away, didn't seem to disrupt her calm disposition a bit as we sipped our tea and finished up our studio visit a few hours later. I look forward to revisiting these paintings (and the ceramics that will be joining them) at the end of the week. To see more of McLaren's work go here

Monday, December 8, 2014

Jason Stopa

 I first started itching for an attempt to break down Jason Stopa's paintings in graphite — the way he breaks down his ideas in paint — when I saw his show at Novella Gallery earlier this year. Having come across not only his paintings, but also his writing for some time now, I also hoped our visit would include a conversation about writing on art as well as making it. Nearing the end of 2014, I got my chance for both. Stopa's studio is in Gowanus on a quiet industrial street, and his apartment is in nearby Park Slope. With a plate full of not only painting but also teaching and writing, a studio close to home seems essential. We started the evening with an introduction to some newer paintings he had just laid down the first marks for. Stopa began working out his next moves on paper as I recorded his initial ones.

I was first taken by blasts of color, animated brush strokes, and confectionery connotations. After spending more time with them, Stopa's paintings' unique relationship to language reveals itself, recalling Haiku poetry in particular. They have a similar directness of description, even in their abstraction, that almost hovers above their subject matter. With as few as three parts coming together in many of his newer works, he is able to simply but potently construct a perspective for the viewer, similar to the way a poem would for a reader. And his use of certain symbolic characters as a verbal punctuation mark is a perfect way to signal the moment that the juxtaposed elements coalesce. My sweet tooth was satisfied when I  reached the punch-line of one of his larger works — mint chocolate chip ice-cream. 

It isn't easy to explain just how this project operates, how I come away with something I hadn't expected to with each visit. If only I could poetically spell it out for you as directly as Stopa can a bag of M & M's. Talking to Jason about his approach to writing and his thoughts on contemporary art gave me a lot to think on. You can find some of his writing in Art in America, The Brooklyn Rail and Whitewall Magazine, where he is writing a monthly column "Shows to Know". He will be in a group show in January at Wignall Museum of Contemporary Art at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, CA. To see more of his work go here

Monday, November 3, 2014

Alicia Gibson

It was a dark and stormy night, but once I stepped into Alicia Gibson's studio everything seemed a little bit brighter. Her space glows pink from the light reflecting off of the intensely colored canvases that slather her walls. Gibson's square shaped studio is locked in the middle of a building in Greenpoint where a few of my other visits have taken place. I was pumped to return here to do a drawing session with Alicia. We met up in the evening, and after taking a minute to open our beer, wine, and take-out food lids, we started a conversation about the paintings. The conversation continued as I worked, with Alicia narrating each piece as I came to it on my paper. The spontaneity and directness of these dense, allover paintings requires time to digest, which is only half of why they are so extraordinary. But, as you can imagine, hearing her tell captivating stories about each as I worked helped me get through drawing them.

In some ways Alicia is giving Abstract Expressionism a run for its money; adding things such as text, fur, and the occasional dollar store item to her paint soaked canvases and panels. Using a deliciously high contrast color schemes, the paintings' overload of imagery and letters easily coexists as each outlines the others' forms. One moment or thought runs into another like a muddled sense of memory. Visually untangling Gibson's paintings — which take a certain amount of patience — is a pleasurable way to uncover all of her narratives' engrossing details. Her smaller paintings, being a faster read, act more like one liners and spout subversive and witty double entendres, "5 More Minutes" being a good example. It isn't hard to find elements of these that relate to our own autobiography. There is a satisfying sense of freedom in the way that her paintings seem to flow out of her without censorship. Maybe that is why they are able to bring us to a more metaphysical state of mind.

It was inevitable that at one point we talked about how gender plays a role in her work. I don't think you can pigeonhole her paintings one way or the other. I do know they specialize in the very strong voice of Alicia Gibson. Once we decided to call it a night it was very late and still raining outside, maybe we should have stayed for one more beer to talk it over. Gibson has a show coming up at TSA Gallery LA that opens November 8 and runs through December 6th, and will be in a three person show at Novella Gallery opening early 2015. To see more of her work go here:

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Aaron Johnson

I sort of pushed the limits of my sanity when I tried to turn these particular artworks into greyscale drawings. There is a twofold approach to painting in Aaron Johnson's practice. When I first arrived in his studio he introduced me to both of them, along with a few of the characters that were hanging around the space. Sometimes his paintings lay so smooth and flat that they almost appear to recede from the surface. In this case Johnson uses a very involved process that adds layers, in reverse, to a large piece of plastic that he then stretches. On the other side of the spectrum, he uses socks like a kind of impasto to greatly build up the surface and form theatrically animated creatures. After our conversation, Johnson began to work on a mere second layer of a massive new piece that he is getting ready to show at Pulse Miami with Gallery Poulsen. I steadily worked on my drawing in the hopes to fill it somewhat accurately before nightfall — without starting to see things come to life.

I couldn't help but want to enter Johnson's unearthly world. After all, it was the week of the blood moon and October is the only month that most people even think of a more lurid existence —one that might include saw-toothed mouths, faces that bulge with eyes, and beasts that play guitars and pianos. But it is not only this month that this subject holds prominence. There is a long history of the macabre appearing in art, ranging from the string quartet Death and the Maiden by Schubert from 1826, to the nightmarish tales of H.P. Lovecraft, to Michael Wolgemut woodcut "Dance of Death" from as early as 1493, to name but a few. Johnson narrates his own contemporary version of the macabre combining humor and social commentary with his particular brand of garishly colored symbolic story telling. I was especially taken by the sperm that turned into tiny ghosts as they passed through one of his ghoulish figures by way of the the grave. A labor of love much like his paintings.

 I did manage to draw all the gaping-mouthed monsters staring out at me before our day ended. During our studio visit we talked about who we were before art brought us to NYC. I wasn't all that surprised to hear that Johnson left his life for New York to start as a painter with a background in science. Not only is his process hard to imagine being thought up by anyone who is not a little bit "mad scientist," but his invented worlds seem grossly biological. Johnson has a solo show in January at Arts and Leisure. He also has a solo show in February at Stux Gallery.  To see more of Aaron's work go here

Friday, September 26, 2014

Rachel Beach

Sometimes the best way to get to know someone is by spending a little time with them on the dance floor. That is how I was first introduced to the sculptor Rachel Beach. Beach and I became increasingly dedicated to dance as the hits piled up at a studio party in Bushwick a few years back. By the time "Raspberry Beret" came on I was sure that I liked her as much as I already liked her sculptures. Just a few weeks before the end of the Marie Walsh Sharpe Space Program, I made a visit to Beach's year-long studio in Dumbo. Final coats of paint were being worked out on the surfaces of her larger pieces, while her smaller sculptures stood tall in the background like a tree-lined horizon. Rachel makes use of every inch of her studio. I hopped from one corner to the next, careful not to disrupt her workspace, while I acquainted myself with her lengthy processes and we began our day of drawing and talking things over.

 The relationship Beach's sculptures have to painting became a jumping off point for me while I traveled in and around them. I relish her exteriors made up of saturated, punched-up colors, worn away pigments, and bold geometric patterns —sometimes to optical effect. Although these painted compositions are placed in a non-illusionistic space— like much of geometric abstraction — the object that plays their host is not an illusion at all, but an actual three dimensional form. In some ways, I see her giving the apparition that is non-objective painting a body to live in (or on). I found myself spending a lot of time tumbling down the subtle slopes of these forms, imagining my arms unfolding through their inviting passageways and stretching to the top of their seemingly precarious stackings. At one point I watched Beach affectionately hang on one of her unfinished works as she explained to me the care she takes in their compositions and in their structural crafting, arrived at through countless drawings and lots of math. It was then that I fully grasped the connection the work has to not only the architectural space around it, but also to the body of its maker. She is enabling something that is born on paper to live among us with prominence and weight.

 Like many of my visits, Beach and I talked about what it means to be a female artist, and the particular difficulties of being a female sculptor. She told me humorous anecdotes about the occasional advise men have given her on how to use power tools despite her obvious mastery of them. It left me in hysterics and disgruntlement. After Marie Walsh Sharpe, Beach will be moving on to a final and permanent studio. She was one of the artists who tragically lost the most during 2012's Hurricane Sandy and is amazing what she has done and made since. Beach just had a solo presentation at this year's Chicago Expo with Blackston Gallery that looked fantastic. To see more of her work go here:
solo presentation at EXPO CHICAGO

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Zach Harris

At the tail end of a trip to Northern and Southern California, filled with views from extreme heights, close encounters with one of a kind species, and a lot of amazing Mexican food, I saved a visit to Zach Harris' studio. Five years ago — after a 13 year stint — Harris left NYC and returned to his native Los Angeles. I met him when he was still living on the East Coast through my husband who in turn had met him in a dorm room in Santa Cruz some 20 years ago. Their story of artist friendship is quite tender and I had the pleasure of hearing it from both sides as I drew and they ruminated on their early years in New York. Harris continued on to tell me about his initial adventures living in the city, from inhabiting abandoned spaces to feeding exotic animals, putting in perspective what it can sometimes take in our 20's to make it in our 30's. He was very dedicated to the art of living off of nothing in order to pursue the art of painting — some of his experiences as extraordinary as the work that has evolved since.

The detailed and dedicated approach to Harris' way of painting, with the meditative time he spends looking at not only his own work in its process, but also the organic world around him, plays a significant role in its outcome. While drawing, I meandered up trees and through psychedelic mountain ranges, resting in prismatic vegetation, before being pulled to the furthest regions of the canvases by hidden texts and intricately carved geometric ridges. I left this world for one filled with deep crimsons and the blues of a cloudless California sky. And, with his repetition of line and form that is often made vibratory with bands of color, I became hypnotized as I navigated his painted labyrinths. The text, acting like an artist's stream of consciousness and sometimes written so tiny you need a magnifying glass to read it, begs for a close encounter and operates like a narration for the visual trip that is experiencing the paintings. As the eye adjusts to the overall sensibility of a Zach Harris, thoughts of fauvism, medieval altarpieces, the Arts and Crafts movement, and the interiors of a Byzantine cathedral come to mind, cluing me in to the fact that Harris' studies aren't just of the natural world. Ultimately, it is how idiosyncratic these paintings are that causes me to be consumed by them.  He is taking the best of our surroundings' colors and textures and adding intensity and imagination — formulating an exquisite new way of seeing.

Along with drawing Harris' space and getting a glimpse of his life by way of his studio and home, he gave us a one of a kind tour of L.A. He introduced my husband and I to the unimaginably large cactus garden at the Huntington Library, showed us around L.A.'s Chinatown — deserted once more after a brief insurgence of galleries — and took us for a drive nearly straight up a mountain range just outside the seemingly endless city sprawl of L.A. on Highway 2 near Montrose. I couldn't think of a better way to get to know the West Coast's equivalent to NYC. Or a better artist to do it with. Harris will have a solo booth of new work with David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles at the upcoming FIAC art fair next spring. To see more of his work go here

Friday, July 25, 2014

Holly Coulis and Ridley Howard

It was the first day of the World Cup and Brooklyn's eateries and bars were getting ready to be taken by storm for the following month. I made my way a few block closer to the river in Williamsburg to do a visit with Ridley Howard and Holly Coulis. To my luck, Coulis had recently moved into Howard's studio — this was gonna be a doubleheader made up of two of my favorite players. I arrived to find the door to their storefront studio invitingly open. There was a drawing table set up for me to work, the radio was playing a satisfying mix, and fans were going in multiple directions. After we put in a few dedicated hours of working, talking over art and having Ridley explain to me some of the ins and outs of the Cup, we made our way to a Mexican Joint for half price drinks, tacos, and of course, Game One. This was going to be a visit that took place over an entire weekend. I was already hoping that each day would end with beer and guacamole.

I'll start by talking about Howard's paintings and my experience drawing them. There was a lot to take in as he is getting ready for his 3rd solo show at Koenig & Clinton opening late October. A phenomenon occurs in Ridley's work that makes it difficult to understand that they are simply made with paint and mediums on canvas. It might be that I have gotten used to certain tricks within the realms of art making, but there where no extra tools or light boxes used here, just straightforward painting built on finesse and patience. Howard painstakingly layers transparent or semi-transparent paint to create changes in chroma, value or hue. Light penetrates through these multiple glaze applications to deepen the color and develop subtle complexity of skin tones. This optical mixing makes Howard's canvases, which are composed of clean cut shapes and slickly rendered figures, teeter between the virtuosity of a Van Eyke and the pop imagery of a David Hockney. Howard gives a nod to geometric abstraction and traditional oil painting at once. And the figures in his work, with their slight expressions and somewhat stoic posturing, sublimely coexist with the sleekness of the paintings' surface. In one piece, as a male and female character kiss, they seem to be aloofly melting into their positions, equally embraced by a field of color and each other.

Coulis' work takes a captivating and fresh look at traditional painting by way of still-life and figuration. She reminds me how much I relish the endless possibilities that come from utilizing the most familiar and principal painting subjects. After drawing her studio I made an enriching visit to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia and could almost imagine her paintings nestled between a grouping of Matisse and Cezanne still-lifes. I think it is in the way Coulis is able to activate the spacial elements of her canvases by flattening the picture plane, while exaggerating the subjects' light and shadows through her intelligent use of subtly varied color and width of line, that I make these connections. Her current paintings, with their focus on drawing, where so exciting to me when I saw them this past February at her solo show at Sardine Gallery titled Pitchers. We spoke extensively about the strong linear qualities that have taken hold over the past few years. Coulis carries her initial outline of the shadows and objects as well as perspective lines throughout her process. If her first marks are drawn in red, this vibratory relic of the painting's beginning still holds a strong position at the painting's end. Sometimes a satisfying rainbow of colors can be seen around a line if multiple layers have been added to a given form and traces of those layers have been left behind. It isn't at just a glance that all of this is uncovered, but with an investigative eye, making her paintings all the more enticing to spend time with. No pitcher left unturned.

It was pretty fun to have all three of us working at the same time and we agreed that it reminded us of being in art school: making art in a big space and throwing jokes back and forth, only at no teacher's expense. I couldn't help but observe how this married couple helped one another throughout the day. As both were painting they would quietly ask each other's advice and gently speak words of encouragement.  And, yes, there was beer and guac at the end of each visit. This week is the last week to see Coulis' work in a group show at Sargent's Daughters and she is also in a group show called "Tossed" at Jeff Bailey Hudson that opens August 16. To see more of her paintings please go here Howard's show opens in October at Koenig and Clinton and he has a piece currently in a group show at Fredericks & Freiser titled "Unrealism Part I". To see more of his work please go here