Todd Gilens

Drawings and Messages from the Confluence Project, 2017
Installation view
Greening Gallery
Marin Headlands Visitor Center
Golden Gate National Recreation Area

 

In 2015 Todd Gilens began the Confluence project, investigating stream ecology in the Sierra Nevada and developing materials for public installations in cities whose water is provided by these mountain sources. The project explores intersections between the layered, lively dynamics of streams and the perhaps vanishing craft of cursive handwriting. Over the past several years Todd has made extended visits to Sierra ecological field stations to meet with field scientists and take part in observations and data gathering. He has also searched archives for historic handwriting samples that he will convert to digital fonts to create outdoor text installations about stream science and urban water use.

Todd’s exhibition Drawings and Messages, on view at the Marin Headlands Visitor Center from March 4 through May 15, 2017, includes some of the works on paper that he has developed in the course of the Confluence project.

 

Knowing by,
Berkeley, 2016
Graphite and pastel on colored paper
10 x 8 inches

 

Micro to Crowding (Truckee at Reno),
Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL) and Berkeley, 2015
Graphite and pastel on paper
10 x 11 inches

 

Articiple: Looking at the material for this exhibition and the writings you’ve published about the Confluence Project, I’m intrigued at how the grid becomes the site of convergence for two very ungridlike phenomena, stream ecology and writing. Of course the Cartesian grid is the matrix most often used to represent data about the measurable world, and most forms of writing, from pictograms to digital type, are arranged in some linear, orthogonal format. Still, what you’re exploring seems often to fall outside of what the grid can capture, as you wrote in December 2016:

The process was a study in the tensions between protocol and variability. And it made clear that the bulk of experience lies outside data points, that in leaping from the known to the inferred we set aside most of what goes on before us.

Those tensions and leaps of faith are part of any act of making sense. They’re especially key to this project where you’re looking so closely at how moments and nodes coalesce into complex understandings. How do those tensions motivate or shape this project?

 

Drawings and Messages from the Confluence Project, 2017
Installation view
Greening Gallery
Marin Headlands Visitor Center
Golden Gate National Recreation Area

 

Todd: Yes, difference is experience, so it is a question of how to arrange contrasts whether of visual, historical or conceptual origin. In designing this project, I have been looking for the right proportions and contrasts that set associations in motion, that invite the sort of very human experience of engaging through curiosity and being rewarded with discoveries. I’ve piled a lot into it, but each has a good reason to be in the work and is articulated with the other parts.  I’m looking at natural systems and in human culture, field science, writing systems and urbanization. These are the content, and also my models for complexity and contrast.

 

Approximate Landscape,
Valentine Camp, 2014
Lithography crayon on paper
10 x 11 inches

 

Grids are stable frameworks against which nuance and complexity can be highlighted, whether in data plots or down the lines of a poem. And there is the urban grid, largely facilitating transportation and building technologies, which is laid over another system, the shapes of land and streams. Buildings and roads hide the nuances of the landscape: the tension between the two is built-in.

One of the key experiences in developing the project was being at the experimental stream network at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL) near Mammoth Lakes. Nine identical zigzag channels were constructed in the 1980’s for experimenting with different flow volumes. Mountain streams are so variable and researchers wanted a way to compare effects side by side. I recognized these channels as an intermediate step between mountain streams and urban stormwater systems, which also regularize the flow of water into zigzags in pipes underground. I also sense that science practices are intermediaries, as they translate phenomena to frameworks of understanding something of complexity is shut out and something of control is gained. In good science though, the complexity remains accessible, and the control is light-handed and humble.

 

Someplace,
SNARL and Berkeley, 2016
Pastel and chalk on paper
11 x 10 inches

 

Articiple: There’s an interesting variation in relationships to the grid among the different drawings in this series. In the gridded letter pieces, the grid explicitly imposes a non-hierarchy, treating the letters as unplotted data points. Only the letters’ sequential arrangement shows their relationship or their collective meaning. In the drawings of stream paths and other natural patterns, forms are hierarchical but non-sequential. Relationships between points are pronounced, but our eye can take any path we choose through the pieces. The cursive curvilinear drawings are a third thing: we have to follow the linear path of the text to understand its meaning, but the overall images are non-sequential. What were your thoughts or intentions about these various explicit and implicit relationships to the grid as you made these pieces?

 

Streams receive,
Berkeley, 2016
Charcoal and graphite on clay-coated paper
10 x 8 inches

 

Not Impossible Pathways,
Berkeley, 2016
Pastel and charcoal on paper
10 x 11 inches

 

Water takes,
SNARL, 2016
Charcoal on paper
10 x 11 inches

 

Todd: The gridded letter pieces need to be engaging at the level of what they say as writing, but they also give an overall impression without being read in the conventional sense. In typesetting that overall look is called the ‘color’ of the page – even though it’s black on white.

The other pieces play across that spectrum but each one has multiple kinds of meaning.  For example, the India ink squiggles (“Ridges and Valleys”), riffs on topographic maps, describing a fundamental condition of high and low land surfaces. The title gives a clue, but the drawing doesn’t say whether black or white is higher – that is left to interpretation, as is the scale. And the pattern can also suggest skin, or undersea forms. So we should be able to move between kinds of hierarchies, different systems of value. There are no limits, and I want to have a range of approaches in the work, and to test my own limits and habits as well. I think it’s an important skill to be able to read things in multiple and often contradictory ways.

 

Ridgelines/valleys,
Berkeley, 2015
India ink on paper
10 x 11 inches

 

Articiple: The culmination of the Confluence Project will be the installation of mile-long texts along city curbs, communicating ideas about water and stream science. You’re using handwriting samples from historical archives in the Sierra to design fonts for these texts. What process do you use to create a standardized digital font from an idiosyncratic, even archaic writing sample?

 

Curb installation prototype
Reno NV, 2016

 

Todd: The process is simple but fussy. I’ve gone through dozens of examples of historical handwriting at archives all around the West, looking for cursive that is legible and done by a person representing something historically interesting – not famous people but individuals who have had a role in the local culture. There needs to be enough written material so that they will have used all the letters of the alphabet. About ten pages seem to work, though it depends on their vocabulary of course. I’ll photograph the pages, then using Photoshop isolate each letter, trimming the start and end of each stroke to where it will mostly meet up with the beginning of the next letter. Most writers have variants on letters like s’s, whether they are placed at the beginning or in the middle of the word, so I’ll try to capture that too. I look for typical examples, and have to hunt to find letters like z, x and j. It’s an interesting way to read, for letters, rather than for meaning at the level of words and sentences.  Once I have an alphabet, including capital letters and some punctuation, I put it into a template, upload it to an online service that assigns the letter images to keyboard keys, and a few seconds later I receive a font file that I can load onto my computer, and type away in the handwriting of that deceased person. The process goes through several iterations to get the letters to connect well, and there is still a lot of fussing with letter spacing and kerning.

 

Handwriting sample of Claude Dukes, Federal Water Master for the Truckee and Carson River systems from 1958 to 1984.

 

Articiple: How does the use of these historically specific and very individual archival materials intersect with the other themes of the project, the interpretation and communication of complex ecology?

Todd: There is an interesting regularization that happens as handwriting becomes a font – it goes from responsive to consistent. The handwriting-to-font process parallels the regularization of urban water flows and the simplification of phenomena for understanding. Since I needed some kind of a font for the project, I wanted to bring in a very personal level, an individual voice, because the work will meet pedestrians one at a time as they read. That sense of individual experience is important to me in crafting work, the audience of one. I wanted a certain intimacy to speak about these vast processes. Cursive was an obvious choice for its continuity and for the way it expresses the unique condition of an individual through the collective medium of writing. It’s another way a material, in this case a font, can have meaning in a work, even if largely hidden. I don’t expect anyone will recognize the handwriting of so-and-so. It will be part of the backstory.

Articiple: You created some of these drawings at the field stations, sometimes using local found materials. How did these site-specific criteria influence the works?

 

Willows,
SNARL, 2015
Lithography crayon on paper
11 x 10 inches

 

Todd: As I’m working on understanding our concepts of landscape, working out of field stations has been an enormous advantage. Informal conversations with researchers is really at the base of the project, and I was lucky to cross paths with many interesting people who were also quite generous in talking with me. There are the field stations, and then there is field work out in the landscape, where mostly I was making notes and drawings in a journaling kind of way.

Working this way means bringing the subject and its representation closer. Using site materials is another way to do that: the material becomes another layer in the mix of meanings. Found charcoal is extremely lively. These are pieces left from burn piles where forests are thinned, it doesn’t have an even texture or shape. It’s hard to control so I work with it freely and also carefully; there are always surprises in the marks. I also used rainfall on some of the lithography crayon pieces, just setting them out on the porch and snatching them back at a certain point. Some of the pieces were done in David Herbst’s lab at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory near Mammoth Lakes. They gave me desk space and I could call Dave or his co-worker Bruce Medhurst over to clarify an idea or discuss a drawing from their point of view. That kind of access is extremely enriching to the work.

 

Approximate Cobbles,
Valentine Camp, 2014
Lithography crayon on paper
10 x 11 inches

 

Articiple: Viewing this project, I’m left with a sense of the incommensurate—incommensurate scales of time in geology and biology, incommensurate scales of complexity in natural processes and human comprehension. I think one achievement of this project is to engage with the incomprehensible, even as you measure and interpret and search for order. What, for you, is the place of the incomprehensible or the immeasurable in the quest for scientific integrity and environmental responsibility?

Todd: Actually, I’m not sure human comprehension is so far off the complexities of natural processes – we are a natural process too, after all. I would set ‘comprehension’ against ‘description’ and ‘understanding’, which are limited, whereas comprehension can be synthetic, open, and include contradictions.

 

Slow Water,
SNARL, 2016
Charcoal on paper
10 x 11 inches

 

Even though in the big picture we’re tiny, short-term specks of life, the world from our vantage point does revolve around us – it’s even produced by us in the fundamental sense that whatever is out-there registers through our senses and understanding as the thing we call the world. Looking after oneself and looking after the environment align, and that goes for looking after other people too. There is certainly a lot of ignorance and deceit.  We have limitations, and our confusions and frustrations get played out in how we imagine and shape our environments. I do have a moral sense for developing my understanding, and a social sense for sharing what I’m doing. Maybe curiosity and responsibility are two sides of having a focus on how things work, not forcing into theory but opening to what comes up.

As for integrity in science practice, science is, in my view, a remarkable discipline, a craft for building understanding. It is meant for circumstances that are measurable. Enlarging the field of measurability has been a big technological effort – lasers, mass spectrometers, data analysis software. It will be interesting to see where human agency moves as automated tools take over more of the sensing tasks in research. It’s one of the reasons I’m interested in field science: what does it mean to engage with a place as a person? One evening last summer when I was out surveying streams with researchers, I suggested that understanding was overrated. Everyone’s jaw dropped and one of them said, “Well then, we may as well go home.” But I feel that both understanding and incomprehensibility together make a picture of experience; and there are other things too, such as hunches, love, lots of human stuff that is happening in parallel. Science is an evolving, collectively defined method or form of inquiry and exchange, just as ballet is a form of training and dance performance. There are a lot of ways to do it.

 

Path Dependency,
SNARL and Berkeley, 2015-17
Graphite and colored pencil on paper
10 x 11 inches

 

 

Jeanne Lorenz

Higher Ground, 2017
Installation view
The Compound Gallery

 

In her exhibition Higher Ground (Jan. 28-Mar. 12, 2017 at The Compound Gallery), Jeanne Lorenz explores water, fire, climate change, high-altitude hiking hazards, the history of textiles as pattern and protection, and the intersections of environment and social justice. The show took root in 2015 during her 2,000-mile trek on the Pacific Crest Trail with her husband Canyon and their daughter Adeline, then age 10.

Here Jeanne walks us through the evolution of the project, from the tiny sketchbooks she filled during the months on the trail, through paintings, collages, and wall-size installations. In this ongoing explorations Jeanne uses the immediate, sensory experience of living in the elements to explore perceptions of familiarity, danger, and interrelationship. We were joined in our talk by Compound artist Takehito Etani and Compound co-manager Matt Reynoso.

Articiple: I’d like to start by getting the bigger context of the work in Higher Ground. I know this came out of your hike on the Pacific Crest Tail (PCT) in 2015, and you’ve been addressing that in a lot of different ways. It’s also related to the other large-scale installations you’ve done over the past few years, so maybe we can weave back and forth between those ideas. Do you want to start with the drawings you did on the trail?

 

Looking out on the desert from the Acorn trail, 2015
Ink drawing, detail from sketchbook
Original: 5 x 3 inches

 

Carson Iceberg Wilderness, 2015
Ink drawing, detail from sketchbook
Original: 5 x 3 inches

 

Lake Odell at Shelter Cove, 2015
Ink drawing, detail from sketchbook
Original: 5 x 3 inches

 

Jeanne: I had a sabbatical that year. I knew I wanted to take this long walk, and some artist friends said, “What are you doing, you should really be spending the year making work!” I felt like going out on the trail with one tool would divorce me from the computer in a way that I felt like I really needed to do. A lot of the work I’d been doing was very digital. And now it’s not really digital at all. It’s mostly just about looking at things in nature and trying to make patterns from them. That’s what a lot of this installation is.

Articiple: It looks like you filled a sketchbook on the trail almost every few weeks.

Jeanne: I did a lot of drawing, and I continue to draw. I still draw in this format. But then I also allowed myself to get bigger. So this is my big-sized sketchbook (7 x 10 inches). Now I’m realizing that this is a size I would feel comfortable actually showing. If I ever decide to show my sketchbook drawings, I’ll show them as drawings and not just as sketchbooks.

Articiple: You can take them out and treat them as finished works. So, was there an evolution while you were on the trail, of how you wanted to deal with the material constraint and the size and so on?

Jeanne: Definitely. I stuck with the same sketchbook and the same pen the entire time and I developed a really strong connection to it. So I stayed with the same material and the mechanism. In the beginning I was trying more to be very literal with the drawing. Later, I would just start drawing and it would become something more like the way I would paint, where you’re responding, you’re making decisions in the process of making the drawing. And also I let myself go back and work into them. The nice thing is, this ink is very transparent so it lends itself to being built up. Sometimes I’ll go back and darken things that need to be darkened.

Articiple: Did you send the notebooks home from the trail as you filled them?

Jeanne: I would mail them. At one point I gave a couple to my mother-in-law, and then when I returned she said she didn’t have them. I was a little like, oh, no. And then, it was amazing, because I opened up a drawer in my house and there they were. So she had brought them home to me. But mostly I would mail things home. And I did not lose a single package. It was really great. And I would mail myself ink. All I needed was to refill my pen, and I carried a small amount with me. But I would replenish that supply when we got our food drops.

I’m just going to keep working this way, I think. This weekend I’m going out to a farm near Redding, and I’m going to draw there. It’s great to be in the landscape thinking about environmental issues.

Articiple: So how did that come up on the trail? Obviously you’re in this remote area without many signs of development or industry, sort of ‘unspoiled nature’. But still, there are signs of humans wherever you go.

Jeanne: The main thing for us was water. It was a huge issue. Right now it’s so wet and everything is so mossy. But the PCT was experiencing the worst drought in 150 years the year we chose to hike it. It was really intense getting ready, figuring out how we were going to handle it. At points we walked across basins 42 miles long without any water. That was a real challenge. Often we would think, what are we doing, bringing our child into this?

Post-trail, I read a lot of post-apocalyptic environmental fiction. My favorite was called Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins. The title is about all the things that people come to California for. It’s set in the California drought. It hit home for me.

I’m happy that it’s raining now but I also know that we’re still having huge water issues. It’s something that our state and our country will continue to face. Where I live [in Canyon, CA], there’s a plan afoot to pave and develop 140 acres of watershed. So this is something that I feel very strongly about. I can’t allow this to happen. It’s the first time where I feel like I may be ready for some direct action if it came down to that. I feel so emotional about it.

I’m trying to document these frogs that are down in this watershed, and finding out about the plants, reading about moss, trying to know as much as I can. And also trying to connect to the environmentalist groups that already exist, that have been waging the battle for a long time.

Articiple: Was there an environmental impact report for that project?

Jeanne: Not yet. The proposal is in the planning stages. The planners are telling us, “Calm down, it’s not a big deal.” But when you see the plans it’s so horrifying.

Articiple: I worked for a while with an environmental restoration firm. Most of the staff were wildlife biologists. It was their job to do population surveys of whatever protected species were in the development area, the California red-legged frogs and such, and design corridors or protected areas for them. Anytime a development impacts a species with state or federal protection, the developer has to hire a firm like that to make sure the protections are enforced.

Jeanne: I want to see the red-legged frogs. I’ve only seen the chorus frogs, the tree frogs.

At the other end of Canyon there’s a park. We’re happy that the land was acquired by a park. They’re daylighting the creek. They also have a plan to make a campground. We’re not super happy about that, but suddenly this new development is much more threatening. So our energy has shifted.

Articiple: Right. You’ve got to stop the biggest threat first.

What came after the sketchbooks in this project?

Jeanne: I was really lucky because when we hiked the PCT I was on sabbatical. When we came back I was able to go on my first residency, to the Vermont Studio Center. I would highly recommend it to any artist. They’re the largest residency program, maybe in the world. It’s truly international. They do a really good job at making it diverse, especially in terms of age. So any person can go there and feel comfortable and be a part of that community.

I had never experienced a month-long residency. The fact that I could go into a studio every day really allowed me to go through these drawings and think about them. I made a lot of really bad work during that month. A very good friend of mine is a wonderful painter who works with landscape. She was a visiting artist during that time. So I was able to have a studio visit with her. I felt like the work that I had been making was mildly horrifying. But after we met, I turned a corner and was able to really narrow the focus and start making some of the work that’s in this show.

I wanted very much to do an intervention on a building there. I identified the old Johnson Woolen Mills building. I wanted to talk about water and wool as a collaboration between the things that can kill us and the things that can keep us alive.

Articiple: And ways that we interact with the environment, using it to produce things we use.

Jeanne: And all the beautiful patterns that come out of weaving wool. So this [freestanding wall installation] started out as an installation there. I realized that I would be crazy to want to wheatpaste a building in Vermont in December. It was really cold, and they kind of talked me down from it. But I did a photographic rendition of what I wanted it to look like. And that actually really helped me come to this installation.

 

Johnson Woolen Mill
Photographic rendition of visual intervention, 2015

 

Wool and Water, 2017
Acrylic on fabric
Installation view
The Compound Gallery

 

It was also interesting there because—they serve very healthy food so you really don’t want to miss meals and you want to go hang out with the other artists. So I was getting up early, going to my studio and then going to lunch. One day, I had painted a section of this on the floor. When I came back from lunch, there was all this mark-making that I hadn’t done. It was the salt from the floor from this old normal school that my studio was in, just coming up through the floor and affecting the water-based medium I was using. So now I have been using some salt in my process, and I definitely want to check that out again.

All these little flock marks are just coming out of the floor.

Articiple: Amazing. So this was acrylic medium that you mixed with pigment?

Jeanne: Yes. I was making my own paint. I was trying to use a limited palette that would reference the trail drawings. For years I’ve been using Guerra paints, a company in New York. They seem to be the only company that grinds pigment into water, so it’s a dispersion that you can make acrylic with. These are all different cocktails of acrylic that I made. Pretty much everything is acrylic, except for the drawings.

 

Higher Ground, 2017
Installation view with ink drawings
The Compound Gallery

 

Wool and Water study, 2017
Homemade walnut ink and Noodler’s kiowa pecan ink on Crane Lettra ecru paper

 

Picnic Lightening, 2017
Homemade walnut ink and Noodler’s kiowa pecan ink on Crane Lettra ecru paper

 

I made walnut ink with my students from trees on the Solano campus. I’m in the process of making iron gall ink. It’s not ready cause it takes a long time to ferment. It’s funky. I have some vats of it sitting in my office.

Articiple: And that will be a red?

Jeanne: I think it’s actually very black. I haven’t figured out how to make the red iron pigment. Where I live, there’s an iron-loving microorganism in the water. My water is actually the color of that wall, the orange part, if you get down to the bottom of the tank. It runs really red. People keep telling me I should go up to our water system and harvest some of the residue. I think it’s probably just iron in the water, and the microorganism is gone. I think if you dried it out, you could use it. It would be clotted, but the walnut ink is also like that.

Take: How did you make the walnut ink?

Jeanne: There are a lot of walnut trees where I teach. It’s the outer husk of the walnut that you use. Some of them we picked from the trees, some of them we picked up off the ground. We peeled off the spongy outer part and soaked it in water for a week. It became very black and very funky. Then I strained it through cheesecloth. And I made a watercolor medium that had glycerin, ox gall, and some honey. It’s not really ink, it’s more like watercolor. But it works really well. You can get different tonal ranges.

Articiple: Right. You’ve got everything from really dense, dark areas to transparent washes.

Take: So honey is the binding agent?

Jeanne: Honey is an anti-microbial.

Articiple: So it keeps it from fermenting more.

Jeanne: It also allows you to reconstitute it. If you have it on your palette, it dries shiny. But if you mist it with water, it becomes fluid again. I think usually there’s some kind of sugar in watercolor. Or gum arabic. You can see here, it got shiny. A couple of these drawings were so sticky that they stuck together and I had to repair them.

So I’m in love with drawing. I feel like it took me this long to figure out how to draw.

Articiple: There’s a lot of really nice varied line quality in these.

Jeanne: Just today I made a monoprint. I feel like if you have a daily drawing practice you already have a mechanism going that helps you move through imagery in a way that’s a little bit less self-loathing. You’re like, “I’m just going to start it. I’m not going to worry about it.” There will be less anxiety. It will just be like, “Here we go.” I feel like I needed that.

Articiple: Right. Then it’s more like a practice than a high-pressure goal.

It looks like you just used a pen nib and brushes?

Jeanne: It’s a Japanese tool, a Kuratake. It’s a fountain pen that has a sable tip. I converted it so I can use the ink of my choice. It comes with black, with cartridges that you can throw in. But once you convert it, there’s no waste. Whenever you need ink, you just create a vacuum and suck the ink up. I’ve had this pen for four years. The pen will never go away. The sable tip gets worn down. So you can see in some drawings, at the beginning they’ll be sharp and fine and lean, and then suddenly you wear it down and it’s harder to make fine lines. Right now I’m carrying around an extra tip, waiting to replace the old one. But I don’t want to replace the old one because I like what it’s doing.

Articiple: It’s amazing that these are all with the same tool.

Jeanne: The washes are not done with the same tool. I try to start with the tool. You can do a lot of inking and filling. But because these are not my sketchbook drawings, I go in and layer things afterwards, if it needs depth or something.

I’m fairly religious in the sketchbook practice, where it’s just the pen. That’s why it has to be small. But then it’s underwhelming, because when you show somebody, you’re like, “Look at my little iphone-sized drawing!”

Articiple: It’s like a miniature.

Jeanne: But it’s not the level of detail of a miniature. To me they feel more loose and painterly. I’m very happy with them. But when I talked to Matt and Lena about having a show here, it took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to show the sketchbooks because it was like, “Here are these tiny things!” Not super exciting. So the vitrine was a great way to display the sketchbooks. It’s so great that they had that.

Articiple: It’s a really important part of this show. It’s what all the other work came out of.

Did you do these fabric-based patterns while you were in Vermont?

 

 

Higher Ground, 2017
Fabric pattern details
The Compound Gallery

 

Jeanne: Yeah. I was researching the Johnson Woolen Mill. I’ve had so many different jobs in my life. One of them was, I spent a couple years restoring antique Persian carpets. During that time I learned a lot about the patterns of the Caucasus and how they inspired so many patterns. A lot of Navajo rug patterns come from Caucasus rugs—not all of them, but some of the later ones. Settlers would go to a weaver and say, “I can’t afford a rug from the Caucasus, but I would like you to make me this.” So some of the patterns that we would identify as Native American actually go back further.

Articiple: I’ve been working with Islamic tile patterns. It’s the same, they’re related to Persia and the Caucasus.

Jeanne: The Fertile Crescent!

Articiple: Right. A lot of trading and exchange of ideas going on.

Jeanne: And in Japan, they’ve got the ikat woven pattern, for clothing that farmers wear, the black and turquoise. This one is a little bit like that.

Articiple: Ikat fabric, that’s when they pre-dye the pattern into the fiber before they weave it, right? It’s unbelievable how much precision and planning that must take.

Jeanne: Things were going a lot slower.

Articiple: Right. We do the same level of detail work now, we just use a lot of automation to do it.

Jeanne: They didn’t have machines, that was the only way. They didn’t really think about “time equals money”.

Articiple: Right. They weren’t “wasting” time, they were using it.

So when you made these patterns, did you find them online?

Jeanne: The Vermont Studio Center has an amazing library, so I found some things there. Then I also visited the Johnson Woolen Mill. This big, quasi-abandoned factory was between where I was living and where my studio was, so I was constantly going by it. I went in and checked it out. I really thought about how they’re essentially in the business of selling nostalgia to people who want a taste of this time in Vermont when things were hand-crafted. You want this heirloom, very expensive wool jacket that maybe you’re going to hunt in but maybe not. The other thing I found out that was super cool was that the icemen who were harvesting ice from these lakes in New England had a specific kind of pant that the Johnson Woolen Mill made. They were these green icemen pants.

Articiple: So they wouldn’t get cold.

Jeanne: Yeah. If you’re dealing with ice you have to protect yourself from water. Wool is great because it repels water. A lot of people on the PCT were proselytizing about their wool clothing.

Articiple: Instead of Goretex or something engineered.

Jeanne: Right. No synthetics, just wool, because it’s super warm, it’s also cool, it’s a little less stinky.

Take: It’s anti-microbial.

Jeanne: Yeah. But now there are all these Teflon-fiber anti-microbial fabrics.

Articiple: But they’re all trying to replicate natural materials.

Jeanne: The other thing I’ll say is that the Johnson Woolen Mill slyly mixes nylon in with their wool now.

Articiple: To make it more durable?

Jeanne: Yeah. It’s supposed to be a little stronger.

But when we were hiking, water was what it was about. It was either lack of water or too much water. We’re feeling like we’re going to die in a hailstorm because we’re being pummeled and we don’t have shelter, or we’re going through a place where there are absolutely no seasonal streams and we can’t carry enough water.

Articiple: What happens when there are days where you can’t carry enough?

Jeanne: At one point we hired a guy to come out to the PCT in the middle of the desert and drop water for us. There were quite a few water caches, but you’re never supposed to rely on a water cache.

Take: What is a water cache?

Jeanne: People go out and put gallons of water near the trail for the hikers. It’s sort of like we’re human hummingbirds. They’re like, “Oh, you’re so beautiful and wonderful. Look at you on your awesome pilgrimage across the country. We’re going to bring water to you.” It’s beautiful. But you can’t really rely that the water will be there. In one case, we got to a place that had an amazing water cache. We took water from it, and then within 12 hours a flash flood had completely washed the whole thing out. The vehicles that were coming through to replenish it couldn’t get through anymore.

The guy who was replenishing it, his trail name is Devil Fish, he showed a video to me of the flood. It was as if the desert floor was up to your waist, roiling like some molten lava. It was just like that, snap, the water just comes through.

Articiple: It can’t soak in anywhere because the ground is so hard.

Jeanne: It just goes so fast. It was nuts. But Jugs was this kid that we paid to bring us water.

Take: How did you find the kid?

Jeanne: It was as if we had been kidnapped. We were at the Tehachapi post office waiting to get Adeline a pair of shoes that we had ordered. The shoes didn’t come and we were really bummed and Canyon was very stressed. This woman walked in. She knew about us because we were hiking with a kid and it was unusual. She very much wanted to give us a ride. So we decided, yeah, we’ll just get in this woman’s car and she’ll take us wherever. We ended up going to the Mojave Motel 6, which is quite a scene. In Tehachapi we stayed in a nicer hotel, thinking, we need a break, we just want to chill out. The Motel 6 was way more fun. It was where everyone from the trail was. There was a swimming pool. People were barbecuing. It was just a convergence. It’s a big part of the PCT because you’re almost at the top of the desert when you get there, so you’ve really endured a lot. You’re about to get to Kennedy Meadows South, which is like—if you think about the Heironymous Bosch painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, everyone thinks it’s going to be like that.

Articiple: People must think, it’s called ‘meadow’, it must be lush!

Jeanne: Right, it’s a meadow. It’s where you get your big resupply before you enter the Sierra. It’s where you know you’re done with the desert and you’re going to be going into the mountains. All hell does break loose there, so that’s kind of great. When we hiked in it was dark and we had two little kids with us. We had Adeline and her cousin Julia. We could see in the distance that there was an enormous tipi and there was fire and people were whooping and hollering. When we got close enough for them to recognize that there were people arriving, everybody started whooping and screaming hysterically and clapping. Canyon turned to me and said, “I don’t know what kind of party we’re coming into.” But it turns out they just have a tradition of clapping everybody in because you made it that far. It was sweet, but we didn’t realize that until the next morning. The other thing is, they remove the spigots from the water. So by the time we got there, it was dark, it was crazy, the store was closed, there was nothing we could offer the children, and there was no water. So I had to go around and ask. Finally I ran into a hiker I knew and she gave me water.

They have to do it. Their water system is so fragile that they can’t have people just leaving it on. I think they’re trucking it in.

I’m still obsessed with water. Now, living on a watershed and thinking about what that means, trying to protect it, it’s become my issue. But there are so many social issues. They existed always, but now we’re in a place where everyone is more aware.

Articiple: And with water or any environmental issue, we know it’s always low-income people who are disproportionately affected.

Is this wall piece related to the work in your solo show at Solano last year? (Force of Nature, Herger Gallery, Solano Community College, March 2016)

 

Higher Ground, 2017
Wall painting/collage
The Compound Ground

 

Jeanne: Yes. This is somewhat new. The configuration is new and the patterns are new. The trees I made at Solano based on trees I had done in Vermont. So I’m still trying to deal with these ideas. Some of it is, you know how you have an idea and you’re trying to work through it and you feel like you’ve done it but it hasn’t been successful the way you want it to be. I feel like I’m still trying to deal with how the desert looked specific to charred fire and burnt trees. I haven’t gotten there yet. We had some amazing visual experiences, trees that would be upright, completely blown upside down and stuck into the ground, where we would have to climb through them. You just wonder, how did this happen, this is so unusual. Or, in a completely black and charred forest, there’s an amazing sense of renewal, with beautiful wildflowers just bursting up.

I finally saw my dream flower, a Matilija poppy, in the wild. For years I’ve know that they’re supposed to only grow after fire. I have them on my property and I love them. To see them in the wild was like, whoa! Because it was a charred, burnt area, but there were these big, beautiful white poppies. That was cool.

 

Matalija poppy

 

But there are also a lot of invasive species. And you’re like, we’re too far out for this to be here!

Articiple: Like broom and fennel?

Jeanne: Worse. Like star thistle. And you know it’s probably coming from horses. I saw some stuff pretty high up in the Sierra, where it didn’t seem like it should be there.

The David Brower Center hosted an amazing talk about this new textbook called Ecosystems of California. It’s a 1,000-page book that talks about California. It’s the first California ecology textbook in a long time. The guy who is the chief editor is Harold Mooney, from Stanford. He talked a lot about his scholarship, which was going out into the back country and seeing these stands of trees that were from much further away, and wondering what was happening. So he was the first person to document climate change out in the wilderness.

Articiple: So no matter how far you go into the wilderness, you can find evidence of change.

Jeanne: We definitely saw that. We saw the diminishing snowpack over a series of summers. We hiked the Sierra three summers in a row.

Articiple: It must be coming back this year finally, with the rains we’ve had.

Jeanne: This year is going to be amazing. We’ve been talking about taking another hike. I want to hike Washington, but we might do the John Muir Trail or something in California. The snow will be incredible. And much harder to hike.

Articiple: How did you make these patterns on the large wall pieces?

 

Higher Ground, 2017
Screen print detail from
wall painting/collage
The Compound Gallery

 

Jeanne: Those are screen printed. Everything in the show except those patterns is hand-painted. I have access to an amazing print shop at Solano and I have people working with me. We did this screen print and I liked it enough to incorporate it.

Articiple: It’s so textural! Can I touch it?

Jeanne: Yeah. It’s really thick. I’m using plastisol, which is like a textile ink. I feel like it blends visually with the other stuff, but I’m interested in making things by hand.

Articiple: And then you painted after you installed?

Jeanne: I used Matt Reynoso’s big, beautiful wooden ladder. There was a night where I just put stuff on the floor in here and got up on the ladder and dripped from the top. I knew I wanted an effect like that.

The piece you saw in Vallejo had drips that I made right on the wall. But this was a little more in my control.

 

Wild By Nature, 2016
(Collaboration with poet Canyon Steinzig)
Installation, Temple Art Lofts, Vallejo CA
In conjunction with the Visions of the Wild Film & Arts Festival 2016

 

Articiple: When you deinstall this wall, will this stay in one piece?

Jeanne: No. I was thinking about that. I’ll probably have a box with rolls.

Articiple: Each of these is its own separate piece.

Jeanne: It’s all placed. It’s going to look like nothing when you take it down. But these elements can be recontextualized. I liked the fact that I could come in here—Matt and Lena were so generous in letting me make it as a piece. So I was painting in the exhibition space.

Matt: And you had time, which was nice. There wasn’t a rush. Sometimes it’s like, you have two days to install.

Jeanne: When I’m taking it down, you’re going to be like, get it out of here! It does pull off really easily, though. And my game has gotten cleaner. The wheat paste is much thinner. I could reinstall this pretty easily, I think. This piece [central wall] has been installed three times, in Vermont, at Solano, and then here. It looks different every time, because it’s a different-sized wall. It feels a little different here because it’s missing the whole top section.

 

Fabric pattern installation, 2015
Vermont Studio Center

 

It’s acrylic, so it’s waterproof, so it doesn’t damage it to wet it and take it down. The only thing is, this part is my fountain pen ink. For some reason that bleeds a little bit. So I kind of learned a lesson. I like this kind of thing, I embrace the changing mark. But I know that out of all my materials, that ink runs. And it’s not supposed to.

Take: Maybe because it’s on plastic [the pellon substrate].

Jeanne: Maybe my Japanese pen does not like polyester!

Articiple: I like this piece. From this angle the whole piece is like a stele from 2001, like the beginning of writing, the beginning of symbolizing.

Matt: Should we put on monkey suits and jump around?

Articiple: And scream and hit each other with bones. Or should we fast-forward to the part where we all fly away in space ships?

Take: Maybe both!

Articiple: So, this piece was what came out of using the fabric patterns?

Jeanne: This was really influenced by Helen Frankenthaler. I met her when I was in high school, in Milwaukee. I was lucky to have a good art education, so I knew her and her significance. When I went to meet her, I shook her hand and I remember thinking, “Holy cow!” She had these big manicured fingernails. It was crazy. It threw me. I just thought, this is not what I think of from a female painter.

 

Hiking Helen Frankenthaler Up/Black;
Hiking Helen Frankenthaler Down/Yellow, 2017
Installation view
Acrylic on canvas

 

Articiple: She was very elegant, right?

Jeanne: She was super glamorous.

I feel lucky that I was able to grow up in Milwaukee in the proximity of an amazing collection that I could see every day. We had this program at the Milwaukee art museum where every day in my high school we would go down there in the afternoon for a class. It was amazing.

Articiple: Milwaukee still has a good art scene. For a city that size, it’s got a lot going on.

So what about these smaller pieces? This piece is folded?

 

Sequoia, 2017
Acrylic on linen mounted on wood
16 x 20 inches

 

Jeanne: This is a fabric that I made with my fountain pen in my sketchbook. It’s an image of a clear cut forest from above. I used an iphone app and then I sent it to Spoonflower and had them print it onto linen. So it’s a digital print. It’s fabric that I glued down and then painted back into. But I made the mistake of using clear gesso, which caused it to cloud. So I feel like there is work in this show that I’d like to spend more time with.

Articiple: What would you use instead of clear gesso?

Jeanne: Polyvinyl adhesive glue, maybe. It’s for bookbinding.

For this piece, I wanted to see how low-tech I could be, meaning only the digital stuff I could do on the phone. There’s something to be said for limiting your possibilities. When I was hiking I had to learn how to write on my phone. We had some friends on the trail that we really loved, who started hiking with laptops. They were amazing artists, they wanted to document things or be able to upload stuff. After a couple hundred miles they realized that’s too much to carry.

Articiple: Not when you’re living outside. Maybe if you’re staying in a cabin.

Take: Did you have solar panels to charge your phones?

Jeanne: We have an external battery. It’s the size of the phone and it’s fairly heavy. But it will charge your phone for about a week—it charged my phone and Canyon’s phone and Adeline’s Kindle. The only technology we had to charge externally was our spot device. We had a satellite communication device that we had to keep charged.

Take: So that’s to send emergency texts?

Jeanne: Yeah, that’s one of the things it can do. That was really helpful. There’s a button you can push when you need an immediate rescue. If you push it that means they’re going to send someone with a helicopter.

Take: And then you have to pay!

Jeanne: Right. So we encountered a hiker who told us he was dying. He said, “If you have the emergency device, use it!” Because Canyon is an ER nurse, he was able to assess the situation. We were in a place where there was no place to land a helicopter. So with that device, within about 15 minutes I was able to get a Yosemite ranger texting with me. He was asking, “What does it look like? What’s going on? Can you land a helicopter? Can you move him?” It all worked out and it was way better than sending a helicopter.

We were hiking with people who did have to use their device to get their kid rescued. He got a really bad injury in the snow in Washington and they couldn’t walk out. So they sent a horseback rescue.

Articiple: That’s a little better than having to send a helicopter.

Jeanne: In the hiking community there were people who were very judgmental about it. I felt like, you have to do what you have to do.

Articiple: Definitely. If your kid is hurt, why would you put them in more danger?

Jeanne: There’s always the judgment though, like, “Oh, they’re idiots.” That’s not true.

Articiple: Nobody plans to have an emergency. That’s the whole definition of emergency.

Take: How did you caught in a hailstorm?

Jeanne: We had a terrible experience with another artist, because I made a mistake. I wanted more than anything to sleep above the tree line because it’s so beautiful. We were all set up in the dark and we were eating and it was great. Then the storms came in from both ends of the valley. We packed up and ran. Adeline and I ran off the mountain and kept going. We got to the tree line and we were like, “Look at us, we’re so cool. Everything is great.” Then the sky opened up. The hail started coming so fast and so hard, I had never seen anything like it. It was a superstorm! It was incredible.

Within minutes, we were freezing and we didn’t have a shelter up. So we had to put up a shelter quickly. Canyon did that. He got in with a frying pan and dug it out, because it was full of hail. That night, the water was just running under it. I have a cell nylon cover for my sleeping mattress. It wicked all of the moisture. All of the water that was flowing below us went into my sleeping area. I was freezing. I had to get naked and lay on Canyon skin to skin to get warm. Little Adeline was like a pink ball of fluff sleeping in the middle, totally fine, but in the morning Canyon and I were all hung over and sad.

We were at a waterfall where there was hail just flowing by us. It was nuts. We hiked to a ranger station where the ranger had been working there for 40 years. He was in his 70s. He said it was the worst storm he had ever seen. So then we didn’t feel like idiots. It’s just that weather can be crazy. But I’ll never sleep above tree line again.

Take: Did you hike through any place where you were always above tree line for more than a day?

Jeanne: You have to time it right so that you hit it where you can go over the pass and get down to safety. We did have one night where we slept above tree line and it was fine. But if the weather’s bad, you have no place to go. The chance of getting hit by lightning is much higher. Every year there are hikers who die in their tents sleeping up there.

Articiple: I’ve heard about people getting struck on top of Half Dome, even though that’s a really well-monitored area.

Jeanne: There’s a Faraday cage on Mount Whitney because somebody did get hit by lightning in the hut. They have these stone huts that are supposed to protect you from the elements. But a guy was in there in inclement weather and got nailed and died. So now the beautiful hut has this big, crazy metal box around it. You’re not allowed to sleep in Muir hut, on Muir Pass. It’s circular, it’s so beautiful. It looks like a fairy house. But it’s not a safe place to sleep because of lightning.

Articiple: Tell me about these pieces.

 

Collage wall, 2017
Mixed media

 

Jeanne: Those are me exploring collage, and also playing with some of the patterns I had made. These patterns are the soles of shoes. This is the pattern on the bottom of Vans. This was originally designed as a skateboard deck.

This piece is close to my heart. The athletes that made the protest gesture, the black power salute, at the 1968 Olympics—Tommie Smith and John Carlos—also trained on the PCT. There is a monument to them on the trail. I always like to think that they hatched that idea on the PCT, because it’s a great, expansive space to think about, “What are we going to do?”

 

Decisive Moment: Showers Lake to Echo Summit, 2017
Acrylic on fabric mounted on wood

 

A lot of people are out there thinking, “What’s going to happen next in our lives?” I just ran into a woman at the Oakland Museum  who we met on the PCT. She said, “After the PCT I had a kid and now I have a whole different life.” Her life completely changed.

Articiple: This is a really important piece in the show. There are still ways that environmentalism, or even the protection of open spaces like the PCT, is seen as separate from social justice issues, as if the way we treat the environment is not connected to racism or violence or other problems. So bringing in this image of Smith and Carlos starts to make some connections between issues.

Jeanne: I’m trying really hard to make those connections. Naomi Klein did such a good job in This Changes Everything, her book about climate change. She brings it to activist culture around the country and around the world. This era that we’re living in, where people feel that the answer is to build a wall and keep everyone out, is really going to make it impossible for us to share resources and live peacefully. It’s going to bring on war and pestilence.

The cool thing for me about the PCT is, it’s a very hopeful space. A lot of the folks who are on it are trying to be their best possible selves. So there is a lot of discussion around social justice. The year we hiked was the year that gay marriage was passed. The kids we were hiking with were so excited and moved by this that they rented a U-Haul and went to the gay pride parade in San Francisco from the PCT. All levels of hilarious mayhem ensued. They got pulled over by the police. Of course it was documented, videod, in the way everything is now. The cops realized that they had this crazy situation where there were 22 people in the U-Haul who were naked and filthy and laying in hammocks. It was just like Facebook candy, we were all following it from afar. The police were laughing when they saw what was happening. They made everybody get out and sit down, and they issued each and every one of them a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt, and then they sent them on their way. So it worked out ok, and they did get to go to the gay pride parade in their U-Haul despite the police intervention.

People on the trail cared about the environment, but also about other people. You could tell when you ran into new hikers, because they would say, “You’re going to love this place, you’re not going to see anyone!” Whenever people said that to me, I thought, actually I’ve been outside long enough that I’m super happy to see other people. Generally the people that I meet on the trail are so cool that I want to meet them. I’m not just going for the solitude. I’m going for community and adventure. Usually an adventure happens with other people.

Articiple: I really like how you’ve taken this in so many directions for the show, starting with natural patterns and forms and making all these permutations.

Jeanne: I’m happy to be in a place where things are very fertile and I can play with ideas. Now I feel like I can circle back to some of these things that I didn’t quite investigate all the way. I think there’s enough here for me to dig into for a while.

Articiple: What direction do you think you’ll go in next?

Jeanne: I’m really interested in working in the landscape. I’ve identified places where I live. There are these old foundations where I’d like to do some very mild intervention and document it. Then I’d like to think about what that is, and try to take it into an urban environment. I think it would be cool to have an unfolding of what’s happening in the landscape, in the watershed, and what’s happening in the city.

There is a lot here that I don’t feel that I completely explored with the social justice angle. I could go further with that.

Articiple: That could be a show in itself.

I also love everything you’ve done with tessellation and pattern variation. I just finished the series using Islamic knot tiles, so I’m thinking a lot about that too.

Jeanne: That’s something I’ve been interested in for a long time. I feel like pattern is about empathy. I think there’s something for humans about wanting to see things that are repeated. It gives you comfort if you’re searching for food, to see repetition. So there are all these ways of conveying that, looking closely and realizing that the patterns in nature are really complicated.

Articiple: And they really signify a lot. There’s so much information there for someone who’s relying on visual perception and pattern recognition for survival. Really it’s like the foundation of thinking. You need repetition to understand relationships, to say, “I saw this before, but that’s new, how does that relate to this?” It’s primordial.

I really think art must have started with abstraction and patterning. Before you’d made a representation, you’d first just be making marks with your hands or your feet. You’d notice marks, and then start making them intentionally, just playing with the mechanics and the visual impact of that.

Take: Like the old cave paintings, hand prints and things like that.

Articiple: Right! 

And I love that you put Adeline’s Totoro in the show.

 

Adeline’s Totoro on the trail, 2015

 

Jeanne: Yes, Totoro made it 2,000 miles. There were other things Adeline carried for awhile. People would give her things, and every now and then we’d have to shake her down and make her send things home. But this made it all the way. It’s very sweet. It’s a forest spirit. It’s very beautiful.

Articiple: Is there anything else in the show that we should talk about?

Jeanne: This piece is a representation of Glen Pass, which is really steep. This is the one actual landscape painting. Very little of this show feels like representational landscape, it’s more emotional or psychological, things that I experienced.

 

Glen Pass, 2017
Acrylic on linen mounted on wood

 

This painting is my attempt to make clear the steepness of the granite. It’s 3,000 feet straight down. It’s terrifying. I’ve been through twice, once in one direction and once in the other. Both times it made me really queasy. I’m really afraid of heights and I’m not a good descender. I find that when I’m up in these places, one reason I like being around people is, it helps make the pass possible. I ran into these wonderful Mormon women who chatted me down off the pass. The whole way, we just chitchatted. It was great, because I could just watch this woman’s feet and think, yeah, I’m watching her feet, it’s cool, I’m not looking down and feeling sick to my stomach.

The worst part was looking over at my child and feeling, oh my god, what if she slips or fumbles. She’s much better than I am in terms of that kind of thing.

Articiple: Not nervous about heights.

Jeanne: No, she’s not. And I’m terrified, so I’m glad to be with people who can handle it.

Articiple: Are these pieces both about Glen Pass?

 

Picnic Lightning, 2017
Acrylic on linen mounted on wood

 

Jeanne: This one is the hailstorm. It’s about what it felt like when the sky opened up and it was like this biblical deluge. It’s the power of nature, where you realize that you are fucked. I had that thought with my friend Anthony Ryan, who’s an artist. He’s hiked 300 miles with us at least. Every summer he has a near-death experience. This time, I remember feeling like, I got kind of floppy inside, and I literally had the feeling like, I might die tonight. I really thought hypothermia was going to set in and we weren’t going to be able to pull out of it. Luckily, Canyon is not like that. He’s like, “We’re going to deal with this!” He just started working.

Articiple: He’s like, “You’re not bleeding, you’re not having organ failure—“

Jeanne: But the artists were like, “I guess it’s time to die.” It doesn’t say a lot for art. I actually can’t speak for Anthony. All of us were huddled under a blue tarp trying to stay dry. Finally Canyon got it going and dealt with everything. But this piece is how it felt—it was a biblical, epic event.

Articiple: It looks like everything is rushing towards you.

Jeanne: I feel like I’ve drawn this a lot and I’m still trying to figure it out. The other thing is, finding ways to translate sketchbook drawings into bigger pieces is difficult because you have to scale up a mark, and finding the right tool for that is hard. I’m almost there. I don’t totally know what that tool is, but I’m getting closer. In the scale of the show, this gallery is not a big space. Most of the work is fairly small. Most of the things hanging on the walls tend to be head- or shoulder-size. But I love making the big pieces. I want to be in it with my body.

 

 

Higher Ground, 2017
Installation view with Jeanne in foreground
The Compound Gallery

Truong Tran

Black As a Color Is Absolute, 2016 Acrylic on panel 38 x 38 inches

Black As a Color Is Absolute, 2016
Acrylic on panel
38 x 38 inches

 

I met Truong Tran when we both identified as poets with an interest in making art. In the years since then we’ve each given more time to our art practices until now the balance is effectively reversed. In Truong’s poetry I admired the clarity and specificity, the vulnerability that never veered into the maudlin, the recombinatory structures that wove different contexts and intensities into new wholes.

Truong has transposed those poetic sensibilities in an art practice that takes the detritus of our manufactured lives–overstocked plastics, leftover house paint, discarded porn–in works that go beyond the juxtaposition of collage or assemblage. These pristine works may attract us first with their brightness and precision, but the meaning of these pieces is borne in the unsettling and unresolved questions that motivate the work. Truong’s art brings us a language by way of objects.

 

Truong Tran with Black As a Color Is Absolute, #5 and #4 (opening reception for How Touching/In These Times with Mary Burger, Working Space Projects, Jan. 2017 Photo: Alan Bamberger)

Truong Tran with
Black As a Color Is Absolute, #5 and #4
(opening reception for In These Times,
Working Space Projects,
Jan. 2017
Photo: Alan Bamberger)

 

Truong: This is my new exploration. It’s house paint. I need to ask you about how to preserve things like this because—someone reminded me of the character in the Kurt Vonnegut novel where he was painting with house paints and he sold his paintings for millions of dollars, and then at one point all of them started deteriorating.

Articiple: Well, a lot of paintings made with house paint have held up pretty well. Pollack and Rothko used house paint!

Truong: It’s a strange space between controlling and letting go. I use ketchup bottles, squeeze bottles.

Articiple: So you have your whole palette of colors lined up in bottles, and you just grab and squeeze?

Truong: I buy the squeeze bottles and I do it right in my kitchen. I don’t use a brush, so I feel like I have more control. There’s an idea of somehow being able to control it. But then, even when you think you have controlled it, you walk away and come back and something’s changed. Sometimes you like it, and sometimes you go, aghh, no. There’s always that anticipation of control, how much you put on or whatever. And then the surrender of it, because it’s never going to fully follow your will.

At some point, something will ultimately get screwed up in the process. I’m always like, what is that moment? Do you try to cover up your mistake or do you just let it exist? And I find that if I leave it alone and walk away, usually when I come back, that’s the art.

Articiple: Exactly. Finding the shift in your expectations.

Truong: Each one of these has a different feel. I did one last night that I kind of fucked up. And then looking back at it, I think I’m ok with it. Because, looking back at some of these pieces, there’s some hemorrhage.

Articiple: Is that what you mean when you say fucked up? Where the paint bled, instead of staying in perfect circles?

Truong: Yeah. And I kept adding more to try to fix it, within these really clean areas there were a couple places that just felt wrong.

But there’s something really meditative. I don’t know how you work, but I love finding methods of working that allow me to meditate while I work.

Articiple: So you’re not planning every move, you’re kind of repeating a technique.

Truong: Everything is done instinctively in some sense. And with the butterflies it was muscle memory. You sit there and cut and after awhile your hand just moves through it.

Summer Bliss, 2014 Mixed media 49 x 69 inches

Summer Bliss, 2014
Mixed media
49 x 69 inches

 

Bang Bang, 2014 (detail of butterflies cut from vintage pornography)

Summer Bliss, 2014
(detail of butterflies cut from vintage pornography)

 

Truong: You know, that probably is my favorite part of making art, you spend all of this time thinking about an idea. And then when you get to the work, it’s almost like you turn off that part of yourself. In poetry, it doesn’t happen like that for me. It feels like every word has to be thought through. In art, it’s almost like there’s this movement through the work.

That’s the beauty of allowing your hands and the act of making guide your thinking. The thinking is evolving as it happens.

Articiple: And using your eye. Your physical relationship to it, moving back, stepping away, coming back.

I can see that in a lot of your work, the hands take over. You’re not rethinking every move, you’re kind of playing out something from an idea you had before you started.

Truong: And with these paintings, it’s just the dropping. After awhile you just automatically think through the process.

Last night I didn’t like what happened. I was trying to scrape off some paint and it was kind of a mess.

Articiple: You’re probably very sensitive to the little variations that someone else won’t notice.

Truong: Yeah, people won’t fully understand that.

Articiple: I like the fact that there is variation. It shows that it wasn’t completely planned—that there was some surrender, like you said.

That’s what I like screen printing. I use it as an improv technique so there are always surprises. I don’t ink the screens perfectly, I don’t make perfect contact between the screen and the canvas or whatever. I control certain things and let other things just happen.

What’s the substrate for the paintings?

Truong: It’s birch panel. And before I paint, I go over the wood with probably six coats of black India ink. I’m trying to get the blackest black.

Articiple: Right, the totally absorptive black, like the ‘Vantablack’ that Anish Kapoor got the rights to.

 

Two identical bronze casts, one painted with Vantablack (image: Surrey NanoSystems)

Two identical bronze casts, one painted with Vantablack
(image: Surrey NanoSystems)

 

Truong: Yeah. That’s the starting point. The idea is, I wanted to start the point of entry with the color black as the surface.

Articiple: And totally matte.

Truong: Yeah, almost like you sink into it.

This was one of my first prototypes. The one I’m working on now has text on it.

Articiple: And you use press-on type for the text?

Truong: I use Letrasets, which is how graphic designers used to do all of their work. It’s all contact. I have thousands of them, I just started hoarding them, because I knew it was going out. At some point they’re not going to have any more. So I just grabbed all that I could. I have a giant box.

I incorporated the lettering because I can control the lettering. What I don’t get in trying to control the paint, I can get with the lettering. It’s very precise.

Black As a Color Is Absolute #5, 2016 Acrylic on panel 25 x 25 inches

Black As a Color Is Absolute #5, 2016
Acrylic on panel
25 x 25 inches

 

Articiple: And there’s so much signification associated with text. It makes a good counterpoint to using color by itself.

Truong: It was also really interesting to work with letters as an art material, as opposed to language. I love that part of it, and the different font sizes and all that.

I started working over the summer with thread. I created a landscape with it. I also tried to do a little embroidery. I embroidered the first poem I memorized. It’s a Robert Frost poem. I could never teach this poem, but somehow it felt ok to put it in a piece of art.

Articiple: Language takes on a different quality when it’s used visually. It doesn’t have the same pressures of analysis.

Truong: It doesn’t have the same scrutiny.

Articiple: Like, it’s ok to use the word ‘eden’ in a piece of art.

Truong: Yes!

Articiple: And this is on velvet?

Truong: Yeah, like an upholstery fabric. J-Ha (writer Jennifer Hasegawa) helped me with this a little bit. She started it. But, being that I’m a control freak, I was like, oh, I’ve gotta do it myself.

The first half of the summer I was completely immersed in doing this Mylar work. These pieces light up.

I always have to figure out the best lighting. Flourescent lights are the best. They give off the best light. LEDs are problematic. I used LED strings for these.

Solids, 2013 Mixed media 12 x 48 inches (early pieces with mylar and light)

Solids, 2013
Mixed media
12 x 48 inches
(early pieces with mylar and light)

 

Articiple: That looks great, light catching all the surfaces.

Truong: I did an experiment last year where I made these pieces, these light sticks. This was when I was over at the Norton Factory Studios. At the time all these things were happening to me in the world and in the art community that I was kind of thinking about as I was making them.

Installation view of light sticks, 2015

Installation view of light sticks, 2015

 

They’re made with these things called pixel blocks. They’re these tiny pieces of translucent plastics, they look like pixels. And it was a great design idea, you could use it to build three-dimensionally. But it became a choking hazard for kids. And it’s not very conducive for people who have bad dexterity. So it came and went in a heartbeat. I discovered it and I started playing with it. I did a series of them.

And then I had that moment at completion, I was trying to figure out what to do next with them, do I name them in a way that gives people entry into them? Or do I just let them exist? Because that moment when I name it—I think Mark Bradford does this in his work, names it in such a way that frames the thinking of it. It’s a really interesting way to work, because his work is completely abstract. And it’s beautiful. But he always gives it a title that guides the thinking of it.

Mark Bradford Lights and Tunnels, 2015 (from the solo exhibition Scorched Earth, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles) Mixed media on canvas 84 x 108 inches

Mark Bradford
Lights and Tunnels, 2015
Mixed media on canvas
84 x 108 inches
(from the solo exhibition Scorched Earth,
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles)

 

Truong: I was thinking about that in my work. Do I give that name to it, or is it an undermining of the visual endeavor of it?

Articiple: And did you end up giving them titles or giving them a context?

Truong: I did give them titles. I gave them titles that framed the thinking of the time for me. But part of me always felt that that undermines the visual endeavor of the work.

Articiple: There’s always the question of how much of context you want to create for the work. Do you just want to say ‘untitled’ and put it out in the world, or give it more back story?

Truong: And that’s the fear. If I say ‘untitled’ the work becomes decoration.

Articiple: I think titles really are part of the work for me. Naming a piece is part of figuring out what’s at stake in it. It’s a process of drafting and revision, just like any kind of writing. And like any writing, I might throw out a lot of ideas as I go along before I get to the final version.

It’s the same when I’m looking at someone else’s work. A title gives another way to enter into the context of the work. You can get context from a lot of sources, like knowing about the artist’s process or the issues in their work. But maybe since I’m a writer I like it when some of the context comes as a piece of language.

Truong: But sometimes it feels very false. I watch a lot of Art 21, I use it as a way of studying techniques. But I also got to a point where I feel like those artists, those 1% artists, I’ll call them, because I think they’re the epitome of success—they have all that rhetoric. And it’s almost like there is an obligation on their part to speak to the kind of social condition that frames their work.

Articiple: And it’s sometimes like that obligation is only in the title or in the artist statement. The work itself can be filled with ambiguity, but the title might have a much more explicit or direct political message.

Truong: It’s not resolved for me. I always feel as though I’m at risk of being invisible if it doesn’t have a statement that frames it to guide your thinking around it. I feel like people will see it as decorational…

I look at Rauschenberg and you know, a can of paint, a goat’s head, a tire, and it suddenly is this great work of art. But I don’t think I could do that.

Robert Rauschenberg Monogram, 1955-1959 Mixed media 42 x 63 x 65 inches

Robert Rauschenberg
Monogram, 1955-1959
Mixed media
42 x 63 x 65 inches

 

I don’t think I could ever create something from that perspective of pure aesthetics or whatever, and put it out there and get a pass. I feel like there’s going to be a questioning of how I position myself in relation to that art. I think that happens for everyone. It happens for women, it happens for people of color. I think the white dudes in society still get to have that pass. They still get to do this thing based on ‘innovation and inquiry’.

It’s almost the same in writing. Too often I see how writers of color or women writers are framed within the context of existing as that being that reflects and documents history, as opposed to getting to innovate. ‘Innovation’ is still somehow handed to white men.

I always have that struggle when people look at my work and they see the image in my work. And often it’s the found image of the male body. There’s always the question of, where are you in it? As though somehow, if I put images of people of color in that framework, then somehow it eases the tension of questioning my relation. Because they see a person of color as a representation of myself in the work. I get that question all the time.

Butterfly Boy, 2009 Mixed media 57 x 42 inches

Butterfly Boy, 2009
Mixed media
57 x 42 inches

 

So I guess my response is, as a gay Asian man walking around this world being very conscious of who I am, I don’t think that ever is outside of my consciousness. It’s always a part of my work. I make very specific decisions about how to work with my materials. One, I don’t feel comfortable cutting into the image of a person of color and fragmenting that, sometimes. And two, more often than not, when I go looking for images, and looking as a response to the expectations, I end up in this framework of fetish. You go into a store to buy this material. There are several vintage spaces in the city where you can buy this material, if I get to that point. They’re all categorized by fetish. This is found material. I’m not working to seek out a fetish.

Articiple: The representations are already packaged as products. You’re repurposing them as a commentary on what you’ve found.

Truong: Reproducing the problems of it too. It’s problematic. It’s just really interesting to me that people, when they look at the work, they want some resolution.

I’ve had several occasions where people approached me about the butterfly work and wanted to buy it but asked that I do an edit on it.

Articiple: To remove the porn?

Truong: To make it more rated R, as opposed to rated X. I was like, you want me to go through and pinpoint the pieces that you think are not appropriate?

Articiple: I want to shift gears a little to talk about the issue of displacement–which of course is closely related to hierarchies of representation and control. Artist displacement in the Bay Area has become part of the city’s narrative. You were one of 70 artists who lost space at Studio 17 in the Mission in 2015 when the owners decided not to renew the artists’ leases. You were very involved in publicly advocating to protect the artist space. (KQED reported on the eviction and the aftermath.) How did that all play out?

 

Redlick Building, formerly Studio 17 17th and Mission St, San Francisco

Redlick Building,
former site of Studio 17
17th and Mission St,
San Francisco

 

Truong: We got kicked out on the premise that they were going to retrofit the building because it was unsafe for us, but they never offered us a way back in. And as soon as we vacated, they moved over the rest of that tech company that was lurking across the hall.

Articiple: Without even renovating?

Truong: Without renovating. Because it turns out it was an optional retrofit.

I went to the Arts Commission and said, hey, can you help us? Is there anything you can do or speak to, to advocate for us? And they said very clearly, we’re a city organization, so therefore we can’t get involved. We have to take a neutral position. And then, on the day of the hearing at which the Planning Commission votes to approve it, someone from the Arts Commission shows up and speaks really fast—they read off a statement that was so fast that you couldn’t even pick up on it, but basically they said, “We’re here to support whatever decision the Planning Commission arrives at. We want to say that we have already been in touch with the developers. We’re here representing the artists, trying to get them these things.”

I’m like, hold up. You never talked to us about this. You’re not representing us. The question is, how much did they pay you? Because that’s really what it comes down to. Someone’s pocket was filled. That’s the thing, in city politics. It was almost like they pulled a fast one on us. They wanted to do it really fast, hoping nobody would even notice it.

And sure enough, that’s happening all over the city. Back in the 60s and 70s, artist studios were zoned as PDR spaces (Production, Distribution, and Repair). And now they’re all being rezoned as office spaces. And everyone is making the same argument, which is that they’re trying very hard to accommodate the artists. So they’re finding other spaces to offer to the artists. But those spaces that they’re finding are all spaces that once belonged to non-profits or the service industry or mom-and-pop stores. These folks just disappear overnight.

Articiple: It’s this folding over of the city fabric.

Truong: Because it’s easier to talk about supporting the artists than it is to talk about displacing the larger community in the city. Take away the services to these communities that need them and sure enough, they start to move out. Because they don’t have the services to support them.

I almost compare the art scene now to the Truth commercials for cigarettes. All those damn commercials are made by the tobacco industry.

Articiple: As their fine for defrauding the public for decades.

Truong: They make these really shocking commercials, but they’re the ones making them. And the nonprofit arts community is doing the same thing. They do shows about displacement with one hand, but then you see support from the tech companies on the other.

Maya Kabat

Attempt to Cross 24, 2016 Oil on canvas 40x30 inches

Attempt to Cross 24, 2016
Oil on canvas
40×30 inches

Maya Kabat

Maya Kabat

 

Maya Kabat is a Bay Area artist whose abstract oil paintings stand out for their thick, visceral color fields, created with scrapers and other tools of the drywall trade. Maya mixes colors directly on the painting, covering and uncovering layers to build intricate surfaces balanced between tension and rest. Her practice also includes ink drawings, loose, delicate explorations of fluidity and chance.

Maya is represented by SLATE Art in Oakland. Past exhibitions include the SFMOMA Caffe Museo and 5 Claude Lane Gallery in San Francisco. She was a founding member of Mercury 20 Gallery in Oakland and President of the Oakland Art Murmur Board of Directors from 2010-2011.

I met Maya at her Berkeley Cedar Street studio in November 2016 to see recent work and to hear about her very busy year, including a solo exhibition at SLATE, a month-long residency in London, and a trip to Machu Picchu. We started by looking at some of her new ink drawings.

Regrowing, 2016 Ink on paper 12 x 12 inches

Regrowing, 2016
Ink on paper
12 x 12 inches

 

What I knew, 2016 Ink on paper 14 x 11 inches

What I knew, 2016
Ink on paper
14 x 11 inches

 

Articiple: These are really nice. They’re so different than the oil paintings. How do you feel about the relationship?

Maya: I’ve had a lot of different phases over many, many years. So most people don’t know the whole trajectory and all the paths and strains of my working methods and history. When I first started making, I was a knitter. My grandma taught me and I was just kind of obsessed with knitting. I was one of those kids who knit in class in high school. It was a very calming activity. So I kind of grew up using my hands. I just liked making things and that’s where it started. As the years went on, my interest in making things did progress into drawing and other forms of artmaking. But I was always drawn to textiles and thread and texture. I seem to have a really heightened sense of touch. It seems to be very important to me as I look back over my life. So texture is a big part of what draws me to making art. I respect but I don’t love ceramics, or glass. They’re just too hard for me, and I can’t relate to them, in a certain way.

Articiple: They don’t respond to touch the way textiles or soft materials do.

Maya: Yeah. So that’s just evolved over many years. I went to grad school in textile arts, eventually. I did some soft sculpture. I also did collage and mixed media. I would sew on them and make collages that way. And it was only after grad school that I really started painting seriously. When I first started painting exclusively, I did a series of paintings that were atmospheric, with oil. So, to circle back, it’s not surprising to me that I’ve come to be interested in water media again–there is a similar atmospheric and organic effect that comes through. But it wasn’t a direct line as there were ten years in between these bodies of work. So, to answer your question, I have done a lot of things over a lot of years. I see relationships between all my different phases and bodies of work, and these two bodies of work are just different stops along the many paths I have explored throughout my career and over many years and many bodies of work.

Articiple: So with these ink drawings, it looks like there’s some pouring involved?

Maya: There’s a little bit of pouring. And I use some brushes to move things around. Often I’ll start with the paper wet. I think what I’m most interested in at the moment is dispersal, and how the pigments disperse and become these organic, halo-y kind of flowy things. Then I push the ink around with more water. Sometimes I wash them completely and start again with them wet. I’m interested in process and layers and in how things pool, and I do a lot of dragging. I did a lot of dragging in the atmospheric oil paintings I did all those years ago too. So like I said, it’s interesting how everything comes back at some point, whether it’s a palette or whatever idea or tool or method, it’s just part of the process. And that’s so much fun. It’s like there’s nothing wasted. Everything new that you do gets in and integrates into what you do and then it comes out again later in new ways. Things always come around and out again later in my experience, in some way.

Articiple: And you don’t have to be intentional about it, because it’ll take care of itself.

Maya: Right, it’s just like with cooking when you throw stuff into the mix, it changes the way everything tastes.

Articiple: Right. I can sort of see how the palette knife work and the scraping work with the oil paints would come out with the dragging, the gesture of moving stuff.

Maya: The motion, the movements are important elements in my work. Those are just another kind of tool: a different element that makes the work specific.

Articiple: Do you ever work on drawings at a different scale?

Maya: Yeah, when I was in London I did a couple really big drawings. They came out beautifully and I didn’t know that they would. It was a good experience to be reminded of the different ways in which I need to push myself in my work. So I do have some larger ones of these.

Articiple: Good, I’d like to see those. So that was over a few weeks?

Maya: It was a month. I got back September first, so it seems very recent. It was a pretty intense experience. There were 20 artists. There was lots of interaction, which was wonderful. It was so packed. I had critiques almost daily. That turned out for me to be just a little too much, as I could barely process one interaction, one meeting, before someone else came in and had an entirely different perspective and point of view. At the end of it I felt like it was really fantastic, but it was pretty overwhelming. When you have six critiques over a couple days you get a lot of different feelings and perspectives and you can take and leave stuff as you choose. There is too much to take in anyway. But I wasn’t at all used to having that many people coming at me with all of these different opinions.

Articiple: It’s hard to evaluate that much feedback at one time.

Maya: Right, and it took me time to get into it and realize, “OK, I’m going to leave that comment behind and I can not worry about that, but these other comments were very helpful and I’ll integrate them.” It was a very active negotiation, because I’m used to just working alone in my studio all day with nobody around. If I feel like showing a drawing to someone, I can, but I don’t have to. With this, everyone was right in there with me.

Articiple: Like grad school again.

Maya: It was like grad school, and I wasn’t prepared for that. I enjoyed it a lot but it took time to flip into that mindset. It wasn’t a natural mindset for me. It’s been a long time since I was in grad school. But it was a wonderful opportunity and it was a wonderful group of people, so I’m really grateful.

Articiple: Were people working in a lot of different media?

Maya: Yeah, and there were people from all over the world. One woman was from Pakistan and she was doing miniature painting in a kind of classical sense, but it was her own imagery and story. They were just unbelievable. Another guy was Sufi, and he would lift images from archives of the Sufi community from different cities. In this case he pulled images of the Sufi community in London over the years. He was from Ontario, Canada. He would sit on the floor cross-legged and his pens and crayons would be all around him. He did these really interesting, intricate drawings of people and buildings. So anyway, yes, it was a pretty amazing exposure to a lot of different artists doing a lot of different things.

Articiple: It’s so great to see people working in different practices like that, in these traditions that you don’t usually get to see.

Maya: And then you’re right there while they’re working. Jag (Sufi artist Jagdeep Raina) would sit on the floor cross-legged. It didn’t look comfortable at all, but he was happy as could be. His pens were strewn everywhere, it was a mess. And Wardha (Pakistani artist Wardha Shabbir) was sitting there with a magnifying glass, her space was pristine, and she was working on this tiny piece of paper. Her glasses were on and she was doing these tiny, tiny little areas of this little painting. She didn’t even finish one painting that month. It was just a wonderful thing to get to see the inner workings of all these different artists and the way they’re thinking and how they keep their spaces. It’s all so individual. It was really a pleasure.

Time is Personal, 2016 Ink on paper 60 x 48 inches

Time is Personal, 2016
Ink on paper
60 x 48 inches

 

Maya: So here’s the big drawing I did in London. And the other one is here.

Time is a Substance

Time is a Substance, 2016
Ink on paper
60 x 45 inches

 

Articiple: Did you shape the paper purposefully, or just take a piece that was already cut?

Maya: I got the end of a big roll of paper from someone else and I was going to trim it. And then I just decided, it’s fine the way it is, I liked it.

Articiple: It works with the cloud forms.

Maya: So this is when I started working with ink and pen nibs. This text is actually written with a stencil and a pen. I did the stencil and then I dropped water on it, like rain. Awhile back, I noticed that when water got on the drawings made by these pens, the ink would just immediately disperse. They wouldn’t stay at all, and they were really light and delicate. So that became really interesting to me, how that particular ink dispersed on contact with water. I tried to find other kinds of inks that might do that, but nothing does. I couldn’t find anything that was as loose and impermanent.

Articiple: What kind of pen is it?

Maya: They’re called Tombow. They’re from Japan. They’re at every art store.

Articiple: They have a really interesting quality. It’s almost like watercolor pencil.

Maya: There are two ends. There’s a point and another end that’s fat. They’re beautiful pens. I really like how they react with water. So I discovered that awhile ago, and I’ve played with different ways of exploiting that quality. I’ll wash them completely and get these ghostly residual images. And then I can add more line back in. Interesting things happen that you couldn’t get any other way.

So parts of the drawing I can leave, and there’s still the residue of some of the lines in the areas where I washed it away.

Articiple: A lot of layers. And then some pencil too?

Maya: Yeah, sometimes I’ll go on top again and bring out things. If something’s buried I’ll try to bring it back up. It’s a very flexible process and plus it’s fun.

So from there I’ve evolved to do these more formal drawings. I did stenciling and then dropped water on it. Sometimes I’ll move them around to get things to mix. It’s fun when they just melt and do their own thing. And there’s always a surprise, because different papers hold the ink differently.

These were the ones I ended up doing in London. Some went more formal, straight across, and some were more asymmetrical.

Time is a System, 2016 Ink on paper 30 x 24 inches

Time is a System, 2016
Ink on paper
30 x 24 inches

 

Articiple: It really has a textual quality with this repeated pattern.

Maya: And it’s got this grid thing happening, and then the pattern of the language. That’s binary code. The language in them is reflecting on theories of time and different conceptions of time from physics that are impossible for us to understand, because time is linear for us. But time is not really linear. So I was exploring, what would that look like, if time weren’t linear? How would you visually represent that? So this way water spreads and moves is sort of a visual exploration of how time might work.

Articiple: Like stretching and curving and thinning and thickening.

Maya: We all kind of know this feeling that time moves really fast sometimes, and then sometimes it’s just glacial. That sense is not necessarily real, but it might be, right? We don’t know, really, what is happening. Does time move at different speeds?

Articiple: Our physical organisms go in one direction temporally, but our minds can go in all these other directions.

Maya: Absolutely. It’s all relative, so we don’t know. If you’re in space, near a black hole, you can’t tell that time speeds way, way up. And if you were able to get away from that black hole again, everyone would be gone by the time you came back to earth. Maybe those factors affect us, and it’s interesting to think about.

So once I got going I played around a lot with the edges, how much of a border to leave or to have no border at all.

Metamorphosis 1, 2016 Ink on paper 12 x 9 inches

Metamorphosis 1, 2016
Ink on paper
12 x 9 inches

 

Articiple: And how much color, how much hue to add.

Maya: And the different pens have different intensities. This blue one was super strong. On the later ones I ended up working on top again, playing with the asymmetries, things falling off the page.

Time Is a Network, 2016 Ink on Paper 30 x 24 inches

Time Is a Network, 2016
Ink on Paper
30 x 24 inches

 

Articiple: And so many senses of accretion or dropping away and receding.

Maya: I’m happy with how it came out. So I did a lot of pieces. These were the larger ones. I did those two really large ones at the end.

Articiple: That’s a lot of work for a month.

Maya: It was. And everybody was working like that. A month really isn’t that long to make a whole body of work. At some point I’d really like to take the oil paints on the road and do a residency with the oil paints, and mix in driers so they would dry fast enough for me to be able to take them home at the end. But I haven’t been able to go on residency with the oil paints because they take so long to dry. So for the residency, I focused on drawing, and I created a whole new body of work practically from scratch. Everyone else was continuing work they had been doing before. But for me, this was an entirely new way of working. In hindsight I wish I had just figured out how to do my oil painting there. But it’s a process and I need to spend some time here in my studio investigating how I might take this work on the road.

Articiple: Especially when you have such thick paint applications, it must take months for pieces to dry.

Maya: It takes forever. Which is good, in a way, because when paintings are required for a show, I have to get them done early. I can’t do anything last-minute. But then I can’t fly off to Berlin and paint for a few weeks either.

So that’s what I’ve been up to with the drawing. I’m always drawing and painting at the same time. I’ll do a day of painting and then I’ll rest a day and then I’ll do a couple days of drawing and then back with the painting. It kind of flows in a circle like that. It’s a different kind of energy that is required to do the drawings versus the paintings. And the oil paintings require intense focus and physical stamina. And I just can’t do it every day. I just don’t have the stamina for it anymore.

Articiple: And conceptually, they seem to have really different concerns. The drawings are so spontaneous and malleable—or anyway, you introduce a big element of chance. And the paintings, I know that there’s a lot of improv, but there also seems to be a lot of planning and intention.

Maya: I have to really make decisions and commit with the paintings and decisions in the drawing don’t feel as weighty somehow. The decisions in the paintings can change very quickly, and that’s super intense. I can wipe out half of the painting with one move. I can just destroy it. The pressure to make decisions is exhilarating—sure, I can make small moves, but if I make a big move, it’s a BIG move. And then suddenly it’s an entirely different painting. It’s fun, I like it, as it’s almost like playing sports. You have to process information very quickly to play sports, and it’s all very fast and you have to adjust to other people very quickly. Whatever sport you’re playing, there are these laws of movement and adjustment. And it’s very similar when I’m working on a painting. Things happen very quickly and decisions happen quickly and impact all other parts of the painting and then other things have to adjust to accommodate. I like playing sports, so it makes sense that I see the relationships when I paint.

Urban Field 11, 2015 Oil on canvas 60 x 60 inches

Urban Field 11, 2015
Oil on canvas
60 x 60 inches

 

Articiple: Your painting technique seems really distinctive. How did it evolve for you?

Maya: I’ll show you the old work I was doing with oil paint from years ago. They’re starting to get destroyed, and I’m starting to paint over them. I was doing these very atmospheric pieces. I did a lot that were larger than this. They’re kind of misty landscape kinds of things. I grew up in Oregon, so, I think they are about growing up in the rain and the clouds and my emotional connection to that place.

Fluxion, 2004 Oil on canvas 48 x 60 inches

Fluxion, 2003
Oil on canvas
48 x 60 inches

 

Articiple: A lot of thinner paint layers.

Maya: Many thin layers.

Articiple: Are these from years and years ago?

Maya: Yeah. This is from 2000 maybe, 2001 or 2. I did a lot of them and sold some. I just was getting to the end of that body of work around 2003 because I just didn’t have anything else to say. And I had a little scraper, a tiny one like this. I can’t remember what I was using it for. I think I was using it to mix up a color on my palate. I didn’t normally use knives or anything. Anyway, then I realized this tool makes a very interesting mark. That was it, I just started painting that way. The early versions of these paintings were very different. They were almost stippled, but with little squares of paint.

Articiple: More gridded?

Maya: Well, they were more impressionistic, and subdued. I don’t even think I have any of them left. And then they evolved to what I am doing now. I started using bigger tools and it sort of evolved from there. I don’t think that I am going to stop anytime soon.

I’ve been experimenting with new methods recently though. These are the works that went into the show, mostly. But I’ve been experimenting with a little more kind of all-over freeform and thick paint. They are slowly getting better. It’s been fun to try something totally different.

Untitled Yellow, 2016 Oil on board 12 x 12 inches

Untitled Yellow, 2016
Oil on board
12 x 12 inches

 

Articiple: So many of the paintings like the ones from the show have a play between a neutral and a more intense color. But these new ones are really different.

Maya: They’re totally different. I’ve gotten pretty good at manipulating paint. I have a lot of control now, which is really cool.

So these could be really jewel-like and pretty, and they tend to go that way, to be too pretty. And I don’t like that, so I want to keep them sort of gritty in some ways, and messy and more interesting. These are the ones I did first, these wavy patterns. I don’t know, I’m not sure anything is going to come of them, but this feels like a good experiment.

Articiple: It’s a good counterpoint to the more planar pieces.

Maya: And some of that texture might end up coming into the planar pieces at some point. It would be really interesting to play around with it. We’ll see. There’s a big one I did.

Untitled, , 2016 Oil on canvas 18 x 14 inches

Untitled, , 2016
Oil on canvas
18 x 14 inches

 

Articiple: It’s like a gathered textile.

Maya: Yeah, it has the grid quality, and almost like a weaving.

Articiple: When you start a piece like this, do you have a palette in mind? Or is it all evolving as you work?

Maya: It definitely evolves as I work. But recently I’ve been just squirting a bunch of color on at once, like a big mess, and just going with it. Normally that would produce a real muddy, messy thing, but somehow I’ll manage it. I’ll add as I go and somehow it seems to be manageable.

Articiple: You can keep them separated.

Maya: If you push hard, something else happens than if you push lightly. If there’s stuff underneath, I can play with pulling up what’s underneath it, or if I want to, I can just cover it up. I’m doing them on top of old paintings that have a lot of texture already. I feel like that makes them more interesting. That green was already there from another painting. And then you can go over the bumps and it kind of shatters the consistency, and I like that more.

Articiple: And it looks like stuff chips off, too? Or there are places that don’t get covered as much.

Maya: I think that’s just what’s underneath. You know how with oil paint, if you have a very oily layer underneath and you go over it with something fatter, it will just skid across. I was sort of lucky. The top layer of blue just wouldn’t stick and cover that flesh tone underneath.

So I’ve also been touching up old paintings, slightly adjusting them and reworking some of them right now. So these are in process right now. I haven’t made any new work since my show came down. London happened, and then I cam home and my show went right up. My show was great, but I felt like I needed to take a break. Now I am back in my studio, and I have a bunch of old paintings that were OK, but they weren’t quite there. So it’s worth looking at them again and playing around with them, and going over areas and redoing parts. If I can save them, that’s great. If I can’t, they can just get restretched. But it’s fun to see if I can fix them.

Articiple: What does it mean for you, to feel like something is ‘there’ or finished?

Maya: Well, you know how it is, you do a painting and it’s hard to see it. Sometimes it takes a month or five months or a year to to really see the painting objectively. Often, I wish I had fixed one part or changed a color out. And once they’ve been sitting in my studio awhile and it’s clear that I’m never going to show them, it’s sort of like, I might was well play around with them. They can lose their freshness very easily, so adding to them after they’re done is a little risky. But I have plenty of paintings, so if I can learn something by adjusting things and playing around that way, it’s worth it to me.

Articiple: For sure. Like an ongoing conversation with the piece.

Maya: Yeah. Like, it’s getting there, it needs some work, and let’s see if we can make it really good now.

Articiple: And the pieces you showed, are they all recent?

Maya: Yes, they were all new. I did them all this summer. There were only six pieces in the show. They were substantial. This yellow one and this gray one came back. But they kept the others and a few sold. I pretty much did them all this spring and summer, so it was a lot of focused time. They’re similar to what I was doing before, but they seem more pared down. They’ve got these strips that sort of stop and start and move across, almost like text to me, like little sentences or something.

Attempt to Cross 21, 2016 Oil on canvas 72x48 inches

Attempt to Cross 21, 2016
Oil on canvas
72×48 inches

 

Attempt to Cross 22, 2016 Oil on canvas 72x48 inches

Attempt to Cross 22, 2016
Oil on canvas
72×48 inches

 

Articiple: These little intrusions of intensity.

Maya: They’re fun to do. I really like the format. They feel really good to make. When I go back to painting I’m sure I’ll do them again. I think I’ll switch the composition around and do some horizontal compositions and see what happens with it.

Articiple: Yeah, these feel really different to me. The horizontal ones you kind of fall into, I think because we’re used to looking side to side, just in our orientation to the landscape.

Maya: Yeah. Obviously, these are like horizon lines, different horizon lines. When they’re square or horizontal, something else happens.

Articiple: And there’s also an aerial quality of looking down at something from above.

Maya: Yeah, I was looking down on farmland when I was flying in an airplane recently, just looking at the patterns and how all of these funny puzzle shapes fit together, and I always find it so fascinating. I also just went to Machu Picchu this spring. I did some paintings for the show before I left for Machu Picchu and the rest of the work when I got back. Being there was like a religious experience for me, because I realized they were doing something with their wall-building that was similar to what I am trying to do with my painting. They were taking these very unusual shapes and fitting them together in a way that is just so perfect and solid and strong and complete and balanced. It’s just mind blowing. Seeing these Inca walls, that are so well-designed and also so organic-looking, and so perfectly integrated into the landscape… It’s just incredible, I can’t imagine how it was done. In fact, no one knows how they did it. But the magic of the puzzle and how it just locks together, like, click, is what I’m going for in my work. I want everything to interlock and be perfectly logical and structurally sound but also completely quirky and utterly unique. I am not into perfect grids or symmetry or perfect balance. Life isn’t like that and perfection isn’t real.

So it was really inspiring for me to see that similar aesthetic in this entirely different medium, architecture. I realized more clearly what it is that I’m trying to do, and it was very helpful. Because sometimes I don’t really understand why I paint. I mean, of course, there are so many reasons why I paint but sometimes I can’t get a firm handle on it. So it’s nice to identify specific ones when they come up. There has got to be more that just a love of color or form. Obviously, I’m interested in color. I love the way colors work and talk to each other, and that’s part of the reason I paint. I like the texture of the paint. But there is also a psychological component, and I think it relates to these realizations about Machu Picchu and how the Inca fit all these huge rocks together to build these incredible structures, and how that’s like me trying to fit the many pieces of my own life together, the disparate parts of myself that are quirky or don’t look like they will fit. How do I get my green part to fit with my blue part? How do I get the structure to balance? It’s a question that’s kind of eternal and existential for me. How do I take all the facets of myself and make sense of them as a concrete whole? How do we take the different elements of our world and fit them all together in a way that makes sense? Maybe it’s not possible, but for me it’s essential to try to get the fragments back and pull them in and fit it all together. So that’s why I do it.

Articiple: It’s sort of the gist of consciousness, I think.

Maya: Yeah. My parents were divorced when I was six, so for me, symbolically, it’s like two parts of myself were separated from a very young age. They still don’t get along after all of these years, and I have come to see that that is still a painful thing and it always will be. It’s not like I am worried about it anymore, but I think I paint this way because I’m trying to get the shattered parts back together and to fit it all back in. And I never really will, but symbolically it’s somehow a necessary thing for me to try to do.

Articiple: It’s so interesting to have architecture as a parallel for that, because architecture starts from the point where everything has to fit or it just doesn’t work.

Maya: Absolutely. And in my own painting, I realized only a couple years ago, I would be painting and I would have a stripe across and I would be like, that just does not work. Nothing’s holding that up. I need something to hold that up visually, whether it’s a darker line underneath, or a fatter line or something. It’s weird, I didn’t realize I was having that dialog with myself and the work. Because of course anything is possible in a painting. Nothing needs to hold anything up. But in my world, this dangling line (in the painting) is very hard for me, but because this little teeny line is there underneath, it manages to keep it structurally complete. And this strong vertical holds it up. If that weren’t there, I would have to do something with that.

Articiple: You’re developing a language that’s specific to this practice, and to each painting. It has to be internally consistent to itself.

Maya: It’s really true. There is a logic to it once I start talking about it, but it’s not a logic that makes sense in any kind of real-world way. It’s just a logic that happens in my own very specific and unique way. It’s a little crazy.

Articiple: It’s not built on any other system. This is the system. That’s the power of good work, it can make up this logic system or this psychological reality.

Maya: I think good art does just that. Good work creates the language that holds itself up. In order for it to be convincing, you have to believe in it. You have to believe in it as the artist. And you can tell when someone doesn’t believe in their own work. You can really tell. You can look at a painting and see, they’re just doing that. They don’t believe it, or they’re mimicking something or someone else. That’s cool, mimicking, that’s part of learning, but it’s not going to be enough. It’s not going to be there yet for me. I do hope I am making that kind of good believable work.

Articiple: Yes, you can tell when work doesn’t have the urgency or the necessity of whatever was behind it.

Maya: It’s just maybe not specific enough yet, or they haven’t taken full ownership of it yet? I’m happy to say that I don’t know anyone who makes work quite like mine, and I’m fine with that. I don’t want my work to look like other people’s work. Obviously there are influences, significant ones, like Diebenkorn and other California painters and other abstractionists.

Articiple:  Your work feels really distinctive to me.

Maya: One of the first art classes I took in college was an architectural theory and practice class. It was taught by an architect who was also a theorist. We did things like, we had to take one of the cities from the book Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, and recreate it in a sculpture.

Articiple: You went to Oberlin, right? I did too. I think I may have taken that same class!

Maya: Stan Matthews taught it. He was Pat Matthews’ husband, from the art history department. Strangely, it was my senior year. I didn’t take any art classes in college. I was doing art history. I was interested in academics. I thought, I can make art later. So this was the first art class I let myself take. We had to take a piece of illustration board and fold it or cut it and make it into a tower, but when you dismantled it, it had to unfurl into that same single solid piece of paper. It had to be intact. You couldn’t cut and paste. So I cut strips and wrapped them around the back and tucked them in. It slowly evolved to become like a flower. At the very end, I cut an extra piece of paper—it was an orange piece of illustration board—and added it to the center of the flower, because I needed something to hold it all in the middle. It was beautiful. I was really proud of it. I was working on it day and night. I just hadn’t been making stuff and I certainly hadn’t been making any sculpture ever before. And there were all these art majors in this class. So I showed up for the crit, and plunked it down with the other towers and couldn’t believe it. There were all of these beautiful elegant folded towers that were engineered very well and were made by talented adept artists, but they all looked pretty similar. Mine just looked so different. It was hysterical how much it was the odd one out with my flower with the orange middle. And I didn’t get approval for the little orange square in the middle. My prof said, “That’s unnecessary.” It wasn’t like I got an A or anything, but it was interesting to me, how different my flower tower was. I think that was because I just hadn’t been trained in the way that all those kids had been trained all through school, and sculpture was this new and very challenging thing for me.

Articiple: So you could come at it in a totally new way.

Maya: And similarly, many years later, I took painting classes to learn about color, but I was only doing that because I was in textiles and I needed to learn about color more. I was really interested in quilts and collage and I was never meant to be only a painter. So I kind of came at painting too from the side. The more I paint, the more I see the relationships to my interest in textiles and quilts. A lot of my works look like weaving because of the interest in the grid and the quality of interlocking vertical and horizontal.

Title, date Oil on canvas size

Urban Field 10, 2015
Oil on canvas
20 x 16 inches

 

Title (detail), date Oil on canvas size

Urban Field 10 (detail), 2015
Oil on canvas

 

Articiple: And the layering working through, like a warp and weft.

Maya: In much of my work, for instance, even if you looked back at the binary code drawings, there’s this warp and weft and then I mess it up and tweak it. So that’s just the way my brain works.

Articiple: Do these paintings start with these large color fields?

Maya: Sometimes I’ll start with a variety of colors all over the canvas, just squirt them out and start working. If I know that I’m going to keep one side light and one side dark, I don’t put a ton of black over on the light side, because then keeping the black out is virtually impossible. But it’s nice to have things come up like little surprises of color from underneath. With these ones, I definitely have a compositional idea in mind. So I will start with a plan, but then I will intentionally try to fuck it up a little bit along the way and change the painting so that it’s not so planned in the end. But usually I know basically what I want to do. And they can change. If it’s not working, I’ll just scrape off a big part of a painting as I go and change it. But the decision to use that green [in that painting] was pretty deliberate. I will often make a painting based on a palette or a color that I want to explore, without having a specific endgame in mind.

Articiple: And the pieces need to have a certain lifespan during the process, to get to that kind of layering.

Maya: If they happen too fast, it can be really fun in a sense, because things just come together and it’s flowing, but they’re often just not interesting enough because the layers haven’t built up, the weird parts haven’t been covered over or adjusted or worked. I mean, in the end you actually can’t really cover anything up. If I don’t like something I will “cover it”, but there’s always a little peek of it sticking out. Something, even if it is barely visible, is always still there. The paintings just get more interesting the more they get worked on. But then, also, I do feel like there’s a point where you can overdo it. The details get too finicky and there’s no reason anymore. When I notice myself sort of picking at the painting, without really doing anything, I realize that that’s the time that it’s over.

Articiple: “Step back!”

Maya: “Step away from the painting!” I can be quite obsessive-compulsive.

Articiple: There’s nothing but your judgment saying when to step back.

Maya: And there are paintings I’ve destroyed because I thought they weren’t working, that I really wish I had waited a night and slept on it. I could have scraped them down in the morning. It’s very hard to see clearly after five hours of painting. You can’t see the painting objectively anymore. I have probably scraped down some fine paintings for no reason over the years.

Articiple: You paint mostly on canvas?

Maya: Pretty much exclusively. I do have a few boards that come into the rotation sometimes. Usually those are small. When painting on wood, the grain of the board never seems to be what I want it to be. Canvas always looks so right and canvas has a nice push and a little spring to it. I find that it works better with the kind of work I’m doing. But small works on board seem to be fine. You can get a very sharp edge when painting on wood in a way that you can’t with a canvas. It’s super precise. But precision is not what interests me, anyway. I still like the sharp edges, but I like the wiggle that happens on canvas, the softness of the edge. With the wood, I can get really perfect, beautiful lines. Sometimes that’s fun, but overall it’s not exactly what I’m going for.

Articiple: I’m interested in what you say in your artist statement, about urban experience and the city as a paradigm. In some ways it’s an image of density, the urban grid. The paintings also have the feeling of being very spacious and open.

Maya: They are definitely like little neighborhoods. There are metaphors of the city all over the place in these paintings but they could be referencing a lot of things. There are elements that look like bridges, or maybe they are streets? There are big open spaces like parks or lakes or empty lots. There are structures and forms that could be buildings, or doors, or possibly you are looking down on a city block from high above. They also look like maps sometimes, or interiors. And then I look and think these new paintings really are something different. The older paintings are neighborhoods, but in these stripe paintings, there is something else going on. It could be the repeated horizon lines, but I think really they’re more about integrating parts, the way we were discussing previously.

 

Attempt to Cross 26, 2016 Oil on canvas 40 x 30 inches

Attempt to Cross 26, 2016
Oil on canvas
40 x 30 inches

 

Articiple: Tell me how you went from textiles to painting. Did you do any painting in grad school?

Maya: There are times when I think I’d love to go back to school to get another MFA in painting. But now I think, “Oh hell, no.” I can’t imagine uprooting my life and putting myself under that kind of stress again. Back when I went to Davis (which was great, by the way), I didn’t want to upheave my life for grad school, and I could commute there from Oakland, where I was living. So it worked out. I wasn’t in the visual art MFA, I was in the textile MFA, which was smaller. I had really good professors, like Gyongy Laky and Barbara Shawcroft, people who are more traditionally in the textile world. So it was a different education. But it was fine, because I learned how to make things my way, and I think that’s what you need to learn in grad school; you need to learn what it is that you do, and how you do it and why and you can’t dabble in that practice or that process. You have to be willing to really investigate yourself and your being as an artist in some very essential ways. And you need to be willing to break yourself down over and over to get at the true essence of what you, as a specific, unique human, do or do not do and why you make those choices.

Articiple: It’s a training ground for developing your process and your judgment. I think it’s almost immaterial what medium you focus on in school.

Maya: I think that’s really true. And in hindsight, I didn’t know that I was going to end up a painter. Sure, if I had to do it again, I’d go get my MFA in painting, because it turns out I’m a painter. But I’m a painter with this certain set of interests that are a little tweaked and there is definitely the textile interest. So it’s all fine, because that’s who I am and I can own it.

Articiple: I don’t think studying textiles instead of painting has set you back!

Maya: But it was tough in grad school, because I really wanted to paint. And they kept pushing me, and saying that I had to do something with fiber.

Articiple: Were you weaving?

Maya: Before grad school I wove professionally out of this small production house in Petaluma. I did a lot of things for them, including hand painting fabrics with stencils and dying, but I also wove these blankets for them on a big loom. It was fun, because I was working with my hands and I like that. But it was pretty boring work.

Articiple: Pretty repetitive, I guess.

Maya: And for me, creatively I just didn’t get into the weaving. With my paintings, I can squeeze out color right onto the canvas or mix something on a palette. There’s an immediacy with painting that you almost can’t get with any fiber art. With quilting, it’s hours of intensive labor sewing pieces of cloth together and layering the batting and hand sewing it. My brain wants the immediate result, and then being able to change it. Having this plastic medium is just required for me at this point. So there wasn’t really a way for me to get at the immediacy that I wanted in fiber. But by the end of grad school I did do collages that I would paint on and sew on top of, so I got to have the kind of play that I needed. But I do my paintings very quickly. My process is very fast, again it’s like playing sports, which you can’t do slowly, because that is just the way my brain works and the way I need to work. So I couldn’t do anything but painting now. I’m just too demanding.

Articiple:  I don’t think anything really compares with working in a fluid medium. It responds instantly and it’s almost infinitely malleable. I can see why paint suits your way of working.

Maya: I’m not the kind of person who likes to plan my work. There are artists who think it all through first.

Articiple: I think Amy Ellingson works like that, plans things far in advance. (I interviewed her a few months ago.) She creates digital diagrams with illustration software, then she goes through a really deliberate, painstaking process to translate them into paintings. 

Maya: I just can’t work that way. I need a little structure and then I want to be able to improvise. That balance of structure and improvisation is really where it’s at for me. I can’t plan that much. I can’t even follow a recipe when I am cooking because I just want to improvise, I find it so confining to work from a set of rules.

Knitting was great because, on the one hand, I do have an ability to do hours of mindless labor happily, because my brain can space out and it is just singing, “la la la!”. But at the end of the day, it’s not my preferred mode of working creatively when there are a set of rules that you follow and then, boom, it’s all over. What’s the fun in that?

Articiple: It’s interesting that you went through the route of fiber arts, because so much of what you say about your process doesn’t necessarily mesh with that. And I didn’t even mean that as a pun!

Maya: It doesn’t mesh at all. It really doesn’t. But the sensibility was definitely interesting to me. And clearly I have a deep and powerful emotional relationship to texture which drives that interest. And the way that materials can be transformed in that world is very interesting to me, the variety of textures and all the different fabrics and the way they absorb color, transparency. It’s all there. It’s very similar in many ways to painting, but it’s just very slow.

Articiple: And fiber itself is fascinating. I learned a little bit about spinning awhile ago, using a drop spindle. I got very interested in how that works, and how people figured it out thousands of years ago.

Maya: I guess some of the first textiles made were rope, and then they would knot it into nets.

Articiple: That makes sense, to start with some looser structure before getting to fabric.

Maya: It is extraordinary. The line is a thread to me always. With drawing, for me what’s interesting is line. There are just endless possibilities with line.

Articiple: And the small drawings would be beautiful fabrics.

Maya: They could be. I did do some dying too when I was in grad school. But it’s interesting to go back into using ink almost as a dye. But as you can see, it’s all about the line in this body of work—this just makes me so happy.

Articiple: And all those different layers of transparency that you can’t plan, the pools with these different concentrations.

Maya: I’d like to figure out how to work with it more, because things go back and other things come forward. I’d like to make more decisions around controlling and creating that space, so I’m working towards that.

Articiple: So you’re in drawing mode now for awhile?

Maya: I don’t know. This year really wiped me out. I just did too much. And London was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back. I loved it. You can see how much I produced there. And I produced all the work for my show in the two or three months before I left for London. And I traveled a lot. I was in Europe in January, I have family there. And then I was in Ecuador and Peru in May with my mother. We went to the Galapagos and Machu Picchu. Then I went to London in August, and I had a show.

Articiple: That’s an intense year.

Maya: It was a lot. In 2015 I had major surgery, because I had an autoimmune disease that went undetected and it ravaged my body. I’m really lucky that I was able to get it all under control, but it was years of trying to figure all of it out. No one knew, because you couldn’t tell by looking at me that I was sick. But I was very sick for about 5 years while we cured the autoimmune disease and then waited to see if I could recover. The surgery was in 2015, and it was the end of a long and difficult road where I was really in limbo. I bounced back after the surgery in just a few months, which was really fast.

Articiple: That’s amazing in itself.

Maya: It was amazingly fast. I just lucked out that the surgery worked and that there weren’t any complications. So after that, I really jumped back into life. There were so many years of being in limbo and waiting that I just ran out of the gate, and then after going so fast and being on all of this adrenaline I went to London after all of this other travel and started dating again and making work, and I just felt like I smashed into a wall. I realized I needed to slow down So I’m glad I did all of that traveling and living. It was worth it, but now I feel like I need some time. It’s fun to do some smaller works and experiment, but there are no shows coming up soon and there is nothing I need to do.

But there are some other things going on. My dealer Danielle Fox at SLATE and George Lawson from Lawson Gallery are making a book of 6 images and some essays for me about the recent show. George and Danielle are both going to write a piece for it. So that’s happening. There are some other nice things happening—talking to you, and I have a private student, which I’m really enjoying. And I’m going to curate a little online show for NIAD, Nurturing Independence Through Artistic Development, the Richmond organization for developmentally disabled artists. So there are little things coming up that kind of keep things flowing.

Articiple: It sounds like it’s good to slow the pace a little.

Maya: It was a fun time, but it was a little much. I’m just trying to find my balance again. And it was a really intense time leading up to my surgery in 2015. Anybody who goes through anything like that, there’s a reevaluation that has to happen. It’s just required. Things get really clear really fast. I just don’t have time for drama anymore. I am just so not interested.

Articiple: I was really sick around the time I was at Oberlin, I had Hodgkins Disease. So in my early 20s I went through that feeling of, “Oh, this is how it could end.” Suddenly you just can’t count on your body. It gave me a different perspective.

Maya: I’m sure it did. Fortunately most people don’t have to face that when they’re young. I think about the difference before I found out about my disease and after. It’s like I’m two different people. It was such a game changer. Before the diagnosis, I was just this healthy person and I took it all for granted. I think that’s great though, don’t get me wrong. Young and healthy people should take it for granted. On the other hand, I don’t regret any of the lessons learned. I’m a better person by far for the experience. I’m grateful in that way. But I don’t wish it on anybody and if I had had the choice, I wouldn’t have chosen it.

Articiple: If you can get through it, it’s a really formative experience.

Maya: And that’s all that matters, getting through it. It didn’t take me out. That’s all that matters.

Articiple: Right, you get a second chance.

Maya: It’s definitely just taking me some time to sort through. So it’s going to happen in phases. It’s going to be awhile. But I’m very happy to be on this side of it.

Articiple: Well, you look amazingly healthy! No one would ever know what you’ve gone through.

Maya: I’m grateful that when I was diagnosed and in the years before the surgery, nobody really knew. I don’t think I looked super healthy but I didn’t look ridiculously ill, either. It was kind of a blessing to be given a pass in that way, to be able to go along as if, and deal with it more privately. When you have to deal with stuff like that more publicly, it’s more challenging. I didn’t want to talk to everybody about it.

Articiple: And if you’re able to travel and all of that, it seems like you don’t have any restrictions now. Going to Machu Picchu is pretty intense. It’s over 14,000 feet, right?

Maya: I think Cusco is 12,000 feet. Maybe Machu Picchu is only 10,000. But still, that was a big adjustment. And it wasn’t even a year since my surgery, it was 11 months. And I went to Europe at Christmas, so that was only six months after my surgery. In hindsight, I clearly had a mission. I didn’t quite realize how much I had a mission. It’s understandable, after having to wait and wait and wait for resolution. But now I’m settling back into normal life and not wanting to rush. I went to Peru and Ecuador and I had to make all the work for the show and I got to go to Europe again. It’s enlivening to have activities and a deadline like that. It helps to get things done. But it’s not how I like to live.

Articiple: Then things start feeling more like obligations.

Maya: Things don’t happen as organically. So I’m enjoying the fact that this is a period of quiet. I think I might not push too hard until the new year. I did a lot this year, and it’s fine. I want to be excited about making the oil paintings, particularly. I’ll be messing around with water and drawing and stuff all year, but I might just wait to do more oil paintings. Although at the same time, the experiments with oils feel really necessary and interesting. Experimentation is important. It’s really easy to get stuck in ruts, at least for me. So doing stuff that’s so wildly different is really helpful to push things around in a new way and see what happens. When you’re working for a show or something, you know what you have to produce. You can’t really experiment all that much. For me, it’s like I want to create a body of work that’s interesting and there are new things happening, but they’re all kind of talking to each other in some way, and you have to deliver something that holds together and makes sense.

Articiple: You want it to be coherent.

Maya: Yeah. I try not to plan too much, but usually when I’m interested in something—like I got really interested in grays again. I did a bunch of gray paintings. The gallery didn’t show them, because they get to edit. But there’s only so much planning I’m going to do. It’s nice to have a gallery that picks the work at the end of the day, because they always do something interesting and also something different from what I might have done. That’s what they’re good at. I’m actually really not that good at hanging up shows. I’m good at making the paintings and then it’s nice to have someone else take them and do stuff with them.

Articiple: I like SLATE a lot. All the shows I’ve seen there have been really interesting.

Maya: The new space is really nice, too. And they’re just lovely to work with. I love working with them, so it’s been a nice thing.

Articiple: And are you still working with Mercury 20?

Maya: I left there because SLATE took me on, and I can’t do both. I kind of wanted to figure out a way to do both, because it’s a community I really value, and I helped start it. I still feel like it’s my baby. But it was time. It’s important to let other people have that platform. It’s evolving and changing. It’s really thrilling to see what they do now. I get to hang out still with everybody and be around. It’s a lot less work for me to have someone else hanging my shows and doing all the promoting and marketing.

It was really fun to work with Mercury 20 and help evolve the Art Murmur. The Art Murmur organization, when I first got involved, was so disorganized. People could hardly make a map. But at the same time, nobody really had to do anything or promote it because it was gaining so much momentum on its own. Once the galleries started having openings, people just started coming. It just happened organically, and it didn’t need anybody, really, to push it anywhere. But then once it got big it did need some organization. So it was cool to witness and participate in that process and to help things come together. Now the Art Murmur has got this huge board and they’re fundraising. It’s pretty amazing.

I just saw the Eva Hesse movie, the documentary about her work and her life, last week. It was so interesting. She was in New York, she was in the New York art scene very specifically and she was very ambitious. I hadn’t realized that about her before. She was very deliberate and intentional about her career. Part of me thinks that that’s probably required on some level. I often wonder how much ambition is required, and how much planning needs to go into a career. There are people who push-push and sell themselves in certain ways. I guess that’s fine if it’s natural to you. But if it’s not, forcing it doesn’t feel like it’s really going to help. I feel like if I just take that energy and put it back into my work it’s better for me, and then make the effort to do residencies like the one in London and the one before that in Iceland, and develop my communities. I met a lot of great people at these residencies and made some important contacts. The business person in me is not super excited about forcing those conversations and relationships. And any career is a lot about relationships. There’s only so much I’m willing to do, though, and then I just let the chips fall where they may.

Articiple: I’ve been reading a lot about Agnes Martin. She did work for years in New York, but almost ambivalently, it seems. Or anyway she ended up choosing seclusion over almost anything else. But she definitely got her work out there, she was part of the conversation.

Maya: I think it helps to be there, in the community that you want to be developing. Ultimately it’s about the relationships that you form. Opportunities come in the same way that they do anywhere and in any career, and it’s often based on the communities and the relationships you’re in. I’m fine with being in the community here. I love it. But there are some really interesting things going on in New York. I have good friends there. I try to get there every year and see the shows and keep up with it all. It is such a great city and someday I hope to show there.

Amy Ellingson

Variation (blue), 2014 Oil and encaustic on two panels 78" x 72" x 2"

Variation (blue), 2014
Oil and encaustic on two panels
78″ x 72″ x 2″

 

Amy Ellingson is a Bay Area painter and interdisciplinary artist who has exhibited her work nationally and internationally for more than 20 years. Her signature large-scale paintings in oil and encaustic use abstract patterns generated with digital illustration software, translated to material form in painstaking, deliberative processes. This act of translation from the virtual to the real, investing the ephemeral digital file with the attention and intention befitting an enduring artifact, is central to Amy’s work.  Also key is her practice of iterating a concept through different media, such as by interpreting a painting in 3-D sculptural forms.

[installation] Variation (blue), 2014 Variation (blue): Artifacts, 2015

[installation] Variation (blue), 2014 Variation (blue): Artifacts, 2015

 

Amy’s upcoming solo exhibition Chopping Wood on the Astral Plane  will be on view October 1-29 at Eli Ridgway | Contemporary Art, located at Minnesota Street Project in San Francisco.

Variation (three grids), 2016 Oil and encaustic on four panels 66" x 168" x 2"

Variation (three grids), 2016
Oil and encaustic on four panels
66″ x 168″ x 2″

 

Articiple: I’d like to pick up on some thoughts from your interview with Maritza Ruiz-Kim from 2014 (The Loop Of Abstraction: Amy Ellingson at San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art). I’m interested in how you describe the investment of time and labor in your work, and the relationship between the ephemeral digital source imagery and the finished works:

The decision to make a painting based on a flimsy digital file is about commitment, time, labor, effort.

I feel that the imagery is imbued with some power along the way, via the investment of time, attention and physical energy, belying the humble beginnings of the digital imagery.

But I think (hope) the overall effect is one of the hand trying to be perfect, more perfect than the digital, more mediated by processes and materials, more real, more human.

In much of modern and contemporary art it’s often the gestural, the imperfect, or the improvisatory that are credited with being ‘more human’, as if the accidents and idiosyncrasies of individual presence are what rescue the human from the tyranny of technological precision. Your position seems like the inverse of that, instead identifying the human with the pursuit of perfection, the sustained and disciplined effort, the repetitive act of labor. I wonder if you have any more thoughts about that?

[detail] Variation (three grids), 2016 Oil and encaustic on four panels 66" x 168" x 2"

[detail] Variation (three grids), 2016
Oil and encaustic on four panels
66″ x 168″ x 2″

 

Amy: Yes, it’s a bit of a paradox when you put it that way.  Certainly, you are right to say that we perceive gestural, improvisatory painting methodologies as being truly human.  I suppose that is because we can see and “feel” evidence of the hand and body.  Perhaps we think we can “feel” the artist’s impulses and actions.  And, perhaps, the further we advance into the information age, the more we will perceive gestural, imperfect things as signifiers of the human condition. However, I’ve been thinking a lot about expression. What is it, exactly?  Why do we make assumptions about what is being expressed?  Why do we assume that “perfect” things are not necessarily expressive?

 

Variation: purple (dawn), 2016 Oil and encaustic on two panels 50" x 156" x 2"

Variation: purple (dawn), 2016
Oil and encaustic on two panels
50″ x 156″ x 2″

 

For example, I have a nice watch that my parents gave me for my fortieth birthday.  It is an automatic, meaning that it winds itself by capturing, storing and utilizing the energy created by the movement of my body. It does this through its design—a mechanism of tiny, compact springs and rotors and gears.  Though many people wear Apple and Fitbit watches these days, I still wear my automatic.  The only thing it does is tell time.  To me, it is one of the ultimate expressions of what it means to be human.  The complexity and precision of its design and its singularity of purpose are reminders of what humans are capable of.  What’s more human than Swiss watch making?  I feel the same about precision in art.  Isn’t a Bernini sculpture expressive?  To me, repetition, labor and the pursuit of technical mastery are the most human things.  Believe me, there are lots of imperfect things in my paintings, but in making them, I try to bring every element to a level of finish that results in a seamless whole. Agnes Martin wrote and spoke of the pursuit of perfection.  She said that we have an awareness of perfection in our minds but that perfection is unattainable, and that “the function of the work of art is…the renewal of memories or moments of perfection.”  I tend to agree with that.

 

[detail] Variation: purple (dawn), 2016 Oil and encaustic on two panels 50" x 156" x 2"

[detail]
Variation: purple (dawn), 2016
Oil and encaustic on two panels
50″ x 156″ x 2″

 

I like your phrase, ‘ tyranny of technological precision’.  Yes, computers and the graphic design and photo editing programs I use have their own algorithmic perfection, but I would argue that it is somehow lacking, at least in terms of human esthetic judgement.  I remember learning Adobe Pagemaker years ago, in the early nineties.  One could adjust the kerning (the space between individual letter forms) to make the text look better.  Of course, typesetters have been adjusting kerning with their eyes and hands for hundreds of years, in an effort to make text more legible and more pleasing to the eye.  What is that, exactly?  Well, we are still physical beings, we still respond to physical stimuli, we still have our mysterious ways of making esthetic and formal choices.

Articiple: I’m curious to know more about your choice of materials and your decision to work in oil and encaustic and gouache. A lot of art that engages with the relationship between the virtual and the real incorporates digital media directly into the work, through video, 3-D printed objects, or such. You’re taking a different approach in generating source material digitally and translating that through the use of more traditional media. Certainly that creates a dialog with the history of abstraction and the larger history of painting. But it seems like there is something more there. I wonder if there’s a phenomenological connection between the material qualities of the media and the qualities of investment and attention that you want to realize in the work? I think what I’m asking is, how do these media, or the ways you’re able to work with them, carry particular qualities of the ‘human’?

 

[detail] Variation (blue), 2014 Oil and encaustic on two panels 78" x 72" x 2"

[detail] Variation (blue), 2014
Oil and encaustic on two panels
78″ x 72″ x 2″

 

Amy: We remain physical beings. We are from and of the natural world.  Art making is a strange impulse. It connects us to our highest ideals even as it reminds us that we have feet of clay. Throughout most of art history, we humans made art out of natural materials: stone, wood, a bit of charcoal, ground minerals in a vehicle of some sort… even though the imagery in my paintings is the result of keystroke commands, the material reality of the work is very traditional: wood panels, chalk gesso and paint made of ground minerals, turpentine, oil, beeswax and resin.  I love the connection to the past.  Artists have been using these materials for hundreds of years and we have an intrinsic relationship to them, as we do to an image on a planar surface. When I look at one of my sketches on the computer, or even printed, it really doesn’t look like much.  It’s a reference, a starting point.  I do believe the computer and the graphics programs I use (Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop) prompt me to design in a particular way, but as you know, the desktop and the palettes are simulacra of real things: a real desk, a real pen and paintbrush, and real actions, such as copying, pasting, scaling, and erasing.  I look at the sketch and say, “now I am going to make this real”.  There is a bit of the Pinocchio story in play, I suppose; artifice only takes one so far.  I find a lot of satisfaction in learning about paint recipes and formulas and I enjoy making my own mediums.  I recently began experimenting with making my own gouache, and it is just unbelievably delicious.  I experimented a bit and then realized that I probably need a few months to really work out a methodology of testing recipes and mixing and tubing colors, so I set it aside, but I hope to spend more time on it in the next few months.

 

[detail] Variation (blue): Artifacts, 2015 Cast encaustic forms, wire, encaustic Dimensions variable

[detail] Variation (blue): Artifacts, 2015
Cast encaustic forms, wire, encaustic
Dimensions variable


Articiple: You often iterate an idea through different forms, repeating shapes and patterns in a series of related works. In fact your show at SJICA was titled Iterations & Assertions. You explained a little about this in your interview with Maritza:

For many years I have created groups of closely related paintings for exhibitions. Until now, the progression was more literal in a sense. For this show, I wanted to tease out particular qualities, elements, characteristics in a more fragmented way. The diptych is the “mothership”. Everything else relates to it, but in a more exploratory way.

Your use of repetition and variation set up a strong dynamic of constraint and discovery. I’d be interested to hear more about how the practice of iteration works as a generative tool for you.

 

Variation: Apparent Reflectional Symmetry, Parts I & II, 2014 Oil and encaustic on eight panels Overall dimensions 69” x 338” x 2”

Variation: Apparent Reflectional Symmetry,
Parts I & II, 2014
Oil and encaustic on eight panels
Overall dimensions 69” x 338” x 2”

 

[installation] Iterations & Assertions, 2014 Site-specific mural, sculptural installation, paintings

[installation] Iterations & Assertions, 2014
Site-specific mural, sculptural installation, paintings

 

Amy: I appreciate your putting it in terms of constraint and discovery, because that is exactly how I see it.  We must acknowledge that just about everything has been already been done.  How does one make a meaningful abstract painting these days?  How can I participate in and advance the discourse of abstract painting?  I decided some years ago to limit the imagery in the works to elements that I designed in Illustrator: simple lines, arcs and grids.  The oblong, or straight-sided oval, is the matrix of many of my forms.  This very basic, simple language gives me a lot of flexibility.  By piling it all up in layers and using simple commands to alter these forms, I have been able to create a vernacular that allows me to explore abstraction without worrying about generating new imagery—the imagery is self-generating, in a sense.  I think that most artists find a set of parameters that allows them to be free, to explore, to seek and find answers.

 

Variation: Large Delineation, 2014 Site-specific mural, acrylic 13’ x 40’

Variation: Large Delineation, 2014
Site-specific mural, acrylic
13’ x 40’

 

Some of my imagery has been altered so many times that I truly cannot remember how I arrived at it.  I wouldn’t be able to replicate it if I tried.  But it’s here, in my computer.  I can grab it and paste it into a new file, stretch it a bit, pile a bunch of things on top of it, and hopefully arrive at something that I want to spend a few months recreating by hand.  My hope is that the paintings will transcend this simple language of shapes, through deep exploration, and even exploitation.  The iterations allow me to push the boundaries I create for myself.  Over time, this language of simple forms (some of which are akin to letterforms, while others appear to be mere digital noise) has taken on a life of its own.  It is perceived as ‘personal’ somehow.  The shapes are recognizable signifiers, in the same way that another painter’s gestures or paint handling become personal signifiers.

 

Variation: Large Delineation, 2014 Site-specific mural, acrylic 13’ x 40’

Variation: Large Delineation, 2014
Site-specific mural, acrylic
13’ x 40’

 

Articiple: For Untitled (Large Variation), your ceramic mosaic installation at the San Francisco International Airport, you adapted your visual vocabulary to a much larger format than your previous work. What were the conceptual challenges that this posed? Or the technical challenges, if you’d like to go into that. I’m sure there were many!

Untitled (Large Variation), 2015 Ceramic mosaic 10' x 109' San Francisco International Airport

Untitled (Large Variation), 2015
Ceramic mosaic
10′ x 109′
San Francisco International Airport

 

AmyUntitled (Large Variation) presented real, unexpected challenges.  The design is based on a painting I was making at the time.  My basic forms are designed in Illustrator, but my final sketches are Photoshop files.  So, the first challenge was taking my working file back into Illustrator and redrawing it as a vector file that could be scaled up to 10 x 109 feet.  I redrew it all manually, since I didn’t feel I could get what I wanted using the Live Trace command.  It took a couple hundred hours to do that.  I literally pored over every single form, adjusting anchor points and arcs.  Then, I sent it to Mosaika, the mosaic fabricator in Montreal.  The owner informed me that I was out of my mind and that the mosaic would cost well over a million dollars to produce.  So, I asked what I needed to do to get it within budget.  She gave me some simple guidelines such as, “no shape can be narrower than a finger’s width,” and “you may only use one layer that gives the illusion of transparency.”  These restrictions were terrific, as I had absolutely no idea what was possible, what it would cost, what the pitfalls were, etc.

 

Untitled (Large Variation), 2015 Ceramic mosaic 10' x 109' San Francisco International Airport

Untitled (Large Variation), 2015
Ceramic mosaic
10′ x 109′
San Francisco International Airport

 

So, I went back through the file.  Keep in mind, it is very difficult to work on something so large on a relatively tiny computer monitor.  I “touched” each shape, each arc, a thousand times, much in the way that I do when I make a painting, refining and adjusting until the image was simplified enough to be viable as a mosaic.  The next challenge had to do with the nature of the digital file.  Usually, Mosaika starts with a finished work, such as a painting, which is scanned, enlarged and then interpreted in mosaic.  It was surprising to me, but the Illustrator file’s “flatness” and lack of directional detail posed problems.  The first material samples that were made were awful, as the fabricators assumed that I wanted to convey a similar flatness in the mosaic.  However, once I visited Mosaika in person and shared my work with them, there was a collective “oh…”  in the studio.  We realized that we had to give the forms some direction.  How do you break them up in to small fragments?  What are the shapes of those fragments? How do shapes overlap to create the illusion of space?  How would we address gradients and transparency?  There was a lot of collaboration at this stage. Mosaika excels at this, since they work with a lot of artists who have no experience with mosaic.

 

[detail] Untitled (Large Variation), 2015 Ceramic mosaic 10' x 109' San Francisco International Airport

[detail] Untitled (Large Variation), 2015
Ceramic mosaic
10′ x 109′
San Francisco International Airport

 

The scale of the piece is just…impossible.  There was really no way to envision the mural until it was complete and installed on the wall at SFO.  A leap of faith was required.  It’s a bit scary and an incredible challenge to work at this scale. I was not entirely sure if the piece worked until the final reveal.  As an image that relates to my paintings, the mosaic is interesting because each shape is fragmented into multiple tiles, in some cases hundreds or thousands of them. The overall effect is one of simultaneous fragmentation and unification of form.  The faceting effect is very interesting to me. There are tens of thousands of small planar forms, and a million little edges that catch the eye.

 

[detail] Untitled (Large Variation), 2015 Ceramic mosaic 10' x 109' San Francisco International Airport

[detail] Untitled (Large Variation), 2015
Ceramic mosaic
10′ x 109′
San Francisco International Airport

 

Articiple: I’m looking forward to your solo show at Eli Ridgway this fall (October 1-29, 2016). Is there anything you’d like to share about this new work or how it furthers your project?

 

 Variation (thicket), 2016 Oil and encaustic on two panels 36" x 144" x 2"


Variation (thicket), 2016
Oil and encaustic on two panels
36″ x 144″ x 2″

 

Amy: I have been working on my forthcoming exhibition, Chopping Wood on the Astral Plane, since December.  It has been entirely immersive.  The show will include 10 new paintings, all created in 2016. As a rule, I create works for exhibition in a specific space, so I have a scale model of the gallery that I have been working with.  I’m so deep in it at the moment that it is difficult to talk about, but I will say that I’ve tried some new things with color.  There have been some mind-boggling color challenges within this body of work.  The paintings are very dense and complicated, even more so than usual.

 

L: Variation: yellow (dusk), 2016 R: Variation: purple (dawn), 2016

L: Variation: yellow (dusk), 2016
R: Variation: purple (dawn), 2016

 

Another thing that viewers familiar with my work will notice is that the title of the exhibition (and the titles of the some of the individual works) is a bit more whimsical than usual.  I usually tend toward titles that are basic, descriptive identifiers.  But something has taken hold of me as of late; I feel the weight of time and temporality.  The title for the exhibition started as a bit of a joke at first, but it perfectly describes the relationship of hands-on, consistent labor to more philosophical things.  It addresses the relationship between the quotidian and the esoteric, and the relationship between time and timelessness.  The great thing about preparing for a show is that I’m in my own little bubble of reality.  I make the rules, I follow them or I break them, and the consequences are mine alone to grapple with. I’m going to savor these last couple of months of intensive work, before the paintings enter the public realm.  It’s a magical time.  As Agnes Martin said, “Sometimes through hard work the Dragon is weakened.”

Identical/Variation No. 2 (blue, black), 2016 Oil and encaustic on panel 36" x 36" x 2"

Identical/Variation No. 2 (blue, black), 2016
Oil and encaustic on panel
36″ x 36″ x 2″

 

Anne Subercaseaux

  Anne Subercaseaux finds substance in the insubstantial, in paintings that freeze the ephemeral patterns of reflection and shadow.  In her muted, almost monochrome palettes, images seem familiar but still elusive.  The precise silhouette of a bridge girder or a windblown branch moves into focus and out … Continue reading

Toni Gentilli

Toni's studio at The Compound

Toni’s studio at The Compound

Articiple: Over the past few years, I’ve watched photographer Toni Gentilli expose cyanotypes in the parking lot, make photo emulsions from plants growing in the alley, use blood sugar chemistry to create cameraless prints, and generally engage in a tireless practice of curiosity and re-invention. In Toni’s own words, she “combines anachronistic materials and techniques with contemporary sensibilities to explore the interrelationships between technology, nature, history, and identity.” Toni holds an MFA in Photography from the San Francisco Art Institute. She currently manages the photography lab at Solano Community College and curates the Studio Artists Gallery at the Compound in Oakland.  I sat down with her to hear more about her projects, and incidentally learned the words pareidolia and apophenia.

An update, October 2016:
Toni is leaving the Compound Gallery after 4 years, to become the Residency Program Manager at the Santa Fe Art Institute in New Mexico. We’ll miss her energy and vision at the Compound, but look forward to seeing what she’ll do at SFAI!

 

 Perihelion 2015, from the Evidence of Absence Series (Cyanometer Project.)

Perihelion 2015, from The Evidence of Absence Series. 2015, cyanotype on cotton rag paper. 6 x 36 inches.

Winter Solstice 2014

Winter Solstice 2014, from The Evidence of Absence Series. 2014, cyanotype on cotton rag paper. 6 x 36 inches.

Vernal Equinox 2015

Vernal Equinox 2015, from The Evidence of Absence Series. 2015, cyanotype on cotton rag paper. 6 x 36 inches.

Toni: This project is something I’ve been working on for a few years. I call it my Cyanometer project, but the actual title is The Evidence of Absence. The process involves a quasi-scientific recording of light and time, where I expose a roll of 120mm film in a series of partially overlapping exposures to recreate an 18th-century device called a cyanometer, that was used to measure the blueness of the sky. The cyanometer was a circular monochromatic scale of cyan made using Prussian Blue pigment applied to white paper, invented by a Swiss professor of natural philosophy named Horace-Bénédict de Saussure. The cyanometer was simply held up to the sky as a qualitative reference to determine its hue.

The cyanometer isn’t scientific. It was later proven that light scattering causes the sky to appear blue. I’m sort of reinventing that device. My pieces are linear instead of circular, so they have a feeling of time passing, almost cinematic, but they’re also pretty abstract. They don’t really represent anything from the physical world because I’m playing with the idea that people always expect a photograph is “of” something.

Articiple: Exactly. That’s what’s so interesting to me about your work. Photographs were originally meant to be documentary, but they’re also invented images.

Toni: Right. And in a way, my cyanometers are documentary. What I do to make them is photograph the sky the day before one of six annual solar events and then I process the film and expose it on the cyanotype-coated paper for the duration of the solar event the next day. So, however much sunlight there is for that day is recorded on the paper. Let’s say its vernal equinox, which is coming up next Saturday. I’ll go out on Friday, which is the last day of winter, and I’ll take pictures of the sky, then process the film and expose the entire roll in the sun for nine hours or however long between sunrise and sunset on the first day of spring. Through the cyanometers, I compress longer durations of time into smaller arbitrary segments.

Articiple: How long is each frame exposed when you’re shooting?

Toni: There’s an accumulation of exposures per frame. The first frame contains one exposure, and then the second frame contains two exposures, and so on. The amount of light that hits the film builds up the density of it, so it ultimately lets less light through when I’m printing it, that’s where the gradation of tones comes from.

Articiple: And whatever the shutter speed is set to is the exposure time?

Toni:  I use a Holga, which is a plastic camera that doesn’t even have a shutter speed. It’s not very technical or systematic at all. It’s just me clicking, one two three, so the shutter speed varies by how fast I click and so the way I advance the frames is somewhat irregular. The cyanometers are actually a series of partially overlapping exposures; a compilation of systematic irregularities combined into one project. I give myself these parameters to work within, but yet the process itself isn’t really controlled.

There was another version of the project I did at first. The frames were separate, rather than a panorama. The progression of the tones was more prominent, but the separation created an emphasis on movement, so I stopped working in that way. I’ve stuck with the version of overlapping exposures because I feel like it conveys more of the ideas I’m exploring: the relationship between photography and light, time and documentation, and the ways that a photograph is not always what we think it is.

Articiple: Right. It doesn’t translate into a replica of something observed. So is this an object in the landscape (in one of the images)?

Toni:  Yeah. Sometimes I’ll choose a subject and abstract it to look vaguely like mountaintops. The inventor of the cyanometer was a mountaineer. He would use his device at different elevations on mountain peaks throughout Europe. So that’s my homage to him, just interjecting that little reference, but my pieces don’t ever really identify what, exactly, is in the frame or where I am.

Articiple: Is the choice of site for shooting the film also part of the planned process?

Toni:  It’s pretty random. Ninety percent of the stuff I’ve shot for this project has been right around the Compound studios, because I do all my film processing here, I expose the prints in the parking lot, and I often walk from my house to the studio. There are some photographs in the project that were taken further afield. Two years ago on the summer solstice I was up in the redwoods near Eureka. I was developing film at my campsite, mixing chemistry on a picnic table, washing the film at the water pump, and hanging it to dry from a tree. Then I had my prints strapped to the top of my car, exposing them for the day. I think people thought I was cooking meth!

Articiple: Working with chemicals, living out of your car…people probably imagined all kinds of things!

Toni:  There are some photographs in the project that were taken in different locales, but most of them are from close to home. I’m trying to work out a way to present the cyanometers that offers some of the background information I record, like the time of sunrise and sunset, the angle of sun, the locations I shoot the film, and the dates I expose the prints. I’m working out a design to integrate the prints into a large mural reminiscent of a 17th or 18th century astrological map.

Installation mockup for The Evidence of Absence Series. 2015.

Installation mockup for The Evidence of Absence Series.

Installation mockup for The Evidence of Absence Series.

Installation mockup for The Evidence of Absence Series.

It’s rewarding to have a project that allows me to enjoy and reflect on the process. I spend a lot of time outside with the prints observing the sun and taking pictures of the sky as I’m exposing the prints. And it’s interesting because the chemistry really stands on its own as part of the work. You can see the color shifts that occur as a result of different exposure to sunlight and moisture, the density of the film, etc. There are all these things that affect the tonality and the color of the chemistry itself.

As part of my graduate thesis exhibition, I began experimenting with chlorophyll printing, a process invented by Binh Danh who transposes images directly onto leaves using photographic negatives. But I chose to use hand-drawn negatives made with India ink on mylar sheets instead.

Transplant: Islet of Langerhans grid of 6. 2012, chlorophyll prints from hand-drawn negatives on nasturtium leaves.

Transplant: Islets of Langerhans, selected prints. 2012, chlorophyll prints from hand-drawn negatives on nasturtium leaves.

Transplant: Lungs. 2012, chlorophyll print from hand-drawn negative.

Transplant: Lungs. 2012, chlorophyll print from hand-drawn negative.

Now, I’m also integrating the use of plant-made emulsions into my practice. I’ll collect different leaves and flowers, like nasturtium, and grind them up with my mortar and pestle and a little distilled water to make emulsion from them. There’s no other chemistry involved. I’ll coat paper or cloth with the emulsions and put negatives on top and expose them to the sun.

Anthotype process with nasturtium pigments.

Anthotype process with nasturtium pigments.

I seem to be going down the rabbit hole of researching about nasturtium in particular. It’s a plant that is all around me, in my yard, at the studio; it’s pretty much everywhere in the East Bay. I didn’t know of it before moving here. I never saw it in Arizona or Wisconsin, where I lived previously. Initially I found that it had good leaves to make chlorophyll prints on because of their broad flat surfaces, but after researching the plant, I learned all these great things about it. The whole plant is edible. It has medicinal properties. Because of the mustard oils in it, it’s an antiseptic and an antifungal. Bioengineers are interested in the waxy surface of the leaves because they repel water. And there’s also its colonial history. Nasturtium originates from Peru. It was taken over to Europe, and then it came to North America. It was named by the botanist Carl Linnaeus.

Christina von Linne. 2012, anthotype from hand-ground nasturtium pigment on paper.

Christina von Linne. 2014, anthotype from hand-ground nasturtium pigment on paper.

This is an image of his daughter, Elisabeth von Linné. It’s from a hand rendered negative I made in India ink on mylar of an historic painting of her. She thought that the nasturtium plant emitted sparks at dusk. This was around the time that electromagnetism was being investigated. But what she was actually seeing was a contrast of green and orange in low light. This phenomenon was later proven to be an optical effect; there’s no actual electricity being emitted by the plant, of course, but it was recorded as a legitimate phenomenon by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences at the time. So I made anthotype portraits of her using pigments crafted from orange nasturtium flowers, and green leaves.

Articiple: So the pigment itself is photosensitive?

Toni:  Ultimately it’s a process of fading. I put the pigment-coated paper and hand-drawn negative in a contact print frame and place it out in the sun. In the case of the plant emulsions, whatever’s behind the black of the negative will retain its original tone and everything around it will fade and lighten.

It’s really not a photographic process per se in that there isn’t a chemical reaction, but there is a light reaction. This process of making prints, called anthotype, was invented by Sir John Frederick William Herschel, who also invented the cyanotype process. Herschel provides a common thread through many of my projects.

Articiple: You’re retracing the early history of photography.

Toni:  Yeah, I think what really what started me on this path is that so many early photographers were tinkerers and chemists and astronomers. They were trying to invent photography for practical purposes of reproducing images more easily than hand-rendering and etching plates. So there’s this trajectory, a relationship from drawing to printmaking and then photography.

One of the famous stories about William Henry Fox Talbot—who invented the positive/negative process—he got into photography because he was a poor draftsman! Ironically, I’m going the opposite direction, doing everything manually.

Articiple: Returning drawing to the process.

Toni:  Right. I could very easily render these images digitally and print digital negatives, but there’s something I really enjoy about the idiosyncrasies and process of making them by hand. Everything I make tends to be really labor-intensive, but the process itself allows me to mediate on the things that I’m investigating and what I’m learning about them.

Articiple: Is the anthotype process very durable? Will these prints maintain their color?

Toni:  They’re completely ephemeral. They’ll fade away over time. That’s something that also really engages me, is their impermanence. The capacity for the image to fade back into the source (light) from which it came is something that’s intriguing to me.

Articiple: The reflection of time in the artifact itself.

Toni:  Exactly. Working with anthotypes and Herschel’s other processes, I can observe and participate in some of the rich, multi-layered connections between science and technology and the history of photography. I’m really getting into those themes and dissecting them and reassembling them into something I can make sense of.

In addition to experimenting with chlorophyll printing and emulsions made from nasturtium and other plants, I’ve made black and white photographs in my darkroom by putting the plants directly in my enlarger or plant emulsions and other natural materials on microscope slides or in petri dishes in lieu of negatives. It’s my variation on another early photographic technique called cliché verre, which involved sooting a plate of glass over a candle so that it was totally blackened, then sgraffito drawing on it and using it to make a contact print on paper. That’s the best way I can describe this technique of putting objects in my enlarger instead of negatives. There isn’t really a name for that.

Articiple: And printing from the slides of the plant material?

Toni:  Yeah. The way I work with photography is usually experimental, so I do some documentation of my process because it is so important to me, but the documentation is all rather rough, mostly captured on my iPhone, so I’ve never integrated it into a project. I guess I also worry about being overly explanatory—I don’t want to just say, “This is how I do this.” and give away all of the mystery.

Articiple: But there’s so much back story in your work that’s important to know! It’s all part of the project. Like the Transmutation series, where there’s a connection between alchemy and body fluids and your own history and the history of photographic processes, and so on.

Toni's MFA installation

Toni’s MFA installation, with Ouroboros (left), Transmutation (right), and Transplant (foreground.)

Toni:  That’s something I struggle with, how to convey that information, what information, how much, and in what format. I think it will be an ongoing issue for me because my brain is full of ideas and information, and I don’t necessarily know where I’m going with it all! In my mind, it’s all inter-related, but how to convey that to others is a challenge.

There are two interrelated psychosomatic phenomena that interest me. One of them is called pareidolia, where you see faces in random patterns. That’s part of where my ink blot-inspired works in the Mimesis project come from. Most of my work is abstract, and I like to play the line of offering information to viewers but in such a way that they can come up with their own conclusions. I feel like abstract work allows for that more so than representational work, but even with representational work, everything is left up to subjective interpretation, regardless of the artist’s intentions. Art is a dialog between people really. My use of abstraction and patterning is partly a commentary on the nature of art, but it’s also about cultural and physiological influences on perception. That is the basis of my Mimesis series.

Mimesis, selected prints. 2014, liquid silver gelatin emulsion on cotton rag paper. 4 x 6 inches each.

Mimesis, selected prints. 2014, liquid silver gelatin emulsion on cotton rag paper. 4 x 6 inches each.

I make the images in my darkroom using liquid silver gelatin emulsion, which I pour, drip, and draw onto paper, fold in half, expose under the light of my enlarger, and then develop like a photograph. I continue to manipulate the emulsion as it is drying. So, the process again entails equal measures of randomness interjected by the materials I use and how I use them, and control resulting from my deliberate interventions with the materials.

The related phenomenon called apophenia is where people perceive patterns in data and experiences when none exist. There are neurological, cultural and social factors that all contribute to these phenomena. Pareidolia and apophenia are actively being studied by anthropologists and neurologists who are debating over what aspects of perception are physiological and what’s cultural or social. I think it’s fascinating!

At some point I’m hoping all the ideas, techniques, and materials I’ve been playing with gel into an anthology of inter-related projects. I envision putting my work together literally as a book, but also as a website that draws connections between all of my research and artistic experimentation. Whether the connections actually exist or I’m making them up, I want to map out the tethers that I’m following from one thing to another. I am a self-proclaimed apopheniac!

Articiple: I’m interested in the archaeology aspect in your work. What you just described is archaeological— you want to put this body of work together that tells this history.

Toni:  Yeah, that proclivity stems from my former career as an archaeologist, and I just can’t give it up. I’m constantly researching, reading books, learning about different natural, cultural, and social phenomena. I’m never bored, that’s for sure!

Articiple: Since we’re on the history of photography—did it emerge only in Europe, or were there other parallel developments somewhere?

Toni:  Funny you should ask. Simultaneous invention is something else I’m really interested in, because it’s so prevalent in the Victorian era and the history of photography specifically. But there wasn’t anything related to the development of photography in America or Asia that I’m aware of. There was knowledge of optics and light, and how images project through a pinhole, as early as circa 500 BC in China and Greece, then later in what’s now Iran and Italy. But creating a device itself that could capture an image and transfer it onto a substrate that would make it permanent was a French and English innovation.

Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, a Frenchman, and William Henry Fox Talbot, an Englishman are usually credited for inventing photography, but there was another Frenchman, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, who made the first fixed image that we know of in the late 1820’s. He created a photochemical process using a pewter plate coated with bitumen of Judea. It’s similar to the asphaltum used in lithography and etching (Niépce was a lithographer). He put the plate into a simple box camera and made a several-hour exposure out his window. Then he processed the plate with lavender oil. The bitumen not hardened by the sun washed away. It created a positive image on the metal plate.

The plate was lost for a long time, but it was rediscovered in the 1950s and technicians at Kodak made black and white prints from it. This is the version of Niépce’s photograph you will likely see on the internet, but there are various permutations of the original image. That kind of iterative copying is something that I’m interested in too. I used asphaltum and gum Arabic to create a drawing of a digital image of Kodak’s silver gelatin print of Niépce’s metal plate on a lithograph stone which I printed.

Preparing stone for Lithograph After Niepce.

Preparing stone for Lithograph After Niepce.

Lithograph After Niepce. 2012, lithograph on paper.

Lithograph After Niepce. 2012, lithograph on paper.

Anyway, the origin of photography is definitely rooted in Europe. Sir John Frederick William Herschel, who invented cyanotype, lived in England. Herschel also discovered fix, the chemical component that allowed Fox Talbot’s photographs to be made permanent. This was the primary quest of early photography. There were several people involved in this quest before and around the same time as Herschel and Talbot, like Thomas Wedgewood, who documented his creation of photographic images using silver salts, but he was never able to fix the images he created.

Articiple: They figured out something was light-sensitive, but they couldn’t preserve the image?

Toni:  Yes, most of the first photographic images were fugitive. They would over-develop or fade away with time. It was Herschel and his discovery of sodium thiosulfate, or fix, which allowed photographs to be made permanent. There was preexisting knowledge of light and optics that came before photography, and there were a number of people other than Herschel attempting to produce permanent photographic images, and oftentimes these individuals were in conversation with each other or working together. In our contemporary minds, however, we usually simplify history and attribute inventions like photography to one person on a specific date, but its way more complicated than that.

Articiple: What did that chemistry come out of? How did the discoveries come about?

Toni:  Herschel’s chemistry is predominantly iron-based, the discovery of which happened partly by accident through several different stages. About 100 years before him, during the 1700s, the first synthetic blue pigment, called Prussian Blue, was made serendipitously using potash containing iron from animal blood. This is a huge deal because the color blue rarely occurs in nature. Today we’re finding out that most plants or animals that appear blue look that way because of structural color, or reflected light; the things themselves aren’t actually blue. Over time, through experimentation, different people using Prussian Blue for various applications realized that it had light-sensitive properties, but it was Herschel who ultimately transformed the chemical constituents of the pigment into a photographic process.

Articiple: I know you also have a couple of residencies coming up.

Toni:  Yes. I have one residency in June at the Lucid Art Foundation, outside Inverness in Point Reyes. It’s a beautiful place with a long history. Gordon Onslow Ford, a surrealist painter established his studio up there. He and another painter, Fariba Bogzaran (she teaches at JFK University) shared ideas about art and consciousness and eventually they established the Lucid Art Foundation to support other artists investigating those ideas. So, I’ll go up there and stay in the woods for three weeks and have Gordon Onslow Ford’s amazing studio to work out of. But what really drew me there is that they have a pigment garden!

My plans for that residency are fairly open, just me continuing to experiment with some of the techniques that I described earlier. The Lucid Art Foundation supports people who make non-objective work, with some level of automatism involved in what they’re doing. So, I’m primarily going to engage in the process of experimentation more so than a content-driven project and see where it takes me. I’m hoping my focus on natural materials and process will help to further develop some of the ideas and methods that I’ve been dabbling with over the last couple years and maybe provide a springboard for something new.

Alleleopathic Talisman 1. 2015, mixed media on paper, including the artist's blood, insulin, cyanotype photochemistry (undeveloped) and other materials.

Alleleopathic Talisman 1. 2015, mixed media on paper, including the artist’s blood, insulin, cyanotype photochemistry (undeveloped) and other materials.

In late July and early August, I have another residency at a place called Chalk Hill. It’s a fairly new program, but again, it’s on an old property that has a lot of great history. It’s on Warnecke Ranch, which includes a working winery with about 500 acres on a bend of the Russian River up in Sonoma County. I’m really excited about possibly using some of their grapes to make pigments, but the project that I proposed for that residency is more specific and conceptually based. It utilizes multi-media, which is a new way of working for me, realizing within one project permutations of an idea in different media. It’s going to be an investigation of the landscape that references old technology and blends it with contemporary technology. I’m using the idea of reflection and the Claude Glass (a small tinted mirror used in the 18th and 19th centuries for viewing landscapes, named for the 17th century landscape painter Claude Lorrain.); I want to look at the iPhone as the contemporary Claude Glass.

Articiple: Right! The way we’re always mediating what we’re looking at through that screen.

Toni:  Exactly. My project is about the mediated experience of the landscape, and uses reflection as a metaphor. Those are the concepts that I’ll be playing with. What I intend to do is to take the iPhone and make an enclosure for it that’s like a traditional Claude Glass with a velvet lining in a wood case.

Iphone as Claude Glass. Proposal for Chalk Hills residency for summer 2015.

Iphone as Claude Glass. Proposal for Chalk Hills residency for summer 2015.

I have a vintage wooden tripod and I’ll mount the phone onto there so that it doesn’t have to be hand- held. Then I can photograph it embedded in the landscape, and take close-ups of the landscape reflected into it. I’ll use a separate digital camera to photograph the reflections in the iPhone. Then I’ll translate some of those photographs into drawings on mylar for use as negatives and I’ll print them with Van Dyke chemistry in the sun out in the landscape itself. I’m also going to process the Van Dyke prints in the river, so I’ll integrate elements of the landscape itself into the work. I chose to use Van Dyke brown because of its tonal relationship to the history of 18th Century landscape paintings, which is what the Claude Glass was made to replicate. And also because it is a process invented by Herschel! So again, I’ll be creating a compression of time and history into one project.

Claude Glass case for iPhone. Proposal for Chalk Hills residency for summer 2015.

Claude Glass case for iPhone. Proposal for Chalk Hills residency for summer 2015.

Articiple: Also, the way that people in more urban parts of the Bay Area (and tourists from everywhere, I guess) see Sonoma County and “wine country” as a pastoral retreat–that goes along with the history of the Claude Glass as a way to view landscape as a curated aesthetic experience.

Toni:  Right. I’m also planning to capture short videos and still images on iPhones, and then display the devices with the imagery on them. This will further incorporate current digital technology with the analog photographs I make from my drawings which reference an historical genre of painting. It’s going to be a multi-faceted commentary not only on landscape, but on how a subject or place is experienced through technology like the iPhone, and how contemporary photographs are transmuted across the internet into a million different versions of themselves, and nobody ever knows what reality is.

Articiple: There’s no original.

Toni:  Just simulacra! So that’s the project. The residencies will be really great because they’ll provide concentrated time away from work, and laundry, and walking the dog, or whatever else, and not be distracted. I almost look at them as spiritual retreats. I feel especially lucky and I’m very excited for what’s on the horizon.

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