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"

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″



Mel Prest

MIrror Zigg+.  2013, acrylic and metallic acrylic on panel.  28" x 22" x 2".

MIrror Zigg+. 2013, acrylic and metallic acrylic on panel. 28″ x 22″ x 2″.


Mel Prest is a San Francisco-based painter whose geometric-patterned works of charged color create such energy, they almost seem audible.

Mel’s past exhibitions include solo shows at Gregory Lind Gallery in San Francisco and B Sakara Garo in Sacramento.  In October 2014 her solo show MoonBrightChime/Portmanteau will open at Galleri Urbane in Dallas.  Mel is also a curator and art instructor working with numerous arts organizations in the Bay Area and throughout the world.

Articiple: The color relationships in your paintings carry so much energy—colors chase each other around the surface, reverberating in one area and then another, changing with the lighting, the viewer’s position, or even a tilt of the head. Of course color is inseparable from pattern in these pieces.  The basic elements of the patterns seem simple at first—diagonal lines in parallel, intersecting and overlapping—but they get more complex the longer one looks.  The patterns create alternating areas of density and openness, rest and activity, that move around the paintings.   The color/pattern dynamics continually animate the paintings and undo any fixed sense of composition.

Crossed Arrows

Crossed Arrows. 2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 14″ x11″ x2″.



Crossed Arrows. Side view.


Music for Limbo. 2014, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 14" x 11" x 2".

Music for Limbo. 2014, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 14″ x 11″ x 2″.


Music for Limbo.  Side view.

Music for Limbo. Side view.


Mel: Even though I stick to color and line in painting I feel like I’m constantly being surprised by what can happen. I don’t think it shows so well in the photograph but this piece with the fluorescent yellow so bright that makes the white look gray/ beige/ violet made me really excited. Just something so simple can be sort of magical—sneaking up on me while I work.

More Thought Work. 2014, acrylic on panel, 14″ x 11″ x 2″.


I painted in sets of parallel lines for many years, and allowing the lines to cross and meet has made the work much more alive. I’m most excited by glitches and where the pattern starts to break down—subtle things like reloading the brush with paint or a momentary jitter become visible and affect the work immediately.

Crossed Arrows Apocalypse OK.  2014, 28" x 22" x 2".

Crossed Arrows Apocalypse OK. 2014, 28″ x 22″ x 2″.


RF Arrows. 2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel.  12" x 12" x 2".

RF Arrows. 2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 12″ x 12″ x 2″.


Reverb.  2013, acrylic , interference, metallic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel.  14" x 11" x 2".

Reverb. 2013, acrylic , interference, metallic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 14″ x 11″ x 2″.


Articiple: A few years ago you shifted from oil to acrylic paint, and recently you’ve been including phosphorescent and metallic paint in some works. What has that shift meant for you?

Mel: Now, using acrylic, I feel I can do anything. I paint over things all the time and can get much stranger colors and physical effects. The glow in the dark is the most fun—it’s something that’s culturally attached to 70s black light posters and crafts, so using it feels naughty. I mean I was trained very classically and so things like metallics or fluorescents weren’t available in oil paint, or if they were they weren’t found on the “Master’s palette.” The best thing about these paints is that they shift with lighting conditions and proximity. It’s weird but I think working with acrylic has reaffirmed that nature is one of my strongest reference points—I’m looking and finding the effects of late afternoon sunlight flooding through a stand of trees by using silver, for example. It flashes at you when you walk by silver lines—goes from light to shadow instantly—like the sun going behind a cloud.

Falling Indigo Diamonds.  2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel.  14" x 11" x 2".

Falling Indigo Diamonds. 2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 14″ x 11″ x 2″.


Falling Indigo Diamonds.  Side view.

Falling Indigo Diamonds. Side view.


SF Radiation.  2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel.  36" x 36" x 2".

SF Radiation. 2013, acrylic and phosphorescent acrylic on panel. 36″ x 36″ x 2″.


SF Radiation.  Lights off.

SF Radiation. Lights off.


Articiple: The British artist Bridget Riley seems like a sort of artistic soul mate—your engagement with perception, your use of rhythm and variation, overlap in a lot of interesting ways.  I’ve also been thinking about Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, the Hard-edge work of Helen Lundeberg, even  Agnes Martin, as possible influences or co-travelers. Do any of these resonate for you?

Bridget Riley, "Cataract 3."  1967, PVA on canvas.  87" x 87-3/4".

Bridget Riley, “Cataract 3.” 1967, PVA on canvas. 87″ x 87-3/4″.


Bridget Riley, "In Attendance."  1994, oil on linen.  89" x 65".

Bridget Riley, “In Attendance.” 1994, oil on linen. 89″ x 65″.


Mel: I like Ellsworth Kelly, Bridget Riley and Agnes Martin! But I was profoundly influenced by Robert Irwin—I remember walking into Dia:Chelsea and seeing his Excursus: Homage to the Square3 installation and being transported.  And his book Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. It was a book I read annually for a while and it got me super un-stuck in grad school. I like his approach—still—to his work, to phenomena, and to seeing. For me, he is the most important artist in my life.

Robert Irwin, "Excursus: Homage to the Square(3)."   1998.  Installation, dimensions variable.

Robert Irwin, “Excursus: Homage to the Square(3).” 1998. Installation, dimensions variable.


Agnes Martin, her stubborn kindness in discussing work, and her own work, is exciting. I relate to her focus with line, and to the very direct work—no mediation with a straightedge or representation. The quality of the work being that it is what it is—how it is what you bring to it—that there is no story, only what you see. I also appreciate her writings and how they speak so directly, plus address Zen Buddhism.

Agnes Martin, "The Islands."  1961, acrylic and graphite on canvas.  72" x 72".

Agnes Martin, “The Islands.” 1961, acrylic and graphite on canvas. 72″ x 72″.


I like how Ellsworth Kelly uses shapes, and also the possibility of chance, like Dada poetry, cutting and re-forming the image/work. La Combe is based on a photograph of light and shadow on a Parisian stairway that inspired a wellspring of paintings (like these and these.) This seriality that he uses—mining an image or an idea over and over again—is also something I hold close, admire and relate to.

Ellsworth Kelly, “La Combe I.”  1950, oil on canvas.  38" × 63-3/4".

Ellsworth Kelly, “La Combe I.” 1950, oil on canvas. 38″ × 63-3/4″.


Josef Albers’ work is thrilling too—the idea that color is always deceiving and must be in relationship (to other color) to be truly seen makes me think of color as phenomena and experiential. His book Interaction of Color reads like poetry.

Joseph Albers, from "Interaction of Color."  Published in 1963.

Joseph Albers, from “Interaction of Color.” Published in 1963.


I love Bridget Riley—and I so appreciate that you picked up on her in relation to me/my work. I like that much of her color relates to viewing nature and phenomena. Also that her iterations are visible—I see different versions of similar works and imagine I can see what she was seeing.

Bridget Riley, "Saraband."  1985, oil on linen.  54" x 65".

Bridget Riley, “Saraband.” 1985, oil on linen. 54″ x 65″.


And I have really fallen for Katarina Grosse’s work lately.  I feel like her work is always about to fall apart and that the color holds it together. Her large-scale pieces on erratic and non-traditional surfaces have been rolling around in my mind so much lately. I like that they feel too big to understand somehow.

Katharina Grosse.  2009, from exhibition at Temporare Kunsthalle, Berlin.

Katharina Grosse. 2009, from exhibition at Temporare Kunsthalle, Berlin.


I also like Mark Grotjahn, because he pushes the work till it becomes kind of ugly and also kind of like a ceremonial object—like it’s been carved or woven or somehow “built.” Also El Anatsui—how all the small objects add to a whole, creating different viewings/ perceptions based on distance; how all the small parts flow together rather than create so much pressure or feel picky. I think I could go on for a long time thinking about artists I like and for all different reasons.

Mark Grotjahn, "Untitled (Black and Cream Butterfly."  2006, crayon and mixed media on board.  48" x 35".

Mark Grotjahn, “Untitled (Black and Cream Butterfly.” 2006, crayon and mixed media on board. 48″ x 35″.


El Anatsui, "Gravity and Grace."  2010, aluminum and copper wire.  145-5/8" x 441".

El Anatsui, “Gravity and Grace.” 2010, aluminum and copper wire. 145-5/8″ x 441″.


I’ve also become interested in space or spatial relationships within 2D works that create and crush spaces. On a personal level I think this comes from the way I see, which, like many artists, is non-stereoscopic. I also see this in looking at West African fabrics from Senegal and at Japanese landscape painting. And living in San Francisco, where you are constantly looking At, Through, and Around layers of things—space contracting with fog, folded by hills and unfathomable at the ocean’s edge. Looking at nature has become a really important part of seeing—that it is constant and at the same time always changing—seeing trees that bloom, dry up, drop their leaves and those veils of leaves removed revealing an altered space.

I feel like there is a big push by artists within this space now. I’ve curated a couple of shows that dealt with this strange space between 2D and 3D, and having these contemporary artist colleagues and friends whose work relates helps me stay on my path (details here and here.)

Doppler.  2013, group exhibition curated by Mel Prest.  Parallel Art Space, Brooklyn.

Doppler. 2013, group exhibition curated by Mel Prest. Parallel Art Space, Brooklyn.


Kimberly Rowe

Dots in Other Spots.  2014, acrylic on canvas.  60" x 48".

Dots in Other Spots. 2014, acrylic on canvas. 60″ x 48″.


I took a painting class with Kimberly Rowe this past spring, when I was feeling it was time to get my hands back on some brushes after a couple of years of printmaking.  I discovered a personality as energetic and irrepressible as her art.  So I corralled her briefly to find out where all that energy comes from.

Articiple: Something apparent to anyone who sees your art is the sheer exuberance.  You seem to really stay in the moment as you work with a color, a form, a gesture.  There’s a sense of immediacy and unrestrained expressiveness.  At the same time, there’s structure, balance, symmetry–or purposeful asymmetry—in the finished pieces.  I’d like to hear about how that all works for you.  How do you move back and forth between the need for sustained thought and concentration, and the need for immediacy?  This is a question about process—but the answer might also have to do with what music you’re listening to or what coffee you’re drinking as you work!

Old Brown Show.  2014, acrylic on canvas.  60" x 48".

Old Brown Shoe. 2014, acrylic on canvas. 60″ x 48″.

Kimberly: It’s funny that at the end of this question you mention what music I’m listening to.  I have heard some people say that the music they listen to or environment that they are in does not influence their work.  Both do for me, for sure.

I love music and it is an important factor both directly and indirectly in my work.  I am a big proponent of silence, too, because I believe that we have to allow ourselves to hear ourselves think.  But often I end up realizing that I am singing some crazy made-up songs even in the presumed silence so I have come to force myself to stop and turn on music just to give myself a break from my own voice!  It’s a relief!  And that is a true strategy, both in creating a certain mood, but also to get myself out of my head and stop thinking too hard.

I used to act, and I used to play the piano and violin, and I still love to dance.  All of those things can be similar to painting.  I study and research and look and think about art (and music, and theater, and literature, and all sorts of inspiring things in the world) much of my waking (and probably sleeping) life.  By doing that it is sort of like rehearsing.  Whenever I perform I cannot spend time thinking too hard while I am “on”.  The piece comes through me as though I am a channel or conduit.  I fill myself with possibilities but I do not plan my paintings and do not know what combination of elements will appear.  A painting is not as fresh if it is stop-started throughout the process.  Rather, like in acting with memorizing lines and creating a backstory that provides a sense “memory” from which to drive my responses, I have to go into the making with the confidence that I will know what to do when I come to it and then allow that to happen.

Kiss.  2014, acrylic on canvas.  20" x 16".

Kiss. 2014, acrylic on canvas. 20″ x 16″.

I listen to a lot of different types of music, but in the last year or so I have become a huge fan of the Beatles.  I had never heard whole albums of theirs before.  I am in total awe of what amazing innovators they were and how their work shifted over a short period of time.  I am blown away by their musicality and the complexity of many of their songs, yet how simple they can seem.  They are structured, but the structures change, breaking things up in ways that can be perplexing, which is the Beatles’ genius.

I think deconstructing music influences my work.  I constantly think about challenging myself to mix things up and take risks, to do things that surprise even myself.  I have been told several times that a lot of my work “feels” musical.  I am really into rhythm, repetition, rhyme, pattern, scale, and, of course, color.  I dance while I paint.  I hope that shows!

Articiple:  I know you resist representation or resemblance in your work.  I’ve heard you say that you’ll paint something out if it starts looking like a painting “of” something.  I think that’s an interesting insistence, that the painting needs to exist fully in a space by itself.  Of course abstraction is as old as art, and we could talk for days about what abstraction means or where it comes from.  But I’d like to hear, for you, why abstraction is compelling.  What are the particular problems or possibilities that keep you interested in this genre?  

If I Fell.  2014, acrylic on panel.  60" x 48".

If I Fell. 2014, acrylic on panel. 60″ x 48″.

Kimberly:  Hmmmmm.  I think I may have been saying that, for me, it is important to know how something may be read even if it was arrived at unintentionally.  That is not to say that I am a proponent of censoring my work, nor that representation per se is bad, nor that I need to control what the viewer may think they see in it.  However, if I inadvertently put two eyes a nose and a mouth in the middle of what I have meant to be a nonobjective painting and I don’t want it there I would likely choose to paint some or all of it out.  On the other hand, never say never.  I have a wry sense of humor and have been known to stick something trompe l’oiel, like tape (pun intended), on top of a perfectly nonobjective surface and turn things on their head.  I am not a purist, especially if messing things up makes a better painting.

Abstraction is compelling to me, because it makes me think in a certain way.  Of course there are incredible representational paintings as well as amazing conceptual works that move me.  And I used to make both representational and conceptual work.  But when I think through the annals of my art memory, nonobjective work has been something that is not too sentimental nor too clinical but is just right for me.  And within that realm, I tend to favor painterly abstraction, even if it is very structured and not gestural.

Tomorrow Never Knows.  2014, acrylic on panel.  12" x 9".

Tomorrow Never Knows. 2014, acrylic on panel. 12″ x 9″.

Pulling apart layers and edges, sinking into color, reading a piece as if it is poetry or a song, makes my heart sing.  Perhaps I am a more abstract thinker and that is why I studied Psychology, Philosophy, and Religion, particularly eastern teachings.  I want to dig deeply, but the answers are always elusive.  There are no cut and dried answers. It’s like the adage that “What I am searching for I am searching with.”  My own mind peels away at this thing that is really just paint on a substrate and comes back with new discoveries every time.  It’s like reading a book or seeing a movie or listening to an album and finding out that I understand it more deeply this time than the last.  And the thing about a nonobjective, visual surface is that there are no real clues.  A great abstract painting serves as a mirror; I am like a parakeet pecking at my own distorted image.

Articiple:  You’ve said Allison Miller is an important influence.   I see a number of similar concerns in your work and hers: patterns masked by more dominant shapes, a purposeful disorientation in the figure-ground relationship, an overall energizing of the surface.  What else can you tell us about why Allison’s work is important to you?  What other artists have been formative in your work?  [Thinking of ‘If I Fell’, and Allison’s ‘Lean’ or ‘Repeater.’]

Allison Miller, "Repeater."  2013, oil and acrylic on canvas.  66" x 60".

Allison Miller, “Repeater.” 2013, oil and acrylic on canvas. 66″ x 60″.

Kimberly:  Well, first let me address your question about other influences:  besides Allison’s work, there are several other artists whose work has informed mine, but there are a few key ones.  It began with Robert Rauschenberg.  I love his intellect and humor and profundity and rawness all rolled into one.  His use of materials is amazing.  I love Richard Diebenkorn, too.  His layers and edges and angles have taught me invaluable lessons.  And Keltie Ferris is a contemporary favorite.  Her work is big and powerful and layered and super colorful.  Luckily for me, she has become a friend, but even before that I loved her personality.  She was the first artist I had ever heard giggle and bask in the glory of her own work while she gave a lecture, without sounding egotistical.  She genuinely loves making her work and I celebrate her audacity and generosity of spirit.  It makes me want to be a better artist and person.

Allison Miller’s work has changed a lot since I first discovered it.  The older paintings seemed much thinner in their material quality.  They were more like drawings and looked a lot like they were made with markers.  She used to use small brushes on large panels or canvases, resulting in marks that recalled the coloring posters I used to buy as a teenager.  I spent hours filling those in with felt tipped pens.  Her paintings were playful and that really spoke to me.

I think Allison’s work affects me on many different levels.  The older work didn’t have so many layers, but it often revealed residue from below while also remaining direct.  It was simple but not easy.  It was abstract, but felt like it had personality and a non-narrative “story”.  It tackled space without, for the most part, using perspective or illusion.  It was super colorful and fresh.  And it was formal but not merely formal.  Plus it was made mostly of acrylic paint.

Over time, Allison’s work has become more painterly and more dense, with a greater variation in texture and pattern and paint application.  The  more I paint and try to do certain things with paint, the more I appreciate and learn from what she has done as she further develops her work.  Looking at her paintings, especially in person, is like taking a master class.  I have become a better painter by studying her work.

Castaway. 2013, acrylic on canvas.  30" x 24".

Castaway. 2013, acrylic on canvas. 30″ x 24″.

I am very fortunate to have become friends with Allison in the past few years.  Not long ago, she told me something while we were talking about another artist’s work that I think is a recipe for success.  After having seen photographs of an artist’s paintings and imagining what they might really be like, Allison was very disappointed in their actual quality when she visited a gallery and saw them in an exhibition.  These aren’t her exact words, but she said something to the effect of this:  As a painter, you have to give viewers something to look at; you owe it to them.

I understood what she meant and took it to heart.  In other words, it’s not enough to just make a cool composition.  As a painter, I have to really make a painting!  Give it body; give it life!  Really use the paint and build the surface.  Make viewers have to look, again and again; cause them to want to keep coming back.  It’s an edge next to a pattern, hidden by an opaque patch, set against a thick glob.  It’s three different blacks, one made of several mixed colors, two from the tube, one glossy, one matte, one in-between.  Why is there dirt in Allison’s paint? Because it pushes the envelope and makes yet another texture.  Remember the Beatles’ songs that I mentioned in the first question?  It’s a little like those.  The way to remain unfailingly fresh is to give viewers enough to allow them to keep experiencing something new and wanting to come back for more.

Articiple:  You teach painting, and your teaching style is as energized as your art.  In a class I took with you, you really pushed students to stay in the moment, take risks, let go of anything “precious” to take the work somewhere unexpected.  It was almost like having an aerobics coach!  You’re generous with your energy and your insight.  How does teaching feed your practice?  What’s your vision of an ideal teaching or mentoring situation?

John and Yoko (diptych.)  2013, acrylic and acrylic spray paint on panel.  Each 14" x 11".

John and Yoko (diptych.) 2013, acrylic and acrylic spray paint on panel. Each 14″ x 11″.

Kimberly: I taught high school art for six years.  I quit teaching in 2007, after my first year of graduate school.  This year I began teaching classes again, but at the adult level.  And I love it!  Not because of the adult part, but because the students really care about painting.  They are coming to the right person if they want someone to cheer them on.  I know what you mean about my being almost like an aerobics coach.  And that’s not far from the truth.

I take group yoga and dance classes, because I find it to be more fun to let go of some of the responsibility of pushing myself so that I can become immersed in the moment.  And that is what I am offering in my studio classes.

I want to help my students to become fearless.  I want them to be able to let go while they are working, rather than making constant, consciously calculated decisions the entire time, which can literally stunt their growth.  I can’t always do it myself, but I know what it’s like to throw caution to the wind and what amazing things can happen when I do.

When I was a freshman in college, my drama teacher gave us a motto to live by: Dare to be bad.  Sometimes when we are left to our own devices we kill all the spark by thinking too much and trying to do things perfect and right.  In my studio classes I try to take the pressure off my students and get them to take risks.  Like my dad says, “Do something, even if it’s wrong.”  It’s so easy to stop short of an epiphany just by trying too hard.

I am ravenous when it comes to learning.  I am one of those kinds of people who takes loads of classes and reads and researches constantly.  I figure I have enough information to share.  Why not give it away?  It gratifies me so much to help others and watch them bloom.

I want to see my students succeed.  So I offer the opportunity to come into my classes and have a chance to be pushed past one’s comfort zone.  The best way to get better fast is to drop our control and just “do”.  It’s so exciting for me to watch my students let their guards down and make paintings that surprise them.

Recently a student came to my studio and we worked together for about eight hours straight.  I taught her how to make a really extensive palette and use lots of new colors and unexpected combinations.  I pushed her to be fearless and ruin her precious marks and be responsive over and over again until her paintings felt good to her, not overworked, but fresh and exciting.  In eight hours she made two awesome paintings.  I worried that maybe I had driven her too hard, but she was elated to have moved beyond her paralyzing fears to where she could paint on her own with a new perspective.

Of course, teaching isn’t only about being in a full-blown production mode.  I get as much out of listening while my students discuss ideas and concerns, as I do coaching them in the studio.  I love every aspect of mentoring, and hope to get to continue to do it both in groups and one-on-one.

In July (2014), I am teaching a two-Saturday intensive at CCSF’s Fort Mason campus.  And in the fall I am teaching a semester-long course through SFAI’s Public Education program, at its Chestnut campus.  I’m really excited to see what my students will make!  I learn at least as much from them about painting as they do from me.  And that’s a big thrill!