Within the new Tribeca gallery Lubov, upstairs and unassuming, I found the paintings of Katrina Fimmel. A grouping of large, oddly beautiful and reverie-laden mixed-media transparencies are hung on walls painted like midday clouds. I must admit, at first I felt rebuked and removed from the art. I searched for an entry point, but I think the lack of focal consequence ends up being the point, a kind of confrontation with a void made visible. In contemporary life, where we swim through visual information inconsequentially, almost all of which has a hidden capitalistic agenda, to look through becomes an act of seeing.
How is one allowed inside an image when every inch is transparent? The Francis Picabia retrospective at MoMA is a good historical relative to this work. He too has a series of transparent paintings where, like Fimmel, lines and form confuse layer and focus. Both artists expose a disturbing cynicism toward modern (in Picabia’s case) and post-modern/late-capitalism (for Fimmel’s) daily life. Value can be found in not trusting an image, in using our imagination to swim past a visual surface.
Dadaism, Picabia’s heart, exposes absurdity through the expression of it. In times of political and social turmoil, when the corrupt disposes us of what we know as truth, a heartfelt expression of nonsense we are expected to accept thrown back at society seems just.
When pieced back together the broken images of Fimmel are strong longings for childhood. They speak of injury, fleeting time, adolescence, Saturday morning cartoons. They are genuine and cynical simultaneously, innocent and suspicious. I would recommend keeping an eye out for more of her work, it is strong, and dare I say, layered.
I fell in sort of angry love with the paintings of Christian Rex van Minnen (what a name: a religious predatory dinosaur Dutch Master). This is true art floating through the thick fog of contentless, deskilled, rapidly produced art world uneducated wealthy person chicken feed that saturates and obstructs true voices. He lobs technical precision into the birthing of sugary monstrosities, articulated insanities, perfectly formed pustule mirrors reflecting rupturing cultural delusions and illnesses no one dares look at but everyone proliferates.
Your paintings are the equivalent of quality production blockbuster movies: technical precisionism rooted in old master practice, totally compelling illusionism; all of this adds up to an uncanny, stomach-turning, semi-computer generated (but with a quattrocento instagram filter) horror that is very time/generation specific. You are Cronenberg without a budget cap and tempted by cgi. How do you relate to cinema and what is your specific kind of grotesque’s aimed societal comment?
I do like movies. Cronenberg, Werner Herzog and David Lynch are my favorite directors. I knew movies way before I knew art so they have naturally had a strong influence on my work. I’ve always loved directors who intentionally aim to destabilize the viewer in a benevolent sort of way. Disturbance is ok, but if it isn’t followed with some heart and good intentions you’re just an asshole.
You know that feeling as a child on Halloween had from consuming too much candy? All of the excitement before in the amassing, the lack of restriction during consumption, the little pings of oncoming sickness, finally the inevitable ache. I feel in your work a deep celebration of that gut sickness and the wildness that leads there. All sorts of floating, metaphysical crystalline sugar confections bloom within your picture planes. What is your relationship to sweets, these mass produced and beautiful little poison pellets we are trained to revere, though they sicken us?
I can identify with that in so far as what you are describing is a commingling of contrasting emotions and feelings. To be completely honest I didn’t realize that they would be almost universally interpreted as candy. That wasn’t my intention, as naive as that may sound. I was mining for a new range of imagery and a technical approach that could increase contrast, both technically and conceptually. These bright, ultra-luminous, transparent, often weightless whimsical objects were the solution.
What is it about the ugly sensation, cankers, cancers, horrors, that so provokes you to your result, and why so much precisionism in its depiction?
I don’t really know. I think that those forms come from noodling the paint. Just making things up as I go, things look distorted, cancerous, bulbous. I drag those images through a division of labor that makes them believable. I like the result! It has certainly led to a lot of interesting imagery and post-rationalizing of concept. But, in the end, it’s fundamental surreal, automatic drawing/painting. I aim for believability rather than representation.
Tell me about your relationship to the Dutch still-life. That golden age was one of excess wealth and so for the first time a wide array of non-religious art appeared. Yours is that but in a cult of death sort of way, an exuberance for rotting fills the religious void.
That too is a result of a confluence of interests. First and foremost, that era produced paintings that I am most visually attracted to. It’s oil painting at it’s zenith. So much of it was about technique and that had a lot to do with the market being detached from the church. Then there’s the issue of legacy. My father is from South Africa, and many generations before that, Flanders. There is some dark history there in the middle. I was raised to think a lot about legacy and atonement and how to right the wrongs of the past. Consequently, I have thought a lot about my connection to Europe and what it means to be an American of European heritage.
Who are your major influences, painting, music, literature, etc…?
Rembrandt, hip hop, Cormac McCarthy, David Lynch, Otto Marseus van Schrieck, Aphex Twin, Bukowski. Those are some that come to mind.
How political is your work–what do artists do during our current climate of American unraveling?
I don’t know. People say that it’s all political right? Let’s go with that. I was in the studio watching it all happen, the election, and it was like that scene in Alien. Seemed like it was going ok then the convulsions and the chest bursting and this fucking shit. I felt both bewildered but also emboldened. This is my work, I’ve been training for this. This is a spiritual war.
How did you start exhibiting with Poulsen? Give me a little of your working/personal history/trajectory that got you from point A to B.
I met Morten the first year I moved to NYC. A couple of the artists there, also friends of mine, told him about my work. He came over to my studio, basically a closet in my apartment, and liked what he saw and then things just took off. He is a force, that Morten Poulsen. Not to be underestimated. I’m very grateful for what he’s done for me and my family.
Do you have any upcoming projects or exhibitions you would like to share?
I am making a new body of work for a 4 person show at Postmasters Gallery here in New York in March that I’m really, really excited about. Then preparing for my first solo show with Richard Heller Gallery out in LA late fall. It’s a big year and I’m just excited that I can go into that studio everyday and make work that people are into right now. Very grateful.
I have followed Sui Park’s intricate and beautiful sculptural works for the last several years after meeting her through an artist residency at Brooklyn Art Space. Her art contains something intimate though expansive; it is filled with the force of geometry and nature, little small truth’s obsessive repetition that insists until a collective simplicity becomes god-like, like a pedal to a flower, a leaf to the tree.
How did you begin making your sculptural structures? What relationship does the work have to traditional female handcraft, to the spider?
I apply traditional weaving or basketry methods to create contemporary art forms that incapsulate my sentiments and values. My background is in fiber art and interior architecture. With fiber artwork I always try to create a perspectival view. My main interior architectural work attempted to augment traditional space with organic forms through methods and materials largely used in fiber art. I think I combine the two pretty well. I always wish I had eight hands, but I’d never be as good as any spider!
Do you ever recreate biological geometry, or are your forms improvised?
I think my work lies in between. Each of my pieces follow a process of sketching to structuring. Most of the emphasis is on creating forms that encapsulate a theme. Finding a right match between the form and the theme is always difficult. Some works are intuitive, while some are delayed.
I see these little entities as thoughts on a micro world, do you? Are the forms more about life or structure, about space or soul?
I don’t think I have any intention of making forms from the micro world. I follow my materials and my work is about capturing and representing a moment of change. I think about the structures and space creating ambiance and sentiment.
If you were one of the objects you make, would you be large or small, living or not?
That is a good question and also a difficult one. I think each piece has a little bit of me within it, like how I know someone else’s song, book, or artwork without knowing the author’s name.
Who and what influences you…art, music, literature, biology, etc…?
I admire the architect Peter Zumthor’s work. To quote him: “Architecture is not about form, it is about many other things. The light and the use, and the structure, and the shadow, the smell and so on. I think form is the easiest to control, it can be done at the end.”
I learn from his masterpieces how he has perfected the expression of his own remarkable character. His work helps me figure out how I can bring out “mine.”
The material of making is readily available and inexpensive plastic, is this due to formal or conceptual concerns?
Cable ties and monofilaments are the two materials that I mostly use these days. They are mass produced industrial materials that are relatively inexpensive and easy to find. However, they seem to do lot of things for my work. They have flexibility, which is effective in creating curvatures and allows me to easily fabricate the shape I want. They also have enough durability and strength to hold the structure that I want.
It may be ironic to create organic forms and represent our changing sentiments withartificial and mass produced plastic materials, but I think the irony is well preserved and blended into my work, creating illusionary or mystical ambience.
How important is the location of exhibition to the work?
Different factors can change how my work is perceived, and location is certainly one of them. Rather than trying to control the location to bring out my best work, I try to find a matching environment and bring out the best of the environment. I like how my work is perceived differently in various environments. Sometimes it’s less than what I expect, but sometimes it surprises and amazes me; I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoy site-specific installations so much.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you would like to share?
I have a three-person show scheduled at the Catskill Art Society in Livingstone, New York in March. I plan to introduce my new 2-dimensional cable tie series “Portrait.” I’m also exhibiting my large 3-dimensional works in a group show “Dismantle the Core” at Elaine L Jacob Gallery, Wayne State University in Michigan over the summer, and throughout the 2017 Sculpture X Symposium.
I see in your work a levity reached through naivety and then grounded in cynicism with a magician’s trick. Let me explain: you create a beautiful homage to a cultural nostalgia, say, a president’s wife, an attractive hockey player, an actor or a diva. You paint true that feeling of falsity and kitsch that all powerful propaganda musters in a celebration of it. Finally, you deviate-magician’s trick-by removing the hockey player’s clothes, or maybe heightening the color to a too dream-like tone, or maybe increasing the sense that all flesh, concrete, environment are made of plastic, are eerily unreal. How do you respond to this reading?
I do like that you used the word “levity,” in that it suggests humor in relationship to subject matter that typically demands seriousness; I certainly wanted that in relationship to some ideas I was interested in–the male nude, presidential portraits, even sexuality. And that’s a good definition of satire, which I’ve always been interested in–I love Hogarth, Goya, John Currin, and, above all, Picabia for that; even Ingres, although I don’t think his satire was intentional. I don’t think of my paintings as cynical.
I hope that the last points you made are true about my paintings. I want them to come out of well known traditions–both artistic and otherwise–but in a modified form. Not radically modified, and maybe even modified without it being apparent to the viewer, so that the expectations associated with those traditions aren’t quite fulfilled. I love the Russian Formalist concept of “estrangement.” The idea that the role of art is to estrange reality so that perception doesn’t become automatized. For me, that constitutes the art experience at its most profound. I always try to create that experience for the viewer by making paintings that occupy an indefinite place somewhere between the real and the artificial, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the obvious and the oblique.
Are you a political artist? I think the two options are…a) you are truly celebrating the dream bubble of this Americana, and b) you are poking holes in it by augmenting its surreal nature. And, I guess c) a little bit of both a and b.
I like the description “poking holes in it by augmenting its surreal nature.” I would be happy if my work did that!
Having said that, I don’t think of my art as political in the typical meaning of that phrase: I don’t intentionally make work that is meant to address a specific and present political condition and advocate for immediate change. Not in the sense that John Heartfield or The Guerrilla Girls or Dread Scott are political. But in another way, I think that all good art is political, in that if it’s good–and experienced authentically–then it alters consciousness. And that’s ultimately political. I think the question of the political (broadly defined) value of art is particularly relevant now: Trump’s election has made it absolutely clear that Adorno was right in his analysis of art and the culture industry: that by and large cultural experience in advanced societies is one of mass distraction, and that has destructive consequences. I take an old point of view: that there’s such a thing as high art, and experiencing it offers an alternative to the manipulations of the culture industry. I don’t think that anybody who consistently challenges themselves with complex art experiences could ever fall for the mass manipulation that led to the election of Trump. I think a sustained engagement with art forces people out of habitual patterns of thinking. That helps create a social consciousness that has critical thinking at its core. In that way, Wallace Stevens is as valuable politically as any overtly political artist. I would hope that my work operates politically in that way. Whether it does or not is a different question.
The imaginary clothes removal makes me think of Goya’s clothed then Nude Maja. Tell me about your influences (literary, musical, visual)…
The artist I love more than any other is Ingres. From very early on, he was my favorite artist, and that remains true to this day. I adore his color, his form sense, his reinvention of the body, his unintentional but gloriously perverse way of seeing the world; I love the way his paintings push resolution beyond the point of the real, into a destabilizing artificiality; I love that he thought of himself as upholding the glorious classical tradition of the Ancients and Raphael, but was in fact producing a kind of proto-modern uncanny. There’s nobody I’d rather look at. I also love Holbein and David. I find them both strange in some ways similar to Ingres, though there are many differences; I also love many individual paintings by artists whose entire bodies of work I don’t necessarily love: for example, at the National Gallery in London, there are paintings by Vincenzo Catena, Thomas DeKeyser and Hendrick ter Brugghen that I am obsessed with. Among Modern Artists, some I’m most moved by are Lyubov Popova and Russian Constructivism in general, Florine Stettheimer, Alice Neel, Meredith Frampton, Picabia, Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Richard Artschwagger, many others….
I’m not sure I can clearly articulate his influence on me, but I’m obsessed with Bach’s music. I listen to him almost to the exclusion of anything else. I don’t think there’s any art of any kind more moving and inexhaustible than his.
And then my favorite writer is probably Roland Barthes. I’m reading his book “The Neutral” right now, and it’s a stunning example of his idiosyncratic, inexplicable, poetic intelligence. I love that he shifted from a kind of disenchanter in his early semiological texts to a writer who, in his late work, created an entirely new way of analyzing and understanding enchantment. I also love Kant, Marx, Adorno, John Donne, Wallace Stevens, many others.
How did you get gallery representation, and how did you get involved with Deitch Projects?
Somebody once said to me that there are as many ways to get gallery representation as there are Artists. And I think there’s some truth to that. I was very lucky. When I was at UCLA, Randy Sommer from ACME., a terrific gallery in LA, came to UCLA to do a lecture on the Artists he represented, and to do studio visits. He visited my studio, and showed some interest. He took my card. A year later, after developing a body of work, I called and asked if he would do a studio visit. He came by, and we started working together. ACME. was my first gallery, and they still represent me in LA. One of my first Diva paintings was reproduced in Flash Art, and Jeffrey Deitch saw it and got in touch with me. I started working with him after that.
Who are your favorite contemporary painters; what do you foresee for our field of practice in relation to the age of the internet, and contemporary political maelstroms?
Some favorite contemporary painters: Kerry James Marshall is brilliant. He’s a humanist painter on an epic scale, which is rare today. I was really moved and confounded by Tomma Abts’ show at the New Museum several years ago, and have continued to think about her work ever since. I love Cynthia Daignault’s attitude toward painting, and the simple gestures she uses to generate bodies of work. Maureen Gallace’s weird familiarity and unexpected formal sophistication is something I’ve been moved by since first seeing it 20 years ago. I love Nicola Verlato. I think he’s an incredibly accomplished, idiosyncratic technician, and I love the way he builds emotional content through layered historical references. I think Alexi Worth is a really interesting painter: he genuinely creates objects that defy easy categorization. Many LA painters I was introduced to when I lived there remain important to me: Judie Bamber, Monica Majoli, Ginny Bishton, Lari Pittman, Tom Knechtel. And I’d just to add that I love Christopher Williams and Charles Ray, even though neither are painters.
As far as how painting will change in relationship to the internet? I’m not sure I can give a good answer. New models of thinking and new technology obviously change painting. But I’m not sure I can make a broad prediction about how that will happen, at least not now. Contemporary politics? The disaster that we’re experiencing? I think I addressed it a bit above. I’ll just say that it’s more important now than ever for Artists to make work that does something more than reflect back to viewers the reality we live in, or that just adds to the meaningless noise of most culture; artists have to offer an alternative way of engaging with and experiencing the world.
Do you have any upcoming projects/exhibitions?
I have a solo show scheduled at Almine Rech Gallery in January of 2018.
Alessandro Sicioldr follows in a long tradition of visionary artists. His works are directed by an informed unconscious, by the Jungian depths of communicative symbol. I discovered it through social media, and have watched in wonder as his pool of active, beautifully haunting imagery changes in content, but never in quality. Sicioldr employs a luminous visual voice, and so I reached out to discuss his process and motivations.
I see in your work a dream language, an undeniable root to Jung’s collective unconscious, an internal human truth in archetype that resonates so loudly with me. Talk about a few of these elements/motifs in your work
*The double, The Tree, The Sphinx, The King, The moon, Water…
It’s always been hard for me to talk about my images, since they speak through a visual language which is ambiguous, sibylline. I come from a scientific background, (I have a degree in computer science) so I am very careful when talking about mind, spirituality, symbolism and topics involving facts that are impossible to prove with rational means. Rules and boundaries are useless when dealing with metaphysics, so I just let my inner world speak without asking questions. These images are important for me and when I think about them I get a particular feeling. They need to be represented and they follow their strange irrational rules. Why do I put an element there, or use that particular color? It is because it should go there, these are the rules of the painting. I don’t think about symbolism because deliberate and intellectual reasoning can spoil the purity of a composition and the result can easily be fake. I recently discovered that a lot, maybe all of my paintings are composed within the rules of the golden section without knowing, I find this incredible but this is how human minds work.
What does your process of making look like-do you improvise in paint, do you start with a sketch or composition? Do you work primarily from imagination (I suspect), and how does reference play into your procedure?
I do not have a rigid scheme for the conceptual part because art is like love. There isn’t a routine for falling in love, you just do it, you just feel it and your soul is inclined toward that particular thing. I am a compulsive sketcher, I sketch everything and when I feel that something is important I begin the painting process. The painting process is a mix of craftsmanship and improvisation. I use traditional and contemporary means, I aim for the best not for the old fashioned, so if I prepare myself the raw linen it is because I like it more than industrial ones. I have no rules for references, often I paint from imagination because it is hard to find models like a giant bird chariot with a strange head inside moving on roots with heads inside and pulled by sacerdotes wearing red capes in an icy landscape. But I use some photographs and models to help me a little bit. The fact that I have no real reference is the hardest part of my technique, it is easier to work with a model.
Tell me a little bit about your education-who you studied under/major artistic influences…
I am a self taught, as I said before I have a scientific background but I always nurtured a passion for art, for literature. My mother and my father are both people with great culture, plus my father is a painter and he gave me some basis but I’ve never received a technical lesson in my life. I see paintings, I make copies, I study a lot. The problem with many artists is the lack of culture and experience in fields that are not related with art. I think that a creative should devour tons of books, visit museums, and be curious about things that are difficult. My main and unique influence is my inner world, but i have a deep love for the primitive art, the art of ancient civilizations (I live in the land of etruscans) the byzantines, the medieval and oriental art, the Italian and flemish primitives, Piero di Cosimo, Titian, Lotto, Paris Bordone, Bronzino, Parmigianino, symbolism (Kubin, Redon, Moreau, Spilliaert, Khnopff, Klinger, Kobliha), Felix Vallotton, Gauguin, surrealism (mainly Max Ernst, Kay Sage), the first De Chirico and so on… I also like a lot of contemporary artists!
What do you do to pay the bills? What galleries do you show with? Do you have advice for working artists on how to get their work seen?
I sell paintings and drawings to pay the bills, both alone and with galleries (in and outside Italy), I’m still young and I hope to grow and to reach a wider audience. The only advice I could give is: make great paintings. Do not aim for success, that is a consequence. Money is important but if that becomes the main issue there is something wrong and it is better to get a day job. A day job will allow you to be free, that is the most important thing, not career..
Do you have any news, projects, or upcoming exhibitions you would like to share?
No news in these months, I am taking a small break from shows and I am focusing on creating new works. I often need a period where I just paint.
Jamie Adams creates metaphysical realms of collapsed time and indeterminate gravity punctuated by acidic color and sexuality. He weaves classicism, the old masters, old Hollywood, disco, nature, and modernism into floating, lucid, beautiful dreamscapes. I have admired his work since I first ran across it. I was lucky to engage him in the conversation that follows.
JH: Where are you in relation to your image? Are you omnipresent-is the whole image you? Are you nowhere within?
JA: I think images created are ultimately more about the artist than the image represented. I see my work as psychic portraits or representations of an interior life regardless of the subject. This is not to say that they mirror the artist completely. In fact, it is a rather imperfect form of expression like any other; sometimes awkward, frequently revelatory. My relationship with my work is often conflicted. I don’t know that I ever consider my works to be finished. I suppose they can be viewed as either some kind of private entertainment or public confession. It’s what motivates me to continue making.
JH: If you were a character in the space of one of your own paintings
a.) where would you be…
JA: I construct spaces that I wish to inhabit and explore. They are often reminiscent of places I have been or imagined in a dream. To give an example, in 2005 I was drawn to Jean Seberg’s bedroom apartment in Jean Luc Godard’s film Breathless. What piqued my interest was how it seemed inaccessible, remote, yet strangely familiar. I imagined its quality of ambient, north-facing light in this filmic space to be a suitable space for a painter’s studio. Creating the jeannie series of paintings was the outcome, the project lasted seven years from 2005-2012. Currently I am working on a group of paintings I am calling “Blondie Bubba”. The impetus for the work is to re-imagine different scenarios from my father’s youth. I want to preserve what has been lost.
b.) who would you be if not you, if you were maybe under the mask by Marilyn or a beautiful black body, or a Titian-esque statue
JA: I empathize with the characters in my paintings. My relationship to them—either viewing them as self or other can fluctuate over time. As a result they often develop with a certain amount of fluidity. The paintings generally go through multiple iterations, even when I have made preliminary sketches. The narrative reveals itself within the process of making as the characters reveal themselves to me — almost like auditioning actors for a play, the characters morph and change, sometimes playing a kind of masquerade in order to find the appropriate role. I am interested in portraying characters in a state of flux or an indeterminate state of being. I think it has to do with my interest in conveying a certain kind of psychic dimension and complexity, but I will leave that to the viewer to decide.
JH: Titian, Giorgione- I see a lot of Venetian influence-what else-Psychedelic 60’s, melodrama Hollywood 50’s, hip hop, pop culture, internet post-modern floating, deeply understood indirect painting. Tell me what I’m missing-the meat of your work-the reason for making…
JA: I grew up disco dancing, singing in quartets, and singing in musicals, so whatever flamboyance or theatricality one might find in my work emanates from that place I suppose. The Italians come into my sightline most recently. I have been teaching a summer in Florence drawing course now with a colleague and friend Buzz Spector via Washington University in St. Louis where we work as faculty. Seeing the massive Tintoretto’s at the Scuola di san Rocco remind me of Lucas films…and simple things like the slave’s ribcage at the center of “Miracle of the Slave” has captivated me since I was a boy.
JH: Who is a contemporary painter you love the work of?
JA: Lisa Yuskavage’s work was featured earlier this year at the Contemporary Art Museum here in St. Louis. I always read her work as more of a provocation, something like a collision between Precious Moments or Pixar and Penthouse. But after hearing her talk about her work, I understood them much differently. I read them as coming much more from a place of vulnerability as well as protest. They reveal trace of a former self that I was not immediately appreciating. They quite moving when viewed through the lens of life as an accumulation of experience. Formally, I think she is a marvelous colorist. Her images have a strong coherency of light, a color clarity. They remind me of Tiepolo’s quartet at the Chicago Institute. Her frequent use of green light is curious to me. It reminds me of an important aspect to making paintings today. It’s useful, maybe even critical, for the painter to set up certain challenges. It’s one way to find new territory. Brilliant greens everyone knows are difficult to manage. They easily can become overbearing. It makes me think of things soaking in formaldehyde like Jenny Saville figures (interesting in their conversation with late Renoir…) or Kim Keever dreamscapes (which I love)…but Lisa keeps even this so pleasant and visually enriching, where color passages meander through a range of warms and cools. Her recent piece “Triptych” (2011) I think is a great example of this on a grand scale.
JH: Do you think Picasso’s vision has been surpassed-he is our time’s Giotto, so who will be the future’s Picasso?
JA: Philip Guston is someone I look to. He appropriates from both of these artists and across many genres, and creates profoundly disquieting new form in his late period that is still relevant to contemporary issues–political, social, human. I will say that Giotto’s masterful frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel still speak to this contemporary viewer. I had occasion to visit Padua and see it again this summer. His visualization of hell is terrifying, and the use of mixed spatial systems are incredibly inventive conceptions of the co-existence of temporal and eternal realities. He certainly serves as an important bridge between a more austere Byzantine aesthetic and the grandeur of the Renaissance as a humanist project. I am most attracted though to Masaccio’s work at the Brancacci Chapel—the cinematic narrative of Tribute Money, his awkwardly beasty bodies in the Expulsion and Baptism panels. I think Picasso certainly saw this work and assimilated its form in many of his blue period paintings, one being the couple portrayed in “La Vie”.
JH: What are computer’s doing to our thoughts and visions as artists?
JA: Probably like most people I have a love-hate relationship to many of the new technologies. The digital world is collapsing histories, and the smartphone gives me access even more easily, but I am finding it incredibly distracting in the end. In the past I admit that I have enjoyed watching television for cheesy sit-coms, infotainment and sports—light hearted stuff, but most of it today is simply mind numbing. Our kids rely a great deal on Snapchat and texting to communicate. It’s a great form of communication for it’s speed and efficiency. But like any other form of communication, it has its limitations, and is sorely lacking if used exclusively.….It’s been quite unavoidable for any of us to not be affected by so much of this–the proliferation of ‘screened’ imagery given the power of cinema, the ubiquity of the smartphone camera, etc… For myself it remains quite paradoxical–equally a problem as much as a solution when you think about how you experience life through so many mediated forms…and this is one of the reasons why I utilize collage and allow certain disparities to exist in the work. The use of visual tropes via film, lens, or print matter to construct my narratives are useful in this way.
I suspect with the advent of the camera people probably lost a great deal of their capacity to visually remember things because the picture could do it for them. With digital media becoming even more pervasive language becomes marginalized, and any expression, as Norman Bryson states, can easily seem after-the-fact. So it’s important to find a balance. There is evidence that typing on a laptop keypad for instance is not as effective as actually taking hand written notes for students in the classroom. You can type faster on the computer, access more information, and so on, but comprehension and the ability to utilize information is less. This is where media forms such as drawing and painting, embodying the trace of touch and sensual materiality, seem suitable conveyers of human experience, desire and loss.
JH: Do you ever work from life or all of your images sourced from other 2-d images?
JA: I generally use whatever visual information seems necessary at the time…. I often stage still life props or clothing on a mannequin. Lately, I’ve been working more from memory, as well as developing a more elaborate diorama of characters to work from. Regardless of the source material I think it’s important to leave the references behind and develop the painting on its own terms. It’s my accommodation to wanting to experience and remember things more directly.
JH: What do waterfalls mean to you-their metaphor you can’t and don’t resist?
JA: My first encounter with Niagara Falls was as a boy: it was a euphoric experience of both beauty and terror. I remember being captivated by the spectacle of its scale. Its raging torrents of water plunging over the edge (roughly 6 million cubic ft. of water go over the crest line of the falls every minute!)— I had a visceral reaction, a fear of falling, of being swept away with this encounter. I felt immediately small and finite in the presence of such a dynamic force of nature. And I felt like I was in a film. To this day I am drawn to certain films, especially vintage from a bygone era—Euro-American ‘art’ films, French and American noir, Italian (spaghetti) Westerns and Giallos, etc. I think American melodramas from the 50s with the oversaturated Technicolor seems an appropriate expression of underlying cultural anxieties. I chose to focus on a number of films as visual reference for my Niagara series, one being Henry Hathaways’ 1956 American noir film Niagara, starring Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton, the falls seem to personify this foreboding presence, like a spectre of doom.
Like most painters I have long admired a number of the American Luminist painters: Church, Bierstadt, Moran, etc., for the magical qualities found in their grand portrayals of Niagara Falls, and the American landscape more broadly. These large format paintings were meant to serve, in part, as propaganda, the new masterpieces, created as an expression of national identity and the country’s manifest destiny. They seem to prefigure the cinematic impulse, to elicit an expansive, all encompassing visual experience. I want to see contemporary paintings continue to perform this function.
JA: Do you have any upcoming projects or exhibitions you would like to talk about and share?
JA: Currently, I have a number of paintings in an exhibition for the month of September titled “Porch and a Vista” at Zolla Lieberman Gallery in Chicago. The show’s title and much of the work has been inspired by Pierre Bonnard’s painting “Earthly Paradise” (1916-20), located at the The Art Institute of Chicago Museum. Bonnard’s piece likely references the severe devastation of Europe following World War 1 (by way of William Morris’ epic poem) and utopian dreams.
According to Jungian theory, the presence of a house in dreams is an archetypal representative of a return to our first house, the womb, and the way it reveals itself to us informs our understanding of the human psyche. Each room offers an opportunity to discover untold secrets of the subconscious. Stepping from the hustle and bustle of New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood into Melanie Vote’s solo exhibition, Overgrowth at Hionas Gallery, one enters into what appears to be the abandoned bedroom of a young girl. Her small portrait, painted in muted monochromatic shades of magenta and violet, hangs on a wall covered in a stenciled pastel pattern. Her clothing and hairstyle tell us that she is not of this time. Referenced from an antique photograph Vote discovered in a remote second hand shop, Rhapsody in Magenta and Violet (2016) portrays a deadpan facial expression with a creepy but fascinating quality associated with 1800’s Victorian post mortem photographs. On the opposite wall a tromp l’oeil painting of a window looking out onto a dark night, from which a frog is seen leaping in the reflected light of the room, looks onto a small iron bed frame supporting a mattress torn in the shape of a body, filled with dirt and an assortment of edible and non-consumable plants. Vote combines the symbolism of the frog, a sign of rebirth or transformation, along with the flora in place of the temporal body to suggest that death is in fact simply a change in the state of being. The effect of this fictional space is that it simultaneously feels like a dream and a memory creating the uncanny sensation for the viewer of being both a participant and trespasser.
The very absence and implication of the figure in the first room, underlines the corporeal reality of the artist’s self-portrait in Place Like Home (2008-2016) situated in the second room of the installation. Painted in realistic and pain-staking detail, Vote presents herself dressed in her own wedding gown and laid out on a mosaic tile floor in a corpse-like pose, holding a bouquet of flowers and plants and lit by an ethereal glow while plant life encroaches around the edges. The isolation of this single painting ensconced in an otherwise bare room has the feel of a modern day reliquary, minus the incense and votive candles. Vote’s recent visit to Rome, Italy (in particular the crypts of the Santa Cecilia in Trastevere church) provided much of the inspiration for this piece. The purported history of Saint Cecilia is such that on her wedding night she claimed a vow of virginity and angelic protection inspiring her husband to seek the proof of which led to his conversion to Catholicism. For this and the crime of converting others, she was to be suffocated in the baths but didn’t die nor shed a single drop of sweat. Following this, an executioner was ordered to behead her, but after striking her three times, he was unable to decapitate her, so he left her there where she continued to live three days further before dying from her wounds. When exhumed her body was discovered uncorrupted, beautifully dressed and exuding a mysterious and delightful flower-like odor.
Overgrowth culminates with Vote’s large-scale painting Excavation of Life and Death (2016), set on cement blocks. A nude female body lies in a pit, her right arm flung out behind her and her left leg slightly bent beneath her, giving rise to some fairly macabre thoughts, perhaps more so because of the figure’s gender. The artist’s stated intention is actually that the body is embraced by and reclaimed by the soil. Vote’s mother died of cancer, an overgrowth in itself, and by her own admittance this body of work is a direct result of that experience. By this analogy, the figure seems to be returning to a metaphorical womb of Mother Earth, the grass and negative space forming a subtle reference to the female body. The naked vulnerability of this passive form, entangled in a mass of roots and dirt, is contrasted by the position of her head turned away from the viewer, denying full access to her identity.
In an attempt to bring levity to an otherwise weighty narrative, Vote has painted this scene over a pastel version of Twister [a game invented by Charles Foley and Neil Rabens in which players must place hands and feet on large colored circles determined by the spin of a dial (created in the mid 1960’s)]. This use of nostalgic childhood toys and figures is a recurrent device employed by Vote in previous works in tandem with psychological and dream-like scenarios, such as in Frog Ballet (2014). Sub-contextually, Excavation of Life and Death also carries a connection to the painting in the middle room, Place Like Home, in its metonymical use of use of Twister (another name for tornado) giving the whole installation a secondary read related to the film The Wizard of Oz (1939). Vote’s own family farm was destroyed by a tornado in November of 2015. The artist’s exposure to this threat of destruction in her native Iowa and personal loss seems to have given her a unique perspective on the sovereignty of nature and the cycle of life. In this sense the exhibit, which represents a house, itself an internalized representative of a home in various manifestations, from bedroom to cellar, to the very foundation it is built upon, is a richly contextual meditation on impermanence.
JH: How do you feel about nature so commonly being anthropomorphized and made female? In your art there is an inversion, so the paradigm of nature becomes your male body; tell me about this…
ZL: I have always inserted the male body into the realm of observed passivity, a placement that as you rightly mention is all too often reserved for the female body. This strategy allows me to call into question perceived notions about a fixed idea of masculinity that is fictive, usually working in an attempt to locate heterosexist white males in a state of superiority. In my earlier work, I often undercut notions of stereotypic maleness through the use of my own body as the object of a returned gaze. Portraying characters and constructions from history and visual culture, the shift to include or rather focus on flora and fauna is a reiteration of this strategy, evoking ideas of vulnerability through a sensual encroachment with animal and plant-life.
Also I think its worth noting that another feature of hegemonic masculinity includes within its own rhetoric, domination over all animals and plant-life, through supposed intellectual superiority, (which in contemporary life can take the form of scientific manipulation of both sentient and non-sentient creatures). I often entangle and sometimes obliterate my body as a critique of these ideas, and their possible outcomes, while placing a queer lens to the world around me, mixing plant and animal life at will, offering visual metaphors for sexual diversity the multiplicity in nature.
JH: You are clearly a naturalist. How do you deal with the anthropocene, the death of the natural, and the current mass extinction of flora and fauna?
ZL:I try not to romanticize a ‘better’ time, I try not to think of humans as separate from other animals. We are one species among so many, and what we are doing- the polluting, the overpopulating, is in a way a natural occurrence, it is within the spectrum of natural animal behavior. For example, beavers were brought to Argentina to be farmed in the last century, because of lack of natural predators and weather conditions, they quickly overpopulated and destroyed much of the landscape they were inhabiting, (beavers obviously cannot be blamed for this) they don’t have a conception that what they did was problematic, the problem in this example was human intervention of course, but this is a microcosmic example of human activity, we simply have the knowledge and brain capacity to know we are overpopulating and polluting. The difference between human animals is our ability to recognize we are destroying our environment… the conversation shouldn’t be about Natural Vs Unnatural when discussing the anthropocene, ANYTHING of this world is natural. It should be about good choices Vs bad choices… about the positive impact (or negative) that human animals make, because we are capable of choice. Obviously our current modes of consumption and reproduction are killing our fellow inhabitants at a shocking rate. Ideologies of nationalism, religion and the market are propelling this mass extinction, and collectively our preventative activities (for example) recycling, reusing and reducing are failed exercises.
JH: I feel a political element to your work; your male form is sometimes aestheticized/sexualized passively, which traditionally (and unfortunately) has been the duty/burden of the female body. As a thinking devil, I want to ask if there is liberation or just more entrapment within this kind of purposeful objectification.
ZL: I see this element in my work of role and gaze reversal, about challenging gender norms and ways in which bodies have been and continue to be codified socially, but I extend this queering of convention to the conversation of challenging notions of speciesism that is rife throughout Human culture and society. Most humans feel superior to other animals. We are not. We can take advantage in certain ways because of our biology, but we are not an inherently better species, in fact, in my opinion, in many ways we are collectively an inferior animal. In my series of drawings from the Feeding series, which is an offshoot of my ‘Wild Men’, I depict myself being fed by birds; this simple shift or reversal of roles revels my thinking on this matter.It is very common throughout the world to see people in parks feeding birds, I just reversed this act as a question to viewers- would you ever be fed by a bird? What might that feel like? It would be a revolutionary act to listen and allow other species to teach humans about the world around us. This also reminds me of a much earlier drawing from 2011, Emperor’s New Clothes, in which I depict myself swarming with Monarch butterflies. The title, a double entandre, referencing the monarch as emperor, my own nudity and ideas of collective conformity, but its genesis as an image ingrained itself in my mind after hearing from a cousin who’d visited the mariposa in Mexico, that at times there are so many of these insects on a given tree that branches can break off due to their weight; and so, in imagining my body as that tree, I had an extreme desire to embody that experience, as a spectacle of nature.
JH: What is your spirit, what is my/anyone’s spirit, what is nature, God, myth, religion? Are all of these things one thing, different things, real, fake, etc…?
ZL:Humans have language to describe feeling, ideas and experiences. God, religion… myth are all ways of expressing the otherwise inexpressible through language and ritual, through the visual. I suppose I would describe individual character defined and shaped by personal experiences as that which makes up one’s spirit.
JH: I see the broad expanse of your perceptions and references to the great depictions of nature in western art, from a Botticelli Venus to a Rembrandt weed field or rabbit, from the obvious Arcimboldo/ Audubon to Walton Ford. Who else are your greats? I’m more interested in those long dead that history has had time to digest and refine, though now I want to know if there are any living artists whose work you are crucially indebted to?
The trove of art historical sources are mainly where I mine reference, but there are several artists whose work I feel indebted too… David Hockney, Ross Bleckner, Betty Tompkins, Alison Norlen, Evergon, Sophie Calle, Ellsworth Kelly and Walton Ford…
JH: What is your most successful work, through the terms in which you define success?
Conceptually my works all link- and I work in groupings or series, so there isn’t a singular work I feel exemplifies superiority over others. Perhaps my practice as a whole… I feel successful in the sense that I am able to maintain a full-time studio practice, to do that which I am passionate about.
JH: Tell me about your recent residency at Wave Hill Botanical Gardens in the Bronx?
ZL: It was magical to say the least. I had a remarkable studio called the “Sunroom” located within the Glyndor Gallery on the grounds of Wave Hill, a public Botanical garden in the Bronx along the Hudson River. The gallery is located in what was once a family home, a Victorian mansion from the turn of the last century. (I felt as though I was doing a residency in a Bronte novel!) During the winter months Wave Hill turns their museum spaces into an artist residency with 6 separate studios and through an invitational process selects artists whose work relates to botanics in some way. Every day I had full access to the collections in the alpine, succulent and tropical hot houses on site as well as access to the grounds themselves. I utilized the surroundings and collections for inspiration in the development of new drawings, and established framework for a new direction in my drawings, furthering existing themes of pictorial space.
JH: What are you working on; do you have any exhibitions or events you would like to discuss?
ZL: Yes, I am working on several projects at the moment, one of which is a large-scale drawing installation that will be featured in an upcoming group show at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto this May. The exhibition is called ‘Bliss: Gardens Real and Imagined’, and it features both historical works form around the world and contemporary artist working with floral or garden motifs. I’m very excited to be placed in this context, in particular to be exhibited alongside British artist William Morris. Overlapping this show in Toronto I will also have a solo exhibition at Paul Petro Contemporary Art. And as well in June, I have a 2-person exhibition in NYC at Julie Saul Gallery with American ceramicist Christopher Russell, where much of my work completed at Wave Hill will be exhibited alongside Russell’s ceramics. In the fall I will participate in a second 2-person exhibition with senior Canadian artist Jane Buyers at AKA Artist Run in Saskatoon, and I am also working on a solo project that will open in November in London at New Art Project’s recently renovated 5000 sq ft space in Hackney- so I’m keeping busy!
Martin Wittfooth’s work uses the formal tools of baroque lighting (high lit shape advancing from deep shadow) and baroque compositional structure (energetic triangulation on the diagonal). Through the mastery of the baroque and indirect oil painting technique-the stacking of transparent glazes to achieve optical color mixture- Martin constructs surrealistic dystopian visions of an abrupt reintegration of exotic animal life into the ruins of industrialization.
What follows is an interview with the artist.
JH: How does the sacred influence your painting? I see visual parallels to Hindu and Catholic iconography, both embedded and explicit, but the holy space you create is occupied by nature, an inversion I consider both intelligent and subversive. Tell me your thoughts on this…
MW: The historical archive of our species is full of forgotten deities, gods and goddesses nobody prays to anymore, and of course some that have endured to modern times, often by systems of oppression, bloodshed, and gnashing of teeth. I happen to believe that all of this persistent yearning for a divine agency or higher power of whatever you want to call it has its roots in ancient practices of dialoguing with nature, by varying forms of shamanism, with what psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna called “the felt presence of direct experience.” I realize that that may sound silly to some people, but I do think that there are ways by which one can alter one’s perspective or consciousness in such a way as to see nature itself (herself?) as a sacred entity, that the world we all emerge out of is far more interesting and worthy of our respect and I daresay worship than our species gives it credit for. This departure I think accounts for so much of the trouble that we find ourselves in, from the religious tensions across the world to the pandemic of depression seen in populations in “developed” parts of the globe, to the wanton abuse of the earth, our home. In my work I seek to bring attention back to nature as the sacred temple it needs to be treated as, not the junkyard we’ve reduced it to. To sum up the notion I’m trying to express in the work, I can quote Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock”:
“We are stardust
Billion year-old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.”
JH: There is a deep rare magic in wildlife, a magic which badly needs to be presented to the general public in the name of conservation, ecological health, and history. I think the expression of this is one facet of the success of your paintings. How do you define success, i.e, monetarily, educationally, painterly/formally, all, none, etc…?
MW: I would define success simply as the state of being in which one feels free, yet connected. What I mean by that is being free from any preset mode of thinking, liberated to express oneself as one pleases, yet also feeling a deep sense of connection (though not attachment) to the things one chooses to do during their life, and the people and beings one can share that life with. I think that overcoming challenges, facing obstacles rather than ignoring them or looking for shortcuts, is success. To me I feel a sense of success if I take on something that I might feel apprehensive or fearful about, and doing it anyway, and then realizing that not only could I do it but I could also learn something new in the process. To me, being open to always learn something is to be successful.
JH: We are experiencing a rapid human-caused mass extinction, a collapse of our ecosystem (we talked a little about the book The Sixth Extinction, which details industrialization’s desecration and destruction of the natural world). When the animals you paint so beautifully are gone, our children will only know their majesty through photography, film, video, and art. Your art, in the figurative and formal western tradition, will serve both as artistic and historical artifact, enlivened by the trace of essence of the animal life you manifest within each canvas. This is a big responsibility; how do you want your work remembered in the eyes of posterity?
MW: I think that art at all times through history has served the purpose of being a time-capsule for the future to look back at and get a sense of what was going on when it was made. In this way I think my work might be seen as some strange and subjective snapshot of some of these current issues and the worries surrounding them. There’s this old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Our era is certainly an interesting one, and I want my work to reflect an aspect of that. That said I’m not making it for anyone in the future, but rather feel that it’s just a way for me to process these things on a personal level, though it’s an interesting notion to sometimes think about, that the work might be viewed at some later date when the world and its inhabitants are yet again in a different stage of transformation.
JH: Is it annoying to have your work considered through the lens of environmental activism (if so sorry)? Does that play an active role in your imagery, or are endangered animals just one tool for your visual language to speak through?
MW: It’s not annoying, and in fact I’d be flattered if it was considered that to some degree, as it would mean that the work reached people on a deeper level than simply wall decoration. I think that the greatest challenge of our time on this planet is to find our way back to an equilibrium and balance with it, and an area in which we need to do a great deal of work collectively is in our treatment of the natural world, which for quite a while now we’ve attempted to dominate and push to the margins. The subject matter I choose gets at this notion pretty regularly, though there are often other layers to the work than just a focus on environmental concerns. Much of my work also deals with the problematic human condition in a broader sense, not least of which is the suppression of our own consciousness: the wellspring of all the trouble to begin with.
JH: What is your favorite memory or experience with nature/wild animal life? Is there a childhood happening that solidified your passion? Was your passion for wildlife (as mine was) informed through secondhand experience-zoos, pet stores, photos, books?
MW: I grew up on the southwestern coast of Finland, and would spend every summer of my childhood on an island in the Baltic Sea peninsula. There was so much for me to explore there as a kid, and I think it instilled in me a pretty significant appreciation for nature and the myriad ways in which it plays a kind of harmonized symphony with itself. A couple of decades later I tried some psychedelic mushrooms in a field surrounded by a forest, and let me just summarize by saying that I was profoundly reminded of the magic that I knew and felt so strongly as a child.
JH: What is your masterwork to date, your most successful painting?
MW: I don’t have a singular painting that I feel that way about, though one rare painting from 2014 that I’ve decided to keep in my own collection for some unexplainable reason that I feel strongly tied to is called “Incantation.” I painted it in my first year of living on my property near Woodstock in upstate New York, and in that time I started to develop a really strong connection to the land up here. Some of that feeling ultimately got trapped inside of that painting. People who see it tend to respond to it pretty favorably.
JH: What parts of art history do you most strongly identify with? I feel a lot of influence from the Baroque, magical realism, surrealism, Islamic geometric painting, Hindu iconography…
MW: In terms of painting technique, I think I get a lot of influence from the late Renaissance in Northern Europe, the Mannerists, and painters of the 19th Century. Though I can’t pinpoint a particular favorite, as I tend to look at artwork from all time periods and regions of the world pretty often. As someone who grew up in Europe and influenced by its artwork, I find it an interesting practice to borrow the look of classical European painting but to simultaneously weave in elements of Eastern and mystical symbolism and thus expand my own dialogue, in a time when cultures and ideas are incredibly fertile for cross-over.
JH: Who are your favorite painters?
MW: The list is too long to put down here, but some that come to mind are Arnold Böcklin, Henry Raeburn, Jules Bastien-LePage, Jan Van Eyck, Robin Williams, Vincent Desiderio, Justin Mortimer, Christian Van Minnen, and Julie Heffernan.
JH: Are there any upcoming or current exhibitions of your work you would like to share?
MW: I have a solo show opening in the Fall of this year at Corey Helford Gallery’s new gallery space in Los Angeles. In 2017 I will have my first major museum exhibition at the Long Beach Museum of Art in Long Beach, California in the Fall of 2017.
The painting, “Incantation,” that I mentioned above will be included in a large show curated by Hi-Fructose Magazine at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, opening this May and running through to the end of the year.
QuantumArtReview hosted an open call through the New York Foundation for the Arts asking for the submission of work in any medium to be considered for the second in our online exhibition series.
I was thrilled with a large response, this being a new sort of experiment for me in how to build bridges to a wider and further-reaching artistic community. Through technology, we as artists can access one another’s work in new and unparalleled ways, ways not dependent on a traditional and exclusionary gallery model. There is an immense pool of talent whose voices are diminished, if not muted, because of a lack of resource and connectivity to a secluded, exclusive, and unregulated market driven by the knowledge of no artistic or learned authority but by the tastes of the generally uneducated, gambling rich.
So lets bypass them.
Thank you for all of the submissions. If your work is not included, please know I enjoyed the chance to look and consider it, and that anything made with care, concern, patience, and learned skill is beautiful and worthy in my book.