Whatever It Takes

by John Kildahl

It is early May in the Bay Area and MFA students are frantically completing artwork and installing for the ultimate show of their graduate school lives. Stress abounds. Sleep, if you can muster an hour or two, is restive and dreams are thoroughly psychedelic.

You sit up suddenly, awoken from one of those dreams. It was a good one, but odd. Like so many others it was familiar but somehow different. You were in your childhood home though it was not in the town you grew up in. That flowerpot in the living room was too big, or was it in the wrong room? Everything was brighter, illuminated by some warmth. 

This experience is the experience one has when looking at the work of recently repatriated Californian, Rachelle Agundes, who recently was kind enough to come visit me in my Design District studio at California College of the Arts.  

Agundes has been back in the Bay Area for the past school year, teaching at both Notre Dame de Namur, her undergraduate alma mater, and at San Francisco State University after having spent nine years in Brooklyn working in the gallery world. Rachelle is still working to secure a studio space either here in San Francisco, or in the East Bay, so she kindly brought her work in to my studio where we talked for over an hour. 

Rachelle’s paintings are big. They are big and colorful. There are blues, blues of the sky … or, wait are we inside? There are teals and palm frond greens. Certain figures seem recognizable, is that a dog or a zebra? Its not surrealism, its more abstract than that. And while the content may feel dreamlike, or drawn from memory, the glitch, the confusion feels very present. We’re seeing a frozen computer screen caught blipping between pages, or the moment a screen saver of family photos windowblinds from one to the next. They are deep and they are flat. What is at moments in front suddenly recedes, things behind move into foreground. Think Fra Angelico mixed with Georges Braque all in the key of David Hockney, all artists Rachelle cites as influential to her practice.  

Visiting Mt. Lassen, 2013, Oil on canvas, 72 x 84 inches 

Visiting Mt. Lassen, 2013, Oil on canvas, 72 x 84 inches 

I do not want to pigeon hole her. Her work is about more than mere juxtaposition. Rachelle is an omnivore. Everything is potential inspiration for her large oil paintings, for her saturated collaged monotypes, and for her plum tinted - more muted - watercolors. They are each many pieces in one. In the monotypes Rachelle collages more representational imagery (closer to her paintings) with color field monotypes. Rachelle creates opportunity in her practice. There is not a final image in her head while she works, though she painstakingly sets up sculpture as a form of still life from which to draw. “I work hard on my set ups, my still lives, so that when I’m painting I can constantly be looking and seeing how things, objects are in dialogue with one another.” The same goes for her monotypes, as she will allow serendipity to choose which orange fits in the window she has just cut, or which dusted, night sky looking black should break the picture plane. “I like to see what the materials do, and I’m willing to make spur of the moment changes.”

Eucalyptus Sky, 2013, Monotype with collage, 22 x 30 inches

Eucalyptus Sky, 2013, Monotype with collage, 22 x 30 inches

Growing up in Northern California, Rachelle, recalls the grandiosity of the outside world, of the national parks she and her family would visit. Her paintings evoke both the largess and the largeness of nature. The colors feel distinctly Californian as well. There is a glow bordering on neon, but safely avoids being gaudy – more electric than pastel. Growing up, Rachelle’s father was a fireman and she remembers a time when, in Northern California, she and her family were held hostage by a raging forest fire in an adjacent area. Ash, like snow, fell from the sky, dotting her field of vision, her view of the very landscape the fire was consuming. One can see the ash in her paintings, strokes of paint puncturing the picture plane. 

This is the stuff of dreams. Nothing makes sense but you know it happened. Scenes are half remembered, unsure of their reality or certain figure. Silhouettes pop and fade, nestled compositions appear and disappear, the paintings are abstract and representational. Rachelle’s paintings reveal a psychic dissonance between worlds, between ideas, and between planes. I do not think they can ever truly be made sense of, which allows for a wonderfully long and rich amount of time one can look at them. In dreams it is always the edges of things that seem to fade, to blur, and to not make sense. And this is perhaps where Rachelle’s work departs from my tired dream metaphor. Her edges are apparent and assertive. The edge is where worlds collide and aesthetically make the painting while confusing the content. 

That’s Not Your Spirit Animal, 2012 Oil on canvas, 44 x 54 inches 

That’s Not Your Spirit Animal, 2012 Oil on canvas, 44 x 54 inches 

Teaching is new for Rachelle. And without a studio this past year she has mostly concentrated on her monotypes. The collage aspect of her monotypes has opened up new possibilities and ideas for her painting practice. So too has the teaching. Recently, a student was asking if a sort of homemade drawing instrument was ‘ok’. Rachelle responded, “whatever it takes.” Rachelle has been doing whatever it takes to continue her practice and I for one am eagerly awaiting the few months after she gets her studio. Who knows what dreams may come?

Additional works: 

Water Fire Fight, 2010–2012, oil on linen, 44 x 54 inches

Water Fire Fight, 2010–2012, oil on linen, 44 x 54 inches

Last Year, 2014, monotype with collage, 30 x 22 inches

Last Year, 2014, monotype with collage, 30 x 22 inches

Hiking Bumpass Hell, 2012, oil on canvas, 54 x 44 inches

Hiking Bumpass Hell, 2012, oil on canvas, 54 x 44 inches

Periscope, 2013, Monotype with collage,  22 x 30 inches 

Periscope, 2013, Monotype with collage,  22 x 30 inches 

Black Star Strip, 2013, Monotype with collage 22 x 30 inches 

Black Star Strip, 2013, Monotype with collage 22 x 30 inches