I met artist Erika Ranee in 2008 just after I moved to NYC. She was one of the first professional artists that I met here and as an artist and a person she’s an incredible role model and inspiration. Throughout her nearly 25-year career Ranee has participated in many seminal art programs around New York and beyond. She was an early fellow in the Bronx Museum A.I.M. program, as well as a resident of Cooper Union, Abrons Art Center and the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation. Her most recent solo exhibitions include the LMAK Gallery in NYC, DADU Gallery in Nashville TN, and Mazmanian Art Gallery at Framingham State University in MA.
I wasn’t aware at the time we met, but she and her work were going through a transitional phase that led away from using the figure and representational imagery in her work to finding a new, abstract language to express narrative. I sat down with her recently in her Sunset Park studio in Brooklyn to talk more about some of these things; How an artist finds their way through their work and life during trying times, how to reconcile the dualities we bump up against, and lessons learned through living the artist’s life.
I’m very curious about the way artists approach the myriad of problems that arise in life and in the studio. I deeply appreciate Erika’s ability to turn towards these moments, and often create the challenge intentionally, as a way to lose control in order to gain clarity. Early in her career, Ranee found a need to reevaluate the work she was making. She was working with the figure in her work, as well as using black stereotype imagery, to challenge racial inequality. After the death of a family member and the incessant barrage of violence and injustice towards people of color in the U.S., Ranee found the stereotypical imagery no longer served her. What was useful before now weighed her down and hindered her spirit and practice.
Artists can often carry a fear of trying new things, taking risks by using a new medium or abandoning a familiar component to their work. How were you able to do this for yourself?
In 2009 I had just completed a painting of a biracial couple, in an “Adam and Eve” scenario, and was working on another that featured a black woman with a large afro and a full figure, modeled on Sarah Baartman, also known as the hottentot venus. I was working at the Vermont Studio Center and kept having to negotiate keeping the figure visible in the painting, but also finding space for these beautiful forms of color, purple and gold. Incidentally, I had found an interview by my (former) professor Jack Whitten where he mentions illustrated imagery conveying narrative, and how abstraction too contains a narrative, it’s just not illustrated. I found I could still embed the content that was important to me and use a language of painting that I was drawn to. That really resonated with me and freed me up so I could work more intuitively. That painting “FLY”(inspired by the rap video “Tip Drill”), which was about women’s bodies being trapped and exploited became a pivotal moment for me – and the more I worked the painting the more she kept disappearing until all that was left were two gold star eyes. It was an important lesson in letting things get lost in the painting and building up history in the surfaces of the painting.
As devout feminists Erika and I share a frustration of often having to look past misogyny in art, music and film, in order to appreciate and use those aspects which are transcendent. In her early work, Erika used images of black stereotypes from racist cartoons to women exploited in music videos. The re-contextualizing and appropriation of offensive and negative imagery could be turned against itself and given new power. We talked about the difficulty in reconciling personal expectations with reality. How being a feminist makes it hard to enjoy certain music, movies and art.
A lot of our conversation comes back to the idea or reconciling or resolving conflicts that we come up against. In art it often arises that there may be work or artists who you want to like but the misogyny, in the work or from the person themselves, can make it hard to justify appreciating it. How have you found ways to do this in your studio practice?
It was and still is an issue when looking at art throughout the centuries. Back in art school, studying Picasso and deKooning’s disembodied female bodies was conflicting for me. But there was something about the language of painting they used. I had an instantaneous gut reaction to the crazy, loose, juicy wild painting. I started making my own versions of deKooning’s “women” as a way to channel that language. I wanted to capture the figure within that mess – so I give de Kooning credit for teaching me how to get to that point with my paint handling, but I can also acknowledge the misogyny in his works too – and giving my voice to it allowed me to reconcile that.
In some way I think the best thing to do with those difficult parts is to take away the power by not giving it attention. When I was working with black stereotypes in my earlier paintings I always felt like I was skirting that line – of putting those images up in a gallery and yet I’m saying look- this is a bad message, a terrible image. At the time it was about drawing attention to those images and trying to get the message out that these were egregiously offensive images.
Eventually I found a system – I know I have to “deal with the paint”. The rule for me is to paint what I’m feeling, and if that’s political or personal—or both, I have to release it on to the canvas and let the painting become that. For resolving technical problems in my work I know now that sometimes I need help. I’m ok with asking for feedback. I have friends whose eye I can trust to tell me their thoughts, about work being finished or not, about orientation, about balance. My challenge is the area between being loose and being meticulous. I need both but I can get stuck at times. I’ve learned to deal with those moments by creating an upheaval – I’ll just throw paint on something that I’ve become too precious with – I find ways to stop myself from going too far in one direction and create a new challenge intentionally, to redirect my own energy in the work and find resolution in the painting. And I know now that I can create those disruptions in a work because I trust myself and I know I can get to the place I want to go. I need the organization in there so I can also have the chaos. I need both.
Some of this has already come out through talking to you about your process, but I wonder if you can talk about what being an artist has taught you, about art but also about life?
I learned to have patience. I’ve learned how to take criticism. Some artists never want to hear the criticism, but you have to hear someone’s truth. I’ve learned how to process the feedback. I ask people what they think and I try to take what can be useful, I don’t always agree with the person, but I have to think through what they’re saying. I take notes after I talk with someone to try and discern what’s been said and how it relates to my intentions and where I want the work to go. I’ve also learned that I have a profound need to be alone at times. Being an artist has accommodated this need. I know I’m in the right profession, being an artist. It’s illuminated all the things that in hindsight I thought were unusual in comparison to family and friends. I know it’s who I really am and it’s created space for my hermetic propensities to exist and for me to settle in to. I’m comfortable with expressing myself visually rather than verbally. It’s who I am.
I’m curious, since you seem to be able to turn towards conflict and not hide or avoid those parts that can be difficult – how does that affect how you deal with difficulty or trauma in life outside the studio?
In the day to day it’s about finding moments of brightness. I can appreciate the difficulty because I’m a realist and I seek the truth, but I want balance too. Teaching has been great for this. I get so much positive energy from the students, even when it’s difficult; it feeds me. I tend to be drawn to film, literature or art that includes conflict and has some type of heavy, forlorn narrative. I enjoy seeing those things played out in that tone. I want to know the truth of things. That’s not the same as when I'm ambushed during a commercial break with a news flash using shocking, violent video footage of someone getting shot, or beaten to death. That kind of clipbait culture; shock news culture is also a kind of toxic warped media "reality" that doesn’t serve me.
I’m older and wiser now and I’ve had practice dealing with life’s difficult hurdles, so I know getting through tough periods can take time. I don’t expect to just feel better all of a sudden. If you have something you’ve experienced that is traumatic, instead of trying to ignore or deny it, you accept that it’s now a part of who you are--you learn to adapt. It can change you; you’ll develop a thick skin. But I really try to remain open. I don’t want to shut down or close off.
I can’t predict what will happen next and embracing the fact that you can’t control any of it is a healthy space to exist in. I’ve seen people try to block out the pain and it just doesn’t work. They become depressed which can manifest in other unhealthy ways like physical illness. You have to release it, somehow, someway.
We ended our conversation talking about how the course of an artist’s life can take a lot of unexpected turns. How we both find comfort in knowing that there is no right way to do it. You pay attention, you learn how to trust yourself, and you move forward.
Erika Ranee’s solo exhibition "Zip-A-Dee-A" at Mazmanian Art Gallery is on view at Framingham State University, Framingham MA till September 29th. Her work will be included in “Squared x2” at Geoffrey Young Gallery in Great Barrington, MA opening November 2nd. You can also catch her work at Bushwick Open Studios (Sept. 22-24) at David & Schweitzer Contemporary, curated by artist Daniel John Gadd.