I first came across Gyan Shrosbree’s work on Instagram. I was intrigued by her bold sense of color and curious about the materials she used to make her work. I visited Gyan this past October during her residency at The Maple Terrace in Brooklyn. During our visit we discovered several things we shared in common: moving to NYC in 2000; being at the Vermont Studio Center in January (though not the same year); working with restrictions (materially and in the rectangular frame of the canvas); and a shared interest in textiles/quilting/sewing.
Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? Where did you go to school and where are you currently located?
I live in Fairfield, Iowa where I teach at Maharishi University. I attended Bennington College right out of high school. I was lucky to work with so many amazing professors in the early part of their careers there — Amy Sillman, Rochelle Feinstein, and Annabeth Rosen were some of my first college professors. I was heavily influenced and inspired by these powerful women. I ended up transferring, but those two years at Bennington were never forgotten and were fundamental to my education. I received my BFA from The Kansas City Art Institute in Painting, and my MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art, also in Painting. I am really grateful for all of the wonderful schools I attended and people I worked with, both peers and faculty, during that time.
How and when did you decide to become an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?
It was never a question. That is due to my family for sure. My father is an artist and my mother is a furniture designer and basically an artist. I was raised being exposed to the life and it was almost like not an option, kind of like I was in training from the time I can remember. Or maybe more realistically, being an artist was heavily supported in my family, and never something that was questioned. This was the case, both regarding who I was surrounded by, in terms of family friends, and also in terms of my parents. I was pushed and challenged, as well as encouraged and nurtured. I feel really lucky to have had the upbringing and the kind of constant education from the time I can remember.
I’m intrigued with your bold use of color and materials. Can you please tell me more about how you think about color and the materials used in your process?
I think about color AS a material. So much of what I do and am inspired by is driven by color—instinctive relationships, intellectual understanding, play, absolute obsession, repulsion, emotion— all of it! Material is as important to me as color. I use all kinds of materials, but I am always thinking about paint. In my mind I am always painting with these materials. A new material or color is often the instigator for a new series. They can function as a refresh button or something in my process.
You’re exploring a variety of gestures with tape. It’s such a direct form of mark-making. The tape is layered, it’s used as color blocking and in some areas the tape appears to function as “stitching.” Is there any significance to the use of this material?
I don’t know if it is significant that it is tape in terms of a conceptual reason, but I do love the immediacy of the tape. I love the way the marks can build on one another. I love the residue and smothering and textures that can happen. I love how it can really end up translating as “paint’ or lead you to a conversation about paint.
I’m fascinated with your use of “masculine” hardware store materials. Conceptually are you thinking about these as gendered materials? Can you elaborate?
Yes. I like that too. I find it sort of funny. Like these are typically ‘masculine’ materials for the most part, and then I am kind of ‘feminizing’ them with my color choices and ‘glamorous’ moves (glitter, reflective silver, fringe, etc). I am also bringing in references to crafts that have been traditionally thought of as ‘women’s work’ such as sewing, quilting, and sometimes weaving to further contradict the initial purpose of the materials. I am both interested in celebrating these gender moves, and also destroying the ideas that surround them with the hope that we can evolve beyond labels.
In the works you have hanging up in the studio – you have paintings on canvas in the traditional sense – but they are incised and fragments of the cutouts are collaged onto the edges – breaking the frame of the rectangle. I love this gesture – it’s like you’re nudging at the restriction of the frame. It seems to me like you’re playing with restrictions. Is it important to place restrictions in your process?
YES. For me restrictions lead to an abundance of work. They allow me to get into my body and out of my head; to feel grounded in the process of getting the work out. I love the frame, and playing off of the frame. It gives me something to come back to in the work, something to work with and against. I also like the way a frame directs the conversation back to painting. Rules are made to be broken of course, but they give me the ability to treat the studio like a game and they ground me in the process of getting the job done.
I see the canvas as a body. Something to dress up. With a front and a back. An interior and an exterior. For the most part I like hanging them on the wall, and calling them paintings. Even using the wall to play with shadow and light and color reflectivity and glow. They walk a line between painting and sculpture and are very much objects to me.
There’s an obvious influence of textiles and the construction of quilts in your work – this is most evident in the large tarp-pieces. How did you first come to working with the tarp as a material? And what is it about this material that interests you?
Everything! I like the fact that they are everyday materials. Like you can just pick one up at any old hardware store. I like the utilitarian nature of a tarp. I like the plasticity of the materials and its relationship to the plastic nature of the acrylic paint that I use. I like thinking about making these plastic quilts or blankets that are so heavily worked and tended to, and at the same time made with materials that many people would consider temporary or just plain shitty. I like taking those materials and transforming them into fully worked, bedazzled, vibrant paintings that hopefully transcend the materials that they are made with, but at the same time are still recognizable and MAYBE that makes the work more accessible to a wider range of viewers, and MAYBE it gives an edge of humor to the work that I like to include in the range of emotions that are possible when viewing my work.
These tarp pieces came from a place of wanting to integrate a more direct drawing practice back into my studio, specifically thinking about drawing with color. I was at a residency and went to the hardware store to find inspiration in a new material. The tape is a perfect partner, marrying to the surface of the tarp, while it is both forgiving and unforgiving. The materials themselves force me to continue to work the surface through the addition of marks. The buildup of the marks adds a physical weight that makes the pieces sag and slump in a tactile way. There is an inability to control the materials to some extent that I find exciting, and adds not only a sense of play to the work, but a sense of process.
You’ve done several residencies. Can you talk about how they have helped/hindered your process? Do you have a favorite residency?
Residencies are awesome! I never realized how important they were, or how much I could get from having the experiences that they provide. I feel so grateful to have attended every single one of them, and each one was beyond valuable for both me and my work. Many things can happen depending on timing and what your current needs are. For me the benefits have been huge in terms of my work and also in terms of friendships. At each one that I have attended, I have made real, lifelong friendships and made big discoveries in my work that have been lasting and set me onto new territory in the studio. I don’t have a favorite, but both The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo were unbelievable, once in a lifetime experiences that I will never forget. I am forever grateful for those places and their generosity.
Do you listen to anything (music, podcasts, etc. when you work?
It depends. Sometimes I like complete silence, sometimes music is the right mood. The music that I listen to varies and seems to be driven by an instinctual connection to the work that I am making at the time. It needs to be the same music for the entire series usually and then I tend to not want to hear it for a very long time after the series is finished. It is almost like the equivalent of silence because it just becomes a part of the process and is not overpowering in terms of being another element. I like listening to podcasts, interviews with artists mostly when I am doing things that are more task related—like preparing surfaces and stuff.
Who are some of your artistic influences?
I am, of course, constantly feeding off of artists and books and shows and films and experiences that I have had in my life. Matisse is one of those influences that has been there from the beginning. Jessica Stockholder also an early influence. Elizabeth Murray, Joan Snyder, Cindy Sherman, so many! The Hilma Af Klint show was a mind blower! My friends and my family are huge in terms of inspiration and influence.
Knowing what you know now, what piece of advice would you give to your younger artist self?
I would say hold onto the connections that you have with other artists and the people who know your work well. Nurture those relationships, and be generous. We are each other's support systems!