East

Cool and Curious Wind

Dana James: A Profile

By Kelly McCafferty

Dana James is the perfect person to meet at a cocktail party. And that’s exactly where we crossed paths. It was the sort of party where you are expected and encouraged to walk up to strangers and start a conversation.

Dana comes across as clear and aware—her presence is strong. She’s assertive but also receptive. Dana feels like wind—cool and curious.

I’m almost positive Dana approached me first and we started a conversation where we discovered that we both had studios in Bushwick and we should probably be pals. Dana felt easy to talk to and we discussed the art world, New York with an emphasis on Brooklyn/Bushwick, mutual friends and her paintings.

I like to play an internal guessing game when I first meet a new artist. What sign are they? And what do I think their art looks and feels like?

Now I know the answers to both of those questions having interviewed Dana, been in the presence of her paintings and asked her flat out about her zodiac chart.

Does Dana feel like her paintings? I would say, absolutely yes.

Dana has recently moved, but when I visited in 2018, she had a live/work space in the part of Bushwick where the train runs above the street. I love seeing studios as much as I love seeing apartments, so live/work spaces fascinate me. There is a vulnerability in a live/work studio visit, both for the artist and the visitor. An artist is opening up the fullness of their life and one can see and imagine how their days and nights fill the space. The aesthetics of their life are on display.

Dana’s space is a beautiful newly renovated apartment with two front street facing rooms and a large kitchen/living space at the back. Dana has compartmentalized her art/life in the arrangement of the space. The left front room serves as painting storage and the front right room serves as active studio space. Moving towards the back of the apartment, there is a hall with closets and a bathroom and then it opens up into a sleek kitchen and combination living room/bedroom.


Dana lives there with her rescue greyhound, Veronica. I recognized Veronica from Instagram and meeting her felt like meeting a model/actress in the flesh—her beauty is otherworldly. Veronica greeted me as soon as I entered the space and stayed present in our conversation.

Is everything in Dana’s world beautiful? Dana, Veronica, the apartment, the paintings—they are all stunning.

Dana’s paintings are big. They are definitely bigger than Veronica. And they are as big as they could be in the space she inhabits.

We settled into the studio to begin our conversation. I noticed immediately that the train runs parallel to the studio window. There are constantly people on the train looking right in. It must be a strange experience to work and feel watched in that way and it must change the work somehow—there is a built in audience and the act of making becomes a performance.

I’ve never lived near the above ground trains in NYC, and staring into the train reminds me of when I lived in Chicago and how so many peoples’ apartments there looked into the train. I would ride the train and daydream as I peeped into peoples’ lives.

Dana is of course immune to the train, as anyone who lives their life looking onto it would be. And when we enter our conversation, I realize later that I’ve forgotten all about it and even stopped noticing the sound of it.

We sit with our backs at the windows. On the left side of the studio, Dana has set up three older pieces that were in her most recent solo show. And on the right side, there is a cluster of new works of various sizes.

Dana begins by telling me that she is in the middle of a transition phase. The big older works in the room with us are from her most recent solo show in October 2017. There were 4 in the show—two are in the room with us and they are all six feet tall. She calls them poured color fields. The top portion of each painting is thin and washy and the lower portions are heavy and thick with texture.

Since then she has moved over to working in the style of the paintings on the right of the studio. These she refers to as crop outs. She makes them by making big paintings and finding sections that are perfect as they are—and then “photoshoping” it in real life by combining fabric pieces. She also has some smaller pieces and collages that were the first ones she made after her show. The flow of the room progresses left to right chronologically.

Dana says that painting again after a show is always weird for her. She describes herself as a contradictory person who after going one way then must go the opposite way.

We talk about the older work first. She seems undoubtedly sure about it and it feels like the logical place to begin to understand her process and thinking. These paintings are really process minded. Dana’s palette is unusual and includes iridescence. It’s hard to see in the current grey light of the studio, but as she talks about it and I move around the paintings, I can see it. There is an inherent shimmer to the work.

I ask about the making of them and we discuss that the studio floor is covered in taped plastic. She makes her work directly on the floor. In the case of these paintings, the top is water media (ink/dye) and the lower portions are encaustic layers with fabric and collage and paint.

She begins by pouring them on the floor and determines the orientation of the piece, then the lower section is rendered with a brush.

We begin to delve into the content of the paintings and Dana says she wanted a contrast between the top and bottom of them. They are based on memories of water and Americana. She didn’t want to just pour this series—it was important to her that there was a contrast of materials and that there was a primal and child-like energy in the mark making beyond the pours.

Dana describes the paintings as mundane meets metaphysical sci-fi. They are based on swimming pools and the contrast of the air meeting man-made bodies of water. These are the vast dangerous memories of being a child and they look ocean-based and limitless but as an adult these spaces are considerably smaller.

Dana confesses to me that she is a native New Yorker from TriBeCa. These images/memories are from a childhood lost to her. They are how she imagines suburbia to be—the idea of swimming pools and backyards and isolation. She has a desire and a curiosity about these spaces/environments that were not her own. The sense of isolation and what she describes as the sci-fi twist comes from the absence of life in these imagined spaces.

I ask Dana about her astrology birth chart—I’m curious what her attraction to water is—and she tells me that she is an Aries fire sun and a Gemini air moon and a Libra air rising. She tells me that Manhattan is an island and she has always had this sense of being surrounded by water.

She thinks the pouring water element in her work comes from initiating a lack of control. She came from doing figurative work and then progressed to watercolor and then pouring. It is a trained skill, to have a controlled accident from using water media.

Dana has a strong love for materials. She speaks fondly of the poured materials sinking into the canvas. But what exactly are these materials? Is it a secret? Yes, actually. She wants the viewer to feel a sense of mystery. She is using chemistry—the essence of painting—to make surfaces that are all at once glowing, flat, waxy, thick, thin, shiny and matte. These works are about contrast. And the alchemical process that Dana concocts in her studio creates a chain reaction on the surface.

For Dana, the canvas or the paper is a light source—and once she extinguishes it, she can’t get it back. She uses these mysterious materials to bring that light source through.

Her newer work is born of the process of saving the best bits from paintings—these orphans—and sewing them together. As a process oriented artist, she has a lot of remnants and pieces left floating around and this new body of work embodies recycling. These are paintings she could never deliberately make, and that is what she likes about them. She confesses that she is the worst sewer ever and that she hates the actual process of sewing, but it gives her paintings that could never happen without the actual quilting of pieces together. The editing and arranging is what makes them beautiful. The new works are so different. Not only are they much more abstract, but they are an entirely different way of working and thinking than her previous works.

I ask Dana about her awareness of the sexuality and seduction in all of her paintings. And she says that she sees her work as both feminine and dark and dangerous. It is beauty with an edge. She likes things that are obviously beautiful. She is drawn to beauty. And she lets herself be. She describes an attraction to the feminine kind of glow of Mother Nature and her pursuit of replicating it.

I ask Dana about her style of working. She tells me that she works on one piece at a time. She is obsessive and she can’t separate herself from her work while she is in it. There are times when she has to be patient—because there is drying time before the next moves can be made. That is extremely hard for her. I can picture her, moving around the piece, circling as her mind calculates the next move.

I feel like Dana addresses landscape in a way that is inherently from the perspective of a New Yorker. Landscape for her is either man-made or not man-made. And her fascination with landscape comes in part, from growing up in a place that is completely man-made. She has a nostalgic memory of a place—a country house outside the city—that her dad built when she was a kid. On summer and some weekends, it was an otherworldly escape from her childhood. And after her father passed, the space felt heavy with family and objects. That nostalgic feeling of sad/strange/beautiful darkness is heavy in Dana’s work.

Dana has chosen to address absence in her work. There is mood and a sense of place or energy, but there is an omission of the human form. She describes it as Malibu, but weird and dark—this feeling that she is conjuring. Hearing Dana describe her work makes me instantly think of Lana del Rey and the Black Dahlia.

The absence of the human form is notable because she began as an artist focused on figuration. She abandoned the figure when she was 25. She described her early work to me as deathly dark portraits of women rendered in pencil. She says she was always such a New York girl—into fashion, make-up and body painting in her teens and early twenties. That all changed when her father got sick. She remembers seeing the loose sheets of x-rays and making abstract poured drawings based on brain forms in response. That was her first foray into abstraction and she received a lot of encouragement in response. The bleeding of the ink allowed her to be loose and open up in a way that she couldn’t find when working with the figure. I ask her if she misses the human form and she says she still makes smaller representational works and pulls out a portfolio of drawings to show me. She tells me one day she could see herself returning to the figure.

Dana tells me she was born drawing. She and her sister grew up in a loft in TriBeCa, children of two artists. Her mom is a painter and Dana grew up in her mom’s art studio. Art was “super normal” to her and she thought everyone knew how the art world worked. She was fortunate to grow up understanding the complexities of the gallery world and how it affects one’s personal life. In fact, her mom didn’t want her to become an artist. She knew it was a difficult path and she wanted something more stable for Dana. But Dana was organized, disciplined and hardworking and she chose the life of an artist. Art has been what she has always done.

For more information about Dana, please visit her website.


A Funeral and A Tourist Trap

My Conversation with Tiffany Smith About Her Work, the Commodification of Culture, Immigrant Identity and The Subjectivity of Being a Woman

I visited Tiffany Smith's studio in the summer of 2018 while she was subletting from a friend. When I come to visit her, I get out of a cab on a lush, tree-lined, wide block in the heart of Bedstuy and immediately pivot on my heels in two directions looking for what might resemble a studio building. There are waves of people crowing out of the nearby subway, and I'm a little perplexed since I don't see anything like that. Suddenly I feel a tap on my shoulder and spin around to see Tiffany's wide welcoming grin. She is sort of giggling at me for looking so confused. We laugh and hug, and she quickly leads me up the stoop of a beautiful old brownstone, unlocking the heavy wooden front door and ducking through a second smaller door just inside that one. We descend down a steep staircase, into the basement. 

Tiffany's space is a simple, concrete room illuminated by clamp lights and overhead florescent lights. The room is filled with all the tricks of her trade. She is a multimedia artist with a photography background and a penchant for the theatrical. Her work consists largely of staged photography sessions and elaborate installations featuring elements like colorful lighting, playful patterned, geometric wallpapers, real plants, plastic plants, and various props. It's interesting to see her studio, because one can find most of the props she uses both for the photos and the installations. The real and the artificial co-mingle in an interesting way. 

On the Subjectivity of Being a Woman in the World

When I sit down to talk with Tiffany about her work, one of the first notions that comes to mind is the prevalence of a female empowerment motif. Her series, "A Woman, Phenomenally," in fact features various portraits of immigrant women in almost warrior-like poses, seated in front of staged backgrounds, staring at the camera challengingly and frequently wielding some kind of prop related to their heritage. In another series she photographs people in "throne chairs," wicker chairs with a tall arching back that feel throne-like. Although this series is not specific to women it still feels like it's about empowerment, perhaps more of the idea of empowering people of color or marginalized communities, since these are primarily the subjects she focuses on. But regardless, the female empowerment motif comes through in all that she does. 

From, “A Woman Phenomenally”

I mention to Tiffany that I sense this vibe. We both laugh, and she questions sarcastically,

Ya think?

Do you want to tell us about that? 

Sure, yeah, because I am a woman of course, and I have this certain subjectivity about being a woman in the world. 

She elaborates explaining what all women know– that there are certain things about life and specific "bullshit" as she calls it, that only women have to deal with. She explains that it naturally follows that she would make work from that perspective, and this covers everything from power dynamics, to procreation and menstruation. As an example, she reminds me that she had to cancel a meeting we had earlier in the week, specifically because she had intense cramps. She muses that this is not something men have to deal with. 

Is a man's productivity ever directly impacted by something like this? She asks rhetorically. Of course not.

This launches us into a discussion about procreation. I observe:

It's still some sort of bizarre expectation of women. It's scary that that expectation is put on those of us who aren't doing it.

Yeah, I'm thinking about that a lot nowadays and how we are still such a patriarchal society that that is the way we are judged. People still ask Oprah, "why don't you have kids?" You can be Oprah, you can be a self-made billionaire... [and still have that expectation] Are you asking Stedman the same question? Not to downplay the importance of having children or producing life, but is that the pinnacle of what we have to offer?" 

Our society is not at a place where it is ready to entertain the idea of a single, independent woman as her own entity.

The Personal Verses the Cultural & Culture as Commodity

Tiffany was born in Miami and grew up between Miami and Nassau, Bahamas. Her Mom is from Trinidad/Guyana, and her Dad is from Jamaica. She talks about how her upbringing and multi- cultural background have influenced her work.

Looking at it retroactively and thinking about my interest in community... I think it also has to do with finding a place. Thinking about displacement, shifting through different homes and finding a place to be rooted. At the end of it, the center is in you, so it's a journey to find that place. I think this is what my work is circling around.

Self-portraits helped me figure out how to bring out of my subjects what I wanted out of them.

Building an aesthetic and a visual language, and thinking about posing and lighting and staging, and bringing all those references together... it was a challenge to learn how to pull all those things together effectively.

For Tropical Girls

Tiffany had a solo exhibition called "For Tropical Girls" at The Wassaic Project Maxon Mills Gallery in 2017. I had the good fortune to see it in person. The exhibit featured photography, installation, and video. The center of the room was inhabited by one large installation of a kids' blow up swimming pool, oddly lit with an artificial feeling pale purple hue and surrounded by blow up palm trees, real and fake ivy, ferns and aloe plants. The plants were elevated on little iron shelves and trivet like objects that felt like something that would be in your Grandma's backyard. The blow-up swimming pool contained another smaller blow-up pool nested inside and creating a sort of a pancake stack of pools. 

The entire scene, with its' purple lighting and plastic plants, feels playful yet artificial, fun yet nostalgic. But there is also something unsettling about it. It is so odd, kitchy, plastic. There is something saccharin sweet about it, like too much Sweet and Low in your iced tea. Or that moment when you realized your grandmother isn't just collecting stuff— she's a hoarder.

Surrounding the central installation are various fabric hangings, photographs and other works, surrounded by bits of plastic ivy tendrils, draped between them. In one photograph Smith is pictured wearing a Walt Disney sweatshirt, loudly patterned cheap looking pants, and a fake flower in her hair. She stands perfectly still with her hand on a rolling suitcase. A printed backdrop of a bridge that is badly painted hangs behind her. It looks like the type of photo that you take outside of a cruise liner after you've stepped off the boat. (Smith later tells me that this image was sourced from a vintage postcard about 7 Mile Bridge, which connects the Florida Keys to the rest of Florida.) Nods to tourist culture and also Caribbean culture run throughout the work.

I ask Tiffany about these themes

You're pulling all this iconography from your Caribbean heritage?

Yeah, it’s all a tourist trap. You grow up in a place that is a vacation paradise– all the places I call home. (Jamaica, New York, and Miami) My father is in tourism. So, through that experience I’ve witnessed firsthand the process of selling cultural experience as capital.

5 Kings

For one of her installations entitled "5 Kings" Smith photographed her nephews in a series of "throne" style chairs. She describes them as gilded, gold chairs. This was before she attended graduate school around 2011-12. 

My sister has 6 children and two step children. I call them the Rasta Brady Bunch [laughing]. From my niece down, all of their hair is locked. They had these really nice chairs. I sat each of [my nephews] in the chairs. They are used to it and are hams for the camera now. I took individual portraits and one of all five of them on the throne/couch together. I used those as my first experiment in my first semester of grad school. This was the first photo-based installation. I started making wallpaper and floor coverings using decorative concrete block patterns, and terrazzo tile patterns.

My ambition was to meet the viewer at their point of understanding. There are a lot of stereotypes about the island of Jamaica in general, and around Rastafarianism. People's associations go straight to Bob Marley or weed. So, I bought all of this stuff on Amazon and on at the dollar store I found a whole gang of weed leaf party beads [..] I made a beaded curtain out of the weed leaf party beads. 

You had to go through this beaded curtain and into the space, which is appointed with elements featured in a typical Caribbean home. There are shoes strewn around on the ground, all in Rasta of Jamaican colors. On the wall the photos of my nephews in the throne chairs were mounted in a cross formation.

It feels reliquary-esque.

Yeah, It's like a shrine. But I don't want it to allude to the idea that the life is gone. I want to celebrate their life and existence. The way I placed them in there - the shoes are scattered around as if they just came home and threw their shoes off like kids do.

Info Pollution: Hashtag Thoughts and Prayers

Panic Room

This brings me to wanting to discuss another installation of Smith's that I also fortunately got to see. It's called "Panic Room," and as most of her installations are, it is site-responsive. It can be moved from venue to venue without losing its' basic meaning and structure, because it's sort of malleable or scalable for the environment. I saw "Panic Room" installed in a gallery in Harlem called Long Gallery in the fall of 2016.

I created a hovel, a temporary structure, using industrial blue tarp, cut up and strung up in triangular flag shaped forms... and layered them, mounted them to a movable wall to create a nook space. The idea is to create a protective shell space that can be put up very quickly and taken down very quickly. The idea in creating it was responding to the space in Re:Art Show in the old Phizer building [originally]. 

This was the first show. They invited artists to come and respond to the space, but it had to be able to put up and taken down quickly, so I played more into the temporality of it. What I was responding to in that piece was the media attention surrounding police sanctioned violence on black bodies. It was an alter to actual lives that were lost and the surviving women. It was about creating a space that was meditative. It's like an altar to actual lives that were lost and their loved ones that remain traumatized.

After sifting through a site that lists every death at the hands of police, I settled on choosing four prevalent cases, largely because the emotional weight of scrolling through thousands of names was immense to bear. For me the turning point was the Philando Castille shooting because of the way it involved the media and the camera. The cases that I referenced all involved the victim dying on camera - Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott ... Philando Castille... it happened on Facebook live. You can literally die live on camera, and people still don't value [believe]. I wonder what happened to that 4-year-old girl. That officer saw that child in the back of the car and still pulled the trigger – forever traumatizing that child. The way we interact with images is something I think about a lot. Because of how disposable images are nowadays. Distributing those images helps to raise awareness but also re-traumatizes. 

You re-live trauma. It reawakens your own personal trauma. It’s not healthy for us to consume and digest images in the way that we do. We are doing too much, taking in too much information. We are not built to process information on the level to which we can access it.

That leads us down the proverbial rabbit hole in discussing the prevalence and ubiquity of media and particularly violence in the media and sensationalism in the media in contemporary society. 

How does the prevalence of media contribute to a post-truth society? How do our reactions change from over-exposure?

You don't even think about what it means. How do people die on camera in front of you and people still dispute whether or not there is an epidemic of violence?

People say we are in a post truth culture. And you would think the prevalence of image would make more truth. But it's flipped on itself. And the images are so pervasive and common.

We privilege things that are mundane. Celebrities and people making bags of money in this capitalist society. People who are assholes in front of the camera.

Right. Everything is the same tone and intensity. It can be some bullshit celebrity story which is on par with kids in Thailand stuck in a cave and also Donald Trump doing terrible things.

Now you can make a post about it and bring some attention to yourself. It functions back into this self-serving wave. Why are you really motivated to share this information? Even if it is to say, I'm the one who shared it. I'm just doing my part... is that completely selfless? You can't help everyone. There is no way for everyone in the world to be helped. 

There will always be tragedies and things that deserve our hashtag thoughts and prayers [..] because half the time people don't want to actually DO anything.

Commodification and the Way We Construct Identity:

We segue into a discussion about immigrant identity and how it is constructed and affected by being in the United States. Tiffany's work addresses this in various ways, but primarily as an entry point for the viewer i.e. many of the spaces she creates in some way reference a home whether it be a traditional home or whether it be the hovel-like structure of "Panic Room."

I can look at the iconography of one of your background sets [for your installations], and I can look at the patterning of this piece of cloth, and I think of the plants and it reminds me of the Caribbean, and I can look at the astroturf, and that makes me think of America. But I can also look at the fact that you have this juxtaposition of real verses fake. And I find it really interesting, because this is telling me more about one of your cultures, which is American culture which is all about plastic, reproducible bullshit.

It's a couple of things. It's definitely about commodification. About how culture is commodified. How I can go on Amazon and search "Rasta" shoes or.. It's also about the way we construct identity. It's even more prevalent now that we craft this version of ourselves with social media. 

And the experience of coming here as an immigrant is all about that. It's about crafting a version of yourself. It's a choice between choosing to assimilate. There was a time when that was more socially acceptable. That's what you would do. You would come here and try to assimilate into this cultural context.

That enters the conversation about interior spaces and protecting that sacred space of the home, because in immigrant families and communities that's usually the place where it can be appointed in a way that reflects yourself and your heritage and where you come from and it's also your place where you are most free to be yourself. In public you have to code switch and put on another face or another mask to keep your job - hide your dreadlocks, for example. But when you come home you can appoint the space how you choose. You need that psychologically, you need that sanctity, that safe space.

I see your work as this sort of externalization or merging of your heritages. But then you show me an older piece that is definitely about the home, and I think it's really interesting to think about culture as currency in that context.

That makes me think about when I was developing this work. There's this book I read heavily while I was developing this work. It's called "Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home" (and there's a documentary and an exhibit as well). It's set in the Caribbean diaspora in England and [is about] the process of setting up this elaborate front room and the different aesthetics that were present there. That's where the patterned wallpaper comes from. There are decanters, a wooden plaque of Jamaica, artificial flowers, images of family...

It's like a showpiece. You don't use the front room. It's an area for presentation. It's about being able to show off your wealth and your accomplishments. It functions with an added level of importance when you are moving to a new place and make a better life.

The way that America functions as a super power, particularly in the islands. People look to America for input. The way you look out at America from there– there's more opportunity. There are more consumer goods. There's a toxic relationship that goes on there.

While your work brings up these topics, it's also joyful and exciting and beautiful and interesting and strange and also feels personal enough to your experience. Obviously, there are certain installations such as "Panic Room" that feel like you are more directly addressing these things, but a lot of your work indirectly references these things. Sometimes work that feels too "hit you over the head political" can be less effective.

Yes, the questions and the problems I'm trying to bring up in my work is not just me saying, I'm oppressed. Rather than repeat the problem, I'm trying to contribute to the solution.

I live with all of these subjectivities on a daily basis: being a woman, being a woman of color, being a woman of a certain financial bracket, being a certain shade of blackness, being in this intersectional place of being Caribbean American. There are all these different layers to your experience and the way you engage with the world, and they all happen simultaneously. I could choose to focus on one thing, but I found my voice more authentically. I felt like I wanted to say all of the things.

Your work also comes across as like a joyful celebration... 

Part of that is definitely intentional. It's like setting it up like a tourist trap to lead you into this thing, and then there it gets a little darker and a little heavier...

It is simultaneously a funeral and a tourist trap.

Our conversation drifts toward what Tiffany is currently working on. She gestures toward the current set-up in the studio. There are fake plants, astroturf, a concrete block and a little tube of fake Halloween blood. 

Field Notes on Planting Seeds in Uprooted Gardens

This one's getting pretty dark. I'm going to place myself in the center of it. I'm going to put fake blood. I will be free bleeding, menstruating. [laughing sort of manically]

Shout out to my horror movie fanatic roots and my John Waters fan-ship. I love a little gore and a little twist. I'm thinking a lot about those issues about what we go though as women.

I knew I loved you.

We both devolve into a chorus of giggles and continue talking about her new work. I'm excited to see how it manifests. Tiffany tells me more about her projects that are in progress, and somehow, we bookend our discussion by bringing the topic back to the expectations of women and procreation. I think as women of the same age group who are kind of at that age where this becomes more of a pressure, we naturally slide into this kind of discussion. 

Do you think of your work as your baby?

It's the only thing I have– myself and my voice. 

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.


Naudline Pierre, On Belonging

by Jenn Dierdorf

Naudline Pierre’s large-scale figurative painting encapsulates nebulous worlds where Spirit is revered and connection, touch, and belonging reign. I was introduced to Pierre’s work in 2017 at an exhibition called Landing organized by the curatorial collective Life Lessons in NYC.  The exhibition was held in a former convent in Manhattan and may have been the ideal way to view Pierre’s work. Seven different artists’ work was hung in and around the vacated bedrooms where nuns had previously lived for the past 100 years. Pierre’s work occupied one of these rooms.  A large canvas filled with luminescent figures, perhaps aiding her female protagonist, in what appeared to be a tender moment of ritual. Pierre’s large-scale figurative works run parallel to religious icon painting and have strong references to European Renaissance painting, but they are wildly different, and quite exhilarating.

Pierre is the daughter of a pastor and had a rigorous religious upbringing.  She recognized the exclusionary intent behind such institutions as art, religion and education and sought to reconcile this fracture between representation and real life. This experience has influenced her work, but even more so is her innate ability to guide herself, to move towards the direction where she will find her voice. She obtained a technically formal education with the determination to gain an undeniable level of skill in painting which she hoped would prove her worth as an artist.  Luckily she broke through that glass ceiling in the last few years, moving towards a style of painting that feels ripe with wisdom and reaches far beyond language. In many ways Pierre has created an alternate universe, replete with the compassion and love she has taken from her real experience.

I met with Pierre at her Ridgewood Queens studio on a rainy Friday afternoon.  The modest sized studio was sparse, her materials and work space were orderly and neat. A few paintings hung on the wall and some monumental unpainted “canvases in waiting” leaned against the wall. Beautiful light spilled in from an overhead skylight.  

Tread Lightly, 2017,Oil on canvas, 48 x 38 inches

How did you arrive to where you are at with painting?

I always had a connection to figurative art, especially Renaissance painting,but I knew it wasn't created for me. I wanted to see myself in those paintings.  I think that’s why I create this other world, another experience. In terms of my education, I thought that my value as an artist was going to be in the incredible skill of rendering the figure in a more photo-realistic way.  I learned “the rules” of painting and then I got to a place where I needed to get outside of the rules. I was awarded a residency in France, on the property of Monet’s gardens. I was painting a lot of foliage at the time, but before I got there I resolved to paint solely from my imagination.  It was a catalyst to creating the work I’m making now. After graduating with my MFA, I leaned into all the things I was hesitant of in grad school; my religious upbringing, my Blackness, my color sense. In order to more clearly hear my voice, I stepped away from all the feedback and critique and comments from others and locked myself in my studio.  

I’m always fascinated by how artists use their studio practice as a tool for their own intellectual and psychic well-being - you reference a problematic genre of painting, European renaissance, which you’ve adapted in ways that address those issues, can you talk about why you chosen to reinterpret that style and what you’re adding to it?

When I make this imagery I’m making the things that I want to see in the world. I tell myself that I don’t have to carry the burdens of systems that I didn’t create. I don’t have to actively think about being Black or the political climate when I paint for it to filter in, because I absorb and experience all those things. Which is why I have to be selective about who I surround myself with and who I let in - I block out certain things to be able to create this work.  With painting, I’m not trying to replace anything - but I’m simply creating a world where I hold the power and get to do whatever I want. By proxy that is political, it is adding to the narrative, adding to the greater story of Black people in general. There are many burdens I have to carry every single day - the major aggressions, the microaggressions, the experiences that I have to take on, just to get to my studio. I don’t have to carry the world - all I have to do is make this painting.  And I’m making this painting for myself.

The Thrill of Affection, 2018, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches

How do you start a painting?

I keep a small notebook and draw up tiny thumbnail drawings of different compositions that I want to explore. If I’m feeling stuck I might look at some of my favorite artists like Caravaggio, Ensor, Titan and Blake. I went to the Prado this summer and since photos aren’t allowed inside I was scribbling like crazy in my notebook looking at compositions.  One work, “The Descent from the Cross” by van der Weyden has some great moments, the body of Christ, the tears, the nubby fingers, all of it was giving me inspiration, but when I saw the figure holding Christ’s elbow from above, it was a beautiful tender moment.  That became the composition for an entire painting. Sometimes I may take directly from these historical, religious paintings, but most times it’s inspired by them. Or it may be a feeling or sensation I’m reaching for, like how the sky meets the earth or a certain type of light.  Every painting starts with her (gestures toward that female protagonist in her paintings) I’ve tried making them without her and it just doesn’t work.


I’ve heard you describe your work as “painting emotions”, which I agree describes your work beautifully.  There’s a feeling of temporality and ephemerality that your work touches on as if your imagery goes beyond language. Can you talk about what your experience is like, as an artist, working beyond the boundaries of verbal or intellectual understanding?


The place beyond the boundaries of verbal and intellectual understanding  is a very comfortable place for me because that’s where I was raised. A place where you believe in miracles and all of the stories and biblical tales of people being healed and raised from the dead and receiving signs.  It’s a place where I can have control because I’m making the images, but I can be held by the images as well. I don’t have to understand them completely and I don’t have to know what’s going on or have an answer. I’m in love with paint and pigments. The act of painting is like a prayer to me.  To move this material around on a blank canvas and produce images, it is like a miracle. It’s definitely a spiritual practice and it’s a way for me to connect to love, benevolence and God.  Painting is how it all makes sense to me.

Black Crown, Black Hat, 2017, Oil and enamel on canvas, 48 x 38 inches

Your color palette is dark but also colorful and I think serves the emotional content of your work.  Can you talk about how you’ve settled on these colors, how you chose them for a painting? Is color symbolic for you?

Color is definitely an intuitive process for me, and it’s difficult to put into words. I love the way artificially-made pigments vibrate against earth pigments. I paint with colors I gravitate to and colors that make me feel. I’m sure there is a symbolic reason woven into my color choices, like how red is a power color, but I’m fine just letting my gut take the lead, supplemented by more formal understanding of color relationships.

Additional Information:
Pierre is currently working towards two major projects in 2019: a two-person presentation at The NYC Armory in March and a solo exhibition in September in L.A., both with Shulamit Nazarian. For more on Naudline Pierre’s work visit her website or @cluvie on social media.

Eye See, 2017, Oil and enamel on canvas, 40 x 26 inches


The Uncanny Still Lifes of Amanda Baldwin

A profile of Amanda Baldwin by Nick Naber

Amanda and I met on a rainy Monday in Ridgewood. She shares her studio with another painter, and her brand new puppy. As we walk into her space, which is in the back, I am struck by the amount of work on the walls. Many in completed or close to completed states. Amanda has a day job in the neighborhood and is able to be in the studio a lot. This is evident by the number of paintings in her space. 

Amanda’s studio is bright even in the grey rain, there is a luminosity that emanates from her meticulous still life paintings. She didn’t always make this work, previously she made geometric abstract paintings. Baldwin said she began this new body a little over a year ago, after becoming bored with her abstract work. As we get to talking, something that I have heard time and time again comes up. “Why would you ever paint still life?,” or, “Why would you ever paint the figure?” A grad school classic! 

After throwing off the yoke of the “why would you paint this?” Amanda feels more free to explore the ideas that come to her. These paintings feel fresh, while giving a nod to those still life painters who came before. She’s aware of the references in her work and plays them up. As we sit down, we get into the various facets of her paintings. 

Amanda, has about 8 paintings up in her studio, some that are complete and others that are in progress. There are three medium sized works that are directly in front of us, all using the same pictorial device, a window. This is a new development in the work, something that gives these paintings illusionistic space, but not really. The window moulding is not defined, it’s reduced to a flattened symbol, but we all recognize what that shape is. The window in the space builds more of a push and pull on her canvas, previously Baldwin preferred tile, or a brick wall making the picture plane more cramped. These newer works employ many of the same elements her earlier paintings did. 

We talked about reusing of components in her work. Amanda says sometimes she will use an object or piece of fruit up to 5 times. I’m specifically drawn to the tiger vase that appears in one of her newer “window” works and in her earlier paintings. She said she wants to paint this vase to have that porcelain finish. Amanda and I then move to a conversation about how these objects are painted. Baldwin paints the objects in various ways, from hyper realism to flat, from almost collage to a sticker. These different approaches reveal themselves after close looking. Amanda, says many people when looking at the work on her website, or instagram assume that everything is handled in the same way. That’s not the case.

Ella's Edge, Oil on canvas, 42"x53"

Amanda works on 2 or 3 paintings at a time. This allows her to work out elements in one, and use that knowledge to influence the other paintings. It’s also a way for her to break up the monotony of spending too much time on one work. She’s begun to do some of the under painting in acrylics to help move the process along, and get to her ideas quicker. We both agree acrylic has come along way, but it doesn’t compare to the luminosity and boldness of oil. 

The way she handles the paint and how she decides to paint the objects adds to the mystery of these works. Sitting in her studio, I keep looking at the shadow of a palm leaf, trying to figure out if it’s in front or behind the window. She employs this play again in one of the first works that has a full sized figure in the space. Again, she plays with the shadow and where it falls. It looks correct on first glance but is a bit off when you spend more time with it. In many ways she is playing with her viewer, as long as they are willing to take the time to let the work unfold.  She also uses a neon like shadow that appears time and time again. As we were talking about a few of the works at the same time, it became apparent to me that it was a shorthand of a shadow, although at first I read it as something else. 

Lemon Lineup, Oil on canvas, 33"x42"

Baldwin is aware of this back and forth play, and she welcomes these interpretations of her work. Her paintings at first feel static, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Every inch of the work is considered, even if it’s painted a flat color or shape. How these items get integrated is crucial to pulling off the work. Amanda does not do any type of preparatory work to get to a painting. She said she will get an idea and start. This has lead her to make a painting, and if it doesn’t work out, she throws it away and starts over. One time she did did this process 5 times. 

As we wind down our conversation, I can’t help but notice how genuinely happy and invested Baldwin is in her practice. Throwing off the grad school baggage of abstraction has served her well. Taking on a historical painting trope is tough, Amanda has met that challenge head on. Her work feels authentic and fresh, while playing with the past. 

For more information on Amanda please visit her website, or her instagram.

Additional Images:


Sahana Ramakrishnan: Making Myth

I met Sahana Ramakrishnan in 2017 during her solo show at Field Projects and instantly felt an affinity toward her and her work.  From the onset she conveyed a strong sense of commitment to her practice as an artist but there was also a bit of humor and subversion visible in her paintings and her wry wit.  Her work is deeply rooted in drawing and she’s not afraid to bring in whatever materials are necessary to realize her work.  Colorful beads and gemstones, hair, rope, blood and a variety of fabrics and trim can be found throughout her works on paper.  

Sahana just started a series of mixed media scroll drawings that investigate, among other things, our relationship to animals and the natural world.  She carefully hand-stitches her paintings on to beautifully handwoven silks from India and fits each end with wood dowels. All of her work is treated with a high quality of craftsmanship and attention to detail. I sat down with her recently to talk about the narratives that appear in her work, her studio process and what’s coming next. 

I see you’re starting to work with a scroll format in your work, is that a departure from what you were doing or part of an ongoing practice? 

It’s new. It came about after I finished making a piece called “Her body moves through nebulous time (Only the Gods Know the Trick)”. I had installed it for my solo at Field Projects - it was a large piece, all on paper, and I hung it from rods like a tapestry. The ventilation in the room made the painting wave very gently at the bottom and it felt so organic and natural to me that I wanted to experiment with the format more. With my treatment of the paper like fabric with stitching, collaging, and what I like to think of as skin grafts - cutting out sections and stitching in sections from other works or the same work - it seemed to be a logical step to have the pieces sit somewhere between drawing and tapestry or scrolls. 

I am thinking about animals and our relationship to them, as well as their relationship to other animals. This is the first one and I want to make more. My previous work has more “skin grafts” and things getting cut out and stitched in and that’s something I want to bring to this new body of work.  I use a lot of ferric chloride in my work to treat the paper.  It makes the paper feel like leather. It’s the tone of deer skin or leather, and it changes the paper so it’s smooth and feels like skin. Like drawing on skin. When I’m cutting and stitching I feel like I’m doing surgery or making skin grafts. 

There is a great tactility to your work.  The richness of the paper contrasted with beads, hair, jewels and other objects that add a bit of whimsy. Even in the way you construct a painting - adding paper and images when and where you want. It grows out from a center. Can you talk about that? Will that be part of the new work as well? 


Yes, it’s very freeing. That’s one of the reasons I like paper as opposed to canvas, where the parameters are defined for you at the start. Paper allows for a more organic experience so that the idea can grow itself. If I start with making a drawing and the drawing feels like it can be continued, I’ll just slap on another paper and stitch them together and continue. It allows a back and forth between me and what’s in front of me. The scrolls feel a little different in that I have more of a predetermined size and the malleability plays out in what can be taken away and what can be added by slicing and stitching, but when it comes down to it, it’s a very similar mentality - The surface of the drawing is as malleable and plastic as a skin. It has scars from when things didn’t go right and that adds to it. I hate planning out my images beforehand. 

Vasilisa, 2017

I love that you allow that to happen, it really demonstrated the type of relationship you have to your work.  Have you ever painted on regular stretched canvas? 


Yeah, but I thought those works felt static. It was harder for me to add different materials and to stitch things together. Eventually, I would destroy a lot of my paintings, and put them in to drawings or works on paper. In fact, the same piece I mentioned earlier, (Her Body Moves Through Nebulous Time (Only the Gods Know the Trick)) has a painting within the painting. I made this small painting of a horse on burlap stretched over canvas, but it was boring as hell on its own. I cut it out and put it into this larger work, so now it’s this phallic hobbyhorse type thing and it works perfectly.

That’s the work from your show A Night In The Woods, which also had some sculpture elements to it.  Do you work in sculpture too?  

Yeah the trees! They were also on little rollers so they could be moved around the gallery.  That imagery is also used in the same painting. It was a way to reference the archetype of the young, innocent girl travelling through the woods to carry out a task who, in the process, undergoes a transformation into maturity. A forest of movable trees is designed to confuse someone. It’s my way of alluding to your environment being a setup designed to test you; a way to bring up the question of control, destiny or “God”. My favorite example of this young girl archetype is Vasilisa. It’s Russian. In the story of Vasilisa, this young girl is sent out by her (awful) stepmother to go into the forest and find Baba Yaga, whom they expected would kill her. Vasilisa goes into the woods.  She has with her a small doll in her pocket that was given to her by her mother as she died. It represents a transition of the intuition and wisdom of the mother to the daughter, as it slowly blossoms into your own. She finds Baba Yaga and the old witch gives Vasilisa a series of challenges and if she completes them she will be allowed to live. The girl consults her doll and by some weird and very convenient magic is able to complete all of Baba Yaga’s challenges. Baba Yaga gives the girl a small skull and sends the girl back home, without telling her what the skull is for.  When the stepmother sees Vasilisa coming back home she is absolutely shocked that this young girl is still alive.  She sees the skull in her hand and grabs it from the Vasilisa and as soon as she touches it she instantly bursts into flames. 

That story - the journey of the naive girl going into the woods and having this experience that causes her to learn something about herself - is what I wanted this work to speak to. The trees on wheels are the props that make up the staged set. It’s confusing and terrifying and designed so that she gets lost, and this is the drama that plays out, and how she finds herself more deeply. It’s a contemplation on the idea of destiny and control. 

Her Body Moves Through Nebulous Time (Only the Gods Know the Trick), 2017

Is this “coming-of-age” tale a recurring theme in your work? 

The exhibition “A Night in the woods” was all about that idea. And the idea of going into deep space and finding yourself.  Now I’m less interested in coming of age and more interested in the many different ways that we relate to animals, and our interconnectedness with them and how this has been expressed throughout myth and art historically. Another significant interest of mine is in those moments in mythology where logic breaks down and magic happens. I feel These points are significant because they revert and reduce us to a state of childlike wonder - talk about beauty! They relax and open up our minds to possibility, creativity, and interpretation. I’m curious about what that means spiritually, and whether this is something that influences my process or the subject matter is something I’m mapping out now. Muay thai and fighting have also grown to be huge influences on my work.


Do you use your work to sort out things happening in your life? Like were you focused on this theme in these works because you yourself were going through a similar experience? Not necessarily coming of age, but finding yourself, so to speak. Do you find stories or myths that relate to experiences you’re having in the world? 

Yeah, I think that is true. I think that I have definitely used myth as a tool to process things happening in my life. In 2017 I had just gotten heavily into Muay Thai, and I felt that I was sort of finding my own confidence and self through the sport - it’s so similar to drawing and art in that it’s a beautiful mesh of technique, mastery and self-expression. The works from last year and earlier were me trying to express the process of searching for myself through this new medium (by medium I mean Muay Thai). I felt lost all over again, (I was getting beaten up a lot) and painting gave me the ability to step back and observe this process from a distance. Myth is there for us when we need it. To inspire us to process our lives and our relationships with our environment and others with distance and a refined wisdom. I also just want to give a shoutout here to the book “Women Who Run With Wolves”, by Clarissa Pinkola Estees, because it really helped me process certain stories from a feminist, and very compassionate viewpoint. 


Now I do look a lot at myths and archetypes, but they are chopped and skewed. I’m more interested in developing my own painting language and vocabulary of symbols that sits somewhere in some shifting place between different cultures, geographies and histories. That’s how I feel, and I think that’s how my generation feels too. We’re from everywhere at once: born one country, grown up in another and transformed into an adult in yet another. Fusion and hybridity are very important to me, both in the formal aspects of how the surface and object of the drawings function, in the image/content/subject matter, and in the narratives. 

It’s Probably Too Hot [detail] 2018

When we talk about using your art to process things you’re experiencing in the world, I know a lot of artists had a difficult time after the election.  We were trying to make sense of what it meant to be a woman or person of color or an immigrant, living in the U.S. and what it meant that a person like #notmypresident could get as much support as he did.  I personally felt a huge sense of disappointment in my country and even a sense of rejection. Did that affect your work at all? 

I enjoy your refusal to use his name. What I got from that was that there was such a divide within the country that a big part of the population felt ignored by the system that was in place that they chose to use “He Who Shall Not Be Named” to lash out. That’s a massive generalization, but what struck me was the lack of empathy and the villainization of entire groups of people to the point of absurdity. It’s curious to me because I’ve grown up in a generation and country where different cultures are seamlessly interwoven within each individual. It was absolutely a privilege to grow up like this. It was initially strange for me coming America and seeing many people who never left it. South East Asia is so interconnected with Asia, Europe, USA, Australia. It’s hard because the US feels so geographically far from everybody else (except of course South America and Canada).

I don’t know if my reaction to the election came up in my art, but I started teaching art in 2017 and my teachings were definitely guided by what I felt was needed culturally. Kids can be extremely empathetic, and I think it’s important to educate them about expression, cultures, values and customs that are different from their own at a young age. It’s important to make sure the next generation is educated well, and that we do our best given the time and resources we have. 

Untitled, 2018

Using myth as a personal tool to process something. What does that look like? 


I would describe this as when you’re feeling lots of conflicting feelings that can’t be described with words or language, images often can articulate those feelings.  This is why I love painting and was drawn to it as a child and teenager. I sucked at expressing what I felt and thought and related to the world in words. In an art-object, things that are polar opposite - or not even on the same plane in terms of verbal logical thought - can co-exist and have relationships that you could only otherwise feel with your “gut-mind”. Drawings can speak to something that’s complicated or dissonant or abject, and articulate that experience in a way that is beautiful and opens up the heart and mind.  

I read about myth and how it’s interpreted in order to have the language and framework of those stories - often in the forms of narrative tropes, symbols and archetypes. These symbols and archetypes are understood (sometimes differently) across cultures - they appear in stories and artwork throughout history and they are little cues into the narratives that viewers can latch onto. I throw them into the sahana-blender and serve them up in mutated and hybrid forms in order to express more accurately whatever it is I want to express. This could include the way I feel internally, the way I perceive the stories of other people. I am inspired also by my relationships with the men in my life, there’s an obvious power dynamic, and yet vulnerability, and love and all these things tied in to it. 

Does your need or desire to stitch disparate parts together come out of a feeling of separation or displacement?  

Yes, but it’s different from feeling separate. It’s as though feeling like an alien. How did I end up here?  Feeling that the place you’re in is bizarre and wonderful and that you’re so irrevocably connected to it to the extent of you being hollow and transparent, and yet you are distant and from somewhere else. Its double-think and I’m still trying to understand. Buddhism helps.  It’s not that you can’t access it or experience this world and your experiences, or love them, it’s just a sense that you’re from another place. It’s detachment, but not in a negative sense. 


Even what we perceive to be ownership of our own body, is illusory. Women experience this all the time. We straddle the line between being objects and subjects. Everybody’s body does this but women are often forced to be more painfully aware of it. Bodies are as much objects as they are occupied with life. Let me rephrase that. Our bodies are more bacteria than they are human. Is that ownership? Or is this body an opportunity through which we can experience the world? A responsibility and a shared experience?


Do you feel like your work is illustrating these ideas and questions? Or is it more abstract? 

No, I don’t think that I would be able to do that. Not consciously. These are just things I think about, which usually has ways of seeping in, but I think it might be hilarious for me to approach these ideas head-on because they are so abstract and have been approached in psychedelic art and whatnot. It could make for some real kitschy, funny work though - who knows? My images come to me more intuitively and are often collaged. I’ll draw a bunch - especially studies - of disparate things I am curious or thinking about, and some of them ask to be elaborated on and these guys sometimes get to be more realized images, coming together with other studies and drawings I’ve made to form a larger or more specific narrative. 

And now you’re thinking of animals and their relationship to humans? 

When I was little all I would draw was animals and Spongebob. And I’m an only child so that was my idea of a good time - drawing animals and Spongebob. My mum kept everything, so she has a bunch of Spongebob and animal drawings in her house. I would draw pictures from books of animal and dinosaur stories that I had. I was always drawing giraffes, and dinosaurs and big cats. I remember this one drawing I was trying to make of a jaguar climbing down a tree that for the life of me I couldn’t get the foreshortening right on and I had a massive temper tantrum and ripped up the drawing and chucked my pencil around the room. I was 7 if that makes this sound any better. I loved books about animals and their stories and my parents, especially my dad, loved learning about animals and making an effort to go and see them or study them in the wild. My favorite book was one called “When Hippo was Hairy and Other Tales From Africa”, with all sorts of animal moral folk tales from different regions and tribes around Africa. 

I’ve always felt strongly that animals are extremely intelligent (no, I’m not a vegetarian but I limit the amount of meat and fish that I eat) and get frustrated with the school of thought that animals aren’t sentient beings. It pisses me off because it feels so ignorant and close-minded. And thinking about the problems we have with people identifying with people of another race, or men identifying with women. If we take it one step further to think about how we identify with and relate to animals, if we can make that leap, and have empathy for something outside ourselves, it could be great. Now we’re in the Anthropocene and there’s a need for massive action to help our planet survive and I wonder sometimes if our ability to empathize with animals is part of that process and a step towards that reconciliation. I’m not trying to fix anything, but I think an important question to ask is what are the ways we currently and historically relate to animals? What are the ways we will relate to animals in the future? It’s funny because the way I phrase these questions now its sounds like there’s a duality/opposition between human and animal, but that’s not the way I feel. That’s why for me painting is the place in which this question can be expressed more accurately in all its various mutations and incarnations. I’m working on it. The drawings are the result of my process of trying to understand this - they are what gets shared with the world. There is no finished answer, only searching. 

For more information on Sahana’s work please visit her website.