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.

Lien Truong visited by Maria Britton

Lien Truong and I met a few years ago during an opening for her solo show at The Carrack in Durham, NC. We share a common interest in everything about fabric, from the history of textiles to the physical qualities of fabric. This is my first visit to Lien’s studio in Chapel Hill, NC. 

Lien’s studio is lined with massive paintings in progress from her series called Mutiny in the Garden. She’s working on a deadline for a solo show and has been pulling some late nights. Her Mutiny in Garden series includes large paintings with gestural strokes of bright colors and realistically painted imagery melded together into chaotic all-over compositions. In her statement about this series, Lien says that her “works are a frenetic amalgamation of western and Asian painting techniques and philosophies. Working within a type of blended history painting, the works agitate notions of a dominant painting lens.” These history paintings are piled high with snippets from America’s violent and racist past and present, pointing to upsetting truths and examples of resistance and protest. The series is based on themes from Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire, in which he paints a landscape from its “savage” or natural state through humanity’s rise, destruction, and final desolation.   

I ask Lien how she typically starts her paintings. She’s not big on sketching things out. First, she selects the landscape and textile designs which lead her to the colors for the gestures and background. Examples of the landscapes depicted in the series include the Dismal Swamp, Monticello, and Newtown, CT. Lien tells me that the gradient background functions as a hybrid of the horizon line found in Western art and the void found in Asian art. After adding gestural swipes of color, she intuitively decides where to place historically significant landscapes and painted textile samples. She works back and forth between the intuitive and the realistic components, striking a volatile balance between the two. Throughout the series, Lien paints ocean waves using a traditional Asian approach to painting water, which she says relates to immigration. Attaching the clusters of painted silk panels and sewing the lines of gold leaf obi thread are the final steps. 

The moments of abstraction within Lien’s paintings offer a brief pause from the chaotic compositions and references to violence. Lien stresses the importance of taking time to just sit with her work and look. She says she will sometimes take pictures of the works and look at them when she’s at home. I do the same thing. When I’m at home, I draw on top of the smart phone images of the work in progress so I have some notes for the next time I am in the studio. 

Our visit goes in and out of the past and the present. We each talk about how our bodies of work have changed and evolved in ways that we had not anticipated. The concept of unlearning is on both of our minds. We talk about our need to unravel certain aspects of the ever-present white male perspective from our own approaches to making art. Lien loves the work of Kerry James Marshall and has been influenced by his work for a long time. Other artists we talk about include Inka Essenhigh, Shinique Smith, Alicia Gibson, and Eva Hesse.

Lien shows me her set up for painting on silk, which seems like a labor intensive process. The silk painting she’s working on now depicts the lynching of Mexican-Americans by the Texas Rangers. The silk is stretched with little claw-like hooks attached to a lightweight frame. She uses high flow fluid acrylics and metallic paint pens. After the painting is complete, she cuts it into panels. The raw edges of the silk panels are burned. The silk used for the clustered panels attached to her paintings comes from China. She tells me about traveling to Vietnam to find some authentic silk. Due to the high demand for silk, there are many fabrics that are a blend of synthetic fibers and silk. On her trip, she met a silk maker in a village outside Hanoi who taught her how to test silk for authenticity. The way to prove if silk is real or synthetic is to burn it. Synthetic fabrics melt when burnt. Pure silk burns, and the singed portions easily break off. The concept of authenticity is a significant theme running through Lien’s work. 

Turning to a painting in progress that is predominantly yellow and black, Lien tells me how this one explores the Asian-American experience. The middle of the yellow portion of the painting features Manzanar, one of the Japanese Internment camps located in the United States where Japanese American citizens were incarcerated because of their race from 1942 until 1945, during WWII. Surrounding the depiction of Manzanar are sweeps of color on which she realistically paints specific fabric patterns from Japanese textiles from the mid 1900s. The painting makes references to the racist Yellow Peril ideology which depicts East Asians as a monstrous threat to the white Western world. This ideology was first used by Germany as a means of spreading white supremacy in the colonization of China and Japan in the 1890s. Fred Korematsu and Richard Aoki are also referenced in this painting. After our visit, Lien sends me an image of the completed painting along with the title, The Peril of Angel's Breath

The Peril of Angel's Breath, 2018, oil, silk, acrylic, American 19th century cotton, vintage obi mourning fabric, gold leaf vintage obi thread on canvas, 96" x 72"

The clusters of cut silk panels offer some physical breath to the work as they are free to move and flutter. Lien paints textile patterns from different historical eras and geographical regions in each painting from the series and also includes a few collaged pieces of fabric. The textile patterns are wrapped up in the gestural marks. Lien tells me these gestures refer to the body and Abstract Expressionism, but instead of being purely about the ego, they are about people, the collective as opposed to the individual. After talking about the power dynamics of the textile trade, we move onto which metallic paints are the shiniest.

Each painting from Mutiny in the Garden is packed with numerous historical and contemporary references, many of which deal with violence against people of color in America. Lien intentionally includes recent examples of resistance and protest too, like the toppling of the Confederate monument in Durham to scenes of the Dakota Access Pipeline protest. During the time it has taken me to write about my visit with Lien, the long protested Confederate monument on UNC’s campus known as Silent Sam was pulled down by anti-racists. The same painting depicting the toppling of the Confederate monument in Durham, which Lien completed earlier in 2018, also includes a representation of the Silent Sam statue with a black bag over its head. History painting indeed. 

Mutiny in the Garden, 2018, oil, silk, acrylic, antique 24k gold-leaf obi thread, 19th century American cotton on canvas, 72" x 96"

Additional Information:

Lien Truong’s solo exhibit at Galerie Quynh in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, will be on view from October 19 through November 24, 2018.

Susan Klein visited by Paolo Arao

I met Susan Klein while on a residency at The Wassaic Project this past June. There’s a humor and human-ness to her work and color palettes that resonated with me. Susan’s work is a very smart and playful combination of sculpture, painting and craft presented in wonderfully weird tableaus. They reward long looking. I visited Susan this past July during her residency at the ISCP studio program in Brooklyn.

Can you please tell me a little bit about yourself? Where are you from and where did you go to school?

I grew up in Morristown, NJ and studied art at NYU for two years.  I then transferred to the University of New Hampshire.  I got my MFA in 2004 from University of Oregon.  

Can you describe the series of work(s) that are in progress in your studio?

Right now I am working on sculptures and paintings.  The sculptures are made up of bases and forms that sit on or within the base structure.  The forms are ceramic, epoxy resin, plexi, and found objects (with a few other materials thrown in now and then).  The bases are also a mix of materials: plexi, found objects, plaster, etc.  Some of these pieces sit on paintings.  The paintings, on raw, unstretched canvas, act as throw rugs.  There are also paintings (unstretched and raw) on the wall that act as tapestries.  

The work revolves around a symbol system that references artifacts, devotional objects, and popular culture. I like to think of this body of work like an artifact of the present.  

How did you start working with ceramics? Do they inform your 2-D work or vice versa?

I have been working with 3D elements since grad school, on and off.  In the past two years the sculptural has moved more towards the forefront.  I was working with sculpey, epoxy resin clay, paper mache clay, and foam.  Ceramics was a logical step.  I wanted a material that responds to my touch like paint does but has a longer working time than some air dry clays.  I have worked with ceramics for the past year and I love it! They absolutely inform my 2D work- I’ve become freer and more open to rawer moves in the paintings and drawings.  And the 2D informs the 3D- all of my work seems to refer back to a painterly sort of space.

What are the main questions/ ideas that you’re trying to answer/develop in the studio?

I think about the relationship between painting and sculpture - the connection between image and object.  How does an image become an object?  How do the things that I create relate to the ones that already exist? How does my daily studio practice relate to the history of making….not just art making, but the daily making of anything?  Why do I engage in making? What drives humans to make objects that do not serve a functional role? How can/has art exist/existed as a conduit between the physical and the metaphysical? 

Can you describe your use of color? Do you figure out the palette before you begin working or is it more of an intuitive process of call and response?

Talking about color is always sticky for me because it is a highly sensory experience and is intuitive.  Where I live, the nature of the light, my surroundings, and my mood all influence color choices. Sometimes a particular shape needs to be a particular color and I don’t know why. Sometimes color relates to a taste or texture - I often describe color in terms of these senses: soft, gnarly, acidic, sweet, smooth, etc.  My recent palette also stems from me giving my myself permission to make color moves that seem “bad” - I am giving myself complete freedom to let the color go where it wants, to indulge my instincts.  The new body of work feels like the light of the Southern Coast where I relocated four years ago.  I think the colors here are unlike anything I have experienced and are sinking deep into my psyche. The day is bracketed between peach and lavender: the mornings are infused with a warm pink-orange glow and the evenings with diffuse lavender light. 

You curated a show recently at the NARS Foundation in Brooklyn. Can you speak a little about the show and if curating has had an effect on your studio practice?

I really enjoyed curating. I had the idea for this show about a year ago, after meeting Heather Merckle and Holly Veselka and connecting them conceptually to Skye Gilkerson, who I have known for about 5 years.  I love the work of all three of these artists and was interested in the way that the work addressed our relationship with nature and time in various ways.  Heather’s work is more humorous, Skye’s more minimal, and Holly’s more based on optics, yet all three artists address the cosmos and the role of humans within it.  These artists make work that is different than mine, and I like stepping outside my own practice.  It is good to go beyond one's studio practice and think about the ideas and processes of others. 

What person/place/thing has had the most influence for you and your work?

Oh wow, this is a hard one!  I am completely overwhelmed by the visual information in the world, so I need to translate lived experience through a creative act.  I don’t think I can choose one thing…..I’m a total carnivore, a sponge.  I want to eat the world and then barf it back out in my work. 

Do you listen to music/ the radio/ podcasts while you work? What have you been listening to lately?

Yes!  Music depends on my mood, a lot of times it is my giant playlist of liked songs on Spotify.  It can range from Bach to Laurie Anderson to Angel Olson to Chrome Sparks.  I am loving the new Blood Orange and Justice albums. I also have a dance playlist because sometimes I have secret dance parties for one in my studio. I listen to many podcasts.  Call Your Girlfriend, Marc Maron, and Terry Gross are my all-stars. On Being is good too, and I recently added Sam Harris to my playlist.    

What is a typical studio day like for you? Do you work early/late? Do you work every day?

I like to get to the studio in the morning.  I have my best focus before lunch.  My ideal day is studio from 8:30-5, then yoga, then dinner and bedtime. Of course, it usually doesn’t pan out that way! When I am not teaching, I am in the studio every day.  During the semester, I get in three-four full studio days.  On teaching days, sometimes I can get a few hours before or after class, or in the evening.  I need to work so I get in there as much as possible.  The studio is the place where I feel calmest, most at home, most myself. 

Are you reading anything interesting at the moment?

I’m almost finished with a great book: 4321 by Paul Auster. It’s hard to put down. I love fiction and usually have a novel on hand to read.  I am also re-reading Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood.  She is one of my favorite writers and I relate to this book in a very real way.

Knowing what you know now, what is a piece of advice that you would give to your younger artist self? 

Have confidence in yourself and don’t look to others for approval.  That is a big one.  I spent a lot of time people pleasing and second guessing myself.  Also, have patience!  Things take time to emerge - art practice, career, relationships, everything.  Give yourself time to grow and mature. 

Do you have any upcoming exhibitions you’d like to share? 

I currently have a solo show called "Day Person" in Sumter, South Carolina at the Sumter County Gallery of Art.  It’s up until November.

For more information on Susan please visit her website.