Poetic Objects

A profile of Montgomery Perry Smith

By Nick Naber

Photo credit Lucas Blair

Without fail it’s always raining when I do a studio visit in Bushwick, and I always choose to walk to my destination. Bad choices abound. As I walk up to Montgomery’s building, I see a garage door open just a bit, and I spy a dark black flower. It’s gotta be his studio right? I poke my head under the door and woot a, “heya!” Not only is it raining but it’s one of those sticky gross NYC August days, I’m a sweaty mess. Montgomery invites me into his studio, where we chit chat a bit while I take in all the work around the space. There are a few works in process, and a few that are complete.

 We stand downstairs for awhile and get to know one another a little. Montgomery points out a work that is in process on the wall. A bunch of rope that has been dip painted white, that he intends to cut off on the top to expose their inner workings. He also shows me his collection of alligator teeth, that were gifted to him by his dad a few years back. They are now making their way into a sculpture that is in the works on the table. We spend a few more minutes down in the garage studio before we head up to his apartment.

As we come into the apartment, Montgomery’s larger chain-based works are hanging from the ceiling framing the lofted bedroom. He turns on the AC and shows me a sort of quilt/fabric piece he’s been working on. He intends to finish this work soon; it’s meant to be hung in a space so that you can move around it. He has done a lot of hand work on the front, and dyed fabric that is overlaid. Montgomery tells me he’s planning to cut out certain sections so that the viewer can see the painted and dyed underside.

Most of his work has these various layers, both physically and metaphorically. We sit down and discuss his process in more depth. I first saw Montgomery’s work in a group exhibition at Mrs. gallery in Maspeth. His sculpture you will never love me again lead you into the gallery. The chain was hung throughout the front space, making me wonder, “what is this?” and taking the time to let it unveil itself.

Photo credit Lucas Blair

There is a specific quality to Montgomery’s work. At times it’s playful and fun, other times it is sinister. This dichotomy is ever present in the work. The next time I saw his work was at the FIAR exhibition at The Center in the Village. Here he showed his fleshlights. These canisters held intricate detailed cut paper in their interior, with a wool felted exterior. Again, a strange difference, an object typically used for self sexual gratification repurposed into a heavily detailed asexual diorama.

We get to talking about Montgomery’s path into the work he is making. He is a graduate of SAIC and started out thinking he wanted to be a fashion designer. He was attracted to the program because of Nick Cave, but after some time decided that he was more compelled by the construction of garments, rather than the finished project. This led him to enter the fiber and material studies department, while still holding onto the various techniques he’d acquired in the foundation courses in the fashion department.

After school he stayed in Chicago for some time. While there he began to hone in on his specific language, and understanding of the materials he uses. We talked a lot about his materials. As I mentioned earlier his dad gifted him some awesome alligator teeth, it seems to be a running theme for Montgomery, people giving him stuff. It begins to accumulate and after a time some of the gifted materials end up in his work. While living in Chicago he was a regular at JoAnn Fabrics. One of the only places he was able to acquire large yardage of odd fabrics. Now that he’s moved to NYC he orders his fabrics online, the fabric in the garment district is a little more fancy than the stuff he wants to use. Smith also sources many of his materials from Halloween stores, prop shops, and various other stores that sell cheap goods.

Photo credit Lucas Blair

His use of props is really strange, but also makes a lot of sense. I like this push and pull. It’s most evident when there is use of chains, or leather materials both associated closely to S&M culture. Montgomery negates that quick interpretation by spray painting them neutral pinks or pastel colors. Also, using plastic chains creates yet another removal from it’s intended purpose. The work becomes almost playful. Many of his sculptures can be installed in various ways, also creating different interactions and interpretations based on their surroundings.

 Early on his titles alluded specifically to gay sex, or gay culture. He’s now titling work in a more poetic and less esoteric way. I wanted to know more about how he sees the viewer, in regard to the specific gay references in his work. He told me that many times people see the work as pretty objects, and maybe don’t hit on the gay content at all. He’s cool with that. His parents have one of his fleshlights, and he told me he’s never sat down with his parents and had the discussion as to what a flashlight is. He told me another anecdote about being at FIAR and a visiting artist not understanding that he was saying fleshlight not flashlight and explaining to her what a fleshlight is and used for. A comical interaction, I’m sure.

It’s cool to be in his apartment, surrounded by his work. There is a whip on the wall behind me, made of pleather that he used in a performance work. This led me to ask him about his alter ego drag personality Patti Spliff. I wanted to know if there was a crossover between his drag persona and his artwork, if he sees her as an extension of what he does in the studio. In a lot of ways, she wasn’t intended to be part of his artistic practice, but a way for Smith to do other kinds of work. He’s able to make fashion drawings as Patti, she’s an artist in her own right. As time has gone on, he feels like there is a bit of seepage between his drag persona and his studio. After some time, the wigs have to be retired, they begin to get ratty and smell of cigarettes. He’d like to figure out a way to incorporate these retired wigs into his work.

Photo credit Lucas Blair

This brings us to the idea of pageantry in his work. Again, being the recovering Catholic I have to ask him, if he’s one too. His answer is surprising as hell. He was raised Methodist but went to a Catholic School as a tyke. Montgomery tells me a story about going to mass but not being able to really partake in mass in its entirety because he wasn’t Catholic. He would bring paper with him and sketch the stained-glass windows. Focusing on the many facets and details. Over time his parents saw his drawings and knew their son was going to be artistic. Smith also relays that those masses had tons of pageantry, robes, incense, etc. all the excess the Catholics are known for. It had a definite impact on his work.

As we wind down our visit, we get into the nitty gritty of his typical studio day and working process. Montgomery always has a few pieces going at the same time. He says that he needs to take breaks from certain works, so it helps to have a few things happening at once. The work is intricate and intense, I can only imagine how bad his fingers hurt and how cross eyed he is at the end of a day in the studio. His attention to detail and the playfulness in his work are inviting and disturbing at the same time. The back and forth in his work reveals a lot about his process and his sense of humor, something that adds a lot to an experience of his work!

For additional info on Montgomery check out his website or Instagram.

Paul Booth visited by Nick Naber


Like a lot of the people I have visited for the site, I met Paul through Instagram. It’s funny, how seeing someone’s art repeatedly on a digital platform becomes a way of knowing them, superficially. We began to chat back and forth, and Paul visited me in Clinton Hill. I knew I wanted to go see him too. We both work out of our apartments, we both work on paper, and oddly enough we both work at The MET (he’s a real employee, I’m just a contractual). We caught up after work on a nice spring afternoon and took the 6 train to Paul’s apartment, which was a great way to unwind and prepare for the visit!

Paul’s Kips Bay apartment is cool and he’s lived there for over ten years, quite the feat in this city. His workspace is small, it’s a desk that is pushed up against the living room wall. We’ve all worked in spaces like this, you’ve got make do with what you’ve got. We sit down and begin our discussion about the drawings in front of us. 

There are ten works out on the desk, and then Paul pulls another one out of his bag, so we’re at eleven. There is a variety here on the table, some are black and white, and others are full color. The black and white works are self-portraits, the larger colored works reference biblical or classical themes, and then the medium-sized colored drawings are depictions of Egyptian deities. It’s evident the MET has a been a major source of inspiration for Paul, how could it not be, he’s there every day!

Paul was raised Catholic, which imparts a particular visual sensibility that’s immediately obvious to anyone who shares that experience (full disclosure, I’m a recovering Catholic). Paul and I talk about this at length. He’s compelled by memories of the pageantry, the opulence, the iconography, and by all those biblical stories. It’s hard to explain this to people who aren’t familiar with growing up Catholic, but there is something about the pomp and circumstance that just sticks with you. There’s also a lot of macabre imagery associated with Catholicism, read any of the stories about the martyrs! It’s this bizarre, gruesome stuff that most informs Paul’s work.

When looking at Paul’s colored drawings, determining the medium is difficult, but the concept jumps off the page (more on that later). I ask him about his process, at first glance I thought they were colored pencil only, of course it is more involved than that. Paul begins his pictures with a graphite underdrawing, followed by washes of ink or gouache, and then he builds the surface with artist crayon and colored pencil. The touch of these works is soft in person despite their acidic palette. The acidic color comes into play with Paul’s ideas behind the work.

I spent a lot of time reading Paul’s statements about the drawings he’s been making and looking over his website (if you’re looking for a good time, check out his site). He talks a lot about people having only so much mental space for their problems. Those with lots to worry about condense their concerns to fit, while those with few problems allow them to balloon. The drawings are claustrophobic and frontal. He uses stories from mythology and the Bible mixed with iconography from other times and cultures. These references connect with the past but also work contemporarily. It goes without saying that a myriad of the stories, from these disparate cultures deal with similar universal issues. A lot of them moral, conceptual, political, sexual, and they haven’t really changed over the millennia that homo sapiens have been walking the earth.  I asked Paul if it’s more personal than that for him, he was a bit cagey about it but admitted that all of the work (not just the obvious self-portraits) are self-portraits. 

Self Portrait, 2019, Mixed media on paper, 7 x 5 inches

It’s fairly evident looking at the work that he’s creating self-portraits. I wanted to dig deeper into how he’s constructing these drawings, why they are so frontal and compressed? I was somewhat dumbfounded to find out that Paul poses himself in these odd, uncomfortable positions taking endless reference photos with the timer on an old iMac. It’s a tedious and awkward process so it’s no wonder he doesn’t ask friends to pose! Figures are made to fill every available space resulting in myriad uncomfortable contortions. The anxiety is evident in some pictures we looked at in his studio, but there are others that are tender, sexualized, or even comical. Paul works on these smaller drawings at night when he gets home from work. The need to download a whole days’ information onto paper in the form of a drawing is almost compulsive. He says he cannot start a drawing and then leave it unfinished, so they have to be completed in a single sitting. The larger drawings are done over the weekend while there’s more time to work. 

Paul’s compositional devices are well established. All of his drawings are frontal, with little to no background. I ask him about this use of space and he talked more about how the figures allow him to explore ideas of how much control we actually have in life and over our environment. In many ways it is a futile endeavor we all partake in. Paul creates these suffocating spaces that his figures can’t escape or even truly inhabit because no room is left for choice. 

Paul began this work out of necessity nearly 10 years ago. He was between jobs and searching for routine and structure.  A friend gave him a book that had a space to make a daily drawing for one year. It had been a long time since he’d made work but he completed the exercise and found his love of making art again. The routine and time element of that exercise carries into his current practice. As I mentioned earlier Paul makes a small drawing in one sitting, I’d say he’s pretty damn prolific. It’s always encouraging to see someone who spends a lot of time and energy in their pursuit. 

Toward the end of our conversation I ask him what his ideal way is of exhibiting this work. He tells me that he likes the way that Raymond Pettibon installs his pictures in clusters, up and down the wall. This arrangement amplifies the works’ content in a physical visceral way. This makes a lot of sense, to be able to see these oft times tight, and uncomfortable drawings installed in the same way. Creating a sense of too much information to take in causing the viewer to get close and share the cramped space with Paul’s figures for a moment or two!

For more information on Paul’s work check out his website or instagram.

Allison Reimus visited by Paolo Arao

I have followed Allison Reimus on social media for quite some time. Allison and I were in a group show called Western Decoy at No Place Gallery in Columbus, Ohio a couple years ago. But I had never seen her work in person until just recently. I visited Allison’s studio in the NARS Foundation building in Sunset Park where we talked about her process, the recent massive painting in her studio, utilizing text, the role labor plays in her work, and finding a work/life balance as a mother of two - and a third on the way. Don’t let the playfulness of her paintings fool you, because they’re hefty and pack a huge punch. I’m drawn to her use of color, text and materials. Most of all, I love how unapologetic and physical her paintings are. I’m forever a fan and I hope that you will be too (if you're not already.)

Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? Where did you go to school?

 Hi! Sure. I grew up in Saginaw, Michigan. A blue collar, rust-belt city that miraculously had a gifted and talented public school, Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy. There, I studied visual art for half of every school day from 6th until the 12th grade. My “calling” to become an artist was cemented sometime in those early years. After high school I attended community college for a year and then headed to Michigan State University where I received my BFA in Studio Art. Soon thereafter, I received a fellowship to work for, at the time, the nation’s only traveling art museum on a train, aptly named Artrain USA, and had a wonderful time seeing the country and exposing underserved communities to contemporary art. After that, I moved to Washington, D.C. and received my MFA from American University. I moved to Chicago in 2010 and lived there for almost eight years.

How long have you lived in New York and what brought you here?

 This past Mother’s Day was my one year anniversary of moving to Brooklyn. It’s been a year full of surprises, good and bad, but I’m so grateful for this experience. My family and I (husband, two kids and a dog), moved here for my husband’s work. Clearly, he didn’t have to twist my arm too hard because living in New York is a great experience for an artist.

 Do you have a studio routine that you follow? What is a typical studio day like for you? Do you work early/late?

 With kids, you have to keep a strict routine. Or, at least, I do anyway. My studio time occurs when both of my kids are in school. Right now, that is three days a week. I get to the studio at 9:45am and stay until 2:50pm. My studio days are also the only days I have to myself. If I indulge in any type of self-care, I have to forgo a studio day, and that brings a lot of guilt. If I have to do something terrible, like visit the dentist or go to the DMV, I also have to give up a studio day. When life tends to get in the way, as it often does, I will work weekends to make up for any perceived lost time.

 There’s an obvious influence of quilt making in your work – this is most evident in the larger canvases you have up in the studio. How long have you incorporated sewing into your process?

 I started sewing my paintings in 2015. I remember the exact day. I had read an article in the New York Times about an art space that had moved to Detroit from Brooklyn, citing the rising cost of NYC as a deterrent to creativity. That made sense. But it went on to say, and I’m paraphrasing here, that “no good art was made at a kitchen table.” I had a huge problem with that. My kids were very young at the time, and I had been looking for ways to supplement my art making without having to have a regular schedule of dedicated studio time (something that was impossible during that time of my life). After I calmed down, I brought my shitty old sewing machine to the kitchen table and started experimenting, all while tending to the kids needs. I’m not good at sewing, nor do I have any interest in creating actual quilts, but I love thinking about the many generations of women before me who created them in and for domestic spaces. I’m also quite fond of the idea of piecing fabrics together (in my case, canvas and linen), and making something special out of scraps.

Please tell me more about the series of work(s) that are in progress in your studio. You’ve got a pretty massive painting in progress in your studio at the moment. Has this shift in scale had an effect on your work?

The massive painting is a result of having, for once in my life, a huge studio ceiling and a freight elevator. For a long time, I was restricted to making paintings that would fit up my basement steps. There is something inherently bold about working on a large scale, which is something that doesn’t come naturally to me. I find myself staring and thinking about this one more than my smaller works. It’s teaching me something, though I’m not sure what yet. It feels pivotal, like there will be Allison before the big painting, and another Allison after. It says MOTHER, which will also be the title. Obviously, it’s a label I identify with, having two kids and being pregnant with my third. I love the idea of creating a huge, unapologetic, take-up-space painting about being a MOTHER, which, depending on who is in your art-world circle, is either empowering or taboo. I guess it’s something I feel I needed to contend with at this time in my life, in a big way. In a dramatic shift, I’m also working on a series of very small works, about 5” x 7”, that utilize remnants of old artwork and floor scraps. The decision making process for the little ones is a lot quicker. I’m probably seeking balance, or a respite from the difficult “MOTHER” painting. I tend to think of the small ones as evidence of my procrastination on the large painting, but they’re good in their own right, and I’m trying to give myself more credit. 

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

Who am I? What do I care about? And how can this translate into something visual that looks like it could only belong to me and nobody else? Only three questions, I know, but with answers constantly changing, it’s enough for a lifetime. 

I’m curious about your use of color. How do you think of color? Do you know what the palette of a painting is going to be before you begin or is it more intuitive and improvisational?

I don’t plan anything before I get started. Even if I have a certain color or mood in mind, I will often reconsider my choices the very next day. I’d say my use of color is intuitive. Once I’m deep into the flow and having a real conversation with a work, it’s almost like it tells me what color to use and where. Sometimes I catch myself using the same colors over and over again and I’ll have a drastic reaction to that in subsequent works. For example, if I feel the work is looking too happy or bright, my next painting will likely use a lot black.

Can you elaborate on the recurring motifs (triangles, tear drops, circles) and the “crafty” material used in your work?

My work has always used a lot of repetitious, geometry-based shapes and also decorative motifs. I think I’m drawn to the idea of mixing “sensible”, historically male dominated themes like geometry, order, the grid, etc, with materials, textures and motifs most often associated with femininity and domesticity. I’ve painted on pillowcases and have incorporated tablecloths and towels into my work. I’ve used yarn, pom poms, glitter, lace, and oddly enough, dryer lint as well. I’d like to elevate these benign materials in a non-gimmicky way, and have them be taken just as seriously as traditional painting materials. My tendencies towards repetition run deep. I suppose I’m reacting to growing up in assembly line culture, which dominated the area of Michigan where I grew up. Labor was defined by doing the same thing minute after minute, day by day, year by year. It didn’t have to be enjoyed but it was necessary for providing for a family. It was honorable work. Even though I’m far removed from that time of my life, repetition has taken on new meaning thanks to the monotonous nature of caring for young children. The newest motif, the teardrop, or the drip, isn’t really new at all. I just recently discovered work from grad school that used them, though I totally forgot about it. Anyway, I think of them as equal parts absurd renditions of drops of paint, and tears.

It took me a minute to realize that there’s text in your work. There appears to be an equal weight between text and image. How did you come to incorporating text in your paintings? Does it occur in all of your paintings?

I’m glad that it took you a moment. I’ve never been a fan of paintings with a quick read, and a lot of text paintings can be didactic or realized too quickly for my liking. The text doesn’t occur in every painting I make, but it has been my main focus for larger works for the past two+ years.  I get certain words stuck in my head and I obsess over them until I can get them onto a surface. They’re not always legible, and sometimes hidden on purpose. The text tends to weave in and out of the composition, sometimes hiding, sometimes blatant, but I always title these works with exactly what the painting says. I’m very transparent about the fact that it’s there. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with language and feeling like I’m being listened to, which is probably why I became an artist in the first place. I can’t think of any other explanation as to why I feel the urgency to make these paintings. I do try to paint them in a manner that is relevant to the word; a simultaneous reading of the composition and the reading of the word, intertwined. I’ve tried incorporating words into my paintings at various points in my past but with disastrous results. A lot of my tendencies are circular and it just so happened that I felt the urge to revisit text at the same time I started sewing my canvas. Exposing the seam side outward created complicated line work and texture, perfect for creating abstracted shapes and letters. Serendipitous.

Do you make preparatory studies for the larger finished pieces?

No. I realized years ago that any plans I made just ended up being sad, aborted relics of paintings that never came to be. I skip that step entirely and I embrace the fact that I have no clue as to how these things are going to turn out. Everything else in my life is so scheduled, so controlled, so monotonous, that I get high off of trusting my decisions in the moment and not having a plan. My text pieces do have a framework of sorts, though. Meaning that after I make the initial decision as to where each letter should be, I have to work within its bounds because you can’t erase sewn seams, which is how the letters are created. I like that the letters/ seams create these compositional puzzles for me to figure out. I do enjoy my freedom, but paradoxically, I find that I have the most of it when I have some kind of rule, or thing, that limits me.

Do you listen to anything (music, podcasts, etc.) when you work?

I can’t listen to music in the studio for some reason. It’s weird but I find it distracting. I love listening to podcasts. I’ve been binging on docuseries like The Dream, Heaven’s Gate, Serial and Slow Burn. I love listening to interviews with inspiring people and artists too. Shout out to the I Like Your Work and Artist/Mother podcasts, because they’re both fantastic and I happen to have been a recent guest on both of them. I also really like Deep Color and Sound & Vision.


Who are some of your artistic influences?

I can’t say that there are any artists who I look to regarding “copying” a particular aesthetic or style, but I’m most often blown away by a handful of females dedicated to abstraction-- Rebecca Morris, Charline von Heyl, Amy Sillman, Judy Ledgerwood and Betty Woodman. My first ever favorite artist, and still a favorite today, is Patricia Treib. Patricia was a few years ahead of me while students at the school I mentioned earlier, Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy. Everyone looked up to her and her work. Everyone tried to copy her essence and failed terribly, including me. I can’t think of her and not feel nostalgic about my schoolgirl crush. She will always hold hero status to me.

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

I’d tell younger Allison that the fire in her belly isn’t all for nothing, that ambition does not belong only to men. I’d tell her it’s okay to make bad paintings because fucking up teaches you more than the good ones do anyway. I’d tell her to be proud of attending community college and a state school, because eventually she’ll be in the same shows as people who went to fancy art schools. The chip on her shoulder is actually fuel. I’d tell her not to listen, not even for a second, to anyone who says female artists can’t also be mothers. Have a hundred kids if you want, those jerks can go to hell. Most importantly, I’d tell her that her ruthlessly stubborn demeanor may be a deterrent to others but it is an asset to being an artist and not giving up when life gets hard and unfortunately, it will only get harder.


Do you have any upcoming projects and/or shows where people can see your work?

Yes! I will have a painting in Crocodile Tears, curated by YNGSPC (June 8 – 9) during Greenpoint Open Studios. Also in Lobster Dinner, curated by Will Hutnick at Trestle Gallery, opening on June 20. And I have two forthcoming three person shows: one in September at Left Field Gallery (Los Osos, CA) and another in December at Massey Klein (New York, NY.)

For more information about Allison please visit her website.

Angela Heisch visited by Nick Naber

I saw Angela’s work at SPRING BREAK Art Show this year. It was the first time I’d seen her work in person, which is crazy because Angela has been in New York and showing for numerous years. What can I say, I like to hermit. It was after seeing this older work by Angela, that I reached out to her to meet up and chat. Funny enough, Angela lives a short walk from me in BedStuy. The world is small in so many ways.

We met up in the late afternoon on a rainy spring Sunday, always the best way to see someone’s studio! Angela offers me some water, and we chit chat a bit about how we’ve never met, yet we have countless friends in common, and of course that we live so near to one another. Angela is easy to talk to and has a relaxed demeanor, which in many ways relates to her work.

Angela leads us down the stairs to a brick lined basement hallway. We go through an arched door into her studio. The ceilings are low, I’d say 6’7” because I’m 6’5” and I nearly hit my head on the lights! Besides the low ceiling, Angela has a spacious studio with a couple of work zones. It feels homey in there as we take a seat on a sofa allowing us to take in the work and the space.

Heisch is a few weeks out from her solo exhibition at Davidson Gallery in Chelsea. She tells me that what I’m seeing in the studio is from the last month. She’s prolific! In some ways we start at the beginning, the work that I had seen at SPRING BREAK was older, its indicative of work she had shown previously at 106 Green too. These are gouache paintings on muslin. Angela tells me more about the gouache process, which is quite involved. Gouache, gave her the matte and flat surface she wanted but was lacking in the luster and depth that she sought.

Pig in A Pen, 2018, gouache on muslin over panel, 16x16 inches

These earlier paintings were influenced by her observation of her surroundings. Specifically, what she’d see on the train, surrounding architecture, and other visual elements from her day-to-day life. These paintings have a more shallow and sturdy composition. With elements arranged in a sort of grid or architecture. We as a the viewer catch onto the architectural reference, but in various ways are unmoored from a physical reality. These works are of a medium scale, that relates directly to the viewers’ head, a concept Angela goes into more as we talk about the work she’s making currently.

The paintings in the studio are square, besides two small rectangular paintings. I remarked to Angela how you don’t see many people making square work, that it seems like people are afraid of that format. She agrees, and says that it seems natural to her to work on a square format, that her play with symmetry works better that way. We discuss vertical and horizontal formats of painting too, and how immediately it’s either a landscape or a portrait. Nothing new in that jabber, but it’s a good one to have especially when you’ve found another artist who loves a square support!

Angela sees her paintings as psychological space. That is space that is both occupied physically and conceptually. The moves on the canvas have a sense of motion, not too unlike many of her earlier works. These paintings feel more playful, something that Heisch throws out in our conversation. Not playful as in whimsical but playful as in the elements of her vocabulary are interacting more obviously. The ‘eyes’ from her previous work appear in these paintings. The new paintings have a circular composition, where the elements interact and spread themselves throughout the access. The ‘eyes’ appear in front and behind elements in the work suggesting that they are in motion and that they’re relating to one another on various planes within the work.

This work is in some ways a transition for Heisch into a new visual language. She tells me that she has her vocabulary from years of working and that elements appear, reappear, and get confused in her new work. The oil paint is serving the work well, it’s allowing her to create more color depth than she was able to achieve with the gouache. The colors are richer as she adds layers of paint over and over, the luminosity of oil paint is a real thing!

The paintings no longer rely on the architecture she sees around her. Heisch tells me that the new work is grounded in reality, but in some ways a more subconscious one. Angela never wants to make work that is totally shut off from reality. She feels that her work would suffer if it was only based on her interior life and artistic vocabulary. I agree, it becomes a sort of cul-de-sac when you’re not in touch with the world around you. In a way, Angela was being a bit cagey about where her ideas are coming from with this work, but that is understandable as it’s fresh for her. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

 I notice three drawings tacked up next to a painting that is in progress. Again, we have the old painter conversation about, “are these prepatory?” A resounding, “No,” is uttered. The drawings do influence the paintings and vice versa but Angela sees them as separate. She does, however, start both the drawings and the paintings with a few thumbnail sketches in her sketchbook. Those thumbnails are a guide more than a blueprint for what will be made. Angela relies on her intuition to allow her paintings and drawings to happen as she makes them.

 As we wind down our conversation I’m reminded about how important it is to be in the studio. Angela is a studio maniac, it helps that the studio is in her house. It’s a great setup to have in so many ways. We talk about how you can roll into the studio in your slippers, make some tea, take a nap, have good snacks, and really inhabit the studio. It was energizing to be in Heisch’s studio because she is going full bore into new work, seeking a direction forward in a media she hasn’t used in some time, and a new visual language. I for one am looking forward to seeing what she makes next!

For more information about Angela check out her website or Instagram.

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.