Kelly McCafferty

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.

(Secret) world of men

Chip McCall: A Profile | By Kelly McCafferty

There is a (secret) world of men.  And to say I don’t interact with that world would be an understatement.  I can’t even really fathom it.  But sometimes, I see glimpses into it.  

For three years I had a studio in a giant building in Long Island City.  There was a passenger elevator at the front entrance of the building, but if I really needed to move something I would have to use the freight elevator at the loading dock.  There were two creaky giant freight elevators at the back of the building staffed during business hours by elevator operators; their strange system of operational levers deemed too complex for me, the passenger, to operate.  

The elevator operators were older men—spending much of their lives inside these mechanical boxes; waiting.  And these elevators were their realm.  I was only a visitor for the duration of my ride.  Spending most of their day inside a small space with no windows had prompted them over the years to decorate.  The walls of the elevators were covered with taped up images of women (in various stages of undress) and cars.  The elevator wall was both a physical marking of time (the layering of images and eras) and territory (claiming space.)  

The worn pin-up images served both as fantasy images to lead to imaginative daydreams and places to rest the eye from the realities of physical labor and being in a confined space.

And riding in that elevator will remain one my strangest experiences, feeling aware of my body in a space that was not meant for it and making small talk about the weather as I hungrily consumed the images that were not meant for my eyes.

The internet has changed how we consume and collect images, of course.  Now we do it privately.  These images aren’t physical for us anymore.  There is less of a need to save physical magazines cut-outs when there is a never ending stream of content available to us at any time.  So stumbling into the world of men via a freight elevator, an auto body shop break room or somebody’s dad’s man cave might be unfathomable to future generations as these images begin to be hidden in secret folders on laptops and no longer presented for display.

Chip McCall makes work about the world of men—specifically Southern men.  I came across an installation of Chip’s titled, After us the savage God, that is currently up in the Wassaic summer show, Change of State, in Wassaic, New York.  I felt the same way about Chip’s installation as I did about my freight elevator experience; conflicted and intrigued.  The installation is putting out a lot of energy and it is intense to be physically near it.  It recalls auto body shops, basements, garages—the spaces men might go to be alone or with one another.  The central object is a non-functioning auto engine—manufactured failure—made up of foam, cardboard, pipes, plastic, etc.

The central engine serves as an altarpiece, surrounded by scattered objects—a taped-together beer can totem pole, an Arnold Schwarzenegger Predator movie poster, auto magazines, dirty work gloves, etc.  

The installation brings to mind—childhood science fair projects, CPR dummies, and model railroads.  It reads to me as a trying out of masculinity—a practicing of the world of men.  The installation is adolescent—half-formed—mimicking.  

I couldn’t shake the energy of the installation and my fascination led me to look at Chip’s website and then reach out to him for a studio visit.  I met Chip at his Ridgewood studio and we spent an hour and a half discussing Americana, the South, Chip’s upbringing, humor, irony, masculinity and anger.

I met Chip on a Saturday at his studio building in Ridgewood—the directions he gave me included that it is “across the street from the Western Beef” supermarket and that I “could base my proximity upon the relative sketch-factor of my surroundings.”  The area around his studio is very busy and industrial with lots of wholesalers and truck traffic.  As he led me upstairs to the large studio he shares, we made small talk about the Wassaic show we are both currently in.  His studio was divided into two rooms and split between five people with a little lounge area.  It is a very nice studio share and Chip splits the interior space with another painter.  He had the area cleaned up and nicely arranged with two chairs set up for us.  I took my time to poke about the space and take in the work and layout of everything.  Chip has one large working wall that he had displayed with at least ten moderately sized paintings, small notes and collected objects.  The wall itself felt like both a working space and an installation (which was exactly how the installation in Wassaic felt to me.)  Chip is primarily a painter.  I would classify the paintings as collage based abstractions and they are in a creamsicle color palate of orange, strawberry and vanilla.  The work is bright and light and brings to mind the work of Michel Majerus and Wendy White—artists who consciously blurred the distinction between abstraction and product advertising.

Chip’s work is spattered with text.  The text is sometimes scratched into the paint surface in handwriting that feels aggressive and deliberate and other times it is printed in stickers or cut-outs.  The works feel both fast and slow at the same time—like they manifested quickly after a long period of waiting.  

Some of the paintings are shaped objects—trucker hats or an ear—and these hold the space between the paintings and the collected objects.  Everything fits together cozily on the wall.  

I take a seat and I begin to throw questions at Chip while I scribble notes in my notebook.  Chip is a natural storyteller and he is warm and funny in the way he describes himself, his past and his work.  He tells me he grew up in the suburbs of Winston-Salem, North Carolina and describes it as an old farming and mill town under the shadow of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company.  As a kid, Chip drew all the time and spent summers at art camps.  He said he had a vision of leaving home, but that vision only carried him one state over—to college at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina.  He initially studied architecture, but he told me a story about why he switched to art after one semester.  He had an assignment to make a map through campus.  He decided on a “lazy man’s route” which included landmarks such as vending machines and avoided direct sunlight and hills.  He “sketchbooked” the assignment and used art materials like spray paint and painting supplies and showed up to class where everyone else had made serious maps with computer mapping programs.  His interpretation of the assignment, coupled with his poor grades in calculus and physics prompted him to “roll the dice” and join the art department.  

Chip described Clemson University to me as a southern football school where the whole town is the college and where he had a good time, but wasn’t focused.  I ask him about the art department at Clemson and he says that it was a lot of “Etsy accounts.”  He sheepishly confessed that he was in a fraternity, which after my initial “whoa” opened up tons of questions from me.  When I asked him why, he said maybe he wanted to be a part of a group, make friends easily, go to big parties and he said the whole thing, in hindsight, was field research into the deplorable aspects of southern men.

He described the process of presenting himself in khakis and a blazer with his headshot to a field of tents in order to be chosen.  A friend from high school was already a brother in a fraternity and Chip credits that with his acceptance and inclusion.  Chip described himself at that time as having “his ears pierced, wearing skater shit like an anklet and not well-adjusted with a bowl cut.”  Ultimately Chip’s chosen fraternity was kicked off campus and had their charter taken away.  I ask Chip about his undergrad work and he tells me that he was in the sculpture department and he made biomorphic sculptures of found objects referencing ideas of human sprawl.

After Clemson, he moved to Savannah where he began painting out of necessity.  He wanted to see if he still wanted to make art outside of school.  He worked jobs in bars and as a bellhop and then decided he wanted to go back to school and applied to grad school as the next step.  He wanted to leave the South and NYC was appealing to him.

As it turns out, Chip and I both went to grad school at Pratt Institute, but we graduated five years apart, so we never crossed paths.  Interestingly enough, we both served as Pratt Artist League presidents—which meant we organized programming, shows and open studios for our fellow MFA students.  Chip started making work about the South and masculinity while he was at Pratt.  His thesis show was titled, “Let the Boy Watch,” from a Danny McBride line from the HBO show, Eastbound and Down.   He describes his thesis show, in retrospect, as too orderly.  

He wants his work to be seen as it is in the studio.  We talk about the cut outs and objects scattered around the wall of his studio.  He saves things and then figures out how to incorporate them; cutting out pieces of paper and then when the time is right, adhering them to a piece.  When asked about the source of his color palate, Chip tells me that he is drawn to Day-Glo, and he doesn’t know why.  He used to collect and save detergent bottles because he liked the colors.  He sees the bright colors as gaudy, gross and attention-grabbing and he likes the attraction and repulsion they instill in him.  The duality of repulsion and attraction is what he is looking for in his work, like “ or videos of beheadings.”

I ask him about the text in his work and if it represents his voice.  Chip says yes.  I am surprised.  I had noticed on one of the paintings that Sean Connery was spelled Sean Conerry and he says that he can’t spell and is dyslexic.  The text is stream of consciousness pulled from his sketchbooks.  He says he edits it—he doesn’t want to give away too much.  The text is “randomly pulled from a bucket” and he writes a lot more that what I can see now, but paints over it.  He mentions graffiti tagging and airbrushed t-shirt culture as references for his usage of text.

I ask him if he sees the paintings as pure abstractions and he says, yes and no.  There is recognizable content/readable information and imagery in his work.  But the formal aspects of painting are the most important.  He tells me they need to remain as compositions to be successful and complete for him.  

He seems to stride the fence in multiple ways.  I also ask him if he thinks his paintings are critical or sincere and he tells me they are both.  We talk about the anger in the work and he tells me that he was a very angry young person and the work that he made in college was a reflection of that, and it wasn’t sincere.  Maybe the emotional content of his work is better described as sarcastic or ironic, I’m not sure?  

The work that he is making now is directly about the South—specifically “white rural problematic Americana.”  Chip tells me a story about how he went to a Monster Truck Rally in Connecticut (lol, seriously) with the idea being that it was research for his work, but he couldn’t help but enjoy it—sitting in the bleachers with his roommate, drinking beer.  I bring up the idea of self-loathing and Chip tells me that what he is probably actually making fun of, is himself.  He constantly finds a home in the content that he is degrading—in this case, Monster Trucks.  I wonder if Chip could make this work in the South?  And I wonder who the audience for this work is—is it people from the South, like Chip and me, who have fled—or is it for people who have never lived in the South?  Also—rural culture in America is very similar, whether in Nebraska or Kentucky—so is this work more about rural vs. urban?  All good questions, that I don’t necessarily have answers for at this time.  Chip tells me that he has a curious attraction to his own culture.  The irony that he makes work about the South when all he wanted to do was leave the South, isn’t lost on him.  This whole idea of being a part of something, whether you want to or not—it is the essence of Chip’s work.  

My eyes keep being drawn over the course of our conversation to a book on the floor of Vietnam War images.  I mention it to Chip and we talk about somebody else’s or inherited cultural nostalgia.  He describes the process of adolescence to adulthood and how boys look to the men before them to figure out what defines them as a man.  In the past it was the Vietnam War, sports and cars.  

Chip tells me that men in the past could walk up to any other man and start a conversation about sports, cars, how an engine works and what wars they served in—and they were guaranteed to connect.  Those things are largely irrelevant now.  And I would further that by saying that the importance of being able to walk up to a stranger and connect though small talk, is culturally a big part of growing up in the South.  Anyways, no one puts together their first car anymore as a right of passage.  That’s what Chip was doing in a lot of ways in his engine installation at Wassaic—completing an anachronistic rite of passage for American men from the South.  Chip tells me his attempt at making an engine was flawed from the start, he was making it with absurd materials.  He was denied this culturally expected graduation into manhood because of its current irrelevancy, so he performed the action of that rite of passage on his own terms.

I ask Chip about the mugshot image of a man on one of his paintings and he tells me that it is the Centennial Olympic Park bomber, Eric Rudolph.  Rudolph set off a 40 lb bomb in 1996 during the Atlanta Olympics, which killed two people.  Chip tells me that he has a memory of being at the Olympics with his mom and at the Planet Hollywood when the bomb went off.  He also tells me that Rudloph was hiding and captured in rural North Carolina, not far from where Chip grew up. 

Backwoods criminals, click bait, labor, nostalgia—these are a few of the things Chip is exploring in his work.  

In the center of the floor is a sculpture in process and I ask Chip what it is—and he says he is building his own dumbbells/weight set.  That he wants to get in shape and is broke and so he decided to make his own.  These DIY objects made from concrete, rebar and coffee cans are placed around his paintings—the centers wrapped in electrical tape.  Is this art or real life? Or both? Does it matter?

I’m reminded of a time before I was born, when every guy had a weight set in their basement or garage.  Now Chip is joining the ranks of men with his studio weight set and the inherited weight of the South, masculinity and the world of men.

For additional information about Chip visit his website or instagram

Ceramics and Something Else

Dustin Yager: A Profile | By Kelly McCafferty

Everyone should occasionally do something that makes them feel like a fool—something they are clumsy or just plain bad at doing.  Being good at things is nice, sure.  But being bad at things, that takes courage. 

I most definitely felt foolish and frustrated when I took Beginning Wheel pottery class at Greenwich House Pottery in Greenwich Village. 

As I signed up for the class, I scrolled through the available faculty and I settled on Dustin Yager.  Dustin Yager is good at pottery—amazingly good.  His gorgeous vessels were scrawled with profanity as a decorative element and a quick assessment of his website confirmed that he indeed was the teacher for me.  It’s as if his scrawled signature sentiment/catchphrase of “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck” was right out of my own mouth as my clumsy fat fingers struggled to pinch and lift mud into something/anything.  Our Tuesday night classes were filled with Dustin’s calm patient effortless acts of magic and my frustrated but ultimately satisfying sighs of discontent.

In the end I managed maybe 15 tiny lumpy strange bowl-ish objects that are now scattered around my apartment, holding air plants and serving as cat dishes.

I decided to write a profile on Dustin, when I discovered he has two distinct but similar bodies of work—his functional pottery and his more conceptual vessels.  I was fascinated with that split and the economics/meaning/utility of art vs. craft within his studio practice.  I really connected with both bodies of work visually and conceptually and I saw them as twin halves of him.  Our conversation led me to think about my own work and essentially all work in terms of value and use—the external/societal and the personal.

Our visit began with meeting for coffee at a coffee shop near Dustin’s studio in Bed-Stuy.  Injecting caffeine into an interview is always a good thing.  I couldn’t help but notice a recent tattoo bandage on his leg.  The vulnerability of (covering/healing) integrating a tattoo onto one’s body is such a familiar and tender time.  Dustin opened the bandage to reveal both a fresh tattoo of a beet plant, roots and all, and that he grew up on a sugar beet farm in Wyoming.  We bonded over being rural kids floating in an unforgiving urban space of our own choosing.

As we walked to the studio, Dustin told me the story of his move to NYC in 2016 and the finding of his studio.  He moved here from the Midwest, having spent much time in both Illinois and Minnesota. 

His studio came as a result of initially working at Gasworks NYC (formerly BKLYN Clay) in Park Slope, which offers memberships to use the studio for your own work, as well as taking classes. Dustin became a member when the studio opened in 2016 and began teaching classes that fall.  Through other connections in the Brooklyn ceramics scene he met his studio mate and moved into a shared studio/kiln situation in Bed-Stuy.  I looked around the space, which was divided into the area where the kiln was located and his work/storage space.  Everything was neat and tidy—his shelves of production pots, the table, the wheel and the things that had recently come out of the kiln.  What a strange object this and all kilns are—purely functional and anachronistic ovens that hold magical objects.

In his workspace, Dustin had arranged his art pottery on the table for my examination and his production pottery was neatly organized on shelves by size and type. 

The production pots are of varying sizes from shot glasses to goblets and vases and beyond.  Many of them are painted with a black or dark blue slip in painterly fast brush strokes on porcelain with occasional gold highlights.  His scratched handwritten text on top of the strokes plays with every possible fuck phrase in the English language—from the aforementioned fuuuuuuuuuuuuuck to fuck this, fuck that, fuck yeah, piss off, ad infinitum. 

These pots play with and live in the contrast of sweetness and aggression.  The handwritten text is pure sincerity.  But the content of the text is daring the viewer or hand holding the mug to be offended or turned on or both.  It’s a bit like watching Betty White tell a dirty joke.  And I love it.

It was Dustin’s functional work that brought me to him, but I wasn’t there to talk about the production pottery and I felt that.  It was tucked on the shelves though it’s muffled fuck phrases were reverberating through the space and my thoughts.

I was there to see and discuss the art pottery and Dustin had placed it on the worktable for me to examine.  If the functional pottery is Betty White, then the embodiment of the art pottery for me personally is, Miley Cyrus.  Images of Miley, herself, and Justin Beiber and emojis, etc., are cut out and applied as decals to the surface of the porcelain.  In fact, all of the cut-outs are somehow corralled into the world of emojis—they are distilled into easy bite-sized icons whether they are real people (Hillary Clinton, drag queen superstars,) real bodies (porn stills, images of erect penises) or symbols (pride flags, biohazard symbols.) 

This cacophony of images is layered over the surface of the work, but the cacophony doesn’t end there.  The forms themselves are strange, some directly reference both flaccid and erect penises, others read as ceremonial vases, funerary containers and mysterious vessels of unknown purpose.  In addition to the strangeness of the forms, there are occasionally layers of texture achieved by dipping textiles and trims into slip and applying them to the surface. 

The work is all additive—added images, textures, shapes—it coalesces into something tragic and aggressive and heartfelt and sweet, all at once (hence my Miley Cyrus comparison.)

 After my tour of the space and time to take in the work, we settled into his workspace and began our back and forth.  Dustin filled me in on his history after leaving Wyoming.  He went to SAIC and pursued Visual Studies, seeking both the intellectual and physical in his own work and research.  Visual Studies was a field in which he could pursue his own questions about the meaning of design and have a skill set/language to understand why we choose and how we evaluate the objects we surround ourselves with in our lives.  Dustin described his philosophy that we collectively use objects to tell stories about our identities—who we are and what we value.  I couldn’t agree more.

He also worked at Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago.  He volunteered and then  assisted and ultimately began teaching classes there.  He described the contrasts of SAIC and Lillstreet.  I know both places well—I did a Post-Bacc at SAIC and I took a lot of jewelry classes at Lillstreet.  Dustin described the energy that seems to exist in all craft schools and workshops—a lack of contemporary context and an anarchonistic and hard to shake connection to 1960s style retro “brown pots.”  I’ve encountered that energy, those students and that mentality in my forays into the craft world.  I know it well. 

I ask him questions about teaching and he describes the places he has taught in and what he has gotten out of it all.  He says that teaching forces him to make things he wouldn’t normally make, for the purposes of demonstration.  And somehow that process opens up his language of forms.  Teaching forces him to experiment in order to explain.  He also tells me that teaching allows him to directly see different students’ thought processes and it brings him different pieces of the world that he wouldn’t otherwise find on his own.  An example of that he gives me is a student who was constantly telling him about a basket show at the MET—and he went to see the show and it really informed his thinking. 

I ask him if it bothers him that clay is so hot in the art world right now.  And he tells me that he doesn’t have a problem with it.  The clay community can be territorial, but he doesn’t feel that way personally.  He thinks anyone can and should use clay if they feel drawn to it.  But he does mention that in LA and Brooklyn, the clay work being produced—what he describes as “lumpy pots”—has a very different audience than the traditional studio pottery audience.  He is constantly trying to navigate these intersecting worlds of design, craft, tradition, experimentation and art. 

He’s struggled with his art pottery since school—trying to find the right venue and context for it.  We talk about the art and craft contexts—the idea of the same artist making a sculpture priced at $6000 and making functional pottery priced under $50.  How do we make sense of those two economies?  I don’t have an answer. 

The subject of jokes comes up a few times in the work.  A lot of the techniques and choices that he makes in both the functional and conceptual work are about the ceramics community.  Maybe visual jokes are how he makes sense of these two economies and systems of worth?

He tells me about how he came to the current artwork.  For an exhibition in 2015, he settled on the form of the garden stool based on both traditional Chinese garden stools and their contemporary bastardization versions available at Target in bright orange or aquamarine.  He wanted to queer his work and queer this form in particular, the garden stool.  And so he asked himself, how can he make this object queer?  Instead of subdued symbols, he chose to blanket the surface with historical images and symbols that reference the 1980s of his childhood, the HIV crisis and the politics of gay marriage and trans rights.  His use of decals began then.  Layering images, improvisation—they became visually busy as he combined slip, inlaid words, decals, texture and color.  He has refined the work since then—using the same elements, but editing them in each piece. 

Some of the work out on the table seems to bridge the divide between the art and functional work.  It has visual elements in common with the artwork but the functionality of being vases, mugs, vessels of understandable function.

His thinking of these pieces between the two bodies of work is that they are souvenirs of the art pieces—they are priced to be collectable and obtainable.  They are something anyone can take away from the big vessels.  They exist in a middle zone.

I ask him how he comes up with the images—what the images mean to him?  He said the art objects are structured like the thoughts in his head.  There is a stream of conscious flowing between the forms, the images and the techniques.  They are how his brain works; from Care Bear to Drag Queen and back again.  These are the things that have a personal resonance. 

Being in Minnesota for college and again after grad school, it was easy to feel stifled by the pervasiveness of traditional pottery techniques.  He wanted to make objects that weren’t just these quiet passive things.  Vessels and ceramics are of the domestic world and are meant to sit on shelves, but why can’t they reflect contemporary issues at the same time?  Traditional pottery reflects the values of its time he tells me, be it royal French or 1970s crunchy granola pots.  And he wants his work to reflect his values, his time.

He is always testing pottery like a toddler tests the boundaries of parental control or new lovers play mind games.  He tells me the troubled part of him was like, “fuck you Ceramics!  Is Ceramics big enough to contain this work?”  His fuuuuuuuuuuuuck functionals, his dick plates, his visually overwhelming artworks—can ceramics deal?  Ceramics was “like—yeah—no big deal.”

He tells me the world is broad right now and you never know what anyone is into.  He tells me about older women holding up his work in adoration and surprising him with their acceptance of it.  And he says if people aren’t interested in the work, they simply don’t look at it. 

He says his work isn’t for everyone.  But would anyone want work that is for everyone?  My feeling is a definitive no. 

For additional information about Dustin visit his website or Instagram

White chalky powder

Eleanna Anagnos: A Profile

By Kelly McCafferty

Eleanna Anagnos and I met in 2015, when we were both asked to participate in a NYC Creative Salon discussion on the topic of research.  I instantly liked her energy and her viewpoint in the conversation.   I visited her studio twice—once in June 2016 and in March 2017—and the combination of both visits was edited into this profile.  Among many things, we talked about her materials and process, the spirituality within her work, her childhood as a gymnast and her recent residencies in France and Upstate NY. This was the first time I decided to use two visits rather than one to condense into a profile and the second visit really deepened my understanding of Eleanna and my fascination with her work.  


Eleanna’s studio is in the basement of the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus.  The large space is divided into three rooms, one of which is her studio.  The bulk of the space is the artist-run gallery, Ortega y Gasset Projects which Eleanna has been involved with since 2014.  Over the course of our two visits, we didn’t discuss Ortega y Gasset at all—it was quite literally the elephant in the room.  It wasn’t a conscious omission on my part.  I was drawn into Eleanna’s world and I wanted to give her the space to open up about her work.  There are other future discussions there about the realities of participating in an artist-run space and embodying the dual roles of artist and curator.  We spent our time discussing the work.


Eleanna’s work is mysterious.  And it deserves a thorough look.  Her materials and processes are purposefully elusive.  There is thought here—you can feel it radiating off the work.  Sometimes the work feels like a long meditative breath.  Sometimes it feels like a busy mind spinning and rolling thoughts over and over.  The Buddhist duality of big mind/small mind kept coming to me. Because there is a duality in all of what Eleanna makes.  Sometimes that duality is a mirroring effect in the form and sometimes it is within the materials.  She makes work on paper and with a sculptural material called Hydrocal that is a gypsum cement.  The works on paper exist between painting and drawing and the works in Hydrocal are both paintings and sculptures and yet not fully either. 


When I visited the studio in 2016, I had recently seen the big Richard Tuttle show, 26, at Pace on 25th Street and it was fresh in my mind.  I asked Eleanna at one point if she was into Tuttle and if she had seen the show, which was basically a 50-year museum-style retrospective presented in gallery format.  She said she loved his work and how did I know?  To me, the parallels between Tuttle and Eleanna’s work were obvious—a paring down of form, color, texture—something that feels both mysterious and intrinsically known.  And something about intimacy, not just intimacy of scale, an intimacy that exists between the work and the viewer (and originates with an intimacy between the work and the artist.)


A few times Eleanna and I talked about scale in her work.  Some of them are quite small—almost handheld.  She told me that she began making small work out of her own practicality.  She used to make large 10 ft oil paintings, but she was interested in the challenge of getting the same impact and kind of power now in a small work.  She wanted in 2016 to work bigger—that was the next goal for herself and she was working out how to make it happen.  When I returned, she had made two bigger pieces—almost 4 times the scale of her other works.  The shift in scale did something for sure.  It opened up the work and made it more commanding and powerful and remarkably the intimacy was still there—just magnified.


The work—the pieces specifically in Hydrocal—led me down a chain of associations—tablet, relic, mask, shield.  They feel like something both ancient and current.  And that is something that Eleanna is striving for in them.  Eleanna mentioned on both visits a strange personal anecdote, that her mother and her share an otherworldly connection.   Her mother somatizes Eleanna’s experiences.  Whenever Eleanna is experiencing something psychologically intense, her mother experiences it bodily.  One memorable time it happened, Eleanna was in France and her mom was in Chicago.  Her mom’s heart fluttered and she called Eleanna asking what is wrong.  Now, years later, choking has replaced the heart flutters.  Eleanna emphasized to me that the work isn’t specifically about that connection between her mother and herself—it is primarily about space.  But what is space exactly? That connection opened up questions for her and scientific research of somatization has not proved its existence.  But Eleanna knows it is real.  And something about that is the center of the work—how do we communicate with each other?  Eleanna talks about energy and how we are all energy and that our being/spirit doesn’t end at our skin.  Eleanna loves moments like that and says the best art for her, encompasses those moments. 


Aside from space as a concept, there are many repetitions in her work—repetitions in form and material.  The triangle form is one that arises often.  She tells me the first time the triangle surfaced was in 2010.  And it has remained embedded in the work since then.  In 2011, a residency at Anderson Ranch in Aspen, Colorado is the first time she began working with plaster as a medium.  She completed an object in plaster that replicated the everyday feel of a crumpled piece of paper and it seemed to be floating when hung on the wall.  She realized that the aerial and ground view of the mountains was affecting the work and that within those mountains were tons of triangles.  And now those triangles are clustered in twos and threes throughout her work.  And those triangles as all her forms are wonky and at times jagged and other times soft.  She accounts for that wonkiness by explaining that energy is not straight, it comes in waves.  And she is interested in the imperfect; anything with a hand in it.


Eleanna tells me that the minimal quality of her work came to it through time.  Her previous work was large paintings full of energy and color with a space that overtook the viewer.  The work she makes now is slower, but no less intense.  She tells me that there is so much crazy out in the city that she wants her work to offer respite and be a place where you can contemplate.  A few times she mentions the work serving as an icon.  She tells me that she grew up in a Greek Orthodox family and was surrounded by Byzantine icons and the meaning in them.  Those icons were figurative and narrative and that differs with her work—but she wants that spiritual importance to remain.  Icons are the most important things in the room.  If she can pack meaning into the work sensorially and take religion and narrative out, then the essence of what is left is what she is searching for.


She does use color in her work, albeit sparingly and controlled.  The mediums of that color are varied and have a mysterious origin.  The color is applied in the drawings with ink/oil paint/watercolor and put upon a strange material such as yupo paper (a paper that is essentially a plastic) the pigment separates from its binders and liquids as it dries and creates a contradictory surface.  She also uses a compressor to create chalky smoky effects on both the paintings and drawings.  This powdery feeling is all over the work.  Eleanna told me a story about when she was in graduate school and her mentor, Stanley Whitney, emphasized the importance of touch.  She was pouring over books of paintings and he directed her to look at the work in person—nothing could replace that experience.  And that idea of texture and touch, has been become really the center of her work.  She tells me that with studio visits people often reach out their hands to the work—they want to see it with their fingers because they can’t really understand what they are seeing with their eyes.


For an end result that is so tactile and physical—and almost transcendently effortless—I realize through the two visits with Eleanna, that the work is put through a rigorous thought process.  She shows me on her phone how she uses a drawing program to create changes to her work.  She starts with a photo and then draws and overlays a myriad of possibilities for continuance.  The process and the work seem so rooted in physicality, but Eleanna’s mind is constantly turning to crack this puzzle of physicality in a mental way.  Eleanna is a planner.  And these pieces, however effortless they may seem, are a result of both mental and physical time. 


The work is rigorous, her process is rigorous and she adds to it a full life—running Ortega y Gasset, holding down a day job and being a New York City artist and all that entails.  I find that she echoes time and time again how important and transformational her time at artist residencies is for her.  The residency in Aspen opened up her work in a sculptural way and brought her the knowledge of how to make a clay mold and use Hydrocal as a material.  It completely changed her trajectory.  And anytime talking to Eleanna about residencies is centered on her experience of the landscape—the vastness of the mountains in Colorado, the cliffs in France and the winter in upstate New York.  She described to me the residency in Cassis, France that she completed last summer and how she realized she needed to change her process for it—shipping Hydrocal pieces back to NYC was not practical.  So she dedicated her time there to working on paper and used oil paint and varnish to create a translucency to the paper that she hadn’t achieved before.  She let herself work quickly and repeat forms over and over, not questioning herself. 


She described the landscape of Cassis as a series of fingers jutting out into the water—each finger actually a cliff 1300 feet high dropping to the water below.  She tells me she grew up on water—on Lake Michigan and Green Lake in Wisconsin—and it has been two decades since she has had access and she took advantage of it.  The natural world of mountains and rocks and stones seems to be a huge influencer to her work.  Besides the natural landscape, the architecture of the local museum and its’ intricate metal gate and shadows affected her.  She said that Cassis was healing.  We talked about the idea of “feeding the well” as she calls it.  She would describe her days there—hiking then studio, swimming then studio and kayaking then working in the studio.  Physical activity and the landscape cleared her mind, but it also sunk itself subconsciously into the work.


After her residency in Cassis, she returned to NYC and her major project last fall/winter was curating a solo show of the work of Monica Palma at Ortega y Gasset.  She said she was so excited to share her work with the public and that Monica is a fantastic artist and human.  Eleanna made a curatorial decision to choose work that spanned the last five years of Monica’s practice to show breadth rather than focusing on the newest work.  And Eleanna’s decision paid off—the show was written up in Art in America, a first for Ortega y Gasset.  Eleanna said she was thrilled to support Monica and also put the gallery on the map.  It was kind of an underdog moment for her to see an artist-run space get the same respect as a commercial gallery and she was really excited.


After the success of the show, Eleanna spent seven weeks at the beginning of 2017 at a residency at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York.  She said that her residency at Yaddo, as all her residencies, allow her to loosen up her type-A personality and get outside of her head.  She calms down and slows down.  She goes for a walk, she breathes, she steps outside of herself.  She is in a constant space of being grateful—for the huge space to work in, the ventilation, the slop sink nearby, the privacy and being taken care of with food and comfortable surroundings and also for the gift of being surrounded by people who are serious about their work. 

Eleanna’s big goal of the residency was to make the Hydrocal pieces at a bigger scale and see what that scale shift did to the work.  She completed two bigger pieces at Yaddo—and I believe that yet again a residency has totally opened up her work.  The scale of the new pieces is dynamic and they remain as strange and intimate as the smaller works, just at a higher concentration. 


Making the bigger works caused her to realize that she is a painter, making sculptures.  There are lots of logistical problems that she needs to deal with.  The first big piece is too heavy for her to lift.  She added foam to the inside of the next one to lighten the weight.  Experiments with tinted polyurethane dried with an unexpected shrinkage and all of her mental planning wasn’t leading to the physical results she expected.  But in this process was a bit of magic—the materials were forcing her to change direction, reroute, and be spontaneous.  In a conversation with a fellow Yaddo resident, who works with beading—a material that is a physical manifestation of time—she realized that her work, while also full of time and thought and devotion appears to be effortless.  It appears to be outside of time.  And we talked a bit about what that realization meant for her.  She didn’t want the work’s validation to come from an idea of labor but from a shift in experience and thought.  She said she also had two other big realizations at Yaddo brought through conversation.  Another one is that she is a Gemini and her work is all about duality and how funny that is to her to never have thought about that before but the duality of the Gemini twins to be in all of her work.


The third realization she had was that her childhood spent training as a gymnast since age five explains some of the particularities of her practice and her commitment to process.  Knowing she was a gymnast changed my view of the work as well—but not in the rigorous, structured way she was thinking.  I was reminded of the physical world of the gymnasium and how there are these strange symbolic geometric idols everywhere—the rings, the bars, the vaults and the pads.  It is a world of textures—the textures of metal, plastic, cloth and leather.  And what about the talc powder—that one really made her laugh.  She said, yeah she never thought about that before.  Her childhood and her adulthood were spent with her hands in white chalky powder.


For more information on Eleanna check out her website. For more information about Ortega y Gasset check out their website

Additional Images:



Singular Objects in A Vast Empty Space

Liesl Pfeffer: A Profile  |  By Kelly McCafferty

Liesl Pfeffer and I have a lot in common.  We both attended residencies at the Banff Centre and The Wassaic Project.  We have mutual artist friends.  And we were both in a group show called Instant Vacation in the summer of 2015 at Trestle Projects in Gowanus curated by Will Hutnick and Polly Shindler. 

Despite all these commonalities, Liesl and I didn’t get a chance to meet until I visited her studio on March 18th to interview her for this profile.

 Weirdly enough, Liesl and I didn’t meet each other at the opening or closing receptions for the show.  I attended the opening, but Liesl was at the Banff Centre for a residency.  And Liesl attended the closing, but I was at Banff at that time.  We missed each other at the show and we missed each other at Banff—our times did not overlap.

 Liesl and I connected on Facebook and had some great conversations about our mutual experiences at Banff and we made a plan for me to visit her studio.  In our visit, we talked about residencies, artist collectives, riding bikes, Greenpoint, telescopes, darkroom photography, 1960s interior design, latch hooking, Queensland timber houses and her childhood front yard.

 Liesl Pfeffer was born in 1979 in Brisbane, Australia and attended Queensland College of Art where she received her BA in Photography.  She lived in Melbourne, Australia before moving to NYC in 2012.  She currently lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and works in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

I arrive at the door of Liesl’s studio building and realize that I am famished and a bit nervous to meet her.  I shoot her a quick text and she replies that she is on her way down to let me into the building.  I am scarfing down a bodega banana that I grabbed on my way and thinking about how it is always strange meeting people for the first time at a studio visit—I am taking everything in all at once—the work, the person, the space—and it can be overwhelming. 

Liesl comes down and lets me in the door and we greet each other.  Her manner is fresh and kind and totally natural.  She is wearing denim overalls and her smile is genuine.  She has a soft and breezy Australian accent--I know this is going to go well.  As we climb the stairs in her studio building, all my nervousness is gone, replaced by curiosity and excitement.

We enter her space and it is a large room with lots of windows and a cozy feel.  In the center of the room is a shared kitchen and lounge area, which I gravitate towards and take a seat.  The space is bright and lively and I feel at ease.  There are five separate studio areas with desks set up around the room and Liesl’s is the one nearest the entrance.  The other artists who share her studio work in jewelry design, metals and textiles—Liesl is the only fine artist of the group.

We start off casually discussing Liesl’s history and we are both curious about each other’s experiences at Banff and Wassaic.  Banff and Wassaic are both strange little towns and it is a joy to talk to someone who has spent time exploring them.  I always love to hear artists gush about their favorite residency experiences and it is obvious to me that Liesl loved Wassaic in a deep way.  She attended in the summer of 2014 and it was her first residency.  The experience of being in nature and out of the city profoundly impacted her and her work.  She had a fantastic experience there—she lived in the schoolhouse and deeply connected with all the other artists. 

She met Ryann Slauson and Jean Seestadt at Wassaic—two other NYC-based artists in residence and the three of them became close.  Liesl tells me that she and Ryann and Jean have recently founded an artist collective.  Ryann works across the board in video, sculpture and performance, and Jean works mainly in sculpture and embroidery.  They have had four meetings so far about future projects and they want to both make work together and curate/organize shows.  I ask her if they are planning on having a studio together, and she tells me that no, they are going to stay where they are.  Ryann lives in the Bronx and works in Bushwick and Jean lives and works in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  Both she and Ryann have been in bands in the past and she sees similarities between the two practices.  Liesl tells me that last year she curated a show and it was a TON of work.  Being able to divide that work amongst a collective and with each member bringing her own strengths to the table is a logical decision for her.  All three of them get along fabulously and with their individual feminist beliefs they are interested in ensuring representation and roles for women artists in their shows and events. 

Banff messed her head up, she tells me.  It was so decadent—to go there and spend so much money both there and in travel.  It put so much pressure on her to perform.  She felt she was meant to be free—from all the pressures of daily life—but instead she was taking everything too seriously and felt like she had to account for the time and money she was spending.  She borrowed a beautiful camera from the residency and spent the last two weeks shooting, printing work and generally figuring it all out.  She had to deal with a big fear of wasting her time there.  Going there without a clear project in mind taught her that now she needs to have something planned for the beginning of the residency.  She is going to Vermont Studio Center this summer with a project ready to start and she feels really good about that decision. 

How did Liesl end up in New York City?  She tells me she has been here four years this January and that she originally moved here for work.  She was working in Melbourne for a company in a part-time position and learned they were opening a NYC office.  She bravely decided to apply for a job in the NYC office and she got it.  Suddenly she was living in New York.  But eventually they closed the NYC office and she had to make the decision of whether to stay in NYC or move back to Australia.  She opted to apply for an artist visa—good for three years.  She began to work in freelancing design and right now she is the closest to living and working as an artist as she has ever been. 

At this point, Liesl and I get up from the lounge area and make our way over to her studio area to discuss the work.  The only piece of hers I have seen in person before our meeting was the piece in Instant Vacation.  I am seriously a fan of that piece and seeing it was what made me want to profile Liesl.  That piece, is a hooked rug wall hanging depicting a child in a lab coat engaged in a chemistry lab experiment.  It is both funny and nostalgic (and strange.)  I think finding out that Liesl identifies as a photographer is what makes her hooked rug work and her collage work all the more fascinating.  The translation from a painting surface to a textured yarn surface is easy to imagine and perhaps predictable.  But the idea of taking a photographic image and remaking it through a tedious and laborious process makes the work even more irreverent. 

There is some air of the past in Liesl’s work.  I smell the 1970s.  And it isn’t just the chemical air of analog darkroom chemicals.  There is something domestic and suburban to the work.  The handmade meets the everyday.  Most of her subject matter is either domestic (the home) or earthy (crystals, islands, stars, nature) and all of it feels refreshingly earnest. 

Liesl pulls out a pile of photographs and we go through them together.  She tells me that all of them were shot in the village of Banff, Alberta with a medium format camera on loan from the residency.  These images are nostalgic for me because I have been to that village and lived in it for two months.  I can also remember walking the residential streets to come down from the mountain into town in search of beer and ketchup-flavored chips.  I recall lusting after all the alpinesque houses with their adorable window-boxes and gingerbread details and imagining what it would be like to abandon my former city life and just stay.  I think these images would be nostalgic for anybody.  The houses have real personality and Liesl’s portraits of them—because they do feel like portraits—are reminiscent of some Heidi-like childhood we all wish we had.

She tells me about the experience of wandering the streets and shooting these houses.  And then taking her rolls of film to the basement of the art studios where she was the only resident using the vast network of underground darkrooms.  And how she hadn’t printed in a while but rediscovered her love for it.  She describes the darkrooms as creepy and a weird place to be alone, but they were fruitful for her.  She printed three boxes of photo paper during her residency.  And she also discovered a love for cyanotypes after a workshop at the residency (I also took the same class.)  And she shows me the two bottles of chemicals used in cyanotypes and says that now she is printing on fabric and her plan for her time in Vermont is to print cyanotypes on paper and make a small edition of folded books about outer space. 

We move into talking about her earlier work with collage and she tells me about cutting up lab prints to collage and make images of crystals.  Then her process was to scan the collage and print it in an edition of 10 or so.  The advantage of scanning and printing is that she could make the print larger than the actual collage.  It is important to her that even in the print, you can tell that it is handmade.  There are cuts and shadows that still persist.

I ask her about her relationship to the handmade and why as a photographer, that is important to her.  She says that ever since she was a child, she was always weaving some kind of fiber and she got interested in the latch hook process.  Making them now reminds her of her childhood and they are playful and absurd for her to think about in a gallery context.  I ask her how the element of collage got introduced into her work and she tells me that while she was getting her BA in photography she was fully enmeshed in the darkroom process.  She was constantly manipulating either the print or the negative to make her images and find herself as an artist.  After school, she moved from Brisbane to Melbourne and her solution for no longer having access to a darkroom was to begin to use the tons of photographs she had taken and printed there (houses, gardens, textures and colors) to collage with in her home studio. 

I notice that on her wall there are some drawings of imagined spaces and on another table there is the beginnings of a sculptural architectural model.  I ask Liesl about her relationship with painting/drawing and she tells me that anything revolving painting/drawing is learned through her own self-practice, and that in the past she has also painted or drawn directly onto her photographs.  But that right now, and she doesn’t know why, but she is compelled to keep drawing the same shape.  She sees it as reminiscent of an island or a rock in the sea.  She isn’t sure yet what form it will be taking—sculpture, drawing or collage—but keeps making it.

Peppered throughout the conversation, Liesl mentions influential images and artists.  She tells me that while in art school she was not seeing a ton of contemporary art in Australia and her primary influences were artists like Polke and Rauschenberg—artists who pushed the boundaries between painting, photography and collage.  Recently, she has been following the work of Sara Cwynar, a NYC based photographer who was in the most recent Greater New York show at PS1.  Liesl tells me that Cwynar had an amazing image of a toucan in Greater NY and she isn’t sure exactly what her process is but it somehow involves finding old images and making arrangements with them in the studio specifically for photographing them. 

Liesl tells me that what is amazing about working with photography now is that there are so many means to create an image.  She feels lucky to be in her mid-30s and a part of the last group of artists that were taught both the darkroom and digital processes.  She has an affinity for artists that use and manipulate both of those processes.  She mentions the work of Liz Nielsen who makes colorful works using both in camera and darkroom techniques and Wolfgang Tillmans and how she admires his amazing camera-less darkroom manipulations with chemicals and light.

Another influence on her work are books from the 1960s on home decorating and indoor gardening.  She pulls out from her own plant covered shelf and we breeze through them together enjoying the interior shots filled with plants, tiled bathrooms and cozy spaces.  Her aforementioned sculptural model is a new idea that has come from her research on interior spaces.  Her plan is to build a model and then experiment with ways to light it and photograph it.  She has been studying the work of light artists—Turrell and Wheeler—to think about how light works and what she wants to do with it.   She emphasizes that she is at the beginning of these ideas and she doesn’t know yet what form the work will take.

I notice that a lot of her images depict a single object/being in focus at the center of the work.  The crystals, the collaged houses, the islands, the model—these are all singular objects in a vast empty space.  I wonder if she grew up on a farm (as I did) and what the roots are of this object isolationism.  I ask Liesl about her upbringing and she tells me that she grew up in the suburbs in Brisbane.  Their brick house had a huge lawn and she would play on it everyday with her brother and sister and neighbors.  The development was new so nature had not been fully contained and there were actually kangaroos and snakes occasionally in their backyard.  She felt a real sense of the outdoors within the safety of the suburbs.  The city was a 45-minute bus ride away.  She mentions the Queensland timber style houses, which I am unfamiliar with.  She tells me that they are built for the climate, up on stilts, with a wrap around veranda and doors to open to let the air flow through. Her childhood home didn’t have a perimeter, no fences. 

Liesl tells me about her Dwellings series which she completed last year.  She would make photo collages of houses she had stayed in.  For example her friend’s family home in Maine was made from photographs of snow that she took while she spent Thanksgiving there.  She had to get the houses out of her system—and now she isn’t working with them as an image any more.  Now she wants to make the book on space in Vermont as a result of thinking about the telescope she had as a child and her personal interest in constellations, planets, etc.

The last work we discuss is the latch work.  She tells me that making those works takes a long time.  It is really rough work.  Liesl says she has the weakest wrists ever and then she pulls out a massive latchwork piece and I laugh—everyone would be in pain after making something like that.  She says when she first moved to NYC, she would spend her time latch hooking and drinking whiskey—until she began to make some friends. 

I ask her what it was like to move to NYC and she says that it was her first time living in another country, that she did it alone and it made her more independent.  Being alone in a new place forced her to be social.  When she left Melbourne, she had established herself there with stores selling her work and solo shows in galleries.  Moving to NYC, meant she was back to square one again.  She had to learn the city and learn where the artists were within it.  She applied for the NYFA Immigrant Program and was accepted and she credits that program with teaching her how to be an artist here.  She learned about shows, funding and organizations and she also met one of her best friends.  Going to Wassaic also allowed her to form some deep friendships with some NYC artists.

What is her plan now?  She informs me that she wants to do further fine arts study and has been itching to make more darkroom and photo studio work.  Sounds pretty good to me.

Additional Images:

More information about Liesl:

Upcoming artist residency:

Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, Vermont—August 2016

Upcoming show:

Here Where We Are
June 10 - July 2, 2016
Opening Reception: Friday June 10, 6pm-8pm
Curated by Sophia Chizuco
Featuring work by Liene Bosquê, Sophia Chizuco, Isabelle Garbani, Liesl Pfeffer, Claudia Sohrens and Julio Austria