Nick Naber

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

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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.


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.


The Uncanny Still Lifes of Amanda Baldwin

A profile of Amanda Baldwin by Nick Naber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lemon Lineup, Oil on canvas, 33"x42"

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

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

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

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52 Weeks

A studio visit with Paolo Arao by Nick Naber

Paolo and I met at SPRING BREAK ART SHOW in 2015. He was visiting a booth where I had work up, and we chatted for the first time. We had been friends on Instagram before that point, and it was nice to put a face and personality to the paintings that I’d seen. The first time I’d visited Paolo was in the summer of 2016, a few days after I moved back to Brooklyn. His studio was by the Navy Yard, and he was working on a yearlong painting series called Yearbook in which he painted one painting a day for the entire year. And each 12 x 9 inch painting was completed in one hour.  A few months passed and he visited me in my studio, and then I went back and visited him again, this time in a new studio in Crown Heights where he had started a different yearlong painting series. Paolo is now in Bed Stuy and is approaching the end of the same series that I had seen in Crown Heights, but the paintings have changed quite a bit from what I had seen over the summer.

Visiting Paolo’s studio is always something new, not just because he’s moved spaces frequently but because he’s so prolific. When I visited him this time, I was taken by the twelve paintings that he had on his wall. It reminded me so much of the Yearbook paintings that I had seen on my first visit to him in the summer of 2016. There was something different from the works I had seen over the summer too. Paolo’s interest in textiles and sewing is now more evident in his newer work. As I look at the paintings I start to notice the seams on the support. They are imperfect and in spots the linen is left bare. These new paintings are vulnerable and open in a different way than his earlier Yearbook works.

This past year he’s been working on a series of 52 paintings in conjunction with making longer-term work. These 52 paintings are compelling for many reasons. Similar to his Yearbook series, Paolo has set up a specific set of rules to create them. He makes one painting per week; the painting is completed in one day; and they’re each done on an 18 x 15 inch support. In discussing how this affects his results we looked at some of the earlier works from this series. I discovered that the works from the early part of this year looked more like larger versions of his Yearbook paintings.  Over the course of the year they have become something else. And there appear to be multiple groups of series that have developed within the overall project. In most recent works, he has begun to stitch together pieces of linen to reinforce a grid, albeit a soft-edged and not quite perfect grid. With the slight change in his surface support came a change in the way the work was carried out, the color palettes, the painted lines, the edges, and the movement on the surface.

I begin to wonder about the way he’s applying the paint to these surfaces. And I‘m curious about why he’d go through the trouble of sewing these supports and then in many ways completely disregarding the physical lines he’s created. For him, it becomes a play between the paint and the physical nature of the support. He’s resisting the grid, and pushing his abstractions outside the physical limitations of their supports.

Paolo uses an intentionally uncomfortable yet playful combination of color; they’re odd, pretty, high key, muted, and at times, off-putting. On the raw linen the typically bright or garish colors become muted. He doesn’t aim for his canvases to be pretty, in that he doesn’t want his work to only be about pleasing and harmonious colors. He is continually obfuscating what one would say is a beautiful color by pairing it with a color that may be perceived as ugly. His use of color in combination with the geometric forms he employs leads you deeper into these works because they are in many instances queer and disorienting.

In a majority of these paintings there is a specific intention not to cover the entire support with paint. It was originally uncomfortable for him to leave so much of the linen bare. In some instances you can feel that struggle. He works on a new painting with 12 weeks of previous paintings behind him on the wall, allowing him to work through the different tensions and idiosyncrasies inherent in each work. This allows him to riff on older work, or to improve things that he didn’t like in previous iterations.  The variation between the works is subtle, but evident.

We talked about knowing when a painting is finished. His self-imposed time constraints force him to be completed in one day, however, he doesn’t stop thinking about the completed painting after it’s done. The canvases that he makes on a weekly basis have an influence on each other, but also allow Paolo the opportunity to "fix" things that he didn’t like in the previous painting without overcomplicating it.

This idea to make both the Yearbook series and his current 52 week series arose out of a desire to not overthink and overwork a painting. He devised the idea to work quickly on a painting to help him loosen up, but also to experiment with and focus on his own painting language and technique. In many ways both of these series have seeped into his overall practice. He is able to reference and re-appropriate from an encyclopedic volume of past work when concentrating on other paintings that take a few weeks to complete.

In our visit we talked about the benefits to making a lot of work. The fact that there is always another painting waiting to be made the following week frees Paolo from the constraints or difficulties of any one work. And the amount of failed paintings are equally as important as successful paintings, because it gives him the motivation and desire to keep coming back to the studio, to keep pushing his process and to keep making.  

Paolo will be going to the Vermont Studio Center for a 4-week residency in January. He intends to make a lot of works on paper in addition to experimenting further with sewn textiles and painting. He will have a forthcoming two-person show opening at the end of March 2018 at c2c project space in San Francisco.

For more information about Paolo check out his website, or see him on Instagram

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