Paolo Arao

Gyan Shrosbree visited by Paolo Arao 


I first came across Gyan Shrosbree’s work on Instagram. I was intrigued by her bold sense of color and curious about the materials she used to make her work. I visited Gyan this past October during her residency at The Maple Terrace in Brooklyn. During our visit we discovered several things we shared in common: moving to NYC in 2000; being at the Vermont Studio Center in January (though not the same year); working with restrictions (materially and in the rectangular frame of the canvas); and a shared interest in textiles/quilting/sewing.

Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? Where did you go to school and where are you currently located?

I live in Fairfield, Iowa where I teach at Maharishi University. I attended Bennington College right out of high school. I was lucky to work with so many amazing professors in the early part of their careers there —  Amy Sillman, Rochelle Feinstein, and Annabeth Rosen were some of my first college professors.  I was heavily influenced and inspired by these powerful women.  I ended up transferring, but those two years at Bennington were never forgotten and were fundamental to my education.   I received my BFA from The Kansas City Art Institute in Painting, and my MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art, also in Painting.  I am really grateful for all of the wonderful schools I attended and people I worked with, both peers and faculty, during that time.

How and when did you decide to become an artist? Do you come from an artistic family?

It was never a question.  That is due to my family for sure.  My father is an artist and my mother is a furniture designer and basically an artist.  I was raised being exposed to the life and it was almost like not an option, kind of like I was in training from the time I can remember.  Or maybe more realistically, being an artist was heavily supported in my family, and never something that was questioned.  This was the case, both regarding who I was surrounded by, in terms of family friends, and also in terms of my parents.  I was pushed and challenged, as well as encouraged and nurtured.  I feel really lucky to have had the upbringing and the kind of constant education from the time I can remember.  

I’m intrigued with your bold use of color and materials. Can you please tell me more about how you think about color and the materials used in your process?

I think about color AS a material.  So much of what I do and am inspired by is driven by color—instinctive relationships, intellectual understanding, play, absolute obsession, repulsion, emotion— all of it!  Material is as important to me as color. I use all kinds of materials, but I am always thinking about paint. In my mind I am always painting with these materials.  A new material or color is often the instigator for a new series.  They can function as a refresh button or something in my process.

You’re exploring a variety of gestures with tape. It’s such a direct form of mark-making. The tape is layered, it’s used as color blocking and in some areas the tape appears to function as “stitching.” Is there any significance to the use of this material? 

I don’t know if it is significant that it is tape in terms of a conceptual reason, but I do love the immediacy of the tape. I love the way the marks can build on one another.  I love the residue and smothering and textures that can happen. I love how it can really end up translating as “paint’ or lead you to a conversation about paint.

I’m fascinated with your use of “masculine” hardware store materials. Conceptually are you thinking about these as gendered materials? Can you elaborate?

Yes.  I like that too.  I find it sort of funny.  Like these are typically ‘masculine’ materials for the most part, and then I am kind of ‘feminizing’ them with my color choices and ‘glamorous’ moves (glitter, reflective silver, fringe, etc).  I am also bringing in references to  crafts that have been traditionally thought of as  ‘women’s work’ such as sewing, quilting, and sometimes weaving to further contradict the initial purpose  of the materials.  I am both interested in celebrating these gender moves, and also destroying the ideas that surround them with the hope that we can evolve beyond labels.  

In the works you have hanging up in the studio – you have paintings on canvas in the traditional sense – but they are incised and fragments of the cutouts are collaged onto the edges – breaking the frame of the rectangle. I love this gesture – it’s like you’re nudging at the restriction of the frame. It seems to me like you’re playing with restrictions. Is it important to place restrictions in your process?

YES.  For me restrictions lead to an abundance of work.  They allow me to get into my body and out of my head; to feel grounded in the process of getting the work out.  I love the frame, and playing off of the frame.  It gives me something to come back to in the work, something to work with and against.  I also like the way a frame directs the conversation back to painting.  Rules are made to be broken of course, but they give me the ability to treat the studio like a game and they ground me in the process of getting the job done.  

I see the canvas as a body.  Something to dress up.  With a front and a back.  An interior and an exterior.  For the most part I like hanging them on the wall, and calling them paintings.  Even using the wall to play with shadow and light and color reflectivity and glow.  They walk a line between painting and sculpture and are very much objects to me. 

There’s an obvious influence of textiles and the construction of quilts in your work – this is most evident in the large tarp-pieces. How did you first come to working with the tarp as a material? And what is it about this material that interests you?

Everything!  I like the fact that they are everyday materials.  Like you can just pick one up at any old hardware store. I like the utilitarian nature of a tarp. I like the plasticity of the materials and its relationship to the plastic nature of the acrylic paint that I use.  I like thinking about making these plastic quilts or blankets that are so heavily worked and tended to, and at the same time made with materials that many people would consider temporary or just plain shitty.  I like taking those materials and transforming them into fully worked, bedazzled, vibrant paintings that hopefully transcend the materials that they are made with, but at the same time are still recognizable and MAYBE that makes the work more accessible to a wider range of viewers, and MAYBE it gives an edge of humor to the work that I like to include in the range of emotions that are possible when viewing my work.   

These tarp pieces came from a place of wanting to integrate a more direct drawing practice back into my studio, specifically thinking about drawing with color. I was at a residency and went to the hardware store to find inspiration in a new material. The tape is a perfect partner, marrying to the surface of the tarp, while it is both forgiving and unforgiving. The materials themselves force me to continue to work the surface through the addition of marks. The buildup of the marks adds a physical weight that makes the pieces sag and slump in a tactile way. There is an inability to control the materials to some extent that I find exciting, and adds not only a sense of play to the work, but a sense of process.

You’ve done several residencies. Can you talk about how they have helped/hindered your process? Do you have a favorite residency?

Residencies are awesome!  I never realized how important they were, or how much I could get from having the experiences that they provide. I feel so grateful to have attended every single one of them, and each one was beyond valuable for both me and my work.  Many things can happen depending on timing and what your current needs are.  For me the benefits have been huge in terms of my work and also in terms of friendships.  At each one that I have attended, I have made real, lifelong friendships and made big discoveries in my work that have been lasting and set me onto new territory in the studio.  I don’t have a favorite, but both The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo were unbelievable, once in a lifetime experiences that I will never forget.  I am forever grateful for those places and their generosity.  

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

It depends.  Sometimes I like complete silence, sometimes music is the right mood.  The music that I listen to varies and seems to be driven by an instinctual connection to the work that I am making at the time.  It needs to be the same music for the entire series usually and then I tend to not want to hear it for a very long time after the series is finished. It is almost like the equivalent of silence because it just becomes a part of the process and is not overpowering in terms of being another element.  I like listening to podcasts, interviews with artists mostly when I am doing things that are more task related—like preparing surfaces and stuff.  

Who are some of your artistic influences?

I am, of course, constantly feeding off of artists and books and shows and films and experiences that I have had in my life. Matisse is one of those influences that has been there from the beginning.  Jessica Stockholder also an early influence.  Elizabeth Murray, Joan Snyder, Cindy Sherman, so many! The Hilma Af Klint show was a mind blower!  My friends and my family are huge in terms of inspiration and influence. 

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

I would say hold onto the connections that you have with other artists and the people who know your work well.  Nurture those relationships, and be generous.  We are each other's support systems!  

For more information about Gyan please check out her website or Instagram.


Susan Klein visited by Paolo Arao

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Are you reading anything interesting at the moment?

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


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

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


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

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

For more information on Susan please visit her website.


Max Colby visited by Paolo Arao

I met Max Colby while on an artist residency at The Studios at MASS MoCA in North Adams, MA this past April. I was captivated by his work the first time I saw it and instantly felt a connection. I was happy to meet another artist working with textiles from a queer perspective. Max’s work straddles the line between representation and abstraction. His work appears gaudy and excessive, but there’s something rich embedded beneath his opulent surfaces. I paid a visit to Max’s studio in Bushwick a month after we returned to the city from our residency at MASS MoCA. 

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

I moved to New York City six years ago immediately after receiving my BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Tufts University in 2012. I grew up between West Palm Beach, Florida and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

How did you start working with textiles and embroidery? Can you elaborate on the specific embroidery technique(s) you use in your process?

I began working in textiles in my senior year of college, 7 years ago. I was experimenting with very fragile collograph plates for printing. The plates were figurative and their destruction through the printing process referenced a certain degradation and malleability of the self and identity, but the work was missing something. An introductory textiles course opened up the exploration of embroidery in this work and turned into a series of several dozen prints each customized with embroidered accoutrements. I’ve been obsessed with embroidery and textiles ever since.

The technique I primarily use when embroidering is called Crewel embroidery, which arguably began in the 11th century with the Bayeux Tapestry, but became increasingly popular during the Victorian era. It was used on clothing, furniture, and innumerable domestic and personal objects. It’s a very full and rich form of embroidery, comprised mostly of different iterations of long and short stitches. The history of this specific technique is always interesting to me as its function, execution, and accessibility are emblematic of points of contention regarding gender equality, capital, class, and power while providing an intoxicating desirability. 

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

I’ve been working on a series titled They Consume Each Other, which is comprised of many small sculptures resembling religious relics or ceremonial objects. I’m simultaneously expanding a series of embroideries on original photographs from gay porn magazines. I like to move between several modes of production. Embroideries and flat works influence the development of sculptural work and vice versa. They Consume Each Other currently has 20 pieces, though I’m several dozen away from my goal. I’m interested in developing the work towards an immersive, participatory installation as well as exploring their performative potential. Lately, I’ve been envisioning them littered in vacant churches and homes. 

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

I’m interested in exploring some pretty big questions on sex and power structures. For instance, the limited representation of gender, race, and physicality in the LGBTQIA+ community which follows a larger discussion in our culture about who’s life is valued and idealized. Nearly all of the magazines I utilize keep their models within a certain type. They’re white, cis-gendered, able-bodied and masculine men. Whom are considered the standard bearers of beauty and attractiveness across queer communities. Embroidering with extreme richness over these images aims to disrupt that narrative while provoking the viewer to consider what’s behind these desires. These various elements act as echoes. Can one get past that pure desire?

There’s a lot in conversation here, but my hope is that the work can provide a new frame for conversation on these issues. Often the work doesn’t go there for people and it’s simply visible, queer work. Or maybe it’s a new, fantastical way of seeing materials they often associate with domestic work experienced through their family unit. If my work can provide a fresh lens for someone grappling with sexuality, representation or identity, that’s incredible.    

What persons/places/things have had the most influence for you and your work?

I grew up in a family that loves art. My dad collected outsider art, and I was always taking extra art and music courses outside of school and in the summer since I was very young. I think that early creative development made a big impact on my work as an artist today. When I started to get serious as I got older, artists like Nick Cave and Cindy Sherman were huge influences on me and my understanding of artistic practice and its potential. Recently, shows like Trigger at the New Museum in 2018 and Queer Threads curated by John Chaich, to name a couple, introduced me to a slew of queer artists whom have influenced my practice. 

Can you elaborate on your use of decorative pattern and color in your work? Are your decisions purely formal or is there a conceptual underpinning behind your choices?

I like to play with blind desire in my work and strive for lush, opulent effects when working. There’s a back and forth between formal and conceptual elements. In sculptural work, I keep my choices limited, i.e., only collect European or American floral fabrics and trims, typically in colonial or Victorian styles. When I embroider, I stick to traditional Crewel embroidery and copy designs from historic textiles. The materials alone carry a great deal of conceptual backing. They directly invoke conversations on class, capital, desire, domesticity, disparity, and gender and I’m interested in subverting those associations. After making those decisions, I leave a lot of room for play. Color, form and composition are all done organically – nothing is pre-planned.

I'm really interested in the multitude of ways that Queerness is being represented by artists now. Do you consider your work to be abstract or representational or both? Is this important for you?

Queerness to me is open, fluid, evolving, resistant. It’s important to me that the work reflect that. The fantastical, maximal, nature of the work leaves it somewhere between the two.

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

I mostly listen to music. Lately I’ve been playing Erykah Badu, Cardi B, and Grace Jones in the studio. Making work is so much about play for me, and I laugh at it a lot of the time. It’s hard to avoid when putting fabric flowers next to Victorian brocade fabric shaped like a phallus. Making also helps mitigate and redirect some strong anger and frustration I have towards injustice and inequality in society. What I have going in the background usually reflects those things.

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

I work full time in my studio and typically work morning to night. Most of my work is pretty time consuming and almost always hand sewing, so I set production goals. I’m an obsessive worker and can lose track of time, but I try to stand and stretch every hour or so, and on the flip side keep my studio time under 50 hours a week. At a certain point my eyes give out.   
Writing and research are also important parts of my practice, which I end up doing on days I’m not producing.  

Are you reading anything interesting at the moment?

I recently finished Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? by Judith Butler and Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz. I also keep Queer (Documents of Contemporary Art) by David Getsy always handy in my studio. 

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

It’s easy to get lost, don’t waiver from your values. 

For additional information about Max visit his website or instagram.

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