Nick Naber

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.

Additional Images:

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

Additional Images:

Cupid Ojala visited by Nick Naber

As with many of the artist I meet, I met Cupid through a mutual friend at a party. Cupid came right up to me and started talking. Typically, being the curmudgeon that I am this would be off putting, but Cupid has a sweet and genuine charm to him. We talked for about an hour at this party, later that night I took a look at his site. There was so much to mine there, from performance work, collaborations, and his line drawings. I asked him if he’d mind me coming to see him and talking about what he was up to.

How long have you been working on these drawings?  You’d been doing a lot of Performance work previously? 

I went to The Vermont Studio Center Artist Residency last May and I spent the past year processing what I did there. I’ve been working on and finishing up other projects. Then the election happened, and I no longer felt inspired to work on the performances.  I can't believe how affected I was by the election. I started doing these Queer drawings, and it's been a nice way to be political and in your face but also have these affirming images of the community that I want to see. They are fun and unpredictable things happen in them. 

I'm looking at the drawings and I see you and friends, which is great. Others have celebrities like Cher and Divine. Are you conscious of using yourself and your friends in the work when you sit down to draw them?

Yes, but most of them are different faces I’ve seen. Some are celebrates and some come from a drawing group at the museum (Leslie-Lohman Museum Of Gay and Lesbian Art) has. They have a male model every week and sometimes I'll take one of these drawings and work on them at home. I don't see any trans woman or trans men posing at these. I want to make this dialogue between trans bodies and different genders.

And then in that in-between forms in some of the drawings, and  I am inspired to use symbols of Queerness

From different decades Joan Crawford, Cher and Divine. Also, there are happens to be this man wearing a harness who looks like me with a flower in his ass. These two queer folks gender nonconforming are enjoying the first day of spring with a masculine flower vase.

CUNT 3.14.2017 Weird Sisters, 2017, pigma pen on paper, 9x12 inches

There's like a certain humor to most of them. Some are obviously erotic but I think for the most part there's like an inherent humor. Is that something that you're conscious of when you're putting them together or deciding where people are going to be placed on the page?

Humor is a great way to get people to look and to listen.  It's a sneaky way that I get people to see the people in these images. I want them to like or to find something endearing about them. It’s nice that people who don’t identify as queer can make associations with the people in my drawings. Many of them are of my friends horsing around. 

In this drawing I was inspired Vincent Tiley who collaborated with Chris Habana to do a performance at the Museum of Art and Design. Instead of humans I drew the figures as unicorns and changed their bodies a little bit. But for the most part this is what Vincent Tiley's sculpture with the jewelry looked like. Chris Habana’s jewelry is gorgeous and it's totally impractical.  His jewelry makes the wearer suffer It's suffering by choice it's a fetish. People may look at this and feel uncomfortable but by making it a unicorn it's kind of endearing. 

CUNT 6.20.2017 Unicorn Games, 2017, pigma pen on paper, 9 x 12 inches

Yeah it's a different thing, totally. You center everything on the page nothing is pushed off the edge or hidden, why do you make it all visible? 

No I like that they are illustration. I love Norman Rockwell's really cheesy family portraits of Americana, but I am also inspired by Edward Gorey’s unsettling family images. So cheesy and unsettling could turn into Queer Americana.

I went to see Jennifer Finney Boylan and Caitlyn Jenner speak at the 92nd Street Y. I live in New York so I can see shit like that. I enjoyed their conversation and the things Caitlyn said pleasantly surprised me.  It's so easy to attack someone who is coming from privilege, you know? But, transitioning sucks for everyone.  She maybe doesn’t look like she's suffering but she's suffering, that's for sure. In this way she's conscious of being a role model for other trans people.

Do you see these becoming some sort of like book?  

Yes, potentially...this series of work is interrelated. I like that they can also be broken down into smaller series. As the year goes on they are going to divide up into different categories with in the series. I definitely want to do a coloring book, coloring books are things that I’ve made in the past and I enjoy. Coloring books are accessible for a lot of people. I’ve also been thinking about doing a printmaking residency. I could see these evolve to the next level as etchings or silkscreens or something like that. 

They lend themselves to so many different project possibilities. Their current scale is personal but I’d love to see them super large and in your face. It would give it a different life. 

Looking at these now and seeing the unicorns here and Joan Crawford I’m thinking about video or animation. Possibly life size…like a stage set, inspired by Edward Gorey’s Dracula. He created an animation for mystery, when I was a kid I loved watching it.

That would be really cool. I don't know how to do that. That's something I definitely would need to ask around for help on.

Have you seen the movie “Fantastic Planet” It’s all animation and there's a lot of brain imagery and sexual imagery. 

So you're doing these and then you're also are you working on other series too?  Is this the primary series? 

I have footage from “Ranger Risky” that I’m trying to finish up and put together a video for “Kelly the Cub Scout.”  

[Looking at the paintings behind Cupid] Do you know about Ingo Swann? He’s this artist that government to paid to see through walls. He made art and wrote books about seeing aliens, psychic abilities and desire. He really had an otherness quality that was genuine. I have been trying to Astro-project before I go to sleep at night and now I feel inspired to make-work in outer space.  I'm dead serious; I'm going to figure this out.  I'm not sure about how to do this project. I have a good friend who is also interested in doing work about Space. Sci-fi is a kind of escape from my daily grind. 

[Viewing at Kelly the Cub Scout]

In this video I'm wearing my brother's Cub Scout shirt, which I and grew into. I had this elaborate fantasy around it. My brother hated the Cub Scouts. He was over it he never really did anything in the Scouts. I made up all these things in this performance like getting a Swiss Army knife. My brother got a knife when he was 10 years old, I didn't get a knife neither did my sisters. Then we all complain about it so much that we all got these crazy survival knives.

I shaved all my body hair off to transform into this character and I used that hair to make this fire starter. That's like an ongoing thing I want to redesign the packaging for it, it’s like a sculpture kind of performing performance piece. People can buy my body hair and start fires! It smells terrible. 

[Watching the video] This is my ideal bedroom, which was my little bedroom for months to the month at Vermont Studio Center. There is a poster of Prince and the Revolution, and Michael Jackson and E.T., and Smokey the Bear. 

I’m working on editing the “Ranger Risky” video has taken me a couple of years because I just haven't had time to finish it but now I feel inspired because Wonder Woman is back.  Wonder Woman plays a key role and when I'm dealing with the ranger for this video series. 

Is it a character that you think you're going to reprise?

It's a character that I have I'm going to edit all the shorts and put out. It’s finishing up a lot of things that have been hanging around because I haven't had a to of time to devote to editing. 

That takes a long time.

I thought about getting another iPhone to have two angles because using the iPhone has been so much easier to take photographs.  I have this doll called “Not Me,” and not me is a pillow person sewn to full size my size.  My size is kids size, right? 5’2” 100 lbs., the doll is a recreation of a doll my mother made. So, I’m like putting this little project in here and there too. How did this relate?

This was the reason why I bought the book it all sounds like a puzzle or something to do with a childhood but it's a really deeply personal thing to be wearing your brother's Cub Scout uniform and then also to be carrying around a doll that is exactly your size.

Exactly! Exactly!  I'm time traveling to my child to talk about these things I think are interesting or unique or queer. The doll doesn't have a gender. You put the doll in wherever clothes you want to and it’s whatever gender then. It’s made out of old bed sheets and I have these little photos on my Instagram which taken with my iPhone about with this doll does, because the doll does things that I "don’t do".  It's kind of like making fun of myself a little bit but tongue in cheek. There is one of the doll sitting on the toilet in my tiny bathroom. It says only “Not Me, only gets alone time in the bathroom." Something like that or, putting the doll in bed and gravity pulls the doll down in places so it looks more human than not. It's interesting that we played with this doll that was like a miniature person to play with, and then as a kid we would do little craft things. Yesterday I spent three hours making 40 origami pieces because number one I wanted to calm the fuck down because I’m on vacation and just do something that I could focus on without a computer. We used to do this when I was a kid and now it helps my creative process. I’ve been drawing little faces on them, thinking how expressive they could be. Anyway it was like time traveling back to my childhood for a few hours.  

Well, there is no specific destination with this. Sometimes it's just nice to make something and then like maybe later down the line leads to something or maybe it doesn’t.

Absolutely mundane, turn off my brain and just go with the flow.

I just did this presentation at VCU and I'm thinking about archetypes of masculinity and I've been doing it the whole time throughout my career and certainly until I prepared a presentation for VCU…in my undergrad I was making paintings of Elvis Presley. I kind of masculinity icon of sexuality controversy also male beauty…

Especially in those later years.

Oh yea. Gluttony.  It was interesting because I was an Elvis Presley fan and I grew up as an Elvis Presley fan. When I stopped painting portraits of Elvis, I started painting portraits of myself and I painted myself with no hair. I would remove my gender, I’d do pull-ups and pushes ups and photographed myself and make these black and white paintings. It was very hard to tell my gender in this process. At that time I didn't have the language of like trans or queer. Nobody talked to me about identity politics or identity… because I didn't know what I was doing and no one around me knew how to talk to me about it. They were just like, “fat over lean, here’s paint go do your thing.” 

Painting is also this older mode. Where if you make your work as a performance maybe it has more impact for the subject matter that you're talking about.  That may be my bias.

I think it's attention span. You know like sitting down and taking time to focus on something is hard for people to do because we have so many things flashing in front of us. Noticing everyone on their phones on the train they're not participating because there's this dialogue with your eyes you have the people you look at them on the train.  If there's someone crazy doing something you shoot a look at someone and you smile like you're like, “OK I'm not the only one.” It’s this silent kind of communication. That's something I think in the queer community constantly finding places to see each other. Whether you see yourself in a museum, whether you see yourself in a drawing series or you connect with… someone contacted me and said, “I really like how you draw these figures.  I really like the hair on these figures I really like the line quality. I like that they're in this pseudo sexual but mostly playful kinds of kinds of poses.”  The sex is there sex is always there it's going to be there but it's more about intimacy it's about community. 

You're creating something that’s deeply personal but I also feel like you've done a good job of making it not so personal that others can't enter into it.  It has a more universal feeling to it than, “Oh this is me doing all of these things.”   When you're playing a character there's a humor to it that allows everybody else to be in on it, and it doesn’t need to have a page of text for a viewer to understand it

Exactly. Exactly. It's right in front of you.

The most universal for me looking at your website was the “Cupid” series.  It seems super personal to have these people coming to you for these love prescriptions.  It’s also pretty evident that it’s a wide range of people who came not just those who are queer identified.  Can you talk a little bit about what that experience was like?

Yeah, that was a good series because I learned in that series to let people come to you instead of trying to people to try to sell something to people or entice people because I would hold a sign and I realized that maybe more of like oh, “ I have this, come here come here, come here.”  People were like, “We’re in New York. Why would we want to come to you, why should we come over there, what’s this about?”  When I sat down and waited for people and they were too curious to find out what I was doing. “You're just going to sit here and talk to us?”  I said, “ yeah” In 10 to 15 minutes you're (the person sitting with Cupid)  going to give me some kind of insight that you don't even realize that I am telling to you and I'm going to I'm going to figure out what that is and get back to you. People just dump, they’re so excited to talk about themselves, their feelings and was going on.  When I was a barber I’d ask them open questions and they just would tell me everything. When you say you’ll take time to listen you're going to somehow transform their information is something they can use. It doesn't cost anything. People are really excited about it. That was a unique kind of thing.

It's cool that you're saying that people were so open about it.  That's an experience you have in New York, most people seem really closed but once you have a conversation with somebody… for the most part people are open to that connection to talk to somebody.

Yeah, I can't help myself I have to break the rules I have to talk to someone on the train. If I like their outfit I tell them, if I smell their food and it smells good and I hate them I'm going to say, “Hey, I hate you your food smells really good. Where do you get it?” That was a really good performance to interact with a wide variety of people. It was training because it was work. I was like a real psychologist I was like, “oh, shit should I get certified and start charging?” 

You could.

But all this life experience listening to people like, I was a barber for seven years and I would talk to people about their lives for seven years so I had…all these different kinds of people straight, gay, families, non-families, drunks, and tow truck drivers with one eyebrow. 

Everybody needs a haircut.

Or, it plays some kind of role in your life at some point. They want to haircut and you just let people talk, some people don't want to talk. They're like, “I talk all day I hate fucking talking.” That would be me when I would go home, I don't want to talk about work. I spent all day talking about work when I come home I to think about art I want to think about something fun something new for me. Looking into the Sci-Fi thing or like mythology or looking at archetypes of identity is something that I've been also doing with these because I see archetypes and queer identities starting to pop out of these [referring to the drawings].

When do you typically make your work?

In the morning before going to work is when I get my best work done and for the “C U Next Tuesday” drawings I'll start drawing at the beginning of the day and finish it when I come home and that's like the thing I'm looking forward to when I'm coming home from work because I know that I have to do this drawing. Having these kind of deadlines…like the  “Love Prescription,” thing every month on the 14th day of the month I would go find a spot to do this and I would tell people 24 hours beforehand.  When you ask permission people ask too many questions and when you just show up and do it people say, “Oh that was cool, I'm going to tag you on my Instagram and repost this.”  For the people who participated it was it was much more than that.

For these specific drawings Tuesday is a full day, start the day with a drawing and end the day with a drawing and I work in between. Then the rest of the time I'm doing research in the morning or working through these files to figure out what I want to do and I was looking at archetypes and reading a bunch of science fiction kinds of things. I just picked up “Otherwise: Imagining queer feminist art histories-imagining a New Queer Reader,” that my friend Kris Grey just he helped write an article about trans identity a over year ago. Between reading Otherwise and Edward Gordy's Books and editing Ranger Risky I have my summer cut out for me. 

For additional information about Cupid please visit his website, Tumblr, or Instagram

Jordan Nassar visited by Nick Naber

Jordan's Gowanus studio is a narrow light filled space covered in embroidery. Many works from his various series can be seen on the walls, at his desk a larger scale landscape in the works. After taking a look around we sat down and started our conversation. 

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When you’re making one of these larger embroideries how do you map them out?

I should start with the fundamentals - my work is based in Palestinian traditional embroidery, most of it is on dresses and in the home, where it's on pillows and wall hangings. Most cultures around the world have cross-stitch traditions, but Palestinian cross-stitch is recognizable for its density and recognizable composition.  On dresses, it’s mostly seen in rectangular shapes around the neck and then an upside down triangle on the chest. It's decorative, but it's also full of social information and superstition. There are little flourishes, and the most important thing about that in terms of how it leads to what I'm doing, is that each pattern is traceable to a specific village. Each symbol has a name and areas that it is found in. 

It's almost like a way of saying, “Hey, I'm from there.

Exactly. Early on, the first time I did one, I was playing around with some of the traditional patterns, but soon after I thought, “Wait, I’m not from Ramallah, not from Bethlehem or Jerusalem, I'm from New York but I'm Palestinian; so how do I participate in this traditional medium?”

I've invented 20 or so symbols based off of similar things that the Palestinian symbols draw from - daily life things, local geographical and topographical features, flora, fauna. Their naming of these symbols is in a very representational abstraction kind of way. Meaning, it's cross-stich, which is basically pixels, right? So it's a grid and it's not at all figurative like the traditional style in the West. You'll see a zigzag and it represents a valley or you'll---I mean it's a lot of rectangles or lines or triangles or whatever and they're named all sorts of things different flowers and stuff but it's really just rectangles and triangles.

Do you think it’s coming from religion?

I don't think it's religion. I think that it might have been a little bit affected by that, but it's organic to the medium. They didn't try to be figurative because of that. It’s a grid-based system, it’s not natural to draw organic forms with it. 

So it becomes a sort of shorthand in a way?

It's hard to know, but for example, a rectangle with little “teeth”coming off one edge is called 'graves' [looking at a book of Palestinian Embroidery] and it could be anything but you're just calling it graves. Now I’m assuming that that represents a grave. Actually it's just a kind of geometric abstract shape. There's an interesting thing that happened in Palestine--there's a line in history where in the late eighteen hundreds or mid-eighteen hundreds Europeans came, obviously they’d been there before. At this time it was right before the Balfour Declaration. I think at that time they brought their wives and their wives brought pattern books with them from Europe. This is when you start seeing figurative motifs that appear pixelated, in the european style, showing up in Palestinian embroidery.  So you see these organic things in a grid, and the older stuff you still see looks like Islamic geometry.  That's a big difference.

The Rose pieces are about that moment where these european rose patterns, that are designed in red and black on white, enter the Palestinian embroidery vocabulary. In these pieces I replace part of the red with green, making it the four colors of the Palestinian flag, and the flags of many other Arab countries. Here I'm thinking, “When are these floral patterns Palestinian? How long does it take for them to become Palestinian?” Nowadays you see them all over the dresses, wall hangings, etc. You might consider them not really Palestinian, because you know that they came from Europe – but then again it’s been in the medium for over a hundred years. It addresses cultural exchange and identity... and in my mind, this European-Palestinian is a historical example of a lot of what I see happening between Israelis and Palestinians – sharing of culture, as time goes on, growing closer.

Antique Palestinian Rose Patterns 1-3, 2015, Hand-embroidery in cotton on Aida on canvas, 24 x 20 Inches

You've created your own language, like in Palestine, would they understand the symbology of it?

What I imagine is that if you were a Palestinian who does this kind of embroidery you would see mine and say, oh it's Palestinian embroidery. Then you would look at it again and say, wait, I don't recognize any of these symbols. The point is more that these are the symbols coming from New York, the way that they would see a dress and be like, oh this person is from Nablus, I can see the symbol and the symbol is a classic Nablus symbol. For me in a way it's more about participating as a Palestinian-American in this tradition. 

That's why in my landscapes there are two layers. First I do the pattern, which is what I print out like this one [Illustrator sketch] and then as you can see, where I draw lines on top is the painterly moment. I like to mess around and I change things. The pattern is the part I'm counting when I start the work. After, I follow these lines and work with the colors. 

Is there someone that influences your work in any way?

I love to consider, with these works, that I am in conversation with Etel Adnan, the Lebanese painter, poet, and writer. She's in her 80s, and her work and life has had a big effect on me in this past year. I'd seen her paintings here and there at art fairs, and as time went on I learned more about her biography and I felt some sort of shared experience with her. She was born in Lebanon and I think in the 30s into a middle class family. She was raised speaking French, she never really spoke Arabic. She was raised around Arabic in Lebanon, but she spoke French, and she writes a lot about how everything was about Paris, that Paris was the center of the world. She made a lot of her work about being from a colony of this great power. She leaves in the 50s and goes to California, over this period of time she travels back and forth between Paris and America. Later on she ends up teaching at a university on the west coast.

A lot of her writing is political, about colonization. Adnan considers herself in exile from Lebanon, since the civil war in the 70s. A lot of her work has to do with identifying as Arab, but then not feeling Arab enough in other contexts. In her earlier work, making artist's books, she would copy famous poems in Arabic, but she did not really understand them. But the kicker is that she didn't try to understand every word, she just understood what she understood, and so the work became about her exploring her Arabness, and maybe exposing her not-arab-enough-ness, via her relationship to the language and poetry. She also draws all over these artist's books, they're beautiful.  One thing that she said that has stuck with me forever is that she writes in French and English, but but paints in Arabic. Her paintings are abstract landscapes -t there's no language, right – and I just thought that was really damn beautiful. I know how she feels.

For me that's important because it's something that I've experienced, where in making work I was always shy about the fact that I'm really very American, even though my father is Arab. I was was raised speaking English, and yes, I learned Arabic, I got a tutor in high school and then studied Modern Standard Arabic in college. But my knowledge of the Arabic language is not first hand or lived. In the past I would never use Arabic script in anything because I though it was fake. Instead of shy away from that she made me realize that mine is an uncommon perspective and that I shouldn't hide it, but I should use it. I should explore that and, I should poke at that and take advantage of that.

Why did you choose her landscapes to 'respond to'?

I think place and land always has an important role, especially with the Middle East and especially with Palestine. Lebanon too. Etel will sometimes focus on a certain mountain by her house and in the in the Bay Area or whatever, but mostly her landscape paintings are abstract shapes and colors they're not a real place. 

When I'm admiring one of her paintings I'm looking at the colors and the shapes and the pairings of colors. I enjoy the surprise of a tiny bit of this or that color that you wouldn't expect, and how exciting that is and all that kind of stuff that has nothing to do with the fact that it's a landscape or not. By making it a landscape, by having a slope and including a horizon, maybe even having a sun, I just think that, in the realm of abstract paintings, you're giving the viewer a point of access, a starting point.

I like how it locates the viewers’ body in space when there's a horizon – I think that's really important in terms of the viewer accessing the work. You could turn any one of her works or my works on its’ side, and it's not a landscape anymore, it’s just shapes and colors. But you wouldn't have that same fundamental access point. 

Even with these landscapes, once you look at a ton of them it's like some of them are very vaguely landscapes, like they're just a couple of horizontal lines of color. In the larger context it is clearly a landscape, but in any other context, or alone, you wouldn't necessarily think that it was landscape. There are different levels of abstraction that she goes to and some of them are crazy and some of them are simple. She's prolific with them. I felt like there was so much to respond to with those visuals. I like how minimal the visuals are. I like the use of color, the playing with color. It's an exercise that's fun and there is something visceral where you look at these colors, I think is universal. 

Obviously, it's more than borrowing her visuals. I do feel that even though it's a bit cheeky of me to say I feel that I am in conversation with her, but I fancy that idea because in a way, though she has experienced what she's experienced in terms of being in exile in terms of the war, the fundamental things are about being Arab versus not being Arab enough, and fitting in, and all that kind of stuff - and I have experienced exactly that. My family is made up of immigrants and I am a second generation Arab-American so similar, but different too. Issues of nostalgia versus reality, and this made-up homeland versus the actuality in that place, and what it means to be Arab in that context versus what it means to be Arab in that context, etc. I was coming up against similar issues in my life, under a different situation.

With my work of course there's that second level, it's not just about these landscapes, it's also the fact that I’ve overlaid these geometric Palestinian embroidery patterns. 

You identify with her because there are similarities between the two of you. It opened something for you in the work that you make.

It's like without her knowing me, she’s a mentor. 

It sounds like a good gift to learning from her.

Her biography and seeing what decisions she has made is empowering for me. To claim my Palestinian identity even though even though I'm American. I pass for White, which is how I'm thinking about it now, whereas growing up it wasn’t a thing. It's very current - before 9/11 Arabs in New York were just considered White. There was never a “Middle Eastern” option. Then suddenly people start to differentiate Arabs way more than before. And all this talk lately of privilege and passing and all that kind of stuff has made me think, because I have family members that are light-skinned, and family members that are dark-skinned, and I forget that I could have come out totally “Arab-looking”. Like we call Obama Black, because he looks Black, but he's half Black. I look white but I'm half Arab. I completely understand that I enjoy the privilege of passing this way and walking down the street as a white man, but that's passing, which is different than identity. But for me it's also that when I'm among a bunch of Arabs from the Middle East or in the Middle East I feel very white and very outside of that. I think that's actually the more difficult side of the coin for me.

And does that translate any way into the work?

A lot of the zines I make are much more explicit, because I don't want to be explicit in my visual art but in the end I thinkzines are a way for me to be a little more direct. I don't plan zines really, I have an idea and I collect a bunch of stuff and print out a bunch of stuff and then one crazy night I stay up a couple of hours and cut and paste and copy. It's definitely a way to expend a lot of energy because typically I sit for hours and hours working on one embroidery piece. The zines have a lot more direct imagery in them. There is Arabic writing and Hebrew writing along with pictures and other stuff. What I like about making zine work is there's definitely a community element to it - whether that means just seeking out other Arab Americans and trying to develop relationships, especially gay arabs here. I'm interested in building up my “family”; this is something that is also a part of it where we discover shared experience. It's special and our conversation is always about the food that we want to eat because we haven't had it since we’ve been with our families, or whatever. We'll cook together and we listen to the Arabic pop divas and watch Arab Idol.  We embrace the fact that some of us speak Arabic some of us don't, some of us read it and some of us can't. 

The point is, that first push of not sweeping it under the rug, but embracing it, was Etel Adnan for me, and that's why I can't ever manage to talk about my work without mentioning her in some way or another.  She's changed my life. 

I made this this body of work for this show in London I had a year and a half ago [gestures to the work on the floor] those white and blue ones. I like them a lot, but they do feel academic to me. They're very planned, they're very calculated. Every element has a reason and it's all tied up, which is great, it's strong work or whatever. Between then and now it's like this floodgate has opened. Now I'm making these landscapes. I think it also was a matter of practice, where I've now been embroidering like this for six or seven years, so now I’m technically at a point where I can freestyle more and I can just wing it. I'm basically painting. Many times I'm sitting here on a sheet and the color looks weird so I change whatever I planned. It's much more... it's not being processed and thought-out and everything accounted for; it's emotional and it's what's coming out and that has been hard. It's exciting, but it's more, I just feel more honest. 

interior page from: WHEN IT'S NAKED, 2015 - ZINE, EDITION OF 50

It feels like it's just more from your heart. 

Or it’s because I'm not thinking it up and I’ve been thinking, “this makes sense conceptually and this you know references this and this references that.”

You're not solving this weird problem, you're really making work about something. 


Can you talk about these patch works?

These are like a Western version of the Palestinian dresses, they're like wearing patches on your jacket. They identify your team or location basically. It's similar functions of identification, but it's also a cooler more punky aesthetic. I made them a year ago when I was in L.A. for a month and a half for work and I couldn’t bring my studio, so I brought some of this fabric and one ball of yarn and that's all I needed and I would make little patches and just keep them in a bag and then when I got back to New York, I put them together, arranged them conceptually. Each one has a theme and those patches are made based off of all things that I saw around, and took pictures of and turned them into patterns. Again, that's a similar function of how Palestinians get their patterns - it's also from their surroundings. Mine are a bit more obvious, like there are even logos and stuff like that. 

Damascus Gate, 2016, Hand-embroidery in cotton on Palestinian hand-woven cotton on canvas, 24 x 20 Inches

What about these on the colorful background?

They're based off of ironwork that I've seen around NYC, that I take pictures of, turn into embroidery patterns, and then manipulate in Illustrator. They're mirrored and abstracted as though they were reflected in a puddle or pool of water. 

It seems like a far throw from Palestine, but in my head there's this conceptual connection with these. In Israel there are a lot of cities that used to be Palestinian cities, and I think a lot about them. For example, in Israel there is a city called Ashkelon, it used to be a Palestinian city called Majdal, where they invented this type of weaving called “Majdalawi Weaving”. This weaving was specific to that area. As I said before similar, types and weavings happened in other places but their weaving is all about the warp and then the weft is just a tiny little thread holding it together. The colors are on the warp, and this technique as they did it there doesn't really exist anymore. What it ends up being is these kinds of greens and gold and reds.

The point is, now it's Ashkelon, but maybe in some parallel universe Majdal is still there. Like, you know on TV shows, Grey's Anatomy for example, when someone dies and then they appear in the same room but everyone is gone and it's the same place, but it’s a parallel alternate universe or plane or whatever? I have this imaginary thing like that Majdal is still there, and remnants or clues are even visible in our universe.  Specifically in these pieces though, the imagery of the 'reflection' comes from C.S. Lewis, in “The Magician's Nephew”, where there's all those puddles in the forest, and they jump in one and come out in a different place, a different world. 

So these pieces, even though these don't look like it, they're still very much about Palestine-Israel for me, but just in a very abstract way. 

Why do you refer to your work as grandma style?

It's a woman's thing [embroidery] and it definitely has to do with dowry, classic daugher-marrying-off stuff, like “look at her fine handwork – marry her!”

The fundamental things are conceptual – the NY/Palestinian symbols are mine. But then it's like I just get to decorate the canvas, basically, because that is a traditional function of the embroidery.  Embellishment. It has social functions. It's decoration. It's supposed to be pretty. 

Is 'prettiness' something you look for in artwork?

I guess it comes down to the idea that with visual art, the point is to communicate visually. If you're not getting something visually, that work is failing. I don't get off on reading a press release in order to try to figure out what I'm supposed to be looking at. I want to at least see something and be like that's beautiful, think, what's going on here?, and learn more about it. You don’t need to understand everything about the work from looking at it, that's impossible. But there should be an idea. I like a lot of smart work that has many levels. One of which is beauty - and that can be ugliness, it can be that it's violent looking or scary or dark. It doesn’t have to be like flower or something literally 'pretty', but just... something to look at. 

Yeah. It's the best way to put it. 

For more information about Jordan please visit his website, or check out his Instagram @jordannassar

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