What are you curious about?
How can spaces, places, forms that are considered ugly - industrial waste lands, the spaces beneath scaffolding or under overpasses, dirty snow crusting in piles in the dead of gray winter - be so beautiful cast in the right light? What is the right light? Where is that moment of beauty to be found in the inherently “ugly”? How to get to the core truth of a thing, of self? Through forms, color, space, I am searching for something that is true; an expression of a feeling or idea, yes, but also something previously unknown to myself. Making art reveals a surprise to me every time - something I didn’t know was inside me; the creation of images I didn’t know I was capable of. This happens on the best days. Erin:
Describe your art and describe your process.
I work in a really open ended way. Lately I have started with canvas or paper that is proportional to a series of 11x8” paintings begun in 2012. This proportion seemed to work really well for me in terms of scaling up and down. It can feel like a space, like a body, a portrait, an object, or a mental space such as memory depending on the size of the canvas or paper. However, this is just where the work has taken me since 2012. It could radically change in the coming years. I try not to limit myself too much in terms of size, medium, or subject matter. All the work is abstract now, but it references real concrete experiences of the world: nature, urban industrial landscapes, bodies and body parts, etc. Images come to mind and I jot them down in my hand-made sketchbooks. I work with the same forms over and over until they change or morph meaning and evolve into new forms. It is an organic way of working. I try not to limit or control the imagery much beyond a formal need for composition, color, space, etc. I search for beauty in forms but also try to push against formal beauty. I try to challenge the viewer to consider certain colors, forms, ideas that may feel rough or abrasive or against an internal order and to consider a new view that can open the concept of beauty into unexpected realms. Erin:
You work in vastly different sized canvases - from very small to massive paintings. How does size matter in communicating an idea?
I like to play with scale - what does it feel like to “walk into” a painting, to feel immersed by it? My largest works to date are 72x60” which is my body size (I am 6 feet tall), to it is as though the painting could be me, or meet me eye to eye. Conversely, I love working in the intimate scale of the smallest of my paintings and drawings, where my eye can encompass the entire piece all at once without having to move my head. These paintings feel like they are inside me - very internal works that express a feeling rather than a space. Medium works feel figurative more than anything else; they are like seeing someone at a distance. They contain elements of the internal, yet they can be almost portrait like in scale as well. Like beings unto themselves. Erin:
Having received your Master's in painting at the New York Studio School, you studied under a great master, Bill Jensen. How has working with this artist shaped your approach today? What is the best thing you got from your Master's Program?
My time in graduate school from 2010-2012 at the unique and quirky New York Studio School in New York City’s West Village was a wonderful experience. I had a really intimate class in art history and theory taught by the art dealer Jeffrey Hoffeld and the critic and curator Karen Wilkin that met in the beautiful, tiny, but well stocked art library as well as the famous “Whitney” room - the original dining room of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, creator of the Whitney Museum of American Art and home to the museum’s first incarnations. The intimate discussions and debates taught me so much about the history of painting, which went far deeper than contemporary or 80s post modern theory that seems to take up so much space in academia today. We dove deep into Giotto, Goya, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Braque, Matisse, deKooning and so many other masters. I spent a lot of time considering the work of Philip Guston who had a studio in the 1960s at NYSS. Modernism and abstraction became a language that felt familiar to me. The ideas and theories of painting broke open through the amazing professors I encountered. Stanley Lewis’s drawing class was mind bending in the search for understanding space and how shapes fit together on a flat surface only to suddenly tilt into three dimension. In my last semester as I moved more into abstraction, I worked with Bill Jensen and Margrit Lewczuk. They taught self expression through discussion of materials and matter and through constantly looking and engaging with the NYC art scene. They brought in many friends and artists as visiting critics and the constant flow of intellect and critical dialog filled my studio. After two years I felt I had absorbed a great knowledge of painting that I brought back to my studio in south Brooklyn. Erin:
You often use classic oil painting techniques - linen and rabbit skin glue for sizing your canvases. Why is this important to you? Emily:
As part of my education at NYSS I learned a lot about the process of painting and old master techniques. There is something pure and elemental to me about using materials that are quite old and have been tried and tested for centuries. I use rabbit skin glue and linen simply because I like the idea of being true to a centuries old tradition and also because the luminosity they produce I have not found elsewhere. The same goes for my paints, inks, and pigments. Making paint is something I don’t often do anymore because of its toxicity and time constraints, yet it produces wonderful results and a consistency I find unmatched. In oil I like to paint thinly in veils, as with inks. Perhaps that is because I learned to paint from my father as a child in watercolor and that process has never left me. I love to use high quality paints and inks when I can, such as Williamsburg oils and Ecoline inks, because they create pure unadulterated color that I find easier to manipulate. Those pure colors speak to me and it is important to my process that the materials have a life of their own apart from the forms and space they create.Erin:
Coming from Kentucky, how has your heritage defined you as an artist today? How has Brooklyn changed you?
The Kentucky landscape in the past was a major part of my work; it was a vast internal space that I called upon - memories of natural sites and childhood experiences. The longer I am away, the more new places enter and, not so much push Kentucky away, but add to it so that it becomes smaller in importance. I suppose we are all somewhat haunted by childhood in a way. Time moves more slowly for children, and every experience of childhood was new, thus imprinting on our memories and bodies very deeply. Kentucky for me is like the magic place - a source of imagination and wonder that definitely seeps into my current work and also colors how I look at my present environment. I love the industrial parts of Brooklyn. The warehouses and structures surrounding the Gowanus Canal are sites I encounter often traveling to and from my studio. Yet I live across the street from Prospect Park, and perhaps it is the Kentucky in me that desires to experience the natural world daily. It is as necessary as breathing to look out and see trees across my skyline. Since moving to New York City in 2006, I have learned so much about the history of painting, and my work has become more intellectual and hopefully intelligent as I understand how my abstract painting may fit into a historical context. I try to maintain this balance between a sense of wonder and awe at the world while keeping a critical eye on the formalism and historical references in my painting. Erin:
How important is imagery in your work as a visual reference point for yourself and the viewer. Is ambiguity necessary, desired or crucial?
The forms in my work come from many sources: daily experiences of the clash between nature and the man made in urban NYC, memories of travels to foreign landscapes and cities, structures and forms I’ve encountered in natural and urban places, biological imagery gleaned from science text books, just to name a few. Sometimes I begin work on a painting with a semi-clear intent, such as expressing a memory or impression of a place or form. Sometimes the forms flow through and out of me in a sort of unconscious way. In all instances the initial work morphs into a space or being, a presence all its own. I never know what the final result will bring, nor do I know when a piece will be finished until it suddenly is. I can sit with a piece for months, thinking it finished, only to tear it down later and built it back again. I could finish a piece in an hour, or a year. Each piece is unique that way. Most of the pieces express both some initial deep personal intent as well as surprising elements I wasn’t aware of initially, but become more known to me over time. All this to say that I do not necessarily seek ambiguity, but that the process of painting itself is ambiguous and speaks to some deeper inner self that perhaps can never be fully known. Erin:
We see lots of sexual references in your work. Tell us more.
Emily: I have always been interested in nature - the natural world and landscape and how it interacts with man made environments - how we put our mark into the land. Human nature and plant nature can really be reduced down to a need to reproduce; to carry on despite environment and circumstance. As a child I loved drawing cellular structures of plants and animals in science class. I found joy in the precision of schematics. These ideas combined after grad school when I worked on a series of “biological drawings” based on images of the reproduction of plants. I got really into the abstract forms in the plant drawings and how the sexual organs of plants looked so human or animal. When reduced to a cellular level, everything begins to break down into beautiful abstract forms. Even before my conscious making of the “plant sex” drawings and paintings, my work was unconsciously turning toward sexual forms in drawings and larger paintings. Perhaps it was due in part to a “biological ticking clock” after I turned 30, I don’t know, but as my work often comes from a semi-conscious, internal, gestural place, my personal life and experiences must play a role in the emerging imagery.
If you could collaborate with anyone dead or alive who would it be with and what would it look like?
“only lonesomeness allows one to experience radical singularity, one’s greatest dignity and privilege.” -Marilynne Robinson I have a friend in Kentucky whom I used to collaborate with on occasion. Sharing ideas, talking in riddles. She is a writer and photographer. I write some too, and draw, and together we made a few artist books and shared some amazing adventures working abroad. To have this kind of collaboration of spirit is so fulfilling and rare. However, when it comes to painting, I am always 100% solo. My work is driven from an internal space that to share in its creation becomes inherently false. Perhaps that sounds egotistical, but it is not driven by a need to reveal myself to others so much as to reveal myself to myself. I don’t think I could find the forms I seek while in collaboration. At least not through painting. Painting is a very lonesome pastime. When bookmaking, papermaking or printmaking, all of which have been part of my artistic practice over the years, it is wonderful and often necessary to collaborate with other creatives. But painting...always alone.
Erin: If you had one superpower what would it be?
Emily: To speak and understand any language.