Monthly Archives: March 2013

Q: Your new work explores relationships to figures through the medium of soft pastel. What prompted this departure from photography?

A corner of the studio

A corner of the studio

A:  Actually it was the other way around.  As I’ve mentioned, I was a maker of pastel-on-sandpaper paintings long before I became a photographer (1986 vs. 2002).  However, the photos in the “Gods and Monsters” series were meant to be photographs in their own right, i.e., they were not made to be reference material for paintings.  in an interesting turn of events, in 2007 I started a new series, “Black Paintings,” which uses the “Gods and Monsters” photographs as source material.  Collectors who have been following my work for years tell me the new series is the strongest yet.  For now I’m enjoying where this work is leading.  The last three paintings are the most minimal yet and I’ve begun thinking of them as the “Big Heads.”  There is usually a single figure (“Stalemate” has two) that is much larger than life size.  “Epiphany” (above, left) is an example.  All of them are quite dramatic when seen in person, especially with their black wooden frames and mats.     

Comments are welcome! 

Q: Is there an overarching narrative in your photographs with Mexican and Guatemalan figures?

Untitled chromogenic print, 24" x 24," edition of 5

Untitled chromogenic print, 24″ x 24,” edition of 5

A:  Maybe, but that’s something for the viewer to judge. I never specify exactly what my work is about for a couple of reasons:  my thinking about the meaning of my work constantly evolves, plus I wouldn’t want to cut off other people’s interpretations.  Everything is equally valid.  I heard Annie Leibovitz interviewed some time ago on the radio. She said that after 40 years as a photographer, everything just gets richer. It doesn’t get easier, it just gets richer. I’ve been a painter for 27 years, a photographer for 11, and I agree completely. Creating this work is an endlessly fascinating intellectual journey.  I realize that I am only one voice in a vast art world, but I hope that through the ongoing series of questions and answers on my blog, I am conveying some sense of how artists work and think.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 32

Untitled, 24" x 24" chromogenic print, edition of 5

Untitled, 24″ x 24″ chromogenic print, edition of 5

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

We most certainly need to test ourselves against the most extreme possibilities, just as we are probably obligated not to express, share, and impart the most extreme possibility before it has entered the work of art.  As something unique that no other person would and should understand, as one’s personal madness, so to speak, it has to enter into the work to attain its validity and to reveal there an internal law, like primary patterns that become visible only in the transparency of artistic creation.  There exist nonetheless two freedoms to express oneself that seem to me the ultimate possibilities:  one in the presence of the created object, and the other within one’s actual daily life where one can show another person what one has become through work, and where one may in this way mutually support and help and (here understood humbly) admire one another.  In either case, however, it is necessary to show results, and it is neither lack of confidence nor lack of intimacy nor a gesture of exclusion if on does not reveal the tools of one’s personal becoming that are marked by so many confusing and tortuous traits, which are valid only for one’s own use.

Ulrich Baer, editor, The Wisdom of Rilke

Comments are welcome!

Q: Your “Gods and Monsters” series consists of tableaux of Mexican and Guatemalan figures that are photographed in a way that blurs certain elements to abstraction while others are in clear focus. Can you please speak more about this work?

Untitled chromogenic print, 24" x 24", edition of 5

Untitled chromogenic print, 24″ x 24″, edition of 5

A:  When I depict the Mexican and, more recently, Guatemalan figures in my pastel-on-sandpaper paintings, they are hard-edged, vibrant, and in-your-face. That’s a result of the way I work in pastel. I slowly and meticulously build up layers of pigment, blend them with my fingers, continually refine and try to find the best, most eye-popping colors. It’s a very slow process that takes months of hard work.  An aside…  One frustration I have as an artist – I am hardly unique in this – is that my audience only sees the finished piece and they look at it for perhaps ten seconds.  They rarely think about how their ten-second experience took me months to create! 

In 2002 when I began photographing these figures, I wanted to take the same subject matter and give it an entirely different treatment.  So these images are deliberately soft focus, dreamy, and mysterious. I use a medium format camera and shoot film.  I choose a narrow depth of field.  I hold gels in front of the scene to blur it and to provide unexpected areas of color.  Even as a photographer I am a colorist.

I want this work to surprise me and it does, since I don’t usually know what images I will get.  Often I don’t even look through the viewfinder as I position the camera and the gels and click the shutter.  I only know what I’ve shot after I’ve seen a contact sheet, usually the next day. 

The “Gods and Monsters” series began entirely as a reaction to my pastel paintings.  The latter are extremely meticulous and labor intensive.  At a certain point in the process I know more or less what the finished painting will look like, but there are still weeks of slow, laborious detail work ahead.  So my photographic work is spontaneous, serendipitous, and provides me with much-needed instant gratification. I find it endlessly intriguing to have two diametrically opposed ways of working with the same subject.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 31

A corner of Barbara's studio

A corner of Barbara’s studio

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

When we are children we unquestioningly see the objects around us as alive; we speak to them, give them names, breathe life into them.  The imagination knows no bounds.  As we grow up, we gradually lose this facility, until we finally arrive in an utterly “demystified” world that draws clear boundaries between what is alive and what is not, between subjective and objective perception.  According to Sigmund Freud, culture is the only domain in our modern society that gives a measure of legitimacy to the persistence of this infantile desire to see things as animate.  In the field of art, imagination is the precondition on which fiction of any sort rests; in art, mental states can be projected onto objects and images, but not in social reality or the sciences.

Dietrich Karner in Animism:  Modernity Through the Looking Glass

Comments are welcome!

Q: What’s on the easel today?

Untitled painting

Untitled painting

A:  I’ve been working on this pastel-on-sandpaper painting for a few weeks.

Comments are welcome!

Pearls from artists* # 30

East Hampton house

East Hampton house

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

And, just as the analysis of a film by a psychoanalyst can tell us about some implications and some sources of a labour that is all the less tightly under our control since the material problems we encounter during it make us insensible to tiredness and leave our unconscious quite free, so the interpretation of one of our works by the mind of an outsider can show it to us from a new, and revealing perspective.

How disturbed we should be, were there some machine that would allow us to follow the thousand brains in a cinema!  No doubt, we should stop writing.  We should be wrong to do so, but it would be a hard lesson.  What Jules de Noailles said (recounted by Liszt) is true:  ‘You will see one day that it is hard to speak about anything to anyone.’  Yet it is equally true that each person takes in or rejects the sustenance that we offer, and that the people who absorb it, do so in their own way; and this it is that determines the progress of a work through the centuries, because if a work were to send back only a perfect echo, the result would be a kind of pleonasm, an inert exchange, a dead perfection.

Andre Bernard and Claude Gauteur, editors, Jean Cocteau:  The Art of Cinema

Comments are welcome!

Q: What first intrigued you about Mexico?

"Myth Meets Dream," 1993, soft pastel on sandpaper, first painting that includes Oaxacan figures

“Myth Meets Dream,” 1993, soft pastel on sandpaper, first painting that includes Oaxacan figures

A:  In the early 90’s my husband, Bryan, and I made our first trip to Oaxaca and to Mexico City.  At the time I had become fascinated with the Mexican “Day of the Dead” celebrations so our trip was timed to see them firsthand.  Along with busloads of other tourists, we visited several cemeteries in small Oaxacan towns.  The indigenous people tending their ancestor’s graves were so dignified and so gracious, even with so many mostly-American tourists tromping around on a sacred night, that I couldn’t help being taken with these beautiful people and their beliefs.  From Oaxaca we traveled to Mexico City, where again I was entranced, but this time by the rich and ancient history.  On our first trip we visited the National Museum of Anthropology, where I was introduced to the fascinating story of ancient Meso-American civilizations  (it is still one of my favorite museums in the world); the ancient city of Teotihuacan, which the Aztecs discovered as an abandoned city and then occupied as their own; and the Templo Mayor, the historic center of the Aztec empire, infamous as a place of human sacrifice.  I was astounded!  Why had I never learned in school about Mexico, this highly developed cradle of western civilization in our own hemisphere, when so much time had been devoted to the cultures of Egypt, Greece, and elsewhere? When I returned home to Virginia I began reading everything I could find about ancient Mexican civilizations, including the Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and Maya. This first trip to Mexico opened up a whole new world and was to profoundly influence my future work. I would return there many more times.

Comments are welcome!