Phone Tag: Interview with Tiziana La Melia

smile even when its bad, chalk pastel on paper, 2016

smile even when its bad, chalk pastel on paper, 2016

Following an introduction from Rachelle Sawatsky, I Skyped with Vancouver-based artist Tiziana La Melia for the latest iteration of Phone Tag. Tiziana is active in both the literary and artistic communities in Vancouver, and her visual artwork often playfully blends narrative and imagery. In this interview, Tiziana describes current projects, how a space or location can affect what she makes, and attempting to balance an ideal working style with the demands of reality.

 

Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.

***

Innocent Oyster, water colour and flashe with collage on water-jet cut aluminum, led strip, 27" x 29"

Innocent Oyster, water colour and flashe with collage on water-jet cut aluminum, led strip, 27″ x 29″

LW: “What are you working on now? You mentioned that you have a studio visit later today. What will you show?”

TL: “I will be uncrating these free-standing paravent paintings that I started making last fall when I was at a residency at Parc Saint Léger, in a town called Pougues-les-Eaux. I recently got them back after exhibiting them at The Rooms in St. Johns, Newfoundland, but they don’t feel finished, so I need to look at them again now that I have more space to walk around them and look. I didn’t have room for that before. These works are called Purple Poses and there are three narrative threads, three sisters who are the three fates tickling the moon, a pond covered in algae blooms, and bodies made out of wine spills.

I’ve also been collaborating on the voice over for a film by Courtney Stephens. She’s a filmmaker who runs this screening series called Veggie Cloud in Los Angeles. The film-essay is based on letters from female travelers focused on illness and virtual and real time. I’m planning on going to L.A. in a week or two so we can be together to finish the script. It’s at a point where it is challenging to collaborate from a distance. It is also an excuse to see some art and connect with friends.

The third thing that I’m been preoccupied by is a manuscript for a long poem. I’m not sure what the title is going to be. Either The Eyelash and the Monochrome, or maybe Staring at the Ceiling Seeing D.O.G. It’s a text that I started in 2014 as part of an exhibition at Mercer Union in Toronto also called The Eyelash and The Monochrome. A version of the text is printed on dye sublimation bed spreads, but when I was invited to submit a manuscript to Talon Books this March it felt like the occasion to return to some of the ideas in this work, and to think about scale in writing and the time-based-ness of it, which are really obvious things… But thinking of books more as a form or space and its material though this space began to consume me. It’s not so unlike the script with Courtney, which has me thinking about similar things in terms of the formal and material conditions of working with language and time, and in this instance I am responding to images already shot for the film, and linking it to our research, but also again struck by the sensation of time. Which, with painting I think about sometimes, but in a very different way. More as a still document of time.”

Staring at the ceiling, performance documentation, Contemporary Art Gallery Vancouver, 2016

Staring at the ceiling, performance documentation, Contemporary Art Gallery Vancouver, 2016

LW: “Since you just moved studios, you can unpack this work in a new space now. Was this super-disruptive, or does having a studio matter less because a lot of your practice is writing?”

TL: “It’s been really disruptive. Before this move, I had just reorganized and expanded the space at Model, which also functioned as a gallery and event space. My studio tends to be messy, with layers of activity, storage, gestures…the incidental collision of different modes of working really influences how I think through my work.

Moving to the current space was unplanned. I wasn’t even looking for a new studio. I was going to try working from my garden, because, as you said, with a writing practice I can be more flexible. So I thought: Maybe I’ll work completely outdoors. I’m really lucky to live in a house with a big back yard and a landlord who I’ve become friends with who encourages us to use the space how we like. I was also fantasizing about setting up in the old fruit stand in my parent’s orchard in the Okanagan Valley; it’s about 4 hours from Vancouver. I was recently out there to work for an artist who has a ranch across the lake from where I was raised. Being there this time made me really feel like there was something unique to not being in the city… to experience things like boredom, but also being in tune to hear your own thoughts without the constant interruptions of the city. The ideal way I would want to work is a place that is quiet so I can tune into how I am actually feeling and to what’s happening in the world. Here, I end up absorbing the stress of the city; it is numbing. The last time I was in New York I felt that so dramatically. If you have the choice it seems crucial to try to be in a space conducive to the work you want to do, even thought I’m not sure I know what that is yet.”

burning herb on the four corners, 22" x 33", gesso, aluminum, mugwort, gaouche, on canvas, 2016

burning herb on the four corners, 22″ x 33″, gesso, aluminum, mugwort, gaouche, on canvas, 2016

LW: “Right, this is a question that I like to ask people: Is it more important as an artist to be in a city like Vancouver or L.A. or New York, where it is expensive, big, busy, distracting, or to be in a quieter place and you can focus, but its like–really quiet…?”

TL: “I grew up in a really tiny town, so the city always held this fascination and mystery for me, and also this possibility of reinventing yourself—of forming an identity outside the sort of conservatism of smaller places. For me, that felt like what I wanted to do. It felt more free…. I think I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. Just being in a ranch, where there were other artists and encountering other sorts of livelihoods and animals and plants and flowers and, like, silence… It’s just a total different thing. But also I just had more time; one day felt like four days.”

LW: “It sounds like being outside of a city is your ideal.”

TL: “I mean, I love cities—the access to libraries and museums and public institutions and friends. I used to embrace the constant distraction, as a kind of resource. But I don’t feel like it’s necessarily a good life. I don’t want to submit to that kind of resourcefulness.”

LW: “Do you think you would have had the same opportunities, the same people asking you to submit writings to things, those kinds of connections, if you were in the middle of nowhere?”

TL: “Not if I hadn’t come to the city. They would have been different opportunities and a different life. I wouldn’t have the gained access to certain opportunities or had the same jobs and encounters that lead to things. I was talking to the writer Steffanie Ling yesterday, who had brought up the luxury of staying home if you don’t want to go out. The social aspect of art is a significant aspect to participating as an artist in the city.  But it’s not the only way to be.

When I’m working on a project, I like to work in a continuous way. I don’t like to like socialize much when I’m working on creative projects, so that’s when I was thinking I could go to the Okanagan for stints of time where I have a deadline, and then I could live in the city when I’m doing research or working on things that don’t rely on a studio space. The reality in the city is that it’s hard to be fluid. A day in the studio has so many interruptions. I do contract work, and otherwise have my own schedule, which can be in conflict with the 9 to 5 of the world.”

Who is the boss of my dreams? Dye sublimation on silk, powder coated medical screen 2016

Who is the boss of my dreams?, Dye sublimation on silk, powder coated medical screen, 2016

LW: “Would an ideal day in the studio be working for 8 hours at a time? Do you need that long of a period?”

TL: “Totally, I love having a full 10 hours to lead up to like an hour of something—extraordinarily inefficient. But this doesn’t necessarily mean always working on the thing. When I used to have a studio in my apartment, I’d be tending to things around the house. I like just to be around the materials that I’m working with, but doing other things like reading and writing, making a meal…gardening. Ideally it would be all those things and kind of moving in between them. Ideally the art part is just one of the many things to care for in a day.

I don’t work in the mornings, so that’s why when I’m working on a project I become anti-social. Most people work a 9 to 5, and I tend to start at 5 pm and work until whenever. I start when I do and then I like to keep working as long as I can. I don’t get to do that very often, but that’s how I would like to work.”

LW: “When did you first think of yourself as an artist? And is that a different timeline than when you first thought of yourself as a writer?”

TL: “I don’t remember exactly when I thought of myself as an artist. But I do remember being interested in art at a young age. I must have been 4 or 5 when I became really fascinated by the mimetic aspect of art. I loved… just the sensation of seeing something reproduced. I used to draw a lot when I was a kid, but I never drew particularly well. People would be like “you’re a great drawer” but it was more like because I was drawing all the time. So I was always making things, making videos. I didn’t think of myself as an artist at this time. Because I was so shy, I really had trouble speaking, being ESL might have been part of it, but I remember being this way in Italy too. Making art was a survival strategy, and in school, for example, it was a way to avoid doing a typical report. I would make a video instead. I waited until after high school to pursue it seriously.

When I went Capilano College for studio art, I had the option to take creative writing as my English elective. The course was stimulating but also confused me—in the sense that it made me wonder if I wanted to pursue writing instead. Cap had a strong connection to Simon Fraser University, which is the school I transferred to a few years later. I ended up taking a class with a Canadian poet and critic whose books I had read. He encouraged me to write and this eventually connected me to the Kootenay School of Writing, to writers and publishing.”

Who is the boss of my dreams? (detail) Dye sublimation on silk, powder coated medical screen 2016

Who is the boss of my dreams? (detail), Dye sublimation on silk, powder coated medical screen, 2016

LW: “So this is related to my next question, which is, who has influenced your practice? Presumably writers as well as artists are influences.”

TL: “Ada Smailbegovic is a writer who has influenced my practice. She’s a friend and has a biology and literature background. Conversations with her have probably been the most influential. We met at a coffee shop that I used to work at. Her way of thinking has influenced me.”

LW: “When you say her way of thinking, is there something in particular?”

TL: “Her commitment to constantly trying to describe what you’re feeling. The experience of proprioception and the links between things, of autopoiesis. Her sensitivity to animals and plants was and still is beautiful. She studied moths and fungus and counted seals. Always thinking about how constellations of encounters are forming and transforming you, at a molecular level. And by extension, thinking about how forms produce thoughts and how thoughts produce form.”

LW: “Great. Thank you so much for participating.”

TL: “Thank you.”

 

No. 5 Orange, oil on linen, 77" x 55", 2016

No. 5 Orange, oil on linen, 77″ x 55″, 2016

Phone Tag: Interview with Rachelle Sawatsky

Installation view, "Reincarnation Clash", China Art Objects, 2016

Installation view of “Reincarnation Clash,” China Art Objects, 2016

For this iteration of Phone Tag, I Skyped with the L.A.-based painter Rachelle Sawatsky from her home one morning, with the bright sun, chirping birds, and sound of traffic creeping in. Previous Phone Tag participant Monique Mouton knows Rachelle from their time studying at Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver, B.C., and connected us. Rachelle plays ideas about abstraction and figuration off each other in painted ceramic objects and writing in addition to paintings. Her recently closed exhibition at China Art Objects Galleries in L.A., depicted animals on fantastical journey described in poetic titles such as “The Animal Lover’s Guide to Tragedy/The Emotional Person’s Guide to Plot” and punctuated by high-hung shaped ceramic tiles dipped in watercolor. In this interview, the artist describes the fluid and generative way she moves between word and image, trusting an image, and her interest in the writings of Agnes Martin.

 

Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.

***

LW: “So I know you have an exhibition at China Art Objects that went up recently. What have you got going on now?”

RS: “I’m in a show this fall, in Vancouver, at a museum, so I’m working on figuring out what pieces are going to go in that. I’ve been working on a series of new drawings that stem from Agnes Martin’s writings. I’ve been thinking about her work a lot, for several years, and how there seems to be a point of view, a perspective, but no body in her work. So I went on this internet trail and I found some early work she did. She destroyed most of her early work, but there’s some… a lot of it is figurative… some Greek and Biblical myths…but it still seems to obfuscate the body, the queer body in particular…. So, that is an interest of mine, but in these drawings I’m not using her paintings as a starting point, but her writings, and thinking about metaphysical language as a way to generate new ideas for imagery.”

LW: “I didn’t realize. Did she do a lot of writing?”

RS: “Yeah. There’s a volume of collected writings that are published. They’re feel super inspired by New Age and Eastern Philosophy, but she said that it isn’t specific to any religion. I’m going to go on a trip this winter, once it gets colder in the desert. Spend some time in the landscape where she lived and draw and write.”

LW: “Is this something that has been percolating for a while?”

RS: “I’ve been talking about it for years. And then I was like, I should just do it now.”

"Roulette" 2016 oil and flashe on canvas, 58 x 104 inches

Roulette, 2016, oil and flashe on canvas, 58 x 104 inches

LW: “Totally. Is she someone you think of as an influence? And, more generally, who has influenced your practice?”

RS: “Probably the painters that have influenced me the most would be Joan Brown, Agnes Peltin, and Maria Lassnig. I think all of them are interested in developing bodies of work or systems of articulation, systems of thought, around the emotional life… and thinking of metaphysical states and your personal life in the same sentence. Those have been some keystones for me. Also, I look at a lot of drawings by Rosemarie Trockel and Louise Bourgeois and Marisol.

For the most recent show I did—that’s still up at China Art Objects—I wrote a poem about being on a plane and imagining all the different people on it and what would it be like to suddenly become them and live their lives. This poem expanded into a narrative poem I wrote for the show that also had a plane crash where all the bodies reincarnated as animals. Then I made all these narrative paintings telling this far-fetched story. I had this celestial body of ceramic stars all dipped in watercolor that were hung all over the walls at different heights. I was kind of imagining a metonymic relationship between the two bodies of work, in that the watercolor ceramics are dipped so they have these horizon lines, this sense of the registration of the earth through the watercolor. And these paintings are kind of like interior space or exterior spaces, kind of ambiguous, and the whole feeling is like being on a plane, lightness and airiness….At the same time I was reading Patricia Highsmith’s The Animal-Lovers Book of Beastly Murder, about short stories from the perspective of animals who are kind of mistreated and have revenge killings on their owners…. So there is darkness in it too.”

LW: “Nice.”

RS: “Yeah. So, fiction is a big interest of mine, and artist’s writings. In this show, Patricia Highsmith is someone I was really thinking about and Joan Brown, too.”

"Reincarnation Clash" 2016 oil and flashe on canvas, 52 x 58 inches

Reincarnation Clash, 2016, oil and flashe on canvas, 52 x 58 inches

LW: “Have you always thought of yourself as an artist? As a visual artist versus a writer…do you distinguish?”

RS: “I was always into both. The first time I ever did art, the first memory I have about art, is when I was in a preschool program, when I was like 4 or something, and we had different activities but I never knew the names for them, and one of them was Cooking, and we made peanut butter and jam sandwiches, and the other one was Art, so we would paint. I always thought they were the same activity…doing messy things with liquid… I’ve always really gravitated toward making as a process of experimentation with materials.

I also wrote a lot of stories and poetry since I was a kid. I used to think of them as separate from my artwork. More recently, over the past few years, I’ve been using my writing as a generative process for working with imagery. Imagery is something that feels somewhat new to me. I think that it’s really through my writing that that has happened.”

LW: “Do you ever use text in your paintings?”

RS: “No. I think part of the reason I neglected to use my writing in shows before is that text sometimes has a very authoritative function. In relation to something visual, it’s comfortable for someone to read a text in a gallery and feel a sense of something explaining something. And I enjoy making things that might have an uncomfortable relationship to language, or more of a relationship to materials or physicality or another kind of poetics or objectness. For this reason I never used text alongside my work as I thought that it would interfere with this, but I’ve found through poetry I’ve been able to find different affinities.”

LW: “Yeah, I feel like you seen them differently, images and text, and it changes the dynamic to put them together, for sure.”

RS: “I’m interested in the strange compositional possibilities of it too, in editing…looking at different bodies of work, whether its drawing or ceramics or paintings, and kind of like working with the show in mind and writing to kind of compose the exhibition. For another show [at Harmony Murphy Gallery], I made a body of work called Stone Gloves, a series of drawings that were exploring emotional and psychological boundaries within the body. A lot of them also had animal and, like, ET imagery in them too, this kind of non-gendered bodiliness that I was interested in. Those drawings all had titles that made up the line of a poem. I’ve recomposed the poem and worked with it in subsequent exhibitions reinstalling the drawings in different ways. I think that it’s interesting to work with text  compositionally.”

Untitled, 2015, watercolor and glaze on ceramic, 20 x 21 x 2.25 inches

Untitled, 2015, watercolor and glaze on ceramic, 20 x 21 x 2.25 inches

LW: “That makes sense to me. Where are you now—are you in your studio?”

RS: “No, at home.”

LW: “I can hear the birds outside; it sounds very pleasant. Do you have a studio? What’s an ideal day like in the studio?”

RS: “Getting up really early. For the past show I meditated every day. That was a way to bring less intention to everything I made and to be open to whatever kind of free associative thing happened. So, that’s become a part of my practice. Just have no plans. To make things all day. Probably meet someone for a late lunch or a beer at a Mexican restaurant near my studio.”

LW: “Have you been in the same studio in LA since you’ve been there?”

RS: “This is the second or third studio I’ve had. It’s really great. One thing I really enjoy about being in L.A.—it’s quickly changing—it’s getting more expensive—but still at this point it’s manageable. I feel a lot of freedom here to have a large studio to myself and be able to make large work and to be able to also work outside because the weather is nice year-round.”

LW: “What about the ceramic pieces—are you able to make those…?”

RS: “I make some of those in my studio but I also work in another ceramic studio as well.”

"Heartbreak Confusion Disaster" 2014, chalk paster on newsprint, 20 x 24 inches

Heartbreak Confusion Disaster, 2014, chalk paster on newsprint, 20 x 24 inches

LW: “Do you think it’s better for an artist to be in a big city like L.A., where is getting more expensive, or to be in a smaller, quieter place where maybe the focus could be more on making?”

RS: “That’s a question I ask myself a lot. Personally right now I enjoy living in L.A. because I feel like there’s a lot of really great people here, who I have a lot of energy with. It’s nice to be in a place where you feel like you’re rocks rubbing against each other making sparks. I enjoy those stimulating interactions. There’s a lot of that going on in L.A. and I’m interested in a lot of artists working here. In that regard, L.A. works for me at this point. I imagine at some point in the future I’ll move somewhere quieter to work but for now, it’s really great.”

LW: “How was Vancouver?”

RS: “I visit there quite often and I have a lot of friends there. I feel like there’s a lot of creative exchanges that I still have there. The rents are super expensive, especially studio rent. I think it would really change the work I made if I were to live there.”

There’s also a lot of nature around there, which is really different and great. Here we have more desert, and there it’s a forest space. I used to spend a lot of time in the woods there – there are all these little islands off the coast and my parents have a cabin there –so I used to work a lot in the cabin.”

Untitled, 2015, watercolor and glaze on ceramic, 12 x 11 x 2.25 inches

Untitled, 2015, watercolor and glaze on ceramic, 12 x 11 x 2.25 inches

LW: “That sounds fantastic. Is that where you think you pull so many animals in your work from—from nature? Or is it more metaphorical?”

RS: “Well… I am influenced by the animals around me. Like, my cat passed away a year ago, and I think somehow I wasn’t intending to reimagine his reincarnation. But I just kept painting cat bodies. I didn’t realize it until I hung the show. But I also think there’s this other level of the imaginary, or, imagined beings. The imagery of metaphysical realms is something that’s kind of an intriguing challenge for me right now. Also, imagery that is  somewhat irreverent to abstract transcendental painting, which has a lot of formalism to it…”

LW: “Yeah, and heavy spiritual overtones…”

"Romance" 2016 oil and flashe on canvas, 52 x 58 inches

Romance, 2016, oil and flashe on canvas, 52 x 58 inches

RS: “Yeah, I’m imagining replacing those with dark humor instead. I think about giving a painting permission a lot. Allowing each painting to come into its own in its own way and not necessarily thinking about a style or a finish. To stay with the image, whether that’s this plane crash or something like that.. is more of a challenge than to imagine the painting expressing a continuity of an aesthetic style.”

LW: “Well if you’re trying to let go of control, do you do a lot of paintings and sketches, or do you kind of just paint on canvas and keep going?”

RS: “I use both drawing and writing in preparatory ways. Sometimes I’ll write a line and think ‘What if I painted this?’ And then I’ll draw maybe a little bit. I don’t think of it as losing control… it is more about trusting whatever poetic confusion the image holds. I work slowly and sometimes repaint a painting several times. The paintings in the show at China Art are very pictorial, and I was really into the idea of a kind of blind sincerity of illustrating a line. Sometimes my drawings come from a very different place, like, the aggressivity of something internal or anti-kind-of-formalness. So it’s sort of a fluctuation of a lot of different energies and forces.”

LW: “It’ll be interesting to see how this translates into Agnes Martin, who I only know through her paintings, but just seems so different in my mind…”

RS: “Yeah, I imagine it being really different. I’m thinking I’m just going to pretend I’ve never seen anything she made.”

LW: “But for this upcoming show in the fall, you’re working more with existing work?”

RS: “Yeah, I am. I’m making an installation, drawings, and the ceramic wall paintings I’ve been doing. And then I’ve also recently been experimenting with screenprinting my chalk pastel drawings onto ceramics, so then there’s another element where some of the ceramics start to feel photographic –some of them are made with paper clay and with watercolor–they feel like paper. Or, slightly sculptural as the edges are all painted, as if they are canvases that has messed-up painting on the sides.”

LW: “Great, thank you for participating in Phone Tag.”

RS: “It was a pleasure to meet you.”

LW: “Yes, likewise!”

Phone Tag: Interview with Ezra Tessler

This Furtive Burg, Ezra Tessler

This Furtive Burg, Ezra Tessler

For the this iteration of Phone Tag, Chase Westfall connected me with the Brooklyn-based painter Ezra Tessler. Ezra is a painter who received his MFA from Bard College in 2015. He recently showed his work at ZsONA MACO contemporary art fair in Mexico City with Páramo Gallery. His work often deals with the nature of painting and image-making itself, and how it might expand the sphere of what painting can do in the world. Not realizing how close we live to one another in Brooklyn, we Skyped one recent morning, discussing Ezra’s recent paintings, navigating teaching and making work in New York, and somehow balancing life concerns at the same time.

Phone Tag is a generative interview format, where I ask each participating artist five questions (plus others as the discussion meanders). At the end, I ask him or her to introduce me to a working artist whose attitude and work they find interesting and inspiring, who I then interview with the same five questions.

*****

This Furtive Burg (alternate view), Ezra Tessler

This Furtive Burg (alternate view), Ezra Tessler

LW: What are you working on now?

ET: I just came back from Mexico where I was in a two-person booth at MACO with Barb Smith, a sculptor who did her MFA at Bard with me. I worked on two bodies of work for that show. One group was a kind of three-dimensional painting, something I’ve been working through for a number of years. I wanted to do more than just makes “pictures.” I didn’t want to make paintings as images just to be consumed on the Internet. So I’ve been thinking about a kind of parity between the surface of the painting and the structure of the painting, a possible non-hierarchy between those two things. I’ve been making paintings where the structure is sort of equal to the surface. For example, there are the paintings I make that use clay and oil, these sort of pictorial landscapes. So there’s a pictorial space to them but they come off the wall at angles. Between the pictorial space and the physical space of the painting is this idea that they would create a sort of third experience of space for the viewer. If the cheesiest way to think about a painter’s aspirations is that he or she would like to move the viewer, these paintings try do that in the simplest possible way, they do it by literally making you move around the painting.

I had been thinking a lot about Cézanne, and the ways in which an apple looks like it’s about to jump off the canvas but also looks like its flat and dead. I like that idea of two distinct things—still and in movement, coming and going, falling apart and forming at the same time. Ideally these paintings feel like they’re coming and going at the same time.

Tessler_02

Installation, Bard MFA Thesis Exhibition

LW: But you’re often working with more abstract imagery. So not like an apple…

ET: Exactly. I just finished grad school, during which I constantly battled a perceived struggle between figure and ground. I think a lot of my mentors came from a generation of painters still thinking in immediate ways about Abstract Expressionism and this idea that a painting should be an artifact of a series of battles the artist plays out on canvas. For me the culmination of grad school involved getting rid of the figure and making the painting the figure, oftentimes resorting to abstraction or pattern or stripe, things that in some way offered a field. The embodied field allowed – temporarily – to get past this idea of a figure-ground dichotomy. Those paintings present a clear pictorial landscape but ideally they could also subvert a presumed way of looking at a painting. The idea that you could hold two subject positions of being still and in movement…of coming and going…has some political possibilities. An identity position in which you were able to be both still and moving. I’ve been thinking about what the implications might be, however slight.

The second body of work paired the 3D work with these Delacroix sketches I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Delacroix’s sketches show Christ on the Sea of Galilee. He’s asleep and the disciples are crowded on the raft and reeling in terror at the storm. Christ wakes up and scolds them. Van Gogh and others seemed particularly struck by these sketches. There’s one at the Met that’s quite striking. I’ve been looking at this painting for a long time and thinking about this idea that a painting could be both a source of comfort and but also a source of exposure or risk. I was thinking about the analogy of raft, as an analogy for painting, for the studio, for larger political positions. The paintings that came out of this long process alternate between stains and images so that they move between abstraction and figuration.

Now that those are done, I’m excited to try to push further. I’m curious to see what’s next.

Still in the Tempest II, Ezra Tessler

Still in the Tempest II, Ezra Tessler

LW: You mention Delacroix and Cézanne. Are those influences? Are your influences mostly painterly?

ET: They’re artists whose work I’ve spent a lot of time looking at and thinking about. They come up a lot in my own teaching with students as well.

But I would answer your question in two ways. One influence is the teachers and mentors whose work and lives I respect. A lot of the teachers I most respect offer examples for how to live a good life that engages a community–people like Nancy Shaver, Amy Sillman, Monika Baer, A.L. Steiner. People who offer models for life as an artist.

But also a lot of the work I think about and look at now is work that is very different from the work I do. For example, Sondra Perry, who you’ve interviewed. Or, I just saw a talk at MACO by Jenn Rosenblit, who gave an amazing panel talk. So much of my own work comes out of questions of social justice. Why make art of a particular kind and for whom? What is ethical work, what do qualities of generosity and empathy mean? The artists I respect most are artists who think about that and who force me to think about that further. Painting is a medium that perhaps doesn’t allow for such an opening up. I’m definitely a studio rat, but I find that challenges brought by non-painters to be ones that I want to engage in, the ones I think about most. People like Adrian Piper and Andrea Fraser, for example—even though a connection to a painting practice is tenuous, largely because painting so starkly embodies the problems or contradictions they challenge. I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about painters who work in three dimensions like Moira Dryer and Ralph Humphrey, for example, who really pushed parity between structure and surface.

LW: You mentioned being a studio rat, and maybe that is typical of a painter. So what’s an ideal day in this studio?

ET: A typical day involves getting to the studio early with my dog, Zalea, and spending all day there. I spend as much time as possible in the studio. I usually get right to work. My studio has always been very chaotic but it’s important to me to have a lot of work going at one time. I wake up excited to get to the studio and when I get there I’m equally excited to work, whether that means putting down a new layer of paint, sanding away an old layer, or riffling through books and images.

LW: If you have that many projects going, is it helpful for you to be able to jump from one to another?

ET: This has been the challenge. Deadlines often bring about an editing process. For example, there were two bodies of work that went to this show in Mexico but I had been working on a number of bodies of work leading up to it. As the deadline got closer, work got winnowed out. In the end, I make a lot of decisions in the editing process outside of the studio. Especially because paintings get dealt with in the studio in such dumb and absurd material ways.

Installation, Zona Maco

Installation, Zona Maco

LW: When did you first start thinking of yourself as an artist?

ET: This is a challenging question. After college, I worked in human rights for several years, I did doctoral work, and only after that did I do an MFA. But the entire time I was doing that other stuff, I was painting and seeing work and reading about work. But it was always a balancing act. There came a certain point when I thought: “When am I going to make the jump?”—as if it required a large decision to change my life to enable it. But I looked up one day and was spending all my free time in the studio making work, so it sort of happened naturally that I started to think of myself as an artist. Simply because I was making work.

I had been working in these other worlds that in my mind were connected to the studio but for other people weren’t connected. For me, it was very clear why I was involved in human rights but also keeping up a studio practice, or doing a doctoral program and painting, but for other people it wasn’t so clear. I had probably been worrying too much about that category of an official artist.

LW: I ask the question because for me it took a long time to call myself a writer. When did you start painting? As a child? Always?

ET: Always, always. When I was in the womb, my mother—who was not a professional artist—was going to the Barnes museum on the weekends and taking classes with Violette de Mazia. My earliest memories are of going to the Barnes Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or looking at books of the Ashcan school with my grandfather.

Heather and Lore, Ezra Tessler

Heather and Lore, Ezra Tessler

LW: You live in Brooklyn now, and I take it you’ve been in the New York City area for a while. My final question is whether it’s better to be in a big city like New York where it’s tough and expensive but there’s a major art scene, or to be in a smaller, quieter place where you can maybe focus on making?

ET: Several friends have brought their graduate student classes from outside of New York for studio visits and I always get the question ‘Should I move to New York City?’ It’s such a personal question though. A number of friends have moved upstate or out of NYC so they can live cheaply and have a bigger studio, and that makes a lot of sense. But the answer seems clear to me right now–it’s where I have a community of people. For me, that’s most important—to be talking about and looking at art and fighting things out in the studio with friends and studio visits. Right now almost everyone I know is in New York… people who offer a source of comfort and challenge in the larger project of making work. For me, the most important thing is to have the ability to make the work as much as possible and to have a community.

It’s also such a personal decision how one participates in the art world and which art world you participate in, because obviously there are many art worlds inside and outside of New York City. Sometimes when NYC gets to be a bit much I think about people like Nancy Shaver, Martin Puryear, Dana Hoey, and other artists who I respect a lot and who have moved upstate and built a life that seems conducive to making work and community. But I’m still building my life here and it’s hard to want to give that up.

LW: Yeah, absolutely. This has been great. Thank you for participating.

ET: Thank you.