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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.