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 Monique Mouton

Untitled (a door? a door?), 2014, oil on panel, 28 5/8 x 17 1/4 inches

Untitled (a door? a door?), 2014, oil on panel, 28 5/8 x 17 1/4 inches

In May, I Skyped with New York-based painter Monique Mouton for the fifth Phone Tag interview. Monique makes abstract shaped panels and drawings whose tactile, uneven surfaces feel deliberate and off-the-cuff at the same time. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver and a Master of Fine Arts from Bard College–the same graduate school as the previous Phone Tag participant Ezra Tessler, who introduced us. Monique and I talk about making, introspection, and the usefulness of boredom, among other things, in this Phone Tag interview.

 

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.

***

Installation view, More Near, Bridget Donahue Gallery 2016

Installation view, More Near, Bridget Donahue Gallery 2016

LW: What are you working on now?

MM: Right now, I am working on a piece that I hadn’t finished before a show I had recently at Bridget Donahue Gallery. After a show I feel like it always takes a little while to get started again in the studio. There’s so much build up and so much mental, physical, emotional energy that goes into making it that there’s always this lag time. But I had a piece that I hadn’t finished, so I’ve been working on that, very slowly. It’s a big watercolor. So far it’s watercolor, ink, and chalk pastel on paper.

LW: Is it something that originally you thought you would include in the show, or is it different from that body of work?

MM: I was thinking about including it in the show, but I felt like it needed more work and more time in the studio. So I just kind of dropped it and kept it around, which has been a nice way to have a thread to pick up on.

 

More Near (I), 2015, Watercolor, chalk pastel, charcoal, gesso, tempera paint mounted on sintra, 56 x 55 inches

More Near (I), 2015, Watercolor, chalk pastel, charcoal, gesso, tempera paint mounted on sintra, 56 x 55 inches

LW: Who has influenced your practice?

MM: That is a question that I always find difficult because for me it’s a wide net. Everybody influences it in one way or another, whether it’s subtle or more obvious. But I think I’ve resisted answering that question to myself. Maybe part of my resistance to having a list of artists who have been influences is that it is a particular way of constructing a narrative around the work, and a lineage. That is something that, when I first felt like I was onto my long-term project – however long I am making art, I see it as a continuous practice – and when I was first discovering what that was, I was consciously avoiding narrative in the work. It was really important for me to remove any obvious clues to a story, because I wanted it to have a less linear effect in the way that a person viewing it would be able to take it in. So, unconsciously, that got into the part of me that thinks about influences.

That said, a way I’ve come to think about it relates to something that Charline von Heyl said in a talk she gave out in LA. She was talking about how when she’s making paintings, she has a cloud of images that she might draw from. Rather than there being this linear structure, it’s more like there’s this field of things floating around that she then picks from and pulls into her painting. For her I think she has actual folders of things that she’ll group together and then might destroy after completing a particular project (if my memory serves me). All the teachers that I’ve had, and the places that I’ve lived, and my family even, could be in my version of the cloud. They come forward and recede.

LW: And them as much as any particular artists or works that you’ve seen?

MM: Yes. Sometimes it surprises me when an influence comes to the forefront that I didn’t know that I was thinking about. One example is my dad’s side of the family. They’re Cajun. He has 15 siblings. He was born in New Orleans. When I was young and throughout my life I would go to these giant parties down in Texas, in Galveston, that were just kind of whatever in terms of sleeping arrangements. Like pieces of foam on the floor and random sheets and people just sleeping wherever. Everything was sort of cobbled together. After I had been working on my art for a while, I went back to this beach house in Galveston, which my dad built with his siblings and my grandpa out of a lot of salvaged materials. There was this aesthetic of things that just did the job—that maybe was not the first or most obvious choice. Like a piece of cloth covering the card table with a corner that didn’t quite make it that was fine because it worked well enough. These odd little edges to things. Everything functioned, but in this way that was precarious. I think my art is sometimes like this. It’s like it’s almost a painting and you’re not sure if it’s doing it or not, or where it came from, but it stays and it works.

artist's friend looking at Moon Room, 2016, oil on panel, 5 x 9 inches

Friend of artist looking at Moon Room, 2016, oil on panel, 5 x 9 inches

LW: For you, is art making a very introspective process?

MM: Yes, I think that is true for me. I’m interested in how something that is very internal or introspective materializes for an unknown audience and what that action could possibly affect or mean in our present culture. That’s the most broad way of thinking about it.

LW: There is something about your work that seems kind of removed from present culture as such, like they are separate things.

MM: That’s interesting. What do you mean?

LW: Well, that they don’t seem to have a specific referent, certainly. But not just because they are abstract—abstract paintings can certainly evoke very particular places and times and styles. There is something essentialist about them. They seem very much themselves.

MM: Maybe that is part of what a very introspective process produces. …You know, sometimes there will be something in my paintings that is not abstract. There is one that I think of—the first one after many years of only totally abstract paintings—a painting with a fish in it. Sort of a memory of a fish, that is, I didn’t base it off of a picture of a fish. For me, occasionally, putting these things in like a fish, which is so generic but could also relate to so many things, where there’s a lot of symbolism that could be attached to it or it could be just a very common animal in the world… I think I’m making these paintings that feel very stripped down, yet somehow there’s an accumulation of time in them or maybe there’s a mark or a color that reminds you of something from somewhere but doesn’t quite reference it. You’re right—there are no particular reference points.

What I’m thinking about in terms of all of that in relation to it being viewed in the present moment is that removal, where it doesn’t feel like it is quite present, actually causes friction. Because then you’re thinking about ‘OK, what is going on here? Because it’s not directing me in the usual ways in terms of how to look at it.’ But it’s also not totally hermetic. I do think that there are cues in the work that help place it in relation to other things that are happening now. I think I try to twist it or put things in sort of an awkward balance where it doesn’t quite hit you in the same way.

All of that is to say: I want to make art that works on you in that way because looking at art is a very specific activity. It’s somewhat odd and specific, especially if you pull out the whole commercial consumer aspect of it, which I like to do when I’m in my studio and when I’m looking at art. Outside of that, what does art do for us as a society? Painting especially, which has gone through various periods of death and irrelevance without every truly becoming irrelevant. There’s something about it that is special. I think it’s mysterious. It’s mysterious to me even as a painter. I’m kind of interested in that idea: That something that doesn’t really make sense manages to live on and change and hold our attention even despite everything that’s going on in the world, you know?

In the studio

In the artist’s studio

LW: Speaking as a painter, maybe you could walk me through your process. An ideal day in the studio—what does that look like? Do you ever have one?

MM: An ideal day is probably rare. Days in the studio tend to always have their ups and downs. I’m a morning person and I like being in the studio early in the morning, just because it’s quieter and I have fewer distractions at that time. So, in an ideal day, I’d probably come to my studio early and do some reading or just look around, at whatever I’m working on and then go from there.

I often nap in my studio, which I’ve decided is ideal. I think the best naps are not too long and maybe have some dreams, whether I remember them or not. It’s like an altered state. Just waking up from a nap is a shift that is useful. Definitely lunch and lots of snacks. Spending a lot of time.

I like to leave my studio before dark. I don’t all the time—I will spend late nights. But for me I like to end my day earlier so that I have a timeframe to work within, which makes me more productive, and it gives me some space before coming back the next day.

LW: Are you in your studio now? Can I see?

MM: I’ve been rearranging it since my show so it’s kind of messy. That’s the door.

LW: Cool. Do you work on the wall?

MM: On the floor.

LW: Oh, on the floor. I see now. That’s awesome. Have you always had a studio since you’ve been living in New York?

MM: Yeah, I got this studio about 6 months after I moved to New York, so since late 2012. I’ve left town during that time and sublet it. Like when I was teaching in Richmond, Virginia for 9 months I was able to sublet. So I’ve had this space for a while.

Blue Margin, 2014, oil on panel, 47 x 36 inches

Blue Margin, 2014, oil on panel, 47 x 36 inches

LW: Final question: Is it better, do you think, as an artist, to be in a place like New York where it has a big art scene but it’s crazy, or to be in a smaller place, like Richmond, where there’s a slower pace of life and you can focus on making?

MM: I don’t know. That question is one that I think about because I have a tendency to want to do both things. For me the ideal is maybe to do both. Because it’s definitely helpful to live in a community where there’s enough happening to see other people’s work and show your work and talk about it.  

New York is so hard. It’s hard physically. There’s so much coming at you all the time; there’s no personal space. That can be energizing and it can also wear me out. Sometimes it’s hard to even know where I’m coming from in the city, because there’s so much going on. I feel like it can be really helpful to be outside of that, because then you can be not as distracted. I find getting bored helpful to working sometimes. I feel like boredom is really useful for creativity. Because you get to a point where you’re so exasperated that you have to do something of your own initiative; it can be a real spark. The most breakthroughs that I’ve had in my work is when I’ve have that kind of space, of boredom. Where I just had to figure it out. It’s really hard to have that in the city.

One thing I do want to say about New York: it is like no other place. But I also find it problematic that New York thinks that it is the only place. I’m sure people would say, ‘No, that’s not true.’ But I think it does, there’s a feeling here. It’s a bubble. It is its own world. I think that other places in the world, big and small, are really important to everything, including art.

LW: Everyone has a different answer to that question.

MM: It’s very individual. It depends what kind of artist you are. I feel like being here has definitely helped me grow a lot as an artist in ways that I wouldn’t elsewhere. That’s true of everywhere I’ve lived though. 

LW: Well, thank you so much for participating. Those are all my questions.

MM: OK, great. It was nice meeting you!

LW: Likewise!