How do we look upon the world? More importantly, do we spend time processing the inundation of information we receive, perceive, and ingest as we negotiate the world? In the digital age, it seems the daily progression of technology, and both the availability and immediacy of collecting information, has conditioned us to keep moving and to never truly pause and reflect upon or dissect the information we’ve collected. Countless bits of data collection indicative of the time in which we live obtained, processed, and then dismissed. Although indicative of the digital era, this is not indicative of the work of Grace Strattan.
The paintings of Strattan are quiet and curious. Neither completely representational nor completely abstract, to not pause and subject yourself to the curiosity her work inspires is to not reflect on the world in which we are a part of. Strattan is an observer. She is a processor, and her work is multivalent and richly layered. She explores the spaces, both physical and metaphysical, between the objects of humanity and represents those spaces within the picture plane. Colors inspired by light, forms akin to biomorphic architecture or figure, and punctual formal elements of line combine to create a simulacrum of painting’s traditions. The themes of landscape, still life, and portraiture mix to create a sense of place that is placeless. Recognizable organic forms conflict with obscure gestures and vivid design elements. Harmonious and dissonant chroma, texture, and ground relationships build the economy of each work inviting us to explore, investigate, and discover.
I had the honor of sitting down with Strattan in her studio, which is much like her work. The space is alive. Palettes line both the desk and floor of her studio. Paint tubes, coffee cups, brushes, boxes, and books punctuate the sentences of evidence of an active and living process. It is a mystery of how such quiet paintings could manifest from a space so vibrant with activity. As I sit down making the final adjustments to my sound recorder, Grace takes a sip from her coffee, patiently observing me fiddle with my tripod. There is a long pause as we both settle into our chairs that are situated between two seven-foot tall paintings. The subtle smell of coffee, turpentine and oil paint frame the atmosphere of our conversation. I break the silence.
Zach Coneybeer: In terms of your practice, why have you chosen painting specifically as your medium and language of expression?
Grace Strattan: I think painting has a lot to do with life, specifically it evolves as you’re making it and you make mistakes. Sometimes you can fix them and sometimes you can’t. In some other medium people have a plan and carry it out and it becomes a production as opposed to an evolution. I don’t necessarily work from sketches or have a plan I just start and see what happens.
ZC: So your approach is intuitive?
GS: Not necessarily or always intuitive, but definitely not copied.
ZC: Not from automatism either I suppose?
GS: No. Definitely not automatism.
ZC: So, you mentioned, like life, there are things in painting that you as the painter can change or not change; is this also true about your life? Are there things you wish you could change or cannot change? Maybe this is too philosophical and personal.
GS: I mean, it’s not too philosophical, maybe too personal. (Laughs)
ZC: I do enjoy the relationship, though, that you have with painting. Much like life, there are aspects of painting that we have the ability to have full authority over and things that we can’t control. Is this what you mean or is there something deeper in having that authority?
GS: I would say that you don’t have full authority in a painting because once you put too much paint on a canvas you really can’t take it back. (Pauses) Not always. So every mark that you make has consequences. I think painting is a discovery process. There’s an investigation and learning that happens as you’re making the painting; you don’t have everything figured out beforehand.
ZC: What do you investigate in your work?
GS: The work. (Laughs)
ZC: (Laughs) Well what is the work? Maybe let’s just start with an objective description of what your painting is; how do you approach your compositions, your palette, the formal elements?
GS: It depends on the painting. It’s not always derived from the same source. Sometimes, this one has a more figurative structure (points to a seven foot by five foot painting that is pink, navy blue, and sea foam green directly behind her chair) and this one has a more architectural structure (points to a painting similar size to the right of the first; this one mostly reds, blues, and browns). Then from there I start to abstract from those elements. Those evolve into contradictions; I like contradictions in painting.
ZC: What type of contradictions?
GS: Mostly spacial ones. Is this a figure and that’s the ground or vice versa? You don’t necessarily need to know what everything is specifically, like that’s probably too literal of a description.
ZC: So would you say it’s the faculties of the picture plane; so, figure/ground relationships and their relation to space?
GS: Yes, I like to have formal elements that begin to contradict each other that deal with the idea or the painting that I am going for.
ZC: I am interested in this idea in your work that you investigate architecture in you work where the architecture from life becomes architecture in the picture plane; are there any other elements from life that your are investigating? Do you use figures or objects as well?
GS: This one is definitely figurative (points to the first painting).
ZC: In what ways?
GS: Well, I started with washes on the canvas and started to discover figures in them. So I started to develop them and now I am starting to get rid of them. So, you can’t see the figures anymore but they where there once and inform the later marks and decisions.
ZC: So what interests you about looking at the world and what interests you about using painting as an artist to translate those observations and interests into objects?
GS: I don’t know; lots of things. These are two separate paintings. This one is dealing with space and this one is dealing with figure relationships. Things you can’t necessarily see.
ZC: So what are the things we can’t see?
GS: (Laughs) We can’t see a lot of things! I’ve been thinking about…(pauses) I don’t know or necessarily want to say that. (Gathers her thoughts) Whenever you’re in an interaction you can’t see the real interaction between two people or a figure in space. The actual relationship is not always visible. (Laughs) I don’t know if you know what I mean, but!
ZC: I interpret that as what the German philosophers of modernity referred to as the geist or the spirit of the artwork. Is that similar to how you view those interactions? The spirit of that interaction that we cannot see or touch, but we intuitively know that interaction; does that make sense?
GS: I would agree with that, because a lot times its very specific: you know exactly what it is but you can’t always see it or put it into words. That’s where the painting comes in.
ZC: So painting is language for you?
ZC: Maybe this is too personal, you can surely choose to not answer this, but from knowing you as an individual and painter, you’re very quiet and reserved. Do you consider yourself to be introverted? (Grace laughs) And if so, does that inform the work at all?
GS: (Laughs) Probably. Before when I said that “I didn’t need or want to say” I was going to say that I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be introverted or extroverted lately. So yes, by definition I am an introvert. (Laughs nervously)
ZC: You don’t like that definition of yourself?
GS: (Smiles) I don’t have a problem with it! Mostly, the problem comes in where people don’t expect you to enjoy being by yourself. When people put too much social pressure on you.
ZC: Are you happier when you are alone? Because I immediately think of Agnes Martin who spent her entire life alone, she never married. She even said that she’s been married a thousand times talking about her paintings, that there was a personal relationship she had with each painting and the work. I am not insinuating that you’re an Agnes Martin, but in the same way she enjoyed being introverted and being alone left to her own faculties. Is this something that interests you or do you find comfort in that?
GS: So basically do I like being alone? It depends on who the people are! (Laughs)
ZC: Ok, to be specific, I think all of us, whether introverts or extroverts, could say that there are people that we don’t want to be around (both laugh), but I bring up Agnes Martin as she enjoyed the sobriety of being alone and how that effected her work. That when we are in society that we fill our minds with what she termed “garbage” and she couldn’t find inspiration in that setting. It was only when she removed herself from society that she could have the sobriety that allowed for inspiration required to make paintings. That, then, became the work and it became a reciprocal relationship between the work and the painter. Maybe that helps frame the question a little bit?
GS: Well, I do look at other painters and theories, and I listen to others when we talk about my work, but I like having my own ideas. I value my own thoughts over someone in art history that is dead.
ZC: Jack Whitten famously said that painters try to escape art history; do you see that being true about the way you look at painting?
GS: Not necessarily. It depends on what version of history that we’re going with. I don’t need to be associated with the abstract expressionists or the high modernists, because they were reacting to the world of their time. We don’t live in that time anymore so it would be ridiculous to live in that world. There is a gap in art history. Any famous female AbEx painters were related to Clement Greenberg or Jackson Pollock. I don’t think there is a gigantic breadth of history that I am trying to fit into, because I am not Jackson Pollock. It doesn’t make sense for me to fit myself into history, but it’s important to know my relationship to history and what painters are doing today.
ZC: You bring up the female AbEx painters, this may be cliché when talking about female painters, but being a woman in a traditionally male dominated profession has any influence on your work?
GS: Not at all!
ZC: You just paint?
GS: I think if I have anything that’s not an aspiration of mine to be labeled a female painter. When you go to a museum bookstore you see two books that are essentially the same. One will say “50 greatest artists” and the other “50 greatest female artists” and it’s like (laughs) what is that? Female artists are artists.
ZC: And there should be no separation, right?
GS: There doesn’t need to be a distinction there. I probably brought that up because the pink that I use was described as being a gender-specific color, which I don’t know how color can be gender specific! (Laughs) But, yeah.
ZC: I hate to ask, because today it seems trite, and maybe I will edit this later, but do you consider yourself a feminist artist? Not that you’re making feminist work, but there seems to be a disdain for separating the sexes in art so there has to be something there?
GS: I would never call myself a feminist artist because I am not making feminist work. As a person, I am a feminist because feminism has all to do with being equal…so, duh! (we both laugh) But I also grew up with three brothers! (Laughs) So would I call myself a feminist artist? Probably not.
ZC: I think it’s interesting that you say that, especially when someone says that the pink that you are using is a gender specific pink, so is there a drive to escape that and just be an artist?
GS: I actually hate that this interview has taken this turn because every interview with a female artist does bring this up for some reason, but I don’t even like pink. I don’t own anything that is pink. I just like the color by itself. You can use colors that you don’t like to work into your painting. You shouldn’t avoid the color just because it has the characteristic of being gender specific. I just had mixed that color and I used it.
ZC: Let’s change the tone of the conversation, because I agree: just because you’re a female artist doesn’t mean we have to talk about feminism. We both agree you’re simply an artist that happens to be female. That said I am interested in color in your work. How do choose your palette?
GS: I would say depending on what I am going for in the painting determines the palette. I do use more colors more than others. Sometimes they are random and I place those along side colors, which are not; it just depends.
ZC: But you’re not using color in a representational sense meaning I want to represent this thing or emotion that I am investigating.
GS: Well, emotions don’t have colors. Like there is no representational way to paint emotion. No, the colors are not tied to objects or people.
ZC: Do you discover anything new about yourself when painting through your process or is the process of abstracting life a way to find answers to questions that you have been thinking about?
GS: About life or painting?
GS: Definitely about painting, but probably about life just because you’re thinking about how you’re going to paint this and how you’re going to represent what is actually going on in your life or someone else’s. So it’s reflective for me.
ZC: I know we touched on this painting a little bit (the one behind her with the pink) but can you speak more specifically what is happening in this work?
GS: It started with two figures, not necessarily representational but they were there, and then I decided to focus less on what people looked like as opposed to what the relationship between them, so I started painting that. Then the look of that way of painting took over. I started adding washes and then I added these stripes. I use this approach as a way to contrast, to balance, and to reflect.
ZC: What are the stripes for you? (The bright sea foam green stripes in the upper corner of her painting and the blue in the center) It seems to be a theme that repeats itself in most of your work.
GS: These stripes (the blue) were drips, so then I responded by working them into possibly reading as shadows or part of a box or something in space. These (the green) became a sort of pattern.
ZC: Is this where contradiction in your work comes into play? In my estimation the green stripes are a formal resolution as opposed to the blue stripes being symbolic or representational?
ZC: How is this, then, resolved for the viewer? I could easily apply either description to either set of stripes.
GS: I don’t think of resolving it for the viewer. They can see whichever way they like.
ZC: But for you it’s an important distinction?
GS: I don’t know that it’s an important distinction, but it is a distinction that I make for myself.
ZC: This may sound pedestrian, but what do you want to say in your paintings?
GS: (Laughs) I don’t know if I am trying to say anything specifically. I think a feeling would be more important than saying something.
ZC: What is that feeling?
GS: I don’t know! (Laughs) It would be different in each work. It’s not like a stupid feeling, like happiness. (Laughs) Maybe something weird is going on here.
ZC: What feeling do you get from these two large paintings towering over us, where each has its own feeling to it, and to use your words “not a stupid feeling” (Grace laughs cheerfully amused).
GS: (Still laughing) Print that in the interview! Feelings are stupid!
GS: I don’t know. They’re too in process: I think I can’t determine that feeling yet. I don’t think they should be put into words! What feelings do you get from them? (Giggles)
ZC: I look at your work and I get the sense of light, not that light is being cast but the actual color of light. I see color that has been inspired by technology. We spend most of our time looking at screens, right? So your pinks, greens, blues, and these highly saturated reds really read to me as light passing through something, like a screen emitting light. I don’t know what that is. It seems a lot of painting is doing that today. I also get the sense of familiarity, almost like a landscape, but I don’t know where I am. It’s cavern like. It wants to be organic and synthetic at the same time. But I find it hard to believe that although they are in process you don’t get some sensation of feeling from them. What are you thinking about when you lay down a color or gesture; what’s going through your mind?
GS: I guess when I step back and look I start to think “does it work visually” or does it match the feeling that I am going for. Probably, if I felt nothing I would just need it to work visually. I mean, nothing here yet is quite working for me visually so I have to change it.
ZC: So if you’re not a formalist, and I had to force you to pick a category for your work, and it can be said about categories either “you love them or hate them”, but where would you categorize your paintings and yourself as a painter.
GS: I wouldn’t. (Laughs)
ZC: (Laughs) Any reason why you wouldn’t?
GS: Well what are your categories? Formalism and what?
ZC: Well, the way you describe your paintings is very formalist in nature, but at the same time I don’t think you want them to be viewed as formalist or neo-formalist works.
GS: Not completely. Well what are the “isms” being used? I am not an AbEx painter; that was sixty years ago. I am not a modernist.
ZC: Neo-formalist? The “Zombie” painters? Jerry Saltz calls it “crapstraction” but I prefer David Salle’s “Neo-formalism” as a description.
GS: They were talking about making easy abstract paintings that would sell.
ZC: Well, neo-formalists like Oscar Murillo are making work to make work. It’s very autobiographical. It’s a byproduct of the work that he sells so much. I guess it’s ok to just be a painter, I think that’s interesting too. But can a painter today be a just a painter?
GS: Well, whatever I am painting, if someone is going to curate and categorize me it won’t be me. It’s not my responsibility to place an “ism” on my work. It’s important to know where I am at in relation to all of these things but I don’t allow it to drive the work. You have to rely on your own ideas and your own visual language.
ZC: So what’s next? When will these paintings be finished?
GS: Is anything ever finished?
To learn more about Grace’s work and her process please visit http://gracestrattan.tumblr.com/
As part of the second-year graduates’ Thesis Projects I course, candidates were each assigned two of their cohort to review. As students begin writing their thesis papers and constructing artist statements, this review process proves to be beneficial twofold. Students not only exercise their written critique skills, but are able to read about their own project from other voices. Over the next few weeks we’ll be posting these reviews, so be sure to visit regularly for insights and photos of the second years’ progress!