By Kevin Blake
Abstract painting is coming off the walls. It is evolving. Zoe Nelson talks with Bad at Sports about her engagement and participation in the evolution of abstraction, which appears in her work, to be a deconstruction of traditional painting parameters. Through a physical dismantling of the images’ supports, Nelson blurs the boundaries between painting and sculpture, creating perpetually shifting spatial dynamics.
Kevin Blake: Chicago artist Sophia Leiby recently turned me onto an essay in the Brooklyn Rail, Worlds With Us by Katy Siegel, in which she suggests, “In terms of art, unthinking the opposition between representation and abstraction is particularly vital to understanding art objects and practices afresh.” I’m wondering how you have arrived at abstraction. It seems to me that artists arrive at abstraction out of some sort of necessity that is the resultant of a struggle with conceptual as well as formal frameworks. As I was looking through your archives on your website, I could see a departure from representation, and it occurred to me that this was a relatively common evolution for abstract painters. Abstraction does not seem like something you just set out to do one day. I’m wondering if abstraction, for you, has been a product or a solution to struggling with the idea of representation and abstraction as polar opposites.
Zoe Nelson: When I started grad school at Columbia University in 2007, I was working on a series of portraits of friends with their demons. Imagining what my friends’ (and my own) demons might look like if they were externalized allowed me to begin to think about the entire space of the canvas as a loaded psychological space, with all parts of the canvas (foreground, background, demon, person etc) having the potential to be equally descriptive of the psychological state of the person. It was at this point that a shift occurred and I started to become more interested in the potential of the “background” or psychological space around the person than in the portrait. As a challenge to myself, I decided to try to remove the figure from the work, while continuing to make an interesting painting. I’d say that my first conscious plunge into abstraction occurred with this initial act of negation–the negation of the figure. Absence and negation continue to be strong conceptual and formal frameworks for my work, as you can see in my current body of cut-out paintings. What is cut-out or not depicted in my work is often defined by- and defines- the form and content of the painting.
Going back to your Katy Siegel quote, I would agree on the importance of deconstructing a binary understanding of abstraction and representation in painting. I arrived at abstraction through representation, and in some ways one could say that I am currently working through abstraction to arrive at a type of active, moving representation: a representation of liminal psychological spaces and shifting states of being.
KB: Literally cutting sections out of the painting seems like an almost radical action against representation–in the sense of negating recognizable imagery–and simultaneously, it might be seen as a way of evoking a discussion about the state of being represented. Opening the canvas to view the guts of a painting, so to speak, allows the viewer to look past the painted surface and into the physical space behind it, calling attention to its objecthood. In your recent show at Western Exhibitions, some of the paintings protrude from the wall rather than hanging flush on it, further interrupting the spatial dynamic while creating a dialogue with it. Can you talk about the paintings existing in the third dimension and how do these issues perpetuate this idea about abstraction and representation being more of a consequence of one another rather than visually articulated opposites?
ZN: As I cut into the canvas, I uncover parts of the stretcher bar support, which inevitably opens up a whole chain of questions regarding the relationship between support, canvas and the physical space behind and around the paintings. Each painting deals with this relationship in a different way, I believe, and the double-sided paintings evolved as a natural extension of the work becoming more sculptural. When the frame is exposed, all of the sudden there are edges and different physical planes to consider, and the next logical step was to consider the “back” of the painting as well. Through privileging all sides of the painting, I hope to destabilize the hierarchy of front over back, and hanging the work perpendicular to the wall is a playful invitation for the viewer to walk around the paintings and take part in this process.
The paintings and installation at Western look completely different depending on where you stand in the room, and these shifting states are integral to the form and content of the series. If multiple people are in the room, you might see a hand or head or shoulder through the cuts in a painting, and these people (or body parts) momentarily become a part of the work as well. Blurring the lines between artist, painting, and viewer in this way is conceptually exciting for me, and I think circles back around to how the current work still references back to my initial interests in representing the body and psychological states of being, albeit in a performative way, and while operating within a realm of abstraction.
KB: The first time you cut a painting, was it due to what you perceived to be a mistake? Looking at the evolution of your work, I sense a strong influence of painter Amy Sillman whose work seems to depend on the occurrence of mistakes and even more so on the corrective production emerging from those mistakes. Does your work engage with that dialogue?
ZN: Whenever I move to a new location, or even a new studio, I find that my practice often shifts with the move. After graduate school, I spent a year working on a series of process paintings about the idea of unwinding. It wasn’t until a year later, when I moved to Chicago, that I was able to take the project a step further and actually start to undo the surface of the painting through cutting into the canvas.
Although my initial cuts into the canvas were not exactly a mistake, they did stem from a place of anxiety and fear. When I moved to Chicago in 2010, I didn’t know the city at all, barely knew the art community, and only had a couple of names of friends of friends to contact. Everything around me seemed unstable, unknown and overwhelming that year, and the studio was the one place that I was able to channel all of that anxiety and fear into artistic risk-taking.
I worked with Amy Sillman in grad school, and she continues to be a huge influence for me–both her work and in the smart discourse that she engages in around her practice and painting. I’ve noticed in my own practice that if I have an idea for a painting, and I execute that idea really quickly, the work often doesn’t hold up a few days later. I think this failure ties back to the importance of the mistake: perhaps the reason that these paintings often don’t hold up, is because that struggle–of making, identifying, and working-through the mistake–hasn’t yet occurred. When the work falls short like that, there is often a part of the painting that has seduced me, and it’s only through literally cutting out or removing the seductive part that I am able to rework the painting as a whole, rather than as a showcase for one special element.
I think that the importance of the mistake also ties into the importance of feeling and intuition. Amy Sillman has an awesome zine, the O-G v3, in which she challenges the hierarchy of mind over body when discussing and making paintings. At the end of the zine, Amy advocates for the conceptual possibilities of painting specifically through “the radical merging of mind and body!” While it is often easier to talk about formal or conceptual concerns in painting rather than trying to find a smart way to talk about intuition, I am of the mindset that the two are not mutually exclusive. In my practice, intuition, feeling, mistakes, and elusiveness are just as important to the process of painting as the formal painterly concerns that I am also responding to.
KB: When I listen to other artists talk about their work, I always look for a takeaway-something useful to apply to my own practice or in this case regurgitate as a means of preserving the idea in my frontal lobe. I recently listened to artist Cesare Pietroiusti speak in Boston, and of the many things I retained from his talk, he said something profound that resonates in relation to our conversation. He said, “when there is discomfort, fear, and anxiety-go there.” It seems you have intuitively done just that and this impulse has yielded some positive results. Have you been able to abandon these themes as you have gotten settled into Chicago and more so into the community? Or do they continue to be the driving force of your work?
ZN: Anxiety and discomfort continue to be strong themes in my work, though the driving force (or one driving force–there are definitely many) has become the work itself. I have grown to love living and working in Chicago, and have met fantastic artists and worked with great galleries here, such as Roots & Culture, Lloyd Dobler, and most recently Western Exhibitions. I think that anxiety, fear, and crisis are all incredibly powerful emotions (or psychological states), and they hold an equally powerful potential for risk-taking in an art practice. That said, I also think that it can be hard to issue rigor and restraint in a place of real anxiety or crisis, as everything has such urgency and there is a lack of control. Thankfully, I am more settled now and I find that the work is organically building on itself. Each painting opens up a new set of questions and formal challenges, which lead to new decisions and new paintings. Right now I am in the exciting place where I have a number of ideas for new paintings and specific installations, and am juggling these different trajectories in my practice. I am able to continue to explore themes of anxiety and crisis while mitigating those states with humor, play, and pleasure in the work. Of course waves of anxiety, failure, and fear play a part in this process, and no matter how thoroughly I conceptualize a painting before I start it, the beginning almost always feels like a shot in the dark.
KB: The end result being a complete departure from the pre-conceptualized form makes me think about conflicting loyalties. You have loyalties to your methods which allow all the nuances and intuitive moments to take place within the process of making a painting, and being loyal to yourself in these allowances is an important if not essential part of your practice. However, you also have a loyalty to what you might still do, or what the painting might still become, which always seems to be connected to the pre-conceptualized form. How do you negotiate conflicting loyalties in this sense? Are your sketches or ideas of a final product just a jumping point or do you struggle to maintain those forms throughout the process of making a painting?
ZN: When I start a new painting, I usually try to either identify a psychological state, or a feeling attached to a specific moment, that I want to articulate. I then respond to this initial idea by imposing a set of formal parameters on the work, which also define the subject matter. For example, the painting “Skype Breakdown” started with an idea to make a painting about frustration, blocked communication, and distortion. I made the painting (and most of the work up at Western) this past fall, while I was at a wonderful six-week residency called the Lighthouse Works. The residency was on a small island off of NY with spotty internet connection, and after looking at my partner’s frozen and pixilated face on the computer screen for the umpteenth time, I decided to channel my frustration (and objective interest in the abstracted image on my screen) into a painting. Using the idea of arrested communication and distortion as a starting off point, I began the painting by first making mask-like cuts into the top layer of canvas. Any discernible figure or face is cut-out and totally abstracted, and this act of negation also becomes subject matter. Circling back to you initial question about juggling pre-conceived concepts with method and intuition, I’d say that I try to stay true to the initial motivation and abstract idea behind a painting, while being open to chance, intuition, and the unknown in the process of making a painting.
KB: Speaking of making new paintings, what are you currently working on, and do you have any upcoming exhibitions we should know about?
ZN: I am working on a few different projects at the moment, including a nascent but exciting collaborative project with a composer, and paintings for a couple of installation ideas. Just a few days ago I was asked to take part in an artists lecture series called “Artists Now” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee next spring, which should be a lot of fun, and I am working on an exhibition proposal for the fall of 2014 at the moment. Having the show at Western has allowed me to take some time to reflect on the work, and see the paintings in a different context. I am particularly excited to hole-up in my studio as the show comes to a close, and make some new work!