by Jessica Cochran
In her recent memoir poet laureate Elizabeth Alexander wrote of her deceased husband, “he left us with his eyes on the world.” He was a painter.
Deborah Boardman (1958 – 2015), who once described herself as a “painter and…” worked in Chicago for nearly three decades. We saw her “eyes on the world” through solo exhibitions at the Gahlberg Gallery at the College of DuPage, the Chicago Cultural Center, Ebersmoore, and, most recently, the Experimental Sound Studio to name a few that were local. There were many more nationally and abroad. An educator at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago since 1997, she influenced hundreds of artists, some of whom became her collaborators.
Deborah worked across painting and drawing, installation, writing, environmental sustainability and sound/video, and she often employed dowsers to “map” her installations. Through it all, she became known for her approach to color, pattern and poetic text as vehicles for emotional content and narrative potential, as well as a uniquely gestural approach to mark making and hand lettering. Years ago, Deborah was of the first Chicago-based artists I discovered utilizing the bookform in a way that I found captivating. And as critic Lori Waxman wrote recently, newer work addressing her struggle with cancer grappled with the unseen and ineffable, articulating “what life looks like in that gracious limbo between life and death.”
Testimonial after testimonial gives evidence that Deborah’s “fierce,” visionary and “generous” creative ethic was not confined to her artworks, but also it governed the lived spaces of her life as an educator and collaborator: there are the students she engaged as her studio interns and treated like family; the friends with whom she sang joyfully in her living room and purposefully in the gallery; there were the women artists’ reading and figure drawing groups in the early 1990s; a spectacular dance party at Oxbow; “meaty” collaborations over years and years, and the concurrent friendships that burned slowly and brightly; pivotal residency and art-making trips to India to learn things like Vastu and develop exhibitions like Magic Mountain at Bangalor and Rooting: India with Akshay Rathore and Tricia Van Eck for the Kochi Biennale. Morning walk after morning walk to Albion Beach with her beloved dogs. The students she taught to write grants, not to “overpaint” and to make artists’ books. The yoga, meditations and gurus: she was a Catholic child turned seeker, spiritualist.
Perhaps the sum of the many, many contours of Deborah’s art-making life is this: in each studio visit was an implicit gift; embedded in every syllabus was an invitation; in each collaboration an emergent provocation; and in every artwork a public offering, a lesson.
My relationship with Deborah grew over six years or so through some group shows I curated, periodic studio visits and friends in common. But was in the last eight weeks of her life that she, her family and close (and by close, I mean indescribably loving) friends invited me into the more intimate dimensions of her life to begin to do the curatorial work of considering her oeuvre, to embark on a deep engagement with her work in order to develop a retrospective exhibition down the line. To begin to locate the magnitude of her influence, position her output within a broader historical and social context, and to understand the genesis of her work over decades—is a project I am coming to understand through a new and fascinating curatorial lens and as my own biggest collaboration with Deborah.
Deborah worked through her final days of treatment and hospice—finishing her memoir, setting into motion plans for a new sound installation and making her last exquisite painting with the help of those at her bedside. By all accounts her fervor was punctuated with wit and that inimitable smile.
In an artist’s book produced for a recent exhibition at 6018 North, Deborah wrote: “Xavier Le Pinchon, a plate tectonic expert, suggests that fault lines, the open spaces between the plates in the earth’s crusts are… analogous to human frailty. Because we are vulnerable, we find it necessary to depend on others for survival. It is through our vulnerability that we bond with others and thrive.”
Deborah’s work had many facets, but it is her brave articulation of her own perceived faults, frailties and vulnerabilities—her commitment as an artist to learning in public—that will demand of us and viewers of her work for years to come a deep reciprocity, a Deborah-like generosity. Through these exchanges—made possible by the “work” of her artwork—she will live on and her ideas will continue to shape the world in meaningful, collaborative ways.
Work by Jessica Labatte, Mike Andrews, Montgomery P Smith, and Lauren Anderson.
Robert Bills Contemporary is located at 222 N. Desplaines. Reception Friday 6-8pm.
Curated by Adelheid Mers, with work by Becky Alprin, Nadav Assor, Deborah Boardman, Lauren Carter, Sarah FitzSimons, Ashley Hunt in collaboration with Taisha Paggett, Judith Leemann, Kirsten Leenaars, Faheem Majeed, and Emily Newman.
Hyde Park Art Center is located at 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Reception Sunday 3-5pm.
Work by Sreshta Rit Premnath.
Tony Wight Gallery is located at 845 W. Washington Blvd. Reception Friday 6-8pm.
Work by Jin Lee.
Devening Projects + Editions is located at 3039 West Carroll. Reception Sunday 4-7pm.
Work by Angela Jerardi and Samantha Rehark.
ACRE Projects is located at 1913 W 17th St. Reception Sunday 4-8pm.
Work by Jeroen Nelemans, Ryan Richey, Ryan Travis Christian, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Deborah Boardman, Dana Carter, Kirsten Leenaars, Zachary Cahill, Ann Toebbe, Melissa Oresky, Alberto Alguilar, Corinne Halbert, Meg Duguid, Heidi Norton, Paul Nudd, Maria Gaspar, Mindy Rose-Schwartz, Eric Brown, Catie Olsen, and Michael Rea.
Northeastern Illinois University Fine Arts Center is located at 5500 N St. Louis. Reception Friday from 6-9pm.
Work by Ethan Cook, McKeever Donovan, Michael Hunter, Andrew Laumann, Mallory Anita Lawson, Sofia Leiby, John Roebas, Letha Wilson, and Eric Veit.
HungryMan Gallery is located at 2135 N. Rockwell St. Reception Saturday from 7-10pm.
Work by Magalie GuÃ©rin.
Autumn Space Gallery is located at 1700 Irving Park #207. Reception Saturday from 6-9pm.
Work by Anna Kunz.
Terrain is located at 704 Highland Ave., Oak Park. Reception is Sunday from 2-4pm.
Work by Michelle Anne Harris.
ACRE Projects is located at 1913 W 17th St. Reception is Sunday from 4-8pm.
A few days ago I paid a visit to Deborah Boardman’s studio. Having made my way up to Rogers Park, I walked down a side street into a neighborhood that brimmed with pre-summer activity; lawn mowers and birds both seemed endlessly active and I thought about how we’d all emerged for an after-winter stretch before the heat set in. On this street lies Boardman’s house. At the front door I was greeted first by two dogs and then the painter. We climbed up the stairs to her studio on the third floor. Windows on all sides. Leafy, green trees billowed around us where they caught the wind and it was impossible to see the street below. I felt like I was in a green cloud. Boardman has been painting in this room for the last 15 years: a light-addled attic with one, tallest wall where she paints. Other walls are either interrupted by windows or fall at angles defined by the peaked roof. The floor is wooden, spattered with paint. There is a sink in one corner of the room and everything smells vaguely like turpentine. What struck me immediately was the way the light in Boardman’s paintings matched the light in her studio. I understand that usually happensâ€”paintings reflect the space they were produced in, but I always forget that light has variant qualities, depending on where and when it shines. This was a palpable, pervasive shim of light. I’ve never thought of light having density before, but in this room it did. And in Boardman’s paintings the light also has body. It defines the space between lines and marks.
Her work is in constant communion with this place, whether literally depicting the studio as a subject, or by using its same palette and wind. Motifs repeat like patterns as she paints from life in oil, then transcribes that painting multiple times, again and again, with different variations into gouache on paper. While looking over her work, I began to learn the language she uses–to parse clusters of marks from other lines, differentiating what lines referred to the wooden trunk standing against another wall of the roomÂ and what series of marks described another painting. I was able to see how the depiction of the trunk lost it’s literal authority as, time and time again, it was redrawn in ever increasing abstraction. Other motifs were similarly repeatedâ€”the sink, a bottle of dish soap, paint brushes, other paintings, photographs, books and vials. The most prominent window is also a regular image as are the objects it boasts: small vials, a meditation cloth, books and small, skeletal remnants of a bird, an entire crayfish, the jowl of a fish. Different paintings feature the tree outside with leaves or bare with winter. To start understanding Boardman’s work is to spend time in this space, in her studioâ€”a place so integral to her process it becomes not simply the location of work, but also its subject. She also paints patterns. Patterns are painted onto canvases and paper; where sometimes they stand alone, in other instances one pattern abuts another pattern, in still other instances a patterns lies, like a veil, over domestic landscapes. Sometimes those landscapes are represented simply, without a pattern, but there is a dialogue between those choices. It’s a dialogue about seeing and how we see and how we locate ourselves within what we see. What follows is an interview I embarked upon with her. We talk about painting and the canvas and pattern and windows.
Caroline Picard: Can you talk a little bit about how your painting practice has developed over time? Do you notice a consistent investigation of themes or ideas?
Deborah Boardman: Definitely there are themes I return to over and over again.Â One is my relationship to painting in which it becomes evidence of my physical body and my hand conveys a kind of emotional warmth, no matter what image is represented. Another is my love of other peopleâ€™s paintings, whether artists like Watteau or Manet or Noland, or friendsâ€™ paintings. I find the emotional timbre in the works of my friends gives me a sense of affirmation, like singing along to a great song. I often find myself connecting to the work of others by copying them, rendering these works as cluster of notes I am examining in my studio, including my own.
CP: I’m interested in how you talk about the canvas/painting as an emotive,â€¨expressive front. I was wondering if you could describe more about what thatâ€¨is like, for you. Does a painting inspire warmth for you? Or is it the actâ€¨ of painting? And, if it’s possible to ask, why?–where does the emotion comeâ€¨from for you and what is it for?
DB: I can say that both looking at painting and the act of painting elicit similar feelings of warmth, excitement and vigor. There is usually a struggle with self doubt in both circumstancesâ€¦the great painting that I want to emulate, but can I and my own paralysis when faced with the unknown and what feels like sometimes overwhelming inadequacy.
Where it comes from is harder to answer. I think there is both a physical recognition through bodily memory, especially if the one looking at painting also paints, and empathy. Yet I know people who don’t paint at all who have looked at my painting and got that physical recognition. It’s a kind of resonance, a pleasure (and often pain) we feel in common.
CP: How do you think about pattern in yourÂ practice?
DB: Pattern is everywhere, sometimes it is more obvious to us. I love when painting reveals something fresh about the coherence in the world which sometimes I observe and sometimes is just subtle sensation. When I paint patterns, I focus on the color and the size and weight of the brush stroke, and the variances that occur when my hand wobbles, or when the water blurs, things that I try not to control and that surprise me. The focus painting patterns brings is very different than looking at my surroundings, which in some ways is more difficult, and requires greater discipline. I like combining the two in my studio paintings.
CP: I feel like this is a question I’ve been meaning to ask for a long time,Â actually. I started wondering about it when I noticed all of your paintings of yourÂ studio. I then thought about it again when Chicago was doing its city-wideÂ studio investigations (via the MCA and Smart Museum). How doÂ you think about the studio as a source of inspiration?
DB: Yes, quite a long time ago, I decided to counter my tendency to make very curvy, gestural images out of my head with attempts to ground myself in the present world. The most obvious place to start was my studio and that led me naturally to Matisse and his studio paintings. I also stumbled upon a painting by a student of Davidâ€™s one summer visiting the Louvre. The painting depicts about twelve of Davidâ€™s students painting in a small, dimly lit studio. I was so struck by the state of absorption and evident pleasure represented in the painting that I copied it many times and also researched other versions of artists in their studios, mostly from the 19th century. I think I found affirmation and reassurance through these paintings in what is often a lonely and doubt-ridden pursuit. I think the studio is a concrete stand-in for the self and ultimately what one deals with as an artist is the weight and sum of how to find meaning and connection to others through ones work.
CP: When you talk about the studio as being a representation of the self, I’mâ€¨immediately curious about what your physical experience is like, when youâ€¨enter your studio…like how does that feeling of being inside your studioâ€¨compare to being in a classroom where you teach, or a room in your house?â€¨And then, too, what is it like for you to walk into the studios of others?
DB: My studio is deeply familiar and generally feels good to be in. Sometimes there are periods when I am working out of a particular palette that I end up disliking and crave the antidote. I make periodic purges of work, editing and cleaning out, which refreshes and opens up the space again.
My studio doesn’t need to accommodate others, at least at this point, and in that way is very different from the spaces I share with others, like my family or students. I really dislike the classroom studios at saic, as they are overwhelmingly gray and anonymous. I tend to love the studios of friends and of artists I admire that I may not be close to, like Byron Kim. I love to see the ordering of the space, and what is prioritized and valued.
CP: What happens to the studio space when it becomes public? (whether beingâ€¨presented in an exhibition, or in a painting or via an open studio?)
DB: The public studio space is less intimate, and becomes an artifact of itself, and therefore theatrical. An exhibition is always in some aspects, a version of the public studio space.
CP: How does a canvas relate to a window?
DB: While my canvases evoke the renaissance ideal of looking through a window into another world, they also remain very much objects in the physical world. I am less interested in the illusion of space than alluding to other spaces, while reinforcing the material and physical conditions of the body.
CP: How do you negotiate ideas of failure? I was thinking partly about *TheÂ Book of Faults* and the LaLaLa Singers, for instanceâ€”in that instance itÂ seemed like an idea of failure became a collaborative performance that was then able to transcend itselfâ€¦?
DB: It was such an epiphany to learn about Xavier Le Pichonâ€™s idea of geological faults being necessary to the health and wellbeing of the earth as a living being. He makes the analogy that human frailty is also necessary for our survival as a species and reveals to us our essentially interdependent nature. It is a very different model than the competitive, survival of the fittest, only the â€œbestâ€ artists or â€œbestâ€ anything deserve our attention. I love how Le Pichonâ€™s theory dovetails with the modernist idea of failure, as a kind of heroic risk taking one must experience despite of ones anxieties and belief that artistic perfection, let alone trying to make anything worthwhile, is impossible to realize in the modern world
What singing with the La La La Singers reminds me again and again, is that connecting with other human beings, singing in harmony is a kind of effortless, pure joy that creates the kind of warmth I crave.
I also find working with ED JR. relieves an enormous amount of the anxiety about self worth. It is easier to trust the instincts of our collective minds, and a heck of a lot more fun. That said, I am not giving up my “day job” as a painter in the studio, as I find the solitude and introspection it brings, also essential to my clarity and growth as an artist.
This Sunday, on May 29th, Deborah Boardman’s collaborative group, ED JR (also Edra Soto, Jeroen Nelemans and Ryan Richey) will present their performance, Painting is Dead from 3-7pm at the Charnel House. With special guests Charles Mahaffee, Diego Leclery, Kayce Bayer, Chris Lin, Hannis Pannis, La La La Singing, Laughing Eye Weeping Eye (Rebecca Schoenecker and Patrick Holbrook). Painting is Dead is part of an on-going series called Five Funerals.