Over the last year Guerin has dedicated herself to a single shape. Every painting begins with the same premise — the same subject: an abstract shape originally derived from a chair, it has, over the course of its repetition developed other affinities as well. Sometimes it looks like a hat, or a four leaf clover, or a corporeal organ. Certainly it stands in for a figure. It is at once empty and pregnant with meaning. By working exclusively with this shape, Guerin explores the medium of paint, focusing on its expansive possibilities, while remaining formally constricted. A collection of these works are presently on view at Columbia College’s Glass Curtain Galley, in a group show called “Slow Read.” Painters Emiliano Cerna-Rios, Magalie Guerin, Brian Kapernekas, Nazafarin Lotfi and Tim Nickodemus hang their work with accompanying, personally curated libraries. Guerin, for her part, includes a journal with notes from studio visits, reflections on the history of paintings, the work of her peers and her romantic life.
Caroline Picard: You use a repeating shape or motif throughout this series of works. Can you talk about how you discovered this shape?
Magalie Guerin: Well, it’s an invented shape loosely based on a chair design. As I worked with it, it ended up looking more like a hat, so I call it the Hat shape although now it seems to have morphed into an organ of some sorts… But really, it’s a structural form onto which I apply the paint.
CP: When we met in your studio, I feel like there was a point where you started talking about the shape in terms of a relationship, as though each iteration of the shape is another portrait that offers new insight. Suddenly the shape seems less abstract and more personal — is that fair? Has your relationship to the shape changed over time? Do you ever fight with the shape?
MG: Yes, that’s fair (perhaps a little strange too). The shape has become a kind of companion to me, a pet form. There’s a strong association in my mind now between my studio practice and that particular shape. I’m not sure how I can let it go at this point; it’s been a year. My relationship to it is very similar to any relationship—sometimes I’m bored stiff with it or I love it or I’m angry at it.
CP: I like thinking about how the shape somehow lives in your studio. Almost as though when you are in the studio you inhabit its space.
MG: Or it mine… it’s all very symbiotic.
CP: Does it feel like the shape exists as a thing that is separate and autonomous from you? Or do you feel like it is a projection of your own inner space?
MG: Hmmm, that’s a hard question and it creeps me out a little! A Cronenberg-esque scenario… So let’s think of the work— the paintings, not the shape itself. They wouldn’t exist without me so it does start with a projection of some sorts. But once they leave the studio, they develop a relationship with others so I could say a life of their own.
CP: I’m also interested in the idea of repetition and practice — it seems at the core of this project somehow and very meditative also (if that’s the right word). In other words, you return to paint the same shape again and again in different frames, with different colors and surfacing approaches — the shape remains the same, and yet I imagine your experience of the process changes dramatically depending on the day, the week, the month, depending on the peculiar challenges one composition demands, and depending on your own emotional landscape…what is that process like?
MG: I wish the process was meditative! It’s way too hard to be. I did reduce the possibilities in the studio in terms of size and shape but everything else is wide open so there’s a lot to attend to. Basically, I’m trying to create a focused practice and repetition has been helpful for that. I’m thinking a lot about what Morandi did with his ‘bottles’ and how, through sheer repetition, he was able to get to the essence of things—not the essence of the bottles but of life. It’s so very moving.
CP: Which then makes me want to ask about painting also — you mention Morandi, and the way he was able to distill his subject to earth tone bottles. I’ve heard people talk about how that makes his work emphasize the medium of paint. Do you think that’s accurate? Would you say The Shape does the same thing for you? By limiting your subject, you can focus on the materiality of your medium?
MG: Yes, I think that’s true. When I was working with multiple shapes, each painting was a new one and I was getting caught up on how the form looked and its design within the picture plane. There was a kind of anxiety about getting it ‘right’ because I had one shot at it. By repeating it, it’s more of an exploration of possibilities and subtleties—there’s no right or wrong. I can’t tell which painting is a better representation of it; they all blend in at this point. They are all the same.
CP: You often sand down your paintings between layers. I’m interested in the labor and erasure this process employs. Can you talk about how you came to that technique? And what goes through your mind when you begin to sand a particular layer of your work?
MG: It comes from doubt—I’m never sure that the color I add is right so I sand it down each time. And what that does is uncover the previous layers. The process is about revealing the past, building a richness of surface by allowing time to be seen. I often finish the painting by veiling it all with a coat of transparent Zinc white, which I love.
CP: For some reason this strikes me as a kind of violent act — maybe both sanding and covering with white.
MG: Really? That’s interesting, I’ve never thought of it being violent. Perhaps it is. Perhaps I hate them a little…
CP: It seems significant that you show these works with a journal, and like the paintings they are an amalgam of reflections on your studio practice, comments studio visitors have made, remarks you make about various aspects of the art historical cannon, your peers and then too your personal, romantic life. How did you decide to include this journal? And you’ve re-written it several times, by hand, for different exhibits — what was that re-writing process like?
MG: I write in the studio to help me understand what I’m doing (it’s a mystery most of the time!). When I started the ‘Hat project’ last September, I was interested in rules and limitations so I made a rule that I had to write something every single time I came to the studio no matter what it was. I really wanted to find out specifically what I was asking of my work. But obviously, there are days when my head is elsewhere even when I’m in the studio, that’s why the writing sometimes veers towards the weather of my romantic life. It was also a way to document how many times a week I was able to paint and how long the paintings take me to complete. Then what happened is that I was asked to make an ‘artist book’ for a show Sean Ward organized at Julius Caesar in Chicago. This opportunity came just after I heard the poet Kenneth Goldsmith talk about copying and organizing writing as his art form and I found that an interesting/conflicting activity for a writer to engage in. I thought—what if one copies oneself? If one also creates the original, does it change the nature of the copy?
So I took all the notebooks I’ve written in since moving to Chicago for grad school in 2009 and again, made a list of rules like ‘don’t add punctuation’, ‘delete dates’ ‘no chronology’ ‘repeat is ok’ etc. I merged and copied everything by hand in a Moleskine book. As I was transcribing the entries, I was also writing in my current journal about what I thought, critically, of the Notes project, complaining about the look of my handwriting and such while simultaneously copying these thoughts as a copy. That process became very interesting to me. I wrote about what I would do differently if I was to make a second version of the book, an edited/revised copy of the first one. A few months later, this latest opportunity—the Slow Read show—presented itself. We were asked to curate a selection of books to accompany our paintings. Nazafarin Lotfi contacted a few artists about making books for her space—that’s when I did the second version. So my book is included with Nazy’s work in the exhibition, not mine. I’m showing Anaïs Nin’s Diaries.
CP: Would ever think about these journals — with each subsequent generation — as a practice that parallels your shape paintings? For instance, could we think of each shape as its own, non-semantic journal? Could each journal be a kind of non-painted Shape painting?
MG: Technically I’d say yes but I’m still confused about the place of writing in my art production. It’s the first time I’m sharing it publicly. I mean, the questions are— how much writing of interest can I generate? How can I present writing as a visual artist? Should the books remain one-of-a-kind like a painting? How do I think of writing as a medium? Can I allow grammar mistakes and such? Is my writing too personal? So you see, it’s all very complicated…
CP: It’s interesting to think that an object in book form would demand a different aesthetic criteria than an object fashioned from paint and canvas.
MG: Maybe it’s not different, or at least shouldn’t be so, but it’s all very new to me so I have a lot of questions about it.
CP: How did you end up selecting work to hang in your show, by the way? I remember you were having a hard time deciding which paintings to exhibit in Slow Read.
MG: Ha! That was hard because as I said, they all blend in now as one project. To have to select a few (I think there’s 11 in the show) out of the 30 or so I’ve made seems irrational. Justin Witte, the curator, had some favorites so that helped. But most of it was trying to find a variety that would best represent the whole spectrum of the project as of yet––because, well, it’s still going…