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 happens—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 room 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 repeated—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 studio—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. 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 people’s paintings, whether artists like Watteau or Manet or Noland, or friends’ 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, expressive front. I was wondering if you could describe more about what that is like, for you. Does a painting inspire warmth for you? Or is it the act of painting? And, if it’s possible to ask, why?–where does the emotion come 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 circumstances…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 your 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, actually. I started wondering about it when I noticed all of your paintings of your studio. I then thought about it again when Chicago was doing its city-wide studio investigations (via the MCA and Smart Museum). How do 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 David’s one summer visiting the Louvre. The painting depicts about twelve of David’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’m immediately curious about what your physical experience is like, when you enter your studio…like how does that feeling of being inside your studio compare to being in a classroom where you teach, or a room in your house? 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 being 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 *The Book of Faults* and the LaLaLa Singers, for instance—in that instance it seemed like an idea of failure became a collaborative performance that was then able to transcend itself…?
DB: It was such an epiphany to learn about Xavier Le Pichon’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 “best” artists or “best” anything deserve our attention. I love how Le Pichon’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.