Art-Rated: Your earlier paintings have this concern with a creating a magic, phenomenological space. Your agenda was not always clear, the imagery was sometimes more cryptic. Where was this work coming out of?
Christine Gray: In 2008 I started working with ideas of seeking personal spiritual meaning via experiences in nature. This came out of a visit to Zion National Park where I was struck by the drama of the landscape and I began to think more about how that was experienced by early American settlers and romantically depicted by Luminist painters like Albert Bierstadt. I was putting together situations that alluded to an absent character’s desire to search for the transcendent in nature. In terms of other influences the idiosynchratic abstractions of Agnes Pelton and Lee Mullican offered a sense of personal spirituality that I was also interested in conjuring.
AR: Would you say your work has a relationship to magic realism?
CG: It certainly does. Objects I insert into fictive narratives are usually mundane, but arranged or combined in a way that makes them almost talismanic. They serve as conduits to other worldly experiences or serve as meditations on larger ideas. The realistic rendering of mundane still-life objects seems to align them more closely with early 20th century magic realism, but the more illogical light and color push overtly beyond that reality as in later magic realist painting. I’m glad that you bring up magic realism rather than surrealism in relation to my work. My emphasis is on how encounters with the everyday have the potential to be revelatory. Some pieces push the depiction of reality, but our reality is never abandoned for the interior world of surrealist illogic. It might be weird, but there is a logic there.
AR: I also know that you’ve pushed your work into a sculptural direction in the past by creating some of the objects and spaces from your paintings. Have you continued that exploration or were those site specific projects?
CG: No, I haven’t been making anything sculptural lately. In the studio I play around with fashioning weird little still life objects, but they aren’t shown independently. When I have made objects that were exhibited they existed as individual projects rather than as an ongoing part of my practice. Last year I was working on a sculptural project that is currently on hold.
AR: How did you find your ideas translated into sculpture? Was there an affirmation that your worlds needed to be painted on canvas rather than exist in reality?
CG: In the past, most of the sculpture I made aimed to describe how one looks at and puts together information from the paintings. In 2006 I did a couple of shows that combined paintings and objects that broke down the process of looking, hunting, and processing information through a unique logic. They were very diagrammatic to me, but I wasn’t able to get terribly complex with my paintings in this mode so I abandoned it. In 2009, I did a series of gourd pieces which I see as paintings-not sculptures. They sit next to paintings like still lifes, and they are painted with a graphic language I wouldn’t use in a straight painting. Visitors to my studio always try to convince me to show my maquettes or to make them into larger installations. I don’t do this because I feel they are so disconnected from their intended meaning outside of the painting. They transform when suspended in the painting’s reality.
AR: You clearly love to paint light; it is a central theme throughout your body of work. How do you negotiate the balance between your perceptual observation and your intuitive approaches to this aspect of your paintings?
CG: I break into each piece through an intuitive idea about the type of light and color that is in the painting. That is unearthed from the get go-either as a preconceived idea or through the exploration of colored grounds in the first painting stages. I only then set up analogues to that sense of light in the studio for observational purposes. In the process of observation I make sure to let the palpability of the light as paint or paint as light translate in a surprising way. Right now I’m also playing around with using silver grounds and other iridesscent fields over which opaque swatches of color hover and vibrate.
AR: Some of your paintings have qualities similar to the way Janet Fish’s handles of light and reflections in her still lifes. Have you been looking at her work?
CG: Not really. I have been thinking a lot about using reflective objects such as foil and cans as analogues for the glimmering special effects that usually take place in fields of color in my work. I’m pretty excited how something so ubiquitous as foil can be so breathtakingly beautiful. Pae White’s ‘foil’ tapestries, William Daniels’ painted foil still life pieces, and Tauba Auerbach’s fold paintings are of interest to me.
AR: Sargent also comes to mind when examining some of your pieces, the magical luminosity you achieve in Proposed Refuge, 2010, and Swarm Cusp Nocturne, 2012. I know Sargent spent a good deal of time plein air painting; is this part of your approach to getting light and form realized within your landscapes?
CG: I look at the sky a lot, but I really try to internalize it rather than take photos or work directly from it. I let paint guide me to making a spectacular sense of light and atmosphere, but I think I kill the magic in it when I work to closely with a source or even a memory. With something like Swarm Cusp Nocturne I wanted to try to show bright daylight and night sky in the same painting. The transition between those two extremes was solved through intuition and experimentation. No source can help you depict something so impossible.
AR: Your recent work has hinted at connections to art historical modes and motifs, but recently those connections appear more overt. The paintings exhibit a humorous relationship to art historical tableaus in works like “Juicy Fruits, Vol. II” and “Natural Light”. What changed? Have you been looking at Morandi or the Northern still life paintings at all?
CG: I started thinking differently about our relationship to the objects in our lives when I heard a 2010 interview with Yurok tribe chairman Thomas O’Rourke on Fresh Air. The Yurok tribe was celebrating the return of hundreds of sacred artifacts from the Smithsonian Institution. The way he described how these objects felt being put in boxes and unable to participate in tribal dances. Once returned they needed to be healed. This made me think about the role of a still life painter as one who meditates upon objects through careful study and reveals to their contemporaries the interior life, the role, the function of these objects in our world. There is a spectacular photographic portrait of Morandi where he is staring his still life objects. Although he was breaking down the objects abstract elements, he reveals through a lifetime of dedicated looking. In Natural Light and Shelf Study the vessels on the shelves are traced from Morandi paintings.
In terms of the paintings like Sticky Triangle and Juicy Fruits Basket, Vol. II, I am definitely thinking about Dutch Baroque still life paintings. In his bouquet paintings, Abraham Mignon and other painters of the time would insert tiny little dewdrops and microfauna on the luscious leaves and petals. This served to make the painting seem more real, and it also focuses your attention on the sense of time in the painting. Populating the inanimate still-life with little flies and bugs makes the reality of the meticulously rendered still-life of perishables even more impossible. I can also speak from experience and say that flies must have been a real problem in the studios of these artists. In Juicy Fruits Basket, Vol. II I use plastic acrylic pools of synthetic color as the artificial stand-in for classically painted fruit. Sticky Triangle lures studio flies into a triangular piece of fly paper that stands in as an abstract painting.
AR: What are your thoughts on where and how the still life genre fits into today’s contemporary art world I’ve been seeing quite a resurgence lately at art fairs and galleries, and would love to know your thoughts on this.
CG: I’m not sure. I was always under the impression still-life was still pretty marginalized in the art world, but I guess I could be a bit out of touch. Someone like Josh Marsh works with still life and abstraction in an interesting way, but even he seems to be getting further way from still-life. Josephine Halverson is interesting as well.
AR: What is your painting process? Has that changed over time?
CG: Like I said I tend to start the piece abstractly thinking about how color can become light and marks can break into space. Some images are more preconcieved than others. But at the time when I start to know what kind of landscape or objects occupy the space I make sources via a micro sculptural investigation or I gather photographic sources. Part of the process is editing things in and out of the painting as I go via sanding. There are some pieces that have more complicated masking processes or layering of poured thinned paints or glazes. It just depends on the piece. What has changed over time is the amount of certainty I have about a whole piece before beginning. I used to have so much figured out from the get go, but recently it’s been hard to know too much before I begin. I think I just go through periods of needing to broaden my skill set through experimentation, and then periods of knowing how to implement those new approaches. I’m in a trial and error phase right now.
AR: What’s next for you?
CG: I’m making work for my next solo show at Rare in NYC this coming December. For the paintings I’m making for that show I am using imagery and experiences from my travels to the Ballearic island, Menorca, Spain and throughout Scotland. The ancient ruins of early civilizations in each location are of interest to me. I am thinking about how the ruins are interpreted as ritualistic and early forms of religion (ie Recumbant Stone circles, Taulas, Talayots, and runes), and I am imagining how they could be reactivated by contemporary people without a real understanding of their histories.
Christine Gray is represented by Rare Gallery in New York.
She has an upcoming solo show at Rare Gallery Dec 20-Jan 17 in New York and a group show curated by Bibi Katholm called In Case We Don’t Die: We See a Darkness at the Torrance Art Museum in Torrance, CA (LA area) March 30- May 18 2013.
Her work is currently featured in the most recent art book put out by Beautiful/Decay Book 8: Strange Daze. They are available here: http://beautifuldecay.com/shop/paperback-books/333-beautiful-decay-book-8.html
All questions taken from an interview with Jonathan Beer, Christine Gray, and Lily Koto Olive conducted via email.