An Interview with Betty Tompkins

New York artist Betty Tompkins creates powerful, photorealist paintings that have received an array of responses from enthusiastic to aghast. A gallery in Zurich that was showing her work once received a returned postcard sent out for Tompkins’s show with obscenities written all over it, clearly rebuking an invitation they found obscene. They were scribbled so deeply you can feel the indentations of where the pen angrily met the paper.

In 1973, two of her paintings slated for an exhibition in Paris were detained at customs for being sexually explicit. Today, however, Tompkins continues a critical ascendance with her first museum solo show at the Kunstraum Innsbruck in Austria (September 20th-November 11, 2017). She is also featured in this year’s Frieze Art Fair in London with other overlooked art (for being sexually explicit as well) from the 70s and 80s. So, even in the midst of blatant disagreement by some with the content of her work, Tompkins lives a life that is unaffected by these responses nor engaging with their verbal posturing associated, either.

I met Tompkins at her SoHo (New York) studio, where she’s been for over 30 years. Having very little knowledge of her work, before attending her show at PPOW in NYC I read reviews by writers who each interpreted her work differently, especially during the 2016 election and the recent resurgence of interest in Tompkins’s work. From a painting perspective, I had questions about the materials used, about the treatment of surface, and content in relation to the history of painting. I had it all planned, the questions I would ask and what I thought we might talk about, but she revealed some compelling truths behind why she makes the work she does, which changed the course of our conversation.

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Photo courtesy of PPOW gallery

From my first observations of the work I tell her that the paintings feel reminiscent of black and white photographs. But, the subjects of these “photographs” are displayed larger than normally comfortable for those who find the paintings disturbing. She does all of her work with airbrushes, which she tells me later is primarily because she developed tendonitis in both hands. “It is like painting with magic,” she explains. What I found “magical” was that she never actually touches the surfaces of her paintings.

BT: “Paint is the material that I work best in. I have lived through many stages where paint is more popular, generally, and even declared dead many, many times… And, you know, I don’t care. It’s the material that I get to do what I want the best in. So that’s why I paint.”

It was a simple response; clear and not charged with jargon, either.

Our conversation turns to visibility; I notice Tompkins’s smaller works clearly depict the materiality of the paint, and her larger pieces feel visually like blurred photographs. I also talked to her about the proportions of the enlarged genitals within the frame (the rest of the body cropped out) and how they vary between the male and female anatomy.

JM: Are these proportions something you consider when making?

BT: “No, actually I don’t. I am just trying to make a very dynamic, beautiful and disturbing painting. I don’t think about how much male or female there should be, it’s just what gets me to a composition that I want to paint. ‘Cause before I paint it, I have to feel pretty convinced that I want to do it.”

JM: And where are your photographic references coming from?

BT: “Everywhere. It is ridiculously easy to find it – I never used a photograph as (originally) shot, I alter them quite a lot. I am not interested in someone else’s decisions about what makes an image exciting.”

Tompkins flips and rotates the images, makes color photographs black and white, substitutes body parts and changes genders of the figures. She has that control as the author.

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Photo courtesy of PPOW gallery

JM: Why the reduction of color palette?

BT: “When I first started them, there was no color. Seriously, all color was black and white. The TV was black and white, the world was… it made sense. Really, they are in color ’cause I mix my own blacks. It makes the color more exciting.”

As a painter who has been encouraged to mix my own blacks since I started painting, I noticed the lovely shifts between warm and cool tones while looking at the paintings on view at PPOW.

The colors she uses sit in tubs for a while. Tompkins explains, “It was this really weird color. It looks black, but it’s not, it’s this brownish tone. I couldn’t duplicate it if I tried.” And it is not exact. “Green, yellow and magenta… How does it even become black?”

Tompkins explains how she primarily goes about squirting colors into plastic containers, using neither constructed equations nor exact proportions.

BT: “I wouldn’t let my students use black out of the tube when I taught, because I thought that it really makes a dead hole, visually, in the painting; even when you mix other colors with it, it is still dead.” She would send them to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, ask them to walk around and come to paintings that have a fair amount of black in them to see what happens ocularly. “If your eye gets fuckin’ stuck on a dark area, that’s a tube black. And that’s how I found it out. I did it myself as an experiment. I found that really curious, because no one taught me that. Before, I had just never noticed. I had never heard of the concept of a chromatic black. I was doing a painting with acrylic, and I picked up ultramarine and burnt sienna… just some arbitrary colors, and then there was this black. I seemed to have been the only one in the world who had not been taught this color combination, but that’s how I came to it: by accident… You just do it, and that’s how you learn the most.”

JM: I read somewhere that there has been a surge of interest in your work that is centered around the political climate. It was either you or the writer who stated in this essay that one of the works’ goals is to reposition the women’s role and…

BT: “Oh not me. I would never say that; it was interpreted that way, though.

“It is their context. I make a big point about not interfering with other people’s contexts. Long ago, I made a decision when I got into the second phase of my career with this work (before, I was censored in Paris and my paintings were hidden for 40 years)… So, anyway,  in 2002 when I had the chance to show with Mitchell Algus (Gallery in NYC), it was the first time they (the ‘Fuck’ paintings) had been seen as a group. Ever. Anywhere. And that’s when I made this decision that I didn’t want to interfere with someone’s reaction or interpretation of the work by saying what I thought it might be about. It was a really conscious decision and it felt good to make because I was very uncomfortable when people asked me, ‘Why do you do this? What does it mean? What movement is this? What is its political agenda?’ And I gave myself a lecture, and said, ‘You’re smart. You can figure out the answers to this! You know, they are really just sound bites any ways.’ And now I think, ‘No, I really don’t wanna go there. I’m not gonna do it. Anything you say about my work is fine. Literally, fine.’ People have said some nasty things along the way and I am fine with it. Because for me, to not be fine with it, I have to interfere.”

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Betty Tompkins’s studio.

“I once gave a lecture at Syracuse [University, where I attended undergrad] and there were some interesting questions in the Q&A as well as some real disagreements. I wanted to think these through. Some things happened that surprised me–there was a kind of hostility from a faculty wife that had to do with precise definitions of feminism, which didn’t interest me in the slightest, and I finally said to her that we are going to agree to disagree because I can’t engage with this anymore. On the train home I took out my phone and started taking notes to myself, to help me kind of structure what I thought about it and what I came up with in the end, after I went in big circles in my mind, was that I am not gonna engage in this. You know, any critic, any art writer, any dealer, any curator, any collector can say whatever they want and that’s fine because it adds to the conversation. The minute I open up my fuckin’ big mouth I am gonna limit that conversation. I was more interested in observing that conversation than in my contribution to it. So, when people say good things about my work I say, ‘Thank you!’ And often people say things that surprise me, coming from their own context, you know, whether it’s their sexual orientation or their political orientation or their art historical orientation… If someone says something terrible about the work I say,‘Thank you!’ because as the positive things are telling of the writer’s point of view, so are the negative things. They give the same effect from different sides. I hadn’t ever removed myself from the conversation and it isn’t typically something that artists do.”

Tompkins and I talk about critique for a while, and I tell her, There are so many artists that feel like they have to defend their work, and that is not how it should be.

BT: “There are all of these young artists, and they are very verbally adept; they can articulate the hell out of anything. Most of the time I have no idea what they are talking about. Paintings exist whether you are here explaining it or not… This is how we should teach the students, asking them how they keep themselves engaged in their studio practice with no outside stimulation or pressure, so they can go shake themselves up every once in awhile.” 

Tompkins had told me that when she did teach she believed the best way to do so was through empathy. As she elaborates on these teaching stories, I began to see how empathy is an integral component of her artistic practice as she engages in making in her studio and fields the interactions with the work that come afterwards. 

“Those paintings on paper in the back room (of PPOW), that’s a whole new idea!… There wasn’t a reasoned process, it was just me shoving myself around, and I thought, ‘Well, your risk of failure here is about 90 percent… Are you sure you wanna do it? Yeah I am sure, let’s work this out!”

She took her whole process and “blew it all up.”

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Photo courtesy of PPOW.

JM: That is the challenge and the goal; I think about that as well. How do I shake it up and take a risk?

BT: “You don’t have to defend your work, that is such bullshit! Anytime I ever tried I would just get so angry and upset and I didn’t want to feel like my head was blowing off!”

JM: Yeah, I get emotional.

BT: “Well, yes, of course! You know, it is a much easier position to take in life to not defend your work. If someone wants to say something about the work, I listen. Sometimes it is very interesting to me and sometimes it isn’t, but I am willing to listen to what everyone has to say… I did the work. They are either already convinced, or they are not. And if they are not, there is not a damn thing I can say that will move that process forward. So, I don’t. And my life has improved so much since I came to that conclusion.”

JM: Yeah, I feel like being a painter and thinking about all the times it has been declared dead, you living through that, and making work that is controversial to a large audience, I can see how it can become easy to feel like you have to conform to other ideas. But, when I saw the painting I just thought, ‘These are what they are.’

BT: “They are exactly what they are! Exactly!”

JM: Yeah, there is nothing overt, there may be some concealment in the softness of the material, but there is nothing being masked.

BT: “That’s it, That’s it! Take it or leave it.”




Uncanny Chaos Under Control at Postmasters Gallery

Our current political climate has brought us to state of deliriousness. We resist these forces of political immorality while becoming passive to its effect or otherwise exhausted from the effort. Conversely, there are artists acknowledging and responding to our collective feelings by taking their work to a place of darkness, that surprisingly shines a light on these conditions.  Two ideas such conditions bring forward were recently shown in the dual exhibition at Postmasters Gallery NYC entitled In G.O.D. We Trust and CON-Figuration (March 18 – April 22, 2017).

The timing is right; these shows were deliberate and crisp as they prod what it means to be making work right now, while also collectively showcasing our media cycle’s lust after violence, absurdity, and darkness. These exhibitions posed some worthwhile questions: do we stay and wade in this grim shade we have surrounded ourselves with? This work offers the means to absorb the reality, giving stark imagery of the history of political disruptions, and although absurd, it is seriously no joke.

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Installation of  In G.O.D. We Trust. Image courtesy of Postmasters Gallery NYC

In G.O.D. We Trust  — G.O.D. standing for Global Obama Devotion—  is the title of a video and accompanying stills stretched on canvas by Chinese-American new media artist Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung. The room was filled with video game noises you’d hear in an on-screen battle. The sound activated the stills hung around the first room of the gallery, mimicking the motion of the viewer’s eyes as they bounce from one icon to the next in this vivid cut-and-pasted world. These icons included images of former Presidents Obama, Clinton and George W. Bush, along with seven religious prophets that Obama morphs into throughout the course of the video. This created a narrative that outlines the various global and domestic problems the Obama administration faced early on, characterizing one president’s specific struggles out of many others.

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Video Still from In G.O.D. We Trust by Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung. Image courtesy of Postmasters Gallery NYC

The work is loud; the frames were filled with tumultuous images, which had a hypnotizing effect, making one incapable of pulling away from this hyperbolized political reality. Moreover, the comparisons of Obama to seven prophets hyperbolizes him as an idealized savior, placing on the role of the president the duty to somehow save the people. This reliance we the people have on our president to be our “Messiah” is highlighted through this portion of the video, where he morphs into the figure of Jesus Christ and carries the weight of the country’s debt like a cross. To go along with the analogy, if we as believers continually place faith in one with the bigger plan, or a higher power with knowledge unknown to us, we will serve no purpose nor make any changes in this world if we do not act ourselves. Furthermore, in this world of people looking for change, we must be wary of creating and following false prophets, especially ones as human as the president.

In the neighboring room, CON-Figuration features five artists: painters Canyon Castator and Christian Rex Van Minnen, sculptor Agathe Snow, fiber artist Erin M. Riley, and digital media artist Shamus Clisset.

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Installation shot of CON-Figuration. Image courtesy of Postmasters Gallery NYC

While less politically direct, this room was filled to the brim with even more iterations of a deformed reality. At the room’s center, Agathe Snow’s sculptures balanced between the two pillars that cut through the center of the gallery. Insouciant (top hanging figure), Don’t Stress over the Turkey Daddy… (bottom figure in mangled chair structure) and Dad is always stressing about his job (figure on stilts) are uniquely positioned. These bodies reflect their titles of both indifference and stress, every figure weighed down by themselves, barely supported by the structures they lean on, exemplifying the potential apathy that rises out of the effect of stress or anxiety. These long limbed figures mimicked the positions the bodies hold in the paintings sharing the space, all sharing a similar body language that is paused in tension, even in a pose.

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Canyon Castator’s Tipping Point & Christian Rex Van Minnen’s Selfie In Casmate Beneath the Bridge to Better Days I Image courtesy of Postmasters Gallery NYC

Canyon Castator’s Tipping Point (left) contains distorted figures that echo the form of the ghastly figure in Christian Rex Van Minnen’s Selfie In Casmate Beneath the Bridge to Better Days I (right) just across the room. Both painters’ works are redolent of historical paintings which have been twisted into contemporary turmoil. Surreality and skewed perspective within the paintings enthrall me and deliver a space aberrant of typical depictions of the body’s anatomy.

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Installation shot of CON-Figuration. Image courtesy of Postmasters Gallery NYC

All of the works which surrounded Agathe Snow’s in-between space created an environment even more overwhelming; the walls of these bodies showcased as physical manifestations of the potential effects that a polluted world has on the mental and psychological states of a person. The stress is real. Erin M. Riley’s soft, pornographic weavings and Shamus Clisset’s 3D digital renderings of cyborg-looking figures are iterations of digital worlds that remain entirely different from each other. However, in each work I see an element of strength personified in the stances, positions and scale the bodies fill in their frames. The dominance of these figures potentially act a figures of indestructible resistance, although they are still under an affect of the twisting hypocrisy and dimness prevalent; all of the images participated in creating a setting submerged in surreality where the states of the figures became surprisingly real.

The materials and figures in both of these exhibitions twisted and turned in their frameworks; they carried weight. They highlight the dichotomy that exists in American media that can fetishize and normalize violence and demonize sexuality and intimacy. These works have been brought into this dark world, as these artists are perceptive of this reality. We are collectively enamoured with this dark side of reality that effectively transfixes humans into a place that may frighten us to a point where we want to escape this place, even if we have just dipped our toes in a little. When we leave, that is when we have the chance to respond to and resist these responses of darkness, and turn it into light.

These shows, in clear conversation with each other, very successfully iterate a world that has been soaked in social media and its proliferations from “fake news” to virtual reality that are so enticing we can’t tear ourselves away from them. Creating and becoming a part of a community that makes and embraces artwork under the hand of the leader that is taking away important resources, whom I would never consider a prophet, is a way to raise awareness, resistance, and the need for action.




Inside iamuslima: An Interview with Baseera Khan

Baseera Khan just had her first solo show in New York City, iamuslima. Khan presented work that packages her social and personal identities with familiar spiritual objects and family archives. Her anxiety of deep rooted historical trauma matches her concerns with the politics of immigration in America. Khan’s method to create sculptural endurance performance works, all in relation to her body, attempt to manage and think through, “what’s next?”

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iamuslima NikeID sneaker by Baseera Khan. Image Courtesy of the artist.

The first piece seen at the forefront of the exhibition was a pair of Nike Air Force One Mid-Top sneakers designed by Khan through the NIKEiD project. After hearing of a lawsuit against Nike for not allowing the word “Muslim” to be embroidered on these customized shoes, Khan sidestepped the blockade by altering the word. She calls this strategy “misspelling on purpose”, and had iamuslima inscribed onto the shoes instead, this manipulated word directly referencing Khan’s identity as both a Muslim and a woman. These shoes were also a document from her performance during the opening night of the exhibition where she walked around the space in the shoes, and then placed them atop the stack of acrylic boxes also seen at the forefront. These boxes were meant to function as an invitation for others to take their shoes off too.

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Images courtesy of the artist.

She then proceeded to perform ablution with a bowl of black chalk nearby, readying herself to climb a synthetic rock wall installed at the opposite end of the gallery entitled Braidrage, leaving chalk dust footsteps behind. The rocks were made from resin molds of the corners of her body with chains and locks of hair embedded into them like DNA. Traversing vertically a white wall, via the corners,  Khan climbed as high as she could until utter fatigue, leaving yet another residue of black chalk against the wall. Traces of her presence remained throughout the entire run of the installation.

The Acoustic Sound Blankets placed in the exhibition were worn by Khan in several prior performances that speak about safe spaces and intimacy. Individuals were invited to come under the blankets with her, offering protection against assaulting sounds. There are Psychedelic Prayer Rugs — created collaboratively — colorfully designed by Khan and fabricated by people residing in Kashmir, India. After visiting the exhibition for an artist talk, I wanted to probe the artist further about the context of her practice.

Khan expresses the importance of community when making her work. I asked, with her work primarily exploring themes her own identity, being a Muslim queer woman of color, how then does she engage or build a community in the process of making work? How does this community then support the practice of understanding one’s own identity?

“There was a large group of people that came together to help me with this exhibition.” As a teacher at Parsons, many former students came together to help Khan with her exhibition. In return she would plug them into jobs or they were given school credit for their assistance. All of these students were also queer people of color,  which was important for Khan. “It gave me an opportunity to create an environment of people where, while we were making the work, we could have an ongoing conversation about our feelings and topics that extended beyond the classroom discourse.”

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Psychedelic Prayer Rugs by Baseera Khan. Image Courtesy of the artist.

A longer arc of conversation took place when producing the Psychedelic Prayer Rugs. This idea, to travel to India and collaborate there, conjured when Khan’s father passed away and her mother came to live with her for some time. “I was trying to find a way for her to enter into my world,” continuing to practice engaging the community with her work. She took her mother to Parsons, toured the design classrooms together, and while Khan taught class her mother actually helped embroider designs for the Acoustic Sound Blankets. At some point they came to realize this task was not something they could do alone by hand. Thus, they traveled to India and were able to connect with artisans to help produce some of the embroidery in Khan’s show. This is when they discovered the ideas behind the Psychedelic Prayer Rugs.

Khan comes from a lineage of people that have always worked in pedagogy and textile construction. Teaching is what she wants to sustain her livelihood along side her studio practice. Her engagement in this way is most important, and if the work she continues to make sells, then she would be even more able to provide resources for the community she is surrounding herself with. “You start to learn about how to be a leader or how to truly be in a community, and how to form your own family.” Khan, as a teacher and a leader, is a strong example for students and artists to form more empathetic environments for people with religious differences, or differences at all, as she builds and engages her own community.

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Acoustic Sound Blankets by Baseera Khan. Image by Maxim Ryazansky and courtesy of the artist.

Many of the materials used reference the body, and are re-used and employed in different ways. The Acoustic Sound Blankets, for example, have many iterations, engaging a community and creating safe spaces. I asked Khan, how do the materials evolve and continue to reference your body and other bodies?

Khan feels very assaulted by sound, admitting to having an astute sense of hearing which makes her sensitive to it. The acoustic blankets are a soft space that minimize the sound coming at you. They were “A micro geography you could slip underneath, to have reprieve from sound violations, from sound terror you hear everyday– you know, the city is crying and vibrating constantly.” Her interest in understanding military architecture led her away from the exploration of physical architecture of a space and instead brought her focus to how sound controls populations of people, like the call to prayer. “Sound is a way we are controlled; it is a cue to do certain things; it is very pavlovian. I wanted to repool myself and find my own affinity groups. Instinctually, the way to do that was to create a vacuum” for these sounds.

She would invite people underneath an Acoustic Sound Blanket in these performances, activating a space of intimacy. She would gauge interactions based on their comfortability, offering to sing to them, mostly. The acts would continue as well as the two people engage by looking at each other and hugging, turning the micro geography into an intimate environment. She even wore one of these during the women’s marches that occurred in New York around the time of the inauguration.

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Images of Khan wearing an Acoustic Sound Blanket at the Women’s March in NYC. Images courtesy of the artist.

Along with these performances is an aspect of a “social construction of how we have expectations of each other, in regards to all the chaos happening in response to class and race.” Khan told me, “I wanted to do something and be present, but I didn’t want my body to be present. To mask myself in this kind of acoustic geography was a way for me to be present, you can hear my voice, but you cannot see my body.”

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Braidrage by Baseera Khan. Image by Maxim Ryazansky and courtesy of the artist.

In regards to the rockwall, Braidrage, there was an idea formulated here about performance and endurance with exercise wielding a way to combat the anxiety from deep rooted historical trauma. I asked Khan, how is exercise a part of the your daily practice and your artistic practice?

Khan asked herself “How can I sustain myself making work that gives me something in return? I want to have fun, I want to be social, I want to be healthy.” This spawned from an unhealthy relationship she was having with her art practice. She was interviewed for the 2010 Whitney biennial, but she realized the work did not build a community and that the paintings she was making at the time left her hands, were misinterpreted and she felt had become instruments for neo-liberalism. She decided to go to graduate school at Cornell to study, and while she still made a lot of work, she did not engage like before, leaving the fourth wall up. “Exercise became the thing I learned was what I needed 2014 as I watched my father and brother and mother’s health devolve. Toxicity is not a normative narrative, I think it is linked to colonization and displacement and the patriarchy and I wanted to do something about that and control that narrative in my work. And if I wasn’t doing that I didn’t want to make work.” In this way, she explains in her bio, strategies for decolonial practices.

Khan attended the Skowhegan residency soon after this realization which played a large role in pushing this idea. The residency facilities had a sound booth which led her to the creating of the Acoustic Sound Blankets as well as other performances during the residency. The environment of the school in general promoted exercise. “I was so healthy…I started to employ exercise in artistic ways as a way to manage trauma…and I do projects based on exercise as a medium.” The gym became the studio, where Baseera could use running as a medium and then used climbing in Braidrage; the performances becoming about endurance. Presenting the artist’s body in two forms in Braidrage exemplifies a colored body traversing a vertical plane, pressed up against a white background. “I wanted to see what a woman of color looked like pushed up against a white wall, and see how far she could go.”

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Baseera Khan in front of Braidrage. Image courtesy of the artist.




Jordan Kasey’s Whimsical “Exoplanet” at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery

Jordan Kasey exhibits six new large-scale paintings, encircling and filling the space with visions of whimsy. “Exoplanet,” at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery in Soho, permits the viewer to enter Kasey’s paintings, which seem extracted from a different world. The light within each painting emulates unnatural tones and shadows that exist under a source of light unfamiliar in terms of planetary sensibility.

Installation Image of Jordan Kasey's Exoplanet courtesy of Nicelle Beauchene Gallery

Installation Image of Jordan Kasey’s Exoplanet courtesy of the Artist and Nicelle Beauchene Gallery

A white light illuminates a poolside, crisply accentuating a shadow cast on a beige pavement by a red hand; a red and turquoise light saturate a dinner table, the view downward on only one guest, their skin and hair also saturated by the light. With gray dominating much of the canvas space, as an object casts a colored shadow, the stark lighting and brilliance surrounding leads me to imagine the rest of the environment in chrome and under a scintillating white sun. Yet, I find something uncanny about these places. What is this alternate reality and why are we going there? Regardless, in an in-between place, I feel at a distance from the world I’m physically in and still separate from the world Kasey depicts.

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Installation Image of Jordan Kasey’s Exoplanet courtesy of the Artist and Nicelle Beauchene Gallery

The paintings’ edges barely contain entire bodies, entering the picture plane showing all but the right or left side of the body, no head, half of a face, or only a face, whose massiveness arrest me and leave me feeling almost miniature. The scale of these figures and the canvas push me farther out of reality into a realm where I encounter scenes that resonate with real life, but I must have only seen them in a dream. A single paint stroke captures the realness of a toenail or a blade of grass, but also impossibly molds a head without any concavity for an eyeball to be set in, sitting instead like stickers on a flat surface. The dimensionality of the objects that populate the scenes render these flat planes into dense dreamscapes, where impossibly lit figures and structures depict everyday activities to be more complex and dense; these engorged moments mirroring memories of dreams.