Thanks to my friend, John, for sending along this interview!
Everybody Loves/Hates Painting
On a crisp, clean blue spring San Francisco afternoon I sat outside the graduate artists’ studios at California College of the Arts and had a conversation with Annie Hagar. Annie is a first year Masters of Fine Arts candidate at CCA and the two of us had just exited an Art History class in which we had discussed the aesthetics of installation art and how it might successfully attain a necessary autonomy. Needless to say this is the type of situation we find ourselves in often as graduate students in an art school. After some brief conversation about the merits of the class and a passing hello with a fellow first year student I began to ask Annie about her own work.
Annie is a painter. And I feel safe in saying that she is an abstract painter. Having taken several classes with Annie, and having been in her studio many times during critiques, I have had the pleasure of hearing her talk about paint and painting. In an institutional setting that encourages dynamic conceptual thinking and articulation about one’s art practice, bullshit and gibberish can abound. Annie has an understandable, concise insight about her own work and how she goes about making it that is decidedly refreshing.
“I am inviting the viewer to be curious about my paintings. I will paint and then repaint, and then repaint again. So there is a lot to look at if you are willing to look carefully enough.”
And, surely, this is true. I have been willing to look and have experienced a particular fondness for Annie’s most recent paintings. In an untitled piece, oriented vertically at a humble 18 by 30 inches (typical of Annie’s recent style), four bands of crimson/hotpink obscure extreme s-shaped brushstrokes in turquoise and blue. The success of this piece is depth. The turquoise blue ribbons back and forth, pushing and pulling space deeper and shallower on the canvas. The crimson/hotpink bands, two thick and two thin (so much so that if the painting were the subject of a game of memory, one might only claim to have seen two bands), are themselves diversely handled with darker and lighter moments, interesting in and of themselves. They are the prison bars of the incarcerated turquoise blue brushstrokes. In a startling moment a thin dribble of the hotpink directs our gaze to the darkest point of the painting, an almost black iris in the greenest moment of turquoise, starring intently at us. I imagine it wants out of this neon prison. These moments are not rare in Annie’s paintings. It is, however, a delicate endeavor ensuring these moments survive.
Figure 1 (Untitled, 2013)
“I have to say to myself, ‘put the paint down, it is a good painting, now step away.’ And I will actually go and wash my brushes and turn the painting around so that I cannot look at it. There is a moment, often times, not all the time, when I know a painting is done.”
In a rarer square formatted 18 by 18 inches canvas, another twisting slither of aquamarine and teal appears and disappears behind and in front of itself, narrowing and receding up the black background of the painting. Behind its summit, silhouetting a final swoop of blue, a faint glow of sunburnt orange flickers. One would assume the black background to be the abyss, yet this orange glow seems to be the chasm receding in space, swallowing the brushstroke gesture. It is an interesting space created. And this gesture, this reference to form, has been making many appearances in Annie’s recent work.
Figure 2 (Untitled, 2013)
“I first started working with this specific gesture to figure out where in the dialogue of brushstroke my paintings are successful and where they are not.”
To achieve this investigation of viscosity, to ask the paint what it is, Annie “puts a lot of paint onto the canvas, and I will move the brush around a little bit and watch as it creates interesting patterns. The paint moves in ways that I cannot predict.”
Once again we see Annie’s process as negotiating a moment, creating a situation whereby something might happen.
“I am interested in the dichotomy of chance and deliberate mark-making. I’ll often start painting not knowing what is going to happen. It’s those little moments. Maybe the paint is thicker than I thought it would be or the tape pulls away in a manner I didn’t anticipate.”
For Annie this process, particularly working with a certain repeated gesture, has made her aware of her place in a dialogue surrounding painting and abstract painting. Annie works during the day, in her corner studio, bathed in light afforded to her by the large window above her studio wall. Students come in during classes, professors visit for one-on-one critiques, friends stop by to chat; Annie will claim she is not good at public speaking, and yet she has developed an intelligent and clear defense of her ambient and amorphous medium. The very nature of abstract painting can make it impossible to talk about, what more is it saying than merely what it is? I, for one, enjoy abstract painting, but as is always the case, not everyone does.
“It has been discouraging to feel you are in a time and place where painting for some people is irrelevant. I have had people come into my studio and discover no reason why I paint at all, and do not see any value in painting.”
Annie experiences this in the context of our school and the bay area where we are located. A native of Michigan and a recent transplant from Chicago, Annie values the chance to reevaluate her relationship to painting.
“Some of the painters I didn’t like before coming to school have really grown on me, like Philip Guston. And some of the artists I worshipped before, I find carry less weight for me now. And now I do look at a lot of contemporary painting, but when I applied and interviewed here I only had older references, like Cy Twombly.”
This newfound attention to painting, and Annie’s responsibility as a student, has allowed her to locate herself within a dialogue about abstract painting here at CCA, and in the world at large.
“I think a lot of contemporary painters are seeing where chance comes into play with a particular type of mark.”
And regarding those people who do not find the value of painting. “Everyone is somehow interested in painting, even if they hate painting. It’s propelled me to work harder and to more carefully examine why I am doing what I am doing.”
Figure 3 (Untitled Diptych, 2013)
It strikes me that the why Annie is talking about is creating what she earlier termed her ‘invitation to the viewer’. In a pair of 18 by 30 inch paintings that she presents as sort of a diptych, we find such an invitation. On the left is a decidedly blue painting. Again we find Annie’s gesture chaotically traversing the canvas. It is a deep, dark blue that at the base of the painting becomes a field of blue. Yet as it crawls around up the painting, flashes of highlights define the brushstrokes. At the top of the painting a much lighter blue peaks above the form and in the bottom right hand corner a flat oval of the same blue enlivens the piece. We can no longer tell what is in front and what is behind, it is an opalescent, psychic experience for at one moment we are drawn in and at another entirely befuddled by what we are looking at. To the right of this piece is its warmer counterpart. Now the ribbons of paint are raspberry, turning ever more purple. Our background now seems to be the yellow we see barely along the edges of the piece. Like the flat oval in the blue painting, here Annie has filled the lower left hand portion of the work with a sloping parabola of yellow that hugs the corner of the painting. She really does pose a sort of painterly existential question. This is the same yellow that we see in the background, yet spatially it cannot be the same yellow. The same is not always the same. What our eyes tell us cannot always be trusted, but for now it can certainly be enjoyed.
“I worked with Richard Patterson, a well-known British painter, this semester and he told me that if you are doing something that people think is weird, then you are probably doing something right. And I feel like my paintings are getting weirder.”