Archive for Louise Bourgeois

Artists in Conversation: Joanne Mattera’s “Journey of Visual Pleasure”

Posted in Artists Speak, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on February 6, 2010 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Author’s Note: Unless otherwise attributed, all remarks by the artist were made in a recorded conversation between the author and the artist on 1/27/10.

Joannne Mattera, Silk Road 115, 2009
Encaustic on wood panel, 12 x 12 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Joanne Mattera’s most recent workthe ongoing Silk Road series—is a manifold tribute to the eponymous trade route. In these mostly 12 x 12 ” paintings the artist has deftly exploited the encaustic medium to opulent results.  By applying thin layers of individual and highly-saturated color repeatedly on top of one another, Mattera has captured the exquisite iridescence of raw silk. Additionally, the luscious texture created by remnant brushstrokes of molten wax subtly suggests the warp and weft of the woven material. And even the detritus Mattera has left in the wax (“schmutz” she would “normally strain out”) subtly mimics the imperfections of raw silk.

Joanne Mattera—Silk Road 5, 2005
Encaustic on wood panel, 12 x 12 inches
(Adler Gallery)

Yet, appreciating this series of 129 paintings solely on the basis of its tour-de-force technical achievement would be to miss the richer sphere that the work inhabits. Each painting contains the inherent mystique invoked by the series; which is to say, each piece promises a journey full of visual delights without a specific roadmap.  The most exhilarating revelation for this viewer is that color on the scale of intimacy that Mattera achieves is a powerful experience.

Silk Road installation view

Mattera clarifies her intention:

I wanted to work with color in a really reductive way and make something beautiful without making it pretty . .  .

It’s strictly a journey of visual pleasure. . . I love beauty, I paint beauty, I’m not afraid of beauty. . . Beauty is color. Sensuality. The material that I am using is a sensuous material.  And the combination of sensuous material and color is what makes beauty for me.

Joanne Mattera—Uttar 286, 2002-2005
Encaustic on panel, 32 x 32 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Beauty in color is a journey that Mattera has been on explicitly through most of her adult artistic career. But the search was clearly influenced early on by a childhood filled with the family textile legacy. Her great-grandmother was a weaver in Italy; her grandfather a tailor. Growing up as the eldest of five children, Mattera spent a good deal of time with her two maiden aunts, themselves emigrées from Italy. From them she learned the traditions of the needle arts. More importantly, they stimulated her creative soul:

So I was surrounded by all these fabulous colors and textures and processes. . . And it was only later, that (sculptor) Nancy Azara pointed out to me that I had made in my childhood a connection between creative expression and unconditional love.

Joanne Mattera, Uttar 296, 2006
Encaustic on panel, 24 x 24 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

The artist was introduced to the paint media at Massachusetts College of Art, but it was encaustic that made an indelible impression on her.

Once I got past the process of preparation [applying multiple layers of hide glue gesso] and I started actually painting with encaustic, I loved it. I loved the process, the smell, the physicality and materiality of it, the almost alchemical thing that happens when you put your brush into the molten wax. You dab it on the surface—you have to be quick, otherwise the wax hardens on the brush or even worse the brush gets stuck into the painting. It’s the rhythm of brush strokes fused with heat, brush strokes fused with heat. . .

Mattera didn’t choose encaustic as her primary medium right away.  “I knew I wasn’t ready to pursue it then—I didn’t have the painting chops and I didn’t have the patience certainly. I always knew one day I would go back to that.” Once beyond college, she committed herself to continuing her artwork,  supporting herself through a variety of jobs, eventually full-time writing and editing (which included stints at Women’s Wear Daily, Glamour, and Fiber Arts).

Joanne Mattera, Open Book 23, 1992
Thread and wax on Twinrocker paper , 6.5 x 6.5 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mattera developed an increasingly reductive abstract style, using geometry as her underlying organizing principal. Even before Mattera returned to the encaustic medium, she was testing the grid—its grounding foundation, as well as its limits.  Early experimentation with thread and paper (an early expression of the textile “gene”?) found full articulation in the 1992 Open Book series.

Jasper Johns, Winter, 1986
Encaustic and collage on canvas
(Private Collection)

In 1986, the world shifted for Mattera,  as a result of interviewing Jasper Johns for Women’s Wear Daily on the occasion of his print retrospective at MOMA:

So I found myself in this bank-turned-studio on the Lower East Side, maybe around the Bowery, talking with Jasper Johns about his work. Here along one long wall were these four paintings in mostly grays. And it was his Four Seasons quadtych. We looked at the work, we talked about it, and he allowed that, yes,  that was his silhouette.

I could see his set up, which fascinated me. He had a little old-fashioned hotplate with the four legs, you remember those? He’d not changed his set up for a very long time. .  .

But after having been in Jasper Johns studio, and being so up close to the work, I found myself setting up the hot plate.

Joanne Mattera, Vicolo 54 (Paul), 2009
Encaustic on wood panel, 18 x 18 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Certainly, Mattera is part of the painting tradition that includes “Color Field” painters like Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler. One cannot help but think also of Rothko’s explorations of color (albeit on a grand scale Rothko’s work achieves different ends), as well as Agnes Martin‘s minimalist grids as potential influences on her work.

Morris Louis, Where, 1960
Magna on canvas, 99 3/8 x 142 1/2 inches.
(Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

In the properties of encaustic, however, Mattera has found unique ways to explore the chromatic and geometric realms. Though she does not always work in encaustic, she’s especially attracted to the refractive quality of pigments suspended in wax. Further, her choice of a highly-saturated color palette—which references but does not copy Indian miniatures—automatically means that she’s playing in the bold realm of maximum vibration to the eye.

The Heroine Chanda fanning her beloved, Laurak, under a tree, from a manuscript of the Chandayana (The Story of Chanda), 1540
Pigments on paper
(SF Asian Museum)

Her work has been influenced by artists outside the painting medium.  Eva Hesse (“Here was someone working reductively and materially and working experimentally with materials. It was textile, sculptural.”); Martin Puryear, particularly his adeptness at “weaving together art and craft;” and Louise Bourgeois.

Mattera prefers to work in series, because they allow for the unfolding of the initial idea in both structured and unpredictable ways. In 2000 she embarked upon the longest running series to date, Uttar (2000-2007), in which she explored the effects of geometric repetition—a stripe or block repeated within a grid. In Vicolo, the series prior to Silk Road, she scraped back the surface to see how revealing different traunches of color would effect the grid.

Although Mattera does not always make the connection to textiles explicit in her work (the Silk Road title aside), in one way or another aspects of the textile tradition are faintly present in all these series.

Helen Frankenthaler, Nature Abhors a Vaccuum, 1973
Acrylic on canvas, 103 x 112 inches.
(National Gallery of Art, DC)

Along her aesthetic journey, Mattera necessarily dove deeply into the technical aspects of painting with pigmented wax. Encaustic is a venerable medium, older by a millennium than tempera and oil. Although a few modern artists (most notably Diego Rivera) worked in the medium, it was all but sidelined in the 20th century, until the 1960s, when Jasper Johns restored it to prominence.

As she started again with encaustic, Mattera felt a need to re-educate herself about the technique. Finding no available texts on the subject, the artist put together her own notes from conversations and her own experimentation. These later became the basis for her authoritative monograph on the subject, The Art of Encaustic Painting.

Mark Rothko, Orange and Yellow, 1956
oil on canvas, 91 x 71 inches
(Albright-Knox Gallery)

With regard to what’s next, Mattera asserts:  “My intention is to continue with Silk Road, but as I’m working on them, looking on them, I’m thinking ‘This may be a byway, a road off the Silk Road.’ ”  One thing is certain—there are still chromatic places left for her to explore.

Joanne Mattera, Silk Road 127, 2009
Encaustic on wood panel, 12 x 12 inches
(Courtesy of the artist)

Wider Connections

John Russell (NY Times)—“The Seasons: Forceful Paintings From Jasper Johns”
Taschen Art Series — Jasper Johns: The Business of the Eye
Mark Rothko (Taschen 25th Anniversary Special Edition)
Alison Rowley—Helen Frankenthaler: Painting History, Writing Painting
Joanne Mattera Art Blog

Artists on Making Art: Bourgeois, Freud, Arbus

Posted in Artists Speak, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting, Sculpture with tags , , on December 18, 2009 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Louise Bourgeois, Seven in Bed (detail), 2001
Fabric, stainless steel, glass and wood.
Courtesy Cheim and Read, Galerie Karsten Greve and Galerie Hauser & Wirth, © Copyright Louise Bourgeois.

Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois (born 1911) studied art at various schools in Paris (where she was born and grew up), including the École du Louvre, Académie des Beaux-Arts, Académie Julian, and Atelier Fernand Léger. In 1938, she emigrated to the United States and continued her studies at the Art Students League in New York. By the 1940s she had turned her attention almost exclusively to sculptural work. Greatly influenced by the influx of European Surrealist artists, who had immigrated to the United States after World War II, Bourgeois’s early sculpture was composed of groupings of abstract shapes, often carved from wood. By the 1960s she began to execute larger pieces in rubber, bronze, and stone, and later fabric. Bourgeoise draws extensively from her childhood for inspiration. Deeply symbolic, her work uses her relationship with her parents and the role sexuality played in her early family life as a vocabulary in which to understand and remake that history.

I have never mentioned the word dream in discussing my art, while they (the Surrealists) talked about the dream all the time. I don’t dream. You might say I work under a spell, I truly value the spell. I have the privilege of being able to enter the spell, to enter this very arid land where you are likely to find your birthright. To express yourself if your birthright…

Art comes from life. Art comes from the problem you have in seducing birds, men, snakes—anything you want.

What modern art means is that you have to keep finding new ways to express yourself, to express the problems, that there are no settled ways, no fixed approach. This is a painful situation, and modern art is about this painful situation of having no absolutely definite way of expressing yourself. This is why modern art will continue, because the condition remains; it is the modern human condition. . .

All art comes from terrific failures and terrific needs that we have. It is about the difficulty of being a self because one is neglected. Everywhere in the modern world there is neglect, the need to be recognized, which is not satisfied. Art is a way of recognizing oneself, which is why it will always be modern.

—From an interview with Donald Kuspit (1988), excerpted from Bourgeois.

Lucian Freud, Two Men, 1987/88
Oil on canvas, approximately 48 x 36″.

Lucian Freud
Born in Berlin in 1922 (the grandson of Sigmund Freud), Lucian Freud is indisputably one of Britain’s most powerful figurative painters. Portraits and nudes are his forte, and his subjects are more often than not observed in arresting close-up. His early work was so meticulously painted, that Freud was often labeled as a “realist” or “superrealistic.” However the intensity and subjectivity of his work has sets him apart from the comparatively emotionless British figurative art of the post WWII era.

The painter makes real to others his innermost feelings about all that he cares for. A secret becomes known to everyone who views the picture through the intensity with which it is felt. The painter must give a completely free rein to any feelings or sensations he may have and reject nothing to which he is naturally drawn. It is just this self-indulgence which acts for him as the discipline through which he discards what is inessential to him and so crystallises his tastes. A painter’s tastes must grow out of what so obsesses him in life that he never has to ask himself what is suitable for him to do in art. . .

. . . People are driven towards making works of art, not by familiarity with the process by this is done, but by a necessity to communicate their feelings about the object of their choice with such intensity that these feelings become infectious. . .

—excerpted from Lucien Freud, “Some Thoughts on Painting,” Encounter III, no. 1 (July 1954).

Diane Arbus, Triplets, black & white photograph, 1963.

Diane Arbus
Best known for her pictures of dwarves, transvestites, nudists and circus performers, Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was one of the most influential American photographers of the 1960s. She was a pioneer, photographing those things that the public of that era would not otherwise have seen.  Though the settings appear casual, there was nothing improvisational about Arbus’ shots. She spent great amounts of time getting to know her subjects before photographing them, and they often collaborated in the picture-making process.

The younger sister of Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov, Arbus and her husband Allan started out as fashion photographers. In 1959, however, under the tutelage of Lisette Model, Arbus began to pursue her own work. Arbus loved photography for the miracles she felt it performed by accident.

Invention is mostly this kind of subtle, inevitable thing. People get closer to the beauty of their invention. They get narrower and more particular in it. Invention has a lot to do with a certain kind of light some people have and with the print quality and the choice of subject. It’s a million choices you make. It’s luck in a sense, or even ill luck. You can’t avoid it. It’s what’s left when you take everything else away. I think the most beautiful inventions are the ones you don’t think of. . .

. . . There used to be this moment of panic which I still can get where I’d look in the ground glass and it would look all ugly to me and I wouldn’t know what was wrong. Sometimes it’s like looking in a kaleidoscope. You shake it around and it just on’t shake out right. I used to think if I could jumble it up, it would go away. But short of that, since I couldn’t do that, I’d just back up or start to talk, or, I don’t know, go someplace else. But I don’t think that’s the sort of thing you can calculate on because there’s always this mysterious thing in the process.

—excerpted from Diane Arbus, catalog for Museum of Modern Art exhibition, 1972.

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