A conversation with Celia Reisman
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
A conversation with Celia Reisman
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
ART SYNC: A WAY, A DIRECTION
A conversation with Celia Reisman
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain, 2022
Elizabeth Johnson: In your statement on the Gross McCleaf website, you state that you are inspired by certain details in suburban landscapes. Does working from preparatory drawings of compelling details forestall succumbing to new enthusiasms? Do you ever relax your focus and follow tangents?
Celia Reisman: The initial detail/object/subject that inspired me to sit in my car and draw from the location is incorporated into the drawing as a focal point. I compose as I draw, selecting aspects of the place, assembling parts for the foreground, middle ground, and background while incorporating the main subject. As the painting develops, I try to stick to that initial detail. If the painting starts to shift for various reasons, I’ll use another organizational format. I wish I could say that when this happens, it’s exciting because it carries me into unknown territory. But I’m a planner, and so I feel on shaky ground. When things change, inspiration comes from the painting rather than the drawing. My instincts sometimes take me in the right direction and the painting comes together. Other times I put the painting aside, take a break so I can see it with fresh eyes.
CR: I want to honor the place I paint. There is nothing special about these places, which can seem rather ordinary and boring, but for me they hold a magical presence. Though my paintings don’t replicate them realistically, I hope that if I took you to these places, you would immediately see the resemblance. The surprise comes when a bland subject becomes a mysterious place.
EJ: In your interview with Larry Groff, you say, "Sometimes I will use an idea from a master painting and that will be a guide." What master painters are you currently studying?
CR: The Milton Avery exhibit this summer has me thinking a lot about large color relationships independent of local color and simplification. Also, Lois Dodd’s and Leon Golub’s exhibition for how they feature large negative and positive shapes when composing, cropping, and selecting their subject: this is something to apply in my work. Also, Nicholas de Staël for his broad swaths of color, abstracting the landscape with his lush surfaces. Though I admire these artists, I’m not trying to imitate them but seeking a way to incorporate the aspects that attract me.
CR: My paintings are complicated, with many objects and spaces in them, so simplifying shapes, orchestrating color, and eliminating details is something I’m concerned with in my new work. However, it’s difficult to betray one’s way of seeing and making, so I accept my paintings when they use a wide range of color and dense scenes.
There is something about British artists that attracts me. Their work tends to be linear and less painterly and carefully executed. I’ve always liked Ben Nicholson’s abstracted still life paintings. Also, Francis Towne, an 18th century British landscape draftsman. His work is so reduced and contemporary yet made two hundred years ago. Stanley Spencer’s exact manner of description always provides inspiration.
EJ: You sent me a link for Stanley Lewis's virtual lecture, "Looking at Brueghel,” and I skimmed it, looking for ideas that might captivate you. Were you interested in how Lewis traces a winding path through Brueghel's landscape prints? Or how a puzzling 2-D print challenges our 3-D imagination? What excited you about this video?
CR: I was introduced to Stanley Lewis years ago from artist friends who studied with him and taught with him. His way of talking about art, his enthusiastic way of describing pictorial ideas, and his fabulous paintings and drawings are all inspiring. I wish there were more artists who delve into the making of a painting, not only about content or contemporary concepts. Though I share a similar backyard subject, his concerns are different from mine. Also, Stanley always works directly from the source. I use the source as a starting point. In some ways this makes it harder for me. Working from direct observation, I could construct a painting clearly from the beginning. But in the end, the challenge of inventing and creating my own pictorial world is more exciting.
EJ: Looking at your new piece, Building Blocks, a snow scene with simplified buildings, I feel your abstract invention dominating without overpowering reality. The winter light and composition feel natural, especially how you depict light and shadow on snow. Your abstractions are powerful, since you can build with pure form, but the forms don't need to occupy more territory.
CR: This painting was worked on for quite a while. One of the ways I have been trying to become more abstract is to use large areas of simple color in the foreground and background. Simplifying these areas creates a contrast with detail, multiple color, form. That’s what I attempted with this painting: snow in front, simple white with some form and large blue sky compressing onto the color buildings. This location is in a small town in Vermont, nothing special, a sliver of a scene compressed between two buildings. I eliminated the rest of the buildings to concentrate on this small scene. But to reply to your remark about reality, I remember this quote by Corot:
“Reality is one part of art; feeling completes it. . . . Before any site and any object, abandon yourself to your first impression. If you have really been touched, you will convey to others the sincerity of your emotion.” (Note 1.)
EJ: Snow Day - Side by Side develops the abstract refinement I'm picking up on. The placement of different shades of blue inside pure forms seems key. What was your experience making this painting?
CR: In my quest to be more abstract I’ve been making 14” x 11” vertical paintings. They all start from a quick drawing, one in black and white and another with color notes. From these, I then block in five areas of color. Staying within the established color, I build up the image. If an area is blue, I then allow myself to develop various changes of the blue. I keep detail to a minimum and focus on the simplification of color and shape. Seeing the foreground, middle ground, and background within the color structure helps to clarify the spatial reading.
I’m always finding new and different approaches to start a painting. I keep looking for a way, a direction that will clarify the process. Over the years, I continue to change. And I can’t remember what I did years past. Why do I keep changing? I’m looking for an answer and I know there is no answer.
EJ: I love Norwich Night. It’s shocking to see the moon in the middle of a composition. Not that it wouldn't happen in nature, but it calls attention to point of view. Why did you put the moon there? Painting glowing lights at night contrasts with your usual daytime houses. Did you make a color study to capture this effect? How does painting reflected daylight differ from painting glowing light held in snow or night scenes?
CR: This is another place that I noticed one night in Vermont and made a quick black and white drawing. My impulse was to concentrate on the lines made by the lights strung between the trees. Since I’m tied to location, I incorporated the buildings. Over the years, I have made many nighttime paintings where tonality takes over. I invent the light and the monochromatic color rather than try to depict the light realistically.
CR: I like using the “centers” of a painting. When I was young, teachers always said, “Don’t put something in the center.” But I do. And then I figure out how to balance that forceful area with the other parts of the painting. It’s like a game on a playing field: balancing out the forces to get the viewer to look around the painting and move from one area to another. The moon is centered and bright and it must compete with the rest of the painting. I like that tension.
EJ: In your Gross McCleaf statement, you say, "I want to create a visual drama that surprises and forces the viewer to reconsider experiences and expectations." Are you alluding to suburbia’s expectation of safety and conformity, and to suburban expectations of realism? And in our anxious era, do threats to suburbia and everyday American life enter your consciousness when you work?
CR: When I began painting architecture and the suburbs, I knew it was considered a pedestrian subject matter. The suburbs present a homogenous, uniform personality. I grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland Heights. Now I live in the older suburbs of Philadelphia. Because I do paint the smaller, private places of people’s homes, I’m saying these places provide comfort, and identify quirky aspects of people’s personalities. In the larger sphere, the owners say: “I am here, I am my own person, I am the master of my own destiny.” This makes me a voyeur looking on to that stranger’s world.
I hope my paintings make viewers understand that by looking one can see things in a different way. I don’t think I’m addressing threatening issues of day-to-day life.
It's hard enough to have each painting work on its own, and I can’t imagine how I would construct an image with political overtones. I have a friend in Vermont who thinks making art, any kind of art, is a political act. As someone who does not address the issues of the day in my work, I might feel marginalized. However, there’s a freedom in doing what you want. I think pursuing beauty, paying attention to nature and our planet, honoring it by painting and looking, and sharing it with the public is important.
More than ever before, I’m considering the emotional response my painting gives viewers. Some have said that my work is surrealistic, perhaps frightening, and unsettling, and though that's not my intention, I accept that it’s a feeling some viewers have. Lately, I would like the work to be quieter, a place that one wants to enter.
EJ: Green Gardens is oil on silk panel. Is working on silk new for you? How did you discover it? It looks like the color seeps a bit more to create a softening effect. Since there is more nature in Vermont than Philadelphia, and since I’m thinking of the strength of Building Blocks and Snow Day - Side by Side, I ask: is this sharpening, simplifying, and maturing the result of decades of balancing of natural and manmade forms?
CR: A friend showed me how to attach silk or fine linen to Masonite panels. I started using them when I paint on site. Because I paint thinly, the silk or linen provides a lovely delicate surface. Also, I don’t repaint them, so the material is apparent and makes the work softer. Achieving this with the large oils is still something I grapple with.
Being more conscious of planning the larger relationships of a painting and using five to seven color areas in the larger studio work helps me integrate dark and light areas. A tree can become part of a building because they are close in value, or a roof can be part of the sky.
CR: I may find a symbolic vocabulary that uses natural forms alongside manmade forms. Mondrian said that verticals and horizontals represent masculine and feminine movements, Kandinsky used color to symbolize emotions, and Adolph Gottlieb had pictographs. Or possibly, I'll combine triangles as house forms with amorphic/organic tree forms, referring to the 20th century idea of a flat picture plane that orders shapes naturally rather than depict Renaissance space.
EJ: In your artist statement, you speak of "...moments when I can be specific yet have the freedom to transcend a particular place and time." This is hard to achieve.
CR: Certain genius artists do transcend the image. Like Giorgio Morandi. Even after all these years of making art, I’m trying to figure out who I am as an artist. I know when a painting feels right to me––when everything seems to be in place and I can accept the fiction that I’m making. I’m starting to think about a painting as a field, that its overall conception feels open or dark, heavy or light, scary or inviting, and that an emotional feeling can provide direction for a work. This is new for me. It means using less contrast, finding more homogeneity and relying less on information of the outside world and imposing my own order. It means accepting my decisions and moving more slowly in the studio.
1. Robert Goldwater. Artists on Art: From the 14th to the 20th Centuries. “Notebooks." Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. (London, Pantheon Books, 1972), 241.