A conversation with Val Rossman
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
A conversation with Val Rossman
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
ART SYNC: CREATING THE WORLD
A conversation with Val Rossman
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain, 2022
Elizabeth Johnson: You and other viewers describe your work as lyrical, whimsical, lush, archeological, personal. Both you and Julie Courtney state that it is a “chaotic blend of chance and careful planning.” When you finish a painting, would you say that you prefer achieving balance or landing slightly off-balance?
Val Rossman: I think it is a combination of both . . . I definitely want balance, but there also needs to be some element of surprise. If it is too balanced, then it seems boring. Sometimes it is a gesture that achieves this and at other times it is a surprising color or shape in an unexpected place. It can’t be too disturbing, just a bit awry. The combination of chance and careful planning is a major theme in all of my work regardless of media and even series. To me that is a metaphor for life . . . we all try to plan our life, but often unexpected things happen which we have to deal with. My art mimics this and I love using a visual medium to expand upon it.
EJ: You vividly describe to your students how you work: "After 40 years of continuously creating art I often wonder what new insights I bring to my work. I tell my students that we each have our own 'circle' in life. As we grow and have many experiences we venture out of our personal circle, but always return to make our circle deeper and more varied; there are additions, ruts, grooves, colors and marks that enhance one’s space.” After the quarantine, when we have all been pushed off-center, did you feel that struggling to return to a personal center affected your work? Or from the start, did the stress of COVID-19 compel you to be centered?
VR: My experience with COVID-19 seems very unusual. Since I was able to go to my studio as much as I wanted with few distractions, I actually felt very free. I created a series of pastel pieces that were different from work that I had been doing prior to the quarantine. They were total “escape pieces.” So perhaps it was my “center” as it felt so “easy” and unencumbered. Although the year was in many ways very stressful, my experience was not terrible. I created art, cooked a lot of delicious food, was quiet at home with my husband, and our daughter and her family were part of our pod, so it really wasn’t so bad.
EJ: You work most often in a square format and occasionally in a rectangular one. I get that working out of a square is working out of a center. Does the rectangle provide a place to evolve? Or feel figurative?
VR: When I first started working in the square format, I thought it was very difficult because it starts out so evenly balanced that it was hard to make a composition work. However, the more I did them, the more I felt so comfortable with this shape. The rectangle does not feel figurative––just not as interesting to me. Also, because I am constantly turning the pieces around as I work, I love the square for the ability to do that and not suggest portraiture or landscape.
EJ: I am intrigued by how you name your pieces. You mention this in your video, and I was wondering if you can elaborate on the list of places or words that you use to make titles. How do you connect a title with a painting? Do you keep a diary? Does your daily art output link to daily events? You mention for instance, that the weather was important to you during a Vermont residency.
VR: I name my pieces in a variety of ways. For many years (hard to say how many!) I have had a very funny system. I go through the New York Times and make a running list of phrases that I like, sometimes even combining the end of one sentence with a new one. Once I have the photographic images of the work, I look through my phrases with the images and find titles that “click.” It is a funny comment on how the world really does not make sense, and we need to create our own meaning. I think it is fun to do this!
EJ: For instance, the titles that have “I” in them, titles such as I Want and I Was Obsessed: do you mean to use the word “I” but minimally inject a sense of "me" into the random matching of title with artwork? Or does the “I” have no significance at all in this context outside of being the “I” who recognizes what “clicks”?
VR: Yes, the “I" in the titles definitely puts “me” in the pieces, it also makes it more personal. I like the idea of bringing randomness to my personal space.
EJ: You work in two worlds: a soft pastel world of light and depth that seems to stem from feeling and color, and a hard-edged world where you can muscle in, mask off, and build articulated spaces that seem to emphasize drawing or planning. You speak of color as always coming first and of having a strong color memory. Would you agree that the calligraphic works do both at once? I’m interested that you mostly maintain the separation. Is this because it is refreshing to go back and forth? Is this an expression of balancing acceptance and intention?
VR: I am really not sure why I do this. I wish I actually knew the answer to this question. It is refreshing to go back and forth between the two worlds. Also, because the different mediums themselves drive what I do. For a while I painted very organically, which I liked, but there is something so satisfying about doing the hard-edged, precise paintings that I love. The pastels are so juicy and soft, I love creating the other worlds with them as well. Perhaps my life is an influence too. Part of my life is very traditional: husband, kids, grandkids, house in the burbs. Professionally, I am a serious artist having worked for almost 40 years, teaching and having a serious studio practice.
EJ: The two kinds of work also allow for different kinds of interruptions or accidents courtesy of the nature of your materials. Does one kind of work or the other better mimic your “mind’s eye” or the ability to picture events and memories?
VR: I don’t think so. Each media allows me the ability to use accidents in the restive process.
EJ: “Restive” means fidgety, edgy. Do you mean you are seeking to resolve the accidents during a similarly tense process? Or that you are resolving them to restfulness?
VR: That is really funny . . . it is actually a typo! I meant to write “creative” not “restive”! However, now that you have responded to my typo, I really like your explanation! I think the accidents actually do give the pieces an “edgy” quality, but I also ultimately want balance, not necessarily restfulness.
EJ: The pastel works seem to relate to touch through polishing, your direct contact with them. The acrylic paintings seem to achieve a broader point of view––a travelling effect. Do you recognize in yourself what compels you to make a pastel as opposed to an acrylic painting?
VR: For sure the pastels are very sensuous and direct. There is more distance in creating the paintings. I seem to go in spurts . . . either working for a while in one media or the other. Once I get going it seems that I stay in that path for a bit before looping back to the other.
EJ: Can you describe your recent pieces in terms of the comparing these two kinds of working? And maybe if and how they overlap?
VR: Recently, I have not been working in pastels. I did a series during quarantine which I referenced earlier which I really love . . . very whimsical, jaunty, and colorful. They remind me of a balancing teeter-totter. Since then, I have been just doing paintings. Although they may look simple, they take a very long time to create the right tension, balance and “off-kilter” tension. There is something about the structured format that is also an escape for me. It is very satisfying when I am able to resolve the painting and create the perfect harmony and synchrony so that the end result has several things happening at the same time that are all working together.
EJ: I notice in recent works like Conviction and Rest, Intriguing Correspondences, and Wishing for Golden Aspens that you have a strong calligraphic line that trails off the edge of the surface. To me, that line says something unique about rest, resolution, or endings. Does it carry a kind of feeling/meaning for you?
VR: I love using calligraphic lines which trail off the pieces. For me it signifies that my artwork is . . . just a piece of a larger world. As if I am showing a closeup of something bigger than me.
EJ: You are working a lot lately on your acrylic paintings. How do you approach masking off areas to be painted over? Do you mask around and rework areas that you want to edit out and preserve the incidental marks and areas of color that you want to conserve? Is the finished painting a sum of layered, preserved elements that gel into a whole? I imagine that the masking tape doesn’t allow you to see everything until it is all removed––is this correct? Is the complete reveal a surprise?
VR: The acrylic paintings are comprised of numerous layers of taped-off areas. There is not a “plan” that I follow. I tape a few areas at a time and then continuously shape and reconfigure the hard-edged blocks. I continuously add gestures which “mar” the clean color blocks. I use transparent as well as opaque paint as I work. Also, the paintings begin with only scribbles and colors and lines. Some of these original areas are covered over and others remain as the painting develops.
EJ: In the Art in the Wilderness video, I liked watching you work outside in front of a mountain. I can see that you are capturing feeling and not depicting nature. I love that you say that you are trying to capture the feeling of being in this place today. The first piece is set aside, and the second piece really charges you up. Yay––hot pink! Was finding the right color the thing that plugged you into the landscape’s drama? It seems that you had to work hard to get around the commanding power of the landscape to reach your own color definition of its power. Does that sound right?
VR: Yes, that is great!
EJ: Since you’ve been an abstract artist for four decades, how do you reach young artists to encourage them to nurture their own subtleties? Do you focus on technique? In your opinion, can thinking and working abstractly be taught?
VR: My teaching is not technique-based. And I do think working abstractly can be taught. It has to do with the student being willing to take chances . . . even making a mess and “failing.” Not worrying about the success of a work while they are working on it. I talk to them about having a relationship with their art as if they were having a conversation. I encourage them to think about wearing two hats in the process. Not to overthink things while working . . . let it be more of a dance. I also talk to them about using accidents . . . when and how. Then to step back and be critical and evaluate where they are. I usually give assignments which are very open-ended. This encourages each student to approach their work in a personal way; for instance, I use a lesson called “Creating the World.”
EJ: Could you say more about it?
VR: My idea for this lesson actually started many years ago when we were renovating our home. We had debris throughout the house, and I thought how fun it would be to think about the world being destroyed and being able to “remake” it in my own way. I have recycled this idea throughout many classes and often what the students come up with is great. This was especially appropriate during the past year with COVID-19, in that it did feel like the world was falling apart. Thinking about a new and personal world was a positive way to cope with all of the negativity around us. It is also very open-ended for students to interpret it as they wish.
edited by Matthew Crain