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Art Sync: Endlessly Knowable

Conversation with Martha Armstrong

by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain

Elizabeth Johnson: In the Title Magazine interview with Aubrey Levinthal, you say, "As far as tension goes, I'm constantly trying to marry the idea of seeing with searching. In other words, I'm negotiating how my endearment towards material can interact with my experience of looking." Considering composition in light of this statement, would you say that choosing to paint thickets of plant-like shapes prolongs your search, and you enjoy the visual navigation?

Rebekah Callaghan: Hardware stores are where I usually find plants for my studio. For years, I’ve made drawings and paintings based off these plants. I had thought over time, as I painted more, I’d be able to make the paintings faster. But the opposite has happened. The brushstrokes move fairly quickly, but the time between moves is deliberate. Eventually, my observations shift from the plants to the paintings themselves and it becomes a balancing act of color and space: that’s the search. It’s a give and take: adding paint here and wiping it away there until arriving at a place that feels right.

Art Sync: Endlessly Knowable - Conversation with Rebekah Callaghan - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Out To See, 14" x 11", Oil On Canvas

EJ: My first impression of recent pieces such as Sleepy Sun, Fountain, and Out to See was that I was looking down on a herd of animals nosing amongst themselves. The shapes point toward the middle of the painting and express mingling of near equals. Chatting with Aubrey Levinthal, you mention growing up in a big family where "sharing was key." How does the tension in your current paintings differ from the Brighter Later series from 2018-19 that presents a more continuous, single-colored background?

RC: This idea has been at the forefront of my mind: I’m trying to disassociate from ideas of foreground and background and instead consider all of it as “space.” I love when positive and negative forms reverse or share roles. These spaces are so intimately intertwined; in fact, they need each other. So, I want to give them equal responsibilities on the surface.

EJ: Do you mean that integrating pattern and perspective creates tension? If you like positive and negative forms reversing, sharing roles, and creating multiple readings, does this mean you like uncertainty?

Art Sync: Endlessly Knowable - Conversation with Rebekah Callaghan - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Interlude II, 40" x 30", Oil On Canvas

RC: When beginning a painting, I might have a loose color idea or pull from drawings, but I never have a plan for its end. My late professor, Frank Bramblett, spoke about the importance of the unknown, telling his students what matters most is what we don’t know. And that’s really what it’s about: getting someplace I haven’t been before, arriving somewhere new. These discoveries usually show up in a color relationship, the handling of paint, in small, subtle ways. Growth happens slowly and reflection is important.

EJ: I love your color choices. Looking at them, I notice that earlier work used more transparency and that newer pieces are bolder through contrasting opacity and hue. Is your conversation with each piece becoming more layered and prolonged even as, to quote you from the Levinthal interview, you try to "keep painting to a place where the end might look like the beginning…"? What exactly do you mean by this interesting statement?

RC: I’m learning it’s not as straightforward as using a color, it’s also the pressure behind it. Consider songs that have been covered by various artists. They’re playing the same notes, singing the same words, but the sound can be totally unique. It’s the same with using color: a thick vs. thin application of the same yellow creates different spaces. I’m always responding to the way colors interact as they go on the canvas. My former teacher Stanley Whitney used to say,

“Make the end look like the beginning.” - Stanley Whitney

RC: I think it means painting to a place where the work can still breathe, where the light hasn’t been extinguished, but mostly to a place where the painting is asking more questions than answering them. If a painting really works out, it keeps changing even after I’ve finished working on it, offering something new over time.

EJ: While working on paper studies, do you try to harness the tension between what works compositionally and what works for color and mood?

RC: Drawing is where I gain a better understanding of how to balance space. I take more risks on paper because drawings are faster to make and the surfaces are practically endless. If I’m working in graphite or ink, I learn about distributing weight through value. With oil pastels, I experiment more with color as space. I have a lot of drawings that don’t work out, but I glean a little something from each one. When I get stuck in a painting, I know I need to reinvent the drawing.

Art Sync: Endlessly Knowable - Conversation with Rebekah Callaghan - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Fountain, 35" x 40", Oil On Canvas

EJ: If your paintings begin with studies of plant-like shapes, which make pleasing adjacent and overlapping vessels for color, do you follow the studies closely? Or do you continue to change composition and color as you start a canvas? What spurs editing and revision during your process?

RC: The drawings are always ahead of the paintings, and it’s almost impossible to translate the energy of a drawing into a painting. Surface and size changes don’t render the same way. The same is true when I force certain colors into a painting. (That’s not to say I don’t try.) There’s a Fairfield Porter quote about how overplanning leads to inevitable failure, and it resonates with me. I use drawings to help bolster color or strengthen a composition. But when I stick to a specific drawing too closely, the painting falls apart.

EJ: Fountain and Rosy March recall Clyfford Still's work, perhaps because these are bigger pieces that allow larger swathes of color to stand declaratively. Can you talk about the importance of the edges of shapes? They seem vital to your expression and sometimes depart from recalling foliage. When does thinking about movement enter the process?

RC: I think about edges all the time. The magic moments in a painting don’t happen when a shape declares itself, but where the edges of shapes meet or almost touch. The edges have to be structural enough to hold their shape, but soft enough to let the shapes around them sing. It’s a dance. Or maybe it’s a song.

EJ: Smaller, incidental shapes and lines read as momentarily lit areas amidst leaves and flowers, bringing changing light and time into the equation of painting. You say in the Levinthal interview, "I like to know what time of day it is and what the light outside is doing…" Yet Sleepy Sun and Out to See seem to use a more nocturnal palette. Does the palette of these pieces feel like daylight to you? Do you ever paint at night? Though moonlight on leaves may compositionally resemble daylight, is the hopefulness of daylight what you are aiming for, as opposed to dreams and illusion that are associated with night?

RC: I usually paint during the day...

"I’m intrigued by the idea of a painting being interpreted as day or night based on color or light. I’m rethinking my approach to darker colors, like using black beyond just being dark, or even using black as light. I’ve been working with more muted tones in this body of work."

Art Sync: Endlessly Knowable - Conversation with Rebekah Callaghan - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Here, Together, 40" x 30", Oil On Canvas

RC: In critiques, I’ll ask my students what their drawings sound like, are they quiet or loud? I’m thinking about enhancing color by toning it down. It’s like lowering the volume in the car when it starts pouring rain so you can see better.

EJ: Are you suggesting that unrelated but adjacent things in time and space affect each other?

RC: I studied violin growing up and I’ll never forget the lesson when my teacher asked me, “What are the different colors you can play?” I can’t explain her reasoning, but I understood the connection, like when instinct outweighs logic. I was in a lot of orchestras and there were times the violins were meant to play loudly and then quietly, occasionally even putting mutes on our instruments to really muffle the sound. I loved playing quietly because I could hear the other instruments better, for a moment I could grasp the ensemble as a whole. I was thinking about similar things when titling this show Quiet Season.

Art Sync: Endlessly Knowable - Conversation with Rebekah Callaghan - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Things Remembered, 40" x 35", Oil On Canvas

EJ: How do you come up with titles for your pieces?

RC: I might be reading or listening to something and hear a couple words together that stick out to me. There are some words that just sound visual…I guess they’re called verbs. I keep a list of potential titles. Although the list is ongoing, the titles always come after the paintings are completed or near finished. Sometimes, I have to sit with a painting for a while before the title hits. I don’t put too much emphasis on them because I’m not trying to create a narrative. But I like the idea of a title giving the painting a nudge or adding some color.

EJ: Quoting the Levinthal interview once more, you say, "My struggle with beauty is always evolving." You describe preferring imperfection and "the idea of a slight dissonance, or that something could be simultaneously functional and incorrect." Have your thoughts on beauty changed since your last show at Gross McCleaf in 2021? Do you still look for beauty "that's a little harder to ascertain" and ponder the perception of beauty "as being too easy or ineffective?"

RC: There’s another Fairfield Porter quote I both love and mull over. He said, “When I paint, I think that what would satisfy me is to express what Bonnard said Renoir told him: make everything more beautiful.” The more I paint, the more kinds of beauty I see in the world. Even driving home on the dreariest day looks more colorful after painting. I try to put these discoveries back into the work.

That’s the easy part. The enthrallment, for me, comes with the second part of the same quote. Porter says: “This partly means that a painting should contain a mystery, but not for mystery’s sake: a mystery that is essential to reality.”  This feels baffling yet vital. I recently heard Franciscan friar Richard Rohr describe mystery as being “endlessly knowable,” suggesting it’s not unsolvable but there’s always another level to reach. The pursuit of instilling such mystery, towards both conclusions and curiosities, is what keeps bringing me back to the work.

Art Sync: Endlessly Knowable - Conversation with Rebekah Callaghan - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Rosy March, 48" x 41", Oil On Canvas

Art Sync: Endlessly Knowable - Conversation with Rebekah Callaghan - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Rebekah Callaghan received an MFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University after her BFA from Tyler School of Art at Temple University. She has had solo and group exhibitions in California and across the Mid-Atlantic region. Her works and interviews have been featured in Title Magazine, Two Coats of Paint and Art Journal. In 2020, Callaghan collaborated with Gorman Clothing, Australia to create a series of fabrics for a Gorman Clothing release of garments. She is represented by Maybaum Gallery in San Francisco and Gross McCleaf Gallery. Callaghan lives and works in Philadelphia.

Art Sync: Endlessly Knowable - Conversation with Rebekah Callaghan - Viewing Room - Gross McCleaf Gallery Viewing Room

Installation Shot, Quiet Season at Gross McCleaf Gallery thru May 23, 2024