Conversation with Lauren Whearty
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Conversation with Lauren Whearty
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Elizabeth Johnson: Your statement on the Gross McCleaf website says you are interested in, “the ways in which the grid and images can direct our attention to the painted surface." You say you think of the surface as "twofold." What do you mean by twofold?
Lauren Whearty: The surface of painting was emphasized at Tyler when I was in undergrad. Most of the faculty worked abstractly, so the focus on color, materiality, physicality, and gesture was the foundation of my painting language. Although this may seem to contrast with my recognizable still lives, I see all painting as a kind of abstraction because we’re using this colorful mud combined with our bodily gestures to make a record on canvas. This attitude frees me to combine flatness with illusion, realistic colors with invented ones, and to include influences that play with our perception of surfaces, illusionistic space, and depth.
EJ: Does using the grid or a tabletop view and layering up different flat planes reflect an attraction to Cubism, trompe l'oeil, or collage? How does paying attention to the grid inside the painting relate perspective and abstraction?
LW: In terms of Cubism, I love how Juan Gris and Georges Braque thought through the genre of trompe-l’œil. They deeply connected with textiles and the decorative arts, mostly finely made wallpaper and decorative painting. Their material and pictorial innovations combined patterns in ways that appear seamless, and as you approach the works, it’s exciting to realize some of those areas may be collaged wallpapers. That kind of surprise is what makes traditional trompe l’oeil painting interesting: the reveal of the surface.
My paintings don’t stick to a monocular sense of perspective. I've discovered that a grid can emphasize flatness or depth depending on how it’s used. I relate to Cezanne’s famous "lived perspective," which implies the movement of the head as one hones their attention on different areas at different times.
Artists who use the grid for structure––Bonnard, Matisse, Clara Peters––use the natural grid of the rectangle to compose and create visual movement within the canvas. The orthogonal nature of the rectangle creates a kind of call-and-response in a painting: as you add elements, will you align the plane/object/mark with the grid? Or do you create a dynamic diagonal? Will you create depth with those forms or maintain a flatness? It’s like building your own puzzle.
EJ: In the interview on Art Spiel, you mention that you’re consistent in your "sense of first-person perspective" and that you’re “interested in the paintings creating a sense of totality––an embodiment of my experiences that is documented through touches and color." Do you feel like you are channeling Matisse, working with domestic subjects, yet living now in our flat-screen age?
LW: There’s a long history of artists working inventively with domestic subjects. Rather than channeling any one artist, it excites me to be in conversation with such a rich history. Matisse was my first painting hero, I’ve always been energized by his gestural brush strokes, his sense of color, ease, and speed in painting. In terms of the domestic subjects, I think a lot about how still life painting is an underdog genre. Across history, still life has been one of the few areas for women painters who weren't permitted to attend schools, libraries, or figure modeling sessions. Because it has been insufficiently acknowledged, I believe it’s a genre with great potential for invention as a form of language building. Still life hinges on how artists treat their subjects in paint.
LW: Painting from life is a form of resistance against the things that steal our attention, especially the digital world. Most people struggle to get even two hours of undistracted work time each day. When painting, I focus on my studio work for seven hours with no break, and no desire to check my phone. Working from observation with a deep focus on my attention allows me to be just as aware of my own invention as I am of the subject in front of me. This “flow” is the vehicle for freedom of thought and action. Time is imperative to my ability to engage critically with the world.
EJ: I love Still Life with Matisse and Flowers because it layers flowers upon flowers, yet it’s still readable. Is it related to Matisse’s Large Reclining (Pink) Nude?
LW: Still Life with Matisse and Flowers was commissioned through a collaboration between the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Mural Arts. I made it in response to the museum’s recent Matisse in the 1930s exhibit, for a mural in Philadelphia at 7th and Willow Street.
LW: The grid in this painting is definitely influenced by Matisse’s Large Reclining Nude. It channels many aspects of Matisse’s work at that time. I was most excited about his playfulness, use of decoration and pattern in textiles, animated shapes, ease of mark, color, and gesture. His paintings feel like he got it right on the first try, and the exhibit’s emphasis on drawing fed into my process as well.
I included a couple of Matisse paintings in the mural, and my painting pays homage to my experience of looking at Matisse. For example, Yellow Odalisque, which I first saw as an undergrad. I was amazed at its impact and visual power, though I questioned the museum's decision to hang it between two bathrooms in the Impressionist wing. I came to realize this probably had something to do with taste, since the painting has such a deep punch of color.
I took this curatorial choice personally because I question the privilege and power of how and what art has historically been presented in museums. I’d never been to an art museum before college, and this experience demystified and humanized the process and politics of curation. It raised questions that continue to inform my work: How can color become the subject of a painting and have power? How does taste affect perception? What kinds of imagery and subjects are acceptable to a museum, and who or what is excluded?
EJ: Still Life With Sunflowers pays homage to Matisse and Van Gogh, building flowers and a rattan serving platter with individual brushstrokes, and I especially like the use of green and purple. Do you have images by master painters available while you paint? Are these influences from memory? Was the awkward balance of two vases intentional or something that emerged while working? It comes across as holding both artists in mind at once, where one is more important than the other.
LW: As a female-identifying artist, I believe artists must make space for pleasure in painting, both in the act of painting and in the pleasure of viewing it. I consider each mark and what may be revealed by the building of marks over time. I don’t necessarily paint with any masters in sight, but I am obsessed with painting, studying paintings, studying the histories of paintings, and artists who’ve been ignored by those who write art history: Vanessa Bell, Nell Blaine, Janet Fish, Mary Cassatt, Berthe Morisot, Clara Peters. They’ve all been so inventive and influential; they should be recognized in the company of more well-known masters.
LW: Flowers signify time. They wilt, they dry out, petals fall. Their ephemeral quality is like a memento mori, without skulls and candles. When you work from life, especially from flowers, you are working against time. Their nature is to move, open, and close, making it important to pay extremely close attention. Their vitality is akin to painting a living person whose movement and presence becomes reflected in the painting itself. Flowers and the sensuality of nature express joy and pleasure.
EJ: Still Life with Quilting Fabric and Summer Flowers references Cubism in the piling up of layers of fabric and rattan and trompe l'oeil trickery by asserting that flowers––be they real and unique or repeated images––can coexist. The viewer feels both inside and outside the action. What does integrating the different views and treatments of flowers both as surface and objects mean to you?
LW: My combinations emphasize soft power. After graduate school, I worked a few years in a sewing workshop, where I came to appreciate what has been deemed “women’s work.” There is real power in working repetitively and meditatively on finely executed sewing and embroidery; the work embodies women's resilience, community, and ability to carve out time and space for ourselves. This parallels the position of still life in art history, which often ranks last behind historical, landscape painting, and portraiture.
EJ: Certain vases in your flower paintings are especially eye-catching. For instance, Still Life With Allium, Still Life With Watercolor And Flowers, Still Life With Katamari, and Gerbera Daisy. The vases seem to punctuate the chaos of the painting with a clearly wrought sculpture. Do you notice the special rigor with which you treat vases?
LW: The glass vases have some of the wildest areas because wet-into-wet paint application incorporates a wide variety of colors and loosely layered marks. There’s an absolute kind of freedom to translate and interpret in paint the light reflected in glass objects.
The forms seen in each vase are inherently abstract, so a rigorous and active painting process is required to achieve the feel of each object. With glass, the shapes of light and reflections change drastically as you move your head or adjust your focus.
Which begs the question: “What am I looking at?”
EJ: I love that the white spots of Still Life With Angel Wing Begonia work against the dark and light modeling of the leaves, making a patterned invention compared to the focused invention of riffing on reflection in vases.
How did this unique relaxation of realism happen?
LW: I painted my Angel Wing begonia because of its exciting iridescent spots...
LW: ...When you look closely, they play with the eye and challenge perception.
Maybe it’s a bit like a herd of zebra? Pattern layers in themselves are a kind of camouflage, that confuse movement, spatial depth, and scale. I paint each painting, object, and subject as they need to be painted. I don’t think about realism at all: I think about paint, observation, invention, and translation.
EJ: Painter's Table applies experimental treatment of vases and mimics the side-by-side contrast of planes in Cubism. What are your strategies for simplifying complex passages of layered form and surface? Or is there no such thing as excessive in your visual world?
LW: This was an exciting painting to make. It's five by seven feet and everything is from life, which made it a very physical process. After I drew the basic composition out in charcoal on the canvas, I painted all the living flowers before they changed so much that my drawn composition would be irrelevant. Again, this is like painting a person from life: you’re working with a limited session, the understanding that the whole setup will change over time.
LW: I’m more interested in the way color relationships form in the painting than I am in creating a sense of atmospheric perspective. Every color has a different inherent sense of space, depth, and feeling. I think deeply about how each color sits next to or is surrounded by another color. Some areas are slow and delicately painted, some are thick and layered, some are almost a wash. Different areas have different kinds of information or resolution, which has to do with the paintings formal sense of balance and unity—or totality—across the whole canvas. The rhythm created by the shapes, colors, scale, and frequency gives the painting its sense of feeling. If that feels excessive that may be an issue of taste or a different preference for visual stimuli. I think it’s great when you can’t just walk past a painting but you must stop and engage with it.
EJ: Your painting expresses the overlapping roles of teaching, studying art history, curating, and painting. Everything all at once is up close and personal. Do you feel your painting is moving toward weighing different parts with different meaning?
LW: Everything all at once is a good summary for the work. I was once asked what I wanted to paint by Ed Valentine, a professor at The Ohio State University, where I received my MFA.
I replied, “Everything!” He said, “Do you really mean that?” And I thought again, and I said "Yes!"
“Painting everything” is about building a world of my own vision and thinking deeply about the world that I exist in. The stuff of life, the materiality of paint, and the material world we find ourselves in, is a rich and apt way to discuss things that are not physical, and not always visible.
For me, active painting is about observing the subject just as carefully as I am observing my own material decisions. Painting is a material language, an individual sense of touch. It’s a specific language for capturing an embodied perspective.
LW: I paint each element as it needs to be painted. There's real freedom in painting the same glass every day and feeling it’s full of new possibilities. It’s not really about the rendering of the glass; the truthfulness of my work lies in the act of painting and my own pursuit of freedom, creation, and pleasure.
edited by Matthew Crain
Exhibition Dates: July 5 -29, 2023
Opening Reception: Saturday, July 8, 1 - 4 pm
Lauren Whearty is an artist, educator, and curator living and working in Philadelphia, PA. She received her MFA from The Ohio State University (Columbus, OH), and her BFA from Tyler School of Art, Temple University (Philadelphia, PA) and has been a Co Director at Ortega y Gasset Projects, an artist-run curatorial collective and non-profit in Brooklyn, NY since 2017. Lauren has attended residencies such as Yale’s Summer School of Art through the Ellen Battle Stoeckel Fellowship, The Vermont Studio Center, and the Golden Foundation. She has recently received an Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant. Her work has been exhibited at The Delaware Contemporary (Wilmington, DE), The State Museum of PA (Harrisburg, Pa), The Woodmere Museum (Philadelphia, PA), Vox Populi (Philadelphia, PA), Bridgette Mayer Gallery (Philadelphia, PA), Center for Emerging Visual Artists (Philadelphia, PA), Satellite Contemporary (Las Vegas, NV), Monaco (St Louis, MO), The Painting Center (New York, NY), Ortega y Gasset Projects (Brooklyn, NY), Underdonk (Brooklyn, NY), and Deanna Evans Projects (Brooklyn, NY). Lauren currently teaches at The University of the Arts and Tyler School of Art & Architecture in Philadelphia.