A Sea of Possibilities: Paintings by Merion Estes 1971 to 2006
This exhibition spans more than thirty years of work by one of Southern California’s most accomplished, yet under-recognized, artists, Merion Estes. Including a selection of Estes’s mature paintings and examples from all bodies of work completed since 1971, the exhibition examines the enduring legacy and far-reaching artistic vision of an extraordinary artist. It anchors Estes within the rich, if tumultuous, decade of 1970s art and demonstrates how Estes expanded upon 1970s influences to create a unique body of work.
A virtuosic painter whose philosophical interests lie in the interactions between nature, culture, beauty, and decoration, Estes constructs works that dazzle with their technical skill—sensuous surfaces, vibrant colors, collaged layers, and varied paint styles. Since her earliest work from the 1970s, Estes has rigorously investigated painting’s potential for beauty, exploring the decorative impulse in both abstraction and nature-based imagery. Underlying Estes’s work from the beginning is an interest in the connections between nature, beauty, and landscape; she cites her primary influences as nature and twentieth-century painting—early Modernists like Georgia O’Keefe, Agnes Pelton, and Arthur Dove; Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, Pat Steir, Jennifer Bartlett, and Robert Rauschenberg, among others.
This exhibition explores Estes’s work in reverse chronological order, by showcasing the mature work in this gallery; a transitional series, “Soundings,” that bridge the early and mature work in the hallway; and work from 1971 to 1992 in the south gallery. The earliest works on view, a vinyl painting and related drawings, were completed between 1971 and 1977. The vinyl paintings, a series of sheets of layered vinyl embellished with spray-painted Minimalist grids reflected 1970s Process, Conceptual, and Feminist concerns with materials, systems, and decorative impulses. In the early 1980s, her work shifted to gridded glitter paintings that reference the “pattern and decoration” movement. Following the glitter paintings, she began to explore the sensuous materiality of paint and to incorporate more organic elements, venturing towards landscape references and merging abstraction and representation. Her “Soundings” series of 1993-94 marked an experimental phase where Estes played with paint application and color relationships (seen in the hallway between galleries).
Her signature style coalesced in 1995 when she combined earlier explorations of color, decoration, landscape, layering, and multiplicity into paintings composed of fabric on panel embellished with collage elements. In these paintings, seen in this gallery, she first began working with a printed fabric ground: here she incorporated patterning; the use of collage and paint decals; varied paint gestures; and organic references to fish, sea creatures, insects, birds, the cosmos, the cellular, etc. Through the use of abstract content and decorative patterns, the mature work allowed for a deeper engagement with complex nature-based imagery and vital expressions concerning the state of the world. Estes’s work comments on our ambivalent relationship to nature—the anxiety and fragility of existence along with the beauty and energy found in every living thing.
This exhibition has the distinction of being the artist’s first retrospective, the accompanying catalogue the first of its kind to be devoted to her. The title of Estes’s exhibition—“A Sea of Possibilities”—is taken from the title of her 1976 vinyl painting (no longer extant), and evokes the beauty and sublimity in nature’s infinite abundance. The exhibition attempts to convey the scope of Estes’s artistic endeavor—the vastness of her vision; the aesthetic and material complexities of her innovations; the philosophical explorations into our relationships with nature; and her meditations on beauty, femininity, and the sublime.
An Insistent Beauty - The Art of Merion Estes
by Constance Mallinson
Works become beautiful by the force of their opposition to what simply exists.
We humans do not save beauty; rather beauty saves us.
Beauty…is not simply among the values we live by, but one of the values that defines what a fully human life means.
If there is a constant in the thirty-five-year artistic career of Merion Estes, it is her ongoing investigation of painting’s fullest potential—its affirmation and restoration of visual pleasure in exploring our relationship with psyche, spirit, and the material world of nature and culture. In this “post-aesthetic” era when critical debate has stigmatized the communicability and beauty of paint as anachronistic and regressive, Estes’ attendance to the qualities inherent in painting distinguishes her from much of the mainstream. Modernism’s hostility to ornamentation and decoration is undisputed, and is amplified by the postmodern antipathy to the dangers of ornament as an improper and tempting sideshow deflecting a necessary critique of a compromised culture. Both have consistently created a challenge for painters who embrace the luxurious object. Danto characterizes the Modernist and Postmodernist periods as times of “an abuse of beauty” or a “revolt against beauty” in which the Dadaists, in particular, Marcel Duchamp; Barnett Newman; and ultimately Andy Warhol with his Brillo Boxes moved art out of the realm of aesthetics to a vast, perhaps unlimited, range of criteria for qualifying a work of art. (1) From the late 1960s to the present, art could assume any ideological function, and issues of gender, class, race, power, and politics took precedence over evocations of beauty. Moreover, because of beauty’s problematic association with the male gaze as well as its ambiguous, indeterminate nature—its “failure to mean”—beautiful artworks were distrusted in waging battles of gender equality. Aesthetic pleasure and judgments of its values were deemed reactionary, identified with bourgeois taste and a wealth and status-driven art market. For many artists an opposition to beauty, particularly as manifested in painting, in favor of the more direct, often intransitive, political engagement of text and photo-based works seemed the only responsible (yet simplistic) choice for an advanced practice.
Artists like Estes, a committed and ardent feminist for forty years, have taken a different, arguably radical, tact. Painting generally distinguishes itself from other media by its unwillingness to directly present “big bang” messages, instead preferring a more gradual and mysterious disclosure. The full measure of beautiful painting is complex, nuanced, and political. For example, in the early 1970s, painting that reincorporated handcraft with its chromatic and textured richness and embrace of ornament, was seen as a feminist performance of disruption and resistance to the male dominated theology of Modernism. More recently, this kind of highly charged, sensual painting is an avowal of female/human subjectivity, sexuality, and visuality over the dehumanizing aspects of corporate standardization, the mass produced, whether electronic or virtual.
Estes began to address these possibilities as a graduate student at the University of Colorado from 1970 to 1972. There she began spray painting grid-based fields of stripes and chevrons in circular forms onto huge flexible sheets of clear vinyl. She suspended the sheets of vinyl from rods, then layered and separated them to produce extremely optical, patterned moiré effects that changed as the viewer’s position changed. The desire, she stated, was to “engulf the viewer in the visual experience of these ethereal and shimmering pieces, to hold the attention and involvement of the viewer, and to provide a meditative experience.” (2)
In 1972 Estes moved to Los Angeles and her vinyl paintings were perceived as sharing affinities with the Southern California “light and space” artists, such as Robert Irwin and Doug Wheeler, who were working with spray lacquers, industrial synthetic materials, and commercial techniques to expand painting beyond traditional canvas supports and to capture the unique atmospheric effects of the region. In a similar synthesis of metaphysical and scientific concerns, Estes, in her vinyl paintings, boldly referenced the nature of the western landscape via evocative colors and the Native American textiles and designs she encountered in the Southwest. Significantly, this group of vinyl paintings presaged the adamantly decorative, highly expressive attitude and the nature/culture dialectic that constitutes Estes’s mature work.
In their emphasis on transparency and ephemeral physicality, Estes and the Southern California artists stood in marked contrast to arch minimalists of the 1970s such as Carl Andre and Richard Serra. Their systems-oriented, rigid forms of steel appeared to refuse the admission of anything beyond pure materiality, suppressing all allusion to personal narrative or experience, spirituality, or the natural. Shown in a 1979 five-year survey of vinyl pieces, Estes’s Lavender Twins (1977) feminized the then prevalent infatuation with hi-tech materials. Half flaccid, seductively concealing geometric shapes in their draped baroque folds, with muted, impressionistic color gradations in soft mauves, ambers, blues and greens, this early work counteracts and nearly dematerializes the unyielding materials of Minimalism, thus offering beauty to Minimalism’s techno-sublime.
By the mid 1970s the “pattern and decoration” (P&D) movement, initiated by feminists such as Miriam Schapiro who sought to elevate overtly decorative or “low” handcrafts into the elitist discourse of high art as a viable alternative to Conceptualism and Minimalism, began to restore sensuousness and visual pleasure to ambitious painting. Coming to full fruition in the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s through the efforts of New York-based painters—Joyce Kozloff, Valerie Jaudon, Kim McConnell, Robert Zakanitch, and Cynthia Carlson—this newly decorative approach appealed primarily to painters who were being increasingly dismissed as obsolete by the cultural politics of the day. “P&D” relied not only on the ubiquitous minimalist/formalist grid structure, but on an entire repertoire of influences from embroidery, quilts, ethnic weavings, to such non-Western art as Islamic architecture, Mexican tiles, Persian miniatures, and Japanese kimonos.
Inspired by the “P&D” movement in New York and the burgeoning feminist art movement in Los Angeles, Estes first joined Womanspace Gallery in 1973 and then a woman’s co-op, the Grandview Gallery. Among the many members were new graduates of the CalArts-based Feminist Art Program co-founded by Miriam Schapiro and Judy Chicago. Although Estes, in the vinyl pieces, had already found a strategy to merge the geometric abstract grid with more sensuous and exotic colors and references to Native American patterns, the discussions of feminist theory with its focus on gendered form and non-traditional materials inspired her further exploration of textures and shapes as well as craft-based methods—an impulse foreshadowing all her subsequent work. Coincidentally, a reaction to the toxic lacquer sprays she had used in the early vinyl pieces necessitated a shift to more traditional materials. She began layering the actual paper stencils she had used in the vinyl pieces—now luxuriously embellished with colored pencil and brushy flourishes— over decorative, marbled paper in the transitional Negrita series (1980). Drips and flecks of paint, swirling curls of pigment glimpsed through the peekaboo surface, all enliven the matte black paper and impart a sense of the personal while hinting at the cosmic. Immediately following this series were larger scaled classic “P&D” works like Chilaquile (1981), a melange of full-flowered ornamental patterns with virtuosic painterly gestures that signaled Estes’s gravitation to more free flowing, less tightly controlled compositions. Alternating double rows of Egyptian-like stylized lotuses sprinkled with glitter seem to hover over a fiery field of wide paint strokes. These “glitter” paintings by Estes marked a shift in her work from “P&D” style explorations to more expressionistic work that began to include direct references to the landscape.
Whether because of the aesthetic drought wrought by Conceptualism or feminism’s stress on the sanctity of subjectivity and visual pleasure, painting in the1980s was characterized primarily by a renewed interest in expressive figuration. “Neo-expressionism” was a hyperconscious re-visiting of a more spontaneous, emotional art form, now mediated by more cultural and social concerns than its abstract expressionist predecessors. For Estes, the paintings of that period continued her investigation of exotic patterns set against vibrant painterly grounds, as well as her experimentation with and introduction of unorthodox, lowly craft materials, as first seen in works like Chilaquile. In works from this period, the overall “legitimizing” grid Estes had previously favored disappeared as the brushstrokes became foregrounded, signaling a newfound confidence in the visual erotics or pleasures of paint application. Like many women painters of the period, such as Pat Steir and Joan Snyder, Estes’s reinsertion of the body via paint handling was a serious engagement with the validity of a feminine painting experience and practice. The churning, rich colors and the references to bold, earthy elements typify what Mira Schor described as the desire to make art without the intention of looking pretty or beautiful, but rather to “depict the underside of ideals of beauty but without contempt for paint itself.” (3)
In addition to a reconnection with the lush materiality and expressivity of the medium, painting by the mid-1980s witnessed a significant return to more literal imagery with an attendant emphasis on allegory, myth, history, and narrative. Wanting to push beyond her primary preoccupation with the optical qualities of surface and a lingering reliance on the grid, Estes sought to explore further the organic forms insinuated by the floral patterns through more specific references to landscape. She also switched from acrylic to oil paint to allow for a more sumptuous and palpable rendering technique. Because Estes was looking for landscape imagery that was appropriate to the increasingly media-ized, urban situation of contemporary life, large-scale paintings such as Threshold (1987) were based not on traditional plein air landscapes, but on omnipresent mass media representations of nature, the cliched photographs found in National Geographic, and on calendars, postcards, scientific texts, and seed catalogues. Dramatic, near-hallucinogenic, all the paintings in this series involved circular or oval inserts containing “magnified” microcosmic views of nature set in a much larger macrocosmic scene. Like the romantic nineteenth-century American predecessors who scrutinized the intersection of nature and culture, Estes, in her paintings of the late 1980s, simultaneously focuses on the beauty, force, and fragility of the natural world. With their coupling of detail and “big picture,” found photography and sensual painting, they nevertheless continue to coalesce into metaphors of the individual confronting larger cultural, natural, and cosmic schema.
By 1990, Estes further clarified her landscape considerations of the late 1980s, producing two- and three-paneled paintings exemplified by Coda (1990), Variation (1992), and Galaxy (1991). These paintings “worked at the edge of abstraction and representation” and were “like still camera detail shots with multiple images placed together.” (4) Recognizable natural subjects derived from her archive of cellular, planetary, fire, water, flowers, sea life, insects, and sky imagery were juxtaposed to near-abstract panels employing circular and oval “detail” forms brimming with evocations of microbial or celestial life. Estes describes this period as one of “awakening consciousness...it made me really appreciate the unexplainable and mind-boggling mysteries and interconnections of the natural world…though not religious, it could be said I hold a Pantheistic view of the world.”(5) Although Estes’s painting process in this series was more reductive than in both the earlier and more recent work, this transitional series is remarkable for its reintroduction of pure abstraction into her repertoire and for the coextension of figural and abstract elements.
In the 1990s, an obsession with postmodern art theory that focused critical attention on the web of images and texts framing the reception of and discourse about art had come to overshadow painting and to endorse text and photo-based artworks. An extreme skepticism concerning the transformative power of painting was voiced by “End of Painting” critics, such as Douglas Crimp and Benjamin Buchloh. (6) In pronouncing that male painters—Robert Ryman and Frank Stella, for example—had reduced gestural painting to a series of coded signs, these critics failed to recognize that expressive women painters who had been denied any voice in that dialogue were actively asserting a female subjectivity. Additionally, these painters, including Estes, were subtly engaging and contesting the conflicting perspectives, collisions, and significations of authorship, originality, and representation through their use of readymade imagery versus the handmade, thus embodying many of the investigations into traditional social, historical, artistic, and cultural hierarchies that so defined the discourse of that period.
Analogous to Roland Barthes’s conception of literature in the Death of the Author (1977) as a multi-dimensional space where a variety of writings blend and clash, Estes’s paintings of the late 1980s and 1990s, with their endless allusions to the history of painting, myriad styles and processes, marriage of originals and copies, and shifting, unfixed meanings, were coterminous with the theory-driven preoccupations of the decade. A series of 150 small-scale acrylic and oil works on wood panel entitled Soundings (1993-94) is a case in point. Breaking apart her formerly large scale monolithic canvas into three dimensional objects but retaining many of the illusionistic aspects of representational painting, and combining tropes of abstract painting with personal mark making, these paintings opened an inquiry into both the history of and the contemporary practice of painting. In an actual and symbolic rupture with perspectival space, Estes reinvigorated aspects of her earlier glittered and bejeweled paintings and interfused real life artifacts with imaginative abstraction—a mainstay of all subsequent work. Soundings marks the initiation of a more playful, expansive process, one that multiplies and merges classical forms with the improvisational. Using a vast range of painting effects—pours, drips, featherings, striations, scumbles, large brushstrokes, sanding, and Surrealist frottage—the Soundings series enabled Estes to arrive at her mature paintings on pre-printed fabric bases. Recalling Sigmar Polke’s promiscuous use of artistic conventions, styles, and languages to force a reckoning of the mass-produced with painterly gesture, Estes’s intermingling of manufactured polka dot designs, floral patterns, geometries, endless allusions to organic forms, and expressive painting equally interrogate the place of artist and nature in an increasingly simulated world.
Critic Johanna Drucker has recently described the demise of the critical, negating avant garde in favor of a visual art that trumpets its complicity with mass culture. According to Drucker, the polarization of intellect against material pleasure and sensuality no longer holds, with artists in this period exploiting the advantages of abundant materialism to engage viewers—an apt characterization of Estes’s paintings of the last decade. An increasing formal and narrative complexity driven by her desire to enlarge contemporary prescriptions for beauty has enhanced and heightened a conversation between the personal, the cultural, and the ecological. Works such as Journey (1996), Strange Invitation (1997), and Gossip (1997), with their exaggerated drips and swashbuckling brushwork, seem to recuperate a painting tradition thoroughly dismissed in much postmodern criticism. By 1999, the variety of painting techniques, vocabularies, and color ranges reaches a fever pitch in Screaming Mimi. Layering thick iconic floral shapes; striations, smudges, strokes, and combings of paint; with collaged birds, Carnivalesque feather butterflies, and filigrees of black line work, Estes playfully but forcefully reasserts the maximum possibilities of the medium and invites meditation on the contrast of a pervasive artificial with a direct emotional experience of nature. Chinese Wedding (2001) features a central “zip” of a hot-hued, collaged flower garland projecting hot pink paint “tongues” and black twining vines into the surrounding plaid field of floating abstract orbs, lace flowers, and shimmying, dripping, and whirling paint strokes. If one recalls Barnett Newman’s statement, “…some of us are…completely denying that art has any concern with the problem of beauty,” (7) the painting can be imagined as a contest (and break) between a restrained geometric painting tradition and the orgy of color, decoration, ornament, and narrative repressed by that tradition. This “formal rebellion” rejects an ideal type or language of beauty. It is a “new kind of popular, convulsive, rebellious beauty: one that dares to reveal the grotesquery of the powerful and the latent beauty of the ‘vulgar.’” (8) Its passionate and imaginative involvement with materials, its liberation from “correctness” demands that we take notice, and in its confrontational aesthetics, can simultaneously consider unsettling or uncomfortable issues. Given Estes’s lifelong obsession with the beauty of nature and her feminist desire for the sensory, immanent, and shifting, it was inevitable that she would use her artistic gifts to seek to reinvent our relationship with the land.
In an era of increased threats and challenges to the world’s natural resources, many artists involved with landscape/nature imagery have expressed in their work a sense of anxiety—even an activism—over the potential disaster facing the earth. These artists might be described as having a “post-nature” mentality that permeates their work, one in which older, more authentic, or plein air modes of interacting with nature, have been displaced by a hyper-consciousness of simulated nature. Pop icons—Disney, garden kitsch, 1960s flower power—and all manner of current nature-themed consumables merge in their work. Just as nineteenth-century landscape painters brought a vanishing wilderness to the attention of the American public, Estes’s incorporation of commonplace, packaged, and replicated images of the natural world into the landscape tradition is a metaphor for our alienation from any real experience of the wild. These are cautionary tales of a manufactured, mutant nature as a reality in an increasingly unnatural, dystopian world. Further underscoring the degradation of our relationship with nature, her current paintings poetically summon up ocean pollution, the infringement of the urban on the pastoral, the chemical poisoning of atmospheres, and harmful dualistic and binary religious/scientific visions of the world. Her wide repertoire of painting techniques and use of bricollage and fabrics from a number of cultures continue to enliven and embolden her surfaces—but with a more heated dialogue about the intersection of personal feminine creativity, beauty, consumerism, and global environmental concerns. This interplay recalls Mark Taylor’s discussion of “combinatorial play” in which “nature and culture are woven together in non-linear feedback and feed forward loops through which nature produces culture as much as culture produces nature.” (9) Estes’s playful hybridizing interrogates the boundaries, intersections, and incursions of humans into the natural in the mode of Taylor’s observation. “Instead of reducing nature to culture, or culture to nature, what is needed is a way of understanding the complex dynamics that render them mutually constitutive.” (10) In short, Estes reveals the landscape as no longer simply scenic, but as part of interconnecting systems.
As Estes now exploits its uniquely mimetic qualities, paint can also become descriptive of destructive processes, metaphorically displacing the presumption of the immortality of natural beauty with the notion that it is endangered. For example, a flock of birds cut from African-print fabric swoop over the turbulent, screen-printed waves of Stormwatch (2003), the bold black drips superimposed over the waves can be interpreted as an oil spill, implying that the beauty of these landscapes could be forever altered and compromised by chemical substances that constantly flow into them. Likewise, within Toxic Depths (2004) sulphurous mists of yellow and lavender, and drips and stains of black and red suffuse what once could have been a dazzling, sunlit, underwater encounter but is now a scene of environmental atrocities—a battleground for good and evil. While not all of the recent work is as dire—Waterballet (2003) is a rapturous dance of phosphorescent sea life depicted in paint and lace, humorously overlaid on a psychedelic, tie-dyed print—the overriding sensation is that of the earth’s bounty in tension with human activities.
The aesthetic pleasures of Waterballet and Estes’s other recent paintings contradict the unthinking and entrenched repression of beauty in much recent theory. The legacy of a critical avant garde that denied that beautiful art could raise political consciousness is challenged and repudiated by artistic visions such as Estes’s. Thirty years of her artistic practice has questioned the long tradition of the sublime—originally defined as an aesthetic reaction to the overwhelming scale and cataclysmic powers of nature—from the Romantics, Abstract Expressionists, Minimalists, to the Postmoderns, some of whom have responded to Baudrillardian ideas concerning the sublime of the terrifying forces of mass media simulations in which the volatility of the real allegorizes death. Hurricanes and earthquakes still have awesome powers, but currently we have more to fear from the human sublime. Rather than submit to that terror and the modernist myth that its negations would bring about desired social changes, Estes has imagined, inclusively, that an artistic intervention lies in preserving the precarious balance between nature and culture. Perhaps best said by Elaine Scarry in her small, but profound, book, On Beauty and Being Just, Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care….Plato’s requirement that we move from “eros” in which we are seized by the beauty of one person, to “caritas,” in which our care is extended to all people, has parallels…..Beauty seems to place requirements on us for attending to the aliveness or...quasi-aliveness of our world, and for entering into its protection. (11) Based on this assessment, the promotion and embrace of beauty advocate for preserving the earth and investing in its future.
However acutely Estes wishes her work to reclaim a radical, transformative role for aesthetics in the interest of examining our complicated relationship with nature, she knows the paintings compete in a highly visual, image-saturated culture. Nor can they submit to a simplistic, conservative nostalgia or moral posturing in their desire to make beauty agency in this process. Instead, their miscreant couplings, tactile surfaces, and aggressive colorings must provoke, confound, charm, and fascinate us, keeping us fully aware of the present. They require from us a necessary and constant re-envisioning of the terms for beauty. They demand we consider writer and psychologist James Hillman’s imperative, “That the world is loveless results directly from the repression of beauty…for love to return to the world, beauty must return first.”(12) Merion Estes has insisted on nothing less.
Constance Mallinson is a Los Angeles-based painter and critic.
- Arthur Danto, “The Abuse of Beauty” in Aesthetics and the Concept of Art (Chicago, Open Court Publishing, Division of Carus Publishing, 2003) p. 46.
- Merion Estes, Unpublished artist’s statement, 2005.
- Mira Schor, “The Erotics of Visuality” in Wet (Durham and London, Duke University Press, 1996) p. 169.
- Merion Estes, Unpublished artist’s statement, 2005.
- Merion Estes, Ibid.
- Douglas Crimp, “The End of Painting,” October 16 (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1981) p. 86.
- Barnett Newman, “The Sublime is Now” in Theories of Modern Art, ed. Herschel B. Chipp (Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1968) p. 553.
- Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, “Narrativizing Visual Culture: Towards a Polycentric Aesthetics” in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff (London and New York, Routledge Press, 2002) p. 45.
- Mark C. Taylor, “The Moment of Complexity: emerging network culture” (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2001) p. 197.
- Ibid, p. 225.
- Elaine Scarry, “On Beauty and Being Just” (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1999) p. 81.
- James Hillman, “The Practice of Beauty” in Uncontrollable Beauty, ed. Bill Beckley (New York, Allworth Press, School of Visual Art, 1998) p. 264.
A Conversation in the Garden: Merion Estes and Rebecca McGrew
May 2 and June 8, 2006
Rebecca McGrew: How appropriate is it that we begin a discussion of your work by talking about beauty while sitting in your house looking at your beautiful garden on a lovely Southern California day. So let’s start with the role of beauty, and the decorative impulse in your artwork.
Merion Estes: Beauty has been a goal and value since 1970 when I started the vinyl work—a goal to overwhelm and dazzle the viewer with the beauty of the experience and its complexity. For me, beauty is also a meditative experience. I wanted to approach the experience of being in nature and being overwhelmed by incidents of light and atmosphere…ethereal dematerializations as in New Mexico’s sky and weather effects. And right now, in the art world, there seems to be something of a return to optical pleasure, beauty, and decoration. Decoration has always played a role in my work, with some blatant periods of exploration…the glitter and glass embellishment…more is more.
RM: Let’s go back to your earliest work…let’s trace this impulse further back. What was your work like prior to the vinyl paintings?
ME: Before the vinyl, while I was an undergraduate student at the University of New Mexico, from 1966 to 1970, I was painting hard-edged geometric abstractions, influenced by the location and by the Native American rugs and crafts so prevalent there. I was trying to incorporate the light and space conditions of New Mexico and the designs and artistry in the Native American blankets and pots. Those were, you know, the best abstract paintings. Some of the blankets were called “Eye Dazzlers.” I was painting repeating stripes, chevrons, and other classic geometric shapes placed against bright white grounds, trying to combine the clear contrast and stark light found there with the decorative geometric patterns.
RM: With whom did you study?
ME: I had two influential teachers at that time. Frederick Hammersley was very encouraging and inspiring and my last year there Bernard Cohen, a painter from London, had a residency. He worked with space and light, and I remember that both of us were very taken with the intensity of the new environment and the Indian art. Then I got a scholarship offer for graduate school from the University of Colorado, Boulder, while married with three kids. The deal with my husband was I could go somewhere with an offer of money. So I went there and studied with George Woodman who was my thesis chair. George was the main influence, both with his work—where he was doing a kind of quilt-like pattern painting—and with his graduate seminars. Boulder turned out to have a really good art department.
RM: When did the vinyl paintings begin?
ME: 1971, at CU. My first semester I was doing geometric patterns on three-dimensional forms: identically painted irregular boxes placed on the floor in a fan-shaped configuration. Essentially they were painted sculptures. After these hard-edged works, I started a series of colored-pencil drawings on graph paper.
RM: The drawings we are showing?
ME: Yes. So, instead of chevrons as in the sculptures, I used rows of circles, but I still had bands of color on stark white backgrounds. They were drawings of globes of light, on grids. Grids were big…I loved Agnes Martin’s work. And I liked the graph paper itself. A professor said the drawings were great; now figure out how to make them bigger. It took me a year to figure out the technology. I did experiments with unstretched canvas for a ground and grommeted it together with a sheet of painted vinyl but it didn’t work the way I wanted them to. I kept experimenting with materials, and realized I wanted more layers and more depth. The development process was slow, but I had found the vinyl, and realized I needed an airbrush for the effects I wanted. Then the question was how to separate the layers…what would happen with three or four layers? I consulted an engineer and he designed a system of rods extending out on aluminum brackets. This was a big breakthrough for me. These were my first original works and at the time were the fullest expression of my beliefs and values in art. For a few years I was deeply involved with what seemed like a system of endless possibilities. I wanted to offer a sensual experience and to create something of surpassing beauty.
RM: You did, but only one remains, and we are lucky to have it for the exhibition. I know eventually you had a toxic reaction to the materials and that necessitated a change in format, but how long did you work with the vinyl? And did you exhibit it?
ME: I worked with the vinyl for seven years. The first exhibition of the work was in Denver shortly after graduation. Four of us grads had a show at a contemporary art space and we got a favorable review.
RM: Then you moved to Los Angeles.
ME: It was a choice between LA and New York City, and LA seemed more livable. So we moved in the fall of 1972. And I thought LA might have more like-minded artists.
RM: Did you find those artists?
ME: Well, shortly before I left, there was a show in Denver of artists from Southern California, the light and space people—Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, Peter Alexander, and Laddie John Dill. I was excited by the work. Irwin had been a visiting artist for a week in Boulder and was very encouraging. Years later, I remember being impressed with Peter Alexander’s paintings on velvet. I eventually found other artists in LAwho were peers.
RM: How did LA change your work?
ME: It didn’t for a long time. I kept doing the vinyl paintings. I imagined the system was so flexible I could do them forever but the materials were too problematic. I developed an allergy to the toxic automotive paint. Also, I realized vinyl is of questionable duration. But being in LA in the early 70s was great; it was a center of Feminist activity. And Feminism was crucial for me in terms of ideas about gendered work, drawing from craft sources, honoring the personal—basically new ways of working and thinking about what art can be. I was aware of these ideas in Colorado and New Mexico, but Southern California was a site of activity like the Cal Arts Program. Womanspace on Venice Boulevard was forming when I got here. It was a gallery and meeting place for artists. The Woman’s Building on Grandview Avenue (the old Chouinard Building) followed, and was an umbrella for three galleries, the Feminist Studio Workshop, and other businesses. These places were the first opportunities to meet other women artists. The gallery opened and I was able to have a solo show in January 1974. It was an amazing opportunity. Those openings were mobbed.
But being in LA did ultimately change my work. When I left Colorado, I was trying to dematerialize Modernist paintings using light and space and referential color. After I had been in LA for a while, by the mid-70s, I began exploring more consciously female forms—curtains, drapery, and aggressively pastel colors.
RM: So you continued the vinyl work, where you essentially utilized a systems approach that combined both the decorative and the conceptual. Do you feel your work subverted Minimalism and Conceptualism’s “seriousness and austerity” and incorporated influences from Feminism, the Pattern and Decoration movement, and craft?
ME: Yes. In many cases Pattern and Decoration (P&D) came out of Minimalism anyway. P&D was the anti-Minimalism. Maybe certain artists just got fed up with the limitations. Interest in other cultures and their art values was crucial. Maybe the personal and political changes of the 1960s and 70s required a searching out and exploring other cultures’ arts and crafts. “Inner space” experimentation of the era was important too. Minimalism sat out the Vietnam War and was not “of the world.” It assumed a purist, otherworldly stance. Minimalist work also fit nicely into corporate structures and embraced restraint and good taste and design. P&D seemed the opposite—human, beyond corporate America’s reach.
RM: This reminds me of Michael Duncan’s statement (in a 2003 Los Angeles Times article) that P&D is a “radical movement…a break away from the sanctity of high art” and that “ornamentation is an affirmation of life.” He also says P&D is where art and life truly intersect. P&D often was dismissed as frivolous, but your work instead deals with serious issues of identity, the environment, and cultural exchange. When and how did these issues become paramount in your work?
ME: Those issues were always there. I never agreed with that dismissal of P&D. Serious, intelligent artists were re-thinking “the rules.” And in my work, it is all connected. For example, my current work seems like a conjoining of all aspects of my working periods, with the exception of the vinyl pieces, which led to the rest. It is as if I now have a very open system where I can incorporate patterning, semi-abstract shapes, different “layers” of application, varied paint styles and/or gestures, collaged “decals” of paint puddles, collaged lines, etc. I feel free to do or include what occurs at the time and build each piece step by step. The collaged fabric occurred as I worked on a single printed ground and it seemed natural to start adding shapes cut out of different types of fabric. A really big step was the discovery of prints derived from original African designs that often reference natural imagery: fertility symbols, clam shells, abstracted fish and streams, sea creatures, birds, mandala-like forms, weird plant forms, etc. In short, forms I was already using in my paintings. Using the found printed shapes enriched my work and allowed a deeper engagement with the multiplicity and abundance and complexity of nature-based shapes and patterns I was after.
RM: Would you expand on your use of the fabric backgrounds? How did they work with the nature imagery?
ME: I got intrigued by how nature was used in producing artifacts. The idea of painting on a floral background was very amusing to me. The fake depiction as a ground for an abstract painting—merging the two—playing with the revealed underground working against or with the painting on top. If “real” nature has become a construct why try to repeat a depiction of it? My work became more pop and kitschy with the introduction of the fabrics. Everything was on the same playing field, with lots of humor. “Nature” as a source or reference but ultimately fake. And sometimes fake is very good indeed.
RM: So the fabrics became another component and tool to work with.
ME: Yes, and the relationship of all these disparate parts is like that of two polar opposites struggling to become a cohesive whole. For me, that is the challenge and struggle. Somehow the one without the other doesn’t work for me. The collage alone is too sterile and the painted abstraction is not enough.
Maybe it is like my impulse to do something “more” with the vinyl paintings, such as lifting, draping, etc. in opposition to the “purity” of the rectangular field. For better or worse, I like to push things.
Then, for several years, during a period of struggling with my work, gardening became a very creative outlet. This was after a period where I’d begun to explore landscape again in my work, but in the mid to late 1990s, gardening was definitely reflected in the paintings.
RM: Here we are, back to the garden and beauty…which group of paintings?
ME: The 1996-99 works like Rendevous, Birds and Bees, Gossip, Alice’s Garden, Garden Party, Screaming Mimi, and Strange Invitation; with all the images of flowers, birds, bees, and sunspots. This work was probably more abstract than my work now and didn’t reference a typical landscape space. I was trying to replicate the fragmentary visual experience of being in the garden and working...insects and birds buzzing around, the hot air, the bright sun, and the teeming aliveness of nature.
RM: Why did that resonate at that moment?
ME: With the “Soundings” series I was already well onto the path of nature-based abstraction. When transitioning to larger scale formats I got into the garden. It took me three or four years to put the present garden together. I had a cactus and succulent garden, and then I tore it out because I wanted flowers—more visual abundance and variety. Which, ironically, is exactly what I wanted in my work…in just one painting. I think I composed the garden very much like one of my paintings...the additive impulse, the color relationships, space, scale differences, texture, etc. I love public gardens, the Huntington, Lotus Land in Santa Barbara, and of course, the Getty Garden designed by Robert Irwin. That influenced my garden!
RM: The work from that time, the mid to late 1990s, seems more life affirming and joyous than the current work, which seems edgier and darker. The land and sea more threatened.
ME: They are, because of changes in the environment, actually both physical and political. My garden images were more escapist, honoring pure beauty. Since the invasion of Iraq, I’ve become more conscious of the horrible destruction of the environment and man’s capability to destroy, through war or profit, all that is precious on this planet. I was conscious before, but this era seems like such an extreme period of crisis and loss of hope. Previously, I was more interested in fantastical depictions of beauty, abundance, and in the depiction of the positive life force in all living matter.
RM: Did you feel you owed it to yourself to portray the darker side?
ME: I wanted somehow to reflect world politics. This country is a prime destructor of human life. I’m just outraged by what has happened under the Bush regime. Certain images come to mind, including the first Gulf War with all the oil fields burning—all this mind-boggling destruction by human beings. It seems whereever our government goes we destroy the land. I wanted to express the fear and anger I was feeling over these last six years. The first painting to deal with this was Storm Watch—all the birds are fleeing, the dark seas roil, a sense of fear and alarm are present.
RM: It is such a discouraging time now, isn’t it? Is there any solace?
ME: In my lifetime I have never seen it worse. But I have been reading Rebecca Solnit these last two years, and it has influenced my thinking.
RM: What an amazing coincidence, I was just re-reading Solnit’s As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art (The University of Georgia Press, 2001) while preparing for our conversation. Her meditations on environmental feminism and her merging of the natural world with the realm of art mesh perfectly with your work.
ME: I’m also reading As Eve Said to the Serpent. And her new one—A Field Guide to Getting Lost. As Eve Said to the Serpent really spoke to me. I’m interested in her linking gender and landscape and the female experience with various works of art. She eloquently expresses the nature and culture collision that continually occurs and the dangers our environment faces.
RM: I also liked her comparison of nature untouched, woman unblemished in her discussion of nature calendars, in “The Nature of Gender/The Gender of Nature: Uplift and Separate: The Aesthetics of Nature Calendars.”
ME: I feel such an affinity for her ideas. She spends time in New Mexico, and honors the local landscape, so sullied by atomic weapons activities, such as White Sands and Los Alamos. New Mexico always seemed a double-edged experience to me. Being there in the 1960s, we were aware of Los Alamos’s nasty history as the site of the development of the atomic bomb. Meanwhile the license plates say “God’s Country.” Solnit’s writing clarified my thinking. I relate to her experience and to how she thinks. It is hard to have authentic experiences in this world. I am more an armchair aficionado. I admire her backpacking treks exploring nature, instead of the distanced experience of seeing nature through car windows as I have. My world is smaller…she’s an intrepid explorer, I’m not. Even in New Mexico—the source of my transformative experiences in considering the beauty of skyscapes and landscapes—it was mostly all through car trips. Other than gardening, my sources are all second or third hand. But I love gardening and I feel a part of nature when I’m in the garden. In my “big view” landscape paintings of the late 80s, I deal with the idea of nature removed…prettified calendar pictures with details inserted in the picture, as seen in plant catalogues or illustrational diagrams. Most of the artwork Solnit references seems more confrontational and direct.
RM: Richard Misrach, for example. His images of desecrated desertscapes, like the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and his early images of fires, floods, ruins, and dead animals.
ME: Exactly. They are beautiful until you look closely. That contrast interests me. I’m trying to do something like that too, but using more abstract content with decorative patterns. There is a subtext of anxiety, a more contemporary and ambivalent experience of nature. But Solnit is such an important writer, such an independent thinker about nature, culture, and gender. Her work reminds me of why nature has always been so important to me. Nature has been the subtext in all my mature work beginning with the vinyl paintings. Nature and twentieth-century painting—early Modernists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Agnes Pelton, and Arthur Dove; Agnes Martin, Eva Hesse, Pat Steir, Jennifer Bartlett, Robert Rauschenberg, and so many others—are my sources. The beauty and fragility of life has been my subject. Even the glitter paintings represent the energy or life force found in every living thing.