Looking With What Eyes?

An Interview with Ambera Wellmann

In her recent solo exhibition at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, Italy, Ambera Wellmann painted a body of work in which she took a number of her titles from If Not, Winter, Anne Carson’s translations of the fragmentary poems of Sappho, the Greek lyric poet who was born on the island of Lesbos about 620 BCE and whom Plato called the Tenth Muse. Suggestive and minimal lines like “For you beautiful ones my thought is not changeable,” “You Burn Me” and “To a Girl in a Garden” became points of departure for paintings that overow with bodies and incidents.

Wellmann went even further in naming the Turin exhibition “Antipoem,” a word picked from Carson’s introduction to the collection, where she writes that the missing words function as “a sort of antipoem that condenses everything you ever wanted her to write.” Wellmann says in the following interview that the book’s power comes about because so much is missing from the text: “it allows you as a reader an authority or voice.… the absence of language becomes a space that the reader or the viewer can imagine and insert themselves into and occupy that space more intimately. … That becomes a fruitful place from which to make paintings.”

Ambera Wellmann, Blood Red Chariot, 2023, oil on canvas (diptych), 304.80 × 426.72 × 3.18 centimetres. All images courtesy the artist.

The idea of absence is at the centre of both Carson’s and Wellmann’s projects. The absence of language finds its equivalent in the absence of a visual language to represent women’s bodies. In a way, painting becomes the act of giving body to the text.

Wellmann is the consummate painter of women’s bodies’ infinite possibilities. As she says, her paintings always start with the body and then the body produces the environment in which it can operate. Those environments have been especially compelling; Strobe, 2021, the 30-foot-long painting that was included in the 2021 New Museum Triennial, is an example of the range of her figuration—there are figures that are one inch high and others that are six feet long.

One of the Sapphic fragments in If Not, Winter is the interrogation “With What Eyes?” It is a question that Wellmann continually asks and then answers in her work. Because she regards her paintings as living things, she wants them not only to be looked at but to look back. As early as Glance, an oil on linen included in “Logic of Ghosts” at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler in Berlin in 2020, she fashioned an optical meta-painting. A thin black line delineates a vase on an intense red background. Inside the vase and spilling out from its form are blue pansies and unrecognizable flesh-coloured body parts. In the centre of the composition is a column of eight eyes, six inside, one at the bottom and one hovering above the vase’s lip. The eyes suggest that the glance announced in the painting’s name is out to the world.

The looking implicit in Glance is made explicit throughout the paintings in “Antipoem.” Eyes are everywhere: in the three-headed horse in Blood Red Chariot, 2023; in the head and on the body of the monstrous minotaur in Two Things Are True, 2022; in the ominous figures who peer out from Aegis, 2022, and Holocene, 2022, and the ones floating in the apocalyptic sky in Impossession, 2022. The looking runs the emotional gamut from fear to poignancy. Counterclockwise, 2022, a startling oil on linen included in the Turin exhibition at the last minute, shows a sad and lovely skeleton creature that is all bone and beseeching. It looks up and into a dark void, as if for solace. The painting took its name from the method and sequence of its making. “The final moves are erasure going back to the earliest stages of the painting underneath,” Wellmann says. “The painting performed my process that way, bringing dead bits back to life, coming to life through undoing.” The “there” and the “not-there,” the fragments of lyric poetry and the fragments of the body, the presence filling the absence. Ambera Wellmann talks about painting as always being “a very delicate balance of choosing how much to say.” At this stage of her remarkable career, she appears to have found that very delicate point.

The following interview was conducted by phone to the artist’s home in Manhattan on July 11, 2023.

For you beautiful ones my thought is not changeable, 2023, oil on canvas, 288.93 × 508 × 4.13 centimetres.

Two Things Are True, 2022, oil and oil stick on linen, 243.84 × 365.76 centimetres.

BORDER CROSSINGS: I sense a darker tone in the work from the show in Turin. Do you feel that body of work was different?

AMBERA WELLMANN: I think it was. I would say that in the past two years, the works did take a markedly darker tone and that probably started with Strobe, the big painting that I did for the New Museum Triennial. The paintings in Turin respond to what has felt like an apocalyptic couple of years. It’s impossible to ignore the overturning of Roe v Wade, trans rights have been totally violated, gay marriage feels threatened, police brutality and racism run rampant and there is the feeling of a slow and steady reversal of progress. It’s a dark time and it made sense for me to do those paintings, but I don’t think of it as a violent body of work. I didn’t want to represent violence, but I wanted to explore the imagery of monsters.

I agree that there isn’t violence in the work, but you place a number of the paintings on a phantasmagorical plain that is frighteningly radiant and turbulent.

Yes. I think that the landscape emerged almost naturally as a result of scaling up the size of the paintings. For a long time, I had worked on very intimate-scaled paintings and I felt I had exhausted that. The size of a body in a small painting is necessarily small, but there’s a context for smallness when you make a large-scale painting; it’s not that the bodies in the paintings have gotten any bigger, but the paintings themselves have grown in scale, and that afforded an opportunity to explore the space around the bodies. The paintings always start with the body. The space is actually one of the last things that happen and I want the bodies to be in charge of this space, so to speak. I want the space to emerge from the body as opposed to the body being confined by or a product of its environment. I want the body to produce its environment in the paintings. The spaces did emerge as turbulent, and there are a lot of different reasons why that happens procedurally when I’m making the paintings. I like this space to reflect a process of navigation and not resolution. I want the bodies to feel unresolved and full of potential as opposed to being well-rendered representational bodies. I never want the painting to feel subservient to representation. I think the space around those bodies is an opportunity to create a kind of non-space that can exist only inside the painting.

UnTurning, the large painting you first showed in Montpellier in 2019, is a case where the body is generating the painting. In a way, that painting was only bodies.

Yes. UnTurning was the first time that I moved from horizontality and placing figures in a bed—which I had been thinking about for a long time—to thinking about subverting the vertical models of history painting by viewing horizontality as a democratic plane in which the bodies are not submitted to hierarchies inside the painting. In UnTurning, I went from a horizontal subject matter to a horizontal format, which I thought was a more powerful way to express the ideas I had been thinking about. Initially, it was a painting of a pool. It was the biggest painting I had ever tried and it was a total disaster. I worked on it all summer in my Berlin studio, and it was constantly changing. I ran out of time and it never felt finished. It was shipped to the museum and when they unrolled it, I felt my heart sink. I was so embarrassed by what was there. I had five days before the opening and I told the curators, “I need a fresh canvas. We are going to start from scratch.” I cut up the original painting and produced what became UnTurning in about two days on the wall in the museum, rolling the paint cart out two minutes before the beginning of the press preview. I was cutting up the pieces of the older painting that I thought were salvageable in a process that was similar to collage. What became interesting is that the painting starts where it’s supposed to end: it starts with the feet on the left; there’s a break in-between the feet and the rest of the body, which continues off to the right and then cuts off again. So the painting is a long, horizontal loop that would be an entire composition if you were to fold and touch it end to end. The viewer is involved in the loop of completing the picture. It was a total nightmare, but it ended up being great because it was a literal destruction of parts of an older painting, which resonated compositionally in the new one.

Orbit, 2022, oil paint, acrylic paint, soft pastel, charcoal and pumice gel on canvas, 336.55 × 529.59 centimetres.

UnTurning seems minimal in comparison with Strobe and Orbit. Obviously, you learned something about your own capability in doing it, but where has the ambition come from to make paintings in this scale?

With the older works I was keen on cultivating a very charged intimacy between the viewer and the painting. But I started to recognize after finishing UnTurning that intimacy can also come from moments of alienation or lack of recognition. Intimacy is produced in multiple ways and alienation is also a form of intimacy. I will do something until I don’t feel it can work anymore. When the New Museum Triennial came up in 2021, I wanted to do something big. I chose to do something that was equally, if not more awkwardly, horizontal, and I wanted to maximize the sense of an unravelling, ongoing and infinite composition. So I did this 30-foot painting that took up the entire length of my studio. What I wanted was to create a similar compositional loop. I also had been focusing on producing a sense of movement in the bodies in previous paintings, but with Strobe I wanted to produce more movement in the body of the viewer. I wanted them to not be able physically to comprehend the painting in its entirety; they would have to move physically through it. It is so big that even when you stand back, you can’t really grasp the whole thing at once. You have to experience it in fragments, so it never reaches any kind of resolution. I wanted to achieve that effect, but when I started working on it, I didn’t know how that would happen.

Strobe seemed an extremely important painting because it’s both an ending and a beginning. The ending is that it contains an inventory of the objects you’d used in earlier work—the sinks, the bedposts, the languorous nudes, the menagerie, the dried pansies, the transformative process—all that is in the painting. Were you saying something in Strobe about where your work had taken you and that it was now time to do something else?

I think it happened naturally. The sinks were one of the first things that I put into the painting because I needed to start with something familiar to then move forward or depart from. It was so big and so daunting that I needed something recognizable. The thing about the sinks is that they’re just about life-size and they felt like an anchor because the figures shift from large to small scale throughout the painting. Those were moments where you could go back into a one-to-one scale and somehow anchor yourself in the sprawl. There are figures that are one inch high and figures that are six feet long. The sinks and actual things, like blue jeans and the pansies, helped provide these points of “eye contact” in the painting that could cultivate intimacy, but they also kept the painting from becoming too grandiose. I wanted there to be familiar objects and moments inside that painting where people could identify with it on a scale that registered one-to-one with the body. The sinks also helped because there was so much abstraction taking place that I liked having one or two things that registered as a naturalistic rendering.

Even though you shift from one body of work to another, you seem never to leave anything behind. You have a retinal memory for things; in different paintings and in different contexts the bedposts come up over and over again.

Yes, they’re a security blanket when you’re starting. It is so daunting when you don’t know what you’re doing, and most of the time, I don’t. So it’s helpful to have a sink, or an acrylic wash underpainting. It’s about having a starting point. Those things are in my arsenal and they continue to show up in my paintings.

Orbit is a complicated painting for a number of reasons, one of which is it’s a painting within a painting. Was that a generative structure with which you began the painting?

I’d made painted frames for a few very small works in previous exhibitions. But I started Orbit as an apocalyptic dog park in the snow that felt like it needed to be framed. I had never explored a huge painted frame. I got a COVID dog. A dog park is interesting because it’s a space within a space of the city that has its own special articulated movement of people and animals. It made sense for me to put a painting inside a painting, have a movement inside a movement and have a space within a space. It felt compositionally clear. Sometimes the obvious thing is the right thing, and I was like, “This is a dog park in the centre, so let’s make spectators.” I started adding people around the perimeter and left an open space on the bottom centre for the fictional viewer. You can see the shadow from this imagined viewer where you also complete a ring of people. The painting is very performative in that you are part of the composition, looking at a painting as the people inside it look along with you, staring at its centre.

Orbit is extraordinary because of the mash-up of dogs in the centre of the park.

I’ve always painted dogs. Even when I was painting porcelain, I was frequently painting porcelain dogs. Dogs are such a brilliant surrogate for people in terms of their ability to garner empathy. They are almost more powerful to me as a subject. I read a brilliant book called Dog, and in it they speak about the transition from wolf to our earliest domesticated dogs. This transition occurred in the same era when we made our first cave paintings, so the relationship between dogs and humans helped birth us culturally as a species. It’s where we started to understand ourselves as a specific thing. I got interested in the relationship between humans and dogs and painting. In the centre of the painting there are hybridized bodies that could be the ass of a person or the body of a dog, you can’t really tell. But it’s also chaos. I don’t start paintings with specific conceptual intentions because if I do, they end up being illustrative and I don’t like a painting to be a foregone conclusion. I don’t want to know what it’s supposed to look like at the end, which is hard when you’re basically a representational painter.

To a Girl in a Garden, 2023, oil on canvas, 172.72 × 177.80 × 3.18 centimetres.

I don’t want you to be the village explainer of your own work, but are those onlookers based on real or historical people? On the right-hand side, there’s a figure out of a Renaissance portrait, as well as a guy who looks like a contemporary version of van Gogh.

Some of them are based on observational drawings of people I could sketch quickly on a subway or at the dog park. Some are screenshots of people I see in other people’s stories on Instagram. Some are art historical; others are completely fictional. The guy who looks a bit like Vincent van Gogh is actually from a Holbein drawing I saw at the Morgan Library in New York. They’re people from life, from history and from fashion. I don’t feel those faces need to be contextualized; my visual interest in them and wanting to represent them in a portrait is enough. If I had to create an accurately perspectival drawing of a crowd of people around a dog park, it would bore me to tears. I have to paint people whose faces I’m interested in. It’s a hodgepodge because they’ve been sourced from every kind of crowd that I experience in my physical and digital world.

Do you do drawings for the larger paintings?

Sometimes when I’m working on a painting, I will take a photo on my phone and use the markup tool in the photo app to see what it looks like if I were to block out an area of colour, or draw an eye, or something. But I never do drawings or preparatory sketches to start the paintings.

It occurs to me that figurative painters inherit two kinds of stories. One kind comes from circulating cultural narratives. There are love stories, there’s the garden, there’s the fall, there’s the apocalypse, and we’re in the territory of archetypes; then there’s the already rendered version of those stories, which is where art history comes in. You seem to use both of those sources. From the beginning, you have been open about being seduced by art history.

Yes. Nothing makes me want to paint more than seeing other paintings, and it’s a very specific feeling. There’s something remarkable about that physical relationship to paintings. There are so many historical references in my paintings that I don’t try to control them. Lately, there’s a lot of El Greco; before, it was Goya and before that, it might have been Ingres. It’s about how certain artists, or even specific paintings, can embed themselves in your psyche and become mechanized in your paintings. I found that certain body parts, or expressions, or moments from other paintings, when repeated frequently enough, can be harvested almost automatically. It’s as if they’ve reached a point of complete internalization. I’m interested in that relationship where familiarity of a historical image is not reified but internalized in the eye and the hand so that you feel it can be taken out of the canon and turned into a mark. Somehow you start from scratch. I’m particularly interested in the power of that gesture.

You’re talking as if these images are an alphabet that you can use. It’s your language already, and you begin to play with it.

That’s a really good way to think about it. Basically, to take sentences and break them into words, or break words into letters.

Your sense of art history is passionate but not systematic.

I wish I were more systematic about it because it would make it easier for me to talk about my work. It’s tangential and not automatic. You move from one source to another and it happens very fluidly. Tacked on my studio wall is a huge map of all my reference images, hundreds of them. It’s useful for me to look at, like when they’re tracking serial killers in crime shows. It helps me to understand the relationship between these very disparate art historical moments that I cull from. Sometimes it’s anchored in just two paintings that I return to. It’s a really sporadic and crazy kind of map.

I look at To a Girl in a Garden and when I see a girl, an apple tree, a man and some slithery and snaky things, I find myself inescapably in the Garden of Eden. This returns to the two kinds of narratives inherited by figurative painters. Is that a preposterous place to go in looking at that painting?

Not at all. When you have an apple in a painting, it’s impossible to avoid that reference. I wish I could show you the degree of transformation this painting underwent. I’m glad I didn’t try to finish it too soon because it’s one of my favourites from the “Antipoem” exhibition. The title came from Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho, and it’s a heartbreakingly beautiful line. It’s an ode to someone and it’s almost not written. I feel there’s so much about the idea of lesbian flamboyance that doesn’t exist. Gay men have taken flamboyance and run with it and it’s amazing, but lesbian history hasn’t been afforded the same cultural and historical space. I don’t know why, but I felt so much loss in that line of poetry. The references in this painting are more personal than others. I painted a bit of the hilltop I grew up on in a field of apple trees. But I also completely understand the references to Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. There’s this art historical trope that is immediately seductive in the present moment. The beautiful, ripe, juicy apple also allows you to reach backward in time. An apple is never just an apple in a painting. It can resonate so powerfully with this aura of history, and you don’t even need to control its implications. It’s an open symbol in a painting that becomes so fractal. You can take it wherever you want.

Nosegaze, 2020, oil on linen, 69.85 × 59.69 × 2 centimetres.

Glance, 2020, oil on linen, 60 × 50 × 2.50 centimetres.

Seance Etiquette, 2020, oil on linen, 137.16 × 144.78 × 2.25 centimetres.

By filling in Anne Carson’s Sapphic fragment, your painting visualizes what is implicit in the not-there poem she has translated.

The absence of text becomes full of possibility. I’m obsessed with Anne Carson. If Not, Winter is more powerful because so much is missing from the text that it allows you as a reader an authority or voice. Thought about that way, it becomes productive in the history of gay culture as a way of reimagining a past or envisioning a future. That becomes a fruitful place from which to make paintings. I called the exhibition in Turin “Antipoem” because in the introduction to her translations of Sappho, Anne Carson describes Sappho’s poetry as an anti-poem, as an area where the absence of language becomes a space that the reader or the viewer can imagine and insert themselves into and occupy that space more intimately. I’m not interested in a queer subject as much as I’m interested in a queer pictorial logic. What’s important to me as a queer woman having a queer body is figuring out how I can reflect that in the dynamic and the language and format of the painting. I’m much more interested in thinking not about the painting in service of the subject but the subject in service to a more ontological approach to painting. Think about Velázquez painting the Pope and how everything in that painting is so powerfully arranged to transcend the subject. He has the subject speak about painting, not the painting speak about the subject. I want to figure out how those two things can work in tandem to transcend the subject and further some kind of painting dialogue. I think that’s where the most potential is.

Your paintings aren’t just spaces to look into; they also look back. I don’t know any painter who paints eyes as often as you do. Maybe James Ensor. Eyes are everywhere in your work: in the background of Impossession, in Blood Red Chariot and Two Things Are True. Is the eye the vehicle for looking that sets in motion this optical narrative?

In some of them I wanted the painting to literally look back at you. But I didn’t want any of the eyes to appear as if they belonged to the same body. No two eyes are looking symmetrically. I did want there to be the idea that somewhere an animal is watching you. For me, painting has always performed as a surrogate for the body. I’ve always felt like paintings are living things; they’re not static objects; they have a lifespan. I want them to look back. Also, when I made “Antipoem,” I was watching this brilliant anime called Attack on Titan. There are these monsters and giants that continuously attack a city, and at one point in the narrative you discover that the villagers are actually Titans themselves who can transform from inside. Throughout the anime they repeat the line, “In order to defeat a monster, you have to become a monster yourself and abandon your humanity.” I wanted these paintings not just to represent monsters but to be propelled by regular people from the inside. Adding eyes was a way to give the paintings an autonomy from what they were representing. The eyes are positioned in such a way that you don’t necessarily feel a set of eyes looking at you. They’re shiftier and shadier than that; they take a moment to pick out, but they’ve been watching you the whole time.

In paintings like Aegis and Holocene you create a scale differential between the figure and the action of the painting. The figure in Aegis seems to hold the action of the painting in his hands and then in Holocene a man with a beautifully rendered hand and elongated index finger is also looking in. There’s a way in which the paintings are looking both at the activity in the painting and also back out at us. It’s a much more complicated gaze.

Yes. That hand in Holocene is from an Ingres painting in the Frick of Louise, the Princesse de Broglie, the woman in a blue dress who rests her elbow on one hand and rests the finger of her other hand on her face. The painting started with that hand. But I felt like there were giant mythical monsters in “Antipoem” and I wanted those paintings in dialogue with small paintings of giant men and even smaller figures of women. Actually, Aegis and Holocene had to be small because they are the darkest paintings in the show.

I’m fascinated by the degree of recognizability in your work. The fruit in To a Girl in a Garden is trompe l’oeil and almost pops off the surface of the linen. In that same painting the bodies of the animals stretch like toffee. And that elongated hand is gorgeously painted. How do you make decisions about the weight of our recognition as viewers in what it is we’re looking at? Is that simply a virtuoso flourish?

It’s really about setting up a relationship between realism, the actual, and something more abstract, the possible. It’s about being able to imagine beyond what is actually there, and have the paintings perform that dynamic through different registers of realism and reality.

Yurning, 2019, oil and linen, 151.77 × 139.70 centimetres.

Holocene, 2022, oil on canvas, 64.77 × 68.58 × 2.22 centimetres.

And is there a dynamic of looking going on for the viewer? Is that same dynamic operating for you as a maker?

I’m not always aware of that dynamic as a maker. I’ll go back and look at photos of paintings I made 10 years ago and realize the range going on inside a painting can be understood in terms of recognition versus alienation or abstraction. It might not be evident to me right away, but I think that is the space where the viewer can enter the painting. I never want the painting to be subservient to some virtuoso flourish, to facility. I think there’s also a strange tension or destruction when something iconic, perhaps a recognizable hand or motif, has been scrawled on or erased. As an artist, that becomes a moment where I can enter or manipulate history and remind myself that it isn’t static but ongoing. When I see a hand like that, I recognize there is something else and it doesn’t stop with what is represented. I never look at the picture and think that is its totality.

I am interested in the relationship between complexity and incident. Your sense of incident is much more complicated now than it was. When you were painting figures making love, you could complicate the nature of the act and you could take liberties with rendering the bodies, but you kept the composition relatively simple. It was a matter of figures on a ground. In the newer work, so much more is going on. You’ve got action in the body cavities of the many-eyed horse in Blood Red Chariot. Have you made a conscious decision to increase incident in the paintings?

Making bigger paintings afforded an opportunity to think in a more complex and creative way about who else is there. As you said, for such a long time my primary focus was the body and I didn’t think about the context surrounding these specific individuals. Working on a larger scale, literally and figuratively, made space for that. I also feel that over the years I’d exhausted the idea of focusing on singular objects or the body in a bed. Not to say that those paintings didn’t provide much for me in terms of learning how many different ways there are to represent the body, and how much potential there is in crafting them. But I will say that while I am not that interested in narratives, I am really interested in trying to craft an event specific to the painting and a space that can exist only in the painting. And in having the presence of mind to know when to stop but also to know when to keep going, when it’s actually not enough. The horse painting, Blood Red Chariot, started off with the left-hand panel of that three-headed horse and the figures below. It was going to be only that single painting. But I couldn’t connect the legs of the horse; they didn’t meet the bottom of the painting in the right way. I tried over and over and it kept looking like a weird, pathetic T-Rex. The legs were too short for the body. I realized I would not be able to resolve the painting vertically and it had to be resolved horizontally. So I added the second panel after the left side was finished. I resolved the painting by literally doubling it. It made so much more sense as a diptych where this horse becomes mechanized because it’s made of two separate parts. The head and the back are controlled by separate things. It became more dynamic as a hybrid piece with moving parts.

You hybridized the human and the animal as early as “(Wo)man and Beast in the Round of Their Need” at Pangée in Montreal in 2018. In these recent paintings the animal is even more present.

Right now, I want to figure out how to decentralize the human gaze and perspective in my paintings and in hybridizing the body and human and animal forms. For you beautiful ones my thought is not changeable is the largest painting in “Antipoem,” and with all the dogs running around that carcass there is no human presence at all. Even though it’s technically impossible to decentralize our own human perspective, the point is to imagine the possibility of doing so. Thinking about the body from outside a human perspective is, for me, an interesting way to approach a painting, or a body in painting.

In painterly terms this question of the centrality of the body ends up being a question about how you compose a painting. I look at Yurning from 2019, where you place things in the picture; it’s not that they’re unimportant, but they’re organized as a kind of anti-composition. But the painting, for me, that best embodies this question of how a painting is composed is Seance Etiquette because it looks to me like a mind scan. All the things you’ve used in your paintings are free-floating in space— the morphing bodies, the animals, the fruit, the porcelain, even the line drawing in blue that you call “free marking.” They’re less composed than presented. It’s like you’re saying, “This is what the inside of my head looks like, and I can use these things.”

The most important thing is to feel free. I think that everybody makes their best work when they feel free. I wish I could say that I feel that way more often, but it takes me a long time to get there when I’m making a painting. There are a lot of voices in my head when I’m working, and there’s a lot of struggle in the work. Then in the last week or the final hour, it’s suddenly easy, or loose, or spontaneous, or free. It takes a lot of labour to get to the moment where everything is glowing and moving quickly. I think that Seance Etiquette is like a mind map, and when I think about that painting, I think about acceptance. The background was the last thing to go into that painting. It carved out and delineated all the moments I had laboured over.

Impossession, 2022, oil on canvas, 213.36 × 182.88 centimetres.

I want to talk about the idea of withholding. I often quote a line from Alfred Lord Tennyson, who says that “words, like Nature, half reveal / And half conceal the soul within.” It isn’t only what language does; it’s also what picture-making does. Art is always revealing one thing at the same time that it withholds the revelation of another thing. Is your studio the ideal place to be when you know there is no withholding, that you are saying all of what it is you want to say?

I think that’s so, but the show in Turin, for example, could have been so much more violent. I didn’t feel prepared to embark on a project where I risked repeating the offence that I’m actually trying to critique. So I consciously chose to approach violence from the subject of a monster, from a more historical and mythological place. In some ways it’s more fruitful to talk about things through a narrative that we can all recognize. But as you say, language reveals, but it also withholds. There’s something very powerful for the viewer about withholding, and as an artist, I think you consciously have to cultivate that experience and not spell everything out and not hit everyone over the head with it. It’s always a very delicate balance of choosing how much to say. I am thankful I have brilliant painters and artists whom I speak to on a regular basis and who understand what I’m trying to do with my paintings. They’re always there. I’m never doing this by myself. I have valuable friendships and relationships with artists who literally help me every week. It’s a group effort, all of us helping each other.

In this connection, let me pull another poet into the mix. Emily Dickinson in one of her small, explosive poems writes about seeing things “slant.” She’s basically saying that rather than coming at something directly, you can protect the audience and the maker by refracting it. Maybe the studio is such a vulnerable place that you need to see things slant. Maybe that’s another way of talking about withholding.

I like the idea of something on a crooked angle. I’m a little crooked. I think this is why I try not to begin a painting conceptually. I think of the expression “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I have to surprise myself in order to be on board with a painting that I’ve made. There’s a weird and delicate balance in being able to surprise yourself but also to recognize your own language and your sensibility in whatever you’ve produced.

You have a painting called Two Things Are True (2022). What are the two true things? I

think that title helps to perform the painting. I’m looking for ways for the painting to perform itself, and I originally didn’t want it to be a minotaur painting. There is something else underneath that minotaur. There’s also a very strange incident going on to the left. It’s two functioning parts that come together, that meet in the middle, and are still separate paintings on their own. Two things are true seems to yield possibility, which is how I want my paintings to perform.

The emotional register of your paintings attracts me more than story. I wonder if you feel the same way about what you’re doing. They’re not narrative, but they have something to do with a sense of drama, which is why I began by asking you about the plains in which your paintings are now taking place. They are really proscenium stages in which the painting can enact its being.

Yes. What’s the saying, “You don’t remember what people say to you, you remember how they make you feel.” These narratives are obviously important. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be rehashing a mythological narrative myself. But in my paintings, what I respond to and acknowledge is emotion. Emotion is raw material in very, very old work that stays completely fresh.

Strobe, 2021, oil and mixed media on canvas, 274.32 × 914.40 × 5.40 centimetres.

When you were growing up in Nova Scotia, your mother had hung reproductions of two paintings from her trip to Spain in the ’70s. One was a Picasso image of a woman breastfeeding and the other was Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. So you win the Plaskett Award and you pretend you’re off to see Meissen porcelain in Germany but instead you go to Madrid and the Prado to see the Goya. Tell me about the encounter with that painting.

It was beautiful and it was devastating. The thing that resonated with me the most about the vast catalogue of Goya’s work at the Prado is that you start at the top of the museum where his earlier works are joyous, pastel-coloured, gay scenes of people bouncing on trampolines. It’s like looking at the work of a completely different painter. Then you get to the basement.

You’re not prepared for the “Black Paintings,” are you?

No. It’s amazing to see how much his practice transforms over the course of his brief career, how much the tragedy of the Civil War affected what he made and what his work looked like, and how brave it was for him to allow his work to transform. These paintings were painted right on the walls of his house because he started to lose his mind when he went deaf. When I look at them, I wonder if they were supposed to be private. I don’t know if he intended people to see them. Had they not been private, could he have made them? Those paintings are so gruesome. But he made “The Disasters of War” to be disseminated, so maybe he would have made the “Black Paintings” no matter what. Nothing compromised his vision. What comes through in his paintings of Spanish royals was how much he despised them. He has always been inspiring to me because I don’t think he withheld anything. He was so masterful that what he did was always like an arrow through the heart, whether it was extreme violence, his contempt for the royals, or a little dog looking out over the hill.

Your question about whether he wanted the “Black Paintings” to be seen is an intriguing one. You have talked about both the value and the inescapability of withholding. Do you want your painting career to be one in which there are no hidden black paintings, that it will be desirable for someone to take all the paintings off your studio wall and hang them in some museum? It’s a serious question about how you want to be seen as a painter in the world.

We’re in a different time from Goya when he was making that iconic work. It’s tricky because we are living in this weird digital panopticon, monitoring each other 24/7 and judging each other a lot. The art market is a shadow cast across everyone’s work and it’s difficult to celebrate artistry alone without considering the politics and implications of that work’s existence and circulation in a late-capitalist context. Still, it takes a lot of courage for people to make what they want to make, and we have a responsibility to translate experience so that it becomes more than just being about you. I am always trying to reach a point where I am uncensored. The truth always comes out, especially in painting and drawing. Even when a painting is trying to disguise a truth, that becomes its truth. Truth absorbs everything. I hope that I will get to a point where I am fully uncensored and feel like I have the tools and the generosity to be able to translate that moment, whatever it is. ❚