Made mobile by the fluid tones that define a concentric motif, Charlotte Hallberg’s canvases breathe with the simultaneous expansion and contraction of circling shadows. Ashy fingers slither across a face blushing red-tinged tangerine. A cloudy, cerulean stream winds across the transmuting tenor of an opalescent iris. Seeming to bulge out even while asserting a pulsing inward pull, the canvas is woven by intertwining threads of color which etch patterns of waves into flat surface.
Though working in non-representational forms, Hallberg’s disk-like compositions are light with natural hues and references to liminal luminosity, images disassembled by the fracturing lens of the painter’s brush. In this observational abstraction, Hallberg recasts found colors in kaleidoscopic array across the fine surfaces of circular grids, offering a shifting landscape for viewers’ eyes to explore.
On the event of Charlotte Hallberg’s two-person exhibition with Taro Suzuki, CRUSHCURATORIAL invites Charlotte Hallberg to speak with painter and critic Peter Halley —Hallberg’s graduate professor at Yale— on her process and influences.
Following is an excerpt of a conversation between Charlotte Hallberg, Peter Halley, and Nicole Kaack. For the full transcript, please follow this link. This conversation was held in conjunction with the exhibition Taro Suzuki / Charlotte Hallberg.
Charlotte Hallberg: Briefly, to give some context to the work, I’m just going to list a few things that I’m interested in. I’m interested in making paintings that require a long attention span, but that utilize a visual language that is maybe more associated with the fast attention span of our devices or media. However, I’m not interested in the painting speaking solely to that kind of relationship that we have to the screen. I think that that language is just a cultural given at this point in our visual world, and that’s just one tool that I’m using. The main aspects of painting that I’m interested in are color, light, and observation. I consider the color in these paintings to be observational, to be referring to different kinds of light or times of day or places. I guess I’m also interested formally in relationships of looking and the tactile qualities, the touch of paint. I’m very committed to making these as oil paintings and interested in that history of the depiction of light in oil painting. That painting itself or that looking at a still image can still be relevant today is something I’m interested in. To that end, I am often using compositional tools or ways of arranging the image or the space that refer to looking and touching. The limits of those things have changed today, in the way we see the observable world and the way that we are physically interacting with it is something that painting can talk about. Maybe that’s all I’ll say for now. I can elaborate much more.
Nicole Kaack: Something that we spoke about in preparing for this conversation is that digital element and perhaps questioning the usefulness of bringing that read to a painting. You can’t completely escape that conversation because these paintings emerged in a moment when the digital is relevant. But at the same time, these feel more about an eye seeing through those media, and about coming back to an experience of the natural by an embodied person. Perhaps that mediation is where the abstraction and observation come in.
Charlotte Hallberg: I am more interested in the human element and the human experience of those things. Digital language is just what we’re dealing with, and these paintings were made in this time, and they’re of the time. But I think that this experience of somebody actually making them also kind of refers back to that human touch. Not just that an image is being made, but that the paintings have a tactile quality is an important distinction for me.
Peter Halley: I can present the opposite view. Seeing them in reproduction, I was sort of distracted by the idea that they’re illusionistic or would be illusionistic. Coming to see them here, I realized that they’re not illusionistic at all. Every illusion is cancelled out by the contradictory clue. I began to see them as, all of a sudden, the equivalent of analytic cubism. A composition in a different kind of language. Although, I was just thinking tonight, you could even bring in somebody like Léger or Delaunay, and later stages of cubism. To me it makes sense to bring this up at the beginning, but what really impresses me in terms of the slow read, is to think of them as really complex mathematical equations that a person like me could never solve. I’ve always been fascinated by works of art like that, often in traditional figurative painting —a Titian or a Rubens— or even in architecture, with Frank Lloyd Wright. I saw a building in Frankfurt by Hans Holbein, a couple of years ago, in a museum. The interlocking space was so beyond my mathematical understanding. That’s what I see in these.
Nicole Kaack: In thinking about that —the slow read— were you referring to the surface quality of them also? You mentioned the contradictory clues —I liked that phrase— of reading them.
Peter Halley: I guess I knew this about Charlotte’s work, but she had spent time in museums in Northern Europe. They’re also on panel. So, for me, the Northern European exquisiteness of the surface also comes into play.
Charlotte Hallberg: I take the history of oil painting very seriously and enjoy using that history's traditional techniques. Those techniques are why oil paintings are so luminous historically. If I’m talking about my project as being painting a quality of light or a depiction of color, those technical aspects of painting are really important to maintain. I’m making a lot of my own paint and working on a very traditional absorbent ground. When I was in Europe for a little while, I was loosely looking at the history of the depiction of light in European oil painting. It’s something that I think has taken my work a little bit of time to catch up to. Parallel to that I was also looking at the development of artists’ materials and colors, when different pigments became commercially available. I continue to try to access everything that is materially available within the medium. Sometimes it means having to make something that’s not commercially available in its form.
Peter Halley: The concentric circle motif is really clear. Where did the other lines that pass through come from?
Charlotte Hallberg: I mentioned this interest in sight and touch. Circles are very symbolic of many things. The concentric element here, especially the sort of change in the scale of that element, is something I’ve always thought of as a dilation, like an eye. And then—this is maybe revealing a little bit too much— this wavy element, the squiggly line, comes from a depiction of a hand. There’s ten fingers, if you would imagine a plane divided evenly with ten digits. This wavy element acts as another symbol of movement or temperature or light or some sort of effect. I’m interested in making a still image by trying to distill this moving imagery into something succinct.
Peter Halley: I’m surprised that that was a secret, because the hand and the eye almost seems like some kind of Masonic, alchemical, powerful symbol.
Charlotte Hallberg: Yeah, I’m usually afraid to tell people that.
Peter Halley: In contemporary terms, it’s touch and vision. And that’s kind of like painting.
Charlotte Hallberg: They’re paintings about painting, surprise.
Nicole Kaack: Funny to me though that you say “still image,” because they feel like they’re moving so much. Dilation really was the perfect word. I really was thinking of them as eyes because of that central shape and the way that the light, the gradations, move you in and out. You’re moving, but the painting feels like it’s moving as well. It’s a very interesting form. I was curious, in doing a little bit of research into your work, that you had in the past done graphite drawings of these circles that feel in some way like the design, a pre-element. Do you still do those?
Charlotte Hallberg: Yes. I will usually work out some kind of composition through graphite drawings. Usually they’re in pairs, so I can compare different ideas that I’ve had on one page. The works start entirely in black and white, in value. Once I’ve laid that out, the drawings are very much part of the final work. They’re essentially a map of the overall feel of the painting. If you took an image of one of these and converted it to black and white, it would stray a little bit, but the idea is that it sort of sticks to that value structure. Next to that, I will establish some kind of palette, which is becoming more and more specific as I’ve returned more and more to this kind of observational color in the work. Then, once I have those two things, I scale up the drawing to the painting, and I’m really just making color decisions when I’m at the painting. It’s not like I’m planning out where each color goes digitally on the screen. In fact, I haven’t done any digital preparation for my work in probably three years now, which was a very freeing decision. The paintings are very slow. There is a lot of waiting for things to dry. In some ways, when I’m at the painting and making these decisions, it’s almost like making a few one-shot paintings, waiting and thinking about it for a long time, then making another move. There’s not a lot of room for fussing, and there’s also not a lot of room for changing things because of the surface. Peter mentioned complicated math before; I often use the analogy of a game that my family grew up playing called Rummikub. I don't know if anybody’s played it. It’s like Rummy 500, except for with these little tiles. You can play one of your cards on the board if you can fit it within the structure of the existing things, and sometimes you have to move the entire board around in order to fit this one piece in. I often feel like that’s kind of how I’m thinking about making those color decisions. It’s the same kind of logic.
Nicole Kaack: Do you feel like you’re often moving the whole board around?
Charlotte Hallberg: No, I feel like I’m thinking really far ahead, and then I have to come back. Then usually I forget what I was thinking anyway. So it’s always a surprise. I never really understand what the painting is going to be sometimes until the very end. Sometimes I have to live with stuff that I don’t love, which is also a challenge.
Peter Halley: I always ask myself if artists of your generation think in these terms. Almost by nature, if I see this body of work, I think of its position within the range of contemporary art or recent art, and art of the last 100 years. I forget who said, “I make paintings because I don’t like any of the paintings being made.” There’s something lacking that I want to bring into it. Do you have any thoughts on where you locate these paintings within the realm of everything else happening?
Charlotte Hallberg: Well, there’s a lot of things happening out there. I don’t know that I locate them entirely within abstraction happening today. We sort of talked earlier, but the painters who are working right now that I’m looking at the most are actually figure painters or observational painters. I just saw that Louis Fratino show that came down at Thierry Goldberg, which was really beautiful and just full of amazing color decisions. I really liked the broad scope of painting. Who else? The Robin Williams show that just came down at PPOW — very strict figure painting, but there’s a really wide variety of formal elements that I really respond to. There’s also a kind of painting that’s happening right now that deals with the digital mediation of images and how that relates to painting. If you saw an image of this work, you would probably associate it with a few of those painters. I don't know how I feel about that. I’m not interested in paintings that are talking about a quick read. This isn’t a slight to any of these artists, but I think that there’s a kind of painting that uses this language to make really fast images and to continue to amplify that. I’m more interested in the opposite. I’ve been making work in this gradient motif for the last seven years or so now and I’ve thought a lot about its relationship to the screen. Personally, I am tired of that as the main content in my work, because it’s too fast. It’s tending more towards the human touch, towards the observational place. We are also at a certain point where we just live with that all the time and it’s not such a revelation. I don’t know. I think I am slightly in a weird place in terms of other works right now. There is a lot of painting happening right now, which is very exciting. The Josephine Halvorson that’s up at Sikkema Jenkins right now is totally incredible and those are plein air paintings. But I think that there is a strangeness and a slowness to that work that I really respond to also.
Nicole Kaack: I think that the gradient is something that kind of draws your work back to that digital feeling. It’s perfect, it’s beautiful. But also, when I was encountering your work online, there was an early video piece, a very simple thing that you did that —I believe— was taken from an airplane. It was two simultaneous screens that were catching the horizon moving, in relation to one another. That was really helpful to me in thinking about your work in this observational mode. Bringing it back to something that you are experiencing in a real, physical way.
Charlotte Hallberg: That’s funny. I haven’t thought about that video in a long time. I have made some videos. I think I always thought about it as a painting, actually, a sort of moving painting. It’s basically two frames side-by-side, tilting the camera back and forth through an airplane window during sunset. Sometimes the horizons line up and sometimes they don’t, so they’re in and out of synch. The quality is terrible. I’ve also been making these other videos recently, which are basically tracing the perimeter of the viewfinder of a camera through a landscape. So the camera is still, it’s just sort of a figure walking, down one side, across the top, and over the sort of linear landscape frame. Those I think of, also, very much as paintings. You’re looking at this image for this specific amount of time. The time that it takes to look at the image and understand it is the time that it takes for this person to walk. That is sort of a secret practice.