NATALIE WESTBROOK / SVETLANA RABEY / ROSALIND TALLMADGE
Moderated and Text by Nicole Kaack
January 27, 2018
Nicole Kaack: Thank you again for coming for a second iteration of this. We were very sorry to not have had you at the first talk with Sam [Messer], but I am so pleased that we can make this [afternoon] happen and have your voice be part of [it].
Natalie Westbrook: Yes, thank you so much for having me, and thank you to each of you for coming and being part of this conversation.
Nicole Kaack: Something that we can all talk about, I think, is the question of animacy. I would love to dive into the idea of animation and what has fed your collaboration with Johannes, in particular, but also how have your own paintings been part of that?
Natalie Westbrook: Johannes is very much an animator, while I don’t have that background or that kind of education. I’m very much all-in with painting. When we collaborate together, it’s an opportunity for those two things to try to join. I don’t think overtly about animacy when painting on my own, but I do think about vivacity and movement and my personal passion for dance. I’ve been so lucky to be friends with Svetlana who is a professional dancer as well as a painter. Her work really fascinates me. I wished, when I was younger, that I could be a dancer.
Svetlana Rabey: So did I. [laughter]
Natalie Westbrook: There can be angular forms and movements within dance, but there’s so much that is curve-like and round and arabesque. That, for me, relates to Baroque composition. I think a lot about Rubens and history painting, those balletic, grand compositions that are sweeping and circling. Figure-eight motions within a rectangular format. I think about that a lot when I’m painting. I’m curious, Svetlana, about how you think about movement in a very different way in your painting.
Svetlana Rabey: I actually don’t think about it overtly at all. What you were just talking about reminded me of ballet notation. Have you ever seen it? It’s like a blueprint of all of their circular movements through the court. It’s organic, but it’s very logical. It’s very different from what you’re doing, but I was just reminded.
Natalie Westbrook: It’s very systematic.
Svetlana Rabey: Yeah, very systematic. It’s geometry, really, put into space. For me, because I have a classical dance training, it’s really through repetition that the movement keeps… It’s a relentless repetition.
Nicole Kaack: I’m thinking about how that parallels more traditional modes of animation, perhaps, where it is through this repetition and iteration that the movement actually happens. But it’s a kind of slowness as well.
Svetlana Rabey: That’s how animation happened originally, right? Like the flip-book. [to Natalie] So it’s really cool that you and Johannes collaborated together.
Natalie Westbrook: There are many differences in the ways that we’re working and thinking individually. One big step that we took together towards unifying our vision was to make a decision—one of the first that we made in working together— to work strictly in black and white. That was a big challenge to me because I rely so heavily on vibrant color. But it was also a relief. In terms of animacy, my color is alive and moving and vibrating in and of itself. To have that taken away, to have my work stripped of color, made me think of my paintings and my forms differently spatially. Karen proposed that we could transform the space with a digital media installation. That really stuck with me as a goal. The immediate answer that came to my mind was, “I’ll paint a mural.” But that’s much too easy and obvious a choice for me as a painter. In terms of us collaborating, that would have been an easy out. I didn’t want to pursue a Basquiat / Warhol type of collaboration where I do my thing and he does his. We wanted to really come together and force each other to get uncomfortable. The black and white was uncomfortable for me in that way. But it was a relief because it was this clear-cut solution, this clear-cut goal.
Nicole Kaack: What brought you to that particular limitation? Were you defining the project by seeking to have some sort of constraint that you could respond to already? What made that your choice?
Natalie Westbrook: Johannes kept talking about how overwhelming it is to experience my work. I thought, “That’s great! That’s how we’re going to transform the space. We’ll do a lot of it.” But that was just too easy. Johannes kept talking about something more minimal and clean. That’s a very foreign concept to me. Black and white made sense to him, because he was really coming at it through the novel, Hunger by Knut Hamsun, and thinking allegorically and thematically about lack of color. I was a willing collaborator. I was happy to have you here, Ros, for many reasons, but in particular I was hoping you could talk a little bit about your limited palette? I’m exploring tactility with vibrant color, but you’re getting at a sense of tactility while also using a very minimal, neutral palette.
Rosalind Tallmadge: I think we are both trying to evoke the natural world. I have an interest in geology or a sense of time. The surface might function as an artifact of time or of natural forces, for example. I’ve become much more pared down to the point where I almost feel that the idea of color is not relevant in the work. It’s more about the material process. I don’t even really use paint anymore, just gel medium. I don't know what that’s about. Maybe it’s because I live in New York and everything’s gray. [laughter] People have said that before. I don’t really know. The idea of the painting being experiential, about light or perception, or even opticality versus the idea of image — that’s how I approach it.
Nicole Kaack: I think that’s what I had in mind when I framed your work in relation to animation or observation. Because they’re very metallic surfaces, right? I was thinking about how a viewer and the painting might respond to each other.
Rosalind Tallmadge: The light and the environment makes a huge difference. Everything has to be constrained to an image at some point, but it doesn’t really contain the painting in any way, you know? They’re really different depending on the time of day, the light, the space. To me, that’s successful. The idea of painting becomes more successful to me because you have to be with the object.
Nicole Kaack: That’s always the struggle — fore-fronting the physical presence.
Rosalind Tallmadge: I guess that is where animacy would enter into my practice. I’ve never thought about that before, though.
Nicole Kaack: [to Natalie] In your work, also, physical presence is so important. The immediacy of the light and the colors.
Natalie Westbrook: And scale is important for me. I think a lot about my experiences in nature. I used to work a lot out in the field. Now I work more from memory. But I’m thinking about that experience of going on a hike and having this startling encounter with this very teeny-tiny plant that’s a specific color and form, that feels like it’s identical to some vital organ deep inside the human body. Or walking along and discovering some leaf larger than a person. That sense of scale that can be so stunning and surprising in nature — I have yet to figure out how to evoke that in my own work. I’m very taken by colors and forms in nature, and I’ve worked for a long time with that, but scale I feel like I don’t quite have a grapple on. I know that it’s important. So the scale of the work, and then also the tactile quality of the work are key to the physical encounter and experience of the work.
Karen Hesse Flatow: It’s interesting that you speak of scale given how you are entertaining that entire space. That can explode from there, in terms of size of your project.
Natalie Westbrook: Having the opportunity to fill a space was very comfortable for me. I’ve always enjoyed working on a large scale because I have a background in scenic painting and theater work. That has always been an influence on what I do in my own studio, that sense of theatricality, of projecting to an audience from a stage. For years living in New York I collaborated with The Paper Bag Players, the oldest children’s theater company in the US. They have a studio down on the Lower East Side. There is this great sense of humor in their work. My work is not overtly humorous, but there’s a playfulness in theatricality that I’m engaging with, a subtle kind of absurdity.
Svetlana Rabey: How did you find that the black and white affected your painting? The experience of it?
Natalie Westbrook: It made me pay a lot more attention to form, in a drawing kind of way. I found myself drawing more in the last year. I have a drawing in the show, which I didn’t think was going to happen at the outset. I don’t make lots of drawings. I do work on paper, which I think of more as painting and collage, but the work in the show is a drawing. The linear contours of forms became a lot more significant for me.
Nicole Kaack: That’s another thing I wanted to ask you about; there’s such a diverse array of stroke types and representational styles in the video. I would like to hear your experience of that. Was it interesting to mine that diversity?
Natalie Westbrook: That was a very experimental aspect of our collaboration. Johannes refers to it as an exquisite cadaver-type process. In lieu of sitting down and putting our heads together for long blocks of time, one of us would do independent work and pass it on to the other, and then they would respond to it, and say, “Take a look at this.” We would respond back and forth in that way. And so we kind of threw it all into the pot. The black and white, we discovered, was a way to unify things. I think if all the different animation styles and techniques and approaches were in color, it would not have cohered.
Nicole Kaack: I love that about the show, that there are so many different types of things going on. There’s the transparency. There’s the cutout projection on the floor that moves up into that transparency. And the two opposing surfaces. Did these different forms come about by happenstance, working in that way in this collaboration?
Natalie Westbrook: It was a lot of trial and error, and because our studio is far from the gallery —we’re based up in Connecticut—we couldn’t just jet over to the gallery and experience the space whenever. We kept looking at the gallery map. Of course, we’d both been in here, we’d taken pictures, but we kept looking at the measurements and saying, “What if we projected on that wall? No, it needs to be on this wall.” It was a little challenging to imagine the physical experience of the space. The projection was a funny one with the transparency. We went through many different iterations of what that could be. We had colored light with a lot of motion to it, a strobe with blinking and changing colors. We tried different kind of movement with the transparency and mobiles. But ultimately, what we arrived at was very simple and almost crude.
Nicole Kaack: It’s lovely though because, by invoking shadows, it does speak to that history of what animation has been and what it is now. It compresses those two very different things into this one really interesting gesture.
Natalie Westbrook: Thank you. It was rewarding to come up with a solution that felt so super simple after all the struggle that led up to it, to have that sit in the same space as this dual animation video that was much more labor.
Hannah Schutzengel: To me, it has that same element of surprise that you were talking about of walking in the woods and finding something. As you first walk in, it seems like it’s a part of the same video. Then you realize what it is, just this little drawing on a transparency. It’s got that weird scale shift as you see how the light projects it.
Natalie Westbrook: Thank you.
Nicole Kaack: I’d like to talk a little bit about the novel that inspired it and also about your recent work surrounding this idea of desire. Interesting to use such a limited black and white color scheme for that theme, but it does fit the novel.
Natalie Westbrook: It’s really Johannes’ thing. He’s Dutch. He works from literature a lot in his work. He works with text and overtly with the figure. Those are concrete, existing parts of his practice and not mine. It’s really fun to come together because I bring this landscape and environment to the narrative that he has cooking.
Nicole Kaack: Pointing back to theatricality where you become the animator of this environment.
Natalie Westbrook: Exactly. Black and white was definitely a new way to think about desire. When I’m painting, I’m creating a very lush, vivid, fecund environment, that quenches your every desire and then some. Because I’m taking the physical object of a painting out of the show… I can’t tell you how much I wanted to hang a painting. It was very uncomfortable to say, “I’m going to have a show, but I’m not going to have paintings in it.” What made me start to calm down was to say, “What if I think about this black and white projection of painting as being kind of inside out? Being inside of one of my paintings, or viewing one of my paintings turned in on itself, or turned inside out.” That started to make a lot of sense to me. And also conceiving of desire as a darker theme — desire and hunger.
Nicole Kaack: Need as opposed to pleasure.
Natalie Westbrook: Exactly. It was a very different way of thinking. Very great to do, in order to expand my understanding of the concept. Do you think about desire in your work, Rosalind?
Rosalind Tallmadge: I think about seduction. Titillation or being seduced by a surface. There’s a glitzy element that I kind of like when something that shouldn’t be this high art material, like glitter, is used in a weirdly minimal way. The work is minimal and monochrome, but it’s maximal at the same time. I think about being seduced by a piece as an almost feminist act. But that’s more of a subtext, not really overt. I think about that idea of theatricality as well, which I think is conceptually interesting in the history of art. It’s a weirdly denigrated term in relationship to minimalism, for example. As being this consumed or voyeuristic act.
Nicole Kaack: Sensationalism.
Rosalind Tallmadge: Yeah. Knowing your work from a long time ago, it went from this very figural, art historical theatricality to this point where the plants have become the characters.
Nicole Kaack: [to Rosalind] Your work is very abstract, but I do feel like they are in some way representational of slow decays or processes.
Rosalind Tallmadge: Yeah! I started out as a figurative oil painter when I was in undergrad, and I kind of went through the normal grad school crisis, et cetera, et cetera. I think of them as almost like surfaces or like skins. The base is not canvas. It’s this flesh-colored silk material, a fabric that you would wear, like sequins — a feminized surface that relates to the body. If you see the work in person, it looks skin-like or scaly. There’s an attraction but also a little repulsion in some ways. I definitely think about that figural element.
Nicole Kaack: [to Svetlana] And you literally have the figure in your work quite often.
Svetlana Rabey: I do. In the soft sculptures, I do. They are really just like something I did as a child. And I came back to them much later. But they’re very similar, they have long legs, long arms. They’re more like saints, almost religious figures.
Nicole Kaack: That’s funny. I like that characterization. They feel very like the walking man, or some parallel experiment — the least that you can show of the human form while still making it recognizable.
Svetlana Rabey: Yeah, there are no faces. I’ve experimented with different ways of placing them; on the floor, or I have them on the wall right now, hanging. I was scared to hang them on the wall, because it seemed a little grim. Not hanging like this [by the neck], they’re hanging from the back. But they are sexless figures, mostly.
Nicole Kaack: What was that practice as a child?
Svetlana Rabey: I would make the dolls and I’d throw them around, just to see where they’d land. They were really soft. That was really the pleasure: to see how they land and what contortion they’d land in.
Nicole Kaack: Is that part of dance too?
Svetlana Rabey: Well, I was really little. I was like five or six.
Hannah Schutzengel: Like a much more fun game of dice or something.
Svetlana Rabey: Yeah. Just throw it behind me and see which way it was. It was a lot of fun. I taught myself how to sew.
Nicole Kaack: Another lovely thing about this gathering is that you all have known each other for such a long time. I’d be curious to hear about how you have seen each other’s works change and about your influences on each other. That’s a huge question, so feel free to answer as you will.
Natalie Westbrook: Well, Svetlana and I met…
Svetlana Rabey: Cooper Union residency, what year was that? 2003, 2004?
Natalie Westbrook: I don’t remember which.
Svetlana Rabey: We were both making sculpture, for the most part. We shared a studio together and were there for many hours daily.
Nicole Kaack: What kind of sculptures were you both making?
Svetlana Rabey: You were making a tree and you were making toilet paper rolls. That’s what I remember.
Natalie Westbrook: I was using simple craft materials —cardboard and fabric and glue— and working like a painter. I made a couple things in the round, but for the most part they were very much like stage sets where there’s a front and a back, and you’re meant to view from the front. I was thinking about theater and theatricality, even way back then.
Svetlana Rabey: Theater, definitely, for both of us. Been there for a long time. And I had figures, then, hanging, lying on the floor.
Natalie Westbrook: There was a period after that, quite a few years later, when you travelled. Where were you in Europe when you did the puppet workshop?
Svetlana Rabey: Oh, I went to Prague to do a puppet workshop. That was very technical. I never made a puppet again. [laughter]
Nicole Kaack: So you don’t think of the figures that you’re making now as puppet-like? Because I have seen them installed in more of a central, not on the wall.
Svetlana Rabey: Well, the puppets in Prague were wooden; they were real marionettes. It involved some engineering, not my cup of tea. But I have moved from that to painting, to abstract watercolors. When my son was born, I switched to the watercolors. Many different kinds of stages.
Natalie Westbrook: You’ve had that primary palette throughout, right?
Svetlana Rabey: Yeah, pretty much. Every time I try to change, it ends up being the same.
Natalie Westbrook: Does that relate to dance, for you?
Svetlana Rabey: Probably. It’s a repetitive thing.
Natalie Westbrook: I always think that way when I see it.
Nicole Kaack: In what way does it relate to dance?
Natalie Westbrook: That it’s been the foundation of a system. I think about Josef Albers and the way that he thinks about learning or teaching color as trial and error, anti-color wheel, anti-system. Then I think of classical ballet as being a system.
Svetlana Rabey: Yeah. I’m comfortable in that system. Although the color is very call and response. I don’t have a system for color. But they end up the same way every time. It’s unavoidable. There are those reds and yellows again. Again. And again. [to Natalie] Your residency in Hawaii really was a big shift.
Natalie Westbrook: That was a big shift. That was during graduate school, when I first went there. I travelled to visit the National Tropical Botanical Gardens. There are five in the U.S. One is in Florida, which I have yet to visit, and then there are four national gardens that I saw all at once in one trip to the Hawaiian Islands. That was a point where I wanted to go see the plants in person because I had started to work from photographs of tropical plants. I discovered that the colors and the forms of those particular types of plants were very vivid and related to forms within the human body. I wanted to go see them for myself, see certain ones that were rare, growing in the natural landscape. I wanted to have that experience of a pilgrimage to the place. I went there on a grant from Yale, and in doing so read and learned that the very first missionaries to Hawaii —that disrupted ancient Hawaiian culture— were from Yale. So there’s this cringe-worthy history. At any rate, in doing that, in going and making this trip to this place where I’d never been before to experience a different kind of natural landscape, I thought about the term “exotic” and what it means. Where do I fit in here? What made a lot of sense to me is that when I arrived and saw all these plants that I had thought were Hawaiian plants, I found out that they’re not at all. They’re exotic plants in Hawaii, and they’ve come from countries all over the world. They arrived there by boat, intentionally, or through the wind by the birds. All of that fascinated me, and helped me conceptualize my own project in reference to these plants. The biggest deal about my first experience of those plants in person was realizing that they were figures for me. I was always a representational figurative painter, as Svetlana was saying, and I never had an abstract painter as a mentor early on. I studied with mostly figurative painters at Cooper Union. I was very fortunate years later to study with Peter Halley at Yale, who was a major influence on my practice in many ways. Yet rather than my sense of abstraction developing through any part of my formal education, it evolved specifically out of experiencing the plants in person.
Nicole Kaack: You had already been moving in that direction when you went to Hawaii?
Natalie Westbrook: I was making dolls, which kind of connects to Svetlana. I think I had made my dolls before we met, or right around the time that we met. Maybe I started making them soon after. The dolls were happening when I was making sculpture, which was a very short-lived period. I made these little cardboard dolls during a period when I didn’t have access to a real studio space and I was scrambling day jobs to make ends meet. When I landed a few great scenic painting jobs and jobs making props & costumes for theater, I found a studio space. I had energy and inspiration from the collaborative and creative theater work that I was doing during the day to take to my own studio and to this new space. So I had a wealth of little crude sculptures that had built up in my apartment. I had been making them just to feel like I was making something. That’s around the time when I started to really look at Rubens, visiting the Met to experience the larger than life scale of the history painting genre. Theatricality was my connection. I started to imagine in this humorous way with my little, animal-like doll creatures, “What if they lived in a history painting?” Because I loved the artifice of history painting, the kind of oxymoron of that genre. There’s nothing factual in the moment that is supposedly captured. So I started to literally copy Rubens’ compositions and insert my characters. That was just before I went to graduate school. During graduate school, the more I made those paintings, the more invested I became in rendering textures of the fur on the animals.
Svetlana Rabey: I remember those paintings.
Natalie Westbrook: I became really invested in tactility. Not just depicted tactility, like a depiction of fur, but the actual physicality of the paint. I was using a lot of different tools to apply the paint in a very tactile manner. Then it became about the environment where the characters were living. “What is this landscape?” I started to play with that, toy with that, inventing from photographs. I quickly found that working from photographs or from my imagination was not satisfying whatsoever, though, and that’s when I felt like I really needed to go see some environments. I needed to experience something otherworldly, some environments that are exotic to me. That was the sequence of events that changed the work in that way.
Nicole Kaack: Do you [Rosalind] want to respond to the idea of tactility?
Rosalind Tallmadge: [to Natalie] Just hearing you talk, I feel like we had a parallel trajectory. I don’t think we had met at that point, but when I was at Norfolk, I knew about the work that you were doing right when you were going into grad school. It was influential to me at a time when I was doing these multi-figural oil paintings in imagined landscapes. This was in 2009. Then, something about the figure or the representation just wasn’t working for me. I wasn’t happy with it. I felt like the painting was constrained to the image and that was why it was problematic. I went through this mid-20s crisis before grad school, where I was also making sculpture, trying to be an installation artist. I actually have a history degree, and that had been my focus; I wrote my paper on Judy Pfaff. The natural world was always an important part of my life, even just growing up. My dad’s an environmentalist, super outdoorsy, always going on these trips. And my family lives in a very rural, rustic part of Connecticut. I’ve always had a studio there in the summer. So when I went into grad school, I was trying to do these horribly constructed sculptural installations. It was a radical shift that I needed to have, just trying a bunch of different materials and basically failing with every single thing that I made for a year and a half.
Then I came back to painting with this new understanding of it and I made work that was completely abstract, basically non-compositional, with the idea of focusing on a specific materiality or a specific material language. It’s a reactionary, organic process of making, where I don’t impose anything external on it. But definitely my environment impacts it. Like when I first moved to New York, I was a night owl, working at 2:30 in the morning. The light quality and the garish, grungy industrial surfaces really impacted the work. Now it’s pulled back a little bit more. I find it a more satisfying process. It can be constantly iterated in different ways. So I haven’t exhausted that yet, but it’s only been three or four years that I’ve been working this way.
Natalie Westbrook: That’s so interesting. I didn’t know that you worked in sculpture while you were in school.
Rosalind Tallmadge: Yeah, at Cranbrook.
Natalie Westbrook: Johannes went to Cranbrook, but did not overlap with Ros. I was with him and we lived in Michigan together during those two years. That is when I started making sculpture. I was very influenced by Cranbrook as this Midwest school that is very heavily entrenched in craft and design.
Rosalind Tallmadge: Just the campus, too, with all of the sculptures and the nature. It’s a total environment, like a utopian idea, a 20th century idea.
Natalie Westbrook: But dabbling in sculpture to have that complete handle on tactility and then the shift from that to painting, trying to get that tactility through the language of paint — I can completely relate to that.
Rosalind Tallmadge: I had such a traditional education at Indiana University for my undergrad. Being able to ask, “Why does painting have to be this way? Why do you have to use materials in that way?” You don’t need to. I don’t paint on canvas. It seems like a silly thing to say out loud, but it was a big shift for me.
Nicole Kaack: There are still many schools that seem to follow that. Sometimes I’m even surprised about maintaining such strict divisions between disciplines or not having more programs that are new media.
Rosalind Tallmadge: Cranbrook was interesting. It was a studio-based program, so there were no real classes. But even though there was a division in departments, you could do any type of work you wanted. It was very interdisciplinary and I really needed that. I was in the architecture department one semester for an elective. Just knowing that I could do anything was really important to me.
Natalie Westbrook: It’s so small there, too. It’s just one community.
Nicole Kaack: It’s nice that you also brought up how your biography has shaped the work that you’re doing now. To wrap up, future steps? If you have any thoughts about what’s coming or how you’d like to move?
Natalie Westbrook: Johannes and I are continuing to collaborate. I have to thank Karen, because she and I had met, but she did not know Johannes. [to Karen] You expressed that you were interested in bringing something projection-based to the gallery, and I said, “Oh, well, you know, my partner does that.” You gave us that opportunity and I don’t know that we would have collaborated right now if it weren’t for that. It was really fruitful for us in many, many ways, and we’re already on to the next collaborative project.
Karen Hesse Flatow: I like to hear that.
Natalie Westbrook: There will be some color. I have to thank you so much for the opportunity.
Karen Hesse Flatow: It’s my pleasure. I was remembering when you came here, we had started to communicate, and then Natalie said she would come into the space. It was all very sudden. You took the train in, or maybe you drove, with your portfolio. You brought all of these drawings. It was so wonderful. You brought your studio here.
Nicole Kaack: Thank you so very much for making this happen and for bringing these two wonderful artists.
Natalie Westbrook: Thank you! [to Rosalind and Svetlana] It’s really special that you both came. Thank you. And thank you so much for your thoughtful questions.