NATALIE WESTBROOK / SVETLANA RABEY / ROSALIND TALLMADGE
Moderated and Text by Nicole Kaack
January 27, 2018
Following is an excerpt of a conversation between Westbrook, Rabey, Tallmadge, and Kaack. For the full transcript, please follow this link.
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, nuetral 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.