Amherst, MA – For Amherst, Massachusetts-based painter Ellen Grobman, painting sounds like an exhausting and exhilarating process in which she starts with an idea, aims to pull it in a new direction and then sees what’s left when she tries to leave as little of the original thought as possible by the time she’s finish. Her website describes her work as being powered by, “This drive to bring something into being, disrupt it, and then flirt with its destruction — the boundary of something existing and then not.”
Depending on the piece, there are touches of 19th century furniture wallpaper patterns, abstract expressionism, fauvism, symbolism and whatever connections each swash of paint ignites in her mind. These explorations continue in her current exhibition, “There, Not There,” on view through March 31 at Hampden Gallery in the Southwest Residential Area at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Artscope Magazine managing editor Brian Goslow “Cornered” Grobman to discuss the exhibition, her painting style and influences, how she gets herself into work mode, naming her paintings and why she’s taking a short vacation from painting.
TELL ME A BIT ABOUT THE PAINTINGS THAT’LL BE ON DISPLAY IN YOUR “THERE, NOT THERE” EXHIBITION …
The paintings in the UMass show all start with patterns that come from a variety of sources: textiles, design, really anything that interests me. I’ll draw them out, and as I start painting and establish order, I then work to destroy it. I think it’s through this uncomfortable process that I eventually find the meaning in the piece.
DO YOU PAINT FOR AN INDIVIDUAL EXHIBITION OR CURATE FROM ALL OF YOUR WORKS?
I paint almost every day, but I’m very, very slow, which sometimes drives me crazy, but it seems that’s just the way it is. Every painting I do is like an archeological dig — there are about three or four paintings or “almost” paintings buried underneath. So, I choose from what I have for a show, but it’s good to have a deadline.
WHAT IS YOUR WORKSPACE LIKE, HOW DO YOU SET THE MOOD FOR A WORKDAY/NIGHT AND WHAT ARE YOUR MAIN MATERIALS?
My studio is a messy environment that periodically cries out for a deep cleanse, especially after a show. But I seem to need a lot of material to look at lying around, that feeds and inspires me: art books opened on the floor, Xeroxed images of patterns and design and random things that caught my eye. I borrow and steal from many sources. I always light incense before I start working, maybe it lets my brain know it’s painting time. Then I turn on NPR or a good political podcast and half listen until I need to turn it off, usually in the evening, and put on music. But music never comes first.
WHICH ARTISTS ORIGINALLY SHOWED YOU THE POSSIBILITIES FOR THE ARTWORK YOU WANTED TO MAKE AND HOW HAS YOUR ARTWORK CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?
I always find it hard to narrow down which artists influenced me, or showed me the possibilities of being an artist. Since I’ve gone back and forth over the years from representation to abstraction, it’s interesting to me the artists I’ve loved that might not interest me as much now — though my great loves I still really appreciate.
I loved Balthus for a very long time, and I worked at the Met when they had a large retrospective of his work, which was a fabulous treat for me. Of course, it’s difficult to look at his paintings now and not think of the transgressive aspects of some of them, but I still love him as a fabulous, mysterious artist.
Pattern and Decoration was very important to me, as a feminist, and trying to figure out all the messaging coming out of my training in college where decoration and intentional beauty was considered “unserious.” Lately, I’ve been really interested in looking at artists like Amy Sillman, more recent John Walker and Rebecca Morris.
HOW DO YOU DECIDE ON WHAT TO NAME EACH OF YOUR PAINTINGS AND WHAT ROLE DO YOU THINK/KNOW TITLES HAVE IN HELPING TO SELL YOUR WORK?
I name my paintings as if they were poems. I don’t think about a name when I’m working on them, but when I’m done and I need to name them, I might open a book that I love or an article that’s meaningful and pick out a phrase that seems right. Occasionally, it will be clear that a painting will remind me of something from my family — “Ducka Bumpa” was named after one of my children’s stuffed Donald Ducks.
YOU’RE A “SELF-DESCRIBED POLITICAL JUNKIE.” DO ANY OF YOUR EMOTIONS ON EVENTS WORK THEIR WAY INTO YOUR ARTWORK?
I am a political junkie, but I really separate the painting from the politics. However, the emotion is me, both paintings and politics are integral to who I am, so I can’t keep my strong feelings out. I would not want my work to be viewed through a specific political narrative, though, and that wouldn’t be accurate.
However, in the UMass show, a dear friend is sure he saw Donald Trump in a painting, orange face and all, and I couldn’t dissuade him. I might turn that painting upside down if I hear it again! Or I just won’t use orange as long — or short — as Trump is president.
BEYOND YOUR UMASS AMHERST EXHIBITION; WHAT ARE YOU NOW WORKING ON AND WHERE WILL YOUR WORK BE EXHIBITED LATER THIS YEAR?
I’ll be taking a couple of months off now. I have some large pieces that I couldn’t resolve that I look forward to facing again, and I might work small for a bit, too. I want to miss my daily practice, which by May should happen, and it will be exciting to start working again.
(“Ellen Grobman: There, Not There” continues through March 31 at Hampden Gallery in the Southwest Residential Area at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, 131 Southwest Circle, Amherst, Massachusetts; gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday from 1-6 p.m. and on Sunday from 2-5 p.m. For more information, call (413) 545-0680. Learn more about Grobman on her website at ellengrobman.com.)