Folds and Fields: An Interview with Angelina Gualdoni
Painter Angelina Gualdoni manages to be a mega-multi-tasker who meets the demands of having a recent solo exhibition, running the collaborative gallery Regina Rex on the Lower East Side, working as an educator at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and having a family in Brooklyn – not to mention hunting for morel mushrooms. Her method: DIY.
Gualdoni’s fluid, abstract paintings reference the still life in domestic space but are conceptually grounded in issues of labor and feminism. Her recent exhibitions include Asya Geisberg Gallery, NYC; Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago; Galerie Jochen Hempel, Leipzig; Queens Museum, NY; Orlando Museum of Art, Florida; Galleria dell’Arco, Palermo, Italy and Shanghai, China; and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, among many others. She has received grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts and Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and has been an artist-in-residence at MacDowell Colony and Chateau La Napoule in France.
After viewing her most recent exhibit, Folds and Fields, this past March at Asya Geisberg Gallery in Chelsea, I talked with Angelina about the changes and challenges of labor for artists today.
Margaret Keller: What are your thoughts about being an artist (and specifically a painter) in 2016? The challenges? The point? Could you address the DIY ethos–where all risk goes onto the participants–as you have mentioned in relationship to Lane Relyea‘s book Your Everyday Art World?
Angelina Gualdoni: DIY ethos is a pretty familiar framework for any artist who grew up around a punk scene, or as a millennial–it’s about trying to build a platform through community, not relying on the power structures that be as much as your immediate community for conversation, influence, support and audience. Sustaining a life in the arts is challenging in any circumstances, and in a lot of ways DIY presents an empowering framework. However, the flip side, as Relyea points out in Your Everyday Art World, is the dismantling of institutional support that’s grown out of the co-option of DIY strategies by labor management gurus, as exemplified by the proliferation of perma-lance and adjunct positions. Relyea claims the DIY model was initiated by conceptual artists in the ’60’s seeking to de-emphasize the object of art and the studio as a traditional locus. Instead workers (artist and otherwise) transitioned to flexible, project-based, itinerant and temporary work situations (as opposed to a more Fordist model, where one goes in and does one’s thing over and over). In that equation, we supposedly gain agency over our time and labor, but we are also in a much more economically precarious position, having accepted all of the uncertainties, risks and demands of irregular and far-flung opportunities. This results, at least in my experience, as the well-known feelings of being constantly on-call, in transit, constantly not focused on the ‘right’ thing, because there are so many right things to be focusing on, how can one know where to direct one’s efforts and attention? It very much is the condition I’ve been experiencing as an artist, a member of Regina Rex, a parent and as a teacher.
For myself and a lot of my peers, the studio is still the locus of a very materially-based practice, perhaps in reaction to the coolness, distance, and ubiquity of screens. I have always felt like I am having as much of a conversation with object/image/spaces as much as with friends and mentors, but the challenge of supporting that daily practice, both financially and socially, is incredibly demanding. DIY is still appealing in the sense that you want to believe that you can build or contribute to a better world for your community, despite the daily insults and slights of the city. The difficulty of sustaining an artist’s life in a dense and expensive city like New York makes clear how reliant we are on each other – on our social infrastructures. These require tending, and can be thought of as agency. It can also be an obligation that takes you out of the studio, for better or for worse.
MK: Tell me about your subject matter. Do you recompose reality–or maybe think in terms of visual events? Could you say more about your interest in still life painting as “a locus of economic and social issues concerning labor, as well as a site where mimesis comes into conflict with the abstract”? (from your artist’s statement)
AG: Still life painting has historically been a locus for formal innovation, particularly some of my favorite artists like Matisse, Vuillard and Braque, as well as more contemporary descendants of their lineage such as Betty Woodman, Mickalene Thomas and Marc Camille Chaimowicz. But when thinking about what distinguished visual tropes like the table tops, bowls of food, ceramic vases or views out a window, I couldn’t help but relate it to my own experience of the domestic space, which functions as a locus of several kinds of labor, several communities, and occasionally even a place of respite. Working from home, as Michelle Grabner is fond of saying–through cooking and cleaning, child care, email and administrating, researching and reading, hosting Regina Rex meetings, it’s all a flow, one that I’ve chosen and celebrate, as it’s a rich life, but it’s a complicated one as well that is very demanding. In this way, I feel like though the subject looks like still life, the subject is actually time as it flows up against one boundary or other–the edges of the work can be feasibly held or contained within a day, of how many spaces my body and mind might move through in that period. The mimesis and the abstract–the concrete qualities of what needs to be done this moment, and what kind of space I might be able to create in between these demands–that is the space of flow, the abstract.
The location of multiple forms of labor within the domestic space is somewhat new, but the fact that women in particular are familiar with this condition is not. For the last century, women, and particularly women artists, often wear a lot of hats. I’m very interested in models of women artists who may operate as painters, but also as designers, organizers, parents, etc., and the discussions around their work as art and/or craft or design. So many times artists have worked to break down the boundaries between art and life, seeing this as utopian and bohemian, but contemporary conditions reframe this condition as the demand to be working (even creatively) all the time. Whatever role leisure might have played has kind of disappeared.
MK: What can you say about your process and changes/expansions in that process? How does diligence enter into your work?
AG: Process always plays an important part in my work, perhaps more so even now given the ways in which I’m building images by staining the backsides of canvases with patterns copped from other women artists (Stepanova Varvara, Sonia Delaunay, Vanessa Bell). It’s been illuminating to think of these women as allies–artists who sustained multiple roles but found creative outlets for their painting concerns whether it was on the canvas, in textile design, fashion design, or set design. I want their patterns to be the architecture upon which I hang my images of days. Their choices to work within these fields were determined by politics, as well as financial necessity, but their diligence in pursuing their creative concerns is inspiring.
Having said that, I feel my work is often addressed primarily as process, and that is at the loss of other important factors. Yes, staining is somewhat unpredictable, and that dialog between control and chance was where much of my vocabulary started, but I feel I’ve always been as invested in the image and politics of representational space, with pattern and decoration and with color field painting, as in the physical process of making the painting.
MK: Would you like to add any insights about your work in Folds and Fields, your recent solo exhibition at Asya Geisberg in Chelsea?
AG: Folds and Fields was a synthesis of previous bodies of work, navigating interiors and still life, as well as color field abstraction. I was very interested in tying together the history of pattern, fabric dyeing and textile design, to color field painting–linking the applied and fine arts within a feminized space that included labor and the domestic. This body of work was much more materially dense. I’ve been taking ceramics and the texture of the grog in clay inspired me to put some additives into the paint, resulting in juxtapositions between luminous and open space (the flow, as represented by pattern and by field) and objects that become boundaries, concrete realities, or constraints (arrêt). The paintings usually begin by drawing from a photograph or collage, and with an overall idea about color and light, or emotion, and I develop them from there. Previously, I relied more on improvisation, but ultimately found that having some kind of an image to start with was far more productive and stimulating.
I want these paintings to reflect my experience, but knowing that it is the experience of so many others, as we’re all laboring under similar conditions. The chance for escape, whether it’s visual, metaphorical, physical, into these color fields, and the sensation of being brought back to the surface–to the physical reality of the days, to the table, people around us, to what’s at hand–this is what I hope comes through.
MK: Why did you become an artist? Give us a little information about yourself.
AG: I love that the phrasing of your question supports my answer. I chose to become an artist somewhere along the line in college. I think some people still labor under the assumption that all artists are ‘born that way’ (and some are!), but I’ve always felt that I could have been a couple of different things. I chose to pursue art both because I saw from my father (also an artist), an interesting life full of amazing, strange and compelling people, and I also saw that making work could be a lot of fun. At some point it has shifted from being a choice to just being who I am and how I understand the world, but I think it shocked him a bit when I declared that I wanted to do this, because I wasn’t necessarily one of those kids who was always in their sketchbook in high school.
MK: Could you talk about the difficulties and strategies of balancing of painting, teaching and family? You have said that the “experience of domestic space is one that hosts multiple forms of labor, especially as the roles of the artists expand…..the job of the artist is no longer just to make art/paintings, but also to curate, maintain an online presence, while fulfilling familial/caretaking obligations and whatever else one does for employment. The home becomes the studio, the office, the gallery, salon, and the residence….” You have commented that this “ultimately shifts all risk onto participants…all forms of labor simultaneously impede upon each other and compete for attention.” How does your life unfold on a daily basis in these areas and how do you handle the competition between these demands?
AG: This is a question that I am utterly obsessed with. I’m a devout scheduler and planner, which helps, and I’m also a devotee of routine. My husband has been down with child-care from the get-go, and we have schedules that allow us to share those responsibilities pretty evenly. We’re both creative individuals, and the intention to support each other’s endeavors has been foundational, but it is hard to balance our needs and our daughter’s needs–it’s always a trade off. I definitely miss the unstructured time of life before having a kid, but I also think that the constraints have been helpful at certain junctures. There’s just no room to ponder decisions for a long time, one has to plan and execute. There’s an energy and intention that comes from working under this pressure.
Now that my child is in pre-pre-K, it’s much easier than it was the previous three years, but I still always feel like I have a triple or quadruple time consciousness–an awareness of her schedule, my husband’s schedule, my school’s schedule, and whatever time I can carve out to space out and create in between these constraints. More often now I’m trying to block out similar activities next to each other, instead of doing multiple ones each day–transitioning can be hard. When I can keep weekends open for family and friends I feel like I’m doing a good job of balancing, but it’s not always possible.
MK: What led to starting the gallery Regina Rex?
AG: Regina Rex is an artist-run exhibition space currently located on the Lower East Side, though we spent our formative years on the Bushwick/Ridgewood border of Brooklyn and Queens (and thus our namesake – Queens County, Kings County). Through an inclusive collaborative structure, we aim to build an exhibition context that is rigorous, cogent and driven by our engagement and dialogue with other artists. There are currently ten participating organizers at Regina Rex: Katherine Aungier, Yevgeniya Baras, Alta Buden, Jeff DeGolier, Theresa Ganz, Alyssa Gorelick, Angelina Gualdoni, Lauren Portada, Siebren Versteeg, and Max Warsh. Gabe Farrar, Elizabeth Ferry, Stacie Johnson, Eli Ping, Craig Poor Monteith and Anna Schachte are all members emeriti.
The space was founded in 2010, when two of our members moved their studios into the same building. Rather than divide the space into three studios, they solicited friends about interest in starting an exhibition space. The impetus came out of a general dissatisfaction with the level of discourse that we were able to achieve by going to openings, bars, etc. Many of us attended graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago, but we also came out of fine arts programs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louis and Brooklyn. There are probably thirteen different answers to why we all arrived in Brooklyn, but most of our reasons are probably along the same lines that any other artist moves to New York—there’s a community of people that you know that has moved here before you and maybe they’ve told you about an apartment for rent, studio space or job that made it seem manageable.
Some of us also lived here prior to grad school or grew up here, so returning to New York was a natural next step after school. While the high-density of artists working in Brooklyn can feel overwhelming at times, it’s also what makes a project like Regina Rex possible and so exciting. It’s an opportunity to take this huge mass and carve out a context that is not beholden to the social and commercial pressures of the greater art world.
MK: Regina Rex is described as an artist-centric space, with an inclusive, collaborative structure. How do you work together, decide together?
AG: Sometimes one person will present an idea for a show and others will help in developing the premise or organizing the exhibition. Other times we start with one artist we’re all interested in and work with the group to find good pairings. While one or two people may take the lead on organizing a particular show, everyone tends to pitch in however they can—from attending studio visits and hanging the show to seeking out writing/poetry to accompany themes in the exhibition. We meet once a week and discuss all matters relating to Regina Rex, including ideas for future shows, but the conversations are ongoing and often extend outside of the meetings as well. Primarily, we’re all dedicated to presenting work that we believe in, but also in creating a supportive space for each other to explore ideas through discussions and exhibitions. We do not accept portfolio submissions.
MK: Could you discuss the aesthetic criteria driving Regina Rex?
AG: We didn’t start out with an aesthetic criteria, but I think over time we’ve developed a certain attitude, so now there’s a Regina Rex look or feeling. Which is funny, because we are so many people, and if you look over our history what we’ve shown is quite broad. We are probably most well known for showing work that privileges craft, touch, humor and concept, but also for making unconventional choices in groupings–for showing artist’s artists. Some of my favorite strategies have been shows that make intergenerational pairings like Mernet Larsen with Jonathan Butt, or John Dilg with Karsten Krejcarek. These pairings come more from places of affinity, as much with subject matter and attitude–often over aesthetic, and give us the opportunity to re-contextualize both emerging and established artists in rich ways.
MK: What has been the trajectory of the development of community for you? Could you share some of your experiences–the biggest challenges of working with the artists? Managing the gallery? How has moving from Brooklyn to the Lower East Side impacted Regina Rex? The gallery, artists and curators have received a lot of positive press locally and nationally (from Two Coats of Paint, Hyperallergic, The Brooklyn Rail, New York Magazine, The New York Times, W Magazine and Frieze, among others). Could you talk a bit about connecting, networking, curating, expanding the possibilities of what can happen…….?
AG: One of our emeriti members, Anna Schacte, put it like this: your job as an artist is not just to make the best work that you can, but to make the art world a better place. While we started out kind of as a lark, we were surprised to see how quickly people paid attention to the shows we were organizing, and realized that we had made a solid platform for promoting work and ideas that we were interested in. I think the fact that we didn’t exhibit our own work, and that we were reliable (in terms of being open, regular programming, simple things), and we came up with unusual, professional shows all contributed to our early success, and drew a lot of people to us. The possibilities of what could happen are fun to contemplate, but the reality is that we are limited by the time that we can all afford to contribute. RR is not yet an enterprise that fully funds itself, we’re still mostly a volunteer operation, and all of our members have their own studio practices, families, and jobs, so whatever happens at or with RR is always balanced against those limitations.