In the Studio: Life inside a Vuillard
I have been a huge fan of Édouard Vuillard from the moment I became aware of his existence. (He rivals my other Édouard for my affections.) I spent the last 30 years painting figures who, like Vuillard’s, nearly disappeared into their patterned environments. Until finally one day they did.
A few years ago I was starting to feel that the printed fabrics I had been painting on, while I still loved them, were increasingly getting in the way of actually painting. The process necessitated meticulously planning each piece in advance, deciding ahead of time where to leave the fabric exposed and then carefully working around it. I glazed shadows and wrinkles on objects to give them dimension and solidity, and realistically grayed-out the colors in the shadows. I was gravitating toward painting on bold, geometric prints, and I wanted to paint equally boldly on them. But I had created this world which I had to employ a certain set of tricks to maintain, and I didn’t know how to leave. I had trapped myself, like my characters, into the world of the fabric.
For the last twenty years I have drawn from a live model at least twice a month. The figures in my paintings may come from old magazine photographs, but drawing real live people injected the life into my figures. Life drawing sessions also provided a vital space for experiments with color, materials, and the simplification that I was trying to get to in my painting. In March of last year, I hired my long-time model and friend Amanda and painted her on a yellow floral fabric, using the fabric as her dress, but working directly and loosely. The experiment was promising, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted the finished painting to look like, so I planned more model sessions, excited about this new direction . . . and then the world fell apart. Being in the same room with a model was no longer an option.
The weird upside to one’s world turning upside down is that it removes any pressure that one might be feel to live up to perceived and largely self-imposed expectations and limitations. In recent years, there had been a LOT of “detours” that I had wanted to make, but which I had stopped myself from doing in order to focus exclusively on my “real” work, i.e., the work I had built a career on and which supported me. Not that I have any regrets about digging deeply into one project for a long time—that has value independent of worldly success. But there were experiments I wanted to do, and paths that I only let myself walk down a few steps before turning back. I sometimes used teaching as an excuse to explore some of these detours (I get paid for that after all), including a pattern class that never happened, but didn’t take my own time for it.
Back to my boyfriend, Vuillard. One way I look at my current work is that I’m taking his disappearing figures to their logical conclusion. I sometimes used to think of myself as liberating my characters from the fabrics, unearthing the stories buried in the tablecloths and curtains I’d scavenged from thrift stores. Now I’m letting the patterns pick up the narrative, but first I have to figure out how they operate.
Technically, what I’m doing now is very simple, but it has infinite variations and lots of potential detours of its own. I cut re-usable stencils out of tyvek for the various geometric patterns I’ve created, and screenprint them in translucent inks. The patterns are all based on a two-inch grid, which allows me to combine and layer them.
I’m using cheap paper, and the backs of things, so as not to be precious, to allow myself the freedom to screw up and to make as many experiments as possible. There’s a special pile for attempts which I don’t particularly like; I print other patterns on top of them, almost randomly, while I’m waiting for other prints to dry. Those throwaways lead to the most promising new directions: more layering, more translucency, and attempts at optical moiré effects.