Masking tape and spray paint figure prominently in Elizabeth Neel’s new abstract paintings, on view at Sikkema Jenkins through May 22. Formerly represented by Deitch where she had a solo in 2008, Neel discusses abstraction, subject matter, and learning to paint with her grandmother in a recent conversation with filmmaker and family friend Michael Auder at Interview.
NEEL: Well, I started fooling around with it when I was little, with Alice. That was the beginning, when she gave me that Winsor & Newton paint box. That was the “big, fancy gift.” Then I stopped for all of high school and college.
AUDER: How old were you when she gave you that gift?
NEEL: She died when I was 9, so I must have been 7 or 8 . . . something like that. It’s really hard to use oil paints, actually. I would sit next to her when she would set up her things, and I’d set up mine, too.
AUDER: Do you still have some of those early paintings?
NEEL: Yes. I’m sure Mom and Dad do. Everything’s always piled up under something.
NEEL: But I didn’t think of being an artist until after I went away to boarding school. There were other things to be interested in. And it seemed like a nightmare. I mean, look at Alice’s life. From the outside, from a child’s perspective . . . Dad used to joke about artists eating dog food for dinner and stuff.
AUDER: So the information you collected as a child about your dad’s mother, it was a certain hard kind of life?
NEEL: Yeah, a meaningful life, but one full of suffering, basically. Not that I didn’t try dog food. I was eating Milk-Bones, but I did that just because I was weird, you know? [laughs]
AUDER: Dog food by choice. [laughs] Weren’t you going to be a lawyer?
NEEL: That came as the moment of truth. I had studied history at Brown and didn’t feel like doing anything with it. What does one do with a history degree besides become a historian? And the professors in school, it seemed like they were just writing books for other professors to comment on, and vice versa—it was the most self-referential, boring world you could ever imagine. Out of concern, my parents thought I should go to law school. “You’re analytical. You’re articulate.” I thought, Why not? I studied for my LSATs and got into the room to take the test. I looked around and was like, “Fuck this. There’s just no way.” Instead I told my parents about this little school in Boston known as The Museum School that basically had no requirements. I said I was going to go there for a summer program. Of course, my parents were very generous to even consider the idea, but Dad really couldn’t say no because his entire cultural existence had been about the art world….
There is always some kind of image that is realistic somewhere in the
work. You recognize something in time: flowers or a banana or a building
or a vase. Would you call your paintings more realism or abstract?
Well, there seems to be this constant discussion in the art world about
things being abstract or not abstract or somewhere in between. But for
me, it’s not really abstract. Some of the marks have a strong
relationship to the history of abstraction. But I see my work as having a
relationship to the visual world, not just some emotive residue of my
feelings. It relates to something that exists, or might exist, rather
than a transcendent mental state or something like that…. It’s weird, I
think so much of that goes back to living in the city. It’s such a
violent place, right? But the violence in New York feels really mundane
and banal to me. Whereas in the privacy of one’s own home, say, like the
farm I grew up on in Vermont, the kinds of things that can happen seem
much more extreme. Maybe because it’s more personal. Or maybe because
you block out the things that happen in the city. But it’s like seeing
things born, live, die, fall apart, and start over again, without any
intermediary clean-up steps from some corporate organization. Even
though I don’t have any larger spiritual or ideological system, there is
some logic in concert with a huge number of beautiful, disconcerting,
screwed-up variables that results in a certain visual pleasure in
violent things. Like a broken egg yolk can be the most violent thing
I’ve seen all day, if I’m in the right mood. But also tons of trash in
the woods or a burned-up trailer park can also come across as especially
Actually I stopped and made videos and digital photographs for a while.
I was getting frustrated with painting because everyone was making
paintings from opaque projections, like Luc Tuymans and Gerhard Richter.
When those guys do it, it’s great. When art students do it, it isn’t
so. It was a real fad. I figured I’d make work related to source
material that I was interested in—images I found on the Internet. But
then I realized that the transcription from photograph to wall had to be
filled in by me. Otherwise, the piece becomes a second-rate version of
the original source. Like, you love a thing and take a picture of it,
but it may not hold any of the qualities of that original thing you
loved. It’s like when you see a sunset outside, you say, “Holy shit,”
and take a picture of it with your camera. There’s none of the feeling
left….That’s where the painting comes into play. Painting was the way I
could resist turning something into a second-rate version….
When I look around your studio and see all of the tools and jars, it’s a
very classical painting studio. But you get a real kick out of
painting, don’t you?
just with the weight of art history and contemporary discourse. But it’s
actually technically very difficult to achieve. I guess growing up
around my grandmother—Alice’s way of applying paint in this fresh
manner, but having these oscillating moments of incredible virtuosic
realism—was totally inspiring. Because it was free and easy, but
incredibly complex all at the same time. To me, the way she painted
always seemed connected to living, more than just an exercise…. READ more.
“Elizabeth Neel: 3 and 4 before 2 and 5,” a solo show of painting and sculpture, Sikkima Jenkins, Chelsea, New York, NY. Through May 22, 2013.
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