April 27, 2013

Alice Neel's granddaughter Elizabeth Neel talks about painting

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.


MICHEL AUDER: You’ve been painting since ’95 or something like that, right?

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.

AUDER: Right.

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?

Elizabeth Neel,  Metabolism, 2012, oil and spray paint on canvas, 75 x 86 inches.

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....

Elizabeth Neel, U, 2013, oil and spray paint on canvas, 76 x 96 inches

AUDER: We can still find the figurative in your paintings today. 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?

NEEL: 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 violent....
Elizabeth Neel, new green, 2013, oil and spray paint on canvas, 76 x 96 inches.


AUDER: Did you always do painting, or did you ever try another medium?

NEEL: 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....

Elizabeth Neel, installation view of paintings and sculpture.

AUDER: 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?

NEEL: Well, it’s hard to do. Not 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.

------

Image at top:  Elizabeth Neel, two mules, 2012, oil and spray paint on canvas, 2 parts, 76 x 96 inches each

------- 

Related posts:   


------

Stay in touch: Receive Two Coats of Paint's DAILY POSTS via email and subscribe to the new WEEKLY UPDATE.

4 comments:

I saw this show the other day and thought the paintings were awful. A stylish pastiche of Wendy White, Joe Bradley and other big abstract painters. No substance.

What do you mean by substance?

It looked like the paintings are about a lack of. Seems like you got it then, 'lack of substance.'

To advertise on TWO COATS OF PAINT via Nectar Ads, click HERE.