Interview: Magalie Guérin’s multiple endings

Magalie Guérin, Installation view at Chapter NY

Contributed by Sangram Majumdar / Last weekend Magalie Guérin and I met up at her current exhibition, SOLUTE at Chapter NY, to talk shop. We discussed the choices painters make, how paintings are sometimes like people, how colors from the past return unexpectedly, whether marks can be categorized as nouns or verbs, and the importance of looking deeply. Her exhibition runs until March 24, 2019.

Magalie Guérin, Untitled (res 2.2), 2019, oil on canvas on panel, 24 × 30 inches

Sangram Majumdar: In your paintings it appears as if events are being enacted, parts are being reshuffled. Certain characters repeat in different configurations. There’s an echo of a set up.
Magalie Guérin: The system I’ve created for this body of work is a new one for me. I built multiple paintings simultaneously, until I reached an image resolution I was happy with. Meaning, I had four of this exact painting at some point. Then I put one of them aside and continue working on the other three, breaking that resolution and looking for a new one. Simultaneously again, until another resolution was found, then one painting out, etc. There are three of these series in the show.

SM: So, this mark here happened twice.
MG: This happened three times. What I’ve been trying to see is what kind of painting move or decision I would make if I painted on top of a painting I already like, a finished painting. And since I could protect one of the ‘copies’, then I could try anything to its twin.

SM: Did they feel different?
MG: Well, it’s been really interesting as a project for me, to see what kind of painter I am through that. But it’s also surprising because they did not end up as different from one another as I had thought.

SM: More like cousins?
MG: Very much so. They started as twins but ended as distant cousins. Still, same family.

SM: Right.
MG: Frequency is a term that I think about a lot in the studio. When you hit that resolution, the final resolution of a painting, the speed of it, the scale and color relationships, there’s a tone to it, right? I thought this system of production would allow me to really play with different tonal resolutions. Even though I used it, repetition was not what I was interested in. I only used repetition so I can get to the end. To multiple endings, all coming from the same beginnings. I’m interested in the narrative of the image.

SM: Right. When I came in early to look at this show, I had thoughts about the way the paintings are made. They’re physical, handmade. But then they also feel bodily in the sense that they expand outward. And even their size, they’re approachable. I suppose I was thinking about the role of the body, and how you think about that.
MG: Interesting. I’m not sure I have a clear answer. The way I can maybe relate to what you’re saying is in the spatial relationship within the paintings. I don’t think of them in abstract terms. I think of them as constructions of shapes that exist in the world, even though you can’t recognize them. You don’t know what they are, but you sense that they ARE. Maybe that’s the relationship you’re experiencing, to the body. Or foreign bodies. There’s gravity. There’s a ground. A figure-ground relationship. There’s a logical sense of construction.

Magalie Guérin, Untitled (res 2.3), 2019, oil on canvas on panel, 30 × 24 inches

SM: That’s what I was thinking. The longer I looked, I thought about a sense of place. Maybe it’s an echo of the world. The colors in these are really particular. They seem to come from two completely different places, earthbound on one hand, and quite artificial on the other. So, in terms of a sense of a place, how is it connected to your life?
MG: I spent some time in Marfa, Texas last year, and I see that the desert colors are definitely coming into the paintings. That purple mixed with orange, when it’s sunset and there’s a lot of sandy color. I’m not conscious of that when I make decisions, but then I look at the painting and think, “Oh yeah, the Marfa colors.” Or, I found this green jacket in a thrift store that I want to wear all the time, and next thing I know, this weird green is everywhere in my paintings. I’ve never used that green before. 

There’s also that bright orange, which is the color of a pair of sneakers I own. And because I see them on my feet, and I walk around in them, that particular color is viewed within the context of the outside world, on the sidewalk, against the green grass, etc. You have to pay attention to that as a painter. That’s what we do, we look. We’re constantly looking. Color is interesting in relation to other colors, right?

SM: What about that really bright yellow?
MG: That’s my grad school color.

SM: So, it’s been with you for a while?
MG: It left me for years. It just came back. I don’t know why. The last body of work I did for a show in Chicago, there was a lot of grays in the paintings. Colorful grays, but still, grays, and that made me self-conscious because I love color. I couldn’t figure out why everything went so gray. For this show, I wanted to see bright color again, and that crazy yellow showed up.

Magalie Guérin, Untitled (res 3.2), 2019, oil on canvas on panel, 30 × 24 inches

SM: Was it like “Oh hello, grad school yellow!” or getting a letter from a friend you haven’t talked to in years?
MG: That’s exactly how it felt.

SM: Did that make you smile, or…?
MG: Honestly, it was more a cringe-worthy moment than a smile. Like, “What? What do you want?”

SM: “I want to hang out.”
MG: But I didn’t resist it.  I have to say, when I see my Marfa colors in the painting, or my grad school yellow, or my green jacket, it makes me happy because, without being conscious of it, things are entering the work. Without saying, “I want to make a painting about this,” space and time is embedded.

SM: So you’re open to the world, and then it comes out in whatever way.
MG: I mean, that’s what one would hope. Sometimes I’m afraid I’m not, because I’m in the studio so much. But then I look at what’s happening within the paintings and I know where the colors come from.

SM: I think the color decisions are really crucial in these works, the shifts in saturation, or the feeling of earthy versus industrial. Also, the touch, the change-ups of the marks seem incredibly important.
MG: To let you in? Because if you can’t get in one way, you can try another way?

SM: Exactly. And I’m always finding holes and pockets. For example, in “Res3-2, 2019” that green shape feels like a hole. I can go in there. It’s generating a lot of light, which introduces more air. Or the way the black curves along in this one becoming a place to rest. You can lean there.  There are also the paint marks. They all have different levels of how they arrive. Some are urgent. Some are very meditative. And some are saying, “I am this.”
MG: I like that.

SM: This passage here feels like a verb, because I’m constantly aware of it happening. And this part feels like a noun, because there is a kind of stability.
MG: Ah, that’s interesting. I love thinking of paint marks being either verbs or nouns.

SM: You mentioned frequency earlier. There’s a lot of time in these.
MG: They are not quick.

SM: No. In a way, they are very a-temporal, because time begins to open up in different arrangements. For example, this embedded line is something I begin to notice more and more. When I get closer, it becomes almost like a pathway. It’s like watching an ant, or a line of ants move across a surface.
MG: Uh huh.

Magalie Guérin, Untitled (res 3.3), 2019, oil on canvas on panel, 30 × 24 inches

SM: So, I’m curious about these steady, raised and incised lines in the paintings.
MG: They are the structure of the painting, the skeleton. When I start a painting, I have one specific form in mind. It’s a shape that I have drawn in my sketchbook, probably from a weird building somewhere or a dead cactus, or something. That shape becomes the start of the painting.

SM: Like a line drawing?
MG: Yeah, I mean, I draw it on the canvas, and then I build many coats of gesso around that shape to create these raised edges. I also insert strings in the surface to create borders, to break the spatial composition. The paintings always start like that, with this sort of sculptural process.

SM: It seems like a reminder; a reminder of the very beginning. And in that way, it’s also about time.
MG: Yeah. If you follow these lines, in some of these paintings, sometimes the paint hides that original shape, and sometimes the lines stay put to reveal it more.

SM: It’s like a reminder or a ghost.
MG: Ghost is better. I do want a shape to imprint the narrative; this is where it started. Like, Once upon a time, and then who knows where it goes after. Maybe I need that starting point to be fixed, because everything else is going to go in very mysterious directions.

Magalie Guérin: SOLUTE,” Chapter NY, LES, New York, NY. Through March 24, 2019.

About the artist: Magalie Guérin (b. 1973, Montreal) currently lives and works in Chicago. In 2011, she received her MFA in Painting and Drawing from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Recent solo exhibitions were presented at James Harris, Seattle; Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago; Schwarz Contemporary, Berlin; and Anat Egbi, Los Angeles. Guérin’s work is in the collection of DePaul Art Museum. She is the author of NOTES ON, a compilation of studio writings published by The Green Lantern Press in 2016. Guérin was recently awarded a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant (2018), a Chinati Foundation residency (2018), and the Stephen Pace Residency Award for a Mid-Career Painter at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown (2019). (via gallery website)

About the author: Born in Kolkata, India, Sangram Majumdar is a Professor of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art. His solo exhibition “once, and twice” is on view at Geary Contemporary in NYC through April 12, 2019 .

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