A conversation: Becky Yazdan and Zachary Keeting

Becky Yazdan, Scream, 2018, oil on linen, 48×42-inches

Abstract painter Becky Yazdan, who earned her MFA at the NY Studio School studying with painters Bill Jensen and Graham Nickson, recently had a solo show at Fred Giampietro in New Haven. Zachary Keeting met her at the show, where they talked about painting, narrative abstraction, the relationship of art to life, and how her focus has shifted in the last few years from childhood memories to the immediacy and emotional content of everyday experience.

Zachary Keeting: Hi Becky Yazdan, congrats on your show at Fred Giampietro. Your new paintings are fierce. I’m curious to learn more about the way these pieces fit together. You seem to be juggling divergent pictorial strategies from painting to painting. Were you striving for a tightly interconnected series, or are the individual images only loosely connected?

Becky Yazdan: I didn’t set out to make a body of work. My paintings are inevitably reflections of what is happening in my life, or what I’m thinking about. In the past, I worked in a slower, more meditative way, sorting through childhood memories as I attempted to process the loss of my father.  These new pieces are more directly emotional, they’re guttural responses to a tumultuous past couple of years. The title of the show is Setting Fires. I think of fire as a way to cleanse, create a blank slate, start over. 

ZK: So these are episodic, emotional hot takes?

BY: Yeah. This painting is entitled Scream. It’s not about a specific situation, but the summation of a general, underlying feeling of panic and frustration. Earlier work focused on specific memories. I’d be working on a painting when suddenly I would know exactly what it was about. The combination of two colors, or a certain shape, would call up an article of clothing from my childhood, or a conversation from my past. As an example, years ago, I was in the midst of a painting when I realized it was about stumbling upon a sleeping coyote at the base of the Flatirons in Colorado. I had been hiking through the brush, looking for my lost cat, when I came upon the creature … and the fate of my cat became clear. Once that happened, the painting and the memory were forever linked. These newest paintings are different. I think of them more as purges.

ZK: Spiritual cleansing?

BY: Hopefully! (laughs) I’d like this work to operate as a rebirth, a recalibration, a reorganization. For the last decade I’ve been struggling to fit my life as an artist into the confines of the more “conventional” roles of wife and mother. Balancing the expectations of others, with my own need to create, express ideas, and be my own person has been difficult. The continued need to ask questions, and challenge what’s expected of me in my various roles as a woman, fuels my practice. The paintings in this exhibition are the push-back, the assertion, the choice of making work. 

ZK: Are these paintings depictions of that immolation, or are the paintings themselves the fire that wipes the slate clean?

BY: The paintings are the fires.

ZK: I’m interested in the ways you skirt the edge of depiction, the ways you flirt with illustration through storytelling. The piece you mentioned, about the cat and the coyote, could certainly have been rendered, but I’m assuming you held back on all the descriptive bits.  Would you like to talk about your avoidance of name-ability? Were the more ruminative pieces from years past any more representational than these?

BY: In spite of making non-representational work, I think of myself as a narrative painter. There have always been multiple forms interacting with each other within each image … but these new pieces are less like that. This group of paintings is less narrative. For instance, Runoff. It doesn’t have a particular story, it’s a purge, a negation. I’d reworked it periodically over the years and I really struggled with it. I couldn’t stand to look at it, then finally one day I took it out of the Purgatory rack and drew this violent red line across the canvas. With that giant fuck you, it was done.  

I’m also thinking of contradiction as subject matter, for example: Benevolent Monster. You can have the best of intentions, and try to live your life honorably, yet you still make mistakes and people get hurt. 

Becky Yazdan, Benevolent Monster, 2019, oil on linen, 44×48 inches

ZK: Did you work up Benevolent Monster with that in mind:  I’ll establish the good, then befoul it?  (laughs)

BY: No. I understand them after they’re done, if I ever understand them. Once the painting asserts itself, becomes itself, I have to stop working on it. That’s my way of avoiding illustration — I don’t want to paint a coyote in the brush. Once I know what it’s about, the danger is illustrating the story, and shutting the piece down. 

ZK: You know it’s funny, but I never try to “fuck up” my paintings. “Fucking shit up” is not a move of mine. It’s not how I move through life. I’m constantly covering, concealing, veiling. I’m constantly trying to make passages more bold, more courageous, more unexpected … but I never aim to “fuck up” a beautiful section. I think of this as a major difference between our work. Do you like the idea that I, or any other viewer, can ignore your attached story? My sense is that if there were rendered, nameable parts, it’d be harder dismissing an attached narrative.

BY: I want the work to stay open, and I want relatability, without being overbearing. I try to convey emotion without dictating specifics. I hope to communicate honestly.

ZK: Do you think of attaching the story as a finishing move? The final finesse move?

BY: No, I’m not searching for the story while I paint, the story surfaces on its own. I’d hate to impose my will on the painting. Bill Jensen always used to talk about painting as “an exchange.” You put something down, the painting gives you something back. This is what I mean when I say the painting asserts itself. One of my favorite aspects of working in the studio is the way these stories are drawn out … lifted through the action of working.  

Becky Yazdan, Scorched (left) and Kick the Can (right) at Fred Giampietro.

ZK: This one’s seemingly in a state of ripping itself apart.  Is this painting complete because it has believability? 

BY: It’s called Scorched. It’s emotion, this combustion painting, a physical act of crossing things out. I try to give the larger paintings this type of power. The cancellation is a full-body relationship.

ZK: It’s strongly suggestive of a wood burning stove, the noisy draft, and tremendous suction as heat spirals up and away. The painting next to it is also on the go.

BY: That’s Kick the Can. It’s got some big, bold moves, which are possible in the larger pieces. It’s more direct because of it. The foundation was made with a giant squeegee. I’m also loving the speed of spray paint. You can see it in a few of these paintings, it’s new for me as well. I’m really interested in the mark-making possibilities of spray paint.

ZK: If you get in close on the spray paint in Scorched, it’s a bit reminiscent of distant Chinese landscapes … fluorescent landscapes.  (laughs)

BY: Right.

Becky Yazdan, Runoff, 2019, oil on canvas, 48×36 inches
Becky Yazdan, Kick the Can, 2019, oil on linen, 46×39 inches

ZK: Would you like to talk about negation marks vs non-negation marks?  Runoff and Kick the Can, two paintings with giant red line-work, seem to be operating completely differently.

BY: The speed of each line is totally different. The one made with a paint marker happened incredibly fast, and that signifies negation. The other red (or pink, really) line came together bit by bit, and doesn’t. The line, and the shape it ultimately created, was found slowly.

Becky Yazdan, Happy Family, 2019, oil on linen, 66×86 inches

ZK: From what you’ve told me, the title Happy Family must be ironic.

BY: Yeah, but I also want it to be funny. It references the new post-divorce family as well as the famous Happy Family dish you can get at any Chinese restaurant. There’s sorrow, but there’s also a forging of new relationships, and an optimism about the future.

ZK: Again, you didn’t set out to convey that?

BY: No.

ZK: And the intense yellow ground?

BY: I often start with bold colors. I actually start with this yellow a lot. The whole show is a processing, a digestion of a couple crazy years. I’ve found it to be liberating. Things were so intense on the home front I wasn’t able to overthink the work. In the past, when things were more stable, and routine, I tended to be more specific about the content of each piece. Now I just get to work.

ZK:The exhibit’s full of surprises, I’m happy to see such difference piece to piece. You’re allowing wildly discordant ideas about unity and synthesis to live side by side.

BY: Yeah. I’m interested in color … and fucking them up.

Becky Yazdan, Pussy Grabber, 2018, oil on linen, 24×20 inches

ZK: In relation to that, are you also thinking about the current state of democracy in America?

BY: Not usually. They tend to stay more on a personal level. The exception being Pussy Grabber, which I think of as really funny. (laugh) It’s full of clown colors, and the form in the middle is one of those bad-back-grabby-hand things. I do like the idea of humor in art, of paintings not taking themselves too seriously. There’s always the potential for the political, and current events, to trickle in … but it’s not common.

ZK: I have a hunch that people whose work is more overtly sociological, people who are chiefly concerned with analyzing and/or highlighting cultural issues and concerns, do so, sometimes, as a way of connecting with their audience. Is your insistence on leaving things unnamed, not locking anything down, staying open to interpretation, also a way to achieve connectivity? Are you’re leaving interpretive doors open for the purpose of connectivity?

BY: Yeah, and, I know, I don’t make it easy for people!  (laughs)  

ZK: That’s funny, because I don’t think of you as a guarded, secretive personality, keeping people at bay.

BY: No, I’m the opposite. I’m an incredible over-sharer. I get into my personal life generally within the first ten minutes of meeting someone. (laughs) But the paintings are different. Over-sharing is a defense mechanism, I think: making jokes, deflecting, laughing about difficult subjects. The paintings actually deal with the painful things. When I’m in the studio, I’m forced to sit with my thoughts, rather than deflect the pain with an off-color joke. 

Becky Yazdan, Bipolar, 2018, oil on linen, 60×48 inches

ZK: This painting’s ground is gorgeous. It surprises me, the delicate screen-like quality in the background, with that brutal energy hovering up on the surface.  Is there some ugliness under the screen too?

BY: Yeah, it’s a squeegee veil. As I mentioned before, I’m frequently working over older, dry paintings. This is one of those. The lovely scrapes in this piece are contradicted by gross, messy brushwork on top. I like wet into wet, although there’s plenty of wet-on-dry too. I never wait around for things to dry.

ZK: There are some tight value relationships in this piece, combined with playfully awkward line-work. It’s quite sophisticated. Are there times when you strive for elegance?

BY: No, I fight against it.  Beauty, too.

ZK: Why?

BY: Elegance is a loaded word. I remember in grad school Graham Nickson describing one of my paintings as “tasteful,” and that was the kiss of death. I started a whole series: Tasteless Painting #1Tasteless Painting #2 ….  (laughs)

ZK: Did you agree with him? Was he actually correct about that piece, or was he just being provocative?

BY: He was probably just being provocative, trying to get me outside my comfort zone. But I enjoy the challenge of leaving things ugly and awkward. People respond most to those passages anyway.

ZK: Don’t you think of fire as having great poise, great seductive beauty?  Georges de la Tour comes to mind. Watching a fire at night is so mesmerizing.  It tumbles as it smolders, it hypnotizes. But you’re wary of that gorgeous aspect?

BY: Yeah, I’m thinking more about cleansing, about destructive renewal, about the violence that is often necessary for change.

ZK: So you’re not a pyromaniac, marveling at the grace of flames?  (laughs)

BY: No. (laughs) Violent acts are necessary to move forward. Memento Mori is another one with spray paint.  I’ve been working on this little piece for over 15 years.

Becky Yazdan, Memento Mori, 2019, oil on linen, 13×11 inches

ZK: It’s thin for a 15-year-old painting! A bit cartoony, the thought bubble. I like the idea of a thought not behaving, or quaintly remaining, within its expected boundaries. This other painting feels back-lit, especially in its current location between the windows.

BY: Bound and Gagged, is about me being blocked from my own pursuits, and feeling muzzled, unable to express myself or be understood. The shape wants to move, but it’s held down.

Becky Yazdan, Bound and Gagged, 2019, oil on linen, 24×20 inches

ZK: I do get a sense of information not flowing as expected, of data getting trapped at the core. Information comes in, the painting ruminates, then begrudgingly lets go. This one has grown on me.

BY: I hate this painting! (laughs) But the ones I hate always seem to be the ones other people connect with and are most excited about.

ZK: You’re not saying it’s a bad painting … you’re just saying you hate it?

BY: The paintings become what they want to become, whether I like it or not. It’s actually hard for me to look at this one, it makes me really uncomfortable. This is a great example of the not-beautiful, the not-graceful…but it won’t let me work on it anymore. The challenge is letting it stay in this state. I just can’t look at it. I’ve made plenty of god-awful paintings that aren’t “done” that I just paint over. But when they’re done and god-awful, they must remain what they are. (laughs) Yeah, I can’t look at that.  (laughs)

ZK: Are there painters you’ve been thinking about recently?  Do you think most about the work of your friends? Those paintings closest to your personal life?

BY: Not so much, actually.  I think about Forrest Bess, and Thomas Nozkowski. I love Milton Avery. Matisse’s The Moroccans is a terrific narrative painting – how he allowed the shapes to just be, while telling a story.

ZK: I see you in the scratchiest of Matisse, those least finished.

BY: The Piano Lesson

ZK: Yeah, and his View of Notre-Dame.

BY: I think about Manet quite a bit. His bullfighters. The swoop of a cape, the abstract quality, how he would allow a different type of mark to reside within an otherwise unified scene. As you can tell, I’m really interested in unexpected painting approaches colliding. The spray paint is doing that within this show.

ZK: Are you thinking of spray paint as an uninvited guest dragging something dead into a party? (laughs)

BY: Yeah, you need the thing that fucks up an otherwise perfectly good time. Tomory Dodge has been on my mind: his incredibly dense, multiple ways of mark-making.

ZK: Does the splatter in Benevolent Monster operate this way for you?

BY: Drips are problematic. The cliche of drips.

ZK: I have a funny rule for myself:  drips are allowed, in fact they scoot all over the place, slipping in unexpected directions, but not droplets.  Droplets seem to reinforce horizontality and screw up the magic … but I could certainly change my mind about that! I made some wildly splashy, explosive paintings on paper a few years ago that still look right. The splatter in Benevolent Monster conveys, so clearly, a certain force. And it seems a direct reference to Ab-Ex. Is that golden era ever too close for comfort?

BY: Yeah, that’s on my mind. I’m reading Ninth Street Women and loving it. It was such a romantic time, the whole era was incredible. We’re all haunted by it, aren’t we? You’ve gotta make it your own somehow … maybe that’s why the splatter is risky, it brings up all the old Ab-Ex cliches. 

Becky Yazdan, Juuler (top) and Nightshade (bottom) at Fred Giampietro.

ZK: How do you feel about these two small paintings atop one another?

BY: It’s funny, I don’t relate those two paintings hanging together at all.

ZK: Perhaps Fred is striving for large, conflict-rich painting-power on a small wall? He establishes a certain rule around the room (paintings hung singularly, respectfully) then introduces an asymmetrical double-hang. Two discordant elements, side-by-side, achieve what you’ve been doing within each piece. He “fucks shit up” via lopsided juxtaposition.

BY: Interesting, he’s giving it back to me in my own language. Touché.

Becky Yazdan: Setting Fires,” Fred Giampietro, 315 Peck Street, Building 3, New Haven, CT. February 25 to April 10, 2020. (Note that the exhibition has closed due to COVID-19).

About the Author: Zachary Keeting co-founded Gorky’s Granddaughter (an interview project) in 2010 with Christopher Joy and Improvised Showboat (a curatorial endeavour) in 2014 with Loren Britton. He is represented by Giampietro Gallery and currently teaches painting at The Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven.

Related posts:
Portfolio: Becky Yazdan
Bushwick Open Studios 2017– from Bogart to Troutman
Keeting and Grill: Timeless energy
The Painting Center: When color matters

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