In back-to-back interviews, Natasha Wright and Nancy Elsamanoudi discuss each other’s work. They are both young painters in New York City who incorporate figurative and abstract elements in their paintings. Writing at THE LIST, David Cohen observed how they each “celebrate empowered figuration through confessionally expressive subjectity”, and issues of feminism and painting inevitably emerge in both these discussions.
On Friday, September 28 the two artists are set to dialogue in Elsamanoudi’s show at Amos Eno Gallery in Bushwick (56 Bogart Street), kicking off the final weekend of Nancy’s show and the immensely popular annual Bushwick Open Studios festival. artcritical will post extracts of this conversation on Saturday. The previous weekend had seen a pop-up exhibition of Natasha Wright, curated by Jeffrey Morabito and Martin Dull, which forms the basis of the conversation here.
Coincidentally, both Wright and Elsamanoudi were featured by Harpers Bazaar online – along with three other figurative painters – in “The Best Female Art Exhibitions to See This Fall.”
Do you base your paintings on small drawings or studies? How do your drawings inform your paintings?
Sometimes, I base a larger painting on a study. But usually, I work more intuitively without a firm plan about what the final image will look like. I usually do quite a bit of drawing directly on the paint surface with graphite, charcoal, oil pastels and oil sticks to lay down the image, find the image or wipe out the image.
Drawing has been a constant in my life. But drawing for me was more like a tick. I was constantly drawing and image vomiting growing up. I’d fill sketchbook after sketchbook and then abandon them.
Before I went to Pratt for grad school, I lived in an apartment building about a block from the Cleveland Institute of Art and two blocks away from the Cleveland Museum of Art. I’d do life drawing sessions at the CIA and sketch in the galleries at the CMA. But at that time, I was mostly interested in abstract painting. I just thought of life drawing as a way of mining forms for abstract paintings.
Of course, I still draw quite a bit. Drawing opens up a free imaginative space. For me, the discovered image comes out of drawing.
Has there been a shift in your work recently from abstract painting to figurative painting or do you think of your more recent work as having elements of both abstraction and figuration?
Some of my most recent work – the dick flowers paintings for example – is figurative and some combine both figurative and abstract elements. The shift towards figuration is a shift that I hadn’t really anticipated. I’ve always wanted to be a great abstract painter and I’ve always preferred abstract painting over realistic painting. I hated paintings that seemed to be about how closely the painting resembled reality. The shift happened, in part, because I began to feel like I was spinning my wheels with abstraction. You can try to go deep and find yourself just digging the same hole deeper. So, I tried to apply some of the strategies that seemed to work for writing to painting. Instead of trying to make some big grand impressive statement, I tried instead to take simple idea or thought and make a painting that would be about fleshing out that idea or unpacking a metaphor.
When I saw Hannah Gadsby’s comedy special on Nanette, I was bowled over by her take on art history and her thoughts on men as dick flowers and women as flesh vases. It was such a weird image and bizarrely potent poetic metaphor for a comedy special. As a feminist, I was sympathetic to what she was trying to say, about men exploiting women as inspiration for their art. But I also felt that she had somehow grossly oversimplified something that was complicated. I had mixed feelings about it and that’s why I painted the dick flowers series. I felt like I need to go where there was mixed feelings, ambivalence, attraction and repulsion.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about the shift in your work. As your work shifted, did you start looking at different artists? Are you looking at anyone in particular right now?
Right now, I’m drawn artists to like George Condo and Amy Sillman. Their work straddles the line between abstraction and figuration in interesting ways that allow for a different kind of space of possibilities to open up. Their work seems to have an attitude that isn’t all that overly concerned with questions of purity or whether melding together abstraction and figuration together doesn’t somehow constitute bastard art. It’s this attitude, a stance that doesn’t take either the abstract camp or the figurative camp too seriously, that, I think, opens up a space for humor and awkwardness to enter into the work.