Mistake House: Your work incorporates many media, including drawing, painting, sculpture and cutouts. How does the variation in media correlate to your creative vision?
Amy Pleasant: Exploring the work through different materials helps me to understand the work in a more expansive way. I recently started working with clay. I like giving myself a new problem to solve, putting myself in a place that I don’t quite understand. It shows me the work from a new perspective. Pulling the images into a three-dimensional space changed the way I thought about making something in two dimensions. They all feed each other.
MH: Much of your work utilizes a muted color palette—grey, beige, black, ivory—what draws you to these tones? What significance does your use of these muted tones give to vibrant colors when your work utilizes a different palette, like in your exhibition in Jeff Bailey’s gallery?
AP: My palette is very stripped down. All of my work comes out of my drawing practice. The works on paper are made with India ink and brush and the paintings relate to that “drawn” image. I like playing with subtleties in color. I like to alter colors very slightly so that they are slow to reveal themselves. A lot of my work is about creating a slowness in how the viewer “reads” the work. One of the ways is to keep the palette really tight. In the exhibition you mention at Jeff Bailey Gallery in 2011, I was experimenting with color and how much of that color I wanted to reveal in the work. I will often work on a color-stained ground and then slowly I push it under veils of paint.
MH: Artists like Marcel Dzama, David Shrigley, and Amy Sillman come up in discourse surrounding your work, particularly in relation to your storytelling and paint-handling. Are there any artists that resonate with you and that may inspire your process?
AP: I draw inspiration from so many places. My dad is a painter, so I grew up with art books all over the house, and my earliest loves were Picasso and Matisse, then came Philip Guston as a young art student. As you mention above, I think Amy Sillman is a great painter, Nicole Eisenman, Stanley Whitney, Katherine Bradford, Thomas Houseago, Hans Josephsohn, Bill Traylor, Hiroshige, Fante flags, rock paintings, the Bayeux Tapestry, ancient art and artifacts of all kinds.
MH: In a previous interview, you mention that you enjoy observing people when they are unaware of being observed. What have your observations revealed to you about human nature, and how do you incorporate that into your art?
AP: What I meant by that is that there is a difference in how we move and how we act when we are unaware of ourselves/unaware of others. We live in such public times where everything is documented and everything is shared. There is this performative way of being that I think covers who we really are. There is a way we engage with our bodies and gesture that is not so self-conscious in these places when we are alone.
MH: In your exhibition “Time Lapse,” you detail the passing of time through moments in ordinary life: a woman thinking about her husband, someone getting out of a tub, etc.
How might your work address the concept of time, and how did you choose these particular moments to showcase? Do you always try to appreciate the seemingly mundane in your own life, and is that necessary for an artist?
AP: Yes, the work was about documenting the ordinary and thinking about the passage of time. I was creating a grid structure on the canvases and then would draw each step of the scene from square to square and then start to dismantle it. It was important to me that I let each scene lead to the next. The paintings were not predetermined. That work was and my current work still is about documenting the ordinary but in a less narrative way. The repetitive is very important to me. The things we do again and again sometimes without thought are actions that I am quite interested in. I do try to appreciate the mundane in my own life. This world moves very quickly, and I hope to create a sense of calm and thoughtfulness with my family. I want to be present in this life, in making and in living.
MH: Many elements in your “Time Lapse” exhibition mimic cinematic devices or tropes. What inspired you to use those devices in your artwork? Do you see a correlation between your pieces and the cinematic experience?
AP: The work in “Time Lapse,” and for many years after, took the form of a “storyboard,” like a filmmaker would use to map out scenes. I focused on stories that were somewhat familiar scenes and wanted to explore them from multiple vantage points. Slowness. Documenting the unfolding of a moment. Taking the time to see each part.
MH: Dorothy Joiner compared your work to the musings of the 16th century French philosopher Montaigne, who called exploration of the psyche “a thorny undertaking.” Do you see your pieces as correlating to Montaigne’s philosophy?
AP: The work in this exhibition was created during a time of intense self-reflection and examination, and Ms. Joiner saw a connection between that and some of Montaigne’s writings. And yes, I agree, it is a “thorny undertaking.”
MH: While beautifully capturing the quotidian, how do you envision your artwork celebrating something greater than the sum of its parts?
AP: The celebration is in the parts.
MH: One reviewer identified your paintings as “full of existential angst and loneliness.” Does your work consciously incorporate these elements? Do you see a relationship between art and angst?
AP: My work is about our presence in this place and about examining that very thing. Especially in the work that the reviewer was writing about, a lot of the work focused on figures in isolation. I have been told more than once that there is a loneliness to that work. There isn’t any clear beginning or end to the narratives in the work, and that maybe leaves the viewer without a conclusion. Maybe there is a sense of expectation that is not fulfilled in the work, which can leave one with an unresolved feeling. I like that space though. As viewers, what is our expectation? What do we come with? Those paintings were also made during some difficult years in my life and I am sure that makes its way into the work as well.
MH: For your exhibition “re / form” at whitespace gallery, you conceived the entire exhibition with that particular gallery in mind. Is planning your exhibition around a particular gallery something that you do often, and does that affect your creative process?
AP: I did plan the installation of the show specifically to whitespace gallery in a way I had not before. The gallery was converted from an 1893 carriage house in Inman Park, Atlanta. The owner wanted to keep as much original as possible, so there is exposed brick walls and floors and one wall is the original wood panel that still has notes and dates written on it. Every scratch, word, or splatter marks a time and place, and I wanted those things to speak to my work in the exhibition. Materials were specific to the show. I used raw, wooden beams for the sculpture bases and propped the paintings on concrete piers instead of hanging them in a traditional way on the walls. I do consider the space for each exhibition, and it absolutely influences how the work will come in, what will be left out, what needs to be where, etc.… For “re/form,” it was more about how they came together; uniting wall and floor and drawing attention to spaces that might be invisible otherwise.
MH: In that same “re / form” exhibition, you featured several busts of heads that you said were inspired by Roman portrait busts. What correlation do you see between contemporary and classical art? What particular aspects of classical art do you incorporate into your own work?
AP: I spent about two years taking pictures of the Greek and Roman busts at the Met from behind. I wanted to see the head from behind, no face, no identity, a person who doesn’t know they are being looked at. These busts are incredibly beautiful, and they made me think about identity. I started making these very crude, clay heads. I wanted them to look like rocks out of the ground. I was thinking a lot about how we search for our human form in the world. The busts I made have no face. You continue to walk around them but there isn’t one. I’ve been interested for a long time in the collective human experience and the individual and how each person is shaped by every life experience they have. I am fascinated by our sameness and need to be understood.
MH: In your artist’s statement for your “re / form” exhibition, you invite the audience to “consider how the history of the figure in art has shaped our understanding of the human experience.” Fertility and the female experience are certainly one of the themes in this exhibit. Could you speak a little to the challenges facing women as they consider their female identity in contemporary society?
AP: Fertility and the female experience were not intentional themes in the show, but I am sure that my own life experiences come out in some of the imagery. The show was really about human experience. I’ve always been interested in archeology and in artifacts; the search for history, the search for our collective story. The challenges are still there for women in my field. They are still underrepresented and undervalued.
MH: Your pieces in the Blink Exhibition seem to either maintain a sense of “color blindness,” or provide a sense of equality through individual uniqueness when it comes to the human form. Given that race-relations is currently a pressing topic, to what extent do you feel your presentation of the human form provides commentary on this issue? Specifically, do you feel your exploration of the human struggle with identity as a whole speaks to the issue of race and identity?
AP: I think we are all in crisis right now. I think we are living in dark times and having to face some really complicated realities. We are continuing to expose the inequality that is a part of our country. It is embedded so deeply and the effects are long lasting. Everyone wants to get the conversation over with, but really the conversations are just beginning. I do think that my exploration is of the human struggle as a whole. I hope that my presentation of the human form provides a connection to the body. My body. Your body.
MH: You’ve mentioned that your work is in many ways inspired by storytelling and narrative—a tendency you attribute to your Southern background. Could you share some of the stories told by your art and why you feel that the sharing of stories is important?
AP: Through storytelling we connect to one another. It is a natural human tendency and helps us to understand who we are. The “storyboard” paintings that I spoke about earlier in the interview were about presenting a narrative of everyday life. No beginning, no end, just repetitive activities. It was about presenting something familiar but in a new way. My work is less narrative these days but storytelling is still important to me. It offers a platform to share.
MH: Many of your paintings deal with repetition and imagistic patterns. What do you value in repetition both as a concept in and of itself and as a part of your artistic process?
AP: I spend a great deal of time drawing the same image over and over again. I like to “find” the image. When I draw something again and again it becomes less self-conscious, and I understand the gesture in a deeper way each time. I’m interested in how we recognize images; how we see when we are presented with something we have seen before. Are we actually seeing? Or projecting an expectation? Are we actively looking? How close can two things be and still be different?
MH: In your interview with Candyland Podcasts, you discuss the concept of a site specific wall drawing, explaining how “it is of the moment and then disappears after the exhibition is over.” How does the temporary nature of this work affect your creative process, and how might your approach to these pieces differ from those in a more permanent medium, such as ink?
AP: The wall drawing I made in Stockholm at Candyland was made up of images that documented my experience there. I had a month-long residency and the drawing included images of things I had seen, people I had met, experiences I had. I carried sketchbooks everywhere and tried to be present and take in this place that was new to me. The wall drawing was painted out at the end of the exhibition, and I like that it was a temporary experience, made for a particular place and marked a specific moment in time. It lives in my memory and hopefully for those who saw it. Works on paper or paintings can be returned to over time, and you can experience them over time. Your relationship to a work can change; your understanding of it can change. That is one of the beautiful things about living with art–that communion between work and viewer.
MH: In that same Candyland interview, you discuss your fascination with different “simultaneous activities.” Could you speak a little more to this idea? To what extent do you see your interest in the everyday connecting with this notion of simultaneous activity?
AP: I’m interested in what life must look like from afar; all of these lives weaving in and out of each other. We affect each other on a daily basis whether good or bad. We make choices every day that determine our path. A lot of my works on paper attempt to document these “life maps” in ink. Characters act out scenes and interact with one another fading in and out of view, altering the flow of actions. I think about this ordered chaos that is life.
MH: Do you ever play hooky (we hope you do)? And, if you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a dérive?
AP: We all need a little hooky…and yes I do! If is it a sudden unplanned get away, it may be to one of my favorite patios for a great meal or cold beers. My neighborhood is full of great food and drink. If I go far from home to get away, my favorite thing is to go stay with my best friend in Upstate New York. We take walks, cook great meals, and have drinks on the lawn.