This IM interview between Chicago artist Stacie Johnson and curator Katie Geha is the first of two parts. Part two–in which Stacie and Katie talk about the uncanny, high-schoolers bedrooms, and being designated the most improved–will appear tomorrow.
Stacie: Hey girl.
Katie: You ready to be interviewed? Have your coffee?
Stacie: Should we use regular email?
Katie: No, I think it’s better this way. Doing it through IM will make it more like a conversation. Email gives both of us too much time to think and respond.
When did you know you would be an artist?
Stacie: I remember when I realized that I wanted to be an artist.
Stacie: I was in college and at first I was a little jealous of my roommate because she was an art major and was able to listen to music while doing her homework. I, on the other hand, was pouring over my books, plugging my ears and drinking coffee all night long.
Then, I was in the pedestrian mall in Iowa City and this girl named Blueberry invited me to her house for a party. It was a party where everybody had to bring something or do something, like a poem or a performance.
When she was describing it to me, she was like “you’re an artist, right?” I was one of the only one of my friends that wasn’t an art major, and all of a sudden I had this moment of realizing that – YES – I was an artist. Of course! Maybe because of some sort of jealousy, other people being artists have always made me realize that I wanted to be one too.
Katie: So it took you a little a while? But had you always drawn and painted previous to that? Did you just not see it as a viable vocation?
Stacie: As a kid, I remember making drawings of all the black and white pictures of people in the Encyclopedia. I was good at it. I was also inspired to draw more when I met my high school boyfriend. He had drawings covering all four walls of his room. I liked that. I thought I liked him and how good of an artist he was, but ultimately I liked it – Art – and I wanted to do it too.
I also worked in an Art Center in high school and taught art classes to kids. It was something I was good at, but I wanted to learn stuff I didn’t know. And, yes, I thought it was a pretty stupid and impractical thing to do. I also had an experience once where people were asking me to draw a very specific scene (their scene) and I hated doing it for someone else. I wanted to keep it for myself, not professionalize it. I also worked at the “store” in the Art Center in high school and saw a lot of selling of art and that really disgusted me.
Katie: It seems that there was a bit of split between acknowledging that you had the ability and acknowledging that you wanted to be identified as an “artist.”
Stacie: Yes, that’s a good way to put it. I thought I wanted to be a Curator like you.
Katie: Sure. That makes sense, but now you’re such a good artist!
I was thinking about your latest show when I was reading an essay by Katy Siegel the other day. It was about contemporary painting, and while this is totally obvious, I hadn’t really thought about it before—this idea that the competing strain between abstraction and representation is completely over.
That perhaps the Greenbergian march through Modernism (moving from representation to abstraction) is “dead,” but painting is not. And that contemporary painters are making pictures that are abstract yet contain illusion, or are representative but are also concerned with the materiality of the paint on the canvas. That is to say, representation does not have to equal illusion and abstraction does not have to be about materiality (And this might not all together be new if we think about Cezanne’s apples or Van Gogh’s night sky).
Which, I think is really interesting in thinking about your latest exhibition Making Faces and in particular, Snowflake Terrier, which is a painting I love—this idea that it is both representative, yet also abstract. Can you talk about the genesis of the show a bit?
Stacie: That show started out with a task I set out to explore, which was to make paintings that were more graphic and had more value contrast, rather than tone on tone. The show took place in a basement and so light wasn’t great and that was an excuse to force myself to use more black and white like contrasts. The Snowflake Terrier painting was the one painting that really stayed true to that task.
Katie: How did the subject matter, the sort of tricky game of face/abstraction come about? Or how did that just lend itself to your task?
Stacie: Hang on, someone outside is yelling at me.
Katie: Okay, what are they yelling?
Stacie: I think maybe I’m getting a new refrigerator today???
Stacie: Okay, one second.
I think the abstraction comes naturally to me. I use to make “abstract paintings” but realized that what I do well, or naturally, is to make things very simplified and abstract when I paint them observationally.
Well, not necessarily simplified and abstract, but I have a way that I like to formally arrange what I see in real life.
Katie: What I think I am trying to get at here is this tension in your work (and I especially think in this latest show) between the abstract and the figurative and how those two interact and exchange within the Making Faces works—the works that actually are both objects and faces at once.
Do you feel beholden to one or the other, between abstraction or figuration?
Stacie: No not at all, not anymore. I switch back and forth sometimes within one painting and sometimes from one painting to the other.
Julia Fish was my advisor in graduate school and her work presents a similar issue of abstraction and figuration. I guess I learned it from her.
Katie: Okay, that makes sense. It surprised me when I was in your studio that you were doing all these funny abstract paintings, but then I would see on the floor some kind of haphazard sculpture made out of foam core that was essentially the object in the painting. You worked in a similar manner when you created Miss Mondrian—so are you creating abstract sculptures and then creating painted still-lifes from them?
Stacie: Yes. In the last year of so I have become sort of beholden to painting from observation. Making a sculptural something makes it possible to make an abstract thing have illusion. I was influenced by Garth Weiser’s abstract paintings with illusion, although mine are not that “abstract.”
Katie: I don’t know his work
#12 does it the best. His newer stuff doesn’t play with illusion as much.
Katie: Ah, yes, I see—so abstract illusionist!
Stacie: Yeah. You know Melissa Oresky’s work does this well, too.
Katie: Right, so it’s creating depth, yet sticking to abstraction?
Stacie: I come from the other side … usually more representational. But with Miss Mondrian and Snowflake Terrier – that was what I was thinking about or realizing.
Katie: But both those works, because of their illusionism (is there better word for that?) still points to the canvas, right?
Stacie: What do you mean “points to the canvas”? Acknowledges Painting? Capital P?
Katie: Or the limitations of the canvas?
I mean, it’s not a “window into the world”? I guess Frank Stella did this too, though.
Stacie: I think the illusion/depth stuff does kinda play the “window” game.
Katie: Right. So Miss Mondrian and Snowflake Terrier are still lifes of abstraction? Or just observations of abstraction?
Stacie: They are both actually very much not abstractions. But they look like they are.