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Joseph Walentini - 2003
Interview: Painting and Photography Abstract Art Online: September

Claire Seidl is best known as an abstract painter whose work is represented by Rosenberg+Kaufman gallery. Over the past few years she has also begun to seriously engage photography. Last winter her paintings and photography were featured in an exhibition at Kristen Frederickson Contemporary Art, which was subsequently reviewed on these pages. That show sparked the idea of a follow-up conversation in which she compares and contrasts both mediums.

Joe Walentini: Let’s begin with the basics. How long have you been doing photography and what got you started?

Claire Seidl: I’d always shot pictures but they had only been slides or snapshots. However, in the 80s, when Neo-Expressionism was happening, I did look at such things as roots and trees and water in my photographs and used them abstractly in my paintings.

JW: So the references in the paintings came directly from the photographs?

CS: Well they really come from nature. Iíve always wanted to work in nature but I never wanted to "render" it as such. But, aside from taking snapshots my whole life and once in a blue moon using a photograph as a reference, I really never thought of photography as medium for myself. Then about 15 years ago when I was in Maine and out at night, I was fascinated by the negative spaces between the trees and the way the moonlight would sort of hide and come forward. So I did some watercolors and drawings and I took a few snapshots. These were long hand-held exposures and real jumpy; actually quite abstract. I had these snapshots up in my studio and Tiffany Bell was there because she was writing a catalog essay for my paintings. She noticed one of the photographs and just kept looking at it and asking me questions about it.

So until then, I never thought I would ever do anything with photography. But she started me thinking more about it just as I was just finishing a 10 year teaching stint at Hunter College. Spurred on, I decided I would go to I.C.P, which is the International Center for Photography just to learn a little. I met and studied with the Master Printer there for almost 3 years. He was someone who printed editions for famous and good photographers - not that those are necessarily the same (laughs).

JW: That’s true enough. So he was deep in the commercial business then?

CS: He was deep into the business but he knew about art. So he didn’t mind when I wanted to print large or have things out of focus - none of the faux journalism rules applied to my work and so I was free.

JW: Now those original snapshots, I assume they were in color?

CS: They weren’t; they were actually black and white. I never needed color as a reference in the paintings from the pictures but I would use the forms somehow. After awhile you tend to have habits in your arm movements, in your personal dance with painting; especially if you’re working large, and I would use the snapshots to just sort of break up patterns.

JW: Okay, but the idea of using black and white photos, that was a conscious decision...

CS: Well I can’t say how conscious it was because I wasn’t even conscious that the photographs would be art.

JW: Oh! So you saw them as references for later on?

CS: I just thought they were interesting pictures. It was on that level; just things I might want to think about later on. That never is art. But once I started studying it and doing it, suddenly, when I had the paper in my hand, it became like drawing.

JW: When you started the formal study of photography did you feel you had to take it more seriously as art?

CS: I think it enabled me to. I learned how to do it in a way that wasn’t just going to a lab and saying, "Blow up this negative". I often see photographs where that is done and that’s fine. But for me, making a print is like making a work on paper.

JW: Well it’s a matter of really having your hand in it right?

CS: Yeah! your hand and your eye, your mind and your heart.

JW: This makes a great deal of sense to me that, in terms of being a painter, you would want to have that level of tactile involvement.

CS: And it’s not just taking the shot; not just what you saw. It’s the whole look and feel of the print, how it ends up. And that’s where the painter’s eye comes in, I think.

JW: Personally, I love looking at black and white photography. For example last February (2003) I profiled Janice Mehlman’s work and!

CS: Yes I read that piece.

JW: I was especially taken with those prints because they are so rich in a painterly sense. It’s not the images so much as the way she manipulates the prints, I think, that brings that out. That’s what you seem to be talking about too. In other words it isn’t painting but it’s similar.

CS: It’s the same process. I always felt that going out and shooting was the same process but when you say that, I think the similarity to painting happens in the darkroom.

JW: Yes, well that seems to be a large part of it.

CS: It’s more obvious, the manipulation is built in; it’s literal. But I think when you’re walking around with the camera your eye does the same thing as when making a painting, it goes back and forth selecting.

JW: Considering the contrast between the mediums you’ve obviously found a lot of parallels. So, given your much longer history as a painter, has this affected or shaped the photography?

CS: That’s a complicated question. Let’s see! I would say that the paintings influenced the photographs almost solely for the first few years. Having a painter’s eye and a painter’s heart, I think I was going out into nature looking for things that mimicked what I was doing in my painting. Whether this meant a landscape space that was similar to background, middle ground, foreground or veils of color distorted through glass or rain all these visual elements in the paintings were what I was serendipitously finding in nature. But I don’t know what came first because I had been wandering around in nature for so many years. I’d go back into the studio with all that memory or with drawings! but not photographs. So it just comes out in a process that’s not tangibly intellectual.

JW: Do you think it’s a matter of transferring the accumulated essence of that experience, of being in nature, and taking it to canvas?

CS: You know it’s funny you ask that because I thought you were talking about the process of making a painting or a photograph. But for me being in nature is the same thing, the wandering around, the looking, and the selecting.

JW: Oh I see; it’s the same experience without necessarily manifesting it into an object.

CS: The act of shooting, the act of painting or the act of wandering around is all the same; if you’re in the mood for it (laughs).

JW: Right, without being rained on or otherwise dealing with the elements!

CS: Not climbing a mountain or taking care of 5 children!

JW: Let’s take it the other way. Has there been an inverse effect in that photography has influenced the painting? Or has each mutually affected the other?

CS: Yes let me go to that because it really was the beginning and middle of my long career as a photographer all three or four years (laughs). I would say, honestly, that the photographs have begun affecting the painting in ways that I never anticipated because I always assumed that the painting would go on, that it had its own rhythms. But lo and behold I started seeing geometry and very stark compositions showing up in the work. I started doing almost black and white paintings. I think the photography is affecting my painting a lot; especially in terms of form and space. Now, color is kind of up for grabs. I think I"ve concentrated less on color in the paintings recently because I’m so immersed in black and white photographs. But we’ll see!

JW: That’s interesting because I can see the mutual influence but it’s not as though you’ve taken these photographs and are working directly from them. As I see it, it’s really more of treating photography as its own medium unto itself.

CS: It is.

CS: It’s just like walking around in nature affecting the paintings. Working in the darkroom affects the paintings. And the paintings affect everything.

JW: But each medium poses its own specific challenges as to process and materials. Beyond what we’ve already talked about what would be some of the similarities between the two of them?

CS: It’s the same kind of visual thinking in both. I’d say that shooting is similar to those very open beginnings of a painting where you’re not censoring yourself. When you’re shooting you can shoot whatever you want. When you’re painting at the beginning or with something that’s not "precious" you can paint freely. The darkroom is more constricting in a way but the beauty is that there is always something to work on. There’s always another negative; there’s a process. But with painting you can hit a wall and not know where you’re going. You’re lost. On the other hand, you can keep painting and painting and painting. But in the darkroom you can’t always get something from what you have. Photography, I’d say, is like having a bird in hand but painting is like two in the bush (laughs).

JW: (laughs) Yeah, I know what you mean. With painting there can come a point where it’s like trying to build a house with a lousy foundation. The next 10 two by fours are just not going to make the difference but you don’t realize it until you’ve tried to add 24. Whereas with photography, once you’ve made the print, that’s it. But you can keep making prints to expand it out further.

CS: You can, but you have to be interested in doing that. I’m not interested in making more then two or three from a negative.

JW: Well, I’m not talking about producing an edition.

CS: Oh, you’re talking about working on another one?

JW: Right. But let me ask you this; have you’ve done a lot of watercolors?

CS: A fair amount.

JW: The reason I ask is because I see photography as somewhat similar to working with watercolors in that you either get it right or you don’t. In other words if you don’t get it right you move on to the next thing.

CS: I think that after a day or two if I can’t get a print to go anywhere from the negative I don’t want to continue trying. Maybe someone else could, but I don’t. But yes, that is a good comparison. With a painting you can go on forever, even if you white it out. A photograph does have a beginning, middle and an end which is a relief for a painter.

JW: That’s right. It also puts the brakes on your delusions as far as what you can do with it. One of the things I really admire about anyone working with watercolors is that it’s such a cruel and unforgiving medium.

CS: And you can throw a million of them away but you can’t throw a million paintings away.

JW: Except by whiting out the images. But let’s consider recognizable imagery in photography for a moment, which is implicit in the medium. I’m wondering whether some of that imagery has affected your painting.

CS: It’s actually opened a whole other world for me. Although my paintings are abstract they are based on the real world, you can recognize the imagery. Still when I had something that was too referential I would consciously remove it to avoid a misinterpretation. But with photography it was liberating to work with the imagery because it comes with the territory.

JW: Are you saying that with painting dealing with recognizable imagery is a bit confining?

CS: It doesn’t feel confining at the time. You’re a painter; you know how much of the whole world it is to paint. But I think in terms of the viewer, people relate so easily to photographs but not equally so to abstract paintings. So it’s not only opened up a whole world of content for me it’s opened up communicability for others that wasn’t there before. I mean, some people like both, some prefer the paintings but a lot prefer the photographs because they "get" them. They’re so easy to see.

JW: And that’s primarily due to the recognizable imagery, you think?

CS: Yes I do, I think the photographs are like reading a book or seeing a film or television. It’s what we see.

JW: A narrative is built into it.

CS: That’s right and its how we get almost all our information.

JW: You know the sad thing is that its there in the paintings too, if only people would see it.

CS: You’d think after a hundred years they could.

JW: Right! (laughs)

CS: It’s sad but there’s nothing you can do about it (laughs), so, get over it, make your paintings!

JW: Well actually, I have to confess that I was one of those people that "didní’t get It" for the longest time.

CS: Didn’t get what?

JW: Abstract painting. I thought it was horrible and made absolutely no sense. That is, until I saw a Rothko retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis back in the late 70s.

CS: Well that was a good start.

JW: Oh yeah! I was just bowled over by all that color. And after dangling between the two worlds I eventually began making abstract paintings and never looked back. But I find there’s so little difference between abstract and figurative art anyway. I like to compare the two to music in that you don’t need words to enjoy or "understand" a song. Lyrics are an enhancement, an accompanying narrative. So figurative painting is somewhat like music with lyrics whereas abstract painting is more just the music. I’ve always found this a good metaphor for an initial explanation of abstract art.

CS: I like that comparison. But to just call your website "Abstract Art Online" is already educational.

JW: Well it definitely sets up the premise of what you’re in for (laughs). But to get back to the idea of recognizable imagery in paintings, probably most abstract artists are very concerned about removing such elements so as not to allow a singular tangent or narrow interpretation to interfere.

CS: You’re somewhat responsible for shaping a response without directly forcing it. Now, if you let a figurative image in you have to acknowledge how it will be seen. If you want to go that way you can, but you have to know what you’re putting out there.

JW: In other words, although it might be confining to you as the artist there’s a reason for including it or not because you have specific issues to address. But with photography, it’s a given that you are working with recognizable imagery and you know from the start that people are going to see it that way.

CS: I can’t say that I’m going to keep doing photographs with recognizable imagery, I don’t know. Its certainly what’s been happening. But I can promise that I will not do figurative paintings (laughs).

JW: With your history? No, I certainly wouldn’t expect that from you (laughs). But let me finish with this, do you have a preference of one medium over the other and do you consider one or the other a better means of expression?

CS: Well! some questions are best left unanswered.