Clare Grill, Touch'd Lustre by Nora Griffin
I feel like color is not something I plan, but something I notice and then chase after. I think the more I use it the less I understand about it, but I know it when I see it. I do so much layering over and wiping away that whatever color was initially there gets necessarily altered, weathered, muted, hazed, warmed up, or cooled off, and the subsequent colors I mix are in response to what colors I see emerging from the painting’s surface.
- Clare Grill
Q & A with Clare Grill and sculptor Elsa Sahal
ELSA SAHAL: When I look at your paintings, they have a strong feeling of “craft”. Do you use craft as a source of inspiration or as an iconographical starting point?
CLARE GRILL: I’m very drawn to folk art and antique documents made to commemorate: birth and baptismal certificates, marriage certificates, love tokens, fraktur drawings, book plates. The time and care that was spent making and decorating is so heartbreakingly beautiful to me. I also love antique textiles: quilts, lace, clothing, homespun linen, curtains, napkins, and especially embroidery samplers which are small pieces of fabric embroidered with little pictures of animals and trees, houses, figures, alphabets and numbers. Most include a prayer or a verse about obedience to God with a strikingly acute awareness of death. These are striking because they were made by little girls, some as young as 5. They were made as part of a girl’s schooling (if she was wealthy enough to be educated) and passed down as family heirlooms, hung in the home to display her virtues and talents. They are gorgeous and worn, touched all over, and so detailed, real labors of love. I find them compelling as handmade objects and as artifacts of women’s history. They have been a rich starting point for me for nearly 10 years.
My series of “Sampler” drawings which began in 2012 is inspired by the craft of embroidery samplers. Each small, oil-on-paper work is a response to a singular sampler: not a transcription, but an interpretation and an homage. They are named for the girl who made the source object. These drawings are individual works, not sketches, and they also serve as a database of shapes, colors, marks, and little pictures that generate my paintings on linen.
ES: And the reverse question: Do you think about painting as craft?
CG: In graduate school, one of my professors talked about how our little cohort of painters was very attentive to “craft” in our work. We were obsessed with every bit of making a painting: making our own supports out of wood, gluing, sanding, buffing, building a painting from the ground up. We all had chop saws and c-clamps and strap clamps and we’d compare different grits of sandpaper. I think this experience taught me that careful attention to craft, the handmade, is a foundational element for my work. The nuance and personality that’s inherent in linen stretched by hand — sized, sanded, primed and wiped— is just as important as the paint that gets rubbed into it.
Q & A Continued
ES: The texture of your paintings is really unique. It is like oil shifting to wool, or wood shifting to mineral; it appears to metamorphosize. This texture seems to hold many different properties that don’t usually come together. It catches and rejects light in a sweet and sour way, or an attraction-repulsion way. How do you achieve this texture? What was the process that led you to this texture?
CG: It was certainly a making process as opposed to a thinking one. I like to paint my paintings flat on a tabletop so that I can move around them and see them from every perspective. I like them to be made near a window so the raking light that falls on the surface serves as an element which reveals texture, sometimes guiding my touches. It simultaneously obscures colors and shapes, opening up new possibilities for both, so that the painting can keep “becoming” as it gets painted. It is kind of an improvisational way of painting, I guess, orchestrated by the little raised textures catching light or casting shadows depending on where I’m standing. Also, I paint with my face rather close to the surface, like a kid coloring or a person quilting. I suppose all this relates very much to textile and how embroidery is made, but it certainly wasn’t something I thought up beforehand. The process was much more bodily and intuitive.
Painting this way helps me to “not think” about what the painting as a whole is, but rather it allows me to “just look” at tiny shifts in color and texture, which for me are an endless well of richness in painting. I put them on the wall too, when I can’t see anything else to do, and there I begin to notice formal relationships and shapes to pull forward or bury down. This part is more challenging for me; it is much more cerebral and less intuitive, which creates opportunity for me to second-guess myself.
Sometimes a piece gets painted to death though, gets choked up and breathless and I’ve found that the way to best breathe life back in, for me, is to lay it back down and cover over it with thin color. New color reveals different things about the painting to me, which is very exciting. I don’t think of these layers as destructions but more like muscles or blood or skin over a skeleton: the bones are underneath forming the body even though you can’t see them. Or maybe they are like sheets of sediment shifted slowly by time and cracked in places, revealing their history. I pick at them with my fingers or with dry brushes or rags to uncover what’s below, creating new texture, new color, and weaving the layers together. Sometimes my paintings have many, many “lives” or color identities before they arrive as finished works.
ES: Can you talk about color? How does it behave under your brushes?
CG: I love to be surprised by color because it’s one of those things in painting that has the power to make a painting really “live” on its own. Guston talked about leaving a studio full of people at night. When a painting is at last a painting and has real presence, it says, “I don’t need you anymore, back away, I exist without you now, I can do it.” Many things in a painting can be this life source: a sturdy composition, an edge punctuating the whole object, the energy of a line, the velvety feel of a shape floating atop a deep pool of color. I think these elements are very difficult to predict or plan, though. I think they have to surprise and there has to be a level of intense attention and deep humility on the painter’s part to allow herself to be surprised.
I keep lists of colors I see and notes about where I saw them, which helps me recall them pretty vividly. Sometimes I mix colors according to these notes and remembrances, but I know that this is only a start. I am interested in color that really gives to other colors, making them look their best. This can be the slightest variation like one made by a difference in mere directional stroke, or the biggest, like what red gives to green. Transparent washes allow what’s underneath to sometimes peek up through, and sometimes sink under. They allow for subtlety, like a wink, not a bullhorn.
ES: When I look at your paintings, they feel complete. They hold at the same time a very down-to-earth immediate love (protective, like a loving mother) and they seem to come from a long contemplative meditation. When is a painting finished?
CG: Sometimes I work on a painting for years, sometimes a couple weeks, usually for months. It really depends on the moment I recognize it as having strength enough to hold together without another touch from me. And this recognition is often very visceral for me, like my whole body knows it’s now a painting. It’s thrilling to make a painting. I guess the motherhood analogy is pretty apt; I form them lovingly and attentively, fits and all, until they are ready to go off into the world.
Originally from Chicago, Clare Grill (born 1979) lives and works in Queens, NY. She received her MFA from the Pratt Institute in 2005, and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2011. Solo exhibitions include Zieher Smith & Horton Gallery (New York), Reserve Ames (Los Angeles, CA), Soloway Gallery (Brooklyn, NY), and Real Art Ways (Hartford, CT). Her work has been exhibited in group shows in Chicago, Houston, Seattle, St. Louis, New York, Hawaii, San Francisco, Guadalajara, London, Bologna and Denmark. Grill was a 2017 recipient of a Steep Rock Arts residency in Roxbury, CT and was the Fall 2017 Artist-in-Residence at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Clare Grill, Touch'd Lustre by Nora Griffin
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