Bob Nickas: I'm aware that writing and books, the writers in your family are important to you, and form a big part of your mind. This really relates to inventing the visual worlds and characters that we see in your paintings, the people who inhabit them. They're characters in some sort of story. So, I wonder if you can address that idea of being a kind of visual storyteller in painting.
Anna Conway: I think you are absolutely right. One thing I’ve never done is make a “body of work” or thought of paintings as projects. For me, the impetus behind my painting is the painting itself, it gains momentum as I'm working on it, and the painting itself ultimately reveals a story that is often surprising to me. Each painting in some way is its own character or story.
BN: That's something writers often say—that the characters reveal themselves as they write them I think of your paintings as more like short stories. When you said there's never a series, you're not writing or painting a novel. You go through a book of stories, from one to the next, and certain things overlap. That's inevitable. And it certainly happens in your paintings.
AC: Sometimes they do get crowded. The newest painting, Ark  (fig. 1), is very dense. And it felt less like a short story, more like a novel, but it also surprised me as it became more and more populated as I painted. As you know, I don’t make preparatory studies for my paintings, I have tried, but the painting takes over.
BN: Ark? That's not one painting, it’s more like seven! A retrospective—as if seven of your paintings come back in one work. There are so many vignettes in that sort of imaginary museum that relate to many paintings you've done up until now.
AC: I was a little bit stunned honestly when you pointed that out. It is embarrassing that I didn't see it. You immediately said, "Oh, look, you've painted your own paintings." And it took me a long second to realize that you were right.
BN: Well, they are and they aren’t. The image [that] is really frontal is the cliff dwellers from the Southwest, and that's basically an abandoned place, the people are gone. And then when we look to the right, at the whale hunt, the whalers aren't there. And then seeing the tops of the Easter Island statues—for a long time, it was, ‘Who made them? How did they get there?’ It was a mystery. We see the boat in the storm-tossed sea, but there's no sailor. And the pyramids—it's a lost civilization. Ark is an emptied world. Even the background looks abandoned.
You've painted imaginary and abandoned places before. The other new painting is the kitchen. Maybe it's the middle of the night, nobody's there, the only figures are toys. There's a kind of un-peopled world that you often picture, and it's related to, predominantly, a stillness—holding things still to look at them. That's still life, that's painting, a rendering of the world in two dimensions.
AC: Just last night I was thinking how, in some of my older paintings, I've painted people viewing other people when they're vulnerable; seeing them when they don't want to be seen, or don't expect to be seen. And even the perspective that you're seeing them from isn't a normal perspective. So, you don't even know who or where you are looking in on them, I am thinking of...
BN: The man sleeping on the cot at the industrial farm.
AC: Yes, right! So, it’s coming upon people, spying on them somehow, or catching them off-guard. But currently what I'm noticing in the unpeopled paintings is that you’re the one being seen—you are the only person there. You know, in that way when you go to someone else's bathroom and you're not really supposed to be seeing their things. In some way, a voyeur in a space by yourself. And so of course, you're in there alone, maybe you are the janitor.
BN: It sounds like you're describing being in your studio, making your paintings. You're in this space alone, and you're poking around.
AC: Ha. Looking for clues. It's funny, people have said that about my work—that it looks almost like mystery, and you're trying to figure it out. But for me, because I don't have some story planned out, it is like you said, in the way writers talk about that—where suddenly their books are being populated by characters they didn't see coming.
I remember somebody once said about Charles Dickens, he had his desk by the window, and he would be people-watching, and suddenly somebody would walk by, and they walked themselves right into his book.
BN: Right, right. You know, this idea of a mystery certainly it exists in your work. The other recent painting [Fishing for Minnows on the Back of a Whale, 2021] is a double mystery, because besides what's on the counter—the soldiers and the little toy dinosaurs—to the right is a pinned-up poster of Stonehenge.
That's another mystery; and it's another abandoned, un-peopled world. And it's also something you do in your paintings, which is put a picture in a picture. We have this poster in the kitchen, and the poster of the Redwood forest in the industrial farm painting. There’s the poster of Easter Island in that very clinical, bare office painting. There are these pictures within pictures that are basically mysteries within. The one mystery is the present, the world we're in now, and then there's this other mystery of the past. And they coexist in your paintings. That’s something I've always been attracted to.
AC: And in the most obvious way, too, you can't be in two places at the same time, but you can want to be of course.
BN: Well, you can in a painting and you can in a book!
AC: Exactly. And I think that's something that's helped me over time, too. When I'm somewhere I don't want to be, or I feel trapped somewhere, I can imagine myself out of that situation. I make a painting. Sometimes the “clues” in my paintings, I suppose, are objects or images that the people you see in them, or the space they inhabit that I have painted, gaze at, focus on, and surround themselves with, in order to take them mentally out of that space. Like that industrial farm has no trees. It seems completely bare outside, but that poster of a deep forest is almost like the carrot the farmhand keeps in front of himself to keep going.
BN: There’s also a kind of aloneness that you really reinforce. He's outnumbered by all the birds in the sky. It might as well be from the Hitchcock movie, The Birds. They’re swarming all over the overcast gray sky. And then of course, the herd of cattle. But even when you have crowds of people, it shows another kind of aloneness; the idea of how in those crowds the people you are painting are very, very small. So, you're looking at this idea of how small we are in relation to the universe, and how insignificant we are, especially because you return a number of times to a stormy sea. It's this awesome, sublime, terrifying part of the world that we could be drowned in. Coming back again to the little dinosaur toys on the kitchen counter, they represent this idea of complete extinction; disaster. The Stonehenge poster is another form of extinction, a people who are gone or unknown to us. Are there fears that you have that drive a certain kind of scene you imagine and paint?
AC: My fears are sometimes so generalized and enormous, like the collective state that was felt worldwide, the Trump situation, the pandemic, the climate crisis. Certainly, one of the fears I have is even just the modern reach of that news, the scale of collective information even reaching such a vast level of the world population.
BN: But you've been doing this for over twenty years. It's not about the pandemic or a recent situation. It goes back to 2002. That’s the earliest I’m aware of your work.
AC: Ah, this is true. And actually, that painting of the storm heads, those giant inflatable heads lost at sea—I made that painting before September 11th. So, that was early 2001. As background, our house was actually destroyed in the perfect storm, and had to be completely demolished and removed. That was a rather remarkable thing that happened to me, caused a financial disaster for my parents and forced me to leave college and work for a few years. That storm was definitely something rather awesome and fearful—using the old-fashioned meaning of ‘awesome.’
BN: Often in your paintings there’s just one person against the world, and a looming disaster that they appear helpless to prevent, or they’re already in it. Alejandro is a good example— everything is about to come crashing down on him.
AC: On a very small pair of shoulders. I think it’s almost like I’m testing my characters, and they’re all fragile. Even the men that are in the pickup truck painting, Pound of Cure. They’re inches—it’s almost pitiful how close they are—from drowning. Even though they’re on dry land, there’s this tension and fear in all of their faces. They know that the way they would drown would be so slight, it would just be a matter of their faces being covered another inch or so. A tipping point.
BN: It’s interesting that you talk about the look on their faces, because when you’re in front of that painting, their heads and their faces are so tiny. In your paintings, you really get into this microscopic level of what’s happening. I’d be surprised how many critics who might write about that painting would describe their faces. It’s more about their arms in the water, like, ‘What are they reaching for?What’s down below in this dark pool?’ Then, their ears are to the water, partly submerged, which makes strange the whole sound of the world. So, there’s an acoustic aspect to that work as well that I’ve always been drawn to.
AC: I love you noticing that about sound. Sound actually really does influence my painting. The reason I don’t make preparatory studies for my paintings is I know I won’t use them. I often start a painting with a sound in my mind, a kind of feeling, and it takes over the space of the surface, always in a very abstract way at first. Even a painting like the janitor doing a pushup, which I was picturing rather clearly when I looked at the blank surface—it still surprised me how big the figure needed to suddenly be, after I had started, and how small the city behind him became. It caught me off guard because I had no idea about the scale of things when I first pictured this scene in my head.
BN: Everything is happening in a painting as you're working it out, it's a kind of discovery for you. Something sets it off. The three paintings, the sort of blue nocturnes—I remember you told me before you made them, you said, ‘I want to make a painting with a speaker.’ It was very simple.
And that's another kind of silent, acoustic, sound aspect because there are speakers in each painting. But that's where it began. You said, ‘I want to make speaker paintings.’ I had no idea what was going to come from that, it was so open-ended. Did you have some idea beyond that?
AC: My idea started around the relationship people have with music. I wanted to paint a source of music that's staring at you, waiting for your command. A person’s relationship to music of course changes as we grow from childhood to adulthood, but it can form a kind of soundtrack to your life. Every once in a while, my kid and I laugh because still, on my phone, I have saved these Sesame Street songs. For some unknown reason one will suddenly come blasting out of my car speaker when we get into the car, and it'll be an Elmo song, or some puppet singing and Simone and I just laugh because it's so absurd. But for me, any speaker- it’s somehow waiting for you; it's going to give you a feeling, it's going to “deliver” you someplace else or give you a soundtrack to color your experience. You know, when you listen to songs, they kind of take you almost physically away from where you are, they provide this powerful ambiance maybe in a similar way that a painting's atmosphere does.
Those speaker paintings all got darker and darker. Something about music at night, about where it delivers you to, or from, got a hold of me. So, it started off as a really basic idea, that a speaker is this thing you use to choreograph your feelings. Funny, I always felt really manipulated when I was watching a movie, and suddenly fearful, or sad music would come roaring on, and it becomes almost impossible to stop your body from physically complying to the music’s direction.
BN: That's the worst, where the music is supposed to tell you how to see the scene—and it’s usually unnecessary. Since you had an idea to make paintings with speakers, and then all of a sudden three paintings came from a very simple thought, I'd like to ask about the painting of the giant balloon that's blown out to sea in the storm. Someone is making this valiant effort to try to bring it back—and we know he’s going to fail—where did that idea come from? This insane storm-tossed sea, and this ridiculous balloon blown away, and someone decides, ‘I'm going to get it. I’ll be the hero.’ Where did that come from?
AC: When I was young I wondered what it would be like to be asked to risk your life for something. I grew up with only sisters and lived around a lot of Vietnam Vets—men who had risked their lives in battle. I imagined the figures in that painting going out to retrieve those balloons were military people. I don’t know how exactly these things came together in that painting, but I had also been thinking how absurd those huge inflatable plastic objects are. As you know, I worked at the Sullivan Stadium in Foxborough and during one of the Rolling Stones tours, they had giant inflatable figures on stage that would blow up, and rock back and forth if it was windy. They scared me actually. There’s nothing stupider than to imagine being smothered by a huge out-of-control balloon.
BN: I always like when it gets very gusty during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, and the handlers lose the balloon—it sounds like one of your paintings—and all of a sudden, Bullwinkle or whatever it is, just goes careening into the crowds, and people go screaming. I don't want anyone to get hurt, but I really do love when mayhem comes from a giant cartoon character balloon … it could be a painting of yours, not that pop of course, but you have this idea of something coming down from the sky that you can't escape.
AC: I also think about vulnerability, especially in that painting. A lot of my childhood friends came from, and became, military men, firemen, policemen, Coast Guard. For me it always seemed these big, strong men were suddenly so small when put in these larger contexts.
BN: There is a Coast Guard boat in that storm, in the 3:54pm painting.
AC: That title came from the markers we humans gave ourselves to name every location on earth, even when you're in the middle of the sea. I once stumbled across a Latitude marker. I was walking by a cranberry bog near where my sister was living and there was an old stone carving of the latitude of that spot. It's just sitting there in the middle of nowhere.
BN: And longitude. That's what you have in the title of this painting.
AC: Right. To stumble across a marker, it's sort of sad in some way for us humans to label every single inch of our planet, as if everything is ordered and discovered already. I guess that was one of the reasons I gave it that title.
BN: You mentioned having only sisters and then imagining … I guess the protagonists in some of your paintings face situations that require a certain amount of bravery, valor, or in some cases, complete stupidity. I wanted to ask because, with very few exceptions, the people in your paintings are all men, and they're put in these demanding circumstances. I think the only painting very clearly with women is the one with two army wives [Mrs. Lance Cpl. Shane Toole and Mrs. Staff Sgt. Brandon Stevens, 2007]. Otherwise, you're always painting men in these mysterious and dramatic situations.
AC: I think it was almost the ill-luck of being raised precisely in a place where being a slightly built female just added so much to a feeling I had of being useless and unimportant. There was such an emphasis on being physically strong, it was an NFL town that I was growing up in.
Maybe it was also that my grandmother was a nurse, my sister was in nursing school, and there's this sense that you're supposed to be useful when you're here on earth—that you need to be useful. There was this anxiety I had about being useless and in the way. And I think that was something about how these paintings developed. I worked at the stadium, so I saw this up close. This was a small town and that stadium quite literally cast a huge shadow—the only thing in Foxborough was that giant structure. So, for all those years growing up, my entire existence felt like I was a little fly on the wall, without much to add. And, of course on top of professional athletes, every band that was coming through was huge. The Rolling Stones, The Who. It was males upon males, upon males.
BN: Male spectacle.
AC: Yeah, and the cleanup crew and the roadies and the football coaches and the assistant coaches—it just was an ocean of men around me. But at home, we were all young girls, and I felt keenly useless and a bit vulnerable. So, for me, I guess imagining being somebody else, in a very different body and position, was something that transpired at a very young age.
BN: From what you're saying, I'm reminded that one of your childhood heroes was Amelia Earhart and we’ve talked about that. All of a sudden, it occurs to me how many of your paintings are aerial views. It's this kind of high up and, in some cases, omnipotent view, whether over the sea, into a stadium, you've painted stadiums numerous times, across a big field. It’s the position you take in relation to the scene you’ve imagined: up above.
AC: This is actually funny and maybe a bit sad, too, but I once made a Mesa Verde diorama that was absolutely beautiful and I treasured it above anything else. I was young when I made it and I put everything I had into building it and replicating Mesa Verde. And I looked into, and down on it, desperately trying to “be” there.
BN: When would that have been?
AC: I must have been around nine years old, not long after we had left Durango, Colorado. And I was in mourning really, I missed the desert, and I really missed Mesa Verde, so I built it as a diorama. I can still vividly remember concentrating hard, looking down on my Mesa Verde, trying to feel my way into it being true to scale, true to life. In a funny way, it's almost like in Ark, looking at a world I've created, imagining it kind of underneath me. So maybe my perspective is, like you say, flying above it, or somewhere off in a tree nearby looking down.
BN: Well, Ark is very related to the idea of dioramas. It's one after another, on this sort of longboat or ship in that de Chirico-esque landscape. Very diorama.
AC: Those shadows across the ground just outside the museum space are of people, or maybe of sculptures of people. I was imagining them standing way above that building on the roof, their bodies casting long shadows. And suddenly while painting, when I found myself making a shadow of a figure I thought, ‘Anna, are you thinking of the church in St. Peter's Square in Rome?
BN: The whole ring of statues with the kind of colonnade on the roof …
AC: Exactly. I suddenly said to myself, ‘Okay, the figures in this painting are only there as shadows’ It occurred to me that I didn't even know if they were people, or they were sculptures casting the shadows. But in any case, those figures cannot see what's underneath them, which is the museum, or that ark that's inside. In that painting it’s not even clear if it is an indoor or outdoor space really. It reminds me of a stadium. They are somehow neither indoors nor outside.
BN: It took you a while to paint interiors. I think you were working for about six years before you painted your first interior. Certain paintings I don't consider interiors because they're almost a blank space, like the boy in the empty room in A Vision . That’s 2006. And then Leonardo is definitely an interior, from 2007. You were working for a long time before you went inside. And that overview, looking from high up above, is now inside, and you're in close proximity to your subject—Leonardo. And then a year later, you paint the two army wives in the living room [Mrs. Lance Cpl. Shane Toole and Mrs. Staff Sgt. Brandon Stevens, 2007].
AC: That’s interesting, I hadn't really realized it happened like that, moving inside. Hmm, it was a long time before I went inside.
I have thought about one thing in relation to that above view you brought up. I love Japanese scrolls. I took a Japanese Art History class at Cooper Union, and I loved that it looked like the roofs had been ripped off all the spaces being painted and drawn. You’re looking down at everything. I sometimes wonder if I was unknowingly reoriented by that perspective, and it comes out without me even being aware of where it's coming from.
BN: Even when you go inside and you paint interiors, you're always pointing to that space outside. So, [in] Leonardo, he's doing the pushups in the office at night, and it's possibly a law office, and we see the lights of the city outside. The army wives—there's a kind of innocuous landscape framed on the wall behind them, with a green field and a big blue sky. And then all of the other pictures within pictures we've mentioned: Easter Island and Stonehenge. Although you're inside, you're pointing to external space.
More recently, it's not just outside but it's really distant—not only in terms of space but in time, to these other cultures, archaeology. I think what that tends to do is show how the everyday spans that distance, especially at work. Someone goes into an office every day, and they're sitting at that desk. So, there's a boredom that’s implied in the everyday. Then there's a promise of transcending that, and I think you always want to show that it's there.
AC: I was thinking about this the other day. I used to have some pretty boring forty-hour-a-week work weeks. When I was between colleges, I was an office manager in Post Office Square in Boston, and my days were so horrifyingly long, I couldn't believe the clock was moving so slowly. I would sometimes think, ‘What if I just screamed in here?’ I mean, just the tension from waiting, from sitting still for so many hours would get to me. And I noticed that everybody around me in my various office jobs had those inspirational signs or pictures around them—I don't think you'd call them talismans … I don't even know if I'm using that word properly. In the way that people keep rosaries nearby to have something to cling to, to keep them going through their day, or pictures of their kids or grandkids, or a single plant, or an inspirational post-it, a quote.
You knew that everyone around you did not want to be there. You were all in a kind of “open prison” where you could escape, but the cost of escaping would be complete humiliation, and some kind of ruin. You knew that you couldn't just run out of an office. I guess I think about it now, how everybody has a phone that they look into to try to get away from where they are. Pictures of people, food, or wherever they wish they were, or wherever they think they're going, or where they used to be. Just somewhere
BN: I want to talk about your being so particular about details. You once made a painting that I was able to show years ago, and there were all these pebbles on a roof, which you had obviously rendered in excruciating detail, painted every single pebble individually. Now, a hero of mine was Jack Smith, and he was once asked what it took to be an artist—and here we're talking about these boring jobs where you're losing your mind—but he said, ‘To be an artist, you have to be able to deal with this unending boredom.’
It takes a long time and a lot of work to do what you do. I'm looking now at the detail of the kitchen painting (fig. 8). Anyone who goes up close to that painting and looks at the poster of Stonehenge—all the way at the top of the sky is a calendar—will see that you painted every single tiny number for every month in that year. And it's emphasized in contrast to the magnets holding it up to the fridge, those oversize, plastic, kid’s number magnets. You almost need a magnifying glass to be able to read all the numbers that you painted on the calendar. How do you have the patience to do all that?
Because a lot of people would just sort of fake it—‘I tried, and that'll look good enough from a distance’—but you want to paint every little tiny number, and every pebble. I don't have that patience to do anything in my life, but you do it in your paintings.
AC: It seems absurd if you personally know me, because I seem a little bit hyper when I'm with people. I get really excited. As a child I had a lot of energy and I wanted to laugh and move around. So, it does seem odd even to me that I can be so still and work on that level of detail. But I become really entranced by the work, by watching it unfold. Time flies by when I paint.
BN: I was going to ask you that, if you just zone out and get into it.
AC: I do, yeah. It’s almost as if sometimes I even become the character I'm creating. Maybe even the one that seems kind of pathetic, like that teenage boy with the nude woman on his shirt.
BN: Or the guy in Docent.
AC: Yes, Docent. I'm also thinking of the boy Alejandro, cleaning underneath the falling balloon, and there’s a boy at the top of a church interior called Spring Green. It's a big painting of a church hall or meeting place, it has wall-to-wall carpeting, and he's flower arranging above a manmade mini waterfall. He's kind of a caretaker of this rather horrible space. I mean, there should never be carpet that close to an indoor waterfall and pool. It's kind of a grotesque space but it was the best job this kid had at the time. I painted each of his plants and every bubble in that fountain because, in a way, my flower arranger spent so much time inside there that he had became acquainted with each and every thing surrounding him, and so should I. In the painting, he’s lost in thought, just watching this waterfall, hypnotized in a way. And I even hypnotized myself making it.
BN: You often paint people lost in thought. That painting with the pebbled rooftop and that one guy. I guess all the antennas and things around him have been blown down, and there's water in puddles with the sky reflected. That painting is called Trance. He's just staring into the sky reflected in the puddle, and I imagine you're sharing that entranced moment with him.
AC: Yes. And corny as this sounds, we're both in it together. I'm not ridiculing him for his possibly depressing, lowly and lonely job which is to take care of this ugly roof on a sort of giant big box store.
BN: You're never ridiculing anyone. I think you have a lot of empathy for the characters in your paintings, as you do for people in your everyday life.
AC: People that I really love have those sort of jobs. I remember when my dad, who has a doctorate in history, took an extra job as a carpet cleaner, and I couldn't think of a more depressing job. I hated that he was doing that, because I wanted him doing something using his mind. I found it really painful sometimes to listen to him talk about it. But he was really amusing sometimes. He would find out that the person in the beautiful office or house where he was working was a staunch Republican, and he'd say, ‘Nobody ever suspects the lowly carpet cleaner, but I talked about history and context and think I've changed his vote!’
In my painting of the kitchen there is another often dreary, monotonous job on display, which was one of mine. When I was raising a little child—and I was a single mom—I would have these elevated moments where I would feel a strong sense of accomplishment by washing every dish. And I would kind of step back and nod to myself, like, ‘Good job, Anna,’ and suddenly a crushing feeling would follow: ‘How does that even matter?’ And I could suddenly burst into tears after realizing that I had had a sense of accomplishment over something so insignificant. Sometimes too, you’re put into the most absurd, undignified situations. In my painting of the teenage boy with his hands up, A Vision, I placed him in what I imagine is his mother’s gynecologist’s office. Really it is a painting about me as a woman actually bringing my imaginary son with me, maybe to the office of the doctor who delivered him.
BN: I remember that was your fear—that that's what you were going to end up with as a child. It was not a pretty picture.
AC: For context, I was going to Cornell Weill Medical because I had really bad endometriosis, and this doctor just looked at me and said …
BN: Wait, what is that?
AC: Endometriosis? It's a condition that often causes infertility.
BN: You didn't have a child at the time, and I think you were ambivalent about having one.
AC: Oh, absolutely.
BN: But now you have this brilliant, wonderful daughter. You didn't end up with the goofy guy in the pinup T-shirt!
AC: Ha, that painting was in a funny way almost like in Charles Dickens, when The Ghost of Christmas Future visits Ebeneezer. I was in some way both comforting and confronting myself by the fact, well, you know, ‘Big deal. So, you won't have a child, you won't have to live through this period, with your innocent little baby growing into a teenager who wears this porn on a shirt.’
BN: You made that painting to keep it from happening.
AC: That is funny. My paintings are made with so much of their own momentum—maybe they are some kind of sorcery.
BN: Thinking about magic and a figure in a trance, I’d like to talk about Haniwa, which is a painting I really love. Here’s another man with a mundane, boring job. He’s probably spent most of his day waxing and waxing this floor to its high polish, and now, for some reason, he’s on top of a multi-tiered planter, totally lost in thought. It’s another instance of how you valorize, and in this scene create magic, in the everyday. He has to push the waxer across all these corporate floors day after day. But when I look at the painting, what’s so striking, and I think this would be true for anyone, is the light in this painting. Part of why you want a polished floor is so you can paint that glow. I want to ask about your relationship to light, because in that painting there are various sources and temperatures. There’s the light outside, which seems hot and dry and unforgiving, Southwestern and in the summer, and then there’s the coolnessseems hot and dry and unforgiving, Southwestern and in the summer, and then there’s the coolness inside, climate-controlled obviously, and then the glare/glow on the floor. It’s an oasis of sorts, as the precise rows of bottled water by the window suggest.
You’ve put a lot of light on the pedestal, which draws our attention to the Haniwa figure that gives this painting its title. I’ve never asked you about light in your paintings before. We always seem to talk about your predilection for darkening a scene, dimming everything down, which sometimes drives me nuts. That’s the absence of light.
AC: I honestly can’t overstate how big a role light plays in the making of any of my paintings—different kinds of light, layers of light, the lack of light.
Light is absolutely the most important feature, I think, of every painting I've ever made. My paintings start with light, and a kind of sound as I said before. Of course a painting has neither real light, nor any sound. It has to be invented. Some of my paintings taken through an entire 24-hour cycle, where they started off in the morning, and then, in the middle of the painting, it's late afternoon, and suddenly it's evening, then right to the middle of the night. It can be annoying—for me or for anyone watching. I feel like I’m at the mercy of my paintings, often. But light is calling the shots, and you're right about Haniwa; there are so many kinds of light I wanted happening together.
BN: Even the light that's passing through the water bottles, that translucent light, and even the light that picks up on the orange electrical cable. The more you look at it, the more you see how distinct it is from one element in the painting to another, and another, as in life.
AC: I don't even think I could put into words how commanding light is, how much it dominates my painting, for almost the entire experience of making a painting. There will be people that come and go in the paintings too—that man in Haniwa almost disappeared. And actually, when we were talking about paintings changing … if you remember that one painting of that bathroom, the post-it note painting …
BN: There used to be a man in that painting.
AC: Yes, there was a huge man.
BN: I know what that painting looked like when it was in progress, and when it was finished. It’s a good thing you got him out there!
AC: He disappeared and turned into a post-it note, basically. And in Haniwa, really, that man almost doesn't exist. He’s in the shadows, maybe because he doesn't want you to see him. I mean, he’s on the job, and he is kind of meditating possibly, or sleeping standing up. He’s not present. His eyes are closed. He is somewhere else.
BN: I'm glad you mentioned the painting where you took the figure out, which is then all about the post-it note he left on the mirror, which says, 'It's not going to happen like that.’ This is the title of the painting. So, all of a sudden, I'm looking at this painting and I realize, well, there's a picture in a picture, because there's all of this wallpaper that has an outdoor scene with a lake and trees, and then there are plants inside. So, you're playing off inside/outside. Then there's the mirror which reflects the plant behind. One of the details that's really prominent in the painting is the light switch on the wall. Because the wallpaper offers that outdoor scene, the switch is set over a fence, the lawn and the lake. You have nature and artifice and the nature of painting, art, which is artifice. People don't know that you took the figure out of that painting, but by putting in the post-it—‘It’s not going to happen like that’—we know that the painting wasn't going to happen like that, you changed it in a very major way. Did he leave that note for himself, for someone else, or is that someone else you?
AC: That's funny, I haven't even thought of that exactly, but you're right. In fact, that painting didn't happen as I intended it to. There was a man in that painting, and he did not happen like I thought he would.
BN: Did you see that post-it note some-where, or that message, or you just thought, ‘Yeah, that's the reminder he would leave for himself?’
AC: My ex-boyfriend knew somebody who told himself, ‘It's not going happen like that,’ so he would stop torturing himself with future thinking. “It’s not going to happen like that” was some sort of mantra he had for himself.
BN: Well, it's not very affirmative, compared to someone who would have a coffee mug printed with the phrase, ‘You're the greatest.’ And they see it every morning at breakfast. The people I’ve known who needed that daily affirmation tended to be on anti-depressants.
AC: Of course. Yeah. I just couldn't get that guy’s mantra out of my head. I was a little disappointed when I realized that the man in the painting had to go, that he didn’t fit into the painting I was trying to make. And, if you look back at it, I changed the entire perspective of the painting too.
BN: Well, although he's not there, he's very present with the note, and you get a sense of who that person is because of the phrasing, and whether it’s a note-to-self or intended for someone else.
AC: I've been wanting to make a painting for a long time of being behind people, where you don't see enough of them, but you're trying to see who you're following. Maybe they have writing on the back of their shirts, or just where you have an infuriatingly impossible way to find out who you’re with—who are these people I’m surrounded by?Just because whenever you think of crowds, you always think of seeing their faces, but seeing all of their backs is something I've been thinking of. In a way, the cattle painting was like that for me painting a terrifying amount of cattle, but when you paint them from the perspective that I did, they just look like a thin gray/brown line.
BN: Another question I've never asked you before: who are the artists who are important to you? Who are the painters who are important to you?
AC: Sometimes I have to be careful about not looking at other painters while I'm right in the middle of working on something, because it does make me overthink my paintings sometimes, which can bring them to a screeching halt. I will certainly say, without a doubt, Goya, Rousseau, and Rembrandt are vitally important to me. And what they have in common I guess is there's a darkness and a humor and a real sincerity, as simple or overused as that word may be. I've never made an insincere painting. I've been willing to kind of embarrass myself at times to bring something to life. There are many times when I've wanted to make cooler paintings, you know, sexy paintings, loose paintings. And I can’t. It just doesn't come out of me. But I think those three painters I mentioned, whenever I get asked that question, always fly to the top immediately, and then I go blank for a second. I'll tell you, of course, that I'll be mad at myself in a few minutes because I'll think of so many more … Florine Stettheimer … I can't get her out of my head. I absolutely love those paintings so much.
BN: No one would ever imagine that, because your paintings are so precise and obviously take a long time to come into the world. I'm not saying Stettheimer was fast. I don't know how long it took her to paint a painting. And I like them too, but it's very surprising to me that you’ve mentioned her. I'm sure other fans of yours would feel the same way.
AC: Here’s what she does, though, that delights me, and I thought, ‘Oh, I feel close to you on that.’ She painted these scenes that were somewhat bonkers, very narrative and a little bit absurd, and they seem very sincere, too. Maybe that's that thing … they're absurd in the way a Goya is, where they’re almost fairytale-ish.
BN: That's a good way of putting it. You know, when you mentioned narrative, I would say one of the things that's striking over all of your work, over twenty-plus years, is if there's a narrative there, you're not saying, ‘This is what it is.’ You want the person looking at it to think about what's going on, or what just happened, or what's about to happen, or ask, ‘Who is this person? What's going on here?’ And it can be entirely speculative and you might even think, ‘Well, how can it be wrong? It’s just what the viewer thinks it is.’ And so, the narrative is happening on the part of the viewer. You want someone to really look, and there's a payoff for them. That’s partly why you expend all that time and energy, being so particular. You will paint something, paint it out, put it back. That has to happen, that process in which you figure out what’s going on, or get close enough. You’ve left all the clues for the person who’s going to be in front of the finished painting, that you may have brought to the finish line more than once. Then it’s their turn to figure it our, or not, and not knowing can be satisfying as well. There’s wonder in the wondering.
AC: I sometimes forget I'm supposed to even think of someone else ever seeing a painting. The funny thing is, I've asked myself if I would make paintings if I were the last person alive, and I know I would. That reminds me of Dana Schutz, who made a painting about the last man on earth, and I should say, Dana is one of my absolute favorite painters in the world. I love her paintings. And I had the privilege of having a studio down the hall from her in grad school and watched her work.
BN: She was a student of mine at Columbia, one of the best. I know her from a long time ago.
AC: I remember that. By the way, I hate not thinking ahead about that question of favorite artists, because this happens to me and then I get upset about it. I told Dana once that right before I'm about to see a new painting of hers, I get so excited that I feel insanely thirsty. I always have to bring water to see her work. I think they also have a sincerity and they're bravely narrative, but they are confusing.
Again, if I was the last human on earth, would I bother making paintings? Unequivocally, yes. Because I want to figure them out. I don't have some coherent plan before starting. I don't make bodies of work where I'm figuring things out ahead of time, or thinking, ‘This body of work is going to be about this.’ I remember once Ross Bleckner came to my studio and he saw the inflatable heads at sea painting that kept changing and changing. He said, ’You could have just made ten paintings of inflatable heads instead of this one tortured painting!’
BN: Oh no, no. I think that every time you make a painting, you're starting all over again, and that's why something like Ark, having this retrospective aspect of many different paintings, or dioramas, within the painting, is so interesting to me. Ark presents us with this arc of your career as a painter-storyteller. You mention Dana imagining the last man on earth. When I saw Ark, I thought, well, here are these abandoned or long-lost civilizations, but there are no people in this painting to look at them. So maybe everyone's gone. And the only sign of any kind of human movement are those little directional arrows on the floor to show people which way to go around. But nobody's there. This painting has a kind of reverberation, and if I had to describe it, I would say that if there's a sound to that reverberation, it's silence. The casting of the long shadows, as you said, they would be the statues on the roof, but they're not there, or the people have turned to stone.
AC: Right, and they can't even get into that space below. About those arrows, I laughed out loud in my studio when I painted them, it was as if my arm was possessed. I just attacked the painting to make them, action before thought. I mixed up this plastic kind of yellow color … you remember when I painted those yellow rubber gloves in the janitor painting? That made me laugh, too, in the same way, those yellow arrows and the yellow rubber gloves.
BN: Which are also reminiscent of de Chirico, as is the background in Ark.
AC: Right. Except somehow de Chiricos don’t feel cheap and gross, like my yellow rubber gloves do. The arrows in that painting do animate the floor space in a strange but satisfying way for me.
BN: I have a question, which is sometimes a way out of the conversation. I’m wondering, do you have images in mind for your next painting or paintings?
AC: Oh my God. Yeah. I have a lot of them.
BN: Which idea is in the lead, would you say?
AC: Actually, what I keep seeing is a show that has a life-size man painting, and he's kind of leaning toward me, and next to him are all of these small window sill paintings. I don't even know what to say about that.
BN: Well, I know what to say. That would be a painting unlike any you've ever made before. Right? Nothing is life-size in your work.
AC: Except that desk in Steady As She Goes. Or maybe the closest would be the kitchen [in Fishing for Minnows on the Back of a Whale].
BN: They're not life-size.
AC: Yeah, they’re not.
BN: I know. I'm a human being. I know what life size looks like. You're really going to do a life size-person, a figure that would be almost six feet tall?
AC: Well, I have no idea why I can't get that out of my head lately. And it gives me a little comic relief, because that does seem like a really terrible painting to make.
BN: Well, you won't know until you paint it, un-paint it, repaint it, change it, and see the finish line on the far horizon.
AC: And the figure ends up being an inch tall in the end.