INTERVIEW WITH CURATOR ALIE SMITH ON “DWELLING”
A phrase in the exhibition’s tagline is, ‘the precarity of intimate spaces.’ In your opinion, what about an intimate space is precarious? How do the works in “Dwelling” emulate this idea of precarity?
Precarity plays a large role in women’s relationships to intimate spaces. In my own experience, I have always found great comfort and security in retreating to intimate spaces – to decompress, regain energy, contemplate, and feel a certain sense of control over a place I had made into my own. However, they can also be home to past traumas, both collective and personal, especially for women. We are conflicted with the notion of the interior being a safe space, while it historically and maybe personally can represent oppression, confinement, or even fear. I think we are pressured to view much of what we experience in binaries, but so much exists in this precarious grey area.
A quote I often referred back to in my research for the show is from Jules Michelet’s L’Oiseau, which describes the bird’s nest as “its form and its most immediate effort, I shall even say; its suffering.” So, the interior, like the bird’s nest, is a space that one cultivates. You make it your own, and in that process you make it safe, but it also has the capacity to cause one’s suffering because of how closely related it is to one’s being.
The work in Dwelling represents precarity both formally and conceptually. Many of the artists blur the lines of their respective media, and conceptually, they delve into their own relationships to the interior, which range widely. The precarity of the interior is apparent in paintings by Kathy Osborn, which depict women in traditional domestic spaces, but with a dark and disorienting twist. The architecture and style references the 50s and 60s era of glorified domesticity, but the women Osborn studies are trapped in these believable yet impossible spaces, completely isolated from the public sphere. Osborn’s process is extremely involved and multi-faceted. She assembles her scenes using miniatures, which she lights and photographs, and then paints from the photographs, creating stark, dramatic, intense paintings.
The experience of viewing the show as a whole is precarious as well. You at once feel the warmth of the intimate setting as well at the intimacy in the works. But there is also an underlying tension, in paintings like Kathy’s as well as other artist’s who are revealing the darkness that exists beneath all this warmth. It’s not intended to disturb the viewer outright, but to allow room for them to ask questions.
What is the conversation between the two mediums—photography and painting—that are featured in this show? What was behind your decision to incorporate and combine paintings and photography in one exhibition?
There is a lot of conversation to be had between painting and photography. As someone who practices both, I find that they can inform each other a great deal. In fact, all of the artists in Dwelling use photography in some way. Emily LaCour films the interiors of late Antebellum homes in New Orleans and paints from the stills in the video, resulting in her referential abstractions like Scene One and Scene Three, which are haunting and transient, evoking the human qualities that the interior takes on in one’s absence.
Additionally, the camera is an interior space not unlike the domestic space. It has a window that lets in light, it houses the subject and holds it. All of the pieces in the show physically pass through this mechanical interior in the process of their making, creating a consistent link between the works.
In your own work you deal in photography and painting. Your series Interiors is a part of the show. What caused you to include paintings of yours, rather than photographs, in this show?
My work in photography, while it references interiority, is much more focused on ownership and the body. At the time when I was working on Interiors, I was trying to better understand the patterns of trauma – how past traumas can bring about new ones, and the structure of traumatic memory by sifting through relics of my past, most of which was represented through photography. I ultimately was negotiating the spaces that provided me with safety and comfort as a child and how these very same spaces were turned against me into an oppressive force. The negotiation of comfort and confinement, safety and trauma is really essential to the core concept behind Dwelling, so the Interiors series felt like a natural fit.
What was behind the decision to include only women artists in this exhibition? It’s as if you are placing the feminine in the stereotypical domestic sphere, while these female artist’s reimagine these domestic spaces.
First and foremost, I believe that it is my responsibility to promote other women whenever I get the chance. Even today, women’s voices are still under-represented in the art world. There is always more that can be done, and my goal is to use my position of privilege to lift up others. I think representation is extremely important to consider when curating a show, and I want to keep challenging myself to improve in this respect in the future.
The interior and domesticity are very much tied to women, both stereotypically and historically, and this is where that notion of confinement to the interior comes in. There is a great deal of power that comes from someone taking back control of the thing that oppresses them, and the women in Dwelling do exactly that. Photographer Jen Davis, for instance, is really the director of whatever space she occupies and photographs in. She uses her critical eye for light, color, and composition to orchestrate very specific images, actively taking what she needs from the interior space in order to facilitate that. It is very much an act of reclamation. I believe that the women in Dwelling are all reclaiming the interior through the process of deciphering it, by constructing spaces that belong to them in one way or another.
How are these artists experiencing and relating to intimate spaces? In your own paintings, how are you experiencing and relating to intimate spaces?
The artists in Dwelling present a range of experience with intimate spaces.
For instance, Jeanette Spicer’s photographs documents her relationship with a former partner. They were housed and protected in their homes to explore their vulnerabilities with each other, their sexuality, or the power dynamics in the relationship. The resulting photographs are emanating with this tenderness. Her subject’s body often bleeds into the architecture, so the photographs are not only portraits of this person but of the space these two people inhabited together. This human quality of the interior space is quite prevalent throughout the show, as all of the artists explore the human emotions imprinted on a space.
Amy Greenan’s paintings, on the other hand, with their geometric abstractions and voids of black are much more focused on absence in an interior space. You can see the foundational structure of the abandoned spaces she studies – structures that have long been empty, but are still loaded with a presence of some kind – maybe the passage of time, or traces of their previous occupants.
My study of interiors was a way to better understand the patterns of traumatic memory, and how trauma imprints itself into intimate spaces. This came after a year-long period where, while in an abusive relationship, I was mostly confined to my bedroom. This space, which I had put a great deal of effort into making my own and had always provided me comfort in the past, was used as a tool to control me. I had to form a new relationship to intimate space that could encompass my personal traumas and my need for a safe space, and I feel it is very important to create a conversation about this difficult balance.
Can intimate spaces exist beyond a space of dwelling?
It’s difficult to determine what should be considered an intimate space. They take many different forms, and I think a dwelling is just one of them. There are many places where one can find a space of intimacy – in borrowed spaces like a friend’s couch or an airbnb, or even public spaces. I don’t think intimacy is just limited to the domestic.
I used Dwelling as the title for the show because of its dual meaning. In one sense, it is synonymous with the interior, a place where one resides. But dwelling also implies longevity. To dwell means to reside, to swim in one’s thoughts. It’s a very intimate notion, and that is one of the driving forces behind the show.
Do you hope for women artists to move beyond domestic spaces? Or do you feel that women will be inextricably linked to domestic spaces?
I think many women artists have already moved beyond domestic spaces, and some have no interest in them at all. I find this to be very exciting, and I have begun to move away from domestic spaces myself. But the interior is something that is always there, and always very important. Many of the artists in this show, and many other artists I’ve spoken to will often return to the interior the way one returns to a childhood home. You enter the space in order to rediscover something you had forgotten or never considered, and then you can leave, extend yourself and your ideas outward. But the interior is always there, and you can spend an eternity or just a moment in it.
What is it about spaces of dwelling that attracts you? Does your attraction to spaces of dwelling go beyond a woman’s relationship to domestic spheres?
What attracts me to spaces of dwelling is their complicated history, and I think this goes beyond just women’s relationships to interiors. They are loaded with meaning for everyone, in one way or another, and that’s why it’s a concept that I will keep returning to in the future.
There is an undeniable sense of melancholy as well as familiarity in “Dwelling.” I feel that there is something to the subjects of the images being around the same age in similar spaces of dwelling: younger women, in apartments. Was this a deliberate decision on your part?
Vulnerability is a big part of the concept behind Dwelling, and I think this is where that sense of melancholy and familiarity come from. I’m most interested in artists whose voices are vulnerable, who revel in their uncertainties, insecurities, and indecisions. Like I said earlier, we’re pressured to view and express things in binaries, in certainties, and I wanted to avoid that in the curation of this show as much as possible.
I’m happy to hear that you found familiarity to be so present in Dwelling. First off, the space itself is very intimate. Susan Eley Fine Art is a small gallery in a residential Upper West Side neighborhood, on the second floor of a townhouse. It’s a converted apartment with brick walls, a fireplace, and a small kitchen. So upon entering the gallery, you really feel like you’re being welcomed into a home. Furthermore, I think the familiarity allows for one to have a deeper exchange with the work. It doesn’t immediately impose its intention upon the viewer. Rather, it beckons you to come closer; to have a conversation, and tease out what the artist is trying to say.
What do you want an audience member to come away with from this exhibition?
The intention behind curating Dwelling was always to have the viewer come away asking questions. The reason for having an intimate show like this is to invite a much deeper conversation – between artwork and viewer, viewer and artists, and among the different artists in the show. My job as both an artist and a curator is to start and continue this conversation about women and the spaces they occupy. I hope that viewers come away from the exhibition thinking not only about women’s relationship to domestic spaces, but to all spaces. This idea of space, of the body taking up space, is important in art world and in the greater public discourse.
Dwelling is on view at Susan Eley Fine Art until May 26, 2016 at 46 W 90th st, 2nd Floor, New York, NY