EXHIBITION VISIT – NORA STURGES
Levitation at C. Grimaldis Gallery, Baltimore, MD
September 26-November 9, 2019
Conversation between Amy Boone-McCreesh and Nora Sturges at Grimaldis gallery in Baltimore, MD.
Amy: People familiar with your work know this is quite a departure. Can you talk about that shift in your work? And any through lines from then to now?
Nora: My previous work was small-scale, fairly realistic images of imagined places that examined human interaction with the environment. After several years, I got to a point where it wasn’t exciting to do anymore. I felt like I had said what I wanted to say through those paintings, and while I still enjoyed making the image, the actual painting of the image had become a tedious, drawn out, predictable process. I realized that I wanted to have a new adventure in my work. I had been interested in abstraction as long as I can remember, so I decided the time was right. It took about two years painting, not producing anything I would ever show to another person, to find my way again, to find a new vision and subject matter. And I think that though this new body of paintings is more or less abstract, like my old work they’re very pictorial, and they’re very much about imagining another world. That connects back to all my previous work, actually– I’m trying to imagine a place and then paint it. The process of abandoning old imagery and ways of painting and searching for new direction was really scary. But I kept thinking about Philip Guston and how, when he was in his mid fifties and a successful abstract expressionist, he decided to stop what he was doing and find a new and more meaningful path to pursue. He took a few years to privately explore two different ideas, and in the end, the work he settled on pursuing is what he is best known for today. So I thought there was potential for me to come out of the process with stronger work, and, while there were a lot of bad days of thinking, Oh my God, am I ever going to make a good painting again?, in the end I found direction and got the new adventure I’d wanted. Part of what was rough was that on one hand I was a very experienced painter, but on the other I was starting over from scratch.
The content feels somewhat elusive but there are also moments of extreme specificity for me – what were your influences for this body of work and how did they move through you?
My influences were very specifically late medieval Italian paintings– basically from Giotto to Piero Della Francesca. It’s not so much the historical paintings, but the act of looking at the paintings that is my subject matter. There’s this perceptual moment that I really love when I first set eyes on some works from that time, if I’m lucky. In the first few seconds there are moments of clarity, details like someone’s hand or the texture of someone’s beard or some folds in drapery, that spring to life. But the spatial context for those details is still really confusing. I love that simultaneous clarity and mystery!
Then very quickly that moment’s gone and the space becomes clear and you figure it out. I really wanted to capture that perceptual moment in these paintings and try to sustain it while you continue looking at the painting, so you continue to be able to have that type of experience. Sometimes it’s an entire painting that gives me that thrill of confused clarity and inspires me, but sometimes it’s just a very small detail from a painting that triggers that special feeling. I start off each painting just trying to paint what I saw in that first disoriented moment of looking at a particular historical painting. There’s never any life to that first part of the painting– it’s too related to the source image. So I start improvising and eventually some area starts to have what I guess I could call a greater reality. It seems somehow more real and alive to me, having something of the spark of the initial perceptual experience I’m inspired by. It’s almost like having a vision. I then try to enter that world I’m starting to see, to clarify and intensify it.
Do you work on one at a time, or many paintings at once?
I usually have eight or so going. I find through experience working this way that they reach impasses pretty easily. They need to sit in my studio and I need to walk by them every day and then, you know, a few weeks or even a couple months later I’ll suddenly think, Oh, I know what the problem is. I’ll try a new idea and sometimes very quickly I’m untangling the image and it starts to come together. Other times I have a happy day working on one and then I meet another impasse and get stuck. It’s such an emotional roller coaster making art.
Your paintings have always been relatively small. Has this always been a logistics decision based on the way you work, or do you think scale plays a role in the understanding of them?
I haven’t painted anything larger than maybe 10 by 14 inches in almost 30 years. The first time I tried a small work, something just clicked and I was able to make a more intense connection between my imagination and vision and the painting at that size. I see it as being head-sized, like a projection of my mind’s vision, in contrast to a large work related to the body. I think that about the viewer’s experience as well. It is so small that you have to go up to it and let it take up most of your vision. I think it connects with imagination in a different way than a large painting would. So, yeah, it’s been pretty important, and I think my mark developed out of the size rather than the other way around.
How long were you working for this show?
In a way, four years. I had two years of producing things that now live in a shoebox in my closet, before starting to get some paintings that I could show to people. The work in the show was made during two years almost exactly. As my ideas developed, I started to get a better ability to bring paintings to completion, so the process got a bit quicker for me towards the end. I was working without any particular show in mind, just trying to get a critical mass of paintings. Grimaldis gallery contacted me and it was actually perfect timing.
How do you think about color with this work and how does that compare to your previous works?
The paintings here were mostly begun by simply transcribing the colors from an art historical source, but trying to see into them a little more, like seeing their potential. Many of the colors in those medieval paintings are not very vibrant or contemporary looking. I think just because I’m living now, I’m translating them into more of a present day idea of color. Also, I’m working from photographs, and sometimes it’s the color of the photograph that ends up influencing the painting rather more than the original artwork. I’m also responding to the lighting of the painting in the photo, and to damage that’s happened to the painting over the centuries– lots of things that are not original to the painting. A lot of people have asked me about the color in these and it’s really an intuitive process I hadn’t thought much about.
How do you handle going back to your studio when a show opens and all the work is out?
There is definitely a sense of excitement about new beginnings and new possibilities. Working is easier for me if I have a range of paintings in my studio at different points in the process from start to finish. So I just get stuff started without thinking too much. When I’m starting a painting, I’m just full of hope and optimism. Very soon it gets kind of depressing and then it’s hard work to claw my way out of that pit and see a painting through to finish. Right now I have a lot of work that’s at the same awkward stage. You start the process over again.
When does the show close?
The show has been extended until November 9, 2019.