The Cynnie Paintings, November 4 – December 22, 2022
Carol Saft is a fixture in the arts community in New York City, where she has been living since 1998. She has worked in sculpture, film, and for the last ten years has been creating a series of videos featuring studio visits and exhibition tours of her peers as a way to contribute to the community that has supported her. The day of her opening at CANADA we sat down to talk about the work, The Cynnie Paintings, a series of paintings she started during the 2020 pandemic, featuring daily life with her wife Cynthia. The exhibition is on view at CANADA until December 22, 2022.
Interview between Amy Boone-McCreesh and Carol Saft
A: Your show includes paintings of your wife, Cynthia. Has she ever been a subject of your work before?
C: No, this is the first time. She’s actually quite shy and I was shocked that she was okay with me doing a whole body of work with her as the subject. We were in lockdown together, but I’m a very active person and I can’t just sit and watch tv, so I started painting. I’m more known for my videos and sculpture, but I started painting and loved it. I did go to art school on a painting scholarship, years ago, so I do have a background in it. I also spent many years on a painting crew being a decorative finish person. My speciality was making something look like marble. I love color and I also had five years of anatomy and drawing from a live model, so all of that prior experience and practice came rushing back.
All of these paintings were made on my kitchen table, and took a few days at a time. I would start a painting and finish it, and then, start a new painting right away. I have continued that practice today. My wife knew she was the subject of the paintings and was very encouraging, and she also critiques me sometimes.
A: You consider the moments in these paintings to be expansive. Can you explain what that means to you?
C: These paintings are similar to focusing tightly on a moment right before an action is going to take place. In that regard, they’re similar to my sculpture series, “Fallen Men, that are small, bronze men who are picking up someone who has fallen or is about to fall. You’re witnessing something and you’re not sure what direction it’s going to go. With these paintings, I want the viewer to be present with me in this moment and perhaps they can imagine what happens next. I like to keep things open-ended.
I spent twenty years as a video editor which entails looking at a clip and putting clips together to create meaning. You’re taking shots that seem like they’re not a thread, but you make them into a thread.
A: Can you talk a little bit about the scale of the paintings-was it dictated by necessity or circumstance, or strategic formally?
C: I have a NYC apartment and the kitchen is big enough for a 40 inch diameter table and the room has a big window. I usually don’t like to limit myself to arbitrary boundaries, but I love the square, so I gravitated toward that format. I think my background looking through a lens or viewfinder while I shoot video has guided these paintings in terms of composition and story-telling.
In some cases, like in “Cynthia loves her tattoos”, you do need a rectangle, because it’s an elongated view from behind. So the pose sometimes dictates what’s needed.
A: Did you put additional parameters on yourself, because they feel very relaxed and not over-wrought
C: I love materials, and having worked in so many different kinds of materials (I was a professional lithographic printer,) I’m a process person. When I was working in video, I didn’t work with a variety of materials.
People more experienced in painting than me say there is a period where at the beginning you feel relaxed and confident and then in a lile while you hate your painting. I was working in my apartment with an easel and drop cloth, because some are 20” x 20”, but the ones that seemed perfect for this gallery were the smaller ones. When I came to this space, I loved the square room.
Other than that, I don’t exactly have parameters. Since I am painting in my apartment, I can wake up at 3 AM and paint. I can paint any time I want–and I do!
A: How do you think about color, since taking up painting again?
C: I find that I’m not self-conscious about how I plan the painting. There’s a certain point where the painting tells you what it wants to be. The piece called Sunday Morning was dictated by how the light was coming through the window. In some of the others, there was incandescent light. I have an array of colors that seem true to the mood, and it can be a process of experimentation. When I studied drawing and anatomy at the Art Students’ League, the goal my teacher set was to be able to draw the human body without a model. That was a long time ago and I didn’t think it stuck with me, but it did.
The painting itself takes over, but sometimes I’ll ask Cynthia to hold her hand a certain way, so that I can see the complicated geometry. I don’t really want to paint from observation, because then the painting is limited by the ‘authority’ of your sight. I want the painting to be internally paramount, in its own terms.. The painting tells me what to do, rather than the other way around.
A: Do you know how many paintings you’ve made during this series?
C: I made 40. I knew we were going to be in lockdown. For part of it, we were in eastern Long Island where we have a house and I have a studio there where I have made sculpture. We were there for months and then we came back around October 2020. I started these paintings in Feb 2021. We were going to be in the city for a long time, so I wanted to be actively involved with my ideas and I started these paintings.
The first few paintings I did were experiments with materials like plaster and 3D objects, but then, I started focusing on my intimate relationship with my partner.
A: You come from a creative family and have a background in film. What or who are some of your earliest creative influences?
C: When I was five, I was trying to make my own comic book. I grew up in Newark and my father had a workshop in the basement. I would go down to the basement and putter around with him. He was building furniture, but he wasn’t a professional furniture maker, he was actually in advertising. For his office life, he got his shirts dry cleaned, and then they came back in a box with a piece of cardboard in each shirt. I took all the shirt cardboards and a red pen and made a whole story for myself about a little dog. That’s my earliest memory of drawing. My mom started a nursery school in Newark that was probably the first integrated nursery school on the east coast. There was a workshop there. A little work table, a little saw and hammer. I got started with those tools back then. I must’ve been about three or four. When I went to SUNY Purchase in the MFA program, I worked in the wood shop on sculpture/furniture. I learned how to bend wood and one of my sculptures was a lapstrake skiff, an ultra-light boat. I have that boat in my apartment sitting upright on its transom. It’s a piece of art furniture held up by two steel plates. I made that while I was coming out.
My earliest influences are my father and some painters who I saw at the Newark Museum very early on. I was also given a book about Cezanne and I loved his compositions.
A: When I read the press release for your show, I had an immediate vivid recollection of lockdown with my own spouse. I think that time and space was actually a gift despite the circumstances. Has the pandemic caused you to make any changes in your studio practice or the way you live?
C: My partner is completely generous. She’s from a big southern family who were tobacco farmers and sharecroppers. She’s so generous about how our space is used. She’s fine with me completely taking over the kitchen and living room. She keeps reassuring me that she’s fine with it. It is a gift. She says that she’s excited that someone recognized my paintings as being worthy of a show, but I hope I am not stretching her generosity too far. Since Canada transported my paintings to the gallery in September, I’ve painted five new ones and they’re also of Cynthia. So I think this series is ongoing.
Carol Saft’s show The Cynnie Paintings are on view at CANADA, 61 Lispenard St, New York, NY, until 12/22/22