Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Tour of Greg Ragland's Studio and Process

"Rufous in Sage, Red and Orange," by Greg Ragland

Greg Ragland’s studio is bathed in afternoon sunlight and birds. Two walls are lined with his newest paintings, bright squares of color graced with chickadees, geese, quail, a spoonbill, and hummingbirds. Across the room is a large computer monitor where he brings up images of the sculptures he’s working on to install in April at the People’s Portable Garden in Salt Lake, the result of a public art commission he was recently awarded. He pauses for a moment from his busy schedule and talks about the commission, and the upcoming show at Phoenix Gallery, which will feature the newest paintings in his wildlife series.

How do you spend your days?

I wake up every day and I can hardly wait to get to work. I’m either in this room [the studio] or in the shop—I have an oversized shop in the garage—and then lately I’m down at the foundry.

Congratulations on the public art commission. This is an exciting new development in your work.

When I was in grad school, I did mostly sculpture. Painting was my comfort zone. Sculpture I have to think about a bit more, in fact, that’s where my work is headed. The garden is about bringing people together. So one of the projects is called “No Salt, Just Peppers.” [It’s four human-sized bell pepper slices in red, yellow, green, and orange.] The peppers are leaning on each other, which works for the metaphor of the garden, and people depending on each other. There’s also “Three Peas in a Pod,” which is a peapod bench, and toothpicks with cherry tomatoes called “Starters,” which will be installed at the entry to the garden. I’m loving public art because it’s for everyone, everyone can see it and enjoy it.

"6 Whooping Cranes on Red," by Greg Ragland

These new paintings are gorgeous. How did the wildlife series initially start?

Before the wildlife series I was doing figurative work. There were people flying and others in contained spaces; and at a certain point the work started to become very esoteric and personal. It was getting to the point where I’d solved all the problems I’d created for that body of work, so I decided I was going to stop painting for awhile. I ended up going for three or four months—which is the longest I’d gone without painting since I was 14. Then one day I was sitting in the yard, and this bird was flying over. And it was beautiful, but I realized the bird wasn’t the most important thing—the background and the bird were in a competition for attention. I’m a huge fan of the color painters, so I decided to take the abstract background, and then shove in this whole other idea: the realistic bird. I wanted to take two completely different philosophies, and make them work together.

Compositionally, the birds give the paintings the freedom to not be grounded. The composition and color are really what I’m interested in. The backgrounds can become anything. I’m falling in love again with just throwing paint, and then reacting to where the paint takes me, to controlling the composition, but not controlling it. The backgrounds take 9/10ths of the time, then I add in the birds last—the bird is just like a little flavor crystal. And it either screws the painting up, or it makes the whole thing.

Where are you headed with this series?

It’s hard to say. I’m still enjoying the process of putting something realistic in there, but I love the backgrounds by themselves. The birds are starting to become not as important as what’s going on in the background. I have a few canvasses that probably won’t be in the show, they don’t have birds, but they feel done. I’m just sitting on them, living with them for a while. I haven’t completely solved all the problems I wanted to with this series, though.

"Spoonbill in Turquoise," by Greg Ragland

When you speak about problems, are these something that you have in your mind before you begin, or do you discover them as you go?

The problems for me are compositions, textures that I can’t physically paint; they have to be totally spontaneous. Although you can’t have too many of those, though, the spontaneous textures. Where the artist comes in is in knowing what to save and what to get rid of. How minimal can it be, and how aggressive can you take it. And letting the paint do its own thing, but also controlling that.

Composition and color are key. I want to control where the viewer exits the painting—or if they stay inside it, I want to predict how they’re viewing the painting. I want to see if I can control the gaze of the viewer. I started the series as squares, because squares, historically, are an absolute no-no, because there’s nothing to solve. The shape is so stable, it doesn’t create an interesting problem, and so you have to create the problem. I took that on as a challenge when I started the series, though I’ve since done a few rectangles and more vertical pieces—but they’re so much easier to solve.

I’m completely lost when I begin a painting, so I like to create problems. When you paint, you’re putting yourself out there; you’re letting yourself be in a sheer panic, and then being vulnerable. I hate to start from scratch. So I’m always setting up puzzles for myself. My grandfather used to make 3-D puzzles—he’d carve them out of wood—and I loved to solve them. I try to do that for myself with my art.

"Male Quail in Green" by Greg Ragland

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Windows into the Work of Sherri Belassen

"Glimpse" 72"x 48" by Sherri Belassen

Sherri Belassen's oil paintings are large fields and blocks of vibrant color broken up by abstract figures, including hammock loungers, longhorn cows, tango dancers, long-legged large-hoofed horses, poppies, rancheros, and now and then the goddess of love. The color fields are often freckled with small squares that Belassen leaves untouched by the later layers of paint which then become little windows into her underpaintings, the first drips and washes she lays down on the canvas. If the backgrounds hint at the underpaintings, the figures revel in them, with horses sporting brazenly loose horizontal stripes, dancers graced with vertical drips, and poppies wearing petals made sometimes of blocks of color, and sometimes left as colorful negative spaces. The paintings also have fast, confident lines scratched into thick paint, further revealing colors and work beneath the surface. The viewer is left with a delightful sense of aesthetic paradox with regard to what is negative and what is positive space in the artwork, as well as a satisfying feeling of contained chaos... and in fact chaos as beauty, the drips and accidents are perhaps their own windows into the artist's creative process.

We sat down with Sherri Belassen to try to understand some of that creative process, and to try to tease out a glimpse of such a highly aesthetic mind.

Phoenix Gallery: I love the quote on your biography: "In life and art, I stay true to myself and listen to my own voice." Can you say a bit about how you might have struggled to find your own voice in your art?

Sherri Belassen: When I was 23 and just starting out as a painter, this older artist, a professor, came up to me and said, "You really know what you want." And I had no idea what he meant. Sometimes you don't put it together until later: professors would say things like "be true to yourself," and I didn't know what that meant. I think they can see glimpses when you're younger, and hopefully no one screws you up by making you question yourself, or messing up your markmaking. It may just be something you're born with. I think you have it, or you work really hard to get it. Recognizing your own style, and hearing your own voice is something that gets easier as you get older, and you develop more confidence. Confidence is really important. If I'm feeling down, the marks and the colors don't come, it feels forced and the colors get muddy.

PG: Often when people come into the gallery, they immediately comment on the color in your paintings-- do you have any specific color influences?Do you have an internal color palate? External influences?

SB: It's both, I guess. My external influences might be the beach, or nature, or how a figure fits into an environment. But then internally, sometimes I just feel the color and go with it, and it just makes sense. A lot of times I do think about the light of day or the space around my figure.

"Cheval Francais," 60" x 40" by Sherri Belassen

PG: Do you have a daily or weekly routine for your painting?

SB: I'm a night owl. I work well when there are no phone calls, no email, no one depends on you, you don't have to answer any questions. I used to stay up til three or four in the morning, though now one a.m. is pushing it. My schedule really revolves around my kid's schedule; I work when they're asleep or at school. I try to paint every day, but if I don't, I'm not going to be too hard on myself, because when I'm in a productive phase and I'm really feeling it, the work comes fast. Though, my studio is in my house, so it's always staring at me. And my kids will walk by and make little comments, like, "I think I'd like to see a little more orange in that area," things like that (laughs.)

PG: When did you first start thinking of yourself as an artist?

SB: I always wanted to be an artist when I was little. That was my dream: to do what I'm doing now. Early on I knew that. I'm very thankful, very grateful for my life. It's great for my kids to see that life doesn't have to be any one certain way.

PG: What was your early work like, your college work?

SB: It was figurative work then, too. And abstract. I worked large then, as well. I didn't want to be one of those people who can work small, but then when they take their work to a bigger scale the work loses it. I always wanted to be consistently on with what I was doing, whether I was working large or small.

PG: How did you come to your current process, with the underpaintings?

SB: It was an accident, really. I like those little striations that the drips would make when I was doing my underpaintings, and so I started letting them show. At first the areas I left were huge, and I'd really showcase that area. Then as I continued working with the layers, they started working into the figures, and smaller windows. What I'll leave or cover is random, yet selective. It was over the course of a few years that the style developed.

PG: What inspires you with your figures?

SB: Degas was the instigator for the dancers, I was so inspired by his dancers. My background is athletics, so that could have something to do with it. I moved to Arizona and wanted to start painting horses, at first I was nervous: the only horses I'd painted until then looked like donkeys, but I started painting them my own way, and it worked. And then one of my ex-boyfriends had a ranch in Texas and that's when I first saw those amazing Texas longhorns, and I had to get those in.

(she pauses)

I also used to get teased about my feet when I was in high school, the kids said they were like skis, and at some point I started painting my figures with very large feet. (She laughs.) And, you know, it really works with the composition; they are stable, so my figures don't fall over.

PG: We've also had people come into the gallery, look at your work and say, "I think she's in love." Any comments about that?

SB: No. No, not really. (She laughs again.)


Well, I love where I am in life, that's probably what it is.

"Vache Scenario," 12" x 60" by Sherri Belassen

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sherri Belassen article in 15 Bytes

"Casanova," 30" x 40" by Sherri Belassen

There's a great article in this month's 15 Bytes magazine about Sherri Belassen. Get ready for a new slew of Sherri's work to arrive for the February 26th opening at the Phoenix Gallery from 6-9pm. Come in, meet Sherri in person, talk with her about her beautiful and distinctive oil paintings. We look forward to seeing you there!

In the meantime, check out this great article:


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Denise Duong opening this Friday, Feb 5

"Only Once," 36" x 36" by Denise Duong

Here is the full interview with Denise Duong-- this was also excerpted in the Park Record this week. Friday night you can meet Denise in person, see her new paintings, and perhaps swap adventure stories over canapes.

Around the World in Paper and Paint: An Interview with Denise Duong

Oklahoma City based mixed-media artist Denise Duong creates vignettes of adventure. Duong uses paper and drawings on painted landscapes to construct delightful worlds for her characters to inhabit. Elegant women, dapper men, odd little banjo players, ducks and bull terriers ride old motorcycles through hilly countrysides, wear evening gowns and opera gloves aboard hot air balloons, play music and drink wine on boats, or pedal flying machines far above exciting new cities. Duong's work seems as much about romance and friendship as it is about travel: similar characters tend to show up over and over in her work, though always in new costumes and locales. A show of Duong's newest work opens February 5th at Phoenix Gallery. We were curious about her keen imagination and the exciting life that generates such wonderful art. Here is the conversation that ensued:

Phoenix Gallery: Your work seems so much about adventure and beauty. Where have you travelled so far?

Denise Duong: After I dropped out of art school I lived in Hawaii. After that, since I didn't have any of the commitments of school, work, or leases, I spent an entire summer hitchhiking across America with a great friend. I also spent that summer train hopping with a good friend who has since passed away. That was the beginning of my love of being around beauty and seeing new things.

I also lived in Costa Rica, back when it was not run by resorts. The other countries I've been to are Nicaragua, Mexico, Jamaica, Canada, Vietnam, and Italy. I feel like I've been to more places, but I've just talked about which one is next. The last two years I have spent my fall and winters in other cities. This past year I spent three months in San Francisco, and the year before was in New York. This year's plans are to go back to Vietnam, and to Japan.

PG: What is your creative process?

DD: I like to draw first. I paint a background that I want to my characters to be in, and then I draw, and then I dress them up with different paper. Finding new paper is like getting new clothes to me, that's probably why I don't have many clothes. I have that satisfaction when I get paper!

PG: It seems that while the locales in your work change, the characters often repeat. Who are the main characters that show up in your work?

DD: I have noticed that the characters are inspired by myself, my husband, and definitely my dog is in there. I've also recognized how little I do when we travel. Matt does all the driving while I do all the pointing and enjoying. [She laughs.] He does all the navigating, while I sit and make sandwiches. Before I had him, I was that person [now] I like to look, watch, and pretend. The old man and the little figures that play music are figures I have just always drawn and I feel uncomfortable when they don't make their appearances.

PG: Do you have any unusual licenses? Pilot's, motorcycle?

DD: I'm a Reverend. I got ordained to marry my sister. No fun licenses. Every motorcycle I have attempted to ride...I'm too short for! So I'm in the side car or the back-- which is where I like to be anyway!

"The Start" 36" x 36" by Denise Duong

PG: Your husband is also an artist: how does your creative work feed each other?

DD: It's nice finishing pieces and having each other to talk about it with. Our mediums are so different, which is nice.

PG: How did you meet?

DD: We met when we were 16. We went to different high schools, but were both in the arts and so had the same circle of friends.

PG: Where did you study art? What was your early relationship to art?

DD: I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but the only thing I feel like I learned from that school was how to be in the studio from 9-4 without burning yourself out. I also liked the printmaking studios.
I always LOVED drawing and making things. But I never knew it could be something that I did as my life. I grew up in a family that came from Vietnam right before I was born, and we were all new to everything. It was about making the most of luck being able to make it here. [A career was] something that could help the family and something that was stable and made money. [My family] presented careers to me as young as I could remember, and none of them sounded appealing. Doctor, dentist, optometrist, accountant....dental hygienist. I knew I didn't want to be anything but an artist. When I was in my first year at university I took several different courses to try out my options, and all I wanted to do was go home and work in the studio. So I went to art school, but didn't like it. I dropped out, traveled, and told myself, if I'm going to drop out of school I'm going to pursue art as strong and as passionately as possible. With the HUGE help of Matt, I really did it.

PG: Do you have a routine for your work?

DD: I guess I have developed a routine with the way I start and finish a painting. It's always weird to leave the studio for awhile and then get back in and get back into the flow of things. I love cooking and eating, so my days are broken up by long meals.

PG: What is a perfect day for you?

DD: Amazing weather! Morning, sit outside with Debo (my dog) and draw and listen to music. Then go to the studio, have an amazing lunch outside, work in the studio more, have a plate of cured meats and cheese, maybe some wine, go on a bike ride to a great spot for dinner outside, and then haul myself off home and watch an old school movie. Of course all done with my husband and dog. We spend a lot of time together, and really enjoy it!

PG: What is a different perfect day for you?

DD: Wake up in a strange place wondering what I'm going to eat. Wondering what my feet are going to get planted into, and what the air is going to feel like. Trying to speak the local language.

"Provare Experience," 36" x 36" by Denise Duong

PG: What is lighting you up right now? Where do you want to go? What are you dreaming of?

DD: I'm really on a role with what I'm doing with my art. I love listening to my husband play drums everyday. I want to go everywhere. Right now, it would be based on the food I am craving, and I think I would like to go to Turkey today. Or I wouldn't mind going to Indonesia. I am dreaming of Spring.

Monday, February 1, 2010

New Pendergast Landscapes

"Turquoise Forest," and "Light Through the Trees" both 48" x 36" by Olivia Mae Pendergast

Olivia Mae Pendergast is off in Africa painting again, but left us a stunning group of new landscapes before heading out. They have her trademark softened vibrancy in the color palates, energetic graphite linework, and gorgeous compositions. They practically glow. Come in and see them, or call for images.