MAKERS: Arabella Proffer, “Beauty is the Hard Part”
Arabella Proffer’s studio in her Lakewood high-rise apartment has the best view of any artist’s studio I have ever seen. Hands down. As she paints next to huge floor to ceiling glass doors, Lake Erie’s beautiful waters stretch out to the horizon, with the skyline of Cleveland to the right. The main advantage here is not the view (which would honestly distract me), but the light – filtering through the glass, across her easel – the warm glow of natural light fills the room.
It’s here that Proffer creates her gem-like paintings, alongside her two assistants, Ike & Tina – two adorable felines with little regard for personal space. Born in Ann Arbor, Proffer cut her teeth at CalArts and in LA, and currently she and her husband live here on the Gold Coast of Lake Erie.
If you’ve ever seen one of Proffer’s works, you would immediately recognize her bold use of color, tight handling, and penchant for fantasy. In the past she was best known for her highly realistic portraits of punks and princesses, real and imaginary. Proffer created worlds of romantically dark vampiric lords and tattooed ladies. But these days, what started as merely an experiment in abstraction has lead to an entirely new and successful body of work.
Recently Proffer has been making a series of paintings that she calls a “Biomorphic Garden Party”. Reflecting her interest in botany, microbiology, monsters, space, disease, and the evolution of cells, I asked her how these biomorphic paintings came to be. She explained:
“It was strange, one day I just decided I didn’t want to paint people anymore after over a decade of doing nothing but that. I did three of these paintings with no direction. …I think I began them three months before my cancer diagnosis. After seeing the MRI, my tumor was a perfect oval sphere set in my thigh, and had thin tentacles with tiny heads wandering throughout my leg. It struck me immediately that it all looked exactly like what I had painted in my first painting. So, I decided to do more paintings! The shapes began to look like organisms or cells you would maybe see under a microscope or in a bad CT scan. Letting the oil paint do what it wanted was also quite freeing and I found it would make things that looked familiar or a cool effect would come of out of it.”
Since then, these paintings have evolved into highly complex compositions of soft bits, tentacles, squishy things, leaf-like growths, and other oddly familiar vegetal and organic matter – but now staged in dramatic landscapes, like in Blister Bounty (above). Presented here, stage-like, is a collection of oozing, leaking biomatter – carefully arranged against distant mountains and a blue sky.
Other works like “Lasher”, are actually on what appears to be a stage – the curtain being pulled back to reveal the leading lady in this bizarre show – a cellular mass with dripping pink fluid, completely tied up and encircled with black tendrils. This time the distant landscape becomes a backdrop for this strange curtain call.
Proffer works in traditional oils, sometimes on panel, and also on linen. When I asked her how she develops these compositions, she tells me that sometimes she starts with the landscape, but basically the biomorphic shapes just happen naturally – one shape leads to another: “Four years at CalArts they drowned you in theory and taught that you must think REALLY hard about the art before you actually produce it, and I’ve never been that way. Research and overthinking paralyzes me and then I’m exhausted.”
The freedom with which she creates these creatures is apparent, and the paintings are certainly the better for it. While they are carefully and tightly painted, they are not overwrought – Proffer simply lets the shapes become what they are – Their best selves. The title also occasionally appears to be the creature’s name, like “Diver” below, or “Lasher” above.
Proffer is also experimenting with computer modeling: “I started to use a free 3D modeling program I happened to have on my computer, because I finally decided to create references. I just started making shapes and coloring them or making textures. Winging it. I made elements in the program, painted from a glossy paper print-out, and then I destroyed the print-out and original software files once I was done with the painting. It is like hiding the evidence — from myself. Aside from maybe 2 to 5 components, all the rest was done as I’m actually painting. Shapes and colors just come at me like signals, and there are never changes or scraping paint off for a do-over.” One of the advantages of using a 3D modeling program is that she can control the light source, and it will always be perfectly consistent – which can be a bit tricky if you’re flying by the seat of your pants.
This new series of paintings has lead to quite a bit of recognition – she was recently the recipient of an Akron Soul Train Fellowship and Residency. The results are currently on view at their new gallery space in Akron (details here). Proffer’s solo show is titled “Ornate Acids,” and can be seen through June 16. Her work is also on view in the current exhibition at Worthington Yards in downtown Cleveland, “Fabulism: Meta-facts and fictions“, curated by Liz Maugans. She will be speaking at their Art Bar event on Thursday, June 13, from 6-9pm.
Proffer is also currently preparing for a solo show in Pittsburgh at the Boxheart Gallery, “Soft Sugars” opens July 16, with an opening reception on Saturday, July 20, from 5-8pm. She explains that “there will be a lot of little jewel-like paintings, nothing too large, at times they contain a slight nod to art history through distorted lenses. Some look of this earth and some a little juicier and stranger. They are more virtual reality than actuality, maybe. They are an artificial nature or a nature that is simply unknown to us, scientized and I think made more delectable. These paintings are never gross or shocking despite my interest in medical humanities. Making something repulsive or shocking is really easy if you think about it, but beauty is the hard part.”