ARTIST/ARTIST: SHAWN POWELL AND JANICE LESSMAN-MOSS
Interviews coordinated by Rebecca Cross
SHAWN INTERVIEWS JANICE
SHAWN POWELL: Talk about these newest works.
JANICE LESSMAN-MOSS: I tend to work in pairs by putting enough warp on the loom at one time for two pieces. The first will be these colors, and the second will have similar color relationships, with different hues.
SP: They’re both striking.
JLM: Then I use my computer drawings to develop pieces, from templates of circles and within squares.
SP: Are they a diptych, or separate once they’re off the loom?
JLM: Separate. But I made a conscious decision to allow them to be more compositionally linked. I focused on creating more color options with stripes. The bow-shaped element (part of the underlying circular motif) presents a shape that bounces around the field; in the other piece, I played with similar shapes that were less defined. So different relationships slow down the field a bit. Here, there is a more dynamic contrast between the hues and values, where the other is more muted. What fascinates me with textiles is the ability to create so many colors through optical mixing of the warp and weft.
SP: Why textiles?
JLM: I’m interested in structural variations in textiles, which rely on systems. It’s an architectural process that builds form through the dimensional intersection of the warp and weft threads. Since the very beginning, I’ve emphasized the physicality of the plane: the weave structure as both a graphic pattern, and as a textural, tactile part of the field. And there’s the love/hate relationship with the grid: weaving’s underlying order also gives me something to push against.
SP: Do you draw them out by hand?
JLM: I used to do it by hand, a layering and tracing process that was different in terms of time and labor, but similar to how I construct compositions on the computer. In the virtual world, I can make decisions more intuitively, which allows for more discoveries. But I always build from the same matrix/foundation.
SP: The threads in the weaving break down the digital—which I love, because it shows the hand. What about these silver focal points?
JLM: These metal tapestry inserts evolved from earlier weavings which used resist-dyed shapes in the weft, and they reinforce stability in the underlying grid system. They’re little points of light, little markers—a kind of mapping of the field. And other elements can dance around them.
SP: These spaces center me in the work, allowing me to slow down and stop, which I enjoy. And because the rest of the field is so active, pulling shapes in different directions, they keep me centered.
JLM: That’s I exactly what I wanted to do. I love it: the sense of calm, or connection, to the whole piece. The waffle weave emphasizes the dimensionality of the structural motif, and the diamond (graphic) aspects. I questioned how it connects visually with the circle, and started to integrate additional angles in these pieces, to create larger diamonds that connect to the circular shapes, for a more integrated whole.
SP: The first pieces have more weight; the newer pieces are more open. Whether it’s the material or the color, there’s an expansiveness in the newer works.
JLM: And here, the metal sits differently—like stars, immersed in the field in a different way.
SP: What are your influences?
JLM: I’m inspired by painting. Valerie Jaudon is one of my favorites—I love her columnar shapes—and patterns by Philip Taaffe.
SP: Valerie was my colleague at Hunter College for a decade. She’s fantastic.
JLM: Her work resonates with me because it’s rooted in a very apparent structure, but she always manages to take you somewhere new. And her touch is amazing. I envy painters’ ability to reveal the hand, as I try to do through the application of color. I always paint the dye on my warps, to create that modulation. I want some atmospheric play in the field.
SP: Sometimes when you get close to a painting, it gives itself away a little too much. And here it’s the opposite: When I get close to these, I’m even more perplexed, because so much is happening on the surface, which makes me want to spend more time with it.
JLM: Thank you. It has that tactility, or sense of the hand, which is fantastic. I tell my students, if I can’t figure out what they did, I’m excited, because that means elements are tightly integrated, creating a whole in a seamless way. I love having to puzzle it out.
SP: Whenever you start a piece, are you surprised at the end? Do you know what the colors are going to do?
JLM: Computer drawings give me fairly accurate iterations of what to expect, but never have the same quality. They give me the skeleton, but I must weave the piece to create that physical relationship.
SP: Structure and color are there, but it doesn’t do justice to the actual piece.
JLM: And I will use silk in the warp and linen in the weft, where the silk is shiny and the weft is matte. I’m interested in how materials’ reflectivity enhances relationships, too.
SP: Are you trying to create a certain mood or sensation with color?
JLM: I mostly think about color in terms of value. From a medium-value warp, I can place either dark or light in the weft for contrast, whereas high-value, contrasting stripes become too active right off the bat, and it’s hard to find room for the subsequent structural pattern and weft color.
SP: How was your residency in Iceland last summer?
JLM: It was fantastic. I had my own studio on the river with a view of the ocean. The metaphorical connections between my abstract compositions and the dramatic geography of Iceland inspired a series of small weavings. They were constructed from circles, squares and lines, but through juxtapositions and computer-generated filtering, revealed more direct connections to topography. I would love to go back.
SP: I like the idea of how place can inform work. But your more abstracted pieces remain non-objective. They remain as shapes only, even though your brain wants to turn them into recognizable imagery. How you achieve a visual vocabulary devoid of external references, I find remarkable. I love it. Amazing. What are you reading now?
JLM: Mary Gabriels’ Ninth Street Women.
These women are so focused, as they needed to be. It’s inspiring.
SP: Beautiful. Wow.
JANICE INTERVIEWS SHAWN
JLM: Shawn, is this a new body of work?
SP: All of this was made within the past four months.
JLM: I’ve never seen your circular paintings. Is this an installation of pieces, or are they diptychs?
SP: I started putting circular shapes in the paintings, and before that, I was using elements like puzzle pieces, squares or rectangles, creating windows within windows. Then I separated the circles from the paintings, so they could act as singular objects. Tondos were a playful move away from the canvases, meant to activate the space more, when I showed them in Brooklyn. I liked how they bounced around and had conversations with each other on the wall. I also like how the tondos hold the wall in an interesting way.
JLM: I like the conversation that they have. I’m interested in the stripes and the spatial relationships they impose, and how seeing the imagery through a field of stripes enhances color. Where do the images come from?
SP: I’ve been writing narratives alongside the paintings to create a setting for the work. In these, I’ve been (or the character has been) marooned on an island—in this isolated space by themselves. They’re unsure how they arrived there; they don’t really know where they are. Are they imagining this? Is this a dream? It’s a journal the viewer might find, about this person’s experience on the island.
They’re abstracted narratives, with a David Lynch/Alain Robbe-Grillet kind of vibe: non-linear and absurdist. This gives me more freedom in developing imagery for the paintings—especially with imagery that connects to hallucination or memory: something kind of murky. I’m not a screenwriter, so it’s a more poetic version of a screenplay.
JLM: Even being rooted in something concrete (your narrative), you are using an incredibly vivid imagination to come up with this range of images—
SP: It’s a struggle, because you’re supposed to choose one language and stick with it. I’ve always had an eclectic sensibility. We discussed tension in work, as well, which I think we gravitate toward, because it undermines an initial reading of the work—and gives, instead, multiple readings, as any good art, literature or cinema strives to do. Like in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, where it’s a period piece, but he flips it on its head.
JLM: And yet the abstract language you’re using—the push and pull between familiar shapes and abstraction—is like a mysterious puzzle.
SP: I want the viewer to piece it together, much like the character in the narrative. And I’m okay with things not making sense, in the end. I like the idea that when you leave, you don’t completely grasp what’s happening—which I think is what art can do. For instance, when I leave a movie theatre completely understanding what I watched, I never think about that film again. A movie that perplexes me will stick with me for weeks, months, years.
JLM: Who do you look at? Do you have favorite artists?
SP: I saw a Hairy Who? show in Chicago last year that was great. There was an informative Ron Nagle show in New York, and the Hilma af Klint show at the Guggenheim was fantastic. I look at cinema and read literature, which inspires my own narratives: Calvino, Michael Taussig, Robbe-Grillet, Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Michael Haneke, Carlos Reygadas…I could go on.
JLM: I do wonder if I would discern you even had a narrative. You have relationships between shapes that are quirky and provocative. Does creating that organic softness against the geometry foreground the conceptual relationships?
SP: The circles versus the rectangle: That’s something I think about as a compositional/design aspect, which can carry conceptual weight.
JLM: You have a nice touch. Sometimes you’re directly painting and other times you’re masking, right? And working with airbrush…
SP: Anything goes.
JLM: You have a wonderful color sense. Tell me about it.
SP: It’s intuitive. I have an idea of what might do, but it’s always a surprise. I wanted to make the new work more subdued, but the high saturation always ends up finding its way into the painting. I use color to create a sensory experience indicative of the narrative, to help carry the mood and atmosphere.
JLM: Sometimes you push the scale of the tondo.
SP: Now that I’m in Ohio, I have more time and space to experiment with scale. I also wanted to see what these new, smaller paintings would look like when they become larger. The beach ball painting is essentially to scale, next to an umbrella at the same scale. When you look at something through a camera or on a movie screen, anything is possible: a button becomes the size of the theatre. Something on a microscopic level can become gigantic, and vice versa, which translates to a subversion of scale in the paintings, which can facilitate awkward relationships.
JLM: But sometimes you reference the ground in a more direct way, that is materially quite different.
SP: When I was writing the screenplay for a previous series, I thought about establishing shots, close-ups, etc. So, the idea was that you place a “close-up” of these sand drawings next to sand dunes seen from afar: the idea of zooming in and out, to help carry the narrative, and to provide various focal points.
And being in Ohio allowed me to expand the imagery. Getting time in the studio in New York is difficult. Every hour you’re thinking, “Oh, I better make this a really strong painting.” I found myself either repeating myself or being a little cautious about making rash decisions. Here, I can allow myself to paint whatever I want.
JLM: Shawn, I’m really excited to see your work.