Interview: Alexandria Tarver in Bushwick

Contributed by Rob Kaiser-Schatzlein  / I met Alexandria Tarver at her studio near Broadway in Bushwick. Technically it’s a one bedroom apartment, and the ventilation is a little dubious, but the space is ample. I ate grapes and Alexandria drank a beer while we looked her paintings, most of which hung on the wall, although one was still on the easel. [Image at top: Alexandria Tarver, New Painting 23, 2015, oil on linen, 14 x 16 inches.]
Alexandria Tarver, New Painting 13, 2014, oil on linen, 10 x 8 inches.
Rob Kaiser-Schatzlein: How do you start?
Alexandria Tarver:  For most of these recent paintings, I start with a drawing.  So for the flowers-in-a-jar paintings, I bought the flowers, I had a jar, then I look at them for a long time when I set it up here at home. Then I just do some sketches, pencil on paper, in a little notebook. With the flowers I was working directly from the drawings, but with the new work I have been drawing from life and then photographing. So when I’m doing the painting I’m looking at the photo and the drawing while making the painting.

Alexandria Tarver, New Painting 14, 2014, oil on linen, 17 x 14 inches.
RKS: Do you do a final drawing on the canvas?
AT: I gesso it and then do a sketch and then paint over that. I’m using watercolor pencil so kind of smears and you can still see the under drawing. If you look closely at the flower painting you can see some pink lines in there. But with the later work, I built up more from the initial drawings. The finished painting is a departure from all three, the underdrawing, the sketchbook, and the photograph.
RKS: So it’s not faithful to one particular source?
AT: Yea, it’s its own thing. With the paintings what I’m focused on is my gesture. So when I have these sources like the photo and drawing, those are gestures within themselves. But I want the painting to be a painterly gesture. That’s what I�m learning to create.
RKS: What is your most recent painting?
AT: These three and this one I’ve been working on now. [New paintings 22-25]

Alexandria Tarver, New Painting 22, 2015, oil on linen, 13 x 12 inches.

RKS: Five plus the one on the easel?
AT: The one on the easel isn’t done yet, but almost done. The other ones [flowers-in-a-jar series] were done last winter, March, February, and the year prior.
RKS: Are those a series separate from the others?
AT: It’s starting to turn into a separate series; but it’s an evolution, definitely. All the ones of the flowers-in-a-jar are a set and then there are a few in-betweeners and then that one is going somewhere else [wild bush painting]. The potted plant though, that was a breakthrough.
RKS: So there were the jars, and the pots started showing up.
AT: Yeah, and the pots are going into these wild bushes, which is what I’m working on.

Alexandria Tarver, New Painting 24, 2015, oil on linen, 18 x 14 inches.
RKS: So you don’t start with a certain number of paintings, and they’re all going to be of a certain subject matter.
AT: Not a certain number, I just did it until I couldn�t do it anymore.
RKS: What do you mean?
AT: Until something else caught my interest.
RKS: So until you weren’t doing it anymore. [both laugh]
AT: I’m not great at multitasking, when it comes to series.
RKS: So when you are done with a series you don’t go back into it.
AT: I haven’t, no. I usually get too excited or too focused on the new work. And that takes up all my energy.
RKS: Do you stretch all these canvases before you work? Or do you do the sketches and then do a certain number of stretchers?
AT: I usually take a couple days, because stretching is…hard. It takes a lot of time, so I take a few days about every month where I make bunch of canvases of a certain size. Once I’m done with that, I feel relieved because I can just focus on painting for the next few months.

Alexandria Tarver, New Painting 2, 2014, oil on linen, 10 x 8 inches.
RKS: You build the stretchers?
AT: No I get them at Soho Art Materials. They have these new titanium ones that are really good. All the paintings are done on linen.
RKS: So to start you..
AT: Stretch the linen, seven layers of gesso, sanded, and then the very light watercolor sketch and then the oil on top.
RKS: Why water color pencil?
AT: Because graphite kind of smears and gets dirty. I learned that in school, it’s just a quick way of keeping it smooth, all throughout.
RKS: When do you work?
AT: I have a full time job, from 11:30 to eight. So a lot of the painting is done from nine until two in the morning. And then usually on one of my days off I dedicate to being in the studio. Sometimes two days if I don’t have anything to do or I don’t want to. But yeah, just in between working.
RKS: Every night of the week?
AT: Maybe three or four nights. Now that I have these nice lights [recently installed spot lights].
RKS: Long commute?
AT: No, I work in the Lower East Side. About thirty minutes, twenty by bike.
RKS: How do you know when you’re done?
AT: There’s a lot of putting stuff down and fixing it. Seeing if the paint is sitting right, maybe fixing it, and touching it up.
RKS: You’ve really only got one shot though, right? Because these don’t really have much paint on them.
AT: And what I’m painting is wet on wet. I have a very limited window, because when I put something down I want it to look right within the session before I continue to another part of the painting. I know when I’m done when I look at the painting and nothing bothers me too much. When I can live with everything.
RKS: Do you have a preconceived notion of what it will look like?
AT: With the flower-in-a-jar series, there was something pretty specific I was going for as far as a lightness and a representation in paint that was true to the drawing. In the new series though, I have no idea where the paintings are going. I’ve been letting it go.
RKS: So some of the potted plant paintings look like drawings and some are more painterly, and that’s okay.
AT: Yeah, because that one I was still trying to make it look like a drawing. Which is what it is. But the more painterly ones, you can’t really recreate paint in anything other than in the painting.
RKS: Do you have any pictorial problem you remember resolving?
AT: For most of my life, I’ve gravitated towards having something in the center of the painting. Especially with still lives, which I’ve been painting for a while.

Alexandria Tarver, New Painting 4, 2014, oil on linen, 10 x 8 inches.

RKS: You’ve wanted to or…?
AT: Well I’ve wanted to and I’ve always liked it. I like things in the middle so you know what you’re looking at. A problem has been how do I reconcile the edges because the energy is all in the middle. In these paintings, there’s always something in the middle but where the ground is or what�s behind it is what I’m changing and sometimes that’s fun. Like changing the wall behind the plants or in flowers-in-a-jars you can see the way the table angle changes when you look at all of the them together, you have some action there.
RKS: Any specific paintings you remember finding this resolution?
AT: Well, I think you find it when you look at all the paintings together rather than one specifically. So for this one [New Painting 22] the ground behind the plant is almost a straight line, so there are a lot of marks there. Whereas in New Painting 24 the background there are lines going diagonally, and 23 there are no lines. But there is always something in the middle.
RKS: So you are varying the ground.
AT: The background.
RKS: And that makes you more comfortable, putting everything in the middle.
AT: Yeah, putting most of the stuff in the middle.
RKS: How long do the paintings take?
AT: Depending on how many sessions I do in a week, usually from the first drawing on the canvas to putting down in the brush at the end probably about two weeks, or a week and a half. Per painting.
RKS: Is it the same with these slightly larger ones?
AT: Yeah, about the same. Even though the smaller ones were almost quicker because the brush stroke didn’t vary, I mean, I was using the same brush throughout. So my energy was more consolidated. The way I’m approaching the bigger paintings, and way I approach the smaller paintings, is pretty much the same amount of energy. It’s just different actions.
RKS: Has it been reliably two weeks for a while?
AT: It has, and because I’m painting wet on wet and because I’m still trying to figure out a lot of stuff I feel like if I spent more time than that, I would be walking around in circles. Whereas, if I have two weeks to do a painting…
RKS: It forces you to move on.
AT: And keep on doing different little things to learn from.
RKS: Favorite tactile experience in art?
AT: Because I have been making paintings, I really like the liquid, goopy nature of it. How it’s smooth and how I’m painting using mostly white, it gets really cream-ish. You know, like a nice lotion. I have always enjoyed painting and watching the liquid just sit and move or get moved around. Mainly how it sits on the surface. But now I’ve been digging into that texture with a pencil or something. With these newer paintings there’s been little scratches in there. That’s been really fun [laughing].
RKS: What kind of paint is it?
AT: Oil paint.
Alexandria Tarver, New Painting 12, 2014, oil on linen, 10 x 8 inches.
RKS: Is it well ventilated in here?
AT: I usually paint with the A/C fan on and the other window open, so there’s a little bit of cross ventilation. I try to stay over by the windows. I tell myself that’s okay. And I wear gloves.
RKS: Any other materials you use I wouldn’t notice?
AT: No not really, just maybe the light pink watercolor pencil. I just like the color. And I’ve been thinking I might have that show more in the future but I’m not sure. I’ve started using oil pastels in one of my painting that’s not finished yet. Because these paintings are very referential to drawing not only in the palette but in the process, referential to graphite drawing, and because what I’m trying to explore is my own gesture, using pastels or pencil that is more tools to explore with. More weapons in the battle.
Alexandria Tarver, New Painting 3, 2014, oil on linen, 10 x 8 inches.
RKS: How would you describe these paintings?
AT: Still lifes. Still lifes of flowers and plants.
RKS: Did you experiment with different flowers before you came to these? Is there somewhere you go to get the flowers?
AT: I go to my corner grocer. That’s one reason I think I moved on from these flowers was because I already had bought every kind of flower they had and made a painting of it.
RKS: That’s a good reason to stop.
AT: Yeah, I try not to go too far. I did about nineteen.
RKS: How did you choose these new plants?
AT: Three of these are plants from my rooftop. I went up there one morning, I couldn’t sleep, it was a weird morning. And I went up there to sit down and I realized there are a lot of potted plants I should draw. Now when I walk around the city or am in a room, the first thing I look at is the plant. I’ve been noticing potted plants all around.
RKS: You’ve got the fetish focus.
AT: That’s what I’ve been doing lately, like “Should I take a picture of that?” As far a gathering reference material. I did the ones that I thought would make the best paintings, that had a good composition as they were. The two most recent ones are from my boyfriend�s Mom’s house in New Jersey. I went there for a week this summer, it’s a beach town. She has this really beautiful garden. We go there every year and it’s the main thing I look forward to all year. These two are going to be paintings from New Jersey. But these also I didn’t draw while I was there, there mainly taken from the photo.
RKS: Compositional strategies?
AT: When I look at the plant or the reference, I think about it in terms of positive and negative space. Or if there are shapes I could explore that might be interesting. So if I’m looking at the actual flower, I look at its petals, look at the color of the petals compared to the darkness of the leaf and if I think there’s action going on there. If there is, that�s what I try to recreate in the paintings. Something visually dynamic. With the flowers-in-a-jar it was this very static thing, and I learned to look at the forms within this one thing. Now I’m trying to spread that out instead of keeping it all in the middle.
Alexandria Tarver, New Painting 11, 2014, oil on linen, 10 x 8 inches.
RKS: Did you compose the flowers-in-a jar?
AT: Mhmm. It was fun. Because I would be at work all day and then on way home stop by the deli a few blocks down, get the flowers and just kind of play with it for a while, while it was doing the drawing.
RKS: That does sound nice.  What’s with the naming system?
AT: Well each painting is a new painting and then a number, it’s pretty self explanatory.
RKS: Do you have an �Old Paintings� catalogue
AT: No old paintings, just new painting because I’m looking forward. I worked pretty hard on another series for a couple years, of drum kits.
RKS: So those are the old paintings.
AT: Yeah, and everything I had done before that. I really jumped from those and did something new and totally out of character with these flower painting.
RKS: Now it is your character.


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