Contributed by Sharon Butler / Medrie MacPhee‘s pensively beautiful paintings first came to my attention at the 2015 American Academy of Arts and Letters Invitational Exhibit. The paintings she had in the show, abstract with architectural references, featured deconstructed pieces of clothing subtly collaged onto the surfaces. MacPhee is a very accomplished artist. Born in Edmonton, Alberta, she earned her BFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and then, in 1976, moved to NYC. Since then, she has racked up numerous shows and awards, including a Guggenheim, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, an Elizabeth Greenshields Award, New York Foundation for the Arts Grants, and Canada Council Established Artist Grants. After 25 years in a loft on the Bowery, she and her partner–filmmaker Harold Crooks–moved to Queens, where they bought a small building with first-floor garage that MacPhee has turned into a studio. We talked about image, process, surface, content, and the impulse to add clothing to her canvases.
Sharon Butler: Tell me a little about how your imagery has developed and changed in the past few years.
Medrie MacPhee: The last time I had a show in NYC, about five years ago at Von Lintel, the paintings were very complicated and highly colored. For a long time images of architecture did the heavy lifting — architectural structures that were either built-up or in the process of being destroyed. In recent work, the architecture is still there but I’m trying to bring in elements that divert attention from the architecture, which I felt was becoming too dominant. In the end it was never just about catastrophe or entropy, and I think that was how the paintings could be misread. I wanted to use the architectural structures the way you would use words in a sentence. They were more existential.
After that show, over time, I began looking at my works on paper, and also began thinking that I wanted to dial back the color. I wanted to think more about surface and also collage, which is something I’ve done with the drawings for years but not on the canvases. At a certain point I started adding socks, and then pieces of rug, and then other kinds of clothing. This one [points to a large canvas leaning against the wall] has a pair of disassembled sweat pants glued on it. Adding these elements is a way of complicating the conversation. These paintings require more time; they aren’t as easy to grasp at a glance.
As I began to pare down the color, I started adding these large dark shapes. They feel flat but at the same time slightly three-dimensional. They can be read as a void or an object, but they aren’t easily identifiable. I read them like our gaps in understanding.
SB: There are still architectural elements, but only bits and pieces — like the brick facade over here. You’re referring to architecture without drawing entire structures. Architecture is still part of your vocabulary.
MM: There are other less known, less obvious details, too.
SB: I love the introduction of the big dark shape. It has an element of humor, too, but at the same time it’s not merely funny. It has a, well, a splattiness.
MM: It’s funny. Yes. That’s important to me. But also that it’s unreadable. It interferes. It causes interference with what you may have been thinking. I started making clothing as a joke a few years ago, and it has had an effect on the paintings. I thought it was hilarious — a line of clothing called “relaxwear.” The pieces of clothing that I glue on the painting are a little like people.
SB: The collage elements add a duality. Clothing is both shape and, when assembled, three-dimensional form. I wonder if the black blobs will ever be built out into three-dimensional forms…?
MM: People have often asked me why I didn’t make sculpture. But I’ve never been inclined. These blobs are collaged on top — that’s why they appear so distinct from the rest of the image. I paint them on plastic and then peel off the plastic. The paint membrane is then glued on the canvas. The process makes these shapes appear oddly more three-dimensional, and separates them that much more from the rest of the painting.
SB: Your paint is applied very thinly. You like a flat surface. No impasto.
MM: I use a mixture of modeling paste and gesso to make the surface really flat and get rid of the tooth. Sometimes I leave some pentimenti. But I haven’t wanted to build up a thick surface. In a way that’s where the collage comes in. The three-dimensional quality creates, again, interference with the flatness of the paint.
SB: How did you arrive at these muted colors?
MM: They came out of the drawings. I mean, in the first paintings I made based on these drawings, the surface was kind of monochromatic — buff-colored like the drawings. I didn’t want to think about color. Eventually I let the literalness of that go and began to add more color.
SB: What about sculpture and shaped canvases? Any interest in moving in that direction?
MM: I’m sort of a slow-poke. I have to feel like it’s organic to what I’m doing. I’ve done diptychs and triptychs and sewn canvases together, but never gone off the rectangle. It has to seem as if it’s inherent in the direction of what you’re doing. It can’t be an add-on. I’ve always been very suspicious of myself. You have to understand the difference between embracing something because it makes sense in terms of what you are doing versus grabbing something that doesn’t make sense in terms of your own work and confusing yourself.
SB: What are you interested in looking at in terms of other painters? What have you seen in the galleries that intrigues you?
MM: It’s funny, but the painters I’m interested in make work that looks nothing like mine. I tend to gravitate to female artists. Now that I’m adding clothing and material to my paintings, I’m starting to notice this impulse appearing in other artists’ work. That interests me and we are all doing it in different ways. In my case the clothing and collage disrupt and interfere with the painted surface to produce a startling and unsettled effect.
I like to be surprised. To be surprised is the highest aesthetic category. Not that I’m bored by work that doesn’t surprise, but I like to see artists make surprising, unexpected choices. Work should have a boldness. I like painterly work — not always work that necessarily looks like mine. I look for something odd, idiosyncratic.
SB: You have been the Sherri Burt Hennessey Artist-In-Residence at Bard College for many years. What do you think is the most important thing you can teach students?
MM: I always tell students that I’m not going to teach techniques. I try to teach them to think about what they’re doing, to have a conversation with their own work. To be able to communicate with themselves and others about what they are doing. They have to be aware, and they have to learn to look at a painting and really see what’s in front of them. They also need to know that the physical properties are not separate from the meaning of the work. They are inextricably bound.
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