On a sunny Sag Harbor afternoon Peninah Petruck stopped by MARK BORGHI to talk to Arlene Slavin before the opening of her show “In Sequence 1970-2022,” which is on view through April 28. The exhibit focuses on Slavin’s vibrant grid diagonals. An essential aspect of her 52-year practice, these works explore pattern-making, repetition, and the complexities of colored space. Aligned with the Pattern and Decoration movements in the early 1970s, Slavin is immersed in feminism and breaking down the traditional notions of high and low culture. She draws from a global array of western and non-western influences: textiles, tiles, quilts, and ceramics from ancient times to the present. Additionally, Slavin’s work also relates to aspects of Indian miniatures, Japanese folding screens, woodblock Islamic tile work, and Byzantine mosaics.
Teaching for two summers in the mid-1970s at Skowhegan Art School, Slavin began to incorporate into her practice the birds and animals she discovered in rural Maine. In the 1980s Slavin built on her work with grids to create public and private art commissions. She created sculpture, ornamental fences, gates, floor inlays, etched glass, and folding screens.
In 2010 the artist’s return to the grid was a deliberate decision.
Peninah Petruck: What led you to step back from large-scale public commissions and return to painting using the grid?
Arlene Slavin: For many years I enjoyed the engagement that comes with making public work, it is a very collaborative process. There are always committees, fabricators, and assistants around. Eventually, I reached a point, where I needed to return to a quiet studio. I was ready to focus on my painting. It’s been a wonderful decision.
PP: Let’s discuss your process. You use a grid but every painting is different. You seem to paint in series. Do you make preparatory drawings? Select a palette? How do you not repeat yourself?
AS: I start my process creating the environment where my painting will live. I always begin a painting by laying down a many-layered ground color, first a very thin uneven wash, that often puddles, pigment separates from binder, some areas denser than others. I let it dry and add more pigment. I tilt the canvas so the paint runs in overlapping directions, then splatter on more paint. This creates a varied atmospheric base. When the ground is dry, I hand draw a pencil grid; the marks are never mechanically straight.
Using the grid facilitates my shape-making. Over the many years, I’ve chosen to emphasize different segments of the grid, triangles, then diamonds, later rectangles, and lines. One series of shapes led to another. In this show, on the left wall are paintings from the Intersections Portal series, which I started during the Covid lockdown. I’ve added vertical bands of overlapping transparent color.
PP: I’m interested in the series title. Were you thinking about transitions and possibilities, both deliberate and unintended? The inevitable passage of time?
AS: Yes. Portals are entries and exits into the space of the paintings, in a way, these are also metaphors for our time.
PP: Your process reflects deliberate choices, as well as responding to the painting as it unfolds.
AS: I make no preparatory drawings; I remain open to the process. The process guides me. I find great pleasure in that interaction.
PP: In these works, I can feel your interest in the nature. For example, the paintings here seem infused with light, as if the daylight is shining through.
AS: I am an abstract painter, yet I am inspired by the way a shaft of sunlight focuses the eye or the fog hugs the ground. I try to capture a garden as its colors change throughout the day. The natural world feeds my eye. The grid has facilitated my independence from nature. Yet at the same time, the use of the grid has deepened my engagement with our natural world and its fleeting beauty.
PP: Intersections G3 seems to represent the landscape, though not literally. And you allow the composition to take on its own life. Your handling of paint reflects a pure love of the medium, your intention to create a non-verbal visual experience.
AS: I’ve never believed that decoration is a dirty word. There’s such pleasure in obsessing about shimmering colors and just painting.
PP: Seeing this mini-retrospective, are you still inspired to continue work with the grid? And /or do you plan to explore other compositional devices?
AS : I continue to be fascinated with the multiple possibilities that the grid provides. I have made small-scale works on paper, the “Off the Grid” series, using polymers. I can imagine developing the “Off the Grid” series on a larger scale in a variety of materials.
“Arlene Slavin, In Sequence 1970-2022,” MARK BORGHI, 34 Main Street Sag Harbor, New York, NY. Through April 28, 2022. More of Slavin’s work can be seen at work at MARK BORGHI, 2426 Main Street, Bridgehampton, New York.
Peninah Petruck is an art historian by training. She has written a couple of books about photography. Currently, she is working on a novel.