Contributed by Sharon Butler / I went to visit Fran Shalom’s studio in Jersey City on the occasion of her first solo museum show, “Duck/Rabbit” at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey. Continuing a conversation we’d started at “Groping For the Elephant,” Shalom’s 2021 solo show at Kathryn Markel Fine Arts in Chelsea, we discussed surface, shape, ambiguity, and the confidence painters develop over time. “Duck/Rabbit” was curated by Mary Birmingham and opens on October 2.
Sharon Butler: Lately I’ve been interested in how artists move from one body of work to the next. These paintings look like a continuation of the work that you showed at Markel last year.
Fran Shalom: Yes. As I was making the work at my last show, I started trying to activate the shapes by adding visible brushwork to parts of the paintings, where in previous work I wanted a flat, smooth surface. I’m still allowing that to happen more often in my current paintings, although, being a subtractive painter, I have to fight the urge to clean it up….I work and rework the form until it feels like it’s situated right where it should be and has some weight and presence. There are many layers of paint which are not always visible from a distance (and especially if it’s looked at online) but if you walk up to the painting, you might see a trace of an earlier image and an earlier color. Sometimes I’ll sand an area of the painting down, but now, more often than not, I’ll leave the evidence of what came before. There are a lot of paintings under the painting that remains.
SB: They have a rich surface, and the final shapes feel very certain. I love your use of rounded corners. Can you articulate what you are looking for in a shape?
FS: The outer shape of it, the edge of the shape, is clearly defined. The relationship between the shape and edge is important, and I’m also fascinated by the figure ground relationship, how things flip. The shapes are not figure-based, but in my mind there is often the suggestion of an abstracted head. I’m thinking of that and then it changes and gets inflated or reduced as I continue. I might put something in it that reminds me of the shape of a mouth or an ear, or a shape that I had seen during a walk through the city but if it gets too obvious or literal to me, I pull it back and change it.
The rounded corners feels very human, right? They soften things and definitely give the shapes more humor than the sharp edge. Sharp edges give a very different feeling, more aggressive. There’s a cartoony-ness and a playfulness in the roundness.
SB: So, it has to have a certain amount of ambiguity. The shapes can refer to something, but the minute they start to look specifically like something….
FS: Yes, I might have been thinking of something like a hat or some kind of head covering and I will play with it formally and take some of it away or change the tip of it according to what it needs in relation to the larger shape. I’ve titled the show at the Hunterdon Museum “Duck/Rabbit,” which is a term that’s been around for almost a hundred years and has to do with both perception and interpretation. The portrait is of a combined duck and rabbit and some viewers will see a rabbit immediately and others will see a duck. Most will see both eventually. That’s kind of how I want people to approach the paintings. You initially see what pulls you in, what you bring to it, and that has to do with your perceptions, your stories, your history. I don’t want there to be one quick read but rather a wondering and an openness to what it’s about.
SB: Can you talk a little more about the process?
FS: The paintings usually go through a progression from “Oh, this looks kind of interesting,” to a couple of hours later, “Oh, what I was thinking?” But I’ve been doing this for quite a long time now so when I get to the point where I think “this is terrible,” I know it’s just a part of the work of making a painting. I understand that the process is one of change, doing and undoing. And it’s one of the things I love about oil painting- the mistakes that are so rich and necessary and the ability to constantly change and re-work things.
SB: When you’re younger, older artists, often faculty, tell you to “have faith in the process,” and you’re thinking, wtf does that even mean? But when you’re older, everything, not just in the individual paintings, but in the span of your career, can be resolved through the process of painting.
FS: Yes. When I was leaving grad school my biggest fear was, “How am I going to critique my own work? I can’t do that. When do I know it’s finished?” But you learn to trust yourself and have faith that you do know. It’s like you said, there are paintings that get put against the wall for months and then when you go back to them, you see them freshly and you can finish them. I love to paint over older work. I’ve developed a confidence that I didn’t have in the early days.
“Fran Shalom: Duck / Rabbit,” Hunterdon Art Museum, 7 Lower Center, Clinton, NJ. October 2 through January 8, 2023
About the artist (from the museum website): Fran Shalom has exhibited widely throughout the United States in both museums and galleries, including the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge Mass, and the Newark Museum, the Zurcher gallery and Kathryn Markel gallery in New York. Her work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Rose Art Museum and the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris. She has been the recipient of a Pollock Krasner Artist Fellowship Grant, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, New Jersey Individual Artist Grant and an Art Omi Residency. She is represented by the Kathryn Markel Gallery in New York City.
About the author: Sharon Butler has a solo show of new paintings on view at Jennifer Baahng Gallery at 790 Madison Avenue, New York, NY, through October 22, 2022. She is the publisher of Two Coats of Paint. Follow her on Instagram @sharon_butler