I recently visited artist Natalie Frank in her Bushwick, Brooklyn based studio and we decided to sit down for an interview. I met Natalie in 2007 when she was a visiting artist for the Studio Art Program at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education and have followed her career ever since. She is a contemporary painter, focusing on the figure, narrative and the space between abstraction and figuration. Natalie will have a solo exhibition at Fredericks Freiser in October 2012 and I decided to focus on this and her visual expansion of deconstructing the figure within her paintings and practice.
Katy Diamond Hamer: Hi Natalie, thanks for the taking the time to chat! I know you’ve been quite busy and have recently traveled for an exhibition in St. Barth’s, in the Caribbean at Space SBH Gallery. Why don’t we start there, tell me about the exhibition and how you got involved.
Natalie Frank: I met Natalie Clifford through some wonderful painter friends and she put me in a group show she curated at the Eden Rock Gallery in St. Barth’s where she was curator. When she left to start her own gallery, she offered me a solo show in her own, brand new space in Gustavia, the fancy part of town on the island, near Gagosian’s gallery, who she sometimes collaborates with. It is a beautiful space; she is a lovely woman; and I thought it could be an interesting audience for the work. I also got to go for a week and a half for the opening!
KDH: I know you were trained in a very traditional, figurative manner. Where did your interest in the figure arrive and did you realize you had a specific skill level for portraiture before delving into this type of painting which carries a significant historical weight?
NF: I started doing figure drawing from life when I was 13 years old. The narrative – the stories that people tell and use to construct their lives, whether it be religious, humanistic, mythical, social, was and is my entry point into painting and the figure. I am fascinated by the relationships and the ways in which people communicate and build their worlds. I was always particularly drawn to painters who used the portrait – often in service to a larger narrative – to focus, foremost, on the individual. I began by looking at the German and Austrian Expressionists: the ways in which color, as well as expression, could relay a “real” feeling of what it meant to be human and alive. In my studies at the Slade, University College London, I began down the path of locating the figure in a more constructed, or literary narrative. I was looking at Rego, but also Stanley Spencer, Freud, Kitaj and Blake. I would say I have followed the portrait first as a young student in terms of its literal meaning: an expression of the person where the face is predominant; into a more literary understanding of how to represent a person through story, and now, I am focused on combining both of these aspects with a heightened awareness and appreciation of what the paint can also do, its expressive capacity. I am very interested in locating the figure between representation and abstraction which seems to be a very contemporary preccupation.
KDH: As your practice expands, it seems that you are finding more ways to deconstruct while also staying true to your own hand and style of mark-making. Are there any artists who you are currently looking at or do you find yourself trying to detach from a certain pool of art knowledge when making work?
NF: I am always thinking of the artists who came before me. Certainly not an anxiety of influence, but these painters are like old friends, always nearby. I am looking at a mix of old and new, painters and artists working in other media. The last few months I have been thinking about Kitaj, Beckmann, Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, Robert Overby, Kohei Yoshiyuki, Currin, Condo, Daniel Richter, Sugimoto, Sherman, Neo Rauch, Tiepolo, Oehlen, Pettibon, Kentridge (especially The Nose), Degas and always Velazquez. Also, de Kooning. His retrospective left me exuberant and agitated. As my work has changed over the past two years (I am so looking forward to showing this new and much changed work in October at Fredericks Freiser!) the mix of artists I am looking at has expanded and morphed more towards abstraction in narrative and form.
KDH: Painting as a medium presents so much historical resonance. I always think of the Italian Renaissance, which is one of my favorite periods of representation and narrative, and you mention looking at Tiepolo. I know you’ve also spent time in Florence, Italy. Can you talk a little bit about your experience in Italy and how it inspired your work?
NF: It was a magical time to have what added to 4 months in Florence and Umbria, on grants from my undergrad, studying at the traditional academy and learning their processes. Italy was an important place for me to start, in many ways. As a young woman, it gave me the space and time to explore, myself, my practice and a part of the world and art historical tradition in an environment that was both idyllic and historically vital. I went to all of the chapels with Giotto and Masaccio and Piero. Seeing the Brancacci Chapel, the beginning of humanism and the Renaissance, left me awestruck and solidified my belief that art can tell stories, get at what it means to be human, and transmit the unknowable. The study abroad I have done also left me with a strong commitment to the rigors of art and art making, the discipline that comes with the practice. It gave me formal tools that I have digested and adapted to my own purposes and current practice.
KDH: Traveling in Europe is so important for artists, I agree! Knowing you are originally from Texas, and currently based in Bushwick, Brooklyn, can you talk about the New York art scene and how you feel you fit in, if at all, within a large body of young artists, painters sculptors etc. Do you ever feel that New York is over-saturated with art or do you think that the quantity of artists and galleries is symbiotic to the process of making work.
NF: I love being here and feel extremely lucky to be able to do what I love for a living. I love being part of a community that is provocative and constantly changing. It is exciting to be in New York, surrounded by friends from grad school, undergrad, friends of friends, everyone making work, curating it, writing about it, contributing their unique vision to what feels as if it is a very enmeshed community. I try to get out and around to see what’s being made as often as possible. Also, I love going to artists studios and trading visits, everyone’s practice is so unique. I am really inspired by friends – some amazing painters I know, that when I leave their studio, or we have conversations about art, is invigorating. The intensity of the dialogue here, from all angles surrounding art is intense and incredibly engaging.
KDH: Would you be able to make this particular work in any other city? Do you ever feel that it is somehow specific to New York.
NF: There is a specific community here and I know I am influenced by fellow painters and artist friends. Right now, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. I think my new work is very much of my time and place, how could it not be, I am here!
KDH: I have followed Fredericks Freiser for quite some time. Congratulations on joining the gallery! As you have an upcoming exhibition slated for October 2012, do you have anything in particular regarding content that you are focusing on for this solo show?
NF: I am thinking about the idea of Transfigurations. I just had Lawrence Weschler, a writer I have admired for years, by the studio, and we had such a good visit speaking about narrative, the feeling of “humanness”. I just read his wonderful new book “Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative” and it is one of those convergences that he writes about that when he was here, I was describing the idea behind my upcoming show: getting at the inside of people and their narratives, to try to figure out what is at their core, and he pulled out the newest New Yorker that had a story called Transfiguration about a man who had one of the first successful face transplants. His photograph looked exactly like these portraits I am making – a melange of features and lines and an exterior that draws attention to what we understand to be human – humanesque. Weschler writes about the uncanny valley as an area where people accept and understand portraits and figures to be human – but they can be blue or slightly distorted, or in the case of my work, conglomerations that are part rendered, part illustrated, part abstracted paint. When they become radically close, but still not completely, identifiable as human, then the human viewer does not accept the figure she is looking at as like herself. So, in this show, I am painting autopsies, inspections, an exorcism, an image of two people hovering together in a lover’s stare, all attempting to find, tease out, understand, take apart the human figure and its mystery.
KDH: In mentioning autopsies, inspections and exorcisms, you are dealing subjectively with the abject. Your work has always been aesthetically pleasing and while it still is, now you offer a challenge for the viewer to decipher content that isn’t always pleasant. Tell me about this process, where your inspiration comes from and if you’ve ever been embarrassed to show some of these paintings to someone like…your mother.
NF: My mother is actually my biggest supporter. And as a former trauma nurse who worked in a sex change clinic, the influence might stem the other way! I don’t think about the subject matter as abject, just human. The raw feeling of what it means to have and lose power, feel violated and violate, to expose and hide, all of those dualities that make us more then characters in a short story. I do love paint, and have been told I am a painter’s painter – I also love color. I am aware that these qualities soften the harshness and directness of the subject matter. But, I figure that nothing can be heard while screaming.