Completing the Puzzle: Meg Atkinson on Sentimentality, Process, and New York
Anyone will tell you New York has changed over the past 40 years. The city is no longer the gritty, (albeit dangerous) sanctuary for artists and punks it once was. Whether you are on board with the so-called “mallification” of New York, one thing is for certain: artists will continue to flock to New York time and time again because of its unique ability to inspire and cultivate multiple generations of creatives.
Artist Meg Atkinson has been in Brooklyn since the early 80’s. With her considerable time there, she’s taken the necessary time to hone and develop her craft as a painter. Her works are specially constructed to create a world that is distinctly both psychedelic and rigid. Layered piece by piece, her paintings compose a bizarre arena of color and shape. Each work feels like an active living organism, with dripping borders around a kaleidoscopic center. Constantly developing her style and growing as an artist, Atkinson has been painting for nearly forty years and continues to make work out of the incessant need to create, just as New York dictates.
We recently swung by her studio in Brooklyn to talk about her favorite New York moments, the sentimentality of objects, and how processes take time to develop. Check out our interview with her below.
Jessica Ross: You attended Pratt in the 1980’s, what was it like going to art school in New York at that time? Any cool stories that are unique to your time there?
Meg Atkinson: I graduated from Pratt Institute in 1984. It was a different time. CBGB’s was still around. Brooklyn wasn’t cool. Our studio classes were six hours long. I carried my soft, 6B pencils to class in a cigar box. I was earnest about drawing and worked hard at it. I’ve written elsewhere that I was negatively impacted by the chauvinistic culture of the school and that visiting professor Louise Fishman was a saving grace. In my photographs from that time there are crumbling brownstones and graffiti-covered subway cars. You could see the twin towers from Fort Greene Park. I lived on a diet of snacks from Ellie’s corner store: pints of Haagen-dazs, stale cantaloupes, and Uncle Jesse’s nuts. Loosies, too. Beers you could get at the Alibi club. Getting mugged was a thing, and, yes, I was stuck up at knifepoint, as were others.
Bu,t I would be remiss in my telling if I didn’t also recall the looming menace of HIV/AIDS. My roommate and I lived on Vanderbilt Avenue in a building that was mostly inhabited by artists. A tenant’s mother joined us one spring. Her son, Kenny, lived upstairs. His apartment had jade green walls. I knew this because his mother invited me in for a cup of tea one day. Kenny was in the hospital. He had been there for a while. I learned that his mother had had to quit her job in the Midwest to care for him. She was a petite woman and very graceful. I didn’t sleep well the night Kenny died. Our across the hall neighbor, an old man named Ben, was in the habit of entertaining prostitutes and, one of them, a thin, freckle-faced girl in a torn coat, had banged loudly on his door, “Ben!” she had wailed, “Open up! It’s me, Cookie!” Now, of course, this all seems long ago and I suppose it is. It’s funny to think that I’m still here, still in Brooklyn, and still making paintings.
Your work clearly is on a track to solve a puzzle, a kind of trajectory to figure out what works and what doesn’t. What do you find rewarding about this kind of complex, formal painting?
As a lapsed still-life painter it’s only a matter of time before I return to working from life. It takes forever to finish some paintings. Sometimes it takes years. I like it best when the solution is a surprise. There is a pattern to what I do: First I make a discovery, then I recreate it, then I toss it aside. Once I get bored I start to mess around. I take risks. Usually I have five or six paintings going at once. Most nights I feel that I’ve wasted my time. I’ll kick myself for working on a failed painting, or else I’ll take a wrong turn. For the most part, it’s extremely frustrating. But, you’re right, it is like solving a puzzle and that’s where the payoff is. Mostly I hate to be bored.
Can you tell us a little about the text in some of your pieces? What do they signify? How did they end up in there?
Whether it’s the shimmering gold leaf in paintings from the Medieval period, or whether it’s the raw and roughly applied paint stick of Basquiat, text is most interesting when its meaning is obscured. I see it as a pictorial device like any other. Only infrequently do I use it to convey a direct message, usually about something irksome. For years now I’ve had words and phrases in my head. You’ll recognize them. They are Savarin, le Journal, and Typhoo Tea. I’m fond of these words because they represent knowledge. To have done your homework is to have made their acquaintance. It means you have skin in the game.
Walk us through your process, how do you start a piece? How do you know when it’s finished?
As you know, I’ve made lots of different kinds of art. This is true for paintings as well. Over the years I’ve sliced paintings into strips as part of their solution. I’ve also used thread. Lately, and because I’m interested in the constraints of the rectangle, I begin each painting as a grid. To create tension and to jazz things up I then draw rounded shapes. I like to pit flat areas against areas that convey the illusion of three-dimensional space. It’s the same old figure ground tension that painters have been exploring for hundreds of years. I don’t distinguish between representational and not representational. It’s the viewer’s job to indulge in taxonomies. A finished painting expresses duality. It bridges the gap between intellect and imagination.
You’re surrounded by so many small loved things in your studio. It’s a bit of a temple to your life (your son’s diorama, your husband’s cafe bustelo coffee tins that hold your brushes etc.) why do you think is it important to have these trinkets in your space while you create?
If a studio is a playroom then my mementos are toys. The can of Bustelo has been with me forever. My husband, Rafael, makes coffee the old-fashioned way. He uses a colador. Bustelo is his brand of choice. It’s funny, though, because if you scroll through Instagram and look at studio shots you’ll see Bustelo everywhere. In fact, Bustelo even shows up in one of Nicole Eisenman’s paintings. The diorama was a science project. My son built it in fifth grade. It had to be wired with electricity and because we had just seen Tim Hawkinson at the old Whitney he wanted to put that in as well. There’s usually something quirky about the things that I like. I have an enormous pair of glasses that I commissioned my father to make, and I have a foot long jawbone. I found the bone at Mese Verde in Colorado when I was 10 or 11. I brought it home in my knapsack. Nowadays you wouldn’t be allowed to do that, to carry a bone on a plane. I’ve never liked the idea of painting in a sterile, white-walled cube. In fact, if my studio were elsewhere I would still have a rug. Speaking of which, a dealer once told me that visiting my studio was worse than shopping for Persian rugs. He meant it as a criticism but I didn’t take it as such. The lack of imagination that lives at the edges of art never ceases to dismay me. I’ve always loved those old black and white photographs of Picasso’s studio: the mess, the high ceilings, the antiquated furniture. It seems to me that the less a person’s workspace is divorced from her life the better off she is.
You mentioned that you had a pretty sizable gap (15 years) in your life that you resigned from painting? What did you do to fulfill yourself creatively at that time?
I took time off from painting when my son was born. I didn’t have the money to spend on space and/or babysitting. At first it was hard, but as time went on I got used to it. I liked being a regular person. What’s funny about it, though, is that when I look back at that time, I see that I never stopped creating. At first I turned to sculpture. I made small objects out of fake fingernails and real teeth. I carved a pair of glasses. I remember sitting at the kitchen table trying to be quiet while chipping away at a block of wood. Time was precious. I felt like the Count of Monte Cristo. I could try to escape while my son was taking a nap, furtively, but then all the signs had to be hidden away: the chisel out of reach, the woodchips in the bin. I made drawings, too. Lots of them. Nowadays I call them my drawings from the 90’s. At the time I didn’t think they had any value. Now I see they do. I wrote too. I took a couple of classes at the 92nd street Y. It was gratifying to learn that the same rules apply: that in writing, as in painting, you have to heed parts-to-whole relationships, and similarly that you have to murder your darlings. On the whole I’m glad to have had the opportunity to try new things. At the very least it resulted in storage for the work I do now.
What do you listen to in the studio? Are there any tracks or podcasts that get your creative juices flowing?
I tend to binge-listen when I’m in the studio. I listen to a single artist exclusively for months at a time. My taste is eclectic. In the past couple of years I’ve been obsessed with Amy Winehouse, Bonnie Raitt, Jo Stafford, and Lil Peep. Although I think there is something inspiring about listening to music, I’m also increasingly interested to learn how artists manage their creativity. In this regard, Bonnie Raitt stands out. I admire her authenticity and longevity, and because neither of these things are accidental, I also admire her intelligence. The downside to binge listening is overdoing it, it’s sad when you find yourself in a song hole.
Any projects coming up on the horizon? Where can we find out more about your future work?
I’m lined up for ODETTA in the near future, but don’t have the details yet. In the meantime you can look at my website or find me on Instagram.
Studio photos and interview by Jessica Ross.