Experience, imagination, memory: A Conversation with Rebecca Ness
We've been following the work on Rebecca Ness for some time now enjoying her somewhat caricature approach to the portrayal of her characters. With oversized limbs, often cramped inside of the painting format, her subjects are involved in daily activities, regularly ending up in not very flattering poses. After a while, we've noticed her strange obsession with certain activities, particular body parts, and overall unusual postures, as well as her strange approach to framing her images. So, we've decided to reach out to Rebecca and ask her what are all these hands, shirts, private bits flapping and leg shaving paintings all about.
Sasha Bogojev: What is your art/education background?
Rebecca Ness: I was very lucky to grow up in Marblehead, Massachusetts where there was an independent art school in my town called the Acorn Gallery School of Art. After school, I would go to Acorn and learn oil painting and figure drawing from live models. My experience at Acorn Gallery created and nurtured a love for analytical looking and making work from life. This lead me to my studies at Boston University, where I majored in Painting and minored in art history. After graduating in 2015, I then spent some time working at an art supply store and also at BU, and started applying to graduate schools in the winter/spring of 2016. It was great to work at BU while going through the application process because I could just visit all my old professors on my lunch breaks to get their advice! I am now a second year MFA Painting/Printmaking Candidate at the Yale School of Art.
What influences your work?
Experience, imagination, memory, humor, pattern, fabric and clothing. I look at a lot of small works, like Persian miniatures or medieval manuscript illuminations. I deal with the body within my work. My most recent pursuit sprung up from when, about two years ago, I was making a lot of body hair shaving paintings, thinking about how the curation of body hair is a distinct social choice, especially for those of us who identify as women and are faced with the expectation to shave our legs or our armpits. This interest slowly lead into thinking about how this operates within the choice about what we put on our bodies. About two years ago I began making paintings of patterned shirts, inspired by how fashion codes work in society, specifically in queer communities. Rings of keys, hanky colors, and button up shirts all historically serve functions within the queer community to communicate who you are and what you want in a discreet way. I was specifically interested in how the button up shirt in queer women-identifying circles operate; how buttoning up a shirt all the way to your neck can be a flag to signal out to others like you. Now I am digitally making my own patterns and painting them, as well as collaborating with a costume designer friend of mine to get my patterns printed on fabric and sewed into a button up shirt.
Wow, I never thought that was the story behind those works. Any other concepts you're working with?
Another offshoot in my work lately has been with the subject matter of doctors or doctors examinations. My partner is a surgeon, so through our conversations weve both learned first hand that there are quite a lot of similarities within the medical world and the art world. Besides always working and never sleeping, there is a big emphasis on dexterity and training your body to gain certain skills and perform certain tasks. Within surgery, you have to literally learn how to see; how to discern whats happening within the body and make moves accordingly. You have to have the right dexterity and the right technique to sew someone up and not leave a giant scar. It really is the most high-risk mark making and requires a high level of craft, and I see these things as quite related to artmaking.
So there is no elaborate narrative in your work, more like representations of thoughts and things that interest you?
My earlier work used to be more outright in its narrative, but my work now seems to be a little bit more about presenting a certain moment in time of some sort of bodily interaction, not necessarily a specific story. I want my paintings to be a slow discovery and inspection of all the little parts that make up an image, and having an investigation of the parts, realizing that this is a patterned shirt, that this is a blanket, that these are two hands crossed, etc be a sort of narrative and activity of viewing in itself.
Yeah, there seem to be a lot of focus on the figure as the main element of your work. How did that develop?
My art education started with learning how to draw the figure, and the figure has always been a constant in my work. I like to think of the body as a design element; how can I stretch a limb or shorten a finger in order to interact with the rest of the composition or to reference its rectangular constraints? I want to treat the body just like I would treat any other abstraction or any other part of the painting. Painting is also a way to show an alternative point of view, to place someone at a previously unseen viewing angle in order to emphasize how bizarre and interesting our bodies actually are.
Is that how the water diving, private parts flapping images came to be?
These diver paintings started after I went to the gym and watched a Yale Varsity Swimming Practice. I drew the athletes and watched how their bodies morphed into these really interesting shapes when they interacted with water. Swimming and diving has this odd discombobulating feeling to it; youre flipping and flying and weightless, and theres vast volume differences based on whether your underwater or above. I wanted to recreate these sensations within a painting.
How do you construct your images, what is your work process like?
I usually work out ideas small first, with Acryla gouache on paper. I love making small work and its where I feel most at home. I start drawing on a small piece of paper, and then paint right on the paper, so in my studio I end up having a lot of small finished paintings and not necessarily studies or drawings. If I decide that a small painting has the capacity to go larger, Ill try to make that happen. I take the choice of scale very seriously and I never want to make a big painting just to make a big painting. If I scale up, its because I think that the image calls for more space, or if the image could be striking if the viewer confronts it with their body instead of with just their face or eyes.
So it's all old fashioned, analog process?
For the patterns that I design, I do that all on my iPad Pro. I work from photographs, draw right in the program, or make digital collages to then import into Photoshop or Illustrator to make the final product.
What are your other tools of choice? What techniques do you prefer and why?
My tools of choice are Acryla Gouache and Golden Fluid acrylic paint. Acryla is so pigment heavy and so rich that the colors just sing. Acryla is also waterproof and dries in under 10 seconds, so it really compliments the working style of someone who likes to work fast and in layers. For larger works on canvas I go with a mix of Golden Fluid acrylic and Acryla Gouache (for the little details). I work in flat wash layers and Golden Fluid is always the perfect consistency for that.
What was your personal highlight of your art career so far?
My personal highlight so far has definitely been attending Yale for graduate school. When I was a kid learning how to paint at Acorn, my teacher would tell me about Yale and their graduate program, and it had always been a dream to go. I never really expected that I actually would go, but when I got my acceptance letter it was a huge highlight. Ive loved it here so far, my friends and teachers are so talented and driven and I am so thankful and lucky to have this community in my life.
Well, congrats on that! What are the next major goals on the horizon?
Our second year thesis shows are coming up in January and February. I would love to put together a show that I am proud of and does justice to the cumulation of work that has happened over the past year and a half. Im trying to think of it simply: I want to hang on the walls some pieces that Im really truly happy about and then go from there.
Any shows or something along those lines planned for the near future?
Im excited about an upcoming show Im included in at Boston University, called "A Few Conversations Between Women." I was invited to participate by my mentor from my time at BU, a fabulous artist and person named Dana Clancy. Its a show that pairs up women mentors and mentees, and is a celebration of women educators at BU. I also have a small solo show up at the moment of shirt paintings from my first year at the Yale Slifka Center for Jewish Life. Other than that, Im looking forward to thesis, finishing up my time at grad school, and jumping into whatever comes next!