Josephine Halvorson and I met on a late winter day when the chill was starting to melt, and talked over omelettes at the window of the Red Cat in Chelsea. It was early on a weekday, the restaurant felt quietly elegant, the light outdoors mellowed by cloud cover. As Halvorson noted, even the potatoes in our omelettes were perfectly soft.
The way she brought my attention to this subtle tactile sensation is a good metaphor for her work. Halvorson’s subjects include traces of the American post-industrial landscape: woodshed doors, pieces of machinery, shutters, façades marked by graffiti. These surfaces are softened by time and weather, humanized, brought closer into our space: it is a meeting more than a confrontation.
Halvorson received her BFA from the Cooper Union in 2003 and her MFA from Columbia University in 2007. She is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to Vienna (2003–04), a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant (2009), and a New York Foundation for the Arts Award (2010). She currently serves as a critic in the MFA program in painting at Yale University, and lives and works in Brooklyn and western Massachusetts. She is represented by Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York, where she had a solo exhibition January–March 2014, and Peter Freeman, Inc., Paris, where she had a solo exhibition in November 2012–January 2013.
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Jennifer Samet: You grew up in Brewster, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. You have described your work as a negotiation with specific places. I wonder how the landscape of your childhood plays a role.
Josephine Halvorson: When I look at a group of images of my work online, it can look thematically “New England.” But this is incidental; I’m not trying to illustrate a particular geography.
I grew up on Cape Cod and then came to New York when I was eighteen. There had always been New Yorkers who spent time on the Cape, specifically a concentration of artists in Wellfleet and Provincetown. I have colleagues and former teachers who summer there. And historically, Hans Hofmann, Milton Avery, Charles Hawthorne, and Edwin Dickinson, among many others, had spent time there. So even as a child I felt a proximity to a certain history of painting which had a foot in both urban modernism and regionalism.
When I moved to New York, I began to notice a cultural hierarchy with regionalism near the bottom. This was fifteen years ago before “local” started to be used as a positive cultural term. I think about the ways we define art in relation to landscape and culture. So, Cape Cod, for my work, is not about the aesthetics of the place so much as it gave me a sensitivity to the local, and how it exists in relation to contemporary art.
JS: You mentioned to me your resistance to being labeled a painter, as it relates to the title of this column. Why do you have resistance to the term?
JH: I think everyone who makes paintings is concerned with the term “painter” and what it means for them. It’s hard to use it and not conjure an overly-determined history. Of course I am making paintings, but I resist the tendency to label artists as it can sometimes characterize what they’re going to do before they even do it.
Also, the distinction and relationship between material and medium is important to consider. There is integrity to every material and its history, but you can engage in other mediums through a particular material as well. I’m thinking of Matt Saunders, who has been making photographs and videos, which are clearly within the discourse of the medium of painting. I am making paintings, but I consider them sharing the medium of land art, for instance. To be called a painter can close the doors to other discourses, which are relevant and present in the work.
JS: Your parents were artists who worked across the mediums; perhaps that affected you?
JH: Yes, my parents both made paintings, and their work grew to be sculptural, and also more decorative and utilitarian. The resistance to labels, an embrace of complexity and a healthy contrarian streak is within my family’s culture.
Painting in my childhood was very much encouraged, but also questioned, because it didn’t have the physical permanence of other materials: metal was solid, meant to last, always useful, whereas painting was deemed somewhat flimsy by comparison. And that is, of course, the name of the game — painting can be so much and so little at the same time.
JS: Can you discuss the title for this show — Facings — which itself has multiple implications and meanings?
JH: “Facings” refers to my practice of looking at something, and something looking at me, being with, and engaging something else in the world. I’m interested in anthropomorphism and apophenia, as well as the flatness of a surface: a façade, which has the same root, of course, as “face.”
By exploring ideas of visage, face, and expression, I came across the word “countenance.” A countenance is precisely what a painting is for me at the moment. It belies a temperament, an implicit expression. I’ve become interested in the notion of liveliness: the way that paintings are neither dead nor alive; they are neither living beings, nor inert materials, but exist in that space in between.
JS: When you talk about the objects — the subjects of your paintings — looking back at you, what do you mean exactly?
JH: Certain things catch my eye, calling out to me in some way. In that moment something real and palpable, private and psychological happens. The subject can be a catalyst for me to realize a painting that I may have subconsciously wanted to make, but haven’t yet realized. Often it’s not until I make the painting that I see it and think, “That’s because I once saw a Matisse painting and thought I wanted to use that kind of pink.” Those experiences in life are subtle. Suddenly, you find yourself making a painting and it contains what you felt for another piece of art, or an experience, or a person.
JS: You speak of the objects in your paintings in a way that humanizes them. What is this about?
JH: All of the subjects of the paintings in my recent show are familiar, part of my daily life. Woodshed Door is a good example. I see the actual door almost every day. Since making that painting, the painting feels like the door, but the door also feels like the painting. And oddly enough both feel like me.
In other cases, the objects are others: they are like friends or lovers or acquaintances around the world. I believe that objects have their own agency in the relations they have, not just with me, but also with the painting, and with other objects and conditions that surround them. Making a painting is a manifestation — a physical metaphor — for experiencing what the object is willing to reveal to me and what it withholds, as well as what I reveal to it.
Many objects I have painted have since vanished: a wooden window casement got ripped out and replaced by vinyl siding. A mural in Brooklyn I’ve worked with numerous times is now on a building due to be demolished. Things change.
JS: In this way, do your subjects have a political dimension? You have written about the phrase “memento mori.” Are the paintings about environmental or technological hubris?
JH: I don’t want my work to be mere reminders of mortality, warning signs, or pointing the finger at failure. But I am aware those narratives go hand-in-hand with still life. When exploring what makes something alive, it’s important to consider the opposite. This is something I think about when working on site, especially in our post-industrial landscape.
For my 2012 show “Side By Side,” for instance, I spent several months working in Thomaston, Connecticut, a town named after Seth Thomas and the site of the once largest clock factory in America. Some of the architecture from that time is still intact, but the jobs are not. When I was there, several former workers came up to talk with me, sharing their memories of working in the factories. It’s a meaningful experience to give attention to something that is on the verge of being forgotten.
JS: In an article you wrote, you tell the story of returning to a site where you had seen an old piece of machinery with the word “Shame” spray-painted on it, only to find the machine gone. You were devastated. Yet you had taken a photograph of it on a previous visit. Why not work from the photograph? Why do you work outdoors and on site?
JH: I tried. At the mining site I made a painting of another piece of machinery and then when I was back in my studio in Brooklyn, I decided to paint the word “Shame” on it. But because the word wasn’t integral, it looked cosmetic, and the painting felt phony.
I’m trying to make paintings out of experiences, of sensations, of the perceptible. If I were to work from a photograph in my studio, I would likely make a painting of the experience of looking at a photograph in my studio.
I want to paint that which is perceptible but not necessarily visible, such as history, time, emotion, memory. In preparing for this recent exhibition, “Facings,” I made several paintings of fire before realizing I was trying to interpret the effects of heat. At the opening on a very cold night in January, a few people said they were going to warm their hands up by my heat paintings. That was a big compliment!
There’s also a practical impulse to working outside. You have to know how to pack a lunch, where to go to the bathroom, to always bring sunscreen and bug spray. You have to learn what temperature your paint will melt at, how to cast a shadow over your palette. You have to do everything in your power to have control over a situation that you have no control over. I like having to fight for it. I have a facility with paint, so I need resistance to make art. Otherwise I would unintentionally squeeze the life out of anything I made. Working outdoors seems to bring out the best in me. I never get bored. I’m always attentive.
JS: The term trompe l’oeil has also come up in reference to your work. What are your thoughts on trompe l’oeil?
JH: Trompe l’oeil refuses allegory in an interesting way, which I like, because then you can deal with other things like phenomenology. Trompe l’oeil also is a helpful analogy for how painting can define itself: as surface, as illusion, as daily life, as the wall. But I’m suspicious of its one-liner status as illusionism alone. I’m not at all interested in trickery.
I love how color can almost magically transform into something: it can become wood, it can become concrete, it can become heat. I wouldn’t understand the object if I were just meditating on it. It has to go through this empathetic medium of paint.
JS: Have you always been a “one-session” painter?
JH: When I was younger I felt guilty about my love for working in a single session. I wanted to make a painting that took a long time. Yet I felt connected to artists like Lois Dodd, Robert Henri, and Roman frescoes and Chinese ink paintings. I had to come to terms with my own sensibility.
Now I think of my work more as castings. That is why the paintings of concrete surfaces are quite important in this recent show: how fluidity can be formed in a continuous, unbroken act. This is where Rachel Whiteread’s work has been important to me.
This is how I’ve come to think of the making of my own work. We all have our own distinct physical and personal relationships to this medium, this oily substance. And that’s why painting remains so diverse and infinite.