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Lucy Mink Covello lives in New Hampshire, not too far from where I spend a couple of weeks every summer. We met at my friends’ farm, spread a blanket under trees in the apple orchard, and shared some beer, bread, and cheese. Our interview was punctuated by the buzzing of insects, animals, and children. I noticed that the conversation leaned heavily into discussions of family and motherhood, and I wondered whether it was influenced by the situation. My first impulse was to edit it out; how could children be relevant to serious art discourse?
But, a couple of weeks ago, when Covello and I met in New York, she shared her interpretation of the Dana Schutz painting, “Slow Motion Shower” (2015) — that it was about the demands and interruptions a new mother faces while trying to take a shower. I began to understand how parenthood and her children’s experience of the world are so central to Covello’s painting.
Covello’s paintings are compact abstractions, in which distinct forms, patterns, and shapes press urgently into each other. The forms are vying for space, but also integrated — like family in the midst of a creative working life. The juxtapositions and color chords are strange, evocative, and sometimes jarring. Although her paintings each carry an overarching mood, they feel like an abstract translation of moving through environments, where a host of associations, memories and daily obligations are ever-present.
Covello was born in 1968 in Oakland, New Jersey, and received her BFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design, and her MFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Her work has been shown regularly at Geoffrey Young Gallery, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and in 2014 she had a solo exhibition at Giampietro Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut. In the summer of 2015 she was the subject of a solo exhibition organized by Jason Andrew at Outlet Fine Art, Brooklyn, New York, and included in a group exhibition at David Findlay Jr. Gallery.
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Jennifer Samet: What experiences did you have with art as a child?
Lucy Mink Covello: I grew up in Oakland, New Jersey. I can remember a lot of small details from my childhood, like visuals from television, and the families who were characters. I stayed up late watching anything I could. The school day was one long daydreaming session, except lunch, gym, art, and geometry. I walked alone to school by the same houses for years, which was more time for daydreaming.
Even if they were scary, I would get lost in my children’s book illustrations — in the line quality, the details. I did not take art classes, but I drew from an early age. I liked to draw the kitchen window, or sit outside and draw. I would move my furniture, perhaps to expend excess energy, but before moving it, I would make a drawing of my room on graph paper. I would measure everything to see if the rearrangement would work.
When I was in middle school, I had a friend who would draw with me. We were obsessed with making tightly filled-in abstract designs with markers. We continued through college, mailing letters to each other and completely covering the envelopes with drawings.
When I graduated, I was excited to move someplace different, and for college I went to Savannah College of Art and Design. I had no fear about it. My four years there felt like a vacation of sorts – a working vacation, since I waitressed all through school. I did not have hang-ups there, or that feeling I had all through elementary school and high school, of being a lousy student. That was all gone. I was an illustration major, with a minor in art history. But I was always painting outside of class, even if it was just in my room. I always made a space.
My illustration professor, Roland Wolff, was great. He talked about the creative process. He wasn’t there to get you hired by the best company after you graduated. Instead, he was trying to get you to make really wacky, far-out work. The more off the deep end your work was, the more it was approved. It was kind of in the vein of Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, (1972), by Hunter S. Thompson.
In art history, we were looking at Renaissance art, and it seemed like we studied every Last Judgment painting and every Madonna and Child painting. It was great, having come from a conservative Catholic upbringing, to have a different way of approaching those subjects. I started to paint Heaven and Hell paintings, and Hell was not so bad looking. It was like, “Is Hell sex? Are there going to be cartoon guys?” Heaven was okay too. I liked Hieronymus Bosch but I was also into Kenny Scharf at that time. My paintings had that twist.
JS: Yes, it was another way of processing or altering your childhood experience. You then moved again, when you went to Minneapolis?
LMC: Yes, but after I graduated, I took a year and a half off and was in Philadelphia, and then New Jersey. I worked at the Rutgers daycare center. I knew that the painting studios were nearby but I never went there. I think it was because I did not want to be back in New Jersey. I decided to apply to MFA programs, and was trying get my portfolio ready, to go somewhere far away. I was making abstract, compact psychedelic work. I didn’t know anything about color, so my strategy was to use every color. Somehow I was accepted into the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, into their first graduating MFA class.
I enjoyed my experience there because I worked with David Rich. He pushed me to change what I was doing, and start fresh. I was 24 and it made sense; I was up for anything. I enjoyed experimenting, and it taught me to keep that as a way to work. David recalls me saying I had an interest in things that were weird and that did not need a lot of explanation. That “weird” thing has remained constant in my work since high school.
When I finished the MFA, I made a plan to move back east. I had a job in New York as a nanny, which gave me a place to live. I got a studio in Chelsea. When I first met the landlord to look at the space, I saw that Carroll Dunham was in the building. I had gotten interested in his work in graduate school, and I thought, “Cool. Very good vibes in this place.” Once I was settled there, I was so productive. It was great to be working in my own studio, even though it was a dump.
When I had my children, I gave up my studio, which was then in Tribeca, and had three years of not painting. We moved to Syracuse, and then I looked at what I had done and thought, “I have to start over.” That’s when I took Sarah McCoubrey’s class. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to paint en plein air, but I needed something to get me out of my headspace. I never took a class like hers. We were painting in a unique neighborhood in Syracuse — not a beautiful field or anything. There were a lot of middle school students who would paint with us.
I also had just read Musa Mayer’s memoir of her father, Philip Guston, Night Studio, (1988). With two young children, evening painting hours were very important to me. I read it from the perspective of parenting. Even though I love Guston, I was thinking, “I don’t want to be that kind of parent. My paintings are really important, but I’m going to find a way so that my time with my children is just as important.” I had about three hours during the day to work, while they were in school.
It was 2009, which became a special year for me in painting. It was as if I erased everything and only added in the parts I wanted. Nothing was intentional, but the important elements of my high school art, and my time in Savannah and Minneapolis, became synthesized. I started doing small paintings, which didn’t have tons of medium or collage materials. I started using paint the way I wanted to use it.
In 2011 we moved from Syracuse to New Hampshire. My husband Steve had moved a month prior, and I was getting things organized at home. There were several thunder and lightning storms, and my kids were at the age where they were very dramatic about it. They had trouble falling asleep and wanted to be near me. There was a group of six or seven paintings that I was trying to finish. I ended up titling those paintings about fear: “Run and Hide” and “Fear and Safety” (both 2011). Now, when you see them, you might think they are about larger society. But it was all based on the kids and their reactions.
JS: I noticed you start some paintings with a colored gesso surface. In general, how do the paintings begin? Do you start with an idea or a drawing? The process you have described so far sounds very intuitive.
LMC: Yes, it is. All the other things in my life are hard but painting is not. When I used to teach college students, and saw people struggling with composition and color, I would try to return to when I didn’t know some of these things. Maybe there is a way to teach it, rather than say it is just in someone. Part of it is just about looking at other art. Eventually you just know when it doesn’t look right. Although, sometimes when I see something off in my own work, I like it, and decide to leave it. If I were to fix it, it might look too tidy.
I draw a lot of my paintings with the end of my brush. Some of the drawing disappears as I paint. I have also started with certain colors. Lately I have been really into greens and pinks, and how they work alongside other colors and different whites. I am very affected by the environment, even though I don’t paint the environment directly. When we first moved to New Hampshire, I had a lot of fear of the woods and of getting lost here. Those anxieties get into your work. The paintings were darker.
There are paintings that don’t work, and which I’ve sanded down. I don’t like to waste materials. I’ll be happy if I can make a better painting on the same stretcher and canvas. Currently I have an oil painting that was a redo, and with a nice layer of white oil paint underneath, it is the closest I have gotten to the feeling of painting with gouache on paper. I find the white paint in the background is providing me with sensuous surface to draw on, with the soft brushes I prefer.
If I have problems in painting, it is often what to edit, or not. I go back and forth about being maximalist. I like how Max Beckmann’s paintings are jam-packed, like he considered editing, but didn’t. I love Beckmann and Walton Ford but I also love people who are minimalist. I can be drawn to the space and paint quality. One of the reasons I am making tiny 5 x 6 inch paintings is to have some really simple pieces, with not so much going on.
I can get into the complicated parts and the patterns, but also the editing. One of my paintings is titled, “Her Week Off” (2015). I made it when my daughter Gianna stayed home from school for a week or two, because she was sick with the flu. She was on the futon in my studio watching Netflix and playing a video game. I thought it was funny that this generation can find a way to watch Netflix and play a computer game simultaneously, even when sick.
I did something different in that painting — I took out sections. I wasn’t in the same mindset, because she was in my studio. She is ten, and so there were a lot of interruptions, like “Can you get me some soup?” I was just trying to keep working. I took out shapes, and painted something different in those spaces. People refer to them as waffles, although I just think of them as patterns. It changed the whole tone and temperature of the painting.
JS: The titles of your paintings are very evocative phrases, suggestive of specific experiences. Where do they come from?
LMC: Some of my paintings, or their titles, are very personal. They refer to not talking about things in my family history. When I returned home from a trip, I did a painting that was titled “I needed a place to put some things we weren’t allowed to talk about” (2010). On that trip, I was reading a Marsden Hartley book. The combination of events on the trip, and having that book, turned into something when I got home. I made that painting quickly. I title things to suggest what I was thinking, or what the viewer might be thinking, or what I want the viewer to hear, if they see the title. It is connected to my relationship to music and some poetry.
A group of recent paintings came out of listening to the same set of CDs in my car for months: Chris Bell’s “I am the Cosmos,” two Alex Chilton records, Liz Phair’s first album, “Exile in Guyville,” “Led Zeppelin III,” and a new album by the painter-musician Christopher Mir. “Look up,” a Chris Bell song, became the title of one of my paintings. It is a song that makes you think — when you are down — of the kind of personality that never looks up at the sky. It is the personality type that doesn’t enjoy New Hampshire.
Listening to songs over and over is something I do. It is like when a painting is good: you can keep looking at it forever and never get sick of it. I like to get the most out of the music I listen to. I pull certain words for titles that relate to how things are for me, in that moment. Others come from everyday life. A recent larger painting is titled “It’s not true.” It felt more private to title a painting “It’s not true” than to say it.
JS: It seems like this combination of concealing experience while revealing parts of it is central your work. You have used social media to open up conversations about painting, and familial challenges within a creative life. I admire how real and personal you can be. At the same time, you are making abstract paintings, and maintaining discretion is clearly important to you. Can you talk about this?
LMC: Anything that I paint, I think, “What can I hide?” and “What can I say, without having to really come out and say it?” People don’t always want to talk about the real things. There are so many conversations that cannot happen. Every now and then I get to have intimate conversations. In between, I enjoy painting. Painting offers me everything. I take full advantage of it now. I spent so many years painting in private: paintings I would not show, but which I learned from. I was never really frustrated. I just kept making work in whatever space I had. My older work seemed like a junk pile, with a treasure here and there. I know I said painting is easy for me, but that is in the moment. Months or years later it might not hold up.
Some paintings, however, I miss. There was one I titled “Cherry Vanilla” (2012), after my grandfather’s favorite ice cream flavor. We would ask, “Why do you only buy cherry vanilla?” and he would say, “Ice cream is ice cream.” I recall saying, “If ice cream is ice cream, then buy chocolate!” I liked that painting, not just for the story, but also for how it turned out.
I think my obsession with hiding thoughts in paintings will continue to grow. With social media, and media in general, there are a vast amount of stories out in the world. But painting always holds mystery, and you can keep coming back to it. Like the poetry and lyrics I am drawn to, I don’t need answers for them, or plots, or outcomes. I like vague.