Leading up to her solo show at grayDUCK Gallery this May, Elizabeth McDonald candidly and thoughtfully shares with our writer Elizabeth Tigar her inspiration, her process and how ritual is everything.
What is your earliest memory about art, or painting? Was there a point in your life that either led you or solidified your choice to be an artist professionally?
I was a young little thief. As any art instructor will tell you, thieves make for fine artists. I must have been, I don’t know, five, and at the zoo I stole a handful of food pellets meant for feeding the animals. When I was brought home I began gluing the pellets on to paper and I found that this was something completely new, something I’d never seen before. Halfway through this monstrosity not even fit for the refrigerator I very clearly and very memorably thought, “One day I will be a famous artist.”
Your work spans a remarkable range of subject matter and style, from monochromatic abstract to portraiture. Do you feel like you will continue to explore styles? Is there one that feels more comfortable, versus one that pushes you beyond comfort?
Ug. Sometimes I get so sick of hearing about brands. “You are your brand.” “Market yourself.” Blah blah blah. I understand that it’s important as an artist to find your own voice, find what you want to continue doing for the rest of your life—I’ve done that. It just happens to be that I don’t see an overly consistent stale style as part of that. Abstraction, representation, palettes of all varieties, even wide ranging subject matter and concept- these are simply tools. Why would I limit my toolset? What makes my works uniquely mine is not any one of these things but instead a complex signature emotional tone, depth of meaning and layered character.
I think that my generation is less interested in a visually homogenous practice. We love unpredictability and are always turning things on their heads, looking at them from different angles. This is how we understand our world, through a multiplicity of lenses and perspectives.
How long do you typically work on an individual piece? Are you more likely to be working on just one painting, or several at a time?
That depends on what you mean by individual piece. There are panels that I’ve worked on, scrubbed out, worked on top of again, let sit for a year, sand back a bit and paint on again until I’m satisfied. There’s always a bit of that original attempt left over, so, is that one piece? If it is, then some of those pieces have taken a decade. Some of those pieces that are a decade long in the making aren’t yet even finished! Others are right and complete in the first day. It all depends.
I work on several paintings at once, and lately I’ve been thinking about these more in terms of complete exhibitions than individual pieces or discrete series. Now I feel like I spend as much time thinking about my work from curatorial planning and installation perspectives as I do putting paint on canvas or assembling sculptures. In that way, it’s necessary for me to have multiple works developing all at the same time so that the they relate to one another in a natural way, or are at least affected by the maturation of the whole context as opposed to making singular works in a vacuum.
Some artists approach the production, or “doing,” of their work very differently, I’ve noticed. Some make painting every day a habit while others need that spurt of inspiration. Would you characterize yourself one way or the other?
Generally, I start working at the studio at 9:00 am, take a three-hour break in the middle of the day, which on a good day includes a big lunch and a short nap, and then back to the studio until 8:00 pm or so. But I’m also a born contrarian, so occasionally when I’m feeling too predictable I say “To hell with it” and do whatever I feel like. I need both of those things to keep going and keep things fresh.
(I know this one is trite, so I apologize in advance) What artists do you feel have most influenced your work? Is there any one work of art to which you have felt particularly drawn?
Literature affects my work at least as much as other visual artists, if not more, so I’m going to take this question in the broadest terms. I frequently listen to audio books while I paint, and there’s definitely a link between the times I’m listening to rich engaging literature and the times I feel like I’m doing my best. I’m doing my best when I listen to compelling books from authors like Dostoevsky or Margaret Atwood.
As far as visual artists go, I think there are some amazing multifaceted painters that have come out of Belgium in the last few years. Lots of them are working with sculpture and video in tandem with painting in really interesting ways, and others I’m interested in just make some real mind-bending paintings: Michael Borremans (great show at the DMA right now), Luc Tuyman, Adrian Ghenie —I guess he’s Romanian, but represented early in Antwerp. Hmmmm, I lived in Glasgow for a time, and there I saw some powerful object-based practices belonging to female artists (not all Glaswegian). Some of those are always rumbling around in the back of my head: Carol Bove, Lucy Skaer, Karla Black, Christine Boreland, and others. Karen Mamma Andersson’s paintings are up there, Tacita Dean’s video work . . . oh, and the exhibition practice of Navid Nuur is really something to behold—I wonder how he would have answered your question about consistent style.
That may be more of a list of folks whose work I relate to rather than a list of artists I feel are influencing me, but there you have it.
Ritualism is a deep vein through your work, and the heart of your artist’s statement. Are there certain things in your life, past or present, that have led you to explore this particular idea?
No, it’s not certain things, it’s everything. Ritual is a way of confronting that which one has no actual power over. It’s a way of dealing with the things that can’t be dealt with. Through ritual we cultivate power, or at least the feeling of power. Generally, our society hides ritual. It’s something we don’t really acknowledge, but nonetheless pervades our existence. I’m not talking about this in a religious or spiritual sense; it’s changed from that, adapting to our more rational, practical culture. The language of ritual is used from the boardroom to the bedroom, in the way we eat, drink, work, sleep, and relate to one another. It’s a broadly influencing phenomenon that I think is under explored—and I think it’s underexplored because there’s not many practical, scientific ways of doing it. That’s where art comes in.
Another theme that stands out is the tablescape, in fact it is it’s own tab on your archives page. Dining, conference, cocktail, with people seating or without, spreads of servingware captured at many stages of a meal/party/ meeting. What is it about this particular theme that is meaningful to you?
My colleague John Nicol (profound artist, musician and gambler) wrapped it up best when he saw one of my early tablescapes in the studio and asked me what disaster had happened that made everyone abandon the table in the state that I had painted it. There’s something about adding a bit of chaos to the part of our life that is most blindly regimented. We don’t notice how ritualized banal occurrences—like meals—really are. It’s fine when you don’t notice it, but when you do, all of the rules and expectations surrounding very basic exchanges and activities become overwhelming, oppressive even. When you are shaken from that moment by an external, much more pressing occurrence, or when that moment freezes, or when too many things in that moment aren’t following the ritual, the ritual reveals itself. I try and present that in my tablescapes. It’s not upfront. It won’t be the first read, but it is something the viewers of the work may eventually discover. Many of them do.
Besides painting, you also have done some work with video. How are those two media different for you, in process, theme, subject etc? How are they related? Is one more comfortable for you than the other?
It’s all fair game. Can you tell I’m not much for limitation? There are certain ideas that convey better through the moving image, some better through the individual control over color and value (paint), some better through text, some better through an interview like this. Maybe I’ll try my hand at fashion; I have no doubt that some ideas are best conveyed through hats.