The surface of Anne Gilman’s scrolls and drawings is characterized by incisive and often repetitive graphic marks which altogether create portals to the artist’s fluid emotive states. In her Interview for Art Spiel, Gilman reflects on the roots of her intricate process-oriented approach and also sheds light on some of her current projects.
AS: Let’s start with some basic bio you would like to share.
Anne Gilman: I was born in New York City and have lived in every borough except Staten Island. I grew up in Queens, which is part of the city, but in many ways, also a world apart. The city was a different place then. Our home was broken into, my dad’s pharmacy was robbed at gunpoint on more than one occasion, and I was assaulted at knifepoint when I was 16. I moved to downtown Manhattan in my early twenties – so I lived there when no one knew why many primarily young men were dying. These were formative years for me and I grew up thinking about the uncertainties of life.
AS: What do you see as important milestones in your development as an artist?
Anne Gilman: It took me a really long time to understand what I was wanting to do with my work. For many years I felt I was circling something but I wasn’t satisfied with what I was doing – something critical was missing. I mention this here because one of the milestones occurred when I went through a huge change in my personal life and the work I was doing became intertwined with what I was living.
I left a 20-year marriage just after I turned forty. I had a 10-year old daughter and though I had put my husband through school as an adjunct professor during the day and waiting tables at night, my financial and emotional situation were in turmoil. I started writing to try to understand my role in the marriage and how it had ended up in a place that I found untenable.
I was writing so much that I had little time for my work, so one day I decided to start writing in a small multi-panel painting called “The truth is…” which was followed by a multi-panel drawing called “No Guarantees.” For me this was a real milestone. It was the first time that I felt I was getting to issues that mattered to me and to using the drawing process as an extension of those issues.
AS: Writing / text seems to be still central in your work, starting as a stream of consciousness, in Spanish and English. You also mentioned translation of words. Can you elaborate on that?
Anne Gilman: Sure. The Spanish came into my work a few years after I started studying it. Though I’m not fluent, I often think in Spanish and surprisingly find some ideas make more sense to me in Spanish than in English. As I’m writing in my work, I end up switching back and forth between the two languages. Then I’ll find there’s a word I need to check in the dictionary and that can take me down a rabbit hole as I consider the different shades of meaning of a word or a phrase.
The translations can become a detour from whatever theme I’m writing about but sometimes they are critical to the content so I offer them as keywords if someone should be interested in deciphering the text.
Translation is such a fascinating process because it makes you really think about the weight of words and how one can mean to say one thing and end up with something completely different – how easy it is for us to misunderstand one another in the same language, never mind when the issue of translation enters the picture.
AS: You described the writing in your work as a tool for ideas but also as marks and texture – with the movement between the verbal and non-verbal as a constant. Can you tell me more about the relationship between “pure” drawing and writing?
Anne Gilman: I don’t always do things the same way but I often start with the writing, specifically extemporaneous writing. I begin most drawings by ruling out ½ inch lines across the page. Often using the phrase “start here” – I am literally asking myself to start with whatever is going on right now, in this very moment as I am working. What I mean by that is, whatever is going on in my life or what is on my mind – either personal issues or worries about conditions outside, such as the political climate.
In this kind of writing, many unimportant thoughts surface but if you let yourself continue long enough, sometimes unexpected connections occur or specific themes emerge. After re-reading a section, I look for anything that I find of interest and continue with more directed-writing about that idea or theme. I cover the rest of the text with graphite or colored pencils, leaving a residue of the text visible as an underlying layer and as a deliberate part of my work – maybe a reference to over-thinking, or irrelevant thought. Each day I come back to the studio I start that process again so any one drawing pulls from whatever is going on during the days, weeks, or in some cases, months that I am working on a piece.
What you call the “pure drawing” is intermingled with the writing. It is sometimes a pause from the writing, or for me, a more effective way to process emotional states, whether it’s frustration and agitation or repose and equanimity. I’m looking to make a drawing that acknowledges that things are not linear, that no matter how much we want to control an outcome, it is never really possible to do that – we make mistakes, have disappointments, get older, and watch as people treat others inhumanly, and on and on and on. How do we process all of that every day? I have a need to process all of it, both verbally and visually.
AS: Can you give me an example of how text and drawing work in your drawings – in terms of content, process, and form?
Anne Gilman: I began one of my scroll drawings called The dividing line in 2016, in the same way I was mentioning earlier. Given what was going on in the world then, I began writing about dissonance and I was using a lot of color that seemed to set up a battle but also appeared somewhat circus-like. I didn’t like the barrage of color I was using but it seemed necessary. I found myself fussing with this piece – I think I was caught in trying to express dissonance rationally and make it palatable as a drawing. I knew it turned into an intellectual exercise.
Later, in June of 2016, the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando occurred and then the disaster of the election cycle and its aftermath. My relationship to the drawing changed during this time. I stopped caring about the drawing and started injecting my frustration and anger into the work. Parts of the drawing were made with broken pieces of metal that I used to hit at the surface, incising and abrading sections repeatedly. As I worked on the drawing, I began to cover up more and more of not just the text, but also the drawn areas, darkening everything with graphite. I try not to ask myself too many questions while I’m actually working on a drawing but to let it unfold and see if I can convey the mood and grappling of an idea or situation.
AS: Can you give me another example?
Anne Gilman: Another example of how content, process and form interact is in a drawing called Conflict of interest. I started using mulberry paper, a transparent lightweight paper for some recent drawings. I wanted to introduce a different surface than the very resilient Saunders Waterford paper I normally use. Mulberry is not really meant for drawing. It is more typically used for relief printing or chine collé in intaglio. The surface pills so you can’t erase effectively or work aggressively with it. It requires more consideration.
At first this was difficult since I felt I had to tiptoe around it. But one of the things I like about mulberry is how ink bleeds out from a line and shows through the back of the sheet. I decided I would accentuate these charateristics by making a 2-sided drawing, using the bleeding and transparency of one side to influence the drawing on the opposite side. The plan was to suspend the drawing so both sides could be visible. But the plan did not work – I don’t seem to do well with plans. I wish I could work that way but something always pops up that messes with the whole idea and I have to make adjustments. One part of this is fine, since I want to make drawings that speak to the realities of things not always going as we may want them to. But when it happens 2 months into a drawing, it’s not something I welcome with smiles.
In this case I felt the drawing was arguing with me and as I tried to understand where it needed to go, I started to roll it up so that only a 3-foot section of the 9 feet was visible. At that point, the drawing made sense to me – so the very format was not clear until I was willing to give up my original intention.
AS: Your work has strong psychological urgency – it resonates with a wide range of emotional states ranging from unsettling agitation to moments of repose. Can you elaborate on that?
Anne Gilman: I was talking recently with someone visiting my studio about how I wanted my work to show the range of what we can experience in different parts of our lives – our calm and grounded moments, but also moments when we are unsure, agitated or unsettled. I end up referencing difficult psychological experiences, whether grief in response to the loss of friends, deep sadness as I watch my mother change through Alzheimer’s, frustration regarding the sense that I am forever running out of time – but also the shift that occurs through moments of contemplation or spending time by an ocean or listening to a beautiful piece of music, that create moments of repose.
It seems that we go through so much of our lives trying to maintain control, act a certain way, not reveal too many doubts – that it might affect how someone thinks about us or whether or not we get a job or if we’re considered too difficult or too complicated or too whatever. I am not a therapist nor do I know enough to address the range of tough emotional issues that we can go through in a lifetime but I have had my own experiences and I’ve seen others struggle with an overload of emotion or a loss of purpose and I think it’s part of the picture – so for me, it’s become an important part of my work.
I don’t by any means have answers here but I have seen how putting certain experiences out there, can be an opening to a conversation that might make a difference to someone.
AS: Text based art has a rich art history from the dawn of human civilization. How do you see your work in that context?
Anne Gilman: I have three postcards in my studio – two are images from da Vinci’s sketchbook and the third is a scroll drawing from the Tang dynasty. The combination of rendered drawing with lines of handwritten text convey something to me of quiet and of an inner conversation that I respond to.
I also respond to work with hand-manipulated text like in Glen Ligon’s prints and drawings, or Adrian Piper’s “Everything will be taken away” where words are degraded as part of the outcome of the work.
At other times I am more interested in marks that can suggest text, like the kinds of drawing in Hannelore Baron’s collages and assemblages, where handwriting is not necessarily decipherable but more a form of drawing. And even before I was thinking about text in any way, I was very taken by Gorky’s drawings, particularly his later work where certain forms from nature suggest a kind of private language. I remember reading about one drawing that he took to his bathtub and washed to scrub away a section that wasn’t working. I so fully relate to this idea of attacking the surface to get at something – I often spray water over the surface and start rubbing and sanding away a part that feels precious or over-worked, until I can find something underneath that has new life. I mention this here because the process of drawing in the non-text sections is equally important to me.
It is not exclusively in the text component of an artist’s work that I see a context for my work. I think the artists who have most impressed me are those who show me something about their thinking – maybe where materials or marks are built up and removed, reconsidered; artists like Mark Bradford, Leonardo Drew, Basquiat (particularly when I was younger – his abandon with materials was refreshing), Nancy Spero, or the work of Charlotte Salomon called Life? or Theater?
AS: What can you share about your artist project at The Center for Book Arts?
Anne Gilman: That was a project called The Jolly Balance. It included an installation of 14 scrolls, a series of drawings made on the original pages of a physics journal from 1918, a portfolio of prints, and a hand-sewn zine.
The whole project began with the drawings I made on the handwritten pages of the physics journal. In that work, I was interested in finding the emotional content hidden in the scientific experiments. I emphasized language that alluded to loss of control as opposed to “control groups.”
“The Jolly Balance,” a term I found in the original physics journal, is an instrument that measures specific gravity. I used the phrase to refer to our attempt to balance all the parts of our lives, all we try to juggle. When I was planning the work for the project at CBA my mother began losing much of her short-term memory so the content and format evolved to reflect these changing circumstances. The scrolls were made on ledger paper my mother used when she was an office manager. The drawings are based on parts of the brain both real and imagined. Each of the 14 panels has moveable sections that can be lifted by the viewer to find hidden parts of the work. One of the things you notice when you spend time with someone losing their memory is how fact retrieval has little to do with intelligence. So the text in this piece references some of these observations.
The portfolio and zine were two other formats of this project. The portfolio is a series of intaglio and relief prints with hand drawing and collage. The zine is a hand-sewn digital version of the physics journal drawings.
AS: and what are you working on now?
Anne Gilman: I just shipped work out to a solo show at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center near Detroit and then I have a few things in the studio that I have to finish for another project. But after that, I want to continue working on drawings that interact differently with space, that are not confined to the wall. This is something I started to do for this show with a drawing that will lay on the floor and another that is suspended in the middle of the gallery.
Recently, I’ve found myself thinking more about sculpture, architecture, and landscape, which have nothing to do with text, but whose relationship to the space we occupy has become something I’m interested in. I can’t say how this might influence future work – and given my way of working, I’ll know what comes next when I’m in the thick of it.