Art Spiel’s Interview with artist and writer Anne Sherwood Pundyk has evolved into a cohesive and richly layered personal essay that will be published in sections over three days – one part a day. Anne Sherwood Pundyk’s essay in three parts seals Art Spiel’s Interview series for 2018, while opening a portal into 2019 with fresh insights and new writing formats.
AS: Tell me a bit about yourself—your background and some experiences that influenced your art.
Anne Sherwood Pundyk: I have naturally curly hair. So does my Mother, Molly McKee Brown. We each embrace our capricious crowns in different ways. Over many decades it has been formative for me to understand how we are not alike and untangle the resulting consequences. This has shaped my identity as an artist at least as much as my formal training and engagement with fine art’s canon. My first art mentor was my Mother’s Mother, Mary Sherwood Wright Jones . Understanding the significance of this has been part of the untangling. She was a pioneering children’s illustrator. Happily she recognized me early on as a fellow artist. Her life story has ultimately served me as instructional model, myth of misdirection, and cautionary tale.
My Grandmother was warm, yet reserved. She was a good listener. She downplayed her considerable accomplishments. Her self-effacement felt to me like her way of fitting in with her small Mid-Western hometown’s close-knit society. She could conceal her passion for pursing her profession full time while being a wife and mother to avoid judgment and jealousy. Looking back, though, to whatever degree her restraint worked as self-protection, it also prevented her from more actively protecting me, as a kindred creative spirit, when I needed help finding direction in the chaos of my childhood. Thus, in our family through my Grandmother’s example, the technical craft of visual expression became the definition of an artist’s concerns as opposed to full-bodied instructions on how to take on the real challenges of establishing self-hood within an expressive realm. In other words, you could be an artist as long as you were tamed.
For a period of time in her 20s however my Grandmother did run wild. As a young woman in the early 1900s she left her comfortable nest in Newark, Ohio to study painting and drawing at the Art Student’s League in New York City. Before moving back home she completed a large wall mural commission for a school in Baltimore. She recalled, “It felt good to make a large colorful painting with no one telling me what to do.” I could see this project was in contrast to her subsequent lifework creating on deadline smaller black and white works on paper for “My Weekly Reader,” a publication distributed in schools. My Grandmother must have been gratified knowing that millions of school children across the nation enjoyed her whimsical, imaginative drawings every week as part of their reading readiness instruction. Still, I can’t help projecting that she would have also have enjoyed making more colorful large-scale paintings for herself.
As far as me, I was born in Manhattan, but uprooted many times to both coasts and several cities in between. I studied art in Washington DC, California and Rhode Island all the while looking for rare meaningful clues to what it means to be an artist from teachers, fellow students and other artists. For the last 30 years I have lived in New York City, my original hometown. I have pursued my painting and writing, gotten married and raised my own daughter and son. My husband, Jeff, and our children, Phoebe and Evan, have been my truest supporters. My Grandmother once told me, “Children and oil paint don’t mix.” I understood the warning but disagree. I trust my example of seeking self-knowledge together with working hard at a difficult pursuit has been a good model for my own family.
I recently relocated my studio to Mattituck, a small village on the North Fork of Long Island where I’ve come in the summers since I was small. It is ninety miles outside the city. I spend half of each week there year round, which has been formative for my painting and writing. Working in a secluded, rural setting has helped me feel more truly comfortable with what I was raised to think was my unruly, disruptive nature. Honoring my Grandmother’ s early example of pursuing aesthetic challenges, New York City remains an important reference, although I am gradually becoming acquainted with cultural resources on the East End. I participate in a selection of the city’s platforms of critical dialogue. One recent example is a discussion about identity for a podcast hosted by NYC Creative where I spoke about the role of family dynamics in our ideas about identity.
AS: In your website under “manifestos” you describe painting as “theatre of agency.” Can you elaborate on that?
Anne Sherwood Pundyk: Each day brings the same urgent creative challenge: I anticipate that my actions will be blocked, interrupted, doubted, or ignored. Why? Because for much of my life they have been, sometimes by those close to me and more often by our patriarchal society’s unrelenting devaluation of women’s voices. One tactic I use to overcome my apprehension is to connect directly with my materials. Engaging in playful, audacious trial and error, I compose using water-based paints, canvas, paper, drawing tools,scissors and my sewing machine. Not surprisingly, my studio explorations are materially regressive. I do then see rather than see then do. My process is private. It is a full body undertaking and I am keenly aware of the cathartic and contemplative moments that happen as I interact with color, form,and texture. Through my open, abstract compositions and the work’s immersive scale, the space in my paintings invites my audience to create their own experiential realities as opposed to adhering to the specifics of mine. In performance art where agency is enacted the necessity of the object is eliminated, but with my painting, I want an exacting, durable record of my story alongside its history of being veiled, obscured, or erased. Let me explicate my premise of “theatre of agency” from different points of entry: my experience of agency, my audience’s experience of my work, relevant art critical precedents, and finally my painting process itself.
What is my conception of agency? Exercising personal agency is relevant to every sphere of pursuit from making art,reaching an audience, being effective in a work setting, maintaining physical health, finding sexual expression, engaging with intellectual communities,participating in political processes, to partnering with a spouse and raising children. For me it is grounded in an ongoing reckoning of how closely my intuitive read on a given situation aligns with external reality. Depending on what I conclude, I may call upon a number of resources to help gauge the importance of either taking an appropriate action or choosing not to act—both options being forms of assertion of agency. Those resources include family,friends, and other knowledgeable people; relevant outside research; meditation,and talk therapy with the right person. Ultimately, I have to trust my own intuition.
My engagement with select badass artists on collaborative publication and performance projects outside my studio has been instrumental to my own art making. These projects range from co-editing the feminist publication, Girls Against God with Bianca Casady to co-organizing a diversity intervention at the 2014 Whitney Biennial with Katie Cercone called the “Clitney Perennial.” It has been thrilling to work within the performance art model. The time shortens between artistic gesture and audience response. I can quickly pass through the disconnected realm of unfulfilled acknowledgment. I can demand attention. I can bring the essence of these validating experiences and others from outside the art world back into my studio where it contributes to the conceptual and formal evolution of my painting.
How does my own conception of theatre of agency in my painting extend to my audiences’ experience of it in my work? I have found it helpful to look to other disciplines such as philosophy and science to understand the relationship between an artist and her audience. I recently wrote an essay about abstract art and brain science. According to recent studies in the new science of the mind,a discipline that merges behavioral psychology, cognitive psychology and molecular biology, everything we “see” is an illusion enacted in the brain. In creating a work of art, the artist models her own psychic reality. This process parallels what our brains do everyday as we assemble our conception of reality.
The academic discipline of art history was established in Vienna in the 1850s within the city’s salon gatherings of artists and scientists. Alois Riegl, an early proponent, based the discipline on the period’s scientific and psychological principles. He proposed that, “Art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer.”This phenomenon later became known as “the beholder’s share.” An artwork is thus completed in the mind of the viewer. Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained brain scientist, writes that due to our shared genetic structure the architecture of our brains are nearly identical. She says, “We are generally capable of thinking and feeling in comparable ways.” While I cannot specifically determine how my paintings are to be seen by my audience to the extent that my own understanding of agency structures my studio practices and infuses my own experience of my work, my painting can be a shared interpretive tool.
Are there art critical precedents for an examination of the formal transformations in my painting based on the idea of agency? My large-scale work over the last 5 years has gradually become entirely abstract.In my essay on brain science, I discuss the trajectory of abstraction in modern art in relation to new scientific discoveries. Compared to figurative art, which draws upon past perceptual experience “hardwired” into the brain, abstract art we now know draws on a more a more active, individual response unique to the viewer’s own psychological context. Art critic Barry Schwabsky recently curated a large group show of paintings in diverse styles called “Tight Rope Walk” at The White Cube gallery in London. In the catalogue essay accompanying the exhibition he supports his thesis on the liberating power of abstraction, “…[This is] the great and difficult gift of abstraction to [figurative] painting: that we can no longer assume that the how and the why of it are already given.” As with my own experience of agency,it is vital to trust one’s own intuition by tapping into its wild realms while navigating new terrain.
Historically, abstraction’s assertion in the modern western canon can be traced to precursors such as Hilma af Klint, Turner, Kandinsky, Monet and Mondrian. These artists sought alternatives to figuration as a personal response to their own life and times. Post World War II developments in painting centered in New York City coalesced around abstraction as a way, according to Barnett Newman, “…to [free] ourselves of the impediments of… [the]devices of Western Painting.” Jackson Pollock, began making increasingly abstract paintings in the ‘40s and ‘50s generated through movements described as “action painting.” At the time, the art critic Harold Rosenberg observed that within this genre of painting the canvas became, “an arena in which to act.”
Abstraction allowed for formal innovation. Paintings could be created by recording the results of the artist’s performance of a series of ritual-like actions in relation to her materials. The large, international body of work tied to action painting encompassed by happenings and later performance art connect directly to the traditions of modern and contemporary painting. As with abstraction, the formal impact of performance can be seen in the work of a large number of artists who create both events and paintings such as Carollee Schneemann, Louise Bourgeois, Shozo Shimamoto, Nicki de Saint Phalle, Joseph Beuys, Tracey Emin, and Sienna Shields. It follows that just as with pure abstraction—which reduces the elements of expression to line, form, color,texture and scale, and relies on a more subjective, open interpretation of reality—performance art, which focuses on the core elements of time, space, the body and a relationship to the viewer and exhibits the qualities of authenticity and ephemerality associated with agency, would create a way for me to transform my anxiety and disconnection into concrete formal qualities in my paintings.
Finally, how is my “theatre of agency” idea specifically tied to my painting process? About 5 years ago, making representational images, the hallmark of the medium of painting, gradually began to repulse me. I enjoy looking at figurative work by other artists, but could not continue to undertake the practice myself. I started to perceive a repugnant inherent dogma built into the methods of mimesis. Perhaps digesting the burden of the compromise I felt my Grandmother made in choosing illustration over fine art,and other related limitations she placed on herself played into my feelings. Also becoming increasingly aware of the weight of supporting my Mother’s worldview, which is largely incompatible with mine, contributed to my recoil from received wisdom. Add to these, my growing mistrust of institutional patriarchal values. I needed to find a way to record my own subjective truth. I construct charmed, transitional objects in the form of paintings. Through my actions, discoveries, and choices I strive to invoke a space in my work with qualities that open a context to instigate self-liberating acts both for me and my audience. This painted space thus becomes a “theater of agency.”
PART 2 will be published tomorrow