Ashley Garrett – Painting Mind and Space

Ashley Garrette, Oread, 2019, oil on canvas, 13 x 17 in.

Ashley Garrett paints abstracted landscapes which resonate a sense of place – elusive and precise at the same time. Utilizing richer color and bolder gesture, Garrett ‘s recent body of work reveals an artist’s gaze inwards into a deeper psychological space. Ashley Garrett shared with Art Spiel her approach to painting and her upcoming projects.

AS: Tell me a bit about what brought you to painting

Ashley Garrett: Painting is something I’ve always done. The image that comes up is me as a kid in Bangor, Pennsylvania, where I grew up standing outside, fully held by the landscape, looking at the big expanse of it in awe. And then in my room, on the paint-stained carpet, pouring over drawings, making bestiaries on construction paper tied together with bailing twine, little weavings and embroideries, friendship bracelets and lanyards. All of that was of a piece and formed a kind of painting mind and space. I spent a lot of time looking at and being in the landscape, absorbing the Northeastern weather cycles, taking care of our animals, watching their births and deaths, and reading a ton of books.

Painting for me has always been there as a ground, reflected in these different places, people, animals and objects. It has only grown in shape and scale.

AS: I see your paintings as landscapes of sort. Let’s take one example from your recent body of work, “Coppice.” What can you tell me about the genesis of this painting, your thought process?

Ashley Garrett: “Coppice” is a painting that started plein air. I had an idea a couple summers ago to do mid and larger scale plein air paintings after I had spent time during the summer, fall, and winter doing smaller ones, and the challenges and information that it brings up. I thought it would be interesting to go big outside, to see how it would require a physical exertion similar to action painting, almost a dance outside, witnessing the land and space, and then the space witnesses you move in such a way. So I started this painting outside during a cloudy, overcast and lightly raining day (I was under cover of the roof overhang). I quickly discovered how exhausting and how much work it was to simply move and shuffle all the materials around, especially in difficult weather. I noticed how much those physical limitations or parameters affect the work and how it comes out on the canvas. Coppice went through another transformative physical process too – I had it on thin stretchers in order to move it around outside more easily but they ended up splitting, so I stretched the canvas-in-progress up on the wall in our new studio space. So this was one of the paintings that bridged our tiny studio set up in the house and our new big studio which we just started working in last year. I worked on it on the wall for a while in the new space and then stretched it again on good stretchers. It was interesting to see it go through a regression as an object, from moving outside to inside and then flat on the wall to become complete. As I worked on this one I felt so much of the landscape details pulling and pushing through different kinds of space, like what happens when you’re looking into a landscape and the qualities of each individual tree, leaf and blade of grass come up and then recede again into a wholeness. There’s such a challenge in that continual flattening and deepening that rotates around us when we’re outside, and that’s what I’m interested in discovering through painting space. Not a literal depiction of land but a quality of feeling held by it as it spins around you in time and light.

Ashley Garrette, Coppice, 2019, oil on canvas, 42 x 48 in.

AS: And how do you see “Coppice” in context of your earlier work?

Ashley Garrett: I see the recent work as a deepening, in space and color especially, and also gesture, of my earlier work. The connections and discourse in the content continue. I feel like I’m extending the different bodies of work further, pushing them through different scales and materials. I’m also noticing how much plein air perception can be absorbed into a shorter amount of time when the act of looking is heightened and intensified – I don’t feel that I have to be outside the whole time making the painting. Sometimes I look for shorter periods and then let go of what I saw, and it cycles back in surprising ways! I’ve learned to look a lot while driving too and that’s created another whirling space in the landscape paintings.

AS: Your titles are intriguing, and may I say, at times enigmatic – like, “Ciclyanna,” “Rose House,” “Sossusvlei”, among others?

Ashley Garrett: I find making titles enigmatic, haha! They can be really tricky and I don’t like when they explain too much or conversely, when they’re too poetic and don’t add anything to the experience of looking. It’s better when they’re an added layer or texture to the painting or drawing. Duchamp said the title is like an invisible color, so there’s a lot of expectation and weight in making that choice, which usually happens near or at the end of an artwork. I’ve been experimenting with titles for a little while since I started to feel that I needed to put more attention on how and when they’re generated. I used to keep lots of notebooks in the studio and sometimes I even wrote poems when I was in school at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA and later at SVA. I’ve come back to that now and I’m using the writing diaristically to hold the mood, feeling, and quality that’s in the experience of the making, and then I can go back when the work is ready for the title and recapture some of that. The whole last year and a half or so, 2017 and 2018, has been a return to structures and formations that I had perhaps too easily abandoned after graduating from school, after selling my horse, and I realized that they are still there to serve me and are things I like to do that generate and build creative energy. Things like reading a great deal and writing and even just sitting together with friends and discussing books or ideas. I even started making new friendship bracelets!

In the titles you listed, these are good examples of an arrival after finishing a painting of person, place or thing. One is the memory of a person, another is deeply looking and seeing a place until it gets inside and emerges again as a feeling, and the third is a specific place visited only once in a powerful context and the contrast that memory has in revealing itself through time and in the making of a painting.

Ashley Garrette, Rose House, 2017, oil on canvas, 8 x 10 in.

AS: Your drawings seem to be closely related to your paintings. How do you see the role of drawing in your work?

Ashley Garrett: The drawings are related to the paintings for sure. That’s another example of something I’ve come back to, it extends the breadth and depth of my practice. In the drawings, I set the stage so that everything is allowed and I get to pull from my whole language and experience of working – if some form or feeling comes up from when I was a kid, a student, or yesterday it’s all in there on the same level. The drawings give equal playing ground to every form that arises, be it something from a body of work I’ve worked with a lot (ornaments, ribbons, landscapes) to things I did a long while ago (figures, self portraits) to hybrids of these. They’re endless wells of material. It’s like a total discovery for me, when I sit down I have no idea what I’m going to do but all the gates are open. I love the 24 x 18 in scale, it’s my very favorite, that scale makes perfect sense and I can sit on the floor and pour myself out over it. For me it’s torso size and a great range for the arms.

Ashley Garrette, Wand, 2018, charcoal on paper, 24 x 18 in.

AS: And then you have oil painting on paper. Does your process changes with the surface – paper or canvas?

Ashley Garrett: With the paintings on paper there was a new and similar discovery related to the drawings. These are hot or cold press watercolor paper with layers of gesso front and back, and then oil paint. After our new studio was finished and we were moving in, I did both extremes: stretched a huge one on the wall, which I’m still working on, and started these little guys at the same time! There was a benefit hosted by September Gallery in Hudson that asked for postcard sized, 4 x 6 on paper, and the Got It For Cheap series of traveling shows of works on paper that asked for 11 x 8.5 in works on paper, I made paintings for both. After that I couldn’t stop making them! Round after round of sometimes a couple in one sitting, sometimes large groups that just kept coming out. Like acquiring or piling up kinds of painting language where there’s an uncovering of form and content, everything is allowed and is made the instant it’s felt. There was a range from extremely minimal and fast, showing the speed, looseness and transparency of the marks to heavily textured, densely layered, drawn in and knifed on paintings that I worked on over a period of weeks. It was so fun and just a pouring out and acquiring of energy and a laying out of many systems. There’s also another offshoot, a smaller body of work that’s pastel, oil and chalk and a little ink or watercolor. I’ve also been playing a bit with conte and graphite. I usually draw in charcoal, the tone and weight of it makes sense to me.

There definitely is a difference in the surface between paper and canvas. I used to work only on wood, large pieces of masonite. I miss that slippery flat surface, and I get to have that in the paper without the weight. I do have a few wood panels here and there too. I’m not as sure about them on the smaller scale but I did a couple of tiny ones on panel and I liked those, the paint and tools really slip right across the surface. The canvas pebbling asks something different of the painting action, the building up of layers and materials, which I also like. The space that’s created has more depth into and through it, lending itself well towards pictorial space. 

Ashley Garrette, Ripe and Ruin, 2017, oil on paper 4 x 6 in.
Ashley Garrette, End, 2018, oil on paper, 8 x 6 in.

AS: Tell me about your collaboration with poet Robert Kelly.

Ashley Garrett: Brian and I had a studio visit with poet Robert Kelly and his wife, translator Charlotte Mandell. Robert saw all of the small paper paintings laid out in a big group, picked one up and peered into it. He saw them as a new form of Tarot images and that they should be brought together as a book in which poets respond and write to the paintings as “cards” in a new Tarot. He organized a group of poets and each poet selected as many to write to as they wanted.

The result was two books: “Ashley Garrett: Tarot Images,” by Robert Kelly, Lila Dunlap, Billie Chernicoff, and Tamas Panitz, and George Quasha’s “Co-Configurative Eternities.” Both books are on the literary blog Metambesen and my website. Watching this body of work grow into a dialogue with the poets was beautiful to me – they understand the paintings so deeply.

AS: Your paintings seem to alternate between focusing on a central shape / mark (like in “Aster,” 2017; or “Sulcus,” 2017) and expanding to an overall view. It makes me think of photography. Are you using photography in your process?

Ashley Garrett: I’m not using photography in making these. When the subject wants to be a centrally placed object, shape or figure, when I’m working I’m asking, “who is there? What or who in that world? Show yourself.” I’m uncovering or discovering the figure as I go, it becomes the focus of that uncovering. In the open, wide spaces of the other paintings the focus is the expanse with the horizon line as a guide: “where am I? Where am I going and what is this place, what are it’s qualities?” Even if the horizon line splits to the edges or dissolves formally it is involved in conjuring of the space. Last year I did a lot of driving upstate and did a lot of looking out the windows, studying the light at different times of day, watching how fast it changes, and the huge range of landscape that unfolds in even a few minutes of driving. Undulating horizon lines, trees reflecting light, Catskill mountains as ethereal as fading fog gathered into descending clouds, and then the next day big blue high pressure sky cracking upwards. That’s a huge education for us artists, just in the sky and what it can teach us. The summer before my husband, artist Brian Wood and I sat on the lawn and watched the sunset every night, and every time it was hugely, vastly different, a whole individual sky with its own temperaments and qualities. 

Ashley Garrette, Cherubim, 2018, oil on canvas, 22 x 25 in.

AS: Your scale varies – how do you decide on size?

Ashley Garrett: To find the scale of a painting I follow the feeling that gets generated and builds before the work starts. There’s usually some kind of drive that decides or dictates what scale it wants to be. I try to pay particular attention to the person, place or thing distinction: is it small, an object, something for the hands? Is it a big space in a small frame, to peer into or see through? Is it a big space we can walk into? Is it a mid-scale, close up or mid-view of an object, or perhaps an interior corner, that orients itself when it’s viewed at a certain distance? I try to ask all kinds of questions like this, specific to the scale when I get a feeling, and then I usually have an arising sense of what scale it wants to be, or what it tells me to do. Scale is so particular and like the titles, adds a great deal to the work so I make sure that that specificity is paid attention to and reflected in those early decisions.

AS: And palette?

Ashley Garrett: I’ve gone from having a more limited palette to really breaking it open in recent years. Again, it’s driven by a particular feeling, mood or quality of the moment that reveals itself in the making. Many of the small paintings on paper from last year were under the umbrella of blue, I was lightly referring to it as the year of blue. Being in the landscape in a different way, opening up to the big expanse of the sky and seeing it so often and its rapid changes really made an impression on me and had an effect on my work. I used to be intimidated by blue and its power, it has such a specific strength and resilience and can really take over a painting, but now I’m seeing it broken across such a range of colors. In the sky, there’s so many hues and tones of blue, so many saturations that can push towards yellow, green, magenta, purple, red, pink and gray, even black. My go-to blues were cobalt, turquoise, and ultramarine and I feel like that really broke open a range of other color that related to and pushed against those colors. Yellows are another color really loaded with feeling as well as browns and grays, and I’m getting back into the range of blacks, both mixing black and different tubes of black. I want to approach greens in the same investigative vein. It’s such a revelation in spring to see the vibrant, hopeful green poking out among the tones of brown! And the crystalline blue in a cold winter sky, so cold you can smell it in your lungs. I used to work with a lot of warm colors, especially reds, and I’m sure I’ll be circling back to them as well, adding all I’ve learned and being able to rediscover what I thought I already knew. I think my color has really expanded and widened over the last years, become more courageous and energetic, perhaps exploratory. How much color can be in a shadow, or a highlight? What color can refer to a specific emotional state? What color can evoke a really specific feeling, spin it’s neighboring colors, and activate all the shapes on the plane and still remain it’s glorious self? That’s a lifetime discovery, and I’m up for it. I’ll keep looking to the sky to teach me about color.

Ashley Garrette, Aster, 2017, oil on paper, 6 x 8 in.

AS: What are you working on now in your studio?

Ashley Garrett:

I have work in two exhibitions opening in June – “Yellow” at September Gallery in Hudson, opening June 22nd, and “The Edge Effect” at the Katonah Museum of Art, curated by Boston Museum of Fine Arts curator Akili Tommasino, opening June 30th and up through September. I have large paintings in both shows as well as a small framed painting on paper at September Gallery.

In the studio, I’m integrating the energy and mark-making from the paper paintings with larger brushes and more paint in big paintings on canvas. This transformation is opening up many new possibilities, so it is an exciting moment.

Studio in Red Rock studio January 2019, photo by Brian Wood

All photos courtesy of the artist, unless otherwise indicated.