Becky Yazdan: Finding the Edge of Experience

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Becky Yazdan in studio, 2021

Becky Yazdan’s paintings are based on things she encounters in her daily life as well as her memory of events, feelings, and colors. For her the painting process is an active dialogue with the nature of things around her. “The paintings are like dreams—the events of the day reorganized and combined with other events and memories until a new, often surprising reality has taken shape,” she says.

Tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to painting

I have always made things—paintings, drawings, installations, clothes for my dolls. In high school I made jewelry, set up a darkroom in my parents’ house, and spent all my free time in the art room. I went to University of Colorado, Boulder for undergrad and got a BFA in Painting and Photography. After school I moved to the city and eventually got my MFA from New York Studio School. I began as a figure painter and over the course of my time there began breaking down the human forms. I learned about color, form and plasticity from Rosemarie Beck, Paul Resika, Charles Cajori and Graham Nickson. Later I studied with Bill Jensen and Margrit Lewczuk and they taught me to connect with the more emotional and spiritual content, and to allow the paintings to become what they are rather than exerting control over the end-result.

You say that your paintings tell a story, based on things you see and remember, watch on TV. Colors are associated with memory of childhood and more recent events. At the same time, your paintings are non-representational. I am looking at Mother (2015) and Secret Robot (2021) for example—What is the narrative? What was your process? And how do you see the relationship between story and abstracted forms in these paintings?

I don’t start the paintings with a plan. The goal is to “get out of my own way” as Bill Jensen used to say, in order to allow an exchange with the painting. I draw into the paint, I squeegee, I scratch, destroy all of it and then start again. I encourage accidents. In the ideal scenario I will be working on a painting until at a certain point it reveals itself to me. A color combination or a form will be familiar and then I know what the painting means. Sometimes the shape or colors recall a specific event or thing and other times it’s just a feeling – more of an ambient memory. It’s important for me to feel a connection to the painting. Once I know what it is about I either have to paint over it or stop working. I am not interested in illustrating or rendering a specific thing; in my mind that is less authentic and true to my experience.

Mother is a not about a specific event or memory, rather it is a culmination of my feelings around the idea of motherhood. What MOTHER means to me with regard to my own children and my own mother, as well as the idea of MOTHER. What and how you are expected to be as woman, wife, mother.

Secret Robot feels physical, like a body, or organs. A breathing machine, darkness and impending sickness or death. Something automated taking over your functions. This painting is likely the result of the last year and a half of the pandemic, thinking about sickness and breathing machines and infection.  

Mother, 20×20 inches, oil on linen on panel, 2015
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Secret Robot, 24×18 inches, oil on linen on panel, 2021

In your interview with Zachary Keeting (published March 18, 2020, Two Coats of Paint) you say that you are thinking of “contradiction as subject matter” and of your intention to avoid illustration in the sense of a closed end narrative. There is a strong representational painting wave these days—some of them are flirting closely with illustration and in my mind the best of them remain open ended. Since you see the impetus of your work as narrative, I am curious to know more about your choice to work in abstraction.

Memories and experiences are not linear or solid. They are amorphous, multi-layered, and subjective. They continue to evolve and change as time goes on, affected by pictures of the memory if they exist, stories about what happened, the outwardly expressed response, the way you actually felt, and the emotions that others present attached to the memory. For me, painting a representational picture of an event or a memory doesn’t tell the whole story. There are so many layers. It’s about finding the edges of an experience–the colors, the smells, the emotions. I find that working in abstraction allows me to remain open to the many nuances of remembered experience. The goal is to learn something, to process and to better understand my own life.

I noticed that in more recent paintings you have been using spray paint which remind me of graffiti. Why spray paint? Let’s look at Clarity (2020) for instance–what is the genesis and process of making it?

I introduced spray paint relatively recently (within the past two years) and am hyper aware of all the baggage that comes with it. Every mark that is recognizable as spray paint references graffiti art which is so specific and can be confining. What I love about spray paint is the speed of the mark. For me it is a way of drawing, it’s fast and direct. It is also a different kind of mark. I like to use spray paint over oil paint and see it crack and get all fucked up. I like surprises and accidents. I often work on paintings for years, adding layers, removing layers, searching for clarity, or understanding or perspective, meaning. I have a similar relationship to drips and an overly expressive brush mark because of their association with Abstract Expressionism.

In Clarity I love the fuzziness of the spray paint lines juxtaposed with the more graphic target shape. Imaginary Foster Child is about the clusters of small families / pods that grew out of the necessity of limiting contact with other humans in this past year.

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Clarity, 12×12 inches, oil on linen on panel, 2020

Imaginary Foster Child, 20×20 inches, oil on linen on panel, 2021

Your scale seems to vary from around 8×10 inches to approximately 60×48. How do you choose the size? And how does dimension impact your approach to the painting?

I like working on all sizes. In grad school I did giant paintings and then for years only worked on a size I could put in a box or carry in my purse. My favorite size has been 6’ x 7’–it’s a whole-body experience, the size of me with arms outstretched, my wingspan. The way you interact with a canvas that size is physical, completely absorbing. I also love the intimacy of a small work where I am holding a painting in the palm of my hand; they are completely different. 

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Studio Wall, August 2021

In the paintings that draw me in most, your color carries for me a sense of specificity and mystery at the same time. I am looking at Ornans, for example. This image altogether (color and horizontal composition, rhythm) invokes a landscape for me. What would you like to share about the color choice and your thought process here?

I am glad that you feel specificity and mystery at the same time–that is my goal. Each painting is about a specific thing for me. But I don’t want to spell it out or dictate the experience for the viewer. I want them to feel something, to sense that I feel something and that the painting is about something specific and meaningful. I want to be honest in what I make. I want to allow room for the viewer’s own history to add additional layers of meaning. 

Ornans is a painting about grief. My father died several years ago after a long decline from Parkinson’s and dementia. During that time, I kept returning to Courbet’s Burial at Ornans. A large, oval shape would often appear in the bottom quadrant of the work. It is absent in this piece, but the moody feeling of the landscape and stormy sky is present. I have also included an earlier painting related to the same Courbet’s painting.

Ornans, 20×24 inches, oil on linen on panel, 2017
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Gustave Courbet, A Burial at Ornans, 124×260 inches, oil on canvas, 1849-1850. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France

Burial at Ornans, 48×36 inches, oil on linen, 2007

In your text for your show Setting Fires (Giampietro Gallery, February 2020), you write, “while previous bodies of work focused on memories of past events and emotions, these new pieces have unfolded in response to life events happening in real time. Painting is a way for me to digest and process experience and emotion and offers a way to retell the story or at least to make peace with it. The process involves an exchange between assertion and denial which ideally ends in acceptance and resolution, keeping the mind calm in order to avoid a mutiny.” Can you elaborate on that in reference to one painting in this show?

There has been a lot of upheaval and restructuring in my life over the last few years. I left the city after almost 20 years and went through a divorce. The work in Setting Fires all came out of those experiences. Benevolent Monster is about trying to do the right thing while managing the inevitable collateral damage. Over the last few years I’ve thought about the roles assigned to us and how we navigate our relationship to them. In many ways I had to choose between being an artist and being a wife and have been judged for it along the way. What does it mean to be a wife, a mother, an artist, are these roles mutually exclusive? How to navigate who you are with what is expected of you.

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Benevolent Monster, 44×48 inches, oil on linen, 2019

What are you working on in your studio these days?

I just finished a week at DNA Residency in Provincetown, MA. My studio time has been sporadic over the last year and a half of lockdown with my kids out of school and working from home, so it was great to have multiple, full studio days in a row. The new work feels freer and is surprising me in many ways. I don’t yet have a sense of this body of work – there is often more clarity in hindsight. I have mined the loss of family members, the collapse of my marriage and “the life you are supposed to have.” This next phase feels open, exploratory and playful, yet also grounded and confident.

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Studio wall at DNA Residency, 2021

All photos courtesy of the artist

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: