The tension between “inside” and “outside” in Erika Ranee’s paintings draw you into an enclosed space with an explosive and rhythmic internal movement. The vibrant colors, organic shapes, and linear marks that link the forms like veins, altogether resonate with living organisms, body, or microscopic landscapes. The artist shares with Art Spiel what brought her to art, her thought and work processes, as well as her current projects.
AS: Tell me a bit about your background and what brought you to painting.
Erika Ranee: I’ve always been surrounded by art— living with art, so its influences were unavoidable. My Aunt was an early unwitting mentor. . She was always making things and I remember as a kid making my first drawings after watching her make drawings, although her focus was more on craft projects. We made a lot of macramé and I taught myself how to sew on the machine. My grandmother taught me how to knit and needlepoint. We were the craft crew. I wasn’t exactly good at any of the above, but I noticed that I liked going off the path of instruction. A sewing pattern for a shirt would evolve into a soft sculpture—I vaguely remember a tree trunk with weird appendages. I enjoyed the element of surprise of how things would turn out all “wrong”. Let’s just say no one received handmade scarves and shirts for Christmas but my macramé projects still endure as plant hangers from 40+ years ago.
AS: In your 2013 interview with Zachary Keeting and Christopher Joy at Gorky’s Granddaughter, you said “I’m loud on canvas. I need a certain dynamic – a ‘pow’ feeling with the paint.” I would love to hear more about the notions of “loud” and “pow” in reference to your current work– these terms make me think of sound, music, and tactility.
Erika Ranee: I enjoy the physicality of painting. I was an athlete in high school and college—swimming, volleyball, track and field, and rugby (for a very short period). In college I was the stroke on the crew team. There’s a connection with my memories of sports training and my intense focus and movement around the canvas. That’s why large-scale paintings are my favorite to work on. I can move around, lifting scraping splashing, pouring. The canvases are heavy and require strength and balance and all the muscle memory kicks in from my athletic days. Often I find myself huffing and grunting like Monica Seles (not quite as loud as the players now). Maybe that’s why I like the “pow” in my work—the loudness of the competition—I want to win this thing.
I’m shy unless you know me well. I was practically mute as a kid, very insular and introspective. I wanted to sit back and observe. I’m still like that. But there’s another side and that’s the side that needs to have a loud (inaudible) voice: high Chroma, high contrast, to the point when my eyes feel like they’re dilating—it’s a rush.
AS: I like your description of recent paintings as expressing “the hums and beats of small worlds writ large.” I also like the tension between “inside” and “outside” in your work. What is your take on these dualities?
Erika Ranee: I’m also a nature geek and my fascination with insects/bugs and microscopic organisms hasn’t wavered since childhood. I can spend hours observing ant colonies. Small worlds have just as much drama and gravitas as big animal worlds. In most instances they run very efficiently, and the goals of existence are set in place: gather food, build shelter, breed, fight off predators and die. I think about a moth laying eggs on a leaf, which will be consumed by the once hatched host—those are the types of life and death stories that engage me as much as my own. We can’t hear the bugs or the plants, but I envision if I were in that world, it must be loud during times of tribulation and triumph.
Thinking about tiny organisms is what fuels the subject matter of my work right now. What goes on in the human body; how blood travels through veins and pumps through the heart—cell growth, brain synapses and water, sweat. I’m especially inspired to explore these dynamics in the works on paper,in which I create drippy pathways populated by dots. The dots indicate a rhythm of the heart or cell highways.
The dots don’t translate well to the larger scale paintings which are more about magnifying the energy of fluids and mark making—whether from the body or from nature. The scale dictates the energy tempo. Everything slows down on the paper paintings. All the big bold marks and spills on the ground, on trees and buildings, detritus—and sounds, are all noted and often documented and archived. I’m harnessing all that stimuli and information and then archive in the larger paintings.
AS: Your media includes bright pigments, metallic spray paint, shellac, natural elements like leaves, and found material like tape and plastic. You also work on different surfaces like wood, canvas, paper. What can you share about your use of materials /surfaces, and how do you choose them?
Erika Ranee: I’ve been a paint-on-canvas-purist since I started this art gig 32 years ago, but sometimes the materials more or less choose me. I began working on paper three years ago when my gallery at the time urged me to try making some work for a paper show in Amsterdam. I went to the nearest craft store, bought some acrylic paper, crayons and markers and tested it out. I didn’t like the results too much, but it laid the groundwork for what has become an important extension of my studio work. I’ve amassed an extensive ink collection and make the “paper paintings” at home which I truly enjoy. It’s a different mindset from the wrestling match that happens in the studio. I’ve also started working on odd shaped panels–a fellow artist gave me several large-scale oblong tondo shapes that I’m experimenting with now.
AS: Your recent show at Lesley Heller is called: “Psychedelic Galactica.” This brings me to my next question about your choice of color. Color evidently plays a central role in your work.
Erika Ranee: I think I’m just naturally wired to go for bold colors. My work now is mostly intuitive. I don’t plan color schemes, I just mix the colors as the painting evolves—just like my sewing experiments from childhood. That’s certainly my comfort zone. I’ve experimented with more muted and/or monochromatic palettes, but I still need some shimmer and glow accents peering through somewhere, otherwise it feels lifeless or dull.
AS: You work on large and small scales– is your approach and process differ in relation to scale?
Erika Ranee: The smaller works require more stillness. I’m holding the same position for hours and the focus is more singular; the mark making can be repetitive and it becomes meditative. My breathing slows down and evens out.
AS: I have a particularly soft spot for your drawings. They invite a closer long look and create a sense of bond with you – as if you are inviting me to join you in your exploration. Let’s take “Baby.” for example. How did it start and what was your process?
Erika Ranee: That piece had 2 lives. It was “done” 3 years ago and was even posted on my website. But I always thought it just needed a little something else. Apparently, it needed a lot more than a little something. It was heavily navy and gold and there were many beautiful moments in there that I realized I was hanging on to. Those precious areas were holding the piece back and I had to boldly cut them out with white. It’s hard to say goodbye—I memorialize beloved parts of paintings with photo documentation before they’re sacrificed, otherwise they exist to spite the painting. In any case, the piece was finally resolved with the opened spaces.
That’s been happening a lot lately—I’ve been resurrecting older works that felt unresolved and with more experience over time my evolved painting chops are making them better.
AS: I came across the notion of “history” throughout your texts, according to my understanding, referencing mostly history of the material and your own actions of painting (layering, removing, mounting). Do you also have in mind history of art and culture as central in your work?
Erika Ranee: Not really anymore. I certainly have influences. I’ve consistently been inspired by the same artists throughout the years: Jean Michel Basquiat, Willem deKooning, Karel Appel, Bob Thompson and Rauschenberg. I had a spiritual awakening of sorts just yesterday at the Helen Frankenthaler show at Yares Gallery. I think the main goal is to worship your idols, be influenced by them, learn from them, channel them, then get them the hell out of your house by the time you enter the professional realm —exorcise them from your work. I constantly aspire to have my own voice.
AS: Your titles are vivid. How do they take place? Let’s take for example “You’re Your Own You,” from 2018 or “Multitasking,” from 2019.
Erika Ranee: I think “You’re Your Own You” is one of my favorite titles to date. I was thinking about how often people misuse “your” and “you’re”, “there,” “their” and “they’re” and so on. One of my best friends does this, but for some odd reason I don’t have the heart to correct her. So to honor that hesitation, I thought of breaking it down in a title for anyone who might see it. Often, I collect titles and in the case of “Multitasking”, the final image dictates the title. In the painting I saw a figure juggling and at the time I made the painting, I was managing many projects at once. I am neither good nor happy as a multitasker, but somehow I get it all done.
AS: What is happening in your studio these days?
Erika Ranee: it’s been an intense work period since April 2018. I had work in a group show at Freight+ Volume, curated a group show at Tiger Strikes Asteroid gallery, of which I’m an artist member, and exhibited in another group show at Pelham Art Center. Presently I’m enjoying a quiet breather, just organizing my studio. I haven’t yet fully unpacked since I moved in a little over a year ago, and now is the perfect time to get everything in order and start a fresh body of work. It will be freeing to make work with more floor space and without a deadline. I work slowly, so this new pace will be a perfect respite from the high-octane race of late.