Meg Atkinson – Painting as a Leap of Faith

One Tree, Two Mouthy Ghosts, 2019, Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches, photo courtesy Max Yawney

Meg Atkinson‘s paintings resemble puzzles open to multiple solutions. Her imagery is embedded with associative literary and visual layers, as clues to an open-ended riddle. Meg Atkinson shares with Art Spiel what brought her to art, as well as the way she has developed her approach to mark-making, space, gird, and color.

AS: Tell me a bit about your background and what brought you to painting.

I’ve been painting for as long as I can remember. I have a distinct memory of sitting at a table in a basement-like room, flanked on my left by a bank of windows, in what used to be called Nursery school. Before me on the table was a finger painting, in red. Perhaps it was my first. I like the materiality of paint, its substance, and I still use oils. Mixing colors is one of the most pleasurable activities I can think of. I like that paint is tacky and malleable, and that it spreads. One thing I hate about it, though: It takes too long to dry.

I had a great high school art teacher who encouraged me to go to Pratt. He thought well of its foundation year, but because I didn’t get there right away, I missed it. Even so, it was an eye-opening experience. It was the early 1980’s. I spent a lot of time drawing on the subway and going to Pearl Paint, but even though I considered myself a painter, I majored in drawing instead. Painting was too fraught. Technically, I think it was still “dead.” It was either dead or neo-expressionistic; two modes of being that had no resonance for me. As a drawing major I could ignore the drama. Even so, I managed to graduate without ever having a senior show, something I think you’re not supposed to do. Pratt, if you’re listening, forgive me.

AS: In your interview with Juxtapoz you say that you are a “lapsed still-life painter”. What drew you to still-life and why “lapsed”?

As a kid I understood that there were two kinds of paintings. There was still life and there was figuration. Even then, however, I made a distinction: if figuration meant the silly deployment of ladies’ naked bodies, and if still life meant the deployment of fruit, flowers, food, and cutlery, then the latter was the more accessible. And then, too, there was Cezanne, who made a huge impact on me during my teenage years. I had a book of pictures from the (then) Jeu de Paume in which I read and reread a sentence that described how Cezanne loved the grace of a passing bouquet. To this day, I can recite it in French. Despite currently feeling too impatient for observational painting, as I untangle each new thread, I always assume that somehow, some day, it will take me back to still life.

AS: In that interview you briefly refer to the role of text in your paintings. Let’s take a closer look at two of your paintings of your choice in that context – how does the text function in them, and how is it integrated within your painting vocabulary and process?

For me, text in painting is ancillary. Sometimes it’s poetic. Sometimes it’s cryptic. Sometimes it brings levity. It’s like a message in a bottle: by the time it lands, circumstances have changed. By necessity, literalness takes a back seat to formal demands, which is why a lot of my text refers back to the act of painting itself. It provides self-referential commentary. For example, “Having a Lark Here in Berlin, Mitte” pokes fun at my fantasies about art world success, and what it might be like to jet around European capitals. “At Least One Naked Lady, Clean Edges, Expensive Linen” refers to my disdain for both the male gaze and for the corporate sanitization of artworks. Despite prevailing wisdom, it’s my view that paintings are not objets meant to be ferried about by white-gloved handlers. It’s my view that to paint is to get filthy; not only does the artist herself get filthy, but her paintings do as well.

A graffiti covered wall

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Criteria, 2019, Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches, photo courtesy Max Yawney
A birthday cake

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Having a Lark Here in Berlin, Mitte, 2019, Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches, photo courtesy Max Yawney

AS: You seem to work, or rework paintings, spanning at times 4 years, as in Another Weekend at Malmo 2014-18 or My Inner Outsider – both grid-based abstractions with different sensibility. Can you take me through your thought process while working on each of these paintings and since you were working on them around the same time periods, I am curious to know how they relate to each other?

I don’t know why, but there are certain paintings that behave as test cases. They lend themselves to experimentation. Frequently they are outliers and always they allow me to push through to something new. I love and hate these paintings in equal measure. Superficially, “Malmo” and “Inner Outsider” are not the same because each was started with a different type of grid. On a deeper level, though, they’re different because they represent what it means to keep searching. I’d had such a long hiatus. I was reacquainting myself with paint and with what it can do, but the more I worked with straight lines, the more I wanted to add curves. Painting is a leap of faith; most of the time you have to be willing to try something new. It’s both maddening and engaging at the same time.

A picture containing stationary, writing implement

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Another Weekend at Malmo, 2014-18, Oil on canvas, 24 x 30  inches, photo courtesy Max Yawney
A close up of a painted wall

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My Inner Outsider, 2014-19, Oil on canvas, 30 x 40  inches, photo courtesy Max Yawney

AS: You continue to explore your ideas on grid in your recent paintings but in what seems to me a much freer way. Why the grid and how has your approach developed over the years?

A while back I took a long break from painting and when I returned to it I decided that, regardless of my lack of space and regardless of my day job, if I was to be serious I would paint every day. To that end, and even though I didn’t really identify as a geometric abstract painter, I soon realized that the only way I could continue to paint was to lay out the paintings and fill them in. Thus, the grid. Over time, however, as happens with all paintings, pesky formal challenges soon arose and I began to experiment. Each and every idea leads to tens of others. The grid itself offers infinite possibilities. Nowadays, although I use the grid as a starting point, I am increasingly interested in creating at least a small feeling of space. For me, without a feeling of space, geometric shapes are merely decorative. Naturally, once you’ve made space, then you’ve made time, and once you’ve made time, then you’re on your way to making a narrative. In other words, if you push it around enough, geometry will lead you to worried-looking birds and mouthy ghosts.

Mouthy Ghost, 2019, Oil on canvas, 20 x 16  inches, photo courtesy Max Yawney

AS: I am looking at Great Grey-Green Greasy Limpopo River and fascinated both by the space you are creating there and the sense of a disquieting sense of a riddle I long to resolve, not to mention the title. What is the idea behind this painting, your process, and your thoughts on the outcome – after all, the caption indicates only 2019.

The title of this painting is lifted from Kipling. I stole it because the painting depicts a maybe-landscape, a fantastical and mystical place. I also stole it because of the painting’s gray-green color. In particular, I strove in this painting to highlight the tension between figure and ground. I like when areas of paintings toggle between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space. To me, this toggling back and forth speaks to the nature of painting itself.

A graffiti covered wall

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Great Grey-Green Greasy, 2019, Oil on canvas, 30 x 40  inches, photo courtesy Max Yawney

AS: And then there is Red Cat. Your recent paintings seem to become more figurative – what are your thoughts on that?

During my last year of art school one million years ago, I experienced a wholesale loss of faith in mark-making. To the extent that normal marks (brush strokes, pencil lines, etc.) seemed to be so cliché as to be useless, I struggled to create meaning. Turning to papier-mache, as way to create lines, I soldiered on. Despite my collapse, however, my sketchbooks from that time are filled with drawings of cats. Even then, I knew I wanted to make quirky, figurative work, but I didn’t feel I had the permission to do so. All I can say now is, Screw that!

A painted sign

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Red Cat, 2020, Oil on canvas, 20 x16  inches, photo courtesy Max Yawney

AS: Your series birds, trees, houses, mouthy ghosts, and cars, reference in my mind a mix of Paul Klee, Leger, and pop art. Let’s look at Mouthy Ghost. What would you like to share about your references and ideas in context of art history and in context of your own body of work?

Paul Klee. Here’s what I love about him: Even if you’re new to one of his paintings, you still identify it as being one of his; but I wonder: How would he fare in our current brand-driven world? Would he be sidelined as unserious, as too peripatetic? For me, experimentation is what it’s all about. Which is why Art History frightens me. Do I really have to stake out turf? What if I don’t want to? Art History equals dogma and dogma is uninteresting. And as for the mouthy ghost: I see her as a Cassandra. She’s up there in the sky, screaming her head off, and no one is listening.

Studio Shoes, photo courtesy the artist

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She holds BA in Psychology and English Literature from Tel Aviv University, BFA from Parsons School of Design, and MFA from SUNY Purchase. 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: