Nancy Elsamanoudi in Domestic Brutes at Pelham Art Center

In Dialogue with Nancy Elsamanoudi

Artist at home with paintings during lockdown, May 2020

Nancy Elsamanoudi says she was drawn to painting because of its fluid relationship to time from the viewer’s and the painter’s perspectives alike. The viewer gets a visceral sense of the painter’s vision in the past, and the painter experiences the fluidity of time throughout the process of painting. Elsamanoudi further specifies: “when you paint, you can, so to speak, go back and forth through time, adding layers-submerging the past or revealing the past by scraping or stripping away previous layers.”

She recalls that although when she lived in Cleveland early on, she spent a lot of time at the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art looking at paintings and making life drawings, she was more drawn to abstract painting. Later on, as she moved from Cleveland to NYC to do her MFA in painting at Pratt in 2012, she focused on large scale abstract paintings, while admiring the works of artists like Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Cecily Brown and Keltie Ferris. She loved the power of their work, their presence, and the way these paintings seemed to make an implicit, feminist statement by the way they commanded space.

Over the past five years, however, her work has changed. Her palette shifted from murky earth tones, subdued blues and grays to bright reds, fuschias, pinks, florescents, seafoam green and black. There was also a decisive shift in her work from abstraction to a more figurative and narrative approach. Now, she thinks of herself more as a figurative painter with abstract roots. Nancy Elsamanoudi is participating in Domestic Brutes at Pelham Art Center.

Red Shoes. Oil on Panel. 36 x 36 in. 2020

AS: How do you see your work in context of Domestic Brutes feminist perspective?

NE: This show is incredibly timely and really speaks to the complicated nature of the moment we are currently living in. While we seem to be teetering on disaster-a global pandemic, loss of international standing, economic instability and social unrest, we also might be on the cusp of an unprecedented opportunity for a seismic shift to take place in our cultural landscape. People are now more socially engaged — protests and speaking out against injustice has become increasingly more integrated as another part of life. Almost four years ago, I went to the Women’s March in Washington. This summer, the BLM protests were often outside my door; I would go outside to cheer them on or join them. I feel that my work has been influenced in part by the aesthetics of protest and resistance like the rough, DIY, graphic quality of the posters and banners.

The title of this show, Domestic Brutes, comes from a pejorative meant to liken women to beasts that have become dumb and docile through domestication. Of course, this is not what it means to us, since the “Nasty Woman” debacle between Trump and Clinton, we are primed to take a pejorative that is meant to put or keep women in their place flip it on its head. Like Nasty Woman, Domestic Brutes becomes a kind of moniker for women who refuse to be boxed in by social constraints that keep them from acting in ways that could be construed as too shrill or overly ambitious. I see my paintings as feminist in that they are peopled by fierce “nasty women” who are unapologetically themselves and who have a certain verve and vitality about them.

Nut, Sky Goddess. Acrylic on Canvas. 36 in x 36 in. 2020

AS: Tell me about the work in this show – its genesis and process.

NE: While occasionally, I’ll draw on photographs for ideas, the paintings never end up looking anything like the photos I am looking at. But usually, I don’t use source materials, and I refer to my own body, when I need to think through how a figure might move through space. I didn’t use source materials for the painting in this show. This painting has more to do with a specific kind of feeling and attitude. There is a highly textured haptic quality to the surface of these paintings, a roughness that speaks to a kind of attitude. Sometimes I’ll have a sliver of an idea and then that will become the impetus for the painting. In this painting, I was thinking of how a piece of clothing or in this case boots can be emblematic of certain kind of openly sexual vibe and energy that has to do with urban-ness and New York City in particular.

I tend to work from my imagination and the city, the urgency and tempo of the city feeds my imagination. The woman depicted in this painting is the kind of person that is at home in the city and that takes the city as her natural habitat. She is a bandit-eyed, willowy woman with short sleeked back flapper hair in fuchsia go-go boots grabbing a papaya colored cocktail as she bolts from the scene.

Green Couch. Acrylic on Canvas. 36 in x 36 in. 2020

AS: How does the work in this show relate to your other work?

NE: I’m interested in spaces and situations where expected social and cultural norms and codes can be resisted, skirted, deflected or bypassed. I am also interested in the ways that culture can become encoded into the body and the body’s movements. The work in this show and much of my other work often have to do with the body and the way the body takes up space, commands space, responds to space and inhabits a space. The women in my paintings may be in motion, stretched or stretching, poised to pounce, tense and boxed in or at ease and in their element.

These paintings are in part about bucking or un-ensnaring oneself from the Chinese trap of gender norms and gendered expectations. If as Simone de Beauvoir says “one is not born but becomes a woman,” there is a question of whether one can refuse to become a woman or fail to become a woman-and not necessarily because one is naturally inclined to be masculine, but rather because the binary itself feels like a burdensome contrivance. The characters in some of my paintings seem rather inclined to live like boys-blithely playing in their underwear –without a sense that shame is warranted or that virtues like modesty are necessarily coded into their DNA because they are female. These woman-child characters that appear in some of my paintings are somewhat wild but not feral, strong-willed, unconventional unicorns.

AS: How do you hope viewers connect with your work in this show?

NE: I hope they connect to the humor in these paintings. I see humor as a way into these paintings.

Tall Drink. Acrylic on Canvas. 36 in x 36 in. 2020

All photos courtesy of the artist.

Domestic Brutes at the Pelham Art Center – Opening receptions: September 12th (in gallery with applicable rules); September 17th (virtual).

Artists: Tirtzah Bassel, Aisha Tandiwe Bell, Ashley Norwood Cooper, Maria de Los Angeles, Nancy Elsamanoudi, Fay Ku, Sharon Madanes, Lacey McKinney, Joiri Minaya, Rose Nestler, Simonette Quamina, Diana Schmertz, Alisa Sikelianos-Carter, Manju Shandler, Melissa Stern; Curated by Christina Massey and Etty Yaniv

Thanks to Audrey Putman for helping with the interview.

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: