Natalie Westbrook: Surface Tension at Freight + Volume

In Dialogue with Natalie Westbrook

Natalie Westbrook in her studio, 2021.Image courtesy the artist. Photography Johannes DeYoung.

The Pittsburgh based painter Natalie Westbrook’s solo show at Freight + Volume in Tribeca features her recent body of bold and highly energetic paintings ranging from monochromes to vivid colors. Jeffrey Grunthaner writes in his essay for the show that Westbrook’s works “confront the limits of what painting makes possible.” The show runs from May 21st to June 26th, 2021.

The body of work included in this show consists of recent paintings. The first thing that caught my attention was wild range of color sensibility – from grayscale monochromes to vivid, at times neon colors. Lets look for instance at Trio (blue), 2021 and Nothing, 2020. What is your idea behind these two paintings, and what can you share about your process?

The paintings are like mirrors. They’re as much about projection as they are about reflection. There’s an idea that if you stare at a mirror long enough, your image starts to distort into something uncanny and grotesque. The mirror is at once a slick, hard yet fragile surface, but also a pictorial window of seamless illusion. It’s an illusion of our reality. To me that’s what painting is all about — a material surface not for touching but for looking— for contemplation, and escape.

Trio (blue), 2021, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches. Image courtesy the artist.

Nothing, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 66 x 60 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

Your graphite drawings are as bold as your paintings, but the drawings evoke for me a more internal sense of space made of meticulously rendered biomorphic forms. What is your take on that? Tell me about Hideout, for instance.

I like how you used the word ‘internal’ because when I think back to when I first started making graphite drawings, it was January 2020 and I was feeling particularly introspective at the start of the new year. Although I was making large paintings in the studio, I felt the urge to constantly be making — and I started a practice of keeping graphite and small papers around the house to have a tedious and engrossing but small and manageable project I could work on late at night, on the couch, at the kitchen table
— wherever and whenever. Something to scratch that itch— to quickly satisfy the impulse for a hand-eye connection. It’s strange, by the way, that this urge to work at home happened just two months before quarantine started.

Making my big paintings in the studio is a very physical process — up and down ladders, working on the wall then crouching down and walking around to work on the floor — then back on the wall upright again. The small drawings were a welcome break from that physicality, and a deep dive straight into the psychological. I guess if I think about the physicality in these drawings, I would say that the work is not only portable, but meditative. The tiny repetitive wrist movements and connection between my hand and eye allow a slow but intense process— a meditation. The drawings are introspective and ‘internal’ as you said, made as small pictorial windows into otherworldly places, from the intimate and familiar internal world of my own personal space. Like a view from within in every sense of the idea.

Hideout, 2020, was made in March 2020 once quarantine started in earnest and my mind was in an altogether new place. I was sick at home for the first weeks of March and this was the first drawing I made once I recovered enough to work again at the kitchen table. This one was different from those made in January and February because instead of biomorphic forms defining an alternative landscape, I wanted to make something more immediately human and more clearly about the human experience relative to the natural world and what was happening outside in our real environment, however surreal it felt at that uncertain time.

Hideout, 2020, graphite on paper, 11 x 8 inches. Image courtesy of the artist.

How do you see the relationship between the graphite drawings and the paintings and what is the role of drawing in your overall work?

The first few graphite drawings I made focused on what you described earlier as biomorphic forms— invented life forms existing somewhere between plant, animal and human in their characteristics. Initially, the graphite drawings were never made as studies, but instead made intuitively as imagined portals into a colorless world. The fine point of the pencil prompted detail, while the innate silvery black of the lead created a new world through a dark filter. These tiny intuitive graphite drawings made in my kitchen or living room oddly became the impetus to make not only the largest painting of my career thus far, but also the first black and white painting I’ve ever made. The 12 x 16’ black and white painting Hotbed, 2020 was based on a drawing of the same name. The drawing was shown in Los Angeles in January, and the painting was made for a show in New Haven that opened in late February before it quickly shut down when the pandemic hit.

So while the graphite drawings have sometimes served as references for large paintings, they have more importantly functioned as a new meditative and quiet part of my practice, expanding my physical and psychological space of making. Most importantly, the graphite medium inspired the black and white palette that has been a significant feature of many paintings from the last year and a half.

Aside from graphite, which was new for me in 2020, for the past 10 years I’ve consistently made works on paper with colorful acrylic paint and oil pastels. A number of these made in recent months are included in flat files as part of the show at Freight + Volume. These paintings on paper are a bit like pages from a sketchbook. Each drawing embodies a mood or thought from that day through color, mark and subject. Never made as studies for larger works— I have total freedom with these— acting on sheer impulse, memory, and experimentation. I go to the studio and get a stack of paper out to make a group of drawings in a single session and the goal is always to stay open. To make discoveries. To surprise myself. The best discoveries get explored further in other iterations and eventually find their way into paintings— or at least the spirit of the idea or gesture carries on in some way that leads me to new paths in painting.

Whisper, 2021, oil and acrylic on canvas, 70 x 58 inches. Image courtesy the artist.

Hotbed, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 144 x 210 inches. Image courtesy the artist.

I see repetitive recognizable images throughout your paintings – red nailed hand, eyes, lashes, lips. What do these representations signify to you and can you tell me more about this visual vocabulary?

I am obsessed with perception, the senses, and how we experience our surroundings from moment to moment. Have you ever noticed how in horror films, directors love to cut to an extreme close up of eyes? It’s a common trope in the horror film genre to impose this visceral image filling the entire screen— usually the wide eyes of a panicked and doomed protagonist. Often when the eyes fill the screen, the visceral terror is implicit, and not explicitly shown to moviegoers whatsoever. For example the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho shows brief silhouetted action, but lingers at the end with a close up of Marion’s wide staring eyes. The filmed eyes reflect the viewer’s gaze, but also reflect horrors unseen to us— in this case the last seconds of Marion’s life. It’s the recognition of fear in someone’s eyes alone that evokes an emotional response, moreso than if the director were to literally show us what is happening in the scene. While horror films embrace so many tools, including creepy sound effects, suspenseful music and vile dialogue, it’s ultimately the way in which the visual suggests the tactile that is most effective for me. The disembodied representation of the human psyche through the visual image of the eyes is powerful.

I think about this disembodiment all the time in my work. Painting, unlike film, is reduced to the limitations of the visual realm. Without sound and time, painting has to evoke a response with a single static and silent image. I enjoy the challenge of these parameters and it’s what keeps me coming back to the studio over and over again to push paint around on yet another flat rectangle.

In my work, the fragmented and abstracted human body alludes to the senses and our sensory perception of the world. While sight is our primary sense, life doesn’t start out that way. If you have a baby or young toddler you have to constantly monitor to make sure they don’t eat something they shouldn’t as they are prone to putting everything within reach directly into their mouth. Taste is the first sense for understanding and processing our surroundings when we are new in this world.

I paint hands because painting is a labor of the hands, and paint is a visceral and tactile medium that drips and splashes and spreads first before it ever transforms into any sort of pictorial illusion. Painted fingernails and long lashes play with constructs of gender and ideas of mother nature as a fertile and feminine force, while also winking (literally) at the artifice of paint as an outer coating or veneer.

In his essay for the show catalogue Jeffrey Grunthaner sees in your paintings the aegis of formalism—borrowed from design as much as resources inherent in the history of painting.” What are your thoughts on that?

I’m fascinated by the internal rigor unique to the practice of painting. The show title, Surface Tension, refers to the phenomenon that is responsible for the shape of a liquid droplet, for a needle floating on the surface of water, for the curvature of bubbles and puddles. Surface tension is the force by which molecules attract one another, building strength at the surface to resist being stretched or broken. But bubbles pop, puddles splash, and the raindrop on the windshield deforms with the swipe of the wipers. In painting, it’s the tension between material and representation that creates a similarly magical phenomenon. Things hold together— defiantly so, and then they fall apart. In my paintings and throughout my practice, I’m searching for that phenomenon of surface tension, and constantly testing the breaking point.

Natalie Westbrook at Freight + Volume  Surface Tension May 21st to June 26th, 2021 39 Lispenard St., New York, NY, 10013