After November 2016 Patricia Fabricant‘s paintings shifted from dense and layered abstractions to self portraits depicting fluctuating expressions and altogether underscoring post election malaise. Fabricant developed an intriguing mechanism of observation and layering. Her gaze is meant to be neutral, just a stare into the mirror but throughout the weaving process, chance yields unintended emotions – knowing, anxious, sad. The artist describes in this interview for Art Spiel her process, ideas, and on going projects.
AS: In your artist statement online you say that your work changed after the 2016 election, from small decorative abstractions to self-portraits. Can you elaborate on that?
Patricia Fabricant: For the 15 years or so leading up to November 2016 I had been working purely abstractly. My explorations had to do with line and color and the tensions between loose and tight mark-making, between muted and strong colors. My abstractions were dense and layered. The materials ranged from oil on wood to gouache on paper. I tended, at that time, to bristle whenever anyone suggested that decorative work was somehow inferior to work that had political or social content.
However, after the election, this work indeed started to feel irrelevant and inconsequential to me. In the face of the insanity that had gripped the country, it didn’t seem right to continue to produce pretty little paintings. Around the same time, I visited my parents and unearthed a treasure trove of student work that included self-portraits from 30+ years ago. As a kick, I started painting self-portraits again. I found myself feeling, on a daily basis, a range of very strong emotions, from sadness to anger to disgust to anxiety to shock. I tried to paint myself feeling these emotions. I do not work from photos, so painting these required me to actually hold various facial expressions while I painted.
I was fortunate that a curator, Anne Trauben, spotted this new work online and invited me to have a mini solo at her gallery, Drawing Rooms, in Jersey City. I had to have a body of work ready in about 6 weeks. Of course you say yes to an opportunity like that. It felt very validating to change my work so radically and find an immediate audience for it. She paid a studio visit and pushed me to go bigger and bolder. So I started painting myself in the nude. I have a very forgiving studio mate.
AS: Tell me about the genesis of your weaving process.
Patricia Fabricant: The weaving also started in response to world events. I work on paper and have flat-files full of work, some of which I wasn’t happy with. I started cutting the less successful work apart and weaving them together. I began with some failed silkscreens. I’m not a very precise printmaker, but I’m also thrifty, so I had saved the messed up prints to play around with. Then I moved on to my less successful gouaches. As part of my thriftiness I’ll work on the back of a bad piece, so many of these early woven pieces are also two-sided. I was also inspired by a Lee Krasner show I saw in which she had cut apart her old prints into new compositions.
A friend then suggested I try weaving the self-portraits, et voila. The weaving allowed me to combine different emotions and expressions. Sometimes my reaction to a news story is both sadness and anger, humor and shock. I used to joke how frustrating it is that Facebook only allows you one “reaction” to an image or news story; the woven self-portraits allowed me to combine these reactions. I have a series called Venn Diagrams, in which I overlap the two portraits only partially, so the center strip is where, say, anxiety and despair come together. It is a strange feeling to make work that I know in advance I will be destroying (in part). I still work very hard on the paintings.
I’m also interested in the hidden aspect of these works. Through the weaving process 50% of each of the two paintings is concealed. So in effect there is an entirely different painting underneath the one you see. Which is true of all of us— we have the self we present to the world and the self we keep hidden.
I save the strips that get discarded in the process and have made another whole series of works using them. I call them the “Faceless” series because there are no facial features in these paintings. Sometimes I weave them together, sometimes I mount them on panels. I call it nose-to-tail art.
AS: You said that the nature of the weaving allows for unexpected emotions to emerge. Can you tell me more about that?
Patricia Fabricant: Most of the self-portraits are done with no intentional expression, just me staring into the mirror. However, when I weave two of them together, the accidents of the weave produce an unintended emotion. Sometimes I look knowing, sometimes anxious, sometimes sad. I work face down so as not to damage the surface with my fingernails, so often when I flip them up to check on the progress, I am surprised by what I see staring back at me.
AS: Your “Paper Dolls” series from 2016 references the current political climate in a more illustrative approach. How did this series evolve and what can you tell me about it?
Patricia Fabricant: I was invited by Larry Walzcak to be in a show at Schema Projects called Paper Jam. Larry had always told me I was too smart to be an abstract painter, and I vaguely resented him saying that. But for this show he wanted work that had some sort of political content. It also had to be on paper, or work with paper, since that was Schema’s mission. So I came up with the idea of a set of political paper dolls. The series addresses perception and appearance. How does what we wear signal who we are and how we are treated in the world. The first one was the Jihadi Bride. She only has one clothing option: the burka. I then did Trayvon Martin, who was killed for wearing a hoodie in the wrong neighborhood. The Republican Candidate thinks he speaks for the medical profession and for the clergy but in private he’s someone else entirely. Ironically I was trying to paint a really generic looking Republican politician and made an inadvertent portrait of Mike Pence.
The series has continued after the show. I had planned to do one of Bruce Jenner and while I was thinking about what it might look like, she came out as Caitlyn, so I had all the visuals I needed. The Rachel Dolezal story was another natural for this series. And then I did two for the 2016 election, for The Ballot Show, at Front Room Gallery. In those two I played with the difference (in each case) between the right’s and the left’s perceptions of the candidate. I will probably continue to make Paper Dolls, but I wait for a subject to present itself to me. There has to be a clothing angle.
AS: You are also an award-winning book designer. How do you see the relationship between design / book/ painting in your overall work?
Patricia Fabricant: It’s less direct. I had a very solid career for 15 years as designer and then art director of an art book publisher. During that time I made very little of my own art. I found the work creatively fulfilling and at the end of the day my eyeballs were too tired to then go to the studio and make art. I admire people who can keep both those things going simultaneously. It wasn’t until 2000, when I made the decision to go freelance, that I returned to a committed studio practice. But all the while I was working the jobs I was keeping up with the art world, going to shows and openings. I still design books to pay the bills, and still enjoy it, but now I am able to integrate my two careers. Early on I was told that artists should never let on that they have day jobs unless they teach. I think that’s absurd. Most of us, unless we married rich, have to do something to support our work. I’m fortunate in that I enjoy my day job. It also has allowed me to work with some amazing artists including Rackstraw Downes and Chuck Close.
It’s impossible to know where my painting career would be now had I not chosen to focus on my day job for 15 years. I might have gotten an MFA, I might be further along. But I’m happy with the direction in which my work is going.
Patricia Fabricant: Beth and I went to see the Rauschenberg show together last year, and we were both really taken with the piece “Hiccup” in which he zipped together 97 original works. We decided we should do a riff on that and ask 97 of our friends to make pieces to zip together. Beth offered her studio for DUMBO Open Studios weekend. A few weeks later I was talking to Alexi and she had had a similar idea and had even gone as far as buying the zippers. So she joined us. We were an excellent team: very complementary skill sets, and we remain close friends.
We invited 150 artists and ended up, finally, with 132 works, which fit the space perfectly, without an inch to spare. All the individual works were for sale with 50% going to the artist, 10% to Planned Parenthood, and the rest split among the three of us. The show was a tremendous success. The artists really stepped up and produced some exquisite work and the fact of it being hung numerically (each piece was numbered) and therefore randomly, led to some serendipitous curatorial magic. We sold 96 of the pieces and raised over $3000 for Planned Parenthood.
We have another iteration of Among Friends planned for Spring 2019, at the Clemente Soto Velez Foundation. We will be raising money for a different cause this time, for immigration rights. The show will be titled “Among Friends – Entre Amigos”. We will be able to include more artists in this new venue as well.
AS: What’s your take away from that project?
Patricia Fabricant: I realized I like curating and am good at it. I am also a pretty good salesperson. In the weeks leading up to the show I started posting thematic groupings on social media and I think I inspired people to buy multiple works, which they could then zip together themselves. In a way curation is more like book design than painting is. When I design an art book, quite frequently a large part of my job is sequencing the images, much as a curator has to sequence the works along the wall. It’s visual storytelling. It can be very intuitive, and I try to apply these same skills to curatorial work.
AS: What are you working on now?
Patricia Fabricant: My latest series of self-portraits is my “Icons” series. I’m weaving my image together with abstractions loosely inspired by yantras, mandalas, tilework, folk art hex symbols. They are close to life-size and subtly reference paintings of saints and holy figures, which is amusing because I am not in any way religious. I’ve been fortunate that this brand new work has already been in a few shows, so it’s getting seen. I’m also working on a series of abstractions which I’m not showing anybody. Sometimes I need to take a break from myself.
But perhaps what I’m most excited about is a show I’m curating this fall. In the manner of “artist couple” shows, Studio Mates seeks to explore the dialogue between two artists who share a creative space. I chose studio pairs whose relationship is not strictly economic, but who have a friendship outside the studio. I made joint studio visits and through that process selected work by each artist that has a thematic connection with the other. It will open at Front Room Gallery in early December, with a reception on the 14th from 7 to 9.
I hope to curate more. I have other ideas… we’ll see.