Denise Sfraga: Constructing and Disclosing

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(left) Malignant 40” x 32” flashe, pastel on paper 2019, (middle) Gone (series of 9) 8” x 6” each colored pencil on paper 2018, (right) New Mourn 40” x 32” flashe, pastel on paper 2018

The NYC based artist Denise Sfraga intersects in her work photography, drawing, and painting. The evolving processes, history, and aesthetics of photography altogether inform Denise Sfraga‘s thought process and practice. This results in an abstracted biomorphic imagery resonating with botany and other organic life forms. At first glance her well defined colorful shapes appear as beautiful abstractions but as you spend more time with them, you may realize that their beauty is a camouflage for darker, mysterious and disorienting undercurrents. Denise Sfraga first elaborates for Art Spiel how her way of thinking came about and then takes us through different series of work to reflect on her process in depth.

AS: You are both a photographer, collagist and painter.  Tell me about what brought you to each of these forms?

Denise Sfraga: I’m a visual artist who loves to explore the intersection where photography, drawing and painting meet. Each medium has inherent qualities that are unique in and of themselves, and it’s always exciting and challenging to be able to go in any direction either of them takes me. I received a BFA and MFA with a concentration in photography and its rich history has continued to be a strong influence on my work.  I love all genres of this still-evolving medium – historical and contemporary photography, color, black and white, documentary, conceptual.  I also love the meditative process involved in simply making a photograph – from capturing a moment in time, or coming upon the way shadows and light can shape or reshape an object, to the actual process involved in developing film and spending private time in the darkroom, and more recently editing and digitally manipulating interesting imagery. I’ve always loved looking at and experiencing the very idea of a photograph, what a photograph is. But ultimately, that straight singular image had its limitations for me. I began to explore other mediums using photography as an anchor, as the foundation image with which to explore new directions. That immediately opened up new possibilities that included photo-silkscreening, photo-etching, non-silver processes, experimental darkroom techniques. Each of these possibilities brought with them their own unique qualities and I felt more physically involved in the process. I was able to get in there, inside the whole drama that was taking place and that direct interaction, the immediacy involved in the human touch, allowed me to become more intuitive in my approach. From that point on it was a natural transition to open it all up and use everything necessary to keep the work fresh, fluid, and open to change.

So, while all this was going on in the studio, in the real world I’ve also been a full time Photo Editor for the past 34 years at visually driven magazines including Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, People, Civilization, Entertainment Weekly, Health and This Old House magazine. In the same way straight photography didn’t work for me as an artist, as a Photo Editor curating what photographs might work best to illustrate or define a story, I’ve always looked for an image that had something more, an image that had some underlying narrative beneath its surface. Thankfully, I have been blessed to have been able to work with some of the most creative, inspiring and driven personalities of our time and have been able to collaborate with them all on stories where that straight image gave way to something more conceptual and more visually interesting. You can see some examples of these collaborations here.

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Blight 20” x 16” casein, gouache, photograph on wood 2018

AS: How do you see the relationship between photography and painting in your work?

Denise Sfraga: “The painter constructs, the photographer discloses” is one of my favorite Susan Sontag quotes. In the same way it seemed a natural transition for me to start painting directly on photographs, it seemed just as natural to reverse it all and start adding elements of photography to the painting. It became seamless as imagery and material merged. Photography and painting have always worked as an interesting mix of fact and fiction for me. When I’m taking photographs, I’m looking for an image that looks like a painting, and when I paint, I attempt to make an image that simply can’t be photographed. By combining the two, by both “constructing” and “disclosing” (to use Sontag’s terms) ultimately, I’m looking to create imagery that connects me to an existence we all share, a quiet contemplative space of discovery where nature and imagination thrive.

AS: Looking at some of your earlier photographs like “Burden” or “Durango”, they look like photographed paintings.  What is your process in these photos?

Denise Sfraga: I’m fascinated you think both these pieces are photographs. In fact, both Burden and Durango are mixed media pieces that include photography but are perfect examples of how that boundary between photography and painting gets blurred. That’s exactly the kind of other worldly experience I want people to take away from the work – like you’re floating in some in-between space where reality and imagination merge, where the image seems both familiar and foreign at the same time.

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Burden 20” x 16” photograph, casein, gouache on wood 2016
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Durango 6” x 3.5” photograph, acrylic, fabric, gravel, clay on wood 2012-2013

AS: Tell me about your recent work. Let’s look at “Choke” for example.  What is the genesis and process?   

Denise Sfraga: As my process is pretty intuitive, I approach each piece differently and start experimenting right away with what might be included in its basic structure. I usually begin by searching through my archive of photographs and making cutouts of shapes and forms that interest me, shapes that have the possibility of evolving a bit more or into something else completely different. In ‘Choke’, those cut out elements came from a photograph of a turn of the century gravestone taken in one of my favorite cemeteries – Mount Auburn Cemetery- in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Did I mention I love cemeteries? I then laid out the shapes, designed the basic structure and started the process of adding other elements to the piece. I remember starting this painting in the Spring when artichokes are abundant and the first thing that came to mind was that it resembled a primeval thistle-like plant with a sharp threatening crown of leaves sitting atop a more vulnerable throat-like stem.

It was all a little too threatening at that point, so I started painting the seeds inside the head of that plant. These seeds seemed swollen, rich saturated orange ovals on the verge of an explosive dispersion. There’s a tension in that delicate balance between what seems visually comfortable and that sense of dread that seems to permeate the work. Titles are an integral part of the process and can navigate this duality as well. In 2018, artist Mary DeVincentis curated an exhibition at the M.David Annex in Bushwick titled ‘Aporia’, and in the show’s online essay she writes the work has “a botanical feel which is initially soothing. But then, like a fly wandering into a Venus Fly Trap, one is suddenly in the stickiness of human concern”.

Choke 24” x 19” acrylic, oil, photograph on wood 2017

AS: Your work is abstract, but it associates in my mind with organic elements in nature, even characters at times.  In your statement, you affirm that the biology of plants, nature and natural order play an important part of your visual vocabulary.  Can you elaborate on that?

Denise Sfraga: Nature has always been an important and integral part of my creative life. As a visual artist and avid gardener, the life cycle of plants – from seed germination, leaf and flower growth, and the dispersion of the next generation of seeds, to the final stages of decay – every element has always fascinated me and has played a key role in the studio. I am constantly searching for a visual vocabulary consisting of interesting shapes that can communicate some elusive narrative in this surreal personal landscape. There are admittedly abstract elements involved, but the work always attempts a visual interpretation of existing organic forms. I’m also inspired by rock art, also known as petroglyphs, especially those of the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest dating back 400-700 years. Petroglyphs are characters carved into rocks whose true meaning remains a mystery. Similar to the way Native Americans carved personal shapes and symbols into the walls of Chaco Canyon in Northern New Mexico or the blackened boulders strewn around the open landscape on the outskirts of Albuquerque, I attempt to ‘carve out’ my own visual vocabulary of interesting shapes. That’s why I love that you mentioned that these forms could be “characters” at times. That’s pretty much exactly how I think of them. These characters become real entities to me.

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Strain 40” x 30” flashe, photograph on wood 2019

AS: Can you share what are some of the major art related influences on your imagery?

Denise Sfraga: That’s a question I can spend a lot of time on since there are so many artists that I look to as influences. My drawings are especially influenced by artists like Myron Stout and Ben Nicholson with their direct, honest simplicity of line and always intriguing form.  Collage artists Hannah Hoch, Ann Ryan, Addie Herder and the Russian Constructivists including Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Alexander Rodchenko consistently influence the more complex multi mixed media work. Thomas Nozkowski, Paul Feeley, Frederick Hammersley, Forest Bess, Anna Zemankova, Josef Albers, Stephen Mueller and Milton Avery all bring energetic and expressive color into the mix. My photo history roots exposed me to early plant portrait photographers like Karl Blossfeldt, Anna Atkins and Charles Jones. More contemporary photographers like Adam Fuss, Erin O’Keefe, Victor Schrager, Liz Nielson, Zeke Berman, Marco Breuer, Sarah Charlesworth, Richard Caldicott, Ellen Carey, Luuk de Haan, James Casebere and Gerald Slota all create their own universe, their own alternate reality in which to then explore the possibilities of what else a camera can do or can be done in the darkroom.

Every one of these artists are nature informed, nature inspired and nature driven. Of course, working in my own garden, in my own nature, I have the opportunity to witness this ever-changing landscape of life forms from which I draw constant inspiration.

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(left to right) Mensch 1 (for Esther) , Mensch 2, Mensch 3 all 8” x 6” colored pencil on paper 2018

AS: You describe your imagery as inhabiting a “niche of reverence and remembrance” can you talk about that?

Denise Sfraga: The notion of death and dying has always had a strong influence on my work. The ritual of attending wakes and funerals, the sight of mourning women clothed in black, the pungent smell of incense, lighting votive candles in the dark niche of a quiet church, visiting gravesites in cemeteries and the recollection as a child of first discovering an infant’s post mortem photograph in a friend’s tiny Brooklyn apartment. All these moments have their own unique flavors, colors, shapes and characters and have had a profound emotional impact on the work. I always seem to be juggling my reverence for death with my fascination for life – one foot in the garden, one foot in the grave.

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Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, Boston, Massachucetts

AS: In an artcritical review on your recent exhibition at M.David & Co., John Mendelsohn references your work on paper, “Suicide Tree” describing it as sharing “a deep sense of loss”.  Can you tell me more about that work?

Denise Sfraga: Suicide Tree is a piece that is titled after a tree that grows in areas of India and Southern Asia whose fruit seeds are so toxic that they have been known to be an aid to suicide and even murder. It’s a relatively large work on paper, some 40” x 32”, and was an integral part of a 56 piece installation titled ‘Poison Garden’ in the project space of M. David & Co. last year. I thought John Mendelsohn’s introduction to the show in his Artcritical review was dead on:

“In her exhibition Poison Garden, Denise Sfraga has painted the walls of the
gallery’s project space a sepulchral purple and covered them with many small
drawings and a few larger works. The show’s title refers to plants that are
dangerous and although the botanical is a recurring motif, the clear implication in
the work is that the human condition is a garden whose blooms can be as harmful
as they are beautiful”. That introduction really captured the overall brooding ominous atmosphere I wanted to convey in that show and Suicide Tree added to that shared sense of loss.

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Suicide Tree 40” x 32” flashe, gouache, pastel on paper 2019

AS: What are you working on these days?

Denise Sfraga: I’ve been carefully observing what’s been going on out there in the winter garden, how the saturated reds and hot vibrant pinks of summer have turned inward and given way to a more subdued palette, how the long surreal late afternoon shadows of early January linger. Where plants once flourished now withered skeletal relics remain. But the winter reveals its own hidden treasures and that once lush garden is now filled with an entirely different universe of exotic shapes and forms to explore.

HyperAccumulators installation at The Pelham Art Center, Pelham, NY curated by Alexandra Rutsch Brock and Elizabeth Saperstein 2019 , Photo courtesy Lizbeth Mitty

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