Lauren Whearty: Slippage between Abstraction and Image

Lauren Whearty in her Philadelphia Studio, August 2021, photo courtesy of the artist

Lauren Whearty paints mostly still life from observation and preliminary sketches. Occasionally she takes photos of things which serve in her painting process as cues to spark a sense of memory rather than a source for likeness. She builds her compositions with a collage-like construction, adding and removing objects from both the paintings and the still life set ups. She loves the process of fitting things into the grid of the canvas, playing between representing objects and maintaining a close sense of the flat painted surface. “Color for me is expressive, connects to memory and play in the studio. In using repeated objects, the excitement in experimentation comes from how an object is painted, from their color to their expression and what I can get paint to do,” she says.

You paint in oil (on canvas), watercolor (on Yupo), and color pencil (on watercolor paper). It is interesting to observe how your visual expression and mark making changes across these media. Can you share your process using each of these, how does the material impact your process, and how do you think your process differs across media?

Most of what I do in drawing—watercolor & colored pencil—is intended to support or create plans for paintings of oil on canvas. For all mediums it’s important for me to be able to draw in color, so I can think through my painting process while drawing or brainstorming. I try to have a symbiotic relationship between myself and the materials that I’m using, as I am always striving for a sense of economy of mark or shape, and a feeling of directness in my application of any media. For example, I love it when a brush stroke performs multiple tasks without being too contrived or labored. It could simultaneously be perceived as a line, an image or object, an aspect of volume, or material that draws the viewer to the surface of the painting rather than an illusion. This very reason is why I’ve always been obsessed with Monet’s Waterlilies—they have this beautiful slippage between abstraction and image that is so important to experience in person—the image comes together and falls apart across different distances from the canvas. Amy Sillman and Cecily Brown are great examples of getting their strokes to do so much at once.

Colored pencil is a direct and economic media because you can take a color and quickly make a mark in that color. I think of each line as I do a brush stroke, which can define an image’s pattern, silhouette, or create a screen of texture. It is a great medium for brainstorming processes, color combinations, and it helps me get compositional ideas out fast. It can be notational and experimental, or the process can be slowed down with soft layers of color to mimic a comparison to glazing layers of color in oil painting. Colored pencil helps me think about ways in which I can use optical mixing in painting— where different kinds of patterns of marks and color add up to different affects that can create surface or spatial interest or refer to a kind of light quality within the painting.

Watercolor on Yupo paper (which is a sheet of plastic), is a practice I go to when I want the painting to feel essential, unfussy, like I got it right on the first try. I frequently work from observation at home or on site, and it’s a much slower process. Watercolor can drip, pool, or misbehave in ways that the other mediums do not, especially on a non-absorbent surface. This keeps me on my toes and gives me a chance to consider new ways of approaching the order or process of making a painting. On the plastic paper I am able to push watercolors around and use a paper towel to remove material much like I do with my oil on canvas under paintings. I use an oil ground, so the surface is slick and feels like your brush is skating over the surface in a very similar way.

In Oils, like the other mediums, I am striving for a sense of ease, immediacy, and economy of mark and form. I love the luminosity and rich color that oil paint can achieve, as well as its wide variety of application options. I typically work from thin washy layers in underpaintings up to thicker more opaque layers, and sections of “wet-into-wet” painting. The influence and balance between the often linear way I work with colored pencil and the more shape-based process of working with watercolor helps me make a rich surface in the paintings that balances those formal elements of color, texture, line, and shape.

I think my process differs across mediums because of the ways in which I pay attention to each material’s specificity. There are helpful elements about both watercolor and colored pencil that feed into my painting process, giving me new ideas, and that sense of freedom to experiment, since drawings are less expensive, and mine are usually pretty small like 8 x 10 or 5 x 7”. Sometimes those drawings in either medium become preliminary studies for larger works, and sometimes they really feel like their own finished work rather than a study.

Dining Table, Oil on Linen, 2020, 40” x 46”

Still Life with Vase & Books, Watercolor on Yupo, 7″ x 5” 2021

Still Life with Kurt’s Mug, Colored Pencil on Watercolor Paper, 8” x 6”, 2020

Lets start with your recent oil paintings. I see images of tables packed with take outs, notebooks, books, laptop and tablets with images of your paintings, paints, palette knives. It looks like portraits of domestic life during the pandemic closure. I am drawn to Studio Classroom View, for example. Tell me about this painting – how it started, your process of making it, how much is it based on observation / photo/memory, and your choice of composition and color.

Classroom View was made during the pandemic. I was thinking about how most people were working, eating, and living in the same singular spaces, which has been a real challenge for myself as an artist and educator. The table and domestic spaces have been performing the tasks of so many areas of life—eating, teaching, office work, socializing, visiting family, drawing. It can be such a mess to perform all these tasks in one place. The ways in which the subject of the table is historically presented has a lot to do with the implied or represented gender of the subject of the painting. There are interesting histories in the genre of still life painting where a messy table featuring a man or the evidence of male

labor (work outside of the domestic realm – the exterior) becomes the scene of a chaotic genius, a narrative of struggle and triumph, or a moment of epiphany. In contrast, the domestic space is historically represented as a more female space when it’s narrative focuses on its day-to-day activities, interiority, neatness and house work.

Classroom View focuses on my studio space. As an adjunct at multiple schools, it’s been a real whirlwind to teach online, I know most adjuncts are very used to thinking on our toes and mining our creativity for a last minute class, learning new technologies for each school, and shifting plans at short notice. This ability to adapt is great but having to make this shift has been stressful, time consuming, invasive, hectic, and not ideal for learning about hands-on studio stuff. The perspective of this painting is my own—the students, or whoever is on zoom can’t see what is behind my computer and camera, they see a neat space and clean wall (let alone all of the windows up on my screen!). The painting reveals the invisible labor of changing plans, switching from one class to the next, eating lunch, and trying to get my own work done is evidenced in the piles surrounding the computer.

Before the pandemic began, I was pushing the still life out of the studio so I could expand on the narratives and context of the objects, like a phone lighting up and ringing on my nightstand, or a tangled hose in a neglected yard. The pandemic has really enhanced the way these internal elements of life can manifest in a visual way and with a real physical presence. We all juggle so many aspects of life on a regular basis and I think this pandemic experience has created a physical version of what so many of us internalize. This narrative also extends to the compression of our public and private spaces, whether that is our co-workers zooming in our living rooms or thinking about how social media asks us to show a sense of presentability as we strive for an ideal looking life. I’m interested in the messy parts, the ways in which reality seeps in.

Classroom View, Oil on Linen, 60” x 70”, 2020

It seems to me that your focus shifted at some point in 2017 from depicting human representation in the image–hands, feet, face along with an object–to depicting the objects exclusively. So for instance, if in your Ben Burger (2015) we see man and burger in equal parts, in Picnic (2020) or Thanksgiving 2020, the meals take the whole stage. What do you think about this observation and if it makes sense to you, what do you think brought you there?

That’s exactly what’s happened, I’m glad you noticed this transition. Comparing these very different bodies of work points to one thing that is consistent about them, a sense of first- person perspective. I’m always the observer of the subject, even if it is imagining my own foot in a way that would be physically impossible. Paying close attention to something with direct observation, and the creativity that happens between the subject, artist, and painting, have always been priorities in my painting. I’m interested in the paintings creating a sense of totality —an embodiment of my experience that is documented through touches and colors. More and more the paintings reflect my perspective in regards to my particular height as I look at things, the colors and scenarios that stick out in my memory, and how a certain kind of flatness and cropping feels my own in representation.

The series that includes the figurative fragments are constructed from memories, imagined scenarios that used memory as a jumping off point, and a sort of cropped “impossible” viewpoint. I would draw a lot to collage these images and imagined scenarios that extend from real memories, and then paint from those drawings. This was the first body of work where I felt like I really found my sense of scale. Cropping images and forms allowed me to refer to the moment of the memory—which I think has a lot to do with how we capture moments with our phones even though I don’t use photos I am sure the way in which we all capture memories photographically is embedded in the ways that I may compose or hone in on a moment or subject. In these paintings the slice of time that didn’t have a before or after, which would engage my imagination to consider what the next scenario or moment could be.

My mom had a long-term illness and passed away during the time of this noticeable shift in my work. It didn’t feel like a truthful narrative to be playing with these silly “what-ifs” at the time. My paintings frequently have a sense of humor about them, and in that period of mourning I really didn’t feel like that attitude or approach was accessible to me. I felt like in order to keep going I had to work with what was in front of me, because I had to just keep moving. It felt restrictive to have to make a lot of sketches before knowing what I wanted to do, at the time I just had to be able to come into the studio and paint.

What do you think helped you to keep this momentum?

The objects that I began collecting in the studio, and including in my paintings were personal objects of every-day use, but also kitschy and sentimental things. For example, the “I <3 my Mom” mug is something found in every basement or kitchen cabinet—it is ubiquitous and silly. But when I spend time observing and painting an image of that mug it changes and maybe becomes a stand in or meditation on a person who is not there. This approach asks the viewer to hold space for that balance or contrast between the sincere or sentimental and the generic mass made item. Meaning or awareness can change depending on what you pay attention to, or what in your own experience makes you more sensitive to those details.

The stuff of our contemporary world makes our experience different from any previous generation, it can be joyful, wasteful, inconsiderate, and beneficial. I’m using still life as a genre, and the stuff of life to record and express my own experience. I started in undergrad by making paintings of grocery store and toy store aisles, displays of greeting cards, and junk food. I like that familiar objects can become access points in paintings, and that the painting not try to feel classical or timeless. I really came to painting and art by wondering what could belong in it—maybe as a question of whether I could belong too, as a female, and as someone who hadn’t even been to an art museum before her freshmen year at art school. I remember a professor, Ed Valentine, at The Ohio State University, where I got my MFA, asking me want I wanted to paint, and I said, “Everything!”, and that’s still true, I want that kind of freedom.

I also love the history of painting, having access to museums, galleries, and art history represents a real sense of empowerment for me. It’s been amazing to see all of the ways art history is being opened up again from the book “9th Street Women”, to exhibitions of artists like Hilma Af Klint and Berthe Morisot— It is exciting to see how women have been making painting all along despite how they’ve been written out of history and textbooks. The history of painting isn’t a static past, it’s a lively present that is there for me to engage with, to interpret, to experience in person, and for me to be in conversation with as I figure out painting for myself.

Night Call, Oil on Linen, 21” x 24”, 2019

You have recently been to the Golden Foundation residency. What would you like to share about your experience and work there?

Where to begin! What a magical and inspiring place. The entire residency is founded on a generous platform that emphasizes support, education, and collaboration and sharing of information. Outside of a series of technical workshops, spread out mostly over the first two weeks, you have the time and space to try just about any product from Golden Acrylics, Williamsburg Oils, and Qor Watercolors. You also have access to individual guidance and advice from the lab and from any number of paint experts if or when you need it. The ability to just open 15 different jars of medium to make swatches to see how they differ texturally or as a ground would be so costly to execute on my own. Removing any of those material, financial, and time-based barriers to making work is so freeing, and resulted in the most productive and experimental 4 weeks of my artistic life so far.

I tried to give myself a blank slate regarding my subject matter. Residencies are always so helpful in simply changing your environment, and so I didn’t bring any still life objects that I had used in the past. I brought a few things I hadn’t used before and I mostly allowed myself to respond to the stuff in the building, the landscape, and the formal painterly elements that I wanted to focus on (color relationships, observed and invented patterns, and new kinds of mark making). I started a painting almost every day and made about 50 monoprints with both OPEN acrylics and QoR Watercolors—something I would have had to buy full sets of paint to try at home. The amount of information I learned there, and the number of things that I had the opportunity to try will keep informing my work, and my teaching, for years to come.

Still Life with Daisies & Peonies, Oil on Canvas, 21” x 24”, 2021

You have also been co-directing at OrtegaY Gasset Projects as well as curating shows. What would you like to share about that side of your practice, what brought you there, and how does it relate to your art making?

I see my work at Ortega y Gasset Projects as an extension of my painting practice. Before being invited to join OyG in 2017, I was curating shows and using clever means to raise money for projects on my own and whenever possible. Philadelphia, where I live, is a very DIY town and the art energy here has always inspired me to make things happen where I am, and that you don’t always need a lot of funding to execute a great show, and get your community together. Ortega y Gasset Projects has been organized to have approximately half of the co-directors on the ground in NY and half of us outside of the city, as a way to keep creative conversations going, and to keep us from becoming too insular— it is our mission to support underrepresented artists and the diversity of our co-directors helps us make diverse programming. It’s been a great fit to be a part of Ortega y Gasset Projects and have this platform from which to support artists and their projects, and to share my voice in the process.

Sometimes my curatorial projects correspond directly to what I’m thinking about in my studio—like a group show I put together called Frame Work, where I was thinking about paintings as windows, the surface as an illusionistic space, mental space, and material space that transcends reality. My last show was about work extremely different from my own—Ghost Stories, where I realized I was a unique connection between two artists whose work I always wanted to see together, and I had the great privilege of making that happen. I also really enjoy co-curating exhibitions with other OyG co-directors, I get to learn about new artists or make new connections between things or work that I hadn’t considered before. Curating exhibitions gives me the opportunity to formalize my thoughts by putting them into words, and into conversation with artists, which all lead to a deeper dive into subjects with artists who I am interested in and want to support.

Ortega y Gasset Projects is a group of 9 Co-Directors that really value this service of supporting artists. We all have jobs and are artists ourselves, so the work we do for OyG on top of all of that is a labor of love. I am constantly learning from the co-directors and artists involved in our projects, so it really gives as much, if not more, than we all put into it.

What are you working on in your studio these days?

At this point I’ve just gotten back from the residency and have been cleaning my studio. Getting to work in a clean fresh space has inspired me to reorganize some things, especially after my studio was also my classroom for a year and a half, so I’m giving myself another fresh start. I enjoyed working with new subjects, colors, and patterns so I am going to continue to refresh my still life objects, textiles, and really revel in that brainstorming phase for the next group of paintings. I’m excited to continue the trajectory and energy of work that I began at Golden, and I’m excited to share this work in person.

Still Life with Books and Peonies, Oil on Canvas, 21” x 24”, 2021

All photo courtesy of John Carlano unless otherwise indicated

Lauren Whearty is a Philadelphia based painter, curator, & educator. Her observational paintings focus on personal experience, memory, the sentimental, and a sense of play. Lauren has been a Co-Director at Ortega y Gasset Projects, an artist run curatorial collective in Brooklyn, NY since 2017.

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: