Paige Beeber – on Phantom Thread

In conversation

By Amanda Millet-Sorsa

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Paige Beeber. Photo credit: Sharon Kendrick

Prior to her exhibition, Phantom Thread at Freight+Volume, Paige Beeber spoke with Amanda Millet-Sorsa at the artist’s studio in Brooklyn. Nestled into a Cube Smart storage space building in Gowanus on the edge of Red Hook, the studio is part of TI Studios. Beeber’s long family roots in Brooklyn date back to the early 1900s, as she continues to live and work in this borough. Her new work evolved from experiences she had at residencies in 2022 (DNA Residency in Provincetown, SARP in Sicily, and recently completed her fellowship at The Helene Wurlitzer Foundation). Her work exists between narration, figuration, and abstraction and largely uses the repurposing of her own past paintings that transform into new patterns, motifs, and imagery in new paintings. Ritual and community play an essential role in the stitching of new narratives.

After spending time in these residencies in vastly different locations, how do you think the landscapes of Provincetown, New Mexico or here in Brooklyn manifest in your work? I’m drawn to these multicolored spray paint lines that evoke urban movement in And With This Spear I Slayed This Bear (2022). They’re evoking lights that flicker and blur.

Many colors are often influenced by my places of stay and the creatives I am working around, although they feel like they’re still part of my work’s narrative.  In New York, my paintings have an immediacy; they’re loud and punchy. The paintings I made at The Helene Wurlitzer in Taos, NM, were slower-paced and more delicate. I love returning to NY with studies and observations; broadening my horizons outside of NYC is very important as I’ve been here my whole life.

What were some discoveries made during that time? Could you give an example of what came to you in New Mexico since it was your most recent residency?

The newest edition is the upcycling of old work being cut up and weaved into the work. From 2018 to 2019, I took a hiatus from painting and spent much time creating drawings and collages. Without this period, I would not have come to this new body of work for Phantom Thread. For us to reach conclusions and move forward, cutting away and removing ourselves from a situation can help us move forward. That’s when I began to think about this almost “burial” ritual of cutting the works. 

I shipped my entire studio to New Mexico, including seven boxes of old paintings. I felt as if something was holding me back from disposing of old work and ‘failed paintings,’ and I wanted to pay tribute to a time and place where I was with these works as some of them have played their part, and I think they genuinely are the thread that ties the works together. It was a very cathartic experience! So many ideas race through your mind when looking at old works; where you were in that moment, what studio you were in, how many roommates you were living with running back and forth to the studio, and the people in your life in those moments, so it felt only natural inviting friends to join me and participate in the ritual of cutting the works. The cutting became a social sculpture when I asked friends to cut the paintings. When we think of rituals in our history, those burial experiences are done with the community.

Why do you choose to upcycle old work as part of your materials?

I was raised in a Jewish household and went to Hebrew School. We were taught at a young age about various burial/kashering rituals, and it was drilled into our psyche that you never write the word g-d without the ‘-‘ as it is believed it is a word that shouldn’t ever be erased. I was quite proactive about environmental issues at a young age that I started a petition in the first grade for food in school to be wrapped in brown bags and not plastic; they began serving bagels in brown paper bags after that. I think these beliefs made it difficult to dispose of old works; I wanted to create my ritual of honoring the works, and that’s when I began cutting meticulously into the paintings.  

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Non-Moving Violation, 2021-2022, Acrylic, oil, and collage on canvas, 71h x 65w in. Photo Credit: Adam Reich

In the paint materials that you use, there is both acrylic and oil on the same support, how did the decision to combine the two come together?

I think it’s about pace and time. Acrylic is the beginning foundation for many paintings, and it often wrestles with subconscious decisions and adds layers at a quicker pace. Acrylic and oil paint bring on two different kinds of meditations in painting that are both equal in value to me.

What kind of meditation?

My paintings change quite often, as the painting unfolds. Oil is slow and creates a more thoughtful process; you can think about a part of a painting and can still manipulate it days after application. Acrylic is a state of more exploration and allows me to build-up the painting quite quickly, but you could also argue that there is so much flexibility in oil paint, and I’ve been leaning toward way more oil paint recently.

Was there something different about this recent cutting process and what did it reveal?

Though I had always been cutting work, I never cut them into such delicate slivers before. I felt that this delicate process related to my personal ritual, but also to what I learned in a restoration class regarding the process of Rigatino or Tratteggio in Sicily at the art residency, SARP. It’s a method to retouch and restore old paintings; it’s quite a tedious process. You essentially want to be left with only pure pigment on a brush to make the thinnest paint mark on the painting.

This technique is how the cut strips were applied?

In the grey areas of Phantom Thread, I didn’t want the strips to be perfect either, unlike the process of Rigatino which requires multiple layers all coinciding next to each other perfectly. I love the illusion of the checkerboard coming through because the cut out painting strips are not perfect nor perfectly aligned.

We see different patterns in all of the works. I love this effect in the grey and the gradations of the grey, those infinite cuts are sensual. The very thin strips that repeats themselves in cross hatches like a grid, we now know are made with the Rigatino method, but even those works with less recognizable patterns still have a repetitive motif. Could you speak a bit more about your relationship to patterns and motifs and what they do for you in your work?

A lot of the paintings is inspired by traditional/universal patterns that refer to women’s work. In the paintings, Mother Me, Mother Me (2022) and And With This Spear I Slayed This Bear (2022), I wanted to amplify the small marks that connect our clothing together and create this larger than life narrative of tedious labor that we rarely consider and is what is holding us together. In many of my paintings, the marks are from tools that I make out of everyday household objects.

And With This Spear I Slayed This Bear, 2022, acrylic and oil on canvas, 57h x 56.50w in. Photo Credit: Adam Reich

Different domestic cleaning tools? What are some examples of these tools?

I will use mops and squeegees that I then will possibly cut up or carve into.

You mentioned the stitching as something that ties things together. It creates new forms and new patterns, gives strength to something…

Especially with And With This Spear I Slayed Their Bear (2022), a line from The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, by Ursula K. Le Guin—she believes that the first tool created by Homo Sapiens was not a spear, but a receptacle: “Before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool that brings energy home.” It’s a narrative that rings true to our current climate and how perhaps our narratives should emphasize the importance of unity and collaboration, rather than individualism and competition.

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Secret Ceremonials I, 2022, Acrylic and linen collage on canvas, 55h x 47w in. Photo Credit: Adam Reich

I like this one Secret Ceremonials I (2022) it has an interesting balance between something that feels like a monumental rock or a carrier bag, something natural, it has a protective quality and then these stitches come from an urban language because of the presence of the spray paint and these colors remind us of primal colors that we would see in advertisements. Are there particular texts aside from the poem that are meaningful to you in the work?

I love Rebecca Solnit’s writing, I was reading her book, Whose Story is This? that ties back to Ursula K. Le Guin. I recently finished The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin; audiobooks are a lifesaver when painting. He describes how an NBA coach on his first day as coach gathered together the team and the first thing he wanted to teach the team was how to tie their shoes, and that story really stuck with me. There are some fundamentals we don’t think about day to day and if you don’t have those prepared you can trip and fall.

What would be one of those fundamentals for you?

Artist have two types of clothes; ones with paint and ones without. Always wear your painting clothes to the studio.

Freight + Volume Phantom Thread 39 Lispenard St. May 5 – June 3, 2023

About the writer: Amanda Millet-Sorsa is an artist interested in the transparency and the luminosity of oil painting, who has also experimented collaboratively with performers in dance and theatre. She is a contributor to The Brooklyn Rail and a member of AICA (International Association of Art Critics), participating actively in the NY arts community by writing art exhibition reviews and artist interviews. As of 2022, she partakes in the curatorial team at Below Grand gallery in the Lower East Side She holds an M.F.A from the New York Studio School and B.A. from Brandeis University.