Patricia Spergel – On the Verge of Recognition

Patricia Spergel, Sita Ram, 2018, oil on canvas, 18” x 24”, photo courtesy of Tim Grajek

Patricia Spergel‘s vibrant oil paintings interrelate gesture, color, and form, to create imaginative spaces that are on the verge of being recognized – both playful and incisive, lightweight and massive. Patricia Spergel shares with Art Spiel her approach to color, how printmaking informs her painting, and her painting process.

AS: What do you think brought you to art?

Patricia Spergel: I grew up in a middle-class area of Philadelphia and was lucky enough to have had an excellent art program at my public high school. I also took courses at a local art center (initially at the encouragement of my next door neighbor) from kindergarten through my senior year where I learned about printmaking, which in turn became my major in college. My mother enjoyed going to museum exhibitions and passed that passion on to me. I have vivid early memories of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and especially the Brancusis and the Duchamps in the Arensberg collection.

AS: You are painting non-representational images. How do you see your work in context of contemporary abstract painting?

Patricia Spergel: Although I have flirted with painting landscapes and still lifes over the years, I always come back to abstraction; painting non-objectively continues to challenge and excite me. It allows me to draw from my personal experiences, while keeping my focus on the formal qualities of paint. Abstract forms hover on the verge of becoming recognizable, tangible objects. There are shapes and forms that I’ve been repeating in my work for decades and some that are recent additions.

In my 30s, I was experiencing infertility and in hindsight I can now see that many of the paintings from that time were addressing female reproduction. They were populated with clear uterus and vessel shapes. These shapes continue to populate my paintings, in various degrees. Often the “subject” of the work only becomes clear after a body of work is completed. I’m working with shapes, lines and color, and above all, light. I’m interested in the paintings having enough specificity to evoke in the viewer a certain feeling or memory that might not be immediately within grasp; but I don’t want things to be so obvious that the shapes are representing actual objects. It’s the interactions of the shapes – the way they repel and attract each other – combined with the linear elements, that continue to hold my interest.

Patricia Spergel, Studio wall with painting in progress, July 2018, photo by artist

AS: How do you start a painting? Let’s take for example “Diving” from 2018 (idea, process).

Patricia Spergel: I usually begin by getting rid of the glaring white gesso layer by quickly painting a solid color over the canvas. I then play around- putting down shapes, wiping them away with a cloth rag, and then repainting. In “Diving”, I continued playing with scraping some dark areas and using a newly discovered favorite paint – Gamblin Iridescent Pewter. This color has been helping me to make some mysterious grays which can change value depending on the viewer’s position, but (I hope) aren’t making the paintings hokey. It’s sort of an improvisational dance with the colors and lines until I intuitively know when to stop. In this painting I wanted to impart a sense of humor – the spiky “hair” sticking up on the pale green-gray shape on the lower left side offsets the dark sink hole in the center. Wisps of under-painted bright color peak through.

Patricia Spergel, Diving, 2018, oil on canvas, 16” x 20”, photo courtesy of Tim Grajek

AS: You divide your work by years, not by series. Do you work in series?

Patricia Spergel: I always have multiple paintings and drawings going in my studio at the same time. I would say that I usually have about 4 or 5 canvases on my walls in varying states of completion. I also learned early on (when artists had to label slides) that titling work in series made life easier and more organized.

AS: In a recent review on your 2017 exhibition in Ohio Tom Wachunas describe your work in ARTWACH as “an ardent commitment to slowing down long enough to let paint be paint as her imagery emerged through time. But it’s not an illustrative imagery of a static world.” What is your take on that?

Patricia Spergel: I am interested in the associative qualities of oil paint on canvas or printing ink on paper. There is a magical transformation that occurs in the midst of a good painting session – a portal into a calmer and more meditative space, not unlike the sense of concentrated awareness of one’s body in space and time that one attains after years of yoga practice. We are constantly bombarded with images on social media, on television and in print ads that demand rapid digestion. I want my paintings to slow the viewer down – to help them find a moment of contemplation and beauty in our frenetic society. So yes, I’m really pleased that he made that observation; I do want the viewer to stop, examine it, breathe it in.

AS: You have an interesting use of the color Black throughout your work – it appears as a void in “Dissent/Descent” as a contour in “Sita Ram” or as a whimsical calligraphic doodle in “Little Creatures.” Can you elaborate?

Patricia Spergel: I’m glad you asked that question. I had arbitrarily taken black off my painting palette around 1990 in graduate school. At the time I prided myself on being able to make a beautiful, dark, “almost black” color by mixing Alizarin Crimson and Pthalo Green with a bit of Payne’s Gray. I continued not using any true black paint for decades in my paintings, though in my works on paper I used black charcoal and or pastel and ink.

I also went back to doing some printmaking in 2000 at the Center for Contemporary Printmaking in Norwalk and with my etchings and monoprints I used a lot of luscious black. I had been a printmaking (intaglio) major at Cornell University, but I took a long break and focused only on painting for a while as I did not have press access. Then in the summer of 2014 I was invited by artist, educator and curator Patricia Miranda to participate in a project using oak galls to create collaborative works. We began by making ink out of oak galls, which are essentially empty wasp nests, and then working back and forth with another artist to make drawings. As my younger child was leaving that fall for college, I was particularly struck by the idea of creating art associated with “empty nests”. The upshot from this project was that I added black back into my painting palette, and I continue to be excited by the results.

Patricia Spergel, Little Creatures, 2018, oil on canvas, 15” x 18”, photo courtesy of Tim Grajek
Patricia Spergel, Dissent/Descent, 2018, oil on canvas, 30” x 38”, photo courtesy of Tim Grajek

AS: What is your approach to color overall – how do you choose which palette you are using?

Patricia Spergel: I’ve been setting up my painting palette in a similar manner for decades, though I often add new colors which temporarily infatuate me. I have a very large and very old glass palette; greens, blues and purples go down the right side, yellows, oranges and reds go down the left and neutrals at the top. I use a lot of Williamsburg Unbleached Titanium and Titan Buff as neutrals; I also mix with a lot of white and now, as I discuss above, I have added black back to my palette.

I often paint the first layer with a bright jewel like color and I then paint over it, but often pull away layers to reveal blips and edges of the bright color underneath. I think it was inevitable that post 2016 my palette predictably became somewhat more somber. I also notice that despite what is happening in the world, I gravitate towards Cinnabar Green and Quinacridone Red mixed with a lot of white in the spring. It doesn’t always stay front and center, but it’s often hiding underneath. I also like mixing colors that one would be hard pressed to actually name. Tertiary grey-greens, brownish – blues. Mixing colors is one of the things I love most about painting.

Patricia Spergel, Nutibara Hill 2, 2019 oil on canvas, 20” x 24”, photo by artist
Patricia Spergel, Pinebrook Series 3, 2019, oil on linen, 11” x 14”, photo by artist

AS: You placed some drawings from 2014 and some monotypes from 2017 on your website. What is the role of drawing and printmaking in your work?

Patricia Spergel: As I mentioned, I was a printmaking major in college and I believe that I still approach painting like an etcher. I put paint on and I scrape it off. I use my palette knife to scratch out lines like one does on a copper plate. I try to do a series of monotypes every year or so. I find that working in a different setting, usually with other people around, helps me get ideas out more quickly than in my studio. I used to feel that my monotypes were a few years ahead of what was going on with my paintings, but now I feel like they inform each other in equal parts.

As for drawing, I have a table in my studio that I set aside with acrylic paint, ink and pastels. When I am stuck on the canvases, I will spend some time working through ideas on paper. I don’t make preparatory drawings for the paintings, rather I will often look at the paintings and draw from them. Getting out ideas quickly on paper can help me get to the next place with the larger paintings.

AS: Would you like to share briefly what you are working on now in your studio?

Patricia Spergel: I recently did a series of small paintings (Pinebrook Series) which had more linear elements in them and I am currently trying to translate these ideas into larger canvases. I want to have enough space in them that one could imagine entering them and wandering through.

Patricia Spergel, January 2017 at The Painting Center