Rachael Wren – Shimmers and Hums

Rachael Wren, Defenders, 2017, oil on linen, 48 x 48 inches. Photo by Bill Orcutt

Rachael Wren’s delicate paintings pulsate with repetitive brush strokes that both allure you to look closely at the elaborate geometric surfaces and at the same time pull you into mysterious psychological interiors or perhaps cosmic fields. Her grid structure serves as an anchor for the paint /space- anchoring facilitates a greater freedom of movement and flow within. The artist shares with Art Spiel her ideas on color, painting, and studio process.

AS: Tell me a bit about what brought you to your recent body of work, described by Sarah Allen Eagen in a recent SciART magazine article as landscapes made with “precise and technical method that incorporates geometry and pointillism.”

Rachael Wren: My current work combines elements of landscape and geometric abstraction. I have always been drawn to nature as a source for my work, and when I was learning to paint, I spent a lot of time working outside, directly from the landscape. As time went on, I realized that I was more interested in capturing a sense of light and atmosphere related to the natural world, rather than depicting an actual location – that brought me back into the studio. The geometric part of the work comes from my interest in structure – I think of a painting like a building, it must have a strong underlying framework in order to stand. The geometry holds up and gives form to the atmospheric space. I love the challenge of bringing these two seemingly opposite ways of thinking together. I’m constantly shifting the balance between them, leaning more towards one or the other in different bodies of work. There was a time about 7 or 8 years ago that the landscape elements in the paintings disappeared almost completely, and the geometry was dominant. While those paintings were interesting to work on, I ultimately realized that for me they were missing an emotional connection to something outside of themselves. Bringing back a sense of landscape space, and trying to integrate it with what I had learned about geometric abstraction, resonated with me on every level – it felt like a way of weaving together the intellectual and emotional, mind and heart.

Rachael Wren, Defenders, detail. Photo by Bill Orcutt

AS: You say you are intrigued by moments in nature “when air has a tangible presence, almost becoming visible – fog playing between tree branches, light peeking through clouds, the darkening sky before a thunderstorm.” These are all fleeting moments – temporal, aethereal, ephemeral and you are seizing them with your small repetitive brush marks. How important is the process of repetition in your work?

Rachael Wren: I build up my paintings out of many layers of small, repeating brush marks. Each one is a solid color and together their color interactions create a visual vibration, where the atmosphere shimmers and hums quietly. I like the idea of bringing together these small pieces with crisp and defined edges, to create a sense of misty or blurry atmosphere. Through accumulation, the solid marks are transformed into an ephemeral space. Within the repetition, though, there is also randomness. While the size and shape of the marks is consistent, their position is haphazard and intuitive – they are not located in the same place in each square of the grid. There are no repeating patterns to be found. This interplay between the systematic and the irregular echoes a similar balance in the natural world. Not only do order and randomness work side by side in nature, but their very coexistence is the catalyst for growth and newness.

Rachael Wren, Backstory, 2016, oil on linen, 36 x 36 inches. Photo by Bill Orcutt
Rachael Wren, Lost & Found, 2017, oil on linen, 36 x 36 inches. Photo by Bill Orcutt

AS: Do you think there is an element of ritual in the repetition / proliferation?

Rachael Wren: I don’t think of it that way because to me ritual is something that is always repeated in the same way, whereas when I’m painting, I’m constantly thinking about new ways of putting things together. When I get to a point that the repetition begins to feel rote, it’s time for a change. Usually, there are too many elements to keep in mind for me to sink into an automatic way of making. I have to be aware of how each new mark that I put down interacts with its surroundings and stay alert to unexpected relationships that may arise. My mindset is usually one of searching, where I am open to new discoveries that can happen through the painting process.

AS: Your abstracted paintings are dense and atmospheric – even sublime. They also give me a sense of a constant search for harmony, which entails a duality between chaos and order. As you eloquently say, the individual marks hovering between the grid lines suggests “the universal duality between structure and randomness.” Your use of the grid as a sort of anchor (albeit broken at times) seems to play a central role. Can you elaborate on that?

Rachael Wren: I think of the grid as a scaffolding to hang the space on. It keeps the air in the painting anchored so that it doesn’t float away. The stronger the structure, the more freedom the color and atmosphere have to play within it. When I stopped painting from observation, the grid made sense to me as a starting point. Instead of creating a composition by imposing order from a source outside of the painting, I looked to the internal geometry of the canvas and began to build from there. It turned out to be a limitation that opened up into endless possibilities. The grids change from painting to painting – some are square, some rectangular, and they contain varying numbers of divisions. They are broken at times, as you mention, because as I paint, the marks cover up the lines. I usually paint the grid lines back in three or four times in the course of making a painting and I try to end where some of it is visible and some is concealed, so that it feels integrated into the brush marks, rather than on top of them.

Rachael Wren, Elegy, 2017, oil on linen, 24 x 24 inches. Photo by Bill Orcutt
Rachael Wren, Untitled Drawing, 2018, ink and pencil on paper, 12 x 12 inches. Phhoto by the artist

AS: The grid has been prominent in abstraction since early on. Can you talk about your use of the grid in some art historical context?

Rachael Wren: I relate most to artists who incorporate some sense of softness within their use of the grid, rather than to hard-edged minimalism. Agnes Martin and Jake Berthot are my two most important examples of this. Agnes Martin’s paintings are full of mystery and magic for me – with the most minimal means she created surfaces that breathe and that are imbued with energy. Jake Berthot’s later paintings and drawings weave together geometry and landscape, conveying both strength and tenderness at the same time. When I stand in front of the work of both of these artists, I experience a physical sensation where my body quiets down and I breathe deeper. The sense of slow time and quiet presence embedded in their paintings is something I strive for in my own work.

AS: You work both on paper and on linen. Is there a difference in your approach to these different surfaces?

Rachael Wren: Yes, definitely. Though it also has to do with size differences and the materials I’m using with each surface. My paintings on linen are usually in the 3 or 4 foot range and the works on paper are typically 16 inches or smaller. The paintings are made with oils and in the drawings I use ink and pencil. For me, the biggest difference between the two is the opacity of the oil paint versus the transparency of the ink. This leads to different kinds of layering, and in turn, different ways of creating light in a piece. In the paintings, the light materializes through color interactions, whereas in the drawings, the white of the paper imparts the luminosity.

AS: Tell me about your process.

Rachael Wren: I start by doing a lot of quick, diagrammatic sketches to determine the structure for a painting. This includes the number of divisions in the grid, and the placement and density of the verticals in the space. Sometimes these compositional decisions change as I’m working on the larger scale of the canvas, though usually towards the beginning of making the painting. Color works very differently – I don’t plan out my color in advance; it develops layer by layer through the process of painting, and often changes dramatically from the initial impulse to the finished piece. I generally have several paintings in progress at the same time, so that when one is too wet to work on or I’m not sure what to do to it, I have others to turn to. They inform each other and they tend to get resolved together, so they do become a series of sorts.

AS: Let’s look at “Collage 3“ from 2018. How did you start it and what was your process?

Rachael Wren: I started making collages last year as a new way to explore color relationships. I was working on some paintings that I felt stuck with, so I used their compositions and overall color schemes as a basis for the collages. They are made with colored paper that is sometimes toned darker or lighter with ink. In “Collage 3”, I started with three background colors, from light at the top to dark at the bottom. Then I started putting down smaller bits of paper for the “trees” and the space, working from bigger pieces in the bottom layers to smaller ones on top, which is different from the paintings where I’m always using small marks. I find that turning to a different material forces me to think in new ways, and some of the discoveries that I’ve made in the collages are now informing the paintings currently in progress in my studio.

Rachael Wren, Collage 3, 2018, collage (colored paper), 16 x 16 inches. Photo by the artist

AS: Color evidently is key. What is your approach to color?

Rachael Wren: Yes, color is my favorite part of painting! I spend as much time mixing colors on my palette as I do applying paint on the canvas. It is also the most intuitive aspect of painting for me. I usually start a painting with a memory of a color relationship that I’ve observed in nature. Sometimes, this initial idea remains as a source that I keep thinking back to throughout the entire time I’m making the painting, and other times it’s only a starting point and the painting takes off in another direction. I never know which way it will go or what all the layers of color will be when I start. I can’t envision the whole painting in advance – I can only respond to what is already on the canvas and decide on each layer of color in relation to the one before.

AS: Where do you see your work going from here in terms of thought process and studio work?

Rachael Wren: It’s an exciting time in my studio. I have about ten new paintings in progress, three of which are 6 x 6 feet, the largest I have ever worked on. I’m exploring using some looser marks and paring down the number of layers in each painting. I can feel that things are changing in the work, and I’m in that liminal place between knowing and not-knowing. I can’t yet see what the next body of work will look like, but I know enough to take the next step each time I’m in my studio. I’m following the work where it leads me.

Rachael Wren in her studio. Photo by Tamara Staples