Postcard, A Conversation with Isca Greenfield-Sanders


Lauri Firstenberg: What was the impetus for your painting practice in terms of turning to American vintage family photographs as your source for subject matter?

Isca Greenfield Sanders: You know, I saw something terribly lyrical in those family snapshots. Instead of simply depicting one family’s vacations they summoned a collective memory. Although I knew some of the character’s names (the slides were labeled) the images weren’t specific. I saw a woman in a wave and it reminded me of Matisse’s Bather of 1909 as much as “Grandma Alice” on Virginia Beach, 1961.

Early in 2004, I started making a series of paintings that I loosely call “beach detail paintings”. The ten oil paintings in this show are a continuation of that series. My work up to that point had employed a one-to-one relationship with the original source material, which is to say that if the original slide depicted a boy on a horse, the painting represented a boy on a horse. The beach detail paintings are a departure in that I choose two or three slides and mine each for as much material as possible. Instead of using the entire photographic image to make one painting, I go about choosing many details from one photograph and turn each one into a painting.

I was taken by the idea that a group of paintings could all come from two or three photographs. For me this tied the paintings together in a hidden but precise way. Each painting is of a stranger on a beach, an incidental figure who was accidentally captured in the background of a photograph.

Keep in mind that the original photographs are 35mm slides, so the details that I use to make these paintings are the size of a head of a pin. It is a challenge to turn something that minute, something with so little information, into a large oil painting.

At the same time that I shifted my focus to the details of the photographs, I was thinking a lot about palette. I began to questions if my palette was my own or if it was dictated by or inherited from the photographs. My earlier paintings seemed to all use black as the darkest shadow. This spoke to photography directly.

I set out to eliminate black from the paintings, furthering my quest to take an image and pull it from the photographic realm and plant it firmly in the world of painting. My pink paintings are a direct result of this process. I started by eliminating the element of black in the work and then thought it would be a challenge to eradicate the most important color to a beach painting – the blue of the sky and the water. If I could eliminate black and blue and still make the paintings beach paintings, then I would really have something.

LF: How do you figure the computer and your hand as mediators of the original photographic image?

IGS: I have always viewed the photographic image as data, as information that should be read, interpreted and reinterpreted as I progress through each painting. The computer is my unifying device. It is the tool that I use to merge the layers of photography, watercolor, color pencil and oil paint.

LF: How do you approach or reproach nostalgia? The attitude of these paintings is ridden with notions of memory, emotionality, melancholy, Americana, race, class….Through the translation of the photographic image to the place of painting, there is a distancing effect that is spatial, temporal and material. However, artists of your generation, particularly, work that can be located in New York more precisely, address questions of nostalgia (oftentimes a pejorative in the space of contemporary art) in critical and uncritical ways. I wanted to understand your tactic…..

IGS: I suppose you might say that I use a viewer’s nostalgic response to images from the 1960s to open a discussion of found imagery, forged memories and my more painterly concerns of color and composition. I find that people approach my work with either a pleasant or tired reaction to the time period or look of the original photographs. Either way I am giving the viewer something readable and photographic to connect with, whether that relationship is loving or spiteful, I am encouraging the viewer to suspend their disbelief when first encountering my paintings. By examining someone else’s memories I am forging the nostalgia, but by putting so much handmade work into each image I am attempting to pare down the image, I am asking it to be more emotional and speak more universally than a particular remembrance.

LF: How do you see yourself entering the terrain of contemporary painting through the lens of tradition and technology, exploiting their intrinsic tensions and innate interactions?

IGS: My work fits into the contemporary notion of “hybrid” or “digital” art because my technique includes the use of a scanner, an archival printer and digital imaging software. My interests however are not exclusively tied to these devices as I equate them with my use of brushes, glue, paper, ink, color pencil, watercolor and oil paint – all of which I use to make one canvas.

LF: Can you describe the surfaces of the paintings? Would you reveal a bit more about your process?

IGS: In essence I trace a photographic image from its initial incarnation as a found object through its first embodiment as a watercolor study into its third life as layered oil painting. I use my computer to scan photographs and edit images. When I pull together an image that I am interested in, one that perhaps compositionally speaks more about painting than it does about photography, I create a small 7 inch print of it on rice paper. Next I paint with watercolor, ink and gouache right over the print turning photographic output into a watercolor study. I then make a high resolution scan of the study on the computer and enlarge it to the size of my canvas. I grid the scan into 7 inch squares and print each onto rice paper the same way that I printed the original photograph. I glue each tile of the grid onto the canvas by hand and then seal the paper to prepare for the final layer of oil paint.

My process is labor intensive and it took me more than two years to develop, but I prefer to work this way because I believe that tradition and technology need each other. My impression of digital art is that it greatly lacks a fetishized surface that concerns so many painters. Equally absent from traditional methods for me is the freshness of appearance that I find I can achieve by layering techniques through technology.

The surface of my paintings are glaze upon glaze of oil paint often painted wet on wet. I have long been attracted to the jewel-like intensity of oil paint and because of that I primarily paint with transparent pigments. I think it is important to point out that instead of painting on a gessoed or oil primed surface, I am painting on clear layers of primer, essentially a glue that seals the underlying paper prints from the oil. I apply the three layers of primer with a large coarse-bristle brush that leaves behind gestural tracks on the face of the painting. When I paint, the oil paint is caught in the grooves of the primer and a “brushstroke” emerges. This is a simulated brushstroke—it is a remnant of the process, I like that interplay. I paint the final layer of oil paint with soft brushes that leave very little evidence of touch.

LF: How do you view the a-temporality of figurative painting to date? The figure has been deconstructed, abandoned, obliterated time and again in contemporary painting. Aside from your material process, what you describe as an intersection of tradition and technology, how do you view your subject matter as pressing, urgent, reflective of contemporary concerns? It resonates largely on a level of reflection and nostalgia….

IGS: I don’t think that my subject matter can be viewed as pressing or urgent. On the contrary, I think it must be viewed as contemplative and measured which to me is contemporary. I am adopting a stranger’s memories shot before my birth and so I am forced to produce the feeling relayed in the pictures. By using a process that has a distancing effect I am attempting to reduce the specifics of the images and relay collectively held emotion.

LF: Who are the artists that inform your ideas?

IGS: Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol, Bridget Riley, Ross Bleckner, Peter Halley, Annette Lemieux, Mike and Doug Starn and my grandfather, Joop Sanders. I never met Warhol or Riley and I was very young when I went to Willem de Kooning’s studio but I am fortunate enough to have spent time getting to know the others.

I remember reading David Sylvester’s interview with De Kooning in which he says “Content is an encounter, like a flash. It’s very tiny, very tiny, content.” I thought that was an incredibly liberating statement because painting is so slow. When I finally finish a painting, sometimes I can’t remember its point of departure and that is interesting.

I subscribe to Andy Warhol’s idea of a never-ending image. I remember seeing Warhol’s “Last Supper” camouflage paintings and thinking that his obsessive study of a single image was so refreshing. I often take a single image and reproduce it into numerous color studies and sometimes multiple oil canvases. Each is a unique piece but the underlying image is repeated and reproduced time and again.

I think in some ways my work comes out of a love of reproductions. Not in a Mike Bidlo / Elaine Sturtevant fashion – but by looking at color art history text books and slides. There is something really potent and containable about this brand of reproduction.

LF: Would you differentiate the circulation and reception of your work in Europe from that in the states?

IGS: No, not really. I have had similar receptions at home as I have abroad. I have been told by many people that I have a “European sensibility.” I always thought that stemmed from my interest in refining images, paring them down both in content and in palette.

LF: How does the grid function for you in these paintings? More than a mere structuring device, a formal tactic or a technical necessity, does the grid signify on a larger art historical level, particularly in your insistence on reiterating the figure, imposing its presence onto the grid…..

IGS: The grid brings to focus the abstract sections that I find are essential to photographic painting. By presenting the image as a grid of tiles I am showing you the small abstract color field paintings within the larger figurative work. Like many artists I enjoy working with strict observance to self-imposed rules.

Isca Greenfield-Sanders is an artist based in New York. She has exhibited at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, NY, Goff and Rosenthal in New York, NY, Baldwin Gallery in Aspen, CO, Galerie Klüser in Munich, Germany, and John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco,, CA.

Lauri Firstenberg received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in the History of Art and Architecture Department. She is the Director/Curator of LA><ART in Los Angeles.