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Art In Conversation

Ena Swansea with Irving Sandler

On the occasion of her two recent one-person exhibits, a survey show at MUDAM Luxembourg (Musée d’Art Moderne Grand–Duc Jean), curated by Marie-Claude Beaud (on view till February 2, 2009), and new paintings at Arndt & Partner Zurich (on view till November 22, 2008,) Rail Consulting Editor Irving Sandler welcomed the painter Ena Swansea to his home in the West Village to discuss her life and work.

Irving Sandler (Rail): Tell us about your earlier life, where did you grow up, what got you into art, and where did you go to art school?

“Bull” (2008). Oil on graphite on linen, 84 x 168 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Arndt & Partner Zurich.
“Bull” (2008). Oil on graphite on linen, 84 x 168 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Arndt & Partner Zurich.

Ena Swansea: Well, I’m from Charlotte, North Carolina. I had an olde-timey southern childhood in a nice shady spot, and I stayed right there until college, in the same neighborhood with four grandparents, two parents and a little brother. But somehow I got it in my mind to leave as soon as possible.

My dad is a modernist architect, and my mom is a writer, and she founded a literary magazine and publishing house while I was growing up. My godfather was the director of the Mint art museum in Charlotte, and from the time I was little, I was often taken to extra art classes and there already seemed to be some kind of idea in people around me that I was a painter [laughs]. When I got to be a little older, it was kind of hard to rebel like you are supposed to, in that context! So I went to film school at the University of South Florida in Tampa. I had a pickup truck and I lived in an empty wooden garage with no door. I slept on a long board, but those giant Florida bugs that have a hard shell would crawl into my jeans while I slept, and then make a cracking noise and ooze out when I turned over, so I moved to a place over a heating oil depot a couple of yards from the railroad tracks, where I could hop on the trains. I was always trying to “butch up,” but maybe it didn’t work.

When you get “rebel” in your image of yourself and you are a teenager, there’s a falseness about it. You think you’re going towards your essence. But really you’re exaggerating. I was very provincial, so, when I was trying to decide where I should go for college, before I moved to New York to “live,” my mind could only go as far as the borders of the United States. It just didn’t come into my mind to do anything else, and so I decided to go to Florida, which to me, was just so far away! You know, no one in my family before me had ever left our zip code, so… I found that at the University of South Florida I could have a double major in both art film and Hollywood film. And it was the only school in the country, I think, at that time, where you could do something like that. So I went there. And they had around thirty-five people on the art faculty, a big fractious department. Naturally I was trying to avoid art. But I was steeped in the study of the brief history of avant-garde film and video, and I think that is the ground under me now, as a painter.

Rail: Was your family always from the South?

Swansea: For an American family, yes, you could say they’ve been there for a long time. I come from a long line of preachers, and my great-great grandfather, Thomas Dixon, was an itinerant, fire-and-brimstone preacher, who wandered around the South, leaving behind many illegitimate children [laughter]. He had a super flamboyant and dramatic style, six foot four in a flashy frock with a lace shirt and so on. He was kind of the Billy Graham of his day, referred to in the press as “the most famous man in America.” His book, The Clansman, was made into a film entitled The Birth of a Nation, by D.W. Griffith.

Rail: Apart from film as a source of influence, how did your other ideas develop?

Swansea: I got a lot from reproductions of paintings in books, and the ones that really came into my nervous system are probably the ones that I’m in some kind of dialogue with now.

Often I will have an image in my mind for a few years before I make a painting of it. One of my character flaws is my inability to plan ahead. I often begin with an image that I like, which can happen quite randomly, then the rest of the painting will evolve from there. When I begin a painting, I know that what I will end up with is so different than what I started out trying to make, but it always goes that way.

Rail: So your approach is based on free association to some extent.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Swansea: Yes, it’s associative on the surface, but when I look through images of the last hundred or so paintings I’ve made, there’s an almost subconscious drive to answer paintings from the past. I went outside and I saw someone carrying a baby on 5th Avenue, but unusually, with no paraphernalia at all—no bags, no stroller, only the baby, slung over her shoulder alone. It looked weird, and I strongly saw the strangeness of a baby. It looked kind of mad, the baby. I thought, “Gosh, that looks so weird. I want to paint that.” So, there have been a few, contemporary paintings of babies that have struck a nerve, like in the work of Marlene Dumas. But there are also ancient paintings of babies, and Velázquez’s paintings of babies, and Goya’s, and Cycladic figures, which also hit the same subconscious place in me.

Rail: Now I’ll ask you an impossible question, don’t answer it: you have Velázquez, you have Dumas, you have yourself—how would you differ?

Swansea: I think, in my work, I’m not as talented in burying the visual hilarity that is found everywhere. I just can’t manage to eliminate what has been called “the deliberate awkwardness” in my work, both in my hand, and in my ideas.

Rail: If it’s deliberate, it’s something that you cultivate.

Swansea: Well, that’s true, but really it’s accidental. I don’t cultivate it; I just can’t get rid of it! [laughs].

Rail: One of the most recognizable features of your painting is often large size. Why do you prefer to work large?

Swansea: I make them as small as I can! I would like to make a reasonably sized painting. And it’s something that bothers me; I just can’t seem to be comfortable working in a smaller scale. Perhaps my urge to paint large has to do with some kind of unreconstructed macho complex. I don’t know.

Rail: In spite of the large scale, your subjects tend to be very intimate. There is one of a group of people at a dinner table, another of people in a nightclub. There is even a parade scene that seems intimate to me.

Swansea: As you live, and time passes, you become aware of the perishable nature of everything; then you begin to feel that perhaps, intimacy is actually the biggest thing in the world.

Rail: Yes. There’s a melancholic overtone in your work…

Swansea: I would deny that. Being a Southerner, and genetically Welsh, I often enjoy denying things. [laughs] So I would deny any narrative content in my work, and I would deny any melancholy or even any particular emotional tone.

Rail: I was thinking of the dark palette that you prefer. It’s very nocturnal, in many cases, often gray or black.

Swansea: [laughs] Well, if I look at the tubes of paint lying around in my studio, they’re all living colors. But it is true that I think gray is very beautiful and colorful.

Rail:  Given the fact that you initiate a painting from a spontaneous impulse, what is your attitude towards your subjects?

Swansea: Well, I want to leave the “attitude” outside the studio, but it comes in on the side. I try to be neutral but then I’m about as neutral as Switzerland. And when I’m in the studio, feelin’ so busy trying to get the eye to look right, or the hand to look like it’s laying on the lap, or the tree to look like a tree, you know, what is coming through is coming really from the back of my head. If I focus on the technical demands of making a painting, the idea behind the painting will find a way to come out.

Rail: However, you make choices that don’t only have to do with depicting your subject matter: choices about color, composition, atmosphere, and so forth. 

Swansea: Yes, that’s right. But if I focus on what the process is for me, which is an experience of making hundreds of tiny decisions, then it seems to come out all right in the end. What’s your question again?

Rail: My question has to do with your decision making. But, you’re talking like an artist, and I’m talking like a critic [laughs].

Swansea: Maybe we are in the right lines of work! [laughs]

Rail: It seems to me that some of the ways in which you frame subjects almost have a kind of cinematic quality that makes them very contemporary. Just the views you take of varying subjects.

Swansea: I think that’s right…

Rail: Oh, so you don’t deny it, that’s good. [laughs]

Swansea: [laughs] I mean no, uh, I deny that!

If there’s something in you, that mysterious thing called drive, and you don’t know what it is, but you know that you wake up in the morning and you want to do a certain thing, and you’re very interested in that thing, then it can lead you into unknown areas. So, in film, I was seeking the same thing that I’m seeking now, as a painter. And it’s pretty simple, you know, I’m just trying to paint the light, resting on the thing. And, you know, that sounds goofy, because “so what?” There are lots of problems in the world, why would I devote my life to this? But, that’s what I’m doing.

Rail: There’s the light “out there,” and there’s the light “in here.” I know that painters like Alex Katz or Al Held, for example, were searching for a very specific, distinctive and personal light.  When they found it in a work, it was done. Do you have that kind of feeling about light? And does the ground in your painting affect your specific sense of light?

“Baby” (2008). Oil on graphite on linen, 68 x 66 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Arndt & Partner Zurich.
“Baby” (2008). Oil on graphite on linen, 68 x 66 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Arndt & Partner Zurich.

Swansea: The ground is important in that every painting is backlit by it, and it is reflecting the light back out. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf, a writer in Germany, wrote that my ground reminded him of a television screen that is switched off. I like for the paint to change with the light, and be transparent, almost like a skin or glass on the ground.

Rail: When you entered the art scene in the 1980s, there was an upsurge of so-called  Neo-Expressionist paintings that included many strong painters such as Murray, Rothenberg, Schnabel, Salle, and Fischl, all of whom reacted against Minimalism…

Swansea: Yes, but there was still room for Robert Moskowitz, Joseph Marioni, Brice Marden, Bob Mangold, Bob Ryman, and others. I bring them in because really I am such a misguided minimalist!

Knowing that I was supposed to care about the raging issue, “Is painting dead, is painting relevant?” I kind of felt left out because I didn’t get this question.

Rail: The idea that painting was embattled did not interest you?

Swansea: I just thought the idea was silly, who cares? Maybe it has to do with me. I was so shy as a child that all through first grade I just couldn’t get over the idea of having to leave the house everyday, to go somewhere else. My mom would take me to school and the principal would come out to the car, open the door, pick me up, and literally carry me to my desk. Otherwise I wouldn’t go. I wouldn’t cry or anything, I would just sit. I would go for days without speaking in class, and maybe one reason I wasn’t involved in these death of painting debates was that would mean I would have to talk about it!

Rail: Your latest work is about the Macy’s Parade. What attracted you to that particular subject?

Swansea: I think it probably has to do with my childhood in North Carolina. As shy as I was, our house was like Bohemian central. There were always people coming and going non-stop. I remember [James] Dickey would be drunk, and announcing things in the living room, or Kate Millet stayed at our house for a few weeks to write one of her books. Meanwhile my mom would always organize a 4th of July parade on our street where all the kids would get in their wagons in a line, and we would have this majestic little procession. I would be only a silent tiny presence in the mix, but I had the same feeling as everyone else. The idea of “parade,” in general, has everything. On the one hand it’s a spectacle that is a façade that’s covering up something else, and you hope that this theater is true. On the other hand, it’s pitiful and poignant and somehow so wrong. Yet, if you came to Earth for the first time, seeing a parade would sum up pretty much everything you needed to know.  A sliced cross-section of that parade, even a ten-yard long section, has something for everyone from any different age group, and the stories and mysteries that may lie behind them. For instance, why is it that a giant pink bunny playing a drum sells batteries? I think it’s more interesting not to try to analyze the mechanisms of advertising.  If you just present something from life, in another medium, as in paintings, it will light up what is really behind the surface. I think that’s very funny.

Rail: The bunny can be thought of as a signifier of our consumer society. Say more about the humor element in your work.

Swansea: There’s probably a complicated reason for that, but something funny always pops out in my paintings. My maternal ancestors are essentially this line of charlatans and showmen that are talking about God.  They’re littering the landscape with illegitimate babies, collecting money in all their pockets, telling lies, and they have fifteen families. All the while, they’re talking about mortal sin and out of wedlock mating.  So part of it is, how can I, as a very different personality, respond to some kind of inherited urge to be a preacher?

Even though I was brought up as a Quaker, and I’m still on the job. I was brought up in meditation and silence, but you just know there is some kind of drive to give a good show.

Rail: You keep circling back to your Southern experience. It reminds me of  novels of Southerners who treat the history of the South in  complex layers from its early settlement on. It’s very Faulknerian.

Swansea: Well, when I first read Flannery O’Connor, I felt like “Oh yeah, I remember that day!”

Rail: I followed a group of Southern artists who called themselves the Southern Rim. They wanted to create a regional art because they thought somehow it would be distinctive. They created a network that runs from North Carolina to Florida. It was very lively for a period of time, but then it collapsed on the issue of women and race.  Do you work from photographs?

Swansea:  Photography has been nicely buried in the work of some great painters like Manet, Francis Bacon, Leon Golub, Warhol, etc. In fact Alexi Worth and Svetlana Alpers wrote quite wonderfully about Manet’s use of photography and I’ve looked at Manet a lot. What is referred to as his “brutality of tone,” might be something he could not have come up with without photography.

It’s in all our eyes now, since we first saw a photo. So I do start with photography, and like everybody now, my instincts are so intertwined with what cameras do that I can’t get it out anyway, so I just go with it.

Rail: Have you ever painted abstractly?

Swansea:  I was crazy about Abstract Expressionist paintings for their posturing and style, the implied freedom and monumental scale, but I always secretly wanted to paint people and things. I didn’t really have the guts to do it for many years. Otherwise I had painted big open shadows of botanical forms in a giant projected kind of scale, which was like a whole universe in itself.

Rail: How do you feel about the works of your peers such as John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and Elizabeth Peyton who emerged in the 1990s?

Swansea: I think they are all trying to make an indelible image, and it’s going pretty well!

Rail: I agree. Does gender enter into your thinking at all?

Swansea: Only when I see a cute person walking down the street in front of me [laughs].

Rail: You don’t paint cute people though.

Swansea: Yes I do. They’re cute to me.

Rail: Would you talk about the paintings on view at your two exhibitions in Europe?

Swansea: At the new museum in Luxembourg MUDAM, there are thirteen paintings from the last six years. It’s my first museum show, and there is a kind of theme, which is “New York.” There are few paintings of parades, and some images from nightclubs, and a bank. And André Schlechtriem Gallery here has put together a list of about forty-two paintings from the last few years that are also about New York in some way, and we are making a book with them. I had no idea I had made so many paintings of New York, but I’m living here, so it is where I usually pick out paintable things. It’s not an academic book at all, even though it grew out of an institutional show. The texts are by friends. Kembra Pfahler wrote something about the paintings I’ve made of her, and Jack Pierson wrote a sensational poem that somehow, stanza by stanza, finds an echo in paintings I’ve made across some of the years we’ve known each other. That was a big surprise, and that’s what gives the book a solid rhythm.

At Arndt & Partner Zurich, I’m showing seven new paintings. I tried to revisit some old bad ideas, things you’re not supposed to do. It may be a subconscious reaction to having a museum show, and seeing paintings together that go across time and haven’t been together before. I even made a giant bullfight painting, which in 2008, is a kind of crackpot idea. The bullfight is taking place on a huge Christian LaCroix drawing for some reason, and actually the matador has no weapon, and he just pushes the beast away with his hand on the bull’s head. I always preferred the more absurd and illogical paintings on this theme, like Manet’s Victorine in the Costume of an Espada, or Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume, or especially Dead Toreador. Spain neutralized, as an idea and a style, was a big fad from time to time. It is similar to how hip-hop neutralized, has become an idea and a clothing style, for children.

Then there’s a group of four haystack paintings. It’s the worst idea; to get an image that comes from Impressionist painting, from Monet, and try to find a contemporary painting. Those Monets were doing several things at once, showing the light and season, but also the technology of farming at that time. His “grainstacks” were shaped like a round house with a thatched roof, it has a vibe that says “shelter” somehow. You feel there may be people inside it, or you may want to feel it because there’s never anybody in the paintings, and he made so many. Anyway, you know a person was there before, building the form.

One day I saw a photo taken looking out at his backyard, and it really looked like that! The technology of farming in France now is so different, and the way humans handle nature has really changed a lot. The haystacks in 2008 are oddly modernist. They are much bigger now, because of the farming equipment. So it’s a monumental curtain wall, and if you can find a way to make a painting of it, with weight and scale, it might really be something.  Plus it gives the immediate news from the farming world; who knew?

Rail: Have you found the reception of your work in Europe different than in the States?

Swansea:  It feels open, painting is not suspected of being dead. For some reason, with my paintings, I feel the response is very simple and direct in Europe. There’s no feeling that painting is any more moribund than the “new” media is!

Rail : Every half decade someone may come around and pronounce painting is dead again. And it was there all the time. And the same thing happened in the 80s. In ’81 (Douglas) Crimp wrote that lengthy article, the very inflammatory one, The Death of Painting. He thought that painting had murdered itself.

Swansea: The story of this debate is vaguely embarrassing.

Rail: But it gives critics something to do.


Irving Sandler

IRVING SANDLER was an art critic, art historian, and writer. The second volume of his memoirs, Swept Up By Art: An Art Critic in the Post-Avant-Garde Era, was published by Rail Editions in 2015.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2008

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