Thursday, August 2, 2012

Beer with a Painter: Sharon Horvath

During a recent trip to Cape Cod, I met with painter Sharon Horvath.   She showed me her work in the studio she was renting from Hayden Herrera in Truro, and then took me - and a picnic of beer and snacks - to the “Coast Guard Beach,” where she had been making works on paper. 

After our chat, she invited me to hang with her for rest of the evening.  We met up with her friend Elaine Souda and dashed around Provincetown to all the openings.  

The two know pretty much everyone in town, and whomever they don’t know, they find a way to meet (including the New York Times food writer Mark Bittman. I was too star struck to do more than introduce myself, but he and Sharon had a nice chat, while I begged to Elaine take surreptitious photos!)
Bittman and Horvath at the Schoolhouse Gallery, Provincetown, which exhibits her work.
Over the course of the evening, I think we literally talked about everything from birth to death.  Thank you, Sharon!  (Photos by Steven Harvey and Elaine Souda). 

Horvath shows with Lori Bookstein Fine Art in New York, and has an upcoming exhibition in November at The Drawing Room in East Hampton. She makes large-scale paintings on paper characterized by interweaving of lines, constellations that float near abstraction but suggest images, and layers of meaning.  They are complex and time-intensive webs of marks. She makes smaller studies – notational drawings – to begin many of these pieces, on the beach or in her car.  (The car is a big part of Horvath’s life – while in the city, she commutes between Queens, Brooklyn, and SUNY Purchase, where she teaches.  The work comes along – unceremoniously packed and unpacked.  

When I visited the studio, a group of small “car studies” -- images that include the rear-view mirror as a motif, and small, color-saturated wave studies, were hung along with the large painting she had started in New York and just recently completed.  During our chat, Horvath discussed how her time on the Cape had allowed her to resolve this painting, change the energy, and turn it into a wave formation.

I began the actual interview elegantly – kneeling on the blanket and leaning over to set up the microphone, I knocked over the glass of beer she had just poured for me.  Oops!  In her gracious way, Sharon just poured me another glass and started talking about the messy process of working on the beach.

SH: The paintings I do on the beach really get fucked up.  When I finish working, there is too much paint on the paper for me to transport it back.  So I wash off the extra paint.  There I am in the ocean with my piece of paper; sometimes they float away.  But rather than being frustrated with it, I realized I just want to go with it.  And the more messed up everything gets, the more the sand is sticking to the paint when I drag it back to the car, the happier I am when I get back to the cabin and wash everything off. 

JS: Perhaps it becomes part of the layering in your work?  Your work is so much about layering, and the process. 

SH: I have been thinking about Tantric painting, and the way those paintings function.  There was a show of this work at the Drawing Center, and there is a new book about Tantric paintings from the collection of Jamme.  The way those paintings are used, is that somebody paints one, and then uses it to meditate. The meditator has it in their house or their shrine, and it gets used, it wears out and gets aged, and then eventually someone paints a new one and throws the old one out.  I was thinking -- I don’t have the shared cultural meaning, so why do I relate to that so much? But I am doing the aging process as I’m making it.  I am just speeding it up.  So, that’s neither here nor there, it just seems to be happening.  Time. Time is a material that artists work with.  Everyone has a relationship to time.  Earlier, we were talking about slowing down.  That is a material to work with, especially because art is a stationary object, it draws attention to all the movement around it.  I guess that is why people like to stare at waves -- to see the movement, the gentle repetition.  Don’t they seem like units of time, when you see the waves crashing like this?  They are so abstract. But I like to try to draw the waves with pencil, which is just impossible.  I can’t do it, so I come up with notational marks.  But I am watching and trying to take this moving wave and fix it in my mind so that I can make the notation.  One thing I learned from them is when the wave breaks, it is all frothy and lacy, and complicated and chaotic, but then as it comes into the sand, it kind of smoothes out and it simplifies until that final edge is just that smooth line of water that creeps up onto the sand. That’s a lesson for me in my painting, because I want that.  I’m complicated, and I don’t want to be so complicated.  I want to be more like that smooth line.  But I don’t know if I have it in me, really.

Sharon Horvath, White Night, 2012, Pigment, polymer, ink, paper on canvas, 45 x 48 inches

JS: Maybe what you see is that transition… that passage from the complicated to the simple?

SH: Yes, that’s interesting.  I was really happy yesterday.  There was like a dud sunset, I don’t know if you noticed.  It had a good punch line, there was a big red splash at the horizon.  The tide was going out.  These tide pools – you can see the direction in that little wavelet part.  But I have always wanted to see that moment when the tide stops going out and starts coming in.  Talk about transition.  And I did see it.  It happened.  Little waves gently nudging one way, and the currents came together.  And that is when I was washing my paintings off.  I put the paintings in the water, and they didn’t move.  Because there was that equilibrium of the currents.  I mean, I don’t get this in Queens, where I live. 
Right now -- isn’t this beautiful, the people down at the ocean -- these choreographed families?  You can see relationships just played out visually.  

All painters are involved in a kind of empathy.  You always have a physical relationship to the piece of art you’re looking at.  You might not be aware of it, or you might be hyper-aware of it.  When you look at art, it is touching you through your brain. I remember something in the Dana Schutz catalog, where she talks about the empathy of figures in a painting, where one figure is touching the thigh of another figure.  And you can feel it on your own thigh.  That empathy is what figurative painters can work with -- identification with that other body in that painting. Watteau is one of my favorite painters and I was very influenced by the book by Mary Vidal, Watteau’s Painted Conversations, which Elaine Souda gave me.  It is about the relationship of the figures within the paintings. She talks about how we are imagining the figures communicating through their eyes and gestures. Because they can’t actually talk, they’re painted people! His painting is all about visual conversation. 

JS: I just love that Watteau is one of your favorite painters.  So few people would say that.

SH: Ohhh.  He’s just so intimate.  The paint is so inviting.  The scale. Watteau is always intimate, no matter what scale.  You can feel the painter’s hand, his touch.  I think that is the physical connection we have.  When you see footprints in the sand like this, you can understand what they are, because you have made footprints in the sand with your own feet.  So when you see paint strokes, you remember touching them.  It’s like being held.  Some painters are more generous that way.  Like Watteau.  What links painters is a deep feeling.  What I see in Watteau, is followed up by Bonnard.  There’s that sadness, that melancholy.  He’s painting an environment.  I tell my students all the time about Bonnard, they are all in just one house. 

JS: Well, that is a bit what you are doing – turning one thing into a whole environment, no?

SH: I don’t know.  I don’t know what I do!  I was reading your last interview.  And I thought, interviews are like artist talks, where everything makes sense.  When you contacted me, I was thinking, I’m just going to tell her, “My painting sucks!”  I’m going to do a different kind of interview!  Tell her the problems, all the things that are unresolved in my painting.   What am I doing?  I can just tell you what I’m thinking. 

JS: Well, what were the problems, what were you thinking about?  That is so interesting. 

SH: I was trying to change my work but I didn’t know how.  I was coming here to the beach.  But now I can see.  It was a short week ago.  I did these small studies that had a lot more movement, and were more connected to color, that I love.  So I made this step.  It required me to be miserable first, and to consider the stiffness of my work and how things were locked up.  Locked up.  You know, in Truro, I don’t lock my car.   But I do lock my car, by accident!  Just out of habit, because I’m a New Yorker.  Sometimes the energy gets locked up in your work. 

JS:  Yes, that is what you referring to when we were looking at the painting in your studio that you just finished. 

SH: It is made of all this cross-hatching and weaving of lines.  It is a specific energy.  The question is, what energy are you really working with?  When you compare painters, there can be superficial likenesses, but the spirit may be really different -- what they are made of.  Sometimes you step back from your work, and you think, “What am I really working with here?” Not “What am I doing?” but “What am I working with?” When I knit all these lines, it is like I’m mending something.  Trying to build something, but also keep it together.  Last week, I was wanting to chuck all that.  Unlock.   Unlock the car.  It’s funny, I didn’t think of my car paintings in this context.  I was thinking of the windshield, and the rearview mirror as a metaphor for the experience of time.  You’re shooting forward in the car, and you look in the rearview mirror, and see your past shooting backwards. The car moves through the landscape.  I am so interested in how it moves through the landscape.  It is incredible when you think about it.

Sharon Horvath, Dash, 2011, Pigment, polymer, ink, paper on canvas, 45 x 48 inches

JS: This makes me think of de Kooning, his ideas about the different ways we move through places, what we see as we move.

SH: Oh yes, his idea of the “glimpses.” Wow, I find I actually have a connection to de Kooning! 

JS: He wasn’t one of the painters you feel connected to?

SH: Well, no, I like him a lot.  But there are people you don’t know you’re getting something from.  The real question in painting is, what does the image have to do with what it looks like? It is spectacular what we are seeing with this ocean, but it is such a limited slice of what’s really out there.  It has to do with the limitations of our eyeballs and our brains.  So, the idea that the ultimate reality of something is how we see it, is ridiculous.  You can represent something by verisimilitude and it is all taken care of.  People know what you are representing.  But I am looking at Indian painting a lot. I am scheming to get to India.  I’ve never been there.  Indian miniature paintings, with their use of color, and their intensification, represent how one feels about something -- not the way it looks.  They are representational images, but not necessarily realistic.  The color really carries the meaning.  You need a vestige, or a residue, or a clue, or even something more direct, but it doesn’t have to look like the subject. What I’m saying is that art is a response, as opposed to a representation. 

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