Now Featuring Megan Atherton
Megan Atherton paints to find her way. Although she’s grounded in a creative background and paints in a tradition that includes classic formats like the still life, her practice is alive with possibilities for shifting interpretation, for jumps into abstraction, for finding moving metaphors within exercises of perception.
MH: A lot of your more recent paintings, including the ones for your LPP edition, include collections of the type of object we might call a personal possession. Furthermore, the intimacy of the paintings themselves adds to this impression of the personal. How do you select your subject matter? Is it a process of collecting images from your personal life?
MA: I am drawn to certain objects usually from my life, they evolve in relationship to previous paintings in terms of their content or dialogue with other paintings. I am attracted to painting objects which I find to have a sort of metaphorical significance or loose narrative which I can tweak one way or the other. Sometimes none of that is clear at first, but I trust that if I am attracted to something, there’s got to be some reason and can figure that out later. I think there is some excitement in the unknown and everything doesn’t need to be figured out first; over-thinking can hinder some truly great things. But I do I paint things that are close to me, I believe if I paint what is close to me and what I know best, then maybe it will speak a greater truth. They do require some intimacy, for sure, but optimally, I would like the viewer to have a relationship with them too, from either far away and from up close. I would say that’s true for about half of my paintings anyway. The paintings for the LPP edition are probably best up close; well, the paper towels and flower arrangement are, the rope piece could hopefully be the latter.
The LPP edition paintings came from a Friday ritual after a week of teaching. I would buy myself a bouquet of flowers with the intention of painting them over the weekend. It was kind of low pressure painting, thinking about Manet’s last flower paintings. I was using these paper towels for paint rags and was finding that I was more attracted to my excess paint marks left on the paper towels than the actual flower arrangement paintings. So that generated a few more paintings. I was attracted to the crinkled paper towel, stiff with colorful paint, and to the color relationships. I was thinking about how really they are a sort of abstraction of the flower arrangement, in a kind of leftover, discarded way. Thinking about the conversation of abstraction and representation, they are the same thing really. I also liked playing with the colors and how they looked on these crumpled paper towels.
The rope painting is a close up of a chair my father made in a commune my parents lived in. The chair has some personal significance for me as it is one of a set of four, the others my brothers and my parents have. I am interested in my parents’ histories, their lives in the commune and the differences between their paths and mine. Much of my work explores a division of generational standards of success, or the difference paths to attain similar success for different generations. So, I paint this rope as a sort of separation between the viewer and the other side of the rope.
MH: I’m so intrigued by your mention of your parents’ background. Could you elaborate with respect to how your family influences shaped the way you see the world as an artist– specific ways of doing/seeing, culture you absorbed, etc.?
MA: My parents are very industrious, very do it yourself – the original DIYers in many respects, their time in the commune ended but their values and ideas about labor remain to this day. They have told me many stories of the commune, and I visited when I was young. My dad built some of the infrastructure which is still functioning, including solar panels he wrote and received government grants to install. My father is an incredibly material- and detail-oriented person, it’s his natural instinct. I am fortunate to have gotten that from him. He also really likes to play with people’s expectations of reality, within his craft, in a very outsider artist way. My mother has always taught me independence and freedom, while following my own development. She was a Montessori teacher and lives by that method and her teachings. She is an incredible role model; both of them are.
Aside from that, I grew up in a Victorian-era house, which my dad was constantly working to renovate. Physical labor day in and day out in the evenings and on the weekends, one project leading to others, always thinking that might be it almost done only to find the next project in need of repair. Growing up, I was put to work helping with renovation projects. I feel my participation and growing up in that house was incredibly influential on how I see the world. I have used imagery from the renovation and the old home as points of departure for many paintings, the scaffolding paintings are very directly related.
MH: A year ago you finished an MFA in painting at CCA. Now that you have some distance from it, how do you think your work evolved over two years of intense reflection and practice?
MA: My work became much more true to myself and much more intuned with a contemporary painting dialogue. It helped my work, practice and me as a person so much. I think I approach paintings differently than before. I am still reflecting on the whole thing and don’t know when I will truly understand all the ways it changed me. I had some truly wonderful advisers which helped me find my voice, I will ever be grateful to their dedication to me.
MH: I see you’ve taught some color theory. How do you approach color in your work? Representational painting seems to be more subtle in the way color choices are balanced with the demands of mimesis, but there are still color decisions to make.
MA: When I was in grad school I went through a sort of emptying out of color, it all seemed to mean so much, and being in school, one has to have a reason for everything. So, I got to this place of neutrals, whites and grays, always mixed up with complements and white. I was stuck on that subtly for quite some time, very nuanced differences being important and treated with compositionally. After the voiding out of color, I got into this blue thing, it seems I get really stuck on a specific color and get really obsessed with it. Right now I am really into greens, I think because of what it does to trick the eye in relation to thefigure, lately working on these grassy green paintings (of grass), I can’t help but notice how my hand, when in front of the green, while painting, is bright pink-red, but the moment I move it away from the
painting its not! Joseph Albers color relationship things, such a trip.
Aside from that, I really think about color compositionally, in the pieces in the print edition for LPP especially, the paper towel paint rags. I think I am starting to have more fun with color, where in grad school I was very conservative. I have always loved the California Regionalist color sensibility, I have been thinking about them a lot lately.
MH: How does teaching influence your practice? My own experiences teaching painting were really exciting and inspiring in a way that teaching other, less direct, more technical things like sculpture, were not.
MA: Teaching is such a trip in so many ways. It’s made me really pay attention to trusting myself more. It’s a really personal thing in a way, I am showing and talking to my students about something, and I find myself really having to define my own values more so than I ever have had to in the past. I think it’s making me a more confident painter. It was so rewarding seeing all these students internalize my words and come back to create these things that I wouldn’t have ever thought of, or, that they would start to bring out parts of themselves which they didn’t know were in them, and feeling really good about it. I love it. It’s more than I would have ever imagined, I can’t wait to teach my next class.
MH: You talked about following the thread of a project quite far, visually, from its inception, starting with flowers and ending with paint rags. What are some other detours you’ve taken? Is this exploration usually
part of your process or do things shake out differently every time?
MA: Yes, I usually set out with a clear intention, but along the way I get derailed by other things that come up which might be more interesting or speak more to what I am actually interested in. I think that is how I get more specific, and hone closer to what is really the true core of my painterly investigations. Sometimes I can’t do it and for some stubborn reason I must stay to the path, but when I get free that’s when exciting things happen. I think working through ideas is the best way for me to work and leads to these detours. Other detours; when I was in grad school I was doing these scaffolding paintings, this was a image which was common around my childhood home with all the renovation. I was painting this set which my dad made when we first moved into the house, he made them out of the old water pipes from the basement. I made this painting (Perimeter), which was a solitary unit of this set of scaffold, fully rendered and set in a linear perspective. The geometry of the negative space flattened the space and sort of nodded to geometric abstraction. The expansion and contraction of the visual space spoke to this idea of expectations and the unattainable. Thinking about my generation vs. baby boomers (my parents) and about home ownership.
So, I made a couple more scaffold painting which lead me to this idea of making a huge wall of scaffolding which the viewer may not be able to climb through if they were actually in that space, a barrier of sorts. As I was making that painting (At your own risk), I thought I wanted to make a dark one too… So, I started making a dark one (Beyond), I approached it with putting a dark acrylic base down and then started drawing it out with my usual, gray prisma colored pencil. I got to a certain point where I would usually would start rendering but just couldn’t do it. It looked too cool how it was and said everything I was intending, but in a different way. The space behind the scaffold expanded off the canvas but the flatness of the structure/ barrier aspect spoke to these ideas but in a different way than the others. I love that about painting where the process and material can take over and lead into a different trajectory or strain of thought.
MH: Who are some artists you’ve always found exciting? Some you’ve newly discovered?
MA: I grew up going to museums, my mom would always take me and my brothers, I don’t know that I had any specific favorites before undergrad. I would say Manet has always been exciting to me. In undergrad I went through a serious Eric Fischl phase. Also, in undergrad a teacher told me about Kristin Calabrese’s work and have ever since loved it and often think we have very similar thoughts about painting. I am also ever obsessed with Josephine Halvorson, Mama Anderson, Catherine Murphy and Tom Laduke, I look at Laduke’s work regularly. I recently discovered Julian Rogers work, which I am way into.