Contributed by Sangram Majumdar / I think I met Angelina first through a mutual friend Karla Wozniak when Karla and I were residents at the Sharpe Walentas Residency in 2009. Soon we realized we had other things in common, including MICA, where she went for a brief time. I met Fabienne when she began teaching at MICA, and over many drives between Baltimore and Brooklyn we learned a lot about each other. Both Fabienne and Angelina are also part of a studio group that have been meeting for a while, seeing each other’s work evolve and grow over time. On the occasion of their respective solo exhibitions in New York –– Angelina Gualdoni at Asya Geisberg Gallery and Fabienne Lasserre at Turn Gallery — we sat down via Zoom to talk about their recent work.
Angelina Gualdoni – Fabienne, you talk about combining or merging the tactile and the visual. I think I realized only about two or three years ago that I see as much with my fingers as I do with my eyes. So do you: your objects are so emphatically handmade and handled, I’m not surprised at all that you would want to bring it back to the body, to the haptic.
Fabienne Lasserre – Exactly. It’s funny that you bring that up because that tactile vision is related to something I wanted to bring up vis-à-vis your work, too. In the press release for “The Physic Garden,” your recent solo show at Asya Geisberg, you wrote: “when foraging one learns to use soft eyes and different lenses, shifting between shape, pattern, texture, color, to see through thickets and briars, sometimes losing the forest for the trees, the sensual can override the analytic.” That sentence resonates with me because it evokes a way of looking that doesn’t carry the illusion that one can see everything. And it also doesn’t imply that knowledge derives from clarity and visibility. I feel that your paintings describe a vision that doesn’t reduce, a vision that really attends to things in their multiplicity, their interconnectedness, their complexities and even their opacities. And you relate that way of seeing to types of knowledge like herbal medicine, healing practices or alchemy, that don’t rely on analysis and reduction to essentials, but that are associative.
AG – That’s really gratifying to hear because it’s definitely the framework with which I approached the paintings in the show. It’s the kind of vision I know from my own experience, but that multiplicity was also something that I was seeing in research that I did in Italy prior to making the work for “The Physic Garden.” I was there to research stregawitchcraft and healing traditions. I wanted to find out how knowledge of herbalism, rituals, and spells might have been communicated between women. What I found is that all of that knowledge was oral; none of it was well documented. It just passed from person to person, and was later recorded by anthropologists in the 20th century. Where I had hoped to find ephemera like drawings or notes, there were really only herbals and illustrated manuscripts kept by scribes and monks who maintained physic gardens and libraries, so that’s what I turned my attention to.
I looked at quite a range of herbals: ancient and medieval, and then Renaissance and Romantic. The way in which botanical illustration hewed or strayed from how a plant looks in the world was remarkable – there was such a variety and multiplicity of graphic translation. It would really wax and wane, sometimes it would be extraordinarily optical and descriptive, and other times just be completely coded, alchemical, or a rhythmic pattern that was purely ornamental. Each mode seemed to divulge attitudes towards dispensation of knowledge, or communication technology within that era. So some of them might have been useful in developing the knowledge or eyes for foraging – but my overall takeaway was that there was still a division between the accumulation and application of knowledge in a university or monastery setting, and how one could cultivate that type of vision in the field, which is what women did, since they didn’t have access to many of these systems.
FL – Right, foraging is a knowledge intrinsically based in experience, in the doing.
AG – It really is. And it’s a strangely primal skill too. I’ve never felt so in touch with my ancestors and greater humanity as when I’m just out in the woods or in a field, and looking for something specific; it really just does comes down to can I distinguish this pattern, this shape, or (laughing) how softly can I walk so I don’t attract the attention of other hunters around me?
Sangram Majumdar – It seems that for both of you, vision expands space. Fabienne, I just saw your work in a group show at Critical Path Method, in Baltimore. (1) There’s often this self-awareness, but also a self-reflection that becomes part of experiencing both of your works for me. I become more aware of what I’m doing while at the same time being aware that something is activating and altering my senses or pushing me one way or another. In your current solo show (“Eye Contact,” Turn Gallery, New York) you have a piece called Eye-touch. In the yellow lower circle, there are three dark drips, or dots, that are such a great example of that play with space. I think of them as a mole on somebody’s skin, something you would only see if you are close enough to touch. It’s so intimate. And Angelina, I feel lucky to live with one of your paintings. I find that when I really get close to your paintings, the painting itself unfurls, it’s as if I can see past the image to how the painting materializes.
AG – That is one of my absolute favorite things about painting, that it can cohere into an image at a distance and then completely dissolve into color and line again, and you can find yourself lost in a field. My attraction to fields, beyond the literal association to foraging, goes back to being a high school kid in St. Louis and going to the St Louis Art Museum, and loving the Jackson Pollocks there, just this feeling of being completely encompassed and having my body wrapped in this different spatial experience. I feel more indebted as an artist to Helen Frankenthaler, but I would be remiss if I didn’t cite the experience that I had with Pollock first.
But your description of Fabienne’s dots as moles, and intimacy of living with work reminds me of something else. I live with one of Fabienne’s works, and one of the things I love about it is how it implicates all of the space around it. It’s an object that asserts its physicality out from the wall, and it feels purposefully, willfully obstinate. This piece is not like the works in the show at Turn Gallery that are very becoming within and of the space; the piece that I have intrudes… like, “I am here, you can’t ignore me!” And there is real pleasure in that insistence! Fabienne, I remember you characterizing one of these pieces as a great aunt, that had been in the corner of your studio for a while.
FL – Yeah, there are many aunts, and grandmothers in the studio… and I agree that the piece you have is a stubborn one! Going back to what you said, Sangram, that vision expands space in Angelina and my work; I don’t totally see it like that, although it’s such a beautiful way to put it. Rather, I think of this moment where the artwork, what’s around it and the viewer, all intermesh. And that’s why I use this reflexive and transparent material where viewers can see their reflection and see through to the surroundings of the pieces. So that there’s never a moment where the pieces are isolated, they’re always connected to their environment. The way I use color is similar, I love the way color can bleed away from a piece, the way color doesn’t stick to its material, or doesn’t always stick. It can bounce, and hover and float.
SM – Maybe expand isn’t the right word, because it suggests something hierarchical. I was thinking of it as a way of saying that all the parameters and variables become interconnected and there’s that experiential echo and awareness of light permeating in and through and past everything. And something about sight and site and insight becomes really important here, they become inseparable.
FL – Right, exactly! I like this conflation of sight and site and insight, you put it so well. I called the show “Eye Contact” because of what Angelina brought up at the very beginning of this conversation: this idea of merging vision and tactility. We are these bodies with orifices through which exchanges with the world happen. And most of our moments of exchange with this outside is through material secretion. Sweats, tears, shit, milk- there’s all this material!. Yet through the eyes, it’s a very intangible exchange that happens. And I really like understanding sight as a tactile act, not an intangible one, and as this moment where the world comes in and we extend toward the world, through eyes and through eyes touching.
AG – Fabienne, to what degree are you responding to the place where the work might be exhibited when you are making it? With this show at Turn Gallery, there’s so much conversation with the architectural elements, like the shape of the top of the fireplace that gets inverted in Between Notes, or the half crescent moon in black of Appear that plays with the black leading of the windows… and the scale of your wall pieces perfectly implicates the negative space of the wall.
FL – Everything in this show was made before I knew about the space. But when I saw it, I pretty much knew which pieces belonged in it, although not completely. I find it important to make pieces that are “adaptable.” I pride myself in making pieces that can exist in different situations and respond to different aspects of what’s around them. I don’t want them to need to exist in a specific situation. I don’t want to be like that myself either. What about you?
AG – I had some pretty specific ideas about installation with the show, which is not the norm for me. I knew that for The Physic Garden I wanted to be close to that engulfing feeling.
SM – Angelina, if I think of the series of Confections paintings as covers of a journal or a book, it’s like you open it, and then the information is inside and what’s on top is a marker of what to look for. But if I think of these as pages inside of a book, it gets really interesting because then they become code since there’s no text, so to speak. And then we go back to images which fundamentally function as codes for knowledge. It’s interesting to think that maybe everything we need to know or learn before looking at an artwork is already right in front of us.
AG – I think about that sometimes – that everything we need to know is in front of us. When I’m trying to solve a problem in a painting I’ll tell myself that all of the answers are already there. Assuming an attitude that is not of scarcity, where I need to bring something else into this, but of richness that’s already there and I just need to figure out how to emphasize it, has really been helpful in the studio.
And I can see how the Confections feel coded, as they dance in between veracity and imagination. All of these herbs, seeds and spices are what would have been candied and included in collections that functioned as medieval pill boxes, but I have not painted them “accurately”. Some of the insets are adjacent to what they might look like in real life, like the almonds look like almonds, but most are not reliable descriptors at all, there’s an element of fancy to their interpretation. What I was more interested in is the context of the inset boxes: aquatic stains and shapes, some bodily, some look like roots, and that’s all painted from the backside. I’m interested in visualizing the context that these plants might grow in – the soil, the relationships with the environment, because what identification books do is isolate and separate a specimen so you can study it in detail, but separating it from all the relationships, the context, the allegiances that it might have with other plants, trees, or fungi.
SM – The political undercurrent of what you’re saying, Angelina, seems to link up to the way, Fabienne, you talk about positionality in relationship to your work, which is so much about interconnectedness and of being aware of one’s own intractable relationship to the world.
FL – Yes, when I use that term, I mean the way that our position in the social and the political shape our outlook, which means that there are no universal truths, but also no elements of understanding in isolation. Angelina, it’s fascinating to hear you talk about the difference between what you’re evoking through the backdrop of the Confections and what is encapsulated in the inset boxes, and I think you’re right, Sangram, there’s obviously a political kind of content to that.
It goes back to the kind of vision that reduces, that I was talking about at the very beginning of our conversation. In a sense that’s what you’re describing within the inset boxes, where you separate the plant from all its larger connections, all its alliances, as you say. It reminds me of this really beautiful sentence I just read by Édouard Glissant. He said that poetry’s force is radiance. Poetry is an evocative and radiant form of knowledge, as opposed to an absorbent form of knowledge where things become understood and fixed, and a unity is formed. Does that make sense? The radiance is what you’ve painted from the backside…
And the other thing I want to talk about is the way we use color to think of the social or the political. Sometimes you put color from behind the canvas, really embedding it in the weave, and at other times you make these really light, thin washes, for example. It’s like, color can float or linger in one’s memory or exist as an after-image. Or color can be totally material and heavy, crusty and sticky. I really think that through these different embodiments of color we can think of ways to relate to each other, and to exist in the world, without relying on conventional divisions or hierarchies. I mean, colors are always in relation and always in confluence with each other.
AG – Colors are always in confluence with each other, and also caught up in what holds the color too, whether it’s the canvas or acrylic medium or linseed oil. The outlines around these little boxes, there’s often really weird stuff that I’m using: laponite, ceramic spheres, ground up rubber tire, ginseng, coffee grounds…
FL – Sangram, you haven’t seen Angelina’s new paintings in person- there are parts that are really, really thick. Like, oatmeal thick!
AG – Yes! I wanted some of that oomph to the body of paint there, a sense of haptic, the touch… the stained colors in my paintings are influenced by the color of the raw canvas. When I’m painting from the back of the canvas, some colors penetrate better than others. I’ve found recently that even though foraging and making natural pigments would be a cool way to embed some ideas literally into my painting, I don’t have enough time to make those, in addition to making the paintings! So instead I went the other direction, toward the synthetic hues and jewel tones: quinacridones, phthalos, all the chemical colors.
FL – I love those. I use many of the same pigments.
SM – Well, the chemical colors which can easily feel toxic or ‘unnatural,’ in fact do the opposite. I feel like Angelina, your colors make the plant forms noticeable and we realize simultaneously what they are, but also what they’re not. And they take on a symbolic potentiality. And Fabienne, in your work, there’s the light in which the works live. So even if you’re using dioxazine purple or phthalo blue they interweave with the natural light of the environment. Also I was thinking about Joe Overstreet’s works that stretch and pull the body of the environment into the work.
FL – Oh yes, I love his work so much. As you’re saying that, I’m realizing that his pieces are dependent on the architecture around it, but that very fact makes the environment more malleable. And that’s really interesting to me. I want to think about that more.
I was trying to achieve something like what you describe — that pulling of the body of the environment into the work- with Eye Contact. For example, Hymn and Hum are placed at different heights on one wall. They both have unsteady shapes: an inverted “T” that maybe looks like a hat, and an oblong or stretched-out and curved trapezoid. So the wall gets carved up into a wonky shape too- it’s not merely the background.
I thought it was funny to put Hymn and Hum together side by side. I was thinking about sound a lot in this show. Color and sound are so similar in the ways they echo and swell and vibrate and reverberate. Both color and sound have this way of reaching out, of travelling out. They disavow separation.
SM – Would you speak a bit about the painting Sacred?
FL – I hung this piece very low, so you could see it through the yellow part of Eye-touch. That’s one thing I definitely knew coming in, these two pieces, with their dots/drips, needed to be connected. In my studio, Sacred was hung behind Eye-touch and I liked relating the dots of the one to the other. My daughter Lou made the red, yellow and black dots in Sacred. She spent a lot of time in my studio during the pandemic and she taught me a lot about painting and other things.
AG – That’s so funny Fabienne, because on the backside of The Physic Garden, Frances was there on the day that I stretched it – I needed to mark the staples that I had adjusted, and she ended up making all of these little drawings on the backside of my canvas! I remember when she was about Lou’s age, she did this amazing drawing –
FL – I remember that drawing! I think about it a lot. It’s in your studio.
AG – It’s a figure, but the head is really big, and it’s so big that it had to curve around to fit in the frame of the page. I just looked at it and immediately I thought, “I am so married to the grid and I need to stop that.” There’s so much potential in these curves and bent shapes. And I think the grid is still my default, but I keep this drawing up to remind myself about scale and bent shapes.
FL – I remember that conversation really well. You were struggling with the composition of another painting and you said that Frances’ drawing was on the wall of your studio to remind you: some elements can touch the edge and wrap around… I have thought of that conversation many times in my studio and with Lou in my studio!
SM – Angelina, The Physic Garden is such a great example of where the grid is barely felt.
AG – This is the closest that I’ve gotten to the visual experience of just looking for things in the woods, that thing when your eyes are tired or sometimes it’s raining or it’s foggy, and you can’t see, or that existential question, like what is even here? Because that’s the truly mind-bending thing. When I was first looking for morels, I hadn’t found one yet. They’re extremely difficult to spot. And I didn’t have any spots or tips about where to go. It’s like you are brought down to the basics of what are my sensations right now? What can I hear? What can I smell? What can I touch? What can I see? You know? And then things come in and out of focus and some you recognize and some you don’t. And so that was very much the types of vision that I was thinking about when I was putting this painting together.
The Physic Garden painting is also an inventory. Just about every plant in this painting is specific, this is gingko, this is licorice, this is oats, these are poppy, this is nettle, this is comfrey, this is dang shen, fig trees, you know? I was really trying to construct this impossible but fantastical medicinal garden.
SM – It seems like you’re describing the making of how one finds the painting. Fabienne, I’m curious, how do you find your painting?
FL – It’s a mixture of thinking and wondering, and then sometimes I literally have a crush on a piece I’m working on and I just get really excited and I go back home and then I want to go back to my lover in the studio. I think that’s when something very new is happening… I think in most cases I land, I don’t find. I just land somewhere where I know the piece is finished, and often it is after a long process full of changes of heart and detours and turns.
AG – Fabienne, when I was looking and thinking about your show… I’ve had a long studio crush relationship with Sonia Delaunay, I’ve been so struck with her work with rhythm and movement, and color movement is so apparent in your work right now. And it brings me great joy.
FL – Oh, nice! Color movement….. I think you’re the one who made me look at Sonia Delauney’s work more closely. It comes from conversations with you in your studio and mine.
AG – I love hearing that.
“Fabienne Lasserre: Eye Contact“, Turn Gallery, 32 East 68th Street, UES, New York, NY. Through April 24, 2021.
“Angelina Gualdoni: The Physic Garden,” Asya Geisberg, 537b West 23rd Street, Chelsea, New York, NY. February 27 through April 3, 2021.
“Light Over Plaster Clouds,” Fabienne Lasserre, Rosemary Mayer, Yamini Nayar, curated by Max Warsh, Critical Path Method, Baltimore, MD.
About the author: Born in Kolkata, India, Sangram Majumdar is a Professor of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art.