Looking at Giordanne Salley’s paintings is like looking through a window into a dream world where nostalgia, love, and memories intermingle to create moments of an intangible, carefree past. Her paintings are romantic and bittersweet, depicting scenes either from her memories of personal experiences or imagined moments constructed through thinking about deeply personal emotions and feelings. Her works are about being in love, or thinking about being in love from a removed other time. Her hazy and vibrant use of color, flattened figures, and manipulation of light and shadow create idealized images that are on one hand removed and abstracted from the viewer, while also deeply evocative of intimate and fleeting moments that are very much grounded in our own lived reality.
Giordanne Salley was born in Dayton, OH and earned her BFA in painting from Anderson University. Salley was an artist in residence at the Chautauqua Institute in 2008 and 2011 and at the Vermont Studio Center from 2010-2011. She received her MFA in painting from Boston University in 2013, and has shown in numerous group and solo exhibitions across the United States. Most recently, Salley had a solo show at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects in 2015 and was included multiple group exhibitions this past year 2016, including at David & Schweitzer Contemporary, James Cohan Gallery, and Bravin Lee Programs. In addition to showing work, Sallely has also worked as a visiting lecturer at The College of William and Mary and Anderson University Department of Art and Design. Salley’s studio is based in Brooklyn, NY and is represented by Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects.
How did you first get interested in art and start making work?
I have always been interested in drawing and making images. As a kid, I was not allowed to say “I’m bored.” I remember having to go to church with my parents and found it incredibly boring. My mom would toss me some paper and pens from her purse and I would doodle throughout the service. I did not find drawing to be “boring” at all. I would mostly draw things I loved, like animals (lots of horses) and trees or people I knew. My parents saw that I was interested in drawing and painting from an early age and encouraged me to attend community art classes and submit drawings for area children’s drawing competitions. I think this kind of participation at a young age gave me a sort of confidence in my ability or at least the impetus to continue to draw and eventually paint in a serious way. In high school, I began using oil paint in art class for the first time. I had a particularly influential teacher who pushed his students to consider painting (or other forms of art making) as a career. I think I was fortunate to have a lot of support and encouragement growing up which made the decision to “be a painter” more possible. My very specific and steadfast interest in drawing and painting since childhood has kind of left me with no choice but to keep making paintings. I still do not find it boring.
What attracted you specifically to painting?
I love all the possibility in painting. I am able to be intuitive with paint and drawing materials in a way that perhaps other materials do not allow. I am really interested in a sort of struggle with the material. I am not a particularly skillful painter. I have always had a clunky trial and error approach, but I love that part. Sometimes the errors or imperfections are the most sincere parts of the painting. I also love that paint is so forgiving. I have not felt the same amount of freedom with any other material. If you make a clunky mistake with clay, maybe it will explode in the kiln or crack under pressure. If you make a mistake digitally, you just undo it and there is not the same human mark, etc... I in no way intend to undermine other materials, I just love paint so much and feel like there is endless possibility and freedom for me within its limitations. I also love that nothing is really affected by gravity or actual space. If a figure needs to be floating, she can be floating. If two hands need to interlock in a certain way that is not possible in the world we live in, it is possible in the painting. I think that is awesome. Also, I tend to be obsessive. I do not think I could do two things really, truly well. I guess I decided a long time ago to just spend my whole life trying to be a good painter (whatever that means).
What were you making in college and grad school and how did you arrive at this current body of work?
In a way, I feel like I have been making the same paintings forever and that they are all part of the same body of work, but if I look at a painting I made 10 years ago next to a painting I made yesterday they are obviously quite different. In college I spent a lot of time painting and drawing from observation. I spent two summers at the Chautauqua Institution painting in the landscape with Stanley Lewis. This time, as well as time spent working from models and still life set ups, was very important for me and my understanding of form and light and the figure. All throughout college and at Chautauqua, I would paint and draw from observation in the day time and then go to my studio at night and make paintings from my imagination and memory. I think all the information I was gathering while painting from life gave me tools and ideas to bring back into the studio and invent paintings.
I began making these really awkward paintings of family members and people I loved in places where I most often thought of them. I made this weird painting of my dad mowing the grass in the front yard where I grew up, but I had all these silly rules about not using any source material, only painting from what I could invent, remember, or imagine. I quickly realized that I did not know what a lawn mower really looked like. It’s a weird painting that is totally not about the lawn mower, but it’s about my dad working hard in the yard, pushing around this red/black shape thing and struggling with the task. I remember being frustrated with it, but then surprised when the image kind of existed in this other world with its own logic. I continued painting in this way after college. I spent a year at the Vermont Studio Center working on paintings from memory and imagination. At that time, all the work was autobiographical and each painting was of one specific event without any real overarching narrative thread.
I have never stopped painting and drawing from observation, but I began focusing seriously on the studio paintings while I was in Vermont. I applied to grad schools with that body of work and ultimately attended Boston University’s MFA program. At BU, my work was challenged. At first I was making these kind of dainty, awkward paintings that lacked any sort of material confidence. I spent my two years in grad school trying to become a better painter. I had a large, gorgeous studio that I filled up with enormous paintings of figures swimming and fooling around. I became less tied to a specific event in each painting and started painting this narrative of two people in love. They were still based on personal experiences, memories, and imagination, but they became more open and day-dreamy and more ambitious in scale. I spent a lot of time daydreaming in grad school. I was in love with someone who lived far away and began painting about the kind of frustrating situation of having strong feelings of love, but also being alone in the studio all the time. I had all kinds of time and resources during those two years that allowed me to figure some important things out for my paintings moving forward, things like scale, adding elements of drawing and collage to the paintings, and a more specific painting language that I am still using and is still evolving today. The paintings I made in grad school were kind of a jumping off point for the work that I am now making in my studio.
What are you working on right now, and how do you see your work developing in the future?
Right now I am working on a group of paintings about two people in love (still). I think of all of the paintings as self-portraits. I am opening the works up in a way, thinking of the group as a sort of nonlinear narrative about being in love and what it feels like to think about that while you are alone in the studio. Each summer, my boyfriend and I spend time in Vinalhaven, Maine. I have been going up there with him for about six years. The place we stay is pretty remote. You park your car, then hike through the woods down to the property which is on this point looking out over the water. There is no cell reception, no Internet, and no TV. It is a really amazing place where you so quickly become in tune with nature. You have to be aware of the tides, the sunset/rise, and any sort of change of weather. The light is so incredible up there and I think without all of the distractions of daily life, you become very much aware of your primal urges and feelings. Last summer, there was this amazing, yet subtle sunset on a hazy evening. The sky was this purple/grey/blue and the sun was this hot pink orange color because of the haze, you could really see the whole sun all the way to its edges. It was enormous and I really don’t know how else to explain how it felt to see it, other than that it feels the same as being in love. And maybe the sun made me aware of a certain fullness of heart feeling that I already had, but you know when you are falling in love and you have butterflies in your stomach? That is how it felt. In the new paintings, I am exploring the idea of that feeling. I began making a few paintings where the figure is not present to emphasize this idea of time passing. I am not sure how these paintings will progress in the future, but I feel like I am only just beginning to explore these ideas, going deeper into the woods I guess.
A motif I see throughout your work is moments of intersection (overlapping branches, grasping hands, light beams crossing, couples embracing, etc.). Can you talk about your interest in this?
I think there can be a lot of tension when things touch or are about to touch. I am using certain parts of nature and my experience in nature as symbols for perhaps physical interaction or strength of feeling. Sometimes the figure is barely present in the painting, but the sun is full and just about ready to kiss the horizon. I am using the sun/moon as a metaphor for heart feeling (I really need to come up with a better phrase, but you know what I mean, right?) or even romance or as an indication of how the figures in the paintings are feeling. Also there is something so satisfying about interlocking shapes and figures. In painting, you can do whatever you want. There does not have to be any sort of consideration for naturalistic logic, but rather a logic that makes sense in the world of the painting. I have looked to painters like Milton Avery, Edouard Vuillard, as well as Persian miniature paintings and Egyptian paintings for information about how things should overlap and interact. I am not interested in building a landscape that is believable in terms of how we see the actual landscape, but I am more interested in presenting a set of information about light and color and certain objects in nature, the sum of which is hopefully a believable world that is more about how those things are experienced and how they relate to human interaction and relationships. I am sounding really serious, and I am, but I have to mention that I am also interested in humor in my work and the absurdity of a huge sun or moon or a nude figure running through the woods is something I truly delight in.
The faces of your figures are usually obscured. Can you talk about this choice?
This started happening a few years ago. Without really meaning to, I began turning my figures away from the viewer. I have always had a hard time painting faces in a way that fit into the narrative. The faces kind of straddled this weird photorealistic/naive appearance and were totally distracting to the narrative. I also began thinking about the psychology of making a figurative painting where the viewer is not really invited to interact with the figures in the painting. Even though I think of the figures in my paintings as specific people, I think that by obscuring their faces, their identity is a little more open. The viewer’s place in the painting is also open to interpretation. I remember looking at Poussin’s painting “Adam and Eve in Paradise” and imagining what my role as a viewer of that painting could possibly be. Of course in the story of Adam and Eve, there are no other people inhabiting the earth yet, so as a viewer my role is sort of ambiguous and open, but not participatory unless I think of myself as one of the figures in the painting or as some omniscient presence. While my figures do not live in “Eden” or even alone in the invented woods, I think seeing that painting gave me permission to keep the viewer at a distance and allow them to either invite themselves in all the way as part of the painting or choose to be a voyeur. I am still working through some of these ideas and am not entirely sure why some things keep happening in the work. In an attempt to be more inviting to the viewer and to remind myself that I am not completely incapable of painting faces, I made two portraits last year “Secret Portrait” and “Self Portrait in the Woods” where I painted two entire faces, then covered the majority of the faces with a curtain of pine branches. I was thinking of the two portraits looking at each other, or finding each other, but also, if the viewer is interested in participating in the narrative, that option is open to them.
Nature and landscape operate strongly in your works. What attracts you to this imagery?
I have always enjoyed the outdoors. I spent a lot of time with my dog in the woods behind my parents’ house in Ohio growing up and really have felt connected to the landscapes of Vermont and Maine as an adult. I think it is kind of funny that I spend so much time in a grungy studio in an industrial part of Greenpoint making paintings about this ethereal imagined landscape. As I mentioned earlier in the interview, the newest paintings are specifically responding to summers spent in Maine being very much aware of subtle shifts in time, light, and weather. I also love how parts of the landscape can have figurative tendencies and act as characters in the paintings. I love living in New York. I think it is an incredible city with so much to offer artists and specifically painters in terms of resources and community, but I come to my studio and daydream about the woods and water and light. When I was living in Vermont, my paintings were not about the woods at all, but rather about some sense of family or thoughts of childhood, then as soon as I moved to Boston from the woods of Vermont, I started painting about the figures in nature. That has only increased since moving to NYC. I often wonder if I were to move to the woods and set up a studio if I would make paintings about the city.
How do you determine the scale of your works?
The figures in my paintings are always life-size. I use my body as a reference for scale in my painting, either slapping my hand onto the canvas and tracing it (like in kindergarten) or measuring my shoulders or hips with a tape measure. I work on both a large and small scale. If the painting is about a figure running while the time of day is quickly changing, then I have to make the painting large enough to accommodate the whole body, but if it is just about someone checking their watch or a finger getting stuck in a braid, the painting can just be about that small moment and the hands or feet. I have tried not to include anything that is unnecessary in my painting. Even if most of the painting is made up of a rock, it has to be that way, but the scale is always very related to the body. I have, however had to make some practical decisions about scale in my studio. Until I have the storage and resources required, I have decided that I probably should not make any paintings larger than my studio doorway or too large to handle myself.
Can you talk about your approach to color and how you think about color within these works? Do you start with a set palette or do you mix as you go?
I usually begin with a color idea and mix the colors as I go. I think color is the hardest part of painting. I go through phases where I am obsessed with a certain color idea or relationship. Right now it seems to be a hot pink/orange next to hazy purple/blue. As with every other aspect of painting, my approach with specific colors seems to be the result of a lot of trial and error and therefore a lot of painting over and over again. I spend a lot of time painting over bad decisions, usually involving color. It would be awesome if I could mix all the paint for a painting ahead of time and just jump in, but I have never been able to work that way. I have a more intuitive approach that usually results in the right color arriving after layers and layers of the wrong colors have built up to form it. It is totally inefficient, but I enjoy the process and the paint surface that results from the layers of paint. Sometimes I will paint all these little branches and details on the surface only to realize that the sky has to be a different color, so then I have to go in and scrub paint between all the little pine needles. It is ridiculous, but I think it is necessary and makes an interesting vibration between what is actually on the surface and what is closest to the viewer in the painting.
Where do the images for these paintings come from?
These images are all based on personal experience and imagination. I used to paint strictly autobiographically, and I would say that still applies but in a more open way. I don’t necessarily go running around in the woods naked all summer (or maybe I do). The figures are based mostly on me and my boyfriend and the landscape is an imagined combination of Maine and Vermont, but could really be anyone in any place.
What is your work process when creating a piece?
I do a lot of drawing from observation, which I think informs the invented figures and forms in my paintings. I am always sort of collecting information that gives me the confidence to be intuitive in my studio. I keep a sketchbook with me and will jot down really crude little drawings of ideas for paintings. The small drawings are not good. They are more like notations or suggestions. I have always had trouble scaling up from drawings and jumping right into a painting on white gesso-ed surface, so I stopped trying to do that. From the small sketchbook drawings, I will have some sort of idea about the scale of the painting, so I will staple a bunch of raw canvas to the studio wall. I like the really thick, textured stuff with a lot of tooth. I then do a similar drawing directly on the canvas in graphite or charcoal. It is hard to erase lines on canvas, so when you make changes to the drawing, you are left with this record of decision-making. I also have been adhering paper to the drawing on the canvas to help solidify shapes and forms before I start painting. The fleshy parts of the paintings are usually paper or other bits that need to feel solid also usually begin as a collage.
I was first using collage as a tool to establish my figures and objects as solid forms and shapes, but found that it also changed the way that I eventually treated the painting, so I have tried to consider this while still in the collaging stage. Once I feel like I have a complete image, I then slap on a few layers of clear gesso. I love clear gesso. It has a kind of chalky tooth that is so great for scrubbing paint into the surface (but it does destroy your brushes eventually). From here, I start painting on the surface and figuring out color. I usually stretch the paintings shortly after I have some sort of color idea and finish the painting from there. I would love to figure out a non toxic and archival way to collage back on to the surface of the oil paint, but have yet to do so. I am open to suggestions..
What do you think makes a painting successful?
I have no idea. I think it is different for every painter and for every painting. I think it has to be this perfect moment where the form and material supports the concept and it all amounts to this sublime feeling that transcends the painting and creates empathy with the viewer. I have no idea how to do that the same way every time. I think if I ever even do it one time in a painting then I can die happy.
What informs your work?
Everything. I think I paint differently when I am tired or sad than I do when I am energetic and happy. I paint better if I have just had a snack or cup of coffee. I think a general sense of longing definitely informs my work. What I am longing for changes all the time. Obviously nature and relationships inform my work quite a bit, perhaps the most of all. Other paintings inform my paintings. I will be looking through my books and see a painting that I have not looked at in years and realize that I put that exact Kerry James Marshall rock in a painting yesterday, or lifted a color idea from a Bonnard painting, etc… I think everything filters in there in some way. I was working on this painting of rocks that I ended up calling “Lost Watch” in the fall and right after the election, I went in and just painted one of the rocks solid black. I don’t use a lot of black and ended up eventually bringing it up to this weird scumbly grey, but it was totally an emotional reaction.
What is the most challenging part of painting?
Again, everything. It’s like the whole world is conspiring against you to keep you from painting. Not really, but there never seems to be enough time or space or money to make the work. But somehow it keeps happening. I think as artists, we have to be resourceful and flexible and willing to sacrifice certain creature comforts. It is hard, but then it just becomes a way of life and actually I think it is a very fulfilling life. For me the hardest part of actually making a painting is color. I think there is a thin line between something that is mediocre and something that is so right and knowing how to arrive at those perfect color relationships is not always clear.
How do you handle challenges or moments of frustration when working?
If I feel frustrated or stuck in a painting, I just start something else. I usually have six or seven pieces going at time. I work on things for a long time but it seems like every piece, especially larger pieces, go through a kind of “resting period” where I just let it hang out in my studio while I work on something else. For a while, I was particularly frustrated with these two large paintings of figures running. I felt like every color I painted would point out that all the other colors in the painting were completely wrong. I decided to make a group of paintings without figures present that were just about color and light while the two large figure paintings were just sitting out in my studio. Eventually I felt like I needed to go back into them with ideas I had arrived at in the figureless works and it was as if I were rekindling an old friendship. Everybody needs time and space and so do paintings. Occasionally I feel frustrated with painting in general and feel like I do not have the ability to accurately paint the ideas that I do have. In those moments, I find that drawing, both from observation and from my imagination, is very helpful. Sketchbook drawings are kind of inconsequential so there is not this pressure to make them some meaningful image. Ideas can kind of just flow and no one has to know about them. I think drawing as a daily practice can really grease the gears.
What advice do you have for artists, or painters specifically, who are just starting to develop their own studio practice?
I think the two most important things for young painters are 1) showing up for your work. Make it a habit to stay in touch with your work in some way every single day. Having a day job and a studio practice and a relationship and bills and plants and pets, etc… takes a lot of self-discipline. It is very easy to find excuses not to work, but none of them are good if you really think about it. If you don’t have a studio space, then make small drawings. If you only have a few hours in the evening after work, just go touch base with your work. Gesso a canvas or build some stretchers. I think if you can paint (or make work) when you don’t want to, you can really do anything. With that said, relationships and healthy meals and plants and pets, etc.. are also important and can feed your studio practice so don’t give up everything just be discerning. 2) I think having some sort of painting community is really important. NYC is so great for that. The social aspect of painting can be really difficult and awkward seeming, but here it is actually so easy and kind of built in. Go to openings and talk to people, do studio visits, establish relationships that are sincere and not just opportunistic. It can be really hard to live and work in New York, but it helps if you are not alone. Residencies are also really great for meeting people to link arms with. Also, and I guess this would be a third thing, but give yourself time to really develop an idea. If you find something that interests you, give it some time, don’t leave it too quickly. I could use all of this advice myself as well.