Leslie Wayne, NA: Studio Visit With Barbara Takenaga, NA

Barbara Takanaga, Shadow Love, 2018, acrylic on linen, 54 x 45 inches

Barbara Takanaga, Shadow Love, 2018, acrylic on linen, 54 x 45 inches

Contributed by Leslie Wayne, NA / Barbara Takenaga, NA has been pitting her skill at painting pattern against the physical constraints of materials for years, and her skill has usually won out. For a long time, bodies of work based on the Mandala were her signature motif. She meticulously painted carefully plotted circular patterns with the devotion of a Buddhist monk. Then she abruptly shifted, not only in her approach to process but in size and scale. What has happened in the last three shows since she started exhibiting with DC Moore Gallery is a deliberate privileging of chance. This has not in any way diminished her labor-intensive process. In fact, labor in a way has taken on a greater role, though in such a sly and sophisticated manner that you would never know that, for example, she painted what you think is the background last instead of first. Does it matter that one is painted over the other? Not in terms of the work’s conceptual underpinnings. Only to Barbara, whose love of the labor itself is close to sacrosanct.

Barbara Takenaga, Black Shape on Red, 2018, acrylic on linen

Barbara Takenaga, Black Shape on Red, 2018, acrylic on linen

If you were to ask her what the overall conceptual framework was behind her painting, she would defer to process. She in fact calls herself a process painter, someone dealing improvisationally with order and chance. But based on this very commanding new body of work, I would suggest that powerful and durable emotional and intellectual forces, however subliminal, also play a role in her art making. These influences include her personal history and of the current state of national affairs. One doesn’t need to be truly old, which in today’s terms can verge on 100, to feel the weight of mortality and the pressures of time. One also need not be a bleeding-heart liberal to feel the intense anxieties of this political moment. Both these factors have converged on Takenaga, and the results are unexpected and arresting.

Barbara Takenaga, Cloud River, 2018, acrylic on linen, 45 x 54 inches

Barbara Takenaga, Cloud River, 2018, acrylic on linen, 45 x 54 inches

My recent visit to her studio gave us a chance to talk about these issues in anticipation of her upcoming solo show, “Outset,” her fourth at DC Moore.

Leslie Wayne: Barbara, I see how you’ve been slowly moving away from a centralized pattern over the years as the dominant characteristic of your paintings. And that’s true here too. But there are a couple of other things going on in this new body of work that are stunning. For one, your palette is much more restricted. For another, you’ve introduced in some of these paintings some singular and rather mysterious forms. What’s going on here?

Barbara Takenaga: Oh, yes, the palette is mainly black, white, gray and blue.  In fact, the first working title was “Blue and Black.”  I had been looking at a lot of books on Japanese and Indian painting and was enticed by the wonderful flat black shapes – a draped robe, elaborate hair styles, a winding river, the backs of elephants submerged in water.  The shapes became silhouettes, separated from their context, abstracted to a place where they open up to other associations. A black figure turned on its side becomes a menacing cloud or an island or a big weird fish.  And a lot of times the positive/negative spaces slide around because they’re less tied to a narrative.  Is it cloud, land, constellation or does the foreground flip to a river, net or monster? I like that in between-ness.  And I like that you called them “mysterious” because it enhances that aspect.  What is that thing?  For instance, the silhouette in the painting, Shadow Lovecame from a bit of peeling paint above the trash cans in my apartment building.  I would walk past it every day and I fell in love with that image.  It’s the absence of paint and a character.  And a random encounter.

I didn’t really answer your question about the palette, did I? I want the work to be elegant, a little disturbing, a little funny, and have some weight.  It didn’t initially occur to me that the palette was limited, but I think your thoughts about mortality and our particularly infuriating times in 2018 are in there.  I’ve always felt that the invisible core of my art making is a struggle with change, which is essentially death, successive little ones and big ones.  Between control and the passing of time.  A futile attempt to hold on and let go simultaneously. Stuff we all know.  I think about it a lot even though it’s not that apparent in the work. Wow, we really jumped into it all – in the first question even.

Barbara Takenaga, Rust Never Sleeps, 2018, acrylic on linen, 60 x 60 inches

Barbara Takenaga, Rust Never Sleeps, 2018, acrylic on linen, 60 x 60 inches

LW: Yes we did! So let’s backtrack a little. Your palette includes one other very prominent characteristic, which you didn’t mention – the use of interference colors. It’s very hard to incorporate those without taking on a kitschy quality, but to your credit, you’ve managed to use them in a way that mimics, or at least references the use of gold and silver in traditional Japanese art, particularly scrolls and screens. Were you aiming for that?

BT: Not in a conscious way, but I like that you pointed that out.  It’s definitely there.  I initially started using gold leaf in my small paintings in 2001 after a trip to Venice. That, plus an interest in how the Egyptians thought of gold, wanting to take it into the afterlife because it never changes, never corrodes.  The vampire of metals. That desire to hold still in time.  But gold leaf was tricky to paint on so I switched to acrylic iridescent paint.  Not nearly as visually seductive – gold leaf wants to sit up on the top surface and flaunt itself – but definitely more of our time.  And cheaper.  And a little goofier because of that kitschy aspect, it’s basically plastic.  I eventually moved on to other iridescent and interference colors because I liked the way the image would shift, according to the viewer’s position or because of changes in light from different times of day. The image moves around a bit, a little quiet animation, but stays the same.

Barbara Takenaga, The Edge, 2018, acrylic on linen, 54 x 45 inches

Barbara Takenaga, The Edge, 2018, acrylic on linen, 54 x 45 inches

LW: So the reference is there but not consciously. That’s interesting, and maybe I’m reading more into it than is really there, but I find that we become more ourselves, in spite of ourselves as we mature as artists, and that our intentions become increasingly subsumed by our personal history. So I’m returning to that, because I think this work, more than anything I’ve seen of yours in the past – and your recent career survey at the Williams College Museum of Art still looms large in my memory – feels unadulterated by convention. I’m reminded by the great Ann Magnuson, the performance doyenne of the 80s East Village scene, who I saw at a talk about a year ago. Describing her life and career, she said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that for years she climbed and climbed the hills and mountains of middle age and when she finally got to the top and looked over the summit what she saw was the valley of fuck it! And that’s what I’m seeing in this new work. A bit of fuck it. So I’m not sure which is at work here. Have you deliberately given yourself permission to just be yourself?  Or is your cultural and aesthetic affinity with Japan making its way into your iconography unbidden?

BT:  The valley of fuck it!  Perfect. I’d like to descend into that valley. And build a little house there. Right now, I think I’m still climbing to the summit.  Ha.

This is a great question because there are so many parts to the answer. The thing about the “mountains of middle age” – I have so many artists friends, particularly women, who have deep, long years of making art, we keep at it.  I love that.  I think one of the rewards of being an artist for a long time is that the work becomes more and more “you”, whether you push it there or not.  There’s more confidence in the work because it’s an old friend and you trust it.  There’s more fuck it now, at least for me, because I can’t do much about it, the work is what it is after all this time.  I show up, I work hard, the work shows up.  It’s a kind of giving up in little positive ways.  I give up trying to control things, I give up trying to be smart, I give up regretting.  Because of course, time is flying.  I don’t put away the Christmas ornament on my door because every time I turn around, it’s December again. The end time looms larger.  Not much time to not be oneself, to use a double negative. I guess this is stuff we all already know, just saying it again.

The other answer is that I started out as a printmaker and that has informed my work a lot.  My paintings aren’t painterly so when you talk of “not conventional,” maybe that’s part of it.  They’re flat and somewhat graphic and rely on a lot of processes like tracing, transferring, outlining, pooling paint, etc.

Which leads into the last part of your question. I never felt an affinity to Western art history.  It never moved me like it did for other artists.  But I’ve always had an interest in Eastern art and pattern. Was that a longing for a culture that was mine but not really mine, having been born and raised in Nebraska?  Is it something else?  (Sheila Pepe curated a show at the Bemis Center that dealt with some of these questions.)  So from way back, I always loved Japanese prints, tantric mandalas and miniatures from India, textile designs, those wild Samurai helmets, etc.  As a young artist, my favorite book and resource was Yoga Art by Ajit Mookerjee – which I paid for, five dolllars at a time on a layaway plan at the bookstore.  I think those influences, as well as my personal history, were always in the early work but submerged.  I didn’t want things to get too treacly or sentimental.  References to my grandmother were coded into mountain shapes (she was born near Mt. Fuji), images of a crow and a key were funny, private stand-ins for my mother’s maiden name Kuroki.  I used soba noodles as stencils versus Italian pasta, silhouettes of the structured robes of warlords, etc.  Lots of hiding and coding.  The whole series of dot mandalas from 2001-2009 were about my mother, sliding away into space. So the personal and Asian thing has always been there, but maybe it is more obvious now.  Maybe I’m growing into myself.  Ha. In this upcoming show at DC Moore, I laughingly thought of titling it “I think I’m Turning Japanese” from that old Vapors song.  Because I never saw myself as being defined that way. I told a friend that I was really surprised to find that my new paintings were getting very Asian-y.  She said, no, I hate to break it to you but your works have always been Asian-y.

LW: Okay, so fuck it, you’re an Asian artist! In a moment where the prevailing discourse is all about identity politics, that doesn’t seem like such a bad place to be. Particularly with the current immigration crisis mirroring the stain of WWII Japanese internment camps, honoring your Japanese identity feels like a statement of activist pride. But am I pushing this aspect of your work a little too hard here? Even though you say you’ve never felt an affinity with Western art, perhaps you mean Western as in Renaissance. But I do think you are an artist who is participating in the ongoing conversation about contemporary painting and the crossover of disciplines – in this case between painting and printmaking, and the complicated trajectory of postmodernism, including Minimalism and the Pattern and Decoration movement. Does that seem fair?

BT:  Yes, I do see myself more as a process painter, an abstract painter, a quasi-formalist, a female painter – more than in terms of noticeable identity politics. My personal history is definitely there but coded and submerged under other, more visible concerns – which is how I want it to be.  I feel fairly accepting and earnest in my choices.  Instead, I worry about entropy, I like visual ambiguity, I make an effort to be nonverbal and not think when it comes to making art – I’d like to be a better “grokker,” something I’ve chased since grad school.  (Heinlein, sci-fi, visual empathy…all good.)

And I used to have a much clearer take on that trajectory of postmodernism in the last part of your question. I gave lectures on it when I taught – horrors.  And of course, I love P&D, a movement that was a game changer. But while many artists are very conscious of the weight of the history of painting behind them and its influence on their work, that history is very quiet in my art thinking. It takes naps. My practice is fairly simple: I go to the studio and wait for something to happen, then I get to work.  Working gives me great pleasure, it’s the payoff. Which if probably true for most of us, right?

To be honest, the older I get, the more I feel that I know nothing. Me and Jon Snow. I know, it’s such a cliché.  But it’s good, it’s a good place. I’m okay with that for the moment.

Barbara Takenaga: Outset,” DC Moore Gallery, Chelsea, New York, NY. September 6 through October 6, 2018.

About the author: New York artist Leslie Wayne is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea. Wayne is an occasional writer and curator, and has received numerous grants and awards for her painting objects, including a 2017 John Simon Guggenhheim Foundation Fellowship and a 2018 New York Foundation for the Arts painting grant.

Controlled Chaos: Howardena Pindell, NA Interviewed by Jessica Lanay

Autobiography: Scapegoat, 1990, mixed media on canvas, 72 x 141 inches

Autobiography: Scapegoat, 1990, mixed media on canvas, 72 x 141 inches


Multidisciplinary artist Howardena Pindell, NA has reached an apex in her career. With the recent presentation of her work in major survey exhibitions, her art has become a phenomenon of its own. Pindell tenderly and painstakingly braids her formal artistic skills, political positioning, and personal reflections into sculptural canvases that at their most impactful seem to bloom in psychedelic colors that reach beyond the work’s surface. Pindell’s exacting rigor transforms her art into playful, eye-arresting fractals and procedural poetry. A retrospective of her work is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago until May 20.

Jessica Lanay I read an anecdote in an interview in which you talk about beginning to number the circles in your work. I was wondering how much this is connected to your father being a mathematician.

Howardena Pindell He had a book, and it had graph paper. He also liked to drive, and when we went anywhere he would write down the numbers when we started, and he would write down the numbers when we got there. He was interested in science and math. For my birthday as a small child I was given a microscope, and I was looking at drinking water and seeing all the things swimming around in the water. When I started the numbering, I found it a relief and a meditation.

JL Does your artistic process help you work through outrage?

HP It is very hard for me now to get angry, maybe because I have worked it out in the art. I can remember before when I was pretty angry, but that was when I expressed myself in writing. I think it is a combination of both my art and my writing that help me touch base with my anger. Now, I am feeling that I want my anger back. I am not going to stop my work to make myself angry, but I want to feel that anger again. The thing that I am really angry about now is Trump. It is almost like living again in the 1940s—it’s his rhetoric.

JL Speaking of math, has the idea of chaos as order ever influenced your work?

HP I love controlled chaos: I love the way it looks, the drama, the things juxtaposing with one another. Also, to hold the eye through beauty, to notice one thing next to another. I want to have a sense of inside and outside. When I was living in Japan I went to a place called Itsukushima Shrine, and they had a scroll called Heike-nyko. When you look at it, it looked like water. You look down into the water, and you saw things under the water. I am at the stage where I want a sense of going outside the picture plane.

JL People ask a lot about pre- and post-accident differences in your artwork. What I want to know is: What was your body’s relationship to your work before and after the accident?

HP In 1979, there was the exhibition called Nigger Drawings. A number of us, including Lucy Lippard, protested. David Hammons came to my loft, and we were making banners. When we went there they called the police and shut down the gallery, and then the whole chatter in the art world was that we were censoring the artist. And I was thinking: But you are censoring White women artists, Black men and women artists; you are censoring Asian artists and Native American artists—everybody. There were also other things happening. For instance, I was friends with Ana Mendieta, and I associate my lying down on the canvas and tracing my body with a crime scene or what it would have been like when she fell down onto the roof when, I assume, Carl Andre killed her. My getting in touch with my body after the car accident is in it, too. One of those reviews said in error that I cracked my skull. I did not crack my skull; I had a concussion, and my skull is dented. Still, it brought on a form of amnesia: I couldn’t read a watch or a clock.

JL Can you tell me about the process of getting a piece from your imagination to the canvas, and what the vehicle is for translating what you see through your body? Is it emotion?

HP I keep journals, and when I get an idea I write it down, because with the medication and my head injury, I have short-term memory loss. I am trying to resurrect the crusty, crunchy piece (Untitled #20 [Dutch Wives Circled and Squared])(1978). I want to try to reinvigorate this approach, and I have to keep looking at my own notes. I want to revive the way I used to work and combine it with how I am working now.

JL You speak often about moving from canonical figurative artwork to abstraction. Did how you see things as an artist change with that shift?

HP I don’t know if you know the piece Scapegoat (1990); it’s in the collection of the Studio Museum in Harlem. There is a little child, me, holding a ball—that is one of the paintings that came out of the accident, even though it is ten years after the accident. I felt there was a narrative that I wanted to put on canvas, but I didn’t want it to be on a rational picture plane or a rational perspective. At the bottom of the painting there is a white foot on my head—that was my old boss at the Museum of Modern Art. She is why I left. Then there is the text. My mother and I had a very adversarial relationship, and it was confusing for her because she was born in 1903, and she had a White birth certificate, but she was darker than I am. For some reason in Ohio they let her go to White schools. You can imagine what they said to her. Some of the things that I think were done or said to her she did to me. One of the things she said to me, before she died—she was in the hospital—she said, “If you don’t stop fighting racism someone is going to come along and destroy that little career of yours.” I put that text in the painting.

JL Were there artists who were highly influential in your decision to become more experimental in your work?

HP Frankly the earliest artist that influenced me was Marcel Duchamp. I loved The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–1923). There is one piece I adored that looked like sugar cubes covered in a cage. That opened my eyes. When I worked for the Museum of Modern Art, the department I was in was Prints and Illustrated Books. One of the things that I catalogued was Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (1935–1941), where he had little miniatures of his readymade pieces. My two influential things are the texture of Vincent van Gogh and Duchamp’s avant-garde thinking. Eva Hesse, I love her work. Vermeer, I love Vermeer.

JL Some of your work is about being gaslighted as a visual artist who is a Black woman. One example is your short filmFree, White and 21 (1980). Do you consider your work to be an affirmation of your experiences?

HP I would say, yes, especially with that film. I said: This had to be done; it has to be video; I have to play the two parts. I bought the blonde wig at Woolworths, and the sunglasses were my sunglasses from the 1950s. It was the first autobiographical piece that I did that set in motion the rest of the work. Everything felt like I was doing the right thing. It is weird because I had the idea, and someone showed up—her name was Maria Leno, and she was part of Downtown Community Television Center. Ana Mendieta, while she was still alive was a member of A.I.R. Gallery, and she did an exhibit called Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States, and that was my first showing of Free, White and 21. Then Franklin Furnace invited me to show it, and they were charging admission. I said: "Don’t give me my honorarium; let people come for free."

JL Your work is made up of discrete parts that are layered and built into a highly detailed field. Can you talk about the relationship between the individual pieces in your art and the final product?

HP You know what I think it is related to? Fractured mind. Because I had a head injury. It was a concussion. All the pieces after that are an attempt to unite my mind again, to mend the rupture. I have had two head injuries. When I was a toddler I slipped and landed on the floor and ended up splitting open my head. When I was in the car accident…I took a terrible impact. The feeling was fractured in terms of face recognition, voice recognition. I still have memory lapses. I have an extreme memory for some things like me being in the crib and seeing my father come in and hand me a newspaper. I would say that the turning point was really that accident—that was when I started combining figuration and abstraction and started using text. It is almost like knitting different parts of myself together, trying to get back myself.

Screen Interactions: Howardenda Pindell's Video Drawings

Video Drawings: Hockey, 1975, chromogenic print, 8 x 10 inches

Video Drawings: Hockey, 1975, chromogenic print, 8 x 10 inches

Howardena Pindell’s retrospective, What Remains To Be Seen, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) spans more than five decades. Pindell, who began as a figurative painter, turned to a process-oriented practice around 1967, the year she graduated from Yale, favoring abstraction and mixed-media materials, of which her hole punches are the best known. Her dot paintings, as they are often referred to, use the dots from a hole-puncher on large abstract canvases, adding texture and depth to the surface. However, as the exhibition makes evident, she has explored many materials and is a meticulous maker who also takes pleasure in repetition. She methodically repeats actions such as drawing vectors or punching holes, which in turn meditatively investigates order, calling into question the stability of systems that govern daily life and conceptions of reality. In repeating lines, numbers, etc., she calls attention to the relative trivialness of certain logics that are accepted as truth.

This deconstruction of structures of authority is specifically evident in her Video Drawing series, which she began in 1973 and has returned to throughout her career. At the MCA, the Video Drawings are presented in both the first and second half of the exhibition, which highlights Pindell’s reengagement with this idiosyncratic method. The first iteration of the Video Drawings began in 1973 when she purchased a television for her studio at the suggestion of her eye doctor. At that point her studio had no natural light, so the television became an electronic illumination source and focal point for her to give her eyes a rest from the meticulous work she was making. In her downtime watching the television screen, Pindell became interested in the nuanced politics of the programming she was consuming. The television then became a conduit for a new artistic output. For some time Pindell had been drawing vectors and numbers on acetate, and soon noticed that because of the electric static of the television screen, the acetate naturally clung to the surface of the screen, which Pindell then photographed.

The resulting images are aesthetic and analytic forays into the motion of the screen, especially in the early versions, which are mainly of sporting events, such as Video Drawings: Baseball (1973–76). In this work, Pindell captured the momentum of a baseball player with arrows suggesting movements and numbers suggesting strategic calculations, both of which allude to a player’s velocity and direction. However, as in her dot paintings, the numbers and arrows are also arbitrary marks. In these works, Pindell points toward the rapidity of media consumption as well as the materiality of televisions that send mass-media messages from the exterior world into our domestic lives. As such Pindell aims a critical lens on culture, politics, and leisure as developed in the postwar era.

Pindell’s Video Drawings, as with her larger practice, became more pointedly political after a near-death experience in 1979. When she returned to the Video Drawings in 1988, she photographed images of political events captured from the news to make her War series. In War: The “L” Word (George Bush) (1988), she captured the soon-to-be-president during a speech given the year he was elected. Alongside the arrows and numbers, Pindell began to introduce text in this version of the Video Drawings, placing “LIAR” in all caps underneath Bush’s chin. Also in this series are images of violence and atrocities from wars in Cambodia and Vietnam, particularly the use of poisonous gases. In her return to the Video Drawings, Pindell calls more direct attention to the complexities of technology as related to social and political conflict, subverting the ideal of television as a democratizing force.

The most recent Video Drawing presented in What Remains To Be Seen features news coverage of Hurricane Katrina. In Video Drawings: News (2007), she overlays acetate with arrows going in haphazard directions onto an image of a CNN weatherman describing the trajectory of the devastating hurricane in an attempt to engage critically with this cataclysmic event.

The Video Drawings are one of Pindell’s methods of visually deconstructing information, in this case televisual information. Though it is now blatantly clear that television is not neutral, when Pindell began making these works, there was still a general optimism about television and its potential as a populist technology. Through her aesthetic investigation of the medium, Pindell solicits the viewer to look critically at mass media, and she warns against accepting the homogenizing aspects of television programming. In this series, as in the rest of her work, Pindell aims to break down power structures by calling attention to their construction while simultaneously challenging accepted forms and subject matter.