Carmen Neely: "It Makes It More So If You Say So"
Interview by: Nadia Sesay
Image credit: Courtesy of Jane Lombard Gallery/Photos by Christine Pan
Carmen Neely transforms the humble mark - the embryonic step in the process of art-making - into charismatic expressions. To those marks she adds myriad found objects, like beads, party horns, clipboards, and Plexiglas to name a few, and affixes them on a canvas to form imaginative abstract portraits. She even forms some marks into three-dimensional clay sculptures - called "gestures" - which are also attached to the canvas. Neely's tweaking and re-acclimation of the mark challenges the status quo of art history - that is, a history affixed with European and predominantly male contributions.
Neely earned her MFA from University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2016. It Makes it More So if You Say So is important not only because it marks a pivotal moment in Neely's professional career (this show is her first solo exhibition in New York City), but it is also significant because of the space she occupies in fine art - a black female abstract artist, a designation some would describe as an oxymoron. Neely says, "From the start of my endeavors in abstraction, I have received comments about how my work is either “surprisingly” created by a black woman or "atypical” of “black art”.
In the current social climate where discourse on race and identity unfurl frequently and, sometimes, ferociously, even in the context of contemporary art, the young artist offers a timely and personal platform to savor beyond the attractive surface of lines, curves, and other marks. In addition to abstract paintings and clay sculpture, the show also includes Breast Bombs, round knitted sculptures covered in embroidered nipples which elicit consideration of the normative expectations of gender.
BLANC Modern Africa caught up with Neely before the opening of her show to discuss her process for developing abstracts, her obsession with material and collection, and her identity as a black woman in art.
Nadia Sesay: With a strong focus on materiality, the range of matter seen in your work is not too surprising: duct tape, carpet, glitter, plastic bags; red wine! (Alright, there was some shock to the last one). How do you organize objects into imagery? Is the arrangement of objects predetermined or organic?
Carmen Neely: The process of arrangement is completely organic, but compositions do come together from a mixture of predetermined elements and intuitive choices. All of the paintings evolve from an event or experience that I want to capture the essence of through formal relationships. For example, in What I learned, I wanted to translate a situation I got myself into that was potentially disastrous, and could have been preventable. Just that idea immediately put the clipboards in my mind as a necessary addition. I also liked the challenge of taking this rigid, recognizable object and figuring out a way to integrate it as a mark while simultaneously allowing it to maintain its identity. The buoy suspended from those clipboards was something I had sitting around my studio for months before the piece was ever conceived. I originally held on to it because I was drawn to its surface and form more so than what it represented. I save a lot of objects for that reason – simply because I think they are uniquely interesting – and because I know that the right work in the future will call for them.
When did you begin to isolate certain gestures of a work to create sculptures? How do you determine which gestures to elevate into sculpture?
I began transforming the gestures into three-dimensional forms about two years ago. Creating those initial small versions out of polymer clay was so satisfying because it felt like I was discovering a new way to paint, with the same language. The clay comes in pre colored packs, so being able to mix them to create the palette I desired, also being able to consider both color and form simultaneously was just an extension of the way I was already dealing with paint. The clay objects all felt like familiar friends that I had worked with and seen many times before. That recognition has set me on a path to find out how many other materials I can form the same relationship with. The plaster, crocheted yarn, resin, and plexiglass, for example, are all part of this pursuit but certainly only the beginning.
There’s no hierarchy of gestures, or true system for selecting marks to translate into other materials. This aspect is largely intuitive.
What materials and objects laying around your studio currently?
Currently, there are lots of boxes of plexiglass marks sitting around, yarn, some small collections of beads, tubs of clay resin that I’m currently obsessed with.
Do you keep a personal collection of objects?
When my paternal grandmother was alive, she collected salt and pepper shakers. I don’t have her entire, massive collection, but do have several of those sets. Something about having them sitting around does make me want to extend the collection generationally and pass it on to other family members, but typically I don’t have one set of objects that I seek out.
The things I really like to keep are small documents from places that most people overlook – like corks from wine bottles, or napkins at dinner, hair clips that fall on the floor, empty bottles from the bathroom… You can always take a picture of a moment and be able to look directly at who was there and what they were wearing, but for me there is something so much more magical about having the memory unfold in a more abstract way – like for example, finding a stained receipt from two years ago when you took your friend out to the bar for their birthday, and it's dirty because they spilled beer all over your bag at the end of the night – holding a document like that can transport you back to the true feeling of a moment in a way that a photograph can’t.
What aspect of the processes of “collection, accumulation, and possession”, which you enumerate on your website, interest you?
Because I am always holding on to random things for the sole purpose of discovering them later on to connect to a memory, and have had this relationship to objects my whole life, I have always questioned why possessing a series of something feels so satisfying and comforting. I’m not alone in this need to accumulate materials and documents, but the answer to why people do it is complex and layered for each individual. As an only child a lot of my independent playtime revolved around toys and objects as opposed to physical actions. Although I was involved in a lot of organized activities with other kids, I maintained a large group of imaginary friends that I conversed with at home. It's sort of like those objects in my room were my company.
Then there is also the element to collecting that has to do with our desire to see ourselves reflected in the world around us. This can stem from a purely materialistic or consumeristic drive, or a subliminal need to feel like we are making unique choices and “curating” our lifestyles in world of mass production. Regardless of what the reasons are for these obsessions, they all deal with the projection of one’s own identity onto something completely separate from themselves. These things become extensions of ourselves simply because we deem them as such.
This exhibition is actually your second show with Jane Lombard Gallery. In summer 2016 you participated in the group show CONTEXTURE, curated by Cey Adams. Did first exhibiting at the gallery in a group context affect how you prepared for your solo show? Did it inspire a new direction for your work?
That group show was really the first time I exhibited work from this pursuit for a broad audience after my thesis. I was already fully committed to this process of pulling out gestures and reinserting them as objects back into the paintings, but CONTEXTURE was probably the first time I was able to see how a range of people responded to these additions and their relationship to the images. The show also included numerous other great artists working in mixed media, and that framework connected so well with the way I had been working. My direction didn’t change following the show, but it did provide an inspirational push to continue, since the audience really seemed to read the additional materials as an extension of painting – the way I view them.
Did you work with any new materials for this show?
Yes! The work here incorporates laser cut plexiglass that I started working with as a new material for mark-making. I first traced previous gestures from photographs of older paintings in a digital editing program, then created templates with those shapes to be cut from plastic sheets. I’m particularly excited about these additions because of the juxtaposition between their hard, man-made, commercial quality, and the organic shapes that emerge out of this mechanical process.
Your own sexuality and female body continue to be the focal point for your art practice. Looking at your work from 2012-2014 (on your website), you’ve transitioned from figural painting, in particular female bodies, to a complete abstract aesthetic, such as the artworks in this current exhibition. What was the reason for this transition?
I think this transition has just naturally occurred during my growth as a painter. When I first started painting, despite being heavily influenced by artists like Cecily Brown, and Jenny Saville - whose works are both very fleshy and painterly - I was making flat, graphic imagery. I think I was more heavily focused on incorporating recognizable content and making more direct references. But then the more I loosened up and allowed myself the space to really play with and explore the medium, the more I found freedom in gesture. While the work has become less representational, many of the gestures and objects I make still carry subliminal references to the body without being literal representations. I think this undertone will always be present in the work.
Your work, to quote the gallery, is, “imbued with deep intention and awareness of [your] identity as a young black woman making art in the twenty-first century.” How do you express your identity as a black woman? Have you experienced conflict or resistance from external sources that your artwork offers no clues about your racial identity (as is often the critique of contemporary black abstract artists)? Or maybe this is something you consider internally?
From the start of my endeavors in abstraction, I have received comments about how my work is either “surprisingly” created by a black woman or “atypical” of “black art”. These seem to be consequences of two issues: one being that a lot of people don’t associate black artists, or even more specifically, black women artists, with abstraction because the historically dominant names we discuss – particularly in academia – are white male names.
The other issue related to preconceived ideas about identity and painting is that people think they can always read the artist’s race and ethnicity in their approach to painting, or maybe people just instinctively want to be able to do this as a method of understanding the work. Sometimes this is correct, and an intentional choice by the artist, but I think its dangerous to see this as a norm. Yes, I am a black woman painter. Yes, sometimes I want to paint about being a woman, or about blackness, or even both simultaneously, but sometimes I want to paint about cooking bell peppers for a guy I dated, or getting into a petty fight with my best friend. This is not to say that my identity has no influence in my life or choices – I’m in no way suggesting that. I’m simply saying that a black woman creating abstract narratives that aren’t all directly about racial politics shouldn’t be surprising – we have range, and are multifaceted just like everyone else on the planet.
Despite much of the imagery in the work not being specifically about my racial identity, my visibility as its creator does become very culturally relevant. In school I did not have many personal references of non-white women working in abstraction and dealing predominately with formal relationships as subject matter. I had no studio art instructors that were black. In graduate school as a drawing instructor, young black female students approached me each semester I taught, and pointed out their similar experience. They spoke to how much it impacted them to see me working in this capacity, and teaching as an instructor. It gave them a sense of optimism just to see my presence as an example. So my identity and visibility will always be significant.
Some people find it difficult to make sense of abstract art. What ultimately do you want viewers to understand about the show?
Each painting originates from some very personal experience. The titles, along with hidden symbols in the work allude to these. However, the minute details of those stories are not a necessary requirement for engaging with the images. My hope is that interactions between materials, objects, and gestures evoke moods the viewer can find their own personal references within. Cy Twombly spoke of each mark being an “event” with its own unique history, and I do want my work to translate in this way. The images are largely more about embodiment than illustration.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.