Eleanor Ray is a painter living and working in Brooklyn, New York. She has an MFA from the New York Studio School and a BA from Amherst College. Her work has been shown in three solo exhibitions at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, NY, and in recent group exhibitions at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA; The Center for Contemporary Art, Bedminster, NJ; Rothschild Fine Art, Tel Aviv; the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York; Interstate Projects, Brooklyn; and BRIC House, Brooklyn. Her awards include a NYFA Fellowship in painting, residency fellowships at the BAU Institute in France and the Dumfries House in Scotland, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Award.
You often have a window or a doorway in your work, which is part of a tradition in painting.Sabine Rewald wrote that the window is a motif that has been used by nineteenth century Romantic painters to represent unfulfilled longing by showing us the very close and the far away. Painting often acts like a window, but in your work, the windows act in the painting to make it seem bigger. Your paintings are tiny, maybe six inches by eight inches on average, but that window creates a larger mental space. Can you expand on that?
I like the idea that the small painting is kind of monumental rather than miniature – that it can contain a bigger space, like the imaginative space of a book, and that you can get back from a smaller painting more easily. So you can see more quickly how it operates on an abstract level when you’re not quite reading the imagery.
Of course many painters have been drawn to the image of windows because of their natural relationship to paintings themselves, with the framing of an organized, distinct visual field. But the relationship there isn’t quite fixed. It’s shifting. That can be especially interesting to see in places where painted space is competing with or surrounding a window, or maybe the real window serves as the light source in the painting, as in Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’. Or where a painting and a window live side by side, as if offering two options, as in the monk’s cells at the San Marco Monastery in Florence. Each cell there has one painting and one window, on the same wall, and the shape of the fresco mimics the shape of the window. The window is actually recessed from the wall, making the larger and closer painting appear to come forward into real space. Different relationships like that emerge when you see a single rectangular Donald Judd work surrounded on two sides by large-scale windows in his Spring Street building. I’m not deliberately thinking of the window as a representation of one thing; I don’t think it’s so definite. It’s something we live with, an organizing principle like the calendar. The window is always there as part of our visual experience, unless perhaps you lived outdoors.
I’ve seen your work mostly on the internet. When I look at your work on the 13inch screen of my computer, I am looking at an image of your work in real size. What I love about your work is that it is perfectly formatted to viewing on a computer, to being seen in the 21st century. I can see all the marks and brushstrokes that would be visible in person and I can see all of it at once. Working out of your apartment in Brooklyn, from many images you have collected, there is something that makes sense about the efficiency and scale of these paintings. I noticed most of your paintings at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects sold. Your work is scaled to being made and sold in dense, urban settings. Those Romantic painters who made tiny en plein air paintings of Italy glorified nature. I can’t help but think that yourwork glorifies urban spaces and modernity, yet values the importance of real, in-person experience.
It’s nice that images are so accessible online. But having the work seen in person is very important to me. Images seen on a screen tend to exist without any particular scale, and people might actually imagine that the painting is much bigger than it is. I remember myself being surprised many times to see how small a painting, with which I had been familiar only in reproduction, was in reality. I was surprised at first by how relatively small Morandi’s paintings were and Vermeer’s. Piero’s ‘Flagellation’ was also a surprise.
I definitely have a love for urban spaces, but I’m not really interested in glorifying them. I don’t think they need to be.
There aren’t a lot of hard lines in your work. When two things meet it’s a soft line. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s a soft atmospheric line that you couldn’t do in a larger painting, like a shuffling of cards.
Having a soft meeting of colors feels more tactile and spatial to me; you can imagine feeling around the edges that way, rather than making a sharp line that kills the space. I’m not consciously thinking about how to do that while I work though. It’s more intuitive.
It’s such a grad school idea to make a huge work. For a lot of students it’s the first time they’ve had access to that much space. They have to make something big because they feel they are never going to have that much space again.
Yeah, I did get some crap from classmates about that. Make it bigger! But my studio in grad school was smaller than the one I have now. It was called the Guston Kitchen — apparently it was part of Philip Guston’s apartment when he stayed at the Studio School as a visiting artist. It was a narrow space with lots of cabinets and not much free wall space. Maybe it was nice in a way that it gave me permission to work smaller. At the Studio School we’d been encouraged to do a lot of really large painting. It felt like a part of the culture there. But I wanted to keep moving rather than work on one large painting for a long time. When you’re making small paintings, you can keep trying out more images and get more momentum. And something about the size of the mark in relation to the image on the smaller scale started to click for me. Still, it’s sort of mysterious what scale works for different people, and maybe you have to stumble onto it.
Is your work a reaction to the big painting? Is it the more mature, next step?
There are good reasons to work big too, of course, but I don’t think big has to be the default scale for serious painting.
How do you choose an image? Do you do sketches at the site or do you take photos or work from memory?
I do all of those things. I take pictures and make drawings. What to paint and what to keep involves a slow editing process that happens over time. The images usually come from specific experiences with places, from what’s been memorable or moving for me. Like the experience of first seeing certain artworks: when something can surprise you although you did not expect to be too engaged with it, or when what seems at first like a disappointing aspect of a place can actually become more interesting. Painting is a way to look more closely at those things – to bring different places or subjects into contact with each other in the context of a group of paintings, without those relationships having to be too overly determined. But choosing an image is a mysterious process, like scale… I like what Anne Truitt described as recognizing her own experience, finding external equivalents for her intuitions.
I can’t pinpoint an Eleanor Ray formula, but when I see a painting I know it’s yours.
That’s good to hear.
You have a painting of Cezanne’s studio with a ladder casting a shadow, which is also reflected in a mirror. It’s like a copy of a copy of a copy contained in a painting. I need to look at it to search for the origin. Where is the source? There is no real ladder, at least not in this painting. The way you mix colour is so particular and precise. That is maybe why they are small, because that is the limit of how focused a maker could be while holding all the variables together at once. The size of the brush, the direction of the mark, the colour choice, everything is carefully considered, and you seem to be aware of everything during every single moment of construction. If they were bigger, you’d get tired and lose focus. There would be moments you were paying more attention to the podcast you’re listening to or just filling in space.
That’s how I used to feel making larger paintings – I had to cover the surface. Some people must get a lot of pleasure out of that physical gesture of filling a big expanse. But for me that wasn’t it.
Most of them are done in one sitting of three or four hours, but not as a rule. Sometimes I do go back and rework paintings and I often make second and third attempts at the same idea or image.
Do you draw it out in pencil on the masonite surface?
I usually draw a little bit before I start painting.
That’s what I’ve found out about painting, that I can only do it for three or four hours at most at a time before I lose focus.
It’s important for me to have other kinds of work that I do around the painting. To read, look at other art and go see shows, and just get out of the studio. I don’t believe you have to work any certain number of hours.
Do you have other jobs aside from painting?
No, only painting right now. It’s really luxurious.
It’s clear from just looking around your apartment at the number of books that you have and your subject matter that you know painting and its history well.
Art history is so accessible. You don’t have to study Latin to look at ancient Roman paintings. I love that. It’s a great luxury for painters that they can look at a recorded history for so much longer than artists in literature or music.
I started painting more on panel around the same time I started painting smaller. I like the way the paint sits on the surface and stays where you put it. I’m working on a machine-sanded surface so there’s no grain. I get panels cut to a variety of specific dimensions because I want a lot of choice. I end up with a stack of panels and I choose a size for the particular image, or maybe the reverse. Maybe that introduces a little randomness. If I favor a certain dimension more for a while, say I use up all the squarish ones, then I’m left with some odder shapes and I end up having to use them. I don’t want to use the same dimensions over and over right now.
Who do you look to? Who are your favourite painters, living or dead?
Seeing the Morandi and Bonnard shows at the Met in 2008 and 2009 made a big impression on me. That was such a great pair of shows to see back-to-back and in the same space — two painters taking ordinary imagery to such different extremes, and both clearly in love with painting in different ways. And then I’ve always loved Vermeer and Matisse as well as Giotto, Duccio, Piero, Gwen John, James Castle, ancient wall paintings. I love Giorgione’s ‘Tempest’, and Piero’s pregnant Madonna, painted in his mother’s home town. I like the way Guston put it, that ‘the art of the past is a hidden art’. I think partly he meant that in a Piero fresco, say, the abstraction is masked by the imagery, and therefore revealed more slowly than in a Mondrian. But older art can also seem unavailable to us when we know we’re missing so many period associations, or the meanings of the iconography. But maybe, depending on your temperament, that problem can also make things more interesting. To me those things are almost red herrings, and everything there is actually visible — Giotto feels so straightforward in a way. It’s a grand narrative that still feels down to earth. To see things like that in person where they were made can be so raw. Giotto in Padua and Masaccio in Florence were especially powerful that way.
That seems like the perspective one has as an adult. You couldn’t see those things when you were younger and looking at a book.
More recent art helps you see those things too. You see things going backwards almost through what’s closer to your own time. But it goes both ways, of course. Now Vermeer’s interiors feel like Annunciations to me: a woman receiving a letter or waiting for news. Or, you can see Matisse in the black outline that comes and goes around Empress Theodora’s attendants in a 6th-century Byzantine mosaic. Also, I understood Morandi’s colors differently after seeing Italian fresco paintings. So, in painting everything is so visible in one way, but then it’s not communicating something reducible or definitive. A painting is both fixed, seen in an instant, and always shifting, open to being reseen.
Those are beautiful ideas, that as you put it, ‘everything there is actually visible’ and that seeing goes both ways. That, to me, is the crux of what your paintings do.