Told and Untold

Art historian and writer Prudence Roberts joined artists Heather Lee Birdsong and Rachael Zur in conversation about their April 2022 exhibition at Carnation Contemporary, Told and Untold. The following are excerpts from the live webinar, edited for length and clarity.

Prudence Roberts  I wanted to start by asking each of you: this was not a planned partnership on your part. Tell me about getting together with each other and how that played out in terms of the work.

Heather Lee Birdsong  Rachael and I are both new members at Carnation Contemporary. This programming season for Carnation is a little shorter than normal, so we're doing two-artist shows. Actually, this is the first two-artist show of Carnation's season, so we're new members leading the charge as well!

As soon as Rachael saw that we were paired, she reached out to me. Luckily, we're both people who were motivated to do a collaborative show and hit the ground running.

Rachael Zur  It wasn't planned because of our content; that was a very happy surprise. When we had a first virtual studio visit, it became clear that a lot of the conceptual content of our work overlapped. I think that allowed us to get into the fun of thinking about how, with very different-looking work, we could have things become cohesive within the show. Very early on, we were thinking about shapes, color, and reoccurring symbols and motifs that we could amplify.

HLB  Rachael mentioned thinking about color as a way to bring this show together, our very different work. Rachael certainly thought about that in pieces that she made, and then I brought that into some pieces that I made; although a lot of my work in the show was either already made or in process. I work very slowly. Framing them in natural wood was a response to the color palette that she was bringing in.

PR  Tell me a little bit, each of you, about your background; and also describe your process, about your use of materials. You arrive at thematic conjunctions, but you're using such different methods to get there.

HLB  My work is very detail-oriented and kind of fastidious. It's mostly, at this point, painting in gouache, Acryla-gouache, and Flashe. I work in a small space with my cat, so it's important that the media be water-soluble whenever possible. In my heart, I'm a printmaker, so the way that I think about and approach image-making tends to be very process-oriented. I generally have an idea of how the whole thing is going to fit together at the start, and then work in layers.

PR  Yeah. The layers are what I wanted to talk about later. And then Rachael, how many years have you been doing what you call “expanded paintings”?

RZ  When I was finishing up my master's at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I was compressing installations back down into painting. It's thinking very spatially; but where it becomes painting is in prioritizing a specific vantage point about image, surface, and line. I've been working this way for about three years.

There were a few pieces I completed ahead of time, but the bench and the arch against the wall—those were made in response to being paired together and really wanting to take advantage of the gallery space. Since it is an artist-run space, and I didn't have to write a proposal ahead of time, I wanted to have a little bit of freedom with this—to play with that border between painting and installation.

This is very much a painting show, even when it doesn't appear to be. The bench (At Rest) I view as being a two-sided painting with a functional expanse in between, allowing for someone to sit. With Heather's work, a lot of people have been like, “Oh, these are prints." And then someone came in and told me, “I just love ceramics!” And I was like, “Me too. But these aren't ceramics!”

PR  Across the Cosmos & Across the Room and Fragile Quiet were the two images that you used on your press release, and I thought they were very well chosen. You can see, obviously, there's some compositional strategies in common. Could you talk about why you chose them?

HLB  Whenever you're choosing images to promote a show, it's always tricky, especially because we had such a short timeline to plan. We had to choose images before all the works were done. It came down to what two pieces were hitting these shared themes that we're talking about and would naturally look good together.

RZ  These are also the two images we saw first of each other’s work. We’re thinking about what the arch means in terms of religious spaces, of that being this way to access the heavens; and wanting to play up the nature of these places that aren't deemed religious, but have a strong spiritual charge to them. In Heather's case, a lot of outdoor spaces; and then in mine, the humble domestic home.

PR  I'd like each of you to talk a little bit about your symbolic vocabulary.

HLB  My work recently started engaging with architecture and architectural motifs. In Thickly Wooded Distance, I also brought in some of those domestic elements, responding to things in Rachael’s work: the chair and the vase of the decorative pampas grass. And then the outdoor space became part of this dim room—this dark, tangled place—so I collapsed and meshed together an architectural interior with a remembered outdoor space.

RZ  As far as my vocabulary, I already touched on my belief of the home being a spiritually-charged space. I want to pay homage to how living spaces hold the essence of people long after they’ve passed away. The living room’s predecessor is the parlor room. In pre-Civil War America, that’s where families would prepare the body for burial, this very intimate act of care. Symbols of the living room become a way of getting back to the parlor room, to this ordinary place where care is given to the deceased; a way of having closure that I don't think we're able to have anymore, even more so with COVID—there’s this detachment from death.

I’m using hands as a symbol for the affection that is still felt after the person passes. When you go into someone's home after they've passed away, there's still this feeling that they could walk in at any time.

There’s a sunset and sky effect that’s happening in a couple of pieces, and I’m also thinking of that as a way to bring in this spiritual nature, to connect the humble with the sublime. Like, when we look at the stars in the sky, we see them all at once; but their images aren’t all the same age, based on how far away they are from us. That’s similar to going into a home and it feels like this complete life, but it’s made up of objects that are sometimes meant to be thrown out, or need to be taken back, replaced, or were inherited even though we didn’t want them.

PR  I really liked the way that you’ve conveyed a sense of shabbiness and wear that is really moving and palpable. In Leftovers & Afterglow, especially, your notion of the sunset, with the light glaring on those two sofas, and then the vase in the middle! That spoke “funerary urn” to me.

RZ  Yeah. That's what I'm intending, and centering that in the middle of the home.

PR  You shared with me some writings that were influential to both of you: a piece about family memories and the fragmented way that families make their own mythologies. I have a sister, and I really believe that she was raised by different parents than mine, because we have such different memories. That happens, I think, in every family.

And then also the wonderful piece by Bean Gilsdorf (“Palliative Care”) about the death of her mother and the sense of being in the hospital, and the way that wildly different kinds of art spoke to her during that time. This isn’t really a question as much as an invitation for you to talk a little bit more about that.

RZ  The title for our show actually comes from the essay “Family Stories: Fragments and Identity” by Danielle McGeough. It goes on about the unsaid traces and the gaps between what is told and untold; or, “the told and the untold.” I liked that it also had this feeling of something that was building up and then unraveling at the same time.

I think, in a way, that’s what stories do; even the stories that are told by places. The residue of lives lived are held there, but fragmented. Then other stories begin to overlap.

HLB  The paragraph we pulled the title from also talks about, very specifically, not just what’s told and what goes unsaid, but the space between those things, this palpable absence. That idea of the palpable absence was something that Rachael and I came back to a lot. Fundamentally, a lot of these works are talking about grief and absence, and how we deal with that; how that continues to have a presence in our lives. Obviously death is a very natural focus for that, but there are a lot of shades of grief, and absence isn't always about death. I think all of those very complex and nuanced places come through in the work. Or maybe it's better to say that making the work is a way to try to put our hands on something that is fundamentally intangible.

PR  You’re right about grief being attached to place as well as to people. I think we're all sort of in a state of grief because of: A, the pandemic; and B, because of climate change. We know we’re losing things that we hold dear. I think that is in your work; and places that you can’t return to; in your case, Heather, because of the strangeness of the place that you grew up. Things just disappear in Las Vegas.

HLB  All the buildings are disposable architecture. I don’t think anybody builds anything in Las Vegas with the view that it's going to last 100 years. You're lucky if it makes it 50.

I started focusing so much on landscapes and exterior spaces because all of the houses that I had a relationship with growing up were torn down. But the landscapes—those still exist, although obviously are undergoing a lot of changes because of climate change.

These landscapes in my work are composites. They're part observation, partly from photographs, and partly from memory. They're essences of places that exist, but none of them are actually real. I think that's how memory operates as well. It collects all this detritus of different experiences, and time breaks down. There's not a clear linearity to how we narrativize our lives. That's reflected in how I compose the landscapes.

PR  I think that grief also brings with it a kind of amnesia. It's almost like an anesthetic that you need in order to get through, and then when you come out—when you have distance—the memories have been reshuffled in a very interesting way.

This, Heather, has something that I discern in a lot of your work, and that is a confusion of space. The interior/exterior, it all looks logical, and then it becomes somehow illogical.

HLB  Yeah. I start out thinking about that arch shape as looking through a window or a doorway, or a portal of some kind, into this landscape. But then the landscape breaks that window and comes through that space. There’s this constant push and pull between depth and flatness. I use atmospheric perspective, and shifts in size, to create a sense of depth; but then I work with very flat paint. Even though I can create this sense of things coming out of the mist, the paint is flat and opaque, and it's totally down to color mixing. There’s no glazing, there’s none of that kind of stuff going on.

PR  You don’t have that luxury.

HLB  No, I really don’t. I think that, as we said, that’s also a reflection of how memory operates, and certainly how grief operates; the way that things become jumbled and confused. I think of them as dream spaces, or somewhere that you inhabit when you’re not quite fully conscious.

PR  So this one, Rachael… Consuming and Shedding the Memory of a Lamp.

RZ  The lamp started out as a personal symbol in my work. My father passed away when I was four months old, and my grandparents had this lamp on an end table, with his photo on the end table next to the lamp. The room was never redecorated. It stayed exactly the same, with these couches that had this harvest gold, 1970s floral pattern on them. It was this paradoxical time capsule that made this impression on me. I started making paintings of that towards the end of grad school.

Then my best friend passed away, and so it became this compounding of griefs, painting both her living room and my grandparents' living room. Then over several years of working on it, it became less about me. Then, the way that life is, it circles back around to being personal again. I felt like it’s this symbol that I’m consuming and shedding. I’m feeling like, “Oh, it stands in for illuminating a room, and what it is that illuminates us and leaves when we die.” Then all of a sudden it’s back to being personal again.

I'm not sure if it’s super evident in pictures, but it’s a mirror embedded within the work. I like that whoever is looking at the piece also becomes a part of it, just the way that I’m not getting away from the symbol being personal.

PR  And the serpent’s shape is the shedding, correct?

RZ  Yeah. I liked that symbol because I think of it like in medicine, or it can be seen as immortality, but then it’s a loaded symbol within Christianity. The shape above it references a Catholic symbol for holding the Eucharist. They have a little piece of equipment for that. I liked the juxtaposition of the two together.

PR  You’re expanding out into a couple other ideas with A Border Between Time and Living Rooms, but using the same symbols.

RZ  Yeah, I am adding the cosmos in, and looking at the sky as this compression of time. The distance between the stars is different, and so the images are all different ages, but we’re seeing it as a single image of the sky. It feels complete, but it’s not; the universe continues to expand and change; and that feeling is akin to homes. There’s a shape of a clock emerging within it with Roman numerals, and then a laurel placed between the numerals. I’m thinking of it like the crown that goes on an achievement.

That's still this fiction of completeness. We die when we die. And all of us know from losing someone we love, if they had an extra week, an extra year, they would fill it with more. The end feels anti-climatic when you think of the people you love, and what they’re capable of, and what they mean to you.

PR  Heather, Along the Never-to-Be, the title of that is...

HLB  I think the hardest thing about grief are the things that will never happen again, so this is the name of my river of grief. That’s what I was thinking about: finding a way to sit peacefully with that part of grief and observe it, rather than, you know, drown in it.

I think that this piece was complete for about a week before I gave it a title. Sometimes I really have to sit with it. For me, water has always been a really powerful and palpable symbol for grief: The way that it flows over things, through things; and with enough force, can destroy things. It is also necessary for life. When I think about processing grief, I often think about it in terms of water. If you don't resist it and you find a way to let it flow through, it’s a much easier experience.

When I did this piece, I painted the whole paper this dark, teal color. Then I used a shape cut out of frisket film, and painted inside that film. At the end, I peeled the film away, and painted the parts that break out of that shape. The sort of cup shape at the bottom is actually from the top of the arch in Fragile Quiet. That was the only part of the film that survived the transplantation from one piece to another. It’s vaguely a water-drop shape here, so it comes back to that idea of water.

PR  I meant to ask you this at the beginning, but which artists have been most influential for each of you? I'm sure it changes and is not constant.

HLB  I guess in painting landscapes, it’s not so much “influenced by” as “reacting against” American landscape painting and its history, all tied in with Manifest Destiny and white supremacist propaganda, and my profound discomfort with all of that.

I took a class on the history of American landscape with Daniel Duford when I was a student at PNCA many years ago, specifically because I had this strong reaction of disgust to a lot of classical American landscape painting. I wanted to understand why, and really dig into that discomfort. It wasn't until after that class, and I had time to process what I distrusted and disliked so strongly, that landscapes started appearing in my own work. Especially because, with my last name, I fall into that unfortunate window of white people who sometimes claim Indigenous heritage with no basis whatsoever. People do consistently ask me, “Is it a Native American name?” It absolutely is not. It’s a German name that was translated.

PR  Vogelzang?

HLB  Yeah. My brother, some years ago, did the research. We’re Americans, so we knew nothing about our history. My brother dug into it and was able to trace the name back; again, because we’re white people, and there are records. Once I learned that, I felt this release. I know what this name is. I have an answer for people who ask me this. That was another one of those things, this hurdle I had to get over in order to start working in landscape.

PR  And your landscapes, as you said, are composed, but they’re also from memories and photographs. I think you said the elements of them are very specific, like the plants; especially the plants. And they’re based on the Northwest landscape very specifically.

HLB  A lot of the plants that show up in my work are very specific species, and often specific plants that I’ve carefully observed. Whether it’s native or invasive carries a lot of symbolic meaning for me. For the works that are in this show, they’re all native plants.

PR  So, back to the artists question, Rachael?

RZ  When I was in grad school, I was fortunate to have Kristan Kennedy as my mentor for my first year; and then the second year, Jessica Jackson Hutchins. Kristan Kennedy imparted so much to me, in terms of painting and thinking about image. Working with Jessica was about questions about materials and permission to have a very intuitive practice. Which was a relief, because sometimes school feels very theory-heavy, almost like you come up with all the ideas and then make something just as you knew you would, instead of it being a messy process. Claudia Hart is also someone who was really influential in grad school, regarding expanded painting. She would tell me, “Well, my video work is expanded painting,” and, “Don't think about painting as just this rectilinear surface with oil and whatnot.”

I also worked with Gregg Bordowitz, who shared the idea of taking bits of your own life and using that to make work. He'd say, “Don't feel like you have to give all of your life story away. You're just using enough to make the work.”

Probably one of the biggest influences is my late father, who was a ceramicist. With him passing away when I was four months old, I had no memory of him. It was through his work that I got to know him. Touching the work, and finding the indentations where his hand had been, was the way that I could touch his hand. Even though his ceramics were functional items and more in line with craft, I was learning the power of an art object to communicate to whomever beyond the artist's life.

PR  I feel as though in each of your works—all of your works—there's a kind of remove; that you're not letting the viewer—and this isn’t a bad thing—participate. There’s this sense of holding something back. I don’t know if that's just something that I’m discerning, or whether that is accurate.

HLB  I feel like that’s fair. I was talking about A Place for Grieving with another artist, Ben Buswell. I painted the stuff that’s in the distance, and then the last move was this dark, contrasting blind of plants. It’s like a screen that separates you from this very delicate painting that’s behind it. It does become this gesture of concealment, or protection, or a way to create privacy.

PR  You probably remember from the grand American landscapes that one of the devices is this foreground that invites the viewer in, the “you are there” effect.

HLB  Right. I’m doing the opposite; I’m putting in a full stop.

PR  Exactly. That intrigued me. And Rachael, the same with you: I mean, you’re presenting things, but I don’t feel as though I could inhabit that space. Does that make sense, or is that my own bad judgment?

RZ  I think that... Yeah, I’m talking about what is left of someone who’s not here, and wherever it is that they go when they’re not here. There’s a removal. I think, though, that in other ways, the viewer is brought in with the tactile quality of the work. People do want to touch them and have to restrain themselves. That was an interesting complication to play with, with the bench. You can sit on it; but the sides of the bench, with the surfaces that are painted, aren’t for touching. I don’t know. I’m going to sit with that.

PR  Maybe a better way to put it is: a sense of a space that is distinct from your own, and that is silent. There’s a silence that emanates from both your works. Maybe that’s a better way of framing.

RZ  I think that that makes more sense. When you’re the person left, and the person you grieve is not present, you still feel those traces. Yeah.

PR  I had this thought that Rachael's work has the kind of vulnerability that you associate with something like an estate sale, where you're walking into a space and seeing things that really you shouldn't be seeing, in a way, that are so personal to someone else. And Heather's, to me, has something of the quality of pressed flowers in an album that conjure distant memories and a time that you cannot recapture or inhabit again. I loved the thought of those two ways of holding onto memories and places, working in units and with each other, but also in very distinct ways.

Congratulations to both of you because it’s an absolutely stunning exhibition.

photo credit: Mario Gallucci

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