Beverly Acha, born in Miami, Florida, holds an MFA from Yale University and a BA from Williams College. Recent exhibitions include Mutualities, a solo show at the Roswell Museum and Art Center (Roswell, NM), and group shows at Alexander’s Garage (Brooklyn, NY), Laundromat Art Space (Miami, FL), La MaMa Galleria (NYC), and El Museo del Barrio (NYC). Recent residencies and awards include The Wassaic Project Residency, Roswell Artist-in-Residence Fellowship Program, Salem Art Works Fellowship, Robert Schoelkopf Memorial Travel Grant, and Frederick M. Peyser Prize in Painting. Acha has served as a visiting critic at the School of Visual Arts, Rhode Island School of Design, and Williams College where she was also Visiting Lecturer in 2015. She was appointed Smelser-Vallion Visiting Artist at Oklahoma State University for 2017-2018 and will be a resident at The Lighthouse Works in Fall 2017.
Drawing from the way time and light are linked in nature and visible in landscapes, this body of work explores color’s relationship to time through a visual language based in structural forms.
In these paintings, circles become windows and portals to other spaces. Lines behave like strings, slowly and loosely weaving forms together on their way to becoming new wholes. Everything is in movement, momentarily caught in the painting’s picture plane about to become something or reveal something. Forms sometimes stand in for the immaterial like energy, forces, or light. Repeated forms become indicators of time and change.
Forms touch one another, transforming and characterizing the spaces they inhabit. Their relationships are based in mutuality: forms respond to each other, existing as they do because of the other. My process parallels this mutuality. I work intuitively and non-verbally. I work on many paintings simultaneously so that often, decisions in one painting affect the decisions in another.
Influenced by early photography of the cosmos (pre-digital) and hand drawn images depicting the physical laws, forces, and relationships between celestial objects, I am interested in the ways that structures and forces operating at the scale of universe are also present at the scale of the atom and at all the scales in between – in the body, architecture, plants, etc…
In many ways my work is a meditation on the possibility of freedom that exists in repetition. Units allow for a kind of endless structural reconfiguration. We have built and shaped the world around us – our cities, buildings, technology, systems of order, ideologies, etc… – meaning that we can re-create them, or at the very least re-imagine them.
Q&A with Beverly Acha
Questions by Emily Burns
Can you give us some insight into your process? How do you create your compositions?
I am attracted to relationships and interactions between things, people, spaces, and structures (both physical and ideological/conceptual). I think about our embodied experience as filled with the unknown and the idea that we are unfinished. Paulo Freire writes about unfinishedness in his book Pedagogy of Freedom. This quote really resonates with me, “I like being human because I perceive that the construction of my presence in the world, which is a construction involving others and is subject to genetic factors that I have inherited and to socio-cultural and historical factors, is nonetheless a presence whose construction has much to do with myself”. There is so much that is unknown to us, from the furthest external place - what lies beyond the universe, to the furthest internal place - our psyche. Within me, as embodied, there is a search for understanding myself and myself within the world. There is something about that inability to see outside of ourselves and the limits of perception, that I constantly come back to. For me, the process of making art is very much related to a desire to see beyond.
My process is based on this desire to be surprised, to discover, and to both better understand and re-frame a concept, structure, or material. I set up circumstances in the studio wherein I can set off on a path with an unknown outcome. For my most recent paintings this involved beginning by choosing a basic compositional structure, which is usually a single form, like a circle, or the repetition of a form – an arch or line. This form functions as an armature for the rest of the process. In my recent work these forms are related to shapes we see through or that are related to landscape. They become the structure for me to paint within, allowing me to play with light, color, and space around their boundaries. As I paint the final composition develops over time in response to previous decisions/moves. Each step is a response to the step before. I start new paintings regularly throughout my process, usually beginning with an element from another painting that I am interested in exploring further. This way of working simultaneously on many paintings allows me a fluidity and flexibility that creates space for deviations, unexpected paths/new directions, and responding to my materials.
It seems like drawing must play an integral role, is this true? Do you plan your compositions out beforehand? How do you create your compositions?
Yes, I draw throughout my painting process! The speed and immediacy of drawing lets me explore new ideas and compositions quickly. I use drawing as a way to work through paintings especially when I have a few different ideas of what I want to do next in a painting in progress. Before I begin on a body of work I usually make a dozen or more drawings exploring and developing a formal language, possible forms and placement of the form on the canvas – so coming up with the foundation for the composition. Once I start painting the paintings lead to each other though I still draw throughout, it helps me see the decisions I am making. Recently my forms/compositions are related to a force or to a kind of space I am interested in creating. I have also been looking at a lot of astronomy images from this book called ‘Splendour of the Heavens’, published in 1925. Sometimes mixing colors first will lead me to an image instead of drawing.
What draws you to using oils in your paintings, and have you always worked in oils?
Not always, but I use oil paint because it is the most beautiful material. It is sensorially rich, it has a variety of weight, surface, drying time, volume, texture, the transparency vs opacity of different colors the way they move on the canvas.
When I was a student I wanted to work fast and thick, but oils don’t really allow for that. One of my professors, Frank Jackson, offered me some beeswax to mix into my paint. I worked that way for a while, mixing oil paint into different kinds of melted wax and painting on panel. The work I was making then was abstract but very much related to landscape, both image and process – I would paint on thick layers of wax, carve away, add more, and paint on top, etc. They were very textural and topographical. It is exciting that I’ve returned to landscape in this recent work in such a different way.
Your work varies dramatically in scale within the latest series. How does the shift in scale function for you?
I’ve worked at many different scales over the years, the relationship of the work’s scale to my body and to my space have always been really important to me. At times I’ve wanted an intimacy with the work so making things at the scale of my torso or my head feels that way to me. Other times, the work is a response to the size of my studio, though usually if I have space to work large, I do. The desire to include my entire body in the process has been very strong this last year. The sensation that I fit into my work or that I am painting a space that I can enter has been really important element of my recent work. Also working at the scale of my body allows me to challenge my hand’s control over the brush and my material which really slows down my mark making in an exciting way.
The color in your work is extremely vivid—do you look to outside sources or reference materials to inform your color choices?
Color in my recent paintings are heavily influenced by the quality of the light in New Mexico. Because of the super flat landscape in Roswell, NM I could see the horizon all around me - nothing created shadows, nothing was big enough to block the sky. The landscape was more of a sky-scape because of the flatness. I lived there for a year and seeing the light shift throughout the day and across seasons and seeing how that impacted the color of my environment was amazing. I started thinking about color in my work as indicators of time and light within the spaces I was painting. I felt aware of time and cycles/repetition in nature in a completely new way. I was just re-reading John Berger’s ways of seeing a few days ago and he writes, “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” In Roswell I felt like the gap Berger describes between seeing the sun set and knowing that the sight of the sunset meant the earth was turning away from the sun was so present due to my daily awareness of the event (many of my windows faced west). The slippage between the sight and the meaning is a kind of abstraction that I am really interested in. It has to do with a kind of failure – an inability to grasp events larger than ourselves. I spoke to a friend yesterday who reminded me that the sun is always setting and always rising… I mean that’s insane.
Can you tell us a bit about your watercolor monotypes and how they relate to the larger oil on canvas paintings?
They mostly function as drawing for me and open up a space of experimentation. While I was midway through most of my recent paintings I made a series of watercolor monotypes which helped me think through where the paintings were going to go – or how to finish them. Printmaking generally lets me work through images and ideas quickly, letting me build momentum or work through color and formal decisions.
Your sculptural work, though 3-dimenionsal, seems as though it could be displayed on the wall, in conversation with painting. Is this how you see these works, or are they displayed as sculptures?
My sculptural work, especially in recent years has been made of concrete and cement, though I have also worked a little bit in ceramics. The ceramics were made to hang on the wall, but the concrete pieces are sculptures that engage with the floor. If paintings are images and window-like illusions on the wall, then my cast concrete sculptures are objects existing under the pressure of gravity on the floor. I have been interested in concrete and cement because it speaks to architecture and our built environment so directly. Concrete is heavy and that for me is an essential characteristic of the material which my work engages. My most recent sculpture is a stack of five wedge-shaped cast cement pieces. This work is about gravity and a kind of real force that my paintings can only ever reference. If the paintings are about light, then my sculptures are more about earth.
In 2016 you created the 76 page zine, LOVE FOR LOVE / HATE FOR HATE: A Glossary of Our Time in response to the 2016 Presidential election. Can you tell us more about this project and what prompted you to create it? What was it like collaborating with so many other artists?
I was flying back to Roswell from a short trip to NYC when the election results were coming in. I landed in Dallas and the TVs at the airport were all set to CNN and Trump was in the lead, one hour later I landed in Roswell and checked the news and texted friends to find out if what I was seeing - the election was being called for Trump – was actually happening. The next day I was glued to my computer refreshing my browser and waiting for someone to explain what had happened. I felt a strong desire in those first days after the election to draw my close friends and family closer, to protect them and have them protect me. I also wanted to scream and talk about what this meant for the future.
Thinking about the people I love and how they enrich my life and the world, thinking about how many of my friends, especially growing up in Miami, come from across the world, have diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, races, speak multiple languages, follow different religions (or none at all), I felt enraged by the absurdity that anyone could support a presidential candidate that doesn’t see the value in these people that I love. The political felt very personal and the zine, I think, was very personal. It was a way to bring my community and extended community (I asked people I invited to invite someone to contribute as well) together to re-frame some of the language that had shaped the campaign and election season. I wanted to re-claim that language and talk about how it was flexible and that it’s meaning is dependent on context, who speaks, when they speak, and where they speak.
Being in Roswell was the context for the zine. I made it for that community, the majority of whom voted for Trump. I was at the grocery store the day after the election and the atmosphere was jubilant. I can’t express how upsetting and scary that was to experience. It felt important to bring a range of voices from my community into the Roswell community in a way that would not appear partisan or aggressive and that would speak to the complexity of the human experience and the human spirit. I was going to have the zine at my solo show at the Roswell Museum and I wanted everyone in Roswell to pick it up. Using a glossary structure – def: a list of words relating to a specific subject – seemed perfect since it implied some level of objectivity. I was interested in subverting that objectivity through the organization of the words on a scale from love to hate, which is super subjective. It was interesting how challenging categorizing the terms was since depending on context and values the terms could be on either side.
Collaborating with so many artists and creative people (I invited educators, academics, writers etc…) was a big part of the project for me, I mean it was essential to it. At that moment, being in touch with so many people, who were all upset about the Trump victory, was cathartic for me, I think it really helped me deal with being in Roswell and feeling very far from people I love at a time when I felt so much fear and uncertainty not only for myself but for others. It was inspiring to be connected to my extended community – to see links between people, to feel connected, and to realize the strength of community. It was a reminder that there is a lot of power in coming together.
You work in a variety of media, including painting, printmaking, video, and design. Can you tell us more about how the disciplines interact and your interest in maintaining a varied approach?
Each medium lets me think through different aspects of an idea and speaks to a different element of our reality – I am committed to painting because of how I can speak to image, illusion and a specific kind of world making. Sculpture allows me to respond to gravity, material, and space in a direct way that painting can only represent through image. Video speaks to time, and printmaking allows chance, process, and the unknown to have agency for me. When my work is the strongest, I feel like different mediums can speak to one another, fleshing out some kind of environment/world or calling attention to elements/parts/moments of that shape our embodied experience in space and time.
You are currently the working as a fellow at the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program in Roswell, NM. Are you usually based in New York City? How has the environment in New Mexico affected your work? What is it like to be in a long-term residency situation?
I finished my year-long residency in Roswell in April 2017 and am currently at The Wassaic Project as the Education Fellow for May and June. Before starting the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program I lived in Ridgewood, NY for four years. Balancing making an income and making work during that time was challenging and I was always exhausted physically and mentally. Being in Roswell allowed me to focus on my practice and to get in touch with my process again. South Eastern New Mexico is sunny and hot almost year round – I replenished my vitamin D levels! Also, the isolation gave me silence and space for looking inward that also allowed my process and practice to shift. I made adjustments and learned I like painting in the morning more than in the evening and that I work best in short spurts. Spending so much time alone I started to notice my environment and the way light moved through it and also became aware of my body in new ways. I had time to just sit in the studio, make one decision and leave, come back make a drawing, leave. This flexibility allowed my practice to enter my life and my life to enter my practice.
How important is maintaining a community of peers to your practice? How to you develop and nurture this community? Is it important to live in a city or is this changing?
So important! Having people who can talk about art and painting has been vital to my practice. So is talking about shows we’ve seen, reviews we’ve read, and science and nature, etc… Peers can re-invigorate the way you think about things and get you through tough moments of doubt. I think showing up for your community is essential to nurturing it. That said, and to answer your second and third questions, being in New York made showing up really challenging for me as someone that needs alone time to recharge. When I lived in NYC I was much more of a hermit than when I was in Roswell - having space and quiet made me crave being in community, whereas in NYC I craved silence and alone time in the studio much more than going out to openings and events. Part of it is also that I think we go through phases and knowing what you need when is important. So for me, right now, I think living near a city is important, meaning I’d have access to art, to a community of artists, and to other cultural events etc while also having space and distance from the speed of city life.
What is one of the most exciting things happening in your studio right now?
I have recently started a series of large scale rubbings on shaped paper – circle, arch, ovals – they are strongly related to my recent paintings, but are monochromatic – greys and blacks – and shift between being voids and objects.
What is a typical day like for you?
Right now there isn’t really a typical day! Though I generally wake up and have coffee, do computer work for an hour or two, eat breakfast, and head to the studio for a few hours. I’ve found that my practice is at its best when I can get 2-4 hours of studio time in every day. I am definitely a morning person, so usually by 6/7pm my brain is tired and I’ll cook dinner and read, watch movies/tv, talk on the phone, etc…take it easy. Some days I will make one or two moves in the studio and spend more time researching/reading.
What do you listen to while you work?
The New Yorker podcasts especially the Writer’s Voice and the Fiction podcast. Also their poetry podcast is pretty great. For music I will usually put on one of these Pandora stations: Bossa Nova, Luis Bonfa, or Caetano Veloso. Sometimes I want music I can dance to like Reggaeton or pop music. But more often than not I like working in silence.
Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
Most often I think about Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, and Hélio Oiticica. I was introduced to their work in a Performance Art History course in college and they completely changed the way I thought about abstraction, the body, and space. I am so excited about the Oiticica retrospective opening at the Whitney this Fall!
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
Right now I’m reading ‘Pedagogy of Freedom’ by Paulo Freire, ‘Bluets’ by Maggie Nelson, and ‘Bad Feminist’ by Roxanne Gay. I love reading, in Roxanne Gay’s words, stories “have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds”. I already mentioned John Berger but, when I was in college ‘Ways of Seeing’ affirmed the value of art and my experience of both looking at art, making art, and its essential link to humanity and to making sense of the world around us. While in Roswell I read Audre Lorde’s essay/speech “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” which as a woman and especially a woman of color and daughter of immigrants was so important to me after the election - I wish I had read it years ago. Marx’s essay ‘The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society’, Eduardo Galeano’s ‘The Book of Embraces’, James Baldwin “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “Giovanni’s Room” have also really impacted the way I see the world and art’s role in it, and also they all engage love in really beautiful ways.
Any advice from your past that has stuck with you or helped you?
Not too long ago a good friend, Kati Gegenheimer, told me “make it and they will come”. I really like it as a reminder that committing to what we believe in is what will bring people to your work.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of your career as an artist so far?
Dealing with doubt.
What is one of the best exhibitions you have seen recently?
Three that I recently saw: Belkis Ayón at El Museo del Barrio, Lygia Pape at Met Breuer, and “Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction” at MoMA.
How do you interact with social media, both personally and professionally as an artist?
I use Facebook and Instagram – facebook I use mostly professionally – to announce shows I am in and to keep up with what artist friends are doing – shows, talks, etc… I have a big family so its also a way to share what I am up to with them. Living in New Mexico I found myself relying on social media more than before to keep up with what was going on – it felt like a window into the NYC art world (granted a limited and biased view!). It was nice to see what shows my friends were going to and get a glimpse into stuff I was missing out on seeing, conversations that were taking place etc…
Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
Yes, I am really excited about a collaboration I did with poet Kevin Holden (https://sites.google.com/site/kbholden/) on a page for Parallax Issue 5 published by Singing Song Press (https://singingsawpress.com) - the issue will be released this Fall, check out their website for updates on the release. Beginning this July I will be the Smelser-Vallion Visiting Artist at Oklahoma State University, which includes a three week residency at the Doel Reed Center for the Arts in Taos, NM. If you find yourself in Taos on Thursday, July 13 at 4pm I will be giving an artist talk at the Harwood Museum. And finally, this Fall I am really excited to be an artist in residence at the Lighthouse Works on Fishers Island.
Thank you so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Beverly and her work, check out her website.