My recent work focuses on paintings that engage artifacts to intertwine distance, desire, and affective uses of paint. The beginning of my process involves mining the Metropolitan Museum’s archive for my subjects as a way of studying fragmentation and presentations of visual hierarchies.
The painting becomes an archeological site for moments of longing across time and physical space. I engage an overlap between object relations and the literal object, an inanimate entity owned and observed. The object exists by our own perception, therefore the object is always the other. As Elaine Scary writes, this opens up the possibility for adoring difference. If we perceive the object as beautiful we are enveloped in an "opiated adjacency".
For me, painting is a means of discovery via material surface and intuition. Through an examination of an individual object I hope to break through the riff of otherness and practice empathy upon that which is outside of myself. In these paintings of bonnets, tools, ceramic fragments, and other artifacts I aim to build a bond based on a celebration of care and strangeness. I am interested in examining the spaces between me and my subject to understand difference and fragmentation.
Interview with Caitlin MacBride
Questions by Beatrice Helman
Hi Caitlin! What are some of the benefits of working within a specific genre? Do you find that boundaries can be helpful or do you avoid them entirely?
I had a professor in grad school, who proposed I try an exercise of working within a really specific genre. At first I hated the idea, I was like “I’m gonna end up looking like some kind of Sunday painter, doing landscape or still life.” Then I realized the framework of a genre can be really freeing. You can still set the boundaries and decide when to break them but you’re entering into a dialogue with history, and the historical context of that genre. I first tried still life by draping a cloth across two chairs in my studio and painting it. I got completely obsessed with the details of the wrinkles, sometimes painting them exactly and sometimes spacing out and letting the painting run away with itself as I painted. When you’re working within a genre you’re figuring out what your voice can add to the conversation that’s already there.
Historically there was hierarchy to the different genres of painting. History painting, or moral/religious paintings were the highest. Portraiture was right below that. Then landscape and then still life. The more idealistic and moral the message the higher the prestige of the painting – oh and having a human in there helped. The lower genres were considered copying and realism wasn’t as important as moralism. I think this hierarchy is one of the reasons I’m interested in the genre of still life. The more mundane and utilitarian the object the better. Still life especially has been most closely associated with female artists – probably due to the fact that they weren’t allowed to do much else.
Does working with other media, such as photography, serve a different emotional space than painting?
I find different concepts call for different approaches. Some of the photo projects I’ve done just didn’t seem to work conceptually as paintings. I did a photo series a few years ago where I photographed this old museum in New England that has casts of Greco Roman antiquity sculptures. I liked that the sculptures were casts of the originals and then I was adding a further step of removal with photographing and digitally manipulating the colors. It was partially about having an edited gaze and the way the sculptures were constructed. I didn’t think either of those would come across as deliberate as I wanted them to be in a painting, so it needed to be photography.
I also write a bit and I think its just a totally different form of communication than painting. I feel more exposed in writing but I’ve also heard writers say they feel more exposed in painting.
Do you find that through the process of painting an object, that the object transforms from stranger to possession? In other words, do you feel a sense of ownership of the objects that you paint? If so, what is that process like?
Yes, I’ve found that sometimes I end up painting something because I want it so badly. I often feel a little obsessed with an object, with its design or structure.
Often, I can’t afford the object, or it doesn’t exist anymore, or it’s in a museum collection so by painting it I manage to get it into my life somehow. I’ve been thinking recently about how most of my earliest art making memories were about these themes. I think because we didn’t have a ton of money and I knew it wasn’t appropriate to ask for too much I would spend a lot of time thinking about how to make things myself. I have an intense memory of trying to figure out how to design an inflatable pool toy when I was probably five or six. Also it made the things I did have extremely precious—I was very devoted and invested in a bucket I kept in our backyard. My parents were super inventive and built a lot of our toys from other things. My dad made me a swing set from cables that would normally hold up electric wires. And we had a pool made out of a satellite dish… but painted the color of a swimming pool.
Part of what I love about your work is that it’s clear that you are fully invested, and have a deep connection to it. It stands apart from the more tongue-in-cheek work out there. Do you feel that you see yourself in your paintings or that you attempt to escape yourself through the process?
I’m so glad that this aspect comes across! I do feel very invested. I think I tend to always make sure I’m caring a lot about each piece before it goes out in the world. If I don’t feel its importance or a connection to it then it’s not doing enough for me. I think we’re finally leaving an era of painting behind that was pretty slap-dash, “zombie formalist”, lazy gestures – or however you’d want to describe it. I think knowing what kind of painter I would be depended on understanding my relationship to that kind of art. I think it’s easy to be irreverent or ironic or as you say “tongue in cheek”, if you don’t have much to lose. I think that attitude connotes a certain amount of privilege that I’ve never felt I had. I could probably fake it and pose as someone with that privilege but what’s the point in making art that doesn’t edify my own lived experience.
The act of genuinely caring about something is a radical and sometimes frightening process. It makes me feel like I have some skin in the game.
I’m not sure I see myself in the paintings or as an escape but I do feel they are companions of some sort. Sometimes they feel like friends or lovers or children. Like they’re outside me but I’m feeding them and loving them and they’re giving me a reason to get up in the morning.
You paint on a variety of surfaces, such as fabric, on wood, etc. What is the thought process behind painting on something such as fabric, and how did that choice arise? Is there a reference to much earlier uses of wood or fabric as a surface?
In some ways it has to do with what I talked about earlier with my original art making ideas arising out of a sense of thriftiness and “making do”. A few years ago a fabric store in upstate New York was getting rid of tons of rolls of pleather. The pleather was absolutely amazing to paint on. The paint really glides. Necessity is the mother of invention and painting feels pretty necessary for me.
It also keeps me loose, materially and mentally, to have some other materials around. And sometimes the work just needs something else. It took me a lot of years to accept that I am primarily a painter. My art education was really about trying everything – sculpture, photography, filmmaking, printmaking. Eventually in my early 20s I started to work for artists and I realized I could identify as a painter. It was so freeing to say I was a painter and focus on the thing I loved. But I also feel that different materials work well for different needs and so I’m open to other processes coming into play.
You mentioned that your recent work “focuses on paintings that engage artifacts to intertwine distance, desire, and affective uses of paint.” Can you talk a little bit more about this, particularly the relationship between distance, desire, and paint in your work?
There’s this essay I really love by the writer Rebecca Solnit about desire and the color blue. She writes: "We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing."
I think a lot about the steps of removal that make up the process of making something. Most of my current paintings are of objects that have lived very different lives many years ago – possibly serving some sort of function in a home somewhere. Now they are mostly in museums where sterile and scientific photos are taken of them that go to books or the internet. Occasionally I take my own photos but I also like the distance of the objective archiving photography. By painting the objects I bring them back into a relationship with a human and yet remove them from their own physical state by making a type of reproduction.
The sense of longing or reaching for something is often more intense than ownership or actual embrace. I want the way that the objects become painted to give a nod to the emotional space of the painting process.
Can you also talk a little bit about your process? You have said that you are “mining the Metropolitan Museum’s archive for my subjects as a way of studying fragmentation and presentations of visual hierarchies.” Is there a reason that you were drawn to this archive in particular?
Well, The Met has an amazing online archive! I don’t think it helped their financial problems to have an online archive and photo of every object but it’s definitely been really awesome for my purposes.
One of the reasons I was drawn to The Met was because it’s a fairly democratic place to enter as a viewer. It might not be as democratic in its presentation of the pieces itself because of the history of colonialism and white supremacy that infiltrate most museums but the fact that until recently anyone could enter the museum and just pay a nominal donation was pretty spectacular. I think museums are also more accessible to the general public than galleries. Going to museums is more common for kids and tourists and plenty of other people who might not know about gallery scenes or contemporary art.
The structure of how museums are laid out and presented to the viewer says so much about how they want you to view and consider the pieces. For instance, part of my photo project at the museum in Connecticut, Slater Museum, was about what you weren’t allowed to see… or how much you could see at once. That museum was built in the Victorian era and was designed to have heavy velvet curtains hanging between sculptures, so you wouldn’t get too excited about all those casts of muscular Greek men. The curtains aren’t there anymore but the knobs that held the curtain rods are. They stick out like big circular nipples all over the museum.
When you visit that museum or The Met the Greco Roman tradition has an important placement in the structure. The North American indigenous art has this tiny little space at The Met, its relegated to this little alcove. Yet online, in the archive, everything is photographed and catalogued the same way. The internet is the great leveler. I love the way the photography of art historical objects is to objective, sometimes with a ruler, or color scale for reference beside the piece.
Recently, The Met began charging admission for non-New York residents and I saw it conceptually as a good time to let The Met chapter of my painting life draw to a close. I still look to their archive occasionally but I’ve also been been searching other more specific archives. I do however, still make memes from The Met. I have an Instagram called @omgthemet that’s all memes I’ve made from objects in The Met’s collection.
The idea of the object holds a lot of weight in your work. You write that, “The object exists by our own perception; therefore the object is always the other. As Elaine Scarry writes, this opens up the possibility for adoring difference.” Could you talk about your personal relation to the idea of the object, and the idea of adoring difference?
Yeah, I think I’ve been interested in this idea of how to convey the concept of otherness for a while. People will read all sorts of identity signifiers into art works but I’m more interested in how intersectionality sets up a space for people to be both inside and outside a norm simultaneously. Honestly there is no space I feel more without gender than when I’m painting. Maybe this is because it’s one of the few places where I’m not being watched. I feel embodied but not like I need to fit into an either/or.
When Elaine Scarry writes about that concept of adoring difference she is talking about how you can be drawn to something without wanting to be it. You want to be beside it. If we can understand that desire to be beside a compelling (or as she would say “beautiful”) piece of art, could we not understand a desire to live beside a person who is also different from us.
Do you find that this has an erotic component at all? The idea of painting as a space and expression for longing can feel, in some ways, like an exploration of desire. Maybe it’s the link in my mind between the two words—longing and desire.
Yes, definitely. I think I shifted to this way of working at some point because I realized it was a more sustaining way of being an artist for me. For a while I’d been thinking of my work in terms of planning and executing pieces. Like any affair you can lose the passion pretty quickly that way.
Audre Lorde wrote in The Erotic As Power: "The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. .....Within the celebration of the erotic in all our endeavors, my work becomes a conscious decision—a longed-for bed which I enter gratefully and from which I rise up empowered."
Rising from your bed empowered is a pretty wild feeling as a woman or an artist. It’s what I shoot when I’m approaching my work. A relationship where I can be both generous and empowered and feel that the painting is as well.
I also find that the idea of creativity seems tied to the idea of the erotic, or in some sense, simply through the idea of abundance. Is this true for you?
Yes, I think it’s interesting how in some ways this is how creativity is sold to us. There are so many movie scenes that portray someone having their portrait painted or drawn in this sexy sensual way. I guess that could be a reality but the day to day work of an artist is also work.
When I was single and dating around more I would have guys ask to come to my studio only for me to realize that it was some hilarious fantasy of the libidinous artist space. In reality I’m there wearing gross paint covered clothes, chugging ice coffee, and blasting music. The affair is with the paintings and it’s a pretty solitary space.
I think there is an interesting creative relationship to abundance that is very real for anyone who creates. When you enter the sweet spot or as some people call it “the flow” and your work is pouring from you in a more intuitive way—it’s really hard to get out of that high when you’re done for the day. If I stay at my studio painting till 11pm I won’t be able to sleep till 3am.
I read an interesting book last year called “The Trip To Echo Springs” by Olivia Lang where she explores the history of American writers and alcoholism. Most alcoholic painters or writers don’t drink while working but greatly rely on alcohol to come down off the high of working. It’s a way to slow your body and dull the intensity of creativity. It was helpful to read about that and to see where abundance can be useful and where it can be destructive.
You wrote that, “through an examination of an individual object I hope to break through the riff of otherness and practice empathy upon that which is outside of myself.” Do you find that you are attempting to create a bond between you and the exterior object, to find shared space and what is both shared and what is profoundly different?
I think it goes back to the Elaine Scarry quote. I want to be able to connect with the object I’m painting, to explore a relationship to an object. In some ways it’s like the study of a fetish, what is the root of a deep connection to an object, or body part, or texture. I’m really interested in the concepts of the transitional object or the transformational object. There’s similarity between the two and I’m interested in exploring that kind of psychoanalytic read on art making. Like can we find something outside ourselves that will help transform us while we also transform it.
I want to explore what it is to encounter that which is outside our body. In early childhood your first massive realizations are about everything not being part of your body. Which is so fascinating to think that our original impulse is that everything is part of us. As we get older most children experience a transitional object as a literal thing that gives us an emotional connection or relief. I think this is so similar to experiencing art.
In what way does the very process of painting facilitate this discovery.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve been teaching. Work, or my day job, is usually an important way for me to think about my own work as an artist. Through teaching I’ve been thinking a lot about how making things with our hands grounds us in our relationship to our humanity – to our own body and what surrounds us and how to interact with both. Learning to mix paint and understand color is one of those things you can do from early childhood to old age. For me it never gets old. When I teach about mixing colors I like to talk about how paint is actually made and how it was traditionally made from natural materials.
I used to work in a pigment store and so I’ll collect things to make paint with, like oyster shells in New England or my mom just brought me back some cochineal and indigo from Oaxaca. There’s so much history to all of these processes of paint making. The actual material of paint can connect us to our surroundings.
I’ve heard painter friends joke about how painting is really playing with your own shit. You’re swirling and pushing this strange texture around. Even when I’m doing a tight focused painting I manage to get the paint all over me. In this way the process does become erotic in a way. I like to get down and roll around in the process.
It feels as though there are elements of self-discovery in your work, via your deep, personal connection to it. Would you agree or disagree with that?
I’ve been trying to work on this being a more personal connection lately. Much of my work with the Met’s archive I saw as a collaboration with whichever craft person or artist had originally made the object I was painting.
A year or so ago I decided to pursue my own history a bit more through objects and archives. I’m from a New England working class family. There was a lot of religion and strong beliefs about work ethic passed down from my family. I think there’s an interesting complexity to these ways of living—like yes there was a good deal of restriction but also a true dedication to craft and community. I think a lot about ways to be an artist and also be an activist and fight for progress. I think there is a lot of talk these days of identity art for POC, women, and queer people. Yet, really everyone has an identity, it’s just that being white and male are generally seen as the default. I wanted to look at the way my background and identity has functioned in history and currently. There are different levels of otherness or privilege that all somehow live in one body.
I started using the Shakers as a stand in for what I saw a lot of in my own family history. The focus that went into their object making and intentional living was amazing. I’ve mostly been painting Shaker furniture for the past 8 months and I’m currently writing these responses from a residency at the New Lebanon Shaker Village. It’s a really magical place here. The land has been home to many different groups with utopian ideas for communal living.
This leads me to ask about the idea of expressing who is looking at the object, and how they are seeing it. The words ‘seeing,’ or ‘looking.’ Do you enjoy the process of simply looking at what you are trying to understand, and do you find that there is an element of power in looking at something and being able to translate it into expression?
I do like to think about the way objects are looked at, but at the same time, I honestly don’t think too much about the audience that will eventually see my paintings. It sets up a lot of blocks for me to worry too much about how they will be seen or what people will want out of them.
But when I’m deciding how to portray an object I definitely think about the different ways it can be looked at and therefore seen in a truer way. Part of my photo project at the Slater Museum was about the seeing of those Greek and Roman statues. The museum had edited their viewing because it didn’t conform to current norms or overall to the straight male gaze. I was interested in cropping the photos to give the feel of another eye viewing the casts – both the bodies portrayed and the casting lines that showed how they had been made.
The more current work of painting furniture is a bit about reframing the domestic craft to be given a different context within art. Painting occupies such a different place than functional objects. The Shakers were also amazing pre-cursers to modernism, the design and simplicity is amazing.
Earlier this year I painted a series of bonnets. All early American bonnets. The ones The Met owned were so beautiful and luxurious and I was curious about the way a bonnet both hides one’s appearance and obscures the view of the person wearing it. They were originally made popular when women would go out in their carriages and wanted to maintain a sense of modesty. Yet, their popularity inevitably became about drawing attention to the wearer. I thought they functioned as curious objects in the way that they were meant to protect a woman’s good name but ended up keeping her from having any peripheral vision.
How did you first start painting specifically and how have you seen your relationship to the act of painting change over time? Do you remember your first painting that you consciously knew was a painting?
I remember the first painting I was proud of. I’m not sure it was any good but it was a painting of an actor I saw in a magazine. He was handsome and had a straw hat and some stubble and I worked very hard on the painting. I was 14 and I brought it in to show my art teacher and I think he was like “pretty good, but you should start painting in oil”. He taught me to paint in oil the next year. We did a ton of still lives of mannequins and fabric and vases on gessoed cardboard.
I think I really built up my focus and commitment to painting at RISD. The studio classes are so long and I really liked the competitive nature of the students. I don’t think I really thought conceptually with painting till I was in New York and worked on a couple bodies of work by myself. It wasn’t till grad school at Bard that I stopped hating everything I’d made 6 months before. The process of becoming yourself as an artist is so long.
At Bard our painting faculty had this strong belief in what they called “painter problems”. We were taught to find our ongoing problems and face them in a way that was really about your relationship to painting. Your life’s work was to be in dialogue with your own personal painter problems. Instead of approaching them as a thing to be destroyed you learned to feed off the process of growth. I might understand my problems as dealing with how to be more personal or how to not overcrowd the canvas. These are things that will keep me going and aren’t supposed to be tied up in a neat bow. It gives a sense of importance to loving art. Perhaps even better it keeps you vulnerable and open. You learn to get a lot of strength from the process.
Can you take us through the creative process that you go through before you start a new piece of work?
I think I’ve learned to follow what feels right. I heard someone say once to pay attention to the things you waste your time doing. I was staying up late at night looking at The Met’s online archive. I’d print out pictures and then not know what to do with them because I didn’t know how they’d fit into my work.
I generally do a lot image research. I keep folders on my computer of things to paint, things I just like, color ideas. Sometimes I lay out a painting and paint it and it just works. Occasionally it’s a mess and needs to be put to the side for a while till I know what to do. I usually have at least three paintings going at once. This helps me with timing and to know how they might be in dialogue with one another.
What does a typical day look like for you? How do you stay focused, are you a person of routines or is every day drastically different? What are some of the things that are important to you in your day-to-day process of being in the studio? How important is space to you? Are you a social person while you’re working or more solitary? Are you a person of routine, or more spur-of-the-moment?
I’ve been working on setting up my life to be more steady and predictable. This may just be a pipe dream that never actually pans out. I think it helps with art making though.
I jumped around in jobs as a freelancer and art assistant for years and it was a bit hard to plan my studio time that way. These days I’m teaching and I’m almost always done by 3 pm so though I’m usually tired there’s time to go to the studio after. On the days I have totally set aside for the studio I work on the longer stretches of paintings. Things that need to be done in one long sitting so the paint doesn’t dry weird.
I think studio routines are really helpful. I have to have a coffee and I like to play music or podcasts depending on the kind of painting I’m doing that day and my mood. Sometimes I need to pump myself up and music is good for that. Sometimes I have some long drawn out detail painting to work on and I like podcasts for that.
I’m pretty in love with my studio right now. There’s good lighting and vines growing around the windows and I really like the people I share a studio with. We all have our own spaces but there’s a kitchen and an area with a couch and it feels healthy and open.
My painting process is always pretty solitary, it’s my place to go into my brain and body. I can’t really talk to anyone while I’m painting or developing ideas. But I think in general I’m a social person so it’s a relief to know there are people around if I have too much coffee and need to talk for a bit.
Are there any other contemporary artists who have influenced your work or have inspired you to attempt new directions in your own work? Or, who you just love right now?
Oh man, but I just love all the old dead artists! I’m really into Konrad Klaphek and Hilma af Klint and I’m feeling really into Vuillard right now. Oh and Milton Avery, he gets me every time. I got really into looking at Barkley Hendricks’ paintings while teaching and then they just took over and I needed to think about them a lot. I love the way he painted.
The Miyoko Ito show at Artist Space last year really blew me away. I had to sit down on the floor and just be there for a while.
I really love Monika Baer’s paintings and Trisha Donnelly’s sculptures and photos. Both of them have been amazing mentors/good souls. I love Josephine Halverson’s paintings too, the subject matter is close to my heart.
I’m a huge fan of my friend Caleb Considine’s paintings. He’s even more obsessive and focused and into minutia than I am. I love the work of Pooneh Maghazehe who has a show opening in New York this week! I’ve been really into Gretta Johnson’s drawings recently and we had a great talk about Hilma af Klint and other influences at my studio last month. I also have two amazing painter friends, Ezra Tessler and Aurora Andrews, that I keep an ongoing text thread with to share paintings and painting advice and life drama. I trust both of them for painting advice a lot because I really admire their work.
Along those lines, what are you reading? What are you listening to? What are you watching?
I tend to read a couple books at once. I like to have fiction, non fiction, and poetry going at the same time. I’m reading Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh right now, it’s good and dark. I’m also reading this book by Bernadette Mayer called The Desires of Mothers To Please Others In Letters. Its letters but sort of stream of conscious poetry about her living in western Massachusetts and raising children and worrying about money. Actually, both that and Eileen are based sort of in the same area, which is really close to where I’m at this residency right now.
I’m also reading a book of essays by Julia Kristeva, sort of to explore more about psychoanalytic feminist thought around women and children which has a lot to do with my art making. Lastly, I brought Ryder”by Djuna Barnes, to the residency. This book has been kind of feeding some weird part of my art practice for about five years now. It’s a strange long story of a family’s history but written in so many different styles… like as if Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the Bible were cracking jokes on one messed up family.
I think what I’m listening to is all over the place on the high/lowbrow spectrum. My old faithful for studio jams is Outkast to hype me up and Alice Coltrane to keep me in the zone.
I’m really into watching GLOW right now, though I’m sure I’ll be done with all the episodes by the time this is published. I also love a good law procedural show.
What are some of your other great loves outside of art?
I love reading and writing and I think because of that I keep a lot of writers close to me in my life. Its like being friends with your drug dealer, they know where to get the best stuff. AKA they recommend good books. In some ways writer scenes give me a good escape from “art scenes” which can get exhausting. I’m sure the writers have their own drama I just don’t really have to worry about it.
I think I value people a lot too, I keep my friends and family close. I think accepting that that is an important part of my identity and happiness helped me find some peace.
I also look at memes and dogs on Instagram a lot and I think it’s something that resembles love.
Is there any advice anyone ever gave you that really resonated with you?
There’s definitely advice that older people gave me that I didn’t listen to that now makes perfect sense. Mostly to find a way of paying the bills while you’re making your art. Ideally its something that affords you enough time and flexibility to still have a real relationship to your art practice. Having stability to be able to afford to keep growing and being committed to your work is important. Even if you end up being wildly successful you’ll still have to pay your dues for the first decade or so. Most artists have a couple jobs, sell work, maybe get a grant – income comes from many avenues and not just one.
Can you share any career highlights (or even lows) and what you learned from them?
I think I learned from the highs and lows of art making that courting some idea of “success” won’t necessarily make you happy—even if you get it. From the lows I learned that I can’t quit art and that I’m going to be making it my whole life, it doesn’t matter what pitfalls come my way. Showing your work is great way to be part of a community and a conversation that will sustain your motivation as an artist. It can be great motivation to focus your object making into complete ideas and bodies of work. However, like anything else money is a means to an end and not a path to happiness. So these days I’m on a journey of figuring out what my life as an artist will look like – how to encourage thought and practice and interaction around art making that will continue to sustain me.
Do you have any projects, shows or residencies coming up?
Yea! I’m actually at a residency right now in New Lebanon, NY. It’s on what was one of the first Shaker Settlements. The property is now shared by a Shaker Museum, an amazingly cool farm, a Sufi Community and Learning Center, and this art residency.
I have a three person show opening this weekend in Atlanta, GA at Camayuhs. Its curated by Lindsey Stapleton and Corey Oberlander who run The Rib which is an online magazine reviewing art outside of NYC and LA.
Later in September I’m doing a solo show curated by Jesse Greenberg at One River School in New York. I’m excited to be doing a show at a school since a lot of my recent idea development has been around education and human development.
In October I’m doing a two person show at 315 Gallery in Brooklyn that I’m really looking forward to. That one will have more of the Shaker objects I’ll be painting at this residency and has a bit of a darker theme going on.
Thank you so much for talking with us!
Thank you !!!
To find out more about Caitlin and her work, check out her website.