Rema Ghuloum currently lives and works in Los Angeles, CA. Rema received her BFA in Drawing and Painting from California State University, Long Beach in 2007 and her MFA from California College of the Arts in San Francisco in 2010. Rema was a recipient of the Esalen Pacifica Prize in 2012, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant in 2010, and the Max Gatov award in 2007. Rema has exhibited nationally and internationally at venues like the Cue Foundation, UCLA's New Wight Gallery, Sonce Alexander Gallery, George Lawson Gallery, den Contemporary, UCSB's Gallery 479, UC Berkeley's Worth Ryder Gallery, the Torrance Art Museum, and Arka Gallery in Vladivostok, Russia. Since 2012, Rema has been one of the four members of the curatorial collective – Manual History Machines. Manual History Machines was a recipient of the Curators Lab Exhibition Award by Fellows of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles in 2013 and have presented exhibitions at venues thorough the Los Angeles area, including Fellows of Contemporary Art, Claremont Graduate University, DAC Gallery, and Eastside International. Rema is currently represented by Sonce Alexander Gallery.
My everyday experience of noticing informs my process of making. I respond directly to my external and internal environment, which in most cases is reflective of my studio and its surroundings. The ways in which one sees, absorbs, and recalls an experience is fascinating to me, and I consider how this can be translated and transformed through painting. I make paintings and painted constructions that inform one another, resulting in the visual language that generates subsequent work.
The painted constructions are initially made by responding to a material (foam) then cutting out shapes out without discretion. The shapes often reference things I have seen or have painted previously, but are never planned. I enjoy not knowing and allow them to emerge through the process. I carve, prime, paint, and sand each piece, treating them as a painting in the round.
My painting practice oscillates between abstraction, representation, and the illusion of two and three-dimensions. The forms in the paintings emerge out of the process of building up the surface. I apply more stress on spatial contrasts created through this process—carving out shapes through layering and excavating color, marks, and pattern. They then begin to recall the painted constructions, but also remain in a state of becoming—shifting and transforming.
Q&A with Rema Ghuloum
by Lydia O'Reilly
Can you describe your art-making process for us? In your artist's statement, it sounds like it is very organic, intuitive work.
Yes, my work is pretty intuitive. I am interested in the function of memory and how it can be a source of transformation and imagination. I begin without a plan, except perhaps with a palette in mind. I allow the paintings to be discovered through the process. The forms and space get carved out through the building up and removing of layers. In that way the history of the painting informs the successive layers. I try to create a visceral space through the process of layering and sanding. This creates a sense of time within the surface of the painting. If each layer is represented with color, line, mark, or pattern, then those elements will become embedded in the surface. In that way, those elements are always present, like bodies that accumulate memory on a cellular level. I guess I am trying to create or capture an energy that is transmitted through my process that it hard to pin down. I want to create spaces in my painting that address the senses – that can be seen, felt, really experienced. I think of a group of paintings as a series of experiences that function together like involuntary memory might. They are non-linear. I want each painting to evoke different emotions in the viewer, but I don’t necessarily know what those might be until the painting reveals itself to me. This doesn’t really happen until I am halfway through the process. I do know that eventually I would like the paintings to be full of contrasts. They might have depth, but may also be flat or they might have texture, but will be thin.
Are there any artists or art movements that you consider yourself in dialogue with?
There are so many. This is a hard question to answer. I love Hilma af Klint, Linda Day, Paul Klee, Agnes Martin, Emma Kunz, Giorgio Morandi, Claude Monet, Eduord Vuillard, Elizabeth Murray, cave paintings, Noah Purifoy, and Noah Davis a lot. I went to London to see Hilma’s work a few months ago. It was breathtaking. I have been energized since. I also was able to see the work of Mona Hatoum for the first time. It was powerful and aesthetically beautiful. It was such an amazing trip! Also, I have been ruminating about what it means to devote your life to your work. Leonard Knight’s commitment to Salvation Mountain and the Bread and Puppet Theatre founded by Peter Schumann come to mind. I just recently went to the Bread and Puppet Theatre in Glover, Vermont. I was completely moved. I can’t stop thinking about the papier-mache puppets and dioramas that were displayed in the museum for veteran puppets. They were so charged! There is an immediacy, crudeness, and playfulness to the puppets and an ease exhibited in the performances that added to the social/ political message of the work.
I love the phrase you use in your artist's statement about "excavating color." It is interesting that you use an archaeological metaphor to describe fresh art making. Can you explain this a little more?
Thanks! Yes, the phrase “excavating color” seems to be the best way to describe part of the process. I remove the top layers of paint/ color to get to the buried layers. I do this by sanding and scraping paint off of the surface. The painting’s history is present on its surface, but is also embedded. This process of removal allows me to expose previous moments, responding to them and ultimately transforming them. I think the way in which one stores and transforms memory in the body is similar. I started making this connection after beginning to practice Vipassana meditation. When one begins to sit and focus on sensations on/ in the body, it is possible to feel the relationships between memory and those feelings. Recognizing those sensations allows them to transform.
You also talk about your art as always in a "state of becoming." Your works are not static images. How do your artworks change in relation to their environmental context (say, your studio space where they are made versus the gallery they are viewed in)? Does an individual viewer contribute to this process of "becoming"?
I think of “becoming” as a verb that could reflect both a space and the process of moving fluidly between mediums. In that way, the work has the potential to transform itself in an indirect way. I like to think that my paintings reflect the energy of the sculpture rather than illustrating them. I usually divide my time between making sculpture and making paintings. I like to think about the process of making the sculpture – what it felt like or what it looked like under different lighting conditions. I believe that information gets absorbed and somehow reimagined when I make the paintings. It is interesting to observe how sensations can be translated – from touch, to sight, to feeling etc. When I am working on canvas, I want the paint to convey a fleeting quality. Formally, I build the surface up with pattern or subtle shifts of color that then oscillate between positive and negative space. This allows for the paintings to move and shift. I also do think that the viewer adds to this process. The viewer completes the work by experiencing it. In that way it is constantly changing.
Your sculptures are made out of a variety of mixed media, like styrofoam, cardboard, and bubble wrap. What led you to work with these materials?
I used to use all kinds of materials to make my work. I used to walk to my studio everyday and notice the way trash was discarded on the street. I found the arrangements appealing. The imperfect, temporal, unrefined quality in those materials spoke to the vulnerability I was after. So, I began to use everyday materials that were not archival or traditionally used to make art. Early on, I used materials that were found or donated. Some were more successful than others. Sadly, saran wrap and foil didn’t hold up over time, but scotch tape actually did. I learned that I was more interested in materials that were malleable, but allusive and that would be held up when painted. I do keep some of those older pieces around to remind me to not be self conscious in the studio.
Is the material integral to the artwork, or just a vehicle for color and form?
I think it is integral to the work because each material has its limitations. I really have been using styrofoam pretty exclusively in the past few years, but think that I might begin to introduce other materials soon. I have been playing around with some lately, but don’t think I have found another fit yet.
Styrofoam is a typically secondary material, or something that is temporarily used to pack and ship artworks and is then discarded. What does it mean to you to make the artworks themselves out of a material that is often considered unimportant?
I began using styrofoam when a friend gave me a surplus of it a few years ago. I do like that it usually isn’t viewed as precious. It is a secondary material that often is used to make molds or as you mentioned pack and ship art before getting thrown away. I think that is part of its charm. My sculptures have been mistaken for trash in the past, so perhaps that is what I am after. Styrofoam doesn’t have the historical weight that painting does and I approach making the sculptures as a painter. I love the immediacy of the material and it is pretty forgiving. I think that is why the sculptures happen fast in relation to the paintings. I like that contrast. I feel lost when I am making sculpture with styrofoam or any other material for that matter. I think there is freedom in that. It is like seeing in a new way.
Your paintings show sophisticated arrangements of color. Where did your interest in color begin? Have you studied color theory at all?
I can’t remember not being influenced by color. As a kid, I was inspired by different genres of music, which was expressed in the colors I wore and chose to surround myself with. It is funny, but I associate colors with periods of my life. Feeling color is as important to me as seeing color. I feel color in my body. It triggers emotions and memories and I am transported by it. I did study Color Theory with Marie Thibeault as an undergraduate at Cal State Long Beach and learned a lot from taking that course. It was kind of life changing. Since then, I have continued to educate myself through practice. I actually teach Color Theory now and learn something new each lesson. I enjoy watching students gain a personal relationship to color. It is really the part that I can’t teach. It is learned through practice and experience.
You've had residencies in places as different as New Orleans and Johnson, VT. What were those like? How did these different working/cultural/natural environments effect your work?
I am actually just about to complete my stay at Vermont Studio Center. I have also been an artist in residence at the Joan Mitchell Center, in New Orleans, as well as at Esalen Institite in Big Sur, CA. They have all been pretty amazing, unique, and very different from one another.
Vermont Studio Center has been pretty dreamy! It is much larger than the others that I have attended and includes artists and writers. There have been readings and artists’ presentations throughout each week. It has been really nice to work in the studio all day and learn about other people’s processes in the evenings. I set out to make small, intimate paintings while at VSC. I wanted to focus on creating the feeling of a larger space within a physically smaller painting. I actually started 18 small paintings. The first stages of the work evolved pretty quickly, but then slowed down quite a bit. I think the studio environment has been helpful because I could actually see all of the paintings at once. I can’t really do that in my studio in Los Angeles. In the previous residencies, I actually responded to the physical environment of the space that I was working in.
While at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, I was inspired by the formal qualities of the studio and my observations biking or walking to my studio. New Orleans is a much bigger city than Johnson, Vermont, so I found that I spent more time engaging with the community and getting acquainted with the city than I have been while in Johnson.
What direction do you see your work going in the future? Looking at your website, you've clearly experimented with a lot of different styles/materials/forms. It's fascinating to see the developmental shifts your art has gone through in the course of your career.
I can’t anticipate where my work will go in the future. I actually find it difficult to know the direction of each painting. I hope to just keep growing and surprise myself as much as possible. In the past, I have responded to a physical space or environment and allowed that to direct the process. I do enjoy working like that. More recently, scale has sparked my curiosity in the same way. It has been especially challenging to translate texture and spatial qualities that I have been able to convey on a larger scale to a smaller one. Although, I think I figured something out while at VSC and am feeling excited about working small again. I actually feel pretty challenged by painting and can't imagine not doing it.
Tell us about your work with Manual History Machines. It sounds awesome!
Manual History Machines is a curatorial collective comprised of Bessie Kunath, Daniela Campins, Tessie Whitmore, and myself. We started the collective in 2012 because we wanted to engage with the Los Angeles art community, create shows that included underrepresented artists, and present exhibitions in unconventional places. I really view the curatorial process as an extension of my work. As a painter, the studio can feel insular and curating has been a way to combat that. Recently, MHM and I curated images of works of some of our favorite artists that have died, called Dream Zine. It was fun to work collaboratively within a zine format. It was part of a show called Lazy Susan curated by Kio Griffith and Ichiro Irie at Titanik in Finalnd.
Any advice for new graduates looking for residencies or gallery shows?
I think residencies are great opportunities to meet people while carving out dedicated time for your work. I have found that residencies force you to make different kinds of decisions that you might not make otherwise. The energy of a place and other artists/ writers can be really supportive and generative. There are plenty of resources for residency opportunities online. One that comes to mind is Res Artis. I know that you could find national and international residencies there. I think it is important to know what you want out of the residency and use that as a guide to selecting which one to apply to. In regards to seeking out gallery shows to participate in, I believe that making your work should be the priority. Cultivating meaningful work should take precedence over seeking out exhibition opportunities. With that said, I do encourage new graduates to frequent shows and go to openings. I think it is important to support other artists. Being an artist is difficult to sustain without a community.
Is there anything else you would like to add? Do you have any exciting shows coming up?
Yes, I am currently in a show called The Garden at TSA LA. It is a group exhibit that includes work by members of Manual History Machines, Monte Vista Projects, and TSA LA. It will run through September 3, 2016. I will also be participating in the End of Summer Show in Malibu curated by 24 Hour Charlies. It opens on September 3rd as well.
To find out more about Rema and her work, check out her website.