Rives Wiley, born in 1990, is a painter and video maker living in DC. She received her BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2013. She recently attended Vermont Studio Center and was a 2015 Hamiltonian Fellowship finalist. Her work has been exhibited in many group shows in DC and Rhode Island.
I envision scenes as a blend of the real, surreal, and virtual overlaid with an inner commentary and bound up by contemporary social conventions. In every sense, the figures are trapped in an image. They are confined to the scene in appearance, thought, behavior. My work attempts to expose the restraints, repetitions, acquiescence to social norms, acceptance of convention, and dissolution of original expression.
Although my paintings, actors, and sets are painted by hand, they are intimately informed by a digital aesthetic and often attempt to hide evidence of the painter’s touch. This juxtaposition, or tension between the hand imitating the digital through familiar settings, strikes a chord within the viewer that persuades them to reexamine how they fit into their own realities.
Please find below an excerpt from a literal facet of my work:
We sit at my kitchen table. A fluorescent lens flare hangs as a chandelier between me, Josh, and Josh. I laugh, but only hear my jokes. We consume the blonde soup and drink champagne out of jars. Flies made of pearls buzz in my ear. Josh and Josh hold the 34 double A bowls tighter as they slurp the blonde hair. I pretend they are funny. Really, really funny. When they are finished they leave. I lock the door, sit on my massage rug and watch skin on a screen. The flesh hues and oriental tattoos grow back into my skin.
Q&A with Rives Wiley
by Sidney Mullis
Can you describe your process of how you begin your paintings? How about your videos?
My process is somewhat inverted, and I tend to begin at a stage, which, for many, is the conclusion. For example, instead of taking a picture of an orange and then creating a photograph that is digitally enhanced or graphically reinterpreted, I start with the altered orange and create a world to visually support it. From there, I transport it back into reality as a tangible form. The narratives unfold when I begin to question the existence of the digital orange; how did it grow? Who picked it? What’s inside if I cut it? Is there an inside? Can I squeeze orange juice from it? And ultimately, what does a digital orange taste like?
To plan these projects, I do some sketching and writing. Sometimes I make a small painting, and then transfer it to Photoshop. Other times, I collage photos and images, either taken personally or from the web and filter them through Photoshop to reach a starting point that fits my vision. The interpretation and resulting work begins at that point. The videos are trickier because I have to recreate a flat space in the real world, a space which also has to be adjusted to the bodies of my actors. I would say that I spend 70% of my time designing.
You seem to have a few different young adults in your videos. How do you find your performers? What is it like to work with other people to create your pieces?
Well, the promise of free wine and pizza is usually enough to entice my friends into acting in my videos. Other times, I just act in them myself.
Sometimes I feel a bit like a sadist because I put my actors through the most uncomfortable experiences. “Grey Area” was probably the hardest on the actors. My poor friends were Velcroed to foam core cut outs, covered in three layers of paint, and had their long hair painted and sprayed to stand up in a way that looked like they were jumping/ dancing. Then they had to hold the same facial expressions and poses for about four minutes while I filmed. We shot from 8pm to around 4am. They left looking like zombies. I don’t know if you’re reading this Anastasia and Julia, but you are great friends.
You mention the mix-up of the real, surreal, and virtual. For me, how your hand imitates the digital speaks to a larger blurring of what constitutes reality for people. Could you speak about this mash of in-person encounters, online communication, and mental non-spaces that feed and form our daily experiences?
Just as “we are what we eat,” we are what we see as well. Many of us learn to communicate and develop our personalities through a cast of role models. Traditionally, this cast included friends and family, but it is increasingly populated with characters from Netflix shows, Youtube, and other online personas. Obviously, trends and opinions are influenced by such sources, but subconsciously, we also absorb mannerisms. We learn how to throw a punch line, to choreograph our hand gestures, to sigh at all the right moments, to kiss, and even how to feel.
What interests me is the cycle of these characteristics. The media and internet impersonate real life, people in real life impersonate what they see on the screen, and then those people’s characters are edited back onto the screen. I’m curious about where this cycle leads us in terms of communicating.
For instance, will the art of conversation keep evolving into various hybrids of the past and future, or will it cycle into something else? Perhaps photos and videos are replacing individuality or a language.
Language replacement by imagery is already prevalent, and it is hard to have a conversation in 2015 without emojis, gifs, and photo sharing. As an experiment the other day, my friend and I tried to have a full length conversation on Facebook chat just by choosing different gifs. We were actually pretty successful!
On your website you have writings that seem part confessional journal entry, part fabricated prose. What is your motivation for making these? Do you exhibit your writings?
That’s a great description actually! The writings are partially anecdotal, they are meant to have a “fabricated” quality, but the most important part is that they tell the type of stories I’m trying to express in my work (especially my paintings). I would like my viewers to invest in the storyline between the space and the characters, but it’s difficult to convey such a complex story into one still image. I have not exhibited them, but I would like to try to turn one into a video.
You have a degree in illustration from RISD. Did you feel free in your program to make the painting and video work that you wanted? Or, did your degree have a rigid structure with particular illustration credits to complete? Would you consider this work separate from illustration? Does designating them in different spaces matter
Although I have a degree in Illustration, I started as a painter, finished as a painter and spent the vast majority of my time in the painting department. Although I definitely enjoyed the storytelling aspect of it, I found I could not commit to its commercial obligations. RISD’s Illustration department recognized this and made room for me and several other very talented painters.
I appreciate great illustration and great painting, and I think there has been some very clever crossover between the two genres. However, they have different objectives and ultimately use different parts of the artistic mind.
I recently listened to a Radiolab podcast that suggested notions of normalcy and convention are shifting. To argue their point, the podcast highlighted “unconventional” stories around the world, such as the first elected transgender mayor of the conservative Silverton, Oregon. In your statement you note that your work exposes restraints of social norms. Do you feel this shift like Radiolab suggests?
By "restraints of social norms" I was referring more to the stiff, by the numbers nature of socializing. There is definitely a shift in the trends and language of communication (especially online.) However, despite the recent shift towards more social openness and acceptance as evidenced by the election of the mayor, our personal interactions remain regimented and restrained. In fact, as a result of our increased connectedness, there is less room for social spontaneity. In our current culture, instead of asking someone on a regular date, where there is a fair chance it will crash and burn, people will often simply text for a"Netflix and chill." The phrase often belies sex, but whether that happens, it is still a very routine, pre-packaged, anti-social way of getting to know someone.
I adore the line in your statement “[i]n every sense, the figures are trapped in an image. For me, this line firstly addresses the figures that are literally trapped in your canvases and screens. Secondly, it speaks toward people in life (profile picture, LinkedIn account, etc.). Could you expand upon this sentence, especially the bit “[i]n every sense?”
Yes, that line has multiple meanings. It references being trapped in a physical, narrative, literal, and metaphorical level. The spaces I create are customized for the figure and vice versa. Without each other they have no meaning aesthetically and conceptually. I think of pattern, digital effects (such as drop shadows), and various flat planes as characters building and enclosing the environment. The environment is essential for the figures, almost pushing their conversations forward. Of course, in the videos, the actors are physically trapped in the image via pose, set, and costume.
For instance, in “Stalking a Stocking Photo of a Candlelit Picnic”, my incredibly patient and supportive boyfriend, Tim, and I are trying to imitate stock photos of happy couples on picnic dates. For the duration of the film, our faces, which are attached by a stocking that looks like a blur, slowly struggle to disconnect. However, we are forever stuck together in the stocking, the image, the relationship, and the video loop. In the foreground there are lines of clear tape, almost like the watermark of a stock photo, creating a boundary between the viewer and the happy couple.
You recently completed a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. Congrats! What was it like? Would you recommend it for the recently graduated?
Thanks! Yes, it was an awesome place for a first residency. My studio was outrageously huge, the one-on-one talks with visiting artists were very helpful, and I had a lot of fun collaborating with other residents. Just don’t go in January; it went down to 18 degrees F!
You live and work in Washington, D.C. What is the art scene like? How long have you been located there? Does it feel like a good place to make and promote your work?
I moved here about a year ago with my boyfriend and shiba inu dog (who actually makes an appearance in one of my paintings). I have a great/affordable studio and have had some decent success. The scene is small, so it’s easy to make connections, but good contemporary art opportunities are limited. It’s been a great starting point and I like it here, but I’m only 25 and see myself branching out to New York and/or Los Angeles at some point.
Can you describe your working routine? Do you have a daily studio practice?
I’m in my studio pretty much every day. And while I’m naturally nocturnal, I’ve recently been getting to studio in the AM! It’s a big accomplishment. I try to complete at least one project each month along with commissioned portraits and painting projects I do on the side to help pay the bills. At the end of a project, I am notorious for working two or three days straight without leaving the studio. I get through those benders with lots of red bull, ramen, and late night Alanis Morisette sing-alongs.
Has your work been influenced by other disciplines that are not rooted in the visual arts?
Although I have many non-art interests, my work is really based off personal experience. I like to connect with artists, but it’s always been important that the average person can also engage with my work. As a result I am inspired by personal, yet ordinary parts of my life.
You recently graduated with your BFA from RISD. Congrats!! What was your transition out of school like? Any advice for others as they make transitions out of similar programs?
Thanks! Once out of school, I think it is important to take the time to create the long-term projects that weren’t possible while in school. Dig into the details, and try ideas that you couldn’t while faced with the deadlines and intimidation of a group critique. After school, my work became far more thorough, well executed, and confident because I took that time to grow.
Is there anything else you would like to add? Any upcoming shows we can keep an eye out for?
Yes! I’ve just been accepted to have my first solo show at the Hillyer gallery in DC! It will be up for a month sometime in 2016.
Thanks so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Rives and her work, check out her website.