Above images © Yevgeniya Baras. All Rights Reserved.
Yevgeniya Baras is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. Yevgeniya has a BA and MS from the University of Pennsylvania (2003) and an MFA in Painting and Drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2007). Yevgeniya’s work has been exhibited at numerous galleries in New York including: Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, Kinz + Tillou Fine Art, Zurcher studio, Asya Geisberg Gallery, Allegra LaViola Gallery. She has also shown at Susanne Hilberry Gallery in Detroit, MI; Barbur Gallery in Jerusalem; Barbara Walters Gallery at Sarah Lawrence College; Real Art Ways Gallery in Hartford, CT.
Yevgeniya is represented by Nicelle Beauchene Gallery. Her solo exhibition will open on September 10, 2016.
Yevgeniya received the Artadia Prize and was selected for the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program and the MacDowell Colony residency in 2015. In 2014 she was named the recipient of the Rema Hort Mann Foundation’s Emerging Artist Prize. Her work has been reviewed in the New York Times and Art in America.
Six years ago Yevgeniya co-founded Regina Rex Gallery in Bushwick, NY. The gallery has moved from Bushwick to Lower East side in the Fall of 2014.
Yevgeniya has been teaching painting, drawing, and art history for the past eight years to college students. She has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. She has guest lectured at Sarah Lawrence College, MICA, and Tyler School of Art. Yevgeniya is currently teaching at CUNY.
Q&A with Yevgeniya Baras
by Emily Burns
Hi Yevgeniya! I’m really curious about your process! I have always worked in a very scripted way. I tend to plan everything out before I start, and working intuitively has always been really challenging for me. Do you work intuitively? How do you create your compositions? Do you draw?
The structure of the canvas is very important as well as the degree to which its surface has been altered, long before the image emerges. The beginning stages of a painting can happen in a variety of ways. I make quilts out of fabric and canvas and paint on them, after which I may attach them to a support system. I layer materials such as tire rubber, fabric, stones, wood. I sew/embroider the canvas. Different kinds of dances happen around the canvas.
Sometimes I make a sculpture and stretch fabric onto it. It’s a buildup of activities, a collection of energies which eventually imbues the object with content, and only then the image arises.
The paintings are process-oriented and I work on many pieces at once. They stand around the studio and call to me. In one session I might work on as many as seven of them. So they bounce off of each other. I don’t date them 2011–2016, but that is what happens. They take a long time; they are archeologically structured. My drawings are currently not interesting. They are really quick thoughts on painting. Labor is really important to these paintings. I am in the studio a lot, spending time and seeing what can happen. Images can reoccur, but no painting is ever the same. I think of them sometimes as siblings and sometimes as aunts and uncles; they are in a familial relation with each other.
I remember you talking about the work having siblings and the cousins in another interview and I was really interested in that idea. Is that a way for you to focus your process? To say, ok I am looking at this painting and I am making this as a response to another painting that I made? Do you have a reason for working that way?
I usually start three or four paintings using a similar process. When I finish, they look related but I tend to not exhibit siblings together. I usually pick one child from this group of paintings and another child from another group. One of the reasons for doing so is to generate new reads of paintings by stringing together more distant relatives. Another reason has to do with my ideas about the viewer doing the work. Yes, paintings result from my hands, but you have to build your own bridges. I trust in the viewers’ intelligence.
When you make the quilts, do you make those first? And then you attach them to the stretchers? Or does that just depend on the piece? When you are quilting are you sewing with a machine? Are you hand-stitching?
It depends on the piece. I made a series of quilts last summer. I spent a week quilting; bed sheets, canvas of varied thickness, fabrics. There were some drop cloths in the mix as well. This was a way for me to increase the scale. Some of them later on were attached to stretchers.
I prefer to hand-stitch rather than using a machine. I use different kinds of thread—sometimes it’s yarn, sometimes it’s embroidery thread. The paintings are sturdy and I meditate on that. They are not falling apart; they are really toughly made and vulnerably wired objects.
I always think that is an interesting aspect of being an artist—you want the work to have character and life and scars, but at the same time you have to mindful of the materials, how they will last over time, and how they are going to interact with each other. You can play to an extent but you still have to be hyper aware of what you’re doing.
I have been working this way for a long time. It’s not that I want my work to outlast humans on this planet but crafting paintings well is important. I believe in my objects being dignified and well-made.
How do you do that when you work primarily with oils?
I prepare the surface with gesso or acrylic. They are all oil paintings in the end. The labels usually say “oil on canvas”, but there is a lot more going on. It’s not that I’m hiding the ingredients, and if students are in my studio, I will gladly tell them what went into making the paintings. These are tiles from this place, or these are rocks from this pier, or this is human hair, but it really bores me to say that on my website. I just can’t sit there listing all of the materials. It’s almost like when you come over to my house for dinner and I served you a soup. And the soup is really good. Why would I list all the tiny steps I took to make this soup? I was listening to NPR and cooking. It’s process. If there is some kind of foreign material, it goes through transformation and has a new life in the painting.
Can you talk a little bit about your choice to use oil? I feel like today (and I’m an oil painter myself) a lot of people say, “Oh, acrylic is so great, you have to try using acrylic!” and I am always really curious about the artists that continue to use oil and the reasons why.
A significant theme in my work is the body. In graduate school I made large paintings with a brush that was as long and as wide as my arm, so painting was a kind of performance. Painting was really an extension of my body in the size of surface, tools and the scale of action. Though some of my current work is a lot smaller, most often around 16 x 20 inches, I still want it to feel bodily. Actually, currently I can’t help but make physical tactile work. It’s important that paint feels like scars and is skin-like. Acrylic doesn’t naturally do that and oil does. The smell of oil, the way it lays down on certain materials. It’s just so seductive to me and I think that enjoying your time in the studio is important. I want to continue to be wooed into this activity. Pleasure is important. You have to love what you do, and acrylic is just not as good of a date as oil.
I love it—that is exactly how I feel. That was the best description! I am also curious about the scale—you mentioned that you used to work really large, but recently you work has been around 16 x 20 inches. I have always been drawn to small work, and I feel like small work can really pack a punch and I was wondering what drew you to working at this scale?
It has probably been four years since I have worked in that size. In my show that’s coming up there is full range in scale. There are going to be large, medium, and small works. There is a mixture of reasons for the small scale. The possibility of compressing a large moment into a small space, the ability to achieve intensity and volume within something physically tiny. My height is 5’1”.
This year I was accepted into two residencies simultaneously (MacDowell and Sharpe Walentas) and they were both chances to work bigger. I prescribe to the idea that the studio is a playground, a place for experimentation. Numerous artists who I look up to are in their late sixties and early seventies, and are continuously pushing themselves. Every time I attend their exhibitions, I notice how yet again they grew/transformed in some way.
I arrived at a place where I needed to push myself in a particular way in terms of scale and all of the sudden I had these opportunities to do so space-wise. It’s really surprising what exiting your regular work space will do. I have been in my studio for six years and all of my work has been made there. Moving caused many changes, like the number of walls. I only have two working walls in my regular studio and I have more than four at the residency now. The light is different. The way I perceive color is different. It took me 9 ½ months to re-teach myself to scale up. How do you take that condensed moment of a 16 x 20 inch painting and translate it into a 4 x 5 foot or 5 x 6 foot painting? How do you keep that concentration? How do you keep the crustiness? How do you enlarge the mark? How do you enlarge the symbol?
That is something I wanted to ask you about as well. If you start two ‘siblings’ and one doesn’t work out, how do you view that type of failure in the studio? How often does it happen and how do you deal with it? Is it important?
One really important lesson I have learned is that I cannot have the work exit my studio too early. It has to stand for around 5 or 6 months because let’s say if I have 20 pieces that are finished today, in about a month I might think that only 15 of them are paintings, and one more month only 12 of them are paintings. I have made the mistake of showing work, and then realizing later that what I showed were not paintings at all. In that way, a number of them were failures, but I simply didn’t brew on them long enough. And if they fail, in my practice they are usually reborn as a new being later. But to decide which one of them becomes what in their next life, they have to hang out with me.
Do you ever have failed paintings that stand around for 6 months and you realize that, “Oh my god, this is the best painting I’ve made and I didn’t realize it….”
That’s why you have to have really good friends. Not just good friends but good friends who know you well as a person and an artist, with eyes you really trust and voices you are open to. Community and who you invite over to co-think with you is so important. I am about to sacrifice a few of them and chop their heads off (I mean paintings) and I will have a friend come over whose eyes I trust and they will say: “Ok, these two are really off-base, but this is like a new strand for you, just leave it be.” You become a better critic of yourself with time, and I have been out of school since 2007—so nine years. I think I have a little bit of sharper eyes on myself with every year, but wow, other people are so good.
Is that one of the reasons that it is important for you to live in New York, because that is where this type of friends and community are?
Well, that is where I have built that community. You know, when you’re not in an academic environment anymore, you are not part of a program or a school, and you move to a city on your own, you consciously choose a community. New York is where I built that for myself. That is one of the reasons that I choose to be here; there is much co-thinking happening with those I want to be co-thinking and co-feeling with. There is a kinetic element to the process. I am alone in my studio every day but a huge part of the life of the studio has to do with others. It’s a healthy eco-system. Being alone, and then being in conversation. Knowing when to turn inward and when to open and invite others in.
You also mentioned the concept of ‘secret work’ in another interview. You described it as work that maybe you don’t show to other people, but I was really interested in that idea because I think a lot of times when you see an artist’s work it is highly curated, unless you are invited into their studio. And you see pieces that usually correlate to a larger body of work, and I know when I am in the studio and I’m making things and I don’t know what the hell this is, or where the hell this came from. Is that a part of your practice and if so how do you curate from this secret work?
This is an interesting question. I definitely look for it in other peoples’ studios, as often “secret work” contains a lot of life. You can feel it, like is a pulse that is beating—a different kind of pulse. I feel like things slowly come out of the closet to yourself and others. Maybe your secret work today is some material you’re trying out, or a new set of compositions, or a new process—and then it slowly infects other bodies of work. And then something else, a new crop, begins growing in the closet. My secret work changes, is what I’m saying. Like maybe these quilts were my secret last summer, because I hadn’t really started painting that way before. The framing device that I use, that so often reoccurs in many of the pieces, initially was a kind of secret. I realized that the frame really condensed the moment, I made a whole series of framed works without showing them, to try to understand how the framing device functioned. It didn’t enter the public eye for a while. So you keep it to yourself—this tasty thing that you’re mulling over, that maybe also makes you uncomfortable. It’s both yummy and weird, you know? But it’s a source.
Is that why play is so important, especially in terms of the secret work? When you see these weird but yummy things coming out of you in the studio, is there some subconscious effort to squash that because you’re trying to curate yourself in-process? And how do you let yourself explore it?
I think you have to slowly water it. I think you learn that it is a really fruitful place, but maybe you continue doing things you are more comfortable with as you grow this secret plant. You peek at it every once in a while, and you don’t squash it. You grow it simultaneously with your other work. And you practice being brave.
So you have to allow yourself to play?
Oh yes, play is so important to me: the joy of being with the materials, humor, and horsing around in your own studio.
When you get into the studio, and when you’re making intuitive work, play, and watering the secret work, that takes an incredible amount of emotional and focused energy. How do you approach your time in the studio?
I don’t know if this takes more energy than work that has more prescribed steps, I just think it has to do with your energy in the world and how you are structured. This intuitive process makes most sense for the kind of person that I am. The way I like to use time, the amount of energy that I have—I currently can’t speak through another process. It’s impossible. I don’t know that it’s better or worse than if it takes more preparation. This way is in tune with my inner structure.
Did you ever try on a different way of working? It sounds like you’re pretty sure that this is the way you want to work, and this is the way you’re most comfortable. Is this because you have experimented and realized that whoa, other methods are not for you?
In graduate school I sketched ideas in detail and then carried out the work. I said to myself that I want to tell this particular story and then I tried to narrate it. What resulted was more of an illustration, which is not what I am interested in making. It was such an A to B process. Meaning was prescribed, glued to the piece in its initial stages of being. The attachment was forced: This piece is about this. It was so literal and dictatorial. I became uninterested in speaking this way. I am much more interested in meaning arising and growing through the process of making. I am interested in a space of mystery, of looking, not a place of prescription. My process reflects that. There are artists who plan their work a lot more than I do and also experience mystery but each one of us finds that state in different places.
We live in this world where there are constant interruptions and distractions, and the type of work you make seems to require so much of your mind. How do you deal with that when you’re into the studio? Are you cranking the music, turning your phone off? Do you have to go for ten hours at a time to get in the zone?
I believe there is a balance between your inner world feeding your work and the outer world. So I don’t shut the outer world out. I am open to audio books, I am open to stories on NPR, I am open to the fact that I might have a conversation in the hallway with someone washing brushes mid-painting. Sometimes I have completely hermetic days.
In terms of, say, digital interruption. You’re such a busy person, is your phone ringing, is your email open?
My computer is not with me in the studio at all. That’s a fact. My phone is on silent, but I will at times respond. You know, I will look at it. It’s not ideal but I will.
How do you approach your studio practice? What is a typical day like for you?
I am at the studio almost every day, but it’s not an 8 hour day every day. Today I woke up super early and I went in and I painted for two hours, and now I’m gallery sitting Regina Rex for six hours. Tomorrow I’m going to the beach, because it’s Saturday and I have to have some hours off. And then I’ll paint in the afternoon. Probably three full days, and then four more sectioned days. I think that sections are just as valid as full days.
Is it difficult for you to balance all of the different aspects of your career? You do so many different things—working with Regina Rex, your studio, teaching, and I know you have the other curatorial project, Bull and Ram?
It probably has to do with personality. Some people would find this way of being distracting. They would find that these activities take away from their studio practice. I think there are seasons. There was a time for me when the variety of activities fed each other tremendously. I love teaching. Curatorial activities have taught me and given me so much. Within this ecosystem all aspects have the potential to benefit each other. The studio is the central body around which all revolves. It is also important to realize when it is the season to prioritize your studio over everything.
I love some of the things you have said about language in relation to your work, but I was interested in the connection with curation and writing about others people’s work and thinking through your own work through language. What is your relationship with language both with your work and curating with the gallery?
I enjoy writing. When I write about my work, it can be poetic writing or a more direct artist statement. You’re thinking about your work anyway, and it’s a chance to condense ideas. Writing also gives you language to use when discussing your work with the outside world. Writing distills. Good writing does not over explain as again I am not interested in prescription. When I am writing about others, I am assigning language to their work as a way to try to understand it. I try to find a way to describe my experience and excavate language that could be helpful for discovering that work. It’s a way to dig for meaning, visually, emotionally, and then verbally.
You have mentioned before that being proactive as an artist is really important, and I think that there are a lot of ways to do that. You talked about starting Regina Rex and starting to curate, because you were interested in getting involved and meeting people, and taking matters into your own hands. You also mentioned the apartment exhibitions that people put on in Chicago. Do you feel like that still happens in New York now? Does it need to happen more often? Does it happen in other places?
These days I often encounter artists who are organizing exhibitions in remote places in New York. I relate to them. There are people who feel empowered through these kind of activities. The DIY spirit, the importance of community have long been interests of mine and my Regina Rex partners, which of course led to the birth of the gallery. I encourage this kind of activity because I think that artists can give something to each other and learn so much as makers, as organizers, as thinkers. I notice more and more often when I am a visiting artist at different institutions that the message of community building, of generosity is being overtly taught at schools. I think that is wonderful. There are places where this message is woven into the fabric of the program.
In graduate schools with healthy environments students are told that for the rest of their life they will be exchanging with their peers: build really dynamic deep relationships. You will want to hang out in each other’s studios and curate events together long after school is over. This is just the beginning.
Can you tell us a little more about your upcoming shows?
On the 10th of September, 2016 a solo exhibition of my work will open at Nicelle Beauchene Gallery. And I’m in a group show at Gavin Brown, opening on the 30th of June.
What are some of the artists that you look at the most often or that their work has meant the most to you in terms of making your own work?
I look at the work of Tracey Emin. I love her work for its openness and vulnerability. She changes; she makes sculptures, sews, paints, performs. I also love the work of Louise Bourgeois. I think about the work of Martin Kippenberger, for being so brave in paintings and for his sense of humor. Eva Hesse, Emil Nolde, Sonya Delaney, Philip Guston, Frank Auerbach, Nicolas de Stael, Alice Neel, Milton Avery.
I am deeply touched by El Greco. If I had to steal anything from any museum it would an El Greco painting. I would steal The View of Toledo from The Met. There are many contemporary artists I look at such as Chris Martin, Katherine Bradford, EJ Hauser, Schnabel, Dona Nelson, Kerry James Marshall. The list is long.
Is there any particular author or book or essay or poem that has been super influential for you or that you have returned to a lot?
There are definitely films and I can list a few. I try to look outside of painting quite a bit. I don’t really believe in just staring at your own discipline.
Sharing some materials I enjoy:
Books: Michael Bulgakov, Flannery O'Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, Martin Buber, Isaac Singer, Paul Celan
Fashion: SoniaDelaunay , Hussein Chalayan, Comme Des Garcons, Tao Kurihara
Films: Mirror, Nostalgia, Sibiriade, House of Fools, The Return, Paris Texas, All about my Mother, Turtles can Fly, My Left Foot, Wings of Desire, Fat Girl, Breaking the Waves, Shine, Sister Wendy’s American Collection, Before Night Falls, Pina
Thank you so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Yevgeniya and her work, check out her website.