Matthew Hassell: Surely you haven’t always painted quite the same way you do now. Could you tell me a little about where your work comes from and some of the experience that led you to make the work you are currently involved with creating?
Tatiana Berg: I haven’t been painting for that long, relatively, but you always try on a lot of different hats along the way. It’s not easy airing the dirty laundry of your awkward, derivative beginnings, but I love it when artists do—that’s why I love how every time I’ve seen Dana Schutz give her artist talk she starts with a slide of an abstract, Robert Ryman-y all white little painting that you’d never think she’d ever make. It’s a lovely, generous thing to do, especially in front of students.
Something I’ve been reminiscing about with some old friends was how we noticed, in retrospect, an implied expectation in school of having to digest and metabolize the entire arc of 20th century painting in four years of study. Students rise and die with Modernism in the classroom. They start you off with the observational stuff, and then you move on to maybe some expressionistic-but-still-representative things, and eventually you make it to abstraction, which then gets discarded in favor of conceptualism and the immaterial art object. I’m exaggerating, of course, and not everyone did that! But it was a common narrative, and funny to watch people sneer at whatever previous method they’d been using once they had “evolved” to the next step.
All this to say is I’ve run the gamut. I took a stab at everything when I was starting out. As a young painter I’d sometimes try and figure out how to make the paintings of an artist I was obsessed with—it was like a fever, and the cure was understanding something about their process. Once I vaguely succeeded I’d lose interest, and be able to move on with my life. I’ve made knock-off Alan Shields, Alex Katzes, Manets! I’m not making the “kind” of work I thought I would be making at all. You metabolize your influences, and climb out of the maze.
MH: Your mark-making has a decidedly casual feel to it, but many of your compositions end up being quite complex. I see a number of art historical connections that could be made, but who are some of you favorite sources of inspiration?
TB: Composition is one of those things that I can’t rely on myself to reliably produce. I need some source material, food, or otherwise I’ll fall into the same three tricks over and over. Certainly other paintings are great sources. I lived in Paris during high school, so I spent a lot of time on the weekends at the big museums. The Raft of the Medusa is an old favorite. I try and visit that thing every time I go home. Caravaggios, too. Those have some crazy compositional gestures.
I certainly owe some debt to the Supports/Surfaces artists, as well as 60-70s painterly painters that were collected in Katy Siegel’s excellent 2007 show, High Times Hard Times. I’m also consistently obsessed with Milton Avery, as everyone should be.
MH: What other sources of inspiration do you find in the world around you?
TB: I derive a lot of inspiration from pop culture and humor especially. I watch a lot of stand-up and also improv, which I particularly adore. So much of humor is derived from cadence and timing, just like paintings. There’s rehearsal, where you accumulate muscle memory, and then the act of painting is really rhythmic where you’re continuously responding in real time to external and internal stimuli. Knowing when to stop, knowing when to land the punchline, that’s all very tricky.
I finally broke down and took an improv class at the UCB theater this summer. I was terrified—I am absolutely not a performer and don’t enjoy being onstage. But in the end, it was unreservedly the most fun I’ve had in ages. I hadn’t been around adults who were so unselfconsciously playful and collaborative. It made me realize how infrequently we actually play games in regular life, and it was just unbelievably helpful for painting. I learnt so much, and I’m still unpacking that experience.
MH: I’d maybe describe you as an abstractionist for the most part, but a good deal of your work also flirts with representation. It’s clear no one has to feel pressure to land on one side or another these days, but it makes me curious whether or not the more sparse abstract works you create come from somewhere in the “real/lived” world somewhere.
TB: Everything has a referent. Just as all representation is abstraction, all abstraction gets filtered through a mind that, through force of habit, reads language and representation into everything. It’s not just that you can’t have one without the other; they’re simultaneous.
MH: Much of your work deals with an economy of expression when it comes to your handling of the paint. How do you know when to stop working on any given piece?
TB: That’s the big hat trick, ultimately. I don’t know a single painter that doesn’t continue to struggle with that one. I mess this one up a lot on either end, by under-working or over-working. It feels like sexual edging: you have to stop yourself right at the cliff edge without going over. I have this feeling that the very best painting, regardless of speed, stops just short of being “done.” Where you’re able to imagine what could happen next. In that way it acts as an irritant and makes you complicit in its life.
Of course this method runs the high risk of being undercooked and unsatisfying mush. That’s what makes it fun, and hard—when you succeed it’s transportative and experiential like nothing else.
MH: In your Tent works, the structures you paint on are built in the round as multi-sided stretcher volumes draped in canvas and painted. I love this work. I had seen images, but first saw one in person at the show About Space at the ArtBridge Drawing Room. I like your decision to put them on casters, giving them an implied movement and transportability. Can you tell me a bit about how this side of your work came about?
TB: When I was younger I think I felt typically torn between what I assumed were different postures, the abstract and the depictive. I’d think of some paintings as “concave” and “convex”—the concave being of the illusionistic variety, and the convex as the assertive “objecthood” objects. But what I came to understood is that in my work these two modes actually operate in the same way, at the same time.
I strongly anthropomorphize my work. This is something we all do, involuntarily. To ignore that is to ignore a facet of human perception. Just as every concave painting is three-dimensional object in space, every convex one leads a double life as a legible, depictive symbol. It was my feeling that while the recent history of painting has roundly addressed this first principle, we have not yet had so much work addressing the second.
Everything is a body. Everything is a cartoon. Everything has a dick, etc.
Those are some of the things the tents are trying to address. They sprung out of a curiosity I had, wondering what a painting would look like broken up, exposed, and hanging out in our human space, while occupying a human amount of space. I’m untrained in any form of sculpture, so I’m amused in the way that they’re the product of an unskilled person working their way backwards, problem solving with the only skills available to them—in my case, painting skills, like stretcher building.
I love the tents a lot, at this point they’re a familiar, friendly shape to me. They’re more mobile and assertive than even I as a person get to be, and they are wonderful vehicles for ideas.
MH: Is the fact that they are on wheels a playful invitation to the viewer, enticing them to walk around the work? Can I get your permission to push the next one I see around the gallery and really ruffle some feathers?
TB: One of my favorite things is the way the tents suggest a possible function, while having none. They definitely feel like potential furniture, or containers for something, or possibly a very specific and weird tool.
With the tents it seems like they want us to touch and move them and play with them. They’re saboteurs. They seem friendly but are deliverers of sneaky ideas, I hope.
I’d love for people to be able to touch them all day long but it’s sadly impractical because some people aren’t so respectful! One of the funniest things I ever saw was someone using a smaller one as a little drink coaster at an opening. Just set your cup of wine down, and wheel it around with you while you circulate.
MH: In a time where other art exploration is always seeming to invite viewer participation, this decision seems to be pointing an accusatory finger at the art world’s long standing position of frowning on the viewer’s ability to touch a painting.
TB: I think about usefulness, and touch, a lot. I wonder what the use of a painting is. Ostensibly, once it’s “done” a painting just sits quietly on a wall, looked at but never touched. Maybe its greatest moment of “use” is the painter using it and touching it for their personal expressive purpose, and then that’s it. A painting is a one-use thing that’s almost discarded when it leaves the studio—which is a melodramatic idea I love.
You know what else I just love? Mary Heilmann’s chairs. It’s such a goofy thing, to like sit on a “painting” while looking at paintings. I like work that does stuff that. It’s irreverent in a way that seems dumb but is actually aggressively smart.
MH: Your marks seem so brusk and intuitive, made quite quickly—yet a lot of the structures you paint on in the Tent work seem like they took some time to build. Is there some amount of planning that goes in to how each tent piece will eventually look? Or once you have the surface ready do you just bang them out?
TB: Two modes of thinking are necessary, in life and in painting: there’s the fast and performative, and the slow and designed. Oscillating between the two is healthy and I like that the tents embody both. They’re difficult and time-consuming to build, and then I don’t treat their surfaces differently than my “flat” works; I bring my best self to the party, respond to what’s in front of me, and let ‘em rip.
I read this book over the summer, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which is like a treatise on the psychology and latest neuroscience of human behavior. I think it did a great job addressing these two modes of thinking; how our brains have two broad ways of working and what activities are best suited for them. I suspect I design in slow mode, and then paint in the fast mode—similar to athleticism and what we often call “intuition.” It’s an interesting read and seemed to confirm a lot of my suspicions and half-baked theories of how my own brain operates while I’m working.
MH: I see a lot of your new work on assorted social media. (Yes I stalk you.) Do you tend to burn through materials? Did this factor into your recent move to works on paper? Or had you been working this way all along?
TB: I burn through materials like a nymphomaniac on death’s row. Not really; but I do alternate through fallow periods of contemplation and relative laziness, to bursts of manic output. I have what I consider a high failure rate (for a painter, anyway). I live for high-risk painting—anything else bores me—and if going to fail, I want to really go down in flames.
Anyway to answer your question, yes, I have sort of always worked this way, and finding the right kind of paper has been a godsend. It allowed me to really pick a speed that’s almost impossible to maintain with other media. Canvas and stretchers are just inherently costly, so I had to find other ways to allow failure; some of my earlier abstractions have many, many failed paintings hidden beneath the final product.
MH: Each of the paper works seem to be painted on two pieces of paper placed together to make a single composition—is this move a practical way to work larger, or does it intentionally reference the painting tradition of the dyptich?
TB: The move was definitely started by a practical need to work larger, at first, but it has become a deliberate part of the content now. It’s a push/pull, gap-thing that doesn’t operate in the same way when it’s a single sheet. It also has that effect, you know, when you cut up a giant pizza into little squares, you end up eating more? It’s like that.
MH: Please clue us in on some new exhibitions or exciting projects to look forward to in 2014.
TB: For the time being I’m looking forward to exhibiting my thesis work at the end of my Columbia MFA, but beyond that I don’t yet know of anything for certain!