Then I finished the first group of “Girl” paintings I felt that I needed to work from life to get more ideas about light and color. I prefer not to work from a model unless it is family and they were sick of it. So I started working from objects. I became interested in the toys because they were like three-dimensional incarnations of the two-dimensional cartoon images I had used in what some people call my “Bimbo” paintings (1990-1992). In both cases, the images were already designed and simplified and heavily loaded. But with the toys I could also observe the light and color.
“My intention was always to go back to invented figures.”
Elena Sisto, Untitled (Green Brush), 2011. Oil on linen, 25 1/2 x 36 1/2 in. Courtesy of Lori Bookstein Fine Art
JS: How did you move from your series “Toys body” to the series “Young Artist?” How are these series different?
ES: When I finished the first group of Girl paintings I felt that I needed to work from life to get more ideas about light and color. I prefer not to work from a model unless it is family and they were sick of it. So I started working from objects. I became interested in the toys because they were like three-dimensional incarnations of the two-dimensional cartoon images I had used in what some people call my Bimbo paintings (1990-1992). In both cases, the images were already designed and simplified and heavily loaded. But with the toys I could also observe the light and color. My intention was always to go back to invented figures.
JS: What are you working on now?
ES: Young women artists working, musing, sleeping in their studios – idealistically applying themselves with all their strength. The future for them is open. I want to show women engaged in work, protagonists, moving, doing, evaluating. The figures are more emblematic now, less straight-forward portraiture.
JS: Who are your painter role models, and who were your important teachers?
ES: Matisse, Guston, De Chirico, Beckman, Mondrian, the Etruscans. My two most important teachers were George Pappas at RISD for teaching me to love the figure and Nick Carone at the Studio School for almost everything else.
JS: A hallmark of your work is the combination of abstract or decorative patterning with a figure or a head. What are you looking for in this meeting-point?
ES: To me all painting is abstract. I have used patterning and repetition to create a mental space, like meditation, or to refer to something machine-made. And I use it visually to attack the white rectangle – to get started. The patterning actually began with a memory of visiting someone in a hospital in Italy, when I was a child. I was shocked that the hospital had a red and black checkered floor! It seemed so un-sick! Also, the challenge of combining different types of imagery in one picture energizes me.
JS: How does a painting begin? How do you decide when a painting is finished?
ES:I try not to think if I can help it. I try to find a combination of colors or a suggestion of a light that makes me want to follow it. I get lost. I get disgusted. I find where I am. I do not like it the next day … on and on like that. Every time I finish a painting it feels like an accident. Often I do not know when it is finished; I go right past the finish line. Sometimes the phone rings, and when I return, I realize it is finished, when I had every intention of going on. Knowing when you are finished is the hardest part. But I do have to achieve a certain physical surface. It has to be rich enough for the paint to sit in a certain way.
JS: In your work, you depict the process of painting, the materials and tools. Are you reflecting your own process? Is it a larger meditation on the act of painting?
ES: I am meditating both on painting and on making a life. People love art because it makes them feel and connect. It makes your heart beat faster when you see something that you recognize, when an artist shows nerve, silliness, or takes a risk and pulls it off. I love to visit the studios of my friends. Not many people have access to an artist’s studio. It is an amazing place, after all. Who gets to do what we get to do? There are so many kinds of studios. They can be messy or organized, small or huge, light or dark, full of junk or ascetic. They are filled with images and objects that carry a yet-unknown potential. It is a place to lose self-consciousness and go nuts. But the main attraction of painting and inhabiting a studio is the process of invention and self-determination.