THE SAATCHI GALLERY
Online Daily Magazine
October 4, 2007
NATALIE FRANK IN CONVERSATION WITH ANA FINEL HONIGMAN
Oil on canvas, 108 by 108 in
After following her undergraduate studies with a B.A in Studio Art from Yale University with stints (including two Fulbrights) at the Slade, Florence Academy, and Paris's L'ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts, Natalie Frank continued on to a Masters of Fine Arts from Columbia University. Yet while her representational tableaux are well rooted in an academic art tradition, her work stands in opposition to recent art school trends. The twenty-seven- year-old Texas-born artist merges the key concerns of late 20th-century art theory - gender, identity, the clash between personal and public, and history reconsidered - with a classically cultivated technique.
Frank's paintings are Eric Fischl on a grand scale. Whereas Fischl paints suburban doldrums and micro-melodramas with meticulous care, Frank focuses on grand scale issues and over-arching questions, which genuinely deserve her careful, skillful attention. Frank illustrates psychologically fraught states and socio-cultural tensions with an impressive eye for symbolic detail and stylistic expression. Her work is visually and conceptually dense, and offers no easy punch lines, but it provides ample rewards for serious looking instead.
After exhibiting in a number of Chelsea and Brooklyn group shows, Frank had her first solo show at Manhattan's Briggs Robinson Gallery in March. Her first solo show with the Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery, who represent her, is on view in Manhattan through October 13.
"Robert II", 2007
Oil on canvas, 20 by 18 in
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN: Does literature or theory inspire your theatrical tableaux?
NATALIE FRANK: I internalize the way that various writers form connections between ideas, disciplines and people and construct narratives that are both personal and universal. My ideas for the relationships in my paintings come from daily life, theatrical performance, the real and fictional characters I engage with, and the architecture of the city - people's spaces, both real and imagined. The writers I most admire bridge different vantage points, point out dualities and find meaning in the universal stories that they feel
compelled to tell. The spaces between the figures in my paintings are often the most significant and the hardest to form.
AFH: What do these spaces signify for you?
NF: The spaces between figures define the figures' consciousness - their varying awareness of the world they inhabit and the other people they shadow. Locating the figure is one of the most essential parts of a picture; orientation in the painting is also an attempt to find one's position outside of the frame. The time and spaces around the figures are indeterminate and belong to both real life and an inner, theatrical life of illusion and possibility. These figures are trapped between two worlds.
AFH: What is your reaction to Charlie Finch's observation in a recent Artnet review that, "from a market perspective, Natalie's solo portraits are her strongest work"?
NF: Strength can be interpreted in a variety of ways. I appreciate that some viewers feel that the single portraits are more direct and visceral as they are simply, head-to-head in the viewer's eyes. I also understand that the multi-figured tableaux are paintings that I struggle with increasingly, and this problem-solving is implicit in the surface, scope and resolution of the work. My thinking originates in the opposite direction - it begins in the studio, so discerning strength from the market perspective seems to be subject to preference and endlessly open for interpretation.
Oil on canvas, 70 by 56 in
AFH: Certain faces or characters re-occur in your images. Who are they, and should their identity matter in viewers' interpretations of the dramas you depict?
NF: The figures themselves don't matter as specific individuals, because they are all characters in various plays. Though, their identities matter in so much as they are very human representations of struggle - and the identities they assume, their masks, are what define them. The figures repeat for this reason; it is important for me to show that identity is not only un-fixed but also contextual.
AFH: Is identity 'unfixed' if we recognize the individuals and struggle to form connections between their different roles in your images? Would you say that you are using these repeated figures like actors or models who you are casting in different roles?
NF: It is this struggling to form connections or create characters that I want to question. I want each figure to be a character, but more of a human being then a stand-in. The only commonality between figures is difference, just as human nature is endlessly beveled, I think of all of these characters as self-portraits, variously elements of myself. The figures that repeat most often: the blind man, the ambiguously-gendered and sexualized woman, and the usually lone, doubting woman (who makes eye contact with the viewer) are concrete representations of my sense of self. For example, the blind man is my uncle - we share facial characteristics, mannerisms, genetic selves; his interiority is writ large on his exterior just as these paintings are my insides extrapolated.
"The Danger and the Punishments Grew Greater", 2007
Oil on canvas, 108 by 108 in
AFH: Do you want viewers to read particular narratives in your paintings?
NF: I want the viewer to read narrative in the paintings, whether it be an emotion as complete as the silent gesture of tenderness between two men embracing, or in the larger tableaux, fragmented, layered relationships of power. The picture's meaning arises from the accumulation of vignettes and characters -- some interact, and others only exist in the same physical space. I want the viewer to begin to bridge connections between figures and private and shared struggles. The paintings can be read like short stories, as the viewer's eye travels around the painting, remembering scenes and ultimately, forming a whole.
AFH: Are there specifically contemporary concerns you're bringing to these, or are you looking at these themes abstractly?
NF: My narratives and their spaces are typically American: they mash objectives together with open-ended possibility. Because American history is short (our art history existing in the long shadow of Europe), I am fascinated in how quickly time moves people, shifting their constructs. I have grown up in a time, unlike my mother's, that is both extremely privileged but also increasingly dangerous.
AFH: We're pretty close in age. I'd assume your parents, like mine, came of age in the sixties, which was far from an era you'd equate with safety or security. In fact, it seems a pretty close corollary to our time.
NF: The parallels between my mother's time and my own are astounding. With less irreverence and more action, in whatever form that may take, an individual can claim a voice. It is important to find a way to restore a sense of belief in human bodies and the possibility of their action. Far from determined, our narratives are open-ended and full of possibility.
AFH: What art historical periods interest you most?
NF: The first paintings that viscerally moved me were the frescoes of Masaccio at the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. Early Renaissance painting is some of my favorite -- Humanism is just beginning, and there is an intense longing embodied in a new kind of figuration that has not yet found its voice or tools. Romanticism and History Painting are also influences, and in terms of color, the Venetians, Veronese, Titian and Tiepolo, are captivating. I also feel an affinity with artists of the Weimar time, especially Max Beckmann and Kathe Kollwitz, as well as the British painters of the School of London and Stanley Spencer. Of course, a hero is Willem de Kooning! My interests in contemporary art are not as limited to painting. They encompass artists as varied as Neo Rauch, Mike Kelley, Shirin Neshat, Eric Fischl, Martha Rosler, Louise Bourgeois, Hilary Harkness, Jasper Johns and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Ultimately, any art must engage with its time and digest its context.
"The Stammerer", 2007
Oil on canvas, 56 by 70 in
AFH: You very recently graduated from Columbia University's MFA program. How influenced were you, technically and conceptually, by graduate school?
NF: Columbia gave me access to a wide range of artists and thinkers and some wonderful, invested teachers and mentors. Grad school's incredibly mixed environment as to concept, media and approach was essential in beginning to hone my own stance and articulation of my work. It is exciting to grow in
such a short time in an environment of one's peers. The significance of this experience is still unfolding.
AFH: How did you meet your gallery and what made you decide to show with them?
NF: I knew of Mitchell-Innes and Nash because I admired their program. They seemed unusual in that they didn't have an aesthetic. I liked that they simultaneously showed Leon Kossof, Martha Rosler and Enoc Perez. This mixture of style, media, and generation is how I think of art - everything informs each other. Everyone at the gallery seemed committed to the art and artists they showed - it is a space I felt that I could grow into.
AFH: Grow in what way?
NF: Mitchell-Innes and Nash's environment of artists are many of my art historical influences. This is a high ceiling to breathe under. The ability to interact with these artists contextually, and at times face-to-face, provides an environment in which I can locate myself and my work, supporting self-definition. Separately, I feel that the gallery itself, the people who form it and give it its direction and voice, are invested in art as a part of a history and not of a moment. Mitchell-Innes and Nash is a context I feel that I can learn from but also exist in as an individual with a very specific, evolving perspective.
AFH: Do you consider your art part of a feminist art tradition?
NF: Absolutely. I am excited by the bounds Feminist art continues to make: just this year alone with the exhibition "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" and the opening of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. As a young woman artist, it is an imperative and a privilege to acknowledge the opportunities that artists such as Barbara Kruger, Carolee Schneemann and Martha Rosler have created for artists such as Lorna Simpson, Cindy Sherman, Cathy Opie, and Kara Walker who in turn open new avenues for a younger generation of artists, especially women. Far from an anxiety of influence, this might be more a legacy of opportunity. Linda Nochlin, another great influence stated: "The language of art is neither a sob story nor a confidential whisper." I want the women in my paintings to embody these words.
Until 13 October
Mitchell-Innes & Nash
534 W 26th Street
T: +1 212 744 7400
ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic, PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University and Senior London Correspondent for the Saatchi Gallery's online magazine. She also contributes regularly to art and fashion publications including: Style.com, Dazed& Confused, Alef, Art in America, Grazia, Harper's Bazaar and the Guardian Art and Architecture blog.