Practice: Laura Paulini’s Dazzling Repetitions

For our first Practice interview, Sarah Granett talks with painter, Laura Paulini, about dots and process in her Shimmer paintings.

Close up of Laura Paulini's Shimmer painting
Detail of one of Laura Paulini’s 24″ x 22″ Shimmer paintings as seen from an angle. (Area shown approximately 6 inches high by 12 inches wide)

I want to talk with artists about their studio practices. An artist myself, I feel that practice is informed by internal visions and motivations, as well as external circumstances. Inspiration grows out of the practice itself, but there is also the logistical side of things, everyday details of how one does what one does. So by looking at an artist’s practice, we can really learn a lot about art. Not only in terms of an individual’s vision and values, but also how that can be performed in the conditions of contemporary existence.

Starting out with this construct, my first question to Laura came out with intricate complexity. Fortunately she was able to find a thread, and a conversation about her work unfolded.

Sarah Granett: I’m interested in what shape an artist’s practice takes, and what gives the practice that shape. I think of these questions as being intertwined and engaging both internal and external forces, and also I wonder if perhaps there may be a gap between the two parts – accidents or distortions that happen. Well, we can look at this question in many ways. Where would you like to start?

Laura Paulini: I’d like to start with my body. I think my practice comes from my way of experiencing the world through my senses. Even though I’m a painter, and I’m in love with color, I also think my sense of touch and engagement with the tactile qualities of the world comes through in my work. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been trying to understand myself and the world by looking at things, touching things, exploring. In fact, I feel like I haven’t really looked at anything until I’ve tried to draw it.

When I’m not engaged with my studio practice, I sort of fall asleep in a way. It’s almost as if I need to do my studio practice – meaning exploring my experience in the world through drawing, through painting, through making objects – in order to stay awake in a way that is significant.

SG: Keeping awake! In addition to direct observational drawing or painting, can you talk more about what you do as an artist, what your practice entails?

LP: Well, you happen to come at a time when my practice is in transition. I’m looking at changing the way I work. I’m asking myself, what’s next? Up until recently, I’ve been making paintings that I find incredibly beautiful and satisfying, but which also require repetitive actions. As these actions can cause strain and injury, I need to find new ways to make work in order to be able to keep on making it for as long as possible.

SG: It’s interesting that when I ask what influences the form of your work, the first thing you mention is your body, and that’s also what is causing a major shift in your work right now. So both in the positive and the negative – or at least change-inducing – it’s the body.

LP: Yeah, you know that’s really significant. When I realized last year that I was actually injuring myself making my work the way I was making it, it brought up a lot of personal stuff. Because here’s this thing that makes me feel alive, that I love to do, that I am making tremendous sacrifices to be able to do, and then to have to admit to myself that I’m doing it to the point of injury? That really made me appreciate just how rooted in my body my practice is – and that there are limitations. When I work on large scale paintings, there is something really satisfying about that scale and the length of time I can devote to the piece, but the process I’ve been using to make them also has these significant physical demands that I’m needing to learn to accept.

SG: So let’s get into what these paintings are. We’re looking at one here in the studio – your most recent largescale Shimmer painting. These are abstract paintings composed of brightly colored vertical lines with dots on top of them… Can you explain?

LP: For the past four and a half years, I’ve been engaged in this body of work that I call Shimmer paintings. They are in the tradition of Op art. A grayscale gradient made up of dots overlays a multicolor field of stripes. Because the stripes are thin and the dots are relatively small, there are tens of thousands of dots on every painting. An optical effect happens because your brain has to assess the position and size relations of the dots to the stripes, and as the dots shift in value moving out from the center of the painting to the peripheries, the brain is continually reassessing spatial appearances. For the viewer, the surface of the painting appears to shimmer.

Indeed, a dance of light shivers and radiates across the surfaces of Laura’s paintings, like trembling sheer iridescent silk, or wind rippling across water in a mosaic tiled pool.

Laura Paulini, Shimmer, 2015
Laura Paulini’s most recent Shimmer painting, completed earlier this year. (24 inches high by 22 inches wide)

LP: I do these paintings completely by hand. There are fifty seven thousand stripes on a typical sixty inch by sixty inch painting which can take about seven months to paint. Once the stripe layer is complete, I add the dots. The dots are actually drops of paint that I have transferred to the surface with the tip of a chopstick. Placing the dots can take months as well. As I don’t completely measure things out beforehand, there is often misalignment, which perhaps also contributes to the “shimmer” effect.

SG: Can you talk about a single dot?

LP: Sure. A single dot is a beautiful thing. I’m using acrylic paint which I thin with matte medium and a little bit of distilled water. The consistency of the paint has to be just right. When I dip the chopstick into the paint and carry it over to the panel to place the drop, the chopstick shouldn’t even touch the panel. I am simply transferring a drop of paint from the tip of the chopstick onto the painting.

SG: Surface tension.

LP: Exactly. If the paint is too thin the dot will spread. Environmental conditions like humidity, for example, really play a part. If it’s really hot, I can place a dot and watch it dry, which is not necessarily a good thing. And, as I’m attempting to make the dots as consistent as possible, if I get the consistency of the paint right and I’m using the same chopstick, and the same end of the chopstick, then I should be able to keep those dots relatively consistent.

So, when I place that dot on the painting, it’s a wet little bubble, and it’s sitting there, and then I have to keep going. This hasn’t happened for years, but it was not uncommon in the early days to accidentally drag my sleeve through a whole row of wet dots. Now I’m very aware of exactly where my body is and where I need to be to place a dot. It really is precise and incredibly beautiful when I get into it. So that’s a single dot.

Laura Paulini's tools
Chopsticks used to deposit dots of paint on the surface of  Laura Paulini’s paintings. She wraps them and ties them with ribbon once a painting is complete.

I’m at a point now where technically I know what I need. The chopstick I use is generally a bamboo chopstick. My tools are very important to me and almost become a bit fetishized. When I finish a piece, I wrap them and tie ribbons around them and things. They become very special to me. When you work with something for three months, it almost becomes an extension of your body.

SG: There’s a lot there. How did you get to this dot?

LP: These paintings actually came out of a previous body of work that was about meditation: slowing down; body control; staying focused; staying mindful. I didn’t know it at the time, but that work was training me to be able to do this work. Even though I’ve only been doing the Shimmer paintings for four and a half years, they really reach back twelve years to when my work became process-oriented, and connected to Process art and Minimalism. I never thought I would go in the Op art direction. I love the optical effects of the shimmer paintings, but I also want them to stay rooted in that experience of placing each drop of paint. Sometimes I’m afraid they are a little too “pretty.”

SG: Pretty?

LP: They’re so attractive and they also do this optical thing that turned out to be very exciting for people. But that’s not what I set out to do. It was initially a meditation and the record of a process, but then they became these kind of dazzling paintings. I’m not sure I’m totally comfortable with that!

[laugh]

SG: Success – or a beautiful painting – isn’t what it’s cracked up to be?

LP: When you make something that succeeds in a way that you didn’t intend, it can be a bit unsettling.

SG: What you’re saying is the paintings have surprised you, and you feel they don’t completely represent you on some level?

LP: There you go. Maybe so.

SG: I think artists bring certain values to their work, and that they want these values to come across in the work. Can you talk about that? What matters to you as an artist?

LP: The pithy answer – which is almost a cliché – is that everything matters. Everything is equal. Graham Nickson, who runs the New York Studio School, calls drawing a “democratic act.” When you’re working from the still life, like Cézanne did, you don’t treat the cloth any differently from the vase sitting on it; you don’t treat the vase any differently from the flowers in the vase; you don’t treat the flowers differently from the curtain hanging five feet behind the flowers. Everything is equal and important. You have to have innocent eyes that look at everything as equal, letting go of hierarchies and presumptions.

John Cage passed along this wonderful quote from René Char, the French poet, that “each act is virgin, even the repeated one.” Cage interpreted this as meaning trying “to see things as being new rather than things that we already know before we are experiencing them.” How much more significant life would be if we took every experience as the first. So, as presumptuous as this sounds, when I come into the studio, ideally I would like to put myself in a receptive position where I am ready and willing to experience things and let things unfold.

There’s a painting on the wall right now that took a year to make. I cannot claim that the days I spent making that painting always felt like that, especially after it started being painful. Yet I can say that every day I worked on that painting I had moments of discovery.

Once I get going, and I’m mixing my paint and putting marks down and making decisions, that gets me to a pretty special place, and I really like that place. It feels very joyful.

*

Laura Paulini lives and paints in the California Bay Area. More of her work can be seen on her website, www.laurapaulini.com

*

07/20/2015 Correction to caption of top detail image regarding the size of Laura’s painting: the correct size is 24″ x 22″