A Conversation with Amy Wilson
Emily Weiner is an artist who lives and works in Nashville, Tennessee. Here she speaks with Majuscule Art Director Amy Wilson.
Amy Wilson: Your work seems to have a strong historical Surrealist influence—Rene Magritte is the first person who comes to mind, but also the kind of psychological space that Leonora Carrington created, and certainly the use of the F holes reminds me of Man Ray’s famous photo of Kiki de Montparnasse. There’s also the clear influence of Jung in your work. Can you talk a little bit about your choice to revisit this type of imagery in 2023?
Emily Weiner: Yes, all of those impressions are true for me too. Carl Jung has been a huge influence in my work because he gave a structure to explain what I was doing intuitively in my early painting. In graduate school at SVA and just after, I had been pairing symbol-laden canvases side by side—seemingly non-sequitur images that together created new and surprising meaning. I had studied Sigmund Freud in college, but Carl Jung only came to my attention about a decade later. Even a hundred years after his breakthrough idea of the collective unconscious, he is still radical and in my opinion just as topical: Breaking from the reductive libido obsession of Freud, Jung presented the collective unconscious as our shared driving force. He saw dream work and symbolism in an expansive context, as a way to understand one’s own self in a larger context of humanity. For me, this is the same concept that Renee Magritte and surrealists like Leonora Carrington were divining visually through painting, and Man Ray through photographs.
In my own painting I have always been pursuing the ineffable. I start a painting based on a feeling or an impulse toward an idea and finish it when a sense of synchronicity arises with several symbols or gestures coming together. It is not always clear to me initially why I am drawn to an image, or what it means. For me, Jung has created the best explanation for how and why we see the world as we do, not just as individuals with our own stories and personal symbolism, but as humans whose brains are structured from thousands of years of shared stories and metaphors, going back to our most primordial ancestors.
Coming from this perspective, I don’t see myself as revisiting symbolic imagery necessarily. It’s more like I’m highlighting a practice that never stops, but maybe just putting in the foreground the kind of visual language that is always in our unconscious, a container for metaphors that holds universal meaning behind the chatter of our logical thoughts. Unlike the surrealists, however, I’m a little more strategic about how dream imagery and symbolism resolve themselves in an analytic sense. The symbols I superimpose in my paintings may feel surreal, but they all have an internal logic, like a dream that has the potential to convey something from the unconscious to the conscious.
I’d like to also add that Leonora Carrington is so underacknowledged! When is her MoMA retrospective?!? And Gertrude Abercrombie’s?! I’ll buy advance tickets.
I think the piece you have that sticks out to me most as an enigma is Clare de Lune, 2023. Could you talk about this piece a bit? It seems different from many of the other works.
It’s a little different in terms of form maybe but not in concept. All of my recent works have to do with paradox and performance. I resonate with being a performer in different roles I have played personally and professionally: a mother, a wife, an artist, a person at an institutional day job, a professor. My painting subjects are also archetypal roles, but those of the stage or its historical entertainers: Pierrot, Harlequin, the mime, the magician’s rabbit, the dove.
My painting Clair de Lune pictures the zoomed-in, white shirtfront of Pierrot—the sad clown archetype from Commedia dell’arte. Superimposed over this background are shapes from a guitar. (The mute Pierrot was often holding a string instrument—maybe as a stand-in for a real voice?) The painting’s ceramic frame holds additional symbols, including the tears associated with the tragicomic figure’s plight.
While painting this piece, I was thinking about the different ways that we perform, and how our actual senses of self—vs. the stock characters we play in different facets of our lives—change over time. I am also thinking metaphorically about unsung heroes in a larger production, the voices that are not championed, or silenced all together, and the ways in which people compensate for being unheard.
I never thought I’d be painting clowns, but here I am. I genuinely love the version of Pierrot that developed in 1900s France, when Eastern European and Jewish actors, such as Jean-Gaspard Deburau and Marcel Marceau transformed the meaning of the dancing fool into artistry. These silent entertainers embody humor and levity as ways to address a world that is sad and heavy.
What about your unusual frames? Frames are usually an afterthought for artists, but in your case the frame plays an important part in the full object you’re creating. What role do you see the frames playing in the overall meaning of the work?
I see painting as a parallel to theater: It is a space where action can defy the physics of our rational world. A proscenium is the part of the stage that frames the action of a play, with the stage curtain directly behind it. My frames are akin to a proscenium: they demarcate a space of suspended disbelief.
I began making custom frames for my paintings about a decade ago, when I felt that craft and design were generally dismissed as topics in contemporary art conversation. Visiting museums during that time, I noticed that Mondrian’s compositions from the 1930s had the best frames, and upon closer inspection I realized that he made them himself out of simple materials and construction. I liked them; they seemed to compliment the work formally while pointing to an architectural space outside of the canvas.
I began experiment with my own float frames, adding finishes like gold leaf, or painting on the gessoed wood as extensions of the canvases. I then had the idea to make the frames in ceramic—which in the history of art has been a craft material and often associated with women’s work. I made these using clay slabs flattened with a rolling pin, then cut, assembled, and kiln-fired to a high temperature. I liked that the ceramic frame was more delicate than the painting—subverting the function of a frame traditionally meant to protect a canvas.
In more recent and larger-scale works, I have returned to painted wood frames for a series of moonlit landscapes. Each of these landscapes are edged by curtains, parting to reveal a gradient sky and a full moon at the composition’s center. The frames are painted with an inverse gradient; this refers to the trope of “Mundus Inversus” (Latin for “Upside-Down World”) a theatrical theme that originated in ancient Greek drama wherein traditional roles were often reversed. Since its origination, Mundus Inversus has been used as a rhetorical device—from medieval and Renaissance literature through Modernist poetry—to satirize a situation or institution, by presenting a world where social hierarchies are overturned.
Potentially a silly question, but: Your paintings are small. In an art world dominated by painters making gigantic, sweeping paintings, yours are compact and intense; this is another connection between you and historic Surrealist painters that I sense. Could you talk a little bit about your decision to work in this size? We both teach at the college level where the advice given to students who paint is always “you should paint bigger!” so I’m especially curious how you decided to make this (I’d assume) very deliberate choice and buck current conventions in the process.
In graduate school I was told I should paint bigger, and I did try!
But the large canvases didn’t have the intimacy that the smaller works did.
After school my canvas sizes were partially determined by my studio spaces (very small in NYC), but they were also small because I wanted them to necessitate a closeness with the viewer. Now that I live in Nashville and have a slightly larger space, I am beginning some landscapes that are more human in scale, as if you might step into them.