Artist Yevgeniya Baras on Abstraction, Painting, and Teaching at the Museum

This month, the Jewish Museum will offer the first in a series of art classes for adults: an abstract painting workshop inspired by the work on view in From the Margins: Lee Krasner and Norman Lewis, 1945 – 1952, taught by contemporary artist Yevgeniya Baras.

Based in Brooklyn, Baras has exhibited her work in several New York City galleries and internationally, including exhibitions in Jerusalem. She has taught university-level art classes for the past eight years, and holds BA and MS degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA in Painting and Drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The Rema Hortmann Foundation named Baras a 2014 recipient of its Emerging Artist Prize. She is co-founder of the Regina Rex Gallery, located in lower Manhattan, and was recently profiled in Art in America for her curatorial work. Baras has a solo exhibition opening on February 21, 2015, at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects in Manhattan.

Baras and Chris Gartrell, Adult Programs Coordinator at the Jewish Museum and a fellow painter, recently discussed abstraction, painting, and what students can look forward to in her upcoming class at the Jewish Museum.

Chris Gartrell: Tell me about your training as an artist. What was your early work like, and what was formative for you as you developed your own way of abstract painting?

Yevgeniya Baras: When I was very little, I listened to records of fairy tales narrated by well-known Russian actors; while being wooed by their voices, I painted scenes from these stories. As a teenager I concerned myself with illustrating what it feels like to live in a female body.

When I look back at those paintings, I see myself processing and getting to know myself and the world around me by making paintings. I have made art at every stage of my life. I do not see my paintings as separate from being a human being on this planet, in this city, in this body, as this hybrid of cultures, beliefs, languages. The paintings are direct appendages of the everyday in its bottomless beauty and mystery.

Yevgeniya Baras, Untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 16 × 24 in.

It is hard to pinpoint a single formative moment. Learning to trust that abstract paintings can carry the meaning I want to imbue them with, without feeling the need to overtly narrate a story – this took a long time. I had to learn that the process of making – the “cooking” of a painting – is also a way to make meaning. This is to say that meaning is not superimposed but rather found and woven by spending time with the stuff of paint. My work is still about telling stories, but stories are not told linearly or literally. They unfold as the viewer spends time in front of the paintings. They unfold as I tell them. And they change, like stories told at dinner tables by families over and over again. Details warp, characters transform but the ritual of retelling and the residue of the narrative take precedence. They become myths. So it is in my paintings: the story at some point becomes unimportant; its scent is what remains. It was formative to realize that I can arrive somewhere unexpected over and over again through the process of painting, even if I started somewhere specific.

Chris, you have a relationship to both abstraction and representation but your desire to paint abstractly has intensified over time. How do you explain that? Do you still feel the need to observe something in the world in order to start a painting?

CG: You’re talking about the humanity of abstraction, and I’ve definitely identified with something similar over time – those ways in which an abstract painting can offer a “body story” and talk about living in the world in a certain way. Abstract thinking is so central to being human, processing a mind and a body. Painting can be a powerful way of conveying that.

Do I still feel the need to observe something to start a painting? I look at drapery and mirrors set up in my studio as starting points for painting, which I’ve done for years, though my work has become more abstract. There’s something interesting to me about using a painted language of sensation – what you actually see and feel, color and light and touch, translated through the eye and the hand – to locate something that stays ambiguous.

What you’re saying about finding yourself and your body in art when you were younger reminds me of how I talk about dressing up in painting – I really, really loved playing dress-up as a kid; I think about that when I’m using drapery in the studio and when I’m painting, too – dressing up the studio first and the canvas second, thinking about layers between you and the world, be that clothing, fabric, or paint. You’re testing your identity and the fluidity of those layers.

I’ve really been seeing the observed less as the end point of my paintings and more like step one, like creating a tangible environment that now gets filled with imagined forms and shapes that look like symbols, maps, architecture, or liquids. In a way I’m still using painting to locate myself over and over, just with a freer vocabulary that imprints the weirdness and abstractness of life’s stuff and structures onto a perceived reality.

Speaking of interplays between observation and abstraction, I know that your class at the Museum will begin with figure drawing and then proceed toward abstraction. Why start a course in abstract painting by working from a model? What are you imagining for the class?

Students in the art studio, 2014

YB: I really like what you said, that “abstract painting can offer ‘body story.'” It’s true. The size of the canvas that we choose to work with, the marks we make, the way we treat the surface of the painting, the way the audience relates to the canvases we create with their bodies, and the body language occurring in that space of looking and engaging and encountering a painting ­– these all play a part in that “body story.”

Your mention of playing dress-up stood out to me. I also stress the importance of play in the creative process – the “anything can happen in my studio” feeling that is still filtered through your vision and hands. It’s a letting go and an openness that only helps you to hone in on who you are as an artist; it only further sharpens you as a maker and a thinker; and it fine-tunes what needs to be said. Play is so crucial – that space to move around, the space to become.

The term “dress-up” obviously references the body and treating the canvas as a body. It also references masking, playing, sexuality, hybridity, complexity, non-linearity, layers, and forming a deep, complex identity. I see such a link between enjoying dress-up and making a painting.

As for the class at the Jewish Museum, the experience will move from drawing the body based on observation to creating an abstract painting based on the structure and movement of the body. Initially we will spend an hour on fast drawing from observation, recording the urgency and the curve of line. The exercise helps us dive into making; there is no space for tentativeness. It’s a warm-up. We will have to link our eyes to our hands. It’s physical for the model and the students alike. An hour passes and our looking sharpens.

The next step is to cut up the drawings into pieces. We end up with a pile of shapes with lines referencing the body running through them. This becomes the starting point for an abstract painting that references the movement, curves, and crevices of the body, the ghost of what we experienced from observation, the condensed essence, the memory.

The idea is to start from observation grounded in reaction to the physical, build an understanding of mark making, and then move to communicating the concept of the body through the formal language of abstraction. It’s one way of thinking through the process of making. It is in some ways literal, but almost everyone arrives at a surprising place as a maker.

Installation view of the exhibition From the Margins: Lee Krasner and Norman Lewis, 1945 – 1952, September 12, 2014 – February 1, 2015. © The Jewish Museum, NY. Photo by: David Heald.

CG: As you’re describing the class, I’m thinking so much about Lee Krasner’s work; taking that leap from observing the figure to thinking abstractly or conceptually, moving from making small paintings to working gesturally on huge surfaces – these are all steps she took in her practice over the years. In her later work she also used collage in surprising ways, cutting up old works to incorporate them into new, ever-larger paintings.

This relates to what you were saying about movement and play and how much the body is present in abstraction even if we don’t always think of it that way. It brings to mind Norman Lewis as well as Krasner. In Lewis’s work, you see him responding to jazz improvisation, the Atomic Age, the civil rights movement. For me, his paintings read as cerebral maps, like traces of energy filtered through the mind to the body.

We’ve been talking about identifying with abstraction and locating ourselves in painting over time. In both Krasner and Lewis’s work on view at the Jewish Museum, we see something similar: two painters in conversation with the world around them, looking at who they are in that world, exploring abstraction, and finding their own formal vocabularies through years of experimentation.

In your workshop at the Jewish Museum, we will discuss Lewis and Krasner’s work with the class before delving into abstract painting in the studio. Do you think this kind of workshop is accessible and valuable to people who don’t have much experience with painting, let alone abstract painting?

YB: I think this workshop is a great way to dive into and experience painting. It is absolutely not a requirement to have previously painted or to have made abstract work. We are all capable of thinking abstractly, and each individual’s hands are capable of producing personal marks. Each one of us has a particular style of handwriting, and it is similar when thinking about how the brush makes a mark with paint.

The experience of painting, as a physical act, will allow participants to understand art in a new way, through touch. Visiting museums may feel different after you have worked with the materials yourself.

Studio Workshop: Abstraction for Adults will be held on Sunday, January 11, 2015, 1:30 – 5:30 pm. Visit the Jewish Museum calendar for more information and reservations. All art materials are included in the course fee.