The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Natalie Frank’s studio is all about work. A multitude of drawings tiles one side of the studio in even rows. There is a plethora of windowpanes on the adjacent wall. On the other walls row upon row of pictures in various stages of completion line the space. Numerous canvases are turned to face away.
You are probably interested in knowing how many tables and easels there are. I can’t recall the number of flat or tilted surfaces because my overall impression is that work is happening everywhere at all times. The chairs—definitely two of them—are for both sitting and climbing while working heights. This atelier is energizing and intimidating at once, and not for leisurely guests.
Natalie is dressed for work. She wears paint-accented blue denim, a blue down vest with similar markings on its front, and a radiant white shirt that reminds me that it’s early and that our appointment is the beginning of a long workday for the mistress of this emplacement. The space is gigantic, the windows are gigantic, and there is a giant amount of soft light coming in. The wooden chairs are hard, and there are two glasses of water.
Our conversation turns to the bright new drawings based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales that will premiere at The Drawing Center in 2015, and the shaped canvases to be shown this September at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago. If I could title this interview I would call it Deliberately engineered detours within detours within detours .
— Dasha Shishikin
Dasha Shishkin Being in your studio right now, seeing this amazing suite of gouache and pastel drawings based on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales on the walls, I wonder at which point in your process a drawing becomes a drawing, or a painting becomes a painting? Does it happen in the making?
Natalie Frank I used to make preparatory drawings for paintings, but I don’t any longer. Two years ago, I started to really make drawings. The series based on the Grimm fairy tales—including “Cinderella,” “Briar Rose,” and “The Golden Goose,” for instance—are the first I began to make as a body of work. They started as places to experiment and to quickly get ideas out while telling stories. They weren’t as serious, precious, or involved as the paintings. Because I started drawing from life when I was thirteen, my focus has always been on the figure. My paintings explored pure figuration for a certain amount of time, but almost overnight, after my second show, I woke up wondering: What are these self-serious figurative paintings contributing? What do I believe in, in terms of what I am making? I realized I needed to put more of my own narrative in them—this involves perversity, fetish, playacting, sexuality, violence, women, and the body. That’s when I turned to drawing. I had to fight against my figurative impulse and learn how to trust my own creativity and imagination for the first time since I was a child. The drawings became this place where I could commit crimes and transgressions, where I could do what I wanted and let go of the idea of painting or drawing from life. They started out as fanciful and abstract, not located in specific places, and began to develop from there.
Paula Rego, an artist I greatly admire for her own work with fairy tales, had suggested that I look at the Grimm stories—no fine artist had considered them en masse. Their focus on women and their roles, narrative, violence, and the politics of sexuality, along with their dose of magic amidst the everyday, captivate me. They inspire a refreshing and new way for me to approach making a picture.
I want my paintings to take a lesson from my drawings: not to be illustrative, but to be more formally transgressive. Perhaps by incorporating collage, different types of oil paint, and fabricated elements, they are transgressing the oil and canvas that came before. It’s similar to how the Grimm fairy tales subverted their predetermined narratives.
DS Would you say that your drawings are looser than your paintings?
NF Much looser. Fresher, more spontaneous. I tend to do one in a day or a day and a half. They are not planned out beforehand. It helps to have the narrative of the fairy tales. The original Grimm stories, from 1812 to 1857, were not meant for children. They are wicked—
DS —cautionary tales.
NF Bizarre, cautionary tales. They have been integrated into our childhoods, yet we don’t know the real stories. We don’t know the tales of incest, for instance, or that Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their toes to fit into the slipper and had their eyes pecked out by birds. The imagery in them has started to trickle out into my paintings: now they have hybrids of human and animal forms and gender bending. I work from small sketches or maquettes (in the case of the life-sized marionettes I am working on now)—but now there is less planning that goes on, and more intuiting, morphing, and disrupting.
DS Looking at the suite, I realize that the involvement in each of the surfaces is exceptional. There are so many layers that I cannot say they are less complex than the paintings. Since you make them so quickly, do they contain an element of chance that is absent from the paintings?
NF Maybe in the way I put down images without filtering myself. In the drawings, materials move in and out of abstraction fluidly; painting has a difficult time allowing for that. Suspension of disbelief seems more immediate in a drawing, which is a direct portal into another world. In a painting, the matter of paint and the tradition of painting and figuration always interrupt the read and therefore disrupt this immediate suspension of disbelief.
I call the works on paper drawings even though they are gouache and chalk pastel and they are painted as well as drawn. I guess you could call them paintings on paper as well. Putting something down in a drawing and reacting to it very quickly, and coming up with surprising, non-obvious images from the unconscious, is incredibly compelling. In painting, this fluctuation between materials can too often become just about “technique.” My excitement level is higher when drawing because of the uncertain potential of what an image can become at a moment’s notice. The paintings can upset me; but the drawings delight me. I’m taking proactive steps to ensure that the next batch of paintings will also delight!
DS The paintings upset you? What do you mean?
NF I have to concentrate one hundred percent of the time when I’m making them. Especially now that I am using all these different materials—oil paint, oil enamel, collage, panels, and some more graphic and some more rendered images. I’m always trying to have control in a “meta” way: How is it all going to fit together? What does it all mean vis-à-vis the drawings, where I almost enter this dream state and don’t second-guess anything? After I finish a drawing, I don’t even remember being there! It’s like committing a murder. In a fit of delusion you commit a crime of passion, the next day you wake up covered in blood (or paint) and can’t remember how you got there.
DS Wow! I recently read Calvin Tomkins’s Afternoon Interviews with Marcel Duchamp. When asking Duchamp about chance, Tomkins says that John Cage always used chance as a means of getting outside his own personality. You said exactly that: that you step outside and become surprised by the doings of some other part of yourself.
NF Chance elicits the unconscious. Learning what my strengths and weaknesses are has led me in new directions. When I need to conjure forth my ability in making representation, I can do that, but that’s not always a virtue. Imagination and color are big strengths of mine that I never really acknowledged before the drawings. Putting myself in a space where all of that can be opened up has helped the work a lot.
DS For your paintings you occasionally photograph models in certain poses and set up special lights. Are you saying that you do not have reference materials for the new drawings?
NF For the Grimm drawings and the paintings in general, I use photographs of people whom I light and dress, pictures from home architecture magazines, and also some historical images from library books. I might use a photograph, not to reproduce a face, but to reproduce an eye. I draw that eye and cover it with green chalk, so it becomes something else. There is more distance between the source material and the image. In painting, this can get kitschy fast. I am beginning to inject experimentation into the paintings by juxtaposing different materials and literal forms: I use screens, frames, and shaped panels. For my upcoming fall show with Rhona Hoffman in Chicago, I’ve been making shaped panels and figures that collapse and expand as life-size marionettes.
DS So a metamorphosis takes place. The reference is a starting point to mold around. It’s interesting because with certain materials, at least from my own experience, the fewer barriers, the faster the hand. I don’t work in oils, but I imagine that the time constraints are dictated by the medium.
NF What you can do with oil paint is magic; you can’t replicate that with anything else. It is a completely different way of thinking about color. With gouache it doesn’t matter if you mix a little blue into the black, it is still going to be black, but with an oil painting, everything matters—you are dealing with transparency, layering, and conjuring. In drawing, there is nothing like lead white, a perfect replicator of the feel and look of skin. I love manipulating the materials as much as the subject matter. In the drawings this happens seamlessly, but in painting, how do you do this with the figure? How do you do this without getting caught up in “making an abstract painting”?
DS So how do you differentiate painting from drawing?
NF I think of drawings as being on paper. But then I use drawing in my paintings too, when I am using the line. I don’t know. I am sure Velázquez had something profound to say.
DS You’re right. On your website you divided the painting section and the drawing section. When I opened the drawing section, I thought I was in the painting section only because the drawings are so voluptuous. What you do with pastel … there is such a vivid, magical thing happening with the colors. It’s amazing. The nuances get lost online, of course, but this made me want to ask you what your parameters are for differentiating drawings from paintings.
NF Drawing is a new medium to me; it is a separate thing in my head. What about you? You conflate the two.
DS I propagate the notion that what I am making are drawings.
NF Even the large-scale paintings on Mylar?
DS They’re always drawings, yes! They are just colored in. The line is what drives the image even if the coloring comes in seemingly brighter.
NF So drawing has to do with the line.
DS Yes. Also, the way that I put each stroke of paint on the canvas or on Mylar has a very graphic quality. Even a little line is supposed to be a line. But it’s funny because after being asked about my work many times, I realized that we have the right to call anything whatever we want.
NF We are the artists.
DS You know, a boy can be called a girl’s name, but who is there to say that it is a girl’s name and not the other way around? (laughter)
NF It’s exciting to talk to you because we are both interested in where the line is between drawing and painting, between things that are decorative or illustrative or drawn, and in how we can conjure human presence. I think of early Renaissance, late Medieval painting: when accurate representations of the body were just becoming important, but there were still vestiges of a desire to make an order through decorative elements. Perhaps it’s this interplay between structure and abandon that I am after. To me, this is the essence of what makes us human.
DS Yes. There’s also the element of language. My next question is about your works’ titles.
NF Well, you have great titles. They’re so involved. Dark Angel of Projectile Vomiting, for instance.
DS Your titles have this peculiar descriptiveness to them, which is mysterious and misleading, to some extent.
NF I like that. I hope they are concrete but also elusive. Like Portrait, it says nothing but also quite a bit. I always think of De Kooning. Yes, it is a Woman, but it is also 300 other things. My paintings are all called Woman, Portrait, Portrait in the Landscape …
DS The works are not illustrating the titles and the titles are not illustrating the work.
NF The title is an introduction, like, “Hi, I am Dasha, now let’s move on. You come up with the narrative.”
DS And it goes on a little piece of paper along with the work’s dimensions and materials.
NF It pokes fun at that. Another big shift in the work has come from realizing what painting or drawing can actually convey. In terms of narrative, how much do I want to tell the viewer? How are we going to be sharing an experience together? The titles for me are a way to be very upfront, as if to say, “It’s just art.” Like the fairy tales, which are just stories but also narratives that capture human existence. On one level, they are profound, and on the other, they are quotidian. That is what the titles do, in a way. Less can be more.
How do you think of your titles, Dasha? They are really funny and strange, like You can teach toys how to dance! Why this?
DS My titles are found. They don’t necessarily relate to the work. Like you say, I am just a person with a name; nobody can tell what kind of person I am by my name.
NF But they often describe their subject matter.
DS I pick them randomly, to be honest. I keep a list, and when I have to title a work, I just go with whatever I find. Sometimes the pairing is funny.
NF Like Sausage Factory?
DS I have obsessions with certain things; sausages, for instance.
NF We can talk about your obsession with penises.
DS It’s not penises! If you have a portrait of a female face, it does not mean that the figure below the face is also female. There is no below the face; you’re looking at a painting! Viewers make all kinds of assumptions.
NF Of course. And as artists we want to play with those. One thing I love about the Grimm fairy tales is that they were originally all told and passed on by women who were considered some of the first feminist activists in literature. Women had no place to voice their desires, dreams, or fantasies. These stories provided that. You have a whole range of possibilities in them: the wolf cross-dressing as a grandma figure consuming the body of a little girl, incest, hags. Women got to do everything in this fantasy world uncontrolled by the state, the church, and the patriarchal family unit. The Brothers Grimm are said to have collected these stories, but actually, like most men, they just sat there and waited for what women brought to them.
I think about this when making the drawings. Most of my paintings and drawings are from the viewpoint of women anyway. The women are the actors. They play all the roles—aggressor and passive princess, for instance, but they also turn into beasts a lot. There is also a lot of gender bending.
DS And you’ve realized the recurrence of people taking on different roles.
NF This is implicit in the history of the fairy tales themselves since they were all passed down orally through the years. A lot of the Grimm tales were taken from Perrault, La Fontaine, Aesop, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Shakespeare, The Arabian Nights, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Straparola’s Facetious Nights, Basile’s Pentamerone, Chaucer, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, and from German folklore and Indonesian folktales. Even the Europeans’ encounters with the New World in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries introduced a body of narratives that were different from classical myth and governed by belief in soul migration and spirit possession. The Grimm fairy tales were continually shaped by details specific to the environments in which they were retold; they were melting pots of all of these prior stories. When I think of my work in general, that is what I hope I am doing. You look back to art history and there is Velázquez and Tiepolo and Otto Dix and Max Beckmann—you are in a larger conversation and you’re just tweaking it to your time and place.
DS Is it important that the drawings be recognized as pertaining to a certain story? Obviously some stories are much better known than others.
NF I don’t want them to illustrate, but instead represent key scenes and some elements from those scenes. They’re a meeting place between the fairy tales and my imagination. When I show them at The Drawing Center next spring, it will be an interesting challenge for Claire Gilman, the curator, and me to figure out how we will present them. I imagine we will show them sequentially, in groups; there are between one and five drawings per story. And separately, perhaps, there will be a text booklet of the fairy tales that can be read while looking. You’ll be able to see the drawings as drawings but you can also access the story. In the book I am working on with DAP, we are interspersing the drawings within the text of the fairy tales, and there will be a separate group of texts.
DS So what is the total number of drawings in the suite?
NF I am about halfway done. I will be picturing thirty to forty stories and will do around seventy-five drawings. I wish I could do all of them, but that would be too much for now. I have really enjoyed doing work based on concrete text. It is very different from coming up with your own narratives. I would love to do more of that in the future. To do the The Decameron or the Metamorphoses or Don Quixote. Maybe I should be a book illustrator!
DS But your drawings are not illustrations; their purpose is not to deliver any type of—
NF —they’re not didactic.
DS They confront people’s ideas of what characters should look like. What does Rapunzel look like, for example?
NF Probably not like a gender-bending, older woman with a wig and an “R” on her forehead, but that’s how I want her. When you start a work, do you have an idea of a narrative, do you work from something?
DS There might be an image that I am captivated by or obsessed with—the idea of a sausage factory, for example. Several of my drawings have a cornucopia of sausages and meat products in them. It is almost like I am making the same drawing—but at the same time, I have this freedom to do whatever I want however many times, until it is enough. You’ve talked about the problems of narrative before. What problems interest you?
NF Well, there are personal problems and also the problems inherent in narrative, figurative work. They overlap, although they’re separate. In terms of narrative, I constantly wonder what its purpose is and how much I want to convey to the viewer. Is the idea of narrative even a functional one anymore? Can works of art transmit meaning and stories? How much do we want to show and tell?
I think about putting my drawings and paintings together as if they were narratives, and I like the idea of the viewer having to do a lot of work to read or make sense of the story. But I want to avoid being didactic. In the paintings, specifically, I worry about narrative being almost academic in a bad way. Also, narrative itself can be outdated; it’s an archaic way of conveying information. On the other hand, the power of narrative is timeless. I go back and forth.
I think about early Renaissance painting and how people started to use art to tell stories—Giotto, for instance. Or about how illustrators or, you know, comic-book makers show information. It’s fun to play around with ways of displaying and ordering information, visual or otherwise. Now we have so many modes that we can access. Did I answer your question at all?
DS You said narrative can be “academic in a bad way,” didactic. Do you think these are problems dictated by our environment?
NF A part of me, to the core, does not believe it is a problem. Especially if it is done in a way that feels sincere and personal, without irony. It has to have a twist, though, something that makes it new and alien to the eye. I think of what Dana Schutz does to Picasso, and even to Judith Linhares, what Kara Walker does to the Victorian silhouette, what Jackie Saccoccio does to modernist poured paintings, what Chris Ofili does to devotional objects. I love John Currin’s early work too: there is a genuine perversion and obsessive quality that is very attractive to me as a woman and artist. But sometimes, with his later work, I move on quickly: a painting about irony is about irony. I used to love Lucian Freud, but as my work has become less about style, I am less drawn to his paintings, which feel academic. They seem to lack humanism: warmth and room for doubt, self-criticality, empathy.
DS That’s why I ask whether it is your own concern or whether this concern is brought to you by the waves from the outside. Like you said, “didactic” and “illustrative” are bad, bad words!
NF But the desire to communicate is a good thing. Working on the Grimm drawings has been helpful in terms of clarity toward the narrative. When you make work, you are thinking about stories that you want your figures to tell. How important is clarity?
DS Actually, I was going to ask you that: How important is it that whoever is looking at the work receive the information or the message? Does it matter whether they call it painting, drawing, wrong title, wrong everything, if they still get their own narrative out of it? The narrative that I am pursuing on my own has no goal or end result. I prefer it when a person makes up their own thing rather than them getting that my characters do or do not have penises for noses. What is the percentage of accuracy that we want?
NF What is it for you?
NF Ten?! Oh, God!
DS I have low standards.
NF I was going to say like twenty or twenty-five. Maybe I am younger and more naive. When people are unsure about where my work is located, then they just draw on other sources. They’ll say, “Oh, Francis Bacon, ” “Oh, Lucien Freud,” or “Jenny Saville.” It’s upsetting that the conversation isn’t more complex.
DS I’d like to go back to the idea that women are the main actors in your work. How do these roles get assigned? Why are men supporting cast?
NF Because I say so.
DS Does that stance have any background?
NF I grew up in a very proper home in the South, but there were a lot of improper things around that. I read a lot when I was young, and lived in those worlds between art and reading. I grew up with a decorous, but very liberal mother who would not allow me to wear blue jeans on an airplane because that was inappropriate—I had to wear a dress. But, at the same time, one of her friends was an infamous femme fatale who went to prison. I grew up with a crazy assortment of characters around me, trying to understand how all of those roles coexisted. I took an immense amount of pleasure in transgressing them through voyeurism, yet I’ve never really explored that in my life other than in my work. This is why I am not a serial killer.
DS Interesting explanation! So the opportunities have been very limited for you. (laughter)
NF I mean, did you grow up with people in a sausage factory with penises for noses? This is a question women get a lot: Where does the stuff in your work come from?
DS We all get that question, that’s precisely why I wanted to ask you about it.
NF Do you think that is an important question?
DS No. It makes an assumption and immediately implies that there is this distinction of not only gender but—
NF Of what women can do privately and what they can do publicly. Which there is.
DS It also assumes that women are playing roles, and that if you draw women then they are playing their womanly roles.
NF And that they are playing roles because they cannot embody them. The only way women, in the past, and even today, can gain access to realms that have been traditionally dominated by men—mostly everything outside of the home—is through playacting, assuming other identities. This can be exciting but there is also a loss in not being able to enter the narrative without a guise.
In Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Linda Nochlin writes that it’s important to recognize that women have been denied access. As a woman artist you use that history of what women have been or have not been allowed to do. I was speaking with Linda about the Grimm stories, since she’ll be writing about my suite of drawings for the DAP book; she feels the fairy tales reinforce traditional roles and reward the correct virtues. I have read much of Marina Warner’s writing. She, on the other hand, posits that the Grimm tales represent feminist activism, with women transgressing and inhabiting many “types.” It’s fascinating that both interpretations from two great feminists exist side by side.
DS It’s funny, I was trying to think of what questions would be interesting to ask you, and a part of me thought it’d be the really annoying ones. Don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you!
NF I can’t wait for your turn.
DS But the moment I am in your studio, I can’t help but go, “But why are they all women?” It’d be stupid to deny that you are—
NF —that I am a woman. That is probably why I paint, draw, and am drawn to images akin to my likeness. Actually, it is mostly women who come into the studio and ask why I paint and draw what I do. Where does this come from? There is this intense curiosity about why I seem so normal but the work seems so transgressive.
DS There is an assumption that this is confessional work, if it’s not tongue-in-cheek.
NF Or that you are not in control of it.
DS Or that you are living vicariously through the work to the extent that you are kind of like a serial killer.
NF Yeah. There is definitely a part of me that enjoys doing all these bad things in my work.
DS I bet you are squeamish in real life.
NF In some ways, but in some ways not.
DS Some of the fairy tales are so horrific. They have an amazing power. They make you feel like when you are reading a detective story and you lock all the doors, because you know there is a murderer outside waiting just for you.
NF My greatest fear is being murdered. I will watch Castle on ABC and get very scared.
DS We both have studios in Bushwick. It’s fine, the neighborhood is changing, but there are moments when you come on the weekend and the street and the building are empty. You’re the only person around and you think a monster must be lurking.
NF I don’t come on the weekends! But I think about that every night as I lay in bed in the dark. I have a nightlight! Oh, yes.
DS I do too!
NF What I love about the fairy tales is that they are short and to the point, and there is always that sense of looking in the window and finding someone revealing themselves to be who they really are. They truly capture life.
DS This idea of the darkness within—regardless of how morbid or horrific the image that you put on the page might be—it cannot do any harm to you or others unless it is completely bewitched and it comes alive at night. You are controlling it, to an extent. It’s an exorcism, so it is no longer in the space in your head.
NF Is that true, do you find? For me there is an endless supply of what can come out. As much as I might try to picture it and understand it, there is always more. It is not necessarily terrifying to me; it is also delightful and enjoyable.
DS That’s exactly the complexity of these works. Some are funny and more playful and their element of violence is more cutified, but others are really horrible. You want to avert your eyes, but then your mind realizes that they have these aesthetic qualities—they’re objects of beauty.
NF I like that. It’s like being a decorator and a serial killer at the same time.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.