The Risk of Stating the Obvious: Ella Kruglyanskaya Interviewed by Lauren Moya Ford

Painting from the present and from history.

Blue Bell Bottoms Ella Kruglyanskaya Thomas Dane1

Ella Kruglyanskaya, Blue Bell Bottoms, 2015, oil, oil stick on linen, 84 × 64 inches. © Ella Kruglyanskaya. Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery.

The title of Ella Kruglyanskaya’s current exhibition, This Is a Robbery, brings to mind the countless cartoons, movies, and TV shows in which a jittery, gun-toting, masked figure tells a crowded bank lobby to stick ’em up. The situation is unmistakable, even self-explanatory, but the robber’s insistence on explaining himself reminds me of a phrase that Kruglyanskaya playfully suggested as the title for our interview: “The Risk of Stating the Obvious.” Risk, speech, and the obvious are all part of the artist’s work, but not necessarily in ways one would expect. After reading numerous articles about Kruglyanskaya’s work, I noticed that the writing tended to fall into certain proclamatory patterns. But I wasn’t so sure. I was curious to hear from the artist herself, so I called her at her Los Angeles studio from my kitchen in Turin.

—Lauren Moya Ford


Lauren Moya Ford There’s a risk of audiences misunderstanding your work, of oversimplification or falling into cliché. How do you navigate this tricky territory? 

Ella Kruglyanskaya This question has two parts. The first is about my relationship to risk. In terms of approaching the obvious, it was a reaction against my own habit while in art school—at Cooper Union, the institution most responsible for my education—of constantly beating around the bush. Though I don’t consider my student work to be worthy of some kind of independent consideration, I see it now in a continuum with my current work. It was my pre-work, as I’m sure it is for a lot of artists. I think now with 20/20 hindsight that the reluctance to be direct has to do with the fear of not being original. At that age one still holds on to the somewhat truthful myth of the artist as a unique, very special individual. I remember thinking that painting the figure was almost obscenely obvious and therefore stupid. I painted things all around it: disembodied hands coming out of edges of the rectangle, disembodied hair, clothing, patinated furniture, knitted objects. Finally I understood that what I was interested in was the figure. It seemed banal. Then I realized I am also interested in feelings. Painting seemed a ridiculous medium to manifest those interests. But I had to take that risk. I have a compulsion to be direct. Such is my temperament. And the question about whether or not I am able to navigate this territory that borders on cliché? That’s not for me to judge. Someone else would have to tell me if I navigate it successfully. 

LMF I’m interested in the edges of your images. Many have their own framing devices, like a colored or drawn border, a marked-up clipboard, or wide strips of white. Can you tell me more about the way you structure and frame your works?

EK I started marking the edges of the paintings as another way to distance myself from the “plot,” the main thing going on in the painting. That main thing is sometimes simply too in your face, and the framing alleviates that anxiety by saying again and again that it’s just a painting. 

Puppeteers Ella Kruglyanskaya Thomas Dane2

Ella Kruglyanskaya, Puppeteers with a Big Face, 2015, oil, oil stick on linen, 90 × 72 inches. © Ella Kruglyanskaya. Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery.

LMF Your paintings don’t show their protagonists’ entire bodies; there’s always some piece of these women that’s out of view. Does this unseeable, unknowable element relate to your feelings about storytelling in painting?

EK Yes, I think so. On some level, I always wanted to excite with a painting. But I myself am not easily excited by it. When you do the same thing for a long time, your tolerance for excitement increases. Action, strong feelings, and strong color seem to be shortcuts to excitement, so perhaps I chose those as a framework on which my inquiry into painting could be hung. Everybody loves telling stories. But we all know that there are not that many actual stories around. With the phenomenon of Elena Ferrante, it is only relatively recently that people realized that an intense and direct literary examination of friendship between girls and women has never been thoroughly attempted before. Or maybe it has, but hadn’t come forward in the culture’s frontal lobe. That in itself is a shocking thought. Same with other perspectives of difference.

So maybe in my decision to disregard the wholeness of the figure—or not even wholeness, but any one kind of preexisting way of connoting the figure or pictorial body with paint—I position myself in the tradition of artists who acknowledge the difficulty of an authorial voice as all-seeing, objective, knowing. I’m obviously not the only one who thinks that painting is not very efficient at telling stories. I remember reading an interview with Carroll Dunham where he talks about that aspect of painting. The interviewer mentions some “characters” in his paintings that are, according to the interviewer, “blind,” and he immediately corrects them that they are not blind, they just don’t have eyes. As I read it, in my mind I exclaimed, “Yes! Thank you!” That is such a precise turning of meaning, and is exactly what I’ve encountered many times with people trying to over-narrativize my paintings and representational painting in general. I’ve been asked, “So what’s going on here?” as if I alone, as the all-knowing artist hold the true meaning of what is taking place pictorially. As if there’s something else taking place, behind the scenes, behind the paint, a hidden meaning, another text. Some of the ambiguity that unfolds is of course intended by me, the artist, and is in fact the thing I delight in the most. There is of course something going on behind the scenes, or around the edges, or in the various doublings of meaning. But it is a secret hidden in plain sight.

Nautical Bather Ella Kruglyanskaya Thomas Dane3

Ella Kruglyanskaya, Nautical Bather, 2012, egg tempera on panel, 18 × 23.5 inches. © Ella Kruglyanskaya. Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery.

LMF You sometimes paint your drawings. Perhaps we could say you’ve drawn through painting. It’s a reversal of the usual process: a preparatory sketch followed by a finished painting. How do you move between drawing and painting?

EK I specifically don’t refer to my drawings as studies even though they are the material from which the paintings are made. My drawings are not preparatory sketches. They are the material. Cumulatively, they are nothing, a throwaway piece of paper, and everything. I think this non-dichotomy is important. I really like you saying that I’ve “drawn through painting.” I remember becoming aware of this urge to draw through my painting, maybe soon after graduate school when I started working on my own and no longer had any voices of authority that cared about what I did in the studio, as if some inner voice triggered by my natural resistance to authority told me to make fun of the art-school-crit cliché of “this is not a painting; it’s a drawing in paint.” It made me ask: Where was the boundary between those things? I couldn’t answer it, so I had to literally draw on my paintings and make it an integral part of the painting, such that the drawing was completely one with the painting.

LMF You’ve likened drawing to handwriting for its quickness and ease. With handwriting, a small gesture can change a letter o to a, and one of your small marks can make a figure fearful, defiant, or something else. Writing is abstract but imbued with meaning and, if handwritten, personality. How do ambiguity and meaning function in your work?

EK I love this question because I feel that somehow you read my mind about the whole handwriting aspect, connecting things that are currently on my mind. I came to this method completely instinctively at first, having to do with the speed of gesture and how it could potentially convey vitality and movement. I don’t believe that it actually does that, but at the same time, maybe it does. The whole concept of graphology, which is based on the notion that the “look” of the handwriting conveys something essential about writers themselves, seems useful here, though we can’t of course wholeheartedly believe in it. I’ve realized that handwriting is perhaps on its way out, that writing in script is not even taught anymore. And perhaps if you don’t have your own handwriting, it’s much harder to read other people’s. That’s a bit sad. It’s nice people are still drawing, at least. I do think about how a very subtle change in line curvature will change the meaning of a facial expression in a drawing. 

Raised Arms Ella Kruglyanskaya Thomas Dane4

Ella Kruglyanskaya, Raised Arms, Argyle, 2018, oil on canvas, 31 × 25 inches. © Ella Kruglyanskaya. Courtesy of the artist and Thomas Dane Gallery.

LMF Your use of egg tempera, trompe-l’œil, and scales carries strains of certain kinds of painting from a bygone but still very present era. How much do you care about art history and painting that’s preceded you?

EK I’ve always experienced the history of art and of painting in a flattened way, not in a linear, historical way. I think that’s true to how we experience art since the spread of images in general and travel; fragments appear in front of us, be it books, images on screens, or works of art in museums. It all coalesces in the mind into some kind of mental map that one might call taste, or interest, or sensibility. So in that sense all of painting history is completely important to me, and I care about it very deeply. 

Ella Kruglyanskaya: This Is a Robbery is on view at Thomas Dane Gallery in London until May 25. (Thomas Dane Gallery is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus, but the exhibition can be viewed online.)

Lauren Moya Ford is a writer and artist based in Spain.

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