An Interview with Artist Julie GrossMay, 2006
Julie Gross received a BFA from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY and worked as a graphic designer for five years. After a summer working at Yaddo, an artists’ community in Saratoga Springs, New York, she gave up her design job to paint full time. Gross received a Masters in Painting from Hunter College in New York City and has been the recipient of a CAPS Fellowship in Painting as well as National Endowment for the Arts and Pollock/Krasner Foundation grants. She has had artist residencies at Yaddo; the MacDowell Colony, Peterborough, NH; the Edward Albee Foundation, New York City; the Ucross Foundation, Clearmont, WY; the Millay Colony, Austerlitz, NY; and a working fellowship at Altos de Chavon in the Dominican Republic. She has been a visiting artist at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI; Syracuse University, NY; Kutztown State College, PA; and Middlebury College, VT. She currently teaches in New York City at the Parsons School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology. Gross will be exhibiting her work this summer at the Fenn Gallery in Woodbury, CT and at the Brik Gallery in Catskill, NY. She has studios in New York City and Glen Spey, NY.
Julie Karabenick: For years now, you’ve worked with curvilinear geometric shapes.
|Blue Inversion, oil on linen, 81 x 81 cm (32 x 32 in), 2004|
Julie Gross: Yes. I still have some childhood drawings that I’m particularly tickled by, totally abstract with lots of contained color and curved forms done with Crayolas. I remember when people would ask me, “What is that?” and I would proudly answer, “A design!”
|Thale’s Dream, oil on linen, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 2005|
JK: And you began your art education at an early age.
|#98, gouache on paper, 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 2005|
JG: When I was 10 or 11, I had my first art lessons in the garage of an Italian neighbor, a painter and graphic designer, where I drew still lifes in colored pencil. My folks were pretty cultured people—we had great music of all kinds in the house, they went to a lot of art films. My dad used to get me the big ARTnews annuals.
From 8th to 12th grade, my mom sent me to weekend art, literature and drama classes with a painter who lived in the woods and supported himself by working with teen groups. We performed plays, drew trees with reed pens made from twigs, and read a lot of wonderful stuff. I was blessed to find my niche with this group as a young teenager.
JK: You received an MA from Hunter College in New York City and have been exhibiting your work since the early 1970s. Have you always worked abstractly?
JG: After undergraduate studies at Pratt and 5 years of a design career, my paintings began as process-oriented—pouring, sponging and squeegeeing—on large canvases tacked to the floor. In graduate school, these evolved into “Pollock-homage” works. Poured painterly areas were combined with more structured, rectilinear framing, allowing both modes to have their say and set up tension via their formal contrasts. This work formed a first one-person show during my last year of graduate school.
JK: And curved forms became central to your work in the late 80s.
|Event Horizon 5, oil on linen, 30 x 152 cm (12 x 60 in), 1990|
JG: In the late 80s and early 90s, I began making drawings that played with tense figure/field relationships using an elongated sine wave or S-curve.This motif set up a perfect form for positive/negative play. The forms were interspersed with atmospheric fields, making a kind of frieze of subtly changing forms.
I was attempting to make a series of expansions. I wanted to infuse the work with more light, air, space, and time. The series was called Event Horizon and reflected my interest at the time in quantum physics—specifically in black holes, in fullness and emptiness, in space and the void. I was interested in working with borders—edges that were clear, but constantly signaling change or shift.
|Event Horizon 3, oil on linen, 132 x 249 cm (52 x 98 in), 1990|
For me, Event Horizon 3 is the most lyrical of the series. Figure and field are more separate, less interdependent. The darker figures are more like glyphs and less like stanchions, fused with the space between them as in Event Horizon 5.
JK: Has an interest in science always informed your work?
JG: Interests shift. At times, different aspects of science, including the exploration of (my own!) psychology, have infused the work. But at times spiritual interests—specifically Buddhism and Tantra—have informed the work. Early and pre-Islamic architecture have also compelled my interest.
JK: After the Event Horizon series, your use of curved forms began to change.
JG: The rhythmic spatial tensions in that series evolved into more of an overall network of S-curves which became more bubble-like, where forms got squeezed together or pushed out within a shallower depth of field.
|Fleshdance, oil on linen,|
142 x 38 cm (56 x 15 in), 1992
JK: In Palindrome and other work from this time, there’s often a very strong concern with symmetry.
JG: To me, symmetry relates to expectation—that the expectation of unity will be satisfied or completed. It’s about the reification of an idea or image, the expectation that an image will double in the same way. Doubling as a function of symmetry relates to harmonic or rhythmic growth.
|Palindrome, oil on linen,|
203 x 64 cm (80 x 25 in), 1993
Some of my interest in symmetry and doubling goes back to my interest in reflection and the expansiveness that reflection can bring to an image and/or a space. Doubling can suggest reflection, with its allusion to water or light. I also love shadows and silhouettes, and their ability to be flat as well to reflect a form or solid.
In my diptych series, the interest in symmetry and doubling even extends to the titles—as in the palindrome Osomoso.
|Osomoso, diptych, oil on linen, 51 x 51 cm (20 x 20 in), 1993|
JK: And with the diptychs, we see the square format that you continue to favor today.
JG: For me, this is about heightening the tensile relationships of all the parts to the edges. Once I started working with curved forms almost exclusively, I felt that the equalizing of tensions among all my forms with the square’s coordinates made the most sense. In a rectangle, one orientation or the other takes precedence. Then, all the relationships are not given an equal chance to relate to the edges.
JK: In some of the work that followed, you continued to divide the composition, but your use of symmetry has changed.
JG: Hera Lite and other paintings from this early phase of my current work was set up using a golden mean proportion—not exact, but close to it. It’s hard to verbally explain my moves as I drew these. There’s a mystery to my drawing process that I accept: that I am a carrier or conveyor of an order—an interactive, rhythmic series of parts that are integral to all the others, that are economical, tense and interdependent.
|Hera Lite, oil on linen, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1999|
JK: As this series continues you drop the divided format, and the amount of tension and interaction among shapes appears to increase.
JG: With all these evolutions, the more pared down and clarified, the more I felt the tension and the specifics of the visual information were seen at their optimum. Everything was now on the surface, as close to the observer as possible. More immediacy—from the surface right out to the world.
|Swuform, oil on linen, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2001|
JK: With discrete circular shapes dominating the action.
JG: The s shapes now have become circles or grow from circles. I’ve set myself a series of limitations. The challenge is how to express continuous tension and surprise within these parameters. The first thing I think of is the physical—a giant breath, wanting the fullness of the circle to set up an ever-expanding, effulgent field. I want a tightly edited image, one that doesn’t need anything more or less than it has, where all relationships are dependent on each other for both tension and harmony.
|Peri Airy, oil on linen, 81 x 81 cm (32 x 32 in), 2003|
JK: And the uninflected paint handling contributes to your emphasis on immediacy?
JG: It reflects my desire to put my concerns right up on top—without layers, without changes showing as part of the final image. The painted surface is precise and uninflected, allowing spatial interaction to reveal itself simply and clearly and establishing a balance between surface tension and movement. Also this allows the shapes a lot of clarity despite spatial ambiguity, allowing them to feel at one moment full as form and at another, empty as space.
JK: And the forms’ edges have become very important.
JG: I see all the elements I paint as “touching” each other, that is, in relation to each other. In my current work, there is a heightening of relationships at all points along the contour of each shape as well as throughout the painting.
|Mercuree, oil on linen, 81 x 81 cm (32 x 32 in), 2003|
JK: And the spaces between the shapes?
JG: The interstices play a secondary role, yet I want them to do all they can to heighten the strength of the fuller forms, setting them off, but at times raising questions about the space.
|Fugue State, oil on linen, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2002|
JK: Other concerns in your current work?
JG: I’m working now with more ornamental conventions—a lot more doubling, symmetry, and embellishment. I want to see if I can retain the formal rigor and iconic strength of the forms despite the ornament and doubling. In coming in close to the heart of the image without a lot of extra visual information, I’m choosing to emphasize its iconic potential. I’m anthropomorphizing it to some extent, and there’s a play back and forth between physical allusion and the ornamental or decorative.
|#97, gouache on paper, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2004|
JK: Anthropomorphizing—like the individual shapes are protagonists in some drama?
JG: At times my work has alluded to figuration, for example in Pandora’s Punch or in the work on paper #94, where I see the forms as being or becoming fetal.
|Pandora’s Punch, oil on linen,|
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2002
|#94, gouache on paper,|
41 x 41 cm (16 x 16 in), 2003
JK: And your paintings always begin as drawings?
JG: Yes, drawing precedes painting in my work. Since 1998, I have been using compasses to choreograph a network of circular forms that play with my interest in centrifugal and centripetal forces and in edges that set up tension as well as flow. Drawing serves as an extension of my breath as forms expand and contract, interconnect, and vie for dominance, setting up a kind of dance that pulsates across the surface. Circles remain or morph into other shapes until an overall web of bubble slices exists.
|Julie Gross drawing|
JK: So a lot of energy is expressed during the drawing phase.
JG: I do feel the interactions almost physically as I draw. The resulting images reflect that engagement. The squeezing, releasing, pushing, pulling are all felt in some way—getting these forms to “run through hoops.”
The choreographing of forms as I draw allows for impulsive, emotional, physical interactions to show themselves concretely, albeit in a formal, filtered way. Given the homage I pay to formal rules, to ways of composing that I have integrated and are part of my make-up, I‘m always trying to push these modes, trying for new formulations where I don’t know what will happen. I like geometry—its order, the challenge of playing within the parameters—but also exploring new spatial inventions, conundrums, combining the familiar with the unfamiliar, finding surprise.
|Lume Slyce, oil on linen, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2002|
JK: How would you characterize your use of color?
JG: As far as color is concerned, at times it’s lot about strange bedfellows and surprise interactions. I set up a spatial and temporal dance as to how and where the color is experienced. I want each element or relationship to have its perceptual moment that then send the eye to another place. Color is paramount as a vehicle for expressing movement, weight, time, pulse. I want images to act as suspended slices of light—breathing, tense, emergent.
JK: And your works on paper?
|#101, gouache on paper, 38 x 38 cm (15 x 15 in), 2005|
JG: The gouache works on paper serve as explorations or studies for potential paintings. The matte, flat qualities of gouache are similar to the way I work with oil, thinning it down to a syrup and not applying too many coats to avoid a sheen.
|#71, gouache on paper, 41 x 41 cm, (16 x 16 in), 2001|
JK: You often inject humor into your titles.
JG: Structural aspects of a painting influence its titling. Sometimes, as in the first works in this series, half of the title was a classical allusion, the other half a pop allusion. For example, in Orphic Toon, Orpheus, the Greek god of music, was paired with Toon, a play on “cartoon.” Or Leky Beany—Leky from lekithos, an archaic Greek vase shape I like, and Beany as in Beany babies.
The mood or feeling in my work often comes unconsciously or by chance as a result of the structuring of the image. If I like the construct and the image simultaneousy takes on anthropomorphic characteristics or humorous formations, I often let that remain as a way to bring more personal and complex associations to the image.
|Leky Beany, oil on canvas, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1999|
JK: Do you feel there’s a lot more fertile territory for you in your exploration of circular forms?
JG: I plan to continue exploring the implications of this approach and see where it will take me. Of course I want the work to remain fresh and inventive, to keep opening up avenues for exploration that excite and challenge me. We’ll see what happens!
|Julie Gross pictured with Ayin, oil on linen,|
122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 2005
More information about Julie Gross at juliegross.net
Interview images and text copyright©2006 Julie Karabenick and Julie Gross. All Rights Reserved.