An Interview with Artist Liz Coats

September, 2006

Liz Coats initially studied visual art at the Elam School of Fine Art in Auckland, New Zealand. She moved to Sydney and then to Melbourne, Australia in 1974. In Australia she met with groups of women artists who were emerging professionally and linking with women artists in other parts of the world. Her first solo exhibition was held in 1977 at the George Paton Gallery of Melbourne University Union. In 1979 she traveled in Europe and the US. Returning to Sydney, she has continued to exhibit regularly, with 35 solo exhibitions, including in Australia, New Zealand and China. She has had artist residencies at the Australian Visual Arts Board studio in Tokyo and an Australian Asialink studio at the Beijing Art Academy. In 1997 she received a Master of Fine Art (Research) degree from the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales. In 1989 she received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Australian Visual Arts Board and in 1999 she received a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant. Her paintings are held in numerous public gallery collections, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and the Auckland City Art Gallery. She currently has a studio in Wanganui, New Zealand where she paints full time. With Bridie Lonie, Head of the Otago Polytechnic School of Art in Dunedin, New Zealand, she is working on a monograph on her work.

Julie Karabenick: Throughout your painting career you’ve used geometric shapes and structures to organize your work with color.

Liz Coats: From the beginning I was interested in conveying spatial characteristics of colors in pigment form. I chose geometric organization to guide the shape of the colors.

Lattice Painting 11
Lattice Painting #11, acrylic mediums on canvas,
137 x 137 cm (54 x 54 in), 1995

JK: And over the years you’ve explored a number of organizing strategies.

LC: Sometimes colored brush marks are organized in groups geometrically. Sometimes the organizing shape is embedded in the ground and shows through the layering. The colors and the gaps between them are always important for the shape of the image.

Bridges 4
Bridges #4, acrylic on linen, 91 x 107 cm (36 x 42 in), 1983

In my more recent pentagonal paintings, segments of color combine to form five-part geometries.

Pentagrams: 5x Red/Yellow/Blue, pigments and acrylic mediums on canvas and board
(5 panels), 38 x 198 cm (15 x 78 in), 2002

JK: Your approach gives your geometric forms a very fluid feeling.

LC: Yes. I build shape directly with color and apart from line. The emphasis is on color and how it is distributed. The fluid and shifting appearance is my response to acrylic paint media diluted in water and the way the paint settles on the various surfaces I work with, including canvas, board and paper.

Cicada A1
Cicada A1, pigments and acrylic mediums on canvas,
112 x 112 cm (44 x 44 in), 1992

For a long time I have mixed pigment colors with acrylic mediums. Working wet on wet and wet on dry surfaces, the paint spreads differently. Varying dilution and intensity in the colors encourages the white ground or colors beneath to show through. The way the gesso ground is laid down becomes as important as the colors that are laid over it. My intention is to construct the two-dimensional painting plane into a visual experience of depth and circulation.

JK: And it’s been your custom to work in series?

LC: Yes. Each new series of paintings has a similar structural theme, and I work to reinvent the color interactions.

JK: How does a series typically begin?

LC: I begin by experimenting with combinations of materials and shapes until an image comes together showing a clear structural progression.

Morphic Painting #9
Morphic Painting #9, pigments and acrylic mediums on canvas on board,
76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 1997

Sometimes a simple geometric diagram will catch my eye and I will adapt it; or I make numerous small sketches that divide the square or rectangle until a spatial balance strongly attracts me. Sometimes experiments with arrangements of colors will suggest the structure.

There can be many weeks of experimentation before I am satisfied with the structural order. Then I will work with different sequences of colors within the structural outline established at the beginning.

JK: Despite the fact that you begin with an organizing structural premise, your working methods encourage variation and a certain amount of unpredictability.

LC: I’m attracted to qualities of ambiguity and visual shift within regular and repetitive forms. I look for a “live” quality to emerge in each painting. The paint applications and color interactions will to some extent be unpredictable in their detail. I do not change the sequence or adjust colors once they are laid down, so that risk is always central to my approach.

Although the structural outline is predetermined, working with the volatility of colors means that outcomes are never certain. The way hard edges appear to dissolve brings experiential concerns to the forefront—there is a broadly phenomenological aspect to my method.

Liquid Light : Red #13
Liquid Light: Red #13, pigments and acrylic on canvas,
74 x 76 cm (29 x 30 in), 2004

JK: You were born in New Zealand, but spent some of your childhood in Australia.

LC: I was brought to Australia as a baby and began school there, before returning to New Zealand at age seven. I believe those different and contrasting early environments have influenced my understanding of spatial issues in painting and have strengthened my critical capacities.

JK: You did your undergraduate studies at the Elam School of Fine Art in Auckland, New Zealand where I gather you didn’t find the art climate very supportive to making abstract art.

LC: During art school, I was not clear about a future direction for my painting. But in general, there was some suspicion towards what were called “formalist” concerns. After my initial studies, I went to live in the rural outskirts of Auckland. There I met with a local resident and abstract painter who had an internationalist perspective. He introduced me to the ideas of many US and Northern European abstract painters. He also introduced me to the Russian Constructivist artists and made the point that there were many women painters among them.

JK: You were soon to relocate to Australia.

LC: I moved to Australia in 1974, and after a period of orientation, I began to paint and exhibit there consistently. I also began to research in depth the origins and influence of abstract painting. I couldn’t have begun to work as I did without knowledge of the history of abstract painting since Mondrian and including the visual concerns of painters such as Ad Reinhardt and Agnes Martin.

JK: At that time, you were beginning to explore ways to infuse abstract geometric painting with more intuitive and experiential concerns.

LC: Much of the geometric color painting that I was looking at in this part of the world seemed to me to be burdened by several generations of stylistic input. In my opinion, artists were paying less attention to the material qualities of colors as paint and the temporal nature of the activity, so that their paintings had lost a certain vitality. I also felt that fresh contributions would be made by women approaching this genre.

In 1975, I discovered Russian artist and theorist Mikhail Matyushin, a friend and colleague of Malevich. Matyushin believed that it was impossible to avoid organic responses when dealing with color and light. The experiential nature of his thinking about “embodied seeing” interested me, as well as his understanding of Cezanne—that the body does not stand apart from the scene, but is immersed within it. How to express this in painting?

JK: You began to address these concerns in your first series of paintings, the Chameleons.

Chameleon #8Chameleon 8 detail
Chameleon #8, acrylic on canvas,
76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 1977
Chameleon #8 detail

LC: Choosing a gridded and square format provided a relatively neutral ground for the systematic layering of colored marks. I decided to apply transparent and semi-transparent colors with small, spaced brush marks across the whole surface of the painting without backtracking or corrections. The direction of brush marks in each layer was angled to contrast with layers below, building depth in the surface, one color for each layer. Between the brush marks and the gaps, the shape of the paintings emerged.

JK: And the nature of your environment was having an impact on this work?

LC: Looking back, it now seems that all my work has been informed by the shapes and colors of the natural world, though there is no direct borrowing of images or colors. I suspect that the vast areas of eucalyptus forest along the eastern seaboard of Australia influenced my early brush work—intuitive responses to eucalyptus leaves, vertically suspended and oscillating sideways in the breeze, sparkling with light reflections after rain, and showing as filigree against the blue sky. And the colors that I favor in Australia—warm hues of pink, red and yellow—are in notable contrast to the penetrating blue-violet-silver light of New Zealand. Working in these very different environments has strengthened my discrimination of color used for structural outcomes.

JK: In your next series, the Kores, the grid asserts itself more strongly.

Kore 6Kore 6 detail
Kore #6, acrylic on linen, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 1980Kore #6 detail

LC: Each Kore painting is divided into a grid of eight by eight squares, with the center four squares containing a different sequence of color layers. The square divisions become visible where opposing angles of brush marks slightly overlap at the edge of each square.

JK: And, characteristic of your work, the experience of depth was a key concern.

LC: Yes, the network of connections in depth interests me. I included many layers of different colors to achieve the desired depth and resonance within one color range. The way my eyes adjusted focus between the central four squares and the outer squares, seeking visual balance across the whole painting plane, also encouraged an experience of visual depth.

JK: The way you apply color using small brush marks also creates the structure in your next series.

LC: This painting from the Dark Water, Flowing Light series contains straight and undulating horizontal lines, and an oval shape in the middle with a different order of color layers. I was interested in ways that light fall can illuminate the shape of a painting across a surface of one predominant color in different densities.

Dark water, flowing light: Burn
Dark Water, Flowing Light: Burn, acrylic on linen, 91 x 101 cm (36 x 40 in), 1982

JK: In your next series, the brush marks are less densely grouped and the structure seems more emphatic.

LC: In the Bridges, what mattered to me was the tension between the more openly spaced color marks and the embedded lines. The linen was stained in dark shades of blue overlaid with white gesso, leaving the lines and stained dots at the center exposed. The lines and dots play with visual balance against the vibrational field of colors that seems to hover across the white middle ground. I positioned the stained dots as visual anchors within the ambiguous spatial field.

Bridges 6
Bridges #6, acrylic on linen, 91 x 107 cm (36 x 42 in), 1983

JK: The individual colored marks become larger and more distinct in your subsequent series.

LC: In these larger paintings, I was interested in ways that single layers of colors in horizontal bands could settle into connective balance within the painting plane. Linear gaps in the unevenly applied white gesso are exposed as raw canvas. These lines echo the structure of the Bridges. There is also a wide circle reaching almost to the edges of the square that balances with the horizontals and verticals. Where color marks cross over the exposed lines, the “bones” of the painting show through.

Growing Painting D11
Growing Painting D11, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 122 cm (48 x 48 in), 1988

During a residency in Tokyo in 1987, I made small Growing Paintings on Japanese kozo paper. The time in Japan strengthened my convictions about the way I was working—emphasizing the qualities inherent in the painting materials, developing an enlivened relationship between color pigments and ground, and allowing bodily experience to influence painting outcomes.

JK: In your large series in four parts, The Fisherwoman and the Gardener paintings, energetic surfaces are created by the interplay of colored marks and structural lines.

LC: After working on Japanese papers in Tokyo, I was ready to feature fluid color brush marks more prominently in shaping the structure of the whole painting. In The Ground and The Nets paintings, the colors are applied in horizontal bands of vertical brush marks.

The Nets
The Fisherwoman and the Gardner: The Nets, pigments & acrylic
mediums on canvas, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 1989

In The Mirror and the The Heart paintings, the vertical brush marks are crossed by horizontal marks in one color. The gesso is applied with variable density and influences the strength of the color marks laid over it. In the Mirror and Heart paintings, symmetry becomes more pronounced, guided by the shape of the gesso ground.

The Heart
The Fisherwoman and the Gardner: The Heart, pigments & acrylic
mediums on canvas, 112 x 112 cm (44 x 44 in), 1990

I still have a vivid memory of watching a video of a traditional performance during a New Year’s party in Tokyo. Three fisherwomen were dancing in unison in front of fishing boats moored at the docks. The drift of their undulating bodies in flowing kimonos seemed to merge with the motion of invisible waves, as if calling on fish to rise into the nets. This recreated scene has stayed with me as an image of striking eloquence.

JK: In the Cicada Series, we see a change in the nature and arrangement of the color marks and in the resulting organization.

LC: Color shapes were combined in repeating sets, expanding from the center. Diagonal lines cross the whole plane where raw canvas shows through the gesso, and contrast with the color shapes organized in a partial horizontal grid. The gaps between the colors where the white gesso shows through also contribute to the overall shape.

Cicada C3
Cicada C3, pigments and acrylic mediums on canvas, 74 x 147 cm (29 x 58 in), 1992

The color fragments are made with overlaps of contrasting colors, creating a slightly stereoscopic visual effect. In the lefthand panel, I included opaque pigment dots to partially obliterate the underlying shapes, leaving just enough space to see the underlying form through the white gaps.

Cicada C3 detail leftCicada C3 detail right
Cicada C3 detail from leftCicada C3 detail from right

JK: In your Lattice series, there’s a wonderful tension between the regularity of the grid of hexagonal shapes and the fluidity of the paint application.

LC: These Lattice paintings contain repeating triangular shapes that link to form hexagons. The way the colors combine in groups with selective understaining gives form to the geometry. Where each set of triangles meet, there is a center of focus.

These paintings are strong examples of my approach to risk because of the difficult structural/color balancing, where shape articulation is worked towards rather than controlled.

Lattice #6Lattice 6 detail
Lattice #6, pigments and acrylic mediums on canvas,
137 x 137 cm (54 x 54 in), 1995
Lattice #6 detail

JK: Symmetry and pattern are important in your Morphic series.

LC: Symmetric formats have enabled me to find a balance between unequal yet complementary shapes and colors. Oscillations between symmetry and asymmetry occur within both the color details and the systems of layering. Each color layer is geometrically linked, while symmetry breaking and “accidental” links between the layers are encouraged.

Morphic Painting #7Morphic Painting #7 detail
Morphic Painting #7, pigments and acrylic mediums
on canvas on board, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 1997
Morphic Painting #7 detail

The source for these Morphic paintings was a linear diagram in rotation. The appearance of “organic” detail is a result of the way the liquid pigments spread in the gesso.

In 1999, I traveled to Wellington, New Zealand for an artist residency. During this time I was awarded a Pollock/Krasner Foundation grant. In that first six months in Wellington, I made the Flora series of paintings.

Flora #1
Flora #1, pigments and acrylic mediums on canvas on plywood,
79 x 82 cm (31 x 32 in), 1999

JK: Soon, your work began to feature pentagonal shapes.

LC: During a residency near Napier on the east coast of the North Island, I began to make paintings with kiln-fired pigment colors on glass. The way each shape and the spaces between were coordinated in these pentagonal geometric forms was ideal for this technically challenging process. I was also attracted to the complex way these five-sided geometries contain both symmetry and asymmetry within square or nearly square formats.

Pentagram 5
Pentagram #5 (single panel from a sequence of six), heat-fused glass pigments
and sandblasting on clear, float glass, 40 x 40 cm (16 x 16 in), 2000

After having worked and exhibited in Australia since 1974, I now began to spend part of each year in both countries. In early 2000, I established a studio in Wanganui on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand where I continue to work.

JK: And where, as has always been true, your environment would influence your work.

LC: Colors in nature or the pigment colors I work with in the studio are all interpreted through the character of light in the surrounding environment. Because I choose particular qualities of color media to combine for structural interaction within a painting, it has taken me some time to adapt to the natural light of this region.

I find visual nourishment with immersion in the natural environment of growing shapes and colors. Outside my studio in Wanganui, I have made a garden of mainly indigenous shrubs and grasses on a difficult sandy site, with plants chosen for their shapes and local color. The air in this region is particularly clear and the light is sharp and cool with dark shadows, in contrast with my experience on the east coast of Australia.

JK: In your Liquid Light series, the geometric shapes and structures are extremely fluid.

LC: Liquid Light: Red #14 contains multiple layering of the pentagonal geometries within the red spectrum. The effect of the colors in combination cannot be fully determined in advance, nor can the refractive character and textural variation be adequately reproduced in photo images. Each color supports the whole image, while all the colors in combination lift the painting visually into a dynamic whole. This is the space in which I work.

Liquid Light: Red #14
Liquid Light: Red #14, pigments and acrylic mediums on canvas,
74 x 76 cm (29 x 30 in), 2004

JK: And the pentagons continue in your recent multi-panel works.

LC: With Deep South and other similar paintings, I’m no longer working in series. Composed of nine parts, Deep South is an essay in itself.

Some of the shapes are pentagonal in origin and some suggest movements of flow. Dividing the painting into separate panels enabled complimentary structural forms and strong color shifts to be developed in a way that I could not achieve within one large panel.

Deep South
Deep South, pigments and acrylic mediums on canvas on board, each panel
48 x 50 cm (19 x 20 in), overall 146 x 152 cm (57 x 60 in), 2005

In the last few years, living close to the natural world and away from inner city warehouse living, the character of colors that I work with has changed. In New Zealand, it’s hard to ignore the environment—including the changeable weather patterns and dense, mineral-rich colors in the vegetation—reds, yellows, purples, greens.

Red Revisited 2000 detail
Strata Solaris, acrylic media on board, 142.5 x 148.5 cm (56 x 58 in), 2006

I think you can learn a lot by observing phenomena in the natural world where living patterns are not disturbed, and you can apply this knowledge to painting. I don’t mean copying the appearance of things. In each new environment I look into surfaces to understand the substance of the whole. It is a natural instinct to search for familiar signs and examine what is new to the senses.

These are really simple ideas. They suggest that style is not an issue and you do not need to work hard to challenge tradition—you are already in the tradition of “seeing.” I keep on working not only because I want to keep on learning, but because I don’t want to let go of the net that is being created.

JK: The net?

LC: I suppose here I am referring in the abstract to the continuity that flows through all my work and that cannot be let go of, while remaining unpredictable. There is also an element of “capture” with this concept—strong but fluid. I’m not interested in obvious stylistic continuity and follow the structural implications in the colors.

Liz Coats in her studio
Liz Coats in her studio in Wanganui, New Zealand with paintings
from the Strata series


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Interview images and text copyright©2006 Julie Karabenick and Liz Coats. All Rights Reserved.

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