Interview with Natalie Westbrook
Natalie Westbrook: Faces
May 7 - July 3
By JEFFREY GRUNTHANER, June 2022
There’s something elemental about drawing a face. Two dots and a line is all the mind asks for to see the likeness of a human visage. While Natalie Westbrook's Faces preserves the primitivism of children’s drawings, she places the elementary signifiers of a face on a contextual pedestal that’s more nuanced and formal.
Her paintings hinge on a craftsmanlike ambiguity. However bold, colorful, or allusive her paintings appear, they always conceal something about their origins and ends. This sense of "in-betweenness"—a crepuscular realm, both brilliant and obscure—liberates her work from the plague of binaries that too often overtakes artists and their work. It also makes her connection to art history as freewheeling as her application of color across each canvas.
On the occasion of her recent show at ZYNKA Gallery in Pittsburgh, I conversed with Westbrook via email about the root of her fascination with painting faces, how her take on the human face looks back towards art history, and the role familial collaboration has in her recent series of playfully serious works.
Jeffrey Grunthaner: I first became aware of you as a painter of large, colorful faces. Could you talk a little about how you came to engage with this theme?
Natalie Westbrook: I like to think that I’m imbuing a painting with life — empowering this otherwise static object of voyeurism with an ability to act. I question whether a painting is merely a passive picture or a surface made for the gaze; or can a painting be assertive — aggressive even? I’ve often delighted in bold and garish color palettes for this reason. In 2020, I began to wonder: What if a painting stared back? Fragments and abstractions of bodies that appeared in my earlier works coalesced as faces. They look out from within the canvas, looming large and filling my periphery. For all the looking that I do in the studio, I surrounded myself with faces that returned the favor.
JG: Could you talk about the gestation of a particular work that you’re currently showing at ZYNKA?
NW: All of the paintings develop organically, without a specific plan or premeditated idea. "Blue Rainbow," for example, began by dying raw canvas while it was flat on the floor to allow staining and bleeding that established a ground of color and mark. The abstract elements in my paintings come from a vocabulary of forms and patterns that I studied through direct observation in nature for many years before they evolved into a more personal lexicon — one that primarily lives in my memory now. Because of that, the painted ground is essentially derived from both nature and my subconscious, which enables me to delve into a psychological space as the work comes to life. The face emerged out of that ground and from within that psychological realm. I think of the face pictorially, but it takes up the entire square canvas, so I also think of the painting itself as a face or facade. I found myself painting the face in response to the ground, integrating the two so that the face sits both within and on top of the painting, considering both the illusion of pictorial space as well as the materiality of surface.
JG: Do you have a favorite work from your Faces series?
NW: "Onlookers" is my favorite. After working exclusively with luminous color for many years, it felt like I had turned the work inside out by simply limiting the palette to black and white. I listen to music while I work — it’s funny that I find myself establishing custom soundtracks for the black and white works. The limited palette serves as another dimension or mood, and for me "Onlookers" captures that essence.
JG: Do you have other bodies of work that relate to this series?
NW: Earlier this year I started a new body of work that incorporates faces painted in colorful lighting. I showed the first two works from this series at Dallas Art Fair with Keijsers Koning Gallery, and I continue to develop new paintings from those. I’m exploring theatrical color and light through more dimensional representation, playing in contrast to the flatness of certain mark-making techniques that are meant to reassert the surface and materiality of the painted object. The tension between space and surface continues to be a driving force. When I’m not painting, I’m drawing on paper — often making drawings of my paintings. I included small graphite drawings in my current show as an opportunity to see both the works on paper and the large canvases together in one space. I’ve also recently started experimenting with painted plaster sculpture.
JG: Is there any particular aspect of a face that you strive to “get right”?
NW: Getting the character of the face just right is the challenge. These are not portraits, or depictions of specific individuals, nor are they striving for realism. But as looking faces, each one has autonomy and character and the personality or expression has to be just right.
JG: Do you ever consider the faces you paint masks?
NW: The very first paintings I considered to be faces were specifically of masks actually. It was early 2020 and it happened completely by accident. I was using collage techniques, experimenting with cut shapes for eyes and a mouth. As I was working, the cut shapes started to function as stencils for the first time rather than as collaged elements, and I suddenly saw an illusionistic image of a mask appear. At first I wasn’t even sure how I achieved the illusion, and I had to study it to make sense of it in order to be able to do it again. It stopped me in my tracks because “masks” were something we had all started wearing to the grocery for the first time and the word “mask” was in every news article and a topic of everyday conversation. As I continued painting in the months that followed, I felt I was painting both faces and masks, the pictorial and the surface, the hidden and the revealed.
JG: Now that you’re painting faces, do you see faces differently in the annals of art history?
NW: It’s made me more aware of the intimacy of portrait painting. My paintings are not portraits, and they are also not particularly intimate. They are loud and confrontational rather than cherished or affectionate. So when I saw the Alice Neel show at the Met for example I deeply felt the difference between the intimate act of painting a live subject versus painting imagined faces from unconscious archetypes. In the Met’s permanent collection, the classical Greek style funerary portraits affixed to ancient Egyptian mummies have always fascinated me. The Portrait of the Boy Eutyches I find particularly striking, as the encaustic technique offers a very life-like and highly specific representation of a youthful child. I don’t know the history of conservation or restoration work for this object, but just like the entombed young boy, the painting itself seems to never age. It’s a beautifully painted and haunting portrait. These death masks not only document and preserve an individual’s likeness through representation, but are literal face coverings positioned overtop of the deceased, mummified body. It feels surreal that a painting could simultaneously be a portrait, mask, and facade, and that these ideas are traced to ancient time. The death mask is both an archetype and a portrait. I’m not entirely sure what this says about my own work, except that I’m conscious of these variables.
JG: There’s also a totemic quality to some of your works – faces stacked on top of each other. Is the idea of familial ancestry a concept you’re consciously working with?
NW: The stacked face image came from a drawing my daughter made when she was about 5 years old. She made an incredibly energetic and joyful drawing around 2019 in black and red marker of me giving her a piggyback ride. My iterations of stacked faces could be seen as familial (parent with child), as twins, or as other abstract doublings such as doppelgängers or the fractured self/psyche.
JG: Are you still teaching? Does family life influence how you paint?
NW: I love teaching and the rich dialogue it offers to augment the isolation of the studio. I taught for about 9 years at Yale before my family relocated to Pittsburgh where I teach on occasion at Carnegie Mellon University. Since moving, I’ve returned to Yale as a visiting critic — most recently last December. I’m currently mentoring two Yale undergraduates who are working in my studio this summer, one remotely and the other in person, and I really enjoy the collaborative energy. Excitement about art can be contagious, and being with students who are new to art is an energizing experience — one that’s integral to the teaching environment. My partner also teaches and lectures at both schools, so traveling back to Connecticut where our daughter was born is a family affair and a special occasion to reunite with friends and colleagues. The three of us are equally invested in art-making, so the energy in our family feels consistently supportive, creative, and inspiring — because at any given moment at least one of us is making something surprising and new. WM
Jeffrey Grunthaner is an artist & writer currently based in Berlin. Essays, articles, poems, and reviews have appeared via BOMB, artnet News, The Brooklyn Rail, American Art Catalogues, Hyperallergic, Heavy Feather Review, , Folder, Drag City Books, and other venues. Their poetry pamphlet, Aphid Poems, will be published later this year by The Creative Writing Department. Some recent curatorial projects include the reading and discussion series Conversations in Contemporary Poetics at Hauser & Wirth (NY), Sun Oil for Open White Gallery (Berlin), and FEELINGS for synthesis gallery (Berlin).