Whitehot Magazine

Averno: Interview with Sasha Ferré

Sasha Ferré. Averno, 2023. Photo Credit: Thomas Barratt. Courtesy of Almine Rech. 

By CLARE GEMIMA February 8, 2024

Almine Rech's downstairs gallery, at their newly opened TriBeCa location, showcases Averno, a solo exhibition of paintings by Sasha Ferré that vividly blend phantasmic realms and convergent realities. Through a meticulous fusion of mythological inspiration, ecological inquiry, and raw artistic process, Ferré, who paints between London and Paris, transports her audience into the depths of an ancient volcanic crater, where the boundaries between worlds blur, and the essence of existence pulsates with mystical intensity.  

Drawing from the enigmatic allure of Avernus, an ancient site near Cumae, Italy, Ferré's Averno serves as a captivating odyssey into nature’s unknown. Inspired by the poetic resonance of Louise Glück's verses in her compilation of the same name, Ferré infuses fragments of myth and memory directly onto her canvas, merely utilizing her hands to manipulate marks and pigments, evoking a strong sense of intuitive introspection.  

In paintings like Who could have known that wasn't the usual sun?, and Was it the wind that spoke? (both 2023), Ferré illuminates the significance of Averno as a liminal space where truth and imagination coexist, and the tangible world intersects with the subconscious. Through her choice of handmade oil sticks enriched with beeswax, Ferré's painterly process brims with sensuality and intimacy, granting her compositions a distinctly tactile richness. 

Ferré’s exhibition embraces the fluidity of existence, surrenders to the raw spontaneity of gesture, and questions the interconnectedness of all things. In confronting the raw beauty of the imagination, as well as the eternal dance of life and death, Averno stands as a testament to Ferré's commitment to depict what is often unable to be shown.  

Clare Gemima: The title of your show Averno, makes references to Avernus, an ancient volcanic crater near Cumae, Italy. It lies west of Naples, and is believed to be the entrance to the underworld according to Roman mythology. What made you want to research this phenomenon in the first place? 

Sasha Ferré: I learnt that the space for the exhibition would be an underground gallery, and it became the starting point to conceive the show. I started thinking about the specificity of underground spaces in relation to my practice and to ecological thinking. At the same time, one of my favorite poets, Louise Glück, died, and I remembered one of her books of poems titled Averno (2006). This word stayed with me for a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, in the studio, I noticed new feathery shapes emerging in my work. I researched the etymology and the story of Averno. I studied Glück’s poems and used different sources to explore the mythological belief that this lake is the entrance to the underworld. Through my research, I realized that in etymological terms, ‘Averno’ means birdless. The lake was toxic because of fumes emanating from the crater, so birds would avoid flying above it. The story of this magical toxic lake without birds, resonated in many ways with what was happening in the studio, and with my concerns with mass extinction and ecology. This is how it really started. From there, I gave all paintings a title borrowed from fragments of poetry written by Glück, not just from Averno, but from all of her compilations. 

Clare Gemima: In a conversation about Averno between yourself and Dr. Filipa Ramos , you were asked a very similar question, to which you replied: “it is a liminal space, in between worlds.” I am curious about how this intermediate place inspires you as a researcher, and artist.  

Sasha Ferré: Averno is both real and mythological. In fact, it is a transitional space between two worlds, and those two worlds could be the world of myth and the real world, or the world as we know it and the underworld as Roman Mythology tells us. Such a space, one that defies binary oppositions, I find fascinating. Such a space embodies a sort of natureculture continuum. It is also a space where things and beings undergo transformation. From such an open field you can imagine many things, can’t you? I am fascinated by spaces where things are in the process of constant change, growth, and metamorphosis; where things are in flux, and alive. I feel my practice as a painter is to try and look for these kinds of spaces and moments. To try and make them sensible, palpable. 

In my research, I read Robert Macfarlane’s book called Underland: A Deep Time Journey (2019). This book describes how fertile underground spaces can be. Especially in nature, in forests specifically, the underground is where the humus, soil, roots and a whole mycelium network is constantly evolving, reconfiguring and nurturing the upperground; the visible part, the trees and the whole forest community of heterogeneous living species. This space is where life is sustained. This is the invisible understory, and I find that really stimulating.  

I decided that ‘Averno’ for me would mean creating a kind of space where current and future life is being nurtured, sustained and ultimately, celebrated. 

Sasha Ferré. Who could have known that wasn't the usual sun?, 2023. Tempera and oil stick on linen. 78.5 x 47 in (each). Photo Credit: Thomas Barratt. Courtesy of Almine Rech. 

Clare Gemima: Could you elaborate on the significance of choosing oil pigment sticks, specifically handmade with beeswax and plant wax, as your primary medium? How does this choice influence the texture, depth, and longevity of your work?

Sasha Ferré: As an artist working in 2024, there is an infinite number of media and technologies that I could work from. After spending time researching and experimenting with different media, I found a material and process that suits me. I work with handmade pigment sticks composed of pure pigment, linseed oil and natural waxes. It’s basically solid oil paint and it’s as close as can be to working with pure color. I love how the intensity of pigments responds to light in such a powerful way, revealing nuances. I fell in love with the sensuality and the viscosity of the material.

Also, I’ve always wanted to paint and draw at the same time. That’s probably why I chose to work with oil sticks. They allow me to overcome that binary opposition between drawing and painting, between line and color, that always seemed artificial to me. In a way I can't go anymore low-tech. My practice works in a similar way to how life operates. From a handful of elementary atoms (Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen, Azote), life creates an infinity of shapes and colors through infinite combinations and recombinations. When a process is inspired by how nature operates, I believe it is called biomimetics. 

Clare Gemima: Using your hands to apply and manipulate the pigments, your process involves direct engagement with your linen canvas. How do you navigate the balance between control and spontaneity in your gestures?

Sasha Ferré: I work on large unstretched canvases on the floor, using only my hands. When I start a painting, there is an initial process where a structure is established through drawing and using a limited palette. This structure is not the outcome of any preparatory sketches or reference photos, I just work from the here and now. This underlying structure will eventually be blurred and dissolved in the following stages of the painting process. But it’s still there, and you can probably feel it underneath when you look at my work. To me this is something important in abstract painting. This is my grid, my mesh, in a way. In my practice the structure is established early in the process, then I allow time to rub, stroking paint directly with my hands in order to mix and blend the colors. I never know what the painting will eventually look like as most of my work is performed and improvised directly onto the surface. The rubbing allows unpredicted shapes to emerge. That is very much what I’m looking for in the studio, to be surprised by what unfolds. I improvise with matter, guided and listening to those sensations provided by touch. 

We live in uncertain times, but also in a time obsessed with control, perhaps as a response to the complexity of the world around us. To me improvising means a practice of radical freedom, where anything can happen. When you think about it, we tend to improvise more than we think, especially in our intimate relationships with others, when having a conversation, when making love, we respond to what is offered by the other. My approach is definitely performative in the sense that everything happens on the surface in the very act of painting without any source imagery or digital tools. In this hypermediated contemporary world, I’m striving for an unmediated relation to pictorial space and paint materials. 

Sasha Ferré. Was it the wind that spoke?, 2023 Tempera and oil stick on linen. 78.5 x 47 in. Photo Credit: Thomas Barratt. Courtesy of Almine Rech.  

Clare Gemima: How does the intimate act of blending pigments directly on the canvas with your fingers inform the emotional and conceptual depth of your work in Averno? Also, how physical is this process, and what do your hands look like once you’ve completed a painting?  

Sasha Ferré: The physicality comes from the fact I am painting directly on the ground. It means that I engage not just my hands, but my whole body in the process. It is a way to reconnect with ground, and symbolically with Earth. In Becoming an Animal: an Earthly Cosmology (2010), author David Abram notes: “this gravitational draw that holds us to the ground was once known as Eros - as Desire! - the lovelorn yearning of our body for the larger Body of Earth, and of the Earth for us.” 

In my practice the distance between the material, my hand, and the surface is radically reduced and contact is central. It makes the act of painting an intimate moment, especially since the gestures I make are similar to stroking. It is close to caressing a body - the body of a loved one, a lover, a child, a parent, a friend, a pet. There is meaning in a gesture, especially when a gesture is stroking a surface covered with viscous material in the hope of seeing something new emerge. Touching means being connected to others sensually; when done respectfully, it means caring. As humans, we are sensuous beings and we can’t survive without being touched. Putting touch at the center of your life has a strong ethical impact. How to touch the world and be touched by it? The haptic becomes a way to participate in world-making, the generating force behind my paintings, what actually creates those shapes and colors you see and what ultimately generates pictorial space. I also associate touch with nature and ecology. I love Andreas Weber’s notion of ‘Erotic Ecology’. Matter and desire. Considering the world as a network of relations, a radically impure mixture of flows of matter, desires, subjectivities, affects, conflicts, and meanings. Then painting becomes a site to explore human relation to matter, human relation to nature, and the creative potential of touch. I feel all these questions are all the more worth exploring in the context of the Anthropocene.  

Clare Gemima: In your own words, your materials "retain and remember" the gestures of your hands, imbuing your artwork with a sense of embodied memory. Could you discuss how this concept of material memory informs your artistic philosophy and the thematic exploration within your work? 

Sasha Ferré: Because of the process we discussed earlier, you could consider my practice as an engagement with the ever present moment, and painting the inscription of that moment into matter. Because I paint on the floor, engaging my whole body, my way of painting is similar to bird flight. To quote David Abram once again, “Flying is an uninterrupted improvisation with an unseen and wildly metamorphic partner. (...) a kinetic conversation in the uttermost thick of the present moment.” This metamorphic partner that I’m having a conversation with, that is matter. I am fascinated by the vitality of matter. I don’t consider matter to be passive in my hands. Matter has a life of its own. Through my specific process, I strive to create the conditions to allow matter to respond and reveal its own agency, its capacity for metamorphosing. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard speaks about material imagination, connected to the four elements, air, water, fire, earth. My process strives to unlock this material imagination, through an improvised dance between ground, matter and touch, matter and body.

As a painter, the way you approach these questions of matter and touch sort of defines you. Some painters seek to erase their hands from the final painting. At certain moments in History, this used to be one of the criteria through which you’d judge a painting. Critics would say: “on n’y voit pas la main” (or we can’t see the hand”), and they would mean it as a compliment. This is still true nowadays with digitally-based work. This makes me reflect on why we dislike seeing the work of the hand. Is it because painting strived to emancipate from craft, or does it remind us of our own bodily condition? Bruno Latour speaks of the Great Divide that is one of the theoretical pillars of Western Modernity, and that includes body versus mind, nature versus culture, female versus male, etc. This comes with a hierarchy of values where everything related to the supposedly wrong side, female, body, nature, is devalued or erased altogether. I’ve chosen to take the opposite position. I paint with my hands and the mark-making at play in my paintings is specifically the mark-making of a hand. Even if people don’t necessarily identify the hand, people do perceive a diffuse sensation of softness, and that’s fine.

Sasha Ferré. Does it matter where the birds go?, 2023. Tempera and oil stick on linen. 78 1/2 x 47 in. Photo Credit: Thomas Barratt. Courtesy of Almine Rech. 

Clare Gemima: With the absence of brushes in your application process, how do you navigate the challenges of achieving various textures and blending effects? Are there specific strategies or techniques you employ that substitute the effects of more “traditional” tools? 

Sasha Ferré: Usually you would use solvent to thin up oil paint on your palette with a knife before starting to paint. I instead stretch the paint directly with my hands onto the canvas to thin it out. My way to blend the colors is not to mix them beforehand on the palette with a knife or a brush. I warm up the solid paint through repeated rubbing with my hands, again on the canvas. This way, the wax and linseed oil that bend the pigments together melt and blend with the color that’s next to them. In my practice everything happens directly on the surface of the painting, not outside of it. The usual preparatory steps take place on the very same canvas, and that’s how the painting’s various forms subtly emerge. Working alla prima means leaving things unresolved, in a state of openness, keeping things flowing, so that they retain that lively quality that might be lost when working layer upon layer. The movement I make with my hands varies. When I discover a new gesture, I can stay with it for a while but most of the time I am so absorbed that I’m not sure how it came along. The most interesting things happen when you’re so absorbed in a moment that you lose consciousness of what you’re even doing. WM 

Clare Gemima

Clare Gemima contributes art criticism to The Brooklyn Rail, Contemporary HUM, and other international art journals with a particular focus on immigrant painters and sculptors who have moved their practice to New York. She is currently a visual artist mentee in the New York Foundation of Art’s 2023 Immigrant mentorship program.

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