November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Artist in Flux: Amy Swartelé


Artist in Flux

With Michael Foldes
Born in 1972, Amy Swartelé grew up in Belgium, Holland and England. Her mother was a dancer, and her father a businessman who also wrote poetry. If Hieronymous Bosch were alive today, he likely would have no problem at all deciphering the imagery manifest in her paintings.
Swartelé’s work combines the technical knowledge of the chemist who mixes the paints, the precise craftsmanship of the painter who applies it, and the ability to translate surreal, often disturbing visions from a wellspring of inspiration that resonates between mind and matter. Flux, Swartelé’s show in September at the Jungle Science Gallery featured recent paintings that depict subjects, some of whom appear to drowning, as seen in or through pale liquid. Or, perhaps, more in keeping with her recent interest in quantum science, who could as easily be stranded in the divergent planes of parallel and intersecting universes.
Swartelé’s earlier series, Flesh and Bone, was not much in evidence at this show. It explores the relationships of objects in the physical world, the cycles of life and death, the examination and metamorphosis of common influences, organic components, the disintegration of flesh, the remnants of bone. She literally digs into the big questions, “What is life?” “What does it all mean?” “Why are we here, and what do we all have to do with one another?”  Her answers are not for everyone, but they influenced Jungle Science’s Brent Williamson enough to give her a show, and to suggest we also take notice.
The following edited interview with Swartelé took place in September, the morning after the closing reception, at Java Joe’s, a noisy little coffee shop in downtown Binghamton. Swartelé’s husband, Michael Yeomans, sat in on the conversation. Both Swartelé and Yeomans are professors in the art department at State University of New York-Potsdam. Yeomans teaches studio art, and Swartelé, who teaches painting, commented that most of her students must take his course before hers, so she has confidence in their abilities to draw.

Ragazine (to Yeomans): Do you also exhibit?

Yeomans: Yes, I do, but I would have to say of the two of us, Amy is much more driven in the exhibition portion of her career than I am. Amy is a painter who teaches at a university, whereas I’m a university professor who makes art….
Swartelé: I think that’s accurate
R: When I was looking through your web site, it says:  “I can explore the parade that my own psyche offers – absurdity, grotesquerie, a carnival of demons and freaks, which may frighten, fascinate and seduce….”  You have a sort of transmogrification of your environment. What drove you to that in the first place?
S: In terms of transformation, the very fundamental idea that the only constant is change, that everything is changing all the time no matter how much we may try to deny it, ignore it, pretend it’s not there. We like to think of ourselves and the world around us of having some constancy. It’s more comfortable and our brains like going down the same neural patterns all the time, but honestly, I don’t believe that’s how the world is, and I don’t believe that’s the way we are. We’re constantly changing moment by moment, on everything from your quantum level exchanging particles with the world around you to your thoughts, your feelings. You’re thinking different things right now than you were five minutes ago. I think part of the work is an attempt to both deal with and embrace the circumstances of constant change, so that’s where some of the transmogrification comes from, and the metamorphosis of one form into another form.
I have a great love of ideas, of evolution, hybridization, metamorphosis, from old mythological tales, to more fundamental scientific shifts. The potentials and possibilities of change are so much more interesting to me, are so much more exciting and optimistic in spirit, to my mind, than ideas of things staying the same. That is just worst than death.
R: But a lot of people see change in a different direction than you see it.
S: Right, which is part of why I’m painting about it, because from my point of view it’s not this evil, you know….
R: But is this a lot of what you imagined when you were in India? I can see that being more in line with that reality you perceive.
S: Well certainly some of the ideas come through Buddhist philosophy I’ve read. So that’s definitely been an influence in thinking in that direction.
Both when I was in India a few years ago and just now in China, in Tibet, there’s a very different perspective on what your reality is and how it’s formed and how the world changes your perception of reality. So I don’t know if I would say I have seen what I expected… I hardly ever see what I expect. I’m almost always surprised….
R: Yes?
S: In degree if not in type, do you know what I mean?
R: Michael, did you travel with Amy to India or China or Tibet?
Y: No, she gets to go to all these places on her own.
S: Michael is both a less experienced and less adventurous traveler than I am.
Y: I have no desire to see it … filthy, disgusting …. (laughs).
S: Third world situations (Amy laughs).
R: You mean where you wrap yourself around the toilet?
S: I have been to the hospital a couple of times (laughing). About everyone at the arts colony had dysentery. The arts colony where I was in India – everybody got sick at one time or another.  One girl got bitten by a monkey and had to go through the rabies shot deal. I had severe gastroenteritis, two other people had GE, one person had gotten parasites of some kind. And it seems like the only people who didn’t (get sick) were people who had spent a lot of time in country already and had some experience.
R: Yes, some immunity.’You have mentioned something about the Heisenberg principal? What is that?

S: Well the couple of things I mentioned in the artist statement that come from quantum physics… I should modify all of this somewhat by saying that I’m in no way any kind of expert on things to do with quantum physics, but the ideas that reading about quantum physics generate for me, those are what interest me… even though what I understand about them may be off the standard ones, but essentially the uncertainty principal…. Do you know about the Schrödinger’s thought experiment? It’s a thought experiment where you took a cat and put it in a box, and there were, I forget the details of it, but essentially, you know when a nuclear structure breaks down and the half life, where it deteriorates, the point of it is that you put the cat in the box, you can’t see inside the box, there is a breakdown of an (radioactive) element that at a certain point may or may not kill the cat. You don’t know at any point if the cat is alive or dead or what….
The whole idea behind the thought experiment is to kind of illustrate what has been found with light particles — light can be a particle or a wave, right? And there’s the idea that the observer affects the experiment. It’s been proven that through the very act of observation, the nature of the light particles or light waves is altered.
So the Schrödinger’s cat experiment merely posits the idea the cat is both alive and dead and sort of neither alive nor dead until you open the box and take a look. Because until it is observed, it’s the same as that particle of light, it’s sort of in that in-between stage, it hasn’t decided, for lack of a better word, it can’t be alive or dead. You can’t know the position and speed of the particles at the same time –. because the act of observation literally changes reality, which for an artist, what an interesting idea is that, that for every possible event in the universe a new universe jumps into play, leaps into existence. So that’s the multi-verse theory.
That uncertainty principal has to do with the positioning of limbo, sort of everything and nothing in a circumstance of potentiality, but nothing’s come into being yet. I’m a huge believer in contradictions, and this idea of being in that situation where anything is possible and depending on how you perceive or if you perceive you might push the universes in a particle direction. So the potentiality of that excites me. I take the interpretation of those things that are happening on the quantum level, and I think of them on the macro level, and of course as far as the physicists, everybody will tell you that you can’t make the jump, but on the larger level the whole Newtonian universe still very much holds sway. It’s only on the quantum level that things go nuts.
But I like thinking how to take those ideas that come from the quantum level and apply them to a more macro level, that to me is where the fun is.
R: well that’s reflected more in your Flux paintings than in your …. Fesh and Bone.
S: Well the shift from Flesh and Bone to Flux, in Flesh and Bone I was still thinking about how things interact with each other, and the idea of perception being reciprocal and that everything … that if I interact with you it’s not only me acting on you but you acting on me … how you’re responding affects how I act, and it’s the very cyclical nature of any kind of interaction, both between people and people and their physical surroundings….
But when I got to what was for me the end of Flesh and Bone I had gotten very frustrated with how still and static all my forms were, and that they might be interacting on a psychological and emotional level, but they weren’t as dynamic as I feel the world is, and so I had to start breaking the forms loose and creating dynamism in the form of themselves for me to be able to reflect that idea.
R: Just as a brief aside, you see realities here, but that explains why anybody would say it’s a lot of fun to watch…
S: Like at the closing last night, people watching, awesome, at an opening or closing event you get all kinds.
R: You talk about quarks Charm and Strange… What is quark Charm?
S: Names of different quarks are Up (quark), Down, Charm, Strange … These are names of particles in quantum physics– the beauty of that. I love that.
R: How many are there altogether?
S: Six…. I  forget the others. There are two others. (Top quark and Bottom are the other two. – ed note:).
R: You mentioned having a corporate sponsor. Who is your corporate sponsor?
S: The family company is Soparind/Bongrain. An international food business. (Soparind-Bongrain is an international independent food corporation based in France. It consists of a hundred companies established in 24 countries. The group employs 21,000 people throughout the world. – ed. note)
View larger photos from the gallery please enter the FS button.
R: I’m impressed that they would sponsor…. I think a lot of U.S. companies would have a hard time sponsoring your work. I think they would shy away. “Oh my god, we’re going to lose breakfast cereal sales…”
S: Well that’s one of the things with the commission, because the paintings are going to be in their new corporate headquarters in France. (Turns to Michael.) What’s the word Alex uses, torture?
He told me, I did a commission for them several years ago and that’s how this whole thing developed, and the first commission was …. I had much tighter guidelines on what they wanted for what at the time was going to be their new international headquarters.
That all turned out well. Still lifes…. I spent a couple of months touring their companies learning about their business, and it was very much based on the imagery that came out of that. But actually some of the meat  imagery that comes up in Flesh and Bone came out of the factories.
R: Are you a vegetarian?
S: Yeah, I am …. (laughs). But then a few years ago, when I had opportunities for the exhibits, I stayed in touch with Alex and that kind of thing, and I approached him and asked if he’d be interested in sponsoring some of these exhibits and that all worked out, and now that they’re building a new international headquarters, he approached me to do this new commission. We met and I’m working on the designs now. He actually was my sponsor for this last trip to China. The new group of paintings is not meant to deal with their business at all, but to reflect the expanding international nature of their business. So I said “Ooooh, where do I get to go?”
“… Hence the China trip, so I’m developing a series of designs that I am going to show him based on different places around the world, sometimes literally, sometimes more abstract, more conceptual sort of images.
Y: And only one of the only other “guidelines.”
S: “I have only one guideline, the paintings are not allowed to be torture,” which is how he describes much of my work…. The paintings are not allowed to depict torture. So I’m going to show him a number of images. He’ll pick the ones that appeal to him the most and I’ll base the paintings on those images.
R: What did your parents do, what kind of influence did they have on your work? Was your father a physicist? Was your mother a physicist?
S: No, my mother (who is Belgian) was actually a dancer…. and she also writes short stories. My father (an American) actually writes poetry, though he’s a businessman. I will say this, they were always completely encouraging of anything artistic.
R: Did you pull wings from flies when you were  a kid?
S: I didn’t actually find painting as my first love until I was in college. Until then I was split evenly between acting and visual art. I did a lot of theater in college. I was a double major in theater and art.  It wasn’ until I got to my senior year in college and I had an acting thesis lined up and a painting thesis lined up and I said, Oh hell…. and picked painting. Mainly because in the studio you have utter control over what you do. You’re god for what it is you can create on that canvas. You can do anything. In acting you’re at the mercy of the casting director, and everybody else. Your choices, artistically are far more limited.
R: What about painter influences…. ? I mean there are a lot of Flemish and Dutch artists who were into some very bizarre ….
S: Yes, yes…. Breugel and Bosch always were very early influences. One of the first reproductions of paintings I remember seeing was in a Flemish comic book I read as a child. Suske and Wiske.  There’s one episode where the characters jump into a Bosch painting where the characters come alive.
The tradition of Flemish painting is so strong … you’ve just got a world of painters to choose from ….  Bosch, Rembrandt, van Gogh, Magritte, you know not the CoBrA people so much, but certainly the surrealists, certainly the magical realists, certainly Van Eyck and all the old masters there, and the tradition of what I think a lot of modern day eyes … that sort of grotesque still lives, but with glorious texture and color and … finding beauty in that detritus of form is an influnce… Francis Bacon, big influence. Lucian Freud, big influence. I mean, I tend to jump around at any given point depending on what it is I’m trying to do that will affect the people I’m looking at at that given time….
R: What is your process? Do you start with a drawing? Like for this commission?
S: I generally have an idea that I’m working with but the start is always the idea. Then I find the imagery that will help me develop that idea. My process is enormously fluid, so having to come up with a design for this commission is counter to my usual process.
My usual process, I start with an idea and I’ll find a couple of images from photographs I’ve taken or objects I’m collecting… I think I mentioned last night all the dead animals in my studio. I get my dentist to give me teeth she pulls out of people’s mouths. I collect things from junkyards. When I say I’m a scavenger I mean that quite literally. I really do grab stuff from all over. So I’ll start with a couple of things that I’ve scavenged, photographs or objects… Those will start to get developed on canvas and then usually what happens is they get moved, changed in size, painted over, combined with another form….
My process has a lot of metamorphosis in it. It’s very transformational. The end product usually looks nothing like where I started because where I’m working I’m responding to what I’ve got on canvas and that very fluid process allows me…  means for me my subconscious comes into play a lot more. These are not planned things, these are things that whatever it is I have on canvas… “Oh, I  really want to give it peace now,” or I want to make it do this, or I want to make it have an interaction with this other thing….
And usually I know when I’m on the right track…. When I really have to kind of stop and question myself and say this is really weird, bizarre, or it’s just plain silly, but I really want to do it anyway. (So I say to myself) “OK, just let’s do it.”
R: How do you work in pastels? It’s not so easy to cover over.
S: But it has the upside of being very quick compared to oils, which makes a nice shift, and actually, with fixative … Yes, it alters the color a bit and all that, but it allows you to layer in a bit more than you might be able to do otherwise. I think it’s really useful to shift materials a little bit that way every now and then because it forces you into solutions you wouldn’t find otherwise.  So by playing with pastels, then when I go back to the paint, I do paint differently. That to me is useful.
R: What about the commissions, are you taking photographs you’ll use later? Or is it all mental images, or do you sketch?
S: No, I’m sketching the designs that I’m going to show in France. They are essentially paint sketches. I’m sketching. I took about 2000 photographs on the trip. I’ve got about 3000 photographs that I’m working from.
R: Digital imagery saves thousands and you don’t generally screw up, and if you do you see it right away….
S: I’m also interviewing people from countries I haven’t been to, talking to them about
“What’s this place mean to you?”,”If fyou had to describe an image to me that embodies his place, what is it?”  So I’m trying to gataher information in different ways, I’m reading myths from different countries …
R: There’s something in a review of your work, “rendered in hues once deemed inappropriate…” I don’t understand that. I don’t know what hues would be inappropriate. Does that mean anything to you or is that sort of like somebody’s…?
S: Someone else’s take? I would say what was meant maybe was not in terms of color, but maybe because I’ve taken some things which are generally thought of as pleasnt things and made them grotesque and vice versa. That maybe it’s that shift that’s being talked about.
R: So he’s not really talking color, he’s talking something else ….
S: That sounds like flowery, rhetorical language …
R: How do you get that luminous quality on the surface, is that an overcoat of lacquer? Or is that in the paint itself?
S: It’s in the paint itself. .I glaze hell out of my paints. Glazing is when you have translucent layers of paint, a little bit of pigment, lots of medium.  I really play with the viscosity of my paint a lot. I’m moving back and forth between very opaque to very thin, almost transparent stuff. Thick and thin. The physicality of oil is one of the most glorious things about it. You can do anything with oils. And glazes. I’m sort of a glaze queen.  I love to glaze, And the reason for that is, you can literally…. say you have two pigments, mix them together opaquely you get a certain color. If you put one color in a glaze and put it over the other color in a glaze, you will end up with a visually completely different color than if you mixed them opaquely because the light is having to move through multiple layers and simply interacting with those pigments differently..
When you have an opaque layer of paint on top, the light just hits that top layer and bounces right off. But if you have multiple translucent layers, that kind of interior luminosity that you get, you’re literally doing that through how you’re building your paint layer. You get a richness of color that way.
R: You can’t do it like that with acrylic …
S: Well you can glaze with acrylic, but to my mind acrylic doesn’t do it as well. There are all sorts of glaze out there for acrylic now, so you can glaze with acrylic, but to my eye it doesn’t have the richness that oil has.
R: I know you have to finish taking down the show, and drive back to Potsdam… Thank you for your time.
A: And thank you, too.
To see more images, and for more information about Belgian-American painter Amy Swartelé, see http://www.amyswartelé.com.