Claire Seidl, Clean-Up, 1/4, Rangeley, Maine, 2020, Silver prints, 16 x 20
August 25, 2022
In both my painting and photography, I explore the same formal concerns, creating work in both mediums that draws the viewer in to my world, encouraging contemplation and challenging our perception of the often-thin line between reality and abstracted memory.
I have no pre-conceived ideas or plans when I paint and adhere to no set of procedural givens. My relationship to painting is not settled, but dynamic and evolving. Each painting is resolved according to its own exigencies and my job is to look hard and long enough to see them. I seek new ways to mesh surface and space convincingly and always look for new pictorial resolutions.
I use mark-making freely and intuitively with a variety of tools including brayers, brushes, spatulas and knives, some of which scrape and gouge the surface creating line and revealing multiple layers of paint.
I focus on the visual, but mine is also a personal response to paint that includes emotion. Previous states and underlying incidents are often veiled, like distant recollections or like things seen briefly and now largely forgotten.
There is darkness in my paintings, and light; speed and stillness; strength and softness. There is color with its attendant associations, and the expression of something uniquely human.
For me, drawing serves as structure; it delineates and connects the layers of space I create on the two-dimensional surface. It is different than, but just as important as elements like color, tone, and texture. Drawing is an expressive way of mark-making or gesturing, something I have been doing for a long time.
In my etchings, I use multiple plates and orientations, and repeated press runs with ghost images. The printmaking process slows me down and is, by virtue of the medium, more strategic than my painting or drawing. My work on translucent Mylar has lines, forms and washes on both sides (another kind of ghost). Sometimes the Mylar pieces are printed with ink from plexiglass plates or from each other (Mylar can serve as its own plate, too). Drawing is also a balancing act between adding and subtracting, especially because Mylar is so easy to wipe off. Erasure is another kind of gesture with another kind of meaning.
My painter’s eye directs me in shooting, developing, and printing the photographs. Elements intrinsic to painting, like gestural line, multiple layered space, and ambiguous form and content, are all present. Some people see my photographs as abstractions, but they are deeply rooted in the real world; they are filled with specifics of place and people and natural phenomena - and their ephemeral nature.
My approach to realism is subsumed by the camera itself, which reveals what we can’t see - in the dark, for example - or what is lost when we shift our gaze. Many of my photographs are taken at night when our ability to see clearly is limited but the open gaze of the camera dispassionately records everything. I use long exposures which capture the small, even insignificant or sporadic movements of a person, a shaft of light, or slow-moving waves on a lake, revealing a visible record of time passing, of memory enhanced.
All of my photographs suggest a human presence, with or without figures in them. People, usually family, both inhabit and escape from the frame of the camera. The viewer can also step into this space, filling an absence as if crossing a threshold. In long exposures, the figures become ghostlike as their movements are recorded over time, while the man-made elements of home (the things we leave behind) seem fixed in time. I open the lens and walk away. Little or no attention is paid to the camera on its tripod, standing there by itself. When people stay put, their expressions grow inward as they stare into space. When they move and gesture, they become blurred and ghost like while their surroundings appear permanent. At times, the images feel like a flash of memory, a moment held.
I am very interested in how we see (or don’t see) what is right in front of us. The camera gathers more visual information, especially over time or in the dark, than our eyes can. It can hold multiple layers of space and reflections in focus while we can only perceive one at a time. My photographs show more than the unassisted eye can see. They are not manipulated in the darkroom.
Seidl’s unequivocally abstract, deliberately uningratiating paintings manage to suggest the instability of the natural world. Seidl’s photographs, whether of the outdoors or of interiors, seem to question the nature of seeing. She records (with low light and long exposures) unremarkable things that we might otherwise ignore: corners of rooms, recently vacated dining tables, ragged shrubbery, the edges of woods. Her images are so elusive that we question our perceptions, while we enjoy the subtle orchestration of tones and soft-edged shapes; the half-glimpsed, blurred figures and twining branches; the pale silhouettes; and the suggestions of things we can’t quite recognize, both man-made and natural. Something similar obtains in Seidl’s paintings despite their abstractness: a sense of immanence, of the ungraspable, presented in assured, declarative terms. It’s what keeps us looking.
—Karen Wilkin, Critic and Curator
JAN PIETER V. VOORST V. BEEST
INTERVIEWS CLAIRE SEIDL
Jan Pieter: You studied and took up photography almost 20 years into your career as a painter, what awakened your interest into photography?
Claire: My husband and I bought an old camp in Rangeley in 1986, and from the start I felt compelled to communicate what I was seeing and feeling there. I am fully committed to making abstract paintings, so I knew I was not interested in making representational work, but after ten years of taking snapshots, I decided that I wanted to learn about photography and see if it was for me. After teaching in the art department at Hunter, College for ten years, I took a break from teaching and began studying at the International Center for Photography in NYC. I stayed for three years.
For about twenty-five years now, I have been shooting in one setting: our 19th century camp in the woods on a lake. We’ve had three children grow up there; friends and family come and go; and our parents and older friends have died. This provides the narrative elements in my photographs. On another level, I am keenly interested in how the camera sees, especially over time or in the dark. My photographs show more than the unassisted eye can see.
Jan Pieter: I see many artists nowadays embarking into mixing photography with other media. Although you practice both very well, you seem to be keeping the media separate. Have you ever wanted to use both media combined into one work?
And looking at your work, at first I struggled to see similarities between your photographic work and your other work. Then I discovered rather subtle similarities. In your photography, because of your use of long time exposures you create layers of time. For example, the furniture in your photographs is sharp and in focus, it does not move but the people, and other stuff (Fans, etc.) that move are out of focus and blurry, which creates a rather out of world mysterious scene. In your paintings I see the sharp lines of drawing versus the more blurry painted brush strokes often combined in one work. This contradiction also seems to create a similar tension as do the long exposures in your photographs. Is the creation of these layers instinctual or planned?
Claire: I have always kept my painting and photography separate. While they share formal concerns and visual elements, they are parallel pursuits. This is not to say that my photographs do not influence my paintings and that my paintings do not influence my photographs – they do. In the photographs, the blurring of people and other moving elements has a narrative aspect in addition to the literal passing of time during the shooting . In the paintings, the blurring and partial covering of early layers in the painting connote time and allow the viewer to see the process.
The focus of sharply drawn lines next to soft-edged, translucent areas of paint expands the vocabulary of the painting and adds to the tension in the work.
I try to leave the ‘meaning’ of my work to the viewer.
I would say that my instincts in making both the paintings and the photographs have become learned practice, and it is ongoing. My approach to making art is intuitive. I don’t plan my photographs any more than I plan my paintings. I am open to seeing and reacting to what is there.
Jan Pieter: You stated that the use of Mylar might represent a bridge between your photographic work and your other work. Could you tell us why?
Claire: The works on Mylar are a combination of printing and trace drawing. I work on the back of the Mylar sheet as it is placed on top of a glass palette with etching or litho ink rolled or squeegeed onto it. Already, there is an element of chance, as I don’t know quite what I will get on the front of the piece. I’m working on it backwards, too, the way I see through the viewfinder on my camera. (I don’t know what I’m going to get on the film I shoot, either.) The Mylars even look like large pieces of film, or negatives: they are translucent. Like the paintings, they are about mark-making and built-up layers. And, they are abstract. Trace drawing is drawing on the back of the Mylar while it is on the glass plate (palette). I often use a stick to draw. And, I only have the memory of the lines and forms I’ve made because the drawing is invisible until I pull the print up from the glass and I can see what I’ve done. I arrive at an image on film in the same way.
Jan Pieter: Your painting definitely would be classified as abstract. Of course your photography is not although I feel some of your work might be leaning that way. (Depending on the rather subjective definition of Abstract!) But in your painting: “Green Light” I detect a similarity with the photograph:”Girl Torso, 2011.” I could not find the date of the painting, but was there a connection?
Claire: Looking at “Girl, Torso , 2011”, alongside the painting “Green Light” (from 2019), I can see the similarity of form. But the girl is lit (by a flashlight) and in darkness. In “Green Light” the form that I see resembling the girl is made of light, but I read that light as space or ground with the dark forms and drawing coming forward. They are opposite in terms of figure/ground. The forms are similar, but there is no literal figure in Green Light.
Jan Pieter: Coming from Connecticut, you now divide your time between New York and Maine. It appears that most of your photography was done in Maine. Does location play a role in what media you work on? And if so. Why?
Claire: I shoot all my photographs in Maine and print them in my darkroom in the city, over the winter, for a month or two. I don’t make paintings when I’m printing photographs. I make paintings in both places and I don’t see a difference between paintings done in NYC and in Rangeley. Lately, I have been making the oils on Mylar in Maine, but for no reason other than having more time and space there.
I find it easier to work in Maine. I don’t know if that’s because of nature or despite it. I suspect it’s because I have fewer commitments and distractions. I see a lot of art in New York and visit studios, often. Here, there are fewer shows and artists and I am 2 ½ to 3 hours from the coast, where art is everywhere.
Claire Seidl has been an abstract painter for just over forty years and a photographer for twenty. She grew up in Riverside, Connecticut and moved to New York City after receiving her BFA from the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University. She received her MFA in Painting from Hunter College, City University of New York and went on to study photography at the International Center for Photography. She lives and works in New York City and in Rangeley, Maine.
Seidl exhibits nationally and internationally, has had 40 solo shows, and has participated in over 100 group shows. In Maine, she exhibited with Icon Contemporary for decades and, most recently, with Corey Daniels Gallery. She has had shows at CMCA (Center for Maine Contemporary Art) and at Pho Pa, June Fitzpatrick, Aucocisco galleries. Her work has been exhibited and collected by Portland Museum of Art, Ogunquit Museum, University of Maine Museum of Art, Bates College Museum of Art, Zillman Art Museum at University of Maine and University of New England.
In 2022 solos shows included, “If It’s Not One Thing It’s Another” at 1GAP Gallery in Brooklyn and “Violets Are Blue” at David Richard Gallery in NYC.