A garden oasis and cultural center overlooking the Hudson River

Painting Plants–Color, Pattern and Gesture: An Interview with Amy Lincoln

David Xu Borgonjon, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, helps make Wave Hill a welcoming space for artists and a stimulating experience for visitors. 

Several ambitious artist projects, 12 well-attended workshops and two bustling Open Studios later, the second session of Wave Hill’s 2015 Winter Workspace program has come to a conclusion. A painter who works closely with plants, Amy Lincoln was a fitting candidate for the final interview for this winter.

During her recent workshop on “Invented Landscapes,” Lincoln laid stress not on copying the plant’s appearance as a camera might, but rather approaching it from multiple angles to understand its structure: how were the leaves shaped? And how did the branches connect to the stem? What was the overall form of the canopy? Busily putting pencil to paper, workshop participants reconstructed the plants part by part in their imaginations. From there, it was easy to adapt details: to add a flower here, turn a stem, tuck it back or pull the whole plant forward. That educational experience was a peek into Lincoln’s own practice.

David Xu Borgonjon: Your paintings have an eerie stillness, but that can’t be easy to achieve. Can you talk through your process?

Amy Lincoln: If I feel like something’s not working, I’ll usually change a couple of things first. In the painting you see here, the red tree moved from left to right. The horizon line dropped and came forward. The clouds were repainted a few times, though they ended up the same. There’s a lot of finding my way through things that don’t work.  It’ll be easier if the paintings reuse plants I’ve seen before. Working at Wave Hill, I’ve started painting new plants, which has been challenging.

DXB: Your works in the last few years have focused on plant life. How did you come to that subject matter?

AL: I started with portraits, then interiors, then the potted plants I kept in my studio, until I wanted to see the plants without the pots. So I made a garden painting. For a while, I’d thought that painting people was more dramatic, or political. Plants might be too Sunday-painter-like, not contemporary enough. But when I graduated, I didn’t have an academic audience to worry about and I started making paintings of the South Street Seaport, which was outside my studio. Those drawings turned into paintings, of cemeteries, gardens and other spaces. The figure would come in and out.

DXB: How do you feel now about your reservations about “merely” painting plants?

AL: I’m so glad I went and did it. Before, I was painting women and clothing, while looking at Cindy Sherman and Lisa Yuskavage. It wasn’t really clicking. Plants have all the color, pattern and gesture I was interested in. I live in Brooklyn, so it’s satisfying to spend time in a painting full of plants. My mother’s a big gardener and I’m from Oregon so I grew up surrounded by them.

DXB: Do you think of the plants as individuals, and these works as group portraits?

AL: I don’t. Not exactly. I liked to look at how they’re structured and then recreating that in two dimensions.

DXB: People aren’t quite as interestingly structured.

AL: No, there’s not as much variety in the pattern and the color, and you can’t layer them or see through them. I do really want a painting of my baby. I have one of my husband holding her while eating some ramen, and I love that painting because she’s so tiny in it. But I tried a portrait of me holding her, and it didn’t work.

DXB: Did you make the decision one day, “I’m going to be a representational painter who focuses on plants,” or did it just happen to you?

AL: I started out as a figurative painter. But portraits are a little tough to live with. And people were responding to the plants I had in my paintings. I like to keep working, and don’t want to have to keep thinking of what to paint.

DXB: During your workshop, I was so struck by how you think about these plants structurally rather than optically.

AL: There’s a fine line between showing an object as it appears optically, for example with foreshortening, and drawing it properly, as it is in space. Sometimes I’ll paint the same leaf shape over and over, but turn it in space just for interest. I actually feel like there’s more space in the paintings now than when I was a more careful draughtsman. I consciously tried to overcome academic painting, which is brushy and observational. While in school, I never painted something that wasn’t in front of me. So there were a lot of self-portraits.

DXB: There are certain features in the composition that come up often. They are centered and go back pretty far.

AL: Yeah, I try to have deep space. The still lifes don’t have that, but even in those there will be a plant that’s further back. And for a long time I would use a symmetrical composition to frame the painting, as if it was a stage for a play.

DXB: And have you always worked with acrylics? What’s so attractive about that medium?

AL: At this point I could go back to oil paints, but earlier on I struggled with how rendered they were. It wasn’t even the goopiness. I made Sharpie drawings all along and liked them, so I started to work with something faster-drying. You put something down and get stuck with the awkwardness.

DXB: In the winter, the big draw at Wave Hill is the Conservatory. What was your favorite plant while here?

AL: I love the pink bromeliads in the greenhouse right now. But I have to say, the trees are really fascinating during the winter because you can see their structure. Like the copper beech right out front. [Ruth Rea Howell Horticultural Interpreter] Charles Day was saying that Wave Hill has a redwood which was thought extinct but was rediscovered in China. Even though it’s deciduous, it has needles. And the branches come out from the bottom, almost like a Christmas tree.

Examples of Amy Lincoln’s work painted at Wave Hill are currently on view with a bevy of other wonderful painters at the exhibition Twenty by Sixteen at Morgan Lehman Gallery in Chelsea through May 2.

Pictured above: Amy Lincoln, Wetlands, 2015, acrylic on panel. 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

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