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The Edge of Place: An Interview with Rachael Wren

Danni Shen, Curatorial Fellow in Visual Arts, organizes and interprets exhibitions at Wave Hill. She completed this interview prior to finishing her Fellowship at the end of June, 2016.

Specific moments observed in nature are catalysts for Rachael Wren’s abstract oil paintings. The body of work currently on display in Wave Hill House traces her exploration into the ephemeral qualities of atmospheric space. Using a modulated palette and repeated brush strokes, Wren juxtaposes contrasting or complementary hues to create a sense of dense, layered space. Her carefully constructed compositions allow hints of landscape to emerge and then dissolve into accumulations of color and mark. For the artist, the grid functions as an underlying structure that anchors the work, enabling subtle moments of painterly application to portray a hazy atmosphere. Wren’s images focus as much on negative space as positive space, rendering the former as a subject in itself. Painted gestures conjure fragments of light streaming through trees, reflections in water or a flickering mirage, inviting viewers to enter into the illusionistic space of the painting. Through dense mark-making and a rich palette, Wren’s work evokes a still, liminal place, a transitional realm between earth and somewhere otherworldly.

The Edge of Place is on view in Wave Hill House through December 4. This Sunday, July 24, at 3PM, at her Meet-the-Artist, Wren will speak about her practice and process with Jennifer McGregor, Wave Hill’s Senior Curator.


Dannie Shen: Most of your paintings don’t seem to have a horizon line. Color and forms thus float with no particular vanishing points, yet you play with perspective in a way that has the painting extend and recede repetitively. In the forest-inspired pieces, are you referencing any real sites, or are these liminal spaces for the imagination?

Rachael Wren: Although the colors in my work come from real experiences, the paintings don’t refer to any particular place. I’m not trying to recreate a specific landscape, but rather to present a more universal sense of place for the viewer to travel into. I want to create an enveloping atmosphere that evokes a sensory response that is similar to being in a natural environment. My hope is that the work invites viewers to slow down in front of it and breathe deeper, the way one might when surrounded by nature.

DS: I’m sure the painting process is very meditative.

RW: While I do hope that viewers find a meditative or quieting space in my paintings, my experience of making them doesn’t feel that way. I think that there are too many decisions to be made in a painting to achieve that state while I’m working. I’m thinking intently, particularly about color. It’s a very active kind of thinking, but without words.

DS: Are you specifically interested in the mathematics of nature/mathematical structures occurring in nature, or just using a kind of systematic geometry/grid as the formal basis for your works?

RW: I am interested in symmetry, geometry and patterns in nature, and read a lot about those topics, but there is no complex mathematics in my work. In the paintings, I pretty much divide things in halves or thirds and then divide them again. I would say that it’s the idea of the organization underlying nature, rather than any exact formulas or rules, that’s in my work. I use the grid as a structuring device, as something to anchor the atmospheric elements of the paintings. I feel that if the structure of the painting is strong, the marks and colors have more freedom to float and shimmer. The placement of the brush marks within the geometry is random, and I’m interested in that interplay between the systematic and the irregular. It speaks to the duality between order and chaos that exists in the natural world.


DS: How do you make your color choices? The palettes are never supersaturated, and have almost muted hues that strike one as immediately calming and quiet.

RW: The colors in each painting usually begin with a color relationship that I’ve observed in nature. Sometimes, I keep thinking back to that initial impulse throughout the entire time I’m making the painting. Other times, it’s a jumping-off point and then the painting goes in another direction. I never know at the beginning what all the layers of color are going to be. I can’t think the whole painting out in advance, I can only decide one layer of color in relation to the one before. So I begin with the color-memory and then respond to what I’ve put down on the canvas.

I am most drawn to muted, subtle colors, and I spend a lot of time mixing paint on my palette. I love the infinite varieties of neutrals―things like gray-greens and gray-purples―that I can make. It’s not only the colors themselves, but also how they relate to each other, that creates the calming quality you mentioned. Each mark of color is distinct, but they mix optically to create an overall sense of atmosphere. I play with a range of saturation, often putting intense colors next to neutral ones, which creates a quiet visual hum or vibration.


DS: How important is scale?

RW: The relationship of structure to scale is very important to me. The number of divisions in the grid, and the density of the verticals as they relate to their surrounding space, determine the size of the painting. It is somewhat intuitive: a composition will feel too empty or too crowded at the wrong scale.

My relationship to scale has also changed over time. For many years, I was most comfortable making paintings that were 30 inches or smaller. Now, I find that size to be the most difficult. It feels too small. At the moment, three-feet square and four-feet square canvases seem like the right amount of space for the structures I’m interested in. I have also recently started some six-foot square paintings, which are the largest pieces I’ve ever worked on. I like how immersive they are, and they’re making me think differently about the relationship of mark to vertical to whole.

DS: Where do you see your practice heading?

RW: As I mentioned, I’m working on some larger paintings right now, and I’m excited to continue in that direction. I think that my ideas will keep evolving through the process of painting, but it’s hard to say exactly how. For me, changes happen incrementally as I’m working. Something unexpected comes up in a painting and I have to be open to seeing it and responding to it. I’m at a point with the work where I trust that if I keep painting, new things will keep happening.

Pictured above, from the top:
Rachael Wren,
Mirage, 2015, oil on linen, 48” x 48”. Courtesy of the artist.
Rachael wren,
Dreamstate, 2016, oil on linen, 30” x 30”. Courtesy of the artist.
Rachael Wren,
Old Growth, 2014, Oil on linen, 48” x 48. Courtesy of the artist.

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