Zara Monet Feeney
I'm so thrilled to share this bonkers interview with -- and images of work by -- Zara Monet Feeney, a California-based painter who passed through my neck of woods during a residency at Standard Projects, a live-work residency program in Hortonville, WI. I stopped by at the end of her two-week stay there to see her show of work created during that time in the Vault Gallery, and was fortunate to be able to chat with her about her practice and about working one's ass off as an artist -- and being real about it! It was a huge pleasure to meet and talk with her last month!
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When did you arrive at Standard Projects?
It was October 5, but then that day I just sort of moved in, so I didn’t start working until the next day. During the days I was there I was trying to work as much as possible.
At your show in the Vault Gallery, there was one large painting to the left of the vault with a big swoosh of paint underneath that was really great and glorpy, and then there were other colors over it — how do you get started on that, how do you build that?
I stretch the cloth around the frame and then I do have a pretty particular process. I have neon colors, initially, and I want those to show through. So at first I put down really thick layers of white paint, and kind of make it sculptural, and if you look closer at the paintings they kind of have gauzy masses coming out. I want to have something that has an interesting surface right away, and then everything built on top of that, hopefully will get more and more interesting.
The big ones — were there any other materials besides paint in there? You had used al to of other things in the smaller ones.
I usually work with acrylic and spray paint and oil. I have to plan it where it’s layered in a certain way based on how the paints dry. So those big paintings were the layered white paint, and then I use really neon fluorescent over that. And because just that alone is just bright, it cancels each other out and doesn’t have the same effect as if it were next to something, so I like to have lots of grey tones next to the fluorescent. Or grey or pastel tones next to fluorescents.
To neutralize it a little bit?
Exactly… next to each other they’re more exciting than if they were all alone neon, or all alone pastel. It kind of creates that vibration.
It’s really important to have both because if you had just one or the other, they wouldn’t be able to bounce off one another.
My main thing that I like to play with are color and value relationships. So for my MFA pieces I wrote fifty pages on the subtle differences, like when a color looks very close to the color next to it but it’s just slightly different. For example in the gallery there was a white wall, but it was a little dirty, so Claire was saying “Let me paint this a fresh coat of white,” and as soon as she was putting the fresh coat of white on, the old white looks so grey. When before it looked very white! Things like that are very interesting to me, when it’s almost an optical illusion. She had started doing this new white wall, and I was working on a painting in the sewing room, so when I came into the gallery and saw it, I thought she had put lights on the wall, because the new white looked literally like lights!
I saw a picture on Instagram of that, and I thought the same thing! At first I thought it was part of your installation!
I’m nerdily obsessed with that simple comparison, I feel like there’s so much you can build just on color and value relationships. So back to the big paintings, I’ll have kind of a textured surface, and if that shows through or not, it’s not the main point, but I like it a little more than if it was totally flat. It adds a little movement and then bright neon on that, and then I use lots and lots of layered grey tones. I try not to use straight black. Sometimes, but I like to use ten different levels of grey tones so it’s like a dark grey to a really light grey, and I try not to use black or white. So you have this in-between value range and also on top of that, like on those paintings I used spray paint. The painting has a certain look, the brush strokes, and spray paint has a really flowy, airy look, so I like to go back and forth with that.
I noticed all the work in this show was totally abstract, but I was checking out your website and you had some abstracted, figural work. Have you moved moved more into abstraction, or do you bounce back and forth?
In general I don’t like to have too specific — I like the grey area in between, literally and figuratively! Initially I did start wit the figurative, and my work was more about gender identity, sexual identity, and those gave me interesting concepts to work with, and I could play with color on that. But as I finished my BFA and MFA, I realized that though those topics are important and interesting, I was actually more interested in just optical illusions of painting itself. So when you look at a painting, I think you can have a certain speed of looking at it. A very representational painting, kind of voyeuristic, like you’re looking into a window, and you can look at it fast and know what it is. But I like when it takes a little longer to read something, so that’s where I like to abstract the imagery, and to slow down viewing even more, I like to have those close-together value and color relationships so that it’s like an optical illusion.
I remember noticing on your website, after we had initially met and I checked out your work, when I was looking at your work and thinking that there’s definitely an element of looking at it, and thinking “Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?” Your brain’s always trying to see something, and you’re wondering, “Is that a dress? Is it a drapery, what is that?” But you’re not quite sure, so you pull back and look at the whole picture again, and then zone in another part.
Good! I’m so excited that’s happening. I like to stay on that line, bridging both representation and abstract worlds. I like when you kind of connect with a part, like, oh, that’s a bow, or someone’s leg — and then you can pull back, like you said, and see a different thing. I like to also over exaggerate certain visual effects. I’ll have something extremely saturated next to something totally desaturated, and it’s like 1% grey above one, and I like to mess with what you’re looking at. I’m looking for ways to do that more and more with my work, and I hope it progresses to where you don’t know what you’re looking at, and it gets more exciting.
With the larger paintings in the vault, they were put forward, sort of suspended.
I wanted it like that before I even started those paintings! I wanted a little more drama with the hanging of those. I wanted also the parallels of the edge to look straight. I think normally when you look up at something that narrow, it looks different as perspective shifts the lines.
The lighting in there is unusual, but there’s a super deep contrast where the painting is casting a really dark shadow behind itself on the wall on top, and is lighter on the bottom. It was interesting to see how that played with the values of the paintings themselves. Was that intentional?
I didn’t know that would have that effect! Thats something I could probably try to work with in the future, where the shadows on the wall are actually interacting with the painting. I like that painting can be a way to make illusions happen, so I’m kind of narrowing it down to that concept, abstract in itself. I like painting as a medium; I’ve dabbled in other things, but I’ve narrowed it to painting because I like that painting is a place you go into and you’re transported, and it’s an illusion. So I’m thinking, I’m already working with an illusion; how can I make this an even more strange, optical illusion? Playing in the concept painting itself.
So note quite like Op-Art, but more like playing with the theoretical concept of the color?
Right, and speaking of Op-Art, I don’t think I want to move directly into, like, “how stripes move” which is fascinating also, but I guess I do like to have some other shapes in there, and other representational aspects where you can connect with it in that way, and then optically.
What else do you do?
Most of my other jobs besides teaching are things like, you know, serving, working at a golf course — just trying to make ends meet. Doing lots of different part time jobs. It is good to get a full-time teaching gig, but that’s not always possible. It’s more common to have adjunct teaching and have other part-time jobs. I was able to save money serving beer at a golf course so that I could go to grad school, and that had nothing to do with art.
You do what you have to! If you had the ability to get a full time teaching job, is that would you would prefer, or do you feel like that would be limiting in a different way?
Out of grad school I went to West Virginia and they hired me as an artist-in-residence and visiting professor for a year at West Virginia Wesleyan College, so that was an excellent gig because I taught six classes all year, and I had a lot of student interactions, which pushed me to think about my work after grad school. And since I was also an artist-in-residence, they had me do a solo show at the end, and they gave me a studio space, so in addition to teaching, they helped support my research. So that was sort of an ideal setup where I could teach as a day job and still have time and support and the facilities to work on my practice. So I would love to keep getting stuff like that!
Have you done many residencies?
I would love to do many more residencies! I’ve done officially three. I did one in West Virginia, then right after that I did three months in California in the Orange County area connected through Laguna Beach College of Art and Design as an alumni. And then I traveled Asia for eight months, backpacking, and teaching some art there. I just came back from there, and got this residency at Standard Projects. Ideally, I like residencies because they give me space and facilities and sometimes free rent so I can work on my practice. Teaching is like plan B, like a secondary thing, which I still enjoy, but I really like painting more than teaching.
When it comes to residencies, do you prefer having a longer one? Or a month? A week?
This one was a couple weeks because it forced me to work under X amount of pressure, and narrowed down what I’m doing. Because if you had more time, you could spend more time on each project, but it’s sometimes good to spend less time, and be able to experiment with different materials — which maybe if you had a whole year, you would think everything needed to be just a certain perfection level. So you’re not going to be maybe as willing to experiment. With two weeks, it’s more like, well, I have two weeks, I’m just going to go for it! Changing my materials and so on. But ideally I could go from short residencies to long residencies and see how my work changes. If I’m not painting, I’m on my laptop applying to everything. Every residency, every show opening, every teaching position — anything I can get.
Do you have go-to places you look for those listings?
There’s the College Art Association, and I went to their convention a couple years ago in New York. They help you in the convention by giving you more tips on where to look for jobs. There are also some other free sites out there, and it depends on what you’re looking for. There’s a big site called ResArt that I use all the time.
Is there a point where they make you pay for too much, or if you have to pay, where do you draw the line?
I always look for, either they pay me, or free residencies first. Always. The West Virginia one was salaried. The one in Laguna Beach provided a free studio, and I think they might have helped to pay for materials or shipping. And at Standard Projects, it’s not paid, but I’m here for free and get a ton of help setting up a show or getting frames built. I haven’t done a residency where I pay, and I try not to do that, because I don’t have the funds to do that anyway.
Sometimes I wonder about that — I’ve heard that you should never pay to do a residency, but they’re all across the board; you pay for a short one in an established location, or you get a free residency for a longer time in a less established place… is a residency a residency, or can anyone just have a residency, and the point is more to just be able to get your work done? It’s sometimes hard to know what’s good or will be actually beneficial.
I think you’re forced into a time frame, which plays into your work. So that’s different than if you’re just working at home on endless projects. And it puts you in a place where other creative people are so you can bounce ideas off them.
Did you have any idea what you wanted to work on before coming to Standard Projects?
I kind of had an idea; I had gotten a bunch of materials. I started with paper, but shifted more to paintings, and it went differently. I did two big paintings in four days. I was thinking, "I suddenly have to have two big paintings! No sleep for four days!" Just thought I would go for it.
Do you plan ahead, or do you let the paintings take you where they take you?
I guess I sort of plan. I like to do a drawing underneath and have a basic map of what’s happening, and build on that. And then let that go in the direction it needs to go. I think every painting is specific unto itself, and you have to let it go where it needs to go. Like if I’m mixing different grey, and a pastel, and this neon together — maybe I thought this painting was going to be primarily yellow tones, and then it turns out to be primarily blue tones — or whatever. I just have to let it build on itself. Because if you try to just put this idea onto it, I think it looks really contrived and it doesn’t work out.
Right, because what do you do if you planned it and then it doesn’t do what you want it to, and then you’re basically done, and it didn’t do what you want it to, so then what? You’re sort of stuck.
In other paintings I do sometimes plan more. I have this idea in my head, so say I want to create this specific optical illusion, like an ice white next to a warm, eggshell white. Just that concept alone is fascinating, and then I can say, with that, what platform do I want to have those on? Do I want to have them on something representational? Do I want to have them against a neon? Do I want to have it — where on the painting do I want to have that relationship? Or is it the whole painting? I’ll start an initial idea like that, and then figure out how I need to execute that.
In California do you have a permanent studio, or are you more nomadic right now?
More nomadic! I sold everything and saved a bunch if money to travel for a few months, did that, so right now I don’t have a place there.
Do you have a plan to hang around California for a while now?
My girlfriend is in California right now and we’re hoping to stay in the Ventura area. They have a good art scene, and it’s kind of near my family, so it’s a good place right now. But if I were to get a job, I’d go anywhere.
Yeah, sometimes the sweetest gig is in the less likely place.
That was kind of what it was like with the West Virginia thing! It was the best opportunity I had at the time, and having done that I realized I can live anywhere and go anywhere.
I’ve always been into the idea of geography and how a different place can influence your person. Not that it necessarily changes your personality, but if you’re in a place that you can relate to, you might be able to open up in ways that you might not somewhere else.
I think it’s not always pleasant. You might be in an uncomfortable living situation, or you might be far away from your family, or your relationship, so it’s not always ideal, but if it makes you uncomfortable, it pushes you. And maybe in a not-too-obvious kind of way, it pushes your work.
I’ve always appreciated the value of not liking something, and knowing that thing wasn’t for you. Because when you know you didn’t want to go in one direction, it pushes you in another direction.
Right. And I think in painting, it helps you take more risks and helps you to not be so precious with your work. Thinking things like, “Oh, I spent two days on this one section, so I can’t change it.” Even if the painting is calling for it and you have to. In grad school we would always write on our studio doors, “Nothing is precious” as a reminder to ourselves that you have to be willing to change anything in your painting for the sake of the painting.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge you either face now or have faced, and how you’ve dealt with it?
Definitely what comes to mind is the motivation to keep doing this. Sometimes I feel like, "What’s the point, no one cares…" You know, there may not be a market for you. There may not be anyone who’s interested in your work. And self doubt. Like seriously, what is the point of doing this? But even through those lower times when I don’t have the ambition or drive to keep doing it, I think still deep, deep down I know that this is really what I should be doing. And for some reason I come out those low valleys and think, "Okay, I’m going to keep doing it and trying to make something of my work." And once you keep doing it, the opportunities will present themselves. I think the hardest struggle for me is the motivation or confidence to know that even though it’s not perfect at the time, soon in the future it will be better.
On the other hand, your positive experiences! I hate to use the word “success” because it means something different for everybody, but do you have an accomplishment or a moment that was particularly fulfilling?
The West Virginia gig. And also giving a lot of interviews at different professor jobs… I was feeling like people were recognizing my work as something of value, and something that could be in an established institution, and acknowledging that I have something to say. Going back to the last question, I’ll have these external validations or confidence boosts, but I always just need to in my own mind keep that going no matter what’s happening externally. It’s a struggle anyone would face in any profession.
I was just thinking that about the blog, which I do from time to time, asking myself why I continue to do this every day. But it’s healthy to ask yourself why you’re doing something and what it is you’re doing, and how.
I never started to pursue art for money or validation or worth… that people recognize me or anything. I did it because I was fascinated by the simple fact of making the work, and going back to the simple space in my head, this core. I think once you start focusing on that, and the process of your mission, you're good. I want to work on that, and see how insane and epic my work can get in my lifetime. If I keep focusing on the work, I think other opportunities will fall into place. If you’re in it for the external, material reasons, it will show.
Right, or you could land on something that works, and then get stuck in it because it becomes popular, but then not know where to go from there. If you compromise what you feel about your work, then something weird might happen if you don’t rein that back in. It’ll start to look churned out after a while.
That’s what I don’t want! That’s like my number one thing, I don’t want that to happen. I like painting because you can do it your whole life. I like that it’s a lifetime complicated problem to try to solve. Every time I work it’s like trying to figure out the puzzle pieces, each facet of each painting. And more life experiences come my way and my work evolves, I hope it can continue to be just as fascinating. That’s the goal.
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