ISSUE # 14

“Relief: Three Fresh Approaches to Building Surface”

Isa Gagarin

November 2018

In Untitled (Stuffed), a piece by Rachel Collier in the exhibition Relief: Three Fresh Approaches to Building Surface, two black and white images of the artist’s hands are overlaid on top of a hypercolored background comprised of soft gradients between neon blue, lavender, pink and orange. The hands, holding sheets of paper populated with rounded and undulating shapes, appear to have been caught in motion by the light of a flatbed scanner. Visually distorted by the scanning process, the fingers of one of the hands are exaggerated into elongated forms. Within this group exhibition of abstract painting, Untitled (Stuffed) is a distinct reference to the body that signals towards a haptic experience of color and form. In the works of Collier, Kim Benson and Sheila Wagner, the artists have made discoveries within painting using strategies that forefront the sense of touch. Colors are sprayed, printed, daubed, carved, flocked, rubbed, spackled, sculpted, and squished on to varying surfaces. Experiencing these works, I felt the weight of an oversized brush loaded with oil paint, the sensation of the teeth of a comb raking through a thick layer of still-tacky painted surface, and the “shhh” sound of a spray can releasing a bright cloud of color. 

Entering Hair & Nails, the viewer first encounters Benson’s series of seven paintings. All but two of the paintings are quite large (facing the entry is Night Kiss at 77” x 62”), their size emphasized in relation to the small scale of the gallery. Two smaller works offer a brief rest in scale, but are equally rich in complexity as the larger paintings. Throughout Benson’s work, thickly applied colors and textures function to convey a sense of sedimentation and decay, as if the heavily developed surfaces have been composting over long periods of time. In Night Kiss, the composition is made of swirling and luminous green shapes emerging from a black ground, tinged with blue and spiked with high-chroma red and yellow. The figure-ground relationships appear to glimmer with activity, the gestalt effect of flickering movement achieved by Benson’s precise method of layering shaped areas of striped lines. In Sun Choker, the lower half of the composition is made of interconnected organic and geometric shapes painted in warm pinks, reds, oranges and greens, and framed by a radiant yellow floral pattern. Decorative floral patterning also appears in the other paintings, which Benson created by working paint through the negative spaces of lace fabric, lifting away the textile and leaving raised reliefs of impasto shapes. Employing creamy whites, pale yellows, soft pinks and mauves in relation to earth tones reminiscent of dirt, grit, and charcoal, Benson interrogates the patterned form of lace nearly to the point of non-recognition, divorcing it from any clear association with the domestic interior or performative femininity. While the textile has presence, the manipulation of medium (soft, creamy, gunky, tacky, oily paint) suggests that the subject of Benson’s inquiry is rooted in formal relationships of color and shape. The results of her investigations are paintings with a mercurial presence that changes according to one’s proximity to their surfaces. 

Wagner’s paintings in the back room gallery are compact in scale and experienced in intimate closeness. As I looked, I leaned my nose in close to the surfaces of these paintings. Seemingly monochrome palettes are revealed to hold glittering fields of contrasting hue and chroma. My initial impression of all-over ruby reds in Raked Painting gave way to dancing dashes of variegated blues, pinks, greens, yellows and whites. My phone camera proved incapable of documenting the vibrations of color that I perceived up close. The sense of movement and energy coursing through these small paintings is a function of Wagner’s study of color relationships employed in abundance, as she microdoses individual colors across her compositions. The results emphasize color’s relativity, and in turn reveal the rather impressive feat that our eyes (and brains) undergo to translate and organize the visual information in our environment from ever-changing chaos and reflected energy into navigable spaces. In Wagner’s paintings, color is also explored in relation to the sense of touch, as she constructs the ground of her paintings as sculptural surfaces on which to apply oil paint, oil pastel, spackling paste, and flocking. In Toothed Margins II, squiggly bands of wood are attached to the face of a wood panel to create a stepped relief surface, additionally carved into by thin curved lines snaking in from all four sides and cutting through the entire depth of the painting. Wagner also uses relief to play with the form of the border in Fixed Signs and Reciprocal View, evoking windows and architectural corners. Her color-scapes of micro/cosmic complexity are connected as much to the technicality of Georges Seurat’s pointillism (whose use of color was rigorously studied by Bridget Riley as she developed her optically charged paintings) as they are to the inventive use of material in Howardena Pindell’s mixed media paper collages.

The surfaces of Collier’s paintings are sleek and highly reflective, evoking questions around illusion and the limitations of our perceptive faculties. By stretching transparent vinyl taut across a canvas ground and working with a process of serigraph printing in combination with spray paint, Collier creates visual ambiguity in terms of surface and material relationships. The subjects of these paintings are rounded and biomorphic shapes, some filled with irregular ovals, others with irregular bands of color running across them or checkered and striped patterns. Centrally oriented, individually or in pairs and groups, these organic shapes are rendered in focused color palettes. Untitled (Yellow) is composed of faded pink and green elongated ovals on a white ground and highlighted by a border of primary yellow. In Untitled (Fluorescent Green), a quadriptych of unique shapes—with jagged silhouettes similar to geographic borders or flattened detritus such as a smashed aluminum can—are composed of striated reds, blacks, and browns, and bordered by a spray painted strip of fluorescent green. Examined closely, the solid colors of Collier’s invented shapes are revealed to be constructed of layers of cyan, magenta and yellow dots as used in commercial color separation printing to reproduce photographic images. Despite the work’s mechanically oriented sheen, Collier’s approach to color originated in a process equally as haptic as Benson and Wagner’s toothy oil paintings. Collier began by mixing soft wedges of colored polymer clay into one another and pressing them into flattened shapes. Once palm-sized and dimensional objects, here they are transformed into flat shapes and frontally oriented. Lightness and tension are at play in these works, which refrain from any overt evidence of the hand. As such, Collier’s work raises questions around the mechanics and cultural hierarchies operating within painting, artistic fascinations that have been explored in works as diverse as Lynda Benglis’s early latex pours, Sigmar Polke’s raster patterns, and Katherina Grosse’s use of industrial-scale spray painting in hybrid painting-installations.

My entrypoint into this group exhibition was through my visual intake of color relationships, and further enriched by my tactile sense perception (here I must clarify that I did not touch the paintings). I encountered works that functioned in dialogue with overlapping art historical references, without concern for positioning too concretely to specific discourses. Favoring physical embodiment over textual language, these paintings were made with sensorial intelligence via the rigorous process of learning-through-making. As viewers, we are offered the opportunity to expand our individual perceptions and spend time looking (and feeling) in a state of, in the late composer Pauline Oliveros’s terms, deep listening. Oliveros’s concept of deep listening recognized the presence of sound inherent to all environments, requiring the performer to produce sounds responsively and with sensitivity to the acoustics of space. The idea remains relevant today in art and life. The potential for great changes in culture and politics might be found in practicing radical forms of listening. Whether we draw connections between this exhibition and larger histories (and futures), these paintings can teach us something about finding presence in our bodies as we encounter color and form. 

Isa Gagarin is an artist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Working in painting, drawing and writing, Gagarin explores ideas around light, color and autobiography. Gagarin received her MFA in Painting and Printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2018, and holds a BFA in Painting from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (2008). 

Why Use Texture in Your Paintings? By Katelyn Farstad

The simple answer is obviously: because you can. And we will talk all about it. This painting show really just made me think about making paintings. Paintings are basically cakes that no one wants to eat in the end. And on that note, though tangentially, performance art is a smoothie that no one wants to drink.

I don’t have anything profound to say about the artist’s tendencies in color palate, the peaking imagery, the material conversations, or the optical space achieved. I don’t have much to say about the use of textural build up, material shifts, or compositional choices.

Each artist in this show loves making paintings so let’s just leave them alone. That’s what they want, that’s why they make PAIN-tings. They are painful, painful things to make, and especially to show other people. People are usually all “What’s this mean?” and if you are an artist working within abstraction, that’s like being asked why your name is spelled the way it is.

Why do people care about paintings? They like to especially see brush strokes in the paint as they are fascinated by an artists’ ability to create such beautiful artworks, so seeing the brushstrokes adds to this mystique and awe that it was all accomplished with the aide of rather conventional tools.

I say: Let the Painting Create it’s Own Texture- ask it what it wants, and listen.

The easiest way to create texture when painting is to:  simply use more paint on your brush than needed. Or barely use any paint. Or use an airbrush kit. Or use like a shirt or a wadded up piece of fabric. Or what about a comb, or maybe a weird roller sponge thing? Or wrap weird vinyl around the entire canvas. Or do what I do and just glue a bunch of stuff everywhere and see how it goes.  Buy four tubes of acrylic paint and pray. Oh! Don’t let yourself be limited to painting knives either – when it comes to creating texture in your paint your imagination is your only limit. And if your imagination sucks, you are seriously in trouble. You can use almost any item imaginable to create texture. Start with whatever you have lying around the house. Once you start playing around with texture it won’t take you long to discover tons of different tools that will give you interesting textures. Here are a few “tools” to get your creative juices flowing to think up some more:

 Fingers or Other People’s Fingers


 sing a finger to paint texture


They are always on hand, so why not make full use of them? You can even paint entire paintings using only your, or other people’s fingers. A seriously fun way to spend a few hours.


Credit Card

sing a credit card to paint texture

Obviously you want to use an expired one (LOL.) They are great for scraping lines into the paint or lying down large, smooth areas of texture. You can make cool like zippy motion lines or maybe cool grids.


These paintings on display are all pushing surface and texture, and are evidence of the artists’ taking time in their studios to make works that represent them taking time for themselves to make the works in their studios. There are only a few ways to fall down a flight of stairs.


I feel that (Wagner, Collier, and Benson) presented a solid display of scary charged visual verses. They all have vibrancy similar to a missed connection on Craig’s List and the person the missed connection addresses doesn’t even have a computer. Message in a bottle vibes. Painting is great and makes me ecstatic and sad and confused and charged. If I were going to say one critical thing, it would be that I felt that all three artists works were kind of non-comitial in a certain way of stretching the breadth of their ideas across all works displayed. Perhaps they are too compositionally consistent? But I can’t even floss my teeth every day so I don’t think I can even say anything about these works. I take it back because what I want to say now is that actually each artist does have one curveball, but it took me a long time of looking to notice. The deep green and black geometric painting of Bessinger, the “window shaped” work of Wagner’s, and the “puffy rounded painting” of Collier’s all represent a dexterity of deviance within a larger commitment to personal logic and visual languages. Underneath this connecting gesture that they all swerved, though subtly, there is an anxiety and listless quality that occupies the blood of the works; though they peacock and seduce me with their clever displays of color. All of the works made me check myself in many different ways and that is ultimately what a successful work does, is actually engage the viewer.


That’s why I love paintings because they are just begging to be silently looked at and felt. They don’t even need to be interpreted as “good or bad”! They can be taken in inch by inch but also in one gulp of the eyeballs. This show is full of paintings that “swallow the fish whole after it’s caught”. All of these paintings have an encouraging energy that made me want to get more into what I was working on in my own studio, and that I think is a testament to the collective affect these paintings emit, regardless of any aesthetic predispositions I may have, which I don’t even think would be fair to talk about in relation to them. That’s really what I think paintings want:  a moment to be taken quietly seriously in a world of unmitigated villainous noise, fuckery, and mayhem.

 Katelyn Farstad is an artist and musician living and working in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Farstad drums in Larry Wish and His Guys and plays solo music under the moniker Itch Princess.

after “nerve wreath”

by Miriam Karraker

in a mauved place again (or is it rose (either way it is slippery (not unlike the pavement (or this page (slotted and slatted (I am glad to be here (tripping over the blue (who is not be overcome by blue (yours makes me feel friction (the mauve makes me feel gravity (I am picking at my left index finger cuticle (the tension between skin and skin (the schism between substrate and color (pink and newer pink (shoved into my coat pocket (waning crescent fuchsia radiating (blood smears on polyester (image I only imagine (myself walking in the wind towards home, path jagged like the line around each iris)  



after “reciprocal view”

by Miriam Karraker

I dreamt I spent the day with the painting. I sat across from it sipping earl grey between bites of a luscious persimmon. I’d ask what time is it and stare in its silence and be content. I returned last Sunday and recalled aromas and questioned my manner of questioning, still on the edge of not quite

Miriam Karraker is a writer and multidisciplinary. She earned her MFA at the University of Minnesota, and her other writing has been published in Kenyon Review, Indiana Review, DIAGRAM, 3:AM Magazine, Full Stop, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She also co-edits the online magazine Tagvverk.