In the Studio: Maggie Siner
Perceptual painting has gained popularity in recent years, but Maggie Siner has been approaching her art with this philosophy for well over three decades. A believer that painting is a matter of visual perception—"For me, there is no real difference between sea or sky, stones or flowers…there are colors and shapes"—Siner finds interest in a variety of forms, patterns of light, and vistas. With her direct, gestural brushwork and expressive ability to get to the heart of what she sees, Siner's work is a continual reminder that there is beauty and interest hiding behind in even the most simple structures and commonplace moments. In this interview, the artist shares the influences that have shaped her unique vision—including her formal training, traditional Chinese ink painting, abstract expressionism, and international travel—while revealing her singular voice that sings consistently throughout her varying visual explorations.
AM: The energetic expressiveness in your paintings is one of your signatures. I understand that your style was partly influenced by Chinese painting and in particular Chinese writing. What is the origin of these influences?
MS: I was originally sensitized to tactile brushwork through my teacher, Robert D'Arista. He was an abstract expressionist who taught me that the foundational strength of a painting lies in its overall gesture. He also taught me that an artist's voice is revealed in the way he or she delivers paint to the canvas. Many years later, I visited several Chinese art academies and taught for a year at Xiamen University. During that time I learned something about the aesthetics of traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy. Of course I had to learn to write in order to function in China, so this gave me a better awareness of mark-making and how human gesture is captured in the brushstroke. All this came from looking at traditional Chinese ink painting. Another important consequence of painting in China was that I learned to endure chaos and search for some underlying order in the seemingly incomprehensible. Figuring out complexities became a more important and thrilling part of the painting process.
AM: I see that a lot of your paintings include fabrics, dresses (often uninhabited), and drapery - objects that lend themselves well to capturing big shapes, light, and shadow. Where does your interest in fabric and drapery derive?
MS: If you look over the past six hundred years of Western painting, you'll see drapery everywhere: on classical and religious figures, elegant portraits, interiors - drapery covers acres of canvas! Because it captures gravity, weight, gesture, form, and movement, it does a great deal of the work in making a convincing reality. Drapery can be manipulated and altered in ways that bodies themselves can't, and yet it reveals the forms of the body underneath. It retains the gesture of whatever movement came before, giving life to static forms. The changes of color in each turning plane are subtle and beautiful, and completely dependent on the texture and weight of the fabric. This gives tactile specificity. As for the empty dresses in my paintings, I love how the weird and colorful folds create light, and I like how an article of clothing carries the ghost of the person who wore it, along with the gesture of discarding it.
AM: You have lived abroad for months at a time throughout your life, France and Venice predominantly. What is it about Provence and Venice that continue to inspire you visually?
MS: I've lived half my adult life in Provence and most of the last ten years in Venice. Both places are beautiful in their own way, offering endless painting challenges. It's exciting to live among such splendid visual surroundings. But I always find something interesting to paint wherever I am. Mainly, I return to these two places because of friendships, lifestyle, history, language, and cultural life.
Although I'm not primarily a landscape painter, I do love to be outdoors in the open air, so I paint landscape by default. Venice and Provence are, obviously, quite different from each other. Provence has rocky farmland dotted with perched villages. There are many months without a cloud in the sky, offering a consistency of light, day after day. The pale color of the earth (from limestone and ochre) reflects sunlight back into the atmosphere, making the light extremely intense. Venice is a close-packed city of geometry, arches and vaults, reflections, and extremes of dark and light. Tunnels of narrow streets are stabbed by single beams of light. There is an amazing range of reds, and of course in the surrounding lagoon those slips of horizontal islands seem caught between the vast expanse of ever-changing water and sky.
AM: Do you adapt/adjust your process and technique based on what you are painting?
MS: Regardless of the subject matter, I paint everything with the same direct approach. I tone the ground and then apply opaque paint of varying thickness depending on necessity. Usually the lights are thicker, in order to get the density of color and solidity of plane, but I also do a lot of scraping, when a brushstroke is not right, to get back to the canvas texture. As a result, those scraped areas are thinly painted. I use a full range of paint thickness, just as I use a full range of light to dark.
As far as my painting is concerned, there are no nameable objects in the world. For me, there is no real difference between sea or sky, stones or flowers - there are colors and shapes. Painting from perception means painting what colors and shapes enter the eye, not painting what the brain has already figured out. So with an exception such as outdoor conditions - sunny landscape shapes change unbearably fast, so a smaller format, faster approach and greater simplification are required - all subjects are a matter of visual perception. I try to find a way of describing the visible, and to find an equivalent in paint. Shapes of color are the basic unit of seeing. They have only to be arranged and balanced, like a house of cards, in the best order that reveals and recreates the moment of perception. Of course this takes a lifetime of mastery!
AM: At what point in your process do you allow artistic license and your design choices to trump nature/what's in front of you - or do you aim to strike a balance between the two?
MS: I paint exactly what I see. But I don't see objects, I see colors and shapes. My great pleasure is to look at the world and find a beautiful, interesting, meaningful, surprising structure. If I find it, I can paint it. Since I paint my true perceptions, there is no point in lying or changing things. Of course I don't paint every single tiny detail of what I see; that would be a meaningless accumulation of endless bits. I extract and reduce from what I see to arrive at the purest essence of the thing. Sometimes, such as when setting up a still life, I put a lot of time and fussing into getting all the parts to fit together in a coherent but seemingly natural way. I do this before I start painting, actually in order to find the painting.
What is most interesting to me are the spaces between things, how objects relate to one another, and particularly what happens when unrelated objects sit together in the same space. Patterns of light are usually the original attraction to any motif. The real world is much more varied and surprising than anything I could ever invent. In the course of painting I find more to support and develop what I have originally seen. Perception can fluctuate over the course of a larger longer-term painting. For that reason, it's important to construct a stable armature at the outset. Then one has to carefully balance how much an image can be reduced with how much detail it can support.
AM: Your training includes a B.F.A from Boston University. What was Boston University's art department like in the 1970s?
MS: In those days, it was the last bastion of traditional art training. We drew every day, six hours a day, for two years. We studied anatomy, materials, and techniques, ground our own paints, and didn't really look at any painting after Matisse. The content and discipline of that training has served me my whole life.
AM: I noticed that back in the 1980s and 1990s you were also doing terra-cotta sculpture. Are you still sculpting?
MS: I have always kept my hand in sculpture. A painter working on a flat, two-dimensional surface has the perpetual challenge of evincing a three-dimensional world. Sculpture is a huge asset in this regard, because it really teaches you about volume in a direct and tactile way. Then, when you get back to the flat canvas, you can see completely in the round instead of just seeing the parts of the world facing your eyes. Painting and sculpture complement each other, but focusing on sculpture has more to do with the availability of studio space than anything else. In the late 1980s early 1990s, I lived in France with access to a stone quarry, so I had the opportunity to work on large-format limestone. Clay is easier to manage and transport, but it still requires a certain kind of space.
AM: I understand that you are preparing for a solo exhibition in Venice right now. What type of work will be included?
MS: The exhibit at Galleria d'arte ARKè in Venice includes recent work featuring a couple of porcelain cupids balanced on golden balls and placed in the environment of my Venetian home. Beyond that there are a few other chubby baby dolls, and some portraits of a sleeping lover. My shows are not based on preconceived intellectual concepts but simply on the work I've been producing. Possibly I responded to the cupids because there are several new babies in my life (the babies of friends and nieces). They are very cute and make me laugh. I don't know how other people will see them.
AM: You explore many different subjects, never sticking with one genre. Is it important to think like a designer to add visual interest to everyday objects, or is there truly beauty everywhere... if you know where to look?
MS: Interesting visual moments can be found anywhere. It's particularly thrilling to find beauty in unsuspecting places, in the ordinary parts of daily life, such as an unmade bed, or a messy table after a dinner party. If attentive to color, shape, and structure, one can even find beauty in what is a priori considered ugly.
All photography this article courtesy the artist