Interview by Frédéric Caillard, February 2019
When did you start to work with shaped panels?
I started doing the cut-outs shapes and building my own panels almost four years ago now. But to me the works I was making before were the same, except they were rectangular. They also were abstract landscapes that talked about space, shapes and colors.
So you did not think that transition was an important step at the time?
I felt like it was received more dramatically than it felt in my studio. It did not seem like a gigantic step conceptually for me. For a long time, I continued playing with rectangular pieces too, and I think that’s where the unstretched canvas pieces that I am using now are coming from.
What was your intent when you started to make cut-outs?
Beforehand, I kept composing paintings that involved stacking rectangles. I would work on a painting with multiple rectangle canvases of varying sizes and piece them together to make these odd mismatched collections of boxes. At some point I felt like I was trying to make these shapes be something that they were not. I needed to find a way to build exactly what I wanted as opposed to ignoring part of the rectangle and pretending it was not there.
What is your process in making a new piece?
I spend most of my time doing quick pencil sketches of shapes and compositions. I do different iterations, sometimes it takes months to figure things out. Once I know how I want it to look, I decide on the scale, the number of panels, and how it will actually be constructed and exist in real space. Then it is just a matter of building it before I begin another period of preliminary drawings and playing on the computer, before eventually beginning to paint.
You stretch canvas on your plywood panels. Why don’t you paint directly on the panels?
In the beginning I think it was because I was used to painting on canvas. Every surface takes paint differently and it was another variable I wasn’t willing to introduce at that moment. Now I just prefer the way paint bleeds into the canvas as opposed to sitting on top of the wood.
Does the absence of frame change the way you compose, as you are not limited by the edges of the rectangular canvas anymore?
I feel like the edges and the frame have become even more important. They are so much more intentional in the shaped works. This is why I spend more and more time on the front end of the planning stage. I am picking the exact edge I want a form to stop or start at. There is no idea of continuation. With the rectangle you can still play with the idea that it continues or keep going outside the canvas, but these shaped panels are very contained.
So you view the edges of your shapes as being a sort of limit?
You could say the background is the wall and the shapes are the figures. But if the shapes are your limits, your background must be contained into the shapes…
…If you had asked me this when I first started making cut-outs I probably would have answered totally differently. What I noticed then was that it made all my paintings very figurative and that made the wall the background. And this is something I have been reacting to ever since, trying to reclaim the background into the piece.
Sometimes I see your paintings as being snapshots of stop motion animation, they can be very cinematic…
I never thought about it. I kind of like it, but I have never done anything with that thought. [Editor’s note: after our interview, Justine Hill has worked with a choreographer on a dance performance, addressing art in motion]
Do you sometimes do paintings that are related, that represent different states of the same shapes?
I feel like in any given period, there are a few compositions I am focusing on. They might shift slightly and the shapes might change a little bit but there are very consistent: the number of panels, the way they are organized… There are also definitely shapes that keep popping back into the work.
Do your shapes have specific meanings? Let’s take the example of the shape that has a crown top?
The crown shape is definitely a reoccurring piece, funny enough someone had to point it out to me, I did not notice it at first. It’s a weird shape because it switches from being a type of cloud to being a bush (or something that grows up from the ground). It has different roles, and usually these roles are assigned very simply based on where the shape is vertically in the composition.
Do you have abstraction in mind when making your pieces?
No, I usually view my works as landscapes, it helps me figure out how to organize the space the way I want. But sometimes it remains blurry, I am not always entirely sure which way the piece is supposed to behave. I did a series of works last year to try to simplify that idea. I made sure all the works only contained three panels: one landscape (on the bottom), one background (the encompassing and “most squared” piece) and one figure (most recently the round piece that you could also call the sun, or the center, or the subject…). It was my way of figuring things out. The painting on each panel was not supposed to cross, they weren’t supposed to play with each other. But it is not always so clear…
You have an interesting and very powerful palette. You often work within a general tone and bring a discrepant touch that brings balance to the piece. How do you approach color?
Color is really tough to me, it is the thing I understand the least in my work. It is the hardest thing for me to talk about. I usually have an overarching color that I want to make dominant in a piece… Lately, I am trying to lose some of the blue in the work, that’s why the orange is becoming more central… Colors are also becoming a little warmer, I am trying to push the value of my colors. I feel everything stays sub-conscientiously in a middle value level: not too dark, not too white. I don’t know if it’s a comfort zone or if this is just what I like…
Do you mix your colors or do you use colors out of the tube?
I do both, but I am usually mixing. It is rare for me to find the exact color I want. Because I spend so much time planning the work, I usually have a very clear idea of the color I want. For example, on that sheet of paper I was trying to figure out what blue I wanted to paint. There I mixed colors for a good half an hour, making sure it was the right shade of blue, green-tinted. But I use a lot of dry material too, markers and pastels, which are not as easy to mix…
You are now starting to work in volumes, with works that have panels positioned well into the room. What is your relationship with 3D?
Yes, I am now building this piece that has 2D shapes that stand on the floor. It is going to force me to figure out how far away a painting can move from the wall and still work together. It has been something I have been sketching out for a really long time. I just finally decided to build it so I could see it in real life but it is not something I understand yet.
Your work is an hybridization of existing genres: computer generated drawings, graffiti, classical abstraction, shaped canvas, kids drawings, architectural friezes, movie animation… How did they all get together?
I think those references are all relevant, but you can only be aware of so many references. I find myself being very aware of people making works using shaped panels or collages. I like to think about my works as collages, it goes back to many modernist ideas… Digital mark making may have been intentional at the beginning and now I just think it is a reality. We look at screens all the time! I am always editing my artwork, manipulating images of real paintings and real drawings on the computer.
Do you plan on adding new items to this mix?
I guess I would like to expand my painting language moving forward. I feel like patterns are getting more important to me in the last couple years. In some of the older work it was a little more graffitiesh, with Cy Twombly type of vibes: graphic lines, handwriting… It still comes up and it is still important in the work, but I now enjoy more the layering and build-up of small softer marks. Part of the reason I committed to building this large standing piece was to mix up the scale of painting marks. Even if I am doing the same marks physically, I am hoping that changing the canvas scale might have a dramatic effect on how we read them… About this time last year, I started to introduce wider areas of colors too. Before that every panel was full of these small marks, and I started to wonder “why can’t I just make a handful of big marks on one panel”?
I feel your work is closely related to the work of David Reed. Do you have artists who strongly inspire your practice?
I don’t know David Reed. Who I am spending the most time looking at changes all the time. I feel like I have been recently focusing on artists that deal with painted objects that stand, because it is the newest thing I am trying to delve into. I really loved Bianca Beck’s figurative sculptures that she presented a few months back. They were painted all over very gesturally, very aggressively. I am looking a lot at Marisol’s works from the 60s, she was a pop artist known for her painted sculptures, usually portraits. She often included these rectangle framing devices in her works. Also Ruth Root, Betty Woodman… I am looking at the way their works are built, structured and set-up, with some things on shelves, some things on the floor… But I am attracted by the painting part, they are paintings to me!
Illustration pictures, from top to bottom: Studio view of the “Heads”, October 2018 Colorform 2, 2016. Acrylic, pastel, and pencil on canvas. 40 x 30 in/102 x 76 cm Studio view of preparatory drawings, February 2019 Head 6, 2018. Acrylic, pastel, crayon, and pencil on canvas. 23.5 x 19.5 in/60 x 50 cm Bookend 3, 2018. Acrylic, pastel and pencil on canvas. 42 x 31 in/107 x 79 cm Bookend 8, 2018. Acrylic and pastel on canvas. 50.5 x 41 in/128 x 104 cm Bookend 15, 2019. Acrylic, pastel, and oil stick on canvas. 52 x 42 in/132 x 107 cm Detail of Bookend 13, 2019. Acrylic, crayon, and colored pencil on canvas. 51 x 39.5 in/130 x 100 cm Standing, 2019. Acrylic, pastel, colored pencil, crayon and oil stick on canvas. 102.5 x 129.5 x 38 in/260 x 329 x 97 cm. Bookend 10, 2018. Acrylic and pastel on canvas. 47.5 x 42 in/121 x 107 cm All pictures by Justine Hill, courtesy of Denny Dimin Gallery and Justine Hill, except the February 2019 studio view by Abstract Room.