An Interview with Deirdre McAdams
We first visited with Deirdre McAdams at her Vancouver studio in 2009, about a year after her graduation from Emily Carr University of Art and Design. At the time, she was creating abstractions in spray paint, reacting to the rapid dry-time of the medium and experimenting with their pre-mixed shades. Deirdre continues to experiment with process and media but has moved to working in acrylics on canvas creating shape-shifting abstractions and embracing the freedom a non-representational approach offers. Mainly limited by an inner logic she imposes on her paintings, she creates unexpected alliances in her use of colour, opening up their potential and somehow making familiar shades seem fresh and unusual. Last year, Deirdre received an Honourable Mention in the 2011 RBC Painting Competition, a gauge of some of the most promising painters nationally, and we were very pleased when she agreed to chat with us about her work:
Here and Elsewhere: Have you always been interested in abstraction? What interests you about it?
Deirdre McAdams: I am mostly interested in a non-objective method of working because of the freedom it offers. I think when I started painting and drawing I was drawn to working in a way that involved looking inward rather than outward, meaning I was free to make things up. I liked the idea of making images that were evidence of experimentation and invention; I was never really that interested in drawing from life or recreating what I could see in front of me.
However, I don’t really think about my work as being entirely abstract, because even when my forms are extremely minimal or ‘pure,’ they still, to my mind, retain a kind of figurative or referential quality. I think that while I am working in a tradition of painting that emphasizes process and materials over narrative or representational content, there are still referential elements in my work, just maybe a bit further down in the hierarchy.
HE: We like the idea of your works retaining a “referential quality”. When you paint, are you consciously considering something figurative throughout the process? Or do you find that after the painting is complete that the work naturally conjures something in the world around you?
DM: It’s a combination of both, and sometimes neither if that makes sense. When I am starting a painting, there is usually a specific idea or compositional structure that guides my decision-making. I think these ideas are very much rooted in my opinions about painting itself, which to my mind is a very real and concrete reference point, but also in my experience of the physical world. For instance for a while there I was thinking about the edges of my supports as being similar to the containing presence of a computer or TV screen, and making my compositions with deference to this. The way I was making my forms was based on a kind of filtered digital language. I wasn’t using a computer at any point to make them but I was thinking about how my perception of form and space has been affected by exposure to imagery in that format. So while the paintings were very minimal and quite formal, there was still a distinct reference informing some of the decisions.
At other times however it is more like I am following the logic of a particular process and then I begin to see or make associations once the painting is done, which I guess is kind of a projection of meaning. Still other times I am open to the paintings being free of any kind of meaning or association, and that’s why I like to work the way that I do, because it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
HE: What do you mean when you say you follow the “logic of a particular process”? Can you give us an example?
DM: This just means that I am using a pre-determined way of working that guides the making of the painting or at least the beginning of it, usually a pattern or repetition of forms. I like to make some of my decisions in advance, and I like how the predictability of something simple like a repeated colour progression offers me what feels like a logical way to start. Once an initial decision is made or a pattern set up, there is something to react to and the rest of the painting is evidence of this reaction.
HE: Can you tell us a bit about your use of materials? In particular you moved from spray paint to acrylics – how did that change your paintings?
DM: I’ve been using spray paint for a few years and will continue to use it in the future, but for now I am experimenting with acrylics. What I loved about the spray paint was in part the immediacy of the ready-made colours and the quick drying time. Acrylics require a bit more patience than spray paint and this has led to me making multiple paintings simultaneously instead of just a couple at a time, something that has loosened me up a bit in terms of getting things started. I tend to think long and hard before I start my canvases , and needing to have many on the go at once makes it necessary to speed up that process.
Now that I am back to using brushes and mixing my own colours I have also found that my colour choices have become more complex or at least more considered, and while I am still aiming for a somewhat graphic sensibility there are some pretty brushy moments starting to happen.
HE: Your works have some interesting titles like Chronicle, Waster and Qualm – how do you arrive at the titles for your works?
DM: Sometimes I will think of a title or phrase that guides the making of the painting, but mostly the titles come from a kind of associative response to the finished work. I think they are generally pointing to the fact that I don’t see my work in purely non-objective terms. Though I am using a really systematic process to make them, the paintings ultimately carry some kind of personal or subjective content, a factor I welcome and even exploit in some ways. I make them wanting them to be strongly related but particular to themselves, and this inevitably leads me to seeing them as having personalities of sorts. Painting is a self-reflexive and sometimes anxious activity, and a lot of the titles refer to personal associations derived from the work, though I am aware that they may not be readily apparent to anyone else.
Other times, however, the title is a somewhat literal translation of what I consider to be the defining formal consideration, as in Five Figures or a recent series where all were titled Grey Scale 1, 2, etc. I guess this is a reflection of how I approach my work in that I am interested in formal concerns but also the underlying motivations that inform certain choices.
HE: Your use of colour is unusual and particular – you tend to combine colours that don’t have a natural affinity. Can you describe how you work with colour?
DM: I often start a painting by knowing I want to see a certain colour combination. These choices are sometimes dictated by familiarity and an indulgence of my personal proclivities. For instance, I often use chromatic fades or gradients in my paintings, colour patterns that are predictable in that they follow a certain kind of logic in moving from one shade or colour to the next. For some reason I find that kind of logical progression very pleasing, and many of my palettes are determined by this process of an initial intuitive decision that is then developed rationally.
I think the idea of taste is interesting, and I am constantly examining my inclinations towards certain colours and combinations. I tend to let myself make questionable decisions; questionable in that I am aware of a garishness, obviousness or just obnoxiousness, but can’t help but want to see it. I typically like my palettes to be active, whether that means there’s a level of optical effect going on or just odd and unexpected mixes.
HE: Would you be willing to share with us influences and or inspirations, artistic or otherwise?
DM: My influences and inspirations are constantly shifting and I look at way too many artists to name them all, but lately I have been much inspired by Sol LeWitt for his ideas about structure, logic and simplicity. I find colour theory to be endlessly interesting and like looking at old instructional books on computer graphics and optical art.
HE: Thanks very much Deirdre, for discussing your work with us!