Let’s take a look at the art Robert presented as well as reading through a discussion I had with him.
L. Sinnema: I sent you a of the list of things that I would like to talk about. Some have to do with technical things and others have more to do with content or quilting or connections between painting and quilting. So, let’s start at the top and work our way down. Firstly, let’s talk about techniques we see in the work that you have here and the work that you’ve been making for a while.
R. Fifield: Yeah, quite a while now.
L. Sinnema: You use multiple painting techniques. Much of what we see is the use of tape to mask areas and help create the pattern, but you are also airbrushing through materials to transfer texture in places. We see a lot of visual textures and layering of paint and color, and then there are places where the painting seems a little bit rougher or painterly maybe?
R. Fifield: That’s not a bad term, to describe it as rougher or painterly.
L. Sinnema: What can you say about these different techniques and how you use them and combine them together?
R. Fifield: I think that most painters do this mixing of technique, mixing of different types of application of paint and for me there really isn’t much sort of substantive difference. The difference is kind of in surface appearance more than it relating to any kind of particular content with how I apply paint. I know other painters where the application of the paint is part of the content but for me it’s a little less that way.
I remember at an exhibit several years ago, maybe four years ago, maybe longer, Meredith was asking me the same question. How are these paintings that have more precision different from these paintings that are rougher? And I think I really disappointed her when I said there’s no difference. Gordon said they are not the same, and so he accused me of being a liar, but I just don’t see any difference in them in the way that I don’t see any difference in oil or acrylic or watercolor.
My content can be reached in multiple ways and so, to me, that’s why these techniques are of less importance. I can use one manner of painting or another to derive the same content, and so it means that the application is not what is driving the content.
L. Sinnema: The work that you have here and a lot of the work that you’ve done in the past, whether people are familiar with it or not, has a very direct relationship to quilts and quilting. Why translate quilt patterns into paintings? What is it about quilting or the quilt process that you’re interested in presenting or speaking about in your work?
R. Fifield: Yeah, I addressed some of this in my artist statement. What has interested me in quilt making, not that quilts were invented in America, but I think that the quilt tradition that exists in America has been visually, so vibrant, so strong I think it speaks to me. It represents the best parts of the American spirit of being frugal, waste not want not. Of using these little bits of fabric that are left over from making clothing or curtains or other things for the home, that nothing was thrown away. That these are still used for making something incredibly beautiful and more specifically useful.
I think there is a kind of efficiency when it comes to quilt making in that way, and efficiency in terms of painting and design aesthetic is something that I’m very conscious of, very interested in. Seeing compositionally how one shape can do multiple things in a composition in the same way as these leftover bits of fabric have another life, stitched together in these quilts.
I like the sort of generally understood content of quilting, which is when you gift a quilt, it is a huge act of kindness and love and that, as I said in the statement, it is an extension of the maker’s arms and their embrace whenever you’re using the quilt.
It was eye opening as an artist who grew up where and when I did, being my race, gender, etc., and falling in love with Mid-century hard-edge abstraction, and then seeing these quilts from the 1800s, and being like oh wow, they did this a long time ago and likely better in some ways. Seeing quilts from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and being like those are as good as Ad Reinhardt paintings, or seeing quilts and being like, oh man, that’s as good or better than Frank Stella or Josef Albers, or so many others.
So for me, that was a kind of revelation to see, with my interest in the Bauhaus, which was still a time when women like Anni Albers, Joseph’s wife, who wanted to take painting and drawing, but because she was a woman they pointed her towards textile design, towards weaving, where she absolutely excelled, not because she was a woman, but because she was a brilliant artist and would have been a fine painter. Anni was also pointed to printmaking, which was something that women were allowed to do there (at the Bauhaus), and for me, seeing her work and then seeing the kind of design principles that she was working in and then seeing other artists from the Bauhaus, including her husband, seemingly wholesale ripping her off and earning respect in the art world for the work they were doing, and being like oh man, so much of that was Anni.
The biggest struggle I have with making these quilt paintings is that I’m not a quilter. I am not good at sewing. The biggest problem is being a white male who has some kind of, albeit small, voice in my art community, and I’m not trying to elevate quilts into art making, because they’re already there. I’m not trying to use my privileges to give voice to quilt making in a different context. I am using these patterns because they are part of a shared American experience.
Does that make sense? Like that’s something that if I were having this opening or any opening with these quilt paintings, to me that seems like the most biting kind of question that somebody can ask. I don’t know that I would have an immediate answer for, “what business do you have doing this?” But for me, I think the business I have doing this is that while I don’t make quilts, it is still part of our shared American experience. Yeah, in the way it’s a little more charged with using this kind of patterning and quilts and stuff, but for me it seems similar to sort of ask the same question, “how dare you paint a still life with apples and a bottle of wine?”, when you didn’t grow the apples or make the wine. I mean that’s not what it’s about. And yeah, for me, it’s just using those incredibly interesting patterns that have a kind of geometry, and a mathematical precision that is surprising and really interesting as well as the kind of narrative qualities that quilt titles have. Things like Indiana Puzzle or Rd to Arkansas or Abraham Lincoln’s log cabin or next-door neighbors, you know, all these really great traditional quilt pattern names.
L. Sinnema: The last thing you were talking about touches a little bit on one of the questions I had about specific patterns, so can you give us some titles or some names of patterns. Are there any patterns that you’re using here that have deeper meaning, or more specific meaning?
R. Fifield: There are some more specific ones used including blocks from the freedom quilts. I think there are eight blocks in the freedom quilts, which were traditional quilt patterns that then had their meaning adapted to signify particular things on the Underground Railroad. I believe the monkey wrench pattern, which was a traditional quilt pattern, was then used to signify on the plantation when it was time to get ready.
The flying geese pattern, which is triangles that point in four directions, in freedom quilts three of the directions would be the same color and one would be a darker color. This would make a really visually attractive quilt, but depending on how that quilt was hung outside of someone’s home, people who are fleeing slavery would know to head North, South, East or West. So several paintings that I have in the exhibition are that traditional flying geese pattern painted to reference freedom quilts.
The painting that is the most central in the exhibition is the only painting that’s not for sale, and it was one of the first paintings that I did in this series. One of the first, 15 or 20 I suppose, but it had been on my mind for a long time. The quilt pattern is the Crown of Thorns, referencing Christ and his crucifixion. It’s painted kind of off white like the color of parchment paper, bright red and black, and painted in a particular way so that it looks like the 3-dimensional model of the coronavirus. So the composition references both the Crown of Thorns and coronavirus and this time that we’re going through, and how these paintings, every one in the exhibition, was started after we had to leave work last year when we shut down.
It was a really important marker for me and really solidified that these were to be a record of the passing time of uncertainty, of isolation, and of so much difficulty as well as being confronted by our own mortality. During the time we’re living in this pandemic and how strange it was that collectively it wasn’t just that I had an experience where my mortality was called into question, but everyone did, my friends, my neighbors, my family, we were all sort of dealing with something pretty heavy and un-processable simultaneously. I think this made it so hard for all of us because you just wonder, I’m not feeling well about this, I’m not doing well with this, who do I turn to? And the answer is other people who aren’t feeling good about this. It made it so hard because you want to talk about these kinds of feelings you’re having but also not overburden friends and family who are feeling the exact same things. And for me, making these paintings was a way to sort of mark time and to be productive and to attempt to make something that, like quilts, are here for warmth and comfort and stability.
L. Sinnema: You have 144 paintings here. Are you continuing to make more? Will you be painting these for the foreseeable future?
R. Fifield: Yes, in in some form or another. I have 75 more panels in my studio right now that I’m working on, so there you go. I think I’m kinda onto some other ideas, some other thoughts that I’ve been testing out here and there at school. It’s kind of going slow, but that’s usually how I operate with testing those things. I take my time so that I can do it right before I go into production mode.
I think what will happen is that I’ll start working on another kind of project and then this will become like 75% of my work, and then it will slowly get push aside over the next few years. I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t eventually have 400 of them.
L. Sinnema: You have 144 individual panels displayed here. Do you see them as individual objects or a larger group? Is it one large project that’s made up of individual components? Are they individual components that can be shown as a group? Do you have a preference on how they are displayed?
R. Fifield: When it’s something that I’m presenting in an exhibition, something that has my name attached to it, the bigger the group the better. If I were in a large group show and they gave me a specific amount of space and I had to choose between a larger painting or six of these, I would choose the larger painting. I think a group of 12 or 18 or something like that would be OK. I think they’re stronger when they are together, but I’ve sold several too people and I’ve seen pictures of them hung in a group of three, and they work, they look nice. I even like them individually in someone’s home, particularly when hung in a small sort of space. I think they sort of work better in that kind of claustrophobic environment.
I think of them as a large group. I think they work better together, but that’s not to say that the content is lost when seeing just an individual work. I think it’s that same understanding that they are part of a larger grouping, just like when you see one painting by an artist, like a Richard Diebenkorn “Ocean Park”, and you’re like, oh that’s nice, and then you see more of them and you’re like I get it, yeah. Being able to see them in a larger group like that shows how decisions are made, how things work and fit, and so provides more context than the individual. When you’re seeing just one, like the last time I was at the Seattle Art Museum and there was one Josef Albers “Homage to the Square” painting. You know how much I love Josef Albers and how nice it is for me when I can see any of his work, but I could imagine putting myself outside of being an artist, just being a visitor to the museum who doesn’t know much about that period of painting and looking at Josef Albers ‘Homage to the Square” and being confused and bored. I would totally get it and it’s just that the context isn’t fully known. When you look at a painting like that you get that sense that “I could do that”, and you’re not wrong, you could.
But that’s not the point. The point is there’s a whole bunch of other ones that you probably wouldn’t have done as well. Yeah, I mean, I think that’s kind of true about my paintings too. I look at these paintings and I don’t see any reason why some high school student taking their first art class couldn’t make something pretty identical, and for me that’s just not what it’s about with these.
L. Sinnema: Yeah, I agree with you on the larger presentation. Having more allows us to see the similarities as well as the variety. You use the same patterns but different colors and tones, and the patterns actually shift and do different things with each of the iterations or translations. Each painting uses color and pattern to emphasize the possibilities.
R. Fifield: Yeah, that is the best thing that I can hear from someone looking at these paintings. Again, this is something that I address in the statement, but you’re absolutely right. That is 100% what gets my face hot in the studio. When I’m choosing one of the patterns where there is a shape or group of shapes that should clearly be the focus and painting it so that result is yielded, but then using the same pattern and painting it so I see the negative space and seeing how It completely changes the appearance of the quilt pattern, and they’re tough to recognize as even being the same pattern because of those colors. For me they are very much little exercises in color interaction.
I work with a fairly tight group of colors, and I mix up new colors every once in a while, but I think in the whole 144 paintings there’s probably only 60 maybe 70 colors total. This sounds like a lot until you realize how many shapes there are, so that has been kind of exciting just to see what I can do with this range of colors. How they change when they’re next to each other. How their identities are altered and then how the shape is altered. Both of these kinds of things.
I was describing these to a friend who plays the saxophone, and I was describing how these paintings felt to me, and I said they really feel in terms of music like I am playing jazz standards or vocal standards or country standards, which is such a big part of the tradition of music. Playing standards and how you sort of riff on and alter what’s going on in the standard, and I said that to me the kind of standards I feel like I’m playing are like a 1950’s vocal pop song whose vocal harmonies are really tight with minimally invasive instrumentation. These little pleasant tunes performed well with not a lot of studio trickery, in terms of the music studio or in terms of my painting studio.
L. Sinnema: It’s great work. I love seeing them all out of the studio and in a space that is a little bit bigger and gives them a little bit of room but keeps them confined as well.
R. Fifield: Yeah, Donna came out to see the show and she looked at it for a little while and then turned to me and she’s like “this is really nice Rob”. I thought, well, wow. Oh thanks. I haven’t heard that high praise in a while from you. Thank you. It’s so nice when the people who you know well, respond to it.