Abstraction and the Digital Realm: Interview with Ruth Freeman

Ruth Freeman uses bold strokes of line and colour to create a source of abstraction that demand the viewer’s attention. The compositions in her often large-scale paintings vibrate with an intensity that will swallow you whole, warping your perception while creating an immersive experience. Previously working in architecture, Freeman formally studied this along with interior design before earning her MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She explains how working with various digital tools has altered her approach to painting. Now living and working in Brooklyn near her studio in east Williamsburg, Freeman explains how the fast paced environment stimulates her creatively. The artist discusses the influence this transformative experience has had on not only her artwork, but her personal growth as well.

Join us in an interview below, as Freeman chats about her solo exhibition last year at Beers London, the benefits of learning to ‘fail quicker,’ and her beloved dog, Clyde.

AMM: You hold degrees in interior design and architecture along with your MFA in Fine Art. Did you previously work in architecture and design? Can you tell us your journey to becoming a full-time artist?

RF: I had a career in architecture for over ten years in San Francisco before going to grad school here in New York at the School of Visual Arts. I worked for a small firm specializing in restaurant design and high-end modern homes. I have always loved the creative side of architecture so I pursued doing the design aspects involving sketches and renderings. I was painting on the weekends and over the years I spent more time in the studio. I was constantly strategizing how to incorporate my work into my architectural projects to get exposure. Eventually I was selling work and left my full-time job to really focus on setting up a studio practice. To me, my work was scattered and I needed a dialogue around it so I applied to grad school and that’s where I not only learned discipline, but I was exposed to so much more types of work and how to appreciate it. My work was included in some great shows my last semester of grad school and that gave my work tremendous exposure which allowed me to start my art practice here in New York upon graduation.

AMM: Have you always worked in abstraction?

RF: I’ve always thought so, but now that I think about it, the renderings I used to do in architecture, which depicted realism. Abstraction fits in with my work because I base my work on a concept found in the process of making my paintings. And I am interested in a dialogue around that process instead of actually depicting a particular identified image. I’m not saying I don’t care how it looks, but I actually don’t know what it looks like until I remove a lot of the masking. I then decide if it is successful or a failure. Formalities of abstraction are in my paintings, which for me is enough visual substance.


AMM: There is something about your work that seems to relate to street art aesthetics. Do you ever look to this type of work for inspiration? Where do you draw influence for your distinct style?

RF: Having lived in Oakland for many years and now Brooklyn, there is no way I am not influenced by the tremendous amount of street art. I am constantly aware of the regularly changing tags as I walk to the studio. Lately, I have been studying the way graffiti is removed. Often times they mismatch the paint and literally go right over the tag so then it is just a less detailed version of the same thing underneath.

My biggest influence derives from my experience using digital 3D rendering tools. I started my architecture career when hand rendering was being replaced by technology, and even though the digital renderings looked worse than our hand painted versions, we had to impress clients by using the latest digital tools. That’s when I started to get a cynical view of the process of architecture. I started to see the final construction incorporating weird characteristics of the digital realm. We were relying on our instruments and losing our common sense to create good design. I see this same idea happening in the way we perceive artwork on screen versus in person. There is some kind of misunderstanding or our minds are learning a new way to fill in information based on digital cues.

So, my process of painting strives to replicate the intellectual absurdity that we default to by relying on digital tools. I force myself to throw out any kind of intuition in the physical application of paint. I place myself in the role that the builder has in trying to create a structure based on a virtually designed thought process.

AMM: You are originally from Enid, Oklahoma — a place very different from the busy city of New York, where you currently live. When did you decide to make the move to NYC? Has this change in scenery altered your artistic process?

RF: I haven’t lived in Oklahoma for a very long time but I do still visit my family so I compare the two environments. I lived in San Francisco for over a decade in between, so I have that influencing my comparison. Oklahoma is very beautiful and I adore the sunsets and vibrant colors of the countryside. The lighting is much warmer in Oklahoma. Enid is located in the plains so it is very flat and you can see for miles. My father had a small plane, so he would fly us around when we were little. I loved looking at the square patterns of wheat fields and the winding roads from above.

I walk around much more in New York, so I see a different scale of my surroundings. You don’t walk much in Enid, Oklahoma. Things whizz by and you don’t interact with trash on the street.

AMM: We understand you had a solo exhibition last year at Beers Gallery in London. Congratulations! Can you tell us a bit about this experience?

RF: That was an amazing opportunity and experience since I had just graduated a few months before the show. Kurt Beers had seen my work at Pulse in New York and contacted me to say they had an opening for a solo show and wanted to show my work. Kurt and Rebecca are the nicest people to work with and were very patient as I quickly switched from academic to professional mode. I met a lot of people and got a good amount of international recognition.

AMM: Was there a point in your life that you would consider a turning point in your career as an artist?

RF: Well, as far as recognition I would have to say again that my inclusion in Pulse gave me amazing exposure right as I was about to finish grad school. Moving to NYC in general was a big turning point because I learned to hustle and get out and see artwork, go to openings and introduce myself to other artists and curators, and be bold and ask people for studio visits. Placing myself in New York forced me to be more assertive because you can’t just hang out here. I had become a bit complacent in San Francisco, so I wanted to shake things up and take a chance. I have to say talking to my mentors in graduate school really helped me learn what was important in my work and how to stay focused and not abandon ideas too quickly. I also learned to fail quicker so I could move on faster to try and improve my painting abilities.

AMM: What other creative fields have you done work in? How do these diverse experiences influence your current body of work?

RF: I started doing staging work for real estate agents when I left my full-time career in architecture. It was a good contract job as I started my studio practice. Staging feeds my work in that it is this weird practice of creating fake cozy environments. They are so clean and perfect. I admit loving this because I have an obsession with perfection.

AMM: Tell us about a typical day for you in your studio. Do you work at home or do you have a studio in Brooklyn?

RF: I have a separate studio in east Williamsburg. I would love to live and work in the same place but it’s just not feasible for me right now. Plus, I would never leave the house. I like to work in four-hour increments, which basically breaks down to a half or full day in the studio. I get up fairly early because I have to walk my dog, Clyde. He keeps things real. Without Clyde, I wouldn’t take breaks, which seems to help me recharge or relax if I am under a deadline. I don’t like to do emails and computer work at the studio so I’ll occasionally work at home until late morning. Upon arriving at the studio, the first hour usually includes cleaning up any mess from the previous day. Cleaning allows me to mentally prepare before I start painting so I feel like I’m starting out with some kind of control. I take a break mid-day to take Clyde to the park, grab lunch and then I’ll start another four-hour uninterrupted session. By the end of the day, the studio is a mess and I try to leave it that way, but it goes against my nature. I really wish I could come in the next day to see the work hung up with no distractions, but I run out of time the night before. If I clean before I leave, I tend to forget what I was doing or I lose the rhythm of my process so I leave it, but it’s hard. I tend to work late because I’m a night owl by nature, but I try to leave early enough to go to any openings or just get home for some downtime. Lately, I’m trying to cook more.

AMM: What are you reading right now?

RF: I’m always reading several books at once. Right now, it’s a lot of biographical stuff. On my bedside table is Susan Sontag’s journal notes. Gives me nice quick thoughts before I sleep. I’ve been subway reading Night Studio written by Phillip Guston’s daughter. My father is very ill and it’s comforting to hear how she learned so much about her father after he died. I just finished See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid. Her rhythm of writing inspires me and reminds me that rules are made to be broken. I am going to start reading more fiction next.

Find out more about the artist: www.ruthmfreeman.com

Interview by Christina Nafziger for ArtMaze Mag.