Rebecca Ness: “If I work with a fire under my ass, that’s when the paintings get the most exciting.”

The blue-green light of a cellphone screen illuminates the face of a lone figure sprawled on a rumpled bed late at night. The people in Rebecca Ness’s paintings are pictured trawling the internet, washing the dishes, shaving, eating. The unremarkableness of these scenes however is what makes them interesting. In the often lonely, banalness of everyday life, we recognize ourselves and in Rebecca’s figures we see our own experiences illustrated. 

Rebecca is currently a student at Yale University. Her chief media are oil paint and gouache. Her work is quirky, irreverent, moody. But the sad internet girl visual vocabulary is underpinned by a quiet activism. Rebecca’s art gets straight to the heart of being young today, urgently questioning, uncomfortable, wanting better and more. 

AMM: You’re currently busy with your MFA at Yale University. What appealed to you about this institution and how is being there influencing you creatively? 

RN: I received my BFA from Boston University, and many of my teachers there had Yale MFAs. So, a lot of my knowledge that I gained about Yale was from hearing about their experiences and being really excited about their work. I was also excited about how Printmaking can also be an integral part of the program if you want it to be; we all receive “Painting and Printmaking” on our degree. I make prints so it was important for me to attend an institution where printmaking facilities were accessible to painters. Also, so many of my favorite artists have studied here.

This is a big program with about forty students in total, so in terms of my studio practice it’s been great to just have so many different eyes and voices. I have multiple official studio visits with faculty every week, but I have many unofficial studio visits with fellow students just popping in to see what each other is working on. My notebooks are full of feedback and ideas that I’m going to be sifting through for years.

AMM: Do you have a set daily painting routine? What does a typical day in studio for you look like? 

RN: I try to get to the studio pretty early, but always end up taking slightly longer than expected and usually arrive at the studio around 10 am. Coffee is essential. I like working in the morning because I feel fresh and I have a whole day ahead of me. I usually work on only one or two paintings at a time, so I’ll start off looking at what I left for myself from the night before. If I left the studio frustrated the night before, I usually feel slightly more optimistic in the morning, and I try to capitalize on that optimism. I’m more likely to make big risky painting moves earlier in the day. A friend of mine told me that our brains need breaks from labor every three hours or so, so I usually go grab food or start something different or go on a walk a few times a day. These breaks help me keep working, and then I drive home usually around midnight or 1 am.

AMM: Your work offers a playful and irreverent look at gender and identity politics. How close to home is this subject matter for you? 

RN: As of late, I make work that has some semblance to my life, memory, or visual experiences I’ve had in the world. Many times the events or scenarios are imagined, but they usually are triggered from something in reality. The moments in my paintings that relate to gender or identity politics are products of who I am and how I live my life.

AMM: How does contemporary culture and intersectionality influence you and your work?

RN: My work is created from the body of a young, white, Jewish, gay, cisgender woman who grew up in the northeastern United States. Therefore, my work inherently deals with those things, whether they are obviously present in the image or not. No matter what I make, the object came from a body with that biography. With the internet, the ability to quickly research how people around the world are currently making paintings has been so important to my development as an artist and to the development of painting as a whole. To see a painting someone in another city made today in their studio is really exciting. With a computer or a phone, someone who isn’t living in a major art city can see what’s going on in painting, and has the power to contribute to and shape those conversations. It raises voices that wouldn’t otherwise be raised.

AMM: What are you reading, watching, listening to right now? 

RN: Most of the reading I’m doing right now are texts that have been assigned in class or brought up in studio visits. Specific readings that have stuck with me all semester include Uses of the Erotic by Audre Lorde and Our Aesthetic Categories: Cute, Zany, Interesting by Sianne Ngai.

I’ve always been a bit of a history and true crime nut, so I usually watch documentaries or listen to podcasts of that genre while I’m painting. Podcasts in heavy rotation include Last Podcast on the Left, which is a “comedy horror” podcast, The Daily, and Love and Radio. Every weeknight I also watch a live broadcast from the progressive online media outlet The Young Turks.

AMM: What is your process of working?

RN: My current medium of choice is Acryla Gouache from Holbein. It’s an opaque, waterproof, extremely quick drying gouache. For the past two years I’ve worked quite small on a drafting table. I like the “inspection” quality that smallness allows; to be able to hold something in your hands and look at every little detail. Usually I start with a pencil drawing on the surface, and proceed onto color from there.

AMM: Many of the figures in your paintings are pictured alone. We see them texting, sexting, preening, listlessly scrolling, negotiating humdrum life. What interests you about these mundane moments?

RN: I prefer to see these mundane moments as actually quite specific. I think about what it is like to inhabit a body, and how just maybe sitting and scrolling through the news is super specific to our own lives and our own story. To the outside they may seem like generic moments, but to the person actually doing the action, it is quite specific. I’m interested in creating specific moments that the world wouldn’t know existed unless I painted them.

AMM: Conversely, you produced a series of gouache satirical paintings focused on the previous US national elections. What is the role of art and artists in society? 

RN: I have always been fascinated by politics and history, and thought for a little while that I wanted to pursue a career in that field. Many of those paintings were made while watching the debates.

I don’t want to speak for anyone except myself, because I think activism is broad and can be manifested in many different forms and approaches. I paint what I’m thinking about and what is important to me, and stay open and inviting for people who want to converse about the work. A “political painting” doesn’t need to have a big orange buffoon in it. I think that the conversations that art objects can kick-start contribute to society the most. They are objects onto which viewers project their entire biography, so I love hearing conversations about work from different types of people. My mom would talk about my work very differently than a friend from high school, who would critique it very differently than a colleague from within the art world. If we want the world to be generous enough to look at our work, we should be open to hearing different thoughts and reactions. I try to be a bit more open and vulnerable every day.

AMM: People seem to be at the centre of your art in a variety of ways. There’s something very intimate and personal about your series of paintings focused on details of clothing, each bearing the simple title of a person’s first name. Please tell us a little about this body of work.

RN: This work has been an indulgence in the act of painting and seeing. I have a background in painting and drawing from live models. I was lucky enough to start doing this very young in a small after-school independent art program that I would attend growing up. I was taught a certain kind of optical analyzation that was really formative for me as an artist and seer. I find this type of looking so satisfying and challenging; the kind of translation that happens when an image goes from original object, to eyes, to brain, to hand, and into an entirely new object.

Regarding the painting of shirts themselves, that body of work came after a series of body hair shaving paintings, thinking about how one curates one’s own body. With the shirts, I was thinking about how every item of clothing we wear is a distinct choice of how we wish to be seen by society or by certain groups. We curate ourselves socially based on what we wear. For instance, a woman buttoning up a shirt all the way can be a signifier of queerness to a queer audience, and just seem like a simple fashion choice to a non-queer audience. I asked both people over Instagram and friends of mine to send me photos of themselves wearing their favorite shirt, a shirt that held a specific memory, or a shirt that otherwise held some sort of significance. I would love to paint a shirt that someone had their first kiss in or something. I’ve painted shirts of close friends and also people who I have never even met.

AMM: What are some of the other ideas you’re currently interested in and exploring in your work? 

RN: I’ve started this project where I visit the anatomy lab at the Yale School of Medicine and make etchings and paintings. It was my first time seeing a dead body so the work started off really anxious and urgent. The more times I go, the more at peace I am with the space, and my hand slows down. It’s actually quite a beautiful place; the hallways are lined with artwork made from medical students, thanking the donors for their amazing gift.

AMM: Prior to Connecticut you were based in Boston. Do these two city’s art scenes differ? What kind of art community are you currently a part of/or would like to be a part of?

RN: They differ in the way that Boston is a larger city and New Haven is a much smaller one, so the art scenes are proportional to the city’s size. Right now I would say I’m a part of the Yale School of Art community. In my life I’ve usually been in communities of those with creative leanings, both makers and non-makers. Back in Boston I was friends with gallerists, percussionists, designers, muralists, writers, fellow object-makers, insurance agents, you name it. I like to be friends with people who have also got a hustle that gets them up and at ‘em every day.

AMM: Lastly, do you have a motto that you make art by? 

RN: Less a motto, but more a word, and that word being “urgency”. I try to have faith in the work and its natural development, and I think one of the most important things that I can do to contribute to the work’s progress is a sense of urgency. Urgency to get to the studio early, to stay in the studio late, to supply myself with the correct tools, etc. If I work with a fire under my ass, that’s when the paintings get the most exciting.

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Text and interview by Layla Leiman for Art Maze Mag.

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