Submerged bodies: Discovering the place of the human in the natural landscape with Giordanne Salley

Growing up around the “woods, water, and quiet” of the American Midwest of Ohio, painter Giordanne Salley had an early penchant for interpreting the world around her by drawing. It was at local art classes that she first began to experiment with painting as a means of observation. For Giordanne, the pull of paint as a medium lies in the process of conveying a witnessed, remembered or imagined subject into a material that might capture not only space, light and color, but a mood, sensation or experience. Under Giordanne’s painterly gaze, an observed scene becomes a ground on which to graft intangible concepts like desire and nostalgia. In turn, the viewer of the work is invited to transpose their own experiences, their own desires, their own memories and perceptions, onto the undulating lines, hazy shadows and dusky colors that characterize Giordanne’s paintings.

Giordanne studied painting as an undergraduate at Anderson University. While still a student, she cultivated her individual practice by spending two summers taking part in the artistic residency program offered by the Chautauqua School of Art. She was also a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, where she went on to work for a short while. Invigorated and stimulated by her time spent as part of passionate and vigorously creative communities, Giordanne went on to complete an MFA in painting at Boston University. After graduating, she secured a grant which allowed her to attend a two-month residency at GlogauAIR Berlin and provided her with the time and space to develop her work away from the rigor of study, as well as giving her access to the novel possibilities of being an artist in a new city.

Now living and working in New York, something she finds simultaneously “wonderful and difficult”, Giordanne conducts her practice from a studio in an old industrial building in Ridgewood, Queens. For Giordanne, the experience of working as an artist in New York comes with both an inevitable struggle and a fantastic sense of belonging to a thriving artistic scene. Her work has been shown in numerous group exhibitions alongside her fellow New York artists and in solo shows across the city, in galleries such as Off-White Columns and Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects.

Though the creation of her work takes place predominantly in the metropolitan landscape of New York, Giordanne has not renounced her core affinity with the natural environment of her childhood. The imagery within her paintings recalls the quiet and the solitude of rural spaces that, rather than referring to a specific place, evoke the feeling and memory of being situated in an organic landscape. There is a sensory appeal to Giordanne’s images that takes precedence over realism; her subject is not so much the person, the tree, the sand, the shell, the moon, the sun, the sea, but the sensation of water, wind and sun on bare skin, the shifting moods and colors of a tree between day and dusk, the way that bodies and natural objects interact with light, the submersion of bodies in cool water. With their intertwining of visual and sensory memory, imagined and lived experience, what Giordanne’s paintings communicate is a longing to immerse oneself wholly and bodily in the natural elements. For the viewer—whose own figure is often implicated in the paintings as an anonymous shadow, a reflection, a silhouette—the experience of looking at Giordanne’s work is one that encourages a renewed awareness of sensory perceptions. Giordanne’s paintings teach us, among other things, what it is to be a feeling, seeing body in the world.

photo by Ryan Garber

AMM: Was there a particular moment or person that made you realise you wanted to be an artist and, in particular, a painter?

GS: Rather than one specific moment, I feel like I have become a painter slowly over the course of my life, gradually taking things a bit more seriously, and suddenly here I am—an adult who is a painter. Growing up, I loved to draw. I loved the immediacy and portability of it. I was homeschooled as a child and my parents noticed my inclination towards art and specifically drawing. They were very supportive of my interest and were able to incorporate drawing into many of my other subjects and assignments. I attended art classes at a local art center where I first painted from direct observation as a child. The first painting I made from observation was of a yellow teapot. I remember being frustrated with the material and struggling to paint what I was observing. I was insecure about the painting when I brought it home to my parents. The painted teapot was clunky and kind of just floating in the middle of a smudged white surface—all my mistakes were laid bare, but I was excited to try to paint more. I remember feeling as though the paint was not totally in my control the way a crayon or pencil may have seemed to be. Maybe this was when I subconsciously decided to be a painter. Part of what has always kept me coming back is the struggle with the material translation of content, whether it be observed or invented.

AMM: How have your practice and your work evolved since you first started making paintings?

GS: My first paintings were all about learning the material. Most of my formal painting education, and even earlier explorations in paint, were strongly rooted in working from observation. I fell in love with paint as a material by working from observation, and I fell in love with observing nature and the figure by looking with paint. In college, I began experimenting with painting from memory and imagination. I continued working from observation for my classes and as a daily drawing practice, but would go to my studio at night and paint clunky, awkward attempts at scenes describing my parents’ home and members of my family. I made a painting of my dad mowing the grass from memory that I was so embarrassed to show my classmates. I felt like I was able to describe the shape of my dad working hard in the yard, but the lawnmower itself just read as a nebulous pile of red and black shapes. This problem of painting a convincing world from memory or imagination and the humor that can accompany failed attempts has intrigued me ever since. I began thinking of drawing and painting from observation as a way to bulk up my intimate knowledge of objects and figures in the world, and to understand light and space so that I could be more deliberate about how to manipulate these elements in an invented or remembered world. I still consider drawing from observation an important part of my practice, but it is more private and supplemental than in the past. In my current work, I am using observed drawings and remembered experiences of light, color and mood to build images that present information to the viewer and create more of a psychological than naturalistic space.

AMM: In what ways have artist residencies helped to develop your work?

GS: Artist residencies have been essential in the development of my work and also my painting community. When I was in college, my professors urged me and my classmates to apply to summer programs. I ended up attending the Chautauqua School of Art for two summers. This program, while definitely geared toward pre-graduate students, placed me amongst some very ambitious peers and incredible faculty. It was here that I learned what it meant to put in 12 hour days in the studio and formed some lasting bonds with other painters who to this day remain some of my closest artist friends, one of them being my partner of almost 10 years. After finishing college and attending Chautauqua for the second time, I felt compelled to move to the East Coast to be among a serious painting community. I attended a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, where again, I felt at home amongst other ambitious artists. I ended up getting a job at VSC and staying there for a little over a year before moving to Boston for graduate school. The time I spent in Vermont was a true gift. Johnson, Vermont was the first place I felt truly at home apart from where I grew up in Ohio. My position at VSC provided me with a small stipend, studio, room and board, and access to all of the visiting artists and residents that came through the program each month in exchange for something like 20 hours a week of work. I spent my time there working on the body of paintings that I would submit for graduate school applications. Being in such a supportive and ambitious community in the middle of this utopian landscape where (in the summer) you can walk to a pristine, ice cold swimming hole after breakfast to start your day, definitely left a permanent impression. I think I could have stayed there forever. The uninterrupted time and space to focus on my paintings propelled my work in a way that I do not believe would have been possible in normal circumstances. After finishing my MFA at Boston University, I received a grant from the school to attend a two-month residency at GlogauAIR in Berlin before moving to New York. This residency was a welcome change of pace and scenery after the rigor of completing an MFA program. Each residency I have attended has been completely different and has offered me something specific to my needs at the time. There are many options out there, but I feel very fortunate to have experienced a few and hope to have the opportunity in the future to do more residencies.

AMM: Can you tell us about the kinds of mediums you prefer to work in?

GS: I prefer to use oil paint on canvas. I like the openness of oil paint and how forgiving it can be as a material. When I am building my images, I like to start with small, casual drawings in a sketchbook to work quickly through ideas and compositions. Once I feel like I have a solid starting point for a painting, I usually start drawing and collaging with dry materials directly onto the canvas. This process functions as a sort of scaffolding for the painting. The collage helps me find the form of my figures and other solid objects or shapes in the painting. At a certain point in the drawing, which varies from piece to piece, I prime the drawing or collage on canvas with clear gesso, then begin painting on top of it. From here on, it is all oil paint. I don’t use much medium, but if I need something to be more fluid I will mix some cold wax medium with neo megilp. It keeps the paint matte while increasing the flow and transparency. Otherwise it is just paint. I use thin layers of oil paint on the surface of the canvas to build up color. It is a slow way to arrive at an image, but it seems as if I have to find the painting and bring it out of the surface rather than impose it.

Low Tide Swim, oil and paper on canvas, 72 in x 54 inches

AMM: Despite living and working in the city, many of your paintings draw on natural environments and landscapes—where does this imagery come from?

GS: My work has always been informed by a sense of desire. My whole life, up until I moved to the city, I have had direct access to woods, water, and quiet. I love living in New York, but there is one essential thing that I do not get from living here and that thing is solitude in nature. Nature has been present in my work in some form as long as I have been a painter, but almost immediately when I moved from Johnson, Vermont to Boston I began painting figures in the woods. At that moment, I think I was processing the experience I’d had and the place I had just left while finding my footing living in a ‘real’ city for the first time. Now, after living in New York for around seven years, I feel like that longing for nature has only intensified. As a salve for city life, each summer my partner and I spend a few weeks in Maine. We go to the same place each year and have been able to get to know specific nooks and crannies of rocks and trees and mossy paths. We spend time drawing, swimming, reading, and just looking. Even though it is only for a short time each year, I think that the polarity of that experience versus our daily life in the city only heightens our senses while we are there. My current work is definitely informed by the cold swims and late summer light that we experience in Maine, but I see the imaginary landscape as being a sort of invented hybrid of places that hold significant personal meaning, like the quiet woods behind my parents’ house in Ohio (which now barely exist due to subdivision developments), swimming holes in Vermont, and of course the edge of the cold water in Maine. I think of the natural objects in my paintings, such as rocks, shells, trees, even water, as being characters in the paintings or stand ins for figures. I do fantasise about moving upstate and painting in a barn in the woods—I wonder if, in that environment, I would make paintings about the city?

AMM: We notice that there is also a lot of water imagery in your work, much of which centers on the relationship between the body and water—can you tell us some more about this?

GS: I am interested in different ways that I can position the figure in nature, enmeshing figures into a landscape. Painting figures submerged in water, concealing and revealing specific parts of their body, have been ways I have attempted to merge the figure with its surroundings. I am thinking of water as a symbol for change and time and rhythm and a place for contemplation and solitude.

I am a swimmer myself and I enjoy the feeling of a cold plunge and being totally submerged, if only for a few moments. I like opening my eyes underwater and seeing green bands of light pouring through the surface. I feel free of restrictions in the water, but my body is not the body of a fish, so I am actually quite limited and have to eventually get out. It is my hope that this primal urge to be in or near water, floating, comes across in the paintings of swimmers.

AMM: The body is almost always present in your works, but often hidden, obscured, distorted, seen in parts, seen as reflections, silhouettes or shadows, or from behind. What is the concept behind this?

GS: In an attempt to weave my figures into their surroundings, I have largely removed the gaze from the equation. Similar to how I submerge figures in water, revealing parts of their body above and beneath ripples, I am hoping to carefully divulge the figure piece by piece. I am interested in different ways of inserting the figure into the landscape without painting a full frontal figure. I do not want to confront the viewer. I am hoping rather to create space for them to enter the image via pattern, color, or memories of the viewer’s own. Ideally, I want my paintings to feel like a secret that I have revealed privately and uniquely to each viewer. Recently, I have been trying to use shadows or reflections to describe a presence. Sometimes the shadow clearly comes from the indication of a figure outside the edge of the painting, and other times the shadow could be coming from the viewer herself. I am thinking of the shadows and reflections as an alternate world or dual possibility for the figure in the painting or for the viewer who could be casting the shadow. I have been using reflections as a way to slowly reintroduce the face into my paintings, but I am still exploring where this may lead.

AMM: There is an element of self-portraiture in your work but this is rarely explicit—are you seeking to capture and relate personal experience or to signify a wider, shared experience via the subjective perceptions of the individual?

GS: I think of my paintings as loosely-based self portraits. The one thing I have with me all the time is my body, so I end up using it as reference when I am drawing and painting figures in my studio, even if I am drawing a man. While I am referencing my hand and my foot, I am thinking of the image as a signifier for a hand or for a foot. I see the man-made objects in my paintings (glasses, sandals, watch, undergarments, etc.) as being more specifically tied to personal experience and indicative of specific people or moments, but it is still my hope that these objects will function as keys to open up the image rather than dictate a single narrative.

Pile, oil and paper on canvas, 18 x 22 inches

AMM: Does color play an important role in your paintings? Do you use it to alter, complement or contrast with the subject matter, semantic content and mood of the work?

GS: Color is important. I also think it is the hardest part of painting. I begin each image with an idea about color and that idea often changes and surprises me over time. I am interested in a hazy, glowing light that describes a transitional time of day. I think of long shadows and exaggerated hot pink suns or moons as marking a beginning or ending. In that way, I think my palette contributes to the temporal quality of my work, while also being playful and even humorous at times.

AMM: Are there any recent works of yours that hold particular significance for you, either because of what they show or because of the feelings they evoke?

GS: One recent painting titled ‘Sunset without Anyone’ feels special for some reason. This painting turned out nothing like I originally intended. I thought the rock would be at the edge of the water instead of partially submerged. I tried it with a purple-blue sky and a red sun and several other variations, but slowly the color was brought up, as was the tide. I think it feels meaningful because of how much it surprised me. I also feel like this painting is at once sad and funny in a way that I hope for in all my work, but cannot always control.

AMM: How do you title your works?

GS: My titles are generally descriptive, with a nudge toward a specific mood. I want the titles to help guide the viewer slightly toward my hope for the painting while keeping their read more open when possible.

AMM: You have participated in many group exhibitions—how has working and exhibiting alongside other artists shaped your own approach? Do you consider your practice to have a collaborative element?

GS: I feel very lucky to have been shown alongside so many wonderful artists, including painting heroes of mine. I am always interested in seeing how different curators contextualise my work. Sometimes the relationships seem obvious, other times surprising, and still other times totally dissonant. Seeing my work amongst the work of my peers as well as historical artists has allowed me to view my work differently and to sometimes see what others may see in my work that I do not. I have also met so many wonderful painters from being shown alongside them. While I see group shows as a great way to meet other artists, point out trends and larger threads in artists working across time, and to see my own work with a different perspective, I do not view group shows as being collaborative in regard to the making of the work. I think of my process as personal and private.

Edge of the Water, oil and paper on canvas, 14 x 12 inches

AMM: Are there many other artists, either in art history or among those currently practicing, whose work influences or informs your own?

GS: Of course! As a young painter, I completely fell in love with Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Their work probably still informs my interest in enmeshing the figure into their surroundings, making every piece of paint as important as the next. Bonnard’s bathroom paintings unwittingly gave me permission to try to paint from memory for the first time. Milton Avery is also a painter whose work I feel I have had a long term relationship with. His distilled landscapes are so true and undeniable in a way that I think speak to the deepest meanings of life. One contemporary painter who has certainly influenced me is Kyle Staver. I was introduced to her work in college when I was making the awkward shift out of working primarily from observation. Her solid, almost cubist compositions gave me a boost of courage to break away from naturalistic representation. She is an awesome painter who has become a support and friend and her paintings continue to push and inspire me in the studio.

AMM: What is it like working as an artist in New York’s creative scene?

GS: It is wonderful and difficult. I do not know where else I could live (perhaps LA or London?) and be surrounded by so many other ambitious artists making their work. I feel lucky to have so many friends who intimately know the struggle of being a working artist and with whom I can relate and at times commiserate. I think the hardest part can be feeling like you have enough time to work in your studio and attend all your friends’ openings while making sure you also have enough money to pay your studio rent. The precariousness of life here as an artist certainly keeps you on your toes, but the sense of community that living and working surrounded by other artists provides is something I would miss deeply if I ever move away from New York.

AMM: What is your studio setup like?

GS: I have a medium-sized studio in an old industrial building in Ridgewood, Queens. My studio has a large northeast facing window and two large working walls with racks along the back for storage. I generally like to keep things fairly organised, but my painting table looks like a teenager’s bedroom. I keep snacks on hand— very important.

AMM: Do you work on your practice, source images or make sketches when you are away from the studio?

GS: I bring a sketchbook with me everywhere I go and try to draw a little bit every day whether I go to my studio or not. Drawing from observation, even little quick sketches, is a way I have found to be present in a moment. For me it is a way to feed myself visual information, instead of constantly pouring it out.

Wader, oil and paper on canvas, 22 x 18 inches

AMM: Does your work draw much on other disciplines, for example music, literature, film?

GS: Probably yes, but not directly. I am not referencing any specific film, text, or musical composition, but certain pieces surface in my mind from time to time such as, currently, Virginia Woolf’s exquisite descriptive language in The Waves or the poems of Wendell Berry.

AMM: How do you approach self-promotion? Do you think it is important for currently practicing artists to use social media?

GS: I use Instagram and my personal website to share announcements for shows and new works. Social media—and specifically Instagram—can be a useful tool for artists. I have made friends and set up studio visits through Instagram. I have even been curated into shows because of someone seeing my work on Instagram, so I cannot deny the value that it can provide artists. I have had to throttle back in the last year or two in an effort to protect my process and works in progress. It can be confusing and disruptive to share something in progress and to receive a wide array of responses and inquiries, or to have that work in progress shared or reposted and misunderstood as a finished piece. I enjoy using social media as a way to build relationships with other artists, but I think it is important to remember to see the work in person whenever possible. A whole other layer of experience usually exists when you are faced with the surface of a painting.

AMM: What has been, or continues to be, your biggest challenge as a painter?

GS: That is a tough question! The self doubt that I assume all artists feel is probably the biggest challenge that never seems to go away. Interestingly, self doubt seems to disappear when I am in my studio, working with my hands. It just creeps up in-between working. I have always felt that if I continue to show up for my work, my work will continue to be fulfilling. Of course, in New York there never seems to be enough time or space or money all at once, but that balancing act is becoming less daunting over time. Oh, and paint itself! I feel like I may spend my whole lifetime attempting to intimately know and understand how to use this expansive medium. So, to answer your question—I guess all of it, showing up every day, humbled and ready to keep going.

AMM: Any exciting projects coming up that you can tell us about?

GS: I have been working on some drawings for night paintings. I have been thinking for a long time about making a group of night paintings and have dabbled here and there with a moon or a night sky, but I am interested in making paintings that feel like night, keeping the tones in a tight range. This is a big challenge for me, since I tend to be drawn to warm bright colors, but I am ready to make a concerted attempt!

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

Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.

Knot, oil and paper on canvas, 8 in x 10 inches