I’m totally in love with New York-based artist Catherine Haggarty’s lively, diverse, and colorful canvases! Abstracted and bright, her subjects and compositions are ambiguous, but they don’t hide, and neither are they straightforward portraits. The more I look at them, the more I begin to liken them to the kind of memories from childhood that stick with us over time: vague except for perhaps one or two sharp images. Combining her own painting practice with teaching, curating, and writing, Haggarty has a busy to start to 2017 with the opening of a curated exhibition on January 27th at Ortega y Gasset Projects, of which she is co-director, in Brooklyn, followed by a solo exhibition opening on February 18th (details toward the end)! Love this interview, and check out more information via the links below!
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Hi Catherine! I’d love to know a little more about you! Where are you from originally, and what first interested you in painting? What did you want to be when you were a child?
I grew up in North Jersey – Morris Plains & Morristown specifically. I am the last of seven siblings – well, my twin sister and I are the last to be technical! When I was a child I wanted to be in the WNBA – then I wanted to be a psychologist – and finally, I decided to chase the inner desire to make art for a lifetime. I began painting in my very early twenties while studying abroad in Italy at the Tyler School of Art. My earliest memories of art making though were of building trash and recyclable sculptures in my family’s garage alone…I didn’t believe early on I was any good at art – I was more of an athlete but I’m so thankful for those years of dedication to athletics because it paved the groundwork for me to be hard working and confident enough to take chances. There was always this inner belief that I could do what others couldn’t, that I could endure more, and push myself harder. Being a small and skinny athlete that fortitude and knowing served me well as height and strength weren’t to my advantage. Now, being an artist I think it serves the same purpose – it keeps me humble and hungry.
Where are you based currently?
Currently I am based in Jersey City/Hoboken but I spend almost all my time in New York and Brooklyn. I teach at two schools in New Jersey and my studio is here so it makes sense – but being so close to the city is optimal and if I am not painting or teaching, I’m likely in New York doing studio visits or going to openings.
What has your art education been like (whether informal or formal)?
Well, in undergrad I studied Psychology (B.S.) as well as Fine Art (B.A) and then I took a few years off and finally applied to graduate school – I received my M.F.A. from Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of art in 2011.
Can you tell me a bit about your work? What is your process like?
I mostly make paintings – but all of the work comes from drawing and constantly noticing what I am noticing. I rely on constant observation to stay present and also to narrow down subject matter and what is most important to me – what matters most. There are reoccurring forms and shapes that I now know are steady ‘characters’ – if you will, in my visual vocabulary. At times, work has been narrative based in a more didactic way and other times, as of late – a bit more ambiguous which is making me happier.
Layers of marks, drawings, paint add up over time…I sand, I start over, I ignore the panels…and If I am paying close attention while in my studio I’ll solve the painting as I work through other paintings. Rarely is it a one shot – the best ones are worked, they have lived with me a while.
I notice that you seem to gravitate toward a square or nearly-square canvas shape; what do you like most about those dimensions?
That is a good observation – The square lends itself to such a difficult composition to solve, it avoids the direct reference to portrait or landscape and this lets me be more free and weird with my composition and imagery.
Your paintings are also abstracted, but still often representational of figures, or objects like chairs or tables. Where do the ideas for your subject matter stem from?
Well, yes there are often and almost always recognizable forms and people – this is important to me as all the work comes from my experiences and observations. If I keep drawing a subject over and over – I will begin to ask myself, ‘What is important about this…why do you keep leaning to this?‘ then I can begin to boil down important subjects.
When I attempt to ‘represent’ a figure – that is often from memory, to me that is the beautiful part of abstract representational painting today. The reliance on memory for form is difficult and allows one to be weird and make up the rules to what is a ‘logical’ painting or person. To me there are endless moments with people I’ve loved that I’d like to relive but know I can’t – that’s when I put my head down and begin to find forms through lines, silhouettes and hopefully I end up closer to an ephemeral picture – the dissonance between representation and memory is the challenge and the goal.
What is your studio like?
Oh, I am not sure words do it justice – but I spend almost all my time here when I am not teaching or in the city for an event. I have two solid painting walls and a large old antique table that I work on when I am tired or I need to write. I keep a select amount of photos on my wall – poems, athletes, kids drawings – things that make me remember sport, love, being young…not to mention a healthy batch of plants and cacti. I also love having my small but strong art collection around – so I can look around and see my colleague’s work on the wall – I’d rather look at their work often more than mine, so it helps!
You also curate! How does that coincide with your own practice, or do you consider it to be the other side of the same coin?
Yes, I have been curating and writing about art for about four years consistently. I began to curate because I believed in some artists that I felt needed to be shown more and because I was inspired by certain texts that I was reading and began to dream about shows that might reflect those stories and prose. I began to write about art because I simply love it as a subject to write about – more than criticism of art I am interested in story telling and in poetry. I write articles as they come and write poetry in reaction to my work and the work of others.
I am a director with the artist run gallery, Ortega y Gasset Projects in Brooklyn. This has been one of the best professional affiliations for me yet. The dialogue and professional work ethic within this group is outstanding – truly another level. We meet bi-weekly via conference call, email and speak daily. We each get a month to curate a show of our choice and work on collaborations, press releases and events for our space. We encourage each other and learn constantly.
Essentially, I believe strongly that to have success you have to be influential. I don’t want to be obsessed only with my work, I want to give to others if I can. I want to open dialogue, show a young painter, write about someone who deserves it and grow a community. In the end, chasing a mega gallery is a lofty goal and worth it to a degree – but we don’t live in that art paradigm anymore. The art world has changed. Success is there for the taking now in a way because of the internet and social media – but because of this availability it is harder to stand out and to last long term. So if your life’s work is not solely about you – you’ll have the opportunity to expand and fuel what is surely to be a beautiful marathon of painting alone but also giving to others.
Has curating while maintaining an art practice presented any challenges, or surprised you in any way?
Honestly, it has mostly fueled me and my passion for the art world even more. Also, just as honestly, it is exhausting and you have to pick your projects more carefully at some point. When you are preparing for shows and teaching and curating – that is a lot. And even for the most ambitious, it is sincerely hard to do well.
So, I have learned to be selective and enjoy my evenings alone painting. I don’t feel I need to be everything to everybody anymore. I trust in my community, my networks and most importantly, my work. It is the work that matters most – the hours you spend alone and how okay you are with that. That is what you work for.
What’s the best advice you’ve received? Is there any advice you’re glad you didn’t take?
The best advice I received was from Tom Nozkowski during my M.F.A – I will paraphrase it but essentially he said if I am okay in the studio alone, all those hours spent painting with no one else around – I will be okay in the long run. That the work is most important and he is right. You can’t be in a rush to be popular or famous or whatever people think is going to happen. There are way too many brilliant critics, writers and artists out there – that kind of rubbish will be sniffed out, the art star bullshit – I can see right through it too so I easily assume others can. The work has to be solid and that… simply takes time.
What has been the most rewarding or exciting thing you’ve come across so far in your career?
It may sound trite – but the people. I sometimes can’t believe the company I get to keep in studio visits and at openings… it has been truly a beautiful ride, and it’s just getting started. Another thing is that whenever I travel for openings and or residencies, I am floored with gratitude, that I have built a life where these things are possible – that I took that chance more than a decade ago to believe in my life as an artist and that I committed to doing it fully.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you’re currently developing?
Sure, I am preparing for two solo shows in 2017. . .
My solo show with Proto Gallery opens February 18th and the space is really huge so it’s the bulk of my work the last year and a half. It is a lot and really exciting to work towards!
The second solo show will be in France in April 2017 with the roving gallery, Look e Listen. The gallery has not told me yet of the location, but I will also be there for ten days doing some collaborative work with the director, Yifat Gat and her program in the south of France. I am so so looking forward to both of these shows and the chance to spend time in France!
Anything else you would like to add?
My favorite studio snack is peanut butter on rice cakes… I run most days of my life, I live for live music and being outdoors, my dream is to split my time between Europe and New York. Oh, and I’m incredibly fortunate because of my sweet and generous parents and my twin sister and… many many siblings.
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