Process and Practice

Viraj Mithani, Gabriel Rojas, Andrew Shea, Malda Smadi, Scott VanderVeen

→MFA PT '23

How do our individual artistic histories and the context of graduate study at RISD shape the way we understand our processes, influences, and practices? In this roundtable discussion, Painting graduate students examine their work and ideas over the past two years. This text was developed for a seminar class taught by artist and critic Alan Ruiz in Fall 2022.—eds.

Viraj: I was thinking about artists who have a unique, personalized process, in particular this artist back home in India named Nibha Sikander. She makes intricate, miniature versions of insects, and she replicates them pretty well. The process is painstaking—papermaking, cutting, sticking. It’s super tiny but she has all the details, like the patterns on the wings. I wonder about her process: When does the technique stop and the artmaking begin?

Andrew: Do you have an idea of when?

Viraj: I guess it’s when she’s done with the whole thing, once the whole insect or the form is realized. She also collects things. She’s spoken about having a lot of insects around her because she has a forest in her backyard, so she saves the insects that died around her.

Scott: It sounds like she has a very meticulously detailed, tiny end goal. It’s almost like with processes all is sublimated into achieving something that is already predetermined. For me, a process feels important when it does the opposite of that—when you’re just discovering things along the way, without an established end goal. That said, I sometimes admire people who are able to sublimate their process into something definitive. I was thinking about these Vija Celmins sculptures—perfect reproductions of rocks that she’s found, cast in bronze and then painted really obsessively and meticulously. I was blown away by them because I don’t think I could remove myself enough to get something to look like the thing that you want it to look like.

Viraj: Yes, it’s just that—discipline—cultivating that discipline to follow that one thing consistently over time.

Andrew: Why do you think that’s a good quality, something we like in art?

Viraj: I just enjoy the discipline there. But I do ask myself: Where does the making stop? And where does thinking start?

Scott: So, you’re separating out material processes from processes of thought?

Viraj: Sort of.

Scott: People have used the term “craft” to separate material processes from thinking processes in ways that have been harmful. The idea is that weaving, say, is only a manual skill rather than an intellectual or conceptual skill. But process is now typically thought of as related to formalism in some way—it’s about thinking through materials  or thinking through craft or process. But it sounds like you’re saying you’re still interested in
the separation between “art” and “craft.”

Viraj: I am.

Andrew: So I guess my question was, why is craft appealing aesthetically? We have machines that can do process way faster. If an alien came down from a different planet, they’d say, “That was really dumb. You could have done that much quicker with technology.” But for some reason we think it’s a pleasurable thing to see work done by hand. Maybe it’s  about seeing the labor that went into it. I’m just trying to figure out when you’re interested in someone’s work just for the process, and not the end result, how that’s different from loving the sculpture because it looks exactly like a beautiful butterfly.

Scott: Yeah, I also think sometimes this whole thing about meticulous process and attention to process can be really kitschy, or read really fast too; the sort of glamor of wowing your audience with meticulous technique and labor. It can be a total closure for me. And I don’t really know myself where the line is between when it’s interesting or not.

Viraj: Labor’s a great point. Angela [Dufresne] has commented a lot on the giclée prints that I use. A lot of the time she tells me, if I’m referencing the Eastern miniature, and it’s super intricate, instead of slapping the whole giclée on, she wants to see me individually cut out every aspect. She’s like, “show me that labor.”

Andrew: I think she’s looking for that “thinking through doing.” So maybe Angela’s point was, “I want to see you dive into the thinking through cutting.” But that’s different than, “Oh, I love this piece because it must have taken 100 hours to do.” Right? Many people look at an abstract painting and think, “Oh, that only took him 30 minutes. So therefore it must not be worth much.” They’re essentially thinking of labor and value as a sort of wage system.

Malda: There’s also the slowing down when doing something that’s meticulous and repetitive and laborious like weaving or stitching. The slowness is the value, the time, the meditative state that you get with the work. When someone says “thinking through making,” it’s not just conscious, intentional thinking; it’s more like allowing the brain to go into other places that can also be spiritual. It’s not about meticulousness.

Scott: It’s like empathy. When you’re looking at the material and you can feel the positions of a person’s body or the motions of a person’s body, that’s a mode of connection.

Viraj: Malda, do you want to talk about your sculpture that you made with plaster, a new material for you? Did that slow you down, compared with, say, your drawings? If so, how?

Malda: Using plaster slows you down in a different way, because you’re building something and then you have to wait for it to dry. With my drawings, the drawing process itself is slower. It requires a lot of repetitive motions—recreating lines, and more lines. With sculpture you kind of have to go in and out of the process because of the drying time. It wasn’t a “staying in it” type of slowness.

Scott: Yeah, I was recently thinking about this sustained, meditative type of work, and I think I’m actually really “out” of it. Which is weird, because a lot of my practice is about trying to be embodied in studying materials, but there’s this problem with delayed gratification. Today, for instance, I was going to sew something by hand, and I thought, “Oh my God, this might take a whole week,” and I just really did not want to do it. And now, I’m thinking about it in a different way. At the time I didn’t want to be in the material alone, but it’s a really sustained commitment that lets your mind wander, versus other, often faster, types of tasks and decision-making processes that require fuller focus.

Malda: I wanted to ask that question to Andy, because I feel like your process with painting requires a lot of analyzing, maybe? And oil painting can be both a slow and a fast process. How does that work for you?

Andrew: I don’t know if I’d say my process is analytical, but I do think about “presence.” I don’t want my mind to be totally wandering, but I think that’s different from having to always be fully conscious—i.e., this must happen, and then this must happen. So I guess I wouldn’t want to be painting and thinking about what I need to get from the grocery store or something.

Gabriel: I wonder, when you’re trying to be present, and you’re painting, and there’s so many paintings in the studio, do you transfer your attention to another painting immediately or just focus on one?

Andrew: I mostly just have one painting on the wall at a time that I’m looking at. But there are other things in the periphery.

Gabriel: I’ve sort of tried to accept that labor is somewhere I’m allowed to drift, but still work through something.  

Andrew: John Ruskin made this argument that we like architectural details that are carved by hand because with mechanical production the worker is not in control of the whole product. It’s more alienated, basically. And the person who made it is therefore disaffected. Ruskin said that kind of labor, the labor where you’re just assembling something but not thinking about it, isn’t good, and conversely there’s a health to a craft where you’re involved with the whole creation.  

Gabriel: True, but I love both. I was pretty naive at first to think that all my gestures would be psychologically charged and emotive, like the Abstract Expressionists were taught. I was totally into that. I thought that every mark was so important. Now I’m okay with letting that go, but I am still rooted in a painting ideal that your emotion and experience is revealed through the material.

Scott: The idea that grad school is a time to find a process, rather than a time to produce a specific body of work, is fully about connecting process and thinking, and learning how you’re going to develop a practice that can sustain you. The process is so open at this point in my studio, that it’s almost scary to have to reinvent myself every time. In some ways, I want to solve that as a problem, but in other ways, maybe the problem itself is the heart of the whole thing.

Malda: I feel grad school creates an environment for a process, and then once you leave, your process changes in some way or another. When I’m just by myself, I do paintings, because I have time to slow down. But every time I’m in an educational setting, whether a school or residency, my work is multidisciplinary, and kind of all over the place. Maybe because I’m asking for feedback all the time in school, I always want to do something new. I’d like to imagine that what ends up sticking afterwards is the self-trust.

Scott: The process also doesn’t just begin with making, but before that—with what you’re looking at and what you’re thinking about, before you even go to the studio. For example, today I went to Lowe’s and I spent too much money, and I felt really bad. But I also was like, now I have all this stuff to work with.

Andrew: That reminds me of my visit with Brenda Goodman. She basically said, “You need to use more paint, so first you have to squeeze out more paint onto your palette. If you want to change your process, change your habits, basically.

Gabriel: In her lecture, Dyani White Hawk discussed doing quill beadwork in grad school, how she would only work on one project at a time and wasn’t churning them out like everybody else, which is what a structured program expects. So she switched the process to replicate those beads more quickly in paint. She was making a bunch of paintings, and that helped her get the language of the forms. Then later on, she came back to using physical beads, after she was out of school.

Scott: I used to work for Jeffrey Gibson, who does a lot of bead stuff, too. In the beginning, we were always watching documentaries while working, but the art was still good. Working for someone else’s practice was interesting. It was collaborative, it mattered that the labor was “present” in the process, but it didn’t matter who did it, or what they were doing or thinking while they did it, which is so different from how I work now.

Andrew: Maybe it has something to do with impersonality. You see that there’s labor, but it’s not as if every mark indexes an individual’s psychology or feelings, which can be an effective part of the art itself.  

Gabriel: Making can be a communal thing, too.

Malda: I’m always questioning myself in my work, but also questioning other artists. We look at the work and read their moves or intentions in a certain way, but it turns out that things just happened. At what point do you let go and stop thinking through every single move?

Gabriel: And how much do you let what people say about your unintentional moves influence what you do next?

Malda: Depends what the read is. People pick up on and interpret things in different ways. You don’t really have control. But do you try to preempt that by thinking through everything yourself? Or do you just leave things be?

Viraj: That’s the beauty of art, right? You cannot make people stop thinking. Yeah, the artist has one idea, but it goes into the world and becomes many different things.

Scott: Some people are intuitive makers and some are conceptual makers. We have to bounce between those poles sometimes, and trying to figure out how to merge them has been important to me lately. But I do see those two kinds of ways of looking and making as being in conflict to some degree.

Malda: Yeah. I’m facing that now and I’m trying to work through it. Now with everything I do I wonder, does this carry the meaning? Everything has to be intentional.

Scott: I’ve been hesitant about embracing an intuitive process of making, given how much we’re all questioning its connection to individualism. We’re wondering if it needs to be more than that—more than the individual. And perhaps making something in a super research-based, “conceptual” way you can get around yourself or get around your own personal taste. My point is that for me personally, even though I’m feeling skeptical of chance, intuition, improvisation, etc. … It's the only way of working that makes me feel sane at all. Maybe it’s okay that you want to just do something and you don’t know why, because maybe the answer emerges later.

Viraj: Dyani White Hawk was talking about traditional Native American art practices, which were collective. Many of the schools in India were collectives. Can a collective work? 

Scott: I think even just admitting your influences is a way to make a collective. It is kind of true that no one comes up with anything.

Malda: When Brenda [Goodman] came to my studio, I had all of my older stuff—the performance piece, sculpture, etc.—on one wall, and on the other wall, I hung a small painting. And Brenda said, “Okay, you had to go through all those processes, but this work has it all.” And that piece was the most abstract, intuitive work I had made. She was basically saying that everything I was dealing with is in the painting without it being that specific and calculated.

Scott: It’s kind of interesting to have Brenda as an example about what is collective or not, because I think sometimes when people think about “collective making,” there’s this kind of romanticism of self-abnegation, as if there’s no individual left in the room;it’s just the group. And Brenda came in and was such an incredibly specific individual who fully went with her taste. So maybe a group can be a collection of individuals who disagree.

Andrew: I think a painting is inherently a social act because it responds to things that exist outside the self, and it’s created to be shown to other people. Writing a poem is a social act; it’s made to be read or recited. So to suggest that a more intuitive, personal, or expressive practice inherently doesn’t involve the collective, is wrong. That’s my escape route from the trap of solipsism.

Scott: One of the things from first semester that stuck with me a lot was Fox [Haysen], who pointed to the painting on my wall and said, “This is not where the art is.” And then she gestured up at the space between her and me and the painting and she said, “This is where it is.” There’s an essay about Eva Hesse and her studio, which was full of stuff, so no one knew how to categorize it as “work” or “not work.” The argument was about how she lived within an outpouring of making. The process didn’t really have an end, no finish point, no boundaries. But the thing that was really beautiful about it, to me, was how it was 100% an immersion in process. All these little bits and bobs in the studio were confounding to conservators and collectors, but they all contributed presence and meaning.

Malda: Gabriel, how’s the process going with your sculptures now versus the paintings?

Gabriel: Textiles slow things down. I think more about the physical substances, though I know that the materials are also loaded with a lot of history. I have to slow down and differentiate between what’s a material that’s been created personally or collaboratively, and what’s been mass produced. I’m materially working through it with my hands, so it’s slowly building, as opposed to painting which can just be layered over and over and has its history established in that way.

Scott: At my most optimistic, I really believe that you can learn about any process through any other process. Making textiles has affected your paintings; you’re learning about something by doing something else really deeply. That’s kind of cool.