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Pia Howell

We discovered Pia Howell’s work in the collective show Fükengrüven at Bodega. We were working at that time on our aw 13/14 collection entitled Études N°3. The collection explored the sobriety of the color black by contrasting it to the “Études blue”. It became therefore evident to invite her to create prints that would eventually become the collection’s emblem. She delivered two motifs named “Colorgram” that are represented in the collection throughout digital prints and woven jacquards. Stemming from a process that wavers between photogram and painting, these prints translate with lightness and precision the notions of movement and modernity that define this collection.

Pia Howell is an American artist born in 1986 in Kansas City. After studying at Columbia university and Rhode Island School of Design, she now lives and works in New York. It is with great pleasure that we introduce you to her work and personality throughout this conversation we had with her in her studio in Brooklyn.

Can you talk about your sketching, drawing process?

My drawings and ink paintings are more intuitive and expressive than pre-conceived. For me making them is cathartic, a direct release of energy whether that energy is aggressive, ecstatic, or intoxicated.

We talked about trying to find the perfect signature, can you explain us the idea behind it.

It’s not so much finding the perfect signature as conceiving of a signature as an icon. It seems like most people’s signatures are illegible, which makes the signature an abstract symbol indexical of its owner. I really like drawing boobs, in a certain way that verges on abstract. It looks a lot like a depiction of a signature- I thought it would be funny to start drawing these boobs as my signature. Seems all the same anyway. 

Why the boobs or smileys ?

They are aesthetically pleasing and universally relatable. As symbols they are both so universally readable that they are then more mutable- I think you can push each pretty far before they are unrecognizable as boobs or smileys.

I love that even very simple line gestures can be extremely expressive. I’m fascinated by the smiley as the simplest depiction of a face and by extension very basic symbolism of emotion. Not all “smileys” are happy; and the unhappy ones can be kind of heart-wrenching.

Are your artworks playing with that thin line between Abstract and Figurative art? How would you define your work?

Yes, I really enjoy the balance between the two. I guess my work is simultaneously both and neither. It’s more about symbolism or pattern recognition than abstraction or figuration.

You live and work in Brooklyn, how does that influence your everyday art practice?

I take a lot of iPhone photos of weird graffiti, neon signs, hand-written deli signs, and messages written in wet concrete. There are also penises and smileys everywhere here.

I am curious to know if you wish to live somewhere else or if you consider it the perfect place?

For now it’s a good place- there are many things I like about New York. I think I could probably benefit from a couple months in sunshine and nature, though.

Most of your work is the result of some analog and digital treatment? Do you consider yourself part of the generation of artists in this transition period between 2 eras?

My relationship to photography is inextricable from this period in time, and I feel lucky to have had to learn the color darkroom, and found my process before moving on from that technology as most of the field has. I think it’s a common practice in this generation to transition fluidly between digital and analog, though I do find it particularly interesting to see what happens to an image or work when going from one to the other and back again. It kind of simultaneously undermines each system, which can produce interesting visual results. 

Last year you exhibited the series Homosapien 2 at Queer Thoughts gallery in Chicago. Is this body of work the result of that?

The Fire Faces in Homosapien 2 were first drawn using an app on an iphone and ipad. I enlarged, digitally manipulated, and printed the resulting drawings out on acetate, then analog printed from the transparencies in the color darkroom. Initially I thought this app was so specific and hilarious; fire is cool, but who would have thought to make an app that allows you to draw with it? So great. It was also right up my alley as a simulation of a natural process or effect- what constitutes a depiction of fire: oranges and yellows, flame shapes, etc. So likewise printing this series in the darkroom was a secondary experiment to see if using my own process I could simulate fire. It worked, really well I think! Considering I hadn’t taken an actual photograph of fire.

Did you think of Yves Klein’s “Fire painting’ at any moment in your process, was it a reference you had in mind?

Ah! No at the time I wasn’t thinking about Klein’s fire paintings- but that is an apt reference. Not only in their representation of flames and fire but in that their creation was in a sense photographic- Klein exposed paper to flame around the figures of women; the women’s bodies therefore acted as resists, behind which the paper would be largely unexposed to the fire- a process essentially the same as blocking off parts of photo paper when exposing it to light… Though I suppose in pretty much all other ways my fire work is inverted: Simulated fire rather than real; fire used to create a positive image of a face or figure rather than a negative figure surrounded by fire.

Can you tell us more about the way you make your colorgram C Prints, and how did you come up to the idea and the result behind it?

Instead of shooting and printing from negatives, I experiment with contact printing, or placing things and images on the photo paper and exposing the set up to light. Just using light and color filters you can produce really beautiful, saturated colors that don’t quite exist in other mediums. Years ago, I first started hand cutting stencils in geometric shapes. My first color grams looked like Albers’ paintings. Since them I’ve experimented with different ways of blocking out light to control exposure and color. At this point I’m interested in creating these c prints that look like paintings. While the trial and error can be frustrating, I love working in an experimental way -I’ll often be working towards something and discover another potential technique to test out later.

I know it was important for you to make those in the lab, Nonetheless you also research and use internet, instagram, apps or a software like photoshop for some of your projects? How do you combine these 2 worlds?

I don’t know, they don’t seem so separate to me. I think it’s just about choosing a process based on the effect you’re going for with a project.

I would like to reference your work to the French artist Claude Viallat and the movement he is part of called Supports/Surfaces. He works around a neutral form, neither natural nor geometric, that he repeats on a free canvas without frame, determining the composition of the work. He is always putting more emphasis on the relationship between density, intensity, brilliance and colored surfaces. What influences you or which artist do you feel close to?

I studied both Pop and Minimalism in great depth in school. I still find it interesting to try to reconcile the two, and along these lines I maintain interest in Claus Oldenberg, Smithson, Ana Mendieta. I guess this is strange as they’re all sculptors and I work two dimensionally, but I like that they all have this anti-slickness and tension between a natural, human element and professional materiality. I guess this is telling in the sense that while I find photography and its history very interesting I’ve never felt part of its lineage. 

The name of the 2 artworks we used for our collaboration are Black Smiley and Blue Creeper – can you tell us about these two pieces?

They are some of my earlier pieces that used painted transparencies to print what looked like brushstrokes in the darkroom, in this way using brushstrokes to symbolize painting. I liked that you wanted to use these works for textiles as I thought they were strangely primed for that kind of material fluidity- having already transitioned from painting to c print, and then from scan to textile.

I would like to talk about color with you and the fact that you created this color range while you were working in the darkroom, can you specifically talk about associating black and blue?

In the darkroom, some colors are much easier to create than others. When I am trying to achieve black, I often rely on overexposing the settings for blue. As you can imagine, getting to black from a deep blue requires less precise color balancing and shorter exposure than pushing, for example, yellow to black (which would take a much longer exposure and always result in more of a brown).

Maybe this is subjective, but I find that more often than not blue is blue. By this I mean, whereas variant shades of green can, to me, connote wildly different feelings and senses, there’s a much wider and more forgiving window for achieving a neutral-feeling blue. Don’t get me wrong, there are of course many different and individual blues, but I find that the shift in feeling from light to dark blue is not especially dramatic. By contrast, I think the emotional shift, from palest to darkest, in all other colors is profound. Think of light pink shift to crimson red- much more dramatic.

I’d be interested to hear how you and Etudes think of Blue- if you agree here or strongly disagree- as you work so much with blue.

This is an interesting point, I guess we never thought about it this way, on our side we like to reproduce the same blue with different materials, textiles, prints, paintings, we try to always match the exact same one, it is pretty hard but sometimes we get really good surprises, like with your woven jacquard motif, the blue turned out to be very powerful and full of light!

You are very much interested in texture and most of your work is in 2 dimensions, print, paper, books, what about sculpture?

I admire sculpture but am not quite sure yet how to approach it myself. I make tiny sculptures in my studio but I’ve never shown them. Maybe they’ll develop into something eventually.

And what about photography?

I think the possibilities for photography as a field are so interesting and infinite. I hope to continue experimenting in my own way and make some kind of contribution. I have no idea if I will ever go back to shooting traditionally with a camera for my work.

Duane Read Lunatic was recently published by Bodega Press, can you tell us about it?

Yes, it includes work I made this year, made outside of the darkroom. I drew and painted, then scanned the images and manipulated them in photoshop.

Many of them incorporate metallics which are sometimes originally painted with nail polish. Once scanned these metallics become simulated. You and I discussed how they aren’t technically metallic as in the book they aren’t printed in metallic ink. But, it’s like with the simulation of fire or symbolization of painting, getting at what signifies a metallic. I’ve also simulated metallic in the darkroom, which was really challenging- you’ve got to show some light reflecting off of it.

What about the metallic, would you say that it represents mass market and research for success in a perfect world? Is it in anyway related to the tittle, can you explain the choice of the title?

That’s not how I think of metallics exactly. I would say that metallics often represent, or are meant to represent, wealth, opulence, richness. Because of this they’re often cheaply emulated. Therefore depending on context metallics can be either very elegant or gaudy and distasteful; which is an interesting contrast. Mainly I like using metallics because I like their visual effect. A superficial interpretation of the title Duane Reade Lunatic is that some of the work was painted with nail polish, bought from Duane Reade among other drug stores. I misused a very normal, mass market product to create original art work. But really I meant for the title to get at the uncomfortable but common proximity of the normal and the perverse.

Any upcoming projects, something to add?

I’m really excited for Eric and Elyse of Bodega. They are moving the press and gallery to New York. Hoping to continue to work with them and do a show early next year.

Conversation with Pia Howell, Brooklyn , March 2013. Photography by Études Studio