Interview: Jean Alexander Frater
The tension between opposites in Chicago based artist Jean Alexander Frater’s work – color versus blank canvas, matte versus sheen, flatness versus dimensionality – initially draws one to her work. But moving beyond the surface of deftly painted color gradients and folds in the canvas that extend beyond its wooden supports demonstrate much more than her interest in the formal properties of painting. Her work is a deeper exploration into the meaning, significance, and history of the medium itself. Looking back to a moment in history where both artists and critics were deconstructing painting to its most basic elements in order to assess its relevance in the modern era, Frater revisits this notion today, addressing the same concerns from a contemporary perspective through her series of “Soft Paintings”.
When did you begin creating your “Soft Paintings” and how were they a development from the work you had been making previously?
The first idea of the ‘Soft Paintings’ occurred when I was completely engrossed in making another series of paintings called ‘Gravity Paintings.’ The Gravity Paintings are made by allowing paint to drip and run over bands of gradient color, each thin line of paint propelled down the surface by gravity, and the quality of the line changing as the surface of the canvas varies. The Paintings deal with a kind of chance operation, and my decisions are working in direct collaboration with the material.
I made a Soft Painting during this period and it hung in my studio for a while, kind of lingering in the periphery. I began making them in earnest about a year and a half ago. Then I was given this great opportunity to work with an outdoor project space called The Franklin, in Chicago and Ionit Behar included me in a group show titled, “My Feet Have Lost Memory of Softness.” During our studio visits we talked about the Soft Paintings, and we talked about soft ideas, and the hardness of things. I visited The Franklin to propose my piece and decided to use the existing structure as the support or frame for my paintings. It is an indoor/outdoor structure, so I had this interesting situation where the paintings could exist as double sided. I painted four enormous canvases, one side of each painting was stretched inside the structure and the excess painted canvas was pulled through the wooden slats of the exterior structure. It was a great opportunity to think about painting and architecture.
Which artists influence your work - who from the past do you look to and which contemporary artists interest you?
There are so many! I am interested in contemporary artist Justin Adian’s sculptural color paintings; also Judy Ledgerwood’s use of color, pattern, and paint application is inspiring. I spent some time recently reading about and looking at the work of Lucio Fontana, especially his cut paintings, and his consideration of light is meaningful. Finally, I’ll mention Frank Stella who has been one of my favorite artists forever, and in a big way his work sort of turned me on to Elizabeth Murray’s paintings; especially her integration of painted forms and shaped canvases.
Talk about your process of creating a painting. How do you decide when a work is finished?
For me, painting is part of a three-tiered process. The chronological order of these three steps can shift depending on what I am concentrating on. There is the assembling of the stretcher bars (putting together the support), there is the painting itself, which involves applying paint to the surface of the material, and there is the stretching of the material over the support.
Before I paint, I do lots of rough sketches and drawings. The drawings are a way to hypothesize about the idea. Then, once I find a compelling idea, I try it out.
Sometimes the idea is completely lost in the physical translation, and it is often the case that the painted surface isn’t quite right, or I cut the canvas at the wrong angle, etc. If the idea doesn’t work, or once I have begun if a solution does not evolve, then I roll up the canvas and put it away.
What do you hope your audience takes away or experiences from your work?
I hope audiences see that this work is about Painting and the way we perceive things. I hope they notice the material, the paint, the support, the shadows, the color, the stillness, the motion, the weight and the buoyancy. I hope that audiences are able to have a heightened idea about the space of the painting and the space the paintings occupy.
In preparation for your upcoming solo exhibition, how are you thinking about the presentation of your works?
With this particular body of work, I have decided to try to make each painting have it’s own idea and relationship to perception and space. I don’t want to offer up iterations of one thought. I hope that one painting can have a conversation with another, and then another object can open up a tangential but related experience. I will be really concentrating on how the pieces are arranged in relationship to each other, the different sources of light, and the space itself.
Jean received her MFA from the School of Art Institute of Chicago, after earning a Bachelor of Science Degree with a major in Philosophy, at the University of Dayton, Ohio. Her work has been exhibited internationally in venues such as the Wexner Center for Arts in Columbus, El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe, the Images Festival in Toronto, Possible Project Space in Brooklyn, the Big Screen Project in New York, the Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, the Kulturhuset in Stockholm, Transmitter Gallery in Brooklyn and Guest Spot @ The Reinstitute in Baltimore. Jean’s paintings were included in the latest edition of New American Paintings, Midwest #125. Jean is represented by THE MISSION Gallery, in Chicago, where she will have a solo show in April 2017.