Patrick Iberi: In introducing the contents of her book, The Obstacle Race: The Fortune of Women Painters and their Work, Germaine Greer, the Australian feminist scholar noted: “there has always been a degree of fairly desultory interest in women artists as varieties of natural prodigies.” Against this backdrop, do you have an opinion on gender and the visual arts?
Paula Franzini: Well yes, historically, the woman artist was regarded much as Dr. Johnson regarded women preachers: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog walking on its hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” We have moved beyond this in one sense – and yet not, in another. It has never ceased to amaze and dismay me – looking around classrooms and collective studios – that art students, even at the MFA and Ph.D. levels, and struggling professional artists, are predominantly female. Yet as you go up the ladder, the higher you go in recognition levels, the more the male gender dominates. I think the fact that art is a domain judged much more subjectively than, say, the sciences, makes it harder for the status quo to evolve. Moreover, the tendency (be it biological or sociological) for men to be more aggressive helps them in the recognition race, where success is often determined more by the artist’s personality than the art’s merits.
PI: The reference to your interest in manifold subjects is clearly evident in your work. On a conceptual level, what are the challenges involved in translating such hybrid approach to art?
PF: It’s actually hard for me to talk about the conceptual challenges involved, because my art comes to me so intuitively. I do not set out planning cerebrally to translate abstract concepts to visual art. Despite what some may imagine to be the dryness, the conceptualism of some of the subjects that interest me, I immerse myself in these ideas by impulsive desire, by instinctive need. I then create, in an improvisational manner. I include a fragment of a scribbled equation here, a molecular diagram there, because of the visual appeal they hold for me. Only afterwards come control, reflection, and selection, in the combination of layers and the composition of panels; in the choosing of my titles, translating to my audience some of the meanings that can be found in my imagery. Even this tends to be more a meditative process than a cerebral one.
PI: Do you feel your paintings conform to established non-figurative modes of depiction?
PF: I believe that I work in a rather strictly abstract, non-figurative manner (by natural inclination, not by any desire to conform to established modes). I do not represent objects; even my representation of ideas is fundamentally abstract in that I do not set out to represent any preconceived idea when I paint; I use a lot of automatic drawing and painting in my work. I include bits of photographs, yes, but zoomed-in details chosen for the abstract forms and patterns they contain, not their literal meanings.
PI: Most of your paintings are in polyptych form, which was commonly used for altar pieces. Is the idea of juxtaposing abstract subjects merely to generate multiple viewing perspectives? Or does this subscribe to a religious experience?
PF: Definitely not religious; I am more of a secular humanist with, at most, spiritual leanings of a very personal, non-denominational nature. It is true; polyptychs were originally mainly altarpieces – in Renaissance times. But the form has since been adopted by secular artists, from early Dutch painters, to Japanese printmakers in the Edo era, to Warhol, comic book art, and many contemporary painters. In my case, the polyptych form is both simply a visceral visual preference, and a conceptual choice. I depict abstract subjects by disparate views juxtaposed in one image, symbolizing that one thing, or concept, seen by different people or from different angles, looks very different. My images are about the more complete vision that comes from seeing more than one side of a story.
PI: Which artists or art movement inspire your work and why?
PF: Movements: automatism, abstract expressionism; for texture, the embracing of chance effects, vigorous dramatic brushstrokes. At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’d have to say I can’t think of any artists that inspire my work. Life, nature, ideas, accidental textures of paint, rusts... whatever... inspire my work. But I can however give examples of artists whose work makes me shiver with delight and feel a sense of kinship. Painter Zao Wou-ki as a perfect example of the rich, complex, textural abstract painting I like best. Photographer Edward Burtynsky for the vibrant beauty, color and texture he finds in the strangest places. Jared Tarbell, computer programmer/artist, for the complex, “living” texture of his computer generated work. Casey Reas and Ben Fry for Processing, their open source programming language/environment for people who want to mix technology and the arts.
PI: Can you talk about your involvement with Montreal’s Atelier Circulaire and shed light on your activities as a past member of the board of directors?
PF: The Atelier Circulaire – one of Canada’s best artist-run traditional printmaking studios – will always be near and dear to my heart as the place where I “came of age” as a professional artist. From 1999 to 2003 I was a full-time artist printmaker working daily in the collective AC studios, making and printing collagraphs and etchings. Soon after becoming a member there, I was asked to serve on the board of the directors (composed primarily of artist members). Despite my relative inexperience as an artist, they felt my previous career made me a useful addition. I was honoured to be asked, and count it a valuable experience, though I must admit that administration and paperwork is my least favourite part of being an artist.
PI: Still on your paintings and your inclination to experiment with diverse media, do you think your style underlines your resourcefulness as an artist?
PF: Yes, certainly, I do, especially because my style is a product of my emphasis on continual research and investigation, be it of new techniques or new ideas.
PI: Apart from being a painter/printmaker you also have a background in the natural sciences. What has been the outcome of blending both fields of interest, taking into account the differences in approach and engagement?
PF: The outcome is the opportunity for dialogue between these fields, both in my work and in the minds of the viewers. I have realized, and I hope to help others realize, that these fields do not have to be so orthogonal as is commonly supposed; that art and science have a common ground in beauty and creativity, in the desire to explore and discover.
PI: Damien Hirst, purportedly the world’s highest paid artist recently partnered with Levis, the denim outfit, in branding a limited-edition line with some of his images. On the face of this in economic terms, what are the prospects for an artist especially in this period of global recession?
PF: The situation is often described as dismal, but then again, it has been described as that for years. No surprise – it’s hard to get much more “discretionary”, spending-wise, with artwork. The average income of a Canadian visual artist is something like $20,000; half of the artists earn $10,000 or less. (The average for women is, by the way, 40% lower than for men). Moreover, most of this income is generated from something other than art sales, like teaching art, art-related jobs or non-art-related jobs on the side, etc. It is said that something like 1% of professional visual artists actually make a living from art sales. Simply stated, it’s not for economic reasons that one should become an artist.
PI: Commentary from the public about a piece of art can be quite subjective and sometimes the artist is required to give more details on his or her creation. Isn’t there a danger that such generosity could be misplaced? Or better still, would you rather art explains itself?
PF: I certainly would prefer, for the most part, that art explain itself. However, I do not think that the fact that most art is better understood when some background information is given makes either the art or the giving of the information less important; not when it isn’t taken to extremes.
PI: I agree with you completely but when an artist contextualizes a piece of art, it is always informed by a personal aesthetic conditioning, hence my concern for any predetermined interpretation. Anyway, let’s move on, is there a favourite painting or collection amongst your entire oeuvre?
PF: I have so many favourite pieces; I can’t fairly single one out, though I can give Asymptotic Freedom as an example of one of my favourites. Also, as a general rule, I tend to “move on” in my tastes, so my favourite body of work is typically what I have done in the last couple years.
PI: What is going on at the moment? Are there major plans for the future in terms of shows or exhibitions?
PF: Lately, I’ve been refining my photographic skills – systematically reading through most of the more interesting photography books in the extensive Ottawa city library system (a new and beloved resource for me, having moved to this area recently from the Montreal area); taking massive amounts of photos for my image banks, and exploring macro photography. In the near future, I plan to be working on particularly large scale prints; on unique mixed-media pieces combining drawing and painting with digital printmaking; and on using programming (e.g. processing) as a tool in creating art. I am working on some images for a collective show by the Atelier Circulaire members, but have no specific major show plans at the moment.
PI: Thank you for finding time to respond to my questions. Best wishes in your future endeavours.
PF: Thank you Patrick, I’ve enjoyed answering your questions, as I am more in the habit of expressing my inner thoughts through visual media and equations. The effort of putting them into words adds a new nuance, another “degree of freedom” as physicists say.
You can view any of the pieces of artwork in this gallery by clicking on the thumbnails below:
Paula Franzini was born in New York and lived in the USA and Europe before settling down in Quebec. She moved to Montreal in 1997, and more recently to Gatineau near Ottawa. She earned a doctorate in physics from Stanford University and worked in world-renowned laboratories as a particle physicist before becoming a full-time artist (printmaker and painter).
Since 1998, she is a member of Montreal's Atelier Circulaire, where she served on the Board of Directors for two years. She has participated in several exhibitions, both in Canada and abroad, and her works are part of a number of corporate and private collections. Franzini’s multidisciplinary path -- she is deeply interested in manifold subjects including mathematics, computer technology, natural sciences, photography, literature, music, and languages -- is an integral part of her artistic work.
Her goal is to express the abstract beauty and joy she perceives in purely conceptual constructs such as mathematical functions; to question the boundaries between the diverse disciplines she studies, and put forth a playful personal translation between them. One of the characteristics of her work is making use of the great artistic potentials of new technology while retaining a painterly, natural-media look.
See more of her pieces here:
Patrick Iberi has a background in philosophy. He is greatly interested in existentialism and works as a freelance writer, with attention (in varying degrees) on essays on the arts, literary criticism and poetry. His writings have appeared in both print and online publications. A forth coming collection of poems tentatively titled “Echoes of a desolate voice “is in the works.
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