This past Wednesday, Oct. 19 at 6 p.m. in the Ring Family Performing Arts Hall, University President Michael Roth and Henry Abrams hosted a discussion concerning Professor of Art and of Environmental Studies Tula Telfair’s life experiences and their influence on her work.
Abrams is the author of Telfair’s upcoming monograph, which is accompanying her latest exhibition “Invented Landscapes.” The exhibition will be opening at the Forum Gallery in New York City on Nov. 10. Both Roth and Abrams have essays in the book.
Classics Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak opened the discussion by introducing Abrams’ introductory essay as a blend of “biography, technical analysis and aesthetics,” and quoted Abrams on the nature of Telfair’s paint mixing.
“‘Having the opportunity to watch Telfair mix colors gave me some insight into how her paintings are created, through a strange intersection of her grasp of the properties of pigment and the process of mental reaching that is essentially metaphysical,’” Szegedy-Maszak said.
The focus of the discussion was how Telfair’s life shaped her paintings, as well as how they reflect her psyche and her development. Physically, they are seemingly-realistic, enormous landscape paintings procured from her imagination.
To start the conversation, Roth and Abrams discussed the importance of biography.
“The way that artists make creative decisions are the most interesting ones, and biography is one way of getting into that,” Abrams said.
Abrams then entered into Telfair’s past, revealing the way in which her creative decisions are made, and having lived in Africa, Asia and the United States as a child, Abrams found that there was a story which he could draw out and investigate.
Roth, to begin the exploration of Telfair’s biography, stated that he was very interested in her decision to take the landscape paintings “out of the closet.” Roth discussed Telfair’s coming of age in the ’80s and how the time period influenced her.
“[Landscape as a genre during this time was] worse than old fashion: it was imperialist, neo-colonialist, boring; it was kitchy,” Roth said. “You could do landscapes ironically, in a ‘meta’ way, to comment on the tendency of Western artists to appropriate what they see[…] for the consumption of other wealthy people.”
Roth thus admired Telfair’s decision to start painting landscapes.
“[The decision was] a courageous one, and especially for someone who was ‘drinking at the soda fountain’ of modernism, wrestling with abstraction,” Roth said. “[What is impressive was] being able to do landscape work that was unabashedly showy about its technique, about the magic of the painting. It was a willful rejection of the slight of contemporary art to notions of aesthetics that demean technique and evacuated content from advanced art-making. It was a stand against the ultra-irony in contemporary art and the cult of abjection; the only real thing is something that is upsetting and traumatic.”
Telfair also echoed this sentiment.
“What is so powerful about the canvas is the ability to make you fall into it, to envelop you, with both beauty and with a surprising astonishment, unapologetic for its technique,” Telfair said. “[I am frustrated at the] narrow-mindedness of artists who think that what they do is the only thing that is good, which occurs in every school.”
Telfair said that as she became less self-conscious of her decision to be a landscape painter, she became more aware of the paradoxes of her reality and she started to allow the notion of romance to come out of the work.
She also spoke to her goals as she started to emerge as a young artist and to how she got into landscape painting.
“I went to art school, and when I started painting, I thought I could do some abstract color studies,” Telfair said. “But I couldn’t bring myself to feel satisfied with that, so I started painting landscapes. It was instructive and I started to learn how to deal with texture and shape. I secretly started to love it and I started looking harder at landscape. Like in any addiction, you end up getting really good at something that is [considered] really weird.”
What makes the viewer undergo a deeper reevaluation is when one realizes these are not real landscapes.
“The decision to not back down from technique, to not cave into the market pressures parading as intellectual sophistication, and to do that on a scale is an extraordinary decision,” Roth said.
Abrams then expanded on the impact of Telfair’s paintings to the viewer and where they come from. To the viewer, they are full of layers, with a lushness and sensuality that makes them powerful but also makes one feel alone in the face of nature, all of which have autobiographical aspects. Telfair, having been raised in Africa and lived in places that are less developed, has drawn on her memory to create her paintings.
“Some of Tula’s paintings are of Antarctica and her father is a naval officer; she never went there but this is a [strain of this memory],” Abrams said.
Another personal aspect involving memory is that of abandonment and recovering the memory of landscape. In Telfair’s past specifically, Roth and Abrams spoke of the “happy time” of Telfair’s past as her time living in Africa and the “scary time” as those when her parents had abandoned her. The landscapes are ways of confronting being alone in the face of nature and of confronting one’s own mortality.
“You can’t grow up the way I did, in the way I did, and not be completely frightened in the presence of landscape and bowled over by the grandness and mystery of it,” Telfair said. “What you go through in your life does come through in your work. While you’re making work about other subjects, you’re revealing everything about yourself as the maker. My life has changed a lot, and the most recent landscapes are chilling, more romantic and complex, and more awesome than my other paintings. I personally am in a place of transition in my life; I just got divorced….When you’re going through things that make you feel how important life is, you can change your view of it. I think that my work demonstrates the urgency of my desire, currently, to embrace the fragility and the fleetingness of the moment.”
Telfair’s technique in the studio was also discussed. She said that there are different techniques from painting to painting and from one area of the canvas to another. A lot of her ability, she says, is to be able to imagine another place at the same time as another, which is why she works on up to 17 paintings simultaneously in her white-walled studio.
“I work on the painting that is bothering me the most at that moment; the palette is in the middle of the room, four-by-eight feet,” Telfair said. “I have a series of canvases all around me. There are no windows in my studio; I just need wall space. The idea is that I am interested in each piece being absolutely unique. Every single painting is really different from the next and different in each exhibition.”
Telfair talked about the content of her paintings, as well.
“Each one of the paintings is a portrait of someone I know,” Telfair said. “It has to work formally, and if you move something slightly in a landscape, it changes the way you feel in that space. You change one small thing, and suddenly the whole piece will feel very different.”
To conclude, she discussed her work philosophy.
“My methodology for painting is to make it harder and harder for myself, both the technique and the images,” Telfair said. “A good challenge reminds you you’re alive. Not to know what you’re going to do is exciting.”