MAY 17, 2023

Large-scale drawings of movement, force, and complexity.

RACHEL COHEN

About the Show

I first encountered the profound and alive drawings of Tara Geer at the MacDowell Colony where we each had a fellowship in 2002. In the years since, the occasional chance to visit her studio or to see her work (in shows at Tibor de Nagy, Glenn Horowitz, and Jason McCoy, and in the permanent collection of the Morgan Library and Museum) has changed my understanding of what’s possible on paper. Influenced variously by early Chinese landscape paintings and contemporary graphic novels, Geer uses enormous skill in the service of spontaneity and perpetual reorientation.—Rachel Cohen
Rachel Cohen
This is a time when many people are experiencing discontinuity. I know the pandemic had a big effect on you and your practice, and I wonder if you could talk about discontinuities.
Tara Geer
We were in a rural area for the start of the pandemic. Moving back to our apartment in New York City in August 2021 was jarring. The city felt slightly insane. One of my first days back, I saw a lady with a cannula in her nose unhurriedly crossing a four-lane highway with an oxygen tank bumping behind her. The city looked damaged, but it felt alive. I could feel things growing—maybe tortured, or mutant, or strange—but unfurling, blooming. This led to an obsessive series of hybrid print-drawings that were in a show at Planthouse called Strangely Blooming, and eventually to the drawings in the current show at Guild Gallery.
RC
Some of these drawings are newly vast.
TG
I feel joy working big. It’s just hard to do in the city. My typical drawing is twenty-two by thirty inches. I’m crouched over and scribbling within the span of my arms this little pillow of some other world. But the big drawings are more like dancing; there’s so much space to move my whole arm, my whole body, and to feel through space. I made a twenty-one-foot drawing for this show. There’s over ninety linear feet of my drawing installed.
RC
I remember seeing your work in the William Louis-Dreyfus Collection where it’s in the company of self-taught artists like Thornton Dial and Bill Traylor. We talked years ago about the different kinds of space that are created in those works and what interested you in them.
TG
None of Traylor’s figures are exactly on the same scale. There’ll be this big man on the top of a house, but he couldn’t actually fit inside the house. The space of the drawing jerks between possibilities. As you move through looking, you take in the person on the roof, and then the roof, then the cardboard, each with a small discontinuity. I admire how Traylor draws us through that kind of engineering.
For some reason I find seamless spaces, or illusions of seamless spaces, kind of scary. I want clunky, awkward engineering. To suggest movement and to block it up in the same breath.
RC
Looking at your recent work, I see sections too.
TG
Sometimes in the work of self-taught artists you can see space sectioned as opposed to illusionistic. There are different kinds of sections. For instance, Traylor has little bits of scale around the different figures that are alive with personality, which makes pieces of the space. Or you can see the sectioning in Joseph Yoakum’s work where the parts of the landscape lock in like a ’70s sectional couch.
To me, the world feels lumpy. You can only build what we stumble through by fitting incongruous parts together. I’m interested in the feeling that we walk unknown grounds. We look at things we don’t understand. I also want to translate unknowing into the work and not just more and more kinds of knowing.
RC
I know you draw on Abstract Expressionism, used very much in your own way. It might be related to Joan Mitchell’s paintings and her late garden works famously rendered on a huge scale, but it seems unusual to have the medium of drawing that large.
TG
It’s labor intensive to make a large drawing. The twenty-one-foot one, wind rising (2022), took me about ten months. Also, it’s not how we see drawing; the drawing is the sketch. It fits in your notebook, in your hand. Drawing is supposed to be kind of like the preamble, the plans, how to get to the gas station. It’s not permanent, or big, or final. The materials I use are traditional—charcoal, chalk, paper—but I guess the size is not.
RC
How did you think about the title of your new show, Unstill World?
TG
I’m trying to draw not the known world that we’re so confident of but an unfinished, unstill place full of qi—life force—passing through.
RC
I think of “unstill” as related to the tradition of still life, which has mortality in it, death and rigidness. And yet the genre also desires to hold onto life, to keep those fruits and flowers going for as long as possible. In some ways it seems like your work does follow from that tradition, and in other ways argues against it.
TG
Still. Life. Right? We stop the world to look at it. What is that uncertainty principle—that you can either know where something is or how fast it’s going but not both? What would it be to not hold still the things we want to examine? I guess I’m a draw-er of unstill lives.
RC
When you were talking about sections of space, I was thinking about mathematics and calculus. How do you add up an infinite thing? Divide it into little things. There’s no quality of dissection in your work, but there is scientific understanding. You’ve worked on research with cognitive scientists about how people learn visually. Are there ways that your research relates to your drawing practice?
TG
When scientists put people into fMRI’s in the 1990s, they saw half of the cortex—the part of the brain we associate with higher human intelligence—processing vision in some thirty-six separate ways. Thinking and seeing are not distinct. This is something artists have always known. We are thinking when we see. The backs of the eyeballs are lined with neurons not only delivering data to the brain proper but editing it massively and receiving instructions. And we are seeing when we think—imagining, planning, categorizing, remembering. There is no line between thinking and seeing.
RC
This is making me think that abrupt changes in scale and sectioning might be ways to bring out the overlap of seeing and thinking. Is the space in your drawings related to landscape? Like those late Mitchell gardens?
TG
I love that in Mitchell’s work you can feel the motion passing through. You feel her paint kind of on something, like on space or on air, unstill. I think, basically, I’m trying to create my own version of a woods in the city. What do you do when you live in an ugly world? You draw your own garden. You make whatever you can that feels alive with whatever you have at hand.
RC
I suggested the idea of landscape, but for drawings like wind rising and breathe (2023) I’m not sure that idea does enough to conjure the spatial experience.
TG
When I came back to NYC, the strange blooming started at the bottom of the page, almost a little bit crippled and close to a seed at the very beginnings of unfurling. By spring they were lifting like milkweed spores or something that propagates in air. The drawings kind of took to air. Airscapes, maybe.
How do you draw air, though? We are breathing in plastic particulates, cologne, bits of conversation, the smell of pizza, heat—the air is packed. I focused on the air, the eddies of air, its unstillness, its fullness. How would you see all these invisibles airborne? Even the air tight around a seedpod, the humming that clings to it, you have to demarcate that somehow. What are the ways to shape nothingness that are available as a draw-er?
You see plastic bags lift up across intersections and suddenly—in that nothingness, in the empty space—there’s visible movement. I can only draw the visible, but it’s carried along the back of something crouching over, much bigger and heavier, that’s invisible.