Mary Weisenburger makes paintings teeming with hard edges, rich textures, color harmonies, and optical illusions. Painters today must be able to demonstrate why their images are rendered in oil paint and not Microsoft Paint, so to speak, and Weisenburger continues to push the chromatic and textural boundaries of the oily, messy, 700 year old medium in ways that make the choice self-evident. In her dayjob as a product specialist at Gamblin Artists Colors (full disclosure: we work together) she does quality control tests and troubleshoots technical issues for a full line of artist grade paints and mediums. Mary holds a wealth of technical painting knowledge and her work reflects a deep understanding of what paint is capable of doing both on a surface and to our retinas. Last December we sat down for a conversation about painting, smartphones, and the evolution of the gaze.
K: When did you know you wanted to be a painter? There's something specific about being a painter that's different than being an artist. What did it for you? How did you get there?
M: My earliest memories of painting, and really enjoying it, are hanging out with my grandmother. She was an avid watercolorist. Mostly florals and seascapes. Those are some of my best childhood memories.
What was her name?
Connie. Her full name was Constance Eleanore Battles. Growing up in Spokane I went to a catholic school up until the end of junior high and then I went to a public high school. And I think it was the opportunities there that I finally got to discover my own subject matter and have more of a say in it since it wasn't just religious based iconography anymore. And that's when the "I want to be an artist" thing developed. But even before then I always loved painting.
You said you were 14 or 15 when you found oil. Who introduced you?
At Lewis and Clark High School. They didn't have an oil painting program there and they didn't teach it but I had a teacher there, Bridged Kardong, and she let me have a box of oil paints. They might have been 20-30 years old she said. I think they were a student grade grumbacher paint. They were so hard and mostly stiff and very difficult to work with. But that was when I first started playing with oils. It was great!
What kind of work were you making at the time?
I had some interest, like today, in optical illusions or surrealist work. I looked at a lot of Dali. It wasn't until college courses at PNCA that I started working into this more geometric abstract theme.
I've been obsessed with patterns for awhile and something I used to draw in my earlier years would be like tile patterns or ceiling patterns. Like squares that repeat. And that was a big thing of mine in undergrad. Like very rigid patterns. Like ones that were perfectly rendered with no errors. That was the goal. To have very few perceived mistakes. A good friend of mine who went to the visual studies MFA program - Ruth Lantz, she graduated in 2012 - I remember this thing she once said after I graduated that really stuck with me. She said I needed to be less precious with the work and how much strictness and regiment there was to it, and essentially that was her advice was to make it “less precious.” So that was when I started breaking the grids and having moments where there would be a perfect pattern that was suddenly disrupted. And going with those more happy accidents, that's something I continue to explore. Because you can't be perfect.
While you were in college at PNCA was there anyone there who was especially influential as a teacher?
There were a few. I’ll specify two individuals. With painting it was Sally Cleveland, who was with the school for over 20 years. (Heads Up, Portland: Sally has a show opening at Augen Gallery this month!) I had her as my thesis mentor. She was influential in my painting process but there were definitely others. I took several classes with Barry Pelzner, who was an inspiration for being tedious in a way, and enjoying the process of very methodically laying down textures, and color and materials use. In my current work, what drives me is the act of meditation while painting and by doing things that are somewhat time consuming to render, this calms me down. It is, in a way, a stress relief. His anatomy courses in particular, was strict with standards.
One of my favorite memories from PNCA was when Barry took us to the morgue up at OHSU. They had 7-8 cadavers that were in various states of dissection by the schools surgery students. We were allowed to draw these cadavers for a 5-hour period. This memory is one of my inspirations now for keeping up my drawing practice.
Does drawing ground you in the same way that applying paint does?
It does, but there's different ways. Something about applying paint is a more literal, immediate satisfaction. The way paint has its viscous qualities and is very pleasurable to move around. With drawing its not as immediate and there's more patience to it for me. It takes longer to get a good drawing, in my opinion. Whereas paint is immediately satisfying. Even before it touches the canvas. Just moving it around on the palette or squeezing paint out of the tube. Drawing takes some concentration. I still draw from life most of the time. Like my hand series, which I've shown you.
So tell me about that. How long have you been drawing hands?
That was something that started in early 2018 and it came unplanned. I didn't plan to start drawing hands so much or the subject matter I do now, where there are hands specifically drawing holding phones and tablets and smart devices. Almost anywhere you go there's usually an opportunity to draw someone with their hands holding their, err, smart device? I don't know what to call them exactly nowadays.
Yeah, they're almost like personal assistants. In the last ten years they've changed the way people look when they're out and about in the world and I think that's an interesting, I guess you would call it, evolution of our species. And I'm in a way trying to document it somehow.
It really does speak to something. In grad school we read an essay about these futuristic fingertip people. Like an evolved species of humans who had really long digits with super bulbous endings full of nerves because everything was tactile. I don't know if it was screens or what. We've always got our hands on these devices which are becoming increasingly sensitive.
And emotive. . .
And enabling too. The phone enables you.
And to just give in to your basest desires, in a lot of ways. So they're really comforting and distracting and they feel great.
Yeah, when you're in an environment when you're alone, or bored, or waiting, or idle. I do it myself all the time.
On your website you said something about you're watching other people watching their phones but you're also being watched. There's something in this evolution of the species that's really altered the gaze. It's not a single gaze anymore. It's a completely decentralized almost panopticon. Everything's visible at all times.
Yeah, it's got big brother vibe. We're being watched but at the same time we're watching ourselves. Like people who watch themselves and then watch what other people are simultaneously paying attention to. And it's very much I think a feedback loop and we're all participants.
You've been doing more printmaking lately. What are some of the things you can do with printmaking or monotyping that you can't do with painting?
With monotype, it's not about the end result so much as the process. Using the materials, and how when you pull the print you have a lot less control over the outcome than you do with painting. Or at least that's the case with me. A lot more of it is serendipitous. It just happens. And we were talking earlier about how painting is therapeutic, and monotyping is the extreme of that. If painting is like a meditation session, then a monotype session for me is almost like going to a silent retreat for several days. Because this is when I get very involved in just the feel of the inks and the transfer of ink to paper and that really visceral quality that the pigmented colors have and not really worrying about how the outcome is gonna look.
Mary will be showing new work at Float On in Portland. Check her website often for new paintings, and follow along on Instagram for some truly out-of-this-world content!