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Conversation with a Painting: Silas Borsos’ The Animated Man

by Manny Padernos, MFA 2018

Written for the assignment “Conversation with a Painting” as part of the Critical Studies Course with Karen Wilkin.  Manny writes about a piece by Silas Borsos, Certificate 2018. 


Silas Borsos, The Animated Man, 2017, Oil on canvas, 54 in x 72 in

8:15 pm

The Student Gallery

The New York Studio School

It is a chilly night. The moon is full but Manny is alone in the gallery. There are soft voices at the adjacent Drawing Room where Ophrah Shemesh is passionately conducting her watercolor class. Manny stands in front of one of Silas Borsos’ latest works on display this week, The Animated Man (Fig 1). It is a painting measuring 54 in x 72 in and finished this year. He painted one of Manny’s favorite characters in the 1995 computer animated film Toy Story, Woody, an old-fashioned pull string cowboy doll. It brings memories– happy and good recollections. It makes Manny wish that Silas were here since there are questions to ask. Manny smiles and closes his eyes.

WOODY:  What do you want to ask my Maker? I could probably answer them.

MANNY:   Are you real?

WOODY:   I am in the painting. Of course, I am real. But I am not Woody. I am a mascot pretending to be the Sheriff Woody. I am make believe. But the painting makes me real.

MANNY:   Can I see the real you? Can you remove your mascot mask?

WOODY:  That is a question you don’t ask a mascot. We don’t reveal our true selves.

MANNY:   Why then did Silas painted you?

WOODY:   Because he believes. He saw me in 2015 walking in front of McDonald’s at Times Square. He still believes.

MANNY:   He believes in what? Friendship? Jealousy? Fantasy? Toys coming to life? The limelight of Hollywood? The commercialism of McDonald’s?

WOODY:  “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”.

MANNY:   Is he a preacher?

WOODY:  He is a painter! He painted me in oil. I used to be made in fabric and foams. Look at me now. I am coated in pigments and linseed oil.

MANNY:   Why paint McDonald’s? Yellow taxi?

WOODY:   Why not? He is painting his time! He is painting what he sees.

MANNY:    But there is a quality of past in his work. Hmm… Nostalgia. An atmospheric past.

WOODY:   Life is a dichotomy. The building architecture has an old Hollywood glamour yet it has a logo of the most contemporary burger chain. I am a man portraying a cartoon character.  Am I Woody? Or am I Silas? There is always duality in life.

MANNY:  There is another character in the painting. He is wearing just a mascot head but I could not tell what.

WOODY:  Yes but he could not talk. He is busy eating.

MANNY:   Are you going to eat at McDonald’s too? Where are you going?

WOODY:  Do I suppose to know? Silas painted me in a space mid-off center. What do you think?

MANNY:   You have three choices. Eat at McDonald’s, take the taxi or continue walking ahead.

WOODY:  (smiles) You have answered your questions. Silas wants his viewers to finish his painting for him. Life is a journey, of travels, of many questions. Sometimes those questions are answered and sometimes not.

MANNY:  That’s the reason he painted the yellow taxi? Your horse!

WOODY: The taxi is always there. You just need to take a ride.

Manny smiles and closes his eyes. The Drawing Room doors open with a loud bang. Ophrah’s class is finished. Students are walking out of the room in a rush.

Manny looks back at Woody.

Woody is frozen and painted. He is still walking to his next destination.

 9:31 pm. The moon is still full.

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Student Perspectives: Louis Esposito

Louis Esposito, second year MFA student, shares with us his Studio School experience.  Join us for our 2017 MFA Thesis Exhibition, Opening Wednesday, May 17, 6-9pm. 


As a painter, I strongly believe that as artists we must try and teach ourselves throughout our entire lives. I’ve always understood that there’s a rich culture of art history and tradition for us to grab and run with. But what it also all means is to have a serious and devoted experience with our work. We must push ourselves, think critically about our paintings, and perhaps, fight with them if we need to. Finding an atmosphere that cherishes this need for self-discipline and encourages a love for tradition has become rare—maybe impossible—to find today. Luckily this was exactly what I experienced during my time at the New York Studio School.


Louis Esposito, Acrobatic Jeff, 22″x30″, Charcoal on paper, 2017

Now that my time at the Studio School is gradually coming to an end, I can’t help but mention the importance of what my mentor—Dean Graham Nickson—has said about this building,“We refer to the good ghosts that inhabit this building.” Some of those ghosts Graham referred to happen to be heroes of mine: Mercedes Matter, Meyer Schapiro, and Leland Bell to name a few. I know that for myself it’s been a powerful feeling while walking, or admittedly getting lost, through the historic labyrinth of this building knowing I’m essentially in the presence of those I admire so greatly. However, it’s not just the legacy beholden to the Studio School that I want to emphasize, it was also the atmosphere that I got to experience while I developed in the MFA program. The New York Studio School is an institution committed to the language of art. While at the school I was always encouraged to push myself forward, to pursue my ideas, to identify my own sources, and most important, the ability to see. Whether it’s been through still lifes of twisting flowers or mysterious and awkward figures, I never had to forget what I identify as most important. I’m a painter who generally works from life and I have a need to draw—these are aspects the school still holds onto dearly and I found comfort in knowing that. Working from perception and an emphasis on drawing has always been crucial for my work, but they also happen to be crucial to the school’s mission.


Louis Esposito, At the Window, 48″x40″, Oil on canvas, 2017

This mission is intertwined with a desire to continue having a serious conversation about art-making, and it made total sense for me to go to this school. I was able to paint the figure while looking at Balthus, but also speak to the importance Klee, Redon, or Cimabue have had on my work. I had the freedom to never stop looking at the painters I admire, while getting to learn about some new ones. At some moments I felt like I was dancing with Matisse and Bonnard, and others Seurat and Poussin, and honestly that was—and still is—pretty exciting company for me to have been in while at the New York Studio School.



Louis Esposito, Study of Figs, 22″x30″, Charcoal on paper, 2016


Louis Esposito, In and Out: Objects Belonging to Mari Lyons, 28″x36″, Oil on canvas, 2016

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Student Perspectives: Louise Kerr

Louise Kerr, second year MFA student, shares with us her Studio School experience.  Join us for our 2017 MFA Thesis Exhibition, Opening Wednesday, May 17, 6-9pm. 


Almost 3 years ago I made the decision to come to the New York Studio School and take Graham Nickson’s Drawing Marathon and the summer program, at first in the preparation of making my portfolio of work that I would be submitting to universities and colleges in California for my graduate degree. But as soon as I stepped through the doors of the historic building on 8th street, I realized, as an artist seeking more knowledge and ultimately myself, I had found the holy Grail.

It was not only the historic building with its maze of staircases and beautiful old architectural details, the iconic artists associated with specific studios they once in habited that enticed me, but also the faculty and people that work here. They welcomed me in an open manner that made me feel as if I was already part of a family.

There was no other choice that offered the authentic feel of a true studio practice, supported expansion of my own ideas and a diverse and eclectic group of peers.


Louise (far right) during the Drawing Marathon with Graham Nickson.

After the marathon with Graham, we had a lovely chat in his office regarding my desire to pursue my MFA and he asked me a question that I will never forget. “Do you want to be a teacher or do you want to be an artist?” He then followed it up with “Nearly all of the students that leave our program become artists.” All of the financial concerns, logistics of moving my life to New York from California, and the fear went right out the window. This man had hit the nail on the head. In my gut I knew the answer, and for me it was simple, you only live once and if your going to be an artist of any serious conviction, let’s do it.

As Dean Graham Nickson says, it is not for the faint of heart. The hours are long, the curriculum challenging, but, if you are very serious and extremely ambitious, this is the place for you. Of course, as with anything in life, the effort that you put in directly reflects the results you receive.

Painting_Whitney 4

Louise working in the Whitney Studio.

It is unique, quirky, overwhelming and marches along with the ideals and beliefs held dear to some of the greatest artists of times gone by tenuously holding hands with present day. It is steeped in history, filled with incredible faculty, pushes its students to find who they are, and gives us the tools and confidence we need to succeed as artists.


Louise during the Drawing Marathon with Graham Nickson.


Louise in her studio at the New York Studio School.

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Student Perspectives: Seth Becker

Seth Becker, second year MFA student, shares with us his Studio School experience.  Join us for our 2017 MFA Thesis Exhibition, Opening Wednesday, May 17, 6-9pm. 


When I started at the Studio School I had been painting on my own for a year. My work was stifled by repetition at a level of involvement where—isolated from other artists— I was unable to really see what I was creating.

By the end of my first semester, my painting moved forward at a pace I could not have predicted—both formally and in its content. An artist is his or her own worst enemy. In countless fruitful conversations under Graham’s searching eye, I discovered I didn’t have to deal with myself by myself. What I had found was something invaluable to any artist: I had found a community. Surrounded by so many artists strategizing their way out of similar issues, I learned quickly how to do it myself. In my last semester, I carry this with me wherever I go, in conversations with peers, over stress induced Lazy Hustlers at Evas or at the Met when conversation calls for historical or spiritual precedent.

Kevin's House 12x12 OIl on panel 2016

Seth Becker, Kevin’s House, 12×12 inches, oil on panel, 2016

Growing up as an art student and a New Yorker, I walked past the New York Studio School countless times. Occasionally, I ventured in. There is a tangible weight to the quality of the building. It settled like stand oil. It creaks and breathes in all the right places, and has a genuine urgency. It drew me in and with all its nostalgia and spit me out prepared for a life full of painting. When my time as a student ends, I know I will miss it enormously, but I know I wont be missing it alone.

Self Portrait with Bodega Horse 14x11 oil on masonite 2016

Seth Becker, Self Portrait with Bodega Horse, 14×11 inches, oil on masonite, 2016


Wall of works in Seth Becker’s Studio

Outside-In 64x48 oil on canvas 2017

Seth Becker, Outside-In, 64×48 inches, oil on canvas, 2017

Toby 9x12 oil on masonite 2016

Seth Becker, Toby, 9×12 inches, oil on masonite, 2016


Seth Becker in his Studio at the New York Studio School.

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Alum Review: Karin Malpeso

Review of Karin Malpeso, on view at the NYSS Dumbo Sculpture Studio – 20 Jay Street #307, Brooklyn, NY 11201, March 2- April 14.  Artist Talk at the Dumbo Sculpture Studio Thursday, April 6, 7:30 pm. 

By Marco Palli, MFA 2018


Karin Malpeso, New York Studio School Alumna, has sensibility to spare. She poured it into her work using aesthetic that exploit the tactile quality of clay and the freeing quality of charcoal unintimidated by being misunderstood.

“Karin Malpeso: Recent Works 2015-2017” seems somewhat an ordinary title for a young artist to present her show, and after struggling through the rather small show – where no titles, years, materials, or any kind of information about the work is provided, one has to put oneself into a detective mode, perhaps an archeologist or even an anthropologist. Passed this fact, one can get the feeling that the installation was carefully placed. Bodiless heads on steel pedestals are scattered around the small room with a couple of tables containing smaller works. One table has a handful of Buddha-like figures smaller than the heads, and another of candleholder-like pieces. On view are about 20 works, including several reliefs and a charcoal drawing of a considerable size.


The show is open to be seen without any kind of order or chronology, one can choose to see what one prefers to choose and jump to appreciate whatever is next or behind. The series of heads seemed to be fashioned from clay (fired) that the artist more or less treat with her bare hands. Some are partially “painted” with what seems the smoke of a candle. The heads look like clouds, where one can see a clear human face that acts as an invitation to look harder into hidden secrets. By walking around the heads, one can find unclear abstractions that seem to activate the viewer’s own imagination dangling immense blooms in a startling synthesis of Hans Josephsohn and Marisa Merz.

The domestic quality continues on a smaller scale Buddha-like pieces, where the arrangement of pieces seems to be made with the same material but one does not know how to read them, if individually or as a group. Delicate and raw, these pieces evoking a micro camp of public pursuit of intimacy. Small sculptures on the other table might have been excavated from an archaeological site. Ms. Malpeso abandoned the human form and moved on to nature. The candleholder-like pieces now seem to be flowers.


It is in the two-dimensional works that another of Ms. Malpeso’s strengths surprisingly emerges: She has no anxiety about showing her influences, and indicates a striking indifference to the rankings and lineages of art history. She loots but also suavely synthesizes art’s eternal simplest single form: Egg. This is the most evident in the case of several large reliefs, especially a powerful drawing in charcoal, that emerge from the arches of an internal universe. Ms. Malpeso’s works almost inevitably refuse to look finished. They seem to reveal an artist determined to challenge the concept of what constitutes beauty in art.

The exhibition is part of an expanding program of the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture that is organized by Jilaine Jones as an initiative to take advantage of the gallery space within the Dumbo studios in Brooklyn. The curatorial aspect and installation was fully executed by Ms. Malpeso herself. Though it seems that her role installing the show could have been better, it is just a matter of time to appreciate the lack of labeling. It tells about an artist unafraid of leaving spoken/written language behind and relying fully on her work – unintimidated by being misunderstood or judged.



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Avital Burg: Alumni Spotlight Interview

Avital Burg was born in Jerusalem, Israel, and works and lives in Brooklyn.  She graduated from the Certificate Program in Painting at New York Studio School in 2013.  Her solo show “Low Relief” at Slag Gallery is on view March 17-April 16, 2017.

Three whites 8x7.5inch 19 x 20.5 cm

Avital Burg, Three Whites, 2016, 8 x 7 1/2 inches, Oil on canvas mounted on wood

Rachel RickertTell me a little bit more about your background and your current exhibition Low Relief at Slag Gallery.

Avital BurgAs a child I was lucky to be in afterschool art class which took place in my village. The teacher called this class “material workshop”. Every week she would lay out on the big table a different kind of art supply such as clay, paint, wood, etc, and let us play around and make whatever we wanted from it. There was no concept of “art project” with a defined goal; it was about exploring ways of art making. A few years later, when I decided I want to become a painter, I got frustrated that in all of these years, she, or the other art teachers I had in high school or during my one year at the Bezalel Academy, didn’t teach me what I viewed as ‘proper skills’. So I decided to go 180 degrees in the other direction: I enrolled at “Hatahana” master class program in Tel Aviv, a very rigorous two years course of drawing and painting from the model, in a realistic and somewhat academic tradition. My move to NY, and going to the Studio School, including a student exchange I did at the Slade in London, was the first step in combining the two very different art educations I had and in this combination finding my own voice, and it is a continuation of exactly this combination which acts as the basis for my new exhibition. This current body of work feels as an important moment in my quest for finding how the materiality of the surface can create, disrupt and enrich the subjective reality I’m after.

River Washing Relief 17x14inch

Avital Burg, River Washing Relief, 2016, 17 x 14 inches, Oil on wood

RR: Your work has accumulated more density and thickness since your Certificate Completion Exhibition in 2013.  Can you elaborate on this progression into Low Relief, blurring the line of painting and sculpture?

AB: My decision to become a painter rather than a sculptor was a very conscious one. Among other reasons I wanted to be able to stay mobile in the world, being able to move around without too much physical weight to worry about. Building things, however, mainly small things, was and remained a part of my nature; it kept sneaking into my paintings in different ways: for example the cardboard dollhouses I made as props for my still life painting. Another thing was my love for the tactility of oil paint: like many other painters, when I look at art I get very close to the painting in order to get a sense of how the paint was laid upon the canvas, trying to feel the brushes in the painter’s hand. When I paint, I always have to remind myself that I can’t keep standing 2 inches away from what I’m working on, that I have to take a step back and observe, and not to fall overly in love with the tiny movements of paint. Stanley Lewis, whom I was very fortunate to study with in the Studio School, taught me through his painting that these two qualities can work together: that a painting can be both complete in its composition and form, and fascinating in its surface activity. My tendency for building things, and the drive to make the surface interesting not only when you look at it from up close, made me simply add more and more paint onto my canvases. Sometimes, when adding more fresh paint doesn’t seem enough, I use pieces of dry oil paint from my palette (which in itself looks like a relief of hills and valleys in different colors) and treat them as mosaic stones which I stick on with wet paint or even glue.

Wrinklend Box on Floor 16x20in

Avital Burg, Wrinkled Box on the Floor, 2017, 16 x 20 inches, Oil on canvas

RR: The surfaces of your paintings reveal both texture in relation to the form and texture in spite of the form.  What is the physical process of building these dense paintings? 

AB: I’m glad you noticed that. The tension between the actual volume and what it describes, and our ability as painters to contradict between the two, is something Stanly used to talk about all the time. I think that part of what he tried to convey was that by playing with these tensions, we painters, have the privilege to add a sense of imaginative movement to our paintings.  About the process, as I talked about a little before, there are no secrets, just more paint.

RR: Your paintings divulge a fascination with ephemera—boxes, bottles, broken moments, the gilded crumbling—how do you discover your subjects?

AB: In a way this is still a mystery for me… What I can say is that in all of these objects I find there is an exciting surface element taking place. Usually the wrinkles of the box, the crack in the plate or the pealing of the gilded frame hold a memory of the object’s history, similarly to the faces in the portraits that I sometime paint. Although they all reflect a tenant of the past (may it be my water bottle from yesterday or a postcard of a 500 old painting) I try not to be too nostalgic about them, but rather to understand how I may use paint and color to make all of them present and alive in my studio, and later on in the world in general.

Yellow Jerrycans Relief 14x17inch

Avital Burg, Yellow Jerrycans Relief, 2017, 14 x 17 inches, Oil on wood

RR: The scenes in your show, such as Yellow Jerrycans Relief, introduce action into your work that is otherwise very much about stillness.  When did the figurative narratives enter your work? 

AB: For years, in my school in Israel and later in the Studio School, I drew and painted models every single day, for hours. When I had my own studio I felt I should be alone, without another person’s presence, just with my brushes and still lifes. Painting is a very intimate process. But not long ago, when I spent a long summer in Europe, looking at paintings in museums and people on the streets, I realized how much I miss the figure, how much I look for human interactions when I look at paintings. Honestly, I felt a little bewildered and even ashamed of how I shunned out people from my paintings. These paintings in the show are my first attempt at bringing them back. I still don’t know where it’s going to go from here.

Box Relief 5x4.75inch

Avital Burg, Box Relief, 2016, 5 x 4 3/4 inches, Oil on canvas on wood

RR: Cardboard is presented as utilitarian boxes as well as playful objects, transformed into houses, worlds, and images.  In past work you have also used cardboard as a surface.  What sparked your interest in this material?

AB: I first started painting cardboard when I was in London in the students exchange program with Slade. Although I loved it there, the temporariness of the situation made me obsessed with gathering boxes and saving them for when I had to pack and ship everything back to NY. Like everything that I keep in my studio, the boxes found their way into the painting as subjects and later as surfaces. In the beginning it was indeed as a mini house for the figurines I built, I liked the idea of a mobile house that you can send from one place to another. Later, I became interested in the cardboard itself. I discovered that every box I find has a different hue, which is a challenge that I enjoy very much when mixing paint and, that it’s wrinkles, tears, stamps and the tape on it tell a story of its life as a box, much like human skin tells it’s owners story.


Avital Burg, Room for Rent, 2013, 50 x 40 inches, Oil on canvas. From Avital’s Certificate Completion Exhibition in 2013.

RR: What are some of your favorite memories from your time at the Studio School that still influence your practice today? 

AB: I talked a little about my lessons with Stanly Lewis, I think about his words, and especially about the time he spent with us drawing at the most unexpected corners of the Met, almost every day. The long afternoons with Judy Glantzman in the drawing room were always magical, you never knew what to expect, once she had us draw from a video of Picasso drawing that she projected on the model. I was also lucky to be there when Susan Jane Walp, one of my favorite American painters, taught a week long drawing marathon. Whenever I get too confused in the studio I try to remind myself the feeling that I had when studying with her: that painting from life, the simplest thing, is what made me want to be a painter. 

Self Portrait in Alizarin 22.5x17.5

Avital Burg, Self Portrait in Alizarin, 2017, 22.5 x 17.5 inches, Oil on linen on panel


To view more of Avital Burg’s work, visit her website

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Hohenberg Travel Prize 2016: Rosie Lopeman

Rosie Lopeman, Certificate 2016, was the recipient of the 2016 Hohenberg Travel Award. We asked her to share with us her experience.


Rosie Lopeman, Percussion, oil and acrylic on found wood and stretcher bars, 54 x 46.5 inches, 2016

I am so fortunate to have received the Hohenberg Travel Grant. I remember the day I found out about the award, my teacher at the time, John Newman had been in my studio, looking at my work, and saying “Rosie, you gotta broaden your horizons! Get out of Brooklyn!” A few moments after he left, the email came through that I got the grant.

Planning the trip seemed impossible to me. There were many things I wanted to do, and many unknowns. I started in Ireland, and over the course of 10 weeks traveled to Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, Munich, Basel, Rome, Tuscany and London. I often feel like a traveler, even at home in New York, so my un-tethered position felt natural. The trip coincided with my training for the New York City marathon, which feels important to mention because running was a huge part of how I connected with each place. I would sometimes set out for a run with no map or plan, and let myself get lost. Eventually I would find a map to take the bus or train back to home base.

I share with you here a few high lights from the many things I encountered along the way. I chose these things because these were the few kinship I discovered, which offered me a sense of belonging as I strayed further and further from things I knew.


Rosie Lopeman, Untitled, acrylic and tape on canvas, 48x 48, 2017


Munich: Michael Buthe at Haus Der Kunst

I arrived in Munich at dawn from a sleepless trip on a night bus from Berlin, and found my way to my Airbnb hosts, Anne and Joerg. They lived in a suburban looking part of the city. I instantly liked both of them. Their house was messy and their walls were covered in their kids’ art. After resting for a bit, I decided to go into the center of the city. I was still in a fog, but in that sort of fresh way, where you’re so tired, and you’re moving so slowly, that you can feel and be inspired by things that you might normally pass by.


Michael Buthe at Haus Der Kunst

I walked into Michael Buthe’s retrospective at Haus Der Kunst, an artist I had never heard of. He was a German artist from Cologne, and a student of Joseph Beuys at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf. He died in 1994.

The show revealed itself slowly to me. Once I entered into the work, there was an incredibly bright and intense energy. In fact, a lot of his work is devoted to the sun. He was working right on the brink of what he could do, seemingly fueled by an existential, obsessive and fearless love.


Michael Buthe at Haus Der Kunst

The work ranged from drawings, to sculpted paintings on canvas to sculptures and paintings made of unusual materials: earth, shells, hair, doors, brooms, trees, shoes, mouse droppings. I love how he stuck things together. You could see that he lived with these things, and that he had developed an intimate relationship with each element. Because of this, the work was very rich and specific. He was fluent with this broad, wide open language he had created.


Michael Buthe at Haus Der Kunst


Michael Buthe at Haus Der Kunst


Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden

Later in my trip, I stayed in Umbria for several days, in the city of Terni. I rented a car and set out on day trips. As I drove out of the city, I went through this dark tunnel, which released me on the other side into the sprawling Tuscan countryside. I loved having the steering wheel after being bound to public transport for so long; it gave me the freedom to move in more spontaneous directions. The first day with the car I stopped into the town of Tuscania to explore. I walked through a Church, Santa Maria Maggiore. I walked around the grounds of another church, which was closed, but had a looming presence.  I snuck into a culinary school at the top of a big hill, where a student-run lunch was taking place, to use the bathroom.


Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Tuscania

Eventually I made it to Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden, a large sculpture garden in Capalbio, built on Etruscan ruins. My teachers Bill Jensen and Margrit Lewczuk had told me to go there. I had them in mind as I pulled up to this extraordinary place.

The plans for this garden began in 1955, when Niki saw Gaudi’s Park Guell in Barcelona, and it was still partially unfinished in 2002 when she died unexpectedly. It is a garden of large sculptures/architectural spaces, each one dedicated to a card from the major arcana of the tarot deck. Over the years working on the garden, Niki de Saint Phalle lived inside of “The Empress,” with her bedroom in one breast and her kitchen in the other. The archetypes from Tarot were her source, but her specific language encompassed Etruscan art, Native American art, Picasso, Gaudi, all filtered through her own innocent but endless will. As she said “Whether or not people think it is art doesn’t matter to me.”


Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden


I wonder, how can work be made and behave outside of ‘art’? The funny thing, which I was reminded of by this garden, is that all great art does. It is always trying to touch on something outside of what we know and what is expected of us. It was hard to see as much stuff as I did each day, and remember that the goal is not to just add your stuff to the world, but to create a rupture or space for new light. I am so grateful when I encounter work like this.



Tarquinia, the Etruscan Necropolis and Archaeological Museum

The following day, I drove to Tarquinia, where there is an Etruscan necropolis and archaeological museum. The necropolis is a large field at the top of a hill, covered in staircases that descend into 2,500 year-old tombs. You go down these stairs in the dark, press a button for light that goes on a 10 second timer, and look through plexi-glass. The wall paintings inside show life, death, celebration, mythology… checkers, concentric circles, stripes…a perfect integration of exuberant geometry and storytelling… between the form and content. The Etruscan people were mostly illiterate, which I think comes through: this seemed to be their primary way of communicating and defining themselves individually and as a culture. Unlike today, you could see in their tomb paintings and artifacts that there was no delineation between art and life. I would have liked to see what it looked like before all of the jugs and other burial items were removed from the tombs and moved to museums.


In the archaeological museum, I drew all day. I loved to follow the contours of each wine jug, sarcophagus, mirror, and watch with my pen each unexpected turn the maker took. These were jokes that lasted thousands of years. Representation and function were colliding. Is this about drinking wine? Or is it more about Dionysus? Or is it about how the liquid pours out? There was no item that was a static, self-contained thing. Everything showed some kind of metamorphosis, and existed as many things as once.

As the sun started setting, I looked out the window in the top floor of the museum and saw the Tyrrhenian Sea. I left quickly so I could jog on the beach before it got dark. I drove down the mountain and arrived at a beach that was almost totally abandoned. There were a couple people fishing and a few inexplicable stick formations poking out from the sand. Some restaurants that were closed for the season. I began running but the sun was fading fast and I didn’t know how safe I was there. I eventually decided to head back, but first I would make a few of my own stick formations in the sand. Just as I started to work, I saw a cloud of sand down the shore starting to get bigger. In a surreal reveal, I could see it was a man on a horse riding fast, headed in my direction straight out of the sunset. He pulled up next to me and we spoke for a while, mostly right past each other because neither of us knew the other’s language. We established that, yes, this, this is a horse. Si, questo e un cavallo. All was well, and I went back to town for a plate of gnocchi in broth with mint, pork jowl and clams.


As time passes, it is surprising to see how these experiences have cooked down, burrowed inward and resurfaced in my own work. I like to watch this process. For me, there wasn’t a direct transfer of information, in which I saw something and I knew that I would take my work in that direction. While traveling alone, just trying to get from point A to point B in every new city, in each new language, was a big challenge. Now, the more subtle, physical and energetic impressions are dredging up slowly over time in my work.


Rosie Lopeman, Possession, acrylics, oil, pastel, flash paint, watercolor, ink, paper, canvas, 36×36 inches, 2017

One of the few things I have finished since returning is this piece, Possession.  The central part of it was started in Ireland. I was frustrated by it, and everything else I made while traveling. When I got back to New York, nothing I made in Europe, mostly small watercolors, felt of use to me. I started working larger. At one point in the studio, I found a piece of canvas left over from another process. It was a grid shape, with a space in the center that clearly asked me “what goes in here? What is this thing carrying?” What ended up in there was something from the trip… A “failed” work… and now it had a purpose. All of my frustrations in that thing, re-contextualized, became beautiful and clear to me. That’s one of the first things I’ve made recently where I can see the influence of my travels coming through.


Rosie Lopeman, The Rockets Red Glare, oil on panel, 32.5 x 32.5 inches, 2015

I am so enormously grateful to the New York Studio School, for my entire education there and of course for the Hohenberg Travel Award. I remember my first year at the Studio School, I went to Florida with Graham Nickson, the Dean of the school, and another student to take a week-long figure painting class with him. I said to Graham “A year ago I couldn’t haven’t imagined I would find myself here, having Chinese food with you after painting all day.” And Graham said “Painting takes you to extraordinary places, Rosie.”

Thank you to my teachers, my classmates and everyone who makes the Studio School continue to be a place for artists to learn and transform. Thank you to the Hohenberg Foundation and its trustees who make the Hohenberg Travel Award possible every year. Thank you to everyone who housed me, taught me, fed me and inspired me.


Rosie Lopeman, Kimono, acrylic, house paint, plaster, burlap, screws and found wood, 70 x 30 x 33 inches, 2016. Photo Robert Banat.

To view more of Rosie’s work, visit her website.

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Everything Is Sacred: Reactions to the Work of Merrill Wagner

By Kaitlin McDonough, January 2017


“Everything was sacred.”

These words, affirmed simply after a glowing pause, were Merrill Wagner’s response to my recent question, “What was it like to study with the painter Edwin Dickinson?” …To learn a way of thinking, seeing, making in which everything is regarded as profound.

Beyond speaking to Wagner’s formation, her recollection confirms a hunch and seems to offer a lens through which to understand Wagner’s process and the resonance of her work. Painting in a way that honors her found materials (slate, rocks, wooden fences, brick walls), Wagner establishes a humming vibration between these materials and the profound.


She orders with paint, subjecting the organic to the geometry of lines or the code-switching of landscape. Moving fluidly between opposing organization systems, her work is evidence of many co-existing pathways towards meaning.

For me, this is where a certain femininity enters. A femininity in which her works function as both discrete objects and as members of an ecosystem of artworks whose meanings shift and grow in constellation with one another and in constellation with their surroundings (man-made or natural). A femininity that collaborates with time, with weather, with other bodies, with context, with gravity. A femininity that does not depend on rectangles. A femininity of connections that many artists, both male (think Sigmar Polke or Andy Warhol) and female, have intuited and with which they have infused their work.

It is not an aesthetic or a gender, but rather an orientation to the world–and to the stuff of the world–as mutable and as part of an ongoing dance of co-creation.


Her works on paper generate a rhythmic delight while simultaneously and unabashedly revealing the strategy of their making. This equality of image and process is deeply satisfying, deeply affirmative of a wisdom as down-to-earth as it is great.


Merrill’s work is marvelously sensual. It arouses satisfaction of the senses. It is impossible to relate to her paintings as singularly image or primarily as image. Looking at her work cannot be separated from measuring one’s body in relation, cannot be separated from a sense of the smooth heaviness of slate or the bumpy firmness of rock–how one may be within a circle of rocks, far from them, or beside them.

Deeply sensual and deeply intelligent, Merrill’s work proves the arbitrariness of names through the juxtaposition of colors. “Cadmium yellow” as language is rendered meaningless when embodied by many distinct squares of yellow packaged under the same name. The name takes a backseat to the overwhelming reality of the color itself. It is one thing to understand this concept with our rational minds and another to have it become a self-evident verity through the experience of the work itself.


The tender resourcefulness and generous strength of Merrill’s work leaves me with an overwhelming feeling of hopefulness. Her work is a testament to the true liveliness that results from a practice grounded in respect and curiosity, interconnection and integrity, painterly joy and material presence.

It is has been an honor and a thrill to host these works at the New York Studio School.

Thank you, Merrill Wagner!


Kaitlin McDonough is Program Coordinator and a member of the Drawing Faculty at the New York Studio School.

Merrill Wagner at the New York Studio School Gallery, November 21, 2016- January 8, 2017

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Yi Zhang: Alumni Spotlight Interview

Yi Zhang was born in China and works and lives in both New York and Beijing.  She graduated from the New York Studio School with an MFA in Sculpture in 2014.  Her solo show at John Davis Gallery is on view July 23-August 14.


Yi Zhang, Bat Mother, lead, acrylic, steel, wire, 14 x 12 x 4 inches, 2016

Rachel Rickert: Tell me a little bit about your background and your path to becoming an artist.  What led to your commitment to being an artist?

Yi Zhang: To draw was my only interest when I was a child. I studied Chinese ink painting, calligraphy and, using the limited available catalogs, I also enjoyed copying many of the Western old masters’ works. When I was 15 years old, I started intensive academic art training at the Central Academy in Beijing. Those five years of classical/realistic studies  provided me with good skills, however, gradually I lost the joy of drawing. By the end of the second year in college I got so tired of making pictures, that I chose to study sculpture as my major instead. Later on I followed my tutor who was one of the top conceptual artists in China. This was a transitional period for me. I left what I had been trained in and embraced the contemporary art world.

During that period I was suffering from depression. I had to take medicine, which wasn’t helping much. I felt as if I wanted to break something and yell out. Gradually I realized that the art making process, which had always been part of my life, but without much meaning, had become medicine to me.

Around that time I made the first work which I call art. I casted my fingers with wax and painted them. They were full of bloody wounds gnawed by myself. I put them in a small silk case and titled it “The Souvenir”. I felt much released after the work. It had been the first time, during which I was motivated by making something from my inside, from desire.  Art is not decorative, it is my medicine.


Yi Zhang, Ink brushes, lead, ink brushes, wire, 12.5 x 6 x 5 inches, 2016

RR: What is your starting point in the studio when you begin a new work?

YZ: When I arrived to New York I discovered that the city was a heaven of materials. I always looked for stuff in the trashes on the street. My little studio was a storage of found objects. That was my starting point: material! After some time I also began to be interested in natural materials such like a piece of bamboo or a piece of stone. I questioned myself what were the characteristics of the objects or found objects that really interested me? I realized it was those types of forms which suggested  human touch, relating to the human body or some particular structures that suggested rhythm. The sensuality, evoked by an object or material is my real starting point.


Yi Zhang, Thorns, lead, steel, bamboo, wire, 5.5 x 24 x 6 inches, 2016

RR: Your work seems to embody human fragility in spite of the rigidity of the metal materials. Is there something about that dichotomy that you seek?

YZ: Yes, there is. Although the words fragility and rigidity are opposites,  in materiality there is no such border. Probably everything in the world is relative. Is lead fragile or rigid? Is plaster fragile or rigid? Or any natural materials, wood, bamboo… I think fragility is a fascinating subject. Human fragility is part of the duality of human nature. Dealing with human fragility or emotions in art is as beautiful as it is brave.

In terms of making sculpture, I work with the relation and balance that exists between the structure and the material. When the structure is leaner or transparent, the materials and their join points keep it relatively strong and stable. The stability of material secures the fragility of the structure. In contrast, an airy sense of a structure gives surprise to the material. These relationships would make the subject of fragility more sculptural.


RR: The body of work at your show at John Davis Gallery is chromatically and materially narrow in range.  Can you speak about your material and color choices?

YZ: For me, color is physical. Every material has color, so I rarely need to paint my work. If I do, I take it as an action of painting rather than of coloring. I don’t have a painter’s sense of color, which is a pity. I do believe each color has its specific relationship with light and it is the result of light. So, I consider color as one of the features of the material.

The choice of material is of utmost importance to me. In this series I worked with a variety of materials but predominantly I was interested in lead, partly because of the sense of quietness and isolation and partially because of its ash gray color. To me, it feels as if light were hidden within the material. These characteristics really talk to me, which I think are good to represent form as stemming from an inner world, since I always make forms from inner feeling.

Secondly, the dichotomy between flexibility and stability also interested me. Lead is surprisingly malleable and flexible. I could model it like a piece of clay. A very thin sheet is almost as soft as paper; a thick sheet is as resilient as a chunk of meat, to work on which requires a good amount of physical energy. When I forged it with a hammer, the material recorded every movement of my body and constantly changed its form with every single hit.


Yi Zhang, Bite, lead, steel, iron, wire, nail, 16 x 10 x 4 inches,2016

RR: I’ve noticed an accordion folding theme in your work, as well as weaving and piercing motifs. Where do these methods come from?

YZ: When I used found objects to make assemblage work, I liked lamp shades, because of their rhythmic repetition. Same as the foldings on lead, the repetition of the form creates a rhythm, which is as simple as the rhythm of a heartbeat or as that of a breath, which is accompanied by emotional changes.

Weaving, piercing and sewing are common methods in needlecraft. I like these methods because they create district textures, mini spaces and structures. When a material, for example wire, weaves through multiple layers of a structure, in and out, up and down, my hands and eyes follow these movements and the space through which the material moved, felt as big as the universe.

4. Closure

Yi Zhang, Closure, lead, wire, nail, 6.5 x 10.5 x 14 inches, 2016

RR: It’s been only two years since your graduate thesis show.  How does it feel to be having solo exhibitions?  Do you create your sculptures as individual pieces and then curate them into a coherent show or do you think about the larger body of work as a whole and then begin to develop the individual works?

YZ: It is the second show I have at John Davis Gallery, the first one was in the back gallery in 2014. This is the first one I have at the front gallery. I really appreciate that John entrusted me with,  and provided for me this wonderful space. It is so beautiful that it pressured me to live up to its expectations.

When I work, I like to respect the material and talk to it. The making process is like to capture some moments between the various materials and my emotions in response to them. I work on different substances, leave them all on the floor of my studio. I try to keep open the wellspring of potentialities that tends to emerge from any material  or structure and its combination with others, until the “moment” creates a surprising story, the final form. I can never predict the course my work might take, nor its final form,  neither am I interested in that. I am after the bigger concept, which is the meaning of the material.

In order to curate the show and install the work I need to feel the space and the walls, to let the sculptures work with the space and tell their story in a specific way.

In this show John Davis was very helpful in this regard, as he said he is really familiar with the space and knows his walls. He helped me to decide the varying heights and distances for each piece, in order give the overall show a feeling of movement. We installed some works on the first floor where it is a more open and public space. Those works’ structures are referencing  relatively closely nature. On the ground floor, the space feels more private. There we installed those kinds of works, which more closely reference  the human body.

lotus leave

Yi Zhang, Lotus Leaf, lead, leather, horse hair, steel, wire, 23 x 8 x 6 inches, 2016

 RR: What are some of your favorite memories from your time at the Studio School that still influence your practice today?

 YZ: When I studied at the New York Studio School, I worked with Bruce Gagnier in the morning drawing class and with Garth Evans in the afternoon clay sculpture class. Both used a life model. Although these two masters had very different perspectives and styles in their arts, I did find similarities. They both asked me to change the figure constantly. In the beginning I did not understand, because my realistic technique was good enough to finish a figure quickly and to make it resemble quite closely the model. Then, after seemingly endless times of changing,  I realized that the goal had never been to  make a figure that looks like, or attempts to account for all the facts of the model. The process of creating, working with or without a model, was always a journey. What they tried to teach me was to let myself be thrown into this adventure, to keep searching the infinite mystery of form and its meaning. This is still crucial in my studio practice today.

Work from Yi’s Thesis Exhibition at the New York Studio School.

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NYSS Drawing Marathon Summer 2016

Written by Eileen Hsu, Marathon Student, Summer 2016.  Originally published here.


Cave Paintings in Lascaux, France. Image Courtesy Atala of France.

My God, where do I begin?

Perhaps 20 years ago to the first time when I attended the Drawing Marathon at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting, and Sculpture. As a mere bud of an artist, I was unprepared for the depth and length of concentration that the workshop demanded: For the first half of June, it lasted two weeks at 12 hours per day of drawing and critique, with studies of master paintings during the weekend in between. The program is more structured today but the intensity has not changed.

My initial experience at NYSS was no more triumphant than a flail but I knew that this program was important, deep, and transformative, even if it hadn’t been for me to grasp on the first go-around. I had not given up. Fast forward decades to today, I felt an irrepressible hunger pang for it again, with a visceral certainty that this time, the light bulbs would not remain dim, but illuminate, like the Sheila Klein streetlamps of Santa Monica.

Logic may be a frenemi but intuition has always been my fairy godmother. Securing the two weeks of vacation from my employer and finding a kind offer of lodging from my high school classmate Tami, I headed to 8 West 8th Street, NYC.


View of the Drawing room

The school boasts large and small ateliers flooded with luxurious, diffused, natural light. And that’s the extent of its opulence. Scrappy in an unapologetic way, the NYSS is all-business when it comes to the matter of drawing, at least. In fact, it was the home of the original Whitney Museum and the institution itself conceived by Mercedes Matter, Herbert Matter’s better half. With the Whitney’s most recent incarnation in Chelsea as a megalithic stack of glass windows and jutting metal patios, the original stands as a starting point for measure. The Whitney’s evolving manifestations could well symbolize the burgeoning of an artist herself, from a modest but stalwart seedling to an eventually glorious bloom. And both would share the same site of origin.


Thirty-some participants from all over the world, ranging from professional artists, to full-time students from NYSS and other schools, to graphic designers, to photographers, to art educators, and to a civil engineer convened to partake of what NYSS had to offer in a compact and brief moment. Every art school has a philosophy and a vision of what constitutes art. To me, NYSS focused on drawing as an offering of epiphany as a “documentation” of personal investigation and discovery through the great and highly-wrought tradition of drawing.

We used 90-lb cold press paper and layered drawing upon drawing and paint upon drawing. Plus erasures, the buildup was thick and rich. The heavily worked surface seemed to be the site of confrontation between artist and perceptual thought.

The mornings started promptly at 9AM. We started trickling in with a caffeine-induced wakefulness at 8:32AM or so. Ava, whose easel and shelf were next-door to mine, fueled up on dark chocolate like a vitamin or energy drink. I chewed on my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, in that same shared silence, which, from appearances, seemed passive and dormant, but inside, all pistons had begun firing and the cylinders had begun to accelerate their churn. As the models took their positions, the staccato of staple guns affixing huge sheets of paper onto boards on metal easels broke the silence and then the soft whispers of vine charcoal stroking the rough paper surface ensued.


Line Drawing by Eileen Hsu

Making work and critiquing it alternated in multi-hour blocks with a 1-hour lunch break in between. The day’s work would often end when the rest of New York City was preparing for bedtime. Sometimes, we’d end by 8PM. But it was never grueling and never burdensome. Many of us had devoted our annual vacation time from our full-time jobs to do this. And it was so good to commune with others who had similar interests and drive. Feedback from my new friends was thoughtful and direct. I tried to reciprocate.

For concepts and inspiration in the realm of drawing, Graham Nickson, Dean of NYSS, shared the works of old Venetian and Dutch masters, noting their compositional strategies in story-telling and spatial creation. When in doubt of one’s work, Graham advised to go back to study the work of the masters.


Titian’s work was often a source of analysis. As was Nicolas Poussin’s.  Also Pieter Bruegel’s paintings and drawings. Below is his Bee Keepers and the Birdnester (1568).


Pieter Bruegel, Bee Keepers and the Birdnester (1568)

As a group exercise, we gridded Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding (1567), to analyze the composition of each component as an independent image.

Then we cut the entire into squares and we each drew one grid square on a separate sheet in charcoal. Finally, we recomposed it in the big lecture hall, The Whitney Room.


The total piece disintegrated a bit only because each of us draw so differently, that the eye had difficulty amalgamating all squares into one whole. The variety of styles created a speed bump for the reading at the same time that it also provided a new interest absent from the original. This joyous, boisterous occasion that Bruegel caught and freeze-framed took on a new life through our group interpretation. The micro-spaces of negative space (or “Golden Space” as Graham rephrases it) as well as the pathways for the eye were different in our rendition than in the original.


Pieter Bruegel, Peasant Wedding (1567)

And it does boil down to the meaning of the mark of the hand, like those of the earliest people. On the second day of the first week, Graham showed to us photocopies of the ancient cave paintings in Lascaux, France. These included the emphatically outlined and blown paint images of the mutilated hands, as well as the bison — two very important, very cherished things. They are rendered with deference, passion and visual awareness of their forms. These also exhibited an understanding of space, movement, and composition, leading me to believe that this knowledge of drawing is a primal one, that we somehow lose or erode and need to reteach ourselves.

And we each painted our active hand too, like our ancestors of Lascaux, as an homage to humanity and the limb that we use the most to inter-relate between our internal and external worlds. Then we drew the model’s hand.

And then we drew all the activity surrounding it. From this exercise, Graham impressed upon us the relational inter-connection that underlies all drawing.

Fran O’Neill, visiting artist faculty and abstract painter, and Katie Ruiz, painter, also guided us through the marathon, with one-on-one comments and provocations that counterbalanced Graham broader historical references and allegorical statements. Each day featured 2-3 models and some simple props on a stage in the center of the room.

While no shortage of drawing insights, some of the standouts for me were: “You might start to wonder what is beautiful or what is ugly. And you think about it more and discover the thing that is ugly might be the most beautiful.” I loved that.


Drawing by Eileen Hsu

While we also studied other a variety of other artists workings, such as Max Beckmann, Montaigne, Gideon Bach, Stanley Spencer, Henri Matisse, Signac, Giorgione, and Giorgio Morandi. In the critiques, every participating artist’s work was reviewed by all, pinned up on the giant wall with nearly 80 eyes and 40 minds considering it. Graham made a point to say:

“Change your thinking and not your mark-making. Changed thinking will automatically change your marks.”

With this one, we drew each 22″ x 30″ tiled sheet separately. After completing nine of them, we recomposed them to form whole. Not everything lined up. It created unexpected charms and possibilities.


Drawing by Eileen Hsu

This one was a 4 feet x 4 feet sheet in which we explored the idea of eye movement through a pictured space, pathways, and staircases, as the case was in mine. How do you invite the eye to tour a space, browse in corners and stroll along edges?


Drawing by Eileen Hsu

Next, this model setup was inspired by the Beekeepers by Bruegel. I tried to convey a sense of depth and a journey for the eye. I have the tendency to draw a lot of the background and not edit out elements, when a leaner image might deliver a more powerful message. Graham often talked about the “Pictorial Subject” of a piece. Sometimes it is clear and the artist knows what its is from the outset. Other times, it emerges over the course of the work. And in the most unfortunate cases, it is vague, under-developed, unaware. We would point this out for each other, talk about sub-themes too, and identify the drawing methodology that either advanced or hindered these ideas.


Drawing by Eileen Hsu


A group of artists’ works hung for a critique in the Whitney Studio.

Graham was also keen at finding “visual echoes” of a shape repeated elsewhere in the drawing in a different context. For example, a fabric fold might repeat the form of an arm. Or a cloud might look like both a cloud and the head of the model. A conscious awareness of visual rhetoric, plus the artist’s own subconscious yearning, combined to help to forge a memorable image.


Drawing by Eileen Hsu

We produced about five times more drawings than what you see here. These are only highlights. The cognizance and momentum built up from such a training has deeply altered the way that I draw. It also jump-started my desire to keep drawing, which I need to keep up. The inter-connection of all space — negative spaces, visual pathways, line quality, tonal range, attention to the corners of the picture plane, noting what is in the center, metaphorical translations, abstraction of tertiary subjects in the service of the primary — became the over-arching theme of this particular Drawing Marathon. Each iteration of this event is a new shade, so some participants come back over and over again, like me!

As we packed up our supplies and drawings at the end of the two weeks, Fran advised us not to discard our drawings. She said, look at them later and they will make sense and be valuable to you.


Drawing by Eileen Hsu

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