The gray concrete walls of Elise Richman’s New York Avenue warehouse studio are spotted with color: plastic flowers, patchwork animals, and a 6-foot-tall painting of a googly-eyed bird. Its feathers are composed of thousands of multicolored, stippled brush strokes set against a Pepto-pink background. The painter calls the piece, part of a series of bird-themed works she made last year, a “self-portrait.”
“I was always drawn to the character within animals as a subject,” explains the 30-year-old painter. “But I was never satisfied with the environment they had to exist in within a painting—the separation between the two. Increasingly, I found I wanted to make that surrounding area as important as the image, and soon the image became unnecessary.”
As a document of her abrupt conversion to abstraction several months ago, Richman presents a notebook-sized canvas coated with thickly painted dots about the diameter of a pencil eraser. “There used to be a bird under there somewhere,” she says, squinting at the piece. “But I just kept piling on these dots, layer after layer, until it took on this quality of light.”
These “dot paintings,” as Richman calls them, quickly became an obsession for the painter, who sometimes cradles the small canvases in her arms for hours at a time while working on them. “The dots are very much about intimacy,” she says. “Being so physically close to the canvas, holding my hand up with my other hand like I’m playing Operation, painting dots on top of the tips of dots.”
This past winter, around the time Richman was attempting her first dot paintings, she met painter Isabel Manalo at American University, where both women are adjunct professors in the college’s studio-art program. Manalo had also recently begun experimenting with abstraction, and the two artists started to meet regularly to support and critique one another’s work. “Flicker,” a split show organized by the pair and on view through Sept. 24 at 7th Street NW’s Studio 7, is the product of that dialogue.
“We chose the title to reflect the experience of light and movement as you go through the paintings, which is something that we were both attempting,” explains Richman. At first glance, however, Manalo’s oils of landscapes and people, based on Photoshopped digital-camera images, seem to have little in common with Richman’s dot paintings. “Our approach is not at all similar,” says Richman, “but we have definitely been exploring similar issues, and I am excited to see how that will come through.”
Richman’s paintings, an untitled series of 14, vary in color, density, and thickness—from nearly flat to shag-rug-deep. When viewed from a few feet away, the works’ layers of dots and colored glazes shimmer in the studio’s changing light. Viewed closer, some paintings appear nearly sculptural, made up of hundreds of fragile, built-up towers of pigment that look like miniature skyscrapers.
Richman says she is soothed by the repetitive action involved in creating her dot paintings and that she hopes the works “access that state for the viewer.” But at first, she remembers, “I worried that abstraction was self-indulgent, bourgeois. I didn’t know why I was doing this. But I think this is a way of getting rid of my will as an artist. A line pushes your eye in a direction and controls the way you move through a painting. The dots have no hierarchy—they are more interactive with the viewer.” —Shauna Miller
“Flicker” is on view to Tuesday, Sept. 24, at Studio 7, 1019 7th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 234-5931.