Talking Paper Interview Series: Harriet Poznansky

Portrait of Harriet Poznansky, Arthur Johnstone, 2016 

Portrait of Harriet Poznansky, Arthur Johnstone, 2016 

Harriet Poznansky is a visual artist, writer, and musician from the UK. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her artistic practise predominately gravitates toward painting; however, she also makes electro / classical music and writes short stories. She is represented by London gallery The Koppel Project, a creative hub bringing together a contemporary art gallery, project space, cafe, and Phaidon bookshop founded and directed by Gabriella Sonabend and managed and co-curated by Hannah Thorne. Poznansky's most recent past exhibitions include a solo show at the Nomadic Press Oakland Workspace in November of 2015. Her work can also be seen in the East Bay Review and was featured in the Nomadic Press annual journal, Sate (2015). Along with Katie Hayward and Sarah Roberts, Poznansky's work can be seen in the group show "Pandiculate! The Joy of Stretching," on display at The Koppel Project from March 15 to April 7, 2016. Ahead of that show, I interviewed Poznansky about her work, the Koppel Project, and working with Nomadic Press.

On The Koppel Project

The Koppel Project is a brand new gallery. They've managed to convert a Barclay's bank in Central London, and the gallery space is in the decommissioned bank vault. So it's this really interesting, intricate space that contains not only a white cube but also winding corridors, the vault doors, and rooms within rooms. As a gallery, they're really interested in people who have some sort of storytelling theme within their work, whether it’s abstract or figurative. The space just links really well to the idea of storytelling within it, because it's sort of a journey to walk through.

On Well-traveled People Establishing an Arts Community

It's just incredibly important, because you already have so many stories and perspectives in your head, and a much broader interest and understanding of things outside of yourself. It's also a point of connection. I've traveled quite broadly to Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, and also just around North America. Gabriella recently spent time in Colombia. We’re all this well-traveled community, and I think there is something about understanding how to be really adaptive to an environment and really intuitive to it.

On Works in "Pandiculate!"

Everything that's in Nomadic Journal: Sate will be shown. Each work has a different set of references and ideas put into it. But overall, I definitely wanted to talk about the body in some way. My intention going into all these pieces was to put more time into them, and make more complicated paintings, in terms of their compositions.

"Vampire in the Lemon Grove," 36” x 46", oil on canvas, 2015

"Vampire in the Lemon Grove," 36” x 46", oil on canvas, 2015

"Vampire in the Lemon Grove" grew very slowly over about eight months. It started off a drawing in response to this book by Karen Russell called Vampires in the Lemon Grove. I just really like that image, and thought it was a really interesting idea of someone who has lived throughout a lot of time, and seen a lot, and is just hanging in space and descending upside down. I’d been thinking about how to compose it for a long time, and then I found this really great book of yoga poses. The author is a yoga guru, and I really liked how he photographed himself—just him in a studio, really well-lit, very sculptural. I found this one particular shot of him in a cross-legged shoulder stand and that started a link. So this angular body started to dictate the paintings composition. I was also looking at a lot of North American Constructivist paintings thinking about the way they used the rectangle and returning to look at Richard Diebenkorn again after many years. I have this abstract element, so I was really looking at his abstract work and the structure of his paintings. One of them in particular had this angular shape that was pretty much two triangles, the same way as this yoga torso, with the legs and the arms in this triangular pose. That was really how the painting started to be formed. Also, I'm in Oakland, and that became the biggest influence, because I'd walk around and there are lemon trees everywhere. I would just spend time really looking at them, and studying these juicy, voluptuous lemons hanging, and trying to imagine what it would be like hanging from those branches. Would the top branch hold you? Could you imagine someone there for a lifetime just observing the city, looking out at the social scene, and how much history they must've seen? The history of Oakland itself is one with redwood trees, and these redwoods are notorious for living for a very, very long time, and growing and stretching. Also, they've suffered mass deforestation, the ground that our house is built on is built out of the trees that used to be here. I think all these things about land, and time are symbolic within the vampire as a myth, collective memory.

"Autopsy of a Banquet," 47” x 63", oil on canvas, 2015

"Autopsy of a Banquet," 47” x 63", oil on canvas, 2015

"Autopsy of a Banquet" was a breakthrough work as it took smaller drawings I had been making to a bigger bolder scale. I'd been looking at all these Picasso orgy drawings for a long time.They are pretty amazing with all these bodies, and quick lines, and this tangle of people. I really wanted to explore something about eroticism and the body in that way—just the idea of bodies on a flat surface, using them to connect, and then create relationships between themselves. Also, I was looking at all the Greek and Roman paintings and depictions of these sort of things, abundant banquets and the idea of Dionysian rituals. At the time, I was reading this book, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, she writes about these students trying to enact the Dionysian rituals and reach a animalistic state of freedom. 

[The lace tablecloth] is taken from my previous work. I've always been really interested in using real pieces of lace, because I just find them interesting as sources of imagery. You can get them from countries all over the world, which have a different history of lace making. It's just image-making made by lots of hands. This particular one, I bought it from the Lacis Museum in Berkeley, and it’s actually a Thanksgiving tablecloth. All of the tablecloth is really decorative and covered in fruit, cobs of corn, turkey—a feast! But then around the edges, it's got this scene of the history of Thanksgiving, depicted as the neutral sharing between the pilgrims and the Native Americans. It was interesting to me in relation to collective memory, story telling, and truth. I thought this tablecloth was particularly interesting because it was mass-produced and many American families might have had one on their dining table at Thanksgiving, the same way the TV infiltrates a home in a non-intrusive way. So I've been using that, and it kind of keeps on creeping into different works. I have another painting called "American Heritage" that uses the whole thing.

"American Heritage," 60" x 46", oil on canvas, 2015

"American Heritage," 60" x 46", oil on canvas, 2015

In summary, I wanted to talk about something grotesque, and the discarded food, and just the leftovers of abundance. Also, I'm really interested in playing with different ways of painting, and different painting languages. That's really important to me, to combine different languages.

On Working with Nomadic Press

Doing my show with Nomadic in November was really fantastic, at the opening we had four of who I consider some of the best Bay Area poets writing in response to each painting. So we had Missy Church writing in response to "Vampire in the Lemon Grove," Cassandra Dallett writing in response to "Autopsy of a Banquet," and Brennan DeFrisco and Allie Marini performing their contrapuntal collaborative poetry.  

On Her Approach to Exhibiting

It really depends on the space and what is appropriate but also how the space can affect the work. The Nomadic Press Oakland Workspace has a bookshelf across the back wall with a large collection of theoretical, philosophical, and historical books. To me that's so appropriate, because I draw on all of that stuff all the time. I was happy for it to be really put into that context as I was trying to explore storytelling through painting..

In London with The Koppel Project, it is very much a dialogue. It's a group show, so collaboration and communication are important. But we all have been carefully selected for our work, and Sarah and Katie have been working in residence in the space for about three weeks and making some very ambitious site-specific work. What has been really interesting is that for the past three months, we've been doing this collective writing project together in order to make the catalog, which is called Funnel. We're writing with the poet-in-residence, Joseph Minden, as well. 

"A Hard Time to Be a Father," 8' x 20', oil, iridescent pigment spray paint on canvas, 2016

"A Hard Time to Be a Father," 8' x 20', oil, iridescent pigment spray paint on canvas, 2016

My painting "A Hard Time to be a Father" will also be in "Pandiculate!" The work explores the process of making paintings through printing and stenciling using lace and netted fabrics reconciling something both poetical and mechanical. It is made up of five panels and was abstracted from ideas of Japanese changing screens and the body revealing and concealing itself, private and public performitivity. Within the Koppel Gallery it reaches from floor to ceiling, it's site specific nature is inline with the theme of the show 'Pandiculation!'.  Because this ongoing dialogue I have with myself between abstraction and figuration—it's so great to see the two worlds collide and inhabit the same space. I am very curious to see how that feels and gage the response from people who see the show. I think it is a challenge to present two starkly different yet connected visual languages from the same artist. 

For more information on "Pandiculate!," which will open on March 15, 2016, in London, please visit The Koppel Project's website.

For more information on the artist featured in this interview, Harriet Poznansky, please visit her website.