Judith Eisler has the ability to capture film’s most complex and heart pounding moments and recreate them on canvas. Eisler was born in Newark, New Jersey. She obtained her BFA from Cornell University and soon found herself immersed in the New York City art scene. She has been showing her work in top galleries around the world for almost two decades. In 2002, she was awarded the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2004, her painting Smoker (Cruel Story of Youth) graced the cover of Artforum. Eisler has had multiple solo shows at Galerie Krobath in Austria, Cohan and Leslie in New York City, and Gavlak in Los Angeles. Eisler is currently a professor at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, Austria. I had the pleasure to speak with Judith about her process, inspiration and person reflections.
JESSICA STELLER: When did you first become interested in the arts? Can you name a specific turning point in which you knew you would take the plunge into making it your career?
JUDITH EISLER: I always liked to draw. I can’t remember when I first started painting. I feel that I have always been painting. My mother recognized that I liked to make pictures and she encouraged me. She gave me watercolors and magic markers.
I sometimes went to museums with my parents. The Matisse painting The Piano Lesson and Pavel Tchelitchew’s hide and Seek at MoMA disturbed my young self and stayed in my mind.
In college I took sculpture, photography and drawing classes but it was always paint that felt most direct and essential to me. I liked the result of photography but was not interested in the materials. I was working one night alone in the studio and realized that pushing color around on the canvas and trying to realize something within the flat rectangle was what I wanted to do most.
I went to The New York Studio School the summer of my sophomore year of college. I had two studio visits that year with Mercedes Matter and Grace Hartigan. Both artists talked to me at length about my painting and were clearly interested in how I used oil paint. I felt understood and excited. It seemed that we had something in common – a kinship of sorts. Their input made me curious to learn more about the language of painting.
I don’t know that I decided to make painting my career. I don’t recall thinking about the term “career” until much later in life. I graduated with a BFA from Cornell in 1984 and moved to New York City, which at that time was affordable for a young artist. There was a lot of painting to see in the galleries and it was very exciting to absorb all that energy and inspiration.
I supported myself through waitressing, working through a temp agency, and working the box office at the Film Forum. I just wanted to have enough money so that I could pay my rent and have time to work in the studio.
My time at the Film Forum was important for my cinematic education but the job that truly transformed and enhanced my practice was working for a Bulgarian art restorer.
It was an old school apprenticeship with drawing class every morning and the repairing of paintings and objects in the afternoon. I learned how to retouch paintings of different periods and styles and I became quite expert at mixing color.
I painted abstracted figures for many years but after some time, I felt the need to strip away anything that was unessential in describing a presence. Eventually, limbs and color started disappearing and the paintings turned white. I was unsure how to continue.
I began to look at photography books and came across a photo of an alligator. I was interested in the image because it was so dark and so much the opposite of the white paintings. I let go of my desire to invent something, because now everything was available through seeing. Instead of using paint to try to define something that existed in my mind’s eye, I could now paint a creature that was paused in its condition of animation. These animal paintings were often large- scale interpretations of insects, rodents, and reptiles. They were investigations about an inherent violence and repulsion made beautiful through painting. I had my first solo exhibition in 1995 at Luhring Augustine.
I was watching the George Lukas film ThX1138 when I noticed the presence of a rat surrounded by a purplish, orange light passing through a few frames. My mind was so in tune with looking at wildlife in photos that I noticed something that flashed on the screen for maybe a second. I took a photo of the rat and made a large painting of the image. Because it was 6 x 7 1⁄2 feet, it was difficult to ascertain what was the subject in the painting. Someone thought it was a tornado. My primary interest was not to paint a rat but to define the elusive elements of light and motion. It was exciting to shift to working from stills of moving images instead of photos which were much more resolved. I was able to capture something that was in between actions and therefore reverberating with abstraction and possibility.
JESSICA STELLER: How do you select the films you use in your work?
JUDITH EISLER: I watch everything and anything. When I’m watching a film, I don’t necessarily find an image that I want to paint. Even when I am looking for a specific actress or director, and I research that individual’s output obsessively, I don’t always find an image that I can use. I was watching a lot of Romy Schneider films last summer but found nothing of the actress that resonated for me. I did come upon some unexpected imagery of movie lights that completely surprised me and became the focus of an upcoming exhibition.
I solicit suggestions from friends and I am especially interested in hearing about people’s favorite movies. Watching one movie will usually lead me to something else and its rare that I don’t have a pile of DVDs waiting to be watched. I sorely miss the video stores in NYC and the mad categories and suggestions one could find there, but I still find inspiration in articles, interviews, reviews, and TV listings.
JESSICA STELLER: Can you explain your process from seeing an image to creating the work on canvas?
JUDITH EISLER: When I am watching a film, I see something in the narrative that usually has the quality of a happy accident for me. The image is not usually a defining moment in the trajectory of the film but a moment that’s peripheral or unimportant to the story. I take this image out of its context by taking a photo, making a grid on the photo and the canvas, and then painting the canvas with a system of marks and layers so that the inherent structure and luminosity of the image are made apparent.
JESSICA STELLER: How did your 2002 Guggenheim Fellowship affect your work?
JUDITH EISLER: I suddenly had money and time to focus on my work unreservedly. The support of the foundation was a huge pat on the back. I felt honored and confident. Before receiving the Guggenheim, I had been freelancing and worrying too much about the next paycheck. It’s not that I didn’t have anxieties after I got the Guggenheim, but I had so much more time to do my work and think about the way I wanted to open things up in the studio. I was still trying to define light as a substance, so I expanded this investigation to include not only an artificially lit nighttime source, but also some subjects existing in daylight (as filtered through my technically mediated process). I was much more free in my painting and my thinking and I was motivated. My output in the studio increased dramatically.
In January 2004, I was on the cover of Artforum with a painting that I had done the year after I received the Guggenheim. I had a solo show open the same month in NYC. It was a Cinderella moment.
JESSICA STELLER: How have you grown as an artist over the years, what technique or advice helped you further your artistic career?
JUDITH EISLER: Working for an art restorer provided me with a traditional education that is less and less available to people studying art today. I was taught how to mix and apply colors used by other artists of different periods and styles. I had to get outside the choices I habitually made for myself and get into somebody else’s headspace. All this time spent mixing colors to achieve a required result helped me to be much more specific and subtle in my own work and proved especially invaluable when I started to paint from photographs of films. I am able to describe the strange, shifting colors that make themselves apparent through several layers of technological mediation. I am defining a recognizable subject but my considerations when I am painting are completely abstract.
JESSICA STELLER: What is the emotional response that you get when you create a new piece?
JUDITH EISLER: The compulsion to see and realize a certain kind of space as it appears through expressions, postures, and light. Feelings that accompany the compulsion are, in no particular order: delight, connection, boredom, certainty, thrills, despair, and joy. For me, it’s not about whether or not I like what I am doing, but whether or not I am expressing something that is true.
JESSICA STELLER: What would you like your viewers to take away from your work?
JUDITH EISLER: An experience that is simultaneously optical and psychological, a curious, unsentimental feeling, and a sense of recognition that is both familiar and uncertain.
JESSICA STELLER: Who would be your dream collaboration and why?
JUDITH EISLER: This past summer I did several paintings of Dorothy Malone. I found out that John Waters did a few photo pieces called Dorothy Malone’s Collar in which film stills of the actress shot from behind show that yes, her collar is up in almost every film. He also did an amazing piece with stills of Liz Taylor and Andy Warhol called The Strange Ones. The film source is an ‘it’s so bad its fascinating’ film called The Drivers Seat. I did some paintings of Liz in profile from that movie. I don’t know how to suggest a collaboration, but here, I would say, it’s a thrill to be on the same wavelength as someone with such exquisite cinematic taste. I am fascinated by the way he interprets and redirects films through new arrangements of still moments.