Studio Visit / Interview with Liz Hernandez and Ryan Whelan
A few weeks back we visited the studio of Oakland based artists Liz Hernandez and Ryan Whelan as they prepare a new series of paintings for "Provisions" opening this November 9th at Part 2 Gallery. We spent time talking about how they impact each others process, where the title of the exhibition stems from and outside inspirations for their new body of works. To receive a preview of the exhibition contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to learn more about Liz and Ryan in the studio visit interview with Gallery Curator / Director Brock Brake below!
How do you affect one another's work?
Ryan: Our work, both stylistically and subject wise, has always been in close proximity. We got a studio space together during the summer of 2016, and shared a small room alongside Jeffrey Cheung and Gabe Ramirez. Right after signing the lease, and moving in, we got to work for out first show together “a Pot is a pot is a pot is a pot”. Pretty quickly we realized how much we influenced each other’s work. Once Liz finished a piece, my next piece would be a reaction to her piece and vice a versa. I think we were naturally, and in a healthy way, competitive with each other and pushed each other to make work very quickly.
Liz: I think we really influenced and affected each other’s work subconsciously. When we would be around one another’s work, we would be picking up similar colors and shapes and ideas. We’d talk a lot about our work as well, constantly helping each other make decisions. At the end of “a pot is a pot is a pot is a pot” we ended up deciding that we needed to separate our art practice a bit more in order for us to keep growing.
Ryan: Yeah, it was an important decision that really ended up helping us. I took over the entire half of the studio we started in, so it ended up being Jeff, Gabe and I in that room. Liz moved to the adjacent studio with Kyle Knobel.
Liz: Once we gave each other space, we discovered that our work still was similar but our unique line qualities and perspectives made it feel very different. We live and work together, and I think we are affecting each other’s work all the time. We constantly are researching, thinking, sketching and even in bed before we go to sleep we are bouncing ideas off one another.
Where did the title of your upcoming November exhibition “Provisions” come from?
Ryan: Lately, our lives have been consumed by work. The only time we could really be present with one another was when we were cooking together, sitting down for a meal, drinking coffee together - that kind of thing. We weren’t conscious of its importance. Earlier this year we moved into our own apartment, and wanted to eat healthier and had all these cookbooks we wanted to try.
Liz: I really liked using the cookbooks together, ya know. We weren’t on our phones, or on the computer, these were the moments when we were actually disconnected from the busy world, we were not on the internet -we were focusing on each other.
Ryan: We were also really surprised at the instant gratification of cooking together. We both work a lot and are constantly balancing many deadlines and stresses and putting out fires in our lives - if it’s wasn’t one thing it was another. Cooking really helped us connect and realize how we can accomplish things together and show each other love and care in simple ways.
Liz: When we sat down together to discuss our show title, we decided to start fresh and new and try to tap into what we were most interested in making art about, not necessarily bouncing off of what we made for our last show. Coincidentally, we were both really interested in ideas of food, the cultures of cooking, the traditions of farming and beauty of places like the marketplace. We ended up settling on the title “provisions”, which at first Ryan was not into.
Ryan: I think that at first, it felt a bit too serious for me. A monolithic one word title.
Liz: I didn’t think it felt that serious, and I sort of became obsessed with the word. I saw it in so many cookbooks and it just kept coming up in my research. The word “provisions” made me think more of providing - but providing is caring and caring for the people you eat with, your family, friends, and your community. I knew that the work we were making was going to be so fun, bright and vibrant, and the “seriousness” of the title provisions would balance those traits.
Ryan: I eventually gave into the title, it ended up linking a lot of interests together. Provisions makes me think of farming, the land and the people who provide markets restaurants and families with food. I was really into the romantic notion of a natural life as well. Lately, I’ve felt so consumed by how fast paced the world is, how much we are expected to work and email, which really can take a huge toll on your relationship to everything around you. I think about the tools we use for cooking, and how things like cast iron pans, chopping blocks, or recipes turn into family relics and are passed down from generation to generation. The word ended up being perfect for us to jump off in many different directions, but still be grounded and have cohesion.
Liz: The title also spoke directly to my main focus for this body of work: the tianguis, an open-air market that is traditionally held on certain days in neighborhoods in Mexico. These markets completely fill streets and often are many blocks long. It’s like a big maze of stands where people sell produce, plants, and anything else you can imagine. It is mostly visited by women who take care of the house and their families, who are the real providers, the caretakers that run Mexico. I have special memories of markets since I spent so much time visiting them with my Grandma, my mom and aunts. The word Provisions linked those two aspects that interested me, the provisions (food) and the providers (the women in my family).
What can viewers expect from this new body of work who may have been following your work for a while?
Ryan: I graduated with a degree in printmaking, so for a while my work was informed by a lot of printmaking practices and ideals. Right after graduating, I was very focused on making these pieces that were sort of seamless, with no real “hand” in it - kind of the way a print can feel just sort of born into the world with no indication of all the intricate steps it took to make it happen. Everything was extremely flat - color wise and paint application. Once we started to create work for our second show together, I started to approach art making in opposition to those printmaking ideals. I didn’t plan out all the steps, I became very aware of how application of paint creates texture and how textures can really act like colors. I wanted my “hand” in pieces, and I didn’t want to always know how things would end up. Now moving into ¨Provisions¨, I am finding a happy medium between those 2 methodologies. I’m also experimenting with different mediums, using soft pastel on acrylic and then coming back over the whole things with oil. I’ve really become interested in breaking the usual formats and ways of displaying 2d pieces - so expect some unusually sized canvases and unorthodox hanging arrangements.Ultimately, I am focusing on perspective and flatness and how that can abstract everyday items.
Liz: I am constantly looking for ways to make my work evolve, and I do it so it interesting for me and the viewer. I like to push myself and see where I can take and idea and change it over time.
For the last few shows I focused on images that were really clean, with a very limited palette and shapes that were sharp and solid. My process began with sketching and then transferring the image to Illustrator to “clean it up” before projecting the image onto raw canvas. I was trying to achieve perfection by doing that, but I would never be able to achieve it and that took away the fun for me. I believe this goal was influenced by my design background, but I quickly got bored of it and made me miss the line quality my drawings have. I moved away from planning my pieces that way and I am enjoying the freedom it brings.
For my new pieces, I am enjoying complex compositions where a lot of things are going on rather than having one object floating in the canvas. I am moving away from earthy colors that have been part of my work for the last couple years and moving into bright colors, I am really into using a very vibrant palette for the upcoming show. While I am not abandoning clay, I will have a limited amount of paintings in this medium for the upcoming show. I don’t want to get stuck doing the same thing over and over. I want to experiment with new mediums and include sculptural work.
What is motivating this new body of work? What kind of research is being done to prepare for this body of work?
Liz: I think my main motivation comes from spending more time cooking and seeing it as a creative activity. Cooking is like painting, and you as the cook make similar decisions to those of an artist. Families in Mexico talk about who has the best “sazón” or taste in the family, which would be similar to someone having good eye for color and composition in painting. It is something people feel really proud of. I find it so interesting that I can cook a very simple thing and someone else would cook the same and taste completely different, making our dish personal and letting the person eating understand our decisions.
Ryan: I think just the power in cooking and the almost instant impact it can have bringing everyone together (and away from their screens) is the main motivation for this work. My own desires to go out and be in nature is also motivating this body of work. I think I am sort of living life through art sometimes. I don’t have the means to be in nature all the time, so right now I am just going to surround myself with paintings of it. In terms of my research, well cooking has been a great way to research! We are pretty constantly looking at cook books, hoarding images, and reading interviews as means for research. When we have time we will go on walks or hikes and take photos for references. Even when we are going to the grocery store, it sort of feels like research - it´s those unusualness, magical moments that really influence what we do.
Liz: For my research I have been reading about the history of markets in Mexico and have been collecting images, articles and everything I find related to the topic. I have asked my family to take pictures when they go to the markets over the weekend. Sometimes they send me pictures and I find an interesting observation in them. I have been watching documentaries and cooking shows. I revisited an old tv show called La Ruta del Sabor, which I used to watch when I was a kid in the 90s. The host would travel around the country and visit different regions and often sit down in the kitchen with a cook, (who most of the time was a woman) and they would cook together. This is when I started realizing the incredible diversity of food and ingredients in Mexico. I also became obsessed with Enrique Olvera, the most famous Mexican chef right now. He is redefining mexican cuisine, but he’s also interested in conservation of rare ingredients, and responsible farming, tradition and innovation. I have been reading not only his food but also what and where he was drawing inspiration from as a Chef.
How has the world today impacted you as creatives?
Ryan: I think societies obsession with screens has had a huge impact on my creativity. Art has become so digestible through Instagram and Tumblr that it has sort of skewed the importance of a lot of aspects of art. Work I´ve been making lately has a lot of subtle textures and tones and it is really just something you need to see in person to fully get and experience. Now though, if someone isn’t posting their art on the internet people think they just aren’t making or something. I’m sort of just off-put by that culture. I grapple with new insecurities because of it. I try my best to resist any influence by “likes” or these kind of nonsensical indicators of success.
Liz: Sometimes it feels like the world makes it very hard to be creative. It feels especially hard since we both are living in the Bay Area, where money rules everything here. It is a place where housing feels like a privilege, and making art can feel like a waste of time. With so many injustices around us, sometimes I question why I even make art. But painting is a way for me to be present, to feel like a human again, and try to put something nice out in the world. People don’t seem to find it important because no one is getting paid or making money from that action. However, since eating and cooking are necessities, and it was a moment for Ryan and I to be creative and it not feel like we were wasting our time due to the status quo we live in.