Siobhan McBride’s paintings catch nondescript environments in moments that seem to be a pause, like a breath of air right before or after the action happens. But they’re noting like snapshots, as horizons peel back, walls fade away and strange light illuminates the scene. Instead, it is McBride’s process that seems to build this sense of potential release; prone, as she puts it, to distraction, the paintings are visions and revisions that condense McBride’s sense of time, narrative and diversion into a single image.
MH: What is your interest in transitional spaces? Many of your interiors seem to be studios, and many seen to be sort of exploding into landscape or dreamscape. What’s lovely is that they’re not whimsical at all, but matter-of-fact, utilitarian-looking environments that seem to be shifting or coming apart, and they contain tools and configurations that we understand, as parts of a studio or kitchen or bathroom, will move and change.
SM: I have a proclivity for distraction and I think these conglomerate spaces might reflect that. I work on a number of paintings at the same time, moving between them quickly. This helps me to not smother or over think, and prevents me from ever being bored. I love painting studios, my own and studios of friends. It’s a way to remember places I’ve been and how I felt in those spaces, and a way to remember someone else when I am absent their company. Also studios are really personal, more private than bathrooms, I think, which I’m also fond of painting.
I’m attracted to spaces that are liminal and temperamental, and those that contain or lead to other spaces. Most of the paintings are cobbled together from a number of sources.
I like to think that all the things in the painting have an awareness. Even the landscape and interiors are conscious, with opinions, not just backdrops. Everything has the potential to act on anything else, even emptiness, especially emptiness. All elements influence one another and leave a residue like static, and that is something I try to paint. I’m fond of plain and unassuming spaces. It seems there is greater likelihood for something unusual to happen there.
Late the other night I was driving home on a familiar, but featureless road, and I missed my turn. I decided to take the next turn but somehow it rushed up too fast in the moonless dark and I could not catch it. I kept on missing turns, intending to take them, then failing to do so. I was panicked, quite far from where I needed to be, and the scenery, illuminated only by raking headlights, looked strange and anonymous, like the bottom of the sea. Finally another turn appeared. As I slowed everything snapped into vivid recognition, the bark on the trees, the churned up gravel. I realized in disbelief that this was my road, the turn I had missed so many turns back. Nothing had happened.
MH: Can you talk about your sense of light? Many paintings have a strong, defined light like a noonday sun, with dark shadows, and others are murky, like twilight. Sometimes these scenarios happen in the same image, giving it a quality of spotlighting. I know that seems to describe the spectrum of all possible lighting, but yours seems to be a world of extremes, like going abruptly from the bright light of mid-day into a dim, curtained room.
SM: I treat light like another character, sometimes passive, sometimes imposing. When I first started painting I felt like things needed to hold together and feel plausible. Now I feel anything can happen anywhere and still make sense. Even when I’m painting exteriors I want them to feel intimate and enclosed like you’re indoors, like a hood is being pulled over your head. I have a strong nesting impulse. I prefer when the bed is next to the wall and sitting with my back to a corner in restaurants. I want the paintings to have escape routes and hiding places. I like to paint in a corner with tables all around me like a fortress. At one residency I had a really big studio which felt a bit too daunting. I tend to be very worried and nervous, as well as excited, when I start a new residency, so I built a cave out of paper around an upholstered chair as a sort of panic room against social anxiety. It helped.
MH: Tell me about titling for your pieces, and my apologies in advance if this is a question you hate (I always do). Some are so evocative of narratives (Lost Wallet, Gin Rummy) with the image they name, and some are so descriptive.
SM: Sometimes they’re simple descriptions or highlight an element in the painting that I feel is pivotal or not. Some times they explain parts of my life at the time the painting was made. Other times I think of them as super short lines from a poem, if the painting were the preceding verse, or the title of a short story. Lost Wallet was difficult. Every title I could think of felt too leading or illustrative. Eventually, the sound of the words in my mouth, sort of empty and hollow, felt appropriate. Also, the feeling when you lose your wallet, something I would do compulsively years ago, of exasperation and powerlessness.
As an undergrad, I studied creative writing as well as painting. I didn’t care so much about plot or if a story made sense, but focused more on describing small moments as precisely as I could. In the stories I wrote, not much happened, and the writing had a meandering feel. Sometimes the disparate elements in paintings are like descriptions from stories that are forced to live together. My inclinations as a thinker that were annoying in writing might be more appropriate in painting, because you see all the information, more or less, at once.
MH: How do gather sites and scenarios for your images? Do you paint from life, from images, or from somewhere in between?
SM: Most of the time I am painting from images. I need to respond to something. There is no preparatory work. All the compositions are worked out on the painting. I have a large pool of images that I am continuously poring over, constantly editing and adding to. I’ll use anything, things from magazines, books, gleaned off the internet, family snap shots, picture I’ve taken or been given. I start with one image, usually an interior or landscape, that I find particularly compelling and then add and eradicate different elements until the painting reaches a temperament I can live with.
MH: You talk about creating a sense of suspense in your work, and that suspense seems to derive from a notion of pause, that something has just happened or is about to happen. Invisible things, as it were. How did your residency in Roswell affect your thinking about such hidden happenings? It’s a legendarily secretive place, and must have also been an inspiring landscape.
SM: The residency is a yearlong and I will be here until December. It has been amazing! Every day goes alarmingly fast. The particular curious history, that I think you’re referring to, has not really impacted the work. Although, the first week I was here, right in the middle of a conversation about ghosts and aliens, a glass domed ceiling lamp fell and crashed and broke inexplicably right on my head!
Roswell is strange and interesting for a lot of other reasons. It is unlike any other place I have lived before. The landscape is so stark and relentless. I’ve never seen thunderstorms like this, with perfect massive anvil shaped clouds, often without a drop of rain. There are amazing insects; a handsome tarantula lives in a burrow next to the house, and plenty of new birds. There is a bird refuge named Bitter Lakes up the road and during the right season there are mountains of them, as well as jack rabbits with very long black tipped ears, prairie dogs galore, vinegaroons…
The most remarkable thing about being here is the time. I am able to accommodate my tendency for distraction, become fluent in it, and let it influence the paintings. I follow ideas farther and to more organic conclusions because there is the time to do so. Specific locations don’t usually feature in the paintings until I leave, but I’ve been gathering source material, some pictures of the Robert H. Goddard workshop recreation at the Roswell Museum and Art Center among other things, and I’m curious to see what will show up.
MH: What projects do you have coming up?
SM: I have a show at NURTUREart in Bushwick in Brooklyn, early 2013. Very excited for this!