JILL LONDON INTERVIEWING ZOE PETTIJOHN SCHADE ABOUT HER ART
JL: How would you describe your work?
ZPS: I think a primary aspect of my work is the density of the surface. I work in layers of painted and gilded imagery, and one of my goals is to achieve a level of lush complexity. Most of the layers are painted in gouache, which has a very matte velvety surface. Gilding offers another layer of density because of its reflectivity; a gilded image appears almost invisible at one moment, or very prominent at another.
JL: I was very much surprised by the quality of density and the fact that it was so thin, that the gouache itself was so thin. How do you use layers to create the density that you are referring to?
ZPS: A fundamental aspect of how I approach layering is repetition. Every element in my work, each image and structure, repeats in its own way.
The first layer tends to be a color structure, which establishes a kind of climate for the piece. It’s often a “fade” that goes repeatedly from sky to earth. Each successive painting layer is a separate study with its own structure. The image relates to itself as it repeats; the pattern in which it is organized is as crucial to me as the image itself. The relation of the patterns to the images has a kind of a lyricism for me.
Each layer is painted separately, and ruthlessly, as the next layer is laid down, it decimates part of what is underneath. I keep doing that and there is usually room enough for all the layers I imagine,
A theory of mine is that repetition creates an infinite amount room. It’s tricky because I have to be really skilled in terms of balance and proportion other wise it could be cacophonous and every thing can break down. But I think that given the right handling, I could see up to 50 layers, though right now I’m up somewhere in the teens I think. The repetition gives the space for there to be as many layers as there are associations for me within the world of imagery that I am working within each piece’s imagery.
The leaf doesn’t come until the end and is often worked in layers too.
In “Ocean Moire” there are 6 layers of leaf; because of the way the structure was built I couldn’t do it in one shot. Sometimes it’s so linear or so lacy that it’s a real pain to mask out what is underneath it
JL: What kind of size do you use?
ZPS: I’ use was Aqua Size, which was recommended by Sepp Leaf, for use on top of the painting. Someone I work with gave me a new version of red clay that might work for me, but I haven’t tried it yet. I could work with something else as long as it’s archival with paper.
JL: Do you find that the Aqua Size bleeds on top of the gouache?
ZPS: No, generally not; if I were a lot looser with it, I guess it might be a problem.
JL: Do you use a #0000 paintbrush with just one hair in it for your fine lines?
ZPS: I usually use old drafting pens.
JL: Such as a rapidograph?
ZPS Oh no, the instruments of a generation before. With antique drafting tools I can achieve marks that are different than you get with a brush. I prefer the metal ones as they are easiest to clean.
JL: I wondered how you achieved such control with so many fine lines. I thought you must very calm while you were working.
ZPS: (laughing) If I want a brush mark or a varied line I use a brush. But I use sable brushes and the Aqua Size ruins them, which I don’t love. Steel tools can be cleaned and don’t get damaged.
JL: When you say that sometimes you apply six layers, are you applying another line of aqua size down on top of the same sized and gilded line?
ZPS: Yes, and again and again. Sometimes I go over the existing leaf in a number of ways.
JL: Have you ever tried using jade glue(pva) as your size?
JL: I would offer you the suggestion that you try it where you want a higher sheen on the leaf. Aqua Size, Rhoplex, and Wundasize all give a similar more matte surface.
ZPS: Aqua Size has a satin finish, but gouache is incredibly matte, so its pretty contrasty. But I would love to have another level.
JL: I would think that the gouache and the paper might play a part in the “mattness” of the line.
ZPS: Yes, I only use one kind of paper: Saunders 300 lb. hot pressed watercolor paper, 40 in. x 60 in. Only two companies make that paper so large- Saunders Waterford and Lanaquarelle. In my experience Lana’s sizing is spottier.
JL: WHEN I think of your painting, with the density, the luminosity, and the precision of every inch, it reminds of complex orchestral music, and also of textiles in the way the information is interwoven. Could you explain how you got to that place?
ZPS: ACTUALLY, when I talk about my ambition to create denser and denser layers, I sometimes think of it as orchestration. When a painting is this dense, images arrive at one’s eye at different times. I want to orchestrate the order and tempo in which the layers reveal themselves. So your metaphor is actually one of my secret wishes.
How I got here: When I was in college at the Cooper Union I became interested in systems- how my associations with different images were connected to one another. I began to see patterns as a visual representation of those relationships. I was reading about cells and the history of medicine, and also about the history of patterns and textiles. I learned to weave and make lace. I was also learning about feminism and was very interested in this art history that is not really well acknowledged. My affinity came from of a sense of loyalty and justice, as well as interest in the ideas. I’m so attracted to the intricate physical surface of textiles, especially lace. So my work incorporated all these ideas. I was doing drawings that were trying to understand the math and the physics of patterns, different kinds of symmetry, and the kinds of organizations that grow patterns.
Over the years as my work developed I did a lot of research in museums. I spent a lot of time in at the Antonio Ratti Textile Center at the Met, where there is a great lace collection; I also worked at a textile design company doing gouache paintings. I had already started doing repeat gouache paintings, which I showed in order to get the job, but I hadn’t yet realized how much my work was part of a tradition. Gouache painting for textiles that goes back several centuries, although it is an obscure art and not often exhibited. I just spent some time in Paris at the Bibliotheque Forney. The curator, Madame Deangeli, gave me access to a collection from the 17th century, the oldest paintings in this tradition that I have ever seen.. They were so inspiring, straddling the line between representation and abstraction. They are really bold-some of the best geometric abstractions that I have seen. In such an old tradition, how does a contemporary artist keep from repeating what has been done, when what has been done is often so amazing? Weaving and lace are intensely mathematical, and that carried over into my paintings. In each painting there is a “family” of numbers. I don’t know formal math very well, and I’m not totally conscious of what all the number relationships are. I’ll do a structure and I’ll say “this should be a certain distance” and I’ll measure it. Then three patterns later I’ll see I’m working with numbers that are related closely to the first layer. There will be times when the lines are falling on the center line on something several layers underneath. I can’t predict how the layers are going to fall on each other; I just set it up and let it run.
JL: I like the fact that this work encompasses textiles, gouache, and gilding, which are three of the oldest arts.
ZPS: Lace and textiles are so adventurous, especially in abstraction and composition. Figure / and ground are always reversing. The image refers to something yet is not really tied to it. You can untie it and say “ok, this thing is not the sky anymore; it’s a color plane, or it’s a ground, or it’s a figure.” In my layering I’m flipping those things around all the time. I think it’s not something you come to through traditional image making.
JL: I agree. An artist has to find his own avenue. How were you introduced to gold leaf and gilding? Did you have a teacher?
ZPS: In 2000 I was doing fabric pieces. The fabrics I used often had gold or metalic threads. It only made sense for me to start using metals in my paintings. . Of course there is a long tradition pairing gouache with gilding. I started using gold pigments. I was making my own paint,, buying copper and brass powders from Robert Doak down in Dumbo. On a job restoring an antique carousel for Jane Walentas I learned oil gilding on wood. I started gilding in my own paintings then, although I was using different materials. At a recent job, I was taught a bit of water gilding. But the way I use it in my work, no; I developed that myself.
JL: How do you apply the leaf?
ZPS: When there are actual lines, I use loose leaf and cut it in strips. But when it is more web-like I use patent leaf, that way I can use just little bits and conserve leaf.
JL: Do you have any words of wisdom or advise for artists thinking about experimenting with gold leaf?
ZPS: I know that it is intimidating because it is expensive, but I do think it is worth it. It’s a beautiful tradition. Finding a way to relate to such a long history as a contemporary artist can be a challenge, but it’s a worthwhile one.