Catherine Haggarty is a New York based artist, curator, writer and teacher. She’s known for her work that explores the sublime and the absurd through painting. She has an upcoming Solo Show: 'What if, you slept?', which opens February 18th, 2017 at Proto Gallery. She will also be curating a two person painting show, ‘About Looking” featuring the work of Matt Phillips and Travis Fairclough which opens January 27th at Ortega y Gasset Projects through February 19th, 2017.
Brett Wallace: What is your origin in art?
Catherine Haggarty: The first thing I did creatively was to build trash and recyclable sculptures in my garage when I was a little kid. I’m the last of seven kids and I was always really like into sports but I also had this urge to make objects. I think maybe similarly to my Dad who used to build a lot of things. And, so the first art thing I did I think was building trash sculptures in my garage when I was about seven or eight.
I don’t think I understood what it would mean to be an artist as a kid, but I knew I wanted to tell stories, to make things, to do what others couldn’t.
BW: What did you study in school?
CH: I actually focused on Psychology at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. I studied Behavioral Psychology but I also majored in art. And when I was in my junior year of college I decided to quit basketball and to pick up an art major and study abroad at the Tyler School of Art in Rome.
I spent a few years after college taking classes at SVA in painting - trying to make up ground for technique work I felt I didn’t get in undergrad because my Psychology major really took up most of my time. Then, around 2009, I began my MFA at Rutgers. That experience was tough but so so helpful - the people I met and had the chance to work with. It challenged and changed me in many really great ways.
BW: What experience(s) or mentors have influenced you?
CH: Traveling to Rome in 2005 and completing my MFA in 2011 - both of those events solidified my passion and inner desire to dedicate my life to making art. Mentors of great significance were Hanneline Rogeberg, Marc Handleman, Wendy White, and Tom Nozkowski at Rutgers. In 2010 John Yau took a small group of us to studio visits in Brooklyn, we spent time at Kathy Bradford’s studio and that was the start of a friendship and mentorship that continues to be helpful for me.
I remember after a studio visit with Wendy White in graduate school thinking to myself that I could really do this, It just hit me and I never looked back. Seeing working artists with families, lives and success is important for young artists - they need to see that it is possible, and that you can have a rich and full life with art being the center of your drive.
BW: Who inspires you?
CH: So I think there’s like an absurdity in Carroll Dunham’s paintings as well as Nicole Eisenman’s paintings that inspired me to take chances with compositions and figures. Dana Shutz, Nikki Maloof, both paint in this land of figurative abstraction that is really liberating. Brian Scott Campbell’s new work particularly is inspiring to me as well - formally he is coming from drawing but his recent work and implication of figures again really has me looking forward to seeing more of his work. These artists, and many other give me a sort of permission to do what i want. I think that is a huge part of being an artist - allowing yourself the permission to let go and dive in.
I think that there’s a sort of quietude too in artists like Albert York, John Dilg, or Eleanor Ray that I really love formally - I don’t paint like them but they inspire me. The attention to tonal shifts, to simple subject matter lending itself to the everyday and memory.
In terms of painting - there are so many, I look at my friends paintings all the time - we are constantly sending each other photos and of course exchanging studio visits.
I am also really inspired by those that make art from a very different place. I work with kids and young adults when I teach - the way they process information and make art is really curious to me. Impulsivity and simplification of form in children’s art is really terrific if you pay attention to it. Also those students sometimes have cognitive impairments or autism - they inspire me. Truly, some of the best work I see daily is from them. You can’t get more human and more raw than their work. I’m in awe of them for many reasons and it’s a pleasure to be able to experience the way their brain’s work on a daily basis.
BW: What are some of the concepts you're most interested in painting?
CH: In the past year and a half I’ve really focused on two major sort of subjects, land and people. Psychology has rooted in me a desire to observe and understand behavior - so in this, people have always been a subject. And landscape in the last year has become a subject, which sort of took me by surprise. I always had a bit of anxiety putting my figures or people in places that didn’t make sense. I finally gave myself the permission to put them wherever the hell I felt...and that has been this sort of utopian and dream like landscape. Mountains, water, sky - all of it has seeped into the paintings and really brought me to life in a really hard year.
It has been really liberating and really helpful for me to sort of just have the bravery to put the subjects in an environment, even if it makes no sense at all.
I have been thinking about the sort of suspension of belief - the will it takes to put yourself in a vulnerable place. In running this means committing to complete 26.2 miles in the marathon - in basketball this means driving the lane when you are the smallest one on the court. I’ve been curious how I can do that with painting - how can I be vulnerable, how can I suspend my belief and for a moment - make no sense at all in the painting’s resolution, leave it somewhere I’ve never left it.
BW: Yeah, that makes sense. Now it sounds like you're balancing that focus on people and how they fit in an environment.
CH: Yeah. I mean I have a little note on my desk that says you don’t have to make sense of these. It’s amazing how much you have to remind yourself as an artist - the very simple constructs of making art that is alive and really fresh. You know, that you don’t have to make sense of the image and that that’s not your job.
But for me what I’ve been craving lately is to create something I don’t have. You know, like someplace I don’t have and try to attempt to represent a sort of wavering dream like state. And that takes a little more confidence to create those pictures but that has been really liberating for me. But strangely enough, it kind of came from a sort of place of exhaustion in the past year of just being really busy and a lot of personal stress.
I remember after the election all I could do was get up and paint small tiny landscape paintings. I just sat there for several weeks and painted land...places I’ve never been, places I will never be. It came from desperation - thinking about the sort of political climate and also some personal stress.
Things have been good - I am so lucky but I also feel the weight of a lot of things, and personally the last year has been so hard. Having lost family members, lost relationships, and seeing my Dad fade from a neurodegenerative disease with no cure...it’s led me to feel like...nothing makes any fucking sense! It is just moments you get - that’s it.
So...back to land. In a way, painting has let me escape and I’ve let go a bit of narrative, and just let paint flow and lead me somewhere more colorful than I feel I have been this year.
So strangely, this is the most colorful, bright and seemingly positive paintings I’ve ever made but it’s come from a place of exhaustion and from loss. They make no sense, which is sort of how I feel about things lately.
BW: Is that an intentional dialogue around the political that you're fostering?
CH: Well, I think it is less charged in terms of specific political content - like I’m not making paintings about the President Elect of anything. The culture, the climate of things politically and personally has affected the work in a way though, there is no denying that.
I’ve just let go of whatever I thought was going to make sense or whatever I thought was going to happen. It just seems like none of that has worked. And so I think painting has really just very selfishly become a way to create a world that doesn’t actually exist for me. So yeah, it’s a reaction to the personal and political climate but certainly not an activism reaction if that makes sense.
BW: One of the things that stuck out was the suspension of reality in your upcoming show in February at Proto Gallery. This seems an extension of that idea. Can you talk about that more?
CH: Oh, thanks. I’m really looking forward to it. So above my desk in my studio I have two things pinned up as a reminder. One is a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (What if, you slept?) and the other is a photo of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile barrier. I keep those up as a personal reminder about the idea of breaking barriers or the idea of the suspension of reality - which both of those images give me.
The poem is really important to me because it sort of paints the picture of a being in a dreamlike state and fully believing that you can be somewhere in your dreams and bring it to your reality when you wake up. So simple, but how beautiful? The sheer will to conjure your dreams into reality. It’s so improbable...but it gives me hope.
So there’s this sort of suspension of belief I think about, when you can convince yourself to believe in the impossible. And I think also this goes back to a personal thing - with athletics - that the commitment to sort of lining up and running 26 miles is insane or to practice dribbling for hours on end until your hands feel like they’re going to fall off. It’s sort of this like belief in your ability to do anything and how important that is even as an artist. To believe in yourself enough to break barriers of logic, what people think you are capable of and most importantly what-ever your perceived barriers are.
The photo of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile is a reminder to me of that sort of commitment and the belief it takes to pursue anything with that much intensity.
It’s like when you’re running ten miles and your body just hits a numb point and you just believe that you could just be an Olympian. Like if you just shut your eyes and pretend...you are in the Olympics, you force yourself to believe that you are that good.
And then so in painting it’s like this idea of like how do you approach a painting and believe that you actually are going to make something worthy of looking. And it’s the same suspension of reality, whether or not it’s a dream or whether or not it’s like an hour into your run where your body’s numb and you just start to believe that you’re actually in the Olympics. And you’re just, you’re still so average, you know, but it’s this sort of reminder to push yourself toward the thing. And even if they don’t make sense, you know, but to make yourself continue to try to do that. It’s really humbling and also is a really good way to let go of control?