Catherine Haggarty: "Lately, making no sense matters the most."

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.

‘Everything Everything’ 2010-2016, Acrylic and Ink on Panel, 24x24 inches

‘Everything Everything’ 2010-2016, Acrylic and Ink on Panel, 24x24 inches


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.



‘The Good World’ 2016, Gouache on panel, 12x12 inches

‘The Good World’ 2016, Gouache on panel, 12x12 inches


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’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. 

‘Land & People’, 2016, Acrylic on wood, 16x18 inches

‘Land & People’, 2016, Acrylic on wood, 16x18 inches


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 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?

Studio picture courtesy of the artist

Studio picture courtesy of the artist


BW: How does this idea of the suspension of reality influence how you work, the way your studio is set up, the tools that you use etc?

CH:    So I draw all the time, on the train, in the morning with coffee and such that note taking is really important to my observational process. So everything really starts from that and paying really close attention to the world that I live in. Years ago I took a class at SVA with Nancy Chunn, and the most important thing I took from her class was to simply ‘notice what you notice’. And I tell my students this and I remind myself every day to do this. If you closely pay attention to the constant thread of observations you make therein lies some really rich content about what’s important - what stands out to you. 

There is a set of characters that sort of reoccur over the past ten years for me and they are mainstays and sometimes I add a new one. So the paintings start from movement and from drawing from those recurring characters. Really boiling down what I’m noticing and why I’m noticing it and what kind of picture I want to make with those characters and how much control I want to have. 

‘For the Victors’ 2017, Acrylic on Panel, 12x12 inches

‘For the Victors’ 2017, Acrylic on Panel, 12x12 inches


BW: Do you find that you have to embody or put yourself in a suspended state of mind to actualize this type work?

CH:  Yeah. Well there’s always a state of flow with anything, right, and we all know that. We can get to that state of flow by just being really locked into it, having no distractions. But, you know, I listen to music and I listen to podcasts a lot and I think that the best working time for me is when I’m not distracted by a cell phone or by people. And I just get a few hours in of kind of like circling the studio and making adjustments to several things at once and really connecting the synapses. And that’s when the work actually really starts to break more barriers than if I’m just focusing on one painting and thinking about the idea of resolution.

But if I let myself go and kind of circle the studio organically, you know, more connections happen. 

BW: That makes sense. So, this idea of not getting to full resolution ties back to the suspension of reality, the absurdity of things. What are some of the recent pivots you've made in your practice?

CH:  There was a pivot from moving from oils to now I only use water based paint. I’m starting to use metallic paint, a lot of neon paint and I’ve actually really craved color, like more than I’ve ever craved it. And I’m using that I think more freely. I feel like there’s no rules and using water based paint and inks and acrylics has actually freed me up a lot to just do, to let go of things. Because my prep is so much shorter and I can just work faster and that suits my nature I think better.

Color has been another escape for me, like much like land was an escape in terms of trying to create a space that I didn’t know physically. Color has been an escape for me psychologically to just sort of let go. And I just needed bright colors this year.

BW: Could you talk about the show opening this week you've curated?

CH: Yeah, I’m curating a show at Ortega y Gasset. It’s my first curatorial project with the gallery so I’m really excited for it. It opens January 27th and runs through February 19th.  It features the work of Matt Phillips and Travis Fairclough - both friends and painters I greatly admire.  The title of the show is, “About Looking” in honor of the recent passing of the great John Berger. When thinking of a title for this show, I felt that it was an appropriate and timely one that not only gives a nod to a literary legend but also reflects a specific pace and presence in Fairclough and Phillip’s paintings.

BW: How do you think painting changing vis-a-vis the constant proliferation of digital images we seen every day? Is that a part of how you're thinking about show, "About Looking"?

CH:  Well there are two answers to that question but first in regards to the show and the decision to choose these artists together.

I had a studio visit weeks ago with Travis Fairclough and I have been watching his work develop for two years. I knew I wanted to show his work and in the middle of the visit, when we were talking about the presence and forms in his painting - it just hit me. That pace was important to him - pace in making and pace in viewing. This has to be somewhat a reaction to the world we live in digitally but also this echoes a painting philosophy reflecting a sort of spirituality within abstraction. 

I left the studio visit thinking about his desire to turn our attention back to the painting - and not ourselves. With Travis, there is this commitment so intense to the kind of attention he gives his color choice, his compositions, his drawings - it’s beautiful. I left knowing I wanted to reach out to Matt Phillips. 

I have seen Matt’s work for years at Steve Harvey Projects and various shows around the city - so I was familiar for certain. When I left Travis’s studio that day I couldn’t immediately think of anyone making paintings just like him, but my focus became about pace and presence within abstraction and who would be an interesting pair to show together. I immediately emailed Matt for a studio visit.


‘Dial’ 2017, pigment and silica on linen 30x 24 inches

‘Dial’ 2017, pigment and silica on linen 30x 24 inches


Seeing Matt Phillip’s work up close is a lesson in rhythm, care, color and most certainly pace. His brush work slows you down and doesn’t let you assume the closure or resolution of the image. In a way, the method Phillip’s uses to apply paint mirrors the way Fairclough forms his compositions. A sort of restructuring of our ability to work through an image. They are doing things in a shared pool of thinking but with different solutions, processes and even material. Phillips uses pigment and silica on linen and Fairclough uses only oil on linen.

I think that, you know, it’s fair to say if you look at Matt Phillips work enough that his images sort of bounce and they ungulate on the canvas because of the rhythmic method in which he applies paint. Even in my studio visit with him, I sort of said to him joking that these paintings kind of look like it could have been a ‘90s screensaver. We both laughed,...There seems to be a need for this human connection in his work and process. He has mentioned to me that his application of paint stems from an interest in imbuing a painting with the hand, touch and gesture. 

Travis’s work might be a complete philosophical slowdown to the pace of image making today and his use of color and brush work is completely different than Matt’s color and brushwork. I believe he is making his paintings with similar things in mind as Phillips but it is shown differently - which is why I think they are a great combination.

I just finished installing the work and I stood back and have to say, I am so proud to share their work together. I can’t believe these two, although familiar with each other, have never met. They live a few miles apart in Brooklyn and you just won’t believe the kind of connection there is. It’s breathtaking - the line in their work flows around Ortega y Gasset’s space effortlessly. The presence of forms recurring and shifting in our perceived space is truly stunning. The kind of work curating takes is the reward of time spent developing a Gallery and of the rich art community we are in. Since Matt is a member of Tiger Strikes Astroid, I am sure he shares this sentiment with me.


Travis Fairclough, 2016, ‘Dualist Affect’, Oil on Linen 22x18 inches

Travis Fairclough, 2016, ‘Dualist Affect’, Oil on Linen 22x18 inches

In terms of my idea of the painting in the digital era, I think it’s so nuanced but it’s not a topic that is going to change. The internet is art. Our perceptions and ability to read images is a reflection of living in the internet age, whether we like it or not. The internet and the influx of digital images might be the greatest influence in the postmodern era in painting I can think of.

I am not sure we can even keep up with it, maybe that’s why everyone seems overwhelmed and why paintings matter more and more. I think we are lucky though, we get to see a lot - we can’t avoid it. We are constantly confronted with information - unless we slow it down ourselves. 

I think painters are either offering us a break from the pace of technology or they’re offering us a commentary on that technology. And I think those are two rich avenues and either one is worthy of someone’s time.

BW: Artists have very different ways of addressing the contemporary media landscape - that's very evident in the spectrum of working being made from painting to art and everything in between.

CH:    Yeah, it’s totally different. And I think that’s actually the beauty of it. I think, you know, I’m glad the internet’s there. I think it’s part of our art now. I don’t think we can escape it anymore, ‘nor should we try to. 

BW: How do you balance everything

CH:    Oh gosh. I don’t know, Brett... a lot of coffee. I think there’s a lot of people that are ultra-busy and ultra-involved. And so I think the art world is full of probably the hardest workers I am privileged to even know. So many people like yourself have full-time jobs and families and careers. And I just think I’m in awe of the people that I get to be surrounded by. 

In terms of my life, it’s just the way it is. I have to teach but I also love to teach and I’m privileged to do so. But, you know, every once in awhile I get kind of exhausted...particularly this year. It is what it is though, and I think everything influences my work at this point. And so I can take two avenues in attitude about how much I do…

One is to say ‘I am exhausted and it’s a burden to teach and make art full time’. Or I can take the perspective that I am incredibly privileged and I’m lucky to be in the position I am. I choose to take the latter because I just think there’s no other way. And I’m not going to spend eight hours of my day teaching children art and think that it’s a waste of my time. It’s my obligation to sort of synthesize the experiences I have as rich content. And so that inspires me and it also influences my work. In terms of curating, that’s a total privilege and a joy to be able to bring some attention to artists I think is needed or would serve as a great show. So that’s the fun part - that is the reward. 

I do think though, it is good to simplify at times. I have months that are full force - like now. I’m swamped but then...things will slow down and I will have more time alone to paint and be a little bit more of a human. I have built my life the way it is, and I’m getting better at simplifying things even if it seems like a lot. I really enjoy my quiet nights of painting more than ever.

BW: What do you reflect on outside of the studio? How do you stay informed?

CH:    In a way I don’t know that I have a ton of time to read like I want to. But I did just start a book called Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. I’m really excited to read that. I’m also reading a book called Just Kids - the story of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. I love Cabinet Magazine as well.

Art Magazines, podcasts, NPR, and music keep me going. Because of how busy I am I do rely more on podcasts because my interest lies so much in human behavior, education and philosophy that I think those are actually huge influences to me more than even just looking at art in a museum. I’m really interested in how to connect my language of image making to things that are more complex and relate to the world at large.

BW: Who are some of the artists on your radar this year?

CH:    I was recently a visiting critic at The Wassaic Project and got to have studio visit with some great artists. Ellen Jing Xu, a recent MFA Graduate from University of Washington is making some really exciting work. I also met with Tiffany Marie Tate, based in Philadelphia and thought her work is really exciting. I look forward to following both of them - everyone should! 

Lauren Whearty is a friend and painter based in Philadelphia who I watch and talk to often, her paintings are taking off so I am looking forward to seeing her show more often. Liv Aanrud, a close friend and terrific artist is based in L.A and is truly next level - her textile and rag rugs come from a place of compulsion and energy that is raw and beautiful. She leaves us with paintings in thread form, woven and fought for.

Andrew Phillip Cortez, also based in L.A is someone to watch as well. He is making work a bit off the radar which is why it is so exciting. I spent time with him in L.A. this summer and collaborating and that experience out West and his friendship has really influenced my color palette and thought process. There are so could go on and on, and I’m thankful for that.

Ultimately, I want to surround myself with terrific artists because it makes me better. I want others to succeed as much as I want to - I want to learn from others as much as I want to teach them. Across the board - remaining open is so important.

‘Aqua’, 2016, Ink & Gouache on Panel, 12 x12 inches

‘Aqua’, 2016, Ink & Gouache on Panel, 12 x12 inches