In 2018, I walked around Garth Greenan Gallery in New York without a clue what was on display. From afar, I saw a group of eight small images, none much larger than a postcard, all by a painter I didn’t know, Victoria Gitman. The closer I got, the more the paintings seemed to shimmer like gemstones catching the right light, pulling me in with their irresistible, effortless charm.
Each work depicted, in close-up and finely articulated detail, a furry handbag in which Gitman saw a small abstraction in the making. A immediate list of artists came to mind as clear comparisons. His little works had all the luxurious power of any great Sean Scully; all the closely observed details of a nocturnal landscape by Vija Celmins; and all the trembling and nervous energy of a Giorgio Morandi. It occurs to me now, years later, that the paintings are also extremely funny: who would ever think of painting handbags in such detail, but an artist with a clear sense of humor, albeit in mute?
Gitman, who was born in 1972 in Buenos Aires and now lives and works in Miami, is currently the subject of a 20-year retrospective at Francois Ghebaly gallery in Los Angeles, her second exhibition has with the gallery in LA On the occasion of the exhibition, we spoke with the painter about how she chooses her subjects, where her art fits into the modernist tradition, and how a productive sense of confusion infuses his work.
Among the first works in Victoria Gitman’s condensed retrospective at François Ghebaly is this 2002 photo from her “On Display” series. At this point in his career, Gitman was still painting whole objects on flat terrain. Photo: Paul Salveson, courtesy François Ghebaly.
You’ve practically had two retrospectives in just seven years: one 14 year survey at the Pérez Art Museum Miami in 2015, and now an exhibition on 20 years of work at François Ghebaly in Los Angeles. What has changed in the brief period that has passed and what has remained the same?
The biggest change is that, for five or six years, the objects in the paintings no longer rest on flat ground, as was the case in my work of the previous 15 years. The PAMM exhibition was in a large room, and we had one wall with paintings of necklaces on a flat background and another wall with fur handbags, always leaning towards the foreground. In the new works, I started cropping the images so that the surface of the fur filled the entire image plane, from edge to edge. From a compositional point of view, the new works are therefore completely abstract. Interestingly, however, cropping not only made for a more abstract image, but I think it also makes the furs more concrete. So it’s almost as if cropping brings the fur or glitter closer to the surface, making it all the more tangible.
Even though the cropped works were a big change, my work has been moving in that direction for years, so it seems like a very natural progression. I thought about abstraction very early on. I was thinking, for example, of the round outline of a necklace in Robert Mangold, and I was thinking of a series of white purses in terms of the history of white monochrome in modern art. When I finally made that leap to filling out the entire picture plane, it felt like a move that had been in the works for quite some time.
In 2017, when Victoria Gitman made this untitled work of a fur handbag, she cropped her subjects so that small areas of handbags filled the entire image plane. Photo: Paul Salveson, courtesy François Ghebaly.
It’s interesting that we’re having a very important conversation about what you’re doing. Obviously, this is extremely important to you.
Yeah. I am interested not only in the surface of the objects represented by the paintings, but also in the material surface of the painting itself. When people see my work in reproduction it’s a bit misleading because you only get the part of the work that is very familiar. In person, the paintings do something very different.
A detail of the untitled 2017 work above. Photo: Paul Salveson, courtesy François Ghebaly.
One thing you have recognized before is that the paintings are, on the one hand, very attractive, but on the other hand, very cold and distant. How do you maintain a balance and avoid doing too much of one and not enough of the other?
Honestly, it’s not entirely under my control. I plan things and make decisions. But in the end, it’s about touch. The seduction of painting was linked to the subjects I choose. And the feeling of cool detachment is partly conveyed by the way the objects are represented, by the compositional choices that I make, by the light and very formal things.
I think I saw quite early on that the objects I represented were already so sensual, and so charged with meaning through their associations with the body and with femininity, that I wanted to counterbalance this with a kind of coldness and objectivity. It was a conscious choice. But ultimately, this combination of seduction and detachment has to do with the painterly touch. All painters have their touch. That’s what my touch conveys, in a sense.
This 2007 work from Gitman’s “A Beauty” series is a finely rendered oil reproduction of an 1815 drawing by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Ingres’ original image measures 11.25 by 8, 25 inches; Gitman’s work is even more truncated, at 7 by 5 inches. Photo: Paul Salveson, courtesy François Ghebaly.
But you also very consciously – because of the handbags you choose to represent, or the women you have painted, as with the works that reproduce paintings by Ingres – introduce the world into your work. You have already spoken of the gender implicit in painting and the fact that it is impossible to avoid it.
Yeah, that’s kind of the basic thing my paintings do. Because I represent subjects that have to do with the body and with femininity, I draw attention to the implicit gender.
Do you find this part of your job generally harder to tackle?
No. To me, it’s really obvious, especially if you look at 20 years of work. They are all linked to femininity and representations of women. But on an even more fundamental level, I think the works have to do with the kind of desire that the paintings generate, a kind of tactile/optical mixture of seduction and attraction. For me, the works are about it. It’s very difficult to separate that from a gendered way of seeing. But it’s not something I sought to explore when I started. I am very analytical. I look at what I have done and I recognize it and maybe I want to go further. But even at this stage, when I’m choosing what I’m going to paint, I don’t think about what it’s going to look like say.
A 2004 work from Gitman’s “On Display” series. Photo: Paul Salveson, courtesy François Ghebaly.
Would you call yourself a formalist?
In a certain sense, I am. I don’t mean that once I have chosen the object, the work is predetermined, because I have many other choices to make. It makes a difference whether the soil is cultivated this way or that way. But when I look at a subject, I look at it in formal terms. It’s almost like a ready-made abstraction. Usually, I work a few years on each series. It allows me to fully explore the possibilities of an idea, so within the series settings each board does something different. It also means that some of my basic decisions are predetermined. So usually the topic question is solved. But the possibilities can be surprising. I now paint cropped fragments of vintage jackets, dresses, sequined tops, and from the work in hand a direction emerges that leads me to something else.
Gitman is a meticulous painter, working slowly over several months on almost every piece of work she does. The image above is a detail of another photo, taken in 2010, from the “On Display” series. Photo: Paul Salveson, courtesy François Ghebaly.
To be clear, I didn’t mean formalistic with negative connotations. I think the word describes something specific, and your work seems to come from that tradition.
Daniel Weinberg, who represented me in Los Angeles, told me that many of the collectors he worked with over the years who only collected minimalism or geometric abstraction would buy my work and that it would be the first time that they would stray from their formalist collection. And some people more inclined to figurative work or narrative work are very put off by my painting.
This untitled work from 2016 was part of Gitman’s last solo exhibition in New York at the Garth Greenan Gallery in 2018. Photo: Paul Salveson, courtesy François Ghebaly.
Another thing you’ve already recognized is that there’s an absurd quality to your painstaking painting of furs and beads. It’s quite thorough. How to stay sane?
I agree that is ridiculous. That’s part of what makes it so interesting. But this highly focused daily painting routine is what keeps me sane. This requires a certain temperament and patience. It’s not mechanical. It is not a repetitive process. I paint from nature. I look at the actual object very closely and very carefully. I focus my attention on every bead or sequin or strand of pleasure. I actually paint a particularsequin, the way it tilts or recedes, the way it catches the light. The same is true for fur. I am not generalizing. It requires very intense concentration.
You suggested earlier that your paintings confuse erotic and pictorial desire, which is a very specific combination. Are there any other confusions you see at work?
I like this question because it recognizes that my work relies on the fusion of a number of things. We can speak of the amalgamation of the visual and the tactile; image and object; of the surface represented in relation to the surface of the painting. But it’s more than just a mix. It’s a kind of confusion that hopefully destabilizes some ways of seeing things. The evocation of tactility in my work is exacerbated to such an extent that sight and touch are indistinguishable. I like the word confusion to describe this because things merge and merge. My work experience has so much to do with these different combinations and confusions. I think that’s what gives the paintings their strength.
This untitled work from 2021 is part of Gitman’s latest series, which focuses on glitter. Photo: Paul Salveson, courtesy François Ghebaly.
the Victoria Gitman show, “Everything is surface: Twenty years of painting,” is on view at François Ghebaly, Los Angeles, through May 7.
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