ABOUT                HAPPENINGS


An Interview with Colleen Herman
By Blair Hansen

Colleen Herman is here to help. I recognized instantly in her a gift that I, too, possess on my best days: enthusiastic and wholehearted energetic support. Herman’s paintings offer the same; billowing clouds of energy in an array of shifting and scurrying hues befitting the complexity of the electric human brain. We often love that oil paint can express the lushness of human flesh – the sliding, oily feeling of our subjective body rearranged into an object, which makes it safer to consider. Herman does not paint the body’s flesh (quite the opposite, her “mass” appears to be weightless), and yet the body is exceedingly evident in the movement and breath of her canvases. These paintings contain an indexical ship’s log of how they came to be, and they also reveal a kind of sacred respiration: air as loving fuel, elemental gasses to refill our tanks. 
One wishes to put a towel over Herman’s painting and one’s own head so as to deeply inhale their healing vapors – surely inner crusts would break apart and circulatory flows would be restored. Here, Herman and I discuss a new body of paintings, now on view at L’editions, titled, “Rituals of Resistance.” Most of what we unpack in what follows concerns intakes and outpourings of energy: how to intentionally nurture energy in our bodies; how to draw power from even our most strained positions; how to expel what is broken and keep what works. Herman and I wonder together about the unifying potential of abstraction, visceral looking, and faith as aesthetic guide. This interview was conducted by telephone on the morning of Sunday January 31st, 2021.

- Blair Hansen

Field, 2021
Colleen Herman
Oil on canvas
30 x 41 in

BH: I like the David Simpson at Villa Panza reference you gave me.

CH: Have you been there?

BH: I have been there. I don’t remember seeing these paintings, but I did find some images online. I think seeing minimalism in that space is really confusing in a great way. In the best way. Like this is exactly where you need to be seeing this work.

CH: One hundred percent.

BH: It’s perfect. It’s so fancy, but it’s Italian, so it’s a little weird and undone at the same time.

CH: Yeah, like it’s still dusty in that Milanese way.

BH: You’re a Catholic? I wish I were a Catholic.

CH: Yes! Well I was raised in a very Irish Catholic family. Catholic school, church every Sunday, sacraments etc. That town, Varese – I first started going there because I was designing textiles for Calvin Klein, and the mill was in a teeny town near Varese. We would stay at this little hotel called The Art Hotel, literally down the hill from Panza. So, I went there a LOT over the seasons that I was working at this mill. And Varese is Greenwich to New York City – it’s kind of bougie, with cute families, the Missonis live there. And the Panza family. I think it’s so interesting that they fell in love with Minimalism, I mean that’s how he started collecting. The last time I was there, there was a really beautiful Bob Wilson installation. It still feels like they’re –

BH: Doing it actively?

CH: A little bit, yeah.

BH: In an Italian active way [laughs]. “Active Italians [laughs].”

CH: Exactly. [both laughing] Comfortably, and in their own time.

BH: Yessss

CH: Piano, piano.

BH: Piano, piano! Yeah, I think about Italy a lot. Like you, I spent a lot of time there in my twenties and thirties.

CH: Yeah. What a dream.

BH: It’s the best at making stuff.

CH: The best at making stuff! Food, furniture, homes, fashion.

BH: Exactly! And like WHY, right? And I think mostly because of Catholicism.

CH: Really?

BH: Yeah! I want to say it was because of the Catholics. Because the Italians had to make all that ornate shit. And none of it is for fame – maybe a bit in the Renaissance, but nobody knows who you are, you are an anonymous craftsperson in Italy, and I think there’s something to that. It’s so different from here. I don’t know that Americans are really committed to toiling away in anonymity in that way.

CH: Definitely not.

Blight, 2021
Colleen Herman
Gouache on canvas
9 x 12 / 10 x 13 in

The act of making these paintings felt like a way to combat the looming anxiety, to try not to slip too deep into the darkness of our time.

BH: I hope we can maybe shift toward that a little bit more. But I’m curious to find out, while we’ve all been making alone in a vacuum without fame and parties and dinners – it’ll be interesting how we choose to step out of this time. I’m looking at this picture of David Simpson artworks in the Villa Panza, and it’s got these chandeliers, and I can tell the floor is a mosaic of ten million individual pieces, and then there are these minimalist David Simpson paintings. I’ve never stood in front of them, but as I understand, as you move past them, there is a moment where your body is aligned to see [the paintings] light up in a shiny, metallic way. Incredible to be in this extraordinarily ornate space, and then to have this simple interface that does not feel intuitive – like I wouldn’t necessarily want to confuse the experience of the painting with those other elements, but somehow in Italy it feels that they are not competing. And I think maybe it has something to do with the nature of caring about aesthetics there, like for god. There is something settled happening in this Villa Panza that you connected to, very intrinsic to material and very intrinsic to craft that have nothing to do with glamour, really.

CH: Yes! I think that’s why, when you’re there, things are just MEANT TO BE LIKE THIS. This could be my nanny’s house with the fuckin’ plastic-covered flower couch, and a huge gold mirror above, and a lot of Irish china –it feels like that, you know? But in Panza everything is taken up a notch, because it’s been around so long. It’s like a Luca Guadagnino film: it brings me to a place where I want to calm my mind and see what’s around. It’s like what you said, the elements are not competing, so you are able to see the details of the tablecloth or the lapis vase – whatever might be jumping out in some way.

BH: It feels very beautiful – like extraordinarily beautiful, but not like braying about gaudiness. Art wants to lift us above regular life, and that’s what we like about it, but I just think there’s maybe like a perfect altitude that’s actually not that high above our normal life. I’m trying to figure it out, really – it’s not evolved.

CH: I think you’re doing a fucking good job, and to me it’s that crazy vase you did [at Asp & Hand] with those sharp tear drops, red and black - it’s so gnarly!

BH: You’re right.

CH: That’s getting close!

BH: You’re right. That vase is about bourgeois desire, you know? And I feel it. I want to have a nice life. I want it to be really pretty. But it feels dangerous, too – especially in America. Once we grab on to that desire, it dovetails with the sociopolitical system in such a perfect way that then we are just on the conveyer belt. The body of work that you just made, you titled it “Rituals of Resistance.” And it sounds like you approached the canvas aggressively. It sounded like you were almost creating a kind of allegory with your process in the paintings for what you were feeling in the world.

CH: Yeah, for sure. The act of making these paintings felt like a way to combat the looming anxiety, to try not to slip too deep into the darkness of our time. Biking to studio everyday, doing the dance around the brushes, moving canvases around – these daily rituals became a salve: they became something to do, and felt important in a very private way.

BH: Almost like if you could make a dance or act it out – like if The Juju of the World were going to make a painting [laughs]. Is that fair? How do you do this? How do you try to conjure energy when you are making a painting?

CH: Harnessing of energy, personally, starts with a vegetarian diet. I’m pretty aggressive about that. That’s a big deal for the world, where we are, and how we can do a little part. There’s real potency in the times of my life that I’ve fasted or removed something or created a variable that you have to fight against. There’s something there. There are automatically fewer choices, and you just removed a lot of mental chatter. There’s the whole big menu, but I’m going to live in this one little corner. There’s some freedom in that.

BH: The Agnes Martin Diet! [laughs]

CH: Yeah! [laughs] There is something to starting this way, harnessing power. It makes me think of when you don’t orgasm. You have something more physical to go on or draw against that is not coming from the outside, necessarily. I think externals help a lot, be it music or poetry, a film, or a conversation – lots of things can spark whatever. But from ourselves, I think a lot about being in a woman’s body, and the potential energy that is not being used, because I don’t have kids or a desire to have them. When that kind of deep, deep internal energy, those deep rivers are not being channeled into procreation and life outside of self, there’s some of THAT being harnessed in the making of something that is coming from a primal place.

BH: Fuck yeah.

CH: The canvases and works on paper that make up this group all started in a fury and in a lunging or in a fight or some kind of more aggressive action, but before some of them were finished – you used this word to describe them, “reflexivity,” there’s a long time I’ve spent looking and sitting with these and pulling them apart, and a less aggressive rapport develops. That resistance is initially really vulgar and nasty and sharp and prickly and generative. And then it’s like a fighter in the fifth round: you tap him on the shoulder, and he’s down. It’s all done.

BH: Do your gestures actually get smaller as you work?

CH: Yes. Things are large and then there’s one tiny teeny mark.

BH: I guess because I don’t paint on the regular, it’s really enticing to imagine the physical experience of making a painting, and I imagine it exactly like that. And maybe because of how your works formally look, too, it almost feels like plumes, or something – like smoke plumes.

CH: Totally.

Smoke, 2020
Colleen Herman
Acrylic & gouache on canvas
48 x 72 / 49 x 73 in

BH: It just always feels like an explosion has happened, and it really resonates with me that you start with really big marks that get smaller and smaller. Like throwing a rock into a pond or something – a big energetic disruption that starts to…

CH: Peter out –

BH: Yeah, find its calm, settle into itself. How important do you feel your connection to the viewer is?

CH: Very. I don’t want to make work that sits in a storage unit – my own unit [laughs], or someone else’s. Not that these things that I am making right now are useful per se – I understand that I’m making something that exists in a space, but I think that the power to transform the space through color and gesture, to get at movement or change or –

BH: Emotion?

CH: Yeah. That can be powerful. I think about changing space in that way.

BH: You’re thinking about energy in a room.

CH: Yes, exactly. I love the idea of children being in a space where my work is around – how playful. I want there to be a connection to that primal activity of coloring and expressing and making things without any attachment of good or bad. And then to see something more formalized, meaning, okay, it’s stretched on wood or hung in a frame or placed in the home, and you look at it all the time, or it lives here – it’s impactful. I think about the things that existed in my house when I was a kid, and I mean I didn’t grow up in an art house or something!

BH: Yeah, it doesn’t matter. It could be a heating grate; you’re going to stare at things when you’re a kid. It’s going to lodge into your brain and make you who you are. I think about that all the time, my parents had these bird prints from the 70s.

CH: Dude – we had the bird prints! We had the bird prints by the stairwell on cheap textile, it looked like you could put your hand through it, it was so thin!

BH: The way that we can look when we’re young! The sponge! Before you’ve crammed too many bullshit ideas into your head, it seems like you have this ability to REALLY SEE. Can we kick out thoughts and ideas? I guess if we meditate enough we could try to return to that kind of attention.

CH: I think so. I think there is a lot of power in meditation, personally.

BH: Do you do that?

CH: I do. Years ago, I was at a time in my life when shit was kind of hitting the fan, so my partner was like, let’s move to India for three months, and live in this ashram. It’s a dry town, of course. Of course everything is vegetarian. That’s one thing, but then it’s like we got up and meditated for an hour every day, and chanted different parts of the day, and listened to lectures and walked around this town, and slept a lot and rested and ate three square and had this pattern to life that really slowed everything down.

BH: Wow. He sounds really smart, your partner!

CH: He is a Sanskrit scholar! Like! He’s got a weird mind. Beautiful really. We talked a lot about Sankya metaphysics, and I think that that is such a foundational paradigm that I am pulling from.

BH: Can you tell me about it?

CH: Yeah, so there are lots of different things going on, but the things that I think about a lot, one (and this is going off what we were just discussing): we are a collection of Samskaras the Sanskrit word for ‘impression.’ Like every single intake – through the ears, the eyes, the hands, the mouth, every sense – is leaving some kind of mark on our manas, a mark on our mind. And what we’re trying to do, according to Sankya, a goal of sorts - is we’re trying to burn up some samskaras, the ones you don’t want. So the impressions that are creating negative impacts or –

BH: Trauma?

CH: Yeah, things that are taking you down, like trauma. Sickness. Whatever. Emotional or physical. You’re trying to get rid of some, and put other ones there. How can you actively change your mind? Or build up your mind, if seeing it that way, participate in repatterning your thinking. So there are these three characteristics that are always vying for dominance in Sankya called the Gunas: one being Tamas which is lethargy and sleep and laziness and inertia, the next is Rajas, which is passion, heat, activity, motion, and then the third is Sattva - which is lucidity, lightness, and clarity. These three are always present in anything we are doing, and one is more dominant in whatever the situation might be. So, when we’re sleeping at night, tamas is dominant, and when we’re doing something it’s Rajas, when we are in meditation or listening to a performance, then maybe Sattva is more dominant. So how do these three characteristics ping off of each other to create balance or tension? Or space! Really to get to a place where you can change patterns of behavior and thinking so that you are transforming your mind.

Suspension, 2021
Colleen Herman
Oil on canvas
20 x 24 / 21 x 25 in

I want there to be a connection to that primal activity of coloring and expressing and making things without any attachment of good or bad.

BH: How do we get to a place where you don’t have to go to India to start considering these notions? [laughing] I mean, I’ve never been to India, but it does – and correct me if I’m wrong – but, you don’t have to be rich to access these ideas, right?

CH: [laughs] Fuck no! They’re for everyone. No. This isn’t even academic speak! This metaphysical understanding is baseline over there, culturally speaking. Reincarnation is not something that’s discussed, it is deeply programmed. And going over there with tons of Catholic samskaras, it’s just like WHOA, this is just an alternate universe. How do we get there without going to India? Looking at art gets me close!

BH: Yeah, I mean that’s it. I think in America the only space we have to really create change is art. There is not other space for that, because it’s too fucked up. So, not to put pressure on the artists, but…I think it’s kind of up to y’all.

CH: Oh please! Like you’re not one. What? Hello!

BH: I’m working on it. Haha. I’m looking at your paintings here, and the thing that I always come back to in them is the darks. You always have these really dark greens that for me personally are the keystone of each painting, the dark passage.

CH: Mmhmm.

BH: I don’t know if that’s a reflection of my personality. But I want to ask you, do you bring those in from the beginning? Do you anchor the piece compositionally with the dark part?

CH: Yes. I think of it as – you just said anchored – to me it’s like a root. I think about root systems or stability or some grounding quality, because most of the paintings are not necessarily oriented in one direction. You could flip it around. I mean, I flip it around.

BH: You don’t work with them on the stretcher, right?

CH: Mostly yeah. Mostly off-stretcher, and then I stretch them and perhaps keep working on them. Or I really don’t love to fully stretch things all the way. I just stretched these two pieces, and did only half, so they are not stretched on the sides, so like only top and bottom on this one. I love these frayed edges. I like the unraveling of the textile. I love the drape. I mean I just love this raw canvas and how color sits on it. The dark greens provide weight. A lot of what is going on needs that counter, because it’s so – like, you called it ‘plumes,’ I think about it as oxygen or air, breath, respiration. That kind of airy quality to it.

BH: How long do you work on a typical piece?

CH: Maybe six months.

BH: Ah wow!

CH: Maybe shorter, but things will start and hang around until they’re done.

BH: Does anyone fall by the wayside?

CH: Tons. [both laughing] So many rolled-up jobs over in the corner!

BH: This dark green is like the lushest color of birth to me. Actually it is the color of meconium, the first excrement of a newborn babe. It’s the color of the wettest, richest part of nature. Maybe cuz I live in the northwest, too, here it’s never super cold, so it’s just raining all winter. And things start growing NOW [January]. So to me this is the color of ultimate fertility. And it’s interesting to hear you talk about your fertility and wanting to harness it. That color feels like a portal to me of that specific kind of energy. And it reminds me of Matisse as well, because when he painted the gourds, he discovered that he could use black as color of light not a color of darkness. And I think that’s what you’re doing. Those green passages feel like the energetic center and in that way the light center of the paintings.

Sky, 2021
Colleen Herman
Oil on canvas
36 x 54 / 37 x 55 in

CH: Hmmm. I love that. I don’t think about it as a light center, but I love that.

BH: Only cuz light is energy.

CH: Yeah, or this idea of fertility as earthy. My mom passed away in June 2019. And it just sucked. Think pre-Covid, I could not be in New York City, it was so loud and crowded. Everything was touching my skin, it felt gross. So Rob and I moved up to Clermont [in the Hudson Valley]. And in that time, between laying on the cement floor for most of the day, just heavy as fuck, there was an incredible lightness of just being in the trees of that area. At night, it was never black. I mean, the way that the skies work there is so incredibly moving and powerful and beautiful – but I’ve been trying to chase the green of those trees, the trees against the sky when it goes dark, but it’s not black.

BH: Wow.

CH: And those trees were so grounding for me. So healing for me. And incredibly overwhelming and powerful.

BH: Sounds like a grief release valve.

CH: Totally.

BH: Well use the shit out of that color, because that’s what the world needs most right now.

CH: Grief release valve.

BH: Paint that shit. People. Need. That. Now.  [both laughing] I’m so sorry about your mom. I can’t imagine.

CH: Yeah. In some weird, fucked up way, I can’t even imagine how she would’ve been during this pandemic. Like my sisters and I got to lay with her as she was dying.

BH: Yeah. Fuck. That’s the worst thing about Covid.

CH: It’s the worst thing. And after we had a huge Irish party.

BH: Where was she?

CH: She was in Baltimore, that’s where I grew up. She had a lot of health issues and complications for her whole life.

BH: So there was relief?

CH: Relief in that grieving and closure and celebration of her life. A lot of relief from knowing she wouldn’t be in pain NOW, or agoraphobic, or alone.

BH: Alone! Just dealing with pain by yourself, ugh. Well. I am looking at this painting called “Joy” – ha. [both laughing]

Joy, 2021
Colleen Herman
Oil on canvas
58 x 64 / 59 x 65 in

Detail of Joy, 2021

I use dance more to stretch a part of the brain and a muscle that isn’t super strong or developed – dancing feels different, and new, a portal to access different things.

CH: My mom’s sister’s name! Yup.

BH: As you’re describing that…the way you use your body, I can’t actually know how you use it, it looks like it is totally activated. Like, you’re using your hands –

CH: I’m using from my fingertips to my elbows. I mean, I’m using my whole body but very actively both arms and hands.

BH: Is the painting on the floor, the wall?

CH: The wall.

BH: It’s on the wall.

CH: Probably on the wall.

BH: I really like the places where you decide to move away from clarity and make a big mess of blur, and then back into this crisp indexical finger-mark.

CH: Thank you.

BH: I wish I could have a video of you as you work. It reminds me of Paul McCarthy, who I had the honor of working with on a show one time, and he actually made an audio recording of himself as he made the drawings we put on view, and he played the recording in the space. And they were these really guttural moans and kind of similar to if you have watched a McCarthy film – the sounds people make in those films, he’s kind of making as he is working. When I look at your work I so want that record. I wanna see you do it. It looks like a dance. The art looks like an energetic record of an experience you had, for sure. So, I don’t know. Maybe one day, you’ll let us in.

CH: Maybe. [both laugh] Um, I’m actually doing an exchange with a friend who is a professionally trained ballerina. I use dance more to stretch a part of the brain and a muscle that isn’t super strong or developed – dancing feels different, and new, a portal to access different things. Eva and I decided to not talk during these exchanges, so she comes to the studio to observe, and then I go to her dance studio just to observe, and we’re just going to kind of go back and forth like that to see what comes of it, -- watching and learning from the exchange.

BH: So she will observe you while you paint, and you will observe her while she dances?

CH: Yup.

BH: That is brilliant.

CH: It’s really wonderful. And I’m so completely blown away by the body awareness that she has.

BH: Is it changing how you move?

CH: Yeah! It’s changing how I want to dress! Like I don’t think a lot about suiting up to get into mode, and I don’t want to be wearing crap clothes sometimes. Sometimes I want to wear nice clothes and see what happens.

BH: Like you’ll put on a fuckin’ gown and bike to the studio is what you’re saying?

CH: When it’s nicer weather that will definitely happen.

BH: Colleen! That’s so dope!!

CH: Why not?!!

BH: I love it!!

CH: I am staring at this closet full of clothes! I want to wear nice things!! High heels! And a bathing suit! Let the studio heat way up, and I will wear high heels and a bathing suit and paint in that. ∎

Squall, 2021
Colleen Herman
Gouache & acrylic on canvas
20 x 24 / 21 x 25 in

Storm, 2021
Colleen Herman
Gouache & acrylic on wax paper
12 x 16 / 13.5 x 18 in

Inversion, 2021
Colleen Herman
Gouache & acrylic on wax paper
20 x 16 / 22 x 17.5 in

Sarah Brook Gallery ©2022