Raised in Banks, Oregon, a small town just west of Portland, Rachel Warkentin earned her BFA from Oregon State University and went onto get her masters in painting at Claremont Graduate University. After living in LA for 5 years, she returned to the Pacific Northwest and has been working and living in Portland for the last few years. She will be debuting her new series right here at the Duplex gallery next week and we could not be more ecstatic! We stopped into Rachel’s studio to talk about her new work
D: What was the beginning of this series of paintings?
RW: I’ve been painting primarily women for a number of years and I was interested in exploring masculinity, but I also felt really out of my depth. And then I started paying attention to football. I’m not really football fan or sports fan, but there’s something really interesting about football. It’s extremely ritualized and specialized, it’s a little like an ant colony of people. In America, football makes such a strong statement about masculinity, but it’s a confused statement, it’s so much about the showmanship. So in these paintings I’m paying attention to the extraneous details. I still don’t know all the rules, even though I’ve watched two seasons of NFL football at this point. But I know a lot about the uniforms!
D: You also have imagery of houses and quilts in the paintings, which could be considered feminine elements, can you talk a little bit about the quilt and pattern making aspect?
RW: I think I got interested in quilts and football around the same time, because they both represent similar things, they are both parts of classic Americana, they are both extremely gendered. Football is assumed to be a man’s pastime and quilting is a woman’s pastime, and they are both the gold standard of the stereotype of each gender, but I don’t understand why completely. There isn’t anything inherently male about football or female about quilting. So I like butting those two together and letting the aesthetics bleed together.
D: It seems like in these pieces, especially the larger ones, the patterns made by the football players are mimicking that kaleidoscope of the quilted patterns.
RW: When I started this series I thought of the football aesthetic and the quilted aesthetic pitted against each other, in some kind of war, a war of ritualized behaviors. But I feel like at this point both have lost, since the football players are almost unrecognizable and swallowed up by the colors and patterns of the quilts and the quilts have broken down into pieces and become like living characters and less like a background or cohesive pattern. A quilt is supposed to be a bunch of pieces that make up a cohesive pattern. My quilts are being uncooperative.
D: It seems like there is that cross over with the analogy of football being an ant colony, they are all suppose to be working together as a team but there is sometimes a breakdown of communication.
RW: Yeah, exactly, I have some misbehaving ants in both categories. I’m also interested in making football player more like background and quilts more like living characters, designs more like actors.
D: So then there is also the introduction of structures, some of them coming together and falling apart, and then banners that resemble renaissance jousting or gladiators.
RW: Well football players are very much like modern day gladiators, and the become more like emblems than actual people at this point. A football player is his uniform, his position, and stats. It’s not about his personality or character, or even whether or not he’s a good or bad person. You can get away with crimes as a football player and people will complain less than if you messed up a big play.
D: In some of the newer pieces you strip down the football players, and these men look more like warriors, almost naked, doing combat, maybe propelling the football players to fight?
RW: Well I think I was originally drawn to the way that specifically football players represent masculinity. A football player is masculine in a way that has nothing to do with regular life. I wanted to introduce another source of false masculinity into the paintings by using male models, but I didn’t know any male models, so what I ended up with were regular people, posing as male models posing as football players. I’m pretty happy with how strange those figures seem in the paintings. The football players look pretty out of place, but the men in their underwear look even more alienated from their context.
D: Are you still working in egg tempera?
RW: Yes, I used to work in both egg tempera and oils, but lately I’ve been going to entirely egg tempera because of the ground I’m using now. I think before I was compromising on my ground because it worked ok for egg tempera and ok for oils, and now I’m using a surface that’s fantastic for egg tempera and doesn’t work at all for oils. So for the time being I’ve sacrificed the oil for the better color with the egg tempera.
D: Do you have any connections to the traditions of the egg tempera within the concept of your paintings or is it just the medium that you find to be the best expression of how and what you paint?
RW: I don’t have any connection to the history of the egg tempera. I do have a connection to the finicky nature of the paint. It’s not an easy paint or a well behaved paint, it’s like a working with nail polish sometimes, you have to put your color down and not fuck with it. But I like the unforgiving nature of it, I like that I have to make a decision and stick with it. I feel like those restrictions keep me from second guessing myself, every color I put down is an all or nothing situation.
D: The reward is that all the paint is so lively, as it dries it doesn’t feel permanent, even though it is, the way it lays on the clay board it’s still so visceral, it still feels like it’s wet or moving even.
RW: Yeah it does, it reminds me of a membrane, like I’m painting with a membrane.
D: Like it could be punctured and ooze!
RW: Yeah! And I like that. I hate the word organic when talking about art, but it is a very organic paint, because there’s nothing in it except egg, beer, and a little bit of pigment. So there’s not that plastic look that acrylic can have, or even that oil paint.
D: Do you have a favorite kind of beer?
RW: I usually put whatever I’m drinking into my paint, lighter beers make better paint because you can’t seem them at all, but if I’m drinking a darker beer I’ll use that. There’s a lot of drinking involved in my process!
D: I think when you’re making your own paint, which is unique to the process of making egg tempera, there is that quality control, you know exactly what’s going into it, kind of like food, there’s not extra preservatives or shit that can affect the color.
RW: It’s a really simple recipe. The painting will age better than the football players.
D: Did the years living in LA influence your paintings stylistically?
RW: Definitely, my colors changed a lot moving there. The city itself looks a little overexposed, it’s so bright coming from the Pacific Northwest.
D: That’s such a perfect way to say that, “overexposed”; I know exactly what that means.
RW: I think galleries are brighter there; everything was more intense than what I was used to. So I think my colors got more intense while I was there, which I really liked because I felt like my pallet matched the city and when I moved back to Portland, my paintings seem almost garish against the greens and grays.
D: You used to make a lot of paper cutouts; do you see any of now painting figures in the same way, like they are placed in?
RW: Yeah I paint in a way a lot of people collage. I think it’s from looking at so many quilts and making so many paper cutouts, everything tends to be very disparate in my paintings.
D: How is it to work in a space with roommates? Your studio is in the basement; do you feel weird when people come down to do laundry?
RW: No one comes into my area but me, and that’s really important because I am a very self-conscious painter. I really don’t like being watched while I’m working or even the possibility that I could be watched. I could never paint upstairs.
D: Are you excited to show in Portland?
RW: I really didn’t want to show my new work until I felt it had gotten to a place that I could live with, and now I can live with it, so I’m excited to see what people think.