Pierogi: First off, when did your interest in making art begin?
Nancy Diamond: Really as a child, there’s a funny story actually that people would visit us at our house and I always drew portraits of everyone, but I would focus in on one distinct feature, like a mole or add an embellishment. I don’t think that has changed all that much. [Laughs] But I was always drawing.
P: Are you still attracted to the same themes as when you were beginning to make art, or in art school?
ND: It’s changed a lot, but I think that I’m consciously more aware of what I’m looking for now. There are strands of a very certain type of visual information compiled in my head that keep accumulating, and I’ve always pulled from that. Now in addition, I have an enormous collection of objects and images that I look for. I think I used to collect things, not really knowing why, but something like 10 years later, I realized why I was drawn to that one thing. Whatever I’m currently working on, there’s always researching involved. In this group [motions to larger work], I was in a mad search for images of houses. I took screenshots of very traditional German half-timber houses, thinking about what home means and what it looks like on the outside versus what’s happening on the inside. The painted patterns on the surfaces of the houses and village in my work are outgrowths of my need to merge iconic objects (like a gingerbread house, or a half-timber house, associated with comfort / home) together with fleshy, visceral, biological matter. My intention has been, and still is, to build a sensitized biological skin or terrain.
In the last few years I’ve amassed a collection of figurines that have evolved into crazy searches in upstate New York thrift shops. I’m attracted to many kinds but my favorites are startlingly brightly colored, molded plastic with rounded edges, those are the most potent ones for me and they are usually dirty and discarded.
P: Yeah, it’s interesting looking at the figurines with your work, thinking how much of them are invented, or how much is modeled?
ND: Right, I have a lot of different approaches. The figurines are a starting point. Once I start working, everything always changes. I love the solid mas of them, at times I will light them very carefully and describe it, these figurines sort of lend themselves to that process. They’re like stand-ins for people. I now have a soceity of them, an army [laughs] but this is just the tip of the iceberg. My collection of stuff is quite wide, not only figurines, it includes glass eyes and textiles, bed sheet patterns, wallpaper patterns, which find their way into my work, too. Everything I do is an amalgamation, a combination of something invented together with everything else.
P: I love your use of color, which is so distinctive and vibrant. How do you both choose and achieve your really neon pinks and oranges, for example?
ND: Color is the main event of everything I do. In the summer time, I have observed a distinct and searing sunlight, it illuminates everything and then I want to exagerrate it and push what I see further. Light and shadow produce colors that are just so incredible and inspiring. I think I’m searching for the extremes of color in that kind of situation, part direct observation and part invention. I’ve always loved using reds and pinks. I’m attracted to particular very particular combinations of color which I know before starting a painting. With watercolor, I’m very interested in the ways that it interacts with the paper, the pooling and movement and transparency of it. Even though my work is small scaled, when I’m actually painting, I’m working with what seem to me like giant explosions of wetness and movement, the chaos of those moments often will produce the best result. I use a lot of water, which is really key to how I make these.
P: Do you ever work more in pencil or other kinds of paint that aren’t as fluid?
ND: Yeah, and I think what I’m so drawn to, in the last maybe 10 years and with this work on paper, there’s always an active pencil line in there. What has started to happen recently, the pencil is more of an active presence. The surfaces have become more layered, color spreads over and under the pencil lines.
P: I also wanted to ask about the sizes you work in. Do you ever work in either really big or really small scales?
ND: I do have much larger paper and I’m experimenting with that, but I’ve sort of arrived at the scale that works best for me. I’m always fighting this impulse to get more detailed in my work, and lately I want to loosen everything up, experimenting with scale has helped me do that.
P: I was also wondering about the role of nature in these pictures. There’s a lot going on with very artificial forms, but then theres often a sort of ethereal natural background that comes into it. What’s your process in thinking about that?
ND: Yeah, I’m completely inspired by the natural world. I have a fascination with nature and the human body, incongrous forms meshing together. There is usually something fleshy in all of my paintings, but I like the idea of plastic and natural forms mingling in the painting. I grew up in a very suburban / urban setting, very cut off from nature, and then as an adult, I’ve had exposure to the natural world that infoms so much in my work. I have a small nature lab (with various specimens) in my studio that I refer to all the time.
P: Do you draw your information and inspiration from other places too? Are there other key influences that you’re thinking about when you’re making these?
ND: In this recent work, I have many layered associations of childhood. There’s definitely a kind of tenderness and brutality that I’m really interested in, the murky meeting place between child and adult worlds. A really central thing for me is the combination of a manicured-looking outer appearance linked together with a feral, “Lord of the Flies” atmosphere that I associate with my own childhood. Another influence is ideas about what’s considered tasteful, female beauty and the idea of challenging beauty and taste. Also at RISD, I was in both the film and painting departments, and after school I worked in film editing for a while. I think because of that, I have a tendency to want to build a scene with information packed into it and information moves from one paiting to the next.
P: That makes a lot of sense. Looking at these made me think a lot about children’s books, or fantasy illustrations. Likewise, is there any sort of storytelling element to your work or is it more just about the figures or aesthetics?
ND: I kind of need everything to be very vague, not any kind of particular story. There are some very interesting stories in my family history, but they’re not anything I’m describing specifically. Being a victim or being a perpetrator, and playing out some of those dynamics is present in my work. If there was a narrative, it would be something in a very general sense about vulnerability and resilience, comfort and dismcomfort, order and chaos.
P: What have you been working on recently?
ND: Recently I’ve been interested, as always, in thing both beautiful and grotesque. It’s not completely clear to me, but I’ve been thinking about things that relate to beauty and I’ve begun to research heavily made-up faces. I’ve also been trying to break down these groups of figures into more biomorphic forms, deconstructing them a little bit more, a mash up of figures embedded into their surroundings. Maybe a midpoint between my earlier work and more recent work, in a way. And I think in terms of how I’m using the paint, I’m continuig to work with a lot of water, so there’s even more flowing, less of a rigid external end point, where things are seeping out with no clear boundaries.
P: And do you have any shows coming up?
ND: Yes, I actually have some paintings in a group show opening this Sunday at Lesley Heller, curated by Olive Ayhens, who also has work in the flat files.
Pierogi’s flat files contain several works by Nancy Diamond, a selection of which are viewable here.
Enticing Luminosity, curated by Olive Ayhens, Leslie Heller Workspace, March 16 – April 20, 2014.