Exhibition Ebb: Gina Borg and Chris Russell Speak On Their Work and Process

GINA BORG Yellow piece 2 "Oil on linen, 15 x 16 inches, 2014" (left) CHRIS RUSSELL Layer, Mine & Refine, 50 x 42 inches, Oil on Canvas, 2012 (right)
GINA BORG Yellow piece 2 "Oil on linen, 15 x 16 inches, 2014" (left) CHRIS RUSSELL Layer, Mine & Refine, 50 x 42 inches, Oil on Canvas, 2012 (right)

LOCZIdesign studios and CULT | Aimee Friberg Exhibitions are pleased to present Ebb, a two-person show with artists Gina Borg and Chris Russell. Gallery director Aimee Friberg speaks with both artists in anticipation of the show.

Gina Borg was born in Sacramento in 1973. She describes her artistic practice as “having the discipline to maintain a regular practice and an opportunity to playfully utilize the structure of the brain.” Borg received her BFA at the University of California, Santa Cruz and later did graduate work at Boston University. Her work has been shown in various galleries and museums in California and New York. She currently lives in Oakland, California.

Chris Russell was born in 1983 in Boulder, Colorado. He received his BFA from the California College of the Arts in 2006 with High Distinction in painting and drawing. Working loosely within the genre of landscape painting, Russell explains his relationship to the outdoors and painting from his experiences exploring it: "I am humbled and reassured of the sublime in nature, even though the wilderness I explore is confined by human boundaries… My connection to the natural world, the boundaries and things that filter my experience, compose the fulcrum upon which my art tries to balance." Russell has had numerous solo and group exhibitions in California, Oregon and Colorado. Internationally, Russell has exhibited in Italy, Denmark and Russia. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

Both Borg and Russell’s works reference energetic currents at play in the natural world. Borg uses incremental shifts of warm and cool tones with vibrant hues that radiate and shift on the canvas to create patterns of perpetual movement. Russell’s landscapes fuse geometric shapes, candy colors and warm light, simultaneously abstracting and highlighting subtler forces at play.

Aimee: Gina, in preparation for the two-person show opening at LOCZI design studios on Dec 10th — I thought we could discuss your painting practice. What are you currently working on, what is exciting you in the studio right now? When did you start painting? Would you say you’re in love with your practice?

Gina: I don’t remember not painting or drawing. I think I noticed being closer to art than others around 5th or 6th grade when teachers started singling out my drawings and pinning them on the wall. In love… hmm, it’s more like I don’t feel like myself if I am not painting for a period of time - I feel very out of sorts. But I think at times I am in love with looking at paintings. It’s satisfying to see change in the work, some kind of progression, but that takes time.

A: I think of you as primarily, or perhaps even singularly, a painter. Have you ever worked in other mediums?

G: I have done some sculpture, and a lot of printmaking. I really want to do some more lithography. I have some ideas I want to work out that are very specific to that medium, on those beautiful stones. But it’s true that I am primarily a painter. I love paintings.

GINA BORG Colony 2, watercolor and ink on paper, 14 x 20 inches, 2011
GINA BORG Colony 2, watercolor and ink on paper, 14 x 20 inches, 2011

A: What does it mean to be a painter today, to choose to work with this age-old medium?

G: There are many more options than painting for expression today, of course — new technologies. But painting is tens of thousands of years older than farming, for example, much more intrinsic to human nature I think. It’s like storytelling or playing music or creating tools. Life and culture and technology and the planets are always changing, but in the grand scheme of things, humans are a type of ape who really like to do certain basic things. I am not special because I’m drawn to making paintings. Anyone with an impulse to make art, whether they act on it or stifle it for whatever reason, is an artist.

A: You did your undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz and your MFA at Boston University, how were these two academic experiences different and how did they shape your practice? Is there a mark of these programs on the work you make, or the way you think about your practice?

G: Well, Santa Cruz was a great experience because my desire to work independently was respected, and I was given the space and time to paint 12-14 hours a day. Hardy Hanson was a professor who retired my junior year, but for the year after that, he came every other week for lunchtime critiques with a group of painting students. He was hard; no one ever got praise from him, but his presence there was very validating. And I took all the art history classes, many non-Western in scope. They were illuminating and inspiring.

BU had a climate that was very competitive and acrimonious. It got pretty nasty at times, and I was sensitive to that. It was a very different culture, more ego-driven than the curiosity-driven study that I experienced at SC, so I dropped out after a year. It was the only place I ever heard the term “woman painter” used! I don’t regret that experience, though, because I met many great painters who I’m still in touch with today, like Bryan deRoo, Zachary Keeting, Michael Holden, Eden Morris, Jeffrey Roper, Gerald Ross, Mary Matson…

GINA BORG red above and below, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches, 2013
GINA BORG red above and below, oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches, 2013

A: Is there a historical or current artist that you’d like to do a critique with? Or spend the day with? Or show with?

G: I’d like to visit Vija Celmin’s studio and chat. I’d like to have a drink with Joan Mitchell. I’d like to spend the day with Paul Klee, and the summer with Bonnard.

A: Is there a historical artwork that you keep coming back to, that intrigues you beyond other appreciated works?

G: Oh my, there are many many. “Mars” by Velasquez, “St. Peter and Paul” by Carravaggio, “Falling Blue” by Agnes Martin (at SFMOMA). One painting that is really insistent in my mind is a Bonnard painting of a Mimosa tree that I saw at the Pompidou 20 years ago. I turned a corner and saw it at a distance. It was blazing with radiant yellows and red, there was heat coming off of it. It was shimmering with little pieces of moving vibrant color and light. I was overwhelmed by it, and still think about it all the time.

GINA BORG upward,oil on canvas, 16 x 12 inches, 2013
GINA BORG upward,oil on canvas, 16 x 12 inches, 2013

A: Gradations of color and shifting tones of color are essential elements in your work, what is it that brought you to this? Do you look at light on objects in normal life and does it inspire you to make paintings? Do you ever get an “ahah” moment in life that makes you immediately go, or want to go, to the studio?

G: I look at light all the time. Light is everything. I used to be a realist painter and painted from life. I would get obsessed with trying to see all the colors in a shadow, warm and cool. I remember some years ago I was walking in the redwoods and it was getting kind of late. The trees were dark red, and the air was dark blue, and there was a moment when the blue and the red were exactly the same tone, or value. Just for a second, really. That had an effect on me. It was extremely interesting visually.

A: How do you choose a color palette to work with on a painting? Is color emotional? Is it representative?

G: Color is incredibly emotional to me, though I wouldn’t be able to explain how or why. I would never say red is angry, for example. We all have billions of personal moments with color and all those affect our feelings about certain colors. It is a great mystery.

A: What do you listen to in the studio when you’re working?

G: It depends upon what stage of the painting I’m at. If I’m doing the bricklaying sort of thing where the structure is already there, but my eyes are making little adjustments of temperature and tone, then I can listen to podcasts and learn things or be inspired in different ways while working. Otherwise, quiet music, or silence, if I’m making bigger decisions about the work. Though at the very beginning, when I’m wildly sketching out ideas on new canvases, I can kind of rock out. That’s a fun stage.

GINA BORG Blue Meet, oil on canvas, 36 x36 inches, 2012
GINA BORG Blue Meet, oil on canvas, 36 x36 inches, 2012

A: Painting goes through trends in the contemporary art market and in MFA programs, etc. Currently there’s a lot of dialogue and attention given to abstraction—are there any current trends in Abstract painting that you appreciate or don’t appreciate?

G: Yeah, it’s interesting. I guess I’m old enough now to have seen painting die and be reborn a few times, just like my old professors talked about. It doesn’t at all affect what I do, but I do like the dialogue and to see new work… Though, when I think about some contemporary abstract painters who are popular now, the truth is they’ve been working away at it for 30 or more years. Whether they got attention or not, they’ve been chipping away at it. I don’t think the trends are about what’s being made by artists, they are about what’s being given a spotlight by the art world at a given moment.

A: Your work is often abstracted, but has reference material to the natural world- Do you set out to explore a particular object when you start a new canvas, or does your investigation start more with a desire to explore color and tones?

G: I like to have parameters to work against. It gives me restrictions that are actually quite freeing. It’s hard to approach a blank canvas and think, well, I could do anything, anything at all to this. So I make up exercises for myself. I start out that way, then other stuff creeps in while I’m working. I don’t want to tell the viewer what they should see.

A: You explained to me once, that you fixate on a particular type of mark-making and build your layers over lots of repetitive applications of that mark. I can’t help but think of how asexual organisms reproduce, mitosis…what do you think of this?

G: Yes, that’s good. But all organisms — cell division, multiplicity, growth, trees and brain cells and fungus and tumors and flowers and fish and urban sprawls — all those metaphors. To put it crudely, a thing is a pile of the bits that have repeated themselves. A person’s life is an accumulation of all the moments and visions and decisions, bit by bit, one after another. I do think incremental change is powerful, both psychologically and biologically. I wouldn’t say these things are the subject matter of my paintings… Just musings that kind of resonates with the way I paint.

A: Thank you, Gina!

CHRIS RUSEELL – Rock Color Block, 50 x 42 inches, Oil on Canvas, 2012
CHRIS RUSEELL – Rock Color Block, 50 x 42 inches, Oil on Canvas, 2012

Aimee: Chris, your work has a lot of references to nature, landscape and abstractions of landscapes, but with a very psychedelic palette. Can you talk about your use of color and your relationship to the natural world in your paintings?

Chris: Color has to be one of the most interesting and fun components of painting. I am very interested in color relationships and how different pigments act. There is a very material and technical side of painting and I am a geek when it comes to pigments. My enjoyment of landscape paintings is two-fold: I love the tradition of landscape painting – matching colors, temperatures of light, capturing beautiful color phenomena – all the associations with the outdoors. However, I have a self-awareness about landscape painting; I know I can’t improve upon nature and there are plenty of great photographs, and paintings that have captured the natural world. I am not trying to capture nature’s beauty so much as show my point of view.

I don’t really have any connection to psychedelics. I am very influenced by where I live, and I took a lot of color cues from the bay area, which was an epicenter of psychedelic poster art in the 60s. I have always had some alliance with neo-hippy ideals and I feel like there was a real reemergence of the alternative outdoor lifestyles that have a strong reverence for nature. I use this vocabulary to show the incredible complexities in our natural world. That said, there is also some humor in my work – a reverent nod to my parent’s generation. In 2012, I moved to Italy where I was really influenced by the baroque interiors, lots of beautiful old things, and sunshine. I like how color palettes change, it is not a conceptual choice for me as much as it is just following various interests.

CHRIS RUSEELL – Machete, 18 x 15 inches, Graphite on Paper, 2013
CHRIS RUSEELL – Machete, 18 x 15 inches, Graphite on Paper, 2013

A: How did you get started as an artist? Was there a moment you committed to making art?

C: I always drew a lot and it was something I always wanted to do. I had a ton of support from my mom who also went to art school, so the decision to go to art school was easy. When I decided to study painting in college I was committing to making art.

A: You moved a few years ago from the Bay Area to Portland, and I can see the landscape of the Northwest reflected into some of your recent painting. How has this move affected or shaped what you’re making now, or how you’re looking at light, color, or content?

C: In northern California I really became enamored with the forests; there was a lushness that doesn’t exist in Colorado’s dry climate. Portland makes northern California seem so dry. Because of that humidity, I have been missing the sun but enjoying the abundant moss and foliage, so I have been using lots of green. It is green year round here. In my practice I try to constantly push myself out of my comfort zone to learn how to experiment with paint. I got very comfortable moving around a lot of paint, painting mountains, gradients and smoothing the surface of the paint. When I moved, I could no longer get away with painting the local landscape void of leaves and foliage. In Portland the forest is so think that you don’t have any vistas; I am rarely above tree line here. Before Portland, I was making a lot of paintings with mountains, lakes and large trees that don’t really have leaves or needles. I avoided leaves because I couldn’t figure out how to paint them. Now, in Portland these elements are my focus. It has been a struggle. Without the nice gradients, squeegees or large brushes, I have put away the bag of tricks I developed in California.

A: You’re from Boulder and came out here for school at CCA right? How did the Bay Area influence or shape you?

C: That is hard to answer because I moved from Boulder for college and spent ten years in the Bay Area so I changed a lot from being a high school kid to being thirty. It is hard to put my finger on a specific influence, but I do really relate to California, in terms of a broad cultural association. There is something about the massive amount of different people in the Bay Area where the idea of one local identity is lost; I really love that about the Bay Area.

A: What does it mean to be a painter today, to choose to work with this age-old medium?

C: Painting is established; it is not contemporary but it is not antiquated either. For me it just exists as a material that I love to work with. I am much happier doing things with my hands and using physical materials, it's interesting to create and invent while hand-crafting an object. It is also very important to me that I make my own work; a painting is record of the work, I put in, not a collaborative effort, or an idea that can be produced by someone or something else.

CHRIS RUSEELL – Cave Painting with Iron Oxide, 13 x 15 inches, Oil on Canvas, 2012
CHRIS RUSEELL – Cave Painting with Iron Oxide, 13 x 15 inches, Oil on Canvas, 2012

A: Besides drawing and painting, are there other mediums that interest you?

C: Yes, but I feel like the way in which I use a lot of other materials is more from a designer’s perspective. I really like working with wood. I love how it shows the marks you make while maintaining the grain. I take a lot of photos but it is more of a part of my painting process than an end product. I consciously try to limit my materials because I can get really distracted by the materials and my tendency is to be all over the place. Currently, I have some soapstone chunks, a bunch of nice wood scraps from a furniture shop and a sewing machine in my studio. I might make some more sculptures but lately all the things I have made are functional objects for my girlfriend or family.

A: How do you approach a new canvas, do you tend to sketch out and plan or attack with intuition?

C: It really does vary, I try to have an open plan that will hopefully look different than what I was expecting. A lot of the time I will have some sketches that are usually very rough but allow me think about how I can take the image somewhere else. I want the painting to develop organically but I am also kind of a planner. I also have photos that I use as initial inspiration. I try not to get too much information from one photo; sometimes I totally change the color, and a lot of the time I just paint little details from many different photos. Essentially, I am synthesizing a landscape that does not exist in reality but has some realism to it.

CHRIS RUSEELL – Layer, Mine & Refine, 50 x 42 inches, Oil on Canvas, 2012
CHRIS RUSEELL – Layer, Mine & Refine, 50 x 42 inches, Oil on Canvas, 2012

A: What are you currently working on? What is most exciting to you in the studio or in idea form?

C: I’m working on some paintings that are patterns of all-over foliage; I think I can push them a lot further. I am really into balancing the line between messy and clean crispness. I am getting ready to start painting on a large seven foot tall piece of linen which I want to be a full immersion painting of being in the forest. I also really like some of the doodles I have been making which help me come up with the geometric shapes I add to my landscapes. I don’t want my work to get too formulaic, so I think I have to think about where I am going with that.

A: If you were reborn as an element of the forest what you be, or what is your spirit animal?

C: That’s a hard question but I am going to say an owl because I have a tendency to work late into the night. Anyone who knows me describes me as really quiet and hard to hear. I am very visual and more interested in looking at things that talking or listening. I don’t know if I am a wise as an owl but I’ll take it as a spirit guide.

A: Is there anything else you want to say or share with us?

C: I hope people enjoy the paintings.

A: Thank you, Chris!

To view some of these pieces in person, LOCZIdesign studios in conjunction with CULT / Aimee Friberg Exhibitions, will showcase both Gina Borg and Chris Russell on December 10th from 6:00 - 10:00PM with Ebb: An Opening Reception and Holiday Soiree. For more details on the event, click here.