I am a huge lover of house art. Houses are fascinating subjects. Unlike traditional portraits, house art gives us an opportunity to ask very personal questions without turning the mirror directly on ourselves.
All of this is to say that I'm very excited for this week's artist, Amy Greenan, who paints house portraits. Amy has been painting houses since 2008 - lonely, abandoned houses she is drawn to in her native upstate New York. In her paintings, Amy "transforms (the houses) into something more positive" by playing up the houses' geometry and infusing them with unexpected color.
Where are you from originally and where do you currently live?
I was born in Buffalo, New York, raised in a small farm town about 20 miles east of Buffalo, and currently live in Niagara Falls, NY, which is about a half hour north of Buffalo on the Thruway. I live just about a five minute drive away from the famous Niagara Falls themselves, and I can walk ten minutes to the gorge at Devil’s Hole State Park, which I love. That’s about the only charm living here, though. Niagara Falls is definitely a city in crisis in many ways, though every once in a while someone makes an effort to do something good here – I guess I see making my paintings as one of those good things. There are countless abandoned places in this city and region.
Tell us about the works in this series.
All the houses I paint are abandoned. I started this series in late 2008 by accident, when I took some photographs of a gorgeous old house sitting in the middle of a field out near where I grew up. I was worried that it was going to be torn down or fixed up and I wanted to remember it as I saw it then. I never intended to paint it, but something compelled me to try. After that first painting, I was hooked. I loved working with the geometry, light, and color, the architectural element. I feel very connected to these houses. Someone told me that these aren’t just paintings of houses, but rather portraits, and I think that is totally true.
Photo from Amy's flickr
Are your house paintings based on actual houses? What draws you to paint certain houses?
Yes, they are all based on real houses. I always carry my little point and shoot camera with me, so that when I’m driving if I spot a new specimen, I can “capture” it. I’ll take several shots from as many angles as I can and use the photos as a loose basis for the paintings. The photos are more like guides than anything, a jumping off point. I am drawn to all houses that are clearly empty – they have the same appeal to me as homeless animals do. Maybe appeal isn’t the right word… they just arouse a really strong emotional response, a sadness and helplessness that I then try to transform into something more positive.
You teach as well as having your own practice. do you find that teaching aids your own creativity?
I don’t teach just to make a living (though it helps!) – I actually really enjoy it. One of the reasons I think I do like it so much is because I love to learn. If I could go to school my whole life, I would! Teaching kind of allows me to do that. I teach a variety of art and design-based classes, and I like doing the research for each one. I am constantly learning and re-learning. Every class has its own unique dynamics, but most times I find myself really inspired by the youth and energy of my students (unless it’s a morning class – then everyone’s like a zombie!). It drives me to want to be better at what I do in my studio.
How has your art evolved over the years? I read that you used to paint portraits.
Maybe all artists go through this, I don’t know, but for me it’s always been this big search to find the Thing that feels genuine. I’ve been making self-portraits since I was 12 years old and that was my main focus for many years, even through graduate school. So much navel-gazing, though! It’s nice to look outward. I do miss making portraits lately and have been thinking about how to return to them – I keep seeing people with fantastic faces or fantastic outfits and just want to get them into my studio! Looking at other people would be a very nice change from looking in the mirror all the time while I am at the easel. I’m tired of trying to work out my own personal issues with my body through my art. The houses were my salvation in that sense – they saved me from myself! As I mentioned earlier, though, the houses are also about a certain kind of physical being, too. There are many parallels between studying this type of architecture and the human experience.
Speaking formally, it’s interesting to think back to the way I approached painting in college to how I do it now. In college I was such a cliché – the angsty, messy art student with paint all over her clothes. I was really into the German Expressionists of the early 20th century, and artists like Alice Neel, Egon Schiele, and Lucian Freud – they really informed the work I did back then, very emotive with the brushwork to prove it. Now I am a more tidy painter in general, much more measured and precise about how the paint goes on. I prefer a smooth surface now. I love artists like Alex Katz, Leonard Rosoman, and R.B. Kitaj – Donald Sultan is another favorite. I love the quiet drama of Eric Fischl and not-so-quiet drama of Jerome Witkin.
New work from the artist's blog.
Why do you think your house paintings have been so successful?
I haven’t thought of them as being “so successful”, but I suppose compared to anything else that’s come from my studio, they have garnered the most praise and attention, which is nice. I think it is easier for people to relate to this type of portrait I am doing now – the houses – rather than the self-portraits, or portraits in general even. When you’re faced with the portrait of a person, it can be unnerving. Maybe you feel that you can’t relate to them, or whatever. (I don’t have this problem at all, quite the contrary, but I know that many people don’t want to have portraits of people they don’t know hanging in their homes.) A house is a place where most viewers have had an experience with and everyone has their idea of what home is, too. A house is an easy thing to attach your own story to, isn’t it? I take the houses I photograph out of context in the paintings so that they could literally be anywhere. It gives them a new lease on life. I love playing with color in these paintings, too, and color is powerful – maybe viewers respond to that? It’s hard to say. I’ve noticed that people either totally get it and are immediately and inexplicably drawn to this body of work, or it’s nothing, it’s pretty (or naïve, or clunky) paintings of houses, and they’re totally disinterested. Same as anything else, I guess.
What's something most people don't know about you?
Well, I am a pretty open book, so except for some very personal stuff that I would never share in any public forum, nothing that I can think of!