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Out of a Dark Wood

Winter 2018
Winter 2018
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Natalie Frank's work has been the subject of exhibitions at the Drawing Center, New York; Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX; Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago; ACME, Los Angeles; Arndt and Partner, Zurich; Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Maine; Half Gallery, New York; London Museum of Design. Frank has drawn lit-erature in four illustrated volumes: O (Lucia Marquand, 2018); Tales of the Broth-ers Grimm (Damiani, 2015); The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Princeton University Press, 2016); and the forthcoming Madame d'Aulnoy (Princeton University Press, 2019). I came to pulp painting casually and almost by accident; and as some of the least anticipated and most significant accidents sometimes do, this one radically changed me and my practice. Awarded a residency at Dieu Donné, then located in midtown Manhattan, I was given over to the artist and master papermaker, Amy Jacobs, for a collaboration in the wet studio. During a period of days over six months, I experimented with different techniques of papermaking and I was frustrated. Everything felt awkward, a language that I felt perhaps I was too old to learn. I was primarily a painter and drawer, and this wet media (which smelled like rotten eggs) seemed finicky, laborious, and, frankly, rude.

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And then, one day, I came to pulp painting; immediately, I felt at  ease. Working with beaten, papermaking fibers—hand pigmented,  stirred, and filled in plastic cups, like festive pots of thinned- out mayonnaise—required some adjustment. But once I relaxed into  the media, it seemed to begin to obey my hand; it also,  powerfully, felt like an extension of my mind. I could envision  something and there was no delay, the image-making was im-mediate.  It may sound odd to talk about adrenaline and pots of paper pulp,  but this is what it was. Working with paper pulp felt like riding  a galloping and obstinate horse straight down a rocky bluff.  It stupefied me that this was not paint, but little bits of pulp,  suspended  in water; it did not mix like paint, as the pigments  swirled before they coalesced, and never quite absorbed; and  colors acted differently. The  pigments that I was used to knowing  as transparent in oil paint shared none of the same properties  when used in paper pulps, some of which were grainier and thinner,  some of whose color was weaker, and others almost hallucinatory.  Painting involved pouring from spoons, cups, dribbling from a  brush, and using brushes, both tiny and fist-size, as gentle  depositors of the pulp, so tenderly that the surface would not be  disturbed by the caress of brush and hand. I worked on drab, thick  blankets on wooden rolling carts; the floor had drains. Water  gushed everywhere, and everything was wet, for hours on end.  I found that I could work quickly, laying in color over color, not  worrying about the muddiness that threatens oil painting, my hand  becoming an extension of my imagination. This delighted me. For  over ten years I had worked in oil paint, compiling narratives  sur-rounding women and their bodies, stories tinged with sexuality  and violence. Sometimes these were portraits, at times there were  multiple figures engaging in abstracted and charged interactions.  Painting was an anxious process of accumulating images—fighting  signifiers of virtuosity and a desire to render in the same way,  all over the picture. I felt pleasure moving the paint around but  there wasn't quite enough pleasure there. A year or two before I began to make pulp paintings, I also be-gan  my first body of drawings, in gouache and chalk pastel. I had  never thought enough of my abilities as a drawer or my imagination  to think I could really draw. I assumed my strengths were as a  paint-er. I never cared much for drawing that felt too  representational; I wanted to explore the areas of transformation  possible in drawing—the ways in which gouache and chalk pastel can  vibrate and trick the eye into believing that the picture is  moving. Color and form here could easily go in and out of human  and animal, material and illusion. There was something easy and  free and also directly from the imagination that felt a part of  the image. I began drawing un-sanitized fairy tales by the  Brothers Grimm, then on to a few more bodies of work looking at  fairy tales, and one erotic novel. Draw-ing took me into an  imaginary world, one that correlated with the centuries-old  magical stories, and to Story of O, a physically charged  twentieth-century novel that I looked at.  Pulp painting took off where drawing ended. It feels even more  free, more directly related to my imagination, harder to control,  and at times, even more rewarding. I can stalk the same subject  matter, magical transformations, women dressed up and down in  private and performative moments. But I have found these images,  which are just beginning to come out in this media, talk back;  they seem to come forward. The assault of the color which in  painting would feel kitschy or gaudy; the sheer confusion that  paper can also exist as paint, and what was once all wet is now  dry; the organic chaos of the pulp and its flow, counterbalanced  by the shadow presence of the hand that shaped it, dazzle me. I  have looked to pulp paintings as a guide to my drawings and  paintings, a meeting place some-where in the middle of a dark  wood. As I continue to make bodies of drawings based on  literature, I anticipate that the zippy forms of pulp will inspire  my drawings to elbow out of their edges and flirt with their  environment and the viewer. Papermaking has taken me somewhere  wholly new and unexpected, bringing both me and my studio work  along for a tremendous ride.