In the Studio

Louise P. Sloane is a painter whose distinctive production focuses primarily on color and light, materiality and texture. This became the matrix for the geometric configurations or symbols that she embedded into her paintings early on, followed eventually by textual excerpts that ousted the signs. Deeply invested in modernist aesthetics, as most artists of her generation were, she continues to embrace formalism, albeit an expanded, looser concept of it. While she prefers that her imagery be seen as pattern and texture, Sloane is also very aware that traces of narrative are inevitably present. The symbols were a way to begin, she explained, used as visual building blocks to erect a structure, but she gradually replaced them with writing. At first, she rubbed or otherwise obscured the words but, over time, allowed the writing to become more readily apparent, even legible, paralleling the transitions in painting that have led to a more capacious understanding and definition of the medium, without arbitrary prohibitions.

Sloane admits that, as the textual inclusions became more intimate, more autobiographical in their sourcing, they became integral to the painting’s content in addition to its form. It is a private act that reverberates on an emotional level for her and while she is less reluctant to discuss it these days, she still considers the actual meaning of the text extraneous to the viewing of the paintings. It isn’t necessary to share that with viewers, she insists, wanting them to concentrate more on the perceptual aspects of the work. That said, in her own way, in response to the greater inclination for narrative of current art, she is acknowledging and coming to terms with the storyteller in her.

In a recent studio visit, Sloane showed me paintings from the mid-1970s to the present, which is about how long she has been painting. Except for the mid-1970s paintings, the thread that links her production is linguistic but from a pictorial perspective, from the inference of text in her earlier work to the actual text of the past fifteen years or so. Crucial to her endeavors almost from the beginning--although more non-representational, non-denotative then--Sloane uploaded freely across the history of art, across mediums and cultures and included information about daily life, such as the signage in the subways. Her motifs are omnivorously taken from ceremonial objects, geometric designs, hieroglyphs and other ancient writings as well as non-Western languages such as Aramaic, Farsi, Hebrew, Sanskrit, vernacular art such as wall paintings from sub-Saharan Africa; one example of those diverse gleanings is the beautifully textured painting Where We Have Been (1994). She described her signature style as based on texture and its sensuousness, on complex surfaces that stress the handmade and its non-replicable uniqueness and imperfections.

As part of her attraction to modernism, and in particular to minimalism, to Op art, geometric abstraction, Color Field painting and beyond—Donald Judd, Brice Marden, and Agnes Martin have been her touchstones—she has almost always based her composition on the grid and its variations. Her formats have been either square or rectangular and are oriented both vertically and horizontally. Often, the support is just off square, enough to give the work a sense of tension and stretch. Her supports have also shifted between canvas, wood, Masonite, steel—whatever she finds to be best at the moment. In the late 70s and 80s, her works were mostly encaustic, often monochromatic in pale to dark greys, the tones sometimes glimmering, adding a sensation of more light within the painting. They were made with beeswax, damar and pure pigment, each layer fused to the other. One large encaustic painting from 1978 is the silvery grey Corybant measuring 72 x 48 inches, the mesmerizing, all-over rippling that animates the surface effectively conjuring the rhythms of the ecstatic dances of the attendants of the ancient goddess Cybele it is named for. A work from the year before, Gyrus, is a 48 inch square, also beeswax, its densely ribbed surface somewhat effaced by the luminosity of its pale green grey, like the transient color of olive tree leaves, more gleam than hue. Egyptian Blue, from 1982, is one of the most successful and ambitious of this period. A diptych, its two panels are not the same size, the painting extending 90 inches in length, one panel warm, the other cool. The opposed rich but subtle blue greys are similar in shade to each other but fluctuating, once again difficult to pin down as a specific color.

Sloane tends to work slowly, thoughtfully through the parameters she sets for herself, exploring numerous permutations before moving on, the evolution organic as one idea, one resolution leads to another. She began to incorporate more colors into her paintings in the 90s—black with colors coming through the blackness or ostensibly monochromatic or bi-chromatic paintings that were actually packed with multiple colors beneath the surface. These other colors were not always visible—or just barely-- but they enriched the surface hue, adding nuance to works such as Speaking in Tongues (1993) and Landscape (1994). And they remained dark for the most part; in the 90s, she felt she was still searching for her particular voice and vision.

By 1992, she began to use pastry tubes and molding paste to make designs and write on the paintings. The pastry tube was both handy and a provocative metaphor, a menial kitchen utensil associated with (women’s) domestic tasks that Sloane “upgraded” to a painting tool although it might be argued that its original function was plenty significant as an implement of both nurturing and pleasure—visual and gustatory. Let them eat cake, sometimes. The composition in these paintings was often split, either in half or in quadrants, with a central bisecting groove down the middle of the former that suggested an open book or a nod to the female sex as interpreted by some feminist critics, Sloane said. She welcomes all readings of her paintings, and there have been many.

Wax had finally become too limiting for her by the early 90s; she felt the need to expand her repertoire even if still enamored of its “element of surprise,” never knowing exactly what might happen when the layers melded. But wax did not permit her to go back into the work to add to or change resolutions that dissatisfied her. She sought greater flexibility, another reason that she switched to acrylics. In the later 1990s, Sloane introduced a central square-in-a-square motif referring to the compositions of Josef Albers and Richard Anuszkiewicz, a construct she used for quite some time and is now using again, although always with differences, recently slipping a diamond shape into the heart of the composition.

From pictograms, ideograms, and other symbols of dead languages, living languages became increasingly crucial to her as a means of expression over the course of her practice. The text she painted in became more contemporary from song lyrics to poetry that was personally significant. For one project, she transcribed the entirety of Allen Ginsberg’s notorious, world-changing poem Howl into a 2007 work, Howl into Spring, writing, then overwriting the lines to fit them all in. (She has used his writing in other works as well.) More poignantly, she began to include personal jottings for the first time in 2005, inscribing sections from a journal that she kept during her mother’s last illness in a painting called MMS2, a dense burnt orange, the image within it resembling an open diary, and she continues to do that. The recent painting, Purple Haze (2017) is the repository (or reliquary) for the text of her father’s unpublished novel, in homage to his literary aspirations, a form of publishing it. While still reluctant to reveal the text as text, the writing serving as a way to connect to her deceased father and intimate in nature, it is also a tribute, and as such, she has reconsidered her earlier reservations and allowed the words here to be far more legible.

She met Anuszkiewicz around 2005 and said to him that she wanted to work with more colors, ones that have a powerful visual charge to them, that detonate in the space. And he replied, as she remembers gratefully, then do it—what’s stopping you? And she asked herself, yes, what is?

Since then, Sloane’s paintings have been characterized by almost audible blasts of saturated, bespoke greens, blues, reds, oranges, yellows, a full spectrum. She doesn't mix colors but layers and juxtaposes them so the mixing occurs optically and is all the more intense because of it. In Purple Haze, a large painting divided into quadrants, the center square is occupied by bright reds and repeats the quadrant formulation, the purple-blue of the remaining field inscribed with her father’s words. Sneaking in more color, the lines that separate the forms are of other hues and, as something new, she edges the paintings with a highly contrastive color. Here, it is an acid neon green that seems to burn rather than cool, increasing the “pop.” In Olga (2017) and In Fated 4 (2016), the frame is bubblegum pink and bright orange, respectively. As part of Sloane’s usual strategy, the colors interact with each other where their edges meet or as chromatic elements of the overall composition. They also emerge from beneath, flickering into visibility, turning on and off, depending upon the available light and the position of the viewer.

Sloane, who has been at this for more than four decades, seems to be just hitting her stride, her production in high gear, brash and elegant, eyes toward the future, seeking, constantly seeking.

Lilly Wei