Wade Carey Interviews Maria Margarita Panas

By East City Art Editorial Team on October 18, 2010


Maria Margaret Panas interviewed by Wade Carey on East City Art
Red Index, acrylic, charcoal on canvas, 24 x 24 inches, used with permission of the artist
Wade Carey spent a few hours with abstract painter M.M. Panas at her home studio on Wednesday, September 29th, 2010, in advance of the opening of her show, Action Painting, the work of M.M. Panas, now on display (September 28 to October 30, 2010) at City Gallery. That conversation is the basis for this interview. The questions and answers have been edited for concision and clarity.

W(ade): In the stuff that I read and on your website, it talks about what your approach to art is, that there is something novelistic about it, something that has an arc.

M(argaret):  Painting is similar to writing in that a painter seeks to impart information to and evoke responses from the viewer, using color, line, shape and texture as tools, instead of words. We all respond uniquely to what we read or see, according to our experiences and knowledge. I am always surprised and delighted by the differing things people see in my work.

W: I have not seen the show. I have to go over to the gallery to see what’s mounted. Clearly, we won’t be able to do a walk-through of the pieces that are there. Today, instead, I want to talk about you and your approaches, how you got to where you are today. One of the things I’ve wanted to ask is whether you or Phil [Hutinet, City Gallery’s owner] decided on the showcase piece that is on the announcements and on the playbills.

M: I chose that piece.

W: I want to know why.M: That red is hard to ignore. Red Index won a first prize in a juried group show and was chosen to be on the postcard for that show by the judge, a man I respect. I really liked the way it popped against the white background. Since I thought it was indicative of my theme Action Painting, I chose to use it also.

That particular red is one of my all-time favorite colors and I have to fight to stay away from it and not put it on every single painting that I have.

W: It confirms my suspicions that part of the reason is because it is so bold. And so, I was curious about how it fits into the arc of the work that you have been doing. If it has been in at least two shows, it is not what you did yesterday. You have lots of “children.” You cannot be asked to choose your favorite among all your children but, where does it fit into the arc of your painting?

M: Red Index was completed in 2009. I had been using earth tones and dark colors and decided I wanted to paint something that shouted. I love bold. I have been coming to the realization that I just want to paint instinctively and with a clear voice. When I think I am finished with a painting, I put it away for some time and then, after pulling it out, decide what it needs. I used to pick at adjustments. Lately, I make more decisive adjustments that can be major changes. I like the excitement and the statement.

W: It is not just color. It is how the color is applied on the canvas, how many different colors you use, how the blade of the brush is used on the canvas or paper.

M: Texture is important.

W: Do you blend a lot or do you use colors right out of the tube?

M: Both. It depends on what I am trying to get accomplish on a certain day or in a certain series. I always work on four or five paintings at the same time and I work quickly in the beginning. There is a lot of motion in my work. If I worked on one piece at a time, I would be murdering that painting, changing it constantly. As I keep moving, the inspiration comes, something happens, the music is right, I am in that zone, and everything is right with the world.

Here, in my home, I have some paintings from different periods.

W: Some of them are on your website. They fall into slightly different categories, form-wise.

M: Yes. I had to experiment to find out what suits me best.

W: Are they interchangeable, those forms? If a reader is going to the website and is looking at how you have assembled your work in some thematic way, are you working in each of those formats interchangeably?

M: Each series is an answer to what I am interested in expanding upon at the time. However, I have developed a language that seems to be my own. Most people who know my work can recognize new paintings as mine.

W: Is there a sequence of time? Is there an older period after which you decided to discard a way of using your body in relationship to the canvas or paper? How has that changed?

M: There is a sequence of time. Earlier pieces have a more studied look because I was more careful in my application of paint and marks. It took time to develop the confidence to rely on my instincts and become a more physical painter. I perspire when I paint because I move so much. My studio is a terrible mess when I do my best work. I find that the time I have to spend looking for things gives me a necessary break from the paintings that enables me to return to them with a fresh eye. As far as phases, there are definitely phases. I am influenced by artists I love, music, what’s happening in my life. It’s all response to stimuli but with my vocabulary. My favorite artists are from the New York School: DeKooning, Rauschenberg, Franz Kline – people whose fearlessness and knowledge I admire.

When I see a favorite painting by a great artist, I want to duplicate the emotions they evoke in my own work. These paintings [pointing to a group] were all painted in the same time period.

Action Painting Series, acrylic on canvas, used by permission of the artist

I used a lot of medium here for transparency. In addition to the contrasts of light and dark, I like using different shades of light and dark using dense and diluted colors. If I am doing something that is very dark like this, I don’t want it just to be black. I want it to be different shades of black.

Life experiences influence art too. I used to meditate for years and over time, stopped. Recently, I took a Mindfulness Meditation workshop and discovered that a kind of peacefulness has come into my work that I haven’t seen for a while. Look [points to another group of paintings] at what has happened!

W: These are very different paintings.

M: This one, Dancin’ the Night Away, was done some time ago when I was still working on paper and was exploring line and using more colors.

Dancin’ The Night Away, acrylic on paper, 30 x 44 inches, used with permission of the artist

I prefer fewer colors in each painting now.

W: Is there any impulse that moved you from paper to canvas?

M: Paintings on paper always require framing, glass or plexiglass and are frequently cumbersome to transport. Glass breaks, plexi scratches. I moved on to canvas but it took time to discover how to apply paint in a satisfactory way. Paper has a beautiful way of absorbing color, allowing for nuance and subtlety that I found hard to duplicate on canvas at first. It took time to learn to work successfully with acrylic on canvas. This is the last of a favorite series on paper. I kept one for myself.

Red Path series, acrylic and charcoal on paper, used with permission of the artist

W: I thought that group was really handsome, too.

M: It’s that red again.

W: I’ve also wondered about how you have varied between using charcoal and acrylic and using only acrylic on canvas. In building up the work, because you are an action painter, I assume that you do not start with studies or sketches, you just attack. You just go for it.

M: That’s true but it all starts with an idea that I want to develop. Red Path started out the same as the work I do now. I started with the black shapes here and then I had to find a way to create the red background, showing differing depths — almost a sense of floating.

W: I am interested in knowing if charcoal always comes first?

M: Not always. In fact, it almost always comes last now. Sometimes, a piece needs something more, another element of interest, something to move the eye from here to there. Charcoal can be just the thing.

W: Like a road map, are you using it to give the viewer a better chance to see into the work? Or is it more subconscious than that?

M: I never thought of it that way. It might have been subconscious early on but it’s a very conscious choice now.

W: We are not in your work studio and so I cannot see your worktable. Do you work with big brushes or knives or both?

M: Big brushes, knives, big spatulas, anything I can get my hands on. I don’t use a lot of sgraffito, and yet it looks like I do sometimes. I also have used ash.

W: You’ve put ash in them? You have a series of works that are far lighter than the others on your website, a group that is quite gray, with grays and blacks and whites.

M: Are they the ones with four sections?

W: Right. I think there are four of them.

Shelter series, acrylic, charcoal, Conte crayon on paper, used with permission of the artist

M: One of those groups of four was accepted by the Crystal City Business Improvement District Art Walls project. I have four of them up on walls in Crystal City on the 15th St underpass, under Route 1.

W: They were prettier, that is the only word I can come up with. They were easier to approach. They don’t tell quite as rough a story.

M: Each section was blown up to a 10 foot square image. They are pretty powerful at that size. Some images work in large or small formats. Not all, though.

I will tell you about these [pointing to another pair of paintings]. At a time when my husband was recuperating from some serious health problems, I finally got back into the studio and started painting and this is what I was producing. I wasn’t trying to paint anything in particular but I was trying to get away from my everyday life. Everything came out bleak and I was using ashes.W: You were a kind of different person.

M: At that time, I was. But it taught me something, too. That whole period pushed me forward. Everything you learn, you use.

W: Wood ash?

M: Wood Ash! I did these two. I haven’t really shown them. They might be a little depressing.

W: I don’t think they are particularly depressing but they do suggest a kind of a person who is not, um, sorted out.

M: That’s a good description.

W: Right. There are things that are in focus and things that are out of focus about the way the painting is put together.

M: You know I might show them some day. We’ll see. When I realized how gray everything was in my art, I decided, “Enough! I have to get out of this mental state.” So, I pulled out bright primary colors and I did things like this.

Northern Cross, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 inches, used with permission of the artist
Interestingly, I started using the cross. I didn’t do it purposely. It was a gesture.W: Some of them are named for it. I forget. This one is…

M: That one is named, Northern Cross. This one is called, Resuscitation.

Resuscitation, acrylic, charcoal on canvas, 24 x 24 inches, used with permission of the artist

W: We haven’t talked about your history. You started painting in 2002?

M: In September of 2001, I took an art class at the Art League at the instigation of my sister. At the end of that first day in that class, my first time putting paint to paper, I was surprised by the realization that I was going to stick with this for a long time. It just felt so right.

W: Had you had any particular attraction to the abstract expressionists all along that moved you to paint that way?

M: Always.

W: Have you seen any shows lately that have fired you up?

M: Yes, in Philadelphia! The Arshile Gorky Retrospective! I knew from reading De Kooning’s biography that Gorky was his ideal. He thought that Gorky was a great painter and De Kooning turned to Gorky very often for advice. They were great friends. I had only seen a couple of Gorky’s works, but nothing that was memorable for me. My sister practically dragged me to Philadelphia to see the Arshile Gorky show. It was huge – so many paintings. What he was doing was heart-stopping.

W: When you came home, did you start painting?

M: Oh, of course. I was so fired up.

W: You have already explained how you have to step back from your paintings. There is your initial spontaneous approach to the painting. Then there is the moment when you know you have to keep moving. You move to the next painting or whatever else is going on in your life. Then you come back and you have to look at the painting again. When you have these moments that you are revisiting the work, how do you decide when you don’t want to do any more revisiting? When are you done with the painting? Is there ever a point that you know, for sure?

M: There is a point that I know. It gets easier to make this decision lately because I am more sure of what I’m after. It never works when somebody else tells you it is finished because you really only paint for your own satisfaction. Somebody else could come in and say, “Don’t touch it. It’s done.” But that only interferes with the process.

W: I know it is essentially non-verbal but is there a way for you to describe how you know when the painting is done?

M: There is a sense of satisfaction that happens. But I have to say, when I look at older paintings that I thought were finished, I sometimes pull them out and obliterate them with new paint.

W: Well, they are your paintings.

M: Yes. Although they are not relevant to me any longer, they are very good material for a new works. They already have so much information on them.

W: So, you can build. You can take an old painting and build.

M: Sure. I have no problem taking a bunch of my old stuff and throwing it away. It’s good to clear the air. Everything that you do isn’t fantastic and valuable.

The first time I was aware of a famous artist doing that was in Rauschenberg’s biography, Off the Wall, where I read about how he called home from Italy – he was showing in the Biennale, I think – and told his assistant, “Burn all my work!” How could he do such a thing? Well, it’s a smart thing to do from time to time. Get rid of it all and get on with it.

W: Do differences in the light mean different things for your work? For example, do you like to work in the morning?

M: I am best in the morning. I work at my studio but I finish all my paintings here because I have this northern light.

W: This is really a great room.

M: I have that pegboard up which has been a tremendous help to me. I have one in my studio too, where I have lots of space and I can put many canvasses up on hooks and I work on them simultaneously and walk away and come back and see it all again. But the light is best here and I can also live with them for a longer time here. I’ll walk by them and I won’t notice them for a long time and then all of a sudden I’ll see this one needs more light and that one is not quite right. I’ll see it suddenly without really focusing on it. That is a big help in correcting things. The light is the thing that makes it all more visible.

W: So, you usually finish your work here?

M: I do. I finish it here and if I use charcoal, I can spray fixative outside. Another useful tip I have learned is to have frames available for those canvases I think will need them. I put the canvas into the frame and finish painting because the frame changes the painting.

W: Yes, the frames can reflect light, reflect color. They change what the eye sees in the painting.

M: And some paintings, you know, don’t want to be limited by a frame but others benefit from the limitation of the frame.

W: You have to mount work elsewhere, though. When you move paintings to a place like a gallery, they cannot always stay in this ideal location with its northern light, just the way you liked it when they were completed. In the show that you have just mounted, how did light play into that? How did you decide to arrange the paintings?

M: This more perfect light reveals flaws more easily and so, the painting benefits from it even though it ends up under gallery light. However, I did not arrange the pieces chosen for City Gallery.

W: Is that so?

M: It wasn’t up to me. Ellen Cornett and Geoff Ault came over here and chose the paintings. Actually, when Geoff Ault came to my very messy work studio, he was not impressed. I thought to myself, this is really going to be tough. I have known Geoff for a long time and I felt that I should present things to him in a better way. So, I asked him and Ellen to come to my house where the newly framed canvases were arranged in the daylight and everything looked entirely different.

W: Like that first painting that you decided to be emblematic for the work that you do, having it mounted on an entirely white background made a big difference in the impact of the painting. You have that idealized, perfect luminous white light!

M: Right!

W: You didn’t have anything to do with how it was set up? You let them look at what you had available and take what they wanted and put it up?

M: There were a few louder pieces they were going to leave out but I pointed out that I thought those pieces made a nice counter point to the more Zen-like paintings. I did call this Action Painting, and it needs a little bit of oomph!

W: That’s funny. Almost the first thing you said to me was, “I love when people see other things entirely from what I see in my paintings.” That leads to the awkward moment when people find some of your paintings more attractive than others, especially when you are selecting for a show.
M: That’s OK. I had the opportunity to state my opinion and there were absolutely no problems. It worked out very well. Also, I find that sometimes you cannot see your own work clearly. You get too involved with each piece, or involved with the relationship among pieces. Somebody else with a fresh eye walks in and rearranges things and you think, “Wow! I didn’t think of that, but it’s really good!” Of course, it could turn out to be not to my liking one day but I think Geoff and Ellen are trustworthy people and I think it is going to work. I saw a couple of photographs of a few of the walls. I like them.

W: Do you have people that you trust more than others, like teachers?

M: I have only had two teachers. After my first teacher, Joyce McCarten taught me necessary basics and introduced me to and explained so many artists and art movements with her wonderful talks at the beginning of each class, I was looking for something new. I didn’t want to do what everybody else is doing. Then I walked into Marsha Staiger’s studio at the Torpedo Factory. She had produced acrylic paintings that looked like they could have been painted with oils. That surprised me. Oil paint has a transparency and luminescence. Acrylic paint can be heavy and flat. I talked to her and she said that she taught and I thought, well, this is a lady who can teach me things that I need to know. I took classes from Marsha for a long time and learned a lot. She is an excellent teacher whose students acquire individual styles. I would have stayed with Marsha but I had to get out, get my own studio and throw paint around and be able to leave a mess and come back to it the next day. I don’t have a teacher or mentor right now but would ask for Marsha’s opinion in a heartbeat.

W: Are there any other artists that you’ve seen lately, or that you have always admired, that mean a lot to you?

M: There is a particular room in the Hirshhorn that has a Rauschenberg, a Motherwell and a Franz Kline. It is one of the best rooms I can be in. The works are very large and satisfying. I am looking forward to going to the New York Abstract Expressionist show at MoMA. They are still my favorites but I do go to a lot of different exhibits. You know, the Turner exhibit that we had here at the National Gallery of Art a few years ago was stunning.

W: I hoped to put Turner somewhere into this conversation. To think that he was doing what he was doing before 1850, it is just amazing.

M: Yes. Those last two paintings, if they are not abstract expressionism, I don’t know what is. It’s hard to believe that man painted at the time he did but he started very young and was brilliant. He figured out that it was all about light and color and shapes — which leads to abstraction.

W: When you say that there is a kind of novelistic approach or experience, it means that there is some intellectual content, that the pictures are not completely subconscious. They have some kind of story.

M: Right.

W: Are there stories that you have been telling all along? Are there different specifics, even if they can be barely formed in words?

M: Maybe. When I first painted I didn’t have any idea of what I was doing but was very intent on every mark I made. Then, there came a time when I was able to relax and forget about what I was doing while painting and a strange thing happened to me when I got into “that free zone.” I found myself reliving my childhood in my head. I could walk through my entire house where I grew up in Brooklyn and remember all kinds of precise details — the exact pattern of linoleum and wallpaper, the shapes of the front door and windows. It was fascinating. In an early abstract art class, a teacher might say, “Put a lot of information down on the canvas.” I put down whatever came into my head and a lot of it was from my childhood, things I thought I had forgotten. I use the number 22 occasionally. That number comes from the fact that I lived in the area then known as Brooklyn, 22, New York. It was a kind of ZIP code. I wanted to be a very light-hearted painter but what I find is that my Eastern European heritage comes through. I am not at all as light-hearted as I intended to be. What does that mean? I don’t really know but it could be pertinent.

W: As long as it doesn’t stop you cold, keep on going.

M: Painting is self-expression. There are things I have learned about myself that are interesting to me.

W: As you have said, you have to jump from one painting to the other when you are working. You have to keep moving from one place to the next in order to stay fresh, in order to be able to look at what you are doing. How are these paintings we are looking at right now telling us different stories, if there is anything verbal about it at all?

M: I like both turbulence and quiet in a painting. Once I get the action in, I need to put some stops in too. I don’t want just wild anarchy. Maybe it’s because life wavers between turmoil and the quiet that comes between tumultuous incidents. I suppose I have a fondness for Japanese art because of how these two elements are handled.

W: We haven’t talked about that.

M: No, we haven’t. I always have been drawn to Japanese paintings. I love their majestic, agitated colorful art and I love their quiet Zen-like art, too.

W: Also, the relationship there is with action.

M: Oh, yes. Did I mention the Gutai Group This group started in the mid 50’s and is still in existence. They showed at the Venice Biennale in 2009. When I happened upon their art, I was pleased to see a similarity to my own. It gave credence to what I was doing. I have become very pleased and excited.

W: To have a show, you mean?

M: To be painting! It is great to have a show, too.

W: How does it feel to have a show?

M: The responsibility of a solo show can cause some anguish. I was feeling it one day as I was driving on the GW Parkway to my studio, wondering why I created all this pressure for myself. Then I realized I am just a tiny speck on a road on this planet, a part of one of many universes and in a moment in time in all of eternity and I am worried about an art show? Perspective really helps.

W: That is a great breakthrough. I know that feeling.

M: We can make ourselves crazy over silly things. You see what the Gutai Group does? They can be totally wild and they can be very, very disciplined. You have the two ends of the spectrum.

Looking at these paintings reminds me to paint any way I want. Everything is OK.

W: How about Louise Nevelson? Do you like her work?

M: Oh, yes, strong.

W: Yes, strong woman.

M: Strong woman, strong art.

W: Interesting woman.

M: To create all those fabulous shapes in black. And white. She was so controlled.

W: Absolutely. She was in charge of everything that she did and in charge of everything that came out of that, too. She was a real control freak.

M: It shows, doesn’t it?

W: She spent most of her life talking about how she wasn’t getting the credit she deserved, compared to the men, even after she had made it big.

M: Think how strong she had to be at the time she was a sculptor. Joan Mitchell was another wonderful artist of that era who felt the pressures of trying to be noticed in what was, predominantly, a man’s world.

W: It really is just a matter of who makes the decisions about who gets to be in the museum.

M: One has to get over it. Not expecting fame gives freedom. What matters is learning and improving.

W: One of the things that we didn’t get a chance to talk about is the question of scale, the size of the canvas. Most of the things that I have seen you do don’t go beyond the three foot barrier. You have to move in a different way when you are painting canvas that is four feet, or beyond. You have to plot out the way you move through the painting in a different way. Are you going there? Do you want to go there?

M: True. I’m planning on doing a series of larger works and realize that I have to find a way to use larger instruments to move the paint if I want to keep the same look as I have now. It’s an adventure.

W: It sure is. I look forward to seeing something big.

M: I have stapled a long canvas to the wall and gessoed it. I’ll see what comes of it.

W: I think you need some exercise.

M: You mean before I do the painting?

W: No, I mean exercise in doing the painting. It is the same thing. That is part of what I have been saying. Just how you use your body to paint is more important than people ever think. You use your whole body just like when you dance.

M: Yes, that is a very good analogy. You are creating images on a surface with paint but it is your whole body movement that energizes it.

W: So, the dance that you do, if you will, in a space that is less than three feet by three feet is a different dance than if you are working with something that is four feet by six, or nine by twelve, or what the truly huge art that was done by action painters turned out to be. That is one of the questions that I didn’t want to leave unanswered. I wanted to know how you were thinking about pushing out further beyond the boundaries of those two foot, three foot limits.

M: Well, I have brooms ready that I am going to use for brushes, containers that I am going to pour paint into.

W: You are still going to work on the wall though? You haven’t decided to work on the floor, like Jackson Pollock?

M: I’ve thought about it. I guess I could do both. I will just close my door, turn on the music and see what happens. Aren’t I lucky?

W: Yes, indeed.