Riad Miah. Factor Mural (After Fibonacci) Installation. 2014. Installation view at Simon Gallery.
In Fall of 2014, Eileen Jeng, archivist at Sperone Westwater and independent curator, sat down with artist, Riad Miah. In this interview, Miah discusses his process as a painter, growing up in Trinidad and New York, and art as a means toward self discovery. (Edited and produced by Jason Stopa.)
Eileen Jeng: Your studio looks a lot different – emptier – since I was last here. A lot of works are now in the concurrent shows at Flinn Gallery in Greenwich, CT and Simon Gallery in Morristown, NJ. Tell me about these recent works (from 2012 to 2014) and your process.
Riad Miah: The works started as experimentation, and as the experimentation grew and developed, I started to find a visual language to put things together. I chose a square [canvas] because this format felt to be a static shape and not have a reference to landscape or the figure even though the square in the context of art history references a period of minimalism. On a personal level, I didn’t really have any affiliation with the square. The underlying concentric circle drawing was usually laid out from the start. I felt it needed to have a greater presence and be a way to help inform the later layers as the painting developed. Through the process of painting, I can pull in certain adjectives from previous bodies of work. I feel like what I’m doing through my process is creating small phrases, and I’m constantly trying to put phrases or words – adjectives – together to create a visual sentence, a logic.
EJ: Are these circles inspired by anything in particular, or are they created because of their geometric relationships with squares?
RM: It’s two fold. One, it’s based on the formal relation, but then also I like the idea they’re reminiscent of mandalas. They also have a spiritual, symbolic connotation. In some ways, I try to stay away from using words like spiritual or transcendence – they’re like these tropes that go along with painting and making art, but I sort of feel like when I’m working in the studio that there’s something methodical about the process, that one could lose themselves. Maybe I have some kind of understanding of the mandala and how it’s supposed to function, but I just don’t like to say it. On one level the use of the circular motif is based out of a logical formal approach for making the work, while on the other hand I am interested in the metaphoric implications of the shape. In its simplest of definitions: a circle is a closed curve that divides the plane into two distinct regions, an interior and an exterior. These paintings, it’s mark making properties, the use of color, is a personification of the interior self as I attempt to channel the influences of the exterior world, from the mundane to the sensational, from art history to a personal story. Each of these works is a circle that divides two planes: the physical and the felt.
Riad Miah. PD IV No. 6 (Automorph). 2014. Oil on canvas over panel. 48″ x 48″.
EJ: Does that relate to your background and being from Trinidad? What about the vibrant colors in your works?
RM: I wouldn’t say that it’s a direct relation. I would say one of my interests in looking at paintings is always the idea that there’s a curiosity. I usually like a work if it makes me question how it was made. It doesn’t have to be painting – it could be any type of artwork. But, the ambiguity of knowing and suggesting how something is made serves as a starting or entry point. That idea is somewhere linked to my personal voice as a immigrant person born in one country of ethnicity, educated, grew up in New York City — one can tell looking at me, I’m an ethnic person probably from the East Coast, maybe from New York, but there’s something oddly unfamiliar at the same time. I don’t really quite fit in, I have an odd accent, a mix of a New York Brooklynite, and something of a Caribbean twang. I would say the only thing about that idea,– an identity – is something that I think about a lot in terms of how I make the work. The attributes to my identity is not specific just in the way the overall aspect of surface in the paintings are attainable in understanding it is painting, but there is an uncertainty of how it might have been made.
Color is an attribute that I would say points in a direction that speaks about a specific ethnicity or class. The colors I’m naturally drawn to are high key and vibrant. It’s not so much that I think they are connected to an East Indian or West Indian aesthetic, but the quality and color of light that I like are closer related to my personal history and sense of identity – something that I can latch onto as an immigrant and remember. When I was growing up my family relative who had a pink sofa, and they would cover it in shiny plastic. There was a real tackiness to it, and, I guess, in some ways, I try to find those little attributes to my work, those attributes to memory and the recollection in my process.
EJ: And that relates to glossiness and vibrancy of your work?
RM: Part of the reason I like the surfaces to be so glossy is because the gloss is seductive and new, but then at the same time it sits right on the fence of looking gaudy and tacky. So, I like the balance, and the overall image has this biological serious tone to it, but then at the same time, it can kind of be tacky and sort of gaudy looking, and sort of looks like something that “my kid would paint”.
EJ: Do you have a specific color in mind when you start painting?
RM: Even though color plays a huge role in the work, the actual color isn’t something that I am aware of, it is something I am looking for. I’m also looking for either movement in the piece in relationship to color or just the overall movement in the work. Those things start to define themselves as I come close where I may stop working on a piece.
EJ: In these paintings in your studio, you’ve created many layers through a meticulous process. How many are in these works here? I know they vary.
RM: Well, so these three pieces… The turquoise painting probably has sixty layers. The one in the middle has about nine. Then, the pink one on the right probably has somewhere between 15 to 20 layers.
EJ: And this pink one was created over a few years?
RM: This pink piece I started it in late fall 2012. I had it in an exhibition and I knew it wasn’t finished, but I felt satisfied enough with it. I was working on another painting, and I realized that the color I just discovered would actually work better for the piece. That’s how the work opened itself back up, and once I laid down this color, it makes a suggestion of where I could take it. That pink started to become very reminiscent of Indian culture, as aesthetic, something I had seen. One of the places I used to go when I was growing up was a restaurant on East 6th Street. It had plastic flowers and roses on the ceiling, and there was a shiny vinyl tablecloth, and as a child I guess I thought this aesthetic was beautiful. So, when I ended up with this particular color, I thought it reminded me of that place, and then I felt my way through it and got to a point when I thought this is what it wanted to become.
Riad Miah. PD III Factor No. 9. 2012-2014. Oil on canvas over panel. 12″ x 12″.
EJ: There are other paintings that end up being a different color than what you started off with. It’s an intuitive process, but how does it transform through those stages?
RM: Some of it is based out of a logic that I created for myself, which is the way I currently work. I’ll start off with a grey palette and then as the layers overlap, they’ll start to shift toward warmer or cooler colors. Those warmer or cooler colors, I’ll identify based on knowing what my palette is and knowing the range of what I can do with color. Usually, if I shift the painting from a red to a black or a red to blue, it has to do with an uncomfortable feeling I need to have with the work. Other times, it just has to do with searching for a color that might be reminiscent of something that I’ve seen somewhere or a certain type of light that I’m trying to capture.
EJ: The resulting works are serendipitous. Even though it’s a methodical process, some parts looks like they formed organically.
RM: I try to keep as loose and casual for myself because, in truth, as I’m actually making the paintings, I really just want to have fun. I’ll add color combinations that are just horrific to throw the painting off track. One artist I studied with, Peter Halley, there’s a period of his work when he would combine colors that would just not seem to work. I think there’s some of that leftover from my education. I try to do the same in my work and then I have to take responsibility for something that’s a mess and then try to reshape it into something else – clean it up. So, there’s a bit of control and release that I would is at the heart of my work.
EJ: You’ve mentioned that some of your works have art historical references. For instance, the painting at the Flynn Gallery is inspired by an Ingres painting. How do you go about translating that onto the canvas?
RM: It has to be a work that I am attracted to. So once I identify that, I’ll go through the process of identifying either a section that I’m drawn to, or if it’s the overall image, I’ll break down the composition in terms of the grid structure or line structure, and then that would act as a foundation for the drawing process and the beginning of the painting. Then once I start, it’s a process of looking at the work or remembering what the work looks like and seeing how or if I can come up with a likeness of the overall color and palette of the referenced painting.
EJ: These recent works are very different from your earlier works, such as the Fauna series and other drawings. At what point did you start creating these more abstract paintings?
RM: Around 2001, I was making representational works that were very much coming out of photography. I had belief in the process, and I would find a subject and have a need to say something about it. I would discover and develop a process that would allow me to see what I wanted to do about a particular type of image and make 8, 9, 10 pieces. Then, I would always get to the point where I exhausted either the subject matter or the working process, and I would start over and search for another subject matter and process. As I continued to make various bodies of work, I felt as though I was hitting a dead end every time and then I became tired of that. That process itself wasn’t open ended enough. Going from the idea to execution, I didn’t feel like there were areas of that I could tap into and open the possibilities. While I was starting and then stopping various bodies of work what ultimately began happening was that I became interested in the physicality of paint and what I could do it and with color and its properties. I became less interested in a depicted the subject matter and the materiality became the subject. So I decided to eliminate the image and focus on what would happen if I put one color on top of another. From there, a vocabulary started to grow. I started to add adjectives and nouns, and all of sudden I’m involved in creating a sentence and then that sentence grew and then even though I was not aware of what it may be a story was being told or unfolding.
EJ: Right, the visual language you mentioned earlier. Do your teaching experiences have an influence on your work as well? What you’ve seen, what you’re teaching, and what your students are making?
RM: I think one of the most important things about teaching is the attribute of sharing. When I’m teaching I’m providing information and slices of history that are important to me and then showing very specifically which components are important. Getting students to be excited about those things actually ends up making me questioning my own place within that history, or it makes me question the importance of it to my own process. In some ways, the part of teaching that’s important is really about sharing, but it’s also reflection for my own self, my own place in a long history of art making.
EJ: And how do you see your work progressing from this point forward?
RM: Well, I think that’s the exciting thing about the work. I don’t know where I’m going to go with it. And I think that’s what gets me to the studio. I feel like I’m involved in a process of discovery. And I’m always excited to see what I don’t know. Every time I’m in the studio producing something, I get excited when I come across something that I haven’t seen, that I’ve haven’t done. I could use that as an analogy for life. One of the reasons I like living in NYC is that you never have to do the same thing twice. The city keeps you pretty active. One artist that I’m a huge of is Jake Berthot. He went through a change in his work. He went from making these abstract paintings and sometime in the 90s, he started making these landscape paintings. He said it eloquently that when he was making these abstract paintings, he was an artist working in the city. He moved to the country and became a landscape painter. I guess the work that I make is an urban reference and until I leave the city I don’t know what else I may be making
EJ: Are there other artists who influence you work?
RM: Yeah artists that I think about that I draw… When I’m in the studio, and I don’t know I know that I’m working on something and I can’t figure out where I want to go to next, I’ll flip through an art history book. It’s usually a range of people from Terry Winters to Ross Bleckner and then more recently I would say Fred Tomaselli. But then I also like the working process of Janine Antoni in that there is something very poetic with the construction of her work. The metaphor that identified during the process is beautiful. And that’s something that’s I’m very attracted to.