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Color Theory: An Interview with Madeleine Reyna


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An interview with Madeleine Reyna, a young non-objective painter living and working in Chicago.

Madeleine Reyna is a young painter living, working, and exhibiting in Chicago. Last Fall, I had the pleasure of visiting her studio in Wicker Park. Entering Reyna’s workspace was a bit like stepping into a birthday party that had just exploded. Expressive, brightly colored works covered the walls, and lent the space a wild energy. Impressed by her creative choice of media and her exploratory approach to painting, I sat down with Reyna to learn more.

Miles Johnson: Tell me a bit about yourself and your artwork.

Madeleine Reyna: I’m 23 yrs old, and I’m from South Carolina. I got my B.A. at College of Charleston in Charleston, SC in 2009. I have been living and working here since. If I had to briefly write about my work I would describe it as representations of my specific visual taste, using poured paint, intense coloration, and glossy textures.

Madeleine Reyna, Double Bag The Sack, 2010. Acrylic, enamel, gouache, velvet, pleather, vinyl, cellophane, latex balloons, ribbon, and faux fur on vinyl on rubber.

MJ: Could you talk a bit about your process when creating works?

MR: Everything I make starts with a color combination I want to present. From there I try to piece together interesting textures and shapes. I have little to no idea what the piece will look like when it’s finished. This is partly because the only planning I have consists of random sentences that describe future pieces, for example “rolled white vinyl in pink plywood box with gold glitter”, and also because I can’t fully control poured paint, specifically the way it’s going to dry. Coming into the studio the next day and seeing how something dried is a really intense moment. Trash it or love it? Miss the way it was when it was first poured or like it better now? I feel like I’m gambling with everything I make.

I almost always make paintings in one session; I have a short attention span and refuse to fuss with something. I rarely spend over an hour on the actual painting part of a piece. Putting together the hardware, for instance wrapping some stretcher bars in ribbon, or carving a foam surface may take hours, but once I start pouring I am close to the end. And if it’s not turning out right away, I scrap it. I realized this a few weeks ago and am kind of fascinated with it and what it means, but because I work this way I love everything I make. Good or bad, I’m still trying to make sense of that.

MJ: How does living in Chicago influence your creative practice?

MR: I came to Chicago last year because I got into SAIC. It has had the biggest impact on my work, introducing me to ideas, paintings, and people I never would have otherwise knew existed. Coming from South Carolina, and central Texas before that, I had little to no quality museum or art interaction. I would say as far as influences go, I have completely fallen for the Chicago Imagists. It’s fresh in my mind because I just saw his show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, but Jim Nutt’s work is a huge inspiration to me. I got to work with him last year, which is something that could only have happened in Chicago. I’m so grateful to be here.

Madeleine Reyna, Junk Junior, 2010. Acrylic, enamel, and pleather on vinyl on foam.

MJ: How have people responded to your work until this moment? Are you ever shocked by this response? How do you handle these responses?

MR: I’ve gotten super mixed reviews, but that’s what you want, right? I would say what “shocks” me the most is the amount of the audience that tries to locate images within the poured shapes. Like “Oh, obviously that’s a man and his son fishing,” or “That’s a self portrait right?” I’m not blaming the audience because half of the time I have no idea what’s going on either, but the fact that people’s brains automatically work to visualize something they already know is something I find myself wanting to work against. I guess that’s where titling comes in for me. I hope it subverts the initial reaction to identify the image. So, if the painting looks like a giant chicken, I name it Beefteeth in the hopes that it will detract, and make someone appreciate the shapes, colors, and textures as they are.

MJ: Where would you like to see yourself and your work in the next 5 years?

MR: I want my MFA within 5 years, and I want to not work in retail. I want my work to be achieving the same thing, but differently. I also really want to be able to afford gallons and gallons of enamel.

MJ: Do you remember the first piece of work you ever created in your career? How does it compare to the most recent?

MR: Because I’m unsure about the career aspect of my painting life, I’ll answer this question in terms of the first thing I made in grad school which was an oil portrait on Mylar. It just seems so out of touch with what I was really wanting to make.  I was still in the “representational is best because it showcases a talent” mode. My most recent piece is poured enamel on a four-inch thick slab of foam, which is inspired by the colors in a scene from Disney’s Three Caballeros. I am much happier with my new work.

MJ: What’s next?

MR: I’ve got a piece in the Repertoire show at Zolla Lieberman Gallery opening February 18th (through April 30th). I’m starting a series of paintings where the colors are taken from animated films that I feel determined my visual language, the first being the Three Caballeros piece.

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