Excerpts from an interview in "The Idler", 2001

I'm from Indianapolis, Indiana, but I went to high school in a small, stodgy place called  Greenfield, a town of about 10,000 where there was only one high school and everybody knew everybody else.  When you grow up in a place like that, you get bored and restless.  So I was a rebel, and my greatest desire at that time was to be a hip, cutting edge artist. 
     Indiana is pretty conservative and culturally deprived.  If you have any imagination, you become rebellious.  You also have a hunger for culture, so you look to the big cities.   I come from a lower middle class background, but, luckily, my parents were intelligent.  They read, they sketched.  My mother was a housewife, but she had an interest in art.  She hung cheap reproductions of Picasso and Henri Rousseau on the walls.  My father had a variety of jobs--milkman, furniture salesman.  He was also an amateur musician and played the drums in jazz bands.  So they both had an interest in the arts that was passed on to me.  They had a desire to make art that I was able to fulfill. 
     I went to Indiana University in Bloomington.  It was incredibly cheap, and, as luck would have it, they had a good art department. That's where I met my husband, he was in the music school.  It was the late 60's, a time when people didn't want to teach you anything.  So I can’t say I learned a lot in my studio classes.  The art history classes were better, so I took a lot of art history. 

Later I applied to the Art Institute of Chicago. They had a large faculty and tolerated a range of styles. They weren't a predominantly figurative department, but they had a few figurative students and faculty there.  It was great having access to the museum, and the students were more sophisticated, the faculty more interesting.

     When I started college in 1968, there was photorealism.  It was the hip manifestation of figurative art.  There was Chuck Close and Audrey Flack, and the artists that showed at OK Harris--Ralph Goings, Malcolm Morley, Robert Bechtle.  I wanted to do photorealism.  I was also interested in Pop Art, which was still big.  Then something happened. When I started painting more, I realized that photorealism and pop just weren't that interesting.  I grew more interested in learning how the great painters made their paintings.

    Ted Halkin was the most influential teacher at the Art Institute. He was helpful because he told me that I didn't know what I was doing.  Graduate school is always a trial by fire. You get negative criticism for the first time, and the challenge is whether you can take it or not. He just came up to me one day while I was painting and said that I didn't know what I was doing.  I was making big paintings of chairs, with stuff like tvs and umbrellas on them.  They were flatly painted. And after he said that, I realized that he was right; I didn't know what I was doing.  I studied with him, because he criticized me.  I wanted to know what I was doing. I didn't want to just intuitively concoct some sort of image.
     There is a big difference between a painting that is an image and a painting that has plastic form.  I didn't  think in those terms at the time, but now I can look back and see that that’s what the problem was.  The paintings had an image, but they were flat and had very little formal tension, no drama.  The color was decorative rather than evocative.  But the seeds of something were there.  I wanted to get better, so I started studying traditional painting and paid less attention to the latest flavor from New York. 
I wanted to find out why I liked the painters that I liked: Manet, Chardin, Vermeer, Zurburan. Now I know why, but it took a long time. They are great painters because they can manipulate form so that their images have meaning.  I also liked the sensibilities of these painters.  I liked the way the paintings felt, their poetry.  These artists were masters of the formal language of painting, and  they were poets, each had their own individual voice.
    

One of the biggest influences on me occurred after I left art school.  After I graduated I went to Skowhegan, an artists' colony in Maine.  There I met other figurative painters who were interested in art the way I was.  I spent about a month there and made friends with people that I'm still close to.  Before that I felt  isolated.  So as a result of that experience, I decided that I should move to the East coast.

     We moved east, and I worked full time.  I was a secretary, at Cooper Union, in the Humanities Department. I also worked at the School of Visual Arts as a secretary. I was used to being in school. Art schools have a more relaxed atmosphere than most businesses.  They didn't mind that I had an advanced degree.  They knew the score--recent MFAs have to take menial jobs. 

     At SVA I could take classes, so I took a class in writing criticism. Jean Fisher, a British critic, taught it.  She thought that I had potential, and introduced me to her editor at Art News. Writing art reviews was a real education. (I

still do it occasionally).  It got me into a lot of galleries, and I thought hard about a lot of different kinds of work. It also got my name out there.
     You go through periods when other things in life take

over. The biggest problem I had was finding time to make my  work. We lived in a complete dump for 10 years. My goal was to get more time in the studio. We weren't starving, but we were struggling.

     Because I went to school in the Midwest, I didn't know that many people.  The bulk of figurative art was being done on the coasts.  I wasn't part of the figurative circle in New York.  My work is different from theirs.  I have slightly different values and goals.  Many of those people are very pedantic and rule-oriented.  They like to pat themselves on the back for doing traditional work.  They think that it's enough just to carry on the grand traditions and don't really care about what the work actually means.  Their work tends to be dry and academic.  Not everyone's, of course. 
    

In the late 80s there was a brief interest in genre paintings, and trendy galleries began to show landscape painting, post-modern landscape painting, of course.  So I thought, "Why not still life painting as well?"  So a friend of mine and I organized some group shows. The Rosa Esman Gallery did a still life show that I was in, but I didn't sell anything. 

     For a period of time I made Vanitas paintings--works with skulls and crosses in them, memento mori.  I discovered that paintings with about death didn't sell.   People who buy figurative paintings don't want subject-matter that is provocative.  They want something that's easy on the eye and the intellect.  I did the Vanitas paintings when the AIDS epidemic was in full throttle.  I had a friend who died of AIDS about that time.  I had an intellectual and emotional attraction to Vanitas painting.  . I haven't totally abandoned it.  I went from Vanitas to the Senses, then the 4 elements.  I thought about vices and virtues, but what I'm thinking about now is making a series of still life paintings based on the human body.  I'm going to do one on the digestive tract.  I do have problems with my digestive tract, so to a certain extent, they'll be based on my own health.
    

I'm different from other contemporary still life painters, because I'm interested in allegory, meaning and reference. My still life setups are very artificial and staged.  I don't go for the half-eaten orange on the breakfast table, the casual setup, or the delicate china cup next to a vase of flowers. I think paintings should have meaning that is challenging. The greatest painting is about human experience, and I think still life, even though its the most abstract of the figurative genres, the most resistant to interpretation, should also be about human experience. 

In Chicago they like Outsider Art.  I feel like an outsider here, so, I suppose, I got that from the Midwest. I always felt that painting had a moral aspect.  My work has a moral aspect, even though sometimes its ironic or black.  Perhaps that's Midwestern. I grew up in Indiana wanting to leave it as fast as I could. I don't mind being from the Midwest. There are things about Midwesterners that

I like--a matter-of-factness and a low tolerance for bullshit.   I don't know if those things are in the paintings or not.  After 20 years of living in NY, I still feel like an outsider.

Nancy Grimes lives in Astoria, New York with her spouse, William Grimes, and her three cats--Soda, Sweetzie and Smudge.  Her studio is in Long Island City, New York.  Currently she teaches painting at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

    

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