“I am never removed from this viewpoint,” Ariana Vaeth says about painting herself as a painter. She is acutely aware of her need to include images of herself in her paintings, what she describes as a “pungent place,” a constant reassurance of her identity and place as a Black woman painter. She possesses a keen consciousness of the role people play in her work; friends, companions, and lovers “lend themselves” to her for the creation of her mythologies of human interaction in dense, decorative, and exquisitely defined space.
Ariana is at the nearest end of the continuum of artists who have made their own lives and experiences the focal point of their visual expression. Just as Raphael relentlessly inserted himself into narratives of theological debate or imagined schools of philosophy, as Vermeer carefully recreated the jewel-box world he occupied in 17th century Holland, artists of the 19th century found that the world they inhabited and their particular role in that world were the stuff of imaginative resonance that audiences came to understand and treasure as commentary and documentation of their own lives and experiences. When the hierarchy of academic painting, which assigned the highest value to historical representation and the lowest to landscape painting, began to erode as a result of the relentless assault of realism and impressionism, artists found that the daily events of their lives were the undiscovered country of visual power and meaning.
Ariana paints the life she leads. Whether a hair-dyeing party in the bathtub surrounded by friends and participants, eating Chinese food while watching television, makeup sessions before a night out, or simply a pile of girlfriends sharing intimacy and friendship, she mines the everyday for the poetics of her milieu.
Ariana’s technique as an oil painter working at life-size scale in a direct impasto application of juicy pigment suspended in cold wax or alkyd medium that produces an insistent surface, one in which tactility is added to gesture, baroque postures, and the physical interaction that crowds the pictorial space with a demanding and essential life force. She conjures the ghosts of Bonnard, Vuillard, and especially Suzanne Valadon with her flattened, patterned, and polychromed surface. The patternmaking often seems to rush forward, advancing before the objects’ presences in her composition.
Ariana talks about creating rules for her pictures. Rules that include giving each figure their own narrative space so that the image can read like a play. She flattens the illusory space in order to ensure that every figure is approximately the same size, an idea that struck her when studying Persian miniatures and, most recently, playing with the notion of elongated pictorial space or depth to reduce her reliance on foreshortening.
Watching her paint, I was struck by how she holds her brush, often in gloves that might appear to impinge upon graceful mark making. The brush emerges between her middle and ring finger—a decision that, consciously or not, reduces her reliance on the small motor movements of her hand and fingers, and instead translating the larger gesture of her arm and body as she stands before her canvas. It can appear that she’s engaged in the same choreography of action that her subjects inhabit. She remains acutely aware of the meaning and physical intonation of her subjects.
Curiously, Ariana was initially attracted to the idea of becoming an artist when she viewed the work of Italian and Spanish Baroque and Mannerist artists. She was especially taken by the work of Bartolomé Murillo, a Spanish artist whose work included religious events and ordinary genre depictions of women and children caught in tenebristic lighting (dramatic light and dark) and interrupted in theatrical gestures. She also stated her intrigue with Mannerism, a painting style popularized after the heroic figures of Michelangelo, work done “in the manner of” or imitation of the manos, or hand, of Michelangelo in which the figure becomes elongated or attenuated for dramatic effect.
Common to all good artists, this influence is never explicitly felt in Ariana’s work. Rather, the sensibility of dramatic gesture and pose is exploited to deepen the emotional tensions or mood of a given picture. She arrests movement into exquisite moments of unconscious revelation. Her figures are less posed than caught in an instance of play, of pensive interaction, or of romantic intimacy and reflection.
Part of the startling exposure of her work is the fact that at the age of 26, Ariana has produced a pictorial voice that is at once intimate and revealing, a willingness to disclose the autobiography of her life. It’s urban. It’s complex. It’s fraught with the daily experience of being Black in a world where blackness can often be invisible. She inhabits this painted world with the details of ordinary existence and charm. She includes dogs and cats, rumpled bed clothes, and unwashed dishes. Her world is mostly that of interior spaces that somehow, no matter how compressed, never feel claustrophobic or limiting. Instead, they are filled with a promise of engagement and an invitation to imagine oneself as included in the drama.
Ariana is negotiating the fraught terrain of making a career and a life totally provided for by her artistic output. Since graduating from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, she has been awarded prestigious fellowships, including the New Studio Practice artist in residence at MIAD; the Mary L. Nohl fellowship for emerging artists; a recipient of the gener8tor grant for young artists in Milwaukee; selected among handful of artists for inclusion in the statewide Triennial at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art; and, most recently, did a residency and exhibition as the Al & Mickey Quinlan fellowship at the Miller Art Museum in Sturgeon Bay.
This latest experience has given her the opportunity to do more intensive work with live models, a direction she is currently following. Ariana recognizes the relentless effort it takes to sustain validation and presence in the art world. As she so aptly observed, “There is no pity party for artists.”
Chris Gargan is a landscape artist and freelance writer working from his farm southwest of Verona. You can find his work at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton. He is seen here with his dog Tycho Brahe.
“I must mention that in regards to my community, I have been given tangible and unquantifiable space provided by Black-led spaces. I am in great gratitude for the gift of time at these two centers. Studio space is precious. I have to credit the Sherman Phoenix for having me as their resident artist for two years. I am now an independent creator housed at Ayzha Fine Arts Gallery & Boutique located at The Avenue, Downtown Milwaukee.”
- Ariana Vaeth