Interview with Paula Scher, 19.10.20
A few weeks ago, we were honoured to be in conversation with designer and artist Paula Scher, to discuss her inspirations behind the maps in her latest series of screenprints, and what it was like being in the printmaking studio. Read the interview in full below.
Sims Reed Gallery: How have things changed over lockdown?
Paula Scher: The thing that changed was the balance between remote life and normal life in New York, where I would be meeting with the team and clients; an exciting, busy life. Painting in the country is an opposite action and the two balance each other so it was very important for me to do both. Now I’m in my painting studio working all day it takes me so much longer because I have to operate all this equipment which I’ve never operated. It takes longer to do the things that would take half a day so on the one hand I can’t say it’s hurt the work but it’s hurt my private time. There was a real balance in my life where the painting could not exist without the design and the design could not exist without the painting…
SRG: We were curious about all the places you have travelled in the world and if you have been drawn to a particular one and why?
PS: My paintings aren’t about travel really. I love to come to Europe and I miss it desperately. We have an office in London; I miss seeing my partners in person, I miss being in London where I was at least three to four times a year. I miss going to Paris. I miss the international travel that I did as a speaker. […] I travel mainly through business and either for work or lecturing. I can’t say that the maps are driven by my travel; they’re much more driven by contemporary events. They really chronicle human behaviour and physicality of the world. They are mostly political the maps.
SRG: How do you choose what colour palette you are using for each map?
PS: Sometimes I have a pre-existing idea. I remember that I wanted to paint Africa in black and white, just simply because I felt it was a stark choice. It’s an interesting painting if you read it, because it was really about the conquering of a continent. You can read the name of cities that go deep, deep, deep into the middle of Africa and you can pick out the foreign derivation of who conquered the territory from the language of the place, which is really just a fascinating study. [It depends on what] I’m trying to say about that given area in a moment in time.
SRG: When you are moving from a source or factual map to the composition, what are you interested in exploring; what elements are you selecting from the original map?
PS: The maps are done in different groups and these prints [in the online exhibition] were [inspired] from a number of different shows. A recent show I did focused on the United States. This group of eight paintings included one, which I translated into print – USA Distances. The show was all distances and demographics and population studies and weather patterns and they were on different subjects as related to the US, but collectively it gave you a total picture of the US. There are so many errors in my paintings that are left because of the nature of the fact that it is not science, but that you can get a complete understanding of the United States by understanding the paintings. And some of them where – like the demographic paintings – predicted what happened to the US politically. You could see the break ups of ethnicities, where people fought, who lived in what states and then there were things that were really silly, like the real estate values for the whole of the United States! There were different paintings on different subject matters and they all tied together as an exhibit.
There was an exhibit before that was really about the structure of cities; of London, Rome and Berlin, and the prints have come from that series. They were from a group of different paintings that were in different shows so they had some different subject matter. But the point of those paintings is really looking at cities as these webs that are connected and define populations in specific ways.
I painted a map of Philadelphia for an installation at my alma mater, Tyler School of Art about six years ago and I had painted the road map of Philadelphia and had it blown up on giant pieces of paper and gave each section of the paper – they were about 2 x 3 feet. I gave each section of the paper to 150 students and they were given a section of that territory to paint in the words and they were told to go to Google Maps and find out what was there and make comments on it and paint it in. It’s an installation that you could walk into, a giant map painting and you realise that when people had to narrate their own territories it became incredibly personal. Their understanding of that area is only in the way they could paint it – the whole thing held together visually because the road signs were the thickest things and they were given thin brushes so they couldn’t make big letters – the density of it was amazing. We all do it, we all understand and have our own narrative about places.
SRG: How did you select the locations in this series?
PS: That was all based on personal connections. Places that we like, places that we felt affinities for. We picked Berlin because of the printer – Alexander Heinrici. The United States road maps were probably for me. There were different participants involved in choosing them. It was sort of everybody’s favourites; not about liking one painting more then another, but it really seemed to be about the place, and that the place was drawing different people in for different reasons. I am really fascinated by audience’s reactions to what they want to buy. They have an attachment to the places as much as the painting.
SRG: Turning to printmaking, Sims Reed Gallery specialises in printmaking, so I wanted to ask you how you got into it? Who introduced you to the idea of making screenprints?
PS: It was really my first gallery. They had an affinity for prints and we found that the paintings are really big. The original paintings the prints derived from are all enormous – like the painting of Africa was about 11 feet by 11 feet before it became a print. There were a lot of people who were interested in my paintings, like architects and other designers and editors and people who gravitated towards them because of the subject matter as much as the aesthetics. I call them Abstract Expressionist information! But the people who responded to them, I think, were in love with the notion of painted information and that a lot of those sorts of people were not art collectors and couldn’t really afford the paintings and they really wanted them, so we decided to make the map prints because they would be a more affordable way to do it… So people do purchase them who are not necessarily ‘art collectors’ and that changed the game. So it has a more central interest beyond someone who is collecting.
SRG: We were wondering whether you went straight to screenprinting and that you found it worked perfectly, or if you had experimented with other printmaking mediums like lithograph before coming to screenprinting?
PS: I did do some lithographs but they weren’t of the map paintings. It was with a master printer Erika Schneider – she’s now in Florida …and it was a series on when George Bush invaded Iraq and there was a narrative of getting into the Iraq War that were done as a series of handwritten lithographs that were very much in the style of my map paintings and they looked great, they were beautiful. Then when I was at the Stendhal Gallery they introduced me to Alex Heinrici who has printed all of my prints so far. He is a master printer; he is really amazing and his work is spectacular.
SRG: What was it like working with him in the studio? Do you find he finds new kinds of tricks for you or suggestions, or do you find it‘s very evenly collaborative?
PS: I would say it’s evenly collaborative. He showed me what would work, what couldn’t work but mostly we were working closely together.
SRG: We have one final question. We wanted to know what artists are currently inspiring you?
PS: There is a wonderful artist called José Parlá who I love. His work is great. I think that probably the usual suspects – and Louise Bourgeois. I love her work. I think she’s just amazing and I love her drawing – all of it. I have a friend who I went to school with who I admire tremendously named Laurie Simmons. We’ve been friends for years and her work is hilarious and quite brilliant. She really is so inspiring. I should mention a man… I would say all the usual suspects. I like contemporary art and I’m inspired by so many people and people whose work I couldn’t even imagine doing like James Turrell. They just blow my mind and it’s such a wonderful universe of people out there now to choose from. I’m fortunate because I can commute to the best art museum on the East coast of New York right now for Contemporary Art, MASS MoCA which has a phenomenal collection of everybody and new artists all the time and I’m totally inspired by it. Then on the West Coast when I go to LA I run into The Broad which is amazing, another incredible museum. I think that the amount of international inspiration that goes on, on a daily basis, in terms of what you can see in the United States in the last ten years is spectacular. Everything is everywhere and that is wonderful.
19th October 2020, New York