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"I want to interrogate the discomfort I have around being a painter" : in conversation with M.E. Sparks
Monday, July 8, 2024 | Lindsay Inglis

M.E. Sparks in studio, portrait by Ally Gonzalo

 

M.E. Sparks is an artist and educator based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Treaty 1 Territory. Born in Kenora, Ontario, Sparks completed her MFA from Emily Carr University and her BFA from NSCAD University. She has received numerous awards and grants for her work from the Canada Council for the Arts and the BC Arts Council, among others, has been involved in several international residency programs, and has exhibited internationally. 

Sparks’s practice is deeply rooted in the history of painting. As an art historian, I was eager to speak to her about her influences and how the past continues to inform the present. My interests as a historian are primarily rooted around the birth of modernism, just as Spark’s often takes inspiration from modernism. In preparation for this conversation, I read through exhibition texts, interviews, and watched old panels where Sparks spoke about her work. Throughout this research, one thing in particular stood out to me: she was very well-spoken and could clearly articulate the thought process behind her work as well as her perspectives on the world around her. With this in mind and our overlapping interests, I was both nervous and excited to speak with her. 

Primarily a painter, Sparks has begun cutting her canvases, dissecting her primary historical influences, and returning to the root of the medium as a fabric. Her Hiatus exhibition at The Ou Gallery in Duncan, BC (September 28 – October 5, 2019), featured these works suspended from the ceiling, subverting the typical gallery viewing experience by forcing the viewer to maneuver around her paintings. These works are composed of cut out pieces of canvas hung on a dowel, overlapping, and obstructing a clear view of each individual piece. Her recent exhibition at the Alternator Gallery in Kelowna, BC, and a Rag in the Other (October 28 – December 10, 2022), combined these hanging works with another new direction in Sparks’ practice: hand-coded generative poetry. Sparks’s digitized Dada-esque poetry borrows titles from artworks of the period and combines them to create an unexpected, ever-changing narrative. The resulting phrases create a commentary on the use of the female body, not just in twentieth century artworks, but throughout all art history. 

She frequently draws inspiration from historical work, specifically that of Balthus (1908-2001). Sparks is interested using her work to integrate these histories, cutting them apart and freeing the female figure from its constraints. When considering dominant narratives of art history, she is interested in what written history left out and works to create a dialogue in her work that brings this absence to the surface.   

 

 

I have always been interested in images that challenge language, our ability to name, to know, and to understand. With [my] recent work, that resistance to legibility was also a resistance to being able to possess an image...I'm more curious in defining it as simply at the edge of recognition.

 

 

Many of your previous paintings have alluded to the body or have shown a fragment of the body, specifically the female body, and I’ve heard you refer to your hanging works as “awkward bodily obstacles to navigate around.” I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that relationship and how the allusion to the body has developed throughout your practice?

This comes up more and more with my recent work, whereas before I never thought of myself as a figure painter. I have never actively pursued that form of representation, so I find it interesting that unintentionally the body has come into my work. Initially, a lot of my paintings were always taking shapes and forms from around the body, and then, inevitably, with the body’s absence, a representation formed through negative space. It was a kind of unintentional stumbling into working figuratively but I've tried to embrace that. Now, in some of the recent painted cutouts that you're referencing, I have pulled specifically from the shape of the body itself and not just from around it. For that body of work, I was specifically looking at historical paintings of the hands of young women and girls, and looking at what the hands are holding, be it flowers, fruit, or rags. It was an interesting way to explore this gendered notion of what a hand holds. So that's how the body has come into the recent painted cutouts, but I really stumbled into working with the body kind of accidentally.

Could you tell me about the moment when you first started to cut your paintings? Was it an emotional act or one of curiosity? How has your relationship to the female body in art altered through this new direction in your practice? 

When I first started cutting up painted canvas, it was actually more practicality than curiosity or some kind of emotional act. I was travelling between residencies and couldn’t lug big stretcher frames with me, so I just decided to start cutting up the paintings. This gave them a new life, and I started exploring this new iteration of the paintings, how they could move off the frame. They were really messy and bad experiments at the start, but it was very freeing to realize I didn't need a frame to work with these shapes and forms. Then, when I came back from the residencies, I had a ton of massive canvases from grad school that were really weighing me down. I suppose there was more of an emotional drive there to figure out how to release this baggage. At the time as well, I wasn’t able to afford the large swaths of canvas I wanted to work with, so recycling made sense. So yeah, practical reasons and, I suppose, some underlying emotional reasons as well. 

Then, as I started to think more about the particular historical paintings I'm quoting from – the importance of the body in those paintings and why I wanted to pull the bodies out of those paintings – the cutting became then more intentional. There is more of a symbolic act of cutting because it literally felt like I was cutting out these images from a history, from an archive. Not only was I doing that in a pictorial space, but I felt like I was doing that in a physical way, so the cutting definitely felt like this additional act of removal or culling from history. Cutting also began to take on more narrative qualities; the act of cutting through an image does imply a little bit of violence: it’s a different gesture. I was thinking, “What does it mean to cut out these bodies?” I saw it more of an act of freeing them from a storyline and bringing them into my own space, like physically bringing them into my own bodily space. 

While the cutting may have started in a very rudimentary and simple way – you know, “What can I fit in my suitcase?” – it did become much more symbolic and metaphorical in my work. The cutting then brings in so many ideas of what a painting can be and how it can expand in space through the cut edge. 

I really like that metaphor you just used of freeing the women from the history, that’s really lovely.

I was also thinking a lot about what else is this reminding me of, like the books with paper dolls I had as a kid. That act of popping the paper doll out from the book page, it was kind of emotional; you were removing them from this little world that they were contained in. So, I've been thinking back to memories and what this feeling of cutting is evoking for me. It does actually feel quite powerful to cut something out and to have it be this autonomous form that no longer belongs to a context, or a place, or history. 

Looking at history seems to be a big part of your practice. Since you work with canvas in a malleable form, I was wondering if you think history is viewed in a malleable enough light? Could you talk about this relation in your work?

I think any artist who's working with a medium that is very much burdened by its history is always dealing with this question. That’s one reason why I’m always excited to kind of dig into this, because I think it's a huge part of why I'm painting. When we are taught the dominant narratives of art history, specifically within the Western canon, it’s a very Eurocentric, settler colonial history. Thinking back as a student, I was told that this is the one story, that this is what painting is and always has been. Obviously, it's problematic and creates very exclusionary narratives. I've been interested in learning how to think about and teach painting, no longer as that fixed static textbook, but as something that we can go back into, pull a part (apart), and piece back together in a slightly different way. For my students, I often use the example of Hilma af Klint – the discovery of her work allowed us to rewrite the history of abstraction. What a great example of proving how malleable and changeable history is! So, I’ve been trying to re-learn and think about how painting is this fluid, soft, liquid medium. I'm trying to think about its history in the same way and to not get stuck in one way of thinking about painting.

 

 


Portrait of a Young Girl, 2022. Courtesy of the artist.

 


a Rag in the Other, 2022, Courtesy of the artist.

 

Given your interest in history and the problematic history of painting, could you discuss what drew you to painting as a medium, or if you ever considered transitioning to work with a different medium? 

That’s an interesting question for any artist, or writer, or musician, having to think back to the moment that made me think this was the tool for me or the medium for me. I think painting is a visual language like any other, like photography or performance, and it's a language that I feel quite drawn to. I talk a lot about this love–hate relationship I have with painting. Early on, I felt very seduced by it as a medium, the tools, the smells, and the toxicity, but then of course I’ve felt repelled by all the baggage it contained. As I mentioned, there are exclusionary histories that are male dominated and often contain a lot of violence, and so I'm interested in how you negotiate that love–hate relationship. 

I'm also drawn to painting because – I’m not sure if I should say this but – I don't know if I'm very good at it. So, I have this drive to figure out how to work with a medium that is very difficult to work with. I don’t know if other painters might say the same thing, perhaps not. If I'm walking around, I look at the textures around me, such as the snow on the sidewalk, and I think – that would be so hard to paint, I don't think I could ever successfully paint that, but I'm going to try. There’s this desire to solve a problem with the medium, and it's going to be difficult and that intrigues me.

Can I turn it back to you and ask about writing? As I say, painting is a visual language, and writing is just another medium, another tool. Are you intrigued by the difficulty of writing, or does that not resonate?

That does resonate with me, definitely. I have the same feeling as you – I worry I'm not a very good writer. I'm someone who needs to know everything about a subject before I feel like I can write about it or have an opinion, so, getting started, I often worry I won’t have anything new to contribute. But I always wanted to be a writer growing up; it’s always been one of my favorite things to do, so I guess it just always stayed with me.

I think it’s such a good question to ask yourself, and also students. We're all trying to communicate something, and we're picking up different tools to communicate with; why this tool? 

You’ve mentioned in a previous interview that you have a lineage of sewers in your family, and that while you’re not a quilter, you feel as though you’re connecting to that lineage through using the canvas as a fabric. Has this connection influenced your practice in the past or is integrating craft and “women’s work” into your practice something you’re interested in?

Integrating craft and women’s work has not been at the top of my agenda. It hasn't been something that’s been part of my practice, but again, like the way I stumbled into the representation of the body, I kind of stumbled into this world of textile by realizing that I had to acknowledge the canvas as a piece of fabric. Especially if I was using it in its loose, draped, unstretched state. It felt very foreign and unfamiliar to manipulate in that state, so I talked with my mom a lot during the early stages of cutting out the canvas – talking to her about raw edges, and do I hem this or not? While I’m not a sewer, I do look for ways to think about the tools and mediums we use in my family. For the women in my family, that medium has been fabric. So, I started to think about subtly acknowledging the canvas as a fabric. I don't think it's very overt; in recent work I've been referencing fabric patterns, specifically looking at my grandmother’s fabrics from the 50s and pairing them with historical paintings that I'm quoting from of the same time period. Combining the representation of those fabric patterns with the representation of bodies from those paintings creates a mingling and coalescing in a way, all the while the canvas is also performing as this kind of soft fabric of its own.

I'm not sure if I’ll push that further, but I think it's enough right now for me to feel like I'm working with this substrate as a textile. To textile artists, they would think I'm working with the substrate as a painting, but for me it feels unnatural in an exciting way that I’m dealing with this as a fabric and that I’m listening to its material behavior. 

I’ve heard you talk about your interest in images that “hover at the edge of recognition” and the vulnerability that comes with not knowing. Is this something you’ve always been interested in, or is there something about creating art at this moment in time that makes this notion particularly interesting? 

I have always been interested in images that challenge language, that challenge our ability to name, to know, and to understand. With this recent work, that resistance to legibility was also a resistance to being able to possess an image. The moment we can name and classify, we are also kind of taking ownership of that thing, and so to paint these bodies in a way where their identity was obscured – there's this resistance to possessing that form. The idea of hovering at the edge of recognition is also my own way of thinking about abstraction. I am quite firmly planted in representation. That's how I think about my painting and how I talk about my ideas. While some people may come at the work thinking about it as an abstract image, I'm more curious in defining it as simply at the edge of recognition. It's not abstraction for me, so that's another reason that I described my work in that way to acknowledge that things aren't totally clear or legible, but they are for me rooted in representation. 

Years ago, I was making a series of very dark paintings, a lot of dark-on-dark values, really low saturation and hues, and that was another way to get at this idea of an image resisting being fully seen. I was starting to bring pieces of the body into that work, and I was thinking about that idea of a painting’s only job is to be seen, to be looked at and scrutinized, and I was thinking about my own body in that way, of women's bodies and this resistance to being looked at. So, starting with those dark paintings from a few years ago, this idea has carried through and shows up in different ways – in the way that I block an image, or obscure image, or darken an image. It's all with that same intention of resisting consumption in a sense.

With the overlapping canvas in your hanging pieces, and the notion that there’s more to the piece hiding out of sight, I’ve heard you connect this to the resistance of easily consumable images that are becoming prominent in the age of Instagram and TikTok. With this desire for instant gratification, how do you think the contemporary art world has been affected? Do you think gallery spaces are at risk of becoming a place for ‘shallow looking’ as you’ve described it? 

I have a desire for painting to resist that kind of immediate gratification and that easy looking. I think that's what all paintings do in a way. It's why I'm interested in painting – which goes back to that question of why do I work with this medium, this antiquated medium. I think it is important for gallery spaces to remain very special and protected spaces that are slow, quiet pockets, isolated from the outside world. Spaces where we can go and be faced with objects that we have to spend time with, to figure out or reconcile. Of course, that's becoming harder and harder to do. I’ve struggled to spend time with art these days when I'm walking through a museum or gallery, but I think those spaces are so important to protect. We see this move towards online exhibition spaces and virtual exhibitions, and while there are many new things that can occur in those spaces, I think we do have to protect the physical and the bodily act of engaging with objects. 

As a writer, I possibly use words as a crutch to understand art. Generally I need to read about a work and the context around it to feel comfortable in my understanding. What drove you to explore untethering language from your images? Could you talk about the resistance of putting words to your work, and what that’s enabled in your practice? 

I don't know if I have a resistance to putting any words to my work. I'm actually really curious how we can't help ourselves, we will always bring language to images – as we look at a picture or an object, we think through language. We're always looking to identify, so what I’m resisting is legibility or classification, which might resist specific language, but it opens up the possibility for new language. One of my favorite things is working with kids, showing them my work and asking them: “What do you see? What is this an image of?” I love the language that emerges when they can't quite name what they see, but they do sense a familiarity, and they do find a way to connect words to the image. So, I'm actually really interested in language, and I want it to be part of the work, but it's more about this idea of skewing or complicating the language and not making it so straightforward.

 


M.E. Sparks in studio, portrait by Ally Gonzalo

 


M.E. Sparks in studio, portrait by Ally Gonzalo

 

 

Could you talk a little about bringing technology into your practice to produce altered language? In in_your_painting from, 2022, you used a hand-coded computer program and titles from Balthus’ paintings to create different phrases such as “_in your painting I saw myself _with a light in one hand _and a woman in the other.” I was wondering if you’ve been able to learn from coded language or what excites you about this technology? 

I first started thinking about how I could use this generative poetry to create content for paintings. So, I created a program that would tell me what the next image would be in a painting, and my intention was to then feed the program a photo of the painting and have it tell me what it saw, creating this generative cyclical loop. I stopped at the point where the program was telling me what to make a painting of, because I wasn't really interested in its prompts. For me, it was simply a way of combining language with images in unexpected ways. 

That’s how the programming experiment started. I then realized the language was its own thing; it could be a medium of its own that didn't need to always be fed back into the paintings. This programming experiment ended up being a browser-based piece called in_your_painting. It's more of a standalone piece that, for me, mirrors my thought process with painting or mirrors my way of thinking about confusion or abstraction. The text piece is an equal reflection of that, so as the viewer is led through this narrative, it’s almost as if they’re led through a space where they don’t maybe belong in. They’re picking up someone else’s objects and searching through someone’s personal things, and that’s exactly how I am feeling as I work with other people’s paintings, like I am opening up their drawers and going through their belongings. So, in_your_painting is meant to mirror my painting process. The way the language is randomly generated and sometimes works and sometimes doesn't work, or is sometimes quite odd, reflects the way that I'm thinking about legibility in the paintings. 

What drew you to Balthus specifically? Or is it more the time period in general? 

This is a question that for so long I hoped wouldn’t be brought up. Some of my peers would say: “Are you sure you want to be known as the Balthus painter?” and I would think, “Oh my gosh, no I don’t want to be the Balthus painter!” I can't deny though that I still feel like his work is able to generate this endless supply of forms and images for me. In part, this is because his work used so many repeated motifs over many decades. There are many iterations of the same figure over and over again, so they feel easily extractable. In general, yes, that time period of the early/mid-twentieth century does appeal to me. A flattened space is starting to occur within painting, and there’s the move towards abstraction. I’m really interested in the flat spaces and the flattened forms in Balthus’ work – which brings us back to that love–hate relationship to it all. Balthus’s paintings are extremely problematic. As I mentioned before, the history of painting within the Western canon is filled with a lot of violence towards women's bodies and Balthus’s work is a prime example of that; so, I’ve always been hesitant to dig into the question of “Why his work?” For me, it sums up my own position being a painter: I want to interrogate the discomfort I have around being a painter, and this is definitely a way to get uncomfortable. His work is also so strange and so odd: I feel excited by the shapes within it, and then again, I feel repelled by the narratives, the history, and the artist himself. Years later I'm still working through what the difference is between subversion and preservation – I’m preserving these images and forms, but I'm also trying to find my way towards subversion. I talk about freeing the body from those spaces and reinventing the narrative and things like that, but I think it’s a fine line, and I want to acknowledge how tricky and difficult that is. 

It's an interesting dichotomy to always be thinking about – that hadn’t occurred to me.

Yeah, I think with any medium, as an artist you can let that haunt you, or you can move past those histories and find new forms, language, and possibilities. I am interested in staying stuck with the past a little bit for now, but every artist has their own relationship with their medium’s history.

Your relationship with Balthus reminds me of a book I really want to read called Monsters. It’s about whether or not you can separate the artwork from the artist.

Is that by Claire Dederer? 

I’m not sure.

She wrote a really good essay called “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” The article examines how we're having to negotiate that in all realms of culture – looking at films by Woody Allen, looking at authors, looking at artists, and how the narrative changes every day, and we find ourselves having to look back in time and decide how to deal with these problematic people and their legacies. It’s a good essay. 

My next question relates back to history as well as the introduction to technology in your practice, I was wondering: How do you think the digital space has or will change the trajectory of the history of painting?

It's interesting to think about. I think like any medium, painting responds to the development of technology. If we think about photography in the history of painting, painting forever changed after the camera was invented. Painting took on a new role; it no longer needed to faithfully document the world because the camera could do that. I think of AI as the new digital technology to consider right now. I think the medium of painting will respond but perhaps become even more firmly rooted in its materiality and in its slowness as a way to counter new technology and defend itself, in a way. I'm interested in painters who incorporate those conversations or those tools into their practice, but I'm also really interested in how painting might dig in its heels a little bit. We'll have to figure out: What does painting provide us that screen-based work doesn't? 

Do you think there will be a change?

Not necessarily. Not that this is recent by any means, but with the introduction of the Internet, now you can be very easily aware of everything from all around the world and I think that affects the context. But no, I don’t have an answer to that question. 

I really agree with that idea that there’s an ability to collapse references all together in a more immediate way. I think about that a lot, how with the click of a button I can collapse the past with the present, the historical with the personal. All these things can come together so easily because of digital tools and technology. It's a good question for students, I think, because they’re really having to navigate painting and technology in a different way than I did when I was a student. They're having to navigate these two worlds and this idea of: Does your painting need to communicate equally through the screen as it does in person? What does it mean for the success of your work if you make work that isn't able to be documented? These are questions I ask students a lot: for example, what does it mean to make a painting that can't be photographed? I think those are all really important things to think about as artists as we do have to occupy digital spaces.

 


Right: Snaked, 2022, oil on canvas, 67"x70";  Left: Cradle (No.2) 2022, oil on cut canvas, approximately 30"x36"x24". Courtesy of the artist.

 

 

You recently moved to Winnipeg, Treaty One Territory, to work as an instructor at the University of Manitoba’s School of Art, and have previously taught at Emily Carr and NSCAD. How has your role as an educator informed your work? 

I have gained so much from teaching. I find it really fuels my work in the studio and the questions that students have to grapple with, like I just mentioned, that I didn't necessarily have to grapple with, I carry those with me into the studio. I’m thinking about the viability of the role that painting might play today because students are insisting on finding answers to those questions, and I don't blame them. So, I think I do have a different awareness or criticality around what I'm doing because of how often I'm in dialogue with students about these things. I also feel this immense responsibility to students, to not present closed, static, or exclusionary history but to present it to them as this narrative that can be dissected. To present a history that can be subverted and that lets them think about how they can insert their own voice into a history that has possibly excluded them. It all comes back into my work and my work comes back into the classroom; I see it as very interconnected. I think that's why I feel like teaching is so generative for me – it fuels my work. 

Have you always loved teaching from the start? 

I have, yeah. I first started as a graduate student, and it just felt so exciting and important to realize that the questions I had alone in my studio were the same questions other people had in the classroom. Together we could build this dialogue and acknowledge one another and acknowledge our shared experiences or challenges. I really love teaching; I am always so grateful to my students, and it's really meaningful to me to be able to work with students. 

My last question is, do you have any book recommendations? Either art-related or otherwise. 

I’ve been revisiting Wet, a compilation of Mira Schor’s essays and writings from the 90s. I really love Mira Schor’s writing because she's a painter, and I enjoy reading artists’ writing about their practice. Mira Schor is this fantastic writer and a radical feminist painter, and so her book Wet is filled with ideas that are still really exciting to me. Right now, I'm also reading Zadie Smith's new book The Fraud. It's historical fiction, which surprised me. I’m thinking about how historical fiction is an interesting way of digging into history and finding the holes and gaps and cracks, things to fill. It lets you view the historical narrative in a different way or from a different angle. I’m still reading it, but I recommend it. 


The above conversation was conducted by Lindsay Inglis, an arts writer, researcher, and curator from Winnipeg, Treaty One Territory, she is currently based in Milan, Italy. 

Special thanks to M.E. Sparks for participating and sharing genrously in the above conversation. 

Cover image: We can only hint at this with words, Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art, North Vancouver BC, 2022, Rachel Topham Photography. Left: Cowgirl, 2022, oil on cut canvas, 49"x68"x2".