Willa Wasserman

in conversation with Wes Hardin on her solo exhibition Mirror xx,xxx,x

November 30, 2023
Photographs by Roeg Cohen

Willa Wasserman by Roeg Cohen, 2023

Wes Hardin: To be honest, I can’t help but feel like I’m in this pretty privileged position. I think I’ve seen most all of these works evolve and progress from their very initial forms, and I’ve lived with them day-in and day-out, and cycled through so many different interpretations of the titular “X” pose while observing viewers’ perspectives, interpretations, reactions, etc. For you, do you feel like there’s any kind of organic entry-point built into Mirror xx,xxx,x?

Willa Wasserman: You know, it's funny with a show like this. For me, knowing where to start feels like a knot.

WH: That's such a good word–knot.

WW: What I do know is that the show started with this pose, and I feel like it was finished by the material choice.

WH: Then let's start with the pose. 

In her notes for the exhibition, Kay Gabriel writes, “though the paintings aren’t self-portraits, [Wasserman’s] the sitter, rendering herself in a posture that looks either like an X or an animal rushing towards the viewer…the shape might stand for abstraction, in an algebraic way, or negation.” I’ve also described the pose as resembling “a cross, an X, a kiss, a chromosome, a bow, or the universal symbol of refusal––‘no’.” On the one hand, there’s a sense of myopia, this insistence––the gaze, the pose, the confrontation, the echo, again and again––and, on the other, an openness and plurality. It’s like this glyph that you write over and over, relentlessly, maybe a little maniacally, which resists translation. At least at first. I guess I’m interested in the genealogy of the X pose. How does this gesture become the start for you?

WW: Well, I think in part, the X pose comes out of that kind of aimless studio time, when there are no models and I’m by myself. And I'm bored and playing around, drawing myself in the mirror. And I’ll make really unnatural, or extreme arrangements with my body, and in this case I realized I was making a big letter ‘X.’ Laying around in my studio and making drawings of myself is something that I think I do when I'm at my wit's end. And then, occasionally, as if it’s an experiment, something interesting will happen. 

This was actually a pose I made a few years ago, and I've returned to it now. It felt interesting to me then, because it looked like the letter X, like the sign for “no” and the X chromosome––the “girl” chromosome [laughs]. And as a trans person, I'm aware of the bottomless interest in my body, and, at the same time, the disinterest. People don't want to see it, and they also can't look away. So, in a way, it had to do with making myself available to the gaze, and then also refusing it. A way of denying it, and also welcoming it.

WH: There’s a work, or rather a pair of works, that I think point toward this dual condition in a way that’s unique among the artworks in the show. Making the shape of the letter x or 'no' with my body reflected in this northwest facing mirror version three (2023) and version five (2023) are the only iterations of the X pose for which you repeat the same vantage. They’re also oriented in space in this kind of diametrically opposed way. version five, which is installed on the far wall of the gallery, features a ghostly, kind of pallid figure that forms the pose, and version three, which shows a darker, grislier figure in the same formation, actually hangs from the ceiling toward the front of the gallery. The back of version three faces version five, and creates this favrile, distorted mirror effect that picks up reflected pieces of version five, as well as parts of the viewer. I was wondering if you could walk me through some of the thoughts that underly these works and their relationship to one another?

WW: Well, I've wanted to show the back of a painting for a while, and I felt like the pose and the theme of the show gave me an excuse to do that. I want to make paintings where there's no one way of looking at them––from the side, from the front, maybe even from the back. Paintings have this kind of authority where they seem to subliminally dictate where people stand in the room to look at them. I suppose I want to chip away at some of that control that I sense all paintings to have. If you go to a museum you'll notice that people usually stand very close up and look at the details, or else they stand about one and a half lengths of the height of painting away to look at it in its entirety. Maybe I’m crazy for thinking that it’s weird? I think I hate to be in charge. I’d rather play against the authority of the image, and cherish the afterimages.

WH: Now I’m thinking of artists for whom posing and authority become these privileged discursive touchstones in their work. Someone like Nancy Spero comes to mind. Did you ever see her Black Paintings?

WW: Holy shit they’re so good. I’m obsessed with her palette. 

WH: Maybe this is a stretch, but I feel like we’d be remiss not to talk about posing in a larger sense. In her notes, Gabriel locates aspects of your work, the pose especially, in a very contemporary art-making zeitgeist: “In 2023, trans women’s self-portraiture is God. People subjected to unrelenting public scrutiny wrest control of the view; they angle, light and dress themselves...” 

Zooming even further out, I can’t help but think about posing, and also refusal, in a generational or a collective sense. It maybe goes without saying that the broad strokes of the current world order––digital life, nationalism, capitalism, etc.––have shaped discourse in these immense, irretreivable ways. Ways that are so apparent and, for the most part, so lost on us. And we regularly observe in discourse a kind of “flattening”––of polemics, of identities, of other people especially, and of ourselves through various metabolizations. I think you and I are maybe familiar with how much airtime takes like these get. And understandably so, right? Like, nobody has sex anymore, or so economists endlessly tell us. The Boomers sucked up all the air. The environment is in shambles. (From Gabriel, “Wasserman’s palette, turbid as a Goya, would have matched the haze of obliterated Canadian forest that descended on New York in early June, and turned the sun into a dull suggestion”). The political and cultural condition is one of blanket acclimatization to catastrophe. And so posing, or posturing, flattening, abnegating, the reduction of oneself to gesture, or to vector, quite literally disappearing oneself, however you want to call it, is this really reactionary thing. We orient ourselves with minimal drag against a cultural current that’s untenable. Bending instead of breaking, which is undoubtedly defensive but, in the same breath, carries a certain stake, a self-assertion. I’m wondering if there’s a diagnosis here for you, or something that wants to be diagnosed? What is a pose?

WW: First off, this feels very relevant to the work. I think a pose is just the experience of being looked at, or a part of that experience. Anything you are in, or that you do, is a pose so long as there's a viewer, and it's kind of an inevitable outcome of being seen as a ‘self.’ But I do think that in these paintings, not creating them as self-portraits was a deliberate choice. I have to think the matter of “pose” falls somewhere between these terms of whether one does the setting up, or is instead being set up by that article, composition, etc. Yeah, what is a pose?

WH: Totally. I mean, I always think of it as having to do with that strange and also unavoidable space between subject and object, right? 

WW: Fuck, that's it. 

WH: But that's exactly what you said, really, because it’s this interstice that only really precipitates from the condition of being observed.

WW: And that's why I wanted to do the show as if the figure, who’s maintaining this same, constant pose, turns her head to look at herself each time. It's a bit on the nose, but it was true to how all of the works were conceived. Each painting has a sketch, or several. That's why the paintings are numbered in an obnoxious, or I guess a programmatic way.

WH: I don't think it’s obnoxious. I rebuke that [laughs]. Though I do think it’s quite direct. You said “on the nose.” I love that phrase. Do you not think there's a utility sometimes in being on the nose?

WW: I actually think it's nice to be on the nose, and ultimately I really wanted to make a show that was very direct, to the point that it’s been a challenge for me. I'm really glad about this show. I wanted it to be stark and memorable, at the very least for myself and my development as an artist. It feels important to me that I was able to do this in a single room, to make a room that's really just one idea, one painting. It feels very, I don’t know…I love Rothko. I love Francis Bacon. These are ridiculous people to mention.

WH: Love.

WW: And then I feel as though it’s by the material choices that this project was finished, that these ideas were consolidated. I started painting on metal about eight years ago, and then I stopped for a while to focus on different types of metalpoint, silverpoint. Silverpoint is just little traces of metal deposited on canvas or linen, and those metals oxidize in the air. As it oxidizes, silver becomes more sepia, while bronze and other copper alloys become greener. The incorporation of aspects of change like these has become really central to the way I think about painting and my aspirations for it. And in this regard, making all of Mirror xx,xxx,x on bronze feels really special because bronze is both available and resistant to oxidation in the same way that the pose is available to the gaze and resistant to it. The paintings are beautiful, but not so much. And the metal will change, but not really because bronze is just an alloy of copper that was actually invented to increase its stability. So that's why I say that it starts with the pose and it ends with the material. Anywhere there’s oil paint doesn't change, because linseed oil protects the metal against oxidization. Anywhere my brush lands, anywhere I touch won’t change, but everything else is up for grabs.

WH: Why the silver patina on some of the paintings? I’m thinking of version one (2023) and version ten (2023) especially, with these big washes and arabesques of silver-gray. Why, I suppose, beyond beauty?

WW: Well, for the silvering process you actually have to do it in the dark.

WH: Like a photograph? Like silver gelatin?

WW: Or at least in a dim room, you can do it with dim light and it has to be underwater.

WH: So like an actual photo darkroom, with the vats of chemicals and stuff?

WW: Literally. Actually for that reason the silvering is really fascinating to me. And its relationship with photography, its relationship to privacy, or lack thereof. I took a photography class at Hunter College when I was an undergrad, and I loved the fucking darkroom. I was in love with the enlarger, and the fucking dodging and burning, all that shit.

WH: And talk about a discipline that really problematizes the whole subject-object hangup…

WW: Jeez, for sure. And then the silvering ties back into the silverpoint works, of course. I think I really like having a whole number of materials that I return to, and that interrelate.

WH: Is there anything that you learned while making the show, or that feels special in this regard?

WW: Absolutely. I learned that with some paintings, there is no such thing as overworking them. And, at the same time, you have to be careful around these types of subjects because they're emotionally quite difficult. Maybe this doesn't make any sense outside my studio, but I do feel like I learned the value and the challenge of full figure painting. I feel like I never want to do another painting of myself as a figure. I only want to do self portraits, and I only want to do portraits of my friends and paintings of my dreams. I learned that with some paintings, you can work on them forever and they don't necessarily change.

WH: How does that feel? To make paintings that don’t change?

WW: Like a black hole. [Both laugh] We’ve talked about this.

WH: Yeah. We've gotten to this place a few different times.

WW: You know, making paintings and a show like this demanded an exceptional kind of determination and focus. I feel like I tend toward a way of working that’s very open-ended. The making of this show felt quite unlike my ‘natural’ way. And so it’s actually for that reason that I’m really fucking proud of the show in a way that I haven’t been of others. It says something that I care about. It raises important questions for me about the self, self-object, observation, the stability and instability of the subject, with a kind of seriousness and directness.

WH: How else did your process have to change, or denature, in order to make room for the show? What had to sublimate? 

WW: It required energy. And more time. And also just knowing that I was about to get facial feminization surgery once the show opened, and then spending so much time looking at my own face. It was just an interesting, kind of irreplicable confrontation.

Making these full figures that aren’t myself but that require myself, it's so different from making a self portrait because a self portrait is very introspective. Or it can be very introspective. It is what it looks to be. Anytime you make one, it's like fucking Rembrandt. Here I am. I'm 32. Here I am. I'm 24. Here I am. I'm 56. Here I am. And unlike that, this show felt like painting myself through so many sheets of glass that the mystery about myself is never quite dispelled. It's weird. It's like I used to have this idea with painting that I wanted to make paintings where I would know as little about them as the viewer, which is actually impossible. I will always know more about the paintings than the viewer. I'll always spend more time with them. But I wanted to make paintings that were disassembled, and, in a way, this show felt like the opposite, like putting paintings together. This felt like assembling. And that's what's different. This felt like assembling, but just some reflection of a reflection of a reflection. It feels very processed. And so that's why I say with some types of image-making, with some paintings, no matter how much you do, they'll never be done. They don't change.

WH: Or there's a kind of infinite regression?

WW: Exactly. What did I learn? I learned so much from these paintings. I learned physical things about painting on bronze. It's so interesting. It's so much different than copper. It's so much different than linen. Soft and hard. I can't even describe it. And I learned that the next works I make are going to have so much air in them, and so many people and so much space. Unless I get started following this other idea, then they’ll be all fucked up. There’s another black hole I’ve got. I have this skeleton in my studio. It’s all tied up with twine.

WH: Like shibari?

WW: That's it.

WH: [Laughs] What else do you want to paint next?

WW: I know that I don't want to make paintings of myself as a figure anymore, or at least not right now. Though I do still want my next paintings to feel confrontational. There are certain symbols that I think are still valuable, that still have currency. Death is one of them. Death is of our time. And you know, I think the trick is making paintings that people want to look at, and that also make them think about death.  

WH: That's a really powerful spot on the Venn diagram.

WW: To make people think about not life. And I also want to make paintings that are faster.

WH: To bring out something a bit more improvisational?

WW: Definitely. More improvisational, more airy. I always want to make paintings that have broad internal tensions. That have many points of address. I think that when I paint I'm an impressionist. I'm an impressionist because my grandma had a coffee table book about the Impressionists, and I looked at it when I was a little kid or whatever, and ever since.

WH: You've never been able to let it go.

WW: And so I just want to *touch, touch, touch, touch, touch, touch, touch, touch, touch, touch*, all over the painting. That's so fun.

WH: Put your fingerprint in as many places as you possibly can.

WW: Exactly. It’s funny, I feel like painters are always accidentally making propaganda.

WH: Jeez. And how much it is that in these times, the image carries the day, right? In any which direction.

WW: Yeah, I think that art can be put to lots of purposes. Ultimately, for me, it's a really life affirming process that is also really mysterious. Images are hard to control. Very hard. So that's why I almost want to make things that are, I don't know… I want to go in the other direction, to make things that are even less pointed and more obscure, but that’s not invulnerable to propaganda either. That's a kind of currency as well. So I’m not sure…