Published on February 12th, 2013 | by Elizabeth Coleman0
Interview with Amy Casey
Amy Casey paints complex cities on the verge of collapse or destruction. Little box houses on stilts are stacked precariously up on top of each other, or hang by nets and rope above an empty void. Thin roads wind around the unstable worlds like ribbon. The paintings are devoid of inhabitants, as if some apocalyptic disaster had ravaged the land. In some works, tentacle-like pink and blue vines weave themselves through the towns, hinting at nature’s unstoppable forces.
Casey describes her work as “landscapes without the land.” The industrial landscape of steel mills and urban city life in Cleveland is reflected in her paintings, though what really makes her work stand apart is that she has poignantly captured one of the domineering mindframes of modern times: uncertainty and unease about the future. Influenced by the barrage of natural disasters and economic crises in recent years, Casey’s work delicately addresses the growing sense of fragility, instability and destitution throughout the nation.
By painting these instable worlds, though, Casey manages to exert some control over precarious situations. She tries to adhere to the physical laws of nature to give some semblance of order to her constructs. The need for community support is highlighted in her paintings, as the cities hang together with tenuous threads. Unravel one, and the whole scene would fall into disaster.
Art critic Douglas Max Utter has called her one of the “most accomplished painters of her generation currently showing anywhere in the US.”
Casey earned her BFA in painting from the Cleveland Institute of Art, and has shown work nationally with solo shows in Cleveland, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. She has an upcoming solo show this spring with Zg Gallery in Chicago and Foley Gallery in New York City in the fall. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Juxtapoz, Hi Fructose, and Harper’s Magazine.
Art Animal was thrilled that Casey took time from her busy schedule to discuss her work.
AA: Tell me a little bit about how your art has progressed over time.
AC: When I started studying painting at 18, I was obsessed with painting old ladies. I can follow a line of logical progression from those old lady paintings to my work today. I sort of chew on ideas until they change into something else. Some painting subjects have more bites than others. Over the past few years my work has been getting tighter and tighter; I am waiting for a moment when a whole painting just implodes, and it looks like a speck of paint in the middle of the paper.
AA: What is your personal philosophy? How does this play into your art?
AC: I tend to follow the path of least resistance. Not necessarily the least difficult path, but there seems to be a natural flow in my life and I go with it. I try not to busy myself thinking about what other people are doing or things I can’t do or didn’t receive. I just take what I do have and do the best that I can with it. I think my work follows a similar flow; I sort of stand back and watch how the narrative unfolds. Also, I feel that my work blossomed when I accepted that certain things I had at different points perceived as flaws in my work (such as the flatness of my work, the fact I am not very painterly, my strong draw towards narratives, my tendency towards local color) are just part of me as a painter, and that is fine.
AA: There definitely is a sense of local color in your work. I read about how you describe yourself as a “Rust Belt Romantic.” How has your background influenced your work? Do you feel you romanticize urban landscapes?
AC: I will never live that one down! I said that during a conversation with a filmmaker about how I am inspired by the sort of post-industrial landscape we have going on in the Midwest. I live close to a steel mill, and I used to include those and other things of an industrial nature in my work, although I have gotten away from that a bit.
The rust belt romantic description was more of a personal reflection and not necessarily something I try hard to achieve in my work. Because I draw on the landscape around me, of course, local landscape will shape my work. However, I do pick and choose what I include and leave out. I don’t feel my landscapes are a true representation of local architecture, which is way more varied than my paintings. Whether they are romantic or dark in the end, I will let the viewer feel what they will. I don’t want to lead people. I find it revealing when people tell me which way the paintings make them feel.
AA: Perhaps it’s revealing about me, then, that I find some of your paintings dark, other works have more surreal or Dr. Seuss-like tones.
AC: I think like with Dr. Seuss, you have to be grounded in something. His books always had a kind of lesson in them, didn’t they? I try to not go completely off the rails and to keep to at least a few physical laws and things that will help my communities. I try to factor in gravity, and cause and effect. It doesn’t always work, though, and it always annoys me when I realize something in one of my paintings truly doesn’t make any sense at all. For instance, I won’t paint cities that are truly floating because I think, what the heck, are they filled with helium? Are the people in the houses talking in squeaky helium voices? Things have to be held up by something. Of course, I take a lot of liberties with the idea of “making sense.” By the by, I still read Oh the Places You Go sometimes. It can be a great comfort when the Hakken-Kraks howl.
AA: In your work, the cities you imagine almost become animate creatures. Can you talk more about this?
AC: This is totally right on. I see the buildings as sort of characters. Sometimes people ask me why they are so empty, and while I understand where they are coming from, I don’t find them empty at all. I used to include little creatures in the paintings, but at some point, I felt more empathy with the buildings and it felt like the characters were just there out of habit. The scale was getting larger so the characters got smaller and smaller and I didn’t want to make my own version of Where’s Waldo — finding teeny characters in a city — and eventually I left them behind. I love the idea of a living city.
AA: Your work seems to focus on the hidden or tenuous connections between things. Do you feel people take this for granted?
AC: I think it’s natural to ignore these things until connections snap and you see what you’ve been missing. Like neighbors. We are aware of our neighbors, especially when they are noisy or annoying. We see them every day. But I think it’s easy to take them for granted until you go to a place where people have moved out or been foreclosed in droves, and the community and civilization of the place seems to be broken.
AA: Do you feel more unease in today’s world, or is it all relative?
AC: I think it is all relative, and times have always been turbulent (even when there weren’t any humans!) You can sample world history and find nearly endless terrible scenarios that existed that must have been worse than what we deal with today. But I think we are obviously way more aware of things now, and it’s very human to try to see trends or patterns in events.
AA: Some of your work features vines coming up through the rubble. Do you think Mother Nature will always win in the end?
AC: Well, yes, the planet will long outlive humans. It existed billions of years before us. I hate that it has to be a war. My feelings constantly change about it. I’d say in work from 2005-2008 I was much more thinking about crisis and conflict, and lately I want to embrace nature as part of the city again.
AA: What do you think is humanity’s greatest challenge?
AC: We are our own worst enemies. If anything is going to take us down, it will be us.