Amongst the Clouds


New York-based mixed media artist Tamar Halpern opened her new show “My Voice at the Pace of Drifting Clouds” last night at On Stellar Rays, a gallery on the Lower East Side. For her first solo show at the gallery, Halpern, whose work focuses primarily on the meeting point between photography and other mediums, looks to painting and printmaking, constructing ink-jet prints on linen that come together in collages of layers. Working with what her immediate environment provides—an enhanced photograph of her cat, a shot of a floral textile dotted with painted embellishments, an image of a broken unidentifiable object overlaid with washes of color—she visually renders the conceptual idea of free association.

While the presented works are haunting and strange in their black-and-white-meets-technicolor compositions, for Halpern, they are more about the creation of visually appealing images than conveying a message or story. Rather than seeking a seed of meaning, the viewer should allow Halpern’s images to ignite freethinking and feeling. As Halpern says, “It’s about openness. It’s about instinct.” Despite the artist’s explanation, it’s hard to ignore the fact that her works seem full of peculiarity and are emotionally charged, perhaps wherein the magic lies.

Prior to the opening of “My Voice at the Pace of Drifting Clouds,” we spoke with Halpern at her studio in Brooklyn.

NOOR BRARA: I love the title of the show, “My Voice at the Pace of Drifting Clouds.” What’s the story behind that?

TAMAR HALPERN: It comes from a song by a Japanese noise musician who makes experimental, avant-garde music. It’s often improvisational; you could say it’s kind of in the same movement as no wave. What’s great about the music is that it’s very broad, there are a lot of highs and lows, and it’s kind of all encompassing. It’s about expression and freedom; it mixes strings and technology. It pushes dissonance by combining everything, and really challenges the definition of music—what is music and what can be music? It’s not trying to entertain the listeners; it’s trying to start a conversation between them instead. That’s the same sentiment I want to convey in my show. It’s this idea of art being intuitive instead of conceptual, how it makes you feel opposed to trying to convey a message.

BRARA: The show focuses on photography, but then you also incorporate painting on linen into the final prints. Can you describe your process?

HALPERN: I come from a photography background. I used to work for a traditional photographer and I would spend hours in the darkroom building multiple developers, testing paper, and things like that, but I don’t really fit in with that kind of photography. So I started creating compositions using photographs on the computer. I wanted to create photography in the same way that the musicians I told you about make their music and not repeat anything that had already been done; I wanted to find my own way. My way of working straddles both photography and painting, and because painting is both an additive and subtractive process, I take it step by step. It’s a collage of layers between mediums, yet the images are photographic as whole. The way I use color, certain layers have more focus as though it were a photograph, the information blends and gets confusing, but again, it’s about the feeling not really the purpose.

The process is usually the same for each work: I’ll print a layer, then make a collage over it, then take a photo of it and load the photo on the computer. I can delete part of the image and then layer only a certain portion over the print. It’s a very malleable process and it goes back and forth. I’m responding to what I’m seeing. There’s no fixed initial idea or purpose.

BRARA: I know that you take a lot from your immediate environment for a lot of your subjects—you have a close-up of your cat, a print of what looks like a bedspread or sheet. What about these things speaks to you?

HALPERN: It’s not necessarily that they speak to me. It’s just information to work with. It’s like having a readymade. There’s no meaning in the photograph that I take, and I’m not trying to send a message, really. I’m just trying to make paintings. I see what’s before me as material to use, not with any associated meaning. It’s before me; it’s something to use.

BRARA: So, as the audience, how should we consider the work?

HALPERN: Just keep in mind that it’s open to interpretation. Keep in mind the materiality, and that it’s about a free process of association. The works aren’t trying to be paintings or photographs, but rather just a combination of things I look at and what I like. It’s that sensibility of improvisation and it’s purely based on feeling. There’s no one way to look at them.

BRARA: So it’s about the visceral response?

HALPERN: Yeah, exactly.

BRARA: In one of your works, Is Not What It Was, you have a black-and-white readymade photo of kitchen tiles overlaid with green and yellow color squares. Color patches over a black-and-white photograph is a style you maintain throughout the works, but for this one you also include the letters of a URL and a serial code. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

HALPERN: It’s actually a photograph of my TV. You know how on a digital TV you have to plug in the serial code to make it work? I liked how it looked on my screen, so I took a photo of it and layered it onto the print. I’ve done that with a lot of other pieces—if I like the way something looks on my computer as I’m working, like the grid of Photoshop, I’ll add it into the image to show scale, to show movement. The different layers come from what I’m photographing, but then also from when I’m actually working on the screen itself.

BRARA: I think it’s clear that the process by which you make things is part of the final product.

HALPERN: Yeah definitely. It’s all in-the-moment-thinking at the same time, though. A lot of people have told me that it seems like there’s a lot going on.

BRARA: It looks that way, but I think it’s interesting that it’s an assemblage of your instincts. Would you say other artists have significantly impacted your work?

HALPERN: Oh yeah—Albert Oehlen, Dieter Roth, Christopher Wool. I really like [Daidō] Moriyama and the Japanese Provoke photographers. Jeff Elrod, I feel like he and I play in the same swimming pool in a weird way. I love Larry Clark.

BRARA: And the music playing in your studio right now, is that the kind of music you were talking about?

HALPERN: Yeah. It’s really emotional and kind of all over the place, but it’s not muddy or chaotic. The musicians are listening to each other and playing off of one another, going in the same general direction. It’s like the image of the cat in one of my works—it’s representational, but it’s still abstract. There are traces of meaning and then not. That’s art, right?