In Conversation With Fran Shalom

January 17, 2017
Fran Shalom's "Moxie" oil on canvas using primary and neutral colors. This painting has a graffiti-like design that consists of light turquoise, persian red, and cream colors that is centered in a cooler gray background.
Detail of "Moxie"

Every week, we'll be sitting down with one of our gallery artists to discuss their work, process, inspiration, and stories. This week we're speaking with Fran Shalom. 




Fran Shalom’s abstract paintings exist on the brink of recognition. Her playful forms flirt with nameable objects, shifting out of reality just as the viewer thinks they have begun to sense hints of representation. Yet her pieces defy being reduced to a metaphor. Her pop sensibility is represented in bold, electric color choices, and there is a push-pull between foreground and background, so that you’re never quite sure if the figures are breaking through or receding within the space. Fight the urge to make sense of her forms, no matter how tempting, and the piece reveals itself in the calm. Shalom talked with us from her studio in Jersey City in anticipation of her forthcoming show, "Turtles All the Way Down,"  about her transition from photography to painting, how her Zen Buddhist practice affects her process, and embracing a sense of humor in her work. 


What are your earliest memories related to art? 


I remember visiting museums in NYC with my parents and looking through heavy coffee table art books that we had at home on Picasso and Van Gogh and Rembrandt.  When I was twelve, they took me to see a show of De Kooning's women series at MOMA. I was   blown away by the paintings' audacity, color, and energy. I loved how he had collaged a red mouth from a magazine to the canvas that functioned as a pivotal point from which everything exploded. ( I wasn't concerned with feminism at that point in my life).


How did your visual vocabulary develop? What was the path like toward your current body of work?


I actually started out as a photographer. I look back and sometimes wonder whether I didn't have the confidence to pursue painting at that time. I used to go to Central Park and photograph people sitting on park benches and make up stories about their lives and who they were with. I moved to Berkeley to go to school and was amazed at all the old 50's styled cars that people drove. They were very sculptural, shiny and round, bulbous forms, and big grills. I photographed details of them for a while and then became infatuated with construction sites and the wonderful sculptural elements that I found there. I would hone in on the object ignoring the surrounding disorder. My photographs then became painterly; in the darkroom I would apply the emulsion on with a wide paintbrush. Eventually I got tired of walking around with my camera looking for things to photograph.


Fran Shalom's studio, photo courtesy of the artist


Over a period of a couple of years, I slowly made my way into my studio and gave myself permission to begin to paint. I started out painting abstracted heads, which came after watching my son draw basic figures as a young child. I was curious how elemental I could go without loosing the sense of head. I would include an ear or mouth. Eventually, the imagery became more ambiguous, organic shapes coupled with clean hard edges.  I strive for a balance of abstraction with a hint of figuration, formal with a pop sensibility. I like when it hovers between the two. 


What are your influences and inspirations?


I have many influences from art history from Giotto, Fra Angelico, the intense color in Byzantine and medieval painting, Van Gogh, Matisse, early and middle Diebenkorn, De Kooning,and of course Guston. More contemporary painters include Murray, Nozkowski, Gary Stephan, Arlene Shechet. I am also inspired by just walking around New York City or my neighborhood in Jersey City, and of course all the wonderful painter friends I know whose work constantly inspire me.


What is your process like?


I have a long Zen Buddhist practice and it informs my work, especially in how I begin a painting. There is a Buddhist expression called "beginner's mind" which speaks to approaching anything with an open, uninformed, non-judgmental mind. I try to begin a painting that way. I start by putting down a few basic shapes or lines and then proceed from there. I might add color and then subtract or add shapes, develop relationships between them. There are many iterations and layers of painting underneath the finished surface and that history sometimes peeks through. It's a wonderful process that succeeds sometimes, if I'm lucky!




Could you talk a little about your relationship with color?


My color is intuitive. I start by choosing one almost randomly and then each successive color is relational. I tend to use bright colors, but I don't restrict my choices.  I love humor and playfulness in painting and I think bright color enhances that.


What drew you to an interest in a pop sensibility, and in having a sense of humor with your work? 


The humor just comes naturally. But, I will be the first to say that I am not a particularly funny person. (Ask my husband.) It's just an instinctual thing that comes out in my work. I don't do it very deliberately, but I like it when a humorous element appears in the painting. It balances out the formality and hard-edge of the images.


How do you go about finding the titles for your pieces?


My titles occasionally come while making the painting. Most of the time I find a title after the fact. I am not interested in choosing a title that interprets the painting but usually its something that I find that has the same feeling to me but is a bit ambiguous as well. It could be a musical term or a word that sounds wonderful. I make good use of the thesaurus.


What do the pieces in your forthcoming exhibition, "Turtles All the Way Down," represent about where you are now as an artist?


My work is very organic. I don't make huge shifts and swings, but rather subtle and incremental changes. This past October however, I was fortunate to spend a month at MacDowell Colony where I was able to experiment with working larger. It was a good change. It allowed my images to take on a greater presence and vibrancy. I see each of my paintings as very distinct from the one before, although they carry a common thread through them all. I have trust that they will take me where I need to go. There's a constant conversation going on in my studio that I love and keeps me company. I refer to my paintings often as characters and I am happily committed to the relationship.




Explore more of Fran Shalom's work here.

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