On the Threshold — SURFACE TENSION:
Six American University MFA Art Graduates Marie Gauthiez, Genie Ghim, Neal Gwaltney, Charles Phillipe Jean-Pierre, Lindsay Mueller, and Taylor Sizemore

By Marcus Civin, March 2024

Image collage from On The Threshold — SURFACE TENSION.

Opening April 6, 2024, the exhibition SURFACE TENSION: The Visible and the Hidden at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington, DC, includes six artists finishing up their graduate work at the university. To reflect their shared interests, this cohort decided on the show’s title collaboratively, and while their approaches to art-making vary and encompass painting, painted sculpture, and installation, they share an interest in surfaces as more than glossy veneers or flat and refined fronts.

The surfaces that fascinate them are more like rich soil, the lip of a water pitcher still wet, thresholds, or any animate membrane where you can find proof of interior worlds. As the great abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky said of neo-impressionist painters in the early twentieth century, these artists seek “the ‘inner’ by way of the ‘outer.’” Think of Glenn Ligon’s text pieces where he famously applies oil paint using stencils but lets the surface build up and the text become less legible as his use of the stencil carries and deposits paint all over. Or think of Allison Schulnik for whom impasto defines her animals, landscapes, and human figures, rendering them besmirched and nervy.

In a similar vein, in the 1980s, the painter Lucian Freud told his friend Lawrence Gowing he didn’t want his portraits to mimic reality, he wanted paint to live. “As far as I am concerned,” Freud said, “the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does.” Later in the same decade, gallerist Helen Lessore wrote about the thickness of Frank Auerbach’s oil paintings. She asserted that Auerbach had reason to defend against flatness. In her opinion, the synthetic world doesn’t leave much space for creative people. She understood why artists would turn to thick paint to experience “a reality which becomes even more precious as the world fills up with plastics.”

Since about 2008, at least in the United States, psychologists tell us we have become increasingly isolated. Zooming, pay clicking, and manic page refreshing have compounded loneliness and lowered self-worth. It seems we have more options and opinions, but we recall much less about what’s right around us. However sleek my four computers are, honestly sometimes I can’t remember a friend's name. In desperation, I might only be able to recall her social media handle. So then, to touch, build up surfaces, still life, resuscitate, revise, remember, endure demons, and authentically feel not just loneliness but loss, these are pendulum swings away from scrolling or instant gratification. More and more artists are creating out of a desire for thickness. Soon I think all of us—not just the artists—will need to self-prescribe painting as a kind of analog reconnection, as texture therapy. 

In addition to being artists, members of the group of American University MFA students define themselves variously as parents, teachers, children, and partners. They’re engaged in the world. A few reveal that they have lost people close to them recently. One shared with me, “I’m piecing myself back and developing strategies to remember, to ward off forgetting, to accept loss, to live with my demons while making something out of it.” After all, life can bounce you around. You choose some places you go. Other places choose you—a spouse’s job brings you across the country, a family member needs you back home.

Most of us come to art on winding paths. Here for instance, Neal Gwaltney, studied chemistry, entomology, and interior design before turning to art. Charles Jean-Pierre (JP) earned a master’s in sociology and a bachelor’s in African Studies. Genie Ghim focused on fashion design, Asian studies, and Persian miniature painting. And collectively, the American University MFAs are from all over the world. They locate various origin points and significant stops along the way in Douai, a town in Northern France with cobblestone streets, or Southeastern Pennsylvania, or Seoul, Dubai, Chicago by way of Haiti, Richmond and Patrick County in Virginia, and Okinawa, Japan, or Grundy, Virginia. To some extent, through their art practices, they’re mapping themselves. Maybe we should think about texture as piled up experiences, reliable evidence of living or history. Lindsay Mueller explains, “Growing up I spent time outside frequently, my parents big into camping and hiking. My dad is a carpenter, so I got to “help” build things frequently. I also was a cross country runner in high school, and I think running influenced me feeling energetic and excited about discovery outside.”

Taylor Sizemore offers, “I pay attention to advertising and food, cultural signifiers, beauty and expectations, the way people live their lives in different areas along with patterns and objects my mother collected during our travels.” Sizemore’s irreverent painting slutty little oranges (2024) shows fruit in red plastic mesh bags as it’s sometimes sold. The title seems to equate the bag with the open diamond-shaped knit of fishnet stockings. Another work by Sizemore, What are You Looking at? consists of a still life with two apples in a clear plastic bag on top of a Playboy magazine. A camera and a pair of glasses are nearby. 

My invitation to meet these artists came from professor and painter Tim Doud in the summer of 2022. He told me he was organizing the fall visiting artist program at the school. Would I like to come to Washington, DC, and visit with the graduate students? On a Thursday and Friday at the end of October, I did just that. In the auditorium on the first evening, I shared my writing. I read a poem I wrote about the artists Dominic Terlizzi and Christine Stiver drawing in the snow with their feet, a short fiction about an artist in wartime who keeps a lion in her basement, and an article about a photographer, Pacifico Silano, looking to found photographs for a connection to his family and forming a critique of his community from what he discovered there. Throughout my visit, I felt energized going up and down the long hallway of studios that are all shaped more or less the same but very different in terms of who and what is inside.

A second invitation came from the graduating cohort of MFA art students this February. Would I be interested in putting together some writing about their work collectively for the thesis exhibition in April? I said yes. I asked for big folders of images and wrote up a twenty-two-question survey for everyone to answer in any way they wanted. When the responses started coming in, I knew we had something worth publishing. 

Q: When do you feel calm?
A: Anytime I’m near water. After a solid day in the studio when everything got out.

I pulled my favorite parts of the collective interview together, edited it slightly, got to work on this introduction, and set up a video call with the group. Together, we talked about what we could add and edit further. 

This group has a good work ethic, and maybe that’s a big part of the energy I felt in their studio enclave on that long hallway a couple of years ago. They learn by doing, by following their instincts. Jean-Pierre says, “If we told ourselves what we’re making now in the first week of the first semester of our MFA, we wouldn’t believe it.” This bunch is ready to work whenever an idea strikes—evenings, late nights—or they put in solid work days while the kids are at school. To focus, they might need to minimize interruptions and not look at emails. Gwaltney says, “I’m sure every program is different but in my view, you get out of an MFA program what you put into it.” He feels happy when he’s productive and has momentum. He reflects: “Growing up in rural Virginia with nothing around but nature influenced my trajectory into the sciences, which somehow turned into art.” 

They’re also learning from each other. “We touch each other’s work in different ways. There’s a lot of overlap in what we’re thinking about in our lives and how we’ve gotten to this point. I’ve learned a lot about painting in general,” Sizemore explains, “because so many of the people around me here are really great, strong painters.” These days, Jean-Pierre is spray painting objects black: a bouncy rocking horse, a chicken toy on top of a wicker basket, a toy Ferris wheel, a clock, a mask on a washboard, a rocking chair, a grocery store cart. “When Marie [Gauthiez] built a large installation in her studio,” he says, “that motivated me to scale up.” Decoding the meaning behind his work, Jean-Pierre writes of historical dislocation, passage of time, recontextualization, and a desire to shift views of Blackness and create a “visual language of the metaphorical Black (w)Hole.” Over the past two years, Ghim has created paintings, screen prints, collages, sculptures, and laser-cut acrylic abstractions. She’s thinking about co-existence and synthesis and questioning subconscious preconceptions and ways of seeing.

What you see now of these artists’ work comes from frequent and hard-fought changes. For Mueller, landscape paintings transformed into paintings that still show aspects of the natural environment but now have rough, topographic surfaces. Mueller is letting portions of drawings in crayon inform two larger paintings she plans to hang in the thesis show. For Trunk (2023), she used plaster to draw on the surface before painting. The tree has an eyeball-like gouge at its center. Gauthiez is also using plaster along with wallpaper, fabric, and other items to build up surfaces and link panels she’s using in an installation. The panels look like paintings and also parts of stage sets.

Gwaltney’s works on canvas use charcoal and oil paint. On a gold background, the direction of the drips in his work Chaos Engine III (2023) suggest he rotated the canvas at least a couple times as he worked. He often works on the floor, on all sides of a canvas. Sometimes he’ll flip the canvas. Sometimes he’ll put it on an easel and let the paint drip, or the paint moves around as he’s shifting it on the floor. He shares that he has been finding, covering, and uncovering images in his paintings. Is that a string of teeth I see in the lower half of the painting, or is it a rock face for climbing? He wants to know: “How much representation must be there for a painting to contain a narrative?” 

Gwaltney shares about his classmates. “JP and Marie are gravitating towards installation now and the surface is really important to what they’re doing,” he says. “They are still approaching the surface thinking about painting. When you paint and you step away from painting, that knowledge of manipulating surfaces and excavating surfaces is still going to be with you.”

When did you all know you wanted to be doing what you’re doing now?

Ghim: Creating art and wanting to be an artist is my earliest memory.

Jean-Pierre: I knew I wanted to travel the world and make art at four years-old when I found out Haitian mangoes wouldn’t grow in Chicago in the winter. I saw mangos and Haitian art in my home and tasted Haitian mangoes from the Latin market. I realized I needed to be where they made these paintings so I could eat more of these delicious mangoes.

Mueller: For me, it’s always been a process of incrementally believing I can be an artist more. I think I’ve known I loved art since a young age. I had a neighbor who was an artist and taught community classes, so that was a good role model, but it wasn’t until I got to college to study painting and psychology that I realized I could foreground being an artist. It didn’t have to be a side endeavor. A year or two after undergrad, I realized I wanted the opportunity to be in school again, learning and growing.

Gauthiez: Early on, I knew stories were important to me. As a teenager, it was clear I wanted to pursue visual art, but I didn’t receive the guidance I needed to take that leap. I found stories elsewhere: history, politics, languages, journalism, fashion. Something was missing, a big part of myself. At the end of my first semester [at American], installation was calling, but I didn’t have the keys… Exploring textures, movement, and glazes led me to make pieces that started to look like sculptures. I knew I wanted to include them in my work because I was riding the idea that we map ourselves through objects. I started thinking about interior elements from my childhood, the room or the home as a container. After my grandmother died in June, wallpaper started to appear in my work as I was thinking about how the houses we know also disappear. How uncanny to walk through her house in my mind and yet know it doesn’t exist in that shape in real life anymore! 

How do you start your work? 

Jean-Pierre: My work starts with a concept. Then, I try to find creative ways to express that concept. I can also say it starts with a memory. Memories have been important to me these last ten years. My father suffered from memory loss for the final ten years of his life, and he was my main priority. If it wasn’t creating art with him, it was caretaking. If it wasn’t caretaking, it was attempting to tell his story or make him proud. My dad was a historian and documentarian. He documented Black Chicago with his camcorder during the 90s and took me along for the ride. I saw weddings, graduations, exhibitions, fashion shows, cultural events, and festivals. His work was the start of my work.

Mueller: There are places that I notice while commuting in my car or walking/jogging in my neighborhood. I’m interested in subtle changes that happen, like how a space I know well can look ominous or magical at night. I’ve been taking lots of photos of the things that make me curious in this way, and I do drawings from them to figure out how to get to the heart of the layered yet lost information, the movement, and the air of the space. Then, I’ll maybe make a painting considering the image, the drawing, and the space. 

Gwaltney: I come across a song that inspires me, a taste that reminds me of something from my past. Usually, one thing will remind me of something else that leads to an image or images. I don’t make sketches or anything. I start working and see what happens.

Sizemore: I usually do a crude sketch to pull ideas together and then search through my digital catalog of photographs. I often take pictures based on a thought, memory, or symbols relating to patterns or recurring experiences. For larger works, I make small studies in acrylic on paper. Sometimes, they come before the painting or at a pause in the middle to figure something out. I usually sketch on canvas relatively loosely in charcoal. Then comes a thin wash of oil paint over the entire thing—ultramarine or quinacridone, something that pops.

What are some things people told you that turned out to be untrue?

Gwaltney: That I wasn’t good enough to be an artist.

Gauthiez: Women artists cannot have children.

Mueller: That art is impractical and risky to pursue—of course, it can be and is undervalued often, but I’ve seen plenty of people get business degrees and not do that much with them. 

Sizemore: God, so many things! Mostly about my body, potential, and appearance from doctors, neighbors, family, strangers, bosses, coworkers, and friends.

What is your work about?

Sizemore: Beauty, desire, being desired, fear, uncomfortability. The paintings explore ideas and experiences surrounding a life lived in my body. I describe areas of passivity, diluted or deeply ingrained memories, visceral thoughts, and slippery sensuality through paint and surface. I’m interested in the oddity and charge of combination.

Is there something you’ve read that sticks with you and motivates you?

Jean-Pierre: I made a piece titled From Ferris to Columbus, 2023. I read that the Ferris wheel was invented by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., an American engineer, for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in my hometown of Chicago. The exposition commemorated the four-hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. The organizers of the fair issued a challenge for someone to design a structure that would rival the Eiffel Tower, which had been a sensation at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair. George Ferris proposed his idea for a large rotating wheel with passenger cars attached. Despite skepticism from some engineers, Ferris’s design was ultimately chosen. The original wheel was massive, standing two hundred and sixty-four feet. I found it ironic that this monument or symbol of amusement and joy around the world celebrated genocide and the beginning of the end of our people as we knew it.

How do you explain what you do to people who don’t know about art?

Sizemore: I usually explain that I’m a painter. I paint patterns and objects or moments that relate to personal experiences and memories. Or I paint other people’s objects to describe them, making a portrait of a life lived.

How do you challenge yourself?

Mueller: Lately, I have been using the plaster to do so, using it as another layer for drawing. I’m interested in how a painting can respond to itself, and while it depicts an image, it becomes a repository for new interactive information. I think the plaster has made this more apparent, as it can cast shadows and change the trajectory of a line or mark. It’s just physically different painting plaster as well. 

Gauthiez: This year, I knocked at the door of abstraction, and it was a loaded move for me. A part of me was very judgmental about it. I deemed it an easy way out. But I know it is actually the contrary. It has been a path of truth for me. I had to accept that the work would not unfold in the same way as a figurative work. Limits are harder to understand. It is a new land with new ways. I see it as a way to flex my composition muscles, to be more honest.

Ghim: Challenge is an essential element in the growth and development of my work. Seeking new methods and materials in my practice is vital in breaking down boundaries and testing limitations. Recently, I experimented with various traditional printmaking techniques. My latest challenge is learning the acrylic laser-cutting technology needed to bring my hard-edged abstractions to reality.

Can you describe something one of your classmates made that you love?

Gwaltney: A painting [by Marie Gauthiez] on a wood panel with distressed surfaces, including patterns and wallpaper. Broken ceramic pieces were attached to the borders of the panel. With all the chaos in the work, it was peaceful to look at.

Mueller: Marie has this new piece that is handling layers in such a physical way. It’s wonderful. Building up, carving in, and it falls apart just enough to be a little imperfect, in an appealing way. 

Sizemore: I love this painting Lindsay Mueller made last year. It’s a large landscape with highlighter green leaves and light blue reflections from car headlights at the side of the road. I love the lines throughout and the reality of the moment against the fiction of the painting.

Ghim: A series of paintings by Neal Gwaltney entitled Phobias captures expressive movement and provocative emotions of faces, limbs, and figures. Mystery and intrigue within the subject is also conveyed in the choice of color and unconventional application of paint.

What’s your worst fear?

Sizemore: Being eaten by a shark, holding myself back.

What do you think is funny?

Sizemore: Humor plays such a huge role in my work and life! I have a boisterous laugh, and I giggle a lot. Plus, I love to throw in a good joke when I can. I can find something to laugh about in any tough situation. I love stand-up comedy and a podcast or two. 

What do you want?

Gwaltney: To always be creative and stay curious.

Sizemore: I want a balanced life with a big studio.