On the Couch with Tisch Abelow

The following is a transcription of an interview from June 10, 2024 between Tessa Granowski (Brackett Creek Exhibitions) and Tisch Abelow surrounding the exhibition, Portraits, with Tisch Abelow and Paul Harris from June 28 - July 31, 2024 at the Paul Harris and Marguerite Kirk Gallery.

Brackett Creek Exhibitions:  How did you first come across Paul Harris' work?

Tisch Abelow:  I came across it while I was in Montana last summer making a print with you all at Brackett Creek. I didn't know his work before. There was a talk at the Paul Harris Estate with Rob Kieswetter when I was there, and I immediately loved the Paul Harris work in the show… it was a female figure sculpture that went with a painting behind it. It reminded me of a collaboration I had done with my friend Dakotah.

Tisch Abelow & Dakotah Savage from the installation Hog Trap Road at Ober Gallery in 2017 | Image courtesy of Jason Mandella & the artist
Paul Harris, Strait is the Gate, 1980
Cloth, papier-mâché, plywood, 60 x 96 x 48 ″

BCE:  What was the collaboration?

TA:  I forget how it came about, but we were doing a show with my portrait paintings and also paintings of mountains. Dakotah was making these sculptures that were fabric busts. And we were thinking of making a show of townspeople, as if it was a rural town, and then the mountains surrounding them. She used a lot of fabric in her work, and I used a pattern from one of her busts in one of my paintings, so her sculpture melded into the background of my painting, which is what reminded me a lot of the Paul Harris work.

BCE:  Wow. Was it almost like one of the upholstery furniture fabric patterns that Paul Harris was using as well?

TA:  Kind of like that. Yeah. It was floral. Actually, it's the pattern in my painting, Playing and Reality. Anyways, after Rob’s talk, we got to go in the estate archives and roam around a little bit where Paul’s works and books are stored. I immediately felt a kinship with his work and felt very excited and surprised. I don't know what I was expecting, but I wasn't expecting that!

Tisch Abelow, Playing and Reality, 2018
Acrylic, gouache, watercolor on linen, 54 x 54”
Photo credit: Shark Senesac

BCE: There's a lot of good surprises back there.
I could immediately see a connection with your work as well. We had seen your portraits in that first studio visit, and even though Paul Harris wasn't always doing portraits, he did make a number of faceless, gestural, sculptural portraits, in a way.

TA:  And they also seem psychologically charged.

BCE:  On that note, I wanted to ask… you recently graduated with a Master’s in Psychoanalysis and the paintings in your upcoming exhibition feel connected to your academic interests. Where did your interest in psychoanalysis come from, and how does it tie into your art-making?

TA:  I don't know how I knew, but I've had an interest in psychoanalysis since I was young. There was some part of me, on an instinctual level, that knew I thought like an analyst. I thought it was something I might pursue when I was older, maybe in my 50s or 60s. Even in college, I was writing psychoanalytically oriented papers, although I had no idea what I was talking about. I guess it was the beginning of my research. I was also, at the same time, very interested in art, and I had just discovered Hilma af Klint. I was interested in this art-psychology overlap. Her work was very psychological to me.

I think ultimately my interest stems from my family history, and the mental illness and dysfunction in the family and trying to make sense of all those dynamics growing up.

My mom was in therapy my whole life. I later learned that she got her MA in Psychology. It made a lot of sense because she thinks like an analyst as well. I think I grew up with a certain dialog happening.

So, I entered the Master’s in Psychoanalysis in 2017. I was at this juncture in my life. I was 30, and I had just gone through a breakup, my dad was in hospice, and I was losing my apartment because they were selling the building. A lot was going on. And I felt stuck in my studio, in my art practice. It was like a light bulb went on, and I was like, I have to do this now! My rationalization at the time was that this is my own weird version of an MFA… I need to study this in order to develop my art practice because they are intertwined for me.

At the time, the master’s didn't involve seeing patients or any of the clinical work. It was an academic program, except we did do a field placement—an internship. I was an intern at this place called The Living Museum.

BCE:  Where is it? 

TA:  It's out in Queens, it's part of Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. It's a building on the Creedmoor campus that's run by this amazing man named Dr. Janos Marton. It's for patients there who have severe mental illness, but they're all artists. And it's a huge art studio for all the patients. So, all the patients are artists, or if they weren't artists before, they become artists or have resources to make art and then can identify more as a creative person rather than a mentally ill person. It's a real community of people, and it's really, really special. It feels like you're back in time or in a movie.

BCE: Are the patients working when you're in there ever?

TA:  Yeah! You can walk around. People come and go. It feels very communal. Some of the patients who are more serious artists have their own spaces. There are various rooms, communal spaces, private spaces. I think it's 15,000 square feet. There’s vines all over the building. There’s so much history there.

BCE:  I wonder what the choice was to make that into a museum….

TA:  Dr. Marton did. And it's not technically a museum. It's just called that. Now there are Living Museums all around the world! This is the original one - there’s a documentary about it.

BCE:  So that was where you worked for how long?

TA:  I worked there every week for a year and a half. I was just volunteering and getting experience. I ended up putting on a show of one of the artists who recently passed away. His name was Alan Sturm. I organized a solo show of his work at Situations Gallery in 2019.

BCE:  I remember seeing something about that! It's a lot of text-based work?

TA:  There's text in it, but it's mostly women's shoes. They’re great!

Alan Sturm artwork, photo courtesy of Situations Gallery

TA (cont.): When I first showed up at The Living Museum, I just had an overwhelming feeling of I must be on the right path!

But overall, the master's program didn’t involve clinical work. It was more about the academic study.

BCE:  To feed into your art practice.

TA:  Yeah. I was in denial that I was actually on a trajectory to become a clinician..

BCE:  When did that change?

TA:  It has changed gradually. But for a while, I questioned if it threatened my identity as an artist. Even though intellectually and spiritually, it makes sense to me, in practical ways, it felt like school was taking away from my studio practice. It felt frustrating because in the art world, when I said I was going back to school for something that wasn't art, people would just assume I wasn't making art. I felt like I couldn’t tell anybody and I didn't for a long time because it felt like it was inhibiting me from having opportunities. When in fact, I feel like having an MFA could be less important than studying something that you're really interested in that you want to then make art in relation to.

BCE:  Absolutely. An MFA can be more insular.

For the titles in your portrait paintings you seem to be using psychological terms or phrases, correct?

TA:  Yeah, I began making the portraits after I went back to school. I often use terms or phrases that I took from my studies.

BCE:  Do you title your work before or after making a painting?

TA:  They are all a little different. A lot of the time I'll title them after they're done. And I won't necessarily be thinking, 'Oh, I need a title for that painting.’ But I might be reading something, and a phrase might stand out, and I'll be like, ‘Oh, that's perfect for that work.’ There's the painting in the exhibition with an older woman with a child who looks scared. That one is based on a photo of me and my maternal grandmother. The title is from a Melanie Klein text—Excess of Sadism Gives Rise to Anxiety.

BCE:  As if a minimal amount of sadism would not. *laughs*

Tisch Abelow, Excess of Sadism Gives Rise to Anxiety, 2020, Acrylic, Gouache, watercolor on linen, 50 x 60” | Photo credit: Shark Senesac

TA:  But the title can give a little context to the painting. The titles can give a little hint of like, ‘Yeah, this is weird. This is intentional. Yeah, what you're feeling is correct. There is anxiety in this.'

BCE:  The eyes almost look like when you accidentally photograph a person when they're looking neither away nor towards the camera, and it comes out so demented.

TA:  Yeah! And another title is Reciprocal Determinism--My Environment Causes Me, and in Return, I Cause My Environment. I think about that a lot, and I feel like this pertains to Paul's work, too — the way the figures blend into the background. Yeah. And just like how… I'm interested in how internal and external affect each other, how they get enmeshed, how they interact and get confused.

BCE:  So, were you close with this grandmother in the Sadism portrait?

TA:  Yeah. I mean, things were weird. I grew up seeing both sets of grandparents fairly regularly…I grew up outside of Baltimore. My mom's parents had a farm in northern Pennsylvania, and then a suburban home in New York State. My dad's parents lived on a farm in West Virginia. That was pretty close to where I lived in Maryland.

BCE:  What type of farm?

TA:  It was a pheasant farm! I used to have this T-shirt from the farm that said, “Foxy Pheasant Hunt Club.” *laughs*

BCE:  So back to psychoanalysis. How else are psychoanalysis and art-making intertwined for you?

TA:  It depends. I'm a patient of psychoanalysis as well as an analyst. Psychoanalysis is all about the unconscious, as is art making, for me, at least, and I think for a lot of artists, whether they are thinking about it in those terms or not. And art making is visual, even if we use text sometimes. It is ultimately image-based. Both things are about bringing things from our unconscious to consciousness, expressing it in some way, whether verbally or in images. A lot of my art practice is controlled, or it's more conceptual, so I'm not making it up as I go, and I usually have a painting fairly planned out before I make it. It's not free association necessarily in the making of it, but it is before I make it. It is in the conceptualizing of it. And then I'll have some vision or idea that I execute. Even so, I’ll have a general idea of what something might look like before I make it, and after I make it, I'm like, Oh, that's weird… I made that? What is this about? It still always surprises me somehow. And that's how analysis works, too, as a patient and as an analyst.

BCE:  Are you working, as an analyst, with predetermined images and symbols?

TA:   No, I mean, I try and go in without anything predetermined. Part of the training is to go in knowing you know nothing, without any presumptions, because you don't want to guide anyone in a certain direction. Bion, who's a famous psychoanalyst, says, ‘Enter every session as if it's a dream, as if it's just a completely new experience.’ And I really love that.

BCE:  I want to enter every interaction in that way.

TA:  I feel like even just thinking that helps open something up.

BCE:  Yeah, It’s not charged with residue of the previous interactions. I think I was confusing psychiatry and psychoanalysis in thinking about the image cards before, the Rorschach test.

TA:  Right, it took me a long time to learn the differences between all the various kinds of therapies. Psychoanalysis is just the talking lying down on couches. And that's in part why I was so drawn to Paul's work… he has so many women on couches! And the Eleanor Looking For work… Eleanor is my mom's name, so that is specifically interesting to me. Her looking under the couch is very symbolic in terms of feeling into the unconscious…looking, trying to see what's underneath, see what's below, what to dig up.

Paul Harris, Eleanor Looking For, 1973, Stuffed cloth, aluminium, 127 x 124.5 x 198 in.

BCE:  Or even seemingly because she's faceless, I imagine her as someone who's looking for herself.

TA:  Exactly. I love the facelessness and also how it might interact with my portraits that have faces. Have you ever read that short story called The Yellow Wallpaper?

BCE:  Not yet!

TA:  It's a classic. It was written in 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gillman. And in a nutshell, it's about patriarchy and how that can drive women crazy. It's about a woman whose husband is a doctor, and she's supposedly ill, so she gets locked in this room in their house because she must rest. And there's this horrible yellow wallpaper on the walls. It drives her mad being there. Or that's one way of reading it…In the end, she becomes part of the wallpaper, or believes she came out of it, or lives in it. So again, back to Paul’s work, these female figures who are enmeshed with their environment in this dream-like psychotic space…

BCE:  The ultimate domesticity…You become I'm one with the furniture.

So, at the Paul Harris talk last summer with Rob that you were at, Michele Corriel, the Creative Director, mentioned that Paul Harris's mother died when he was young, and that all the flowers in his work has to do with the feminine and with losing his mother. There are flowers in your work as well. What do those mean for you? Is it about your mother?

TA:  Yes, there are flowers in my paintings. It was funny at some point, I was like ‘Oh my God, I became an artist who just paints flowers and portraits.’ *laughs* The flower patterns actually came from my paternal grandmother's bedsheets.

BCE:  Oh, so it is psychologically charged – you slept with them! I can't even remember my grandmother's bedding… Was it something that you found when she passed away?

TA:  I think that is actually what happened. She died in 2018, and we had to go through her house and her things. I saw the bedsheets and took some photos of them. But yeah, obviously, flowers are vaginal, and they are part of the feminine.

BCE:  I wanted to ask you about your writing practice, too. You have a writing practice, yes?

TA:  So, I was really serious about writing when I was growing up and through college. I went to Sarah Lawrence for fiction writing. I wrote short stories that have a similar tone to my paintings, where the plot is very minimal, but the vibe is very dark. And they're almost character studies. Maybe there's some plot, but it's subtle--it's more of a weird, eerie feeling. They have a dark humor, and they're dry and very simple. But once I got more serious about visual art, I didn't write for a long time. And then once I went back to school for psychoanalysis, that got me writing again because I had to read so much. I was reading so much, and I was writing so much psychoanalytic stuff, which is similar for me as the short stories because they are like case narratives, case studies, so it all just ties together. And then, yeah, I've slowly begun to write short stories again.

BCE:  What about your dreams? Do those ever make their way into your work?

TA:  Oh, they sure do. I use my dreams a lot, actually. And I'm a very avid dreamer, and I write down all my dreams.

BCE:  You have a dream journal?

TA:  I just mostly write it in the notes section on my phone. And then every year, I'll copy and paste it into a Google Doc for Dreams. It’s a lot…

But sometimes I have art dreams. The small paintings of flowers came from a dream. I had a dream that I was doing close-ups of paintings, detail shots. Also, I used to have text in my paintings that would be excerpts of dreams that I would write out.

One time I had a dream that I did an exhibition that was in a museum, and it was on two floors, and one floor was playing a music score of some kind, but it was empty. And then on the other floor were the dancers dancing to the score, but there was no sound.

BCE:  Whoa.

TA: I was like... That's a fucking good idea! *laughs.*

BCE: Maybe one day…

Tisch Abelow at Brackett Creek Montana