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Finding Your Own Path: Erika Ranee Interviewed by Cordy Ryman

By Cordy Ryman

July 18, 2022

An abstract painting featuring geometric black shapes and fluid lines of blue.

Erika Ranee, Here, 2021, acrylic, shellac, and gouache on canvas, 36 × 36 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

While I can’t remember exactly when I first saw Erika Ranee’s work, I’d come across it over the years, and it always appealed to me. I became more familiar with it in the spring of 2021 when I was at Freight + Volume installing my own show and spent some time with Erika’s works in the back room. I liked the comfortable, effortless way she seemed to use colors, and I felt a kinship with the free use of abstraction, compositional parameters, and structures. Poured color, layers, drawing, evaporation, and chance all blended into a single organism. The works seemed to breath, were natural, alive, and true, not contrived, stifled, or trapped. After this I started following Erika’s work more closely, and we began conversing.

Cordy Ryman: How is your studio practice structured?

Erika Ranee: I’m nocturnal, so I stroll in around 5:00–6:00 PM and work between five and twelve hours. It depends on which stage of the painting is evolving. Toward the end of a painting is when the marathon hours kick in. That’s the phase when twelve hours can fly by in a snap.

CR: How often do you get to the studio, where is your studio, and how long is your commute?

ER: I work about four days a week. School chews into the rest of my schedule, and Mondays are my sabbath. The commute to southern Brooklyn can take twenty minutes or an hour—depends if by car or subway.

CR: When you first arrive at the studio, do you have a routine? Is every day different, or do you have a set order of things that you tend to do?

ER: Once I arrive, I usually sit and stare—maybe that’s meditation. Although there are times when I’ve had an idea of something that I’m eager to try, and that’s when I’ll jump right in as soon as I step foot into the studio.

CR: Do you generally work with a plan?

ER: No plan.

CR: Do you work in silence or with sound—music, audiobooks, podcasts, radio, TV?

ER: Until recently, I’ve worked solely to music. I have an extensive, varied collection of CDs, and my ancient, beloved CD player. I don’t like streaming. But lately, I’ve gone all gangster and work without any music at all. The rhythm of fast cars and trucks on the nearby Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is my soundtrack of choice right now.

CR: Do you work one thing at a time or more than one? If yes, how does this affect your working process; if no, how do you prevent yourself from overworking a painting?

ER: I have to have several paintings going on at once. I’ll hop around from one to the other. I’m also impatient and can’t sit too long waiting for something to dry. If they’re all drying at once, I’ll go home. As for overworking, I can’t imagine that. When a painting has too much crap on it and feels stuck, I just chuck it aside and come back to it months or years later with fresh eyes and finish it. I never throw away or destroy a canvas. To me they have good bones for eventual completion; it’s just a matter of when.

An abstract painting featuring vibrant orange, yellows, black, and blues.

Erika Ranee, Terribly Wonderful, 2021, acrylic, shellac, spray paint, and paper collage on canvas, 60 × 60 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

CR: I work in a very similar way, so I relate to your process and routines quite a bit. When faced with a perfect prepped, primed, or purchased canvas, how do you break the ice? Is this difficult or automatic? Variable to current circumstances or always the same?

ER: My favorite moment with a painting is at the very beginning. No overthinking allowed—just pouring. I usually pour all the leftover paint from a previous series of paintings. My color selection at that point isn’t random, but it’s nice to have an instant set of mixed colors to grab at the ready. Lately I’ve discovered my “dirty” brush water as new, beautiful, chance neutrals. I can’t mix neutrals as well as those incidental muddy colors. My palette leans toward bright and saturated, so I need the neutrals to balance it out. I also love using black-and-white neutrals to carve out negative space. In the early stages there’s lots of fast movement around the canvases on the floor or raised on sawhorses. I rarely paint upright. I’m a former athlete, so I enjoy the physicality at this phase—the bigger the canvas, the better.

CR: How long have you been in your current studio? How many studios have you had, and how have the various set-ups dictated or influenced your production?

ER: I’ve been in my current studio for two years, but I’ve been in the building for nearly six. I moved downstairs to a much larger space, formally occupied by artist Michael Berryhill, so I feel the good paint juju in there. This is my tenth studio. My first was in 1993, right after grad school, a shared space in an office building in Tribeca on Franklin Street. It’s not lost on me that my new gallery, Klaus von Nichtssagend, is also on Franklin Street, only a few blocks away from my very first studio. I’ve come full circle.

CR: Do you feel you have enough time in the studio?

ER: No. That’s been my constant struggle and the reason I recently stepped down from teaching. I’m always behind the proverbial eight ball when it comes to having work ready for studio visits and shows. My new goal is to have a surplus of completed paintings ready for selection at any given moment.

CR: I admire teachers and think it’s such a rewarding thing to do, but it does take a lot of time and energy. It will be interesting to see how taking a break from it will affect your process. Also working with a deadline versus just working without a clear goal is also very different. Both have good things about them.

ER: If I didn’t have deadlines, I’d be Zen like Yoda, toiling on the same paintings for years on end. It’s been a busy exhibition schedule the past three or so years, so I’m in workhorse mode and feel as if I can churn them out now without much hesitation.

An abstract painting featuring yellows and oranges with brown vertical drips at the top.

Erika Ranee, Marula, 2021, acrylic, shellac, spray paint, and paper collage on canvas, 42 × 36 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

CR: Is your process social, spiritual, cerebral, intuitive?

ER: I know “intuitive” is a dirty word in many art-world circles, but I wholeheartedly embrace it as a description of my approach to painting. I think that links me closest to spiritual. I’ve orchestrated my work process to be open and fluid, both literally and figuratively, in order to achieve maximum unadulterated results. I used to spend a great deal of time researching for my representational-figurative paintings. Eventually I realized that that way of working, with so much planning, slowed me down from what I really wanted to do: get messy, fast, and lucid with paint.

CR: Art can be a solitary pursuit, which for some is fine but others a challenge. How do you connect to people and the world beyond your studio? Is your practice integral to connection? Do you connect to the world in other ways?

ER: I’m very comfortable functioning in a solitary, hermetic existence. By design I’ve arranged my life so that I have minimal obligations other than my work—and watering my plants. I hail from a fairly large family, and I have an amazing core group of close friends, along with teaching well over one hundred college students per year, so I’m not entirely isolated. But once I’ve touched base and all is said and done, I shut down and retreat to a very quiet, low-stimuli environment where I thrive. I need an inordinate amount of peace and quiet to stay centered.

CR: That sounds amazing! Even though you’re alone in your studio and your process is solo, you seem to be someone whose career is on the upswing. As your work and your name get out there, you are in effect on the stage more. People are aware of you and watching your career; this has an effect.

ER: Pressure!

CR: Do issues of trust, ego, or status ever interfere or pollute your art-making process? If so, how do you protect yourself?

ER: No. I have several good artist friends who long ago leapfrogged way past my career trajectory. I learned not to make comparisons; that kind of thinking can be toxic and hold you back. We all have our own paths to navigate, and, as it turns out, mine isn’t very linear. I took nine years off from the art world. It may have slowed things down considerably for my career, but in a roundabout sense it made me value time in a different manner—with a more measured, less neurotic sense of urgency and purpose. I was no longer competitive in the race. I believe success will follow if you keep your mind clear of other people’s expectations and outside pressures. At least that’s how it’s been working for me.

An abstract work on paper featuring black, blue, and reds in a sunburst pattern.

Erika Ranee, Just Resting My Eyes, 2021, ink, crayon, and gouache on paper, 12 × 9 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

CR: We were both at or around the School of Visual Arts in the early ’90s. What was the art school experience like for you? Looking back do you have thoughts on the value of going to art schools? Any downsides? Any professors you’d like to discuss?

ER:I came late to the art game. I graduated from college with a Government major, fast-tracked for the LSAT. After receiving my BA from Wesleyan, I decided to enroll in art school in 1989 when SVA was like the Wild West. My professors of note were Jack Whitten, Jack Youngerman, Jane Rosen, Marilyn Minter, Stephen Westfall, and Hannah Wilke. I made my first oil paintings in Stephen’s class. Jane drove us hard and with passion, and I learned a great deal in her drawing class; but I was an art neophyte, and it was intimidating. I borrowed heavily from Marilyn’s teaching style once I began teaching college art fifteen years ago.

CR: I had some of those same characters as professors and others for crits. Maura Sheehan, Frank Roth, and Brett DePalma were pivotal for me timing wise. I had my own issues during that time, but SVA’s freewheeling way was great during those years.

ER: And there was our department chair, Jeanne Siegel. She was very supportive of my work, and that made me feel more self-assured because I didn’t really know what I was doing. I would make these fusion paintings: part Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Sigmar Polke, Willem de Kooning, and anything COBRA. Jeanne encouraged me to keep at it, and that gave me confidence to apply to graduate school.

CR: I liked Jeanne a lot too, and I also found her very supportive. I noticed you’ve done a lot of residencies. While I’ve never done one, I’ve wished I’d taken those opportunities when presented. For me coming full circle I’ve founded a residency of sorts in Art Cake, so I’m naturally interested in what aspects are most valuable to participants. Is there anything you’d like to share about your experiences in general or anything specific that made one or another helpful or special?

ER: I was on a roll with residencies for a good long stretch from 2006–11. Residencies functioned as a second-wave extension of graduate school without the intensity. After my nine-year hiatus they allowed me time to experiment and build a new repertoire of ideas and concepts. I transitioned from representational imagery to abstraction around this period.

CR: I find art, especially abstract art, to be such a refuge. Transitioning from representational to abstract is such an interesting process which I think is both different for each person but maybe similar in ways with some. For me it was a shock but ultimately extremely liberating. I’m curious how this was for you?

ER: It was very freeing. All of the technical concerns around constructing representational imagery flew out the window as I narrowed my focus to new ideas around materials and mark-making. As long as I’m working in a way that inspires me to keep coming up with fresh paint moves, then I’ll stick with it. I’ve found my groove for now.