Under a grey sky, two trees—one a stump, another's branches reaching out of frame—dominate the foreground, while others linger behind and crowd just before. Painted in veins like fingers, these muted colors seem to undulate. Featured

Love Letter to Patricia Hagen

Under a grey sky, two trees—one a stump, another's branches reaching out of frame—dominate the foreground, while others linger behind and crowd just before. Painted in veins like fingers, these muted colors seem to undulate.
Patricia Hagen, Passage (Witness), 2021. Oil on canvas.
75 × 63 × 2 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Growing up, I gleaned most of my art knowledge from that old board game, Masterpiece, though I don’t think the game had any artists in it later than Picasso.  

My lack of art knowledge has often left me feeling intimidated. I remember seeing a giant canvas at the Tate Modern in London called Study in Blue Number 2. It was painted in different shades of blue but nothing else. I didn’t get it. I felt like an outsider and imagined that ,if the artist saw me standing there in front of their painting, confused, they would judge me for not understanding it.

Patricia Hagen’s work never makes me feel stupid. Yet, even though it’s accessible, it isn’t simple or mundane. For the last couple years, Hagen has had an obsession with tree stumps. Many of her paintings and ceramics feature stumps in shades of grays and browns. To some, these colors might seem desolate; but I love the texture of her stumps. They are both alive and dead. I think of all the critters that make their homes in stumps—the fungi, the bugs, the way the decomposition leads to new life. The duality is so clever.

At her recent gallery opening, Hagen told me she focused on trees because, as an older woman, she thinks about the decay of her body. In her work, she also comments on human’s destruction of the environment. I love that something that is in some ways obvious can also have hidden meanings.

Hagen recently moved from Seattle to Port Townsend, Washington, an artsy town on the Puget Sound. Her new studio looks out onto Mt. Baker. Lately, she has been painting it. I don’t know what the mountain means to her. Maybe it’s about the majesty or timelessness of mountains. Regardless, I can’t wait to see the results. 

Patricia Hagen’s work is currently showing at the Linda Hodges Gallery in Seattle. Her work can be viewed at patriciahagen.com or LindaHodgesGallery.com

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An individual holds their breasts in their hands, the tattoos on their their chest and stomach exposed as a leather jacket is drawn open, like a curtain.

Love Letter to Suzanne Shifflett

An individual holds their breasts in their hands, the tattoos on their their chest and stomach exposed as a leather jacket is drawn open, like a curtain.
Suzanne Shifflett, Still Butch, 2017. Oil on panel. Courtesy of artist.

All my childhood stuffed animals were boys. I can’t say why, exactly, but I assigned the entire menagerie he/him pronouns and names like Seth and Rocky. Nascent queerness can present itself in myriad ways, but I feel a particular kinship with those dykes who—like me—spent their early years obsessed with boys as objects not of romantic love but of aspirational desire.

Long Beach-based painter Suzanne M. Shifflett is one of them. In interviews and artist statements, she recounts a childhood fascination with images of cowboys, soldiers, and other masculine archetypes. Drawing these figures was where her interest in art began.

A silver-haired, heavily-inked butch, Shifflett has been working as a painter and tattoo artist for decades. She spent long stints in San Francisco and Portland, where she was involved in the ’90s and early aughts sex worker activist movement and the BDSM scene. The influence of these communities on her artistic subject matter is clear. Although the content of her meticulously detailed, highly representational paintings includes animals, plants, and vintage motorcycles, her signature is portraiture. “Portrait” is a loose definition for these works, which often eschew their subjects’ faces to focus on chest tattoos, leather-gloved hands, and genitals, often penises.

These portraits radically subvert the fetishization of the female form that characterizes so much of art history. Like the drawings of cowpokes and G.I.s that constituted Shifflett’s first stabs at art, her portraits are rigorous studies of masculinity, suggesting the capacity of artists excluded from the borders of male identity to observe and document it.

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In the center, a sketch is pinned to a tree stump. Atop it, a plant potted in a squatty orange vase. The rest of the scene is swallowed up by leaves of varying, brilliant patterns and colors.

Love Letter to Anna Valdez

In the center, a sketch is pinned to a tree stump. Atop it, a plant potted in a squatty orange vase. The rest of the scene is swallowed up by leaves of varying, brilliant patterns and colors.
Anna Valdez, Sketch on Log, 2021. Oil and acrylic on canvas. 42 x 40 inches.  

As someone who has spent the last decade of my life in Arizona, I have always been fascinated by the way light and color can bring life to a place that is seemingly devoid of it. An otherwise bland array of rocks and dirt can take on new meaning when the sun hits just right changing the color from brown to an orange rust. Sunset is the most magical time of day in the desert when a light pink hue casts the land in a warm glow. The influx of color brings a whole new appreciation for the surrounding land.

Artist Anna Valdez does just that in her paintings and sculptures: brings life and meaning to the objects that encompass our lives. This idea is what initially drew me to her work. Her colorful canvases invite the viewer to ponder the keepsakes and artifacts that define who we are. By meshing household items such as plants, vases and knick knacks with preexisting natural spaces, she offers an ode to personal experience. 

Valdez’s use of color is akin to the way light casts a new perspective on the desert. She uses bright pinks, oranges and deep greens to breathe life into a normal, everyday setting. She embellishes earth tones to create joyful works of art that feel rooted in nature and appreciation for the land. She is a master at zooming in on a specific scene, filling it with color and encouraging the viewer to live in the space.

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A beast, adorned with bright blue, pink and silver scales, stands upright with its front legs crossed behind its back, its tail flared behind it like obedient coat tails and its tusks curved skyward, glimmering gold. Its ears are pointed and eyes set forward.

Love Letter to Roberto Benavidez

A beast, adorned with bright blue, pink and silver scales, stands upright with its front legs crossed behind its back, its tail flared behind it like obedient coat tails and its tusks curved skyward, glimmering gold. Its ears are pointed and eyes set forward.
Roberto Benavidez, Javelina Girl (Illuminated Piñata No. 14), 2019. Paperboard, paper, crepe paper, glue and wire. 42 x 28 x 12 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist

Pity the piñatas, which are born on death row. The papier-mâché and crepe creations first gained a foothold in Mexican cultural tradition during the sixteenth century, when they served as a Catholic representation of sin. Since then, piñatas have acknowledged that it’s what’s on the inside that counts. When the time comes, they bleed sweetly and without protest. 

For these long-suffering sculptures, Roberto Benavidez’s workshop is a sanctuary. Unlike their Party City brethren, Benavidez’s intricate piñata renditions of real and imagined flora and fauna are intended to stick around for the long haul. Influenced by ideas of religion, sexuality and race, his sculptures are rendered with such adroitness they’re barely recognizable as piñatas at all. Or perhaps they’re what piñatas would grow up to be if we humans would just leave them alone.

Trawling the internet a few years ago, I was enthralled by images of the piñata series for which Benavidez is best known: a three-dimensional reimagining of beasts from Hieronymus Bosch’s sixteenth-century painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. Thousands of painstakingly layered, gleaming paper pieces comprise the fins, fur and feathers of fantastical creatures, which, in a reversal of the piñata’s typical fate, appear on the cusp of life instead of death. Instinctively, I wondered what they might contain, the way a lion might fantasize about an antelope. Most piñatas know they are intact only by our mercy. Benavidez’s works, however, with all their otherworldly drama, seem so conscious that their fate seems entirely up to them. Through luminous eyes, his piñatas leer at us, knowing their secrets are theirs alone. 

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A colossal mass of brushstroke and shape, movement, color and sound. Squiggles and curves and blobs and clusters of dots and shapes of almost things crowd this white canvas.

Love Letter to Kindah Khalidy

A colossal mass of brushstroke and shape, movement, color and sound. Squiggles and curves and blobs and clusters of dots and shapes of almost things crowd this white canvas.
Kindah Khalidy, Untitled (b), 2020. 20 x 30 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

When the pandemic began, I turned to art. Even though I hadn’t painted or drawn in years, I went out to buy a sketchbook and watercolor pens. Aside from groceries, this was my “panic buy.” And it was a good investment. Over the next few months, I would draw highly pigmented lines and patterns on crisp white paper, and it was the most calming exercise I had.

Kindah Khalidy’s art is like that: intuitive and nurturing. Khalidy creates in a variety of mediums: paintings, installations, and textiles, but it’s her paintings that affect me the most. They celebrate weird, whimsical forms, or blobs, as Khalidy calls them. With seemingly little rhyme or reason to the blobs’ shapes, sizes, or colors, the blobs are full of curves and movement. Khalidy then layers her compositions on canvases of all sizes, effectively creating a large collage of movement itself. 

Khalidy’s art is bold. It takes up space. White canvas embraces the bright hues. Her color palettes are inspired by chance, like the velour tracksuit of a woman walking by, or the packaging of a cream cheese container. Her shapes come organically—she does not plan the structure in advance. She paints it as she feels it. 

That’s the art I needed this past year. I needed the playful pigments, the clashing hues, the organic movement. When the world ground to a halt, I needed color, and I needed fluidity. That’s what I found in Khalidy’s work.

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This teetering, conglomerous mass seems to stand on one leg, reaching toward the sky. Airplane parts—some conical, others wing-like—jut and stretch and bend and crowd to each other. At the top, something like hollow eyes gaze forward.

Love Letter to Nancy Rubins

This teetering, conglomerous mass seems to stand on one leg, reaching toward the sky. Airplane parts—some conical, others wing-like—jut and stretch and bend and crowd to each other. At the top, something like hollow eyes gaze forward.
Nancy Rubins, installation view of Chas’ Stainless Steel, Mark Thomson’s Airplane Parts, about 1,000 lbs. of Stainless Steel Wire & Gagosian’s Beverly Hills Space at MOCA, 2002. Photo by Brian Guido. Courtesy of the artist.

I first heard about muons—the recently discovered subatomic particle, upending our known laws of physics—from the artist Nancy Rubins. Through her artwork, she concerns herself with no less than trying to understand the universe. When words fail to express her fascination with how we came to be here, her explosive, monumental sculptures do the talking.

Reclaiming heaps of junked material from airplane parts, canoes, trailers, playground equipment, lawn sculptures, and more, Rubins challenges herself to place these seemingly unwieldy objects into harmony. The final works achieve a precarious-yet-inevitable balance of weight, volume, and rhythm. It’s painting with giant heaps of metal, an almost whimsical mark-making in three dimensions instead of two—a truly formal exercise. 

At the same time, these stunning feats of suspension are not meant to evoke a mystery. Rubins shows her work with a clearly visible webbed girding of tensile cables. It’s not magic, she insists, it’s physics. Maybe so, but I suspect she relishes suspending your disbelief. In that tension, she gets at the diminishing edges of what’s knowable and what we take on faith.

It is tempting to read Rubins’s re-formations of industrial detritus in the United States as a consumerist critique, but that would very much miss the point. She is genuinely moved by what she often calls the “exquisite” beauty of her materials—an airplane wing’s prim line of bolts against gleaming metal, the hollowed curving interior of a cast iron alligator. Most wouldn’t choose that word to describe them. That’s the beauty of Rubin’s extraordinary eye and sensibility: with her sculptures, she makes them so.

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Two wobbly rainbow-arc objects totter imperfectly and intersect, hold each other up. One is colored with darker shades and the other lighter. All against a soft beige canvas, littered with scratches and splatters and marks.

Love Letter to Alicia McCarthy

Two wobbly rainbow-arc objects totter imperfectly and intersect, hold each other up. One is colored with darker shades and the other lighter. All against a soft beige canvas, littered with scratches and splatters and marks.
Alicia McCarthy, Untitled, 2019. Gouache, spray paint, and house paint on panel. 48 x 48 inches.

Alicia McCarthy excavates a culture (a painting practice) saturated by eco-social particulars. Her warbled grids, waves, and occasional horizons follow the weathered and earthly logic of the found surfaces she builds them on. There is a beach beneath the streets—there is transcendence in the soil hiding below our paved, urbane habitat. 

Her light beams are subject to gravity like the rest of us: they kiss; change color, direction, and desire: perform. In pushing through the atoms of physical space, McCarthy’s lines make an alternative reality in this world feel possible.

Alli Warren, writing four towns north of Alicia’s studio:

People say the light is different in California but I’ve been
here all my life
People say you can measure the size of raindrops by
examining the colors in a rainbow but I’ve never tried
I carry my symptoms to the pole past the metropole,
waist deep in marsh muck.

Wading into marsh is the opposite of escape—sink deeper. Submerged-ness and in-ness are necessary when building culture, and what one is in feels important. Warren in the marsh that abuts the East Bay, McCarthy in the streets that provide structures for her painted cosmology that accounts for the left-behind: objects, cities, feelings, humans lives, human desires.

Alicia McCarthy paints a world where the costs of existing and feeling are borne on the plane of existence and in the present. No, the rainbows in such a place are not perfect semi-circles; but I believe that her lopsided arcs are the real shape of light.

Pieces of treated, in-progress wood are organized on a white table and marked in pencil. Behind those in the foreground are triangular pieces, those in the shapes of small houses, so on; and beyond that, glances of a studio space.

Love Letter to Pamela Weir-Quiton

Pieces of treated, in-progress wood are organized on a white table and marked in pencil. Behind those in the foreground are triangular pieces, those in the shapes of small houses, so on; and beyond that, glances of a studio space.
Photograph of Pamela Weir-Quiton’s studio. Courtesy of Tanya Ward Goodman.

Over these last months, my inability to know or control the future turned inward, and became a relentless creative self-inventory. Ideas: unrealized. Projects: unfinished. The harder I worked, the less progress I made. My words, like a fistful of feathers, lost all sense of lightness and grace.

The artist Pamela Weir-Quiton offers a gentle alternative: instead of countering disorientation, lean into it. 

“I’m finding my way using breadcrumbs I left for myself over the last fifty years,” she explained, during my masked visit to her spacious Northridge studio. 

Carefully arranged on more than a half-dozen tables were the scraps of a career that began in a woodworking class at Cal State Northridge and generated work recently installed in Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s permanent collection. Putting the “fun” in functional art, she spent decades turning out doll-shaped dressers, rocking animals, and a playground inspired by tiger tamer Mable Stark. “Say you’re cutting away that part that isn’t an angel,” she said,“that lost part is just as sacred as the angel.” 

In her current work, Weir-Quiton lets these wooden remnants inform her process. “Some things don’t show up until you stop looking.”

With nimble, turquoise tipped fingers, she placed a triangle shape atop a small cube, making a simple house. As if to counter the isolation of the last year, she quickly assembled a community.  

Later, when I return to my desk, I see how one good sentence might form a slim path to the next sentence. When the worries start, I hear Weir-Quiton’s voice.

“There’s only now. Are you okay right now?” She takes a breath. She laughs. “How about now?”

A United States flag, stitched onto blue fabric, is folded on itself and spewing streams of subtle orange strips of fabric, as on fire, but nowhere near engulfed.

Love Letter to Joey Veltkamp

Joey Veltkamp, SELF-PORTRAIT AS AMERICA, 2020. Fabric and thread. 62 × 46 inches.

When I first look at Joey Veltkamp’s work, it’s clear to me that his textiles are a vehicle for dissent. The quilts—or “soft paintings,” as he prefers to call them—are functional works of art. Continuing the generations-old tradition of grassroots rebellion, their main purpose is not to protect but to protest.

What first drew me to Veltkamp’s work was his perspective as a queer artist. His pieces serve as defiant statements: Gay Horse (Hey!) (2018) offers a queer vision of The West; Self-Portrait As America, 2020 (2020), which depicts a burning United States flag, is a visually jarring critique of misguided patriotism. By definition, to queer something is to disrupt or even spoil it, to shatter preconceived notions and force a new mindset to the forefront. Veltkamp’s most recent show, Lumberton, Wash. at Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle, accomplished that and then some. 

Veltkamp deftly criticizes the vanity that dominates nationalist self-perception. His soft paintings expertly expose and examine the ugly underbelly of our increasingly divided United States. 

The delightful paradox inherent in Veltkamp’s textiles—namely, his use of a traditional form to voice often unsavory and unpatriotic opinions—is perhaps what I love most about his work. In such serious times, there’s something almost gleeful about his form of resistance. I, for one, welcome the levity.

A mountainous mass of strange and abstracted facial features mold together—red-painted lips, soft peachy skin, sharp nose, sharp green eyes ,and all—and rise out of the bottom of the frame. Monstrous yet lovely, this figure is enrapturing.

Love Letter to Huguette Caland

Huguette Caland, Eux, 1978. Oil on linen. 39.5 x 39.5 inches.

Huguette Khoury Caland (1931–2019) was a force to be reckoned with. One of Lebanon’s best-known artists during her lifetime, Caland is still considered a leading artist of the Arab world and beyond. I love the breadth of her practice; her cheeky kaftans covered in erotic line drawings and her bright, whimsical paintings populated with sensuous forms, depicting bodies as landscapes. 

Caland grew up with a creative spirit and a talent to express her inner world. In an interview with Ricardo Karam in 2006 she explains how, as a child, she didn’t realize she had an imagination, nor that her experience of reality was a result of her imagination and dreams. She describes where she grew up in Lebanon and remembers drawing numerous characters on the walls, each of which had different personalities, names, and voices. Caland left her comfortable life in Lebanon to pursue a life of art. Over the years she continued to paint bold and expressive portraits, veering toward abstraction. 

I admire her courageous, rebellious spirit, her stubbornness, and her drive to follow her passion. She was so unabashedly herself, never aggressive and always poised. Qualities that come through in her playful compositions and multidisciplinary practice.

Caland said that she ultimately wanted to be friends with herself. A brief look through her oeuvre proves that she did just that. It is difficult for a woman to pursue these dreams and be taken seriously, especially back then; but Huguette achieved both magnificently.