“Who Countest the Steps of the Sun” is a body of work by Montreal-born, Los Angeles based artist Cindy Phenix that is at its heart both Romantic and tragicomical. 

If, for the sake of conversation, one is to continue to tease the metaphor of Blake’s sunflower, one also acknowledges that in Phenix’s complex and kaleidoscopic tableaux of her characters—non-humans of the plant, animal, and bacterium realm, alongside witches, and monsters—come alive with sentience and self-awareness. 

Her painted collages reference source material across a wide range of origins, from National Geographic to Netherlandish master paintings to Baroque theater. In analyzing these new works, one becomes acutely aware of the artist’s preoccupation with the Anthropocene and solutions to contemporary crises advocated through ecocentrism. 

“Who Countest the Steps of the Sun” by Cindy Phenix at Nino Mier Gallery, New York.
“Who Countest the Steps of the Sun” by Cindy Phenix at Nino Mier Gallery, New York. All images courtesy of the artist.

Her milestone New York City solo debut thoughtfully peels back the layers upon which Phenix situates her work to reveal a vibrant, narrative microcosm of processes and characters. I recently sat down to Phenix to learn more about her work and her solo exhibition.

Tell us about your evolution as an artist. How have your compositions or your subjects evolved over the years? Are there any specific through-lines you wish to tease out that you see as unifying forces in your work? 

The idea of narration has always been central to my artistic practice. My early compositions depicted the relationship between the public and private sphere as it pertains to women experiencing their everyday lives and their female friendships. By illustrating grotesque bodies, abjection empowers them. These works critiqued preconceptions of what a woman should be or how she should act. 

In a way, it is as if all these characters have aged together, and more of them have joined the community, making them powerful. They share a sense of hope. They exist in this Ecocentrist world. Human bodies merge with flowers and birds. Simultaneously, the compositions become more complex, more detailed. 

Cindy Phenix, “Flowered Wave of Momentary Glimpse”
Cindy Phenix, “Flowered Wave of Momentary Glimpse,” 2024, Oil and pastel on linen, 96 × 72 inches. Right: detail.

Your layered paintings draw from a myriad of sources and are informed by a constellation of natural and supernatural phenomena. Where do you seek inspiration? What sources of information and media do you gravitate towards? 

I think being an artist means absorbing inspiration from every encounter. Curiosity, everyday banalities, the very emotionality of life … and a lot of reading and conversations with people. I think that’s what is beautiful about art: it absorbs topics, distorts them, and re-presents them.

During the time that this new body of work was developed, a favorite source of information was National Geographic. I also love the children’s book Barbapapa and how the characters are shape shifters. Vogue publishes great articles about women’s stories. I read a lot of books, recently “Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet.” I also look at news, media platforms about art, culture, fashion. I listen to audiobooks and podcasts; my favorite is “The Partially Examined Life.” I think every subject that inspires me will lead me to a new expression. 

How does your technique itself reflect or act as an extension of your interest in collage? 

The complexity of my collages begins with multiple individual pieces sourced from an original image. I remove one element from the original. Insects and bacteria are disproportioned to be bigger. Everything is chaotic, and the scale of things changes. A wall of ice becomes a sky, flowers mingle and merge on human skin. Smiles, hands, and feet are also enlarged so that the viewer can perceive what action is happening. We can think about every individual piece and their own existence in time and space, but all is also coming together as a new community, as a collective. 

By illustrating grotesque bodies, abjection empowers them. These works critiqued preconceptions of what a woman should be or how she should act.

I then project these collages on linen, draw the outline of all the shapes while also making a conscious decision about the details that I will represent based on the light and shadow of the elements. The collages always point to the importance of having the individual come together to collectively combat political and environmental problems. 

Detail view of Cindy Phenix, “Lapse Into Attuned Partial Translation 2024”
Detail view of Cindy Phenix, “Lapse Into Attuned Partial Translation 2024,” Oil and pastel on linen, 96 × 72 inches.

Introduce us to some of your recurring characters: witches and bats, cyborgs and non-humans. Where do these characters derive from? What do these characters represent for you? How do they factor into your complex narratives? 

I’m interested in the concept of monstrosity. These recurring characters are misunderstood or misrepresented. Mysterious creatures of the night, ghosts of the past, natural elements of the world, cyborgs as an extension of the human. It’s all a surrealistic unknown, but I regard all these concepts as unified or connected in some capacity. From a contemporary point of view, consider how new, rapid technological development can seem scary. I perceive a parallel between all these independent concepts. 

My compositions seek to understand human nature, and life’s elements as helpful to our community, as diverse parts of a unified whole.

This body of work explores themes pertaining to ecocentrism and the Anthropocene. What is it about the current state of the world that inspired you to direct focus on the environment and man’s role within it? Can you describe one or two of the specific examples of how these themes play out in these new works? 

Consider my concept of the ghost, for instance, within the Anthropocene context. The ghost refers to the unseen—to traces of past ecological decisions that catalyzed changes, loss, and extinction in our ecosystem. The concept of monster refers to the unfamiliarity of new environmental challenges but also the hope for a future with the potential for transformation. 

I like to offer a glimpse of the haunting consequences of human action on our ecological balance. Extensive pesticide use, industrialized farming, excessive land development, unsustainable fishing, affect our surroundings, our biodiversity. While eco-climate anxiety is present in the narrative, the paintings offer a sense of hope. Stories depict the possibility of engagement, collaboration, and resilience between humans and non-human creatures.

We can think about every individual piece and their own existence in time and space, but all is also coming together as a new community, as a collective.

Take, for example, the central piece in my exhibition: a large tryptic based on 12 solutions to remove carbon from the atmosphere in both natural and technological ways. Some solutions I depict are as simple as planting trees, ecological farming, or technological applications. 

Another painting in my exhibition presents a scenario in which the sun is too hot and burns every surrounding it touches. Yet collectively, everyone puts their hands on other people to protect each other’s eyes. A large character looms and deploys an umbrella to protect the other characters in the composition.

Cindy Phenix, “Irresistible Movement Would Change Wherever the Sun Sunned”
Cindy Phenix, “Irresistible Movement Would Change Wherever the Sun Sunned,” 2024, Oil and pastel on linen, 84 × 60 inches.

There exists this foundational sense of hope in your compositions. Humor shines through, and there often exists a sense of the collective, of community, in addressing some of the pressing threats to our existence. We’ve described them as tragicomical. Where do you believe this optimism stems from? 

I cannot imagine giving up. I think sharing empathy, kindness, and understanding that we are all intermingled is essential. You have a certain rhythmic power that grows larger within a community. Everything can kind of rebalance itself.

Finally, your exhibition ushers in another exciting new moment: your forthcoming residency with the Palazzo Monti in Brescia. What energizes you about the opportunity to immerse yourself in Italy this summer? Can you predict in what ways the Italianate influences may present themselves in future work? 

I am so excited to experience a new culture for an entire month—to immerse myself in an environment surrounded by the Palazzo’s architecture, frescoes, contemporary art, and multitude of colored wallpapers, textures, and patterns. I love the potential to develop a new community in Brescia. I believe the intimate size of the residence will allow for deeper connections and exchange among the participating artists. An enriched experience.

Cindy Phenix’s solo exhibition “Who Countest the Steps of the Sun” remains on view at the Nino Mier Gallery in Soho, New York, until June 8. Follow the artist on social media at @phenixcindy and visit her website for more information. 

Featured image: Artist Cindy Phenix in her Los Angeles Studio. Photo courtesy of the artist.