Rachael Wren’s paintings are a mesmerizing sensory experience that transports viewers to a place of memory and emotion. Through her use of layering color and shape, Wren creates a dynamic rhythm that ripples like water and expands into the space between the viewer and the painting.
In “Site Lines,” Wren showcases six new paintings and a site-specific installation that explores these sensory themes in a new way.
“Linelight,” the site-specific installation, investigates similar sensory themes but in space. Through a cubic grid of embroidery threads spanning a gallery alcove, viewers peer at a painted mural with a shimmering effect.
The gentle push and pull between viewer and painting creates an atmosphere of mystery that explores the boundaries of perception and experience. Through her signature style of tender, abstract landscapes, and innovative use of space, Wren continues to captivate viewers, transporting them to a world of sensory wonder.
We spoke with the artist about what inspired her to create “Site Lines,” discouraging moments she’s experienced, and the best way to get through them.
What inspired you to create the work in “Site Lines”?
The paintings in “Site Lines,” like most of my work, have their source in my experiences and memories of times spent in nature. I begin each painting with a particular moment or place in mind, which I strive to evoke, rather than depict, through configurations of color and light. I am especially drawn to times when air feels palpable and the edges between form and space seem to dissolve—fog hovering among trees, sunlight streaming through clouds, or snowfall creating a veil over the world. This sense of all-encompassing atmosphere informs my work. By using an accumulation of the same types of brush marks over the entire canvas, I weave object and air together, giving the space in my paintings as much presence as solid forms.
The other piece in the show, a site-specific installation called “Linelight,” explores similar themes, but in three-dimensions. Its form and structure were inspired by the gallery space itself. “Linelight” is composed of 576 strings in a gradation of 12 colors hung in a 6 × 6 × 6 foot grid in front of a wall painting. Using strings to create a dense space was something I had thought about in the past, though in my mind I imagined them hanging vertically. The 6 foot wide alcove at the back of the gallery gave me a different idea. The strings hang horizontally across the space, tied onto nails spaced three inches apart in each side wall of the alcove. The changing colors of the strings interact with the painting behind them, altering the appearance of color on the back wall. They also give form and presence to the volume of space in front of the painting.
Tell us about the process that went into creating these pieces. What are some of the similarities and differences between making a painting and constructing a 3-dimensional installation?
I approach my paintings by weaving together ideas about structure and color. Each painting has an underlying geometry that defines where I place the verticals, which, to me, are abstractions of trees. The structures are not based on anything I’ve observed, but are ways of organizing space that I figure out through lots of preliminary diagrammatic drawings. I think of the grid as a scaffolding that supports the misty atmosphere created by mark and color. It is the rational and ordered part of the work.
Color, on the other hand, is intuitive and emotional. It comes from lived experience, generally from something I’ve observed in the natural world. I build up each painting by overlapping small brush marks of subtly shifting colors—there is no background color that covers the whole canvas. As the colors interact, they create a sense of light and atmosphere. When I start a painting, I never know what all the layers will be. With each layer, I respond to the one before until the painting reaches a place where color turns into air. The paintings develop in a very organic way, over a period of months and sometimes years.
The process of making “Linelight” was quite different. I did a lot of planning before I got to the gallery to create the installation. I had never made anything like it before, so I wanted to test as many components as I could ahead of time. First, I built a model in my studio to see if the idea in my mind was viable and visually compelling. I played around with many variations of strings and tried out different colors for the wall painting. I also experimented with the best way to attach the strings to the walls. By the time I got to The Shirley Project Space to build the final piece, I had a pretty good sense of what I was going to do. But even with all the planning, I knew that I couldn’t predict exactly what it would look like or how it would function. I could only find that out by making it in the space.
The process of putting “Linelight” together was collaborative, which made it a lot of fun. Sarah May, owner and director of the gallery, was by my side the whole time, hammering nails, tying strings, and offering advice about lighting the installation. We could see the illusion develop as the strings accumulated, but it wasn’t until the final row was hung that the shimmering sense of space felt full and complete. In this way, the installation reminded me of the paintings—the last layer of each piece is only a small part of the whole, but brings it all together.
What would you like to communicate to viewers through the exhibit? Is there a social or political message to your work?
Not overtly, but since my work is deeply connected to nature, I think a lot about climate change and the uncertain future of our planet. My paintings deal with the phenomenological experience of landscape, light, and atmosphere—what it feels like to be immersed in a natural environment. When one connects to nature, there is often a sense of breathing deeper and slowing down. My work elicits a similar experience in viewers as they stand in front of it. My hope is that this response creates an empathic link with nature, where viewers are reminded of the importance and precariousness of the natural world and moved to protect it.
How do you balance the creativity of being an artist with the deadlines of an exhibit? What are the biggest challenges that come with both?
There is certainly a kind of freedom in the studio when I don’t have any deadlines and am playing around with new ideas in the work that is very different from when I’m preparing for an exhibit. I draw a lot more and let the paintings exist in strange in-between states for longer. I try new things that I have no idea how to resolve. Those are my favorite times, when the process leads the way and it feels like I’m engaged in a way of thinking without words. That said, though, I tend to work on paintings forever, probably because I like living inside of them so much, so it’s good to have external constraints that encourage me to finish. In the months leading up to a show, instead of open-ended experimentation, I am more focused on finding the next right moves to bring a painting to completion. The challenge during those times is still staying open enough to let the work surprise me. I feel very lucky that I’ve had a good balance of these two ways of working over the past few years.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I usually go to the studio every morning after I drop my two kids off at school. Typically, I have several paintings in progress at the same time, spread out around the studio so I can see them all together. If I’m lucky, I know exactly what I want to work on, and jump right in. But more often, I spend some time looking around to see which painting calls out to me. I’m usually drawn to the one that feels the least resolved. When I get to work, I spend as much time mixing paint on my palette as I do putting it on the canvas.
Each time I work on a painting, I try to finish a whole layer of marks, which involves a gradation of 6 or more colors. Because I build up the paintings in layers of oil paint, which I want to dry before I touch them again, I hardly ever work on the same piece two days in a row. The late afternoons and evenings are for family again, so it often feels like my days are divided into two very different but equally immersive experiences. It can be challenging to split my focus and shift back and forth between them, but ultimately I think that each one enriches the other.
What challenges have you encountered on your artistic journey that you didn’t expect at the beginning. How do you get past discouraging moments?
I never could have anticipated what the cycles of the creative process would feel like, especially the times when it feels impossible to make anything. I have been through a few extended periods of more than a year each when nothing in the studio seemed to be working. These impasses in the work, whether due to challenges arising from within the work itself or from external circumstances causing deep questioning, are frustrating and demoralizing. They impact my whole being.
Trying to force the paintings to happen doesn’t work, so the best way to get through these times, I think, is to ease up and find a way in the back door. That might mean doing things seemingly unrelated to the paintings—making collages, looking at other artists’ work, or taking my sketchbook out of the studio and drawing something just because I feel like it. If I can find some kind of breathing room, my hand and mind eventually lead me back into the paintings. And by now I know that the challenging times are usually when something important is brewing under the surface that will lead to new and unexpected directions in the work.
If you weren’t an artist, what would you do?
This is a hard one, since the longer I’m an artist the less I can envision doing anything else. But since I gravitate towards a particular way of thinking that combines logic and creativity, and I’m interested in recombining repeating variables in new ways, maybe a computer programmer.
If you could give your past self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Just keep making things—the work will sustain you more than you can possibly imagine.
“Site Lines” is on view at The Shirley Project Space, in Brooklyn, New York from March 23 – May 12, 2023. Visit their website for more information.