Elizabeth Huey’s Greenpoint studio overlooks the architecturally iconic Empire State Building. Architecture is a prominent theme in Huey’s paintings. The physical architecture of the asylum and the emotional architecture of those who have dwelt within their walls confront her viewers with the reality of their own psychic walls and need for catharsis. Huey’s paintings have been shown both in the United States and abroad. Her solo exhibition, Endless Immersions opens May 16th at Nobile & Amundsen in Norfolk, Virginia.
GP: Can you tell me about your formal art education?
ELIZABETH: I took private lessons as a teenager from an older Hungarian woman. She was fantastic. I majored in psychology in college and minored in art. Then I went to the New York Studio school and studied at the Marchutz School in Aix-en-Provence, France before I went to Yale. I’ve spent a lot of time painting and drawing the figure.
GP: Tell me about your artistic process.
ELIZABETH: I usually make an abstract ground. Sometimes I’m rubbing it with my finger, with brushes, with knives. Then I start venturing in with the image.
GP: I’m curious about this pile of vintage and antique photos.
ELIZABETH: I spend hours searching for images. It could be from books. It could be from online. I also go to flea markets and thrift stores. I use the photo loosely as a source. I’m not trying to make an exact replication. I then move away from the photo because I want the painting to be its own thing.
GP: I see a lot of Tudor style architecture in your work. Where does this come from?
ELIZABETH: Growing up I lived across the street from a gigantic Tudor house that had five boys living there. That might have subconsciously affected me. But I think more than that I’m interested in the shape of it. The representation of something that’s so dynamic. It embodies a feeling of imprisonment with the slats, but also a feeling of seduction because of its relationship to fairy tales and amusement parks. I’m very interested in an image that can reflect those dualities.
GP: Speaking of images, you’re quite the Instagram user.
ELIZABETH: It started when I was working on these paintings from the 1800’s and I needed a photo that looked like an old fashioned man. If I was painting someone who was bent over, I would leave the studio and take a photo of someone taking their trash out. I would use that image as a source to paint from. Sometimes google isn’t enough and you really have to go out and see something. I started liking the process of taking photographs and the process of seeing. I think of it as a wellspring of my source material.
GP: Why are asylums and clinical figures so prominently featured in your work?
ELIZABETH: I majored in psychology and became interested in the history of the asylum, the history and the the use of architecture to imprison someone. Some of them were called “Centers for the Oversensitive” which I found interesting. There were also incredibly altruistic people like Thomas Kirkbride who took people out of prison and wanted to give them land and a bed of their own and moral treatment. Moral treatment often meant religious treatment which is another complicated part of this history which I am interested in. He also had a magic lantern show he would do for them. He believed that the image could seduce someone into happiness.
GP: Where does your interest in the asylum and imprisonment come from?
ELIZABETH: In the 1980’s I was put in a center which was later shut down for being abusive. I forgot what happened for fifteen years. It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I began to remember. I was able to get past that pain through looking at the history of it. I wasn’t there for that long. Many people have been put away for their whole lives for being overemotional. When society as a whole has an inability to understand or categorize them, it’s easier to just put them away and to imprison them in some sort of box. I’m interested in how memory infiltrates time. The relationship with historical figures, that people from different time periods can inhabit and embody my work.
GP: Do you think that art can be a form of therapy to help the artist overcome their own “oversensitivity”?
ELIZABETH: Definitely. I strongly believe that art has the potential to change people. I really believe that.
GP: Why do you think that is?
ELIZABETH: I remember looking at Matisse’s The Piano Lesson at a crucial juncture in my life. In some inexplicable way that painting altered the way I thought about my own life and what was happening at the time.
GP: How do you want your work to resonate with your audience?
ELIZABETH: Ultimately I’d like the paintings to create a space for people to examine relationships, community, connection and disconnection. I’d like the paintings to afford people the space to experience emotion. I’m not sure if society gives us that space. I feel that this emotional space is one crucial aspect of a museum. Not just that so people can have a number of intellectual responses, but that there can be emotional discourse between people. I hope that my paintings help people to connect with others. I don’t want to disregard the mind, but I feel that we have so many venues for it already. Feelings are such a large part of the human process. I think we’re consistently bombarded with any number of feelings at any one time. So where is the space for that?