When did you start working with the traffic light motif?
That was the last series I did before this exhibition. That was kind of a breakthrough for me because I studied at the New York Studio School where people work for two years non-stop from observation. That's what I was doing, and it's a great way to always work because there's always something to do. And I tried to do paintings that weren't from observation, but that didn't get me very far.
What led to your breakthrough?
There are two big questions always: what to do, and how to do it. Working from observation you still have this question of what to do, but I couldn't find a satisfying way to get across what I meant. One day, I don't remember how it happened, maybe it happened at the same time. I had a crush. I went to the Met last year and there was a John Baldessari show up. And to tell you the truth I didn't even know who he was and at first I realized that this is probably something I'm not going to get. But increasingly, the further I went the more I fell in love, badly. But I felt like I was betraying something because I came from a different tradition or different way of thinking. And I felt like a girl who fell in love with a trucker and has to tell her mother that this is how things are now. I don't remember if it happened before or after that, but one day I just thought, could I paint a traffic light with almost nothing in it? My landlord gave me these huge stretcher bars and I did this really big painting. I realized I could keep going, so I kept going for a while. The Baldessari thing was big.
Why are all your paintings vertical?
Besides wanting them to relate to the works from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, I wanted them to be connected somehow. So if you really look you'll notice that they all have circles in them. The circle thing has become big for me because I've realized it's the most perfect but also unattainable form.
How do you know when a painting is finished?
Usually I know when it happens. But this work was very different because of the connection to the art in the Brooklyn Museum's collection. I set out to do something first and it had very strict limitations, and then I did exactly what I planned to do, which is not the way I usually work. To me it's very much about music because it's almost like having a score that I work out, that I'm performing. Usually nothing that I do comes from serious logical thinking that then leads to a resolution. I try to look at things, read things and listen to things as much as I can and then they by themselves come to something, and I have to trust that. I wouldn't say that anything that I see or read directly influences my decision-making. Indirectly, it all does.
Shura Chernozatonskaya's Red Hook Studio
We paid the painter a visit as she prepared for her solo show at the Brooklyn Museum.
Where did the idea for your installation of traffic light paintings at the Brooklyn Museum come from?
That piece is about walking into a museum and having some expectations, that's where the traffic light comes from—it's about doubt. The previous series came from that, and this is playing off that; are you going to accept something, or are you going to reject it? And the paintings kind of make a pathway towards the entrance. My idea behind this installation was musical; most of my ideas come from music, I used to be a musician. I played classical piano, and just recently I found a recording of mine when I was 18, and I realized I wish I could play that piece again, but differently. And I realized there's no way of that happening, so I decided to do it with painting. It's an Argentinean composer from the 20th century, and every beat is divided in either two or three. So I thought the twos are double squares, and the threes are circles, which create the rhythm.
Were you listening to music while you painted them?
I always listen to music, but I wouldn't say that I listen to a specific piece that I'm thinking about. I know if I have to get working I'll put something on, and if I have to get to thinking it will be something different. Music is the biggest drive for me.
What about the other portion of the exhibition?
The rest of the pieces are going to be in the Beaux-Arts Court, the big beautiful open space on the third floor, with the glass floor and really high ceiling. I had a crazy idea, which they didn't accept, to put 32 pieces around these high windows in that room that are closed, but that didn't work, thank god. But then we decided on having two paintings for each wall, so they're diptychs. Two of them relate to a new exhibition they put up called "Russian Modern," and that was the hardest because it's not one genre, it's very spread out, and I couldn't quite be as straight-forward. So when I was in Russia I kept asking everybody what is the simplest identifier of Russia for them, and it came down to vastness, bleakness and sometimes a kind of sadness.
For each diptych I was thinking that one painting is something that pulls you in and the other is something that pushes you out. Not in the formal sense, like when you talk about push and pull, but in more of a metaphysical sense. Kind of like one painting is what you see, and the other one is what you see when you look at a room with closed eyes. They all have titles, which are the exhibits they're facing in the collection—for instance this section is called "Art and Devotion," so one painting is titled "Art" and the other is "Devotion."
How did you choose where your work would hang in the museum?
They offered to walk around and see what's possible to do at basically any place, but I thought the Beaux-Arts Court is not only quite an amazing room, but it's about painting. Painting is in kind of a hard spot right now, some people say it's more commercial or it's more conservative. It's going to be a big surprise to see how my paintings are going to be in front of a Goya.
How long did it take you to make the paintings for this exhibition?
It was quite a marathon. It took me three and a half months. Eugenie [Tsai, the Brooklyn Museum's curator of contemporary art] wrote to me that they might be interested in showing some paintings, and I thought they meant in a group show sometime, so I was very excited. And then she said, "you really have to come to the museum." And I said, "I will when I get back from Russia," which I was going to in June. So the day before I left for Russia I went to the museum and they explained what it was about. I went to Russia for two months, and I couldn't really change my plans, and I got back here in September and started. The whole time I was there I was thinking about exactly what I needed to do, but I only came up with eight sketches—I don't like to work ahead.
Why are all these canvases different sizes?
Well, the archways are something like 78 inches wide, so that kind of dictates the size. I also wanted the work to be large, I think the signs and symbols read better that way. And the Russian ones are the biggest because they're almost the exact size of the works that will be hanging across from them. They're horizontal, but all my work is vertical.
Your work seems to have become increasingly abstract.
I would say that it's become more symbolic. These are signs for something, they stand for something else. But a lot of people we think of as abstract artists would say they're not.
I don't think people think formally while they're doing things, they think in between times about what painting does or art does. It's not about emotions or a gut feeling just by itself; there are still structures and you have to build them, and if you don't have that it won't happen.