Willa Chasmsweet Wasserman’s paintings are the kind that will stay with you for days. They give the viewer something new to experience in every interaction with their work. Wasserman describes his approach to painting, to Observe, as one in which you are supposed to look “while adjusting your eyes.” This way of looking and experiencing is akin to that moment when you first wake up and are in the state of transition from sleep to wakefulness – hypnopompic. In this state of consciousness, the brain attempts to make connections between non-linear objects and larger associations.
It is on this tension between perception and awakened consciousness that Wasserman’s paintings waver; greater fractions of a second of recognition of oneself and of the other. In other words, these paintings offer a sort of dialectic, or a way to psychically recognize the representation of oneself in relation to the parameters that Wasserman put in place for his viewers to experience; a psychoanalytic reading if you will. Wasserman’s work also speaks to a larger story surrounding the strangeness, desire, and intimacy that reverberates through her subject matter and the details she analyzes on the canvas.
Wasserman draws attention to the gaps between space, time, and recognition that are often overlooked historically, socially, and visually. Working primarily with oil paints on metallic surfaces and canvases, Wasserman channels a greater history of painting that aims to translate into this contemporary moment and beyond. By reflecting on larger representations of self, lived experience, trans identity, and subversion of old word techniques to create new meaning, she gives viewers a glimpse into what could and can be. These themes are omnipresent in his work. And as a trained metallurgist, that also crept into his creative process in exciting ways.
“They feel like brothers and sisters to me. I think oil painting was invented to imitate the flesh and be very valuable and malleable. And metal, especially since all metals have different properties. But brass is incredibly malleable, and you can do whatever you want with it. And it looks a bit like painting. Paints also change a lot over time, as does metal depending on the environment it’s in, ”Wasserman told Observer.
This relationship that Wasserman forged between painting and metalworking became an iconic component of his art, something I wanted to learn more about. On a busy November afternoon, I made my way to Wasserman’s studio in bustling Bushwick. Over the past two decades, Bushwick has built a reputation as a haven for creatives like Wasserman. This resulted in a migration of many galleries and artists flocking to the region, taking over abandoned factories and turning them into modern workshops.
Wasserman welcomed me into his home and studio; although she had only been in space for about two weeks at the time of my visit, she seemed to be making herself comfortable. She recently moved from Los Angeles to New York, however, it’s a reunion. The Indiana native received her BFA from Hunter College, followed by an MFA in painting from UCLA. And despite the fact that there is still a raging global pandemic, Wasserman has maintained a busy exhibition schedule; currently, Wasserman is showing his work at NADA Miami.
When you first enter the studio, a curtain of red beads greets you. It has given way to a very bright room with large windows covered with transparent canary yellow curtains. The room was lovingly cluttered with painting supplies, sketchbooks, and rolled up sheets placed in piles. Several pieces of linen and paper hung on the wall. A hand-crafted metal-cut palette with pops of oil paint already on it and a large easel was ready for Wasserman whenever the mood strikes. We discuss our mutual love for painter Joan Mitchell, the evolution of Wasserman’s studio practices, his affinity for egg sandwiches, but also what is fundamental in a studio practice.
His new projects are starting to take shape and I was there for a rare lull in his normally busy studio; This also comes from his first solo show with Downs & Ross gallery which closed its doors on November 13. Wasserman, at the moment, lives and works in a space, which is a first for her. And as a result, she had to create boundaries for this new studio.
“I made this space my studio. Like I don’t do other stuff here. I don’t let my phone go into the loft. It’s nice to have a loft because when your bed is right in your room you always like to slouch on the bed with my laptop and do stuff. But that’s not really the case here, ”she said.
Wasserman’s new life situation, however, allowed him to evolve. “I am in a time and a space where there is no drama, and I do it myself. And I feel like an all-time painter now, ”she said.
Wasserman noted that in recent times she has listened to the group TalkTalk of the 1980s a lot, as well as Anne Briggs, a popular British folk singer of the 1960s. These musical influences, among others, help set the tone and also create a atmosphere that Wasserman finds conducive to work. The idea of space in terms of music and art, but also of the physicality of the place came up several times throughout our visit.
“Space is for work and space for potential. I just want to give people space to understand what they are seeing. Rather than doing declarative paintings, which is why I paint so gently. It’s because I don’t want to tell you what it is, I just want to make room. said Wasserman.
During our visit, Wasserman showed me a reel of silver that she had received in the mail. The iridescent locks were tightly coiled and cool to the touch, retaining an almost magical quality. While this object may seem incredibly special and tactile to me, a newbie to the tradition of metal spikes, it was exactly the kind of supplies that the old world masters of previous centuries used to achieve the meticulous effect desired. Within the confines of Wassserman’s hip 2021 Brooklyn studio, however, the Silver Reel has taken on new meaning.
In 2018, as an MFA student in UCLA’s famous painting program, Wasserman began experimenting with the Renaissance metal tip tradition, applying it to her studio practice. This grew out of Wasserman’s previous experience as a metallurgist and has since carried over into many of the paintings she creates today. Old world masters such as da Vinci, Jan Van Eyck, and others used sharp pieces of metal such as silver on a prepared surface, usually using gesso, to create precise and meticulous designs. While elements of the tradition remain intact, Wasserman has developed his process with it.
“I have the impression that with the metal point which is made of brass and which will soon be made of silver, it has a material limit as to darkness or light. It kind of sets the limits of the paintings. I think I tend to keep things close to the original or the surface, ”she said.
Wasserman usually begins by drawing with a piece of steel wool either on a piece of paper or directly on stretched linen. From there, her work takes various forms and also helps establish the parameters in which she works. This can be seen in convex paintings in which Wasserman paints directly onto pieces of metal, usually brass or blackened steel. Using delicate brushstrokes, Wasserman animates the canvas with soft, muted tones that create ethereal, hazy images meant to cause the viewer to adjust their eyesight.
In 858 by Emily Dickinson in which I read “chasmsweet” when I couldn’t sleep, this broader sense of space and visual representation of the body is explored in exciting ways. Creamy hues of corn silk yolks, subtle marigold oranges and eggshell whites blend together to create a dizzying scene of recognition and disregard. A suspended body emerges from the foreground with its back turned to the viewer and long hair cascading to the side as they gaze to the left with their arms outstretched through their heads. The body gives way to what appears to be a statue or bust on a pedestal. Yellow and white brushstrokes invade the canvas and mold themselves around the shapes while creating a great sense of order among the greatest.
Untitled 07/11/21, is a beautifully intimate 8 “x8” small painting on a blackened piece of metal. A headless shirtless with open legs confronts the viewer. Periwinkle purples and cornflower blues emphasize the shape on a black background. The dreamlike form is aggressive and attracts attention. There is an energy in this work and the others that vibrate across the surface and beyond. These moments of intimacy and intensity are what animates Wasserman’s work, and what brings art lovers to bear witness to it.