“I’m not a disabled artist. I’m an artist that happens to have a disability. if you are going to write this any other way, we are going to have a problem.”
I first encountered Ana Wieder-Blank’s work at Honey Ramka gallery in Bushwick, NY. I stumbled in, drawn by her vibrant mythological portraits. Contorted figures, fiendish grimaces amid a psychedelic garden. Her visionary canvases floated along barren walls of like a mythic caravan. The mossy surface dipped in polychromic poison. A smeared morass of Day-Glo allegorical mirage landed like butterflies with barbed wings. I felt a protest pressed in paint.
Now, I’m perched on a flimsy metal chair. It’s my refuge. The room is splashed with sludge. A multi-layered stratum of partially-dried oil paint covers the plywood floors. My boots stick as I shift on my frail wire pedestal. I talk to Ana Wieder-Blank as she works on a large canvas in the center of the room. A rotund woman starts to emerge, her breasts bared and prismatic belly exposed as she cracks a wicked grin. Ana paces between the canvas and a large table against the wall. It’s ten feet across the room. Jars of palette knives, brushes thick with pigment, wooden palettes, aluminum cans of solvent, and mixing boards cascade across the table, camouflaged by the pervasive oil-based goo.
Ana smears raw pigment onto the canvas with a palette knife. She is aggressive in her strokes as she builds layers to form a thick crust on the surface of the work. Each casual stroke creates depth as she builds a terrestrial landscape to support the architecture of the image. The surface becomes a world unto itself that only reveals its subject when viewed from afar.
Ana’s work is overtly political. She depicts feminine heroes. She recreates mythological archetypes in boldly colorful tableaus. She’s an activist engaged in protest and she rails against the influence of patriarchal dominance. Her images evoke issues: outsider marginalization, environmentalism, feminism, queer sexuality, the culture of rape and the definition of consent. “In the stories that I’m drawn to, the characters are always womyn,” she says. “If there are men in the stories there are either vestigial characters or they are the villains.”
Ana brings a level of discourse that is informed by scholarship. “I am not an outsider artist,” she says. “I have an MFA and, in my mind, that automatically disqualifies me from any sort of outsider status.” Her engagement is confident. Her motivations clear but, she struggles with physical limitations. Evolving terminology apply; differently-abled, physically challenged. It becomes evident that she lacks subtle control over some aspects of her physical body.
As we talk, she paces between her palettes and the canvas. It’s a struggle. Her limbs react sluggishly to the signals from her brain. She scoops the paint onto her palette knife and struggles to balance it as she crosses the room. The small glob of emulsified oil glistens on the edge of the knife as she ambles toward the canvas, chattering about Dina and Persephone as she moves. As she reaches toward the canvas, the shimmering mound of pigment shakes loose, falling to the studio floor. She carefully bends down to scoop it up and smear the paint in her chosen spot. In this way, Ana painstakingly builds her painting, stroke after stroke; creating the image she holds in her mind.
“Do you have a disability?” I ask.
Ana turns to face me directly. She answers my question. “I was born with mild Cerebral Palsy.” Then, she clarifies her stance. “Look,” she says, “I’m not a disabled artist. I’m an artist that happens to have a disability,” she says, “and if you are going to write this any other way, we are going to have a problem.” We leave it at that. The vocalization of the fact relieves tension and we move on to more essential subjects.
Ana’s disability is an incidental part of her identity as an artist. What she lacks in natural dexterity, she squares with a fierce intellect and stubborn devotion to her craft. It’s the struggle, the determined act of crossing the distance between her palettes and her canvas, that results in the deeply layered and complex surfaces of her work.
Ana strides across the studio, smearing more paint on her canvas. The image continues to evolve. The woman’s grin tenses into a grimace. She’s mad at the world and the apathy she sees. She’s angry but undaunted. She insists on having her story heard.
RA: When did you first start making art?
AW: I started making art around 9 or 10 years old. I didn’t have a lot of friends and I had a lot of time to occupy. I invented this magical world with its own mythology. There where witches and demons and unicorns and dragons. But, it was more than that. I created a feminist utopia so there was a complicated political system and everything evolved in chapters. This is how I entertained myself. Years later, all of those characters have come back into my work.
RA: What is your work about?
AW: The work that I do has to do with size, ability, disability, fatness, gender, rape and consent, environmental degradation, environmental destruction, political movements… fascism. A lot of the work I’ve made in the last year has been very pointedly about Trump. I’m a political artist and I’m a committed feminist. I’m interested in abstraction, but not in my own work. I use abstraction but I’m committed to making political work. I’m trying to make a specific point.
RA: So, it’s all about the message to you?
AW: Well, no I didn’t say that. I’m not interested in making propaganda. The process is the other half of the reason I’m doing this. The process is very pleasurable to me.
RA: Can you describe your process to me?
AW: I have a particular method of working. My easel is on one side of the room and my palettes are on the other. I have to walk over here, scoop up some paint on my palette knife, put it on my brush, and walk back over to the easel. It’s a long process and its intentionally difficult. It gives me time to figure out what I’m doing.
RA: So, what is it that you find so pleasurable?
AW: I’m not a naturally facile painter. Painting does not come naturally to me. I think the reason that I’m still doing it is because it isn’t easy. I have to struggle at it. I think natural facility comes with its own set of drawbacks. It’s not always a blessing and sometimes it’s a curse. If something comes really easy to you, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be satisfying. Picasso said that by the age of nine he could draw like Rafael and it took him a whole lifetime to learn to draw like a child.