Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pakayla Biehn's Unlikely Perspective

Every time I've seen Pakayla Rae Biehn's photorealistic double-exposure paintings, I have been struck by both their emotional complexity and their technical subtlety. Profoundly rooted in her own visual experience, these startlingly sophisticated images seem to describe the passage of time and of thought, simultaneously. Pakayla's two-person show with Jeff Ramirez, "Being There," will be opening at Thinkspace this Saturday, May 21st, and I'm thrilled to report that she was able to spare some time from her preparations to answer some probing questions about her work.

"Ten Thousand Times I Thought About It, This Time I'm Doing It"

Erratic Phenomena: Tell me a bit about your childhood, growing up in California in a family of artists, and learning to paint at a very early age. Were you an adventurer or a dreamer? How did the environment around you impact your development as a person?

Pakayla: I had a pretty clean and simple childhood. I was raised in the suburbs about an hour outside of Los Angeles, which was borderline mundane, at best. The suburbs are pretty lackluster, which I think helped spark my creativity. I have two older (half, but still complete) sisters and a younger brother.

I was a pretty bizarre kid, really talkative and spacey. As I grew up, I wasn’t into many of the extracurriculars my peers took on, especially in high school, so I found other things to occupy my time. I pretty consistently took art classes outside of my school. And I slept a lot. I was on the swim team at my high school for a couple years and was on a grueling schedule, morning practice, then after-school practice, home to do homework, eat dinner with my family, and pass out from exhaustion. Senior year, I abandoned all superfluous extracurriculars and worked at a yoga studio and gave my mind some much-needed restoration.

Up until that point, I think I was a dreamer. I knew I wanted to be a creative, but I just wasn’t sure I had the capacity. The adventurous side of my personality took flight after I arrived in San Francisco and saw a thriving art community that the suburbs were severely lacking, which gave me the motivation to get me movin’ and shakin’.

"Never Thought of You As My Mountain Top"

EP: When you were a baby, you were diagnosed with strabismus, a disorder in which your eyes don't align correctly, which causes double vision. After donning your first pair of corrective lenses as a baby, you underwent several surgeries, yet still needed glasses to see clearly, which resulted in some alienation from other children. How do you think this alternative view of the world around you – your own private island of perception – affected the development of your personality and inner vision?

Pakayla: I was diagnosed with strabismus at birth. One of my eyes was severely crossed, causing a lot of strain on the eye's muscles. I did have three corrective surgeries quite young, all before 4 years old, I think. I wasn’t a recluse or outsider, but I tended to move in between different social circles. I really vibe of off people's energies, so it’s important for me to maintain a heavy rotation of friends.

Deciphering how isolation affected my adolescence is hard, because there are a couple metaphors I can pull from it, and a lot of things I haven’t really processed yet. Physically, I have always had a very literal barrier between others and myself with my glasses, and I think that warped my sense of dependency. I’ve always been violently independent, and that’s been fairly consistent my whole life. I’ve been brought up to believe that the only one you can rely on is yourself, which sounds like a simple enough piece of advice, but is really hard to completely comprehend. It’s something that I should have applied earlier on in life, but I only realized it in hindsight. Everything I’ve done in the last couple years has blossomed from my truest application of self-reliance and my lust to live the unlikely life.

"Don't Be Afraid, You Have Just Got Your Eyes Open"

EP: Was there someone in particular whom you would credit with nurturing your creative spark?

Pakayla: I don’t think there is a single person that I can pay tribute to, but multiple mentors who have guided me in specific realms and points in my lifetime. I choose the people I spend my time with based on my perception of their ability to motivate and inspire me. I have a few incredibly intelligent friends who I credit for opening and expanding my mind and thought patterns to new things. I have a teacher who will always be very dear to me for helping me completely revamp my painting style and process. And of course, I wouldn’t be the girl that I am today without my Ma and Paw. I should always be giving them everlasting amounts of praise for being so radical.

"Everything That Can Happen In a Day"

EP: Did you ever consider the state of your eyesight to be a deterrent to becoming a visual artist, or did it always inspire you to see the world in ways that other people found intriguing and unique?

Pakayla: The only deterrent I’ve ever encountered is in the field of installation and sculpture. My depth of field isn’t great, so it’s a little more difficult for me to conceptualize more three-dimensional projects. Most of my sculptures consist of two-dimensional objects formed into something that takes up space. I gravitate more towards painting because it's closer to the way I see and think. It’s a weird thing when people ask me about my struggles with my vision, because I haven’t known any alternatives, so I can only act accordingly to my circumstance.

EP: In college, you were originally a math major. What prompted you to evolve from there into your current life as an artist?

Pakayla: I took a math class. Math was always relatively easy for me, and after taking a couple classes at State, I realized my passion didn’t lie within that field. I still do practice exams and things along those lines to keep it fresh. I still implement a lot of math into my painting — it's all a form of math, from mixing percentages of colors to mapping out canvas space.

EP: Around the middle of 2009, shortly before you graduated from Academy of Art University in San Francisco, you suddenly began painting your double exposures. How were you first inspired to begin that series?

Pakayla: It was just shy of a year before I graduated, and I was taking a summer painting class with Kevin Moore. It was a class about the integration of digital medias into organic arts, i.e. painting off of a computer generated image, using Photoshop to alter a reference photo or choose appropriate colors, projecting images onto a blank canvas, making scale, proportion and well... basically the entire image easier to map. That class really altered the way I work — my painting progressed in leaps and bounds that summer. I now use technology almost every step of the way before I actually lay the brush on my canvas.

I knew that I had always wanted to do paintings about altered vision, but I was having trouble finding something that looked correct. I think I was just pushing too far outside the limits with my digital references, creating images that were too abstracted for my neighborhood of comfort. I was randomly tweaking the opacity on a couple images and thought to layer them and liken them to a double exposure painting. I stumbled on a couple of photos that were really harmonious together, thus beginning my upward spiral into double exposure painting.

EP: Many of your reference photos are taken by San Francisco photographer Jeff Enlow. Tell me a bit about your collaboration with him. Do you ever work together to direct models and compose shots? How does he achieve his beautiful double exposure effects?

Pakayla: Jeff Enlow is a close friend of mine. We met at San Francisco State University, through mutual friends. I’ve seen Jeff blossom into such an incredibly talented photographer. He covers every facet of photography, from journalism to fine art to experimental. I’ve worked with Jeff in the past because he’s got a really beautiful eye and is always willing to help me.

As far as our shoots go, I do most of the art directing and model casting. I always have him shoot within the San Francisco city limits — my bedroom, the beach, or the woods around the Presidio. Jeff shoots in digital for me, so that I can create my own double images in Photoshop. Unfortunately, I’ve lost him, and numerous other close friends, to New York City. Come back, Jeff!

Pakayla by Jeff Enlow

EP: Do all of your source photographs begin as actual double exposures, or do you sometimes create that illusion digitally so as to visualize something specific? Do you have a philosophy that guides how much you're willing to use technology to manipulate organic images for a painting?

Pakayla: Most of my photos do not begin as double exposures. There are a few that have been, but mostly I manipulate the images in post-production to create the desired reference photo. I’ve used a couple of Tamara Lichtenstein’s photos for this show, and those were film double exposures. She’s so incredibly talented, I am very grateful to turn her photos into paintings.

I prefer to select and manipulate myself, because I can be conscientious about every last detail. As far as the integration of technology, I welcome it with open arms. For me, the most enjoyable step of the process is laying the colors on the canvas, and any piece of technology that can help me reach that step quicker is cherished.

EP: Each of your double exposure paintings evokes an unusually strong sense of narrative and emotion. Does narrative play a important role in your process? Do you choose images that tell you a specific story? Do those stories sometimes evolve and shift while you're in the midst of painting?

Pakayla: There’s a bit of my emotion and narrative placed into each of my paintings. I choose each image carefully based on my interacting with it. I’m emotional by nature, so it’s not difficult for me to connect with an image and place meaning within it. I leave my paintings open-ended enough that whoever is viewing the painting can place their own experiences into the subject matter. It’s important for me to try and create a sort of experience. My paintings are ever-changing in their meaning and emotional concept, as I hope is the case with any piece of art that takes a bit of time to create. As I evolve, my painting is going to change naturally with me.

EP: Given that your strabismus causes you to see the world in a sort of permanent double-exposure, do you sometimes take your glasses off while painting and use your double vision to help you envision how something should look in the overlapped world?

Pakayla: Luckily, my vision is not perma-doubled. It mostly happens when I’m tired, or more specifically the muscles in my eyes are tired and have worked for a lengthy amount of time. The glasses don’t help with the double vision — they are a tool to keep my vision at 20/20, so my eyes don’t have to strain, which in turn prevents the double vision and prolongs the time my eyes can focus on details.

"The Study of the Structure of Subjective Experience"

EP: You have a rather distinctive softly toned palette, which makes sense given the washed-out nature of most double exposure photography. Is this palette also expressive of how you see when your vision is doubled?

Pakayla: My palette isn’t reflective of how I see color. Fortunately, I don’t have problems with seeing the vibrancy of colors. I’ve been playing around more recently with a bit more saturation in my pieces. Since most of my double exposures happen in post-production, it is harder to keep the vivacity intact. I usually favor softer, more pastel palettes. I think they are easier to digest visually.

"More or Less the Rest of Our Lives"

EP: I assume that you paint both layers integrated together at once, rather than one atop the other, which might tend to create unsought-for color interactions. How much of a challenge is it to concentrate on all the different levels of detail and nuance while you're painting, without becoming distracted? Are there techniques which help you focus on several levels at once?

Pakayla: You’re correct. Basically I see everything as color and shape. Since I have the completed image on my computer screen, it's easy to find the exact colors and shapes to pull the image together. It's a very meditative process, and because of my vision, I can't sit for more than four hours without having to take a break.

"This Is You or Your Memory"

EP: In the past, you've described yourself as "mostly glasses and hair," and in fact, you seem to have a bit of a thing for hair, between your mixed media pieces that include synthetic hair and your many double-exposed images of flowing, blowing locks. Why does working with hair appeal to you so much?

Pakayla: I am so completely obsessed with hair. It’s beginning to border on psychotic. Like, fighting the urge to snip off beautiful braids from unsuspecting victims on the street. It’s creepy. I have a slow-growing collection of friends’ ponytails littering my wall, waiting to be used in an installation. I have long blondish wavy locks, which match my mother's and brother's. I can only assume my obsession began with my own genetically-blessed mane. I’m beginning to do some extensive research on hair — most reference books cover only African-American and Asian hair identities. I am very interested in the role hair plays in society throughout history, culturally and superficially.


EP: You rarely paint faces, and when you do they are generally turned away from the viewer, bowed or in profile. Why do you think you make this choice?

Pakayla: My figurative classes in school exhausted painting faces. Over-analysis is paralysis. Faces are just too blunt. I choose to give people the option to place themselves in my painting, and offer them the chance to finish the story that I’ve laid out. For this show at Thinkspace, I actually have done a few faces, but they are still abstracted for the most part.

EP: Although you only recently graduated from Academy of Art University in San Francisco, you're already inciting envy among some of your fellow artists with the sophistication of your technique and vision. To what would you attribute the maturity of your approach to painting?

Pakayla: Thank you, that is an incredible compliment. I think people truly recognize my dedication and the hours I’ve put in to get where I’m at. Most of my maturity comes from researching other artists, looking at what they are doing, how they have progressed in their careers and taking lessons from that. I don’t know if I would attribute it to any specific thing. I think in this field, you have to have a voice and a dedication. In theory, it’s uncomplicated, but to really put in the time that some of these artists do is mind-numbing and absolutely alienating.

"It Is Here What You Are For Faraway"

EP: Among your inspirations are seasoned photorealists like Gottfried Helnwein. Given the extremes to which photography can be bent with today's technology, why do you think photorealistic painting is still so exciting?

Pakayla: Photorealism, what I do, is vastly different from hyperrealism. Photorealism is a replication of a photo, but with a lot of artistic departures. Hyperrealism strives to duplicate the image with patient precision, no brushstroke left unsmoothed. With my paintings, I have a lot of texture and liberties with color that hyperrealism leaves out.

In my opinion, people respond to the care that goes into painting in a photorealistic style, especially if it is done well and in a fresh way. But like I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of the symbiotic relationship that has come about between technology and fine arts. I think that more artists need to abandon their associations with "cheating," in respect to the use of computers, projectors and other technologies. It’s really antiquated, and especially as fine artists, we need to accept the change to a more technology-based environment and take from it what we can.

"These Are the Things We Carried"

EP: You're fascinated by the gritty yet meticulous drawings of fellow glasses-wearer Aurel Schmidt. What do you find most compelling about her work?

Pakayla: I like that Aurel is a bit of a dirt bag. She draws cigarette butts, condoms, bugs, hair, undies and other nasty items. Besides her art, I think her social life is pretty fascinating. She is often a naked muse for Olivier Zahm’s Purple magazine. She makes her rounds at every New York glitterati event. I think she’s got a rather wonderful life.

In respects to her art, I’m really drawn to work that has a psychotic attention to detail, like hers. Each line and color is placed with such veneration and care, it’s really awe-inspiring. It’s feminine, but with a grimy layer of dirt covering it. A bit like how I am. Aurel, if you’re reading this, hit me up, let’s go crush a beer and flash our undies at Olivier in some shady Parisian dive bar.

"Within You, Without You"

EP: Is there an underappreciated artist working today whom you wish would get more attention?

Pakayla: This is hard question for me to answer, because I have so many talented friends. I thrive in a creative crowd, so everyone close to me is artistically blessed in one way or another. I have a bunch of jewelry-making friends who design and execute really striking pieces. Loads of killer musicians with creativity coming out their mouths with every croon. My gaggle of graffiti friends who mark their territory with paint pens at each corner. It’s a bit more difficult to stumble upon underappreciated artists when I’m not in school, I’ve found. School is a great platform for finding those types of artists. One of my favorite girls on the scene right now is Erin M Riley. She makes these wonderful hand-woven tapestries that depict party scenes, like girls smoking weed, a couple smooching on a couch or someone doing a keg stand. They are really witty and brilliant.

EP: If you could have just one classic artwork from history in your studio, what would it be?

Pakayla: This might be a predictable piece of art to crave, but I would die to own Botticelli’s "Birth Of Venus." My father had this old sort of wrinkled-around-the-edges yellowing print of that painting in the garage hanging above his workbench. It was his favorite painting from the Italian Renaissance. It will forever possess a heavy nostalgic feeling. I had the chance to see it in person at the Uffizi in Italy a couple years ago. It’s so terribly special. I can’t help but call attention to the strong physical resemblance I share with Botticelli’s muses.

Also, in a tight second would be one of Gerhard Richter’s paintings. Honestly that man has produced so much incredible work, I wouldn’t be able to choose just one piece to own. Everything he touches is magic. I’m getting all verklempt just writing about it.

"It Is This Way Between Us"

EP: Is there anything else you're finding really inspiring right now?

Pakayla: Oh, sure. One of the greatest qualities that true artists possess is the insatiable quest for knowledge and the endless means of inspiration we find. I’m hell-bent on learning some new instruments right now, it's one of the only aspects of the creative realm that I have yet to tackle. Two of my friends and I have a lightweight band that we’re softly forming. The process of making music is so visceral, but in a different way than mark-making. It’s a brilliant exploration for me.

Recently I’ve started educating myself on vegetarianism as it responds to feminism. This book I’m in the middle of,
The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J. Adams, really delves into the correlations and makes really intimate observations between violence against women and the use and slaughtering of animals. The author writes about animals as an absent referent, male overtones in the meat industry, and how vegetarianism plays an important role in history.

"While You Wait For Another"

EP: Tell me a bit about what we can expect to see at your upcoming Thinkspace exhibition with Jeff Ramirez, "Being There."

Pakayla: Some more double-exposure paintings, of course! I’m really drawn to bodies of water and nature in this series. I think I’ve only got one piece with an indoor setting, but it's shrouded in clouds, so you can’t really tell. I tried my hand at more vibrant and saturated colors in this body of work, as well as a black and grey piece. It’s a wild mix-up.

I’m really excited to see everything hung. Jeff’s work is unbelievable, and I’m so honored to have him by my side! This is going to be a crazy mind-blowing show, I hope all of my Southern California babies come out!

EP: Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?

Pakayla: Make things, eternally and durably.

Pakayla Biehn and Jeff Ramirez's show "Being There" opens at Thinkspace on Saturday, May 21st from 6-8pm.

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