EK Interview: Edie Nadelhaft

Edie Nadelhaft‘s work may show the surface of things, but her content goes far deeper. Painting from a place that encapsulates the entire spectrum of emotion, Edie’s work depicts how finite humans are, and how infinite the sea, a force beyond our control and lacking regard to our feelings, is.

Have you been anywhere new this week? Anywhere that you’d never been before?
Yesterday I went to Pioneer Works, the arts & technology collaborative space… “a center for research and experimentation in contemporary culture”, in their own words. It’s a vast (25k square foot) former warehouse right on the water in Red Hook, Brooklyn. I attended an all-day conference there called Software4ArtistsDay. Technology is integral to my work from both a conceptual and practical standpoint, so this was right up my alley. I have designed an interactive game based on my paintings, and I use digital photography exclusively for my source imagery. At present, one can capture the topography of either the human hand or the Atlantic Ocean with equal facility using a device no more powerful or expensive than a cell phone camera. I find that fascinating, and the impact of a ubiquitous and ever-expanding digital culture on human experience is an underlying theme in my work. The conference presenters offered imaginative and practical ideas on the topic, and in a stunning setting to boot!


As an artist, what rituals do you participate in that are important to your work? What do you need to be fulfilled creatively?
I meditate a little – about 15 minutes a day. I am very restless, both physically and intellectually and meditation helps me settle down and focus.

Regarding creative fulfillment, I am very lucky in that I can work in my studio every day. That in and of itself is extremely fulfilling. I don’t wait for inspiration, per se. I work all the time. Even when I am not sure what to do, I keep painting. Some of my favorite work has been done when I thought I was really “over” a particular subject or series, but pushed through the weariness to make one more painting. Not that I don’t have frustrating days, but mostly it is gratifying to be able to make my work, and I take pleasure in the progress I see in my skills as well as the evolution of my ideas, such as they are.


In your statement, you discuss choosing flesh and the ocean as your subjects. How did these two materials come to you? Do you have a history with the ocean? What significance does it hold for you?
The ocean has always been a source of both great physical pleasure and profound emotional and psychological comfort to me. When I was a child, my family owned a house in Wellfleet on Cape Cod. I have enjoyed being playfully, if somewhat brutally, buffeted, borne, tossed and dragged by the waves for as long as I can remember. I have also been put in my place by it, reminded of my position on the evolutionary continuum if you will (more on that later). I have marveled at it under a full moon on LSD, and I have seen its path of destruction in my hometown of NYC after hurricane Sandy. It makes me and my puny human concerns feel small in the best possible way. It’s beautiful and sad and exciting and utterly indifferent to me. To quote Dave Navarro (I can’t believe I am!!) “It kind of makes things right-sized”. He was not talking about the ocean, by the way, but these words perfectly summarize my feelings about the sea.


The ocean paintings were initially undertaken in response to the death of a very significant friend. I had always thought that the ocean was, um, too good for me. Really. What could I possibly add? But then suddenly I was in Cape Cod, after managing to arrive in the nick of time, to see my friend draw very nearly his last breath. He died the next morning and upon receiving the news, I went to the ocean. I just sort of went, WTF, I want to. I will try it and if it’s lame or sentimental I’ll move on. That was almost 3 years ago.

The skin in my paintings is my own-not sure what could possibly be more personally significant than that. Just prior to the Flesh Fields, I was painting extreme close-ups of myself biting into a cherry. Initially, I was quite focused on the gesture of the bite: my teeth on the cherry, the way it tasted, how it felt in my mouth. Then I started really getting into the fine detail of the lips. And that was like a gateway drug. It really increased my tolerance for painting excruciating detail.


Have you ever broken a bone or been in a serious accident? In your statement you mention ‘the visceral predicament of what it feels like to be alive: the delicate balance between vitality and vulnerability that defines the human condition.’ What is your relationship with physical trauma? Have you had your perception of life, and of the value of the moment, changed by any physically traumatic events?
No, no, see below, and yes.

Lucky me-I haven’t known physical trauma personally (if you don’t count a few choice incidents with an X-Acto knife). But I have seen others, very close to me, become ill and die. One when I was very young. So there’s no pretending it doesn’t happen. But I am an optimist and a hedonist to my core, so mostly it is the sheer thrill of good health and physical sensation that motivates these statements. That, juxtaposed with a couple of up close and personal encounters with my own mortality:


1. I almost drowned in a riptide when I was 13 YO, quite casually I might add. The entire experience was utterly lacking in drama, trauma, or really anything one could perceive had they been watching me from the shore, as my best friend had been, before she finally overcame her adolescent embarrassment and summoned the lifeguard to rescue my sister, my sister’s boyfriend, and me. We had been body surfing on one of those days when the waves perpetually seem to be breaking just a little further out than the point where one is standing. We waded out gradually, never really reaching them, when suddenly I stepped off of a shelf and could no longer stand. “No big deal.” I thought, “I’ll just go back a few inches”. Except, I couldn’t. The subtlety of a riptide is astounding. I could not feel it at all. Nor could I budge one iota closer to the shore, even after swimming to the point of near exhaustion. All I could feel was disbelief at the slowly dawning reality that I, a perfectly healthy tween, might die from fatigue. Let’s just say that I gained a profound sense of respect for my old friend that day.


2. I am a motorcyclist- a most exhilarating pastime. But if this isn’t approached from a strictly Darwinian perspective, one is not likely to last too long. You are always the “little dog” on the road. I wear all the right gear, but still…because: trucks. And cell phones.


‘Skinny Dip’ is the only of your series to combine water and flesh, ‘Platinum Sea’, and ‘Flesh’ both focus exclusively on one of the two subjects. What brought you to combine the two? Do you think Platinum Sea and Flesh should be considered together? Do they add to one another?
For one thing, the title “Skinny Dip” refers to the body of work. Each individual component depicts either skin or water. They are not combined on any one canvas. That would start to introduce a narrative element to the work, something that I deliberately avoid.


The name, along with the circular format, is intended to be playful. But combining these subjects really made sense to me on a deeper level too. The Flesh paintings came out of my desire to discover the most literal representation of what it feels like to be alive. You “feel” with your skin in both the active and passive sense of the verb. The ocean paintings were conceived from a very similar perspective. They are very physical, “muscular”, to quote a friend. I am painting what the ocean feels like (more than what it looks like) to me. That’s one of the reasons why there is rarely any contextual information in either body of work-no horizon line, or body contour.


And I don’t want to say “should”, but I definitely think the Flesh and PS paintings can be considered together. They are very similar compositionally and as well as conceptually. I hope they add to each other. I think interspersing the skin with the water provides more insight for the viewer into my motivation for making this work.


In The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley referred to clothing as window dressing, and commented that we cover the majority of our bodies. He went on to mention that because of this we don’t see each other truly. As someone that focuses on the surface, what do you think of this statement? What can the surface of a person tell you about them? The saying goes ‘it’s what’s inside that counts’, but what’s on the outside is almost all that routinely touches someone else, except in sex, how do we reconcile these disparate ideas?
I should start by saying here that this is a book that I have not read (gasp!) And don’t get me started about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance either, which I tried to read several times but really hated. Of course I have heard of “The Doors..” and have a passing familiarity with it’s contents. But the premise of your question strikes me as a little dated and over simplified and I’m not sure it is entirely true. The skin is no different than clothing with regards to the “true” self. Besides, I live in New York and people here pour a lot of themselves into their outward appearance-in a good way. Everything’s a self-portrait, right? And we really only ever show other people the parts of ourselves that we choose to share, whether or not we are clothed. One is constantly editing, consciously or otherwise. Anyways, I am a very private person so this all seems moot to me. I’m very happy in my fashionably appointed little meat bunker. Fuggetaboutit!


Regarding my choice to paint surfaces, these are deep, deep surfaces. They are really more substance than surface. That’s why I titled the skin paintings Flesh Fields. And in the case of water, there is no substantive distinction between the surface and the deep water. In both cases the surface is also the substance.


What is your favorite physical feature about yourself? What is your favorite part of the human body?
My teeth. I think I like people’s hands. And eyes.

What’s the last thing you read?
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner