“New year’s eve 1945 . . . symbolic but doubtful”, begins the dreamy voiceover that accompanies Elliot Camarra’s latest video collaboration with her partner, filmmaker Guy Kozak. The nostalgic narration, grainy footage, and precarious aesthetics of the film hint at some of the most notable themes that feature in Camarra’s enigmatic canvases. In her painted works, scenes of people — mainly women — exist in a vibrant pastel palette. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Camarra’s work is how she manages to play with perspective, both visually and conceptually.
Record-keeping, memory, and ideas of self preservation shape the way that she approaches her subjects and have inspired her to explore sculpture as an extension of the imaginative world that she builds for the subjects in her paintings. More recently, Camarra has delved into film, working on a video triptych with Kozak. She also works as a print designer for New York fashion labels and as a digital archivist at Artforum magazine. I spoke with Elliot about her love of dance, and developing her practice in a new context.
How did you discover your love of painting?
At school I started out focusing on film photography and printmaking — two ways of working that require a lot of preparation and precise follow-through. As a reaction to that, I began making paintings. I was taken by the immediacy of painting, and the relative ease of experimenting with colour.
You’ve spent some time abroad in Berlin, and permanently relocated to New York. How has context influenced your practice?
I lived in Berlin for just a little while. It was a couple of years ago, after graduating from college. Making work there was a very different experience than working here in New York, and also very different from being in school. My life there was focused on artmaking and my schedule was open. It felt a bit like an extension of school in that way, except that I had suddenly been dropped into a completely unfamiliar city from which I had no expectations and which had no expectations of me. I opened up to an experimental practice and, for the sake of practical travel, painted over and over on the same canvases — a liberating lack of preciousness.
In New York, I have a job and a lot more to balance than I did then. For me, this means carefully structuring my time to move in and out of the headspaces that living, working, and maintaining an art practice require. I’m still working on that.
How do you establish your creative identity in one of the world’s busiest, most diverse cities?
I am so curious about your fascination with memory, history, and the idea of ‘relics’ – can you tell me how these themes feature in your art?
I’m interested in personal documentation and the many forms that it takes — whether written, photographed, or in the form of a keepsake rose, or rock, or pair of gloves. I’m inspired by the accidental archives, or assemblages, or whatever you’d like to call them, that emerge out of what people collect and what gets left behind.
What’s the process for creating your works – do you start with a clear vision, or see what happens when you start painting?
I generally like to have a clear vision before starting to work these days. I begin by assembling or sorting through a mass of reference material — anything from written notes to collected film stills. From there I make a plan, but always with room to see what happens.
You’ve been working with sculpture too?
Yes, I’ve found working sculpturally to be a natural complement to painting — the end of a sentence.
Tell me about your fascination with dance. What is it that you find so captivating about ballet?
I find the mix of expressiveness and rigidity to be very intriguing, but I also love the aesthetics of the costumes, sets, and the pomp of theatres.
You’d mentioned that there was a feminist aspect to dance that you’ve been exploring?
There are endless feminist aspects to dance, but what I’m particularly interested in is the ultimate autonomy of the performing dancer. No matter what era or style, no matter who choreographed or directed their movement beforehand, in the moment of the performance the dancer has this huge power in their decision either to stick with the plan or to deviate.
More of everything.
Best gallery to visit in New York?
Bridget Donahue Gallery
What do you miss most about Berlin?
Pink sunset bike ride with Guy from the zoo back to our studio/apartment.
Book you’re reading?
In the Freud Archives by Janet Malcolm.
Favourite objects in your house?
1930’s orange candlesticks, hanging lamp spotted on first day in Berlin, quilt I made last winter, bear sculpture made by my dad.
Most delicious meal you can think of eating?
Jalapeño and yellowtail sushi . . . or japchae and scallion pancakes.
Favourite way to unwind?
standing in the ocean/eating good food with nice people.
Any inspiring female artists that we should know about?