(Brouhaha, oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches by Paula Bullwinkel)
The paintings of Paula Bullwinkel are quite enigmatic, to say the least. In them, oversized animals and rodents may share the scene with pale blue and light green headed humans, loose brushwork is often juxtaposed with finely detailed patterns, and the simultaneous presence of whimsy and mayhem wreaks havoc on our interpretive lens. Although these perplexing artworks, sprinkled with traces of surrealism, post impressionism, and ancient art historical references, may not appeal to the South Sister, postcard-art seeking collector, for those willing to spend time looking at the work and participating in the construction of its narrative, the imaginative journey is a most worthy reward.
In this final article of the Artists and Their Influences series, I had the pleasure of chatting with Paula about her challenging work and her recent, month-long residency in Lisbon, Portugal.
ME: Thanks for joining us, Paula! Can we begin by talking about your Lisbon residency and how that residency has influenced your art?
PAULA: Well, I took a big chance going to a country where I don’t know anybody and don’t speak Portuguese, but Lisbon seemed like an amazing place to be. The light is kind of the main thing, I discovered. The cobble stones that make up the streets and sidewalks are beige and uneven, and reflect this golden, sparkling light, all of which contributes to the old world charm of the city.
I decided to get my inspiration from the place itself, so I’d walk around Lisbon, take pictures and then go back to the studio and make photo collages in Photoshop, mostly about composition. I visited a garden, for example, with giant ceramic animals made by this most beloved ceramicist in all of Portugal. There was a four-foot-long lizard, an eight-foot bumblebee, all kinds. So I took a ton of pictures and included some of the animals in my paintings. At the Museum of Marionettes, I found a donkey puppet that I photographed. He looked pretty old, like from the 50’s, and I made my version of the donkey in an artwork. I also referenced animals, like cats, from Lisbon’s famous blue tiles, which often reflect its Moorish influence and past. I made eight paintings while there, all 18”x24”.
ME: The residency sounds like an amazing experience and Lisbon the perfect place for you to gather inspiration. Animals clearly play a major role in your paintings. They add an element of drama and a surreal quality to the work as a whole. Can you talk about the inclusion of animals in your imagery?
PAULA: Ever since I first started painting, which I did after spending 18 years as a professional fashion photographer, I’ve been basically working with the same kind of ideas, including the use of animals as important actors in the narratives I create. In one of my recent paintings, Brouhaha, some girls are having a tea party. One is collapsed on the tea party table and the other three are running away. I staged the actual scene so I could make photos to use as reference material. I told the girls, “OK, you’re going to put your head down and you three are going to run like mad like there’s a tiger chasing you.” Then, in the painting, I added two kangaroos and a monkey in flight in front of them. The animals are added to make everything okay, a calming factor in an otherwise uneasy scene. Animals are very connected to the people in my work. They are the goodness that is possible, part of their soul.
ME: That’s a very interesting role your animals play, and the size of them in relation to the people is often shocking. Does this reflect your interest in surrealism and the art of Dorothy Tanner?
PAULA: Yes, there is that element, but animals have always been part of my imaginative world since I was a kid and obviously later as well when I began to paint. For a long time I liked to do hybrid characters — half animal, half human. Frida Kahlo did that and so did the ancient Egyptians. It’s very fairytale-like, and I loved fairy tales as a kid.
With respect to Tanner, I love the weirdness in her work. She forces questions, like “Why would that be there?” or “What is going on here?” It’s so wild! Classic surrealism is very realistic in its execution, like you find in Dali, but due to the juxtaposition of unexpected images, it became surreal. Although I love the dreamlike quality of surrealist imagery, I don’t want to paint that way; I want to be looser.
ME: When you mention this “dreamlike quality” that you so admire, it’s almost like the realistic execution present in many surrealist works doesn’t quite lend itself to the dreaminess or other-worldly feeling the imagery suggests. One of the other artists you cite as a powerful influence on your work, the early 20th century French painter Pierre Bonnard, is much dreamier to me in terms of his painterly execution. And his use of color is so fascinating. Bonnard is clearly not interested in local color; his color is much more intuitive and invented.
PAULA: Yes, there is a certain haziness in his painting, like a memory.
ME: Absolutely. I believe he created most of his paintings from memory and quick pencil studies. There is also a staged element in Bonnard’s art, especially since he focused almost exclusively on domestic scenes: his home, his garden. His wife Marthe and his cat and dog frequently appear in his art, and they are often cropped in such a strange way, like right on the edge of the canvas as if they are just entering the scene. When I saw your painting Brouhaha on your website, and the photo of the staged scene that you show below the painting, I immediately thought of Bonnard.
PAULA: I love the way Bonnard uses cropping to add elements of mystery and intrigue. Usually my animals are more prominent because I’m more interested in them. Early on, however, I’d imitate his rather extreme cropping, like I’d put a dog’s nose in the corner. The whole thing of having things run off the edge, whether they’re coming into or exiting the viewer’s world, is very important in the creation of a narrative. After doing photography for so long, I’m hyper aware of the cropping.
Also, I like that Bonnard was trying to find his own peace through painting amongst the craziness of World War II. At the same time that Bonnard was painting pictures of his wife setting the table, for example, Picasso was painting Guernica. Bonnard was criticized for decades for doing that, and Picasso zoomed ahead because he dealt directly with the world’s issues. Bonnard didn’t get his due until the 1980’s, I think. It interests me how the world judges artists in their own time and afterwards.
ME: Engagement in the artistic process can act as a necessary and wonderful antidote to the difficulties one faces in life — whether war, a pandemic or personal grief. It can also represent a means through which one engages those difficulties. Whatever the case, the artist must press on and continue creating. Clearly you have done just that, Paula, and I commend you for it!
To view the art of Paula Bullwinkel, please visit her website at paulabullwinkel.com. And be sure to check out her recently published book of photographs, her 35 best images from 1979-2016, also available on her website. Paula is represented by Transmission Gallery in Oakland, California, and Portland Art Museum Rental Sales Gallery in Oregon.