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Joanne Mattera, Tutto 3, 2022, acrylic and colored pencil on panel, 16 x 12 inches

Deanna Sirlin, Breathe, 2022, acrylic on canvas, on panel, 14 x 11 inches, private collection

Contemplating the Horizontal

A Conversation Between Joanne Mattera and Deanna Sirlin

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Joanne Mattera  at her exhibition Silk Road, Photo by Nancy Natale

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Deanna Sirlin at her installation, Watermark, Crosland Tower, Georgia Tech

This past winter, I saw works by Joanne Mattera that are chromatic investigations using a particular proportion that divides her compositions into horizontal bands. My paintings also employ color and a gestural mark that I make from left to right with a loaded brush. I was compelled to have a dialogue with Mattera to see how our respective processes and concepts are different, yet similar, and how they affect the outcome of our artworks. This conversation ensued. – Deanna Sirlin


For us as colorists, the horizontal is not about the geographical demarcation of above and below, but a means of painting in the most direct way possible. With a swipe from one edge of the canvas to the other, we can effect chromatic adjacencies that create visual excitement, perhaps retinal provocations. Thinking of our work in purely formal terms, we reject the allusion to landscape, but there is one reference worth addressing: the offing. Mariners will tell you the offing is that part of the sea which is visible but not close. If you’re on the beach, the offing is that vastness between beyond-the-shore and the horizon. In language the offing signifies the foreseeable future, arriving as the tide rolls in. But when you’re traveling on the ocean itself, that distance between you and the horizon is forever in the offing. How perfect a metaphor is that for the act of painting? With every new canvas we are once again on the deep sea. – Joanne Mattera

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Joanne Mattera, Silk Road 484, 2020, encaustic on panel, 24 x 24 inches

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Deanna Sirlin, After, 2020, acrylic on panel, 12 x 12 inches

Joanna Mattera: Deanna, what is your relationship to the horizontal, the offing, and the deep sea?


Deanna Sirlin: I have realized that my paintings are about the brushstroke laden with color and the physicality of my entire body making the mark, that this physicality has a direct relationship to the visual moment of the “offing.” A favorite place for me is to be immersed in water. It is like being “in” the color where I place myself to begin the painting process. The process of painting is being able to see the foreseeable future; painting is being in a physical conversation with my eye and body as they move within the color. Each stroke of color is a kind of “offing” as it is laid next to another. Space and time dissolve. My paintings are abstract, but my vocabulary comes from my study of nature and its geometry. My color is influenced by light and by watching and paying attention to light as it moves and changes. The flux and flicker of color engages me.

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Deanna Sirlin, Seeing In, 2020, acrylic on panel, 12 x 12 inches

Joanne Mattera, Vicolo 28, 2007, carved encaustic on panel, 12 x 12 inches

DS: I am curious about your choice of colors. How do you decide which hue to use and when? What part of your thought process informs you that the color is exactly right? What happens with your compositions in your process of repeating them over multiple works?


JM: I have worked serially for much of my career. I have also worked relatively small. So, for me it is natural to work out ideas sequentially, to see how one series of colors can mutate into the next painting and then to the next. The compositions are simple: color stacked as horizontal stripes, or a field built up with color laid atop color via the use of transparent hues. My sketches are rudimentary. I know, for instance, that I want to work “warm” in one painting, or “cool” in another, but really, every painting is just my response to the first swipe of color laid down.

A few years ago, I decided to divide the field in half horizontally. I was working on an ongoing series of square color field paintings in encaustic on panel, Silk Road. After painting about 400 small color fields, the challenge I set up for myself was to create two separate sections, each complete unto itself, and make them work together. There is no landscape intended, but the horizontal comes with its own assertion. So be it. More recently, working with a vertical proportion, I have divided the field so that the bottom half is more or less monochrome (there’s a lot of surface subtlety), while the top half is packed with horizontal bands of color. A friend described the work as “a thousand sunsets in one painting.” Nice, but not my intention. I have been using acrylic on canvas for this newer series, so as with encaustic, I’m able to build up layers of color pretty much as quickly as I wish to work.

How do I know the color is exactly right? I work on a painting until there’s nothing more I can do to it. Is it ”exactly right”? Existentially speaking, is anything exactly right? Probably not, but that’s the beauty of working in series. The next painting holds the promise of perfection.


Joanne Mattera,Studio view:  Mezza, 2022, gouache on 300 lb. Fabriano hot press, 20 x 16 (top) and 14 x 11 inches

JM: Now I’m going to toss your questions back to you. How do you decide on a palette? When do you know the color is right? And how does repetition deepen your approach to the work.


DS: My thinking about choices of color begins with a focus on the connection between the brush, my hand, and the paint. It is all about the color when I begin. I focus on the first color that I will put down and then all is in response to what is there. The amount of paint, its thickness, and viscosity are all in relation to the color and the amount of saturation. I want the color to come up to the surface and press against the picture plane. I do not decide on a palette; I let the color inform me as I add and remove layers. I consciously do not repeat myself; each move is a variation of size, color, stroke, and edge.


Since I have not premeditated a palette, there are many layers to the process. All my paintings begin with one palette, but always seem to end up somewhere else. When I am painting, I only think about the reaction of one color to the next, to the other colors and how making the brushstroke larger or thinner will affect the entire painting. I enact my considerations and reflections on nature through the perception and reverberation of the colors as they perform next to one another within this rectangular world whose boundaries I have created.

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Deanna Sirlin, Borders of Light and Water, (details), 2022, C-Print transparency on Glass

199.5 x 493 inches, Palazzo Bembo, Venice, Italy

DS: I am interested in what happens from one work to another in relationship to repetition in your work. Is it liberating to have a constant format you must address with a new invention each time? Do you ever stray from the original composition?


JM: I plan a palette. Sometimes I even make sketches, but they are not meant to be a road map. I think of them as road signs pointing to a general destination. The “driving” takes place in the process of painting.  For me the liberation is in having an idea of where I’m going without knowing exactly where I will end up. What’s interesting is how one idea can have such different results. As you point out, variations in size, color, stroke, and edge—and I would add proportion—provide an infinity of outcomes. Each series is the result of a particular drive.


One thing I do that you don’t, is dig into the surface. Not always, and not usually with acrylic, but two mediums invite incursion: encaustic, because of the relative softness of wax, and oil, because of its slow drying time. Using clay tools, or sometimes just a pointed stick, I mine the surface to reveal some of the history of the painting.


Joanne Matterra, On the studio wall, right: Tutto 7, 8, and 9,  acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36 inches

JM: That leads me to ask you about your surface. You say, “I want the color to come up to the surface and press against the picture plane.”  How do you bring the surface into visual relief? And do you ever plumb its depths?


DS: As I make a painting, one color moves forward and another one recedes with each new stroke. I rarely excavate the surface or prod to reveal what is underneath. I address the surface by overlaying the colors and allowing some of what is underneath to come through. Each color is placed on top of another color. I layer the colors and allow the color underneath to inform the new layer of color and stroke. Every mark and move relates to the one before.

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Deanna Sirlin, Watermark (details), 2022, C-Print Transparency on glass, Crosland Tower, Georgia Tech, Atlanta, 212 x 506 inches 

JM: One last question: Can we talk about translucency?

For me one of the ways of mixing color is to employ translucent layers—either under or over similarly translucent or opaque hues. In that way, the color has an almost physical depth. And, not incidentally, the viewer’s eye is challenged to do some of the work of seeing my color. Your paintings are chromatically radiant, and your translucent window installations cast their colored light into the environment.


DS: Oil painting is a translucent medium, one I worked with for many decades. I recently changed my medium to acrylic paint, which previously I had avoided because it was too opaque. Now, acrylic paint has a flexibility and clarity of color and viscosity that I embrace. My large-scale installations are all either transparent or translucent. As natural light passes through bands of saturated color, it is projected into the viewers’ physical space. It is important that this effect also works the other way around: the outside world is visible from the interior through the color in the artwork. The viewers’ perception is transformed in both directions.


Joanne Mattera's work is in the collections of the New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut; Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey; Connecticut College Print Department, New London; University Collections at the University of Albany, New York; Wheaton College, Norton, Mass.; the U.S. State Department, Washington, D.C.; and institutional and private collections internationally.

Joanna Mattera with Partenope, 1996, in her loft, 2022

Photo: Susan R. Danton

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Deanna Sirlin at her studio in Georgia

Deanna Sirlin studied painting and recieved her MFA from Queens College, CUNY, where she studied with Dr. Robert Pincus-Witten and Benny Andrews, and her BA in Art from SUNY Albany, where she studied with Dr.Ann Sutherland Harris. Her work is in the collections of High Museum; MOCA GA; Mark Rothko Centre, Latvia; Shenzhen Institute of Fine Art, China; Ca’ Foscari Venezia, Italy; Kunsthaus Nürnberg, Germany; Macon Museum of Arts and Sciences; Atlanta Gas Light; and Georgia Pacific.


Her book, She's Got What it What it Takes: American Women  Artists in Dialogue was published by Charta Books, Milan and NYC. She is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section.

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