Tammy Salzl is an Edmonton-born, Montreal-based painter who received her MFA in Painting and Drawing at Concordia University in 2014. She paints figurative studies of what it means to be human in today's world by exploring complex psychological narratives. What immediately seems pleasant renders itself disturbing on second glance—and vice-versa. She calls her figures “beautiful parasites," festering in the mind over time.
In honour of our one-year anniversary, ineffable had to chance to speak with Tammy about her work:
1. Where are you currently based?
I am currently based in Montreal, Quebec.
2. In your earlier work, specifically Tell-Tales and Monster Babies, you paint scenes of children that are both delightful and disturbing. What is your particular interest in the disruption of beauty and innocence?
I engage crafted beauty to draw the viewer in, then disrupt it through unsettling imagery. Society tends to have idealized assumptions of innocence when it comes to children. When you disrupt or subvert these assumptions, through distortion or content, it creates feelings of unease. In my work colourful settings and sweet faces contrast with brutally honest implications and grotesque metaphors. My cherubic characters are part whimsy, part horror story, performing questionable deeds that examine human nature as they cavort through strange but familiar environments, much like the symbolic world of the Brothers Grimm. The story you thought you knew at first glance shifts as visual elements sink in.
I want to challenge the viewer’s expectations, to slow them down and evoke a complex emotional response that transforms into a deepening awareness—a questioning—of ourselves and the world we live in. I want my work to enter the eyes through crafted beauty, drop to the gut as content sinks in, then soar to the mind in a contemplative festering over days, weeks, months—like a beautiful parasite.
3. In a past interview, you mentioned that you are “interested in capturing the psychological and emotional aspects of human nature.” Through allegory and metaphor, you express particular anxieties and what you perceive to be “a general psychosis within society.” Do you represent similar anxieties in Simplest of Gestures?
Yes. Simplest of Gestures tells the story of what it means to be human in todays world.
I wanted to create a psychological portrait that pictorially communicates a correspondence between our visible outer selves and an inner invisible reality. Using only gesture (body positioning and facial expression) as subject, form (anatomy, structure, composition) as expression and paint surface (layers of pigment and brushstroke) as energy, I make material connections to reflect not only a psychological make-up but to also suggest the “object-ness” of the body; a medium susceptible to the forces of gravity and stresses of life.
My figures shift between the endearing to the profoundly alienated, individual yet recognizable; we are all stuck in our bodies, with carefully guarded ideas about who we are that often don’t match our appearance. We are all inevitably marked by certain social pathologies (racism, homophobia, misogyny etc.), and by our encounters with others. We are all shaped by our relationships to each other, to society and technology, and to the planet. I wanted to find a way to tell this story, the story of us in these complex times.
4. What do you feel our society suffers from the most?
My characters often sit isolated on the paper, in non space, reflecting a loneliness I feel is prevalent and specific to our time.
There is an illusion that we are separate from the planet and other creatures. It engenders a psychological disconnection that is damaging and frightening. In our race for continual growth, for advancement, for happiness, we take from the planet in unsustainable abundance, in ways that are detrimental to the very things we need to survive - air, water, land, animals. We have lost sight that we are part of the earth, that we are immutably connected to it and to each other. We have become psychologically isolated.
I don’t think of this as fatal. We are always evolving and I have seen big changes in the past 10 years. We are becoming more and more aware and it makes living in this time all the more fascinating. My faith in the human mind and in our capacity to love is bottomless.
5. In Simplest of Gestures, you pay a lot of attention to skin and particular parts of the body. For example, “Fights Like a Girl” portrays an old man with a clenched fists, surrounded by swirls of red. Elsewhere, hands, toes, or knees are emphasized. What do you think is the importance of drawing attention to particular areas of the body?
I render flesh to operate in a way that metaphorically dramatizes the struggle of human existence. The flesh I paint reveals itself as being at once vulnerable and fragile yet unafraid and confrontational. I build up hundreds of layers of pigment, glazing to create a mottled flesh that glows and vibrates as though alive, yet is churned and distorted, revealing the inescapable certainty of our mortality: we live in a continual state of dying. The brutal landscape of skin is contrasted by bold bodies and direct gazes that declare agency, empowerment and life.
The hands, toes and knees rendered as isolated, pulsing wounds reflect my sense of the human predicament; they are indicators of human suffering and mortality. These brutalized joints serve as metaphors that manifest my personal anxieties about the world we live in and the disconnect between ourselves, each other, and the planet we rely on to survive.
6. Are you working on anything new?
The Tell-Tale and Simplest of Gestures series are both ongoing. I am continually learning from them and so continue to develop them. At the same time I have been drawing from my two dimensional work to experiment in intermedia installation. I am engaging the familiar tropes of fairy tales using recorded video and audio as well as scavenged online video, craft construction, painted and drawn paper, and printed elements to create a three dimensional tales the viewer can walk into.