Brent Cleveland and Sheila Nadimi, two artists living and working in Montreal, are both perhaps emblematic of the city’s propensity toward the avant-garde. Nadimi, working in a variety of media, is driven by an interest in the inherent properties of materiality and the relationship between ideas and materials. Her paintings, adhering to a commitment to abstraction attempt to explore possibilities and freedom whilst her drawings, collage, and prints are treated as a place to explore and confront coexisting and contradictory interests; abstraction and representation, precise moments in time, and the timeless, scratchy noise and silence. Cleveland, on the other hand; a queer Montreal-based visual artist whose neo-figurative portraiture probes concepts of gender, sexuality, and human expression puts haunting and distorted subjects to canvas, imbuing a sort of warping of the male gaze, reflecting a nuanced glance of heteronormative defiance toward the spectator. The artist’s caught up with one another for an exclusive chat to talk about art, subjectivity, the creative process, and what inspires them.
Brent: What is your earliest art experience?
Sheila: I have no memory of myself not connected in some way to the arts. Drawing, painting, and making things were the earliest activities I can recall wanting to do. My father was an artist. He had a studio space in our basement and I would sit in the corner making small paintings on paper while he worked on his large abstract canvases. He took me to my first exhibition which was a solo show of the Dutch CoBrA artist Karel Appel. The show was somewhere in Montreal and I have retained some clear memories from that experience even though I must have been 5 or 6 at the time. He was very nationalistic in the artists he admired so his references were inevitably Dutch. He was particularly interested in Mondrian. He died when I was 7 so that connection to art was lost abruptly but I continued on my own, and in my own way, to create throughout my childhood.
BC: When did you first hear the word art or artist?
SN: These were words that were always around me and attached to me. Art did not remain my only passion, however. As I grew older I turned toward adventure sports quite seriously but ‘artist’ was my earliest sense of myself and I see it as fundamental to who I am. In some families everyone is artistic but in my family, it was just myself and my father. Neither of my siblings nor my mother had any significant interest in the visual arts. Losing my father had a profound impact on me, as beyond losing a father, I also lost this direct connection to the arts and the language of art. After all these years I still feel connected to him through painting and the art books he left behind with his notes scribbled along the margins. Deciding to choose art as my vocation, bringing it to the forefront of my life, was a very challenging decision, however, and it was preceded by something I can only describe as an identity crisis. It was a coming out of sorts. My mother found herself a single mom who was justifiably worried about what this would mean for my future and, as an Iranian, ‘artist’ did not fall into one of the desirable or acceptable professions. This was never communicated to me directly, I was never told not to consider studies in the arts, but it was implicit.
BC: Why painting?
SN: As you know, painting is not the only media I work in and, in fact, I may consider drawing to be at the core of my studio practice but painting has my heart. Painting is the hardest thing I know how to do. Abstract painting, in particular, brings me to a place I can only describe as walking into a dark room with no flashlight and no sense of where the exit is. You just feel your way along, trusting your senses, until both you and the painting are released. Each painting brings me to a new place. I like to think of myself as a feral horse grazing in an open field where I am taking from what is in front of me. Abstraction, in both painting and drawing, is how I dig away at the truth. And whereas I find figurative work to always have some redeeming qualities, abstraction can have a vacuousness or an indulgence that I find hard to witness, especially if it comes from my own hand. This is the cliff’s edge that I stay very aware of: where does abstraction fall off into “furniture store abstraction”? The edge on the other side for me is when painting leans far into the concepts of the artist, where the material of paint serves the artist’s ideas and doesn’t have a mind of its own. I return often to the description the artist Tal R uses to describe his engagement with painting where he says it feels like free-falling with an idea in his back pocket, where the painting unwraps that idea in a way you didn’t see coming. This stepping into the unknown and willingness to get lost and then found is crucial to my way of working. I am interested in art that is unsettling, that challenges my own aesthetic and thinking. And, ultimately, I believe in the descriptive power of paint which I would imagine all artists must have who paint. I love how something so anachronistic, some pigment and binder and a wooden stick with some fibre at the end of it, can do such a good job of revealing to us who we are.
BC: What is it about painting that holds meaningful connections for you?
SN: I studied sculpture, and that is still what I teach, but painting (and drawing) brings me closest to what you might call my essence, where I can be completely free. In order to be in the right frame of mind to paint I feel I need to leave so much at the door – all my certainties, any desire to please, or to do the right thing. I am left with only my curiosity. I only get this feeling in nature and in front of my work, this complete loss of self-consciousness and total sense of unity. I do however find it important to carry the history of art, all my ancestors, with me. This is what gives me meaning, the sense that I am trying to add to this long beautiful conversation. If I have one desire as an artist it is to have a seat at this table that is the story of art.
BC: You mentioned that painting is the hardest thing you know how to do, could you expand on what makes painting so difficult?
SN: Painting problems, the problems that arise, are ones that I often find very hard to solve and there is nowhere to go to get the answers beyond yourself. And sometimes even figuring out the source of the problem is a challenge. Is it a mathematical problem? Composition? Colour? Structural? Balance? Clarity? Overworked? Unresolved? I know a painting is done when it no longer broadcasts its problems but instead presents itself as a fact, as though it had been sitting there waiting for me all along. I suppose this is all I ask of a painting-that it leaves the studio self-assured, ready for the world.
BC: Could you talk about your educational experience and the formal training you received in relation to painting and sculpture? Was there any key insight into how you would approach art-making?
SN: I struggled to know what to study at University, to get a clear signal of what direction to follow. I was pretty lost toward the end of high school and even more so after Cegep to know what to do next. I was a mediocre student in high school but once in Cegep my grades really improved and I began to think of myself as a capable student with options in front of me. In the end, I decided to study Geography at McGill University as I have always been interested in the world around me. Being half Iranian and half Dutch this interest was also, in a sense, a search for my community and my landscape as I have always felt a sense of partial belonging. In my third year of my studies, I got restless and took a semester off to go to West Africa which was on my mind ever since I heard West African music. The trip to West Africa made me want to pursue a graduate degree in environmental studies and work for some international organization. I went to Simon Fraser for a Masters in Natural Resource Management but I soon realized I was in the wrong place. I was trying to put creativity in everything I submitted but this was not the place for it. At one seminar I showed up with a sculpture to illustrate my topic and at another presentation, I projected a vintage image of two men wrestling to open my discussion of predator-prey relations on some island. I was getting signals from the faculty that these types of inclusions were not appropriate. I stayed with the program until the end of my second year when I decided to withdraw and study art full time. In hindsight, this was one of the biggest decisions I made in my life. I moved to Utah where I did my Master of Fine Art at Utah State University followed by a post-graduate diploma from the Academy of Art in Arnhem the Netherlands. In the end quite a mix of places and degrees, and I never received the same foundation level education as many artists. This meandering path is not one I would recommend to anyone else but I see now that it was right for me.
BC: Have you experienced any insight for your artistic process in times of lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic? How has your life changed? How has your life stayed the same?
SN: What I didn’t get during Covid was the enormous gift of time as I was in mid-semester and had to quickly adapt my studio-based teaching toward at-home projects. The summer of 2020 was also spent preparing for the upcoming year of remote learning which, for the visual arts, required a complete reworking of all my projects. I actually appreciated the challenge but it took a lot of creative energy. I kept hearing about people baking bread and trying out all kinds of new cooking skills and I was not at all in this frame of mind. Of course, as we know, not everyone was baking bread and this period has been so devastating and challenging for so many. The main difference for me, even though I was very busy, was the amount of time at home. I have become so much more aware and attentive to the little patch of space I have spent the past 18 months in, the house, and the little 5km radius I have been penned into. As someone who has wandered around the planet quite a bit, this concentration of time and space was very interesting to me. I became very observant of this patch of land, the sounds of all the birds, the shape of the various trunks of trees, the movement of nature. I found a sense of awe in my own surroundings. I would say I spent a lot of time just riding this Covid wave, adapting to the ever-shifting rules and constrictions, and trying not to be in resistance to it all. As for my art practice, I had already moved my studio to my home and found myself in gratitude for being an artist as there is never any boredom. The work continued to be what it always is, an anchoring to the world around me and the act of processing information. I mostly carried on with my Smoke Jumper series of drawings, which are perfectly suited to being stuck at home, but I did create a series of small wood panel paintings inspired by landscape. I suppose the only connection to Covid in these paintings is that there is a lot of movement, a very shifting landscape. I don’t think I will ever trust the world to be stable again as if it ever was. This is perhaps what I take from this extraordinary time we are living in. What this experience through the pandemic did change, or confirm for me, is my commitment to work that has humility at its core. I spend a lot of time drawing on the floor with my pencil in my hand. This feels right to me at this time- to be focussed on something very rudimentary, with rudimentary materials, that hopefully still says something about contemporary life.
BC: What would be the advice you would give earlier versions of yourself?
SN: This question makes me laugh because I still feel like the earlier version of myself even though I have been in this world of art in some way for decades. The first thing that comes to mind, though, is to tell the earlier ‘me’ that the decisions of others, whether affirmations or rejections are not the measures of the success of an artist. The success is in the engagement and the commitment to make the space for art in your life. This depth of investigation, like it is for a scientist, is where the success lies and this is entirely in your control. So, to answer your question, I would not be very compassionate to this early ‘self’ who would sometimes shed a bucket of tears upon receipt of rejections to applications. I would simply say wipe your tears and get to work. I do believe grieving these rejections is important, as all artists experience them at some point, but make that grieving period short, do something nice to yourself and then go back to work. The healing is in the work and nobody can take that relationship away.
BC: Could you describe what it is like to see the world through the eyes of an artist?
SN: I think everybody’s way of engaging with their work and the world is very different and I love how varied the relationships are between artists and their worlds. For me it is about contemplation, extracting meaning from the world around me. It is as much about heart and soul as it is about eyes. I do not, however, want the work to be any form of illustration of what is going on but rather a processing of that information and bearing witness. Recently I have been interested in the work of the South African physicist Neil Turok. He talks about the elegance and simplicity that underlies all that is at the largest and smallest scales, the smallest subatomic scale, and the inconceivable scale of deep space. It is the human scale, he notes, where all the chaos is. This thinking was both an inspiration and a relief to me because I felt that this vertical transect, from way up into space down through what he calls the ‘messy middle’ of our human activity through to the quantum scale, is a space that allows for all that I am interested in. Each thing I do can be positioned along this transect. Much of my work aims to feed into the unknowable simplicity of the largest and smallest scales of the universe and sometimes I take energy from that messy middle. This is how I have reconciled a practice where I am simultaneously working on a book about a set of barracks in Utah, to large-scale drawings made up of thousands of small hand-drawn triangles to my more gestural paintings. I see everything that I do fitting on this transect and it means, essentially, that I can do anything.
Sheila: I would like to know how you experience the artistic process. Is it a place for contentment and ease or challenge and resistance? I would assume like most artists a mix of it all, but perhaps you could speak to how you feel as you make work?
Brent: I experience the artistic process as a moment in time that I have to orchestrate in order to achieve something of a certain substance. I really try to make art when I know I can make art, and set up the appropriate variables in order to execute what I have in mind. I am getting better at knowing what I am looking for, so my decision-making is sharper.
SN: You are a very confident artist. In my conversations with you, I have heard you refer to your relationship to your work in a very confident way. Where does this confidence come from?
BC: The art that I naturally gravitate towards are often very confident artworks. Works of art that are very assertive and sure of its necessity to exist are more interesting to me than works that are prescriptions of ideologies or stand-ins for political agendas. I don’t really know where this confidence comes from, but being an artist has been the clearest vision of myself, so I try to speak from this clarity.
SN: What to you makes an artist interesting? You speak about the art or the artists you gravitate toward. Can you expand what kind of art pulls you in?
BC: I tend to gravitate towards artists whose work echoes a historical familiarity, and yet, are so distinctly on their own trajectory. I see artists as time travelers, or maybe even conduits for artistic knowledge, passing down information through the centuries. This type of artist pulls me in because I too am trying to access this type of knowing.
SN: We are from different generations and there are objects, such as the large ornate ashtrays that my mother would flick her cigarette into or the wood paneling that lined our basement, or the sober grey of the 1980s that become part of our aesthetic even though they may have little to do with us. Can you talk about the aesthetics of your childhood?
BC: Perhaps there is an aspect of childhood toys in my work. Dolls, action figures, stuffed animals, etc… There is a prominent colour palette with the toys of the ’90s. There was this sensibility of ultra-colour: a mass-produced use of colour that heightened the sense of play in the plastics and synthetic materials of the toys. I remember being attracted to these colours, having whimsical thoughts whenever I would see the commercials or when wandering the toy section while shopping with my mom.
SN: What about our contemporary moment? Can you identify things that your work pulls on that are around us today?
BC: The contemporary moment feels different, but I see connections to the past all around me. There is some nostalgia for certain aesthetics, but it is a distorted perception. My work more directly draws from current fashion magazines, cartoons, television, and film.
SN: What is it about fashion magazines and film and television that interests you?
BC: I love seeing strong visual mediums with a sense of imagination.
SN: Why have you chosen a naive style to express these interests?
BC: I’m not sure if I have consciously chosen a naive style. My work is very direct, bold, colourful, and often times flat. So, these qualities can be considered naive. I will say that the sense of wonder that I’m often searching for can come across as so.
SN: You recently obtained your MFA. Can you talk about that experience and how the work may have changed?
BC: My work changed a lot during my MFA, and in many ways, for the better. It was a real whirlwind experience: a very intense 2 years of constant production, experimentation, artist talks, studio visits, openings, crits, readings, essays, etc… It was a very challenging time, but also extremely rewarding, and some of the most fun I have had in my life so far. All of this made my work a lot better – I was able to sharpen my skills and really focus on my interests in order to grow as an artist.
SN: We have spoken about how few artists realize the career of their dreams and how much negotiating and perseverance there is to simply keep going. How do you feel going forward?
BC: In terms of wildest career dreams, being an artist was considered a very crazy and wild thing to do in my family. Basically, I feel good moving forward, and I feel that the best is yet to come. I’m trying not to get too ahead of myself and enjoy my current moment. I don’t want to get trapped in this endless torturous game where I’m never at peace and never satisfied.
SN: As we head into the fourth wave of this pandemic I think any sense of a clear future is hard to see, so staying in the current moment I suppose is the best we can do. How have you managed in this crisis we are all living through? I am sure this is not the world you were anticipating greeting you on the completion of your MFA?
BC: I have been negotiating my terms daily throughout the pandemic. I have a set core of inklings that give me some sense of generalized direction, but it really has been a day-by-day scenario. There are days where I have a real sense of control over managing things. Then there are days where that is not the case, and getting out of bed is a real challenge because it all feels impossible. There wasn’t really a specific vision I had about the world post-MFA, but you’re correct that I certainly didn’t anticipate a global pandemic.
SN: One of the results of the pandemic, with galleries and museums closed and all of us confined, is the amount of content from these institutions that was put online. At first, this was so exciting, to sit on your couch and travel around exhibitions that would have normally required a lot of hustling around but it soon became overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. We all know there is nothing like being in front of actual work and you can always tell who the artists are in the museum by how close they get to the work but we are now so comfortable believing we have experienced a work because we have seen it online or on someone’s social media feed. Can you speak to your own relationship with the digital interface?
BC: It is always better to see work in real life. I think it is also better to make work with the mindset of it being seen in real life, if it happens to look good on social media, that is just a bonus. This is how I try to think.
SN: You tend to work figuratively and I am invested in abstraction but we both speak often of the life force that needs to be in a work of art. Abstraction without life force falls into something quite decorative or simply existing on a formal plane. What for you is the cliff’s edge in figurative work?
BC: I suppose anytime I do something figurative or representational, I am trying not to tread too far into illustration. I don’t have any issues with looking at these types of media, however, when I am making a drawing or a painting, I really want it to be a drawing or a painting. I really want the conversation to be about the surface, or the colour, or the forms, or the material, or maybe the emotional aspects, or maybe even the personal aspects. For me, there needs to be a very specific visual language that justifies it being a drawing or a painting, and not some other form of media.
SN: Do you feel that the art world is a more open place with all the social media platforms, the changes resulting from the pandemic, and social reckoning? Does this give you, as a recent graduate, the feeling of a more inclusive environment to engage with?
BC: No, I do not believe the art world is a more open place, and I do not believe social media makes it more inclusive. There is definitely the illusion of art being more accessible simply because there is a democratization of who can post images. But I would be hesitant to say that the art world is more open.
As a recent graduate, my stance is to focus on making artwork that is strong while having a sense of purpose and longevity to it. I really want to make interesting art that other artists and people gravitate towards.
Cody is the Editor in Chief and senior contributor at liminul.
He is a photography aficionado, fashion enthusiast, avid Lana Del Rey fan, and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing.