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In the studio with… Elizabeth Neel

22 September 2021

Elizabeth Neel’s paintings draw on Old Master paintings and classic films as well as her own observations of the natural world. ‘Art is like the food processor,’ she says. ‘It slices and dices these things up and transforms them.’ The American artist paints with acrylic on canvas, using fingers, rags, rollers and brushes to create images that hover between abstraction and figuration. ‘Elizabeth Neel: Limb after Limb’, an exhibition of recent paintings, is currently on view at Pilar Corrias on Savile Row in London (until 23 October). During Frieze week the gallery will also present a new film directed by the artist’s brother Andrew Neel, which touches on their family history – they are the grandchildren of Alice Neel (1900–88), who gave Elizabeth her first set of paints when she was eight years old.

Where is your studio? 
I work in the Greenpoint area of Brooklyn, NY and also in Stowe, Vermont.

What do you like most about the space?
It’s isolated at the end of a protracted hallway full of plants and there are very few noise distractions. I also like that the building is ethically managed and includes small-scale manufacturers – real experts – as well as a few artists.

What frustrates you about it?
It’s a long walk to the bathroom!

Eve (2021), Elizabeth Neel

Eve (2021), Elizabeth Neel

How messy is your studio?
My studio goes through reasonable cycles of disorder on a daily basis.

What does it smell like?
It smells like raw canvas and wood and sometimes soup.

What’s the weirdest object in there?
Old piano keys and a coyote skin. I don’t find them ‘weird’ as in strange – they strike me more as uncanny.

Which artistic tool could you least do without?
Bounty paper towels.

What’s the most well-thumbed book in your studio?
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.

Do you pin up images of other artists’ works?
Yes. Sarah Lucas, Georgia O’Keefe, Francis Bacon, Cy Twombly, and Wolfgang Tillmans are up right now… but many, many others too, especially the work of anonymous archaic specialists. Often, I put up works because they are good, not necessarily because they relate to what I am doing. It’s a matter of respect and a reminder of how incredibly difficult it is to make even one great thing.

Do you cook in the studio?
I don’t think you could call it cooking exactly… I heat things up on a tiny hot plate. I don’t like to eat a lot when I am working because it slows down my mind and my body.

Stranger’s End (2021), Elizabeth Neel

Stranger’s End (2021), Elizabeth Neel

What do you listen to while you’re working?
Baseball is the best but essentially I listen to anything other than music. Repeating structures, melodies and lyrics tend to get carbon copied on to my brain when I am hyperfocused and then they beat away relentlessly in my dreams at night which prevents me from resting properly. I save music for outside the studio.

What do you usually wear while you’re working?
I wear large black cotton Hanes sweatshirts and whichever bottoms the temperature requires – usually with a set of basketball knee pads.

Do you ever sleep in your studio?
I have a six- to nine-hour window of productive, intense concentration: after that I become tired and confused so it’s best to create physical and emotional distance by going home and sleeping in my bed. It took me a long time to figure that out about myself but now I cannot live any other way.

Who’s the most interesting visitor you’ve had to your studio?
Loose lips sink ships! Probably best not to answer that question.

‘Elizabeth Neel: Limb after Limb’ is at Pilar Corrias, Savile Row, London until 23 October.