Elif Soyer: Art that Moves the Mind

Untitled, acrylic and pencil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches.

At the opening reception of Elif Soyer’s exhibition, Throughwhich is on view until Sunday, March 27, I discussed the work with one of her fellow member artists. We commented on how the elegant paintings that are inspired by organic matter such as plant roots could as well be the tracks of a person fencing in the snow. This is not so random an association as one may think, because Soyer co-owns Moe Fencing Club in Somerville, MA.

Classic dance step diagram

Her two areas of expertise-art and fencing-can’t help but inform each other. I can’t speak to fencing in detail, but I understand the sport to involve a combination of physical discipline and strategy. Meanwhile, during my recent studio visit with Soyer, it became clear that she was doesn’t so much literally represent her chosen subject as recreate the connections between things, incorporating multiple types of information about the given subject, such as multiple viewpoints, times spent observing it, and characteristics of its nature, into the rendering. Rather than starting fresh, the previous marks accentuate the marks in the foreground, appearing to emerge from layers of white acrylic. Each gesture visually accumulates to achieve the completed work. As the exhibition press release describes, the paintings register experiences of memory, space, and time.

A flat, neutral background is consistent throughout this new series of works on canvas and paper. It brings to mind both diagrams and specimens, and in that way causes me to associate them with sharing ways of thinking and understanding the world, rather than straightforward, optical representations.

A rough schematic of energy shifting planes from an article about synaesthetic motion. See the original context on the website Creative Applications

I brought together a few images to demonstrate what I mean: a vintage diagram of dance steps,  a rough, hand-drawn schematic of energy shifting planes that I found in an article about synaesthetic motion (this article is quite technical, but they mention James Turrell in the third paragraph), and an illustration of an algae specimen by Mary Wyatt. I like the contrast with illustrations of algae particularly, as Soyer focuses on roots, the parts of plants that are typically not visible, but they are essential to their sustenance and growht.

The paintings in Through are not any one of the examples I bring in, but consider them while keeping in mind the concept of motion, specifically the motion of objects shifting in space, and sharing ideas. The series can be seen as interpretations of how thoughts and perceptions change over time, and how the progression toward understanding is as interesting as the mastery of any given subject.

Mary Wyatt, Algae Danmonienses, or Dried Specimens of Marine Plants, found on Zucker Art Books. 

At a time when we all may all guard ourselves against steadily decreasing attention spans, these paintings demonstrate not snapshots of objects, not hints of narratives, or even one specific idea or value, but rather the process of living with things over time. Painting this series, for Soyer, was a way of learning and knowing, with graceful and thought-provoking results.


Elif Soyer is a Turkish-American artist. She received a Diploma in 1995 and a MFA in 1997 from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and is the longest-serving member of Kingston Gallery.

She is also a fencing coach and co-owner of Moe Fencing Club in Somerville, MA, where she trains Olympic hopefuls, weekend warriors and some of the top-ranked fencers in the US.

Another work in Through shot at Elif Soyer’s studio in Somerville, MA earlier in 2016. Untitled, acrylic and pencil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches.



Only the Essentials: A Studio Visit with Mary Bucci McCoy

Untitled (for now), 2015, acrylic and micaceous iron oxide on panel, 10.5 x 8.5 inches.

Mary Bucci McCoy spent this past February as a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, and I recently caught up with her to hear about how the month went. The residency provides a largely open schedule, with optional visiting artist presentations, studio visits, and open studio participation. Other than that, residents have the all-clear to devote themselves to their work.

Mary Bucci McCoy's studio at the Vermont Studio Center
Mary Bucci McCoy’s studio at the Vermont Studio Center.

We had a strong group of paintings to discuss, as McCoy made progress on an ongoing series of works on panel and experimented with other grounds. She builds each panel herself, then sands them several times to create a porcelain-like surface.

A thick stack of canvas swatches stood on a work table during my visit, making McCoy’s interest in the details evident. The wide range of samples made both of us realize, in the course of our conversation, how painters and viewers alike may become complacent about the potential influence of surfaces. We remember many paintings for the colors, the quality and composition of the marks, but not always for the relationship between the marks and their grounds. McCoy tried many of the fabrics over the course of her residency. Each sample offered different grains and shades of “neutral,” where it became apparent that some beige colors are not so neutral in comparison to others. The results are striking, particularly Pull, made with acrylic and iridescent acrylic on linen. Its background shows the color of the linen through a transparent acrylic medium.

Pull, 2015, acrylic and iridescent acrylic on linen, 12.5 x 10 x 1.25 inches
Pull, 2015, acrylic and iridescent acrylic on linen, 12.5 x 10 x 1.25 inches

It may come as no surprise, considering her balanced attention to all materials involved, that McCoy sculpted before she painted. Trained as a ceramic artist, her studio is presently adjacent to the studio of her husband, David McCoy, who also works in ceramics. Her background, therefore, informs her present work. Her intuitive, process-based method creates imagery that viewers may identify as recognizable objects, although that is not her intention. I asked McCoy about frosted windows after observing the image at the heading of this blog post, and she said it may have been subconscious on her part, as February in Vermont certainly has its share of frost. She agreed that her surroundings find their way into her work, but not in an overt way.

The paint is liquiform when she begins to work on a piece. She selects each paint with care. “Color is like a space for me,” she says. Working flat, the compositions come about as the liquid paint gradually dries. The drying ushers in surprises, such as spindly threads of ochre rising up from areas of thick, lavender paint. McCoy’s acceptance of the unexpected is similar to putting an object into the kiln. During the firing period, blended glazes may shift in colors, and cracks may form where the clay seemed firm. She comes upon compositions through the process of manipulation and acceptance of the materials having their own say in the outcome of the finished piece. Accretion and the unescapable effects of gravity become themes of her current work.

Untitled (for now), 2015, acrylic and micaceous iron oxide on panel, 10.5 x 8.5 inches.
Untitled (for now), 2015, acrylic and micaceous iron oxide on panel, 10.5 x 8.5 inches.

The full-bodied materiality of the surfaces and the paints and McCoy’s focus and close relationship with the materials are essential parts of the character of each finished piece. Her efforts bring about singular imagery with luxurious finishes. Texture holds equal influence to shape and color, establishing intimacy between the art and the viewer. McCoy’s keen focus while making is at the heart of her work’s meaning. Her small-scale paintings cultivate, or perhaps invite, the rewards of paying attention.

Mary Bucci McCoy is represented by Gray Contemporary in Houston, TX and CG2 Gallery in Nashville, TN. Her next exhibition is at Kingston Gallery’s member space from April 29 to May 31, 2015. 

-Shana Dumont Garr