A Conversation: Samantha Bittman

In between the literal and the representational lies an oscillating, reverberating state of experience. When this is applied to painting, that experience is one of working through the visual tumult or engaging with your senses and letting your eyes play the part. What is it to just “see”, to meet a work on its terms and trust in its parts? Samantha Bittman (NAP #87 & #101)offers work that addresses this question while building paintings that visually vibrate. In her work, Bittman employs the process of weaving; interlocking material to create a surface, an image and a sense of optical splendor. Bittman’s recent two person show at Thomas Robertello Gallery in Chicago presented new work. We had a conversation about it. - Arthur Peña, Dallas Contributor

Samantha Bittman | Longest Distance, 2011, 15" x 12", acrylic on hand-woven textile

Arthur Peña: I remember stopping Roberta Smith after a lecture and asking a banal sort of question regarding the beginnings of abstraction. I was under the belief that it began within the medium of textiles, she countered and suggested that early ceramics offered another answer. Either way it is apparent that both reside in the utilitarian.

Samantha Bittman: Well, weaving is obviously very old and it is fascinating that the basics of the over and under warp and weft interlacements has remained unchanged, there are just new  combinations of weave structures and the loom technology has advanced a lot.  I feel like it is evolutionarily locked in our brains somewhere... Anyway, this reductive way of structurally making cloth, is unavoidably a way of generating pattern or pictures, because in weaving it is the weave structure that builds an image out of its parts.  So, yes, weaving and abstraction are extremely old, and a fundamental and simultaneous part of the development of human civilizations.

Samantha Bittman | Never, Never, 2011, 16" dia., acrylic and enamel on panel

AP: Do you mean that the idea of abstraction is part of our evolutionary make up?

SB: Not exactly…I just meant that weaving is really old.

AP: I just want to throw this out there and ask how you categorize your work. Obviously the work resides in the conventions of painting and of course they point to craft and the history therein but I am curious to know where they rest with you.

Samantha Bittman | Somewhere Between Black and White, 24" x 24", acrylic on panel

SB: I think of them as paintings.  For much of my work I am using weaving as a starting point or a subject to make paintings about merging the image, materiality, topography, and the painting support itself.   And, while I do embrace the long and rich history of weaving, I am more engaged with the aspects of weaving that are rooted in mathematics and numbers, as well as the accumulative nature of the weaving process. 

Samantha Bittman | Sample Blanket 1, 2013, Acrylic on hand-woven textile, 16 x 20

Once the weaving is complete and stretched, the painting is a more intuitive response to the woven ground. That being said, I also make work that is just painting or just a textile and some designed objects.  Regardless, my work typically has an underlying invented logic, either apparent or slightly hidden.

AP: Is there a specific system that dictates the work? I understand that the weaving process is a structure unto itself but are there subjective starting points for you such as a specific set of numerical systems or rules that allow you to start a work?

Samantha Bittman | Sample Blanket 1 & Sample Blanket 2

SB: The loom itself is a specific system that begins to dictate the work.  Right away it provides me with a set of limitations.  I feel that choosing to work within this given system, or inventing a different system, comes from a place of subjectivity since I am choosing a to make work in one way over any other possible way. 

Samantha Bittman | Shaded Sunset, 2012, Acrylic on hand-woven textile, 15 x 12

The weave drafts are where the numbers occur.  I will appropriate an existing weave draft, modify a draft, or design my own, based on an idea I have for a specific work. A new idea for a work often arises as an offshoot while working on a previous piece, or in response to something else, or both, so in this way it is difficult to locate a singular starting point for a work since the works are developed along a continuum. Either way, whether it is a work that is incorporating weaving or a traditional painting or something else, I like to think of my work as containing visual information that can be perceived as discrete and decipherable parts, as well as a subjective, experiential whole.  I am very interested in the relationship between these two aspects within a work.

AP: Can you talk about your relationship to the grid? This is, in a sense, a very boring question and I admit that. But looking at your new work and specifically Untitled (grid with triangle) there is a very obvious “undoing” of the set structure that the grid offers but it is broken by geometry still with the flaccid triangle. Has your process tied you to the grid forever?

Samantha Bittman | Untitled (grid with triangle), 2013, 15 x 12, hand-woven textile

SB: Untitled (grid with triangle) is self-referentially referring to the inherent grid of the woven cloth, and at the same time distorting it through the stretching over the frame and the off-kilter triangle.  However, while the triangle has an irregular shape, one edge of the edges is still plotted along the intersections of the grid, and its yarns feed back into the weave of the cloth itself.  I embrace the art historical reference to the grid as well its place in culture. 

Still, I don’t think all of my work is referring to the grid so directly; I like other types of visual pattern and layouts too.  But, yes, with the woven cloth, right away the grid is at play. However, one could also say that all rectilinear painting is dealing with the grid in the sense that it is contained in a single cell of the grid and always in relation to those edges.

Samantha Bittman | Untitled, 2011, 16 x 16, acrylic on hand-woven textile

AP: A lot can be said about the time consuming process of weaving. Words like “meditative” could be used which would push the work into some quasi-spiritual context. Is that something you are comfortable with?

SB: I don’t really buy into the idea of weaving being more meditative than other ways of making art.  There are actually a lot of disruptions during the process and it can be quite physical.  The painting actually happens a lot more slowly and with an even speed, but even so, it is more literal than meditative.  That being said, I do enjoy making my work and I have a lot of patience for tediousness.

Samantha Bittman | Emerald, 2013, 15" x 12", acrylic on hand-woven textile

AP: What is the relationship between Emerald and Color Map?

Samantha Bittman | Color Map, 2013, 23" x 18", embroidery on linen

Even though both of these works reference color in their names, they are about different things to me.  Emerald is more or less a monochrome, with the variation in color coming from the shadows in the texture of the irregularly woven ground.  Color Map is an embroidery of a splayed out RGB color cube.  With the embroidery, I am highlighting the individual interlacements of the linen ground cloth through stitches of color, as well as comparing the pixilation of the weave to the pixels of a jpg.  I am also interested in how we visually represent mathematical concepts like a smooth RGB gradient with cruder means (the chunky pixel) and how perceptually we blend these transitions of color hue and value as we view them.


Samantha Bittman both received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as well as attending the Ox-Bow Residency in 2010. Bittman went on to attend Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2011 and has shown extensively throughout Chicago.

Arthur Peña is an artist and professor and is currently showing in Boom Town at the Dallas Museum of Art. 


My thought is when a painting needs too much explanation it needs to be rethought in it's beginning.


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