Portrait of a Woman with Rabbits and Cats
Rebecca George, Progeny Portrait. 2014

Rebecca George (b. 1972) is a contemporary American painter who has two shows on Artsy this month: Have Many Rabbit (solo show) and Saturated (group show).

In our recent studio visit with Rebecca George, the artist recounts her journey from finely detailed animal portraiture to creating abstract works in the tradition of Frankenthaler and DeKooning.

You can’t value a process in retrospect, or in advance, you can only value it in the moment. The value is the attention you are giving to it, when it’s happening. That’s how you value a person, you give them your attention. That’s how you value anything that you are doing.

Rebecca George, 2020

Studio Visit with Rebecca George

Rebecca, you focused on animal portraiture for a number of years but more recently your work has taken an abstract turn. Why bring Have Many Rabbit back now?

The bunny paintings were a key part of learning to paint my ideas without fear. I’m celebrating that now because it opened up the possibility for things that are currently happening, for which I am very excited.

Rebecca George, Later in Life. 2014
Rebecca George, Later in Life. 2014

How did you get started painting bunnies?

After 19 or so years of painting large-scale photorealistic portraits about youth and the correctional system, I felt isolated and stuck. It was very painful, so when I went back to get my MFA, I wanted to start over as an artist. I was not going to do painting from photos, I was not going to do youth. But when it came time to present my work after the first semester, most of the faculty said, “It’s admirable that you want to start over, but there is really nothing here.”

At that time, I had gotten bunnies for the first time in my life. I did this little monoprint of one of the baby bunnies. I put that in the critique because I didn’t have anything I felt was strong.  Michelle Grabner (then the Chair of the MFA Department in Painting & Drawing, who was to become one of my advisors in the MFA program) said, “This is the winner, right here. This is the one that you felt when you did it.” To me, it was a stupid little bunny painting. I was just doing that to keep my hands moving.

So, what changed your mind? Why did you keep painting the bunnies?

Rebecca George, Leptus Amatus. 2016
Rebecca George, Leptus Amatus. 2016

I had such affection for these animals. I had to draw them. I had to have a painting of every adorable pose. Even though, clearly, I realized that this subject matter is super sentimental, it’s not serious, it’s not social justice–all the things that I was supposed to care about as a painter. I knew it wouldn’t be considered a good painting if it was personal and sentimental and no one else can really relate. But I started to give myself permission.

At that time, a lot of critics were saying “painting is dead.” I thought, “Well, I’m going to paint this rabbit just like it’s the Queen of England.” Here is a painting that is a precious object, a coveted precious object. I would spend two weeks on a one-inch canvas, painting every hair of this bunny sometimes, and then buying these super-expensive antique frames from France or something.

Rebecca George. Have Many Rabbit Exhibition
Precious objects on exhibition at The Art House Gallery

I was looking for freedom, ultimately, to be so engaged in the process that I could separate it from the outcome. When I finally decided, it’s going to be about bunnies, that gave me the freedom to think about everything else.

Rebecca George, 2020

How did the bunny paintings help you develop as an artist?

The bunny paintings helped me cultivate attention and risk-taking, it became a way to work through the process that I’m using now. To work in a way that’s not tied to the subject matter, I could get started and focus on mark-making, scale, application, mixing, medium, color, and really have the freedom to freely use all the skills I had developed. And for me, at that point in my career, that was ideal. Now that I am exploring other subject matter (or no subject matter at all), I still have to initiate that freedom and to insist on it, because the conditioned responses, the inner critic and falling back on what’s worked before, is always at the back door.

Rebecca George, Qui Tacet Consentire Videtur. 2015
Rebecca George, Qui Tacet Consentire Videtur. 2015

Can you tell us a little bit more about one of your favorite pieces in the show?

Oh, a figurative piece where I’m covered with a sheet and the bunnies are all around me. This painting has a featured place in my home. This painting has really stood the test of time for me. The title is Qui Tacet Consentire Videtur, which means “he who is silent is understood to consent.” I’m covered in responsibilities. The responsibility of all these animals I’ve taken on. At the time I had eight rabbits. Several of them have passed away.

Rebecca George, Death of A Rabbit, 2017
Rebecca George, Death of A Rabbit, 2017

How did Qui Tacet Consentire Videtur lead to the new subject matter and the turn to abstraction in your subsequent work?

I started using my body to illustrate what I wanted to talk about; it was a relief really, realizing that I could work in a way that was figural but not really representational. I started to pick colors that were interesting but not rigidly descriptive. That became a series influenced by Duchamp and futurism, a representation of the figure moving through space. Then I went through a period of painting the figure very loosely based on my family photographs. Now, not only is the color not describing the figure, but I didn’t want to honor the edge. The positive and negative space are going to act like more like they do in abstraction. I experimented with painting loosely from projection over a heavily collaged surface.

Now abstraction is really the focus. I painted my last figurative piece a few months ago. I let go of the figure entirely and it’s so much more open than any other kind of painting I’ve done. I tried to find that freedom in the figure for years. So when I finally let go of the figure, not abstracting it, just letting it go of it entirely, I found that you let the painting take you on a journey, and it tells you what it’s about.

What’s next for you, Rebecca? Are you going to continue with purely abstract work?

Well, Gerhard Richter said, “Prescribing to a style is obscene.” I wouldn’t go that far, I would say it’s boring. I value being able to try my ideas. My ideas can change anytime. I don’t subject them to the inner critic anymore. When I have an idea, I just try it; I trust it implicitly, *chuckling* I don’t ask it any questions. I’m just grateful that I have ideas.

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