STORIES

Mandy Lyn Ford Puts her Art through Growing Pains

By Charlie Tetiyevsky on July 22, 2017

When I walk over to meet her, I’m surprised to find that Mandy Lyn Ford is my height. Her paintings are often hulking works slathered in layers of undulating canvas and oil and acrylic paints, peppered with various shapes. They’re sculptural and deep in both a physical and intellectual sense, engaging with objet d’art theory and expanding its 20th century standards. 

We’re both just over five feet tall, hovering at the point where people tend to expect you’re diminutive and quiet, and we are neither. She offers me an iced Turkish coffee and some water, and I gladly take both. It’s nearly too hot to breathe outside, but her studio is cooler and quieter than the Mid-City street it’s on, where Pentecostal church music blares out onto the sidewalk and spills across the road. She asks me to wait in her bedroom-adjacent studio while she changes out of work clothes into shorts and a paint-stained shirt that reveal a double-headed eagle tattooed on her chest and a goat’s head on her thigh.

Ford’s studio is in her home, where she’s taken the time to rip out carpets and erect new dividing walls in order to make the space her own. The brown walls have been painted white and so too has the patchy floor, though both have started to build up splotches of paint—a mess that Ford says is necessary for the creation of her work. There are some small, barely touched pieces on the floor—wooden panel backings of her own making that are draped with weighty, thick pieces of canvas or foam—new things she’s just starting on. For the most part Ford works in sizes large enough that her paintings are hard to maneuver when she flips them on their sides to get a new perspective, a frequent part of her process. Her work is not figurative by design, and even her early paintings quickly moved into complete abstraction, which is where they live now, glittering and marbled creations speckled with dabs of acrylic paint or dancing shapes. At her studio, Ford spoke with PRØHBTD about her work and process, photographing for her Instagram and breaking her own rules.

Do you feel the rules you push against are the traditional art school ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’ sort of thing? Or are you rebelling against boundaries you set up in your own work?

Mostly boundaries that I set up for myself in the beginning. I feel like they’re almost boundaries that my ex- set up for me, weirdly. His work was very tight, he made everything sexy and I saw the validity in that. It was like, "Oh, it’s nice to stretch a canvas beautifully and make sure there are no wrinkles anywhere, and when you’re applying the paint, make sure the gesso is thick enough." And when we parted ways, my work just started getting a lot more loose and messy, and I realized that I was doing shit the way that he does it, so then I started getting way more… throwing shit together the way that I would. So it was just rebelling against the rules that I, and maybe he, made. Or just the way that I thought things were supposed to be, and then I realized that there’s no "supposed to be." It’s just do it how I want to do it.

The sculptural nature of your work—and all of this engagement with the flatbed picture plane and how we’re meant to see the paintings as viewers—makes me curious how you physically make the work. Does it sit on the wall or on the ground?

On the ground. Lately, I basically make a lot of marks and try not to let the thing that made the mark be visible. It’s a lot of pouring and spraying. I’m just trying to not let my hands touch it. I’m trying to get as many different ways to let the paint lay as possible. My main idea that grounds all these things is that I’m trying to break as many rules as possible, though there actually are no rules. 

I had professors in school tell me, "You can’t paint with just white and just black," but that’s in the terms of traditional oil painting where everything’s supposed to be mixed. But that’s a dumb rule—also [that] you can’t mix acrylic and oil, which you can if you know what you’re doing. I’ve done it before where I take oil paint, paint it on, and then pour a shitload of acrylic on top. Acrylic is basically plastic, it’s gonna dry like a shell, so if there’s enough of it, it’ll just dry as pockets above the oil paint. I’m just trying to be like, "Fuck it all." Even making these [wooden backing] panels, I don’t make them the way you’re supposed to make panels. I just hodgepodge this shit together.

A means to an end?

Yeah. I want it to look how I want it to look, but I’m not gonna be precious about it the entire time. It can be thought of as "incorrect," but it’s like, this is my shit that I’m making so there’s no "incorrect." I feel I push that "incorrectness," like I’m gonna make this incorrect thing correct.

Your work has themes and devices that go through so many iterations and slight changes, and you called it "indexical." I see that a lot, where you go back and see patterns in the imagery you worked with, but you can’t really tell when the themes originated in your overall body of work, within individual paintings, and when their use ends.

I try to leave hints of the whole process if I can because that’s important to me. I want people to see the amount of work that went into it. I grew up in a family that didn’t know anything about art, the whole Cy Twombly "my kid could do that" [attitude]. But my dad really liked Norman Rockwell—he had books of Norman Rockwell shit. You could see the effort and the labor that went into a Rockwell versus a Cy Twombly, so I think I’m wanting to make things in which you can’t deny the amount of work I put into it. You almost can’t pass it off as not important.

So it’s not like the lack of figurativeness is an excuse.

I’m trying to make people who don’t know art, people like my parents, to like this kind of stuff [even though] it’s harder for people who don’t know anything about art to like things that have no figure. With more minimal paintings, it just takes a littlemore patience. You can find beauty in those things, and it’s really kind of satisfying when you do find the beauty. I think even with these, if you sit with them, they still have a peaceful element to them, too. 

But maybe because of the current situation and century we’re in, I like them to have an immediate pop. That’s where we’re at, where our brains are at: immediate satisfaction. I think I build them the way that I do for the photograph, and for Instagram, with high contrast so they read well in photos. I pay attention to that, too, when I’m finishing a painting. I’ll take a photo and look at it like this (mimes putting phone up in front of a painting). I feel it helps me finish it better. But I’m sure [minimalist] Barnett Newman never took a photo, like, "How does this look?" That wasn’t a part of the process at all, but it’s become part of my process. 

Did taking those photos emerge out of necessity? Or were you unsure if a painting was done and taking a photo helped?

I started taking a photo when it was almost finished so I could stare at it as I go out for dinner or something. Just take it with me, take the problem with me, and then it naturally became a thing. Originally I wasn’t thinking about Instagram. I was just thinking I’ll take a photo so I can look at it [and try to figure out], "Why is it not flowing? What the fuck?"

Think about it—how do we learn about art history? It’s mostly from the photograph. So if the thing photographs well, it’s gonna hit so much harder because it’s how most people are gonna see it. Not as many are gonna see the actual painting.

With a photograph for Instagram, you generally want to take it head-on. Do you find that something is lost because your work is so thick and tactile and has so many dimensions to it?

I’m totally okay with things being lost in the photograph. Otherwise, why even come see the thing in person? (gets up) I’m still working on this. I was thinking about flipping this one. I want to look at it on a different direction. (Picks up the large painting and deftly flips it) When they make too much sense, that’s when I start flipping them around. If the entire thing makes total sense then it’s boring. There’s gotta be a little bit, just a tiny bit, of "what the fuck?"

By making sense, do you mean if something’s become figurative? Or if it’s just too easy to process?

I think I mean compositionally—if it just seems like something I’ve seen or done before, or if there’s nothing new in this for me. If I’m just bored with it or something.

When I start cutting shapes out of the things, that’s when I start thinking, "Oh, it’s kind of similar to that shape I did before." Working with circles is new, [so] this will be weird to resolve. I’ve never painted on a circle before.

Oh! Why? There are so many different shapes you use, why not a circle? 

I’ve just been sticking with squares and rectangles, and I usually stick with a vertical rectangle, never horizontal, but I’m becoming more open to the idea. I could never make a horizontal painting work. I just didn’t want to. Vertical [rectangles] just seem to be objects automatically, whereas with a horizontal rectangle, you see it as a painting and a landscape, more like a fake space. So I always wanted to stick to vertical ones because it’s just gonna take you automatically to [an object-like place]. I don’t want you to look at it and think "fake space" at all. Even though I’m creating fake space with [this] “well” that you can look into (motions to a painting with a deep ovular cutout), you can see that it’s real space as well. You can pretend that it’s fake space, but it’s actually not.

It brings me back to the nature of imagination. A lot of work is so deterministic, like "this is what the artist wants you to see," but your work is more like a playground. It’s just fun to explore.

I think that’s the goal. I do just want people to enjoy looking at it and want it around. And for it to be a little bit challenging, too. I feel they are challenging to have in a house because they don’t play well, like they’re not "nice" in a way. If you have this beautiful living room with mahogany furnishings or whatever, it’s definitely gonna stand out from them, which I think is awesome.

Are homes where you intended the work to go? 

Oh yeah, I just see the gallery space as the middle ground. I want them to be in a home, but maybe that’s why I’m a little bit more okay with thinking about horizontals now. I’ve been able to see more of the paintings actually in homes and see how they interact with a home space. Now that I’m able to see it, I’m starting to change some of the shapes I do. 

I don’t want them to be tame, but I never really thought about [them being in homes]. I was mostly thinking about them being punchy in a gallery, standing out and fighting next to all of the other paintings, or online fighting with all of the other paintings on the internet. That’s the main thing I was thinking about when I first started, but now I’m beginning to think, "How is this going to play in a home? How are people going to live with this?" They can still be what they are, but it’s probably just the next phase.

Yeah, like the context is different. If they’re being the focus and function as home objects, suddenly it doesn’t necessarily have to have that active pushback. You get some more leeway.

I was thinking about that for a bit and made a lot more white paintings, and that was kind of my way to make them a little more chill. Maybe there’s another way to chill them out a little other than just making them white.

I don’t know if they even need to be chilled out. Something about the domestic context makes them less confrontational, even without the paintings being changed. Instead of being up against other things, they get to be the natural focal point.

It’s weird—maybe they need to be even more crazy. My boyfriend has a huge painting of mine hanging in his living room, and his parents came to visit from Florida. We’re all sitting in the living room, and the painting is right there and—it’s a huge painting—but there was no, "What the fuck is this?" They were like, "Oh, okay, this is one of your paintings," and I feel maybe, if you’ve seen a lot of paintings before, you’re like, "What the fuck is this painting?" But as people who don’t look at art or see art, they were just, "Ok, there’s no figures. This is interesting." That’s not really the reaction I want—I want people to be like, "hmm??"

I can’t even think about these kinds of things. I just need to fucking do what I’m doing.

You were saying you’ve done a lot of white-based work. Many of your previous paintings featured a fluorescent fuchsia, too, but it seems to have sort of gone away.

I think I have color phases. I’m kind of in a glitter phase now. I was doing multicolor glitter for a bit, but then just recently I realized it looks really awesome to do a monotone glitter with that color paint underneath. There was a thing that happened when I was doing all the pink. People were just like, "Oh, is this a feminist comment or something?" And I was like, "This is just a hot color." My Instagram just naturally became full of pink because I was doing so many pink paintings, and yeah, people said, "Oh, the lipstick pink," and I was just like, "Nah, that’s not really"—I don’t want to run the risk of being seen as the person who just does pink paintings. And just naturally I ended up getting out of it anyway. I’ll probably use it again at some point.

It’s interesting to see, with your current turn to glitter. Is that where you were just like, "I’m abandoning colors and all that baggage"?

Yeah, well, it makes the work automatically more expansive. I like the paintings to take over the wall, I like them to expand as far as possible. The reflectiveness leaves it open to this hazy, "I can’t quite concretely pin down what I’m looking at." It’s an easy way to not have a color field, or not choose. [This blue painting with blue glitter] was more about the texture of it. That’s the thing about the monotone glitter, it gives me this weird texture. It’s just like a new coating, a different application. I’m just looking for as many different types of applications as I can get.

That one (motions to an in-process painting on the wall) doesn’t have much of a composition. Its composition is mostly the shape that it is. I think that one needs a kick in the pants.

What were you thinking?

I haven’t thought about that one too much yet, but I think (gets up and walks over to the painting) it needs to be flipped, honestly. I’ll turn this guy sideways. 

Do you find yourself flipping them a lot when you’re working?

Yeah, because I don’t like things to be in the context they were originally in. Once the work is done, it has a way that it hangs. But while I’m making it, just to be able to think about it—because when it was like that (motions to an unfinished black glitter painting leaning against the wall), it makes too much sense. It’s almost like there’s nothing to be resolved because it seems like it’s already resolved. Where, like, [when it’s flipped] there’s weird things I can work off. It helps me to see the different shapes that exist in it. And that’s how I end up making different compositions, too, by flipping around and fooling with the shapes and like, "Oh, fuck, that’s a different shape than I’ve ever used before."

So something about moving it around reclaims that tension? You seem to get almost itchy to figure it out. It’s like a puzzle.

Yeah! It’s exactly like a puzzle. The end goal is to make you wanna be able to look at it for at least a few minutes, and be able to keep coming back to it and not be like, "Oh, I’ve seen the whole thing already." Because the way it is now, like, it’s cool and all, but what’s there to hold your interest? Not too much.

I feel like the finished ones always end up looking like they’ve been through mass amounts of struggle. There’s no struggle in [the unfinished glitter painting]. Not at all, no struggle. And that’s the thing—it needs to, it’s like a life. It’s like you’re born, and it’s beautiful, and then you go through (smacks hands together) some fucking struggle, and then it helps make you beautiful in the end. It needs to go through its teenage years. Have a hard time, or something. Smoke some cigarettes.

I’m curious about the foam [used in your work]. It’s a new material for you?

I am usually excited to let every single layer show at least a little bit. This is a rule I’ve created for myself, but I feel like the foam is kind of a cheat because it’s just a quicker way to get mass [on the painting]. So I almost feel like maybe I’m being disingenuous because the mass is not coming from layers and layers and layers of work. Like, any older painting, if I pulled back a layer, I’m just excited for what’s underneath. Well, unless it looks like shit, but I would never want foam to be a showing layer, so that’s the one weird thing about the foam for me. 

This is my first round of working with the foam like that. I did one other painting, the first one that had some foam in it. I was pretty happy with it. (Shows me a photo of the painting.) It was cool because it automatically got really thick. I started doing the foam because I’m scaling up [in size], and it’ll be a good way to scale up without things being heavy as fuck.

I see that lightness in the foam. When I look at this piece [on the phone], it has a softness that doesn’t necessarily exist in the non-foam pieces. It does sort of feel almost like a pillow.

I called it "Cummy Tummy.” I was originally gonna call it “Cum Bucket,” but this painting’s a lot more friendly than that. It’s kind of a happy painting.

Was the happiness something you were just feeling or were you excited about a new material?

When my pieces are almost coming to a close lately—in the past two years—I kind of hitch them to an idea, just a thing that’s currently happening in my life. Like, I want this painting to feel like this thing that just happened or this feeling that I have right now. It’s kind of applicable because it’s got white drips around it, and it’s kind of shaped like a tummy, and somehow this shit just ends up coming together. The paintings become more pungent if I have this snap, this thing that happens at the end.

When does the title come in? 

When I feel like I’m really close to finishing it, the title—if it’s a really good one—comes to me right before it’s done, and then I just do a few more moves. I have the shade of the feeling that I want this to emulate in the end. Or at least what I want to feel. I don’t know if it actually translates, but I’m working to illustrate [an] idea or something. So these (motions to unfinished paintings) are all kind of soulless right now. They have no specific energy channeled into them yet. I’m just kind of, you know, giving them bits of life and stuff. They haven’t had poring over yet.

Have you noticed something that’s common about what you need to do to wrap up?

It’s a clean-up process. Like, I have this main point of the thing, and now I just need to clean up the messiness that happened around it so you can focus on the main issue. It’s like sweeping the dust under the rug or something, that’s the finishing process.

I love how many, not just literal layers, but figurative layers are in your work. When you look at a piece in progress, do you know what direction you’re going? Or is it just spontaneous?

I just have to sit here and decide that I’m going to make up my mind on what the next move is going to be. I feel like the next move is always non-threatening because I realized I can do anything to a painting, and whatever I do is always gonna add tothe end thing. I used to be a little intimidated by adding to paintings until I realized it’s paint, and you can always paint over paint. Or in my case I can always wrap more canvas in it and completely start again if I fuck it up. 

I think I’m really quick to make decisions and make things happen and that follows through in my life, and sometimes I end up making a mess of shit. I don’t know, I think I’ve been told I need to slow down, but maybe it’s kind of a strong suit, that I see a problem and tackle it. Like, for instance, this wall (motions to the drywall she put up). I have no idea how to build a wall. I’ve never built a wall. But now there’s a wall there. And if I remove the shelves, you can see the seam, so it’s not a professional wall, but it does the job. I wanted to get my fucking house finished, so I hurry into doing things for the sake of getting them done. So when I’m making a move on the painting, I could sit here and contemplate what is gonna be the correct move. I could sit here and think about it for a really long-ass time, or I could just do it.

I had this hard problem when I first started painting. It was like, "Oh, I love this spot," and you start painting around that spot because you don’t want to fuck up that beautiful spot, but then in the end, it’s like that spot is not working with the rest of the thing. You have to be okay with letting that spot go sometimes. So I’ve realized: Just do the thing and don’t be precious about anything until the moment that you’re finishing it. You can’t be dancing around one spot or it’s just gonna look whack. It never works out.

I feel like that goes with your whole ability to act on impulse. Life is all about making mistakes and retreading those things and...

Like learning from your mistakes.

… then having to fix them, too, like having to do the work to fix what you’ve fucked up.

Like being able to admit you were wrong and apologize. Be a better person.

Yeah, it's like the painting gets beat up and goes through so much and comes out a better painting on the other side.

Yeah! ‘Cause look at it in the beginning (motions to unfinished paintings): It’s soulless. It just needs to live some life. It’s like I’m god. (Laughs)

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