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In the Studio with Hannah Polskin

Born and raised in New York, artist Hannah Polskin harnesses the manic energy of the city and embeds it into her incredible art pieces. Now primarily based in LA, Polskin works on her large-scale abstract paintings bi-coastally. The monochromatic work of Polskin could tie any room together, with eye-catching curves, thick strokes, and seamless lines. 

Milk caught up with the artist in her LA studio, where dirtied paintbrushes and wood particles cover the floor, just the way she likes it. Coming off of her first solo show in November 2019, Polskin has big projects on the horizon; creating showpieces, mirrors, and even a children’s book, her abstract designs take on many forms.

Firstly – tell us about your studio. Set the scene!

My studio is my living room in West Hollywood. I’m on the top floor of a 1930s building that has incredible light pouring through these huge arched windows. The light is so addicting– it wasn’t always the plan to paint out of my home, but I can’t give up all this sky. It gets a little hectic moving the room around constantly to accommodate work, but I’ve come to really appreciate the messy energy of it all. I like bumping into the furniture, I like tripping over supplies I forgot to put away, I like leapfrogging over pieces that are drying to get to a sink to wash the paint off my arms. I like it noisy too– I’ll have CNN or infomercials on in the background while blasting a Bossa Nova playlist and somehow the whole chaotic set up is really energizing for me. Sometimes I go up to my roof to shoot because the art is too big to get in one shot in my apartment. 

 What’s in your toolbox?

Random objects in hardware stores look delicious to me. When it comes to materials I’m a bit of a packrat. I love cruising flea markets for antique art supplies. I’ll pick up a new power tool and use it to deconstruct a vintage picture frame from Melrose Trading Post and salvage the wood for a yet-to-be-determined new piece. I have so many miscellaneous items I’ve acquired over the years, I don’t even know what they’re called or what they do, I just know I need to keep looking at them, touching them. Last year as my art started to get bigger, I had to look into new ways of mounting pieces to withstand the weight. I live for challenges like these, the logistical stuff. I go pretty hard in the research and discovery part of the process, sometimes I’ll just look down and be like “where’d all these carabiners come from?” It’s all an excuse to hoard more odds and ends that interest me.

You’re LA + NY-based, how do you think the cities (if at all) directly affect your work and mindset?

I was born and raised in NYC, and like many New Yorkers that manic city energy is baked into my DNA. I don’t just paint, I obsess, and I think that’s an intensity that feels comfortable to me because of my upbringing. I do subscribe to the thinking that you’re a product of your environment, and it’s been interesting to see how my aesthetic has shifted since moving to Los Angeles. It’s really been a game-changer for me creatively. The sprawling landscape of the city inspires me to go bigger in scale. I often wonder if the monochromatic palette I like to work with is a reaction to the beautiful colors occurring naturally all over the city. It’s kind of like, why would I attempt this blue if the sky’s already so vivid? There’s this explosion of Bougainvillea I pass every day on my block and hot pink just doesn’t get any better than that.  

What’s your process like, one of your mirrors for example – can you describe how it comes to fruition?

Sometimes I get an idea that’s so exciting I can’t help myself and I have to run at it. If I don’t know how to create what’s in my head I make it up. The mirror went from a sketch to a prototype in a few days. I had never carved wood before and was stumbling through it. I bought a saw, set up sawhorses in my apartment and just started weaving the same shapes I’d been painting into the wood, but instead of a brush it was a blade. It felt great. After some pretty shabby prototypes, I knew I needed a pro. I got hooked up with furniture-maker extraordinaire Jack Watson who totally opened up my eyes to the art of woodworking, and I’m forever grateful for his help. That’s another thing I’ve found about Los Angeles—the creative community is so tight-knit. Within days of connecting with Jack I was at his woodshop learning about Baltic Birch.

You just had your first solo show in November 2019 “Genuflexion” — can you tell us about that show?

When Max Samis, owner of the gallery House of Spoils, offered me the show, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. I’d close my eyes at night and an idea would pop into my head and I’d have to put the lights on and sketch. The gallery itself was inspiring too, right by the ocean in Venice, soaring ceilings and a skylight. Max has this knack for making it all look easy, and it comes across in the space— very relaxed and beachy. The vast walls seemed to want bigger art, and I wound up creating works at such an oversized scale, physically maneuvering myself around pieces to paint them was an issue. I’ve always been drawn to big shapes, but this was a different ballgame. At one point I had to sit on a 9-foot piece to be able to reach the center for painting.

Your work features a monochrome serpentine motif — do you see this narrative shifting or do you think you still have some room to explore? (Or both!) 

I find these forms so compelling. I’ve been drawing some version of them since I was little, I think it’s something that’s always quieted my mind and made me feel zen. I have a sense it’s evolving into other mediums. So many people have told me they see animals in my work, and I just announced a baby book coming this Spring. The book will explore an abstract representation of the animal kingdom, and the first $2000 in sales will go directly to WIRES Australian Wildlife Rescue Organisation.

How have your studies in fashion influenced your art-making?

What I loved about Savannah College of Art and Design as if you were trying to figure something out, you were never more than a few questions away from cracking it. From my peers and professors, everyone seemed to have endless tricks up their sleeves. I try to hang on to that curious spirit as much as I can. What I picked up in studying fashion, all the sketching, construction skills and the ability to see something in your mind and make it a reality—that’s all very much still at play in my art.   

Outside of the studio, how do you stay creative/inspired?

I’m a big continuing education and hobby person, I love taking architecture classes or CAD intensives in my downtime. For me, it all connects. Inevitably something I pick up somewhere- a skill, an idea, a philosophy—will come in handy somewhere else. I love the feeling of actively hunting down inspiration, from taking trips like Burning Man or Marfa. I try to stay exposed and open. I’m lucky I have institutions like Gagosian in my backyard. Last year I walked into the Urs Fischer opening just in time to marvel at a mini motorized snail sweeping around the space. Odd things like that give me life.

How have you seen your artistic approach change over the last decade?

I’d love to answer this question in ten years. Let’s touch base in 2030. 

Photography by Kat Borchart.

Stay tuned to Milk for more studio visits. 

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