career

Interview with Lisa Sanditz

By ASHLEY GARRETT, NOV. 2014

Lisa Sanditz spray painting outside her studio in Tivoli, NY. Photo by Tim Davis, courtesy the artist.

Lisa Sanditz spray painting outside her studio in Tivoli, NY. Photo by Tim Davis, courtesy the artist.

AG: When we were scheduling this interview you said you were back and forth between the city and upstate, and that you have your studio there. What do you like about working upstate?

LS: My studio is behind my house in Tivoli, NY. I like walking outside and going right to the studio. When I’m at work in the city, there are so many things that might be happening between my apartment and getting to the studio, I’m always kind of rattled by the time I get there, which I know is a very normal New York experience – passing through many different people and situations. So this is more focused. The studio is not that big actually, but here I get to look at leaves and chipmunks.

AG: In some of your other interviews you’ve told stories behind each painting – if there’s a legend or myth that inspired the work, like the one with the broken heart in the creek, and also with the black balls in the lake – what role does storytelling play in your work? Do you feel that it enriches the paintings when you tell the stories? Do you think the paintings need the stories? 

LS: I don’t have any control over how people read them. So whatever a person’s response to it is their response to it. And anybody’s response to any art is informed by that person’s experience, so if I’m making a painting about a place and that painting is shown in that location, then those people are inclined to know what it is. The painting with the black balls in it, which is the Silverlake Reservoir in LA, I showed it in my studio in upstate NY and people had no idea what it was, they just thought it was this intense, overwhelming strange disruption in the landscape, which is what I’m thinking about a lot in terms of sites that I’m painting. But when I showed it in LA, 75% of the people I talked to said they knew exactly what it was when they walked in. So those viewers bring something totally different to it and it means something different for them. I like both the general and specific reaction. I’m always kind of excited if someone can put together the specific narrative, because I think about that a lot. Also, that’s such a weird location, there’s nothing like it, so why would anyone necessarily know that it’s a reservoir that’s filled with 400,000 black balls - it’s not something as iconic as a Christmas tree farm, for example. But I think a lot about narrative and the input, too. Clearly I like to paint, and draw, so why not just make anything? Whenever I try to do something that’s abstract or a still life, I don’t know what to jump off from. I need a narrative to give me an idea of how to visually enter something or even just keep my interest in it piqued. So the narrative functions both in the backend - my end - and in the output too.

Silverlake Reservoir, 2010, acrylic and oil on canvas, 90 x 70 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Silverlake Reservoir, 2010, acrylic and oil on canvas, 90 x 70 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

AG: That’s interesting because I feel like there’s a push against narrative in painting. Sometimes people look at work and instantly want to be told the story behind each painting in order for them to even be interested, and that’s always a weird dynamic. I just wonder if it disallows people from having their own experience with the work that’s separate and autonomous, where someone can attach their own story to it. I just never quite know – where is the line, when do you tell? If someone asks, that’s fine, that’s straightforward, but if it’s on the edge or not clear, do you step in and maybe mediate someone’s experience?

LS:  Are you ruining or enhancing the person’s experience? I always assume enhancing, because the more information I get about anything, the more I’m just kind of intrigued about it. I remember in grad school at Pratt hearing Thomas Nozkowski coming to talk about his work. He was showing his work and then telling us these specific narratives, or more like experiences rather than narratives, that inspired a painting, and he was showing us a painting of blue and white squares, and he’s giving this detailed story. And it just kind of blew my mind, it didn’t ruin or enhance my experience with the work, I just found it perplexing. It didn’t sway me either way. I wouldn’t have gone there with that painting. That work is much more obtuse, there aren’t the visual indicators of specific things that I put in my paintings. I think people are really interested now too in just the narrative of painting itself. I think that is also more difficult to talk about – it’s easier for me to talk about visiting a cactus farm and what I experienced there than something like: I gessoed the canvas, and then I splashed some acrylic on the background to give like a feel of the atmosphere and tried to pull more representational elements out, trying to relate to the more formal elements in what I see. And I don’t know what artist can talk really well about the narrative process of painting. Obviously narrative is bound to language in a way that painting is not. I don’t know if that’s the limitation or if it’s just the painting magic that’s hard to talk about, or we don’t want to reveal it because we’re magicians, in the same way magicians don’t reveal their tricks.

Power line tree drawings in Lisa Sanditz’s studio in Tivoli, NY. Courtesy the artist.

Power line tree drawings in Lisa Sanditz’s studio in Tivoli, NY. Courtesy the artist.

AG: I think talking about your process is different from talking about the art historical justification for some kind of abstraction. Not that you necessarily have to tell me a story, but let me have the opportunity to tell myself a story with this imagery if I want to. I don’t think we need to hold back from narrative. I don’t think it’s a bad word. I was talking with two other artists this week about narrative and they were both adamant about it not being in their work! I feel like with your work, I could go there if I want to but I also don’t have to necessarily. I feel like I’m given the choice, that you’re interested in that yourself but you’re not forcing me down a particular road.

LS: I think so. More recently I’ve been working on some work that’s still representational but the narrative is broader, maybe less specific and seeing what that means to me or to the viewer too. So I’ve been working on these works on paper of trees that are cut to make room for power lines. They make these weird shapes, sad shapes, over-arching shapes, funny shapes, and it’s one solid narrative throughout. So it’s less about going to a place and then a story or experience happened. As a matter of fact I'm having a show of these tree drawings that are half of trees cut from power lines up here where I live now and the other half are trees cut for power lines around where my parents live in Missouri.  In the installation the trees will meet, they’ll be installed in the corner in the middle and they’ll descend like a vanishing point, they'll get smaller and smaller towards the middle and bigger and bigger as they go out.

It certainly has been interesting for me to play around with materials and a narrative that’s a little more specific and doing it over and over again. I tend to work on a painting of a place and a totally different painting simultaneously. So for example a compost pile in upstate New York and then the next painting I work on will be farms I visited in Arizona. So I jump to totally different subjects and formal explorations, so this new work is a more unified narrative from piece to piece. I don’t know if it’s good or not but I’m having fun, so we’ll see. For now, anyway. I’ll let you know how people respond!

Pearl City Study, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Pearl City Study, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

AG: Do you travel in particular to look for these weird transitional moments that you’re working with in the landscapes or do you just happen to come across them when you’re traveling personally?

LS: Definitely both. And some are researched in advance and then I’ll go. For example the work in my last show was stimulated by my interest in circular farms that are in the west, in Kansas and Nebraska and Colorado, especially because I was doing a series on farming and how to get around just having giant green rectangles everywhere. So I went to Colorado and hired a plane to fly low over those circular farms, so that was something really specific that I went out there and planned. On the other hand the drawings I’m doing now of trees started around the tree in front of my house – it’s the most half-tree ever, and the half-tree that remains is leaning towards our house. It’s a huge Maple tree that’s half of a Maple tree – at what point does this tree decide that it can’t keep going without it’s other half, and it’s going to fall on the house? So that literally couldn’t be more outside my front door and I’m also noticing that in other locations. And it could also be something I’ve read in the news, the painting of black balls in Los Angeles I read about first in the Times, and I was going out to LA a week later and I knew I was having a show there in a year, so it all fell into place. But I think I definitely get a lot from going places that I wouldn’t otherwise, so that seems to be part of the whole process too. Happenstance, you know.

AG: Do you make the smaller studies and the work on paper alongside the paintings or do they come first? Where do they figure in to your process?

LS:  Sometimes I make them on location, so again, that LA painting I painted for like three or four days – the landscape was flat, it was hard to get a good vantage point, so I painted just with watercolor and paper. And then I also sometimes work on the studies when I’m trying to figure out how to resolve something, like in the last show I had at CRG I had this painting Crop Duster, which had the red, white and blue spray paint on it, and it took a while to figure out how to resolve the painting knowing that the spray paint would be the last thing on the painting and all in one shot. I was trying to figure that out on a more modest scale before I did it at 4 x 6 feet. Small failure to prevent big failure, big failure happens anyway.  So I work on them in advance, in tandem, and on the go.

AG: The way you’re handling watercolor and the acrylic on paper looks very different, the touch is sensitive and fluid, and the finished acrylic and/or acrylic with oil painting has a very different look to it - there’s a quality of a kind of “grossness” in the handling of the paint in the bigger work, in the big heavy drips and some of the clunky shapes, the dirty colors, heavy textures – does the mark-making match the subject of the industrial and commercial landscape that you’re depicting?

Spray Tree, 2014, spray paint, colored pencil, marker and gouache on paper, 38 x 50 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Spray Tree, 2014, spray paint, colored pencil, marker and gouache on paper, 38 x 50 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

LS: I think both, I think it’s part of the work and then part of the material limitation and generosity. I’ve been working on paper mostly for the last few months, and the way that it absorbs the wet material and the dry material feels so rich and present, while working on canvas is like painting on the surface of the moon! I’m not someone who gessoes the canvas 20 times, but I do it six or eight times, and the paint still gets sucked in and it doesn’t record marks in the way some of the other mediums do.  Watercolor shows every single drop of the pigment. So I like both for what they can and cannot give you. And sometimes it’s a little bit of an attack and the painting gets kind of fucked up and sometimes that’s good and sometimes it goes overboard. But I definitely think about finding some of the glory and the grossness of these sites, and then I definitely want to get that into the paintings.

 AG: In looking at the work online, I really thought your paintings were all oil but it looks like you work primarily with acrylic and occasionally use oil, and then I was watching your interview that you did a little while back with Gorky’s Granddaughter and you were talking about doing more work with oil, so are you working with oil now, and what’s the relationship between the two for you?

LS:  I definitely work more with acrylic. It’s funny that earlier you said working with acrylic is hard  – I think working with oil is hard! It’s just whatever you do or don’t do – like, I can drive a car but I’m sure racing one is really hard (that’s definitely not something I want to do). And I just think it’s what you want out of your paintings or your temperament. You know how some people say they have a fear of commitment? I think I have a fear of non-commitment, so when I started working in oil again recently, just the ability to change your mind and go over it – I have so many bad, terrible, mushy oil paintings. And with the acrylic I’m locked in and it has it’s own problems, but I think it can be exciting, you just have to work with what you’ve got, building your own situation that’s working well, and that’s it. So the speed and the inability to change has been good. And then I also like that I’m painting landscapes that have a natural topographical element to them but are also definitely being compromised by or changed by the built environment, and so using a plastic or artificial paint material seems good for that. Either one is harder depending on what you do. I’ve worked now solidly for ten years, so I’m pretty knowledgeable about acrylic and how to make it ooky-gooky like oil, but even in the last show there were a couple moments where I just couldn’t get the lushness, and so I did do some delicious oil gum drops on top, which I’m always a little leery of doing, because you can see when people do that.  I don’t know why that’s a problem or not, I guess as a painter you are tempted to pick it apart and see how it’s put together, and it stops being a painting and you just want to find which is which. You probably do that, I do that! And then stop thinking about the painting as a whole. But I had a painting that had corn in it, so I guess if I could do that, I could do anything with oil and acrylic too.

 
Rotting Jack-O, 2012, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Rotting Jack-O, 2012, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

 

AG: What is your interest in working with imagery from post-industrial American landscapes and towns? It looks like you’ve been working with that for a long time, American industrial and commercial things in the landscape, a push-pull between the two in the short history of this country, I think it’s really interesting territory. I’m curious about your relationship to it and why are you interested in depicting it.

LS: I don’t know that it’s the industrial landscape, I think it’s more the commercial landscape. I think of industrial as factories, which I’ve done and some office parks, but my interest in and headway into that was when I did paintings of the industrial landscape in China for a couple years and how that related to our industrial landscape and our consumer society here. So I think the emphasis has been more of the commercialized landscape, the built environment. My interest came from growing up in the suburbs and seeing and feeling the emptiness and problems with the way that the landscape is structured through highways and streets and cars and big box stores. The first paintings I did outside of grad school were dealing with that and I've been dealing with that more or less over the last few years. And I think those spaces reflect a lot about how we organize ourselves and how we move around and how we value or don't value the landscape itself.  And also exploring different ways to use landscapes as entry points to make paintings, whether that's the desert or oceanside or expansive Midwest. Not as much urban landscape, maybe because it's harder for me to paint buildings that don't look totally weird, or maybe being from the Midwest and being used to more open spaces, not urban spaces.

AG: You were talking about working from observation on site, but I thought I also read somewhere that you were working from some images from the internet, so do you work from a combination of observation, found images, photographs, imaginative stuff, and what role does memory have in that? Does experiencing something and then having your own experience in the studio add something to it?

LS: Obviously memory and imagination are both a part of it – there are no faithful photographic renderings in the paintings, not that photographs are faithful either, but there's obviously a lot of interpretation and exaggeration in the work.  So for example the drawings that I'm doing right now, the ones that are from here are done on location. I did them on location or I drew them in the studio right when I got back that day, so even if it was from memory it was very close to the experience. Then the drawings of the trees in St Louis are from photographs that my parents took with an iPhone, plus memory and kind of making it up even more than I do in other circumstances. So it's definitely kind of a big soup of all of those things. I’ll find images on the internet if it’s something that I can't really remember and I need to look up something again, but it's not just working from a picture online and then making a painting. Plenty of people do that, it's fine, but for me it's just a part of the process I guess. Lots of input, lots of output.

AG: You were talking about working with ceramics – I saw in your show last year at CRG, you showed sculpture and ceramic work along with the paintings. Is that the first time you were working with the medium? What made you want to do that and how do you see them in relation to your paintings?

LS:  Sculpture – that's what they are. I have other ideas of things to do in ceramics but I haven't done anything else except that. It just seemed like it had to be that way, so I had to make it in ceramics. And I didn't even know what they were in relation to the paintings until I saw them in the gallery, because in the studio there's so much dissonant 2-D and 3-D information. They became so much more figurative in the gallery. They became these characters. But I liked that, and I was able to take some of the figurative information out of the paintings and put them into the ceramics sort of subconsciously. So I think some of those paintings were a little more open than other paintings of mine – open space-wise and fewer details, which I liked. You were asking about oil before. I kind of got a little dead-ended with acrylic, so I started using oil. And then that was also not working out, so then I tried something else. I just started working with ceramics and I didn’t really know if it was going to go anywhere. It took a year and a half to get that work together for the show. This is a good example of a reason to visit a location and what can happen. It was in response to cactus farms that I visited in Arizona – the night that we got there was a once in five-year cold snap. The growth in the cacti is in the tips, so in all of the nurseries the farmers everywhere were running around all night long putting Styrofoam cups on all of the tips of the cacti. You can’t wrap a cactus in a sweater obviously, but the cups can save them. So we got to this farm and I was wondering why every cactus, thousands and thousands of cactus in every direction, had Styrofoam cups on the tips. And that was only because the once in five-year temperature drop happened when we were there. I tried to make it into a painting and it just wasn’t working, and then I realized that each of these is like a sculptural object with the Styrofoam cup on them and that could be an interesting way to go about it. So I built a cactus garden based on that. That needed to happen and it was a very clear reason. I’ve thought of other things to be made out of ceramics. I like some of the ideas but nothing has clicked in the way that did.

 
Slumped Cactus, 2014, glazed ceramic, plywood, sand, agate spikes, 41 x 16 x 14 in. Courtesy the artist.

Slumped Cactus, 2014, glazed ceramic, plywood, sand, agate spikes, 41 x 16 x 14 in. Courtesy the artist.

 

AG: It's interesting when the subject itself drives the decision-making, and you just come to that realization that it doesn't want to be two-dimensional, it wants to be three-dimensional. And it only needs to be one or maybe a few instead of a whole farm or group of repeated images. It's not always your decision – this thing itself knows it would be articulated better in another form, that's interesting.

LS: It was fun. I recommend it. The modular aspect I liked, I'd make a top and bottom, and I wouldn't like how they worked, so I would switch them with other ones, and in painting...

AG: You can't do that as well in painting!

LS: You can, but I'm not cutting my canvas in half and attaching it to another canvas.  And it was so great to be able to move things around physically. And to be able to change the color, it needed to be pink stripes instead of green dots and then re-glazing it.

 
Cacti Display, 2014, ceramic, found materials, porcupine quills and semi-precious stones, 57 x 46 x 58 in (detail). Courtesy the artist.

Cacti Display, 2014, ceramic, found materials, porcupine quills and semi-precious stones, 57 x 46 x 58 in (detail). Courtesy the artist.

 

AG: I wonder how that would then inform the paintings, having had that physical and spatial ability to move stuff around, you might have a different kind of sensibility. You might be able to see the limitations of painting in a different way.

LS: Yeah, since that show I did a couple small paintings that I liked, but I've basically been working in paper where I have been able to cut the paper or just scrap it and not feel devastated in the way that painting can really hurt your feelings. So I hadn't even thought of that, although painting has been feeling kind of heavy lately, I haven't quite gotten back into it, for whatever reasons. In some ways you would think paper would be the least like sculpture.

AG: I could see that though, it's so much more immediate and you can change things around, even if it's a large-scale drawing, it's more changeable. Painting is so permanent, it's such an investment, it's a heavily loaded object, it's historical, and you're investing so much time and material. And with work on paper it is just a piece of paper, you can always throw it away or turn it into something else. Crumble it up and then it's an object, even.

When you were working on the Sock City series, you were focusing on the Chinese industrial landscape. I’m wondering how you resolved the issue of being a Western person going to do that work in an Eastern country – how did you deal with the history of colonialism when you're taking your impressions away and bringing it back to this country, and then dealing with that in a painting context? How do you resolve the history of going to the strange foreign lands and making images of their things and Americanizing them?

 
Crop Dusters, 2013, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 70 x 54 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Crop Dusters, 2013, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 70 x 54 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

 

LS: When I work on bodies of work I get very clear about what I want to do and I have to do it. I was very curious about the post-industrial landscape here in this country and then seeing where the industrial landscape is and of course practically everything you touch and own is made in China, or at least some aspect of it. So of course, I was like this is maybe a really bad idea, but I'm going to go anyway, I'm going to go and just see what happens, and I'll make work or not. And then I made the work, and I thought about a lot of that – orientalism and colonialism. And then even to make the paintings, how to make them or not make them anthropological, another aspect of how Western and other cultures interact. And I didn't really know and I just did it, and I felt like I took it seriously, and then put the work out in the world and I felt like it was received in a respectful and intriguing way too. All of those things that you brought up I didn't ignore. I was totally aware of them. I thought through them. I felt that this is such a big part of our world –this exchange of commodities. So it's not like it's reverse colonialism. But again it's like this completely absurd exchange of objects between China and the entire world. There's this very historically significant exchange happening, and I felt like it couldn't be overlooked, no matter where I was coming from and how I was looking at it. I'm sure some people are critical of that – even taking that on. I would say that the paintings are of single-industry cities in China from my perspective. I'm not a journalist, so it's obviously very subjective. But I was curious enough to go there twice and think about it and make work about it.

AG: Because you're working with very traditional forms in the paintings –landscape and architecture –what do you think are the possibilities today for that kind of figurative painting?

LS: I'm thinking about that a lot. I mean on some level the landscape is perpetually changing and so is architecture and so is human movement. At the time that I was working on those paintings in China, it was the world's largest migration from rural to urban in human history. I don't know what the statistic is on that now, because in the last few years between the times I went, the migration was reversing because of the economic crash. So it will happen again in some other form. No matter what happens with technology and styles, people are going to keep moving around and keep building things and it's going to reflect our values. That always changes and what does it mean in painting? And also if you've got to paint, you've got to find something to paint, I think. Those things are all good subjects for books and movies too and people do it well, but I don't know how I would approach it that way.

 
Sad Tomatoes, 2013, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

Sad Tomatoes, 2013, oil on canvas, 16 x 20 in. Photo by Tim Davis and Pete Mauney, courtesy the artist.

 

AG: I've had the pleasure of interviewing several established female artists such as yourself. A peer of mine, another young woman artist/painter, mentioned to me that I haven't addressed or asked the question of an established female painter who has been able to manage a family at the same time as their career and a continuing studio practice.  So I'd like to ask you about that – how do you manage it all? Do you feel like it's enriched your life, do you feel like it takes away from your practice?

LS: I'm happy you're asking this question, even though it's the question you're not supposed to ask!  It's almost this anti-feminist question – no one would ask a male artist that. But it's kind of all I think about, because I have one kid and I teach, and I'm an artist, and I'm married, and I have a social life. So it's like five enormous bubbles of energy that I float in. I think also in terms of feminism we're in this kind of complicated super-mom world, you're supposed to do it all –cook your own food, make the amazing playhouse, and have a job and a great career, and toned thighs. But then we can't talk about it. So I do feel like it's hard to do it all. And I feel like I can't do it all at the same time but I just might pop one or two of those bubbles. So our kid is two, and yes it's enhanced my life amazingly and he's amazing. And I did have a show when he was a year and a half old, and I did it, but it was really hard. And basically six months after that I had no energy to do anything creative. So you've got to figure it out. He's two and I’ve already had a big show, so I don't know what that means for the whole career trajectory yet, but I also think someone shouldn't tell you to have a kid or not, you should do what you want. I think both children and careers are fickle. And if you want to do it, have a kid or a career or both, you've just got to do it, but they both take a lot of time and energy. That is no joke! It's hard but not like in a pushing a rock up a mountain kind of way, although maybe pushing a small rock up a mountain, but it's a lot to manage.

AG: In a way I feel like it's not fair for your privacy to ask that kind of question, but I think if you look historically ,for example big deal male painters like Guston, they had kids and then didn’t worry about it because the wife is understood to be the primary caretaker and does everything and [she] isn't an artist and it's not his problem anymore. It's not like that for most women. Especially if both parents are artists, it's not easy. You don't have the straightforward caretaker type who's just going to do all the work, and you can do your own thing. And I think even now, the female role is that that is expected. It's great to have these examples of someone like you who's making it work and I think younger women starting out need to see this being talked about and hear what you have to say. And because it's amazing that you can handle it, and if you can do it, maybe we can too.

LS: Thanks, that's nice to hear. It doesn't work everyday, but without kids doesn't work everyday either. I mean, I think I had more unhappy days before him where I spent a certain amount of time dragging my feet. And now it's just more running around than that.  And not that I have to be a big advocate for men's rights either, but I think that the expectation of fathers is different today too. I think a Philip Guston parenting approach  right now as a dude would be disdained. That would not be pretty either! I mean, he could still be a famous artist, but I think it's hard for men to not take an active role with their kids and just smoke and hang out with Philip Roth and make paintings either. You can't get away with that anymore. That's not to say that women don’t have to carry a lot of what having a kid is in many regards too. We don't have a nanny but we do have family and babysitters. It's a lot easier to manage it upstate than the city family scenario. There is that difference, but I have lots of incredible artist friends in the city who have kids too, so it can be done.

AG: What advice would you give a young painter just starting out today?

LS: Because I teach, one big difference is this phenomenal debt that students leave school with, and I have a hard time with that as a teacher. This college debt is a new thing that needs to be managed in a bigger way. So that requires much more monthly income to pay back. I tried to always get as high of a paying job as I could with as few hours, so my first year out of college was working at an insurance company, where like twenty years ago I made like twenty dollars an hour –which was pretty good– and I worked twenty hours a week so I could work in my studio. Other friends worked at hipster coffee shops and that was cool too, but then they had to do that for fifty hours a week. I think essential elements outside of the economic part are having a studio and making work and to keep cultivating a group of artists around you to stay in dialogue with. So if that's graduating in the city and keeping up with those pals to have crit groups, or moving to other cities and making a new team. I think that wherever you are, that is essential and you've got to keep working. You've got to keep your mind in it and be excited about what you're doing. 

AG: When I read your Art21 interview you said you wanted to be asked what you're reading, so what are you reading?

LS: Well, I'm slowly reading “Stuffed and Starved,” a book by Raj Patel about food scarcity and abundance in America and India and internationally. But I can only read nonfiction for so long and then I start to wander, so the book I want to read next is the new book by David Mitchell, the author of “Cloud Atlas”. So that's what I'm going to buy at the bookstore this week –I'm resisting purchasing it on Amazon!

Lisa Sanditz lives and works in Tivoli, NY. Her new tree drawings will be on view in a two-person show opening December 5th and on view through February 21st at Duet in St Louis, Missouri.

Published in Painting is Dead Nov. 20th, 2014.

Interview with Joanne Greenbaum

By ASHLEY GARRETT, MAY 2014

 
Joanne Greenbaum in her NYC studio. Photo courtesy    Exhibition A

Joanne Greenbaum in her NYC studio. Photo courtesy Exhibition A

 

Joanne Greenbaum is a painter and sculptor living and working in New York City and Berlin, Germany.  Born in NYC in 1953, she earned her Bachelors of Arts degree from Bard College in 1975.  Her work has been included in many solo and group exhibitions in the United States and abroad.  She has been reviewed in The New York TimesArt in America, Artforum, and Hyperallergic. Her awards include the Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 2014, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Fellowship, the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Pollock Krasner Grant, and the NYFA Fellowship in Painting.  She is represented by Rachel Uffner Gallery in New York, greengrassi in London, Shane Campbell Gallery in Chicago, IL, Nicolas Krupp Contemporary Art in Switzerland, Galerie Crone in Berlin, Germany, and Van Horn in Dusseldorf, Germany. She has an upcoming show of new paintings at Galerie Crone in Berlin this November, 2014.

Can you talk a little about your background and where you grew up?

I’m from right outside of New York in Westchester County. I was actually born in New York City and then my parents moved north to the suburbs. I’m from here, I went to school upstate at Bard College, and I’ve always lived in New York. The last five years or so I’ve been living some part of every year in Berlin, which I really like, and I think it just took me a while to figure out that you’re allowed to leave New York. I just never thought I was allowed to leave, and also for many years I had job. But even after that was over in 2001, I’m just kind of a homebody, I kind of stay where I’m put, but I think now I’d just like to go to more different places. So now I spend part of every year away, and it really makes a huge difference in how I feel when I’m back here, and it’s better.

What do you like about Berlin?

It’s quiet, I would say mostly the quietness and the silence, and the slower pace, but yet it’s a city. It’s also green, meaning lots of parks and since I have a dog it’s nice to be able to take him out without a leash everyday and have him run around. I think mostly it’s just the quiet—I mean for me Berlin is a city with a country feel, so it’s almost like the country in the city. There’s plenty to do, I know some people there, yet it has more of a laid-back feel. Plus there’s a lot of great art there.

Is there anything in your experience growing up that comes into your work or affected your development into the artist you are today?

I think I was probably born an artist, because I’ve always felt like one, even though I didn’t necessarily know what that meant. But in terms of psychology, I think it was a place for me to retreat to escape from my surroundings. I mean you don’t know what came first—either your surroundings making you want to escape, or the fact that I was just kind of a quiet girl who wanted to just draw. I don’t really know, but I think that it had something to do with always feeling sort of intruded upon as a kid, and that I have this incredible desire to just retreat into something else, so I think that’s how I developed this habit of drawing a lot. It was a place I could go.

What was your first encounter with painting?

I always did stuff from age five on. My parents sent me to oil painting lessons from a local artist lady in Larchmont who was an oil painter and she did oil painting lessons in groups in her basement. I remember going to that and encountering real oil paint for the first time. I must have been around 10 years old. I went to her for some years and I really liked it, and she was nice, and as somebody who was coming from a family that was very judgmental, and the teacher wasn’t, that allowed me to just do what I wanted to do.

 
Untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

Untitled, 2014, oil on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

 

I did that too when I was kid, going to lessons—

With the local lady! She was a real artist, and I remember she had this beautiful big old house—

There’s something really nurturing about that, and being in a group where everyone is just learning—

I don’t even remember the other people, I think I was probably the youngest one. But that was probably my first encounter with oil paint.

And you were saying you were always drawing a lot—and it looks like you draw a lot.

Yeah, I always just draw. Even if I’m just watching TV or talking to somebody I’m always drawing.

And it’s interesting how that translates into the painting.

Well, it never used to. That’s relatively new in the last seven or eight years that I incorporated drawing into my work. I always had it separate – there was the painting and there was the drawing. The painting was always more minimal and spare and then there were the drawings, and then I think somehow they merged in the work.

What drove this shift for you?

There was this feeling that I wanted to take the intimacy of drawing, especially the way that I draw. I do a lot of ballpoint pen drawings which are kind of just about my handwriting energy and scribbling, I’m not going to use the word doodle because I really don’t like that word.

They don’t look like doodles to me.

They’re not doodles. Some people say they are, but they’re really not. Taking that intimate type of thing and use it on a big painting it monumentalizes it. You could say these small drawings are not so important because it’s just a notebook drawing let’s say, but then giving that a lot of importance by putting it in a really big painting and trying to translate it in the same way. So in these drawings it’s the hand that’s doing the movement, but in the painting I use my body in the same way to create the same type of energy on the larger scale. It’s not like I take this and blow it up, but I’ll take that same type of energy and use it on a canvas with different materials. But I have been using some drawing materials directly on the canvases as well.

It looks like you’re really getting that, the line is intensely felt on both scales.

Right. I think it just took a while to transfer it, because I used to remember looking at people’s artwork where people drew on the canvas and it always looked funny to me, I can’t really describe it, it just looked fake, or too self conscious. I’m trying to have it be very natural in the process of making the painting, that this is part of that, the drawing is not explain anything, the drawing is not an outline for anything, the drawing is the content, in a way, of the painting.

I know what you mean, I don’t see a lot of painting on this larger scale that has that kind of purposeful drawing in it, searching and full of discovery, free and open. There’s something about that—that the drawing would somehow interfere with the rest of the painting. And I think you’re getting the elements together and truly integrated.

Well, I think the artists I look to the most, or maybe the ones who I relate to the most who achieve that are Basquiat and Twombly. I think those are two examples of artists who used drawing as painting, or painting as drawing. And so when I look at those people, I really understand.

 
Untitled, 2014, oil, ink, acrylic and flashe marker on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

Untitled, 2014, oil, ink, acrylic and flashe marker on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

 

And with Twombly it’s so spare, but so confident and purposeful, the way it’s done is that you don’t second-guess that the line and the drawing is itself the painting.

Right, it’s just coming from him and you don’t question it. Same with Basquiat as well, who was just an incredible drawer. His thoughts just went right on the canvas, there was no filter going on to make it into “art,” it just came out and that was that. And I think that’s why he’s so good, for him that filter just wasn’t there. I think Twombly is more elegant in a way and more refined. I remember a show years ago he had at the Brooklyn Museum and I remember going to that and it was so weird because it doesn’t happen to me very often—I just burst into tears when I got there. I think right at that time I was starting to do drawing in my work. And then I could see, it was like, Oh my God, this guy did it.

There was no strategy in his work. And I don’t work with any strategy whatsoever. As I’m going I figure it out, there’s no plan going on. And that’s why everything’s different from everything else. I’m not making the same thing in five different colors. I just don’t work like that.

In your Art in America interview you said that you see the forms in the paintings less like maps and more like still life spaces.

Yeah, it’s not necessarily traditional still life space where there’s a vase and things on a table, but because I make sculpture now which is kind of vaguely vase-sized, objects that do go on tables, or bases/pedestals, or the floor. Someone was over today and she asked how I would display sculpture and I told her that at this point I would want one in a vitrine. Like an object in a cabinet of curiosities. So basically I think what I mean by still life space is that since I’ve been making sculpture I think of the forms as three-dimensional things even though maybe to other people they don’t look like that, but to me, this painting that we’re looking at—with the white that was knifed on, to me that’s creating a sculpture. And the red is some sort of shelf or platform for those forms, so I think that I work a lot with a structure that functions as some kind of holder or platform for these other things that I’m putting in the painting, so I think that’s what I mean when I say I’m putting still life space in the paintings.

I don’t see maps. I know people do, they say they see maps in my work, and I never do.

I find that so funny how people get fixated on these really easy readings of people’s work.

A while ago, I think it was when Julie Mehretu got on the scene because her paintings are kind of map-like—I think the word “mapping” became a big buzzword about ten years ago. And so anything abstract was like “oh, you’re mapping the universe, or you’re mapping this, or mapping that.” If I’m mapping anything it’s just my mind, but I still don’t like the word mapping, it’s not something that I think about. People always say that and that they look like subway maps, but no, they don’t. That’s not what these are, and I think they’re getting more and more away from that. I don’t even really know what direction I’m going in because sometimes I want to make more minimal work, but it just doesn’t seem to be going there. Like in this painting that’s unfinished, this morning I thought I was just going to be covering the whole thing in black except for maybe that area in the middle there and just see what happens. So each painting has it’s own life. Mapping is not where I’m at.

Sometimes my small ballpoint drawings are called obsessive too, but it’s just that I like to make them. That doesn’t translate into that I’m obsessed with them, I just like to do it. It has nothing at all to do with obsession.

There’s no subtlety in that, when people get these categories affixed to their work, and it simplifies it and prevents other readings. And so many artists have these collections of buzzwords that people have said or written about them that seems to follow them around. And you’re always having to reopen the conversation.

Well, I think that the art world as it is wants to categorize you into these boxes and I’ve pretty much fought my whole career to not be categorized and not be in a box and not be in a group, and not identify with a school of thought. I just don’t want to do that.

You were saying in your Art in America interview that you’re really attracted to Modernism. Can you talk a little more about that?

First of all I’m not trying to make Modernism. I think there’s been a lot of talk lately about this fake modernism or people quoting modernism in their work, or sort of retro-modernism. I’m not trying to do that. I just think there was so much that happened in classic Modernism that I still find really interesting. I still find Cubism fascinating. Basically it’s the breaking up of space and that’s super interesting to me. That’s not something that ever really went out of style. I’m interested in the breaking up of space, and then I’m also interested in color. I mean I’ve always looked at Matisse’s color, in terms of Modernism; those are sort of my heroes.

 
Untitled, 2014, oil, ink, and acrylic marker on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

Untitled, 2014, oil, ink, and acrylic marker on canvas, 90 x 80 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

 

I’m seeing your books and you have a lot of the Modern masters here.

Yeah, I like a lot of good books but I also have a lot of books on contemporary artists. In Berlin I saw the Hilma af Klint show which was amazing. It traveled to a few other European cities, I don’t think it came here. I think the last venue was in Denmark. It was an amazing show and she made those paintings in 1905—before Cubism. She did that before Picasso. It’s kind of mind blowing, even just from a feminist point of view, that she made this incredible monumental revolutionary kind of work and nobody saw it.

There are a lot of these brilliant women artists that are sort of tucked under the legacy of these huge names like Picasso, like Paula Modersohn-Becker is another one. Picasso was looking at her work, actually being influenced by it, and now we’re getting to know the real history a little bit.

Right, and it’s so interesting and also how the canon as defined by the Museum of Modern Art is not necessarily true, even though we were told it was true, and I think it’s really interesting how history is now starting to be rewritten to include people that were very influential or forgotten or ignored. I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, and she was saying how MoMA has a Joe Bradley in the lobby now and a Sue Williams in the lobby too, and that’s pretty cool. If they just had the Joe Bradley that would be wrong because they’re trying to contextualize him into the male canon, but they didn’t –they had a Pat Steir, they had a Sue Williams up, and I think the imbalance is changing but it’s going to be a really slow change. The art world is incredibly sexist at the top levels.

The recent Isa Genzken show is a good example of some of that evening out. I mean how many women have had these huge retrospective shows there?

That was an amazing show. And there’s also the Lygia Clarke show, that’s wonderful. Yeah, I think things are changing, but slowly.

And then there’s this whole trend with these really highly priced very young men, with inflated prices at auctions.

But if you look at the work there’s no content in it, the work is a technique or a process. Someone said the work looks exactly the same in reproduction as it does in real life. And there’s something weird about that. So the work is made to be reproduced. The whole topic honestly gets me, I never know what to say about it, because I don’t want to just dismiss all young men as talentless, because I’m sure there are some that are really good, there always have been and there always will be, but there’s a lot of young women who are really good too.

But it’s not that young women should aspire to that necessarily, because I don’t think it’s good for artists to try to become that.

Right, I think it doesn’t matter the sex. When I graduated college, I had a full fifteen years if not more of nothing. Of just doing my work, developing, making tons of mistakes, making shitty work, making some good work, but nobody saw it, and I just think you need those years. You need to fuck up. You need to imitate your heroes and then you need to reject those heroes. And you need to try lots of different things and I think this brings us back to what’s being called Provisional Painting. I think a lot of that, especially from the much younger artists, it’s all trying stuff out. It’s just trying out things. And eventually if you work hard enough you’ll find your own way. But if you get a lot of attention for this kind of stuff that you’re just trying out you may never find your way because you’re blindsided by the other crap.

 
Joanne Greenbaum’s Tribeca studio.

Joanne Greenbaum’s Tribeca studio.

 

So do you think there was less pressure for artists to make their work public before it was ready at that time versus now?

I don’t think there was less pressure, I think there were always artists that started showing when they were really young, I just think that economically there wasn’t as much opportunity, so there weren’t as many galleries as there are now and fewer artists in New York even though it was super cheap to live here. I think that when I was in school my teachers always said—and in a way we hated them for it—they all said don’t even think about showing—I mean you have 20 years! No one ever talked about the market with us. I know now there are classes on the marketplace. When I graduated from college and moved to New York I was starting my life and I knew it was going to be a long, hard slog. You got jobs and you cleaned houses and you waitressed and you did other things. I mean I ended up working for fifteen years in an office and had a responsible position and I liked it for a while just because it was allowing me to do my other stuff. Eventually things got confusing because I started to show my work and I couldn’t do both, I mean I really had to make a decision. I mean I guess nothing was handed to me—when I was a young artist I didn’t know about anything, I didn’t know what Skowhegan was. I didn’t apply to anything, I just went to a job everyday and I couldn’t take a month off and go to an artist residency, that wasn’t career path stuff in those days. Maybe it was for some people, but I didn’t even know about it. I was just a real head-in-the-sand kind of kid. I lived on the Lower East Side during the ‘80’s, and honestly I didn’t even know what was going on in terms of the East Village scene, I was so periphery to that. It just wasn’t my time. Sometimes you just instinctively know that this just isn’t your time, and even though I’m the age of a lot of people who were showing then, it wasn’t my time. And I just waited it all out and worked, and I worked on painting when people weren’t even looking at painting. And I just kept doing it because I really believed in what I was making, and then eventually I did start showing it. And honestly it’s still not easy, it’s tough out there.

Going back to when you were describing the forms in the paintings–are these images?

No, they’re not images, I mean the whole thing is an image, but no they don’t represent anything in particular. Everything functions for the painting, so whatever’s in it functions as it exists in the painting, it doesn’t really exist outside the painting. Obviously I’m interested in some sort of structure, and I think that the real subject matter of the painting is sort of my participation in making that painting. Kind of the slowness, even some of those things that look they were made fast, the paintings actually come together very slowly. I take my time. I might scribble something on it that’s fast, but getting to that scribble, I might have I lived with it first for a couple weeks or a few days. The accumulation of all of this stuff over a period of time is the subject matter of the painting in a way. There are formal decisions that go into it but in a way that’s what I mean when I said I have something in common with Josh Smith, I mean I think he’s really good at saying he’s just going to do whatever comes into his head and he’s not editing for good taste—there’s no editing whatsoever. When I start a work I make a point of starting from a totally empty slate where I don’t have any preconceived idea of what’s going to happen. Even if something is just a big disaster—that gets me all excited. Because then it’s just like, “oh okay, this is just a big disaster, I love it, good!” I don’t want to make something that makes sense. I’m not trying to make things that don’t make sense but I feel like I’m at a point now where I’m using that part of my brain that allows just something else to kind of be there and make the work. I’m certainly going for something, it’s just that I don’t necessarily know what it is until it happens. I want to keep the paintings open and I want to keep them fresh and I don’t want to make paintings that are resolved, so I’ll probably stop a painting before I even know what it is. Like this one, at some point I stopped it thinking I’ll get back to it when it dries, and then it dried and there wasn’t anything else I really want to do to it, so I guess it’s done. And sometimes the opposite happens—sometimes I’ll just hate it. Or sometimes I’ll turn it upside down and do one thing to it and then that’s it, that’s all it needed. So I try to keep myself kind of open to whatever’s going to happen. And I say that not referencing anything Abstract Expressionist, or gestural, or any of that. I don’t think about that stuff at all.

There are gestural qualities in the work.

Yeah, but I’m not interested in gestural abstraction as a thing. I’m using my hand and arm in making the painting. But I’m not interested in the historical aspect of what that gesture means—I think it’s been long enough to be able to use a gesture without it having to mean the ‘50’s or have it mean the New York School, that’s over. People in Germany were making gestural marks, Sigmar Polke made gesture. I think it’s time to give that up, just the way I think it’s time to give up that provisional mark making, it just doesn’t mean anything anymore.

So do you think there’s a lot of possibility left in abstract painting?

Sure, yeah. Because it’s just painting. I mean, I don’t see a difference right now, even though there’s no recognizable imagery in my paintings, I don’t really preference abstraction over figure. There’s no difference, it’s just all painting. I don’t privilege one over the other. People will still write novels, people will still make paintings. And I think it’s up to each individual to make it happen. Everyone’s different and everyone has something different to say. You just have to work really hard at it to get it to the point where you can say what you want to say. It doesn’t just happen on it’s own.

Besides being away from the studio and in a sculpture studio with a kiln, is there a difference in approach when you are beginning a painting from when you are beginning a ceramic work?

I go once a week at a specific time, because I take a class. And usually I make one or two sculptures for that session. I don’t carry the sculpture over to the next week, even though I’m told I should do that, but I don’t want to. I like making them in one session. I make it from a five or six hour time period that I’m there, and I’ll make one or two pieces during that time, and then that’s it, they’re done. There’s no going back, even though there could be, but I choose not to keep the clay wet for the following time, it’s just a decision I’ve made. I like the immediacy of the clay even though you could keep clay wet for a hundred years—you can keep clay wet a whole lot longer than you can keep oil paint wet. You can work on something forever and ever, but I choose not to. I just take clay and just start working and making stuff. I try to think of it as drawing almost, three-dimensional drawing, and as in the painting I don’t really know what it’s going to be, I don’t plan it out. It’s almost like I don’t care what I make, I just want it fired so I can paint it, either with glaze or paint. What I’ve been doing lately is—and you can see the one that I have here, this white porcelain—making them and then firing them and not glazing them at all, and then taking them back here to the studio and hand coloring them with markers or oil paint or ink. In a way it’s almost like they become kind of vessels for me to hand color or hand work or draw on.

 
Untitled, 2014, marker and glaze on porcelain, 13 x 8 x 7 in., Courtesy the artist and  Rachel Uffner Gallery

Untitled, 2014, marker and glaze on porcelain, 13 x 8 x 7 in., Courtesy the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery

 

It’s amazing how different these look, the glazes and the hand worked ones.

Sometimes I feel like glazing and sometimes I don’t. Lately in the studio I have a whole bunch going and some are glazed and some are going to have nothing on them and I’ll take them home and work on them. Like that purple one, that’s oil paint on porcelain. Porcelain is so beautiful, it’s high-fired, and there’s nothing on it, so the oil paint soaks into it and creates this beautiful kind of matte surface because the oil just disappears into the porcelain. So there’s a lot of potential—it’s just another way of making that I like. I know that a lot of people are doing stuff in clay now, which I think is great. What I’m not interested in is having one define the other. Yes, of course the painting and sculpture are related, but nothing is explaining each other. Somebody asked me recently why I didn’t show the sculpture alongside my paintings in my show, and I said I didn’t need to, I just wanted to show the paintings.

I think it was John Yau who was saying something about you no longer being a secret ceramicist.

Well, I’m not secret now but I was. I’ve started showing them now but before when I started I was secretive about it. I didn’t know what I was doing—I had never touched a piece of clay before so I needed to learn from the bottom up. I’m not presumptuous enough to think I was any good at it for kind of a long time. I was secretive about it just because I was learning and it was primitive, and also I think there was this thing where I was thinking “who am I to be making this sculpture now, like what is that about?”It just took me a while to process the fact that I was interested in something else. And also, it’s sounds so silly, but I was embarrassed in front of my sculptor friends. I wasn’t secret exactly, I just kept it quiet because I didn’t feel entitled to show it. And then in 2008 and 2009 I had a museum survey in Europe in two museums, and when the curators were here, I had the sculptures here too, and when they came to choose the work they saw the sculpture and they wanted to take them too. So I ended up having a couple rooms where there were paintings and a little installation of some of the sculpture, and it was great. But that was actually the first time that I showed it. And also the gallery that I used to show in that closed wasn’t interested in them.

 
Untitled, glazed porcelain, Courtesy the artist

Untitled, glazed porcelain, Courtesy the artist

 

I think it’s really interesting to have a practice that’s just for yourself.

Yeah, I think I started making it because I had a need to make them. It was something I was making for myself, and I still make some of these for myself. I also make stuff with this paper clay that self-hardens, and I paint them, I just have them on my painting table and whenever I have extra paint I just go over and paint on them. And that’s something that’s kind of a private thing.

Everything’s become so public now that it’s quite difficult to carve out a private space or practice that’s just for oneself that feeds or sustains you.

Right, but you can! You don’t have to show everybody or anybody everything you do. People do, but you don’t have to, you can hold things back. I think it’s okay to hold things back or keep things quiet, we’re sort of taught not to, everyone’s so self-promotional. I just think I don’t want to be like that.

Do you think that making the sculpture has changed your painting practice?

I think it did. I think the clay lends itself to a kind of fluidity and I think after a while those forms just ended up in the paintings. It wasn’t a conscious thing, it just happened, and with the clay there was something loosening up, and maybe I was struggling with that in my painting. I was somehow struggling with what I was painting and it needed something else and I think somehow instinctually I felt like I had to make sculpture, and then eventually it found it’s way back into the painting. And so I think that my paintings were much more geometric and hard-edged before, and now they’re kind of not.

You’re a developed, mature artist who has figured something about being a painter. What advice would you give on how to develop and sustain a painter’s voice throughout a lifetime?

I just think if you’re a real artist you will know it and you’ll keep working. I think if it means moving out of New York there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that unfortunately it’s just super expensive here now and why kill yourself to be just one of hundreds of thousands? You could go somewhere else where you could make your work without having to sacrifice your soul. I can’t generalize, because people want to be where everything is, but there are a lot of other places that are really cool besides New York. I mean if I was a young artist starting out, I don’t know if I would come here. I know lots of young artists who went to Europe, who went to Berlin, and other places. I just think the most important thing is to just figure out a way to make your work. My feeling is if you can just figure out a way to make your work, then you’ll be fine no matter where you are. If I had to do this over again now, I wouldn’t be able to do it here, because I don’t like living with other people, because I don’t want to have five roommates and share a studio. I didn’t have to do that–I had a little apartment on the Lower East Side and the living room was my studio and I slept in the little alcove room and it was great. But I don’t know how many people who can find their own apartments now for not so much money. I think because it’s a different world, meaning that because of the internet and globalization you don’t need to be here. You can go to New Orleans, or Detroit, or Berlin, or Dusseldorf, or Madrid, or Miami–there isn’t just one way to do things, or one path. You don’t have to do the whole grad school to cool gallery to being rich and famous. It doesn’t work that way because those people who have done that, when they’re 40, no one is going to care. You need to be in it for the rest of your life. Just be in it for the long term and don’t think of the short-term rewards and don’t go to graduate school and don’t have debt, that’s my feeling.

Published in Figure/Ground Sept. 5th, 2014