oil paint

Interview with Ann Craven

By ASHLEY GARRETT, SEPT. 2014

Ann Craven lives and works between Manhattan and the banks of the Saint Georges River in Maine. With a particular perspective on nature as her subject, Craven’s most recent show that opened at Hannah Hoffman in Los Angeles last weekend brings forward Craven’s point of view of rural nature vs. urban color. In the studio, Craven uses both digital and direct observation as sources for her Moons, Birds and Flower paintings.  She recently had her first retrospective, titled Time, at Le Confort Moderne in Poitiers, France this past summer. Other recent solo exhibitions include Maccarone, New York, and Southard Reid, London. Her work has been exhibited internationally and reviewed in publications including Art in America, the New York TimesArtforumFlash ArtThe New YorkerFrieze and Modern Painters. Her paintings are in the public collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney Museum, the New Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, among others. Craven is represented by KARMA, New York.

 
Ann Craven in her New York studio, November 2012. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio.

Ann Craven in her New York studio, November 2012. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio.

 

When we first spoke on the phone you mentioned the group show you were in that was organized by Retrospective Gallery in Hudson and curated by Erin Falls – the Ambulance Blues show at Basilica Hudson. That show closed mid-August, so I missed seeing it in person, but I did find nice installation pictures online, so I was able to look at those and read a little bit about Erin Falls’ idea behind the show. You mentioned the installation of your moon paintings was a little different for this show – I was really curious about that, knowing how you have shown the time-based moon paintings in a large array. Here you showed only blue moons rather than black moons, and it looks like the blue moons are more of a shortened sequence rather than a long group of the phases of the moon. This feels more like a deliberate sequence. Did you choose this particular sequence of moon images for this show? They all look relatively full. How do you see your work relative to Falls’ conception of the show?

 
Ambulance Blues installation view at Retrospective Gallery at Bascilica Hudson, New York, August 2014. Courtesy Retrospective Gallery.

Ambulance Blues installation view at Retrospective Gallery at Bascilica Hudson, New York, August 2014. Courtesy Retrospective Gallery.

 

It’s interesting that you’re saying that they look as though they are sequential because that group of paintings were painted in two evenings in 2012. I think we gave them to her in the 2012 series, actually from two nights in June of 2012, so I painted one after the other after the other, and I had four or five easels set up. Where I am in Maine you have to catch the moon at a certain time and it’s spectacular! It’s like watching the most amazing performance that’s on this Earth, the moon rising. You have to be ready for it. All the canvases are primed and ready to go in order, and I just grab them and put them on the easel, usually at least two easels going at once if not four, and sometimes I’ll finish one and twenty minutes later I’ll finish the next one, and twenty minutes or an hour later I’ll finish the next one. My titles are the times the paintings were made. Each work describes the exact time I stopped painting, so it’s “Moon (Place, Time), Year.” It’s a system, so the hanging can also be a system.

For that show, the paintings were hung like one long sequential thought. One continuation, but with fragmentation. Erin placed this work within this incredibly heartfelt show – I think the fragmentation of the evening was something so poetic and how occasionally you look up and see the moon if you’re not painting it – most people don’t paint it – but it’s just a documentation of time so it’s a different fragment of different parts of an evening, or a day or a month or a year. So they were hung higher than usual. We discussed that because the space was so huge and high that we decided to hang the paintings a little higher so that people would have to look up instead of just being given the paintings. They’d have to look up as though it was the moon in a physical form.

I was wondering about the title of the show – it made me think of the Neil Young song of the same title, although there was no direct reference to it in the press release, but then in listening to the song again, reading the lyrics and a little bit about it, it totally fits the work. It’s a nine-minute song from the album “On the Beach.” In it there’s storytelling, both personal and cultural trauma, and sequencing, but also how trauma can instigate and develop change on a really fundamental level. I’m just reading the lyrics – and I thought it related to your work in an interesting way:

“I guess I’ll call it sickness gone

It’s hard to say the meaning of this song

An ambulance can only go so fast

It’s easy to get buried in the past

When you try to make a good thing last”

So I was thinking about the way you work, and the repetition of your paintings, and it’s a really nice dovetail into the way you’ve built up these images many, many times. What is the relationship between the past and present for you?

People are being conceived under this moon, people are being born under this moon, people are dying, living, crying – so for me, the moon – I don’t often talk about the emotional side, because it does become a system for me too, I hide in the system. The size is always the same, like a song, a repeated mantra so it’s also like a prayer.

When I say a song I mean I can always revisit it again but it always sounds a little different. It’s something that I know will be there for me always, that I can revisit, and that it will always be both different and the same. I started painting the moon a long time ago and I was very embarrassed about it. I come from an Irish Catholic family in Boston that believed in me so much as a painter. When I told them I wanted to be an architect in college, they were like “Why? You’re a painter! What about the smell of oil paint?” I love my parents so much, I’m so thankful they said that, because what I’m doing now is because of them.

 
Moon (Cushing, 7-21-13, 11:05 PM), 2013, oil on linen, 72 x 72 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

Moon (Cushing, 7-21-13, 11:05 PM), 2013, oil on linen, 72 x 72 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

 

What was your first encounter with painting? How did you become an artist?

I started painting with oils when I was six. Believe it or not, I was given a set of oil paints and canvases and canvases to finish, because my aunt had passed away and my mom naively let me use them. She let me use oil paint and I had to use turpentine, but I had to be but careful enough that it wasn’t a bad toxic experience. It wasn’t like she made me be – oh no, you can’t do that, she was more like, oh yes, you can do that! And not only that, she put me in an art class with adults, so I got to learn how to paint at night with these very intelligent older women who would give me hot chocolate and they would be drinking coffee. I learned about oil painting. I’ve never used acrylic in my life, oil is in my blood, I know it so well. I’ve been painting for a long time, so the subject matter came later but the process was always something that I understood and was almost kind of embarrassed about because I knew so much about oil painting as a kid and into college. I never took it for granted but it was just always there, that I know so much about this material – now what do I do with it. What do you do with it? And that’s a question for every artist, I think.

Exactly. The subject matter has to come out of the paint itself.

Yes! It has to come out of the paint, that’s exactly right. Especially wet on wet – oil paint is so much easier for me than thinking about waiting for layers to dry. It’s so immediate.

Your work is very rich in the handling, the brushstrokes, and the color. You’re working with imagery that might seem sentimental, such as the deer and flowers and birds. You were also saying that you’re interested in systems, and the titling is always important in reading any work, in terms of classifying how to look at it – at what point do these become conceptual paintings? How much is conceptual and how much is it painting because you love painting, using images that might make you vulnerable or taking risks? Are these conceptual paintings? Or are they a balance between conceptual and something else?

Great question. The painting process for me is deep, it’s my blood, so it’s always going to be something that’s so emotional.

It’s so interesting that you asked this question because I really feel that when I fell in love with the work of Agnes Martin, it was because I understood her scheme, a beautiful scheme to kind of turn her back to the world, and be like get out, get away from me, this is my time and my hand going across this canvas. So I really related to that way of thinking. And at the same time, making sense of the lists, I love to make lists and I need lists, I’m a constant obsessive list-maker– my lists are an archival project as well, to archive my body and where I am. The way that I title the moon paintings has everything to do with where I was at that certain moment, and a sequential timing of my presence in this world. In a way it’s a documentation of the fact that I was here.

 
Poppy (Early June, Cushing, 7-2-13), 2013, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Le Confort Moderne, Poitiers.

Poppy (Early June, Cushing, 7-2-13), 2013, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Le Confort Moderne, Poitiers.

 

I think that the conceptual part of my work is going to always be this sort of list-making, and the more emotional will always be the paint, it’s my blood, it’s my heart, it’s my soul, I can’t deny that. So, when I title my work and put it in front of me, I see it also as though it were a diary, because it shows the timeline.

When you’re doing the observational painting, like the moon, and you then repeat those paintings, what is it that you learn in that exchange of information, what is the change that happens between observational experience in the painting, and then repeating the image that’s already been painted, is there anything that you acquire or learn or let go of in terms of your experience in the paint, or information in the image?

That’s really interesting, in a way for me it’s like how a poet revisits a poem, and then wants to change a certain word or a comma or a fluctuation in a sentence or something but then doesn’t. In a way I feel really lucky to be able to revisit something again and again and again, being each time that it’s different – it’s a different time, it’s a different place, it’s a different motion, it’s usually an attempt at all the same colors, although it’s always a different mixture but it’s very similar, and I want always to have that availability to go back and revisit and re-mix a certain color. But – everybody does this! I really feel that every artist, and everybody who is practicing things in terms of form, I feel that people revisit their ideas, you revisit your notions.

I paint from life, like the moon, but each painting is done on the same 14 x 14 inch canvas, so I do have a system there – I have rules that I can break within the surface of the canvas. But by repainting my Puff Puff series of bird paintings, that I revisited many times because it was an interesting subject, I changed the background color, I changed many things in that one series.

 
Ann Craven: Time at Le Confort Moderne, Pointiers, France, 2014, installation view. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Le Confort Moderne, Poitiers.

Ann Craven: Time at Le Confort Moderne, Pointiers, France, 2014, installation view. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Le Confort Moderne, Poitiers.

 

When you’re painting the moon – is it different painting from observation versus painting these pre-established, kind of sweet images of the deer and birds, the found or culled images? What is your attraction to painting those images at the same time as the moon, which has a sort of totemic symbolic quality? How does that relate to the deer and the birds and flowers? I’m referring to the figure/ground relationship between seeing things “in the round” versus flat photographs.

I love to print out images that I like from the internet.I constantly find postcards and I go to postcard shows all over the country when I can find them. It’s one of my favorite pastimes, postcard shows — you’ve got to go sometime, it’s incredible! For me, those images hold so much value for my inspiration.They are flat because they’re reproductions, but they’re reproductions that are sort of off key. I like vintage postcards of birds, because the print quality is off, it’s wonky, it’s not going to be perfect, and I value that. And so I have thousands of images that I save – weekly, monthly, yearly – and I’ll take those images with me in suitcases, I have certain images that I need with me as inspiration that I lay out on the floor. A lot of the flowers from the series of bird paintings that I’ve done have been painted at one time from observation. And I then mediate it myself by printing them out.

It’s like one feeds the other. I grew up painting from observation, and so I learned how to paint in the round, I learned how to paint looking at the glass and seeing the water, seeing the light going through it in three ways, and painting that. And the awe of being able to paint that – I always want that, I need that in my work, and so they both go hand in hand. They have relationships on both ends, all the time.

 
Dear and Daises (Life of the Fawn), 2004, oil on canvas, 72 x 108 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

Dear and Daises (Life of the Fawn), 2004, oil on canvas, 72 x 108 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

 

I was thinking about the repetition and how you were repeating whole shows after years have gone by – repeating series of paintings many times. And then I read that you had a studio fire in 1999, and I was wondering if there was a connection between that and the impulse to repeat your work. Is the subject or purpose of your work to document and preserve memory itself? Is this work about time travel or the refusal to acknowledge the passage of time in the face of terrible loss? Did the fire push you towards wanting to reacquire memory in a different way?

That’s pretty profound stuff you’re saying – do you have like a week or so? Let’s hang out! Then we can really talk and talk!

I hide from the mere fact that somebody might see that and see through it and see through all this repeated stuff to see that I’m acknowledging the passage of time. I’m looking it in the eye and trying to actually come to terms with death and life at the same time. And not go too close to admitting it – you can’t say it, because you don’t know what everything’s like after or before, and if you can grasp it right now in front of you then that’s being in the moment and being in the moment is so scary. Or stillness, quiet, silence, there’s frightful things in silence as well, so I like to think that my work is memory or that I can paint something and I can always revisit that and I don’t have to remember it, I can always remember it if I need to go back to it. The fire was definitely an eye-opener wake-up call to the fact that I am coveting my work again, in the event that this does happen again at least I have another one! But I was making copies before the fire.

As a matter of fact, at the time I was working on a huge series of deer paintings, and one was at a gallery. After the fire everything was gone but one deer painting, titled “Deer and Daises,” which was returned back to me about two months before my first come-back show in 2002. The fire was in 1999, and I was just devastated for a few years. But that deer painting – I repainted that deer painting and had to show it in the show. Then two years later I repainted that whole show and tripled the size of the paintings and hung the paintings in the same place and space. It was again a re-claiming of time and also a passage of time, in itself being that “hello, wake up,” to myself, to the fact that I’d shrunk myself as well, because everything was bigger, the brushstrokes were bigger, all the work was magnified.

I think most human beings are profoundly afraid of change, because as you said, it brings forward the fear of death. I think your work invites a conceptual reading, but also because of the way it’s painted, the feeling with which they’re painted, it’s hard to not see that other side. So I actually don’t think it’s quite as hidden under the conceptual guise. But I do think you’re inviting multiple readings, although you’re touching a very particular nerve of humanity: I don’t want things to change, I want them to stay the same. Stability is so important for human beings.

I grew up in a family from day one where it was always about us not being here — “You know, we’re not always going to be here,” kind of thing, and so it’s in my psyche to always try and hold on to the ‘what’s here.’ The heartfelt stuff is something that I’m almost – you can only show it so much, but as a learning experience for myself, and as a sort of protection element for myself, it’s all of these learned ways to hold on, and give up, and let go at the same time. And it’s so interesting; it does come out of suffering.

 
Ann Craven, installation view at Klemens Gasser + Tanja Grunnert, New York, 2002. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio.

Ann Craven, installation view at Klemens Gasser + Tanja Grunnert, New York, 2002. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio.

 
 
Ann Craven, installation view at Klemens Gasser + Tanja Grunnert, New York, 2004. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio.

Ann Craven, installation view at Klemens Gasser + Tanja Grunnert, New York, 2004. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio.

 

You’ve said that your stripe paintings are coming from your palettes or are your palettes. Why do you make the colors into stripes? What is your interest in transforming them into that particular form?

My palettes are pretty much as close to my gut as you’re going to get, because that’s where everything happens. And it’s something that as I’ve learned as a child, this constant mixing, and making color –what’s a color? And I really understand mixing. I come from a roofing family, so there was a lot of process going on there, and covering – I learned a lot of continuum stuff from my grandfather who had to do the same thing a lot. But the mixing of the palette came from the way that my grandfather would do this black mixing of the tar.

I use small stretched canvases as my palettes because they hold up better. I get these really cheap canvases and put them on my studio table.And I keep the palettes because I always need to revisit the paint, to mix the color again in two years or a year or less. So there again, it’s a list, it’s documentation. My palettes have always been a list. It’s always interesting for me to see my palettes, to see how many I have – I have hundreds of them. For the stripes, I was taking the paint from the palette and making it a line. And making the next color a line, and the next color a line, and the next color a line. So that I could see what I just painted, actually see it, instead of mixed up into the painting. I had just painted flowers or the moon or deer, I had a palette in front of me and the paint came off and went straight onto another canvas, so I could see the color. The mixing of the palette is a very unconscious process and so the stripes will always remain that too. It’s hard – I just want to paint stripes sometimes, and that’s it! Or nothing on the canvas, I’m so jealous of people who do that. So in a way the stripes are the closest I’ve come to of my realization of Agnes Martin’s realization of form and time, so the stripes are pretty potent.

They feel like a nice foil, where they’re related – they look like the same hand when seen together, but maybe not separately. They look like you’re taking a breath from the imagery.

That’s interesting, because it is the last thing I do when I’m working, and I think, “I can make my stripes now.” They’re bands of color, so they’re band paintings.

 
Stripe Triptych (Black, Blue, Purple; Orange, Blue, Brown, 2-01-08; Green, Yellow, Purple, 1-31-08), 2008, oil on canvas, 60 x 148 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

Stripe Triptych (Black, Blue, Purple; Orange, Blue, Brown, 2-01-08; Green, Yellow, Purple, 1-31-08), 2008, oil on canvas, 60 x 148 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

 

That makes a difference in terms of the art historical reference of stripes, where you might end up in the same territory as Daniel Buren with the authority of the stripes. But these don’t look like they’re charting that territory at all.

Exactly, I hear that sometimes from people, because Daniel Buren’s practice was definitely about stripes and about that sort of repeated image, but my stripes which I now call bands, are different because they’re born of the palette, it’s much more about giving birth to the color, or letting it free, rather than containing and going a different route. It’s a totally different process than Daniel Buren sort of gender-oriented work that he did. So this is non-gender, but they are very much about more of a birthing and coming from something else and something so private.

Ann Craven at Maccarone Gallery, New York, 2013, installation view. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

Ann Craven at Maccarone Gallery, New York, 2013, installation view. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

Speaking of abstraction and figuration, because there seems to be and probably will always be, this over-arching conversation about progression in painting, or the death of painting, I’m wondering what your take is on the possibilities in painting in the future or in the present, because it’s always being talked about – what’s allowed in terms of image or in description and detail, in figuration or abstraction. You’re making these very particular figurative paintings and at the same moment painting these other works that feel related but also different, it’s something that might be seen as abstract although you might not see it as abstract, so I’m interested in your take on the future of painting, or the present of painting – what do you think are the possibilities for painting?

Well it’s such a great question Ashley, because you know, sometimes I get really insecure about the idea that it’s just paint, and what am I doing? Why would you be doing this now? And I turned a deaf ear to all that stuff about painting being dead but I always found it so fascinating, the discussion of how that essay has resonated through so many different passages of painting. And it’s really allowed painting to lean on when it was sort of a real statement of death. It’s a very hard question, I think people have to be – and I say this to my students too – if you’re there for any kind of market reasons, painting is something that has to be your life and your blood and you have to live and breathe it and if you’re doing it for any other reason then you have to stop, don’t do it, do something else. I think it all comes out in the wash at the end, you see through things. I mean obviously you believe in painting!

I do, it’s no secret.

Haha! You obviously believe painting is alive and it’s still right here. You’re proof of it.

I think it’s as alive as any of us will allow it to be. Because there are still people my age, younger than me, and older than me, who believe that – and there are – then it will always be around.

Left: Flowers installation view at Maccarone Gallery, New York, 2010. Right: Roses (Black and White Fade), 2010, oil on linen, 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

Left: Flowers installation view at Maccarone Gallery, New York, 2010. Right: Roses (Black and White Fade), 2010, oil on linen, 60 x 48 inches. Courtesy Ann Craven Studio and Maccarone, New York.

I don’t think it could ever go away. Sometimes I hear on the radio about the idea of something being handmade, and it’s relationship to the digital age now and the screen, and I always laugh because painting is so universally ageless, it can’t possibly go away, because the handmade will always astonish and freak people out, because you have the guts to make something!

Marie Howe, the poet laureate of New York, was talking about homemade food, how that can strike people really intensely – like wow, homemade food! With McDonalds being around and still attracting people but homemade food is always going to be very special.

And the most deeply nourishing thing you could eat, assuming it’s well-made and it’s good, the actual homemade meal, made by whoever it is, with that level of consideration and care, then it feels like the most nourishing item you could put in your body. Like the physical expression of love.  

Yeah – exactly! And it will always shock you that somebody made this amazing thing from hand, in the same way as painting.

I saw your work this summer in a group painting show at Zach Feuer – two of your bird paintings alongside some young artists. And I think you also showed at Essex Flowers recently – because you’ve been showing alongside young artists and in artist-run galleries, I’m curious how you see the dialogue developing between established artists such as yourself and young artists. What do you think established and emerging artists are sharing with each other? Why are you interested in participating in that dialogue?

I love that question! It’s so funny because the majority of these shows that I’m in are because of my former students who are now either running an artist-run gallery or curating an interesting project online. I just find it fascinating to be surrounded by these young thinkers who I worked with lot before they were making their more mature work. Heather Guertin was my assistant for four years and we’ve talked about so many things, and she’s a complete artist from head to toe, but she’s also really caring about what other people in her community are doing. So is Joshua Smith who works with her at Essex Flowers. And Heather is a very clear thinker and in addition to her painting practice she also does performance, which is for me both entertaining and shocking and great, but her paintings are fabulous. Heather doesn’t need to perform, but she does, and I love it! And then at Zach Feuer, one of the curators for that show, Jesse Greenberg, was my student at Columbia. He’s great, he’s running his own gallery, churning new things through painting – and there we go again, painting! But it’s coming out differently. That to me is the painting that’s not going to die, that whole show was Jesse and MacGregor Harp’s thoughts on their own work. They’re coming in the back door, it’s very interesting.

And at the same time they are part of the establishment, because I think some of them are doing art fairs this year, and even last year – but I think that’s really interesting because they’re claiming territory that’s both inside and outside the system, which I think is actually a new idea from plain old rejection or just trying to accommodate what the system already is.

Exactly! I really feel the same way. The art fairs were so poo-pooed by so many of the older artists, like the “I’ll never go to an art fair” kind of thing, and these young artists are embracing that whole system and using it to their best advantage. I love it, it’s fascinating to me to see this.

And speaking of this – what advice would you give to younger artists? Young painters in particular – how to sustain their voice? What would you say to a young painter starting out who is trying to figure out how to be an artist?

I think that as an artist, one knows that there’s a higher sense to what you’re doing and there’s a way to climb in – you either come in through the skylight or you come in through the front door or the back door. You need to get inside the house, or the place where you want to be in terms of your own work. The house is usually a safe place, but if you forget your keys you’ve still got to get inside. So you’re home, you’re inside, but you need to feel that you’re allowed to be someone who’s an artist and not have to hide it. I’m talking about myself in a way because I’m still shy about being an artist – how do you justify it? But there are a lot of young artists who are vulnerable enough to know that it’s not easy, so my advice is if you think it’s easy, then you have to be careful, because you need to be aware that it’s not too fun. But you should try to have fun, and stay true to your soul and yourself, because I think the soul is there, it sticks around, so you should want to make it something that’s physically available to yourself and vulnerable enough to yourself, but also that you know it’s something that’s going to stay if you want it to. By telling your story so many times you can make people believe it whether it’s true or not. The fake story will always come out eventually, but if it’s a real story and you really want it heard, it will get out there.

Published in Figure/Ground Nov. 28th, 2014.

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.