still life

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 Judith Linhares

By ASHLEY GARRETT, JAN. 2014

 
Linhares in her Brooklyn studio

Linhares in her Brooklyn studio

 

Judith Linhares is a painter living and working in Brooklyn, New York.  Born in Pasadena, California in 1940, she earned both her BFA and MFA at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.  Her work has been included in 53 solo exhibitions and more than 175 group exhibitions.  Her awards include the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Fellowship, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Adeline Kent Award, three National Endowment for the Arts grants, Anonymous Was A Woman grant, a Pollock Krasner grant and an Adolph Gottleib grant.  Her work is in numerous public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution of American Art in Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Museum of American Art, San Francisco, CA, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, Berkley Museum of Art, CA, and the Frederick Weisman Collection, Los Angeles, CA.  Linhares is represented in New York by PPOW and in Los Angeles, California by Various Small Fires.

Special thanks to Brian Wood for his assistance with this interview.

Before we get to the questions I had a thought from seeing this vase of flowers—do you paint from life?

I do not make my work form life. I like to have a vase of fresh flowers in the house and I have cultivated a large flower garden in our farmhouse upstate to get ideas about color and form.  I’ve thought about this process of painting from life a lot when I started painting flowers I thought I’d just set up some flowers and paint them. That worked for a while, but then I just started making them up. The paintings made from inventing and constructing the flowers have much more intensity. Now I know every flower by heart.

 
Pink and Yellow Daises, 2006, 26 x 22 in., oil on linen.

Pink and Yellow Daises, 2006, 26 x 22 in., oil on linen.

 

I actually find that’s the case too, there’s some kind of real magic in remembering or imagining.  And then you have the complete freedom to make up your own world and you’re not attached to the real world in front of you.

Yes, absolutely. There’s something about internalizing the form and repeating it that’s good.  I miss that my students used to really like to work from the model, and now you can’t force them to do it. I would work along with them in this atmosphere of concentration. I guess I’ll have to hire my own model and do it on my own time.

They’re not doing it as much in school?

In the foundation class I have them paint from the model because it’s just required, and they’re willing to accept that idea as freshmen, but after that they’re really not interested.

So it’s the students that don’t want to do it?

Yeah. There were always at least a few people who would give me an excuse to have a model in the classroom and then I could sneak in a few little gouaches or something, but that just is not happening.  I don’t think you can apply it generally to all schools, I think it’s particular to SVA.  I mean, there will always be somebody who’s really interested in pursuing representational painting, but even those people now will get their own models or work from internet photographs.

Which class do you prefer teaching, Foundation or Third year?

I like them for different reasons.  Directing people through a process and getting to know them is critical in the first year.   I just really like the process, believe in working, and it’s a good way to spend your day.  I don’t think these students at this time are really interested in working like that, they don’t see working in your studio and making discoveries in the physical process as a way to develop their work. Perhaps they will feel differently when they graduate and have their own studios.

Most of my second year class at SVA was based around the model, and the rest of the class was still life—particularly painting the skull. 

I get so much guff from the freshmen who think art is all about the subject.  I think it’s good for your character to have to paint from life —you learn a kind of discipline by sitting still and struggling in a gap between what you see and what you can actually make.  It’s good for you; everybody should have to do it!

How did you know or discover that you were an artist?  What was your first encounter with painting?

My grandmother raised me and she had this painting of a bucolic scene with cows by a lake.  I still remember it, as it was the only painting in the house. We were quite poor, so we didn’t have a lot of paintings or books—we did not have a television in the house until my teens. Books with pictures really impressed me like Currier and Ives 19th century popular prints; they’re very kitschy.  There are couples kissing in the forest and going for sleigh rides, as well as their political cartoons.  The other book that we had with pictures was an illustrated Bible and some connection between the stories and the pictures was resonating within me.  As far as discovering I was an artist, basically, I knew that I really couldn’t do anything else, ever.  I was fairly athletic but nothing extraordinary.  In the fifth grade, I was the only one who could draw a Conestoga wagon and I received some attention for this skill.  I was constantly trying to improve my drawing skills by drawing the desert yucca plants or coping scenes from Wonder Woman in grade school composition books. The desert landscape is very deeply embedded in my roots.

I’ve heard that from other artists—that they were singled out to draw things in an early childhood class environment, and they decided that that’s their identity.

That’s right and my family was not in any manner traditional types.  My grandmother was a musician. She went to a music conservatory and later in life enjoyed playing the organ in a retro movie theater to epic Hollywood Westerns shot on the neighboring rancheros turned film sets. My grandfather also fancied himself a writer—he would go camping with his dog Poncho in the High Sierras sometimes for six months typing these long letters about his experience. As they all had artistic ambitions of sorts, my discovered talent for drawing made sense to them.

So they were happy to hear that you were becoming a painter?

Well, mother had my life figured out for me—being a painter was just fine because I could become a high school art teacher and have the summers off, which would be really good, as I would be able to spend time going to the beach, because that’s what SHE liked to do!

Where in California did you grow up? Were you or your mother into surfing at all?

Southern California. First, raised by my grandmother in the High Desert town of Newhall where my great-grandfather arrived in 1900 as a blacksmith, then Manhattan Beach near Venice Beach when my mother remarried.  My mother was involved in physical culture.  Her boyfriends were body builders and she took me with her to Santa Monica where they lifted weights. My uncle was into flexing his muscles on the beach lifting me up into pretzel-like show-off poses.  It’s funny–I’m hearing about all my friends  going back to the Middle West for the holidays and remembering how repressive their childhoods where, my childhood was not repressed at all!  There’s a goofy sense of freedom that goes on in California that’s about the enjoyment of nature. It is our birthright.

 
Wave, 2010, 60 x 84 in., oil on linen.

Wave, 2010, 60 x 84 in., oil on linen.

 

How did growing up in California inform your work?

Hugely, in all kinds of ways.  I was a mature artist when I moved to New York and my roots show.  Growing up in California has so much to do with my attitude on so many levels.  One of them has to do with the fantasy of being a survivor in nature that every Californian entertains. People move to California to enjoy outdoors like swimming in the Pacific, camping, hiking, hunting, fishing, and all of that.  I think people in the east presume that if you’re an artist you’re just dying to move to New York, but actually Californians think very highly of themselves.  Especially in L.A. where they do take care of their artists very well.  It’s a different kind of environment and it isn’t the trading post the way New York is.  There isn’t as much opportunity. L.A. is vast but there aren’t as many galleries and there isn’t this incredible commercial scene.  Dealers often truck paintings to Hollywood homes for clients to live with before purchasing. Paintings compete with the views out the window. But people have been developing their work living outside of New York, remaining free from the hierarchy of the East Coast.

Living in Los Angles as an adult really wasn’t a possibility for me because my family lived there and I just wasn’t going to live in the same town.  But as my parents were declining I spent a lot of time there, in the last six years I was there a lot, four or five times a year at least and all holidays. I really got to like it and how it sees itself, with the Modernist architecture and the ideal of living inside and outside at the same time.  I grew up there in the 50’s when Modernism was just beginning to be entrenched in America.   Design was a big interest in California, and I realized that the Eameses lived just up the hill from my parents.  Modern design as a way of imagining the future and moving away from the comfort of tradition. In the big picture, I couldn’t imagine myself living there and having to get into my car every day, that part I don’t like but there is a lot to like.  There’s something about the vast yellow hillside fields and twisted black oak trees, and, of course, my desert landscape, that enters you forever, so it’s always going to feel like home.

You’ve said that you’re interested in fairy tales and mythology in your work–depicting those figures in domestic situations, such as napping or cooking, often in an environment bathed with strange light.  What is your attraction to the context of the domestic life?

One of my struggles has been—how do I make something that’s narrative or suggests a story so the viewer can enter it with their own ideas of what’s going on?  So, I do not  like to start with  known fairytales in mind , my first interest was psychology. Carl Jung was interested in the original source of narratives and his ideas about the collective unconscious led to my interest in fairytales. I realized, with the help of Marina Warner, Anne Sexton, and Maria Tatar, who write about fairytales, that mythology is like the grand narrative and fairytales are oral reinterpretations after the myths, a lot of them are very parallel.  But the difference is they’re not taking place ‘on high,’ they’re taking place ‘on Earth’ in these very humble circumstances.  So I think it’s the humbleness of domesticity that I’m interested in—it’s sort of anti-heroic.

I used to paint a lot of narratives with skeletons. Everybody understands that the skeleton is a figure with a certain kind of meaning. I would see other work with skeletons and I would think, “Did I make that?”  The skeleton was so general and anonymous; I realized that I had to get away from it, to paint the figure more particular, more sexy with flesh.

 
Cook, 2005, 57 x 78 in., oil on linen

Cook, 2005, 57 x 78 in., oil on linen

 

Can you talk a little bit about your process, do you add and subtract on the canvas?  How do you know when a painting is finished?

I’m laughing because I hope they look like they were made with great ease, but they were not!  I work a lot on paper and have literally thousands of small gouaches.  Some of them start completely abstract and then I read into the painting and pull the figure or the subject matter out of something that’s just a few different shaped rectangles.  So they definitely develop—that’s part of my issue with illustration, if it comes full-blown as an idea then you’re just illustrating something out of your head.  It’s really important to me to have it come to life before my very eyes and surprise me.  I guess I’m not really that ambivalent about the process but sometimes I wonder how I arrived at this process. Working from the general to the specific and then getting it more defined … a little more defined … a little more defined, and that’s just my process. My paintings evolve over a pretty long period of time.  I had an epiphany around the work of the German painter Gunter Forg. His work is done mentally as he sets the stage with the plan in his head of what he is going to do and what he is not going do, then he just makes the work. It is what it is. I love that. I just love it! However, I want a picture … I want an illusion … I want specificity … and it’s just never going to happen that way in my studio.

I’m such an admirer of Hopper. I’m interested in the mythology around what it is to be American, and he’s so emblematic in so many ways. It’s interesting that he was influenced by the movies. This makes perfect sense the way every frame is really constructed and thought out as far as relationships of parts to the whole and what emotional effect those big empty spaces might have.  At a certain point, I just realized I’m not Edward Hopper!

 
Hunger, 2010, 22 x 26 in., oil on linen

Hunger, 2010, 22 x 26 in., oil on linen

 

You’ve been in many group painting exhibitions recently, including cross-generational shows where young painters are seen in context with well-respected and accomplished painters such as yourself.  How do you see this dialogue developing and do you think it’s important for different generations of painters to speak to each other both through their work and in a social context?  What do you think we can share with each other? 

Well first of all, I like young people. I really enjoy teaching—it gives me access to people I’d never have access to if I weren’t teaching them.  And I like the teaching context because I find it very moving to see people and their struggles to make meaning in their lives.  It’s very life-affirming.  I think that every generation has a different take, because you’re coming in to consciousness at different points in history.  I’m interested in the shifts that happen in response to economics and social awareness. I’m interested how people feel about their lives at this moment in time and what is art for and who is it for.

I feel like the art world is really changing, especially over the past five years. There is a new idealism in younger people with a multigenerational effect as part of the desire to be inclusive. We live in a community of artists, and one of the great things we have is the ability to talk to each other. That’s got to be a good thing! I see the phenomenon of curators putting different generations together as part of the promotion of a dialogue.  Some time last year I read Louis Hyde—he had a big article in the Times called “Who is Art For?” and I think especially in view of economic inequality this is the question to be asking. I came of age in the civil rights era and we were very idealistic. It was about seeing the future as non-hierarchical and people being really equal. I think art might be seen as captured by the elite in some way.  Who is art for? is not a subject that gets much attention. These questions are now beginning to be asked and implemented by younger generations.  I really get a kick out of this new job description for an artist—being both the community activist and the gallerist, I mean that’s pretty amazing. It reminds me of the alternatives that went on in California the 60’s then again in Lower Manhattan in the early 80’s where there was a lot of dialogue because the money issue was put aside.

You were included in the seminal 1978 New Museum exhibition “Bad” Painting curated by Marcia Tucker, who was saying that “bad” painting might mean freedom, ie:

“The freedom with which these artists mix classical and popular art-historical sources, kitsch and traditional images, archetypal and personal fantasies, constitutes a rejection of the concept of progress . . . By passing the idea of progress implies an extraordinary freedom to do and to be whatever you want. In part, this is one of the most appealing aspects of “bad” painting – that the ideas of “good” and “bad” are flexible and subject to both the immediate and the larger context in which the work is seen.” 

What do you think of the term “bad painting” today? Do you think it still has currency or potential today? 

Yeah, I think it was a really interesting moment.  Marcia was definitely of the same generation I’m from and she and her parents were active in Civil Rights and feminism.

I think that her vision was to see the New York scene open up to changing forces—to invite in these artists from all over the country to decentralizing New York in terms of the generational flow of Modernist painting. Abstract Expressionism is fantastic, it’s still way up there in my mind as the greatest art ever made, but there was a kind of tyranny around it, where so many possibilities had to be repressed in order to execute the party line. And I think that everybody felt that. I was coming from California, the land of total permission, so I didn’t exactly know; I didn’t have a real feel of where she was coming from.  I hadn’t experienced first hand the tyranny of this kind of Old New York School, but I think that’s what she was pushing against, or she could see the artists were pushing against it.  That we could open the door and let in these other possibilities—it would challenge and topple the old authority. She started a wave of interest not only in painting but a dialogue with the individual artists. This morphed into the bad-boy styles of “Neo-Expressionism” and continues to re-merge in the work of young artists.

Do you think there’s something else that’s like “bad painting” that’s going on today?

There’s a lot of interest in ‘outsider’ work, and certainly that was going on in California fifty years ago! I was collecting, teaching at community centers with Vietnam Vets and at The Creative Growth Center, as well as participating in the 1967 San Francisco Museum of Art “Dia De Los Muertos (Souls and Spirits)” 1979 exhibition. Nobody had a problem with that.  It’s great that there’s more people invited to the party.  I think outsider work represents work that’s done spontaneously, it’s done with a certain compulsive urgency, and it’s mostly done with a pure heart because of the needs of the maker.   This is a wonderful thing to keep in mind.  I’m not sure that it’s important to aspire to, but it’s a nice kind of marker to keep in mind. When I see a lot of work made by outsiders, it makes me long to see a Matisse, it will make me long to see somebody who’s intellectually engaged.

Many of your paintings are of or have female figures in them.  Do you consider yourself a feminist?  What is your interest in the female figure?  What does it mean to be a female painter right now?

I think I was born a feminist!  I come from a long line of Amazons and the revival of feminism in the nineteen seventies was a very revelatory moment for my work—it gave a framework for my thinking. And it gave a context for my previous experiences, which were pretty horrendous.  There’s still a lot of work to be done, I can’t wait for Hillary Clinton to run for president and see everybody go nuts!

The women in my work are just going about their business; they are really not posing. A young painter mentioned recently that my women look like they escaped from the Demoisselles d’Avignon or a Cezanne painting and are now on leave pursuing they’re own futures.  I think about their body language and what their appearance might signify in hedonistic reverie and how their presence is different than the presence of the female figure in premodern painting where it was presumed that the male gaze owned the women. In my paintings, the women own the real estate. Jennifer Riley described this idea about women and real estate in a review of my work, and I love that.

 I LOVE the HBO show Girls! I think that show is revolutionary! The character Hannah [Lena Dunham], is always seen au natural and often scantily clothed, she is not trying to be an ideal beauty. I think she is making a case for “this is the way women actually look you deal with it” and one does not have to live up to impossible ideals off beauty.   The territory of the idealized female form brings to mind the paintings of Lisa Yuskavage. Now that I think about it, Lisa is combining the idealized (the smooth skin conveyed by the wonderfully crafted surface that represents the women’s skin) and the poses that are less than flattering and idealizing.

There has been a conversation about postmodern or ironic painting versus an emerging desire for emotionally honest painting, sincere painting. Thoughts? What do you think about the role of postmodernism and irony in painting?

There’s a lot of art I like that is ironic. I think it’s fine to strategize ahead of time but it’s just not for me and I don’t know if I can make any blanket statements about irony. I will say being overly earnest and naive is not a good option either.

Seeing Christopher Wool’s show this fall was food for thought.   He has a certain distance in his work that could be seen as ironic and it reminds me that a paint stroke doesn’t mean the same thing as it did in 1955.  I quite like the results and the show at the Guggenheim. You see a mind working through thirty years of painting.

I like really risky work, work that’s embarrassing and makes you uncomfortable.  And certainly his work isn’t embarrassing, it’s incredibly elegant I think one of the particular things that painting offers—is that it is visual and physical.  I see the danger –if you’re a painter and you’re painting on a rectangle you have thousands of years of history to contend with.  Your work will submerge in that history if you don’t do something to distinguish it. I don’t know how you address that. Certainly one way would be strategy.

Personally I like the confines of traditional painting.  I think Poussin’s paintings are like miracles.  I can get so many ideas and be so stimulated from this simple rectangle—it gives me hope that I could make something that good, or that significant.

I am not sure I know what emotionally honest painting is but there is an idea of working through the process little by little and not looking for short cuts. Developing your relationship with the work over time is present in all good art be it Sigmar Polke or Fairfield Porter or Leonor Fini or Frida Kahlo.

I remember getting a letter in 1972 asking for my comments on the death of painting.  This notion has been around forever, that painting is done and let’s move on and it’s not a possibility.

But here we are and you’re still making still lifes!  What do you think are the possibilities in figurative painting with “traditional” elements and structures such as the still-life and the nude?

I guess I’m just really confident that I bring something unique to it!  Because it isn’t really just a still-life and I paint naked figures in action, not academic nudes.

I find the patronage aspect a little troublesome…the idea that the really wealthy get the first access to buy good paintings unless you’re really smart with a good eye!  That is problematic.  It’s so easy to commodify.

There was a big article in The New Yorker about Theaster Gates who has a Community Art Center in Chicago that is really brilliant. The artist’s work is actually changing his rust belt neighborhood into a new Eden, and bringing more voices into the conversation as an activist.  I mean it’s amazing and really something to aspire to.  He will not need to be alone for eight hours a day!

Do you feel the same way about Bushwick?

Oh yeah, it’s definitely an amazing phenomenon and it’s so great!  All of these things are fabulous and I am pleased to be included in new gallery shows at Elgin Gallery, Heliopolis, and Fred Valentine’s gallery.  I mean I actually thought about this when I was getting out of art school, because it was the time of civil rights, and I was teaching in Oakland public schools.  I really felt like art could save people’s lives and wouldn’t it be great to just go around and give people art materials and show their work in Oakland, and how would you begin to do that?  So I think it’s fantastic that there are these artist-run galleries that give their fellow artists an opportunity to show their work because it’s what is needed to make good work—it’s part of the process.  And there were real forerunners like Pierogi.  I mean there was a strong history in the New York 70’s and 80’s alternative art worlds operating with the ghost of money and the enthusiasm has spread with the Artists’ Space and White Columns philosophy to other venues like Zurcher Studio, Brian Morris Gallery, and Lesley Heller Workspace. It’s great to see artist-selected groupings.  So there are these Gowanus, Bushwick, and Ridgewood galleries with a community-oriented “y’all come” kind of thing.  And the fact that these artists’ run galleries are so numerous gives it a certain credibility.

 
Arctic Hare, 2010, 18 x 14 in., oil on linen

Arctic Hare, 2010, 18 x 14 in., oil on linen

 

What advice would you give on how to develop and sustain a painter’s voice throughout a lifetime?

Well, I guess I’m not big on giving advice!  You should do what you personally can do.

For me it’s important to make a mess every day. That’s kind of at the core of my involvement, as a process of working through poverty and single motherhood, everything is to make sure that I’m working, that I never stop working.

I have always relied on community, as the first line of being visible and finding encouragement. This started with the informal women’s groups in San Francisco. The move to the more intensely verbal and overtly competitive New York art world has helped me develop my work and clarify my ideas. To be in an environment where every one believes in the importance of art really puts wind in my sails.

Published in Figure/Ground April 14th, 2014