Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Q&A with a first lady

Laura Elkins’ solo exhibition, “White House Negligee,” is on view through January 30 at The Fridge on Capitol Hill. The work in the exhibit is an extension of Laura’s First Ladies series that was discussed previously on this site.

You’ve continued on with this series for a number of years. Can you tell us what you have learned about the first ladies you portray and yourself as an artist? What have you learned about the audience that views these?

The First Ladies are a device for the self-portrait. The White House Collection is not about the lives of individual First Ladies. What I have learned about the various Ladies is incidental to the paintings.  The series is about me as “everywoman,” all of us—the human condition—at least the feminine half, maybe the masculine as well—I can relate to Rembrandt's masculine self-portraits, so could he relate to my feminine ones? Certainly both men and women are interested in my work.

When I first started making these paintings in 2000, soon after I moved to DC, the overall response was positive, although, of course, some people did not “get it.” In fact, I vaguely remember early on, someone on a DCCAH panel complaining how poorly the portraits were painted. Not a good likeness, perhaps? Which, of course, is part of the point: they are self-portraits as First Ladies to free me, as well as the viewer, from the tyranny of the likeness. On the other hand, Signal 66 (remember them?) exhibited several paintings in New Talent III and Pam Winters wrote a fab piece—“Paint Stripping”—for Washington City Paper. 

The response to this show has been rewarding—a lot of questions—good questions—with astute comments from people who claim not to know anything about art, along with astute comments by people who do. I want to make paintings that are accessible to anyone with curiosity. That's one reason I do figurative work—if you have a body, that's your entry to the paintings—then you can go on from there.

You’ve encountered some resistance to the portraits. Can you give us an example? Have you received any feedback from the powers on high about this particular exhibition?

The resistance has been pretty minor, but a friend who likes the paintings and does a lot of work with White House staff, offered to exhibit some of the First Ladies. However, that idea was quashed when a White House staffer got wind of it. I was disappointed because I would like to do an exhibit where I replace the official portraits in the White House with my First Ladies. Seeing selections from The White House Collection in the Vermeil Room would be really interesting. 

In response to White House Negligee, so far nothing from the White House or the State Department, as far as I know. One of Hillary's campaign managers saw some of the work a couple of years ago and really liked it. Another Hillary supporter is a collector.

I know that it is important to you for your audience to appreciate your process. Can you comment on what that is and why is it is significant? Also, by bringing the dressing table and props into the space, you’ve allowed us to see these things in detail. How do you think that helps the viewers’ understanding of the work or process?

This work often has a performative aspect.  Since I am both artist and model, I can find myself in physically demanding positions. In Papal Audience, for instance, I painted while perched on a ladder to get the sotto in su perspective. Even though I use images of the First Ladies, I try to keep reliance on photographs to a minimum. The figures develop from observation of my reflection, and the faces are a loose combination of the First Ladies' images and my own. I think that sense of immediacy and the inherent tension of performing and painting at the same time adds to the works' energy. Although we didn't include any of the en plein air First Ladies in this show, those paintings are highly performative—from wrestling with the elements (rain, wind, sun, cold) to contending with a curious public.

Including the dressing table was actually the idea of Jeramie Bellmay, associate curator of the Fridge.  The dressing table is, of course, a curiosity, but I think it does help communicate the process—that these works are painted from life. It's all there—the lamp, the guns, the cigarettes, the paint-stained gloves.

These large-scale works are densely, but not heavily, layered. I remember seeing them hanging in your studio and getting this sense of an elaborate tapestry. But at the Fridge, where they are hung side by side, you can really appreciate the complexity of each. Can you describe some of the elements in the works and why you chose them? Are there any references, in particular, to current events?

Generally, I start with pattern. In the case of the Mamie with Colt 45 and Mamie ASP, for instance, I used a 1950s pattern. I have a bolt of that fabric and painted the first Self as Mamie directly on it. For the Eleanor in Love, I found a 40s pattern to interpret, since other than the 50s fabric, you might be hard-pressed to identify the pattern I'm using. In Militia, I used the camouflage pattern chosen for the war in Afghanistan. Papal Audience is different: instead of a pattern I used the Perugino Resurrection of Christ in the Vatican Library. The mandorla that surrounds Christ surrounds Michelle's head and breast and becomes a sort of mantilla for her. 

After the pattern, I add the figure—usually the central one first. The figures in the side mirrors often come later after I've established the direction of the painting. The details change from painting to painting depending on the subject—the details of the dressing table, the design of the lamps, the accessories. 

Mamie ASP was a response, in part, to the Fort Hood massacre—that's where the title came from.  I began Papal Audience after the Obamas visited the Pope. The titles of Militia and Tea Party are tongue-in-cheek references to those two political movements. However, summer before last, I had made three small Tea Party paintings—the ones you included in unbearable—and at the time, three First Ladies were simply having tea with no overt political implications—that was before the Tea Party had really taken off. After doing those three, which are plein air works that I painted in my front garden, I began to think about including multiple figures in one painting and began the Dressing Table Paintings soon after that. The Card Players refers to the Cezanne paintings of the same title.

What subject matter do you plan to address in the next dressing table painting? Do you have ideas you’d like to share?

I work intuitively: the subject is whatever gets under my skin—and stays. Right now, I'm considering introducing a male figure.

Considering the political climate of the past year, many women including state and national legislators, politicians, and the like, have been at the forefront of media attention and scrutiny. Can you see yourself addressing someone like Sarah Palin or Arizona Governor Jan Brewer in your work? How do you think that your approach might be differ?

Although the paintings are not “about” the First Ladies, they do give the work a political and historical twist which allows me to address broader social issues as well as current events, in addition to the more personal nature of the work. Although, admittedly, the Hillarys and the Michelles are inherently political simply because both women are alive and active in the world. If we were in the 50s, the Mamies would seem politically motivated. 

However, I don't see using female governors or political candidates, unless they also happen to be First Ladies! American First Ladies are international icons and contribute to what may be our only shared story as a nation—our living mythology. By dangling between the images of the First Ladies and my own reflection, I have a framework to explore the conundrum that is America, as an individual woman living within that riddle. The religious and classical stories that provided an expressive vehicle for earlier Western art no longer resonate with contemporary culture—although the content often does!   This is a stab at inventing a visual vernacular.

What’s next for you, Laura?

One important aspect of my work is the painting support. For instance, the paintings of The White House Collection are easel paintings only because the original references are easel paintings. Ultimately, my goal is to create the painting support, which leads me to the integration of art and architecture. So far, I've succeeded in doing only one fully developed art and architecture project, which integrated painting, sculpture, architecture, and landscape. If not next, soon—I would like to do more art and architecture projects.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Which came first?

Laura Elkins lives in an old clapboard house painted entirely in a rich olive color. Built around 1859, it rests on a tree-lined street on Capitol Hill. A magnolia tree crowds out the small front walk and could, frankly, use some trimming, as it makes navigating to the front door a bit of a challenge. At various times in the past several years, Laura has “wrapped” her house with painted tyvek, part of a public art project designed to call out what she perceives as abuses of power from local and national leaders. The magnolia tree itself once served as home to CALL ME, a sculpture that now looms over the Pyramid Atlantic building in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Once inside, you can imagine the main part of the house is much like it was when first built—the intent of Laura and her husband, who renovated the house several years ago.  As you pass through the parlor and dining room, you enter a much more modern kitchen. A kitchen window, where once a mother may have watched her children in the yard, now provides a peek into the studio beyond, a small, yet soaring, light-filled space where Laura works.

Laura Elkins paints self-portraits as first ladies, most recently Lady Bird Johnson, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. Her portrait series began years ago after her arrival in DC. She toured the White House with a friend and saw the collection of official portraits of presidents and first ladies. She was struck by how facile the images of these women appeared. Here were powerful women with rich intellectual and emotional lives, and yet they appeared vacant, ageless, detached. Stuck in a moment of time, they revealed nothing of the complexities of their inner selves and the times in which they were a part.  

Laura is process-oriented in her work and if you were to stand in the alley and look into her studio, you might find her perched precariously on a ladder, brush in hand, as she paints herself nude for a perspective study for one of her “dressing table” paintings. Or sitting at her own dressing table, again nude, cigarette, gun or mirror in hand, as she adds paint to an existing portrait. She also paints herself en plein air and does extensive research and collecting of era-appropriate vintage textiles for consideration in her layered backgrounds.

The original series, part of which will be shown in the second Selects exhibit, includes head-and-shoulder portraits of her subjects. To imbue these controlled, public images with emotional complexity, Laura uses herself as model as well. These women now look ecstatic, deranged, paranoid, angry, arrogant—emotions they could never express without fear of undue press scrutiny. Their scale is human-size and approachable, and as such, we can feel on equal footing with them.

Laura’s dressing table paintings, on the other hand, are fairly large—66” square. Here, she poses her subjects in front of mirrors, staring at their own visages, nude, aging, unaware of the watchful eyes around them. She takes the same process approach to their creation as well. Though it is not her goal, there is a narrative quality to these pieces that adds richness to them. In one, Militia, both Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama pose in the mirror nude, guns drawn, looking out at the viewer with hostile eyes. If you can get past their gaze, you’ll find a canvas carefully filled with objects and patterns meant to intensify the viewer’s experience.

When I began my visit with Laura, it was a sunny, and surprisingly pleasant, summer day. As our discussion came to an end, the skies had become dark and threatening, promising another of those wild summer storms we’ve seen this year.

As I made my way back to the parlor, I stopped again at the portraits I was considering for the exhibit. I was determined to make my choices before the skies opened up. It was then that I realized something else about them—and about ourselves. Laura’s first ladies, with their wild, contorted expressions, were just as impersonal and intractable as the portraits that inspired them. Have we arrived at a point where we, ourselves, are overly cautious and careful about showing outward expressions of emotion? If we reveal too much, are we then afraid others might see us unhinged? In Laura’s portraits, we seem to find an answer. These paintings are not portraits of Laura—or the first ladies—but portraits of each of us.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Closing in on a theme

The halls of American University’s Katzen Center were nearly empty the summer day I visited Claire Feng in her studio there. The last time I’d been there was during open studios for the graduate class, and with all the hustle and bustle, I didn’t get to spend much time with Claire. This time, though, it was refreshingly cool inside and quiet.

Claire and I sat down to discuss the upcoming exhibition, featuring her work along side Laura Elkins, Yvette Kraft and Joyce Zipperer. As is my process, I’ve been rereading a few books that I wanted to use for inspiration for the installation, and I mentioned them to Claire, inadvertently giving her the wrong title and author for one of the novels. The books in consideration are Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison and The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras.

As with my first exhibition in April, novels often inform my choices about the exhibition atmosphere I am trying to create. For Only what you can carry with you, for instance, I riffed off of A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin. At the same time, I try to find the balance between the desired emotional and intellectual response to the works. The works in this exhibition will create an interesting dialogue, so I know I have both bases covered.

As we talked, Claire raised the question that the other artists in the show have raised in previous visits. What is the show about and why exhibit these somewhat disparate works together? To answer her, I told her a story.

When I was in my earliest teen years, I became somewhat of a confidant to the women in my neighborhood. These impoverished, sometimes abused, often single, working women must have recognized my sensitivity and openness and confided in me as we talked on the trunks of their cars or their front steps. What amazed me then, as it still does now, is that women are not necessarily the open books that society seems to prescribe them as. 

I don’t know if it’s a particularly Western idea, but the notion that women are necessarily much more outwardly emotional and process-oriented isn’t always true. Women harbor dark, complex, rational and practical thoughts about their lives and the lives of their families and friends. And despite the stereotype, women are not always dying to emote to their loved ones about the minutiae of their daily lives.

When I finished, Claire’s eyes lit up and she became excited. In almost hushed tones, she described to me a bit of her life in China. Secrecy, she said, was a big part of it. She was very careful to not fully describe her wishes to anyone for fear of standing apart from others. In that environment, it was best that she just blend in. She went on to describe how she incorporates subtle imagery in her work that references that life and oppression.

When she was finished, I knew that the inclusion of Claire in this exhibition was right. While I greatly admire her painterly technique and skills, it is her content, both mysterious and subtle, that draws me to her work. And now I know that her work has an additional layer of complexity that I was, perhaps, only subconsciously aware.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Conundrum of Curating

One of the joys and challenges in curating a show with diverse content is finding a common thread in order to tell a compelling story. Such is the case with my next exhibition planned for mid-September with its four female artists. How do I balance the tight technical skills of Joyce Zipperer's sculptural work with the loose hand of Yvette Kraft? What kind of dialogue is created between the somewhat explicit emotions found in Laura Elkin's portraits of powerful women and Claire Feng's subtle and quiet moments? And, then, how do I combine the work of all four in a narrative way? That's the conundrum of curating but also the thrill of it.

In early May, I visited the studio of Joyce Zipperer at her home in Springfield, Virginia. Strangely, I became aware of Joyce's work when, long ago, I purchased a small impressionistic painting of a sailboat in the bargain basement of Ruff-n-Ready on 14th Street NW. It was an early Joyce Zipperer (1963). I have to confess that I bought the painting primarily because it was orange. (I was going through an orange craze at the time.) I had the painting for over 15 years, and it continued to fascinate me.

Years later, I attended the opening of one of DCAC’s Wall Mountable shows and was surprised to find small, delicate sculptural pieces by Joyce there. I introduced myself and was won over by her warmth. She remains much the same today as she welcomed me to her home and studio.

Joyce has shown her work in DC (and beyond) for over 40 years and is represented by Zenith Gallery. Her work has focused on women’s costumes and clothing, particularly undergarments, and addresses the changing attitudes, morĂ©s, and trends in women’s wear. Using materials like stone, metal fabrics and thread, and welded steel over the years, her work has evolved from the heavy industrial look of her stone high-heels to the delicate bras, bikini sets, and garter belts that she likes to display on clotheslines.

To appreciate the work that goes into one bra or bikini or thong, even, you have to know that she hand-stitches and crochets these pieces with steel or copper wire. When you see her corsets and slips, you have an even greater appreciation for her technical skill. These pieces are extremely complex, yet her seams and joints are flawless. Her shoe series is no less impressive. Working from a single sheet of aluminum, she cuts her pattern, then bends, curls and pounds the shoes into completion.

I’m thrilled to include Joyce in the second exhibition of my selects series with Yvette Kraft, Laura Elkins, and Claire Feng. The exhibit opens September 16 at Studio B at Biagio Fine Chocolate. Mark your calendars and plan to attend.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

When do you know?

One of the questions abstract artists frequently get asked is "when do you know a painting is done?" It's an interesting question that is often simply answered, "I just know." The question came up for me recently with Peter Harper and his work, "Empiria," shown in my recent exhibition, Only what you can carry with you. Once the show closed, Peter took the painting back to his studio and continued to work on it. This gave me a perfect opportunity to ask him that same question and a few more:

1. Can you briefly describe each of the three images and how you arrived at that moment in the painting and why you felt it was incomplete at that point?

In both my work that is abstract, as well as the work that is more representational, I am looking for the space where light and color define the sensibility of the subject matter.  With abstract painting, that sensibility is more open and defines itself as I go further into the painting.  This also opens up opportunities for greater chance-taking and expressing more undefinable feelings.

In the earliest of the three versions of "Empiria," I knew I wanted both a complex space and a more open space competing with each other with the more complex space being the focal point.  I wanted the depth to be somewhat undefinable yet pushed back into the distance with everything else close to the surface of the overall image. I got to a point where I realized that I could push the contrast of those ideas further. The shapes were not complex enough for the feelings I had; I really wanted it to be something so intertwined that lines would disappear into each other and the drawing would be more of an impression than a shape that leads the viewer to assume definition.

In the second version, I had created a swooping green rainbow pattern in order to contrast with what I felt was the focal point of the painting (the red pattern).  The painting had achieved the type of texture and emotion that I was looking for, but eventually I felt like the green swoop was competing too much with the red pattern which I thought was immensely more fascinating and thought provoking.

The final version of "Empira" is where I really think I captured the technical aspects of what I was trying to express.  The complex nature of life and spirituality dramatically taking over the surface with the green swoop now pushed back into the undefined background.  By expanding on the textural graphing pattern throughout the painting and creating a subtle light and dark behind that and the green swoosh, I feel the painting now has three different spacial focal points that express the "versus" mentality that I wanted to show.

2. Did the subject of piece change with each derivation?

Not really. Like I mentioned before, in abstract work the subject sort of unfolds, but the germination of the original idea remains.

3. Do you anticipate further changes to it?

Probably not.  I think I took it as far as I needed to take it.  I don't have that itchy feeling about it like I did with the earlier versions.

4. How does this process on this single painting relate to your overall painting process or philosophy?

Painting is a reflection of my thoughts and feelings (good and bad).  I want to be honest and revealing through my work, and if I think I can make it clearer I will.  I don't hold the image as a sacred relic that has be clarified and made pristine, but the idea, if it can be expanded on or brought to a clearer light, I will take it there—even if that means throwing it away.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Space Within:

Self as Landscape, Landscape as Self
The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Arts Center at Montgomery College
March 10–April 8, 2010

Review by Joren A. Lindholm

Last month I headed up to The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation Arts Center at Montgomery College’s Takoma Park/Silver Spring campus to view the work of painter Jim Condron. Not knowing the campus and having never heard of the artist, landscape was all I had to go by. It doesn't take long to realize that there is a sea of ordinary landscape painting in the world and that’s how I envisioned this exhibition. As it turned out, however, Condron is no painting monkey. A Space Within: Self as Landscape, Landscape as Self was arresting for me as I recognized aspects of my own experience, startlingly reflected in the paintings of someone else.

Entering the space, I was greeted by many oil paintings, ranging from large to small, hung in several open-ended corridors threading throughout the large gallery space. These paintings are harmonious—direct and clear with a wise use of the elements. They unfold slowly with a sophistication of light and ambiance. Not every one was a winner, yet the smaller works were the show’s highlight. Framing images of gardens that could be the artist's backyard, they were quite moving in their ability to amplify quiet places and assert themselves center stage. Furthermore, the undeniable glow in their illumination, a result of his intelligently-mediated color and tone, reminded me of the sensation of arriving in a new country and taking in what I saw. The pieces depicting environments at night had an equally invigorating kind of light. Not bad for hues assigned to plants, soil, and trees. Could these subjects be the ones at or near his Baltimore home?

Several large canvases featured houses injected into the backyard image which he refers to as “structures” on his website (www.jcondron.com). In these works, Condron's mark seems to take the lead, commanding the surface geometry and employing more dynamics than the charmingly and uniformly limp hand he uses in his small canvases. The ambition with large-scale was nice to see, yet I was disappointed with how the architecture dispelled the transporting effect that the whole show had going for it, leaving those pictures relatively anomalous by their localization.

In the same gallery, there was an exhibition of optical-effect-driven sculpture and painting (mostly with thin stripes, as I recall) by Delaware artist Dennis Beach, titled “On and Off the Wall.” Those works were installed throughout the other end of the space (yes, the Cafritz Art Center was raised in the new millenium, so it is big) and amounted to a sobering glance and go, in stark contrast to Condron’s economy of means.