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.

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