LOS ANGELES — “We are drinking beer, right? Because I’m celebrating, “ Lesley Vance says to me when I arrive at her house in the Laurel Canyon neighborhood of Los Angeles. It is a Sunday afternoon and she is relieved to have finished a body of work to send to her gallery. “I didn’t prepare a whole meal like Terry Winters did for you!” she laughs — a half-hearted disclaimer — as she washes strawberries and takes out a round of delicious local soft cheese and dark toasted crackers to set on the dining table for us.
Her home, where she lives with her husband, the sculptor Ricky Swallow, is approached through a hairpin turn on a vertiginous narrow street. The hillside outdoors is verdant, and the inside is tightly designed and curated: a mix of mid-century and Roy McMakin furniture, record players and shelves of vinyl, art books, and an impressive, eclectic collection of contemporary ceramics. On the floor in front of the fireplace is a hearth installed by her husband made of glazed tiles painted by ceramicist Magdalena Frimkess.
Vance’s voice shifts quickly between an animated high pitch and light-hearted laughing as she reflects on the past. Her work has the same tightly coiled energy and contradictions as her voice. She makes abstract paintings that combine precisely edged curving shapes and ribbons of painterly strokes. The forms are set against a tenebrous, shallow space. They have a liquidity and strength concentrated within their small scale.
Vance was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1977. She received her BFA from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and her MFA from California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California. She is represented by David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, where she had solo exhibitions in 2011 and 2013; and Xavier Hufkens Gallery, Brussels, where she had solo exhibitions in 2012 and 2014. Her work was featured in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, which was curated by Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari. In 2012, the FLAG Art Foundation, New York, and Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, presented a one-person show of her work. A two-person show with her husband Ricky Swallow was held at the Art Collections and Botanical Gardens of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California, in 2012. An exhibition with Diane Simpson will be held at Herald St, London, in November 2015, and a solo exhibition of watercolors at Meyer Riegger, Berlin is scheduled for 2016.
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Jennifer Samet: You grew up in Wisconsin. How were you introduced to art as a child?
Lesley Vance: Yes, I grew up twenty minutes north of Milwaukee. I loved art as a kid. A few years ago, I was at a dinner seated next to Ed Ruscha. At some point in our conversation he paused and asked intensely, “Why did you become an artist? When did that start for you?” It felt like this was an important question that he asks every artist he meets.
JS: So what did you say?
LV: I talked about the Milwaukee Art Museum, and how fun it was going to that museum as a kid. There were three pieces I remember in particular. There was the Duane Hanson sculpture, “Janitor” (1973). I played that game of “Where in the museum is it?” I would see if I could find it. Eva Hesse’s string and fiberglass hanging sculpture, “Right After” (1969), was my favorite piece in the collection, then and now. And there was a Julian Schnabel broken plate piece, which I don’t remember very well, but just thinking, as a kid, “Wow, you can make art out of broken plates!”
JS: You got your BFA from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Who did you study with there?
LV: I was very lucky that Michelle Grabner started teaching while I was there. She taught a contemporary art history class. I think it is important to see someone who looks likes you — in this case a young female — and has a viable career, and think, “That could be me in ten years.” Coming from Wisconsin, you can’t really imagine it is possible to become an artist. I didn’t know anyone who did that for a job.
JS: What did you do after college? What was your experience at California Institute of the Arts, where you went to graduate school?
LV: I moved to New York in 2000 for a year before going to graduate school, and I worked at Alexander and Bonin Gallery. It was a great art education year. During my lunch breaks I would go to other galleries. I knew a little bit about Paul Thek, but when I worked there I got so much more interested in that work — and also Ree Morton. One of my jobs was to organize all of their mislabeled 4x5s.
At CalArts I worked mainly with the sculptor Charles Long. He is a very motivational and generous person — a real extroverted introvert (if that makes sense), like a stand-up comedian. My first year I was making sculptural “interventions,” but it wasn’t really my thing. Then, over the summer, I went back to painting. Charles said to me, “Keep painting,” when almost everyone else was saying, “I like what you did before.” But those summer paintings were terrible, so I can’t really blame them.
I started making paintings that could be described as fantastic landscapes. I was so amazed with the plant life when I moved to Los Angeles that I had to make work about it. I had worked at a greenhouse in Wisconsin. To move here, where huge plants are just growing on the side of the freeway, was astounding. I got deep into that, and the amazing light.
It is strange to think about one’s old work, although I remember a Michelle Grabner talk in college where she showed something she made in high school. I think it was a drawing of a fire truck that she made to please her dad. She wanted to show us how far you can go from where you begin. It is good to have that perspective on your own work. When you are really in it, you can’t see it changing.
JS: You mention contemporary art, but I know that Dutch and Spanish still lifes have also been important to you. When did you become interested in more historical work?
LV: After CalArts I had a residency in Giverny, France, through the Art Production Fund. It was intended for people whose work has something to do with the landscape. We lived across the street from Monet’s house and had a key to his garden.
I went to Paris often, and that is when I got into the Delacroix and Gericault studies at the Louvre. I was much more interested in their smaller works than in the large masterpieces. I can only take in sections at a time with one of those giant paintings; I cannot take it in all at once. This is also true when I’m looking at a large Dutch still life painting.
I started making small, moody paintings from minimal arrangements of various natural forms that I collected. In my studio in France, I could only make smaller paintings, and I felt it was time to move from the big landscape paintings I had been making before the residency into something more intimate.
JS: You have an amazing collection of ceramics at home. How did you become interested in ceramics, and do you think it relates to your work?
LV: I am a painter and I love looking at paintings, but my work is pretty sculptural; I am interested in sculptural space. The sculptural medium that I feel has the most relationship to painting is ceramics. Ceramics can be so organic and so much about color.
My interest in sculpture and ceramics developed gradually. It originated with Ken Price, and then I discovered Ron Nagle, and Magdalena and Michael Frimkess. I love the sensibility of Ken Price’s sculpture. The surfaces are so intense that they couldn’t take being larger. They demand concentrated looking; the process that reveals layers of different insane colors is what activates the whole physical form. When I first saw the work, it felt like something I hadn’t seen before, like something landing from another planet. His biomorphic forms seem at first like they could have been designed on a computer, yet his process was very intuitive and you can always feel his hand.
The great thing about ceramics is that it is often so undervalued that you can actually collect it. My husband Ricky Swallow learned about the Frimkesses from our artist friend Karin Gulbrin. We were buying their work — hand-formed teacups, figurative sculptures, tiles painted in bright colors — from a gift shop in Venice. Then we met them and started going to their home studio.
As an artist, I have finally realized how important it is to live with art. We were just lucky enough to be able to acquire a Richard Tuttle piece, which affected my recent body of work. It’s a modest wall relief, made of cardboard covered in an orange-yellow pigment, with some peculiar wooden pieces attached. It’s called “Tiger Tail.” I wasn’t conscious it was happening, but it seeped in. The spiral form of it, the energy that unfolds from the center, and the way it closes in on itself, are very powerful.
You can feel the time it took an artist to make something, even if the actual production of the work happens quickly. A good artwork has integrity as an object, and you know if that’s real or not. The history of its making, however that manifests itself, is present.
JS: You have described that the abstract paintings you have been making over the last several years originated out of a painting accident. You were working on a still life painting and then you wiped it out. Can you tell me more about this?
LV: It wasn’t just an accident. I had been feeling that my still life paintings weren’t doing what I wanted anymore. I would paint a pile of poppies and I wanted it to just be about abstraction, and about the cadmium red-orange color. But, to a viewer, the painting was about the flowers. I realized that the paintings were not communicating what I wanted them to communicate. I needed to figure out something else.
I had a deadline for a painting to be included in an exhibition. I wasn’t happy with the painting. During that time, I went to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. They have a Francisco de Zurburán, “Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose” (1633). My other favorite painting there is a Vasily Kandinsky, “Heavy Circles” (1927).
I looked at the two paintings that day, and felt they had such a relationship. I thought about how the lemons in the Zurburán were almost becoming abstract, and I imagined what would happen if he kept painting beyond the point of representation. It seemed to me the lemons and oranges wanted to just float into the Kandinsky in the other room. That was in my mind as I was working on the still life painting for the exhibition. I hated it and wiped it away. But, at some point, I paused, because I was interested in what was happening from the act of erasure. I thought, “What if I painted beyond this now?”
I still work in the same way — starting with some kind of composition and then playing with the painting process — but, over time, the still lifes have become less relevant. At one point I worked from photographs of still life set-ups. Then I transitioned into holding objects in my hands in daylight, and painting from that.
Now it has evolved to where I’m just laying out colors, although sometimes I’ll grab an object that I feel like painting and make a composition with it. Then I will destroy it, basically. The process has opened up more, and the paintings have become more assertive.
JS: I think that process of destruction — wiping down and starting again — tends to be undervalued in contemporary painting. Can you talk more about why destruction is important to you?
LV: Yes, I do love destruction, but I think of it as productive. I am trying to get the painting to a point beyond what I’m expecting. I am collapsing the image, and not thinking about what I’m doing until the last stages. I am trying to not pay attention, so that my brain doesn’t get in the way. I’m in a playful state of pushing and pulling the paint around and wiping and scraping it away. I am relying on chance operations to help me figure out what the painting is going to be. It is a bit like automatic drawing.
For a long time it is a crazy mess of painting. I am waiting until the painting calls me to attention, and something is there that I can grab onto. Something is starting to happen — like a singular form. It may be a painterly outcome that occurs, and I want to preserve that. I scrape the paint away and it makes an amazing effect, and that moves me to the next place. But sometimes the element that I want to preserve is actually messing up the whole painting. Then I have to get rid of it.
I think about the work of Charline von Heyl, because often her paintings are very precise, but within them is an energy that is wild. I imagine that often the moments that are out of control early in the process determine the structure of the painting.
JS: When I look at your paintings, it is hard to figure out how you made them, or what the process was. Are you cultivating that kind of mystery?
LV: Yes, I think of this plastic paint space almost like a Möbius strip. I like the idea that the forms in my paintings might unwind, but you can’t trace the steps back. I want it to be a singular boom. It is an object that exists, and you don’t question it, but the longer you look at it, you find yourself trying to. You don’t know what the first move was; it unravels in a weird way, like a labyrinth. You don’t know what is the beginning or what is the end; it is very circular. One move floats and becomes part of another form.
That is true to how I make them. I work intuitively; I’m counting on the paint to tell me what to do. I’m following the lead of the painting, and the process of making the painting helps determine what the painting is going to be.
I can’t decide in advance what the painting is. I interviewed Mary Heilmann recently for the Neue Journal and I was thinking about this. She spends a lot of studio time staring at her work, deciding what the painting will be, and then executing it. She also works in series.
I don’t work that way. I am just unable to. I also can’t remake my paintings, and I can’t make a watercolor and then make a painting from a watercolor. There is still a lot I don’t know about painting and how paintings work. I figure things out through the process, and it needs to happen organically.
I think you have to know your personality and temperament — who you are — and work within that, to make interesting and weird paintings. It doesn’t matter how much you like Martin Kippenberger or Joan Mitchell. If that’s not your way of painting, you can’t just do that. Thank goodness, or everyone would make the same paintings. I don’t make loose, airy paintings. And even while they become more graphic, they are still born from an organic process that feels out of control ninety percent of the time. That is who I am.