“Cove” (2011), oil on linen, 53”x 65”

Judith Linhares’s painting has been on my mind since I saw a show of her work in the spring of 2011 at the Edward Thorp Gallery. At the time I was thinking about both contemporary figurative painting and gestural abstraction, and these solidify in Linhares’s work with a rare conviction.

In her paintings, hippie couples, twisted sisters, and talismanic animals cavort and tend to their cave-den, dream-cove environments. For all the fantasy, there’s a metaphoric truth to their space and light, a connection to the natural world, despite the wild way she gets there – complementary, high-chroma bands of color succinctly and fluidly describing bodies and surroundings.

Born in Pasadena, Linhares studied in the Bay Area in the 1960s and 70s, and has lived in New York since 1979. She has had close connections to a panoply of artistic traditions including Bay Area figuration, California assemblage, outsider art, the Chicago “Hairy Who” and Mexican ritual objects. But it was a nice surprise to realize she and I share an interest in some of the New York figurative painters as well, especially Louisa Matthiasdottir.

I invited Linhares to talk painting over beers at her bar of choice. She’s in the process of moving, but already had her eye on the beautiful century-old Brooklyn Inn, in her new neighborhood of Boerum Hill. Everything was amber-colored on that autumn early evening, from the wood bar to our Spaaten and Kelsy of Brooklyn IPA.

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Jennifer Samet: You were part of a group exhibition curated by Marcia Tucker in 1978 called “Bad Painting.” She characterized this group as being involved with mixing sources – classical and popular, kitsch and traditional. Can you talk about some of the different source material in your paintings?

Judith Linhares: I used to find popular culture thrilling, and the thrill is gone. There used to seem a naïveté to popular culture – like ads that addressed the dream of the American housewife. I wondered how they could be so naïve, in thinking they can put this over on us. I don’t find that in popular culture anymore. But politically, I have always thought of myself as a kind of populist, so that I wouldn’t want my art to appeal to just a rarified audience. That has always been some kind of ideal.

Early on, when I made sculpture, I appropriated kitsch elements. When I was doing the sculpture, it was the early 1970s and the dialogue was that the worst thing you could do was make art like a girl. So I thought, well, that’s a good thing to do — make art like a girl! I made vitrines with decals and rhinestones and lace — super-femme things. I thought of it in the way that little girls put on their mother’s tiara and her fur wrap and diamond earrings to let that appetite flourish. But I grew out of making this sculpture, because I realized I was making an image, but wasn’t making the formal language go anywhere.

“Straw Dog” (2011), oil on linen, 26”x 22

JS: You work with a variety of sources and traditions, but they seem to cohere in your painting. I’ve noticed there is an acceptance, in contemporary art, of poly-referential work and layering, without an insistence on cohesion.

JL: I have always felt that getting the Gestalt is the biggest challenge. When the idea of pastiche was very fashionable, and it took on other significances, like what it is like to live in the modern world — I wasn’t buying any of it! I always see it as less successful. I don’t know why the idea of the great essentialness of the composition went away.

When I first started painting, I was — and I still am — very enamored of the Abstract Expressionists. The idea that everything has a tension and necessity within the format — that idea takes precedence over the thing itself, it takes precedence over the subject. I want to achieve this monumental scale, want it to feel spontaneous and alive, and I also want it to cohere, all at once — boom — the way the Abstract Expressionist paintings did.

“Tigress” (2011), oil on linen, 53”x 65”

I have always thought about the difference between painting and illustration. Aliveness and spontaneity separate it from illustration. I have the desire to develop this language of space and light, and to be really specific within that. That is what’s on my mind.

Also, if someone looks at my work, they could certainly draw a parallel between it and my San Francisco roots, in terms of the Bay Area painters. I didn’t know David Park but I did know Jim Weeks. They were struggling with the same things that have come to be issues in my work, in the sense that they were abstract painters before they were figurative. So even though they were working from the model, they had been through abstraction already. That made the way they approached the figure very different.

JS: I wanted to talk about your involvement with feminism — you describe growing up in a matriarchal family structure. How do these things play out in your paintings?

JL: The figures are girls who work. They are not posing. They’re doing things: sweeping the floor, feeding the chickens; they’re serving dinner, roasting marshmallows. I’ve painted women with brooms for quite a while. I think the desire to be a witch is somewhere in there!

“Wild Nights” (2006), oil on linen, 53’’x 65’’

We have a farm upstate, and last year, from Hurricane Irene, we sustained incredible damage, including six feet of water in my studio. It is very rural there, and getting someone to work on your house is problematic. So we let these people come and live and work on the house. We all lived together this past summer. One was this young woman. I was so impressed with her. She has a construction company with her now-husband, but she hunts, she cleans the prey, she digs ditches. And I think it’s really more common with rural life, that the women are macha.

JS: At the same time, I know you are also interested in fairy tales. What about them interests you, and how do they relate to your feminist concerns?

JL: Fairy tales describe a psychological anatomy and have a universal quality. I also like the story of Psyche and Amor, because the narrative has to do with light — the narration lends itself to a visual effect. I like it when these grand narratives show up in popular culture, the way Taxi Driver is about rescuing the maiden.

I do not set out to depict fairy tales necessarily, but they show up. Snow White has shown up, although it doesn’t always look like Snow White. The story of this young woman in a household, with a stepmother who feels threatened by the daughter’s sexuality, is an interesting and loaded one, which can be applied to a lot of situations.

The painting I did that most seemed like Snow White was this pubescent girl in front of the fire. This is an image that I’ve used for years. The idea that half of the body was warm and half cool interests me. It was a pictorial strategy, where the figure is divided between warm and cool. That idea came first, and then Snow White fit in to that form. My credo is that the painting has to be visual above all else.

“Blaze” (2006), oil on linen, 49’’x 61”

JS: I have read that you begin your paintings with a striped, abstract ground. Do you still do this? Why?

JL: I might start my canvases with a ground of half purple and half yellow, and go from there. I work with complementary colors a lot. I do not trust ideas that come to my mind – instead, they have to come through the process, or be developed through the process. Otherwise, they look like something I have cooked up.

When you put down yellow and violet, you create a sense of light, and that might suggest something. A yellow ochre on top of the yellow might suggest a backlit animal. I have a chance to surprise myself and invent the space as I work on it, rather than it being external. I am never thinking of it as flat, and I am usually thinking of it as a landscape environment. There is distant space, middle space, and near space, and things are happening in those spaces.

What happens sometimes is that the idea will get developed over studies or redoing the painting. But it is very important to me that they come out of the brushstrokes, rather than being conceptualized ahead of time.

“Cook” (2006), oil on linen, 53”x 65”

JS: I know that you are interested in hypnotism and lucid dreaming. How did you become interested in it, and how does it play a role in your painting?

JL: I consider myself very practical and rational but I have always kept a little door open for the acceptance of mystical experiences. In the 1970s, I went to a lecture by two psychologists about lucid dreaming and group magic. I made an appointment with one of them, and ended up going to this person for a long time. I would go in with a dream and he would ask me to discuss what else was going on in it, to look around. These stories would open up. It gave me such confidence in my intuition. It is just a way of thinking.

That was really seminal in my art-making process. I stopped worrying so much, and was able to believe in what I was seeing on the page, its relevance, its connection to something important. And that it was a healing process in itself — that you didn’t have to pick it apart, talk back to it in your conscious mind. Painting became, for me, that process of lucid dreaming.

“Wave” (2010), oil on linen, 61”x 73”

JS: Can you tell me about your process? How long do you work on paintings? Also, you have mentioned a gradual process of simplification as you complete a painting.

JL: I work on my paintings for a long time. Now I am working on paper with gouache. I love gouache because you can just mop up great areas of it and re-configure the image. With oil painting, it is not so easy. It was a long time figuring out what kind of brushes, how thick the paint could be. Most paintings have a period of six months, and I work on several things at once. I rotate them. I will have two that I am focusing on and three that I’ve put away. At a certain point I get obsessed with making one painting work. That is how they finally get finished. The challenge is to get antidotal information in without taking away the power of the formal set-up. I might be tempted to get specific with the anatomy or something, and then it doesn’t fit with the rest of the painting. It is a funny kind of dance. I always know I am in trouble if I’m busy rendering toes or fingers. It is not going to be part of the process; it will call attention to itself. It is a messy process! Sometimes I wonder how I invented this way of working — not knowing where you are going, and not knowing how to do it.

Jennifer Samet, Ph.D. is a New York-based art historian, curator, and writer. She completed her dissertation at the CUNY Graduate Center on Painterly Representation in New York: 1945-1975. She has lectured...