We are pleased to introduce Nationale’s artist interview series!
Our inaugural interview is with the always fascinating, Elizabeth Malaska. Gabi Lewton-Leopold, our Assistant Director, spoke with Elizabeth recently about her ongoing series When We Dead Awaken, the first half of which she showed at Nationale in November 2014. We are looking forward to the second installment to be shown at Nationale in fall of 2016. Thanks for chatting Elizabeth!
Gabi Lewton-Leopold: Can you speak about your current series and about the next half, which you are working on now? Have you had any new insights or realizations working on the second half?
Elizabeth Malaska: Conceiving of this series, I was really inspired by thinking about the Surrealists and art as social protest and being very disturbed by domestic and foreign policy, especially the rash of shootings that were happening around that time. The Newton shooting had recently happened, which was just sort of surreal in itself. Thinking about the Surrealists and how I could respond in kind today, is what started the series. I am always looking to incorporate my love of, and how I constantly refer back to, art historical painting, looking for a way to weave that in. My work always comes from a pretty staunch feminist standpoint, so developing this idea about talking about guns and gun control and culture of violence related to guns in America gave rise to this idea of the female figure with the gun, which seemed like an interesting idea to explore, especially because it is such a stereotypical, cliché image—the bikini babe with the rifle on the calendar in the mechanic’s shop. I like things that are extreme like that because I feel like they present a pretty big challenge to take on: the pull is so strong for it to get sucked into that extreme rhetoric; can I co-opt that image and use it to my own ends?? These different threads coalesced into this idea about the post-apocalyptic scenario, and then a lot of stuff crops up along the way. I’m working on the second half now. When I started the series back in 2013 I conceived of the big paintings all at once then, and so I am working from maps or notes of pretty fleshed out paintings. It’s not like I’m stuck in time but…
GLL: So you’re saying you mapped out everything, even the ones you are working on now?
EM: Yes, but I’m also very open to things changing, it’s not like anything is set in stone for me, I’m really excited about the ideas that I came up with then and I’m excited to be making these paintings. The way that things are developing now has to do a lot with technique and the literal way that I make the paintings, the way the process of layering, the way I use materials together, the marks I make. I feel like my work has been going in a direction of greater realism and tightness, although I don’t like that word. I guess specificity, maybe like a classical technique incorporated with abstraction, I’m always going to incorporate abstraction and contemporary techniques, but in conjunction with that I’m becoming more and more interested in very traditional classical techniques and incorporating those as well, so that the range of mark making is pushed wide.
GLL: That leads to another question I had, thinking about your series before, the first show at Nationale in 2012, looking at the figures especially, they are definitely changing and becoming more classical, but you still have those architectural moments and interiors.
EM: I was looking at old work today, and I can get really caught up in technique and forget that the figure can happen in 30 minutes instead of three months. It was a reminder to not forget about that. Maybe a figure will happen where three quarters of the figure is wash and the arm is super detailed…
GLL: which is really interesting in the figure in You Will Become Me, with the blending of the two styles.
GLL: You are making six more paintings?
EM: I’m working on three more large ones, two more medium sized ones, and at least half a dozen small ones. Right now I’m just working on one painting but that’s the map that exists, that I will achieve, even if I have to kill myself in the process!
GLL: Can you talk a little about your process, the source imagery, and the role that drawing plays?
EM: Each size of painting happens differently. For the large paintings I definitely start with pretty detailed drawings and the source material comes from all over the place. I do a lot of image gathering and then literal collaging, and then collaging within the drawing. I like to take images out of books. I also do a lot of image research on the computer, pulling a lot of images together—sometimes I want them to work seamlessly and sometimes not seamlessly. That’s for the large ones. The medium sized ones happen way more fluidly than that. With the two medium sized ones in the last show, I did little sketches in my sketchbook, but not a really precise drawing. It’s funny, with the drawings I try to occupy this space in between knowing what I want to be there and kind of not looking at that thing very much. They (the drawings) act as some sort of defining boundary, but I don’t want to be looking at them too closely because then you just end up making a painting that looks like you are painting from source material, which isn’t interesting—just show us the source material. Using drawing to definitely create a map of the territory, but doing a lot of exploring in a lot of the un-mapped territories as I go along. The way I structure the drawing has a lot to do with mapping out areas, these areas are known and often that has a lot to do with repetition, and they are very labor-intensive, say the wood paneling on You Will Become Me, or say there will be a figure here, or there will be a vase here, or a plant here. But the way that thing happens is very determined by the process of painting itself. I have an idea about how I want that figure to stand or what I want it to look like but it’s totally open too, and those parts are always oil because it’s so much more of a plastic medium than the acrylic. It’s like these super slow labor-intensive parts and then these explosions of improvisations on a theme.
GLL: So the wood paneling is an example of the more planned out area.
EM: Yes, and it’s super repetitive. I probably spent at least two months working daily to do that, looking at reference material and also just listening to podcasts and zoning out. Like a mantra, repetition. In contrast to say the dog or the figure in that piece. The figure even more so than the dog, the figure and her firearm because her body is abstracted in some places but the gun is even more abstracted. She was painted through a processes of glazing, which happens slowly, but as the glazing came up to more of the surface things started happening quickly, body parts started moving around and getting painted out, parts were taken away and the figure went into a sort of a chaos, intentionally so. There’s a lot of control, sometimes an uncomfortable amount of control for me, I feel like I should be more loose, but it is what it is. I think I’ve had adopted this idea of a late 20th century artist being somebody that is very spontaneous and all these certain things, and part of my process through this body of work has been an acceptance of how much control, speed in terms of slowness, and technical abilities, how important those things are to me, to my work.
GLL: Have you always had that control in earlier works?
EM: No, it’s been becoming more and more important for me.
GLL: Why do you think that is?
EM: I think that I’d reached a point where I wasn’t able to communicate the point that I wanted to in a modality that was more exclusively about spontaneity and emotional responsivity. It just didn’t go as far as I wanted it to. It wasn’t as interesting as I wanted it to be.
GLL: Back to the protest idea, well, first of all I feel like, depressingly so, there’s been so much that has happened in terms of gun violence in the last couple years since you began this series.
EM: Right, and the staunch refusal by certain aspects of our society to do really anything about it.
GLL: With that in mind, do you feel that the series is at all hopeful?
EM: It has to be, although it’s not immediately apparent. I’m definitely not just a nihilist. I think that the hope is in some kind of idea of uncivilization. I’m only vaguely familiar with the philosophies of uncivilzation, but it is basically saying that the societies that we’ve created are so messed up that ultimately they need to be torn down for something else maybe more healthy for human beings on the planet to take root. So I think that there is hope for me in the female figures who possess power despite their circumstances; they are not victims and they have control. Maybe not ultimate control, but given the circumstances they possess a powerful degree of control.
GLL: And there is something hopeful in that. There is also something hopeful to me about Pause to Give Thanks That We Rise Again from Death and Live, it feels like an end and there’s something very peaceful there, although there is that darkness.
EM: It is darkness. That’s something I’ve thought a lot about in my work, the darkness in it. I don’t see darkness as something to be afraid of, but as something that contains potential and a lot of richness. And I also think about how darkness has been associated with the feminine, and it’s interesting to me the cultural attachments we have to darkness. Part of what I am thinking about and want to explore is those stereotypes, and maybe see them in a little bit of a different light.
GLL: Can you speak a bit about your titles? Where do they come from, how do they inform the work and who is that “we” that you use so often?
EM: I love titling. Titles almost always come from stuff that I read. Poetry often. I think of painting and poetry doing really similar things, in that they are able to create worlds that talk about our world but also can point to actualities that maybe don’t exist in reality, emotional or metaphysical realities. Poetry feels like a very natural place for me to go and I really enjoy it. Titles definitely come from poetry and potential titles are things that I keep running lists of. I have pages and pages of possible titles to help myself.
GLL: So, when you are reading, a line will stick out and you’ll pull it out?
EM: Yes, something just strikes me or seems succinct in a way or talks about the body and feminism, and I know I’m going to use that at some point.
GLL: Who are some of your favorite poets?
EM: I love Diane di Prima; Michael McClure was a teacher of mine in undergrad and he was super influential. I return to the beat poets a lot, I wouldn’t say more obscure, but I’m not so into Ginsberg or Kerouac but McClure or Amiri Baraka. One of the titles in the show came from H.D. I have these great anthologies of 20th century poetry by Jerome Rothenberg and there’s just a ton of people in there, more obscure people.
GLL: And the “we?”
EM: I use the “we” to pull viewers into the narrative and I want also to implicate. What I’m trying to do is create an image that activates the viewer’s psyche and body, to some extent that is why I use the female figure. So, the “we” is a re-enforcement of that and a way to promote that.
GLL: Really a call to action, in a sense.
EM: Yes, inclusion and implication both those things, as strongly as each other.
GLL: Then there’s the “you” in You Will Become Me.
EM: You will become Me and We Have Been Naught, We Shall Be All…
GLL: Implication also carries over to the idea of protest too.
EM: Yes, that’s true.
GLL: When you talk about the Surrealists, are there any particular paintings or artists that stick out in your mind? Or, not even just Surrealists, are there any paintings in your visual bank that have stuck with you for a long time and influenced what you are doing in different ways?
EM: I looked at a lot of Surrealist works when I was doing research and starting this project. A lot of it went in one eye and came out the other. The stuff that has stuck with me was in there before—Leonora Carrington, I think about her work a lot. And I’ve been thinking about Frida Kahlo’s work more recently, too. The Surrealists are interesting too because they are a group that has been so co-opted by culture. Also, Max Ernst, I’ve always found interesting, pretty impenetrable but I’m always attracted to his work and as equally repelled by it, too. I was looking and thinking about the Analytic Cubists a lot, Juan Gris especially and Georges Braque, whom I love and whose work I think transcends Cubism. His paintings of his studio, I’ve loved those paintings since I saw them in my teens. And one in particular I want to say it’s Studio V, and there’s a big bird that’s sort of traversing across the space of his studio inexplicably, and the painting is very brown. It’s just gorgeous and I was thinking about that painting a lot when I was making Legacy of Ruin. That painting, like some Matisse paintings, has been in my psyche since I saw them 25 years ago. They are the meat and potatoes of my painter’s imagination.
GLL: Thinking about Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo, they both use a lot of self-portraiture, is there a reason you steer away from that in your work, especially since you use the female figure often and it would maybe seem second nature to use yourself as the model?
EM: I do a lot of self-portraiture as a practice, just as a daily drawing practice. I feel like I’m already narcissistic enough as an artist that I don’t need to make paintings of myself. But everyone is always like, “Well, I thought that painting was of you!” but that wasn’t my intention.
GLL: Do you think that’s a product of being a female painter? That people tend to assume that?
EM: That’s interesting. I never thought about it that way, but yes of course, probably. People are just predisposed to see you as narcissistic and self-reflexive because you are a woman. But I also see it in a lot of artists’ work, that you just can’t help but put yourself into your work.
GLL: Totally different question: mentoring and teaching, do you think it has changed your own practice at all?
EM: I think it is part of what has driven me more towards technique. It shifted my gaze towards technique and once my gaze was there it was like, oh shit, there’s so much here for me to explore and use.
GLL: Do you feel that technique is always a tool that will broaden your ability versus the opposite?
EM: No, I don’t. I think it has to be used wisely. I think I can use pretty hardcore classical techniques but not get stuck in the rabbit hole of just decoration or surface, because of my foundation in the improvisational, reactionary, let’s fuck it up now approach—that’s my training and all the technique I have is stuff that I taught myself. I think it’s really hard if you get front loaded with that technique, because you get taught to be so super careful and scrutinize everything, and then it’s really hard to break out of that. But I also think it’s a really important foundation for people learning to have some technique, but I think it has to be super balanced and reserved, so that you don’t just get stuck in that because technique without the elements that bring it into the contemporary is just dead—without the chaos, or the unknown, or the uncontrollable. Like Odd Nerdrum. I guess you would say he has the contemporary in his totally disturbing subject matter, but the contemporary for me doesn’t manifest in any formal ways in his work. It doesn’t gel in the now for me, and I’m not interested in it at all, it’s just empty.
Studio photographs of Elizabeth are by Gia Goodrich.