In Conversation With Laura Letinsky
Musée: Your new exhibition “To Want for Nothing” just opened at Yancey Richardson gallery. The exhibit contains many photo collages, and it seems like your work has taken a new direction. Can you talk about some of the influences for your new work?
Letinsky: The term, “collage,” is a term used to describe artwork that is assembled from images and/or objects, usually but not always appropriated or found, to make something new, and in this regard, yes, I’m making collages, although I’m technically photographing a three-dimensional space that has two-dimensional images arranged within this space. That is, the image/object is at different planes and distances to the camera lens.
Another association with collage is the work in the 20’s and 30’s by Hannah Hoch and Raoul Haussman, as well as the cubist experimentation of Picasso and Braque. Their works were made of images culled from the relatively new plethora of print media, or in the case of the latter two, from discarded works in their studio. Particularly for artists such as Hoch and Hausmann, the tumultuousness of their time, Germany circa 1920’s and 30’s, impacted their work greatly. Not only in terms of content, but also, the process of making something out of what was around them, fragments pieced together--this is important. They used popular print media to make commentary on the conditions in which they were living. This aspect of using one’s culture to make new culture was, for me, at least initially, more felt than theorized.
In 2009 I stopped making photographs, feeling I’d hit a wall with photography, frustrated by the comfortable bedfellow it has made with consumerism. It’s a coy seducer, all promises without ever making good. More anecdotally, I’d come home to a mailbox stuffed with pre-holiday catalogues of pretty things and thought, “Ooh, I want that. And that, and that…” Even as I know that having these things doesn’t bring the contentment promised in the picture, I’m totally susceptible. Christian Metz’s essay on “The Photograph as Fetish” describes the compulsion induced by the photograph, its economic and erotic appeal, and I wanted to remove myself from the frenzy that is our image and object laden world. I worked in ceramics, textiles, and words for about a year, returning in 2010 to making photographs from other photographs, reasoning that I loved the photograph’s allure but wanted to see if I could restructure the desire it engenders. Harkening to Heinecken’s adage from the 1970’s, way before our 7-million-daily-image-upload-to-facebook-smartphone era, that there were already enough pictures in the world, I drew from others’ pictures, cannibalized if you will, to make my photographs. From 2010 to 2014 I worked on the series that still referenced the still life, Ill Form and Void Full.
We are informed by a rich and promiscuous barrage of images that demand and beget, always, more images. Instead of a fantasy of wholeness the single image typically promises, with its coherent narrative and form, my photographs allude to the desire that is created by and through pictures. The photograph as proposition rather than promise. It’s a delicate and tenuous balance contrived from the bits and pieces with which we are confronted, sorted, and bound together with magic tape and glue rather than the kind of idolization or belief systems typically perpetuated through photographs. This is akin to making of a life…our lives.
Musée: Many of your pieces seem to have a muted color scheme. Why is that?
Letinsky: I’ve seemingly always gravitated towards a particular color palette. I think I referred to it in the Hardly More Than Ever monograph, for the Renaissance Society exhibition, 2004, as acid meets pastel. The resonance, or dissonance with this color combination I think speaks to our aspiration for harmony, yet, its tentativeness is fraught with anxiety and having to hold multiple and contradictory “truths” simultaneously. For example, the combination of organic and inorganic color, tied to what it is i.e. a grape vs. a graphic for grape juice, interests me as really, it’s all inorganic. It’s literally ink that makes my photograph, and this disjuncture between the thing and the picture of the thing, like the combination of color, has a visual thrum.
Musée: In an interview with aperture in 2013, you stated that for a long time you’ve “asked yourself what a photograph is.” Do you still ask yourself this question? If so, how do you think about this question differently now?
Letinsky: That question of what is the photograph has permeated my work for a long long time. And with the advent of the smartphone which has availed such rapid-fire making and viewing of images, the question has only become more relevant. Is the photograph what it pictures? Surely not for just as Morandi’s work is not about boxes and bottles. Rather, what it pictures is a vehicle of sorts for making meaning. I recall something Ann Patchett wrote about how every time she does a book signing someone comes up to her and says that they’ve an amazing story to tell her and that once the story is relayed, Patchett can make a really good book from this story. Of course, everyone has good stories but being a good writer is an entirely different thing.
A photograph is, as I understand it, how it is used. Like words, everything has been pictured or written yet we continue to use pictures and words to try to communicate with one another, to express thoughts, ideas, emotions… Photographs are, again, like words, used in a multitude of circumstances, advertisements, documents, special and mundane times and things, etc. I’m particularly interested in how they are circulated and to what end. That is, what kinds of ideas about the world they perpetuate. Going back to religious paintings of the medieval and Renaissance eras, images were used to tell stories, specifically biblical stories so that people would know how to behave.
I don’t think it’s possible to eradicate this hegemonic influence, rather, to trouble it, to make some wiggle room for other modes of seeing, thinking, and living. The allure of photography, its power if you will, is widely shared; how to use this for good vs. evil? Hah, what an aspiration! Or, like Spiderman said: with great power comes great responsibility. There’s got to be something in the experience of the photograph as a physical and conceptual entity that slows down consumption and production of objects and images, that engages us differently, moves us to see things differently and maybe, just a bit, enact a different lifestyle. One strategy I use to try to do this is in how I present my work as an object, a set of decisions about what it is not only as an image but as a physical entity. The printing process and scale are critical in emphasizing the physicality of the work as opposed to the digital render one may access online.
Musée: In the same interview, you said that you think about “ingestion and consumption” a lot in your photographs. The press release for your new exhibit also says that, “We enact what we see in photographs and then photograph what we enact, creating an endless loop of production and consumption.” What are your thoughts on this? How do your previous still lives represent consumption differently from your new work?
Letinsky: The new work is an evolution from my still life work which is an evolution from the Venus Inferred work I did earlier. I moved away from the stage of the still life to a maybe more abstract spatial investigation. In my still life work I used food and the table as a forum for considering want, need, satiation, and desire. It wasn’t about food in a literal sense. That is, I wasn’t illustrating recipes or channeling overt political information about GMOs vs organic produce. The space and site (not to be too clever but, or, sight) of the table has rich connotations in which I am deeply entrenched. The home and the still life genre is rife with complicated issues relating to gender, power, the personal and the social. For example, there is the labor of home, typically a female gendered practice but more obsequiously, the ideology about home that is evident in the behemoth of cultural production around and about the home. Martha Stewart, Kinfolk, The Cosby Show (how our ideas of that have changed!), Modern Family, etc, all this informs us as to what the home, and our roles should be, what is allowed, sought, etc. Who and how we want, love, eat, share, all of it, is heavily prescribed even as it is presented as innate and natural. This dichotomy serves what, exactly?
In my most recent work, elements are posed and counterpoised so as to interrogate how we try to make sense within the barrage of media, reckoning with its dissonances. Perhaps it’s my way of figuring out how to get up, eat breakfast, get my kid to school, fall in love, get sick, etc. We go on and we do make sense, or at least some kind of sense that enables us to keep going. Rather than conclusions, strength, vigor, and largess, my photographs maneuver within the delicate, tentative, and the propositional.
Musée: How does teaching inform your art practice?
I’m super fortunate to be in this field as working with hungry, inquisitive students keeps me on my toes. Teaching has made me consider what it is that I consider vital for others to know, not only the questions, but how to ask them because how something is asked influences the kinds of answers one receives. There are incredible colleagues at the University of Chicago both in my department and across campus, as well as deep friendships. Being here as a professor, has made me smarter and a better artist.