Ornament & Crime: A conversation with Lauren Frances Adams, Stacy Lynn Waddell and Susanne Slavick
Stacy Lynn Waddell and Susanne Slavick, artists in Ornament and Crime, curated by Lauren Frances Adams, each re-represent historical narratives as a way to provide a critical lens for our present experience. Our conversation, which took place across the country over Skype, delved into the act of memorializing and re-representing history, the use of ornament and pattern, and how labor relates to these processes. Prior to our conversation, we had shared the article, Art Hysterical Notions of Progress and Culture (1978) by Joyce Kozloff and Valerie Jaudon. Written in 1978 as an examination of the ‘pejorative use of the word ‘decorative’ in the contemporary art world’, the article provided a chance to reflect on the background of the topics explored in the exhibition.
Susanne Slavick is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon University and recent editor and curator of Out of Rubble (Charta, 2011), a book and traveling exhibit featuring international artists who respond to the aftermath of war. She has exhibited internationally, with recent solo shows at the Chicago Cultural Center, McDonough Museum in Youngstown, Accola Griefen Gallery in NYC and this coming January at Princeton University’s Bernstein Gallery. Slavick studied at Yale University, Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Temple University Abroad in Rome and Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. She has published articles in: Cairo: Images of Transition (transcript Verlag 2013); Cultural Heritage and Arts Review; Cultural Politics; Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies; Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics; and AlterNet.
Stacy Lynn Waddell creates works that structure sites of intersection between both real and imagined aspects of American history and culture. Each alchemic method that she employs, creates a system of emphatic marks and disintegrating tones that reflect a connection to painting modes and highlight her anxieties about creation in a New Age. Waddell is a 2010 recipient of the Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors Grant, was named one of The New Superstars of Southern Art in Oxford American Magazine’s 2012 100 Under 100List and is a 2012 recipient of an Art Matters Travel Grant. She resides in Chapel Hill, NC.
Lauren Frances Adams (Snow Hill, North Carolina, b. 1979) lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland, where she is a full-time faculty member at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She has had recent solo exhibitions at Back Lane West, Cornwall, UK; Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (Front Room and EXPO Chicago); and Conner Contemporary, Washington, D.C. Her work has been featured in group exhibitions including: Nymans House and Gardens, Sussex, UK; Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, North Carolina; CUE Foundation, New York; Mattress Factory and the Andy Warhol Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA; among many others. She is a Joan Mitchell Foundation MFA Grant recipient (2007), and attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2009).
Carrie Hott: Stacy and Susanne, both of you pull from historical content in order to talk about contemporary experience. I have recently been focused on the concept of blackouts – not only as that term relates to loss of electricity, but as blacked-out states, losses of memory, unknown places, censorship, or lack of knowledge. I was thinking about this concept in relation to your works, and your efforts to address, or shed light on, a form of amnesia as it relates to past events. In a way, you are recovering parts of stories that have been blacked out, and returning their complexity. Can you each talk more about this effort and the roles of memory and recovery in your work?
Stacy Lynn Waddell: I’m very drawn to history and I try to carve out specifically the sticky bits – things that are relevant today, but are repackaged. I try to distill subjects that I find interesting, provocative, and problematic. I come from a very narrative and oratorical family. I grew up in the South, and as a product of the black church. I have always had a very physical experience with language. As a kid, the first images that really overwhelmed me were history paintings in museums, which I saw as coded and I was always trying to make sense of them. I now try to figure out where meaning lies in that imagery. My work is an attempt to bridge the gap.
Susanne Slavick: Stacy, I think it’s interesting that you brought up the church, the language of the church, and history painting because in my early work I was particularly drawn to religious narratives and the iconography of medieval painting, particularly Sienese painting when I was in grad school. Over the last six years, I’ve been revisiting Islamic art and architecture, especially miniature painting (and only we call it miniature), which is also narrative painting. I often find both during and after the fact of borrowing from these sources, that there are pertinent narrative parallels between ancient and contemporary history, particularly in terms of imperialism, war and the hubris of the state. And it’s funny, Carrie, that you mention amnesia because I did a painting called Amnesia Embellished. We seem to forget our history, so we go ahead making the same mistakes. No one would admit that we willfully make those mistakes, but it’s by forgetting that we do what we do. So, this current work is a weaving together of past and present, to show the consequences of violence, the repetition of it, and the futility of it.
CH: Weaving seems like a fitting term to describe what both of what you’re doing. I think it’s that weaving that makes the work even more complex, even though there is an effort to clarify and shed light on this amnesia. For example, Stacy, you use the letter B as a code and symbol to create your imagery – you layer it, burn it, sometimes so densely you can’t see the paper. Susanne, you paint over a photograph, and you have to get up close to see the painted passages and how they relate to the surrounding photograph.
SS: Weaving is a metaphor that can be connected to pattern and decoration because it’s a synthesis of disparate parts aiming for cohesion and harmony. Harmony can seem boring because, without ruptures, it’s predictable, and it’s about order. It can be superficial, but it can also be about trying to make sense out of chaos. That all exists in my work. War shreds the fabric of civil life and any social coherence. By inserting images of domesticity, cultivation, and construction, I am trying to show both what once was and what might be again without being nostalgic. It goes back to the culture of amnesia. When there is total destruction, identity is erased; there is no sense of who or where, it becomes totally anonymous. When you bring the ornamental back in, you’re bringing back a specificity that reminds us that this isn’t just anyone or anyplace, but someone and a particular place.
SLW: Weaving and layering for me are beautiful terms, actually and metaphorically. For me, they embody the physical process of making—specifically painting. When I use a branding iron, it’s a repetitive, very physical process. I have to have that connection to the physical making because it’s a reference to the hand. Living now, we engage differently with one another (look at us in this video call now!). There is a flattening of experience. I am looking to complicate that experience in the studio by building, making, and handling materials directly. I deal with paper, the fragility of it, and then I apply various degrees of heat with the branding iron. It’s like building a house of cards—a fragile connection between things. And it goes back to religious imagery (mostly paintings) and my family’s tradition of storytelling, which is also a layering and weaving together that is instinctive. And these things are not fashionable to talk about – which is why I love it!
Lauren Frances Adams: I had a student today who apologized because she just felt compelled to make marks in a repetitive way on the canvas. And she felt anxious as if that weren’t serious or critical enough.
SLW: And yet it does.
SS: I’d like to follow up on the idea of the presence of the hand in making. The work in Ornament and Crime was a big departure for me from straight painting. I had never worked with digital imagery before. In reproduction, you can’t even tell that it’s been hand painted, which is crucial to the work. Looking closely is another aspect of the decorative in that it tends to be an intimate or private experience. We still think of the photograph as documentary or offering an official viewpoint, but I wanted the human hand to interrupt or intervene in that, and on a larger level to embody the basic act of creation that Stacy is referring to. And making is one of the ways that we survive and recover from the destruction so prevalent in the internet images that I’ve appropriated.
SLW: There’s also the reference to labor. Not just physical labor, but the kind of mental labor involved in creating the order and geometry and the basic structures that define certain ways that we live. It’s not just about the visual appeal of the decorative, but also thinking about pattern making. There are very elegant and complex systems in nature that are incredibly beautiful. It gets back to who we are as human beings, and in a greater sense the natural order of things.
SS: I think it’s interesting to think of the structure of ornament and decoration as it relates to disciplines that get respect, like math and sciences. The decorative gets slammed from both sides in that it’s called meaningless and purely aesthetic but then it’s also too functional or instrumental. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Another aspect of Islamic art, the non-representational side, is that it’s steeped in complex computations that inform everything from optics to engineering. It’s why I included that star on the destroyed bridge in Restore (Sarafiya Star over the Tigris), to partly to discredit notions cataloged in the Art Hysterical article, like Roger Fry’s denigration of Islamic art as being born out of “thoughtless industry.” It’s anything but that!
CH: You’ve each brought up natural order, engineering, design and geometry as they relate to labor – physically and mentally. Labor is a part of what both of you are doing in your studios. Let’s go back to the Art Hysterical article. Dozens of voices in art history and other disciplines are quoted, relegating decoration and ornament to a stigmatized and lesser position within a hierarchy of modern western art and culture. 35 years after it was written, as artists employing ornament and decoration in your work, I am interested to hear your experience and perspective.
SS: Well, it’s complicated. Sometimes there’s not much distinction between a formally gorgeous painting from high modernism and a beautiful carpet design. Both can take my breath away in very similar ways. I think that everything we make exists on a continuum between pure form and pure content and we all occupy different points on that continuum. You can be zealous about one or the other, but the thing that comes out of this for me is that absolutes of any kind, including the quoted pronouncements in Art Hysterical, are just so cocksure. I’ve always been almost jealous of such certainty, but also adverse to it because number one, it’s arrogant. And number two, when any society tries to implement an absolute ideology, it always ends in disaster or atrocity! Kozloff and Jaudon’s article was an overdue antidote to all the righteous dismissals of the decorative – at the onset of the P&D (pattern and decoration) movement. Creating pure pattern or decoration was a necessary feminist statement in and of itself and just because it is beautiful, then or now, doesn’t mean it’s not critical.
SLW: I agree. This idea of absolutes, or the rigid idea of this vs. that cancels out the nuances. The whole idea is that we’re able to capture nuances and create a spiritual loop for the viewer. It’s kind of like a circuit that keeps turning you through the process of looking and experiencing. This is why I have returned to certain works for years. There’s a certain visceral response that I never get tired of. As soon as I feel like I’ve read everything and know everything, there’s something else in the experience that can’t be summed up with the intellect. When it comes to beauty and the decorative, it’s knowing that the intellect has a limited capacity in describing or explaining the reasons why we might be drawn to beauty. So, Art Hysterical reminded me of these opinions. I actually wanted to become a traditional painter. I consider my works paintings because of the way that I use materials to create an illusionistic space on a two-dimensional surface. Painting is quite important to me. It is a call to arms to everything I love about art and being an artist. I speak about the act of paintings in terms of constructing because of the way paintings are made- they are layered, dense, and complex.
CH: This idea of constructing is interesting, Stacy, since your work has a destructive element. You’re creating, but you’re destroying at the same time through branding. It’s very visceral and powerful. I’d like to hear more about both of your processes and how you begin with the imagery you use.
SS: My process is a lot about finder’s luck. When I started I didn’t know anything about digital imaging or resolution and was grabbing the grainiest, most pixelated images, but I eventually figured it out. I found things on soldiers’ blogs, military and NGO sites, and Flickr. Now you can’t even download a lot of this stuff. There was a lot more accessibility even five years ago.
LFA: I wanted to ask you about that. How has the action or tendency of soldiers uploading their own imagery to the public changed since you’ve been making this work?
SS: What I mean is that when I go to Flickr sites now, privacy controls and copyright permissions are more common. I was amazed at the quality of some of the soldiers’ photographs as some were artworks themselves. But some were posted in bravado, as conquerors and victors, for example, standing in the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s wrecked palaces. I’m interested in reworking images like those and turning around the sentiment. In trying to find images of Islamic art that were somehow tied to the sites in the photographs, my searches fluctuated between the intuitive and directed. I’d find an image, love it, and then two months later figure out how to use it. The curtains in Reveal: Opening Act refer to the Maqamat, a set of Arabic stories akin to Aesop’s fables. I loved the fact that the illustrator was known for his detailed portrayals of daily life, in 50 stories from 50 different cities, as my project was about restoring specificity among the anonymity of rubble and destruction. Domestic details like curtains remind us that anyone’s daily life can get disrupted or destroyed.
LFA: Do you get permission from the photographers to use their images?
SS: Once I started to show the work, I realized I needed to deal with this. I then tried to retrace my steps, but sometimes the sources were no longer there or the links were broken. Without asking for permission, I did give credit whenever there was an obvious credit. But in most cases I am manipulating the source photograph – taking out people, altering color and composition, and constructing extensions or composites of the space.
LFA: I think this is interesting in Stacy’s context. Susanne is using images from a very deep archive, such as ancient Islamic art, or very contemporary images from military history. Stacy, you’re borrowing from Currier & Ives, or the Hudson River School, or using images that look like they could be a part of that world, what I would call Americana or the American Songbook. There’s a very different sense of ownership. I think they’re images that belong to all of us because they’re our cultural past.
SLW: Absolutely. I am very interested in Americana. I think especially in recent years, I’m interested that part of my identity that doesn’t get talked about. I get discussed as a woman, as a black woman, as someone from the south, as an artist, but not really as someone who has a space in the American continuum. Not as a part of nationalism or patriotism. But those things are changing, and are more organic now than they ever have been. What we look like as a society is going through some pretty big shifts. So it’s interesting that I tend to use iconic, conservative sources for references, such as Hudson River School landscape paintings. I’m always trying to find a way to re-represent our core ideas as a way of questioning them, not really as a way of perpetuating the standard. I collect 19th century vernacular photography that I find in flea markets and estate sales. I buy images by people I’ve never met and I feel like a detective or someone who is trying to reclaim or create a space in a continuum that I will always feel suspicious that I was left out of. So, in a way I’m creating an identity for myself by attaching myself to the Americana imagery, to literature, to history – to those things that are part of a certain kind of hierarchy but are also a part of the things ‘that we all must know’, the markers of a civilized culture. I like this idea of being a social documentarian of sorts. The portraiture and the landscapes are ways of making new cultural artifacts, if you will.
CH: This makes me think about landscape, maybe landscape with a capital L. You’re both working with landscape – Susanne in your photos and Stacy in your appropriated subjects. Our relationship with landscape is so different now, and it is such a large topic. And in art history, it’s often male territory, and it’s grandiose, and considered ‘worthy subject matter’. Your combining landscape with decoration, ornament or pattern blends disciplines and ways of thinking and working. This leads me to wonder about your influences. Are there art historical influences we haven’t covered yet?
SLW: That’s a huge question. The biggest draw for me to landscape painting is that they are mirrors; they reflect the then and the now. When I look at a landscape painting by Robert Duncanson, I see a contemporary environment reflected in those images. For me, history is not always past—it’s present. I’m re-reading Moby Dick, and it’s a mouthful! That density, complexity, lyricism, narrative – the sheer beauty of language – it’s provocative and overwhelming and epic. It’s a grand sweep, a grand gesture, and a flourish, and those are influences on me. I went through a phase of listening to audio books, and now I’m going back to slow, actual reading. I want a physical experience with books again, and to experience the process. Also, including the letter B in my work in these epistolary images, it’s about writing and language, and utterances and words that we can’t say or have over said. It goes back to my narrative and oratorical background that I have.
SS: I am mostly influenced by antiquated sources: Sienese painting, medieval illuminations, antique maps, and Islamic art. I read a lot, with indirect influences. My most direct connection was with Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red. His character Master Osman is based on Bihzad, the influential master of Persian miniature. The whole book explores the tension between the continuity of tradition versus the western emphasis on individual innovation. I connected to that tension because I was copying or re-painting selected passages from Bihzad. But I want these passages to be seen through a contemporary lens – kind of like Borges’ narrator who considered Menard’s recreated fragments of Don Quixote as richer than the original because they had to be considered in light of all events since the original had been created. I relate to that as I am pulling from the past in order to reflect on the present. But Flemish painting is actually my favorite period of painting, especially the drapery. That’s what I’m drawn to – it’s as expressive as the tears on faces. It is surrender and mourning. I love that stuff. It goes back to the domestic and the private.
CH: Well there’s also an understanding of the time inherent in painting overall, but specifically the painting of such detailed drapery. The consideration of time spent is a recurring part of this conversation – time spent making, reading, creating, percolating – within a time period that feels like it’s on fast forward. Time becomes visible when you can see ‘the hand’.
SS: Yeah… but there are all kinds of contradictions within that, too. This idea that protracted labor somehow suggests more value. I don’t want to necessarily subscribe to that because it’s a very puritanical and utilitarian attitude toward labor that can be oversimplified. It implies that something is not useful if not imbued with labor or that something has no value unless it has purpose. So I’m a little skeptical, especially now. On the other hand, I see so much casualism now in contemporary art that is so much about speed and the throw-away, and it’s hard because I crave a prolonged viewing experience and I want it be sensual and intellectual, and the nonchalance just isn’t enough for me. So I am drawn to the labor intensive, but not just for its own sake.
SLW: I am also not drawn to the labor intensive for its own sake. Yet, I have mixed emotions towards the current impulse of deskilling that’s occurring in drawing, and moving into painting, and synthetic photography. I don’t know how I feel about this trend. I wonder about how art students are being omitted from the full process of engagement when they become influenced too early on by this oversimplification. You have to learn the classical in order to riff. It’s easy to make drawings in the margins of your notebook paper – much easier than training your observational muscles and the skills to render. This type of slow engagement teaches an ability to reflect and presents an opportunity to have cognitive experiences that are incredibly important.
SS: Classical image making has always been inherently about a kind of stillness, but everything keeps speeding up – the flow of information, instant communication of thoughts and sharing of images. Slowing us down and making us stop, contemplate, and dwell – these are still valuable enterprises.
SLW: I had a strong foundations background as an undergrad I attended the School of Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC, which was very much about materials, processes, and making. This kind of Bauhaus-influenced structure is about building blocks, and it’s a critical time for students. That experience continues to influence my art practice and my teaching.
LFA: We could correlate this to the experience of painting when you think of the tactile engagement between the observer and the observed. Many artists are creating immersive works. Have you seen that Kanye West has a patent on an immersive audio/video environment? This makes me think of how truly challenging painting is compared to the screen experience of the laptop, but I have an experiential environmental engagement with painting.
SS: Yeah, there are so many different kinds of aesthetic experiences. I think of Jennifer Roberts’ article, The Power of Patience, that describes a close analysis of Copley’s, A Boy with a Flying Squirrel. It’s all about close viewing, spending a long time with the painting, and trying to determine what every decision could possibly mean. It’s a different kind of experience from viewing something time-based, where you can’t stop and consider every moment because you’re onto the next moment. I think these comparisons between past and present will never stop; it’s what keeps the dialogue going.
Ornament and Crime, curated by Lauren Frances Adams, includes artists David Mabb, Susanne Slavick, Stephanie Syjuco, and Stacy Lynn Waddell, and is on view at Ortega y Gasset Projects in Ridgewood, NY until December 15, 2013.
Ortega y Gasset Projects (O y G) was launched in May 2013 as a gallery and curated project space in the Bushwick/Ridgewood neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. Formed by artists living in California, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York, O y G operates as a cross-country collective and an incubator for dialog and artistic exchange.
Images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted.