“Unmitigated, Unknowable Joy”: A Studio Visit with Lisa Hoke
Lisa Hoke: Attention Shoppers at Pavel Zoubok Gallery,May 28 to July 25, 2015. 531 West 26th Street, Second Floor, between 10th and 11th avenues. Catalogue available with an essay by Nancy Princenthal.
Five years ago, Lisa Hoke was searching around for sources of found color. This led to the recycling bins in the basement of her NYC loft building, a way station for the torrents of packaging we all discard on a continual basis, which in turn led to her creating giant, ebullient murals and freestanding sculpture in an intensely colored palette of refuse. In my opinion, her show at Pavel Zoubok takes her sculptural concepts to an even higher level.
Elena Sisto: How and when did you decide to become an artist?
Lisa Hoke: I got my degree in English literature at UNCG [University of North Carolina, Greensboro]. I planned to be a writer but when I discovered Faulkner I realized I was a reader, not a writer.
A friend in Greensboro, a weaver, was making dyes out of cochineal from Mexico and walnuts. She taught me about dyes. I wanted to know more about the whole world of color. I went up to the art department at VCU in Richmond and interviewed with the Dean. I said, “I don’t have any portfolio, I have no idea what art is but I’d like to know more.” He says, “Sure, if you agree to start all over with freshman. Curiosity and desire, that’s fine with me. That’s all you need.”
I enrolled in the art department at VCU for $500 a semester as a Virginia resident for three years with no portfolio! You can’t do that anymore. It breaks my heart, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to be an artist. The world it opened up! I’ll never forget the first class, watching a Bruce Conner film. I walked in, everybody was sitting on the floor, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is what I was looking for!’
So you think education has changed since then?
The level of experimentation and risk taking couldn’t possibly be in the equation now, with everybody looking to have a career right out of school. One thing I noticed when I went to graduate school in 1979 was that it all was being shuttled into “create a show for your masters.” I am so opposed to that. I hate the idea that you need to produce a catalogue in graduate school. What are they doing?
At my post graduate school, painting was considered to be almost like a religion or a calling. It was all about process with a large dash of Existentialism. I heard a teacher once exclaim, head in hand, that “it wasn’t possible” to make a painting. On the positive side one gained a huge capacity to be in the studio and tolerance for being lost. But there was no preparation for the practical side of being an artist. Grad students now intellectualize and strategize much more trying to be creative and analytical and practical all at the same time.
I can’t be both analytical and creative at the same time or they cancel each other out. There’s too much self-doubt that creeps in for me to allow myself to go to a place where I can discover something new. There are certainly appropriate places to stop, look and question, but one of the reasons VCU was a good match for me was it wasn’t theory oriented.
There was plenty of theory around then, though, especially Marxist aesthetics but mostly within actual philosophy departments. Theory wasn’t brought to bear on work in the studio quite as directly as it is now. In fact I often seemed to be hearing people quote Barnett Newman saying, “Aesthetics is for painting as ornithology is for birds”. So turning off your analytical mode allows a mental space that has more freedom?
There is a freedom that I take to be as naïve as possible when I approach materials. I demand of myself to learn something new about a material and the structure of sculpture. I protect that freedom and enjoy it until I have to analyze the success or failure. In graduate school I found the art dialogue stifling. But I was fascinated by a dance teacher and her class about movement, the way the body inhabits space.
Do you think your education in literature was influential on your work?
I’m fascinated with the way a sentence is put together. I approach sculpture in the same way—and the way that a story is told, maybe in a sentence or two, like Lydia Davis. How you accomplish something in either a small space or a large space, whether it’s a book or a short story that’s told in four sentences, has an impact on the way I look at scale. In the last five years, the scale of my work has increased dramatically.
I go on site for installations, building pieces that I can’t draw and I can’t predict because it’s bigger than my studio. That gives me the opportunity and the horror of facing questions I hadn’t had time to answer in the studio. It’s the thing I fear most, public performance where people are standing around, waiting for me to build the thing. They invested money to get the pieces out there and then I have to put them together. I’m baffled by how I could have arranged something to be my exact Achilles heel. But it has made me more fearless. The risk involved could mean failure. Between failure and success is discovery.
There’s an issue for artists about signature work, a big question. When we become known for a certain kind of thing, do we produce that thing we’re known for or try to push the idea along slowly and reveal something new? I may move too fast and miss steps or too slowly and stay too long. I don’t regret any of those things. I like to talk about the dead end paths. If I can’t understand why a piece doesn’t work then I’m not going to understand why one does.
Before I open the studio door in the morning I take a breath, and I go with whatever that little voice says when I open the door. If it says: “hmm, not this, not the way you should go,” I really pay attention.
You always let your intuition lead you?
After all these years of working, that part is not naïve, it becomes an educated intuition.
Do you ever get to a point where you have too many options open, no conclusions and you need someone to help you conceptualize? Maybe someone who has known your work for a long time who understands what you’re up to?
It gets harder and harder to find somebody to do that especially when I’m trying to show them something that’s bigger than the space I have available to see it in. I do ask people to come and talk occasionally like when I made the big change using the color packaging, I asked a few people to come by.
I asked a fellow sculptor who knows my work for many years to come over specifically to ask, am I crazy? Do you see any future in this? I hear right away if they’ve got it and whether that’s helpful. One of the luxuries of having a gallery is not to ever let somebody in my room whose voice I wasn’t sure I wanted in my head. I only have assistants infrequently and the ones I have had have been amazing.
You can afford to be selective because you have a gallery you’re showing with and many relationships already set up.
To me, that’s the truly fabulous part. When I look back over the dealers I’ve had, Rosa Esman, Horodner/Romley, Holly Solomon. Elizabeth Harris and now I’m very happy to be working with Pavel Zoubak–they were and are people I trusted. The five years with Stuart was an exciting time, to have a dialogue at that level. That set the standard for what was possible.
You’ve spoken in the past about the salability of your work considering the materials. Have you found a way to resolve that by doing installations? Made it into a kind of performance?
Right. I’ve found the incredible support of small museums and university galleries. They were happy that it was a temporal situation. It enhanced their educational system and their museum and it enhanced my ability and I got paid. I got to investigate brand new works with fabulous staff and curators. I wouldn’t have known it was possible unless I had to find a way to exhibit work that was oversized. And the performative factor that makes me so uncomfortable was an added attraction for the museum.
Do they actually watch you working?
A lot of times they don’t but they do time-lapse photographs. At the McNay, where I built it in the lobby there was no hiding. After that I refused to let the public watch me work. But recently in Sarasota, I let the public come in again. I didn’t let them speak to me up on the scaffolding. I realized it was a way for them to understand the end result.
You said earlier that you like to have a protected space to work in, like a bubble where you can be vulnerable. What’s the value of being vulnerable?
I grew up in a situation that was very judgmental so there was a secretiveness that I had to have. When I close that studio door, husband, son, nobody is allowed in in unless they knock. I know the minute that door’s open figuratively and metaphorically the judgment starts. When it’s closed I experience the joy, the unmitigated, unknowable joy. I’ve always hidden anything that I really feel—
Has the objective always been to attain that kind of joy?
Yeah. When I worked with the cast iron and wire there was this moment when it worked, when I just tied those wires together where I felt this rush of joy.
So is that just something that you want for yourself or—
No, I want to feel it for myself, and then my next step is to share it. I’ve always been those two people: the person who is private and the one who wants to be part of a dialogue. Fundamentally you need both of those components.
You’ve always been interested in color but I remember when you read Chromophobia in the early ‘90s it was a real turning point for you. Is there a relationship between color and the joy you spoke of before?
That’s a really good question. In about 1984/85, I had to get rid of everything, start over and reduce all my information, all my color because I wasn’t understanding it. I went to cast iron and wire and created a set of rules for myself.
Shortly after that Adam Weinberg curated a show at the Whitney of four women sculptors, Jessica Stockholder, myself, and two L.A. artists. That was a real turning point. I felt self-confident enough to re-introduce color but in a way that I remembered or knew. That’s when I took two polka-dotted shower curtains, sewed them together and suspended fifty pounds of steel from them. That was called Malaprop and that was the first time I realized I needed found color. I read Chromophobia a few years later. It made me feel really courageous like, ‘This is exactly what intuitively I felt about color.’ I realized the most important thing for me was the pure saturation of it, not trying to understand it intellectually.
Along with finding your preference for working with found color and objects came a slew of references to the realms of the kitchen, home, and bedroom, vanity, commercialism.
When I first started, it was strictly about making work inexpensively, using anything within fifteen feet. Dog food cans. It didn’t matter. If it was siphoned through my vision then it was going to be part of my dialogue, napkins popsicles dripped on, if you collected enough of them, or coffee filters. I wanted the unedited. I didn’t need to go to the foundry in New Jersey or the art supply store.
Originally you were making more of a point about that and now it’s transformed into something else through color, more like making an abstract painting.
Which is accidental in a way. I was amazed at how much is produced in our society that is painterly, how much design goes in. It’s all thrown away. It really excited me, this whole world of, literally, art to be cut up and put back together again. The confusing thing about any of the materials that you take is that it has associations. I stumbled into consumerism– the way we sell, the way we buy, and impulsivity. I thought at first it was going to be a distraction. I’m not a recycling artist. That’s not the message. But inherently there is a message about recycling. It’s just not so pedantic. There’s a secondary life of things, there’s no denying those things come into play. That’s the delicate balance; can you transcend that into another entity?
Now those meanings just sort of move throughout the work as another element, like color. You’re not making a point about recycling. You’re just recycling to make your work.
What are you thinking about when you work?
I’m thinking about reducing things, making an order out of all this material, reducing it to almost an alphabet. There’s a structure in setting up color bins, cutting the material up and knowing what is going to be an important element. The thinking is more complex than when I’m doing collages. Those are really intuitive situations. I’m sitting, I have my pieces and then I get into sort of a stream of consciousness where it just rolls. I love doing the small works because it’s a world that I’m just lost in. I don’t have to worry about it. I can indulge in the fantasy of them because they are small and intimate.
How do you set up the context of your studio? What do you do to enhance it?
I always have noise going. When I’m working part of me is listening elsewhere to music or stories that allow me to have my scissors and my exact-o, and like you with your brushes, my movements are very sure. I give myself permission to be very adept with that cut and amuse myself. That’s a really important part of it. I find it fascinating when you make a cut and two pieces of cardboard fall into this unexpected relationship that then leads me to the next step. These steps are not preconceived, they’re not drawn, they don’t even exist in my head, they exist only in relation one to the other.
Like the video of Matisse cutting the paper in the MoMA cutout show.
I love that moment of how those hands went around—
Listening to books provides an atmosphere, it allows you to stay in the room and relax, enjoy yourself and take the time to do what you want to do instead of rushing ahead.
That’s right. A lot of times when I run into a problem, I’ll take a twenty minute nap and I usually wake up knowing which way to go. It has changed my life to trust that if I move away and close my eyes, I always solve it.
I wanted to ask you about your father because I believe your father has always been a big influence on your process.
He was a navy test pilot. In the early days of testing they didn’t know where to place the fuel tanks, hadn’t yet studied where they should be. He was out over the ocean — heading towards Texas trying to get to Love Field — he always said that it was really important to know where you were without your instruments, know what you were doing without a guidebook. So on this trip his instrument panel went dark and because of where the fuel tank was his plane was starting to get unsettled. He couldn’t tell where he was. He was about to go into the ocean and eject. Then he saw this little red light blink out of his side vision. And he realized that it was the Pegasus on top of the tower right above Love Field. So he dove straight down in the dark and landed right on Love Field. It still chokes me up because it took such profound self-confidence.
Could you say a little about this new work? It looks like you’re coming down off the wall now.
I create collage elements in the studio that I later merge into large-scale, site-specific installations into currents of color, product patterning and vivid signage. The scale often mirrors that of consumer culture, championing desire and design. When I look at the sculptures I’m working on, I think of small colorful islands, parade floats made by hand, tipping monuments, hints of things I recognize.
I am currently moving off the wall and into the “aisle”. The freestanding forms are defined by the strength that cardboard offers, with color, text and weight taking on a new, more precise role. I screw and glue elements together, cut them apart and reform them, the packaging is endlessly alterable. As the sculptures have begun to take shape, I’m always surprised that they look nothing like I thought they might.
Who are the artists who have most influenced you?
It changes. Early on Richard Serra and Chris Burden, when I first wanted to see what courage was about. And it was male-dominated. Then it became people like David Smith, early Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, then my peers.
With collage in mind, what about Kurth Schwitters?
I loved the Merzbau, that was just beautiful. But I don’t look back that much. Judy Pfaff, the first Tom Friedman pieces I saw. Tuttle. Franz West. I appreciate restrained, carefully situated almost minimalism like Fred Sandback, something I don’t have.
Martin Puryear’s last show at Matthew Marks was my favorite of his shows. I thought, ‘Wow I’m really glad I’m making sculpture, because I forgot how interesting and complex it is to try to make an object.’
I’ve used the wall for the last twenty-five years. The wall has this magic ability to give something dignity and space and everything it needs. So I forced myself to get off the wall again. Bring it down on the floor. I really don’t know how this is going to go.