The Family Clown: A Studio Visit with Leslie Wayne
Leslie Wayne: Free Experience at Jack Shainman Gallery, September 7 to October 21, 2017
Leslie Wayne is known for the vivid density and colorful materiality of her work, most recently a collection of what she called “paint rags” which hang from the wall, and are actually made of many layers of paint. Her latest work, on show at Jack Shainman Gallery through October 21, has undergone a marked change: there’s larger scale of image and an intensified playfulness with modes of representation and with process.
ELENA SISTO: I love the way humor is fore-fronted in this new work. You’ve scaled up your subject, slowed it down and gone directly for the comedic instead of sleight-of-hand.
LESLIE WAYNE: I’m told that I was the family clown as a child. I do love making people laugh and I am mad for puns. Having said that, I can’t claim that I decided in advance to make funny paintings. Perception has been at the crux of my thinking about this work, trying to dislodge the viewer from their expectations. Humor is just one tool among many, but it’s a seductive one and I love using it.
I enjoy playing with the relationship between language and the conceptual core of the painting. For example, in (W)resting Robert I’ve painted an image of a metal chair in my studio which takes up the entire space of the panel, making the panel in effect the chair itself. Then, draped over the back of the panel/chair are various sheets of paint that resemble fabric, the most prominent being a copy of an early Robert Ryman painting. I’ve wrested his painting from my pantheon of idols and laid it to rest on the back of my studio chair. I’ve moved on!
I like words that function as both adjective and verb. For instance, the word free in Free Experience functions that way. Or I’ll play with a word as it relates to an idea in a painting. It might sound like it could be the subject of the painting if you hadn’t read it. Would for example begs the question–would water really come out of a fence like that? But it also sounds like the word “wood.” That’s funny to me.
Is the humor a purely personal development? Or are you responding to politics? You have one painting of a window through which I see what looks like a melting atmosphere. Does it relate to climate change?
You’re talking about Snowmageddon. That painting started out as an homage to the Ukiyo-e prints of Hokusai. I happened to finish it right after the last major snowstorm of the winter, hence the title. I am keenly aware of our environmental crisis, but that is as political as my work gets. At one time I worked with an ocean conservation group and my paintings during that period dealt with issues of sustainability and climate change. It’s never far from my mind, however it’s not really the focus of this body of work. But who could possibly ignore the politics of this moment in time?! It’s insane!
What are some of the other tools you might use to dislodge the expectations of the viewer? And why is that important to you?
Using trompe l’œil and abstraction alongside dimensional verisimilitude is pretty interesting – mixing it all up, like in the piece entitled Wood. I wondered how many different ways I could describe a subject in one painting. I wanted to surprise myself as well as the viewer. That was important to me – to free up the experience for both of us.
It’s important to be surprised and delighted by something visual in the real world, as opposed to the virtual or the digital world. Painting has the power to do that – to make you see something you think you know in a completely new way.
You’ve been working and showing for quite a few years. Have you been involved with any long-term underlying themes?
The two consistent driving forces in my work have been nature and perception. The subject of nature has to do with my having grown up in California-its particular sense of color and light, and a specific relationship to the landscape and geology: earthquakes, giant Sequoias, the desert and the Pacific. There’s also a kinship with craft and materiality that is uniquely West Coast. Even the most conceptually driven work of many West Coast artists has been grounded in phenomenological experience rather than theory. Robert Irwin is a great example. Maybe that’s where part of my interest in perception comes from. One of my favorite books of all time is Lawrence Weschler’s “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees.” I want my paintings to make you forget language, even while I’m punning!
Do I see intimations of Léger, Guston, Oldenburg? Are the paintings more Pop?
Guston, yes, but Pop is not a reference, unless you’re talking about Duchamp as the forefather of Pop. He was a driving force in my last body of work. Guston gives everyone permission to move from abstraction to figuration. I studied painting and drawing in a traditional manner. I’ve been trying to bring that deeply satisfying activity of observational image making back into my work, in a way that makes sense given my very peculiar process.
Your process is unique. The only person I can think of who has used paint similarly to you is Scott Richter, in his older work. How do you make a piece?
Richter was involved with a kind of spectacular accumulation of massive amounts of paint on a surface. Those tables were pretty dazzling. I use what some consider a massive amount of paint, but I’m not interested in the accumulation of it per se. It’s the ways in which the paint can be manipulated to resemble forms in nature that interests me–using paint to create dimension disarms and surprises the viewer, because of the way it mimics the object it represents in the real world. I’ve manhandled paint in many different ways over the years, mostly by building up thin layers of color and then doing things like scoring, peeling, scraping, folding, draping and collaging it. But I’m not interested in describing my process. It’s not that it’s a secret. It just detracts from what I think should be the driving experience of looking at art–being transported.
You mention a West Coast-type phenomenological approach. Could you explain why it’s important?
Southern California was a magical place to grow up. Blue skies every day, temperature a steady 73°F year round, beach to the West, desert and mountains to the East. Even my most vivid memory of an earthquake is dreamy, as I recall the street I was standing on and the whole neighborhood becoming like the deck of a ship, gently rocking back and forth for several long minutes. My sensibilities were honed on my physical experience of the world, not on ideas. I’m not particularly intellectual, and that plays out in my approach to making art. Having said that, my work is decidedly not about process, it’s more about a desire to make the material connect with the subject in a visceral way.
Who are some of the artists you admire? I see references to different textile traditions–African for one.
I do love textiles and textile designs from around the world. They inform the more decorative aspects of my work. The term decoration has suffered from quite a lot of cultural bias. I don’t see myself as belonging to the Pattern and Decoration school, but I do find that pattern is a universal vehicle that everyone can take deep pleasure in.
Forms in nature have long been a source, but I’m moving away from that now. I’m drawn to a wide gamut of artists who are peculiar and unique in different ways. Right now an image of a beautiful Mamma Andersson painting is informing a new work; also a photograph of Rodney Graham in a tux sitting at a set of drums with a plate of steak and peas, which is hilarious. I often revisit Elizabeth Murray or Martin Puryear for inspiration or look through books of Matisse, Stuart Davis or Charles Burchfield, just to snatch up bits of imagery. There’s no denying a relationship between my work and that of my husband, Don Porcaro. We are in each other’s studios all the time. Mostly I like to see what my colleagues are doing, and what the next generation of artists are making and how they are thinking. On the one hand it’s an embarrassment of riches to have so much to look at. On the other it’s overwhelming to the point of distraction. Then I re-focus in the studio and remember what it is I do best. And that’s all one can do, right?
Do you have any rules for yourself in the studio?
Yes I do actually. Accomplish at least one thing.