In her new work, Laura Letinsky unites photography and sculpture to raise broad questions about how we see, how we live, and how time passes.
Since the late 1990s, Laura Letinsky has created photographic still-lifes that address themes of materialism, domestic life, and melancholia. Her recent exhibition Ill Form and Void Full at Yancey Richardson in New York presented sculptural constructions that combine images cut from magazines with miscellaneous household objects. While Letinsky continues to investigate quotidian life, and how we view our world, these photographs definitely evolve from past work that dealt with loss and grief. Letinsky has a mid-career retrospective opening at the Denver Art Museum on October 28th.
Ashley McNelis The works in your new exhibition at Yancey Richardson Gallery, Ill Form and Void Full, are magazine cutouts and photographed objects made into constructions that are then rephotographed. They have a muted color palette, and carefully curated subject matter. However, they still exude the quiet power found in your earlier work. Why these color choices? Why this quieter mood?
Laura Letinsky The color palette is slightly muted but still within the range of what I have worked with over the past several years, dare I say, decades. I guess it’s less “natural” than the earlier still lifes, partly because I am picturing pictures, and in my studio. It’s a bit funny though as for years my color choices have been commented on, yet to me they simply feel natural. Isn’t this the way everyone sees? Of course I recognize that there’s choice, but my aspiration is for a degree of “normal-ness,” an affinity with the way things are vs. hyperbolic or fantastical use of color.
AM What led you to rip up found pictures and photograph them? Is there a specific process to your work?
LL The simple answer is about faith—that is, not having it. The pictures for me are about pictures. The amalgam of source imagery and objects speaks to the relative insignificance of this “origin.” What is a photograph of a photograph of an apple to a photograph of an apple to an apple? In my pictures I want to pose the question, what is the difference between the physicality of the thing and its picture? It’s monumental actually, yet this significance gets undermined, underplayed, and rendered mute in our contemporary visual culture.
AM I want to ask you about the idea of manufacturing an image, whether it’s the original setup or the actual photograph. In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned the Northern Renaissance tradition of assigning meaning to objects and how—while our globalist and capitalist society is similar to the Dutch mercantile society—we do not have the same relationship with objects. In your 2011 interview with a former student on ArtSlant you said “I actually don’t believe that we use symbols, or that symbols have value in our culture. We’re such a mixed culture that things don’t gain the kind of meaning they did when you lived in a small town in the 17th century, and everyone knew that a lap dog meant fidelity, a pomegranate meant fecundity, and an orange meant whatever. We just don’t have that same kind of commonality right now, for better or worse—I think for better.” Has the way you think about and create an image changed as you work with new methods?
LL My recent work is a refinement of these ideas. The belief that there is a truth to which we all adhere is simply not feasible given the post-global world we inhabit (produce and consume). For some this may feel nihilistic, but I see this lack of commonality as a kind of liberation: without the prescription of social order one has to stay on one’s toes, to experience, evaluate, measure and balance. The relativity of one’s assessment is active, always in play.
AM Do any of the items present in the photographs change meaning(s) consciously or unconsciously?
LL I have attachments to the things I photograph, although I don’t expect anyone else to share in this. For example, my interest in photographing splitting objects, things in pairs, is about coupledom in some loose associative way, but I don’t know if they convey that sense to anyone else. I do try to load the photographs, though, so this sense of togetherness and division is palpable. The things that I photographed from my home I certainly have attachments to, either because of the way they look or sentimentality. Again, I try to make my thoughts or feelings manifest through the form of the picture.
AM Some of your previous work concerns materialism and identity, often centered around the idea of a domestic home. You use these themes to push the boundaries of image-making. For example, your Hardly More Than Ever and Somewhere, Somewhere still lifes that show remnants of human presence reflect how the manipulation of a domestic space is an artificial and empty gesture: for without humans immediately occupying the space, the empty home has no meaning. Your new still lifes are quite minimal in this regard. How do you decide what needs to be pictured?
LL I definitely question how the home can reveal identity, how it reveals who we are through what we are, and how the photograph’s reinforcement and reiteration of that comes to seem “natural.” I understand the manipulation of this space, the accretion of stuff, as a way of inserting one’s presence into the space and the idea of home. This is not necessarily an empty gesture, and while artificial, no more or less so than any gesture. Our gestures are artificial in the sense they are socially mediated, but they always harken to the body—to bodies and physicality, and smell and touch and taste.
The new work is not unlike the old work in that, in a world in which anything can be a photograph, what needs to get photographed? The process is intuitive, and also a product of how we’ve been cultured visually; we see what is shown to us. Using magazines, advertisements, and other photographic imagery is a direct way to engage this issue.
AM Your work has been featured recently in several magazines such as bon appétit and Martha Stewart Living. Your images of food are obviously very different from the usual “perfect” spreads in these publications. Did you ever foresee magazine work in your future?
LL The magazine work is pretty interesting. Through modernism we developed the idea that art is for art’s sake, i.e. representative of the artist’s vision, like Venus springing from the half-shell. With post-modernism and its fallout, we understand that artists make work within a context. However, there’s still much ambivalence when it comes to art’s relationship to the market. Prior to modernism, artists were the hired guns: they sought work and commissions from the wealthy, from churches, and later from secular arenas. Whereas now we see money as a corrupting influence or association, those artists had to please their clients who were paying for services and goods. Today we tend to think of this kind of work as a different creative enterprise than art, which supposedly is untainted by the influence of money. Art’s role within an unregulated market, one with huge fortunes and losses, is somehow kept at a remove despite all evidence to the contrary. Yvonne Rainer wrote something about changing society by working within. I maintain this possibility as there really is no outside; to think there is seems to me naïve at best.
Working within the commercial realm does involve a different kind of negotiation—testing of limits to see how to complicate content for, and possibly even alienate some segments of that audience. It’s an interesting challenge. The people I work with in commercial and editorial work are terrifically talented, smart, and well aware of what they are providing.
AM While the work in Ill Form and Void Full is sculptural and somewhat three dimensional to the viewer, the objects have qualities of detachment and flatness, perpetuating the theme of emotional distance in your work. Do you find that space and distance are related to these qualities? Perhaps they are there to fill a void?
LL On the one hand I’d say that this detachment and flatness is inherent to photography, a quality typically overlooked. The medium imposes a distance that is unavoidable and in fact, as Metz argues, vital to its pleasure. What is pictured appears within our grasp but is forever elusive. A photograph is empty calories, if you will, necessitating a constant cycle of production and consumption. A void, yes, but one we seem to like.
AM The whiteness of the platforms, backdrops and surrounding space in the works creates a perplexing visual space. How did you decide to introduce this illusory aspect to your work?
LL The element of illusionistic space and flatness has been a constant with me, going back to my earliest 2 ¼ strobe photographs. In the still life work, the three dimensional scene is photographed so as to set up multiple perspective possibilities. This references what was commonly accepted in 17th century painting, which sets up the conditions—the necessity really—for photography as a realization of a set of ideas and ideals about how to see and how to picture.
In this work, I wrestled with the flatness and the illusion of photography from a different side of the same problem. The photograph doesn’t show the world the way we see. We have come to think of the photograph as akin to seeing—as a transparent or neutral act—but it is so different than the way we see. I mean this as regards the physical act of seeing, but more, what the sense of sight entails. Seeing is not a neutral act as much as the result of our conditioning. We see what we’ve learned to see and photographs obviously play a large role in that.
AM Continuing with the theme of finality, some of your work from 1997 to 2010, particularly your project Hardly More Than Ever, projects a feeling of loss. In other interviews you have discussed a connection between Freud’s responses to trauma and how the photograph as death enables both mourning and melancholic responses (whether or not those responses are helpful in dealing with loss). Also, you have discussed the idea of a palpable absence after a meal (such as in I Did Not Remember I Had Forgotten). Has there been any change to how you manipulate the still life to exude this feeling of absence or loss (of human presence, love, life)? Does the process have to do with distance or the use of light?
LL I’ve used the obvious constructedness of the still lifes to comment on the constructedness of home in its actuality and as an idea. We think of home as known, self-evident, yet the enormous cultural production of home from Martha Stewart to The Cosby Show, from Good Housekeeping to Modern Family, Nest, Dwell, and penny flyers, point to the contrary. Home is A LOT of work—a lot of work done by us as individuals and collectively as a society. The viewpoint that is offered in my pictures is an invitation to the viewer, a first person narrative, a scene or meal to partake in—or not.
To address your questions, I think my recent work doesn’t engage the aspect of melancholia as there’s no “there” to which one can be attached. May photographs inhabit a different possibility, or a proposition.
AM Some of your work (both past and present) contains precarious objects that teeter on the edge of a table, somehow evoking an underlying seriousness, an ending, or even death. It seems like you’re playing with the fact that photographs capture fleeting moments . . .
LL There is definitely a relation to a moment, but the photograph doesn’t capture anything except what is photographable. The moment cannot be contained within the photograph, which is something else unto itself. That idea of the moment is also a question as it is in some sense a composite, evidence of what has come before, that is, the product of what and how to see.
The earlier manifestation of my still life work from 1997 through 2010 was melancholic, and my interest was in the “after-moment” because of how photography is described as such, but also because of the way we often theorize ourselves (i.e. post-post-modern, post-historical, post-narrative . . .). Earlier still lifes pictured cornucopias, feasts for the eyes. In this moment it made more sense to photograph remains, to think about and picture that which resists . . .
As I said above, I hope that this recent work is not so linked to melancholia, to photography as a means of keeping, however inadequately, what was. Instead it’s about trying to find form, a process, contingencies and possibilities held in relation to one another with spit and mud. Hope? That’s maybe too optimistic but they feel more pragmatic, more physical, more real.
AM They do evoke those attributes. I see this series as a definite progression from your past work. What are you working on with your students from the University of Chicago in China?
LL Last year I went to Beijing and Hong Kong and was pretty astounded by the glimpse this gave me into an environment that was really unfamiliar at first glance, but upon further reflection and interaction, had many parallels with my own. It was fascinating. The trajectory of western/European art and ideology as descendent from Enlightenment philosophy, which I had taken as a kind of bible, was thrown open. I did not know what to expect in a place where these ideas were not prominent and instead had a very different set of important historical, political, and ideological influences. The culture, including the giganticness of this art world, the food, the streets, everything, it was amazing to me. I felt strongly that introducing our students to this world was going to be critical to their understanding of the art world, and not to be too simplistic, the world. Meeting other artists, students, faculty, seeing galleries and institutions, showing their work in this place, this all seems important; to participate in another culture is to realize that our knowledge must always be realized as embedded within our society, that what we know is not the only knowledge.
Laura Letinsky is a photographer whose work has been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Denver Art Museum; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York; as well as internationally. Letinsky is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York, and she teaches at the University of Chicago.
Ashley McNelis is an art historian who specializes in photography. In addition to doing interviews for the BOMBlog, she also contributes book reviews. From Pittsburgh, she currently lives in Brooklyn.