Meg Lipke, Slanting Grid, 2021, acrylic on muslin with polyester fill and thread, 103 × 137 × 7 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Meg Lipke’s insistence on painting is absolute. No matter the form her work holds, the substrate it rests on, or the lean and slant it embodies—Lipke is a painter. The duality of how Lipke’s work both defies and rests on painting’s history is exceptional. Over many years I have been watching and learning from Lipke—as a friend and as a fan. Several trips upstate to visit and discuss art, painting, and life have led me to an appreciation of her influences, familial ties, and her desire to build what does not exist. By constructing and conjuring her paintings through any obstacle, she has created a lifetime’s worth of work that defies categorizations and convention as she pushes painting’s potential, challenges its exhaustion, and highlights its flexibility. Over Zoom, Meg and I discussed the grid, recycled jackets, boundaries, and the influences of her painting, including how her daughter’s broken arm and cast in 2015 led to a breakthrough in composition and material.
Catherine Haggarty You refer to your work as paintings even though they have morphed into soft, stuffed objects that lean or hang on a wall. This makes me think of Elizabeth Murray’s work and its unique relationship to painting and form. Do you feel a kinship with her?
Meg Lipke I love Murray’s work, and every time I see it I am surprised by the force of it. I remember how in an essay from the 1980s she said that she developed her style of shattered, expanded, and overlapping planes because she wanted her work to have a new relationship with the wall. I relate to that impulse. My paintings have a distinct front and back; they are made with paint on cloth. They adopt some of the language that we learn as painters: figure, ground, and positive/negative space; the notion of the frame; the grid; the window. But they also have volume, which makes some painters feel uncomfortable standing next to me in the painting corner. And sometimes they challenge the relationship of painting to the wall, because they might rest or slump or lean on the floor as if they’ve become exhausted by their job being paintings.
CH Around 2014 your work began to take a major shift. Can you discuss why you began stuffing and sewing your paintings?
ML I wanted to move away from the rigid support that often defines “Painting,” but I wanted to remain in relationship with the wall as a site to experience the work. Specifically, I was curious about ways to think about the cloth of painting and how it could be expanded—literally—into a larger conversation. The first soft paintings I made, for instance, Orange Bits (2014), were flat, sewn onto an archival, two-inch polyester batting to mimic the dimension of a stretcher bar.
These early flat pieces appeared to be shaped canvases but with soft edges that betrayed the lack of underlying form. From here I moved into an exploration of sewing canvas to canvas and stuffing from behind—creating volumetric shapes that are liberated from rigidity and are immediately more corporeal. When the painting becomes like a body, the canvas becomes like a skin, and the way the soft form settles because of gravity and the lack of internal skeleton becomes like posture. There is a confrontation of materiality and form that is very exciting to see on the wall where we are used to experiencing the more traditional and flat “window” of painting.
Meg Lipke, Hoop, 2016, children’s winter puffy jacket, fabric dye, acrylic, beeswax resist, polyester fiber, thread, 59 × 33 × 5 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
CH I can’t help but wonder how your work evolved alongside the raising of your three children. I know that in 2016 your daughter Frankie broke her arm playing. How did this affect your material choices?
ML When I was beginning to experiment with the stuffed paintings the kids were ten, eight, and four years old. Hoop (2016) was constructed at home by sewing together discarded sleeves of the winter jackets the kids had outgrown. I cut off the sleeves at the shoulder and pulled the linings out, sewed the sleeves together, and stuffed and painted the resulting five-sided shape. It does look almost rectangular, and the zipper that you sometimes get on the upper arm of a puffy coat is visible at the top. I was also thinking about the work as an embrace with the missing body now stuffed and embracing my children, protecting them. It was during this same time that Francesca fell and broke her elbow. We made many trips to the bone and joint center to see x-rays, get casts on and off her five-year-old arm, and to talk about her healing process. We became familiar with the choreography of getting her cast into the armholes of her clothes and jackets. In this piece and in others from the same year, I used rigid plaster wrap to “support” the form. There was a lot of nurturing and a protective desire that eked into the works which were becoming more and more anthropomorphized.
Meg Lipke, Support, 2016, acrylic and fabric dye on muslin with beeswax resist and rigid plaster wrap, 12 × 8 ×4 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
CH I notice an intuitive use of pattern and mark-making in your paintings and an almost Pacific color palette at times. Can you describe how you begin choosing marks and patterns in the piece and how they marry so seamlessly with these particular colors?
ML It is an intuitive process that develops from the form. I make the form first from ideas that have been developed in a sketchbook, so when I am about to begin the painting, it is very much like being faced with a blank canvas except it has a personality and posture that I already have a relationship with. I like to create changes in color and/or patterning language across the surface to suggest changes in light or situation. In my newest work I am balancing some very demanding neon colors with earth tones.
Meg Lipke, Orange Bits, 2014–15, fabric dye and beeswax on muslin with polyester fiber and thread, 18 × 16 ×2 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
CH Your piece Slanting Grid (2021) shows a grid on a slant in motion with the painting language on top being very gestural and improvisational, which contradicts the grid. How does this recent piece deal with your relationship to the grid and painting in new ways?
ML The contradiction between the painting application and the structure of the piece is intentional. The structure is geometric, made of straight lines that lean to the right, but the painting is loose with gestural—action painting—splashes and stains of bright oranges, pinks, yellows, greens, and blues that emphasize the leaning direction of the form. I made the textile paint very thin and threw veils of it onto the floor when the work was unstuffed and let it dry. I made Slanting Grid specifically for Burlington City Arts (BCA). I wanted to create a piece that was monumental in scale to overwhelm the viewer. I liked the idea of the grid slanting and sliding away from its job as a mechanism for viewing and organizing space.
CH This sounds like a history painting?
ML Yes, I wanted to speak to the history of using the grid in painting as a way of transferring visual information and also as a way of organizing abstract space. In modernist abstract painting, the grid was a subject and a stand-in for a background upon which to devise space. On the bottom of my grid there are three triangular “feet” that are almost touching the floor, making a comic reference to a cartoon character tiptoeing out of the frame sideways. It’s kind of an inside joke for painters, but it’s still very beautiful in terms of the shape and range of colors and the raw muslin left unpainted. There is one square of the grid which isn’t cut out but remains a painting inside a frame within a larger frame of the grid.
CH In The Making at BCA displays five years of work. Now that you can look back on this show, what are you most excited by to push you forward in the studio?
ML I have always wanted to show at BCA because it’s in my hometown. The feeling of having so many people who I love and who inspired me growing up be able to walk around and be with so much of my work is going to push me forward. Despite COVID and my father dying this year, I feel uplifted by this show and by the connections people are making to the work. I’m really most excited by developing the large-scale pieces that create a feeling of architecture in relation to the viewer.
Meg Lipke: In the Making is on view at Burlington City Arts in Burlington, VT, until May 15.