Inching Towards Abstraction: Lauren Redniss by David Goodman

Lauren Redniss holds tight to details. Her new graphic biography Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout is out now.

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A record keeper in both her drawings and story telling, Lauren Redniss holds tight to details to keep them from being stolen by the pitfalls of memory. Embedding herself within a story by recording interviews and drawing on-site during conversations, one becomes tangled within the thoughts and learns that all stories are interconnected. Although images for her forthcoming book have not been included in our conversation below, trust me when I tell you that they exhibit a dramatic movement towards an abstract method of storytelling through beautiful and sinuous lines.

David Goodman Are you still illustrating for the New York Times?

Lauren Redniss I’ve been pretty consumed with these books that I’m working on, and some other new projects. I did those Op-Art pieces for a long time and the constraints of working within that framework was really interesting. There’s no room for anything extraneous. The Op-Arts were all about spare-ness—how much you can do with how little—they’re black and white, and have a very restricted amount of text. Those constraints made me crave color again, and to develop something that couldn’t fit on a newspaper page. Any project or medium has some limitation, some missing element. When I’m working on something, over time I become more and more conscious of what that missing element is. Then I get really interested in pursuing those elements. That’s what generally leads me to my new project. So, sort of in reaction to the Op-Art pieces, I did this book,Century Girl, about a 100-year-old dancer–now 106—who has lived the most over-the-top life. She was a showgirl who danced for Woodrow Wilson. She scandalized Henry Ford with the rumba. She made silent movies in Egypt in the Valley of the Kings, set off 100 rockets at Times Square when she turned 100–same year that Times Square turned 100—and on and on. Her life has been and continues to be this uninterrupted, superabundance of colors and characters. I had to create a form that could capture that.

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DG Century Girl is a mixed presentation of collage and drawing and your first published book. But, you’ve used books as a mode to present you work before …

LR Yes. These here are handmade silkscreen books. I made about 3 copies of each since I was printing and binding them all by hand.

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DG What is this one about?

LR This is about New York City water towers. It struck me that they’re everywhere and no one knows what they really are. So I went and interviewed the heads of the two companies that dominate the New York City water tower market. And it’s this great story of immigrant families in New York in the late 19th Century. There are two Jewish families that at one point worked together. There was some kind of scuffle around 1895. If I remember the story correctly, one guy wants to go out on his own, and the matriarch of the other family hires a bunch of Irish thugs to rough him up. It’s a Friday, and apparently, when the cops come to arrest her, she uses the excuse that it’s Shabbat and hides behind the curtains in her apartment. Long story short, after that there are two families competing for the water tower market.

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I did the drawings on a roof in midtown 40 stories up, trying not to get blown off the building. You can identify which company builds each tank by the finials atop the pointed roofs—the four cornered “R” stands for Rosenwach. The “I” is for Isseks Brothers.

DG The color is beautiful.

LR It’s funny to see those books now.

DG Why?

LR You know, I see things that I’d never do now, or things that I used to do that I’ve forgotten about and think maybe I should explore them again. The books were printed in just three colors—cyan, magenta, and yellow. I wanted to see how much variety I could get by layering the color in different combinations and concentrations.

DG Your work always incorporates writing as imagery. What inspired you to create this process?

LR I have anxiety around how fleeting time is. Since I was a young, I always felt, Well, this could be the last time that I remember that feeling vividly. I think this has always been the impulse behind my drawing—an effort to record things that otherwise would slip away. This grew into writing down dialogues between people. Then I started using a tape recorder. I used to record my grandparents all the time. They had this kind of vaudevillian banter after being married for 60 years. One time I recorded them having a conversation about ping-pong. Their exchange was just like a ping-pong volley.

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I was drawing for the New York Times, and my art director at the Op-Ed page knew I was making these recordings on the side, and interviewing people, which I’d do because I was so shy. It was a way to formalize talking to people. So, the Times asked me to do a piece to mark the 10-year anniversary of the riots in Crown Heights. I interviewed a lot of people, did a lot of drawings, and eventually stumbled into two strangers having a conversation on a corner of Eastern Parkway. A black man talking to a Hasidic man. They’d just bumped into each other and struck up a conversation and were debating interpretations of Biblical stories. Their conversation, and the fact that it happened seemed to reflect on the riots. I wasn’t interested in making some pronouncement that in the 10 years since the riots things had changed for the better, or for the worse. That this moment of serendipity and connection had taken place—that such a moment was possible—seemed to speak for itself.

DG There are specific boundaries with form and line that the words play with in the panel. I guess it becomes an overall idea of how one reads the imagery.

LR The balance between text and image is something that I struggle with. I don’t think of myself as a writer, and yet words keep showing up in my drawings. I have mixed feelings about that, why do I need to put words in, isn’t the image enough? Part of it has been this fear that the image wasn’t enough, and that I had to add more and more layers of meaning. One of the reasons I was interested in making these books was that in this format you could have both and have space to pull them apart. I also wanted to explore text as a visual language of its own, like calligraphy or hieroglyphics. In Century Girl I hand wrote everything. For my new book, I designed a font. The calligraphy of the lines is still very important, but I don’t want the words always on top of the picture.

DG You want the line of the letters to become their own drawing element?

LR Yes. Because this new font is something I can type in, it could end up feeling too orderly and consistent, and therefore, devoid of feeling. So I go back in and mess with it. It has to feel drawn, and the lines of the lettering need to have the same vigor and intention of lines that you’d have in a gesture drawing of a figure. It can’t feel like its generated by a computer and plunked down on top on the picture. At least, not in this book. Maybe for a different project a more mechanical quality would fit.

DG What’s your new book about?

LR It’s about radioactivity—sort of…(laughter) It’s the bodice-ripping version of Marie Curie’s life. The backbone of the book is a biography of Marie Curie—the three love stories that punctuate her life and her scientific discoveries. Interwoven into the biography are metaphorical, non-chronological connections to moments in the history of atomic science.

DG You kind of just blew my mind. What a cool idea. How long have you been working on this idea, and how did it come about?

LR It was part of that impulse to seek out that missing element from the previous work. Century Girl is all glittery photos on glossy paper, there’s such an attention to surface—even though there is a meaningful story—the surface quality highlights the show business and spectacle and is center stage. I wanted to go in the opposite direction. I wanted the images in this new book to feel tender and hand-made. I wanted to write a love story. And one reason radioactivity is so interesting is because it is invisible. I loved that echo between the theme of love and radiation—both these powerful unseen forces.

The images in the new book are cyanotype prints. It’s a photographic process that doesn’t use a camera. You coat paper with light sensitive chemicals, cover it with a negative, and expose it to the sun. The chemicals turn the paper blue where it is exposed to light. I turned my apartment into a darkroom. If you had been here a few days ago my whole place was wrapped in black plastic and was all infrared lighting. I was running up to the roof to expose the paper and then back down to rinse the prints in citric acid.

DG Is it limited by color and has to go blue?

LR Yes. And the process made sense conceptually because, like radiation, it’s all about exposure.

DG Do you think that you’ll make a book that conveys the narrative without text?

LR I feel like I need them both, but I don’t know if I need them both present every time in every work. There are some stories that feel like that can be written in prose without images. And vice versa. Some stories seem to need both text and image, with each offering a quality the other couldn’t. I don’t think like a comic book artist or graphic novelist, I can’t draw the same character over in sequential panels. I’m really interested in abstraction—I think I’m letting myself inch towards it.

BOMB On The Inside is conversation series created by David Goodman that engages artists, curators, gallerists, and visionaries to reveal the dynamism and power of creative thought. This piece was edited with the help of Richard J. Goldstein.

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