The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
I met Liz Deschenes at Bennington in August 2010. I had just started teaching poetry and the humanities at the college, where Liz has been a vital intellectual presence for several years. I immediately discerned her rich attentiveness and intuition, and, from students, I heard that her teaching effortlessly combined a sense of discipline and a sense of play. When she and I began to talk about art practice, language, and images, I exhilarated in her mind’s unique ability to merge technique and dream, impersonal and personal, heavy and light. As a poet, I’m utterly intrigued by the way Liz can stay with a practice rather than fixate upon an idea. It is interesting to me that so many of our conversations have lingered on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a novel that, in Liz’s view, celebrates perception rather than description as the central, and most vital, task of an artist. Liz Deschenes’s haunting work certainly does the same—reorienting the viewer and revivifying our relationship with the image. Rereading To the Lighthouse , I found this passage—the thoughts of the woman artist Lily Briscoe—which captures the spirit of Liz Deschenes’s upcoming work for the Whitney Biennial: “For it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge … ”
We wrote this interview—back and forth over time—via the new epistolary method, email.
Kathleen Peterson I’ve been thinking about your work in reference to photography and composition—and here are a few questions: What kind of a relationship does your work have with time? Thinking, specifically, of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I keep coming back to the notion of everyday time having some relationship not primarily to content but to the form of an artwork. To you, what would be the character of that relationship: Is the passage of time distressing or comforting? I think Woolf felt the passage of time to be quite terrifying and uncontrollable, so she sought in her work both to represent it and to keep it at bay. This is interesting in reference to your work because Woolf is often misunderstood as someone who merely wants to depict time, to show time for what it is. But I don’t think her novels are representational exactly. I thought this might interest you.
I am also interested in thinking with you about the difference—not the connection, but the difference—between lived, personal experience, the teeming struggle of forces that bolster and create the conditions of the photo, and the photo itself. I believe the work of women, specifically, in all the arts, has much to say about this. But when I think about an artist like you, I consider the force and depth of our mutual intellectual investigations and conversations and the (abstract, colorful, flat, playful) surfaces of your artworks. This question that I have in mind isn’t, How does your work relate to your life? but, If the work is not representational of the life, directly, in what manner is the struggle of the life significant to the work? I mean “struggle” in the broadest sense, from the political (economics, sexuality) to the physical (even merely the experience of pain) to the familial and the spiritual. I am interested in this myself, as I have gone, as a poet, from writing poems in which I vowed never to use the first person, to ones where I wrote autobiographically, to newer poems driven by a desire to deface and change Christian images. Is this interesting to you?
Liz Deschenes I think that the best way for me to reply is with images from recent installations and plans for upcoming ones. The first image is from an installation I did in 2011 at the Langen Foundation, a significant collection of early and mid-20th-century European and Japanese art in Neuss, Germany. In one of the galleries displaying nonfigurative paintings, I suspended a photograph in the corner. It is a photogram (no camera) that has been completely exposed to light and is therefore black. It both brackets and frames the paintings around it. It is the only photograph in the room and it is the only piece that is not part of the collection. Therefore its relationship to the other works is self-reflective and fleeting. I added an unexpected architectural element to the gallery’s design, which makes the viewer reconsider the works in the collection and emphasizes the time that has passed since their initial inception and their current presentation.
For an upcoming exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, entitled Parcours, I am collaborating with Austrian artist Florian Pumhösl on an even more overt strategy toward investigating conception and design of exhibitions. During our initial visit to the Art Institute we observed shifts in display from the older parts of the museum to the newer wing. Together with the curator Matthew Witkovsky we will select works from the museum’s permanent collection and install them with a few pieces by both Florian and me. The exhibition design and installation will hopefully reveal, through its choices of display, that conventions and conditions of presentation are not static. I think Woolf’s writing in To the Lighthouse is more about perception than it is description.
A project of mine from 2001 is titled Green Screen Process. It’s a series of photographs that literally have green screens as their “subject matter.” The large green monochrome backdrop is a photograph, and could “act” as the thing that it is depicting.
KP What you say about Woolf and perception as opposed to depiction is exactly right. Works of art that resonate with the perceiver are (I think) works of art that open up experience into the condition of event. What I mean is that instead of merely describing an experience, a work of art should be an event of a kind. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf’s Lily Briscoe is working on a painting in a frame. But she is always thinking about how to compose the painting using metaphors and techniques outside the frame—for example, the famous moment when she’s thinking about moving the saltshakers around on the table. In front of Lily, physically, throughout the novel, is a canvas with limitations—borders of air where the canvas meets the world. In front of Lily’s mind, however, Woolf puts all of life—the saltshakers, the family, time—everything Lily has to manage as a perceiver of the everyday. Woolf insists, throughout the novel, on seeing Lily not only as a producer of a single canvas but as a perceiver—a producer of mental images, of time, of relationships—and therefore, Woolf herself insists on seeing an artwork as more than a single framed picture. This reminds me of your work in the way you want to resist the single image as a resting-place for the viewer. If the single image is not the resting place for the viewer, what is? Or, as you seem to suggest, maybe the purpose of the viewer is not to rest?
My next question is a bit brainier, I think, but let me give it a shot. The green screens trouble a distinction between the “real” and the “depicted.” The “depiction,” if it can act as something real, has just as much use value as the real thing. But the green screens, in the manner in which you arrange them, appear not to have the purpose of providing pure pleasure. What I see is the technique of composition being revealed to be significant but not exactly signifying—to be meaningful without being determinant of meaning. I wonder if you know this poem by Federico García Lorca that starts,
Green, how much I want you green.
Green wind. Green branches.
The ship upon the sea
and the horse in the mountain.
With the shadow on her waist
she dreams on her balcony,
green flesh, hair of green,
and eyes of cold silver.
Green, how much I want you green.
Beneath the gypsy moon,
all things look at her
but she cannot see them.
“All things look at her / but she cannot see them.” This is like the image, is it not? The poem itself has both abstraction and narrative—the narrative is dreamy, leads nowhere, much like your pathways through the galleries, which don’t command as much as they accompany. So my question is: How do you want the viewer to interact with the space of the gallery?
LD I would like to go back to an earlier statement of yours (regarding the green screens) of meaning being present yet undetermined. Along those lines, I would like the viewer to be guided, and not directed. I can reference a specific example. I made an installation of photographs from a 1935 drawing by the artist and designer Herbert Bayer for an exhibition design he never realized. I radically changed the initial drawing to include much more space for the viewer and allowed for the work to be viewed from either the inside or the outside of the installation. I positioned photographs in the place that had been intended for paintings. I removed the viewing platform so that the viewer was able to determine, and with less pressure, an ideal vantage point, for there wasn’t one. The work and the architecture could be viewed from any position.
In the following passages, I will refer back to the time question, and its potential relationship or significance to an audience. I am interested in the period before photography’s official invention and indoctrinations. Silver halides were found to be light sensitive in the early 1700s, but nobody could figure out how to arrest the action of the halides until the 1830s. Early proto-photographers’ images would disappear, while their work was sometimes carried on by subsequent experimenters who, as Geoffrey Batchen writes, “were already well established in fields which were as wide and diverse as mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, botany, philosophy, art history, physics, and painting.” These are some of the disciplines that William Henry Fox Talbot, Louis Jacques Daguerre, and some of the other early experimenters had dedicated themselves to before becoming the inventors of photography.
I have taught a class called Photography’s Relationship to Painting and Drawing that forced me to think about the terms around the medium. As Batchen describes in his book of essays Burning with Desire, photography is a “compound of two Greek components—phos (light) and graphie (writing, drawing, and delineation) … . As a word, it posits a paradoxical coalition of ‘light’ … and ‘writing’ … , an impossible binary opposition ‘fixed’ … by the artifice of language.” He sums up this thought by writing, “Uncertain of its own identity, photography defers instead to the presumed self-presence of its two constituents.”
In my installations, I would like the viewer to cultivate the ambition to look in-out, right-left, and up-down. My work for the upcoming Whitney Biennial in New York will use, as a reference, the proportions of the exterior facade of the museum and insert them in the interior of the building. As I write, I realize it is a similar action to the one being proposed at the Chicago Art Institute, which will require moving walls and screens from one part of the building (the older part) to the newer wing. Both of these operations will enable the viewer to see the inconstancy of the conditions of display, which are always at play but sometimes hard to see.
KP What you say about the earliest days of photography is fascinating. Are you attempting, at least in part, to establish (or reestablish) the conditions of the photograph as the means by which we see light and writing themselves? As if the original issue in the making of the photograph was not how to represent the world in pictures, but how to create a space of light’s version of reality? What I mean by this is: photography, when it highlights both the conditions of its production and the conditions of display, emphasizes the original qualities of the medium, not the most “artful” qualities but the most physical, the most earth-bound, the most related to the elements in which we move and breathe. And in emphasizing photography’s relationship with light and space, you quite naturally become a willing disciple of—a maker in dialog with—time.
So here’s a further set of thoughts: The origins of the photograph being brought back into a display of the work of art—which, as you describe, must be more than a single flat item, must, instead, become a pathway toward an experience of the whole environment—reminds me of something very much at play in poetry. Your work has a strong sense of ritual, present both in the way in which the viewer is asked to interact with the space and in the work’s emotional tenor, created and structured by elemental repetition with significant differences (the green screen itself and the green screen displayed and photographed). In poetry, even the free verse poem could be seen to invoke an elemental, original relationship with rhythm, since the cadences of both the fragment and the sentence depend on patterns of syllables and, in English, patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. I would make an analogy between poetry’s relationship with rhythm and your photography’s relationship with time and light. Rhythm is the unseen, and to some extent, nonhierarchical force that drives poetic language (unlike, for example, the feelings of the first person, biographical event, psychological thinking). Poetry, at its best, wants the reader to participate in rhythm in this respect, to be part of something in the artwork. So, do you ever think of your work, especially your work that concerns the structuring and restructuring of experience (the project that will be shown at the Whitney, concerning the dimensions of the museum space), in terms of ritual?
And one further question: Is there an emotional current in your work that you want to get across? Or am I right to see that what’s significant in your work’s composition is not any particular emotional state but the presence of these contact spaces between the viewer and the artwork that reveal some opportunity for reaction and interaction?
LD I’ll try to answer those questions, maybe altering the order.
I am interested in looking at the separations, the overlaps, and the hybrids, as well as the language that developed around their work—the terms, the materials, the discoveries, and some of the perceived failures. The early inventors did not necessarily share the same objectives or paths. Their approaches have been examined in some of my work: Fox Talbot was primarily engaged in photography’s potential for writing and drawing—his book on the topic, Pencil of Nature, was the first commercially published book dedicated to photography. Daguerre arrived from the multidimensional world of theater and the diorama. Fox Talbot invented a positive-negative system, and Daguerre made unique (not reproducible) photographs. Works from both of them have made a lasting impression—the entire exhibition that the Metropolitan Museum dedicated to the French daguerreotype back in 2004 and a lace print, from Fox Talbot, that I saw in person last spring, come to mind. Fox Talbot called his camera-less photographs “photogenic drawings.”
In terms of the Whitney, I will literally bring the outside in—in a deliberate attempt to pay homage to a very particular building that looks like a machine—a camera, to be precise. Actually, two types of cameras: a twin-reflex camera (the windows look like its lenses—one stacked on top of the other) and a large-format view camera and its bellows. The building will host its very last Biennial, as the Whitney constructs a new building downtown. The only other time my work has been in such direct service to memorializing was in a series of dye-transfer prints that I made in 1997. Kodak had discontinued the materials in 1994. However, the work had a dual premise—they used elevation topography maps as their referent and Technicolor dye transfer as its soon-to-be-lost significant material. It is only over time that I can see how the ideas and the materials coalesce. What is quite clear and evident in the project Elevations is still being worked out in models of the Whitney’s Breuer building.
I am not sure how to contend with the question of ritual.
KP I am not sure why I asked that question! I think you’ve actually just contended with my overdefined and controlling question in beautiful fashion: When you say “memorialization,” you indicate your desire to preserve the materials in a way that also allows them to be changed by time. When you say, “It is only over time that I can see how the ideas and the materials coalesce,” I believe you are saying something very important about the place of composition within the display of your work. So can I press you on your work at the Whitney a little bit: As you’re pursuing these models of the Breuer building, what have the challenges been and what are your strategies? What materials are you using and what do you anticipate for their presentation in the exhibit? But I wonder as well about the place of “memorialization” in your work. I really get what you are trying to do with the Elevations piece. When I’m writing a poem about a memory, most likely the entire memory cannot be preserved. What becomes preserved instead is one element of the memory—a scent, a color, a snippet of speech. That material—usually directly from the senses—takes on a life of its own in the poem’s own pursuit of itself, of its own integrity. My desire to memorialize, to remember a whole always manifests itself as a part. And then, that part becomes its own whole in the space of the artwork. Can you relate to this, or am I totally off base? What feels to me quite magical about the Elevations piece is that instead of a personal memory that has to become cultural, or social, or national, the memory of a color begins as something open to more than one’s self. Indeed, as Wittgenstein says, it has to be, since colors are basically another form of language game we all play. So the tone of Elevations (if a photographic image can have an almost verbal tone) feels to me choral, not communal exactly, but multivocal, or plural.
LD I have been thinking about the reluctance to further describe the upcoming projects in words, that is, what my plans are for the work, as I willingly embark upon multiple conversations (for print) and an artist talk. Obviously, it is all fragmented. There is a drawing from my framer that shows how to resolve the angles of the work in the frames, a confirmation for titles—“side-front” or “front-side”—and requests for photographic documents of the works that will only be able to occur once the work is installed. The photographs (due to their scale and specificity of site) will be actualized in the space. The works were made in direct response to the exhibition. As significant, the other works in the exhibition will only be revealed during the course of the installation. The relationship of these photographs to the exhibition at large is an unknown factor, completely and utterly undetermined. Like the documents, the ability to assess the work will only be able to happen in the space of the exhibition.
KP As an artist, are you interested in reflecting on the independent, sensual qualities of the materials—the nature of green, the intimacy of something (anything) turned toward a viewer, the pleasing quality of something being square, the uncomfortable quality of something being different colors and in process—before they are placed within an exhibition? Is there an interest in preserving these essences or uncovering or setting free these possibilities? Is the process of setting free these possibilities of perception separate from these sensual essences of the materials themselves? Or are the two connected?
LD There was a recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York that included one of my green screen pieces. The show was entitled Color Chart: Reinventing Color from 1950 to Today and the curatorial premise was that the use of color corresponded to a readymade. The work spanned from Duchamp’s last painting to a piece of Daniel Buren’s reworked in 2008, the year the exhibition opened. Buren’s contribution was that he made striped uniforms for the museum’s security guards. In between all these works’ years, 1976 to be precise, John Baldessari produced a series of photographs entitled Common Memory Colors—using the colors and subject matter that consumers complained most about to Kodak for lack of color accuracy. According to the users, for instance, grass did not reproduce well. Baldessari made this the subject of a sequence of images.
KP You have certainly heard Wittgenstein’s quote: “There is no criterion by which to recognize what is a color, except that it is one of our colors.” I wonder whether you are hinting here that color itself becomes a kind of “material,” a locus for the subjective and the communal to interact? As a poet, I often enjoy watching the grass grow—just kidding. But I am intrigued by the idea that people would have an attachment to a particular color that could correspond to a correct depiction of grass, especially since taking, for example, a family photo of a picnic means that the color of the grass is particularly important. This could, of course, become quite dangerous. What about the color of skin, for example? In your work you appear to take color out of the realm of individual judgments and into a more spiritual and open space. By taking something that is by nature communally understood—color, for example—and offering it to individual viewers, each with their own cultural histories, you also refuse the distinction between the “natural” or “correct” and the “artificial” or “incorrect” that the Kodak viewers wanted to assert in evaluating the depictive properties of the camera. What do you think?
LD What I am responding to is that photography is a translation of color and tones—a language. And just as significant is that absolutely nobody possesses an accurate color memory. Of course, I am interested in saturation, densities, and increments between the colors and in photography’s relationship to motion picture, which was part of the reason for making dye-transfer prints—their film analogue is Technicolor. I am really engaged in the concrete and tangible components of color photography.
KP Your piece is actually quite different from Baldessari’s in orientation and mood. Mood-wise, yours seems to refuse a self-driven melancholy—to be uninterested in the kind of teacherly reseeing that Baldessari’s tries to reinstate. Instead, what happens—and I can only speak for myself, but your description of the piece appears to back this up—is a kind of contemplative detachment from the conditions of the creation of the “color,” whatever the color might be. Instead, a free play of mood and sensibility is inspired and achieved. Even the title of your piece is less didactic than his—and in some sense, less verbal.
Your piece feels to me like a commentary on perception. Baldessari’s piece seems to me to be a commentary on depiction, and on people’s responses to depiction. Again, the seemingly “flat” surface of your work achieves a kind of depth not through texture and commentary but through juxtaposition, elevation, placement, and isolation. Does that make sense?
LD I think that, for Baldessari, any results from his investigations would have been “correct” and more than worthwhile. I think that the limitations in the translations of the materials are being comically addressed in Baldessari’s piece. I like how thoughtfully his piece plays with the absurd expectation that your memory and the color will match—forever preserving that particular moment. Josef Albers writes eloquently about this inability to accurately recall and name in his book Interaction of Color:
If one says “Red” (the name of a color) and there are 50 people listening, it can be expected that there will be 50 reds in their minds. And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different. Even when a certain color is specified which all listeners have seen innumerable times—such as the red of the Coca-Cola signs which is the same red all over the country—they will still think of many different reds. Even if all the listeners have hundreds of reds in front of them from which to choose the Coca-Cola red, they will again select quite different colors. And no one can be sure that he has found the precise red shade. And even if that round red Coca-Cola sign with the white name in the middle is actually shown so that everyone focuses on the same red, each will receive the same projection on his retina, but no one can be sure whether each has the same perception. When we consider further the associations and reactions which are experienced in connection with color and the name, probably everyone will diverge again in many different directions. What does this show? First it is hard, if not impossible, to remember distinct colors. This underscores the important fact that the visual memory is very poor in comparison with our auditory memory. Often the latter is able to repeat a melody heard only once or twice. Second, the nomenclature of color is most inadequate. Though there are innumerable colors—shades and tones—in daily vocabulary, there are only about 30 color names.
I have one last contribution that goes back to one of your initial questions and how personal experience manifests itself in the work—much of the work that I have been exhibiting began when I was living in Europe several years ago, in both Madrid and Paris. I was working without any planned exhibitions or institutional support. It was during this juncture that I was awarded an Anonymous Was a Woman Award. This particular recognition allowed me to pursue paths in the work without the finality of an exhibition. It gave me an audience that was supportive in giving the grant and only asked for a letter in return stating how the award affected the work. On another note, I have decided not to title any of the pieces for the Whitney. There should be enough visual clues to discern some of the references in the work—the architecture of the building combined with the photographic materials.
KP It is, of course, impossible for me as a poet to think about titlelessness—or the state, rather, of a poem being title free—without thinking about Emily Dickinson. When asked about her own title-free poems, poet Fanny Howe once remarked, “Why would I put a lid on the loneliness of the poem?” I have always wondered what that meant, and in the context of your work, I can think of two things—and wonder what you think. First, not having a title, in an interesting way, preserves the imagination of an anonymous audience, a noninstitutional audience, an undirected and free audience, the audience you have imagined. By not titling the work, you place the work closer to the mental space of its creation “for free” in your mind. You also (cleverly) situate the work both inside and outside the institution. Who “titles” works in the mind? They exist merely under the sign of creation, of something explored and made. Second, you refuse to put a lid on the “loneliness” of the work. By “loneliness” I don’t mean some emotional current of melancholy but the need for the viewer to find and discover it. By not titling the work you remind the viewer that they must discover the work. To me, this parallels (in a very moving way) Dickinson’s abandonment of her works on earth when she went into whatever nothingness death is. I’m likening the release of an artist’s work into the larger world to a life’s release of itself in death. Dickinson’s “career” was left for us without the title of career. This continues, in our consumer society, to frustrate and disturb us. But it is only a reminder of one of the central properties of art as something made by human hands: Art gets released into the world as an event, not a personal experience. That event must be discoverable, but it is not yet discovered—its possibilities have not yet been released themselves. I don’t think Dickinson hid her poems and I don’t think you’re hiding your work at the Whitney: instead, you, too, are agreeing as an artist to move into that other world, leaving the work for us.
LD I simply had too much ambivalence about naming the work. I did not want to instruct via the titles. You wrote that “art gets released into the world as an event, not a personal experience,” which may sum up some of my resistance to describing my aspirations and experiences with the work—all or some of the concerns will hopefully become apparent in the completion of the works being exhibited—as well as all the events that cannot be anticipated.
Kathleen Peterson is the author of a book of poems, This One Tree, published by New Issues / Western Michigan University Press in 2006. She is Professor of the Practice of Poetry at Tufts University. She has new poetry coming out in the Boston Review and the Kenyon Review in 2012.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.