Friday, September 10, 2010

Louise LeBourgeois on Studio, Partnership and Swimming

Louise LeBourgeois

Where is my studio? It is the physical place where I go to make my paintings, but it is also a psychic space containing memory, experience, and ideas. I bring these mental constructs with me when I walk into my studio. I take them with me when I leave. The studio is a place with walls. And it isn't.

Painting is an incredibly solitary activity. When I was a younger artist, I thought that painting full time, with very few distractions in my life, was a level of perfection I wanted to achieve. I now know that such isolation is not good for my state of mind, nor is it good for my ability to get work done.

Paradoxically, the community I create in my life outside of the studio, spending time doing things that seemingly have nothing to do with making art, allows me to become even more creative and productive as an artist. It’s like being a deep-sea diver. When you know there are people waiting for you in a boat on the surface of the water who can pull you back to a place where you can breathe, you become more willing to take risks, to dive deeper and further than you ever have before. The more closely connected I am to other people, the easier it is for me to put in long, solitary hours in my studio.

I think this is the single most important thing I have ever learned about being an artist.

The diving metaphor is apt for many reasons. I am a swimmer, and the older I get, the more interested I am in painting water and sky. It’s an image I started working with almost two decades ago when I was an M.F.A. student at Northwestern University and casting about for subject matter onto which I could pin all my aching and almost absurd hopes of becoming a successful artist.

I wanted to become a good painter. I thought if I were able to paint water, elusive and refractive as it is, in a convincing manner, then I would be able to paint anything. It really wasn’t any more complicated than that.

But like a dream whose layers of meaning are only revealed over time, the significance of this simple image, and simple intention, has evolved into something entirely different.

Lake, oil on panel, 5.5” x 7.5”, 1994

Here are some snapshots of the relationships, experiences and community that sustain me as a painter.

For many years, I shared a studio at home with my husband Steven Carrelli . We met in 1993 while we were both graduate students at Northwestern. We married in 1995. Our entire lives as working artists has been in partnership with each other.

It’s a funny thing living with another artist. It’s like hearing the repetitive running monologue of your own obsessive/creative mind come out of someone else’s mouth. Here is a video interview of Steve with Columbia College’s Elizabeth Burke-Dain that illustrates perfectly what I’m talking about:

This is exactly the kind of thing we listen to from each other almost every day, these random thoughts and doubts. It doesn’t make sense to try to turn it into conversation. That can have doomed consequences. We only critique each other's work when asked.

Steve and I bought our condominium in Rogers Park in 1998. Until this past January, we shared the 400 square foot living room as our studio.

This worked well for all the years we both made intimate, face-sized paintings. Then Steve began to work on much larger drawings and last year I was also struck by a need to work much bigger. I ordered two 46” x 46” panels.

I quickly realized I couldn’t work the way I was accustomed to in the studio I shared with Steve. It wasn’t practical for me to move bulky panels around in the same space where he had set up intricate still lives, and neither of us wanted to risk my spattering paint onto his carefully rendered drawings.

I found a new studio at the Greenleaf Art Center, a five-minute walk from our front door. Now that I paint elsewhere, it's changed our interaction with each other.

Many years ago, we worked on our first collaborative drawing. We did a few more over time. Now that we don't share the same studio, we both have more motivation to do these drawings together. One of us starts, and we pass it off to the other in turns until it’s done. These drawings are weirder, and the outcome less foreseen, than anything either of us would do on our own.

Untitled, graphite on paper, 16.5” x 10.5”, 2010

Untitled, graphite on paper, 15.75” x 9.5”, 2010

Untitled, graphite on paper, 14.5” x 11.5”, 2010, in progress

I have a group of friends who swim at Promontory Point in Hyde Park at dawn in the summer and early fall. I am not naturally an early morning person, but it’s such a transformative experience, with such friendly people, for such a short window of time each year, that I make the effort to go two or three times a week.

It’s like swimming in one of my paintings. Or conversely, it is a visceral experience that keeps me in touch with what I need to know to make the paintings I make.

In late summer, it is still dark when my alarm goes off at 5am. Going out into the world before daybreak spooks me. Lake Michigan spooks me, for good reason. It’s a powerful body of water. Twice in my life I’ve been truly frightened by its tremendous force, and both times I hustled myself back onto land as quickly as I could.

When we get into the water around 6am in late August or early September, the sky is a dilute gray and the sun isn’t up yet. Sometimes the water is crazy cold, in the low to mid 50’s. Over the years, I’ve learned to tolerate cold water. Like any difficult skill, you can train yourself to do it if you are motivated enough.

It is true urban wilderness. The lake tells you how far and how long you can swim and it is in our interest to listen carefully. Our lives depend on it. My swimming friend Grace Tsiang wrote an article for the U.S. Masters Swimming website about one particularly challenging swim last summer.

Swimming out into the lake and watching the pink sun rise over the horizon is worth all the exertion of an early morning swim. It is as if you’re watching all that spookiness dissolve into benign reality.

For two weeks in June this year, I participated in the BAU Institute’s artist residency program in Otranto, Italy. There were about twelve to fifteen artists while I was there, the numbers fluctuating as people arrived and left. We all had our studios on the top floor of Otranto’s 15th century castle, which has a vast terrace overlooking the Adriatic Sea towards Albania. I could step outside my studio door and actually see water and sky.

During a typical day I worked for six or seven hours with pencils, erasers and paper. The simplicity of drawing was perfect for this trip, particularly since the castle and our studios were closed from 1 to 3 in the afternoon. There was no need to clean up in the middle of the day or at the end.

I swam almost everyday, the warm salt water a pleasant change from my chilly swims in Lake Michigan. One day the water was extremely choppy. I treaded water and could see the quick instant of sharp pointed peaks at the top of each wave. I decided to make a drawing of that.

Water, Otranto #7, graphite on paper, 11” x 14”, 2010

I completed seven 11” x 14” graphite drawings of water and sky while I was there.

I have vivid memories of painting when I was in nursery school. I would stand at the easel, load my brush with a bright color and slather it onto the paper. Then I’d dip the brush into another color and slide it into the first, noticing how the colors merged and blended. I’d bring home large pieces of paper that could barely support all the paint I’d layer onto it. My mother would listen to me as I gave elaborate explanations of what each painting meant. I don’t recall ever painting any thing, although I probably did. I do remember seeing what the other kids painted— people, flowers, fire trucks, the sun. I felt wistful about it, liking what I saw, but not wanting to do the same thing. I was much more interested in color and the physical sensation of messing around with paint.

Now that I am working on much larger panels, the way I paint now is beginning to feel very much like the way I painted when I was very young.

I have worked with water and sky imagery for many years now, inspired by Lake Michigan and the conundrum that the horizon line presents: a straight, visible line that actually describes the invisible curve of our planet. Although none of these thoughts are explicit in the drawings and paintings I produce, my fascination with the illusion of a sharp divide where none actually exists is what drives me to create such labor-intensive images of very simple compositions.

Water #420, Oil on Panel, 46” x 46”, 2010

Water #423, Oil on Panel, 46” x 46”, 2010

Water #430, Oil on Panel, 46” x 46”, 2010

Louise LeBourgeois swims in Lake Michigan (and other places) and teaches painting and drawing in the Art + Design Department at Columbia College Chicago. She is currently exhibiting her work in the “Imagine Everywhere” show at Columbia College’s A + D gallery.

She graduated with a B.S in Art from the University of Wisconsin/Madison, a B.F.A from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an M.F.A from Northwestern University. She and her husband Steven Carrelli will both have one person shows at Packer Schopf Gallery in Chicago in November.