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In the coming weeks, Carla founder and editor-in-chief Lindsay Preston Zappas will be hosting chats with members of the L.A. art community via Instagram Live on Fridays.
The following was edited for web from an Instagram Live conversation on May 1, 2020 at 5:30 PST.
LPZ: How’s isolation been for you? Are you making work? What have you been up to?
AB: I have a lot to be grateful for. I have my health. My children have their health. My family’s doing well. I was laughing when you asked me, “how’s isolation going?” When you emailed me, I was like, “I need more isolation, actually,” because I had a very busy January, February, and beginning of March.
I had in my mind, starting mid-March, I was going to turn inward a little, and have this moment of quiet and contemplation, and reorient myself so I could get started on my next body of work. I didn’t expect it to be this… [laughs]
LPZ: I know. This isn’t that, right? This isn’t that still, contemplative time… it’s a different kind of energy.
AB: It’s different, and I also did not expect to be overseeing the remote learning of two children who are in the house all the time. That is [a] logistical challenge because I live and work in the same place, so I’m very lucky in that I have my studio here upstairs, and our living space downstairs, but I’m not alone in the studio in the way that I usually am when I’m working on large-scale paintings.
I was talking to someone the other day who studies the brain, and we were talking about how the very disorganizing effect of the disruption to our routines, is, and how when we’re faced with something that feels very threatening, we revert to the most primitive part of our brain, the limbic system, where all the fight and flight stuff is. It allows us to focus on the very immediate threat and the things right in front of us. The first days after the shutdown, I was manically cleaning and stocking the pantry and making sure my parents were okay. The idea that I could go into this other part of my brain was really challenging because it was just not accessible.
LPZ: That other part is the part you’ve been wanting to get to, right? When you talk about going into deeper isolation, it’s like this creative part, the still part… That’s kind of what you were longing for during this time, and instead, you’re like, “Fight or flight.” I think we all are just trying to plan and take action more, in certain ways, to appease our anxiety.
AB: But I do feel like talking with somebody who can reflect that back in a scientific way really helped me, and it sort of flipped things for me. As much as it felt almost decadent to focus on something like the postcards and art history, it was taking me into the cognitive part of the brain, [and I] could think about what’s going to happen in three months or six months, [and] what a new body of work might look like—those things that are not ostensibly about day-to-day survival, but ultimately are, if you’re an artist.
LPZ: Right, because what happens now and what happens next month, will affect how the art world is going to survive through all of this—what exhibitions might get canceled or pushed back. Speaking about that, you were in two group shows that are closed or in stasis, like [technically] open, but closed.
AB: All of them Witches at Jeffrey Deitch and Demifigures at La Loma Projects are two very different shows that opened in LA about a week apart. You’d have to actually check with the galleries [about] the status, but it’s an interesting thing to think about, what happens to a show when there are not that many people allowed to see it. I think a lot of people saw the shows, fortunately, before they closed.
I also remember this strange atmosphere, just before the pandemic really hit and things were closing down. I was able to go to a few galleries, and there was already this idea that this might be the last time I see shows in a gallery for a little while—
LPZ: That must have been so strange to have that cognition [while] going through that experience.
AB: It was actually a kind of beautiful and moving experience.
LPZ: What shows were those that you saw?
AB: I went to see, at Nonaka-Hill Gallery, the Sofu Teshigahara show. Those guys are amazing and always do a fantastic job with their shows. There’s so much thought and research that goes into it. I ran into Violet Hopkins there, a fellow artist, and we had this really nice conversation with Rodney and Taka Nonaka-Hill. The other show I saw was Gracie DeVito at Overduin & Co., which I also thought was a very beautiful show. There was this atmosphere that was very “holding things dear”— contemplative, gentle, and I was like, “that is the kind of atmosphere I would love to see carried on.”
LPZ: I wanted to ask you about the Demifigures show at La Loma because the thesis around that show was this in-between space, or fluidity and not being here-or-there. I feel like we’re in that now.
AB: The thesis of the show is from Kirk Nelson of La Loma Projects. It’s a very painter-centric show, bringing together these four painters who are engaged with the figure in various ways. All of us are pretty invested in rich color palettes as well, so I thought it was a visually satisfying show. I was really happy to be part of it.
Going to your idea of in-betweenness, the painting that comes to mind in particular is Between Two Banks. For me, that painting was related to a text I read when I was in a tremendous amount of despair. The text said something along the lines of, “being at a place where you are unable to believe in the possibility of change and unable to go on as you had before.” That’s what I really felt at the time. I was stuck.
I was thinking about that thing of feeling stuck and knowing you can’t go back to how things were, but also unable to really see a way forward, and feeling like you’re never going to get to the other side of something. I’ve noticed people project different ideas about what those two banks are.
LPZ: The painting itself is so open-ended in its message that I could see it being a ripe canvas for people to project onto, as far as those own banks in their lives and their anxieties at the moment. Was [Sometimes Flower, Sometimes Skull, 2019] also in the show?
AB: That is not in the show. I’ve always been interested in the way certain artists use iconography that transmutes across their work, where a form in one painting might be a flower, but in another, it might be a mask, and in another, it might be a skull.
LPZ: Looking across your work like this, I feel like you’re inventing your own symbology. Can you speak about that connection of the flower and the skull, life and death, ripeness [and] decay? It’s a pretty standard opposition in the art world and [in] life.
AB: It’s a very, very classical motif. Death and the Maiden, or the memento mori. I guess I dwell a lot on very existential things, but I shied away from the skull for a really long time. I thought it was really clichéd and corny and simplistic. Maybe getting to middle age made me embrace it a little more. [both laugh]
My greatest fear in life is losing the people I love. It’s like, “how do we come to a place of acceptance? How does [my fear] not become completely crushing?” Somehow embracing the fear, and confronting and accepting it, is helpful to me.
LPZ: Do you feel like visualizing it through these paintings is a type of confronting? Are you literally thinking these thoughts as you’re figuring skulls into these paintings?
LPZ: That’s heavy.
AB: I have a very complicated relationship to the model and the subject. What you have when you strip away a certain identity is just the skull. It’s also a way of accessing a certain universal character.
[The skull] is not just an empty space. It’s a volume, and I have a longstanding interest in vessels, so it’s this idea that there’s a space in there.
LPZ: I read in BOMB magazine that you have this empathy toward your subjects. A minute ago, you said you think a lot about your subjects. What do you mean by empathy? Is it not wanting to objectify the subject?
AB: It’s a long and complicated relationship, right? That was an interview I did with Will Simmons, who’s a very thought-provoking art historian. I came to the conclusion as I was talking to him that sometimes I have misplaced empathy. I hear a lot of talk these days about the concept of radical empathy, and I guess I’m more prone to misplaced empathy. So many of the things that I’ve experienced as personal and private tribulations are also mirrored or played out on a very public or societal scale as well.
We have become a very un-empathetic place. I was thinking about how the United States used to be considered, as it says on the Statue of Liberty, the golden door, with, “give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” That sense of welcome and empathy has really disappeared, and now there’s this topsy-turvy situation where sometimes the perpetrators present themselves as victims, which is disturbing.
LPZ: There’s also a performed empathy that’s really common. I think social media does that. A lot of times, we feel satiated by just posting about it and sharing it. But it’s very different.
AB: I guess that’s where radical empathy comes in. It’s not just being empathetic; it’s taking action, [and] this idea that [the] action component is extremely essential. There are a lot of pitfalls with social media.
I think one of the biggest ones is being in isolation, we are experiencing each other very much virtually, and [this] lends itself to this pernicious effect of judgement, but also “compare and despair.” Who’s got it better? Who’s got it worse?
LPZ: At the same time, the Internet these days, to me, feels more tender. I feel less jaded to it, and maybe I’m clinging to it because that’s all we have.
AB: I mean, imagine going through this without this connection.
LPZ: I know, which has happened in the past during other pandemics. That isolation is an isolation we can’t really quite relate to. Maybe this is a good segue into your postcards that you’ve been sending. I imagine these are beautiful art historical postcards that you’ve collected over time at different museums.
AB: Right. Can I read you the first entry?
AB: This was all on Instagram, [as] an Instagram project. This was the first one I did.
Thinking about the late, great On Kawara’s “I AM STILL ALIVE” telegrams, started 50 years ago and continually sent until the year 2000. On Kawara, born 1932, Japan. I wonder: How did the turmoil of WW II shape his vision? How will the tumult of our current pandemic affect artists?
I recall one of my dearest teachers, Georg Herold, saying “All you need to make art is a piece of paper and a pencil.” How will artists turn whatever materials and means they may have on hand into work? Will it be glorious to see what comes of the pent-up creative energy once we are on the other side of this pandemic?
Five years ago I had the joy of seeing “On Kawara — Silence,” a survey exhibition at the Guggenheim New York, Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic spiral. In his review @messhammuir wrote: “In 1969, Kawara began sending telegrams declaring “I am not going to commit suicide don’t worry.” These mutated into the more positive message of “I am still alive” on January 20 1970 and continued in telegrams to friends, art collectors, curators and other artists, such as Sol Lewitt, irregularly until 2000.
The gesture echoes that of Marcel Duchamp, who in August 1913 took a vacation in a seaside town on the estuary of the Thames, and wrote a postcard to fellow artist, Max Bergmann saying, “I am not dead; I am in Herne Bay.” In both cases, the artists’ affirmation of being alive is inevitably overshadowed by the inevitability of their death.” On Kawara died at age 81, just months before the Guggenheim exhibition opened. Messham-Muir continues, “Perhaps it reminds us in an unexpectedly poetic way that with life and death, interruption and completion are the same thing.” Recently I pulled a few boxes out of storage and re-discovered hundreds of post-cards I’ve collected over decades. They are an autobiography of sorts. With my first half-century very nearly behind me, today seems like as good a day as any to start using them.
Telegrams became an obsolete form. Seeking to minimize contact with humans and surfaces my postcard is “posted.” “Pandemic Postcard #1, March 18, 2020, I AM STILL ALIVE.”
LPZ: Oh! That’s really beautiful, Amy.
AB: Thank you.
LPZ: This is [from] the backside of one of the postcards. So [is this] what you’re writing and sending out to people?
AB: I’m actually collecting them here in the studio, because I was like, “what if I lick the stamp? Who has to carry it? Who has to deliver it? What if I want all of these back one day? Will they be together?” For a few special requests, I have sent them out, which are addenda to the project.
LPZ: [Your] impulse to chart or to create a certain calendar during this time is appealing.
AB: It is certainly shocking. I think I’m on number 44 now. Every day, I’m like, “it’s this date and I’ve written this many postcards?” It’s a lot. Going back to that thing we started with, of what part of the brain that you’re using: [the project] is an opportunity to reflect on past experiences, sometimes write about them, and also look into art history and the background.
LPZ: It’s weird to look at your past self. What age were you when you picked up this Rousseau? When did that Man Ray really inspire you? It’s an interesting autobiography of you, then mapped over an autobiography of your daily experience now.
AB: At first, I just thought about documenting the cards. As I’ve gone on, I’ve integrated them more and more into my studio and my environment. First of all, I love them as a pretext to study. For example, Man Ray’s Observatory Time – The Lovers: it’s a very famous image. Everybody’s seen that image a million times. I photographed the post-card with my view of the Griffith Park Observatory behind it and it took it as an opportunity to delve a little deeper into the history of the image. The oldest postcard I found so far was a de Kooning hanging in my high school locker.
LPZ: Oh my god. You were a cool high schooler.
AB: Most of them, I collected myself, but there were some that were sent to me. I found a really amazing one that has a plastic thing inside that had a little piece of the Berlin Wall. That was sent to me by the curator Kasper König. When I opened that box, I was like, “I didn’t even know I still had that!” It’s a little piece of history.
You were talking about the model and objectification, and it brings up these questions of “who gets to depict whom? Who gets depicted? How do they get depicted?” There is a lack of diversity in my postcard collection; who gets to have their artwork on a postcard?
LPZ: These postcards mirror the inequities in our art world and history, which ties back into the work you’re doing with the figure.
AB: That also goes back to the misplaced empathy. What’s interesting to me about the On Kawara postcards is that they reveal almost nothing about him personally. He often chose very generic, touristy postcards, and sometimes there was no handwriting—it was just stamped, [as with] the telegrams. I thought about how [my project] is a very personal thing. It’s very vulnerable, awkward, and revelatory in a way that I’m not necessarily comfortable with. Maybe when the pandemic is over, I’ll have to delete the whole thing!
LPZ: Looks cute, delete later…
LPZ: But then, [some] text is so On Kawara-feeling. There’s a seriality to it that’s really nice. It does have that personal thing that maybe, to you, feels vulnerable, but it also has that standard repetition that serializes the project too.
AB: It’s funny because I make this work that’s very colorful, body-centric, and sometimes very messy. People are sometimes surprised to hear or to see some of the things that I consider to be very important, or hear about the people that taught me, or that I really love On Kawara. To me, that generation of artists was very important. One of my teachers was Stanley Brouwn, who was essentially the same generation as On Kawara. Another very important teacher of mine was Jan Dibbets. Artists who spend time documenting the ephemeral—light, space, trajectories—are really interesting and important to me. I think this postcard project has reconnected me to that [interest].
LPZ: That’s beautiful. It contextualizes the project so much more in your work. I wanted to ask about what the future holds for you, Amy, as far as shows and work. Do you feel like you’re getting to that front-place of your brain and creating room for yourself in the studio to push around a little bit?
AB: Absolutely. There was that initial shock and visceral response to the situation, and then I really got my head together. Also, as an artist, it’s impossible not to be tied to that creative practice. I’m planning to have my first show in London at Alison Jacques Gallery, and my first show in Dallas with Gallery 12.26, and my New York gallery, Salon 94, is in the midst of renovating and moving to a new space. First and foremost, I have to make work for myself, and then figure out the next steps as things unfold and as we gather more information.