Interview by Tess Martens
Liza Lacroix is a friend who inspires me with her paintings and the gallery she ran, MAW. While I was in New York City Summer 2017, I was her gallery assistant and was involved in her group show and book NUT. She will be showing drawings in The Front Room Gallery (IG: @thefrontroomgallery), October 30th from 7-9pm. We sat down over a glass of wine in my Airbnb Brooklyn loft early June, 2018 and discussed her practice.
M: You are a dual citizen [Canadian, American] and went to OCAD. How long did you live in Toronto?
L: I want to say 4-5 years and in between that, I was in Italy for the off campus OCAD Florence program.
M: So you were born and raised in Montreal?
M: You now live in New York City. You said you’ve lived here for seven years.
L: On and off. I travel a lot.
M: What parts of New York have you lived in?
L: I’ve lived in Bushwick and Chinatown. I prefer Manhattan, I’ve gotten used to being walking distance from everything. I’ve become really lazy.
M: How long have you been painting for?
L: I’ve been painting with oils since I was a kid because my grandmother was an oil painter, my uncle paints and my father was a photographer. When I visited my grandmother I would always paint with her in her studio.
M: How young?
M: That is very unusual because a lot of people find oil painting a specialty. I started to oil paint second year of my undergrad in University.
L: No way.
M: Never before.
L: Whenever she had me in her studio, she had me paint with oils. Basically anything she was using she would encourage me to try. She was a hard core painter and had an incredible work ethic. Once you start painting with oils, you don’t go back.
M: No you don’t go back! Did you mix your own pigments?
L: No, it’s out of the tube. I had access to a lot of paint and paintbrushes. My grandmother would go to art stores that were going out of business and buy out all their supplies. At her house, in her studio, she would have tons of paint, brushes and canvas. I inherited all of it when she passed away.
M: And you are also a curator?
L: Sure. I ran and owned a gallery with my good friend, Moch [Hahn] for two years. We just recently closed. It’s hard to define myself as a curator because I meet curators who are you know “Curators”, they write papers and heavily research shows. I am more of a facilitator. I like to give opportunities and work on projects with artists that I really believe in. I enjoy supporting artists I love.
M: Are you ever torn between being an artist and a facilitator?
L: God no. I am a painter first.
M: Do you think it is a big accomplishment having a gallery in the Lower East Side of Manhattan?
L: I never thought of it as an accomplishment necessarily but I definitely know how much work goes into it and I have a newfound respect for other gallerists. Artists need to thank and respect gallerists a lot more. They have to put on a show every month and pay the bills and rent. The art market is difficult. And in itself, it is one of the hardest jobs in my opinion in the art world. They deserve their 50%.
M: Let’s go back to you’re an artist first. What kind of artist are you?
L: I am a large scale oil painter. An abstract large scale oil painter.
M: You used to do figurative work. What made you move away from that?
L: I felt that the body was somewhat limited. It was keeping me kind of in this box of self-portraiture and feminism. I think there is a struggle when working with the figure because there is this automatic assumption of what you are dealing with. Even though my work is still very bodily and very physical, I think moving away from the figure removed those restrictions.
M: It’s funny you say you found it limited to paint figures and you are a big fan of [Philip] Guston. He did the opposite. He went from abstract to more figurative.
L: I think that Guston was extremely political in what he was trying to accomplish and used specific signifiers to relay his message. But I am specifically a big fan of how Guston applies paint. He is a master at paint application.
M: Have you seen Philip Guston’s documentary “A Life Lived”?
L: I’ve seen it many of times. It’s incredible.
M: One section of the documentary he is talking about how he mixes his paints.
L: I like when Guston talks about being in the studio and how there’ll be a lot of people, art critics, other artists, dealers who visit throughout the day. And then everyone starts to leave and it’s just you and you hope that at some point you leave the studio as well and the painting is still being painted. I really relate to that process. Francis Bacon talks about a similar situation; curating chance. It’s kind of like you’re a medium for a higher power. It’s in those moments that the really mind blowing painting happens. I mean I can paint for days and nights and nothing special happens until I get really frustrated and consider throwing it out and somehow… I don’t know how to explain it but something happens and the painting just works. I really love Guston because he was so tapped into this huge question mark about painting. You don’t fully understand what it is but you shouldn’t have to understand it.
M: Can you talk about your process and methodology?
L: I only work on one painting at a time. I work on a piece until it’s “finished”. I usually try to get the canvas messy with 2-3 bright colors then I work from there. I can see shapes that need to be pulled out in the paint and that dictates what will happen. I kind of paint from the paint … If that makes any sense at all. I don’t really have images that I reference but I do have a collection of shapes that I’m attracted to that I think has an influence. I draw a lot but they are very separate from my paintings. They’re not “sketches”. They’re in conversation with each other but very separate. I guess I’m an intuitive painter in that way. Things just happen.
M: What artists are you looking at right now?
L: I just recently saw The Dead Toreador by Manet at the National Art Gallery in DC for the first time. It’s my favourite painting. It’s mind blowing. So I will probably be thinking about Manet again not like I ever really stopped thinking about him, haha. It really is the best thing I’ve ever seen, hands down. Best painting of all time. It’s not that large. I thought it would be much bigger. It was part of a larger painting but he cropped it. Fuck, it’s so perfect. Manet is such a genius. I saw Philippe Parreno’s work in Mexico city and he’s left a mark. He creates these really beautiful installations that you want to live in. They’re experiences which are very dramatic but at the same time soothing. I saw Terry Winters’ show at the Drawing Centre in New York. Insanely beautiful drawings, timeless.
M: Let’s go back to scale. First thing you said was that you are a large scale painter. Why?
L: I say I do large scale paintings because I don’t think I’m comfortable with my smaller work yet. My large scale paintings are much more physical because my full body is needed to make these huge paintings. It’s very performative and I really enjoy it because I am a very physical person. They’re 6 feet by 5 feet so it engulfs the average human body. You get involved with it. Whereas, the size of the small scale, 13x12 which is the size of your head. It’s more psychological. I like the power of a small piece on a big wall. Maybe even across from a large painting. How can a small piece command as much power as a large scale painting? I’ve worked so big for so long, it’s all very new to me.
M: It is kind of like when people whisper, people pay attention a little bit more. It is similar to small scale work.
L: Yeah, it is so much more intimate in a different way. And I’m not used to being so delicate with painting which I think is necessary to a certain degree with smaller scale work. I work very small when I draw. But I mean they aren’t comparable.
M: What is your relationship with painting as opposed to drawing?
L: The material dictates everything. Painting, you’re working with oil paint which kind of has a life of its own. There are layers and the application of paint goes quickly. The painting changes fast. Whereas, drawing for me is about one mark on one page and that takes a lot of thought and time to figure out if you’re going to add a second one. It’s just different.
M: Do you title your paintings?
M: Why is that?
L: I’m not a writer, I’m a painter. I don’t communicate with words, I communicate with paint. I have a frustration with this demand for painters to write about their work.
M: Art should speak for itself.
L: Titles are so…
M: They become leading questions.
L: Exactly. They become so definite in concept. One thing I am interested in doing is putting something out there that creates an experience. Not a specific experience. People can pull what they want from it. Without me directing them. They can have their own communication with the painting. I used to title my figurative paintings because they were personal and they contained a narrative about my own specific experience. Now it doesn’t seem accurate to title them.
M: I have a final big question. How would you define abstract painting?
L: I think most painting is abstract to a certain degree. Technically you’re abstracting from reality. I use to have this huge opinion when it came to school when people would automatically turn to abstraction without learning or attempting realism. It’s really important to do that first before jumping right into it.
M: Some people do not understand that good abstract painting takes a lot of work. It is not about slapping on paint.
L: Some would argue that it’s more difficult than making representational work. I find it challenging to work from “nothing”. Then again living with the shadow of referencial material can be tough to. They both have their challenges. Abstract art sometimes gets the shit end of the deal where people can be less impressed when they don’t fully understand the challenges that come with it.
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You can spot Tess Martens performing with all her heart during karaoke night because she has to compensate for her singing voice or cracking jokes at a music open mic night. She is a performance artist and painter that exploits her vulnerabilities and humour. When she is not doing art, she is working with seniors. She recently received her Masters of Fine Art at the University of Waterloo. She now resides in Waterloo, Ontario. Follow Tess on Instagram.