whitehot | January 2012: An Interview with Lisa Adams
Lisa Adams: Paradise Notwithstanding
In this visually and intellectually compelling series, Paradise Notwithstanding, Los Angeles artist Lisa Adams explores the two contrasting themes of decay and possibility –while bringing into sharp focus the warring counterparts of the real and ideal. The paintings are populated with themes and iconography that clearly have great significance in the artist’s frame of reference. Her extensive travel and experience as an artist-in-residence in vastly different cultures and landscapes –Slovenia, Finland, Holland, Japan and Costa Rica - have clearly influenced her visual range, and are reflected here, adding depth and dimension to her paintings.
Sonderangebot (2011) is a space age still life. Playful twirling stems inhabit a cylindrical vase, which emerges from a cubist section in the middle ground. Showcased on a central wall of in the west gallery of CB1, the largest painting in the series is Paradise Notwithstanding, (2011). Realized with fluid dexterity, dynamic contrasting elements infuse this painting. A large black rectangle in the upper left offsets soft cloud shapes and an oval form, which emerges from the foreground. A sunflower, each leaf suggested, petals delineated to the edges, projects vertically upwards through the mostly abstract background and a suggestion of sky.
Megan Abrahams: Most of the paintings in Paradise Notwithstanding could easily be construed as two distinct images - two visions superimposed. If the backgrounds were isolated, they could stand alone as discreet abstract expressionist compositions, sometimes amorphous shapes blending into each other - or colorfield cousins with a sense of landscape. On top of these sensitively defined backgrounds are distinct representational images. Can you comment on this? Once you completed the backgrounds, were you ever tempted to stop there?
Lisa Adams: I painted abstractly for over a decade, building a visual lexicon of nonrepresentational images and moves. The best thing about having worked divorced from representation for so long, is that abstraction becomes the quintessential crash-course in formalism; color, composition, scale, that sort of thing. In many ways, working abstractly first, before introducing representational elements, makes a lot more sense but no one is taught that way. Through working abstractly, I found I could communicate ideas in the most sublime or hidden way. I became very fluent in the language of abstraction. After having worked for an extended time in abstraction, the visual vocabulary I had built began, quite naturally, to bump up against things that looked like things—simply put, the formal moves of abstraction started to look like recognizable images. I found myself at a crossroads. I could either force abstraction away from the edge of representation or I could allow myself to wander over to the other side and begin to include images that were recognizable. I chose the latter which started an entirely different practice for me. I lost all of my collectors and supporters and I no longer showed with artists who continued to work abstractly. I found myself in a whole different realm and very alone. Painting things realistically takes the development of a particular skill set and this took time. I now feel fluent in this language as well as that of abstraction and to toggle back and forth between the two realms seems very natural to me. The two worlds of abstraction and representation become co-mingled. Even when the background looks pretty nice it’s never enough for me to stop there. The backgrounds always seem like hosts ready for the cast to appear. The representational images come to me in these flashes, always as fragments. They are not dream images but more things I’ve seen somewhere and that could include something very incidental or something from the long ago past. For whatever reason those images pop up. I start with these fragments and begin to build a painting. I never know what the final work will look. I take my cues from these flashes.
Abrahams: As a painter, you have a distinct voice. A number of themes recur in your paintings: arcs, clouds, domes, and oval shapes. In your visual dialogue, why do these themes have special resonance for you? I was particularly fascinated by the beautifully detailed birds - dead and alive - in your paintings. What is it about birds, that is so important to you?
Adams: I am interested in the natural world and specifically in how humans interface with the natural world. I have certain images I love, one being these dark brooding skies and extreme weather in general. I have a strong attachment to images that evoke a pensive or even melancholic state. I find an interior richness in this state. Years ago I spent time on a tiny island in the North Sea of Holland called Schiermonnikoog. I immediately recognized this locale as a melancholic paradise. For me melancholy does not have the negative connotation it does for some people.The arc, domes and ovals are images that I arrived at in the years I painted abstractly. I found myself continuously using the ellipse as the ideal form of expression. The arc and dome come from the ellipse. I can say is that the ellipse is comforting to me, it’s an embracing form. Some have said it is a very female form, which I guess is true, but I tend to work divorced from thoughts about gender entirely. I found during the decade of abstraction that the ellipse is a highly mutable form, ultimately making it expressive and offering a shape that can be imbued with character. For example, knowing that the ellipse is formed by a major and a minor axis, depending on the relationship of those two elements you can produce a very different looking ellipse, a chubby one, and a skinny one, for lack of better terms. This fact also has a direct relationship to the perspective in the painting and allows me to confound the space or to introduce a quasi-architectural element within the painting. For example you can look through the arc into an imagined space. The birds appeared in my work for the first time in 1999 when I was on residency on a Nordic Island called Suomenlinna, which is part of an archipelago near the harbor of Helsinki. My studio was in a beautiful natural setting and I took my cues for the work I was producing from my immediate environment. As I began bird-watching, I was fascinated with the expressiveness of the different shapes and designs of birds. They are in themselves, a study in design. I loved the way certain birds look and found myself much more visually interested in the order of birds called passerine, which are basically perching birds and among those I was drawn to song birds. A few years ago I built a bird feeder and began feeding the birds everyday so I could watch them. What I learned astonished me. Though they appear quite sweet with their song and harmless in size, they are terribly aggressive and entirely homogeneous. It has been suggested that birds are symbolic and if I had to ascribe a metaphor to them in my work I would say they are a representation of freedom. However, and more importantly for me, it’s that their seemingly fragile, sweet nature belies their ferocity. One of the underlying themes in my work is that nothing is as it appears to be and the birds speak directly to that notion.
Abrahams: Whether intended or not, you have a flair for still life. Can you comment on the significance and symbolism of elements like flowers and vases, which figure in these paintings?
Adams: Again from the decade of abstraction, I think what you’re perceiving is my love of composition and the attention I give to that area of my paintings. Composition is at the heart of all still lifes and I would agree that much of my work is composed in that manner, almost as if the disparate elements have little in common except the artist’s action of placing them together. In some way this is the definition of a still life composition and the dynamic that come to bear from that imposed relationship. Part of that dynamic in my work is the interface between the natural world and the human-made world. The visual result for me is a world that combines elements of beauty and non-beauty. For example, the flowers are always used as elements of beauty despite the manner of painting. Sometimes they are smeared making the flowers look like they are blowing apart or the little puffball flowers are painted to look artificial. The vase operates simply as a human made structure. Sometimes the human-made elements represent the non-beauty aspect in my work, such as the abandon wayfarer signage, the tie-downs or the gauged initials in a tree but in the case of the vase or dome they are simply functional human-made elements.
Abrahamst: Can you tell me a little about your process? Except for one, you completed all these paintings last year. Did you have a clear concept of the content of the series from the outset, or did it evolve into something different from your original idea?
Adams: I never have a clear-cut idea about what an exhibition or any group of work will look like. I know that I am interested in the natural world and specifically in the interface between humans and the natural world, but I’m never sure how that will play out. Will that include a large degree of abstraction as an atmosphere for example or will there be a human made structure, real or imagined? I never ask myself these sorts of questions. All I can do is stay with the work and listen to the paintings, because I’ve learned the paintings know best. The worst times I have are if I become willful. I can introduce an image or a way of realizing an image and if the painting doesn’t want it there is no sense in fighting for it. I never know for sure what images will pop up in a painting. It’s a mysterious process, even to me.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief