March 2008, Lucy Stein Interview

 Lucy Stein, Cock Shaped Boy, 2007, oil on board, 21 x 16 in
 (53.3 x 40.6 cm), courtesy Gimpel Fils

Lucy Stein is an English artist whose work came to prominence via exhibitions produced with fellow artist Jo Robertson, as the duo Blood'n'Feathers, and for her own solo shows at galleries in London and New York, as well as Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum.

After studying at Glasgow School of Art, she attended the De Ateliers post-study institute in Amsterdam. Meanwhile Blood'n'feathers were shortlisted for the UK's Becks Futures prize in 2006, and the same year Stein herself won two awards in Holland for her work.

She is represented by Gimpel Fils (London), Broadway 1602 (New York), and Martin Van Zomeren (Amsterdam). She recently relocated to Berlin. The interview was conducted via email.

Tom Mason: You 'more or less accidentally' referred to your work as 'hysterical painting,' and subsequent articles focused on this apparent term. Having introduced it, do you stand by the term, and does it feel useful to the reception of your work?

Lucy Stein: This was a joking aside that I made during a tutorial with Dutch curator Jelle Bouwhuis in 2006 which seems to have taken on a life of it s own, at least in Holland. This was a very prolific period, I was still at de Ateliers, in the thick of the requisite meltdown and nurturing a great deal of psychodrama. I suppose I was playing up to a certain melodramatic side of my character that has since, thankfully, gone into remission. I stand behind this comment, in as much as it describes this body of work: gestural, hyperactive paintings of "psychotic girls in malevolent landscapes" as Neil Mulholland put it, way better than I ever have. Nowadays I like to play with these circumstances and harness this practice, instead of messily succumbing to the chaos. Jelle's subsequent very thoughtful article about hysterical painting is fascinating on the subject of hysteria in female art, and is a good description of my work at the time, but I don't think it is a label I want to be stuck with forever.

TM: You work in a strongly expressive style. Is Expressionism a key influence? If so, which particular artists and strands?

LS: On the whole I don’t tend to think about expressionism as a movement, just about the particular sort of paintings that I like. Some of my favourite paintings are here in Berlin: the yellow Emil Nolde in the Neu Nazionale makes me come over all funny, and the Cy Twombly’s in the Hamburger Bahnhof really led me into the deep end. These works were deeply moving to me when I did an exchange from Glasgow to UdK in 2003.

TM: Expressionism is seen as a predominantly male form of painting. Was there an awareness and desire to work simultaneously with the form and against the stereotype, (similar to 'women in rock' taking a male dominated form and showing that they can do it as well, if not better, than the guys)?

LS: I have some very conflicting feelings about this! These big brash holy ego paintings made by men these days tend to make me cringe. I always think instinctively– “that’s not a job for a man! Be humble! If you genuinely think you might be capable of reaching a pinnacle of human achievement, go and do something worthwhile, make films, write books, you can draw if you like, but don’t fucking paint, you moron.” Of course this doesn’t apply to the Tuymans and Sasnel style of working, one a day, cool palette, but I don’t really think about them that much, even though I really like Sasnel’s work, but I like it in the way I like Antonioni’s The Passenger and I think that is why you are meant to like it, right?...
 Anyway, having said all this, the recent Baselitz show at the RA in London completely blew my mind. What a MAN! His Pandemonium Manifesto has been an important text for me in the past, (particularly in my “hysterical” period.) He is just a really good artist and talented painter – the surfaces shimmer with lovely crust. When I was younger, the macho aspect was something I was interested in playing with – lots of cocks and stupid up yours gestures featured whilst I was getting this out of my system, but it is not something I think about much any longer. I don’t tend to think in terms of movements, or what movements I like or relate to, partly because I am a product of the times – flickering all over the place- but partly because of my character. I might love an album by Nick Cave and listen to it all the time, but it doesn’t mean I am going to listen to all the other Nick Cave albums or to his peers from the time of the album I like. It is fucking stupid, but I’d rather just listen to the same songs over and over again, obsessively. I tend to like “painter’s painters” but there are lots of “expressionist” painters I can’t stand. I would rather look at a Wyndham Lewis than half of the de Brukke section of the Neu Nationale. At the moment I would rather just look at and read Francis Stark.
 I’ve never really thought of expressionism as a macho thing or even a particularly male thing–that is just history and hype. I love Munch and I love him for being “in touch with his feminine side”! Tracey Emin is the archetype of contemporary expressionism. I’d prefer to describe myself as an existentialist with an eye for a good painting.

TM: Reading material on your work often talks about it's relation to feminism, or 'post-feminism,' so tying the work to gender issues. In any case, the works often utilize female characters and stereotypes, and obviously present a non-male view of the world. Do you feel grudging towards having the probability of being viewed in terms of gender, (e.g. as 'a female painter'), and respond to it (in a way a male artist usually does not)? Or it is it an inherent factor, challenge, and/or debate you're more than happy to enter into? Is it even an advantage at times?

LS: This is a hard question to face up to, as I have to acknowledge the (many) limitations of my character! I’m a Taurus, with a hint of subtlety coming via my Scorpio rising. I once said that I make work for my boyfriend’s ex girlfriends, and I was sort of joking but it is sort of true too…
 Nobody ever asks why Dostoevsky wrote only about men! (In a way I have more time for Tolstoy who really did try to write about women, and succeeded, so perhaps I do have a real problem with myself. I am completely awed by men who get into the minds of women like Daniel Clowes in Ghost World, or women who get into the mind of men, like Zadie Smith in On Beauty.) So, at this point I would rather not get bogged down in gender issues, but, I try to keep in mind that when I am middle aged and invisible I might have to reassess the situation.

 Lucy Stein, Gwoopie luv, 2007, oil on canvas,
 170 cm x 210 cm, courtesy GMVZ

TM: I'm wondering if there's a priority in your works? The paint use and handling, the imagery and ideas, the potential narrative to a viewer, combination of these, or other?

LS: The hierarchy exists in harmonious pandemonium. When ideas take over, my work tends to become dull and didactic, sort of mediocre like bad advertising. When the paint handling takes over it can be cool, but it can just become masturbatory. I think I work best with a reservoir of ideas and imagery at my disposal, but no specific plan as things are liable to change all the time. I am not trying to make narrative paintings but my figures are real characters. I am not into painting “everywoman.” I am not every woman.
 It is a tough job, finding this delicate equilibrium, coz after all that I also have to get that “presence” going. I’m pretty 1950s about it all.

TM: Prescription drug references have cropped up in many works. Do the works reflect or comment on states, imagery and viewpoints induced by these drugs, or the potential for the drugs to temporarily relieve the surrounding anxiety and claustrophobia the works often present?

LS: Definitely the latter. I don’t want to make fantasy “back to the womb” paintings, a la Matisse and his armchair. I am interested in these “ways out” for a lot of reasons. Firstly, I really love the names of these drugs, all the crackling X's, Z's etc., “the pharmaceutical bamboozle” as my father who is a neuro-physiologist described it. This modern relief from existential crisis fascinates me – just the word “Valium” is so comforting to me! (but then, so is Larium...) I am a synaesthesia “sufferer” and I made this “Valium” painting in 2004, and I really love it, but it wasn’t until last week that I realized that all the letters of valium in my head are represented in the right order in my painting! Subconsciously! Other people often respond positively to this work – Ceal Floyer said she wanted to own it, which always tickled me – so perhaps I really need to go deep into my synaesthesia. I am still waiting to be tested on by my Dad’s colleague, it’s exciting.
 So, like a lot of people, my toe dips itself into snap crackle pop psychedelic brain syndrome every now and again, with the odd hallucination and endless cycles of sleep paralysis (or “orgasms in hell” as they seem to me) so my fascination with the pharmaceutical bamboozle is very personal and there is a lot left to explore. But it ain’t Prozac Nation.

TM: 'Dreamlike' is an overused word, but comes to my mind. I feel the works are somehow indulgent, and to be indulged in. The colour-use combines moments of vividness with muddy and swamp-like vaguer areas. Figures strike dramatic poses, are caught in giddy motion, or seem to wade and stumble through swathes of paint and surface gloop as if sleepwalking. They evoke the treacle'y feel of a specific dream/nightmare scene just awoken from and recalled throughout the following day at odd occasions. Though your recent Gimpel Fils show in London talked about ways out of, or beyond the aforementioned drugs, extreme mental states and claustrophobia, the works remain 'dreamlike.' Are dreams; their imagery and logic, of interest, and of use to your work?

LS: It is funny you should say that, as I think I always try to fix my scenes and people within the realm of the real and imaginable, scale, space and colour wise at least. I suppose that these Orgasms in Hell, or visitations from the old hag, have probably taken their toll on the tone of things. Sleep paralysis is a strange and unpleasant experience and many nights are spent doing sleepy sloppy naked yoga trying to stretch the dark electricity juice out of my spinal cord. I haven t quite made a painting of this directly, but I might as well have done.

TM: Are you interested in other people's dreams / use of dreams, e.g. Jim Shaw's 'Dream Drawings,' or books such as 'My Education' by William Burroughs?

LS: I haven’t read it. I would like to, but I am off Burroughs at the minute. I can’t cope with how much he would have hated me! I am too proud. The Jim Shaw I will look into. In Amsterdam I made a series of works called But... other people’s dreams are so excruciatingly dull and that is how I really feel. (Although the one I had about giving birth to a stale pita bread was worth mentioning to a few close friends.)
 I am a Taurus remember. Very bound to the ground.

TM: In the Gimpel Fils show, you presented a number of drawings produced using your own 'some girls are bigger than others' method. This method involves working with the ink as it runs down the page, and so is a kind of action-drawing, presumably involving intuitive working, momentary decisions and chance results. Can you talk about this a little bit, and how it relates to your other work?

LS: This is the direction I am going in. I have to acknowledge and hone my decadent practice – there is about 200 euros of good quality paint under each tortured surface. All made in the vain 1:5 chance of that this one will turn out good first time around, yet knowing that 1:5 of these first time rounders seem insipid next to wild and willful ones. These SGABTOs (!!!!) drawings are quite strict and beautiful because I can do what I want around these elegant spindly lines. Here scale is interrupted but permissible because of this evocative arbitrary architecture, the figures are trying to fight their way out or fit in and it all seems to make sense but not in a crap way. They are part action drawings, in that the real form of the thing comes from the ink falling in an uncontrolled way, but are more to do with using my subconscious and skill to decide what should be responding to this. Visually they relate strongly to the paintings, order and chaos combined.

Lucy Stein, A Woman Of Taste Always Chooses A Man With A Broken Nose, 2007, pencil and ink on paper, 16.5 x 47.2 in (41.9 x 119.9 cm), courtesy Gimpel Fils 

TM: Betty Boop makes appearances in a number of works. Why her, and not other specific cartoon characters? (Any plans to use Lisa Simpson?)

LS: Betty looks and is funny – like Marilyn. I can relate to her wide-eyed engagement with a world that is absurdly pulsating around her. I am not interested in her delicious proportions, so much as her glistening eyes. In my one painting of her she is mimicking the girl next to her, as though she has just landed on planet normalcy. I like that. (I would more likely paint or draw Maggie cos of her rhythmic sucking, but it ain’t gonna’ happen! I’ll leave the cartoon characters to the inimitable Joyce Pensato for now.)

TM: When I first saw your works I was reminded somewhat of Rita Ackermann. Were you aware of her as you started to develop your styles and motifs as a painter?

LS: Rita Ackermann is a great draughtswoman and a like-minded soul. She is way more fashionable than I could ever be arsed to be and way cooler. She is probably more connected with Jo, them both being naturally hip, like Basquiat! I’ve read that during that period, when I was 14, she was ahead of her time, (and thus led in the gush of second rate fantasy cutesy stuff, ten years later) but I think she was something much more interesting than that – totally out of sync with the 90’s yet getting away with it! Back to the gender issue – I have heard from people that they find her work too girly, but I see a lot of similarities between her and Kai Althoff and I have never heard him called too boyish, it is just accepted, never a criticism. I love Kai Althof’s work too, of course.
 I was dead happy to be in Jo and Byron Coley’s show Hot for Teacher with Rita Ackermann last year. I really respect her obsessiveness and I love her work, but our attitudes to painting are fairly different I would say.

TM: Your nomination for the 2006 Becks prize was for work produce, as Blood‘n’feathers, with Jo Robertson. Since then you've worked solo. Do you miss paintings produced in collaboration? Did this collaborative period inform your more recent work?

LS: Blood’n’feathers was a shambolic time, but certainly productive, we can both still feed off some of the heightened emotion and imagery from then (and it is not necessarily over yet). We were very prolific, we were making each other “hysterical”, and we recorded all sorts of weird shit together, me reading my diaries, Jo singing and strumming. Sometimes we performed in public but most of our best work together lived and died in the bedroom, or on the pavements.
 Jo is an exceptional character, so talented, so confrontational, sometimes so narcissistic, other times so selfless, occasionally deranged and always very glamorous and beautiful – wow this sounds like an obituary, it’s not meant to. Our relationship is very, ahem, passionate and it's a miracle we even made it through the Godforsaken Becks Futures, which frankly was a bit of a bore – though I made some nice pals out of it, and Jens Hoffmann the then director of the ICA is an inspiring character. Our final output was a bit insipid and thinly spread, but by the time it came round we had somewhat lost momentum, plus we were not allowed to do what we wanted, and we didn’t know what we wanted. I spent too much time on Easyjet, and living in orange is not for me. I was frazzled.
 Everything that is reaching fruition for us now – Jo’ s sublime album on Textile records The Lighter, my book which is going to be called Don’t Be Mean, both of our work.. I would say that it is the culmination of stuff swirling around then. The best show we did together was at the Conforte Moderne in Poitiers. They really got us and suited our chaos.

TM: Can you give a summary of the Blood'n'Feathers 'philosophy'? Was this philosophy something momentary, or a creed you live by to this day?

(Alternatively- get in touch with your teenage desire, wear your heart on your sleeve and have a belly full of hot wind)
We live by martin creed to this day

 Lucy Stein, Mellow Crusty Yellows, 2007, 55 cm x 39 cm, cigarettes and oil on board, courtesy GMVZ

TM: Your figures have been referred to as 'child-women.' This term, and the figures themselves, often in baby-doll dresses, remind me of what was momentarily termed 'foxcore' (as something different to 'riot grrrl') bands of the 90s, primarily Babes in Toyland and Hole. Indeed Courtney Love was a key figure in the Blood’n’feathers ethos. Why this particular imagery, and why Courtney Love?

LS: Courtney Love always cut a much more fascinating figure to me than the right on riot grrrls, because of her feasting on glamour and voracious tragic megalomania combined with devastating wit. I was probably most drawn to her because she had been a fat girl with eating issues, and I was a fat girl rapidly getting thin with a good old teeny wit. I think she spoke to a lot of chubbers.
 Like with everything, as a teen, she spoke to me one on one and I didn’t really care about her scene, so the foxcore idea was not something I really bothered about much. I had a similar but much watered down experience with Hannah Wilke ten years later – this outsider feminist from the 1970s who was (according to Roberta Smith) “condemned for her dark haired good looks” and then of course, somewhat vindicated by documenting her decay and eventual death from breast cancer. That socked it to ‘em.
 Back to Courtney: The so-called kinderwhore look is just something I would be into, and would have fallen for regardless. Its my aesthetic, I have the face for it, I am constantly told I look like a doll. I like faded glamour and am completely clumsy and scruffy, so all my clothes get ripped, it’s just the way it is, just as my paintings are the way they are. Jo is similar, sometimes we both look like cartoon characters, but actually Jo is much tidier and more controlled in the way she works and cares for her property. We bonded over Courtney in the first place, but I do think that we chose to go on about her as a fuck you to the Glasgow scene. What is the worst thing you can do in the face of people who only reference The Fall and Throbbing Gristle?... for a scene where even pre-Control Joy Division are too mainstream to name check, (and name checking musicians doesn’t interest me much, by the way) yet a scene that is all about music... waffling on about some hateable Hollywood harridan is just too delightfully despicable for words. Of course, nobody gave a shit, officially... and it was very immature. It also came from a very real place, as we both love her lyrics and spectre.

TM: Do you feel you work relates to such artists as Lucy Mckenzie and Pauline Olowska? They work collaboratively (as you have in Blood’n'feathers), Mckenzie also uses comic references, there is the 'child-women' imagery, sporting issues and motifs, etc.

LM: Lucy and Paulina are like the big girls I used to watch smoking behind the ferry centre car park on the way to school. My twelve year old heart would skip ten beats with the thrill of their sophistication, as I tried to pretend that I was not watching them! I suppose that is the vibe that they give off, and it really works.
 Their women are best foot forward and mine are languishing in the shadows. Our practices are diametrically opposed too.

TM: I remember visiting art schools before applications and the smell of the painting studios always seemed kind of romantic, potentially sophisticated, a huge step up and away from my boring small town life. Are paint fumes as effective as other stimulants? Did you always paint? Any sculpture, artist videos, conceptual pieces produced while at art school?

I lost a lot of brain cells last year, living in my studio and being a complete slob. You can ask my boyfriend if it was romantic or not. At least you get a good night’s sleep, knocked out for twelve hours... Like I said, I can be very 1950's about it all.
 I made some films at art school, one was of my mate, a very pretty girl, doing a poo. It was a super8 film. I made lots of sculptures with glacier cherries and hair – I still use a lot of my own hair in my paintings to give texture, it's an extraordinary look that I love, coagulated with good quality oil paint and varnish and sometimes fag butts. Really beautiful and strange. I made lots of blown eggs, broken and painted with the Wedgewood pattern and filled them with my hair. I experimented with a lot of mediums in art school but it always came down to texture and I always painted and drew throughout. My first BIG painting was a “pin the nipple on the topless cheerleader” which I painted in wood varnish with a stump of polystyrene on a wall at the chateaux’s inaugural sports and leisure party in Glasgow.

TM: You recently held a residency on the St. Barts island in the Caribbean. Any stories from this work-trip?

I got the accelerator and the brake mixed up and crashed the car into a wall. I peed in Steve Martin’s hot tub.
 The lizards were brilliant.

Lucy Stein, My Mojo, 2007, oil on canvas, 47.2 x 35.4 in
 (119.9 x 89.9 cm), courtesy of Broadway 1602

TM: You'll be working on a blog this year, called 'The Balsamic injection.' Can you shed more light on this project?

LS: This is a quote from Fanny Hill – what a great book! My brother and sister’s mother was actually called Fanny Hill – her parents thought it was funny – so it held an extra resonance for me when I finally read it. Anyway, as somebody who liked Jeremy Blake’s work, when he died I discovered The wit of the staircase his partner, Theresa Duncan’s blog, and was very excited. She had a genius wit.

TM: You recently relocated from Amsterdam to Berlin. Any thoughts on Berlin, objective and subjective?

LS: Hmm, thoughts on “the graveyard of ambition”! (The Sunday Times) I have many. I do not really want to get into it now, as it is such a hackneyed debate (Berlin V Hackney) but I can tell you that I am happy to have left Amsterdam.
I am glad to be stable and grown up and living in Berlin.

TM: Berlin attracts artists particularly due to it's cheap rents. Have you managed to get more for your money, in terms of a studio and it's location?

My studio is near Kottbusser Tor, and going down into that station is like entering the circles of hell. You are thrown deep into the thick of a Hieronymous Bosch painting, with the wonkies and walking wounded trying to catch your eye. Visually it is rich and hallucinatory and often a bit scary.
 Walking from the station down Skalitzerstrasse always makes me feel as though I’m in the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford, hanging out underneath the tyrannysaurus rex’s tail. I think I’m Nick Cave about to meet Susie Bick. This huge dinosaur spine plodding through Kreuzberg! I share the place with Aleana Egan, who is a beautiful maker of beautiful forms. I am hoping that her palette will rub off on me, as she finds the best colours. I am really getting off on going to the studio every day, its brilliant!

More of Lucy Stein's work can be seen at the following links:

Tom Mason

Tom Mason is an english artist, writer and musician
who currently divides his time between Berlin and
London. He has been coming to Berlin on and off since
a study exchange in 1998.

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