Lisa Rosenstein is a messy artist. No, not the kind of messy you’re thinking; she doesn’t have dust bunnies peeking out from under her worktable. Rather, Rosenstein’s pieces give voice to the chaotic complexity of emotions present in our modern world. While she mines her personal landscape to inform the shape of the work (“I think most art with soul comes from… the way an artist is sorting in their own life,” she tells me), the emotional resonance that you feel with finished product is all your own. I have watched Lisa’s style develop over the past several years, and when she recently relocated to the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast DC, I was anxious to sit down with her to discuss her work.
Despite the austere images you seen in the article, Rosenstein’s first formal foray into the art world was a watercolor class. Her instructor chastised her for spending more time on the preparatory drawings than actual brushstrokes, so she thought perhaps drawing was more her calling. While taking a class in drawing at the Washington Studio School, she came to the following two conclusions: strictly drawing didn’t satisfy all her creative wishes and she relished the more in-depth training that a collegiate art program could provide. So off to the Corcoran School of Art she went. Her college work put her on the more meditative path we see today.
Lisa’s world is monotone but definitely not monotonous. The reliance on a single color palette could easily become tedious, but Lisa relishes the subtle nuances that white provides. White tones created a balance – a blank slate if you will – that Lisa needed at an emotional moment in her life. Tossing aside the hues of the color spectrum introduced a thoughtful aspect to her work that she not only found cathartic, but felt encouraged to pursue even after emotions passed. Focusing on the color white forces other facets of the artwork to the fore, and viewers will begin to notice not just the pigment tones, but the detritus of life that subtly rises off the canvas. In Lisa’s world, a raised dot of acrylic or a snippet of newsprint scrunched on the canvas carries emotional weight that invites contemplation. Stand in front of a piece for a length of time, and it comes alive as light and shadows move across the canvas.
While Zen-like on the surface, her works also function as optical illusions – mirages in an art-world desert. Her use of white is coy – almost coquettish — for white is not the absence of color, but the presence of all colored wavelengths in equal portion. Our eyes see “white” because the surface of the work reflects color right back at us. For Rosenstein that law of physics serves as artistic metaphor. According to the Rosenstein, “I take in a lot and I reflect back but because of that reflective surface you can’t get all the way in. The viewer is able to really look and not be confused by everything that is coming in… They can look and notice the things that are coming out, wandering around in their own mind.” She shares just enough of her emotions to tug at our heartstrings, goading us into our own emotional responses then silently steps back into the woodwork while we have our own cathartic moment. Tricky indeed!
There was a time when she was satisfied with using canvas as a main backdrop for her emotions. That moment seems to be quickly passing. While her monotone routine has stuck, her materials are changing. The grasp of gravity has seemingly loosened and materials on the surface of the work have begun to migrate away from the plain of the canvas. Looking for more depth in her work, she has begun to describe these three-dimensional works as “sculptural paintings”. Her latest body of work forgoes the canvas altogether.
She began tinkering with the idea of her “net works” more than two years ago, but it was during an artist residency last year in Rocky Neck, MA that her idea progressed by leaps and bounds. Her latest pieces, one of which was displayed at last year’s DC Arts Center’s Decathlon competition, are intricate webs capturing the flotsam and jetsam of an emotional life. More spider web than net, these latest pieces are emotional odes imbued with personality. Freed from canvas, the pieces come alive with the subtle movement of air currents moving through them. Curious, I ask her why she felt the need to jump away from the canvas. “What’s a canvas,” she ponders, “[but something] that keeps you in boundaries. When you’re off the canvas, you can change shape… become more versatile.”
She speaks of them in almost biomorphic terms, describing to me how different materials create different “skins” of netting. In some cases the webbing has tensile strength; in others, it is almost shapeless until it wafts on a current of air. Bordering more on installation than pure sculpture, she has a vision of one day creating a series of these hangings that will give life to an entire gallery. “I want people to walk near them and feel them,” she explains. “I want it to be an interactive experience. I create a framework, but I don’t know what’s going to happen.” It becomes a balancing act: there is an intention on the part of the artist when creating the work that inevitably gives way to detachment upon its “release” into the gallery. In the end, “I can only be sure of my thoughts and feelings,” she states. She’ll have the opportunity to engage these quandaries next year when she returns to Massachusetts to participate in a group show at the Cape Ann Museum — her first appearance in a museum setting to boot!
Throughout our conversation, we keep revisiting the notion of intentionality. While random on the surface, her works are the culmination of intense moments of deliberate motion, whether it’s counting drops of paint or hand-wrapping frames with filament. This is important facet for understanding Rosenstein’s work (and perhaps her psyche); the process of creation is just as important as the final result. Indeed, it could be said that the process is the artistry. A whole art movement sprung up around this idea in the mid-1960’s and while Rosenstein is familiar with this movement, she feels that label discounts the emotional characteristics of her work. For her, the process is about emotion – about feeling, daydreaming, ruminating, yearning, laughing and perhaps tear-shedding – and then at the end, detachment.
The torch is passed from artist to viewer. It’s up to the viewer to investigate; to digest; to use the piece as a stepping stone to their own self-reflection. Rosenstein freely admits that her work doesn’t appeal to everyone. It requires patience to unravel, something that can be in short supply these days. But if you stand in front of it, gaze and just breathe, you might see something of yourself in that world of white.
Lisa Rosenstein’s work is currently on view in the group show “Chew It Up” at Hyattsville’s artDC gallery (through March 31st) and she’ll be participating in the Dupont Market Fair’s 2013 season. For more information, visit her website here.