Discussion Transcribed by Leslie Holt
Editor’s Introduction: what follows is a transcript of an artist talk held at the 39th Street Gallery in Brentwood, MD on June 9, 2016 to discuss Leslie Holt’s ‘Unspeakable’ series.
- The exhibition is on view at the 39th Street Gallery, located at 3901 Rhode Island Ave. in Brentwood, MD, through June 30. For more information call 202-487-8458.
June 9, 2016
Discussion between Andrea Pollan, Founder and Owner of Curator’s Office and Leslie Holt, the artist.
Andrea Pollan. What brought you from that (Hello masterpiece series) to this subject matter Unspeakable…I know you did other work along the way…
Leslie Holt. I get asked that a lot and I don’t quite know what the answer is…but I think it has a lot to do with moving here. I moved here four years ago after having been away from my home town of Bethesda for a long time – “Bethesda girls!” (laughter).
AP. I don’t know if I want to be identified that way (laughter).
LH. I know, I’m very closeted about being from Bethesda! (laughter) So umm. It was really about wanting to make a deliberate break from the Hello Masterpiece series. As pleasurable and fun and interesting as it was – I worked on it for almost ten years and that felt like a really long time. And the way it was successful in the market It felt like I had to keep going and cranking and cranking… almost like a little factory – mass production – I made them really fast – and it was great. But when I moved back here it was a big transition in my life. And It was a lot about coming to terms with my aging parents back here and also very much wanting to directly make work that didn’t have the veil of irony or satire – that kind of layer of meaning. But really look honestly at something that was kind of excruciating and really sit with it. And that’s where the embroidery came in as well because it’s really meditative. I feel like the whole thing is about slowing myself down.
AP. That surprises me because I think of some of your little paintings like Georges Seurat must have taken outrageous amounts of time.
LH. Sure sure sure. It depends on the artist…
AP. In between I know you did a body of work about end of birthday parties and candies, also doing work about depression, images of brain scans, feminist textbooks from the seventies in particular when the feminist movement really started and everyone was looking for answers in the sort of “soft pulp” kind of –
LH. self-help books
AP. Self-help books yes… you did a whole body of work about that… that included embroidery. Is that…?
LH. Yeah yeah yeah. I think the self-help books were really the jump into the embroidery. Although I dabbled with it in grad school. That seems to lend itself to include stitched stuff in traditionally feminine oriented subject matter. I guess the thing I would say about the transition from Hello Masterpiece to this – it was a pretty extreme pivot to pretty somber, dark subject matter. It was very deliberate and because it’s so new I don’t really know how it’s going to shake out as the work progresses… because you know, I still love humor, I love humor, satire, all of that stuff…but moving here almost slammed me into this or up against this sort of grief that I wanted to work out in my work
AP. So, clearly you’re you are dealing with your parents, but you moved to Washington – a pretty hardcore, workaholic, deadly serious city, I find. I come back to Washington and everybody’s so stressed because there are super intense issues at stake here, in the government predominantly, and then you get to drawn to this particular painting about war – anti-war.
And additionally, you are also working with – I can’t help but bring this up –stained, color field canvasses. Is that a deliberate thing – a nod to Washington- or something that come about organically?
LH. It really -I swear- came about organically (laughter)… but as much as that’s possible. You know, I know art history… you know what I mean… there’s nothing pure, but I guess it for me it was a subconscious connection of living here. It wasn’t a deliberate part of my meaning, but I am very aware of it.
AP. I just realized not everyone might be aware of the Washington Color School if you didn’t grow up here or come of age as an artist here…It was Washington’s biggest moment art historically which predominantly worked with stained canvas, the unprimed canvas – there are tweaks on that of course – but think Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Howard Maring, so that’s… every time we say color stains we can’t help but make that mental jump. That’s why I brought that question up.
I was thinking about how you titled this show – Unspeakable – and obviously we’re here speaking about Unspeakable…but you’re using a visual language. It’s is a very elliptical language. But I know what you’re attempting to do is address certain horrors. Can you talk about how you choose to express that? You have a very clear vocabulary here. And a very clear – acrylic, stitchery, unprimed canvas… can you talk about how you got to that – for lack of a better word – phoneme or word – to create this visual language to address this topic?
LH. Mm Hmm. Let’s start with the ones in the corner over there (images 1,2,3)– the ones with no paint on them – that’s how the series began – so I guess I feel that this particular series started with stitching and I’m also very aware of the loaded nature of stitching in the fine art context … I enjoy that, but it was also very much about the meditative process, the grieving process…
AP. When you say grieving – and I apologize if I am probing into private territory –
LH. No, I brought it up!
AP. Tell me about that connection for you.
LH. Well on the literal side – the clumps of lines that are sort of hovering above the figures are taken from patterns from my mother’s hair… I’ve been doing a lot of care taking of her and washing her hair and getting a lot of clumps of her hair – they’re very interesting forms – and very intensely loaded things. I took her hair and scan them in and that’s where the pattern comes from. In that way they are sort of my response to this moment, this loss, and her demise I guess. That’s where the grief comes in for me. And to juxtapose them with the Guernica figures sort of made sense – here’s where the unspeakable part comes in (laugh) – it made sense as a sort of point/counter point. It’s a kind of grief that’s about outrage and violence I guess. And stitching that, in contrast, is a very slow and meditative process. (9:15)
AP. But that’s a very specific anti-war painting that’s emblematic of – the fact that you’re using an anti-war painting – as opposed to other depictions of grief – is very meaningful to me. I know most of this show is using the Guernica sketches. I know you’ve done some others – van Gogh’s Sorrow, Kathe Kollwitz’s .. but Guernica… What compels you to go there? it’s such a loaded image.
LH. Right. It is really loaded and I think – a couple of things – part of me wanted to make a deliberate connection between personal loss and more global and political loss – the parallels between them. Part of it also is a personal connection to that painting and it being one of the best paintings that I know of to portray these raw emotions, that depicts something for which there are no words, that points to that moment in our history is what I am talking about…
AP. Well, unfortunately we are always there – people are starving, ISIS, and our own streets, racism, police interaction – we are still dealing with the unspeakable. It becomes a sort of totemic subject matter.
AP. And I think the stains for me are kind of thought bubbles. Something that is so traumatic that you can’t give voice to it when you’re going through it. And I know that’s a little bit too illustrative and too literal, but I can’t help but think of it that way. As well as the dark color of the stitching – like blood, dried blood. I don’t know if that was a deliberate decision.
LH. It was something I thought of after I picked that color. I knew I didn’t want it to be black, and I was really attracted to that color. It’s the closest to alizarin crimson in paint color, but I didn’t think about blood at that point. I was making more formal decisions as a painter.
AP. A couple of times I was a little surprised when you sent me the jpegs because some of the colors are sort of floral, candy colored, luminous type … I’m curious about your palette choices. Were you very deliberate about each one… clearly you had to make choices about each particular piece
LH. Yeah yeah, although there’s a lot of failed attempts involved, or things that just don’t make the cut. I spend a lot of time staining a lot of canvas… and usually I have a color scheme of the day or couple of days… and then I see what speaks to me and what figurative element might go with that … so yeah, the color for me is about playing with a little bit of a sense of disconnect sometimes. With the darkness of the subject matter. And to me that’s part of the strength of some of the images. Because of – like you said the sort of candy colors and overly bright – inappropriate? – I don’t know if that’s the word – but doesn’t quite match the tone of what the figure is doing, and I like that disconnect …
AP. So talking about disconnect… there’s also the control of the stitchery and how you stitch this image very carefully and obviously a lack of control when you’re staining the canvas… can you talk a little about that?
LH. Yeah. That’s a lot of the appeal of this body of work with the paint and the stitching. There’s elements of control in the painting part and there’s elements of lack of control in the stitching – partly because I don’t exactly know what I am doing with embroidery (laugh), and I like that rawer stitch. People who actually know embroidery might look at my work and say “you might want to make your stitches the same size,” you know what I mean… it’s not “official” embroidery.
AP. And you call these paintings. You don’t call them –
LH. I do call them paintings – yeah. I’m fighting with whatever it is about being in the embroidery crafty realm – I’m not quite sure where I fit into that whole world. I don’t see myself as using embroidery in a traditional way but –
AP. But you have deliberately – completely – selected female images.
LH. They are all female except for the warrior in that image back there (image 3).
AP. Ok – why? (laughter)
LH. that’s what I find most disturbing and compelling about these preparatory sketches – is the sort of grotesque nature Picasso depicted these women in their raw states of grief and horror. I’m sort of attracted and repulsed by it at the same time. Some of them literally look like monsters, dragons or monsters… like the one on the end there (image 4). There’s certainly – for most of them – nothing traditionally female about them. I love that in a way, but of course that’s really loaded with what we know of Picasso and his real life treatment of women, blah blah blah… I like that it has that layer to it.
AP I’m just going to ask you about – not only these works – but your history of appropriation. And appropriation as a strategy… It’s only become known as appropriation in the postmodern era. And yet it’s a really hard dance, especially when you take on major canonic artworks like this. How do you deal with that internally as an artist? Taking on this subject matter. How do you keep your voice sustained or blend in taking from other originals?
LH. I think it’s really tricky. I never intended to do it. It was really something I fell into and then fell in love with as I started to really connect with these masterpieces. And I fell in love with the layers of meaning that it added to the work, and literally some of the technical challenges it brought up t trying to mimic other artists’ work … and what Guernica really did to me… it really stuck with me… I put Hello Kitty in Guernica probably 5 times (laughter) … and so I really reconnected with that painting in a deep way even though what I was doing was satire. So it’s really meaningful to me … I connect with them really really deeply. And where I am in it I hope comes through in that connection. I feel like stitching this imagery is sort of like taking care of these figures – I think about my connection to them I guess –
AP. You have a lot of negative space in these images
LH. Yeah. The stitching makes a lot of time for meditation and having space and lots of empty space kind of counter acts the really loaded nature of these figures. In some pieces the painted space sort of overwhelms the figure… and I like that they can be sort of ambiguous, especially that one on the end (image 5) and this one behind you(image 6), the figures seem to be in some sort of action and seem to be emerging from ambiguous spaces.
AP. Well something like this (image 6) where there’s a void that the figure is caught in – it’s the void that seems to overwhelm… not only the paint but the void around it. You play with that a lot, particularly in these large ones where it is quite overwhelming – not only the paint but the void around it – that gives it that extra sense of loneliness and being isolated in a moment of horror.
I know that also you have been very active in your advocacy for mental health issues. And having very openly talked about it – yourself and your family. That is something I also put in that realm of the unspeakable – what happens – the ravages of what happens when mental health is not treated or acknowledged broadly, I can’t help but – knowing you – put these works in that greater framework. I don’t know if maybe I’m reading too much into your work but…
LH. No, I’m glad you said that. I haven’t thought of that really directly in a while but it is really important to me and almost feels like that is the origin of this. To put the raw emotion, whether it’s about mental illness literally – its’ not – but it’s sort of – I keep coming back to the word inappropriate for some reason – the stuff we don’t usually see in the public realm, the polite public realm, but that most people have experienced in their lives. It’s really important to me.
AP. These are individual figures for the most part – some have a dead child. But for the most part individual figures caught in their own maelstrom or darkness or isolation … You could have crowded it with figures but you chose not to. For some reason that for me brought it to the issue of your advocacy for mental health issues…
LH. Yeah. I’m glad you see that. I wonder if people who don’t know that about me see that, because I certainly hint at that with things I say about the work
AP. The darkness and isolation speak to that.
I know you work on several bodies of work at the same time sometimes. So I don’t know if you’re working on something concurrently with this. I know this is still fairly new for you. Do you know what’s next or what’s going on in the studio now?
LH. Yeah, more of this and pushing it to the next steps … of course I’m not totally sure what those are. The big ones are the latest ones and that’s the direction I’m going toward – more space and I also have been working on – speaking of mental illness – images of the brain – the embroidered images of fmri’s of the brain. My original idea for this show was to show that body of work with this body of work, but I didn’t like it, and I also felt like I wanted to go into one line of work… But that’s somewhere in the mix.
AP. You’re continuing on with the more art historic –
LH. Yes. Beyond Picasso! (laugh). Well and frankly I’m also looking at a lot at this book of depiction of historical images of insanity, and so a different kind of appropriation, literally like medieval figures with animals coming out of their mouths –
AP. Gotcha, like demon possession. You and Jerry Salz! (laughter)
I’d like to open this up to a more dialogue format. Feel free to jump in with questions
Audience Member (unintelligible)… What comes first – the embroidery or the stains?
LH. Usually the stains. But when I’m feeling really gutsy, some paint comes after that… so the image from the postcard (image 7) has paint after the stains – umm – paint after the sewing, actually the left 3 ones do. (image 7, 4, 8) Yeah, those are the only ones that do. Umm, yeah it’s really wrenching for me because as you can imagine it takes a really long time to sew these figures, but frankly it wasn’t going to work the other way. It’s one of those decisions where you just have to sort of go for it
AM. These are the ones where you put the paint on after?
LH. Yeah so here’s the thing – here’s what happened… the one from the postcard image started as the pink stain and the figure. And it wasn’t working. So it was about taking a risk to make it work or ruining it – because those are the only two choices (laughter)
AM. I think those are your strongest pieces. I mean you’re talking about anguish and war… there’s something really tight about the other work. Whereas these – there’s a lot more paint, I don’t know, there’s a lot more on it… the other ones, even though they’re stained there’s something very controlled about it. I see they are about war, but that doesn’t really interest me as much as them being about pain.
AM. Do you see these as self-portraits or portraits of people you know who are suffering? And is there thought about the selection of color in regards to that? Does your choice of color maybe connect with how you see this person you are looking at … maybe a representation of them or maybe a self-portrait?
LH. Hmm. That’s interesting. No, not at all. But that’s really interesting.
AM. Something that really struck me about when you spoke about care taking for your parents and then you said something about stitching of the figures as you were taking care of the figures… maybe there’s not a direct representation but there’s something there.
LH. Yeah, it’s not as though they are a specific person, but there’s definitely a connection – lost that thought – but yeah that’s interesting.
AM. Well the hair pieces (image 1,2, 3) – those are incredible, those are really interesting – after you spoke about it too. It’s really evocative. The forms are really interesting. They just feel more personal.
AP. They feel like sketches which are often the preparation for the more finished work. They can feel more immediate…
AM. You kind of spoke about fear in the process, but how much does fear as subject play into this work?
LH. Well, I guess to the extent that fear is connected to horror – certainly…and the overarching concept of vulnerability and fragility
AP. The paintings are certainly mostly about aftermath. Something just happened. It just happened to me and now I’m having to deal with this. You have the diagnosis – “oh my god” – or your house just blew up – “oh my god.” So I guess there’s always that continuation of fear.
AM. (unintelligible)… There’s a fear of aging, especially by young people… so I think fear is the subject.
LH. Yeah right, to a certain extent.
AM. Hearing you talk; we get such a handle into the work. It’s just totally significant to me being here with the work. But I think the color for me – without hearing about the work – the color for me brings about hope, you know, that’s kind of the juxtaposition… “It’s all going to be okay.” … I also see that and relate to that very specifically… (unintelligible)
AP. I’ve known Leslie now for a while and I’ve always known- we were talking about inappropriateness – there’s always a naughty streak in all of Leslie’s work, so…I’m finding it in this. And that’s exactly where I see her voice in the work. But I’ve known her for 7 or 8 years, so I have that luxury…You’re picking up on that in an odd way.
AM. Just a couple of observations. It’s interesting when I see the pinks and yellows and I think back to the Hello Kitty but I also see them as being very toxic, I mean they’re not really sweet – they’re bright – but especially these ones, there’s a kind of toxicity that we associate with them. To me, I immediately think about the horrors of radiation, things like that. But the thing I am finding most striking about all of these is that – you titled it Unspeakable, I hadn’t really thought about mental health in conjunction with these, but the way the paint is functioning is actually the first time I think I’ve ever seen paint actually embodying something. Like I look at these and I think they embody a scream… they embody emotions and the paint is very concrete… and in a way it almost acts as all these different variations on emotions. And I really love that aspect of the work. I really love that aspect of the work… I’m seeing these different shapes and the different colors, and they literally function as this kind of manifestation of the emotion of the scream. I find them very powerful in that regard, and it makes me think about paint in a different way.
AP. I really like that they’re not literal at all. The jumping off point is war, but other subject matter comes to mind. They are like these open ended thought bubbles. In a way they’re concrete forms – as an accident to the extents there are accidents. Accidents in art become other kind of gratuitous trajectories… (unintelligible)
AM. I was trying not to say anything because we get to talk about these in the studio all the time. But on the heels of what you were saying…one of the things I most connect with about this work is that the paint becomes this utterance that is really an attempt at an utterance and I feel that it’s not really the thing yet, but it’s trying to be… and that’s palpable to me. In these as well. Just say something. It may not be the thing but you have to get something out.
AM. Kind of in a similar thread… We’ve talked a little bit before about implied meaning with color. And how when viewers look at the work, they’ve made associations based on their working knowledge or response to yellow or black or muddy colors or bright colors … can you just talk a bit about, so your process in general – you begin with painting the stains and then you make a calculated choice about which image is going to be positioned with it. Do you have these working meanings behind color choices, or is it more about looking at what shape, density of paint, would work best with the expression. Does that make sense?
LH. Mmhmm Yes. I wish I had a good answer. I don’t think I have a good answer.
AM. Yeah, I couldn’t remember exactly where you were on that.
LH. Yeah, I remember you asked me something very similar in that crit
LH. No, it’s a great question because it’s still a question! I think that’s probably a reflection of the work being pretty new.
AM. So maybe it’s just operating subconsciously-
LH. Mm hmm. I hate to use that word “subconsciously” – It feels almost like “accident,”
AM. Or intuitive –
LH. Yeah. They’re all lousy words (laughter). But I think… At the very least it’s not the thing that’s brought to the front of my intention. I’m just kind of going… and letting myself do that.
AP. I was at an artist’s studio last night and there was a phrase on the wall – “You will never arrive, because once you arrive that’s it, it’s over.” That’s such a good metaphor about the whole creative process… never really having that final answer…
LH. And I guess compared to the Hello Masterpiece work where it was very calculated, you know, I knew what was going to happen. I didn’t exactly know how it was going to turn out … but I knew I’m going to put Hello Kitty here and the painting needs to look as much like this as possible. This is completely not that… again, it’s part of that dramatic pivot that I’m trying to make.
AM. After Margaret’s comment about how the stain is trying to be like an utterance, like it’s the beginning of something. I suddenly had this new thought about these which was like with the space between the figure and the utterance, or the relationship of the figure and the stain… it’s almost like they’re not connected to their emotion or not connected to their grief or they’re in different states… Like the one on the end (image 4) it’s like the emotion – she’s not aware of it because it’s like coming up from behind her … So that’s really cool because it makes me think of what that means – like if you’re processing your emotions or you’re unaware of them – like the relationship of the degree of horror and emotion and the subject. That was a fun new thing for me. Is that something you think about?
LH. I’ve never heard it articulated in quite that way. Could you write that down? (laughter) Seriously I wish I was recording this. But yeah, I thought of this one right here (image 9 )when you said that – it’s kind of this out of body, unreal experience – that’s something that devastation can bring…
AM. But to follow up on what you commented on. If they are all disconnected from their emotional states – that second one from the end (image 8)– it’s almost like she was drowned in it.
LH. Yeah I love thinking about it that way.
AM. Were there any where the figure was above or next to or they all underneath?
LH. So far they’ve all been underneath… (laughter)
AP. A lot of the figures are looking up
LH. Yeah, a lot of them are looking up and they’ve got these tongues sticking out. You know it’s funny – the one figure in Guernica, the light bearer, the one sticking her head out the window and she’s holding a candle… I made one of those (hair pieces) with that figure. Obviously she couldn’t be on the bottom… so I put her on top and I hated it. I couldn’t get it to work.
AM I had a question about these as finished objects. How do you imagine these being in someone’s living space, or even in your studio as you’re working on them, as opposed to the Hello Masterpiece series-
LH. Because of?
AM. The subject matter?
AP. I can answer as a gallerist. I can say that some people love looking at difficult subject matter. Unfortunately, they are very few and far between… Most artists I know are always trying to push the boundaries of difficult subject matter. A lot of people prefer to have pretty things in their environment. And yet, the challenging pieces that I have in my home are always endless sources of conversations. And I’m always learning something new about the artwork or about them, so I think they can be a wonderful touchstone towards greater understanding of people.
LH. Well and it’s an interesting – it’s also a big pivot for me… because Hello Masterpiece, partly because of their size and relative affordability, sold well…
AM. I was more specifically thinking about all these push points to going down a path and if, having these all around you, if you will continue down this path, if you have these around you and they’re informing the rest of your decision making … I don’t know. There’s isn’t an answer to this question. (laughter)
AP. Are you asking about the trajectory of her work from here?
[Click to enlarge]AP. I don’t know that any artist can ever really answer that, unless they’re sort of story boarding something…but the trajectory of your work is call and response –
AM. I even think about you having the brain scans up while you work on this series. It’s interesting to think about the touch points…
LH. That was also partly a practical thing… I better get this show together. I can’t figure out how to bring these two bodies of work together so I better pick one.
AM. I was wondering about how what your concepts here about world conflict and concepts of mental health – how you may have seen these in the light of the ongoing climate disruption and how this is going to continue to mushroom out beyond here. How would you think about that and respond to it? Would it change your palette? I’m kind of curious about how you would even approach it.
LH. Yeah, well it’s another sort of outrage, right? Outrageous sadness, you know, that’s how most people feel about it. I love how Kate talked about the neon unsettling colors. If I were deliberately talking about climate change and thinking about color that way I think the neon could work with that. I think you could tie in many global atrocities into this way of working… does that answer your question?
AM. Well yes. Sort of. Basically my wife and I have a gallery back west of here – outside Minneapolis – and it’s one of the issues that’s very near and dear to me – my training is as a biologist – and it appears with climate destruction we are in a generation where the people living now are getting aware of what’s going to happen to every living thing on the planet. And I was just wondering how that might interest you from a motivational standpoint as an artist… and where it would lead you if you were take it as a broader topic and work on it. And if so, we’d like to talk to you about a show. (laughter)
LH. Ha! To be honest, it’s not my area of expertise or deep understanding and connection. As much as war and mental illness are. The answer is I have no idea how I would handle that. I care about it very much, but I also feel outside of that world.
AM. But the outrage goes with all of this stuff.
LH. Yes, I think in a general way – outrage, and loss, decimation, like the aftermath of Guernica are there…
AM. I was just thinking about the fact that all these figures are female, and that society seems to be so uncomfortable with female anger and that –
AP. We’re going to see a lot of it in the next few months! (laughter)
AM. I just wanted to make the observation that specifically choosing to represent females in these paintings is a really powerful thing.
AM. I’d like to throw a corollary into what I did say earlier… is even though I am married, happily, the idea of women ruling the world at this particular point – this appears now to be the time of the woman, particularly with Hilary coming on strong for the presidency but also the idea that the voice of women, this seems to be more of a time for women for what the future holds for the entire planet than ever before.
AP. Ok, enormous topic! (laughter). Actually I am researching for a show that’s called “Post Femme” which is depictions of women by men and women in the internet age. We’re not post black yet, but we have our first black president, We’re not post femme/ female power yet, but it’s all evolutionary, it’s all evolving, every generation takes its time, development… (unintelligible) But I do agree and I think Leslie has been in that camp, not being didactic, but she always playing with that subject matter which makes her compelling… But, if you want to give her a show, I won’t hold you back (laughter)…
Thank you everybody for coming! (applause)