Fear of Painting
Rachel Lowther, a British artist now based in New York, uses installations, sculpture, photography, video, sound, and drawings to stage conversations across mythological, autobiographical and cinematic registers. Her installations lie between total immersion environments and collections of parts; they hold out the promise of integration only to dissolve into pieces before our eyes. By alternately inciting and frustrating desire these installations trigger intricate associations...
AD: When did you start making art?
I don't really know the answer to that. This week I witnessed my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter's first real drawings. They are incredibly elegant, focused and obsessed with a simple form—a circle within another circle. This form appears not just as pencil on paper but in any other available drawing medium. It is clearly "art". I suspect that most of us made art at an early age. My earliest memory is of telling an eighteen-year-old that I would be an artist. I was nine and was absolutely clear about it. I don't remember the art I was making at the time, just the conviction. I remember her comment that it was a childish response and I would grow out of it.
You use a wide variety of media in your art. Why?
I love artists who don't seem to be confined to any particular style or medium, and who seem truly experimental—not that I regard myself as such an artist. I see the artist as someone on a journey into the unknown. Maybe something has to be overcome in order to uncover one's true self. I feel it's necessary to push and not just do what comes easily.
I started out drawn to the inhuman and idealized surface of plastic and its cruel, seamless finish (I've never been interested in talking about everyday forms of desire and commodification, though). I liked being confronted with a dumb, pure, unyielding form, like the arrest that happens when met by a being in a dream. I do struggle with the conflict between these materials and subject matter (resin and fiberglass, rubber as well...) but continue to be drawn to the alien, abstract quality finished fiberglass elicits. Cruelty seems to be a necessary component. Rubber has a more visceral toxicity.
Do you regard yourself as a sculptor or an installation artist? What would you call yourself?
What is the relationship between the drawings and the three-dimensional pieces that appear together in your installations?
That's hard to answer because I haven't been making drawings for a while. In the past they have been part of the same kind of mental landscape, or springing from the same set of ideas/references.
Could you talk more about your drawings?
I decided to use drawings as spell-casting, even though I know nothing whatsoever about spell casting. I felt that overwhelming emotions, painfully obsessive thinking and a sudden, shocking hyper-awareness of my femininity qualified me to coalesce the necessary forces onto paper! I can't even say what the spells were supposed to achieve but they had to possess a knowledge and employ a language that I felt held supernatural power, with all the details being highly specific and personal. I was concerned also with the kind of dual effect of the drawings—one part Van Eyck apocalyptic landscape, the other a bit like Arcimboldo (but not always as obvious) where details come together to form a mirage. I was also reading relativity theory (being a bit behind the curve but interested in mathematics) and curious about gravity and weightlessness.
How do animals figure in your work?
My most recurring nightmares are about being pursued by predatory animals. But I have always loved natural history programs and the way in which their narratives are so human: fending off the cold, finding shelter, food and a mate, fighting off enemies and rivals. I feel the relentless, animal force of nature flowing through me and think it's important to pay attention to it. Representations of animals embody, in my work, the contradictory aspects of immersion in nature—I surrender to morbid impulses but at the same time counter my (unfortunately) deep pessimism about human beings. I realize I am simultaneously describing humans as animals and in opposition to animals. Fundamentally, I see the animals I make as incredibly hopeful.
What has been your favorite place to show your work?
Undoubtedly not-for-profit spaces, first and foremost. My worst experiences in the art world have always been with commercial spaces. Art and commerce seems to be a fraught union. There was a dream show called "Death Race 2000" I took part in (and co-curated) at Threadwaxing Space in New York City. It was my favourite because it was full of art by artists I love and I got to place my work in a landscape created by everyone, a collective landscape.
How does healing happen for you as an artist? Do you intend to transmit healing to your viewers?
As a viewer I do, of course, experience healing when confronted with an inspiring work of art. Fundamentally one feels one is not alone and that in itself is healing, particularly when the work comes from across time. Healing happens in part via the intrinsically optimistic and absurd reality-opposing truth of its existence as a work of art. Beyond that it happens through intention and belief. I think art making is a profoundly hopeful act, of thought and attention and harnessing energy/meaning to propel out into the world. In my case it's related to the generally slow, labor-intensive way my work evolves. Sometimes making of a body of work holds painful/evil/obsessive forces at bay or even sheds or transforms them. Apart from my self, healing is a conscious aim in specific works, albeit in a somewhat unsophisticated way—like a prayer. I think much of what I make is for love.
What colors hold particular meaning for you?
I really love green, though more in my mind than when I actually see it painted onto things, or things made from it. It suggests beautiful, happy things—green grass in the sunshine—and also things that are malicious, poisonous and putrefying. It's interesting how the use of color has changed. When I go into children's shops I am shocked at how color is used to code boys as mini-men and girls as sweeties. I feel as though my childhood was filled with primary and strong colors. Gray, black and sombre colors seem to have infiltrated, for boys particularly.
How have your children affected your perception of the world?
They have made me approach more strangers and be friendlier because I want the world that greets them to be friendly. They have also reminded me of the filters I have in place, and have made me aware of the ugliness that I edit out of everyday perception. I see/hear/smell much more ugliness than before. They are forcing me to find a more nourishing way to live. I am also more aware of the wonder in everything, however small. And of course they brilliantly bring out the humor in the world.
I am also connected to the past in a more sensory way. I had a powerful memory of being born just after the birth of my daughters, for example. The only other time I had been in a hospital, except as a visitor, was when I was born. As I awoke from a hazy sleep after my daughter's birth, smelled the hospital smell and saw the huge red/pink glowing out-of-focus dots that were my fingers on the white sheet, I felt a deeply familiar bliss at being in a world with color and light and smell and general sensation. Regaining consciousness I became extremely confused as I discovered I was not a baby. I feel my mother (who died before they were born) holding me when I hold them.
Where have you felt most inspired and productive?
Probably when I'm at some kind of extreme, and when I am farthest away from a rational hold on the world.
What is the antidote to fear?
Life is short and refusing to grow is a waste.
Some of your pieces feel as though they were elements from a ritual. What does ritual mean to you?
I think ritual certainly offers a great deal of comfort and pleasure, the anticipation of ritual too, and I enjoy it. The paraphernalia of ritual is also a pleasure; an instance of objects being imbued with greater meaning, which definitely relates to sculpture. But rituals can become obsessive and restricting. Some of my sculptures come about through ritualized processes that I keep trying to lose, but enjoy, so much that I haven't been able to let them go. I feel the need to break habits and not become mannered. At the same time I want to pay attention to what pulls me; to not reject it out of hand.
What are some ideas you haven't yet actualized?
They have to be quite current to get actualized.
An inverted fountain where stones get sucked in and down as opposed to water expressing up and out.
A transparent cast of my body inside a transparent cast of my brother's body (each a different color).
'Stoned Theories of the Mind' drawings.
Paintings of impossible things I'd like to happen, and paintings in general. I thought I should go on a residency and take only paint, and be forced to produce something called "The Morbid Fear of Painting."
What is the role of the forbidden in your work?
This is such an interesting question and I'm struggling to answer it. The nature of the forbidden is that it is 'not there' so it is by definition hard to identify. And its absence from discourse makes it hard to find ways in which to talk about it. I think the idea of the forbidden is pertinent to my work—as something intimate and threatening. I suppose I think that any art worth making has to cross that terrain, to release forbidden objects. I have been watching "Inland Empire" and admire the way David Lynch so clearly depicts the irresistible erotic urge to one's own destruction as if, sometimes, everything around you is compelling it. It seems we have a natural inclination to equate the desire to go to dark places with death, which does drive me creatively.
Do you use yourself in your work? What is 'yourself' in the context of your work?
Even if you don't intend to it's naturally unavoidable. I am aware that I can, regrettably, only access my own puny consciousness, and am trying to find a language that is absolutely my own. I use my dreams, and my brother, or my relationship to my brother. I use ideas that fall on me, that are 'right' because they are fetishes for some rampant matrix of feelings and (often) aggressive urges I am experiencing. When I have used my body it has been to draw on it or stick to it or arrange it in such a way as to try and bring something inside it out. And I am considering using myself more directly again, simply because I'm available!