Sharon Lawless in her Manhattan studio.
In January 2019 we visited New York City-based artist Sharon Lawless in her East Village studio to talk about her work. In a wide-ranging three-part conversation we discuss her origins, influences and her path forward.
RHC: You were born in 1951 in Washington, DC and grew up in the DC suburbs of Virginia. Where did you attend art school?
Lawless: I received a BFA in 1974 from VCU in Richmond, VA, and an MFA in 1976 from the University of Cincinnati.
RHC: Are there specific experiences you can remember from your childhood that have a direct bearing on your work today?
Lawless: There's nothing specific -- I was always drawing and making "assemblages" out of discarded stuff, which actually pretty much describes my working method today, except that then I was filling jelly jars with colored water and acorns. Although there is one thing that came to mind recently: I was given a "painting kit" with instructions for painting a raw plaster statue of the Virgin Mary, for my seventh or eighth birthday. I procrastinated for weeks because I couldn't bring myself to make the first mark and violate that pristine white surface. Ultimately, she stayed in the box, unpainted. It was the first time I experienced the anxiety of facing the blank canvas, but not the last! And now the white plaster object has reappeared in my current work.
RHC: What aspects, ideas or compositionally, of your work, if any, can you identify in your earliest work that are still evident in your work today?
Lawless: I began as a painter, and in art school I was exposed for the first time to artists whose work referenced popular culture, like Duchamp and East and West Coast Pop artists; but I was most impressed by the Chicago-based Hairy Who and their nexus of Surrealism, comics and Art Brut. There was also a lot of experimentation with non-traditional materials and methods going on at the time. In graduate school I worked on unstretched, shaped canvas; and later on, collaged, painted and stained plywood.
Lawless: My work has gone through a lot of changes over the years, but it's almost always involved manipulating found imagery or materials.
RHC: ...and references...art historical references, in particular, abound in your work. Please explain how these references influence your thinking and which historical movements affect your work.
Lawless: I don't set out to make art historical references, although they do come up in the work. Part of the process is recognizing them and deciding how much they will inform the direction of the piece, along with the more intuitive decisions that seem to come out of nowhere. Some works refer directly to a particular artist -- Meret Oppenheim, for instance, or more obliquely Louise Nevelson -- but more often there are multiple, more subtle references, and sometimes they're color combinations I notice on the street. Some of my collages are influenced equally by early Renaissance portraits, Synthetic Cubism and Constructivist graphics, but I'm not sure how obvious that is to the viewer. The influences that come to mind are the ones I mentioned earlier -- Duchamp and Pop Art, and probably some that I can't even identify. Although I don't consider my work to be figurative, the Chicago Imagists were particularly influential for their synthesis of diverse sources.
RHC: Illusions play a large roll both visually and conceptually in your work...wht's the relationship between truth and fiction in your work and how does this relate/effect your choice of materials and compositional choices?
Lawless: This probably goes back to Surrealism as an early influence. I've also always been fascinated by the complicated relationship between truth and fiction, but too lazy to study philosophy, so it makes sense that my work would deal with it in some way. I'm not so much interested in creating illusion as exposing it, by setting up contradictory visual situations, such as a specific material juxtaposed with its convincing, or not-so-convincing, image.
RHC: Do you see a relationship between the ideas you are exploring conceptually and the materials you are using? Why collage over painting for example?
Lawless: I started making collages in the early 90s mainly out of necessity, while I was between studios and working in my very small apartment. At first I was using a system similar to the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse to make small pieces with two or three images. After moving into a larger space, I continued working in collage, but on a larger scale and with more varied source material. It made sense since I was interested in using found printed images to set up chance relationships, mainly forgoing esthetic or formal decisions in favor of a predetermined system. Since then, I've changed course and become more interested in the relationship between perception, form, and material. I'm also thinking more about color relationships. Collage allows for an element of complexity, in the materials I use and the way they're put together, that I don't think I could achieve with paint.
RHC: Most people don’t know that in 2011 you earned a certificate from the NewYork Botanical Garden in Landscape Design. Has one discipline affected the other, art vs landscape design, etc?
Lawless: I've always had a way to earn money in addition to my studio practice, so after leaving my day job as a diagnostic medical sonographer I wanted to do something different that would be more art-related. The program at NYBG is very thorough and covers everything from plant science to design to construction and surveying. There are also in-depth classes in architectural drafting and graphics, all drawn by hand. I think it was the drafting that sparked an interest in three-dimensional form and space, which had been largely absent in my own work for awhile. There's also a parallel between designing a space in a two-dimensional plan and making a collage -- in that you're considering concept, composition, color, materials, etc. And I've accumulated a pretty large collection of drafting templates and other tools that I've used as collage material. The ultimate goal is to make something that's interesting, engaging, maybe beautiful. The obvious difference is that design involves the client's needs and preferences, and the site and climate, whereas in the studio the decisions are all up to you.
RHC: Has architecture or architectural thinking had an effect on the interplay between space and your fascination with “the complicated interplay of truth and fiction?” I’m thinking of your collages of course…but more specifically your new 3-D sculptures and their references to public monuments
Lawless: Well, the first thing that comes to mind regarding the sculptures is the attempt to make reference to architecture or architectural elements, and the obvious shift in scale and material. Most of the discarded void fill and packaging that I use to cast the parts usually resembles an architectural element, or possibly a decorative detail, in form if not in function. The larger pieces are based on a kind of synthesis of architectural forms -- skyscrapers, columns, monuments, pictures of totem poles from my childhood -- with the addition of some incongruous material like fabric or fake fur. The smaller sculptures are more directly based on the architectural conventions specific to monuments. And they're an unavoidable comment on the traditionally "male" aspect of most monuments...so in that regard, they don't engage with space in a particularly dynamic way, being erect by definition. At this point, the collages have a more complex relationship with space and fact vs.illusion.
RHC: Have you ever or do you see yourself ever designing a garden that incorporates your fascination with truth and fiction? I wonder what that would look like?
Lawless: That's a really interesting question. It makes me think of the cell phone towers upstate that are disguised as giant evergreen trees. Poorly disguised, that is! They're kind of fascinating. Seriously, I would love to do that. I can imagine lots of scenarios, but even designing a small garden takes time, especially one with such a big underlying idea. Now you've got me thinking about it though...
RHC: I feel there is more political commentary or maybe a better description is...more commentary on current events in your work than most people understand when viewing it...like the sexist designs of public monuments we touched on or ideas surrounding fake and real...what are the reactions you hear about...that people make to you about these aspects of your work?
Lawless: I actually don't have that many conversations about my work. When I do, people seem to get the tension between the logical and illogical parts -- or between fact and fiction -- although there's usually no mention of politics or cultural commentary. And most people understand that there's some intended humor. It may be that the current state of the world is so ever-present in everyone's mind and conversation that it goes without saying. I try not to define the work too narrowly, to allow the viewer to bring their own experience to it, but if culture or politics provides a way into the work, that's fine too.
RHC: Also, I’d like to hear more about the influence of Renaissance portraiture on your
work which seems the least obvious of the influences you mention...Can you talk more about that influence?
Lawless: I'm really drawn to the Italian portraits from the 16th Century, especially those with the subject depicted against a distant landscape. The reasons are mainly formal -- the way deep space is depicted with dramatic shifts in scale between the subject and the elements of the landscape; the sculptural, almost monumental quality of the figures and the precise detail in the clothing and in the trees and rocks, etc.
There's a lot of information conveyed in a deceptively simple composition. Even though I don't work in a figurative way, this is a quality that's often in the back of my mind when I'm working, and that I would hope comes across in the small collages.
Sharon Lawless, Anvil, 2012, Collage on Paper, 13" x 11" (33cm x 28cm)
RHC: Earlier when we discussed childhood influences you mentioned “filling jelly jars with colored water and acorns.” Much more than just a throw away quip I found this description of childhood play an interesting statement. I imagined what a sculptural work of yours would look like today using these materials...and I can imagine it in that “truth and fiction garden”...This garden we’re talking about reminds me of the fantasy gardens of 18th Century England with their fake ruins and staged hermits in caves...which are really about artifice.
Lawless: Yeah, the hermits were a strange and fascinating aspect of 18th century English gardens. Along with follies, they were an ornamental part of an idealized landscape. And like follies, they were about artifice, but whereas follies were intended to delight the imagination, the hermit represented melancholy and contemplative solitude, which at the time was associated with a sensitive nature. The wealthy landowner could signal his sensitivity and sophistication by hiring a hermit to live in his garden. You can't get much more artificial than that!
I imagine a contemporary garden based on artifice would involve altering one's perception of space and there could be a lot of interesting ways to do that....something as simple as an opening in a wall can radically change a space without being obvious.....or it could involve technology in some way, which would be a new thing for me. As for the first part of your question, I have no idea how I would use those materials today, but it's fun to think about.
Sharon Lawless, Psychedelic Dream (June), 2017, Mixed media collage on museum board, 60" x 40" (1.5m x 1m)