Michelle Lopez - The Violent Bear It Away

A conversation with artists Michelle Lopez and Andrew Cornell Robinson that took place in both of the artists’ studios in Bushwick, Brooklyn on 7 April 2009.

Exhibition View, 2009 Photo courtesy Simon Preston Gallery

Andrew Cornell Robinson: When you went to California there was a shift in your work. In fact there seems to be several moments when your work has undergone significant shifts in attention and focus evidenced by the materials you use and your conceptual concerns.

Early on you started to work with leather, which became your signature material. Much of your work has had this intense exploration of material. What’s that about?

Michelle Lopez: Back in grad school, I was working with chocolate, and apple skins. I was trying to find a way to re-contextualize a material, something that was incredibly familiar to us. In a way the work is about how to invert something that is masculine and make it feminine, create this ambiguity. The thing that I am interested in most, is exploring androgyny. In terms of my education, I was interested in a feminist perspective, but I wasn’t really interested in a feminist aesthetic.

AR: What do you mean, like Judy Chicago?

ML: I was interested in feminist theory but not entirely convinced by the art, well yeah Judy Chicago, like all of the artists associated with early feminism.

ACR: A friend of mine calls that aesthetic “My Tortured Vagina” art.

ML: (Laughter) Exactly! So in a way I wanted to create work that was specifically non-gendered. For me it’s really hard to talk… I don’t want to be specific about the language. I feel like I can so easily get pinned down, and I don’t want to, so it’s better for me to keep the ideas open.

ACR: I understand totally.  So you mentioned androgyny.  And when I looked at you’re installation of “Southern Trees / Black September”, the Sycamore tree sticking through the wall so violently; the thing that struck me the most was not simply the violence of the intersection of the tree crashing through the wall, and the surprise of the white artificial prosthetic branch on the other side; it was the smaller, meticulous details, the moments where you wrap and repair broken twigs with stretched clear plastic.  That attention to these queer imperfections, rendering them vulnerable reminded me of the detail paid by drag queens to the application of their make up and costume in the process of becoming their persona, the illusion not yet achieved, crooked wig and lacking that polish, gloss and glitter.  There is something in your work that plays with this transgression of material and repair, disguise and revelation. It’s awkward, melancholy but mmmm, sublime in its own way.

ML:  Jeffrey Uslip uses the word “rehabilitation” in the catalogue essay he wrote in conjunction with my current exhibition.  In a way it’s trying to rehabilitate something that doesn’t exist.  Like look at the smashed leather car piece, "Woadsonner (edit)", its a redux of a failed piece, and in crushing and crashing it, the work gets rehabilitated through that trauma. Or take the Sycamore, I was trying to make the tree do something it’s not supposed to do.  I mean that branch represents for me… (trails off) … and, I’ve never taken a stance on it, but its very much about this sense of not being seen.

ACR: In what sense? As a woman? Or as a woman of color?

ML: (Laughter) YEAH! As a woman of color.  Yeah. Really taking a stance.  And that’s in relation to this wig piece, “Special Mission Project / Akira revisited”.  It’s a real response to that whole Takashi Murakami  "Superflat" culture, in that it’s kind of understood that there’s this objectified Asian woman.  No question, no question.

ACR: Ya think…

ML: And this wig works as a counterpoint, a rejection to the micro-aggressions, the false promise, the polish of Murakami's neo-pop position.

Portrait of Artist as Special Mission Project/Akira Revisited, 2009, Photo courtesy Andrew Cornell Robinson

This show is really scary for me because it’s the first time that I take a position on any of these things.  I feel the way that I’ve been thinking about materiality a lot in my work, including in the “Adventures of the Skin Trade” exhibition that I did at Deitch Projects back in September 2001 was this whole notion of how this skin [leather] can create a mask, and protect objects, and protect identity.

ACR: I’ll tell you what I like about this new show Michelle, is that you are not hiding your identity. I mean you break through the wall, you smash your old work, and you throw your wig on the floor.

ML: (Laughter)

ACR: And you’re like “Look at me” you ain’t playing.  In a way this show is a much more successful installation than the show you did with Jeffrey Deitch.

ML: Oh my god, totally.  I mean the show with Jeffrey was an excuse to display those objects in a non-pedestal situation.

ACR: with the sand?

ML: Yeah, even though they probably required pedestals.

ACR: Well, Deitch’s space and before that when it was Joe Fawbush Gallery has a history of presenting work that broke away from the norm, in that big white cube.

ML: Yeah right, I mean I think what was interesting for me was the fact that, that exhibition opened during 9-11 and the sand felt like war trenches.  The leather sculptures, including the  leather covered sports car“Woadsonner”, that was part of an installation with the Public Art Fund, were these conceptual appropriation of objects layered into each other to make a kind of pop abstraction.  The work was in some way a moment of crisis for me. I was responding to the leather covered car “Boy”—the easiness of it—the cleverness of the cultural appropriation by examining what it would mean for me to investigate formalism.  And 9-11 was a great moment for me, because not only was it traumatic, it also made that work irrelevant. 

ACR: I get it.

ML: … and I really had to question what I was really all about.  I left the art world, and moved to the west coast to teach and work at Berkeley. http://berkeley.edu It was this moment of assessing what it really meant to be making art. 9-11 was a pivotal moment because not only was it socially and culturally omni-present but it impacted me on a deep personal level. It tore me down and so all the work after that was tearing things apart, failure, crashing, breaking down. 

ACR: So what happened at Berkeley?  I mean your work shifted.

ML: Yeah, my work totally shifted.  I just abandoned working in leather.

ACR: was that hard?

ML: It was so easy, so easy…

ACR: It must have been a burden off your shoulders.

ML: It was so easy.  I always approach, and mean, in grad school, it was about how the material would serve the concept… Berkeley was great because it was this moment that I got to play with all these materials, and play with these other industries besides the leather industry.  So I worked with Porsche, I worked in the car industry, I worked with toy people, and with Prosthetists.

ACR: so interesting…

ML: yeah, I was hired on this digital media initiative at Berkeley.  And I got entrenched in this digital world.  I was doing 3-D scanning, making wire frame objects on computers and printing them out as 3-D prototypes.

ACR: Umm, that makes so much sense. Thinking about that, and then thinking back to your earlier work, like the drawings that you made when you went to Yaddo. http://www.yaddo.org  They were these layered linear abstractions, like an incomprehensible wireframe.  It reminded me of Arturo Herrera’s work. http://www.pbs.org/art21/artists/herrera/index.html

ML: Yeah, that whole body came from, and I still think I work this way, taking familiar iconography, and trying to abstract something to find the uncanny, or again, try and reverse it, so that it will expose the meaning of it culturally.

ACR: I see this iconography in some of your work like the reference to the C3PO, but there seems to be a real departure in this current show.

ML: Its funny, I hope I’m not perceived as, Oh there’s that leather artist, or that Star Wars artist, but its really just me being interested in these cultural phenomena, researching them extensively, and getting inside them, and trying to figure out, through the material or scale and combinations of things like the C3PO with a condom, how that could shift the meaning of it.  With the Adventures pieces I was making these cellular things, one thing directly on top of another,  too hermetic.

ACR: They seem much more self referential…much more about that material... than a larger idea.  What's been interesting to me about the work that I’ve seen of yours over the years; while you do allot of this research, you get really into it.  Allot of artists do that, but then get stuck in this neurotic life of the mind, and hesitate in the studio; and you don’t, you tend to make that transition and work intuitively with the materials. Is that accurate?  Do you feel that you work intuitively?

ML: Yes, I feel that was the great gift of being in Berkeley, and just leaving New York, and not having the voices of others, the voices of the art world in my head.  It was a real moment when I began to think differently about my process.  And so there are a lot of things that happened, that I can’t entirely give away, … that’s why  I feel very strongly about making the work, and learning how to do all these different techniques. In those moments something happens that I like to be a part of, so that if it doesn’t quite work for the piece, that I’m there to say “alright, wait, no, yes…”

ACR: I think it helps you keep it fresh.  In the end it’s still just about working in the studio. 

It reminds me of this really random story.  My back ground is in ceramics, and I heard this story from a potter or maybe it was one of my teachers, now I can’t remember who it was… it was so long ago… too many drugs…

ML: (Laughter)

ACR: (Laughter) And he did this test one year, he had two pottery 101 classes.  The first class he said “You will get an A in this class based on your ability make a perfect pot.” And to the second class he said “You will be judged on the sheer quantity of pots that you make this year.”

ML: (Laugher)

ACR: I know, it was great. He wanted to see what would happen. He was fucking with these poor kids. And so the first class got really hung up on trying to make the one perfect pot, and they made like “one perfect pot” and they were all stupid and ugly and they all looked like shit, according to him. While the other class that made multiple kiln loads filled with pots, they made some of the most beautiful pots that he had ever seen come out of his students.  And it was this whole effort of like ya know, stop trying to fixate on hitting an ideal that doesn’t exist, and just make it.

ML: Yeah.

ACR: And I think I bring that up, because I’ve often seen artists struggle, with the idea over the execution of the work.  For example think back to the early 1990’s when we were in school the discourse at the time was dominated by identity politics

ML: Uh-huh, yeah

ACR: A lot of it had rich narratives, and interesting histories, but when it came to execution a lot of it..

ML: .. fell apart.

ACR: Yeah.  And I don’t see that happening in your work.  I mean you are working through these ideas of identify, and invisibility, but you work through the materials as well as the idea. And it becomes poetic, rather than only polemic.

ML: Well, it is interesting that you bring up grad school again.  I’m sure that I was reacting against identity politics, at least the way it was being translated at the time.  That’s why there is this part of me that is so concerned... what does it mean to identify myself in the work, and have it be about this minority experience, or to really say, or to really stake a claim to that. 
But to get back to that whole thing of perfection, it was this great moment, that happened in the process to let go of that idea.  A lot of the times I feel that I am only a servant to the work, I have to ask the piece what it wants.  And maybe that dilutes that, but I’m hoping that its…

ACR: In what way..

ML: You know I had my students read the Sol LeWitt sentences on conceptual art… http://www.altx.com/vizarts/conceptual.html .   Stay on the concept, and don’t veer from it and if you veer from it it's going to compromise the project.

ACR: What did they think?

ML: They thought it was a little dated, and a little too rigid.  And then I had them read the opposite, this Phillip Guston lecture, which is totally opposite.  But both of them are about how to have courage in the work, how to get out of the way. And both of them do it in radically different ways.

ACR: I think Guston is more interesting…kind of a metaphor of what you’ve gone through.

ML: Of just acknowledging when something is interesting, maybe a little less linear.

ACR: It reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my best students, I mean he’s just exceptional…

ML: Yeah, that’s nice.  They’re very rare. (Laughter)

ACR: Yeah they really are. (Laughter) ...yeah I probably won’t edit that out. (Laughter) But any way... I’ve been trying to get this student who knows how to make really beautiful things get out of his comfort zone and make work that is interesting.    Its fascinating to see that in a career as an artist, we are often compelled to go beyond what we get acclaim for even if it results in the bleating crowd criticizing any change in repertoire. Most people hesitate in the face of change. Moving out of your comfort zone you continually do that, push yourself out of the zone and into a new place. Its a real power of example.

ML: You know I think with this piece, having a child, not to get cliché,

ACR: Wha?

ML: (Laughter) …With the installation of the tree, we had two weeks. We got a tree that the NYC parks department was cutting down after a lot of planning, a dead Sycamore just outside the gallery. They craned in the piece, we installed the tree, and we cut the branches and we had to do all this configuration, cast a branch from the tree, and once we got the cast back into the gallery, all of a sudden everything changed. It was really this performance moment, like What is this doing?  what is this piece really doing, and what does it mean? And when we brought the cast branch in, the tree was very majestic, even more majestic then it is now, just blooming, SO baroque.

ACR: that’s a good word for that piece.

ML: So there was a moment the night before the opening that I said to my assistant Crisman, that we had to just destroy this piece, that if it’s really going to be about the “Violent Bearing it Away” if we are really going to make it mean something, we had to do something more important than just bringing a tree into the gallery , so we just started chain-sawing everything off that was majestic about it.

ACR: Its like an anti-Judy Pfaff.

ML: (Laughter) yeah to find a broken, sad quality to it so it would droop a lot more. And it was just this moment that I was feeling like: screw it.  I had to say Screw it in order for anything meaningful to happen. And so I think in a lot of ways, I had to be down on my hands and knees and be like get out of the way.  I have to really get out of the way, because if I try to hold on to this tree, then potential meaning is not going to happen.

When  I was doing research for this show about terrorist hijacking and plane crashes, because of the way 9-11 had influenced me, I found out that a similar 9-11 incident had happened exactly on my date of birth. The Dawson Field Hijacking, which coined the Black September movement, made me contend with how I imagine being somehow aligned with this tragedy and so I have to confront it, mainly for my own survival.

ACR: Its interesting, I mean its interesting to hear you talk this way, because my first impression when I walked into your show was uh, that you had come in, rammed that tree through the wall and walked out!

ML: (Laughter)

ACR: Ya know what I mean?  It really looks that way.  It’s very intense.  And I loved hearing that moment, when you recognize that its too majestic, beautiful and baroque and you need to take it apart. That so resonates with me.  I love that awkwardness, those weird uncomfortable visual justzpositions…and it’s the stuff that’s not a sound byte. Not easy to put quotes around. And its something that, well maybe I’m just delusional, but I feel that we’ve been in a period within our culture in the United States in particular, where everything has been polished, everyone has had their halos on, and everything looks shiny and finished…

ML: right

ACR: and its been easy to commodify, black and white and schizoid and we’re not in that place any more.  And I am so happy to see that Simon http://www.simonprestongallery.com  is willing to take risks, break with the pack, to take risks with new work, that isn’t easy, or comfortable. Frankly allot of gallery dealers are not willing to be that courageous, he is and your work is better for it.  I think this move into the unknown, the uncomfortable, will continue to be important. 

ML: Simon has been really incredible, in terms of really having a discourse with him, and respecting it, and finding ways to make this exhibition happen.

ACR: Yeah I get that. from what I see him showing, he is really taking risks.  And in that context its interesting to look at champions of risk in the arts. They are even more vital now that we are facing uncertainty economically and culturally.  In a way it harkens back to the innovations that took place in the 1970’s New York art world; in that artists were breaking innovating, trying new materials, no one was really making any money, but artists were moving things forward. It was exciting, and I think it still is.

ML: I’ve been feeling very optimistic about this time we are in.  I have nothing to lose.

ACR: That’s it right there.

ML: Yeah, I have nothing to lose. And so it’s a great opportunity for, well really that is what the “Violent Bear It Away” is: it’s about letting the house burn down and having there be fertile ground, so that this whole notion of the Flannery O'Connor book that the exhibition derives its title, is about destroying a legacy.  A legacy of dogma, and belief systems, and this whole notion of burning in order to “clean.”.  The premise of the book is the baptismal of a child, and the future of a child and what it means to have this sacred entryway for this child turn in on itself tragically.  Kind of how I see it in terms of an artistic process—how one can sabotage the child for the sake of an idea . In this book, there is a very climactic ending in that the child is drowned while being baptized.

ACR: That’s devastating…

ML: Yeah. 

And he’s also this slow child, and there is this guilt that there is something not quite right about this child, a lack of acceptance.  Anyway it’s this very complex really beautiful tragic book.  And in relationship to this current climate, it feels that everything is being burned away. Taken away.  There is this moment, and it’s the same in the way that I’ve approached the work its like, “Destroy that fucking leather car, (laughter) and fuck all of you.”

Woadsonner (edit), 2009

ACR: (Laughter)  I was so happy to see that, I was so happy for you.

ML: I mean that leather car was my child, and I was just like…

ACR: Got to kill the father.  (Laughter)

ML: (Laughter)

ACR: One of the reasons why I liked seeing you destroy that car, and take risks with your work.  That’s something that not a lot of people feel comfortable doing. You and I know peers of ours who are known for a thing, and if they deviate from that thing, they get allot of criticism.  Kind of like what Guston went through when he moved from abstraction back into figuration later in his life.

ML: Yeah, I know. But also I took the gruesome paradigm of 9-11 without the theatricality and tried to create more of the austere aftermath.

ACR: I remember when I first met Jane Hammond she was my first art history teacher.  She was coming off of being a sculptor, and retreating from New York.  She talked about leaving New York and feeling like she was in this box.  She did this in front of our class, talking about what it was like to be an artist.  I was astonished about this, there was something so vulnerable to hear her reveal these experiences and it was even more fascinating to watch how fruitful her transformation became as her work moved through a personal iconography into painting and photo collage.  I’ve always admired her, even though she gave me a B in that class.

ML: (Laughter)

ACR: I’ve always been interested in how she walked through that.  She was a real power of example and in a way it reminds me of you and what you went through.

ML: Well its interesting, right?  It’s one thing to emerge as an artist, and have this fleeting moment, and it’s the other to just keep showing up each day and keep making this work and that’s the long term way.  I think that’s the real challenge. I’m sure there are a lot of people who are like “oh yeah, there is Michelle Lopez again, whatever”  in this tired kind of way and make assumptions.  In the end, it’s not my job to determine what happens but just to show up in the studio every day.
But also I appreciate the discourse of people criticizing the work, and I just hope people see the show, and really tell me what they think.  I mean I just want to keep growing as an artist ultimately. And I feel that, that level of exchange gets harder as you get older to get that kind of honesty.

ACR: Why?

ML: People don’t care.

ACR: They don’t care, really?

ML: I don’t think so.. It’s really up to me to figure out, I mean I want to know if… I think relevance and innovation is really important.  I don’t think people though will tell you if your work is irrelevant or not  innovative. I’d like them to. (laughter)

ACR: (laughter) usually what is said is “um, yeah that’s interesting.” I mean like FUCK!

ML: (Laughter)

ACR: I hear that.  I think that at the end of the day, maybe I’m just being incredibly naive, but I have to be interested in the work I do.

ML: You as an artist?  Yeah absolutely. Remember when Jackie Winsor http://www.artnet.com/artist/162012/jackie-winsor.html  would say “Is the engine in the car?”

ACR: What did she mean by that?

ML: (Laughter)
Well I teach with her now and I was talking to some of my students recently and supposedly her critiques are so intense that students cry.

ACR: Uh, she nearly brought me to tears once.

ML: Because it’s so personal and I think the engine in the car metaphor, is this whole notion of: ok you’re an artist, you call yourself an artist, and you have the shell of the car, but the engine is what is going to run it. Is it going to move it forward? We always used to laugh about that, but its accurate, and it’s something that she would always attack me for, asking questions like “where are you in this?” and I feel like it’s a really easy thing to do this: I can be culturally clever and determine what is what and tell you as a viewer what is what, but in the end I have to own up to what is under the hood.

ACR: Interesting, Frank Moore said a similar thing to me. And it devastated me.

ML: Really?

ACR: Years ago I dated him for a minute.

ML: that’s exciting.

ACR: it was very exciting, he was a really sweet guy. He said to me one day in my studio, You’re very ambitious, you’re probably more ambitious than I am, but I don’t even see you in this work, and I don’t know what your story is.  What’s your story?

ML: Ouch.  Uh–huh right.
ACR: When we were talking earlier about being smart. But also being intuitive with the work, your work has gone from Adventures in the Skin Trade, which was very much about continuing this work with leather.

ML: It was exhausting.

ACR: Well it felt a little self-conscious.

ML: yeah

ACR: But this current show does not.  It feels like “I could give a damn.” A little more emotional, spontaneous and fresh.

ML: It was precious.  I mean “Boy” was great and resolved as a piece for me, but there was this whole thing from everyone saying  “Your brand is leather”

ACR: The brand?  I’m sorry fuck that shit!

ML: (Laughter)  Yeah it was this contrived sense of me trying to be interested in um, I don't know, it was just trying to push something, but it pushed it in the wrong direction.  But as a result of all that work I figured things out three-dimensionally. I almost could have done by just making these awkward balls without leather which I ended up doing when I first got to Berkeley.

ACR: What I think is interesting about this transition in your work is how you have cultivated this sense of awkwardness in a really interesting way.  And its something that is hard to do.  People usually try to move away from that because its uncomfortable, because its the other, its the three legged dog thing.  And you've made that kind of poetic.

ML: Awkwardness in the sense of... something not right?

ACR: Well, yeah. For example working with prosthetics, the absence feels  wrong but it makes perfect sense.  I feel like our culture has a self conscious awkwardness to it, a little odd, but glossed over and I feel like your best work captures a bit of that.

ML: I think a part of it is wanting to cultivate the way that we function as human beings. The thing that I was really interested in with prosthetics, I think it gets misinterpreted as this animatronic, cyborg thing.  It’s really more about this idea of longing, of rehabilitating a tree.  But in terms of the culture of prosthetics, I'm interested in that moment where you try and replicate something natural, and also in that intersection of where the artificial replication meets the natural. I’m interested in those intersections. And how wrong they are, that sense of vulnerability, the codependence of those two.  That’s really the moment I’m interested in.

ACR: So there are all these cultural references, and a sense of identity, but your work is not preachy, not polemic, it feels highly personal, a little coded, so I can't get through it.  Is that an accurate reading?

ML:  Yes, its very personal.  It’s the thing that is keeping me going. I hope that the fact that it is personal is a lens into the human condition, about trying to exist in the world.  So a lot of ways, the pieces are portraits.  For every artist on some level, the work is self portraiture.  For me, my work is really about a certain kind of vulnerability and decay and trying to prop it up, move it forward. Something being broken, and trying to move it forward. It’s also about this sense of rehabilitation after something destructive like 9-11 or something historical.  People scoff when I talk about this notion of the “anti-metaphor.”

ACR: What do you mean?

ML: Like that crux, the piece that was in LA><Art with Lauri Firstenberg in LA.

ACR: You mean the funky multi-legged thing?

ML: (Laughter) Yes, the funky awkward thing. Yeah I really wanted to make this figure-slash-crucified tree do something that it wasn't supposed to do.  And also fail at it miserably.  There was this sense of that if I had taken it away from these C-stands, it would have been really triumphant just like a figure should, a triumphant figure or “tree.”  I wanted to create this abject figure that was failing.  And when it was doing that it felt more real. A metaphor can become tired and I wanted again to try and invert it. I am anti-clichés I guess.

ACR: Well, on that note, I was wondering what you thought of the exhibition Unmonumental http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/3 ?

ML: Well there seemed to be this sense of forget-ability.  The thing that I came away from that show that I really craved, there was this idea of it being without ego, and I felt that I saw a lot of “monuments” that didn't resonate on any level, except for Zoe Leonard's tree. That was the stand out in that show.  For me it was the only piece that was both monumental and unmonumental at the same time metaphorically.  I walked away from that show wishing that all those pieces were just grouped together in one single room so that it could have this anonymity.  It was just the fact that it was like, here's this artist that is being unmonumental...

ACR: ...and here's another artist who is being unmonumental...

ML: You walked away with monuments and I thought that was really problematic.  The thing about Zoe Leonard's piece is that it exploits this idea of a monument, a tree that is so uh, it emasculates it in a way, and it’s really beautiful. 

ACR: What's going through your head right now, in the aftermath of getting this show up?

ML:  Well its the first time I'm really feeling detached from my work.  I'm really excited about the work.  I don't have doubts about it.  I think I am just accepting that process of it being out there in the world more.  It’s just out of my hands, and I hope that it means something to people.

Exhibition Information

Michelle Lopez
The Violent Bear It Away

21 March – 17 May 2009

Simon Preston Gallery
301 Broome Street between Forsyth and Eldridge Streets.
Gallery hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 11am to 6m

Related Links

Southern Trees/Black September, 2009. Installation front of gallery.

Southern Trees/Black September, 2009. Installation detail, back of gallery.

Photos of during the interview and art work on exhibition at the Simon Preston Gallery taken by Andrew Cornell Robinson © 2009.