Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Interview: Surface Tension

Untitled, Erica Lambertson
Erica Lambertson
Salon, New Orleans

This show is installed at Salon, an experimental contemporary art exhibition space created by the Founding Executive and Artistic Director of May gallery and residency. Salon is located 3446 Constance Street, Uptown, New Orleans. This exhibition will be on view by appointment through September 30. Call (504)316-3474 or email 

Detail from above untitled painting, Erica Lambertson

It's interesting to remember that art used to be, necessarily, a face-to-face experience. Before the Internet, before Phaidon, we really had to stand in the same space with a work of art to claim we had seen it. These days seeing is often used interchangeably with being familiar with or having seen in reproductions. If someone asked me, Have you seen the paintings of Enrique Martinez Celaya? I might say, Not in person. or Yes, in a book. But somewhere in my mind I feel like I have had an experience with his work. This is not true. To experience a painting you must stand face-to-face with it.  You cannot take in the subtle languages of palette, scale, and surface in the pages of Artforum or even in a beautifully printed catalogue. And then there is the time we spend with paintings. When we watch a film or video we understand immediately that the medium is time-based. I like to remind myself (and anyone who will listen) that looking is also time-based. In other words, you need to spend time with a work of art. The surface of a painting will continue to transmit new information as long as you front of it.

So if you are still reading, its about to get nerdy(er). Below is an interview-slash-emailed conversation between the artist Erica Lambertson and I. It is all about reading the surface of paintings. If you want to stop reading and just look at the pictures, just be reminded that you should see these paintings in person.

Here it is.

Emily Farranto: I think of the surface of a painting as its entry point. Do you see it this way? How do you see the surface of a painting functioning in your work or if you prefer in the work of others?

Erica Lambertson: I would say that surface is one of the first things I respond to when I am in front of a painting. In my own work it's something I feel I'm always trying to improve on, or just give more thought to. In reality, when I'm actually painting, I don't think of the overall surface but I do think of individual paint strokes and will sometimes do something over and over again until the paint is sitting the right way. I like to paint on a very smooth surface so panel has been great for that... When I paint on canvas I never have the patience to sand it smooth enough so I often feel like I'm struggling against the surface, which I don't like. 

EF: Yes, canvas is not only a textured surface that slows down a brushstroke, it is a thirstier one. Depending on the ground, the canvas will absorb more oil than panel. So a brushstroke that looks both candid and complete on a panel will often appear drier and in want of more attention on canvas. So I'm wondering when you do work on canvas–these are mostly larger paintings, right? –is it for the scale? 

EL: I don't all together dislike the fact that canvas is dryer and more absorbent. It's not always a bad thing. I tend to paint over things several times and sand them down no matter what the surface is. On canvas this ends up having a slightly different feeling but I actually like that struggle. It’s rare that I am satisfied with my work on canvas but I have no desire to stop painting on canvas. When it "works" I'm really happy. I like to change it up: paper, canvas, panel. When I paint on canvas I try different kinds of surfaces: more rough, more smooth, rabbit skin glue, gesso, combination. So talking about surface gets weird I guess because it's different all the time…I am still experimenting all the time, still feeling totally insecure sometimes about whether something is working or not, but that is fun for me, it keeps it interesting, I'm not in a hurry to find the perfect combination. Sometimes it's nice to have that smooth, effortless feeling that panel brings but sometimes I'm feeling moodier and enjoy being frustrated by more annoying surfaces.

[This last one is one of my favorite comments. I like the idea of an artist welcoming frustration and annoyance.]

EF: You mention the struggle. I sometimes feel like a surface is where struggle or even insecurity and confidence co-exist. And the evidence of these remains. I think a good painting retains both. Does that make sense? Do you see this duality in the surfaces of your paintings or other people’s paintings?

Untitled, Erica Lambertson, Image courtesy of Keene Kopper
EL: That does make sense (about a good painting retaining both) yes, I know what you mean. I like that. It's kind of like watching someone think, or seeing the traces of their thought patterns, when you see that struggle in a painting. On my smaller, quicker paintings on panel or paper I'd say you can see most of what is going on. I don't sketch; I don't really do any under painting so to speak. One thing that does happen is that I'll often paint a new painting on top of an old painting. Some paintings might even have three different paintings layered together. I tend to leave anything from the old painting that might help the new one, either as under painting (color) or just leaving whole sections how they were, which can create some surreal (ish) narratives at times. This part of my process is probably what takes the most active thinking and planning. What stays and what gets buried.

EF: Looking at your smaller paintings on panel, there is a speed to them, It is a struggle to work on a larger scale in a way that retains the gesture while–I don't know how to put it–having the surface hold its own. All that without appearing overwrought. I guess what I am wondering then is what do you look for on the surface of larger paintings?

EL: I'm not like...aiming for a particular look, I just like to see what happens. It's rare that I like something so much I try to do it over and over again. It is the easiest thing for me to work large on canvas. It would not be possible to work large on panel because I would have a hard time storing them. And moving them. I guess I'd like to, but it just doesn't seem like something I can do right now. I love working large on paper but that gets damaged so easily! 

EF: I noticed you varnished some (or maybe all? of these paintings). What was your thinking behind that? How does that layer function?

EL: As far as the varnish goes I just started doing it recently and I just like the way it makes the paint look? It might just be a phase. I don't use a ton of medium and sometimes if paintings have uneven glossiness I like that varnish evens them out. 

EF: The surface is a kind of open record. Another painter or a seasoned viewer can tell a lot by reading the surface which records the layers of paint, the ground, the brushstrokes and erasures. Your paintings, especially the smaller ones, are very readable in these terms. What part of your process can’t I see on the surface of your paintings? 

EL: I don't know if I've told you this before but I tend to work on a lot of paintings at one time. Most individual pieces will take months to complete even though I only work on them a little at a time. A typical day in the studio involves working on about 5-10 different paintings. For about 45 min each. Occasionally I'll get caught up with one but I hop around a lot. Sometimes a painting will just be done very quickly and I'm trying to learn to respect that and not go back and keep layering. I think this has developed from working from photos and more and more finding that there is only a little bit from each photo that is usable. I will often use the same photo for several paintings; just different pieces show up in different places. Although my paintings are figurative and narrative I see all of my work as one large connected thing.

The following images are details of paintings by Erica Lambert on view at Salon.

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