• Interview with Artist Karen Lederer

    After Party, 2015, oil and acrylic on panel
    After Party, 2015, oil and acrylic on panel

    Karen Lederer’s discontinuous and disorienting scenes of intimate moments and domestic interiors offer visually stimulating interplays between textures and volumes. Often mixing painting with the monoprinting process, Lederer seeks to create environments that read as constructed and artificial, a formal reflection of what she describes as an “Instagram aesthetic” – images that claim a degree of privacy and intimacy yet are ultimately composed and curated- instagram blue tick material. We met over coffee to discuss her working process, the frequent quotations of Matisse and Picasso found throughout her work, and the connections she attempts to forge in her still-lifes. There are a lot of different artists who product highest quality acrylic prints and other types of wall art, with each one having their own different styles.

    NJ: You started out as a printmaker – you got your MFA in printmaking at RISD. But you do some painting now as well. Just to start us off, I was wondering if and how you go back and forth between the two practices. Does one inform the other? Is there any sort of relationship between painting and the monoprinting process? When you decide to paint something, why do you decide to paint it instead of using the monoprint technique?

    KL: I first learned printmaking when I was in college. I had never done it before, but it immediately clicked with me. I was kind of working like a printmaker even before I knew what printmaking was because I was working in layers and there was a lot of process built into everything I did – which is how printmakers are. When I learned printmaking, I learned from people who weren’t very strict about it, they encouraged us to be loose and mix all the different processes together. That’s pretty rare for printmaking. Usually, you are taught one process at a time and it’s very strict – you have to get all the steps right, you’re encouraged to edition, and every print has to look perfect. But I really haven’t done that kind of printmaking unless I was printing for other people. I’ve always drawn into my prints and cut them up and have been experimental with my approach. I decided to continue it into grad school but once I got there I was very impressed by other departments so I ended up doing a lot with the textile department, I learned machine knitting and surface design. That influenced my work for a while. I was doing a lot of painting there, but the painting was still [informed by printmaking] because I was starting out with transfer techniques and then I painted into them. When I finished grad school I was like, “I am going to try just painting, no printmaking.” It was weird. The paintings are kind of bad. I realized that I really do need something printed to react to.

    NJ: You don’t want to start with a blank canvas.

    KL: Yeah, I needed something on there. Also, the process that you have to go through to make a print really grounds my work. I need to think in stages. In the past few years, I had an epiphany – “Why don’t I try to mix these two things [painting and printmaking] together?” So I started printing certain elements of my paintings and it was great because then I had these printed areas to respond to. With the painted areas I could get a lot more detailed. Usually, those areas allow me to be a little more photorealistic [but] in some cases they’re just flat. The printed areas usually have some texture, some sort of gradient which printmaking ink really allows you to get. That’s how it evolved. But I do make a lot of prints that are not painted at all. Those are looser than my paintings because I am making them all on the spot in the print shop. I don’t worry too much about perspective, or about everything being really tight [in terms of registration], and a lot of times they have this lively spirit that I try to then harness in the paintings. Sometimes a painting can get so planned out that you can sort of lose the energy of the initial print.

    NJ: Could you talk a little bit about the monoprinting process? It only makes one, unique print, which is again kind of strange from a printmaking perspective perhaps. Sometimes they look quite painterly. You can see that quality in your monoprints as well.

    KL: I have a few different approaches to monoprinting. Sometimes I use stencils. In that case, I ink up a piece of Plexiglas [by using] a very large roller with a number of inks on it so that they blend together. I drop my stencils on top of this inky Plexiglas then run it through the press so that all my stencils are inked up. I can then drop the stencils onto paper, run it through the press [again], and then there’s the impression of the inked stencil [on the paper]. When I’m doing my prints that aren’t paintings I start by making a watercolor painting onto Plexiglas. I’ll also use water-soluble crayons – things like that – on the Plexiglas and then I put my inked up stencils on top of the Plexiglas. Then I run it through the press. This is a very unusual technique that I’ve come up with through making a bunch of prints [laughs]. For most people, each pass through the press lays down a different color. But how I do it – it’s lots of different colors on one plate, the whole image is there. It’s all going through the press just once.

    Snake Tank, 2015, oil and watercolor monoprint with chine colle
    Snake Tank, 2015, oil and watercolor monoprint with chine colle

    NJ: The reason why I wanted to clarify the steps of the monoprinting process was because in your interview with Emily Burns in MAAKE Magazine she pointed out the “hairline border” around your objects created by the monoprinting technique. In the interview, you chalked their presence up to the process of monoprinting, but you also reference it in terms of a digital aesthetic. I never would have anticipated that relationship to the digital in your work, so I’d like to touch more on that. But I also thought that connection was interesting because when looking at the thin lines around your objects, I wasn’t thinking of a contemporary landscape. I immediately thought of someone like Cézanne, who had these black lines around his objects. Obviously what these serve to do is to create some sort of distortion by introducing a sense of flatness to otherwise volumetric objects. This also reminds me of the results of your process in mixing painting and printmaking techniques. For example, you have in one piece a bag of goldfish that is modeled, standing in a two-dimensional space [Snack Plant]. You have a similar feeling of push and pull.

    KL: I am endlessly fascinated by the trickery of image-making. So I like having very three-dimensional things exist in a flat world, while still having the picture feel cohesive. Those little lines that happen around the stencils are interesting for me because they affirm the flatness of the piece, and it also feels like they are cut out and glued on there. A lot of people think the work is actually collage, but then you see it’s all one surface. That’s really important to me. But it feels constructed still. Something about those lines calls to the fact that there is something that’s not continuous. It’s hard to think of a time when I wasn’t working like this – where there’d be a three-dimensional space and then a flatness. I think what interests me is that you are not making a photograph – you are making a painting, and that allows you to take liberties with how we see things. Sometimes by having something be really flat and something be really realistic it can help you see it in a different way that is just as real – it can make you feel it, or that sort of thing. I still use devices that can help you trust an image. I still put little drop-shadows under a lot of my objects. Everything has a little shadow and I think there is something about that that gives you just enough to trust that thing as having weight or being real.

    Paul Cézanne, Still Life, Drapery, Pitcher, and Fruit Bowl, 1893-1894
    Paul Cézanne, Still Life, Drapery, Pitcher, and Fruit Bowl, 1893-1894

    NJ: Is that the relationship to the digital that you began articulating in the MAAKE interview? That idea was brought up but it wasn’t really fleshed out. I thought it was really interesting because you obviously work with manual processes, but you’ve made a relation to the digital so I was wondering if that connection expressed itself in the artificiality you were just speaking about, the constructed nature of your work.

    KL: Yeah, I think the digital comes up because of all the different gradients I use. It maybe harkens back to Photoshop aesthetics or something like that. Sometimes when people just see one of my images on a computer screen, they think it’s a digital image or that it was made on a computer. I think there’s something about growing up in the 90’s – that aesthetic is so ingrained in our visual culture that it’s not necessarily something I’m constantly thinking about when I’m making work. But it’s definitely there. At the same time, I’m pretty horrible at a lot of things on the computer so it would take me longer to figure out how to make these things digitally than by hand. So that’s the connection to the digital, but it’s only an aesthetic nod.

    NJ: That aesthetic comes up elsewhere in your work too, beyond the fade. There are one or two of your prints that have a gray and white checkerboard pattern that Photoshop users would find familiar. But I want to backtrack a bit. Earlier I brought up Cézanne, but I also wanted to speak about Matisse. You reference his iconic Dance in a number of your works – I saw it on a coffee cup, as a page in a textbook. There are also Picasso references as well. The aesthetic influence of Matisse is totally apparent in terms of your clarity of form, emphasis on color, these sensuously curved shapes. How do you intend your quotations of Matisse and Picasso? Are these an acknowledgment of an influence? Matisse said something along the lines that art should be a comfortable armchair. He has this decorative impulse. So to see Dance in an art history textbook, a coffee mug, or a poster in a domestic interior – is that you bringing him into a comfortable space?

    KL: I became interested in this connection between Matisse and Picasso – they had a conversation all through their artistic lives where they’d use similar imagery and have a back-and-forth. I quote them in an effort to include myself in that conversation. I’m interested in how you take in work by other artists. I think a lot of times for me it’s through looking at books, or if you can buy a coffee mug with an image from an artist it becomes really special. It’s a way to have ownership over that image. But of course, there’s a kitsch factor to it. I’m always interested in how certain images become so popular that they feel like they belong to anyone. Dance is one of those images – everyone knows it. In a lot of my pieces, I quote Matisse through the use of the fish tank or fish bowl because that was a common motif for him. There are some pieces where there are these Picasso sculptures looking into a fish bowl. For me, it’s a way for these two figures to have a conversation through their artworks, but it’s a conversation that can’t really happen because they’re just objects. I almost think of the two artists as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Matisse is like The Beatles, and I instantly loved them when I was little – easy listening. I started to love The Rolling Stones later. For me, the gateway drug into Picasso was finding a book on his ceramics in The Strand [bookstore] and they started appearing a lot in my prints and paintings. Something about those objects helped me understand the rest of his work. I’m starting to bring in other artistic influences in my work, but I think having these images from other artists highlights this feeling of looking and searching that’s in a lot of the work. Even if there’s not a quote from an artist in a painting, there’s always, I think in most of my work, a sense of things trying to find connection with each other. Like, a plant nuzzling up to a water bottle – these things that are inanimate, but you sense a closeness or a longing.

    Snack Plant, 2015, acrylic and oil on panel
    Snack Plant, 2015, acrylic and oil on panel

    NJ: Can you talk about these interior and domestic spaces in your work? I bring it up because I’ve also interviewed separately Rachel Schmidhofer and Paul Gagner – your work was on view together at Driscoll and Babcock as part of A Series of Moves. There is plenty of crossover in your respective subject matter. For Rachel, she uses the interior scenes as spaces to find connections between various disparate objects while also commenting on the simultaneous feelings of guilt and wonderment that we might hold when looking at domesticated plants or animals. Paul also has a lot of open books and snack foods as well.

    KL: Yeah [laughs]

    NJ: His vice is pretzels, but it looks like yours is Cheetos. For Paul, it’s demystifying the persona of the artist and the artist studio. So what do the intimate interior scenes that you paint mean for you?

    KL: I’m trying to choose objects that can have a conversation to create a larger message. I’m interested in the snack foods and health products because they ground the images in

    Hipster Wellness, 2015, oil and acrylic on panel
    Hipster Wellness, 2015, oil and acrylic on panel

    NJ: [laughs] Yeah, your painting Hipster Wellness with the coconut water.

    KL: [laughs] Yeah, those health products have an aspirational quality that I really like. You buy them and think “This is going to make me a better person.” If [those health products] weren’t there then these scenes could kind of exist at any moment in time. So they really specify the situation. A lot of the objects I’m using are things that are around my studio. Like in Hipster Wellness, there are prints that I made hanging on the wall, there’s the blue tape that’s tacking them up, there’s an Albers book, there’s a Kind bar, which, to me, reflects this color study that’s happening with the Albers book. If you had seen those products separately, you wouldn’t make the connection between the two. But then together maybe it starts to read like they are influencing each other. And I think in real life things are influencing each other all the time. A lot of times I am drawn to everyday objects almost as much as art objects because they have their own sense of aesthetics and they’re interesting to look at. These things can become so [invisible] but if you bring them into a painting they start to carry this larger meaning. A lot of time I am just trying to form some sort of dialogue between the objects. There are a lot of plants and they look like they have a soul – they [become personified].

    NJ: Sure, like In Search of True Painting – a still life with a plant and a Matisse poster.

    KL: There the plant is sort of growing toward a window that’s in the poster from a Matisse painting show. It’s not really getting any real light in that image of a window, but I like to think that it could – it’s seeing that image and reacting to it.

    In Search of True Painting, 2015, oil and acrylic on panel
    In Search of True Painting, 2015, oil and acrylic on panel

    NJ: I wanted to ask while we are on the topic of interiors – You reference “Instagram aesthetics” in your MAAKE interview. I guess an example in your work would be Fresh Pick where you can see the arm of the person behind the image. It’s intimate in that way. What exactly do you mean by Instagram aesthetic and what is your attraction to it?

    KL: So what I mean is that the image is based on viewpoint that’s caught at close range. I photograph a lot of my still-lifes first with my iPhone, as far as my hand can stretch, and usually I am trying to fit my other hand into the piece. [That way] you feel the person outside of the image. When the viewer is looking at the painting it’s almost as if they are standing behind the subject that’s in the painting, like staring over their shoulder. I think Instagram has had a profound influence on how I make images, and probably how a lot of people do. You’re scrolling [through] these tightly cropped images, and they have this idealized quality. A lot of people are really curating the images, exactly what’s going to fit into that frame. It’s had a real influence on how I compose my objects in my pieces. Beginning was also a nod to a Picasso illustration of hands holding [flowers]. I saw that image and it stuck with me for a while, and I thought about quoting it. I think about the tropes of still-lifes a lot. When you think of a still-life you think of a bowl of fruit, you think of flowers, a kitchen scene. I want to revisit those tropes but then inject a bit of self-awareness into them.

    NJ: I’m glad we made our way to Beginning. Two points about it – This perspective, the Instagram aesthetic reminds me of Being John Malkovich. The characters in that movie can go into John Malkovich’s mind and you can see what he sees from behind his eyes. Unless you are the person holding the flowers in the Picasso illustration, you can’t have this viewpoint. But Instagram says you can, with the qualification that it’s a pseudo-intimate experience. Maybe you’re holding flowers or sitting in your room drinking coconut water and eating Cheetos – that is an intimate scene. But once you have the impulse to take a picture of it and share it, then it’s not intimate anymore. It’s artificial intimacy. Maybe there is some sort of connection between the artificiality of sharing an intimate moment and the constructed nature of the paintings and monoprints that you were speaking about earlier.

    KL: Yeah, definitely. I think you summed it up really well.

    NJ: My second point – I wanted to talk a little bit about the color in your work, and Beginning is a great example to start with. Particularly with this image, I feel like I noticed the color before I noticed the objects.

    KL: Well I’d say that I’ve always loved color, I grew up in an apartment that had a different pattern on every piece of furniture. I have never been immersed in a minimalist environment. I think I have a pretty intuitive sense of color. I don’t really think that much about color theory or things like that…

    NJ: So the Albers book in Hipster Wellness

    KL: [laughs] Well I really appreciate Albers and I think that he left such an incredible tool for people. But I definitely have a more intuitive sense of color. There’s something about printmaking – a lot of people do work with just black and white. But if you work with color you can really expand your knowledge of how you use it because the inks are translucent. So sometimes you are making colors not by mixing, but by layering two different colors and creating a third. It can really change how you think about the subtleties of color, and there is also a physicality to mixing up ink. You get to see these different colors as physical entities which maybe affects how I use it. It’s something I’m constantly trying to push.

    NJ: Great, thank you Karen.

    Karen Lederer’s work is currently on view in A Series of Moves at Driscoll Babcock (June 28 – August 12) and Simple Pleasures at Cuevas Tilleard (July 12 – August 26)

    Beginning, 2016, oil and acrylic on panel
    Beginning, 2016, oil and acrylic on panel
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