Interview with Olivia Lundberg

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Neoteric Art: The source material for your current body of work is based on your collection of National Geographic photographs from the 1940s and 1950s. Please elaborate.

Olivia Lundberg: These photographs are really interesting to me because of their relation to culture, their use of color and the narratives that go along with that era and how they relate to contemporary society. They sometimes blur the line between fact and fiction. The use of a camera creates this sense of fact, of documenting the Other. Yet, these “documentary” photos are usually setup and questions arise about their validity and authority. I see them more as documenting the persons behind the camera than those in the pictures.

Both series in this body of work, “Conversations” and “Interactions & Pleasantries”, are using this source material to explore these thoughts in a different way. The ink pieces, from the series, “Conversations”, are the most direct in their reflection of what it is I’m looking at and what it is that interests me about the individual photos. I am drawn to areas where there can be several meanings implied in an exchange between people and how visual elements aid these various meanings.

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The paintings in “Interactions & Pleasantries” are my attempts to use elements in the photos as a starting point to explore my own unconscious in order to create something new. They are a reflection of the whole stack of photos – the feelings, the sexual undercurrent, the gaze and the exploration of difference and how that reflects to our own reality of being human.

NA: Your series “Conversations” depicts the human form straight on while the series “Interactions & Pleasantries” camouflages the human form. What is your reason for approaching the figure from these two different views?

OL: “Conversations” are more about the specific elements of the photographs that draw me to keep looking back at them. The simplest way I found to render those moments is using the figures themselves. I also want the viewer to connect with the pieces in a straightforward way so that they can begin to question these “conversations” as to their intentions. What’s really going on in these dialogues? Are they in fact dialogues? The human form is depicted in more of a realistic way, but at the same time the use of ink allows them to be “flawed”, depending on how you view the material.

“Interactions & Pleasantries” are more about using the photographic sources to create something new. What’s going on behind the photographs? What do these photographs allude to? Parts of the body are used and abstracted, but I don’t want the viewer to be caught up in the rendering of the human form. The human figure is one piece of the puzzle, so to speak. I want people to look at them in relation to the other images. Sometimes parts of three or four photographs create the first layer of the painting. From there it becomes a stream of conscious way of working and the body parts serve as symbols and metaphors.

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NA: You work in ink and oil. What are the differences between the two for you? Do you prefer one over the other?

OL: I prefer both. Each one has its pros and cons. I tend to work on a few pieces at a time in my studio and I work with ink as I work on the oil paintings. When I feel stuck and/or burned out on the oil paintings, I move to ink, and vice versa. With ink there’s no color and you have to work fast. They’re usually done in one sitting and much like drawings in which you can use a brush and document one day’s thoughts.

Ink is also not a forgiving medium and for that I have a love/hate relationship with the accidents – sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. No matter how much you want it to be perfect, the material itself hinders the outcome; things drip, don’t erase and the paper can only hold so much.

The process of working in oil, on the other hand, is much slower and you’re building the layers up as you go. You can erase parts you don’t like, which allows you to explore more and take risks. However, this can also challenge you to know when it’s done. Sometimes I come back to the same painting for months at a time or even years.

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It’s not so fun working in oils when a piece fails miserably or at the beginning when you’re struggling to know where it’s going. But, when you’re at the end of a piece that’s given you a challenging journey, it’s such a great feeling to have seen it evolve and your relationship to it evolve as well.

NA: You recently began teaching. How is that whole experience for you?

OL: Oh, what a question! It’s fantastic and tough and elevating and frustrating all at the same time. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s so worth it. It’s really scary to start out and I almost didn’t go down that path because I was too afraid of the results…”Would I lose my goals to be a working artist? Would I fail completely at teaching? Maybe it’s better not to try.” But, luckily I had great mentors in grad school that saw a teacher in me and helped me by being great teachers themselves.

I had a hard time finding my voice and feeling confident that first semester. I taught three different classes and can relate to the students in David Sedaris’s short story, “Me Talk Pretty One Day”. He’s in France taking a beginning French class from a tyrannical teacher with a whole range of people from other countries and while waiting for the teacher, one of the students says, “Sometime me cry alone at night.” To which another student replies, “That be common for I, also, but be more strong, you. Much work and someday you talk pretty. People start love you soon. Maybe tomorrow, okay.” It felt like that for me.

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There were days when I thought, “Are they understanding anything I’m saying and do they think I can teach?” I realized towards the end of that semester that teaching mirrors your own fears. I started asking myself if “I” understand anything I’m saying and do “I” think I can teach? That’s when I started to open up and relax. I find it parallels the studio practice in a lot of ways. Some days you’re “on” and some days you have to work a little harder to connect with the students and get to the actual meat and bones of the work.

NA: Who are some of your favorite artists working right now?

OL: I’m really drawn to artists whose work holds a lot of layers and I can come back to time and again and get a new take. These artists deal with politics in some way and that really interests me as well – the politics of individuals, countries and the spaces in between. I especially like how these artists place the viewer in their work. You get sucked in with the grotesque and beautiful and from there it’s hard to look away from what is being presented.

They’re in no particular order:

Neo Rauch – I still can’t believe that Rauch’s paintings aren’t planned out. I love the way he combines his imagery and his use of figures. They feel like the 1950’s, “Popular Science Magazine” meets the surrealists.

James Turrell – The first time I saw one of James Turrell’s installations in person was at the MOMA in NY a few years back. I had seen some documentaries and photos of his work prior, but nothing compared to seeing it in person. It was truly a magical and spiritual experience for me. I was so transfixed by this red glow, playing with its space and light that it felt like time stood still.

Marlene Dumas – I come back to Marlene Dumas at different times for different reasons. She first got me excited about ink and it’s conceptual possibilities, especially in relation to the female form and gender politics. Recently, however, I’ve come back to her for the inspiration and joys of being uncomfortable in ones studio.

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Emmet Gowin – I was first introduced to Gowin’s work a few years ago when my husband gave me one of his books, Mariposas Nocturnas – Edith in Panama. These photographs held such a mystery and truth about them that I couldn’t stop thinking about them at the time. Just recently, I heard Emmet Gowin speak about his work at RISD. His talk was captivating in the way he wove his stories in with his work. For me this reflected his process of picture taking and made me understand why I was so captivated with his work in the first place.

Jan Svenkmajer – He’s a surrealist Czech artist and his animations and films hold this creepy, magical and highly potent quality that continues to mystify through dozens of viewings, especially the ones done during the communist regime.

NA: Concerning your art career, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

OL: In ten years I see myself making work, exploring different avenues in my studio and showing my work as much as possible.

www.olivialundberg.com