Loren Britton | Against Mastery
In 2012, Loren Britton (who uses they/them pronouns) joined Field Projects as an intern while finishing their BFA degree in painting. Britton quickly proved to be a vital contributor to the artist-run gallery, demonstrating a critical eye and a penchant for challenging norms—all before heading off to Yale University School of Art for graduate school.
At Yale, Britton furthered their explorations in craft materials, abstract languages, and collective curating; co-curating research-driven exhibitions that champion the work of queer artists. At the same time, Britton’s visual practice shifted dimensions from painting and drawing to sculpture and back again. In 2017, they moved to Germany and are now splitting their time between the cities of Kassel and Berlin.
We met inside SECOND DATE—Britton’s second solo exhibition with Field Projects—to talk about their recent work and plans to bring Field Projects’ curatorial mission to Germany.
Jen Schwarting: The work in your solo show at Field Projects was inspired by a woman who placed personal ads in a 1960s underground publication. Can you start by telling us about your source of inspiration?
Loren Britton: Yes, the work in this show is dedicated to “Dawn,” a trans* woman who posted in Transvestia, a magazine that was published in San Francisco from 1960 to 1973. Dawn wrote personal ads looking for advice on how to dress, and looking for sexual partners. Her ads were unusually loquacious and seemed much more vulnerable than other personal ads—she always signed them “Love, Dawn.” No one else in the publication did that, and it’s such an open gesture. So I started thinking about addressing the work to Dawn—kind of like a letter to her—as a way to create that space of an open gesture. But the point was never to get in touch with her. She simply holds for me a lot of the questions and issues that I have been thinking about with regard to feminism, trans* history, relationships to mentors, and the language of desire.
JS: The personal ads that Dawn wrote are several decades old. Was there something about this small archive, this recording of desire, and particularly the generational gulf between the concerns of a trans* woman in the 1960s and your own identification that interested you?
LB: I’m interested in the histories of lesbian separatism and lesbian feminism stemming from artists like Harmony Hammond, Lynda Benglis and Sheila Pepe, thinking about things that were really useful about the kind of political claims that their work was making at the time, and how for a younger queer and trans* generation there’s a lot of distance in between a younger queer person and a lesbian separatist person. And that’s largely because of a transphobic, classist and racist history and a lack of community-based mentorship in the queer community. Although this is an experience of many younger queer people, I have many wonderful mentors in my life and I look at their work through the troubled lens of what certain political stances meant contextually then, and the space they created in the present. In this way, Dawn is another "mother" to me. I’m intellectually and referentially thinking about the “mothers” of my work, and trying to repair that relationship, in the way that Eve K. Sedgwick means in her writing.
JS: Have you inserted these texts and histories into the work, and if so, are they visible?
LB: A lot of people have brought up the question of legibility, which I think is really one of the main questions I’m dealing with in this body of work. The works are heavily associative to people and are connected to letters I’m writing to Dawn. They seem to bring people to all sorts of places, and in that way they operate like a vector.
JS: The works are made of dried paper pulp and protrude an inch or two off the wall, formally inhabiting a space between drawing, painting, and sculpture. Each piece has a word or words embedded in it, and you mentioned that overall the works are enormously fragile. Can you explain your process?
LB: I started shredding some of my old drawings and that is what initially led me to using this material. As pulp, the paper is so precarious, and very delicate, and it requires a lot of care to make sure it doesn’t fall apart. I actually had a really hard time structurally making sure that each piece would stay together. And there are a large amount of things that didn’t make it to New York because they are literally in pieces in my studio back in Germany. So it was a really funny process when I was first learning how to make them. I’m learning as I’m making and I’m asking questions and I think that’s the process that’s most important in the work for me.
JS: The pulp is bound by webbing?
LB: Some of the pieces in the show have webbing, and some don’t, and the ones that don’t are the ones that might fall off the wall (laughs). I haven’t mastered this medium. For me the medium comes from the pursuit of the idea, and I have been switching mediums frequently because my questions are transforming quickly.
There’s an ethic and attitude toward mastery that I think I’m becoming more and more aware of in my work: I’m interested in mastery as an idea, but I’m not ever trying to achieve a masterful product. What I’m really interested in is the labor of making.
JS: The paper pulp material and the kind of tender, pastel palette for me strongly reference grade school, which is when I remember making a paper pulp project with a squeeze bottle for the first time. Is the connection to childhood important?
LB: Yes, I’m really interested in the developmental moment where you’re learning how and what to name something. A lot of the work points to the time in childhood when you start to look at other people’s differences, and point to them as different. I’m interested in the moment when we’re starting to define ourselves and the other, and boundaries, and thinking about that in a reparative way. And that is also what fulfilled the urge to make a coloring and cursive learning book, which was also a component of the show.
JS: This moment in childhood that you are describing—are you drawing from specific memories or are you thinking about difference and boundaries as a metaphor?
LB: It’s more of a metaphor. I have a second, concurrent solo show that just opened at Disclaimer Gallery in Brooklyn, and the interactive sandbox piece installed there suggests the space of possibility, and of shared vulnerability. What is the potential of acting in adult bodies in that space, giving adults the opportunity to see what happens when boundaries dissolve? I feel really excited about the potential of this show, the sandbox show, and the book all out at the same time because I’m thinking a lot about what access means, and what different kinds of access means for different communities. I’m thinking about the balances of access as it pertains to class and education and how to engage with that critically in different communities, and to kind of always be tangential to one community is the way that I’ve been operating—especially now living between Kassel and Berlin. I think I have an impulse to stay uncomfortable in a way that allows me to be viewing things with a lot of skepticism, but hopefully in service of finding something real in the world in both my curatorial practice and also my work.
JS: Let’s talk more about this—your curatorial work and your plan to initiate curatorial projects in Germany through Field Projects.
LB: Right now I’m living part time in Kassel and part time in Berlin. In thinking about curating, my first question is what kind of projects do both of these cities need? In Kassel there’s an art gallery which is an artist-run space called Warte fur Kunst, which translates to “Waiting for Art”. It’s very interesting, it’s been around for about eight years and has a strong conceptual photography bent. Berlin on the other hand has a very vibrant communal artist-run scene. In some ways I’m interested in doing projects in different spaces, and I’ve been thinking about other institutions we can connect to. For example, my partner is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kassel right now, which is partially why we are there, and in her department there is a lab that might be interested in engaging with artistic practice as a mode of research. So I was thinking it could be great to have some of the artists that are doing projects there also doing something with Field Projects. It also might be interesting to think about maintaining a residency program with Field Projects Berlin and having one person that’s local and then another that is international each time, so there’s always a local focus and an outward-looking focus.
JS: How did you begin curating?
LB: The first project I did was a co-curatorial project with the artist Zachary Keeting called Improvised Showboat. It was a great way to engage with our own work in a community-based way. It was so much about the energy of community, and we were able to bring things together rapidly, and we did it every month for about a year. Since then, my ideas about curating have gotten more intellectual, but still very involved in community-making and community-building, and thinking about the translation of ideas. I co-curated a show when I was an MFA student at Yale called Queering Space, which is now traveling to Alfred University, where it will be opening this February. There are six of us that all curated the show, so this collective is now also part of my curatorial practice— and it’s as if I am in a family with the other curators, because it’s such a big project.
JS: I imagine that you view curating as an extension of your own artistic practice?
LB: As a young artist, curating was a way for me to look at another artist and say, I really love what you’re doing, and I have ideas about it too, so let me use the way that I’m able to see your work, and use it as a way to explore my own ideas through your work. And that felt like a really generative process for me and for the people I’ve worked with. I recently curated a show called Appetitive Torque with Rocket Caleshu at Eastside International in Los Angeles, and we had a book of poems published alongside the show, so it was meant to be both a textual and a visual experience. In this way I am trying to think about multiple ways of engaging with communities—which is also very much related to my practice and my work. And so I’m not always alone in my studio.
JS: What is next for you?
LB: The Queering Space show opens in February, so I’ll be busy with that. It’s a pretty sprawling exhibition this time, with a group of about 35 artists. I also have a solo show coming up in Kassel in the spring. I’m also interested in getting my Ph.D. in art practice, and there is a program at the University in Vienna that I’m interested in going to. The conversation between academia and art feels productive to me and is where ideas are living for me, so I hope to be pursuing a degree in Austria in the fall.
Jen Schwarting is co-editor of Field magazine.