KAREN LEDERER | HANDS OFF
Karen Lederer’s mixed-media work combines masterful techniques in printmaking with drawing and painting in acrylic and oil. Her awards include the SIP Award from the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop Program at The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, the Keyholder Residency Program at the Lower East Side Printshop, and the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program. Born and raised in Manhattan, Lederer lives and works in Brooklyn.
Lederer’s debut at Field Projects, Hands On, invoked the historic Women’s March that took place in New York City, Washington, D.C., and around the world following the inauguration of President Trump. In some of her most poignant works, Lederer captured the days leading up to the march, with the artist in the cut-and-paste process of building her own signs of protest. Other works on display celebrated the everyday currencies—publications, consumer objects, edibles and detritus—of the artist’s studio life. In the interview, Lederer and I talk about self-portraiture, Instagram, feminism, and pop culture.
Jen Schwarting: In your solo exhibition, Hands On, you included a few self-portraits. I was interested to learn that self-portraiture is a new territory for you. How did this body of work come to be, and what was important about representing your own self-image?
Karen Lederer: I had studio visits a while back with my friend, painter Hilary Doyle. At the end of each of our visits, we asked one another about the next challenge in our work. She said I should try making a portrait because my paintings revealed bits of the figure, like the feet or hands, but never the face. Many of these paintings featured a tight, directed first person point-of-view similar to an Instagram photo. The shift to depicting more of the figure moved the paintings into a third person perspective. Here the figure, at the moment me, is revealed more completely. It seemed important to start my relationship to the figure by depicting my- self. I always saw the hands in my paintings as my hands, and the objects in my paintings often relate back to things I like or have around the studio. In that way, the paintings have always been self-portraits. Only now I am presenting that fact more clearly.
JS: The moment I stepped into the exhibition, I was struck by your full self-portrait hanging on the back wall. In it, you depict yourself reading an Elena Ferrante paperback, the cover of which is prominently and clearly reproduced. The book is an Italian translation, and one in a series by Ferrante that is enormously popular. When I saw it, the gallery assistant was sitting at the desk—in front of your painting— reading the same book. Can you talk about the novel’s significance and your decision to represent it?
KF: The product placement in the paintings often seems to have an effect on the people around them. I sold a painting of a fish tank with a La Croix seltzer can outside of it. The painting’s owner started to drink La Croix after that. Needless to say I was delighted when I saw the gallery assistant reading the book. I tore through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. They tell the story of two women from childhood to old age. I had never read such an epic story about women from the perspective of a female character written by a female author. I saw myself reflected in the desires and setbacks of the characters. Elena Ferrante’s personal biography also contributes to the meaning of the painting. Like Hillary Clinton, she was one of the most notable women of 2016. She was also betrayed by a man who, against her will, revealed her true identity.
I visited an artist’s studio with Jacob Rhodes. The artist made paintings of lowers and we got into a conversation about explicit feminism in art. We talked about how people sometimes shy away from the term “feminist” because they don’t want to appear strident. I came away from the discussion wanting to be more explicit than ever about my stance. Hillary just lost the election, and I felt there wasn’t enough acknowledgement of the deep sadness that many women felt for the missed-chance at a female presidency. I wanted to depict “The Future is Female” shirt because it was so full of hope. The second of the Neapolitan Novels goes by the title, The Story of a New Name. Seen together with the t-shirt, a question begins about the meaning of the phrase.
JS: The flat, saturated colors you use translate to images that are so bright and graphic, even radiant, in reproduction on a computer screen. Viewing the works in person, the collage of techniques that you employ is more apparent. I noticed a strong drawing element and soft pencil marks in the strands of hair in one of your figures, making the work appear surprisingly nuanced up close. Can you talk about both your hands-on painting/drawing/printmaking techniques, and also your understanding of how the work functions on the screen? Is there a way to reconcile the two viewing experiences?
KF: Digital images always seem to flatten out the surface of my paintings. I’m happy when people experience the art in person, and they are surprised to see the varying textures of the printmaking ink, paint, marker, and pencil. It’s important to me that seeing images in an Instagram feed can never surpass standing in front of the physical works in a gallery.
I always begin a piece by making a drawing. I create stencils for sections of the image that have a color gradient or appear either super lat or textured. After I print those plates through an etching press, I ix the paper onto a panel and complete the rest of piece with paint. Recently I’ve also started to incorporate other drawing materials. While the work appears collaged, it is actually all one, continuous surface.
JS: I enjoy the repetitions in your work and the through-lines the reoccurring elements create between works in the show. Of the many motifs you employ, my favorite is the pair of scissors. I particularly love the image of the scissors slicing through what appears to be a catalog of Modernism, featuring a Matisse paper cut-out. The scissors seem to have their own agency, a force of both creation and destruction. How do you see them?
Many of the paintings capture an ambiguous moment of things either coming together or falling apart. For example in the painting “Cut-outs” you see feet standing on a floor that’s covered in colorful scraps and a pair of scissors. This duality of creation/ destruction mirrors my feeling about the current moment. The scraps and scissors also pay homage to my idol, Henri Matisse, and his work with cut paper. In the painting Face Off, which you mention, I slice through paper above a book about Matisse and Picasso in an effort to insert myself into their dialogue.
I use scissors to cut the stencils for the printed areas. I love the awkward edge they create and the debris they leave behind. By depicting the scissors, I invite the viewer into the process of making the work itself.
Another reoccurring motif is the snake. You often camouflage the ribbon-like form into the background, yet in Snake Oil, the snake asserts itself, lifting its head up in the foreground of the piece. Here I interpret it as a symbol of duplicity—a serpent. Yet it appears so often in your paintings, I’m curious if there are additional meanings?
KF: I love the snake for its loopy, gestural quality. It can be read as a phallus, a very masculine interloper in the feminine world of my paintings. In Snake Oil, I present a person making a protest post- er. The snake winds in and out of the word “liar,” as a reference to the phrase “snake-oil salesman.” In Face Off, the intertwining snakes push onward in competition, mirroring the professional relationship between Matisse and Picasso.
JS: One of the things I find pleasurable about your work is that it is full of references and clues I can put together that point closely to my own interests and vocabulary. In the image where you are creating a “Hands off my pussy” poster for the Women’s March, I notice you are wearing a Marimekko shirt, a textile I can identify from the section of your shoulder in the piece (because I have dish towels in the same pattern). Your clues are fun to decode, even visual candy for me—because I must be a similar feminist artist “type.” Are you making a comment on niche tastes and trends? Do you envision a particular audience for your work?
KF: Trained as a printmaker, I’ve always admired packaging and re-produced objects. I dot the paintings with products that I have around the studio. With many of these choices I poke fun at a hipster consumer culture in which I am hopelessly complicit. Often the objects form a dialogue with one another. In The Bathers the lowers lean towards a Smartwater, mimicking how the figures interact on the coffee cup. Many of the objects also reference my New York City upbringing like William the Hippo, the famous sculpture and quasi mascot of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a Film Forum t-shirt; Zabar’s mugs and paper bags; and the classic bodega paper coffee cup. A person’s background often determines how he or she reads the references. An Upper West-sider notices the Zabar’s bag immediately. Another person might drink the same Topo Chico seltzer. The products help to pull the viewer in and then he or she can go deeper into the painting.
JS: Given the specificity of your references, including a just-past political protest, do you see the work functioning as a kind of time capsule, marking a moment in time?
KF: I definitely see the work as a time capsule. I believe one of art’s great gifts is its ability to reflect and comment on the feeling of the times. I carried the actual poster featured in Hands Off at the Women’s March. Halfway through the day, the cheap glue stick glue started to give way. The stripes on the cat began to peel off and the letters curled at corners. The poster in the painting how- ever will forever be seen at the moment of its creation.
JS: I see much of this body of work as speaking to the current feminist movement in the dawn of Trump’s unthinkable presidency. I like that there are so many moments of earnestness in the show. For you was there any shift in sensibility—a movement toward sincerity—a gravity or urgency in making this newest body of work?
KF: I think my work always had a pretty heavy dose of earnestness. The current political moment, however, has definitely compelled me to be more overt with my feminism and my resistance to Trump. Female artists are sometimes encouraged to shy away from traditionally feminine subject matter or color palettes so that they can be taken more seriously. I once had a studio visit where the curator exclaimed that I had gone too far because I had depicted lowers. I want to make what I want to make, and I often intentionally take on these “female” subjects to give them agency. In Women of Léger I present a book of Fernand Léger’s art. I redraw his images, filtering them through my hand, and insert them into my environment. I call attention to the act of looking, to our relationship to images, to the chain of influence, and to the male depiction of women.
JS: Last year I brought my students to Chelsea to view a group exhibition that your work was featured in. I honed in on one particular painting and spoke about how much I enjoyed your visual cues—the color wheel and the Joseph Albers book—that to me are timeless, art school color theory references. But several students focused on the trendy food items juxtaposed in the same painting—the coconut water and the Kind bar—and said that it felt cynical to them. It made me wonder, are any of your references subtle signs of contempt?
KF: Partly the Kind bar and the coconut water were included because they mimic other aspects of the painting. The Kind bar has colored stripes on its side, reflecting the color-blocking on the color wheel and Albers book. The coconut water has two hands cradling a coconut on its packaging which refers to the larger human hand in the painting that holds a cell phone. That being said the painting is called Hipster Wellness and it for sure pokes fun at the Instagram phenomenon of documenting and curating all aspects of life. I think contempt is too strong of a word for what I’m conveying. I’m implicating myself for liking these products and obsessing about the phone by including my own hand in the painting.
JS: In another painting at Field Projects, there are more iconic food products—a street-cart coffee cup and a Zabars bag— that humorously bookend a classic still life vase. Although these items are ubiquitous in Manhattan, I wonder if they are also personal to you as a born-and-raised New Yorker. Can you talk a bit about growing up in New York and in proximity to so many cultural archetypes?
KF: These products are definitely personal to me as a New Yorker, and more specifically as an Upper Westsider. Zabars, an epic food store full of smoked fish and an endless selection of cheese and olives, was around the corner from my childhood apartment. The store embodies the spirit of the Upper West Side in its unfussiness and its Jewishness. The Zabar’s bag in the painting speaks to where I’m from. The Strand bookstore, another New York establishment, greatly influences my work. There I search through used artist books for inspiration. I’ve depicted many of the books I’ve purchased there in my paintings and I also dis- covered a small catalogue of Picasso’s ceramics which began my love affair with his work. Another aspect of growing up in New York was my access to great museums. Instead of being places for occasional visits, the museums of the city were incorporated into my regular routine. I used to draw in the dimly-lit rooms of the American Museum of Natural History and wander through the great halls of the Met. I’ve grown up with these art collections, and my work reflects their constant influence.
JS: What is next for you?
KF: I’m almost finished with my year-long residency at the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program in DUMBO, and will move into a new artist-run space in September. I’m in a number of group shows this summer: Ancient Art Objects at Whitespace gallery in Atlanta curated by Katie Geha, Wrap Around 13 curated by Renée Riccardo at ARENA at Suite 806 in Manhattan, and Pattern Interrupt curated by Guy Ben-Ari and Leah Wolff at AGENCY in Brooklyn. I also have a solo exhibition opening mid-August in Portland, Maine at the Grant Wahlquist Gallery where I’m showing all of my Goldfish and Cheeto paintings.