“An Amalgamation of Looking Up and Down”: An Interview with Lauren Rice
See more of Lauren Rice’s artwork in Vol. 40.2 here.
Lauren Rice is the winner of the 2021 Southeast Review Art Contest in its 2021–2022 run, judged by artist Ming Ying Hong. Rice is a visual artist, writer, curator, and professor. She has exhibited her work solo and in collaboration to an impressive extent, and boasts experience in many fellowships and residencies.
Rice submitted all collage pieces to our contest. Shapes, flecks of color, and a contrast in textures rule the experience of her work. One finds oneself investigating the edges of paper glued to the canvas to see if they’re cut sharp or frayed and torn. Rice says of her own work:
My work is a playful experiment into finding order with a wide assortment of materials, processes, and marks. I do not begin with a preconceived idea of what the end result will be. Instead, my studio practice has long been preoccupied with bringing together disparate parts and reusing studio scraps in order to discover a new and unexpected “whole.” This practice feels more urgent considering our present national and global circumstances. Independent bits and pieces, which on their own can seem insignificant, begin to reference the relationship between the individual and the community. Through my collecting and arranging of various parts into new contexts, I continue to explore the boundaries between dichotomies—order and chaos, prominence and obscurity, control and chance, and elegance and awkwardness.
Over the course of the interview, Lauren and I discuss collage as an artistic medium, as well as the complex motivation behind her artistic choices and the themes that interconnect her pieces.
Haley Laningham: How did you get started with collage? Is there a reflective epiphany you experienced to make this creative jump or did it start with spontaneous experimentation?
Lauren Rice: When I started my MFA program in 2006, I was a pretty traditional painter, working with oils on stretched canvas. Over the course of my first year in grad school, I began to question my relationship to these materials and asked myself if they were the most appropriate to my conceptual interests and personal idiosyncrasies. My fate as a collage artist was sealed, so to speak, after spending the summer of 2007 as an art instructor at an art camp for kids. I was bowled over by the young students’ unrestricted sense of play, their unabashed creativity, and their willingness to explore various materials, both traditional and nontraditional. I started working with collage on paper at this time as a way to move through ideas quicker than with oil paints, to explore various materials and textures, and to give myself time to play in a way that was outside of my frame of reference as an oil painter. I spent my second year of grad school working with collage on paper, cut paper, and paper installations incorporating found and artist-made materials. Since then, my work has had periods of being more sculptural and installative, but over the past several years, I’ve committed myself to working almost exclusively on and with paper collage.
HL: How would you describe the visual pursuits in your current work?
LR: My recent paintings explore messages of love and care in times of difficulty through a combination of abstraction and hidden, textual imagery. X’s and O’s have long played a role in my work, first as a by-product of a diamond/grid pattern that I used as scaffolding within my paintings, and then as intentional subjects in their own right. I am interested in the capacity of these symbols to function as both mark/image and as writing/communication. The disguised X’s and O’s, paired with disrupted patterns and layered, gestural marks, create an unsettling tension. They indicate hugs and kisses, but also disruption and uncertainty.
Nodding to textiles, as well as the nuanced history of abstract painting, I am interested in the pleasure of ordering—finding joy through creating patterns and assigning significance to odd items. Gardening, astrology, geology, and the phases of the moon are of particular interest, as are the various ways cultures have historically kept track of time, through rituals, calendars, mark making, and writing.
HL: What about what you collage, the actual things, I mean—there are sequins and paper, and to me, the most interesting thing in your work is contrast of texture. How do you choose what materials to include? Is it just what’s around to be explored, or objects you find and bring to a piece with purpose?
LR: While “what’s around to be explored” definitely has an impact on what materials I use in my paintings, my use of found materials also began in the mid-aughts when I was in graduate school. I was inspired by artists like Jessica Stockholder, Wangechi Mutu, and Elliott Hundley, among many others who used found or mass-produced materials as critical, conceptual components within their work. I also have a fascination with artists like Miriam Schapiro, whose “femmages” from the 1970s embraced kitschy mixed-media associated with domestic “women’s work.” Ultimately, I am fascinated by a material’s ability to transcend its original uses or designations and become something beautiful, strange, mysterious, or magnificent. This is rooted in my interest in how a material’s meaning/worth may change over time through an understanding that meaning is fluid, not fixed. I am also obsessed with the comparison between marks—brush-made marks versus pours, cut versus ripped, or a bead or sequin versus a painted dot, for a few examples. I have an unofficial studio rule that next to nothing gets tossed. I keep storage bins filled with scraps and cutouts from failed or unfinished paintings, my kids’ paintings and drawings, etc. I purchase and collect various materials like beads, glitter paper, sequins, yarn, ropes and strings, sticks, leaves, and dried flowers. Over the course of developing my paintings, the scraps begin to dictate their placements through a relationship to the whole. The small, seemingly insignificant moments accumulate, bit by bit, to form larger networks and patterns.
HL: When I research (albeit in a cursory way) Miriam Schapiro, it’s clear that many of her creative concerns evoked the material worlds of women like her, as well as incorporated colors (pinks) or visual themes (the clothes of children) generally associated with women. How do you believe your work and the personal theory-of-sorts you’ve just described relate to a particularly feminist lineage in painting/collage—hers specifically, or in general?
LR: My work can definitely be seen as being in conversation with Miriam Schapiro as well as other artists such as Elizabeth Murray, Howardena Pindell, and Judy Pfaff. I see myself as trying to elevate and explore materials that might go otherwise unnoticed—materials that may be recognized as kitschy, crafty, or low quality. I seek to subvert this expectation in my work, which relates to feminism and disrupting hierarchies. I think Schapiro’s maximal qualities have really influenced me, as have Murray’s shaped canvases that incorporate the negative space of the white wall and her use of abstraction that incorporates fragments of domestic scenes.
Growing up, I watched my grandmother crochet and quilt. She also taught me to sew, embroider, knit, and follow a pattern to make my own clothes. I remember my grandfather also had creative projects—often these stitch-by-number pictures. My mom, a psychologist, also painted and sewed, and my dad, a computer engineer, took apart and rebuilt computers. In addition to drawing and painting as a kid, I got really good at making friendship bracelets and hair wraps with embroidery floss. Although my current work is not textiles per se (and I’ll admit to being a terrible sewer in the end!), these materials resonated with me, and as my paintings have evolved to incorporate more and more three-dimensional materials, it makes sense to me to include them in my work.
Domesticity has a way of seeping into my work. My studio is in my home, and my kids often work in the studio with me. Their art materials find their way into my work. Studio time is squeezed between household stuff and teaching preparation. I don’t see this as a burden, but rather as part of the work. Everything I do is a question. What if I cut this out, rip this up, include this shoelace? What can I do if I only have fifteen minutes in the studio? It’s about discovery, really—about the relationship between making and motherhood, destruction/creation, order/chaos, rebellion, failure, defeat, success, and problem-solving.
HL: Independent of what you’ve mentioned in this interview, I noticed the repeated motif of diamond shapes. You describe them as a grid onto which you often place X’s and O’s. Why a grid of diamonds? How do you believe they direct or order the viewer’s attention and what effect are you seeking in depending on this shape through multiple pieces?
LR: The diamond shapes and patterns originated in some of my early sculptural work when I was investigating materials like nets and lattice. I noticed how the lattice created a wall of X’s and the negative shapes created a gridded diamond pattern.
I am particularly drawn to the diamond shape because it is ubiquitous and we find it represented across cultures and time periods. The Blombos Ochre Plaque, estimated to be more than seventy-five thousand years old, is engraved with a geometric, diamond pattern. Today, diamond-shaped signs along the road tell us about what to expect up ahead. In this way, I see a divinatory aspect to them. I find the diamond shape to be more spiritual than the square (sorry Malevich!).
The larger pattern, shape, or structure in my paintings creates a sense of stability, while many of the interior, smaller marks have their own agenda separate from the bigger picture. I don’t want my work to be easy to look at.
HL: The angles visible in many of these works house circles and squiggles. I’m still gaining a vocabulary in talking about art that more distinctly disengages with narrative, and yet visually–especially in Moon Shapes and Time Is a Sunset–when I look long enough some kind of natural scene or feeling emerges for me. However, the work also refutes any sense of realism which could order those natural scenes. Are your choices all play-based, or do you arrive at a vague emotional plan when doing works like these? Are planning and play at odds inherently to you?
LR: I love this prompt and your read of my work. I agree that my paintings evoke natural worlds like landscapes, though they are rarely immediately recognizable. Even more so than “land,” I am often thinking about the sky and cosmic phenomena. I hope to impart a sense of the awe of looking up in my work, or some amalgamation of looking up/looking down. I want my work to reference types of light, different atmospheres, various times of day, sometimes a multitude of sensory experiences—all at once. There is definitely an emphasis on mood or felt sensation rather than narrative. Although I love words, I find that there is always a gap between a thought and spoken/written language—something ineffable, something missed, something impossible to wholly articulate with words.
When I start a painting, I usually have a vision of what I want to create. I often have a color scheme in mind and an idea of the shapes, patterns, or pours that I will be starting with. However, as soon as I make the first mark, the vision evolves, as it is always different in real life than it is in my initial idea. Inevitably, there is always a sense of failure/impossibility at this point. And then I spend time looking at the piece and determining the next step. I guess this could sound debilitating, but I really love it—both the let down and the experience of discovery. Most of the paintings I make turn out wildly different from my original idea, usually better and more complicated that I could have conceived of.
In the recent David Zwirner Dialogues podcast focused on Matisse’s The Red Studio, MoMA curator Ann Temkin speaks with several contemporary artists about their painting process. Rashid Johnson calls it a “love affair” and Lisa Yuskavage describes it as “stalking.” Since listening to this episode, I’ve been trying to define my relationship to my own painting process. The best that I’ve come up with so far is that it is a call and response—a conversation (or sometimes an argument) with the painting. I’m always trying to push the work past previous experiences, methods, or tactics. I hate repeating myself. When I incorporate repetitive motifs in my work, I like to add some type of wild card. Something to keep me on my toes.
I see planning and play as two sides of the same coin. There is a strategy to play, and there are rules that each specific painting dictates. I think that I am essentially creating visual puzzles for myself to try and solve, and I love relying on my intuition to do this. I am amazed at the things my body knows how to do that are beyond the capacity of rational thought, and I often think of my art practice as a direct line to intuition. This may be getting beyond the question, but the creative act, to me, is a rare occasion when I feel completely present in the moment. Time becomes irrelevant, if only for a few hours.
HL: How do you arrive at these titles? They must come after the work is done, right?
LR: Most of the time, the title grows with the work. Sometimes, titles arrive in my brain, like an apparition or an immediate upload. Many are descriptive—in Unearthed, I use a lot of browns, reds, and teals, referencing dirt, rust, excavation, and oxidation. Other titles are inspired by sections of poems, songs, and books that I am reading. Time Is a Sunset comes from this fabulous children’s book called Time Is a Flower by Julie Morstad that explores methods of visualizing time—an area of research that I am really into. Throughout the past year, I’ve been immersed in studying astrology—another way that humans have tried to describe the quality of time + celestial events/cycles. Many recent titles are influenced by this research.
HL: I spent time closely observing some of the more standout materials. Unearthed uniquely incorporates some archival digital prints. I’m just curious—what were the prints originally images of?
LR: I scan parts of paintings that I like and then incorporate inkjet prints of these scans into the work as collage material. This is what I used in Unearthed. My early collage work incorporated more overt representational imagery and the scans are a throwback to that. They also have a relationship to my collaborative work with my husband, Brian Barr. We incorporate digital imagery in our collaborative practice, and I’ve absorbed this into my personal studio work.
HL: What’s going on in your artistic life that you’d like to mention to our readers?
LR: From January–March 2023, I’ll have three large paper pieces included in 18, an exhibition of eighteen contemporary abstract artists at the Janice Charach Gallery in metro Detroit. In June, Brian and I will have a collaborative installation included in Drawing in Space at the Alabama Contemporary Art Center in Mobile. We are also in the process of launching a new exhibition space called Take the Mantel in our suburban Richmond home. We hope to have our first show in Spring 2023.
HL: I think it would be interesting if you left us with a personal directive on how to experience collage. What ought a viewer be looking for, feeling out, or letting go in observing collage?
LR: My advice is probably fitting for looking at art in general, not just collage, but I think we all need to slow down. Social media has rewired us to look at things so quickly—to make an assumption or judgment and move on. I want to encourage readers to see art in person and spend time with it. Instagram is terrible with textures, with the details. Look from multiple angles and try to discover how it was made. If you’re looking at art on social media and something catches your attention, develop a ritual to spend time with the work. I try to stop scrolling and write at least two sentences about it before moving on.
Also, I think that we can learn a lot from imitation. If you see something you like (or that you hate, for that matter), try and make it. That way, you develop a real, learned experience about the complexity of making, especially with abstraction, which is often disregarded as “easy.” One reason I love collage is because it’s so accessible. Most of us have already made collages at some point in our lives. I think that everyone should make their own collages with materials that they have on hand. Anything goes!
HALEY LANINGHAM is a PhD student in poetry at Florida State University and holds an MFA from the University of Oregon. She acts as the Art Editor for Southeast Review.