May 12, 2010

In Conversation: Lauren Semivan




Lauren Semivan’s work draws on a set of private gestures, performances for (and with) the camera, using a vocabulary of elements from European avant-garde art in the 20th Century (Surrealism and the Futurists, especially) but all seen through the filter of a particularly American sensibility, a colonial Gothic perhaps, fusing more “progressive” high-art influences with those of folk tradition and the accidental brilliance of anonymous snapshots. There is something too of the vogue for spirit photography, of chance encounters, with all the baggage that implies.

One thinks of those artists displaced by the Second World War, adrift in New York and elsewhere, their sense of the irrational not ideally suited to neon and chrome, how new everything was – and how much it promised, just then. But America is older than it seems – haunted even; Semivan’s photographs detail those unconscious histories and their implication. If the gestures seem obscure (perhaps wilfully so) or just inscrutably private, it is important to realise that they are essentially puzzles of reference and concealment, talking about what is not seen, a dialogue with presence. She casts herself as the shadowy manipulator of signs, the material and graphic components of the pictures like fragments of an unravelled language she is trying to re-assemble, but failing, as so much is lost and values re-assign themselves endlessly – it is the language of uncertainty.

These private rooms are the collision of self and history, of the old world with the new, just as these they are nowhere at all, though you might still recognise them. The rituals (if I can call them that), discoveries perhaps, are all interior – that is, the confines of one experience, but then again, going in can often lead you to the way back out. Semivan is playing a serious game.

You can find more of this fascinating work online here. Lauren was also kind enough to answer some questions about it. This is the result:

How did you discover photography, what drew you to it?

I first studied the violin during my childhood and throughout college, but when I felt as though I could not take it any further than just the interpretation of other works, I shifted my focus. Through this I learned how to study and translate a language into more of an abstraction, and in a way that meant something to me. I think this links the two media together for me – to think of it in terms of language.

How I discovered photography itself, or came to make photographs (strangely?) doesn’t really stand out in my memory, but once I first thought to put all of my energy into making photographs, I felt obsessed by a sense of mortality (which may sound funny, but it really affected me at the time) that I had to make sure I would have enough time and energy to invest myself in photography, and to do all that I wanted with it.

Both disciplines (visual art and music) continually inform one-another and help me find and make meaning in my life.

It’s funny you mention the relationship between musicality, language and how you approach making your art because when I first saw the graphic lines that often feature in your pictures they suggested an unravelled musical score or the lines bursting off a page. Perhaps this has something to do with wanting to deal with those undefined experiences or states (like a sense of mortality) right at the edge of language?

Absolutely, although I am more interested in crossing or combining interpretations of language than I am in making photographs specifically about music itself. I think the influence of music comes out intuitively in my work, but I would compare the end result within the photographs to lines associated more broadly with gestures or mark making.

Maybe that has more to do with the experience of making music than music itself. Recently I’ve been thinking about how Maya Deren’s films are influenced by her love of dance and choreography, even the smallest decisions that were made in editing her films. The whole of the environment is an instrument for learning or making meaning (in whatever language or system). Maybe the “undefined” states or experiences are what provoke us to continue to ask questions.

Your pictures seem to have a distinct vocabulary of elements or references, is this something intentional or did it develop naturally as you worked?

I think the use of certain types of objects may be what creates this feeling of presenting parts of a vocabulary. Meaning is always contextual, and I definitely gravitate toward objects as symbols, or thematic clues within images. I think this is part of a sensibility in my work that continues to evolve. I would describe it as additive rather than reductive. The more I work this way, the more challenging it becomes for me to work beyond what I already know, which also keeps me going – learning how to ask new questions and how to dissect formal and conceptual relationships in my work. Learning about decisions and their immediate consequences, almost like an equation having to do with logic or linguistics.

Would you consider what you do to be autobiographical, or a kind of self-portraiture? (Maybe the figure in the pictures can't really be thought of as "you" specifically?)

This is the element of my work that I often have radically different feelings about as time passes and I re-visit certain images with critical distance. Mostly I can’t separate myself from a figure in the photograph, and when I photograph friends as a stand-in for a human presence, I often think of those images as equally autobiographical. I really feel that all art functions in a way that is self-affirming, but self-portraiture is definitely a more literal translation of this idea.

How important is the studio to your work, as an enclosed space, a stage almost, where certain kinds of drama can be acted out? It seems to me that the studio is a metaphor for the psychological interior and what happens there.

My studio process ends up requiring equal parts planning (painting, drawing, looking, reacting) and photographing. As I work with an 8x10 view camera, the photographic process itself is much slower, more studied and controlled. I will often work on the space itself for a few days, responding directly to atmospheric conditions, and then introduce a third dimension when something beings to emerge. This aspect then marries itself with plans, preliminary sketches, and the “decisive” moment. I do spend a great deal of time in a studio setting, and while I’m not working in a studio, I’m trying to think through problems having to do with the physical space itself and its limitations. I do agree that working in a studio setting in this way is a good metaphor for the interior or psychological world. The script always comes from within, but is inspired directly by external phenomena, by everything that isn’t planned and what happens off of the stage or in dreams.

Would I be right then in saying then that you work in an intuitive sort of way, like setting an experiment loose in the studio and allowing yourself to have no firm idea about its outcome? Or, to put it another way, is your approach a method for getting at those moments you couldn’t otherwise preconceive?

This is true, and it's really the only way that I can access much of what I feel I'm looking for. But if I can't pre-conceive these moments, then there is no hypothesis, and the experiment is for its own sake. Einstein defined the physical universe as all things that move needles (anything that can be measured with an instrument). If I look at this in relation to my work I can think of the instrument as something that is capable of both precision and abstraction.

So I do work intuitively to some extent, but usually plan with preliminary sketches what is going to happen in a photograph, or I begin with an idea based on an object, story or reference. When a photograph is successful, I admit that I feel more of a sense of purpose while shooting than when it just isn’t working, which seems like a pretty obvious thing to have happen, but it’s subtle. Feeling around in the dark is always necessary, but then I have to consider what to do with what I think I might have found, not necessarily what it is right away.

What about influences? It feels like you work with a particular fusion of 20th century avant-garde and an early American vernacular. (Something like Joseph Cornell perhaps? That goes back to the studio idea again, with his boxes).

I’ve always responded to very specific influences. Like many other artists, I would imagine, this feels more like a chemical or physical affinity, and goes beyond a formal appreciation for certain kinds of imagery. I’ve always been fascinated by the early 20th century avant-garde in Europe, but there is also a point where these influences cross over into symbolism in painting (like Vermeer or Wilhelm Hammershoi, for instance) or even classical mythology. I think most of these influences are pointing me to something larger that can translate conceptually across media, and that is the idea of the unknown. I’ve always felt that questions are more interesting and more revealing than answers.

Influences are translated through individual experiences, and will inevitably reflect this, as well as the artist’s particular moment in history. Joseph Cornell is a really good example of this. His boxes were very studied, carefully rendered “portraits,” but they also reflected his own sensibilities and became part of a language he is remembered for.

Are the “questions” in your work then part of its own private language? I suppose what I’m really asking is how you would like them read, to be analysed or left intact, with all their contradictions and mystery?

Often I am conscious of subverting systems within my work, and maybe the medium of photography is itself a subversion of many systems; of language, of truth, etc. My own "questions" almost always come out of an attempt to linguistically or theoretically subvert systems of knowledge, pre-existing forms of interpretation. I really feel that while I want the work to be interpreted and analysed for many potential meanings, the questions that I am posing in my work cannot exist outside of the images themselves, or they would not fit within any other system. I think that feeling a kind of responsibility to reveal something that would otherwise be hidden is why I make photographs. I would also argue that this is why many artists work at all - the knowledge that they can say something new by intuiting a language of their own. So, I do want the photographs to be "unpacked" - but not in any way that is definitive or conclusive.

Finally, where do you think your work is headed in the future?

I have recently started planning for my 2nd solo exhibition with David Klein Gallery (Detroit, MI) next year. It is difficult to see that work clearly at this point, as the date for the show will be well into 2011. I know that I would like that work to represent a more deliberate departure from my previous series. I often wait for images to dictate what comes next, or speak for themselves, but have been feeling the need for a challenge or conceptual shift as I plan for this exhibition.

Since I began my recent body of work (about four years ago) I have over and over again immediately translated colour into grey in my mind, as I consistently worked only in black and white. As I analyse newer images, I am becoming much more conscious or aware of relationships between colour and metaphor, especially in the history of painting. I had to make enough images in black and white that originally were meant to function based on colour, where colour was conspicuously absent, for that to finally occur to me. So, in the coming months I will likely be working on a series that very deliberately uses colour.

There is a documentary about Sally Mann called "What Remains" in which she claims the thing that most subverts your next body of work is all the work that has come before it, and that each new good image raises the bar. I think this has to be one of the more challenging things about being an artist, the seemingly simple task of carrying on with your work, or taking the next step, and realizing where that step actually fits within the larger picture. I think that idea Sally Mann mentions is also connected to not being afraid of the unknown, which is where everything good lives anyway.

Thanks Lauren!