Interview with C. W. Marshall

© C. W. Marshall and Figure/Ground
Dr. Marshall was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. January 17th, 2014.

C. W. Marshall is Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the Peter Wall institute for Advanced Studies at the University of British Columbia, 2013-14, and is Professor of Greek in the Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies. Dr. Marshall has won numerous awards, including the President’s Award for Outstanding Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Early Career UBC Scholars program, Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, Assistant Professor level, and the UBC Killam Faculty Research Fellowship, University of British Columbia. He has published on numerous topics, including Ancient Theatre and Stagecraft, Greek and Latin Poetry, Performance, translation, and adaptation, and Classics and Popular Culture. Dr. Marshall is currently working on three book projects: Tragic Direction: Structure and Performance in Euripides’, Son of Classics and Comics, and The Cambridge Introduction to Greek and Roman Theatre. Dr. Marshall received his PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 1993.

How did you become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

It was certainly the way I was always headed, but I’m not sure I’d call it a conscious choice. More of a fait accompli. I was excited by my subject, I could do it, and I was very fortunate to have opportunities. Once I finished my doctorate at Edinburgh, I worked a number of years as a sessional. I moved every year, but I always had some work, and it was always in Canada. That experience taught me a lot: teaching different courses each year, living in different parts of the country, meeting and working with new people all the time. It was during that time that I did make the decision not to re-certify my lifeguarding certificate — there was a conscious choice that I was going to make Classics work. About two years later, I  was given my first tenure-track job, at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s.

How important were guidance and mentorship during those formative years?

Because I had come from the UK system, I really had no idea how the North American job market worked, and I didn’t know the questions I should have been asking. As a result, the annual meetings and the job fair could be a lonely and barren time. I did meet several wonderful people who did support me, and they remain very important to me: Senior academics who were role-models for the type of scholar I wanted to be. That was important and it encouraged me to persevere.

The value of ongoing mentorship is really important, and I continue to benefit from it. I also try to model it well for my students and junior colleagues.

In your experience, did the role of the university professor and student-professor relations change much since you were an undergraduate?

It’s hard to say, because my understanding of being a professor has changed so much in that time as well. Perhaps because of my theatre background, I am much more aware of the ways in which I am performing when I teach, both in- and out-of-class. When I teach, I am not only conveying certain facts about antiquity, but modelling a way of asking questions, a way of reading evidence, and trying to do so in what I hope will be seen as an entertaining and enthusiastic way. My self-consciousness about what I do has changed so much that measuring any other changes might be misleading.

There’s a lot about the profession that I was unaware of when I was an undergraduate. I was often in the theatre, and likely was unaware of the pressures that academics constantly negotiate. If anything, I overcorrect for my earlier lack of awareness by advocating for complete transparency: especially with grad students, I want them to understand the choices that are being made (by them, for them), and to help them navigate through the difficulties with information, so the decisions they make are more informed than mine were.

How did these two aspects of your career (a pedagogue, a man of theater) further reinforce one another? Did having practical work experience outside the academy help you become a better professor?

I was very fortunate because I just sort of fell into theatre. My first degree was in Classical archaeology, but while I was doing that I was spending my spare time at the university theatre. Then, as it does, the theatre started taking over. I had started an improvisational comedy troupe, and that gave me lots of stage time and a network of friends. We were performing twice a week, offering workshops, etc., all riding this wave of enthusiasm and naive optimism. But it worked. I learned a lot about performance, about measuring the response of an audience – well, about everything, since I really knew so little when it started. At the same time, I had pitched staging two Greek plays back-to-back, and I had translated one of them. (This was done no doubt to impress my Greek professor at the time, who was teaching us Homer and Euripides and luring me away from archaeology.) When the director backed out, I sort of fell into his position, becoming a director by default.

I didn’t know it then, but my path was set. I started new comedy groups in new cities (most are still performing in one form or another), and directed more tragedies on modern stages. When I started my doctorate, I was working on Greek theatre entirely (doing improv in the evenings) and archaeology was put to the side. Except that new trends in scholarship started looking at vase painting (and other objects) for visual evidence for the ancient theatre. So I still get to use material culture in my research and teaching, even when I’m talking about plays and theatre history.

In that sense, then, theatre gave me a direction for my research that has proved very productive. I approach ancient texts asking questions about practical effects (what an actor had to do; how masks work; what an audience perceived; etc.) and I’ve been able to experiment when directing to see if I actually believe what I think the sources are saying after I’ve tried to make actors replicate those effects. It’s also taught me how to read around the scripts. With ancient theatre, scripts are for the most part all that survive – the words spoken. But that’s such a small part of the Total Theatre Experience. My work with improv gave me a vocabulary and a way of thinking about theatre that did not privilege the words spoken, and it’s helped me understand many of the non-verbal elements of ancient performance. There’s a constant feedback loop, and the two worlds reinforce one another and help each other develop.

I’m interested in pre-thetic forms of communication, i.e., interactions that precede the explicit exchange of messages to be encoded and decoded in a lineal fashion. What else can you tell us about the non-verbal elements of ancient performance and their role as a vehicle to focus practices on stage?

Theatre puts a frame around an action, and it invites interpretation of anything within that frame. Everything that appears on stage is potentially interpretable, because almost everything has been put there by choice. Someone’s choice, whether or not it was made consciously — the stage manager, the director, the costumer, someone. And each choice is governed by a series of constraints: on the one hand exist the artistic visions and experiences of those involved, and on the other are practical concerns such as budget, time, availability of resources, the safety of actors on stage, and the laws of physics. Very little of that matters to the spectator, who is being given the opportunity to watch some other world, but the constraints still shape what it is that she sees. The pauses that an actor makes, the intonation of the delivery, small gestures are all cues to the depth of the character even if the actor doesn’t intend for them to be taken as such. Because they exist in the performance, they invite interpretation.

There’s no way to catalogue all of those things: there are simply too many of them, and all of them communicate on a non-verbal level. The actors present their characters and the spectator considers all that is presented, and (here is one of the more wonderful things about theatre) then actively works to construct a coherent meaning out of what she sees. Because the spectator has invested in the performance (with time, with money), she also invests a critical energy in interpreting the whole of the stage world. Further, each spectator does this individually, and yet shares in the collective (audience) experience. Directors and playwrights can manipulate that investment, though the practical constraints will always be present.

That’s not quite what you’re asking, of course, but it starts to show much information is lost about ancient performance. The script is a small amount of that experience, but it may be all that we have. Western literary criticism has long been logocentric, and I think it’s healthy to think about other elements that might be less well attested about the performance.

Masks offer one example — stage performers wore masks in both Greece and Rome, and these masks communicated information about the character to spectators. The audience might not know that a character won’t be named in the play (i.e. will end up as “Messenger” or “Nurse” in the surviving script), because visually the character is presenting as much information as a named character is. Masks also help to strip away the individualizing elements of all characters, presenting a face onto which it is easier to project one’s own sense of the character’s identity. We can see ourselves in Medea or as a messenger more comfortably because of this stylization.

Greek theatre was not naturalistic — among its more characteristic features was that it was a kind of musical theatre. The singing and dancing and musical accompaniment add additional layers that were available to the ancient audiences but are more or less completely lost to us today.

Speaking of frames and musical theatre, one trend in stage performance generally in this age of digital media is that background processes tend to come to the fore more than ever before. In live music performances, for instance, what happens off stage and backstage appears to be just as important as what happens on stage. Metallica’s recent concert in Antarctica comes to mind as an extreme contemporary example: not only did the environment itself become more thematic to our awareness, but fans were invited to share the stage with the band members. Has the on-stage, off-stage divide blurred somewhat in theater also? Did public participation vary much throughout the ages?

There’s a lot in your question, and so I’ll just touch on a few of the issues. While I’m interested in digital media and opportunities that they provide, I feel strongly that there is something special about being in the same physical space at the same time as the performer. Live theatre offers opportunities (and risks) that don’t otherwise exist. The communication is bidirectional as well — the presence and nature of the audience changes the performance itself.  That’s not true with cinema, for example: the performance is the same regardless of the people in the audience, though of course individual audience members will experience it differently. Liveness offers a vital dynamic, and it’s something that concerts offer as well.

Most of the time. I don’t know much about your Metallica example, but as I understand it the bulk of that concert’s audience was streaming in, or will see it after the event. Even those that were there had the experience mediated through headphones. That’s cool, but it is working to privilege the technology over liveness. That’s a choice, and it offers some artistic opportunities, but they’re different from the ones I’m talking about.

You also mention environmental conditions. This is something that the outdoor theatre of the Athenians had to deal with. We know very little about how a festival would be affected if it rained on a day plays were to be performed, but it will have had an effect. The wind, the sun, precipitation, temperature — these things affected the ancient experience of the theatre but they don’t if I’m streaming something online. Indoor theatres try to control for many of those variables, creating a more homogeneous theatre experience.

In my outdoor, masked productions of Roman comedies, the actors have performed in wind and rain (March in Newfoundland) or with snow on the ground (March in Ontario), with audiences cuddled up, drinking hot chocolate or hiding under umbrellas. It’s exciting watching theatre when the musician’s script has blown away.

As to the importance of the off-stage/on-stage divide: that’s a distinction that’s always been important, and different cultures explore it in different ways (so yes, it has varied over time). One of the questions I have discussed is how parts are divided between actors. Because of the dramatic competitions (and the pressures of economy) most ancient plays doubled roles among a limited number of actors. I’m interested to what extent an average spectator might “see” the actor beneath the mask, recognizing the same body and voice (actors were celebrities then too!) literally underneath the character being played. How then does that perception connect the characters, providing additional information with which to interpret the plays. I see indications that playwrights used doubling to create some virtuoso effects, but it depends on the spectator possessing a dual vision, capable of seeing the off-stage reality alongside the on-stage one.

I fancy the idea of the actor beneath the mask and how spectators partake in the construction of characters on stage through intersubjective audience participation. To what extent does this process relate to everydayness? Did Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical model and mask theory inform your thinking about theater performance in any way?

I’m sure the process does relate to “everydayness”, but that’s not what theatre’s about — for me, at least. Goffman uses theatre as a metaphor for real-life interactions. That’s a powerful analytic tool, and it’s amazing how easily theatrical language seeps into the everyday world: the parts we play, the masks we wear, our choice of costume, role, whether we put ourselves centre stage, etc. Though the metaphor is vibrant, I want to insist that there’s still something special about the actual theatre, the experience of going to a designated place to see a narrative being performed by real people. It’s not that it’s the only thing, but it’s what I want to understand better.

That’s not to say that the knowledge can’t be transferred to other contexts, but my concern is drilling down to the specifics of what happens in a certain type of social activity.

One such type of social activity you seem concerned with is Greek and Roman theatre. What fundamental principles introduced by the Greeks and Romans remain very much at work in contemporary theatre?

For the history of Western theatre, it’s pretty much all there from the start. Different performance venues offer different performance opportunities, but the continuity of theatre over time, the fact that it remains comprehensible, is really astounding. Here though are three things that stand out for me.

First, ancient theatre is a densely networked experience. Plays allude to other plays, and the competence of the audience is really pushed. You never need to know the previous works, but when you do there’s an added dimension.  A recent book has called this “metapoetry”, on analogy with (and as an intersecting set of) the term “metatheatre”, when plays recognize their own status in theatre. So at the end of Euripides’ Hecuba (a play from the late 420s BCE), the character of Agamemnon has his future predicted to him, and is told the details of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (a play from 458 BCE, but which was likely reperformed in the 420s). Euripides writes himself into the Aeschylean continuity, but as a prequel of sorts, retroactively cancelling (or at least having the opportunity to cancel) the earlier-but-happening-later play.

The fifth century was also a period of great experimentalism in theatre. We know of a handful of tragedies on historical themes (Aeschylus’Persians from 472 is one of those), and Aristotle tells us that the poet Agathon wrote a play called Antheus that had no mythical (or historical) precedent, that was “pure” fiction. We can look at a theatrical experiment such as Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, in which one of the characters is buried above her waist in sand. Her continued immobility, a fundamental symbol of the play, was (I think) unique in Western theatre at the time, except for Prometheus Bound (a fifth-century BCE play that survives under the name of Aeschylus, but which is probably not by him). The fifth century was a time when drama (as we think of it) was just beginning, and the fundamental principles were still being written. Aeschylus’ Suppliants is a play in which the main character is a group of fifty women, with none of them individuated by name. That’s pretty bold, moreso when we consider The Fifty may was likely represented by only fifteen chorus members on the stage.

Despite this freedom, though, the characters and their situations continue to speak to us. That’s really surprising to me — that I can care more about a character in a play form another culture 25 centuries ago than I do for one emerging from my own culture, in my own language. That emotional connection is there: we care about fictional characters, we build emotional attachments. That’s one of the things Aristotle isolates in Poetics, and it’s surprising, or it should be. We get weepy when characters on tv get together or we are concerned for their well-being at a cliffhanger; sappy song lyrics can still make us tingle… Our willingness to invest ourselves (our time and emotional energies) into stories is a central part of human experience. And theatre offers us a good place to think about that, because it’s a medium that is not governed by technology to the same extent as television, novels, cinema, etc.

After the publication of Understanding Media, McLuhan starts using the term “Global Theater” to emphasize the changeover from consumer to producer, from acquisition to involvement, from job holding to role playing, stressing that there is no more community to clothe the naked specialist. The difference was that a “global theater” according to McLuhan encompasses “the satellite medium that encloses the Earth in a man-made environment, which “ends ‘Nature’ and turns the globe into a repertory theater to be programmed.”  I’d like to hear your reaction to McLuhan’s aphoristic insight and your foresight about the evolution of theater as we enter the digital age…

As before, McLuhan is taking the (powerful, evocative) language of theatre and applying it more broadly. And he’s writing at a time when television is still a relatively new medium, dominating and changing culture. So let’s talk about television! The past few years have seen an amazing change in the nature of television narratives, and I think that that is to be tied to the nature of television economics. The best tv in the 21st century is better than the best cinema (in my opinion), and it’s worth thinking about why that might be. Here’s one way of thinking about it. The traditional model of television economics disempowers the viewer: we become the commodity. The job of television was to sell me (my time spent watching tv) to an advertiser, who sponsored the programming. Any talk of viewer demographics points in this direction: I am interesting as a spectator only so far as what products people of my age and sex typically purchase. That’s changing — not only because with more stations the networks have less of a bottleneck on channelling viewers, but also there are now so many opportunities for the individual viewer to choose what they watch actively: buying DVDs or downloading seasons from online vendors, subscribing to specialty channels that are creating their own content, etc. I am able to be an active economic agent in my television watching today in a way that I couldn’t before, and I can reward directly creators who present challenging or thought-provoking television narrative in a way that I couldn’t when I was the product being sold, and the show was the way to reel me in to watch advertisements. McLuhan’s medium has changed as a result.

Has theater as a formal discipline changed much as a result of structural changes in the university as an institution: pressures from the state and corporations, budget cuts, rationalization for research, research assessment exercises, the development of metrics for scholarly journals, to name but a few factors? 

One change that has helped me a lot is the growing understanding of interdisciplinary scholarship: traditional boundaries separating disciplines are seen to be increasingly permeable, which means that I as a Classicist can publish on television or comic books while still doing work on ancient texts. That’s the good side. The pressures that I experience are common to many who work in the humanities, because the scholarly metrics you describe are often reduced to an undifferentiated basic dollar value. Because a research project is comparatively inexpensive, there’s a perception among some that it’s not valuable. Crazy! Fortunately, though the amounts being allocated are smaller, my experience is that there is a genuine goodwill among those who allocate funds to try to support good research.

You’ve already mentioned plays being performed in natural environments… Indeed, you happen live in a city that’s gifted with natural beauty. Tell us some more about your experiences with stage-making in a postmodern city such as Vancouver…

Vancouver as a city has an interesting relationship with live theatre. There are so many creative and dynamic individuals — including many truly great actors — but in my opinion there isn’t an established culture of theatre-going. Building an audience base is very hard, especially since Vancouver also draws a number of touring shows that are competing for the same market. That’s a generalization, of course, and some venues are doing very well, but again there’s a bottleneck. Even on campus, access to established performance venues is tightly controlled. My life as an academic means that I’m not working in theatre full time, and consequently I am spared many of those hardships. I get to grab opportunities when they are presented to me.

The past few shows I have directed have been in a community venue by the beach. It’s a gorgeous location, and a very dynamic, small, intimate space that is still flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of shows. But it’s an indoor space, and the mountain vistas don’t really impact things. There’s a resident amateur/semi-professional company that puts on five shows a year, and is prepared to take risks in what it chooses to mount. They have season subscribers, and that helps fund what I see as an ambitious season. Those shows typically alternate with professional companies that come in to use the venue. I’ve been able to work with both types of group.

I’ve directed two verse plays by British playwright Tony Harrison there. The first was an adaptation of The Misanthrope, transferring the action to Washington D.C. It was an unperformed script set in the George W. Bush era, in Harrison’s characteristic rhyming couplets. Last spring [2013], we did his adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Le Roi s’Amuse, which Harrison calls The Prince’s Play. It’s the play that was adapted into the opera Rigoletto. So two 18th-Century French translations by the same playwright, one comedy and one tragedy. I was able to use five of the same actors in both shows, too, which added another continuity. That was exciting.

I’ve also directed Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, and an adaptation of a Mark Twain script with a new professional company. It’s all enough to keep me feeling creative, but I am under no illusions that this is surviving in the world of the theatre. These opportunities come with an infrastructure that makes it much easier to mount productions. Real theatre people work much harder than I do.

What are you currently working on?

Too many projects! But I enjoy them all. My next book is a study of Euripides’ Helen, a Greek tragedy from 412 BCE, which plays with tone in really interesting ways, and at times is genuinely funny. The book tries to find new categories of evidence for the examination of ancient stagecraft by looking at audience expectations of dramatic structure and the choices a director makes. I’m also working at a few articles: one re-identifying a character from a Roman comedy; one finding a place for a fragment of Euripides that describes Achilles throwing dice; and a co-authored paper on an papyrus fragment about a guy considering buying the slave woman he is sleeping with.  And that’s tied to my biggest project right now, a study of the representations of sex slavery in the comedies of Menander, Plautus, and Terence (the surviving comedies from 321-160 BCE). I’ve written about these comedies before (in The Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy) focusing on how funny they are. Now I want to write a book on how un-funny they are.

Our understanding of ancient slavery is often mediated by historical analogies, and the African-American experience of slavery has really shaped the understanding of these plays. I’m using another model, one from modern Southeast Asia, and the result is a very different kind of play: one that focuses on the weakest and most disempowered members of society (young female slave prostitutes). Even if these examples are all fictional, they demonstrate the place that such women could hold in the (male) imagination of the ancient spectators. What we see is an easy acceptance of trafficking and sex tourism, for example. I want to explore the place that these women hold in their plays, and show the ways in which their physical presence on stage (even when they are not given lines to speak) shapes the interpretation of the plays. They’re still funny, but its a much darker funny than has been recognized before.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to C. W. Marshall and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralon, L. (2014). “Interview with C. W. Marshall,” Figure/Ground. January 17th.
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Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com




A conversation with Judith Linhares

© Judith Linhares and Figure/Ground
Judith Linhares was interviewed by Ashley Garrett. January 2nd, 2014.

Judith Linhares

Judith Linhares is a painter living and working in Brooklyn, New York.  Born in Pasadena, California in 1940, she earned both her BFA and MFA at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland.  Her work has been included in 53 solo exhibitions and more than 175 group exhibitions.  Her awards include the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, the Joan Mitchell Foundation Fellowship, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Adeline Kent Award, three National Endowment for the Arts grants, Anonymous Was A Woman grant, a Pollock Krasner grant and an Adolph Gottleib grant.  Her work is in numerous public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution of American Art in Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Museum of American Art, San Francisco, CA, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT, Berkley Museum of Art, CA, and the Frederick Weisman Collection, Los Angeles, CA.  Linhares is represented in New York by Edward Thorp Gallery and in Los Angles, California by Jancar Gallery.

Special thanks to Brian Wood for his assistance with this interview.

Before we get to the questions I had a thought from seeing this vase of flowers—do you paint from life?

I do not make my work form life. I like to have a vase of fresh flowers in the house and I have cultivated a large flower garden in our farmhouse Upstate to get ideas about color and form.  I’ve thought about this process of painting from life a lot when I started painting flowers I thought I’d just set up some flowers and paint them. That worked for a while, but then I just started making them up. The paintings made from inventing and constructing the flowers have much more intensity. Now I know every flower by heart.

Judith Linhares, Pink and Yellow Daises

Pink and Yellow Daises, 2006, 26 x 22 in., oil on linen, Courtesy Edward Thorp Gallery

I actually find that’s the case too, there’s some kind of real magic in remembering or imagining.  And then you have the complete freedom to make up your own world and you’re not attached to the real world in front of you.

Yes, absolutely. There’s something about internalizing the form and repeating it that’s good.  I miss that my students used to really like to work from the model, and now you can’t force them to do it. I would work along with them in this atmosphere of concentration. I guess I’ll have to hire my own model and do it on my own time.

They’re not doing it as much in school?

In the foundation class I have them paint from the model because it’s just required, and they’re willing to accept that idea as freshmen, but after that they’re really not interested.

So it’s the students that don’t want to do it?

Yeah. There were always at least a few people who would give me an excuse to have a model in the classroom and then I could sneak in a few little gouaches or something, but that just is not happening.  I don’t think you can apply it generally to all schools, I think it’s particular to SVA.  I mean, there will always be somebody who’s really interested in pursuing representational painting, but even those people now will get their own models or work from internet photographs.

Which class do you prefer teaching, Foundation or Third year?

I like them for different reasons.  Directing people through a process and getting to know them is critical in the first year.   I just really like the process, believe in working, and it’s a good way to spend your day.  I don’t think these students at this time are really interested in working like that, they don’t see working in your studio and making discoveries in the physical process as a way to develop their work. Perhaps they will feel differently when they graduate and have their own studios.

Most of my second year class at SVA was based around the model, and the rest of the class was still life—particularly painting the skull. 

I get so much guff from the freshmen who think art is all about the subject.  I think it’s good for your character to have to paint from life —you learn a kind of discipline by sitting still and struggling in a gap between what you see and what you can actually make.  It’s good for you; everybody should have to do it!

How did you know or discover that you were an artist?  What was your first encounter with painting?

My grandmother raised me and she had this painting of a bucolic scene with cows by a lake.  I still remember it, as it was the only painting in the house. We were quite poor, so we didn’t have a lot of paintings or books—we did not have a television in the house until my teens. Books with pictures really impressed me like Currier and Ives 19th century popular prints; they’re very kitschy.  There are couples kissing in the forest and going for sleigh rides, as well as their political cartoons.  The other book that we had with pictures was an illustrated Bible and some connection between the stories and the pictures was resonating within me.  As far as discovering I was an artist, basically, I knew that I really couldn’t do anything else, ever.  I was fairly athletic but nothing extraordinary.  In the fifth grade, I was the only one who could draw a Conestoga wagon and I received some attention for this skill.  I was constantly trying to improve my drawing skills by drawing the desert yucca plants or coping scenes from Wonder Woman in grade school composition books. The desert landscape is very deeply embedded in my roots.

I’ve heard that from other artists—that they were singled out to draw things in an early childhood class environment, and they decided that that’s their identity.

That’s right and my family was not in any manner traditional types.  My grandmother was a musician. She went to a music conservatory and later in life enjoyed playing the organ in a retro movie theater to epic Hollywood Westerns shot on the neighboring rancheros turned film sets. My grandfather also fancied himself a writer—he would go camping with his dog Poncho in the High Sierras sometimes for six months typing these long letters about his experience. As they all had artistic ambitions of sorts, my discovered talent for drawing made sense to them.

So they were happy to hear that you were becoming a painter?

Well, mother had my life figured out for me—being a painter was just fine because I could become a high school art teacher and have the summers off, which would be really good, as I would be able to spend time going to the beach, because that’s what SHE liked to do!

Where in California did you grow up? Were you or your mother into surfing at all?

Southern California. First, raised by my grandmother in the High Desert town of Newhall where my great-grandfather arrived in 1900 as a blacksmith, then Manhattan Beach near Venice Beach when my mother remarried.  My mother was involved in physical culture.  Her boyfriends were body builders and she took me with her to Santa Monica where they lifted weights. My uncle was into flexing his muscles on the beach lifting me up into pretzel-like show-off poses.  It’s funny–I’m hearing about all my friends  going back to the Middle West for the holidays and remembering how repressive their childhoods where, my childhood was not repressed at all!  There’s a goofy sense of freedom that goes on in California that’s about the enjoyment of nature. It is our birthright.

Judith Linhares, Wave

Wave, 2010, 60 x 84 in., oil on linen, Courtesy Edward Thorp Gallery

How did growing up in California inform your work?

Hugely, in all kinds of ways.  I was a mature artist when I moved to New York and my roots show.  Growing up in California has so much to do with my attitude on so many levels.  One of them has to do with the fantasy of being a survivor in nature that every Californian entertains. People move to California to enjoy outdoors like swimming in the Pacific camping, hiking, hunting, fishing, and all of that.  I think people in the east presume that if you’re an artist you’re just dying to move to New York, but actually Californians think very highly of themselves.  Especially in L.A. where they do take care of their artists very well.  It’s a different kind of environment and it isn’t the trading post the way New York is.  There isn’t as much opportunity. L.A. is vast but there aren’t as many galleries and there isn’t this incredible commercial scene.  Dealers often truck paintings to Hollywood homes for clients to live with before purchasing. Paintings compete with the views out the window. But people have been developing their work living outside of New York, remaining free from the hierarchy of the East Coast.

Living in Los Angles as an adult really wasn’t a possibility for me because my family lived there and I just wasn’t going to live in the same town.  But as my parents were declining I spent a lot of time there, in the last six years I was there a lot, four or five times a year at least and all holidays. I really got to like it and how it sees itself, with the Modernist architecture and the ideal of living inside and outside at the same time.  I grew up there in the 50’s when Modernism was just beginning to be entrenched in America.   Design was a big interest in California, and I realized that the Eameses lived just up the hill from my parents.  Modern design as a way of imagining the future and moving away from the comfort of tradition. In the big picture, I couldn’t imagine myself living there and having to get into my car every day, that part I don’t like but there is a lot to like.  There’s something about the vast yellow hillside fields and twisted black oak trees, and, of course, my desert landscape, that enters you forever, so it’s always going to feel like home.

You’ve said that you’re interested in fairy tales and mythology in your work–depicting those figures in domestic situations, such as napping or cooking, often in an environment bathed with strange light.  What is your attraction to the context of the domestic life?

One of my struggles has been—how do I make something that’s narrative or suggests a story so the viewer can enter it with their own ideas of what’s going on?  So, I do not  like to start with  known fairytales in mind , my first interest was psychology. Carl Jung was interested in the original source of narratives and his ideas about the collective unconscious led to my interest in fairytales. I realized, with the help of Marina Warner, Anne Sexton, and Maria Tatar, who write about fairytales, that mythology is like the grand narrative and fairytales are oral reinterpretations after the myths, a lot of them are very parallel.  But the difference is they’re not taking place ‘on high,’ they’re taking place ‘on Earth’ in these very humble circumstances.  So I think it’s the humbleness of domesticity that I’m interested in—it’s sort of anti-heroic.

I used to paint a lot of narratives with skeletons. Everybody understands that the skeleton is a figure with a certain kind of meaning. I would see other work with skeletons and I would think, “Did I make that?”  The skeleton was so general and anonymous; I realized that I had to get away from it, to paint the figure more particular, more sexy with flesh.

Judith Linhares, Cook

Cook, 2005, 57 x 78 in., oil on linen, Courtesy Edward Thorp Gallery

Can you talk a little bit about your process, do you add and subtract on the canvas?  How do you know when a painting is finished?

I’m laughing because I hope they look like they were made with great ease, but they were not!  I work a lot on paper and have literally thousands of small gouaches.  Some of them start completely abstract and then I read into the painting and pull the figure or the subject matter out of something that’s just a few different shaped rectangles.  So they definitely develop—that’s part of my issue with illustration, if it comes full-blown as an idea then you’re just illustrating something out of your head.  It’s really important to me to have it come to life before my very eyes and surprise me.  I guess I’m not really that ambivalent about the process but sometimes I wonder how I arrived at this process. Working from the general to the specific and then getting it more defined … a little more defined … a little more defined, and that’s just my process. My paintings evolve over a pretty long period of time.  I had an epiphany around the work of the German painter Gunter Forg. His work is done mentally as he sets the stage with the plan in his head of what he is going to do and what he is not going do, then he just makes the work. It is what it is. I love that. I just love it! However, I want a picture … I want an illusion … I want specificity … and it’s just never going to happen that way in my studio.

I’m such an admirer of Hopper. I’m interested in the mythology around what it is to be American, and he’s so emblematic in so many ways. It’s interesting that he was influenced by the movies. This makes perfect sense the way every frame is really constructed and thought out as far as relationships of parts to the whole and what emotional effect those big empty spaces might have.  At a certain point, I just realized I’m not Edward Hopper!

Judith Linhares, Hunger

Hunger, 2010, 22 x 26 in., oil on linen, Courtesy Edward Thorp Gallery

You’ve been in many group-painting exhibitions recently, including cross-generational shows where young painters are seen in context with well-respected and accomplished painters such as yourself.  How do you see this dialogue developing and do you think it’s important for different generations of painters to speak to each other both through their work and in a social context?  What do you think we can share with each other? 

Well first of all, I like young people. I really enjoy teaching—it gives me access to people I’d never have access to if I weren’t teaching them.  And I like the teaching context because I find it very moving to see people and their struggles to make meaning in their lives.  It’s very life-affirming.  I think that every generation has a different take, because you’re coming in to consciousness at different points in history.  I’m interested in the shifts that happen in response to economics and social awareness. I’m interested how people feel about their lives at this moment in time and what is art for and who is it for.

I feel like the art world is really changing, especially over the past five years. There is a new idealism in younger people with a multigenerational effect as part of the desire to be inclusive. We live in a community of artists, and one of the great things we have is the ability to talk to each other. That’s got to be a good thing! I see the phenomenon of curators putting different generations together as part of the promotion of a dialogue.  Some time last year I read Louis Hyde—he had a big article in the Times called “Who is Art For?” and I think especially in view of economic inequality this is the question to be asking. I came of age in the civil rights era and we were very idealistic. It was about seeing the future as non-hierarchical and people being really equal. I think art might be seen as captured by the elite in some way.  Who is art for? is not a subject that gets much attention. These questions are now beginning to be asked and implemented by younger generations.  I really get a kick out of this new job description for an artist—being both the community activist and the gallerist, I mean that’s pretty amazing. It reminds me of the alternatives that went on in California the 60’s then again in Lower Manhattan in the early 80’s where there was a lot of dialogue because the money issue was put aside.

You were included in the seminal 1978 New Museum exhibition “Bad” Painting curated by Marcia Tucker, who was saying that “bad” painting might mean freedom, ie:

“The freedom with which these artists mix classical and popular art-historical sources, kitsch and traditional images, archetypal and personal fantasies, constitutes a rejection of the concept of progress . . . By passing the idea of progress implies an extraordinary freedom to do and to be whatever you want. In part, this is one of the most appealing aspects of “bad” painting – that the ideas of “good” and “bad” are flexible and subject to both the immediate and the larger context in which the work is seen.” 

What do you think of the term “bad painting” today? Do you think it still has currency or potential today? 

Yeah, I think it was a really interesting moment.  Marcia was definitely of the same generation I’m from and she and her parents were active in Civil Rights and feminism.

I think that her vision was to see the New York scene open up to changing forces—to invite in these artists from all over the country to decentralizing New York in terms of the generational flow of Modernist painting. Abstract Expressionism is fantastic, it’s still way up there in my mind as the greatest art ever made, but there was a kind of tyranny around it, where so many possibilities had to be repressed in order to execute the party line. And I think that everybody felt that. I was coming from California, the land of total permission, so I didn’t exactly know; I didn’t have a real feel of where she was coming from.  I hadn’t experienced first hand the tyranny of this kind of Old New York School, but I think that’s what she was pushing against, or she could see the artists were pushing against it.  That we could open the door and let in these other possibilities—it would challenge and topple the old authority. She started a wave of interest not only in painting but a dialogue with the individual artists. This morphed into the bad-boy styles of “Neo-Expressionism” and continues to re-merge in the work of young artists.

Do you think there’s something else that’s like “bad painting” that’s going on today?

There’s a lot of interest in ‘outsider’ work, and certainly that was going on in California fifty years ago! I was collecting, teaching at community centers with Vietnam Vets and at The Creative Growth Center, as well as participating in the 1967 San Francisco Museum of Art “Dia De Los Muertos (Souls and Spirits)” 1979 exhibition. Nobody had a problem with that.  It’s great that there’s more people invited to the party.  I think outsider work represents work that’s done spontaneously, it’s done with a certain compulsive urgency, and it’s mostly done with a pure heart because of the needs of the maker.   This is a wonderful thing to keep in mind.  I’m not sure that it’s important to aspire to, but it’s a nice kind of marker to keep in mind. When I see a lot of work made by outsiders, it makes me long to see a Matisse, it will make me long to see somebody who’s intellectually engaged.

Judith Linhares in the studio

Linhares in her Brooklyn studio

Many of your paintings are of or have female figures in them.  Do you consider yourself a feminist?  What is your interest in the female figure?  What does it mean to be a female painter right now?

I think I was born a feminist!  I come from a long line of Amazons and the revival of feminism in the nineteen seventies was a very revelatory moment for my work—it gave a framework for my thinking. And it gave a context for my previous experiences, which were pretty horrendous.  There’s still a lot of work to be done, I can’t wait for Hillary Clinton to run for president and see everybody go nuts!

The women in my work are just going about their business; they are really not posing. A young painter mentioned recently that my women look like they escaped from the Demosels’ de Avignon or a Cezanne painting and are now on leave pursuing they’re own futures.  I think about their body language and what their appearance might signify in hedonistic reverie and how their presence is different than the presence of the female figure in premodern painting where it was presumed that the male gaze owned the women. In my paintings, the women own the real estate.   Jennifer Riley described this idea about women and real estate in a review of my work, and I love that.

 I LOVE the HBO show Girls! I think that show is revolutionary! The character Hannah [Lena Dunham], is always seen au natural and often scantily clothed, she is not trying to be an ideal beauty. I think she is making a case for “this is the way women actually look you deal with it” and one does not have to live up to impossible ideals off beauty.   The territory of the idealized female form brings to mind the paintings of Lisa Yuskavage. Now that I think about it, Lisa is combining the idealized (the smooth skin conveyed by the wonderfully crafted surface that represents the women’s skin) and the poses that are less than flattering and idealizing.

There has been a conversation about postmodern or ironic painting versus an emerging desire for emotionally honest painting, sincere painting. Thoughts? What do you think about the role of postmodernism and irony in painting?

There’s a lot of art I like  that is ironic. I think it’s fine to strategize ahead of time but it’s just not for me and I don’t know if I can make any blanket statements about irony. I will say being overly earnest and naive is not a good option either.

Seeing Christopher Wool’s show this fall was food for thought.   He has a certain distance in his work that could be seen as ironic and it reminds me that a paint stroke doesn’t mean the same thing as it did in 1955.  I quite like the results and the show at the Guggenheim. You see a mind working through thirty years of painting.

I like really risky work, work that’s embarrassing and makes you uncomfortable.  And certainly his work isn’t embarrassing, it’s incredibly elegant I think one of the particular things that painting offers—is that it is visual and physical.  I see the danger –if you’re a painter and you’re painting on a rectangle you have thousands of years of history to contend with.  Your work will submerge in that history if you don’t do something to distinguish it. I don’t know how you address that. Certainly one way would be strategy.

Personally I like the confines of traditional painting.  I think Poussin’s paintings are like miracles.  I can get so many ideas and be so stimulated from this simple rectangle—it gives me hope that I could make something that good, or that significant.

I am not sure I know what emotionally honest painting is but there is an idea of working through the process little by little and not looking for short cuts. Developing your relationship with the work over time is present in all good art be it Sigmar Polke or Fairfield Porter or Leonor Fini or Frida Kahlo.

I remember getting a letter in 1972 asking for my comments on the death of painting.  This notion has been around forever, that painting is done and let’s move on and it’s not a possibility.

But here we are and you’re still making still lifes!  What do you think are the possibilities in figurative painting with “traditional” elements and structures such as the still-life and the nude?

I guess I’m just really confident that I bring something unique to it!  Because it isn’t really just a still-life and I paint naked figures in action, not academic nudes.

I find the patronage aspect a little troublesome…the idea that the really wealthy get the first access to buy good paintings unless you’re really smart with a good eye!  That is problematic.  It’s so easy to commodify.

There was a big article in The New Yorker about Theaster Gates who has a Community Art Center in Chicago that is really brilliant. The artist’s work is actually changing his rust belt neighborhood into a new Eden, and bringing more voices into the conversation as an activist.  I mean it’s amazing and really something to aspire to.  He will not need to be alone for eight hours a day!

Do you feel the same way about Bushwick?

Oh yeah, it’s definitely an amazing phenomenon and it’s so great!  All of these things are fabulous and I am pleased to be included in new gallery shows at Elgin, Heliopolis, and Fred Valentine’s gallery.  I mean I actually thought about this when I was getting out of art school, because it was the time of civil rights, and I was teaching in Oakland public schools.  I really felt like art could save people’s lives and wouldn’t it be great to just go around and give people art materials and show their work in Oakland, and how would you begin to do that?  So I think it’s fantastic that there are these artist-run galleries that give their fellow artists an opportunity to show their work because it’s what is needed to make good work—it’s part of the process.  And there were real forerunners like Pierogi.  I mean there was a strong history in the New York 70’s and 80’s alternative artworlds operating with the ghost of money and the enthusiasm has spread with the Artists’ Space and White Columns philosophy to other venues like Zurcher Studio, Brian Morris Gallery, and Lesley Heller Workspace. Its great to see artist-selected groupings.  So there are these Gowanus, Bushwick, and Ridgewood galleries with a community-oriented “y’all come” kind of thing.  And the fact that these artists’ run galleries are so numerous gives it a certain credibility.

Judith Linhares, Arctic Hare

Arctic Hare, 2010, 18 x 14 in., oil on linen, Courtesy Edward Thorp Gallery

What advice would you give on how to develop and sustain a painter’s voice throughout a lifetime?

Well, I guess I’m not big on giving advice!  You should do what you personally can do.

For me it’s important to make a mess every day. That’s kind of at the core of my involvement, as a process of working through poverty and single motherhood, everything is to make sure that I’m working, that I never stop working.

I have always relied on community, as the first line of being visible and finding encouragement. This started with the informal women’s groups in San Francisco. The move to the more intensely verbal and overtly competitive  New York artworld has helped me develop my work and clarify my ideas. To be in an environment where every one believes in the importance of art really puts wind in my sails.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Judith Linhares and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Garrett, A. (2014). “Interview with Judith Linhares,” Figure/Ground. January 2nd.
<  http://figureground.org/a-conversation-with-judith-linhares/ >


Questions? Contact Laureano Ralón at ralonlaureano@gmail.com




(en)Gendered (in)Equity: The Gallery Tally Poster Project

“(EN)GENDERED(IN)EQUITY: THE GALLERY POSTER PROJECT”   An Exhibition of Micol Hebron’s collaborative poster project March 29-April 25 Opening: Saturday, March 29, 6 to 9 PM Discussion: 6:30 PM At For Your Art 6020 Wilshire Blvd. Los Angeles, CA  Events will be scheduled throughout the month, including a Tally Rally on April 5, from 1-5 PM.

Micol Hebron is an interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles and a recently tenured Associate Professor at Chapman University in Orange, CA.  She has been engaged in individual and collaborative projects in Los Angeles since 1992. Her work frequently explores the artist’s relationship to art-making, art history and modernism in particular.

GalleryTally is a crowd-sourced, social engagement art project in which over 600 artists from around the world—men and women– have joined the effort to collect and visualize statistical data regarding ratios of male and female artists in top contemporary art galleries. Artists were invited to make one poster for each gallery, in whatever style or medium they chose. All posters are 24” x 36”. It began with galleries in Los Angeles, and then focused attention on galleries in New York. Subsequent visualizations will include Berlin, London, Chicago, Santa Fe, Portland, Pittsburg, and other cities.

Cara Despain’s poster representing the TOTAL percentage of female artists from the galleries tallied in LA and NY

Cara Despain’s poster representing the TOTAL percentage of female artists from the galleries tallied in LA and NY

An exhibition of more than 300 of them will go on view at For Your Art at 6020 Wilshire Boulevard in LA, in an exhibition titled (en)Gendered (in)Equity: The Gallery Tally Poster Project.  The posters are on view on a tumblr site as well.

Louis B. James Gallery, poster by Xiankai Sol Ye

Louis B. James Gallery, poster by Xiankai Sol Ye

Marlborough Chelsea Gallery, poster by Katie Herzog

Marlborough Chelsea Gallery, poster by Katie Herzog

 

La Luz de Jesus gallery, poster by Lauri Lynxe Murphy

La Luz de Jesus gallery, poster by Lauri Lynxe Murphy

Joe Sheftel Gallery, poster by Micol Hebron

Joe Sheftel Gallery, poster by Micol Hebron

 




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