Blonde Ambition: A Conversation with Liz Trosper

Liz Trosper,  Blonde Ambition , UV vinyl ink on canvas, unique, 96 x 74 inches

Liz Trosper, Blonde Ambition, UV vinyl ink on canvas, unique, 96 x 74 inches

By Scott Gleeson

Casting a critical eye toward the legacy of modernist painting and its contemporary iterations, artist Liz Trosper questions the liberatory potential of the discipline, punning its visual tropes and deconstructing its discriminatory attitudes toward women. The artist's scanner paintings pay homage to the history of painting as an interface with diverse media and technologies, traveling upon parallel trajectories with artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Wade Guyton, and Laura Owens. Trosper's earliest experiments focused on deconstructing the materials of painting, and were primarily concern with formal considerations of line, space, and composition. The artist's more recent scanner paintings introduce into this abstract milieu an explicit feminist critique of media culture through the introduction into her images of collage elements harvested from fashion magazines. The resulting images thrive on an array of associations between representations of the body, self-fashioning, fragmentation, skin, paint, embodiment, and technology fetishism. Trosper has received early recognition for her work in the form of gallery and museum exhibitions, and continues to approach painting as image making in the broadest sense of the term. Peripheral Vision talks with the artist about her methods, training, and the meaning behind her art.

Describe a work of art that has been meaningful to you or influential in some way.

I have always been obsessed with the spaces, materials, and working environments of great artists, and with art that takes its own image making as subject matter. Henri Matisse’s L’Atelier Rouge or The Red Studio, for instance, embodies this preoccupation while simply being a beautiful painting. The lines are soft, giving both structure and dynamic movement to the painting. This work connects to a long tradition in art history of playing with the picture plane as a window or a picture of a picture, and yet it is also a prototype of the kind of re-mediated image that we’re so used to seeing today in Instagram feeds, Google images or an art blog like Contemporary Art Daily.

The piece impacts my work because I’m interested in using humble, simple, accessible materials and technologies from the common vernacular to approach the tradition of painting -- like the works that Matisse made, tropes in art history like Odalisques and recent art historical figures from modern and contemporary art. A great example of this can be found in the piece I just showed in the POWER LINES exhibition at Barry Whistler Gallery called baldessari in blue. As I was exploring the color blue, I found that I was repeatedly drawn in by the particular hue and humor in John Baldessari’s Potato/Lightbulb - Blue (2015). It’s so hilarious, deadpan and saturated with this pervading blue color the way The Red Studio is. It also evokes the idea of re-mediation because I’ve never seen the piece in real life. I’ve only seen it on a screen and in print. Now, bits of that image are part of my painting.

I’m also interested in the way The Red Studio includes painting of sculpture. My work usually begins by making small sculptures mixed with collaged paper material that I turn into two-dimensional images. I like the idea of painting being the process of analyzing space and three-dimensional reality and converting it into a flat image. Instead of using traditional painting methods to do this, I use the charge-coupled devices (CCDs) on a flatbed scanner to convert objects into two-dimensional space.

Your painting process involves a flattening of the visual space and incorporates various technologies. Please describe your materials and techniques and how they developed.

I make what I call scanner paintings. These works are the result of small sculptures and collage turned into two-dimensional images that are inkjet printed onto large scale canvases, paper or other substrates. My practice culls together the tools of painting, drawing, photography and digital imaging. I tend to keep a sketchbook and camera handy at all times, trying to capture certain lines, textures and colors as I go about my business in the world. My works evolve out of making traditional 2D works -- paintings, drawings, collages -- collecting the materials along the way, assembling them on a scanner, modifying them, re-mediating them until the work is right.

I’m a painter, but I don’t make paintings in the traditional sense. For some, the idea that these works are paintings is difficult, however, the use of printing techniques, digital technologies and inkjetting as part of painting discourse is well established. Albert Oehlen, Laura Owens, Christopher Wool, Wade Guyton, RH Quaytman, Michael Williams and many others use these forms in their work. I became connected to these practices through my work with John Pomara while studying at the University of Texas at Dallas, who has used many of the same techniques in his own work.

How old were you when you decided to become an artist? Describe your training and how it has contributed to your current practice.

I hold an MFA in Art and Technology from the University of Texas at Dallas. I have worked closely with John Pomara for years, and his view of painting was really something that made me want to study with him. He’s always challenging himself and others to think expansively about the discourse of painting. At the same time, I was working with Tom Motley, a much more traditional painter, to learn the technicalities and language of painting, more of the nitty gritty of the way the medium functions.

Another critical part of my training was the nearly two years that I spent at CentralTrak, UTD’s artist residency program, under the leadership of Heyd Fontenot. There, I was able to plug into a huge network of people and practices that had incalculable impact on the way that I make art. I met people like Brian Scott, Christopher Blay, Sally Glass, Shawn Mayer, Spencer Brown-Pearn, Jeff Gibbons and many others. This part of my training made me realize how important being part of a supportive community is for sustaining a practice.

Liz Trosper,  Red Tape , UV vinyl ink on canvas, unique, 60 x 40 inches

Liz Trosper, Red Tape, UV vinyl ink on canvas, unique, 60 x 40 inches

What are the dominant themes in your current body of work and how did your practice evolve to focus on these concerns?

Painting, as a discipline, is daunted with questions of what a painting is and how it is made. My work takes for granted that a painting can be made with any tools available, including inkjet printing, yet remains centered on such formal concerns as line and space, as well as themes of movement and embodiment. This precedent is well established in the dialog around Wade Guyton’s practice. For me, being open to the kinds of production methods I use in my work is part of being receptive to what it means to make a painting in our time. My first body of work that fully developed this production technique was included in the first Power Lines exhibition at Barry Whistler Gallery in 2015 -- pieces like Red Tape (2015) and WHHSBTA (2015).

While embracing technology, I acknowledge the importance of the body and embodied thinking. My work builds from the notion of the flatbed picture plane associated with Rauschenberg’s model of painting as articulated by critic Leo Steinberg. My paintings play on the sensation of paint, how it looks and feels, juxtaposed with everyday technology, which most people experience as part of a work routine. These works play on those assumptions along with our sense of motion, falling or being caught in some kind of suspension in contradiction to the gravity that acts on our bodies.  

Tell us about your current body of work?

I am entering a new phase. It is really difficult to put into words. I am still working in many of the modes that I developed over the course of my MFA, but I’m beginning to get back to playful, goofy and feminist themes that I have always been interested in. The work isn’t trying to be “good.” I’m more looking for the line of failure, and I’m trying to be more true to my own standards, even if that means that the work might be embarrassing. I’m also breaking down the assumptions about when and where materials can appear in my process. So, paint is making its way to the surface of works, rather than simply the subject of scanner paintings.

A great example is a recent work, Pour,  in which I finished a collage piece by placing a marbled paint skin sculpture over top of a Celine ad. The crafted paint form is marbled with colors from black to ochre to bright magenta and is folded and compressed in ways that reflect the type of thinking done in Photoshop or Illustrator, but it’s all done by hand. The folds and forms mimic the rhythms of the drapery on the model’s clothing in the ad, but the body of the paint form is angled in a way that is a sort of “slash” creating an “x” form between the paint and the model. I was thinking that the resulting overall form and subject matter is a great analogy for the complex way that we construct female identity. None of us can hide from the images of advertising, some less damaging than others, but we do have some agency in constructing our identities and I think paint is a great metaphor for that.

Talk about a recent exhibition of your art. What pieces did you show and how do they relate to other works in your portfolio?

My thesis exhibition, body poems in suspended space, was a deeper exploration of some of the materials I began working with in the series that included Red Tape, but I was exploring the color palettes of the work of specific artists presented in magazines and was already starting to look at some of the things I’m working on now, in reference to the female body.

There was some overlap. I had a stockpile of clippings from artists like Gego, Kara Walker, Phyllida Barlow, Laura Owens, Lorna Simpson, and male artists as well. I wanted the lines all to be black. So, for the most part, they anchor the compositions. The rest is goofy, maximal and sometimes ironic. I wanted to take some of the tropes I was seeing in male-dominated abstraction, like the exhibition The Painting Factory: Abstraction After Warhol, and make it using some of those ideas, but do it my way. I was writing my way through it too, trying to make sense in my own mind of how all these images of other artists work made sense to me, specifically how they shook out in my mind during the act of making the work. So, how did one choice -- for example the choice to use mainly inkjet and very little actual paint on surface, but paint as subject matter -- relate to what all these other patriarchs of contemporaneity were setting forth? This is a subtle difference between the works in the earlier series, but it represented a rift. Before, I was focused only on the design and material aspects of making the body of work function. The second time around, I was diving deeper into what the content meant to me and having fun with it.

Liz Trosper,  Pour , collage and acrylic paint skin on board

Liz Trosper, Pour, collage and acrylic paint skin on board

Dogs or cats? Beach or mountains? Urban or rural? Salt or no salt (it’s a margarita thing)?

Both. Beach. Urban. Sugar.

What kind of music do you listen to? Do you listen to music in the studio?

I took a career aptitude test once that said I should be a music director! In high school, I even participated in opera memory competitions, and I still love opera. Because it’s everywhere, I enjoy contemporary folk music, hip hop and some pop. I like dissonant music a lot -- Thelonious Monk, Stravinsky. Father John Misty, Beyonce and Alt+J are awesome working tunes. I also listen to bad country music or Pink Floyd when I’m feeling kitschy and nostalgic.

Tell us about your experience at an artist residency. Where did you go and who did you meet? Would you recommend the residency to others?

My residency experience was right here in Dallas, at CentralTrak. CentralTrak is the UT Dallas Artists Residency and provides a live/work studio where eight artists live, work and exhibit. Four of the artists are national/international and four are grad students. I was a grad student resident from 2013-2015.

When I moved into CentralTrak, I was just starting graduate school and my practice was totally schizophrenic. I was making wall constructions from scraps of cardboard, consumer packaging and wood. I was making photographs of curbside trash in an attempt to make a hybrid of still life and landscape. I was making hundreds and hundreds of blind contour line drawings and I was painting. When I first moved in, the other residents were Shawn Mayer, Spencer Brown-Pearn, Mona Kasra and Sally Glass. They were all light years ahead of me with their practice but really gracious, patient and honest with me about what I needed to do to distill my practice into something more cohesive. My current body of work is a product of that distillation. I’m still incorporating elements of still life, line, consumer products and scraps via painterly form.

As the mother of a young son, I am being strategic about planning future residencies. Before I had Sol, I did this webinar through Creative Capital on artists and parenting, and it gave me a ton of amazing resources, which I’m pursuing. There’s Residency in Motherhood and Cultural Reproducers, both of which focus on the space that is typically exclusive of artists with children.

Historically, women have been underrepresented in the commercial and academic art worlds, and where women are represented many are paid less than their male counterparts. How has this dynamic affected your professional career as an artist?

It’s hard to know the shows you don’t get put in. I have been in exhibitions and gallery settings where everyone else is male. Every one of my studio art teachers were male. Before I became pregnant, the only time I really thought about my gender impacting my work was when I was in those all male environments and you feel very “other.” 

Being pregnant was the first time I ever really experienced open discrimination and misogyny. I installed my MFA exhibition at 37 weeks pregnant. When you’re pregnant, people tell you all sorts of things you aren’t supposed to be doing. Rarely are they based on medical necessity, but more in terms of the cultural norms of what is appropriate behavior for a pregnant woman.

The social milieu of exhibitions is an important part of an artist’s career. When you’re sitting out a couple of months of openings because you have a newborn, it can be challenging to stay in people’s minds as a serious artist. When my son was five months old someone I deeply respect asked me if I was still making art. Of course! It was such a funny thing to me, to ask that. Yes, having a small baby is a constraint, but art making has many constraints. You adapt.

I try to be in the studio as much as possible, but with a small child it’s not possible to be there as much as I would like. So, I collect, make studies, brain storm, sketch and explore wherever and whenever I can. When I’m in the studio, I create. For this season, I’ve tried to break down the walls of the studio and have making follow me around as I experience the world and my life. Still, being in the studio proper for larger blocks of time is really important for experimentation, looking and thinking through materials.

I think about gender quite a bit in my work now. A short time ago, in art school, I realized that all my teachers were male and it was impacting the kind of thinking I was doing and the kind of work I was making. I started making an effort to connect to the work of women painters -- Charline von Heyl, Laura Owens, Cecily Brown, Jacqueline Humphries, Amy Sillman, Lauren Gregory and others. 

In what ways do you hope your work challenges people? 

I love painting. I want to bring people along with me in that love, using whatever contemporary resources are available to do so. I hope to challenge what painting can be. I want to uncover the limiting beliefs about painting in the traditional sense, while also honoring the beautiful and entrancing history that it embodies. There is so much magic in moving liquids around on a surface to make images. I want to invite people into that magical space.