Notes for a journey

Rinascita nel campo (10cm.detail); cm. 120x125, encaustic, 1996

Rinascita nel campo (10cm.detail); cm. 120x125, encaustic, 1996

Notes for a journey
From a conversation with the artist by Ginevra Quadrio Curzio
“Frances Lansing, 1989-2005″    Sondrio

GQC I would like to begin this conversation with you speaking about your travels, both biographical and artistic, which haven’t been at all linear. You have chosen to become a painter after having undertaken an academic career. What motivated this change of yours and what have been your roots in art?

FL It might seem a paradox but the fact that, more than for more than twenty years I decided to dedicate myself to a career in art instead of following a course in linguistics, wasn’t a rupture in the order of things or a personal revolution. Instead it was a question to of adhering to an interior motive, an instinct cultivated since earliest childhood.
I was born in New York in a family that today in Italy would be defined as intellectual but which in that period was somehow special – an environment where manual creativity and intellectual research were part of everyday life. These were as much a part of my early explorations as the New York of my childhood, the important museums, the exciting character of my neighborhood.
I always experienced my formal education as a sort of dissociation. The more it refined itself towards specialization, the greater the distance grew from my real roots, those most profoundly radicated in the creative world of my family. In the end, this disassociation worked itselrf out. The occasion was the climate of the first years of the Seveties, from the contestation of various formalistic social values, as for example, to terminate studies which no longer were relevant to me.
In this context, I was swept up in the dramatic consequences of the war in Vietnam – even on a personal level – to the point where the existential crisis forced me to recognize my deeper identity. The decision to leave Boston and transfer to Italy and become a painter was a simple and coherent consequence of this consciousness.

GQC The years in which you abandoned your studies in linguistics for art and America for Italy were years of great fermentation in American art. What motives did you have for your choice to leave then and what was your relationship to contemporary art in those years?

FL Living in New York and Boston, in the early Seventies, in contact with one of the most radical artistic and intellectual environments of the period, the mutations in the art scene certainly couldn’t elude me. It was a period of intellectual Jacobinism so that art was a concept or nothing. The artistic process became so reductive that it no longer required any distinctive identification with its creator or its form.
The general theories of the period, omnipresent, simply didn’t interest me. In reality, I didn’t waste much energy in opposition. I mostly took refuge in studying the art that appealed to me….I don’t believe that art can be defined by “innovation”. Art history is not linear. Its movement is elliptical connecting works made in diverse moments, embedding them in a substance that is always actual so that they are constantly free to communicate with each other. These thoughts were at the basis of my desire to leave for Florence.
I despair of ever being able to describe in its fullness the absolute privilege it was – and still is today – to live in Tuscany, where I have been able to study at close hand the Italian art tradition. It would be difficult to say, considering the many years I’ve spent here, what has enriched my work more: the creative influence of this country, its enormous tradition and the extreme beauty of its countryside, or the nostalgia I feel for an America which, like the wilderness I dreamt of as a child, I know doesn’t really exist.
The conflict of these two visions is almost irresolvable but fortunately the space of a painting is different from the confines of the real world. When you paint you can find yourself in any place or even various places at the same time. In fact, it’s better if you are in more than one place. In these spaces a particular world is recomposed, colors and surfaces are reinvented so that a new map can trace the convergence of two rivers: the Arno and the mighty Hudson.

GQC Among the fonts of inspiration of your work you name impressionism or – even more – the Barbizon school and the American Landscape painters. From your works appear clear influences of the literary tradition of authors like Whitman and Thoreau, Emerson. What ties you to these Eighteenth century sources, mainly American, of that period?

FL For me it’s simpler to speak about tefchniques and materials used in the paintings more than the various influences behind or beneath the work. A painting isn’t just a simple object but the physical space in which relationships between many other paintings merge together. The significance derives from this very fact and. seeing that the medium is visual, it reveals itself in its evidence. The viewer has the essential role here because he or she will “get” the message. A great part of the pleasure in art comes from the imaginative process used in reception. I think it all works better when word-thoughts don’t interfere.
But if you insist, I’d have to repeat that my precedents have, in a very general way, to do most with the surroundings of my childhood home. The landscapes on the walls of my home were often scenes of Eighteenth century America – not necessarily important ones and some pictures from Dutch artists contemporary to Ruisdael, brought by my ancestors to New Amsterdam from Holland.
I think what was important about these works to me was their depiction of an “active” nature rather than their description of a specific place. They had to do with transcendentalism of Emerson…so that the wilderness they presented was a kind of symbol for raw creativity. Besides that iconographic aspect, for a family who lived in New York City with a profound longing for the countryside, these paintings took on an almost religious character. And, finally, in my early adulthood, they became associated in my mind with the political and philosophic ideas in the air during my years in Boston, where, much more than Marx, it was Thoreau and “On civil disobedience” we were discussing.

GQC As with the Barbizon school, in your work two different spirits coexist even in the use of different techniques. On one hand there is the temptation to gather a spiritual dimension of nature, an inspiration which is paradoxically completely antinaturalistic, that expresses itself it seems in particular in the encaustic work; on the other hand it surprises us to discover a consciousness which is extremely realistic or naturalistic which reflects your interest in photography – and in the etchings so precise to the point of being almost photographic, and in the choice of subjects like the Tuscan Farmers. What relationship is there between these two aspects of your work? Are they distributed on different periods or do they cohabit the same territory?

FL My transfer to Italy coincided with my meeting and staying near Cristiano Toraldo di Francia and his colleagues of Superstudio. For me, in the earliest days of my work in etching and photography, it was an opportunity to enter immediately into the heart of the most radical research in Italy, which in that moment combined architecture, urban studies, anthropology…With Cristiano, I participated in some campaigns of documentation where we used many different graphic forms (etching, photography, photomontage, film) to express the reality of the Tuscan countryside.
Those were years in which I could perfect the secret techniques of etching, thanks to Giuseppe Gattuso Lo Monte and Denis Olson at the Santa Reparata Atelier in Florence. In etching it was the characteristic indirectness of the process that interested me – as did any technique that opposed itself to an immediate reproduction of the image. This challenge, present in any number of means, creates a sort of dialogue with the work. It is as if the work, during its execution, could put forward its own point of view.
This loss of absolute technical artistic domination lets you achieve associations of meanings that would be otherwise out of reach.
In the Eighties I focused on some of the manual, experimental and technical aspects already present in etching. Through documentary research on the various artisan trades, (including restoration, goldsmith work, the laundry, mosaic making, embroidery) and in visits to various workshops with Cristiano, I liked the direct contact I had with matter, the symbiosis between hand and mind that renders material inseparable from content.
But the significance of certain substances seem integrated and inseparable from an eventual reading. For example, if you live on an island confined by rivers and near the ocean, it seems natural to tie certain abstract ideas to a liquid substance. I am unable to think of time, for example, without imagining it as a pulsing liquid.

GQC If it is true that every technique has its own spirit or, as you say, its own ideology, then to use drawing instead of oil, etching or encaustics, entails possibilities, problems, different scopes…. How does this relate to your large wax paintings?

FL In the large format landscapes, which I have been painting since 1989, I use bees’ wax united to pigments. In these paintings the layers of colors are dripped from a large flat brush onto a wooden panel on the floor. As the paint accumulates , the image gets more legible to me until I can fashion it into something real to me by scraping, rubbing or smearing the surface.
This way of working reminds me of the way memory operates. The layers of color underneath partly determine the tone and the quality of the surface and can be revealed or re-elaborated in their complexity.

GQC In the last few years you have begun to work in three dimensions, with a series of sculptures in small sizes. How do you see this development in the context of your artistic progress?

FL Thinking about my relationship to three dimensional objects, what comes to mind first are some small inhabited landscapes I made in the early Eighties. I placed small figures – the kind used with model trains – in a way that they could narrate moments, … and then photographed them. What the film captured if the light was right were scenes of everyday life which, abstracted from their apparent banality, assumed a truth of their own, a kind of aura.
I’m thinking of these images now as I imagine the small sculptures which are still new to me, after such a long period of working almost exclusively on my encaustic paintings.
My return to the figure is also a return to a small dimension. These sculptures, infact, are meant to be held in your hand, touched, without any heroic scale. The true font of inspiration comes to me from Etruscan art. One thing that is no mystery about this culture is the loving attention they gave to the domestic aspects of everyday life. The small animals and figures in these works echo that feeling in my version of the lamp or Thymiateria. Some of the animal figures can be used as handles or tools.
My husband, Sheppard Craige has been the commissioner of a great number of these works. Their destiny is his garden situated in the town of San Giovanni d’Asso in the Crete of Siena. Since his “Bosco della Ragnaia” is in itself an artwork, designed and realized like the work of a landscape painter, it would have been inappropriate to add a sculpture of monumental proportion. And so I’ve concentrated on the realization of very small figures, which don’t impose themselves on the landscape but rather reveal themselves little by little, barely emerging from their settings.
Children should enjoy turning around them while adults might be able to “read” them much as the figures accompanying an Illuminated text which have nothing to do with the contained text. These objects have no real relation to the Garden and its contents.
But as to the relation between the wax paintings and the lost wax sculptures, both are very centered on the plasticity and texture of the material used…the same material. And, as with the etchings, the artisan aspect of an indirect process – manipulation and transformation – still fascinates me.
The sculptures in terracotta, instead, are very direct and have a relation with the profound desire for simplicity, with the desire to return to the essence of making and to join that long vertical line that since prehistory renders us participants in that eternal rite: here the earth, here the water, here the fire…(come Spirit!).