Artist Insights: Laura Letinsky

By Laura Miller

Laura Letinsky’s subtly haunting photographs stick with you. The scenes in her work convey ease and elegance, yet they are conceptually loaded with references to art history, literature, music, and writing. The viewer is asked in changing ways to consider what her images signify to them. Born in Winnipeg, Canada, Letinsky attended the University of Manitoba and Yale’s School of Art before migrating to Chicago, where she is currently a Professor of Art at the University of Chicago. She is represented locally by Valerie Carberry Gallery, in addition to other galleries in the U.S., Canada, and Germany.

LM: How does Chicago compare to other cities where you’ve exhibited or where you’re represented?

Laura Letinsky: Chicago is a great community. There’s a bit of self-consciousness about being smaller than New York or L.A., with all the negative associations of provincialism and its insecurities, but Chicago is fantastic in that its scale is big enough to be stimulating, challenging, and diverse while still being manageable on many levels. I can live here and manage to make art, teach, have kids, space, a garden, friends - that is, a life that is full and rich. Every place has benefits and challenges but I find Chicago a really productive and fabulous balance.

LM: As a University of Chicago professor is there any sound advice that you adhere to personally that you’ve shared with a student?

LL: I recently had a critique with a student who was setting up a stranglehold on the possibility for experimentation and learning and seemed at odds with her larger interests. I encouraged her to toss out the division between her art and the rest of her life and to instead revel in the places where she drew fun and enthusiasm, skepticism and challenge; to venture to places she didn’t necessarily know vs. well-trod ground. Art that is about art exclusively is to me relatively narrow. There are artists for whom this makes sense, but I’m most thrilled when art makes me see differently - seeing understood here as knowledge.

LM: In your Ill Form and Void Full series the incorporated collage elements add layers of complexity to the work and blur the lines of space and perception: What is real? What is a photo of a photo, or a copy of a copy? What is missing? What might the viewer add? How did this series came about?

LL: In 2010 I began work after a year’ hiatus. A number of events had conspired such that I stopped making pictures, uncertain of whether I would be able to continue; knowing I couldn’t continue as I had. A crisis of belief? For years the question, what is a photograph had driven my practice; if anything and everything is ripe as photography’s subject, and given the unrelenting volume of images, why make pictures? What do they do? I now understand the answer has to do with what they are - that is, pictures are how they exist in our world, how we produce and consume them.

For the series I decided that to use images, mine and others, indiscriminately with objects, digital downloads, and scans permitted a kind of promiscuity that felt right. It’s a way of negotiating my ambivalence for this medium, a deep and abiding love and irrevocable loathing. To focus this inquiry around home and food portends a potent array of issues including consumption, sexuality, need, want, labor, gender, etc.

LM: What are you trying to set the stage for when you’re assembling scenes for your photographs? A specific mood or memory?

LL: There’s not really a mood or memory as there was with the earlier manifestations of my still-life work. In this series I am feeling my way around, trying to find a way to set up ideas, ambivalences, conflicts, resolutions, relationships, that bespeak of “home”.

LM: Still lifes have such a loaded history. Are there any specific artists you see your work referencing/ influenced by/ commenting on?

LL: When I first began my references were the Northern European still life masters, particularly Pieter Claesz, in front of whose work I still get weak-kneed. Later I turned to others in this era, as well as Chardin’s scenes of food, in the Renaissance’s religious and allegorical paintings, Modernists who used the still life precisely because of their disregard for its domesticity, i.e. its familiarity. Stronger for me now are a range of artists whose work explores the tensions between the personal and public sphere: Jessica Stockholder, Richard Tuttle, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Mickalene Thomas...For the last two years, writing and music have had more impact for my practice than visual references.

LM: How do you feel about including your work in magazines that usually celebrate the perfectly polished? Are you breaking any rules, or maybe starting a new trend— celebrating the imperfect?

LL: My pictures are never going to be widely accepted; they are not the new paradigm. I’m grateful for those who appreciate my sensibility, but the aspiration of perfection along with its inevitable failure and dissatisfaction is perhaps too deeply ingrained.

Commercial work is really interesting and hearkens back to pre-modernist artistic practice in which we were hired guns, producing work for clients, the church or other patrons. The notion that art if informed by commerce is somehow impure is a modernist invention which, while it served some purpose, is a pretty impossible conceit.  

LM: Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?

LL: Just the usual aspirations for deep and abiding fulfillment of all my wishes and desires, some altruistic, other pretty petty...Family and friends, first and foremost.

LM: Any big plans coming up for 2013?

LL: I’m really excited about my shows at the Denver Art Museum and The Photographers’ Gallery in London. I’ve also got some travel planned to Istanbul, Guadalajara and Mexico City, maybe Oaxaca, and Beijing. I really want to go to India and feel that I’m taking a circuitous route. I’m looking forward to delving back into the studio so as to continue in the direction I’ve begun.