Annette Lawrence on Numbers, Ancestors and Process

Midway and Counting transparent photo prints, wood, aluminum, 46 x 44 x 144 in, 2014

Antonio C. La Pastina: I would like to start with the first piece that I saw of yours, those prints that you did in Denton, in ’97 or 98? I fell in love with your work based on those etchings. I know that the spiral is very important in your work, and I want to talk about them in a bit, but first why the numbers?

Annette Lawrence: I’d been using text, so numbers were kind of a logical trajectory from text. I was actually thinking about the 20th century, because that’s the title of the piece, and how we measure the 20th century in 19’s. Each number, 1 through 9 or 0, or 0 through 9, I should say, is there 19 times.

ALP: Ah.

AL:  So there’s 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, all the way up through the 1990s. It actually does count in 10 … It doesn’t count, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. It counts 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, like that.

ALP: The 19 is the number that becomes a pattern.

AL: Exactly. The fact that there are 19 on each decade, or of each section of 10, is kind of describing the 20th century. If it was the 19th century, there would be 18 of them.

ALP: It’s interesting, that, in a sense, in doing that, you’re really talking about the whole millennium. You counted the whole millennium.

AL:  Yeah. It’s in 3 parts. The 10s, 20s, and 30s are in one part of the triptych. 40s, 50s, and 60s are in the second, the middles. The 70s, 80s, and 90s are in the last. The first 3 decades are completely white, and the middle pattern is checkered. I guess the background itself is what I’m talking about. Then in the third, it’s all black. Being in South Africa, I was thinking about that sort of change of power, although it’s just theoretical, because the power didn’t actually change.

ALP: You do have this transition from total … Power completely white, in the whites, to the more, at least theoretical shift.

AL: Right. The apartheid regime was dismantled. I’m thinking about it like that, but apartheid was not really there for the whole of the 20th century, just the second half.

ALP: That’s really when you have the checkered, and then you have the dismantling not happening in the 90s, but really, you have international pressure starting in the 70s and 80s. It’s interesting how patterns are very important for you. Nothing is just as it seems. There’s always a logic that structures the work.

AL: There’s usually layers going on.

ALP: Let’s talk about the other etching. The spiral. How did that come about?

AL: That piece, comes out of the body of work called Drawing Blood, where I’ve used all the dates of my menstrual cycles as text in a large body of drawings. I used that spiral in that etching. I made it in 1997, so wherever I was in terms of the collection of dates, those are the dates that are in the piece. It’s one of the first pieces where I used those dates  outside of the drawings I was making with marks of blood. I hadn’t used the dates outside of that context very often, until then. When I was invited to do the etching, that’s what I was working on, and I just thought-

 

"Drawing Blood September," mixed media on paper, 15 ½ x 9 ¾ in, 1994

“Drawing Blood September,” mixed media on paper, 15 ½ x 9 ¾ in, 1994

 

ALP: You had actually done the dates before in blood?

AL: No, I had written the dates in ink, in drawings that had marks with blood. There’s just small marks of blood on drawings that had whole lists of dates in each drawing. Each drawing had an additional date added, because there would be one more date to add.

ALP: Why a spiral?

AL: It’s about continuity, the fact that it’s circular. Structurally I’m referencing something that doesn’t end.

ALP: There’s also a circularity, or cyclical pattern to it.

AL: Right, I’m talking about a cycle that starts and stops, and starts and stops again.

ALP: You recorded your menstrual cycle since your first time?

AL: Yes, since the very first time. My mother advised me to do that, and I took it to heart. Every single time I bled, I’ve written down the first day and the last day, even up until now. I still do that.

ALP: Do you remember why your mother told you to do that?

AL: You know, it’s completely unsexy. She told me that when I go to the doctors, that’s the first thing your doctor’s going to ask you. And it is. One of the first things a doctor asks a woman is when was your last period. For a very practical reason, she told me to write it down. Even though I have it written down every single time, I never know it when I go to the doctor. Never. I think that is so ironic, because I could tell my doctor every single time I’ve had a period if I could remember to bring the book with me, or if I just paid attention, but I write it down and forget about it. Then when I’m at the doctors, I never, never know.

ALP: It’s amazing that you never forget to do it.

AL: It’s just a habit that started so early, and it literally takes 3 seconds to write the date down. I’m very conscious about doing it too, because I’ve collected all of them. I don’t want to have a hole in my data.

ALP: Now it has become much more … not only part of a routine, but it’s also symbolic, and it is also part of your work, in a sense, it’s part of a life long project.

AL: When I first started writing it down, I had no intentions of using it for anything. Then right after I finished grad school, I went to a workshop with one of my friends, Glenda Dickerson, who was a really strong feminist. It was a workshop on moon blood, and looking at, or just shifting the perspective of the menstrual cycle from a really negative affliction to something that is just a part of everyday life, that can be viewed differently, or positively. I wasn’t really buying it for most of the workshop, until the facilitator said that we should keep a record of our cycles in circles. I thought, that’s interesting. I happen to have every single date of my cycles. It was an instant connection to write them in spirals, or in circles. That’s how the whole body of work started, it is from that experience.

"Five Spirals," ink on paper, 8 ½ x 11 in, 2001

“Five Spirals,” ink on paper, 8 ½ x 11 in, 2001

ALP: That’s actually fascinating. The idea of the cycle came from this proto-feminist, or this heavily feminist, but in a sense a bit mystical, trying to transform this idea of the menstrual cycle from something normally perceived as negative and that’s supposed to be silenced, through something that you are supposed to celebrate and associate with the nature of cycles.

AL: Yep. It was a real big turning point for me to be in that room.

ALP: You remember who led that workshop?

AL: I don’t have any idea. I just remember she was wearing very high-heeled pumps, and they were bright red.

ALP: [laughs]

AL: I thought it was kind of a contradiction to wear shoes like that, and to be having the conversation she was having. These two things don’t really go together, but maybe they do. I was limited in my understanding at the time.

ALP: You keep other records of other patterns in your life?

AL: Nothing as much as this one, but I journal. I guess that’s a similar kind of record. That was a habit that I formed as a college student, first year, as a result of an assignment.

ALP: Are there particular things that you always record when you journal?

AL: A thing I always note is the full moon. I think it’s connected to the menstrual dates. In my journals I would say, new cycle today. My menstrual was closely related to the moon. I almost always would be bleeding on the full moon. For years. That has shifted away and kind of gone back to the pattern. For many years it was just dead on.

ALP: That’s actually kind of beautiful.

AL: Yeah.

ALP: You got several other pieces where counting is very important, or in a sense they are very geometrical. Fonts, numbers, counting, what is your relationship to math?

AL: I actually really enjoy math. When I’m in the practice of doing math I do very well at it. I chose between math and studio time in high school. I was taking a calculus class, in my senior year. When I realized in order to have more time in the art studio, I could lose one class, any class. I asked my parents if I could drop math, they were like, “Okay, yeah. You’re fine. You’ve taken enough math.” Starting then, I was making choices like that in terms of how I wanted to spend my time. I could do math, but I always preferred to be making something with my hands, and doing art. My grandfather was actually a math teacher, my father’s father. He taught math, and he taught industrial arts, carpentry.

ALP: He was both dealing with math and in a sense with a form of craft.

AL: This was my father’s father, and they lived in this little town where K-12 was all in the same school. He taught all the high school math, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus.

ALP: You actually grew up where math was not completely foreign to you. That was part of your …

AL: Well, he wasn’t around. He passed away when my dad was still in college, so I never knew him. My father kind of idolized him. Talked about him with such reverence, because he was the kind of father who didn’t fool around with children. And just as my dad was getting old enough to interact with his father man to man, he died. So my dad considered his father as the kind of guy who used to sit in the living room and smoke his pipe, and spit in the fireplace. He didn’t listen to my grandmother, which made a huge impression on my father, because everybody listened to my grandmother. He was like, “Oh, he must be a pretty bad dude, because he doesn’t listen to her.”

ALP: Yeah. He’s really a man.

AL: Right. My father showed me my grandfather’s notebooks. They were just some notebooks in a cabinet, when he pulled them out, he held them like they were like really precious objects. I didn’t touch them. I just looked at them. Then he closed them very carefully, and put them back in the cabinet. I guess my grandmother was either saving them, or she just hadn’t done anything with them. She just left them where they were.

ALP: Did you ever see them again?

AL: I never saw those notebooks again. When my grandmother passed away, my father, his two brothers and his sister, went to Clarksburg, West Virginia, the small town where they grew up, and cleaned up the house and sold it. Maybe one of my uncles has the notebooks.

ALP: In a sense, the notebooks made an impression on you too, the sacredness of the book, and the record keeping. Note keeping, there’s an issue of pattern, there’s an issue of counting, the cyclical nature of many of your works. They record important events in your life, or in the life of the world that matters to you. I was thinking … actually, recently we talked a lot about your ancestor pieces. They in a sense begin tying your record, of your personal cycle, your menstrual cycle, and your family history. How did that connection came about?

"20th Century," acrylic on paper, 92 square cm, 3 panels, 1998 by Annette Lawrence

“20th Century,” acrylic on paper, 92 square cm, 3 panels, 1998 by Annette Lawrence

AL: Well, I was interested in generational counting, with the ancestor portraits. When Dana Friis-Hansen asked me one time what the connection was, I told him, “Well, it’s the same blood.” The blood in my drawings is the blood of the people in the portraits. I didn’t think of that before making them, but when asked that question it seemed like the real direct relationship. Also, in terms of culturally looking for points of reference, in African American culture, or in American culture for an African American woman artist, the active search for some connectivity, to find some points of reference, or some context to actually be in. In doing that, I learned that who’s counting determines what is counted, and how, right? It became my goal to always assess what’s being counted, who’s counting, and how are they counting.

ALP: Is that in a sense a very empowering practice for you? To be able to determine what matters?

AL: Exactly, right. Growing up and being an art student, and never seeing myself made me really keenly aware of what mattered and what didn’t matter. It’s not that there’s not really highly accomplished artists that I could relate to, but I had yet to learn about them. I had to go find that out on my own. Which is a pretty common experience, but it caused me to count. It sort of was an impetus to my counting behavior.

ALP: I want to come back to these ancestors in a minute, but I want to talk about this idea of counting and pattern in music. There are several bodies of work you’ve produced over the years that relate the type of music, counting, and directly or indirectly, out of your memory of your experience, with music learning or the African American music tradition. It’s interesting how you then deconstruct the music, and transformed them into a system, that only you know. You’re the only one who can decode it, and we can only understand it through a very long process of examination, and maybe dialogue with you. How do you go about transforming different kinds of material into a system that then becomes the language that you use to paint? Because you’ve done that with music, you’ve done that with photographs…. How does that come about? How does this process evolve?

AL: I have some raw material that I feel is usable. I’m drawn to something visually, but I’m never satisfied with it just as it is. It doesn’t hold my interest in its raw state. So I start messing around with it, just to see what’s possible, refining, and refining, and refining whatever I’m looking at. I take it apart in as many ways as I can, and then once it’s in pieces, I put it back together again, differently than how I got it in the first place. That seems like, in a nutshell, what I do with pretty much everything.

ALP: It’s like you deconstruct something, and then you reassemble it in many different ways, through many different processes. Let’s think about an example, and of course I’m thinking about your music notebook. Can you talk a little bit about that piece?

AL: That body of work is called Theory. The thing that I wanted to happen with that, was I wanted the visual experience that one would have looking at it to feel like music sounds. My goal was for it to feel like there’s some kind of motion going on, and there’s a lot of space and air. If it evokes any kind of sound at all, then the work is succeeding. All of the changes I was making were to get it to that point, where it felt like sound. That was my goal. Having it move in perspective, flipping it upside down, so that it’s moving in a way that is counter to the way we actually see things move. All of those changes were just to get it in a place where something unexpected would happen, and hopefully it would evoke a sound, or a group of sounds.

"Theory #6," acrylic, graphite, ink on paper, 48 x 48 in, 2002

“Theory #6,” acrylic, graphite, ink on paper, 48 x 48 in, 2002

ALP: Tell me a little bit about the source material for that series, for Theory.

AL: It’s my music lessons from when I was about between 7 and 8 years old. I took piano for about 8 months, and I had a really hard time with the actual playing of the piano, but I took to the theory notes, because it was like making drawings. I think of that as my introduction to abstraction. At the time, studying piano meant that you were learning how to read, and write, and play all at once. I could not get how what I was reading related to the placement of my fingers. It was just too many things at one time, so I quit the piano lessons, but I really loved the drawings that I was making, required for homework. I loved copying the notes out of the little book I was learning from. I guess the thought was, if I wrote it repeatedly, I would remember it. But it was completely apart from the actual playing of the piano in my mind. Sitting down at the piano was the worst part of the whole experience of the lessons, because I just couldn’t translate from the written to the sound, or even to the place, how that related to where I put my fingers, you know? I think if I had taken music lessons 10 or 15 years later, when the methodology was using your ears first, and then learning how to write later, I might be a pianist right now. Since it was the writing first, I’m a visual artist instead.

ALP: Because the placement of those notes, they are very graphic. They are actually, and I saw the images of your notebook, and they are quite beautiful. You deconstructed that book in many different ways, including the drawing of the spirals of the book.

"Theory Installation, Glassell School" paper, string, tape, glue 30 x 24 x 2 ft, 2003

“Theory Installation, Glassell School” paper, string, tape, glue 30 x 24 x 2 ft, 2003

AL: Yeah, I got the spiral part out of the photocopying process. As I was making photocopies of the pages, I just loved how the spine looked. I was doing a lot of tracing from photocopies, so I traced the spine separately from the other parts. I was isolating each part, so there were the notes, and the letters, and the lines on the page, the staffs, and also the spine of the book. I did some drawings where it had the edge of the pages. I never did blank pages, but I could actually get into that where I drew the edge of the book page and nothing on the page. I actually didn’t do that. I noticed it, but I didn’t do it.

ALP: Another body of work that deals with a similar idea, but here you’re working with the actual sound, was when you did the piece based on …

AL: John Coltrane’s tune, “Alabama.”

ALP: “Alabama,” yes.

AL:  That was using sound analysis. The visual representation of sound analysis through three seconds of that song. The very first three seconds, where there’s kind of a tumultuous sound of those big drums. I don’t remember what they’re called. It starts with a T.

ALP: Timpani.

AL: Yeah, timpani drums. The fact that those notes, what comes out of the digital sound analysis, this computer generated image looks like an explosion, or has this kind of random, but explosive, look about it. Relates to the song because it’s about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. John Coltrane was the kind of artist I really admire, where he was doing work that was fairly political, but it was aesthetic at the same time. I mean, people could listen to the music and not pay attention to the politics, or you could appreciate the politics embedded in this rich aesthetic experience that you would have listening to the music.

I also enjoyed the grid format of digital sound analysis, and how everything that’s digital is in a grid. I like how that looked, so I used that body of information in a group of work for about a year. After doing it for a while, it started feeling too tight. That’s how I moved into using my own handwritten notebooks from when I was a child. I just happened to find the book, and it sort of rescued me from the digital version of music.

ALP: Photocopies. That’s a big part of your process. Can you explain it to me?

AL: I use a photocopy machine as a drawing tool, as a way of making new images, and enlarging things, or reducing them in size. It gives me the opportunity to change parts of what I’m working on fairly easy, with a mechanical tool. In the music lesson pieces I used all of the photocopies as something to trace. I needed a really strong image to set on my light box so I could trace accurately. It’s just a method of convenience really, to save the original book from the wear and tear of the process of making those drawings. By making the photocopies, I was able to copy the book, and put the book away, and then really handle the photocopies, and reproduce them, and trace them. If something got on them, it wouldn’t be a problem.

ALP: Other times you have used the pigment that is deposited on the paper.

AL: I’ve used them to make transfers. I learned how to transfer photocopies onto other surfaces using acrylic medium while I was a Core Fellow in Houston. It’s a technique that many artists use. Low-tech printmaking. I originally started making work with photocopies when I was an undergrad, way, way back.

ALP: When were you in undergraduate school?

AL: In the 80s, from ’82 to ’86, so right around 1985, Kinko’s arrived on the street where I lived. I loved Kinko’s, the quality of the black ink that came out of those Kodak photocopy machines. It was a very specific color. It was flat, and rich, and completely black. Ivory black almost, but flat, no shine at all. I made a few pieces just enlarging photographs on those printers. And then cut the enlargement down to smaller pieces and enlarge those pieces, and cut those pieces down. I made a piece that was 120-something pages that I’d pieced together to make one image of the Brooklyn bridge. That was in my senior show in undergrad. That was my first photocopy piece, and ever since I’ve just had this affinity to using those machines as a tool.

ALP: A certain playfulness with the technology.

AL: Right. It’s kind of low-tech, you know?

ALP: Actually in the 80s it wasn’t that low-tech. It was…

AL: It was high-tech.

ALP: I want to go back to the ancestors, because I want to talk about geometry and…

AL: Okay, well, let me just say one more thing about the photocopy machine. Now you can’t do the kind of enlargements that I liked to do, like tiling and things like that. That’s not available on a photocopy machine anymore. You have to actually send a file to the machine with your tiled enlargement as a digital file, and then print it in order to get the kinds of things I used to be able to do just on the copier myself. It’s very complicated.

ALP: The playfulness and the trial and error nature of what you did is not available anymore?

AL: Not on modern day photocopy machines, nope.

ALP: You need to find an old one and…

AL: And buy it.

ALP: Buy an old photocopier. Of course, then you’re going to have a very hard time finding the ink.

AL: Exactly. I think that it’s probably not possible to use that kind of technology anymore. I don’t know, the passion to have the newest, latest, fastest, more digital photocopier has ruined the ability to use it the way I used to use it.

ALP: What fascinates me is how a lot of contemporary art deals with very specific types of technologies, materials that are timely. They are something that is available at that particular point in time. Then as the decades and the years pass, that technology, that material is gone.

AL: Right.

ALP: Conservation, it’s so hard to think how you’re going to protect these works, preserve them. The idea that an artwork can never be reproduced in a sense. Another artist cannot really do the same thing, because the material’s not available anymore. If you think about painting in the Renaissance, you can still…It’s a bit harder, but you can make the paint. But when you’re dealing with technologies, when the technology becomes obsolete, it gets harder and harder.

AL: What’s interesting though is that you can’t do those things on a photocopy machine, but you can in Photoshop say, you can posterize an image so that it looks like an old school photocopy. Photoshop programs mimic the way that stuff used to look.

ALP: You can get the look, but you don’t have the process involved. Interesting. Let’s talk about the geometrical form, the circles and ellipses that have been kind of…I would say close to 20 years, 18 plus?

AL: Yeah, grids and spirals have been a regular presence in the work from-

ALP: From the mid-90s.

AL: I would say since grad school. Even going back to that Brooklyn Bridge photocopy piece I just mentioned. It was a grid. It was 8 1/2 by 11 sheets in a grid. In graduate school I was in transition between sculpture and painting. The first big body of drawings/paintings that I made was an image of a flower in 3 different positions. It was actually the shadow of a flower turning. It was a grid, but the flower implied a spiral.

Before 1996 I had grids, and I had spirals, and that was part of my language. In 1996 with the ancestor pieces, I figured out that I could do the portraits, but use the grid and spiral language to somehow define the space that the portraits lived in. In that space, I was also trying to make some reference to the person in the photo, if I knew anything about them. Some of the ancestors I didn’t know at all, but the ones I knew, or I knew of, I tried to use what I knew to determine how the grid and spiral would be on the page.

The grids are sort of a man-made structure, and spirals represent nature, natural form. Having those 2 things together in the same space define our experience in a whole way.

ALP: Remember that other series that you did that we were looking at in your studio that had the spirals moving and becoming ellipses.

AL: Oh yeah. That image is from a conversation with a mathematician about how to draw an ellipse. I did a few pieces using the ellipse, just because I love the form. It didn’t go for very long, but there were a few, maybe 4, 5 pieces, that came from that one drawing. The original drawing is in the piece you have, isn’t it?

ALP: What is the name of that series?

AL: One was called Red Ellipse, and one was called Indigo Ellipse, where I combined my music lesson notes with that ellipse form. Then I just took the ellipse alone and tipped it in space, and did a few pieces using that.

"Red Ellipse (Installation 5)," graphite, acrylic on paper, 88 x 92 in, 2002

“Red Ellipse (Installation 5),” graphite, acrylic on paper, 88 x 92 in, 2002

ALP: There’s a kind of rational and.. I don’t want to say mathematical, but it’s like spacial thinking that is required for you to calculate how you move those images in space to flatten them. Do you do that with the copier, with the computer, or just…

AL: For those things, I’ve had them on the wall…If it was a projection on the wall, I would just sit on the floor, really close to the wall, and shoot a photograph at a very sharp angle, and that would change the perspective.

ALP: You would then photograph it, then transfer the photograph, and so on…it is very process oriented.

"Tilted Ellipse" acrylic, photo copy transfer on paper 28 ½ x 36 in, 2003

“Tilted Ellipse” acrylic, photo copy transfer on paper 28 ½ x 36 in, 2003

AL: Yes, that’s always how I’ve worked. It’s funny because my undergraduate degree is in sculpture, so when you’re talking about a spatial sense of things, it’s probably because I’m used to building things. I’ve shifted almost completely into two dimensions, except for the stacks of brown paper in the boxes. Not brown paper, but the stacks of junk mail in the boxes that I made for those. I’m working two-dimensionally exclusively for-

ALP: Well, you’ve done a lot of work that is three-dimensional. Actually, you have a gigantic sculpture at the Cowboys Stadium that is a massive complicated piece…And you’ve done several installation pieces that use strings and paper…

AL: It’s funny, I think I’ve compartmentalized my practice so severely that I don’t remember those things. I remember them, and I love making them when I’m invited to do them, but my day-to-day practice is two-dimensional. Then on the occasion, when I’m asked or invited to make a big installation, I absolutely love doing it, but it’s very concentrated in like a week, or two-week period if it’s a string piece. I’d build it, and I’d usually leave the town where it is, and I never see it again. It’s very disconnected for me. I always try to take really, really good photographs, and those works live as photographs. I don’t spend time with them, and they’re really almost like performances. They happen, they go up, and they come down, they don’t exist.

ALP: I think they are a very important part of your practice. They are very graphic. They work with lines. You normally work with lines or shadows, which are all very much part of your two-dimensional practice, your painting practice. I actually would like to talk a bit about the work you did at 95 on Ashburn.

AL: Okay.

ALP:  That was both a performance and a painting. The shadows become such an important part of it. Can you tell me a little bit about how that piece came about, or the genealogy of that piece? Because you’ve done it before in different ways.

AL: Okay, well, the balls of string that make 95 are string that I used over a 10-year period in many installations. I’m fuzzy on the number now. It may be 12 installations. I’d use the string, make the installation, and at the end, either I or whoever is there to de-install it, we’d take it down and make balls out of the string. The next time there’s an installation, more string might be added. Usually more would be added, none was ever really taken away. All of it wasn’t used for every installation, but I never really bought new string, unless we used all of the old string. That string was just reused, and reused, and installed, and taken down, and new knots would be tied, and new places would be cut. After 10years of using it, I felt like it was starting to look a little bit worn, and I retired that group of string. It happened to be 95 balls, from whichever installation was the last installation that I did with it. I’ve left it at 95, and it’s been installed about 4 or 5 times now as 95. The Ashburn piece was the second installation of it.

“95 on Ashburn” postal string, nails, dimensions variable, 2009

“95 on Ashburn” postal string, nails, dimensions variable, 2009

ALP: When you install that, how did the idea of the process come about. Because there’s a very performative and process oriented way to roll the balls, and plot them onto the wall.

AL:  Actually Ashburn was the third installation. The second time I installed 95, it was at Betty Cunningham Gallery, and in order to engage the wall that I had to work on, I made one solid horizontal line, then all of the other balls had to be placed, and I wanted to use a random system for placing them. We rolled the balls on the floor of the gallery, in a defined space, and used one of the lines on the floor to mimic the line on the wall. Wherever the balls landed, they would be attached to the wall in that exact location.

On Ashburn we did the same thing, except we measured out the width of the hallway in the case of Ashburn, and that’s the swatch on the wall that we were going to use. Wherever the balls landed, we measured and attached the ball to the wall in that exact location. There’s a lot of chance involved, it’s kind of a game. It’s very participatory. The piece is really made by all of us, whoever’s there to participate in rolling the balls. I never know what’s going to happen. I mean, that’s one of the great things. It’s always something beautiful, because the balls themselves are their own little beautiful object. The pattern that they form, it’s always a surprise. I find out what it’s going to look like when it’s finished. It’s like making a drawing in a way.

“95 on Ashburn” postal string, nails, dimensions variable, 2009

“95 on Ashburn” postal string, nails, dimensions variable, 2009

ALP: I remember the shadows they casted. Every different time of the day it was always a series of new drawings that you would see. They were beautiful.

AL:  Your hallway has magnificent light. No other installation had that kind of dramatic change over the course of the day. Each other situation where they’ve been installed has been more controlled. They’ve been in artificial light pretty much every single time, except for yours.

ALP: I wanted to talk a little about your body of work related to the burning of the churches. Can you tell a little about the genesis of that work?

AL: In 1996 there was an epidemic of small churches in the south that were…cases of arson, where they were burned. Initially the news was, there were 10 little churches. Then the next thing you knew, the next story was there were 24 churches. They got up to the last number I heard before I thought, when is this going to be considered a serious enough problem for the government to get involved. It was like 60 churches that had burned, in a short period of time, maybe 2 months. The conversation about it was, initially they were just isolated incidents, there was no conspiracy. There’s nothing to be alarmed about, these things happen. As the numbers grew and grew, the black community was like, “Wait, hello? There’s an all out attack on small black churches going on.” Just wondering when it would be seen as a really big problem.

I stopped listening to the news before it reached any satisfactory level of the government addressing the problem. I made that work, it’s called Phoenix, because what was happening was, as these churches were burning, the communities around the churches were rebuilding them and just coming out and helping each other. It just proved that the church itself was not the building. The church was not damaged by the buildings being destroyed. It was actually strengthened because of the crisis. That’s why I called it Phoenix.

As I’m counting those hash marks, two things are going on. There’s the church itself starting out as a small structure, and the numbers are large. I do this a lot, where I have a relationship that over the course of a group of work, or if there’s nine parts to a thing, the relationship is reversed from the first one to the ninth one. I think this one actually has 12 parts. The church is small, the numbers, the hash marks are large, and as you go through each piece, there’s more numbers, and the church is actually larger. But because there’s more hash marks, they’re smaller. In the end when the count is up to 60 I think, the hash marks are relatively small, and the church is…You’ve kind of gone into one window of the church. You can’t see it anymore because it’s large enough to be off the page.

ALP: When you’re talking about John Coltrane, and your interpretation that he works both the political and the aesthetic. I actually think you do a lot of the same thing. For you, the political is always embedded in your work, but is not visible. I find it to be a very important part of how your practice, has evolved. That you really embed it. As an African American artist, I imagine there’s a lot of expectation that your work should be about race, and race relations. At first impression, the work is not about race, but once you start understanding a lot of the work really is dealing with the racial politics in the United States.

AL: Yes.

ALP: If you look back at your ancestors pieces, if you look about the burning, if you look about Alabama, they all deal with memory, they deal with struggles, they deal with claims, being counted. Then there’s another issue and that is the choice of materials, your colors, brown paper that you use, they in a sense are very symbolic of race.

AL: That’s definitely part of it. The brown paper is the color of my skin. I mean, that’s part of the draw. Then also, the fact that brown paper is so easily accessed. I mean, it’s paper that is not really valued in and of itself, but when I make something using brown paper, it becomes something of value. I’m definitely playing with that.

ALP: Black and white are very important colors in your work. You have used them, many times separate, many times together, but they tend to be always dialoguing.

"Charles H. Lawrence," Acrylic on paper, 64 x 47 ½ in, 1997

“Charles H. Lawrence,” Acrylic on paper, 64 x 47 ½ in, 1997

AL: Yeah, I go into a museum space with an exhibition of African art, and those exact colors, like my palette, are present in really ancient objects. I think, “Wow, there’s my palette.” Perhaps that’s why I have such a strong connection to those particular colors, is because they’ve been present in African art for a really long time.

ALP: Growing up, did you used to go to museums?

AL: We didn’t really go to any art museums. I went to every other imaginable museum in the city of New York except for the art museums as a kid. When I was in college we would take field trips and go to the city, and I was seeing the museums for the first time, I just thought, “This was here? This was here the whole time?” How did that happen? I introduced my family to those museums. My parents, wouldn’t have gone to an art museum if I wasn’t involved in an exhibition, or if I didn’t meet them at the museum when I would come to town.  I always had a list of art that I wanted to see, and they would come with me. They were experiencing that stuff for the first time.

ALP: So African art wasn’t really part of your vocabulary when you were growing up?

AL: No, I didn’t see art much until I was in college. When I was in high school, I went to these programs in the summer for high school kids preparing for college. In both of those summers I visited art museums, for the first time. The first one was the Albright-Knox museum in Buffalo, New York. The second summer, I think we went back to the same one.

ALP: That’s amazing, and you lived in-

AL: I had to go all the way to Buffalo to see art, and I lived right in New York City. I grew up in Queens. I was very close to the Modern, the Met, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim.

ALP: Do we have anything else that I should have asked about numbers, and about art, about counting, about-

AL: I want to tell you about my thesis show from graduate school. I mentioned it was an image of a flower in three different positions, the shadow of a flower. What I ended up doing with that was, I drew the image, each part of the three pieces, six times, or six different ways, and I did it in four different sizes. There were, I don’t even know. 18 times 4.

ALP: Wow.

AL: That’s how many parts there were to this group of work

ALP: 72.

AL: That’s where I pushed the pattern making and counting thing the farthest. I guess it’s not the farthest, but for the first time. The farthest for the time I was in grad school.

ALP: That’s when counting and observing the pattern became very important to you, following the pattern. Repetition. Even looking at, in a sense, all the possible ways that you can deconstruct something.

AL: Once I get something in my sight, the next thing that happens to that thing is, I pull it all the way apart, and then I put it all back together again. It’s the same process, just with different things.

ALP: That’s what’s happening with your diaries now even.

AL: That’s right. Yeah, the diaries are the latest subject of this process. What I’ve come up with this time, these grid drawings are the grid and the spiral in one. This is the first time that’s actually come together. That’s exciting.

ALP: Explain how you’re mixing the grid and the spiral.

AL: I’m making circular grids out of the information that I’m drawing out of my journals, in terms of days that I wrote, and days that I didn’t write. I’ve made these charts for every month, for every day really, of the year.

ALP: You’ve been recording… journaling for 25 years?

AL: A little bit longer, but I’m only using the first 25 years. I’ve actually almost completely stopped journaling in the last 3 years, after starting to use the journals. I’ve kind of fallen out of the habit of journaling.

ALP: They became a source, so they are not as central to your life anymore. Interesting.

AL:  I’m too self-conscious to write at this point. Although, I feel like I could now, but right around the time I started to use them in 2007, I just tapered off my writing between 2007 and 2010. I still have a journal, but there’s very little in it. I think that now that enough time has passed, it’s 6 years since I started using the journals, or thinking about it, I can probably journal now. It’ll be like a whole different phase of journaling than before.

ALP: Yes. Because you also reread most of your journals for the last 25 years so I think you have this appreciation of what matters and what didn’t matter… this knowledge will influence what you write.

AL: Right. A lot of the writing is about the process of working, and then a lot of it is also about personal drama. Just not interesting at all. The parts that are about my work are interesting, and the influences on the work. I wrote about lectures that I attended, or books that I was reading, or anything related to the work. Those parts of the writing are actually really interesting. At some point later, I will use the writing itself. I don’t know when I’ll do that, but after I finish really having fun with the data of when I wrote and when I didn’t write. I’m focusing mainly on when I wrote right now, but there’s the whole other side of the days I didn’t write.

ALP: That’s true.

AL: I could do the same grids in reverse, where the spaces that I wrote are empty spaces, and the spaces I didn’t write are filled.

ALP: When do you know that you’re done with a body of work?

AL: I think after I’ve tried every combination and explored every possible way of using the information that I’m working with visually. Or if something else comes along and catches my attention. Although, I don’t have a short attention span, but if something else starts pulling at me, the thing I’m working on evolves into the next thing.

ALP: So, what are you working on now?

AL: I’m continuing to make circle grids. I’ve calculated that in order to make a circle grid in every possible combination of the dates from 1983 – 2007 I have approximately 100 grids to draw. I’m making them a bit smaller to speed up the process. While I am making the drawings I plan to study digital coding.

Midway and Counting transparent photo prints, wood, aluminum, 46 x 44 x 144 in, 2014

Midway and Counting transparent photo prints, wood, aluminum, 46 x 44 x 144 in, 2014

ALP: Digital coding?

AL: Yeah, it seems like the next step. I’ve been creating systems all along, and I am curious about what is possible in the digital realm.