Jenn Smith interviews Leslie Baum

Leslie Baum interviewed at her studio by Jenn Smith on April 19, 2015.

JS
I was interested in how you started, how did you become interested in being an artist? I saw that you went to the University of Vermont and the Glasgow School of Art. Was there something before that?

LB
Yeah! My parents were both hobby artists, so I grew up in a very supportive, creative environment. My mom was a stay­at­home mom and my dad was an IBM­er. But, my dad was an ameteur photographer ­­ we always had a black and white darkroom in the house and I have lots of memories of being in the darkroom with my dad, and the smell of developer and the safety lights. When I was really little we lived in Summit, New Jersey, which is a bedroom community of New York City, and we would go into Manhattan every weekend, go to the MOMA, to the Met, go to the Hasidic photography stores to buy chemicals. And then my family is all from Baltimore, so we’d also go to D.C. all the time. My mom was a volunteer and then a docent at the High Museum of Art. So I’m pretty lucky because it wasn’t something I had to seek out, or fight for. It’s just like: “here you go, don’t watch TV, let’s make drawings…don’t use coloring books because that’s cheating”. So, that’s all I ever did, like is the first thing I did. I wasn’t that good at basketball, or whatever, but because my parents were very pro­making, and were visual people, both my brother and I developed an interest in skills, like first thing.

JS
It was just natural…

LB
Yeah. I mean, I don’t know if I was like quote unquote “good” but like a lot of things, like when you have exposure young, and you get to have that whole time period to like, not judge it and just do it, then you just get a foundation, you know. So yeah, it’s been a forever, a forever thing.

JS
That’s great. I’ve noticed that your work has a lot to do with referencing the history of painting and sort of…I thought it was interesting in your artist statement how you mentioned the game of telephone, and sort of re­combining and re­interpreting things down the line. You also mentioned digital images that, a lot of us, that’s our only exposure to work. But for you, you do have a lot on the memory side, too, it sounds like.

LB
I do, I have a lot on the memory side.

JS
So that’s all sort of coming together for me now, that makes a lot of sense.
Can you tell me a little bit about your process? Like how you, how something gets started, and then what happens next?

LB
Yeah! So, it’s been like this for a while, but I think it’s probably always been this way, I think things were fine, but I think I’m a little bit of a magpie, I’m always plucking elements and putting them together. And earlier, when I was a younger artist, I was plucking elements from observation out in the world. And I used to take…this is so, so old…it was before digital cameras…I used to take polaroids with me so I would have them, I would instantly have the picture, and I would make drawings from it, and then I would assemble those little drawings into paintings. And I think that’s what I’m doing now, it’s just the imagery and how I access it is very different, but the instinct, to collect these bits and pieces and put them together is the same. So for the past five years I’ve been looking almost exclusively at paintings from the 20th century, Western art. Almost, I mean there’s always something rogue, there’s always the exception that proves the rule, but that’s pretty much it. And I’d print out reproductions of various qualities and then I’d just kind of obsess on them for a while, and I find things in them that interest me, and I cut them out. And then I make kind of photographic collages, I take pictures of with my phone and then I look at them big on my screen and I think about them, and then paintings come from that. And then from a painting, other things come. So, more recently, the thing that I’m doing right now, which is new, although it’s again a continuation, is I’m thinking about how to interpret this painting (although it could be any painting) through the different processes and materials that I work with, so this is my first attempt. Across from [where you’re sitting], this arch shaped colored paper thing, is me, then interpreting this painting in the paper stuff that I did, which is something that I’d never done before, but it’s kind of exactly what I’ve always done. I’ve just never gone into one of my paintings and reassembled it, so I guess it’s also the telephone game, just getting farther and farther away from the first encounter. So, I just start with stuff. I mean, I need source material, I’ve always needed source material, and then meaning­making and image making comes from how I respond and use that source material. And it just kind of takes many layers to get there. Sometimes it’s pretty fast, sometimes it’s like, just gets processed over and over again.

JS
Do you have an elevator pitch, describing your work, that you can say quickly if you’re just, if somebody’s asking you…

LB
It’s hard, isn’t it? It’s so hard.

JS
…and you have to spit it out really quickly and make it interesting.

LB
I kind of say something like “It’s like hip hop!”

(both laughing)

JS
That’s great, that’s a great opener, I have to tell you!

LB
Except for I’m not sampling like, soul and R&B from the 60s, I’m sampling the modern painting canon. That’s kind of what I say.

JS
That’s awesome, that is a really good elevator pitch.

LB
Which, I don’t know how true it is, but that’s the best way to just kind of get at the nutshell of what I’m doing.

JS
Exactly, you’ve got to have a hook, to like, get people’s interest. That’s awesome. And it’s nice and short, too.

JS
Ok, my next question is: why Chicago? I mean, I’m sure it’s complicated.

LB
It is complicated! I mean, you know, the bottom line isn’t complicated, I just think it’s a great city. It’s an easy place to live, and its greatest resource is people. I’ve been here for over 20 years. And in that time, people have moved away everywhere, and there have been years of great exoduses, but I’ve always met new people. New, equally awesome people. And I just don’t know any place else in the world where that can happen. So, and I’m a people person. That’s really really important to me. And there are certainly examples of friends who have moved to New York and L.A., and Europe even, and it has done wonders for the echelon of their career and that gives me pause, but life is more than that. So, I visit New York all the time. I go four times a year. I go to L.A. once or twice a year. I think I stay as connected as I can, but I like that I can have a low­pressure life, I like that I can have a nice studio, I like that I can work part­time, which I do, I like that I own my place, which I do. I like all the people in my life, and they have time for me, so: that’s why Chicago.

JS
That makes a lot of sense. That’s really helpful, too, because that’s the big question for a lot of students…we’re all kind of struggling with that and I love it too…

LB
But there’s tradeoffs, I mean, it’s a lot harder. People do it, I mean, obviously people do it. Michelle Grabner is a great example, but even still, she always gets defined within this midwestern vernacular frame, and so, you know, I think there are tradeoffs. And it’s really important to evaluate for yourself the things that are most important, and I just never needed to be in the biggest pond.

JS
That’s great.

LB
I mean, I’ve got plenty of ego and ambition, I need to be relevant, I just don’t have to be in the biggest playing field.

JS
Do you have any advice for young artists?

LB
Of course!

JS
For people who are just starting out…

LB
It’s hard! It’s hard. I think you have to trust yourself, and be authentic to yourself, and my memory of being in school is there are a lot of voices. And they are interested in what’s best for you, but they don’t always know you. And I remember, for me, those voices being very confusing and I took a lot of them to heart, and I feel like I went off­track trying to respect people I admire’s vision for me, and it took a while to peel away those layers to realize what I just wanted to do wasn’t what they wanted me to do. And I wish I could’ve done that faster. It took me a long time. You know, I still hear someone saying “don’t use white paint!” [both laughing] but it’s just such an old­school painting school, Glasgow, it was like the worst thing you could’ve done! It was like devil worship to use white paint. So, you know, I think that it’s important, like, you go to school to learn. That’s why you’re there. You’re the center. And the learning is for you. So, figuring out the learning and the advice and the direction that actually helps you, and figuring out, even more importantly, what doesn’t. And it’s not because it’s not coming from an informed and caring and loving position, but it might actually be beneficial to what you want to do. I think that would be really…I wish I could kind of have trusted that about myself earlier. I mean, it’s part of the not looking at other people’s art sometimes too. I just feel like I’m very influenced…a semi­permeable membrane. Everything comes in. I don’t know if everyone is that way. And then, you just have to make work all the time. And you have to make bad work, you have to make bad work. That’s also really important. Yeah, and just persevere. I always say “I’m playing the long con”, you know? It’s not the…I’m not flipping a house, I’m investing in the neighborhood.

JS
That’s great. That’s awesome. Okay, my last question is: tell me about upcoming shows. Where can people see your work next?

LB
Well, I’m going to be in a group show at Jack Geary Contemporary in NYC. Andy Hall is putting together a group show with really good people in it. It’s called Making Strategies. I need to check on the dates but I believe it opens June 11. And then I’m going to have a solo

show in Portland Oregon at a space called Hap Gallery. And Fred Wells and I are working on our second animation. Who knows when it will be done, but that’s happening. I feel like there was something else….

JS Is the first [animation] online?

LB
Y e s . I t ‘ s c a l l e d t h e M e g i l l a t B r e a k d o w n . I t ‘ s o n v​i m e o ​b u t w e a l s o h a v e a l i t t l e w e b s i t e f o r i t . Oh, and I’m going to be in the next New American Paintings too.

JS
Hey, that’s great. The midwest edition?

LB Yeah.

JS
Awesome. Congratulations.

LB
I think that’s everything!

JS
Thank you so much. It was really fun talking to you.

LB
You’re welcome.

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