Prarna Mansukhani interviews Laura Letinsky

Artist Interview, Chicago

Laura Letinsky

With Prarna Mansukhani

May 5, 2015

PM: Hello. I’d like to speak more about you than your work, since I sense your practice comes from a very personal place.

LL: Yes, sure, that’s true. But isn’t that true for everyone? How about you can ask a few questions and I will let you know if I feel uncomfortable. I am running right now from a faculty meeting from the UofC to a swimming lesson with my daughter.

PM: Sure, of course, that’s fine. You are so busy, you’re going so many places. And your work is always about a space after someone leaves it. Where are you from?

LL: Winnipeg, Minitoba. Canada. It’s not that far away, kind of near the border. A whole different country though, so there is something really mentally far away about that. It’s similar to Michigan, though, in terms of climate.
PM: You are always in such a cold place. Is that a coincidence? I know you attended Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, for your MFA, and now you’re here in Chicago where its 40 degrees in April.

LL: Haha. Actually, I hate the cold. I don’t like always being so cold. So it’s not that I prefer living like this. I think there is something to be said about isolation, though. All of those places are relatively isolated. Especially in Canada and New Haven. There is al lot of work I admire by artists working in far away places. Felix Gonzalez Torres for example. Isolation can be good. Good for an artist, good for anyone.

PM: By Isolation do you mean just not the center of the art world? Chicago is not New York, but there isn’t that kind of pastoral isolation I associate with Minitoba.

LL: Yes, that is exactly what I am talking about. New York, there is way too much stuff in New York. And artists working there, their work is really scrutinized. I don’t want to put down other cities, its not what I’m doing. Just as an artist, I need distance to see my work. I don’t need someone looking at it before I can look at it, like really look at it. Does that make snese? Work made in isolation has the flavor of isolation. There is an idiosyncrasy in the work. And Chicago is not so isolated but it is enough. I guess also, like anyone else, I had to make a set of choices. Related to money, what I can afford. New York is so expensive. I would have to have  totally different lifestyle if I chose New York. I just have always wanted time for my work. An artist really has to be making a lot of money off of their work to be doing it full time. It’s a lot of pressure that I didn’t need. And Yale is so close to New York, it would have been a natural move in some ways. Not in others.

PM: Can you talk more about the flavor of isolation?

LL: As you know, I am interested in the absence of the subject. What happens to a space when the person who is intimately connected to it, leaves it? I think there is a rich exploration here, parsing out a minimalistic versus modernist aesthetic. I want to complicate this boundary and clarify it for myself. That is what I’m interested in right now. I started doing the photographs witout people all together when I moved to Chicago with my partner. We hadn’t really moved, like really settled in yet. And we just kept leaving things behind to do other things in our apartment. Like in the kitchen, it was really an interesting moment.

PM: Do you work in a studio? I udnestand that at this point there is certainly some staging, and achieving what you have with lighting can’t be by chance.

LL: Yes, since 2006 I’ve been working in a studio. And I just moved my studio. Prior to that I had no need for a studio. I always just worked with what I had, wherever I could. At home, wherever. I mean I couldn’t really afford to rent two spaces and I just accepted that. There are a lot of artists that work this way, though. You almost have to build a methodology of working around what’s possible for you. Kind of making something from nothing. And I think that comes through in the work, it’s what people can relate to, isn’t it?

PM: It certainly captures my heart. What are you working on now? Your last show at Valerie Carberry in Chicago had collage of your previous work. This seemed like a shift to me, no?

LL: Yes, it was time for that. There are always many projects. Right now, though, I’m working with a collaborator on making napkins. Designing them. We have a hedge fund going, trying to raise money for production. This kind of project does take some money.

PM: This seems very different, again, from anything you’ve done before. Since a napkind has a specific function and definitely could be considered design. Do you have thoughts about the delineation of art and design?

LL: In some ways its stupid, to always question what is art. Of course this is in the realm of design. It has something to do with function. But I am not interested in arbitrary borders. I’m interested in ‘can napkins be art’? But honestly it’s silly to question it. I think good design can be art. There is a lot of overlap, of course, and part of creativity is considering functionality. Create solutions to problems is the heart of creativity. ‘Art’ has to do with criticality in the work, is there self-reflexivity going on in the object? That’s the level we are speaking on. Anyways, right now we’re trying to raise money for production.

PM: what about bad design?
LL: That’s just bad design. I’m almost to my swim lesson.

PM: You are balancing a lot. As the chair of the visual art department at UofC, your art practice, im srue a social life.

LL: Yes, and I’m a mom too! I have two daughters. It is very difficult, I feel I am always juggling many things. Teaching, parenting, my practice.

PM: Is art making the last thing you do or the first?

LL: Probbably neither, I am always very compelled to do it and return to it. I don’t think it ever stops. However, something always has to go. For instance, I am doing less research than I prefer. I read less. There is a lot I want to read about but I don’t have time, because reading takes so much time and you can’t really break it up into small chunks of time. I want to read much more about food, the politics of food and the anthropological aspects of consumption. I love poetry and I haven’t been reading much poetry either.

PM: Yes, your work is very poetic and you also have a way with words. I love how you title, my favorite is ‘Ill form and void full’. I mean it says so much right there.

LL: Thank you, thank you for noticing. I am actually very interested in Gertrude Stein right now, her poetry. Even though she is famous for other things. Yes. But going back to what I was saying about being busy, my strategy is to focus on small things, to be less involved in them. And just be less involved than I’d like to be. I have to make choices constantly about time, how to spend it. Honestly, I consider myself a cultural illiterate because of how little I know about what’s going on in the world right now. David Foster Wallace says that you can do anything, you just have to choose.

PM: I think Dave Grohl is pretty into that aphorism, too. I’ve seen a recording of him saying it on stage.

LL: That makes sense. There is a time for everything.

PM: Do you think of yourself as doing many things at once or do consider yourself as having many selves?

LL: Well, it has to do with age. As I get older, the different roles have started to blend together. I have always been a crafty girl, I usually am making something and then of course I am a passionate cook. It’s like threads that weave together. If you do things you love its like different textures forming a whole. Like art. Composition.

PM: But is there a second step? I mean, if art is a language there is so much development involved in an art practice. What does that look like for you in and out of the studio?

LL: Well, I think It’s wrong to separate things politically and morally. The personal is the political. My work is hyper personal in terms of where I choose to shoot. The domestic, ive always been interested in private spaces where no one else really occupies. And there its so true that ‘you are what you eat’. That is what I’m talking about. It’s important to try to live like a whole person, you’re only alive one time.

PM: Do you approach your art practice and your personal life in the same way?

LL: Art is amazing, but so is children, so are a lot of things. That experience of so many things is akin to expressing oneself through art. So is getting trashed, so is experiencing great food. It is like one thing leads to another and you must go with it. Like this swim lesson, it’s something I wouldn’t have done if I didn’t have a kid. Learning how to swim with a child. I like not being in control of every step of a choice that I make. I have to run now, our lesson is about to start.

PM: Thanks so much for your time.

Laura suddenly had to leave because her swim lesson was about to begin. Our interview was cut short.

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