BY Lucy Ives in Interviews | 15 DEC 21

Claire Lehmann’s Beautifully Wrong Realism

On the occasion of her solo show at David Lewis Gallery, the artist speaks to Lucy Ives about the surreal relationship between digital memory and oil painting

BY Lucy Ives in Interviews | 15 DEC 21

Lucy Ives: The imagery in your work is very strange. Where does it come from?

Claire Lehmann: Some imagery is cribbed from European paintings from the 1400s, particularly Flemish Primitives and other late-Gothic polyptychs; sometimes I range a bit later: Parmigianino, Zurbarán. The other broad class of source pictures are scientific and technical materials from the mid-twentieth century up to today – sources that offer a methodology for making representations. What these two kinds of images have in common, for me, is a bigger project of attempting to correctly take a vision from life, from active sight, and fix it to a two-dimensional plane for the future. It’s a long history of mimesis.

To me, the way in which representational strategies evolve is a near-mystical process, where stock concepts repeatedly take form by passing through the hands of many different artists. Image-makers are always trying to give fresh life to conventional subjects. I like watching how odd or attenuated a certain representational style gets before it snaps forward to some new beginning.

Claire Lehmann Late Findings 2021
Claire Lehmann, Late Findings, 2021, oil on canvas on panel, 51 × 51 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and David Lewis Gallery, New York

LI: How does your own style fit into all this?

CL: It’s hard for me to see whether I’m generating a particular style myself; I am sort of picking through the rubble of old material and rearranging it or juggling pieces of received content that are floating around in the ether. In some sense I imagine this way of painting as being beyond style, because I’m often appropriating from representations that contain, implicitly or explicitly, notions of rightness – or technical virtuosity rather than subjective style. I don’t find these themes to be dry or didactic, but rather haunting, because of all the slippages and misses that occur, the ways we always fall short of instructional ideals.

For example, I think the reason I can’t look away from European paintings in the 1400s is because it’s a moment when realism was so delicately, beautifully wrong. In terms of perspective, some things would be accurately portrayed, and others, not so much, like the funny stacking of people in crowds that you see in, say, the Ghent Altarpiece, as though you, the viewer, are hovering in mid-air. Or how in a Fra Angelico, an architectural structure will be more or less correctly projected in a mathematical sense, but then the lawn nearby depicts plants and grasses in an all-over, wallpaper-like way.

This whole endeavour of mimetic image-making feels like a quasi-spiritual quest for the eternal: we’re going to snatch something from life and pin it down the best we can on a nice, durable surface and send it off into the future to live forever! It’s this continuing language we’ve all contributed to. I’ll never not be fascinated by the way we’ve tried to do that and inform others about how to do it. All the technologies and tests and didactic information about painting or photography or whatever are essentially saying: here’s this flower, wilting as we speak, but we’re going to capture that, to make sure that other people will see it in the future, just as we did today. It’s both incredibly melancholy and very optimistic.

One reason that paintings from centuries ago have hung around is that chemically they are so stable, thanks to plant oils and pine resin. That’s what oil painting is – we suspend these minerals from the earth in what is essentially a kind of amber.

Claire Lehmann The Mocking of Nature 2019
Claire Lehmann, The Mocking of Nature, 2019, oil on canvas on panel, 61 × 46 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and David Lewis Gallery, New York

LI: Contemporary technology is ubiquitous and offers seemingly infinite memory, but at the same time the never-ending updates and impinging obsolescence mean people are constantly losing access to images and other content.

CL: This is why I mine printed matter: going to used bookstores, buying magazines, consulting bound volumes of old trade publications in libraries. I particularly love the ‘waste’ information contained in these volumes. I find it very sad that we’re not generating this kind of visual material anymore in physical form, since the number of printed publications is dwindling. There is amazing visual information embedded in back matter ads, instructional pamphlets, specialty catalogues. This kind of visual culture rots away quickly online because it doesn’t get physical form these days – we barely make even important images into physical objects. It’s by looking through endless copies of this kind of printed matter that you begin to understand an era’s visual tropes and pictorial strategies.

One thing that is interesting in working from printed images is that I'm constantly trying to negotiate how much information I can glean from a given source versus the size of the painting that I want to make. I think a lot about the issue of resolution in painting, which might seem odd since resolution is an idea that is primarily applied to photography. I’m curious about how the eye ‘resolves’ an image at different distances, and how detailed a surface needs to be depending on how close the viewer will come to it.

Many of my early experiences of important works of art came from the printed page; I love the intimacy of having an image quite close to your eye. I wanted to recreate that pleasure, but in higher res – to make the paintings viscerally satisfying at close range. I recently learned that Barnett Newman placed a sign at the front of an exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery that said something like, ‘These paintings, though large, must be viewed up close.’ If I could get away with it, I would do that too, even though mine are small.

Claire Lehmann The Object Lesson 2018
Claire Lehmann, The Object Lesson, 2018, oil on canvas on panel, 31 × 31 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and David Lewis Gallery, New York

LI: You also take the side effects of contemporary image-producing technologies and make us look straight at them.  

CL: Yes! The touchstone for Model for Normals [2020], for example, is a file from an imaging experiment where scientists measure vectors of light bouncing off various surfaces, which are then used to calculate reflectance in CGI engines. This visualisation fulfils a purely bureaucratic need, but I’m offering a glimpse of this hidden process. These by-products from the contemporary imaging industry are, for me, also redolent of some of the same issues that presented themselves in painting centuries prior: how do you represent phenomena that cannot be measured by the human eye? I think, for example, of how a divine visitation could only be gestured at through beaming vectors of gold leaf.

LI: Speaking of the unrepresentable, the last time I was looking at your work I noticed that medical technology plays a certain role. I hadn’t previously thought about how much imaging goes into contemporary medicine.

Claire Lehmann Training Phantoms 2021
Claire Lehmann, Training Phantoms, 2021, oil on canvas on panel, 61 × 91 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and David Lewis Gallery, New York

CL: For Training Phantoms [2021], the composition centres around two medical apparatuses, which I found by accident while researching something else. They are called ‘tissue-equivalent phantoms’ – there’s a whole class of medical devices called phantoms that radiologists use in training; the ones in this painting teach technicians to find hidden tumours inside the breast. The breast phantoms come inserted into plastic cases, making them ready-made Saint Agatha-style objects; I saw them and I couldn’t unsee Saint Agatha presenting her amputated breasts on a tray. Again, these contemporary imaging techniques fuse, in my mind, with ancient pictorial concerns.

I should say there is also a personal side to that painting: in 2016 I found a lump in my breast, and I was told by the initial radiologist that it looked like I definitely had cancer. This turned out not to be true, but the terror I felt during this time, before my surgery, was illuminating. A couple of weeks after I got the all clear from the surgeon, I was sitting in therapy, and I said to the therapist, ‘I have been talking to you for years and years about my fear of making art and my blocks and my anxieties, but right now it feels like torture to sit here with you, because all I want is to be working in my studio.’ I actually stood up and walked out halfway through the session. And haven’t gone back.

The therapist had said to me a couple years prior, ‘Many of my patients who work in creative fields who struggle with procrastination or perfectionism are often cured of these ills when they have a strong experience of impending mortality.’ That was true for me. I made this painting thinking about the trope of Saint Agatha’s martyrdom, and also my fascination with forms that are used for imaging the unseen.

Claire Lehmann Painter's Hand Patron's Hand 2017-18
Claire Lehmann, Painter's Hand, Patron's Hand, 2017–18, oil on canvas on panel, 31 × 23 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and David Lewis Gallery, New York

LI: There is a clarity to the paintings mixed with a productive obscurity; both come from their extreme artificiality. I think of the Surrealist term informe [formless]. I think the paintings fit in the Surrealist tradition, in a way. The informe is something that destroys or obviates pre-existing categories, in part by refusing to make itself fully available to vision.

CL: I like this notion of the informe being about attacking the stability of a category. I think I am recategorising these pieces of content that I yank from their original contexts. In some sense, the project is looking at the meta-category of mimetic strategy – with all its invisible rules and codes and unarticulated beliefs. This can only be pointed to, not said explicitly, yet it undergirds much of visual culture. I’m trying to get at it sideways.

LI: Maybe we could go back to your style here – or, better, technique? Would you consider yourself an autodidact?

CL: I mostly had to teach myself how to paint in this manner, although I do have a degree in art. I didn’t have teachers who could hand down the information I was looking for. Painting technique is a lot of muscle memory and trial and error.

Maybe the best thing I was told by a professor – Nancy Mitchnick – was to make it a habit to go into museums as much as possible, even if briefly: ‘Just pay a quarter to run into the Met and go see your favourite painting for ten minutes.’ I have always followed that advice. But the kind of paintings I run in to see if I drop by a museum has been hugely influenced by those that affected me when I was a child. I have very intense memories, especially of seeing two tiny Virgins in the Rose Garden panel paintings: one at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and another at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It’s true that the small scale of some of my paintings is influenced by the size of printed reproductions on the page, but it’s also coming through early memories of viewing paintings like these, that pull you in – the tiny glinting strokes of paint. They’re so tenderly placed. Those surfaces are bristling with intelligence and care. I cannot overstate how moving I find them. It’s a form of communion.

Claire Lehmann’s solo exhibition at David Lewis, New York, is on view until 8 January 2022.

Main image: Claire Lehmann, The Deposition, 2021, oil on canvas on panel, 61 × 76 cm. Courtesy: © the artist and David Lewis Gallery, New York

Lucy Ives is a novelist, poet and critic. Her most recent book is the short story collection, Cosmogony (Soft Skull Press, 2021). In October 2022, Graywolf Press will publish her third novel, Life Is Everywhere. She lives in Vermont, USA.