Well, every subject gets reflected in the formal material that you decide to work with. In the past, I had painted two females—in my world, I was not intending them to appear as lovers, but I was okay with people thinking that. The way that I was painting those figures was as if they were one thing, multiple characters emerging out of one person. Then I found an image of a couple sitting on a diving board, talking to each other, and the man was leaning around the woman. I started to draw from it and realised that I really liked it. It gave me this great opportunity to paint a formal diametric idea—this is a painting called Mardi Gras Honeymoon (2015)—where the female figure is rather luminous in pink and the male figure is in a grey-black world. He's a being of drawing and she's a being of light and colour. I like the way that there is a kind of parallel in the language that we use [around colour]. Like a red and a pink or an orange and a red are more harmonious, whereas a red and a green are contrasting. The idea of contrasting meaning different, clashing—it has a kind of emotional resonance. And that can be very interesting when applied to subjects like couples, because sometimes they're harmonious and sometimes they're clashing.
That is the most recent painting, so I haven't had a long time to think about it. But I do think that if you compare [this work] to the smaller painting [Suburbs, (2017)], which is obviously a predecessor of that painting—but certainly not a study for it, because it's so different—this one became so much more like a personification. Like the painting is painting itself. It's in the process of becoming.
What [these modes are] specifically made to do is show volume around a form. These are all very different, but the one that is the most queer, in a way the strangest, is this cangiantismo. That word, in Italian, as I came to understand it, just means to change colour. In the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo used a kind of cangiantismo in parts of the panels to show a miraculous happening, so that as you move round a form, it would go from orange to green as opposed to orange to darker orange, which is more naturalistic. Cangiantismo is the least naturalistic of all of them and it is more evocative of the supernatural. Let's say you have an Annunciation painting, where the Madonna's sitting in a very humble room, and then this angel shows up and the angel's wing is like a rainbow. That is a visual contrast that says something extraordinary has happened in the midst of this dull Earth. The idea that the world is ordinary and then you have these extraordinary occurrences... I've always been really smitten by that.
Sometimes I do believe in past lives, because as a kid, I had this weird understanding of what I needed to do and how I needed to get it. I knew I wanted to go to an art school and more importantly, I knew I needed to be around artists to live. I did well in some IQ test and was put in a programme where I ended up being taken out of school a couple of days a month, along with some other kids, to visit the Philadelphia Orchestra or the art museum. I remember seeing something like a Vincent van Gogh and thinking, that's my friend. I know him, I've met him before. I asked my mom if she would find a summer programme where I could go to a college. I took a summer class with college students and I had a wonderful teacher. I went back to school and took what I learned and worked on my own and went to the museum and drew from paintings. I always knew you should look at art to make art. I would stand in my bathroom and put a towel on my head like I was Rembrandt, with light coming down from a skylight, and do a charcoal drawing of myself. Then with that work that I did on my own, I got into college.
Mel, William Bailey, and a man named Jake Berthot—he's passed away. All of my teachers, aside from William Bailey, were abstract or conceptual artists, and I think that had a really profound effect on me. I think it's really important not to study with figurative painters if you're a figurative artist. In a way, somebody like Mel Bochner, even though his work has absolutely nothing to do with mine, was very strong on the lesson of: this painting, though it may be lovingly made, is an illustration. I find that one of the problems with contemporary figurative painting is that so much of it feels illustrational. It has interesting subjects but doesn't resonate the meaning, and I think that ultimately you have to have that in order for the painting to rise and be part of culture in a bigger way.
I guess at the time of my own coming of age, that's what people looked like. What impressed me as a young adult about that style is that it's about the desire for freedom. Sexual liberation, women's liberation—it's a perfect subject for me because ultimately my work is about freedom. People will sometimes expect me to be more of a political artist and I think that one of my staunchest political positions is that I'm not going to do that.
She's someone I found on the internet. It was a whole photoshoot, I think it took place in one day, all amateur. There's something about her—I really liked her personality and I really felt for her. I was a nude model at one time and had experienced some really awful treatment from people. I didn't pose for magazines, I was in school. I always imagine when I look at the pictures of these women what was really happening. What was it like in the room, who was taking your picture, what did they say to you, why are you making that funny face? And this is not something a man would necessarily do looking at these pictures. I don't know any man who paints the nude who was a woman posing as a model at one time. My own experiences feed my empathy.
It's often easier to roleplay than to be yourself, to imagine yourself as an 'other'. You can access different things. That crazy character that Dennis Hopper played in Blue Velvet—he terrified me but he also seemed a lot like a painting. The whole dynamic between him and Isabella Rossellini seemed like a potentially bad dynamic between a viewer and a painting, which is that he was violating her through his eyes. He wasn't touching her, she was just victimised by his gaze and that's very powerful. I really took that on because it was about the power of scopophilia. But it also relates to painting, the vulnerable painting hanging on the wall and the potentially cruel viewer. The specific painting I made from that was called The Gifts (1991), but after that the 'Babies' [The Ones That Don't Want To] series came. The difference was the babies started to fight back a bit. They were going to hurt the person as much as they were feeling hurt. So they were disappearing into this mist, but then they were also staring.
Well, I'm always ready for a fight [laughs]. It's still all over the board; there are still people who feel really offended. I think it's a good problem—a world-class problem—to have the jury still out because once you are consumed and become muzak, you are already dead. I think the world is essentially misogynistic and I think that's been borne out pretty well in the United States: we elected somebody who has admitted to being such a person and it didn't matter. [But] I think that there is such a thing as female potency. It's a very particular kind of intensity, a very particular kind of inner life, and I don't think it's been seen very much in history. To go back to harmonies and contrasts, if you are harmonious with everything that's come before you, you're doing nothing. If you create some dissonance... it's part of your job to make people see things they don't want to see. I do think that's part of my role, to carry on discussing my own brand of what it's like to be a female. [Though] I can't even really talk about what it's like to be a female, I only know what it's like to be Lisa. —[O]