Conversation with Christine Lafuente
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Conversation with Christine Lafuente
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Elizabeth Johnson: On the Gross McCleaf website you describe your still life arrangements as “tiny cities floating on an enamel sea.” This struck me because, while browsing your website, I noticed that you’ve lived and worked near large bodies of water. You write: “I am conjuring up milky fogs in the space around each season’s crop of flowers: tulips, daffodils, peonies, roses, zinnias, ranunculus, lilies.” Would you say that having lived near water influences your tendency to build colorful forms emerging from silvery or grey backgrounds?
Christine Lafuente: I grew up next to the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, NY. My father grew up in Cuba, which is at the intersection of the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean Sea. My mother grew up summering on a midwestern lake. I’ve always been drawn to islands. As a student at PAFA, I was influenced by atmospheric painters such as Turner and Corot. The presence of moisture in the atmosphere next to bodies of water creates another layer of visibility and invisibility. Fogs obscure color but sometimes mists will accentuate the effects of sunlight. This influences the overall key of a painting. I might experience color or tonal relationships in a specific place that will in turn influence how I set up a still life; I’m conjuring that atmosphere or landscape condition in a tabletop composition.
EJ: Your “hit it and quit it” brushwork has grown both bolder and sharper over the years. The hues you are working with are rich and exciting, and your paintings look fresh and delicate. Do you generally work directly from life? Do you use photos as aids?
CL: Painting on location in places with variable weather conditions has required me to change my process from a more planned and indirect approach to a more direct approach. One technique I’ve developed is taking time to premix large color relationships in a scene before I commit to the painting’s composition. I use this technique to tune in to the visual experience. This allows my paint handling to be intentional and direct.
Another way I have accommodated working from nature or a still life that is changeable (say, flowers) is to work in series from the same motif many days in a row. For example in this show, there is a series of rock paintings and another series with delphinium, roses, and a trumpet. A series lets me experiment with composition and scale up ideas for larger, more complex paintings.
With the loss of daylight in November, I work from the sketches in my studio....
CL: ...I switch from painting still life by natural light to scaling up landscapes or seascapes into large canvases. It is a way to return, at least in my mind’s eye, to summer. Generally, my photographs are useless to this process: drawings and paintings from location plus my visual memory are enough.
EJ: Your color is supersaturated. Do you ever exchange observed color for color that you want to see, color that the painting calls for, or that you happen to have on your palette?
CL: If I have a lot of time and stable conditions, I may do a tonal study before I mix color. If conditions vary, I’ll likely premix color before I commit to a composition. If I’m pressed for time, I’ll start directly with color and stumble through or begin with a color field of similar tones and push and pull the color wet-into-wet.
EJ: You seem to mass up similar colors to create fleeting impressions. Campanula, Pansies, and Pitchers loosely organizes chroma from left to right as a transition between purple, yellow, red, and blue. Do you adjust the still life as you work? What do you look for in setting up a still life? Are you seeking melodies or progressions of color?
CL: Yes, I’m very interested in “melodies” of color that move across a larger color field or key. Sometimes there might be a progression of saturated color along a field of neutral color. In the painting you mention, I played with having the melody first be contrasted with a light background and then be contrasted with a dark background. I may think of this melody as a gestural relationship, which implies a kind of figuration.
Setting up a still life is like playing with dolls, where I am creating a tableau that can read both as an abstract design and as a figurative narrative. Composing a still life takes a long time but once I feel settled enough to accept every corner of the tableau, I tend not to rearrange, but just play the notes I’ve given myself.
EJ: Your landscapes are more naturalistically grey. Acadian Sea with Red Buoy stands out because there are pink and yellow zones in the water, yet a red speck, perhaps the buoy, is subdued...
EJ: ...How do you treat observed light and color differently in still life versus landscapes? Were the pink and yellow zones invented to support the isolated buoy or observed light effects?
CL: When I paint outdoors, I want to express my visual experience as truly as possible, whereas when painting still life I often experiment with pushing color for the sake of improvisation. Painting landscape requires me to humble myself before the visual experience. Still life lets me be the director, so I’m more prone to impose on the painting.
In Acadian Sea with Red Buoy, what you’re observing is the pink light of dawn being reflected in the water.
EJ: Your paintings seem to simplify objects into partially lit, ragged, silky fabric set upon shiny surfaces. And your landscape paintings use shiny water or atmospheric conditions to suggest distance. Teapot, Trumpet and Roses feels like a composite of both a still life and a distant view since horizontal background shelves mimic landscape. Do the two kinds of work influence each other?
CL: Yes, it is a combination, not just with landscape but also with a cityscape or metropolis. There is an architectural element that comes into my visual vocabulary because of living in New York, riding the train, looking out windows and seeing the urban frames of Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. Still life becomes a visual metaphor for the places I see in my mind’s eye. Seascapes and cityscapes re-imagined on an intimate scale become the “tablescapes” I populate with various objects and flowers.
How I compose landscapes and still lifes is influenced by my training as a figurative painter, although it’s not compositionally obvious. It’s more evident in the formal terms of gestural relationships between similar tones and colors.
EJ: Did Teapot, Trumpet, and Roses come from the same setup and before Teapots with Trumpet and Roses? Both fully leverage strong composition, and the latter seems to break into more abstract space by using floating color.
CL: Interestingly, the more abstract one came first because I was playing with abstraction to find composition. The larger painting, Roses, Delphinium, and Plums, came last. In this series I’m using abstraction to work towards a kind of figuration rather than as an end goal.
EJ: Cosmos and Delphinium on the Porch does a great job of building a column of space by contrasting lit flowers surrounded by shadows. Pansies and Typewriter uses light to articulate two flowers and various jars against a dark typewriter and a wall papered with a flower design. I think of Cezanne’s paintings that feature wallpaper combined with Morandi’s exploration of forms. Bottles, Teacups, and Roses is a humorous painting, in that every object seems to come out to entertain the viewer, as do the figures, for instance, in Picasso’s Harlequin and Young Acrobat. What painters, especially contemporary painters, inspire you?
CL: Cezanne builds form with color and light, so the color and light have their own kind of structure separate from the objects and the space around them. This does interest me. I’m also interested in the way Vuillard and Bonnard place figures into patterns that make them part of the pattern. They’re playing with visibility and invisibility.
As for contemporary artists, I think about my colleagues, friends I work with, and what problems they’re solving in paint. I enjoy taking on their problems to grow as an artist. Other inspirations include my late teachers Seymour Remenick and Lennart Anderson. I think about what they taught me, what painting meant in their lives, and what they were using paint to express.
Over the last year I’ve had many conversations with my friend and painter Bill Scott. We both lost our friend Patrick Connors in January 2022. When I speak with Bill, he makes me think of building a painting and responding to nature in different ways. He suggested I try working in triptychs or quadriptychs. This inspires me to reimagine a series of paintings as places in a larger composition rather than isolated snapshots in time. This makes me reconsider how I start a painting. The start of a painting can hold intention that carries like a breath through a phrase of music. It too is like a subtone, a resonance that pushes through till the end. The start is the critical moment. It is when the picture in the mind’s eye gives way to the material of paint, which can be all sticky and oily, the color surprising, the marks crude and sometimes eloquent. Change the start and you change the painting.
EJ: Could you say more about subtones and how they relate to your artistic process?
CL: A subtone is a deep harmonic resonance that can be played by a woodwind instrument such as a tenor saxophone. I think of it as a metaphor for a subconscious presence in memory, such as an emotional state while contemplating and painting from nature. For example, if I paint a series of small shoreline paintings, the rocks, water, light, and atmospheres are continuously changing. At the same time, one day I may be happy about some news, another day I may be missing a friend. When months later I scale up all those small paintings into a larger work, I return to those mind-states and emotions as much as to the memory of the visual experience. It’s as though there’s another kind of story embedded in the directly painted experience and I can “read” it by painting from the smaller paintings. Certain poets such as Wordsworth and Rilke understand this necessity for both direct experience and a contemplative return through memory. One contemporary painter who also speaks of this is the Tonalist, Richard Mayhew. I first saw his painting, Pastoral, in the Brooklyn Museum, and I knew he was doing something with painting like the mature Turner and Corot: conveying visual experience beyond descriptive illustration.
EJ: When a painting of mine imparts more than just its information, I chalk it up as a success. How do you know when you succeed?
CL: I am drawn to subjects that I don’t fully understand visually, that are mysterious, elusive, and at times almost impossible to see clearly. Often, I think: “I don’t understand what I’m seeing, but maybe I can understand what I’m seeing it by painting it.” Over a period of contemplative looking, often included in the painting preparation time but just as often during time spent looking without a thought of painting, I begin to transpose visual experience into an imaginary painting experience. In other words, like a musician who reads music with the playing of a specific instrument in mind, this kind of looking is experienced in the language of oil color, brushwork, and flatness. I am delighted when I can be clear enough to take in visual experience this way and then have the time, energy, and perseverance to allow the painting process to teach me what I’m seeing.
"Returning home, to the rooftop of my studio in Brooklyn, the city spreads itself toward the New York Harbor like an expanse of stony outcroppings and rivulets. As the weather turns cold, I am in the studio, building still life arrangements that are like tiny cities floating on an enamel sea. I am conjuring up milky fogs in the space around each season’s crop of flowers: tulips, daffodils, peonies, roses, zinnias, ranunculus, lilies."
- Christine Lafuente