Saturday, January 12, 2008

She Who Would Fly: An Interview with Suzanne Lacy, Richard Newton

Suzanne Lacy and Richard Newton were both performance artists based in Los Angeles at the time of this interview; both used sexual imagery in a social context. Lacy was making headlines with her large-scale performances about rape, aging and the status of women in U.S. culture. Newton, an associate editor at High Performance, was making performances and films concerned with "the integration of the male and female personae within us all." This was HP's first cover story. —Eds.

Suzanne Lacy: I came from Wasco, a town of about 6,000 in the central part of California. I was exposed to art through the paintings of the Great Masters Series. That's all one really had in Wasco. I went to school in zoology, with two years of graduate work in psychology. During my second year of graduate school in psychology, I met Judy Chicago, who was doing the Feminist Art Program at Fresno State College.

I had been involved in the feminist movement and had become increasingly alienated from academic studies because of their representation of women. I found such fulfillment relating to other women through the Feminist Art Program that I changed plans in midstream and went off to California Institute of the Arts, where Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro were beginning the Feminist Art Program.

I entered the Design School as a social design major and studied with Allan Kaprow, Judy, Sheila De Bretteville and Arlene Raven. I tried drawing and sculpture, but it would take a long time for me to learn how to draw well enough to put forth ideas accumulated after 26 years of living. I moved toward conceptual work because it's a more facile mode to express ideas without the need to learn laborious drawing skills. Plus, I was educated as a social activist. I had been in VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) for a while and worked in mental hospitals.

There was a strong emphasis on performance in Judy's programs, so I was exposed to it there. The first pieces I did were involved with body identity and used biological imagery. I did things like tying myself and the audience to beef kidneys and bathing in cows blood. It was similar to a lot of people's early work at that time—very visceral.

Richard Newton: What is performance art? Are there parameters?

SL: Performance's definition is rapidly changing. It is in a state of flux right now. Five years ago performance was defined as an offshoot of happenings—the mass environmental activity of happenings was reduced to the actions of one person. It was psychodynamic, about the experience of the artist as he or she performed.

In the last five years it's mushroomed in 100 different directions. People like Yvonne Rainer have begun making movies. People like Lynn Hershman have gone in a whole other direction, one that hasn't yet been defined—a kind of environmental performative activity. Her work comments on culture, is in a public place, and the artist acts as either a director or, if as a performer, as simply one element in the piece.

RN: Do you think performance is an art form or a movement? Is there a time when performance will simply be over?

SL: There has always been a performative form for every art movement. The Surrealists were a small and coherent performance movement. Futurists also had a performance activity— the same people that were performing were also painting. Happenings were a performative form of abstract expressionism. People like Kaprow and Oldenburg who did happenings also did sculpture and painting.

I think performance has become more specialized, so it might be that it has become elaborated and exists as a form in itself. People who perform are becoming specialists in that sense, there's not the same kind of connection with painting any more.

I think painting and sculpture are behind the times. Performance has taken over. Performance, conceptual photography and video work seem to have taken off into areas of concern away from any connection to painting and sculpture.

RN: Do you think art without political content is merely decoration?

SL: (laughs) A loaded question.

RN: I'm just trying to find a place for abstract painters.

SL: No, to say that would be historically imperceptive. I think the development of formal thinking through art has taken more or less political turns throughout the centuries. The Futurists were very political (and very fascist while they were at it). There's been attempts to interpret the Abstract Expressionists as being political.... What's happening now is that politics are coming back into the framework of art. There's allowance for that kind of content, and for content in general, to become manifest in art works. Before, there was a hard emphasis on formalism. Each of these concerns advance the body of information and body of knowledge that is art. I would never put one of them down.

On the other hand, I don't personally find work interesting that is not politically meaningful—and I use the word political broadly, because pictures of me floating in guts wouldn't be interpreted as political by most people. Art that is not personal, not reflective of existing in this culture, not somehow attempting to improve or change the culture—that kind of work bores me. So I don't look at it a lot.

Work that is "immoral"—that is, work that perpetuates very real and serious problems without questioning—I think that is laziness on the part of the artist. For Larry Bell to exhibit flocked pink nudes is plain old laziness. But it's easiest to go along with the images we've always had in our culture, and you get a lot of guys patting you on the back for pink flocked nudes, obviously. When there is no real attempt to deal thoughtfully with the meaning of these images, when you just kinda slide your work into the way everybody thinks, I think it's just lazy and tacky.

I hate Les Krims' Wheat Cake Murders, for example. It's a series of black-and-white photos where nude and half-clothed women are lying around in different household scenes. They are poured with Karo syrup that looks like blood in black and white. A woman's head might be stuck in a washing machine and there's a stack of wheat cakes in the photo, the signature of the killer. I think they are really disgusting and immoral. They are immoral because the reality of the world is that many women are murdered and when Krims picks up on those images and does not critique them, he just reinforces that kind of image of what is expected for women and of women.

But Abstract Expressionists—well, they're fine, they don't bother me.

RN: How do you separate a public concern for something like rape from your own artistic ambitions? There's a real immediacy to a problem like rape that doesn't stop, and I can see it absorbing all your energy.

SL: The first three years of my career, when there was an emphasis on organizing, like starting the Woman's Building, I didn't do a lot of art work. The first pieces were slow to come. Now I've pretty much got it under control because I've learned enough about how to make art and I can make it a lot faster. I've done three major pieces in two months. Three years ago, I did three a year. They're becoming much clearer and the energies are much stronger.

I think there is a deeper implication to what that you're saying. It has to do with why I choose to make art and how I survive. I am trying to represent myself to the feminist community as an artist and not as an organizer. I greedily hold on to the ability to make my own images, and make clear-cut distinctions about how much organizing I'm going to be involved with. I start with an incident that I want to react to, that is very painful for me or an image that's very personal. For example, I feel very deeply about violence towards women. With this last piece [In Mourning and In Rage. . .] we had a meeting with all the women's organizations in town that deal with violence, and we said we wanted to do this piece, and we wanted to support them, and we wanted them to support us. Immediately, one of the women from one of the centers jumped up and said we think the way you can support us is that you can help us do a self-defense lecture-demonstration and then you can serve on the hot line and we need help doing that. And we said NO, we're artists, and we have skills in this area and we're going to talk with you about it. There was a struggle because they didn't understand what we were trying to do as artists; they don't trust art. Realistically enough, what's art ever done for them? What's art done for political organizations in the past ten years? So there was a struggle to educate them to what we can do, and about the power of this imagery and what it can do. After Three Weeks in May, I left town right away for Las Vegas. I did another piece there, with Leslie Labowitz. I think it was a physical way of cutting myself off from the tendency to continue an involvement on an organizational, rather than artistic level.

RN: How involved are you in the overall visual presentation of your work?

SL: I think that it's very important to me and I'm just realizing that recently. The last few pieces—the old lady pieces, Three Weeks in May, the Hillside Strangler piece—when I see them in slide, I realize the visual images are strong for me. I don't think I visualized them in detail before they are made, but I'm compelled by a sense that I've got to have that...whatever it is. I've begun an aesthetic move toward the creation of something, and I don't care what my politics are, I'm going to have that image there. I work to make my politics work with the image. I have faith that whatever comes out of my unconscious is going to be in some way political. In Mourning and in Rage... got a wonderful response from the women's political community. People don't necessarily know that the power—and a lot of people were very moved by that power—is not because we [Suzanne and Leslie Labowitz] are good organizers, it's because we know how to make visual images. It's because those images hit you in the stomach. The general public doesn't know that, but artists do.

With the She Who Would Fly performance installation, the audience is looking at documentation of sexual assaults on women, and suddenly they become aware that they're being watched, they look up and at that moment they are confronted with these nude women painted blood-red, crouched like vultures. Images from the past—Sirens, Valkyries, mutilated, vengeful women Furies, dislocated spirits—all that opens up to a shock of recognition. It's a piece that is political, but it rests on two very strong visual images—a flying lamb carcass and the at first hidden, red-stained nude woman. I think the visual is very important to me but since I wasn't educated in visual things, it's taken me a while to recognize it.

This interview originally appeared in High Performance magazine, Spring 1978.

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