LAUREN FAIGELES / JAMES SIENA
Moderated and Text by Nicole Kaack
March 10, 2018
Nicole Kaack: Thank you all for coming out today to hear James and Lauren talk. Before we begin, I’ll give some context for this evening.
In September of last year, Karen and I started a conversation about the remove between artists and spaces of discourse, a dialogue that emerged from frustration with the absence of artists from the texts that define their own work. As a result, we decided to start a conversation series that would run in conjunction with the curatorial program here at CRUSHCURATORIAL. For every show that Karen has curated since, we have hosted a conversation with the artist and someone who has been influential in their practice. For this event, Lauren invited James.
Let us jump in. James, you create limitations for yourself in your work. It’s almost a game, where you’re deciding rules and then follow them throughout one work. And I actually think that there’s something parallel in the way that you are making, Lauren. Do you want to discuss that?
James Siena: Well, rules are made to be broken. We all know that as a cliché, but sitting here, it’s all too clear how true it is. I break my own rules all the time; I make figurative pieces, I work in typography. So I don’t really consider myself firmly rule-based. When I had my first catalogue done, the writer for the catalogue asked me to write down the rules that I follow and he actually published them. They were really meant for his eyes only. Through that, I acquired this reputation as somebody who wrote down their rules and made paintings based on them, even though it is much more intuitive. In terms of Lauren’s work, it seems to me that she thinks about painting something and then does the opposite. She’s constantly contradicting herself. Down to the title of this show.
Lauren Faigeles: Limitations are interesting to think about because, on first view, you might think that my art lacks inhibition. I always work in this quick, expressionistic way, such that I’m always acting like a baby when I’m painting. To make a controlled painting would be really crazy for me. My limitations are stuck in this weird German Expressionist type of field. I really gravitated towards James because he seems like he might be easily put in a box, but he’s really weird and funny, and we have a very similar sense of humor. There were many teachers at Yale that people would pair me with before James. But I have the most fun hanging out with and talking to him about art.
Nicole Kaack: Perhaps what I truly mean in terms of ‘rule-based’ is a kind of prompt or control to riff off of. In the way that certain motifs comes back in your work sometimes.
Lauren Faigeles: It actually comes from my time after graduation, when I couldn’t paint for a whole year. I made a few drawings on cheap paper — 120 drawings in one year and they were all shitty. When I moved to New York, I just wanted to get back into the groove of painting again. My mother said I always loved painting hearts when I was a kid. So the first paintings I made were just these figurative heart pieces. I knew all the stuff that I made work about — all the politics, gender issues— would find its way into the work. I was mostly interested in painting hearts and falling in love with paint again.
Nicole Kaack: Is that where the book practice comes from? Or was that something that you were already working on at Yale?
Lauren Faigeles: The book emerges from the fact that I’m actually a very shy person, although many of my paintings, especially before this show, were always screaming, huge, and bombastic. The books allowed me to hold things in a little bit, and to show people one-on-one. The books weren’t so easily distributed because they were all one-of-a-kind, I would have to invite people into my studio space, and they would spend an hour flipping through each book. It was time-consuming. People got to know me on a better level than they would, seeing a huge painting.
Nicole Kaack: Could you talk about the particular book that you have here? And the way that it’s situated, against the wall, in a way that creates this individual experience?
Lauren Faigeles: I always like for someone to know that there’s stuff around them, but also to be able to just zoom in and have this singular experience. I was having panic attacks getting this show together. My therapist said, “Just make the paintings you need for the show. Get that done, because that’s the main thing. And if you have extra time, put together a book.” So, when the paintings were all together and dried, I spent the week before the opening intensely putting together the book. For that experience, I like to have a really constrained piece of time. I keep a lot of notes of jokes and drawings that I want to put in my books, but I need to have a week to work on it. I can’t work on a book for a few years. That would be a nightmare.
Nicole Kaack: Beforehand, James and I were talking about how the book form operates for you? Do the pages function individually or is it a complete object?
Lauren Faigeles: One of the funniest things James said to me in a critique, which was why I picked him as my critic at Yale, was, “Is it a book if it’s unbound?” Which, I guess, isn’t actually that funny. [laughter]
James Siena: You liked the restrictions that came of it. That’s when another critic put me in my place, by saying, “Lauren’s work is boundless.” [laughter]
Lauren Faigeles: I tried it in all different ways. I tried stacking them or thumbtacking them on the wall, but it seemed almost like serial-killer-esque. I am also thinking about how someone looks through a book. I want someone to actually take an hour. When something’s bound, they flip through it. You know the joke in “When Harry Met Sally,” when he talks about how he always reads the last five pages of a book, in case he passes away before, so he can know how it ends. I don’t want someone to easily be able to go to the end. I want them to have to do the whole thing. When it’s unbound, you can’t flip through it. You just need to spend time with it, or you don’t get it fully.
Nicole Kaack: Or you use the way that you install it. In this case, you make it clear that there is enough space for two stacks — the things that you have yet to look at and the things you’ve already seen. You create a spatial premise that resists the temptation to pick up the stack and flip through. You might still be able to do that with a stack of paper, but the way it is framed instructs a viewer not to.
Lauren Faigeles: From watching a lot of people look at it, I also feel like they want to get into it really quickly. People usually start from the middle. They want to have it half-half.
Nicole Kaack: The last 100 pages, as opposed to the last five.
Lauren Faigeles: I always make my books a little better at the end. The first few pieces need to be good, because people look through the first five, stop, then flip through the whole thing, and look at the back.
James Siena: The last five pages are really something. You are using paper differently now than you were doing in school. There’s a texture to the paper, kind of like canvas. There are also a couple of pages on thin, crappy paper. And one page hand-written on a kind of canvas.
Lauren Faigeles: Yeah, it’s on primed canvas. And it’s about…
James Siena: It’s about being a woman.
Lauren Faigeles: Being a woman in, like, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, feeling like a cockroach. It’s kind of 12-year-old girl feeling. That was one of the first pieces I wrote when I came here. Sometimes you feel really small when you’re just making art in the abyss of your studio, and nothing’s really happening.
James Siena: But you’re one of the most confident, aggressively confident, fucked-up people I know. You’re constantly talking about how you’re shy and nervous, but your persona in your work is so— I find it very uplifting. Even the most abject work that you do. That’s another one of your contradictions.
Nicole Kaack: I was in here a week ago with another artist, and we were talking about the way that the canvases are fairly traditional forms, right? They’re nicely primed, it’s pretty standard in that way, but the content is wild. We were thinking about it as a persona or as two different minds running in parallel. The schizophrenia of these rectangular, primed canvases and Hitler’s mustache mimed by a paintbrush.
James Siena: She’s playing by the rules. But I was looking at these again today and thinking, ‘what are these painted with? Does she use her hands?’ I don’t see brushstrokes. She is just pushing the paint into the canvas.
Lauren Faigeles: Yeah, there are a lot of fingerprints in it. In the blue piece, her teeth are just my fingerprints.
James Siena: You’ve also got a wonderful accidental effect with the white. I think of that as the Funny Girl painting.
Lauren Faigeles: Yeah, it’s like Barbara Streisand.
James Siena: I wish I had little titles for your paintings. You’re so perverse, and they’re all untitled. If that’s the Barbara Streisand painting, that’s Funny Girl, and there’s the vaudeville performer. But the texture that you got with that work. I remember you saying that it was a total accident.
Lauren Faigeles: Should we pull the painting into this room?
James Siena: You want to bring it in? Just lean it against the desk. Funny Girl, funny girl, right?
Lauren Faigeles: Because it’s so weird when you talk about something that’s not here. I built the stretcher bars to look like it’s store-bought. No, that’s a joke. They are store-bought. [laughter] Yeah, I like this one. People always ask, ‘Is that resin?’ or ‘How did you paint it in so intensely?’ It’s really just enamel that spilled over, that I then traced. It was the quickest thing.
Nicole Kaack: Do you think of these as self-portraits?
Lauren Faigeles: I feel like most of the women that I paint are me, in a way. I think this is the first time I have painted men with any kind of personality. Usually they were just dicks with the most basic male bodies. But I think that guy [pointing] has a character. [Pointing to a different painting.] That’s obviously Hitler. I usually like doing the curlicue hair for every woman, but I felt more characters in these pieces. That’s why I think I was just sticking with portraits. My work is usually not so portrait-heavy. But it feels like they are a group of friends hanging out. Maybe Charles Manson is a part of it.
Nicole Kaack: To a large extent, your work and even the language from the press release works to undermine or at least question traditional canonical male figures. Maybe it is a more complicated relationship, like Carolee Schneemann’s “Cezanne. She was a great painter.”
Lauren Faigeles: I grew on Long Island and my father has been a huge influence on me, took me to museums all the time. The people whose work I fell in love with were mostly male artists. I remember , when I was 14, seeing a Jackson Pollock and starting to cry. That would probably be embarrassing today, but I really loved a lot of these male artists. To some extent, the people you’re most inspired by are the ones you are trying to upend or kick in the butt. How do you love something and try to tear it down at the same time? I really love a lot of Schnabel’s work, but some people tell me I shouldn’t like it.
James Siena: What do you love about it, though? I’m curious. I like this line of thinking that you own the macho artists. “I think, they’re macho assholes but I don’t care.” The work is the work, and you’re somehow able to separate that or, almost, coopt it.
Lauren Faigeles: It’s a really confusing thing to do. I saw one of his shows in Berlin at the Contemporary Fine Arts. They were just gorgeous, these huge things. I was alone in this ginormous space with his work, and it just seemed like this once-in-a-lifetime experience. The colors were really gorgeous. He’s super problematic, but I talk and think about his work a lot.
James Siena: I remember seeing in your book, you wrote, “I wonder if Julian Schnabel sleeps in a three-piece suit.” I thought: he paints in his pajamas. [laughter] I have a much more problematic relationship to Schnabel, because I think, as a male, I’m offended by his dick-swinging swaggerishness. The fact that he’ll go out and buy a really expensive rug and then just crap all over it with some modicum of bad, elegant painting. That you can co-opt it is a really admirable thing, because when you make an abject, crazy fucked-up painting, it doesn’t seem like it’s trying to be heroic. And that’s the problem I have with Schnabel. Schnabel is a kind of blowhard heroic artist. This friend who’s an artist related Schnabel’s plate painting to Kristallnacht.
Lauren Faigeles: He’s brought that up. I got the sense that he was doing the plates, it came up, and he just went with it. I feel that with my work, that I do things, people pull references, and I’m, like, ‘okay.’ I’ll go along with that.
Nicole Kaack: It wasn’t about that, but now it is.
Lauren Faigeles: That’s a part of it, yeah.
Nicole Kaack: That’s true, though, James, about this work. It’s in relation to, or responding to a certain brand of ‘great’ history painting, without trying to turn it into this religious experience. It’s about the irreverence and playfulness.
James Siena: When I look at that Hitler painting, I always remember what Mel Brooks said when he got his Tony award for The Producers. He got up to the podium to accept the award —usually people thank others— and he said, “First of all, I want to thank Hitler for being such a funny guy.” He got into a lot of trouble for saying that.
Lauren Faigeles: I love that speech. Mel Brooks is really funny. I’ve been thinking about “Springtime for Hitler” the last few days. I do feel like spirituality does play a role in my work — I actually grew up in a more religious household and have been praying every day now, since my father passed away. In the Jewish religion, we say a Mourner’s Kaddish, so I’ve been doing that every day. It’s been bringing me back to a more spiritual, religious self from when I was younger. Because my work is funny or overly sexual, people never see the spirituality in it. But I invest my work with many of my beliefs and a lot of trust goes into my process of making, especially with these pieces. Like, in that painting, I just really liked that green color. So I just put a bunch of it down, and trusted myself to figure out what it was. I found this man underneath. It actually says, “I love you.” No one ever picks it up because it’s so easy. There is a love in my work, and I think the reason why I like to deal with tougher subject matter is because we don’t always think that these oppositional ideas are conjoined, that with love there’s hate. Everything contradicts itself.
Nicole Kaack: Perhaps that there is a spirituality in it but not in the sense of the cult of the artist, which is potentially more about that tradition of painting, of masculinity. You’re responding to that, representing the female body as you do, bringing a representation and realism that is also abstract.
Lauren Faigeles: Yeah. There’s a heroine one with these large legs and a little anus. It’s almost a Yves Klein body print of these big legs. b
James Siena: The materiality of that painting is very human. Very animal, mucus-y.
Lauren Faigeles: James, actually, gave me good advice on that one. It was just the yellow and the figure, the legs. He said, “Why are you using the white of the canvas? Why don’t you paint in white?” I was like, “Great idea, James.” I did.
James Siena: I don’t remember that.
Nicole Kaack: Part of the show was this series of drawings that you were doing in the gallery, being surrounded by your work, but also engaging with visitors. Is that something that you’ve done in the past as a practice? Or was this a newer thing?
Lauren Faigeles: Unfortunately I wasn’t able to be here much of the month, because I was sitting shiva in California with my family. But I do like the idea of being in a room with someone while they read my books, look at things.
I like for people to be able to see my work in comfortable, safe environments like my studio. The one weekend I was here, we were making coffee for people. I like people to get comfortable, to be able to draw and touch, to talk and sit with things. And come back. I definitely want to keep working on my books, and maybe zines. It’s something I haven’t figured out. But hopefully it’s something I can work on in the future.
Nicole Kaack: Does anyone have questions for Lauren or James?
[Audience member]: I think some people might look at your work and say there’s a lot of intuition in it, but I really like the word ‘trust.’ Maybe you could talk a little bit more about that.
Lauren Faigeles: That’s an interesting point. I want to think about it. All I can think about now is that, usually, I would be making a lot of jokes in this situation. But at the moment, all I can think about is my father. He was a really lovely man, and very supportive. He’d always say, follow your passions. He loved me being an artist. In terms of trust— In the work I make, all this subject matter is rolling around my subconscious, all these things that I want to deal with. I could literally just think, “Okay, I’m going to make a piece about hearts.” Or “I’m just going to put down a shade of green, and that’s going to be it.” I just believe that all of these ideas will naturally come up. Sometimes artists end up being too in their head, where they feel that they have to figure everything out beforehand. I like it as a more intuitive thing where I can figure it out as it goes. These paintings are all made in the same time frame, but I usually have pieces that I work on for years. Like that piece [pointing] only took a day. I always think I will finish every painting that I start in a way that I would be able to put in a show. I don’t know the timeframe in most cases, but if I put something down, I know I’ll figure it out eventually.
James Siena: I would offer another word, besides intuition and trust. I would also think of the word ‘instinct.’ She has good instincts. You fill your head with things you’re curious about. So you don’t have to think that hard, consciously, and plan. You react to a green shape. You make a move, and then the world finds its way into your work.
Lauren Faigeles: Yeah. My father was a World War II historian and when I was a little kid, my parents always took us to Jewish museums or Holocaust museums. I started figuring out what I liked or what I was interested in at a really young age. So I was researching everything, and it all kind of comes up. I’m learning how to paint better each year, but I feel like I’m interested in the same five things, and those don’t really change. I just get better at communicating them. What do you think?
[Audience member]: As a follow-up question, are the paintings completed? They’re worked on, they’re delved into, and then they’re done? Or do you have pieces that sit for a long time before they’re done?
Lauren Faigeles: A lot of pieces sit for a long time, or have a bunch of layers underneath. These are more one-shot, in that they’re only a few layers deep. Some paintings have 50 paintings underneath.
James Siena: These seem much more produced—not produced in terms of manufactured, but… At Yale, there’s so much talking going on. One person comes into your studio and says one thing. They leave, and someone else comes and says the opposite thing. You get pulled around. I think being out of school has been great for you, and I liked your work there!
Lauren Faigeles: These all started in June. Karen [Flatow] said, “You want to have a show really quick?” It was all made in a very particular time frame, so it just shows one small body of work, which was really interesting to try out. Usually I would pull from work made in the last day and work made in the last two years, and that was how I would juxtapose certain textures, ideas, layering.
Nicole Kaack: Would you ever continue to work something that’s been shown? This is just in relation to what you were saying about having an ongoing conversation with a single piece.
Lauren Faigeles: I don’t think so. Once I consider it done, I’d rather just start with something new, and have a bunch of things store up over time. Because isn’t that the greatest part about being an artist, all the stuff you have to store? [laughter] I’m really into creating inefficient archives, like my sketchbooks. This is number 10. It’s not a system, but it’s what I would call an archive. I like keeping everything, and I don’t like putting things on top of things. I like it all being one. That’s why I think I like the book. Five pages, you might not get anything, but if you read 300 pages, even if things seem so cherry-picked, they all come together by the end. And that’s how I like my work. A larger piece I’m working on; each year I do a book of every piece I ever make —I keep renaming it— and that book will be published the year after I pass away. It might be really big, or maybe it will be small. I just like things being put on top of each other, added to. I want more and more, and stacks of paintings. I don’t want it to be efficient.
Karen Hesse Flatow: Lauren, I wonder if you want to talk a little bit about our experience together, and how we talked a lot about the structure of the show and the checklist? It was really a wonderful experience for me — is that something that you had done before?
James Siena: Has everybody seen the checklist? Because it’s an artwork in itself.
Lauren Faigeles: I think even the tiniest thing you do can be a really funny new piece of artwork. For this show, everything is untitled, and the checklist itself is all hand-drawn with weird arrows going to it; it’s the most inefficient checklist you could possibly have. I think every new form, offers the potential of weird experience. I’m always thinking about how someone will see something in a different area. What has been your experience?
Karen Hesse Flatow: It happened so organically, the entire checklist was published as you designed it. And it ended up being featured by Two Coats of Paint as the press list of the day.
Nicole Kaack: It’s a truer reflection of the work than something standard ones.
James Siena: And it’s so perverse, because your work is about so much. As strangely painted as it is, occasionally, there’s always a truly intense subject, but , nonetheless, you refuse to title these things. Untitled, Untitled, Untitled, Untitled.
Lauren Faigeles: There’s this larger project where everything keeps getting retitled, recontextualized — you need to see it in a new form. And then you’ll only be able to see it when I’m no longer here. Things are always changing. I find titles really weird because people expect to get something particular from each piece.
Nicole Kaack: In that they want more than the piece itself to explain it?
Lauren Faigeles: They want to walk in and already understand what’s going on. It’s like before you go into a movie theater, you read a lot about the movie. You know what’s going to happen and then you expect it. When do we ever not know what we’re walking in to? I like that the press release really told you nothing about it.
Karen Hesse Flatow: For me, sitting here with your work, I always thought about respecting your wishes and not saying too much when people had questions.
Lauren Faigeles: It’s weird, because people have so many questions about things I can’t really put names to. But I feel like the work is kind of simple and childish, and actually easier to understand than a lot of other people’s artwork. But I guess that’s the difficulty when something’s more ephemeral or intuitive. People have issues when they can’t name something right away.
Nicole Kaack: Maybe it comes back to your word of trust. You’re trusting yourself in making them, and it’s also a kind of trust with the audience. They’re trusting you that it is rational in some way; suspending disbelief, maybe.
Lauren Faigeles: Yeah. And then there’s also a lack of trust, because a lot of my work is about making fun of people. So then sometimes people distrust me or think I’m making fun of them. It’s always a push and pull with that. Does anyone want to touch any painting in particular? [laughter] You could touch the brush one. It’s fun to touch.
[Audience member]: I have a quick question just about that mouth. If you came at it with any kind of preconceived notions? I like it a lot.
Lauren Faigeles: Any preconceived notions?
[Audience member]: In the moment? Or you knew that you wanted to just throw style.
Lauren Faigeles: The mouth was closed for a while. But it just needed a last bit of pizzazz to it. So I opened it up. I used to have all these spaces in my teeth. I had orthodontic work from 1st grade to 12th grade. So I was so geeky and really had fucked-up teeth. And I just wanted to, I don't know, it’s just another way to touch these figures. Like the woman behind Steph, there’s a lot of tiny kind of fingerprints on it.
James Siena: I want to touch that material in the Heroine painting. Feel that texture.
Lauren Faigeles: Yeah. It’s actual heroin. [laughter]
James Siena: Oh, yeah. Can I lick it? Snort it?
Lauren Faigeles: It’s a female hero. It’s an actual female hero. I melted her down.
James Siena: Oh, isn’t that like a gilded heroine?
Lauren Faigeles: Yeah.
Karen Hesse Flatow: Make sure you don’t touch the mosquito.
Lauren Faigeles: Yeah, there’s a little female mosquito in the ‘E.’ Nick and I were moving all the paintings and everything fit so perfectly. We couldn’t wrap it and it couldn’t fall or bounce because the little mosquito is so sensitive. We needed to keep it. Could everyone see it? It’s in the first ‘E.’
Nicole Kaack: Before we close, do you want to talk about ideas of what you’re working on next, or thoughts for ongoing practice?
Lauren Faigeles: Well, the experience of the last few weeks makes me want to start writing again about losing someone important. It was weird, the last few weeks, I was thinking about my art here in New York. I wondered, ‘will I ever be able to make a joke again?’ I didn’t know how I’d even come back and make work or be totally different. My dad was my number one fan. He was what a parent should be. He was so supportive. So I think I’m going to write on him, make some work about him. Kind of go through it a little bit again, and not avoid making work. Because he would hate that, he would hate if I wasn’t. He would always ask me, every day on the phone, if I had made my masterpiece yet. [laughter] It was always kind of embarrassing showing him my work. ‘What is he going to think of this stuff? Will he consider one my masterpiece?’ He really liked this one, but I don’t think he noticed the swastikas in it. I don't know. It’s a weird thing about loss. You want to stop living because you’re so sad, but at the same time you want to honor the person because that’s what they would want for you. Especially my father. How do you make work and keep doing things and be extremely sad at the same time? That’s what I’m figuring out right now. I want to thank all my friends for coming and supporting me. It’s been really nice having you around. Hopefully at every artist-talk, I’ll cry.
Nicole Kaack: Thank you! [applause] And thank you all for coming out.