After four decades in painting, American artist Francie Lyshak has a deep knowledge on her practice. A woman-artist who has a lifelong approach to learning, finds nature and it’s varying stages influencing her work. The artist examines nature also with photography. It seems, as if those pictorial notes would transfer into her paintings with subtle poetry and movement. In this interview, she discusses her career, love of painting and the meditative approach to being with her art. Remarkable is how the artist views art as a career, also in psychological terms as a radical act. Francie Lyshak’s recent paintings, which examine movement and gestures, will be on view until April 27, 2017 in the Carter Burden Gallery of NYC.
Firstindigo and Lifestyle: How did you find yourself doing painting? Where did you grow up?
Francie Lyshak: I will share with you two central memories that are at the very early roots of my art career (before it begun):
I am in Detroit, Michigan, in a single family home with a nice yard. I am a small child, somewhere between toddler and latency age. I am sitting in the mud, alone making a mess and enjoying it totally.
In the second memory, I am 18 years old, attending my first art history class. As I watch the projected images of works by modern artists, it is suddenly clear that making paintings is what I need to do with my life. I began to paint was when I went to a summer art school in Paris around the age of 19. I haven’t stopped since that time, except for one year in Boston in the early 70’s. After that point I switched from abstraction to figuration.
Firstindigo and Lifestyle: You have an exhibition opening now at the Carter Burden Gallery in NYC, tell more about the theme of your paintings in the show?
FL: These paintings focus purely on the physicality of painting, of paint, painter’s tools and the interaction of the painting surface with light. The use of a palette knife can be a violent destructive attack on a painting’s under-layer. A flowing brush mark can be evidence of the painter’s sweeping gesture. The painting then becomes a stop-action image of what was either a waltz or a wrestling match between the artist and the medium. It is painting without any intention other than leaving the physical evidence of its own dynamic birth.
Firstindigo and Lifestyle: What is really interesting is that your career spans for four decades, and there can be so many changes that fit into that time frame. Did you start with figurative or representational art?
FL: In my early work, my visual language was a figurative and a metaphorical narrative with strong feminist overtones. This work lasted for two decades in the 1970s and 80s. Animals, humans, dolls and toys populate these paintings, each one describing the psyche captured in a critical moment of time. Influenced by art therapy theory and practice, their emotional rawness challenged the viewer to contemplate disturbing aspects of life that are typically overlooked or avoided. After years of these explorations, I unearthed evidence of my own childhood sexual abuse. With the support of the late Ellen Stuart and La MaMa/La Galleria, this work resulted in a one-woman exhibition in 1993 narrating my own trauma recovery through my paintings. The series of paintings with accompanying prose was published in a book in 1999 entitled, The Secret: Art and Healing from Sexual Abuse. This exhibition provided me with a release from the narratives of the past. After that show, my work changed slowly but radically, moving towards landscape, then abstraction.
(Images from The Secret: http://www.francielyshak.com/archive/Secret/index.html).
Firstindigo and Lifestyle: How did you choose painting and photography, how are they similar or different to you?
FL: I am a painter. However, I believe that no matter what medium an artist chooses, they cannot escape their artist’s sensibility. That means that we cannot help but consider the aesthetics in our environment. Also, we cannot help but be creative. It is a kind of compulsion that requires an outlet. In that vein, I took up photography. This was in part because I found it offensive that paintings are generally only affordable by the wealthy. I experimented with printing and multiples as a way to make my work more accessible to those with less means.
Firstindigo and Lifestyle: Can you say that what you do is abstract art, and if so what would this kind of abstraction be?
FL: The best way to describe my new work is ‘pre-verbal’. Before words, ideas and memories there is a mental space that is responsive to shape and texture, color and amorphous mood. That is the space that my paintings occupy. My abstract work is not expressionistic, nor is it minimal or conceptual. My newest work has something in common with action painting. Over the long haul, the trend of my work has been increasingly reductive. I seem to be constantly trying to reduce the content of my work to its simplest components. I removed the figure. I removed the narrative. I removed the symbolism. I removed the suggestion of landscape. Then I tried to suggest empty space alone (which made the work illusionist). Now I am just looking at the surface, the medium and the tools of application.
I recently saw a show that was simply lighting in an empty gallery. I understand that.
Firstindigo and Lifestyle: How do you choose your works for the exhibition, do you ‘curate’ yourself?
FL: No, my dealer is fully in control of the choice of work and the hanging. Of course, it is up to me to choose the paintings from which she makes her selection.
Firstindigo and Lifestyle: The process is of course different with each artist, do you like to add older paintings into the show, or is it mostly recent works?
FL: Mostly very recent works are shown in April exhibition. My first exhibition at Carter Burden had some pieces that were several years old but had never been displayed.
Firstindigo and Lifestyle: You are watching a lot of movies, how apparent is it that those moods or aesthetics you gain from films enter your works somehow?
FL: I don’t think that the aesthetics of film influence my work, but perhaps the moods do on a subconscious level. I find great solace in the work of these great, underappreciated independent film makers. They address very important, very real aspects of being human. Hollywood spends mountains of capital selling fantasy worlds to viewers because it is a natural,human inclination to avoid and escape harsh reality. The filmmakers that I love make me look at the challenging underbelly of being human. This gives me courage and support in my effort to stay honest as a painter, to not be fooled by the illusionary rewards of commercial success, to lead my viewers to the challenging aspects of being human.
I have a fantastic list of my list of favorite movies. It is a long list and the titles are unrecognizable to most people. Almost all of the films were borrowed from the New York Public Library which has a treasure trove of great films.
Firstindigo and Lifestyle: What does a notion of ‘zen’ mean to you as an approach?
FL: I am not formally trained in Zen practice. However, I understand that Zen does not have a god head, and is focused on what westerners call mindfulness practices. My mind is constantly racing. I hunger for empty space and quietude. (Perhaps this is reflected in my urge to constantly minimize the content in my paintings.) We live in an overheated, overstimulating world (at least in NYC). I know, however, that it is not the fault of my environment that I am so mentally restless. I reach for ‘zen’ as a pathway towards a quiet mind or to attain full attention. When I paint, I am in a ‘full attention’ mode. In this sense, painting is a mindfulness practice. (Click the link to see a series of paintings that were specifically intended to be ‘meditations spaces.’
Firstindigo and Lifestyle: What else do you do to balance with making art?
FL: Not much. I do some Yoga practice, go to the gym, take walks and, of course, watch movies. I would add that there isn’t anything much more rewarding that good conversation with other artists and intellectuals.
Firstindigo and Lifestyle: Where do your influences come from other than abstractions? Do you blend in narrative contents from today’s world and events?
FL: My goodness, the political climate has a tremendous impact on the ‘climate’ of my work. There is very little joy in my work these days. On the other hand, I am finding surprising strength and power there. My work is definitely a mirror of my psychological condition. My psychological condition is a mirror of my personal and social life (which in these times encompasses the political environment). A new painting included in this April exhibition is entitled “Silence equals Extinction”. It was clearly a response to the nightmare political situation in the US.
Firstindigo and Lifestyle: In your photography there is a lot of nature in them; fog, mountains, trees, moon, and so on. How do you find your photographic subjects, do you just happen to be in those places in the moment?
FL: Yes, everything was done either in Michigan, where my family has a summer home, or NYC. I also did some photography when I did some traveling along the Adriatic, Ionian and Aegean Seas and along the Pacific Ocean shore. I am wild about landscapes.
I am not influenced by art theory nearly as much as I am influenced by psychoanalytic theory, philosophy and religion. I have no belief in any religion. However, I find the search for self and meaning to be central to my practice as an artist. I am most affected by any work of art that creates a space for the viewer to engage in this search for identity or meaning. Works by Frieda Kahlo, Mark Rothko and Fred Sandback all succeed at doing this for me; although each uses a radically different method to set a stage for this to happen to the viewer.
Colors have a strong valence, a kind of personality. My latest pieces have been in various shades of black. I am choosing black because I have always feared it. Black oils cannot be controlled because they are wildly interactive with the light in the environment as it reacts to the surface of the painting. The color black, for me, has much to do with loss, change and the unknown. So colors themselves have a kind of personality and meaning and different oil colors also have a unique physicality, such as color density.
On my use of color in photography and painting:
I think of myself as a painter. I have spent forty years painting. Photography has been secondary to my work as a painter. My photography is in the early stages of development; but is created on a foundation of 40 years of evolved aesthetic sensibility and artistic practice. My photography is mostly rooted in local color or black and white. My new paintings, on the other hand, are each a deep explorations of color, the oil paint medium, the painters tools and methods of application. In other words, my practice as a painter has evolved to a point where I am exploring the very basics of the medium. It is full circle, back to the beginning.
Firstindigo and Lifestyle: Do you find inspiration in your travels to foreign places, how about those leaving an impact on your thinking and aesthetics?
FL: I just traveled to Japan. Their aesthetic and social values were a great comfort to me. The Japanese seemed so much more civilized than Americans. It was heartening to experience their aesthetic and their culture. I felt that my own values were much more supported by the Japanese culture than they are in my own culture.
Firstindigo and Lifestyle: Did you ever come up with a notion, who would be your best art audience, or collector?
FL: Probably intellectuals, other painters and psychologically-minded people. It is hard to tell who is most taken by my work because people usually don’t say much. Most of us become a little inarticulate in the face of meaningful visual art. Art takes us to a non-verbal place. I admire people like you who are willing and able to give us language in the face of visual art.
Firstindigo and Lifestyle: With so much insight in the practice, we all want to know, what would you like to teach or say for younger generation artists and painters?
FL: I would like to say to them that it is worth the battle to stay true to their artistic sensibility. This is because, in the long term, losing touch with one’s core strivings (to be an artist, to be creative) has an unbearable cost. I would tell them, however, that they shouldn’t expect to be rewarded. Artmaking is essentially a radical act, because it means turning away from the influence of others and, instead, opening a channel to one’s true self. Being true to one’s core self usually means letting go of many of the rewards of social/commercial success. After all, in the short term we are nurturing ourselves rather than others. Who knows if our art will nurture others in the long term. That is in the hands of the vagaries of the art market.
Achieving commercial success in the art world is a totally different side of being an artist. It takes a combination of ambition, talent, personality, timing, social resources (such as health, social networks, time and money) to make income from making art. To have these resources is often a matter of privilege and other random social events. Artists don’t have control over most of these factors.
Francie Lyshak’s exhibition info:
April 6 – 27, 2017
Examining Movement & Gestures: Jonathan Bauch and Francie Lyshak
CARTER BURDEN GALLERY, 548 West 28th Street, #534
New York, NY 10001, http://www.carterburdengallery.org/current-exhibition
Francie Lyshak, education:
· Pratt Institute, Art Therapy and Creativity Development, Masters of Professional Studies, NYC, 9-76 to 5-78
· Wayne State University, Painting and Drawing, Bachelor of Fine Arts, Detroit, Michigan, 1-69 to 5-70.
· Center for Creative Studies, Fine Arts, Detroit, Michigan, 9-68 to 5-69
· University of Michigan, Humanities, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 9-66 to 5-68
Artist website: http://www.francielyshak.com/