Caitlin Lonegan

Caitlin Lonegan speaks about “Made in LA 2014” and her literary influences

Left: Caitlin Lonegan, Untitled, 2013, oil, metallic oil, iridescent oil on canvas, 48 x 48”. Right: Caitlin Lonegan, Untitled, 2013, oil, metallic oil, iridescent oil on canvas, 33 x 24”. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer.

The Los Angeles–based artist Caitlin Lonegan creates abstract paintings that are concerned with perception and illusion. In addition to participating in the “Made in LA 2014” biennial exhibition on view at the Hammer Museum from June 15 to September 7, where she will show a range of large- and small-scale work, Lonegan will also publish her first-ever artist’s book with Laxart later this year. Here, she talks about the new role of narration in her work, as well as the importance of her studio as a site for experiencing her paintings over time.

FOR “MADE IN LA,” the curators and I decided to do an installation—and to use the space in a way—that reflected what I was doing in the studio. What was interesting about the last year is that I shifted my working method and how I share the pieces. There’s been metallic paint that I used to work into the middle layer of my paintings to get a certain surface. When I moved into my new studio, the light bouncing off the metallic areas became so striking that I just started working with it. Almost out of indecision, I started making changes slowly, to the point where I’d make changes to each painting over the course of the day. Later, it became clear that process adds a durational component to the pieces, and I started to realize how important it was for people to experience the works durationally.

Over this past year, a lot of people have come by, and the studio just sort of became the site of the work. Friends would come over, and we would set up a little camp kitchen, and I would make food, and we’d have coffee, and they’d experience the paintings here with me as I was sitting with some finished works, thinking about what to do next on the works in progress. People started telling others to come over. It started with friends who were artists, and then it became artists and curators I didn’t know. Usually the studio visits end up lasting about two to three hours. Now that I had more down time between decisions, people would come over for a whole afternoon. I’ve been doing it that way for about a year now, talking with visitors about the thinking that went into the work, which in turn was usually influenced most by what I was reading.

Literature informed my earlier work in the sense that I used it to help me think and explain the work to others. Those paintings played with a combination of optical effects and honest mark-making (even though people often think of it as process oriented). That tension between fact and fiction in my work—particularly as I started to move more heavily into constructed illusions—is what led me to reading fiction. I’d previously been reading a lot of Virginia Woolf and a lot of essays, and when I reread one short story by Woolf, “The Mark on the Wall,” it struck me as a great parallel to what I was doing in the paintings. It’s a story in which a woman, sitting in a living room, stares at a scuff on the other side of the room—told as if the woman’s speaking, speculating on how the mark might have gotten there. Her imagination is elaborate, and she projects that a portrait must have hung there, and constructs a story of the woman in it, and keeps going until later she realizes the mark is a snail. I felt like this story spoke to my work because I’m often constructing illusions of processes, and I like the perceptual confusion of reading a fictional short story that mimics a first-person essay. I am attracted to this sort of rupture and simultaneity. This is also the seed of the durational element of my work: The paintings from that body of work look like facts of process, but if one spends time with them, one realizes it’s constructed, and it unfolds.

The new work is a shift of sorts away from illusion and towards narrative. While making it, I was reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which has a crazy narrative shift of its own that really resonated. It portrays a totally convincing fictional world with amazing characters, told by an omniscient narrator—but every once and a while the form sort of breaks, and the narrator says “I,” which becomes really striking and disorienting. I think when we look at paintings, there’s often this assumption—against our better judgment—that the work is a stand-in for the artist. But for me, I think a lot about where the “I” is in the painting. What’s the position? What’s the voice? What’s the narration?