Mary Addison Hackett recently caught up with Julia Schwartz on the occasion of Schwartz’s show, “tenderly cradled and lavishly flung” at Los Angeles Visitor Welcome Center, a gallery on W. 7th Street in LA. A few days later they had a frank dialogue through text messaging about family tragedy, the role of biography in understanding an artist’s work, grief, and how we process life through art. Schwartz says her chief concern is to be “an honest painter….Not necessarily a technically good painter, but honest.”
Mary Addison Hackett: Thank you for taking the time to have this dialogue via Messenger bubbles. I stumbled trying to find the right phrasing to recap parts of our impromptu conversation at the gallery, but the process seems to be at the core. The show at VWC is an installation that came out of a tragic event in your life—one that you were open about on social media. My first question to you was how important is it for a viewer who might not be familiar with the work, to know about the specific event that precipitated the work? I asked that because lately I’ve been thinking about active vs. passive viewing—how much information do we, as viewers, need/want, in order to fully engage with a piece of art?
Julia Schwartz: Thanks. I actually love this question, loved it at the time, and have thought about it since we met at the gallery…
Does knowledge of an artist’s biography help or hinder a reading of the work? Why do I say read, when what really interests me is the experience of the artwork…I don’t think a viewer really needs to know these things and I’m curious how or if the experience changes as a result of knowing. We have been going to museums and galleries for decades, centuries, and appreciating art, all without the benefit (or burden) of social media updates about personal life.
I was pretty completely undone by life events a few years ago and making art was how I made my way through. It was how I documented what it was (and still is) like to be alive during those years. I used to be more private especially on social media (I think related to my work as a therapist). But I had also been thinking about Heidegger’s idea that, ‘art discloses the truth of being’ for several years prior to this- that we are showing ourselves in our (existential) situations…Still, I think information changes the experience of looking. Maybe it opens a doorway, or allows for a conversation, But I can’t help but wonder if that knowledge can feel like a burden.
MAH: I often feel like too much knowledge is either a burden or a crutch. We can’t ‘unknow’ something, so unconsciously or not, we view artwork through a particular lens which affects how we read the work. I have a documentary practice and catch myself trying to split hairs on how to separate life from art, for the sake of public discussion. As an artist who sometimes writes about work in order to understand it, it would be difficult for me to write about this work independent of the events that it is built upon.
For me, “tenderly cradled and lavishly flung” is a visual processing of grief. I felt as though I were in a shrine. I was filled with both empathy and sympathy standing amidst it, and yet, I’m not sure that’s the appropriate response. This may be a leap, but I’m reminded of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, particularly when I think of the centerpiece of the show, continuous web, which you list as an ongoing installation of Magic: The Gathering cards, painted and arranged in a grid. I think you said you had painted over 2000 cards and still had more to go. Several of the works in the exhibition involve repetition and have a sort of infiniteness to them, as though the installation, or perhaps the grief, will never reach full capacity. The piece, butterflies is a small pile of cut paper in a corner, shaped liked butterflies. I dreamt I was driving in a field of beads, a string of tiny beads hung from the ceiling with the tail end resting in a small paper bowl. Do you view this work as closure or an opening?
JMS: Yes, the perspectival nature of viewing is important. I remember some of the earliest works I made following the loss were in a 2016 show called “Insomnia” at Pelham Art Center, curated by Alexandra Rutsch Brock. These were paintings done on Bristol paper painted late at night, and gathered in a collection called “the situations.” If you knew the back story, they were overwhelmingly graphic depictions of emotional release; on the other hand, if you were unaware of that history, they might seem odd, idiosyncratic, and even funny. I’m okay with either reading.
I want to say something general about my approach before I talk about this show. Once I figured out that I wanted to paint (I came back to art after a long hiatus in another field), then I could figure out how I wanted to paint. I realized I was more interested in being an honest painter, if that makes sense. Not necessarily a technically good painter, but honest. I wrote once: “I’d rather make a failure than a lie.” The other night someone said to me (I’m paraphrasing) ‘you’re not afraid to make something really ugly.’ In a practical sense this means I change materials frequently, partly because I find myself getting caught in an all too-familiar groove, and need to change things around, but also because I use materials that feel meaningful in that moment- and happen to be readily available.
I like your description of this show as a shrine. Visual processing is also a great way to put it; that describes how I am in life, for sure. The elements [of the show] began to assemble in my mind over the last three years– series of paintings, the books, the painted objects, the beads, the glass objects, and the cards. There are others yet to be addressed: photo-based work, stills, and video-this part is delayed since that’s a genre I have never tackled. I don’t think I had an intention to “make a shrine” when I started to put it together, but I have been working on all these pieces that would eventually come together to make a whole… something.
The association to the NAMES AIDS Memorial Quilt project is touching. I actually have an image on my desktop of part of the quilt- not long ago I thought to search for my uncle’s name; he died in 1988 of AIDS and I was touched to see his name and face there. I don’t think the quilt was in my mind when I started painting cards, but as is often the case for me I work without a clear intention and without a clear understanding at the outset. A project might start with materials or with a feeling/impression, and sometimes a combination of these two things. The boxes and boxes of cards were there and available as were the beads. These are all living breathing materials for me. As I work with them, the meaning comes through the making, or maybe the meaning is the making. I think now I have painted 4,000 cards (I’ve painted all of her cards except the ones that seemed valuable in sets and sleeves). I love the idea of continuing but it is on hold at the moment while I work on some other projects.
The beads came last year when during a 6-week period I stopped painting and strung beads- these were all the beads that remained from her vast collection And the butterflies? Butterflies are overdetermined: perhaps they are a clichéd image but one that conveys transformation, going-on-ness, destruction and survival; Very specifically, it came from a note that I had written to her on a paper shaped like a butterfly. So I was trying to make the shape, find that shape, and ended up using various sources: paintings, letters, newspapers, books, photographs, negatives. Again, destruction/creation. I think we talked about this the other day- what do you do with that impulse to destroy?
I want to ask you though, why do you question your response?
MAH: Only because I knew in advance the work dealt with a specific loss, so my response was already partially informed. You mentioned earlier about experiencing art versus reading art. I tend to read art. It’s not a sexy approach, but it’s my default mode, though it’s also an approach I sometimes wish I could unknow.
As you know, my own work is diaristic, usually layered with humor, sadness, joy, or even boredom, in response to everyday life- though for several years the work was directly related to several losses (people, places, things) within a short period of time. I believe we initially met at a show of that earlier body of work-The Pool Paintings. Indirectly, my own work still is about processing some of these voids, but having moved back and forth across the country, the backstory gets buried a little deeper and perhaps fades a little with each new iteration. With regard to destruction and creation, I miss the illusion of stability I had prior to my own life experiences, but transformation, and adapting to both materials and a new environment keeps me honest, I think— in the same way you expressed wanting to be an honest painter.
Thank you for sharing your process on such intimate work, and congratulations on the exhibition at Visitor Welcome Center. What’s next for you, and would you like to add anything else?
JMS: I still think about your pool paintings, not just think, but hold them in my mind’s eye. I looked them up not long ago actually, thinking that it would be great to curate a show of ‘pools.’ I kind of think that my garden-situation paintings can be read as just what they are- diaristic works, but also as stand-ins for our existential situations. The cycles of destruction and growth are built in to the garden, and I am always watching out of my garage to see how things are proceeding along.
I have been so happy with how the show came together. I have new things cooking in the studio, and some projects in the works. Thank you so much Mary Addison.
“Julia Schwartz: tenderly cradled and lavishly flung,” Los Angeles Visitor Welcome Center, Los Angeles, CA. Through August 11, 2018.
About the author: Mary Addison Hackett is a visual artist, editor, and occasional writer whose practice spans painting, video, experimental documentary, and other time-based projects. She serves as an official advisor for Locate Arts, a non-profit based in Nashville, and recently launched a pop-up residency program located on a small parcel of land in the Mojave Desert, near Joshua Tree National Park. She lives and work in Joshua Tree, California, and doesn’t plan on moving any time soon.