Contributed by Cody Tumblin / “Vaudeville,” Laurel Farrin’s solo show at Devening Projects in Chicago, contains an assortment of painted objects that each hold a healthy measure of humor and delight in their making. Although the works are often simple in appearance and construction, they contain intentionally irresolute and sensitive, inquisitive details that are irrevocably warm and human. For years, Farrin has teased out a unique and identifiable style that animates and transforms the scraps, throw-aways, and hand-me-downs of daily life into paintings and sculpture that describe a comedy of errors. Over the last few weeks, Laurel and I discussed her show over email, culminating in a phone interview. This is a transcript of our conversation.
Cody Tumblin: Let’s maybe start off with a little background before we dive into the show. There’s two things that I instantly recognized in your work. There is both resourcefulness and humor at every turn. In the press release there’s mention of you being the youngest child in the family and how that describes your comfort with hand me downs—maybe finding utility and warmth in tired, worn out bits of this and that. I wanted to maybe hear a little more about that in context to your development as a maker?
Laurel Farrin: It’s funny I’m 64 now and have been making work for years and years and that ends up becoming some kind of tale. You look back and definitely notice a few things. There are six kids in my family and I’m the youngest. Everything we played with and that I wore was pretty much second hand but I loved every part of it.
I was 8 or 9 and I remember having this burning desire to make a boat. So I took my mother’s department store boxes, I cut up all these boxes into one inch strips… I ended up making this framework of a boat, like a rowboat or something. And so I took all day and I used scotch tape and I made the thing on my living room carpet. The carpet was this horrible bright green and the cardboard was this gray green color and so the boat almost disappeared into it… And I remember barely being able to sit through dinner because i wanted to finish my boat. What’s funny is that when it was done I sat in it– maybe for only 5 minutes and thought ‘well this is it!’
You know– it was really just the whole experience of making it.
I think the doing the thing is the thing that counts– that definitely structured the way I thought, and carried into my work.
CT: I think as artists, we can all trace back to those small bits of magic in our childhood that animated the world around us. I think many of us hope to– or at least sincerely try to hold onto that magic in the way we look at / work with materials.
LR: Yeah I think we really do.
CT: Well, let’s talk specifically about your show Vaudeville at Devening Projects. There’s this cast of characters that are in various animated states throughout the gallery– hanging out in corners, pinned to the walls and the way the works are grouped together, they literally and metaphorically lean on one another. They seem to talk to one another. Looking through your past work too, you’ve always worked in these loose groupings of like objects. I’m curious to hear you talk about this body of work and maybe how these collections of characters have developed over time?
LF: I think the intentionality somewhat takes after the specifics of Dan’s (Devening) space too. A lot of this work was made in the summer while I was at Yaddo and it’s interesting in that I had two small studios there. They were just steps away from one another. The works on fabric and the wood pieces were made independently from one another but they ended up finding each other– like there’s this one Blue Leg Up… I had made the fabric piece already and then there was this oddball, little white wooden piece that became an extra leg.
CT: It quite literally propped it up.
LF: Yeah it became a prop… and even more so between the two studios— thinking about a stage and a backstage. In a way, this show has that duality. On stage, you know, they’re performing and then you’re also watching a bunch of people hanging out backstage, waiting to go on for their part.
CT: I didn’t even think of that but it’s wonderful!
LF: Either did I at first! But the vaudeville thing– there’s, on one hand, the structure of vaudeville. And especially because historically, you know in New York in the lower east side, there were all these immigrants from all over the place, living in pockets. And vaudeville brought everyone together into the same place and there was a scattering of performances from so many different people and you were able to get a sense of the people around you, their culture. It was a very democratic thing, and it influenced so much! Years of tv, film, just that idea of putting together a series of unrelated events.
CT: They were so disjointed and peculiar, but held together by this short, compact, linear string of events.
LF: Yeah it was a structure you could improvise through, like jazz. If you have the structure, you can riff and move around- and I like that relationship. And there is the comedy. They would maybe have a really sentimental… opera singer paired with acts that would make you laugh.
CT: What’s funny is that reminds me of something I wanted to discuss- this really strange friction that I see in your work because of these humorous polarities. I didn’t realize it at first until I watched the videos you sent me from the show. One email we discussed your work having a simple structure– a routine to it that feels ordinary and plain… and then there is this humor or play that animates it. The balancing act between the two becomes more and more apparent. This play and formality.
LF: Definitely. Even in the videos, it’s very important that the environment is pristine in a certain way… or formal. And because of that you are free to be irreverent with it. I know before in the email you talked about Martin Creed and I also think of Fischli and Weiss–
CT: Oh right absolutely!
LF: Yes, there is a huge family of those kinds of artists who… changed a lot for me. Well number one– there were two professors when I was in grad school… One was Nick Krushenick, he was a 70s painter. And I didn’t get it until later, how much he influenced my work. He was a hard edge abstractionist painter, same age as Roy Lichtenstein. I remember being in the Smithsonian American Museum of Art, when I was studying in DC., And I was looking at one of his paintings– red yellow and blue on white ground, these little shapes, and I’m looking at it thinking “why is this so funny?”
CT: You pick up on it, it’s subtle.
LF: Yeah it’s just what comedy truly is. It can be hilarious and totally abstract with absolutely no language involved. I remember that hit me, and I didn’t really start thinking about it until six or seven years ago.
Another one was Anne Truitt. She turned to Minimalism and there wasn’t comedy in her work, but just the sublime, quiet beauty. That was a lot for me. And then you go to Mary Heilmann or Elizabeth Murray’s late paintings that were just so… playful. There are ton more, but these artists mean a lot to me.
CT: I had a similar thing with Amy Sillman, who came to talk a few years back in Chicago. Before, I knew her paintings were this history of abstraction and subtle figuration but I wasn’t extremely into or aware of her work. But during her talk she was describing her love for animation and was showing us these videos of her paintings being made in stop motion and how it tied back into the fumbling layers of her process… the way things talk and layer within one another… it was astounding. It unfolded her paintings in phenomenal ways I didn’t expect, it brought them to life and I started to get it.
LF: Yes! She’s wonderful. She wrote an essay in a great book called Beyond Painting… and she wrote something on humor too! When I started making the videos around 2016, I thought… you know, I know I’m like, kind of funny? Slowly it was getting into my work and I began reading about Freud and humor, Henri Burgson– I was reading philosophy about comedy, I was reading Judd Apatow’s book about Life and Comedy– it’s so good!
Comedians are very brilliant. And (laughs) I feel like I am such a poor comparison to them. They have this amazing ability to destabilize the – humans have become so sure of themselves, like “we’re so exceptional” and comedians are the humans that say “nah, I don’t think so.”
CT: (laughs) that’s exactly how I feel about filmmakers. I always think, wow, this moved me. When was the last time a painting did that?
LF: And with comedians, for me, they show us how much we’re not in control and I like that. You had mentioned earlier that you were watching Charlie Chaplin.
CT: Yes I fell down a youtube rabbit hole when I was first starting to write about your show because I knew there was something there.
LF: One of the best ones from Buster Keaton, you’ve probably seen it, is Steamboat Bill. He’s standing in from of this house during a wind storm and it starts to fall on him. But he happens to be standing right where the hole of the window is. It’s this very specific spectrum from catastrophe to serendipity that only humor can shift.
CT: Absolutely! Humor is almost this perfect agent of chaos that can bind those two together.
LF: Yeah! Before, we were talking about the painted marks I make– the scalloped frames and lines that are on most of my paintings and fabric. Always open or shifted frames. I was reading a lot about comedians talking about comedy and how it requires shifting the frame. And the beauty of it is that we build these frames for our protection–
CT: and our sanity.
LF: Right, right, and so everything that is inside the frame is what I know, what I’m comfortable with and everything outside of it, is well… outside of it. And comedy shifts that, ever so slightly. It pushes you out of perspective. That’s what’s so brilliant. Comedians are the people that remind us that we’re just animals in an insane world, and humor sometimes helps us make sense of all the chaos. Especially now.
CT: It’s funny too because before I even watched your videos from “Vaudeville,” I had found this piece called “Duet” by Chaplin and Keaton. It’s supposed to be Buster playing the piano and Charlie Chaplin is on the violin–
LF: Oh no! I didn’t know about that!
CT: Yes! And this one really stood out to me the most in relating to your work and I had to tell you about it. What was hilarious was, in the beginning, they do this whole bit where Keaton can’t keep his sheet music up. It keeps falling all over the place and in the meantime, the camera is focused on Chaplin and he keeps walking toward the camera and his leg gets shorter and shorter and he’s looking at it, confused, and shaking it or pulling it until it slinkies back out to its normal length.
LF: (laughing) oh no!
CT: He does this over and over again– and you know I saw your piece in the video where you’ve attached a spring with a foot to a broken wicker chair and it’s sort of being hoisted up and lowered onto the weight of the spring like this funny gimp leg.
CT: It was just too good to be true! It’s that same kind of physical comedy they were playing at!
LF: I’m so happy you said that, I have not seen it!
CT: So I do wonder where that humor has come from in your work because you mentioned it’s really more of a recent development right?
LF: Yes, somewhat. But it sort of snuck in a long time ago. In 2002 even, when I first started making paintings, they were abstract but there might have been more of an anthropomorphic thing to them. I remember this one painting had a kind of greenish ground with one red and one red orange shape and I called it Missed Kiss because there was something about them being so close but not touching. Like someone tries to kiss someone and ends up hitting their nose. Little things would sneak in there… and that was 18 years ago. And in my own life (laughs) I’ve realized I’m funnier when I don’t realize I’m making a joke. I have to get out of my own way, if I do something consciously it’s totally worse off (laughs).
CT: The show at Devening has those moments, those near misses. Lots of the works are looking at one another, somewhat oblivious to these moments of hilarity and serendipitous… kismet.
LF: Yeah and my colleague, a good friend of mine, John Dilg, you know–
CT: Right! I know John!
LF: So we have a beer every few weeks and he had seen the show and said something like… not as a criticism but… he said the way it was installed and seeing the videos “it’s in our conversations, you’re bouncing off all sorts of things!”
CT: Right, letting it roll off.
LF: It was a good compliment, you know, “your work looks like you!” And I think that’s true, these small things in our work… over time you become more settled in who you are and your work follows suit in a lot of ways. And I love getting older… just at this age and being in the studio, the freedom opens up and outward. The questions are getting more… it’s more about the love of the questions themselves. I don’t need an answer.
CT: Yeah you know, personally, as a maker, that was one thing I felt I really related to you directly about. The thrill of the mystery of making, that thread you’re chasing after– it’s what it’s all about. You’re always stumbling into things as you take all the wrong turns– or the opposite, where you’re led by the work in these very slow, small moments of discovery. When the work unfolds in those ways, it feels really miraculous you know?
LF: It’s so true.
CT: And that registered a lot in your work for me. That joy in the… chase?
LF: Absolutely. The orange painting I had done at MacDowell (referring to Orange Aid)— it was very much that kismet you mentioned. The white wood piece attached to it… it actually was a shelf in my studio and it appears in a video too. And I just saw it one day near the painting and thought, “There it is! That makes that painting.”
CT: I like where in a lot of your paintings, that same scalloped line sometimes trails off the edge of the fabric and becomes a physical object, a hanging piece of wood. Like in the green one… Green Gadroon! That scalloped, painted line marches across the painting and when it comes to the edge, it becomes this wooden foot that hangs off the wall, painted green. It brought me back to that physical comedy we talked about, that funny leg.
LF: Yes, definitely!
CT: And I think there’s this cartoon mentality to it. Where this imagined space becomes reality, in a comedic way. Like when Wile E. Coyote tries to run down the road after the Roadrunner but it’s a backdrop that he smacks into. It’s just a painted sheet on a brick wall… your painting did that for me in some way.
LF: When you said Coyote and Roadrunner I was thinking about this sort of crossing of worlds. Remember Who Framed Roger Rabbit? These two separate things live in the same world… I really love that idea. Two very different places but they need each other in some way… it’s weird and awkward.
It goes back to this idea of framing, that we live by certain rules. But there are so many rules we don’t know or understand or have any clue about. And maybe those uncertainties are what shift the frame and make us laugh.
About the Author: Cody Tumblin (b. 1991 Nashville, TN) is a painter, cook, and occasional writer who lives and works in Chicago, IL. He has recently been interviewed/ published in Hunted Projects and Art Maze Magazine Anniversary Edition 15. His work is currently on view at Egg Collective, NY and Everybody, Chicago.
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