E is for Emily who likes contradiction
"It's true -- everything is a contradiction... It's torture." These are Emily Greene Liddle's words. They were offered about two-thirds of a way through a lengthy interview which I thoroughly enjoyed. Her words need to be slightly explained and they will be. Before we begin I want to tell you that Emily has a great laugh. Now I promised Emily that some information would stay off the record, but I don't think she'd mind if I told you she has a wicked sense of humor that tends towards to be a bit dark at times -- in a good way. When we first met I was immediately impressed with her sarcasm, not mean-ness, just pure wit. She is the first artist to bring out Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies mid-interview. She is also the first to bring out two beers and then finish one quicker than I do. Maybe that should have stayed off the record. I'm going to fight to leave it in. You'll see why at the end. It is with great pleasure that I introduce to you Emily Greene Liddle.
Emily Greene Liddle is incapable of breaking her training. Oh yes, she's trained. She is also exceptionally professional about her work and her methods, and yet still able to be silly once in a while. She went to Catholic University specifically to study art. She knew she was an artist from a very young age. Says she, "I feel really lucky in that sense because most people go through their entire lives and never really know for sure what they're meant to do. I've always felt like I was going to be an artist. Growing up it just kind of got stronger." She went to school to find out what she was interested in and to strengthen her voice. She found that she liked working with oils because they're "buttery, soft, and gushy," but also because they're a necessity. "Acrylics dry to fast," she says. Her paintings are photo-realistic with subject matter not traditionally found in photo-realism. She abhors painting landscapes -- they do nothing for her. What she enjoys doing is painting large pieces, technically done, with a lot of research behind them. The subject matter of these paintings? Well here's where we begin to glimpse the contradiction that Emily is so fond of.
First off, note that Emily's paintings are immediately recognizable. Once you are familiar with her work you will never again question if it's hers or not -- at least not if it's from her ongoing series Strange Fruit. The work deals with large scale, photo-realistic images of fruit often times juxtaposed with a "sharp, metal, violent object" of some kind or another. Like a fish-hook for instance. Or barbed wire perhaps. The implement changes, the contradiction remains. Why? Well because E is for Emily who likes contradiction. This is her style. It is a style chosen more often times than not because of the formal elements of "form, and function, and texture." Says Emily, "I started just with the obsession with fruit as a form and as a subject -- the colors, the textures, the implications -- but really more of the formal qualities of color and texture. I liked doing them because I thought that had a particular impact." To get that impact she must put a lot of effort into her work. We'll get back to the implications.
Emily's style demands amazing amounts of research, and requires a steady hand. It takes both talent and devotion to the craft to get the paintings right. She works off of photographs, spending a lot of time getting that good photo. Says she, "If you don't have a good photo you're not going to have a good painting." So how exactly do you get an accurate photograph of a strawberry with a hook in it, or a pear surrounded by barbed wire? With the former you spend weeks scouring the grocery store then buy the whole package upon sight of the gilded strawberry. With the latter you make a Russian softball sized paper mache pear on day one. Day two you spend creating barbed wire, because an image of shiny, new barbed wire is just plain tough to come by. Before she begins painting there is the initial sketch on the canvas, just so she knows where everything is, then the application of background color. Then she works on the foreground (subject). Says she, "The most time I spend with the background is mixing color, because the background color has to be just right. There's no definition of what is just right." Going further she says, "A lot of my color choices are very impulsive. I need to go with that kind of primary raw inclination." Later she describes her methodology saying, "It's kind of close to the academic painting style of underpainting and layers, and layers, and layers, and [then] glazes and working from shadow to high-light, and working from back to front and that process...I don't follow the color palates of academic painting... I don't do my underpainting in Sienna. I do my underpainting with color instead of anything neutral. But yeah, I basically follow those rules." Thus we now can see a basic formula to an Emily Greene Liddle painting: an element of whimsy introduced to a formal style of painting.
Emily will talk to you about her obsessions with equal fervor. She cannot seem to break from the quasi-academic style of painting, nor can she ignore her gut feelings. "It's all really intuitive," she says, "It's all somewhere out there that you really can't explain. You either know or don't know. It tends to work out for me -- if I try to go against it it's when I do a painting I don't like." The result is that Emily's paintings are fun, but in no way lacking artistic merit. Now let's get back to those implications mentioned earlier, before we expound on that last line.
I made two incorrect assumptions about Emily and her work. The first thing I did was assume that Emily chose her subject matter strictly because of the suggestive nature of fruit. I saw the contrast in her work, but only on one level -- the subjective. She would not have attuned me to the other elements of contrast, namely those focusing on form and function (somewhat objective), had I not sent her a series of questions that focused solely on this one interpretation. Let us all agree that fruit can and often does suggest or symbolize sex. Emily knows this and is okay with this, in fact she laughs at one point and says, "sex sells, right?" However there exist objective qualities contrasting in her work just as much as there are subjective contrasts. Here's what she says about her piece Cherry in a Birdcage:
It's not that Emily doesn't find fruit to be sexy, or is incapable of seeing her work as a potential commentary on society and sex. It's that the viewer can miss something, as I did, if they don't take into account the amount of thought and research she has put into her work. I assumed incorrectly that Emily hadn't thought about her work as academically as she had on the formal levels. The formal elements of contrast can supercede the contrasting imagery of her subjects. Case in point, I ask her "What does her Beer Bottle in a Banana painting mean?" "Absolutely nothing," she says, but she loves the contrasting colors of the work. She goes on:
Emily's paintings allow for a subjective interpretation, but are not limited to it. Says she, "I am pretty adamant that you're not supposed to think one thing or another. A cherry in one circumstance does not mean a cherry in another circumstance." While you might not be able to ignore the implications, you're not supposed to dwell on them. If you assume that Emily chose a piece of fruit strictly for its possible sexual/social iconography, as I did, you fail to recognize the amount of technical choices she has made with her work. Really Emily's obsession is with color, and with the "formal elements of contrast". Let's turn now to the second incorrect assumption I made.
It turns out that Pop-Surrealism is academic. Or at least it can be. Pop-Surrealism goes by a few different names (read Editorial of the Week for more information), one of which is low-brow art. That title itself is a commentary about the standards by which 'we' judge art. It was offered sarcastically by Robert Williams in 1979. This genre includes Emily Greene Liddle, though as she says, "stylistically I might not fit." I assumed that the genre did not allow for classically trained artists -- or that artists would have to ditch their training to be a part of it. I was way off.
Emily Greene Liddle has not abandoned her classical training to produce art that is traditionally (and incorrectly) thought of as being outside the realm of classical art. I knew her artwork was good; I didn't realize the amount of technical skill that went into it. I ask her, "Do you find that because you're so classically trained, yet choose to paint in a style that is a little bit frivolous, you have to defend your artwork more than if you were to do a portrait?" Her answer, "Absolutely. Absolutely." I push further and ask if she gives a damn. Here's what she says:
The truth is that Emily could paint a portrait. She has both the talent and the training to create a 'traditional' piece of art. She chooses not to. She still chooses to create art in a traditional manner though. She's obsessed with color and contrast, and paints photo-realistically with oils, but she's not painting landscapes or people. She's painting Strange Fruits. She's enjoying it.
Recently Emily collaborated with a few of her favorite local DC artists in the group show Yuri's Night. Before that she showed with many of the same people at Art in Heat. Of Art in Heat she says this, "It was embracing -- the idea that you could have that good quality artwork and still be silly and still have fun, and have it still be valid...Too often if you're having fun and being silly with your artwork it somehow invalidates it as being low. Somehow it means that you're not serious [as an artist] if you're silly with your work...I find [that] absolutely asinine."
So is this another contradiction found in Emily's life -- whimsical art done seriously? No, that no longer is a contradiction. ArtWhino exists in DC and has begun showing Emily's work, Yuri's Night was a big success, and Shephard Fairey designed the President's poster. Pop-surrealism aka lowbrow art is practically, if not already, mainstream. There are books about the subject for crying out loud. Emily Greene Liddle is attached to that movement, and still attached to her classical training. You cannot assume that because the subject matter of this new style is less formal, the creation of it is. Within this genre, like all genres, there will be those who are classically trained, those that are self-taught, and all levels in between. Emily is a classically trained artist who chooses sometimes to break from some of her training. More often than not she sticks to it.
Now upon further study you will find that many artists painting classified as Pop-Surrealism have training. I find that you don't see as much photo-realism in this genre as others, but then again I could be wrong. Emily says, "I'm sure there's somebody that paints like me. I don't know. It's hard for anybody to really definitively say that you're unique." Perhaps, but are they as much fun?
So what will Emily be doing these next couple months? Well it's roughly outlined. She's not big on planning. Says she, "That's kind of how my life roles -- nothing that I've ever planned works as planned out period. I fly by the seat of my pants." While this is true, you most probably will be able to catch up with her at Artomatic. Not only is she showing there, but two of her husband's bands are playing (Demivolt and Fall Catalog). I'm willing to bet that she'll be laughing at some point too. Knowing her, she'll probably be tackling a tough painting this month as well. We'll see if she endures the torture of painting another strawberry anytime soon. She says she tends to do that to herself -- create and then endure torture. But hey, these are the methods that result in the juxtaposition of the "juicy, fleshy, goodness" of fruit and the "sharp, metal[lic], violence" of hooks. With a smile she says, "violence is a good contrast to fruit." Indeed it is. Just like classical training is a nice contrast to chaos. I'm glad she employs both.
You can see Emily's work currently at Art Whino, very shortly at Artomatic, and all the time at www.emilygreeneliddle.com.