I was extremely fortunate to be invited to Lani Irwin’s home and studio near the Umbrian town of Assisi this summer. Ms. Irwin graciously agreed to an email interview in which she talks about her paintings, process and thoughts on art making. I can’t begin to thank Ms. Irwin enough, not only for her generosity with her time but also the thoughtfulness and eloquence of her words.
One of the most striking aspects of Irwin’s paintings is the compelling, enigmatic nature of her subject matter. In her interview in The Montréal Review, February 2011 Ms. Irwin talks in depth about meaning in her paintings. Since so much has already been written about the narrative and subject matter in her paintings, I wanted to ask questions that centered more around formal painting concerns. However, I quickly realized that separating the formal concerns away from the meaning behind and reasons for making a painting is probably like trying to separate out techniques of child-rearing from a mother’s love for her child.
Painting Perceptions is delighted to share this recent conversation with Lani Irwin and welcomes our new staff writer, Tina Engels, who writes the introduction below and also asks a question at the end of the interview that is of particular interest to women painters.
Tina Engels writes:
Lani Irwin has lived and worked in a small Umbrian town outside of Assisi, Italy, since 1987. Lani and her husband, the painter, Alan Feltus, have maintained a rich reflective life of study, work, family and intellectual community.
Irwin produces paintings that revel in the nuances of an inner artistic privacy and convey the strength of a public voice. Her visual worlds are balanced by an artist’s need to protect some kernel of silence in proportion to the mystery one chooses to explore. Irwin’s paintings savor the subtlety of what is evident and unspoken, contrasted and revealed. The lure of the visual labyrinth lies in depicting contrasting dualities of human consciousness.
All too often the contemporary audience requires much in the way of explanation and revel in the specificity of the narrative. In contrast, Irwin’s paintings preserve the melodies otherwise drowned out by too many words, stories and information.
Gail Leggio in the American Arts Quarterly in 2001 said:
“For a quarter-century Lani Irwin has been painting mysterious interiors populated by mannequins, puppets, toys and human figures. While her dolls are reminiscent of the lay figures Giorgio de Chirico deploys, her hushed tableaux may suggest the domestic enigmas of Balthus. Yet the artists Irwin most admires are not from the twentieth century but from an earlier period, the cusp of the Italian Renaissance. “I love the strange disquiet of some of the paintings,” she writes. “I often do not know the particulars of the story, nor do I need to. And so it is with my own paintings.”
Born in Annapolis, Maryland in 1947, Irwin traveled throughout Europe as a child, studied in Munich and Grenoble, and earned B.A. and M.F.A. degrees from American University in Washington, D.C. She has been exhibiting since the mid-1970s, and examples of her work can be found in the Hirshhorn Museum, the National Museum of American Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art… Gail Leggio, American Arts Quarterly, 2001 Vol. XVIII, No.2
Joan Markowitz, Co-Executive Director and Senior Curator of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art stated:
“Drawing on influences as diverse as Flemish paintings, Oriental rugs, Renaissance frescoes and works by Picasso, Lani Irwin’s paintings are elusive and dramatic. Her figures, interestingly garbed, are most often women, poised for dance or engaged in games of chance and balancing acts; and allude to life’s psychological convolutions and complexities. While they stare out at the viewer assuredly, she has eschewed a particular narrative, and creates complicated and mysterious tableaux of enigmatic symbology, which elude facile interpretation and offer a plethora of mysteries to ponder. Carefully conceived and consummately painted, her skill is manifest in the creation of these beautifully engaging images.”
Larry Groff: What led you to become a painter?
Lani Irwin: Whenever I attempt to speak or write about myself or my painting, it often feels like a work of fiction full of contradictions. I can see my life or my work from multifarious positions, much of it enigmatic and illusory. I remember drawing from a very early age but I think nearly all children draw as a way of understanding or seeing the world they live in, or their own inner life. My memories of childhood are sparse and in them I was involved in pretending, living in an imaginary world, inventing relationships and dialogues. Perhaps a more persistent tendency that could explain my decision to become a painter would be that of wanting to live in fantasy, to escape, creating my own version of reality, or enjoying that which is created by others, be it painting, literature, film, or music. I wanted to be part of that other world. When I lived in Europe, from the age of 15 to 18, I visited many museums and saw extraordinary paintings and sculptures. What I felt when looking at certain paintings was transcendent and transformative, like windows to the soul. When finally it was time to decide what I wanted to study, the only thing that seemed right for me was painting.
LG: What was school like for you?
Lani Irwin: I envy so many painters who have had interesting or even extraordinary experiences with teachers who became mentors. When I think back to my classes, there was little that I can remember of any note, no epiphanies, few revelations about how to paint or who I might be as a painter. I spent many hours in studio classes but I was often unable to relate with enthusiasm to the set-ups or the models or to what was being said to me. However, in my last year of graduate school the fall of 1972. Alan Feltus, newly hired to teach undergraduates, invited some of the graduate students to see his paintings when they arrived from Rome, where he had been the two years previous on a Rome Prize Fellowship (Prix de Rome). The paintings Alan had developed over those two years were for me a rare and impressive merging of the contemporary with the classic. His paintings were personal and individual, quiet but intensely expressive, yet in no way hyped by the need to do something “new”. In the end, once I had finished all my courses, I realised that it was time for me to find my own way, teach myself how to paint. So I put a seagull skull on a box and began working alone from observation. I suppose more than to teach myself how to paint, it was to discover what was important to me in painting and to find my own voice in order to understand what and how to paint.
LG: Was figurative painting something you got into early?
Lani Irwin: I have always been interested in figurative painting. Non-objective painting has never really appealed to me, seeming to leave out so much of what is essential and powerful in painting.
LG: Who were some of your biggest influences? Was there any particular idea or thing you experienced that was especially formative and still shapes you today?
Lani Irwin: In the summer of 1974, Alan and I went to Assisi together for the first time. When I entered the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi and saw the frescoes of Giotto, Pietro Lorenzetti and Simone Martini, I felt a moment of revelation or insight. After years of trying different approaches to painting from Rembrandt to Bonnard, Vuillard and Soutine, it seemed that what I wanted was something quite beyond my own understanding. What continues to engage me when looking at those frescoes in Assisi seems unknowable. It is the magic, the mystery, what runs under the surface of our very beings, the parts of us that we find so hard to understand. When we walked into the Basilica, I remember saying that I believed there must be a higher power, perhaps a god, something greater than the day to day of ordinary life that could elicit such incredible images. They seem to embody that deep otherworldly atmosphere that dreams are made of, something that carries me into another realm of consciousness and awareness.
LG: How do you go about the planning and beginning work on a painting? How important is balance and tension? Do you use any form of dynamic symmetry or similar?
Lani Irwin: There is no set method. Rarely do I make preliminary drawings, never do I plan out a painting in any formal way. I spend a lot of time staring at the blank canvas. In the end I must just start with something and believe that the next something will reveal itself in the painting of that first something. This requires a kind of faith that the painting itself will take over. What I do is more like choreography, placing objects and figures in relationship to one another to create a tension that interests me. There is no prescription for how this might work best. The selection of the particular objects or the gesture and position of the figures creates a dialogue. Objects speak to me and to one another. It is the dance between these elements rather than a formal consideration of balance or square within a rectangle that orchestrates my paintings and it is driven by intuition.
LG: How much of an idea do you need before you start the painting or does it evolve in the process of working?
Lani Irwin: When you ask how much of an idea do I need, I could say it would be wonderful to actually have an idea when I start a painting. What I usually have is more like the ghosts of a dream after I wake up, that fleeting image that I can’t quite grasp, even when I try to write it down or draw it. So I start with the ghost and from there it does evolve, though not without many stops and starts.
LG: How much does the subject and composition evolve during the painting process? Could you say something about how your painting, La Ruota, evolved during the time you worked on it from 2009-13?
Lani Irwin: The entire process is one of evolution, finding the subject and the composition slowly through the painting of it. With each layer, the interweaving of shapes and colours slowly build to reveal both the subject and the composition, if indeed they are separate entities. The search for the colour is simultaneous with the search for the form. I believe colour is very personal, something inherent and is guided by instinct and intuition. However, because I paint the objects from observation, to some extent, colour is dictated by the object itself. One reason “La Ruota” took so many years was that I painted a few layers to find the positions and relationships of the figures and objects within the space and then didn’t work on it for about a year while I worked on other paintings. If you consider the figures to be the subject, and I am never quite sure of that, then as I redraw and repaint the figures, what is next to them also changes. That is how the composition develops. The doll parts were on a shelf in front of the figures for a long time and the most dramatic change in the composition was when I removed the shelf and suspended the doll parts. Instead of defining a comfortable space in the painting and guiding the viewer into that space, the figures and objects in the painting seemed to be right on the surface, if not pushing out into the space of the viewer. This was not something I planned. The pattern using the shape of an ouroborus on the red wall grew in part from a dream. The verticality of the painting became stronger thus the horizontal panel with stripes. I know the colour of the wheel changed many, many times and was the last thing to change again months after I thought it was finished.
LG: Patterns of checkerboards, stripes, diamonds, circles, etc often show up in the backgrounds, clothing or other elements in your paintings. Where do these patterns come from and what role do you see for them in the painting?
Lani Irwin: I believe we are who we are in spite of attempts to be otherwise. I love patterns and complexity. I know that when I see the ribs and walls and vaults of buildings painted with pattern and image as carefully as the narrative frescoes, the richness of it excites me profoundly. When I am working, often a space between two shapes cries for more than just a colour so I look for stripes or patterns. However, it is more than just a compositional necessity. Perhaps there is a symbolic aspect to checkerboards and stripes, something that is a part of a universal inner language, that I relate to without a conscious knowing. I love nature, the black and white of the feathers of a hoopoe, the polka dots of a guinea fowl, the surprising patterns of moths and beetles, and shells. For decades I have collected and used patterns from the walls and floors of churches. I have a book of antique hand painted game boards that I have used as a source. Targets, both antique shooting gallery targets and ordinary paper targets, are among my lexicon of possibilities. There is a kind of playful nature in these patterns juxtaposed against one another for no apparent reason other than my own whim. I like visual complexity, multiple layers conjoined.
We seem to be dancing around the discussion of subject matter in my paintings and for me, composition, colour, pattern and subject matter are so thoroughly entwined and interdependent that they are inextricable. When I find myself speaking about targets and patterns, I can’t avoid beginning to question what I am doing with all of this unrelated stuff. Why do I continue to bring many of the same characters together. I had started to say the targets have entered recently but then I remembered that I painted targets and shooting galleries decades ago. Yes, I have used them more frequently recently, but they are not new to my work. Nor is the strangeness of combining seemingly unrelated objects and figures. The paintings of the early Renaissance that I love have stories and symbols so they do carry a more specific meaning that is entangled within the complex visual language. Mine do not have that more specific story or framework to hold it together, give it meaning. I would love it if they did. Perhaps that is what they are about, that loss of what I could call a tangible inner world, a clearer manner of relating to the world we live in that was once accomplished through shared cultural norms. In the rush for what is called progress, we seem to have been left without a language we can all understand. I am not a religious person but I do believe that there is more to life than buying and selling. Nor am I an intellectual painter, one who thinks in abstractions or concepts. I am much more rooted in emotion and intuition. The subjects I am drawn to, the relationships within the paintings that I tend towards creating, seem to have an element of disquiet that can at times be unsettling to viewers. I often go through days where feelings of alienation, aloneness and a strange deep inner sadness seem to take hold of me from an undefined and non-specific place. I paint objects and figures, shapes and patterns that don’t quite reveal themselves, regardless of how I paint them, and certainly don’t explain why they are there together on the same stage, not even to me. A theatre of the absurd.