Justice to Dawn: Loren Britton in conversation with Wen Tao
Second Date, Loren Britton’s current show at Field Projects, is an enchanting garden of whispers. Thin, delicate, relatively small paper pulp sculptures line the walls of the gallery’s intimate space. Each piece forms a color composition around words and fragmentary phrases in cursive script. The palette here is dominated by fleshy pinks, lustrous ochres and warm oranges. As a whole, these works recall both the quietly endearing hues of Marie Laurencin and the playfully amorphous forms of Joan Miró. Up close, the pulp exhibits a fine, skin-like texture that invites touch. From the web of wrinkles and creases, writings such as “are you” and “Women, Wimmin, Womyn, Wymin” emerge, fade and sometimes get erased.
Partaking in the discourse of new queer abstraction, Second Date is a rarity among contemporary art trailblazers: in addition to its conceptual richness, it employs the poetic and visceral in its main mode of address. In comparison to the much-explored approach of queer archaeology, where abstraction serves to excavate visual references from queer cultural history, Britton looks to the future and explores abstraction as a medium for shared vulnerability. The artist is now based in Berlin, Germany; we were able to sit down during their brief sojourn in New York.
Loren Britton: Second Date, curated by Jacob Rhodes, is on view at Field Projects through December 16th, 2017. 526 W 26th Street, #807, between 10th and 11th avenues, New York City, fieldprojectsgallery.com
WEN TAO: In the press release there’s a letter from you to “Dawn” that is tender, charming and almost troubadourish. It sets the attitudinal undertone of the show. Who is Dawn and why this gesture?
LOREN BRITTON: The reference comes from the first issue of Transvestia, a transgender lifestyle magazine in the 1960s. Dawn wrote an ad seeking friendship and romance and signed “Love, Dawn”. It’s such a surprisingly open gesture given the impersonal nature of an ad, which made me want to respond “Love, Loren.” I’m interested in such gestures of open vulnerability. It’s how I envision the relationship between artworks and viewers.
Are there particular reasons for this strategy of non-aggressiveness, of eliciting care and exchanging vulnerability?
I used to work in a way that’s a lot more bombastic and uses taking up space as mode of address. In that it was more about holding the viewer by physically immersing them. Now I’m more interested in how that can happen psychologically. It’s more about the viewer’s reading mind, about communicating short and honest sentiments. It suits this show as my main goal is to do justice to Dawn. I think about the distance between me as a young trans person in 2017 and what it must have been for a trans person in 1960. I want to have a reparative relationship to that distance.
In abstraction there’s the notion of a visual element being able to elicit a psycho-physical response without referencing reality.
When you put a mark on a blank surface I don’t think there’s inherently a meaning in it. The meaning is imbued through how you contextualize it and the lineage you participate in. It’s the way you use colors to quote and reference the culture context you come from. The question of reading and misreading, visibility and invisibility through color is a strategy of queer abstraction because colors reference experiences and feelings. There’s an underlying code to the work.
How do your formal choices reflect your political sensibility?
The state of mind that viewers have in this show is one of being visually aware and understanding how your body feels. It’s a psycho physical experience. In a space like that, people are in a state of shared vulnerability, boundary dissolution, and shared empathy. I think categorization, or “us” against “them”, is a useful political strategy but in a context like this we can forgo it temporarily. I want to explore how we can actually treat each other really well, from a micro level like this, and relate it to a global scale.
Abstraction affords a bodily experience. But figuration is a different strategy. In queer figurative art now, there seems to be an implicit responsibility to be celebratory towards the queer body, to render it positive and beautiful.
I think each artist’s identity inevitably shifts our position. I’m not personally interested in figuration as a mode to explore shared vulnerability. I think artists like Louis Fratino and Doron Langberg approach empathy from the opposite direction, meaning they are interested in figuration as a mode towards inspiring empathy with a viewer via the figures in the frame of their work. I’m more naturally inclined to abstraction. I’m fascinated by space, color, and language.
You talk about many influences outside of the visual arts. Maybe those are influences more on a strategic or attitudinal level. What is your relationship to poetry?
Very much so. I have a strong relationship to poetry! I curated a show with Rocket Caleshu at Eastside International, Los Angeles, last spring called Appetitive Torque with 3 artists painters and four poets. I think I learned a lot from the publication we put together for this show because it paired writers and artists thinking and writing about taste and how it is made and shifted. The poems in that text with the artwork in the show suggested different strategies for thinking about desire operating on both on a textual and visual level.
Right after the election last year I had a stressed-based reaction and I started making these big loud paintings. Someone came and said to me you are really a poet. That was really helpful because I realized what I was doing at that moment was really reactionary, the loud and bombastic urge to take up space was antithetical to who I am as an artist. I’m really not that kind of artist. I work on a more subtle level.
How do you choose the words to put into your works? And why do you use cursive script?
I’m interested in the cursive because it’s a way of learning language. There’s something very drawing-like about it. Also cursive is not being taught anymore and I’m interested in excavating that problem. The words come from conversations, poems I read and letters to friends.
The mode of communication afforded by a letter is almost extinct now. In a letter there’s the unconcealable charm of mere sincerity when someone talks and talks to the same person without response.
Yes that’s similar to how I ask people to take time to invest in the work because of its necessary multiplicity. I’m interested in slowing down and inviting people to be in the present. We have continual fragmentation of attention. Although that’s interesting, I’m more interested in a slower presentness, in getting in and committing to a longer conversation.
Why paper pulp?
I’m interested in the history of collectivity of the material. I’m concerned with what it means to be working in the contemporary art world on a budget, or as a person from a lower class. In the Disclaimer Gallery show, my dad and my grandfather helped me to make the table with floorboards of my dad’s old basement. That was an incredible process of collaboration. I’m not interested in trying to pass as something that I’m not. I’m interested in the politics of middle class living. I think about material conditions of the present moment as it exists for me and don’t try to participate in something that’s not true to that experience.
I’m also interested in language as material for both the work and its idea. I don’t think that everything has to exist in one artwork. I want to create a practice for myself where I can continue to shift my opinions and continue to ask questions. I want to stay with the messiness of the answers. Maybe there are no answers and I should stay with the questions.
There’s a really wonderful slowness in the show. It allows people to focus on the present and not to be constantly obsessed about things improving in the future. Do you have any thoughts about utopianism?
My ideas about utopia were shaped by José Esteban Muñoz’s book Cruising Utopia. He talks about how the idea of utopia is “not yet here”. Being a queer person in a hetero-normative structure, there’s no reproductive future. I’m interested in the failure of queerness as it relates to this idea. Utopia that’s not yet here and will never be here. Utopia is more like a state that you can reach by being really present with where you are now.
That’s very Buddhist.
Yeah. I think it can happen in small moments.