Karen Lederer & the evocative life of objects

Two Brooklyn girls have a chat, as our voice in New York, AM DeBrincat speaks with artist Karen Lederer about color, process and everyday objects

Published: April 4, 2017Words: AM DeBrincat & Karen Lederer

Karen Lederer’s fresh, intriguing work moves effortlessly between painting and printmaking. Weaving together references to art history, popular culture, literature, and New York City, she creates work that speaks to the complicated, fascinating business of everyday life. In conjunction with her solo exhibition Hands On, on view now at Field Projects, I caught up with Lederer to discuss her work.

DeBrincat: I’m so interested in the way your work arranges everyday objects, as well as sections of the body, into compositions that feel like windows into a larger conversation about life. Can you talk about how objects function in your art and what themes are important to your work?

Lederer: I like to use recognizable objects like beverages, snacks, iconic art objects, mugs, and books because they ground the paintings in the present day. While the scenes might at times seem surreal, the objects pull them into the here and now. I am fascinated by how still lifes communicate meaning, how images slip into symbols, and how common forms echo through disparate things as in the curved shape of the fish, finger, stem, and Cheeto. I see still life as another form of portraiture. The objects become anthropomorphized, each carrying its own personality. The story shifts as the same object enters a new scene.

I often depict bottled water and seltzer because they all taste so similarly to one another that the brand a person chooses becomes significant and reveals something about his or her identity. I tend to choose ones that have an inspirational quality such as Smartwater, whose title suggests that it’s good for the mind, or La Croix, whose pastel packaging conjures up dreams of a tropical getaway.

Many of the objects also reference my New York City upbringing like William the Hippo: the famous sculpture and quasi mascot of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a Film Forum t-shirt, Zabar’s mugs and paper bags, and the classic bodega paper coffee cup.

DeBrincat: I’m also really intrigued by the way that people make appearances in your work. You use cropping in unexpected and often witty ways to introduce the human body into your compositions. To me, the glimpses of bodies that we receive in your work often feel so wholly integrated with the objects that the arm, say, or feet start to feel like objects themselves. Can you talk about the way the human form weaves itself through your work?

Lederer: The anonymous hand and feet, a bit of disembodied portraiture, comes in and out of the work and asserts my presence and perspective. Many of the paintings have a tight, directed point-of-view reminiscent of an Instagram photo. The hand of the subject appears in the frame, while the other hand, out of view, clicks the camera. It’s as if the viewer of the painting peers over the shoulder of the subject.

While many of the paintings feature this 1st person perspective, more recently I’ve started to move into a 3rd person perspective. Here the figure, at the moment me, is revealed more completely. In one of the paintings, “The Story of a New Name,” I am depicted reading an Elena Ferrante book while wearing a “Future is Female” t-shirt. In another painting, “Hands Off” I am seen bent over an in-process protest poster. These paintings bring up questions of authentic representation in the age of social media and change the relationship between the viewer and the subject.

DeBrincat: Your color palette feels fresh, bright, and to me feels very considered while at the same time maintaining an easy effortlessness.For me as a viewer, the colors in your work are essential to the overall feeling of each piece. How do you relate to color? What role does color play for you?

Lederer: I’ve always loved color, and I have a good, intuitive sense of how to work with it. I get a kick out of the stereotype of the “classic New Yorker” wearing all black and living in a minimalist apartment because I wear colorful clothing covered in patterns and have always lived in apartments that embraced a maximalist aesthetic. I think about the emotional tone of each artwork and how to achieve that through color. Recently I have been pushing myself to work with more neutral hues, like brown, grey, and black, but I naturally gravitate towards a brighter palette.

DeBrincat: What do you hope that an audience brings to an experience of your work, and what do you hope they take away with them?

Lederer: One of my favorite things about art is that viewers always carry their own personal history, and read the work according to what they know, feel, and have experienced. My cousin recently visited my studio, and saw a visual metaphor for his duties as a lawyer in one of my flower paintings.

My work has many layers and can be read on different levels. Some people may only take in the initial aesthetic experience, while others may understand the references to art history and New York life and be able to go deeper into the meaning. Everyone relates to the various products scattered through the scenes because they see them in their own daily life. I currently have a solo show up at Field Projects gallery in Manhattan, and by looking at a number of paintings at once, larger themes emerge that may be harder to grasp from looking at each piece in isolation. I hope that people sit with the work and allow it to open up. Many of the paintings express disparate things trying to make contact as in “In Search of True Painting,” where a plant bends toward a painted window in a Matisse poster. I hope many perceive and relate to this very human struggle over the difficulty of true connection.

DeBrincat:You work in both painting (oil and acrylic on panel) and printmaking (often monoprints). Can you talk about what decisions you make moving between the two, and how working in each medium informs the other? How do you make decisions about if a piece should be a print or a painting?

Lederer:I was originally trained as a printmaker, and my work emerges from a conflicted relationship with the medium. I love the graphic, mysterious marks that only monoprinting can produce, but also appreciate the control that painting offers. Printing is often a fast and intuitive process for me. At the community printshop, I create multiple stencils and a painting on plexiglass, and I arrange the whole composition on the press bed. The prints end up being much looser than my paintings. Often I work out ideas in the prints, and then make alternative versions as paintings. I also make the two bodies of work in opposite settings. The printshop is busy and social, while my studio is quiet and solitary. My paintings nevertheless still contain printed areas. Working alongside these printed gradients and textures, I define the rest of the image with paint. Both flat and rendered, the work conveys a spatial disorientation that denies stability. By mixing diverse processes in each painting, I seek to create environments that are at once constructed and artificial yet private and personal.

DeBrincat: Glimpses into art history crop up throughout in your work, often in witty and playful ways. Tell us about this.

Lederer: One of my main sources of inspiration is going to the Strand, an epic used bookstore in downtown Manhattan, and looking through art books. Not only am I interested in the images themselves but also how the images have been reproduced. As a printmaker I am fascinated by the dissemination of art historical images and how replications change our relationship to the original. Many of my paintings depict a subject holding open an art book of Picasso, Matisse, Hockney, or Leger. In these works I redraw the artist’s images, filtering them through my hand, and insert them into my environment. I call attention to the act of looking, to our relationship to images, to the chain of influence, and to the male depiction of women.

Lederer: Many of my works feature Pablo Picasso ceramics and reproductions of Henri Matisse and Picasso artwork in books and on mugs. I think a lot about the lifelong conversation between the two giants and how I can pick up the thread. Often I use a fishbowl as a stand in for Matisse because it was a common motif for him. In “Staring Contest” a Picasso owl sculpture stares into a fish bowl, symbolizing their fruitful, yet antagonistic artistic relationship.

Sometimes I use art history as a jumping off point without directly quoting a specific image. For example in “The Bathers” I draw inspiration from Henry Moore sculptures for the biomorphic vase. In “Fresh Pick” I respond to Picasso’s drawing of hands holding flowers. In “Cut-Outs” I think about Matisse’s famous cut-out technique.

DeBrincat: If you had to encapsulate your artistic practice in three words or phrases, what would they be?

Lederer: Influence, color, time

DeBrincat: If you were hosting a dinner party in which geography, time period, and language weren’t barriers, who would you invite?

Lederer: Definitely Terry Gross because I love Fresh Air and she’s a great conversationalist. Matisse would have to be there because he’s my art hero. Alexander Girard, the incredible mid-century modern designer, who brought so much whimsy and humor into everyday life and Maija Isola, the designer of Marimekko’s most famous patterns would also attend. Mel Brooks could keep it fun.

DeBrincat: Please ask yourself a question that feels fundamentally important to your artistic practice, and answer it.

Lederer: In the wake of the election of Donald Trump I do at times question if art is an indulgent and frivolous concern when there are such serious problems rising every moment. I try to remember the importance of critical thinking, the strength of images, and the power of beauty.

DeBrincat: Of all the things there are to do in the world, why are you an artist?

Lederer: I think there are times for many artists when they ask themselves why they followed such a crazy career path. If I wasn’t an artist, I always think that I would have been a textile designer. My mom started knitting at five years old, and I think her constant knitting and needlepoint work instilled in me a deep interest in fibers and pattern. Even in graduate school I took machine knitting and surface design because I found the field super compelling.

I choose to be an artist because I think I have something to say and something to contribute to the field. Making work has been a constant throughout my life. As a young kid I took adult sculptures classes after school, and helped out in the office to pay for them. I attended summer camp at RISD, and realized that I could try to do this for a living. Making art is the only moment when time disappears and the weight of other concerns lifts and I am completely present.