Lisa Tuttle: Beyond Subtle
by Max Eternity
Lisa Tuttle’s intuitive approach towards grasping the very essence of the most culturally relevant, complex social discourse is absolutely uncanny. I met Tuttle a few years back and recognized right away that she was no ordinary artist. Perhaps on the surface, one might mistake her as being just another cautiously reserved, old-school Southern belle. But just because she knows how to mind her manners, does not mean she is incapable of confronting head on, the most heated, explosive topics-slippery slopes.
With things that really shouldn’t make sense, Tuttle nails it every time; with her careful observation–her psychic eagle eye–placing the right moments with the right time at the right place. All that’s been swept under the carpet, Tuttle drags it out in plain view. And just like another great Southern artist, Tennessee Williams, Tuttle’s sensitive attention to cradling with love, the horror, triumph and anguish of humanity’s endless sea of bigotry, hypocrisy, terror, depravity, loss and rage makes the bliss of reclining beneath an old oak tree on summer’s eve, all the more memorable and worthwhile.
Hi Lisa. welcome to AD Mag.
As I was telling you moments ago, I recently had a chance to meet with renown artist, Ann Tanksley. And in looking at her work–reflecting on your work–I think I’m beginning to see a pattern as to how women approach art (generally speaking of course) versus how men approach art. But before I share my opinion, have you ever thought about this?
Sure. I’m an old school feminist. I came up with the Guerrilla Girls, Judy Chicago. And I recently saw a show Jenny Zhang called “Men Are Like Fascinating Insects.”
I think when we talk about women’s contribution to art–history, it’s imperative that we observe how women often challenge the status quo. This can be seen in the modernist movement, for instance, where women’s voices challenged the male dominated world of the abstract expressionist. At that time, however unconsciously, women were making a decision to counter the hard edge, monumentalists, male politics in art history; which incidentally, occurred around the same time as 1960’s feminism. Lucy Lippard, the art critic, recognized and championed that. But if you want to talk specifically about my work, mostly my work is about the relationships between men and women.
And in speaking to the issue of women as artists, I’d like to broaden the “minority” discussion a bit. Of course you’ve heard about the Henry Louis Gates fracas with the Cambridge police?
Does that issue speak to you? Do you think America has a race problem? And more directly, how do you see race playing itself out in the art world?
Well it continues to be a fascinating subject. Larry Walker organized a show for MOCA GA, where he tried to show work by a variety of different artist; diffusing gender and race. That’s certainly one way to deal with it. It’s very interesting. Too, I would have to say that for a long period of time my work was very feminist and feminine. I used a lot of pink, focusing on beauty and having babies…but from a feminist [assertive] perspective.
As an artist, have you ever found yourself having to confront stereotypes about the South, this idea that somehow we’re all still down here whistling Dixie?
The South, racism, how do I deal with race in my work; with my southern identity as a white female? I’d say that I had to go into the work with a certain amount of awareness and intelligence. I waded into it pretty cautiously, because these are charged, sensitive issues. I didn’t want it to blow up on me, so I had to test the waters to see if I could really talk about this in an unbiased way; asking myself, what is my view? Of course, this opened up a whole new chapter of my work. For me to focus again on the relationships, that gave me a voice, because that’s where my experience came from. But I mean lets face it, race is still a very pertinent conversation in America; having taken some very interesting turns as of late. Like when we saw Obama elected, it was a mind shift for everybody.
If I recall, last year you did a series of digital photographs about the former king of the Belgian Congo. I think his name was Leopold?
I was able to see the exhibit at Sandler Hudson, where you also gave a talk.
Yes, I remember.
Could you tell us a little about that group of prints? Briefly, how it all came about.
I didn’t know much about this story until I read this book by Adam Hochschild called “King Leopold’s Ghost.” I saw these archival photos, pictures of the African men with severed hands. Then I learned that there had been this massive genocide in the Congo and I had heard nothing of it. The massacre of 20 million African men, women, and children, how could this have happened? It was quite shocking, especially to know that this history was so well hidden.
I didn’t have a place for it until I came across an opportunity to do a residency in Belgium. I had to think of what I would do. And I realized I had to follow this history. I had been looking at the American South, the story of plantations, colonialism, child slavery and all of that. You know, often the history is right out there in front of us, but we’re just blind to it. There is a connection, between what happened here in the US and what happened in the Congo. Yet, how is that story told in Belgium? I applied and was awarded the residency, and I went looking for the Belgian Congo.
Interestingly, for this project, it was the first time I had a digital camera. I went with that and I used Hoschshild’s book as a reference guide. I can tell you, the Belgians don’t like that book.
“Diaries of Dorothy Tennant (wife of Henry Morton Stanley) in the vault of the Stanley Archives, H.M. Stanley Pavilion, Royal Museum for Central Africa”
And speaking of books, your work seems to tell a story. Have you ever done art or illustration for a book?
Well yes. I designed the cover for a book by Melanie Pavich-Lindsay. It was about the life of the Mistress of a plantation named Anna King. The books focused on the letters of Anna, but also on the lives of African-American’s during the period. The title of the book is [out of necessity] quite long; being entitled “Anna : The Letters of Anna Matilda Page King of St. Simons Island, Georgia, 1817-1859”
When Melanie gave a presentation, she used some of my images, and images of another artist, Carrie Mae Weems, to tell the story of the book.
Apparently the plantation, at one time, had been used as a American Indian fishing and burial ground for the Guale people; later becoming a slave plantation. Now it’s the Sea Island Golf Club. That place, it’s a microcosm of American history; with the slave cabins still standing there, albeit used now as a gift shop.
From that project I learned that in looking at our collective past, we have to ask, what is my accountability? We have to be more conscious, becoming more aware.
There’s that great quote from Bobby Kennedy, who, in becoming more aware of his own internalized racism, said “there’s no way one can be raised in this society without being racist and sexist, our only hope is to become aware of this.”
Excellent quote, great analysis too. But before we close, I’d like to ask, what is the value of art, and why in times of crisis should we continue to invest in it?
That’s a really good question. Perhaps, it depends on your definition. Because I would say that in times of crisis, art functions less as a luxury item, and gets more back to being a place for thinking. I always want my work to be sort of a combination of beauty and emotional depth. I really look to all kinds of art forms. I feel it’s about refining our emotional sensibilities. If the work is really engaging, it increases our ability for compassion. Yet without the money, one is forced to ask…what does this really mean?
And of digital art and the future, where is this thing going?
I think we are continuing to evolve. Artist and curators are kinda learning simultaneously. It’s a cutting edge group that’s facing this challenge. Though in the print world, it’s new technology meeting old experiences when you’re dealing with works on paper. Learning about digital editioning, it’s really just an expansion of the field.
Yes. People are interested. It’s the way art is going.
Lisa, you’re such an interesting artist; a person who’s ideas are so vibrant and alive. Thanks for taking to time to speak with me.
Max, I think what you’re doing is wonderful, so I’m happy to be here.