Spooky Action at a Distance: A Conversation with LANGDON GRAVES by David Connolly
Langdon Graves (b. 1979) received her BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and her MFA from Parsons in New York City in 2007. She has had solo shows in Richmond, New York, Tampa and Boston, and has participated in group shows throughout the United States, Europe and Australia. She has attended the Fountainhead Residency in Miami and participated in The Netherlands’ Kunstenaarsinitiatief Residency and Exhibition program in 2011. She is a recent recipient of Canson and Beautiful Decay’s Wet Paint Grant.
DC: How do you start the projects and what role does research play in your work?
LG: It always seems like whatever I was just reading about or learning about goes into my work, like loose threads leading me to something else I want to learn about, and so forth. When I look back over the research and work I've done over the last 10 years, they seem like chunks or series to me, but if I were to take the time to actually put all of my notes together I would probably see a pretty seamless transition from one idea to the next. And in terms of the research, I actually sometimes get stumped by it because I get so overwhelmed with the ideas, the reading and the historical information. I feel obligated to make something that does right by it or that synthesizes information in a way that becomes my own interpretation, and I'm not going to sound like a dumb artist who got it wrong. I feel like I have to get the information extracted correctly in order to be able to make something that I can feel confident about as an artwork.DC: These different sort of extractions have a linear narrative over time?
DC: Because time is also of an essence in your work...
DC: It is, absolutely.
DC: In the recent work Spooky Action at a Distance, 2016 at Victori + Mo you are exploring a lot of psychoanalysis in regard to a family member?
LG: It went into a psychoanalytical place and that wasn't the intention at first. All of my work starts out about belief. I’ll study one subject and it sort of leads me into the next thing. However, my Grandmother had a heart attack and it kind of shook me up, and she made her way into my work unexpectedly (her heart actually stopped and she loves to tell people she died. She has a good, dark sense of humor). She's always been my favorite person and she's the matriarch, so I think I’ve had a romanticized view of her. We’ve always had a special connection and when I was young, she used to spend time after dinner telling me about experiences throughout her life - some of them dipping into the supernatural. When she had the heart attack, she lost a lot of her memory and had trouble re-orienting herself to her life. The family would tell and retell anecdotes to try to help her remember, and I started to think back on a few stories in particular she had shared with me, and thought maybe this was an opportunity for a meaningful reconnection. She was hesitant to revisit these particular stories at first, as they are essentially ghost stories and at 92, she has a different relationship to death than she did when they occurred. But she started to open up and as these stories got retold, I realized how much influence they’ve had on me and that I’ve always wanted to return to them as a subject for my work.
When I was six, seven, eight years old and hearing it all for the first time, I made very clear illustrations in my head of what things looked like. She described objects moving by themselves, the feeling of a presence, premonitions and dreams. And recently as the women in the family have all shared in story time together, I’ve learned that these types of experiences aren’t exclusive to my grandmother. My aunt and grandma once had the same dream the same night and that coincided with a plane crash.
LG: Over time you collect enough stories like that and words like “sensitive” or “psychic” start getting thrown around. If you believe in those kinds of things. And I should say that I don't personally have that kind of belief. Belief with a capital B.
DC: Would you frame it that you don't have belief in organized faith?
LG: Right! I think mysticism is necessary and I think it's important. I don’t think religion is necessary but spirituality is. I wouldn’t call myself spiritual, but I am very much a believer in believers. I think they write all the best stories and help us understand who we are and what we do as humans.
DC: There is an oral tradition that you’re engaging with and it’s within the family dynamics that you are trying to hold onto, these narratives that are going to be lost when the inevitable happens to all of this. That’s an interesting idea transferring from an oral tradition to a visual medium.
LG: Yeah. It's funny that you say that because like I said, I can look back on older work and it makes sense to me how it feeds into what I’m doing now. For example, I did a series 2009/10 called Wives Tales and I studied oral traditions, particularly those of women in Inuit tribal cultures. They have a custom of passing on their stories verbally, and also through rituals like Cat's Cradle. Historically, it’s been the female's responsibility to learn and record them in some way, because while the boys participate to a certain age, they then learn to hunt and provide and activities like Cat’s Cradle are seen as a waste of time. I think about this and the significance of inheriting and passing on stories, and of making them material again, like I’m doing with my family.
My grandmother’s a kooky lady. Her father was a mortician when she was very young, so there was always death around her. Her mother was an alcoholic and wasn’t too hands-on, so my grandmother was sent to live and attend school at a convent until she was 18. At the convent, she told there was a dead nun who would haunt the halls and she once overheard an exorcism, and she's got lots of stories that fall under that sort of Catholic mysticism. And the funny thing is, she's really matter of fact about it. Things just happened around her. She’s a lot like me in that she keeps a grain of salt.
I ask myself every now and then, why am I doing this? Why is this the subject of my work? I think I got too far away from personal content in my earlier work and I needed something that felt more authentic. I wasn't searching for it, the stories came up and the work went to a more intimate place. I guess it's a kind of an homage to my grandmother and her life, but when I started remembering the visuals I’d designed for her stories in my head as a kid, I became very interested in making these places real or as real as a drawing can make them or a sculpture can make them.
DC: Sure, because you’re not representing these actual images that you have had in your history, particularly. There's always a great combination of tension within the materials and in particular, color in your work, with the use of drawing and sculpture. Can you talk a little bit about those combinations that come from your research, to the realization of physical work?
LG: The palette chases me. I really can't get away from it. I look at older work and can definitely still see it. I got scared of color for a while. In my work from around 2008, 2009 the drawings became pretty much black and white and I would bring in a little blushes and that sort of thing, but I think color very quickly communicates something whether you want it to or not. There are immediate associations that someone, for example, who’s grown up on the East Coast of the United States is going to have. So what I learned when I started having color conversations with people is that it can be so particular to your region, or to an experience, and that's what made me back off and really start to think about how to use color. And how I could use color that was significant to me and my work. This again kind of goes back to the research and staying faithful to it. And if someone were to have a different take on what I’m suggesting with color, the work would be able to defend its reasons for using it.
DC: Because there was a direct correlation between the research and the color used? Layers of ideas through color?
LG: There’s so much layering of ideas in the work. I sometimes even forget that something is significant. In the wallpaper from the Victori + Mo show there's a little red bug that shows up once, within six feet of wallpaper. It's the size of my pinky nail, but its placement was important to me because it was like a tiny echo of red details appearing across the gallery in other works.
These other red bits were a carved red pencil that appeared to pass through a wall, and a drawing of a red pencil. I remember thinking when I made these that a yellow pencil would be more obvious, so I'm going to make them red. Much later, I remembered that my grandmother kept a little drawer full of yellow legal pads in her telephone table, that she would doodle on with a red pencil or pen for hours while on the phone.
DC: So in sense what you are doing is reverse engineering. You are making aesthetic choices within an instillation of color in relation to wallpaper and objects, however it’s really about your Grandmother.
LG: Yeah and it was something I had just pushed back in my mind behind another thought. I’d forgotten that I had access to that memory but it was hanging around my subconscious. Additionally, after I made the red pencil I found an old pencil in a box that my mom had given me from her classroom (she was a teacher) that had “Mrs. Graves” printed on it. I took a picture of the pencil I made next to my Mom's and they were almost identical. These things just kind of kept coming up when I was making this work.
DC: Are you someone that can have multiple projects going at one time or do you need to completely finish a project before you start a new one?
LG: I do like to finish what I start before for I begin something else. If I have a solo show, having each piece inform another is the best way to work, especially if I'm working across two media. But I don’t work on two drawings at the same time.
DC: That comes down to the idea of preciousness and space and the completion of that idea.
LG: I think I'm also afraid that I won’t finish it.
DC: Do you think the struggle will become too much to bear?
LG: Maybe, and it would be an interesting experiment actually, to see what would happen if I did try a different approach, to get some kind of different result. I don’t know.
DC: The use of wallpaper is a very specific element in your work. Can you elaborate a little bit on how you came to use it?
LG: The first time I used wallpaper, I think, was for my show in Richmond, Virginia, in 2012-13? I had the idea of giving my drawing an environment and thought, why don't I give it the environment of itself? I started taking elements and playing around with patterning. I was making drawings that looked like dissections but I wasn't planning to put them on the wall. I built tables so that the drawings laid flat and I made lamps that hung above each. In this plan, the walls would be bare but I wanted them to have something; I didn't want them to be uncovered. The aesthetic of the tables and lamps was kind of Victorian era hospital, and the patterns I ended up creating with various imagery from my drawings also borrowed from that era of design. I played around with toile, which offered two kinds of views of the imagery; when first seen, they offered a kind of banal decoration on the wall, but seen closer, they revealed an eyeball being removed from its socket or a crutch or a fly. The wallpaper patterns became a way for me to bring color and more subtlety into the work.
DC: The wallpaper influenced the drawings going from monochromatic into color.
LG: It did, and it was also a way to unify the three-dimensional work with the two dimensional work. For that same show in Richmond, I also had fabrics printed with the patterns and made little sculptures that resembled hospital stools. I say resembled because I was referencing objects that you might see in a medical facility, but I didn’t completely offer how these things could be put together.
DC: It doesn't have to be the actuality of the object.
LG: Right. And it was a way for the pieces to tell a larger story and for me to spread out the symbolism. An example of that was a fly that appeared in the drawings, wallpapers and fabrics, which was important to this sort of reverse dissection I was presenting. In the drawings, parts of bodies were coming together, rather than decaying and being taken apart. I was working off of texts I came across by a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher named Empedocles, whose essays described an incredibly Darwinian take on the origin of human life that seemed so ahead of its time, and I was just so taken with, that I had to illustrate it. I liked the idea of a fly as symbol of a life cycle, creation from decay, similar to the way the Vanitas painters incorporated a fly or bug. Sometimes we need the maggot to eat the corpse, to grow the tree.