Building Up Layers: An interview with Leslie Wayne

Leslie Wayne wants viewers to feel the Earth’s compression and sense the subduction of geologic forces in her dimensional oil paintings. She layers vibrant and dissonant colors built through the structural qualities of paint. When the top layer is dry, she cuts, flips and sculpts the material to evoke the power of the natural world. A collection of the last five years of her work is currently being shown at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, SC. Amy Mercer recently spoke to the artist, on behalf of, about her process, the physicality of her materials, and the nature of her restlessness.

Before the Quake, oil on wood, 36” x 132”, 2006 Courtesy of the Artist

Amy Mercer: You studied plein air landscape painting at the University of California in Santa Barbara and then moved to New York City to study sculpture at Parson’s. How did this transition effect or change your style? You’ve also said that your paintings are a secular response to traditional 19th Century landscape painters; can you explain the importance of a secular response?

Leslie Wayne: Landscape and abstraction only dovetailed in a very direct way when I decided to confront my early history, and my interest and identification with western landscape. I had mixed feelings about denying the very obvious references to geology and landscape in my work; because I was so invested in the language of abstraction, and it became a question of why was I denying it? Why don’t I look at it?

I began working with the Blue Ocean Institute and was thinking about how we can affect the consumption of endangered species. I read the book written by the founder of BOI, and just thought it was really incredible. The organization’s mandate is to inspire a closer relationship with science, literature and the arts, and before I knew it, I was out there working with the institute in a fundraising role. So ocean conservation was just on my brain at that time. I was starting to really address issues of the environment, and this dovetailed with my desire to confront my history of plein-air landscape painting. I was also reading a thesis written by a friend of mine about the traditional landscape painters of the 19th Century who were often motivated by religion to express the sublime in nature. All of this created the perfect storm. I was trying to find a contemporary, secular, abstract response to the traditional landscape painting. I’m not an atheist, but for me it was more about finding reverence for the spiritual in nature.

One Big Love #36, Oil on wood, 13” x 13”, 2009, Image Courtesy of the Artist

AM: Process is so important in your work, and you have said that you want viewers to have a visceral response to your paintings; can you talk about the physicality of your materials? How much planning goes into each painting?

LW: I don’t start out with a plan. I’m not looking to make anything specific. I have a general idea of where I want to go, but I like to allow the process to flow. I like to let the shape of the panel suggest where it might go in terms of feeling. I let the shape of the panel dictate a way in which the materials might mimic processes of the natural world, the flow of lava, the weight of water, and the compression and subduction of the earth. In so far as I allow physics if you will, and the phenomenology of the material to lead the way, one could say that process plays a dominant role in the resolution of my work. But it’s not the subject of my work any more than say the properties of steel are the subject of Richard Serra’s work. The issue lies in the degree to which will dominate chance, and intention governs outcome. In Velocity for example (3 panels, 49”x22”), I had a vision of being on the other side of a train and seeing something in motion, but stationary at the same time. The painting was originally 7 panels and I slowly whittled it down. I wanted it to be a vertical snapshot, but also to be seen as a continuum so you could read it from left to right as if the landscape was moving in front of you. That’s one of the few examples of control in my work because the very first panel set the tone for the rhythm of color, and the others had to line up in a way that created a flow. So that piece was more planned out from the start.

AM: You have a series titled, One Big Love that was shown in 2010 at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York where you live with your husband, and also included in the Halsey exhibit. These paintings are much smaller and maybe more intimate than the other works at the Halsey. Does gender play a role in your work, and do you think of yourself as a female artist or is gender beside the point?

LW: When I first started painting this way I was very aware that I was coming out of the trajectory of Abstract Expressionism, which was very male dominated. By pressing the heroic gesture of Abstract Expressionism into the small format, I was making a feminist statement about the impact of scale: a huge gesture on a small scale. For example, the small works from One Big Love allowed a physical respite from working with larger panels. Years ago someone (who was unsure if Leslie was a male or female’s name) said, something like, ‘oh this work has to be done by a woman because of the way she lifts up the veil of secrecy.’ So I’m aware that building up layers of color are also metaphors for building up layers of thought, and history. You kind of build your own history in this little painting. However, I think you get into dangerous territory when you try to describe work as feminine or masculine. One of the reasons I started to work larger was because I am very aware that I am seen as “the lady who makes the little paintings.” I remember something I said when I gave a talk for a show I was in about ornament and abstraction in contemporary painting… I said that I wanted to make a painting with the seduction of a pink angora sweater and the power of a Barnet Newman.

One Big Love #48, Oil on wood, 12 ½” x 9 ¼”, 2010, Image Courtesy of the Artist

AM: You’ve called yourself a restless artist and I wonder if you can talk about the evolution of your work and what role size and scale have in your evolution?

LW: I do have a restless nature. Maybe I’m doing myself a disservice by not following a trajectory, but my nature is to think where can this go next? I have this innate fear of repeating myself. Given the way I work, something different happens every time. It’s in my nature to keep exploring the unknown.

Recent Work by Leslie Wayne will be on view at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, SC through March 12, 2011.

Installation image from the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art