The Weird and the Northwest: An Interview with Cynthia Lahti

Cynthia Lahti’s work spans a multitude of mediums, from collage to ceramics, altered books, and painting. Populated by strange or uncanny figures—often children in masks and costumes—her works are odes to the off-kilter. If there’s violence in her mark-making, nearby is always a tender or vulnerable gesture. Tailing her solo exhibition Elsewhere at PDX Contemporary and a residency in Berlin, Cynthia Lahti was also recently named a Hallie Ford Fellow in the Visual Arts. I talked to Lahti at her studio in late May.

Cynthia Lahti. Dorme, 2013; ceramic and paper with watercolor; 8 x 18 x 11 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Jenna Lechner: You were in Berlin last September?

Cynthia Lahti: I was in Berlin for 11 weeks; it was a ceramics residency. My thing was, I went to a lot of museums—looking at art has always been a huge part of my process; I’d never been in a city that had that many museums.

JL: Was there anything in particular that you wanted to see?

CL: Yeah, I’ve always loved the Northern Renaissance painters—Rogier van der Weyden, Dürer—they seem more psychologically disturbed to me. German Expressionism has always been really important to me too. It was exciting to be there. You know when you’re in a foreign city, any place you’ve never been before, it somehow seeps into the art? Berlin has a darkness and an intensity which comes out in the artwork, and I felt like that fed into my work, which has always had that element. I was happy to come home to Portland, because it does feel…

JL: Lighter?

CL: Oh totally lighter, beyond light.

JL: Was the work at PDX Contemporary all made in Berlin?

CL: Yes. The circus seems to relate to Berlin in this weird way that I haven’t quite figured out. You know the movie Cabaret, with Liza Minnelli? It seems like that in Berlin. There are all those weird, scary, things—the costuming, the performance— it definitely felt like the circus.

JL: Do you have a personal relationship to the circus?

CL: I go to the circus when I can. In the late ‘80s, I remember going to the Ringling Brothers in the [Veterans Memorial] Coliseum. I did see the circus in Russia once, and it was incredible. I really want to see the circuses of the past, which, of course that’s impossible.

JL: What about Portland? We’ve talked about the zeitgeist in Berlin, and being influenced by the culture. You’ve been in Portland for a while—

CL: I grew up here. But I went to RISD for school, so I did leave. I visited my friends on the East Coast when I was on my way to Berlin, and we are really lucky here. In New York, it’s so big, you don’t even have a chance. You at least have a chance here of some sort. It’s a place where people try new ideas.

Cynthia Lahti. 2013; installation view, Elsewhere, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist.

JL: Have you seen things [in Portland] change in the last few years?

CL: Yeah, it’s gone through a couple changes, from the initial Portland that I grew up in, and in the ‘90s, where people started to see it as a place where stuff could happen, and then by the time the 2000s hit, it was well-established as that. I think the original reason that people were looking at Portland is because we were doing something authentic, and we were doing something that was new and different. When I was in college in the early ‘80s, I would tell people I was from Portland, and they didn’t even know where it was. Now, they definitely know that stuff is happening—there’s a television show. There is something really great about the Pacific Northwest—things are a little strange here. Twin Peaks—that was real—when that came on, I was like, ‘I know people in Astoria who are exactly like that.’

JL: But it’s [the Pacific Northwest] a really beautiful landscape, and you can survive really easily.

CL: And I do think that there is a psychology to the landscape and a psychology to the work,. The artists that did come out of here, like Gus Van Sant, Storm Tharp, Miranda July, MK Guth—there are all kinds of people who were here whose work is really outside in the world now, and I feel like there is something in them that comes from here. It’s a frontier mentality, I guess that’s what I like to call it, like, ‘Ok, we’ll just do things OUR way.’ And grunge—that explosion. Portland and Seattle before grunge? We were nothing. And then grunge happened, and all of a sudden we’ve got this movement.

JL: Where do you think those things come from?

CL: I think it comes from this, ‘Well, no one’s really paying attention to us. We’re going to come up with our own voice.’ Mount St. Helens had blown up [in the ‘80s]; people are always stranded on a mountain—I do think there’s something about the landscape, a darkness, a deepness to it, a strangeness. I can go crazy here, like, completely. Really put it out there.

JL: And by crazy you mean experimenting with technique? Because you do all kinds of everything.

CL: Yeah. There’s a weight to being looked at [on the East Coast]. I also think that the group of Portland artists that I feel are really good feed off of being here. We do feel like we can do whatever we want, but at this high level, it’s under the umbrella of art history. And this is one thing I learned at RISD, which was to compare yourself to the best artists in the world. This group of artists that exist here that are very inspiring, that I feel like do great work, it’s because we know about art history.

JL: I think it’s really important to understand lineage between artists, and I think that’s actually the most interesting part about being an artist, because you are a part of this whole culture, this whole history.

CL: Yeah, and I steal all the time. And I feel like that is something I got really comfortable with at RISD, it’s part of their teaching philosophy—if you saw something you liked, you would take it. Because you knew you were always going to make it your own—that’s the thing.

JL: Because it gets put through your hand, and it gets translated.

CL: In so many classes, I’d be forced to copy a painting, or write a paper about a photograph, or look really closely at something with the idea that that would somehow go into my work. The artists that I like, they’re constantly in my head. I was lucky enough to see a Diane Arbus retrospective when I was in Berlin, and I’d never seen one. I always loved her so much, and it’s not just the clowns, it’s everything about her. The psychology of her pieces, they’re so perfect. I could see how each choice she made was the right choice. I saw that early on in Berlin, and I know it really affected me, having her in the back of my head all the time.

JL:  What are you working on today?

CL: I’ve been taking a little break since Berlin, trying to figure out how I want to put my work out into the world. I like being in the gallery, but I feel like I want to have other ways to have my work out; but I don’t know what that means. Right now, I know that my future work will include combining those ceramics with the paper, more than it was. I feel like there’s really something there. If I do a body of work, I can see myself trying to find a venue to show it in that isn’t PDX [Contemporary Art], that’s more…I don’t know what that would look like, but it could be a found space that would work for the pieces.

JL: There are definitely options here in Portland.

CL: Yeah, and that’s another great thing about Portland. There are a lot of spaces, if you want a show. My friends in New York, they don’t show. It’s impossible for them to show, because they have to be in a gallery. I’m like, ‘If you were in Portland, and you wanted to show stuff, you could just do it.’

Cynthia Lahti. Surprise, 2013; ceramic with paper image. 23 x 8 x 6 in. Courtesy of the Artist.