Evan La Londe: Conceptual seduction

An Interview with the artist

By GRAHAM W. BELL

Back in the gray days of late February, I got to sit down with Portland photographer Evan La Londe to talk about his work, his then upcoming show at PDX Contemporary Art (“New Work”, 2012), and his past exhibitions at both the Lumber Room (“Terrain Shift,” 2012) as well as Autzen Gallery as part of his MFA thesis at Portland State University (“A Camera is a Room,” 2012).

Since our chat, La Londe has continued to explore new methods of making photographs. His investigation into the use (or emulation) of light continues to result in conceptually challenging but straightforward work that often belies his intense studio practice and experimentation. He recently participated in “The City and the City” at LxWxH Gallery (Seattle, WA), a group exhibition curated by Portland artist Daniel Glendening. He will be working this summer in collaboration with Paintallica in a show opening August 10 at Rocksbox Fine Art.

Primarily a studio artist, La Londe works with the idea of photography as not limited simply to camera, emulsified paper, and light. Our conversation centered around some of his earlier MFA works and the exploration of the core principles behind the camera obscura and the personal relationship he feels toward the space of the camera and that of the studio. From there we dove into his feelings on teaching, Polaroids and the ever-growing sense of distance between the object, the image and the artist. La Londe’s practice is one heavily influenced by the history of photography both as an artistic medium and a scientific procedure. The viewer, lured in by aesthetic beauty, finds themselves enthralled by the ever-growing complexity of his seemingly simple compositions.

Graham W. Bell: I was hoping you might start out and talk a little about your thesis show at PSU since that was really your first major exhibition here in Portland. Maybe talk about the main work that really informed the rest.

Evan La Londe: There was this big cyanotype piece, Shadows (Even When the Light Has Gone). I presented it on the floor and I was thinking of it like a sculpture. It was about 44 x 15 x 20 inches. The image is just woodgrain; it came from photos I took of the floor in my room. I was thinking about the surface and the texture of the marks and how that registered, and I used those photos to make the cyanotypes. I made these big negatives, essentially, with those and exposed them outside. So I was kind of thinking about the collapse of two spaces. On one hand there is this very specific, personal space, but then the sun is making the image and it’s being exposed to the elements and this big, infinite thing.

Evan La Londe, "Shadows (Even When the Light Has Gone)," 2012, forty-four unique cyanotype prints. Image courtesy the artist.

Evan La Londe, “Shadows (Even When the Light Has Gone),” 2012, forty-four unique cyanotype prints. Image courtesy the artist.

GWB: So like bringing the inside to the outside.

ELL: Yeah. And that piece was really important for the show because for one it was really big, but it also had, and cyanotypes have, this painterly quality from how you’re coating the paper. It had this nice organic warmth to it when you came in and my hope is that it kind of cued in the viewer that all of these things shared that [quality] that were in the room.

GWB: And speaking of cyanotypes, there was another series that I was looking at: “Them Brainwash Days, Those Heartache Nights.” Those look like photograms to me. Are they?

ELL: They are. Well, they are…

GWB: …in some sort of way.

ELL: They’re made just like a photogram is made (where you’re putting an object on a photosensitive material and then exposing it) but in this case they’re not made with any kind of light, like camera light. They’re made with paint, and the paper is not photo paper. It’s just drawing paper and I set up the objects and airbrushed over them from a very specific direction. The paint is kind of interacting with the objects and there’s a shadow being cast where the paint isn’t hitting. So for that show it was just a combination of the actual acrylic negatives, drawings that I was making, and then scans of those that I then inverted and printed as inkjet prints. And then some of the inkjet prints were then painted onto, literally. I was really interested in confusing the negative and positive between the two. Then also just kind of this fantasy of, “How can i make something photographic without it having anything to do with light?”

GWB: So essentially you’re making a physical stand-in for the light, which is not physical and is totally visual, and creating this physical object from it and then swapping it back. Do you think if you had just done those drawings, and not the negatives and scans, do you think people would have been like oh, whatever?

ELL: I’m finding it more and more that ultimately for me the image is more important. That’s the most important thing. Because that is the thing that you’re going to see at the end. But more and more the process is becoming equally important in how I’m making them. So I think that what you’re asking has a lot to do with how important is it that people know that this is an inversion and this is not an inversion, and it’s not all that important for me. And for that show that was kind of the goal, to really confuse it in a way that’s saying that photographic things happen, or a photograph can happen, in a real space without a camera involved. The title of that show, “A Camera is a Room”, is again thinking about the camera obscura and how photography really historically comes from that invention. How that was a room; how that was a space you’d go into and be in. And all of the works in that show were essentially, without going too far into the process, all of the works in that show were printed negatives. I wasn’t showing you the inversion of anything. I was showing you exactly what the camera made. And usually what the camera makes is the negative, so it was kind of a clue, like you’re walking inside a camera literally. You’re seeing these things that the camera would see.

GWB: You’re seeing what happens before the image is developed and what happens before that point.

ELL: Yeah, and that’s a crux of what a lot of the work revolves around: that idea of what happens with images when there’s that transfer of information between the cast or negative or whatever and then the print and the thing that you ultimately end up seeing. And what is that? When something touches something else and relays that information; that seems like a really good entry point to kind of mess around with.

GWB: It’s that kind of weird interstitial space between the object and the final product. It’s not the process in total, but it’s a step.

ELL: It’s an interval. It’s like the thing between the two. [He motions to my shadow on the wall] Like your head as an object and that shadow on the wall are directly related to each other. And if that shadow is closer and closer and closer and closer to you the more it will become like the shape of your head. So it’s like how close can that shadow get to the thing that cast it before it starts to turn back into that thing.

****

Evan La Londe, Untitled (Gloves), 2012, archival pigment print. Image courtesy the artist.

Evan La Londe, Untitled (Gloves), 2012, archival pigment print. Image courtesy the artist.

GWB: You’ve talked a lot about that notion in your work: the untouchable, the unnamable, that space.

ELL: The infinite.

GWB: On the other hand, there’s that problem with once you start to say that you’re really interested in the formal aspects as well, it starts to…it can be only about aesthetics, and that’s fine up to a point, but how do you work past being strictly formal? I think you’ve talked about that a little.

ELL: Oh yeah I mean that’s always a concern. I’m the kind of artist who…I firmly believe in good looking things. And I think there are strategies for making things that are going to seduce you and pull you in. That’s really important. The artworks that I respond to are ones that seduce me. And usually that’s because of what you’re talking about: these very important decisions that have to do with how things look. And that is different than content, like what is in the photo or the artwork and what the meaning is there. I struggled with this and I think this is where your question’s coming from. When I was making work in grad school, I was having a hard time really. I was never nearly as concerned with what the content was as opposed to the process that I used to get to that image. I think the transition that slowly happened was that the content and the process were the same thing, for me. It became more about, “How much do I give away to the viewer that lets them into the process?” Because that is the content. So the things that are in the photos are very ubiquitous, everyday things. And that is just something that I find myself attracted to: the things that are so normal and you just see everywhere that everybody has a relationship with for the most part. Anytime you see a very normal thing in an art context you’re like, “OK. Something’s going on here.” [laughs]

GWB: It’s like a key. This is too normal to be interesting; something must be happening.

ELL: I think that’s a really good cue.

Evan La Londe, Two Rooms (Dual Residency), 2012, archival pigment print, 78 x 57 inches. Image courtesy the artist.

Evan La Londe, Two Rooms (Dual Residency), 2012, archival pigment print, 78 x 57 inches. Image courtesy the artist.

GWB: So in your piece, “Two Rooms (Dual Residency)”: that’s about the room and that combines your conceptual ideas and formal aesthetics. And that’s what the whole aspect is about, the room as a camera. You’re showing the room as subject but it’s also the conceptual idea behind it. People might see that and say, “Oh it’s a photo of a…wait a minute, what’s he doing?” So you use that everyday object…

ELL: …as a vehicle maybe, to get in. I don’t believe in the overarching symbolism of all that, like using something for the main purpose of it being a metaphor for something directly. I’m not all that interested in that. If someone arrives at that, great, but I’m not necessarily thinking of that. It’s really more of like making the viewer work. I think viewers need to work to understand something. I want you to spend time with the piece, and I’m going to do everything I can in how I make it look to get you to want to spend time with it. And maybe that’s the aesthetics…

GWB: …it comes back to the seduction…

ELL: …but there’s always going to be something that’s disruptive, or that’s off. something that’s going to repel you as much as it’s going to attract you. I think that’s really important, and I look to a lot of artists in history who have worked that way. I think the Surrealists are the prime example of just being so interested in the automatic, in how things come out or appear without any human intervention. They were trying to reach that state of mind where you’re just present. You’re just in the world and things are happening.

GWB: Like those Max Ernst pieces, the frottage, the rubbings that he did and just built up from there…

ELL: Yeah. Lots of drawings. There was actually a really amazing Surrealist drawing show at LACMA a couple months ago that I got to see. [Drawing Surrealism at LACMA] There were some of those Ernst drawings. It was really amazing because it was so expansive in how they were thinking about drawing and image making coming from these very transfer processes. Ernst is coating the paper with ink and then not letting it dry and then smooshing it against something else and peeling it off and there you go: there’s the image. And all the chance things that happen. I think it’s easy to just let that be the endpoint, like, “Cool. I made this really crazy thing that I had nothing to do with and it just happened.” That could be my criticism of some Surrealist works. But I think the best ones just pull you into this place where you cannot understand what you’re seeing. You know it’s there and you know it’s there all the time, but for some reason the way it’s presented is totally alien and disarming. That Man Ray photo of him, it may be a self portrait, of him with his chin way up and it’s photographed and you can just see his jugular. In the photo it just looks like, you don’t know what it is, you know it’s a head, you know the head’s in there somewhere, but it looks like a weird rock or something. That moment of uncanniness, of transformation, and one thing turning into something else is so fascinating to me, and it happens all the time.

GWB: That’s especially the case in photography where it has that tradition of, “We’re showing you the truth and here’s this.” There’s that kind of collective idea of it having always been the truth, but now it’s more untruth because we’re so used to people manipulating photos and Photoshopping everything. So once you show the truth again people think, “Oh that must be fake.” But then it’s not fake and they’re like, “Where am I?” That was a little bit wishy-washy New Agey, but…

ELL: That Man Ray photo is a perfect example of that and how you never see something a certain way, and a camera as a tool is a really wonderful way to frame that thing in a way that you’d never see it. It allows you into it in a totally different way. It’s like when you’re just walking down the street and something catches your eye because you haven’t seen it from that point of view before. Like when you look at people’s portraits and their faces are different if you cover up one side. You can go back and forth. I think there’s something about how quickly we process information, how much we feel like we know something. We’re so quick to feel like we know something, and I love it when I’m reminded that I don’t know anything. Like this thing that I thought I knew but don’t know anymore because of how you’re having me look at it. I think that void of unknowing has its roots in a lot of good art. I’ve written a lot about the sublime and its historical involvement in art, but I think it can be very simple, and usually that ends up being the most powerful work.

GWB: And if it’s more simple it’s also more accessible to more people. You don’t have to have read all of these texts on what-have-you, which is sometimes just tiring..

ELL: Oh yeah. My work is successful if the viewer has a way into it. The rest is up to them. It’s like, “You’re in and now you’ve got to deal with this,” and that’s up to you.

GWB: Here’s the boat, do with it what you will. You’re in the lake; how you get to the other side is your problem.

ELL: That’s what images are, at heart. I really think through painting; I think through images; I think through making an image. I want to make something that I see in my head sometimes. Or I say to myself, “What would that look like? What would happen if i did this?” A lot of the work I did in grad school came from that very open-minded, naive inquiry. So many ideas for that work came from messing up with the camera and looking at these images and saying, “ Wow! These are way more interesting than what I was trying to do!” *laughs* I like the removal aspect of that in working with photography. You can only do so much until that other thing comes along and acts on it and bam!; that’s what you’re left with.

****

GWB: There’s a sort of amnesia when it comes to looking at photographs. We just see the image and it is technically a physical thing.

ELL: Even the word ‘photograph’ implies a certain kind of thing or idea which I think is equally fascinating. When the ability to make a photograph was first coming into the world, Henry Fox Talbot and these other chemists and scientists were really obsessed with making an image like a shadow. There were like twenty different photographic objects that were being made in twenty different ways at that time. You’ve got Talbot with his coated paper negatives and Daguerre with his silver-coated copper plates, and all of these different ways of essentially doing the same thing, photography, but through many different means. And I think it’s really easy to think of photography in this Modernist way: a story starting here and evolving through all of these changes to then get to digital which is like the paramount of what you can do with photography. And I totally disagree with that. I think that what talbot was doing with paper is as fascinating and relevant to anything that is happening and is on its own trajectory; it has its own story.

GWB: Just because one won out commercially doesn’t mean the others cease to be relevant.

ELL: The story surrounding all of those inventions and circumstances is incredible.

GWB: We’ve touched on this a little bit, but your work kind of deals with that time element and would you say memory as well? You were talking about getting things out of your head into an object…maybe in a more abstract way.

ELL: I think when it’s in my head it’s very clear.

GWB: Well maybe more like thoughts rather than memories, but thoughts quickly become memories.

ELL: The “Two Rooms” piece was a very personal piece both in where that room was and what it signified to me. In making that work, I was trying in many ways to come to terms with the memory of that room. And because I was making that at a one-to-one scale, it was lifesize, I almost felt like I was confronting it in this very fuck you way. Like, I’m going to recreate this and it’s totally fake. It’s never going to be anything like what that experience was or my memory of it. I think there’s an interesting relationship between photographs and memory that I could talk for hours and hours about, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily how I’ve been thinking about with the work. It could go in that direction, but I think memory ultimately is a very personal thing, a very personal situation or circumstance.

GWB: And that really goes back to what we were talking about earlier. It’s the thing between the other things. It doesn’t have the presence of a physical object in your hand, but a physical object can evoke certain thoughts or memories.

ELL: It’s like the cloudiness between the two.

GWB: That interstitial thing.

ELL: That’s a good way of thinking about memory. For the PDX show I’m working on these photograms right now where I’m trying, in many ways, to create the same image again and again and again and….it’s impossible. *laughs* I like that idea of how repetition factors into memory, because if you look at something many many many times, then you remember it more clearly of course, but it also changes what it is. There’s this idea, and I might not be aptly explaining it, but as we’re growing and changing as humans, we forget so much about certain memories or certain things. They just disappear after a while. I think there’s something about the traumatic experience. We can usually remember things that have happened to us that were traumatic. In some ways I think photography is very violent in that way in that it’s grabbing all of that and absorbing and saying, “Here it is.” But when you look at that image, you’re now remembering that image. You’re not necessarily remembering the experience of being there. It almost becomes a substitute for the memory. I think that’s really interesting. Barthes talks a lot about that photo of his mom after she dies, and how for him it becomes this direct link into time. But I also feel like it supplants itself and replaces itself and it’s this weird doppelganger of that thing and you don’t know if you can trust it!

GWB: You remember the image more than person.

ELL: I think for me, coming on the tails of saying how a photograph can assert itself as the thing or the memory, that comes from the first way of taking pictures that I became really obsessed with: shooting Polaroids. That kind of paved the way for a lot of what I’m doing now. There’s something about the way that a Polaroid image resolves itself not too long after you’ve actually experienced it. And it’s the only thing that does that, where you see it and you’re still there…almost. But you’re not there. It’s that delay. A slight delay. But then also it’s not that thing at all. It’s an abstraction. The colors are all off; it’s framed. I think I always thought of polaroids as being these little paintings of that thing that just happened. The fiction of them, the appearance of them, and how temperature and atmosphere and all these things would factor into what they look like. You’re not even seeing the thing that’s affecting that image and that’s really beautiful.

GWB: A while back, when those came out, the Polaroid people would go around to schools and say, “Oh look what you can do with these. You can effect them in a more painterly fashion.” So there was that kind of bent with them. They’re not just for taking pictures, you can also use them to make these abstractions of things.

ELL: Polaroids are amazing, and I think maybe that’s part of it. Certain imagemaking technologies are disappearing. A lot of different kinds of film are obsolete; color paper is becoming obsolete. These things are disappearing and not being made anymore and I think maybe for me that becomes an incentive for working with them or figuring out my own way of making those images. And photography is so expensive, so it’s like how can I do this in a way that I can afford and that is simple. It might sound totally not interesting for making art, but when you can’t afford much you sometimes make really amazing things.

GWB: That idea of limitations is really important. Well it’s actually this whole huge problem. Everyone has things like Photoshop and these really good digital cameras that are cheap and these filters and all this stuff. There’s just so much that you have that it’s hard to actually do anything because you have to choose first what you’re going to do.

ELL: That’s a really great point. I got to see that when I was a teacher. I’d see that in action within the first couple weeks in my Intro to Photo class. We had a black-and-white darkroom and of course I was a stickler for things like “you are going to learn how a camera works”, “you are going to learn how to make a print in the darkroom” before you even touch digital photography. All the students would come in blazing away with their digital cameras and the first thing that I would do was I would cover the windows in the room and make a camera obscura. This was like the first day of class and they would be in there and they would be like, “I don’t see anything. It’s just dark.” And I would be like, “You’ve got to wait and let your eyes adjust.” And I had this piece of paper hanging up where the image was being projected and kids would start to be like, “Oh what is…wait…what?” And then I would have one of them go outside and walk in front of where the camera was and then they just lost it. They were just like, “Is this a video?” They couldn’t process it. They’d never seen anything like it.

GWB: It’s a hole in a piece of paper!

ELL: Then when we made pinhole cameras, there was that whole notion of having to slow down. They were forced to do that because pinholes are one shot. So you load it and then go outside and then all of a sudden they entered this like, “What do i take a photo of? Do I run in front of the camera? Do I shoot this tree?” And that whole notion of having to really slow down and think about what you’re about to do is a pretty important lesson built into that that I think also has a lot to do with making interesting art. It’s a very simple thing at its core. All of the really beautiful, amazing work that I like is very simple at its core but has this amazing complexity. That situation for [the students] in their brains is like, “Whoa! I can do anything now!” And like you were saying you don’t think that way with a digital camera. It’s almost like it’s already done for you. With Instagram and all these formats, you take the photo and then you choose from a computer menu of things the computer can do to it. It crops it for you. It’s a very different thing than looking through a camera and choosing and taking the picture. Not to get off on a tangent, and I don’t even really make work right now out in the world (photographing things as I come upon them), it’s very studio based, but it’s conditioned from that idea of slowing down and looking at the thing that you’re taking a picture of.

GWB: I think people are looking more, but maybe not in detail. Because of the fact that everyone has a camera, they’re more apt to say, “Oh that’s weird,” and take a shot. But then maybe one in a hundred or a thousand actually holds a different view or idea or something special.

ELL: It’s also too that photographs no longer exist as objects. I remember the first time my students saw slides, and they were like, “Oh my god it’s so cute, it’s a little photo!” They’d never seen it. “It’s like a little inkjet print in a slide!” and I’m like, “…That’s the film.” [laughs] But the idea of this physical thing that you interact with is gaining ground. I see it a lot. There’s kind of this new obsession with the object of things in the art world lately.

GWB: I mean it’s like the resurgence of vinyl and other old, physical technologies. I could have this digital file, but I really want this object. I could have this digital file or I could have this Polaroid.

ELL: I think objects are things that accumulate stuff. They get old. They change.

GWB: Maybe that’s why we like them so much. It’s a very human thing. We get old, we accumulate stuff, so do these objects. We relate to them and we relate them to other things.

ELL: The sound of an old record crackling: in a way you’re hearing the mechanism that’s playing it as much as the thing that was recorded on it. That is a live experience in some ways. There is something about…I don’t want to just say digital media, but things that are sealed off in zeros in ones that never come out of that thing that made them. And I have a hard time getting excited about that. A lot of internet art: I just can’t get into it. It’s too sealed off. It’s too hermetic. What is it? I don’t even know what the internet is yet.

NOTES

More information about La Londe’s practice, as well as images of his work can be found on his website.

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