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Talking With Judith Linhares About Disaster, Space and the Future | Visual Art

“Star-Light,” Judith Linhares 

Courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W., New York.

was lucky to be able to include a painting by New York-based artist Judith Linhares in the Scene-presented exhibit I curated, Futurephilia: Sex and Science Fiction in Contemporary Art. “Star-Light” is a small jewel of a painting that shows three women, naked but not sexualized, gazing at the moon. I was even luckier to spend an afternoon chatting with Linhares, whose career has spanned five decades. We were both in New York during 9/11 — she was a teacher at NYU, where I was a student — and although our paths had never crossed before this discussion, our conversation was bookended with references to that shared, familiar trauma.

When I was conceptualizing this show, I was considering the galaxy and the vastness of space as this thing we return to in times of crisis. I was living in New York during 9/11, and it’s silly but I remember getting really into Star Trek right after it happened, and I noticed it was like a phenomenon among my friends — looking toward the future.

I could see the interest shift too. Basically, I think that when you need to recalculate, you go inward, and that’s where your imagination starts to work. Reconstructing a new world right after a trauma — I can see little indications of it all over the place. I’ve never really been interested in science fiction, but I recently discovered Octavia Butler, who I think is just brilliant beyond. I think of her as being so relevant to the present. But I will say — I’m totally in love with the Frankenstein story. That has been a constant in my whole life — there’s something in that narrative for us. We’re asked to be sympathetic with the monster, and he’s been created just because Dr. Frankenstein could — with no projection into the future of what his life would be like. So there are all these moral implications that are still with us. 

Absolutely. So Octavia Butler and Mary Shelley, who was of course the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft — these are all very strong feminist voices.

Yes. I think it’s really crucial and interesting and germane that it was a woman that invented that story.

Can you tell me a little about the influence of the Funk movement in your work?

Actually, I don’t identify with Funk.

Oh really? Did you ever, at any point?

Well, the story of the Bay Area artists has never fully been told. I grew up in an era when the civil rights [movement] was all around me. Basically, nobody went to school because everybody was in the streets all the time. There were a lot of incredible women artists that are just coming to light now. I mean, Jay DeFeo was a good friend. And Linda Montana is a performance artist who was all around doing performances, and came to my class and did performances with the class. And Bonnie Sherk, who ran for mayor. 

So these were my years. I had not much to do with the Funk generation. And anybody that’s from the Bay Area gets labeled as Funk because that’s the only available label, really. So it’s a story that needs to be told, and it’s very interesting now that there’s a show at Paula Cooper, with Bruce Conner and Jay DeFeo. I feel like it’s maybe the beginning of a fleshing out of that moment. I feel like being from the West and the West Coast certainly formed my identity in a way that’s really different from the people who are my friends in New York. They have much more connection to Europe, for example, and much more realized ideas about World War II and the aftermath. Those dialogues are not as present on the West Coast. It is a different culture. 

I’d never thought of that, about the attachment to World War II as an East Coast thing.

It shows up in New York, it’s still alive in New York. The attachment to Abstract Expressionism and those sort of aesthetic values is much stronger in New York then they are in California, for better or for worse. I mean, I left California because I wanted more connection with history and with those languages and those thoughts, but I still acknowledge that I was really formed by the West Coast. 

In my experience with being from the South, location really does form your identity early on. And I’ve noticed of course that you never feel more Southern than when you’re not in the South.

Right! You’re always an outsider, especially in New York.


Your artwork in Futurephilia involves a situation, a theme, that you return to. It’s surprising to me that you’re not interested in science fiction, because some of your work is so star-gazy. So I’d like to talk about the formal qualities of the work, and then the symbolism of its content. Your color, obviously, is so strong. You can use contrasting colors with a really light touch, which is unusual. Formally, there are all these stripes happening, and it’s almost like you’re setting a stage for these people to act on.

It’s important for me that the painting happens in the process. If I have an idea ahead of time, it usually just doesn’t work out for me. So I do a lot of smaller studies. This is a smaller one, and I actually did a giant version of it. And often I work on the studies and the big paintings simultaneously. But often the small works are so great, because the size of the brush in relation to the format is much bigger, and that usually works out well. There’s more sort of trust and spontaneity in the paint in these smaller studies.

I always start trying to find the space. I try to imagine a desert, a forest, a seaside — archetypal kinds of environments. And I think of this as the desert at night. And this is a band of wild women that are looking at the moon. I mean it comes from actual life. I grew up in the high desert, east and west of L.A. in Newhall. I grew up walking to school with tumbleweeds scraping my legs. And it has this certain kind of beauty in sparseness. And also, the light! I mean this isn’t exactly nighttime, even though the moon is visible, but it’s that moment before it’s really dark. And the experience of looking at the night sky in the desert — it’s a place to project your imagination. So I’m really telling a story about these wild women who’ve gotten together in the desert, and the moon is rising, and they’re kind of lost in the hypnotic experience of looking at the sky.

I love how their different colors show the different qualities of light. The depth of the atmosphere is so present. It’s not unnatural — when it’s dark out, your skin looks blue regardless of what color it is when it’s light out. 

Right! I have tended toward making images that are atmospheric rather than graphic. And I think the light, or imagining the light, really does animate my imagination. I have no problem making a figure green. I’m thinking about the atmosphere — I’m not thinking particularly about a marine figure.

I think that’s very clear — the colors are about the light.

The thingness, or the naturalness, is not something that I’m dedicated to. And personally, I just love serapes. I have a giant crush on Mexican culture. As a friend of mine said recently, it’s a surrealist country. And as a culture, they’re so uninhibited with the use of color. I’ve been to Frida Kahlo’s house, and it’s painted ultramarine blue! And I find the serape a good kind of magic carpet for me, because it offers all the colors as a launching pad.

It really does, and your use of different types of textiles is something you’ve always played with that I’ve been interested in. It’s a very nice way of putting a little reference to something that’s familiar to people. Have you been to the MoMA exhibit Surrealist Women?

Well, through the ages, every time I would go to MoMA I would be mad, because all my favorite artists were always in the hallway. And now, they all have their own room! It’s so satisfying! It is a revisiting of art history. When I came of age in L.A., and because California used to be part of Mexico, it was so natural that people were going back and forth, and Mexican culture was so much a part of California culture. So you would see Mexican artists a lot in L.A. in the ’50s. And I knew the story of Pollock studying with Mexican artists, and I presumed that they were all going to Mexico. There was a lot of experimentation with materials, there was a lot of interest in indigenous cultures and ways of approaching making an image that was trying to break away from the Western tradition, and Mexico was a touchstone. It was so important to the development of modernism — and all of a sudden, it disappeared. And so it’s really gratifying. But I’m sorry that it took the Museum of Modern Art, like, what? Forty fucking years. … It’s really something.

How have you fared during the pandemic? Have you stayed in New York this whole time?

I have. I think we won’t know the toll for years. It’s kind of like 9/11. I was teaching at NYU when 9/11 happened. And I remember one of my students saying that she’d heard the bang — she was living at the dormitory near the site, and she heard the bang and she touched her window, like there was debris in the air and she couldn’t see, but she touched the window, and it was hot. I mean holy shit, that’s really frightening. And of course it changed everything, really. It had so many repercussions. And this is so extreme. For me, the low point was the statistic of maybe three or four months into [the pandemic], when it was really raging in New York, and it was reported that in the past 10 days, that 3,000 people had died, either in their homes or on the street. This is outside of the hospital, in New York City. And I just thought, how can we ever reckon with this?

Right, and of course, that’s the same number of fatalities as 9/11.

Yes. So I don’t know what the repercussions are. As far as thinking about the future, we’re going to have to learn to work together, or we’re toast.