Lizzy DeVita gave us an incredibly in-depth interview that I’m excited to share with you guys! We had so much fun discussing her art and what she’s working on for the show. I love talking to artists who love talking about their art. Lizzy’s prints are astounding and you can see them up close and personal at the Invisible Dog. Read our interview below to learn more about Lizzy and her project for Everything is Index, Nothing is History and visit her website at http://lizzydevita.com/.
-- Ivy Challis
The prints are derived from scans of auto-degrading Polaroid photos. I bought a few packs of Polaroid film whose chemical makeup was somehow flawed. Because of this, an exposure, once taken, would pop into full color almost right away and would sort of writhe and change over the course of hours. Then after about a day each exposure would turn this sickly green-black, and the image itself would be there but barely perceptible. It was a wonderful discovery and very exciting, and I loved this idea of chasing these images in such a condensed period of time. That each image had its own little arch of visually communicable being. It was a very powerful experience holding an image in your hand and watching it change uncontrollably and then die. While part of me wanted to sit and watch them all, another part of me worried that I’d regret this and decided to make something out of it.
My first impulse was to try to really plan my images, but all of them ended up looking pretty awful, heavy. I was being too precious with them. So I just quickly shot about 8 or 12 exposures of my baby blanket, a family heirloom from my mother’s side. I shot them all pretty quickly, most at really close range, but some others further away. And then I just lay them all out on my scanner and scanned them obsessively for a little over twenty-four hours straight.
Most of my work is like this, involving very experimental, sort of peripatetic processing strategies which become a privatized history. This “history” does not produce what one calls the Final Piece. It is just something that you don’t see that adds a sort of pressure to what you do see. The finished suite of prints don’t uphold any chronology, and the gaps between the prints are as much a part of the work as the prints themselves. This piece has a lot to do with the relationship between desire and loss.
LD: I was raised in a traditional, Catholic family with scientific parents. In college I studied English Literature, and had a strong and honorable interest in medieval ascetics, medieval Passion Plays, Edith Wharton, and the writings of Puritan ministers’ wives. All the crazy stuff that can occur within a realm of extreme restraint was always of interest to me…I also studied psychology and some (lightweight) neuroscience. All of this has influenced me in the sense I have always had a strong grip on this idea that there is so much that you can never know.
When I did take art courses in college, I really only took courses in printmaking. I loved this idea that I could train my body to work like a machine and that anybody could learn and master this skill set. It’s a totally democratic medium, and this idea that you had to make more than one of something kind of allowed me to be a little less precious with my work which was a very good thing. Also, the idea of making something that was reproducible or a multiple felt relevant; many of the objects we deal with every day have this quality.
As for the medium question — I don’t really work in one specific medium. My work almost always starts with a response or a question – a need to solve a problem that can’t be solved through writing or doing anything else. Usually whatever that problem or question is necessitates a particular form or structure. This structure can be embodied in a medium, but many times I don’t always know what it’s called or how to make it. Maybe this is just part of a big learning curve that I’m in, but there is something exciting about working this way—just setting out and not really knowing where or how to get somewhere. That said, I don’t want to give you the impression that the fact I work in a lot of different media is this haphazard decision, or this semi-spiritual “impulse.” It feels dangerous, sticky to me to have that kind of compulsion towards that kind of cohesive illusion of working “within” a specific medium. All of this, of course, is nothing new. Lots of artists work like this.
The other thing is accessibility is an important issue in my work, which I alluded to before when talking about my training in printmaking. Even if somebody knows nothing about me or “contemporary art” or whatever, I want them to be able to walk away with something, or even if that something is the need to walk away. For that reason, I try to make work using media that will speak to people in the world we all live in, which is, for lack of better words, just so technology-saturated. I think people are more ready to consume information via the kind of cheap, automated, and limited media that they experience on a daily basis on the internet or whatever they’re on that day. So I want to be able to appeal to that sensibility in order to disrupt it.
LD: On the one hand, I could say that it hasn’t affected it at all. I’m young. I’m white. I have nice breasts. People generally want to hire me, and I don’t have a family to take care of. I don’t need to eat that much, I mostly eat vegetables. In this way, it’s been easy. I also come from a socio-economic background that has allowed me this privilege. I’ve had a great education, a supportive family and friends and community. I am lucky. This idea of being “lucky,” which is the truth, is of course intensely problematic for me personally, because it comes in direct conflict with one thing that I have always known: that, regardless of my financial, physical, emotional, or social state — I will always need to make art. Whatever is available to me, I will use, and my practice is capable of shifting endlessly to accommodate whatever situation I have been in. It’s kind of an obsession of mine that I’ve known for as long as I remember being able to think. As a child I remember seeing a homeless man, and not understand what the difference was between myself and him. Like, what was preventing me from being homeless, being like him. And when I asked my mother what was keeping me from being homeless like that man, I remember her saying with all confidence, “Elizabeth, don’t worry, you’ll never be homeless.” And it still didn’t quite click for me. Why not? There was no difference between us, there was no wall protecting me from being homeless, no great hand that said “you will never …” We were the same. I have always had this acute sense that anything is possible, that everything can change in a second. I could be like that man in a year, or tomorrow afternoon. Financially, physically, sexually. It was all sort of fluid in my mind. In this sense, I have always had to be very protective of my work. Militantly so. I go to bed thinking to myself sometimes: If I were born black and a woman in the 1860′s in North Carolina — how would I make my art then? Or, like, If I get into my car right now, and another car hits me, and I can only stay awake for ten minutes at a time and I can’t move my right hand or my legs, and can’t speak, how would I make my art then? And I always come up with some answer that seems to work for me, and the best part is that the art changes so much in each circumstance. Everything that we have and that we know is transitory. It’s not a bad thing. People find Answers all of the time, there are always New Answers. A New Drug, or a New Technology, or a New Political Savior, and then it “turns out” we were so silly, and we laugh to ourselves, and say how we can’t believe that the US was ever some kind of bad guy, or that we actually believed that cigarettes were calming for the nerves, or that something in the water led to infertility and cancer… It’s all just this ebb and flow. And the only thing that seems to stay consistent is this idea that nothing is ever stable. So the recession, in my mind is so utterly inconsequential to my work, especially in terms of content or subject. That said, I guess it has influenced how I am working and the form my work takes. People are still buying a lot of art, but there are fewer opportunities to sell, especially in a place like Pittsburgh where the commercial art scene is mostly devoted to finding nice pieces to go above rich people’s couches. It’s a supportive community, but it has its limits. I also work part-time. I have less money to be buying fancy art papers with, my bedroom is my studio, and it’s packed to the brim with stuff. I just don’t have room to be making humongous bronze sculptures, etc. My sculpture work is modular and flexible. My work often exists in parts that can be collapsed and expanded, depending on what is available. And then I’ve been doing more video now than prints. Video, like prints are cheap and reproducible, but they are super compact! I can just put a video on a thumb drive and have more room under my bed for my high-heeled shoes [because otherwise, that's where all of my unsold artwork goes]. Video is the best, and it’s been hard resisting the urge to just immerse myself in that medium exclusively. It’s light, cheap, space-efficient. So — yeah — my work has kind of evolved based on the means that are available to me at any given moment. This moment that we are in is inevitably influenced by the fact that there’s a global economic crisis going on right now, so then, coming full circle, on the other hand I can say, sure, the recession has totally influenced my work.
On the other hand, some things do worry me about the recession. When there’s more money going around, crazy stuff probably gets funded because it just slips through the cracks, and nobody cares as much. Funding cuts domestically and abroad are muting some really important individuals and groups — we just saw this happen in the Netherlands in a big way, and I’m still totally depressed that NiMK is being closed and so many people doing really cool stuff are just getting cut off. A lot of the art that I see getting funded in the US isn’t really pushing the envelope because whatever gets funded needs to please everybody – the public, the funders, etc. It really creeps me out when people think that a public needs to have a majority say in the production of art. But — with all of the political polarizations and technological innovations of late, we find ourselves in an age right now where we’re constantly curating our own realities. We can choose not to see or hear things that we don’t wish to hear or see. That seems unsettling because a lot of really good art is unpleasant or unsettling or ugly.
But, in general, I think it’s good for everybody in every part of the world to take a step back and say a big, old, “What the fuck have we been doing?” That will probably make art better, right? But maybe that’s too optimistic.
LD: It’s like I said. I want people to look at the work and take something away, and that something can be anything. Most of my work has this whole complex history behind it, this intense, often very personal starting point and also a meandering, even performative process of creation. But the truth is none of that is relevant. Like I said before, that invisible narrative might sort of pressure people’s experience of the work on a cold reading, but it does not, nor should it really define it. I’m interested in helping people just become a little, teensy bit more aware of how they are looking at things, how they are consuming things, and why, and under what circumstances. This is something you can learn without even knowing and then take home with you. There isn’t really a message embedded within my pieces to be discovered, excavated. It’s not about the “aha moment.” That’s an illusion. Like I said, in this case, it’s just some colored ink on paper on a wall. It will eventually fade and rot, and then be in somebody’s attic or a dumpster. And that’s ok.
For me, my work always starts out in a very personal place. But I tend to find it the most successful when I’m able to shake it of those personal residues and create for myself a dissociative experience of something that is very familiar. Ultimately my work isn’t about me, even though it inevitably starts with me/comes from me. When I can kind of just get lost in it, and then find something new in the process — that is fun.