All original images and text are copyright 2008-2018 Liz Sweibel

Monday, January 26, 2009

But Still

The Internet is saving me as an artist in some ways; I see that. What I'm pining for is a process that's tactile, immediate, repetitive, portable, compelling - one I take seriously. Taking cell-phone photos is an outlet, but it's not my work; it's just something I do ... the visual equivalent to this blog. Satisfying, valuable, and maybe even necessary, but still tiptoeing around the edge.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

In Actuality

I wrote about my surprise at seeing the figure come into my recent work, and now a week later see the obvious: it hasn't. My work remains as it's been, about absence. All that's changed (not to diminish it but put it in perspective) is that the trace or shadow or ghost is representational.

Actually, I feel like I don't know how to work any more. It takes a million hours to earn a living (and I'm fortunate enough to like what I do), and my studio is now a giant table in my living room. What does it mean to be an artist, when I have maybe half a day a week to work at it? I know I'm an artist no matter what I'm doing, but it's hard to stay connected to that. And if I have so little time to work, do I slice that into smaller pieces to market it? Galleries are less appealing as a stage or gauge of success; they seem so separate from the life I live and the things I care about.

All this has turned me toward the Internet. As friends can attest, I long rejected a Web site, generally with insights like "My work looks like shit on a screen." And there's truth in that! It confuses the scale, for one thing. My pieces are often larger on the screen than they are in actuality; viewers who assume the opposite and don't look at the dimensions lose something essential. The materiality is also essential to the slow engagement I'm after. These intentions are at odds with the scale changes, speed, texture-lessness, and anonymity of the Internet.


I choose the work to show and its presentation. I say what I want to say or keep quiet. And the making and the marketing can overlap (and even sometimes merge). It's like there's an efficiency at work that I never foresaw - and that wasn't a priority when I had time to stretch 3,000 twelve-inch lengths of wire and dip the tip of each in hot wax six to eight times (Threshold). Large-scale installations also feel out of reach, but that's not just a function of time, space, and the limitations of the Internet but one of opportunity, which brings me right back to marketing.


While some things are now less possible, others are more possible. Just like anything else, it's an exchange, and this one may be the only way it's still possible for me to work at all. Am I still me?

Monday, January 19, 2009


This morning I saw that the subtitle of the Mark Morris book is A Celebration. Its photographs are vividly expressive: all color, light, and motion. Yet the dancers I'm choosing aren't the ones celebrating; they are still, turned inward, contemplative, even when celebration is going on all around them. I make them into shadows, without color. They're also alone; I can only tolerate multiple figures in an image when they are replicas (many of one) or when two are alone together (together but not together).

I've been watching Art:21 in preparation to teach Contemporary Art. I want my students to hear different artists' voices, and didn't foresee how good it would be for me to hear them. Fred Wilson saying he's not that interested in making anything but in creating relationships between existing things, Do-Ho Suh's longing for home, Layla Ali's highly organized studio practice and high anxiety about painting. Most of the artists reference their early years' influence on what they've become, without slipping into self-pity or -importance. So perhaps my self-consciousness about feeling like I bring everything back to me-me-me isn't the issue; we're all doing that - or using that - in some way. The issue is whether the work exceeds our personal experience, whether we (I-I-I) can use the particular to tap the universal.

That said, my choice of figures and their placement in demolished or empty homes holds something essential about my relationship to the world, a relationship that's mine but hardly unique.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


A few months ago a new process emerged: making silhouettes of dancers from photographs, using graphite on vellum or trace. I've long collected photos of dancers with multiple figures in the same stance or with a powerful, nonspecific emotional charge. I have Mark Morris' l'allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato, which has spectacularly beautiful, forceful photographs. It's unusual, but every time I open the book I'm bowled over and think, "I've got to do something with my reaction to this."

Starting to draw the figure surprised me; its absence is defining in my work. In my midtwenties I started taking dance class, and felt I'd found the thing that was missing for me, the thing I should always have been doing. While it gave me some identity, I was late coming to it and knew it would remain a passionate hobby. In time I stopped, but I still wish for it.

The type of architectural photos I used in the Interiors collages of 2007 are still in my studio and still draw me in, though differently. I've begun to layer the dancers into these spaces.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Measuring My Own Grave

When I remembered that the title of the Marlene Dumas exhibit at MoMA is "Measuring Your Own Grave" (I wish I had the funds for the catalog!), I realized that my posts "Waiting (for Meaning)" and "Late Bloomer" are of-a-thought. I considered titling this post "Well, Duh," but am letting myself off the hook for slow dot-connecting, or a minor episode of late blooming.

Today a US Airways plane made an emergency landing in the Hudson River, less than a mile west of where I work. Everyone is OK except the birds that caused it. Watching the plane sink (to its grave) made me want to crawl out of my skin, even before imagining the passengers' experience of the descent and the water coming in. Every new image of the submerged plane is a shock, makes me nauseous. My fingernails are gone.

(I've spent a lot of time on the water but don't much care to be in it; sinking holds a special terror. My father, a superb boatsman, did have the habit of shouting "We're dead!" whenever we got into some real trouble, and once announced to me, half-asleep, "We're sinking!" over a small leak in the stuffing box and to please hold the flashlight.)

Isn't it ironic, and so sad, that some deeply unfortunate birds can take down an airliner and put hundreds of lives at risk?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"Waiting (for Meaning)"

I saw the Marlene Dumas exhibit at MoMA, which includes the painting this post is titled after. The painting wasn't a favorite, but its title - and much of her work - resonated, maybe even more so because of my own pervasive angst and frustration. Her figures' eyes are wrenching. The emotion they hold, or don't, is potent, discomforting, tragic. Unsituated, her figures can be anywhere and everywhere, or nowhere. Her use of scale particularizes each figure's relationship with me. It is great work.

And it poked at something in me that's been a source of my work, one I now see has receded or been blanketed (resolution? exhaustion? refusal?). In an earlier post I wrote of my work separating from my autobiography. I think Dumas pushes me back into something autobiographical that's been cleansed from recent work - not a return to a historical narrative or a dredging-up, but the meaning I make and emotion of it in my present. Where the "nothing" pieces of 2007-2008 are calls to attention, perhaps the next question is, Attention to what?

A huge sadness for the world and for people - for our irresponsibility, cruelty, and failure to care - has been flooding me; no wonder Dumas went right under my skin. It seems time to allow that into what I make, which is to live with and in it. Life gets harder but more authentic when the blanket is lifted and despair stays close to the surface. To pull it back over me now would be cowardly.

Monday, January 5, 2009

"A State of Serious Mortification"

The phrase that titles this post perfectly describes my relationship to this blog, and it was a perverse relief to know I'm not alone. The words are Leah Hager Cohen's about starting her blog, Love as a Found Object. I came across them in the NY Times Book Review, where Cohen reviewed The Mercy Papers, a memoir by Robin Romm.

I love the Book Review. I'm not looking for something to read; the Review is the reading. Occasionally I'll tear out a review that makes me curious about the book and file it, but I don't remember I have the file when I'm looking for a book to read. And this never changes. I add to the file about once a year and never think of turning to it for a book - or tossing it.

Essays are like short stories or poems for me; the limitation of length forces them to be efficient. What isn't said can be as important as what is said, and a short work can spark as rich a conversation as a longer piece. I see I'm describing what I aim for with my artwork. I both like that - the consistency - and feel that state of mortification. Again it comes back to me-me-me; I'd like to believe I can exceed myself. At times I've felt like I'm onto something brand new in the studio, then come to see that the concerns are the same. I just come at them differently. That too is both a comfort (like proof of authenticity) and a source of disappointment (I "just" ...).

I don't think our buttons, issues, and vulnerabilities change. We are who we are. Yeah, I can get better at knowing what's sensitive for me. And that helps me anticipate unwanted old reactions (or see that I'm having them) and change course (if it's a really good day), but the sensitivity remains.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Late Bloomer

Within the last couple of years, I've begun to measure major decisions against my own lifespan. The question that's surfaced most is whether to get a doctorate to better my job prospects, but it's just one example. What I hear myself say is, "If I were 30 or even 40 I'd probably do it, but now?" I know that any decision I've made based on money has proven bad and that I don't even know of a program interdiscplinary enough to get my interest, but that's not what I'm trying to get at here. It's about thinking about myself, "It's too late for that" (whatever "that" is).

I've always been a late bloomer. I lost my way during adolescence, and my parents (who were big on achievement but not great at guidance) died before I was 30 and had found my way back. I started my BFA at 36. My emotional development largely ran in parallel, as it would, except that my family dynamic forced me to grow up too fast in certain ways. In the end, I had to reach back (dig up my identity as a child and artist) to grow the rest of me up.

And now I'm so grown up I'm too old for a major endeavor like (but not) a doctorate? Ha. That's way oversimplified, but it's a mode of thinking to question. It could be a tricky expression of fear and get in the way of doing things I want to do but find intimidating. With art school, I never experienced making a decision, only discovering the obvious next step. Same with moving back to New York. Am I still willing to let myself discover an obvious next step?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

In My Own Way

When it came time for the training wheels to come off my bicycle, my father apparently thought he'd be doing the standard running-down-the-street-beside-me scene. I wanted nothing to do with that and walked my bike, sans training wheels, to the neighbors' concrete driveway. As my parents told it, I was gone for hours. I came home banged up and bleeding, but able to ride a two-wheeler.

I sent my Web site into the world today, perhaps the last living artist to do so. It's a big moment, preceded by years of doubt and resistance, mostly because my work is so slight and so about slow experience in quiet space that I feared it would lose everything on a screen. I think I've accepted that it's different, but that isn't the same as without. I think the work can gain enough on the Web to balance and perhaps even round out whatever of it doesn't come through. Let's hope.