Lisa Ruyter Interview: A Real art star chats with Reverend Jen
By Reverend Jen
While the majority of ASS will be dedicated to celebrating the not-so-famous, the washed up and the poor, every now and then we will be forced to make an exception and feature a person who is actually successful because we like their work so damn much. Lisa Ruyter is one such exception. She is a celebrated art star. Her paintings sell for a lot of money and she has on-person exhibitions all over the world. Yet, strangely enough, her paintings are not mediocre pieces of crap! How did this happen? I decided I needed to solve this grandiose art world mystery of how a talented, innovative painter actually gained artistic recognition and made a living in the 21st Century.
My search began on the Internet where I found lisaruyter.com, which features images of many of Lisa’s paintings as well as a handy e-mail address for contacting the artist. Expecting immediate rejection, I e-mailed Lisa with an interview request. A day later she e-mailed me back and agreed to be the subject of an ASS feature; Strange indeed. That is when I realized that if you tell people that you have a magazine, sometimes they’ll believe you.
In preparation for the interview I visited Leo Koenig Inc., a gallery I have always appreciated for its handy downtown location (249 Centre Street) as well as its mass quantities of libations at openings. There I was greet by “Follow the Boys, New Paintings” the latest one-person show by Ms. Ruyter. It is too bad ASS is a cheaply made, black-and-white rag. If we had any money at all, I would spend it on making fancy reproductions of Lisa’s new paintings, like the one they had in Time Out. But alas, ASS readers will have to get up off their asses and go to Leo Koenig. Of course, the show will probably be down by the time this issue comes out. In fact, seeing as how so many writers who promised to send submissions to ASS have failed to do so, and I have ended up writing half the magazine myself, by the time the first issue comes out, Lisa’s next one-person show will probably be up. In the case that you live in some far off region of the world and have somehow gotten your paws on a copy of ASS, you will just have to check out her web site. Of course, the Internet does not do justice to Lisa’s monolithic paintings, which look like what you would get if…now I am at a loss. I was going to say they look like what you would get if a kaleidoscope took mushrooms on an empty stomach and then vomited onto canvas, but that’s not the case. They don’t look vomited at all. They look painted, painted by someone who knows how to paint, who doesn’t drink too much caffeine, whose nerves aren’t shot from alcohol and drug use, whose hands are as steady as a surgeon (the good kind). They look painted by someone who loves painting them.
The last show I had seen of Lisa’s had been large-scale paintings of cemeteries where all of the people in the paintings were dead and underground. All you saw were their tombstones. In the rare case that live person did enter into the picture, they were tiny, engulfed by the psychedelic landscape, reduced to little more than a lilac shrub.
In the new paintings, people play a dominant role – their smiling mugs grinning over the viewer like Godzilla on one too many martinis. Made from photographs taken by Lisa at clubs, restaurants and bars, these large-scale paintings feature New York party-goers living it up (or trying to) as the city goes to hell in a hand-basket. In a age where dancing is illegal, drinking, gossiping, have “intimate” conversation and generally trying to “de-pants” the person next to you become the central forms of amusement.
Lisa mixes up orange, Kelly green, yellow and royal blue into a cacophony of screaming colors, which give the painting’s subjects a ghoulish quality as if each wore a plastic Woolworth’s-bought Halloween mask from the mid-70’s. Like the sun, if you stare too long, you will go blind. But, it’s hard not to. Each painting tells a little story, one which you probably know, or tried to piece together the morning after a bender.
“Skin Deep” depicts five people at a bar. One dude (or is it a female…looking at Lisa’s paintings is like being drunk, sometimes hard to tell…) smokes and glances up at a fellow in a Yankees cap who holds a dollar bill up toward the bar. Next to him sits an emaciated hipster with a bright yellow shag hairdo who hangs her head in despair while the king of beers sits by her side along with a dude who is possibly trying to console her. The camel logo melts into the bar like everything has turned radioactive and the participants in the scenario are too liquored up or self-involved to notice.
In “The Lost Weekend” two bespectacled men have a serious conversation over several glasses of wine while their friend pops up behind them and does a Mr. Roper style mug for the camera. “Distilled Spirits” features a bar-going creature in a feathered chapeaux who gingery twirls the straw in its drink while its mouth hangs agape in mock-horror and it stares off-frame as if to say, “Oh…my…God…look at her!” (in best valley girl accent). In the foreground, a young many with spiky Bozo-clown red hair leans in close to a brunette who nervously clutches her purse and sits up straight in an uncomfortable manner as he tells her something “very deep.”
Alcohol is the ever-present social lubricant in each painting and it is not surprising. This is a show that depicts New York nightlife in all its hideous glory, and I believe that what I have said before about New Yorkers is true: They are either recovering alcoholics or they are drunks. The New York City subway system is partly responsible for this decadence (the MTA is your designated driver) but it is also due to the general meanness of the city. Alcohol, I suppose, makes the grotesque more acceptable (for those who are drunk, for those who aren’t it makes it more grotesque). Lisa accurately paints the results, which are the two extreme sides of drunkenness, both of which surround the “play acting” around ever finding true intimacy in this city. On the one hand there is the “I love you man!” back slapping affection, the complete and total loss of inhibitions surrounding expressing your love of fellow man however fleeting that love might be. The other is the quiet, deep conversation, which you realize the next day was about nothing at all. People lean on each other. They mix up drinks. They smoke even though they quit a year ago. They point. They fumble with cameras. They stumble. It is all a hysterical theatrical event and Lisa becomes its director. Not surprisingly, each painting gets its title from a movie.
I wandered out to Lisa’s Billysburg studio one evening to conduct the ASS interview even though I felt like her paintings said it all. What could I ask her that her paintings didn’t already say or rather scream? I supposed maybe I could just be her friend. Also, it is much cooler to have interviewed someone than to have simply written about them. Her studio was large, large enough to fit several of her paintings, which is pretty damn large, and it was occupied by Lisa and her cat, Midget, who hid from me. (Midget hid, not Lisa.) This was the first of many strange coincidences. My first boyfriend had a dog named Midget! Now I know this might not seem like much, but do you know anyone who has a pet named Midget? If you do, please let me know. Now, if I said she had a cat named “Spot” and so did my ex, that wouldn’t be weird, but Midget is as far as I know, not a common name.
“You grew up in Maryland. Is that why your paintings emit tones of alienation and loneliness?” I asked Lisa as we sat down on a comfy couch. Having also grown up in Maryland, this seemed an appropriate question.
“They come off as being like that but I don’t think of them like that. I know a lot of people say that especially with the landscapes and I think sometimes that has to do with the style. I think the process lends itself to that,” she said, smiling.
We got to chatting and it turns out that are we not only both from Maryland, we are both the products of the most maniacal high school art teach in the Western Hemisphere – Oroon Barnes, a deer-hunting, chain-smoking painter from Alabama who would toss your painting across the room and accuse you of being legally insane if you didn’t stay up till six in the morning the night before working solely on your art homework. I once say Oroon rip the PA straight off the wall when the school’s morning announcements interrupted a sermon he was giving on cubism. For all I know, Oroon is the greatest painter that ever lived, but we will never know because he is such an extreme perfectionist that he will never finish a painting. “Don’t be afraid of color!” was Oroon’s mantra. Nothing infuriated him like a muddy color, a sentiment Lisa clearly took to the furthest limit. Oroon also obviously instilled a sense of perfectionism and diligence in Lisa that is rare. Her studio was filled with new paintings, which were evidently being painted over and over again in layer after layer of blinding color. “That one’s going to completely change, “ she said gesturing to a painting that looked finished, and then pointing to one which looked to be about eighteen feet in length. “I am suspicious of that one. I saw a reproduction of it and I didn’t like the way it reproduced.”
“Do you work eighty hours a day?” I asked.
“I do work all the time, but now I’ve got people to help me. I have to be prolific to do what I do because there are so many steps and I have so many ideas and if I don’t get to them I feel like I’ll never get to them. I get depressed not being able to do everything.”
“I feel like this series is just starting, like there’s a lot more to it than I expect,” she said, referring to her paintings of New Yorkers out on the town. “You see the big painting in that room, it’s a totally different thing.” She pointed to another mammoth piece that depicted people sloppily dining on Lo Mein. “It relates much more to the party paintings of Alex Katz.”
“But these seem much sadder, more grotesque. They are not flattering.”
“The color was definitely pushed to make them more grotesque. My fear was that people would think of them as lightweight party paintings. I wanted this show to be visceral.”
When pressed for the art stars who she looked to during her formative years, she did not mention the pop artists that one might expect. Instead it was Walker Evans, Weegee and Robert Smithson.
“David Hockney was also really important to me,” she laughed. “He was the first artist who wasn’t Andy Warhol that I heard of.”
When asked how she went from painting cemeteries to painting people, she began by telling me how she started doing the landscapes. “It had started out being suburban landscapes, pictures I’d taken in New Jersey, and then I did a bunch of shows in Europe…(Here my tape recorder made a hideous buzzing noise so I may never what those were of…) I got asked to do a show by a curator in New York for the Whitney Philip Morris and it was called ‘Pastoral Pop.’ I kind of went back to landscapes, and so that I could do a painting and not get completely bored. I had to rethink the whole landscape thing and ended up doing something of Central Park. While I was working on that, there was a picture that I took in Central Park of people laying out in the sun that reminded me of a cemetery. There was a hill and lake and the people were all evenly spaced. It was kind of a creepy picture and I thought, ‘Oh wow! Cemeteries! That’s a way to reconceive the landscape!’ Of course at the Philip Morris, there weren’t gonna go for cemeteries. But, it was in my head. I also really wanted to do a show that was clearly about a theme. Before it had been all about formal issues. To do a show by subject matter added another layer to what was going on.”
“I really wanted to do a show,” she continued, “that wasn’t landscapes because people in New York tend to think of me as a landscape painter. This idea had been in my head ever since this one painting I made where the figures in it were really huge and it was from a photograph of people I took at my first opening at Leo’s. The way that people were responding to it was instead of identifying with people as generic figures like, ‘Oh, there is a guy walking in the park,’ people were going, ‘Oh who is that person?’…You are more implicated in the painting,” Lisa adds. “A lot of them are shot from my perspective at one of these events. It’s like I’m in the seat that’s missing…It’s to make you part of the painting, and it’s not that you are part of this drinking party scene. You are a part of looking at this painting.”
This size of the figures can seem overwhelming especially when their faces become hideously disfigured by the results of a flash in the eyes – the old satanic red eye distributed by cheap cameras and bad lighting, but multiplied tenfold by Lisa’s frightful color choices, or by shadows that bring to mind Boris Karloff. It is almost as if the characters depicted could reach down, scoop you up and use you as a stirrer for their mixed drinks, only to wring you out and drop you nonchalantly by their side as though they’d never needed you in the first place.