Interview: Lena Gustafson

By Sarah Mills 

Lena Gustafson, Visual Artist, Oakland,CA. 

"My lens is often focused on the strength of femininity. I am interested in the private relationships women have with their bodies and with others. Much of my creative output is from the culmination of many observations of women being themselves, doing their thing.  My hope is that this work can be used as a mirror to the people from whom I draw."

Lena's recent work uses bright colors and large female figures at the center of each image. She uses repeated visual symbolism such as flags, water, plant life, color, and repeated gestures to communicate different stories within the body. Often times the line that separates the figure from her environment are blurred. 

Traditionally the female form has been used as a symbol to indulge others' fantasies, dreams, and fascinations.  Lena is interested not in what can be projected onto it, but instead what lies to be awoken within the body itself. She is interested in the idea of body memory and aims to visualize what this would look like if we could see it. Rather than the figure itself it is the stored information within the figure as well as its surroundings that interests Lena. By engaging with the history of representation of the female form, Lena contemplates new narratives for which the female body can understand itself.

Lena is a visual artist based in Oakland, CA. After graduating from the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University in 2011, she cofounded Night Diver Press with her partner Peter Calderwood. Together they use silkscreen and other alternative printing techniques to create and publish multiples in the form of prints, books, zines, and monotypes. Lena's recent paintings are technically informed by her background in preparing images for screen-prints. 

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On your website you say that you are “interested in the private relationships women have with their bodies and with others.” Can you expand on this, what draws you to this particular relationship?

I am interested in the conversations that happen when women are by themselves, feel safe, or are beginning to shut down the brain. I don't think enough time is spent focusing on this quieter state, which is why I think it's important to investigate. I am interested in the "private relationships" women have with their bodies because there is an unfortunate psychological "male gaze" that haunts many females that I am both interested in and repulsed by.  A quote that comes to mind is from Margaret Atwood's novel, "The Robber Bride" where she writes, 

“Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies” According to Atwood “Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it's all a male fantasy: that you're strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren't catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you're unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”   With this disturbing situation in mind, I try to imagine women able to escape this internalized male gaze.  That's why it's important for me to portray women by themselves or, at the very most, with other female figures. I make images of states of mind/body that I wish to be true. I paint women that aren’t behold to or haunted by the male gaze.

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What is your earliest memory being drawn to the female figure?

It is not so much the female figure that has drawn me in, but instead the experience of inhabiting a body. And the earliest memory I have of being interested in my physical intelligence is when I was in middle school, and noticed that my grades/performance in school were much poorer than those of others around me. It was also around this time I noticed a big disparity between the way I was able to express myself verbally or academically, and the depth of my feelings. Image making has always helped because it was a way to let people around me, and myself, know that there was more going on than what I was able to communicate verbally. 

Often in interactions with people, I have a challenging time keeping up verbally with conversations even though I may have powerful emotional and physical responses to them.  However, I have come to regard my nonverbal sensitivity as simply another form of intelligence instead of something that is societally inferior.  I rely on image making to let this deeper, watery, abstract content surface. 

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What kind of process is involved when creating your work?

Sometimes to my regret, my process is not centered around routine or predictability. I am usually in my head for a long time. Even if I am in my studio, I spend this time reading, or doing visual research. Visual research is an important part of my process and can take many different forms - from recording different patterns I see in fashion in the city, to taking my camera into the woods. I look for patterns and unusual occurrences and connect them to concepts if possible. Taking notes and recording dreams, overheard conversations, color, and landscape are intregral parts of the process.  After this long period of being in my head, I'll move into the body, and this is when I begin to paint. I think of it as a sort of earthquake, where I have taken topics of interest as far as I can mentally, and they need to erupt physically. 

Painting for me is about translating thought through the hand onto the page. So, in that sense, it is an act of radical acceptance. I am interested in allowing the deep insecurities and mistakes to remain visible, as well as the bold confident marks. It feels like a tight-rope balance between not letting it be too easy, and not making it unnecessarily hard. Some people talk about having an out of body experience when making work, I am trying to have as much of an in-body experience as possible. The concepts I am working with often have to do with physicality, body memory, or physical intelligence, and I try to mirror this concept in the way I paint.  

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What is your favorite part of the creative process?

 I have two favorite parts. 

1. When I come back to my studio after being extremely hard on myself for not making the kind of work that I want to, or not translating what was in my head accurately, and then seeing it with objective eyes. I enjoy this time because the work feels out of my hands or control and I can appreciate, simply, that it was made. 

2. When someone who responds to my work verbalizes my exact intentions for a piece. This is an incredible feeling because it instantly bridges the two disparate worlds of fantasy/concept with reality and a shared experience. My main impulse as an artist is to communicate/connect with people so when people mirror back my intentions, there is an amazing clarity. 

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How do you choose the color pallet you work in? 

Color plays a big role in my recent work. In the last year and a half I have had a color resurgence in my work. I think this is because before just recently, most of the images I was making were in collaboration with my partner who is a screen-printer. So I would prepare all the files in solid black to later be translated into screen prints. It got to a tipping point where I needed to involve color/texture/immediacy in my own work. My color pallet comes from the visual note-taking I do before making a series of work. It is influenced by color combinations found in nature, patterns that come form behind my eyelids, fashion/clothing/textiles, and of course other artists' work. Color is one language that is part of the non-verbal realm I am interested in.