Our art editor, Mark Benton, recently talked to Ronna Lebo, featured artist in Issue #34, about her art and poetry, the intersections between the two, and the conceptions of space and abstraction at the heart of her work.
As a poet, you have said that your paintings are closely linked with your writing to tell your stories. Regarding the nature of your images, I am very curious to at least see a sample of your poetry.
DEEP ORGANIZATIONS OF RED SHELVED ONTO A PLANE
wherever one is not seen, is one pattern we waxed next to the shadowed purples through
from the front the back opens forward into the front
there was a place for our gold under glass we were reading in stacks we found layers
creak against what is opened, red fell
only to the front to break through gold to red and more glass until we stopped at the
opaque and made verticals, read in sidereal motion.
In respect to the “Deep Organizations…” poem, I’m seeing a series of layers that might act as a separation between a relationship of sorts, which seems to be supported by your writing. There is a great push and pull between your word and form.
I was reflecting on the emotional compartmentalization that can happen in a relationship…as a relationship ages and formalizes into traditional norms. Feelings and respect and expectations can become objectified and “hoarded” or collected, perhaps, and shelved—like fine china and crystal in a lit cabinet…stored on display for the majority of time…dragged out for special traditional occasions, if ever.
The painting came first and made me think, “This little painting is like a big cabinet, storing energy; showing us what it is doing, but not telling us what it is.”
It made me think of how light looks from inside of a lit china cabinet, reflected and refracted off of collected traditional objects inside…which led me to try to describe traditional expectations captured “inside” of relationships.
I guess I am abstracting from emotion and real life relationships to make visual and linguistic art.
Very interesting…personally, I can relate. I have certainly hoarded my expectations in relationships, separating them from the other person, which can be just as dangerous as letting them out. You have to be very aware of yourself in order to shed your skin and change, which brings me to the snake imagery in your featured work. I could be reaching, but it feels as though it comes out in more than just “Snake Sock”. I see a lot of scales in your wonderfully rendered stencil work.
When a life leaves form behind, the form becomes flat.
When I am painting, I am always aware of the two-dimensionality of the surface I have chosen as medium. My primary challenge is always; how does one bring this flat thing to form and action with these wet colors?
I try to cram everything paint and color can do onto each canvas—every mark, smear, drip samples…pattern, color field, even atmospheric perspective sometimes…I try to get it all in on every canvas. Then I use a gray to edit in an object of sorts-like modeling a form, and I like the industrial gray colors (although I usually mix my own grays…I try to replicate an “industrial” gray) because they read to the eye as “background”…even though the grays are actually the foreground and last thing I do.
My editing/composing decisions are on display at the edges where the gray meets color to form an objectified set of gestures, an object of sorts existing in its two-dimensional background-foreground. It’s my poetic conversation with all of the formal problems of painting.
I truly love that my work wants to be read as rather “minimalistic” when it is actually fraught with complexity and chaos. I also like that people sometimes talk about abstract expressionism when they look at my work, and they are so wrong. What I do has nothing to do with what abstract expressionist painters were doing.
Your work is only minimal at first glance, and it is too conceptual for abstract expressionism. If I had to label your work, I would simply say “Ronna Lebo”. What would you say?
Or maybe “There Is No Space”.
There ya go. I almost said too conceptually objective for abstract expressionism, but I like “There is no space”. As long as we’re classifying…who are your most poignant influences?
Hmm. Influences are tricky because they change over time, as an artist becomes more exposed to the enormous body of artwork and images available to us.
I used to love looking at Velasquez paintings. I was amazed at how contemporary the brushwork was, how painterly the surfaces when you got close to them. Nothing was “drawn”; it was all just brush and color—color and brush-marks. From a distance, Velazquez paintings looked like traditional formal portraits, but up close, you could see how abstract the image really was. You could see every single decision made by Velasquez.
For those same reasons—I loved Manet paintings. Especially his flowers and still-lifes. There was one small painting with a dead fish that had me in awe at the Met for at least two hours once.
I also loved the surrealists when I was younger. Dali, Ernst, but mostly the women: Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, and others.
I have also always looked at outsider art.
I’d say in the past ten to fifteen years, I’ve been interested in Raoul De Keyser, Hilma af Klint, and Tantric imagery. Also painters like Charline von Heyl.
I should mention that Arthur Danto’s books really changed the way I think of art and what art is. His writings about art, contemporary art in particular, inspired me immensely.
And a secret pleasure of mine is the work of one of my teachers at SVA (a long time ago), Marilyn Minter. I love looking at her paintings. They are almost the exact opposite of Velazquez. They are conceptual and an abstraction of desire. The surfaces amaze me because of what the paint can do to create illusions of reality.
It is definitely true that preferences and perspectives evolve quite drastically, as well as with our work. How drastic if at all, would you say are the transitions between your earliest paintings and the current?
There are still formal issues that interest me, about surface and action, and I usually start every painting “solving” a personal quest for the surface I want to see. It’s like every painting is a game board I’ve invented. I’m not satisfied very often with a slick flat surface, although I have played with trying to create illusions of “no marks” paintings. I always end up with an obviously painted edge or painted-over texture to reveal painterly decisions.
I believe I have always done this on my paintings. There are other transitions that are drastic, but the creation of a surface to compose upon is still with me at every new painting. Taking action and moving materials around to create the working surface is still evident in each work.
Things that have changed are scale and my choices to not use traditional line, drawing or geometry. And I try to compress perspective to make an illusion of space rather than use traditional tools of perspective.