Claire Lehmann’s Enigmatic Paintings Ponder What We Choose to Represent, and Why

In her paintings and writing, Claire Lehmann has methodically worked to understand how technologies shape the ways artists choose to represent the world around them. That interest may be most transparent in her work about the development of photography. In her essay “Color Goes Electric,” first published by Triple Canopy in 2016, Lehamnn charted how Kodak developed color film based on people’s perceptions of color rather than accuracy following consumer preference surveys, “We should perhaps ask: Is there something more specific that standard reference images can tell us?” Lehmann wrote. “What do they say, exactly, about how we want pictures to look?”

That line of thinking seems to have inspired Lehmann’s new work The Object Lesson (2021), in which a still life painting is pictured as if it were ready for a photoshoot, with a camera, lighting, and all. The Object Lesson is on view at a solo show at David Lewis gallery in New York, her first one-person exhibition in 18 years. It’s a representation, Lehmann explains, of how to photograph a painting without capturing glare.

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The rest of her oeuvre is just as enigmatic. In these new works, drapery floats through dim lit rooms, and technologies of uncertain purpose explode across the canvas. Last week, Lehmann got on the phone with ARTnews to discuss how she conjures these otherworldly compositions and why it took her nearly two decades to reveal them.

a painting of a painting surrounded my lights and a camera

Claire Lehmann, Object Lessons, 2021.

In this body of work and in your writing, you consistently reveal an interest with technologies of representation. What draws you to this subject?

My interest in these technologies comes from my fascination with the history of representation and how different technologies help us do that. So, for me, the twin histories of painting and photography are one big, amazing progression of this human endeavor to take something from life and fix it for a longer period of time in two dimensions. There’s just so much technology and cultural ideas that that have aided us in that project, and I find that really, really magical.

Did this interest begin during your time at Harvard as an undergraduate?

No, later. In my 20s, I patched together a bunch of day jobs, as many artists do. I was a cocktail waitress, a teaching assistant in the art department, an artist assistant, a tutor—I massaged people’s college application essays. At a certain point I got this idea: “Oh, I wonder if I could kind of switch my freelance jobs to be more in line with my artistic interests?” So at the ripe old age of 29, I got an unpaid internship at Cabinet magazine. I found I really loved doing this work. It was so intellectually enriching. That enabled me to get jobs as a freelance writer and some curatorial work.

Were you painting during that time?

I was making art all the while, although not always painting. For sometime I was making conceptual sculptures and installations. I was also working in photography. I went a bunch of different ways. I think was trying to escape being the painter that I am. I briefly spent a year at Hunter [College in New York], in the MFA program, and this was around 2009, 2010, at the height of process-based abstraction, later dubbed zombie formalism. At that time, I remember feeling very embarrassed to be making representational paintings, and I sort of backed off of that. I ultimately came home to it.

You haven’t exhibited your work for almost 20 years now. Why is that?

I really wanted to feel confident and excited about the work if I was going to share it. What ultimately became this body of work started about five years ago, and this was following a period of about two years where I was so busy with other professional projects that I hadn’t been able to devote a ton of time to the studio, and I just missed it so intensely. I love working with paint and color—I find it such a joy. The way I work on these paintings is quite time-consuming. They require a lot of intensity and focus and attention to make, there’s sort of a devotional aspect to it.  I missed feeling that way. So I slowly went back into this way of working and waited to see what would blossom from it. The work ended up feeling really good to make and really good to share.

These paintings are so imaginative and otherworldly. What’s your process for conjuring these images?

I work from a pretty big archive that I’ve amassed of printed matter from a lot of different sources. I’ll spend a long time leafing through images and see what sticks in my mind. Sometimes, I’ll digitally play with the composition before I make the painting to kind of sort out how the image will look.

What have been some key inspirations for these works?

I feel reticent to share my sources.

The Deposition (2021) is an abstract piece, but I couldn’t help but feel like I recognized something of its form. And then it hit me: those moving pipe screensavers.

Yes, totally!

a panting of multicolored tubes

Claire Lehmann, The Deposition, 2021.

Is it your intention to bring a kind of nostalgic edge to your work?

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I do try to induce a feeling of recognition in the viewer, though maybe not necessarily nostalgia—more a feeling like: “Oh, I think I know what I think I know what that is, but maybe not.” A seasoned observer might very well know what I’m pointing to, but generally, I’m interested in creating that sort of elusive quality of both deep familiarity and mystery at once.

Drapery is a recurring element in your work. Why do you rely on it so heavily?

The one thing that I love about drapery is that it can capture and refract light. But it’s also a nod to the bigger history of representation in which using drapery has sometimes come to mean something about an artist’s virtuosity. Drapery has a lot of resonance for what I might call the technology of painting and the culture of ideas that has formed our expectations of how images should look.

How do you think your work has disrupted or responded to this history?

I don’t know that it necessarily disrupts those ideas. I find this history to contain an almost mystical language that I have a lot of reverence for: the project of how different conventions or genres and technologies pass through the many hands that makes up a bigger language that we don’t really have to words to describe. So it’s this language that I’m ultimately trying to work with in my own small way.


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