Lyndsey Marko is a Florida-born, Chicago-based painter. Since graduating from the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013, she has had two solo exhibitions: All That Heaven Allows and It’s New and Now. Her canvases range from tropical landscapes to Florida interiors to the familiar desert rocks of cowboy Western films. The Nashville Review is thrilled to have one of her paintings as the cover of its 2015 summer issue.
Interviewer: In other interviews you have said that you paint mainly from memory, and that, “When one revisits a memory, there is an opportunity to change it.” Is there a specific moment where, during the creation of a specific painting, you said to yourself, “Oh yes, here I am again in the living room, and maybe it happened this way but maybe it didn’t. Maybe the couch was floral or maybe it was gingham or maybe there was no couch at all.” In essence, have you ever been conscious of your memory’s pliability during the act of creation?
Lyndsey Marko: What I meant by “there is an opportunity to change it” is that when you resurface these memories, you have the ability to mold them differently. You can change the way you remember things, for better or worse. Things shift and details are forgotten. I started these memory paintings as a race against this pliability. I wanted to remember this house just as the last time I stepped out the door. I was scared I would one day forget what that cracked leather couch felt like to sit on or exactly how many manuals on amateur radio were on that warped bookshelf. Even if I couldn’t remember every detail, I made the paintings as a relic for my future self. I began these paintings as a knowingly sentimental journey—overt nostalgia. If one could photograph memory that is what these paintings exist as. I disabled the memory’s future pliability, in some sense. There are obviously details I forgot and colors I failed to mix right. What is so interesting is how the paintings co-exist with my memories now. When I recall the space, the paintings aid to help the details to float in. I petrified them in some way, and that was my goal all along. When I would begin the paintings, I would start with a very clear vision and would record as much as I could. As the painting came to a close, I began wrestling with the pliability of memory. It seemed that because I recalled the space so much, details began melting away. Exactly how many pictures were hanging on that east wall and how far was the sofa from the coffee table? It was a struggle of mixing hues and translating angles of memories that seemed to be from so young in my childhood. As much as I recalled that itchy brown rug and the yellowed sheet music sitting on the piano, sometimes I just couldn’t get it right. In this case, instead of painting the actual thing, I would attempt to mix the closest color to my memory. That was the best I could do for future recall. Or I would leave the area white because this maybe exemplifies what gaps in memory feel like anyway. Recalling the more sensitive memories was like allowing them to vanish into the black hole of memory. I would think about that one room, packed with things that I was only able to go into twice. These were the most difficult memories to paint. By default, they just became abstract shapes. As with anyone’s memory of anything, the remembered moment is never the same as its reality, but I did my best at being truthful.
What do you see as the main difference between your memory of a landscape and an actual landscape? Are there certain visual elements that, when attempting to capture the essence of a place through memory, you find yourself routinely drawn to? When painting from memory, which visual elements are the first to go or are the most well preserved?
With an actual landscape, the details are supposed to mirror elements of the tactile, visual world. With a memory of a landscape, it doesn’t have to be that way. Details like scale, color and form are allowed to be wonky. For example, Nicolas Poussin’s landscapes seem to go on forever compared to my simplified tropical paintings. Mine are so flat. Is the main difference how space is perceived? I’m still trying to create a believable, navigable space, but I’m not focused on the elements being so precise. The paintings have loosened up a bit, become more abstract, allowing them to be more relatable to other’s experiences. Of course, I know exactly where each element was pulled from. Nobody else knows, nor do they need to know. They have to be a bit secretive, a bit ambiguous. That way it’s up to you as the viewer to figure out the situation that is unfolding within the painting. I want them to have enough room for anyone to project their feelings or experiences on them. This way they feel more from today, more from the now. Compared to the paintings of my grandparents Cocoa Beach home, I’m now using memory in a much more general sense. Elements of sentimentality still work their way in, but now I’m focused on more current memories of earlier today or yesterday. So it is very hard to say if there is a hierarchy of visual elements that I’m routinely drawn to. It’s really a bit of everything, but I do think color always comes first.
Your work has recently moved more into the direction of abstractionism. Which artists that work in the abstract (or pieces of art that have been traditionally categorized as abstract) are you most drawn to?
For a while now, my work has bordered on abstraction/representation. I always have a bit of both going in the studio. There is usually an overlap. Depending on the piece it may weigh heavier on either side of the scale. Philip Guston and Henri Matisse would be good examples of artists who border this abstraction/representation line very flawlessly. They both found a very specific way to use line, color and form that captures the zeitgeist incredibly. Eduoard Manet and Gustave Courbet are two French realist painters that helped painting move into impressionism (Matisse), which eventually made room for the abstract expressionist movement (Guston) in the 1950s. All of these painters did something so specific and import to the history of painting. They all changed the course of painting. Nobody really liked these guys right away. Manet and Courbet’s paintings were rejected from the French Salon. Critics did not understand what Philip Guston was doing with his Marlborough paintings. Of course now they are regarded as highly respected painters. I think about these four painters every time I’m in the studio. Even though all of their paintings were made fifty to over a hundred years ago, they all still feel so fresh. All of these painters kept the mode of painting alive, and personally I still have a lot to learn from them.
What other mediums of art, besides painting, do you love? Are there aspects of other art forms that you harbor jealousy towards? Things you think other modes of art can accomplish that painting can’t?
Maybe it would be more admiration than jealousy. Can one of these even live without the other? There are very different and specific emotions—possibly even new emotions—associated with film and music that I am constantly recognizing and thinking about. There’s the biblical argument that everything under the sun has already been felt before—but do I really believe that? Something always has the ability to feel new. I might feel it first while watching a film (like the beach wrestling scene in Sonatine), and then I’ll begin to think about it all the time, analyzing the cinematic movements, angles, colors. What did it make me feel? Why did it make me feel? Eventually, if I think about it enough, it’s bound to work its way into my studio practice. Often film recognizes the small and unappreciated moments in life. In this Goddard movie Every Man For Himself there are multiple scenes where this woman purposefully stands close to the edge of the train tracks so she can feel that intense breeze on her body when the train rolls in. Film and music both have an incredible immediacy of feeling. And maybe that’s why I tend to paint so fast. Fear of the painting feeling stifled brought on by the desire for immediacy. If the moment of the painting lasts longer than that breeze from the train or a bar of music, has it said too much? Has it suffocated itself? I think what my paintings share with film and music is an ability to romanticize or maybe even fetishize the mundane. It’s much easier and faster for film to do this. And I appreciate this immediacy, but I’m not jealous of it. It gives me something to work towards. After all, painting is a notoriously slow medium that you have to really have faith in. I really believe that painting can have as many new feelings as film and music has, but you just have to work harder at it because of its intrinsic limitations (pushing paint around on a silent, square surface).
Many of your new paintings incorporate text. How do you see text functioning in your paintings? Are there other visual artists who utilize text that you admire?
I’m interested in text paintings that use a few words to share common truths with the viewer. I use text to have an open-ended interpretation, feeding off poetic vagueness. Words on the canvas could mean everything or nothing depending on the viewer, and I like that. The text paintings were a stepping stone to the tropical abstract paintings, in that sense. Allowing for this relationship between the viewer and the object of painting, enjoying the uncertainty of limbo, not understanding exactly how I feel, and text paintings as a way of solving that. Why write a letter when you can make a billboard? A whisper compared to a shout. Text paintings are more difficult because I have to remember to keep my secrets. There’s a fine line between a diary and expressing the quintessence of feeling. Ed Ruscha’s atmospheric paintings and Tracy Emin’s neon signs embody all of this so well. They are all just vague enough to where you can project your own heartbreak or peculiar memory onto them. And I think that is the greatest thing that text paintings can do.