Interview: Leigh Anne Lester

by Wendy Atwell

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      Leigh Anne Lester
      Mutant Spectre
      Graphite on drafting film
      Courtesy of the artist

      On April 30, 2011, Leigh Anne Lester was awarded the $50,000 Hunting Art Prize for her drawing Mutant Spectre (graphite on drafting film, 2010). Two-dimensional paintings and drawings may be submitted for the Hunting Prize prize, which according to its website is "historically the most generous annual award in North America." Originally established in 1981 in the UK, the Texas-wide competition has been based in Houston since 2006, with a commitment "to provide artists the recognition they have earned, the sponsorship they deserve, and the opportunity to have their work viewed and discussed by as broad an audience as possible." Prior winners include Francesca Fuchs and Robyn O'Neil.

      Wendy Atwell (WA): When I saw your drawing Mutant Spectre at your solo show Beautiful Freaks/Nature's Bastards at the Southwest School of Art in February, I was taken aback with the complicated detail and imaginative qualities. While a botanist's drawing serves to document the plant species’ characteristic qualities, your drawing serves as a meditation on plants, the natural environment and how our society affects and alters the natural environment—like a fictional riff on a family tree, the sliding doors of what could have been, what is, and what may be. How did you come to be interested in this subject matter?

      Leigh Anne Lester (LAL): I got interested in genetics when in I saw news reports about genetic testing for diseases to which one can be predisposed. I started playing with the idea of family portraits that revolve around inherited diseases instead of the usual museum-type head and shoulder portrait. The idea that something so elusive as disease could be pinpointed as a definite and almost unavoidable end intrigued me. The fascination found its way into embroidered portraits of organs that are affected by various diseases. They were displayed with ornate frames and brass plaques that mimicked the museum conventions of framing portraits.

      While I was doing this work, I kept my eyes peeled for articles on genetics and started seeing items about genetic modification of plants. The ability for us to go into an organism’s DNA and inject something, to alter a plant so that it didn't freeze or add vitamins to it that it naturally didn't have, got me thinking about fiddling with the established way of evolution. What were the possibilities of altering something that is seemingly unassertive like plants? Current genetics allow us to see the working of our bodies and expose how they would betray us. Some reactions are extreme, like removing a body part to avoid the potentially unavoidable. Genetics in plants allow us to divert evolution to our own ends. How will that play out? How could I visually interpret that our actions on them?

      WA: By focusing on "family portraits that revolve around diseases," your art is not just a riff on a family tree but on traditional portraiture as well. Contemporary artists have explored far beyond the traditional method of portraiture, which focuses on a visual representation of the face or body. I am thinking of Lordy Rodriguez' map portraits, Chuck Ramirez' suitcase and purse portraits, Nate Cassie's portraits of couples’ eyes set side by side; and Joey Fauerso's paintings of people's heads or open mouths.

      Genetics allows for yet another perspective. When you mentioned that we are genetically modifying plants and interfering with evolution, it made me think about how, for millions of years, evolutionary life has proceeded in a seemingly linear fashion, but now this is changing. These changes interfere with genetic structures on a level that supersedes the slow intelligence of trial and error; instead we have short bursts of small successes—the sweet corn, the breastless woman. This opportunity is a kind of decadence, and it appears to me that this comes through in your ornate, florid representations. Stylistically, your drawings have an almost baroque sense about them. Considering your subject matter, how did you get from the dull factual representations to intricately detailed representations?

      LAL: I suppose the intricacy and the baroque feeling of the pieces come from the research that I do of the individual plants’ geographic, environmental and reproductive histories. Each plant that is part of the greater whole of, say, Mutant Spectre, has a straightforward representation. In a way, I want the pieces to have a matter-of-factness to them, but upon closer inspection of the representation, a fiction starts to emerge. There are some very identifiable plants that have no business sprouting forth from one or the other. The detailed representations are intentional. They impart a complexity on the surface to hopefully evoke a thought in the direction of what is happening beneath the surface of the plants, but also a beauty that can be held in a sublime thought.

      The fact that we can do these things, manipulate DNA on a sub-microscopic level to alter the linear fashion of evolution, is awe-inspiring to me. That realization can make us blind to the potential outcome of the fiddling.

      WA: Your art draws out the implicit to make it explicit, and I see the sublime qualities occur in this translation. It's as if, through your choice of specific subject matter and the media you select for representation, you are able to render this sublimity itself. Can you explain how you choose your specific media in order to help this occur?

      LAL: The material selection I make is meant to evoke a response just as much as the subtle imagery. The drafting film is a luminous surface that references old vellum botanical renderings, and it adds a practical need of semi-transparency for my layered drawings. But it had enough opacity to cast a shadow and give it fullness and presence, albeit a subtle one. The same could be said for the clear plastic vinyl that I use in my sculpture. It is a man-made material, and that aspect touches on the genetic alterations that we are making to plants. It also has an indestructible quality; once it is out in the environment it is there to stay.

      I pattern my sculptures after actual plants, so there is an accuracy that is evoked in the viewer’s mind, but the weed or mutant is devoid of color. They sparkle in the light, but because they are colorless, they have no photosynthetic capabilities. They can’t function as they should.

      In The Large Turf (after Albrecht Dürer), I wanted to add color for the first time in the vinyl sculptures. That was meant to evoke the crossing of a line somehow. I only applied the color to the mutant plant in the sculpture. It is kind of like Dorothy stepping out from her house into Oz into vividness. The color is silk embroidery thread, which is the only organic thing on the piece, veering the mutant towards the possibility of instigation.

      Crocboleaparsempeustusgiaervivum Zpnaluriaspetecttusduraorum Realized takes the silk thread and uses the historical references of Victorian times. The frame used in that piece is a Victorian-era frame from an antique store. I wanted to do silk-on-silk embroidery because it was a craft that was considered an heirloom passed from generation to generation. The silk-on-silk also points to the Chinoiserie aesthetic that was popular at the time. I love the idea of an amateur botanist, which was another trend of the Victorian times, stumbling onto this mutant plant and documenting it, thus capturing it for future generations to reference.

      The Imitatio Perfecta series uses carbon paper to question the accuracy of a copy: in this case, the impossibility of having complete control over the replication and propagation of a modified plant. The carbon paper used to be an accurate tool for copying; today it is outdated. I was trying to have the viewer question the technological “best” of any time, and look to the future and think about how things evolve technologically and change so drastically within our knowledge base.

      WA: What are you currently working on?

      LAL: There is quite a bit of process in my work, as with most artists, that doesn’t make it out of the studio. Those elements are the ones that I am intrigued by currently. Specifically, I am taking portions of my mutated plants and using them, sampling them if you will, for other pieces. I’m taking one-layer drawings like Amalgamate Fusion and piling them up on top of each other, as in the four-layered drawings. Instead of one species on each layer, I want to take the mutants from drawings and have a plethora of conflicting attributes swinging dominantly and recessively back and forth in layered pieces. The carbon paper series also has some elements of process that have great potential for video.

      What I am actually doing in my studio is working on a commission of a cut drafting film wall piece. Last year was a “work hard and make no money” year. This year is a “work hard and make money” year. As with most artists! 

      Wendy Atwell received her M.A. in Art History from The University of Texas at San Antonio.


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