2018 Essays

From the exhibition catalogue: Meg Lipke: The Woman in The Painting Has Left. Freight & Volume: New York, NY, 2018.

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The Woman in The Painting Has Left

By Jeff Grunthaner

The female body as portrayed in the work of Meg Lipke is visible only through absence. The title of her show—The Woman in The Painting Has Left—refers to a shift in the her methods away from paintings on stretchers to paintings that have been cut, sewn and stuffed in order to have “body.” These “bodies” hang on the wall or slump onto the floor; they have been released from the stretcher and now occupy their own autonomous place.

The Woman in The Painting Has Left realizes a dialectic between divergent traditions. Works more conventionally situated on a stretcher, like Knowing the Truth and Living It, dramatically foreground a pictorial space where the intimation of figures becomes a proxy onto which viewers can project their own subjectivity. By contrast, a work like Sisters is a painted sculpture where limbs composed of varying materials drape between upright, freestanding “bodies.” Modeled after Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas, this painting offers a collapsed aesthetic that mirrors the lack of agency many—people of all genders, assigned or preferred—feel in the face of a patriarchal system that must be dismantled.

Alluding to seminal feminist sculptors—such as Lynda Benglis and Eva Hesse—Lipke’s current body of work also nods to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story, The Yellow Wallpaper, which narrates a woman breaking free from the confines of a room where she is both convalescing and imprisoned. Pushing the discussion of painting away from preoccupations regarding whether a painting’s imagery or surface is well-designed or collectible, one could say The Woman in The Painting Has Left out of sheer disgust. Unseen and unheard, she bursts from the confines of the frame and becomes a maker.

Which leads us back to absence. Lipke is making paintings “with bodies,” placing them alongside more traditional canvases that lack body. Abandoning the use of a stretcher is essential to this. In relation to bodies, “stretchers” typically suggest disease or illness. A painting situated on a stretcher, then, as well as the woman who occupies the painting as its content, is in a weakened state. Both lack sculptural autonomy. Taking away the stretcher, Lipke is able to make works that resolve themselves and speak to the total sensory apparatus of the artist’s body.

Casting aside the stretcher also allows Lipke to make works that are not strictly visual—even works that openly declare there’s nothing to see. The sense that you can seemingly pass through her paintings implies that something has been removed. Emancipating the depiction of the female body from stretchers, it might seem paradoxical that the image then becomes full of holes. But this is commentary on the tradition of painting, which has always liked to entrap women within the confines of a frame’s 90 degree angles. Sculptural in appearance if not intent, Lipke’s works are what remains after the woman has left the painting, exploding it in the wake of her exit.

Jeff Grunthaner is a writer and curator based in New York.

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Meg Lipke: Affective Resistance

By Maxwell Taylor-Miller

Meg Lipke is a painter unconcerned with the rules of painting, but deeply invested in its possibilities. Her work hinges between wall and floor, running rich then lean, always coruscating with pattern. Lipke stages a confrontation with canvas. She approaches an old situation of surface and support, pigment and medium, and dissolves it.

Lipke’s sculptures often begin as paintings, and sometimes the opposite is true. This porosity is readily evident in the symmetrical shape in the middle of Knowing The Truth and Living It (2018), the wings or inverted, truncated legs, that could be cut out, folded down the middle and stuffed into three dimensions. Equally a work like Slump (2017) could be unstuffed and ironed out, trading its polyfil support for stretcher bars. Like bodies, they fluctuate in weight, posture, disposition, energy level. While they appeal to us as proximal bodies, abandoned toys or forgotten props begging a return to action, they are at least as interesting when considered materially, as collections of particular scraps. Often embellished with other fabric elements, be they yarns or children’s clothes, their closest connection to the world of textiles is Lipke’s use of fabric dye, either applied with a brush as paint or soaked into the material. This technique can have unpredictable results, even when corralled by the wax resists Lipke borrows from the batik process. The dye alters and animates the surface of each piece, even when hidden behind successive layers of paint. It makes each painting like fugitive color dyed in the wool, something that cannot be otherwise and is forever changing.

In doing so, she follows a lineage that goes back at least as far as Helen Frankenthaler, who developed her signature soak stain method in 1952. Rather than apply paint to the surface of the stretched canvas, Frankenthaler thinned her paint into a liquid, manipulating its spread and flow as it soaked into the material, achieving a unity of surface and support. In doing so, she achieved effects that appear as serenely luminous as much as foreordained, famously saying that “A really good picture looks as if it's happened at once. It's an immediate image.”  A generation later, the same direction is present in the postminimalist work of Lynda Benglis, who even went so far as to title a 1969 work Odalisque (Hey, Hey Frankenthaler). This time the gesture is realized in three-dimensional poured pigmented latex, slowed down in its spread across the floor, more expansive and more powerful.  

The time of Benglis’ poured works is remembered as a utopian era, when even aggressively abstract art proposed a more liberated mode of existence, the kind of change tantalizingly summarized by Belgian Situationist Raoul Vaneigem in the phrase “the revolution of everyday life.” The pursuit of the logic and limit of materials like felt, foam, rubber, liquids, latex, wax, et cetera, stood metaphorically for the courses and channels of human freedom, its blockages and barricades, as well as for the liberating potential of seeing aesthetic potential in even the most overlooked daily items. Benglis’ contemporary and frequent collaborator Robert Morris put it this way, in 1968: “Disengagement with preconceived enduring forms and orders for things is a positive assertion. It is part of the work’s refusal to continue aestheticizing form by dealing with it as a prescribed end.” The unwillingness of material to resolve into a final form, or to flow in a straight line from thought to finish is its radical potential.

Both Frankenthaler and Benglis speak to a metamorphic moment since cooled, resolved into a skein of color. In Lipke’s work, restless differences in pattern speak to a patchwork of days and emotions, rather than a single liberated spurt. This unresolved energy fits into a contemporary aesthetic mode termed “non-cathartic” by theorist Sianne Ngai, describing them in a 2011 interview with Cabinet as, “feelings that do not facilitate action, that do not lead to or culminate in some kind of purgation or release—irritation, for example, as opposed to anger. These feelings are therefore politically ambiguous, but good for diagnosing states of suspended agency, due in part to their diffusiveness and/or lack of definite objects.” This state of suspended agency is the opposite of the revolutionary fantasy of superhuman agency (call it its reality), the complex, contradictory motion of an individual will. In a political moment that resembles a Shepard tone, the audio equivalent of a barber pole, in which a pitch seems to rise endlessly without ever changing, staying with the trouble rather than seeking release from, or even denying it, takes on a new importance. Lipke’s commitment to process makes her pieces durational, each day something changes. A rip there, a mend there, the return of some hidden layer of paint from below the surface.

These paintings aren’t of life, but they are like life. They are fundamentally about states of emotion. Ngai continues, “all of our aesthetic predicates are “objectifications” of feeling. To make an aesthetic judgment, with all its necessary claims for universality, is to project one’s feelings onto the object in … a totalizing fashion”. These are objects that contain emotion but do not release it. Their politics is an attention to the daily task of survival. They cannot be thrown through a window in anger, nor can they register to vote. In the paintings, the resist process as a way of controlling the unpredictable liveness of dye parallel to how resistance practice controls the unpredictable liveness of our days. Their resistance is real, abiding, enduring, an acknowledgement that liberation is not something that happens only once. Everything is in there: history and the messy, harried present, the changing course of thought.

Maxwell Taylor-Miller is an independent curator who lives and works in Hudson, NY.

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Meg Lipke: The Woman in The Painting Has Left

By Samir Nedzamar

Continuing her exploration of stuffed fabric forms, the works on display radically fuse medium and support – and interrogate dynamics of space and dimension.

Lipke’s practice is expansive, combining weaving and textile techniques passed through her family with painting and batik; the results are striking and often enigmatic pieces that challenge confines of medium and technique and possess an aura of transience and vulnerability. The forms of the soft sculptures, whose appearances echo the work of Philip Guston and Claes Oldenburg, among others, recall organic and biomorphic themes, resembling otherworldly fabric organs or lungs. Lipke’s sculptures do not possess a specific hanging orientation, and their dimensions are similarly volatile, given their “soft” construction of stuffed fabric. In this way, they exist in a sort of transitory space; unlike conventional paintings or sculptures, which have rigid dimensions and carry an ingrained protocol of presentation and care, Lipke’s sculptures are in constant flux, and open to interpretation and manipulation.

In this exhibition, Lipke probes these qualities, using the possibilities created by the fluidity of her work to open new avenues in her practice. “Dream of a Painting,” a stuffed fabric piece that takes on the orientation and format of a painting, reflects the “in-between” aspect of her work. The stuffed fabric functions as a frame, presenting the void of the wall as the subject of the painting simulacra. Archetypes of specific mediums become roles which are then performed by her sculptures, as in “Icon 2” and “Blue Frame.” The painted surfaces of the fabric further this sense of ambiguity and placelessness. Lipke’s palette is grounded in pastel and iridescent colors, and is applied in washes, streaks, and dappled strokes; they create an appearance of a skin similar to rust or oxidation, and the bright colors give a sense of urgency and saccharine energy.

Lipke’s work encourages unconventional approaches to exhibition, moving her querying of form and dimension into the physical space of the gallery as well. “Blue Frame” is meant to be placed on the floor of the gallery space, and “Slump” can be placed either on the floor or wall. The paintings included in the exhibition adopt many of the same approaches as the stuffed fabric pieces, including their palette and conflation of medium-based practices and spatial conventions. Lipke’s handling of paint is intensely physical, and she achieves with it a tangibility and material heft similar to sculpture.

Samir Nedzamar is a recent graduate of the Curatorial Studies Program at Bard College and a frequent contributor to Freight+Volume publications.