Loren Britton is an artist living in New Haven, where they will be an MFA candidate at Yale in the fall. Their intricately textured and composed paintings bridge abstraction and queer figuration with structural mechanics reminiscent of Byzantine and Early Renaissance painters. I met with Lauren in their studio and talked about plastic, queer bodies, and celebration, among much more.
Todd: You make your own acrylic paints from pigments. What’s the significance of that process?
Loren: I have always thought that paint is like the body. To me, using acrylic paint is really important as it references the content of my work. You know, I think of the body as a moldable and plastic thing, so being able to change the consistency, color, thickness, and application feels similar to the ways that I transform my presentation from situation to situation. Having mastery over the paint is, in a sense, an allegory to having mastery over the presentation of my body and the body of my paintings.
When I wasn’t making my own paint, it was always a balancing act. I’d use low quality paint next to something that was really expensive in order to express some sort of economic difference, but it was always someone else’s control that I was behest to. Sometimes I do still use really shitty paint – student-grade acrylic next to something that I’ve made myself and on a single squeeze probably spent five dollars. It’s important to have all of these tools at the ready.
T: Is the plastic nature of the paint important to you?
L: It really is. I find direct relations between a plastic queering of the body and the fact that I’m making acrylic paintings that are plastic in their essence.
In another sense of the word, I had a studio visit a while ago from a painter who spoke about keeping paint “plastic.” Allowing the space of the painting to be easily entered, and keeping things accessible and open for the viewer and the painter. I’ve really adopted this way of thinking of painting because to keep something plastic allows so much space for exploration. That’s the perfect framework for my paintings.
T: The paintings themselves are so thick and rich and often evoke specific anatomy. Can you talk about their relation to the body?
L: The paintings are often celebrations of parts of the body. Tongue Droop and Uvula are two examples of this. The cropping and scale of Tongue Droop and Uvula lead the viewer inside the mouth – looking at these paintings, you’re surrounded by all of that wet, red, tissue-y space – the dirtiest place inside our bodies.
I’m also playing with the implications of “add-ons” to the body. Transformative presentations of the body like dildos and compression shirts allow someone to change their outward presentation, and the act of changing one’s presentation is by its very nature a celebration of that kind of experience. I’m still working out how to incorporate foreign add-ons to the paintings. I think that in the more successful of these paintings the add-ons feel foreign to the surface yet important to the presentation of the painting – mirroring the bodily equivalent of adding-on.
T: You also work with the polyptych form, which relates in a way to the idea of add-ons, because you can constantly add onto and extend these paintings, making them into larger and larger bodies. Can you talk about what the -tych means for you?
L: I actually started working in diptychs because I was really fascinated and compelled by the gender binary. It was a very clear way of saying “one and the other,” “male, female.” Here’s the divide, let me make it plain. Putting that division into one painting didn’t feel combative enough. And then over time the -tychs grew, so I have diptychs and triptychs and polyptychs.
T: Take me through the polyptychs.
L: Obviously my ideas about what the body is and how I can further complicate the gender binary have become more nuanced, and in a way the polyptychs chart that progression of thought. No longer am I interested in “‘one’ and the ‘other,’” but instead I’m curious about multiplicity and the many gendered veils of information that are possible both in presentation as people and in the way my paintings look.
The polyptych took on another power after a trip I took to Germany in September 2014, where I saw not the Ghent altarpiece but a remake of it that was itself being restored. I thought: “This is painting! I’ve been waiting for so long and here it is! This is amazing!” It totally blew my mind.
There’s so much to that painting. The initial connection came of the hinged frames of the panels – I had started hinging my paintings as a way of making tangible a connection. I’m really interested in things that are tightly attached or not attaching, the gaps and bridges between. A hinge seemed to be the surest way of saying “I’m attached to you.” And I loved seeing that in the altarpiece. And of course I kept looking and finding more and more that I loved seeing.
So I came back with this feeling that I had to make something that amazing and that celebratory and that full of life. Polyptychs and triptychs are generally made for churches – they’re celebratory paintings. But they’re also a lot about birth and death and life after death, these major Christian themes. So I’ve been thinking about that within my polyptychs and trying to take it on.
In a sense what I’m trying to do with my forms and painting structure is queer heteronormative culture. Some might look at that and find it problematic and controversial, but I think I’m finding common ground. My paintings are as celebratory as these much older religious paintings. Rather than taking my subject matter – queering of the body – and being ashamed of it, I want to revel in it.
T: I like to imagine it as putting old Christian paintings under a microscope and getting a look at their DNA, and the queer possibilities within that. Of course the existence of queerness has always been a possibility, except that until recently there hadn’t been a word for it or the infrastructure necessary to support the kind of transformations you’re exploring. But I have a feeling that you’re using this Christian history to show queerness as something as fundamental to human identity as religion has been. So the form diverges in one way – via this semi-abstracted, luscious, phallic and yonic imagery – but in another way, the basic structural underpinning – the polyptych – remains the same. They’re both celebrations, but what’s being celebrated within your paintings and how it’s being celebrated is very much of this contemporary moment.
One major difference in the “how” of that celebration is the degree to which early Renaissance and Byzantine paintings are so careful, and yours are so explosive. How do you apply the paint, and how does that affect your relationship to the work?
L: Yeah, I’m not careful when I’m painting. Mistakes are really part of my process. I’m not uptight about it, I’m not worried. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll paint over it. Some of the paintings are made in one shot, so my way of editing is to un-stretch them and stretch new canvas over the old stretcher. I look at painting to be a kind of cathartic thing, so I try not to be too precious in getting to a final product.
If we’re talking me versus Byzantine painting, you know, I don’t work on these for years. If I spend a month on a painting, that’s probably a long time. For me there is something that’s really satisfying about immediacy. Especially when I switched from oil to acrylic, which dries so much faster.
As far as paint application goes, I’ve been piping paint recently. There was a period of time during which I wasn’t using the brush at all, but recently I’ve had a return to the brush, and the brush and I are having a love affair. For a while, though, I was having a hard time with it. I felt like the line that the brush could make was so determined – I couldn’t make a line without having to lift my hand and reload my brush. It was a bunch of contiguous little lines. So when I found piping, it felt like such a release – there was suddenly a drawing space that the paintings hadn’t had before. A drawing space that could build on top of a drawing space, and in a way become sculptural. For me, this way of working felt very expansive and fun.
T: Do you ever draw out sketches or are the paintings strictly cathartic and about that building process?
L: I think it’s usually about the building process. Sometimes I’ll do a drawing midway, but it usually ends up not working. I do drawings separately, and sometimes I’ll do a drawing and decide it’s actually a painting, that it wasn’t meant to be a drawing. But my drawings tend to exist as their own body of work.
T: You recently finished this spectacular painting, Grin + Bear It. Can we look at that? There’s every single color in it.
L: Yeah, I’ve always felt that color was available to me. I’ve never felt the need to limit. Some people disagree with me about that.
T: On that line of thought, can you talk about the rainbow?
L: Yeah, I’m really invested in it. I’ve been making rainbow paintings for the last year and a half. It’s a cliché but sincere and blatant way of talking about queerness. There’s also a lot of separatism within the queer community, which I don’t really understand, but I find the rainbow to rally against that separatism. And to celebrate the rainbow is to celebrate queerness, which is, as I’ve been saying, really the lynchpin of the work. There need to be more images that celebrate queerness as a positive thing because globally it’s still an enormous issue, even if you forget about that in a New York bubble.
T: I see that arch in a lot of your paintings as a kind of structuring device. What other symbols or shapes do you find yourself using?
L: My brother is deaf, so I’ve always been preoccupied with communication. Painting is another way of communicating, a kind of sign language. So the alphabet was something I was really interested in for a while, and I started creating my own lexicon. Those shapes and forms that meant specific things to me are not really included in the paintings anymore, but they’re still definitely on my mind.
In Grin + Bear It, I think that the form that is most clearly evident and important is the tooth shape. It’s an upright smile and then an inverted one. I was thinking about the Cheshire Cat – there is something menacing and crazy about that smile. While I was making it, I was in the midst of a lot of transition in my life personally with my family. Sometimes when you’re going through something the only way to move forward is just to grin and bear it – and that was definitely how I felt when working on this painting.
So something about teeth is really interesting to me. I mean, I’m interested in communication, which of course has a huge connection to the mouth, but I’m also interested in the shape of teeth, and their proximity to the mouth. The mouth is this warm, wet, red space and pretty vulnerable without teeth. They act as a kind of shield against the world, in both a physical and social sense. Its definitely about passage into a personal space and about keeping one’s shield up to keep yourself safe.
T: The top panels are so different from the bottom, the top with the smile, the bottom with the inverted smile.
L: Yeah, this painting specifically I was thinking about how different I could make each panel from the next. So it was really about finding those differences, while still creating unity.
T: How important to you is it that individual panels function as paintings on their own?
L: It depends on what painting you’re talking about. In Grin + Bear It, it became very important to me. That being said, I think certain panels work better than others on their own. I’m okay with that. Certain ones need the whole and certain ones don’t. If they all didn’t, there wouldn’t be a reason to have them together. Some of them are like the glue, and some of them are like the pieces.
There’s also the fact that it’s not symmetrical, when you compare the top and bottom halves. So I’ve begun to think about how the paintings act like puzzles. I think the paintings will begin to be more “added-to” – disregarding the rules of symmetry.
T: Have you thought about making frames? You said you had been hinging paintings together. What are some ways these might move forward, and do you need to learn anything new to do that?
L: Oh, yes, I will. You know, along those lines, I would love to learn to be a better carpenter. These are skill-based questions that will further propel the work once I’m at a place in the actual painting that allows for more of a physical frame to the paintings.
I have a lot of fun making furniture in the garage – terribly made furniture. It’s a difficult time trying to put the things together, but I love what happens with them in the end because they look so haggard. I made a bedside table out of an old apple crate and tried to paint it, but the thing about apple crates is they’re made with some type of wax, and I didn’t know that so I just sanded the surface thinking that would take off whatever was on the surface. Then I painted it, but the paint started coming off, which I thought was hysterical, so I just kept painting it, and it kept running off. Finally after about six coats of paint, it started to stick, and it had become this amazingly weird piece.
So I’m kind of torn. Do I actually want to have that know-how to do things right the first time, or do I love the process of fucking it up and working it over until it becomes this thing I couldn’t have ever foreseen?
But I do think there’s something about having carpentry skills. I have some but not enough. I can build a wall but I can’t build a home. I would love to be able to build a home. I want more know-how. I want to be handy. Handy for living, but also handy for the work. If I had skills to make anything I wanted in wood, would these paintings be what they are? Maybe they would be the same, and that would be great, but I don’t actually know that for certain. So it would be good to have the skills to test that.
I think next in terms of the paintings, I want to get some really chunky wood and build the frame, and I want to wood-burn it. I don’t think I’m invested enough in making a frame to want to carve it, but wood-burning would be drawing essentially. So to draw something with the wood would have a child-like quality, and a cheap quality that I’m interested in.
I’m also always thinking about Forrest Bess. He’s one of my favorite painters and he had frames on all of his paintings.
T: Nice! Who else are you looking at right now?
L: I’ve been thinking a lot about Jacolby Satterwhite. I think that he really pushes the envelope, and I wonder how I can push the envelope with this kind of painting.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Clare Grill, too. I interviewed her a while ago and she talked about how close to the surface she gets while painting. So close. There’s something there about the intimacy with the paintings that I really feel in general, but especially as someone working in as small of a space as I have right now.
T: That makes me think of Tomma Abts as well, how she paints with one arm and cradles her painting with the other. It becomes her baby.
L: Yes, I love Abts!
I’m also always thinking about Edvard Munch. (Lauren wrote an essay on Munch for Painters on Painting). I think his landscapes are amazing.
You know who I’m thinking about! I went to the Met last Saturday, and I am really thinking about Tiepolo. I think he is a total genius, and his framing devices are beautiful. And his colors! Those blues! I have not seen blues like that. They are so bright in that space. He has this one painting, Allegory of the Planets and Continents, with all these figures floating into the center of the painting, and it totally doesn’t make any sense, but it’s awesome.
And then I’m also thinking about Travis Fairclough. He’s my best friend, we did undergrad together. He made this really killer painting recently – there’s this perspective line at the bottom of the piece that looks like doors are folding in on themselves, maybe how gears of a machine would, but it’s in perspective of course so they’re folding and whisking at the same time. And then there’s a tree-like form that looms over it. It’s a bit complicated to explain in words, but everything is made in these little, little marks. It’s so wrought and built.
T: Sounds awesome, and I’m jealous of anyone who got to see you grow through your undergrad years. I know you’ve quickly transitioned to your MFA at Yale. As a recent grad going onto another two years of school, do you have any advice you’d give to your freshman self that you might also give to future first-year you?
L: Don’t worry so much. Go into the city as much as you want. And go to more drag shows!