An interview with Libby Hague, February 2016
As part of the Gravure Montréal facebook page I will be asking print media artists to provide some insight into their work and explore the impact that printmaking has had on their creative process.
To start us off, here is an interview with video and print media artist Libby Hague. Libby is a Toronto-based artist who has close ties to Montréal. She is a member of the printmaking atelier, Open Studio in Toronto. An enthusiastic traveller and incredibly prolific maker, Libby's creations can be found at locations all over the globe, New York, Montréal, Toronto, Tokyo, England, the States to name but a few. I first stumbled across her work while taking a short-cut late one night along Adelaide west in Toronto. In the dark her fragile suspended works flitted and floated in the windows of the wonderfully mysterious Natural Light Gallery.
So without further ado here we go...
Photo credit: Yael Brotman, Class at Hospitalfield
Hi Libby, thanks so much for agreeing to do this! Let's start with the basics.
How do you like to explain yourself as an artist?
I usually say I have a hybrid practice that is based in printmaking. It might be useful to preface anything I say about printmaking with a comment about what I am trying to say in print. I keep returning to an old and unresolvable problem about what it means to be human in a precarious world and how we might become better people. That’s why I have been exploring themes of interconnection and empathy over the past several years.
Photo credit: Walk With Me, Centre Clark, Montreal, 2015
Whose work or what inspires you ? Who were your founding influences and where do you think you fit in with the timeline of artists. What I mean is whose work do you feel you are following and continuing the same line of inquiry as.
I love to wander through museums, discovering new objects and seeking out others. I recently went to NY in part to see the Picasso sculpture exhibition at the MOMA and an Egyptian Middle Kingdom exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. Both were great, so I certainly don’t look just at prints. Museums give you a perspective on your own time, you see civilizations rolling along and it is at once splendid, and melancholy.
Although I wouldn’t say that I followed or continued their work, when I was a student in the 60’s and 70’s , I was inspired by Rauschenberg and Warhol (not his celebrity prints but the large screen prints on canvas, the Mao, electric chair and Jackie Kennedy series and the combines for example). In the 80’s when I started working at Open Studio, I was excited by the wild assemblage prints of Otis Tamasauskas and the elegant, multi-panel lithos of Don Phillips . I was also tremendously impressed by the work of Harold Klunder who was working with Open Studio printers on highly complex prints that might have had 50 or more layers - the wonderful things that were buried in great prints like Elderslie! I was also impressed by the focus and seriousness that he brought to every mark he made. Later in the 90’s and 10’s, I liked Kiki Smith and Swoon, and more recently Seripop and Ciara Phillips although I only know Ciara Phillips’ work from the internet.
I also love literature and film. I grew up in the suburbs of Montreal and reading added 300 degrees to my world view.
Why do you do what you do? What is your motivation to create? What keeps you going?
I am a curious person who is both impulsive and patient and when I get an idea, I want to make it happen. When I feel a piece has potential, I get a nervous excitement as if I am a hunter, tracking something I don’t want to lose, closing in on it, feeling its potential. It is something never made before, even if it may be indebted to many things that came before.
As a child I played with blocks . After making something, I would call my mother to come and look and then I would take it apart and start again. Arguably, I still do something similar. I also remember the intense pleasure that came from making things that I thought were good, and like many addictive processes, I have wanted to keep experiencing that satisfaction throughout my life.
Photo credit : Peter Legris
Build...build better, Gifts and Occupations Collective at the Zion Schoolhouse with Yael Brotman, Matthew
Brower and Penelope Stewart, September 2015
How do you think printmaking enriched your art practice, what kind of thoughts or actions has printmaking directed you towards?
I love the way printmaking transforms ideas. It integrates the parts and turns up their volume. It’s made me comfortable with layered construction, which creates a comfort level in digital processes like animation and video. I have turned to print installations in recent years as complex envelopes for everything that matters to me at a given moment. This means woodcut, but also sculpture, and recently video or projected animation. This week I am once again using wood type so I can “quote” my thoughts and the texts that inspire me. It allows artists to get as specific as writers.
What do you consider the pros and cons in printmaking?
The main disadvantage is the toxicity in a lot of the processes. As I get older, I don’t want to breathe the chemicals or wear a respirator. While print often entails a physical strain from repetitive work, I used to enjoy the physical demands of litho because it involved me completely - intellectually, emotionally and physically. In future, I would like to seek out an opportunity to work with a really copacetic master printer. I haven’t explored that very often but meanwhile I am happily printing my own woodcuts.
May I add, a final disadvantage of printmaking is that I am really tired of being dirty. Oh well.
Among prints’ advantages are the way that it involves a lot of busy work. This may not seem like a good thing, but much of this is preparation work which keeps you moving but allows the mind to wander. Both these things can put you in a receptive, associative state of mind. I keep a notebook where I jot down the free-associated ideas so the preparation is syncretic and over time it gets deeper.
Sometimes people suggest I hire an assistant but I think, Why? Why pay someone to have my fun?
In print you have components to push around in an improvisatory way and ideas come to you that you wouldn’t encounter if you were sitting in front of a computer thinking your way to a solution. In print, we are making things with our hands and the hands have their own, intelligence.
Finally, I’ll say a word in support of the proofing process which is as much a part of printmaking as its multiplicity. Proofing encourages experimentation, learning ( you compare variations) and a search for perfection because you keep trying until you are satisfied. When you are at that point, the process holds the energy and passion of that moment in the marks.
Studio shot of work in preparation for Harbourfront (left) and Vienna (right)
Do you think there are common traits amongst printmakers and how they are in the world?
Like any specialty, there are lots of technical matters to be perfected and this can be both quietly inspiring and limiting.
Are creating through printmaking installations and video related or opposing and complimentary practices? How so?
They are different enough that there is a pleasant collision when they are juxtaposed. They complement each other well because video brings in sound and movement. The time constraints and ambitions of both installation and video require other people’s involvement which brings in other energy and insight which is also a good thing.
Choir of Love, video still, 2014 curated by Mireille Bourgeois of CFAT for AGNS
Libby Hague's One Step at a Time, print installation, Art Gallery of Mississauga, 2009
Who/what are these figures and patterns that appear in your work? are they symbols or portraits or....
It depends on the context. You may be thinking of the small athletes I used in my disaster series. I thought of them as searching for meaning in their lives by exerting themselves to their utmost to rescue small babies that needed saving. They were depicted in the middle moment when the consequences of their actions were unknown but to me they were heroic , simply by trying their best. The idea was that they desperately needed each other, and the girls represented people I admired who took risks and made a commitment to help others. The disaster installations I did always had this element of rescue. The figures also allow me to bring in a narrative. I think of the installations as laboratories where we give ourselves the time and space to figure out who we are and then, maybe, how can we become better people.
What are you trying to say and who are speaking to, who do you create work for? What are the conversation themes from people experiencing your work?
My work is often about our responsibilities to each other, our interconnectedness. I also have a terrible sense of the “fragility of goodness” ( a phrase from Martha Nussbaum) and that it takes an active effort to maintain and perhaps improve the things we value, both on a personal and societal level. The idea that seems to have the most traction in my recent work is the idea of hope, I suppose because we are paralyzed without it.
Photo credit:Peter Legris,Family Dynamics, Verso Gallery, Toronto, 2014
I feel that humour, playfulness and travel are important to your practice. For me, all of these characteristics are a way to embrace risk, chance and accident, to relinquish complete control and facilitate alchemical reactions with their contexts. Would you agree? Would you say this is a way to court and embrace mysteriousness and the risk of miscommunication or is it something else entirely? Does the location of the work matter?
I’d like to comment on your question about risk. Robert Lepage, the theatrical polymath, has had a big influence on me. I still feel the wonder of his 5 hour+ production The Seven Streams of the River Ota, which I saw about 25 years ago. Lepage described it as a work in progress which made me realize that with complicated things, some aspects not only will, but should, go wrong. If not, there isn’t enough discovery happening. You have to try to push ahead and improve the weak part during the course of the show ( oh no it’s that artist moving things around again) or try to nail that part the next time. It’s amazing how this strategy makes you feel relaxed and free. Nervous but relaxed.
You have to work hard to pre-prepare as much as you can before an installation but accept that you can’t control everything. The location matters a lot. Since the space will be different, you will be responding as sensitively as possible to that and the individuals helping you have a big influence .
I often want to make something because I think it will be funny. Humour can also delay the impact of darker ideas, that is to say, to prevent people from rejecting them right away. If something looks like fun , we approach it with a more unguarded heart and in a sense, we are vulnerable and reachable emotionally. The hope is that the complexity will settle in.
Probably my biggest risks are curbing a tendency to get sentimental and preachy.
How do you think your work has changed over the years?
I feel freer and I trust my hunches more. I often pursue an idea without knowing where it will take me. It is a conscious and unconscious process. I correct my course many times, trying to put down layer upon layer in the work and to make it deeper and more complex. Even after the show is up it’s a luxury to spend time with it and try to understand it more fully. First I am trying to satisfy myself.
The big change in my work happened when I left part time teaching and started developing a print based installation practice. This was something new. I had the good fortune to switch to Japanese paper which encouraged me to jettison many of the rules of printmaking that I had followed until then. I started pinning the paper to the wall, cut up the sheets, pleated the prints and left the press and picked up a wooden spoon. This paradoxically encouraged me to go bigger because I didn’t have the limitation of the press bed to consider . I stopped editioning. I still printed a large number of sheets from each matrix but I printed only when I needed more of something; otherwise the blocks remained stacked against the wall. It was a different way of managing my time and money, i.e., less time printing and investing in paper and more time coming up with new ideas.
Inventing Hope, Idea Exchange, Cambridge, curated by Iga Janik, 2015/16
What are your current and upcoming projects we should check out/watch out for?
LH: I just installed a sculpture with an animation projection for the Tricky Women International Festival in Vienna and now I’m preparing for an installation at Harbourfront in Toronto in June. I’m excited about both of them.
Surviving as an artist can be tough, with oodles of rejection, working without pay etc. Do you have any 'artist survival tips'? What do you do to remain inspired?Do you have any observations or advice would you like to share to remaining inspired and navigating the art world?
Try not to be defeated by rejection. The IPCNY has stories about artists who have applied more than a dozen times before being finally accepted.
It’s always good to have another project on the go. When a show is over, which for me also means dismantled into component pieces, it can be depressing unless something else is in the works.
It’s also good to recognize that sometimes you need to take a break, get distance and learn something new, go to exhibitions, concerts and films, spend time with people, go for a drive in the country.
Thank you Libby!
For further information on Libby's world please visit her site---> www.libbyhague.com