Elizabeth Tremante Interview - The Hopper Prize

Elizabeth Tremante

Tremante discusses making art as a kid, an early epiphany, developing long term bodies of work & new paintings that deftly address a male dominated art historical canon

How did you get into making art?

I have always been an artist; I was always drawing and making things as a kid. I grew up on a farm in rural New York. My family did not visit art museums, and I knew very little about what it meant to be an artist. Sometime after college I had a job in the repair department of a luggage factory mixing paint and dye colors to match repaired bags. The person who trained me for the job was an artist named Felicia Glidden. We became friends, and the first time she invited me to her studio was an epiphany. She rolled back a giant door in an old molasses factory, and I was stunned. It was the first time I had seen personal space dedicated to making art, and I immediately knew that this was what I wanted to be doing. The aspect of the studio that affected me most profoundly was seeing the process of her work—stuff on the floor, drawings on the tables, art on the walls; it was thought manifest in materials. The way art materials were mixed up with the stuff of life felt right.

What are you currently working on?

I am more than three years into a project about being a mother and an artist. When my daughter was about six years old, I took her to a local museum, excited to show her some paintings in the permanent collection that had stolen my heart. To my dismay, I realized that what she was actually seeing was a giant room of huge paintings almost all of which were made by men. In other galleries she was seeing (for the first time) nude, vulnerable women as objects of desire or violence, and in Modernist galleries she was seeing female bodies and faces cut apart and reconfigured by cubism and abstraction. The museum rarely, if never, provided a counter-narrative. She was tuned into all of this in a literal way; she thought it was weird and disturbing, and she wanted to go home. I guess all parents have “What was I thinking?” moments, but this was a little different. I was well versed in feminist thought around Modernism, but ultimately, I was so in love with the paintings, I let myself be a little bit blind. The work I’m making now addresses this particular ambivalence. Because I’m working with humor and fragments of stories from my own life, the paintings naturally veer onto their own weird trajectories that are deeply satisfying. Sometimes the paintings imagine events that I would actually like to see happen in museums. Early on in this project, my daughter told me that the stories in my paintings were “the exact reason museum guards are so strict about children staying next to their parents.” She may be right.

Because I’m working with humor and fragments of stories from my own life, the paintings naturally veer onto their own weird trajectories that are deeply satisfying.

Elizabeth Tremante

What inspired you to get started on this body of work?

I told the origin story about taking my daughter to a museum, but I didn’t think about it as a subject for work until after the 2016 election. I was particularly disturbed and angry by the number of white women that voted for Trump, and I needed time to think about that and to try to understand it. After attending the 2017 Women’s March in LA with my husband and daughter, I felt invigorated. My daughter made a sign that read, “NOW KIDS FIGHT BACK!” We ran into some of her pals from school on the train platform who had equally excellent signs for 8-year-olds. The kids rode on their fathers’ shoulders through the crowd. There were some young women, young artists, at the march with the beautiful, elaborately painted signs that were raw with revolution; their signs reminded me that artists need to forge ahead. I felt I could do something new, and that in fact, I must do something new. Strangely, though, I did something new by looking back to something old. I returned to the types of drawings I had made in high school. I enjoyed making satirical or absurd drawings or comics as a teen, and this body of work feels very much aligned with those early attempts at drawing. I grew up reading MAD Magazine, so the idea of taking an honored piece of culture, like a film or a novel or a political movement and turning it into a slapstick comedy of horrors feels very natural. Bringing humor and the absurd into my work cleaves very close to my personality and perspective. Mostly, though, with the Women’s March in mind, I wanted to make work that doubled down on the aspects of my life that had been held against me (and others) as an artist: being a woman and being a parent. I don’t need to tell stories about that—anyone reading this knows what I am talking about.

Do you work on distinct projects or do you take a broader approach to your practice?

I develop distinct bodies of work that unfold over time. I usually spend 3-5 years on a body of work. My current work is much slower, so I assume I will be working on this project for a long time.

What’s a typical day like in your studio?

Since we are in a pandemic, everyone in my house works together to get their day started in their own corners. I spend a little time on life-business, then go to my studio to get to work. Whether drawing or painting, I get my focus on right away, and I do some type of work that requires the deepest attention first, when possible. The pandemic is pretty rough on focus-time, so I’m always looking for 3-4 hour chunks where I can just put on music and work. I am a restless person, and it is very helpful for me to take regular five-minute walks through our garden. I break for lunch with my family (a nice part of everyone being home) then work again in the afternoon. Sometimes, depending upon how the week goes, I work at night after dinner. I really enjoy working at night with music on.

Who are your favorite artists?

Joan Brown’s paintings feel constantly new to me. I have always been interested in Lois Dodd—especially her paintings of windows. On Kawara is a favorite. Two of the best paintings in LA are Ensor’s Christ’s Entry to Brussels at the Getty and Kerry James Marshall’s De Style at LACMA. There are many more painters, sculptors and performances artists who are touchstones for me, but I am deeply inspired by writers. I especially love the obsessive Haruki Murakami, Octavia Butler’s “Lauren” and Rachel Cusk’s mind-blowing Faye trilogy which is a searing sketch of white feminism. The protagonist is, by turns, ignorant /vile and idiosyncratic/sympathetic: the writing is brilliant. My daughter is a dancer, so my family sees dance performances when we can. I especially love LA Dance Project. Their performances are both beautiful and raw, and you come away feeling inspired by both the level of total excellence and each dancer’s sense of joy and pain in the body. I am a fan of illustrator/comic book artist Lauren R. Weinstein. Her book about birth called “Mother’s Walk” opens with this quote by a Gabriel Bell, “Behind Every Beautiful Thing, There Is Something Sordid.” I couldn’t agree more.

Where do you go to discover new artists?

My favorite Instagram is @desertislandcomics; there is no end to ridiculous brilliance on their account. I also like @astrid_erken. I love Suzanne Vielmetter’s program, so I’m happy to see whatever she has on view. There are other other interesting galleries/institutions in LA like Commonwealth and Council, Night Gallery or the Underground Museum that always show something compelling, whether I like it or not.

Elizabeth Tremante is an artist based in Los Angeles who was recently shortlisted for The Hopper Prize. To learn more about the artist:

Stay Connected

Follow Us on Instagram

Join Our Network