Q&A

‘I Think Being at the Top of the Pyramid is Overrated’: A Talk With Sean Landers

Sean Landers.PHOTO BY KATHERINE MCMAHON

Sean Landers.

KATHERINE MCMAHON

Bill Powers: You’re working on a new portrait of Marcel Duchamp?

Sean Landers: Duchamp has been an important figure for me, particularly in 2000 when I did my entire solo show using Picasso’s readymade imagery. Picasso symbolizes virtuosic painting skill and Duchamp symbolizes art of the mind, conceptual art. I framed them as polar opposites within which artists operate today—this dichotomy is the background of our lives as creative people.

BP: Wasn’t there a more direct biographical reference for including Duchamp in this new painting?

SL: The picture shows Marcel Duchamp and the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Squiddly Diddly standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon. When I first visited The Grand Canyon in the 1980s, I was blown away by how insignificant it made me feel—that feeling would become a pervasive theme in my work. Even the greatest art of all time—Leonardo da Vinci—will not be a factor in the grand scheme of things. Duchamp died on my birthday, October 2nd, although not the same year I was born. At one point, I got to live in his old studio on 10th Street. I remember drifting off to sleep at night hoping to capture some of his spirit through osmosis. And then Squiddly Diddly first aired on television October 2nd, so the whole painting is meant to be about life and death, seriousness and whimsy—a parenthetical of the artist.

BP: This new series of paintings was made using a raffle drum?

SL: That’s right, a small brass raffle drum—where this painting series gets its name. I went through my own history of painting and wrote down on small wooden cards 300 separate elements or ingredients, which were different features found in my own past work. Then I put the cards into the raffle drum and randomly chose seven cards to use as the basis for a new piece. I don’t stay true to every outcome, but it was helpful as a point of departure.

BP: What are some examples?

SL: One ingredient might be gin-blossom nose or giant ears or ghost effect or Irish cliffs or outer space. All told, there are 50 trillion possible unique combinations, so this could keep a person busy for a while.

BP: Why did you feel it necessary to paint Neil Armstrong as a dickhead?

SL: I never thought of it as a “dickhead.” I painted Neil Armstrong’s face onto a penis, that’s different. I certainly don’t have a problem with him, in fact, Neil Armstrong is a hero of mine…and so is a penis. I thought they both fit perfectly together—brave individuals that fearlessly go places others have never been.

BP: Why did you name one new painting Longhi Girl?

SL: There was an 18th-century artist named Pietro Longhi. I saw his painting Clara the Rhinoceros (1751) at Ca’ Rezzonico in Venice, in which many of the figures behind the animal are wearing carnival masks. The main woman in the painting has a black mask over her face, but the way the paint has aged, it appears there’s an oval hole in her head leading to outer space. I found this black hole fascinating. So I revisited the idea and combined it with a photo of Emma Stone, which I found on the internet.

BP: It’s also super Magritte.

SL: It’s no secret that Magritte’s “Vache” period had a huge impact on me. I’ve done over a hundred paintings based on that period. It was a singular body of work he made from 1947 to 1948 where he departed from his normal style of tight Surrealist painting for what I call his fuck it paintings. I was blown away by their freedom. When I first saw his “Vache” paintings, in the early 1990s, it made me want to return to painting. I was raised painting—both my grandmother and my mother were oil painting teachers. In college I decided to be a sculptor and a writer, probably to distance myself from them, but I always had the ability.

BP: The body in your Longhi Girl painting is replaced by a stack of pearls?

SL: It’s a riff on that quote from Matthew 7:6 about not casting pearls before swine. So many artists I know, including myself, think that every painting they make is somehow an unappreciated pearl cast before the uncaring masses. This painting is a tongue-in-check joke on my profession. We all feel misunderstood.

BP: Tell me about your new painting of a bull dressed like a pimp.

SL: I’m referring here to an older work of mine, Am I Important? (2006), which was my version of George Frederic Watts’s famous Minotaur painting from 1885. The maze behind the minotaur equals life and all its complexities—the distractions that keep us busy.

BP: But why is he dressed like a pimp?

SL: I don’t see it as much a pimp as I do a 1970s-era Chess King leather patchwork jacket. Look, I’m 53 years old. I was raised in the 1970s. I freely admit that I’m completely nostalgic for that era.

BP: And your minotaur is wearing a Dalí pendant?

SL: I see Dalí as a sort of shaman of Surrealism. I believe in one of the basic tenants of Surrealism, namely, that the subconscious is the artist. Your subconscious is a better truth teller. In my text paintings I always felt that the real art was between the lines of my stream of consciousness. What we artists intend in our art is not always the most interesting aspect of it. What we do not intend is often its most universal reading.

BP: I went to a lecture years ago at the New School where you said that you didn’t think you were pushing yourself as an artist unless you were making something potentially embarrassing.

SL: That was definitely true of my early work and still is of recent work. but to a lesser extent, perhaps. I’m kinder to myself now.

BP: Your friend John Currin says something similar about the corrosive nature of self-criticism not serving him as he gets older.

SL: I feel that way as well. There are many popular yet erroneous myths about being an artist, like the notion that being crazy is a good thing.

BP: What about your new painting of a crying snowman?

SL: I took the background from Brueghel, whom I’ve always considered a real time-traveler. You look at one of his paintings now and you can feel the snow in your socks and smell the wood-burning stove. His paintings are so wonderful.

BP: Because he told the truth?

SL: Yes, exactly. If sincerity makes for the greatest artist in the world, then empathy makes for the greatest art viewer.

BP: So what’s your truth in the snowman painting?

SL: I found a picture of a snowman I made with my kids in my mother’s backyard when they were very little. Looking at the melting snowman, I realized it represents one of my biggest anxieties—that my art will recede with time and not matter. It is set in a Brueghel painting to underscore that anxiety. I would love to be as everlasting as Bruegel, but my greatest fear is that I may not be.

BP: I’m pretty sure it was Frank Stella who said that art history was more like pyramid building. It’s not that people disappear over time, the base just gets bigger.

SL: I think being at the top of the pyramid is overrated. What is important is to be popular enough in your own time to have a strong wind to push you into the future. Ultimately, whether or not our art survives time is not up to anyone living. But you certainly cannot get there without a solid thrust of momentum from the present.

BP: You have another painting of a sea captain smoking seven pipes simultaneously. Is it possible to make a pipe painting without a latent Magritte nod?

SL: I am absolutely referring to a Magritte “Vache” painting called Le Stropiat (1948), where a man has multiple pipes sticking out of his face and eye. But the background here is from Winslow Homer’s Northeaster (1895/1901). If you remember my Alone (1996) painting of a clown in a row boat at sea, that was also based on a Homer painting. I chose seven pipes because of the Seven Seas as a metaphor for the journey through life, the artist’s circumnavigation, which has been and will always be one of my most central themes.

BP: Why do you always use dead artists to make references?

SL: I believe anyone’s art is not activated to its full potential until the artist dies, because only then do the paintings take on the full weight of that individual.

BP: You mentioned that one ingredient in your raffle drum is “Irish cliffs,” which I notice in your new painting of a skeleton.

SL: But those aren’t just any Irish cliffs. That’s the land at the end of the Dingle Peninsula, near the town of Dunquin, where my great-great-grandfather lived. In fact, the Landers still own it today. The man living in that house there now is named Sean Landers.

Sean Landers: Small Brass Raffle Drum” opens in Berlin this September at Capitain Petzel.

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