"There was a point in my career in the fall of 1977 when I decided to give up painting as I had known it in order to go back to the history of painting, to its very beginning where the first artists were using the earth to draw upon its surface, as a need to understand it historically."
This month, Lita Albuquerque—who last year created an art cover for us—the Los Angeles-based Light and Space artist, showcases her new meditative, hypnotic works, Embodiment, at Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles. The collection draws the audience in with reflective, concave discs made from gold leaf, and allows them to reflect on their perceptual reaction to the vibrant reds or soothing indigos of the surrounding panels. Her colors come from natural pigments, which soften the panels and warm the palette. We spoke to the veteran artist about her materials, her thoughts on light, and why she lives and works in Los Angeles.
I am fascinated by your use of natural pigment in all of your work, the feel of antiquity, the sense of impermanence, the circumvention of technology. What led to your interest in pigments over paint and how has that use evolved?
I wanted to start from a very elemental way with the rawest of materials: the earth itself as surface and ground up rock as the medium. At first I only used mineral pigments and poured them directly on the earth’s surface. Prior to that time, I worked with a variety of materials and dry media including powder pigments on paper and canvas. I loved the vibrancy and the opaqueness of the dry pigments and was very familiar with their properties and of course had come across synthetic and industrial pigments. In 1977, I decided to start using those, especially the ultramarine blues, as I was interested in having a color that would create a pathway between the earth and the sky.
The feel of antiquity, the sense of impermanence, and the circumvention of technology that powder pigments have also resonated with me personally and my childhood growing up in North Africa, in the ancient Roman city of Carthage in the country of Tunisia, overlooking Roman ruins. The ruins made of marble, the rocks, the red soil of the area, all had a deep impression on me and I started playing with rocks and earth from a very early age.
I have used pigments in their raw state for decades and in large quantities. This has evolved through many years of research on pigments especially how they refract light (or not) and the differences in each particle, most recently and for this exhibition I have used Japanese glass pigments that are used for a technique called Enogu, for which pigments are made in which each particle is the same size, as well as the mineral pigments where each particle size varies, this affects the work in ways which interests me. I even used Vesuvianite that is a pigment that was first discovered on Mount Vesuvius and is a complex iron-manganese-silicate. I am fascinated with playing them off each other in terms of the quality of light they produce. What I have created are surfaces that are accumulation of layers and layers of particles, each one reacting differently to light.
With the reflective nature of the spheres, how much did the positioning of the lights play into the installation to capture your vision?
The disks in each painting are gold leafed with 24k gold leaf and white gold leaf (12k) which is a metal and by its very nature is reflective. I have seen the paintings glow in total darkness, and start looking like orbs under natural light with the movement of the sun. That being said, lighting is everything, I have always loved Leonardo Da Vinci’s quote “the sun is the greatest painter of them all” you can replace the word sun with light and understand that what we see has everything to do with the quality and the source of light. When we positioned the lights it was important that it was the correct balance between the natural reflectivity of the disks and the light coming from the pigmented field, a balance between color and metal, where each complements the other.
The Kohn Gallery has a great amount of soft natural light, what light source did you use to create the pieces?
I created the pieces with both artificial and natural light in my studio, the gallery has an optimum lighting situation so it was great to finally see them the way they should be seen.
"Eolian Acceleration" definitely is the firetruck in the room, drawing my eye as soon as I walked in. Can you talk a little about the choice of the vibrancy of this piece and it's placement with the others.
"Eolian Acceleration" is definitely as you say the firetruck in the room, and the reason I decided to include it in the show is that each one of these paintings through the use of color and the proximity of certain colors, work as accelerations for me. As each title implies, and as the title of the show implies, I am working with the idea that each of the paintings is a perceptual accelerator, that through the vibratory quality of the particles of pigment of each of the paintings, some sort of perceptual acceleration occurs in the viewer.
The painting has an Alizarin Crimson background with an Indigo aura around the disk. I am fascinated with Alizarin Crimson and what kind of vibratory quality it has, but I am also interested in that it has a companion painting which is its opposite: an indigo background with an Alizarin Crimson aura. I am intrigued with how different those colors work when one is on top and the other on the bottom. Both paintings are placed side by side in the gallery and that is why I felt it was important to keep “Eolian Acceleration” in the exhibition. There are also other pairs in the show that have the exact same color with a background of maybe sixty layers of white pigment underneath, and then the same color on top of a background of maybe sixty layers of black pigment underneath, that kind of differences fascinates me about color. “Eolian Acceleration” is on a white pigment background that also increases its vibrancy.
You have lived and worked globally, but you and your studio are based in Los Angeles. How does this city influence or inspire your work?
I was initially inspired by the very nature of living in Los Angeles and responding to the quality of light and space that spawned the Light and Space movement of the Seventies. Being in close proximity to JPL and Caltech also gave me the opportunity to meet and collaborate with astrophysicists like John Good at Caltech and infused my work with a scientific bent; teaching in the Graduate Program at Art Center College keeps me in touch with the young artists coming onto the scene.
Culturally, Los Angeles has exploded in the last fifteen years and I have been immersed in the young community of dancers and performers who have exploded on the scene and whom I have met through my daughters Jasmine and Isabelle (dancer and performers). This immersion has opened up an entire world to me and one in which I draw great energy, creativity and inspiration. “20/20: Accelerando” my most recent multi-media installation, (showing at Fisher Museum of Art, USC) and created in parallel with the Kohn Gallery exhibition “Embodiment,” is a collaboration with filmmaker and musician Robbie C. Williamson, artist Marc Breslin, dancer Jasmine Albuquerque, and performer Cassandra Bickman. It is exciting to me to know that it came out of the energy of this city.
Having had my studio in Los Angeles for so many years and seeing the transformation occurring in the city I feel this is only the beginning of a great surge of creativity where inter disciplinary and inter-generational collaborations are giving us a great portrait of who we are creatively as a city. I do believe we are the wave of the future. It is a we that comes out of the creative complexity and energy of Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is also a place where community can be created and I feel that this is what I have done here and that I am a part of, I find that for myself, it is increasingly exciting and creatively essential to live here.
Lita Albuquerque’s Embodiment is on view at Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles though February 27, 2016