Power, Labor, and Material Culture: In The Studio with Lauren Frances Adams

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Lauren Frances Adams mines the histories of power, labor, and material culture to make surprising connections that resonate with current sociopolitical issues. Inspired by historical decorative forms and designs such as Chinoiserie-style wallpaper, Elizabethan-era textiles, and Soviet avant-garde agitprop, Adams’s hybrid objects and installations are purposely anachronistic and deeply relevant for suggesting how we value social hierarchies, politics, labor and its attendant outcomes today.

Lauren Frances Adams (American, b. 1979) lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland, where she is a full-time faculty member at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She has had recent solo exhibitions at Back Lane West, Cornwall, UK (2012); Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (2012); EXPO Chicago (2012); Conner Contemporary, Washington, D.C. (2011) and Royal NoneSuch Gallery, Oakland, California (2010). Her work has been featured in group exhibitions including: Nymans House and Gardens, Sussex, UK (2012); Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina (2011); CUE Foundation, New York (2008); Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh, PA (2008); and the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA (2005); among many others. She received her MFA from Carnegie Mellon University (2007) and has attended several artist residencies, including the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. She is a Joan Mitchell Foundation MFA Grant recipient as well as the first painter awarded the Clark Hulings Fund for Emerging Visual Artists in 2013. Upcoming site-specific projects include the Clermont Farm in Virginia (an ex-slave plantation) and at American University’s Katzen Museum in Washington, D.C. Adams is the co-founder of Ortega y Gasset Projects, a gallery and long-distance artist collective in Bushwick/Ridgewood neighborhood in Queens.

from Bi-Polar at School 33
from Bi-Polar at School 33

Cara Ober: Where did you study art? What kind of work did you think you’d be doing when you started out as an art student? How has your work evolved?

LFA: I grew up on a pig farm in eastern North Carolina — which provided me with a good work ethic and a deep knowledge of the abjection of dirt. I was also very lucky that my parents understood my talent and desire for making art (my mom made paintings and photos and showed me many watercolor techniques when I was really young) and supported me to go to a state high school for art — North Carolina School for the Arts (now rebranded).

Seminal memories from this time was a class trip to see Robert Rauschenberg’s 1997 retrospective at the Guggenheim and Lou Reed and Robert Wilson’s TIME ROCKER at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Coupled with watching Twin Peaks in a 3-week marathon with my art school friends, I ended up a long way from the pig farm. I had my first retrospective at age 18 — seriously! — it was a reaction to how Rauschenberg’s identity and life path were presented and manipulated by the museum institution. It was a conceptual project sharing both true and fabricated stories about ‘The Life of the Artist, Lauren Adams.’ I mimicked this museum-style presentation in an effort to achieve mythic status before I’d even really become an artist, and I thought it was really funny. I attach a photo here of the fake band I was in, I released a fake 7″ single for the opening of the show. The rest of the works in the show were kind of bad Cindy Sherman knockoffs.


I was also very lucky to attend a state school, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I received my BFA degree and graduated in 2002, where the excellent faculty such as elin o’hara slavick, Tammy Rae Carland, Jill Casid and Kimowan McLain taught me about feminist art, queer art, and native american art. Since I’ve been making and had such radical and wise input from an early age, I’ve luckily been on a track that I would say is indicative of the above influences, and for me, feels like a seamless growth as an artist. My work is always evolving as my understanding of being a human evolves. I am humble that I understand very little, and I feel that my investigations as an artist — conceptually and materially — have afforded me a unique engagement with history and our human experience. Hopefully this makes me more empathic and informed. I have felt since I was in high school that art can’t be separated from identity, and since I was 20 that making art that tackles political and/or social ideologies is where my voice was most passionate. I still believe these things.

CO: Your current work is about Elizabethan Culture and also Colonial America. How did you arrive at this subject and why does it fascinate you?

LFA: I believe that one role of the artist is to challenge order and hierarchy. I began my art career in 2003 making French-toile inspired paintings that featured scenes from the war in Iraq (this was before anyone else did it and now you see this style everywhere). I was just so angry that Bush was taking our country into war, and I had been traveling on a grant from UNC and witnessed and participated in European protests against American empire. This galvanized me to make art that addresses inequities and also incorporates familiar visual languages — forms that are believable because they are already part of our language and taste in visual culture, be it a patchwork quilt or a fancy royal portrait painting. My goal as the artist is to complicate the language of contemporary art through the revival of archaic forms — it’s this engagement with history that brought me to Elizabethan colonialism and the founding of the ‘New World.’

from Bi-Polar at School 33 (detail)
from Bi-Polar at School 33 (detail)

The British Museum was touring the watercolors of John White from the 1580’s — paintings from the height of Atlantic exploration by western Europe for colonization purposes — and the tour brought the paintings to North Carolina where I saw them on a visit back home with my family.

White’s paintings devastated me. They are beautiful and terrible. They are concrete visual evidence of the imperialism and dominance of the Elizabethan culture that begat pirates such as Sir Francis Drake and eventually, a set of ideologies that made possible trans-Atlantic slave trade and the forced eviction and death of the native peoples of North and South America. Within other visual culture of that time period (16th century), which show richly dressed and well-appointed British rulers and patrons, by painters such as Hilliard and Gheeraerts, what we see on display is an attentiveness to crafting a public persona and a political agenda, or in other words, propaganda.

Likewise, the drawings and watercolors by John White that featured the practices of the natives and the animal inhabitants of the region inspired Thomas Harriot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588), which served a critical role in the promotion of North America as an imminently viable place in which to plant a new British colony. Hariot and White’s texts and images were intended as clarifying agents for the colonial British, and read much like a pantry for the future settlers. But our present understanding of their work tells us so much more about the British than about the ‘New World’. The figures are mannered in the European style, and filtered through the colonial lens of trade goods, economic extraction, and human exploitation.

I’ve been making this work, The Lost Colony Project, for about 5 years now. Sometimes I think I should move on but then I discover more interesting subjects from the period to make work about. And it’s not particularly fashionable to make this work — I have to do a lot of historical explanation when I lecture on my work — but that has another interesting function, a didactic one, where the artwork parallels a relationship to historical inquiry.


CO: To me what is most unique about your work is the craft and multiple ways you realize your ideas in different simultaneous media. For example, in Bi-Polar Exhibit at S33,  you created a painting to hang on top of wallpaper you designed and placed an installation of gourds and pearls in front of it. What is your philosophy on media and craftsmanship? How did you come to work in so many different simultaneous directions?

LFA: In graduate school at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh (I graduated in 2007) I had a lot of great faculty and grad student peers who turned me on to digital printing, experiential video processing, installation techniques, and in general challenged my assumptions about traditional media. I remember a critique where a faculty member asked a student why he was painting, and I thought that was so great, that you really had to believe that painting was important and worthy to be making it because there were so many other, perhaps more sexy and cutting edge techniques that were available to artists. It didn’t bother me at all like it would have some painters. My personal challenge as an artist and teacher is to grow with my work and my students as we discover new territories and language for resolving contemporary concerns. I welcome painting as a revolutionary site of taste, material, and image.

I would say my interest in hybrid practices really found footing at the Rauschenberg exhibition I mentioned earlier. Here is an artist who challenges painting and sculpture to create his ‘combines’ as he called them — a word I always liked because it made me think of the machines that harvest corn. The idea of art collapsing into the everyday is really seductive to me — domestic ready-mades such as strings of pearls and dried gourds (forms that in this particular installation are referencing high and low culture — Queen Elizabeth’s fancy royal dress and a native drinking vessel indigenous to the Atlantic indians), or wallpaper as domestic decor that is most typically regarded as background noise but becomes a site for interrogation of tradition and received assumptions. I like to ask the question: Is the decorative or ornamental somehow a structural agent in our lives? How does the decorative participate, either actively or silently, in promoting dominant ideology? Can it be subversive?


I’ve been criticized for using things that look TOO domestic, too cheap, too decorative, too rural, too southern, too human body, too female . . . but I think that embracing those so-called abjections can take me into territory that is important. I read Mary Douglas’ book “Purity and Danger” (1966) when I was in college and it challenged me to think about how we subjugate and other that which is considered unclean or not pure. In this way too I like making works that don’t fit in prescribed media formats, that are pluralistic — form follows function. But this is always a challenge as mounting installations is costly, producing by hand is labor-intensive. I also make paintings in my studio because I like painting and this has sometimes allowed me to show my work where I wouldn’t otherwise be able to. But this is also good work to do because I can express things in 2-dimensional formats that tussle with the history of painting and the limitations and opportunities of paint media. As for craftsmanship, I use lots of little brushes, so many that I’m always giving my students the busted out ones that I no longer can use. I just love painting, I wish I could do it all day long every day. I love detailed works and complicated surfaces and material with meaning. I think growing up on a farm contributed to this — a sense of the physicality of things and also how to break the rules or make things up to get things done. As my dad would say, “If it works, it works.”

I also have a bone to pick with the hegemonic authority of modernism. I just curated a show in New York at Ortega y Gasset Projects called Ornament and Crime where I explored how Adolf Loos’ essay from 1913 did quite a number on outcasting the decorative as an intelligent and worthy site for artistic inquiry.

Sketch for Hardwick Wallpaper
Sketch for Hardwick Wallpaper

CO: Tell me more about wallpaper design! What are the specifics of the imagery in the S33 installation? What is the process for creating and producing wallpaper? 

LFA: The wallpaper in the installation Hoard at School 33 is digitally printed from a hand-painted sample. The sample is a painted copy of Queen Elizabeth’s dress pattern, from a painting called Hardwick Hall Portrait. The dress features embroidered images of sea monsters and other flora and fauna. I discovered while painting it that it incorporates a horseshoe crab. Which is not native to Europe and would only have been known due to colonial exploration in the Atlantic. So, it’s a kind of evidence of the news of the time — strange creatures from far-away lands — and has fashion behaving as a kind of record of contemporary events. My painting is a hybrid sample of her dress.

Wallpaper Sample
Wallpaper Sample

I start with painting gouache or acrylic on paper, usually 12 – 36 inches. Then I scan it in and stitch the various scanned files together to recreate the original painting. Then I stitch together several of those files, creating a tiled image that fits whatever format and dimensions I need to print it as — wallpaper, fabric, etc. These files are often many gigabytes in size because print quality is important to me, and to make certain things work I might end up with a file that is 50 inches wide by several feet long. The truth is that often the final result isn’t a true pattern as there are slight variations or inconsistencies due to my one-man-band approach to artmaking. I often use a digital drawing tablet to weave together imagery and correct gaps or add elements so the image looks credible. So, technically, it becomes a kind of large digital painting rather than a truly repetitive print or pattern, depending upon the project.

I’ve worked with the print labs where I’ve studied and taught to produce the paper and fabric, as well as with a company in North Carolina called Spoonflower whose print-on-demand services meet my small output – and who anyone with access to a computer to scan in something and $20 can make their own t-shirt or pillow with unique fabric — very cool. I sometimes fantasize about marketing this work for others to use in their home but I truly don’t have time to go that route right now, and I’m also a bit suspicious of what mass production of this would mean to my practice.

Lost Colony - Plunder at Conner Contemporary
Lost Colony – Plunder at Conner Contemporary

More examples of digital printing are the Plunder project I did at Conner Contemporary in Washington in 2011, before I moved here. I don’t always print the work — another recent project at EXPO Chicago art fair was hand-painted wallpaper featuring handmade signs from Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party protests. I copied them into an appropriated and existing reproduction wallpaper from the Revolutionary War. 

CO: As a relative newcomer to Baltimore, and one of the few new MICA faculty who actually chooses to live here full-time, what is your reaction to the city and the art scene? What are the plusses and minuses you observe, compared to other places? 

LFA: I moved to Baltimore with my webmaster/pinball champion partner Jake Peterson and two small dogs (a street mutt from St. Louis and a three-legged dog from Pittsburgh) in August of 2012. My official job title is Full-Time Painting Faculty. MICA is a non-tenuring institution. I left a tenure-track job at Washington University in St. Louis to come to MICA and be back on the east coast, where the majority of our friends and family live.

I think it’s clear (since I’ve lived in a few other mid-size post-industrial American cities), Baltimore has many things in common with these places like St. Louis and Pittsburgh, though I will never stopped being shocked at how much class and racial inequities are so visible to me but seemingly ignored or exacerbated by the government and political community. Unfortunately this is very similar to St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

Baltimore is an awesome city to be an artist. There’s a lot of support if you make art and show it — artist-run galleries, grants, schools with dynamic programs and visiting artists, etc. There’s also a really robust scene to view other artworks: great museums and artist-centric showspaces, which make it easy to see global works (like the comprehensive collection at the Walters) and also hot-off-the-studio work from local talent. There’s a good dialogue and promotion fostered through outlets like art blogs and facebook and enough movement of artists, curators and critics through the region between DC and Philly and New York to result in folks who are educated about what’s going on outside of town but also invested in what happens here.

There’s ample studio space, or at least I hear that from other artists. . . I myself haven’t found a studio yet that fits my needs and it seems odd in a warehouse-rich city like Baltimore that more affordable spaces aren’t available, like there are in Pittsburgh and St. Louis, two cities I’ve lived in and easily found workspace. I still feel like a newcomer so I’m sure I’m not getting the whole picture. I also find it curious that I’ve heard a few folks seem not as willing to take advantage of the proximity of DC, and vice versa — the museums in DC are incredible (though the rents make it seemingly impossible to live and make work there), and if you combine the DC/Baltimore area you end up with a dynamic region that has a lot to offer the practicing artist. Hopefully the weekend MARC service will change how artists in Baltimore and DC think about attending art events, often scheduled at nights and on weekends.


I personally would like to see the city put it’s money where it’s mouth is in regards to ‘arts districts’ like Station North and Bromo Seltzer and make subsidized exhibition opportunities and studio rents for artists. And I don’t just mean providing free exhibition space or cheaper studio space than the going commercial rate — exhibiting art costs money and time. Again, I may not be as informed about all of the opportunities. And I’m a lucky one because I have a full-time teaching job that helps support my practice, as well as the occasional grant.

I’ve never wanted to live in New York and honestly think I could not live there and be an artist. The ‘attention economy’ is so strong there that I find it easier for me to live in a place where I can move about in a way that fits my ideal. Also, in Baltimore I have a garden and a basement to make dirty traditional gesso in. And I like how relatively easy it is from Baltimore to go kayaking at Gunpowder Falls State Park, or go to the beach, or go hiking on the Appalachian Trail. And I’m still holding on to hope I’ll run into John Waters at the Safeway.

CO: What new projects are you working on currently? What are you most excited to pursue next?

LFA: I’m really excited about the dozens of small paintings I’m making for the Rotating History Project at Clermont Farm in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, about 1.5 hours from Baltimore, opening in April. RHP is curated by Teddy Johnson and Heather Rounds and their previous projects have occurred in Baltimore. I’ve never explicitly made artwork about the global history of slavery or my own personal family history with slavery, and this new project is attempting to address how the visual culture archive is a site for expressing and minimizing enslaved peoples. I’m making a site-specific installation (in the 18th century sitting room that has shelves installed in the 20th century made from the former slave quarters) that forms an archive of slavery — not because I purport to know so much about it, but instead because I know so little and I endeavor to know more. I am concerned with how the legacy of slavery and racism continues today. You see with Steve McQueen’s recent film, 12 Years a Slave, some people are so afraid to confront this part of America’s past, which is some of the resistance he speaks about when he released the film. As an artist, I am a hopeless romantic, so I actually desire that I can bring something new to the conversation and also that personal awakening has positive external effects.

I’m also working on a site-specific painting for the rotunda within the American University Katzen Arts Center. This will be a painting that adorns the round ceiling opening in a space frequented by students, faculty, staff and patrons of performances and exhibitions in the center. It will remain for one year and opens in conjunction with the show curated by Zoe Charlton and Tim Doud (AU faculty), THE NEIGHBORS, at the American University Museum, of regional art faculty.

To see more of Lauren’s work, go to her website here.

* This interview was conducted by Cara Ober.

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