Art is anchored in reflection of the self. There is a reason why every art student is made to sketch human figure after human figure until they perfect the contours of every bodily imperfection. The beauty in art is revealed when an artist can truly look inward, into humanity, and interpret a story we can all relate to in some way. When two artists find each other and find a common language in that pursuit, there is a rare and real connection. Lauren Levato Coyne and Rory Coyne talked with me about this connection and their individual stories reflected in their work. As artists pursuing their professions, they are tenacious. After opening shows for both of them, they opened up their own studio space in Evanston called Sidetracked Studio. All of this accomplished within the course of a few months. As storytellers, they succeed in continuing the human tradition of interpreting the body as a relatable subject with a history and a myth. I sat with them in their home to discuss the myths and realities revealed in their art just before the opening their shows back in August.
LAUREN LEVATO COYNE
I first saw your art in person at the Wunderkammer show at the Aaron Parker Gallery last year. What struck me was the minimalism you used to create each piece. But at the same time the themes are very complex and personal. Can you talk about you use of Personism in your art? (A note about Personism – this is in the context of Frank O’Hara’s definition of Personism, or rather my interpretation of his definition where the art piece tells a personal story that relates to most who then read or view the piece in some way no matter how subtle.)
Lauren: So the minimalism…I always want to pack it full. When I do the sketches I have tons and tons and tons of stuff that I want to do there. I have tried it several times and every time I do a piece like that I get pissed off. I get really annoyed at it. Because it’s kind of like overkill. I like to keep it focused. There is so much to unravel in there. It’s an intentional and a forced decision. The Swan piece is probably one of the most expansive and packed pieces I’ve ever done. But the personal…well…
Rory: Well when I first met you, you were working on that big goat piece…
Lauren: I was working on an 8 foot goat piece and I threw it out the window. Literally, I threw it out the window.
Rory: It was packed and fully rendered.
Lauren: There was just so much stuff in it and it was hard to do. The goat is just hard. I tried to put a goat in this show but I only got the hoofs in. And I have the goat eye. But I would try to put the goat head in because the goat is, that’s my dad. It’s all about him. I haven’t made the goat yet. I’m not ready I guess. I don’t know. I have a hard time making work that is about not me. I have tried. Even the insects are about me. In other interviews, I refer to them as stand-ins for people and things going on in my own life. I have too many deep imaginings. I used to write a lot of poetry. That’s how I started. I was always trying to get these images out in the poems. I did an okay job at it but the visual just kept taking over until I wound up here. I pushed myself to this point to be able to express the complicated, internal, symbolic logic.
Do you still write?
Lauren: Barely. But I have the urge to do a book. I don’t know if it’ll be a written book or visual or a combination. A book project is on my mind. I write essays for artists so I might start again, but for now the visual has taken over. Back to the personal, I make associations in my head…like everybody does. I’ve been thinking a lot about Agent Orange. I’m always thinking about my dad.
The references that you have, do you try to make them more personal to you or do you get enough out there so that the viewer can also relate? Or do you even worry about that?
Lauren: I don’t really worry about it. The only thing I worry about is making the elements clear enough so that people aren’t wondering what they are. When I’m doing a piece it may be all dark clouds and shit but that’s not what people necessarily see at all, which always surprises me.
In a review on the Huffington Post, you said “Sometimes I should be unable to get it.” You were referring to the personal themes in art work and how viewers try to comprehend art from their point of view. I appreciate this sentiment. Do you find it frustrating as an artist that very few people accept this notion when going into a gallery?
Lauren: I guess that’s when I do think about the viewer. Because it would be a lie to say that there’s no consideration for the audience. I do think about if I’m communicating clearly enough. Not specifically enough but am I communicating clearly enough.
Rory: People like guessing anyway. Sometimes that don’t even want to know what the piece means to the artist. They have their own meaning associated with it and that’s what they want to have.
Lauren: I think they way Rory and I work, when you have a clear representative form, you get that reaction less often. I find. My goal is to evoke a wonder. When they come into a gallery and say “Wow.” Even if it’s just one element like a wing or whatever that’s a success to me. Because they’re going to keep looking at it. If they can get into it by some recognizable thing. Like my insect pieces. People would tell me they hate bugs but my work made them like them and less afraid of them. And then I can tell them a story through the insects. Suddenly they’re engaged in way they would never have been.
Mythology plays a large role in both you and Rory’s pieces. The influence reminds me of D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths a book that has fond childhood memories for me. How far back does your fascination with mythology go?
Lauren: The first time, I think I was 9 or 10, I was in the library and the first book that wasn’t something like Bridge to Terabithia that I checked out was a book on the goddess Hecate and then a book on occultism and then on how to levitate. These were books that were behind the desk and I needed my mom’s permission. I also checked out the Velvet Underground on tape (laughing). So I took all those things home. Hecate was the first that I was truly fascinated with. She was deadly and powerful and I was in a shitty situation at home so to retreat in that world where you could turn men into stone was great for me. I had all kinds of mythology stuff growing up with my mom being a hippie and watching the classic mythology and monster stuff with my dad on television. The older I got, it took a more feminist bent. I got a degree in Women’s Studies. Now it’s more well-rounded. Most of the symbols are more personal. I will do some research to figure out why I want to do a specific thing. Usually when I do the research it does make sense. Rory has a different set of mythological knowledge.
Rory: Yeah, mine was all based on the Arthurian tales. My mother taught Native American Studies and read a lot of their mythology to me. That’s what I grew up with and you add to that the comic book world which is all mythology. I just continued on with that and made my own. If you grew up with storytelling, all you want to do is storytelling.
Your work has always had a Caravaggio style lighting to it for me. There are sharp shadows. The light is duskish but still bright. Since your work makes use of every element to tell a narrative, I’m curious where the light is coming from?
Lauren: That’s a good question…he hasn’t got that question before.
Rory: Light source…I’m assuming metaphorical light source?
Rory: It’s all based on my life so there are metaphors for feelings for struggles for anything that’s happened in my life. Especially since Lauren and I have gotten together…it’s…I can’t really think of it…powerful…less self deprecating. Confident! So it’s not so much about past relationships as it is about what we have now. And feeling the confidence of being more artful and having more powerful women in the art now. It’s spawned from being a lot more insecure to being much more professional in general, in the art world, and in life.
Lauren: Do you think that’s why…well your skin tones have changed but the light has changed now that I think about it.
Rory: They’re a lot lighter than they used to be. I can trace my way of painting the way the light’s turned going from Leonardo da Vinci. Then it went from the Renaissance to the Baroque…Rembrandt and Caravaggio.
Lauren: In your inspiration…
Rory: Yeah, so I’m looking at those a lot more. And now I’m going toward the nineteenth century going toward Mucha and Alma-Tedema. So the light has completely changed from being very light and dark contrasts to having a lot more lighter areas and showing a lot more lighter shadows. So in general, everything has changed. A lot less dramatic contrast than it is now. Which has been great! I think in terms of the confidence anytime when you’re learning new techniques and looking at different artists.
In this show, I wanted to go into something that was much more grand. The show last year was a step towards that. But I needed to take it in more. I needed to explore it more before I take it to a much more grand…
Lauren: He’s talking about epic tale stuff…
Rory: It’s a step towards it but I wanted to take a step back and explore it more. But eventually these images will go into much larger pieces.
The tattoos on your subjects seem just as important as the settings. They are stories within the story. What extra insight are we given when we follow the images on the bodies?
Rory: What I love about people’s tattoos…it started off with doing a portrait of Leah Young who’s our alternative model. What was nice about it is that I was trying to explore color and the way I did it was to color the tattoos. I was using colors I hadn’t used before. I had it in mind to add the tattoos to my mythological stuff. I love that that in most of the paintings you’ll see a personal piece of jewelry and now it’s their tattoos. So the tattoos have the character’s own mythology that even I don’t have access to unless I ask them. So it becomes our interpretation of it and then the viewer’s interpretation of it. And then you put it in a different setting and you start reading into the tattoos more.
So you haven’t changed the tattoos at all in the pieces…
Rory: No I haven’t changed them. I like the fact that they’re so personal to our model. And that’s why they take so long. The tattoo artist created it so I’m trying to be true to that as well. So that takes the longest time.
Lauren: In some cases, it’s like 15 to 20 different artists’ works. Some of the models have so much tattooing.
Your work is not surreal to me as it is super-real. That is, a reality superimposed onto another reality. Can you discuss this layered technique in your work?
Rory: Yeah, my purpose is to make it as probable as it can. So it doesn’t look surreal or a dream-like state. I’d rather have it be that this could possibly be a reality. I like that more than it being viewed as fantastical.
Lauren: I think of your work as being like…what the name of the creature in the labyrinth?
Lauren: Yeah but what’s his name?
Lauren: (laughing) See this is why I need your reference. With your work, it’s like that…where you would encounter these characters in an underground setting or you stumble in some place and here is this creature.
Rory: Well, that’s what I like about all of these mythologies. Like in north western Native American mythologies there is the Raven but you can never tell if it’s an actual raven. Which it never really is. It’s just a human being who is the Raven, who is a trickster, who is a shapeshifter . But you never know what the actual shape is so it’s never really a raven. I mean, it would be a really strange tale if a raven mated with a human. I like that you can’t really tell what the creature is even though there’s so much description or a name like Raven. It’s magic realism. It’s real but not real.
You have taken an ax to your own abstract work. Can you discuss your aggressive opinion toward abstraction?
Rory: (laughing) I know there’s another artist that does that all the time. But when I did that it became such a statement that it became a symbol. That’s why in my logo there’s an ax and a fan brush. That act was for a show called Fuck em/Forgive me and we had to do one piece that was the “fuck em” piece and the other one was the “forgive me” piece. I was really excited about it and I couldn’t come up with anything and it finally dawned on me…there’s a “fuck em” piece that’s basically the art that I just don’t relate to.
Rory: Not all Abstraction. Just a specific kind…
Lauren: Who’s the guy?
Rory: William de Kooning. So many people love him.
Lauren: And you actually offended some people.
Rory: Oh yeah, it was great. It was really fun. So I did a mimicry of one of de Kooning’s pieces. His painting of a woman. So I gave myself a half hour and I finished early. I was so angry about it. I couldn’t stand it. I had to just put it away. And then I did the piece that I really wanted to do which was a realistic portrait of Leah, our model, in the same pose. So in the show, I covered that piece. And the piece I hated was shown next to the covered one.
Lauren: It was really funny, people were coming up and asking, “Is that Rory?” “Is this what you’re doing now?” And some people were saying “I love it!”
Rory: And there was an ax hanging underneath it too. So there was this ominous what’s going to happen here? So the first part of the show it was that. People would walk around and ask the artist about the piece and the artist would talk about their work. And it finally came to my piece I said “This is my fuck em piece. This is my take on de Kooning. I really don’t like the work. I don’t have the respect for it because I feel there’s a disconnect in technique versus just stating the conceptual.” And then…I took an ax to it. It was great. I thought it was going to take a couple of hacks at it because I told the Gallery owner before the show that this piece was not leaving the gallery. If someone wants it, too bad. They’re going to get it in pieces. There’s no way this is being associated with me. So I had planned on just keep on chopping at it. But in one single chop the room went silent. And it was a wonderful feeling. I felt justified. It was good enough for me. After the chop I revealed the real piece.
Ultimately what it comes down to is – to each their own. We went from being very angry about the huge focus on the conceptual and the, I don’t want to say “garbage art”, but making art out of found objects. There was a huge statement on it from the Whitney Biennial. And we were at a place with other drama but now it’s – they can have their world we can have ours and it’s fine.
Less aggressive now and more truce.
L: Yeah it’s fine (laughing)
You both seem to be influencing each other. Informing one another in your works. It’s a conversation that I, as a viewer, feel privileged to overhear. How do you see that dialogue developing?
Rory: I think the biggest influence is just that we just work harder. Because we want to impress each other.
Lauren: We’re really accountable to each other. When we were scheduling our solo shows we coincided the dates because it’s a lot easier when we are both in this mode.
Rory: Because if one of us sits on the couch while the other one is working, the pull to the couch is much stronger.
Lauren: Yeah yeah, but if we both have work to do, not that we would intentionally distract each other, but when one of us is relaxing you really want that too (laughing). So it’s a really good reason to have a studio. I think we have similar personalities. We’re that kid that if you dared us on the edge of the bridge we would do it. That’s how this is. We are kind of daring each other.
Rory: We don’t sugar coat for each other. If something seems off we’ll tell it to each other. First we’ll wait to see if we discover it ourselves. If not then we’re like “Well, what’s this all about?”
Lauren: For instance, Rory’s instinct is to pack everything full. And he’s done that mostly for all of his painting. So when he did this series…whichever one you did first…
Rory: It was the big one the girl with the wings…that was the spark…
Lauren: Yeah, I encouraged you to do a series that was just figures. That was more my aesthetics…
Rory: I was already starting to lean that way and without even having to say anything she really pointed that out. And there you go.
Lauren: And with me there are some times when I think I’m putting too much in and then he’s like no do it, do it, do it. So there will be continued pushing and pulling and daring to do better work.
Rory: Since we had a similar language to begin with in our themes and our art, it made it very easy to talk to each other about the work and not get lost in trying to translate what she was saying or what I was saying.
Lauren: We’re finally to the point where we can recognize what the other is trying to do and not impose our own thoughts on it too much. He definitely pushed me to go larger.
Rory: And I have always wanted see that progression in her work. So when these pieces came out it was like yeah…keep doing that.
The spark of an idea is, to me, a very solitary process. But for both of you being married to each other it’s almost like a collaborative process.
Rory: I don’t think we could every see each other doing actual collaborative work.
Lauren: We work so differently…
Rory: But we’re around each other so much. We have a continuous conversation. So there’s no possible way of keeping it out of the work anyway. But professionally, I think it has helped us move further and push each other more.
Lauren: When we first started dating we talked about if there’s going to be some sort of competition. Like this could go down in flames. This could be a terrible idea.
Rory: Everyone always warns “Don’t marry another artist.” It’s never been a competition. There’s never been a time where we’ve ever felt neglected or the other’s doing better. And I feel like if one of us has a show the other one has one somewhere else. Like you had one in LA and I had one in New York. And we did that. We went from LA to NYC in one week. So it’s been nice. People know us as a couple but not as a “couple artist.” If that makes sense.
Lauren: Some people have thought that I do the drawings like we have a comic book art relationship where I do the pencils and he does the ink. No. And we have a division of church and state here too…oils and dirty there, pencils and clean here (laughing).
Rory: Wet and dry (laughing). There are times that I can’t walk near her because I’m terrified on getting oil paint anywhere near her art.
It’s fun. It’s been a good relationship both professionally and personally.
You can see Lauren Levato Coyne’s Wolf Peach show at the Packer Schopf Gallery until October 18th here:
Rory Coyne’s art work from his most recent show The Fire Pit: Glimmers at Galerie Fledermaus can be viewed here: