Artist Lane Twitchell grew up Mormon in Utah but in the mid-1990s moved to Brooklyn. His work involves an intensive paper folding and paper cutting process, with paint being applied to cut paper; the results are elegant, lacy designs of repeated American, religious, and place-specific icons that are at once ironized and celebrated, and that make gestures toward both high art and popular culture. In his novel Father of Lies, Brian Evenson similarly tried to come to grips with his own Mormon past.
This conversation was conducted via email over the past few months. "American Paradigms: David Opdyke and Lane Twitchell" will be at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. from February 14 to April 4, 2004.
Brian Evenson (Rail): How do you feel the dynamic between the culture you grew up in and your art has changed as your art has developed?
Lane Twitchell: Well as I’ve had to be more public about my upbringing in the Mormon Church and the common facts of that upbringing, I’ve had to become a lot more honest in presenting all sides of the story. So much of Mormon culture represents itself, not only to the outside but internally as well, as one sided. A friend of mine remarked recently on the great Mormon art/cultural form of journal keeping—the way in which Mormons are encouraged to record uplifting events for future generations. The idea is to always spin the story for the promotion of the faith.
A great deal of the Mormon story, like human history itself, is complex and troubling. Of course the faithful Mormon voice in you says "focus on the positive," but after you have lionized your ancestors or glorified the struggle to settle the Great Basin someone will inevitably say, "So how many wives did your great-grandfather have?" And immediately, if you are to be honest, you get back in the deep end of things.
Rail: Glen Nelson recently wrote that admirers of your artwork fell into two distinct groups: one art-world, the other Mormon. I wonder how you feel about that. I’ve always felt very schizophrenic in regard to my own split sense of audience.
Twitchell: It is an oversimplification of course but it is true to the degree that Mormons and Mormonism are so self-referential. I have always heard talk in church communities about the world at large, whether it is helping at a local soup kitchen or everyone going to a Broadway play together, but in my experience these gestures remain, for the most part, just that, gestures. So then as a culturally identified Mormon that is only interested in the "real" art world you find yourself outside the "culture" of your roots, your people.
Rail: Is it such a bad thing to be outside the culture of your roots, though?
Twitchell: No. What’s interesting is to come from such a deeply-rooted culture that lies within the larger culture of America. A friend of mine worked with the artist Paul McCarthy at UCLA. McCarthy is from Salt Lake and I hear he’s a Mormon, jack, of course [i.e. lapsed]. Now this friend is descended from Mennonites in Ohio. But as we were talking he says, "Yeah Mennonites are weird, but Mormons … they’re really weird." That’s an interesting place to begin from.
Rail: That escape may well be a necessity for artists, at least for particular kinds of artists from particular cultures. I find that sense of outsideness and alienation (coupled with a sense that you can never completely escape your roots) quite productive for my writing.
Twitchell: I agree absolutely.
Rail: I also think that finally when I write a story, the story functions on two levels, one of which addresses the larger literary world, the other of which addresses Mormons. My work tends to be much more painful for Mormons to read because they hear the rhythms of Church talks hidden in descriptions of extreme acts or sense the peculiarities of Mormon religious diction creeping in. Non-Mormons feel the same rhythms and peculiarities but don’t sense the cultural baggage behind it. That may be something that’s more specific to language than to visual arts. I don’t imagine there’s a specifically Mormon way to lay down paint.
Twitchell: There isn’t a culturally specific way to lay down paint, but paper cutting carries with it cultural associations. Many people in New York have never met a Mormon. For that reason, they have preconceptions that tend to group Mormons in with the Amish (or the CIA). The finished look of the cut paper plays into these expectations nicely. At the same time the cut paper works can be completely of this moment in their iconography. So in that way, from a Mormon point of view, the pictures could be authentically Mormon; both old-fashioned and forward thinking, deeply American and yet somehow not.
Rail: Do you feel your relationship to paper cutting has changed, either aesthetically or culturally, as your work has developed?
Twitchell: My last show had some conceptual references to the artist Donald Judd. I think my visit to his spread in West Texas helped me understand what my art was about. That paper cutting is a material-based painting solution.
Rail: What do you mean by a material-based painting solution?
Twitchell: Judd’s work, although sculptural, was really about painting. His artistic concerns were about the Modern project of "advancing" painting. For him this led to an engagement with materials and exploiting their specific properties. So then the art becomes about what translucent Plexiglas or anodized aluminum do, as materials. For me Judd’s work helped me understand that my work was materially based as well. When you cut an image into a folded piece of paper it replicates.
Judd hated the term "Minimalism" and rightly so, his work is hardly minimal. I would propose a better term for all that work would be "Materialism." I guess perhaps that’s the biggest change for me, as it might be for many young artists, embarking on a project based on intuitive inspiration that you think is one thing and discovering a few miles from shore that you’re on to something else altogether.
Rail: I think it’s interesting to think of it as "Materialism" though of course you run into complications since materialism is also used as a philosophical term. But for me someone like Robert Ryman’s work is almost obsessively interested in the possibility of materials, in the way that a painting will stand in relation to the wall, in the framing or lack thereof, stretchers, canvas, paper, and so on.
To change the subject a little, do you think your usage of materials encourages you toward certain aspects of culture and certain approaches to American culture?
Twitchell: Perhaps, what I’m really interested in is expansion, duplication, and growth. I’ve just finished reading Helter Skelter. It’s got me thinking about violence and the American culture, again paralleling your interests. To feed it back to the idea of replication, think about how the media obsesses over violent stories to the point that they enter an echo chamber of meaninglessness. One of the things that I’ve noticed about my new work is how the subject matter is rendered weightless and silly by cutting it into paper. I predict that no matter how gruesome I will try to make something it will always come out sterilized. Kind of like media-processed violence in that way.
Rail: I wonder, though, if there’s not a way to work with that flatness and weightlessness so as to allow a kind of relation of violence and American culture to come in through the back door with a lot of power, a way of secretly and unexpectedly reprocessing that relation. I think, for instance, about how plant forms encroach on the highway in your "The Devil’s Highway." That combines with the color shifts to keep the eye moving and potentially creates a rising panic. There’s something of that too in your most recent work, in the elegant organic forms.
Though I see a Mormon/Western iconography in much of your work, in other pieces it’s completely absent: there’s always an iconography in the cut paper projects, but it isn’t always Mormon/Western. Your recent prints, for instance, draw on the iconography of pop music, while I know you’ve done other work that’s specific to places in New York. So, I wonder, can we classify your iconography as somewhat promiscuous? I.e. it’s less important that you’re drawing on one cultural field than that you’re creating/using an iconography?
Twitchell: Well I’m trying to re-center the narrative focus of some of my work so that it is about my current life in New York, as opposed to my relationship to the American West. The use of iconography is really a way to engage a viewer. High Modernist abstraction became academized in the ’60s but abstraction’s impact is irreversible. So what I’m attempting is to find an abstract structure and to fill it with incident. A claustrophobic Mondrian or polluted Rothko if you will.
Rail: Is it possible to still keep abstraction in that case?
Twitchell: Well of course all painting is abstract, to a greater or lesser degree. I suppose the impact of working after the Modernist project is that you are so aware of that fact. I know it will bug an abstract purist to read that for me abstraction just boils down to composition, but in the end it does.
Rail: I wonder if we can talk about your paper cutting. Of course it’s related to folk art and to the snowflakes that we used to make in grade school in Utah, but I wonder how it stands in regard to the larger art world. Is it absolutely different, for instance, from Matisse’s paper cutting? Is there something about the reproducibility of it (the fact that by making a few cuts you can reproduce the same images many times) that is influenced by the reproducibility found in Pop Art and Warhol?
Twitchell: Both absolutely, the clear graphic edge of Matisse and the pleasing repetition of Warhol, yes.
Rail: You provide keys for most of your work and I wonder if we can’t in your case think of this notion of a key as something drawing on Mormonism. As a kid, I remember looking at the maps in the back of my scriptures, sorting things out according to the key. And keys (symbolic) and interpretation of course are very important in Mormonism in general: the Urim and Thummim for instance. One thing I like about your keys, though, is that they end up raising as many questions as they resolve, revealing things about the iconography but not making the work of art "solvable."
Twitchell: I’m glad you say that. Over the last couple years I’ve grown very skeptical of the "key" because it was an exterior explanatory device that I was afraid was meant to control the viewer. The funny thing is when I stopped making them people missed having them. I’ve resolved it by making "partial keys." This of course is exactly what Joseph Smith did. As any theologian will tell you one of Mormonism’s greatest strengths is its incomplete nature. Anyone can fill in the blanks pretty much as they want. People don’t like being left in the dark and they don’t want to be told everything either. People like the mystery of half-knowing-not-knowing.
BRIAN EVENSON is the author of ten books of fiction, most recently the limited edition novella Baby Leg. He has translated work by Christian Gailly, Jean Frémon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, and others. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship.