The Artist's Gaze: Lauren Levato Coyne
What compels you to the specific women you choose to paint?
To date my women are self portraits. The lines of the figure are my lines, my body. Even if I draw a hand or foot, it’s my hand or foot. People think I stylize it but I don’t - I omit. The figure is line only, no tone and specifically to me no tattoos or scars. The omission has a lot to do with the fact that the story I’m telling isn’t only mine. Sometimes it’s not mine at all, but I’m telling my side or my version of how someone’s story is impacting me. There’s a reason most of my collectors are women. I’m telling stories about things women are deeply familiar with in the dark interior.
When do you know you have made a significant connection to your subject and what does that feel or look like from your perspective?
To answer this we have to identify the subject (which is the story), the subject/object (person) and the subject/image (artwork).
When I want to make a drawing about a specific subject it’s about addiction or cancer or agent orange, something like that. My subject is as in a story, not a particular person. My own body winds up as the subject/object because it’s where the story starts.
I know I’ve found the right subject/image when it lands on me like a house. When it’s right I’m so compelled to draw nothing can keep me from it. Those are the drawings people see at galleries and on the internet. That’s not to say I don’t draw when I’m not “compelled” - I have other ideas that don’t land on me, they just sort of stop by for tea and biscuits. They are guests along the way, they aren’t the house they are only visitors in the house. People can only see these if they ask to see them and maybe not even then. Guests can be like that.
Tell us about a strong reaction you have received to your work and the impact you sense it has made on the subject, viewer or the greater cultural landscape.
“More subtle and therefore more scary, Levato Coyne’s implied apocalypse is unspoken, gradual, and partly conducted by our own hands as well as the hands of those who come before us, and maybe even those who love us,” written by Kathleen Rooney in The Believer as part of a review of my solo exhibition Wolf Peach at Packer Schopf Gallery in 2014. Whoa!
Beyond that the individual stories I hear from both men and women, especially about very traumatic and impactful events in their lives like rape and death. Talk in front of my drawings can become very intimate very quickly and that’s a great deal of trust someone puts in me, to give me those stories. I don’t take it lightly. And it keeps me going when I think I’m just talking to myself. I’m not. When the work is revealed many people appear alongside it.
In terms of my career, my collectors are incredible and winning a $12K grant in 2012 in support of my work was quite motivating. My first museum show last year was also a milestone. In October my husband, painter Rory Coyne, and I opened a 950 sq. ft. storefront studio along with art consultant and collector Michele Mahon Jahelka. It’s called Sidetracked Studio and we also have exhibitions in the gallery space on the first floor. That’s a big deal! But we’ve been working so hard I’m not sure it’s totally registered yet just what an accomplishment it is. Which is ok, I don’t like to get too comfortable. There’s always work to do, which makes me happy.
What is it about your personal journey that has brought your gaze to focus so deeply on women.
I’ve experienced a lot of shit that only women go through, or at least there’s a specific way we go through it. If we ever get out of it. And we go through it more often in that specific way - violence, sexual abuse, and rape are the obvious ones. All my work started from those events and even when the work isn’t specifically about those moments, because time heals and let’s be honest it would be terribly boring to make work about the same trauma for the rest of my life, still, that red thread runs through it.
When I make a drawing we don’t have to talk about it. It’s understood what’s happened. It’s a form of telepathy, primarily with other women but certainly not exclusively. I find it very interesting what different genders see the in the work - because we all like to act as if we live in some post-gendered world but we don’t. And we walk through the world differently. Recently artist Ted Stanuga, former director of the Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, sent me a really powerful message about how he can see the rage seeping out from under the edges of my drawings. And that is certainly there, a lot of it. Without the right knowledge though it might not read that way to all viewers, which is also fine. So there’s a lot of different conversations happening that start with my perspective as a woman which is of course the only one I can give.
Women look inward, it’s what we do. There’s a lot of shaming or trying to turn that trait into something negative when looking inward is one of the most powerful traits we possess as a gender. Women see so far and so deep it’s terrifying. And then we remember what we saw. Sometimes we see so hard it can collapse us, that’s where it can be dangerous. My drawings prevent collapse, of myself but often of others.
Why this visual dialogue? What do you hope to accomplish through your work?
I first trained as a writer and worked as one professionally for a decade, then in PR and grant writing. But I was also doing visual work during that time. I published a few poetry collections that were very visual in their language. Eventually the visual took over entirely. I still write now but it’s a very small part of my creative endeavors. I was hoping to have a new poetry manuscript finished by February but the drawings demand more of my time and of the two I give my time to the drawings.
How does your subject make a change in your artist's gaze?
I see way beyond the edge of my own horizon now, even though these are self portraits in their origin and in their presentation.
Tell us about your current series or work and how it may be different from the work submitted for the show.
The work in the show is part of my current series. I’ve had one solo exhibition of this current work already, the Wolf Peach show, but I’m far from done making work that deals with the way we poison ourselves and each other. It’s about to get very intense actually.