Interview with Lorraine Peltz: Painting Life Through Signs and Symbols

Growing up in New York in the late ‘70s, Lorraine Peltz arrived in Chicago in the ‘80s to earn an MFA at the University of Chicago. As a professional artist and teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she paints about dreams, fantasies, gender issues, and parallel universes in familiar and yet surreal landscapes. She has participated in one person shows and group exhibitions nationally. In Chicago she has exhibited at the Hyde Park Art Center, Carrie Secrist Gallery, Koscielak Gallery, Printworks Gallery, the Rockford Art Museum, the Renaissance Society, and several other galleries and exhibition spaces.

Stardust. Courtesy of Lorraine Peltz.

ArtStyle: What has been your background and experience in art?

Lorraine Peltz (LP): I was born in New York and went to school at the State University of New York at New Paltz. It was a great place for me. My painting teachers there were second generation Abstract Expressionists and therefore that was the language that I grew up with. It was paint and the materiality of paint that informed my undergraduate painting education. I graduated from school and lived and worked in NYC, but missed the dialogue and encouragement I had as an undergrad. So I decided to apply to grad schools, and my choice was to go somewhere where I would get a fellowship. I received one from the University of Chicago. I had never lived or been to Chicago before, and I was interested in the fact that the graduate program was connected to the other departments at the university. I was also interested in art history, literature, language, and I was writing poetry at that time. It seemed like a very good fit because I could avail myself of the other resources, and I was also interested in living in an urban environment.

ArtStyle: What was your experience like at the University of Chicago?

LP: The U of C was a very positive experience for me. It was a small community of artists, and it was very intellectually rigorous. I was able to avail myself to theory courses, literature, and art history and all that allowed for a dialogue with my work. Vera Klement was teaching there but was on a fellowship my first year, and she came back to teach my second year there. We formed a very nice bond and a lasting friendship. She is a wonderful painter whose background is also in Abstract Expressionism and was from NY as well, so we had a connection right away. I did really well there and received the Midway Studio Prize when I graduated.

One of the questions there that helped me very much occurred early on during a critique. At that time I was making paintings about paint, materiality, and examinations that the Expressionists were interested in. Often in critiques the faculty would say to me, “What are you painting? What does this mean?” In response, and after some frustration, I set up a chair and I painted it. And to that same question, I answered, “A chair.” That act helped get me involved in looking at objects as conveyers of meaning. I wanted to render these things and allow the meaning of the painting to come from the audience's response to the object I had painted. They could bring to the painting something that had to do with their personal connection to that “thing.” Those paintings were painterly, but were representational and realistically rendered. This led to a series of paintings that focused on the metaphorical possibilities of the object that I culled from my immediate surroundings. They were about something intimate and domestic.

Afternoon Delight

Afternoon Delight. Courtesy of Lorraine Peltz.

ArtStyle: What happened after grad school?

LP: During grad school, I worked at the Renaissance Society at the U of C. After I graduated I worked at a gallery in the River North area, so I was able to stay here in Chicago and make a modest living, and was able to continue painting and working. After that I taught at Northwestern University. I began teaching painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1995, and have taught there since. I now teach in the First-Year Program. I teach Research Studio, which combines lectures about contemporary art-making practice with studio practice. This semester, I'm teaching a class about issues of identity in contemporary art, so we'll focus on artists whose work deals with examining self and identity, and the students will create projects that focus on those ideas.

ArtStyle: Do you ever get ideas from your students?

LP: Yes. What's really wonderful about teaching in an art school is that you are very much connected to youth culture and contemporary culture in a way that you might not be otherwise. Art students are often engaged in the very latest and most current ideas. Sometimes that's relevant to me, and sometimes it's not. One of the things that I love about teaching at the School is that it is a haven for all sorts of ideas. For me, my work is about ideas. It's about ideas made manifest through paint. I get a lot from students and try to give a lot. It's a very mutual relationship.

End Game
End Game. Courtesy of Lorraine Peltz.

ArtStyle: How has your art evolved over the years?

LP: From chairs I looked to other objects that I felt I could use to convey meaning. This piece called End Game is about shoes and women. The work slowly evolved from being about individual objects, such as a chair, to being about relationships. I turned my focus specifically towards women and gender. This piece in particular is one of the first pieces that focused on that. This painting used various pairs of shoes to represent those different stages or positions in a woman's life.

Excellent Hostess
Excellent Hostess. Courtesy of Lorraine Peltz.

This piece is called Excellent Hostess. Again it focuses on the possibility of the object as determining meaning but shifts my focus to the information surrounding the object — the relationship between the ground, the painting, the surface, and it's connection with the object. My work has evolved from focusing on the object as the central point in signifying meaning to incorporating a lot more in terms of sign, symbols, and painting languages. Currently, I'm trying to make the most generous painting that I can. I think it's about being a bit older and not as certain. I think you start out as a young painter being very certain and clear about all things. I'm less certain now and realize that there are lots of different ways to convey meaning, and I see that information comes to us in the world in lots of different ways. I'm trying to include those varied languages within my paintings.

Perfect Pear
Perfect Pear. Courtesy of Lorraine Peltz.

Dream Girl
Dream Girl. Courtesy of Lorraine Peltz.

This painting is called Perfect Pear. In this body of work, I'm trying to connect the object of the fruit with the environment. These paintings are about women, pleasure, and fantasies. Speaking of fantasies, before this, I did a series of paintings for an exhibition called Dream Girl. Those were about over-the-top femme fantasy that began with a certain kind of object: the high fashion boot. My process still begins with the object, the meaning of the object, and the possibility of the object, and moves from how that object can give off certain kinds of information, carrying with it its baggage. I think that it's really exciting for an audience to recognize something, to name something, to know something, and that's a point of entrance into the work. From there, one begins the trip of looking at the work. I read something calling it “an accumulating satisfaction” and that phrase always stuck in my head — that there were lots of levels of information out there that one could then add up somehow. In the early work, I focused on shoes but those shoes were iconic or neutral, and in the Dream Girl body of work, I specifically sought out shoes and boots that weren't neutral in any way; they were over the top, conspicuous, fantasy, glam. That series of work focused on glamour, fantasy, and desire.

ArtStyle: Where do you get your ideas from in terms of a series?

LP: I tend to work in series. The work over the years is connected but moves forward as I move forward. If you keep working at something, you get better at it. I tend to keep myself engaged and follow the direction that my work takes me in and that tends to be autobiographical. I'm not the same person I was 20 years ago. I allow that to enter into the work. In the series of work with the shoes and the boots that were glam, the surface area and the decorative quality engaged me and that was something that I wanted to explore more and actually allow to become more pronounced. It's was an organic move that led to the paintings in the next body of work.

ArtStyle: You use a lot of flowers in your work. What do they mean to you? Is it a ‘70s thing?

LP: I have recently. They're flowers, but they're symbols of flowers really. Earlier on I did a series with painted flowers that looked like realistic flowers. But these flowers are of a different kind; they're pop. I use them to talk about something effervescent and positive.

I came of age at the end of the ‘70s. I'm still very much interested in that particular period of American culture. I see that moment in time as being distinctly American because it doesn't take from the European culture. I was looking for something specifically that I could juxtapose to the chandelier — which in my mind talked about European culture — and that was very understandable recognizably American. I try to have these things be generous to the audience. I'm having an exhibition in the summer in Munster, Indiana, at the Center for Visual and Performing Arts, which will be a survey of my paintings over several years, and we'll call the show Excellent Hostess. I think that would be a good title because that's what I try to be with my work — an excellent hostess for those willing to spend the time. I offer visual pleasure with color, form, shape, but also engage my viewer intellectually with a range of signs, symbols, and the baggage, meaning, and references connected to these objects.

Red Plums and White Lilies
Red Plums and White Lilies. Courtesy of Lorraine Peltz.

Purple Plums
Purple Plums. Courtesy of Lorraine Peltz.

ArtStyle: What process did you go through in creating paintings like Red Plums and White Lilies and Purple Plums?

LP: I was interested in creating a landscape. They're landscapes of a physical world but also an interior world. In this one (Red Plums), there are 3 sets of walking women's legs and in a way, this is an homage to my mother, who had 3 daughters. So they're walking in a field where the grass is both going up and down. Everything is not quite perfect but seems to appear lovely. I was also thinking about Monet and his water lilies. These are Hungarian plums. It's about a journey, and it's a walk through a field, and sometimes that field is very pleasurable and sometimes it presents many challenges and dangers to us. The lilies and lotuses signify opening up, hope, the future. So it's about moving forward into the future despite the dangers that surround us.

I either create stencils specifically for the work or I have images that I have created over the years. I found this Lotus shape which I've used in Purple Plums. Another part of the work in Red Plums is that I was interested in using white. Ideas may come from colors, objects, signs, and text. They evolve in that way. The work is not step-by-step linear. I go back and forth, and I find things. I knew very clearly that because this was a horizontal piece, it would have these 3 walking figures and there would be a certain relationship between these 3 figures and these two plums.

I tend to leave the paintings in the studio and start another piece and then let it sit and look at it and make changes as I get to know the painting. It's an experience of the painting telling me what has to happen to it as well. After doing work in Purple Plums with a lot of signifying imagery — Leda and the Swan, the black snake, the lightning bolt, the lips, and tears — I wanted to do a painting that could have meaning in the same way but without so many pictorial elements.

Turbulent Waters
Turbulent Waters. Courtesy of Lorraine Peltz.

ArtStyle: How do you determine what colors to use in your paintings?

LP: Color has always been my thing even training as a young artist. I credit that to my undergrad days when I studied color theory and over the years have continued to think about color. As a student I would study Edward Hopper's paintings. His color palette is very unusual and unique and I would force myself to re-create his colors, and this was helpful in learning about color as paint. I think about color obviously for its chromatic value but also for its symbolic resonance as well.

ArtStyle: What are your studio practices?

LP: I get a soda. I put on some music. I work whenever I can, whenever there is time. What I do is drop my daughter off at school and then I come to my studio. I teach so I am in the studio on the days when I'm not teaching. The nice thing about having a studio where I live is I that can work during the day and then come back in the evening and do some more work. What I do with the paintings is that I put a ground down. It's many layers, and before I can move forward I need that first layer to dry. There are times when I am in the studio to just look and I think, which is an important part of this process that I'm involved in. I am looking, thinking, and considering what the next act or move should be. There's a lot of quiet time in the studio. I tell my students that a really important part of the act of painting is not painting but stepping back and looking and thinking about the work and hearing what the painting is talking about so you can know what to do next.

ArtStyle: Could you comment on your new body of work?

LP: This current body of work is very personal because the chandelier comes from my mother's house, and she passed away two years ago. We were selling her house and there was this object that was very meaningful to us as we were growing up: a crystal chandelier. She left Europe without anything, and when she came to America, she re-created her life. This chandelier was significant to her because it reminded her of the life she had back home. It represented a new chance. It was in the center of our house, and it sparkled and spread this lovely light over everything. That became important in the same way these other objects in my paintings were, and that carried with it much baggage, much significance. It talked to me about her life and memorialized her existence and struggles. It was a way of honoring her life, but it also allowed me a visual way of presenting two cultures, hers and mine.

These paintings will be for an exhibition in September, 2008, in Verona, Italy. Of course, it's evolving now so it's hard to talk about. In my mind, it will focus on the object of the chandelier and the pop flower imagery, and also about light and dark. Much of my work has always been about the juxtaposition of ideas: object-ground, sign/symbol-reality. This is another sort of juxtaposition involving the chandelier, the pop flowers, and a darkened space. Again, it's a continuation of looking at those two cultures — European and American (which is very much who I am) — and whether it's the co-mingling of those cultures or the clash of those cultures. It seems very fitting to be showing these paintings in Europe. I'm taking the imagery that I'm working with and thinking about the place where the show will be and very specifically working with that place in mind. It's really exciting to be involved with a project of this kind at this point in my career and life.

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