Pierogi: Do you have an idea of what a drawing will become before you begin?
Cynthia Lin: For the dust drawings in the flat files, I don’t. I usually start with some quality that interests me, and these are based on dust, so there’s usually a pile of dust or piece of lint that has some psychological pull to it; it’s kind of like a character in a novel and you don’t know what’s going to happen to it, but you develop it as you get to know it, you respond to it or counteract it. It’s a little bit like a stream of consciousness.
P: There’s a lot of movement in these drawings, it seems like the hand is very present. Can you talk about the significance of that?
CL: I think that all of my work is grounded in movement or gesture as a way of moving through space or understanding the body. Often it’s the gesture that I might identify with in some sort of bodily way, or in a psychological bodily way. The rhythm of it and the flow is what interests me. As far as the presence of the hand goes, I think of drawing as being related to calligraphy. I studied Chinese painting in art history and I might have more of an eye for calligraphy because of that, so a sense of my knowledge of the hand-made mark might show through in these drawings.
P: You also make much larger drawings, so the presence of your hand and the mark-making changes drastically between the scales of the different bodies of work. Can you talk about that?
CL: Instead of the movement of the hand, the large drawings are more about large movements and the overall shape and gesture. The larger work is in some ways the other side of the coin; instead of minimal, it’s maximal, but it’s still about the body and about the things that you witness in every day life, such as looking at the corner of somebody’s mouth, but you don’t usually think about that very hard. So there’s the same interest in trying to start with something that is actually very mundane, but presenting it in a very strange and extreme way.
P: So they are sort of celebrating the banalities that one may overlook?
CL: Yeah, magnifying it and going back to the gesture, finding some other organization that makes it art, that makes it lyrical, and gives it a certain kind of rhythm that speaks to other things beyond your first take on the image.
P: Are the drawings always in black and white?
CL: I used to be a painter, and I used a lot of color, but over the years I’ve evolved to using black and white. I keep color open as an option, like the possibility of drawing on colored paper or using colored pencils. But there are a few things about black and white that work so well. For one, it feels documentary and factual but it’s actually much more ambiguous, so it allows the image to seem like other things while, at the same time, seeming so straightforward. The flesh drawings get especially ambiguous, because you don’t know if you’re looking at blood, or a river, or a shadow. So the neutrality of it being black and white works better for me. The richness of the surface is important, too. This might be an attitude that’s influenced by Asian culture, “the fewer things you have, the harder each thing has to work.” For the drawings of dust and hair that are here, they’re made with silverpoint, and you can’t make a dark mark or a wide variety of marks with that tool, so you have to work harder to make the marks interesting. I know that if it contained color, that subtlety would sort of just fall away.
P: Do you work directly from source material for the large drawings? If so, where do the images come from?
CL: I do, and the images come from digital sources. Many of them come from directly scanning a body part – having someone press their face or scar onto the scanner. This creates interesting disruptions – such as breathing that creates shaking and sweating. It also creates weird space – close-up compressed areas and out-of-focus areas that don’t touch the glass. It also provides an insane amount of detail that would be impossible to see any other way. My work is about seeing – and that even includes observing all the barriers and disruptions and confusions. After getting the scan, I spend many hours and days cropping and adjusting the images in order to find an interesting composition– using Photoshop as a “sketchbook.”
P: Has your place of origin had any affect on your work?
CL: I’ve realized that it does have some affect. I grew up near Chicago, so I am an American but there is something, it could be physical as well as ingrained in my personality, but something makes me drawn to extreme discipline, and a quiet way of approaching things rather than beating you over the head with it. I went to college in the Bay Area of California so I was really influenced by Diebenkorn and the abstract expressionists. But they were all really macho so although I feel like my work has some of that affinity, I’m taking a more feminine and subtle approach to it.
P: What is it that interests you so much about the body?
CL: When I make artwork, I feel as if I’m understanding it through my body. The most obvious example is in undergraduate school in figure-drawing class — you feel yourself in a pose and even if I abstracted it, the gesture would evoke an arm or a leg or something, and that was how I physically felt my way through painting. It’s the kinetic, physical aspect of making things that I relate to. In a broader sense, the visceral response also interests me. With the dust drawings, people say that looking at them makes the back of their neck itch, like they can feel the hair scratching them.
On another note, I’m really attracted to things that are both really beautiful and uncomfortable. No matter what the imagery, the quality of something being seductively beautiful, is really important to me, but it should also be complicated. Those two things have to really come together in a work, for me.
P: So there’s a sense of trying to balance these two opposing forces.
CL: Yeah, and I see that as a metaphor too; I see the world in contradictory forces. Going back to your question about origin, I think that reflects my Asian-American experience, as I’m never wholly Asian or wholly American, and I’m always trying to balance the two.
P: Do you have any shows coming up?
CL: I recently had a big show come down from Garis & Hahn in the Lower East Side, and I have some work up currently at Purchase College in the Performing Arts Center, which will come down soon. I have a couple of pieces in the permanent collection at the Minneapolis Institute of Art that are up right now. I don’t have anything else lined up just yet.
Pierogi’s flat files contain several works by Patricia Smith, a selection of which are viewable here.