Singular Objects in A Vast Empty Space

Liesl Pfeffer: A Profile  |  By Kelly McCafferty

Liesl Pfeffer and I have a lot in common.  We both attended residencies at the Banff Centre and The Wassaic Project.  We have mutual artist friends.  And we were both in a group show called Instant Vacation in the summer of 2015 at Trestle Projects in Gowanus curated by Will Hutnick and Polly Shindler. 

Despite all these commonalities, Liesl and I didn’t get a chance to meet until I visited her studio on March 18th to interview her for this profile.

 Weirdly enough, Liesl and I didn’t meet each other at the opening or closing receptions for the show.  I attended the opening, but Liesl was at the Banff Centre for a residency.  And Liesl attended the closing, but I was at Banff at that time.  We missed each other at the show and we missed each other at Banff—our times did not overlap.

 Liesl and I connected on Facebook and had some great conversations about our mutual experiences at Banff and we made a plan for me to visit her studio.  In our visit, we talked about residencies, artist collectives, riding bikes, Greenpoint, telescopes, darkroom photography, 1960s interior design, latch hooking, Queensland timber houses and her childhood front yard.

 Liesl Pfeffer was born in 1979 in Brisbane, Australia and attended Queensland College of Art where she received her BA in Photography.  She lived in Melbourne, Australia before moving to NYC in 2012.  She currently lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and works in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

I arrive at the door of Liesl’s studio building and realize that I am famished and a bit nervous to meet her.  I shoot her a quick text and she replies that she is on her way down to let me into the building.  I am scarfing down a bodega banana that I grabbed on my way and thinking about how it is always strange meeting people for the first time at a studio visit—I am taking everything in all at once—the work, the person, the space—and it can be overwhelming. 

Liesl comes down and lets me in the door and we greet each other.  Her manner is fresh and kind and totally natural.  She is wearing denim overalls and her smile is genuine.  She has a soft and breezy Australian accent--I know this is going to go well.  As we climb the stairs in her studio building, all my nervousness is gone, replaced by curiosity and excitement.

We enter her space and it is a large room with lots of windows and a cozy feel.  In the center of the room is a shared kitchen and lounge area, which I gravitate towards and take a seat.  The space is bright and lively and I feel at ease.  There are five separate studio areas with desks set up around the room and Liesl’s is the one nearest the entrance.  The other artists who share her studio work in jewelry design, metals and textiles—Liesl is the only fine artist of the group.

We start off casually discussing Liesl’s history and we are both curious about each other’s experiences at Banff and Wassaic.  Banff and Wassaic are both strange little towns and it is a joy to talk to someone who has spent time exploring them.  I always love to hear artists gush about their favorite residency experiences and it is obvious to me that Liesl loved Wassaic in a deep way.  She attended in the summer of 2014 and it was her first residency.  The experience of being in nature and out of the city profoundly impacted her and her work.  She had a fantastic experience there—she lived in the schoolhouse and deeply connected with all the other artists. 

She met Ryann Slauson and Jean Seestadt at Wassaic—two other NYC-based artists in residence and the three of them became close.  Liesl tells me that she and Ryann and Jean have recently founded an artist collective.  Ryann works across the board in video, sculpture and performance, and Jean works mainly in sculpture and embroidery.  They have had four meetings so far about future projects and they want to both make work together and curate/organize shows.  I ask her if they are planning on having a studio together, and she tells me that no, they are going to stay where they are.  Ryann lives in the Bronx and works in Bushwick and Jean lives and works in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.  Both she and Ryann have been in bands in the past and she sees similarities between the two practices.  Liesl tells me that last year she curated a show and it was a TON of work.  Being able to divide that work amongst a collective and with each member bringing her own strengths to the table is a logical decision for her.  All three of them get along fabulously and with their individual feminist beliefs they are interested in ensuring representation and roles for women artists in their shows and events. 

Banff messed her head up, she tells me.  It was so decadent—to go there and spend so much money both there and in travel.  It put so much pressure on her to perform.  She felt she was meant to be free—from all the pressures of daily life—but instead she was taking everything too seriously and felt like she had to account for the time and money she was spending.  She borrowed a beautiful camera from the residency and spent the last two weeks shooting, printing work and generally figuring it all out.  She had to deal with a big fear of wasting her time there.  Going there without a clear project in mind taught her that now she needs to have something planned for the beginning of the residency.  She is going to Vermont Studio Center this summer with a project ready to start and she feels really good about that decision. 

How did Liesl end up in New York City?  She tells me she has been here four years this January and that she originally moved here for work.  She was working in Melbourne for a company in a part-time position and learned they were opening a NYC office.  She bravely decided to apply for a job in the NYC office and she got it.  Suddenly she was living in New York.  But eventually they closed the NYC office and she had to make the decision of whether to stay in NYC or move back to Australia.  She opted to apply for an artist visa—good for three years.  She began to work in freelancing design and right now she is the closest to living and working as an artist as she has ever been. 

At this point, Liesl and I get up from the lounge area and make our way over to her studio area to discuss the work.  The only piece of hers I have seen in person before our meeting was the piece in Instant Vacation.  I am seriously a fan of that piece and seeing it was what made me want to profile Liesl.  That piece, is a hooked rug wall hanging depicting a child in a lab coat engaged in a chemistry lab experiment.  It is both funny and nostalgic (and strange.)  I think finding out that Liesl identifies as a photographer is what makes her hooked rug work and her collage work all the more fascinating.  The translation from a painting surface to a textured yarn surface is easy to imagine and perhaps predictable.  But the idea of taking a photographic image and remaking it through a tedious and laborious process makes the work even more irreverent. 

There is some air of the past in Liesl’s work.  I smell the 1970s.  And it isn’t just the chemical air of analog darkroom chemicals.  There is something domestic and suburban to the work.  The handmade meets the everyday.  Most of her subject matter is either domestic (the home) or earthy (crystals, islands, stars, nature) and all of it feels refreshingly earnest. 

Liesl pulls out a pile of photographs and we go through them together.  She tells me that all of them were shot in the village of Banff, Alberta with a medium format camera on loan from the residency.  These images are nostalgic for me because I have been to that village and lived in it for two months.  I can also remember walking the residential streets to come down from the mountain into town in search of beer and ketchup-flavored chips.  I recall lusting after all the alpinesque houses with their adorable window-boxes and gingerbread details and imagining what it would be like to abandon my former city life and just stay.  I think these images would be nostalgic for anybody.  The houses have real personality and Liesl’s portraits of them—because they do feel like portraits—are reminiscent of some Heidi-like childhood we all wish we had.

She tells me about the experience of wandering the streets and shooting these houses.  And then taking her rolls of film to the basement of the art studios where she was the only resident using the vast network of underground darkrooms.  And how she hadn’t printed in a while but rediscovered her love for it.  She describes the darkrooms as creepy and a weird place to be alone, but they were fruitful for her.  She printed three boxes of photo paper during her residency.  And she also discovered a love for cyanotypes after a workshop at the residency (I also took the same class.)  And she shows me the two bottles of chemicals used in cyanotypes and says that now she is printing on fabric and her plan for her time in Vermont is to print cyanotypes on paper and make a small edition of folded books about outer space. 

We move into talking about her earlier work with collage and she tells me about cutting up lab prints to collage and make images of crystals.  Then her process was to scan the collage and print it in an edition of 10 or so.  The advantage of scanning and printing is that she could make the print larger than the actual collage.  It is important to her that even in the print, you can tell that it is handmade.  There are cuts and shadows that still persist.

I ask her about her relationship to the handmade and why as a photographer, that is important to her.  She says that ever since she was a child, she was always weaving some kind of fiber and she got interested in the latch hook process.  Making them now reminds her of her childhood and they are playful and absurd for her to think about in a gallery context.  I ask her how the element of collage got introduced into her work and she tells me that while she was getting her BA in photography she was fully enmeshed in the darkroom process.  She was constantly manipulating either the print or the negative to make her images and find herself as an artist.  After school, she moved from Brisbane to Melbourne and her solution for no longer having access to a darkroom was to begin to use the tons of photographs she had taken and printed there (houses, gardens, textures and colors) to collage with in her home studio. 

I notice that on her wall there are some drawings of imagined spaces and on another table there is the beginnings of a sculptural architectural model.  I ask Liesl about her relationship with painting/drawing and she tells me that anything revolving painting/drawing is learned through her own self-practice, and that in the past she has also painted or drawn directly onto her photographs.  But that right now, and she doesn’t know why, but she is compelled to keep drawing the same shape.  She sees it as reminiscent of an island or a rock in the sea.  She isn’t sure yet what form it will be taking—sculpture, drawing or collage—but keeps making it.

Peppered throughout the conversation, Liesl mentions influential images and artists.  She tells me that while in art school she was not seeing a ton of contemporary art in Australia and her primary influences were artists like Polke and Rauschenberg—artists who pushed the boundaries between painting, photography and collage.  Recently, she has been following the work of Sara Cwynar, a NYC based photographer who was in the most recent Greater New York show at PS1.  Liesl tells me that Cwynar had an amazing image of a toucan in Greater NY and she isn’t sure exactly what her process is but it somehow involves finding old images and making arrangements with them in the studio specifically for photographing them. 

Liesl tells me that what is amazing about working with photography now is that there are so many means to create an image.  She feels lucky to be in her mid-30s and a part of the last group of artists that were taught both the darkroom and digital processes.  She has an affinity for artists that use and manipulate both of those processes.  She mentions the work of Liz Nielsen who makes colorful works using both in camera and darkroom techniques and Wolfgang Tillmans and how she admires his amazing camera-less darkroom manipulations with chemicals and light.

Another influence on her work are books from the 1960s on home decorating and indoor gardening.  She pulls out from her own plant covered shelf and we breeze through them together enjoying the interior shots filled with plants, tiled bathrooms and cozy spaces.  Her aforementioned sculptural model is a new idea that has come from her research on interior spaces.  Her plan is to build a model and then experiment with ways to light it and photograph it.  She has been studying the work of light artists—Turrell and Wheeler—to think about how light works and what she wants to do with it.   She emphasizes that she is at the beginning of these ideas and she doesn’t know yet what form the work will take.

I notice that a lot of her images depict a single object/being in focus at the center of the work.  The crystals, the collaged houses, the islands, the model—these are all singular objects in a vast empty space.  I wonder if she grew up on a farm (as I did) and what the roots are of this object isolationism.  I ask Liesl about her upbringing and she tells me that she grew up in the suburbs in Brisbane.  Their brick house had a huge lawn and she would play on it everyday with her brother and sister and neighbors.  The development was new so nature had not been fully contained and there were actually kangaroos and snakes occasionally in their backyard.  She felt a real sense of the outdoors within the safety of the suburbs.  The city was a 45-minute bus ride away.  She mentions the Queensland timber style houses, which I am unfamiliar with.  She tells me that they are built for the climate, up on stilts, with a wrap around veranda and doors to open to let the air flow through. Her childhood home didn’t have a perimeter, no fences. 

Liesl tells me about her Dwellings series which she completed last year.  She would make photo collages of houses she had stayed in.  For example her friend’s family home in Maine was made from photographs of snow that she took while she spent Thanksgiving there.  She had to get the houses out of her system—and now she isn’t working with them as an image any more.  Now she wants to make the book on space in Vermont as a result of thinking about the telescope she had as a child and her personal interest in constellations, planets, etc.

The last work we discuss is the latch work.  She tells me that making those works takes a long time.  It is really rough work.  Liesl says she has the weakest wrists ever and then she pulls out a massive latchwork piece and I laugh—everyone would be in pain after making something like that.  She says when she first moved to NYC, she would spend her time latch hooking and drinking whiskey—until she began to make some friends. 

I ask her what it was like to move to NYC and she says that it was her first time living in another country, that she did it alone and it made her more independent.  Being alone in a new place forced her to be social.  When she left Melbourne, she had established herself there with stores selling her work and solo shows in galleries.  Moving to NYC, meant she was back to square one again.  She had to learn the city and learn where the artists were within it.  She applied for the NYFA Immigrant Program and was accepted and she credits that program with teaching her how to be an artist here.  She learned about shows, funding and organizations and she also met one of her best friends.  Going to Wassaic also allowed her to form some deep friendships with some NYC artists.

What is her plan now?  She informs me that she wants to do further fine arts study and has been itching to make more darkroom and photo studio work.  Sounds pretty good to me.

Additional Images:

More information about Liesl:

http://www.lieslpfeffer.com/

https://www.upriseart.com/discover/artists/liesl-pfeffer

Upcoming artist residency:

Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, Vermont—August 2016

Upcoming show:

Here Where We Are
hpgrp GALLERY NEW YORK
June 10 - July 2, 2016
Opening Reception: Friday June 10, 6pm-8pm
Curated by Sophia Chizuco
Featuring work by Liene Bosquê, Sophia Chizuco, Isabelle Garbani, Liesl Pfeffer, Claudia Sohrens and Julio Austria