Known as a bicycling advocate, Lisa Anne Auerbach has been traveling more than just bike lanes lately. In recent years, the LA-based artist has traveled to Denmark, Sweden and Norway, to London and Shetland in the UK (not to be confused with a previous trip to Nottingham), and to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, to name a few; this spring, she was featured notably in the Whitney Biennial in New York.
Unsurprisingly, to anyone familiar with her work, most of these sojourns involved knitting, in one way or another. During her two-month residency at MacDowell, she hand-knit several works, including one colorful sweater that acts as a diary, via classic sweater hieroglyphics. And then there was the trip to England a few months later: “I hung out with this friend of mine who has a knitting shop in London, then we went to Shetland for a knitting conference,” she recalls, cheerfully. “I delivered a paper, about Honsestrik knitting. It’s a Danish knitting style that was very political, in the 1970s.”
Reading up on obscure-but-significant historical knitting movements is one of the pleasures of interviewing Auerbach, whose work employs knitting as a central element, along with text and photography, all of which she weaves together into her own distinct amalgam of the personal and political. One of her signature templates is the sweater-a seemingly unlikely medium for LA, given the city’s perpetual balminess. So it makes sense that she actually grew up in a woodsy suburb of Chicago. “You know, it was the ’70s, everyone wore sweaters. That’s when I think Norwegian sweaters became more popular in America, and the Fair Isle sweaters, the Shetland sweaters… I never knit,” she continues. “My Mom knit. I tried to knit but it didn’t work out.”
Auerbach’s first love was in fact photography, a medium which still occupies a visible place in her practice; in the ’90s, she attended grad school at Art Center at Pasadena, where she studied with such figures as Mike Kelley, Stephen Prina, and Benjamin Weissman. She began knitting after graduating in 1994, when she lost access to a darkroom. But there were other reasons, as well. “I learned to knit because I wanted to make sweaters that had text on them,” she explains. Among her inspirations was the band Cheap Trick, who were also from Illinois, whose guitarist Rick Nielsen often wore sweaters with text on them. Still, she didn’t embrace the practice fully until 2004, when she got her first knitting machine, and began making sweaters with slogans, during the Kerry campaign. “The sweaters originally were mostly political, and mostly being about: I was on my bike and I wanted a bumper sticker, and I became the bumper sticker.”
From the outset, her texts addressed politics with a droll sense of humor, and a healthy sense of wordplay: from the pro-bike sweater that reads emphatically, “This Lane Is OUR Lane” to the sweater that declares “We Are All Pussy Riot” in front and “We Are All Pussy Galore” in back. Trumpeting its impish wit, her meticulously crafted agitprop is no less potent for being playful. In 2010, Auerbach created sweaters emblazoned with New Year’s resolutions, using them as a sort of time capsule, “cementing a moment in time. It’s about, here’s this idea that I had in 2010, and it will continue to keep me warm even in 2018… There’s still a usability and a function, even after the message is done.” But she’s also produced texts in the form of various, self-published ‘zines-some modest, like “Book Shelf” magazine, in which she reviewed books off her own shelf -to ginormous, 60-inch-high “megazines.” She’s printed two of these so far, one documenting American mega-churches, with another examining psychics’ storefronts-essentially chronicling the architecture of spiritual seeking, on its most massive and intimate scales.
For Auerbach’s installation at the Whitney, two live attendants wearing banners solemnly turned the pages of the megazine on psychics while nearby, three mannequins (eerily cast from her own visage) modeled knit sweaters, caps and leggings. Mounted on the adjacent wall was a knit banner stretched onto linen that displayed the gamut of advice offered her by various psychics. These “choice nuggets” include such gems as “You’re weaving compassion,” to “You need new cats,” to the always reliable “Pluto is your planet.” Auerbach notes laughingly that Pluto isn’t even considered a planet anymore. “It’s all mixed up,” she says. “Some are relevant, some are not relevant, some are just off the wall… I realized that psychics are really kind of like artists, they’re just sort of trying to make the world the kind of world that they want to live in.”
What unites all these various works is that they all function as “some form of self-publishing,” she explains. “I started thinking of them all as publications.” That overlap becomes overt in her newest series, which feature the spines of books she owns, taken from her “Bookshelf” magazine, used as diaristic decoration. “This bookshelf stuff is totally autobiographical,” Auerbach says. “They’ll be mounted on linen, just like the one in the Biennial…”
As of August, Auerbach has been hard at work, preparing for her fall show at Gavlak Gallery; not only is it Auerbach’s first gallery show in LA in several years, it will also be the inaugural solo show for the hip new gallery that opened in July on Highland Avenue. The show will include five mannequins, gouache paintings of knitting patterns, “three giant bookshelf pieces, the last psychic piece, and… the first two megazines,” Auerbach says. Along with “a few more that I haven’t made yet, that I don’t even know what they are,” she says, looking around her cluttered studio on the eastern edge of Downtown. Among the many objects jockeying for space are works from the recent Biennial, various works in progress, a giant printer for her megazines, and three bulky knitting machines. One of them she hasn’t figured out how to use yet, while another had its motor break the week before. ”I’ve been doing it last week manually, without the motor, and it’s kind of killing me,” Auerbach sighs. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” So despite her works’ seeming DIY, folksy appeal, they are far from either: carefully researched and deeply considered, they are also highly labor-intensive and painstakingly precise.
Ultimately perhaps the most striking aspect to Auerbach’s work, even beyond its bold, quirky, blend of activism and artisanship, is its fluidity. Displayed in a gallery, but designed to be worn, Auerbach’s artworks slide confidently between different contexts and iterations, between public and private spheres, conflating the symbolism and form of the human body with the classic trope of the rectangular picture plane. Her work engages the canvas as a stand-in for the human body; but conversely, posits the body as a vehicle for displaying images and text. In a sense, her work is an ongoing performance piece, a quixotic allegory for engaging with the world. “That’s an important part of my practice, wearing the stuff, and me wearing the stuff. Logistically, it’s not happening as much as it was. But it’s an important aspect
, both that it could happen, and that it has happened, and that hopefully it will happen again. Right now it’s hard to think about because it’s 90 degrees in my studio… So it’s hard to think about wearing a sweater. I wore this one yesterday,” the artist then laughs, correcting herself, reaching for a work. “I just tried it on.”
Lisa Anne Auerbach’s new work can be seen at Gavlak Gallery in Los Angeles. From Sept 13 -Oct 18, 2014. www.gavlakgallery.com