I paint dogs, but these are not dog paintings per se; they are a way to explore texture, form, and color relationships. Dogs have been in the work for some time. A seemingly frivolous or retrograde subject and therefore a good starting point. Over time the forms have become more generic and are essentially one of a group of elements I draw from to make compositions which interest me. I tend to take some time to arrive at a finished painting, going back in when I could (maybe should) stop, but that overworking has become part of the process and creates a tension and awkwardness which makes the work interesting. I want to inspire sustained and repeated looking. The most interesting paintings for me (both my own and otherwise) are those I come back to again and again and my experience of them is different with each encounter.
Interview with Sophie Larrimore
Questions by Beatrice Helman
Hi Sophie! Thank you so much for talking with us. I’m so excited to talk about your recent work, which is so unique and different from anything I’ve seen! I wanted to dive right in with a few questions about your recent work, starting with the really simple question, where did the inspiration for this series come from?
I would say it has really been a slow progression. I’m not sure I would call it inspiration, it is coming from a long exploration within painting and at the moment this is the work I am wanting/compelled to make. Things are always evolving however.
What prompted the decision to work with dogs? I’m wondering if you have a certain history with dogs, or are particularly interested in their place in our current culture?
I’ve been using dogs as a subject for some time. It really began with wanting to find a somewhat trite and banal subject as a starting point. This move had to do with the tension I felt between my own, perhaps nostalgic, impulses and navigating a place in the Art world. I recall, before attending undergrad, that the thought of painting dogs was absurd, something my great aunt would do maybe (whatever that means). But there was something about the seriousness and alienation of being in school and around people who really seemed to have their path figured (when I didn’t) that I needed a retreat of a kind into a knowingly arrière-garde subject. It was also an attempt to step away from all the seriousness I observed and a way of saying “here is what I think of all your theory.”
In addition to being drawn to the kitsch connotations I was also fascinated by the use of dogs throughout the history of art. I found it curious that they would pop up as tertiary subjects again and again, but apart from some rare instances, like George Stubbs perhaps, they were rarely the main subject, and if so, there was always the feeling that these were not considered serious endeavors into painting.
I don’t in fact have much of an actual past with dogs. My family had a mutt when I was very young. I’ve never had a dog myself. I’d actually have to say that I’m probably more of a cat person.
These paintings feel so active and dynamic. Can you talk a little bit about the actual composition of the paintings themselves, and the ways in which you’re working with space, and with the proximity of the subjects?
Painting for me is primarily concerned with composition and form. The subject, though important and with its own history, is really, and has become even more so over time, a starting point, a way of beginning. Ultimately painting is just that, painting. As the forms in my work have become more stylized most of my interest is involved in the shapes created, the color relationships, the surface, the edges, and the tension between flat and illusionistic space. The forms of the dogs are a way to begin, I usually have an idea of what the final work will be, but it is always changing as I move through it. That is what makes painting so exciting. You can try and plan but, at least for me, a good painting is one which surprises, one where those surprises are evident to the painter and also the viewer.
I’m fascinated by Puddle. Can you elaborate of the choice of colors in this work, and the intention behind it?
Color is intuitive really at this point. The intention, this goes for all the work, is to explore the relationships between color and form. These choices do ultimately result in a ‘mood’ of sorts in the finished works, but I don’t have a preconceived idea of what this will be. I learned some time ago that if I approach a painting with too much planning it will never work out.
This painting really made me think about the shapes in your work—the rounded edges, the ways in which the bodies mirror each other in terms of the circular aspects, this type of curvy form. Are you drawn to certain shapes?
I’m very interested in the interaction of forms. I like that I can depict “actual” subjects and at the same time address the more abstract relationships of forms in space, within a painting space. There are certain shapes which I seem to use again and again but I would not say I have a specific preference for these, just that they make the most sense within the work I am creating. Curves are actually tricky, if there are too many I find it off-putting.
You mentioned that these paintings “are a way to explore texture, form, and color relationships.” Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Paint comes with its own unique possibilities as a medium. In painting, within a two-dimensional shallow rectangle, so many different types of space can be addressed. You can explore narrative with a subject while also having conversations in much more abstract terms which deal with the way the eye perceives depth on a surface. The texture and paint application and the surface created are very important for me. I want to make paintings which need to be seen in person, which engage the viewer on an image level but also in a way which is more tactile and object based.
What is your personal relationship to color and how did you arrive at this almost pastel, dreamy color palette for this series?
I am usually drawn to works which engage sophisticated color relationships, which use minimal or limited color but are all the more powerful for it, Morandi for example. Not that I always achieve this is my own work, at times I feel my palette can become too bright, I am working on this, I think this also has to do with navigating acrylic paint after using oils for so long.
You’ve also said that “overworking has become part of the process and creates a tension and awkwardness which makes the work interesting.” I wanted to touch on that tension and awkwardness that you mention—can you explain the relationship between the two?
It is part of the way I work that I find it hard to just stop. For years I would beat myself up about this tendency. I destroyed a lot of paintings. However, with time, and the way my technique has evolved, I have found a way to forgive this impulse and also use it to the advantage of the work, where the obsessive mark making and touch almost becomes the subject. The repeated and layered marks allow the eye to move around the surface and the spaces or edges between the forms is never completely linear or clear. Somehow the result is that though the surface consists of many deliberate and almost perfectionist gestures there is also a frenetic quality as well.
I’ve found that every time I go back to look at your paintings I see something a different, and I feel as though the process of seeing is so much a part of these paintings. Would you agree?
Wow, thank you! Ultimately that is the best response I could ask for. For me a painting which holds up and surprises after repeated looking is a successful painting. I don’t think you ever get tired of looking at a good painting. On a given visit to the Met I can look at a work I have seen fifty times and it will be as though I am seeing it for the first time. That is a good painting!
I feel as though dogs are usually seen as an almost childlike or frivolous subject, and wanted to ask about this idea that art has to be serious. Your work seems to subvert that idea, proving that what seems like a potentially unavailable subject is in fact not only available but important. Is this something you think about?
Humor in art is extremely important. It is hard for me to engage with work which does not have some form of humor. I think a work can be entirely serious in its intent but also be funny. In fact it is essential.
Dogs fascinate me in terms of the relationships and associations we as humans seem to apply to them. They are so entwined with our contemporary life it seems inevitable that they should exist as the subject of painting.
Have you had any profound real-life experiences with dogs?
Ha! Not specifically, that I can recall. I do find many of them, certainly poodles, to be very alien, but also very human.
How did you first start painting specifically, and how have you seen your relationship to the act of painting change over time? Do you remember your first painting that you consciously knew was a painting?
Oh wow. I started making things at a very young age. I didn’t go to traditional school growing up so I had a lot of time to just be quiet and create things if I wanted. I started painting miniature subjects on very small objects when I was around seven or eight. I was interested in craft very early, both in a very American, county fair kind of way, and also within the context of older more folk traditions. My father bought and sold duck decoys when I was young so I was around antiques and aesthetically considered utilitarian objects early on.
I had an early proficiency for rendering, which ultimately became a real challenge to overcome and move away from. The first oil painting I made when I was fourteen or fifteen, it was a family portrait of myself, my sister, and my two cousins. I painted it for my grandmother. I remember being very proud of it but also not entirely satisfied, and I recall the agony of trying to get the paint to do what I wanted. This is a struggle I still have to work through all the time.
Are you impacted by other painters, or even specific museums or institutions?
I am certainly influenced by other painters. I have always been very interested in looking at older art, this is where I find most inspiration. I love the compositions and distortions in Medieval tapestry or American Folk Art. There is always something to learn from specific artists like Giotto or Piero della Francesca, but also Vuillard and Leger.
The Met is one of my favorite places. I love going with a specific purpose but also just wandering and discovering things I may not have noticed before, especially the less trafficked spaces, like the Islamic wing.
Can you take us through the creative process that you go through before you start a new painting?
I keep a small sketchbook on hand and will work out compositional ideas quickly there first. I may do some additional more finished drawings to follow up, but not always. This provides a starting point to anchor the composition with key figures or shapes. I then work into the canvas, but, again, it is pretty loose. I progress through the work from there in terms of color and the more fully realized composition.
What does a typical nine-to-five day look like for you?
Hmm, nine-to-five. I have a day job, part time, which keeps me occupied several days a week. I also have a small child who keeps me busy. I usually get about two days in the studio a week. These are pretty much nine-to-five since I need to get my daughter at the end of the school day. Those studio days I try and stay pretty focused and get as much time directly painting as I can.
How do you stay focused, are you a person of routines or is each day drastically different?
I am a person of routine, perhaps partly due to other obligations in my day-to-day life. Actually I found it very hard to focus and finish anything before my daughter was born. I think there was too much pressure and the stakes seemed so high in the studio. Having a child really gave me perspective, and though technically it limited my time even more it oddly freed me from the seriousness of making work. That is not to say I became less serious about the work, it just became less precious and fraught.
Are there any other contemporary artists who have influenced your work or have inspired you to attempt new directions in your own work?
There are certainly many contemporary painters I admire, I love John Wesley and Peter Saul. Elizabeth Murray was a fantastic painter and totally under appreciated. Nicole Eisenman’s practice is very inspiring, her work is great, but also how she doesn’t have any problem moving back and forth between several styles. There is no anxiety there about being “inconsistent”. This is all too rare in art. It is what keeps the work of an artist like Francis Picabia relevant and fresh.
Can you tell us a bit about your studio? Are there any must-haves in the studio that you need to get work done?
As I mentioned, I have become (out of necessity) much less precious about my practice and, in tern, my space. I work from home, in the bedroom I share with my husband and, until recently, my daughter. There is a corner where I have my table of paints set up. The larger wall is 55 inches wide which is why the larger pieces I make are usually 70 by 54 inches. The other wall is smaller and is where I have a few small works going at given time. There is something about the constraint which has really worked for me. I occasionally consider an outside studio but wonder if I would be less productive, though perhaps not at this point, I suspect I may be past that stage.
Are you a social person while you’re working or more solitary?
Definitely solitary while I work, though I can still stay focused with a certain amount of outside distraction. For instance, I’m usually able to work if my daughter is in-and-out of the room, but I prefer to work alone. I’m too self-conscious. Painting, at its best, is a meditative process. When I can get in that space it is really magical. It would be very hard for me to do this without being alone.
What are you reading? What are you listening to? What are you watching?
At the moment I am reading The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky. Recently I have been listening to podcasts, mostly art, but I also love Lexicon Valley, it’s about language, and if I want music usually WFMU. I don’t watch all that much. I love movies but the way life currently is it’s hard to find the stamina at the end of the day to get through a whole film, and a little depressing to stop half-way through.
What are some of your other great loves outside of art?
Exercise has always been essential, though I have been less routine recently. Running helps me focus. Many times I have been stuck in a painting and gone for a run and come to the solution by the time I return.
What do you do when you need a break and have to let off steam?
I cook a fair amount, it is so methodical and intuitive, I find it calming. It is something I can do without thinking too much.
Can you share any career highlights, or low points, and what you learned from them?
The past year or more has been pretty eventful for me. Prior to this my work had very little exposure or dialog. The work itself I felt was not really ready until about three or four years ago. I spent a long time making work in isolation, which, in hindsight, was good for the work but at the time felt rather bleak. It was really essential for me to work through things alone and without external input or pressure. I’m slow. Only recently have I come to realize being slow is ok and maybe even beneficial.
Does living in New York creep into your work?
Sure, I wouldn’t say specifically exactly, though park and playground elements pop up from time to time, more in that I think everyone is affected by their environment. It is hard to know if and how my work would change if I were to leave the city.
Is there any advice anyone ever gave you that really resonated with you?
Art is a long game.
Do you have any projects, shows or residencies coming up?
I’ve had a few recent projects which have kept me busy, one being Between The Acts which just closed at Mother Gallery in Beacon, New York. I got to show with Delphine Hennelly and Ken Tisa, I admire their work so much. I’ve a solo show happening in LA in May of next year. Otherwise I am kind of looking forward to a bit of a reset in the studio moving into the winter.
Thank you so much for talking with us!
And thank you!
To find out more about Sophie and her work, check out her website.