"I work pretty hard to get ambiguity"

Painter Gina Litherland discusses her show "Curious Encounters," up through June 18 at the Watrous Gallery.

Gina Litherland, "Bird Funeral." Images courtesy of Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Letters.

Gina Litherland, "Bird Funeral." Images courtesy of Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences, and Letters.

Gina Litherland populates her oil paintings with listless, bug-eyed figures who often seem a bit checked-out from the wondrous creatures and landscapes around them. Her show Curious Encounters, on display through June 18 at the James Watrous Gallery at the Overture Center, often draws on famous works of literature and fairytales, but renders them in a way that defies a simple, instinctual read of what's happening or how the characters involved feel about it. In both "The Last Days Of Werther" and "Seraphine," a solitary figure confronts a landscape that glows and swirls about them, but might also threaten. In "The Reason For The Unreason (Don Quixote)," the title character stares off into the distance as words from the book on his lap literally spiral around him, and his cat playfully paws at his knee. Perhaps he's tormented by his madness, or comforted by it, or simply unaware—there's a void here that only the viewer can fill, and Litherland seems to cultivate that void deliberately.

Gina Litherland, "The Last Days Of Werther."

Gina Litherland, "The Last Days Of Werther."

Currently based in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, Litherland has long used myths and fairy tales as a starting point, channeling her subjects through finely detailed figures and generous, ripe colors. Perspectives also become warped and tilted, as in "Bird Funeral," but just as often Litherland uses a flat, stately perspective that recalls religious icon paintings, as in "Three Spinsters." And sometimes her work is just plain disorienting, terrifying, and funny all at once, like "Floppy Boot Stomp."

Litherland spoke with me recently about how her subject matter has changed over the years, why she paints such strange-looking human figures, and her relationship with Surrealism. She continues to explore folklore and mythology, and will also be working on printmaking and photography to accompany some of her paintings.

Tone Madison: For people like me who don't know where this show fits into your career as a whole, how do you think has your painting has evolved over the years?

Gina Litherland: The technique and the subject matter I think has been fairly consistent over the past 30 years, really. The latest body of work is moving away a little bit from from some of the more mythical subjects that I was really concerned with when I first started painting like this, which was probably around 1985. Shortly after I came out of the Art Institute, I got really interested in the history of painting and in Gothic painting and Indian miniature painting, and especially some of the Women Surrealists, like Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo, who I could see were coming out of the early Renaissance tradition and doing highly personal work. When I saw that, it was really close to what I was already doing. 

The most recent work has a lot of references to literature, like Geothe's The Sorrows Of Young Werther and Don Quixote and some of the Don Juan stories and the opera and plays and the Brontës. Some works have been dedicated to the symbolist poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. In the early work I was doing stuff based almost exclusively on fairy tales and myths, like the figure of Lilith or Pandora, Little Red Riding Hood—and then I was moving later into more thinking about literature. All of the work is consistent in that no matter what I'm doing, I'm not really illustrating those things, but showing how the myths and the stories reverberate within us, you know, in our psyches They're always relevant. That's what fascinates me about them. I'll go through a period where I'm particularly fascinated with some story or an image from a myth or a fairy tale, whatever it is, but then I realize about halfway through the work how directly it plays into aspects of my own life. I think that's why the stories and the myths endure—because they do that for everybody.

 Tone Madison: There are also paintings in the show where the references aren't as clear or familiar, like "Terre Verte."

Gina Litherland, "Terre Verte."

Gina Litherland, "Terre Verte."

Gina Litherland: That one's really obscure. I would call that a more personal painting except it does refer to a myth. As I was working on it, it was really more about a time of year. What inspired the whole thing was these types of flowers that grow around our house in August, and I love them, these kind of yellow splashy little sunflower things and trumpet flowers, and just feeling the lushness of that time of year. I threw in references to the ivy and the leopard and the goat, which are all references to the Greek god Dionysus, who is almost a patron god for a lot of artists, because his thing is madness. A lot has been written about him, but his favorite plant was ivy and he was associated with leopards and goats, and with this wild vegetation. I don't know if you have ever grown ivy around your house—we have it, and the stuff just goes everywhere, and it's nuts. So in a lot of the stories, he would be held captive on a boat and suddenly ivy would be growing all over the boat and wrap up the boat. This out-of-control element is what he's about.

Tone Madison: So there's this element of renewal in that painting, and yet the way the two women are painted, their body language and facial expressions are a bit uncertain and hard to read.

Gina Litherland: It's really important to me that it's ambiguous. I don't want to tell people what to think about it. I don't like things that are leading you too strongly in one direction. It irritates me when books or movies or anything are telling me how I should be feeling about it in a very definite way. I work pretty hard to get ambiguity. If it's ambiguous, then people have to think about it for a while. My favorite works are where I think, "What is going on here?" It invites you to participate in it and make your own interpretation of it. I have my interpretation of what that painting is about, but I invite anyone to come in and create their own interpretation.

Tone Madison: Speaking of human figures in your paintings, their heads tend to be tilted in this way that reminds me of medieval art. Is that something you're drawing on when you're painting people?

Gina Litherland: Definitely. That's a great observation, too. I don't know exactly—I would have to think about what that suggests to me. But it's a very stylized posture and gesture, and to me it's just somebody in an in-between state of consciousness. The title of the show, Curious Encounters, this idea is really important to me of the encounter with something, like somebody encountering something that has taken them off-guard. I like the idea that the figures in these paintings are always encountering some force, they're always in a certain abstracted state of mind. It's something the Symbolist painters did a lot. They tended to do works that were more mystical, very ambiguous, very odd, extreme states of consciousness and that sort of thing. They were really the precursors to Surrealism.

Tone Madison: There are also paintings here where there's an encounter, but the subjects don't seem especially freaked out, like "A Friendly Game."

Gina Litherland, "A Friendly Game." 

Gina Litherland, "A Friendly Game." 

Gina Litherland: That one was really started in a very spontaneous, almost automatic way, and that's another way that I work sometimes. I will do a very loose watercolor ground in my notebook, and the forms will suggest things that the little pools of color make. I just saw that horse completely like it was, rearing back. Cards to me suggest fate. It could be a card reading but also you don't know what the outcome of it will be. Skeletons always give sort of a macabre humor to this work, because they always look like they're laughing, for one thing, because their teeth are hanging out like that. To me it just seemed almost like a dream. I really loved it when it developed—having a card game with a skeleton, and the horse is kind of frightened and startled, and what does it mean? It has a bit of a Lewis Carroll feeling to it, like a woman thrown into this odd situation.

Tone Madison: To pick up on something you just said, what is the role of humor in your work? Is there room for a comic interpretation of some of these paintings?

Gina Litherland: I think humor is so important. When a painting is very intense, I like to put a little vignette of something else happening. For example, in "Don Juan In The Underworld," which is a fairly dramatic painting, there's some little Bosch-like hybrid figures in the foreground, maybe talking to each other or having some kind of little interplay, the idea there being no matter how important something seems to you, there's somebody else not far away from you who's totally unconcerned with your situation. They could even be animals. Sometimes I'll be all worried about something and I'll start watching some animals cavorting around. For example, the day after the election, I was so upset and unnerved, and I went outside with my cup of coffee, and I was watching the birds flying around, and I thought, "They have absolutely no idea what just happened. They're totally unconcerned with this incredible human drama going on that we've created for ourselves."

Tone Madison: In one interpretation, there's maybe a reverse of that going on in "Bird Funeral," where these three girls are in the background, apparently not noticing what's happening with the birds.

Gina Litherland: There was actually something that happened once. There was a dead bird on the ground, and I noticed that the birds in the trees were just kind of making a lot of noise in this hysterical state, and I wondered if they were mourning, if they were having some kind of funeral rite that I had a complete lack of awareness of. We have such limited understanding of the animal world and what they're really up to—even scientists. When I read about animal behavior it's so disappointing, because you realize they barely have a clue what's going on there. There's so much just right outside your window that you don't understand. But in this case, that was also about something I used to do when I was a kid. My friends and I, if we found a dead bird, we'd have a little funeral for it and we'd have flowers. So there's a little girl in that painting that's holding a plate of flowers. One is looking closely at things on the ground and the other is looking up. That one, like "Terre Verte," I call one of my pastoral paintings, because they're really just about the natural world. In their own ways, I think those women are connected to what is going on, responding to the earth and sky.

Tone Madison: Your bio mentions Midwestern Surrealism, which is a term that gets used a lot surrounding art in Wisconsin. What does that term mean for you, and do you feel you have a lot in common with painters like John Wilde?

Gina Litherland: Definitely, yeah. I didn't know John Wilde's work at all until I moved to Wisconsin, and shortly after we moved up here, they had a retrospective of his work at the Kohler, and I was really knocked out by it. I was delighted to hear that there was a group of Wisconsin Surrealists. They were really Midwesterners responding to European Surrealism which I responded to a lot. The original definition that André Breton devised was it was pure psychic automatism. It's work coming out of the unconscious, working with the irrational mind, not being afraid of that. It's not a formal movement like Cubism or even Impressionism...it's more about what is coming out of your unconscious, your dreams. The connection with fairy tales and myths and novels is that all those works are also coming out of that imagination. Fairy tales are just a dream that somebody had a long time ago that was so compelling that people repeated it over and over again.

Gina Litherland, "Three Spinsters."

Gina Litherland, "Three Spinsters."