As I walked into Liam’s studio, I was in awe of the treasure-filled wonderland before me. Paintings propped against the wall, paint covered stools, childhood photographs and a table with an assortment of found animal bones, some of them complete skeletons collected in Oberlin. I sat down with Liam to chat about their artistic process, pandemic experience and their work for the upcoming Senior Studio Installation.
Artist Statement from Liam:
What does it mean to think and express a thought linearly? What does it mean to conceptualize yourself in a linear fashion? When trying to express who you are, at the core of your being, can you tell a straightforward story? Your creation is a compilation of many facts of your upbringing, stories you tell yourself, moments of joy and sorrow that seem crystalized in their vividness, and fuzzy forgotten days, weeks, years. It is the objects you’ve accumulated, the loved ones you’ve made and lost, places you’ve lived, dreams you once carried, it is the way you understand the world and conceptualize yourself in it. You are not a linear story, you are all these things and many more, and you are the push and pull between them—you exist in the threads that tie all these things together.
My art practice Attempts to capture these complexities of life, taking a simple thought or Idea and stretching it to its extreme. Trying to map out a thought process, putting different thoughts in conversation with each other to make them a greater sum of their parts. On their own, the pieces are intentionally complicated and oversaturated with visual information to more authentically express a complicated inner dialogue that doesn’t always operate linearly, which allows patterns, themes and characters to easily repeat.
For my senior show I am making a map or network of interconnected paintings and found objects [in an attempt to] express myself. I am doing my best to holistically express complex ideas and narratives. I am being honest with myself and with the viewer, giving as much as I can, not paring down the story to make it simple or palatable.
Because of the density of these pieces there are some that reward careful looking—some of these layers and symbols are made explicit while others are obscured or require careful looking to uncover. There are coded messages, and a more complex narrative and image is available to the viewer who looks attentively. The works exist as conversations between the viewer and myself, where if the viewer engages in the conversation by looking carefully and bringing in their own experiences and vulnerabilities, they will have a deeper connection and conversation. Because of the plethora of information, there is room for the viewer to develop their own narrative from the image, to bring in their own life experiences that allows them to see unique connections and strings between the images.
Clara Rosarius for Wilder Voice: So to get started, could you introduce yourself? Who are you, what do you do?
Liam Ashbrook: Sure! I’m Liam Ashbrook. I’m a fourth-year, I use they/them pronouns. I’m an art history and visual arts double major and politics minor. And I make art. I mostly work in paintings, mostly with acrylic and oil painting, but also in collage and assemblage and work with found objects and paint on found things. I guess that’s a good introduction.
Can you speak a bit about your daily practice?
Well, for one I try to be in here most days because if I take too much of a break I can get stuck in my own head. But my work is pretty intuitive. I generally have an idea of what I want to express, and a general vibe that I’m going for. But I usually don’t know what a piece is going to end up as until I start working and just start building. I work messily and with a lot of layers. My philosophy is if I spend enough time with it and keep adding to it, it will eventually turn into something that I like. And I think people know when you put a lot of care and effort into a thing and a lot of the time that comes through in the end. So I just try to spend as much time and get as much care into these pieces as I can until I’ve done all I can.
Do you usually work alone? Do you listen to music or podcasts?
There are times when I’m really in the zone and can’t listen to anything. Those times are sometimes really nice. But for the most part I listen to music or listen to a podcast and it just depends on the vibe that I’m going for. I like sitting in one spot and working on detail work and I listen to a podcast where I can focus on that. And if I’m thinking of ideas and, like, running around and putting new things together, trying to come up with crazy new ideas, I’ll listen to something energetic. Listening to things just helps me get in the zone. I’ll listen to one song on repeat for like an hour, just to have something going. Embarrassingly I listen to a lot of—not necessarily embarrassingly—but I listen to a lot of musicals because they’re energetic and like, yeah, let’s go!
Do you have a notebook, or a place you start off a new piece such as a drawing, text or an overall idea before you first start on the canvas or with a found object?
Yeah, I try to do a little journaling exercise and center myself and figure out what I’m trying to say and who I’m trying to say it to. Then I’ll do some thumbnail sketches. But there are definitely also times when I just start going and see what happens. Like with this (points to piece on wall). I didn’t really do any planning. I just was like, I need to make something. I’m just gonna go for it. So it’s like 50-50: some things I plan, some things I don’t, I just make it up as I go.
Are there any artists that you’re influenced by or you feel like you come back to when you’re working on your own projects?
I’ve been trying to look at contemporary artists who use mixed media and make layered, textured, and complex work, like Mark Bradford, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Robert Bittenbender, Julian Schnabel, and Gisela McDaniel.
I’m noticing a lot of texture in your pieces as you bring in collage, so they also become sculptures in a sense. What kinds of materials do you use other than like acrylic and such? I can see you have some photographs next to the paintings, are they part of the installation?
Yeah! These are paintings of me as a baby and these are the baby pictures that I pulled from. And I want to have those in the installation. And this is an old sign, from outside of Stevie, a menu board for Biggs that I grabbed.
All the paintings’ “canvases” that I have around here are things that I like, either old things that I’ve gotten from Goodwill and thrift shops, or from dumpster diving and things. I really like building from already used materials because I think it’s like an interesting practice of trying to not buy new things and trying to take things that other people have discarded and reuse them. And find the beauty and the artistry in them.
It’s easier to start on something when there’s already something there to build off of. And these pieces still have the energy of the things that have come before it, and I get to build on that and have a new conversation. If I’m doing a bunch of paintings on the same canvas, I’ll use the same process each time. But if I’m doing a painting on a mirror or glass or plastic, it’s something different. I get to explore and discover something new, which is something I really like.
I’m trying to move more into sculpture and trying to move things off of just the wall. So I am experimenting with clay and with other found objects such as bones.
I tend to collect and hoard a bunch of things that have material importance to me. And then I try to think of when I can incorporate those into the things that I’m making.
Yeah. That’s really cool. I like the idea of kind of building on something that already exists, like adding to the history of it.
Yeah, there was a project I did last semester where I made this map of objects that people had left in my life that were gone either because we had a big fight and they left, or they died, or something. I was exploring how these different objects held not only that person, but also who I was in the moment that I knew them and how they let me transport back to that time and that different person. I think that’s true for a lot of objects and stuff. They hold different ideas and times in them. And that’s something that I like to think about and play with.
How does your own identity, whatever that means to you, influence your work? How does that come into play in your work, if it does.
No, I think it definitely does. My work often has an underlying theme of gender, because that’s just something that I’m thinking about often. I think that often shows up because of me being trans and always thinking about gender. And I think also about my lived gender. I don’t know if this sounds odd, but my lived experience of being trans is also very related to my spirituality and my spiritual practice, which is also important in my artmaking. Most of my pieces are to some degree self-indulgent and self-reflective, where I’m trying to just express all the thoughts that I have and put them out in pictures because I don’t know how to put them in words. Just translating things that I’ve experienced into things [I make].
Specifically these two pieces look vaguely like Adam and Eve to me and this specific duo is kinda supposed to be about Protestant Christianity. I grew up in a strict Protestant household. I think I still see that culture around us, like at Oberlin: it originated as a Protestant institution. I’ve just been thinking about the mythos of Adam and Eve and the idea that all people are inherently separate from the earth and should be shamed because of that separation. I’ve just been thinking about that shame and how it relates to colonization and the destruction of the land and a bunch of other things.
An underlying thing that I’ve been thinking about recently is this shaming and the trying to bring other people into that shame and pass it along whether that’s through the Protestant work ethic or missionary things and the way that it’s spread. This is partly a practice in my own mind of trying to unlearn and break those things down. This is what I’ve been thinking about and meditating on while I make these specific pieces. I’m not entirely sure if it fully comes through, but it comes through to me. And I think that’s true in a lot of my making. It’s just processing what’s around me and trying to understand myself in the world and my place in the world by just making pictures about it.
Do you feel like you’re still part of the Protestant community or connected to it spiritually?
Not really. My experience growing up in the church was mostly negative. And it’s the thing that I’ve moved away from. But I think when I moved away from it, I at first shunned spirituality and religion all together. Especially this past year, having to be with myself most of the time has made me do a lot of self-reflection and I’m trying to reclaim a spirituality, a connection with the greater force that doesn’t have this baggage connected to it. I guess both personal, and also I guess political.
There was another work that you sent me from last semester’s midterm show also had religious elements inside, like inside the vulva was a religious figure. And then the halo around the three people dancing in a circle. Can you talk a little bit more about that piece?
Yeah, definitely. That was a self-indulgent and self-reflective piece. Well the other context is that I’m also an art history major and I study mostly medieval Christian iconography and have a lot of historical knowledge about Christian iconography. It’s interesting from a geopolitical standpoint, especially in the Middle Ages, which is what I study. So that also seeps into my work and seeped into that Mother Mary and the baby Jesus there. But that piece was about spirituality and a spiritual awakening that I had. Over the summer, like after quarantining and getting tested, I got to visit my friend who was living on a commune over the summer. And we had this really wonderful experience, just hanging out in nature and being together. After being so disconnected from the world, I felt very connected to other people and to the earth, in a way that I hadn’t for a while. And we danced naked under a waterfall. And that was a painting of the three of us doing that. That was part of it. In all honesty, that painting was just me trying to capture that essence and that feeling of what it felt like, because I just didn’t want to lose that. It was really impactful and beautiful and made me feel like, oh, the world is scary and really pretty bad right now, but there is hope and beauty in things. I’ve been also trying to tap into making art from a place of joy and connection rather than rehashing the same trauma to make art out of it.
Looking at your paintings, there is the hyper realistic mouth and hand, mixed with the simple abstracted body. That seems to be like a pattern in the work you’re doing now.
Yeah, I was thinking about this, it was partly a technical experiment for myself. I was like, can I make something that from a distance, looks like a collage and then you get up close and you realize that it’s all painted?
I think it’s visually jarring and interesting and also just about being able to pick and choose what parts of your life and what parts of yourself you want to make permanent and put on the gallery wall of your life.
One thing you talked about in your artist statement was stretching an idea to the extreme. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah. So for this senior studio project, there were so many directions that I wanted to go in and there were so many things that I wanted to explore. I felt like every idea that I had branched off into these different ideas and those things were interconnected in different ways. And then I was having such a hard time, narrowing it down and trying to choose one thing. And then I was like, Why am I trying to fight this impulse for complexity? Why can’t I just embrace it? So I’m trying to just embrace it and make these things that look like my initial thoughts, like Adam and Eve but they are pushed to an extreme where it’s not entirely recognizable. They will simultaneously be like Adam and Eve and also be like other characters and other things.
Like I said, I like working these layers. I think I’m just trying to make something that is complex enough and has these different layers of meaning so that you can sort of come into it and take away what you need and make your own connections.
You also talked in your artist statement about wanting to create conversations between the viewer and the piece itself, or the viewer and the artist. What are you hoping those conversations will be like?
I try to reward careful and close looking. I think especially last semester I included codes in all the paintings that I made. One of them has a bunch of poems and then there were highlighted words in the poems that you could put together to make a new poem. And one of them was a painting that closed and then had a lock and if you unlocked it, you could open it up to find another painting on the inside. I think I want to continue with that where I want people to be able to engage, like, really engage with the work. I’m putting effort and time and thought and emotion into this. And I want people to have the option to come in and get real close and think about it and uncover the codes. There will be more information if they want it. And if they don’t want it, they can also just look at it and it’s nice to look at. I want it to be a choice that if people want to engage in a deeper conversation they can. There is a choice to be able to do that.
Once you come to a piece and you’re like, I’m deciding to get up in it and look at all the close details and figure out what they mean, you’re also bringing in your own context of your life. And then that’s another layer of interest and importance. I’m thinking about connection and community. It’s trying to make a connection, express the things I want to express. And hopefully people will understand what I’m trying to say. But I also hope that people will engage with the pieces on their own terms and like the conversation.
Do you think there are certain classes that you’ve taken at Oberlin, or just like in general outside of Oberlin, that have really influenced or impacted how you make art and your ideas around it?
Oh, that’s such a good question. Honestly, freshman year, I took Color Theory and that class has stuck in my head. It was the first time that I worked purely with color and not with concrete shapes; it was a new experience for me and pushed me really hard. I also took Icon Painting and then TA’ed for the class, which was where you make icons in the traditional Russian iconography style and make your own paints. You’re supposed to be making spiritual religious art, which is at least partially the vibe I’m going for. I think it was intentionally a meditative process and involved a lot of layering of things. And I think that really stuck with me. Even though I don’t work with the same materials anymore, that process still stuck with me.
The artistic practice can sometimes be really isolating. Do you find that difficult or do you try to collaborate with other artists? How do you manage being alone with your thoughts all the time?
That’s something that is really hard about this year in particular and about the senior year and COVID-19. In previous years, and in the junior studio last year, we would go and check out what each other were working on and stay in the studio late at night together or go out for drinks or whatever and become an artist community. And we’re not really able to do that this semester. I’m lucky that my roommate is also an artist and we can bounce ideas off of each other and work together in the same space. It is sometimes difficult, especially when I’m really excited about an idea or unsure about an idea. So that’s another thing I hope for in the future, to be able to collaborate more.
Collaboration requires vulnerability because here I can show you what I’ve made and talk about it, but to collaborate, someone will sit in on your creation process, which for me is even more personal than the pieces. So that’s something that I’m slowly but surely getting better at: being vulnerable, vulnerable about throwing out ideas and making mistakes with another person also there.
I am also thinking about the art world and wondering how you feel artists fit into society in general. Navigating the art world is so difficult.
That’s also a very good question. I don’t know. I’ve been talking to some different artists. I got to sit down with a former Obie, who’s a curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on Monday and have a brief conversation. And that was really illuminating where she told me her experiences. Her advice was just like find artists that you really admire and ask if they need studio assistants, and just put yourself out there and DM people and also name-drop other artists that you know because it’s a weird community.
The other thing that I keep learning and re-learning is that there isn’t one path to being an artist. There are lots of ways that you can be an artist. You can sell your stuff as stickers and things online. And you can work academically and become a teacher or professor. You can become a curator or you can just make art in your free time and put it up in the world without anyone’s permission and just be a person. I don’t know if that’s entirely helpful. The truth is that I’m still discovering what the art world looks like, especially for me and how I can, and hopefully will, fit into it.
Are there directions you hope to go in the future with your work or try different mediums or something experimental, something you haven’t worked with before?
Definitely. I want to play with bringing stuff off of the gallery wall, [causing] this conflict between the rectangular frame on a white wall and bringing stuff out of that. Part of the way I want to do that is by trying to work sculpturally, which I’m kind of scared of because I don’t have a lot of practice. Putting objects together in a not-wall space is something I want to try. I also just want to try to go bigger and see how big I can go, how crazy I can get. Those are the things that I’m thinking about, future things I want to explore, at least for the rest of the semester.
What are your plans for after you graduate, where you want to go or…
That’s also a good question right now. Well, actually, just today I sent out an application. Not this past Winter Term, but the Winter Term before I stayed at a commune in West Virginia. And I’m applying to live there for three to six months, to keep working on my portfolio and to establish more of an online presence and to live out the rest of the pandemic. And figure out what I’m going to do next. The art world is big and scary, but it’s something that I at least want to try to give it a shot at, because tha’’s something that I really love doing and I will probably continue to do for the rest of my life whether or not I get paid for it. So it would be nice to get paid for it.
Is there advice you’d give to artists or aspiring artists when they’re first starting out?
I know this is incredibly cliché, but honestly, just make work. The only way that I got better is that I just spent a lot of time making stuff. I would also say just take risks both in what you’re making and also in showing it to people. I think way more people are artists and have the ability to make art than they realize. I’ve had friends who’ve been like “no, I’m not an artist.” And they show me their collages and they’re gorgeous. And I’m like, you just have to have the confidence to call yourself an artist and show people or post it online. If you take yourself seriously as an artist, other people will take you seriously as an artist. So I think just taking yourself seriously and just making stuff and taking risks, allowing yourself to try something new. These were all kinds of experiments that I just liked. And so I put it up on the wall and I said, this is art now. And people just agreed with me.
Check out Liam’s work on Instagram @lem.arts