'I Hope the Work Gives People the Courage to Be Themselves Publicly': An Interview with Lisa Marie Thalhammer
Interview: Lisa Marie Thalhammer
By Kamal Jauad Abdelilah
What inspires you currently? What themes are you exploring in your work now?
I've spent the last months on sabbatical, working from a studio in Lima, Peru. Learning a new language while being exposed to a different set of cultural traditions and political concerns has inspired my current art-making process. Exploring cross-cultural social issues as they relate to gender roles, race economics, and sexual identity has been at the center of my artwork.
In recent work, I appropriate particular aesthetics common to popular contemporary Peruvian posters. By using a font in similar style and color, I utilize a new way to communicate cross-culturally.
For example, in my artwork "Lesbiana Lápiz Labial," I translate a common phrase or thought from American LGBTQ culture from English to Spanish. The concept of a “lipstick lesbian” is completely foreign to peoples for whom English is not their first language. By illustrating the translation of a cultural phrase, in an aesthetic style familiar to other peoples of the world, I begin to translate more than actual words, introducing new cultural concepts. Through this technique, I intend to share concepts of freedom, equality, and revolution that make up my personal belief system.
DC is clearly a city that is focused on the goings on of the nation and the world far beyond its own borders. What's it like being an artist in a city that's focused on politics?
The District of Columbia is home to an intelligent community of artists, activists, and cultural directors who constantly inspire me. My community supports and appreciates the undertones of socio-political protest that exist in all my work. Additionally, DC is an international city that supports culture and art-making fiscally and conceptually.
Why do you think portraiture is a good platform for exploring perceptions of female identity in our culture?
Exploring the subtleties of portrait and figure painting has been at the center of my creative practice ever since I was a young artist of 16 years old, studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. Portraiture painting specifically has a historical context that newer digital and photographic mediums do not. While studying classical paintings, I realized that the historical representation of gender in art is severely informed by the maker of the image. For example, male artists such as Caravaggio and women artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi both painted representations of the "Beheading of Holofernes" but portrayed the heroines of these works in opposing extremes. In this case the male artist represents the women in his painting as delicate while the female artist represents the women in her painting as strong, even though the heroine is cutting the head off of a general in both representations. The understanding of this difference as a young artist majorly informed my art-making process.
In the years to follow, I explored this concept in depth as a student of painting at the University of Kansas. Choosing to focus my studies on the histories of women and the construction of gender and its representation in the visual world, I realized that men have been the primary makers of the images of women. I found this problematic that women had not defined themselves, but were defined historically by the "other" sex. Thus began my artistic career with a mission to empower peoples, primarily women, through the process of portrait painting.
I create paintings that pose female subjects with masculine symbols of power. My intent in these works is to subvert the traditional roles of women in contemporary culture. My earliest works display paintings of my female friends with guns, drawings of women boxer figures, and collages of truck stop sex workers, all with this underlying mission at the core of my artistic practice.
The mixing of a person's sex and symbols of power implies that gender is a cultural construction and not simply based on someone's physicality. I am a champion of women making their own images and controlling their own perception.
What impact do you hope for your work to have on viewers?
I hope viewers find empowerment and pride through my work.
I hope my images make young girls grow up proud and strong.
I hope it can help men break free of their own gender restraints and constructions.
I hope for my art to contribute to a world that respects women and values cultural difference.
I hope the work gives people the courage to be themselves publicly.
I hope my art contributes to a more egalitarian world that respects and celebrates the beautiful variety within humanity.
This piece originally appeared in issue 2 of The Intentional.