Being in the world through art

Dr Laurie Benson interviews artist and academic Dr. Lola Frost. In the interview, Lola Frost covers the relationship between her own artistic practice and research, discusses her work, and comments more generally on the relationship between aesthetic and academic research.

Lola Frost’s artistic career spans nearly four decades working and exhibiting in South Africa and in the UK. Work from her several feminist and war art exhibitions between 1983 and 1996 was taken up by major public collections in South Africa. More recently, her solo exhibitions titled Coming Alive, 2013 (Clerkenwell Gallery), Taking Risks, 2014 (Somerset House); Going South, 2015 (Somerset House) and Living the Fold, 2017 (University of Brighton); Towards Deep and Radiant Time, 2018 (Bush House King’s College London) have all contributed to an ongoing project which mobilizes and unsettles the tradition of sublime landscape painting and explores repression, desire and libido in painting.

Lola Frost’s academic career includes engagement with the fields of aesthetics, writing and publishing on aesthetics, politics, and ethics in the context of Art and International Relations. Her Leverhulme artist’s residency in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London in 2014/2015 explored the idea of aesthetic risk through two exhibitions and several publicly oriented collaborations with KCL staff and students. She is currently a Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London developing a project which explores affective ethics in art, philosophy and IR.

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Can you start by telling us how you see your role as an artist and how this has materialised in your latest exhibition, Towards a Deep and Radiant Time (2018)?

There are probably several ways of looking at my practice and its iteration in this latest exhibition, but for the moment I will approach it from a feminist perspective and the production of subjectivity in art. There have been many subjects, not least the privileged masculine subject, with his gaze, and the female object of that gaze in art history. I am always fascinated and puzzled by what is at stake in the production of subjectivity in the tradition of sublime landscape painting, think of Turner and Constable. I am particularly interested in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, and how subjectivity here is figured by an experience of infinite spatial extension. That disembodied emptiness or void continues to shape the high modernism of, for example, Mark Rothko’s abstract paintings. With the exception of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, which made a particular intervention in bringing embodiment to sublime landscape painting - I understand that the sublime landscape tradition of painting is also implicated in those subject/object, mind/body, self/alterity divides that have sustained the western phallocentric order.

Double Desire 2018


My paintings scramble the distinctions between oppositions like the subject and the object, inside and outside, the body and landscape, time and space, for example. I’m not entirely sure why I do this, even as I delight in and tremble at its subversiveness. I’ve been recently looking at Affect theory, the work of Elizabeth Grosz, Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty as a matrix for challenging the Cartesian rational subject, the void and the mastering gaze, and for understanding the potential of the infinite Fold from a feminist psychoanalytic perspective. The feminist intervention that I make here, I think, is to bring repressed libidinal embodiment into the tradition of sublime landscape painting, and in so doing revisit that which this tradition has repressed. And by extension addressing contemporary viewers (both male and female) who remain caught up in the repressions of the current phallocentric order.

Building on what you have said, your exhibition speaks of an ‘ethics of impropriety’ and the enactment of an ‘improper sublime’. Your intervention seems to be a critique both of the philosophical and art historical discourse in which you see the legitimisation of a particular subjectivity and its institutionalisation- the various ways in which it has been celebrated and made visible…

Toward Deep and Radiant Time 2017


And authorised. And the ways in which it authorises … I have been quite shy about admitting my participation in the tradition of sublime landscape painting, which may seem to be atavistic, in the face of the prevalence of conceptually loaded attitudes to the production and reception of art today. Yet the tradition of sublime landscape painting is being revisited, and usefully so I think, as we try to engage the pitfalls of modern subjectivity. In that sense my practice is both a political and ethical project that has resonances with the writing of International Relations (IR) scholars and indeed with post-structural philosophy, an ongoing project to interrogate the structures of modern subjectivity.

But your question is about an ‘improper sublime’ and an ‘ethics of impropriety’. I make claims about the impropriety of my practice insofar as some its themes and references were inaugurated by the tradition of sublime painting, but also unsettle that tradition. For example, I make field trips to far distant locations like Patagonia, take photographs of those parts of the landscapes that ‘call to me’, and refigure those landscapes (via collages) as sketches for each painting. It is the act of painting that renders these ideas ‘improper’ insofar as the creative processes deployed here insert libidinal drive into form, and in so doing release, as accumulations of fractal events, that which is unspeakable and repressed. It is that process, I suggest, that delights and shocks viewers and renders it an improper sublime painting practice. I am interested in how the production of such sublime affect unsettles those norms which would sustain the hegemonic phallocentric status quo. I will be developing my thoughts on the potential of such an ethics of impropriety for International Relations.

There is a making visible of these power relations in your work, but you also seem to want to go beyond them, rather than remaining ‘at the limit’.

The Flesh of the World 2016


Even if I’m contesting the tradition of sublime painting, I am also very interested in sustaining the performance of cognitive failure or ‘unspeakableness’ which pertains to all sublime experience. So what is at stake in my framing of my sublime practice as improper? I think that the unspeakable shock/pleasure that viewers register on seeing these paintings involves two levels of impropriety: discomfort at the failure of cognition that all sublime experience demands of us, and such discomfort might be read as the counterpoint to the propriety, or hegemonic value, attached to cognitive or visual mastery. But beyond such traditional sublime experience, viewers are also taken inward into those domains of embodiment, the psyche and the undecideabilities of libido, all of which are usually repressed. It is an engagement with such repression that is a register of ‘the improper’, although I also think, such an undoing of repression is also a space for a new kind of ethics and politics.

So yes, I do want to go beyond the power/knowledge nexus that the traditional aesthetics of the sublime so successfully challenges. But I am also interested in the improper work that my sublime painting practice delivers insofar as it lifts the veil on that which has been repressed: a field of libidinal ecstasy which remains monstrously gendered. People are sometimes flummoxed by their unspeakable experiences of these paintings. Perhaps they feel a bit better when it is labelled as improper because they sense it is in some way improper, but cannot say why. For me, this is a practice that gnaws away at something that I don’t entirely understand, but am compelled towards, transformed and entranced by.

The play of presence/absence and proximity/distance struck me in your work. Is this something you specifically sought to address?

I had never thought of it in terms of presence and absence- that’s lovely! Currently I have been thinking about my practice in terms of time and space. I have attended to the idea of the temporal event and multiple events. Each painting is always inaugurated by a fieldtrip where time based experiential events register as a fold in a continuum of unfolding historical and geological time, absence or presence if you like! I cannot make a painting unless I have been affectively scrambled in some way. Such processes of affective self-disaggregation challenge the Cartesian ‘I’- the authorising, all-knowing, mastering ‘I’, whose purposiveness and instrumentality, I think, causes such ethical havoc in our power obsessed social arrangements today. I thus remain committed to an oscillating anti-binarist template, which some, like Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, associate with affective and aesthetic experience. In terms of the oscillations between time and space, each painting always starts with the ‘call’ of the landscape which is itself a register of an event, and the making of the painting itself carries all sorts of temporal events, including the slow and folding accumulation of fractals. In turn, the viewer is confronted by the slippage between temporal infinity and spatial pulsation/dislocation. That’s a manoeuvre which unsettles those aspects of the tradition of the sublime landscape painting which endorse spatial and territorial occupation. These oscillations, between time and space, absence and presence, proximity and distance, deterritorialise those endorsements of spatial or territorial occupation.

I have a colonial history- I grew up in South Africa and my Eurocentric parents collected paintings. Significantly perhaps, in my lexicon were the traces left by a famous South African artist called Pierneef. His work has been critiqued for configuring the space of the landscape as an empty space for the white settler. I was certainly aware of that critique, but we might say the same of the American, European or Australian Sublime, as a pictorial space which elevates and isolates the viewer and in so doing endorses the mastering eye of colonial occupation. Being aware of what is at stake in colonial occupation and territorialisation, it has been very important for me to occupy this infinitely oscillating method between presence and absence, time and space, inside and outside, etc. It seems to me that there’s an ethics and a politics attached to this shimmering, oscillating and performative method that extends beyond the colonial gaze and its’ territorial habits.

How do you deal with the potential of this critique being co-opted, both in your painting and how you frame the exhibition?

It’s a delicate dance: at the minute I am a sufficiently unknown artist to not be co-opted and that’s a wonderful position to be in because people when encountering my paintings, cannot hang their affective experiences onto my status, or what that might represent. Instead they are required to take aesthetic risks, if they can, that is. I love being in the gallery with people and am honoured to invite, prod or provoke them into to taking interpretive and experiential risks. Recently a security guard at Bush House said to me ‘you know I can’t stop looking, but what do they mean’ and I replied ‘it’s up to you’. I would always hope to keep that affectively un-co-opted or experientially subversive frame open. I also value those viewers (irrespective of class, race or gender) who are not cynical about affective states and aesthetic risks and who haven’t already framed aesthetic experience in terms of defensive concepts. The artwork itself must always be provocative and that’s what I work towards- keeping the artwork perpetually unsettling and alive. The other side of it is that my practice is unsettling, and some viewers are afraid to engage with its aesthetic and affective provocations. Interpreting art involves a creative and delicate balance between imagining, knowing, understanding, feeling and sensing, all shaped by, and sometimes at odds with, our cultural conditioning and personal preferences.

Your recent exhibitions have taken place in conjuncture with the Department of War Studies (King’s College London) and previously as Artist in Residence. How do you think social scientists have, and could, take more aesthetic risks in terms of research methods and its communication?

Having been associated War Studies at King’s College London for some time, including developing a course on art and war with an emphasis on the aesthetic specificity of art, I have been thinking a lot about what is at stake at the interface of social science and aesthetic experience. On the one hand I have been excited by the enthusiasm of IR scholars interested in art, politics and ethics. It’s also been great to engage with the intellectual rigour of social scientists on the topics and methods of knowledge production. But knowledge production in the academy is quite different to art and it calls on us to experience affect and negotiate aesthetic risk. Art certainly does play a part in knowledge production: we understand a lot about our being in the world and our cultural histories through art. But art also operates at a processual and experiential level, engaging that which we cannot fully know or say. Our aesthetic experience of art is thus not reducible to power/knowledge differentials, or to purposive reason and cognitive mastery. IR scholars, like Art Historians are part of our desiring, imaginative, creative and aesthetically attuned interpretive communities, even as they might feel the need to synthesise their experiences of art with the protocols, interests, methods and power/knowledge vectors of the academy. That synthesis may well deliver useful insights for those social science or art historical practitioners in the academy, but I suspect that such knowledge production is not the key to the successful production and reception of art.

So, the question is whether if social scientists were to take more aesthetic risks, and in so doing improve their research methods and communication? Taking aesthetic risks, I would wager, is good for everyone, but would not necessarily contribute to better knowledge, although that might be debatable. Perhaps a recognition of the fundamental differences and between art and the social sciences, or between art and Art History, might improve the contributions of IR scholars to this vast field of interpretation? But in the final instance good social science, like good art, will be evaluated in terms of each of those practices’ constitutive rules: as Deleuze claims, concepts and argument belong to philosophy and affects, anti-representational processes and aesthetic experience belong to art. In the same vein, the social sciences would take pride in the production of a wide range of socially applied knowledge.

Under the rubric of the Aesthetic Turn, IR scholars have expanded the repertoire of topics that might previously have been assigned to art: empathy, emotion, affect and performativity. For example, War Studies scholars are investigating what is at stake in the affective experiences of trauma, and how art might play a part in recuperating agency for those afflicted by the trauma of war and conflict. So there are new and applied fields for the study of the effects and of the social relevance of the arts in the social sciences, and which students and scholars of the study International Relations are appropriately very excited by.