An Interview with Libby Hague

By Tommy Mayberry

the dream of the red room Windsor Printmaker's Forum 2008

the dream of the red room

the dream of the red room-Windsor Printmaker's Forum 2008

Windsor Printmaker's Forum 2008

In 2008 (and in 1993 before that), we had the great privilege of showing Canadian artist Libby Hague’s work in our space at the Windsor Printmakers’ Forum, and we wanted to see what she’s been up to since her time spent with us. Libby kindly – and excitedly – agreed to do an interview with us, and we, in turn, are very excited to share this dialogue. Libby was born in St. Thomas, Ontario, and she grew up in Montréal. She went to Concordia University, and she moved to Toronto, she tells us, for love (which, contrary to the opinion of the rest of the country, can sometimes be found there).

Here are the results of our Q&A session with Libby:

 Q: In your work, the print medium becomes a tool of installation – how does the “medium” (if we can use that word here) of installation further the issues and ideas that you work with?

A: My installations often occur within a narrative framework that explores themes of disaster, rescue, responsibility, and the fragility of civilized life.  They weave together a two-fold interest in narrative and material exploration.

Using a modular approach to print, I build complexity by layering simple elements. It’s a responsive hybrid that brings the efficiencies of a small factory to the invention of the studio. Print allows me to introduce a narrative specificity; for example, the Gardiner expressway. I have an inventory of people and objects that I can reuse – a bit like have a repertory theatre company in my studio but more compact and more manageable. It allows the installations to get more complex because I am always building on what has gone before. For example, a very partial printed inventory includes:

a field of corn

20 feet of chain link fence

120 feet of the Gardiner Expressway in various states of decrepitude

acrobats

dogs

an expandable snow covered field ( 3 – 20 feet)

possibly 300 feet of various cut chandeliers

20 hand cut peacock feathers, 6 foot lengths

Fireballs

 The strong graphic of the woodcuts helps to unify the installations and since most of the work is done on basswood blocks that I have kept, when I want more of something, I print more. I can use the power of the repeat to connect smaller individual elements and change the metaphor by changing the quantity. Rain becomes a downpour; a fence becomes a border.

Q: Which galleries have you enjoyed showing your work with the most? (And you do not have to say Windsor Printmakers’ Forum, haha!)

A: Well, actually, I did really enjoy showing at the Windsor Printmakers’ (Dream of the Red Room, 2008). Usually I enjoy exhibiting somewhere because I like the people, the space or because I was pleased with the work I did. If I’m lucky, I get two out of three of these elements.

Windsor is probably a good-sized city for collaborations because it’s a good networking size. People know who is doing interesting work outside their area, and if there are fewer opportunities in your own field, you might be quicker to say “yes” to something a bit different next door. Something like that happened to me at WPF. Patricia Coates said they often have live music at WPF openings and asked me what I liked. She was able to persuade the Windsor mezzo soprano, Catherine McKeever, to sing at the opening, and Ms. McKeever put together a moving selection of songs to fit with my melodramatic installation. It was such a success that we had a closing performance with Catherine McKeever AND Peggy Dwyer – which is really an amazing thing to have happened.  I also loved the red floor. Where is there another gallery space with a shiny red floor? That was the starting point for the installation.

Avalanche, Off the map gallery, Toronto, 2007             Another exhibition I liked was Avalanche (Off the Map Gallery, Toronto, 2007), although I almost felt defeated by it. Nothing I was used to doing was working out there: it was high (a combination of terrifying and exhausting); unheated; and very out of the way – the gallery was appropriately called Off the Map Gallery. By going beyond exhaustion, I was able to reinvent my work and made a new friend – two good things.

Q: Which galleries do you find are receptive venues for artists working in the print medium?

A: This depends on a lot of factors, many that are interrelated including:

the reputation of the artist,

if the artist also works in another medium,

the price range for the work,

the scale of the work,

the province  (because there is more interest for print and work on paper in Quebec),

the quality of the work

For example, if an unknown printmaker works on a small scale and has low prices for their work, then a venue like Open Studio’s print sales gallery would be a good fit. The space will be a good fit proportionally, and there is pre-existing traffic. Le gallery in Toronto carries some good young printmakers, and there are a number of printshops across the country that have galleries. I have found artist run centers and public galleries are more receptive to print installations and commercial galleries are not. To be practical, there is nothing to sell.

I am part of a collective in Toronto called Loop with thirty-six members, and the beauty of the gallery is that we have the freedom to show what we want – commercial or non commercial work in any medium.

It could be that some of the interest in the touring print show that Patricia Coates organized for WPF is partially because there hasn’t been enough print work seen recently in museums. Likewise, the success of this show is something that print artists might capitalize on by approaching the participating galleries for a solo show.

Q: Which of your fellow artists out there in the printmaking world do you find interesting?

A: Off the top of my head: Seripop; Yael Brotman; Tara Cooper; Barbara Balfour; Kiki Smith; Jeannie Thib; Julie Voyce; Swoon; Rochelle Rubinstein; Nick Schick; Betty Goodwin; Liz Parkinson; Penelope Stewart; Rene Derouin; Sean Caulfeild; Susan Collett; Victor Romao; Elizabeth Forrest; Richard Sewell…there are many, many more, of course.

Q: Patricia Coates – whom I believe you’ve met when you were at the WPF – tells me that you were involved in a superb publication that included original prints, can you tell me more about this project? It sounds fantastic!

A: From 1988-90, I edited the Print and Drawing newsletter. It was a 32-page publication that came out first once a month and then every two months. There were interviews, reviews articles, and an attempt to show what was happening across the country in print. It had a colour cover, sometimes a colour centerpiece, and a circulation of three-hundred copies. There were several issues that had original prints in them including work by Torrie Groening, Carl Skelton, Olga Philip, Tony Mosna and George Walker.

The Print and Drawing Council also ran a three-thousand square-foot gallery called Extension Gallery at 80 Spadina when this was still a happening building. We had shows of print and drawings to try to bring attention to the fabulous work being done on paper that we felt was ignored in many other galleries. (This goes to your earlier question, as well.) All our activities were supported by PDCC memberships, and this meant we had practically no money and depended on goods in types of trades. It was run on volunteer efforts, and was really a huge undertaking, but a worthwhile one. One of the tangible benefits of membership was the newsletter because people want to see a benefit for supporting an organization, and after a while, a benefit to a community may not seem enough.

In looking over past issues, I see it served some of the same purposes as Facebook while having a critical intent as well. Individual artists, or printshops, sent in information about what they were doing, calls for submission etc., and it was an excellent way to let people in the print community across the country know what was happening. The newsletter was later taken up by Liz Wylie who renamed it Extension Magazine.

Q: What is your current (or your most recent) project?

A: I just had a show at Loop called Gravity Drawings where I was trying to show how I develop ideas – both how I think and what I thought. Now I am preparing a show for YYZ in Toronto called “Be Brave! we are in this together.” It will be an installation of wood block prints that I had commercially steam-pleated. I will use these sections as modular units to create a highly subjective self-portrait of my one and only life, so far.

In 2005, I started working with a company that pleats fabric, and had them pleat my prints. I now see how I can use each printed and pleated component as a modular gesture that not only bends, spreads, and interconnects, but, because it is light and pliable, also wraps around columns and attaches to the ceiling. This results in a continuously shifting tactility and a charming, awkwardly gestural vocabulary, if I do say so.

Still working with pleated paper, I am developing abstract puppet sculptures to exist within the installation. They will be abject but resilient [puppet] hybrids to be manipulated by the gallery audience. They are part creature, part thing. By moving them, we give them a half-life that engenders a strange empathy and impatience in us toward our creations.  They test our patience by their repeated and almost inevitable failures; they test our optimism by not learning anything and not showing gratitude. As mute creatures, they speak to the fundamental isolation of beings and our attempts to overcome that.

Because of their narrative and transformative potential, I would like to encourage other artists, like dancers, musicians and writers, to interact with these sculptures to create performances within my installation that can be videotaped in a small series on YouTube. It’s a lot to work out in the next two months.

Q: What are some of your upcoming projects?

A: I’m going to do a residency in Ireland at Inis Oirr Island, the smallest Aran Island, this July with Yael Brotman.

Q: If you had a blank-cheque version of a Government Grant, what is the one project that you would like to do but would be impossible to pull off otherwise?

A: I would like to do an opera.

Libby Hague, photo courtesy of Patricia Njovu

Q: There’s always at least one question that an interviewee hopes (s)he’ll be asked in an interview but never is, what is that question? And what’s your answer to it?

You are wrong, Tommy – I never had that hope. Out of kindness, I am prepared to instantly manufacture that hope, however, and ask myself: “Why do you love puppets?” and the answer would be “Hmm. I have to think about that a bit more.”

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