On 17 November 2023, I talked with Angela Lorenz via Zoom about her work and the theme of play. Lorenz divides her time between Bologna, Italy and Searsmont, Maine. Her watercolors, prints, multiples, and artist’s books are in over 150 public collections in the US and abroad. In 2007, she was Resident Faculty at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. RE: Making—A Documentation of Work by Angela Lorenz, a monograph with essays by over seventy scholars, collectors, librarians, curators, and journalists documenting Lorenz’s work from 1989 to 2022, just came out.
VP: Angela, when we settled on Play as the theme for the winter issue of the MAJ, I immediately thought of you and the way you play with language and use parody. Could you talk about how the concept of play resonates with you and your work?
AL: Well, I think humor is very important for me, even though a lot of the subject matter is grim because it’s about history. I try to convey messages that are forgotten or neglected. Humor is a wonderful way to communicate, so when I use puns in the titles, it’s a mnemonic device that has been used since the beginning of time. I also do parodies (for instance, of games) and make facsimiles in unexpected materials. My work is essentially about transmitting knowledge and games are a wonderful way to learn, and they’re part of our material culture. I observe and collect material culture: stuff from today, stuff that’s vintage or ancient.
One of the first things I did after graduating from college was a piece called Bolivia. It’s based on a child and his yo-yo that I observed in La Paz. It’s a one-of-a-kind book with a yo-yo from Bolivia set into the cover on top of a hand-woven Bolivian fabric. The yo-yo is one of the most ancient toys and yet it was a really big thing in the US in the ‘60s and ‘70s, then it hit Bolivia and it was all the rage when I happened to be there in the fall of 1987 and early 1988. I saw this child and his love for the yo-yo was so strong that, although he had lost his mother and sister and was racing to reconnect with them, he remembered that he had dropped his yo-yo and ran back for it. Games are part of our society; we can’t get away from them. They’re woven up in everything from propaganda to racism, just like all ephemera.
VP: The story of your Bolivian boy reminds me of this passage in one of Freud’s books in which he describes his grandson Ernst playing with a contraption reminiscent of a yo-yo: a bobbin attached to a thread. The eighteen-month-old makes a sound when he throws the bobbin and it disappears and another sound when he pulls it back. Freud realizes that what Ernst utters sounds like the German words “fort” (gone) and “da” (there): the little boy is trying to train himself to accept the absence of something or someone. Games must be taken seriously.
AL: There’s this one piece that I did with Polaroid transfers [Instant Transfers]. It’s about recycling and reuse, which is a great interest of mine—the invention and the resourcefulness that goes into it is remarkable. One of the images is a child who’s pretending he’s a soldier and wearing a deflated plastic soccer ball as a helmet. Sometimes, I observe what’s right in front of me but a lot of times I look at history and literature.
Another example in which I’m incorporating games is in Pandora’s Book, which is about women from history and myth who have been accused of being perpetrators of evil in the world. I limited myself only to materials and techniques that were considered okay for women to do such as sewing, embroidering, and watercolor and theorem painting. The last image and part of the poem is about the game Old Maid. I’m leaving people with the image of the hag, which once was a positive thing, turned into the single woman with the knitting bag. Old Maid is a game I played growing up: it’s totally misogynistic. So I fit it into this history of women that goes from pre-biblical times through the 19th century.
Games are fertile ground; we’re surrounded by them and they’re very important in our lives. Besides works that include elements of games, some are actually based on games from the past that are highly offensive. This is the case of Binding Ties, which was created in response to a 1942 game that I found by chance in a Maine antique shop. The South American Pictorial Travel and Trading Game taught young Americans what raw materials to extract and what refined products to sell. It took me seven years to make the piece. I bought the game in 1990, thought about it, and did research in England at the last manufacturer of regimental ties as I considered the regiments that were sent to colonial territories of Britain. I expanded the original game to include the whole history of trade. I read a lot of ethnographic texts and micro-historical studies where different people had the upper hand at different times. When we look at history we want one simple narrative, something we can wrap our minds around. But things are much more complicated. I try to create nuanced objects.
VP: That’s my point: you often address extremely serious subjects—such as the slave trade, the environment, the treatment of minorities, the holocaust, gender relations—and even with works that are not actual games, you invite the reader to “play” with them. One example is Bagno Book, a parody of a child’s bath book that discusses the Medici family’s role in the Mediterranean slave trade.
In many of your works, miniaturization calls to mind toys (small canvases and easels in WeaVermeer: III Cheers IV Meer, an Homage to Computational Art History, for instance). Artists’ books are fundamentally performative, but your work is particularly interactive, with the text printed on all kinds of materials that adopt all kinds of shapes and that need to be handled in order to be read (extracted from containers, opened, unfolded, unspooled, and so on)—in that sense you remain a book artist! The vast range of materials that you use adds great tactility to the sensorial experience of handling your work. Some have instructions, just like games, even though they are not meant to be played—as is the case for the one that comments on money laundering and crypto-currency.
AL: Yes, Not Funny-money Taken – Instant Clean Money Machine (or NFT).
VP: You give laundering instructions, taking the metaphor of laundering literally. Games always have instructions. Enlisting Whitman – A Pro Memoria Game for Emerson and Whitman comes with rules for playing in two different ways, as a memory game and as a trivia game. So why do you adopt such a playful mode even when you address weighty subjects?
AL: The projects generally develop quite slowly, and I tend to work on several at the same time. Things need to sit but also, to use a game analogy, my pieces are all puzzles in which I’m trying to figure out how I can incorporate information into every aspect of the book, because I work in a conceptual way. My works usually have text, but not always. Often, they have images, but not always. The reason they’re all different is because they reflect the content. The name of the typeface, the number of the edition, the name of the paper or of the manufacturer of elements, like the Bellini sponges that were used for my VeneTron piece . . . [Pauses and reflects] Actually, that one is kind of a game! [The user is invited to use stencils to mark a map of Venice with fifty locations of publicly accessible paintings by Venetian artists.] That means, if we count VeneTron, that I’ve done four games: one race game [Life, Life Eternal Life: Uncle Wiggily Meets The Pilgrim’s Progress], one memory and trivia game [Enlisting Whitman], one construction set [Seeding & Weeding – L. o. G. Construction Set], and Balzaculator [Balzaculator – La Comedie Humaine as a Binary System for Balzacolytes, which allows one to track the recurring characters in Balzac’s novels].
VP: I’m not a specialist but I suppose one should distinguish between games and toys. For instance, a coloring book is not a game, but it’s a toy, right? VeneTron works like a coloring book. The Balzaculator and your recent Vermeer project remind me of puzzles. Would you agree that the conception and realization of such projects is part puzzle solving, part puzzle-making?
AL: Right. Amusement is important because we can’t be serious all the time. Art can provide relief with beauty, but it can also communicate and draw attention to serious things, including politics and current events, and problems to solve.
I think that for someone with a strong desire to communicate, artist books are probably a very backwards medium; it would be better to be a journalist—if I wasn’t an artist, I would probably be a journalist. [Chuckles] Honestly, if I can succeed in distracting someone, for instance, to have someone be like, “Oh my Gosh! Wait, those jeans are made out of paper!” [The Strength of Denham – Sir John Denham Jeans and Imitation Denhams] or, “those marshmallows and graham crackers are made out of paper!” [Sir Thomas’more or Utopia Impaled: A Memento Mori More’s’mores as Metaphor for More’s Mores and More’s Mors, in Morus], to put someone in a meditative state of wonder or curiosity, is doing something positive.
I don’t know if being an artist is the best profession to do good in the world—being an educator is a great profession for that. So I can’t help but infuse knowledge within my artwork and find interesting ways to communicate. I want to try to be useful. I guess I’m sensitive to the place of people in this world and I do my best to draw attention to important issues.
VP: The idea of games and toy-like things allows you to engage your audience in a very subtle way—not forcing ideas down their throat. But you manage to invite them to reflect upon those very weighty subjects.
AL: If they want! I want to leave that door open.
VP: There you go! They can have fun and they can think about it—or not.
I’d like to go back to the notion of play. As you know, I like to think about you and your approach as voraciously polymathic. That’s why the range of your interests is phenomenal and although you do not think of yourself as a scholar, your work is based on scholarly inquiry: you like to think about things, you like to look for information. Falling into rabbit holes is pretty much your MO, isn’t it?
AL: Yes, that’s definitely my way of working.
VP: I can relate; we both love falling into rabbit holes! Sure, we’re looking for bits of information, but just like for Alice in Wonderland, going down the rabbit hole leads to a truly magical place. That too has a playful quality and possesses the enchantment one encounters as a child when playing. You’re in this magical and liminal place. You might be researching very actual, present, and important issues, but you go to a different place altogether. The other thing which I can’t avoid bringing up in this context is collecting. Not only are you interested in collecting material culture’s flotsam and jetsam, but what you do as you descend into rabbit holes is collecting knowledge.
AL: While collecting little bits of information, these rabbit holes could go on forever. Sometimes the things that you find in the rabbit holes are very unpleasant or disturbing, and you decide, “No, I absolutely do not want to work on that topic or that person.” You mentioned Wonderland. Alice’s illustrator, Sir John Tenniel, illustrated the Happy Families card game, which I collected on Portobello Road in London, and painted in two distinct projects as well [Sewing Notions and The Elusive Cockney Family]. It’s all tied up together!
VP: There’s the same drive behind collecting information and collecting stuff, isn’t it? And collecting is a form of play. I would add that they are both practices that lead to being completely absorbed in what you do.
AL: And being in a mode of observation, constantly.
VP: In some of your projects even the making is utterly absorbing. Last summer, while you were working on them, I saw some of the original drawings for WeaVermeer and was blown away by their minuteness. But there’s something very ludic, I think, in being absorbed doing something so detailed. Would you agree?
AL: Yes. In this case, I did sixteen drawings that took over two years. They are based on algorithms created by computer scientists who were working with art historians on a computational art history and digital humanities project. You’re definitely in a meditative state that can go on for months or years.
The first game I made is based on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress [Life, Life Eternal Life: Uncle Wiggily Meets The Pilgrim’s Progress]. It’s a race game based on Uncle Wiggly. I worked on it for several years. It took a crew of four interns and helpers, two winters in a row, doing felting and various processes, using antique pen nibs and things like that. You’re absolutely correct there: although I create works that are definitely linked to knowledge, the way one interacts with them is often game-like, whether it’s a specific game or not.
VP: One of the interests of our theme is that it casts a different light on artistic creation: it makes you think about the ludic dimension of art making. It occurs to me that this is very much linked to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow.
AL: Yes, absolutely: play and flow are interconnected. As a parent, I have observed that the ideal situation when your kid is playing with other kids is when they enter flow in a game that they have invented, which often involves dress up and roleplay, and for which they create their own narratives. And when it’s time, you must stop this incredible flow. A lot of parents would say: “Okay, now we have to clean up. It is time to go.” Instead of instilling this wonderful ethic of cleaning up, I would want them to keep playing in this state of flow until the very last second, because it is a magical part of play. I think that this absorption is a kind of meditation. Play has wonderful mental health benefits; it’s good for your self-esteem and for executive functions. That’s why infusing art into education brings all these incredible aspects to our mental and physical health, which include decision making, self-esteem, and problem solving.
The way that I work means inventing new processes and sometimes new materials, solutions, and structures every single time, because I am making a purpose-built sort of object, meant to communicate ideas and knowledge. It is a new challenge and a new puzzle every time, but I would get bored doing the same thing over and over. I describe myself as a glutton because I want to make a lot of things. I am certainly a glutton for knowledge. I know that it is impossible and that I will only ever arrive at the triviality and trivia, and be an eternal beginner, but I do fact check and seek out and talk to specialists in many fields because no matter how flimsy my topic or my artwork is, no matter how whimsical, it still has to be correct in terms of what we know and has been proven with published research. So I strive! I strive for truth—and justice, of course. It is an entertaining process for me; I do seek to entertain as well as inform.
VP: That’s exactly what I was about to say. You entertain yourself, you keep yourself busy—researching . . .
AL: I’m never bored!
VP: . . . designing, constructing, keeping in mind the person who will hold your work. Because as you said, first and foremost you’re trying to communicate knowledge.
AL: Yes, I’m thinking about the user, how they’re going to handle and receive the work. But, as you know, the artist’s intentions are one thing, and what happens when something is out in the world is another, and we have no control over that. So I do write about my works to give people an opportunity to learn more if they want to. I hope to be able to bring some kind of delight, curiosity, and wonder, without requiring the user to enter into any of the research that went into the work, much of which is invisible. I do make it available, though. Some people don’t think artists or writers should be offering a key to the work.
VP: I think there are two ways of doing it. The “wrong” way would be to tell your audience: “This is what this means.” Another, which I think is perfectly acceptable and in fact desirable and enlightening, is for the artist to explain where they’re coming from, what they were interested in doing, what motivated them. I think that’s very different. Then the ball is in the viewers’ camp. I don’t think that’s being overly directive. In your case, with objects that are meant to be handled, there’s an open-ended quality, less directive than with a book that has a cover and that starts on page one. In that sense, your works remind me of Umberto Eco’s book Opera Aperta, The Open Work.
AL: Directions are inherent in some works, whether they are games or not. An art historian long ago pointed out that my 1992 piece The Logical Way to Become an Artist is a set of directions. There are blank postcards with the most popular themes of Renaissance paintings in the captions. The public is invited to fill out these blank postcards.
VP: Sure, you get instructions in all kinds of contexts, but the big difference is the part that chance plays in games.
AL: Chance is a big part of play and I’m glad you brought that up. It’s also very entertaining! [Chuckles] Experimentation is the fun part and the playful part, and my most favorite part. And that is often done alone. When you’ve actually solved all the problems, and you have to make ten, twenty, fifty of something, that’s incredibly tedious.
VP: Would you say that, besides the need to make a living, you get through the tedium of executing your project in so many copies because this will allow more people to engage with your work and have their own ludic experience with it—and for you to communicate with them?
AL: Yes, I think it’s about how I want to communicate ideas. It’s also about wanting to finish the project.
VP: “Finished” thus means communicating with people.
AL: Right, I wouldn’t finish the object, a whole series, and a whole edition and then not release it unless I had some great doubt at the very end. [Chuckles]
VP: Or be like Leonardo da Vinci and not finish because you’ve solved the problem and you get bored. Patience is crucial.
AL: I have to say that living off my work is an extra kick in the pants. You cannot do research forever, you have to complete something in order to survive. So, it is a great incentive, but I am not promoting the trope of the starving artist. I think it is a terrible trope. People are terribly underpaid in the arts, and it is not fair.
VP: It’s a good incentive: without deadlines, I wonder if I would ever finish anything!
AL: Exactly. I generally do not do commissions, essentially my deadlines are artificial. I set deadlines and then, I haven’t resolved the problems or I haven’t finished the work. There’s nothing you can do; you can’t predict how long it’s going to take you to make something even when you have resolved the problems. It’s a luxury to work slowly as it gives you the possibility, often by chance, to resolve the problems.
Your questions make me think of things I’ve never thought of before. I talk abstractly about how experimenting is fun, but here’s a good example. I’m thinking about the time when I cooked spaghetti and glued it down onto my drawings of Renaissance plates with portraits of women. First, it was just the experiment: what’s going to happen in the etching press? So I just did a spaghetti sketch; it didn’t really matter what it looked like because it was an experiment. I did a rough cartoony face of a woman, glued it down, sealed it with varnish, inked it, and printed it. It worked beautifully. It was just fantastic. So then I did, as realistic as I could, reproductions of Renaissance plates using cooked spaghetti on the printing plate [Paper Plates – She’s a Dish]. But yes, that moment of experimentation is the best, when you’re trying something completely new, or new to you. That’s really fun. I think about my youth, when I could’ve used some mentoring, especially in the sciences. I would be alone playing and doing things like taking apart magic markers. [Chuckles] There’s a lot to be said, as long as you’re not doing anything dangerous, for just playing with what you have, with what you can get your hands on.
Angelonium: Angela Lorenz Collected Works and Websites.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Perennial, 1996.
Eco, Umberto, The Open Work. Trans. Anna Cancogni. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Freud, Sigmund. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. Vol. 18. London: Hogarth Press, 1955. 14-15.
Tolnick Champa, Judith, ed. RE: Making—A Documentation of Work by Angela Lorenz. New Haven, CT: The jenny-press, 2023.
Image at top: Angela Lorenz, Seeding & Weeding – L. o. G. Construction Set, edition of 7 copies, cloth case: 21 x 22.5 in., box: 10 x 10 x 4.5 in., book: 6 x 10 in., 2020.