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Read Bjork's2001 interview with Juergen Teller from the index archives.

Kathleen Hanna discusses writing and making music in this interview from 2000 with Laurie Weeks.

Isabella Rossellini spoke with Peter Halley in this 1999 interview.

Check out our interview with Crispin Glover by Richard Kern from 2000.
Alexander McQueen's 2003 interview with Bjork.

Lisa Ruyter, 1999


A lime green sky, an orange lake, kids with pale blue faces —   only a few of the details in Lisa Ruyter’s paintings that just don’t seem right.  Like a willful child who’s always choosing the wrong pencils for a color-by-numbers, Lisa paints her pictures the way she sees them.  And despite her use of unnaturalistic, sometimes “toxic” colors, so total is the effect that she convinces you to accept her world.  It remains ours as well, as familiar as a suburban park or city street — but seen through a stained glass window on a Saturday morning cartoon.  And while Lisa’s work is among the oddest Pop art anyone’s made in the ’90s, she also creates incredibly poignant scenes that bring to mind the depth of feeling one more readily associates with Edward Hopper.  When she paints an empty parking lot, it’s just about the loneliest place on earth.  And then you wonder, why did someone make a painting of an empty parking lot?  That was one of the questions on my mind when I went to her studio.  It’s right across the street, so I stop in all the time, but this was an “official appointment” — which neither of us know how to keep.


Bob Nickas:  It’s so odd talking to somebody you know as if you didn’t know them.  But we have to keep in mind that most people out there don’t know anything about you.  So we have to tell the story.
Lisa Ruyter:  Which story?

Bob:  Well, did you always know you wanted to be an artist, from when you were a kid?
Lisa:  No.

Bob:  No?
Lisa:  No.  And I don’t remember doing this, but I know that everything I made I would tear up.  I wouldn’t let my parents keep any drawings, and I would tear them up as soon as I made them.

Bob:  That was thoughtful.  Because I’m one of those people who likes children but I really hate children’s art.
Lisa:  Well, I don’t like artists who don’t edit themselves, who just let anything out there ...

Bob:  But you edited everything.
Lisa:  Everything.

Bob:  How old were you?
Lisa:  I would guess maybe six or seven.  Then in junior high I made drawings to get out of writing papers.  Because I could draw better than I could write.

Bob:  You turned in drawings instead of papers?
Lisa:  For book reports and stuff like that.  I would illustrate the story.  Not read the book, just illustrate what I wanted the story to be.  I loved to read, I just didn’t like most of what we were assigned to read.  At that point I was only reading science fiction and science fantasy.  I liked to draw dragons, monsters and men in sci-fi uniforms that looked like racing outfits.

Bob:  So you’d make the book into a comic book.
Lisa:  Yeah.  I was in advanced English classes, but I had never learned basic grammar.  They assumed I knew it.  But somewhere I missed that lesson.

Bob:  I used to go to art classes just to get out of gym, and then I ended up doing all these drawings of like, people in gym.
Lisa:  Wrestling and stuff?

Bob:  The whole phys ed genre.
Lisa:  My mother was an art teacher.

Bob:  I didn’t know that.
Lisa:  She taught at the high school I went to ...

Bob:  That must have been awkward.
Lisa:  No, it was very beneficial actually.

Bob:  You weren’t embarrassed?
Lisa:  No.  Because you get special treatment if your parent is a teacher.

Bob:  Yeah, I know — the other kids beat you up in the bathroom.
Lisa:  I never had much to do with the other students, so that wasn’t really a problem.

Bob:  You didn’t do the normal rebel-against-your-parents thing?  Your mom was an art teacher and you actually became an artist.
Lisa:  Well, I wanted to get a soccer scholarship, but I had to play on outside teams in order to get that, and I made the team but I couldn’t get rides to the games.  My father wouldn’t drive me to the soccer games.  He would now, but not back then.

Bob:  Well, dads can be supportive like that.
Lisa:  [laughs] He kept me out of that trouble.

Bob:  And women’s soccer is so big.  It’s a shame.
Lisa:  I could have been a star.

Bob:  And now you have to sell paintings to make a living.
Lisa:  I know.

Bob:  When you were a kid, did you ever do those color-by-number drawings?  Where you’d have all the numbered pencils, and that’s how you knew which colors to use.
Lisa:  I don’t remember doing those, but I know what you’re talking about.

Bob:  The reason I ask is because your paintings have that fill-in-the-numbers quality, but it’s like you intentionally used all the wrong colors.  In your paintings, the sky might be chocolate brown or lime green, but it’s rarely blue.
Lisa:  Well, in some cases I think the colors are more correct than anything you might find out there.  I mean, there’s the green sky in this painting of the brand-new townhouses.  They all look exactly the same.  They’re very clinical.  So it’s like a hospital green ...

Bob:  Institutional green.  So even if the color choices seem really perverse, you can also see them as comments on the image.
Lisa:  But you can’t be too obvious with that either.

Bob:  So how do you choose the colors?  Because they are so odd.  Like those kids over there — their hair and faces and skin and arms are all so ... jaundiced.  I don’t even know how to describe that yellow.
Lisa:  The colors are sort of picked in a narrative fashion.  A painting always starts with one color, and then I add another and another ...  I try to make something interesting happen with the first color, but it doesn’t get specific until later.  So the second color is responding to the first one, and the next color responds to the combination that that just made.  And it goes on from there.  If the picture’s getting too flat or too boring, then I usually throw in a really bright color.

Bob:  So at a certain point it doesn’t even matter what the image is?
Lisa:  Oh, not at all.

Bob:  You just say, “This painting could use a bright pink right about now.”
Lisa:  Yeah-yeah.  It’s totally formal that way.  But I do avoid drawing attention to specific things within a picture, especially really Pop things.  Like, if there’s a cartoon character on somebody’s t-shirt, I won’t bring that out unless the painting really needs something specific right there.

Bob:  You had been doing a lot of empty landscapes, and now there are lots of people in them.
Lisa:  I had gone to visit my family, and while I was taking pictures of landscapes, I happened to turn the camera on them and took a few snapshots.  And later I realized there were some really good pictures in there.

Bob:  Well, one of my big questions today was going to be: Why people?
Lisa:  Because I had gotten really tired of the landscapes, and I wasn’t sure what to do next.  I knew that I didn’t want to make the same pictures over and over again.  And then I realized that I had all these great photos of people.  I don’t really consider myself a photographer, but taking pictures is often what gets me over any mental blocks with the painting. 

Bob:  By leaving people out of so many of your paintings you created these big, lonely spaces — empty streets and desolate houses.  Even when the colors were really loud, the paintings seemed to present some strange silent world.  A real Edward Hopper sadness.  And all of a sudden, there are people ...  It’s like aliens abducted everybody and then sent them back. 
Lisa:  With the landscapes and houses, the paintings were becoming very frontal, so I wanted to bring a figure-ground relationship back into the paintings.  But for me it’s more than just using the person as the figure.  That’s sort of a weird line to draw, I think — where you end and the world begins.  And now that they have technology that makes it possible, they’re going to send robots into your body, in a way that ...

Bob:  Nobody’s going to send robots into my body.  It’s not going to happen.
Lisa:  Not yours, but eventually they will be doing that. Little robots, little computers.  The thing is, they’re going to be inside your body, not just outside your body.

Bob:  What are they going to do when they get there?
Lisa:  I don’t know.

Bob:  Your earlier, all-over paintings often had these internal organ patterns, like they came from x-rays — pictures of the inside of the body.  And now, the way you make your paintings, they often look like photographic negatives.
Lisa:  Sometimes when I start to get too literal with the lights and darks, I’ll intentionally do it in reverse.  I’ll paint the shadows white and the highlights a really bright color.  Although the whole structure is really traditional.  I like to think that I took everything I learned at school literally, and just made exactly what they taught me to make.

Bob:  But people who took everything they were taught in art school literally don’t end up making work like this.
Lisa:  No, but they have this idea of what a painting is supposed to look like ...

Bob:  You have to accept some responsibility for creating your particular image of the world.  And I don’t think it’s necessarily about color theory or figure theory.  Take the picture of the two little kids running in front of the guy ...
Lisa:  I’ve cropped his head off.  I’ve chopped his head off.

Bob:  Yes — and he’s still chasing after them.  Just like in a splatter film.
Lisa:  But it’s just the father, just a family.

Bob:  You don’t know it’s their father.  It’s a headless guy chasing after two little kids.
Lisa:  Well, I was pretty sure when I took the picture ...

Bob:  Cropping can animate a painting so unexpectedly.  Like the one with the kids in the giant tree.  They’re climbing to the top of the tree but it’s like they’re trying to climb out of the picture.
Lisa:  I love that.

Bob:  They’re trying to climb out of the painting.
Lisa:  I had gone into the park specifically to get a photo of kids climbing a tree, and I ended up taking three rolls of film to get that one shot.  And it was cold enough that there were no leaves on the trees.  It’s hard to paint leaves.  They just look like blobs.  I’m starting to like that now, but for a while I didn’t.

Bob:  You know, with the drought we had, people weren’t allowed to water their lawns, and as the grass was turning yellow and brown, people were freaking.  Some people actually had their lawns painted green.
Lisa:  Oh my god, I don’t believe it.

Bob:  There’s this stuff that comes in cans that you can spray ...
Lisa:  Like hairspray?

Bob:  It’s called lawn makeup.
Lisa:  Oh, goodness.  Which will probably kill the grass.

Bob:  No, it’s water-based, so it grows out when the lawn starts growing again.
Lisa:  Like a dye job.

Bob:  It’s purely cosmetic.
Lisa:  You know, the way I’m outlining everything, when you get to facial features the people just start to look so odd — just picking all the little parts.  But people do it all the time.  I mean, when you talk about someone and you say that they’ve got nice eyes or nice this or that ... it’s just such a weird thing to select something out of another person.

Bob:  Nobody in your paintings has nice eyes.  It’s like they don’t even have eyes.
Lisa:  [laughs] I know it sort of looks cruel, because for the most part they look really ugly when they’re flattened — although I think people should look better when they’re flattened out ...

Bob:  Do the people you paint think that you’re treating them in a cruel or harsh way?
Lisa:  Well, nobody has really seen them.

Bob:  What about your family?  You painted them.
Lisa:  My brother and his kids just think it’s cool that I’m making a living off this, because they really didn’t think it was going to happen.

Bob:  Your family had lower expectations for you ...
Lisa:  Definitely.

Bob:  Do people ever think your paintings aren’t finished?
Lisa:  Not lately.  They used to.  But a painting can also end up looking overdone.  I can go too far when I’m filling in parts, so even though there are big flat areas of color it can look overdone.  It can be hard to figure out when they’re finished.

Bob:  Do you have any favorite artists?
Lisa:  There are different artists that I look at for different things.  But the first artist I ever knew of — and this was after being in school for a while, so it’s pretty pathetic — was David Hockney.  That’s the first artist I ever knew existed.  Except for Andy Warhol, who I hated, because I hated this girl in school who had his pictures all over her locker.  So I just thought Andy Warhol was the pits.

Bob:  What pictures did you have in your locker?
Lisa:  Panda bears.

Bob:  I had a picture of The Spiral Jetty.
Lisa:  Actually, Robert Smithson is one of my biggest influences, and not just his art but his writing.

Bob:  That makes sense.  You also choose to bring really lowly subjects into art and monumentalize them, things that don’t normally “deserve” a painting of their own.  You did that big crane, and I think there was an abandoned gas station with a pile of old tires.
Lisa:  Lots of detritus.

Bob:  They made you wonder, “Why is someone making a painting of a construction site with a crane?”
Lisa:  And now I’m living in a part of New Jersey that Smithson wrote so much about.  It’s this weird place where all this industrial stuff is so mashed together with the suburban stuff.  It’s really unique to this part of the country.

Bob:  It’s very different from where you grew up.
Lisa:  I grew up really far out in Maryland.  We only had an acre, but our house was surrounded by farms that were gradually taken over by people who retired and decided to get horses.  They had mansions on forty-acre lots.  So that’s what surrounded us.  It was just a horrible place to be.  And I wanted to be out of there so bad.  I wanted to move to the city.  Of course, my idea of what a city was when I was little was all this industrial stuff, like when you’re driving up the Turnpike and you see those big oil tanks.  I had such a romantic idea of what that was all about.

Bob:  You thought the industrial part of the landscape ...
Lisa:  ... was the city.  Because it looks so full, with all the machinery and trucks.  And it’s very sci-fi.

Bob:  When we first met, you had a job making stained glass windows.
Lisa:  Yes.  That was hugely important to me.

Bob:  Well, when you think about it — outlined shapes and forms in color that together make a single picture ...
Lisa:  But it’s not like I thought, “Oh, I’ll just make a painting like a stained glass window.”  It’s not like that at all.  What was more important were the blueprints.  We made blueprints in order to make the stained glass windows, and I always loved the way they looked and smelled.  It was like a way to make it removed, like a drawing removed from having made it yourself.  It’s close enough so it’s not purely machine-made.

Bob:  It’s a plan for an image, something you build from.
Lisa:  I love the idea that you overexpose something and you get this noise in the background.  I would always overexpose the blueprints to make this texture, and you can control that noise — it’s like feedback.  Turning a photo into a painting is a little bit like that, only with a lot more specific controls applied.  But now I’d like to find a way with photography — and the computer — to manipulate my snapshots in a way that inversely relates to the paintings.  Like, how do you make a literal photograph?  I’ve decided that it has to be black and white, but beyond that I don’t know.

Bob:  Your paintings aren’t pieced together anymore — now that they’re all based on original photographs.
Lisa:  I just got a zoom lens.  I got it because I thought it would help me take different kinds of pictures.  Also, it’s really hard to go into a park and start taking pictures of people’s children, because they just don’t like that!

Bob:  But you almost look like a kid yourself, harmless, just hanging out.
Lisa:  The minute you have a camera, people sort of freak.

Bob:  Do they come up and ask what you’re doing?
Lisa:  When I take pictures of construction sites, they always ask me, and I tell them I’m taking a photo class.  I guess they think I’m with the insurance company or something.

Bob:  Right.
Lisa:  The zoom lens is great, because they don’t even see you coming.  But once in a while it’s nice when they do, because you sometimes get a person who actually poses ...

Bob:  And you like that?
Lisa:  Yes, I like those pictures, because it makes an artificial pose, and that can be interesting.

Bob:  So you’re working all the time now.
Lisa:  It feels like it.

Bob:  Monday through Friday.
Lisa:  I work more than every single day, because ...

Bob:  You can’t work more than every single day.
Lisa:  Well, I do, because there are days ...

Bob:  We live in a world separated by days.  You can’t work more than every day.
Lisa:  I work every day and really late, and on Sunday, and I’m always being interrupted.  So I’m trying to get better at it.  Because at some point you have to put some structure to your life and you have to say, “This is the down-time.”

Bob:  What are you going to do about that?
Lisa:  I really want to travel around the country and go to the national monuments, all the big parks, and take pictures of the landmarks.  That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

Bob:  You should go to Yellowstone.  Take a picture of a grizzly bear going through a garbage can and you can call it “Old Faithful.”
Lisa:  [laughs] I’m sure that’s what I’d come back with.  I would certainly end up going out there trying to make a sincere landscape, you know, some really pictorial, pastoral kind of thing.  But I would come back with a picture of the gift shop.  Because you’re more involved in that.

Bob:  But can you really be sincere?
Lisa:  I don’t know ...

Bob:  Since this year.
Lisa:  Huh?

Bob:  All these paintings are...
Lisa:  Yes, all these paintings are since this year.


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