Lee Price is a figurative painter from New York. She has been painting women and food for over twenty years and continues to address the intersections of food with body image, addiction, and unabating desire. In this interview Price shares her trajectory as a painter, her personal struggles with food, and the ongoing battle of women and their bodies.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Could you share how your career began as a figurative painter? And more specifically, how did your subject matter evolve into self-portraits and food?
Lee Price (LP): I’ve been painting women and food for over twenty years. In college I focused primarily on figures in environments. I would make large, life-sized paintings of women in interiors and have food randomly placed about the scene—someone holding a bunch of carrots, a stray banana on a window ledge, a seated woman feeding an orange to a dog. Back then I had no conscious understanding of what these scenes were about. It wasn’t until I started this specific series, five or six years ago, that I began to have clarity about the theme. In fact, the very first painting of the series, Full, was very random. At that time, I was working from photographs. I had set up a scene to shoot, a sort of Alice in Wonderland thing. In the foreground, a table was set for what would seem to be a tea party and in the background a figure was sleeping in a chair. It wasn’t working. I had purchased insane amounts of desserts and props for this shoot and I didn’t want to waste them. So I threw an antique tablecloth down on the floor, placed all the deserts on top of it, lay down in the middle of the food and had a friend get on a ladder and photograph it. I still didn’t quite understand it, but I knew I had something that inspired me. It took a while to grasp the significance of everything.
TOJ: My sister saw a painting of yours in Seattle and could not believe that all of your work is painting and not photography, can you tell us why figurative realism is still important in contemporary art, which perhaps seems more concerned with conceptual, abstracted, and derivative art?
LP: Yes, your sister did see a piece of mine in Seattle (Lemon Meringue). Tom Douglas, the owner of Cuoco restaurant, purchased it.
In regard to figurative realism, I can only say that I have always been drawn to that form of expression. I don’t believe there is much of a difference between the conceptual, the abstract, and the figurative. They are different modes of communication, but in the end you get to
the same place. It seems to me that all art is about taking an idea and making it concrete. For example, I don’t think it would be difficult to find three artists who are working in different modes of communication, but who are all discussing the topic of fragility and transience.
TOJ: Can you expound upon why you have chosen the nude female (mainly yourself), specific of food choices and locations, the bird’s eye view, and (maybe) less importantly your fairly consistent red toenail polish?
LP: These paintings are very personal. They’re self-portraits, so I use myself as the model. In regard to food choices, I’m always going for something that is considered indulgent, forbidden, or comforting. The paintings are about compulsion, and excess can be an aspect of compulsive behavior. No one gets excessive with carrots.
The settings are mainly bathtubs and beds. They are private spaces, spaces of solitude, and unusual places to find someone eating. The private space emphasizes the secrecy of compulsive behavior and the unusual settings emphasize its absurdity. The solitude and peace of the setting is a good juxtaposition to the frenetic, out-of-control feel of the woman’s actions.
My use of the bird’s eye view gets interpreted as a voyeurism thing or a God’s eye view a lot—it’s neither. It’s the subject looking down on herself—observing herself in the act of the compulsive behavior, being completely aware of what she is doing but unable to stop. I’ve spoken to friends who have had this same experience in relation to drug addiction. It’s a bit like an out-of-body experience.
To be honest, the toenail polish started out as an aesthetic thing. I give a lot of thought to the color, how a particular color or image will react in a particular color scheme or setting. But really, the toenail polish has become something for my own amusement. It gets commented on frequently, which makes me realize that I should be taking it a bit more seriously. I’m always thinking about the difference between “nude” and “naked.” Place shoes or even a necklace on a nude model, and now the model is considered naked or sexualized. I wonder if the nail polish has the same effect.
TOJ: Your previous work around the female depicts both pleasure and self-deprecation, privacy and full disclosure, comedy and tragedy, the momentary bliss of indulgence and relaxation as well as the depression and self-loathing that usually follows. What are you uncovering or making sense of in these previous pieces?
LP: One of the things I am trying to show is how we imbue food with qualities that it does not have; we are seeking solace in an unfit source. In my earlier pieces I feel the theme of compulsion is very evident (e.g., Snack and Asleep). Here I’m trying to convey a feeling of loss of control, a frenetic atmosphere. I’m showing how our compulsiveness distracts us from being present, how it wipes out the serenity that we would find if we could sit still. I also want to get across the absurdity of this type of behavior. We convince ourselves that the momentary reprieve that we are creating will actually last a very, very long time, that it will wipe out whatever uncomfortable feelings we’re avoiding. But in reality, we’re prolonging and intensifying our suffering. For most of these works, you can’t see the women’s faces. It is reflective of the fact that there is shame in their actions.
TOJ: As I’ve spent time with this series, I find it difficult to see the shame of the women in your paintings. Instead, they seem fixated on the food and the momentary ecstasy.
LP: I think many people interpret the paintings this way, that the model is having an ecstatic experience with the food. The viewer brings their own background to what they are viewing. Usually the people that see the shame are those who have experienced an eating disorder and who have felt this shame themselves.
TOJ: Your current work is similar in content to those older pieces, yet the splattering of food seems to be less of a driving force, whereas the position and gesture of the females within the paintings have become more central. What has caused the shift in your current paintings?
LP: Sleeping with Peaches is probably the most obvious example of the shift that you describe. It was a painting that I struggled over. I spent three months painting it and repainting it. I thought it was a colossal failure, not due to technical reasons, but because I just didn’t get what it was about. It seemed vapid. It lacked the frenetic energy of my previous pieces and it seemed to lack any kind of importance. I almost gave it up. But I painstakingly finished it and grudgingly sent it off to my gallery. It wasn’t until I read a critic’s review that its
significance became clear to me. This piece optimistically speaks about the “possibility of change” in the midst of a seemingly unending compulsion. I’m sleeping next to this food, a food that is considered nourishing as opposed to my usual junk foods, and the critic points out that I am “unconcerned enough to doze in its presence [. . .] the food she consumes doesn’t have to be all-consuming.” (Rani Molla, Santa Fe Reporter, May 4, 2001). Sleeping with Peaches is a transition piece, a bridge that carries me into my next series, which concentrates on the positive associations between women and food.
As I’ve been working on my latest pieces, two new thoughts have been popping up. First, I’ve been considering how we give objects of obsession/compulsion (in this case, food) qualities that we should be giving to a higher source (e.g., God or our inner voice). We see food as sacred. In Blueberry Pancakes the model is seated in the tub in a posture that resembles meditation. She’s holding a solitary plate of pancakes in her lap as if she is worshipping it. However, the lower third of the painting, where the model is seated, is compositionally very busy, cut-up, and frenetic in comparison to the top portion of the canvas—behind the model there is peace, but she would have to put down the pancakes and turn around to see it. My second thought, and this one was initially unintentional, is about how compulsive behavior can snuff out your life. I mean this literally, as in the case of drugs or alcohol or even food if used to an extreme degree, but I also mean that this behavior deadens you. It anesthetizes people from their actual life. In Blueberry Pancakes, for example, I started to see the tub as a coffin. Ice Cream is probably the most blatant example of this in my most current, finished works.
TOJ: How have you struggled with food in your own life? And who has helped shape your discourse around women and food?
LP: Since I was very young, I struggled with issues related to food and body image. I can remember being in grade school, the thinnest and tallest girl in my class, yet trying to loose weight. A critic once commented in regard to the subject matter of my paintings that “the women aren’t grossly fat or pathetically thin, but their lives seem to be oppressively ruled by food.” (Greg Stacy, OC Weekly, May 1, 2008) And that would be a very accurate description of the role food has played in my life as I bounce between abstinence and complete loss of control. The loss of control comes when I use food to pacify myself and to fill voids other than physical hunger. I use it when I can’t conceive of more appropriate avenues for filling myself. Then I experience guilt over this loss of control and fear over weight gain, so the pendulum swings back to abstinence. It’s been a very, very long road to get to a less troubled place with food and I still gravitate in the direction of eating compulsively when my life is out of balance.
So much has been written in the past few decades on women and food issues. Kim Chernin’s The Hungry Self and Susie Orbach’s Fat Is a Feminist Issue, which are both books that I read more than twenty years ago, were probably the most influential books in regard to my understanding of the psychology of eating disorders and, more specifically, compulsive eating.
TOJ: How has American culture influenced your trajectory as a female painter who engages, primarily, with your body?
LP: I grew up in a household of women. I lived with my mother and two older sisters. My father, for the most part, was absent from my childhood. Both of my grandfathers had passed away before I was born. I had no male relatives nearby. This obviously has impacted me. It has affected how I see and react to my environment.
In regard to American culture, I believe that our culture objectifies women and encourages women to objectify themselves. So I have a great concern over my works being interpreted in a sexualized way. I also believe that we are all sexual beings and to negate that aspect would be dishonest. Therefore, I’m constantly going back and forth between my concerns that my works are either too far in the territory of “cheesecake” or that I have completely eradicated the model’s sexuality. When I’m choosing poses, I often find myself leaning toward images that repulse instead of attract. However, I still need to bring the viewer in. Get them to want to look. Optimally I look for images that initially attract and then, after some scrutiny, disturb.
TOJ: The perspective you paint from is somewhat nostalgic of pre-Manet figurative painting (e.g., Manet’s Olympia), in which the female never held the gaze of the viewer, rather the viewer was able to look and objectify without much anxiety of being caught or confronted. And this created a significant power differential. Often these nude females display some degree of awareness that they are being observed, whether it is from modeling for the male artist or the foreknowledge that the finished painting will be looked at many times over. But your nude females seem to not know of their audience gazing downward at them. How does this kind of awareness or lack of awareness relate to your paintings?
LP: In a few of my paintings, the figure is eyeing the viewer. In these paintings, the figure’s actions are uncensored and an absence of guilt is much more prevalent. These are meant to convey an acceptance of hunger, a lack of guilt about having an appetite—not just with food, but in general.
However, in most of my paintings, the model is watching herself. She is utterly consumed in her actions. She has no awareness of being seen, and the private environments in which her actions are taking place remove any concern for being caught. When I’m choosing poses, I try to be very conscious of conveying a feeling of “How would I behave if I knew no one could see me?” So the viewer is simply watching the model watch herself. It is reflective of the effect that compulsive behavior has in reality. It creates a wall in which others may see you but no true communication or interaction is taking place. And I hope that my paintings are thus opening up true communication and interactions, that they are making hunger and compulsive consumption and the shame and secrecy with which we resort to around these matters a public discussion.