Angela Lorenz leads the sort of life that reassures humanities majors that STEM is not the only option: She has a successful career as an artist, lives in Italy, and is married to a chocolate gelato maker. Her recent artwork “Victorious Secret” has been installed in three parts in the Hass Arts Library and the Sterling Memorial Library. The artwork is a faithful reproduction of Roman mosaics in Sicily from 300 AD. The Herald sat down with Lorenz to discuss art, humor, and the value of slacking off.
YH: What was the concept behind “Victorious Secret”?
Lorenz: I’m interested in things that are neglected and misinterpreted. I was interested in doing a piece on this imagery because I had seen it being used out of context on coffee mugs, in the media, etc. These are extremely famous Roman mosaics in the world. But they’re taken out of context all the time. There was something about the history of bikinis on the Internet and they showed one of these mosaics and they didn’t say, “These are athletes.” The people that are educated and culturally informed go to this villa [to see the mosaics] and I’ve met several Italian tourists and friends who have done that in the past two years. They still, even though on site you can read that these are athletes, came away with, “Oh dancing girls!” And I go, “What, how can you not know?” And it’s because these famous images have been talked about as dancing bikini girls for so long that even people that go there are not listening.
YH: Did you worry at all that Yale students, instead of understanding your message, would come away thinking, “Cool, Roman girls in bikinis”?
Lorenz: There’s always that risk, but there’s information written next to them and iPads showing an informative video. I’ve done my best to simplify [the figures] by taking away their faces and letting people focus on their hands and the athletic equipment, so essentially what they’re doing and not what they’re wearing. The bikinis are great, their bodies are wonderful, they’re muscular, they’re real — but what are they doing? By separating their hands, their prizes, and their athletic instruments from their bodies, it gives the audience a chance to focus on what [the figures] are doing, because you’re not distracted by their faces and their hair-dos and things like that.
But there’s always a risk of misunderstanding and the mosaics continue to be used in the media without a full explanation of what the girls are doing. But the fact that they’re receiving prizes makes it very obvious that this is an actual competition. I was very fortunate to meet this archaeologist who was very familiar with these international athletic competitions. I encouraged her for many years to publish an academic article, because I wasn’t able to use these findings until she published them. I’m merely acting as a bridge through visual art for academic research. I like to make scholarly research visual, so giving three-dimensional visual formats to non-fiction research. They are often humorous, because humor is a wonderful way to communicate.
YH: Can you talk a little more about the way you use humor in your art?
Lorenz: I’m sort of against the idea of one-liners. I admire surrealist art and pop art in some ways, but a lot of times, they’re based on one-liners. My work is very layered, and using these puns, which are also humorous, actually works as a mnemonic device. In this case, it’s a pretty humorous pun referring to clothing and the fact that most people don’t know they are victorious athletes. But in other cases, it actually helps you remember the name of the poet or subject material. For example, I’ve made jeans out of white paper that I rubbed over jean cloth and that I sewed on a sewing machine about the poet and architect Sir John Denham. “Bacon’s Bits of Broken Knowledge” is another piece based on Sir Francis Bacon and the birth of the scientific method. And so I’m making his knowledge visual by printing his aphorisms on fake bacon bits in the shapes of continents, because he was one of the first people to recognize that the continents fit together.
Humor is an excellent mnemonic, but I also am someone who, even when a lot of what we know about the world is very depressing and sad, tries to make light of things as much as I can through humor. The messages are there. If people want to delve into this layered work, they can understand the complexities of this work. I think a lot of conceptual work doesn’t really draw the viewer in, and the viewer has to work extremely hard to see it as art or understand it. So I try to make my work at least visually appealing and humorous.
YH: Victorious Secret is a piece that deals with gender inequality—how does gender inequality manifest in the art world?
Lorenz: The reality is that if you flip through art magazines and newspapers, there’s usually a very small percentage of women exhibiting in group shows. But in terms of art schools, more than 50 percent of graduates are women. And in general, at auctions, men’s art is usually sold for more. So this is definitely a conundrum. I personally focus on making art and trying to create my best ideas and focus on my health so I can continue to do this. I appreciate that people are working on laws and policies to make things more equal for all people, but I luckily have been able to pursue my passions without a great deal of interference.
But women are definitely represented in a disproportionate way. I did a piece called “Latext” in which there are messages that are silk-screened onto latex. So when you stretch the latex, there’s another word that appears that completely changes the message. So when you ask me about women in art, one of the pages says, “There are few women artists,” and then if you stretch it, it says, “There are few women artists represented.” So that is a work that comments on women in art. I’m attentive to people who have been misrepresented or have had their voices taken away and I try to be useful in using ephemeral materials to express that.
YH: You do a lot of work with interesting materials like latex—when did you get started on that kind of art?
Lorenz: I’m very grateful that my parents let me just sort of do stuff. We weren’t closely observed, coming from a family of five children. We could just take nails and hammers and tape and just create tap shoes from mayo jar tops. We had free reign to use materials and experiment.
I like to point out to young people, especially who I mentor, that I didn’t do anything obsessively. I don’t think I had a great mastery in terms of art. I think there’s pressure in our culture to be professional something by age five. And I think that we all need to find passions and mastery is a good thing, but we really also need the time to get bored and create something out of nothing and just reflect and be able to be spontaneous and pursue an idea just for one day and then abandon it! I think parents worry about their children, so I sort of would like to make a plug for slackerdom, because I am completely devoted to knowledge and art-making, but if you look at what I was doing as a child, I did a variety of things. I didn’t have any specific extracurricular activity, and I think it’s important for kids to have time to just play and invent.
—Interview condensed by the Herald