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Systems for Abstraction

An interview with Leslie Vansen

Systems for Abstraction is an exhibition at the James Watrous Gallery featuring three Wisconsin artists who use abstraction as a way to organize and present their views of the world. The work of Jill Olm, Beth Racette, and Leslie Vansen builds on the work of earlier artists in the Abstract Expressionist and Color Field movements of the twentieth century. 

Whereas Abstract Expressionists were interested in the materials and physical process of painting, regarding the finished painting as an “object” which recorded the artist’s struggle to create, these three artists turn their conversation with abstraction toward the exploration of systems. While Olm, Racette, and Vansen are each deeply interested in the formal elements of composition and color, they are also interested in synthesizing information gathered from fields beyond the visual arts. 

Milwaukee artist Leslie Vansen sees the swirling patterns of lines and color in her paintings as suggesting, by analogy and abstraction, the residue of human action on its immediate environment. She is interested in the interactions between work, time, and repetitive figurative movement through space. 

Do you consider yourself an abstract artist, or are you a visual artist with a specific body of abstract work? What role does your chosen media play in making this distinction? 

Leslie Vansen, Doggerel, 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inchesI consider myself a painter who uses the material and formal conditions of my process to evoke my immediate physical environment, autobiographical memory, and social interactions. Although critics, curators, art historians and viewers consider these formal and material conditions to be abstract, I think about them as real and entirely present.

All elements of my chosen media—including the working surfaces and marks in addition to the applied paint, water, graphite, and mediums—are evident throughout the painting process and visible in the completed work. Maintaining this visibility contributes to what I consider real about the work, making it somehow less abstract in my mind.

Your work seems to reference discrete systems. How do you communicate or suggest these elements to viewers? What role does science or social science play in informing your work?

Leslie Vansen, Mizzle, 2012. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inchesNo science or social science directly informs my work. If systems, data, or quantifiable structure references are evoked, they likely come from the generative approaches I use. The layered components of the paintings reveal these generative processes through four drawing methods used in each piece, as well as controlled color palette ranges, under-painting conditions, and masking applications.

Unknowns moderate and extend this generative process and produce numerous unpredicted variables once initial choices are made. Intentional tensions and contradictions exist between the controlling generative actions and the direct choices made for every color used to transform the drawn sources.

While these four drawing methodologies are embedded in every painting, I don’t know the number of times each method will be used or the total number and types of layers. I also don’t know the amount of layered under-painted surface that will remain visible when the masking is removed—or even when the masking will be removed during the process.

In short, what I don’t know ahead of time far outweighs what I do know.

Abstract art is enjoying a resurgence in Wisconsin and across America right now. Do you feel allied to particular artists, past or present? 

 Leslie Vansen, Rete, 2008. Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 inchesI’m particularly interested in the core idea that form and material can embody meaning, and how this concept manifests over time and across cultures. Clearly these embodiment possibilities remain open-ended and functional.

My connections to abstraction are many, but historical examples are far stronger influences on my thinking than current ideas about abstraction. Most significant—for my work—among art history’s abstractions are the following, (a) Italian Renaissance notions of composition and form as capable of expression along with the specifics of subject matter; (b) icons from a range of religions, or where religions avoided imagery and icons, the patterns and spaces that embody belief; (c) European Medieval imagery of many types; (d) paint application methods and effects after the development of oil paint, especially as the sciences and philosophies of vision expanded with the development of lenses; (e) early 20th century abstraction in Europe and the United States; and (f) sculptural and painterly abstraction of the 1960s and 1970s—both the artworks themselves and the discourses surrounding them.


Leslie Vansen teaches painting and drawing courses from the introductory through graduate levels in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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Phone: 608.733.6633 x25