Liz Collins works in a studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Her practice walks the line between art, design, and fashion, confounding and traversing the distinction(s) that are sometimes drawn between the three.
While one could read Liz’s promiscuous use of each mode of production (art, design, fashion) as a commentary on the artificiality of these distinctions – and this is certainly a valid read – I think it more useful to think of Liz’s practice as a strategic deployment of ideas in each mode of production equally. Liz takes an idea, an emblem, or a strategy, and works through it in various iterations in order to flesh out its significance. One body of recent work, Optic Pattern, is exemplary in this respect. Liz is working with assertive zigzag patterns that call to mind everything from warning signs to dazzle camouflage to op art, in a wide array of media including housewares, fabric, painting, installation, and more. On one level, the series is a propounding of a particular sort of aesthetic; the works’ bright colors and lively angularity invigorates the eye with a pleasing sense of order. On another, the array of references from which the work is drawn creates symbolic associations that vary wildly depending on the mode in which they are presented or received.
For example, certain of the works can equally be considered fabric swatches, paintings, tapestries, or templates for design objects. Yet the content of the work – the optic pattern itself – takes on strikingly different meanings depending on which is perceived as the operative mode. In the mode of painting or tapestry (that is, art), the pattern draws on a history of geometric abstraction, conceptualism, and op art; Bridget Riley, Frank Stella, and Sol LeWitt come readily to mind. In the mode of a fabric swatch (that is, as fashion), the pattern’s origin in warning signs reads as a playful subversion of the ordinary aim of clothing design; it seeks to repel, rather than to allure. In the mode of a carpet (that is, as design), the pattern’s association with dazzle camouflage also has a subversive read, conflating the domestic with the militarized – or, perhaps more interestingly, the opposing desires for objects that assert themselves (and their value) and for objects that tastefully recede into the background.
Liz is also interested in production as a species of labor. Her KNITTING NATION project involves the presentation of fabric production “live” in hyperabundant quantities as a species of contemporary art, forcing the viewer to consider the conditions in which even the most everyday of materials are produced. As Liz herself puts it, “The project functions as a commentary on how humans interact with machines, global manufacturing, trade and labor, brand iconography, and fashion.’’ KNITTING NATION, like much of Liz’s work, draws on her deep experiences outside of the “contemporary art” context. Rather than discard or disavow her “commercial” work – which many artists unfortunately do out of an apparent fear of publicly acknowledging the need to practice a trade or earn a living – Liz leverages the skills and knowledge she has gained to create work that is both visually stunning and politically potent.
Q. Tell me a bit about your studio. How long have you been there, and how did you find it?
A. I’ve been here two years. I found it through K8 Hardy, who was in this building for a second before moving to another space nearby. I love this space. I share it with a dynamic and wonderful knit designer named Wade Jensen. We’ve recently started collaborating, which is nice, as I love working with other people on creative projects.
Q. What does a typical day in the studio look like for you? Do you have any habits, rituals, or practices that help you work?
A. There is no typical day. No matter how I try to routinize my work life, it just won’t cooperate. When I am at the studio, sometimes I just do computer work, other times I am making things for hours, or having visitors, or organizing stuff, or moving things around endlessly (which is my productive procrastination). I always clean the studio before I start working, and by working I mean making things. I can’t concentrate if the space is messy. I’ve been doing this for years. It’s definitely a ritual.
Another thing I do constantly is drink tea or water. When I do tedious, repetitive work that isn’t noisy, I watch TV and movies on the computer for hours. Then I end up secretly associating whatever show I’ve binged on with the piece I’ve made. Sometimes a piece will have an alternative title like the L Word, or Peep Show.
Q. Textiles/knits are such a specific medium – how did you find your way into working with them?
A. I was introduced to fabric as an art form when I was a child. Both my mom and my dad’s Mom were really into textiles and clothing, and my dad made sails for sailboats. I learned to sew when I was really young and just wanted to make everything, so it came naturally as well as passed down from family. My mom had some good Marimekko dresses, which turned me on to big, bold, iconic prints at an early age.
I didn’t find knitting until I was a young RISD grad living in NYC. I came out of a textiles program but was fixated on weaving. My housemate Olivia Eaton taught me how to hand knit on one of the many days we were hanging around our loft and I got the bug. Knitting offered me things I couldn’t get from weaving – specifically a concurrent fabric and garment making process, and something direct, easy, stretchy, and portable. That was 1991. I was working at a textile studio in the garment district at the time that made novelty woven fabrics for the fashion industry, so I had access to some beautiful yarns. They made lots of brushed mohair fabrics, so I in turn started to make some great mohair sweaters.
In 1997 I returned to school to do an MFA in Textiles and Apparel with a focus on knitwear and knit textiles. It was then that I started using knitting machines. I haven’t woven since.
Q. You’ve recently been working with strong, optical patterns that resemble dazzle camouflage or warning signs. Where do these patterns come from, and what interests you about them?
A. They come from many places: the backs of trucks and ambulances, highway signs, and all the other places a message is being given to the viewer to stay away or stay back. I spent many hours driving highways from 2010 – 2013, so the optic patterns I was already thinking about and looking at from other sources expanded greatly with observations from the road. I’ve taken many pictures of the backs of trucks from my car. It gets a little crazy trying to get close to the trucks to get a good photo! It’s something marvelous to me – this universal graphic language of shapes and pattern that registers the same message wherever you see it. Some of the truck patterns are really beautiful, especially the reflective coned trucks and ambulances.
The patterns also come from a deep internal place that is very old. I looked at my portfolio of woven fabrics the other day for the first time in many years and discovered that my obsession with the zigzags and other vibrating patterns was as present then as it is now, but it feels different, of course, because I am 25 years older. I fell in love with Janine Antoni’s Slumber piece when I saw it in the Soho Guggenheim in 1991. It deeply affected me on many levels and influenced my performance/installation project KNITTING NATION. The EKG machine measures the heart, and the EEG measures dreams … or something like that. I love the lines that represent being alive.
The patterns can be, at once: warning signs, visual manifestations of energy fields, anger, ecstasy, and images of vibrations – maybe sort of like auras of space. They act as a soothing and stimulating visualization experience for me, both when I imagine the patterns and when I make them. I also like to see how straight of a line I can make freehand over and over again. I never get tired of this challenge. It’s about being totally present. Time falls away. Visual experiences can produce altered states. I’m so into that. The hypnotic aspect of pattern.
The dazzle camouflage concept is smart and confusing and strange. Does it work? I first learned of it when I read Lynda Barry’s unforgettable novel Cruddy many years ago. There was a character who dressed in a manner akin to dazzle camo, with a cacophony of bad prints, so that it almost erased her from being seen. I love that idea because it doesn’t really work. So there’s something that is about getting the viewer’s attention in a brash offensive way, and seducing them at the same time through vibrational hypnosis.
Q. We looked at a few paintings on paper from this body of work, but also works in thread on paper as well as textile work. When you’re painting, do you have the idea of how the pattern might translate into an object in mind?
A. Sometimes, but lately I’ve been painting just to paint, and then I move some of that work into textiles afterwards, when I see things that will translate really beautifully through one process or another. Because I’ve been working with textiles for so long, it’s easy for me to envision patterns translating into a broad range of results. I like expansive ideas that can travel across a body of work and manifest multiple times in different languages of texture, scale, technique, and material. On the other hand, if I’m doing a piece where I know the end result is going to be made a certain way through a specific textile process, I might make the work on paper somehow simulate the textile work, so I can get closer to the effect it will have once made into cloth.
That is the case with the black chenille zigzag fringe on white paper. I was going for a woven look and treated the yarn as I would have wound a warp for a weaving loom. It was a truly revelatory process and the photos that documented the making of that piece are maybe even more exciting to me than the final work.
Q. One thing I was struck by when we met is how flexibly you alternate between speaking of many of the pieces as design, as fashion, and as “fine art.” Do you see yourself problematizing the design v. fine art distinction, or is that a distinction you intend to bypass entirely?
A. Well, maybe both. Sometimes it’s just not a conversation I need to have, and the work defines itself through its context. This is the case with so many things that interest me. Context can be everything. And then there is the reality of function, which is a slippery word. Everything has some sort of function. I’m finding lately that through installation work I can merge my art and design visions. Space has become my new body.
Q. In addition to working within what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “the art world,” you work as a freelance knitwear designer. How do you balance these sides of your professional life? How do they inform one another?
A. Balance is hard, because I can’t pull all nighters the way I could when I was younger and I still have the same desire to produce prolifically in whatever spheres I am working. I am a more effective knit designer now, managing projects and deadlines better because of years of experience and super stressful moments both here and abroad. Fashion deadlines are intense and relentless. I feel like after many seasons, I can finally say I’ve got special strategies in place that help me steer clear of the nightmares that can happen. I do design projects very selectively now because to do great work, which I want to do, I need a lot of energy and focus. I can’t spread myself thin, so I generally do one or two projects and then spend the rest of my time on artwork.
Working in the fashion and textiles industries was a big part of the impetus to start KNITTING NATION, and the deeper I got into doing design work on site at factories the more reference material I had for that project. The current narrative I call “optic vibrations/energy fields” is a seamless convergence of my textile designs for knits, carpets, embroidery, and wovens with my artwork – paintings, wall pieces, installations. But this design work is not for a client so I’m only dealing with satisfying my needs (and hopefully those of the market, somehow) versus my collaborators’/clients’.
Q. From 1999 – 2004, you produced a ready-to-wear line. How did that experience change you as an artist? Is there anything you miss about it?
A. It was a wild and amazing ride that gave me a great deal of experience in managing large scale projects that involve many people. Doing KNITTING NATION was so much like producing a fashion show, so it never has felt daunting to deal with big productions, lots of details, and public venues. I don’t get overwhelmed, and actually love engaging with big spaces.
When I first started my line, it really felt like I was making art. My early work was very visceral and talked about sex, desire, and my emotional landscape, alongside all kinds of other references and ideas like punk, DIY craft, bondage and fetish, and geometry. The forms came out of the fabric, always. I actually came out through that work. It was an intense time where I felt like I was doing self surgery and my clothing effectively acted as a metaphor for this and also was the place where I sublimated many of my desires.
As I went on I learned – sometimes the hard way – that at the end of the day I was selling clothes to make a living, not just to get good press and great editorial for my innovative knitwear. Some of the art part had to quiet down and become more “accessible” so I could survive. I will forever worship Rei Kawakubo, who I truly feel is just as much artist as designer, and has stayed on that edge for her entire career.
I don’t miss the hard parts of it, which ultimately outweighed the less-hard/feasible parts for me, although fashion shows were so fun. I loved that whole process of showing when I loved my collection. Selling was always something I was less excited about. Business was and is a constant challenge for me and I didn’t know enough about production and manufacturing to sustain my product line. But I had some great stores, like Barney’s and Kirna Zabete, and it was rewarding working with great buyers like them. We made everything by hand domestically so that was special.
I had one show – my last – where my heart wasn’t in it so the show was not as strong. But I had some really beautiful ones and still love to see the pictures and reminisce about some of those days. The music I chose was always a really powerful and memorable element. Gary Graham and I collaborated on a capsule collection one season called GRIZ, which was a non-commercial pursuit that we treated as an art project, and that was amazing. Mike Potter, the artist responsible for Hedwig’s looks, did super wild hair and makeup and it was all so incredible. I miss that crazy raw energy we had, but appreciate and love where we all are now. I am a healthier person now, which makes me happy. I don’t miss the ego roller coaster that I was on.
Q. What makes a good studio visit?
A. A good connection. I had an amazing studio visit with Valerie Steele, from The Museum at FIT. She is brilliant, funny, and easy going, so we had a great time, in addition to a positive exchange about my work. I was a longtime fan of hers so when she came I was so excited and honored.
I think a good studio visit is like any other satisfying and productive exchange: there is a connection between all parties involved, questions are asked, answers are given, and people feel like something happened – a spark, possibilities, interest, appreciation, ideas, suggestions, laughter (?), connections; any or all of the above. I thought your visit was excellent, Grant. [Thanks, Liz!]
Q. Is there anyone you have by on a regular basis to discuss your work? Or any particularly important conversation partners who have informed your practice
A. Julia Bryan Wilson has been my prime conversation partner for my art endeavors for 10 years now. I feel so lucky to have such a great connection with her as a friend, colleague, and collaborator of sorts, and I value her feedback tremendously. E.V. Day is someone I share a lot of my work ideas with and talk through things. She has great insights and advice and we are truly kindred spirits. Same goes for Gary Graham. I love living in NYC because there are such great friends, peers, queers, and community here, and even those who don’t live here often visit here so I probably see them more than I might if we lived in the same town. I feel really supported. It’s an exciting time.
Liz Collins is a New York City-based artist and designer. She has had solo exhibitions at, among others, Occidental College, Los Angeles; the Textile Art Center, New York; AS220 Project Space, Providence; and the Knoxville Museum of Art. Her work has also been featured in exhibitions at, among others, the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York; the Museum of FIT, New York; Participant, New York; the Milwaukee Art Museum; and the Museum of Arts and Design, New York. Her ongoing site-specific installation/performance project KNITTING NATION, which involves a small army of uniformed knitters and manually operated knitting machines, has been featured at venues including Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum, Saratoga; and the Museum of Modern Art. Collins was a United States Artist Target Fellow in Crafts and Traditional Arts (2006), a MacColl Johnson Fellow (2011), and is member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Modern Painters and Textile Forum.