Liz Markus at ZieherSmith

Artforum, 2010 | Collage and glitter on unprimed canvas, 105 x 105 inches. Images courtesy the artist and ZieherSmith, New York.

Liz Markus is a huge Depeche Mode fan. (And it shows.) Are You Punk or New Wave?, an exhibition of eight large new paintings and the New York artist's third solo show with ZieherSmith in Chelsea, is packed with references to both of the 1980s music genres as well as major art figures from the time, executed with both sharp wit and an attitude appropriate for the subject matter itself. We met at ZieherSmith last week to talk about her new work, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and ACT UP. —Evan J. Garza

EJG: Did you grow up listening to punk rock?
I did. I grew up listening to new wave music, and punk rock when I was in art school. So, late—like ten years later. That was a question people would ask you at school, “Are you punk or new wave?” I went to an all-girls prep school, so no one was really punk, but there was one new wave girl. And I remember asking her, “Are you punk or new wave?” and she was like, “New wave.”

(installation view) Liz Markus: Are You Punk or New Wave? at ZieherSmith, New York

EJG: With a roll of the eyes, “I’m new wave.”
Yes! And they were very different styles, very different styles. So I was interested visually in what those two things would look like, and the feel of that time, and also just personally for me. This piece (pointing to Artforum, 2010) these are all 1980s Artforum ads. During art school, and right after, I worked for a gallery called fiction/nonfiction, which was in the East Village at the time, and then on Mercer street, and so I saw a lot of these shows. I’d have my head in Artforum all day. So I remember a lot of these shows and I just thought it would be cool to have a huge painting of glitter.

(detail) Artforum, 2010 | Collage and glitter on unprimed canvas, 105 x 105 inches

EJG: Yeah, why the glitter?
The glitter started in grad school [where] I would take Elmer’s glue and I would draw shapes and circles and glitter them, and then I didn’t do anything with it for a long time. But I also had in my mind this idea for Artforum, not even with glitter but just paint, where I wanted to take the color ads and just paint over all the top, so you would just have the half… When I started doing a collage with Artforum pages, I just started thinking about the glitter again. And then because of Johnny Rotten—and Kate Moss—I was thinking a lot about rock stars when I was making it, and the glitter seemed very appropriate.

EJG: The Johnny Rotten piece, that’s clearly a reference to Warhol’s Elvis paintings.
I’d done another Johnny Rotten painting for my last show [at ZieherSmith], Hot Nights at the Regal Beagle. It was a bighead and it was very colorful and it looked a lot like the Nancy Reagan heads [also in that show]. So he’d been on my mind. When I’m working with these images, I have a lot of reference photos kind of around. And then I’ve been looking at pictures of Basquiat, I found this picture of Johnny Rotten in that pose, and it immediately reminded me of Elvis, so I was like, ‘I have to go for it.’

Double Rotten, 2010 | Acrylic on unprimed canvas, 83 x 53 inches

There was a time when I would have an idea like that and think, ‘That is WAY too obvious and I’m just not going to do it.’ And lately I’ve just been doing it because I’ve found that I can very easily make work that has no entrance for the viewer—no in whatsoever—so they’re just like––

EJG: ‘––What the fuck?’
Yeah! So I thought maybe I’ll go for that… Now they can kind of get in there somehow.

EJG: And when it comes to figures, do you work from photos?
Yeah, I do. I do a lot of research—it’s funny… The last show had a lot to do with wasp culture, and I read a lot about it. Again this is still like mining from my high school, just very waspy…Music was such a big part of the last show, and then this show it was huge. The reason was mainly visual.

Kate, 2010 | Acrylic on unprimed canvas, 84 x 64 1/2 inches

Basquiat, 2010 | Acrylic on unprimed canvas, 84 x 60 inches

EJG: Do you listen to music when you make your work?
Yeah. I do. I listen to a lot of Depeche Mode when I’m painting.  (laughing)

EJG: Really? That’s amazing. (Redacted gabbing about '80s music and Pandora Radio.) I love to see artists use text because I think it’s brave. We use it so often, we have our own associations with it, and you risk bringing in all those associations into the work when you use it... How do you decide on which words to use in the text pieces?
Those are from the Frankie Goes to Hollywood t-shirts that said ‘FRANKIE SAY RELAX' or ‘FRANKIE SAY WAR!’ I remember those t-shirts being big. They're from this one woman, a graphic designer, from London I think, and she made those t-shirts, and she made the Wham! t-shirts that featured weird [phrases] like ‘CHOOSE LIFE,’ which is sort of wrong now. (laughing)

Relax, 2010 | Acrylic on unprimed canvas, 51 x 84 1/4 inches

So, I felt these words were kind of ‘80s. And I wanted to change ‘WAR’ to pink because, for one, there’s always a flash in my head—that’s the very first thing, I see a painting and then I’ll make it from there—and I think that I had pink in my head because I kept thinking about ACT UP, the AIDS group in the ‘80s, and that pink triangle. ‘WAR’ is so confrontational and their stuff was so confrontational.

And what I love in this painting, actually, are the mistakes. First, there’s glitter on all the paintings unintentionally. It gets all over everything. And then I really like this area down here, it’s uneven—I fucked it up—and what I think about a lot when I’m making my work is how hard it is to make a p and the lack of perfection and the epic struggle that a painting really is.

War, 2010 | Acrylic on unprimed canvas, 51 x 84 1/4 inches

(detail) War, 2010 | Acrylic on unprimed canvas, 51 x 84 1/4 inches

Liz Markus was featured in edition #74 of New American Paintings. Her current solo show, Are You Punk or New Wave?, at ZieherSmith, New York, is on view through December 18.