Sometimes, as they’ll say, what you’re looking for is right in front of your nose. Or maybe what you’re looking for is best discovered after dark?
For years, artist Julika Lackner has adventured into America's great parks and far-stretching landscapes for her painting inspirations. And it’s evidenced: Lackner's body of work is incisive yet environmentally sanctimonious, even if the end results do not necessarily feature nature. These creations assume a sort of meditative suspension and ease—illustrative of her uniqueness in an otherwise trendy and crowded space. Of course, the park adventures in 2020 were truncated or impossible altogether, and her working color palette ceased to cull from the country’s grandiosely loyal yet noncommittal facades.
Instead: Eagle Rock, the northeast Los Angeles neighborhood. Here, the artist—who was born in Berlin before her family immigrated to the US—has lived for 11 years. Here, in the subdued set of vistas and knolls forked by the CA-2 freeway, amongst pockets of dry cleaners and strip malls and abandoned video stores and sound bath centers, where Occidental College and Colorado Blvd share elbow room, and the San Gabriel Mountains preside in the distance.
Lackner's Eagle Rock series portrays the neighborhood by night, recently stilled by global circumstance, with a dreamy bandwidth of colors stretching horizontally—extracted from this unique landscape—stacked atop. "That's my view!" remark many of the works’ observers, Lackner will share, whether they live in the area or not, for the painter has captured, without cliche or derivation, that soulful and almost eerie sense of LA and its hillside communities, its twinkly isolationism, sometimes with the ever-amassing skyline of Downtown poking up over the fore.
Lackner just finished participation in a three-artist show, Pattern Recognition, at Santa Barbara’s Sullivan Goss, and is currently featured in Garden, a massive group exhibition hosted by LA’s Ladies’ Room, spearheaded by curator and consultant Annie Wharton, through the end of April. She has also been commissioned by newly opening residential building in LA’s Downtown—Perla—where she has created five “really large” paintings that she’s yet to see installed. For May, Lackner will enjoy a solo show at at the aforementioned Ladies’ Room.
Below, Lackner describes how this moment of such uncertainty yielded a rigorous studio output; how, in so doing, her occasional reluctance to engage with LA’s nocturnal vistas uniquely receded; and how collectors and observers continue to respond to her particular take on this complex and ever-warping city.
How has the pandemic been for you? How has it influenced your work?
Okay, so I've lived in Eagle Rock for 11 years, in the same house, and I never thought to paint it before, even though I very much paint my surroundings. I would always travel somewhere to try to find a place to paint where I found the circumstances interesting for light and shadow. We would go to Big Sur, we would go to Yellowstone for different landscape colors, and it was not always just for the landscape colors—but also big spaces. It’s not like we travelled all the time, but I would seek out these places to paint in landscape tradition.
And then when we were staying home, I mean—I’ve obviously always loved our view. And every night, I would just look at the view, look at the sunset, and after the sunset, and the variations in the sky, basically. Because we were all in our homes, we could see everyone else’s lights. It was kind of like a connection, because we were in it together—that sort of thing—but separate. And so the paintings have a really cozy feeling, and a nostalgic feeling, and a familiar feeling. So many people have said, ‘That's my view,’ even though they don't live in Eagle Rock. Whether they live in Silverlake or the Hollywood Hills or wherever, everyone’s like, ‘That's my view.’ So it's really great that it's like a unifier. I also just loved investigating little gradations of color. Obviously, the sky is different every night and now I've painted over 30 Eagle Rock paintings now.
Do you work from photographs generally speaking or how do you compose your works?
I paint from photographs, but I also do a lot of observing, and I see how the photos differ from what I see. For example, when you take a photo, the lights are pretty much always white, whereas with one's eye they're always different colors. So, yeah I work from photographs, but I always change them.
What was in your mind and heart at the commence of the pandemic? Were you worried?
My first moment, the first couple days, I was like, ‘Nobody’s going to buy art now’—that was my first thought—which was not true at all. It ended up not being true at all. But, I processed it the alternative way, as opposed to stasis—I got really productive. It was like the uncertainty drove me to be extremely productive. I painted 50 paintings last year, which is more than I usually paint. That was a way of dealing with it for sure. Also, I mean, we just all had more time to be productive, but I didn't even for a minute go into, ‘I’m not going into the studio.’
How did you find your work flow or routine was influenced?
I used to be a super early morning person and get my four hours in the studio done early in the morning, and then do whatever else I needed to do that day. And then with the new schedule, where we sort of had all day to do it, I didn’t start as early and it kind of dragged all day.
And atop the pandemic, there was of course that extraordinary period of forest fires in the Fall. Did you notice its influence with those extremely vivid sunsets?
Definitely, so the sunsets are different all throughout the year. The sunsets in the Fall are more dramatic and all of that stuff. But yes, the sunsets in September were particularly orange—let's put it that way. Without making a direct comment on environmentalism or forest fires, that's definitely something I wanted to capture too.
It was a pretty challenging period.
Exactly, and for me that really was the worst part of the lockdown. Painting is so solitary anyway—it's not like I was fine with it, but I was used to it, being alone eight hours a day. Of course, I'd rather have my outside world be normal. But I was used to it, so when the air then was also bad, and I couldn't go on my daily walk, that was like… that was it.
What is something you feel you have you learned about yourself over the last year?
So, I don’t know if this goes a little bit into my family history, which might or might not be interesting, but my Grandfather came, he was of Jewish descent, and he came to the United States in the 30s because he had to. He was an exile here and met my grandmother here—she was Austrian. They supported degenerate art like Max Beckmann mostly, and so I thought a lot of him during this time, and what it means to be an exile, and it made me feel a lot closer to what they went through. Not that we’re going through a World War, but we are all going through this pandemic, and we’ve never been through anything like this on a societal level. So, that made me think a lot about that and have more empathy. I mean, I always have had empathy for that, but this really pushed it.
There has been a lot of talk about “interior arts” like furniture, floral arts, and design having something of a surge on account of the lockdowns and quarantines? Is that your impression?
It’s what I’ve heard too, I work with an art consultant in San Francisco and they said that everybody’s home and looking at their walls, and they want something to look at.
How would you say that your subject matter over the years has lead you to here?
Okay, so I grew up in Berlin in the 80s, and then moved to Santa Barbara when I was nine, and learned English when I was nine, and then I spent the next decade going back and forth—just to give you a little bit of my history. And then I went to UCSB for undergrad, but finished up in Berlin, and that’s where I started painting Berlin subway stations, interior spaces, with artificial light. Kind of that bright, neon light in interior spaces, and they were very realistic oil paintings. And then I stayed a few years after undergrad in Berlin, and I decided to go to Art Center in Pasadena for grad school, so we moved to LA in 2004, and my work obviously really changed in grad school, but not as much as one would expect. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I went abstract right away’, or something like that, which happens to a lot of representational painters.
That's where I first started painting the LA night sky. I was still attached to the artificial lights, but I wasn’t going to paint subway stations here or anything like that. So, I was painting the atmosphere, the lights—I call them ‘moon eggs’ from a poem—like the orb that you see on foggy nights. So, I did a whole series on that, and that evolved into clouds, and I brought silverleaf into my work at that point, which I still use sometimes, some sort of metallic reflective surface. It was all pretty realistic—my final show was really big cloud paintings. And then, after that, I did a lot of aerials—from there my work got really abstract, sort of top-down—movement of the ocean depicted through little oval shapes; I did that for a few years. And then I slowly started concentrating on landscape again, and it was just abstract color bars, just really studying the colors of landscapes. And then through that the shapes of landscapes came back in. So, it’s been this kind of trajectory, but they’re all completely interrelated.
Through all that, what would you say is consistent about the work?
The consistent element is definitely the observation of my surroundings depicted in paint.
How about LA as a muse? You mention the familiarity people have spoken about in the work—have you ever had reservations about depicting such a popular artists’ destination?
I am always really wary of depicting LA, per se. I think that’s really why I didn’t paint Eagle Rock, because it can easily be categorized in this one area, or be provincial. And I don’t mind the comparison at all, but the work is always compared to movies, like Bladerunner or Mulholland Drive, and I’m totally fine with that, but it’s always something to contend with. It’s always kind of this double-edged sword, and this is the very first time I’m painting the LA Downtown skyline, the very first time—I’ve always stayed away from that. And it was kind of in this time that I felt like I could do it, because it had something to do with the shrinking of our radius and being locked down, where even Downtown was too far to go, so it was like a mirage in the distance. And it’s also kind of like—Downtown in general is like this mirage—that, if you’re an Angeleno, you know what I mean, you don’t spend much time down there. But, I noticed a lot of people wanted to see it—I got a lot of requests for the Downtown skyline, and that’s not why I painted it, but it was really interesting to investigate. So that’s something I can do now.
In conclusion, considering this recent series, do you feel that there might be a new openness within yourself toward things that you would otherwise be reluctant to immerse in?
That’s a good question and I hadn't thought about that. It’s a good reminder to kind of be open-minded and not write anything off.