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Lisa Neighbour: Punishment

October 5, 2016

“The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.”
– Sigmund Freud

Screaming @ 2am (2015) Image Courtesy of the artist

Occasionally I have a day where everything, all day long, makes me laugh until my sides hurt. The compulsion to make art is so absurd, and so filled with contradictions and self-delusion, that I suspect these “laughing days” are my only antidote. Rather than ceasing to make art altogether, I decided instead to extend the comedic moments and spend a couple of months laughing at myself, and making art about the inherent funniness of anger. My own incoherent, blustering rage is the funniest thing of all. Next in line after that is other peoples’ anger. The text in these prints were taken from hand-written notes found at variety of virtual and real locations. This is My Punishment was part of a huge sign worn by an adulterer by the side of the road. Watching Porn was on a post-it note in a university dorm. Written notes represent an outburst of spontaneous speech—they are often written in anger, and unintentionally funny.

“You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”
– Buddha

Blade of a knife engraved with the words "I'm just going home like a shooting star"
Last Words: John Amador (2012) Courtesy of the artist
Blade of a knife engraved with the words "I'm just going home like a shooting star"
Last Words: Sojourner Truth (2012) Image Courtesy of the artist

Q. You have been using found texts for many years in your work. Texts, notes that are floating around online somewhere, but often obscure and requires research. They all seem so personal and private that wouldn’t normally be shared in a public setting. Some feel more like a personal letter that I shouldn’t be reading. Can you talk about where you found them? Why you began looking, and working with these texts?

LN: When I started making the work with engraved knives I was still recovering (physically and emotionally) from a serious illness. I started researching how other people face death: what they feel, and say, and how they try to come to terms with mortality. I was looking especially for the last words that people said, both well known people and more obscure ones. There’s a strange website from the Texas prison system that records the last statements of condemned prisoners before their execution. It amazes me how some of them seem so sad, and appologetic for their crimes. Others are calm and accepting of imminent death. The word “love” turns up frequently. I also bought a book of poetry written by monks who prepared for death ahead of time by composing haiku and lines of prose. The other sources were also books, of recorded last words, mostly of famous historical figures. They seemed surprised, or angry, and sometimes in deep denial that they were in their last moments of life. This research made me accept that everyone has to face death eventually, and it’s not as big a deal as I thought. I’ll be ready, I have words prepared in case I have a chance to say something!

Handwritten text on a blue background that reads: "I was dying of laughter when y'all were talking about boners. Thank you all for making my day."
Dying of Laughter (2015) Image Courtesy of the artist
A black and white sketch of two car frames colliding
Crushed (2015) Screen Print Image Courtesy of the artist

Q. Do you ever use what your friends might say?

LN: So far I haven’t used words written or spoken by people I know personally. I’m hoping nobody dies for a while. I don’t think I can maintain an objective point-of-view about the death of people I know. When there is a personal tragedy, humour, irony, and sarcasm go underground for a while.

Q. When we first met in 2007, you were doing work around death that often involved violent destruction or catastrophe, and even with a sense of affirmation, or determination. In this new work, you talked about anger and humour. Could you talk a little bit about this change in the work—death to anger and humour?

LN: Once I got a little time and distance between myself and death, some black humour came into it. I felt a teeny bit arrogant, as if I had escaped my just deserts. The anger is always part of me, I’m not sure why. I was born with it, and it helps me to survive. When I was sick, I raged away like a captive tiger, waiting to get out and claw things to bits. My theme song was Tupac’s “When I Get Free”. Maybe that’s why I can relate to the Texas prisoners in some way, illness is like being in jail.


Print of hair pieces on yellow background that reads "You are so hottt!!"
You Are So Hott!! (2015) Image courtesy of the artist
Black floral print with text over a red background that reads, "Watching Porn, Come on in!"
Watching Porn Come On In (2015) Image courtesy of the artist

Q. Post-it notes that once felt creepy and uncomfortable are now taking up a significant part of someone’s wall as these beautiful artworks—no longer subtle creepy messages. They almost seem so inviting and not creepy at all. How do you feel about that? Do you see it this way?

LN: I see secret cryptic messages in them, meant for me! I think it’s funny how angry people can get over trivial things, like a parking space, or a noisy party. They don’t try to talk about the issue, but leave a rude note instead. It takes courage to go and ask someone to turn their music down, or tell them that you hear everything through the wall. I recently had roommates for a short period of time, and wow, I forgot how hard it is to coexist with strangers—the hairs in the sink, the loud sex, the annoying puddles of coffee, my missing food. I didn’t say anything. My excuse was that I was going home soon, and it was really their permanent home, so I was the interloper.

Text print that reads "This is my punishment" on a green background
This Is My Punishment (2015) Image courtesy of the artist

Q. Could you share the original story of the adulterer that led to making ‘This is my punishment’?

LN: From my memory of it, there was a gloomy looking man standing by the side of the road, wearing a huge sign that said “I cheated and THIS IS MY PUNISHMENT”. I couldn’t stop obsessing over it. First of all, I’m married, and faithful to my partner. But I grew up in a home where there was a lot of “cheating” and it broke up my parents’ marriage. I am constantly worrying that I will become a cheater myself, as if I have some sleazy genetic tendency in my DNA. Then I also watch my partner carefully to see if he shows any signs of turning into a adulterer. I have no faith in myself or others. This print is an acknowledgement of how dumb this is, but I can’t help it.

A person standing with a sign hung on them that reads "I cheated this is my punishment"
This Is My Punishment (2015) Image courtesy of the artist

Q. Can you talk about the finger print texture that makes up the words, This is my punishment?

LN: The pattern is a faux wood grain, and it hasn’t got any special significance in the work.

Q. Can you share your thoughts behind the choice of materials—the glitter, stain glass and all those vibrant colours?

LN: This series of prints was a celebration and a treat to myself, after some dark times making sad, violent, monochromatic and emo stuff. It was almost an overnight transformation. The light came back on in my life. The colours, and sparkles are an exaggerated and rowdy “up-yours” aimed at myself, for having been so indifferent to my luck and privilege.

Q. ‘Punishment’—You titled these series as ‘Lisa Neighbour: Punishment’—could you comment on this? Like, was this your punishment to yourself? Can you share why you titled these series as Punishment?

LN: Originally, the show at G Gallery (in 2013) was called “This Is My Punishment” after the print. I thought it made a good title, because showing my work has always been a bit of an ordeal for me. If people like the work I wonder why, like my work is fake, or they must be mistaken. If they ignore my work I feel that I deserve it because I’ve failed. If people dislike it, I want to fight them with swords or something. So the punishment is for me, for thinking I have the right to show my work and call myself an artist.

Q. I always appreciated your often unconventional ways of engaging with the public, and creating alternate art spaces and market. I remember those beautiful unframed prints you had at Katherine Mulherin Gallery that you sold for $15–$20/ print, right beside the framed artwork that sold for much more, or rather what is expected in the contemporary art market. You also made other living artist multiples, like the Smithereens t-shirts. Can you talk a bit about your thoughts and process? When did you start making them and why?

LN: If I could just make work and give it away, I would. It’s expensive to make art—the materials, the framing, the time, the whole maintaining your delusional optimism in the face of futility thing. Then artworks collect around the house, getting dusty, falling off shelves, having to be moved from one apartment to another, into storage, pimped out to fundraisers, endlessly reminding you that your career is a complete fabrication. I like the idea of gifts, and cheap things that people don’t have to treasure forever. A t-shirt is really the best kind of artwork. I’m genuinely happy with making t-shirts.

Q. Often the production end of an exhibition or artmaking is a mystery to the general public. All the invisible labour behind all the production often goes unnoticed and unaware in a clean gallery. You had listed Carlo Cesta, Nestor Kruger, Joel Herman, and the board of G Gallery, Superframe, and Paula at A.J. Stained Glass Supply—could you respond how these people have supported this project in particular

LN: Sure, you’re right! The gallery is like a theatre, and everything is staged to make it seem like the framed prints appear as if by magic. Carlo (my partner) is the only person I trust to be a critic and advisor while I’m making the work. He’s very knowledgeable, has strong opinions, and is respectful and honest with me. Nestor and Joel helped me put together the exhibition at G gallery, where these prints were first shown. Superframe were open to framing with stained glass, in odd proportions, and with a tight deadline to boot. Paula helped me choose colours and cut the sheets to very precise measurements without making me feel like I was causing her extra trouble.

Q. Could you share with us what’s next for you?

LN: Ummm. I don’t really know yet. Does anyone want to show my work? I’ve just finished a period of intense production, lots of prints, watercolours, video, photographs. I am fixated on the Gander demolition derby, and each car in it. I’ve made portraits of them. If I wasn’t so phobic about pain I would get tattoos made of them. I want to do some more travelling, after having been nomadic for a few months. Right now I have a great job teaching print (Sheridan/UTM joint program) and I’m squirrelling away some of my depleted funds. Life is so great. I hope that wasn’t a jinx!

MSK: Thank you for being generous in sharing your thoughts and your beautiful work with us!

LN: Thanks Myung-Sun, you are a dear friend.

Courtesy of Lisa Neighbour

Myung-Sun Kim is an artist and the Manager of Artist & Community Activation at The Theatre Centre.

About Lisa Neighbour:
Lisa Neighbour was born in Montreal, Quebec, and now lives and works in Toronto, Ontario. She graduated from OCADU in 1982, and received an MFA from York University in 2009. Her recent exhibitions include: Smithereens, YYZ Artists’ Outlet, Toronto, Ontario, This is My Punishment, G Gallery, Toronto, Ontario, Micah Lexier: One, and Two, and More than Two, The Powerplant, Toronto, Pilot X: Death in the City, Le Gallery, Toronto, Ontario, Beyond in Western New York, at The Carnegie Art Center in Tonawanda, N.Y. and Bite the Dust, at Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects in Toronto. For Lisa’s CV click here. For more information please visit Lisa’s website and blog.

Lisa Neighbour's studio include a bulletin board and a table with prints laid out
Courtesy of Lisa Neighbour
Lisa Neighbour's studio with candles lit
Courtesy of Lisa Neighbour