by Shauna Grissett, photos by Candra George
NOT ONLY IS ABSTRACT ART difficult to create, it can be difficult to understand conceptually—hard to grasp, like trying to hold onto the wind. Broadly, the movement is concerned with color, line, form and texture and is feeling-based rather than reality-based. The art is expressive and gestural, and the artist paints or creates when driven to communicate what he sees or tells, stirring up emotion in the viewer. Abstract expressionism is an emotional collaboration between the artist and his audience, this interaction being the goal; hopefully, the observer either loves it or hates it or remains indifferent. The range of articulation in terms of abstraction in art is endless.
Nancy Hirsch Lassen, whose work Rigs in the Gulf appears on the cover of this issue, is a highly accomplished abstract expressionist painter. Her work is collected widely in both private and corporate collections across the country. It takes years of training for the artist to learn the craft in order to let go of the “real” world and put what is inside the heart and mind on canvas. Lassen talks about the perception of abstraction: “People ask me about abstract art all the time, and they don’t always understand it. They’ll say, ‘anyone can do that.’ But it’s very difficult to come up with something out of thin air, so much harder than people understand. It would be much easier for me to paint what I see, what is right in front of me, an apple for example, or a still life.”
Lassen, a Baton Rouge native, attended Newcomb College and received her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1975, majoring in fine arts (concentration: painting) and minoring in art history and Spanish. After graduating, she remained in New Orleans and started her own design firm, Interiors & Extras, now in its 32nd year. Lassen didn’t paint for almost 30 years—almost hard to believe—but worked instead as a successful interior designer. Although she still works as a decorator, the talented Lassen has added “painter” to her résumé, explaining, “I pretty much hadn’t painted since I graduated from college, back in ’75. Then, in 2004, I started taking painting classes again at the Academy (The New Orleans Academy of Fine Art) with Nell Tilton when my daughter went off to college.”
The first seminar Lassen took at the Academy, in abstract acrylic painting, proved to be serendipitous as well as life changing. Not only did it reawaken her love of painting, she also made lasting friendships with the women in her class. “We just adore each other. We paint together, inspire each other, root for each other and take workshops together. It’s a group of awesome women with like interests. We’ve all been very successful, and most of us show in galleries around town.” The close-knit group of women has even shown their art together, this past April at Gallery Degas on Julia Street. “We called the show Fivefecta, as in ‘trifecta.’ It was so much fun!” Lassen continues her work at the Academy; she won the prestigious Director’s Award in May. It was the first time the Academy bestowed the honor upon an abstract painter, and this is something about which Lassen is particularly proud.
In addition to classes at the Academy, Lassen attends workshops regularly, time permitting, and has taken many seminars from Krista Harris, Steven Aimone and Bob Burridge. She remarks that she learns not only from the artists’ teaching but also from the students in attendance. Lassen just returned from a workshop given by Krista Harris in Telluride, Colorado, “I love her work; she’s just brilliant. Krista does a lot of cerebral preparation before she starts working and then interprets it. She’s very inspirational to me.”
While most of Lassen’s paintings are abstract, some of her work is readable; her first show was focused on trains. “The show’s theme was trains and was representational for the most part, even though some people didn’t realize it. (Going Places can be seen on Lassen’s website.) Because I’d been working on Metairie Road for so many years, I had to do trains, since I crossed the tracks every day. I’m fascinated with trains.”
Lassen is drawn to two contrasting themes in her paintings, the beauty and lushness of the natural world and the lines and forms of the man-made, technical world that we traverse every day, and she ricochets back and forth between the two. The artist outlines her evolution into these two very different subject matters: “I started out doing landscapes, where the canvas was divided into thirds and it was either a high horizon or a low horizon and it was all about a color scheme that I liked. Then, I went from abstract landscapes to total abstraction. But the turning point for me, the beginning in terms of my industrial paintings, was when we were studying ‘line’ at the Academy. I looked out of the window and saw all of these telephone lines going crazy and making these loopy-d-loops, and I was absorbed.”
Regarding medium, the painter works with a combination of acrylics, collage, glazes, oil pastels, pencils and ink. She explains her process: “Usually, I begin by ‘activating the canvas.’ This is the same for many abstract expressionist painters; I begin with lots of line, brushstrokes and glazes and then follow the paint’s lead. If you don’t like the medium, you paint over it. It’s the layers and layers underneath that give the piece its history.”
This building up—the adding and subtracting of paint, mark and medium to the canvas—is what makes the painting’s surface rich with texture, movement and color. Lassen is masterful in her use of vibrant color; she says, “I adore color—that’s my passion and, I think, my special gift. I especially love the juxtaposition of color and the evolutionary interplay of color on canvas. Orange is my favorite color, and next would be some form of green and then purple. It’s just like if an outfit needs a little something extra, you add a great pair of shoes or bright lipstick. So, if a painting needs a little pop, my go-to is orange.”
Unlike being a lawyer or doctor, there are no hard and fast rules for artists. How do you know what colors to use? How long does it take to finish a painting? When do you know if a painting is finished? An artist just knows innately the answers to these questions without having to look them up in the Physician’s Desk Reference or on Westlaw. “Sometimes, I’ll do something really quickly and say, ‘That’s a keeper, I love it.’ Other times, a painting will take years. I’ll look at a painting on the wall of my studio and say, ‘Oh my God! There’s a bird in the middle of my painting! How did that happen?’ So, I’ll get rid of the bird. But then I discover it was a better painting with the bird. Then, I’ll hang it on the wall and ask myself, ‘What do I do with it now?’ The challenge is to keep the excitement of the process evident in the final product—fresh and exhilarating.”
Lassen has had a busy summer traveling to New York, London and Poole, England, and Edinburgh, Scotland, taking photos of inspirational details, colors and architectural features all along the way, invaluable research for future works. “I took hundreds and hundreds of photographs. I was in New York and was fascinated with all of the water towers; they are just the coolest things. Then, I spent a month in London and couldn’t get enough of all of the really interesting chimneys. In Poole, there was a bridge that was painted in these awesome colors! When you look at all of these lines and shapes, before you know it, you’re looking at the entire world as paintings!”
After she returned home from overseas, she drove out west on Highway 50, called the “Backbone of America” by Time magazine in its July 7, 1997 issue and deemed “The Loneliest Road in America” by travelers on the Nevada portion of the route. “There would be miles and miles of nothing except for stunning natural beauty. I took so many photos of basically the same thing, more natural wonder, that I finally stopped taking pictures and just wrote down the beautiful colors I saw for reference. And, then out of the blue, when we were driving, we’d come upon a little town, in the middle of nowhere. The first thing you’d see, in every town we’d come upon, would be a junkyard. All of this amazing nature and then, in sharp contrast, there’d be a scrapheap with all of these cool industrial lines and shapes.”
These two divergent themes about which Lassen continually paints are obviously deeply embedded in her, and she’s automatically attracted to them as she lives her life, whether in London, England or along Highway 50.
Lassen has an upcoming show at Gallery Degas in April 2018. She is currently represented by Gallery Degas; the Kessler Collection at the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Birmingham, Alabama; the John Richards Collection in High Point, North Carolina; and Bev’s Fine Art in Raleigh, North Carolina. She has been a finalist in the Bombay Sapphire New Orleans show three times. Recently, 48 of her paintings were commissioned and installed in the new University Medical Center in New Orleans. Lassen’s work is also in the collections of the Federal Reserve Bank, New Orleans; Sloan Kettering, New York; and the New Orleans Museum of Art gift shop. Many of her paintings have been featured in movies and television shows filmed in the New Orleans area; she leases work to the movie industry through NOLA Props. Lassen’s work can be seen and/or purchased by contacting the galleries mentioned above or by contacting the artist directly at 504-813-7340 or nancyhirschlassenartist.com.