Portrait artist Riva Lehrer’s groundbreaking work on identity and disability has been exhibited at such prestigious venues as the United Nations, National Women’s Art Museum and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. The recipient of numerous grants and awards, Lehrer has been an invited lecturer throughout the United States and in Europe, and was the subject of the documentary Self-Preservation: The Art of Riva Lehrer. She is a professor of anatomy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Lehrer has Spina Bifida, a congenital disorder where part of the spinal cord is exposed through an unfused section of the backbone.
Ms. Fit chatted with Lehrer over Thai food in her cozy Chicago apartment. What follows are excerpts from that conversation and, because she’s really smart, we let her do most of the talking.
“In art school, I was told repeatedly that my body and my experience were not a good subject matter for art, and I believed them. As a person with a disability who has studied a lot of art history, I never saw anyone who looked like me represented in the history of images of the body. I wasn’t the only disabled person I’d ever seen. I knew a lot about body variation. But except for the occasional court dwarf, we were not represented in art.”
As a young artist, Lehrer generally accepted that her body was not suitable for art. Then, in the mid-nineties, Lehrer took a workshop, “The Psychological Self-Portrait,” with the artist Bailey Doogan.
“On the first day of class, Doogan announced that we were all going to take our clothes off. I looked around the group. There were nine tall blonds, an African-American male, and me. Creating that portrait, I felt like I was going to throw up every three minutes. I was very conscious that this was a wall I had to get through or my art was never going to move forward. After that, there was nothing left to be scared of. And a couple of years later, I met Susan Nussbaum.”
Nussbaum, an award-winning playwright, actor, director and disability rights activist, invited Lehrer to join a group she was involved in, the Disabled Artists Coalition.
“I went to one of these meetings and it was a room full of incredibly cool people; all really dark and snarky and radical. I was completely blown away.”
One of the artists present was wearing a feather boa which reminded Lehrer of a famous self-portrait of the artist Albrecht Durer.
“And I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if Durer had ever done portraits of people like those in this room. I’m no Durer but… that’s when the idea for Circle Stories was born.”
“Circle Stories” is a series of portraits created between 1997 and 2003, depicting artists and academics with visible physical disabilities. Each portrait was created during an ongoing process of discussion and exploration. The paintings combine studied realism with magical elements, in accordance with how the subject wanted to be depicted.
“Circle Stories made me much more serious about observation skills which led me directly to an interest in anatomy. Studying how bodies worked, what they did and didn’t do, and their idiosyncrasies really opened up the science part of my brain. I knew I wasn’t a very good realist, and realism matters when you are depicting someone with visible impairments. Accuracy became important in a whole new way.
“The people I work with are often frightened to be depicted. They have been told over and over that they are ugly and deformed and unacceptable and need to be fixed and should be hidden. I give a lot of power over to the subject. It’s really important that my work not replicate the damaging history that so many of us have been through.
“This is why honesty and accuracy matter. I want these pieces to be as transformative as they can be, and if I don’t depict my subjects to the best of my ability, if I am not being honest, then the piece crumbles into something negligible and unimportant.
“I rarely ask people to pose nude. If they’re going to be nude, there has to be a damn good reason for it. That is my great love: their actual, physical body. But I know that this is something that is most likely to bring the thought process of the viewer to a complete stop. So I have to put clothing or objects and mise en scene as a series of screens to look through.
“My body is the one I am most likely to compose naked, although it makes me intensely uncomfortable. I do not like looking at myself. But it is the one body I have access to where I don’t worry about the ego of the person inside. I know what I can tolerate.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as objective viewing of another person, ever. You can set aside huge amounts of prejudice when you become aware of your assumptions, desires, and fears. It takes work. But any clinical language usually comes down to something comparative.
“When you tell a kid not to stare, you’re stepping right in the middle of a biological imperative to figure out what doesn’t fit. I want people to look, but I want to complicate their predisposed assumptions. I put people in the context of their lives. I don’t do specimen paintings. If you’re going to look, you’re going to get the full package. You’re going to get something complex.”
After the success of Circle Stories, Lehrer wished to continue exploring ideas of self-image and reflection, through her subsequent series’ including “If Body” “Family” “Totems and Familiars” and “Mirror Shards.” Not wanting to be pigeonholed, she deliberately moved away from exclusively depicting body variation.
“Many of the important people in my life were not disabled but I didn’t see their lives any easier than anyone else’s. I became interested in broader themes of survival; the things people store in their imaginations that bring them back to who they are: power objects, animals, super heroes.
“Queerness, disability, these human experiences… We (queers, the disabled) have called these human experiences important, we have called them life. There is something so beautiful about naming something and owning it as human, even if it takes a little stretching of the imagination. We exist, we have always existed, and we acknowledge this as part of what a human is. Accepting this is a little bit about saying that extra yes to life, to possibility, and that’s pretty fantastic.
“I am not a political artist but the subject of my work – any depiction of a disabled person at this time – is embedded in politics. I am mostly working from a standpoint of beauty. Intentionally political work is working towards change, and in order to work towards change you have to have a sort of single-minded clarity of message, and that’s the last thing I want in my work.
“Early on, I felt like I had to explain what it means to be disabled. I don’t feel that way anymore. Right now, my only job is to listen and do something true and I don’t care about being politically appropriate. I bring a disability perspective even to subjects who do not have obvious impairments. This includes my interest in variation, in vulnerability, and in certain kinds of truth… In going to the hard places together.
“I say that I start from a place of beauty, but I am also, as much as I can be, starting from a place of personal resonance and empathy, and if you can do that, then you are changed, too. I am as apt to be scared and hurt and worried and joyful as the person I am working with. If I am lucky.”
Lehrer recently completed a two-year creative collaboration with the graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, which is documented in the film, “The Paper Mirror” by Charissa King-O’Brien. More of her work can be viewed on her website. In Chicago, Lehrer will be curating the show Humans Being II as part of the Bodies of Work festival at Woman Made Gallery. Facebook invite here.