frances lerner



In my first memories of making art, I am at my aunt’s house in Cleveland: making little poke-marks on the wall and braiding the fringe on her brocade sofa. Decades later, here I am: still marking up surfaces and playing with fabric. Almost all the work was done by poking a single needle into bits and pieces of felt, a process that causes me to marvel as hundreds of tiny holes gather to create a whole.

Underlying this series are the twin themes of “there but for the grace of God go I” and “the meek shall inherit the earth.” These themes have been present in my work for decades now, as I have long held a reverence for the special beauty of the worn, the spent, the frayed, the tattered, threadbare and bruised. In the past, this reverence manifest as paintings of rag-puppets in broken-down industrial settings. I love to juxtapose the unexpected and, for the paintings, I studied the techniques of old Dutch masters to impart a luminous beauty to the desolate scenes of shabby figures bending over their various ramps, chutes, and gears. Then, to create the POKE series, I asked myself: “If the puppets were in an art-factory, what would their art look like?

It’s this question that led me to the new works offered in POKE. In moving from two to three dimensions, I was excited to add a tactile, spatial, and somehow “real world” component to my previous work—as though the puppets themselves had stepped out of the paintings and created the felt-works while I was sleeping. I haven’t been sleeping, though! I’ve been wool-gathering, dyeing, tearing, wadding, and—yes—poking away. Through it all, my goal has been to evoke a quality of ironic nostalgia, a mixture of pathos and tenderness that I hope is palpable in the softness and shabbiness of these strange shapes that seemed to will their own way through my fingers.

Collaboration with Strangers

The new body of work, created during the Covid lock-down, is a portion of a larger project, called Collaboration with Strangers. The chain of people who actually and unknowingly contributed to the work in a communal conversation include: the sheep farmers, knitters (dead and alive), sellers on Ebay selling old mohair scarves, sweaters and a panoply of strange or mundane items, and merchants of art and needle felt supplies. Part of the project in the future will be giving them credit in some concrete way.

My first memory of making art is hiding behind the brocade sofa at my Aunt Molly's, in Cleveland, Ohio, around age four.   I would scribble on the wall there, where the marks could not be seen, before I braided the fringe on the sofa’s bottom. Decades later, I found myself again hiding, this time from the Covid virus, and again making something out of these combinations of marks and materials.  

The work in the show conjoins nostalgia with the physical reality of  "women's work", itself also a form of calming reverie. The idea came when a small needle-felted piece fell onto a painting in progress. I’ve long been interested in juxtaposing the unexpected, and this suddenly added a tactile, real-world spatial component to my previous work.

The pieces expand on the conflict between reverie and illusion on the one hand, and radical material reality on the other, where the substance of the real world often spills out of a work and reaches toward the viewer.

Also woven into the work is another aspect of the pandemic lockdown: the continuous arrival of fearful news – of the disease itself, of escalating climate change, of the struggle for racial justice.  This surrounding reality entangled itself into the work as an orange colored, eerie sky caused by the fires and fog on September 9, 2020, as the Hungarian vintage shovel for bailing water out of a leaking boat, and as the reimagined wacky map in a “socially distanced” classroom.  The work alludes to the possible solutions to our calamities that will be a larger, global collaboration with strangers.

Unlikely Companions

My current work both abandons and embraces premises of the two previous series shown in the last six years - (There Was Once A World and Sympathetic Criminals) - which took for inspiration a perplexed puppet named Lorelei. The puppet, her family, and her compadres in industrial dioramas formed a traditional still life set up. In much of this work, the process of painting was reactionary, old fashioned, reviving the old masters’ techniques. Observation and a constrained set of steps – an underpainting, thin glazes - were key.

Initially, in the current work, my usual small scale wooden panels became even smaller to deal with larger, lofty themes like mortality, creating an irony and ambivalent spatial relationships reigned.

But, consciously, I wanted to find a woman’s narrative story as a basis and I settled on the 1911 Manhattan Triangle Factory Fire (where 146 immigrant women died.) I bought a very old bellows, drawn by the way it operated, feeding the fire with air. The bellow’s rounded petal and angular shapes (similar in some ways to misshapen Lorelei) were what I loved. But, rather than doing a painting of the object, my impulse was to pull the actual bellows apart. But, it couldn’t be put be put back together again. The individual shapes united and reunited forming a sort of hybrid form that felt both familiar and mysterious, balanced and imbalanced. More bellows followed.

Instead of technical constraints serving as a guide and only using oil paint on panel, multiple techniques and materials accrued to these hybrid sculptures: Odd bedfellows -cast concrete and homespun fabric, wood and wool, bound physically to each other and reacted together unexpectedly. They formed a kind of old world symbiosis where the materials hold memory.

As my painting was no longer based on observation, each one could be described as a fragment or a footnote to something once there and then gone, with one foot in our reality and the other in the other world. Oddly, in some sense one could imagine the painting spawning, the hybrid sculptures; or the objects escaping their trap spilling into actual space --- Some of the paintings and objects coupled off creating a third meaning, sometimes they changed partners.

Finally, this body of work strives to be inclusive on many levels, in subject, process, materials, and in person.

Minor Characters and Sympathetic Criminals

My current body of work continues the themes of “There for but the grace of God go I” and “the meek shall inherit the earth” that was begun in There Was Once a World.

But now the main character, a puppet named Lorelei, is just one among the many strugglers depicted, - among weavers, workers, pickpockets, policemen, idlers, and occupiers. Lorelei and the others are pinned into their architecture, their circumstances figuratively and literally. They get by, though barely, in some mysterious space where narrative and abstraction meet. Sometimes the architecture looms over them like a reminding metaphor or becomes the character itself.

Still employing the traditional old master oil painting techniques that were present in the
previous work, the color palette has now lowered and deepened a few octaves, with more attention to color interaction. The process involves establishing a form, then seeking out
the actual concrete piece in the world. This series can be seen as reflecting a more solemn time, both publicaly and personally.

I plan to expand on my previous themes of characters at work, to create a series of paintings of both the energy of work and the sad idleness of empty architecture. I will continue using puppets for stand-ins, bulding sets for metaphoric architecture to use as triggers. Combining old master techniques but with ramshackle content I will try to re-invent notion of Still and Not So Still Lives from the characters in the studio warehouse complex called the Giant Trade Center in San Pablo and have it open as an off-site exhibition.

There Was Once a World

The central characters I use in my small paintings are based on a Lorelei, a Japanese puppet I bought at a flea market and her French puppet husband. Later, I bought their child on eBay -- a diminutive creature with the same spout mouth. The completed family became a metaphorical tool I use to stage allegorical human stories. The characters’ imaginary settings include pastoral landscapes and industrial sites constructed from combinations of old junkyard machinery parts, photographs and stills from You Tube factory videos.

Simultaneously old-fashioned and contemporary, naive and sophisticated, my content and painting style are intentionally at odds. Rejecting certain aspects of Modern Art and Post Modernism, the expressive brushwork of Abstract Expressionism and a focus on surface over illusion for example, I’ve purposefully painted in an earnest, restrained and understated way. Deliberately, I’ve resurrected some Old Master’s academic techniques which include thin layers of delicate glazes and body color over a black and white grisaille, chiaroscuro (though off-kilter) atmospheric perspective, and in some, a modified Flemish palette. Thus, in both content and technique I am striving to combine the folksy and the classical.

Part puppet/part human, Lorelei could be every peasant, immigrant, orphan or artist in every sweatshop, factory, studio, or day job, in Poland, or Russia, or an industrial city like Cleveland, my hometown, in its faded glory of down-trodden industrial buildings full of pipes and machines, the uses of which are mysterious. Lorelei is my metaphor for perplexity, paradox and a woman’s predicament. In context, she symbolizes the conflict between reverie and creativity on the one hand, and secular practicality, the tasks and work of this world on the other.

Themes of “there for but the grace of God go I” and “the meek shall inherit the earth” are underpinning of this series. But the primary goals are to create an ironic nostalgia and reinstate genuine pathos and tenderness.