Message in a sweater: Lisa Anne Auerbach on cats, knitting and zines

Lisa Anne Auerbach is inspired by knitting and cats -- and her art work reflects it

There are artists who focus their entire lives on exploring a single material. That's not Lisa Anne Auerbach. She falls in with the artists who weave together various practices, producing objects that are eclectic, even as they explore related ideas. Auerbach's work straddles a variety of art-making traditions: she takes pictures, she produces zines, she makes paintings and she knits — hats, sweaters, pants, as well as wall-hangings that resemble painted canvases in their form, if not in their execution. 

Together, all of her work comes together to explore overlooked corners of vernacular culture: the architecture of megachurches, a Danish knitting movement of the 1970s, the language of psychics, the content of her bookshelves and — because this is the 21st century — plenty of cats.

"Sometimes politics can be so depressing," the L.A. artist says of the fact that felines seem to consistently reappear in her work. "What are you going to do? Make a sweater about Israel or cats? I don't know enough. If I make a sweater about Israel, my mother will be mad at me. So I just make a sweater about cats. It's like, 'ISIS or cats?' 'Ebola or cats.' It's a no-brainer."

The artist is currently prepping her first solo show in Los Angeles in roughly seven years for Gavlak Gallery (the new L.A. branch of the longtime Palm Beach art space). And while the exhibition will indeed be imbued with plenty of cats, along with Auerbach's absurdist, deadpan humor, it will also provide a showcase for the more serious aspects of her work. 

Collectively, her art examines the curious DIY ways in which humans communicate with each other — through architecture, through language, through knitted symbols — work that landed her in the Whitney Biennial this spring. The show at Gavlak will contain pieces from across her various practices.

First and foremost: the knitted pieces, which she has been making since 1994, when she graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. For her MFA, Auerbach had studied photography, but after finishing school, she no longer had regular access to a darkroom, so she took up knitting as a cost-effective way of making art — and making a statement.

Her pieces often bear the influence of Scandinavian sweater patterns. But the artist doesn't simply remake designs, she manipulates them. "I mix patterns, I overlay them, I make my own," she says. "And I'll add things that you don't typically see on sweaters. I made a sweater with a surveillance camera for a show in Sweden a couple of years back."

She also includes political slogans and wry hash-tagged phrases, such as "#KitschTheNewCrap" and "#IraqTheNewIraq." These ideas, she says, are partially inspired by a 1970s knitting movement called Hønsestrik that has its roots in Denmark.

"It literally means 'chicken knitting' or 'hen knitting,'" Auerbach says. "And I really wanted to bring it to a new generation. These days, there are all of these ideas about radical crafts, but I want to show that this was already happening in the '70s. Hønsestrik is about rejecting the man-made, rejecting the yarn companies, who all had these strict patterns that you were expected to follow. Hønsestrik, however, was saying, 'Let's make this out of scraps.'"

Auerbach also liked the wearable-message aspect of knitting. "I wanted to make sweaters that had political ideas," she says. "And Hønsestrik was a culture that was saying, 'Sweaters are a place that we can talk about this.'"

As a result, Auerbach has made sweaters about the 2008 presidential election ("My Jewish Grandma is Voting for Obama"), women's issues ("Keep Abortion Legal") and the art of riding a bicycle around L.A. ("This lane is my lane. This lane is your lane. This lane is our lane").

Unlike political T-shirts, which can feel confrontational, there is something about the sweaters — with their bright colors and pretty snowflake patterns — that comes off as subversively charming. As if the wearer could choose between making a snowman or wreaking havoc on the National Mall in Washington.

Auerbach has also used sweaters and knitting to explore her other areas of interest as well — such as psychics. A little more than 10 years ago, she began a photographic series devoted to exploring small, freestanding businesses. "The first one I shot was a psychic," she recalls. "It was in the Valley, on Ventura Boulevard. And the sign on it said, 'Know Your Future.'"

That launched a whole photographic series devoted to psychics, which appeared in an oversized zine form as well as in her knitted works (most of which she produces with a programmable knitting machine). To create the text for her zine, she had a reading done. Fascinated by the language, she began incorporating words from these readings into her knitted works. "Psychic Knitting Circle," a wall-mounted knit piece that will be on view at Gavlak, bears fortune-cookie maxims such as "See people without judgment" and "Be open to change."

"There's something so general about the language," says Auerbach." "It's more about how the psychic wants their ideas to be out in the world. It's always really positive and kind of self-help-y. Things like, 'Grab your own power.'"

Her photographic investigations have launched other unusual projects too. As she photographed psychics, she also became intrigued by the bland, institutional architecture of megachurches. She compiled these images into a "mega-zine" — a 60-inch-tall, homemade zine that featured images of the churches as well as her writings about them.

Auerbach has long made self-published zines that cover various aspects of her life: things she finds in her bookshelves, riding a bicycle, working from home. But the megachurch project offered an opportunity to do something on a different scale.

"I didn't want to make 30- by 40-inch photos of megachurches," she says. "So I decided to make a 'mega-zine.'" At the opening on Saturday, two young women Auerbach has dubbed the "Megagirls" will turn the pages of the zines for gallerygoers.

For now, the artist is focused on putting the finishing touches on her show and starting the semester at Pomona College, where she teaches photography. But she thinks she might have another mega-zine in her.

"It's my fantasy to do a mega-zine about cats," she says. "I think it'd be a good forum to see larger-than-life images of them. I also really want to go to one of those cat cafes where you sit around and pet cats. But all this is way in the future. Right now, I have to put waistbands in the pants I made for my show."

"Lisa Anne Auerbach: Spells" opens Saturday at 6 p.m. at Gavlak, 1034 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. Runs through Oct. 18. gavlakgallery.com.

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