Liz Albert and Shane VanOosterhout: Instant Classic
I was thrilled to see Liz Albert’s name on my line-up for the New England Portfolio Reviews as we had previously shared her project, Family Fictions and I am a fan of her work. She shared a new collaborative project with me, Instant Classic, created with a childhood friend and digital media artist Shane Vanoosterhout. Using Polaroids found on ebay, the artists have created a new narrative of images that are untethered from a known history.
The artists will be sharing this work in the exhibition, Who Do You Think You Are?, at the Cambridge Art Association’s Canal Gallery in Cambridge from September 7 – October 11, 2023.
Today we share an interview with the artists, produced by Maake Magazine and co-authored by Andreana Donohue, originally published on their website. We so appreciate their sharing this terrific conversation.
In my latest project, Instant Classic, my collaborator, Shane VanOosterhout, and I have been sleuthing and acquiring anonymous Polaroids circa 1960-2000. Discarded photo albums, shoeboxes packed with forgotten snapshots; images lost beneath decades of clutter. Years ago, our subjects showed up for a Christmas party, a romantic encounter, 10th-grade geometry. Responding to cues from what we perceive in these Polaroids, we add poignant and humorous phrases from our personal journals and recent conversations – inner thoughts we imagine the individuals and their observers may be thinking and feeling.
Friends from childhood, we grew up a block apart from each other – a Jewish girl and a gay boy, simultaneously following and deciphering the codes of our Michigan WASP community. Irony and sarcasm were our preferred secret language – this is how we buffered our tender, emerging identities against what we perceived as the winds of deadly conformity. Looking in the rearview mirror as middle-aged adults, we aim to give an empathic and humorous voice to our subjects, just as we wished someone in the outside world would have validated us. For GenX kids, the Polaroid SX-70 was a magical device, producing an on-the-spot tangible photo that recorded a heartbeat of time. With the push of a red button and a synchronous buzz, the moment became evidence. In today’s digital universe, we remain transfixed by the Polaroid camera’s clever design and the vibrant memory object it leaves behind.
Liz Albert is a lens-based artist, educator and zealous idea sparker. She has exhibited her work in group shows as well as in multiple print and online publications in the US and abroad. She had her first solo exhibition of her series, Family Fictions at the Danforth Museum of Art in Framingham, MA in 2020 and will be exhibiting her current collaboration with Shane, Instant Classic, at CAA @ Canal in Cambridge, MA in September of 2023. and She resides in Belmont, Massachusetts.
Shane Vanoosterhout is a creative entrepreneur, designer and plant whiz. He works as an adjunct digital media professor at Kendall College of Art & Design and is a coordinator with the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation where he dons many hats ranging from mentoring; landscape design and horticulture expertise. He resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
About Us: Liz and Shane became friends when they both performed in the 1977 Civic Theatre production of Pinocchio. From that fateful experience came a life-long bond as they shambled through High School and their own colorful family dynamics. After graduation they both attended art school at University of Michigan and have pursued careers in the arts and education.
Liz and Shane’s website
Interview with Liz Albert & Shane VanOosterhout
Written by Andreana Donahue
Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you became interested in becoming an artist? What were some early influences?
Liz: I grew up in Grand Rapids, MI. My mother was a printmaker and also taught Art History and wrote art reviews for the local newspaper. As a kid, I was always drawing, dressing up and playing pretend in our basement, where my mom had hung garage-sale posters of Mae West and Clark Gable. One day, I took a pencil and drew a word bubble over Mae West that said, “I can fuck any man alive.” My mom decided to leave the poster on the wall and didn’t mention it. I think that was the moment when I realized I had permission to be an artist.
Shane: I’m also from Grand Rapids — Liz and I grew up down the street from each other. My parents had art books and photography magazines on the shelves — they appreciated the creativity and encouraged it in me. My maternal aunt was a very bad painter. I grew up believing she was “the talented one” until I realized that she was just painting colors over magazine photos! I think the idea of being an artist appealed to me because it seemed useful to my active imagination.
Where are you currently based and what initially attracted you to working in this community? Are there any aspects of this specific place that have surfaced in your work?
L: I currently live in Belmont MA – a suburb close to Boston. What actually brought me to Boston was my husband, Steve, who grew up in Cambridge. We met our last semester in college and I took a leap of faith moving here after that. Soon after, more family followed and we’ve all raised our kids here. My work is more about family and social dynamics than it is about geographic location.
S: I tried city living when I moved to San Francisco. I’m not an urban person, so I moved back to Michigan and settled on ten acres in the country where I’m surrounded by nature. I can get to the city in 20 minutes. I love that my hometown has grown significantly, that it feels more relevant, but I’m content to access its bounties from a comfortable distance.
Can you tell us about your studio space? What are some of the most crucial aspects of a studio that make it workable for you?
L: My studio space is in my sunroom off my living room – so it’s very close! The necessary components are my desktop, scanner, Epson printer, and a color print viewer. What makes it work is that I have space to work on images and then produce them. And that I’m close by for family when they need me — my kids are college-aged now, so it’s much easier!
S: I work in a pleasant second-story home office, with two windows facing east. I rest my computer-weary eyes by watching the trees outside. It’s very gratifying. In school, as a kid, I was labeled a daydreamer by unimaginative teachers. I would always find a street tree to observe — those trees were my silent friends. They helped me survive the monotony of the classroom.
What is a typical day like?
L: My day is a combination of working on art and keeping up with my life – family, house, planning ahead, and of course, my lengthy (and entertaining!) phone conversations with Shane – it’s a constant drumbeat that keeps me humming along every day.
S: I avoid early mornings if I can. I don’t always buy that early riser are more productive. I like to challenge that popular belief by simply being routinely productive. Being creative for me is working on multiple things most days, and taking a lot of short breaks along the way. I have a million plants to look after. Whether it’s a creative project or my vegetable garden, I take a holistic approach to nurturing along with the things I care most about.
What gets you in a creative groove? What puts a damper on your groove?
L: What usually gets me in a creative groove is when I’m alone – responding to either something I’ve read, listened to or seen. What puts a damper on my groove is housework, doing mundane errands and feeling anxious.
S: I don’t wait for muses. If I’m creatively engaged, I continue working at it because the process is the whole point. In the past I sometimes fell into a creative crevasse, beguiled by the romantic idea of a destination. Excessiveness of anything dampens my groove.
What criteria do you follow for selecting materials? Do you prefer to maintain a narrow focus or work across diverse media? How do you navigate the limitations and possibilities that result from this path?
L: Right now the process of selecting materials begins with a found Polaroid which someone has chosen to either discard or sell. I’m super selective on the images – rejecting about 99.9% of the photos I find. The formal elements — such as composition and color — must be equally as strong as the emotional connection I feel toward the subject. I find the images I am most drawn to look like images I would have taken if I were the photographer in that scenario. After I find the image, Shane and I visit our long list of possible phrases we’ve collected and it’s a back-and-forth conversation about which one taps into an underlying truth or emotion.
S: I’ve dabbled in many things. At this stage in the game, I’m quite confident in my instincts about what to leave in and what to leave out. My BFA is in graphic design. I’m interested in where design and fine art meet up and fall in love. Liz and I both push back against idealized academic categories of art, and we embrace each other’s style and input.
Can you walk us through your overall process? How would you describe your approach to manipulating materials? What about decision-making and editing?
L: As I mentioned in the previous answer, I acquire found Polaroids. This process also includes having a conversation with Shane about which images we are excited to work with. Then we attach phrases – which we’ve sourced from our journals and current conversations between us. The common denominator with the images and the phrases is that they are either humorous or poignant or better yet, both. They must also reflect the humanity of our subjects. Shane works on the images and text in Photoshop, sending iterations back and forth. Our sensibilities are very closely aligned so we usually agree on the best approach for each image.
S: Liz hunts down the Polaroids. She shows me the contenders, therefore she’s already done a lot of the curating. Together we analyze and dissect the photos until we’re both absolutely convinced. We have a set of must-haves, and the rest is primarily the two of us returning to the image with fresh insights. If we find ourselves taking a deep dive into a picture, and we keep discovering satisfying new nuggets every time we go back to it, we’re most likely on the right track.
Can you talk about some of the ongoing interests, imagery, and concepts that have informed your process and body of work overtime? How do you anticipate your work progressing in the future?
L: I am not sure where my work will go next – I’ve always been interested in incorporating three-dimensional objects along with photographs – bringing the meaning of the image off the wall and into the room. I’m both excited and apprehensive about going in this direction – but that’s always a good start for making art!
S: I was astonished, in my 20s, when I discovered modern artists who used text. Total rebels! Geniuses! Language is an ancient art form but unfortunately, there’s been a perceived danger about applying visual text in art. I’d be perfectly happy to include text in everything going forward. Thank you, COVID-19, for giving everyone a massive pause on routine thinking.
Do you pursue any collaborations, projects, or careers in addition to your studio practice? If so, can you tell us more about those projects, and are there connections between your studio practice and these endeavors?
L: I’ve taught photography in the past and really enjoyed it. Right now, however, aside from my family, I am focused solely on my studio practice. It’s been such a pleasure to have this time to focus on my work.
S: I’m a part-time teacher. Working with young people, helping them along their path, is gratifying. Liz and I began this project in 2020, kicking around ideas. I love collaborating with other people, but working with Liz is especially wonderful because everything clicks so well.
As a result of the pandemic, many artists have experienced limited access to their studios or loss of exhibitions, income, or other opportunities. Has your way of working (or not working) shifted significantly during this time? Are there unexpected insights or particular challenges you’ve experienced?
L: I’ve been fortunate to not be adversely affected. The things that have happened – having my first solo show close early, having my college-aged kids come home from school, and worrying about the health of my 90-year-old mother have not shifted my way of working. I was producing art at home before the pandemic and I still am. In fact, I actually began collecting Polaroids last April during the lockdown, and have been grateful to have this project to focus on. If anything, the process of exploring the humanity of our subjects is connected to the social turmoil we’ve all felt during this past year.
S: My personality is perfectly aligned for what’s been recently thrust upon us. I’m content being at home. During the pandemic, there’s been a lot more focus on introverted personality types. Our breed has been under the microscope in a way that’s not been typical before. I took up meditation as a daily practice a few years ago, and it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. When you get your mind into the present, it’s liberating. The twin Trump and Covid disasters are retreating into the rearview, but life will never stop presenting a new crisis. Do your best today, and then begin again tomorrow.
In a time that seems to be marked by uncertainty, collective anxiety, and increasing social unrest, why do you think the perspectives and contributions of artists remain meaningful? Do you feel a natural relationship exists between your work (or the role artists play more broadly) and confronting established systems—of power, cultural institutions, or otherwise?
L: Yes. I feel a need to make art right now that is culturally and socially relevant – more than I have ever before. That’s what makes the work powerful. For me, I approach it through the lens of our own personal experiences.
S: The habit of humans is to rush away from suffering and self-examination. It’s partly self-preservation, that’s a given. But suffering is necessary and unavoidable. We always need artists to keep the pressure valve open. Artists are good at making sense of things that can feel negative or overwhelming, and they are also good at creating work that reveals hidden universal truths, through work that comforts and reassures.
Can you share some of your recent influences? Are there specific works—from visual art, literature, film, or music—that are important to you?
L: In my prior series, Family Fictions, I was focused on collecting slides from the 50s and 60s. Now with the Polaroids, I’m more focused on the 70s, 80s, and 90s. I love the way Polaroid film creates a cinematic mood. I’ve always been fascinated by visual shifts between decades — fashion, style, advertising, social norms, etc.. Diane Arbus is a major influence for me as well as filmmakers like David Lynch.
S: I never tire of Citizen Kane. “NEWS….ON THE MARCH…!!” The instant that line is spoken, Pandora’s Box is unleashed. Almost everything there is to say regarding the great myth of our American society is gorgeously conveyed in Wells’s film. And when Norma Desmond shouts at Joe Gilles in Sunset Boulevard, “You there! Why are you so late? Why have you kept me waiting so long?” it gets me. So much is implied in those words about the human experience, it makes me swoon. When I listen to Lana DelRey, I think she’s fantastic. She sings musical cocktails about the American Dream as sold to us by Hollywood and the entertainment industry, and that’s a topic I can never get enough of.
Who are some contemporary artists you’re excited about? What are the best exhibitions you’ve seen in recent memory?
L: Tania Franco Klein, John Stezeker, and Mickalene Thomas are some of the artists I’ve been excited about lately. This past spring I was in NYC and saw the Alice Neal retrospective at the Met and the show, Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, at the New Museum. It was such a thrill to be there to see incredible art in person and to experience NYC coming alive again. Both shows were excellent and made me feel even more inspired to push myself as an artist.
S: I saw an Iris van Herpen exhibit recently that blew my mind. Also, a modern ceramist who makes exquisite traditional Delft porcelain that horrifies you when you look closely. I’m frustrated that I can’t recall their name at the moment.
Do you have any tips or advice that someone has shared with you that you have found particularly helpful?
L: Yes, I’m quoting Jerry Saltz who was quoting Jasper Johns: “Work makes work”.
S: “Everything is simply appearing in the light of consciousness.” I heard this from Sam Harris, who is sharing the ancient wisdom of Dzogchen.
What are you working on in the studio right now? What’s coming up next for you?
L: Shane and I are excited that our work was accepted into ArtPrize in Grand Rapids. We are designing a large-scale outdoor photo installation with a selection of images from our Polaroid project, Instant Classic. The exhibit will be on display on the campus of Grand Rapids Community College, where my mother once taught Art History. ArtPrize runs from Sept 16 to Oct 3rd so if you are in the area come check it out!
S: I’m devoted to this collaborative project with Liz.
Anything else you would like to share?
L: Thank you for including our work in Issue 12! We love your magazine and are thrilled to be included!
S: I’ve probably shared enough.
Thank you to co-author Andreana Donohue
Posts on Lenscratch may not be reproduced without the permission of the Lenscratch staff and the photographer.
Penumbra / Image Threads LTP: Adam Meeks and Raymond Meeks in ConversationSeptember 9th, 2023
Liz Albert and Shane VanOosterhout: Instant ClassicSeptember 1st, 2023
Wanted: A World For One BillionMarch 23rd, 2023