Fuzzy forms and surface detail: in conversation with Sophie Larrimore

Sophie Larrimore paints dogs. The hound that romps through almost all of her current paintings is a boisterous standard poodle. Despite the omnipotence of this fuzzy pooch however, Sophie says that “these are not dog paintings per se; I see them more as a way to explore texture, form and color relationships I find interesting.” As is the case with many painters, Sophie is primarily interested in paint and painting, where the subject matter is a vehicle for formalist exploration. In Sophie’s paintings, canine limbs fills the picture frame, creating an awkward, crowded sense of space. Sophie plays with different paint applications and patterns to create a range of surface textures and illusions of depth.

There’s something wonderfully ridiculous about Sophie’s paintings. The cavorting poodle striking yoga poses with a nude woman is both provocatively sensual and resolutely tongue in cheek. It’s this uncomfortable duality that makes Sophie’s work so interesting. Between the abstraction and figuration a riotous chemistry occurs.

We chatted with the Brooklyn-based artist to find out more about her work, stylistic concerns, and whether or not she has an actual dog.

AMM: Hi Sophie! Who is the poodle motif in your art?

SL: There isn’t a specific who. I think the viewer should be allowed to complete an artwork and create meaning or identity.

AMM: Please tell us about your interest in twee pictures, and how this functions as a point of interest for you in your art.

SL: To be honest I don’t think about twee at all, mostly because I’m just thinking about making a good painting. Also I’ve been exploring the same subject for so long and it has become so familiar that I almost can’t understand it anymore. That said, I’ve thought more in terms of kitsch in the past, but maybe twee is more appropriate. Either association is probably unavoidable when depicting dogs and nudes. I hope the work succeeds in walking the line between sincerity and ironic detachment since this is something I continue to navigate myself. Sometimes I’m not sure where I stand and I think that tension is what keeps me interested.

AMM: In many of your paintings, dogs and nude women intertwine in intimate embraces. Please tell us more about your visual language.

SL: I’m interested in exploring shape, color, and texture more than anything. The subject I think of more in terms of a starting point. Composition is key, but this really has to do with form not subject.

I usually start with a sketch, a shape or shapes to anchor a composition. These are never fixed, I don’t start with a set painting in mind and execute it to the end. I find this impossible actually. Paint always does things you don’t expect, even when you have done the same thing many times in the past, it will always surprises you. Honestly these are the most satisfying moments, when something appears on the surface or in the relationship between elements that you could not have planned but ends up being essential.

AMM: Please tell us about the evolution of dogs in your practice – from the lifelike pups in your previous work to the stylized poodle who frequents your current work.

SL: The dogs have been a part of the work for some time, over ten years, though there were animals in the work even before then, in undergrad even. I was looking for a subject which was out of fashion and unlikely to be taken seriously as Art. I needed such a project to find out for myself why I really wanted to keep making work. Early on they were much more realistic and I was also doing some commissioned portraits. The idea was there and I liked that when someone would ask about my work and the answer was ‘I paint dogs’ it would usually end the conversation, I thought it was funny. But I was also pretty unsure of myself and the work, maybe the subject didn’t help, but there was something I needed to get through so I kept going. I destroyed a lot of work in that time. Around 2014 I decided to stop looking at reference material and began to just make it up. This was a turning point. I was always very good at rendering and it ended up getting in my way. Doing away with it helped a lot. I became free to just paint.

AMM: Stylistically your work has streamlined over the years. Can you tell us a little about working through this artistically?

SL: I’ve only come to making the work which really resonates with me in the past four years. Since having a child really. I was getting there just before this but I was still having a problem with overworking paintings and a tendency to always second-guess what I was doing. Once my daughter was born all that extra time I had to worry about my work disappeared. Basically I could no longer accommodate all the counterproductive habits I had acquired over the years. I think it takes time to find your own language through paint and image making. I used to get very frustrated and feel that I was somehow too slow in finding my way. With time I have lightened up on myself but also become better at knowing what makes a good painting for me. Ultimately the paintings you make for yourself are the good ones.

AMM: There’s a beautiful contrast between the smooth skin of the nudes and the fuzzy pelts of the poodles in your work. How do you use different methods of paint application and color to create texture and pattern in your work?

SL: The surface is extremely important to me. It is really about a love of painting and paint. Of course in the end I like some of my paintings more than others, but the way I work now I have the luxury of having different visual elements to draw from, elements which will occur over many paintings but in different compositions. This allows room for exploring pattern and texture and figuring out what works best in a given situation while also informing a visual language which is broadened with each combination.

AMM: How does humor feature in your art?

SL: It is essential. It is hard for me to take seriously work which does not have at least some element of humor, work which takes itself too seriously. I think it goes without saying the paintings are meant to be funny, however this comes across to the viewer.

AMM: Elements of different art movements are apparent in your work. Where do you look for inspiration?

SL: I don’t mean to sound too boring but I really do love painting and the history of painting. There are a bunch of contemporary painters I like and whose work I follow closely. Though in terms of inspiration and influence I am more indebted to older art movements, Medieval tapestry or late gothic/early Renaissance painters like Giotto or Duccio. They had a way of organizing space and using color which I always find myself going back to in order to understand what I’m doing. I love American Folk Art, the stylization and awkwardness. The Nabis, especially Vuillard, he could make a powerful small painting like no one else. Then there are Matisse and Picabia. I will never tire of looking at painting.

There always seem to be painters to newly discover. For example there was the Florine Stettheimer show at Jewish Museum not too long ago, I had not had a great deal of exposure to her work before, certainly not on that scale, it was inspiring to see so many incredible paintings together. The same can be said for the Gertrude Abercrombie show currently on view at Karma.

AMM: Do you have a dog?

SL: I don’t. We had a dog when I was very young but that is about it.

AMM: The poodle in your work seems to have such joie de vivre. If it were a real person, what would he or she be like?

SL: Dogs generally have lots of joie de vivre.

AMM: What’s next for you?

SL: Keep working, see what happens honestly. There are a few upcoming projects I am excited about, a two-person show with Teen Party Gallery in Brooklyn, and in the spring a solo show at 0-0 LA in California. Also, some of my work will apparently be on the set of an upcoming episode of High Maintenance on HBO, appropriately enough the scene is in a veterinary office.

Find out more about the artist: www.sophielarrimore.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.