BY EILEEN STUKANE | Chelsea artist Lisa Beth Older was having a moment when we met in the lobby of what’s still called the American Express Building, even though the company left this 65 Broadway address just over 40 years ago. Looking at her smartphone, Older realized that she had a buyer for another of her “bending and blending” abstract paintings.
This original, signature technique requires working with layers of paint so thick Older uses knives, from butter to butcher, as well as brushes, to cross acrylic barriers and create texture that somehow still retains the stand-alone quality of her colors. Her work is reminiscent of Jackson Pollack’s in its abstraction of hues, but that’s where the comparison ends. Older is not dripping paint, she is meeting and conquering it. Lately, the energy that comes through the work is getting the attention of more collectors — among them the American Museum of Natural History, which commissioned a painting that became “My Inner Cosmos” (more about that later).
One reason why art lovers have become more aware of Older was right in front of us. “Hardship of Hope,” her installation of eight 36 x 48 inch abstract acrylic paintings, graces the marble-walled lobby in permanent exhibit. The paintings — each individually lit and inset separately under glass — stretch opposite the building’s long bank of 10 elevators. Every canvas is an explosion of color and metallic paints, with a title and a theme. For example, the first painting, “The Gladiator,” is a battle of black, gold, and silver.
“It was a challenge to blend those metallic paints, and I wanted this to be a challenge,” Older said, “because that’s what the show was all about, creativity. This painting was very fierce and had a fighting mentality to it, and there’s actually a gladiator in there with a shield — but it’s abstract. It was the image I was trying to portray. I don’t always do that, because usually a painting comes from certain emotions and then I trust my hands to bring it to the right place.”
“Hardship of Hope,” Older explained, represents her life, and the lives of many who find it difficult to survive in the city, but hang on to hope. “It’s scary for a lot of people. There’s a lot of change, a lot of emotion. Are we going to make it in this city or be swallowed up by it? In addition to “The Gladiator,” the other works in the exhibit are “Yellow Ribbon,” “The Empress,” “Reborn,” “Beating Heart,” “Lenore,” “Melee,” and, my personal favorite, “Inferno,” with its defiant curves of red, gold, and silver metallic paints. “I drew mad the day I did ‘Inferno.’ That day I just went at it,” Older said. The way she pours paint to create air bubbles, and maneuvers canvasses, requires more intense physicality to get the desired result.
AN ARTIST FROM THE START
Lisa Beth Older, a married Penn South resident, is getting more notice these days, but it has not been an easy journey. When she was a six-year-old girl living in Connecticut, her mother died as a result of breast cancer. Older had started painting when she was three, and she just continued to do what came naturally as she was passed around from one guardian to another during childhood, until she found her way to UCLA, where she did not major in art, but graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree. “I’m primarily self-taught, but art has science to it,” she said. “You learn how paints interact, how to base your painting. I bend the paint. I wait until it’s a certain temperature, which depends upon the color and consistency of the paint. You can’t bend fluids.”
Elaborating on her style, she explained, “Paint builds and you have another layer and you have to bridge the two perfectly — but it has to be in one fell swoop. It has to be just perfect. Most people would get it muddy. My paintings aren’t muddy. You can look at them for hours. There are some of my paintings that are layered this high,” Older remarked, showing a three-inch space between her thumb and forefinger.
Years after UCLA, Older would attain a law degree. Like Paul Gauguin, the stockbroker, or Mark Rothko, the elementary school teacher, she would go on to live successful parallel lives, one life supporting the other. Early on, she paid her dues, starting out as a resident of the Chelsea Hotel, followed by years in the East Village, where she shared loft space in the late 1980s with artist Fredda Mekul. Older regards Mekul as her mentor. “I learned through her,” she said. “For four years, I studied with her. She has been my inspiration throughout.” Almost offhandedly, Older mentioned that she has a congenital condition and is legally blind in her left eye. “It doesn’t matter,” she insisted. “The art that I do is all about energy and layering, and color itself has a certain energy.”
For a time, Older painted in her studio in Woodstock, and also did early portraiture, painting Angelina Jolie for her private collection, and Melania Trump. These days, Older paints, and lives, in Chelsea — after a 15-year-wait, she finally triumphed in the Penn South housing lottery — and her abstract work is far from portrait painting. In fact, her art attracted the attention of Rebecca Oppenheimer, Ph.D., curator and chair, Department of Astrophysics, American Museum of Natural History, because the unusual textures and layers of Older’s work reminded her of a moonscape.
HER INNER COSMOS
On a visit to 65 Broadway, Dr. Oppenheimer noticed that “People were stopping and looking at these particular paintings, which you don’t often see. Everyone is always in a rush to get to an appointment. Here, people were okay with missing an elevator and just looking at the paintings.” Dr. Oppenheimer connected with Older about commissioning a painting for the Museum’s Department of Astrophysics, and Older asked Dr. Oppenheimer for her color preferences.
“I had never had anyone ask me about colors before — but I had some sort of dream, and purple and green came through. They don’t necessarily go together, but let’s see what Lisa can do with it,” Dr. Oppenheimer recalled, noting that Older wholeheartedly embraced her suggestion, built upon it, “and did a magnificent job.” Today, Older’s “My Inner Cosmos” hangs on a wall in the Department of Astrophysics across from a bust of the astronomer Copernicus.
The work is indeed filled with deep purple, green, but also reds, yellows, blues, white, black. Unlike the sculptural quality of the “Hardship of Hope” paintings, “My Inner Cosmos” presents more of a mystery that draws you in.
“I think everybody reacts a little differently to the painting,” Dr. Oppenheimer said of reactions from other members in the Department. “Everyone seems to see aspects of their own work in it.”
“Sometimes,” said Older of a creative process that includes meditation, “I feel there’s a universe inside of me. Yes, we are all connected to the [physical] universe, but there’s an inner universe that can be tapped into.”
In addition to “Hardship of Hope,” a permanent installation in the lobby of 65 Broadway (btw. Morris & Rector Sts.), the art of Lisa Beth Older can be viewed on her website, lboart.com, and at facebook.com/lisaolderartist.