By Maxwell Williams / KCET / January 29, 2016 –
Lisa Anne Auerbach’s grandmother’s mother was a tailor. And her mom quilted. So it only made sense that the Mount Washington-based artist would pick up the knitting needles. The first sweater she made was a test with her name embroidered into the hood. The second sweater, however, was a work of art: a blue button-down cardigan with a giant Star of David knit into the back, and the number 32 on the sleeves. This particular blue, as well as the 32 would be recognizable to most Angelenos as that of Dodger legend Sandy Koufax.
“This is the funny thing about art: sometimes it’s not about Sandy Koufax,” says Auerbach on the phone from her studio. “I didn’t set out to make a Sandy Koufax sweater. I was at the YMCA, and I saw this guy with a giant Star of David tattoo on his bicep, and I thought, ‘That’s fucking cool.’ I didn’t want to get [a Star of David tattoo], but I thought, ‘I want to do my equivalent, which is make a sweater.’ I was thinking about this idea of sweaters being akin to tattoos. So I went to the yarn store, picked up some yarn, and it looked like the L.A. Dodgers color. At the time, I wasn’t going to Dodgers games, but I was more sports aware. And I thought, ‘My initials are L.A.; I’m just going to make this about this Jewish Dodger. I might as well put his number on it.’ So it’s totally not about how I’m a big fan of Sandy Koufax. I’m not a baseball fan.”
To be fair, she’s not very religious either. In fact, Auerbach is a card-carrying Atheist, but her works have often addressed an interest in religion and identity. In 2014, she traveled to Afghanistan as part of the Afghan Carpet Project, where a group of creatives traveled to the region to collaborate with local artisans. She documented their journey and designed rugs based on ancient “Unswept floor” mosaics that would display the culinary aftermath of a massive feast strew upon the floor. Auerbach’s own design featured refuse she found near her downtown Los Angeles studio. Her pattern was then woven by the Afghan weavers, making a kind of commentary on effects of consumer culture. She has also created a five-foot tall “American Megazine,” a giant magazine which she has dedicated two issues to her photography and text documentation of mega-churches throughout America.
“Maybe I’m interested in the mega-churches because they’re not Judaism, and they’re so unfamiliar,” she says. “I would feel safe saying, ‘yeah, I’m culturally Jewish,’ because I’m not religiously Jewish. But I definitely feel there’s an inexplicable ‘Jewy-ness’ to me that I can’t really shake as much as I’ve tried. I don’t know if it has to do with a sense of humor or a way of looking at the world.”
Auerbach’s work has even explored her heritage in humorous ways. Most of Auerbach’s sweaters deal with personal politics of the body and autobiographical elements through sloganeering. One of her knits reads “we are all terrorists,” while another is emblazoned with the phrase “when is the insurrection coming?” But a sweater she made for the 2008 elections presents a politically charged phrase. It reads ‘My Jewish Grandma is Voting for Obama, Is Yours?’ on the front, and ‘Chosen People Choose Obama,’ and then ‘Baruch Obama’ on the matching skirt. The sweater went viral, and is perhaps the most recognizable sweater in art history. She says the piece came about as a reaction to a Sarah Silverman campaign to get elderly Floridians to get out and vote.
“People were talking about their Jewish grandmothers, because she was trying to convince people to convince their Jewish grandmothers in Florida to vote for Obama, because Florida was a contested state,” says Auerbach, who would go on to be included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and had solo exhibitions at the Hammer Museum and the Aspen Art Museum. “[So, the piece was] like, ‘My grandma’s already voting for Obama.’ And Obama got elected. My grandmother’s celebrating her 100th birthday in two weeks. And she still loves Obama.”
While this piece makes direct reference to her heritage, Auerbach reflects on how her practice connects to the tradition established by her family. “I guess it is true that my grandmother’s mother was a tailor, and my mom quilted, and there are other tailors in the old country,” she says. “So maybe that shows up in the work in some way. It is possible that part of the reason I work in textiles is because my mother worked in textiles, and I have all these family connections to textiles.”
But she does credit her father with enduring Jewish ambition in a way that allowed Auerbach to pursue any career she wanted. “Something my dad said to me once is that his dad came over from the old country and worked his ass off so that he could have his sons become doctors and lawyers, and that they worked so that their daughters and sons could become artists,” she explains. “And this idea of a lineage that you work for your kids towards this ultimate freedom of being an artist. He said that to me a long time ago, and it really stuck with me.”