20 Questions with Aubrey Roemer: Creator of Leviathan – The Montauk Portrait Project

Aubrey Roemer displays phase II of "Leviathan: The Montauk Portrait Project"
Aubrey Roemer displays phase II of "Leviathan: The Montauk Portrait Project," Photo: Courtesy of Aubrey Roemer

New York artist Aubrey Roemer set up shop in Montauk this spring with a goal to paint likenesses of 10 percent of the local population. Since April, Roemer has captured hundreds of subjects from the community on linens and cloths from various sources in Montauk, including gifts from many of the people she’s painted in varying hues of blue over the last five months. The culmination of  that work, which Roemer has displayed in stages throughout the summer, will be presented in a large-scale installation titled “By Land & By Sea” at Eddie Ecker Park (Navy Road) on Montauk’s Fort Pond Bay this Saturday, September 6 from 3 p.m.– sunset. 

Finding this artist in their midst this summer, the often insular local community has fully embraced her and supported her efforts to paint some 400 portraits of them, their friends, family and coworkers. “She fits right in,” one of her many subjects (photographer James Katsipis) notes, reflecting on Roemer, who also allowed him to capture her portrait in his medium of choice.

In anticipation of her final local showing of what she’s called “Leviathan: The Montauk Portrait Project,” Roemer answers 20 questions about herself and her ambitious project that got the hamlet of Montauk buzzing. Subjects’ images, she notes, have been rendered with immediacy—an average of 20 minutes—at bars, senior centers, beaches, restaurants, docks, the artist’s studio and a number of other places. Roemer’s paintings are gestural expressions of the people, rather than literal renderings.

Phase I of "Leviathan: The Montauk Portrait Project" by Aubrey Roemer
Phase I of “Leviathan: The Montauk Portrait Project” by Aubrey Roemer, Photo: Courtesy of Aubrey Roemer

1. How did Leviathan come about? What’s your connection to Montauk?
Leviathan came to me in a vision while boarding the LIRR on the way back to New York City, after my inaugural stay in Montauk this past March. I came to escape New York City, hoping for solitude and solace. The town surrounded me like a warm blanket and I made the decision to set up shop out here to make the vision a reality.

2. Have you been able to reach your goal of 400 portraits, or will you by September 6?
It’s funny to me how the project evolved into a numbers game – initially I set to paint 100, then 150, then 200, then I got super ambitious about it and somehow became fixated on 400. The East End rookie in me had no conception of what summer means out here, so I began the project in April and pushed through the summer months. The past two months of chasing subjects has been exhausting—everyone is so busy with jobs, travel to escape the monstrous swell of crowds, and everyone is spent from the sheer energy of the high season. Getting your portrait painted—even if it’s a half hour—is not a priority. Montaukers are hard working people, whether it’s their 17 service industry jobs, surf industry jobs, or whatever—it became difficult to pin down the time and the people.

That being said, the project and its process began evolving. I started to become interested in making work about the environment—deer, bunnies, flowers, trees and the like. Also, my mono-prints have surpassed my paintings – they surprise me and engage me. Each painting I have made in this process has an accompanying mono-print, all derivatives of the process, yet they have offered a greater artistic signature and freedom. All that being said, I have not painted 400 people, yet, I have 400-plus images that push against my initial vision challenging it to reach greater heights. For that, I am very grateful and able to rest easy with the body of work.

3. Of your many subjects, can you name anyone (or two or three) who really stood out to you—where the portrait process was especially interesting, engaging, moving, etc?
Gosh, to pick just three is impossible. This project has challenged my conception of humanity to its very core. I have found myself in places and situations that are exhilarating and humbling and just plan bonkers. I will break it down this way—in the very beginning two young boys appeared on my doorstep. Their grandmother owned the home I am living in, and they grew up playing on the lawn I have learned to call home. I painted their young clan. Fast forward several months, and they lost a very young friend—that week all of my sitters rescheduled or canceled. So one day, I am in the middle of painting three women and I get a phone call from one of these boys asking me to paint their lost friend for the parents—how can I say no?

I agree and paint the deceased boy from photos—often very late at night and suffering from existentialism. The kid’s wake, where I was set to deliver the painting, was a swollen beehive of this beautiful community coming together in solidarity. In fact, another one of his friends gave me a ride there in restrained tears. I was briskly shuttled around the long winding line of living bodies under a blazing sun to the casket. I had never met this boy or his parents before. I remember shaking—literally my nerves were buckling as I presented a surprise image of their lost son to them rendered on a baby blanket from the community church adjacent to his open coffin. I will never ever forget that for as long as I live. The firemen in the room scrambled to pin it to a truck so that it could exhibited alongside his body. That was the most intense experience. However, there are so many more—I spent afternoons in the super senior center painting 90-year-olds reminiscing about World War II and their first loves, painting clusters of fisherman at the docks, whole families in my studio. Overall, it’s been an exceptional rich adventure into the inner workings of the human condition as it is applicable to a tight-knit community.

4. Will you eventually sell the individual portraits, or does this project remain all together? What happens to it after you display on September 6?
I will not sell the portraits individually, at least not yet. I view them as a whole piece rather than individual works. I would sell the massive 100′ mono-print piece, or any of the other smaller mono-print works. Yet, I am hoping to make a book of all the work, and exhibit in a museum setting before it gets disassembled.

5. I suspect that through this project you have really gotten to know Montauk and the people of Montauk. How has that experience been? Are you an outsider or do you feel welcomed and local at this point?
I am well versed in Montauk and I am grateful that the community has been so very receptive to my work and me. Yet, I am not a local—that’s a very tenuous title that I do not think one can earn in a few months.

6. Tell me about the work, explain it to me in your own words.
“Leviathan: The Montauk Portrait Project” is a curated portrait study in visual anthropology—a specific group of people, in a specific place and time, on a specific material unique to their region, if you will. So, I hoped to capture roughly 10 percent of the population on fabrics sourced from the community in blue pigmented paints and install the piece as it swelled in size over the course of the summer. I have done most of what I set out to do, and I plan to continue paint the remaining amount of people over the course of the winter. The interesting thing about this process is that for every individual portrait there is a corresponding mono-print, which is achieved by the paint leeching through the initial portrait. The wetted cloth that holds the primary image distorts itself as it dries, so it may look like the subject when I stop painting, but it may dry into something completely different. Additionally, I have no control of whatever the mono-print will look like – this allows a terrific element of surprise to enter the work, due to this lack of control.

7. Where are you getting the fabric? Is the collection of these scraps ongoing? Have people been dropping stuff off to you?
The Montauk Community Church donated a bulk of the material, which I am very grateful for. Also, many families have donated materials from their garages, closets, and even a few heirlooms! Sometimes, I come home to little parcels of fabric waiting for me. It’s very exciting.

8. What was your goal with this project? Did you find what you are looking for through the process?
The goal has evolved continually. First it was just to manifest the blue-faced people clotheslines, then it turned into achieving numbers, then about making the shows happen, and now it’s turned into resolving the portraits in terms of quality and numbers. Also, I want to fund it turning into a big fat tabletop book and secure it touring museums.

9. What’s next?
That is the question these days. I am traveling Upstate this fall for printmaking and leaf changing, then I am headed to Vermont Studio Center for residency, then to Mexico in early 2015 for a museum show, and then gearing up for doing a similar project in Indonesia in the spring for 6 months. 

10. When will you leave Montauk and return to NYC? Will that be difficult for you, or are you ready to get out of here?
I plan to go in and out of Montauk during these trips with pit stops in NYC. I am full out in love with Montauk, and I have a lot of unfinished business here—like learning to surf.

Aubrey Roemer displays phase II of "Leviathan: The Montauk Portrait Project"
Aubrey Roemer displays phase II of “Leviathan: The Montauk Portrait Project,” Photo: Courtesy of Aubrey Roemer

1. Favorite book?
WE by Yevgeny Zamyatin or A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

2. The last thing that took your breath away?
Speeches to a 90-year-old birthday girl delivered by the generations of her family.

3. The last thing that made you cry?
Reflecting on the documentary The Overnighters, by Jesse Moss while finishing The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera.

4. It’s the eve of your execution… What would be your last meal?
A full-bodied Italian red wine, steak, greens and potatoes—with chocolate for dessert.

5. Something worth fighting for?
Your dreams.

6. Something worth giving up?

7. Spend an afternoon with anyone—alive or dead—who would it be?
Philip Seymour Hoffman.

8. An interesting object in your home or studio?
Hundreds of East End linens from across the past century piled up everywhere in my studio.

9. Last film you watched?
The Overnighters at Guild Hall.

10. What piece of art should everyone see in person?
Way too many to choose from! I will settle on my favorite in the Metropolitan Museum of Art—François-Joseph Navez’s “Massacre of the Innocents.”

To see Aubrey Roemer’s “Leviathan: The Montauk Portrait Project” before she takes it on the road, stop by Eddie Ecker Park (off Navy Road) on Fort Pond Bay in Montauk this Saturday, September 6 from 3 p.m.– sunset.

"Leviathan: The Montauk Portrait Project" by Aubrey Roemer
“Leviathan: The Montauk Portrait Project” by Aubrey Roemer, Courtesy of Aubrey Roemer

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