In Las Vegas, we have a community full of artists of all stripes, from those who make complex, nuanced micro sculptures, to absurdist spectacles draped in mylar. Then there’s Linda Alterwitz. Her work has varied over the years—images of anatomy and landscape saturated with metaphor, stark and vivid in equal measure. Linda is a scientist, in that she is methodical above all else. She perceives and depicts humanity through a loving dissection of the things we hold most dear: our bodies, our minds, and the land. Her current exhibition Self Without Interpretation has just begun its run at Reno’s Lilley Museum of Art, and she was kind enough to have a chat about it with me.
Hey Linda! I’m so excited to talk with you because you’re really good at talking about your art. You’ve dedicated a lot of thought to what your process is and why you’re doing what you’re doing. And it’s one of the things I’ve always appreciated about your work.
Can you give me an overview of this most recent exhibition?
In creating the work itself … I pondered the question, “How can I use science to inform me on the most important elements of love and loss?”
So, where do you go from there?
I’m really process oriented. … I invited 84 participants to my studio individually, throughout a two-to-three-year period. I invited them to have EEG sessions. That stands for electroencephalogram brain waves sessions. I’d ask them to sit down to uncross their legs and their arms, and I put … a 16-sensor medical grade EEG device on their heads. And I asked them to close their eyes and just breathe, and connect it to my computer. And while I’m recording their brain waves, for six minutes, I asked them questions about love and loss, and my instructions to them were, “Don’t answer me. Don’t move any part of your body. Just think deeply about the answers.” During that time, I’m recording their brain waves. I take a photo of them during this process. And I take notes on their body language, their emotional state.
That’s incredibly fascinating.
It’s intense. … I’m not just taking you on a guided meditation. People wonder, you know, “What are my brain waves saying? What is she looking at? What am I really thinking?” Or, a lot of people really get into a really emotional state. …
I have a project notebook that I will hand to them. I say, “Can you please take off the headset? Can you please just write whatever you want to write? Here’s two pages. You can share your experience.” … Most of them wrote some really beautiful things about the experience. And then … I asked them to write about a place in a natural environment they consider their place of sanctuary or safety. …
From there, I select a piece of their brain waves, for maybe 10 seconds or something. And I print it out onto medical gauze that I run it through my printer. I’ll take this printed brain wave. And I go to their place of sanctuary. And I really tune into nature. And whether it’s in the water in the ocean under the waves. Well, I went out into the ocean under the waves with a waterproof camera and photographed their brain waves, you know, underwater. It was really cool, because, you know, the brain waves were moving, and I was moving, and I’m trying to photograph.
That’s so cool!
Yeah, a lot of it was just fun. It was just so much fun going to these places of sanctuary. For my mom’s, I went to the Portland rose gardens and photographed it with trees and roses.
Anyway, the photographs are like 30 by 40 inches. And there’s 20 of them in the exhibition, going around the perimeter of the gallery.
I’ve seen photos of the exhibition. It looks incredible. I mean, it looks personal. It looks intimate, but it also has that kind of sharp sensibility that you always bring to your work in incorporating this bridge between the medical and the intimate, that you’ve always strived for this, this scientific-exploration-meets-emotional-landscape.
Can I tell you about these banners?
… Well, it was like 2013 or something. I had some work in hanging banners. … I liked the idea that people were walking through the banners and moving the fabric and felt part of it. So, as an extension of that kind of feeling, I created these 11 banners that represent individual portraits of people. So each banner has one person’s brain waves on for a little longer than 10 seconds. And I took words, I floated text from the project notebook that seemed most relevant.
There’s a certain intimacy to your work. You’ve always gravitated towards medical practices. Can you explain a little bit as to why you feel that is?
I used to be a painter. I got my MFA in painting and drawing quite some time ago, and I continued the practice for about a decade or so. And I felt I wasn’t communicating to people. When you stop communicating, why do art if it’s not doing any good for yourself or others?
But I had a brain tumor about 25 years ago … and that really changed my life. My doctor at Cedars Sinai Hospital—I had some who used film at that time—he had me take it home and get new MRIs on my brain. And when these large films made their way to my light box, you know, something really transformed in me the importance of science of technology in our lives. And it made me feel reassured, but it also made me feel afraid. So these two feelings of reassurance and fear have been a common thread within my work for the past 18 years or so. I brought in landscape, I brought in the natural environment, and that’s my place of sanctuary. That’s why I go out into the desert. So it’s really, that’s a place of comfort for me.
You did this work during the pandemic, right?
I did. I was traveling to people’s place of sanctuary until 2020. And then, you know, obviously, we couldn’t travel anymore. So, Nevada, being the diverse environment that it is, I was able to find large fields of grass, tall grasses, I was able to find water, I was able to find trees and forests, you know, just by driving a couple hours. I feel very fortunate to be a Nevada artist living in Nevada, and being able to complete this project in my own state, even while the pandemic was in full swing, I was still out in the desert, driving around and photographing
I had the same exact experience. I’m surprised we didn’t run into each other. I did my entire Barrack exhibition, all the video work—I realized I was out of a job and isolated and I couldn’t really go and see my friends. So I just was like, Well, I guess it’s a good time to do some video work in the desert, isn’t it now? It was the best time to work. I mean, it was very liberating. It was terrible, but liberating.
We don’t talk about this enough, that 2020 was such a liberating year if you were a relatively ingenuitive artist, if you weren’t dependent on social structures. My performing artist friends, they were miserable, right? My theater friends. And I understood their pain. But I think for visual artists and for videographers, and for audio artists and stuff like that, it was absolutely this moment of—oh, well, I guess I’m just gonna do what I always wanted to do anyway.
It was a good year for my work. … I finished this series. I started the new Injection Site, which I’m so excited that we’ll be opening on April 13.
What’s that show about? Just to give folks a heads up?
Starting in 2021, when the vaccine came out, I had been working with a thermal camera. Since 2013, I’ve always wanted one. I started this project, photographing people’s arms after they received the COVID 19 vaccine. It documents the inflammation and immunological response of each individual. I’ve documented over 140 participants. … I had to go to their homes with masks and keep my distance and photograph their arms. It was really an incredible experience. What’s really incredible is as unique as the brain waves are to each individual, as unique as the immunological responses to the COVID 19 vaccine.
… This work is all about personal choice versus public health. And one thing that I’ve learned is that everyone should have a choice. I have all my vaccines, and I believe in the vaccine and the science of the vaccine. But you know what ? I understand now that some people shouldn’t get it. … They need to have that choice, that personal choice. And that’s not only about the vaccine. That has to do with our bodies and our choices that we have in our lives. It’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to personal choice.
So this project … is probably going to have a lot of controversy about it. But bring it on. Because it’s about personal choice and public health. And I believe artists have a responsibility. You don’t want to know, and the two sides can’t get along, and nobody’s nobody’s coming to the table to try to work things out. Bring in all the artists, because it’s our responsibility to find another way for people to look at a situation and maybe … stop fighting about it, maybe get a little closer.
I hope to portray a sense of … human resilience, and I hope that it sends a message of hope and a positive message in my work.
This interview has been edited for length.
Linda Alterwitz’s exhibition Self Without Interpretation is on view at the Lilley Museum at the University of Nevada, Reno through May 13. Her exhibition Injection Site: Making the Vaccine Visible will be on view at the nearby Front Door Gallery in the Church Fine Arts Building March 27-June 25.
Photos: Kris Vagner