Lorena Lohr’s Enchanting, Evocative Desert Nudes Paintings

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6 Lorena Lohr Untitled 2
Untitled 2, 2017 - 2020Courtesy Lorena Lohr

Swapping her camera for a paintbrush, the artist’s latest work depicts naked women “in dialogue with the natural world” of the American west

Lorena Lohr has spent the last decade roaming, alone, through the heart of the American southwest. Armed with a cheap compact camera and some rolls of 35mm film, the Canadian-British artist imbues new life into old landscapes, transforming forgettable scenes of everyday ephemera into hazy, evocative masterpieces. Over the years, Lohr has used photography to re-enchant Memphis, Nevada, Montana, Nebraska, Colorado, Tennessee and Wyoming (to name just a few).

It was during these travels – which were mostly done on foot, train and bus – that she found inspiration for her latest project. During a late-night, long-distance Greyhound journey through Arizona, Lohr found herself captivated by the view from her window. The expansive desert landscape, illuminated by the polychromatic pastel sunrise, compelled the artist to go deeper into her visual practise, putting down her camera in exchange for a paintbrush. The result, years later, is Desert Nudes: a series of small oil paintings depicting naked women “in dialogue with the natural world” of the American west. Here, she tells us more about her inspirations and creative process.

“I hadn’t made any of my own paintings before, but then I started travelling around America properly when I was 19, and I woke up on the Greyhound at about five in the morning in Arizona. I’d never seen the desert before – the light was a pastel haze and there was this huge expanse of new terrain, with highly specific features. It didn’t seem barren to me in the way that people often think the desert can be. Everyone on the bus was still asleep, and I took some photos out of the bus window.

Desert Nudes came out of that idea on the Greyhound bus. It really started out as an appreciation of the landscape more than a female form, but the female form I thought would tie all of this together, harmonising the desert landscape. I wasn’t trying to say anything with this idea, just to make something which would commemorate the desert, which is in some ways the source of all my photos and work. I only wanted to make one painting originally, which would feature a whole desert vista, but I just naturally started to draw more and more of these nudes, populating different features of different deserts. As I spent more time travelling around America on the train or bus, I would look out the window and take in the forms from the perspective of how they could be sketched, as well as capturing them in photos. In the end, over quite a long time, this accumulated to a series of paintings. It took about eight years before I thought of collecting some of the paintings and making them into this series.

“The female form seems at home in the natural world, even if not painted with the most natural proportions or details. I find that a representation of the male nude can seem more out-of-sync within the natural landscape. It might look too comical in this kind of setting, like one of those great airbrushed romance novel illustrations. You can put a female form in any kind of setting and it will still evoke something like desire, hope, escapism, and all kinds of things beneath the conscious level of thought.

“Before I started painting, I got into looking at a lot of reproductions of historical painting, particularly Northern Renaissance oil paintings, in secondhand bookstores and libraries. These Northern Renaissance painters had not yet travelled across America. They imagined the deserts of the Middle East, which look extremely fantastical in some paintings. So it was interesting to play around with the idea of how their nudes, which were mainly situated in a mythological context, would translate into this new frontier. Even though the figures that I draw have a particular type, they’re not mythological figures. They’re not Venuses, not really even nymphs. I thought it would be interesting to place a more generalised idea of a woman in a landscape that might look fantastical but is in fact common to a lot of people living in the American southwest. 

“I didn’t study painting, and had previously only done it in school art class. I didn’t know any technique, so I had to teach myself how to draw and paint to a level I was satisfied with. It was important that the pictures came out of my head and not from reference material. It all took a long time, but I worked on it whenever I could, and it has eventually become something that I do more consistently on the side of photography. 

“I’m making more paintings at the moment. It has become such an important part of my life that I don’t think I’ll stop doing it on the side. Having photography and painting is pretty much all-consuming, especially as photography means a participation in so much more life, so many more situations, than just making photos. So really that’s enough for me. I have a large project planned in America which focuses on the small towns that are built up around the railway lines, so I’ve got a lot to be getting on with.”

Desert Nudes by Lorena Lohr is available to buy now from Claire de Rouen.