Linnéa Spransy: Stockpiles of Potential

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Linnéa Gabriella Spransy in her studio with ‘Chronos’, an ink drawing on frosted mylar, laminated and partially suspended from the wall.

For LA based, multi-disciplinary artist Linnéa Gabriella Spransy, limits are the core subject. Her curiosity about science, philosophy, cultural theory, physics, history, theology and, as she puts it, “a healthy dose of science fiction”, has led her to notice patterns and contradictions in commonplace assumptions. For instance, the belief that unlimited freedom is the optimal state of being, an idea that is flatly contradicted by the fact that no one is absolutely free, as we are all bound by a certain era, language, and people in our lives. Furthermore, Spransy says, some would argue that knowledge itself is a limit, especially knowledge about the future. She is grappling with big questions such as—does knowledge that deals with predicting the behavior of systems prevent freedom? Do we live in a deterministic universe merely garnished with the illusion of autonomy, or do we live in a genuinely open one? Throughout her reading and experience in the studio, she began to suspect that limitations are not barriers to freedom, but rather gateways.

Using strict rules seems to be a key in your work. How did this belief in limits formed for you and what role does it play in your process?

My beginnings were simple; I made drawings using basic numbers and shapes. Modules were my primary tool – a simple line or stencil or shape which could build upon and iterate itself. By logical means, I built visual systems with a clear path of behavior on a micro, mid, and meta levels. In the very beginning my materials were also simple – sharpie drawings on plastic drop clothes. Home Depot was my art supply store. Having finished a few such drawings, which are layered and separated to occupy whole rooms, I moved now to a more durable medium, making similar drawings on frosted mylar. These are laminated, cut out, and suspended, like a drawing in the round. Since they grow in panels, they can expand in any direction and there is no limit to their scale. Works like these are never finished, merely paused and put on display for a spell. All decisions about the course of the drawing are made at the outset. Every step it will take – the beginning from the end – is known before drawing a single line. I do all of this in the hope of being surprised.

This hope was fueled in part by many of the unpredictable findings of contemporary science: when broken down, an atom is not increasingly simple but bogglingly complex; a murmuration is impossible to predict, despite knowing a staggering amount about starlings; the moment of phase shift from comprehensibility to unpredictability is sometimes impossible to locate. So too with questions of freewill, theology and the nature of knowledge. All these things led me to believe that the limitations that guide systems are not what they seem.

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Untitled, colored pencil on paper, 34” x 24, 2019

Each of your paintings is a manifestation of a predetermined scheme, or system. How do you research a system and what is your process of expressing it in a painting?

Over the last 20 years, I have developed three main strategies that allow these systems to grow under different circumstances, some allowing for chaotic events (paint spills) to change the system quickly. These three strategies can be in use simultaneously and I can work on pieces from each at the same time. They include different systems – some I have worked with for years and are quite mature; others are more recent. Motivated by curiosity to go in one direction or another, I would mine one system comprehensively for long periods, or in other cases, skip from one to the next rather quickly. Though the results may appear different, they are all exploring the same main idea.

On occasion, I will explore the potential of a system in drawings. The Drawings explore and articulate a path of a ‘decision tree’ which I can restart on another piece. Though still complex, they are swifter than a large painting, and I can explore widely and build up a stockpile of potential. They become a reference that I must reverse engineer in order to restart the system and commit to canvas or a large-scale Mylar drawing. These drawings are complete in and of themselves. So too with small scale paintings. Useful for exploring the growth potential of a system within another medium, they are also complete manifestations of a chosen system.

Let’s dig deeper into specific paintings and start with your abstract paintings, for instance, Blind Progression (2017). These shapes are bold, intricate, and seem organic. What is the genesis of this one?

After visiting the Smithsonian’s mineral collection, I became fascinated by the development of crystals; in particular, how the same mineral can produce such a diversity of crystal formations under different atmospheric influences. The spectrum of possible shapes and textures is astonishing. Having been so inspired by this fecund combination of similarity and difference, I tried to devise a module basic yet flexible enough to respond dramatically to atmospheric change. After finishing a few small paintings, this was the first mid-sized piece where I made use of this module. This is still a young system with a lot of unexplored potential and its original inspiration is pretty evident.

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Blind Progression, 36”x48”, acrylic on canvas, 2017

Rote (2018) and Mirror Neuron (2019) have a very different sensibility then Blind Progression. They both seem more aethereal and the organic shapes appear to transform into a diagram. What is the idea and process behind these painting?

For some time, I have been trying to simplify color choices to the point of making a white painting. Color is one of my few areas of freedom throughout the life cycle of a painting or drawing. It must accomplish two things: deflect easy association with aspects of the natural world and help me keep track of what I am doing. The attempt to paint a white canvas is quite a challenge, since it is very difficult to track my progress without color difference. In the case of these two pieces, I succeeded only marginally. Though the color modulation is subtle, it was still necessary to use color.

Color scheme aside, these two pieces are also connected because they use the same module for growth – a ribbon that curls and bends under the influence of predetermined rules and a fixed number of chaotic episodes. Where these pieces differ is in the module’s response to the chaotic incursions, i.e., the paint spills. In Rote, the ribbons occupy the interior of the spill itself, in Mirror Neuron, they avoid them. Rote depicts a diagrammatic growth of a ribbon whose intervals are based on the number three and are not affected by the spills, whereas, in Mirror Neuron, this same diaromatic means of growth is affected by the spills – they repel the growth. This piece is also technically symmetrical: every negative space is mirrored by a positive one, though the overall effect is still asymmetric.


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Rote, approx., 66”x54”, acrylic on canvas, 2018
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Mirror Neuron, 64” x 64”, acrylic on canvas, 2019

What would you like to share about Prime Mover (2018)?

Prime Mover is the largest canvas I have painted to date. Working large means that the systems become environments instead of images, and this feels true to their nature. At 11’ high or wide (depending on how it is oriented) Prime Mover feels like a total world. It is a world that has no absolute ‘up’ or ‘down’. All my work can be oriented in any way, since it is not representational and when I work on a piece, it is constantly rotated and even spends time on the floor.

Belonging as it does, to the category where the chaotic environment is already present when the system is introduced, preparing the surface took some time. After layers of modeling paste, a lot of sanding and many coats of deep red, I mixed about a gallon of super fluid black acrylic and spilled it in the center. While still wet, I laid a huge piece of plastic over top and walked away for a week before peeling it back. In essence, I made a monotype.

The system I chose uses a ribbon module and it is arranged in a diagram that is a simple rendition of the first five prime numbers. This diagram is treated as a unit and is forced to maintain its integrity in a chaotic environment. Two full cycles of the first five prime numbers move through the intricate lattice work left by the plastic monotype. There are inlets here and there where the lines of the diagram are isolated and cannot rejoin with the whole unit. These are rendered in yellow. Lines outside the boundary of the chaotic environment take on a different quality, since they are not seriously restricted. This is the clearest description of the mechanics of this painting I can give, but of course, a painting is visual, and its total effect cannot be easily explained with words.

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Prime Mover, 84” x 132”, acrylic on canvas, 2018

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Prime Mover, detail, 84” x 132”, acrylic on canvas, 2018

In your more recent paintings, your imagery has been getting increasingly figurative. Do you see this as a shift and what are your thoughts about it?

Since I first began drawing and painting, I have always loved the figure. I have never stopped drawing figuratively, though for many years it was a private practice. As a form of visual journaling, I have stuffed my flat files with portraits of family and friends. Though this habit persisted, I kept it separate from my formal studio practice.

In recent work these two parts of my creative life have come closer. In 2019, I came across a peculiar group of eleven late medieval images called Ars moriendi. Lydia Dugdale, a physician, writer and medical ethicist at Columbia University, first told me about Ars moriendi – a genre of literature which began in the 15th century and was popular for hundreds of years. First appearing in 1415 and penned by anonymous authors, it was a long Latin text before it was quickly translated into images. 50,000 copies were published when the printing press was still an innovation; this is a staggering number in its day. Translated, Ars moriandi means ‘the art of dying’. Bubonic plague was rampant in the 13th and 14th centuries, killing ghastly numbers of people; war and famine were commonplace and nearly everyone had reason to be keenly interested in how to ensure a good death. Most at that time were illiterate, and so, to give greater access to Ars moriendi, it was ‘translated’ into eleven images, five of which are diptychs, with the final image depicting the good death itself.

Intuitively and immediately I was drawn to these images. Over time, the reasons have become clearer. In present conditions – facing climate change, pandemic, economic stagnation and feeling the strain of hyper-connectivity where fresh disaster and violence are fetched up daily – the sense of existential dread is palpable. Dread like this can be paralyzing. I found myself asking what resources we as a culture can call upon to face calamity with courage. Perhaps even more concretely, I found myself wondering if this kind of overwhelming dread had ever gripped western culture before? Well, it surely has.

Ars moriendi drew upon shared cultural symbols steeped entirely in the Christian imagination. Ubiquitous and powerfully binding, these symbols could be counted on to communicate with perfect clarity to the late medieval mind. And since few could read but many could see, they communicated more broadly then Latin ever could. Yet the printing press – the very tool that spread copies of Ars moriendi to the furthest corners of Europe – would eventually weaken the shared cultural imagination upon which Ars moriendi depended. With the proliferation of knowledge ushered in by print, the symbolism of the late medieval imagination lost much of its clarity and now, hundreds of years later, Ars moriendi images are extremely strange and remote. They almost seem foreign.

Though many no longer comprehend the intricacies of Catholic symbolism, some of the directives and advice found there still pertains. For instance, Ars moriendi takes for granted that no one should face death alone; community is crucial during great trials. Also, that acute temptations – avarice, hopelessness and impatience – will grip us in times of crisis, and that we need the stories and examples of others to resist them and embrace their opposites – hope, generosity, patience. And finally, that to deny death is foolish.

We live in a death denying culture, and so, deprive ourselves of the preparation to face it well. The consequences of global warming are bringing the fear of mass death into view again, and so it is instructive to learn from how others have faced it in the past. Mortality is a profound limitation. My abstract work makes productive use of severe limitation. Ars moriendi provides a narrative and historically grounded parallel to my abstract explorations; it seemed only natural they should meet. And so, I made my first Ars moriendi painting in late fall of 2019.

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Ars moriendi – Pride, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 48”, 2021
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Ars moriendi – Pride, detail, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 48”, 2021

You work in series: Despair, Humility, Impatience, Patience, Pride. What is the idea behind them, and do they interrelate?

As I began working with Ars moriendi images, I decided to make a painting for every image found in the original text. There are eleven of them and five are diptychs which pair a vice faced during the trial of death with its opposite virtue. Despair is yoked with hope, avarice with generosity etc. Approaching these paintings much as I do my abstract work, I determine the number of cycles that will accumulate at the outset and interleaf the figurative layers with abstract ones. Aware of the role that movable type has played in the initial popularity and eventual obscured meaning of these images, I decided to treat the images as though they were also moveable type. Each of the original Ars moriendi images are carefully dislocated incrementally according to the hierarchies of their intended meaning, in other words, in the descending order of significance the late medieval imagination assigned to all the elements and characters of the original image. There is no orientation to this dislocation.

The ramifications of this kind of process are interesting to contemplate. Meaning quickly dissolves without context and relation to other symbols. Context is easily lost over time. History is the patient reconstruction of that original context. To accurately understand history is enormously difficult. Most of us don’t really understand it, since few of us are patient or privileged enough to reconstruct its original context. In some ways, I feel as though these paintings demonstrate the difficulties of comprehending history without great effort and humility.

Recently, I have also been deeply struck by how people across the globe have believed for thousands of years that the world is profoundly enchanted. Ars Moriendi takes this for granted, and this is the source of much of its strangeness. In contemporary life we catch fragments and glimmers of this once prevalent understanding and feel its primordial tug. To try to understand it is to gradually recognize how foreign our current moment is to the long sweep of the human story. I find this very compelling. It makes the familiar world strange and significant.

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Ars moriendi – Humility, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 48”, 2021
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Ars moriendi – Humility, detail, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 48”, 2021

I am looking at your new soft pastel figure drawings. How does this representational approach work within your established set of rules and has figuration changed the importance of setting predetermined limitations?

During a recent studio visit, Brittney Leanne Williams insightfully observed that my abstract works are my ‘ritual paintings’. I like that. Because I am a normal human being, I am complex and have many thoughts at once. They are related thoughts, because I am their origin; but because they are related doesn’t mean they should necessarily be expressed in the same ways. If I were a polyglot, German might be best for whatever thoughts I may have about philosophy, while French might suit better for song or poetry. It is a joy and privilege to use different visual languages for different purposes, and my pastel work is an example of that. I will use all the languages at my disposal simultaneously, if called for. I don’t believe that one is enough.

Nor do I believe that the past is cut off from an artist who is progressing. Ideas or interests or projects from an artist’s past are all open, viable and available. If an artist wants to take them up again, they can. It is assumed in our current era that progress leaves the past behind. I do not believe in this presumption, and think that to rebel against it is to open a wide world of freedom and possibility. Having said that, pastel figuration is one of my earliest kinds of work. I began working with it in high school. Based on the strength of this work, I went to graduate school at Yale. There, I left it for other things bit it never went away.

During the long confinement of the covid lockdown, I let myself make whatever I pleased and placed no pressure on myself to justify my impulses. I found myself drawing rare plants and animals enmeshed with the human form – particularly, the female form. Allowing myself to be influenced by icons and medieval manuscripts, I bent and compacted the space. Plants and animals that use self-sacrificial strategies for survival amazed me and they began to feature prominently in the drawings, and their example struck me as instructive to our own survival

I began to recognize that familiar themes were emerging: life and the limitation of death, the transformational potential of that limitation, of interdependence, and of dynamic systems. All these themes were being articulated in a highly charged symbolic, representational and narratively provocative form. A very different language than my ‘ritual’ paintings, but nevertheless, one that I use to speak about many of the same things. So then, neither feels dominant to me. Both are justified. They speak of the same things in different ways.

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Untitled, soft pastel and acrylic on collaged paper, approx. 72” x 48” (dimensions variable), 2021

All photo courtesy of the artist

Linnéa Gabriella Spransy has exhibited at both commercial and non-profit galleries such as White Flag and Rhona Hoffman Gallery, as well as numerous institutions including Princeton and Duke University. Her collaborations and performances have taken place in NYC, London, and in Dundee, Scotland. She obtained degrees from Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and Yale School of Art. Currently she lives and works in LA where she also co-directs Bridge Projects, a gallery with programming connecting contemporary art, art history, spirituality and religious traditions.

‘Linnéa’ is the feminine form of Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist who designed the sprawling taxonomy used for the natural world. The name is derived from the Latin root for ‘line’, which invites speculation that Linnéa may not have had much choice in the kind of work she makes. After all, line is her favored tool in satisfying a deep curiosity about the nature of systems, specifically their potential for transformation.

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: