We Have the Future, 40th St. Residency

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A few Fridays ago I went to the opening of We Have the Future, a show by Andrew Perez, Katie Kaplan, and Josh Graupera, organized at the 40th St. Residency in West Philadelphia by artist and curator Petra Floyd. All have roots in Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum, and each artist values nuance, detail, and repetition. It’s hard not to immediately notice the confluence of those tendencies in a collaborative wallpaper piece set within a nook in the back of the gallery. Screen printed and patterned along jog lines, there’s plain visibility of process in small imperfections of misaligned registrations and raised ridges where papers meet like tectonics. Central to the entire exhibition is such an insistence on pattern, on committing and pushing through the trials and hiccups, and on an ecology of togetherness where bodies jut into each other and mingle in queer exploration and revelation — uncomfortably, sometimes, but always for the better.

Katie Kaplan’s work is a flurry of continuously morphing combinations of screen prints, gouache paintings, and textiles. The pieces, often hung as heraldic banners, range in complexity from sewn patchworks of two or three fabrics — fabric that is in some way treated by the artist — to large-scale installation. On the right from the entrance to the gallery is a grand assemblage of pastel textiles, screen printed intricacies, and a cut fleece blanket printed from the artists’ own gouache painting. Constructed like the condensed canopy of a fairytale bed, it’s one of the knock-out pieces of the show, entrancing and inviting viewers into a space for entry and introspection, where they can look and look through unending detail and shifting textures to their hearts’ content. Various other banners make use of the same aesthetic and drawing virtuosity, hanging around the room like flags for the claim on a territory or the emblems of noble families in a royal court or dining hall. A full-scale embrace of the “princess aesthetic” might feel ironic in less adroit hands, but Kaplan’s facility with design, love of material, and rich lexicon of symbol endows the work with sincerity and loveliness. Her art making embraces that pattern of femininity while giving it back its teeth and spinning it into endless possibilities of narrative interpretation.  

Where Kaplan layers us off the walls into something like relief-work, Graupera brings print and fabric full-scale into the round. His soft sculptures hang from the ceiling in the shape of rain or tears or whatever other kinds of drops the mind could conjure. On their surfaces, more pattern. Tiny blue plus signs screen printed to the fabric hint at an anxiety of disease or reproduction, and circular soft-form open cylinders, tightening and loosening, signify bodily orifices. On the largest of these, masked figures dance in something like a möbius strip, accompanied by snowflaking houses drawn through that configuration we all learn in elementary school, a square with a criss-cross and a triangle on top, done without lifting the pencil or overlapping lines. There’s something to it — a childlike obsession with secrecy, with formula, a sense of homesickness, all woven in with concerns of sex and the body. This finds its answer in Graupera’s large painting dominating an entire wall of the gallery space which declares that “this is a space for us” — a reclamation of home for those artists, black, brown, queer, who live on the margins.

Mingling in the upper space with Graupera’s suspended soft sculpture, Andrew Perez’s paper mâchés take on a more animal form — maybe avian, maybe aquatic, suggesting a fluidity of movement through shifting environments. A larger piece resting on a podium with four legs, wings or fins, and paper-scaled skin grounds us, and grimaces through clay-sculpted teeth. This grimace makes other appearances, notably in Perez’s small and extremely detailed color pencil drawings, where it emerges from a field of pattern and color like the mouth of Lucha libre wrestler through his mask. On one hand, it’s a nod towards Lucha libre’s contradictions of flamboyance and over-the-top masculinity, perhaps the grimace that comes of reconciling the inner workings of the individual with the broader culture. But on the other, it speaks to an act of concealing that, like drag, enhances, energizes, and realigns the identity of the concealed, a mask that gives the wearer more power, as masks are traditionally want to do. The major difference between a mask and drag — which I bring up because Perez is an avid fan, and because the artistry of drag makeup finds a mirror in Perez’s impeccable drawings — is that the mask is a far more permissible, less derided trope. And while a man in a mask is necessarily under the threat of specific and performative violence, a man in drag knows a violence that’s random and hateful. All of this to say nothing of the violence done to trans people who have shifted more permanently through identities, refusing to wear masks any longer. Maybe there’s the reason to grimace. But for all of the grim politics, there’s once again that love of pattern, mixing and matching, clashing and harmonizing. It’s hard not to get almost-too-close and smile at the artist’s intense dedication and intrepid playfulness.

That’s the lovely thing about We Have the Future. Yes, it’s in part a response to dire circumstances, brinks-of-war, fundamentalist isolationism. But all the work hanging from the ceiling and adorning the walls feels like party decorations. The center of the room is left clear, an invitation to dance, ornaments hanging slightly overhead, remote-controlled lights shifting through the spectrum. It conjures up the curiosities of human nature, the things that break pattern but also the things that pull us into a pattern that’s stronger — the pattern of history that tells us that hate and ignorance are loudest in their moments of vulnerability, and that the world can and will be a place for the femme, the queer, the black and brown. The show is nothing short of a permit to celebrate.

– Todd Stong

Trembling Halves, Tiger Strikes Asteroid

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Self-Portrait 2. 48 x 40″. Oil on wood. 1994.

The first piece we see on entering Trembling Halves, a show of Brenda Goodman and Kate Gilmore at Tiger Strikes Asteroid in Philadelphia, is Goodman’s Self-Portrait 2, a mostly white, macabre painting of Goodman herself as a bloated figure devouring what could be any number of brownish, decadent, and disgusting substances. The surface is wrought, worked with a variety of implements in a way that makes clear Goodman’s love of the medium. Every part of the piece is so thoroughly paint that the figure might as well be eating burnt sienna. In some sense, cleverly situated as our introduction by curators Loren Britton and Zachary Keeting, it gives this warning: get ready to eat paint.

There is Goodman, of course, whose self portraiture is caked thick with it, but even Gilmore’s video pieces, Buster and Between a Hard Place, seem to take painting and its conventions as one of their central concerns. TSA being as small a space as it is, there’s no separate viewing space for video, so Britton and Keeting show them in tandem with Goodman’s paintings, and as a result the video becomes activated as painting, or a referendum on painting. Indeed, watching these videos is like seeing actual paintings transform into existence on the wall.

Buster shows Gilmore plowing methodically though clay vessels of white and purple paint, breaking them by stomping with soft sole shoes or by picking them up and smashing them against the floor. Arranged on descending stairs, their spilled contents create a vibrant drip pattern that puts the work in dialogue with the action painters of the height of modernism, who attempted to show a pure document of the passage of time through their painting. I think specifically, though, of Pat Steir, whose paintings, made by pouring fluid paint down the surface of a canvas, seem to capture time’s passage through one of its most beautiful, productive, and ancient referents — the erosion of earth by water, culminating in waterfalls. Time and action are of course implicit in a video piece, but that passage is emphasized in Buster’s goal-based, here-to-there progression.

Britton and Keeting take this idea in another fun direction with their decision to use a projector, and in so doing they can be seen to critique a particular problem of modernist theory that always bothered my overly concrete mind: that the flatness modernist painters held sacred was a kind of lie. No painting surface can be completely flat, and paint itself has dimensionality. The light of a projected image, perhaps, comes closer to that ideal. (Finding a perfectly flat ground, however, is a different story.)

But that’s all a secondary concern once we begin to consider Kate Gilmore herself, the artist and body. It seems so fitting to complicate a reexamination of modernist painting with the artist as destructor, plowing through obstacles, taking pain in stride. It’s appropriate particularly because Gilmore is a woman, playing with a genre so dominated by men, in which women have been historically overshadowed. The anonymous setting – grey descending bleachers – in some way makes Gilmore an everywoman for shattering precedent. We watch her in profile and are so taken by her quest that we become mixed up in it ourselves and feel her power in our own hands. Certainly, the works are nothing if not empowering. A woman complicates, and the gesture is extremely satisfying.

In another piece, Between a Hard Place, the materials change, though in essence a barrier in painting breaks again. The progression still runs here-to-there, but rather than a critique of modernism, it breaks through a much more ancient consideration of painting: the picture plane. The piece focuses on a series of drywalls through which Gilmore pounds with her fists and kicks with heavy heels. She takes no shortcuts and no breaks – the video is one long, continuous, evenly paced barging-through of four subsequent walls, deeper and deeper into a receding space.

Perhaps even more than Buster, Between a Hard Place makes the viewer consider the pain Gilmore must have endured in her progress. At one moment on the first wall, a row of nails sticks out from the gouged drywall, and almost as if presented with a challenge, Gilmore jams her hand right through it. It’s a cringe-worthy moment that  manages to stand out amongst an especially cringe-heavy piece – look closely and you see what could very well be blood dripping from the nails – but there’s no reaction from Gilmore herself. She continues on at an even pace, breaking through three more frames.

The measured pace distances the viewer from Gilmore such that the physical pain she must feel becomes less a mirrored experience than a rationalized one. We come to understand Gilmore less as a body and more as an intellectual endeavor unfolding before us. In so doing, she undoes the kind of erotic play so common to women in illusionistic paintings, often at the mercy of men, objects of desire and a male gaze that historically has made them vessels of sexual experience. And with this methodical destruction of the picture plane, Gilmore asserts a bold female presence in what is otherwise a space where women have been traditionally fetishized. The framing of the video on an iPad is another clever touch on Britton and Keeting’s part, much like Buster’s projection. Light emanates into the space of the viewer as if from a window to another world, as illusionistic painting has often been conceptualized.

Beyond this critique is the pure endeavor itself; we can simply be in awe of Gilmore’s endurance, her tolerance for pain, her persistence. She is a juggernaut. Despite the distance she creates in her methodical onslaught – seemingly ultra-human – we always remember that she is mortal like the rest of us. But she represents a potential for brute strength and determination, played out in their simplest forms, that’s both entrancing and inspiring.

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Self-Portrait 59. 36 x 30″. Oil on wood. 2006.

And then there is Brenda Goodman, whose paintings compromise the other five pieces in the show. If Gilmore plays at what goes onto or through a painting, Goodman shows us what gets pulled out of them, like entrails. The paintings are a kind of haruspex, as Goodman herself has stated in a number of interviews; her process is one of constant response to the interior world of the image and her own psyche, investigating how those competing needs manifest compositionally and texturally.

When we break down the paintings, three breeds become evident under a broader umbrella of figurative painting: two self-portraits that take the figure as their main compositional device, two self-portraits that situate a figure in a larger space, and one ambiguously figurative piece that flirts heavily with abstraction.

Of the first category, Self-Portrait 2 and Self-Portrait 59 are both cropped to an intense focus on the figure. Goodman often professes to the therapeutic effect of painting and calls this series of self-portraits in particular a means of confronting her own weight. Here, that weight is articulated not so much through shape as through the weight of the paint itself. Self-Portrait 2 is a mass of texture as the figure stuffs her face full of decadent browns and yellows. Self-Portrait 59 crops close on the face, where a red, black, and white palette inevitably conjures Guston, though these eyes are much smaller than any of his figures’, and more haunting. Blackened and bloody, seemingly gouged by the wooden end of a brush, the paint is almost meant to be felt, brutally, rather than seen, and in this sense a tactile relationship to Gilmore’s work builds.

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Self-Portrait 13. 36 x 50″. Oil on wood. 2005.

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Self-Portrait 14. 32 x 39. Oil on wood. 2005.

In the two paintings of a larger space, Self-Portrait 13 and Self-Portrait 14, the artist herself is at work in her studio. Each time she is dwarfed by an enormous canvas, paint brush in hand, hard at work or in contemplation, completely naked. The obvious read has Goodman bare in her painting, vulnerable to them, or in a power struggle. The perspectival angling of the floor, diagonally raised as it is, pulls the architectural space toward an abstract composition, but Goodman’s rendered figure presents a full-scale shift back toward illusion. That play creates a tension that informs the work as a whole and seems to invite a closer consideration of the relationship between the body and the painting. Indeed, the paint of the figure and the paint of the large canvas the figure is engaging are similarly worked, separate from the architectural space of the painting, which is itself broader and monotone. In both painting and figure, Goodman’s handling is compacted and labored such that it links paint to flesh, as if animated by the same life force.

The content of the paintings-within-the-paintings provides even more food for thought. In Self-Portrait 13, artist in profile and to the side, a series of semi-rectangular arches dominates her composition. It is flush with activity, muted color interrupted by moments of intensely saturated reds and blues, and complex in a way decidedly different from the work as a whole, which, despite the busy piece it contains, is rather stark. That somber atmosphere is in keeping with its general subject: the painter in her studio, self-reflective, penitent. Of course, Goodman makes clear the dynamism beneath the surface of that lonely activity by placing this smaller painting within the framework of the larger piece, a complex psychology that becomes even more dramatic once we recognize a greenish figure, easily a corpse, in repose on a blue bed in the upper left. That corpse at once reframes the other shapes of the painting as figures in a kind of procession – we can even make out what might be small heads of thick, dripping white. Are these two paintings a burial? Indeed, the corpse seems to find a tomb as soon as Self-Portrait 14. Then who does this corpse represent?

The easiest answer is the painter herself, perhaps someone that Goodman seeks to put to rest; in interviews she speaks of wrestling with her weight and with the distance she kept from those close to her. For me, it is a laying-to-rest of the anxiety of painting. To see a painter still in her prime forging on after years dedicated to a medium declared dead many times over, and still making it pulse with life, is to see a declaration of the living.

A final painting, Ah, Her Red Hair, the most recent of the show, stands on its own as a step into figurative abstraction. While all the pieces of the show tie the figure to the realm of paint, this piece does it, in my opinion, the most integrally.

Goodman describes the process for the new series of paintings to which this one belongs as a conjuring of the divine, guided by an instinct and painterly intuition that comes of years of learning what to fight for in a painting and what to excise for the better good. “The only time painting is difficult,” she says in a 2014 conversation with Brett Baker for Painters’ Table, ” is when my will and ego are holding onto something in the painting that is blocking its competition. Then I have to let go and surrender, and once I do, the painting finishes itself. But the abyss is very dark until the letting go begins.”

As Goodman describes it, her shapes ostensibly grow out of the field of paint, emerging as if from the canvas itself. Her job is to decide whether to pull them into focus or obliterate them. Somehow this way of painting lends finality to the work that is distinctly Goodman’s. Ah, Her Red Hair is difficult to imagine any other way than it is, structure tectonically set, like plates locking together, and organic, igneous injections for figures.

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Ah, Her Red Hair. 40 x 51.5″. Oil on wood. 2014.

The piece also complicates the narrative of the show because it is not explicitly, like her others, a self-portrait. Goodman’s form does not populate the space of the painting, at least not in a way that is named by its title. In process and in form, it others Goodman into an active spectator. The figures in the painting are far less human, hardly recognizable as any particular person, yet they remain incredibly specific. A narrative, though less decipherable than in other pieces, is implicit, perhaps due to the title – Ah, Her Red Hair, is an exhale of desire. We could never fool ourselves into thinking that this painting isn’t deeply personal, the result of muscular self-reflection. And with Goodman, her own suffering is so very often in play; “Ah, Her Red Hair,” a sigh, suggests the bittersweetness of love lost or unrequited.

Indeed, Goodman does not shy away from narrative here or in any other paintings. Some action is always implicit. Smart curating puts that narrative action on an arch through a range of work spanning decades – from the body, to the body of the painting, to the body rapt in abstract form. The shift with Ah, Her Red Hair is clear in that Goodman no longer needs to insert her body literally because now it happens inherently, her interiority made physical. And because of that shift, the work is even more her own, even more about her.

If there is an incontestable current running through this show, it is women as a force, in paint. Gilmore, a veritable steamroller, plays in here-to-there, reducing narrative to its essentials – movement, catharsis – while toying with the gendered rhetoric and traditions of the canon of painting. Goodman feels the medium with her hands and gives us a tactile experience that pulls us into her deeply intimate journey. Power, skill, and knowing-when-to-let-go result in paintings that guide us through her life while reaffirming the clairvoyant power of an ancient medium.

In the end, Trembling Halves is this: two women artists, in an intimately shared space, together with dominating works – specifically ones that bring their own bodies to the fore. And make no mistake, this is as much a show about the artists as individuals as it is any painting conventions or gender politics. If we leave with awareness of just one thing – from Goodman whose canvases are worked until completion glows from them, from Gilmore whose steady and unyielding advance breaks through everything in her path – it’s that these artists bare all of themselves, working to the bone, and that in doing so they are phenomenal. Because like all other phenomenal women artists who make a name for themselves, they know this outright: good work is hard work, gotten done.

– Todd Stong

Armando Veve

Armando Veve is an artist living and working in the Brewerytown neighborhood of Philadelphia. We originally met on residency at the Vermont Studio Center where I was lucky to witness the action of his introspective collage-heavy process, which culminates in madcap and impeccable graphite drawings. In addition to his ongoing studio projects, Armando also works as an illustrator. His drawings have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, The New Republic, and VICE, among others. I met with Armando again in his Philadelphia studio and talked about a long-term drawing project, graphite, ant farms, and much more.

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Crown Vic & the Atlantic Flyway. 35.5 x 72″. Graphite on paper. 2014.

T: What are you working on?

A: This piece! It began as a drawing of a building on Etting Street, a few blocks away. A big part of my process with it has been going on walks and taking photographs of my surroundings – places and things that feel odd or strike me in a strange way, which there are plenty of in Philadelphia.

T: Another piece of yours, Crown Vic & the Atlantic Flyway, also uses Philadelphia as a backdrop. Is there a specific way that architecture functions in these pieces?

A: In Etting Street, it doesn’t really matter that the building is there – it’s not really about the building, but more about the building as a structure and catalyst for my decision-making. It houses concentrated events or rooms for play and functions on an abstract level, even though it’s entirely representational. At least that’s how I’m thinking about it. In Crown Vic, I think I was more engaged with the mechanics of representing a dramatic and theatrical scene, like a history painting. The building there functions more as a backdrop as opposed to a structure for decisions.

The windows in the Etting Street piece are also important because they provide opportunities for smaller compositions. I’m really interested in windows as frames into other worlds, the way against-the-wall artwork was traditionally interpreted.

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T: Interesting that you use the building as a structure for decisions, each window an opportunity for play and new design. I’ve noticed that in all of your work there’s often a number of stylistic voices present, even if it’s not so explicit as a window-by-window schema. Yet it still feels distinctly your own.

A: I think a lot of my work is a process of finding myself in a culture of image making. I’m constantly collecting reference materials that I’m drawn to, which come from an eclectic range of sources – they could be cartoons, Northern mannerist engravings, contemporary furniture design. I stretch and warp them through drawing and collage, and in the process they become connective tissue for new work.

T: Obviously there’s a lot of technical fluency involved in that.

Yeah, I began at a young age copying all kinds of stuff in tandem with making my own work. I’d draw after master drawings, wildlife photography, Disney backgrounds. Then at RISD, I refined that process. It really gives me the freedom to cross stylistic genres in a way that feels natural, like something I’ve always been doing. When I’m arranging these pieces in a new drawing, I feel like a composer remixing samples of abstracted sound.

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Harlem Spring. 31 x 26″. Pen on paper. 2011-2012.

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Detail of Harlem Spring.

T: Can you talk about your collage process?

A: Structures like the building facade in Etting Street ask for different kinds of image building than other works. It’s something new for me, a different kind of space. Its flatness presents new spatial opportunities. I’m thinking about it like a puzzle. I feel bound to a certain kind of logic that comes with a more defined and grounded setting, as opposed to the voids that objects in other pieces seem to inhabit. And I wanted it to be representative of my surroundings in Brewerytown.

Currently, I’m placing these photographs and cut paper shapes onto the surface of the drawing, like this white Eyvind Earle-inspired flower in the foreground. It’s a way for me to arrange diverse stylistic voices and quickly build odd juxtapositions. They primarily function as placeholders since they’re temporarily adhered to the drawing surface. But, the longer I see these white shapes hang from the piece, the more I feel like they themselves belong in the artificial ecosystem of the drawing. Sometimes people tell me to keep them physically attached to the work as literal collage, but in that sense I find them problematic in a bad way – in a distracting way. Or at least I haven’t yet figured out a way to resolve that. So I’m interested in bringing the cut-outs back in as trompe l’oeil representations of themselves. I love how a drawing of a paper cutout can reference the physical construction of the piece. They’re artificial and natural at the same time. When they’re translated in graphite they join and coexist with the other elements in the piece. I hope the resulting image is both beautiful and uncomfortable. It’s uncanny in its contradictions.

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Pizza Table. 23 x 34. Graphite on paper. 2015. Photo credit: Carlos Avendaño

T: The pencil seems very important here. In a way it lends the pieces a uniform surface quality, such that there’s a kind of play with the language of the screen. Can you talk about working with graphite?

A: Digital tools definitely influence the ways that I collect, digest, and manipulate visual culture, and they dictate how I perform the pieces. Along with collage, I use Photoshop as a means of planning my images, and I think it’s true that the graphite, being such a “flat” medium, does in some ways mimic the screen. There’s a given uniformity. With my graphite drawings, as on a screen, you can have a whole slew of odd juxtapositions, and yet it will nearly always find cohesion. I suppose graphite for me works as a unifier.

That said, I love that through graphite drawing I can make something like this pizza table that’s metallic and gooey and glistening, that I can cause someone to feel all those separate, very real sensations which are all provoked by one object. So, yes, there is uniformity in one sense, in that the graphite demands a default flatness of the surface, but beyond that there’s a plethora of tactile experiences I can simulate for the viewer.

There’s something about the slowness of the drawing process with pencil that feels important to me. The hours taken to create these pieces give them a dimensionality through time. A whole cadre of ideas across years can enter into them, be erased from them – another advantage of graphite – and replaced. They’re precious and not precious at the same time.

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Bulbous Man. 30 x 22″. Pen on paper. 2012.

T: How are you going forward with Etting Street?

Finding ways I can work against expectations is always a fun process for me. A next step will involve more trash and insects. For one, the surface of the building is going to be partially carved through by ants, like an ant farm. I love how ant farms become unintentional drawings of their own. There’s a slippage there of what’s macro and what’s micro that I find really exciting. In this particular piece I’ve been having trouble pushing past the flatness of the facade, so having this kind of microcosmic depth in the midst of this foundational architecture is my solution. I’ve also been pulling in cast shadows from light poles outside the plane of vision, perhaps behind the space of the viewer, which creates a very intense perspectival movement. The unexpected expansion of space is becoming very important to this piece in particular.

T: It seems like you present yourself with a certain formal paradigm and then you play yourself out of it. For instance, the harmony, so to speak, of a traditional landscape presents a kind of problem in its predictability and cliché, so you introduce odd systems to disrupt that. I especially like the use of the ants, which themselves are a sort of spontaneous drawing system playing out on their own, without any aesthetic concern.  You drawing them “drawing” presents an interesting self-reference – through them, you, too, can forget aesthetics and allow for something spontaneous. The problems you’re solving become what the piece is all about.

A: Yeah, for instance the windows are a kind of problem to solve in that sense. What goes inside of them? Who would live inside this building?

I’m also figuring out how to work myself out of this very architectural, man-made environment, into something more unpredictable. How varied can I make it? It’s so geometric, architectural, and flat at the moment. I want to bring in opposites. Specifically here I’m introducing organic language like the insects and trash bags, and I’d also been sketching a rotting log, which may find its way into the final composition. It’s something that makes sense within the environment here in Brewerytown when you walk around. That log, a self-contained ecosystem, adds microcosmic depth to the larger piece. It’s a point of focus. Recently, though, I’m drafting that as a larger piece, in which that microcosm can really become immense like a mountain landscape. I’ve become fascinated with engraver beetles which carve wood in rotting log ecosystems. They create drawings in similar ways that ants do.

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#1. 30 x 22″. Pen on paper. 2011.

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#2. 30 x 22″. Pen on paper. 2012.

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#3. 30 x 22″. Pen on paper. 2013.

T: Did the ants or the beetles come first?

A: Haha. I suppose the ants. I was looking at the tone of that window in Etting Street and realized it was the same tone as sand, and so in some strange subconscious sense I thought of ant farms.

The lines of ant farms and engraver beetles also seem to be in play with the lines of the mortar between stones of the building facade. This kind of self-referentiality really interests me, how the creation of the image follows a very specific, internal logic – an ecosystem that describes and produces itself.

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Chandelier for RBW. 30 x 22″. Graphite on paper. 2014.

T: Do you consider yourself a Surrealist?

A: I’m really trying to understand my relationship to Surrealism because it comes up a lot. Honestly I’m not actively thinking about Surrealist politics. It just so happens that my work likes to engage odd juxtapositions in a way that calls forth Dadaesque appropriation or Surrealist compositions, but maybe the work is more rooted in the fragmentation and Surrealist impulse of 60s pop, which was much removed from the original intentions of Surrealism. The agenda of the work is not to consciously root out and express the subconscious, because I think the subconscious works its way into decision-making no matter what. My work is more concerned with physical experience as opposed to escapist notions of image making.

All that said, I do often use Surrealist methods of image construction. If I’m stuck, I’ll pull from an image bank I keep and begin playing until something clicks. Sometimes I’ll plan to integrate that product into another piece. There’s a seed of the automatic there, but it quickly finds its way into a more comprehensive plan. It’s something I’ve gained from my illustration work, where I’ll need a plan to meet deadlines. Ironically, I find that this planning actually leads to more surprising results. (However I’m finding ways to integrate more improvisation and chance in that line of work, too.)

T: Speaking of deadlines. Any New Years resolutions?

A: Well, I’m hoping to finish Etting Street! It’s definitely been a longer-term project, and I’m OK with that. In its production I’m completing smaller projects that eventually find their home in it or take off on their own – it’s the larger project that’s generative.

Loren Britton

Loren Britton is an artist living in New Haven, where they will be an MFA candidate at Yale in the fall. Their intricately textured and composed paintings bridge abstraction and queer figuration with structural mechanics reminiscent of Byzantine and Early Renaissance painters. I met with Lauren in their studio and talked about plastic, queer bodies, and celebration, among much more.

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Pucker Up. Diptych, 21 x 16″. Acrylic and Flasche on canvas. 2015.

Todd: You make your own acrylic paints from pigments. What’s the significance of that process?

Loren: I have always thought that paint is like the body. To me, using acrylic paint is really important as it references the content of my work. You know, I think of the body as a moldable and plastic thing, so being able to change the consistency, color, thickness, and application feels similar to the ways that I transform my presentation from situation to situation. Having mastery over the paint is, in a sense, an allegory to having mastery over the presentation of my body and the body of my paintings.

When I wasn’t making my own paint, it was always a balancing act. I’d use low quality paint next to something that was really expensive in order to express some sort of economic difference, but it was always someone else’s control that I was behest to. Sometimes I do still use really shitty paint – student-grade acrylic next to something that I’ve made myself and on a single squeeze probably spent five dollars. It’s important to have all of these tools at the ready.

T: Is the plastic nature of the paint important to you?

L: It really is. I find direct relations between a plastic queering of the body and the fact that I’m making acrylic paintings that are plastic in their essence.

In another sense of the word, I had a studio visit a while ago from a painter who spoke about keeping paint “plastic.” Allowing the space of the painting to be easily entered, and keeping things accessible and open for the viewer and the painter. I’ve really adopted this way of thinking of painting because to keep something plastic allows so much space for exploration. That’s the perfect framework for my paintings.

T: The paintings themselves are so thick and rich and often evoke specific anatomy. Can you talk about their relation to the body?

L: The paintings are often celebrations of parts of the body. Tongue Droop and Uvula are two examples of this. The cropping and scale of Tongue Droop and Uvula lead the viewer inside the mouth – looking at these paintings, you’re surrounded by all of that wet, red, tissue-y space – the dirtiest place inside our bodies.

I’m also playing with the implications of “add-ons” to the body. Transformative presentations of the body like dildos and compression shirts allow someone to change their outward presentation, and the act of changing one’s presentation is by its very nature a celebration of that kind of experience. I’m still working out how to incorporate foreign add-ons to the paintings. I think that in the more successful of these paintings the add-ons feel foreign to the surface yet important to the presentation of the painting – mirroring the bodily equivalent of adding-on.

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Tongue Droop. 18 x 12″. Acrylic and Flasche on canvas. 2015.

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Uvula. 22 x 12″. Acrylic and Flasche on canvas. 2015.

T: You also work with the polyptych form, which relates in a way to the idea of add-ons, because you can constantly add onto and extend these paintings, making them into larger and larger bodies. Can you talk about what the -tych means for you?

L: I actually started working in diptychs because I was really fascinated and compelled by the gender binary. It was a very clear way of saying “one and the other,” “male, female.” Here’s the divide, let me make it plain. Putting that division into one painting didn’t feel combative enough. And then over time the -tychs grew, so I have diptychs and triptychs and polyptychs.

T: Take me through the polyptychs.

L: Obviously my ideas about what the body is and how I can further complicate the gender binary have become more nuanced, and in a way the polyptychs chart that progression of thought. No longer am I interested in “‘one’ and the ‘other,’” but instead I’m curious about multiplicity and the many gendered veils of information that are possible both in presentation as people and in the way my paintings look.

The polyptych took on another power after a trip I took to Germany in September 2014, where I saw not the Ghent altarpiece but a remake of it that was itself being restored. I thought: “This is painting! I’ve been waiting for so long and here it is! This is amazing!” It totally blew my mind.

There’s so much to that painting. The initial connection came of the hinged frames of the panels – I had started hinging my paintings as a way of making tangible a connection. I’m really interested in things that are tightly attached or not attaching, the gaps and bridges between. A hinge seemed to be the surest way of saying “I’m attached to you.” And I loved seeing that in the altarpiece. And of course I kept looking and finding more and more that I loved seeing.

So I came back with this feeling that I had to make something that amazing and that celebratory and that full of life. Polyptychs and triptychs are generally made for churches – they’re celebratory paintings. But they’re also a lot about birth and death and life after death, these major Christian themes. So I’ve been thinking about that within my polyptychs and trying to take it on.

In a sense what I’m trying to do with my forms and painting structure is queer heteronormative culture. Some might look at that and find it problematic and controversial, but I think I’m finding common ground. My paintings are as celebratory as these much older religious paintings. Rather than taking my subject matter – queering of the body – and being ashamed of it, I want to revel in it.

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Untitled. 12 panels. Acrylic and Flasche on canvas. 2014.

T: I like to imagine it as putting old Christian paintings under a microscope and getting a look at their DNA, and the queer possibilities within that. Of course the existence of queerness has always been a possibility, except that until recently there hadn’t been a word for it or the infrastructure necessary to support the kind of transformations you’re exploring. But I have a feeling that you’re using this Christian history to show queerness as something as fundamental to human identity as religion has been. So the form diverges in one way – via this semi-abstracted, luscious, phallic and yonic imagery – but in another way, the basic structural underpinning – the polyptych – remains the same. They’re both celebrations, but what’s being celebrated within your paintings and how it’s being celebrated is very much of this contemporary moment.

One major difference in the “how” of that celebration is the degree to which early Renaissance and Byzantine paintings are so careful, and yours are so explosive. How do you apply the paint, and how does that affect your relationship to the work?

L: Yeah, I’m not careful when I’m painting. Mistakes are really part of my process. I’m not uptight about it, I’m not worried. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll paint over it. Some of the paintings are made in one shot, so my way of editing is to un-stretch them and stretch new canvas over the old stretcher. I look at painting to be a kind of cathartic thing, so I try not to be too precious in getting to a final product.

If we’re talking me versus Byzantine painting, you know, I don’t work on these for years. If I spend a month on a painting, that’s probably a long time.  For me there is something that’s really satisfying about immediacy. Especially when I switched from oil to acrylic, which dries so much faster.

As far as paint application goes, I’ve been piping paint recently. There was a period of time during which I wasn’t using the brush at all, but recently I’ve had a return to the brush, and the brush and I are having a love affair. For a while, though, I was having a hard time with it. I felt like the line that the brush could make was so determined – I couldn’t make a line without having to lift my hand and reload my brush. It was a bunch of contiguous little lines. So when I found piping, it felt like such a release – there was suddenly a drawing space that the paintings hadn’t had before. A drawing space that could build on top of a drawing space, and in a way become sculptural. For me, this way of working felt very expansive and fun.

T: Do you ever draw out sketches or are the paintings strictly cathartic and about that building process?

L: I think it’s usually about the building process. Sometimes I’ll do a drawing midway, but it usually ends up not working. I do drawings separately, and sometimes I’ll do a drawing and decide it’s actually a painting, that it wasn’t meant to be a drawing. But my drawings tend to exist as their own body of work.

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Sun ‘Splosion. 6 parts. Colored pencil, crayon, and ink on paper. 2015.

T: You recently finished this spectacular painting, Grin + Bear It. Can we look at that? There’s every single color in it.

L: Yeah, I’ve always felt that color was available to me. I’ve never felt the need to limit. Some people disagree with me about that.

T: On that line of thought, can you talk about the rainbow?

L: Yeah, I’m really invested in it. I’ve been making rainbow paintings for the last year and a half. It’s a cliché but sincere and blatant way of talking about queerness. There’s also a lot of separatism within the queer community, which I don’t really understand, but I find the rainbow to rally against that separatism.  And to celebrate the rainbow is to celebrate queerness, which is, as I’ve been saying, really the lynchpin of the work. There need to be more images that celebrate queerness as a positive thing because globally it’s still an enormous issue, even if you forget about that in a New York bubble.

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Again & Again. 12 x 12″. Acrylic and Flasche on canvas. 2014.

T: I see that arch in a lot of your paintings as a kind of structuring device. What other symbols or shapes do you find yourself using?

L: My brother is deaf, so I’ve always been preoccupied with communication. Painting is another way of communicating, a kind of sign language. So the alphabet was something I was really interested in for a while, and I started creating my own lexicon. Those shapes and forms that meant specific things to me are not really included in the paintings anymore, but they’re still definitely on my mind.

In Grin + Bear It, I think that the form that is most clearly evident and important is the tooth shape. It’s an upright smile and then an inverted one. I was thinking about the Cheshire Cat – there is something menacing and crazy about that smile. While I was making it, I was in the midst of a lot of transition in my life personally with my family. Sometimes when you’re going through something the only way to move forward is just to grin and bear it – and that was definitely how I felt when working on this painting.

So something about teeth is really interesting to me. I mean, I’m interested in communication, which of course has a huge connection to the mouth, but I’m also interested in the shape of teeth, and their proximity to the mouth. The mouth is this warm, wet, red space and pretty vulnerable without teeth. They act as a kind of shield against the world, in both a physical and social sense. Its definitely about passage into a personal space and about keeping one’s shield up to keep yourself safe.

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Grin + Bear It. 24 panels. Acrylic and Flasche on canvas. 2015.

T: The top panels are so different from the bottom, the top with the smile, the bottom with the inverted smile.

L: Yeah, this painting specifically I was thinking about how different I could make each panel from the next. So it was really about finding those differences, while still creating unity.

T: How important to you is it that individual panels function as paintings on their own?

L: It depends on what painting you’re talking about. In Grin + Bear It, it became very important to me. That being said, I think certain panels work better than others on their own. I’m okay with that. Certain ones need the whole and certain ones don’t. If they all didn’t, there wouldn’t be a reason to have them together. Some of them are like the glue, and some of them are like the pieces.

There’s also the fact that it’s not symmetrical, when you compare the top and bottom halves. So I’ve begun to think about how the paintings act like puzzles. I think the paintings will begin to be more “added-to” – disregarding the rules of symmetry.

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Visible Vagina. 8 panels. Acrylic and Flasche on canvas. 2014.

T: Have you thought about making frames? You said you had been hinging paintings together. What are some ways these might move forward, and do you need to learn anything new to do that?

L: Oh, yes, I will. You know, along those lines, I would love to learn to be a better carpenter. These are skill-based questions that will further propel the work once I’m at a place in the actual painting that allows for more of a physical frame to the paintings.

I have a lot of fun making furniture in the garage – terribly made furniture. It’s a difficult time trying to put the things together, but I love what happens with them in the end because they look so haggard. I made a bedside table out of an old apple crate and tried to paint it, but the thing about apple crates is they’re made with some type of wax, and I didn’t know that so I just sanded the surface thinking that would take off whatever was on the surface. Then I painted it, but the paint started coming off, which I thought was hysterical, so I just kept painting it, and it kept running off. Finally after about six coats of paint, it started to stick, and it had become this amazingly weird piece.

So I’m kind of torn. Do I actually want to have that know-how to do things right the first time, or do I love the process of fucking it up and working it over until it becomes this thing I couldn’t have ever foreseen?

But I do think there’s something about having carpentry skills. I have some but not enough. I can build a wall but I can’t build a home. I would love to be able to build a home. I want more know-how. I want to be handy. Handy for living, but also handy for the work. If I had skills to make anything I wanted in wood, would these paintings be what they are? Maybe they would be the same, and that would be great, but I don’t actually know that for certain. So it would be good to have the skills to test that.

I think next in terms of the paintings, I want to get some really chunky wood and build the frame, and I want to wood-burn it. I don’t think I’m invested enough in making a frame to want to carve it, but wood-burning would be drawing essentially. So to draw something with the wood would have a child-like quality, and a cheap quality that I’m interested in.

I’m also always thinking about Forrest Bess. He’s one of my favorite painters and he had frames on all of his paintings.

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Teeth Study. Triptych, each 10 x 12″. Acrylic and Flasche on canvas. 2014.

T: Nice! Who else are you looking at right now?

L: I’ve been thinking a lot about Jacolby Satterwhite. I think that he really pushes the envelope, and I wonder how I can push the envelope with this kind of painting.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Clare Grill, too. I interviewed her a while ago and she talked about how close to the surface she gets while painting. So close. There’s something there about the intimacy with the paintings that I really feel in general, but especially as someone working in as small of a space as I have right now.

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Unearthed Rainbow. 12 x 8″. Acrylic and Flasche on canvas. 2015.

T: That makes me think of Tomma Abts as well, how she paints with one arm and cradles her painting with the other. It becomes her baby.

L: Yes, I love Abts!

I’m also always thinking about Edvard Munch. (Lauren wrote an essay on Munch for Painters on Painting). I think his landscapes are amazing.

You know who I’m thinking about! I went to the Met last Saturday, and I am really thinking about Tiepolo. I think he is a total genius, and his framing devices are beautiful. And his colors! Those blues! I have not seen blues like that. They are so bright in that space. He has this one painting, Allegory of the Planets and Continents, with all these figures floating into the center of the painting, and it totally doesn’t make any sense, but it’s awesome.

And then I’m also thinking about Travis Fairclough. He’s my best friend, we did undergrad together. He made this really killer painting recently – there’s this perspective line at the bottom of the piece that looks like doors are folding in on themselves, maybe how gears of a machine would, but it’s in perspective of course so they’re folding and whisking at the same time. And then there’s a tree-like form that looms over it. It’s a bit complicated to explain in words, but everything is made in these little, little marks. It’s so wrought and built.

T: Sounds awesome, and I’m jealous of anyone who got to see you grow through your undergrad years. I know you’ve quickly transitioned to your MFA at Yale. As a recent grad going onto another two years of school, do you have any advice you’d give to your freshman self that you might also give to future first-year you?

L: Don’t worry so much. Go into the city as much as you want. And go to more drag shows!

Brice Peterson

Brice Peterson is an artist, poet, editor, and archivist living in Oaklyn, New Jersey. A dual fascination with women of the pre-digital era and archival sciences informs much of his practice and results in bizarre and luscious multimedia work and performance. I met with him in his studio and talked about day jobs, divas, and religions, new and old.

Yes, Amanda

Yes, Amanda. 2012. Cotton balls, acrylic, and inkjet print on canvas. 26” x 26” x 5”.

Todd: What are you working on now?

Brice: What I’ve been doing lately is revisiting projects I’d abandoned or that had fallen by the wayside in the past few years. Especially in my senior year of college and right after, I had all these ideas that I got started on and then put aside either because I was graduating or I was going to a residency or to grad school. So I’ve been trying to revisit a couple of things.

T: Can you talk about some of them?

B: For sure. Mina in a Sea of Thyrsi is one example of something I’ve had at home for the past couple of years that I haven’t been able to figure out. It started as a big, thickly-modeled gold canvas, and I wanted to collage some images of the female divas I’ve been working with. But I couldn’t figure out what to do because I hadn’t worked in such large dimensions in so long. Most of what I’ve been making has been kind of small, so I’m working to build up the paint on that a little more as a way of managing that dimensional gap.

The Eyes of La Carrá is another. I printed this at Anderson Ranch on canvas because it was really cheap to print things there. And I never got to do anything with it, so I finally got the chance to embroider around the eyes.

The Ecstasy of A. Tapp is the oldest thing I have to come back to and finish — it was part of my senior thesis show at Brown. In that show there was a big, central sculpture that almost looked like a tiered cake. There were two stacked pedestals that were covered in cotton balls and then coated in an iridescent medium, and in the center of the sides of the pedestals were paneled images of Amanda Lear, whose persona was central to the show. So this is one of the panels from those pedestals. I figured I would save one — the others I didn’t have storage for. So now, four years later, I’ve decided to transfer it onto canvas and give it a fully developed frame, embellished with the cotton balls.

Mina in a Sea of Thyrsi. In progress. Mixed media on canvas. 40″ x 30″.

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The Eyes of La Carrá. In progress. Inkjet and embroidery on canvas. 32″ x 32″.

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The Ecstasy of A. Tapp. In progress. Inkjet print, cotton balls, ribbon, and acrylic on canvas. 27″ x 20″ x 4″.

T: What was the reason for making the frame?

B: I guess I’ve always been interested in creating frames or framing devices. It does act as a memorial in some way, and I also think that the frames maybe heighten the absurdity of these sort of iconographic devotional pieces. They’re adornment. It’s a way to decorate the screen image with something that can be precious and obsessive and cheap and sloppy all in one.

T: How do you title your work?

B: A lot of my most recent work I really haven’t worked out names for. And maybe that has a lot to do with the fact that they were scraps that have been with me over time and are only now getting put together. A lot of times the names come from titles of performances that the screenshots are grabbed from or lyrics or puns on those lyrics.

T: What is it like to go back to these ideas from four years ago?

B: In the grand scheme of things, four years isn’t that long ago, but I think when you’re young it really represents much more time than four years in middle- or old-age. Physiologically, psychologically, intellectually, a lot of changes can happen in four years in your early twenties. So, obviously, it’s a little strange to go back to these projects because they’re things that I was really interested in at some point, and now I’m reconnecting with them from a perspective that’s informed by years of growth. In some sense, it can feel like going through the motions, responding to tasks I’ve set up for myself, almost procedurally. But it’s also been helpful for me to reconnect to what I’ve done before and not forget what it was that moved me in the past. I think that’s important for everyone. I also have this tendency to come up with an idea, see through a couple of pieces, and then move on to another idea without having really developed the first idea. So it’s been a challenge to reconnect with the work, but it’s also been fruitful because I really feel freed up when I think I’ve done justice to something. Or I’ll learn something about the work that maybe I wasn’t originally paying attention to.

And then part of it is just that I’m being frugal.

T: Has your day job been manageable on top of all of this?

B: It has been!

T: Have you felt its influence on your work?

B: Yes, I have. I think becoming a librarian has shown me what it is in art that interests me.

I had never really thought about librarianship until after college when I was interning at Anderson Ranch. There was a summer student there who was a former children’s librarian, and she got to know me and knew that my background was in English and art. She suggested that I look into librarianship as a day career. I hadn’t really thought of it before, but it seemed to be a good, intellectually fulfilling career and also something that would leave time and mental space for an art practice.

But through my studies with archival science and my work as a librarian, I realized that a lot of my artwork had been a cataloguing of experiences with these diva figures, like Amanda Lear from my thesis show — divas from what we might consider the last moments of the pre-digital age. The 60s and 70s and 80s. So a lot of what my artwork has become about is memorializing those women and their performances, taking archival footage, and making art based on that footage through screen shots or through text pieces that in some way catalogue their moment in an archival sense. So in some very compelling ways I think my interest in art made more sense in terms of a librarianship.

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Dalida Aperture #1-4. 2012. Acrylic, spray paint, and inkjet print on paper. ca. 31″ x 24″.

T: It’s almost as if you taken these pre-digital artifacts, digitized them by capturing their images through digital means, and then un-digitized them again as physical things.

B: Yeah, that’s how I feel about it. I personally tend to connect most with these women’s performances that all took place before the advent of digital culture, or at least right on the verge of digital culture. But because I was born in 1989 my experience of them has always been mediated by the internet. So I relate to them, almost by nature, through digital media.

Some things we talked a lot about in grad school for library and archival science were that it’s very possible we’re living in a digital dark age, that the formats that we’re dealing with right now are very fragile, and that there’s so much uncertainty just in terms of storage and longevity of digital artifacts. We don’t really know if, 100 or 200 years from now, a lot of the media we’re experiencing will still be accessible. For example, there are a lot of legacy formats, especially from the 70s and 80s, that have become totally unreadable. There’s some data that’s lost forever.

Whereas an analogue recording is usually based on the grooves in a vinyl record or light passing through film, which will always be accessible. All you need is a light source or a needle to read them. You don’t need all this complicated technology that’s proprietary or impossible to maintain. The only problem there is that the materials themselves can deteriorate. Or if they were never valued, they’ll simply be forgotten and discarded. So for me, it’s been a way to celebrate these moments that I feel are at risk technologically and also because they represent a kind of sub-culture, a camp-culture that is not regarded with the same kind of importance as a lot of other pop-culture artifacts.

T: If digital media is in danger of being lost, why exactly do you work with performances from this era and not more modern performances?

B: The only reason I know about most of these women is because fans like me posted videos or images of them online. And they only have this footage because they recorded it or collected it themselves over the years. So now we live in this connected world where young people like me have access to all this cultural heritage that was saved sort of democratically from the ravages of time. But videos vanish from YouTube all the time. Who knows where an original recording of a certain performance from the 60s or 70s is? Chances are the production company no longer exists. You can never trust a company to preserve culture, especially queer culture.

Now I think celebrities understand the power of their own archive in maintaining some kind of legacy within pop culture. So you have someone like Beyonce who records and archives everything in her life because she’s a child of the digital age too. But it remains to be seen how long even that will last. I mean, I don’t know what kind of preservation work her team does. But basically, artifacts are only saved because people still care about them, and I want people to care about these more obscure divas as much as I do.

T: You use gold in a lot of the work. Is there something to that?

B: It’s definitely an esthetic that I connect to, simply put. But I also feel like a lot of these diva figures I’m working with are connected to the gold because of their divine presence. Gold has always signified that kind of divine presence. Then again, I’m also using liquid gilding or fake gold leaf or gold spray paint, so the gold always has a precious feel but also an artificial feel, which ties it in to the identities I’m attracted to. There is something goddess-like about these women, but something artificial which is heightened by my experience with them, and my experience of them is not as real people. It’s as these sort of artificial public figures that I only get to experience through the media.

T: How did you start getting interested in this era of divas?

B: It was during my senior thesis at Brown. My project was intended to be about St. Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle, which is a book that describes the soul as a series of concentric mansions. At the innermost mansion was the one closest to God, who resided at the center of the interior castle. At the time I was also making a lot of geometric work that was referencing the body while also resembling cathedrals and stained glass. So I was looking at sacred geometry, I was looking at cosmology, and finding a relationship between that line of work and the architectural space that this interior castle might represent.

First Mansion on Pink. 2011. Graphite, hand-cut paper, and acrylic on panel. 60″ x 42″.

But I was also attracted to Teresa as an interesting historical and literary figure — my other major at Brown was in English. The Interior Castle describes many of her ecstatic experiences with the divine, which could be risky for a woman at that time. So that got me thinking about radical women and women who interacted with the divine in a sort of subversive way.

At the time, I was doing a disco show on Brown Student and Community Radio and I became interested in the singer Amanda Lear, who has a sort of murky background. Originally, she started as a model and then became Salvador Dali’s muse and studio assistant, much to the chagrin of his wife. In fact, some of Dali’s later paintings were started by Amanda Lear — she did many of the under paintings, which is pretty fascinating to think about. And there are some paintings he did of her. Later on she met David Bowie, became part of the London scene, and wanted to start a disco career, so to make her more interesting in the public eye, she and Dali cooked up this story that Dali had found her and made her into a woman. That was her transformation story. She has a concept album called Sweet Revenge in which she sort of manifests the Faust legend — a version of Dr. Faustus who makes a deal with the devil to have a singing career and become this powerful woman. A lot of her music is about the murkiness of identity, especially the identity of a celebrity woman in the limelight. Another album — her first one — is called I Am a Photograph, and it features a number of songs about how she’s totally two-dimensional and not real, basically.

So I was really fascinated with her as a figure, and I saw a parallel between her and someone like St. Theresa of Avila in their gender-subversive relationships with the divine. I started making more work about Lear, and that’s where a lot of the collage and cotton ball work started happening, as well as video work in which I manipulated some of Lear’s videos. She essentially led me down the rabbit hole to these other iconic females, a lot of them foreign, a lot of them Italian. Women like Mina Mazzini, Patty Pravo, Raffaella Carrá. Being that they herald from a time before my own and from a country where I don’t understand the language, I can’t connect to a lot of their songs on a typical level. For me, listening to their music feels almost like a kind of mystical experience. I’m listening to this gibberish, almost like tongues, and it’s speaking to me in a non-verbal way. It’s a great space to mediate through art.

T: But it’s Italian, which is so intimately related to Latin and the Catholic church. There’s a close association to religion, to divinity.

B: Of course. Italian women often have a really intimate relationship with the Church, a fealty to the Virgin Mary. You see her everywhere in Italy. All of this sort of bleeds together for me.

T: What does it mean for your work that it takes women for its subject?

B: I always have this anxiety that these women and their work are more interesting than what I can do with it all. Sometimes it speaks for itself and there’s not much I can add through manipulation or trying to make something out of them. And for a while I was thinking it would be interesting for me to expose the underlying issues of that relationship, as a male artist with a female muse. That relationship goes back for millennia, and there are problems with that. This male artist who is the maker, the genius, who relies on this female identity for his creations.

T: How then does your sexuality, you being gay, affect that relationship?

B: I think it makes it more complicated. I think it ties it into a different sort of history. It ties it into gay liberation, drag, camp culture, which are all things that I’m interested in and certainly explain why I was attracted to a lot of these women in the first place. Most of them offer some sort of subversive alternative to living out your everyday life in normal gender roles. A lot of these women have really subverted gender roles in their own careers, either as portraying themselves as hyper-feminine or, like with Amanda Lear, confusing their own gender.

T: You see a lot of this playing out today. Rumors of Lady Gaga being transexual, Beyoncé as a dominating, hyper-feminine persona.

B: For sure. You can look at many pop stars today and trace these motifs back to the women who came before them. That’s another reason why I’m so interested in this particular era of women artists. I see them as almost-forgotten influences of contemporary pop culture. For a while I thought of this work as cataloging aspects of camp’s past that were especially going to be forgotten by contemporary generations, but it’s also been showing me how much queerness has influenced the wider culture that exists today.

Sometimes I think I make this sound more complicated than it is, but in a way it’s just something innate in me. It’s a fandom, in its permutations. An obsessive fandom. I think that plays a part in some of the work, too. I can get kind of obsessive with the technical details, like these cotton ball frames. Or manipulating and cutting the faces of these women is creepy and obsessive in another way. So I think that’s part of it. It’s something innate in many gay men to have this attachment to female icons.

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Don’t Believe Her (Mina). 2012. Handcut inkjet prints and embossed text on paper. 38″ x 26″.

T: Do you listen to music while you make them?

B: Usually.

T: Their music?

B: Yeah. Pretty much entirely.

T: You do sort of have a shrine down here almost.

B: Yeah, it really sort of is… It’s hard to say that it’s on purpose. How it really works out is that they make the music that I listen to most, and I also make art about them. So chances are I’m going to be listening to them while I’m making art about them. And that’s another aspect of the work that kind of interests me. How the relationship works between their music and my visuals. I do connect to their music on a deep level, even though a lot of it is really cheesy and really bad, but I’m making art that has no musical component. It’s purely a visual interaction, so sometimes I wonder about that relationship, whether or not something’s lost. If someone who doesn’t know these women can really connect to them through my art without hearing their music alongside of it, without hearing what made me attracted to them most, which is their music.

T: Have you ever played with sound?

B: It’s come to play in some performances.

T: Could you describe one?

B: I did my most recent, The Martyr Awakened, while I was a resident at Anderson Ranch. It was about Dalida, an Italian-Egyptian singer, naturalized French, who became a French Icon. She was tremendously popular through the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s — really iconic, with a unique, a-typical appearance. But she also endured many personal tragedies. Lovers dying, committing suicide. Her own mental and emotional problems that ended up culminating in her committing suicide in the late 80s. And this is the biggest pop star in France. There was a poll taken in France of who has influenced French culture most post WW2. No. 1 is Charles de Gaulle and No. 2 is Dalida. It’s such a sad story, but it’s also so campy. There’s this tragic pop star who ends her own life once she’s past her prime. It’s such an iconic, French story.

T: That’s also recurring. I think of Whitney Houston as a more recent example, or Amy Winehouse.

B: Yeah, it fits into this pattern that we expect of our tragic pop divas. So this performance was basically a ritual watching of her performances. I set up a studio space, blacked it out, and had a set of videos of her being projected on the wall, big enough so that her image in these videos was more-or-less life-sized, and then I sat in front of these videos in my usual performance garb, which is my gold-faced mask, dressed like a painter. And then I watched her perform, with the audience situated behind me, watching me watch her perform. Sometimes I’d sing a long a little bit, swaying along to the music, motioning or feeling out some of the motions that she was making in the performances. That was really important to me because it was so much about her performances — it was almost as if I was forcing people to share in this with me, to share in what I was interested in of her. And that got me thinking about how we can use performance or art to enable this archival reenactment or reliving of these older performances. I think of it as a resurrection of Dalida in which she was not physically present but present through this digital, oracular device.

T: Did the audience have any way of seeing your gold face, or was that something that only she could see?

B: Yeah, in a way. They really couldn’t see it except for in glimpses from the side.

T: Can you talk about the importance of the gold mask?

The gold mask, for me, is a way to maintain some sense of anonymity or feigned critical distance. When I step into a performance, even though I have such deep personal feelings for these women, I want to remove my personal identity a bit and become a kind of archetypal male-priest-artist. The gold suggests ritual, but it also masks my emotions.


T: Do you do any religious research or reading? There’s a stream of the divine through all of this and I would be interested if that is something that’s intrinsic to working with pop divas, because we do make them divine…

B: For me it’s sort of innate. I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school my whole life, I’m a librarian at a Catholic school. So it’s a part of my identity.

T: When I think of the Catholic church, one of the things I think about is the abundance of women figures and saints, like St. Teresa, and of course also of relics. And then we have relics that are perhaps linked to women saints.

B: Yes, there are so many permutations of the Virgin, parts of her body, things she wore or used. And it was only in the 1800s that the Church decided that Mary was born without sin, which they had to do because people would not stop worshipping her. It had to be religiously sound for people to worship Mary, almost on par with Jesus.

What’s really interesting to me is that there’s this undercurrent of archaic goddess worship that has never gone away in our culture. And it betrays this innate need we have to search for this mother goddess, even if that can sound kind of cheesy.  We see it in Mary worship in the Catholic Church, it comes through especially in camp culture in all these female icons we have. As far as research goes, I can’t say I research a lot of religious history, but I am very fascinated with pagan cultures and mythologies.

T: Do you conceive of pop culture as a kind of religion?

B: I would guess so. There’s certainly idol-making and worship. And I think there are aspects of it that are almost rights of initiation. There are certain figures you’re expected to know as a member of pop culture. If you’re going to be initiated in pop culture, there are a set of signs that you should recognize. Shared cultural events that stand in for religious events.

T: I’m thinking of all my friends from college quoting Mean Girls all the time, almost biblically, as a means to responding to almost any given situation.

B: Yeah, in a sense you call upon this other thing to stand in for whatever thought you might otherwise face unaided. It can be a kind of social crutch.

Mina-Egg-Face_WEB_967

Mina Egg Face. 2013. Inkjet transfer on PVA, gouache, and embroidery on vinyl. 12.5″ x 17.5″.

T: Do you have reservations about making art devoted to pop culture?

B: I feel like a lot of the battles have already been fought for me in terms of recognizing low culture as high art. In some sense, it’s gone too far to the extreme that kitsch has been elevated so high that there’s no room left in it for sincerity anymore. And what I think has been important for me and for getting people to connect to my work is that there is a true element of sincerity. A lot of the work might seem glitzy and gaudy, and a little ironic. You know, the first show I ever had was a bunch of paintings of nuns in space, and I remember getting a question about whether or not I was being ironic. My answer was that it can be both — it can be ironic and sincere. I think that, even though all the pop artists and appropriation artists and people like Jeff Koons have opened up a lot of those doors unto irony, there is more room for sincerity now to work its way back into art making.

T: And what’s more sincere than devotional art, these frescos and sculptures and illuminated manuscripts that artists have made in reverence to religions they devoutly believed in? And if pop culture is a new religion, then you’re making devotional work. I see sincerity in it also because the pop culture you reference is obscure now. That’s what it is with pop culture. It’s a forgetful religion, but art can help to immortalize it.

B: That’s what I hope sometimes. Things like the Dalida performance or some of the other work I make can help to memorialize some of these moments and women who play our modern heroines, tragic or otherwise. I hope I can keep them remembered or shed some light on them or, at the very least, explore my own relationship with them in a way that mythologizes and pays tribute.