Gimpel Fils, London
15 October–21 November 2009
by Dr JANET McKENZIE
Your recent work has as its stated attempt, the notion of a ‘happy ending’ for feminism. In your art education, describe your development of this body of work?
I wouldn‘t call it a stated attempt, rather more a laconical question. It is the title of a large painting and Would you like a happy ending? is a drawing, both from my recent show at Gimpel Fils. Lately I’ve been really struck by Ariel Levy’s book Female Chauvinist Pigs, which explains the recent rise of what she calls ‘raunch culture’ into the mainstream. Certainly I get miserable every time I catch MTV or even just walk down the street these days, not so much because of the fact that sex sells, more because its such a boring and homogenised version of female sexuality that we are being sold, ‘Starbucks sexuality’. In her book Levy is critical of the pornographic content of popular culture and even more critical of those (men and women alike) who use the idea that feminism has won the war in order to propagate and make money from this. She is critical of ‘emancipated’ women proudly adopting male clichés such as treating sexual partners as notches on a bedpost and bragging about conquests pointing out that these are hollow victories for feminism and may just be blighting the real situation for women. Most importantly to me she also bemoans a lack of individuality and eroticism. I have been growing steadily more out of step with the contemporary image of womanhood that gets shoved down my face and now things seem to have gone crazy with my best and brightest friends refusing to leave the house without shaved legs or full waxes. I suppose I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider in that sense and the stance I have been developing is a sort of humour-laden almost Judy Blume-esque emancipated girl woman oscillating between pride and shame, ecstasy and hopelessness. In my recent show my anti heroines have grown up a bit and become much more self-sufficient.
In my art education I was very drawn to the feminist artist Hannah Wilke and I find myself turning more and more to that anti-iconic image of her slumped in a corner naked, open legged, grumpy and ponderous, surrounded by toy guns with the words ‘what does this represent, what do you represent’ written beneath her. I take a lot of comfort from her ‘seventies growler’! This beautiful, vain and fiercely intelligent woman with long dark hair and a big dark bush was really playing with fire using her body to subvert the feminine passive role. Hair straighteners and brazilian waxes for every woman who wants to be considered sexually attractive is not a happy ending for what Hannah and her comrades kicked off.
The teaching of Marlene Dumas has clearly had a major impact on your work. Can you describe her as a teacher and mentor?
Marlene is the best person for teaching you how to escape capture. She is very un-pin-downable and as an artist I think that’s a healthy, if sometimes difficult, thing to be. (You have to be really good to pull if off though.) She gives a great deal to everyone in her work and her writing, so she seems to have become very adept at sidestepping confrontation on a personal level. At least that’s what I got from her and so did a lot of my contemporaries, though we all loved her and we all drank a lot together, so that is very bonding. Being British and from a sort of boozy family, ateliers became a sort of home from home in that respect! The only real way to kill your idols is to meet them, anyway, so she was a great mentor from afar but when, like legions of others before me, I turned up at ateliers with a backlog of Marlene semi rip offs, the only thing to do was become mutually admiring drinking buddies and for me to move on.
Your works are psychologically disturbing, laden with irony, stripped of niceties. What are you confronting in emotional terms? And in intellectual terms?
I m really glad that you say they are laden with ironies, as this seems to go unnoticed a lot of the time. In emotional terms I would say that up until recently I have been ‘wrapping up my juvenilia’. My juvenilia mainly revolved around trying to explain some of the facts of life that really struck me in my childhood and growing up – the spectre of the hysterical and overwrought woman, the incredible psychological power that she wields, plus the glamour of tragedy. I have also been trying to expose some more personal truths about walking the line between self love and self loathing – there has always been an absolutely equal amount of both as cognitive dissonance has always been my interest rather than just Prozac nation style depression glam. I have tried playing with auto biography in relation to all these things, though in my latest body of work I have moved away from this and use nameless figures who are getting on with their business of plane hugging (code for ambition and ‘fear of flying’) word eating, Catherine-wheeling (breaking up the pictorial space) or simply lying lazily in a happy haze as the barely discernible woman in Waterworks (2009) is doing. I am trying to simplify everything so that there is an emotionally recognizable marriage of paint and image.
In intellectual terms I have always been trying to find a way of subverting everything from being purely emotional. There always has to be a catch that saves the work from just seeming to be about, say, glamour and self loathing – the problem is people don’t get it a lot of the time. For example in the large painting Valium and Advocaat for Breakfast from my show at Broadway 1602, New York in January 2009 there is humour and a very obtuse nod to male dominated art history – she is cockeyed – and the subservient male waiter is painting the outlines of her body in with a bottle of thick gloopy advocaat – literally painting her in with alcoholic gloop but she is winning, the cockeyed muse rules the space. In the end it is what the thing looks like that matters, the content has to work its way through subtly. I am just not very interested in illustrating ideas. It is about feelings more than spelt out ideas and this is what I feel is missing from a lot of contemporary painting. I am very indebted to Mira Schor for her writings on painting and feminism as she allows for the exploration of paint as ‘goo’ and what can be achieved without having to spell everything out. Intellectually I also feel a kinship with Amy Sillman even though our aims and outcomes are totally different, we both seem to be working on an ongoing investigation into awkwardness, which extends to every aspect of the work – composition, application, palette and humour. I feel the sort of clumpy woman-ness in both our works even though hers is far more resolved and reduced and therefore stronger. I am not interested in making purely abstract paintings though, even though I think I could deal with all the things I’m interested in without even painting figures. As yet I don’t have the guts to give up figure painting as it’s my first love. I am also very concerned with literature. Currently I’m in a love affair with D H Lawrence, I have been for a while actually, and I relate to his sort of staccato process of waffle and mysticism and belligerence and down to earthness followed by more waffle and repetition ... every show I make nowadays has a clearly worked out tempo with each painting representing a new passage.
The ‘happy ending’ has as part of its territory the fact that although the number of artists has increased massively, the actual percentage of women artists has not in fact increased a great deal. How has your career been determined by feminist issues?
My career is only just starting, hopefully it is going to be a long one, certainly it is becoming clear that its trajectory is not hitting quite the angle I would have hoped for, partly because I don t make that many concessions for the art world, I purposefully try to not speak in ‘art’ terms and I prioritise living and learning over churning out work. I would argue that this is a feminist issue in itself, having met a number of successful and hyper ambitious male artists (!) although there are plenty of women painters who would laugh in the face of such a suggestion too (Sarah Morris and even Bridget Riley come to mind immediately). I simply can’t make enough work to have the number of shows that a hot young artist is meant to have – these things take forever to come together ... Anyway, I fully expect to be marginalized and then become a grand dame and then a ‘treasure’ at the age of 80 or so, the usual trajectory for a woman making so called ‘raw’ paintings.
How interested is the art world in your ideas? – the reception of your work as opposed to sales?
It has waxed and waned over the three or four years it has been on. I do have some staunch supporters but lots of art world people seem to be interested in me but not in my work. When I have been given a public forum in the past, I have not always been too clearheaded so rather than storming onto the scene I have sort of ‘rabbit in the head-lighted it’, but in the long run it is probably for the best as the sort of paintings I make and WANT to make are really a life’s project. They are only just getting good!! Actually all I’m talking about here are the Beck’s Futures and a museum show I had in Holland which was not as good as it should have been. I do believe that you have to live by your failures as well as your successes though. Reviews about my work tend to differ wildly, some love it some hate it, mostly for the same reasons. I think I would feel very uneasy if everyone liked it and got it and I was part of the gang, though I feel uneasy on the outside too. I usually feel pretty uneasy.
How important for your generation has Tracey Emin been, her art and her great success?
Financial success and being a household name in Britain have never meant much to me, actually I feel rather sniffy towards it. What is more interesting to me is how LITTLE the rarefied art world celebrates Emin, and how little she professes to care about it. She also claims that she paved the way for a sort of female expressionism and autobiography in art and she can tell this by going around art schools and seeing what the girls are up to. I would have thought that the girls have always been up to that but they just never got anywhere with it. Courtney Love and PJ Harvey have been much more important influences on me in that sense, when I was younger and more impressionable I mean.
However, I do think that Tracey Emin is a good celebrity artist, she has a dazzling charisma and I love her writing. The shoot from the hip thing that she has perfected is really great. I also like her videos.
Drawing is the most immediate of all art forms, both primal and subtle. Does drawing play an important role in your art practice?
Yes, for sure. I think all good artists are good at drawing, even if their work has on its surface nothing to do with it. I am currently getting back into life drawing as I think it will really help me to move on with my work. Drawing forces you to see well. Grappling with allowing the graphic element into gooey painting is a big part of what I am up to. Drawing from the figure, from life or my head, is my number one activity. It’s what I spent most of my childhood doing.
In your art education, describe the role of drawing and painting as opposed to other media?
I still have to feed off sixth form at school in Oxford for a lot of it. I had a really wonderful teacher who made us do six-hour drawing sessions every week! I was much better then than I am now as I just don’t have that discipline anymore. After that I went to Camberwell where I was told my work was twee and whimsical, which it probably was, then to Brighton for Critical Fine Art Practice where the first thing they did was tell us to go down to the painting department and laugh. Later on some bigwig 90s style male theoretician treated me like I was in need of a lobotomy ... I was really in the wrong place then. I left pretty swiftly and took a few years out to work at the Museum in Oxford then I went to Glasgow and hit my stride. I did life drawing there again, which was fun but not vital at that point. Life painting was really helpful though, how to mix skin tone etc etc. Glasgow was good because they taught you painting but they did not mind what you did until fourth year when they suddenly turned into sadists and forced us to explain every move and pull our socks up. There was to be no dabbling in fourth year and if you were playing at anything you were not going to get away with it. I had been playing with painting and vague installations that other students seemed to think were cool up until then, after that I got on with it.
When you work, how important are materials, the very language of the visual arts?
I still have hundred of ideas for other mediums, I just choose, most of the time, to stick to painting because putting strictures on yourself is helpful. As I go to sleep at night I see installations and video clips and I think of scripts and all sorts of things but on the whole, with the sort of work I make, I just think it is more interesting to distill it. I may be loosening the rule about this a bit, last year I worked on a short film with Shana Moulton and this year I made an installation piece with France-Lise McGurn, but these were collaborations that came about through very close friendships. The interesting bit about this is actually getting out of yourself and thinking through the brain of someone you are closely aligned with and vice versa. This is more rewarding to me than making an installation or film out of the ideas in my paintings, as I don’t have the skills for that in any other medium and I imagine they would be sort of watered down versions.
When I paint, the paint is everything. It rules the situation. I get it all over my clothes body face, I cannot be tidy when I work, I’m like a baby, it’s shameful but true. It’s almost remarkable to me and other people that my paintings can be quite crisp and show a clear intent, it’s not just smudge.
In the past, when I was really trying to deal with abjection (which I am really not trying to deal with anymore) I let myself get a bit out of hand and my colours got really very muddy, but the visceral aspect did work. I am still very interested in paint representing viscera, I love Mira Schor on this and Soutine is my God.
Who are your most important mentors?
Wendy Skinner Smith in Oxford.
Henry Guy the Glasgow/London artist was a very good older friend to me when I lived in Spain in 1998.
Callum Innes was nice to me in Glasgow, so was Moyna Flannagan.
Sarah Smith was really great in the critical studies department, she helped me a lot with developing my feminist research into a dissertation that formed the backbone of a good five years of work that came after it.
Marlene Dumas and Marien Schouten were good at Ateliers.
Avery Preesman was fantastic at Ateliers, he was a real mentor whilst I was there.
In the history of art who are the most important artists in the development of your work?
Marlene Dumas, Hannah Wilke, Carolee Schneeman, Niki de Saint Phalle, Suzanne Valadon, (early) Marie Laurencin, Chaim Soutine, Picasso, Edward Munch, Martin Kippenberger, Philip Guston, Pierre Bonnard , Cy Twombley, James Ensor, ... , not enough women!! ...
I still think that there is so much to be learnt from these ‘great’ male ‘painter's painters’, not very many women have really managed to take them on – as painters – and make paintings influenced by them but on their own terms. The feminists all started to but urgency led them elsewhere. I feel a lot of bravado. I don’t feel retrogressive but I do think there is an as yet unfilled "me-shaped" niche in 1907, 1927, 1937, 1947, 1957, 1967: when it gets to the 70s and 80s I'm not sure I really want to be there as that is a bit too close to the bone, but I would happily work alongside Marlene and Rita Ackermann in 1997 ... from now Shana Moulton, Jo Robertson, Sean Landers, Rita Ackermann, Martin Creed, Markus Selg, I always keep an eye on the work of Lucy McKenzie, even though our aims and methods of production could not be more different. Amy Sillman, Frances Stark I love.