The Hazy Identity of Objects

A conversation with Meg Franklin by Jen Shepard

 

When walking into Meg Franklin's studio I'm not immediately struck by any one thing. It's a small space in a cozy Greenpoint building with a collection of art related detritus and personal items littering nearly every corner. In the center of the room is a large easel with a faded royal blue stretched velvet piece sitting on it. The piece appears to be in the very early stages of completion with merely a light tracing of maybe pencil or some linear tool having sketched a series of circles. There are a handful of small pieces to my right, smattered on the wall in a haphazard fashion; beneath them a stack of paintings leaning against the wall with a few out-turned.

The immediate sense I get from Meg is that she's not trying to show off. She expressed excitement about this visit but simultaneously did not overdo any kind of preparation. Of course, she tidied up and all, but it’s obvious she isn’t trying to make the space seem like anything more grandiose that it is. It is what it is. And being that I am a southerner and I know that Meg is as well, this kind of makes sense to me.

Meg has an easy demeanor that is both generous and retiring. She has that off-hand "oh I don't know" kind of attitude that comes off as both nonchalant and could be misconstrued as unsure. But in speaking to her for just a few minutes, you realize that she has a breadth of depth and intelligence that is cradled in this softened demure, not unlike many of the strong, capable southern women I have known in my life. She welcomes you in, with an unassuming posture, but beneath the surface she is whip-smart and witty.

Similarly, her paintings in many ways are the opposite of unassuming. Bold, garish, and odd– they stare out of their frames as some sort of twisted windows to other worlds. I sense a darkness and perhaps some humor, a deep sense of the uncanny, and a mysteriousness that is almost creepy.

In beginning my interview with Meg, I almost jump the gun and immediately start questioning her. I met Meg at Greenpoint Open Studios a few months back, then later got to know her more at a "Lady Painter's Party,” and I like her. We've had some fun moments drinking Rosé and shooting the shit, so I am happy to see her. But that is slightly eclipsed by the fact that I'm excited about this work, and maybe a little too eager start chatting about it.

Below is a rough transcription of our conversation with a few omissions and embellishments for clarity.

–––––––––––––––

Thanks again for having me. So right away I guess I should ask you a little bit about your background.

I'm from Northeast Georgia. My parents were professors in a small town there in the mountains. I grew up there and then went to college in Virginia where I studied English, and I got an MFA in creative writing. My MFA in painting came later.

I saw that as I was looking through your website. I thought that was really interesting actually. Do you feel like, are you still a practicing writer?

I wasn’t for a long time, but now I'm working on a novel. I was working on it more heavily a few months ago but have just shifted the focus to painting. It does have some parallels with my work which were unintentional. My work is focused on objects and sort of– the hazy identity of some of them.

The novel is about a world where prototypes of various objects play a really important role.

But that idea came to me totally separate from anything involving painting or objects. I don't have any conscious awareness of some sort of fixation on nick-naks or anything. [laughing]

It's interesting that there are parallels there. I feel like no matter what your practice is, I think most people have more than one thing that they do or are interested in and I feel like they always fold into each other somewhere.

Yeah, I wasn’t writing for a while. but it’s coming back. But [the parallels] would make more sense to me if I thought I had a conscious object obsession. Sometimes I don't even know why I'm driven to paint these things.

Looking at these I know that they are constructed scapes or still lifes from previous talks and visits. But when I look at them I can feel that too, because they feel like such unusual spaces. But they also feel sort of ritualistic or something like that and I start to think of Vanitas or memento mori.

That was not an intentional starting point in any way. But I do sort of kind of think of them as possibly sacred objects in another world. But there is no intentional desire to put them into a historical sense of still life painting.

Though you know it’s inadvertent, but I think my work is pretty similar actually to the 16th Century European still lifes that depicted exotic objects and curiosities from what were then faraway lands -- things dahlias from Mexico, tulips from Turkey, and porcelain from China. Even the fruit that shows up in Dutch paintings -- that was exotic. The objects I am painting just come from a far more distant world. 

Mostly, though, I'll try to go back and consult the still life masters and read about it and. My eyes close…

Set-up

You find it boring.

[laughter]

Yes.

Yeah, I hear you. I feel like I know a little bit about certain things like certain philosophy or ancient artistry, but I just kind of have the idea of it or the snippet of it. You could get too academic about it and…

And it could [curtail] my natural impulse.

Right! So, you feel like you work more impulsively, intuitively?

Yeah, it’s been changing. But usually with the work the more intuitive part of the process is actually setting up the objects, because I photograph them. Then I do the lighting, and then I work from the photographs.

I have all of these objects that I use, real objects that I find, or I find other things that are not quite recognizable, and I just kind of play with them. Lately, though I haven't been throwing ever color of the rainbow in my set-ups.

So maybe you are just getting more intentional about it?

Yes. And yeah so that. [affects] the process lately. The color, more than it did.

And it’s kind of impulsive the way that I set them up. And I take sooo many photos but I know nothing about proper photography. It’s all kind of intuitive.

So, I grew up catholic. I wonder if that has some sort of role in it. You know like church every Sunday and, all the sacraments and all that. I wonder if that has something to do with the way I've arranged them, and they kind of have this ritualistic quality like you mentioned.

There's a reverence about them even though they are definitely non-sensical in a way. And as you said– You think of them as sacred objects. They feel that way.

Yep and I think partially it's because I put candles in them. [laughing] But I think also it's symmetry and almost everything I do– there are some objects that are metallic, and I feel like in church in the Eucharist there are always gold objects.

What about working on velvet?

That's another thing. I can't think of a specific example where there is definitely velvet in the church. But it is an austere fabric in a way. I can see a priest’s garments being made out of that. Or I can see the tablecloth on the alter [..] It all seems to have a formality and reverence about it. In some ways I think it’s really technical, because I don’t care much about what’s going on behind the objects. But somehow for me with the velvet the texture kinds of adds that [..] it adds a little bit of interest.

Sometimes I use it in a more technical way, because I don't have much of an interest in the background, so the velvet adds a little interest.

Pink Still Life, oil on velvet, 36 x 36 inches

There again it does something to the objects that gives them more importance. They feel like something more like symbols something that would be on a priest’s robe or something.

Or even just like an old theater. the curtains [..] or an old funeral parlor, like the inside of a casket or something. [both of us laugh] I always think of velvet as a very serious fabric even though I don’t consider my work that serious, because the color is playful or the objects are often playful there is just an austere sense that it contributes to the works.

If I investigated or thought more deeply about the symbolism of the objects, yes maybe it would begin to appear a little funny or something but because of the way they are treated they feel like realistic ritualistic objects. Maybe it’s because things aren’t recognizable at all I get this occult vibe or magic vibe.

I don’t think of them in that way necessarily. But I do just think of them as being on a far distant planet somewhere [..] That is its own world of stuff, but the fact that you would compare with a fringe element of our world makes sense to me. they do look like they could be in like a witch’s laboratory or something sometimes.

Maybe it’s also the fact that we can’t place the objects. It not only feels otherworldly…a lot of the fear of the unknown occult literally means hidden…so, I think a lot of the fear of it is the fact that you don’t know what it is. A friend of mine on Facebook, randomly found some objects on her roof, and one of them was a tiny jar of mercury with a lock in it, and it was sealed in this jar. And there were these weird little statuettes. And she was super freaked out, and so she posted it online, and people were like “THAT is Santeria. You don’t touch it!”

[laughing]

Yeah, I would have been really excited to find that.

[laughing]

Meg and I’s conversation took a lot of twists and turns. When I asked her to describe more about how she creates the “scapes” that she photographs and paints from she started pointing out each item and where it came from. Every object is either constructed or taken out of context in such a way that it’s hard to tell what the objects are. She described a few.

Meg: A candle, a plastic shot glass from the sixties, a foil thing that I pulled off of some tea bags, an eye dropper, a candle holder, this. (she points to an object) was actually a holster on a vodka bottle shaped like a gun. you see them around Greenpoint. I don’t know if it’s a Russian or Polish thing, I think it is. If that all was recognizable as that stuff it wouldn’t be as interesting.

I think I already asked you about Vanitas or memento mori. Is there any inherent intended symbolism in most of these or are they just open to interpretation?

No. For me it’s about creating a sense of mystery, an appealing color sense… I really love being baffled by something. I love mystery novels. I would have been so excited to come across those objects that your friend found. I find that as you grow older it’s harder to kind of have a sense of wonder sometimes, but when I confront something that I totally don’t know what it is then I have that. So, I think that that’s why I work this way.

I also asked Meg about how she titles things and how she arrives at her titles. Being that she comes from a writing background, I was curious about whether or not her writing affects her titles. She said that she really doesn’t like complex titles, because she feels that they can be too pretentious at times. She laughed and said that she would almost rather name everything Untitled 1, 2, 3 etc. However, she said that is beginning to change a little.

Peggy’sCurtains in Purple; Peggy’s Curtains in Gold; Peggy’s Curtains in Teal; Each: oil on velvet, Each: 9 x 12 inches

Meg: Recently I named something “My Mom’s Seaside Dress.” I’m starting to incorporate biographical moments into these pieces, and it feels like I’ve arrived at something with this.

Have you ever had the experience like that you look in the mirror, and you don’t recognize the person in the mirror? Not like, your hair looks bad that day or something but on a stranger stronger level than that? It’s happened to me a few times. I know it’s me. I’m aware that this is the person that does all of these day to day things. [..] But I feel like that face that I see is only one tiny sliver of a much, much larger consciousness that I’m tied to somehow.

And I think that’s what I’m trying to get at with including these biographical elements. Because the only part of this that relates to my Mom’s dress is the color scheme. It’s a dress that my Mom wore in a painting or a photograph that I’ve seen many, many times, so it feels very, very rooted in my biography. So, I want to start including more of those snippets. With the recognition that the rest of these things are sort of the endless possibilities of all of those other things that I feel are present when I look at me and only barely see me. Here are some of these possible worlds that I am feeling exist but I don’t know.

I’ve been reading about this thing, [when you don’t recognize yourself in the mirror] and it’s called depersonalization, which can go along with dissociative personality disorder. But it isn’t that.

Mom’s Seaside Dress, oil on velvet, 36 x 24 inches

Maybe it’s a brain blip like déjá vu?

Yeah, maybe, But It brings up this really fruitful idea for work. It’s just an endless possibility of things that in your experience are buried possibilities.

I know it’s me, but that’s just like the very surface you. But there are worlds.

Entire worlds. I love that.

For some people depersonalization is a problem, but for me it’s really intense and really cool in a stoner kind of way to look at things.

[laughter]

That makes me think of things like aura photography and other new age stuff. Are you interested in occult things?

I don’t have a strong interest. I don’t really know about objects that might be used that way. I like the mysterious feeling that those things bring along, but I don’t have specific knowledge of these things.

Are you into scary movies?

Yes! I love scary movies. And I think a lot of it is about the mystery. There is a Stephen King that goes something like “The scariest monster is the one behind the door,” so it’s the mystery that really draws us in.

And that brings me to how they ruined the remake of the movie “It.”

[laughter] Meg and I devolve into a conversation about “It” before getting back on track.

You do have to have a sense of wonder to be interested in scary movies I think, but you do also have to have a sense of humor too. Because you at some point have to laugh about things that scare the shit out of you, because it’s like a coping mechanism.

Right! Right. that’s true

What are your favorite scary movies?

Umm all-time favorite is “The Shining.” I really loved “Get Out.” I really love the “Sleepaway Camp” series.

Omg those are amazing! They are so awful and so good.

[laughter]

It reminds me that sometimes I look at your work, and it feels like it has this seventies vibe. And I don’t think it’s just the velvet. So, I’m getting these 70’s horror vibes from some of the paintings.

[laughing] A man once told me that my work reminded him of Spencer’s Gifts. you know the cheesy store in the mall? I think he said 70’s Spencer’s on psychedelic drugs. I’m really into the design of the 70’s.

Red and Green Still Life in Box, oil on velvet, 18 x 18 inches

[laughing] Ok... I can see that. And I can almost see the aesthetic of “The Shining” here because of the crazy wide-angle shots of the building and the interior design in the movie.

Yeah, I am influenced by 70’s interiors. I really like the work of Verner Panton and Paul Rudolph.

Are there any other artists that influence you? I know we have talked in the past about Alex de Corte.

Oh yes, I love that work. If money wasn’t a factor I’d love to make whole room experiences, and I think that comes along with a love of 70’s interiors. Verner Panton has these absolutely beautiful rooms in this house that he had in Basil. [It’s] just like its own world. It wasn’t just in its own world in a flat canvas though. It was like you walk in from this bustling street outside into this crazy other world... intense, strange furniture, intense color combinations. It reminds me of rides like “It’s a Small World” or “Figment” at Disney World or Epcot. When you go it’s this experience. It takes you somewhere else. Of course, a painting can do that, but to be encapsulated... I’d love to recreate something like that.

I eventually really want a house with a fully carpeted room - floor, walls, possibly ceiling. Plush carpet. I'd also love to show my work in a fully-carpeted gallery space. 

We end our visit by looking more at Meg’s paintings. We joke about how we somehow ended on the topic of horror movies, but looking at Meg’s work it makes perfect sense. In one painting a floating, disembodied hand curls into the frame from below, in another an odd boob-like shape floats above the scene, and in yet another a cartoony frog-like creature surveys the scene. Each of her paintings are their own worlds. They are simultaneously horrifying and hysterical, in the same way a really good horror movie can be. There is also something about her use of color and the subtle glow of it all that specifically reminds me of a Dario Argento movie like “Suspiria” or “Inferno.” Overall, she has this mastery of the kitschy and the uncanny that never fails to draw you in. I’m looking forward to walking into a fully carpeted life-sized one in the future.

For more info on Meg please check out her website, or follow her on instagram @gabooldra

Additional Images:


Eric Piper visted by Erin Latham

Upon entering Resonator, a collaborative artspace in Norman, Oklahoma I am struck by the size of the giant warehouse. Everything from concerts, to experimental performance art, to dance parties has materialized in this space. Eric Piper, a founding member of Resonator, is an avid printmaker, philosophical thinker, placemaker, and community builder. I stopped by the space to take a tour and to hear about Eric’s interesting way of utilizing artist community building as his own art practice.

Your work seems to include an engagement with the greater community of artists. How does place-making and building artist community drive your practice?

The focus I have here is control over context. Often the artist is prostituted out by their owner or whomever is paying them. They are show ponies for a gallery or corporate manager. To change the world you cannot just make artwork in solitude, it must be shared with others. I’ve found the context of how the artwork is shared can affect what message comes from the work. The work being sacred is only a small picture of it’s capabilities. The way objects are placed in glass cases in museums, the way a zine is offered to be touched and folded by the audience. It is the MC that announces and introduces artists to speak or lecture; the context of a cathedral or a labyrinth of tabling humans.

The whole art-world is the real medium with which I work. I found that these events can be abstracted and experimented with as well. Composing events and spaces, curating the work and artists, the impact that these events and shows make can be addicting. The artist is usually trained to think they are at the mercy of some larger other, that there is some divine theory of art or council that says yes and no. The truth is that the world is a beautiful chaos. Every collective, university, museum, music scene, every group of humans creates these unspoken rules and theories of aesthetics and integrity. First maybe you feel insulted and try to teach them the right way of seeing. Then, if you are able, you might look at it through the groups eyes and see their ideas are sacred. It doesn’t lessen my experience to allow them the value in their experience. Sometimes to share these stranger ideas, it takes special consideration in the exhibition process. Every human has these divine ideas and concepts.

Why is printmaking an important medium for your work? Does it drive the content forward?

Printmaking introduced me to a world of art I never knew existed. It was years before I realized that printmaking was intended to replicate a piece which has already been made. My mentors taught me to work directly with the matrix to create original editions that themselves are the original work. Prints allow a greater ability to connect and collaborate as well. Having multiples invites experimentation and trading. Working with a medium designed for mass production gives you a knife to explore the innards of your economic environment. Survival based on selling objects and items that are not food or shelter.

How does the multiple play a part in your work?

With an exhibition of prints it’s possible to book a tour across country and open exhibitions in multiple galleries in one gesture. My life has always been connected with whatever music scene I am around. Printmaking and music goes way back as well. Printmaking is a tool for production. Product creation, to replicate a thing and then distribute it. It’s as if it is the first iteration of social sharing. Old school Internet. It gives the ability to share ideas, concepts and knowledge.There is no need for a sacred object locked away, printmaking allows editions to be made and spread internationally. Symbols to be interpreted by different cultures, a common ground to draw parallels and differences on.

It Only Works By Breaking Down, 2017

How did collaboration with other artists and community start?

There was this time within the music scene in Norman where people were coming up with the idea for shows and then figuring out how to throw it together in order to make it happen. I got to know a lot of people within this scene and eventually through a Wild sort of team management and collaboration we were doing because we wanted to make things happen for each other. Those were the roots of the stuff. Which led me to Dope Chapel through an interaction with Andy Beard who had a space in downtown [Norman]. He gave me permission to create a show and do whatever I wanted with it. It changed how I looked at curation of art work, I started letting artists figure out how to put their exhibitions together themselves. After working with people and letting them really figure things out for themselves, I started seeing the collaboration as an art practice itself.

 Can you elaborate on the idea of social practice and performance in your work? How does performance manifest?

I love performance art, I love the idea of this sacred action, or language that is experience. To think of how to share experience with an audience. Life becomes performance, this is probably what lead me to begin organizing shows.  Everything is installation and performance. Action in life is the most effective piece of art.

Conceptually, what resources are you drawing from? Are there readings or processes which lead you to your next idea?

I journal compulsively and keep track of interactions I have with other people throughout the day, free write on any odd sparks that go off in the brain, my dreams, use words like tea leaves and explore connections between concepts.  I enjoy reading, or listening to books. ‘The Writing of the Disaster’ explores how written word could possibly capture disaster. It is written by Maurice Blanchot after he survived WWII. In Watermelon Sugar and Anti-Oedipus created a ton of energy in my mind as well. The writing of the disaster becomes the disaster of the writing.

The glory of the disaster becomes the disaster of the glory.

The answer of the question becomes the question of the answer.

It’s a simple game to play with words. The reflection that one puts into it can generate interesting narratives to understand the world.

Can you talk about the narratives that lead you to the creation of the work? How do they unfold?

Very much like tarot cards. There are scenes that seem to draw up different relationships to the people viewing them. Depending on your situation in life, looking at these images or thinking of these concepts can bring insight to the situation.Through the abstracted human experience, how we connect to other humans through language.

Language, simply speaking to one another or sending messages…

Culture has already taught each person how to interpret these experiences.

To hack the social scripts everyone is accustom too opens people up to translate and experience things they’ve never encountered.  It forces people to come up with a new way to process experience.

Bereft of Certitude, One Cannot Doubt

How does this manifest in the work or in your social practice?

I believe I began thinking I wanted my drawings to change the world or show some kind of secret, now I think the most important thing for an artist to do is to be traveling and interacting with different humans.  We have to work together to build a scene and a culture we want to participate in. Art is often (simply) hijacked for other groups agendas. I think artists should have their own philosophy and build a system to share that philosophy with the big picture. While there is a sad poetic beauty maybe in the human that works for something they hate 5 days a week and make art against that entity 2 days, it is not the way to change this system. And it is extremely dangerous to build solidarity in this complacency.  If we want to see real change it takes organizing people creating connections and telling people to take control of their lives. Everyone has access to different resources. 

The series you created entitled “We, A lens to the Eternal” which presents the viewer with imagery which situates them in an almost haunting landscape. The way in which the formalistic aspects of the work merge create an unsettling picture of humanity, can you talk about your views of human experience today and how it reflects in the work?

I believe this work shows a transformative oscillation in individual identity. The individual that is separated from all cultures, human activity and consequence. The individual identifying with a group/culture. The individual identifies as the entirety of humanity, all the good and bad, and then has to reconcile these actions with their self image.  Self image maybe being their individual self and tied to their group-identity.  

Death Vacation II

You play a big role in your community space Resonator, can you speak about what you are doing here and what Resonator is doing for the community?

Resonator is a collaborative project. Af friend told me to consider Resonator and my previous space Dope Chapel as art pieces themselves. I think of Resonator as a huge part of my practice. The group is incredible and I’m considering pushing towards curriculum building and how to possibly start a school. I’m thinking about If I were going to make an alternative art school what things would we be able to, workshops, classes, etc. and what would be the limitations of that.

Do you have a lot of students coming from the University who use the space?

Yeah, we try to give access to the space as much as we can. When I talk to artists, regardless if they’re at OU or if they’re making work outside of school I try to ask them if they’ve thought about showing their work. I mostly ask just to see what their ideas of an art show should be or how they would do it. I want to try to activate everyone if possible.

Making maps and tracing maps, how we process the world and environment around us. Trying to take control of the other, you are projecting on yourself. I’d like to pass it on to other artists and give them  the ability to break out of the normal. 

The phrase “imagery from a globalized subconscious linking themes of identity, value, and finding your place in a foreign environment” is in your artist statement, can you elaborate on this idea?

This is a context for the viewer, I feel pairs with the artwork. While this kind of state of mind can be applied to viewing any work, I was journaling and playing with my relationship to these concepts while producing in 2014, 2015.

The idea of your familiar environment being foreign. Trying to shed the programmed way society teaches us of relating to the wilderness of society.

What different cultures find value in and why.  How an individual can: trade different types of work for shelter, food, general well-being; assume responsibility for how their employer gathers the resources distributed to them; and keep personal ethics in tact.

 

Additional Information:

After touring the facilities and speaking with Eric about his work I was able to see first hand how community building through different practices engages both Eric and Resonator. Through engagement with students and the larger artist community the Oklahoma art scene is connected to the world. Eric and the space work to build community through social practice and engagement with the broader international community.  You can check out what’s happening with Eric and Resonator.


 

Disrupting Divisions

Contemporary, online introductions, like how I met Antonius Bui, still send me down a rabbit-hole of "(blank) in the age of the internet".

I was tagged in a comment, on one of their Instagram posts, by a mutual friend we had met at respective residencies. The connection being that we were both based in Oklahoma at the time. At the time of this interview, Bui was one of the 2017 Tulsa Artist Fellows. This tag led to a binge-stalking of their Instagram feed. Then their website. Finally reaching out via DM and text.

Lucky for me, they were heading down to OKC for a visit to a friend, and were available for a meet-up over drinks. We met in the Plaza District, exchanged pronouns and rapid fire of common friends, experiences, projects and complications of living in Oklahoma as POC.

A few weeks later we met up for an interview at their studio in Tulsa. Antonius and DADA (their newly rescued dog) walked me over to the TAF studio building, where we began the interview.

ESTABLISHING ACCESSIBLE ARCHIVES

Major/Minor is the collaborative blog Bui runs with their brother, Joseph. The space is one that presents interviews and profiles on queer and trans people of colour, as a means of visibility and self-presentation.

We always wanted to start a project together, and we're finally getting to a point where we are learning to collaborate more effectively.

Growing up in a family of four kids, both of us growing up queer and artsy, and feeling Othered in our strict, Catholic, Vietnamese family - we just wanted a way to build community wherever we went.

Being transient a lot of the time, they want to create a central space for others to gravitate towards - one that features the stories of exclusively queer, people of colour.

The blog posts feature photo portraits, and Antonius and Joseph (graphic designer) are focusing on new ways of visually conveying each interview.

I think a lot of people won't read through the whole interview, and I don't blame them, they take what they need.

The dream would be to create a multi-disciplinary platform, with podcasts, a zine, the blog itself and we need to hop onto social media. Major/Minor is a lifelong work in progress that can use all the help it can get. We would love to have people from all over the world send us content based out of their local communities. All you need is a notepad, camera, and recording device. Let’s decolonize our minds and rewrite history together.

The process of finding people to interview for Major/Minor relies heavily on personal introductions through friends they've met from the various residency stints across the country. Bui also isn't intimidated to use social media as a means of connecting directly.

I'll literally DM someone and be like, "Hey, I think you're awesome! Let's meet up!" And since the LGBTQ community is pretty small, I think we're all yearning for a community.

One of the more obvious and important repercussions of this project is that the digital platform, not only creates an accessible record of POC queerness, but also makes a diverse range of historical narratives available.

INFLUENCE OF FASHION

We grew up in the Bronx, and my parents did production work, so imagine scarves, ties, accessories... I grew up packed in materials at night with my parents, using the heat sealer, staple gun, putting tags on stuff.

I've always been interested in fashion, but having many friends and relatives who've done it, and growing up doing textile work for my parents made me aware of how much exploitation can be on the other end of it, I didn't exactly want to enter the fashion world.  

During my second year at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) I was approached by Josie Natori, who is a Filipino-American designer, to do a window display for her storefront in New York, for New York Fashion Week (2015).

This is a collaboration that is ongoing – Bui has recently finished a 4th installation for Natori.

One fantastic thing about MICA is that we have an annual benefit fashion show where you don't have to be a fashion or fiber major to showcase your line. This produces a interdisciplinary show that pushes the boundaries of fashion. It was an opportunity for me to collaborate with my great friend Robert Penn - it was an extremely performative show.

Bui and Penn’s collaboration for the MICA benefit fashion show was named Real Fun, (an anagram of funeral). Themes of death, rituals and spirituality were presented using cut paper techniques for garments, complimented by more theatrical costume elements such as tombstones and monsters. Watching the video of that performance, the lighting is an essential role in highlighting the context of these garments - the overall form and especially the “negative space” of the cuts are distinguished clearly from one another. The effect is something akin to a foliage or floral flourish on the models.

We came up with the idea of a military style formation, but then juxtaposed with the feminine, floral paperwork.

We also created tombstones and monsters - it's kind of hard to imagine, but it draws parallels in my mind - how it's all over the place, and I can't imagine a show without a multi-disciplinary approach. The show definitely mirrored how I express gender and break away from heteronormativity.

PAPER PATH

Bui's process of arriving at paper cutting was not straightforward.

They began at the University of Houston, in a field unrelated to art production.

I was studying chemistry at first, as a way to please my parents and their version of success.

In order to transfer to MICA, they spent a semester creating an entire portfolio – predominantly of photo-realistic drawings.

Every department I went to for a portfolio review was like, "You're a print maker!", and I was like, "I don't know what printmaking is, but I'm going to apply with this major".

I fell in love with relief printing, really enjoyed the production of screen printing, the multiplicity, the ease and then hand-cut paper work, I guess they developed side by side from there and it eventually just took over.

The hand-cut part is important to my work, allowing me to reflect: whether it's the interviews with people, the moments I've had with loved ones, being in queer spaces - for me it's like rewriting history in many ways. The paper begins as a white canvas which I puncture, allowing the background and my narratives to shine through.

The symbolism and meaning behind my use of cut paper has changed quite a bit. It first began as this interest in the history of paper, which started off in Asia and revolutionized the world in many regards. Then I was interested in dying - in the form of print. We're entering this technological age, and paper is a way to slow down. Now, for me, it's about rewriting history, writing queerness into that history - and POC queerness - since history is predominantly white.

I'll say this cutting work is much, more intuitive. Whenever I'm back home and I'm forced to go to church with my parents, I realize how much of my upbringing is in my work - it looks like how the church is structured, it looks like stained glass windows, it looks like excessive flowers at the church and it also references the áo dài - the traditional Vietnamese garments.

The cuts are so instinctive and ingrained in my brain, very cultural. While the newer body of work, the portraits, because I want to portray them as accurately as possible, they do start off as projected images that I then draw. They're more dictated, there's still space for interpretation - like the way I decide what's cut what's not, and what is perforated instead.

PORTRAITS

The most striking piece in during our studio visit was, the portrait of Chris Lopez.

I started exploring cyanotypes a lot because I was thinking more about the metaphor of light: shining light on a history that's often, not seen or heard.

The dark blue background of the cyanotype cloth contrasts against the paler form of the head and upper torso of Lopez. The body is layered with ghostly traces of leaves and words that fade in and out of legibility.

The cut paper portrait of Chris was shown at the Lawndale Art Centre in Houston. I used that piece as a stencil, and the middle region is a second cyanotype - I went over this stencil with a second exposure.

The darker piece over his mouth was a happy experimental accident, but many people have enjoyed it - since this (middle region) is actually a poem he wrote called: My Brown Skin.

The poems lines fade in and out of legibility creating a visual effect of waking up from a dream, ideas fading in and out of ones’ memory. The artist used Lopez's handwriting itself.  

It'd definitely one of the most rewarding parts of Major/Minor, where I interviewed him and was like, "Oh wait, Chris, I loved our conversation, I love our friendship, it would be an honor to portray you, may I photograph you?"

When I went to his house to photograph him, we were throwing around ideas, and he was like, “Oh wait, can I show you my journal?”

He showed me this poem that he wrote, and I said, "Whoa Chris this is what we need!" I like the ins and outs of the poem in many ways, having to fight to read it, as well, because you need to develop a bond and relationship with someone in order to get to this point.

Toward the end of the visit, we walked over to Living Arts, the gallery/project space where Bui had another portrait - one that had won Best in Show.

The work is of another artist, educator interviewed by Bui for Major/Minor: Noèl Puèllo.

Her portrait shimmers black and glittery as one moves past its space on the wall.The cut parts of Noèls’ clothing are simple strips that flop and fold themselves into facets that gently undulate at the slightest draft, or movement of a body around it. Her face is shaped and highlighted by intricate cuts that reveal the reflecting light from the wall underneath. Her features are bookended between her coiffed curls and beard, which flicker light caught on the dark glitter.

Whenever I win an award, and it has to do with the project (Major/Minor), I give a percentage to the person portrayed and then a percentage to a non-profit of their choice.

We’re giving 30% of the award to an art program that Noèl went to as a teenager, one she found her voice through.

This practice is something Bui, set into motion after seeing other artists exposing their subjects and related issues in an exploitative manner.

I'm still figuring out how to do it without feeling like I'm exploiting their story in any way. If you happen to have any suggestions, I am all ears. Though artists are often full of good intention, we sometimes enter communities, complete a project, and leave the people behind.

I make sure to title it with a quote from the interview, and it feels a little didactic, but I feel we do need to slow down.

We process images so fast through Instagram, that to have people take even three seconds longer to read a title is a small, meaningful gesture.

ACROSS PLATFORMS

Bui manages to organically integrate their interviews into their visual-art, again, taking on a multi-disciplinary approach in all, creative endeavors.  For them, wearing several different hats (writer, artist, designer, performer) is an urgent necessity, one that comes out of a need for career survival.

We are often times judged by the skills we can provide. Taking that on and realizing that these are platforms for our voices to be heard is empowering in many ways, but I can definitely see the other side of it - it's restrictive. You want to concentrate on this aspect of my life, but have to do all the other parts in order to be recognized.

On Bui's website, they have separated their practice into three sections: Cut Paper, Explorations, and Major/Minor.

I have an issue with the way that I compartmentalize my work, I feel so much pressure to do that, by the art world. In order to secure funding, to get these fellowships, and to explore the other work, I need to continue this paper-cutting work. Not that I don't like them, but I do need to find a way to combine them more. Like combining drawing with the cut paper work, I'm still thinking of printing large format photos, and cutting into that.

Now that we're talking, I realize how important fashion is and how it continues to influence me. It combines every aspect into one form: photography for the shoots/editorial, the writing, the textile design, the performance aspect of the shows itself.

POLITICS AND APATHY

ReModel Minority and Model Minority Mutiny are two series of laser cut, monochromatic paper works featuring statements such as, “NOT YOUR MODEL MINORITY” and “NOT YOUR ASIAN SIDEKICK”. The work seeks to confront silenced issues of being a “Model Minority”.

This came out of a sense of urgency - both bodies were created in less than a week. I needed to make these for myself.

The term describes demographic as being perceived to be more successful socio-economically (ie. family stability, low-crime, highly educated and financially stable) than the general population.  The controversy around this term comes from the lack of government intervention and adjustments inequalities in the group, because of the perceived success.

This "model minority" thing is such a myth: there are so many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who are struggling. It not only affects AAPIs who don’t achieve/ don’t desire the “American Dream”, but also negatively impacts other minorities as well. For instance, my parents blame Black and Brown folks for their problems because they don’t understand systemic racism and their histories. The Model Minority Myth creates this unrealistic idea that hard work alone leads to success. Lies!

With Model Minority, I will say, I am so annoyed with apolitical Asians.

So many AAPIs can be so apathetic and I understand why: there’s huge history of separating us from Black people, and also riding on anti-blackness to get to that level.

I hate, hate the idea of the Asian guy who is into cars, and sport, who prefers skinny, pale Asian women, who lifts – they aspire to white “bro” culture so much!

They can be so complacent! Get politically involved and stand up for other marginalized groups.

Too often you only see Asian Americans stand up when it comes to cinema and actresses and actors - and it's important! But, where are we at marches and protests? Where are we for Black Lives Matter? Where are we for DACA?

This sense of solidarity is something Bui follows online via closed Facebook groups like Sad And Asian.

They started out as a phenomenal femme Asian Art collective, Sad Asian Girls, based out of New York.

The closed Facebook group relies on heavy moderation by the organizers – calling out users for inappropriate behavior and posts that do not follow the group rules.

Some of the rules include tagging everything: Friday is "LGBTQA day", Thursday is "Disabilities day", and Saturdays and Sundays are "No East Asians day" - so they're very aware of how East Asians are often highlighted over other Asian groups.

They provide reading groups, you can vent, advertise opportunities, even just, "Hey, I’m going through this - is anyone else going through something similar?"

It's politically charged and to be part of this group, is like "YES!"

Other groups that I have found include VANGUARD and the Tiger Balm Project, both fantastic zines that cater to Southeast Asians.

Now it's a matter of trying to get other Asian friends involved!

Yeah, a lot of the slogans (in Model Minority) were informed by conversations with community members or looking at problems other AAPIs go through, looking at AAPI resistance history as well - like reading about the term "Yellow Peril" and realizing, I wasn't taught any of this…it's crazy how much history was hidden from us!

Additional Information & Images:

 

Be sure to follow Antonius Bui’s interviews at Major/Minor (https://www.major-minor.space/)

The artists’ website is (http://www.antoniusbui.com/)

And posts regularly on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/buimonster/