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.

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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

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