Jen Shepard

A Funeral and A Tourist Trap

My Conversation with Tiffany Smith About Her Work, the Commodification of Culture, Immigrant Identity and The Subjectivity of Being a Woman

I visited Tiffany Smith's studio in the summer of 2018 while she was subletting from a friend. When I come to visit her, I get out of a cab on a lush, tree-lined, wide block in the heart of Bedstuy and immediately pivot on my heels in two directions looking for what might resemble a studio building. There are waves of people crowing out of the nearby subway, and I'm a little perplexed since I don't see anything like that. Suddenly I feel a tap on my shoulder and spin around to see Tiffany's wide welcoming grin. She is sort of giggling at me for looking so confused. We laugh and hug, and she quickly leads me up the stoop of a beautiful old brownstone, unlocking the heavy wooden front door and ducking through a second smaller door just inside that one. We descend down a steep staircase, into the basement. 

Tiffany's space is a simple, concrete room illuminated by clamp lights and overhead florescent lights. The room is filled with all the tricks of her trade. She is a multimedia artist with a photography background and a penchant for the theatrical. Her work consists largely of staged photography sessions and elaborate installations featuring elements like colorful lighting, playful patterned, geometric wallpapers, real plants, plastic plants, and various props. It's interesting to see her studio, because one can find most of the props she uses both for the photos and the installations. The real and the artificial co-mingle in an interesting way. 

On the Subjectivity of Being a Woman in the World

When I sit down to talk with Tiffany about her work, one of the first notions that comes to mind is the prevalence of a female empowerment motif. Her series, "A Woman, Phenomenally," in fact features various portraits of immigrant women in almost warrior-like poses, seated in front of staged backgrounds, staring at the camera challengingly and frequently wielding some kind of prop related to their heritage. In another series she photographs people in "throne chairs," wicker chairs with a tall arching back that feel throne-like. Although this series is not specific to women it still feels like it's about empowerment, perhaps more of the idea of empowering people of color or marginalized communities, since these are primarily the subjects she focuses on. But regardless, the female empowerment motif comes through in all that she does. 

From, “A Woman Phenomenally”

I mention to Tiffany that I sense this vibe. We both laugh, and she questions sarcastically,

Ya think?

Do you want to tell us about that? 

Sure, yeah, because I am a woman of course, and I have this certain subjectivity about being a woman in the world. 

She elaborates explaining what all women know– that there are certain things about life and specific "bullshit" as she calls it, that only women have to deal with. She explains that it naturally follows that she would make work from that perspective, and this covers everything from power dynamics, to procreation and menstruation. As an example, she reminds me that she had to cancel a meeting we had earlier in the week, specifically because she had intense cramps. She muses that this is not something men have to deal with. 

Is a man's productivity ever directly impacted by something like this? She asks rhetorically. Of course not.

This launches us into a discussion about procreation. I observe:

It's still some sort of bizarre expectation of women. It's scary that that expectation is put on those of us who aren't doing it.

Yeah, I'm thinking about that a lot nowadays and how we are still such a patriarchal society that that is the way we are judged. People still ask Oprah, "why don't you have kids?" You can be Oprah, you can be a self-made billionaire... [and still have that expectation] Are you asking Stedman the same question? Not to downplay the importance of having children or producing life, but is that the pinnacle of what we have to offer?" 

Our society is not at a place where it is ready to entertain the idea of a single, independent woman as her own entity.

The Personal Verses the Cultural & Culture as Commodity

Tiffany was born in Miami and grew up between Miami and Nassau, Bahamas. Her Mom is from Trinidad/Guyana, and her Dad is from Jamaica. She talks about how her upbringing and multi- cultural background have influenced her work.

Looking at it retroactively and thinking about my interest in community... I think it also has to do with finding a place. Thinking about displacement, shifting through different homes and finding a place to be rooted. At the end of it, the center is in you, so it's a journey to find that place. I think this is what my work is circling around.

Self-portraits helped me figure out how to bring out of my subjects what I wanted out of them.

Building an aesthetic and a visual language, and thinking about posing and lighting and staging, and bringing all those references together... it was a challenge to learn how to pull all those things together effectively.

For Tropical Girls

Tiffany had a solo exhibition called "For Tropical Girls" at The Wassaic Project Maxon Mills Gallery in 2017. I had the good fortune to see it in person. The exhibit featured photography, installation, and video. The center of the room was inhabited by one large installation of a kids' blow up swimming pool, oddly lit with an artificial feeling pale purple hue and surrounded by blow up palm trees, real and fake ivy, ferns and aloe plants. The plants were elevated on little iron shelves and trivet like objects that felt like something that would be in your Grandma's backyard. The blow-up swimming pool contained another smaller blow-up pool nested inside and creating a sort of a pancake stack of pools. 

The entire scene, with its' purple lighting and plastic plants, feels playful yet artificial, fun yet nostalgic. But there is also something unsettling about it. It is so odd, kitchy, plastic. There is something saccharin sweet about it, like too much Sweet and Low in your iced tea. Or that moment when you realized your grandmother isn't just collecting stuff— she's a hoarder.

Surrounding the central installation are various fabric hangings, photographs and other works, surrounded by bits of plastic ivy tendrils, draped between them. In one photograph Smith is pictured wearing a Walt Disney sweatshirt, loudly patterned cheap looking pants, and a fake flower in her hair. She stands perfectly still with her hand on a rolling suitcase. A printed backdrop of a bridge that is badly painted hangs behind her. It looks like the type of photo that you take outside of a cruise liner after you've stepped off the boat. (Smith later tells me that this image was sourced from a vintage postcard about 7 Mile Bridge, which connects the Florida Keys to the rest of Florida.) Nods to tourist culture and also Caribbean culture run throughout the work.

I ask Tiffany about these themes

You're pulling all this iconography from your Caribbean heritage?

Yeah, it’s all a tourist trap. You grow up in a place that is a vacation paradise– all the places I call home. (Jamaica, New York, and Miami) My father is in tourism. So, through that experience I’ve witnessed firsthand the process of selling cultural experience as capital.

5 Kings

For one of her installations entitled "5 Kings" Smith photographed her nephews in a series of "throne" style chairs. She describes them as gilded, gold chairs. This was before she attended graduate school around 2011-12. 

My sister has 6 children and two step children. I call them the Rasta Brady Bunch [laughing]. From my niece down, all of their hair is locked. They had these really nice chairs. I sat each of [my nephews] in the chairs. They are used to it and are hams for the camera now. I took individual portraits and one of all five of them on the throne/couch together. I used those as my first experiment in my first semester of grad school. This was the first photo-based installation. I started making wallpaper and floor coverings using decorative concrete block patterns, and terrazzo tile patterns.

My ambition was to meet the viewer at their point of understanding. There are a lot of stereotypes about the island of Jamaica in general, and around Rastafarianism. People's associations go straight to Bob Marley or weed. So, I bought all of this stuff on Amazon and on at the dollar store I found a whole gang of weed leaf party beads [..] I made a beaded curtain out of the weed leaf party beads. 

You had to go through this beaded curtain and into the space, which is appointed with elements featured in a typical Caribbean home. There are shoes strewn around on the ground, all in Rasta of Jamaican colors. On the wall the photos of my nephews in the throne chairs were mounted in a cross formation.

It feels reliquary-esque.

Yeah, It's like a shrine. But I don't want it to allude to the idea that the life is gone. I want to celebrate their life and existence. The way I placed them in there - the shoes are scattered around as if they just came home and threw their shoes off like kids do.

Info Pollution: Hashtag Thoughts and Prayers

Panic Room

This brings me to wanting to discuss another installation of Smith's that I also fortunately got to see. It's called "Panic Room," and as most of her installations are, it is site-responsive. It can be moved from venue to venue without losing its' basic meaning and structure, because it's sort of malleable or scalable for the environment. I saw "Panic Room" installed in a gallery in Harlem called Long Gallery in the fall of 2016.

I created a hovel, a temporary structure, using industrial blue tarp, cut up and strung up in triangular flag shaped forms... and layered them, mounted them to a movable wall to create a nook space. The idea is to create a protective shell space that can be put up very quickly and taken down very quickly. The idea in creating it was responding to the space in Re:Art Show in the old Phizer building [originally]. 

This was the first show. They invited artists to come and respond to the space, but it had to be able to put up and taken down quickly, so I played more into the temporality of it. What I was responding to in that piece was the media attention surrounding police sanctioned violence on black bodies. It was an alter to actual lives that were lost and the surviving women. It was about creating a space that was meditative. It's like an altar to actual lives that were lost and their loved ones that remain traumatized.

After sifting through a site that lists every death at the hands of police, I settled on choosing four prevalent cases, largely because the emotional weight of scrolling through thousands of names was immense to bear. For me the turning point was the Philando Castille shooting because of the way it involved the media and the camera. The cases that I referenced all involved the victim dying on camera - Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott ... Philando Castille... it happened on Facebook live. You can literally die live on camera, and people still don't value [believe]. I wonder what happened to that 4-year-old girl. That officer saw that child in the back of the car and still pulled the trigger – forever traumatizing that child. The way we interact with images is something I think about a lot. Because of how disposable images are nowadays. Distributing those images helps to raise awareness but also re-traumatizes. 

You re-live trauma. It reawakens your own personal trauma. It’s not healthy for us to consume and digest images in the way that we do. We are doing too much, taking in too much information. We are not built to process information on the level to which we can access it.

That leads us down the proverbial rabbit hole in discussing the prevalence and ubiquity of media and particularly violence in the media and sensationalism in the media in contemporary society. 

How does the prevalence of media contribute to a post-truth society? How do our reactions change from over-exposure?

You don't even think about what it means. How do people die on camera in front of you and people still dispute whether or not there is an epidemic of violence?

People say we are in a post truth culture. And you would think the prevalence of image would make more truth. But it's flipped on itself. And the images are so pervasive and common.

We privilege things that are mundane. Celebrities and people making bags of money in this capitalist society. People who are assholes in front of the camera.

Right. Everything is the same tone and intensity. It can be some bullshit celebrity story which is on par with kids in Thailand stuck in a cave and also Donald Trump doing terrible things.

Now you can make a post about it and bring some attention to yourself. It functions back into this self-serving wave. Why are you really motivated to share this information? Even if it is to say, I'm the one who shared it. I'm just doing my part... is that completely selfless? You can't help everyone. There is no way for everyone in the world to be helped. 

There will always be tragedies and things that deserve our hashtag thoughts and prayers [..] because half the time people don't want to actually DO anything.

Commodification and the Way We Construct Identity:

We segue into a discussion about immigrant identity and how it is constructed and affected by being in the United States. Tiffany's work addresses this in various ways, but primarily as an entry point for the viewer i.e. many of the spaces she creates in some way reference a home whether it be a traditional home or whether it be the hovel-like structure of "Panic Room."

I can look at the iconography of one of your background sets [for your installations], and I can look at the patterning of this piece of cloth, and I think of the plants and it reminds me of the Caribbean, and I can look at the astroturf, and that makes me think of America. But I can also look at the fact that you have this juxtaposition of real verses fake. And I find it really interesting, because this is telling me more about one of your cultures, which is American culture which is all about plastic, reproducible bullshit.

It's a couple of things. It's definitely about commodification. About how culture is commodified. How I can go on Amazon and search "Rasta" shoes or.. It's also about the way we construct identity. It's even more prevalent now that we craft this version of ourselves with social media. 

And the experience of coming here as an immigrant is all about that. It's about crafting a version of yourself. It's a choice between choosing to assimilate. There was a time when that was more socially acceptable. That's what you would do. You would come here and try to assimilate into this cultural context.

That enters the conversation about interior spaces and protecting that sacred space of the home, because in immigrant families and communities that's usually the place where it can be appointed in a way that reflects yourself and your heritage and where you come from and it's also your place where you are most free to be yourself. In public you have to code switch and put on another face or another mask to keep your job - hide your dreadlocks, for example. But when you come home you can appoint the space how you choose. You need that psychologically, you need that sanctity, that safe space.

I see your work as this sort of externalization or merging of your heritages. But then you show me an older piece that is definitely about the home, and I think it's really interesting to think about culture as currency in that context.

That makes me think about when I was developing this work. There's this book I read heavily while I was developing this work. It's called "Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home" (and there's a documentary and an exhibit as well). It's set in the Caribbean diaspora in England and [is about] the process of setting up this elaborate front room and the different aesthetics that were present there. That's where the patterned wallpaper comes from. There are decanters, a wooden plaque of Jamaica, artificial flowers, images of family...

It's like a showpiece. You don't use the front room. It's an area for presentation. It's about being able to show off your wealth and your accomplishments. It functions with an added level of importance when you are moving to a new place and make a better life.

The way that America functions as a super power, particularly in the islands. People look to America for input. The way you look out at America from there– there's more opportunity. There are more consumer goods. There's a toxic relationship that goes on there.

While your work brings up these topics, it's also joyful and exciting and beautiful and interesting and strange and also feels personal enough to your experience. Obviously, there are certain installations such as "Panic Room" that feel like you are more directly addressing these things, but a lot of your work indirectly references these things. Sometimes work that feels too "hit you over the head political" can be less effective.

Yes, the questions and the problems I'm trying to bring up in my work is not just me saying, I'm oppressed. Rather than repeat the problem, I'm trying to contribute to the solution.

I live with all of these subjectivities on a daily basis: being a woman, being a woman of color, being a woman of a certain financial bracket, being a certain shade of blackness, being in this intersectional place of being Caribbean American. There are all these different layers to your experience and the way you engage with the world, and they all happen simultaneously. I could choose to focus on one thing, but I found my voice more authentically. I felt like I wanted to say all of the things.

Your work also comes across as like a joyful celebration... 

Part of that is definitely intentional. It's like setting it up like a tourist trap to lead you into this thing, and then there it gets a little darker and a little heavier...

It is simultaneously a funeral and a tourist trap.

Our conversation drifts toward what Tiffany is currently working on. She gestures toward the current set-up in the studio. There are fake plants, astroturf, a concrete block and a little tube of fake Halloween blood. 

Field Notes on Planting Seeds in Uprooted Gardens

This one's getting pretty dark. I'm going to place myself in the center of it. I'm going to put fake blood. I will be free bleeding, menstruating. [laughing sort of manically]

Shout out to my horror movie fanatic roots and my John Waters fan-ship. I love a little gore and a little twist. I'm thinking a lot about those issues about what we go though as women.

I knew I loved you.

We both devolve into a chorus of giggles and continue talking about her new work. I'm excited to see how it manifests. Tiffany tells me more about her projects that are in progress, and somehow, we bookend our discussion by bringing the topic back to the expectations of women and procreation. I think as women of the same age group who are kind of at that age where this becomes more of a pressure, we naturally slide into this kind of discussion. 

Do you think of your work as your baby?

It's the only thing I have– myself and my voice. 

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.


Waves, Particles, and the Refusal of the Totalitarian:

A Conversation with Theresa Daddezio about her painting and curatorial work, quantum physics, and the politics of abstraction

Walking into Theresa's studio, I am immediately struck by the large windows, the quality of the afternoon light streaming in, and the cacophonic sound of car engines revving and honking that assaults my ears through a casually ajar window. The room is sparse and fairly large. It is adorned with a grouping of paintings that are neatly and thoughtfully installed, while a smattering of unselected works casually lean beneath. There is a torn, ratty studio couch in the corner next to a table that is strewn with various cups and utensils. Theresa offers me a glass of water with crimson hibiscus petals, as I survey a slumping snake-shaped cactus that perches at the center of a long window sill surrounded by a tousel of loosely arranged postcards.

I have known Theresa for a couple of years. I know that I met her at an opening originally, but I am not sure which one. Our acquaintance and friendship has just sort of budded naturally, as we always have a great time chatting whenever we bump into each other. Theresa is friendly, vivacious, and funny. And she is also very bright. And part of why I like talking to her is that she is always ready with a critical lens and a thoughtful point-of-view. I've also always been a fan of her work and am excited to see the new stuff and chat. I start by asking her a few questions about herself, and then our conversation proceeds to unfurl in a meandering way.

The following is a partial transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity.

Where are you from, and how long have you been in the City?

I'm from upstate New York, near Binghamton, but originally the small town Hancock, New York at the base of the Catskills. It was a railroad town with a stone quarry. For a period of time, my mom was a principal of a K-12 school. Then my family moved closer to Binghamton, NY. Where I went to high school.

I feel like that makes you a New Yorker, or someone who was already a New Yorker before they came here.

A little. I definitely knew that this is where I wanted to move. I went to SUNY Purchase for undergrad, which is only a half an hour outside of the City, which is really great because it gives you this space to create without all the distractions.

Theresa starts telling me about how she went to undergrad at SUNY and became friends with our mutual friend, Jen Hitchings who is also her curatorial partner. I was always curious about their curatorial projects, which I am not super familiar with so decided to ask her some questions about that. The group is called Associated.

So tell me about your curatorial project, Associated. Did you guys ever have a brick and mortar?

Yes, it was off the Jefferson L stop in the Active Space building. It was a studio space that was attached to a gallery, and sometimes when the Active Space didn't have anything going on we would branch out in there.. we did a few partner shows. It gave us more room to host.

I definitely remember going to the Active Space but usually for Bushwick Open Studios.

Yeah they definitely had the BOS space..

The Seeking Space space? Right.

[laughter]

Did you and Jen [Hitchings] start curating in undergrad or just when you moved here?

We started here. We curated once or twice together in the Bogart building when it was just starting and some other space on Meadows St, and then Jen started talking to Julian [Jimarez-Howard]. It happened very organically. We were just friends that decided to do things together.

Do you guys still do it? Oh yeah you curated something at Brethren recently right?

Yeah, it's hard since we don't have a physical space now, but we do proposals. We've only done two in the past few years because we are all involved in our individual projects right now.

Do you feel like curating has influenced your work at all or is it more of a separate thing that you do?

I think that exposure to different artists who I might not have otherwise known of has been influential in opening myself to different practices. A lot of the shows are thematically separate from what I'm interested in. 

Right. I remember the show at Brethren felt more conceptual or political.

To me that's helpful, because that's a side of me that I can compartmentalize. I don't need to put my politics into my paintings. I think that there is a politic in any painting, but I don't make my practice out of it directly. Curating shows that have a critical lens is helpful. It's a good way to explore what other artists are doing without investing myself in the practice.

Do you ever feel weird about making abstract work, because this political climate is so fucked up? What do you feel is abstract art's role in that?

No, I think it's as much a form of resistance as any kind of peaceful resistance could be. And I also definitely participate in activism outside of my studio. But just to carve out a space for yourself for humanity, for poetry is so important. And I think finding or creating beauty is a way to resist oppression. 

I like what you said– that carving out that space for poetry is political, because it's a form of saying "no we are still here, and we still care about humanity and what makes us human."

You are not going to emotionally repress me through your terrible policies. It's a way of resisting. [...]And there's something I have always liked about abstraction– that it refuses one interpretation. So in a way, it refuses totalitarianism. 

And it refuses the two-party system. You're right I love that. 

[laughter]

And it also asks the viewer to participate. You have to interpret it. And it's not telling you what to think. [...] I like to get people to give a cold read, and it's so fascinating. [...] Not that my work is going necessarily to be about more of those things.

Having grown up upstate, do you feel like nature has a big influence on the work? Because I do get a sort of post-analog vibe but maybe something organic too.

Yeah, the handmade verses mechanical... I think in a way both of those things are really woven into my work in ways that contradict each other. And I'm interested in them pushing up against each other. But nature definitely plays a huge part in my work. And it's not just observable nature but physical phenomenon– the phenomenology of light and how it moves across a surface and how it's broken up in space, even deep space...

Like OUTER SPACE yeah! [Laughter]

How light kind of refracts and you can tell how far away something is based on channels of lights– the redshift and the blueshift. There are aspects you can think about– like physics, but then also you can just look at something in nature or in the world and analyze its physicality.  My work pulls from different modes of orientation of how we find ourselves in the world.

Slide, 2018, Oil on canvas, 32'' x 22'' 

So organic and mechanical...

Organic because it's taken from observable reality, and mechanical, because I do construct these very limited systems in which to apply the paint.

What's an example of one of those systems?

The palette is a big one. It will really only be three colors and then mixing them in so that they become gray where the colors meet each other, creating form. [pointing to the painted lines on a piece] The more distant they are, the closer the relationship. But what seems more bulbous or near you is purer, so it's what happens when you see color relationships. So then one is gray, but then it becomes more saturated when the lines are further apart in the same way that color splits into different wavelengths when it describes form.

But then I started to experiment with more relief. So, there's a game I play where what would appear to be in front and what would appear to be behind are flipped. So, the shadows are thicker, and forms above the shadows are thinner and more transparent. 

They look complex in a photograph but are so much more nuanced in person.

I think the photo obscures the handmade quality. Because I'm not trying to make something perfect.

Branched, 2018, Oil on canvas, 32''x22''

Yes, there is very clearly the mark of your hand... I do get an outer space vibe, which I love. And I think a lot about quantum physics in my own work...

It's difficultly complex and so I mostly discuss them in terms of light. I also think of them as channels. They form energy but also condense the space so they become more of their own system within the canvas. When I first started making these though, I was thinking of a place beyond this earth... I think I have brought them back to more of an earthly quality, as something that may exist in this world. Yet there is something off about them that refuses direct interpretation: It's not quite a flower, it's not quite a plant.

Yeah, I think of tree rings and also maybe an atomic field. I think, are these the rings where electrons jump around?

Because waves can be particles and particles can be waves. It's a paradox of the analyst.

That's one of the things that fascinates me. The idea that an electron can be in two places at once, and what if it changes when we observe it?

Yeah because we are not separate from the equation, so we have atoms and we are made of particles.

View to the Center, 2018, Oil on canvas 44''x 34'' 

How do we objectively observe something we are a part of?

It's all variables.. and how do you make sense of it?

I like to think about that and then relate it back to the political conversation of how nothing is what it seems.

[Laughter]

Around this point we devolve into a sort of convoluted conversation about quantum physics. Convoluted, because we are both very interested in the subject but have limited knowledge and/or a limited vernacular to talk about it. We laugh about our ineptitude fumble back to discussing the paintings.

I feel like we got waaay down a rabbit hole really fast. 

[laughter] 

I'm curious also about this view. You are literally staring at crazy traffic in the middle of Manhattan with these huge windows. Do you feel like that gets into the work at all?

An element of sound or a musicality has found its way into my work. One project I revisited was a science experiment of sorts: finding ways to translate sound vibrations into the visual.

When I look at how the lines are repeated, it's very rhythmic.

They aren't based specifically on that but, do you know Chladni patterning? If something vibrates on a surface, it will snap into these patterns. I set up these experiments where I took sound vibrations from a speaker and used ink on water. It looked like concentric rings on a tree. That's where this structural motif came from initially. And then other elements of the painting– I pulled with other physical elements such as sound. 

Theresa starts to show me a bunch of other work, pulling out older paintings.

And that's funny, because these [older paintings] are when I was still imagining a space outside of earth that could be hospitable to life... but then I thought– Oh! I need to narrow the focus, because that is so vast. And I think what I am doing even in terms of making them is so much more about the mark and about the process of making them, and I think that's how they became more earthy and more muddy.

So that was you moving away from outer space and towards earth. 

Yeah, I feel like they are much more connected to my own physicality and these [gesturing to older paintings] are much more like cerebral imaginings...

And they feel more like off your hand or outside of you..

Oh I'm going far back into the archive. [laughing]

And THAT feels way more planetary too, with circle shapes... [pointing to another painting]

But it still becomes a little like a creature? 

With a cat eye I think...

And this one that is balancing on my radiator... There is definitely a relationship to a mediated landscape with these channels and marks, that are a kind of netting but also a visual element to obstruct what would be behind. It took me a long time to break out of that.

[laughter]

This is what I do.

And I don't know how to do anything else [...] Yes, that is really challenging...[nodding] I had to fuck shit up for a while. What's interesting to me is like looking back– drawing and painting has been recurrent in my practice. They are paintings, but they are definitely also drawings.

Oh! Because you are right. these are like super linear... not much blending etc.

These are blended [gesturing towards the older work] and it really bothered me that I had to blend the colors to get the effect that I wanted. I was like, I don't want this, this isn't the right effect. What if I went back to a pastel palette?

I don't know what it is about that one. It feels super, super different. It feels more retro to me?

Yeah definitely!

Yeah, there is something that reminds me of the color palette of our living room when I was a kid.

[Cracking up]

I think at the time it was good interior design!

[laughter]

I was a TA for a color theory course with the painter Gabrielle Evertz. We largely focused on Johannas Itten, the work of Bridget Riley and Paul Klee. I think that even though I felt a bit resistant to learning, it just happened.

I was a TA and a student at the same time without realizing that I was learning so much from her. She was such as good teacher that I was also learning while assisting. 

So, do you really sit down and think about [...] ahead of time go "I'm going to create this type of palette" and then methodically do it?

Yeah! It's fairly methodical. I do and sometimes I think it's like really obvious. I think that there are always parallel elements in the world that your work relates to that come from your subconscious. Sooo..

Sooo the cactus??

[laughter]

T: Yeah, but like it's head...  

Pointing to the same nodding, phallic looking cactus that I spied when I first entered the room. It is a lonely slumped obelisk in a pot. It is the only plant in the room. Theresa later notes that she's "interested in the ways that the cactus grows from inside itself, repeating it's exterior structure,” which makes sense for her practice. But in the moment I find it comical. It honestly looks like a slouch sock. It occupies a pot that is roughly centered on the elaborately long window sill that perches beneath the window, which frames a scene of spaghettied strands of vehicles that feel very quintessentially New York City. I realize that the phallus that is this lonesome ambassador to the Holland Tunnel has reared it's smooth round head into nearly every one of Theresa's newer paintings. This makes us both laugh really hard.

[laughing]

SHIT. He looks like a cucumber!

Yeah! This is the plant that I keep resuscitating.

Oh my god you are painting him over and over! And you just realized that you are obsessed with this cactus.

I haven't named him, because naming him would take away from his cactus-ness.

Ahh and yeah yet another way that nature is getting into this work...

Yeah, which reminds me that I had someone ask me "in jest" if I meditate when I make these. Because there is that history or genre of painting where you make a meditative object. And I just want to squash that, because I definitely think when I make these. 

But for me I look at these and I think. You must sort of lose yourself while making them...

Well there is definitely like a slowing down of time and kind of getting into certain rhythms.

[And] there is a definite shift in my experience of time while I'm making these. [But if I zone out] I know I'm in the danger zone.

Because you are afraid you are going to make really unconscious choices that aren't correct? Or...

No. I think it will become too balanced. There are a lot of little subtleties that I work with.

And that's what you mean about how you are constantly thinking, because you are thinking "now at this point– it's going to be a heavier line." Ok gotcha. That makes sense, because you do have to be really hyper-aware. It almost feels there could be a texture to the surface, so it could be fabric because there is such nuance??

Momentarily we wrap up and head down the street to check out Theresa's current show at Barney Savage Gallery.* She has two pieces in the show, and it's a smart new space with high ceilings and a frosted sliding glass door that elegantly hides a tiny office where the curator, and proprietor, Julian Lorber, greets us. He chatters and jokes with Theresa briefly and then gives us an informal but generous tour of the space and an explanation about the other artists in the show. It's a good show featuring a mix of elegant and quirky pieces. A few shaped canvases with garish neon colors by Emily Kiacz, a few subtle geometric color explorations by Corydon Cowansage, (whose work I already love), and some expressive Lucy Mink Covello's are in good company with Theresa's complex abstractions. I'm eager to see what more comes out of this space and especially what comes out of the intellect and imagination of Theresa Daddezio. I'm looking forward to future conversations about the convergences of the universe and that slumpy cactus; perhaps a macrocosmic/microcosmic mascot for an uncertain future.

* "Color Wheel," at Barney Savage Gallery closed on March 18th for installation views click here.

For more information on Theresa please visit her website, or check out her instagram

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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

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