Loose Lips

Images for These Times: Something Wonderful is About to Happen

Three Questions: Ilenia Madelaire, Virginia Fleming, Marybeth Chew and Curator Matt Klos

Something Wonderful is About to Happen

Exeter Gallery 241 South Exeter Street, Baltimore, MD 21202

October 16- November 30, 2020

Marybeth Chew, Black Narcissus, 24” by 24”, Oil on Canvas, 2020

In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and just weeks before the 2020 presidential election, I masked up and ventured out to Something Wonderful is About to Happen, a three woman show featuring paintings by Ilenia Madelaire, Virginia Fleming, and Marybeth Chew, curated by Matt Klos at the Exeter Gallery.  After seven months of social isolation, I was lured out to the dangers of this “in real life” gallery reception by the promise and provocation of its title, which speaks so plainly to the anxieties of the present moment. 

Curator Matt Klos has described how the show’s title was conceived before the pandemic, with its meaning shifting with the passage of time “from sardonic humor to both an ardent hope and a desperate cry.”  Of course, neither the artists nor Klos could’ve anticipated the eerie echoes of the show’s invitation amid the current imperative to find a silver lining in the midst of the pandemic.  Yet, the title of a recent article discussing art and the pandemic in The Baltimore Business Journal, “Something wonderful will come out of this,” underscores just how on-the-mark the show’s earnest irony has become.  This year has brought us unrelenting challenges from the Coronavirus pandemic, social isolation, and record breaking unemployment, to wildfires, dam failures, and hurricanes, to the police killings of Ahmaud Arbury, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and armed right-wing gangs disrupting the nationwide protests that followed.  In this heightened historical moment our most nightmarish fears could not be laid aside: anything was possible.  

Something Wonderful is About to Happen lives up to—and even exceeds—the overburdened promise of its title.    On view is a panoply of compelling, disturbing, and magnetic images that speak to the anxieties of the unknown, inviting us to contemplate the possibilities of anticipation, the heighted promises of limbo, and the shifting meanings of the image in real time.  The works on view would be formally strong and thematically compelling in an ordinary year, but this show is “wonderful,” in unexpected proportion to the historical present.  

Madelaire, Fleming and Chew’s paintings buzz with anxiety, potently visualizing the foreboding and dread that saturate 2020.  The eviscerating power of this show in the moment I caught it—just days before the 2020 election—is already over.  Yet, the exhibition, originally scheduled to end October 31, has been extended through the end of November, providing unyielding perspective on the way the idea of “something wonderful” continues to shift over time.  Has something wonderful already happened?  For whom?  If President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election and a Coronavirus vaccine on the horizon offer salve to October’s anxieties, President Trump’s refusal to concede the election and the rising Covid-19 death rates across the country remind us that something wonderful is always shifting, subjective, and precarious.  Indeed, this is the brilliance and terror of the artist’s chosen title.  

The edgy images of Something Wonderful is About to Happen continue to lure, making promises they never had any intention of keeping.  Drawn from pop culture, B-movies, cartoons and everyday life, these anxious images insist we continue to watch the moment just before.  Each of these artists insists that we look very carefully at gender, sexuality, and the narrative image. Marybeth Chew’s paintings rework cinematic moments in films from the classic Black Narcissist (1947) to Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988).  Virgina Fleming’s smooth screenlike surfaces dryly repurpose horror film conventions in the mundane milieu of the everyday.  On first glance the figures in Ilenia Madelaire’s paintings might appear to be conventionalized images of women, yet on closer examination these andrygonous bodies refuse to reveal a gender.  These representations of the corporeal body with, for example, staplers in the place of nipples, literalize the ubiquitous objectification of the body in contemporary pop culture.

Alone in the empty gallery, I was almost holding my breath as I moved through the images as quickly as possible, these paintings of women’s agonized faces framed too close, of naked grey women’s bodies that can’t decide between pleasure and pain, of flattened mundane scenes in which bodies blur into each other and become indistinguishable, pure pattern.  The three bodies of work on display center the white gendered body in this disorienting year–this year in which film producer Harvey Weinstein’s trial and conviction for rape, and the fact that “nothing of consequence” was found in the investigation into Hilary Clinton, seem like very old news.  In the wake of Supreme court justice Ruth Badar Ginsberg’s death, on the precipice we call the present, these images of fraught sexuality, tense embodiment, and perpetual terror ask, What comes next? Do not cover your eyes, they warn us; whatever you do, do not look away.  

I often question what it means to ask artists to give us words in addition to images; how greedy we are.  A critic’s interpretation, or even the artist’s own, is exactly the opposite of the experience of standing face-to-face with one of these works in the gallery.  Yet, Something Wonderful is About to Happen provides a heightened opportunity to reflect on the work of art in this moment and the work of artists in this moment, so I emailed the artists and curator of Something Wonderful is About to Happen the questions I was left with after the show.  

Kiki Loveday: Tell me about the title of the show. How does it relate to your work in the show? How/has the meaning or feeling of the title changed in relation to everything that is “about to happen,” right now?

Marybeth Chew: When we planned this in maybe October 2019 the title was originally a joke, a self help mantra. All of our work in the show has a dystopian quality. My own work is mostly of film stills which particularly show moments of dread or horror where the impending moment is unlikely to go well. So originally, the idea of wishing “something wonderful” into existence by just willing it, and in light of our art, was just funny to us. But when we rescheduled and kept the title it was practically using the mantra idea in earnest, like we might as well try it, and encourage others to try it. Though there’s of course also grim humor in the title related to the current moment in a very extensive way.

Virginia Fleming, Woman Gasping, 18” x 24”, digital print on Hahnemühle paper, 2020.

Virginia Fleming: The title ​Something Wonderful is About to Happen​ can be incredibly ominous. As someone with an anxiety disorder, self-help mantras can actually be helpful, however, saying “something good may happen” out loud can also lead to an immediate fearful thought.  We are all teetering on the edge of abyss.  The melodrama around this thinking is also very funny.  There is absolutely real anxiety around existential crisis thinking, however the level of drama surrounding it can be funny as well. It’s sort of like “you laugh or you cry, so I will laugh.” I think that is what comes through in the art work.  The works are wavering on that edge of “what is happening here?” and what is to come.  In my own work these anxieties can almost be friendly if approached with humour.  I think there is still a precariousness that lurks in the shift of the title to being more of a genuine call for hope. It is almost desperate, and, I think, like the art work, our country is teetering. The country is on a dangerous brink toward what could be a fascist dictatorship. We have to continue being politically active while also doing direct action locally for our communities.

Ilenia Madelaire: The title refers to a self-help mantra that’s supposed to alleviate some sort of existential anxiety. What I know of the idea behind the mantra is that if you live your life believing that “something wonderful is about to happen”, it will help to shift your thinking to looking for and preparing for the possibilities of wonderful things happening, rather than the opposite. When we were coming up with titles for the show, one of us mentioned this mantra as a joke, then putting it on our list of possible titles. As ideas circulated, we eventually narrowed it down to this title because we saw how much it related to our individual works. I think all of our works deal with a moment, particularly a pause–be it tension-filled, horrific, funny, contemplative, etc.–before something else culminates from it. That was a thread, among other ones, that stood out for me the most when looking at all of our works together. 

Before the year 2020, our country’s and global affairs were already bleak, although not as much as now. Since Trump became president, daily or weekly, we’ve been served some horrible, offensive, or shocking news story in relation to something he said or did to further alienate or separate groups of people. To me it’s been a steady pummeling since day one, and since 2020 it’s just ramped up. My feelings since 2020 then have worsened, of course, eventually making it enough to have checked out mentally, and emotionally, and actually seeing the mantra in an earnest way, in hopes that things will shift. That said, looking back on deciding on this title, it has in a way shifted from satirical to more of a hopeful cry. 

Kiki Loveday: This is a three woman show — how does it speak to gender and the gendering of artists in this moment?  Making art as a woman in this moment?

Virginia Fleming, Something In Your Hair, 9” by 12”, acrylic, ink, and graphite on paper, 2020.

Ilenia Madelaire: I think at this moment in history it’s impossible to avoid, as much as I’d like to, talking about gender. I often have a difficult time answering, even to myself, what it means to inhabit the physicality of a “woman”, to exist in the world as one, or to be perceived as one. This question is something I subconsciously and inevitably weave into my work, but have a hard time resolving. I think a show featuring three women artists at this point could either attract or deter some people, depending on their place in the conversation about gender. I think the conversation about gender is relatively new in the mainstream, and don’t think much has been unpacked – realistically, we have a long way to go. It’s no news that institutions have historically favored art made by men. Although our society is just now beginning to talk about a multitude of genders, I still think that a show featuring only “women” or  woman-identifying artists, couldn’t hurt. It becomes a conversation that validates perspectives or experiences specific to “women”, which I think is still relatively undermined or overlooked in our slow-to-evolve, patriarchal society. My ultimate hope is that a three woman show doesn’t alienate anybody, and proves that there is room for other perspectives.

Virginia Fleming: There has always been a strong voyeuristic quality to my work and I think a lot of that has perhaps turned inward like I am spying on myself. I identify with the voyeur.

Ilenia Madelaire, 1,000 Thread Count, 17” x 21”, oil on canvas, 2020

Kiki Loveday:  When Marybeth Chew posted Untitled (below) online, one viewer described it as “an image for these times.”  How are these three different bodies of work speaking and changing in relation to “these times?”

Marybeth Chew, Untitled, 22” by 22”, Oil on Canvas, 2020

Marybeth Chew: There are a few things in this show that feel very relevant. It’s got a lot of anxiety inherent in the imagery, and an uncertainty of the meaning of images and stories. One person who viewed the show mentioned the number of mouths and teeth, and the intensified experience viewing that now.  Our 3 bodies of work also all use some amount of pop cultural reference in ways that are complicating and thwarting. I think especially in the last seven months there has been increasing awareness of limited representations, and of media manipulation. I think these works, and a lot of the current figurative painting movement, also speak to those issues. There is a lot of work in this show about imagery and sexuality, especially with objectification. I wonder whether during Covid even more sexuality is becoming image based, via the internet. It’s also possible in the zoom world that more interactive, rather than image based, online sex could be happening?

Ilenia Madelaire: So much has happened in our country this year, for individual people as well as for the whole of our society. I think the works all still speak to our individual experiences from when we made the paintings, and I think maybe have changed “for these times” in the sense that they now hold a more concrete stance on what a year ago seemed a less dire conversation. 

Kiki Loveday: Can you talk about the decision to open in real life and how you felt about it?  The best art is always risky, but the pandemic creates a different set of risks in relation to showing work in real space—or viewing it.  As so much is made accessible virtually, what is lost—or gained—from the shift toward virtual space, particularly in relation to the work in this show?  How does the real space environment create an encounter between the work and the viewer that can’t be replicated online?

Marybeth Chew: I think we were all aware mounting this show that very few people would see it in person, but it felt important to still have this show. I expected to find this exclusively depressing, but the interactions that did happen, both in person and online, were more supportive and personal than normal. It felt like the art was more meaningful to other people than normal, so it was actually very encouraging to keep showing art. Art making since Covid has definitely shifted. For me and other artists I’ve discussed this with, it feels like you’re on a different planet now, so the meaning of art is now different. For the first few months of the pandemic I couldn’t make a finished piece at all and it really emphasized for me how much art is based on interacting. I think artists are more focused on that, maybe, the deeper communications in their art.

Virginia Fleming: There is no way to really replicate being around art in person. However, I think the shift to more online galleries or different ways of showing work has been important and can elevate art works in a different way. Having work online also makes it so much more accessible to viewers. I think that we have learned a lot more about how to navigate public spaces more safely during this pandemic and are using those tools in order to make it as safe as possible for ourselves and others. There is no purely safe way, however, of showing in a public space, and everyone has to make a call as to what is good for them. I know that we had initially thought not to hold any kind of opening and to just have it be available to show through appointment only. But, I think with the information around masks, staying outside and only being inside with one or two people at a time helped with planning an opening with outside seating and only allowing a few people in at a time. It does make it much more of an intimate viewing experience.

I was extremely fortunate to be able to make work while I was furloughed from my two jobs, which was a perk of a horrible pandemic. My studio is in my house so I was able to focus on making work.

Ilenia Madelaire: Showing work in a real space in real time during a pandemic is of course very risky. As a group we decided to postpone the show to a more appropriate time. Originally, the show was to happen in May, but was moved to late September. After months of following CDC prompts, and a summer of lowered COVID-19 cases here in Baltimore, we collectively felt that a show in late September, with all risks considered and safety guidelines in place, could be achieved. 

For me, continuing to make art during this time was a natural response to the current events. Making and showing work during this time means the gears are turning, people are curious, evoked, alert, engaged, and not deterred from talking about difficult things. 

To me there’s no alternative to experiencing the totality of a painting in person versus on-line. The colors, size, mood, textures, lighting, dimensions, etc. can easily be lost in an on-line platform. Even the quietude, architecture of the space the artwork inhabits, the natural lighting… everything has an impact on the viewer’s experience. Looking through a 2D LED screen could never replicate the experience of looking in person, despite some of these works culling from a 2D, screen-aided consumption of pop culture. In particular, looking at these works in person makes them more imperative, pressing; they can’t be scrolled away. On the other hand, an online exhibit would reach a wider, larger audience. Either way, I think it’s important that people have access to the conversations these paintings generate. My hope was and always is to make people aware these works exist – that they deserve to exist. 

Matt Kloss: First, I want to say that I’m thrilled with the quality of work and the way in which this show hung together. It’s a terrific project and the first proposal accepted by Exeter, this being our 16th exhibition in Baltimore since 2017.  As the pandemic worsened, we discussed many scenarios for showcasing this work, both digitally and IRL and the artists endured several short notice adjustments to IRL engagements, with great enthusiasm and flexibility, thankfully!  The gallery began in-person appointments again in late June.  Initially, we reopened by appointment only but decided to try a few events with “Something Wonderful.”  Many precautions were taken exceeding CDC guidelines and both events went off smoothly. They were small intimate affairs, although the risks are real, and I won’t diminish the fact that we took a chance.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the risks we’ve all been taking (they’re practically unavoidable) and it’s funny the hypocrisy, I for one, indulge. I’ll chat with my wife on evening walks and will be quick to point out the risky behavior of a family member as seen on social media, or a friend and their recent vacation, or neighbor, or friend’s child, etc.! Yet it’s so easy to gloss over my own riskiness. Why is that!? I hope that all who did venture out and spend a bit of safety capital visiting this exhibition at Exeter went away duly inspired. These paintings are powerful and the messages they transmit, questions they ask, mysteries they keep, allowed me to get beyond the daily grind for a bit. The slower, physical interaction with the work, and the magic of the give and take between viewer and artifact, is precisely the spiritual salve that art can offer us in our time of need.

Ilenia Madelaire, Dulce,  24” x 30”, oil on canvas, 2020

————————————————————————————————————All images courtesy of the artists.

One Woman Shows

You Are What You Eat
Sunday, April 30 at 2 PM – 5 PM
Pieter, 420 West Avenue 33 Unit #10 Los Angeles, CA 90031

The loft at Pieter was abuzz yesterday with the collective energy of art, women, and possibility.  Cindy Rehm’s provocative feminist performance project brought together over forty artists in a brilliant collaborative experiment in self-naming and memory. 

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Dorit Cypis, If I Am You You Are Me Who Are We?

The space was packed and the energy charged with a curious anticipation that was not let down as Rehm opened the event with a silent vibrata that pulled all the energy into an exacting point-of-focus. Her wordless ritual of invitation into the space was both heady and embodied, ranging from the most minute gesture of hand, to marking her body with a line of lipstick from head-to-toe in a perverse commentary on rituals of femininity.  She concluded her powerful performance by eating a series of dates off the dirty looking floor, initiating one of the most palpable and symbolic themes of the afternoon: ingestion.  Later performances included cupcakes, oranges, and a stunning consumption of roses.

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Cindy Rehm, Untitled: the woman who loves books, the woman who marks and cuts, the woman who swallows herself, 2017.  Photo courtesy of the Artist.

One Woman Shows–named after Suzanne Lacy’s One Woman Shows which took place at the Los Angeles Women’s Building in 1975is a precursor to Animating the Archives which opens May 13th at Avenue 50 Studio.  Animating the Archives includes fifteen new works honoring the legacy of the feminist art movement.  If One Woman Shows is any indication, it is not to be missed.

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Eugenia Barbuc’s elegant “Walking on mountains/Carrying it with me.”

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Carolita Blythe’s playful and powerful “Limit: The Board Game of My Life.”

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Afterimage of Mabel Moore’s stunning “Women don’t know how to love, they just leech, he told me”

One Woman Shows 2017 participants included:
Ashwini Ambre, Kate Alexandrite, Karen Atkinson, Alexis Alicette Bolter, Eugenia Barbuc, Karolina Beveridge, Carolita Blythe, Courtney Byrd, Rook Campbell, Precious Child, Toro Castaño, Courtney Cox, Yami Curiel, Dorit Cypis, Johanna Cypis, Cade Daniel, Crystal Diaz, Yasmine Diaz, Jessica Dillon, Melody Ehsani, Coco Fausone-Wilson, Megan Flanders, Annakai Geshlider, Christine Dianne Guiyangco, Frances Hale, Hazel Handan, Siobhan Hebron, Gabriela Hernandez, Andrea Hidalgo, Juanesta Holmes, Patricia Huerta, Denise Johnson, Elizabeth Leister, Elizabeth Medina, Gabby Melendez, Mabel Moore, Yanina Orellana, Mary Anna Pomonis, Cindy Rehm, Sandee Rodriguez, Marina Santana, Delbar Shabhbaz, Julie Shafer, Rose Simons, Weng-San Sit, Amelia Steely, Kelly Wall, Dajin Yoon, Maggie Zheng

For more about the event see:  http://www.cindyrehm.com/new-blog-1/

Drawing A Line

Studio Visit: Christina Corfield

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Christina Corfield in her Oakland Studio, April 13, 2017

There’s a question I’ve been wanting to ask Christina Corfield for a long time.  Her well developed studio practice might be described as a kind of handmade history of culture and technology.  Corfield’s signature practice consists of deeply researched historical narratives, elaborate theatrical sets made of cardboard cut-outs, and non-professional actors performing before her camera.  Her exhibitions often redeploy pre-cinematic forms of visual narrative such as the tableau vivant or magic lantern.  She is currently painting on circular transparencies and animating the images in homage to praxinoscope.   After achieving the effects she desires on video, Corfield destroys or reuses the materials so that the video-taped scenes displayed in her novel gallery exhibitions are all that remain of her thought provoking re-performances of history.  I recently visited Christina in her Oakland, California studio where she is at work on several projects. Ghosts in the Shell tells the story of the first “computers,” female mathematicians whose job was to compute complex mathematical problems. Her ambitious work-in-progress on The Pony Express departs from her recent focus on female centered histories of technology to explore the myths of the American west.

k: [Laughing] You don’t seem like a fucked-up person, but your work is fucked-up.  How has the theme of sexual violence developed in your work?

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Christina Corfield, detail from Olimpia’s Death, 2016-17, walnut ink on watercolor paper.

[Also laughing] You’re going to have to be patient as I think about this. It’s not that I feel uncomfortable talking about it, it’s that I genuinely haven’t thought about it. [There is a pause.]  It’s almost kind of a question: In our society, in our culture, what are the techniques that allow us to talk about difficult topics?  That’s what the starting response would be. Beyond that, certainly [in past work] I was thinking about the ways in which we’re enculturated to fairytales.  Weird childhood safe images, cute images, or pretty images. Stuffed animals. It is like a mishmash of images that I saw in fairytale books as a kid.  In a way it is trying to juxtapose something really seductive and beautiful with something really problematic.  Trying to find the line where you cross from really enjoying having the experience of visual pleasure—and where you reach a point where you’re like, “Oh-no!”  What do you think when you get to that point?  Do you stay in that point of, “the dress is really pretty,” or do you think, “Oh shit, that just had that cut off by that.”  It is about lines of acceptance, or tolerance, or pleasure in our culture.  That’s what I’m playing with. Certainly with the cardboard cut-outs–I paint them realistically and I have actors with the the cut-outs–one layer is more real than the other. All these different layers of “What is more real? What is realism in this picture?” There are lots of different layers to that.

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Christina Corfield, detail from Olimpia’s Handmaidens, 2016-17, walnut ink on watercolor paper.

It is all about drawing a line.  Is there a line? Can we find that line? So again, definitely: the limits of things.  The type of work I make—because it looks the way it does—it can be read like it is just silly or fun. I think there are a lot of unknowns. I’ve always been really interested in myth.  Myths and semiotics: put these symbols together and you’ll produce a myth. I’ve fine tuned the specific types of myths I’m interested in.  The narrative of the woman, the feminist narrative, that took me awhile to get to and it took me awhile to call it that.  I’ve always had an interest in having a main character who is a woman and usually that narrative is pretty unforgiving of the woman’s woman-ness.  The Pony Express project does not have a woman at the center, it’s really a masculinity project.  That needs to be taken down. What’s the deal with that? [The way the American West is] dramatized, emotionalized, heroicized verses what it really was.  [I’m interested in] canonical myths—in taking their canonical power away.

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k: What is the question you most wish someone would ask you about your work?

cc: A question I would be interested in asking other artists is: What gives you visual pleasure? What is craft to you? How important is it that you make something with your hands? Why? And why don’t you?  What does work like this do to you?  When you see work like this what do you do? Do you dismiss it or do you take seriously? Why and why not?

Visual pleasure is really important to me.  Craft is really important to me.  There’s something about making stuff with your own hands, painting things, asking—does that look real enough for me? Should I put more brown on that?—quite traditional aesthetic questions. There’s a real joy in the materiality of the props that I make.  The narcissist in me says “that’s mine! I made it!”  Authorship, definitely authorship.  But it is always balanced with the performances of the actors.  In as much as I tell them what to do, I’m also open, it’s a kind of collaborative thing.  Even thought they’re not professional actors there’s always a certain amount of flexibility, I’m not going to tell them how to say their lines. If they want to set something up differently I’m open to it.  But with my artwork, I’m kind of a control freak.  I really know what I want.  By the time I’m filming things I know what I want. The power of visual pleasure to allow us to talk about difficult things is important to me.  I would say that’s probably my central theme.  This, this is my visual pleasure.  This is what I like to see.  When I see work that looks like this that other people made, I get so excited!  And it’s out there, there’s not that much of it but it’s out there.  In the last few years I’ve been wanting to go back to shitty cameras and produce images that are dirty and not clear. I use the F-3 and its beautiful and it makes absolutely gorgeous images but there’s a part of me that thinks, “when you’re surrounded by that all the time does it really have power anymore?” I definitely have this push against the perfect, the perfect image, the perfect technique.

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Christina Corfield is an award-winning Oakland based visual artist.  She was born and raised in [City], United Kingdom.  Her work has been exhibited in galleries throughout the United States and the UK and reviewed in publications from The Glasgow Herald to The Huffington Post.  She holds an MFA from San Francisco Art Institute and is currently pursuing a PhD in the practice based Film + Digital Media program at University of California Santa Cruz.
http://tinacorfield.com

The Beauty of It

Studio Visit: Maren Sinclair Hurn

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I fell in love with artist Maren Sinclair Hurn’s work at her solo show at the Santa Cruz Art Center in February and recently had the pleasure of a leisurely visit to her studio in the Tannery Art Center.   Hurn’s work ranges from sculpture and pottery–to whimsical mobiles that evoke nests or breasts–to memories painted from photographs onto fragile looking hand-torn porcelain.  She is currently beginning work on a series of masks based on dream work and imagined conversations with the past.  Her visceral, sensual, delicate and dynamic forms are meant to be touched and experienced in four dimensions.

I asked Hurn to tell me the question she would most like to be asked about her work and then to answer it.  After a laugh and a moments thought she replied:

Why do you make this stuff? Why do you think it’s important to bring these kind of shapes into the world and have them floating around and accessible to touch?  I’ve noticed that a lot of your shapes–that you have a lot of butts and breasts in your work–what’s all that about?  Are you some kind of pervert?  What’s it all about?

I love these shapes, they’re just beautiful.  I love my mom’s breasts, I love my dad’s penis.  I saw them naked a few times, not much.  My mom when she was nursing my sister.  I feel the world with my body and when we drive through beautiful California foothills that are just so much the shape of bodies, I get turned on a little.  It’s just who I am. Textures are just exciting to me. It fills a need of mine to touch, it’s mostly shapes and rough textures. Bumps–hard edge bumps, soft edge bumps, any kinds of bumps–that interests me.  All my sculptures you can touch, there’s no reason not to touch them.  Especially, where you can see the bumps and the hard edges and the smooth curves going into a negative space.  I make things I like to look at and touch. Hopefully there will be other people in the world who have the same needs and interests.  We’re all different, so I’m always amazed when somebody can connect with my work.  It’s very thrilling.  It’s like, “Oh, I’m not alone, I’m not crazy.”  There is something in it that is more universal. We are connected with our different sensitivities and preferences, and we are not all alike.  That’s the beauty of it.

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Maren Sinclair Hurn in her Santa Cruz Studio, April 10, 2017.


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Maren Sinclair Hurn is a Santa Cruz, California based fine artist who works primarily in ceramic sculpture.  Work from her thirty-year studio practice is held in discerning private collections.  She holds an MFA in sculpture from Montana State University. http://marensinclairhurn.com

Bad Taste: Risk, Failure, and the Ob/seen Moving Image

Rebecca Ora: Three Questions

Rebecca Ora has paid strangers on the street to heil Hitler for her video camera. She has sold a pound of her flesh on ebay. She has used her own prestigious fellowship winnings to institute the Rebecca Ora Award for Risktaking in the Arts. Over the past decade, Ora has produced a significant and challenging body of work at the intersection of social practice, anthropology, and fine art. Initially trained as a painter, her oeuvre has evolved to include elements of performance art, new media, and filmmaking that range from hand-sewn Stars of David to glitch art that recodes digital photographs to create new meanings. Across media, Ora irreverently returns to charged questions of belonging, identification, and the limits of the speakable in our increasingly mediated global context.

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Rebecca Ora, Sherrif Shirt, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

I think of as Ora’s signature style as an ironic, tongue-in-cheek provocation that elicits a critical uneasiness in her audience. This effect of uneasiness reflects the emotional and critical orientation of the work. Ora uses humor to engage difficult subject matter, continually reworking core themes of identity, taboo, and mediation in her prodigious practice that clearly values risk, messiness, and complexity over safety, aestheticized order, and consensus. There are echoes of feminist artists such as Barbara DeGenevieve and Shirley Clarke in her explorations of the boundaries of empathy and ethics; Ora gives us no more easy answers than they did.

Much of her work engages questions of personal identity and cultural memory in the highly politicized context of contemporary Israel. In the current political climate, in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict marks ideological positions in United States politics, Ora’s ongoing explorations of the signs of Judaism and the myth of Israel toy with audience expectations shaped by films about the Holocaust and the nightly news cycle alike. Ora prides herself on making people uncomfortable and her work has confounded commentators across the political spectrum. Indeed, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that almost none of her work deals directly with Palestine, audiences may become anxious when they cannot easily locate the politics of the artist. But trying to locate a political position to ascribe to Ora through her texts would be to miss her point entirely.

Rebecca Ora
Rebecca Ora, Tips For the Beginning Ambassador, 2014. Screenshot used with permission.

In the quagmire of The Intifada-ing, news footage of Ora’s former teacher making incendiary statements on the Temple Mount collides with the artist’s memory of the nice lady who taught them “a preposition is something an airplane could do to a cloud.” In The Melody Returns Zionist found footage is transformed into a kaleidoscopic music video as text written in the first person narrates a romantic relationship seeming to fall apart. First Person Shooter Marathon 2012, I Run Jerusalem, No Land, and the superb Tips for the Beginning Ambassador each explore questions of embodiment, endurance, power, and mediation in relation to the state of Israel. Throughout, the personal and the political bleed into one another indiscriminately; Israel is also Ora’s father’s name. In Affect and Empathy, Ora appears on camera directing two amateur actors as they perform a g-chat between Ora and her sister talking about their family dysfunction within the affluent Jewish community in which she always felt like an outsider.

An atheist raised in a large, close-knit, Orthodox Jewish family in Los Angeles, Ora’s queered, feminist work is the antithesis of Hollywood mythmaking. Hollywood was in the background of the insular Jewish community in which she grew up, creating what she describes as a bizarre juxtaposition that has nothing to do with the typical stereotypes of Jews in Hollywood. Her mother wrote screenplays that never sold, and as a teenager Ora went regularly to the preview screenings that are a regular staple of tinsel-town. While she doesn’t consider herself a filmmaker per se, Ora’s work deeply engages “the strange talent, interest, and failures” of the Hollywood myth along with other modes of representation that range from feminist performance art to embedded journalism.

Ora’s formal engagement, or disengagement really, with classical narrative structure is most visible in her award winning featurette Watching Lillian, which J.D. Beltran of The San Francisco Gate praised as a poignant and sobering psychological study. The title character, Lillian, is derisively described as Chinese, mentally ill, attracted to women but not really a lesbian, and as having “a sleep disorder and almost no teeth.” But, as the title implies, the video isn’t really about Lillian at all. It is about how others view Lillian, about the possibilities and limits of empathy, and about the artist’s relationship to her subject and her medium. Ora’s work is filled with wordplay, metaphor, and allegory, so it is no surprise that one of the main figures in the piece is a psychic, “a medium.”

The "Medium" in Rebecca Ora's Watching Lillian
Rebecca Ora, Watching Lillian, 2010. Screenshot used with permission.

The medium tells Ora “the best way you can help Lillian is by telling her story.” But Ora is not actually interested in telling Lillian’s story or in helping her: she is interested in refusing the feel-good redemption narrative that structures traditional documentaries, narrative films, and many exploitative personal relationships as well. Playfully beginning with “Part 7: Embodiment,” Watching Lillian develops non-chronology through a series of segments that foreground performance and point of view. In the fourth segment, “Part 9: Rehearsal,” Ora asks, “What do you think is going to happen to Lillian? I mean I’ll be totally honest, I want to make a movie about Lillian, but there’s no arc. There’s no change. So then I wanted to make a movie about everyone [around her] and their relationship with her, but that doesn’t change either.” She comes to the conclusion that “we want the world to conform to our narrative structures, to which we’re accustomed based on movies.” Finally, she leaves us with the question, “how are you supposed to deal with relationships where the power dynamics will never be even?” This is the crux of her work: the relationship between structure and power.

Ora describes her interest in the limits, the liminal, and the unspeakable in relationship to perversity. Spryly describing this aspect of her work as pro-nography and a staging of the Ob/seen, she cites the definition of perversity as “something wrong-headed and illogical; it is going about things the wrong way,” rather than being related to the sexually explicit. Through her work as well as her words, Ora passionately insists that “doing things the wrong way is sometimes really important.” Ora engages this thread of inquiry across multiple media and bodies of work. In the recent Porn for the Blind, she juxtaposes audio from pornfortheblind.org, (a not-for-profit organization that produces crowd-sourced audio descriptions of videos from adult web sites) with close-up, abstracted images of her own hands, yielding a meditation on erotic intimacy.

Ora’s investigations into the Ob/seen weave throughout her body of work. In Habibibuah, Ora queers the climactic embrace between the star-crossed lovers in Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox’s popular film The Bubble (Habuah). What does it mean for a self-described atheist Jew and queer-straight woman to to queer the work of a gay Israeli filmmaker? Ora formally “saves” the couple by indefinitely looping the embrace that results in their death, but locks them forever in what she calls “this love-adversarial moment.”  I read this intervention in narrative causality as a critical engagement with the question of pink-washing which dogged the film. Ora, of course, locates her own critique within the language of film form.  Lady+Gaga+Fail continues this formal examination of narrative and desire, using extreme slow-motion to examine the sadistic side of spectatorship. Tapestry Shower Curtain is a part of Ora’s absurd and provocative object series that skewers the commercial appropriation of trauma and condemns the aesthetic emptiness that Susan Sontag described as “the fascist longings in our midst.”*

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Rebecca Ora, Tapestry Shower Curtain, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.

The themes and questions that Ora has been developing across her short works, objects, and photographs culminate in her current work in progress, Wandering Stars. In this allegorical travelogue Ora is embedded with a group of Israeli tourists traveling through Kyrgyzstan during the Gaza War in the summer of 2014.

Excerpt courtesy of the artist.

Ora’s growing body of work reveals her as an astute observer of human foibles. I am certainly looking curiously forward to seeing what comes next.

K: First, thanks for taking the time to think and talk together, it is always a pleasure. As you know, I’m interested in thinking through the idea of the “moving image” in relation to history, memory, and imagination. In your work you mobilize, and perhaps also debase, some of the twentieth century’s most defining moving images, including the Holocaust and September 11th (which one might consider the end of the twentieth century). What do you consider a moving image and what do you want to reveal through moving images in your work?

RO: I think I’ve come to terms with not actually being a filmmaker, which is strange for someone currently pursuing a degree in a (partially) film department; I’m an artist, performance artist, video artist, writer, scholar and provocateur. I am certainly interested in the interplay among moving images, memory and sentimental objects, and my bag of tricks definitely includes a history of cinema and the moving image as vocabulary, as backdrop, as fodder. I have been working through re- and re- and re-framings of these catastrophic moments across media because I think none quite captures any traumatic event in its fullness, which is appropriate, because creeping time keeps recontextualizing the past. They feed off constant renewal both to ‘never forget’ as well as to try to show distance and forgetting.

I think I should try someday to make a film with a happy ending, whatever that might mean. There is something about the moving image that we expect to take us somewhere, often to a better place. Until now, I haven’t done that, though I see it everywhere. I’m not trying to teach or to learn, but rather to unravel, sometimes to reveal but also sometimes to obscure. I come from a painting background–oils. The reason I had to be an oil painter is because you could both add and subtract with oils, but with acrylics and watercolors, which are additive processes, you can’t move backward. I use the moving image to move in all directions. I recently wrote an article about the work of Jeanne Finley and John Muse called “All that has existed, will exist, has never existed and will never exist;” all of these elements can be teased out in film, but also through performances and speculative objects. Film, which we associate with storytelling, is very conducive to this.

K: Tell me about the film you’re working on now, Wandering Stars. The rough cut I viewed reminded me of Susan Sontag’s Promised Lands, along with certain works by Ulrike Ottinger and Sharon Lockhart. (Not to mention Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot.) It is a slow and difficult piece, but very rich and rewarding to an attentive viewing. I would call it a feature film, an experimental feature in the vein that Jonas Mekas calls “boring masterpieces.” You’ve told me it is not a movie, but a durational art piece. What do you see as the difference and what do you want to reveal or obscure with Wandering Stars?

RO: Wandering Stars is so much about an obsession with watching that, I think, comes out full-blown during tourist travel. Watching Lillian talks about that, too–most of my films do, the way it’s hard to look away from horrible things. There’s a lot of direct (sometimes, I think, too-direct) influence from Fatimah Tobing-Rony in there, what she says in The Third Eye about the colonizing gaze and the defiant gaze back. I set myself up as an antagonist to these arguably pushy and privileged tourists, who are basically set up to play out these stereotypes of aggression associated with Israelis, to take some of the blame from them. And they oblige! I am basically asking for someone to look back at me, to stare me down, to implicate me as a prurient spectator. That’s where the end of the film comes in, with the long takes of the indigenous people looking back.

I shot this thinking I would spend years attaching myself to Israeli tourists and coming up with some longer patchwork of moments from multiple international locations, but then the war gave this film this automatic fake narrative; I couldn’t resist, and the film came together with these categories of scenes.

My favorite moments are the musical numbers–the best being the one when the Israelis strike gold and sing about it (because there are some things Jews should never say in public, and “I’ve struck gold!” is one of them)–and the shots of them walking in the snow. I feel like that scene (though I’m still playing with it) makes my heart beat at a different pace, slower, and indicates to the viewer, “oh shit, she’s not kidding–I’m going to have to settle in, aren’t I?” But it is a very boring film, and it is hard to sit through, which I think it should be. War and privilege and gender and conflict aren’t easy for anyone, and there is no reason a film about these things should be easy.

My favorite author, though it’s probably hokey and almost precious now, is Faulkner. I remember the first time I read Absalom! Absalom! in high school. It took me 2 weeks over spring break, and I cursed it every day. When I was finished with the book, I threw it down on the couch next to me and announced to no one: “I think that is the greatest thing I have ever read.” Someday, I hope someone sits through my work and hates every second of it, and then, at the end, cries and says “thank you.”

K:  You describe yourself as the antagonist to the tourists, but are you not also one of them?  I am interested in how you think about difference and power in your in your work, in how you position yourself in relation to difference and power.  The “looking back” you desire and highlight takes place largely in a space of commerce. For me the most uncomfortable scene in the film was the commercial transaction that takes place in the domestic space: a young mother is demonstrating what looks like a milk churn to the tourists, who photograph her and make disparaging comments about her children. There is a triangulation happening in the film: the Israeli tourist’s are continually denaturalized in relation to the landscape, the Kyrgyz self-consciously perform or refuse to perform for the tourists’ gaze, including your camera, and the video’s spectators are both forced and allowed to observe these dynamics over time. Across your work there is a self-inscription in the tradition of feminist reflexivity. In Wandering Stars that self-inscription is evolving in a subtle and I think exciting way. You are appropriating the language of embedded journalism, of our present imperialism, as a part of a subjective practice of observation.   Who do you want to look back at you and stare you down?  What are the power dynamics at play in that desire? Are you a stand in for the spectator or an antagonist to us?

RO: Once, when I was bored, I read Job in its original Hebrew. It’s so dark, they never had us read that in Hebrew school. It’s a text that has a lot of debate, all this conversation between god and this other character: in Hebrew, the kategor. The word is the root of “category.” It’s all about division, antagonism. Kategor translates as either the adversary or the prosecutor, the accuser. But of course, in casual terms, this is Satan. I think of that character a lot. The other archetypal figure, of course, is the Greek Chorus, which is not dissimilar to the clown. I try to embed myself in situations in which I can play these types out to a degree. It doesn’t mean I’m above it all, oh no! In fact, I think I implicate myself all the time. The accuser is just god, being a total asshole and blaming something external for it. I hope I never do that, that would be terrible.

One of the things about Kyrgyzstan is that it’s still a fairly new tourist destination. There’s a lot less hamming for the camera or pandering to tourism than I’ve seen elsewhere. I think this isn’t one of the ideas in the forefront of this film, but the camera is a constant site of genuine negotiation for this reason. I think my refusal of the suture is important here, as is my really long attention span. Without the durational elements and the excruciating self-consciousness that elicits, this would just be a tourist film. You have to get to that uncomfortable place over time. This is definitely the story of a time-based medium. I studied ethnographic film, which has this whole other set of discursive objects orbiting in a different constellation, so whenever I strike some ethnographic pose, I cannot help but become a character myself because I’m not an anthropologist, and I’m not a journalist. I’m something else, embedded in these surroundings, feigning professionalism. I’m performing in these films, but I’m often performing behind (or as) the camera.

I feel both powerful in that I hold the camera, I see everything, I’m creating all the time, but I’m also completely powerless in that I so badly need people to perform for/with me or I have nothing. I think I take the former position, but what excites me is when the cracks become visible and it’s completely blown away by, for instance, those shrewd kids in the marketplace who just casually take out their cellphones and film me filming them. That destroyed me!

There’s that great Neo Bustamante piece where she’s dressed as some indigenous dominatrix with a headdress and a strap-on, and in the harness is a big fat juicy burrito. She invites any white men in the audience to come do penance for colonialism by kneeling before her and eating from the burrito. It’s hilarious! But in the video, when she announces the performance and the invitation, despite all the leather and the heels, when no one seems immediately interested in engaging, the whole thing is–well–flaccid. There is an air of panic, of failure. That tension is what I feel when I’m shooting. It’s all so fragile, the relationships, and they reveal themselves when they turn or rupture. So, as regards feminism: in addition to all that suture work, and the gaze being subverted and reinforced self-reflexively… insofar as this is all about levels and transferences of power, and insofar as I am constructing myself as a very bad female, yes, this is all feminist work. It can’t not be.


 

Rebecca Ora is a visual artist, performer, filmmaker and scholar based in California. Her work has been exhibited internationally from Göteborg, Sweden to New Delhi, India and has been supported by numerous fellowships and awards.  Ora holds an MFA in Social Practice from California College of the Arts and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the practice-based film and digital media program at University of California Santa Cruz.  www.rebeccaora.net

*Susan Sontag, “Fascinating Fascism,” in Under the Sign of Saturn [1980]. (New York: Anchor Books Doubleday, 1991), 97.

 

Chew on This: Painting the Moving Image

Marybeth Chew: Three Questions

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Marybeth Chew, Birds 3, 2015. Oil on canvas, 2o by 16 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

Marybeth Chew is a classically trained painter whose practice disrupts the cultural conventions of painting as we know it. Born and raised in Wilmington Delaware, the town that gave us the bleak and barren cityscapes of Fight Club, Chew started painting seriously as a teenager. In grey, fume filled basements she produced startling giant black landscapes. What I think of as her signature style is dark, dripping, encrusted layers of paint that might be described as archaeological. They encode an archaeology of Chew’s bodily gestures and gazes alongside an idiosyncratic archaeology of media.

Chew developed her practice as a painter alongside her interest in pop culture, from the feminist zine movement to exploitation movies and 1980s sex comedies. She began painting from film and video early on, doing a series of stills from John Water’s films. A later series captured odd moments of dread and death from classical films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which is one of her favorite movies. She describes it as “an abstraction of struggle, a story of senseless, unexpected chaos that is inescapable.” In Weird Look Inks, Chew paints tense, overladen moments between men and women based on images she cut out and saved from a discarded film book. Nine Studies of Couples from Film Stills continues this extended conversation with the cinema.

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Marybeth Chew, Weird Looks Inks 2, 2014. Ink on bristol board, 5 by 6 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

Chew describes these series as exploring the idea of narrative as visual rather than scripted. She tells me she is experimenting in producing narrative effects with as little action or exposition as possible: the expression on someone’s face, two people looking at each other. How much implication can one image bear? Part of the power of this work lies in the charged space between these public images which anyone might claim and the intimate caress with which Chew marks them as her own with both desire and disdain.

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Marybeth Chew, Smile and Close Your Legs, 2013. Marker on copy paper, 8.5 by 11 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

Entwined with this excavation of popular culture, Chew has turned her eye toward personal media, snapshots and home movies (both her own and of others). In Family Photo Marker Drawings, a series of ten images produced wholesale in one afternoon, she reproduces a pile of family photographs in marker, that quintessential medium of both childhood and permanence. Here, I’ll admit that when I was in college I kept a sentence from one of Chew’s zines taped above my desk, it read: Irreversible is such a terrifying word. Her recent Home Video series is among the most intense and visceral of her work, painting private moments with a cinematic pathos that we can somehow neither enter into nor turn our eyes away from.

 

 

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Marybeth Chew, Home Video: 3 Kids, 2014. Oil on canvas, 3 by 3 feet. Courtesy of the Artist.

Chew’s latest explorations have turned to the internet. In Before/After she paints Google searches, producing flat, fragmented canvasses that expose her fascination (and ours) with bodies, objectification, and transformation. During the recent snowstorm in Baltimore, unable to get to her studio she picked up her water colors. Working in this quick and unforgiving form, she can’t go back over things with the thick accumulation of meaning she achieves in her oil paintings. In this medium, her usual attraction to abjection has a lightness, an unabashed prettiness. Of course, with Chew’s sensibility there is never just a pretty picture. There is always something more, an inscrutable story, a visceral emotion in the layers of paint, or an emotionally charged critical question. Indeed, Chew posed this prettiness to me as a problem, a question she (and we) must toy with, as the dehumanizing title, Flanks, frankly declares.

flanks watercolor
Marybeth Chew, Flanks, 2016. Watercolor on hot pressed wc paper. Courtesy of the Artist.

As a body of work, much of Chew’s fascinating and often unsettling oeuvre might be described as a kind of personal media history, a reinscription of the images that pop-culture sears into the psyche, at times mixed-up and smeared abjectly across the family album.

K: First let me just say that I love your work.  I am a huge fan.  I am really interested in exploring and expanding the idea of the “moving image,” of thinking about moving images across different media and mediums in relation to memory and imagination. There is an obvious connection with moving images in your work, yet you tend to work in paint and ink rather film or video.  What images move you and how do you think that translates into your work?

MB: I connect with low budget films partially because they’re so extremely transparent in process that there’s a whole other narrative of reality in them. You consider how and why they’re made as you’re watching, then you often have to understand what’s implied rather than executed, as a sort of conspirator. So they have these other layers that are more personal and engaging on a less conscious level and have a multi-dimensional kind of movement. Paintings have a readable world of other events in the same way. They have to be read time-backward, from the end that’s the surface, and all the decisions and process are taken in at one time, so there’s a temporal sticking into the act of looking. That’s possibly the main experience that really compels me when looking at a painting, being sort of trapped into a surface that partly reveals a complete source and event, which is in part legible but ultimately truly unimaginable. So both stir this internal fantasy of a larger world in them, and present it outright, but the process of seeing it is in a very personal imagined interaction.

K: I love that. It is as if the painted surface becomes skin, all the textures and scars we try to cover up on our bodies.  The past laid bare on the surface.  There is vulnerability there, as well as bravado.  How do you imagine that relationship between the surface and vulnerability, or fantasy even, in your work?  Or is that all part of the unimaginable? 

MB: I have an inclination toward imagery that is in some way dystopian, but a lot of what becomes portrayed as negative, and failure, in popular culture is normal life. So in media, and in our culture where we’re systematically criticized, it’s hard to find images outside of this weird, fake normal that aren’t communicated as painful. That is part of the appeal to me of horror films, which is one of the few genres where a person who’s not a typical Hollywood actor and a privileged character is very often an emphatically empowered character. Something that’s only occurred to me since starting to make these Before/After body paintings is that with the internet, and in an extremely visible way in these images where people are graphically disembodying themselves into parts they dislike, we also are seeing so many forms of bodies that we never would have when our mass distributed images were entirely commercially controlled. And they’re obviously normal bodies and parts in the proliferation. I want to re-represent that open diversity as much as talk about the self-objectification they so literally illustrate.

K: Yes, and that diversity circulates and proliferates, with the potential, at least, to dislodge all that fake normal. Or magnify it.  So there is pop culture, the surface, the skin, the body, and you are bringing them all into this uneasy proximity with each other. And with the unimaginable.  I’m just thinking that “surface tension,” is the perfect way to describe the energy of your work: there is this uncanny sense of being in a moment right before an eruption.  A moment that seems to break the rules of physics, that can not last or is not real, but is at the same time being fossilized.  What is it that you hope to uncover through your work, through the layers?

MB: The connecting theme, which is something I am actually trying to disentangle in my work, is illusion in experience: from outright unfounded beliefs, or types of escapism that relate experience into fantasy, to culturally imposed ideas that are compellingly ubiquitous, but don’t resonate with my own actual experience or best interests! This is a constant work for me and a very hard thing to put into words. This illusion in experience was for a long time an abstract subtext in my paintings, with surface and process conflicting with an image, but in my most recent work it is pretty literal. The Before/After paintings have a social element, separate from self-objectification. They are about that but they are also about illusion: in how joint belief in a common cultural value, in this instance, is so pervasive that here it is actually physically forming these many self-controlled bodies. This phenomenon is too understandable in the reality of impositions on the body as a permanently elusive bar in women’s cultural permission to self value. That is a much more important meaning than how this form of social control is relative to all controlling social structuring, but the illusion aspect is what allows me to go into this image with a little bit of lightheartedness as an absurd image. They are also, in a funny way, literally like an illusion, like a magic trick in narrative.

K: Marybeth, thank you so much for taking the time to answers these questions.  It was more than a pleasure and I look forward to many more conversations, whether in paint, print, or person!


Marybeth Chew is a fine artist currently based in Baltimore Maryland.  She holds a certificate in painting from the prestigious Pennslyvania Academy of Fine Arts and is currently completing an MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her work has shown in galleries from the Hillyer Art Space in Washington D.C. to Dubrovnik Contemporary in Croatia and is held in selective private collections. Her artwork illustrates the book Ashes to Ashes, Oranges to Oranges by Eric Henderson.

You Are What You Eat

Heart of a Dog (2015, 75 min)
Wednesday Jan 27, 2016 7:30PM at the Hammer Museum
*Laurie Anderson in person

 

heart-of-a-dog-Laurie-Anderson-“This cinematic rumination on loss—9/11, her mother, her terrier, her husband Lou Reed— is presented through lilting personal stories and poetic footage.”

 

Dudes (1988, 97 min)
Friday January 29, 2016 – 7:30 pm at UCLA Billy Wilder Theatre
*Penelope Spheeris in person

 

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“Penelope Spheeris’ punk rock, western, road movie, comedy, action mash-up defies all conventions as it barrels across a subcultural American landscape, from big city mosh pits to wide frontier skies.”