Amy Beecher, Contributor, Lookie-Lookie
A CONVERSATION WITH CAITLIN MACBRIDE AND AMY BEECHER ON THE OCCASION OF HER 2016 SOLO SHOW, POOLS OF FIR, AT GRIN IN PROVIDENCE, RI.
Amy Beecher: In your writing about your own work you refer to still life as a genre from which you depart. How do you employ or reject the conventions of still life in your process and in your paintings themselves? I find, in my own work, that categorizing and naming the more ambiguous objects that I make "this is a podcast....this is a collage..." can create boundaries within which creative decision making arises. Is this part of your strategy?
Caitlin MacBride: Yes, totally! I think in some ways I employ genre in the same way I chose painting. I may flow out of painting from time to time and into photography or sculpture or drawing.... but I'm primarily a painter. I think when I realized one could identify as a painter I felt more free.
Thinking about genre gave me the capability to quiet my mind and focus on some sort of organizational strategy to painting. I think because I am so interested in matters of intuitiveness, erotics, and instinct there had to be some sort of structure that I could hang these fluid messy feelings on. With still life painting there is something so concrete right there in front of you. It’s a tool. And I'm very interested in the concept of tools.
This is part, also, why I chose to paint fabric so often. It’s like the ultimate blank slate as far as objects go. It’s two dimensional but can become three dimensional. And of course it’s loaded historically in painting... but for me it’s just a very simple handy object when I get lost. I can put it in front of me and paint.
Even though genre is sort of my control in the experiment, I like when it flows into something else. Sometimes when I'm painting a still life the shapes and color choices end up reading more like a landscape. Even with something as firm as making a still life, because of these other factors - intuition and improvisation, it can become something else.
The thing that I love most about still life painting though, is that it’s a very close dedicated study. To really look and search and analyze an object is to dedicate yourself to it. This structure of genre gives me a place to care and to delve into the place of devotion and focused adoration. I'm very into the investment that that asks of me.
AB: Many of the objects that you paint are taken from photographs of objects in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's archive. It seems that institutions (The Metropolitan, The RISD Museum here in Providence) have taken a renewed interested in how artists interpret and use their collections. Why, in our current moment, do you think museums are investing in the artist's interpretations of their collections? What is your relationship to the Met's archive? How do you use/misuse it?
CM: Oh wow I hadn't even thought about the RISD museum! But that makes so much sense. When I was at RISD I took a class on Andy Warhol and we learned about his show "Raid the Icebox" at the RISD museum in 1969. The de Menils organized this show where Warhol went through the storage of the RISD museum and selected works - shoes, chairs, pottery, blankets, a tree from the courtyard. He ultimately ended up including the cabinets, racks, and shelves that are used in storage in his display of selected objects in the museum. I love the preciousness of displays in museums. And as a kid, and from a fairly working class background, museums are your gateway drug to art. I didn’t go to a lot of galleries growing up, but my mom took me to the RISD museum (no kid can resist that big Buddha).
Another museum that had a huge impact on me is the Slater Museum in Norwich, Connecticut. It was part of my high school The Norwich Free Academy and was built in the 1850s. The museum includes casts made from original Roman, Greek, and Egyptian statues. This was how I learned to draw, doing charcoal studies of the Laocoon and the Discus Thrower. The museum is amazing, beautiful high ceiling and exposed wood rafters. They have Samurai outfits and a huge cast of Nike (Winged Victory) and all sorts of relics of early New England Americans.
A few years ago I went to Rome and saw many of the original statues. They're so epic, marble really glows. It made me want to go back to the Slater museum and see these bizarre antique casts of the originals. The Slater statues have lines all along the bodies from the casting molds. Also since the museum was built in the Victorian age they took ridiculous precautions about nudity. Fig leaves cover the genitals- and this is the best.... there are nobs all over the museum from where curtains were hung to keep one from seeing too much nudity at once. I love picturing the space with these big velvet Victorian curtains all over.
So I went back and did a photo series. Close looks at the bodies of the statues and their casting marks. I also photographed the nobs all over the museum, both for their own sculptural qualities and for their ghost-like lack of curtains and rods. The gallery Chapter NY published a book of the photos last spring and I've been slowing showing the photos in various exhibitions.
Oh and The Met! One could spend one's life in there. A lot of the objects I paint are from The Met's collection. I love their online archive. I love typing in "tools - metal" or "bonnets" or "chairs" and spending hours looking at what they have. The way they photograph things for the archive is so clinical, like evidence in a trial. Sometimes it doesn't translate to becoming a painting but I'm always trying to figure out how it can.
AB: In your own writing about your work you describe the objects that you paint transforming into "self-objects," through the erotic process of painting, a process that may be as important to you as the painting itself. Why is it important to you to frame your work in terms of the erotic or desiring, and what role does your viewer play in this dynamic?
CM: I think this has a lot to do with the matter of "giving a shit." I decided a few years ago that I was done with this tongue in cheek, ironic, negativity that I was seeing in so much art. I had this amazing conversation with Amy Sillman my first year in grad school where she pointed out that a lot of that mentality - being careless and flippant with your work comes from a privileged place of stability. When you are secure in your position, your standing in the world, you can make things into a joke. But as someone who identifies as "other" - whether because you are female, a person of color, a poor person, a queer person, a disabled person... you are just struggling to have a place in the world. To be taken seriously can be difficult and you are generally not eager to have your position undercut. I could be totally misinterpreting or misremembering this conversation... but it’s the concept that stuck with me.
I decided that I would be fully emotionally invested, that I would be in a relationship with my work, one where I nurtured and fed and challenged it to be stronger and more authentic. For me this had a lot to do with the concept of the erotic or desire. That I long for something and therefore I am. There is this amazing essay by Rebecca Solnit that I quote for this show at GRIN. She explores the concept that the space of longing and reaching for something is a space itself. That that space is valid and fruitful.
The concept of the self-object has to do with narcissistic transference, putting ones adoration on an object because it relates to the self. You actually might know more about this than me, Amy. Remember when we read that book “Fantastic Realities” about Louise Bourgeois and got all obsessed with the concept of objecthood? I figure, if I can have some sort of transference with the object and give it my full attention and desire, then that will create a stronger painting and be ultimately more rewarding for myself.
AB: The inclusion of photographs in your exhibitions suggests that this erotic dynamic is not tied to the process of making a painting, but may exist in the act of looking itself. Does that ring true to you?
CM: Totally! I mean I guess the idea of the "male gaze" vs. the "female gaze" is very "Feminist Art History 101". Yet, I believe there is power in looking and I want to at least share that power. Art, in general, has so much to do with the fullness and pleasure of looking.
There is this amazing book by Elaine Scarry called "On Beauty and Being Just" where she explores the idea of "opiated adjacency". This is the kind of feeling you get from being in the presence of something beautiful or special, which can happen with art. Scarry delves into this idea that relating to something in that way takes one out of self-preoccupation and creates an affinity with something outside the self. In this way we can have a more visceral relationship to "the other"... to something that is not ourself.
I think I'm interested in portraying a viewing relationship that has some ambiguity and androgyny to its erotics. I love those old Greek and Roman statues for that reason. The casts at the Slater Museum are strange replications and yet carry all this erotic weight. By taking close up detail shots I was able to show the way my eyes edited the bodies and space they inhabited. I could edit them down to their most basic fleshy plaster movements.
AB: Audre Lorde describes the erotic as permeating all of her life, as a powerful thread that helps her resist normativity. Do you find that, after you have made your paintings, this broad definition of the erotic can or should drive their distribution and presentation?
CM: I love that text by Lorde "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotics as Power". People say that power is sexy but I've never really identified with that. That’s some capitalist propaganda shit. However I do think that there is good power in embracing the erotic as a place of fruitful creation. That’s the kind of power I can get behind.
Lorde wrote: "The erotic is a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. .....Within the celebration of the erotic in all our endeavors, my work becomes a conscious decision - a longed-for bed which I enter gratefully and from which I rise up empowered."
She's talking about how refreshing it is to be in your body. To own your decisions. That there is place of chaos and a place of decision and a sense of discovering oneself in the space between.
Honestly I think I'm still figuring out how this relates to my work outside the studio... to its distribution and presentation. I'm still grappling with its relationship to other viewers and I think I'll spend the rest of my life wondering about the way a painting or photo becomes appealing enough for someone to buy. I'd like for it to be because someone feels that "opiated adjacency" and just wants to be near it.
AB: We first met in the same feminist reading group. Are these feminist paintings, paintings made by a feminist, both, or none of the above?
CM: Oh man, I remember talking about this so much in that group! I'd say of course they are feminist paintings, because I am a feminist. I think people can get bogged down in the semantics and history of feminism and I like to keep it simple. It’s about equality. Also personally I hold myself to a kind of feminism that strives to resist all forms of domination ... for me being a feminist means not just equality for women and men but equality across gender, race, class, and all other positions. Reading bell hooks was one of the most important parts of my development as a feminist. She writes as an intersectional feminist about domination and also importantly about solutions.
I wonder a lot about how works of art fit into a political dialogue. Yet, I think the process of thought itself is a political action. Also for me, this process of nurturing and attending to a practice of thought and creation is political.
I recently saw the painter Robert Bordo talk about his works in Greater New York. He discussed being a painter in the early 90s during the AIDS crisis. It was rare to be politically engaged and be a painter then, but he was doing it. His work at the time had a lot to do with silence and intimacy. The fact that he was making work and living was huge. I relate so much to the power of silence and intimacy. Sometimes one can make an enormous impact with the smallest of gestures.
AB: Reading your thesis, I was struck by your brief but insisting assertion that "the true purpose of oil paint is to paint flesh. Only in flesh does it reach its highest potential." Given that your oil paintings are rarely of flesh, how does this understanding effect your work?
CM: I believe that's a DeKooning quote. Historically oil is beautiful for building up skin tones. It’s similar to how marble allows light to shine through it and therefore looks more realistic. There are so many reasons I felt drawn to that idea. The religious overtones to painting - "the death of painting" and its rebirth. Painting died so many times by now, it’s like necrophilia to be in love with it. Yet, it just keeps beingreborn consistently in the work of so many amazing artists.
Also you have such a good point. Often times I paint fabric which is really more about hiding flesh. What’s behind the fabric? Also my photos are about what is exposed and what is viewed. What is publicly put on display? For me there's some sort of love relationship with oil paint that I can't shake and I just keep coming back to it.
Caitlin MacBride lives and works in New York, NY. Her work has been exhibited at Chapter NY, Real Fine Arts, Greene Naftali, Zach Feuer and Green and Nostrand. Her work has been written about in The New York Times, ArtForum, Modern Painters, and New York Magazine.