Girlcore

I read my first Marie Calloway story over the summer of 2012; it was “Adrien Brody,” her thinly fictionalized account of sleeping with a well-known New York editor. At first I was disgusted by the narrator, especially by all the generalizations she made about men, eg “I wondered if maybe men are incapable of understanding something like [softcore porn] as anything other than something that's meant to get them off.” Despite the fact that I disliked the narrator, I loved the overall sincerity of the piece and the way it was written. Calloway did not attempt to write a flattering portrait of herself and that fascinated me.

I found more of her pieces on Thought Catalog and Vice and read through them as well. After I was finished reading them, I had a fuller picture of where the narrator/Marie Calloway was coming from. We had a couple of mutual friends on Facebook, so I added her and chatted with her intermittently about boys, fashion, cats, and sexual abuse. I thought about my initial response to her piece. It had made me so uncomfortable because a lot of the “irrational” thoughts she chose not to censor occasionally popped up in my head as well. Being confronted with her way of thinking forced me to reexamine my own thought process.

I read through her formspring page, a website where people ask anonymous questions for her to answer. When someone asked her about honesty in her writing, she responded:

i think it's impossible to directly translate life into writing, even if that's your intention...a lot of things are distorted, and what i choose to include or not include shapes the story...people often think there's no craft or intention or etc behind my writing but it's not true....it's funny how adding fictional elements to your stories can create a story that is actually more honest wrt how you felt in a situation.

This is remarkably relevant to visual arts as well, especially non-representational or expressionistic pieces. I wanted to incorporate this concept of fictionalization for emotional honesty into my own artwork. I have always relied heavily on my emotions in the creative process, but I had never created a piece relying solely on my emotional response to a subject.

In an attempt to create using fictionalization to attain sincere expression, I created a series of 67 photographic self-portraits entitled “Meanwhile I’m Trying to Show You Who I Really Am,” which examine the act of taking a self-portrait, especially if one is a female. The fictionalization aspect of the series was my facial expression; in the photo on the right, “i think i am kinda cute but maybe not,” I am manipulating my facial muscles to make a certain face, which is just as valid as working in any other medium. I took the photos and performed minimal edits in Adobe Lightroom. I then published the photos on facebook.

i think i am cute but maybe not

Digital Photo

i think i am cute but maybe not

The feedback I received was very interesting; one of the most common responses was to comment on the implied nudity in some of the pictures due to my I had bare shoulders. (I was, in fact, wearing a dress, which was visible in a couple of photos, but most people chose to ignore it.) Many people questioned why I had taken so many pictures of myself and why I had taken “unflattering” pictures.

i want to model

Digital Photo

i want to model

I do think some of the pictures turned out well, like “i want to model”; I like the way the light hits my face and the delicately rippled effect it has on the wall behind me. The mainly monotone colour scheme is punctuated by a few bright bits of colour. The picture has a solid composition as well, without much movement; the viewer is drawn in directly to my face. However, aesthetically pleasing was not the effect I was going for; I wanted a bluntly honest collection, one that included out of focus, blurry, and poorly composed photos as well.

i am faux scared

Digital Photo

i am faux scared

“i am faux scared” (right) is an example of one of these. The lighting is bland, my face is out of focus, and while the composition isn’t terrible, it’s not good either. It is a technically a bad photograph. Despite this, the photo is very emotionally expressive; the darkness and the blurriness add to the campy-scary-movie effect. Including this photograph made the collection more “real,” process-wise; traditionally, when teenage girls take a bunch of self portraits to stick on facebook, it is to make themselves look beautiful and to show off their photography skills.

I wanted to deconstruct that experience, and showing the “outtakes” forced the people who looked at the collection to ask themselves why I would include such pictures.

Self Portrait by Andy Warhol

Polaroid

Self Portrait by Andy Warhol

Warhol did something similar with one series of self-portraits, one of the series left. He dressed up in drag and then took portraits of himself in various poses. However, while my portraits were an attempt to reveal, Warhol’s portraits were an attempt to obscure. He piled makeup onto his face and dressed as a woman. Warhol, just as the name of his “Factory” suggests, was creating a microcosm of the consumerist society around him; this time, he was the product. Much of his work was about deconstructing what the meaning of art is, forcing viewers to confront mass-created objects as just as meaningful as a more “traditional” artistic creation.

My work, interestingly enough, had a similar effect. The most interesting response my piece was the accusation that I was “full of myself” for putting so many “selfies” (slang for photographic self-portraits) online. I have to wonder how many times Van Gogh was called a narcissist for painting so many self-portraits. On Facebook, I have never seen a boy accused of narcissism for posting self-portraits; most of the time they are hailed as “artsy” or “deep” or “hilarious,” and occasionally “weird” or told they are “acting like a girl.” Many of Calloways detractors also accuse her of being self-obsessed; she responded to this accusation in an interview with Rumpus:

It seems unfortunate the “attention whore” slur is used as discouragement from women (especially young ones) writing honestly about their life, if that’s what they want to do. I and a few other of my female artist friends created an art “philosophy” (for lack of a better term) called “girlcore” which basically holds at its center an unapologetic expression of and admiration of young female subjectivity.
[...]
I don’t think of myself as narcissistic, but I’m definitely incredibly self absorbed. I guess I wonder if seeing the world through the lens of yourself is necessarily less valid than other ways of thinking/seeing though. I admire self-awareness more than probably any other quality, and I think in terms of what qualities are “good” in a person, it’s a mostly subjective opinion, so I can’t see a reason to think that self-absorption is inherently a bad thing. (qtd. in Elliott)

One of my favorite questions to ask people after showing them a Calloway piece is to consider what their response would be if it was written from the point of view of the man; everyone I have asked agreed that it would be easier to see it as a “deep” piece at first glance, even if they don’t believe that it would truly be more “deep”. As I am also female, this affects me directly, especially because most of my pieces are self-portraits. Even when they are not literally a picture of me, they are almost always about my own emotional response to the subject; I am “seeing the world through the lens of [my]self,” as Calloway would put it. Does being female mean I am less able to capture something meaningful? Does it mean my work will be less important and considered relevant only in the “feminist art” genre?

I decided to dig into this question by trying to focus on other female artists. I turned to inspiration from K.Flay, a twenty-something rapper from the West coast, who has a dark yet youthful bent. Her song “Danger Starts” opens with the line “Bled to death in a bathroom/Forever humming a sad tune,” immediately giving the song a violent, depressed tinge. The song, which is about the death of her father when she was fourteen, questions him, asking “Dad, did it fade out easily?/Did you see the light?/Were you sad to be leaving me or just sick of life?”; the listener gets the sense that K.Flay, as she is rapping, is slowly shrinking back into how she felt as a fourteen-year-old, powerless to stop the death of her father. She explains that she “Tried desperately to get [him] sober/Dope hidden in the trunk, doubled over/Red spots on the tile/Couldn't understand as a child”; she tried her best to save him from himself, but ultimately, her efforts were futile.

K.Flay adds she “Still really don't [understand] and you're long gone so I really won't”; further emphasizing the sense that she is back in the same mindset as she was all those years ago, reliving the events in her head. At the end of the song, K.Flay has one final request for her father: “If you had the chance to say one thing/Would you tell me that you love me?/I hope so, carry you everywhere I go.” She admits that she will never be free from these questions, and thinking about his death will draw her back to that same feeling of insecurity and helplessness she experienced as it was happening. The song’s dark, highly emotional and confessional edge really appealed to me.

Body 1 - 8” x 10”

Pen on Paper

Body 1 - 8" x 10"

While I was at a figure drawing session, I began messing with the proportions of the model we were drawing. I wanted to throw the viewer off balance. To do so, I made the heads oversized and the limbs disproportionately small, and exaggerated or simplified curves for effect. I really like the way it turned out, and I wanted to explore a different medium besides pen and ink.

Another one of K.Flay’s songs, “Less Than Zero,” examines apathy as a way to avoid dealing with emotional pain. K.Flay is “Scared to death [she]'ll never feel alright” so she “fake[s] a smile” and “swear[s] that [she]'ll stop swimming in [her] afterthoughts.” “But [she acknowledges] it's nothing new/Too much shit [she] can't undo” She begs the unnamed person she’s addressing, “Get these demons off of me!” before settling for the simpler request, “Ask the man can I have a coffee please?” She is resigned to her fate, “faded for the hell of it,” self-medicating with marijuana, because actually confronting her problems is too painful. The title “Less Than Zero” is a reference to Bret Easton Ellis’ novel of the same name. Ellis, who wrote the book about his experiences in college during the 80’s, describes a tumultuous lifestyle with a bland, apathetic hand. This apathy, which was so very prevalent during the 80’s, is something that can be traced back to the Pop Art movement, particularly Andy Warhol.

The thing that separates K.Flay from the totally ironic expression of Warhol is the way in which she bares her emotions. She reveals herself. In order to emulate this in my own art, I decided to look at German expressionism, especially Die Brücke. The group’s focus was creating art based off of one’s emotions and disregarding representational tradition ("The Artists' Association "Brücke"). Creating art primarily from one’s emotions was a direct revolution against centuries of representationalist art in Europe, but after the Impressionists began exhibiting in 1874, newer avant-garde styles were accepted as necessary in order to properly depict a new, modern way of life (Samu). The post-impressionists’ forays into ways of expressing deeper symbolic meaning inspired Die Brücke to explore modernist modes of creating art (Voorhies). This background is very similar to the Fauvists, and it is interesting to see the similarities between the two movements. The important difference between the two is that the Fauvists desired to create aesthetically pleasing images and relied heavily on colour theory, while the German Expressionists painted purely from their emotions (Rewald).

Girl by Egon Schiele

Lithograph

Girl by Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele’s line drawing of a girl, right, is extremely emotionally evocative. The thick dark outline of her body, with its exaggerated curves, gives the viewer a direct connection to how she is feeling. Although it is not painted by a female, I think it accurately captures the sort of feminine rawness I am looking for. The despondency on the girl’s face, her prepubescent nudity and vulnerability, and the almost-painful skinniness is at once beautiful and grotesque and horrifying.

To try and emulate this emotionality, I did a line drawing of my face. On Photoshop, I edited it so that two halves of my face were connected. I then traced this line art onto a piece of glass, went into the dark room, and made a contact print using photo paper. My final image, like K.Flay’s songs, has a dark edge. I wanted to pay homage to her ironic roots, and to do so I emulated Warhol once again and did a series of prints with the same glass, this time focusing solely on process.

Dipole - 5”x6”

Contact Print

Dipole - 5”x6”

Dipole - 5”x6”

Dipole - 5”x6”

This intensive use of process was my way of mentally removing myself from the drawing, an attempt to emulate the sort of ironic self-examination of Warhol. It was interesting; the more time I spent playing with the technical aspects of creating the piece, the more distanced I felt from the initial emotions I had felt while creating it. I felt as though I was manipulating the basic emotions and turning them into a new, hybridized form of feeling. I like the way the light fades up in the print to the left, and the kaleidoscope effect in the one two the right. Both maintain a sense of darkness/emotionality, despite their self-awareness.

Marilyn by Warhol

Screenprint

Marilyn by Warhol

This is markedly similar to what Warhol accomplished with his portraits of Marilyn Monroe. By repetitively deconstructing and reconstructing her image, he forced the viewer to reinterpret their preconceived ideas of her. This is similar to what he did with his famous Campbell’s Soup cans. Imitating his contemporary mass producers, factories, Warhol’s Factory captured the essence of American Pop Culture and laid the foundation for modern day internet memes.

His prints of Marilyn are also interesting in their deconstruction of femininity; the clownish colours of the prints and the repetition of the images imitates the way magazines spam our eyes with repetitive images of celebrities. The garish colours attract the attention of the viewer just like an advertisement; they “pop.”

The method in which Warhol utilizes irony as a tool in his art has been a profound influence on my understanding of the concept. From my own personal observations, adding a layer of irony, or self-criticism or awareness, tends to make the “meaning” behind the art a little less palpable to critics. An artist engaged in ironic discourse is often pushing the boundaries of what art is considered, which probably reinforces many initial critics’ dislike of such art. Another couple of envelope pushers are, of course, the ones who standardized use of arbitrary colour, the Fauvists.

Dance by Matisse

Oil Painting

Dance by Matisse

Over the summer of 1905, Henri Matisse and André Derain began using wild colours and brushstrokes in their painting. They later exhibited these paintings in the Salon, and the critics tore into them for their over-exuberant colours. Matisse was inspired mainly by the post-impressionists and neo impressionists; examining their paintings lead him to “reject traditional three-dimensional space and seek instead a new picture space defined by the movement of color planes.”(Rewald) By defining form with varying bright colours instead of using black shadows, paintings became bright, vibrant celebrations of colour.

Matisse’s “Dancers” uses line and colour to create a curious examination of movement. The painting feels awkward, unhinged almost, as it should; one of the dancers has fallen. The balance of the piece is swung to the bottom, and when the eye tries to follow the circle of the dancers, it collapses back into the same bottom area. The bright orange of the dancers is constant throughout the piece and contrasts sharply with the background; the lack of variety in colour is made up for by the interesting shapes of the bodies. I love the way Matisse defines for with dark brown lines, especially with the central woman.

A Grotesque Display - 27” x 48”

Linocut

A Grotesque Display - 27” x 48”

I decided to combine Matisse and Warhol’s approach to the expressionistic line drawings I created during figure drawing. I made a linocut of the lines and then began experimenting with colours. I pulled my 12 favorite results, took photos of them, and then edited them together in photoshop. I’m pretty happy with how they turned out, although I do with I had included more green/blue to balance out some of the red and orange.

Woman With a Hat by Matisse

Oil Painting

Woman With a Hat by Matisse

Matisse’s vivaciousness with colour might lead one to believe that the painter would paint like a madman, but Matisse did not create his paintings sloppily; they were carefully balanced and organized according to colour theory. “The Woman with the Hat” (left) is a perfect example of the care Matisse took in crafting his painting. The colour scheme sets soft pastels off against angry oranges, which are in turn complemented by muted navy. Matisse focuses the viewer on the face by contrasting the orange skin with the blue of the hat, yellow highlights of the cheek against a soft lavender, and green skin tones against the red hair, while the rest of the piece is more subdued. The collar of the dress is a lovely, calm interplay of cool colours, but I don’t like the colours in the hat. The reddish brown, surrounded by all that saturation, comes off as muddied. I would have prefered a slightly maroon colour more like one in bottom left corner. The image has a very solid composition; Matisse’s use of colour negative space is gorgeous.

Although the painting comes off as vibrant and bright, the mood of the painting is not absurdly happy. The woman, who was Matisse’s wife, Amélie, has a quiet, almost despondent look on her face. The dark blues on her hat and clothing anchors the mood of the piece to the ground. The inclusion of the bright colours prevents the painting from becoming overly depressed, but creates a sense of tension, the dark navy fighting with the brights and pastels for dominance. This conflict in the painting is not quite loud; it is carefully structured, laid in place with care by Matisse, but threatening to burst.

Girl Sitting in Dizzying Colours - 16” x 20”

Pen and Coloured Pencil on Paper

Girl Sitting in Dizzying Colours - 16” x 20”

In class, we had started working on blind contour drawings. These are intimately connected to what Calloway said about processing the world in terms of oneself. By not looking down at what your hand is doing, you create a line that captures your precise mental response to what you’re looking at. We also did line drawings of figures with our eyes partially on the paper and partially off. The picture on the left started out as just a line, but it was extremely bland and lacking in information, so I decided to play around with colours to see if I could improve the situation.

Like Matisse, I tried to put contrasting colours on the face to draw people in, and put non-contrasting colours near the edges. I also experimented with different textures; I was initially just trying to see if I would prefer softer blends or rougher strokes, but I ended up liking the combination of the two textures. Like Matisse’s painting, my drawing has a sense of internal conflict. The girl, who had been sitting on that stool for about forty minutes, was stiff and uncomfortable, and my dark purples and blues, like Matisse, contrast with the other bright colours I used. The white spaces I left, most notably in the hair, add to the tension between the colours, while at the same time adding a sense of control. I was happy with the resulting image and think it is a dramatic improvement from its former self.

Figure by Varvara Stepanova

Oil Painting

Figure by Varvara Stepanova

I saw Varvara Stepanova’s “Figure” at the MoMA a few weeks later, and I was struck by the similar ways in which we laid colour in our pieces. We both included colours which faded out towards the edges, which filled the shapes we had delineated beforehand. These colours were occasionally textured, hers with brushstrokes, mine with rough hatching and more controlled cross-hatching.

Stepanova, unlike Matisse and I, did not use contrasting colours, creating an academic, studied tone. This is unsurprising; Stepanova, who had painted it in 1921, was living in the newly born Soviet Union. She was undoubtedly influenced by Picasso’s Analytical Cubism, but an even larger influence were other Constructivist artists.

Constructivism was led by communist revolutionaries who wished to reject aestheticism and the bourgeois and instead favor a linear mechanical reinterpretation of arts (Flask); this focus on conceptualism versus aestheticism appealed to me.

Study for Marie Calloway

Pen on Paper

Study for Marie Calloway

I saw that Calloway had taken several nude self-portraits with her iPhone and put them on facebook. They have since been taken down by Facebook (nudity is against the rules), but I drew line drawings based off of the images while they were still up. I figured exploring honesty by examining my reaction to Calloway’s writing would fit well, due to the fact that she’s been a driving force behind my forays into honesty.

The first line drawing I attempted was blind contour. I don’t like it very much; the line has a scratchy texture, and there is too much distortion in the bottom of the image for it to make sense. It’s a visually interesting drawing, but lacks any real sort of emotional expression; it feels analytical and dry. So while it is an okay drawing, it is not what I was attempting to achieve.

Study for Marie Calloway

Pen on Paper

Study for Marie Calloway

The second one, in contrast, has an excellent flow, from the top left to the bottom right. It is recognizably human and yet distorted. I love the way the lips came out. The look on her face makes me think of a stereotypical femme fatale from film noir, slightly mysterious and guarded, and perhaps even a little sad.

I decided I definitely wanted to do something more with this drawing. Marie Calloway has been a profound influence on me in ways besides her writing as well. She has a unique, in a good way, facebook presence, with status ranging from “oh my god feed me” to “yes well women would do well to brush up on some common conversation topics that interest men. some interests that men typically have include: rape fantasies, statutory rape fantasies, false rape accusations...” to pictures of cats or links to feminist/political articles.

Selfie by Marie Calloway

Digital Photo

Selfie by Marie Calloway

She will also occasionally post risque pictures. The power play created by these pictures is interesting; Calloway seemingly invites objectification, but in actuality, she condemns it. She often posts screencaps of the creepy things men say to her and her disgusted responses.

Calloway places an emphasis on whether or not men are attracted to her because she thinks it is the only way she will appeal to them: as a sexual being. In her story “Jeremy Lin,” the main character is confused and upset when Lin refuses to have sex with her but appreciates her writing and personality anyway. In “Adrien Brody” Calloway discusses her views on attractiveness and objectification through the narrator:

"It's interesting because people always talk about how women manipulate men with their beauty and have all this power because of their physical attractiveness and ability to have sex or withold sex from men, but I've always felt like my own physical attractiveness is just like a defense from men. I feel like men have all of the power, and they attack you if you aren't attractive...But maybe I would have more of that power people talk about if I were more conventionally attractive," I said.

Whore Mansion by Natalia Fabia

Oil Painting

Whore Mansion by Natalia Fabia

Calloway’s work as a prostitute reinforces this power dynamic; while she had “power” over her clients in that they were paying for her services, the way society is set up, with the men earning more money than her, they are the ones who hold the true power. Natalia Fabia, a contemporary artist, paints prostitutes. Unlike Toulouse-Lautrec, however, Fabia captures them in girlish, idealistic landscapes. Fabia, like Calloway, works to validate stereotypical young feminine expression. Her finished paintings, much to the chagrin of certain critics, are coated in a glitter varnish. (Incidentally inspiring Liz Koven and I to start a collaboration called “Glitter in the Margins”)

I adore Fabia’s use of colour, the way the painting is saturated with pink. The landscape in the background is stunning. The contrast between the pinks and greens draw the viewer’s eye to the center of the painting, and the delicate pink light is reflected in the flesh tones. Everything seems like a faerie tale, with the castle balcony, the unicorn, and the flowers framing the picture, and even the way Fabia demonstrates knowledge of atmospheric perspective, making everything more purple the further back it is. The only exception is the woman, who is painted in realistic colours, wearing a normal bra. She is posed specifically for the male eye, with her buttocks sticking out, her back arched, and her head turned gently towards the viewer.

Outliers by Lisa Yuskavage

Pastels on a Digital Enlargement of a Lithograph

Outliers by Lisa Yuskavage

I had recently been to the MoMA and seen Lisa Yuskavage’s mixed media piece entitled “Outliers,” and I loved the way she used a cartoonish black line surrounded with colour, and used the direction of her hatching with pastels to give the figures depth. The areas wherein she layers the three colours of the piece are my favorite, as they play off each other to create a softly glowing vibrancy. “Outliers” is an gentle and meditative piece, almost in spite of itself. While the girls are posed in a way which would normally be titillating, and while the large expanses of purple and delicate yellow and blue would normally be very bright, the fact that it is done on a grey background pulls down the mood.

Yuskavage is a contemporary American painter who focuses on a lascivious, cartoonish interpretation of the female form and uses her emotions as the driving force behind her paintings:

When you put yourself in the position where you have nothing left to lose, and you get angry enough, you can decide to make paintings with all that anger. I am happily in touch with my anger, but then I’ve got to be careful... You have to direct it creatively. (qtd. in Bui)

This use of emotion is evocative of the German Expressionists of the early 20th century; however, while Yuskavage “directs” her anger, they were very intense and free-wheeling.

Wildly Dancing Children by Emil Nole

Oil on Canvas

Wildly Dancing Children by Emil Nole

Emil Nole was a member of Die Brücke. His time with the art collective totally revolutionized the way he approached art. He began painting “without any prototype or model, without any well-defined idea ... a vague idea of glow and colour was enough. The paintings took shape as [he] worked.” (qtd. in Lucie-Smith). His “Wildly Dancing Children” is an excellent example of his purely emotive work. Its vibrant colours and violent brushwork forcefully emphasize the wildness of the dancing girls. The colours swirl together, complementing the swirl of the children. The bright reds are brought out by the deep blues in the shadows and draw the eye of the viewer to the children.

My favorite aspect of the painting is how thickly Nole slathers on paint. The texture adds so much visual interest to the piece, amplifying the frenzy of the children, the disorder of the varied depths of the paint augmenting the spastic colours. Comparing this painting back to Matisse’s “The Woman with the Hat” and Yuskavage’s “Outliers,” it is easy to see that Nole showed close to no restraint while painting it; it almost makes Matisse look mild!

I did a drawing based on the photo “i want to model,” Nole’s impulsivity and Matisses’ careful colouring. The first version I didn’t really like; there was too much white showing from underneath the dry pastels and I was unable to get the level of detail I wanted. I did, however, like my colour scheme; the orange/blue midtones worked well against each other and draw attention to the face, and the yellow highlights and purple shadows do the same. The yellow/green tones of the background and hair are harmonious and thus do not steal attention from the face.

Self Portrait in Colour - 8” x 10”

Pastels on Canvas Panel

Self Portrait in Colour - 8” x 10”

I redid it, this time using oil pastels in addition to dry pastels. The oil pastels allowed me to achieve finer detail in the face, so I added more information in the hair, cleaned up the nose, and gave the left eye more definition. I think it looks significantly better now, although perhaps less traditionally expressionistic. The way I used line and colour in this drawing reminded me of Toulouse-Lautrec.

Woman Pulling Up Her Stocking by Toulouse-Lautrec

Pastel and Watercolour on Cardboard

Woman Pulling Up Her Stocking by Toulouse-Lautrec

Toulouse-Lautrec is, like Yuskavage, a master of combining line and colour; in “Woman Pulling Up Her Stocking” (left), he delineates the model’s form with thick, confident line, then informs the shape with vibrant colour, playing the bright orange of her hair against the soft green of her scarf and the darker burgundy line against her forest green stocking.

Dancers - 5” x 5"

Pen and Watercolours on Paper

Dancers - 5” x 5"

I had studied him more intensely over the summer. This watercolour was one of the results. I had taken a bunch of pictures of my sister, who is a dancer, contorting her body in a variety of ways. It was mainly a study of how to best use lines to describe the human form; it was interesting to see how over exaggerating certain curves made the bodies more believable and gave them a more emotional presence. I added colours to add a bit of visual interest and emphasize the playfulness of the piece. Looking back at it, I really dislike my use of black in the negative spaces between the dancers. The black obscures the descriptiveness of the line and doesn’t mesh with the pink background. Toulouse-Lautrec and Yuskavage both used shading to create a three-dimensional form and my figures are flat and unshaded. Both approaches have interesting effects.

Kate Moss by Lisa Yuskavage

Digital Photo

Kate Moss by Lisa Yuskavage

Toulouse-Lautrec and Yuskavage’s pieces are similar in that both use colour and line to great effect and both portray their models in a quiet, almost reflective moment, all similarly self-absorbed. However, while Yuskavage’s characters come out hypersexualized, Toulouse-Lautrec draws his model with a bluntly honest, if sympathetic, hand; she is neither sexualized nor chastised, a refreshing step from his Art Nouveau contemporaries, many of whom, eg, Mucha, objectified and idealized the female form.

That said, is the lack of honesty in Yuskavage’s paintings necessarily a bad thing? The girls she captures are obviously idealized, just as the candy-land-like landscapes she draws them in. Her work in photography, as exemplified by “Kate Moss,” (right) is no exception; the model’s sugary-blonde hair, teacup, gumball panties and stripey socks are just as fantastic as any Victoria’s Secret shoot. Her art calls attention to a difficulty inherent in third-wave feminism; empowering women to be sexual beings while deconstructing the male gaze is hard to balance; eg, “Is being a female stripper degrading and placing power in the hands of the male, or can it be an expression of liberation from traditional sex roles?” Her women seemingly cater to the male gaze while simultaneously exhibiting a definite preoccupation with self. This is the important difference between Yuskavage’s depiction of her model and the media is the apathetic narcissism and self-absorption displayed by Yuskavage’s girls; Kate Moss, instead of staring sexily into the camera, is captivated by her own body.

Yuskavage expressed disgust at her early work, which was “so demure, so tasteful, so full of shame and very conservative,” (qtd. in Zohn). At first blush it seems ironic that her current work, which so clearly objectifies women, is not subject to this same disgust, but the true irony lies in the fact that her purposefully objectified women are liberated from the “shame” of being objectified by a viewer by their obvious self-obsession. Their focus on themselves leaves them apathetic to whatever anyone thinks of them, leaving the viewer without power. Victoria’s Secret models are begging the consumer to think of them as sexy; Yuskavage’s characters couldn’t care less. This shift of power makes the viewer distinctly uncomfortable; I had seen “Outliers” with a friend of mine, and he had absolutely no idea how to respond to it.

Yuskavage’s work could not portray this paradox so effectively if her work was totally sincere; she relies on an ironic portrayal of her models to get her point across. However, while Yuskavage uses irony effectively, I prefer the rawness of total emotional honesty to get my point across.

Marie Calloway - 16” x 20”

Oil and Pastels on Canvas Board

Marie Calloway - 16” x 20”

My portrait of Marie Calloway ended up being extremely emotionally raw, with no attention paid to colour theory. (The orange/blue contrast in the face was a happy mistake.) The black line represents her story and the colours represent my reaction to her piece. As I painted I tried to “relive” the feeling of reading it. the base layer, which was made using mainly pastels, is mostly red, with some exceptions on the face. representing the disgust I felt towards the narrator, with occasional white spaces representing areas of sympathy/empathy. As I applied more and more layers, it became more complex, just like my reaction to her piece slowly gained depth as I put the story into context. Eventually, my reaction/the painting became giant swirls of ideas, with the thick, bright strokes representing all the information I took away from her story, which has ended up being a gigantic impact on my life.

My painting of Calloway may be based off of a self-portrait of her, but it is not about her. I blurred the lines between Calloway’s personal emotions expressed in her writing and my subsequent emotional response, much as I did with my series of sculptures based on Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.” For my next piece, I wanted to do a self-portrait examining my reaction to myself.

mysterious

Digital Photo

mysterious

trying to be sexy but looking pissed off

Digital Photo

trying to be sexy but looking pissed off

Study for Ego

Pen on Paper

Study for Ego

I have dissociative identity disorder, which has resulted in my mind being split between two very separate, very different personalities, and in therapy I have been working on merging them. “mysterious” and “trying to be sexy but looking pissed off” are two pictures that I thought captured my two separated personalities well, so I did a line drawing based off of them. I also included a third portrait at the bottom, which I did from a mirror.

I really like the two line drawings based off of the photographs, but the third is just doesn’t match well in style so I decided to cut it off. This resulted in a more balanced piece anyways. I decided I liked this line drawing enough that I would use it for a larger painting. As I was working, I started to think about what the piece would mean to me. I don’t go to a Freudian psychologist, but the Freudian concept of Superego and Id is semi-relevant to my two different personalities. The Ego is the part of the psyche that attempts to reconcile both the Superego and the Id, thus, I thought the title “Ego” would be appropriate for my painting.

Donna Yombe by H. A. Bernatzik

Black and White Photo

Donna Yombe by H. A. Bernatzik

Of course, quite wonderfully, ego can also refer to self-centeredness, thus reflecting my interest in radical narcissism. One of the masters of using radical narcissism is definitively Hannah Wilke. Her seminal work “S.O.S. Starification Series: A Game of Adult Mastication" (one of the series, right) was initially derided by feminist critics for objectifying the artist and feeding into patriarchal culture. Critics who reexamined Wilke’s work, however, decided that her work was an ideal example of “positive narcissism,” or a type of self-love that went against society’s belief that women should be concerned about others first. Unlike Lisa Yuskavage, who addresses narcissism through her characters, all of Wilke’s her pictures are of herself. Because of this, she is saying that she is, in fact, worthy of sexual attention. She pre-objectifies herself, confronting culture with a non-vulnerable yet sexually appealing woman, who is taking charge of her her sexuality and how she expresses it. Wilke’s art explores this irony of objectification, and this is why critics had such a hard time understanding her art, because she subverted the culture in such a subtle yet powerful way.

S.O.S. Starification Series: A Game of Adult Mastication by Hannah Wilke

Black and White Photo

S.O.S. Starification Series: A Game of Adult Mastication by Hannah Wilke

Wilke’s work, however, is not only about narcissism. “S.O.S. Starification Series: A Game of Adult Mastication” is a general commentary on the measures some women will take to appear attractive, focusing on tribal scarification. Wilke flippantly refers to this as “starification,” a reference to the tendency of Hollywood to alter their bodies as well. In this case, Wilke has altered her body by chewing up pieces of gum, forming the them into miniature vaginas, and sticking them all over her body in a pattern reminiscent of tribal scarring (photo of tribal scarring, left). Wilke is calling attention to the ridiculousness of Western body modification as a way to appear more attractive by directly comparing it to tribal scarification, a ritual considered horrific by most Westerners.

The presence of truthfulness of Wilke’s work is complex to consider. While photography may seem to be an inherently “honest” medium because it is a near-exact visual recording, fictional elements often create a more truthful expression of emotion. I would say the objectification in Wilke’s presentation of herself is itself an act of falsification; reducing oneself to an object is very “fake.” This fakeness is more or less equivalent to the same “fakeness” that girls and women oftentimes create when they apply makeup to their face. I’m not saying that applying makeup is a negative thing; makeup artists are just as legitimate as any other artist. Objectifying oneself can be an empowering thing, but only if it is done with a certain level of self-awareness. It’s like comparing a stripper who strips for monetary compensation and need to a stripper who strips as performance art.

Study for Ego

Solar Plate Print

Study for Ego

After I felt like I had, for the most part, understood how I would use feminine narcissism as a part of my work, I began working planning the logistics of my larger portrait. I decided to do it on a large piece of masonite (six feet by four feet) and created several studies to explore different colouring options. I traced my drawing onto a piece of glass and made a solar plate etching. The first print I made (left) I left black and white. I liked the simplicity of the black line on white. It emphasized the movement of the line.

Study for Ego

Watercolour and Gouache on Solar Plate Print

Study for Ego

Study for Ego

Contact Print

Study for Ego

I also tried creating a contact print, so that the line showed up white. I made others wherein I played with my use of colour. I split my colours across the faces, one cool and one warm.

While I liked the way the colourful one looked, I decided my favorite was the first one I made, with the black line on the white.

After I decided my colour scheme, I started to plan out my final painting. Because I love thick, expressive brushstrokes, and covering a six by four canvas in thick oil paint would be ridiculously expensive, I asked my instructor how I could build up thickness with something besides paint. He recommended that I use modeling paste, which, like gesso, is water based. I decided I would sculpt the line onto the masonite and then paint it later. I gessoed the board and applied the modeling paste on very thickly. When I was done, I realized I actually like the look of the plain white line; because it was so thick, its cast shadow made it visible to the viewer.

So in the end, I ended up just sticking to no colours or differences in shading whatsoever. Since I normally rely very heavily on colour, it was a very interesting and different experience for me. I like the way it turned out, but I feel like it’s more conceptually rather than aesthetically pleasing. I had spent so much time working with and refining my line drawing that when I finally worked on the large image I was very emotionally removed from it.

Ego - Self Portrait in White 6’ x 4’

Gesso and Modeling Paste on Masonite

Ego - Self Portrait in White

Deconstructing genuine emotion in very processed way is central to the “alt lit” movement. I spent some time over the summer hanging out with various alt lit artists. Steve Roggenbuck in particular has been a huge influence on my understanding of the movement. One day I walked all of Central Park with him all the way to Times Square. Along the way, he asked me what I thought of Times Square. I told him I didn’t like it, it seemed too artificial and commercialized. He said he loved the energy of the place.

Steve’s image macros work off of that same commercialized energy. They are often cliched and are littered with misspellings. A large part of his work works in the same way Marie Calloway’s does; it asserts the legitimacy of, while not necessarily feminine, youthful, emotional expression. His work is also heavily influenced by German Expressionism; we went to the MoMA together and saw Käthe Kollwitz’s self portrait.

Self Portrait by Käthe Kollwitz

Woodblock Print

Self Portrait by Käthe Kollwitz

Interestingly enough, it was in the same exhibit I saw Yuskavage’s piece at. It is an excellent example of direct, blunt honesty in artwork. Unlike Yuskavage, Kollwitz makes no attempt at irony and instead directly confronts the viewer with her face. It has a violent emotional appeal, as well, while Toulouse-Lautrec’s piece was honest, it was subdued. Kollwitz uses the dark black of the woodblock print to highlight her harsh crosshatching. The lighting ensures that every wrinkle is shown, emphasizing the harsh sadness the Kollwitz experienced throughout her life, losing both her so. Like Calloway, Kollwitz makes no attempt to flatter herself; she is viscerally real and bluntly present.

One of my favorite things about Kollwitz is the fact that she is acknowledged as one of the best artists of the 20th century. Many women working as visual artists fail to achieve any level of fame because their work is not considered as legitimate This is a problem that plagues nearly all forms of art. Nicky Minaj, for example explains in her viral internet video that she has to be ten times better than any male rapper to get the same amount of respect. Sylvia Plath is one example, in my opinion, of a female artist who was so good she couldn’t be ignored. Some claim that the only reason she is famous is her suicide, but I do not think her fame would be this long lasting, and her poetry so highly regarded, if that was the only reason. Some people will look for any excuse to remove the credence of female artists.

The first time I read a Sylvia Plath poem was when a friend sent me “Poppies in July.” The way she writes is so dark, it draws the reader in. Her confessionalism is a huge part of her appeal; even more so than a reality television show, Plath radically lets people in. Her poetry used to be much more pedantic, but after going through multiple emotional fights with her husband, she threw out her thesaurus and began writing purely from herself. As soon as she did this, her poetry entered a dark, surrealistic and powerful zone. Plath’s poetry from this area has had a huge effect on how I perceive gore and symbolist elements in art.

The Lonely House on Adachi Moor by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Print

The Lonely House on Adachi Moor by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

Yoshitoshi mastered a dark, violent edge of humanity that few care to deeply examine. His print “The Lonely House on Adachi Moor” is dark and disturbing. The pregnant stomach of the woman dangles over the gaunt old man who is busy sharpening his knife. Although Yoshitoshi was not active during the Post-WWI period, his prints had a very visibly effect on the Ero Guro Nansensu movement. Fascinatingly enough, Ero Guro and German Expressionism both gained popularity during the Post-WWI period.

Darkness and honesty seem to be the immediate response to a severe societal shift or issues, and irony seems to be employed mainly during periods of times when social issues are more conceptual than immediate. Robert Hayden is one example of a poet who goes dark commentating on racial violence in Mississippi. In his poem “Night, Death, Mississippi” the Hayden depicts a lynching. The lines “Christ, it was better/than hunting bear/which don't know why/you want him dead.” are striking and sudden; the intense horror of the reader once they realize the old man is saying he prefers killing fellow humans, just because they know why they’re being killed. The lines “White robes like moonlight/In the sweetgum dark.” appeal back to the dark terror of the dark night and juxtapose it with the old man’s romantic view of the subject; “sweetgum” is not a word one might expect in a poem about death, but the moon is a symbol often used to conjure up darkness.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco Goya

Etching

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco Goya

Sylvia Plath also used symbols to speak directly to the reader’s subconscious.She did this with full knowledge of what she was doing, informed by Surrealism. Plath was a talented visual artist herself and was doubtlessly well-versed in art history; she uses this history to add richness and depth to the poems she created. Goya’s famous etching resonates eerily well with Plath’s poem “The Moon and the Yew Tree” The stanza that says “The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary. /Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.” Goya had, like Plath, gone through wartime – he lived during Napoleon’s attack on Spain, she went through WWII. Many of his pictures were about the horrors of war and mental illness.

Funny Girl 42 by Shintaro Tago

Drawing

Funny Girl 42 by Shintaro Tago

Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus,” also touches on the horrors of war, most notably German war crimes during the Holocaust. One of the lines that was particularly striking to me was “Peel off the napkin/O my enemy./Do I terrify?” as Plath tells the reader to rip off her skin, which she compares to a “Nazi lampshade.” This reference to peeling off skin took me back to Shintaro Tago’s sketch “Funny Girl 42,” wherein the figure is removing her skin. Shintaro Tago is a modern day Ero Guro Nansensu artist. The fascinating thing about this picture is the young girl’s grinning, feminine face juxtaposed with the gorey, bloody mess of her torso. The adorableness of the girl makes the scene more strange than disgusting; the pastel colors that Tago used further lessen the horrifying ability of the piece. The whole thing looks entirely surreal; no one would be smiling the girl is.

He may not have intended it, but I think this piece sums up the current moral and artistic dilemma of the modern era. We are at war, with huge casualties for the other side, and our own men are dying, and 9/11 was only a little over a decade ago; based on patterns in art over history, we ought to be having a resurgence of extremely emotional, confessional art. Instead, we are still half-retreated into the shell Warhol helped build, of irony, academicism, and humor. The lightness with which the girl views her self-injuries captures that perfectly.

Funny Girl 42 after Shintaro Tago - 16” x 20”

Drawing

Funny Girl 42 after Shintaro Tago - 16” x 20”

“i am melting of you” is a surrealist writer that I found over the summer in a humorously Breakfast-of-Champions fashion. He tells stories that are twisted with words to create new and novel phrases. I ended getting the chance to interview the author, Alex, and he explained why he writes the way he does:

"It feels like a very human act to contextualize events beyond belief, to bring them to unlikely and unreal places because each person is always assigning his or her own meaning to these new events based on the little bits of sensory data they have called ‘meaning’ before, whether the ‘meaning’ comes from past events or dreams or the internet or whatever, and it’s all seemingly arbitrary but also extraordinarily fixed by that prior subjective orientation. Um. It is fascinating how we assign value to memory."

Another important surrealist artist in development is Bunny Rogers. I first saw Rogers in a video on Youtube, although at that point I did not know her name. She was dancing around, very slowly and quietly, with the apparent objective of flipping the viewer off as constantly and creatively as possible. A week or so later, she added me on Facebook because she liked my face. We talked for a little bit, she sent me links to her art, and on her website I saw the youtube video once again. I realized it was the same Bunny Rogers I was talking to.

The rest of Rogers’ art maintains the same sense of playfulness her dancing video displayed. On of my favorites is a collection of poems (not written by her) which she curated from Neopets, a website. As I started my own Neopets account in third grade, these poems at once amuse and create a deep sense of nostalgia. I would pretend I was thirteen, but most of the teens I assumed I was in the sixteen to twenty age range. As I was having difficulty making friends with people in my own eight year old age range, Neopets was, humorously enough, my only source of positive social interaction. Rogers, who is 23, might very well have been one of my “neofriends.”

With lines like “Shadow Usul, Dark One, Creature of the Night,/Slips between the shadows, blotting out the light,/Creeping past Neohomes, in the silver of the moon,/Never to be seen in the harsh sunlight of noon.” the poems are unabashedly juvenile and overly serious; the hyperbolic, dramatic style in which they are written lends them a crude, handicrafted sort of rawness.

Roger’s project, “9years,” wherein she takes screencaps of her Second Life avatar in sexual positions, is another exploration of youthful feminine expression online and this time delves into sexuality. Many of the pictures feature girls with apathetic faces, doing normal activities with something slightly off, or they are entirely surreal. This surreality really does reflect the gibberish that is often found online today, the crazy digital mish-mash of graphics that would be impossible without online communities like Second Life. Rogers is capturing a visually accurate narrative of a digital girl’s life.

9years by Bunny Rogers

Screenshot

9years by Bunny Rogers

Rogers, who is a close friend of Marie Calloway, is undoubtedly a major contributor to the “girlcore” movement. However, Calloway’s writing, while tumultuous and emotional, never heads to a place that is “dark” in quite the same way as Rogers’ art; Calloway dissects vulnerability and hurt, Rogers delves into the ugly, creepy, scary, and grotesque.

“I Am Losing It Somewhere Around Here: A Young Girl Looking For The Memories of Her Grandma” is a series of photos I did in an attempt to combine “iammeltingofyou”s artistic theory and Rogers’ surrealistic girlcore storytelling. I figured, once again, the “selfie” would be an appropriate mode of capturing images. I include my face in every shot because it is my attempt to capture the essence of my emotional connection to my grandmother, focusing on the time I spent with her in Florida. I carried a camera with me, and every time I saw something that sparked a memory, I took a picture of myself or had someone take a picture of me. This method is the clearest way for me to personally explain my relationship with my grandmother, which I still do not entirely understand. This is probably due to the fact that although we were close and spent large lengths of time together, we didn’t talk very much.

The photos still need to be processed, but like “Meanwhile,” they are more conceptual than aesthetic. They may not be comprehensible to everyone else, but like iammelthingofyou does, they “obscur[e] emotions or events that feel hard to [talk] about.” This seems much closer to the honesty that I strive for. Affecting to comprehend or trying to simplify complex emotions that we ourselves do not understand, and then expressing them through art, is immensely shallow and probably why cliché exists.

Selfie Life

Perfomative Social Media

2013

I am Losing it Somewhere Around Here

Digital Photographs

I am Losing it Somewhere Around Here

I am Losing it Somewhere Around Here

I am Losing it Somewhere Around Here

Spaces We Inhabit

Digital Photograph, Paintings

Spaces We Inhabit

Spaces We Inhabit

Spaces We Inhabit

I am Losing it Somewhere Around Here - 16” x 20”

Oil Painting

I am Losing it Somewhere Around Here - 16” x 20”

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