A Side Conversation With ‘Engender’ Exhibition Artists
By Editor Joyce Chen
Some social justice warriors wield brushes. The Kohn Gallery’s latest exhibition, Engender, features 17 contemporary artists who are approaching a study of gender binaries through the classical form of painting. Much of today’s dialogue surrounding equality and acceptance involves the dissolution of strict binaries, and Engender‘s artists are adding a much-needed layer of contemplation to the ongoing conversation about what it means to challenge labels of being.
“If the show can expose people to questions about gender, questions that they may have never known to ask, that would be a success in my book,” curator Josh Friedman told us. “I want people to be exposed to this topic first and foremost. I think awareness is what will lead to further conversation. When you have something so tethered to a long history of cultural categorizations such as gender, assumptions occurs. Assumptions that negate proper exposure, discussion, and education on a very complex and multilayered component of all our lives. The artists in the exhibition are reclaiming that narrative, visually crafting languages that speak to their own unique experience, and yet can very much be understood by all.”
Last month, we sat down with three of the artists whose work will be shown at the gallery — Jonathan Lyndon Chase,Christina Quarles, and Heidi Hahn — for a group Skype session. Our hope was that the three of them would be able to speak to one another off the canvas, so to speak, about their work, their process, and their thoughts on how to use a familiar form to ignite different parts of the collective imagination. It was an experiment on our end, to host a side conversation with more than one interviewee, but all three artists were gracious enough to welcome us into their studios and their minds to get a better understanding of how each deconstructs gender in their works, using their art as a form of aesthetic activism.
The Seventh Wave: So I know I already gave you guys a little bit of background about The Seventh Wave and side conversations and everything, but just as a tiny refresher: we’re a literary arts nonprofit, we started about two years ago, and we’re all about conversation. And so I thought this would be an interesting opportunity to have a slightly different kind of side convo with the three of you. Your works will be displayed together at the Kohn Gallery in November, so in that sense you are already in conversation with each other, but to have you guys speaking to one another as artists about your process and your works and things like that feels like a whole other thing entirely. This to say that even though I will be asking questions and facilitating, by all means, I would love this to be a conversation primarily among the three of you.
To start off, could you tell me in your own words who you are and a little bit about the pieces you’ll be exhibiting?
Jonathan Chase: Well, I’ll go first. Johnny Chase, born and raised in Philadelphia. Got my MFA at PAFA (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), did my undergrad at UArts (University of the Arts). I’ve been painting for as long as I can remember, about these bodies that are in the crossroads of queerness and blackness. There’s a lot of duality happening, and the paintings that are going to be shown at the group show really talk about a personal and shared experience with people who are gender non-conforming or who break out of the rigid box of masculinity, especially in the black community and culture because I am so in love with my culture. I’m really interested in showing, “Hey, these are some other ways that these bodies can exist in public, and in private and intimate spaces.”
Heidi Hahn: So I’m from Los Angeles and I moved to New York in 2001 to attend Cooper Union, graduated in 2006, and did my MFA at Yale and graduated in 2014. I’m now an assistant professor at Alfred University upstate, so I’m trying to find the balance between having a full-time teaching job and then also trying to have my own studio practice. And that’s been interesting. [laughs] My work primarily deals with femininity and the expression of that outside of the erotic way females are portrayed in paintings, especially now. For the show, a lot of my work portrays this kind of classic setup with a traditional mode of working, like with these two women sitting at their vanity and just expressing what it means to be a woman. They’re just slathering on a lot of makeup, which is almost a kind of stand-in for the paint itself. I’ve always been fascinated by this idea of showing women just taking care of themselves and being in their own psychological space and not dealing with the male gaze at all. They’re very inward. So that’s what I’ve been working on, is stuff about women in the city and women being in their own spaces.
TSW: I like that we can do the whole video studio tour too [by conducting the side convo via Skype]. To visually see your guys’ work as you’re talking about it is a really cool experience. And Christina?
Christina Quarles: So I’m Christina and I grew up in L.A. and Heidi, you and I went to school together, I don’t know if you remember at all. You were one or two years older than me — we went to high school together!
HH: Oh my god! I think now I recognize you!
CQ: So as for me, I went to a liberal arts college on the east coast for undergrad, where I studied philosophy and race theory, and then I took a long time off between grad school and undergrad. I just a year ago graduated from Yale with an MFA in painting and now I live in L.A. I make paintings in the studio behind my house, where I’m at right now. A lot of my paintings are primarily about being in an identity that’s multiply-situated. For me, that comes from a place of being a queer woman but then also having a racial identity that’s multiply-situated — I’m half black and half white, but I’m usually pretty legibly seen as being white, especially by white people. So my work is about existing within the limitations of a legible body, and about how our own sense of self exceeds those limitations.
TSW: I like that term, “legible body.”
CQ: Yeah, for me, that’s something significant because it’s not really a given for me in every social situation: I’m not hyper butch or very femme. And with race, that can kind of be negotiated depending on the social context that I’m in. I think it’s something that most people negotiate throughout their lives, but are more or less aware of how much that actually is a factor based on how much they’re forced to confront it.
HH: Right. “How do you represent the body now?” — I think is the question I always think about. Like, how do I represent femininity, and what is masculinity in relation to that? How much do you have to show of someone to recognize what gender they are, and is that even important anymore? I think about that all the time when I’m painting females, where it’s like, “Oh, I guess if they’re not in this classical nude stance, then what are they actually representing? Are they part of their sexuality, is it inherent, or does it even have to be talked about?” These are the things I work through. When you guys talk about the legible body, what does that actually mean?
CQ: I’m interested in playing with the experience of living within a body, so one of the things I’ve been trying to figure out is gender within my work — just because gender was something that I felt was more stable throughout my life, as a cis woman. And with race, that’s something that I’m trying to figure out how to depict with paint in a way that’s not didactic and that’s not going back to painting actual pigment of skin. It’s something that I think about a lot. How do you express in a very clear and explicit way these ideas that, I think, if you were to just plainly put them on the canvas, would feel didactic and be a reduced idea of these bodies?
HH: I think of the “universal body” — I remember talking to some peers of mine, and I remember being like, “Well, I want it to be every woman!” and they just laughed at me and they were like, “That’s so stupid. You can’t have this overarching type of human.” I think when you’re trying to be specific about a personality or a type, the question becomes, how do you have universality in that when you’re also a figurative painter and you’re trying to name things?
CQ: For a long time, especially in grad school, I was thinking about, “How do I tackle this idea of ambiguity which is central to my practice, but still be explicit about ambiguity?” It’s like an inherent paradox. But I realized I was conflating the idea of the vague with the ambiguous, when they’re in fact different. Something that’s being vague doesn’t give enough information, and it’s therefore not legible, whereas something that’s ambiguous is something that exists in an excess of information. So I actually want to express an ambiguity of gender by being really explicit with the signifiers of gender within the work. Like, trying not to shy away from specificity. But having a multiplicity of specificity.
HH: For me, I rely on cliches a lot, because I love them and because I think, “Oh, that’s true!” And that’s why it’s a cliche. Then, it’s, “How do I go inside of that and really explore how these things are known to us in a certain way?” Like the women with the vanity that I’m working with — it’s like, “Oh, I know this image!” This is like Degas, this is like the classical image of the woman at her bath. But how do I take ownership of that? I think with what you were saying about specificity, it’s about using these tropes and subverting them, in a way. What do you guys think?
JLC: I think that in popular culture and media and throughout our history, there’s a certain kind of body shown of a certain class and a certain race, and to take these kinds of bodies that are often dehumanized or not granted the space to just be [and to showcase them], I think that it’s really, really important and wonderful, just because the canon of painting is often so limited to a particular kind of body: a heteronormative body, a white body. And when you mentioned the tropes and stereotypes and that kind of thing, I think those are important, because they talk about the lenses that are projected onto bodies, and that’s what I like to talk about in my work: the stereotypes of fried chicken, fitted hats, fitted hoodies — all of these are stereotypes, but then again, they’re also things that we can claim back as being a part of a certain culture or a certain group of people’s interest. Taking charge of our own narratives is something that’s really important, instead of having them be at the hands of other people.
HH: Yeah, and it’s also about taking ownership for you in those things through the work. I always say I want to see paintings I haven’t seen before where people of different genders are doing different things than just showing themselves. I don’t want to see the raunch culture. I don’t need to see a woman being empowered by taking off her clothes. And I think a lot of contemporary artists still work within that frame where the woman is unmasked in this way, but there’s no pathos behind it and it’s just not interesting. And I always want to fight that. I remember talking to somebody and they were like, “Well, your work just isn’t explicit about its sexuality.” And I was like, “Why? Because the woman isn’t nude? Because she’s not naked?” And it’s kind of like, “Well, if you can’t see it, does it exist?”
TSW: I think that’s interesting, the idea of ownership and not shying away from cliches or stereotypes but, instead, almost running toward it.
CQ: If you think that you’re going to subvert something by not addressing it and not confronting it, you’re just reinforcing its power in a way by making it something that exists as a given. I think you have to acknowledge it and take it head-on or else it can have an invisible force that can override the work.
HH: But how do you represent the body in a new way? Teaching upstate, I have this student who said, “I just want to paint the figure.” And I was kind of like, “Well, what does that mean? What does the figure look like?” I’m thinking now of someone else’s work who’s in the show, Loie Hollowell, and how her work is definitely gendered in something. There’s a sexuality there. There is something bodily, but it’s through these spiritual forms. And I think that, to me, is interesting in terms of representing the figure.
CQ: Do you guys feel at all that it does change when you bring other people into the fold of who can paint bodies? Because for the longest time, the history of painting was literally just white men. I mean, in the history of western painting, it’s always been white men and bodies. One of the things that I find interesting now is the reception of these other bodies that want to tell these other stories, while still using the language of painting. I do feel like there’s something to these other bodies creating these stories, even if we’re relying on the same language that we all share, which was largely created by white western men.
HH: My worst nightmare is a Will Cotton painting showing femininity in some way, but I think somehow John Currin plays with these classical female forms and I’m attracted to those paintings, so I feel like, how do I react to the representation of that? I think of art as taking command of the body, but where does it go, representing a body? Where does it end up? I mean, I think that’s something we’re thinking about in all of our work.
TSW: Relatedly, the three of you all mentioned using painting in particular as a form. Are there limitations that you find in using that medium? And on the flip side, are there freedoms in using painting versus a different form?
CQ: One of the things I like about painting are the limitations that it has and I find that that conceptually ties into how I see living within a body. Like, living within something that has a history that is very socially defined but is often seen as something that has an ethereal, God-given way of being. And I think that the way that we are trained to look at painting is similar, [so] a lot of what I like to do with my work is constantly bring the viewer back to the surface of the painting, to the raw canvas. I’m also fascinated by using the Trompe-l’œil technique just because it’s like an illusion of an illusion. It’s like a realistic depiction of an illusion. I want to resist having the viewer fall too into the idea that the painting is this other space. I want to continue to remind you of the confines of the structure and the frame and these things that are both arbitrary but are also very real limitations, which I feel like is very much the same thing as having a body — it’s arbitrary and it’s also so real.
HH: That’s a seduction device. I feel like when I get really into a painting because of its surface, I’m brought into whatever kind of world the artist is showing me. So for me, I want to bring people into these worlds that they wouldn’t necessarily want to visit, but the paint invites them in anyway. Then once they’re actually in it, they’re like, “Oh crap, I don’t know if I want to be involved in this.” But they’re already implicated because the paint is doing its job. And it’s like this tangible suction cup, especially when the paint’s really in there. And I think one way as artists we’re able to get our message across is through the tactile versatility of the painting. Whether people want to see the message or not, at least they’re brought into it.
CQ: Right. I find that the power of art in general is it has the power to situate people into a conversation that they might not necessarily think they’re a part of. And it’s a way of bringing people in when, with language, people can sometimes feel like they’re not a part of that conversation.
HH: And also, they’re like, “It’s just a painting. It’s safe. Oh, I know what a painting is.” But then they might be like, “Oh, wait a minute. I don’t like this. I don’t want to be a part of this.”
TSW: I love that, bringing people into conversations that they don’t realize they’re already so much a part of.
JLC: It’s interesting in that way, being a part of it. But also, since vulnerabilities are a big part of all of our works, I also think a lot about protecting the body. You see a lot of violence depicted on queer and POC bodies on social media. And so I think there’s this weird moment where there’s a push and pull. You’re inviting a person into this space, this emotion, but then there’s kind of like, wait, maybe you’re allowed in visually or on a spiritual level, but you’re not given total access to the body. And I think that’s important because of how so many lenses are projected onto the bodies that we’re talking about. I think that there has to be this section where we have to say, “Okay, we have to protect [the bodies]. And it’s not just open for anybody to come in and do what they will.”
TSW: Do you mean protecting the bodies that are depicted in the paintings themselves?
JLC: Yeah, like protecting their humanity and their tenderness.
HH: Also, you’re showing rather than telling, you know? Sometimes, you’re reading a great book, and it’s so unbelievable but you’re believing it because the language is showing you this thing rather than telling you, and I think with painting, showing the viewer has that same power. For me, I just want to paint women reading a book, doing something very mundane. Just doing it for themselves and not being a part of what’s happening with the audience. I think that shows “This is normal life. This is how women spend their lives.” It’s not like they’re doing anything fancy, it’s not like they’re looking back, they’re not trying to get that gaze. And I think that if you propagate that in your work, it becomes the normal. I think we’re all trying to get at this depiction that is changing the normal. Changing the idea of what that is. Or changing the idea of what that can be, at least.
JLC: Yeah, just that mundaneness. I really love domestic spaces which function for me as safe spaces, because you can unravel or take off all of the layers that you have on when you go out into the world, out into the public, into places not always as welcoming of black bodies and gender fluid bodies as white spaces, heteronormative spaces, and academic spaces.
CQ: One of the ways that I think about protecting the bodies that are in my community that are at risk is by trying to tackle issues that can be very much steeped in violence and danger, but not by creating situations where that violence is being reenacted in the painting. I think that a lot of times with art or with culture, like with The Handmaid’s Tale, it feels like this depiction of violence that I’m used to and have experienced, and for me it’s not an empowering moment to have to re-watch that in my spare time. I think that there’s actually much more potential with the kind of radical imagination that allows room for beauty and allows room for a completely alternative way of experience that doesn’t exist revolve around, “Oh, I’m going to show this dystopia and how awful things are and could be.” I think there’s ways to uplift communities and uplift people — I think that there are more empowering ways for addressing issues of violence that are very real for certain communities without having to put that community through a continuous traumatic state while experiencing something like a painting. There’s still great political potential in depictions of the beautiful and the mundane.
HH: Also, I don’t want to have to watch a rape scene on television to know that rape is bad. I don’t need to see these things. And I think painting the body in whatever form is very political and I think it is a protest. And I think it’s inherently so. Some people ask, “Well, what’s your stance? Are you feminist or are you a radical? Are you against it?” And it’s like, “Well, look at the painting. What does it say to you?” It’s not going to show some man on top of a woman and she’s screaming. These power structures are bad, and you don’t have to be explicit in that way. I think in all of our work, we are protesting the way that bodies have been seen in the past.
TSW: It’s like offering the counterculture in a sense by depicting that which has not been depicted before. The conflict is where that comes in, when people see these things that they haven’t been accustomed to viewing, or to experiencing. The beauty of art is not having to be so literal, right? So, you’ve all spoken about what people are getting out of what they’re seeing, since they’re all bringing their own perspectives and experiences to your work, which is a beautiful conversation that takes place in any artist/viewer relationship. But I’m curious, also, in terms of when you guys are creating — do you guys have an audience in mind or a viewer in mind when you’re creating? Is it yourself? Is it an other? Or does it not matter whatsoever, and it’s more what you’re putting forth out there?
HH: For me, I think about every woman that I’ve encountered. And I know that sounds kind of cheesy, but I make work for other women — I think of my sisters, and I think of my own experiences growing up, and I think about what I personally want to be represented. And I think, “Well, if this is how I want to be represented, then maybe somebody else can feel that same way, that they’re represented in the work.” So maybe it’s for anyone of any gender, so long as they’re sensitive to that. Or that they’re sensitive to how they see themselves and how others view them. I’m not really sure.
CQ: I guess it’s funny because for me, I think my work is for anyone that lives in a body, which is all of us. But I make work that’s more true to my experience in a body, which I do think is both specific to my own experience and also something that everybody on some level shares in some way. For some people, their positions of privilege may award them to not ever have to think about their body or their form. But it’s not that they’re free from their body or their form, it’s just that they don’t have to think about it as much, because things are easier in certain bodies than in others. So I think of my work as being specific to my experience, but with the hope of being able to position somebody who has never thought about their body or their identity or the potential for that to not be a given —my hope would be that the work could bring somebody like that into the fold of questioning what it’s like to have a body.
JLC: I think at one point, I was kind of like, “Okay, I’m really focusing on people who are very much like myself,” but then when I thought about that, I realized, well, we aren’t all just one thing — I’m queer, I’m black, I’m American — I’m a multitude of all these things, so I think that the specificity has really been important in a political way. When you think about Black Lives Matter or things like that, or people who say, “Oh, we all bleed red” — while that’s true, I think the specificity that I talk about in my work is pointing out that while we do have all these things in common — love, being in a body, emotions, sensing things, tasting, smelling — it’s just to remind people that these bodies are real and are worthy of love in whatever space they enter, be it a public one or a private one. So for me, I think it’s kind of for everybody, if they’re willing to open up their mind and their heart to it, you know?
HH: I don’t know if you guys have had this experience, but I always feel when children are confronted with the work, they are so quick to name things, and they’re actually getting the emotions, like, “Oh, this person is crying!” — it’s like damn, you got this! There’s this thing, this simplicity that’s just great. I don’t know if you guys have experienced that kind of viewership, where you’re just like, “You get this because it’s uncomplicated to you and you’re allowed to name things because there’s no consequences yet.” There’s no consequences in saying out loud “What is this? Who am I? What are you?” It’s just a certain kind of acceptance of learning about the world that I feel like we lose as adults. Maybe a painting is a way to reclaim that in some way? In painting, we can name things because we’re controlling what we put down on the canvas.
CQ: So this is something that I go back and forth with in terms of feeling excited about it and then kind of cringe-worthy about it — about having nameable elements in my work and about having things, representational elements in the painting. … I’m going to be in a show at the end of the month at The New Museum that’s about gender, and I was talking with one of the curators, and she was like, “Oh, yeah, your work is definitely on the end of the spectrum that’s going to be more recognizable for the public, because it has bodies and it’s painting.” So I was thinking, “Of course, these are the elements that read as talking about gender to the public, because there’s specific, nameable things that we associate with gender.” And I’m always in my head, wondering if this is a good or a bad thing, and I’m wondering how you guys deal with that in your own work?
HH: I think it goes back to the idea of seduction and wanting to seduce, and I think beauty plays a big part in setting up that seduction for me, and then having the painting not be about that at all. So I’m always like, “Oh, I want to paint this flower, I’m painting daisies right now, and then I’m painting trash bags.” It’s kind of like, what do I want to be relatable? We all have our sense of codes, our private indicators of things, like, “Oh, if I paint this jar of pennies, this actually means I’m really fucked up and this is about my ex-boyfriend but I’m not going to tell anybody that.” So I feel like there’s a lot of these secret kinds of scriptures in our work, and then sometimes we’re like, “Okay, I’m going to paint this flower now and it’s going to represent something universal.” So I think it’s a matter of, how much do you want to share? How much do you want to be a part of a dialogue with the viewer, with the public? Because a painting is a public thing. We create it, we put it out there, it’s a tangible object for people to absorb and read in some kind of way, so it’s kind of like, how much of these codes do you want people to understand? And I’m always like, I’m okay with representing certain things in a way that’s easily readable, and then maybe I’ll put in the fucked up stuff that’s only for me that nobody knows.
TSW: So if there’s jars of pennies in any of your paintings, we’ll know. It’s out there. We know.
HH: [laughs] Well, I don’t even have a jar of pennies, nor have I ever painted it, but that’s just an example of, “Oh, I’m going to paint this cat,” but it’s really about how much I hate my mom. I don’t know. What do you guys think?
JLC: I like to mix it up. I like to have a quieter moment in the painting and then a louder moment. I work a lot with found photographs and collage — just like how I think bodies are a multitude of different molds, like with the environment or objects that comes from different places or different memories, things like that. So I try to mix it up with even having something more recognizable next to something more abstract, with the idea that both will release charges or reignite their forces when they’re bumped up against each other. And I think that for me, this is a reflection of our world. I think some people look at paintings for answers. I think that sometimes paintings aren’t about answering a question, but just about thinking or just feeling a mood. And not necessarily 1+1=2, but it’s like, an experience without there having to be a definitive answer.
TSW: I’m also curious, in a bit of a different vein, about process. I’m curious about your guys’ work. Broad question, but what are your processes like? Is it a concept that comes first? It sounds like all of you have a very cohesive body of work going on, at least for this exhibit, so I’m curious where you guys start. What’s your point of inspiration?
HH: This might be the hardest one to answer of all.
CQ: I really go into the works from a practical standpoint. I’m definitely working within a larger body of work that has obvious through lines throughout each of the paintings. But I don’t start each painting with a real plan or a composition laid out. It’s much more of a gestural drawing approach to painting that I have. And what I do is I really try to slow down, because I have a pretty quick stroke when I’m laying down marks, it’s all pretty immediate. And there are certain layers on the canvas, but it’s not a worked-up oil painting, per se; the paintings are all pretty quick, but I try to slow down my looking process with the work, so for me, it’ll be about resisting going into that hypnotic artist zone that people talk about, where you lose track of time and space. I actually really actively resist that mental space and I try to not fall into habits or a preconceived notion of what I’m going to paint or what type of figures I’m going to make. Instead, I’ll look at the marks and try to make different connections based on observation rather than on habit. So for me, it’s pretty much a bunch of quick gesture, and then stopping myself from getting into it, and then actually observing it and the work itself. I will also try to change around the size of my canvases because it is again about these kind of predetermined limitations of the frame itself. I’m very cognizant of the frame of the piece, and because it’s all in relation to my gesture and my body, the scale of the figure is consistent throughout the work, but the scale of the work will change. So it’s really about finding ways for these figures to exist within the confines of the frame itself.
HH: For the work for the show I’m doing at Jack Hanley, I read Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City, which is an amazing book about her wandering around New York and hearing snippets of conversation, and then seeing something that reminded her of her past, and she would go on a meditation of that, and I thought, “Wow, I can get into this.” I can get into exploring this psychological headspace just from someone being, their body being in a place, or space, even if it’s this illusionary space that painting is. So I start from this place that’s very classical. I put everything down, and the paintings go through 10 different changes before the composition is set, and the residue of those former paintings have a way of coming and going from the painting when it’s done, so you can see snippets of information coming forward. And it’s really hard, because I feel like I put the kitchen sink in and I’m a better editor than I am a free-wheelin’ painter, so taking things out again and editing is a big part of my process. It’s kind of heartbreaking because you have to be willing to give up things and let go and not be precious, but it’s also very liberating. And I’m sure you guys have moments of this, but when you get rid of something you really love in a painting, this thing of freedom opens up because it’s like, “Oh, it’s forsaken. And now I can do whatever the hell I want.” So I have a lot of those moments where I build up and tear down. It’s a constant undermining of where I’ve been before and where the painting wants to go. Sometimes I’m like, “I wish I were just one of those painters who have a projector and put out all of their colors and know that a color will go here. And another color will go here.” And then the painting’s done. Isn’t that wonderful? I envy that. [laughs] So that’s my process.
TSW: I think “killing your darlings” is the phrase I’m thinking of, where it’s all about letting go of what you’ve just created, and it is a very freeing feeling to be like, “Okay, if I’m not holding on so tightly to something, then anything can be.” And if a new iteration or new creation comes in, then so be it.
HH: It’s like, how do you paint something you know, but you’ve never seen? I’m constantly thinking of this, where it’s like, “I want to paint something that I have in my mind either as a memory or the future — how do I put that down when I’ve never seen it before?” What does that look like? I’m always thinking, well, what does this have to look like? I don’t know.
JLC: For my process, everything goes, I think, back to drawing. I draw all the time. I have this process where I’ll work from models or I’ll take pictures of people that I’ve had social interaction with, either on an intimate level or just passing by on the street. I’ll be like, “Hey, I’m an artist and I know this sounds crazy, but would you like to sit on my bed for me?” My process sort of has an order but not really. I’ll draw collages and cut up things, kind of similar to how you guys break apart and rebuild and reconstruct things. I don’t really marry myself to something for too long. I’m always kind of working on more than one thing at once, because I’m really really impatient. [laughs] So, quick gestures, things that come from memory or from a personal experience — but, for example, the faces that I paint on portraits, sometimes they’re more specific and sometimes they’re a bit more open, so it’ll allow someone to see themselves within the painting. I think I pretty much am all over the place, but there’s an order to it at the same time.
TSW: You sound like a creative. [laughs]
HH: We take inspiration anywhere we can get it. Sometimes I’ll just see, like, someone put a sign up on a doorway and it was a picture of a tricycle and a kid, but you couldn’t see the top of his head because his mother had X-ed it out, I don’t know why. And she was like, “Have you seen this tricycle? His dad lost it.” And it was underlined and it was like, “Wow, she has problems with this man.” Like, those kinds of stories that are not formed, those are the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and I always wonder, how do you bring that into the work?
CQ: I’m very easily influenced by my surroundings with my paintings, and I find the weirdest things funny, the funniest things I’ll find weird, and I’ll constantly be making these strange connections in my head, but then I’ll bring it into the studio. And then sometimes I’ll tell people that something was my reference for a piece and they’ll be like, “Wow, what? Really? That was your reference for what you just painted? That’s insane.” I always think about quoting and misquoting my surroundings in my work, especially with the elements in my pieces that are more still life or situational.
JLC: I’m always collecting and bsessively drawing and making an archive of things with my sketchbook. And then whenever I’m out in the world and I see flyers or found images, or rocks, or, you know, anything that piques my interest, I’ll bring it into the studio and then figure out where it goes later. That’s therapeutic for me. I’m bipolar so that’s another component to my work with duality. There’s a healing to it that I’m able to find through repetition and this collecting rocks thing. Some may call me a hoarder, but …
TSW: We can also call it research. It’s all research in the end, you know? Living life, experiencing things? [laughs] So as a last thing, I’m kind of curious — we talked about having the people who view your paintings being open-minded, hopefully. Is there something, a particular message or a particular emotion or feeling that you hope that people can walk away with after seeing your paintings? Especially in the context of bodies and the context of dangerous bodies and this exhibit about gender?
HH: I think I want people to walk away being able to relate to some part of the message. Even just a little bit. Like, oh, I understand that pensiveness. I understand that kind of headspace where it’s private. I guess it’s more of a feeling, putting someone in the mood of the painting and having the residue go out with them. Which is like, “Oh, these women have these psychological concerns and it’s not for me to judge them.”
CQ: I think the idea of walking away with a feeling is important because I think a lot of what artwork has the power of doing is existing beyond language and articulation, and even just hearing your guys’ process and thinking about my own process, just thinking about how it’s this nonlinear cataloguing of experience, is clarifying. And hopefully, people are actually able to exist within the work for a moment — my nightmare situation is that somebody’s just able to very easily, passively consume a body in my work, because that would be the worst thing that I could perpetuate in the world. Hopefully my work can just give people pause to consider their own physical existence in the world.
HH: My worst nightmare is women going up to the painting and making those pouty faces and taking a selfie with my work. I’m like, “No! That’s the opposite of what my work is.” Don’t sexualize this in that way.
TSW: Unless they’re trying to subvert the… I mean, that would be giving them a lot of credit.
JLC: I think that I want an emotion. I want people to have the work stick around with them for as long as it possibly can. It would totally be a nightmare to have someone enter into the work and then leave really quick. It’s like, come and stay a while, be in the moment. That’s a really difficult but a really great question. I feel like two things: One, I want people, men, to come away with a different idea of masculinity and to feel invited to love themselves in a different way. And two, I think also that, with the universality of bodies, loving ourselves on a psychological and emotional and even physical level is really important, especially if you’re not used to seeing bodies or people similar to yours in these fantastic spaces.
HH: It’s also like, as painters, we do talk a lot about duration and time, and people spending the time and being involved with the painting, and having the work open up in a certain way and getting a certain reading the more time you spend on it. If someone just glances at it and is able to walk away, then I haven’t done my job.
CQ: Yeah, especially right now, people are so used to just scrolling through imagery and having imagery overload without having a moment to sit with things. For me, I hate how much my art can exist in a screen space, because that really reduces it to its most graphic qualities and completely removes the tactile nature of it. But it’s the reality that we live in. Like, the exciting thing about being in an exhibition like this group show is having also the context of the show itself to create an environment that can exist within a headspace that moves from work to work. So maybe even if somebody is spending only a minute with a painting, it’s the culmination of the entire show and how people get moved by that experience.