‘Oscar the Grouch meets Claes Oldenburg’: CONTACT & guest contributor Sweet Tooth of the Tiger talk to artist MEGAN WHITMARSH
PULSE Art Fair. This time — New York City. The doors are closing up, but D.I.Y. food project founder Tracy Candido of Sweet Tooth of the Tiger and Legacy Russell of CONTACT were inside the warehouse doors just long enough to encounter the work of Megan Whitmarsh — and what marvelous work it was.
Here, the artist and the products of her labor speak for themselves.
Sweet Tooth: Your sculptures are hyper-real interpretations of everyday objects. Can you expand on this aspect of your work that blurs the line between reality and fantasy?
Megan Whitmarsh: I considered Color Work Station a meta form of my studio. I often find artist’s sketchbooks to be more interesting than formally exhibited works and I wanted to make an impression of my studio, reflecting my permeability to the multitude of references before me, and without too much editing. It surprises me that you refer to the sculptures as hyper-real because I think of them more as hyper-amateur. This awkward sensibility is an opening for the viewer while also celebrating the process of making art.
Sweet Tooth: These proxy objects that stand in for the ideas that these objects represent remind me of some of the work that Sto from Cinders does. You’ve been exhibited at Cinders, a gallery in Williamsburg that exhibits work from a community of artists that are highly influenced by each other. How is your work relative to this community and/or to Sto’s work?
Megan Whitmarsh: I had not seen Sto’s work when I was first making and exhibiting my soft sculptures in early 2008 and am not sure if he had seen mine but Kelie Bowman is on my mailing list so it seems possible. I first saw his work after running into Kelie Bowman at Art Basel Miami in December and she said she thought that our (meaning hers and mine) recent work had similarities. I looked online at her work which led me to look online at his work and I was surprised by the similarities. I mentioned this to her and she said something to the effect that we are all influencing each other. I agree that my generation shares influences as we grew up with the same visual noise. For myself I strive very hard to not be redundant and to speak from an individual perspective. I do appreciate and support community and the process of creating in general and I think Cinders Gallery is a great venue. In the end this sort of examination benefits my work as it forces me to look more deeply inward for sources in order to clarify and strengthen the personality and references my work transmits.
Sweet Tooth: What are some other artists that you like? What other artists have influenced the work you make?
Megan Whitmarsh: The above mentioned and to that historical list I would include: Niki de St. Phalle, Clarice Lispector, Philip Guston, Lynda Benglis, Jonathon Lasker and Isamu Noguchi. I like the intense personality and strength of Niki de St. Phalle’s work— in spite of some of its garishness; Lynda Benglis’ work is irreverant, smart and rebellious as well as being difficult to categorize. There is this sensual, tactile and beautiful part to it that seduces me. Of my peers I admire: Misaki Kawai, Amanda Barr, Christopher Forgues, Chris Johansen, Andrew Jeffrey Wright, Allison Schulnik and Tauba Auerbach (as well as many others!). I work hard to have my art speak from my own visions and I am drawn to artists who seem to be internally directed also.
CONTACT: Having gone to school in New Orleans and graduated in 1997 have you had the opportunity to return back to visit since Katrina? How do you think the New Orleans art community has changed since you graduated/within the last 10 years ? (Prospect 1 exhibitions, etc.) - are you interested in re-engaging with that community there?
Megan Whitmarsh: I did a collaborative multi-media installation with Caroline Rankin in February of 2009 at KK Projects that was a soft sculpture and yarn “security system” with a motion triggered “soundtrack” (Beverly Hills Cop theme music) that protected a shotgun house destroyed by the hurricane. Caroline is a good friend of mine from New Orleans and it was great to collaborate with her and to reconnect with friends still down there. There is a spotlight now on the arts that was not there before. When I was there it was pretty self made.
Sweet Tooth: Your process of hand-crafting - where did you learn this?
Megan Whitmarsh: I taught myself. I began stitching on my paintings in grad school in the mid 90’s. It was just a new way for me to make a mark. But I got more and more interested in those marks and eventually abandoned painting. Not because of idea of the medium, but because of it’s limitations. Somebody called my early embroidery “failed minimalism” and I like this concept. I think imperfect things express a possibility of evolution and therefore oscillate.
CONTACT & Sweet Tooth: Your style of work with your choice of color and type(s) of medium(s) would traditionally be categorized as being within a “female” or “feminine” sphere - do you perceive your work as challenging the notion of “woman’s work”, aligned with any particular gender symbolism or representation/cultural meaning?
Megan Whitmarsh: I don’t think my work is directly addressing gender issues but I am not avoiding them either. I did not consciously choose to work in a craft or woman’s medium and started sewing because of my love for texture, color and gesture. I think I approach thread and fabric as a painter. I am looking for something both soft and novel. Familiar yet surprising. I do appreciate being a woman and mother artist as I like the perspective and space it creates around me. But I imagine anyone could feel this way about their particulars. I don’t really believe in group consciousnesses (or, to put it more carefully: feel that they can be reductive). I am into the subjective narrative.
Sweet Tooth: How do narratives and/or story-telling play a role in your work? Where do these stories come from? Are they based in fantasy or reality, or a mix of both? What is one of your favorite stories (real or fantastical) - can you share?
Megan Whitmarsh: My work has always been narrative and when I think of my favorite influences this makes sense because I am in love with the stories of my childhood starting with Tintin comics and Moominland books, Madeline L’Engle, Alpha Flight and X-men comics. Some of my favorite books could be categorized as sci-fi or fantasy (The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector, Woman of the Dunes by Kobo Abe, The Winners by Julio Cortazar). I guess there is an escapist quality in these narratives that appeals to me but there is also a creative force that I find liberating. These stories are internally directed and made out of thin air. I guess as a creator of things this is exciting for me.
CONTACT & Sweet Tooth: On your experience at PULSE Art Fair - were you able to visit your own work/view it in place? What do you think of the art-fair model? With shows like Independent claiming to work against that model, where do you see yourself fitting into the art market?
Megan Whitmarsh: I installed the work myself so, yes, I was there to see it and also did an installation last December at the Wolfsonian Museum during Art Basel in Miami which was the first time I attended those fairs and it was pretty enlightening. I am pretty bad about keeping up with art and social stuff in general and I kind of dreaded the whole scene and in some ways this felt justified but in other ways I was pleasantly surprised. I saw a lot of work that inspired me and felt somewhat awed by the amount of interest in art. As my career has reached higher levels I have found some really amazing people who are extremely generous and work hard to shed light on others around them. I like the work ethic found in most artists and I have deep respect for the fidelity to craft and self often expressed in the making of art.
It is affirming to be around people who also pursue and appreciate this. That said, I do think art fairs are for sales and not really for the art. It is to be seen, noted and sold. But I am pretty pragmatic about the necessity of this. My own desires are to make the best work I can make and to be able to support this practice and so I attempt to make this work in my life.
CONTACT: What are some of your favorite songs? Books? Do they influence your work? How would you describe your ‘artist process’ (ie: do you work in silence, do you listen to music, do you do a lot all at once or pieces and bits over extended periods of time, etc.)?
Megan Whitmarsh: I mentioned Clarice Lispector, her work has influenced my work in that it has influenced my psyche. I first read her in my early twenties and before discovering her I found Ludwig Wittgenstein to be transformative. I love that he spent years writing a book that sought to logically and completely describe our system of language and signs, and then in his next book claimed he was totally wrong and that what he was trying to describe was actually indescribable. Lispector wrote with awareness of this same futility and yet always strove to record meaning— she described her writing as “attempting to photograph perfume”. I am attracted to artists capable of radical transformation. Philip Guston is my favorite painter and he radically changed his work as well. It’s not that the evolution is necessarily better, by which I mean: it is not the idea of progress that intrigues me, but the ability to let go of hard-won attachment.
As for my artistic process: I listen to alot of NPR, but when I need to think I listen to music— all kinds— it is very important to me actually and sets a mood I guess. My 70’s/geodesic dome/sci-fi/optimistic/future soundtrack would include: Joni Mitchell, Animal Collective, The Knife, Buffy Ste. Marie, Harmonia, Cat Stevens and Boards of Canada maybe. I work on everything at once. My studio is very organized but my brain is not.
Sweet Tooth: Compare your impressions of New York to those of L.A. - gut reactions? likes/dislikes? Why choose one coast and not the other?
Megan Whitmarsh: I lived in New York from 1997-2000 (Williamsburg) and have been in L.A. since then. They are very different places and yet share a quality I personally find compelling and perhaps necessary for myself as an artist- and that is that they are impossible to understand or unravel. There is always more to discover, see or experience and they are in constant flux. For myself I prefer to live in L.A. for pretty simple reasons: my family is close, I like plenty of sunshine, it is easier to find private spaces and nature.
CONTACT: When did you start working with film as a medium? How do you see your film work as being similar/different to the more installation-based works that we saw for example at PULSE?
Megan Whitmarsh: I made this film in New Orleans while in grad school in 1996 I think but it was not edited until 2000 because I am not a technically proficient person and had to rely on filmmaker friends and their equipment to finish it (Ian Marshall and Stephanie Barber). I have only made this one 16 mm film and a few videos but the technical aspects are challenging for me. I am very good at hand work but not so stellar when it comes to machinery. I love the “magic” of movies and am always thinking about making more video work and animation work — but I would say it does not come to me naturally and so I have to work at it.
CONTACT: What made you decide to ‘be an artist’, as opposed to ‘just make work’?
Megan Whitmarsh: I did my fair share of waitressing and have lived frugally in order to keep my art practice and never have to get a “real job”. Many years of this paid off and now my art has become my “real job”. The pay is not fantastic or anything, but I consider myself fortunate. Making art is like a form of repetitive prayer. When I was a kid I made a ceramic taco. My current work has evolved from this object, echoing the redundant influences and themes of both youth and maturity. Oscar the Grouch meets Claes Oldenburg.
Sweet Tooth: What’s your favorite baked good?
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