Friday, March 16, 2012

Rapping with Isabel Samaras

We enticed Isabel Samaras with chocolate away from her painting to answer some burning questions about her work, process, influences and how the past, present and alternate dimensions come together to create new narratives for old characters.  Isabel, represented by Varnish Fine Art, is best known for lush and meticulously painted riffs on Old Masters that send up pop culture and classic fables. Her subjects are tender, witty, and mysterious painted narratives that are classical in technique and pop in content. Her ribald images are interwoven with references to classic horror movies, ancient mythology, hip-hop music, and childhood fairy tales. Magical realism and the forbidden fantasies of fabled characters present a world where elusive desires become reality and ill-fated journeys turn into enchanted honeymoons.  

On being an artist and becoming a painter.

Since I was a child, everyone told me  "You should be an artist when you grow up!" I was always drawing. (Drawing: the fallback for oddball children since the dawn of time.) When I decided to go to art school, I was determined to come out of it with a viable career and I was naive enough to think that a four-year art program would kind of guarantee I popped out with one.  I was raised by a single working mom and grew up with the expectation that I would need to provide for myself because nobody was going to take care of me.  I hadn't given much thought to a major, but when I got to Parsons "Illustration" seemed fairly practical -- I could draw and paint AND get paid?  Great!  And it seemed very well rounded because I was trained in painting, drawing, concepts, printmaking -- it was very Bauhaus (the German art school, not the band), you got a little bit of everything and that really appealed to me because I hadn't figured anything out yet.

So I put myself into the Illustration program.  And it very quickly started to chafe my chaps -- did I really want to spend my life drawing pictures of other people's stories when I had so many stories of my own to tell? Because that is one thing I have always been steeped in -- I loved to read and write and I loved narrative art that told its own stories. So I kind of defected and started taking painting classes in the Fine Art department.  Right before graduation I found a job illustrating a very comprehensive book about preparing Japanese seafood.  I had briefly contemplated dropping out to go study Oceanography (I always adored the sea.) I had sketchbooks full of fish and sharks, and that got me the job -- doing something like 70 illustrations for a book called "An Ocean of Flavor."  

It turned out to be a completely pivotal thing because the job made me more money than I'd ever had at any one time. Some friends had moved to Lucca, Italy and it all just came together to go spend some time with them.  After a month of steeping in the Italian landscape, culture, food and wallowing in the art, I came home wanting to be a painter, cook more, and say "Ciao, baby!" too often.

On Lowbrow, Pop Surrealism and genre talk.

The term “Lowbrow” was confusing to me when I first heard it -- I thought it was flying eyeballs and cars with flames.  I didn't paint anything like that.  The first time one of my pieces showed up in Juxtapoz magazine I did a sort of quizzical sideways doggie head, "Huh?"  It took me a while to realize that "Lowbrow" was an umbrella term that included a really broad range of art--basically almost anything that was outside the mainstream--sort of a giant Salon des Refusés.  A lot of people didn't like the title though -- to the point that many years ago a panel was convened in LA (in the basement of a strip club if memory serves) with a bunch of artists (myself included) and some art writers, to try and come up with a better term for what we did.  Several people liked "Imagist" but nothing really stuck.  “Pop Surrealism” came along later, and people seem to like that term better.  

It took me a while to realize that "Lowbrow" was an umbrella term that included a really broad range of art--basically almost anything that was outside the mainstream--sort of a giant Salon des Refusés.
My work hasn’t moved in and out of those terms. Those terms float up in the atmospheric layer, following and trying to define the art.  I just do what I'm thinking about at the time and don't pay much attention to that stuff. I most definitely do not try to define or place myself, I just keep a pen handy to jot down ideas when they pop into my head, and if I still like the ideas later, I paint them.  My work changes because I change. I don't want to be locked into any one style forever. I want to be free to follow my muse (and trust she knows where she's going.)

On developing her unique style, surfaces, content and making Art out of objects and objects out of Art.

My work went through a radical transformation when I was living in New York.  When I first got out of college I was painting these enormous canvases that were very much “Symbolist” in feel and were largely based on my dreams.  They were loose and dark and weird and huge.  I painted the first lunchbox almost as a joke; it was just this lark of an idea to make something that I wanted to see but that didn't exist, to make this idea REAL.  I've had a lifelong obsession with Catwoman and Batman, the ultimate unrequited love, so I thought it would be funny and kind of sexy to make an "adult lunch box" with really porny images of the two of them FINALLY getting it on.  And that was so much fun I made another.  And another.  And another!  Then I had a collection of these objects, which I was just keeping to myself and cracking up friends who visited my studio, when I heard about an erotic art show in an East Village gallery and thought "Okay, time to come out of the closet."  So I had a buddy shoot some slides very quickly, ran over there, showed the slides, held my breath... and they wanted all of them for the show (plus a few I said I had but hadn't actually created yet.)  

After that, painting on canvas was suddenly utterly boring to me -- stripped of paint, that canvas had no meaning, no interest.  I wanted to bring *more* to objects that people already had a distinct reaction to, add an extra layer.  I really liked the idea of dragging things from my childhood (lunch boxes, TV trays) into the adult world with these naughty images. The TV trays were great for the same reason -- people had a history with the object, and it seemed perfect to place TV characters on these things that often sat directly in front of the TV.  (Plus they were self-framing and nearly indestructible -- bonus!)

Eventually it started to feel like a tin cage -- I could only paint in 19 x 22 inches rectangles? To heck with that!  I had to break out of my self-created prison, but I'd trained myself to love the smooth, perfect surface of gessoed tin, so canvas was out of the question.  That's when I started using wooden panels, and suddenly everything was possible -- big and square!  Tiny and oval!  Whatever I wanted!  It was scary though -- what if the only thing people liked about my art was the TV trays?  What if that was the most important part and I was throwing it away?  But sometimes you have to just walk off the cliff and trust it'll work out; hope your muse brought a parachute or one of those flying-squirrel gliding suits.

I still really like making art that people can have a different kind of relationship with--different feelings about--that they can actually hold or display in different ways or even *play* with.  I don't take myself very seriously (that might be obvious) and if something cracks me up, that's usually a "go" sign for me to pursue it -- whether it's a painting idea or a collectors’ limited edition porcelain plate.  It's also a way to make art that's "pro populus" -- for the people.  I don't want to only make art for folks who can afford paintings; I want to make art into fun things that are accessible on some level, in some way, to anyone who wants it.  

On art history, culture jamming and painting as narrative.

A huge swath of art history is storytelling -- it's possible even cave paintings are just a pre-written-language way of saying "And then we saw this big bison and it was amaaaazing... "  Back in the day people would look at those big, grand Old Master paintings depicting well known tales from Greek and Roman mythology or the Bible and recognize the props, costumes, people and places and that allowed them to be a part of the story because they were familiar.  I decided to tell stories that would be able to communicate like that with *my* generation, a generation that grew up with TV as the main source of entertainment, so I populated my art with characters that *we* grew up with.  I dropped Gilligan and Batman and Jeannie and Morticia Addams into some of those original paintings and tales because so many of the underlying themes in them ("I love you even though I'm not supposed to"  "I got martyred just for being me") are really timeless and universal.  

 When I create a painting, there are very specific links I'm looking for, things to draw connections between the past and the present.  In the case of “The Martyrdom of Peewee,” I was absolutely floored by the reaction to Paul Reubens being "caught" in a porn theater. I bet by today's standards--what any 10 year old can pull up on a laptop in two seconds--it was pretty tame. At the time, there wasn’t easy access Internet porn and he was bored (I think he might've even been visiting his parents, can't remember now), went to get out of the house and see a girlie movie.  Big deal!  It's not like he was watching some snuff film.  But they took his TV show away, his career folded up and disappeared, he was the butt of jokes across the country  -- for doing what tons of people do, watching porn.  Good grief!  So yeah, he got martyred in my book and I started looking at historical paintings until I found the one that clicked best with what I wanted to do. The cherry on top was that it was a Reubens painting!  (Peter Paul Reubens the painter, meet Paul Reubens the actor.)  How many people will get that reference?  Very few.  It's like the art equivalent of an "Easter Egg" on a DVD or video game -- bonus points to art history nerds!  

It was the same thinking with "The Wish", which shows Jeannie from "I Dream of Jeannie" as Ingre's "Odalisque."  In Ingres' day there was a big obsession with Orientalism. People were traveling around the world and coming back with these amazing stories of things like *harems* and it just got everybody all hot n' bothered.  There was a very similar reaction when "I Dream of Jeannie" came out -- it was titillating, this idea of a gorgeous genie who was there at your beck and call.  Both the painting from 1814 and the TV show in 1965 were offering the same tease--"Look!  She's gorgeous and she's there to do whatever you want!"  So it seemed absolutely perfect to me to cast Jeannie as Ingres' Odalisque and pull that thread right through history.

On creating alternative endings/ alternative narratives for well known characters.

I'm a very big romantic at heart, so it would literally give me heart *ache* to think about some of these stories and how the characters would end up -- alone, pining, broken.  Or even just the absurdity of the extreme chasteness of 60s TV shows -- all these adorable people prancing about and nobody is gettin' it on?!  Puh-leeze!  I started taking it upon myself to "fix" some of them.  I read epic amounts of science fiction when I was a kid and I really do believe in alternate realities so I'm convinced that in a side-by-side universe to ours, Catwoman and Batman hooked up and carried on a very frisky, unconventional romance.  And that Goldilocks didn't just run off screaming into the woods never to be heard from again, but that the bears found her, lost and shivering in the forest, and that she and Baby Bear grew up together to become true loves.  Then sometimes I'm telling a different story, one about the deep sadness of personal exile, of monsters who just want love but are so shunned they can't be seen for who they are inside.  I think we are all looking for acceptance and understanding and companionship and love.  These are the universal themes I like to paint.

On deciding what makes it onto the panel.

It's kind of a pit fight to the death, like the Thunderdome in Mad Max.  "Fourteen ideas enter, but only one comes out!"  I am constantly scribbling little notes and drawings on things; some I lose, some I keep, some I find years later.  They all rumble around in my head and on my desk, and the one that emerges victorious--the one that haunts me, the one I can't shake, the one that keeps making me giggle or feel really uncomfortable--is the one that's declared winner and gets to be made real, like the Blue Fairy waving her wand over Pinocchio:  "Now you get to be a REAL painting!"  

Check out Isabel on her own blog HERE for another behind the scenes peek.