Thursday, January 03, 2008

Melissa Gordon

Melissa Gordon is an American artist who lives and works in Berlin. Rita McBride is an American artist who lives and works in Düsseldorf.

Rita McBride: Yesterday you described your process as cyclical. You called it a circular practice. Where do all of your thoughts and your decisions begin and end?

Melissa Gordon: In my work there are often representations of images with references to specific events, histories, and people. All of the subject matter that I work with revolves around specific histories, and I look at ways in which these have been represented or used. I then use these indicators to align what source material I can find with genres or historical styles in painting, sometimes fitting or sometimes deliberately not, so returning to the original source material, but creating a shift in what has been dealt with.

RMB: So like a novelist, you present a picture of life using the facts of life—sex, money, religion, ideology, technology—and then use a painting process to shed “new light” on the topic. Would you say that your work is primarily concerned with content decisions, concerned mainly with those interests that come from fiction, pop culture, and newspaper articles…from life?

MG: Yes, my work is very much about content decisions and about the interaction between the real references, acted upon in the process of painting. The use of a broader spectrum of life, as you point out, is to take the effect of these images and events (and how they function culturally), and to somehow determine what new critiques or angles can be created.

RMB: Could it be that you set up a visual architecture to move within: to understand through a varietous and progressive discovery of angles? How does painting function for you?

MG: I hope there is a level of discovery that happens by incorporating a number of different associative processes in the various “groupings” that happen (both in the paintings and as groups of paintings). Painting has the potential to project itself out of its own medium: it can function as informative or aesthetic, even at the same time; and there are a variety of imbued signifiers (historic to stylistic) in painting that can be used and overlapped. And even though there is a long history in art of using research, I think that the legacy of the more traditional role of painting, or medium-based practices, as typified in the ideal of a sublime encounter, or a self-referential practice, is not applicable anymore. I find that I am more personally attracted to, for example, early feminist artists who used art to pass on information.

RMB: One of the things I find really wonderful in your work is the use of multiple paintings that have been specifically painted together to be shown together, to create a narrative structure. It always seemed completely logical to have multiple canvases giving what I call clues, which you have called clues, to the narrative that interested you. In Genealogies Part I, you seem to be less interested in storytelling and more involved in sociology. Could you describe the decisions made in this project?

MG: The Genealogies project functions as a platform. I imagine it as a take on consciousness-raising (a form of political action pioneered by United States radical feminists working in the United States in the late 60s) because it encourages self-reflection. The invitation I posed to four female artists was: “Write me a letter about a female character that has had an impact on your artistic working practice.” All of these women described a character that had stuck in their head and shaped them. I made a loosely illustrative painting for each letter, based on what the letter was perhaps trying to get across.

RMB: It’s interesting because I think you have so many options for information, your source material is from a huge pool of possibilities. But your investigation, the questions you ask of your surroundings and of art, is very specific. I mean, you target four women to answer a very specific question and the answers are entirely unpredictable. I suppose this kind of “gathering” is useful as a gauge for measuring impacts of information…how and why people are influenced. You’ve also talked about wanting to paint these source materials. Why painting? Why do you paint all these ideas, all these questions, all this information you gather from more sociological dimensions of cultural indicators? You have mentioned in the past the possibility of a “renewal” of image making. Is it in the process of putting all the gathered material through painting filters and re-dispersing it with multiple clues that the possibility for renewal occurs? Is this what you mean when you have talked about a “confusion of signifiers”?

MG: The theme, or theory of “the confusion of signifiers” is a way of understanding confusion, or overload. I am attracted to the idea of how a person makes sense of the visual world and, as in Genealogies, how it shapes a person as well. In every series of work that I make there is an imposed logic system that tries to address the hopelessness of “making sense.” And perhaps this is where the painting functions best: as a means of focus created by a remaking (as opposed to presenting source material). In this way, the works also point to the power of what is represented, and what is lost or forgotten. There is a huge cultural consensus of images, which is tied intrinsically to power structures.

RMB: I find these images recognizable but not specific, even when the clues are so direct. In your paintings you have found a way to not over-determine or close down the image but remain informational. The images are kind of obscure at times; there is an ambiguity and that may, in fact, be the painting part. Maybe it is the transfer of an image, a media image or mediated image, becoming a painting in a painting….

MG: And I question myself about that process of altering photography, or objects, to painting, but I always come back to the same answer: I don’t want to just reproduce things as they are and put them together, I would rather imbue them with something.

RMB: What do you imbue your imagery with?

MG: I think I have an effect on the things that I make in an informal, and even an emotional manner. I look for visual impact when choosing images: not shock, but resonance. I usually sort through a massive resource of images, but I end up working with the things that are both visual signifiers and are surprising. For example in my last show, Exquisite Corpse, a lot of the imagery came from looking through a large archive of feminist magazines, but I tried to find the moments that betrayed the common expectations of this.

RMB: What role has feminism had in your process?

MG: I think it’s important to keep using feminism as a tool, as opposed to treating it like a tenant. Feminism was initially used to ask the question: “What would this be if it was about women in some way?” and now it is necessary to ask, even within the concerns of feminism, other questions about what is out there, what roles things play. I think an exciting potential in making art is that it can set up a platform where the discussion has no urgent need for right or wrong, just a deepening of understanding, a chance to switch a position. In this way, I feel it is also a necessary tool in continuing a discussion that I feel is still very vital.

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