Archive for December, 2016

Interview with Artist Tessie Salcido Whitmore

December 6, 2016

I recently had a chance to interview one of the L.A. artists whose work I have followed since I met her in 2010. Intrigued by Tessie Salcido Whitmore’s aesthetic production, I wanted to delve deeper into the conceptual motivators of those aesthetics. Her use of everyday and sometimes quirky materials, bright colors, and regionally and indigenously-tied tropes, all excited me.

I had been drawn, for example, to Whitmore’s use of Native American references because of my involvement in Native American traditions in my life where I have often taken part in sweat lodges for healing as well as Peyote Church rituals praying for sick members of the community. I came to those traditions sincerely and they taught me to look at my own indigenous ties— my mother is Kurdish— and I spoke extensively to a Native American member of my community about those connections. I am attracted to Whitmore’s use of indigenous signs from Native traditions stemming out of her ethnic make-up but particularly to her searching, even longing, to connect with a part of herself.

On the whole, Whitmore’s work has progressed in a very delicious manner over the years. The cake, in a sense, has been baking, is now finally out of the oven, filling the room with that sweet, decadent, chocolate smell, and I am excitedly watching the baker slowly drizzle the warmed fudge sauce intricately over the voluminous curves of the cake. Time to attack the gooey-spongyness with my fork.

Sitting down with Tessie Salcido Whitmore:

Aliabadi: I find titles to be a challenging part of the art making process. Questions come up as to whether the title will benefit the piece in any way or possibly get in its way. How does one find a title, I think to myself, that allows the work to continue to speak and yet adds enough without being didactic or smothering? Your titles are significant to the pieces, being chosen carefully for each artwork. How do you generate these titles? What influences do they reveal (since I note the Native American influence in some)? And what challenges do such titles bring for you as far as how they potentially affect the reading of the artwork?

Whitmore: Dealing with a multitude of disparate ideas in my work, I have always found titles to be challenging. A title can pigeonhole the expansiveness of work or it can open up the viewer to a new narrative. For me, I have found it is a great place to add an element of absurdity or poetic nonsense. For the past few years the titles are usually a lyric from a favorite song, or a saying that I start to call the work while making it. Taking a lyric out of the middle of a song or hanging onto a silly saying reminds me of a nonsense verse, possibly out of a Dr. Seuss book. I want the titles to be slightly ambiguous without feeling disingenuous.

The Native American influence you might be noting was specific to a body of work I titled Ichpochtli, Xochipilli, Xochiquetzal, and Macuilxochitl. Those sculptures felt like family to me, or lost ancestors.


>Saint of Circumstance. Bath towels, rubber bands, flagging tape, mason string, clips, embroidery thread, glitter glue, wooden dowel, duct tape, wood, 74″ x 16″ x 16″, 2014

Aliabadi: Noting the Native American influence in your titles and work, including some more direct signifiers such as teepee-like structures, can you tell us why you use that influence? Furthermore, how has the teepee (and other signifiers you’d like to address) played in your life such that it has now become a part of your aesthetic and conceptual framework?

Whitmore: A simple way to talk about it is that I am interested in the use of a pyramid form as a vessel for spiritual enlightenment. The more complex narrative is that I grew up without a father and was told tales that he was half Native American.

As a child I spent much time by myself. My single mother worked, at times, up to three different jobs. I often say TV was my babysitter and growing up in Southern California I was intrigued with Hollywood and movie making. Classic Western films were shown often on TV, usually depicting the Native American (a white actor dressed in war paint) as a savage. I knew from early on my ancestors had suffered a horrible genocide. I also realized white America felt no shame in their hostile takeover. Additionally, I have been interested in the idea of the “hippie” and how the culture connected to the idea of tribalism.


I’ll Get Up and Fly Away. Bath towels, embroidery thread, glitter glue, wooden dowels, rubber bands, mason string, duct tape, wooden stretchers, 67″ x 49″ x 3″, 2014



We Ate the Acid. Beach towel with pillow, bath towel, braided towel, glittery butterfly clip ornaments, synthetic hair scrunchies, feathers, hand-carved wooden cat, face mask sheet, vinyl-coated wire rack, elastic hair bands, gold rings, braided cord bracelets, wig, hula hoop, spiral wind spinner, 67″ x 65″ x 7″, 2015

Aliabadi: Yes, your artwork harbors aesthetic decisions that make me want to jump to the phrase “hippie culture” at times, that then tempts me to try and incorporate my impressions of that culture into “reading” the art. So then, the phrase “hippie culture” or word “hippie” are relevant to your artwork and production? If that phrase indeed belongs, in a sense, in interpretations of your art, does it reveal important conceptual ideas in your art– or, does it threaten to flatten the interpretation and potential effect of your pieces?

Whitmore: Hippie culture is a huge component of my work. I’ve always been drawn to different aspects of counter culture throughout the late 60’s, 70’s, plus the 80’s and 90’s. The idea of the hippie can be generalized to emphasize a form of escapism. “Turn on, tune in, drop out” told to millions of people at the Human Be-In by Timothy Leary is said to have become a mantra for the counterculture of the 60’s. My grandmother and uncle dropped acid at that time to try and find spiritual awareness.

The time I was born (1969), along with the narrative of escapism that fed the Southern California culture I grew up around, have continued to influence my aesthetics. I have been searching for what it means to be a “hippie” all my life. As much as I let my freak flag fly I never want to push the viewer into a stranglehold of narrative. I was told in grad school by one of my favorite professors that Identity Politics was passé. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to turn off that natural born need to cull from my own experiences. But I do want the work to generate its own ideas. So sometimes the specifics of whatever concepts I am working with feel as though they have the potential to collapse the viewer’s experience if revealed.


Crazy Fingers 2. Duct tape, oil on canvas, 10″ x 8″, 2012



Rings on Her Fingers. Beach towel, napkin rings, wooden rack. 24″ x 20″ x 7″, 2014

Aliabadi: I came to appreciate brighter colors when I moved to Los Angeles, having preferred darker colors from my original east coast palette. These are, of course, generalizations, somewhat, about the color palettes of the geographic art culture, and yet there are some truths to them.

Though, honestly, at first I was repulsed by how bright colors were in SoCal, because they sometimes read as attempts to be happy on the surface despite it all and that left me with an uneasy feeling. Over the past seven years that I have been living in Los Angeles, I started to see how bright colors are part of the environment and culture of the area– whether things are alright under the surface or not.

Looking at David Hockney’s work for example, one can’t ignore the palette color change in his paintings as he moved west and between cultures during the years of his production. In fact, his subject matter altered based on who was part of the L.A. scene, particularly the affluent west side. I am thinking of paintings such as American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman) or any of the pool series pieces vs. something like The Third Love Painting which he made while at London’s Royal Academy of Art. (Though, as an aside and to be careful with my statements, I am not saying the gay cultural influences in some of the work were confined to one geographic area.)

Arguably, one’s environment becomes fodder for one’s art. Do you feel that the brighter palette of the SoCal and Los Angeles culture has influenced the color choice in your art?How does color convey what you want the work to do or say?

Whitmore: Hockney’s American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman) painting reads as the epitome of affluent Southern California. I can feel the sun in that piece. I think the changes in those two specific pieces are really not about color but more about how light effects color. A great painter knows how to capture light and those are the shifts I see happening in those Hockney pieces. There are some great works I have seen recently as a response to Hockney’s pool paintings. One by Ramiro Gomez, titled American Gardeners (After David Hockney’s American Collectors, Fred and Marcia Weisman 1968), where he is talking about the invisible laborers of Southern California. Another, John Valadez’s Pool Party– that could or could not be a commentary but definitely highlights an American view of culture by way of the Southern Californian experience. Both of those paintings think about a more interesting territory and class structure while playing with concepts of light and color.

But I cannot say the weather, the light, and probably the schools I went to have not influenced my color choices. I have traveled the country numerous times, been to all but three states and a few (not enough) other countries, but have always lived in SoCal. I think the way I handle color could be part of my DNA or it could be conditional. I had been making black paintings with very small bits of color for a couple of years. I didn’t let color really seep back into the work until two years after grad school. I think I was very depressed. In 2014, I shed some of the anxiety I felt about color, as a painter, and started gathering objects with bright, sometimes obnoxious hues. It was a big shift.


Gotta Get Back Where You Belong. Soccer balls, beach balls, footballs, sling shot water balls, ribbon, satin cord, mason string, metal rack, umbrella. 72″ x 36″ x36″, 2015

Aliabadi: Are there other SoCal cultural aspects that work their way into your production? Are there non-SoCal ones that you want the viewer to be aware of?

Whitmore: I want some of my experiences, my upbringing and moments of “the now” to all be a part of the work. Growing up here, being inherently Californian, I want to push and pull on that narrative, but I don’t want to keep anyone out of the experience. I don’t want it to be an inside joke. I am a woman first, a woman who is aging, a woman who has experienced the patriarchy, a woman who is mixed race, a woman who has experienced much trauma, a woman who is an artist.

Aliabadi: I wanted to interview your for this piece because I was excited by the way you use towels, beach balls, synthetic hair, and other non-traditional, if you will, materials as your artwork’s language. It is a language that asks the reader to consider other ways of not only interpreting seemingly mundane objects and delving into the relationships among and proximity of the objects, but also creating a fresh way of speaking visually. I came to see the signs that you used over time as Tessie Salcido Whitmore’s distinct language and way of speaking and took joy in that, since it snapped me out of other visual languages I was already too comfortable with.

Will you continue to excavate these signs and speak in this language? Will you be “shaking up” the language with signs you have not used yet to alter, progress, or [fill in the blank with a verb] your art’s voice?

Whitmore: There is always anxiety present in understanding the choices I make regarding materials. I try to let myself have freedom without judgment and tap into an intuitive side. I see it much like painting when you are just in the moment and making certain moves that you can’t always explain. I have bought some pretty wacky mundane materials and thought “really?”. Some of those things might lie untouched for a while but the act of collecting them is always there. Earlier this year I watched a short video interview of Betye Saar in her studio and she talked about her process of going to flea markets, thrift stores, or antique stores and just waiting for an inspiration to come from an article that she finds. She said, “I feel that every object has its story about its previous life and sometimes I change that, but I like to have a lot unsaid so the viewer can kind of reinterpret what I am trying to say.” I love those statements. Building language by collecting, making, editing, and stepping back; those processes are all intermixed. I can’t always tell if it makes any sense.


Double-e Waterfall Over My Back. Synthetic hair, wigs, elastic hair bands, scrunchie, mason string, over-the-door rack, 50″ x 22″ x 5″, 2015

Aliabadi: What also draws me to your work is that it does not spell out what I need to read from it right away, even with the titles, but it also does not present me with an intentionally obscure presence; so that as a viewer, I linger to read further, rather than being turned off by obscure pretentiousness. (In terms of pretentiousness, I am thinking of instances when the artist hides behind obscurity because of unresolved aspects of the work, rather than making it a viable vehicle for her production). Are you even thinking about the obscurity of the objects and whether they will convey what you need them to, or is that not an issue or concern during your making time?

Whitmore: Obscurity to me personally doesn’t fit. I feel like it is a strategy for many artists that I appreciate from afar but don’t necessarily want to participate in at this moment. It has happened with some of the objects I make, like sewing a bath scrubby into a hair scrunchie. I have had people react to the unknowning of an object in a good way. And that can direct the artist to intentionally focus on making more obscure objects. In a past artist statement, I once wrote, “materials hold there truth” and even though that sentence is no longer present, I haven’t left the idea behind.

Aliabadi: On the heels of previous questions, do you have goals for your upcoming artistic language and production in mind that you can share?

Whitmore: Recently I have been making some drawings using bandanas, Halloween notions, and safety pins. I started feeling an attraction to bandanas earlier this year. Many of us have owned a bandana. In the past, I had a collection of 12 to 15 colors to use as fashion accessories. They have a strong political history and for many years certain colors were not to be worn in certain neighborhoods. Some of the original designs were made for political campaigns and called “little banners.” They are still worn by protestors to keep their identity hidden and/or as protection from teargas. Some of the things I have used in the past, including tie-dye and friendship bracelets, originally had a political intent. The trickle down and consumption of those ideas interests me.


Just a Little Light. Pom poms, safety pins, mason string, plastic spiders, clips, bandana, 22″ x 22″, 2016

Aliabadi: When did your art production begin? Were you always making art as a child? Did you have support for your art making growing up and how has that affected your production and even presence in the art world?

Whitmore: My answers are going to seem cliché because I was always drawing and had an intuitive sense of color as a child. There was a period of time where I had issues with the preschool I was going to; it was during a time they started busing kids to other neighborhoods. I think I was kicked out of the preschool for misbehaving, due to a lack of focus and the long overwhelming drives. My mom might say otherwise, but what happened was I became dedicated to drawing and painting. I would schedule a focused time in the morning to make work. This lasted for a year until I entered elementary school.

I always had support from my family; we often went to museums and I was given coffee table art books. But growing up, my view was you could never make a living from art making. I believed that you had to be a child genius or get lucky and be discovered. No one told me people were going to art school. I tried to major in other things but could never stay dedicated. It took me many years to bring my focus back to even finishing college and majoring in art. During my undergrad at CSULB [California State University, Long Beach], in the BFA program, we had the opportunity to have a small studio space and I reentered that childhood phase of focused studio time. It came easy to me and we had dedicated faculty that reinforced a rigorous studio practice. I’ll never forget my professor Linda Day telling me I had to be in the studio every day and she meant it. So I am a maker, even if I am not in the studio, I will draw, or collect objects, or take pictures. If I am not working on art in some form I will feel it, maybe in the form of anxiety or stress. I know many other artists who feel the same so it’s not a special feeling. It keeps me motivated and it keeps me busy.

Aliabadi: Are there other artists that have influenced your aesthetic and conceptual language? Do you find yourself fitting into any artistic niches in contemporary art making?Do you want to be a part of any niche or artistic tribe (that may possibly become a significant “movement” or “period” in art history)?

Whitmore: Just in L.A. alone there are so many incredible friends and artists who influence me in subtle and overt ways. I am excited mainly about the work of many women artists who are just badass makers like Lynda Benglis, the late Ree Morton, Amanda Ross Ho, and Katie Grinnan. Not to say thy aren’t completely conceptually driven as well. I also gather strength from painters like Sarah Cain, Allison Miller, and Rebecca Morris. John Chamberlain, Noah Purifoy, and Richard Tuttle’s sculptures have been influential as well. Since grad school I haven’t focused on any one artist or movement that I feel I am in dialogue with. Art movements seem to be nonexistent- we are in this age of everything goes. It’s all and nothing at the same time. The technological capacity to engulf and engage millions makes it an absurd time to claim that one certain movement is happening. Some trends have been given names like “Zombie Formalism” but time doesn’t even operate in the same manner as when art movements were conceived.

If anything I would like to be in a tribe of artists that are thinking about others, being generous, creating space to share, reaching out, being an ally, fighting the patriarchy, fighting bias, fighting racism.

Aliabadi: Are you hoping to have your work change, adjust, or add to the language of art history (painting, sculpture, installation, and even performance– since you read your prose-poetic piece at your thesis show)?

In other words, it is a tall order for us artists to create waves in art, even ripples, and yet it can be seen as a worthy goal so that the art actually “says something.” I know in my practice, I really aim at furthering conversation so that the field and its exchanges progress and it is a task to do so since so much has already been said and yet we must keep trying to say, to speak, to add voices and languages. Some artists think about that very directly while others can take it or leave it. How about you?

Whitmore: That’s a tough question for me. I truly appreciate that you aim to further the conversation with your work and I do see that happening in the pieces you have been making. It reminds me, I have a voice, as well. I do feel a responsibility to add to the language of art history. I also want to feel the freedom to play. I think if the work is bringing conversation to the viewer then it could create a ripple. I would love that to happen, but trying to put my own work into a context such that it might have an effect, feels selfish. So I guess I am trying to fool myself into thinking I don’t matter, so that I won’t get overwhelmed by history, while still making sure I am socially, culturally responsible, relevant and not ignorant. Really it is a weird stance to say no, especially at this moment. We definitely need to add voices and languages especially from women artists, POC artists, LGBTQ artists, Muslim artists, and any peoples who feel marginalized and underrepresented. Art history is problematic and more voices have to be heard and included. We need to continue to fight to further the dialogue and expel exclusion.

Aliabadi: Will L.A. remain your home-base or will you be branching out in any way geographically, and will that be tied to your artwork? I myself am trying to move around as much as is possible between work gigs to incorporate ideas, objects, and imprints (since I am currently working with those) from as many geographic and social sources as I can. But I need to be in each environment for some significant time to really take it all in and then start to incorporate aspects that would be appropriate to the language that I am developing.

Whitmore: I feel strong ties to Southern California and I think for now being in L.A. gives me so many great opportunities to see art and to have dialogue with great artists. I have been working with three women artists— Rema Ghuloum, Bessie Kunath, and Daniela Campins— in a group called Manual History Machines. We have been curating shows throughout the L.A. area since 2012. It has been an enriching experience and I want to continue working with them, meeting new artists, and creating space to discuss work.


Manual History Machines. L to R: Tessie Salcido Whitmore, Bessie Kunath, Rema Ghuloum, and Daniela Campins

Aliabadi: Is there anything else you’d like to discuss or mention in terms of your art pieces, process, and influences that I have not covered in my inquiries?

Whitmore: I want to just say thank you for a wonderful interview. Thank you for asking thoughtful and insightful questions that made me think and feel and dig. I learned some new things about myself and confirmed some other things I had known but had not spoken or written about. Also thank you for remembering so many details about my work and for making me feel real.

For more images of Tessie Salcido Whitmore’s work, please go to