Posts Tagged ‘Contemporary Art’

Glitter Guns, Cold Hard Cash, and Libtards: Natalie Baxter’s Plush Nerve

June 27, 2018



Natalie Baxter, LIBTARD, fabric and polyfill, 15 x 34in, 2017


I am always amused by New York artist Natalie Baxter, because she is both a serious artist, producing timely, relevant work that remarks on pressing cultural issues, while also being funny– sometimes wearing a sneaky look on her face before she makes a joke.

I met Baxter when I was working as the Visual Arts Coordinator at Vermont Studio Center in 2017 and she was a resident artist. I loved walking through her studio, touching the smooth, fluffy, or sequenced bright cloths hanging on the wall awaiting her sewing machine.

Baxter gave me some great insights into three bodies of work she has been developing in recent years that cover troubling topics and instances of our conflicted, violent, and shifting US culture. Baxter is also an artist that knows how to take criticism in stride and this is where her funny side comes in; she incorporates the nastiest comments toward her work into more work, amusingly disarming her critics while underscoring the neuroses underlying their criticisms, and thus, our culture at large. 


Aliabadi: Would you call yourself a feminist artist as a result of some of your gestures? You invert the hardness of guns, for example, that are often associated with toxic masculinity and aggression– into materials and processes (cloth, sewing) often associated with female pursuits.

Or do you avoid that term because of any possible additional associations and/or category confinements?

Baxter: I am a feminist (as all people should be) and I also happen to be an artist.  I am working in the medium of sewing and quilting that was passed down to me from my foremothers that has a history of being viewed as “women’s work,” but I fell into this type of work by happenstance.  

While studying art in undergrad and then later, while pursuing my MFA, I worked primarily in digital media– first through more abstract video work that then evolved into more linear documentary.  My graduate thesis was a collection of stories from women ages 5-85 who all call the mountains of eastern Kentucky home. When I moved to New York after graduate school, I continued to pursue the filmmaking route, working in documentary film and television and I noticed that I stopped wanting to make any of my own documentary work. Perhaps there’s something about making your passion your job that makes you less excited about creating work in the same medium. I started to crave using my hands and also being able to finish a work in a timelier manner. My grandmother taught me to quilt and sew when I was young and I had a half-finished quilt of hers with me in New York, so I picked it up and started quilting again.  



Natalie Baxter, CHURCH CLOTHES, fabric and polyfill, 14 x 44in, 2016


Perhaps because I was working for a major television news station at the time, or because we were entering into an election cycle and the media was on overdrive about hot button issues such as gun violence, all mixed with the fact that there was a tragic shooting happening almost weekly, I decided to pull quilting into my work to create my Warm Gun series. I used quilting and sewing as a means of both deflating the hard iconography of a weapon and exploring issues of gender and masculinity in gun violence and culture.



Natalie Baxter, ROSE TO THE OCCASSION, fabric and polyfill, 15 x 42 x 3in, 2016


Aliabadi: From where does the text on your latest body of work generate?

Baxter: My Alt Caps series explores the culture of online commenting and gender. Pulling text from reactions to a negative article written about me and my work on Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze,  I again use sewing and quilting techniques to turn the numerous reactions that question my gender, sexuality, and sanity into banners that echo those made by suffragettes or recent protest signs.  

Aliabadi: What are some of the most aggressive or “stand out” comments that you have received on your work, or on you as an artist, from your pieces?

Baxter: These comments below are all about me and my Warm Gun series that I then turned into the text for my Alt Caps series:

“This chick needs a good railing”

“This libtard is out of her freaking mind”

“Just a man hating feminazi with no redeemable qualities, not to mention no brain”

“That’s art?! See folks what shrooms and LSD do to the head?”

“Clearly Natalie Baxter is confused about her role as a woman”

“Nothing more than psycho babble bullsheet”



Natalie Baxter, BULLSHEET, fabric, polyfill, cotton batting, and pom-poms, 25 x 32in, 2017


Aliabadi: Are you trying to subvert their texts/comments, or is there another intention in sewing their words into the pillows? For instance, do you have hopes of swaying, even just a little, the minds of aggressive conservatives, or is your work not that particular kind of political tool?

Baxter: We have found ourselves in an age where we are overwhelmed with information, where lines between fact and fiction are blurred, and where numerous hateful subcultures have revealed themselves.  I see this attack on me and my work as being a symptom of the larger problem of bigotry and sexism.



Natalie Baxter, FEMINAZI, fabric and polyfill, 34 x 14in, 2017


I am in no way a unique woman who has been attacked online– comments like these are plentiful. I had to do something with them because it is this same angry (mostly masculine) energy that I was exploring with my Warm Gun series that warranted these comments, which I found ironically interesting. I choose to turn them into banners that echo those of suffragettes to nod to the fact that we are still in a world where we have to fight for gender equality, just as women a hundred years ago also did.



Natalie Baxter, DEMONCRAT, fabric, cotton batting, and fringe, 18 x 40in, 2017


Natalie Baxter, CLEARLY CONFUSED II, fabric, polyfill, and pompoms, 39 x 33in, 2018


Aliabadi: There is a tricky balance of having text say enough but not dwarf an art piece itself; or over-frame the art, if you will, so that the formal aspects of the object are still “speaking” themselves through color, texture, sewing, or weaving choices, etc.

How do you think including text, then, enhances the presence of the work in the space and how do you make sure other formal aspects remain just as poignant without being overridden by the text? Furthermore, why text on the banners rather than, say, on the guns themselves?

Baxter: Like all people working in fiber, I collect fabrics that I find and like, so my studio is filled with a colorful palette to choose from that I used for this series. I usually start with one base fabric and then work from that one as to what will look good together. Many of the fabrics are very colorful and flashy, so a lot of my work has a similar flamboyant vibe.

For these, the text is predominantly the work– the fabric choices, while important, are secondary.

I started out making the works in my Alt Caps series more as sculptural objects– and then they morphed into banners. I had been thinking about protest banners and made a few for the Women’s Marches. I realized that the reasons I (and many other women) were attending these marches were because there are still people who believe that if a woman speaks out about an issue (such as masculinity in gun culture, as I did with my Warm Gun series), that she is, “clearly confused about her role as a woman” or that she must “need a good railing.”



Natalie Baxter, GOOD RAILING, fabric, polyfill, and cotton batting, 21 x 33in, 2017


This is the same fight that the suffragettes were battling– for gender equality. So I decided to take these comments and place them on banners that echo this history of protest but through the medium of colorful, contemporary fabrics, using the contemporary terms and speech gifted to me from the internet.

Aliabadi: And your new series, Money Quilts, can you talk about its influences? Is it tied to Alt Caps and Warm Gun? Or is this a new direction with your sewing and quilting?

Baxter: I have been thinking about money and wanting to incorporate it into my work for a while now. We all have to think about money– especially living in New York, especially when you quit your day job for art, when pricing work, when people tell you your work is priced too low or too high, etc. The way we talk about money changes within different circles of friends, with different genders, it’s a necessity, a burden, it creates desire and greed– money is power.



Natalie Baxter, COLD HARD CASH MONEY, fabric, cotton batting, and polyfill, 26 x 41in, 2018


There was a New York Times article a couple months ago titled, Money is Power. And Women Need More of Both,” written by Susan Chira, that addresses a lot of these thoughts I had about wanting to quilt some money. There has also been a lot of coverage lately about the gender pay gap and income inequality that I want to play with in these Money Quilts. I see this new series fitting in with a lot of the same issues I have been exploring with my other work– gender, masculinity, sexism, objects of power, and American iconography.



Natalie Baxter, MOO LA LA, fabric and polyfill, 26 x 54in, 2018


Aliabadi: When you display your work in shows, what are some important aspects that you take into consideration and possibly need to have so that the work can have the effect you desire?

Baxter: This process has evolved over the years and has changed from trial and error as well as suggestions or conversations from curators and gallerists. It’s obviously different when you are in a group show vs. a solo where you have more freedom to play with the space how you want. Ideally, I like to install the works myself and scope out the space beforehand. I like to bring more works that I think I will use so I have options, but sometimes I have to relinquish control to a gallery and hope they understand my vision.

Aliabadi: Can the public touch the work? Because there is this amazing tactility with your pieces and some of the cloths you use are tempting viewers to touch them (whether fluffy, shiny, or plush)?

Baxter: I don’t encourage people to touch the work, but I don’t stop people who do. Whether you are supposed to or not, soft sculpture inherently invites you to touch it and I do see many viewers of my work wanting to or just going for it, and in that case, I don’t stop them. I do want to explore this in the future and am working on playing with the idea of an interactive installation.



Natalie Baxter, GEEGEE, fabric & polyfill, 12 x 45in, 2018


Natalie Baxter, FUZZY WAS HE, fabric and polyfill, 10 x 9.5 x 3in, 2015


I am one of the guilty ones; I have gleefully touched one of Baxter’s pieces, enjoying the softness of the cloth and daring to squeeze pillow-y areas, while uncomfortably aware that I was fondling a representation of a gun and our societal tragedies. 

More images of Baxter’s work can be found on her website:


One Giant Nervous Laugh: The Complex Work of Yoshie Sakai

October 4, 2017

Yoshie Sakai is one of the artists I recently had the pleasure of working with and curating in a show called Bitter Candy. I was eager to have her contribute her videos that address in vivid, metaphorical, funny, and sometimes quirky ways, real issues concerning eating habits and pressures on women to maintain a certain weight. Sakai’s recent work also tackles family and cultural dynamics, covering issues such as daughters being devalued in comparison to sons.

Over the years, her work has progressed in sophisticated content and use of digital technology. She plays with green-screen in order to place her characters (all played by herself in different costume) onto domestic and street scenes. In her recent soap opera, KOKO’s Love, characters are present in the scene, but not perfectly aligned or fluid with them so that they remain on top of the scene rather than embedded in it. As a result, there is a sense of disconnection and discomfort reflecting their emotional state and relationships. The characters seem to lack respite in their locales and their floatation creates a subtle yet palpable tension and anxiety.

KOKO’s Love and subsequent episodes bring us into the lives of a nuclear family where the father wishes his daughter had been born a boy and rejects her, seeming to wish her gone. His daughter eventually goes missing.

I asked Sakai about the missing daughter in the KOKO’s Love series:

Aliabadi: Yoshie, tell me about your missing child character. Yuki represents a cast-off child, coming into the world as the wrong gender and being raised under her father’s denial and sexist, if you will, interpretations of daughters. Her abduction seems very much a self-fulfilling prophecy for him, as Yuki’s mother points out in an argument at one point. Is this the kind of structure that you were exposed to growing up as a girl in your family?

Is this a particular aspect of East Asian culture that you are highlighting and if so, what do you specifically hope the viewers get out of it? The idea of a boy being the preferred gender runs across various cultures, either overtly or covertly (the West holds remnants of it in its general societal culture and hierarchies). But what are you offering on this particular issue with this dark soap opera genre?

Sakai: The whole KOKO’s Love soap opera series and related videos are loosely autobiographically based, and Yuki, the missing child character, is patterned after myself, as I am the only child and daughter in my family. Though I was not specifically exposed to the structure where my father was in denial (and yes, in the case of Hiroshi in KOKO’s Love, sexist) of my gender, I am trying to expose the latent patriarchy that pervaded my family and perhaps others. By particularly highlighting this aspect of gender inequity in my culture, and as you said, in many cultures, through KOKO’s Love, I attempt to articulate the complex frailty of familial ties and interactions, and of being a lost and misunderstood child. In my series, Yuki is trying to figure out how to be loved when she does not have the obvious power to change the situation. Being born biologically a girl, she cannot change her situation easily as a seven-year-old child, so to biologically become a boy, her solution is to take on drag.

For me the soap opera genre and its tropes is an appropriate platform to bring these issues of the normal dysfunctional immigrant family story and interpersonal relationships to the fore.

It’s funny how you mention the self-fulfilling prophecy for Hiroshi of Yuki’s abduction…. As you will see later (SPOILER ALERT), there was a big hint in Episode 2 that Hiroshi arranged for the abduction himself…. But the first hint was the phone call he received in Episode 1 when he was sitting on the couch one night with Keiko.


KOKO’s Love at Groundspace Project, Los Angeles, California, Seven-channel mixed media video, installation, 25′ x 40′ x 12′, 2017

Aliabadi: I do really take to the use of the soap opera format to bring these issues forth, especially since the melodrama of soap characters and their relationships conveniently allow for, as you mention, tropes. They underscore tropes, if you will.  I love the introductory credits where your characters turn dramatically towards the camera– you had me laughing hard and elicited some sadness from me at Keiko’s turn and slight, forced smile. There are various funny tidbits in your work and those humorous moments seem to buoy your harder, serious subject matter. What are your intentions and concerns with humor?

Sakai: I find humor to be a very important and complicated intersection where all sorts of emotions collide, and as you mentioned Shiva, Keiko’s opening sequence with her turn and forced smile, are funny and sad at the same time. It (humor) is also a coping mechanism and necessary life tool for getting through hardships and injustices. It makes life bearable, although not always accepted. In some cases, for example, I have always had a nervous laugh where I would laugh or chuckle a little after I say something serious or uncomfortable, and I remember I would get scolded, told, or asked why I am laughing when what I said was not funny. But for me it was a “bad” habit or a necessary one to process the uncomfortable feeling I just spoke about. I feel like the whole soap opera series is one giant nervous laugh of all the wrong and difficult situations we are put through with our relationships with family members, friends, and acquaintances. For me, joy and pain are two sides of the same coin, which is humor. I don’t think that something can be funny without understanding or incorporating both aspects.

When people are asked the question “What kind of traits are you looking for in an ideal partner?,” “sense of humor” always seems to come up, and I believe that it is because those who are “funny” can empathize with a wide spectrum of situations and feelings. Humor is seriously an important component of my work and also one way of committing things to memory. So if you associate something you want to remember with humor, there is a tendency, at least for me, to not forget something that is significant and shouldn’t be forgotten.

Aliabadi: Why did you decide to play the characters yourself rather than, say, hiring Japanese-American actors?

Sakai: In the end, I decided to play and will play all the characters myself unless (e.g. in Episode 2), the characters of the soap meet people in the outside world, like Yuki after she is kidnapped and her dream sequence takes her to adventures in New Orleans. Because it is in essence a story “loosely” based on my personal family history and narrative, it made sense and still makes sense for me to be at the core of all the characters. Many times I think it would be easier in a way to have actors, because it is difficult lip-syncing to all the voices, but it just makes sense to me to be everyone at the same time. This means all the characters will be aging along with my real-life aging.


KOKO’s Love at Torrance Shipman Gallery, Brooklyn, New York, Two-channel mixed media video installation, 14′ x 18′ x 14′ tall, 2017

Aliabadi: As you mention, the hint to Hiroshi being the abductor really sheds light not just on his, or patriarchy’s, devaluing of the female but also spotlights some kind of inherent dislike of himself, I think. Patriarchy could be said to dislike the female because of its own fears and confusion around the female and her differences from the male–attributes she has that he does not, by nature’s default, and his inability to process, relate to, and appreciate that. Which never meant she was better; but I often wonder if patriarchy’s fear is that she might be, and that ungrounded fear and lack of seeing equality and appreciation of each other’s attributes without hierarchy causes much toxic patriarchal behavior.

But, arguably, to hate something, you have to have insecurities in yourself that then are projected onto your object of hate. And I feel as if Hiroshi harbors insecurities that are easily projected onto the female, the daughter, Yuki, and then easily rejected (especially since society allows for and encourages that rejection anyway); those insecurities, deemed part of Yuki and not Hiroshi (in his mind anyway) allow him to then, he hopes, erase her for good.

Is that kind of self-rejection, projection, and failed erasure part of your creation of Hiroshi? Do you agree with this analysis of the dynamic between father and daughter?


KOKO’s Love at Groundspace Project, Los Angeles, California, Seven-channel mixed media video, installation, 25′ x 40′ x 12′ tall, 2017

Sakai: I totally agree with you, Shiva, about this being the dynamic between father and daughter, Hiroshi and Yuki in KOKO’s Love, as this self-rejection and projection on the part of Hiroshi is his primal sign of weakness and fear of the female takeover, especially by a child who can become a grown woman with more power. Of course it is easier to lash out on a child, as he sees the daughter as a weaker female than the adult female– such as his wife, Keiko, who is stronger mentally and can fight and talk back as she does. Although right now Keiko does this within the confines of societal rules and standards. I am hoping that as the episodes progress that I can make Keiko a stronger person able to reject and combat deep-rooted patriarchy. Hiroshi is definitely insecure and fears the female bond between mother and daughter. Two against one in the Sakimoto family is how Hiroshi is sizing up the odds, not in favor of him.

KOKO’s Love can be viewed on Sakai’s website, I also asked Sakai about her earlier work regarding body image.

Aliabadi: As far as earlier videos such as Britney Scale Surgery (2008) and Come One, Eat All (2007), I see you tackling continually relevant topics of body image, eating concerns, or even disorders, and the constant exposure as a Japanese-American woman to representations of the blonde American woman (an entirely constructed image in itself). I see attempts to mimic that constructed representation– which is harder to copy for those not coming from European-American backgrounds, colors, and features. So that fitting in to this “idea” of an acceptable woman, look, weight, behavior, sexiness, and so on, is quite a challenge. It begs the question, how can we morph ourselves into what has been advertised to us as a norm of what to emulate?

Would you say these are the concerns of this work?

Will you be continuing to discuss this subject or are you more invested now in the content (though, not necessarily format) of the soap opera series?

Come One Fries Still

Come One, Eat All, Single-channel video, 04:54, 2007

Sakai: Definitely, topics of body image, eating concerns/disorders and the constant reminder that I, being a Japanese-American woman, am not the “blonde American woman,” are direct concerns of my earlier work (2009 and earlier); and you are so right, Shiva, that even this “blonde American woman” is a constructed image by the corporate media and this perpetual bombardment of this image and what is considered “acceptable” onto all women is a plague that invades our conscious and subconscious realities. It really sucks. And we will never be able to morph into this image and associated behaviors with any sanity; and so with “Come One, Eat All” and “Britney Scale Surgery,” I attempt to reveal the ridiculousness and sad and evil mind and body control of the mass media over our lives and our constant struggle to accept just who we are and be happy with who we are. These specific topics from my earlier work have always been with me even from when I was painting as an undergraduate in 2001 (paintings can be seen on

Although it may not seem that I am addressing these topics specifically in my soap opera series (some of these specific topics will come up in other related character vignette videos), I do believe that I have been making the same work since the very beginning, which comes down to the issue of expectations and the ability or inability to meet them– most of the time, the inability to meet them. I find this to be at the core of everything I have made so far from Come One, Eat All to KOKO’s Love. It could be expectations set by the media/big business, by our families and friends, and by ages and ages of ingrained patriarchy. But I find myself continually struggling to reaffirm that there is no rational need to try and meet these goals that are unrealistically set by external sources and forces. It has indeed become a lifelong battle.

20170813_235838 copy

Britney Scale Surgery, Single-channel video, 04:18, 2008

Of course, what Sakai and I discussed is only a piece of the many dynamics taking place in her work. Her videos entice the viewer to watch them more than once to access more and more societal and personal tensions and traumas. She takes you to and through the difficult arguments, conversations, and silences in an aesthetic trip worth taking.

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




A studio visit with Mary Heilmann

January 5, 2012

           Walking into Mary Heilmann’s studio in the Hamptons, I first smell turpentine, as if all the paintings lining the walls are wafting their perfume out into the room.  As a painter, I know this fragrance and find it a welcoming invitation to create. 

            Mary’s standing politely by the door, allowing us to crowd in around her.  I am traveling with fellow SVA artists and we have been making studio visits in the area, including those of Steven Miller, Karin Waisman, and Paton Miller.  Mary’s open, relaxed persona is particularly memorable.  We sit in a circle around her and rather than launch into explanations of her paintings’ influences, she calmly asks us how we are doing and smiles.  We talk about ourselves; we relax. 

            Talking to Mary about art feels like a casual, informative conversation.  She has a way of easing her audience with her methodical, sincere tone of voice.  Her storytelling draws us into her life and we find out about her artistic influences organically.  Mary is very quotable and I find myself writing much of what she says down in my notebook as I sit inches away from her newly drying, brightly colored wave painting. 

            “I didn’t want to be the girlfriend” but, “part of the gang,” she says about having had to work around so many successful men in the art world over the decades.  I remember making a similar comment, years ago, to one of my female high school students who was delving into poetry:  “Don’t be the girlfriend, if you know what I mean.  Be the artist, herself.”  Over the years, Mary has done just that. 

            Her latest productions employ geometric canvases that break out of the traditional rectangular form, recalling Kasimir Malevich and, what she calls her “Malevich phase.”  Much like Malevich’s play with simplified, geometric shapes, Mary uses a cross shape or squares and rectangles both in the actual frame of her pieces and as the subject on the canvas.  She has painted geometric forms of different sizes on her canvases “referenc[ing] landscapes in a hallucination kind of way.”  As I look around her room at paintings hanging on the walls and leaning up from the floor, I sense Mary allowing form, color, and subject to come to her naturally and intuitively, but not without some forethought.  She tells us that she spends much time thinking about her pieces before actually painting.  Then when she finally delves into the canvas, she executes them quickly.  Occasionally, she uses Photoshop to play with the direction of her compositions before attempting them on the canvas.

            The swiftly brushed, bright colors of her canvases contrast with the off-white tones on the walls and the floorboards.  Her studio space is comforting and filled with dynamic objects– an embroidered kerchief thrown on the back of one chair, a bright geometric form hanging from the ceiling catching the sun as it swings slightly, and two doors that open out into lush back and front yards.  Far from the grey floor, white wall, industrial look of quite a few studios, Mary’s studio is one of those that really encompasses her home life as well as her art.  Except for the smell of turpentine, there does not appear to be a sharp delineation between living space and work space.  

            After visiting her home and studio, many of us remarked on how we felt comfortable chatting with her and asking whatever questions came to our minds.  Mary was personable and unaffected, lacking that insufferable aura of self-importance of some artists.  Most of us will remember her especially for her genuine personality.