Posts Tagged ‘Feminism’

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

June 27, 2018

 

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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. 

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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.  

 

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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.

 

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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”

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

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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.”

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

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

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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: http://www.nataliebaxter.com

 

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.

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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.

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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?

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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, www.yoshiesakai.com. 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?

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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 yoshie-sakai.blogspot.com).

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.

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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.