Posts Tagged ‘Toxic Masculinity’

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

 

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