A VERSION OF THIS CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN CURATOR FRANCIS WOODLEY AND MYSELF WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN STILL LIFE AMBIGUOUS PRACTICES, UNIVERSITY OF ABERYSTWYTH, U.K., 2015.
FW: Your ongoing series of works, The Ice Cream Paintings seem to me to be an expansion of what traditional still life has to offer in terms of scale, the metaphorical use of materials, approaches to model making, and their sensuous feminism amongst other things. Could you tell me a little more about the materials you use in your model making?
JM: My working materials are contemporary versions of traditional household still life subject matter. I’m interested in how meaning flows through the bits and pieces of our most immediate bodily environments, and tend to choose low-cost materials of the day, often consumables and transient ‘things’ we barely attach value to. I gather these materials to make little figurines, and these rather temporary ‘bodies’ become my still life material. Ice cream has been a key material of this process for the last few years. Over and above its living qualities of being in constant transformation during the time that we can see it (when it’s out of the freezer), it seems to embody clear qualities of emotional gifting, to ourselves or to others, and it’s sticky with memories for many people, adult/child memories very often, domestic memories of touch, taste, sensation. In trying to give life to these extended meanings, I want to bring attention to this private part of life, to the economy of sustaining and sheltering, the sex, pain, and play of the home.
We all spend our lives ‘making models’ in our minds and my approach to still life is based on this observation. My paintings function in the mobile space of identification and projection that informs and energizes ‘the model.’ My wider project is one of making images that resonate with women’s lives as their own ‘images’ come undone, when illness, ageing, separation, or mental turmoil leave them outside of the reified categories of youthfulness, wholeness, and family.
FW: Your ice cream paintings look like ice cream and paint at the same time, painted ice cream, ice creamed paint. Are they ambiguous because they appear to be two viscous materials at the same time?
JM: Yes, but I’d like to think the ambiguities stack up more deeply than just these two bodies of ice cream and paint. Within the painterly body of the painting-as-a-thing, there is a representation of a body of ice cream, but I hope the ice cream body also conjures up other bodies or parts. These ambiguous suggested bodies, with their mobility and decay, are additionally made up of traces of my body, in the way the paint is manipulated, and of the original model before that. All of these bodies should ideally oscillate within the literal body of the painting, their container.
FW: Do you mean that the ice cream and the paint operate as mutually reinforcing metaphors for an absent body, or perhaps one that cannot be spoken of? It’s an interesting idea, two materials that both collapse and reaffirm each other in their allusion to the body. So painting metaphorically enables you to speak of more than two things at once.
JM: The body that cannot be spoken of is the monstrous-feminine one. Society still seems to ask women to aspire to an image they can never fully attain. Woman-as-image, culturally defined as flat and still, is actually an image in constant breakdown when viewed from the woman’s side, a continual working up and falling down, and as doomed as a model made of ice cream. The melting quality of the ice cream tries to establish this relation to time, to the impossibility of the image, to life as constant transformation.
The concept of the container is also important, that it has an inside and an outside. There is always a within-ness to a painting, it has a literal skin, and it has what it ‘contains,’ its subjects, its affects. Ice cream has a strong material identity as both a visual object and as something that we take into our bodies, that literally becomes part of our interiority, our subjecthood. This movement, understanding ourselves as both experiencing subject and as object in the world, is one I try to allude to in using food, which goes in, through, and out via our orifices.
FW: I like your earlier reference to a figurine—especially if, like the Staffordshire flatback I saw in your studio, they have that strange softness from being cast in worn out plaster moulds and glazed with a viscous lead glaze. The figurine is an object, an object that we put on show.
JM: I grew up with the Staffordshire flatback you saw and I often look at it. It is exactly that quality of the material almost bloating through the representation that I enjoy. I also enjoy their ambiguous position in relation to questions of bourgeois taste. Their pre-modern decorativeness sits uncomfortably in the terrible calculus that is the ‘contemporary lifestyle.’ I sometimes refer to my painted figures as figurines as it points to this place just outside of the tasteful. I find being slightly ‘off,’ making paintings that just might be naff, less mortifying.
FW: Cezanne painted that famous Still Life with Plaster Cupid (1894) now in the Courtauld. Figurines are also sometimes to be found in traditional Dutch still life, when their tiny size can radically change the scale of the other objects around them and making familiar foods seem gigantic. I’m thinking of van Beyeren’s banquet pieces that often have a silver or gilt cast figure atop the lid or handle of a metallic vessel. I like the way Schama writes, in The Embarrassment of Riches, that in the banquet pieces ‘the eye is merely the trigger sense that awakens other organs of appetite’ (Schama. 1987: 161).
JM: And desire is what drives us all.
FW: Taking this idea of a suggestive and ambiguous practice further, does your painting describe the way ice cream appears and behaves or does it go further to conjure up the contradictions between the pleasure we take in its sweet softness and the pain of its ice coldness. Visual associations seem to spill over into other associated sensations; our viewing of your paintings becomes a somewhat synesthetic experience.
JM: The paintings I like to look at all have a quality of attention to their describing, and it touches my body memory, and my delight, to look at them. It’s to do with the way the representation has been achieved as a bodily act. Painting needs to touch our visceral selves, this material connection is part of what it does as a medium, and it is only then that Deleuze’s ‘sensations and affects’ can really start to play and sing.
FW: When I saw your paintings for the first time it was as images on my laptop. I had no doubt then that they were still lifes, and I still think of them like that, even after seeing them in your studio in Amsterdam, but they’re very big, as tall as I am, and in my face.
JM: When I played with my food as a child, making monsters and castles with my dinner, my materials were both what they were and what they could be, just for that moment. In my paintings, the movement in scale helps to indicate this movement into metaphor. They are still life, but the category no longer completely contains them. They are also not just ‘play.’ Stilled Life might be closer as the body is always hovering.
I want to refer to playfulness, and ice cream in particular is a material associated with early memories of excess and pleasure that we can then re-visit through the painting, but the paintings themselves are not enacted as ‘playing.’ This doubling of adult-space/child-space, suggested by both the ice cream and the process of modeling that I use, is fundamental to my process as it touches on infantilization as a subject, which any woman who has ever been called baby has experienced. In a way I’m trying to accelerate that, push that ‘in your face’, as you put it.
FW: Could you tell me more about play? Is the openness that play requires important to your painting?
JM: The paintings themselves are hard won, but the open-endedness of play is a good way to think about material creativity. When I pull together a few tubs of ice cream or other bits and pieces, I have no particular goal in mind other than documenting my exploration of these materials. In order to stay with the material through this process, and avoid standing back, taking a critical distance from my process, I use a camera to record what I’m doing, which may go on for a few hours. Afterwards, these photos are always full of compositional surprises and it is from them that paintings begin. I need the surprise of play to open up a viewpoint I could never have planned. The paintings never quite look like the photos however; there is always another movement to get to an image.
FW: That’s interesting, that you have devised a strategy to inhibit critical distance in the early stages. This is perhaps the most difficult thing for an artist as it is in this state that their responses and ideas are most fluid, most susceptible to ambiguity, and in which the artist herself is at her most vulnerable.
When we sat opposite your ice cream paintings in your studio you told me that you thought of them as monstrous. Is this because of their formlessness, their ambiguity?
JM: If we all make models in our minds, we also make monsters. The monster is a literal em-bodi-ment of our fears and desires, a hacked together cultural construction. Using still life to refer to the monster-making of children is my way of approaching this more dangerous adult territory of cultural, social, monster-making. And as I get older, the monster that is patrolling my life is located within the image of the older woman. These days I’m using the domestic nature of the still life, the figurine, and children’s play to present the disallowed aspects of this figure: the detached, decomposing, crinkling, scarred, and temporal body of ageing.
FW: In the context of a traditional still life, the shriveling, spilling, spotting, of deteriorating foodstuffs threatens to disgust us, but never does due to the sheer beauty of their depiction. Are there some parallels here?
JM: Yes. My painted bodies attempt a sort of detournée of materialities that are culturally unwanted.
FW: It is often the body’s orifices and leakages, the way they look and feel, that your paintings evoke. Is there more to tell about the monstrous-feminine and the way it informs your work? Are there particular writers and ideas associated with this? You mentioned Kristeva?
JM: The monstrous-feminine is a term coined by Barbara Creed in her book of the same name, and in which she looks at Kristeva’s writing on the abject. I came to this text after making the paintings that are in this show, but the term has become important to me. I’m happy that the paintings make you think of orifices and leakages, as it is exactly that movement between the inner experiencing self and the viewed body that I am focused on. How we look, we see in a mirror, how we feel, we experience within. Women are often asked to focus on the former at the painful expense of the latter.
From this point of view, I’m interested in the body sensation paintings of Maria Lassnig, where she quite literally tries to transcribe in paint how it feels to be in her body sensing outwards, rather than how it might look from the outside.
FW: These interests of yours are interpreted through quite traditional conventions of object presentation, the still life. Is this an intended confrontation of contemporary feminist art-making with historical, generally male still life painting? Or are your paintings at play between cultures, part historical quotation, part postmodern sensory seductive excess, part ideological feminist perspective?
JM: I like the idea of a seemingly conventional image, one that can easily be put in a box, but then the bottom falls out of the box because actually the question ‘What is it?’ cannot, after all, be easily answered.
FW: Your painting The Bloodbathers seems to be a complex work into which you have introduced references to viewing and being viewed as well as the body metaphors already discussed. You told me that you had been thinking about Velasquez’s Las Meninas (1656). What sort of a conversation did you have with that painting?
JM: I have thought about Las Meninas a lot, and when I looked at a particular set of images one day, the Infanta, with her pannier dress and golden hair, just seemed to be there as one of my models, and to the right, the adult female dwarf. My figures represent an inversion of the key subject matter of Las Meninas however, in that they have either no trace of eyes (the lollipop head) or scar-like markings where eyes might have been. The only marker of a gaze is the single sunglass lens, which stands as a shield before them, but this also suggests a covered or stopped gaze. It’s a sad painting in that way, a reversal of the amazing dynamics of the gaze that Velazquez painted.
FW: Until you mentioned it, I hadn’t realized that the darker, lurking form in the foreground was originally the lens from a pair of sunglasses. I had certainly understood it as somehow different and distinct from the ice cream, but now I understand it as materially and functionally different too whilst also connected to the ice cream through reflection. Now that I realize what it is, or was, I am interested to know whether you also made use of Foucault’s essay ‘Las Meninas’ in The Order of Things?
JM: I know the Foucault text, the bouncing gaze he unpacks, and the power relations these lines of sight seem to enact. What I found in the image I made however was a kind of opposite of that—a moment of aftermath and the blinding stilling qualities of shock. I don’t even know if the Velazquez reference can be seen though. It was there for me, but in the making process, everything goes down into the marsh and forms, images, even titles, come back out. Images can’t always be held accountable for the research that they stand on.
FW: I am interested to know whether being viewed, and viewing, and being mirrored and mirroring are important here or whether it perhaps suggests an absent eye just as the ice cream seems to suggest an absent body.
JM: That’s interesting. I painted it as a dark lens and saw it as marking a problem for the eye, for the gaze. It seemed to be a Moebius object that shields the eye at the same time as it absents it from the other, protects it at the same time as allowing it to see. That makes it a sort of doorway form, which is another way of thinking about a gap. So if, instead of ricocheting or funneling the gaze, it is read as an absence, and if the painting as a whole could be thought of as a body, then the body’s absent eye could be the female body’s private eye, the single darkness of our sex. I hadn’t actually thought of that!
To move to a safer scientific place, there’s also the lens and its identification with a whole historical world-view to think of.
FW: Personally, I’m again reminded of those objects in the banquet still lifes that reveal the reflections of the artists who painted them. There’s an important article by Celeste Brusati on these reflections entitled Stilled Lives: self-portraiture and self-reflection in seventeenth-century Netherlandish Still-Life painting (1990).
JM: Stilled Life again. I tend towards the idea that all art production contains a portrait of the person who made it, no matter how seemingly documentary the approach. This reflecting business takes many forms.