I have been working on the question of how to reconcile my intersectional feminist critique with my painting practice, which is one of the most traditional mediums there are, since studying for my MFA in painting at Pratt Institute in New York from 1998-2000.
The construction of the painterly (traditionally male) genius is historically intertwined with the development of European easel painting, and the effects of this endure as reference point for many involved in the arts and even more outside of this field, as Isabelle Graw reminds us in her recent publication The Love of Painting.
When I moved to Berlin from New York, I found myself surrounded by a lot of people that seemed opposed to making images, saying, this is all trash and traditional nonsense, we have to work with interpersonal relations as material. Nicolas Bourriaud’s theory of relational aesthetics was prominently being discussed at the time. During my early experiments working with human milk, I was invited to do a performance during a group exhibition at futura gallery in Prague, where I pumped milk publicly and served it. The accompanying catalog included a text by Nicolas Bourriaud and you can see him being mock-shocked at my performance here in the video documenting this event. https://vimeo.com/288237835 When you start collecting human milk from people who produce it, you’re literally dealing with what is between two human beings, it’s feeding one another and it’s invisible. So, you take it out and you make it visible, make it public, in a way. It is similar to what I was working on together with Käthe Wenzel, with whom I travelled around trying to make visible and “capitalizing” on what was happening in interpersonal relationships with are self-constructed ego stroking machine. The machine takes literally the metaphor of “brushing someone’s belly”, which means, ego-stroking in German. We brushed people physically, using actual paint-brushes. (This paragraph is adapted adapted from a recent publication, “What if it won’t stop here?” Edited by Jan Verwoert and Daniel Pies, Archive Books, Berlin. https://www.archivebooks.org/2018/11/26/what-if-it-wont-stop-here/)
It occurred to me recently that what I have been doing when applying for positions as a painter might be comparable to, if we move to the field of music, a concert pianist trained in a conservatory who, after giving a few concerts, decides to take apart the concert piano into pieces and to look at it from as many angles as possible, recording the sounds it makes during this deconstruction and asking an audience used to traditional concert piano playing, or in my case, easel painting, whether abstract or not, to appreciate it as painting.
And to then immediately, while the viewer barely has time to wrap his or her head around the idea of using human milk for painting, to go ahead and continue, and to keep going and going, in doing so, to making it clear that this is not “only” a an exercise in performative deconstruction. To then, if we stay with the analogy of the concert pianist taking apart a piano and expecting the audience to calmly appreciate his new trick as a perfectly normal undertaking to pick up and collect discarded milk in order to construct a sort of painting out of these items, and to practice doing this for so long that finally, something pretty convincingly similar enough in terms of image emerges and then creating images that are, by now, close enough in terms of image and painterliness to a regular painting to be recognizable, but that can also exist separately from all this context and circumstance as images.
The human milk I collected at the border of San Diego and Tijuana has it’s own narrative: it speaks the language of the anthroposcene like a body that has been absorbing the effects of abuse. I wanted to see if I could make visible what has been embedded into this geographical area not by showing chemical formulas and traces as they appeared to scientific researchers, but instead to develop a visual narrative based on what was floating around in related interpersonal stories, and to make this space of apocalyptic and utopian fantasies gorgeous, using all manner of dramatic effects, as much as I could, in milk.
I do not believe it is necessary for the viewer to be able to track all of the sources of my image making in order to appreciate the work. We have become so used to offering all manner of information for art appreciation, we leave litte space for viewers to hang their thoughts on. I want to allow for that space. I have stopped excessively explaining how my work hangs together.