Grace Roselli’s work is badass. When I first saw her website www.graceroselli.com, I said, “Oh yeah!” I knew I had to chat with her. As you might imagine, her current work focuses on the female body, nudity, power, machinery, personal ownership, politics and well, you fill in the blanks. Just what inspires her work? Let’s chat with her and find out…
“… My subjects are very clearly saying, ‘Know that this skin and everything it contains, visually and metaphorically is mine. I own this narrative and am choosing to share it with you ...’”
MICHAEL: Grace, Your work is insane! It's extremely sensuous, almost hyper real and really blurs the boundaries between advertising, commercialism and art. Before we focus on your series work, let's talk about lighting. Your lighting is killer. It must take forever just to get your lighting right. No?
GRACE: Hey Michael, Thanks! First, if you don't mind, please clarify what “advertising/commercialism” is as opposed to what “art” looks like in your mind's eye. I've heard this before, and I’m always a bit confused by it. Perhaps because I use very clear images of women and a lot of light?
MICHAEL: Yes. Amazing.
GRACE: Most of the women in my work have kissed their last fuckable day away according to commercial advertising and we all seem to know what art looks like until someone comes along and blows what we know out of the water.
GRACE: My lighting - insert huge smile here - tech friends who I go running to when stuck will be smiling here too. I light by intuition and sometimes totally miss, which is where Photoshop comes in to clean up distractions like all of those reflections I didn’t feel like building a light tent around to get rid of. And then, I'm cursing like a fiend because I'm sitting in front of a screen way longer than I ever wanted to! Yet in the end, that damn light is going to look exactly like I didn’t know I wanted - which is practically perfect.
MICHAEL: For clarification purposes, I think much of your photographic work looks like it could be used in print advertising for products in high end magazines like Vanity Fair and Town and Country or even TV commercials. Your work is definitely art, but it also looks extremely commercial and contemporary. Is it your intention to make it look commercial?
GRACE: I really wish I were getting paid like an advertising photographer! I've been looking at a number of commercial images lately that seem to want to appear like “art.” A lot of “to and fro” in that territory.
I think you’re saying commercial to address my last few series' sense of “no place” and attractive women? I work with volunteers and when I have none available, I use myself - no professional models. Female beauty and its cute sister, female competition, are pretty taboo subjects in the current art world. Silly female beauty, stay in the commercial arena where you belong! It’s the unspoken language of body and face.
Is kind of basic; where do we pick up our ideas of what we're supposed to look like where, who and how? This leads to all kinds of assumptions - personal and societal, by the viewer. My main viewer right now is me and I'm constantly checking my eyes - like, am I assuming to much male gaze? Am I going into conscripted sexuality territory? Am I allowing these women to be in the world and out of the world at the same time? What does that look like? When I put some kind of cage on someone’s head, how does that read?
This is why I'm psyched about my bike photos at the moment. You're riding, male or female, got your gear on and you’re in the same positions. You take your helmet off - game over. Or just the beginning, depending on your point of view and therein lies my art. It’s a combination of emotional machine and female body. Total cannonball!
So nah, the idea of “commercial” doesn't even apply - except when the viewer brings it to the table. At some point, maybe I'll work with more men. It just seems that women have so many more contested implications.
By the way, I’ve just added a series of self portraits, “Our Marvelous Punishment,” to my site: http://www.graceroselli.com/our-marvelous-punishment-1/ and a few pictures of guys – “Is the Room” http://www.graceroselli.com/is-the-room/.
MICHAEL: I guess I’m also thinking in terms of commercialization and advertising because your work is so pristine in terms of presentation.
GRACE: The past couple of series I've made have had a very “clean” look. There’s pretty much nothing in the photo but the main character, a prop and negative space.
I'm coming out of a painting background. I love paint. It’s probably the sexiest art material around. I love its mess and its visceral nature. I also love slopping it on a body-sized canvas and physically performing it. That being said, I am not loving the painting I've been doing lately.
The whiteness in my photos and the clear subject has a lot to do with blocking “art noise.” My paintings got away from me and started looking like art, then just boring. I’m going to ride my bike over them this summer and go from there. The photos or the performances I'm recording still have no end.
MICHAEL: Tell me more about the bright, white backdrop of many of your photos. How do you achieve that? It looks like the white is glowing. Why do you like white backdrops?
GRACE: Most of my work revolves around the politically-charged significance of the female body. The unspoken language of the body, the visual cues we inhabit and unknowingly process, coming from society and culture. So yes, commercial advertising of and for women plays a part, as does a gazillion other ways the female body represents in Western and every other human culture.
MICHAEL: I can clearly see that.
GRACE: Both the white space and body in my work are spaces for a narrative subjectivity. The women and few other elements present in the picture have no context of place, enabling the viewer fill in the story. The “white space” surrounding the body supports and heightens that feeling.
Color is a subjective element. Both white and black are less so - at least in the crayon box arena. Black space strikes me more as a void, a sucking in, a fantastic tunnel. White seems to stay in place better, shaping and infiltrating the characters in my pictures.
Technically, I'm using the white wall of my studio with a lot of reflectors and studio flash. I love mylar and the reflections it can throw around. I'll also “paint” with white on an image using Photoshop in post production. I'm exploring and learning with this work, so my process is wildish and a bit out of control.
MICHAEL: Your work is formidable and almost intimidating because it looks so ... well ... perfect in its imagery and composition. What do you think about perfection as a concept? Is perfection your goal?
GRACE: I've never considered perfection as a concept. I'll look at specific works by other artists I admire, like Catherine Opie, Rachel Whitread or Jenny Saville that I find perfect and perfectly inspiring. I consider each of my own pieces finished when it stops talking to me - when it's as “perfect” in my mind's eye as my skill set can make it. That probably lasts for about an hour. Then I'm onto the next piece, trying to make it better. I'm very much in competition with myself.
MICHAEL: Your work is very sleek, hip and edgy. It has a very strong, badass vibe. Surely you do this intentionally. Do you see yourself this way? The work does seem to channel a sense of power and authority. No?
GRACE: Substitute elegant for sleek and absolutely! My subjects are very clearly saying, “Know that this skin and everything it contains, visually and metaphorically is mine. I own this narrative and am choosing to share it with you.”
MICHAEL: Your current work also seems to focus on masquerade an identity. The cosmetically-enhanced models are nude yet they're hiding their faces or they're cloaked in material or cover up. I'm asking myself, "Who are these people?" Am I off base?
GRACE: An overall theme in my work is the disconnect that can occur from being human to walking into society’s mediated view of gender. I'll find a sweet spot to address this, sometimes with some form of prop to enhance, obscure or restrain parts of the face or body.
My props, and the narratives they propel, work in much the same way a traditional mask or masquerade does. The act of wearing a mask doesn’t hide the wearer so much as transforms her/him into another identity -someone or something outside of the subject’s everyday experience.
In my series “Our Marvelous Punishment” and “Uncanny Valley,” I began to explore using masquerade as a way of going beyond a gendered society using items lying around my studio or easily acquired from the local hardware as a prop or mask. Combined with body and face makeup, the wearer starts to become a being that steps outside the boundaries of being human.
In the “Uncanny Lady M,” I re-imagined Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth - a character whose gender thwarts the ferocity of her ambitions - as a cyborg queen, a post-human machine without the constraints of morality, class, race or gender. To assist in the transformation, I asked invited women to imagine themselves as the badass beauty wearing only an abstracted crown made from armature mesh and to interact with a distorted image of themselves formulated via a sheet of reflective mylar.
However, my series currently in progress, “The Naked Bike,” is about the stripping away of masks and charades. A Naked Bike is a motorcycle stripped to its essentials, no side panels, windscreens, no extras. Shedding the veneer to reveal the real and essential bike, removing a socially-acquired shell to reveal the actual woman - this is feminism in its most raw sense.
MICHAEL: Do your photographs and paintings serve or fill different creative needs for you? They do have similar vibes yet they're different genres obviously.
GRACE: I love the physical act of painting, the absolute messy sexiness of it- particularly with the oil medium. (I love) being in front of a big, white expanse, the smell, the rigidity of the traditional supports, the tools, a particular discipline of marks, making visible the merging of process and idea. That being said, I’m having a very difficult time with the idea of painting lately.
GRACE: My main subjects have always been human and what I’ve tried to say through their representation. I’ve always taken photos for reference of a performance situation or portrait I’ve set up. The resulting photographs in the past were never meant as finished works, but rather, as blueprints for my paintings.
I don’t like the “act” of photography - the camera isn’t tactile like one’s hands - it’s almost like wearing a condom on your eye. What I have been reacting to very strongly lately is the particular situations I enable - and the techniques I use to rework and enhance the idea digitally. These situations have become increasingly complex in look and intent. Photography is the most efficient method of making these ideas visible.
As the recording, and reworking digitally, of my “performative” act has become more of an end in itself, translating that image into a painting has ceased to make sense to me. The past few paintings I made almost started to feel like a zen event- the “idea” or the “what am I going to paint?” part was all figured out— just apply the medium- kind of like listening to the GPS when driving, you never really get lost. In art, that is not an ideal situation.
To answer your question: My paintings and photographs fill the same creative passion, which is to enable something that I’ve set the stage for, but haven’t expected and create a tactile visual event from that particular inspiration. It’s my ideas that increasingly determine the choice of medium and creates my need, not the other way around.
MICHAEL: Are you now the person you imagined yourself to be when you were a little girl? Are you now doing what you dreamed of doing?
GRACE: When I was a little girl, I never thought about being grown up, beyond hoping I'd live in a castle. When I got out of art school, I wanted to be an artist, and am still an artist, and am loving being an artist. I am less than thrilled however, with the serious lack of financing and my inability to generate more dollars.
MICHAEL: That's very regrettable given your great talent. Yet it does lead me to ask - what do you think about the art world/art market today and how they function?
GRACE: I have very mixed feelings about the market system. The art market works for me when I have someone selling my work. When I am not affiliated with a salesperson, I attempt to sell my stuff for rent. As sales are not part of my particular skill set, that doesn’t work so well.
The art market is cool when it works for artists. If an artist has business skills, a team of salespeople, press, promotion and someone handling minutiae - hey, it’s great to make money from what you make. It doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with art though, except as a product, like say, shoes. It’s particularly so when the art has been sold and then resold - an artist should get a percentage of that resale. Unfortunately, most artists don’t have the team or business skill set.
MICHAEL: That’s for sure.
GRACE: I also wish that more folks who contribute a good part of their disposable income to the fashion and beauty worlds would feel that buying a piece of art would make them feel as good about themselves as the latest Birken Bag or facial filler does.
The art world now … EDUCATION, education, education!!!! We all should have the skill set that comes with an open and vibrant art appreciation course. To come upon something foreign to your way of thinking and not reject it outright because your mind has a newly-acquired ability to look beyond what you’ve known and really consider that thing! What a beautiful and world shifting skill!
I was the guest speaker via a conferencing app, to the Arts Appreciation class a fellow artist teaches at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas. I asked the students what they were majoring in. One young woman said social work and she wanted to work specifically with refugees in Europe. Another responded neuroscience, etc.
MICHAEL: And this was an art appreciation class?
GRACE: I asked about what period of art they liked and they all hit a wall - couldn’t comprehend, didn’t consider “art” and even if they were able to eventually consider something as art. Then we discussed the ability to perceive differences and keep an open mind with anything they do in life - just like what’s happening with the art they’ve had issues with in their course. This course is being discontinued next year.
MICHAEL: Wow. Let me ask you this. How do you explain society's devaluing of art and arts education yet at the same time - the fact that many art museums are seeing record attendance? What's going on?
GRACE: Optimistically, most people have an unexpressed yearning for something, a need that isn’t being fulfilled in everyday life and they seek this out through the challenge and contemplation of art. Pessimistically, most of that record attendance is for the blockbuster super-promoted shows, that come from the blessing of the American Gods of Celebrity and Money/Power. All us non-percenters get to bask in that rarified glow.
MICHAEL: Haha! Yup.
GRACE: Honestly, it’s probably a combination of the two. Whatever keeps folks supporting art in any case, is a beautiful and necessary thing!
MICHAEL: Finally Grace, if your work could talk what would it say? And what's the point of art anyway? Why should people care about it? What purpose is art serving?
GRACE: My work does speak, and quite loudly. It’s up to the individual viewer to spend some time with the work and take in what it’s saying to them specifically.
Art is pointless in the same way that our humanity, our soul is pointless. It’s an outpouring, an echo, a mirror that reflects and considers our every aspect - our beauty, banality, evil, love, the soaring of spirit to the utter depravity of an unconscionable act. The main character in Jincey Willett’s book, ‘Amy Fall Down’, states “Feelings are not news, but they are the rightful province of art.”
So yeah, what’s the point and purpose of art? Why should we all care? Why do we exist, why are we human—what is, and where is our humanity?
MICHAEL: Thanks for the lovely chat, Grace. Love your work.
GRACE: And thank you Michael for this whole experience!
Check out Grace Roselli at www.graceroselli.com.