Juxtapoz Magazine- April 2010
Interview with Kristin Farr
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Marci Washington is as sweet as a peach, but her fascinations are of the dreadful and rotten nature. She paints portraits of a tragic family roaming aimlessly in wintry landscapes. They eat people, but it isn't their fault. They are victims of their own history. On the surface, her paintings could be described as the spectral brainchild of a Romantic Landscape painter, a 19th century Gothic poet, and Coco Chanel. But the personal narrative underlying her imagery runs deeper than her characters' wounded visages.
Your Dark Mirror zine gave me a really spooky feeling! Do you believe in ghosts?
It's a little embarrassing but Iím still afraid of the dark. When I was a kid we lived in a lot of different apartments, and I know for sure one was definitely haunted. I would get really freaked out and always had this feeling that something was coming, but I didn't know what. I'd get really panicky and have to be around someone else - if I was alone, it was a bad scene. It went on for a long time where I had a ton of anxiety and it was hard to sleep. Then, finally, one day I got really sick of being afraid. I was in third or fourth grade and I was home alone, and in typical little kid fashion I yelled, "I'm sick of being scared! If there are any ghosts, show yourself now!" And then my alarm clock went off. "BEEP! BEEP!" I was screaming and ran out of the house and sat in the front yard until my mom came home. I've had lots of weird experiences. I'm terrified of ghosts.
Are you more sensitive to the supernatural than most people?
I've had experiences working on the ghost paintings by myself in the middle of the night where I've just had to stop working on it. Conjuring is a sustained concentration in order to call something forth. So that's what painting is, right? It's creepy when you're painting something as an entity, and you feel it take possession of itself, or you feel like something's really there. Like that one painting of the ghost, the woman in the white gown - I didn't plan to have a face on it. I laid down the paint, and it was all wet, and it got to the point where I had to stop touching it, or I'd fuck it up. So I went to get coffee while it dried. I came back and, where it had dried, there was an eye! That was the first ghost I painted. When you see the painting, it has a very confrontational gaze, which is not like my work at all. That gaze appeared out of it.
Has it happened with other paintings?
Well, you get that feeling where you've touched upon something that isn't just you.
Have you made peace with the ghosts?
I felt like I was giving voice to something that needed to be given a voice. Making contact with whatever that was, in that moment, was actually really thrilling. It's hard to be afraid of a ghost if you think you're on their side.
At first I didn't know why I was painting the ghosts. People would ask about this whole missing group of people, the ones that the people in my paintings, the cannibals, are surviving upon. So that's why I painted servants at first. But that's so obvious, so class conflict, it's the obvious Marxist answer to the subtext of it. So I never showed the servant paintings because I was so uncomfortable with it; it was so didactic. When I started painting the ghosts, it felt way more real to be letting these specters appear. It was also a way to slip through different veils of points in history. Like the skeleton ghost, that image directly references the Indian famine during the British occupation of India, but it also reads like a holocaust victim, or it reads as a reference to slavery. There are so many veils. If I can cast a larger net and make it more open, then viewing it becomes more of an emotional experience of your own confronting something. I haven't sold a single one of those ghost paintings - nobody wants them. They're fucking creepy - nobody touches them. Which is kind of great because then you know they're doing their job.
It seems like someone who's really into ghosts would want one of those paintings.
Seeing it in a public space is so much different than inviting it into your home, inviting it in to live with you. Being alone with it in the dark.
Your art illustrates a seriously dark narrative, which seems to counter your sweet and friendly personality. Can you explain that?
I get that all the time. I went through a time in my life where I had problems with depression, and a lot of how I found my way through that was drawing. So now I have an outlet for all of that despair and dark feeling. That's where it goes, and I don't think about it in other parts of my life. It's totally freed me up. It just lives there, and I'm a way happier person.
Did you draw a lot when you were a kid?
No, I wanted to be a writer. I was a total bookworm. I didn't draw at all until high school. We moved a lot, so it was hard to make friends. Childhood really sucks, and I just hid out in books. I was always reading, and I always wrote short stories. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a writer, all the way up until high school. When I was thirteen, my mom was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, and I had to go live with my dad. There was all of this horrible stuff that happened in a really short time period. And the way that I knew how to write was so cut and dry, it just felt like there wasn't enough room to make it messy. I wanted to be able to tell something in a way that was as incomprehensible to the viewer as it was to me, so that's when I started painting and drawing. I wanted to be able to tell a story without having to pin the story down - to have something that is meaningful to me in one way, but that a viewer can connect to in a totally other way. I could work through a lot of the feelings of that time without having to define them or share them.
Tell me more about your characters - who are they?
I think of them all being brother and sister in a weird way. It's definitely a family without a patriarch, or without the older people. There's The Mistress, The Cannibal, The Girl, The Boy, and The Madwoman (the blonde one who's always drowning or being lost in the woods). I imagine them in this house, on their own, abandoned by the servants, in this weird situation where they must confront the ghosts who are there from what happened in the generation that came before them. They don't know the whole story of the ghosts, or what's gone on in that house. They're only piecing it together. They have to confront what's happened before, which aren't their crimes, but the lifestyle they've inherited. Like if cannibalism was this inherited affliction. And the ghosts are the people who've been eaten or wronged in the past.
So most of your characters are alive?
Totally. But I definitely think of it as this weird, undead state. The severed arms represent a loss of potential - their own potential is stilted and killed because of the circumstances of their situation. They don't have control of their own destinies, so the severed arms are like their own arms, but also the arms of the people they eat to survive. There are no winners in the situation. They are living in this half dead state - doing what they have to do, or the only thing they know how to do, which only creates more ghosts.
You've said the cannibalism in your paintings is an analogy for capitalism. Can you talk more about that?
Capitalism has evolved into an expression of the worst in people, it's encouraged greed and selfishness. It is cannibalism, right? You feed on those less fortunate. I have a lot of problems with the idea of America as a place where anybody can succeed. To a limited extent that's true, but more and more, it's harder for someone at the bottom to ever not be there, because the bottom is a large segment of society that's necessary for capitalism to function. And when you see it becoming harder and harder, and the gap between the rich and the poor getting wider and wider, it all goes back to the loss of potential - loss of potential for everyone. When everything is reduced to productivity, it shuts down a lot of possibility.
I know Jane Eyre is a big inspiration. What made that novel stick with you?
For that novel to even be written was amazing, but the fact that it was written by a woman at that time was jaw-droppingly radical. It was completely radical. Social commentary wrapped in shrouds of romanticism, mystery and the supernatural. A lot of the supernatural occurrences in that book are these intense feelings that have no outlet, so they find other form. The whole history of women writing gothic novels is this idea of the repression of what you can't talk about, or what you can't even acknowledge - the limits of what you're allowed to express. Like the idea of dreams being a way for what you repress from your conscious mind to have an outlet. The gothic novel is like a social dream. It's a way for these feelings that are socially unacceptable to find an outlet in a new form that is socially acceptable. You canít talk about oppression, but you can write a ghost story.
Do you have any recurring dreams?
I have a dream that a tidal wave is coming and I'm on a beach. The tidal wave's coming, but I'm the only one who knows. Usually, the other characters in this dream are my two sisters and a bunch of kittens. I'm trying to tell my sisters to get off the beach, and I'm scooping up kittens, and they're all popping out of my arms. So I have all these kittens that I'm trying to rescue from this fucking tidal wave, and at the same time I'm telling my sisters to get off the beach, but they're not listening to me because they're having fun. It's horrible.
I used to have another recurring dream, it would always start off as a normal dream where I was at a party talking to people, and then something would happen where I would have to go into the basement or underground. Then everything would change, it would suddenly be the most horrific nightmare imaginable, and I'd have to fight pure evil by myself. But I don't have that dream anymore because now when people try to trick me into going underground in my dreams, I'm like "No way- I don't do that."
What does pure evil look like?
It's always really chaotic. In the dream, pure evil has no order. It has no reason; it's just total violence and total destruction without any cohesion. That's the only way I can explain it.
The wallpaper in your paintings looks a little evil. It's always been really striking to me.
The wallpaper is based on an old Edwardian pattern but I modified it so everything is sharper and pointier. I wanted to make it hungrier looking. Nobody has the same wallpaper in every room in their house, so it's like it's growing and taking over. The wallpaper is black gouache with a background of black watercolor, and the black watercolor is also what the ghosts are made of. I have this idea that the ghosts travel through the wallpaper. The really washy stuff - I think of that as ghosts taking over the house.
I was obsessed with the Acanthus plant, because it was used in ornamental royal gardens, but it's also a really invasive weed. I read this description of it once in an old plant illustration book that says it grows in the "badlands". I got super obsessed with its dual identity, and collapsing the two. And then I found that wallpaper print and realized it was an Acanthus pattern. It's a marker of badlands but also a marker of social status at the same time. It's the world's most perfect pattern.
So the wallpaper's always the same?
Yeah. It's like its own character.
You seem to use mostly fall and winter colors in your paintings. Do you ever see yourself working with a different palette?
It's weird that you say fall and winter because there's a specific seasonal feeling in the paintings. I had this idea that it was always the end of fall/beginning of winter, like it's stuck on repeat. At the end of my zine it says, "And when the sun rises, it will be because we are gone." So it's always night, it's always that season. The trees never have leaves. They're always bare, there's that kind of dead feeling. I love that time of year.
I didn't start painting blood for the longest time and it was like this big thing when the blood came, when it became apparent that was what needed to happen. It was like a fucking heart attack putting red on a painting. After the Dark Mirror show, I couldn't paint blood for a while. I only want to work with pale gold, olive green, and smoky blacks for the paintings I'm doing right now. I can't deal with red for a while. I can't even wear red right now.
Is it more about the feeling than the brightness of the color on the painting?
Yeah, I think so. But it is also the color because everything bows to the red. Once you put red in a painting, red is the master of the painting. Everything else has to bow to it, has to support it. Red is not supporting anything. It's just such a bossy color.
Do you collect anything?
I collect paperback books with covers by Edward Gorey. It's a special subset of Doubleday Anchor where they decided to republish books they thought were intellectual titles, or anthologies, or important books. They put him in charge of the art direction. He did all the type by hand, and the graphic design. They're all so sparse and sweet. His use of super limited color is totally amazing.
Where do you find them?
I found one of them at half price books for 80 cents. I've had this 19th Century German poetry book forever and I've been reading it all of a sudden. It's so good. It's like my gothic high school dream. Like this one, Winter Night - "Snow has been falling after midnight, drunk with purple wine you leave the dark district of men, the red flame of the hearth fires, oh darkness, black frost, the earth is hard, the air tastes of bitterness, your stars conjoin to evil signs." Doesn't it sound like gothic high school poetry, but better? There are so many poems in this book where I'm like, "That's my painting! I painted that!" I feel like I found a serious soul mate in an entire genre I'd never even looked at before, and all because I wanted the cover.
All the images in your zine have a line of text that seems to explain them. Did you write that?
Yeah. I think of all the paintings living together as a story. They only make sense with each other. The zine is a place where they can live together, so I always think of the title for the painting being the line from the book that would relate to the illustration. It was a way to pull together the titles and images to make a more cohesive whole, where they live together permanently and can't be separated.
So you feel like you're making a lifelong body of work instead of separate stories?
That's how I feel about it now, but as big things happen in your life, it changes the way you see things. This work might have nothing to do with the way I'll see the world in ten years. A lot of it is working through my very dark, pessimistic, or sad worldview, and part of working through that is maybe the possibility of seeing some kind of hope. If that happens, the work would completely change.
What are your favorite horror movies?
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is huge. And Eyes Without a Face. It's by this French surrealist Georges Franju and it's fucking incredible. It's about a doctor who's responsible for an auto accident where his daughter's face is ruined, so he's obsessed with finding her a new face. He and his wife start kidnapping girls and stealing their faces, trying to transplant them onto their daughter. But every time they graft on a new one, it starts to rot off, and her face underneath is just totally grotesque. It's a ruined mass of open flesh. It just keeps rotting off, and itís totally gorgeous the way it's shot.
I already loved that movie but then I read a book by a theorist named Adam Lowenstein where he wrote this whole thing about Eyes Without a Face being an expression of French national identity after the Algerian war. Like the ruined face of France, and them trying to graft a new one on, and it's just fucking rotting through over and over again. Like you can't hide what you've become.
I think of Romantic Landscape paintings when I look at your work, especially one by Caspar David Friedrich, The Monk by the Sea.
That's one of my all-time favorite paintings! It's one of the first paintings that I had a real emotional connection to, and you know where I saw it? On a book cover. I love that painting. When that painting first came out, people flipped out because it's a giant, wall-sized painting. People said, "It's a giant painting of nothing, it's completely empty!" They were used to giant history paintings, or paintings of something they could recognize, but this was a giant painting of an emotional state.
Are you more influenced by contemporary or historical paintings?
Movies, books, old and new paintings - you can't really tell what's in the soup.