I sat down with Melissa Wilkinson in her West Memphis studio behind her home to discuss her work as a whole and the two series that was to be exhibited in the fall. One exhibition was to be seen shortly at Christian Brothers University and the other show was to be held later at Rhodes College. Although I was unaware of these upcoming exhibitions when I asked to interview her, the timing was incredible. I met her early on when she arrived at Arkansas State University nine years ago and have followed her work since. When I was preparing for the interview, I watched her TEDx talk and was once again reminded of what an intelligent and lively person she is. It was a delightful conversation that far exceeded the available space for the interview, packed with good information that was revealing and somewhat vulnerable.
Beth Edwards: Begin by discussing the imagery in one body of your work, the “UnNatural Histories” series.
Melissa Wilkinson: These pull from vacuous subject matter, such as the glisten or shine of lip stick – superficial images that I arrange as 21st century eye candy. They are seductive in a way that is like the way we search the Internet. For instance, I pin a lot on Pinterest — not the traditional hair, looks, cakes, etc., but works of art. As I do that, something changes about viewing the art. It’s very quick, it’s very slick, and ultimately, it’s very hollow. So, I started to pin all these things and use them as an amalgamation or backdrop for something like natural history prints.
These prints by Audubon and others seem to be about responsible subject material: the pure observation of the natural world and the wonder it evokes. But we know, in the 21st century, that our relationship with the natural world is anything but responsible. The natural world exists only in relationship to our appetites, our desires, our consumption.
This body of work asks the question, “If a curio existed today, what would it look like?” It would be full of hollow images, it would be full of fashion photography, it would be full of make-up, seductive women and fruits and gilded things and ribbons. It would essentially be a sensual exploration but one that wasn’t about action.
Every single body of work I create is about duality. The images might be really seductive but they might repulse you. Like this series of mouths in conch shells. Initially they are just based on a formal interest in saying a conch shell looks a lot like the coloration of a Caucasian mouth. It’s intrinsically very sexual, very vaginal, all these things look like parts of the body. What happens if you open them up literally and figuratively. They become images we want to look at but also images we want to covet.
Could you talk about how you paint one part of these differently from the other?
I don’t paint from direct observation. They are quasi-photographic, but they are not photorealistic. They are of the natural world but they are not done in situ. They are done from prints. It is mediation upon mediation upon mediation. At the core, that’s what I’m fascinated with: what happens when we further distance ourselves from these actual experiences? What is lost? And in doing this, I come to the conclusion that at the core, our soul is lost as we further separate ourselves from reality.
But, because I also love paint and moving paint around, the thing that excites me is just how I can paint a thing. There’s a duality of the binary existence between flat and the three-dimensional, the expressionistic versus the photographic. I paint something because I want to paint it, see it, consider it, meditate on its surface and distinctness. I think about its origin and how we process it in culture.
What comes first for you? Do you pick things that you want to paint and then work the idea toward that end, or do you let the idea govern what you need to paint?
It is an interest in an idea initially, but most of the work I do is related in some way to art history. I don’t think I will ever move away from art history, even if it comes with the frustration of people dismissing the work as ‘too academic.’ I know what is attractive to me, so initially the series is always based on a concept — and then I will create based on that.
Could you talk about how you have become a watercolorist after starting out as an oil painter?
I have been doing watercolor for twenty years, but not exclusively. In the last five years, I came out to myself as a watercolorist. I am good at watercolor, and I enjoy it as a challenge to defy everything that it has come up against. As a genteel practice for women in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, it was how you were trained to be husband material. It was always diminutive. I delight in taking the practice to another level.
Do you think you picked watercolor because it is a challenge? Watercolor is considered an unforgiving medium.
Partially. I use watercolor because I am trying to allow for this luminescence unique to the medium. I don’t want my work to rely on the novelty of it just being about watercolor. I want to do something new with watercolor, to bring breath into a medium.
Watercolor offers so much. I love the cleanliness of the space, the light of the paper, the concentration in the brushwork. I feel psychologically that it is the only place where I can actually impose order in my life. When I go to the studio, I want to be slow, methodical, an introvert, and quiet.
Can you discuss your new series tentatively titled, Ladies from the Eighties?
I toyed with eroticism previously, but I never felt like I was adequately exploring or expressing it. It became more pressing as I was coming out. I did the women with the roller skates two or three years ago. As I’ve come back to those images, I realized I do need to deal with this in the work. I want to explore the notion of the female gaze. So, I started to look back at these heroines of my youth, these archetypes, and glitch them using repetition so that they sort of become monsters. I am literally queering the image.
Some look like octopi. These seductive centerfolds become a gnarl or a mess of limbs. The idea is to play with tropes of women’s agency – their power coming from their eroticization. How do we as women painters navigate sexuality? Should we stay away from the figure entirely? Feminists in the seventies in art said either you speak in the language of the art that came before you and you do the things that your male counterparts are doing in order to criticize it or you invent a new language. And like I said, I am a little old school, and I speak in the language that I am from, and that language is to make objects. I am making objects of objecthood and objectifying women. It is a weird trap that I want to really play with and embrace and reject.
I think that subtlety is really stripped when it becomes consumed in pop culture. They become archetypes. They become caricatures. I am figuring out all sorts of things with being in a long-term relationship with a woman that yields complexity in how the work comes out. Women with agency and power are sexy. But what does that actually mean?
Your prep work is done digitally which raises the question: why not keep them digital? Why is it important that they are paintings?
The reason why I have been so old fashioned in that for so long is I want to make things that you covet, objects with evidence of the hand. I want to reward someone who is interested in taking the time and really consuming the work. That’s what I want to land on. I can see that mark and that mark is like a caress. Time is reflected oddly in the making of an object. It is just mud on a piece of paper. It’s magic.
Has being in the South had an effect on your work?
I have gotten much more conservative in my work.
It has made me grow up and broaden my viewer base. It has forced me to be more considerate of a bigger umbrella of people that I am not going to turn away. I am doing images that you wouldn’t know were done by a gay woman. I want to speak deeply and investigate these thoughts. It’s changed my work but only in a way that I think that it has evolved it and made me a little more adult and measured about my consideration and more respectful of my audience. Weirdly I am going to get tore up for that because it looks like selling out. That I am inhibited in some way.
The work doesn’t look inhibited.
I don’t know if that is just growing up or living in the South. I think we all get a little quieter when we get older.
Beth Edwards is a painter and professor at the University of Memphis. Melissa Wilkinson is a painter and Assistant Professor of Art/Painting at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.