|Leah Oates: What is your background and when did you know you would be an artist?
Rebecca Morgan: I am from a conservative farm town in Western Central Pennsylvania, in the Allegheny/Appalachian Mountains. I grew up with a very limited scope and basically non-existent understanding of art and its precedents, even though I drew still lifes with my grandfather and took Saturday art lessons. I was always making or drawing something, using it as an outlet to cope with banality.
“I relentlessly comb the Internet for soft core self-portrait surrogates, looking for wunderkammer artifacts and taking photographs back home and accumulating source material to build images around.”
Rebecca Morgan, Hunter or Hipster, 2011. Graphite and oil on panel, 24 x 30 in. Courtesy of the artist.
In Conversation: Leah Oates Interviews Rebecca Morgan
Leah Oates: What is your background and when did you know you would be an artist?
Rebecca Morgan: I am from a conservative farm town in Western Central Pennsylvania, in the Allegheny/Appalachian Mountains. I grew up with a very limited scope and basically non-existent understanding of art and its precedents, even though I drew still lifes with my grandfather and took Saturday art lessons. I was always making or drawing something, using it as an outlet to cope with banality. Claiming any kind of creative profession was never a conversation; the lack of knowledge or exposure, in retrospect, was crippling, and in many ways, I displace the blame on the backwoods environment I lived in. It never occurred to me that people who drew the panels in my dad’s MAD magazine stash (which I poured over and exalted) were doing it for a living; it was just not something people “did.” I went to college to be a secondary English educator, as most individuals (especially women) went to school to be teachers or nurses. It wasn’t until college that I started taking art classes and my mentor, Jason Godeke, encouraged me it was something I could pursue as a profession and lifestyle. I was introduced to Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin’s work and there was no turning back; things spewed out of me in what became a stereotypical trajectory of revolt against my backwoods environment. I knew all along I wanted to contribute to a creative life and the art world at large, subliminally, but it wasn’t until I was exposed and inspired by the “real shit” that I knew I would be. I became very serious about making work and figuring it all out.
LO: Please explain the themes in your artwork and your working process.
RM: I make work about my love-and-hate relationship with the conservative farm town I grew up in; my paintings, drawings and cartoons reflect both a constant critique and a defense of rural living. I’m interested in the comfort, the familiar, and also the repulsion that comes with the territory of home. The most prominent themes in my work are those of the wilderness, redneck stereotype, continuous self portraiture/examination, and the idea of the tourist. I utilize the thicket of the woods as the place for this introspection, as it is traditionally conveyed as a place outside of social rules and standards. The woods suggest a coarse and hedonistic culture: it is the scene of bonfires, hunting, sex, drunken revelry, camaraderie, fights, and perversion. In rural western Pennsylvania, hunting camps are usually the setting for these scenes. I seek to express the wilderness as a place of refuge—a rebellion against privilege and high society. It is a return to primitive and savage inclinations and a site that civilized people have long attempted to repress. I both refute and concur with the stereotypes of “country bumpkin” and “redneck,” as characterized by an idle, vacant and indulgent persona. I am interested in the stereotypes of the backwoods hillbilly’s sexual deviance and sloth; the women I portray embody a Dionysian, fantastical, farmer’s-daughter archetype, sowing their wild oats, often found carelessly frolicking nude in flowered fields. The images exist in a limbo circling between Hallmark greeting card, Daisy Duke, Mad Magazine, Deliverance, and Penthouse Pet. Formally, I make large, traditionally cross-hatched drawings, graphic cartoons, and then work that is a mixture of the two. I work congruently in a more naturalistic representation but always a figurative representation. All of my work, in one way or another, is a self-portrait, usually set in a theatrical Appalachia. I look to my pastoral origins, as I navigate my reverence and aversion to the place that has rejected yet charmed me. I relentlessly comb the Internet for soft core self portrait surrogates, looking for wunderkammer artifacts and taking photographs back home and accumulating source material to build images around. I include props from my upbringing, such as canning jars and blue ribbons from the fair as stand-ins for competition and championship, farm animals and hunting dogs, the downed dead buck, and the list goes on. I operate in modes of frustration, cynicism and reclamation. One is caught in the intermediary zone of attraction and repulsion. My world resides somewhere between comfort and conflict; it provides the familiar sanctuary of a simplistic rural home, but one confounded by urban desires.
LO: Your images deal self-image and what images are projected onto you as a woman who is from a working class environment. I also think they are external representations of how you may be feeling. Please elaborate.
RM: When I was in undergraduate, I was primarily making art with themes conjured from the projections I made about luxury goods and privileged, elite urban lifestyle from reading fashion and lifestyle magazines. I naively thought that’s what city living entailed. I never believed I would ever even make it to the city. It wasn’t until I came here that I realized how I wanted nothing to do with any of that and I started to look back to the rural, and what in many ways was a more honest, straightforward life, even though it held no place for my profession, philosophies, or pursuits of “high culture.” I exist in both worlds daily; I want and need both, yet they exist in extremes. Out of this displacement and constantly existing in a cerebral froth, naturally comes my emotional and physical daily discomfort. As a subject, I am an easy caricature of myself: as a doughy, but confidently aggressive female, I exhaust myself and refute my philosophies the second I prognosticate them. I wear my make up heavy and distinct and am exhaustively honest. I can be a lot to deal with. Most of the cartooning comes from my daily experiences of uncomfortable city living, drawing myself or surrogates as the slack-jawed “bumpkin as tourist” and cataloguing my routine loathsome, jaded views of the urban and rural and sincerity (or lack thereof). The frustration comes from the inconveniences and sacrifices we all make to “live the dream” in New York City and what I give up in the country to forge my life here. I think of debauchery and bonfires in the woods and Bushwick hipster art parties congruently. Maybe they are the same. What else is there to do but to make work about what a cluster fuck I am and everything else is?
Rebecca Morgan, I Love New York, 2011. Graphite and oil on panel, 24 x 30 in. Courtesy of the artist.
LO: You’re a very prolific artist and keep sketchbooks, etc. How does drawing and painting overlap for you?
RM: Formally, line quality is most innately pleasing to me and is the inception of how I approach making things. I exclusively utilize cross- hatching; I like how the pieces work together to make a whole and how volume or space is constructed with individual lines. Drawing is my primary practice; it is immediate, controlled and I know how to manipulate it exactly to get what I want. I think painting is a lifelong understanding; for me it is surprising, wild, and uncontrolled. I have developed my paintings so they are still, fully fleshed out drawings primarily at their core. Varying layers of oil paint glaze, or light washes of gouache preserve the inherent qualities of the hatched drawing below. I am also somewhat of a nervous maker of things, chromophobic and tentative in most ways, so to have the drawing as an under-painting and building up color and tone slowly helps the process exponentially.
LO: Who are your favorite artists and why?
RM: The Northern Renaissance and Flemish genre paintings of tavern heroes and low life scenes, the likes of Frans Hals, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Adrien Brouwer are exceptionally important to me through familiar pastoral depictions of peasants in scenes of degeneracy and drunkenness. The genre paintings celebrated aspects of everyday life, commemorating the bourgeoisie and honoring the low. To me, these agrarian peasant scenes rejected depictions of wealthy patrons and “important” subjects and revered reality, perversion, and debauchery. I am inspired by and relate to these scenes as they offer a familiar sense of rural grit, callous rejection of ungrounded, “soft handed” privilege. Formally and especially compositionally, I look to Goya, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Wyeth. They all embody a sense of movement, timelessness, weirdness, or reverence that I hope to encapsulate in my own work. Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin were deeply impactful, as I was understanding what contemporary art was in the early days. My introduction to Yuskavage in undergrad invariably influenced my work as she showed me it was acceptable to make controversial work in an intelligent context. John Currin has always embodied that old master painterly form that bounces back and forth between cruel and tender. I know what he’s up to and I feel like I’m in on it; sometimes it’s like the feeling of looking at nudie magazines on the playground. They are both blockbuster painters. Cartoon imagery has been profoundly influential as it was the first artwork I ever encountered, most notably MAD Magazine of the 70’s with Harvey Kurtzman and Al Jaffee at the helm. I loved how they could present brutal satirical truth in content in a playful, sick or elegant way. I really studied how the cartoonists made the images themselves. But the be-all end-all is Robert Crumb. He is unequivocal in self-loathing perverted personal imagery, expunging carnal indulgence and detailing his high, highs and low, lows in a lurid intimate account. Imagery coupled with formal execution—he is an incredible draftsman and makes great decisions. He might be the high priest in the pantheon for me.
LO: What advice would you give other artist who have arrived in NYC and want to break into the art world?
RM: Be proactive in making things happen for yourself. Sometimes things happen from just being present. When I couldn’t get a job, I interned at multiple galleries and I saw how the art world operated first-hand. It can be ugly to see the underbelly of it all, and often disheartening as an artist, but I think it’s necessary, as this “profession” is black, white, gray, and a mind-fuck congruently. It helps determine what you want and don’t want to be involved in. It is useful to find some sense of community, involvement, or personal belonging one way or the other. For me, Graduate School truly laid the framework for living here and what followed. The innate interconnectedness of peers and mentors and just having other individuals around to help and inform, to give you a heads up, bitch to, bitch about, or get a beer is vital. It’s very difficult to make work in a vacuum, but finding a balance of getting shit done, being social, and being a lone wolf is important. I would also advise that there is not one way to navigate all of this; one way is not better than another; we’re all running different races. Be knowledgeable, contemporary, and current about the art world at large without being obnoxious. It’s all really hard, and fun, and really fucked up. You shouldn’t give a fuck about anything, but you should also give a fuck about everything.