“Why paint?” The question stared back at me in the slightly sweaty spotlight of the defense of my proposed master's project. The crowd stared at the question. And at me.
“Huh?” I asked. I wasn't sure I had heard him right. I bought myself a half second of time. I needed something at least somewhat plausible to answer back. “What do you mean?”
This question followed up his earlier one. Why did I use art as my voice in the first place? Why was I not a social activist? And why, in this having a message, saying something so strongly with my art, did I choose to use such a traditional, somewhat old-fashioned approach like oil painting?
I stumbled through my answers. Painting is my way of expression. I love the feel of the brush in my hand. I have something to say to the anger I feel inside and images are a powerful way to fight images. Somewhat convincing answers, I thought, given the circumstances.
But really, why did I paint? Why make images and silkscreen prints and twisted photographs?
Why do this at all? Why not join Females United For Action or National Organization for Women or any number of other feminist organizations battling injustice and exploitation on a more bureaucratic scale? Why did I persist in hammering away at something so political as the exploitation of women in advertising with a skinny, worn, orange paintbrush? Why indeed? My professor's questions nudged me with their elbows long after I left the stage.
This body of writing and my corresponding website of artwork works the issues I deal with on two levels. During the past year, I have read articles and books and reviewed countless advertisements and websites. My research on topics like advertising, prostitution, "real" and "constructed" image have translated into essays and new artwork.
We all know the old adage an image is worth a thousand words. And in today's world, we are surrounded by images. Most of the time, we don't consciously consider each image. We see one picture. We see another. Our visual vocabulary is jammed with advertisements shoved in our faces as we ride the train, grocery shop or watch TV. These images are all created through a particular filter, and all of them portray some kind of value. But what about the "reality" of an older woman's face on a painted cereal box selling only her own story and a lace of wrinkles, or a sexy woman melted into the cheese on a pizza? Can ad-like images work to sell different ideas, to question the norms that we easily see?
I make pictures to respond to the pictures I see around me. These images and words mirror my own ideals, yes, but like many others with whom I speak, I often butt up against these ideals.
For many years, I have struggled with and against my body. I have dieted, exercised too much, vomited, purged, overeaten, fantasized about plastic surgery, painted my face and hated my blemishes. I wore clothes tight and celebrated the flowing, colorful feminine. I dyed my hair blond, purple and black and pierced my ears to host dangly sparkles. Oftentimes, I wish I didn't care so much. Sometimes I forget. I try to focus on just being healthy. I try not to scrutinize every mirrored glass for a possible problem.
And in spite of all my artwork, writing and thinking on these issues, I am still drawn to beauty images. I still struggle with negative messages about how I physically don't 'measure up'. I want to buy more and new. I want to shape my body and erase discovered wrinkles. I love drawing attention with my appearance. And I want to wish the whole game away. I write and rage and keep playing. A flotsam in the new wave of "bimbo feminists". A feminist friend recently told me that "women don't always follow what the fashion gurus think they should." I agree to some extent. As we learn our histories, women are well aware of modern freedoms in the West. We are not robots and we are not the chattel of men. We are educated to be on a theoretically equal playing field with men. Yet, as Ariel Levy so persuasively argues in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, our freedoms have merged for many into a lack of boundaries. We push and are pushed to strut our stuff, whether that means flashing cameramen on Girls Gone Wild or frequenting strip clubs with the boys. In Levy's words, "nobody wants to be the frump at the back of the room." One feminist professor at a leading Ivy League school flaunted breast implants to prove that she was not tied down to a certain legalistic and archaic definition of feminism.
On a personal level, this body of writing and artwork is a processing of my surroundings. Because of what I see as a problem, I read, write and make images. More than just private musings though, I also hope to invite conversations. To hear the stories of women. To give space for venting, musings and new ideas...