Whether artist Marci Washington’s paintings feature eerily deserted landscapes, inanimate objects or ghostly figures, her narratives provoke poignant reactions with its viewers. As illustrations for implied tales of terror not yet written, the detailed paintings follow a cast of characters as they inhabit a luxurious yet ghastly world of night. Hi-Fructose recently interviewed Marci as she prepares for a new show ‘For Forever I’ll Be Here’ that opens on April 30th at Rena Bransten Gallery.
There is a regal elegance and luxury in your work; your characters wear fashionable clothes and jewels & yet there is a sense of subtle decay as well. Can you discuss this intriguing contradiction?
There is a point where luxury becomes decadence and a kind of soul-sickness becomes apparent. I’m setting up a situation with an abundance of material comfort so that I can talk about what is missing, or what it stands in place of.
There seem to be several states of “being” that your characters exist in. Can you talk about these choices?
There is really only the ghosts and the people. I like how the people slip between alive/dead/living dead really easily- like they inhabit this state of being that is always this kind of living death. Even the severed heads are still very much alive and aware but held at this remove from action- this kind of dissociation that all of the characters express- like the truth is unbearable and unfaceable and they live in this kind of stasis where action is beyond them, and all that is left is this endless unnameable yearning and wanting and regret. The severed heads and limbs were a way of making this inability to act/bottomless need more explicit. The ghosts are the embodiment of what cannot be thought or said or pictured- rendered in shadow and barely holding form- a visual picturing of what is repressed or unsaid.
Most of your work features a limited and dark color palette, except for the inclusion of red, which is mostly used to depict blood. Can you describe the importance of blood in your work?
Power and violence are really important in my work, but almost never directly depicted. I like the idea of each scene I paint being right before or after those kinds of exchanges, so the blood has been a way to introduce violence without directly picturing it.
I’ve read that the Victorian novel Jane Eyre plays an important role of inspiration to your work. Can you discuss how you feel about how literature can inspire art and vice versa and why this book in particular has become a patron saint of sorts to your work?
The gothic novel does a really amazing job of being both social commentary and entertainment- it sucks you in with romance and mystery and then, when it has you firmly in its grip, does a remarkable job of conveying meaning and commenting on current social conditions. I took this way of working as a model for my own work- to suck you in and then show you another way of seeing the world- an alternative story to the dominant social narrative. It’s interesting to me how this idea has evolved through literature and into film- horror films operate the same way. Both literature and film are these safe places of fiction where you are free to comment/work out things that cannot be said in other places- a dream space where through allegory and allusion you can cut pretty close to the bone before anyone has even seen the knife. Jane Eyre is an amazing book for way too many reasons to list- I never get tired of reading it.
The Victorian era has been filtering into popular culture via art and literature, especially it’s reverence of odd objects such as taxidermy and the supernatural. Can you comment on why you think we’ve suddenly become obsessed with this time period and it’s relation to your work?
The Victorian era was incredibly repressed and I think that it pops up again and again as a way of talking about social repression without talking about current social issues directly. My past work dealt more with the Edwardian era- a transitional point where this repression was loosening up a little and new heights of decadence and imperialism were reached before the horrors of World War I put an end to the party. The supernatural has always been used to embody forces that cannot be clearly defined or spoken of- forces or feelings that have been hidden or repressed but return in hyperbolic form as ghosts, monsters, etc. In times of extreme social repression (like the Victorian era) the supernatural becomes an important outlet for feelings that cannot otherwise be expressed.
The wallpaper in your work seems to be a character in it of itself. Can you discuss the importance it plays in setting the scene for your subjects?
The wallpaper is an Acanthus print- Acanthus was popular in royal gardens, but also is a pretty invasive weed that I read was found in the “badlands”- I love that contradiction. The wallpaper is a repressed and ordered depiction of the natural world made into ornament, but behind the orderly rows of plants flows the same uncontrolled black watercolor that the ghosts are made of. The wallpaper has grown to overtake every room in the house and through the wallpaper travel ghosts made of shadows, and through the rug pattern travel ghosts made of blood. It’s all painted by hand so it took a million years and messed up my hand pretty bad. Right now I’m jumping forward in my timeline a bit so I’m not doing the wallpaper anymore- but it’s turned into marble and lace so it seems I really can’t get too far away from super intricate things that take forever.
Can you talk about your process? Do you work on many pieces at once or one at a time?
I work on a lot of drawings at once (usually in bed or in a nest of blankets and pillows on the floor surrounded by snacks) and then when I start painting I just focus on one. Each painting is it’s own evil little puzzle that I have to really get inside of to figure out- it takes over my head until I solve its riddle and finish it.
How does your working environment affect your work? What is a normal workday for you like?
I wake up around ten and have coffee while I try to blast through email and computer work so I can head out to the studio in my backyard that I share with my boyfriend. I’ll get started around one and if it’s an okay day I’ll work until 8 or 9 or 10 and then get frustrated and decide to stop and go watch a movie or some TV to pull me out of my head. If it’s a great day I’ll work until 1 or 2 in the morning listening to music and feeling like an all-powerful sorceress of dark magic. I used to have a super huge studio with giant windows in the city, but it made me feel like a factory worker and kinda bummed me out. My new place is small and comfy and way more convenient- the work has gotten smaller and I think a little more personal and easy here- I sensor myself way less and just paint whatever I want without thinking too much about it. No one sees it unless they are invited and it really feels like my own place to do whatever I want in. And my garden is right outside, which helps with the idea of it being a place where things grow and develop organically instead of a place where they have to be beaten into shape.
You have created a couple of zines to accompany your work and there are also some written texts in your paintings. Can you discuss the relationship your work has with writing?
Well I grew up reading and always though I’d be a writer. I didn’t start painting until high school and it came as a surprise when I realized how much I loved it and how much of a visual thinker I was. I left writing behind, but still love words and language and the way they can deepen the mystery or meaning of an image. The specifically text orientated pieces (like ‘The Letter’ or ‘On the Door’) only happen once in a while, but I love love love doing them. They are major clues in the story, little windows into the characters thoughts and feelings, as well as love letters from me to the written word. The zines are the paintings and titles all knit together to form a loose open narrative- a place where the paintings and words can all live together.
Where do you imagine to be the ideal place for your work to live?
I saw an El Greco show in Rome a long time ago where the entire gallery was dark and the paintings were lit from below. The gallery felt like a labyrinth of little rooms and the paintings were these glowing beacons of beauty that drew you through the dark. I think that’s my ideal show. I would love to show all of the work from one series together, but the paintings take a long time and get sold and ship all over so it’s pretty impossible (the Dark Mirror work spanned almost 5 years). That’s why I make the zines- as a place for the paintings to live together FOREVER.
What would you consider to be the heart of your work?
Social commentary cloaked in supernatural romance and mystery. Illustrations from a novel that hasn’t been written, film stills from a movie that hasn’t been made. At the end of the day I hope that my work says something about what it is to live in our time and place- historically and psychologically. I want to be a psychological historian of the heart- studying our attempts and failures to make the make the world a better place.
Images courtesy of Rena Bransten.