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Julie Farstad, Sugar Coma (detail), oil on canvas, 48x36 in., 2001. Courtesy Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, Chicago.

Maria Tomasula, Heritor, oil on linen, 48x36 in., 1999. Courtesy the artist.

I use natural objects that are heavily manipulated and presented in a very artificial, super-unnatural way--which is basically how I feel. We're constrained in every way; there is no natural self.

--maria tomasula

Maria Tomasula, Web, oil on canvas, 18x12 in., 2002. Courtesy Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, Chicago.

Julie Farstad, All the cool girls are contortionists, oil on canvas, 11x8 in., 2002. Courtesy Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, Chicago.

We think being innocent is great, but it's actually a big danger. I always hated the myth of childhood innocence; I think it invites a scary voyeurism onto which viewers can project their fantasies. It presents such a pure screen, and what do people want to violate more than purity?

--julie farstad

Maria Tomasula, Trace (detail), oil on birch, 12x16 in., 1997. Courtesy Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, Chicago.

Life in general is so dense and complex and self-contradictory. The only way I can figure out to talk about a sense of being in the world is to not ignore each element in it, to collapse into one image a thing and its opposite.

--maria tomasula

Julie Farstad, Peekaboo, oil on canvas, 19-1/2x12 in., 2002. Courtesy Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, Chicago.

I'm interested in the ultra-girly because, as a child, it felt fake--like a caricature--and I hated it. Now I'm fascinated by how this caricature operates in culture, and I'm attracted to this subject matter partly because it used to repulse me.

--julie farstad

  I met Maria Tomasula seven years ago at the University of Notre Dame, where she joined the faculty during my junior year. I became her studio assistant, and she became my mentor, in everything from soft-brush blending techniques to how to articulate my ideas in critique. To this day, she's still the first person I call to share questions, problems, and news. I visited her on June 25, 2002, and after a day well spent playing with her daughters Alba and Ava, eating good food, and talking about irony versus sincerity, we sat down to begin this interview at about midnight.

--julie farstad

The first question I want to ask is, where did you grow up?

I grew up, lived, or just hung around in industrial cities along the shores of Lake Michigan, from Gary to Chicago. My dad came here from Mexico to work in the steel mills.

What was that like?

You know, I go through there now and it looks surreal-all those smokestacks, chemical plants, refineries, casinos. But I wasn't aware of it as a kid, not at all. It just registered as a backdrop to what I considered to be the real action--the comings and goings of the people we knew, who were mainly immigrants from Latin America. Of course, now I'm aware how those conditions shaped my Left-y views on class, economic and racial disparity, and so on. But at the time, I simply processed it as the natural--though unjust--state of affairs. How about you? What was your childhood like?

I grew up in upstate New York, in Elmira, and I hated it. Basically, it's a city with two prisons. The town just degenerated, and I saw the kids around me slide. My younger sisters always joke about high school being the four years I didn't leave my bedroom. I wasn't really interested in the people at school; I was very involved in doing this big wall collage in my room.

That's formative--you're doing these wall collages now.

You're right. I never thought about it, but yeah, it was. So when did you start to be interested in art?

I think I always liked to draw, the way most kids like to draw. And my dad worked as a photographer on the weekends--doing weddings and graduations--so I saw him developing film in the darkroom in our basement. He would print these black-and-white images on thick board, and my mother would paint them with oil paints.

Were they making art?

I don't think they ever thought of it that way, but it may have had an influence on me; who knows where this stuff comes from? I mean, we were surrounded by images. Probably the most powerful ones were the images I saw at church. We didn't go to church every day--although my grandmother would do the rosary every day--but we went to a lot of Spanish-speaking Masses, and in this one church there was so much art it was incredible! The walls were just encrusted with paintings and sculptures--it was so great. And they had this power; they spoke. I really think that's where my interest in art started, seeing those amazing images in church. Amazing, Julie! You know, people burning up in hell (laughs)--

Getting their heads chopped off!

You name it: chopped off, tormented, skinned and flayed, people with their eyes on plates. But there were also images of angels and people in ecstasy. When I see pictures like that now, I'm still affected by them, even though most of them would probably be considered kitsch, or second-rate at best. But I love all that Spanish Baroque stuff, even in its folk-art incarnations. I thought they were gorgeous, incredible pictures. Maybe it just had something to with the fact that I lived in gray steel mill towns. (laughs)

Anything in comparison looks really amazing!

Yeah, but they were. And everybody had pictures, art, in their house. Or what I thought was art. We had this picture of a peacock that my mom made out of big rhinestones, with gold and silver thread, and I looked at it quite a lot when I was growing up.

Did you have a velvet Elvis?

Absolutely not! But my grandmother did have a pastel Jesus with a lamb. She was very enamored with it. Yeah, I know--this is where the gag reflex kicks in! But my reactions to pictures like that are complicated, because I know so many people find them meaningful. That's probably why I have such trouble with irony.

It all goes back to Jesus with the lamb!

Yeah, it's funny. You grow up with that stuff, and then later you go on to university and find out it's really garbage. It's hard to reconcile, because judgments of artistic worth tend to leave out social issues like class.

Were the first things you were interested in drawing religious or spiritual?

I wouldn't say religious or spiritual necessarily, but serious, yes. Art was always serious business, because the other pictures I saw were, like, murals of Cesar Chavez or Zapata--images of "the Revolution" or just abstract stuff with the Aztec calendar buried in it somewhere. (laughs) But it all had to do with forming a conception of yourself as a presence in the cosmos, with the history of a suffering people--important things. How about you? I'm sure your early experience was pretty different.

Well, my dad did photography, too; he took photographs of us, mostly, and developed them in the basement. But my parents don't know much about art, so I wasn't raised around it--unless you count posters of angels, and of little girls standing in the water, pulling up their dresses so they don't get wet. But I do have a good church story. My parents took us to Mass when we were young, and the best thing about it was this beautiful Jesus doll at the front of the church. It looked like a princess--it had a robe and a crown--and I wanted it so badly. I would feel guilty sitting in church thinking, "I want to steal the Jesus doll!" Then one day I noticed it was gone--I thought some other kid took it--and that ruined church for me. After that, I had no reason to go.

That's interesting, because now dolls play such an important role in your work.

Actually, they were the first things I ever drew. I had a collection of Madame Alexander dolls that my mom and grandmother gave me for birthdays and Christmases, but I wasn't allowed to play with them. So I used to pose them and draw them late at night. I would get so mad because I was trying to use Cray-Pas, which are, like, the hardest things to control.

You should come to my mom's house. She has this gorgeous little porcelain statue of Christ as a small child with a crown, sitting on a miniature wooden throne, in these satin robes. It's in a glass case above my parents' bed, and it's so beautiful.

Yeah, I still love that kind of stuff. I'll try not to steal it! So where did you go to college and grad school?

For undergrad I went to University of Illinois at Chicago, and for graduate school I went to Northwestern University.

As an undergrad, just deciding to study art--and then trying to find my direction, my visual language--was pretty traumatic. It was really important for me to have you as a mentor; you taught me so much. And it was especially critical for me to see a woman who was an artist and a professor, and making it all work. Was anybody a mentor like that for you?

I was lucky to have good teachers, but the one who stands out for me, from UIC, is Susan Sensemann. She showed me that you could spend a good portion of your life at an activity you love, and also have a job and raise a family--which was significant. And she allowed for the possibility of making work that didn't necessarily fit into what was hot at the moment. It was important for me to hear her say that you could rely on your own personal history to find a way to make work. But on top of that, she's such a decent person. I still keep in touch with her.

Then you went to Northwestern. Were you able to find that same kind of connection there?

Yes, with Phillip Chen, another incredibly generous person and affecting artist. But the two schools were very different. UIC was "conceptual"--the standard joke was that you would come in painting and leave doing Minimalist installation.

As if painting isn't conceptual.

Right. But there was so much emphasis on thinking--reading and talking about art, art criticism, and theory--that the art object almost became unnecessary. It was hard for me. Not because of the rigor; I knew that art-making was an intellectual activity as well as a physical one. But so much of what I responded to in art was its physical presence, and my body's reaction to it--the involvement of my senses in the act of seeing or looking. That's another reason it was important for me to have Susan there. She, and a few others, were supportive during one of those perennial moments when the relevance of painting was being questioned. How about you? How were your undergrad and grad experiences?

Well, Notre Dame was a weird place to go to art school, although it wasn't what I first chose to study there. I had always wanted to do art, but growing up, it was the thing my brother did. I didn't want to take it away from him.

Isn't that funny? It's strange how so much of our lives and the decisions we make are based on that kind of stuff.

Yeah. So I thought I would be a philosopher instead--because that's so easy, right? (laughs) Then I took a drawing class, to fulfill my fine arts requirement, and I loved it. Soon after, when I took Doug Kinsey's painting class, it all began to make sense: he's the one who convinced me to get a BFA in painting. It took me a year and a half to make that switch from philosophy to painting--it seemed like the biggest, most terrifying decision. Especially there--there's so little support for art among the student body at Notre Dame.

Yeah, I can see that.

You know, there was actually an anthropology class that cited my roommate and me, who were both art majors, as a Notre Dame subculture! But you were talking earlier about Susan Sensemann's generosity as a teacher, and I feel you have that same quality of really spending time with students. I remember your sitting down with me and showing me a lot of technical tricks. It seemed like you upped the level of dialogue at critiques, too.

It makes me die laughing when you say I was hard on students, because I thought I was so nice!

Well, I thought the critiques at Notre Dame definitely got harder when you came in. But then grad school [at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign] was like a constant interrogation--"Are you reading this? Oh, you haven't read this yet?" I got used to it, but I stopped painting for a year and a half because I thought, "Painting is dead. Why am I making simulations of things? Why not just use the things themselves?" After three semesters, though, it was as if I couldn't help myself; I had this overwhelming desire to paint an image. About a month ago you and I had this conversation on the phone about the power of images, and why we both keep coming back to them. What's your thought? You grew up around images that were--

Extremely powerful. For me, just as powerful as words. I'm sure I could never have articulated it at the time, but I remember being struck by it repeatedly in church. The priest would be saying something like, you know--

--"Don't kill."

(laughs) Yeah, try to go out there and not kill anyone this week! Basically, we would get variations on the same theme: "try not to indulge in your senses, try not to give in to your bodily influences, try to restrain." Whereas the images were saying the exact opposite--they were just wild! They were distinctly unrestrained in every way: in what they depicted, in the bravura of the brushwork, in the amount of ornamentation on every conceivable surface. Here were people engaged in acts of atrocity, or in ecstasy, or suffering horribly, and they were painted or carved so beautifully, with all that rosy flesh ascending into heaven-everything was happening all at once. In the end, those images mutely complicated all the things I was hearing. The words and the images became two parts of a whole, two contradictory parts of a single thing. I'm still drawn to that duality--that everything contains itself and its opposite.

It's obvious that we're both involved in a vocabulary of super-realism. First of all, I'd like to say that all the painting techniques I now use, I learned from you! But I'm curious if you ever experienced any sort of resistance to your work because of your traditional approach to figuration.

Oh, sure. But for me, realism was the best way to say what I wanted to say.

Yes, I remember in critique you always talked about the concept that a technique has to be appropriate to the idea.


Another thing I think about a lot, in terms of using this super-realistic type of figuration, is that it's readable to everyone.

Exactly. And there's a certain kind of wonder in that aesthetic experience, when you look at a carefully rendered image. Contained in that moment is an intuitive understanding of time and labor--that you're seeing thought given form by a human hand. All of that is wrapped into the experience of looking, and it has an element that's slightly magical.

There's a kind of gratification, as well, when something brings you in, draws you close, and then doesn't disappoint you once you're there. I've seen people go up to your work and just be astounded. Although I remember listening to you talk about the technical refinement of your work--specifically the absence of brushstrokes--and how there was a sense of humility involved in that.


I think that's so interesting, because in my case, I like the bratty, "watch this: I can do a flip" quality of that technique, and how it works in the context of my imagery.

Well, see, you're from a different generation than I am. When I went to school, Neo-Expressionism was hot. My way of working came together as a very bad reaction to "action painting"-the heroicism, the trace...

The mark of the hand.

Yeah, all of that--it was like, oh please! It's so stereotypically male. Nothing in my experience related to that. I thought about this after I gave birth, and I was spending all my time taking care of this completely dependent creature. There was no wild moment of cosmic awareness; I was just doing what women always do--clean up after everyone over and over. I wanted to find a way of working which incorporated that: the small, the invisible, the unnoticed. It was also important that the work have the quality of rigor. I was looking for the visual equivalent to methodical thinking, something that would be the opposite of gestural abstraction. I wanted to make images that were created through an extremely precise, meticulous, and exacting method of tiny, seemingly inconsequential specks--but that nevertheless came together in a picture of high emotional temperature. So I thought, "OK. I am going to go as far away as I possibly can from that valorization of the mark by using absolutely no brushstrokes."

So how did that lead to painting flowers?

Well, one of the things I'm trying to talk about is a sense of the self. All through school I painted large-scale figurative works that were supposed to be social critiques, but after I graduated, my heart just wasn't in it. You know, suddenly you're alone in your studio and depth of the world's indifference to what you do comes crashing down on your pathetic little head. (laughs) I was trying to talk about human commonalities, but there's just no way to be universal when gender, race, age, and class are so written on our bodies. I felt almost forced, in a way, to paint metaphorically. So I started using objects from the natural world--like bugs and flowers--as stand-ins for the human figure. I'm still doing that, but also moving a little away from it, in that lately I've been using a hand or another element from the body.

It's interesting that one of the reasons you stopped painting the figure was to get away from issues of gender, because it seems that gender is re-entering the work. The gloved hands, for example, appear very feminine; they're like satin opera gloves.

Yeah. Just recently, I was looking at my slides from the past couple of years for a lecture I was putting together, and it hit me that the figure was really working its way back into the paintings. Sometimes I'll use gloves, sometimes little doll hands. But even when the hands are covered, they're very clearly female. You know, it began as nothing more specific than a desire to indicate female agency. I remember reading a World Bank report some years ago that outlined how the immense work of caring for the young, the sick, and the old of the world is mostly done by women, usually without pay. The contributions of women are so devalued--it just pisses me off. So, for example, I made one painting on a black ground, where many tangled strings become ordered after passing through a gloved hand, and a white flower is tied onto each string. I was thinking of images of the night sky, and wanted to paint a universe that was held in formation by the organizing forces of that feminine hand.

In a few of them, there's a small figure, created out of bones tied together or something like that, which I see more as androgynous or male. I'm not sure why, but I guess you're covering all your bases. (laughs) But you talked earlier about the duality of images, and I think another defining quality of your work is a sense of beauty and decay--of torture and beauty juxtaposed. Do you see them as juxtaposed? Or are they just complicated sides of the same thing?

Yes, that's right. I think what I do is very simple: I try to embody a sensation or a feeling in an image, about whatever-marriage, children, seeing your parents age, dealing with your own aging. Life in general is so dense and complex and self-contradictory. The only way I can figure out to talk about a sensation, idea, feeling, or reaction--a sense of being in the world--is to not ignore each element in it, to try to collapse into one image a thing and its opposite.

I'm interested in what I see as two different types of suffering in your work. There's inevitable decay/disease, and then there's some sort of torture, some sort of piercing or bondage. These objects all seem almost passive, in that they're trapped, they're there to suffer. That I can understand--it's just nature; you die. But on the other side of that dynamic, who's the actor putting the pins in? What's that referencing?

Well, I'm using these natural objects, but they're heavily manipulated and presented in a very artificial, super-unnatural kind of way, which is basically how I feel. We are absolutely constrained in every way imaginable; there is no natural self. There's been a shift from work I made some years ago, when I was thinking more about different kinds of physical and emotional suffering--the inevitable decay that comes with age. My pictures were full of piercing and cutting, that sort of thing. Most of the images I do now are bound; they are natural objects that have been forced, either by nailing them down or tying them to each other, into carefully orchestrated patterns. I think it's a way of talking about the sensation of being created, how forces come together to make us. But what about your paintings? They seem to be very political, but they're also so sexy!

Well, I'm interested in the politics of sex! I've been very influenced by Julia Kristeva and French feminist psychoanalysis, as well as the Riot Grrrl movement that began in the 1990s. I'm not necessarily interested in presenting a one-line feminist agenda, but I am interested in overtly exploring gender and femininity.

I would say that your work is very complex.

I hope so, although sometimes I worry that it isn't read that way. I want it to be complex, because I think gender and identity are complicated issues. But I think I got a lot of my ideas on how to use metaphor from you--not just that you can use objects symbolically, but that you can create metaphorical actions within the work where the action is important and referential. For example, I see the doll as a double symbol. It's not just the symbol of a child or of innocence, but it's an object you're manipulating while projecting your own fantasies onto it. There's something dark and subversive about that kind of play. Some psychoanalytic theory talks about how girls play with dolls as a way of becoming the archetypal mother, and how that moment is a psychological matricide. I thought that was so interesting. I also talked to one visiting artist in grad school who said he thought that children who played with dolls were not playing the Mother at all, but playing the Father, because they were creating language and laws for the dolls. So I think the dolls raise very difficult and compelling issues.

The thing that I really respond to is your interest in certain things that are attached to gender, like the girly stuff--the pink, the sugar, all of that.

Yeah. I have this sincere excitement about the artificial and how it relates to gender. I got really interested in pink, and confections, and the ultra-girly--partially because, as a child, it felt so fake, like a caricature, and I hated it. Now I'm fascinated by how this caricature operates in culture, and I'm attracted to this subject matter partly because it used to repulse me.

Yes, you always turn it on its head and make it menacing. And I'm really interested in the way you use sex, or the promise of sex, as a kind of weapon.

Yes, I love that.

You use it to club people! (laughs)

Yeah, I guess I work a little less on the subtle side!

But it's a weird thing to be female and, at one point, realize how that's constructed--to realize you're the desired one.

Yes. In the past few years I've become really interested in how femininity in particular, and identity in general, is this big performance. That's when I started dealing with the ideas of flirtation and sex, because I think it's a really compelling power dynamic. With flirtation, you never know who's in control. You're in a contest--always one-upping each other--and then you go home and wonder, "Do they like me? What's going on?" Everybody's confused; there are no set boundaries. I like it as a strategy to undermine power structures. Lately I've been interested in how flirtation and games can become dangerous. I use the doll image because it's so loaded, it's such a cliche. We think being innocent is this great thing, but it's actually a big danger. I always hated the myth of childhood innocence; I felt insulted by it as a child, and I think it invites a scary voyeurism onto which viewers can project their fantasies. It presents such a pure screen, and what do people want to violate more than purity? But I think I use sex as a tool to manipulate the viewer--to draw them in, get their attention, and then repel them with innocence turned on its head. I want to give them some sort of voyeuristic power and then take it away, to say, "Oh, you thought you could have me--but you can't, because it's not for you." That's why the dolls' eyes are always closed; I never want them to give the viewer satisfaction.

Julie, you're such a tease!

Julie Farstad and Maria Tomasula are represented in Chicago by Zolla/Lieberman Gallery