New media artist and writer Jeremy Hight was a friend of mine from Calarts who went to sleep one night last August and tragically never woke up. At the time we were working on a project together- he was curating on online exhibition of artists and invited me to submit work. My painting “Nightmare in Valencia” from 1999 (pictured above) was one of his favorites. Jeremy sent me a few interview questions and said I could make my responses any length. He inspired me to write all weekend.
JH: What are your thoughts on the concepts of “high” and “low” culture in relation to art?
MS: I have always been attracted to art that blurs the boundaries between high and low culture. Perhaps the distinction is not in the object itself but the context in which a thought, a feeling, an idea is realized or experienced.
What first comes to my mind is the opera Anna Nicole, commissioned by the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2013. It’s based on the life of the American model Anna Nicole Smith, a former Playboy Playmate, and reality TV star who married an 89-year-old billionaire and then fought his estate after he died. Perhaps I’m thinking about Anna Nicole Smith because she was very much a part of popular or “low” culture when I was making art in my thirties. She was self-made, bold, beautiful and full of life. I loved her and wanted her to win at everything. Sadly, that was not the case, as she died prematurely of a drug overdose in 2007 at age 39. It was after her death that she became the subject of an opera, a “high” art form. A photo of Anna Nicole on a tabloid cover in a supermarket is “low” culture. The life of Anna Nicole as portrayed in an opera is “high” culture.
I feel like artists, writers, collectors and critics have been arguing about “high” versus “low” art forever. The distinction has never been important to me. I look at a work of art and either I like it or I do not. In terms of markets, art displayed in a high art gallery gets labeled “high” art and art displayed in a low brow/pop art gallery is called “low” art. Years ago I felt like “high” art may have had a higher price tag, but today, I am not so sure. Perhaps there are many artists bridging both worlds or maybe it’s just the price tag that makes the “low” art feel like it has more “high” art value (like Banksy). And then there is the crazy world of NFT (non-fungible token/digital asset) art. The commercial illustrator Beeple’s NFT sold at Sotheby’s in March 2021 for $69 million. But does that make Beeple’s work “high” art? I don’t think so. But what about Takashi Murakami’s work? I answer an emphatic yes! I think he’s a genius.
JH: Who and what are some of your influences?
MS: The first major art show I attended was the Whitney Biennial in 1985. My favorite artist in the exhibition was David Wojnorowicz. I already knew some of his work from the East Village scene and the band 3 Teens Kill 4. At that time, I had no idea what to do with my life. I was in my early twenties, living in Brooklyn with my boyfriend from high school, supporting myself by working as a production plate maker for Kamrass Kiok Ceramics in Manhattan, and spending my free to going to nightclubs and punk rock shows whenever I had enough money. After I attended the Whitney Biennial, I knew that I wanted to be an artist. It would take me a few years to realize my dreams.
In 2007, when I was putting my art in commercial porn films I wrote and directed under the name Vena Virago, the writer Abby Ehmann asked me in an interview if my work was inspired by any other directors. Here is my answer from 2007:
“There are so many artists and filmmakers whose work inspires me that I’m going to have to give you my top 10 list for this moment, and that is, in no particular order: Paul McCarthy, Peggy Ahwesh, George Kuchar, Elizabeth Murray, Wong Kar Wai, Keith Haring, Fassbinder, Annie Sprinkle. David Wojnorowicz, David Hammons, Raymond Pettibon. Oops that’s 11!”
First and foremost, my art has been influenced by my physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual life. The work changes as my life changes. At the moment, as we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. I continue to isolate as much as possible. Working alone in my studio in East LA, I am mostly building sculptures and living a much quieter life than I did in pre-Covid days. In 2023 I will turn sixty years old. These days I am most influenced and inspired by older artists who have had long careers, some of whom did not receive recognition until later in life. Here is my top 10 list for today (I am omitting artists I personally know and this list is in no particular order): Louise Bourgeois, Lynda Benglis, Carmen Herrera, Sonia Gomez, Etel Adnan, Faith Ringold, Agnes Martin, Noah Purifoy, Luchita Hurtado, Beatrice Wood, Yayoi Kusama. Oops that’s 11!
JH: Your work has such a sense of play quite often yet tied to serious issues and deeper resonances.
How does this cocktail of elements influence your works and what you often have explored?
MS: I had an emotionally difficult adolescence, some happy years living in New York City and then another rough time emotionally the last two years completing my BFA in sculpture in the Midwest. The head of sculpture department was an egomaniacal cock who hated women. And he hated New Yorkers more than women, and I happened to be both! The man’s primary goal as a teacher seemed to be to groom his students for the graduate program at Yale. I thought I was going to a serious art school to find my true self and become a serious artist. I ended up finishing my BFA in sculpture with a solid body of experimental work and was a much bigger freak than I already had been going in. The assistant sculpture professor was a kind man and kind man. He told me was I an artist. So perhaps in retrospect I reached my goal even though I did not see it that way at the time.
After my undergrad studies, I declined an offer from a graduate school, traveled to Berlin and then returned to New York City. I worked as a professional dominatrix in a commercial dungeon for a few years. I am naturally intuitive, and a talkative person, so many of the sessions I participated in were psychological in nature and involved creating impromptu scripts and role playing. A certain kind of sex work is fun and involves play, but at times that play can mask (or unearth) more serious issues. My time spent as a sex worker has been a major influence on my work.
I believe that we carry our whole life’s history within us especially trauma. I have experienced a lot of emotional pain and darkness in my life and I do my best to keep moving forward. I have also experienced many moments of great joy. My work is a reflection of who I am and my goal has always been to bring my authentic self to my work.
One time while in graduate school at Cal Arts a colleague said to me “When life gives you lemons you make lemonade.” I interpreted her statement as a complement. I am an optimist. I am a warrior. I have survived this life with the help of friends, family and community. Somehow, I always see a little sunshine or some humor in a difficult situation. And this is why I continue to live in Southern California. I need the culture, the community and the sunshine.
JH: How do you see your larger body of work in relation to your more sculptural works?
MS: When I look at my thirty-year body of work, I see the history of my life. For many years I have worked in multiple disciplines. The materials, objects and processes I use to create my work reflect not only my intention and desired effect, but where I am physically located at that time. Most often I make work in a live/work space with some exceptions being when I’ve needed to employ equipment or technologies I do not have in my own studio. For example, the last place I lived in New York City was a six by ten-foot room at Hotel Seventeen in 1995. This was where I made my art. I would make one acrylic painting at a time on the wall beside my bed. When the painting was complete, I would move it to the wall over the bed and start another. And when I ran out of wall space, I either hung the painting on the ceiling or rolled it up. At the time I was also working with video and super 8 film. I would shoot in my hotel room and then later edit in a video studio.
Today I have an art studio in East LA where I also live. It has a large outdoor area. I make paintings, fabric sculptures and edit videos inside, and build sculpture outside. There is also a clay studio nearby where I can build and fire ceramic works. I am happy returning to making sculpture. Most days I feel as if I am a kid again, but without all the drama. This makes me incredibly happy.
Thank you Jeremy for your kindness and generosity. You are missed.