You Paint Like a Man: An Interview with Jessica Hargreaves
Artist Jessica Hargreaves and I are both, for the moment, emotionally spent. The roots of this temporary drain may echo each other (relationships, politics, art), but the experiences are vastly different. Like most women, we discuss fragments of it, but in the end, we just deal. We handle it. And that’s kind of what Jessica Hargreaves’ work is about. What we deal with. She knows a thing or two about handling emotions. Her mother is a psychiatrist. Hargreaves herself is an animal lover and a self-confessed crazy cat lady (as reinforced by her instagram feed), but to be clear, she loves dogs too. All of this manifests in her art. Animals often drive her artistic narratives as symbols of emotions, and interpersonal relationships feature prominently - divorce and affairs, communication (or lack thereof), dreams, and aging women. A painter first, over the past decade Hargreaves has experimented in other mediums - sculptural frames that bleed over paintings, fashion objects, like jewelry and shoes, and home decor, her art gracing wallpaper, throw pillows and room dividers - all things coveted by and expressive of women’s emotional needs and desires. Both she and her work are funny, smart, and open, and just uncomfortable enough to be outside of what seems acceptable in certain art world circles. All of this drew me to her years ago when we first met. The 2016 Brexit vote (Hargreaves is from the UK), and US election catapulted her artwork into a political realm. A slew of anger, fear, and fantasies poured into her most recent paintings, from gold leaf icons of the Obamas to apocalyptic visions of America’s future. And they’re good. A few of the pieces she created for last year’s Women’s March were recently acquired by The City of New York Museum. This winter, Jessica is taking a brief reprieve from the external fight and focusing on the internal dramas, using her new upstate New York home as the canvas - creating wall murals and gilded gold bathroom mirrors. Not to mention herding and finding homes for feral kittens found in her barn. All of which seems an entirely apropos at this juncture.
STEPHANIE ELLISON: When prepping for this interview, I was surprised to recall you’ve painted Donald Trump before, in The Dreams of Others series from 2010-2011. You created a dialogue with people who would describe a dream in detail and then you would paint it.They would respond to your painting with what was accurate or not, and then you’d paint it again. Barbara’s Dream (2011) was a dream of Trump helping her find shoes in a Miami boutique. How benignly you painted his face seems haunting now.
JESSICA HARGREAVES: I have it on my shelf. And it’s not a bad painting. You know there are 3 of them and 2 of them are quite nice paintings. That he was so in her psyche, like that, that is a strange thing, and now that’s our president? [At the time] we were like “Chortle chortle, what a funny dream”.
SE: Yes. At the time it was sort of funny and now there’s the painting of him in Our Loss Will Be Tremendous (2017) and the contrast between the two. I think about it often. I was gonna ask how you felt about your political pieces now….to me it’s kind of prophetic.
JH: Our Loss Will Be Tremendous is still very much alive and an issue. Ok, so Steve Bannon is there with his megaphone, but he’s still in it. It’s captured a moment in time and we’re still in that moment. That moment is still going on. I painted it right when it was about to begin, but that the things in the painting [are happening now] - the environmental things, The National Park stuff, with the bleeding polar bear and animals fighting and the fires. There are all sorts of stuff…Putin’s in there! And then there’s the Angela Merkel and Hilary Clinton [painting] which is like the fantasy of what could have been, which I sometimes take a breath and think, “ I wish. I wish Hilary could be getting on my nerves right now.”
SE: It’s a tough line to walk, as a woman who can be “one of the guys” whether a political leader or in the art world, and then to still be true to yourself, or your nature, or whatever that is.
JH: It doesn't mean to say someone is not talented if they’re not wile. We have to add all these other characteristics to ourselves to be able to hack it in all these different kinds of worlds. I told you about when I was in my foundation course, the teacher told me, as a compliment, that I painted like a man. And at the time, I was flattered. Because I was 21 and that was the world I lived in and I was like “Oh yeah! That means I’m really strong and my painting is aggressive!” But no, you know, I’m a strong, aggressive woman. Fuck it. I feel like I paint like a strong, aggressive woman. That’s what I paint like. And my subject matter is very female. Really. And that’s not a bad thing….I used to as a younger person, I used to kind of poo-poo that a bit. I was obviously raised in a patriarchal society and I would try and imitate men in how I was strong. And I don’t think that’s the way forward anymore. I’ve completely changed my mind. I think that’s the way backwards. I think imitating men is bad.
But I don’t think that women are saints and men are sinners. I certainly don’t think that. But the ways in which women are evil and men are evil are shaped by our society. A lot of women's weaknesses come from the ways we’ve had to maneuver in a western patriarchy. At the same time, if we are given strength and power, I actually do believe that women would be better rulers than men. I don’t believe we’re as violent or war-mongering because those are our babies that we’re sending off. I really do think that the power of being a mother and feeling the power of loss is even more intense as a woman. And I really do think women are better at negotiating. I really do. And it has been proven when you put women in [positions of power] in society, the rights of mothers and childcare improves. And children [who are] born into a society and how they are raised, it is the health of the society going forward. And that’s so huge.
SE: When you started incorporating sculpture into your painting pieces, a series I found intriguing in its exploration was the selfie paintings in the Gold Panels (2014). Can you tell me about it?
JH: All the selfies teens and even the older women were taking of themselves…[you’re] looking at yourself and trying to make yourself look as sexy as possible. It began to look like clown faces and this kind of a performance of sexiness. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t individual. It just was “If I make this face, then I’m saying I’m sexy”. And so, with that resin technique that I use, it makes it even more absurd. It’s like this sort of silly person making a sexy face while her significant other is fast asleep and oblivious. Which is often the way. I feel like women, we do all these performances where everything is so overthought, because that’s how we’re kind of kept down really. It is like, if we are strongly encouraged to obsess over men by men, then they can ridicule us for our fashion and all of that stuff and belittle us and turn us into….these are the clowns we’re making of ourselves willfully or unwittingly or whatever it is, but it’s also human too. It sort of makes me…you know, a lot of my work is of things that make me sad but I have to turn it into a comedy. That’s what a lot of comedy is isn’t it? It’s like a processing of sadness. And maybe if you laugh it’s less sad, but often not.
I think about how I look a lot. I think about my wardrobe a lot. A lot of appearance is some kind of performance for the outside world. It’s a habit. But also, what does it mean? What am I doing? It makes me uncomfortable at the same time. How I present myself and how much I think about it, especially as someone who’s getter older. What’s up with that? So the Selfie series is me poking my finger in that particular hole.
SE: So. Ok. In your work, I’ve noticed the men are often sleeping.
JH: Right. That is 100% intentional. I do feel that so much of the life that goes on between women, men are kind of oblivious to/uninterested in, that that’s why. In some ways, It’s claiming of a space, by painting the man asleep, you could say it’s reductive.
Some of my work is about romance, but I often paint someone who is unavailable, uninterested, or whatever. It’s an exaggeration, but it’s one I freely choose to use because I feel like it’s an examination of the fantasy part of the female world. And that the female mind is less explored and I’m kind of playing with that. It’s also a bit of a lonely sadness. I feel like often men aren’t available to us or are dismissive, or are just not interested.
SE: With the longing and romance, I feel your work is a bit like film noir, but from a different angle.
JH: Absolutely yes. I always did identify in a way with the heroines of film noir, except for they were such terrible people. They couldn’t have power without being terrible people. And so it was sort of devastating. I would love watching it. They were always the more beautiful and dynamic characters and the good girls were always kind of passive. And I was like “I’m a good girl, but I’m not passive”. I am a good person, but at the same time I’m not a fucking bore. I can’t really watch them anymore because the cutout nature of the bad girl depresses me too much. It didn’t use to so much when I was younger because I was able to project more onto them than there was and make an image for myself. I use to dress like a film noir character. in all vintage and act tough and indifferent towards guys, but that was a sham. It’s much more complicated. And men do respond to that bullshit too, tough as nails, uninterested - but it got boring trying to be that person because you couldn’t communicate.
SE: You’re capturing those moments when the armor is off and the guard is down. Cause you and I know even the film noir woman is gonna be sad. She can’t really be heartless.
JH: And if she is heartless. She’s gonna get shot. There’s always a comeuppance. And she’s gonna die. All these old movies that I used to watch, that I’ve poured into my bloodstream, they’re in there and then they come out in this whole other way.
SE: I do see a cinematic quality to the relationships in your paintings, going all the way back.
JH: You know what’s funny. When I first applied to the Chicago Art Institute, I was taking all these images from film and reality tv shows of women reacting, but heightening their reactions to sort of situations in relation to men and kind of blanking the men out. I just found a bunch of slides in these old boxes we had shipped from St. Louis. And when I look at them, there is still a connection between what I’m doing now and what I was doing then. They were cruder and more obvious in some ways, but they still poke at the emotional life of women and the way that it is played with and manipulated by popular culture. And how we’re expected to be, how we are, and what we want to be. And that was still going on then.
JH: When I first interviewed for the Art Institute, it was by two men. It was a weird thing. They said that I wasn’t ready. And so I did a year of post bacc. In retrospect, when I look at that work, I think, I could have gone to grad school. I was just interviewed by two men and I wasn’t as good about talking about my work as I became. I was making these images and I was thinking all the things I’ve been thinking all along, but I couldn’t express it as well. There was still that thing, that grain in the background, of “you paint like a man” of the feel of my paint handling being somehow admirable but my subject matter making them uncomfortable.
It makes me wonder about my work to this day. Sometimes when I look at it, I wonder. Still. But I keep doing what I’m doing.