Los Angeles, September 2016: Genevieve Gaignard is a magician. She sees you and she sees you seeing her. Revealing our experience and understanding of race, gender, sexuality, and their complex perceptions under the western heteropatriarchal gaze, the Los Angeles-based artist uses self-portraiture and sculpture to find truth in the abstract aporia of identity. The characters she creates and portrays engage with the aesthetic language of Afropunk, substance chic Hollywood glamor, and the suburban working class of generations past to create layered caricatures of the myriad ways people see her many selves. Through these characters and the worlds she builds around them, her work distills stereotypes of people across American social and racial strata with a macabre humor that allows for relatability and introspection in the viewer.
Upon entering her West-Adams studio, appropriately located above a consignment store, the first thing I noticed was how charged with symbolism her space is. Readymade objects from thrift stores and the closets of family members sit next to her photographs, creating narrative crystals of meaning that carry the viewer through her psychology and story as a biracial woman of color with fair skin that allows her to pass for white in America. I spoke with Gaignard leading up to her solo exhibition, Smell the Roses, opening October 19 at the California African American Museum.
Genevieve Gaignard, Compton Contrapposto, 2016, Chromogenic Print, 32 x 48 inches. Courtesy the artist and Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles
Alex Anderson: When I look at your photographs, I see myself, I see people I know, I see people I’ve seen, and then I see you. Is your work about yourself, or is it about us, the viewer?
Genevieve Gaignard: It’s about both. First it’s me and then it’s you and then it’s me again and then it’s us. I’m a person who’s really in their head a lot, but I’m also a quiet observer. It is about me, but then I’m watching individuals and what they surround themselves with and how they carry themselves; those two things come together and allow the viewer to have that moment of seeing “oh this is about her, but I’m having this moment about me” and now they’re part of the work. I’m open to that. I’m happy when the viewer allows himself or herself to get lost in it so it becomes their world too.
AA: Who is your work for?
GG: It functions as a way for me to process what I was saying about channeling fears and pretending through something you can’t achieve in reality. I was thinking about the show I put together with my LA gallery Shulamit Nazarian for the Spring/Break Art Show in NYC where I was allowing people to enter my put-together world. I had anxiety about how it was going to read and began hearing comments like “This is the blackest thing I’ve seen all week,” and I was like “Oh my god, thank you! Finally!”
I think my work and how I function in the world considers whether I’m this or that enough. It was a gratifying comment I received, and it was also a little sad. In that space, it didn’t really matter the color of the person's skin. They had this kind of relatable moment where they would say, “This reminds me of my grandma’s house in Virginia or the Midwest,” and I was like, “Okay, well, are we that different?” They would connect with one item that felt like home to them so they could look around and make connections with things they otherwise wouldn’t see deeper meanings in—the juxtapositions of items I put in the spaces and how the characters might be perceived at first glance and then reconsidered in context.
Genevieve Gaignard, Apt. #3104, Installation view at SPRING/BREAK Art Show, New York, March 1–7, 2016.
Courtesy the artist and Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles
AA: There is a clear element of humor in your work despite the complex content exploring the white, western, often heteropatriarchal gaze that serves to marginalize those of our demographic. Do you employ humor as a mechanism for navigating this reality as a woman of color, as a commentary on the absurdity of this social circumstance, or something else?
GG: Humor is integral. It’s not something I have to look for. It just happens. I think it’s a way of both addressing and embracing the issues at hand. I’m less funny and more sarcastic.
AA: Many people compare you to Cindy Sherman for your use of self-portraiture as a method of accessing meaning. But I read that Diane Arbus is your primary source of inspiration. Why is that?
GG: Diane Arbus is definitely at the root of my inspiration. Early in my journey through photography, I was shown images by many photographers—mostly white males—and something about her images instantly connected with me. It was almost like I could see myself as someone she would want to photograph. It’s less about the visuals and more about how I see myself and how others might talk about the fact that I’m biracial or not the norm.
Also, something I don’t know if I’ve ever really said is I feel like I’m an old soul. I feel like I’m in the wrong time. I’m in the wrong time but I’m in the right time to talk about the things I am connected or drawn to. When I look at her images, I just want to be there. And I also feel like I put myself there. I’m like that freak she would have been drawn to and that word is presented as a negative, but when you embrace it, it opens up to new potential. It’s more than “that guy is covered in tattoos.” They’re the clichés of what a freak is, but there’s so much more going on and she’s able to meet them on a level where they can kind of give themselves to her in the photograph.
The Cindy Sherman comparison is a fairly simple one because I’m dressing up as characters. But I can relate to what’s been written about Arbus’ issues with herself and how she approaches her subjects. You don’t hear about all that with Cindy. There’s a mystery about her, which is interesting. I’m a heart-on-your-sleeve kind of person—you kind of get it all. You may not want it all, but you get it all. I’m very close to the surface. That’s me, but that’s a character.
Genevieve Gaignard, Drive-by, Side-eye, 2016, Chromogenic Print 28 x 42 inches. Courtesy the artist and Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles
AA: Many describe Arbus’ work as being representative of the abject. Do you see yourself in that identity construct?
GG: Yes. Growing up, I felt like that. I can relate to that. At some point, I was just like this is who you are. How can you embrace, work through, and bring out these qualities? My art is a vehicle for that.
AA: Where do your characters come from and who are they?
GG: They come from thrift stores, they come from wig shops, they come from people I’ve grown up around, people in movies I’ve seen, what’s in my closet, how I’m feeling…what would I look like with that hairstyle? They’re dynamic. They’re not as firm as people want them to be. They don’t have a biography unique to each character…or would that be an autobiography?
AA: How do you become them?
GG: It’s a combination of stuff I already own and searching for things. Putting the costume on. Putting the makeup on. Feeling insecure going into the world with my camera and knowing I’m going to be seen, but not knowing how I’m going to be seen, or judged, or talked to. I think of how Arbus lived for that danger and the unexpected. And then she found herself being comfortable in those settings. It’s a back and forth of I can’t believe I did that or I don’t like how I look in that or that was really scary. But I need to, over time, see that this is powerful if I allow myself to be put out there in that way. Hopefully someone can connect with that and feel more comfortable in their skin with their “flaws” and “freak-like qualities.”
Genevieve Gaignard, Selfie, 2016, Digital C-print, 20 × 30 inches. Courtesy the artist and Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles
AA: Can you tell me about a time that was scary?
GG: The other night I was out shooting off La Brea at a bus stop. I wasn’t dressed sexy or anything, but I was posing, and as this guy was driving by he yelled out “whore.” And I was like, wow, this is what it’s like to be female in America…and the world. It was troubling. I felt bad for the guy actually. I was like, “that dude is challenged.” I was thinking, is that really what you got from this? And people deal with this all the time without having their picture taken just walking down the street.
AA: Your characters evoke power, sexuality, decadence, defiance, vulnerability, and an earnest engagement with the viewer, but none of them seem to be particularly happy—either to be seen, or to see us—like a contemporary sprezzatura, but more charged with gloom. Where does this come from?
GG: Where does it come from? You don’t have to tell me, but that’s clearly what you see and I’m a little dark. I’m. Dark. That look I’m giving is me being aware that I am going to be looked at. I’m holding onto just a little bit. You don’t get to have it all because there’s a lot that you’re getting. I have to have a fraction that’s left.
AA: I recently read an article about this notion of sprezzatura from a humanist perspective that contained the following quote, which made me think of your work:
Nonchalance then is a means of self-challenge and of challenging others; in the process it exposes an oscillation between sincerity and gamesmanship in order to sharpen, not define meaning. Thus sincerity may not be more than successful illusion.
Is this idea something you consider in your work? Are you creating illusions?
GG: This quote is pretty revealing. I think illusion is a good description of what’s happening here. I also think of it as time standing still—especially as I look at that cat clock with the tail standing still when it should be moving. I’m a magician, goddammit!
AA: It is some kind of magic. I feel like you’re making these spells or offering ingredients for revelation.
GG: Yes. Like with these wall pieces I’m saying: “These are the ingredients. See what you can make with it.” And I’m not exactly telling you what you have to make.
Genevieve Gaignard, In the Red, 2016, Digital C-print, 20 × 30 inches. Courtesy the artist and Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles
AA: One of your characters is named the “hair hopper.” What is a hair hopper?
GG: The hair hopper term came from John Waters’ film Hairspray. There was a girl with teased up, crazy, big-ass hair. And she got labeled as her hair. That movie addresses race and body, and those are two major focuses of my work. So I labeled that character as a nod to John Waters. What up John!
AA: I notice three categories among your characters: a simple, yet unsatisfied lower-middle class cat lady, a seductive Hollywood vixen draped in luxury, and the “hoodrat.” When in your life did these characters emerge and what necessitated their creation?
GG: I definitely have these themes as starting points. I’m interested in seeing the overlap of these characters and questioning the stereotypes that surround them. The essence of each character is in me. The hair hopper is the time I feel like I’m in.
I wish I were more of the Afropunk girl, but then, when I’m in that character, I’m like wait, I am that, and sometimes I feel like I’m overdoing something, but then I think, that could be me.
(left) Genevieve Gaignard, Grace, 2015 (right) Basic Cable & Chill, 2016, Chromogenic Print, 30 x 20 inches.
Courtesy the artist and Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles
AA: With the natural hair and more Afropunk character, is that about accessing something you know you are, but people don’t necessarily see you as because of your capacity to pass?
GG: It is that, but also knowing that I am that. I didn’t grow up in a richly diverse neighborhood. It was all white. All white every day. Dressing up is my way of trying these things on. Otherwise I would feel like I’m trying to pass as something I’m not. I’m being vague because it’s a slippery slope to say I want to be seen as more black or more white or I’m always seen as white. When am I going to be seen as black? Those are just me in my head and not feeling adequate or accepted as either. It’s this constant in-between mode. It’s like “you’re not that, but you’re not not that.”
AA: Are they you, or are they assumed identities for the sake of the work and as representations of the people we have to become?
GG: They’re me behind a façade. I grapple with this myself. When I look at the characters, they’re extremes. But it’s a comment on who I have to be to fit into certain situations.
AA: I noticed that you shoot all over LA and the country to create these images. To what extent does location inform meaning in your work and how do you choose your environments?
GG: Making pictures in LA shows us diversity and severe extremes of class. The location does inform my work, and I usually think, I don’t know how the character fits here, but I’m going to make a picture. You look at the image and wonder if that’s where the person is supposed to be and then you’re like “obviously that’s where that person is supposed to be, but are all the other things matching up?”
AA: Your process seems like a metaphor for the human experience in a way. I don’t know if this is supposed to be here, but I’m going to make a picture as I don’t know if this is where I’m supposed to be, but I’m going to live my life.
GG: Exactly. And that’s been my experience being in LA. The strange thing about being in LA is it’s TV. And I’m not what TV is. But I’m in TV and my backdrop is where television is. It’s exciting and scary. I think I’m in character sometimes, but there are actual characters out there…they’re magicians too.
Genevieve Gaignard, Us Only, Installation view at Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles, CA, November 12, 2015–January 7, 2016.
Courtesy the artist and Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles
AA: You effectively use decoration and decorative motifs in your work in a way that is far removed from anything one could dismiss as being simply “decorative.” How does the decorative inform your work and your practice?
GG: It’s about juxtaposing these elements. It’s a lot—it’s almost vibrating. But they’re not threatening. You can see in your mind or in real life where they live. When I watch a TV show, and a character walks in, I’m scanning the background to see which objects they use to inform who they are. I do this when I go to people’s homes too. I make these observations, gather that information and play with how things are juxtaposed. Yes, I’m drawn to it because it’s pretty or familiar, but why is it next to that?
AA: This October, your first museum exhibition will open at the California African American Museum. What will the focus of this show be and what should we know before we see it?
GG: In Smell the Roses I’m pushing myself to talk a little louder. I feel like I’ve been whispering for a long time. The underlying theme for me is loss. A lot of people are experiencing loss on a large scale. I’m also interested in the comparison of personal versus public, black versus white, and fat versus thin. These things are all happening at once, but you live in this bubble, or that bubble. I’ll also have a new video piece. I’m really excited and it’s beyond huge to have this opportunity.
(left) Genevieve Gaignard, Supreme, 2015, Digital C-print, 29 x 23 inches (right) The 99cent Store, 2015, Digital C-print, 36 x 24 inches
Courtesy the artist and Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles
AA: Do you consider your work to be African American art?
GG: Yes, but only through the work that I create have I been able to accept myself as being a woman of color while seeing how others accept and relate. To bring it back to the show and where the show will be, it’s part of being included in the conversation. The black experience is a wide range of experiences and in order to break stereotypes, you have to get all aspects of it. I think CAAM is giving me and the public that opportunity to see an unexpected perspective of the black experience. Of my black experience. A black experience of a person who has white privilege. It’s a very charged body to be in.
Making the work is my challenge and my responsibility. When I look at the TV and see all these awful things happening, I think this is what I can do to create conversation around these issues, so hopefully that’s what this show does.
Alex Anderson is a Los Angeles-based artist, an MFA candidate at University of California, Los Angeles, and a former resident artist at the China Academy of Art as a Fulbright Scholar. He completed his undergraduate studies at Swarthmore College.