Guilt, Realism, Dessert: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

Kaci Beeler‘s FOOD PORN exhibition goes up today as part of the Fusebox Festival; in fact, she will have already started painting the 12-hour mural at Salvage Vanguard by now. I interviewed Kaci for CultureMap Austin, but had to cut out so many juicy bits—Kaci’s porn habits! Kaci’s next project! Kaci’s education as an artist! Kaci on Disneyland!—that I decided to run a longer version of the interview here.

Of course, there’s no room in the article or the interview to talk about my friendship with Kaci, the weird circumstances under which we met (five people crushed into a Honda Civic on a 13-hour road trip to Marfa), the role she has played in my getting to know Austin the second time around, and above all, my continual amazement that I could have so much to learn from a woman nine years my junior. In fact, before I interviewed her, my next blog post was going to be about how impressed I am with the younger women that I know. It’s nice timing to have done this piece just when I was thinking a lot about Lena Dunham, another young multi-talented woman with an exciting career ahead of her.

——

ME: So can you talk about your subject matter?

KACI: It’s been Austin through dishes that I particularly love from local establishments. . . . It’s been dessert recently. I just felt like I wanted to cover more desserts or something.

ME: What drove you toward desserts?

KACI: I think it’s just the textures and the colors and the softness of desserts, or something about that . . . just the lusciousness. Piles of sugar in different forms. And I just think that the savory stuff is beautiful, but I found the desserts even more compelling to try and capture. Just from a personal enjoyment standpoint. I was drawn to those images more than the savory dishes, though I like both. I was going to do a cheeseburger series, but then I put that on hold.

“Cupcake from Hey Cupcake! Trailer,” 10″x10″, oil on canvas

ME: Next year.

KACI: Yeah! [Laughs.] Maybe.

ME: You mention texture and colors, so those are visual aspects that you as a painter are interested in, in terms of technique. But you also said, the lusciousness, the piles of sugar, the delightfulness of the dessert. I wonder if you’d talk a little bit more about what is it thematically that speaks to you about the desserts?

KACI: I want to create beautiful objects, and I think that that is the quickest pathway to that goal.

ME: Because desserts are the most beautiful objects?

KACI: For me. And they’re kind of cute, and I have this sort of cute aesthetic that I’m interested in. But there’s something more to it, I guess. There’s that idea of things being kind of sinful and feeling guilty about it. I definitely have my own set of guilt about eating, and I try not to eat a lot of sugar lately. But I always felt really drawn to that, to drawing desserts, almost so much so that I can’t articulate it well . . . When I was a kid I drew little pictures of ice cream cones and pie slices and banana splits and cake and stuff like that, all the time, on the edges of my papers in school. And every time I saw something . . .  like little fake food, I always liked miniature food. I had a dollhouse, and I would make, out of clay, little food dishes and such. And I don’t—it’s just weird, I don’t know. I think every artist has some kind of image or something they’re obsessed with, and then they sort of use that as an inspiration. And I think this is what I’m obsessed with right now, in a way.

ME: It’s funny you bring up the word “guilty” because the exhibit is called “Food Porn.”

KACI: Right.

ME: And you talked just now about the association of desserts with guilty eating, like something that’s wonderful and desirable but also that we feel guilty about, and that everyone has their eating issues. But it’s funny to link it directly to porn.

KACI: Do you want to know why it’s called that? I actually call it that because other people have said that my paintings were food porn to them. And it was said enough times and suggested, that I was kind of like, I can see that. I sort of love that implication. In a way it’s fun. It’s a little naughty.

ME: What does it mean to you?

KACI: Just indulging in the image of food and the idea of it, but without actually having it in front of you.

ME: Ah, okay!

KACI: You know. Like pornography. [Laughs.] You don’t have it, but you can imagine it, I guess it opens up your imagination to your fantasy of pie eating, or whatever.

ME: Not to be crass, but you don’t actually get to, like, taste anything when you’re looking at food porn . . . but I think for most people, regular porn . . . there is a kind of . . . participatory aspect.

KACI: [Laughing] I don’t actually indulge in pornography. So maybe I’m even more removed from that or something.

ME: I love the realistic capture of the textures next to each other. You talked about the softness of the desserts, but they’re often on a plate, or they’re next to a chair, or a shiny surface, with a strawberry, there’s so much to work with there.

KACI: I feel like, going from one to the next one, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing the same thing over and over, because every one has different challenges. Sometimes the colors are super diverse within one piece, like this one ["Cupcakes from the Hey Cupcake! Trailer"] but then sometimes the colors are very similar, liek in this one ["Mini Cream Puff and Lemon Meringue Tartlet from Whole Foods Headquarters"], where it’s a very simple pallette. And I like playing with that, with the subtlety with the textures and things.

ME: There’s actually a lot more texture than you would think!

KACI: That’s what I find really fascinating about doing representational realism. Your brain takes in a lot of information very quickly and sort of generalizes it as you go through life, and you think, that’s white, that’s brown, that’s whatever. But then when you start looking at it, it’s very subtle. And to really capture the form of it takes a lot of study of color . . . I enjoy seeing if I can make the form come out of nothing.

“Coconut Cake from Dolce Vita,” 10″x10″, oil on canvas

ME: So for you is realism mostly about technique? Is that the excitement for you, the challenge in technique, or is there something else about it that you really love?

KACI: That’s a good question. I think technique is the key to that, or at least I really enjoy the technical side of it. Which has its own . . . subset in the art world, of people thinking it’s not good enough, to focus on technique without anything behind it. But I’m just drawn to copying things, or mimicking things, or trying to see my way through an aesthetic. I feel like I like to do that with the theatrical work I do, is take things I like and re-appropriate them in a new way. And I think that’s why I’m drawn to realism in art. I mean, maybe it’s just what I was exposed to whenever I went to art museums as a kid or something. The Dutch works, great opulent serving trays filled with . . . it’s just so . . .

I think that realism in art can make you see something in a way that you actually can’t in real life, even though it’s mimicking real life. I think that the paintings that I make look better, often, than the actual thing itself looks. Whether I’m slightly manipulating it, or it’s just filtered through a camera and then filtered through my eye and then filtered through these soft oil paints . . . Some people argue, why paint that if you could just take a photo of it. But I think the end result is very different from a photo. And if you hold the reference photos up to the paintings, there’s very many little differences, it doesn’t look the same. Even though people think the paintings look like photos, if they saw the photo, they would realize that it’s not the same.

ME: Speaking as a person who enjoys representational realism, in art and literature, I think I can say that one of the things that’s most pleasurable about it as an audience, as a viewer, is seeing the way that all the visual information that we process very quickly in order to resolve objects into known objects, having that information separated out for you in a painting. Being able to see your technique in putting together these images to make them look as close to the real thing as possible is very pleasurable for us. It’s like we’re getting to see through your technique in a way. And your technique is all about, well it looks to me as if a great deal of it is about breaking things out and seeing things—instead of seeing them as a whole automatically, sort of seeing them in pieces and components. Is that right?

KACI: Yeah! And deciding what to highlight and what to downplay in any given image. And what is my eye drawn to that I then want to emphasize.

ME: The farther you stand back the more photographic it looks. But even looking at it, really the real pleasure for me is to see that line between something that looks photographic and then to see it suddenly blur into colors, or suddenly not look photographic. Does that makes sense?

KACI: People have said that before. I can totally see it, because it’s not perfect, and you can see the brushstrokes pretty easily. Or I’ve decided, eh, I’m not going to make that logo look a certain way, or something. And if you look closely enough you realize, oh, it’s not quite right. But yet it’s right enough at times to where you get a real sense of the place or the look of it.

“Mini Creme Puff and Lemon Meringue Tartlet from Whole Food Headquarters,” 10″x10″, oil on canvas

ME: Yeah. One reason this one is so successful ["Cupcake from Hey Cupcake! Trailer"] is that the sense of place is so vivid. I mean anybody who’s been to South Congress can really see this, it looks so familiar. Even the type of sunlight that’s filtering down, the way it’s flashing off of the food truck. But also it seems like another part of what you do here is about focus? It has to replicate the feeling of lack of focus in the background, for example . . . It calls your attention as a viewer to the quality of the visual information that we take for granted, so I think that’s cool. It’s also yummy looking.

Why are there no people?

KACI: It’s not about people. [Laughs.] . . . I feel like images of people are very compelling. When I do graphic design for shows, I always want there to be people in the posters. I think people are drawn to looking at people. So if there was a person in here, you’d be distracted by it . . . Although there have been some interesting things happen because of people. For instance there’s this one painting ["Blackberry Cobbler Ala Mode From Threadgill's"] where Roy [Kaci’s husband] was wearing a red shirt, and he was sitting across from me, and it reflects it in this fork, and in the table, here.

ME: That’s really cool!

KACI: I really like that about this one.

ME: Do you ever have bites taken out of the food?

KACI: I thought about doing that, and then I decided not to. I wanted it to be whole. As if the viewer or someone who’s looking at it felt like it was waiting for them, and not tainted by some other person in some other story.

ME: I like that, it goes along with what you were saying about the desire that you have as a viewer for the object itself. It has this—for me, desserts are so aesthetically pleasing because they’re perfect. They’re like a perfect little world that you’re gonna destroy.

KACI: It’s like this beautiful little thing that’s been given to you! And especially when it’s packaged in a very personal, one-single-little-serving kind of way. And I like that! I mean that’s why so far I’ve just been painting slices of cakes and not a whole cake. . . . Sometimes I put the fork or the spoon, this utensil you’re very comfortable with, right there next to it, so you kind of get an idea of scale. And it feels like it’s waiting.

ME: That’s true. These two that I just saw, the utensil is on the same side, it’s on your side. It’s like, this is your dessert, and there’s your fork, and you’re going to pick it up and take a bite.

How long has realism been your tool of choice in painting?

KACI: I mean I’ve done other styles, for sure. But how long. . . I guess, when did I get serious about making work? I’ve always been very serious. Since about seventh grade or something, I was just trying. For a long time as an artist you are incapable of making the things that you want to exist. Because they say that your taste grows faster than your ability does, when you’re doing any kind of art work. So you have an appreciation for things before you can actually make them. So it takes many years of going, I’m gonna draw this thing! And then not really knowing how to do it, and starting it, and being disappointed with the outcome, and then over time slowly building up the skill.

But I guess realism is something that I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve done illustrations, I’ve done comics and graphic novels, but the thing that gave me the most pleasure in the finished product was realism. And I think maybe that’s—I had a lot of guilt in the past about that, being, like, not good enough for the art world, for an artist. Because it’s like, “That’s commonplace,” you know, “That’s typical” . . . But then I just decided at one point, fuck it, I’m just gonna make what I want to make, because I only have this one life and I’m not gonna sit around waiting to figure out something that’s not what I want to do, just because I think it’s not going to be well-received. And then once I started doing just what I wanted, just purely what I wanted, then people were really overwhelmingly positive about it.

ME: You’ve now said the word “guilty” twice in reference to these paintings.

KACI: I know, I’m totally guilty about it!

“Blackberry Cobbler Ala Mode from Threadgills,” 10″x10,” oil on canvas

ME: First it was guilt over the desserts, and now you’ve said that in your artistic past you had feelings of guilt about loving realism. So do you think those two are related?

KACI: It’s totally related! It’s actually something I almost don’t even want to admit, because I feel like it’s like some form of cowardice or something. . . But when I went to this Vermont Studio Center residency, a lot of artists would talk about certain types of art that people were making as “wall art” or “photo-paintings,” as a derogatory way of speaking. And I did sort of feel the old guilt that I had had before seep back in, and now I think I still feel that way. . . . But I’m trying to become okay with continuing to follow what personally interests me, and not getting mixed up in this other hype about what a person should be pursuing based on what’s been pursued before.

ME: What do you think has been the biggest learning experience for you? As far back as you want to go, for your artisitc life.

KACI: Do you mean as far as technique, or an epiphany?

ME: Whatever, to you, seems . . .

KACI: I jumped around different majors in college before I ended up in art. I think it was another thing where I was avoiding it out of a sort of guilt factor. But then I missed it too much, and so I ended up returning to it. I’m always trying to balance the theatrical things, the things I want to do performance-wise and the things I want to do visually, because they don’t often overlap, and you’re often forced to choose. So for a while I was an acting major, and then I was in set design, and then I finally moved into art, which I am super grateful for. And then when I was buckling down and working, I very much was trying to do it all as best I could even if I didn’t enjoy the medium or the form, and I think a lot came out of that. I feel like I came out of that with actual skills. And it felt good. People always say, oh an art degree, good luck making use of that. And I’d been told that before . . . and after . . . and during . . .

ME: People are the worst.

KACI: Yeah, they’re really the worst. [Laughs.] Well-meaning naysayers, is what I call it. But then I was like, no I actually have skills that I can use. So that was one great period of growth. It seems obvious, but it was very true. And then another one was that I had this great painting professor at St. Edward’s named Hollis Hammonds, she’s an awesome lady. And she was the one who told me, “Your whole goal as an artist can just be to make beautiful objects.” And that was when I really finally felt permission to make what I wanted. She said that, and that took a little while to sink in, but she was very supportive of what I wanted to do. I think that a lot of the professors at St. Edwards were very supportive of helping you to enhance what you want instead of building you into this tortured artist soul that you find this dark piece of yourself and then put that on the canvas.

ME: So what you don’t want to do is this dark tortured corner—but what do you think you do want?

KACI: I’m really happy in my life right now, I’m really having a great time in Austin. I want to make pieces that really engage the viewer and give them something they can enjoy. Because I think so much in life is really unenjoyable, in some aspects. There’s a lot of terrible things out there, and I don’t want to put any more tortured things in the world. I don’t even want them to be too challenging for people. I think there’s enough of that. I make the work that I would want to walk into a gallery and see. So before I started it, that was the kind of thing that would draw me. Something that was really well done realistically, and very—not overly happy, I mean not like the colors are super saturated. But I guess they are really happy.

ME: They may make people happy. Or they may make people hungry. . . . What about the feeling I get, when I see your painting, of wishing that I had the object instead of the copy? And feeling almost a little bit teased?

KACI: Oh yeah! I think that’s another unintended side effect of the work that a lot of the people have said. They also felt teased. But then I was like, Go get it!

ME: It’s in Austin!

KACI: It’s in Austin! And if you’re looking at it, you’re probably in Austin. And if you’re not, you should come here anyway!

ME: In Austin you are probably best known as a performer. As an improv performer, and an operator of the Hideout. But you also have this whole identity as a visual artist, and not everyone that knows you casually may know that about you. Is there a big disjunct between those two personalities? How do they get along with each other?

KACI: They are different and I think it’s important. One is done mostly totally alone, and one is done surrounded by lots of people. But they have things in common, I keep finding over time. . . I’m an extravert, so I really like being around people, so I was more easily drawn into the theater things. . . .Whereas with visual work, it’s very much me making time for it, me pushing myself to buckle down. To go into work, to create a deadline, to create a goal. . . . I do graphic design and stuff and commissions, and that helps sometimes, but that’s—I get overwhelmed with all of them. Time with people and different projects, and, like, dealing with those different personalities. I do like to then take some time out and focus on just me and what I want. Being alone and working on this thing, and just working really hard, so much that I hate it, I hate what I’m making. And then I have to go away from that and get back to being around people. I think I need both of those things really bad. I think without one of them the other part would suffer for it. . . . It makes a little hard to identify myself when people ask me what do you do? Who are you? Because it’s like well . . .this, that, and this and this sometimes, and also this.

ME: Do you have a next project?

KACI: I was particularly drawn to Dutch portraiture, and one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is a series of self-portraits done in the Dutch style—very glossy and clean—but taking in more of my theatrical interests. Basically costuming myself like famous female archetypes or characters from well-known plays and films, and getting good photographs of these things, but then painting them in the Dutch style. Very much trying to convey emotion, but with the emotions and aspects of these characters through myself filtered through the style of painting.

ME: Wow.

KACI: It’s really ambitious.

ME: It’s awesome.

KACI: I’m really drawn to it somehow, and it seems even more self-indulgent than anything . . . But I honestly want to make these paintings convey these different characters as best as possible, so some of them very light, frivolous and fluffy, and some of them very dark, depressing, weighed-down. Like Lady Macbeth. Versus Ophelia.

ME: I was just going to ask who your top five were. What characters made you want to do this, did any just pop to mind instantly?

KACI: I was thinking about the little girl in the Bad Seed.

ME: [Freaking out.] YES!!!!

KACI: And also something like Ophelia, the idea of an ingenue. But then also Lady Macbeth, or some total fucking bitch, some crazy bitch. . . .Because I do this acting work, and you very much get cast as you look. I mean, I would never be cast as Lady MacBeth, ever. But could I convey that?

ME: You get the chance to.

KACI: This is what I want to do. I don’t know I’m very excited by this project, and also I find it a little daunting.

ME: That sounds really awesome. And it won’t be all cupcakes this time.

KACI: No. I can’t imagine an instance of cupcakes.

ME: Not even one cupcake?

KACI: Yeah, somehow all these people are also holding food.

ME: I meant metaphorically, like personalities. Like you’ve got the Bad Seed, Lady MacBeth . . . .

KACI: Who knows what I’ll do when I’ve done more of the research? Have you ever been on the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyworld or Disneyland? There’s these really great portraits. You go on this elevator and then it slides down to take you down to where this ride starts. But while the elevator is going down, a narrator starts talking about the house. And every painting looks really cutesy and nice, but as it goes down, the painting changes, and it becomes these evil portraits. A little girl looks really sweet, but then she’s holding a bottle of poison. Or somebody’s standing there really nicely, but then they’re on a wire or tightrope over a pit of alligators, and it looks like they’re gonna fall off and be eaten. I think that was in my head a little bit, the idea of some sort of narrative within a portrait.

WHAT I WISH I HAD SAID: I can’t wait to see what narrative emerges from your series of self-portraits, and I hope it involves alligators.

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