Art Prostitute Magazine, Issue #2
www.artprostitute.com

ISABEL SAMARAS: NARRATIVE PAINTER OF SECRET LOVE

WHERE DID YOU STUDY ART?

I went to school at Parsons School of Design in New York City. I picked it somewhat arbitrarily. I had been accepted at a number of schools in different places but I went to Parsons because I wanted to live in New York. At the time I had been studying printmaking at the Corcoran in D.C. and I thought, “I’ll go to Parsons and I’ll become a printmaker…” I enrolled and started school and discovered that they don’t have a print major at Parsons. It may have been a good thing to check out before actually going to school there. They have a print department, but they didn’t allow you to do print as a major. It was a practical school and they didn’t really see printmaking that way. So I thought “I’ll put together something where I get to spend a lot of time in the print department,” and very arbitrarily again I thought “Well look, this department, Illustration, you get to do drawing, painting, and printmaking. That seems very well rounded… that’s me.” I had no idea what I was getting into. None. Zero. I didn’t know I was going to be sitting in classes where they would be going “Okay class, so here’s an article from the New York Times about the oil crisis in the Middle East. Do a black and white spot illustration, 4 x 5, by Monday.” I was like “What are you talking about?” I didn’t want to do that at all. I spent the next several years trying to do my own projects and convincing my teachers that they were in fact the solutions to their assignments. I slowly started sneaking into the fine art department and taking painting classes, which they didn’t really allow; you were supposed to stay within your department.

SO YOU WERE GOING FOR AN ILLUSTRATION DEGREE AND THEY WOULDN’T LET YOU TAKE ANY PAINTING CLASSES?

They had their own painting classes, so when I would go to my student advisor and say “I want to go over to the fine art department and take those painting classes with these specific teachers.” They would tell me “We have really good painting teachers in our department and I think those are just fine for you.” They sucked. They were just awful. I mean I think they would have been ok if they had been my focus, but I wanted something completely different. I wanted to learn about painting, not just problem solving, which is what the Illustration department was largely about.

YOU WOULD THINK THAT THE PAINTING DEPARTMENT WOULD BE ABOUT PROBLEM SOLVING TOO.

Different kinds of problems. At the time that I was going to Parsons the painting department was a little bit of a cult of personality. There was a teacher there who was a Neo-Geo abstract painter, and there was a little bit of a meat grinder kind of thing going on. All of the students that came into the fine art department started out saying “Oh I do all of these voodoo witch doctor paintings, or I do all of these symbolist dream paintings with men floating naked over grassy fields.” You know, everyone was doing their own thing, but by the time they came out through this four-year program at the senior show all you saw was neo-geo abstract paintings. So it wasn’t really happening over there one hundred percent for me either. There were great teachers, and I really got a lot out of it, but I think if I’d actually gone full bore into that program I would have come out painting cubes or something… or I would have dropped out of school because I would have been so bored. Somehow between those two departments, kind of straddling the two against the school’s will, turned out to give me exactly what I wanted.

AFTER SCHOOL DID YOU GO OUT LOOKING FOR AN OFFICE JOB OR DID YOU FEEL CONFIDENT ENOUGH TO FREELANCE?

You are pumped through the system when you go to college. That’s pretty much all they really teach you to expect. They don’t really teach you to try and create alternative means of supporting yourself, it doesn’t come up, and it’s not being taught anywhere. So unless you know somebody who can sort of mentor you, demonstrate to you that there are ways to survive creatively and that there are people doing it, you pretty much have to teach yourself because nobody’s really showing you how.

HOW DID YOU DEVELOP THIS FASCINATION WITH THE OLD MASTERS PAINTINGS?

It started out when I still lived in New York; I was doing enormous symbolist paintings based on my dreams. They almost always featured red haired women in some kind of peril. Which is relevant to what I thought living in New York was like. Then in the middle of doing all this bizarre stuff, I sort of on a lark painted a tin lunch box. I think that the first one was a Catwoman/Batman lunch box, which I did just to sort of amuse myself. I made it because I wanted to own it and it didn’t exist. I think that is sort of a theme that runs in a lot of my work: showing scenes that I wanted to see. That became sort of the point of my art later. Why couldn’t Catwoman and Batman ever get it on? Couldn’t they even kiss? Why couldn’t Frankenstein and the Bride ever have one moment of happiness? My god that movie was so sad. After all of that longing and desire, and he finally convinces the doctor to make him a bride, well she takes one look at him and she’s like “AAAAAAAAAAAHHH!” and that’s the end of the movie. That’s just so pathetically sad, so a lot of the work that started to happen for me I think was all about love on some level. In the beginning it was sort of pornographic because that was funny and it created a bigger sort of reaction. Then it became more about unrequited love, forbidden love, secret love, and basically allowing characters that never had a chance to finally have this moment, even if it was just a moment, of real happiness.

NOW HOW DID THAT TRANSFER OVER TO THE MASTER PAINTINGS?

I think it kind of came up in the same kind of lark way that the first lunch boxes did. I started painting on TV trays because I also liked this idea of referencing childhood, something from a time being yanked into an adult arena. The trays already have a nice little frame border on them, they are practically indestructible, and they are very cheap. I think I started doing kind of pin-up style paintings on them at first, like Batgirl in the Batcave doing a little cheesecake pose, because that was funny to me. Then I was reading a book about the story behind Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” a painting he had done about these guys who got shipwrecked and turned to cannibalism and ended up munching each other to survive their long, long time at sea. I just thought, well wouldn’t it be funny to put the “Gilligan’s Island” crew in there, these other shipwrecked people? A lot of these paintings have these layers: on the surface maybe you go, “Oh funny, look, it’s the Gilligan’s Island crew but it’s sort of like a master’s painting.” Maybe you know the master’s painting and you go “Oh funny juxtaposition.” Maybe you know the story behind that painting and you go “Oh, they’re going to go cannibal! They’re all going to start eating each other in the next scene!” I like that there are a lot of different levels in which different people can approach these paintings.

SO YOU LEAVE THE INTERPRETATION UP TO THEM?

Yeah. Totally. It’s so not important to me that they have to know. It’s not the point like, “They must know that it’s about cannibalism.” If that was the point then I could paint that. I could paint them gnawing on each other… the next scene. I sort of like the fact that you have to go there… or not. Take this one for example, Herman Munster gazing at himself in the water. If you don’t know that it’s Herman Munster then maybe you think its Frankenstein. That’s okay. That’s still sort of interesting. Frankenstein looking lovingly at his reflection. Well, he’s a monster. He seems to be finding himself a little attractive. Maybe there is something about that that would be interesting to you. The painting’s actually based on a painting of Narcissus, who was so in love with his own reflection in the water that he actually fell in and drowned. So there’s a story in there about self-obsession and being in love with your own appearance, but whether you go that deeply into it, that’s a personal choice. I don’t feel like I have to drag people there. I try to put a little something in the background so that if you happen to know about the Planet of the Apes, maybe you’ll look all the way in the back of another painting and see the Statue of Liberty and that might crack you up. If you don’t know what it is, maybe you wont understand it or maybe you wont see it. On some level maybe you will just look at it and go “Oh sweet. Monkeys.” And that’s all you get. For me, it’s like this sweetness in tragedy because Zira died trying to save her baby, and at the end of the movie (“Escape from the Planet of the Apes”) they’re all dead and the baby goes off to join the circus. So again it’s like trying to save these moments from tragedy and sort of pull the sweet moment out of it. Find the tender moment and sort of hold it… preserve it. And enjoy it before it all goes to shit. It’s also storytelling. A lot of these old master paintings were entertainment. Going to see paintings was an entertaining event at these big salons and shows because everybody recognized the characters even if they had never seen the painting before. “These are Biblical characters. I can tell because of the props. This is the goddess Minerva because she has this whoop-de-doo on her head.” Those were some things people could relate to in some kind of commonality because they all knew Bible stories and classical mythology. Well we all know these guys because this is what we all grew up chewing on at the time… these TV yarns. I want to tell stories that we can all understand, and I don’t think we all know those other characters that well anymore. There’s a part of me that wants to be a writer or a storyteller.

HAVE ANY OF THE PEOPLE WHOSE CHARACTERS YOU’VE RENDERED SPOKEN UP?

No. I’ve kind of been braced for it. I have hoped that if any of them saw my work they would realize that it comes from a place of really deep affection. I’ve only had a couple of instances where it seemed like something was going to happen. Once when I did one with Spock and Kirk kissing, which was clearly pornographic because it involved erect Vulcan and human penises and cock rings and stuff, it got stolen from a gallery in Oregon. I made pictures and gave them to the gallery to put up around town, telling them, “You know, before you Xerox this as a poster you should probably put a black box over the dicks because it’ll be out in public.” Well, they didn’t and they postered the town. Some people got really upset, one woman in particular got really, really upset. The good thing that happened was that the painting was returned. The bad news was that this woman went ballistic. She tried to get the gallery closed. She tried to get their funding denied. She contacted her Senator, at the time Packwood (oh the irony) to get him to do something about it, and she contacted Paramount and told them that they should sue me. USA Today picked up the story and said “This artist” (would it have killed them to name me?) “blah blah blah Star Trek painting whoop-de-doo and what’s going to happen?” Well nothing happened. I was contacting lawyers and just sort of waiting for a letter or phone call from Paramount and it never happened. Then a year later, a university gallery in Eugene, Oregon, was doing a show about censorship in the arts and they wanted to show that painting even though it wasn’t specifically censored. I guess there was a lot of hoopla about it and the CENSORSHIP show ended up getting censored. People were so upset about a bunch of work in the show, including mine, that they hung black velvet curtains around some of the art. So you had to be totally stigmatized and go in these little peep booths to see pieces in the show. 

I’ve been told by lawyers that as long as they are one of kind pieces, that the First Amendment protects them, parody, freedom of speech, etc. If I wanted to mass-produce merchandise then they could sue me. So I can’t do that kind of stuff with these images, which is probably why I have the whole Devil Babe thing because it’s the only thing I can merchandise, it’s all mine. I don’t own the copyrights to Planet of the Apes so I can’t go out and create merchandise with any of those images on them.

WHO ARE SOME OF YOUR ARTISTIC INFLUENCES?

All the Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo stuff, I could just eat that with a spoon. I really like Masami Teraoka. I saw his stuff while I was still in art school and he was doing all these beautiful paintings that were based on Japanese style woodcuts, but they would have contemporary things going on. It was really close to something that was going to be bubbling up with me because it was this contemporary subject matter meshed with this old-style technique. Then there’s Enrique Chagoya who kind of mixes pre-Columbian mythology with American pop culture icons. It’s about a clash of cultures and North American’s dominance over South American culture and I find that stuff really cool. Then there are people whose paintings just blow me away like Mark Ryden. I think the first time I switched from acrylic to oil paint, the first piece I did was all super blendy the way his stuff is because I immediately thought that if you are using oil paint you’ve got to make it look like this perfect candy, sugar-coated thing like he does. Then I looked at it when I was done and realized that it was so not like my work. That’s how far that admiration will go if you don’t rein it in and control it. I love Lisa Petrucci’s stuff; she’s up in Seattle. Her paintings have sort of an obsessive quality. She does some pin-up stuff too which turns up in my work as well, so it really clicks with me. I think one of the things that I really respond to is people who are very obsessive, because I’m very obsessive. Also technique. I’m really drawn to people who can paint, draw or film the shit out of stuff. If you’re doing things that are hard, then it speaks to me of a real commitment and a love for something that I can appreciate.

ON YOUR BUSINESS CARD, USUALLY PEOPLE JUST LABEL WHAT THEY DO IN JUST A FEW WORDS. WHAT WOULD YOU PUT DOWN FOR WHAT YOU DO ON YOUR BUSINESS CARD?

That is a hard question because if I were just being stupid well I would just say I’m a painter, but that’s so non-descriptive. So maybe I’m a storyteller, but even that makes it seem like I go to the children’s reading room at the library… “Today kids we are going to read a story about a little bear.” While that would be fun, that’s not what I do. Then I thought, “Well, all my paintings are about love… I’m like a love enthusiast.” Okay. That sounds like a prostitute’s calling card. So I don’t know if I could think of something that would fit in a line on a business card that kind of gets it. I mean what… “Narrative painter of secret love?” I mean what can you say?

NARRATIVE PAINTER OF SECRET LOVE. 

There! That’s what goes on my card. 


 
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