Roughly once a month, we pose questions to artists about their work and lives. We recently asked a group of artists, How do you approach potentially shocking subjects (violence, sexuality, profanity, etc) in your work?
This is Part One of a two-part post.
Katrina Majkut, visual artist
My primary goal when approaching potentially shocking objects is complete honesty. My art subjects relate to the female body and reproductive health (and now guns in a new series), which are very polarized hot topics in the US. An artist’s approach to sensitive subjects is imperative when considering its audience. Sometimes stirring the pot will have a maximum effect, though I prefer subtle nuances where I can reach both sides of an argument and having a bipartisan discussion. Honesty presented in the form of simple still lifes forces viewers to consider an actual object. My reproductive tools tend to be objects that people most likely have a strong opinion of, but with which they have limited physical interaction. Honesty eliminates hostility, and I’ve found my work and approach invites people to share deeply personal narratives or to learn about the body without shame and without politics. Where many consider my chosen subjects as potentially shocking, my visual style highlights how in fact the objects are nonthreatening; it is the viewer’s biased interpretation that activates them.
I should add though, that if these birth control images are controversial, it just goes to show how little women’s rights and freedom to control their own bodies has come. These images are 54 years old (The Pill was invented in 1960)!
Daniela Petrova, writer
My novel, Stolen, is about a teenage girl trafficked into prostitution. Sexual violence is an essential part of the story; it is the story. There is no easy way of dealing with it on the page. At least, I haven’t found one yet. Reading is an intimate experience. Unlike in movies, there is no screen on which the pain is projected, no buffer, no space between the violence and our most terrifying fears. In Stolen, I have let my heroine tell her own story in the form of a memoir, bringing the reader as close to her experience as possible. The only distance is the distance she herself erects in order to preserve her sanity. She accomplishes that by experiencing the violence in an out-of-body fashion, as if she is watching herself in a movie.
Damian Cote, visual artist
In general I approach projects with a goal of bringing the topic matter to a wider audience. Everything I cover has, does, or will exist in the world. If it is a taboo or difficult subject to show, it probably needs to be worked on.
The screen-printed training manual (FM-9-26), was created using the actual text within an assortment of U.S. military survival manuals. This book discusses violence and latent homosexuality because it is an innate part of the military life. First as an artist, I would say that I have only illustrated what the original manuals failed to include. Second as a veteran of the USMC infantry, it is an experience that I have lived first hand and therefore commentary I have earned the right to make.
I equate my method of work to be no different than a journalist or investigative reporter. The lifelong and diversified experiences are what have shaped the lens in which I view through. Just like journalistic writing, these subject matters are difficult to cover. Unlike the news however, these subjects do not sell in the art world. Though they are unpleasant, they are a reality that will otherwise likely go unnoticed.
Watch for Part Two of this discussion in an upcoming post.
How do you address potentially shocking subject matter in your art? Let us know in the comments. And if you have an idea for a future question you’d like us to ask artists, let us know.
Damian Cote‘s Web site currently includes the full Letters to Dr. Ehrlich series and a PDF version of the recently completed catalog (with commentary by Greg Cook). Recently, his work has been will be exhibited at the College of Notre Dame Gormley Gallery (3/24-4/25), The Print Center‘s 88th Annual International Competition, and the LaGrange National XXVIII Biennial Competition the Lamar Dodd Art Center in Georgia.
Katrina Majkut will be part of the exhibit A Woman’s Arms at Lincoln Arts Project (3/13-4/26, opening reception 3/14, 7 PM). She also has exhibitions (current or upcoming) at UNC at Wilmington, University of Alberta Canada, Pierro Gallery, and Mount Hood Community College.
Daniela Petrova‘s writing has won the Eric Hoffer Award Editors Prize and has been published in Marie Claire, Christian Science Monitor, Poets and Artists, and the anthologies Twenty Years After the Fall and Best New Writing 2008. Read an excerpt of her novel Stolen on the Gallery@MCC.
Images: Katrina Majkut, PLAN B (2013), Thread on Cross Stitch Fabric, 5×6.75 in; Damian Cote, from FM 9-26 (FIELD MANUAL) (2010), screen printed hand bound book. 10×13 inches closed, Edition of 20.