SERENA COLE positions herself as a “hopeless outsider and wary researcher,” as well as as “a cultural anthropologist and an obsessive, self-aware consumer of highly seductive imagery.” Her drawings in colored pencil, gouache, watercolor and ink explore both the repulsion and attraction to an unattainable fantasy promised by fashion advertising. Serena received her MFA (2011) from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. She is currently an instructor at the Art Studio at UC Berkeley. Her solo exhibitions include Through the Glass Darkly (2012) at Soo Visual Arts Center in Minneapolis and I Wanna Be Adored (2009) at Triple Base Gallery in San Francisco. Serena lives and works in the Bay Area.
OtherPeoplesPixels: According to your bio,
"[An] extreme isolation from culture and civilization created a
fetishized association with anything perceived of as high art, fashion,
or wealth. [Serena] can still recall every page of the only Vogue she
was ever given as a child. This incurable affliction followed her into
adulthood and her art career. . ." How does your personal experience of
fashion magazines influence the art work you make based on this source
Serena Cole: I cite this little snippet from my childhood to offer anyone interested in my work the specific root of my obsessions. In many ways, my reaction to a lot of this imagery was similar to that of any other teen girl. It's almost ingrained in girl culture to rip a picture of a something you like out of a magazine and stick it to the wall. However, because I was so far removed from the reality of anything I wanted—a pair of jeans or being at a cool art party or buying even a new album at a record store—my obsessions and fantasies became my dreamscape. I lived in them entirely to avoid the fact that I was physically in the middle of nowhere. I didn't need the real thing, so particularly unattainable images like fashion ads weren't and still aren't problematic for me. I much prefer to live in the fantasy of the images I am drawn to. It’s like living in the Matrix. My drawings allow me to stay there as long as I want, but I can also completely control the dream. I can change the colors, change the composition, change the facial features. I can be outside, looking in. But I also create the fantasy from the inside out in my drawings, allowing me to have pure dominion over all my desires.
Are your drawings recreations of specific images taken from magazines?
How much do you modify the image in your process? What kinds of images
are you most attracted to?
SC: I am mostly drawn to images of people. I am interested in the psychological aspects of the facial expressions and of the gaze. I find all the sources for my drawings in expensive fashion magazines because I am deeply fascinated by the model or celebrity as a vehicle for fantasies. These images of people are made to be looked at, but not only that. They are made to exist as avatars. A glimpse of what kind of you is possible with the right merchandise. It is fascinating that the people in these high-end fantasy images are often emotionally distraught or completely vacant, almost dead. It suggests to me that we don't always fantasize about being one kind of person, but many fucked-up versions of ourselves. I modify these images only slightly, sometimes making these avatar creatures even more emotional, dark or sickly. It comes from a need to control them, instead of feeling that they are superior to me in some way. They become an army of versions of me.
OPP: Why do all these women seem so sad? Do you consciously avoid the fashion campaigns that employ images of joie de vivre?
SC: I have no interest in happy paintings in the same way I can't listen to the Cure past 1989 because they suddenly cheered up. I am interested in telling a subtle story with the expressions in my work, and there is no story in happy. It's boring to me because I am still an angsty teenager stuck in my room.
OPP: The titles in your Tropes
(2010-2012) are really successful at highlighting your position as a
self-proclaimed "wary researcher," a cultural anthropologist" and "an
obsessive, self-aware consumer." You've identified recurring visual
tropes in fashion advertising in works like Ecstasy Face IV, We Wish We Could Find the Sublime I (2011) and I'm An Animal, I'm Going to Eat You I (2010). Do you think the average consumer of these magazines is oblivious or savvy to these tropes nowadays?
SC: I'm not sure what the average consumer thinks. I don't feel it is my job to teach anyone anything that they are not already picking up on. I might not even be right about the armchair psychology findings that I'm presenting. I do find that, in talking to people about my source material, I am always asked to choose a side: am I for or against fashion? This comes from a variety of political beliefs that people are entitled to have. But I would really rather be talking with people about the nuances and hypocrisies of our own dreams, fears and desires. I am 100% aware that I am drawn to sick, unlivable, sexist images. It doesn't mean that I REALLY want it. I just want it for a second. Advertising is highly sophisticated and complex, and there's no surprise that what I want is unattainable. That is practically the definition of desire. But I feel like the difference is owning up to those desires, of being able to admit that you sometimes DO want to be comatose, sexually sublimated, socially deviant, etc. Most people are not honest enough with themselves.
OPP: Tell us about your most recent body of work Black Mirrors. What are these drawings reflecting?
SC: I was mostly thinking about my relationship and reaction to specific images I gathered of models who were acknowledging their own positions as subjects of desire. As idealized magazine figures, they were photographed for the purpose of evoking someone else's desire. However, they don't give you exactly what you want from them. These are not pin-ups with come-hither expressions. These are images of subjects choosing to confront the viewer. They look back, essentially making the viewer into the subject. This complicated relationship between desiring/being desired/seeing yourself as being desired is an example of Lacan's psychoanalytic theory of the Mirror Stage (a greater 'gestalt' figure versus reality). I found myself looking at these models as versions of who I wished I was. I also wanted to give them more autonomy than they have in the original photos. These mirrors of me as my fantasy selves are also pissed at being made into subjects, so I gave them all I-don't-give-a-fuck expressions.
OPP: What's going on in your studio right now?
SC: I have my hands in a lot of different cookie jars at the moment. As an experiment, I've been taking my own photographs to paint from, researching objects and figures I desire or find intriguing. I'm working on two series, one of people I know and the other of floral still lives I find. I also have a body of work of narrative, fucked-up, slightly surreal large-scale paintings that are taking a very long time to finish. And I am working on experiments with more three-dimensional, paper headdress projects. It's difficult to prepare for any kind of show working in this way, but all these projects inform each other. With more time, I hope to have a number of paintings I am happy with.
To see more of Serena's work, please visit serenacole.org.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago. Stacia is currently looking forward to creating a site-responsive collage installation in her hometown. NEXT: Emerging Virginia Artists opens on July 11, 2014 at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, VA.