Junk nails with jam on Mexican cookie
40 x 26"
HELEN MAURENE COOPER is concerned with the traditions of storytelling mutated by pop culture. Her work engages various photographic traditions from her recreations referencing portraiture and pop culture to her large-scale macro photographs bordering on abstraction to her recent documentary photography. She is one half of the collaborative duo Baccara, a 2012-13 BOLT Artst-in-Residence at Chicago Artists' Coalition. She is also a co-founder and co-director of Azimuth Projects which aims to expose new audiences to Chicago's bountiful art community. Helen Maurene lives and teaches in Chicago, IL.
OtherPeoplesPixels: In your statement, you mention that your works are influenced by "[your] preoccupation with longing, desire, and the containment of wildness." Could you say more about "the containment of wildness?" Helen Maurene Cooper: I think my preoccupation with "the containment of wildness" has a lot to do with the cultural climate and the media imagery present in my growing up… Maybe, it’s about the disconnect between the representations of women—luscious flamboyant and proud—on the covers to all of Mom’s country music albums and their sad, whiny songs. Maybe it’s about music videos from the 1980’s and the subtle racism that masquerades as cultural fetish: numerous visions of Africa, wild life, woman on safari… long, curly, wind-blown hair; bi-racial relationships; the desert; the jungle. Maybe it’s about coming of age in the AIDS crisis, protection foregrounded in desire. These are some thoughts. I have more, but really as long as I can remember I have looked for visual representations of that which is uncontained, which is then naturally reflected in my art.
OPP: That makes a lot of sense to me. You bring up the representations of women that you were seeing as you grew up... there is something particularly feminine about your work. But I say that with hesitancy, because I want to avoid essentializing the female experience or defining the feminine only in relation to the media... but would you agree that the wildness your are talking about is specifically feminine?
HMC: Completely, but it has to do with the performance of femininity: the complexities, the artifice and the authentic (if that even exists). In the time between my undergraduate and graduate schooling, I did a photography project in Philly about trans people living as women. When I was shooting Birds of Appetite, the process of adorning myself—my nails, fake eye lashes, makeup and clothing—was much like what I witnessed the women I photographed in Philly do… it was drag in its own way.
Archival Pigment Print
30 x 40"
OPP: When constructing photographs, do you tend to have an idea for an image and then seek out the appropriate costumes, props and backdrops? Or does it happen the other way around? MHC: The way I construct a photograph really varies from piece to piece. My graduate school work, Birds of Appetite, began with general image-based research. I took hundreds of stills from Veronica Hart films, and I plastered my studio with variations of gestures and scenes that were used as the basis for creating my own narratives. I then produced and directed images with myself as the actress, sometimes with a male counterpart. The positioning of bodies was the primary principle. I then chose the location and added costuming where it was appropriate. As the work evolved, the components shifted. Sometimes, I would find a wig or a garment and build a scene around that. At one point, I was really interested in the zoo as a backdrop, so I scouted locations from the camel house to the primate house and then picked costumes and color palettes based on those chosen locations. When I begin staged photography projects, I usually give myself some kind of starting point that helps me organize my brainstorming, such as pulling film stills and building from there. Once I am pleased with the images I am producing, I allow myself to deviate from the process and pick another element as the leading criteria. OPP: Your later series Hoodwink also uses custuming and props as it "juxtapose[s] the self-conscious language of portraiture with exaggerated bodily details and urban niche cultural signifiers?" What are the origins of this body of work? MHC: It’s hard to talk about Hoodwink with out talking about Hard Candy. Both projects happened simultaneously and, to a certain extent, are still in progress. They come out of the very strange racially/ culturally segregated organism that is Chicago. Since finishing graduate school, I have taught photography in the Community College system primarly to nonwhite and economically disadvantaged students. Both bodies of work are very much a product of conversations with my students regarding financial and cultural barriers in the city.
The first iteration of this work, which never made it to a website, was a much more literal collaboration. I asked my male students to generate lists for me of slang they thought would be funny to hear white men say. I then took those lists to an airbrush artist and had him make t-shirts for me with these sayings.Then I went to bars in Wrigleyville and asked white men to pose for me wearing the shirts. The images I made in that four-month period leave me cold; there is something about them that is so stupid, it misses the point of cultural appropriation. The men I photographed were so not in on the joke. I then tried the same idea out at a few lesbian bars, but much to the same end, visually uncoupling and just embarrassing.
Archival Pigment Print
50 x 60"
OPP: How do the signifiers of race, class and gender play out in relation to the portraiture you reference?
HMC: I was watching a lot of hip hop videos at the gym and was so attracted to the aesthetic of the women in them that it made me want to return to female subjects and to play with their tropes of femininity. I wanted to make portraits, I wanted the control of working in a studio, and I liked the scripting of clothing. For me, this is a more natural method of playing with cultural appropriation. Much like with Birds of Appetite, I picked a visual starting place: Mannerist painting, which is seductive, formal and gestural as hell, much like the hip hop videos. I chose to have my models wear accessories similar to women in the videos—acrylic nails, acrylic hair and plastic jewelry—all things that are put on the body that do not represent identity, but point to race and class within an American context. Most clothing came from Rainbow at Chicago and Kedzi, the wigs from a wig store in the same shopping center, weave and graphics by Kara Wabbel of Barbara and Barbara and backdrops from China via Ebay.
OPP: Is the process of shopping for the shoots as important to you as the photo shoots themselves?
HMC: The process of shopping is one of the necessary details; there is pleasure in the hunt and making the puzzle pieces work. But it is not as important as shooting the picture.
19 x 24"
OPP: So let's talk about Hard Candy specifically, because that series does something slightly different, but related to what Hoodwink does by focusing in so close to the details of the accessories you mention. It's a series of large-scale macro photographs exploring the aesthetics of nail art in relation to decadent materials like icing, glitter, and candy. The compositions are formal and have an intense lushness and sensuality. They definitely evoke a sense of longing in me. They make me want… abstractly. What I mean is, they awake a desire for things I didn't want before I saw the photographs. Do you have a personal connection to nail art? MHC: I got my first set of acrylic nails when I was in graduate school shooting Birds of Appetite. I was scripting myself as characters based on ultra-feminine personas from B-movies, porn and country music of the early 1980s, and all those characters had long, oval, sculpted nails. I would sit in the nail salon and wait for my polish to dry, all the while longingly looking at the designs on the hands of women around me. In my first year of teaching college, I began to notice the nuances in nail design on the hands of students and clerks at various stores. I began asking questions about these shops and, with vague intersection coordinates, began to venture into various neighborhoods on the far west side. As Americans, we know the cultural norm. The stereotype is that all nail shops are Asian-run, but what exists in pockets of Chicago is a very different model. Hispanic and African-American women run the shops, operating as independent contractors. I could go on all day about the financial model, but the pertinent part is that Chicago has a very specific nail culture, and shops run by Hispanic and African-American women often use very different styles and techniques than those seen at Asian shops. The style and model comes out of Detroit.
There is a name for every type of design and acrylic add-on, subtraction and cultural element. The titling in each of my photographs is significant. If the women I photographed had had her nails done at an Asian shop, the photograph is titled “Design with…" If the nails come from an African-American shop, then the photograph is titled with the language assigned to the design: money, junk, 3d, inlay, stripes, lines, drag, etc... It’s somewhat annoying to me that nail art has become so popular and really co-opted in the past year, but, again, it isn’t the nail art of or produced by working class women that has become popular. It is nail art for privileged women, done in high-end salons. Nail art in Chicago and the Midwest is its own thing; it’s very insider. I get my nails done in other cities, but you can’t find a tech in New York or Philly who knows how to lay acrylic, inlay or do detail brush work the way you can in Chicago. It’s very specific to the cultural flavor of urban Midwest living. I tried to photograph nails for a year and a half before I finally broke down and just got my own acrylics. Wearing large acrylic nails changed my ability to make photographs; any women in the know could look at my nails and tell what shop I had been to. The quality of the work is something that really identified me as an insider. I photographed my students and clerical workers at Harold Washington College for a solid two years. Currently, I am still shooting but making more abstract images, with larger color and sparkle fields.Untitled
14 x 11"
OPP: Recently, you've been taking portraits on site at the nail salon in Chicago where you have been getting your nails done for years. Could you talk about the shift from the photographs of the nail art itself to photographs of the nail artists and clients who have their nails done? MHC: I actually started going to a new salon in March, and my tech and I are the same age—most of the techs are in their early 30s. The shop is known for its raucous techs and clientele. Collectively there is good amount of gossiping about men, and there’s a lot of watching of reality TV and commentary on everything. Because the shop is such a social place, asking to photograph in the salon didn’t feel like a major invasion (even though I am white and they are not, we are of very similar economic demographics), and I thought they might be receptive to the idea.
I was looking at Sammy’s, New York, 1940-44 by Lisette Model a good deal this summer. It’s a bar portrait of a women and a solider. These two figures take up the majority of the frame, with small headspace for two male characters in the background. The flash falls on the woman. Her make-up, clothing and hair are highlighted, and there is sweetness to the moment she shares with the sailor. I loved the details of the female character's face and the intimacy shared between two people in this image. I spent a good deal of time thinking of how I could play with this strategy of intimacy and isolation in space. And I spent even more time gazing across the nail table at Mz. Carla, my nail tech. The desire to photograph her and, specifically, to photograph her from that distance of the table became really strong. I liked the space between us and the idea of isolating a figure so that you really didn’t have too much contextual information. It took several weeks of negotiation with Mz. Carla and other women in the shop, but I have now steadily been photographing every to every other week. I always get my nails done, and then I hang out for another hour or two and photograph. I take 4x6 prints of the shoot from the week before and give them to the techs and to their clients.
OPP: It's interesting to me that you flip back and forth between staged studio photography, where you are in control of everything, and this on-site shooting that requires you to just respond to whatever is happening in front of you. It seems like most photographers do one of the other.
HMC: It’s a very different type of photography than I’ve done in years. The strategy is more in the documentary tradition, but the work is still evolving. In many ways, it’s much harder than making staged photographs. I have to move quickly and recall strategies of street photography as I frame and shoot. Also, this new work requires a vulnerability and an openness that can, at times, feel awkward. I’m feeling very challenged and rewarded.
OPP: You also have a collaborative practice with Madeleine Bailey known as Baccara. How did this collaboration start? How has it been fruitful? MHC: Baccara began as a case of mistaken identity with artist Madeleine Bailey. We were both MFA candidates at SAIC and overlapped briefly. A few years later, we were introduced at a party and immediately began to talk about the possibility of collaboration. When we look back on that night, we are still surprised that we proposed such closeness without knowing one another. In the past two years, we have created several bodies of work, done our own homemade residencies in Indiana and created a shared studio practice. This summer we were in a two-person show at Electricity is Magic in Toronto called White Noise Syndrome and are currently 2012-13 BOLT residents at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition with a shared studio space.
To give you something more formal, our artists’ statement reads: “Drawing on mythologies of romance and stories of mistaken identity, our name channels the image of the Black Rose as depicted through the Harlequin romance novel ‘Knights of the Black Rose.’ While the Black Rose is not found in nature, botanists have manipulated the genetics of several varieties of roses, creating a hybrid black rose that actually appears to be a deep red or purple. Appealingly, Baccara is also the name of a successful female Spanish musical duo, whose hits melded disco, pop, and elements of Spanish folk music in the 1970s. With particular affection for ’Yes Sir, I can Boogie’ and ‘Sorry, I'm a Lady,’ we took the name of the genetically modified flower and the campy folk disco band and made it our own: as Baccarra, we are a Chicago-based female duo that produces photographs and works on paper as well as performance and narrative based videos, embracing artifice and the absurd through childhood games and sexual parody.” Baccara, is a two-headed, red-headed monster, a powerful friendship, a creative union and a business partnership. OPP: Can you tell us about the collaborative performance Baccara did at the Starving Artist benefit for Chicago Artists' Coalition a few weeks ago? MHC: Baccara created a sensorial experience in which guests at the Starving Artist benefit selected one of two chocolates provided by Vosges Haut-Chocolat. Guests were then blindfolded and guided to select their preference between each of two scents, sounds and tactile experiences. Three masked assistants (Jackie Rivas, Alysia Alex, and Kaylee Wyant) assisted in this procedure and photographed every aspect of the event. Props used were two scent vials, one ipod with headphones, one brass object and one pheasant pelt. Madeleine and I were dressed to embody each of the two choices, one being baroque the other being “gypsy passion." Approximately 400 chocolates provided by Vosges were hung from the ceiling using a series of empty frames stretched with screen and strung with thread. Given the guests sensorial choices, they were photographed in front of one of two backdrops. The background represented their taste, and they were given a corresponding chocolate: the absinthe truffle was wrapped in burlap and corresponded to the “gypsy passion,” and the lulu truffle (created for this event) was in purple silk and was paired with the baroque background.