Forest Offering (3), 2019. Acrylic on canvas. 36" x 24."
EMILY KAELIN's paintings are deeply psychological. Her female subjects of weep black blood from their many eyes; they foam and spew noxious fluids from their indistinct mouths. These women are suffering but also learning and transforming. Images of disease and decay coexist with verdant growth, expressing the inherent contradictions of internal experience. Emily earned her BFA at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design (Denver, Colorado) and her MFA at Burren College of Art (Ballyvaughan, Ireland). She has been an Artist-in-Residence at Hypatia-in-the-Woods (2019) in Shelton, WA and the Nes Artist Residency in Skagaströnd, Iceland. In 2019, she opened her solo show I am a Monster and curated Viscera: Experimental Performance of the Grotesque at Mockbee Gallery (Cincinnati, Ohio). Follow Emily @vvitchinheat to see new and in-progress works. She lives and works in Cincinnati, Ohio.
OtherPeoplesPixels: You’ve said all your works are self-portraiture. In what way?
Emily Kaelin: I’ve made intentional self-portraits since I was young. In art school I made it a habit to do these regularly alongside whatever other work I was doing. Self-portraits were particularly challenging—for me anyway—because it was impossible to look at my physical self objectively enough to render it in a way that felt accurate. Early on I abandoned the idea that my self-portraits had to be realistic. It became more important to accurately render my internal perception(s) of myself, and in doing so my style and imagery became more abstracted, expressionistic and surreal.
The work that I’ve made in the past six or seven years didn’t begin as self-portraiture explicitly. The more that I made, the more I realized that it was always about me. Specifically, it was about trying to envision multiple versions of myself, on a psychic level, especially my shadow selves. These works are self-portraits in that their existence and my process of making them is a deliberate method of working towards a better understanding of myself.
I am Sublime Suffering, 2019. Acrylic on canvas. 36" x 48."
OPP: Who are the Rotting Queens? What are they queens of?
EK: I like dichotomies; beauty and decay, sacred and profane, the sublime and the abject. I’ve used these in my work, both in form and in content, long before I even knew what I was doing. I like the emotional alchemy—the simultaneous attraction and revulsion— that happens when these dualities are combined. The Rotting Queen figures are one of many extensions of this conceptually. I guess you could say they are all queens of abject matter or phenomena: sickness, blight, death, blood, wounds, mutilation, etc. Yet some of the sub-titles and much of the imagery are suggestive of more life-affirming natural forces—the moon, flowers, moss, venus—and there are elements of beauty and ornamentation. Some figures are more brutal looking than others, and there elements that suggest rot and beauty simultaneously: bloody pustules that could be rubies, glitter that is also blood.
The Rotting Queens are facets of my shadow selves. Making this work may be an attempt to reconcile the darker and uglier sides of myself with my ideal self, but without my knee-jerk self-hatred and perfectionism. Rather I make those facets sacred and their disturbing nature precious, resplendent even.
Rotting Queen (the empress), 2015. Acrylic and spray paint on canvas. 30" x 40."
OPP: Can you talk more broadly about Barbara Creed’s notion of the “Monstrous-Feminine” in your work?
EK: The Monstrous Feminine is yet another theme that existed in my work long before I was really aware of it, and the reasons for its ubiquity are both personal and political. Much of my personal attraction to beauty and revulsion comes from my own personal experiences of duality in life: pain, suffering, ecstasy, love, emptiness and abundance. These feelings are universally felt, eve if individually varied in experience.
Pain is an inevitable and necessary part of living, but I meditate often on the unnecessary pain we inflict on ourselves and others when we happily or ignorantly collude in systems of oppression that cause suffering in the interest of preserving some ideal or some some specific privileged group.
I think the female experience is an example of this, and there is specific suffering that comes with that experience. Patriarchy is an oppressive system that has been ubiquitous world-over for millennia, even though it is ENTIRELY a made-up construct. Patriarchy creates a duality in the condition of women: we are sacred, worshipped goddesses or vile, fearsome witches. Beauty is painful and female suffering or degradation is eroticized. Artist Wangechi Mutu says that “anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body.” I like the female monster because she is subversive; she revels in what makes her despised because it is what makes her strong. Her strength is demonized precisely because it threatens those who would try to subdue her.
On the one hand, my work is about my own reconciliation and reclamation of my inner ugliness and pain. On the other hand, it is a reclamation of what is culturally despised and ugly in women. This is recast as power, beauty and liberation.
Works from I don't want your love unless you know I am repulsive, and love me even as you know it. 2014. Watercolor on paper. 22" x 30."
OPP: Let’s talk about the mouths. They foam and weep like open wounds; they vomit noxious-looking fluids, and drip black blood. These images certainly evoke illness and disease, but I also read these as an expression of both silencing and vitriol. Like, if you hold anger in long enough, it erupts and spews in all directions. How do you think of the mouths?
EK: The mouths evoke a kind of leaking of internal darkness that can’t be helped or in some cases a complete eruption of that darkness. I use images of physical pain, illness and injury to suggest emotional or psychic pain and illness made manifest. My own experience with mental illness has happened most substantially on an internal level. It is difficult to confront pain that feels trapped inside of you and can’t be seen by others or felt tangibly. Perhaps the mouths are trying to hold in all the pain, but it leaks out anyway, an experience I certainly relate to :)
Nature Spirit (2), 2019. Watercolor on paper. 22" x 30."
OPP: Your most recent paintings from 2019-2020 have a new quality: hope. Where earlier works had both bleached and dark voids for backgrounds, these have thriving, growing plant life. What lead to the introduction of verdancy, which can be a metaphor for abundance?
EK: As I’ve continued to push my content further, I’ve further contemplated the dichotomies I work with and how I can expand and develop their complexity and nuance. Beauty becomes further enfleshed through fecundity, abundance and lushness. In my newest work, the counterpoint of decay and abjection is becoming more visceral. I’ve begun studies of carcasses and flayed flesh, exploring how to paint these elements in their own lush, rich way. I did an artist residency last fall in the forests of the Olympic peninsula of Washington, where I studied rendering the forest’s verdancy, lushness, darkness, and strangeness. I happened to find a gutted, skinned deer carcass on one of my walks, sans head and hooves, was the perfect foil for the more verdant foliage I’ve been working with lately. It was that image that inspired me to take my imagery to a more visceral place.
Forest Offering (1), 2019. Acrylic on canvas. 36" x 24."
OPP: We are in the midst of a global pandemic. Is Covid-19 changing your work right now?
EK: It is certainly affording me abundant time to devote to my own art practice! But as I am working on more “visceral” imagery at present, I am reminded again of inevitable cycles of pain and joy, emptiness and abundance, and all the ways that we amplify our pain unnecessarily as humans. I see that same drama playing out in our present pandemic scenario. There’s this mentality that we have to suffer to deserve anything in life, that we have to suffer for the sin of living, of existing. Maybe humans are masochists. I worry that I am a masochist. But I also believe in transcendence of pain. I believe in facing, embracing and transforming pain. It’s the only way to truly grow, and it is inherent in the cycles of life and death and rebirth. It’s why I make art. I feel powerless in the face of the suffering that exists in our world; so much of it is human made. But I can find power in what I can control, what I do with my own pain, how I transform it.
To see more of Emily's work, please visit www.emily-kaelin.com