Katie Pell’s “The Best That I Can Give You and Less Than Half Of What You Deserve” is currently showing at Lawndale Art Center. Assistant Night & Day Editor Dusti Rhodes called her up to ask her about the exhibit. She got much more than she expected as Pell hilariously explained her need to create a piece of work aimed at proving to people they don’t need to try so hard to be liked.
Dusti Rhodes: Tell us about “The Best That I Can Give You and Less Than Half Of What You Deserve.”
Katie Pell: I wanted to do a piece where it was a like a diorama but the person who was walking through the painting was part of the diorama.
It’s kind of based on this work I’ve been doing recently that’s about kind of universal love or trying to create a paradigm of universal love.
Like trying to change the flavor of popular culture or expose kind of the underlying flavor or feeling about popular culture and gently examining it.
Like to go farther like a culture of hipness or a culture where everybody’s a rock star or everybody’s a porn star. That we’re all aspiring to this incredibly sophisticated kind of hybrid level of invulnerability. And how that kind of affects the way that we feel day to day and what would it be like if we aspired towards kindness rather than towards success. And so I just wanted to make a piece that’s about how great you are and how much we love you and you really don’t have to that self-help course. You really don’t have to do anything more than what you’re doing now and let’s just take a second and look at everything you’ve done so far and give you a standing ovation, you know? Give you a big round of applause, Dusti.
I remember the one that was on the walls, it was very forestry. It was very Bambi-like, I guess. So how does that reflect that feeling?
Yeah, I guess there is that kind of Bambiness. Like the idea of you know all the animals kind of coming – or to Snow White like she waits in the forest and all the animals come and help her out like maybe that kind of feeling. I mean, I didn’t really think about it before. What I was actually thinking about are the old religious paintings where, you know, the animals, the Adoration of the Magi where all the animals in the manger come and then like look adoringly at the new born baby.
I’m really interested in the idea of Jesus or Mohammad or even John Smith or whatever – people – the more mortal side, the more mortal aspect of their status as saviors and the idea that we’re all kind of products, not only of our environment, I mean certainly I’m not saying if I was Jesus’ sister I’d be like Jesus, I mean, I think I would, but the idea that people get thrust into exceptional circumstances and people get audiences in a way that allows them to really kind of like say what needs to be said. But we don’t all get that audience. It doesn’t mean that we don’t all – certainly a few of us don’t deserve the kind of audience someone like Jesus or Mohammad gets, but you know, there still might be some people, some really important people get looked over, you know?
I think that’s interesting because of how your pieces at Lawndale make the viewer as important as the artist. Like the work isn’t complete until the viewer stands in front of it. Like the artist isn’t the only one necessary in the piece.
I guess so, but I guess I’d be sad though if it was like – I kind of remember thinking it’s not about the art at all. It’s about life. It’s an art piece that’s just something to make us examine art, not referring to the art process. I mean, I hated like it’s like those old Las Vegas or Lawrence Welk acts, you know, where the audience is applauding them and then they start applauding the audience – I hope it’s not like that, because I don’t want it to be like that. I’m not really even thinking about – although I refer a lot to art historical devices because I’m an artist and because I love art history and I’m showing art in an art venue I’m hoping that the piece itself isn’t about that art dialogue. I hope it’s about the dialogue, but not in the context of the viewer-creator kind of dialogue. That might be something that’s not successful about it, I mean, I don’t know.
I noticed that in the paintings there was always an empty space. Is the purpose to have like someone fill that space like a person or anything in the viewers mind?
If you’re looking at the painting then hopefully you’re standing in the position where whoever is behind you can see you or at least the back of you being adored by all the things that are coming towards from the side. So yeah, definitely the viewer’s involved. What I guess I was trying to say is that I don’t see it in the context of like me the maker. I like to think of it as something that’s for the viewer. It’s not about, hopefully it’s not just about the art context. Like hopefully it would mean as much to you if you saw it at the shopping mall.
Laughs. Could extrapolate on that a little bit? I mean, like I don’t know. It’s a good point, because now I’m thinking: Would I think of it differently? It’s just two different environments and I’m wondering if I would give it the same respect if I saw it at the mall.
Well, I guess maybe a better way to put it is when I’m thinking about what I’m making the work about I’m not generally thinking what other people are making work about. I’m thinking more abut what I’m seeing in the culture. Like I’m not addressing formalist issues the way an abstract painter would or even somebody who’s like an art world critic or even someone like Fred Wilson or whatever. I’m thinking about what I see day to day around me what I see on TV, how I feel about vaginal reconstruction surgery or like what I think about when I hear all my friends are getting their tongues pierced so they can give better blow jobs. Like I just feel like c’mon you guys, like take it easy, dude. It’s all right, you don’t have to be a super porn star, you don’t have to be like the world’s best person in bed, you don’t have to have the hardest abs, you don’t have to have the coolest clothes, it’s like it’s okay. You can just be a dorky person who likes to give hugs, you know? I mean, I’m not but I wish I was. We don’t have to be, sort of, sophisticated and we don’t have to be so hard. You know, Jackass: The Movie might not be the best idea in the world. Not a lot of girls in Jackass: The Movie, I couldn’t help but notice. You know what I’m saying? We don’t all have to be like really awesome and macho and cool and rock stars and superstars and party all night, you know? And then have a baby and then have a vagina like as tight as a virgin the next week, you know? It’s all okay. I guess that’s what I wanted to make my stuff about, right now.
Because the forest animals still love you?
Yeah, everybody still loves you. You can live in a tender, maudlin world with like Hummel figures around you and it’s alright. You don’t have to be so cool. One of the things I do think about a lot is I think of the old Eight Is Enough TV shows. Those were – The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family – all of those people they look like crap compared to the people on TV now. Like that older sister in Eight Is Enough would never get on TV now, she’s kind of fat. It’s just so bizarre, like how narrow the parameters of this acceptable behavior have become or acceptability has become. You know, like if you had a show like that now it would be some like horrible Christian show, you know? Because if it wasn’t a horrible Christian show it would be like a bunch of bitches shopping and fucking each other’s boyfriends. There’s nothing in between – does that seem crazy?
Laughing. No, it doesn’t.
And so that’s what I’m thinking about when I’m making the work. I’m thinking about that a lot more then I’m thinking about the contemporary art dialogue. And not to say that I’m not thinking about the contemporary art dialogue. I don’t want to paint myself as some babe in the woods, because that would be a lie. All I’m saying is I remember also being a kid and seeing those Coke commercials where they’re like (sings) “I’d like to give the world a Coke” and all the people are running into the field and holding hands and I’m like it used to be or my imagination when I was a little girl is the way you got laid was acting sensitive and vulnerable and you read people your poetry. You didn’t say “Bitch, get in the car.” You know what I’m saying? There was kind of this aspiration and it may have been just as cynical but there was at least a pretension of kindness and vulnerability and genuine affection, which has been totally erased from even like everyday interaction. It’s just bizarre. And I don’t think I ever really cared and then all of the sudden I cared one day and I was like God, this is really pathetic, you know? And I know what it was actually, when I had a baby and I was all worried about downtown, you know? Like what’s gonna happen down there? Am I like never going to like – is this every going to recover? And [my mid-wife] was like “Well, what if doesn’t? What are you talking about? Who are you? Linda Lovelace? What do you care?” and I was like yeah, I guess I never thought of it that way, but [she was] right. I was all concerned about my porn-star ability or something. And that made me think, I mean it’s not all about sex, it’s also about respect, gentleness and, you know, sweetness.
Pell’s exhibit runs 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Fridays, and noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays, through February 23. For information, call 713-528-5858 or visit www.lawndaleartcenter.org. Admission is free.