Open to Love
A Conversation with cover artist Rebecca Vaughan
OL: We’re using an image from your Displaced collaboration for our cover art this month. Would you mind telling us a little about it?
The piece is called “Celestial Navigation,” and it’s the first collaboration I’ve done with my husband, Peter Illig. We’ve been interested by old mid-century signage and roadside signs each on our own for years. When we started talking about how much we loved old road signs, we started researching and found this place outside of Las Vegas, the Neon Museum which has a sign “graveyard” or “boneyard” of all of the old rusting signs from the first generation Las Vegas strip. We loved the idea of making a sign, but struggled with choosing a word – we just didn’t want to be so didactic or expository with a word, so we thought that a stand-in for words could be interesting instead. That’s how we came-up with the idea of “blanks” or empty spots. And since I’d used medallion or decorative cartouche shapes in my previous work it seemed like the outline of the medallion and an “X” would be perfect as non-descript stand-ins for language.
The images painted on the faces of the medallions are taken from Gericault’s “Raft of the Medusa,” an 1818 painting that depicted a terrible tragedy in 1816 in which 132 people died from a shipwreck off the coast of Mauritania due to the incompetence of a French naval captain. The painting is iconic and becomes even more interesting because of the erotic and sensual way that Gericault depicted the dead or dying bodies. It’s this strange collision of passion and tragedy.
We began to think of this strange collision as a crisis between the body and emotions, so that’s why we thought to put the flashy showy Las Vegas-style blinking language with the tumbling, eroticized, reaching bodies.
OL: Did the work begin with Peter’s drawings or with your concept?
Peter and I come from totally different art practices. He is a straight-up 2-D representational painter (however very adept at working with all kinds of materials), while I’m a conceptual sculptor, and make installations and relational interactions/performances out of any material that serves my messages. We work well together, and have assisted each other a lot in the others’ projects, but never before on a collaborative piece. We were very conscientious about not wanting the piece to look too much like my work or too much like his work, but wanted to meet somewhere in the middle. We still don’t know if that’s the best way to have approached it. We feel very uncomfortable still with the piece, and have all sorts of criticisms. We’ve talked about making another piece together right away to correct what we wish we’d done better, and to improve on the intended messages.
OL: Do you think the sense of smell is underdeveloped or underused in western art? Why is scent important to you and how do you think it can be used to create “manipulative & sentimental” effects?
I started thinking about using smell when I realized that pheromones were this totally public totally pervasive scent that we are all emitting all the time – that cause us to make private, sexual, atavistic, animal decisions! This is more of the crisis between the public/private spheres.
When my father died in 1999, he died in a way that made him a perfect organ donor. I was steeping in my research on gift-giving at that time, and remembered that our culture refers to organ donation as the “gift of life,” since you can’t sell organs, or make money off of someone’s life. So, as an extension to that research, I began looking into organ donation and found this crazy information linking death to life – when there is a stillborn calf, a rancher will skin the stillborn and drape its hide on an orphan calf. This smell on the orphan tricks the mother of the stillborn into letting it nurse from her.
So, I thought if this was really true — if scent was this powerful so as to trick someone into being your mother — then I could use scent to find my biological mother who I had never met. It seemed like the answer to me to also understand the loss of one parent. So, this is how “Lure” was created.
In the past handful of years, I shifted my search for my mother to my search for love, and finding a partner. It seemed perfect to return to pheromones again, and so I returned to scent in my project “Personal Locator Beacon.” I remember seeing Carsten Holler’s “Solandra Greenhouse” in the 2004 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, PA, and he had filled a whole greenhouse in the museum with the Golden Chalice Vine, a plant found to secrete a pheromone that, in humans, makes us create the same concoction of neurotransmitters that we make when we’re we’re “madly in love.” So, I thought it would be perfect to covert a whole huge former church into a personal locator beacon in which anyone who entered would be made to feel madly in love, and send their message of love out to the world, just as I was doing with my big 20 foot Rococo shiny proclamation of being “Open to Love.”
OL: Could you tell us a little about your “Occasion” performance and how it has changed your own personal reaction to anniversaries, Christmas, Valentines Day — all of the mandated Hallmark back-and-forths?
Because of the incredible manipulative quality of “Occasion,” I definitely do not carry-through the practices of that piece into my personal life. I actually do find myself defending some of the otherwise commercialized Hallmark-mandated gift-giving holidays, because through all of the anthropology texts I was reading it appeared as if almost every culture has large-scale seemingly-mandated gift-giving rituals, which were intended to invigorate the economy, renew the positive energies, mark the seasons, etc. So, while we can all complain about how we feel that Hallmark has created an atmosphere where we feel compelled now to buy their products, we’ve actually always conducted culture-wide gift-giving traditions.
OL: What role do you see language playing in your works? Iconography?
I’d never used language in my work before I began the series of pieces and performance around the phrase “Open to Love.” I went to see a psychic to ask when I was going to find my mate, find “the one.” In front of a room full of people, she laughed and said, “well, you have to be open to love first!” I left feeling so upset and angry because I had thought I was working on opening up for a damn long time! So, I began to investigate the phrase ‘open to love’ both with a resentful sarcastic tone, and also with a truly earnest intention.
After that, I was using the phrase all over the place. Performances, handing out flyers on the corner, sitting in a bar with an “Open to Love” sign blinking above me, making an sculpture that is a 2 x 4″ piece of lumber that has an ax handle that says “Open to Love.”
OL: Could you talk a little about why the irony of arranging private objects in a public setting only increases their potency rather than reduces it?
In my other works, I indeed use very intimate, history-laden objects intentionally, as a device to demand attention of my viewers. It’s really a kind of manipulation that I engage in. Well, it’s intended to do a couple of things actually – I give myself to viewers in a very personal, intimate and sentimental way. I show viewers that I am invested in the work, the message and really am putting myself out there in a real way.
In another way — by revealing myself so openly I can kind of command that same reaction in those who encounter my work.
Now — from my love and research into gift economies, a whole world of discussion from cultural anthropology texts, I know that the more energy and care that is poured onto an object increases its energy and import. In grad school, I read about any text there was on gift-giving rituals of our culture and others, and consequently started making art about how I could manipulate people by tweaking the gift-giving ritual in our culture by using the rituals of other cultures. For example, in “Occasion,” I was using very private objects (every gift that had ever been given to me) in public ways (re-gifted them all to gallery visitors with very specific conditions). I was also using private objects in manipulative ways. I find that you can get someone to do something outlandish that they would never normally do if you ask them in public as if it’s the most normal request ever. People are so taken aback by the content of the request, but since it came in such a public and ‘normalized’ form – they agree to do things that they later catch themselves questioning!
Rebecca Vaughan is the Chair of Fine Arts at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design. She received her MFA from Carnegie Mellon University and her BFA in Sculpture from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She also attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax, Canada. Ms. Vaughan has exhibited sculptural installations, mixed media conceptual projects and relational performances in: U.K., China, New York, Los Angeles, Mexico and Canada.
She has been published in Chicago Art Journal and KnitKnit. Ms. Vaughan also received state grants from the Colorado Council on the Arts and Humanities and the Ohio Arts Council. Visit www.rebeccavaughan.com
Peter Illig is originally from New York, and studied at Buffalo State College and University of Colorado, Denver. He has been an artist and teacher in Colorado for 30 years. Currently represented by Plus+Gallery in Denver, he has been a member of artist co-ops such as Pirate Contemporary Art and Spark Gallery. His shows have numerous reviews, and his work has been selected for various ‘Best of Colorado’ shows over the years, and is found in many personal and corporate collections.
Peter Illig’s paintings are analogies for human emotions and experiences — American psychological landscapes — reflecting how we think of several things at once. He layers images borrowed from film, TV and cyberspace and his own experience like a coded language of symbols to express ideas and feelings.