Friday 11 July 2008

Lisa Petrucci interview

Lisa Petrucci

Location: Seattle Washington USA

How would you describe your art? My paintings are subversively cute and revel in femininity and kitsch.

Currently working on: New paintings for upcoming shows in Denver and New York. Also have projects in development with Circus Punks -, NookArt -, and Wireless Developer Inc. -

Day Job: Besides being an artist, I'm also co-owner of Something Weird Video, a nostalgic mail order video company -

3 Likes: Cats, Collecting Dolls and Toys, Watching TV

3 Dislikes: Cooking, Cleaning, Paying Bills

Daily Inspirations: I'm very much inspired by my home environment – I have 4 cats, lots of toys, dolls, collectibles, tikis, big eyed art, and vintage girlie magazines. Things lying around the house often find their way into my paintings.

Artists I admire: Isabel Samaras, Mark Ryden, Mitch O'Connell, Junko Mizuno, Margaret Keane.

Superpower you would most like to possess: The ability to beam myself anywhere instantly.

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The following interview with Lisa took place at the beginning of November 2004. All images reproduced with permission © Lisa Petrucci.

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Lisa, how are you? What are you up to right now?
I'm good, thanks for asking! At the moment, I'm juggling making new paintings for upcoming shows and running Something Weird Video, my husband Mike's and my video mail order company. It's a quite balancing act trying to do both!

Your work has been described as being part of the lowbrow art movement. What does that term mean to you?
I try not to define my art with labels. But a new book entitled "Pop Surrealism - The Rise of Underground Art" recently came out from Last Gasp, which features myself and a group of artists that are considered part of the "lowbrow" movement. Basically, lowbrow art is inspired by popular culture, especially retro trends in mid-century America. So given that, I can be considered a lowbrow artist since I am influenced by vintage girlie magazines, pin-ups, as well as dolls, toys and collectibles from my childhood.

Noticing your obvious love of the visual art of pin-up girls, I guess parallels could be drawn between the undercurrents & underclass nature of striptease & burlesque in society, and "low brow", alternative, underground art, such as yours, being made. You have said yourself that you're more fascinated, not by famous pin-up girls, but by the unknown gals.How do these appreciations of, and approaches to, visibility & "fame" and underground culture affect how you produce, showcase & distribute your art?
Well, I initially was painting for myself and creating a style, format (the souvenir) wood plaque, and type of imagery that I enjoyed looking at. Over the years I began showing the paintings and realized that other people responded to the art for a variety of different reasons. Some immediately recognize the nostalgic influences while younger audiences like the female positive message. I was fortunate to find an interesting group of art galleries nationally who are supportive of this kind of art. The galleries that showcase "lowbrow" art are realistic about the art market and what collectors are willing to pay, so prices are often lower than at traditional galleries. Art magazines like Juxtapoz promote this movement. And many "lowbrow" artists have become more accessible through merchandising and licensing, so our work actually reaches the masses, thus becoming a genuine part of the popular culture.

The biography on your website states that going to art school made you "more cultured and worldly". Did art school try to teach you to be a "serious artist"? Did it alter how you viewed art, your art & what you wanted to do with your art?
In retrospect, I was an art history major in college with a studio minor, so I made a point of familiarizing myself with all the major art movements, especially early twentieth century German art. I interned at a well-known gallery in Boston while still in college, and learned more about contemporary art, and thought I might want to be a gallerist, instead of a working artist. I worked in galleries and curated exhibitions for 10 years before even thinking about seriously pursuing my own art.

You've also stated how you feel your paintings are more akin to the arts & crafts hobbies of suburban housewives than the work of "serious contemporary artists". Is your desire to paint what you do, how you do & with the materials you use [wooden plaques], a conscious decision to move away from "serious art"?
Definitely. However, even though they're painted on wood slabs, my works are very labour intensive and archival. The varnish I use on them (Envirotex) is a critical part of the finished painting. To me, the wood plaque is a reference to Americana and kitsch. There is also a long tradition of tole painting in Central Europe, so my paintings are also akin to folk art.

What does the phrase "serious contemporary artist" mean to you?
Having worked in art galleries for many years, I became aware of the various levels of artistic activity out there. At the very top of the pyramid is an elite group of blue chip artists who can demand top dollar for their work. This is not to say that their art is the "best" out there, but it is recognized internationally and considered important. To be honest, I wouldn't want to be that well known. Too much pressure to maintain a high level of visibility.

Do you feel that incorporating explicitly “female” production methods, (‘arts & crafts hobbies’) into your artistic practice, queries the traditional distinction between ‘art’ and ‘craft’?
I see using these materials as a feminist action because it elevates arts & crafts "hobby" materials to the same status as traditional art mediums.

One thing that fascinates me about pin-up girls and striptease/burlesque performers is how enterprising those women were in making a vocation out of their natural appeal and talent. I guess being naturally artistic & creative is similarly entrepreneurial: making vocational use of your natural talents.Did you always know that you wanted to use your artistic talent & pursue your interests & influences this way?
My father, Sam Petrucci, was a commercial artist, so I was always around art. When I was younger I didn't feel naturally talented, so I made myself work really hard at becoming a better artist. My artistic growth comes from continually painting subjects and motifs that I adore and want to explore.

Like many folks, I’ve struggled to find paid work that not only interests me, but also allows me to pursue my interests. You seem to have fallen on your feet, in this sense, at Something Weird. How difficult was it for you to find paid work that suited and complimented your art-work and personal obsessions so well?
I'm very fortunate to have two careers that are equally important to me. I've always been interested in film, especially horror and exploitation genres. I met my husband, Mike Vraney, when I interviewed him about his company Something Weird Video back in the early nineties. We had an immediate connection personally and professionally. Everything just clicked. Working at SWV, I approach the films we find in much the same way I did as an art historian and gallerist, wanting to unearth obscure and lost movies and to present them in a historical context.

How on earth do you find time to do both?
I'm a workaholic! Plain and simple.

Looking through the gallery of your art work on your website, the majority, if not all your paintings are of female subjects.
What fascinates you with women & girls?
I view the world as a female, so it's all about my experiences and interests. I like pretty girlie things. I don't feel it's necessary to include male references in my art, although many of the cats and critters featured are my boys.

Why is important for you (as you have said) to celebrate sexuality & femininity in your work?
When I began making these paintings, there weren't very many avenues for women artists who were doing pin-ups or sexually charged art, especially in the "lowbrow" art movement. In the early days it was most definitely a boy's club, except for a few exceptions like Olivia. But alot has changed in the past ten years though, due to a younger generation becoming aware of and embracing nostalgic popular culture – like the neo-burlesque and rockabilly scenes. And everybody knows who Bettie Page is now. This wasn't the case 10 years ago. As far as celebrating sexuality and femininity, that came from my wanting to present an alternative to the female-as-an-object-driven perspective of many male artists towards pin-up, and to bring a positive woman's point of view to the subject.

You manage to combine sleazy nostalgic material with cute kitsch in your art, thus focussing on varied aspects of femininity, rather than tying your female subjects to just one way of being. I also see this in the Kick-Ass Kuties being both kuties as well as bas-ass girls.Is this conscious?
Very much so. When people think of cute, they often associate it with "sugar and spice and everything nice." I want to mix that up and make my liddle gals mischievous and naughty. I guess this is a reflection of me personally, I'm surrounded by dolls, toys, big-eyesand cuteness in my home, but I work as a smut peddler who collects vintage erotica and monster stuff. Some people see it as quite a contradiction.

Which aspects of femininity & types of characters are the most compelling & interesting for you to paint?
I try to capture the nostalgia of the 1950s and 60s in the way I depict the pin-ups and liddle gals. I give them big hair, arched eyebrows, heavily-lined eyes, and dress them in clothes and accessories I would wear. I also try to make them look like stylised dolls. The imagery and motifs surrounding the subjects are inspired by retro kustom kulture (flames, cherries, tikis, gambling motifs, etc.) as well as vintage fabrics, children’s books, greeting cards, and toy package design.

In describing your work on your website, you use the qualifier of “cute” a lot. I remember a specific piece of your work where a particularly cute looking cat, shedding a tear, is watching as the fuse of the dynamite tied around his waist is being lit. Despite the sorrow on the cat’s face, it’s a really cute painting. Is “cute” a (surreal?) cover-up for you; as both a word to describe your work & a theme in your painting? Do you think using the playful medium of “cute’ allows you to get away with approaching and painting deeper concepts & themes?
Not really. There aren’t any hidden agendas in the paintings. I just really like a specific type of “cute,” especially if there’s a dark twist to it. The paintings are what they are and hopefully tell a little story.

Do you think "cute" styles and representations could ever (/have ever) restrict you as a female artist, and people's appreciation of your art? (Do you think people expect cute from female artists?)
Hardly. I paint what I want, without regard to an audience. If people like my art that's totally cool. I won't change my style or subject tobend to trends. I've found a voice that works for me, it just happens to be pretty and cute. Not only females are creating cute art. There are plenty of male artists out there too: Mark Ryden, Dave Burke, Andrew Brandou, Aaron Marshall, Miles Thompson and plenty more. Many of the "big-eye masters" were men. So "cute" is definitely not gender specific.

I see your paintings as displaying carnivalesque flair & fun, and others have viewed it as kitschy. Do you find these terms infantalizing&/or gender specific terms that are generally only used about female artists work? Or, is kitsch more of a celebration, rather than degradation of feminities, (e.g. the display of kitsch showy-ness by pin-up gals, as celebration, etc.?)
Kitsch is more about being "lowbrow" or tacky. Both genders embrace the concept. Kitsch is also considered "bad taste" and associated withhaving no class or pedigree. The line between kitsch and popular culture continually blurs though. Vintage objects are now reproduced and soldto the masses in mail order catlog and gift shops. Things that were once considered visual abominations by connoisseurs of good taste (big eye art, black velvet paintings, string art, etc.) have become highly collectible and valuable. So one's person's kitsch is another person's treasure.

You have recently been included in a book entitled "Pop Surrealism" by Kirsten Anderson. To what extent do you view your art as surrealism? I see quite realistic, honest representations & character layers in your artwork as well.
The term "Pop Surrealism" is more of an umbrella term. I am most definitely a pop artist. Perhaps by combining my figures with decorative motifs and contradictory subjects (sexy pin-ups/ cute & childish imagery) that wouldn't ordinarily co-exist in the same space in reality, they could be considered surrealistic.

You have stated an interest and an influence from comics & comic books such as Roadrunner, Josie & The Pussycats and The New Wonder Woman. Would be ever be interested in creating comic strips or cartoons of your girls and characters?
Not really. Comics take so much time to do, and I don't think I have the knack for it. I have so much admiration for comic artists, they have to reinvent and draw the same characters in a variety of situations over and over. That's difficult. Besides I don't really want to develop my characters beyond a single painting, and I like a self-contained format that's open to interpretation to the viewer. Eventually I would like to do a book that is a collection of my liddle gal paintings, with snappy little verses under each one, like a children's Golden Book though.

How much do you feel your suburban background influences the characters you paint?
Quite a bit. As artists, we each take our personal life experience to our work. As a child, I had alot of dolls, comics and toys that now show up in my art. I used to draw fashion models from magazines. I watched cartoons and late night monster movies. As I got older, I'd go thrift shopping and to flea markets and came across collections of girlie magazines and movie memorabilia that enthralled me. These experiences are the basis of my art, and a big part of who I am.

What do you enjoy most about the creative process of painting?
Painting is an activity that's entirely my own. I can shut the door and tune out the rest of the world while I paint. Most of the time it's very relaxing, unless I'm on a deadline. I'm always thrilled when a painting comes together easily (which is not always the case, some are quite a struggle). I also see my art as an opportunity to leave behind a legacy that could live long beyond me, and hopefully be enjoyed by generations to come. I think of the artists who inspired me over the years and want to be in their company.

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