Gwenn Seemel has a lot to say.
She Blogs and Vlogs extensively in both English and French. She’s a prolific artist who earns a living by painting commissioned portraits in her signature style. Her videos document her perspective on art-making. Gwenn also wrote a breakthrough graphic book on sexual and gender diversity in the natural world called Crime Against Nature. (I’m awed by the posters.) She’s a free culture advocate, a millennial feminist, thinker, reader, doer, and communicator.
I enjoyed a bright conversation with Gwenn in her Portland studio. The two of us wove together topics ranging from the CIA’s connection with Jackson Pollack to our personal health. Our conversation reminded me of Seemel’s portraits. Gwenn works on several canvases at once, building colorful layers of paint to bring about a wholeness that reveals multi-leveled human beings.
Her paintings vibrate, like voices. Your head automatically turns to the source. The source is not still; it wins your attention.
I wanted to talk with this artist who is so articulate about her work. I found a woman who strives to connect. She has opinions and she offers them up in order to elicit the ideas of others, to engage in real back and forth conversation.
Vicki Krohn Amorose: Why are words so easy for you?
Gwenn Seemel: They’re not.
VKA: But your website is filled with words and videos.
GS: In an old blog post I talk about my thesis and how I felt that words shouldn’t be used around art. Since then, I’ve changed my mind. The problem is that words have authority; they give the idea that people should all have the same idea about the art. How does that authority bother the audience? I still don’t think text should have authority over the image.
VKA: So is that why video, instead of the written word, is a better way for you to talk about your work?
GS: I make videos for two reasons. First, I want to communicate in French and English, and my conversational French is better than my written French. Second, I want to be able to smile while I’m talking because I know I’m going to say things that are difficult to hear and I want to say them in the most inviting way.
VKA: I really like the video where you say, “culture making is connecting” and that an artist makes a living by connecting with an audience. You’re very natural on-camera.
GS: Well it takes me about eight times to record a finished video; four times in French because I do those second. Making videos is like painting, the more you do them the more you learn. And spoken word is less formal.
VKA: Will you explain more about connecting with an audience?
GS: I have a lot to say about that! I know some artists think that connecting with or thinking about audience is tainting pure expression.
VKA: I have a problem with the word “pure”, so clarify that for me.
GS: They believe the concept (of the artwork) is the pure expression coming out of the artist. To include the audience in that pure expression would taint it. Portraiture has helped me with my thinking in terms of communication vs. expression. I view my subjects as collaborators. I want them to like their portrait. I want the portrait to be a touchstone of a good place or an important place in their lives.
VKA: Aren’t you swayed by flattery?
GS: Oh sure. I ask them (the subject) which of their features they like least and which they like best and I ask them why. That’s the special challenge of portraiture – I care about the subject. It takes a certain rigor.
VKA: Do you think the desire to connect, care and collaborate is a feminist impulse?
GS: It may be. And there’s also a power dynamic going on. You’re giving me your image, making yourself vulnerable. Now I have control over what you look like.
VKA: You divide artists into 3 types: Raw, Academic, and Entrepreneurial. You clearly define yourself as entrepreneurial.
GS: Yes and I know a lot of artists are anti-entrepreneurs, anti-money. Or they have a complex relationship with money. They think commission work is dirty, like the audience is directing your work. I think the entrepreneurial artist’s interest in their audience makes their work truly vital. I think creating a sustainable art practice allows the artist to continue working, which allows the artist to make better work.
VKA: I like to think that we’re entering a new era of a more democratic art market. I mean, of course there’s the billionaire art market, and then…
GS: …there’s a whole other world of art and artists!
VKA: We’re in an age of self-promotion, in large part because of the Internet. Do you see it that way?
GS: An age of the entrepreneur, yes. I think there used to be more of a sense that, “I’ll just keep doing my work until I’m chosen by one of the gatekeepers. Then they will sell my art.” There used to be more of a culling of artists. Now, as a gallery director I know said, “Art sells by buzz.”
VKA: So let’s get back to words, and how language can create buzz. In Art-Write, I advocate for the artist statement (or words) to be the bridge between the art and the audience – the bridge that helps the viewer to really see.
GS: And I view the art itself as the bridge. Put all the information in the painting, so you won’t need to explain it. But I like your book! I’ve already recommended it to people.
VKA: Thank you. So what purpose do words serve? Clearly they have a place.
GS: I object to the words overlaying the painting with a bunch of meaning you can’t see. You’ve experienced that, you’ve read an artist statement and gone, “Whuut?” That’s why I like the question in your book where you ask, “Do you fully understand what you just wrote?” I think art is communication and the object acts as the go-between. I want my painting to tell the whole story. The words are the invitation.
Thank you, Gwenn Seemel, for your generosity and the type of conversation que j’adore. As I say in Art-Write,
your art is the treasure
and everything else
is just the map