Q&A | Genevieve Gaignard
Early this April, Chicago welcomed artist Genevieve Gaignard for a solo exhibition with Monique Meloche gallery. The exhibition entitled “Black White and Red All Over” features Gaignard’s newest body of mixed media works on panel as well as a domestic installation.
The Los Angeles-based artist received an MFA in Photography from Yale University. However, Gaignard’s work spans across several mediums including mixed-media, sculpture, and installations. Her work has been showcased across the nation and has found permanent homes at such places as the Studio Museum in Harlem, the California African American Museum, the FLAG Art Foundation, New York, and the San Jose Museum of Art. Gaignard’s work examines issues of race, class, femininity and their various intersections. As the daughter of an interracial couple, identity has informed a large part of Gaignard’s work, in which she invites the viewer to examine their own assumptions on identity.
I walked through the doors of Monique Meloche gallery and immediately I was transported in time through Gaignard’s domestic space installation. I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of vintage items, which Gaignard sourced from antique shops and other resale locations. The inspiration for this ‘kitsch’ aesthetic is due in part to the objects that surrounded Gaignard herself when she grew up.
Standing at the center of this staged living room, I felt a sense of familiarity while something more ominous lingered at the precipice of my mind. Most of the room had been painted red, and the abundance of red objects in the room gave me pause. “Someone could pass by and think, ‘Oh, this feels like home.’ The red is a signal to stop and look deeper,” Gaignard said. “There is a spectrum of meaning to the color red. It can symbolize love, roses, romance – but it could also be more sinister, implying fear, blood, or trauma.”
One of the focal points of this installation was the black and white wallpaper. At a passing glance, the wallpaper might seem innocuous, but upon closer look, I could see a more horrible scene. The wallpaper depicted a plantation where a steamboat chugged through a nearby river as a family rode in a carriage. Beside them, their slaves tilled the land. This choice drew attention to the cognitive dissonance within American culture that overlooks this dark, haunting past. When compiling an installation, Gaignard said, “It usually [starts] with the wallpaper, especially for this particular installation.” Wallpaper was the through-line of the exhibition, even in the mixed media panels. They gave off the feeling of nostalgia while also presenting social critique. “It’s transports you to another era,” Gaignard said.
Persona-play is another element working through Gaignard’s exhibition. She wants the viewer to bring their baggage with them as they view her work and to also identify the universality of that baggage. In this sense, each panel and domestic space acts as a mirror reflecting upon the viewer.
“I create psychological environments,” she said. “I’m critiquing what we surround ourselves with in our homes – questioning what makes us feel comfortable and safe.” For example, when Gaignard chose the wallpaper depicting an antebellum scene, she thought, “Who would live with this wallpaper?”
What was more unsettling was that Gaignard had found that the wallpaper wasn’t as vintage as the normal fare she works with – typically originating from the ’40s and ’50s. This wallpaper in the current show was created in the 1970s. “People still wanted to live with this imagery, even in the 70s.”
Gaignard’s work begs the viewer to take a deeper look not only into the objects that we surround ourselves with, but to see how our culture has normalized this imagery. The entire top layer of the installation might seem to be an innocent depiction of white middle-class America. There was a portrait of Marilyn Monroe in a red dress, cheerleading and bowling trophies, and a BB gun casually leaned up against a red wall... What could be more American? Then I turned the corner to see a white, cloaked figure lurking behind the couch, almost hidden from sight.
“[This installation] is breaking down the assumption that we’ve come so far,” Gaignard said. Furthering this message was the bookcase filled with crimson bindings. As I skimmed the titles, I found Catching Fire, The Skin Collector, Do or Die...“The color red in its abundance hits the viewer over the head but also it’s a nod to growing up in the particular house that I grew up in, and my mom having a lot of books... I might not know what this book may be about but reading a certain title can give you an idea,” Gaignard explained.
“There is always this kind of critique I’m engaging in, while at the same time pushing it to the absurd,” Gaignard said. “It’s a bit more over the top. It’s heightening the viewer’s response and pushing that person to see the surroundings in a grotesque, gaudy way.”
Gaignard and I then discussed her mixed media panels. Many of the images were cultivated from magazines such as Ebony, Jet, and Life, some even from her mother’s personal archive which she also collected over the years. Gaignard has also drawn inspiration from director John Waters whose most notable works are Hairspray and Pink Flamingos. Ironically, Gaignard’s mother had a connection to the environment of these films.
“She would share stories about her time living in Baltimore. She lived upstairs from Edith Massey, who was the ‘egg-lady’ in Pink Flamingos. So [my mom] was connected to that world. She told us these stories when we were growing up, and in a way, I’m reimagining them...Kitsch is the kind of stuff that I grew up around. It’s instinctual for me,” Gaignard said.
Many of the collage works touch on the topics of beauty and femininity. Each of them were composed with vintage wallpaper and vintage magazine cutouts in many variations. The pieces A Shout Out To My Fan Girls and In Full Bloom depict the many-faces of black beauty, especially as it relates to hair. Gaignard connected these works to her own identity as a biracial woman saying, “These are all pictures from wig advertisements. So, talking about how as black women we are told tame our hair and fit into the norm which is presented to us as white. That’s what you’re supposed to strive for, even for me. My hair is straightened right now, so I totally pass in a different way. I think about this constantly.”
Other pieces such as White Man (Makes Me Wanna Holler) brought back that sense of nostalgia, especially for Gaignard. “My bedroom growing up had wallpaper featuring eagles and liberty bells. My family’s home is an older house, and every room has its own wallpaper. It’s not so much that I’m looking back and seeing a direct connection to these materials. But it’s familiar to me and it becomes instinctual to work in this way.”
The other layer of this piece made critique on the educational system in America and how American history is taught through a certain segregated lens. Gaignard commented saying, “We’re all taught the same story in public schools, so it’s impossible for young Americans to not be essentially racist because it’s subtly crafted into our education. They’re not even aware of it. I thought to myself, ‘This isn’t right.’”
The exhibition in its entirety carried the same tune of that deeper, more insidious layer of meaning. Part of those meanings are attributed by the viewer themselves: the identity and ‘baggage’ that they bring to each piece. The work is both personal and universal in that sense as they present a spectrum of identities found in the American patchwork of culture.
“What do you want to say with your work?” I asked. Gaignard said: “I’m saying “Wake up!” I’m calling people out.”
Written by: Bethany Tomasian