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Flawed Illusions: Interview with Virginia Melanson

Virginia Melanson. Control. Acrylic on canvas, 6ft x 5ft. (image courtesy of the artist)

Gender constructs are exactly that: constructed.  Many artists in the past have addressed feminism and gender issues through their work.  Gender constructs can be both subtle and obvious, elusive and profound. 

Virginia Melanson is an artist who has addressed these issues in a form not often seen before: three-dimensional painting.  In her extensive 3D series, Artifice, her method is driven by the concept of  “flawed illusion,” in that it is difficult to fully grasp the entire idea of the painting, either with or without 3D glasses. Either way they look at the painting, they are missing aspects of the illusion,” Melanson states of her work in her artist statement. “For example, if viewed without the glasses the illusion of three-dimensional space coming out is lost, but with the glasses the color and detail of the paint is lost.”  Through her work with flawed illusion and 3D, she addresses women’s issues and gender constructs by creating non-sexualized self-portraits that are difficult for the viewer to totally grasp and control with their gaze, much like female sexuality as a whole.

With a strong show circuit and connections in the suburbs of Chicago, Melanson has shown her work in Aurora and Batavia.  She currently has two shows up.  Her work at Side Street Studio Arts in Elgin will be up as part of a group show until April 13, and she will also be showing work at Both Sides Galleries in Pilsen until May 5th.  Her work at Both Sides will be part of East Pilsens’ 2nd Friday monthly opening event.  Soon, Melanson will be moving to the city, and she hopes to use this opportunity to gain more connections and shows in Chicago.  She is currently planning a new project, Release, which will address sexuality and media in a more aggressive way.  In the meantime, she will continue to work on her extensive series, Artifice.  “I always want my art to have a vulnerable side to it,” said Melanson about her work. “Not in a weak way, but just in an honest, personal way.”

Virginia Melanson. Untitled 3. Acrylic on canvas, 6ft x 7ft. (image courtesy of the artist)

Lydia Shepard:  What is the new series that you’re working on?

Virginia Melanson: It is actually a continuation of the 3D series.  The 3D series deals with female sexuality in a very ambiguous way.  For example, the whole theme is that the viewers can never truly possess the figure with their own gaze, because you are always losing some part of the painting.  If you look at it without the glasses, then you lose the interactive, three-dimensional element.  But, the second that you put on the glasses, you lose the painterly aspect of it.  It also goes in to the idea of female sexuality.  How you interact with this painting is ambiguous, in the way that many people interact with female sexuality.  At one of the shows that I did, I conducted a survey asking questions such as, “Are you attracted to her,” “What do you like about her,” “What do you not like about her?” It was really interesting.  At the end of the show, I said that whatever your reaction is to this painting is pretty much your reaction to female sexuality, as there is nothing in the paintings themselves to suggest that they are sexual.

The new stuff that I am working on is a little bit more aggressive.  What I find from talking to young college students who are studying feminism is that they have a lot of anger.  A lot of women have this subversive anger, and that is manifested either through denying feminism or embracing it full-forced.  I think that a lot of that has to do with violence against women.  To me, violence against women is a very broad category.  It could be physical abuse or sexual abuse, but it also encompasses the media, and how we are portrayed and talked about.

The new piece that I am working on is called Release.  It is a triptych and also all in 3D.  The first painting is a figure, a girl looking seductive.  It is like the traditional female nude interacting with the viewer with a seductive gaze.  In the second one, she has the barrel of a gun in her mouth.  It is not held by her hand; it is just there.  It isn’t clear who is holding the gun.  It is, however, still sexualized, because her head is tilted in a way as if she were performing a sexual act.  The third image is just blood spatter against the wall.  The piece is not about suicide; it is about anger about loss of self and loss of identity, because so much of a woman’s identity is wrapped up in this culture that is violent against women.

LS:  It sounds like feminism is a concept that you have explored throughout your art.

VM: Yes.  For me, they are completely interlaced.  The whole idea of the 3D painting came out of a question: what can I do to expand the media?  But then, I started thinking about the idea of gaze, as well as ownership of the painting.  So, I started playing around with that.  How can I make a realistic painting, but have it not be owned in any way, but also be seductive in its illusion?  I feel like the reason that a lot of people gravitate towards photorealism is that is so complex and seducing.  That led me down a path of asking why it is so seducing.  Is it because it’s passive?  Is it because it is realistic?  It is an object that is clearly something that I recognize, and something that I can own.  It brings up the idea of the traditional female nude.  I was also thinking about the Dutch paintings and photorealism.  Almost everything in that realm, art history-wise, is made of an object depicting wealth and power through the owner’s gaze.  I wanted to play along with that and make something where the viewer could interact with the art, but the art doesn’t necessarily interact with the viewer.

Virginia Melanson. Accused. Acrylic on canvas, 5ft x 6ft. (image courtesy of the artist)

LS:  I was interested in this concept of “flawed illusion” that you had noted in your artist statement.  Do the paintings actually work with the glasses?

VM: Yes, they do!  I usually carry around a pair with me.  We think of 3D now as being like Pixar  and having it really jump out at you.  That really only works with light frequencies.  With what I am doing, it still comes out, but it is also very distance-dependant.  For a large painting, in order to get the full effect of the 3D, you have to be standing really far back.  At the same time, if you go up really close, for example to the flowers in my paintings, the petals come out.  It’s very interactive.  But, when you put on the glasses, the detail of the painting disappears.  I love that idea.  My goal was to show people that it parallels the flawed gender illusion, both male and female.

LS:  Did it take you a while to figure out how to make the 3D work?

VM: Yes.  I was thinking about this idea for about two years when I was in college.  By my senior year, I had had it all planned out.  But in all of my research I never found someone else that had done a technique like this.  I made my canvas, it was about 8’ x 7’, and it took me about six months to figure out how to do it, and how to plan it out correctly.  After that first process, it is now so simple to me.  The difficult part wasn’t painting it; it was how to lay it out on the page to where I knew what was going on.  When you are working with 3D, there are three separate images lying on top of each other, and they are all extremely distance-dependant.  What I do now to make sure that it is perfect is that I do the main image, and then I re-do the sketch on an overhead, and then I’ll project it on to the canvas and go from there.

LS:  Is there a certain distance ratio that is necessary between the red layer and the blue layer?

VM: Yeah, there is.  I think that it’s kind of cool because I’m a big art nerd.  The way I start is with two photos, one from the viewfinder with your left eye, and from the same plane, take one from the viewfinder in your right eye.  Depending on how far the depth of field is for the object, it is an equal ratio.  It’s hard to explain, but visually I get it.  It took a while to figure out exactly the steps to take, but once those steps were there, it became easier than I had originally thought it would be.

LS:  Now that you have established the 3D paintings as your niche, is the rest of your body of work going to be 3D?

VM:  I am definitely not done with the series.  I do other work, but it’s not as exciting to me.  This is the idea of flawed illusion within media and feminism… it is such a grand concept, and I’m not done with it yet!  I feel like I am going to be working on this series for ten years.

Virginia Melanson. Dead 1. Acrylic on canvas, 2ft x 3ft. (image courtesy of the artist)

LS:  Have you considered doing pieces that are not self-portraits, or is that too essential to the series?

VM: That is a big question that I am asking myself right now.  With the first few that I did, I thought that it being a self-portrait was more powerful as an accusation, as in, “this is me, and I’m giving myself up to you, but I’m not.”  It makes it a more personal piece.  For this new and more violent piece that I am planning, I’m debating if I still want to do that.  Is that something that I want to do?  I have personally been a victim of sexual assault, so is that a road that I want to take, making it about my story, or should I make it about everyone’s story?  Is it more powerful if it is my story, or is it more powerful if it is everyone’s story?  I still don’t know the answer to that question.  I think I might make two and then feel it out.  Even though all of my paintings in the 3D series are self-portraits, I never refer to the girl in the painting as me.  In all of the writings that I have done, it is always “her.”

LS:  Have you considered experimenting with the idea of flawed illusion using another method other then 3D?

VM: This is probably something that I am going to have to think about for another few years.  I really like the idea of very delicate paintings on glass, but of really horrible things.  I like the idea of the illusion of violence, especially gun violence and male violence.  I think a lot of what feminism has to teach young girls is identity, and that you can be what you want to be and still be a feminist.  Those ideas aren’t really given to young boys.  As much as society has violence against women, society also has violence against men in this very subversive way.

Virginia Melanson. Dead 2. Acrylic on canvas, 2ft x 3ft. (image courtesy of the artist)

In this sociological article that I read, the author interviewed men who were convicted of spousal abuse, rape, or some other violence against women, and at the heart of it all was insecurity about their own masculinity.  I want to do something that touches on that, but I have no idea how I am going to do that.  I feel like the sexism and violence against men is not as obvious.  Also, my feeling is that a lot of men who are violent towards women are so because of this insecurity.  They have no control in their life, and that is the only control that they can establish.  I firmly believe that in order for feminism to truly achieve its goal, we need to address the silent male sexism issue.  I love interviewing men about this, mostly because I love talking to men about feminism because it is very eye-opening of what I need to be talking about, and in what ways feminism is not reaching everyone.  A lot of men are hostile towards feminism, but the second that I acknowledge that it is hard being a man the paradigm totally shifts.

LS:  So, the idea of male gender constructs is an idea that you would like to address?

VM:  Totally.  I feel like gender roles is something that I am always going to be working on.  It affects everyone, in a public and political way, and also in a personal way.  That theme is so strong for me, and, visually, there are a lot of ways that I could represent that.  Part of me thinks that it should be a sculptural piece.  It would still have paint, but it would also have installation aspects.  I feel like the male topic needs to be answered through interaction with space, whereas I want to keep the woman topic in paint because it is a lot subtler.  It is the illusion of space; it is the illusion of interaction with the piece.

These gender constructs are not really there; they are only there because we want to make them there.  I want the male topic to be more of a concrete thing that you have to navigate through.  I love the vague concept of the viewers’ interaction with the object, specifically dealing with spatial issues.  I love watching people deal with spatial issues.

All images featured in this post curtesy of Virginia Melanson.  To learn more about Virginia Melanson, visit her website here

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