A few months ago I met up with Serena Cole on the last night of CCA's MFA show to see the culmination Serena's work for the year. We also stopped byt her studio before she moved out. I've always been drawn to Serena's combination of fashion, style and her own personal twist within her paintings. There always seems to be a somewhat darker vibe below the surface of her work -- calling out the darker side of fashion. Along with images from the show and studio -- Serena and I chat about her take on fashion and her interpretation of it through her own work. (above image courtesy of the artist)
When I was in your studio recently you mentioned that you do not consider yourself a fashion illustrator. Why is that?
To me, I think of a fashion illustrator as someone who draws clothing, a fashion designer illustrating their designs. That's completely different than what I am trying to do with my work as a painter. I never 'design' anything, but instead use images at my disposal to try to create something new.
A lot of your work is derived from fashion magazine spreads and fashion advertising. What is it about fashion that you draw inspiration from?
All of my work is based on the appropriation of fashion imagery. I personally find the images in ads and editorials inspiring on some level, because of the over-the-top beauty and fantasy of the images. However, what I am most interested in [is] exploring why these specific fantasies appeal not just to me but an entire demographic of the population. The photos in magazines are not just artistic images -- they are always used to sell or promote something. Fashion images are fascinating in how they feed the consumer the identity of the brand. But as advertisements they also say a great deal about who we are as a culture; what is desirable, what is a common fantasy, what is unattainable, yet totally longed for. This is where the meat of my interest lies: sure, it's easy to understand the basic tools used in fashion like sex, but if you look closer, there are narratives of death, violence, and ambivalence that suggest darker fantasies we share.
Some of your recent work is named the 'ecstasy faces' -- tell me about these.
The Ecstasy Face series is one of many small series that I have begun. I categorize the images I previously mentioned into narratives that repeat throughout my magazines and develop into tropes. The Ecstasy Faces are just some of the photos I have culled from magazines which all make the same expression, directed over and over again to different models on sets. I think that's funny, and a common theme throughout history. Since even before the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, we have seen imagery of people in ecstasy that make you want what they have -- be it religion, orgasms, opiates, or the Fred Perry polo ad.
Your MFA work that you recently walked me through has a more grotesque vibe to it compared to some of your older work. Would you say that is an accurate description?
I know that the two new headdress pieces have a more in-your-face violence to them, with actual blood, fire, and bones, but I have always thought that if my pieces did not have a slightly disturbing tinge to them, then they weren't doing their job. Anyone can like a pretty picture. I have always wanted to communicate a more complicated side of beauty, which incorporates the dark underbelly we all share. Nothing real is perfect or completely saccharine.
Talk to me about the headdresses in your two paintings.
The two headdresses are culminated piles of tropes. One is imagery of the glamorization of death, one is imagery of destruction and violence. I have taken each pile and created a headdress for each figure to wear; a metaphorical headdress where the figure embodies what she is wearing -- either the death or the destruction and [it] is really just an apparition.
Do you think you're trying to tell a specific narrative?
Well, I don't think I am necessarily telling a new narrative but showing you specifically what imagery is used in the ads. By taking it out of the magazine context, I hope to show it more clearly and without the noise of other pages what is happening, and to startle or surprise you.
What are the darker fantasies you think we share?
Some of the categories I have started to collect: Women dressed like little girls, women beating the crap out of each other, men being dominant/sublimated with women, people setting things on fire, people drugged out on couches, car crash scenes, and death in various scenarios. I title them things that I hope helps pinpoint the
(The above piece is an older painting of Serena's that she emailed me. I loved it and had to include it. Image courtesy of the artist)
Does your research influence your own personal style?
I don't really think I can avoid being influenced by my constant barrage of fashion imagery and not get swept up in consumer longing and style trends. However, I do feel that even though I like to go shopping, my interest in my subject matter is more on an image level. I like dealing with the complete unattainability of the scene in my work. The reality of clothing is so much more anti-climactic; the clothing in a Dolce and Gabbana ad of a fight scene with two beautiful women in a luscious setting in an airbrushed unreality say nothing when you find it on the rack in the store. And I'm poor and I get stuck with the knock-off of the knock-off version of that clothing anyway and then there's nothing that whispers of even a shred of any of that fantasy.
What fashion houses/brands do you lean more toward in your research and painting?
Of course I was very influenced and inspired by Alexander McQueen and I think he was a total genius. His runway shows were so much more of a production than a mere walkthrough of his clothing, and he seemed to be influenced by dark and beautiful things which he juxtaposed with the weird world of consumer culture and fashion snobbery. I also love the Rodarte sisters and their completely random inspirations, like Japanese horror movies and Northern Californian redwood forests. I also really liked looking at Christian Lacroix, who is bankrupt now, for his over-the-top embellishments and patterns.
Who do you love to paint and build off of?
I have my favorite models, for their completely weird faces, like Gemma Ward who I call "Fish Lips" and Vlada, who looks like a dying vampire. As far as artists, I am very inspired by figurative art, especially historical portraiture like Bronzino for the Mannerist style he used and the psychological expressions his subjects wore. For contemporary art, I like looking at Kurt Kauper and the photographer Hanna Liden.
What is coming up for you, both personally and professionally?
I recently graduated from school at CCA, and just got back from Bosnia visiting my boyfriend and doing some major relaxation! Next, I'll be starting work at CCA as the new 2D Studio Manager, where I can stay inspired by lots of art. Professionally, I will be showing (tentatively) in a group show in NY in November, and the rest is open at the moment! I'm just trying to do the opposite of what they warn happens to grad students -- they say within two years most of us stop making art. So, here's to beating the odds!