Marci Washington is an artist, based in Northern California. Her lightly rendered gouache and watercolor paintings depict the interiors and exteriors of creepy houses, reed-bordered pitch swamps, forbidden correspondence, and nocturnal, aristocratic cannibals who always seem to maintain a certain measure of grace amidst unsavory conditions and elements. To me, it’s always appeared as if such figures are pausing for her to paint their portrait while the world crumbles around them. A macabre fashion shoot staged amidst the apocalyptic environs of a world without sunrises, Washington’s delicate, detailed work is a rich stroke of contrast between dark and light; brutality and delicacy. I caught up with Marci in-between her various travels and projects and, in keeping with her reputation for graciousness, she answered some questions and brought us up to speed with her career. (Images courtesy of Rena Bransten Gallery.)
You grew up in the Bay area, went to CCA, and now live in Berkeley. What aspects of a northern California childhood inform your work, and what keeps you there? What are your thoughts on the Bay area arts scene?
I’m not sure. I grew up moving a lot, but spent the most time in Union City, which is a pretty weird place. I spent a lot of time lost in books or in the hills behind our apartment complex running wild, so I felt really connected to nature and to the fictional worlds of my stories at the same time that I felt really at odds with the rest of the place. The bay area I live in now is a completely different bay area. I guess what keeps me here is feeling like I belong and can be myself- the culture here is really mellow and accepting. And there is a sense of fun intellectualism that doesn’t get too stuffy or overly serious. The bay area is smart but fun, hardworking but mellow. The art scene I think reflects that- everyone doing their own thing without pretension or posturing. It seems like the only wrong thing you could do here is to be too full of yourself.
There is a lot of darkness in your work. Your washed palate is muted and sparse, and your figures are rendered in thin, economical lines. Do you think there is beauty in darkness? Do you see darkness in the world around you and choose to reflect it within your work?
My work is definitely a reflection of the way I see the world around me- something I sense that feels huge and dark and heavy and that I need to get out of my head and give some kind of form that feels true, but also manageable. There are plenty of people making work about how everything is going to be all right and about love and togetherness- somebody has got to talk about the darkness. I hope I can do it in a way that feels engaging and thoughtful and empathetic, sometimes even fun. You have to talk honestly about what’s wrong before you can change anything right? There is hope in my work that I think comes from a sense of humanity in the people I draw- like they long to wake from this spell they’ve unknowingly cast.
Who are these willowy figures and ghouls found so often amidst your macabre scenery? And what is the value in the viewer inevitably creating his or her own interpretation of the narrative?
The people in my paintings are hyperbolic reflections of a psychological state that I feel and see around me everyday. I’m pretty specific about the kind of story I’m telling and I don’t leave everything up to the viewer’s interpretation- just enough so that they can slip inside and give themselves up to the story. If you spell it all out people get bored and are less engaged with your work- by leaving a little mystery you leave a place for thought, reflection, and conversation. I want a dialogue with my viewer, not a didactic sermon with a moral or lesson. More epic novel, less Aesop’s fables, you know?
You work mostly in watercolor and gouache. Have you considered, or would you ever consider other media?
I love the flat clarity of gouache contrasted with the smoky mystery of watercolor- how one is completely controlled and the other so unpredictable and magical. It completely fits the way the paintings bounce between terrible clarity and unknowable mystery. Right now it’s a perfect fit.
You’ve reproduced a lot of your work in self-published zines. What attracts you to this format? Though zines seem to be experiencing a small resurgence as of late, tactile media seems to be in decline. Are the physical formats of communication worth saving? Is there no replacement for our nostalgia-inducing books, records, and tapes?
I work in series and each group of paintings is meant to be read together as a sort of text- the zines I make are a way that I can keep the story intact and also to make tangible the connection between my work and the idea of fiction and what fiction does. It also gives my work a completely different way of circulating in the world and of connecting with a totally different group of people. Zines are awesome little objects and the reading of them feels very intimate to me- the relationship between author and reader seems somehow closer than in other books. This experience is the kind of thing that digital can’t really replicate for me. I still buy books and magazines and CDs and really like spending time with each as a separate object and experience. I like going to places like Amoeba and Green Apple and looking for new things. I totally still rock a disc-man on occasion. I also really value my time away from my digital devices- sometimes they feel way too overwhelming and demanding.
Do you use reference material for any of the figures or locations in your work? And do you focus on fitting your compositions into an overarching narrative, or the other way around?
I gather bits from lots of places- film stills, fashion photography, old paintings, etc. and then recast the things I’ve found into my own story- a little like Frankenstein making his monster- sewing together the parts to make a new whole, a new body, a new text. When I’m on the hunt for bits I look for evidence of a certain feeling or psychological state- like proof that it’s out there in the world. Or objects or places that relate to that state of being through metaphor or allusion. Sometimes I’m looking for a certain thing and sometimes things find me- I only partly control the story, the rest of it just reveals itself to me along the way.
Do real-life experiences, whole or in part, ever make their way into your work? And conversely, do the characters in your paintings and prints invade your world? Do you find yourself thinking about them as if they exist; expecting them to show up on your doorstep seeking refuge from a runaway vampire?
The experiences I’ve had shape the way I see the world around me, and my work is a reflection of that, so yeah. But what makes any art worth looking at is the way it can transform personal experience into something historic- something that tells of what it’s like to live in your own time and place in history. Sometimes the people I paint make their way into my dreams, but it’s usually a sign that I‘m working too much and need a day in the real world. It’s usually the other way around, where I take all of my experiences and feelings from the outside world into the studio and dump them onto these characters and make them work it out.
What are some sources of inspiration for you outside the visual arts?
I love looking at paintings, but I think I’m actually more inspired by film and literature- anything with a good big story. I also really like the criticism and theory about books and movies- the way they’re talked about as these nebulous and juicy constellations of meaning that relate to the time and place they were made really fires me up. Music too- bands like Fever Ray or Dark Castle that make this whole sensory world that you can really travel through and lose yourself in- super inspiring.
If you could collaborate with one artist, alive or dead, who would it be?
Hmm, I’m not sure. I’m not good at group work, but maybe illustrating for Angela Carter or one of the Brontes? Or doing set design with Edgar G. Ulmer? Or maybe just sitting with the Bronte sisters in their tiny little parlor in front of the fire making up stories together while the wind howls across the moors outside? Okay, maybe that one. We would make up stories and draw them together and not leave the house for days! Have you seen those little books they made as children? They are GORGEOUS.
You exhibited a host of new work at the Leeds College of Art last month. What’s next for you?
The next show is back in the UK and is about the dialogue between contemporary artists and the work of the Brontes, so of course I’m super excited to be a part of that. Other than that, I just made two solo shows in a row and spent a month traveling all over the UK, so right now it feels really good to be home and I’m excited to have a bit of time to just get weird in the studio and see what happens without deadlines or expectations- FUNTIMES.