rita mcbride

Connie Butler: For the past two years you have been living in and out of New York and primarily making work in Europe. You have often taken yourself into other situations to make work. To what do you attribute this need?

Rita McBride: My desire to go to places, live there and grapple with these places is an attempt to understand situations which are not part of my born reality. I find a lot of inspiration in that. I never have been comfortable working in a studio situation day by day — in a vacuum. There's not enough information or questioning going on there. The distillation of ideas must be a rich, complicated search about locating the limitations as a foreigner, as a tourist. The kind of narratives that are generated while working outside your known elements . . . I prefer these journeys to using the yellow pages.

Butler: So it is something about being disoriented that is challenging.

McBride: I don't want to sound like a masochist. It's difficult but the alternative would be that if you wanted to learn something you would find the best school for it — like a lesson on the band saw. Basically it's about learning how to make things. Being informed by these extra normal situations allows for a clear editing of ideas. You really can't make any superfluous decisions.

Butler: Talk about your most recent project in Hungary.

McBride: I was invited by a group of Hungarian artists to do something last February. There are no galleries there as we know them. No budget or anything something very fresh. There is the story of Kounellis who was asked last year to make a new installation in an extraordinary medieval warehouse in Palermo. At first he refused but finally agreed with the understanding that part of the budget of the show would be reserved to pay the expenses of two semi-trucks full of "old" work that would be parked outside just in case the muse did not cooperate. Well, I didn't know the story before I agreed to mess around with Budapest. I didn't understand that limitations, whether your own or the combination of you and a different scene, add up to humility. That's something older artists really know and avoid. The pressure as a Western artist to make something Western was an expectation I had not considered. The whole experience was nothing short of mind-boggling. I had hoped it would not be, but it was.

Butler: What about the architecture in Hungary interested you?

McBride: In Budapest the West is encroaching and renovation is rapid in a city that actually has never experienced any sort of contemporizing via the renovation of building spaces. It is very eerie. I have never been in a city that ghostly. All the spaces have so much time in them. Nothing has been renovated except, unfortunately, spaces for fast-food restaurants. There are what seem to be a number of restrictions structurally but not in terms of wall color. Oddly enough, the color of choice is purple/lavender. One doesn't really see that color used as the color of the "New." Basically the city is quite gray so it sticks out. These are all visceral perceptions that I gathered not really having any discussions with artists in the city, mostly because I didn't have time. I was just drawing on any my perceptions of the place, my own eye, and recognizing my limitations very quickly. It was frantic and I realized at that moment that Kounellis had a whole army of help and a wire to the bank to allow this kind of process to actually become successful. In terms of my own evolution it really pushed the performative aspect of the work.

Butler: American artists such as Beverly Semmes and Jessica Stockholder or German artist Karin Sander are evolving a specific methodology and formal language that explore how spaces are inscribed with meaning. Is it necessary for women to reinform or reinvent the language of architecture?

McBride: Definitely. Logically, I guess, my work would progress to building the space itself instead of trying to somehow deface it or ignore it. I welcome the idea of making more complex formal sentences.

Butler: Did you think about it in those terms when you studied architecture?

McBride: No. I mean the language of architecture is immense and old. Anyone trying to reinvent form within that language has become a marginalized cult figure like Buckminster Fuller.

Butler: What would a feminized language of functional forms be?

McBride: One thing I have an internal dialogue about is the home. It is definitely a place where females have had influence. A feminized place. Galleries and museums have not been inhabited by women. The scale is that of the monumental. They have not been built to show our work. The sense of time that goes with spaces is something I'm very interested in. The scars on the floors of galleries are from Richard Serra, not Kiki Smith, yet. I look for scars in spaces.

Butler: Women of our generation work so hard to neutralize the domestic realm and erase the traces of gender. It is interesting that you are trying to inject it in another situation.

McBride: I am now working on a piece which attempts to replicate the marks in the stairway landings of a space in Hungary. The history and memory of the place is rubbed into the vinyl floor tile. I don't react to much work that doesn't deal with space. Discreet objects rather than abstract space. A lot of females fall into this because historically we have more of a relationship to expressing ourselves through a collection of desirable objects.

Butler: References to the body informed your last show, the plaster sacs in particular. How do you think recent proliferation of body work effects the reading of your work?

McBride: I don't understand the persistence of narcissism in art now.

Butler: Is learning to manipulate gender associated materials and methods part of evolving a new vocabulary too?

McBride: Yes, but for me it is more about ridding myself of fear and, at the same time, disempowering these processes through knowledge. But not imposed knowledge. I learned certain processes because I had to use them in my work. It was not about being taught at a college. Machine shops in schools are sexist. Machines can be broken, they break and boys break them too. Certain works like "Thin Corners" are more antagonistic to boy art. But for the most part those are just giggles within a long laugh.

Butler: You have always been interested in how people read your materials and production, the confusion of craft and fabrication.

McBride: Yes, I tend to mix it up. I like to make some things but many of the works are not about the actual physical process but a narrative journey where my fascination is located in the collaborative aspect of putting anything together, from the guy who sells you the bolts, to the bakery who sold you the cookies you ate while thinking through the piece two months before or two years before. Each piece dictates a new set of problems to solve. Sometimes I need to feel out of control in the process. Sometimes someone else can have that pleasure.

Butler: What about influences, artists that interest you . . .

McBride: There is no mentor, no one I can say is highly influential. It's more about moments of clarity that I enjoy about various artists. Great invention or great clarity. Mostly I respond to a sense of humor in certain artists work and where I get the most out of it. I totally enjoy Mike Kelley's sense of humor, which might be strange as a woman. I don't know why I feel I have to qualify that but most people are totally offended by him because the work seems to be about such a young-boy experience. But I think he transcends his cartoony imagery. There is a lot more operating there that I really respond to viscerally. I just smiled through his whole show at the Whitney Museum. I am very familiar with the works and I still have a silly grin on my face when I see them. I don't find them offensive.
Another artist is John Baldessari. Again, I can't deconstruct the humor, but I think that's the best. When I can't say, "Oh, he's trying to be funny now and it really bombs." But that deadpan is also part of it . . . some of his more complicated works in terms of imagery and juxtaposition, the places he obscures with the dots, his sense of scale and size — clearly his voice speaks through the formal issues he's resolved that allow his sense of humor to come through. It's actually a very simple process but the spirit with which he selects his images, juxtaposes them and reinvents them. The clarity with which he does that, I suppose that's something I am always trying to get into my work. Which is related to not being able to speak English and not feeling comfortable with language.

Butler: Do you think it has something to with the confidence or brashness that someone like Mike Kelley has, that men are allowed to have humor in their work, and women artists fear that their work will be taken less seriously?

McBride: I definitely think that has something to do with it. Living in Europe I experienced this first hand. I am silent there most of the time because of language problems so I watch the group dynamic. Women are never called on to be funny. It's thought of as less feminine, though I don't know what that means anymore. The social codes are set up so that you are not supposed to be so present. You see the men at the table vying for air space. The whole thing is quite disgusting. So I think there is always that fear for women artists about taking chances. We seem to have so few chances that if you are given the stage there's the pressure that you better well do the burlesque act. Basically that's the only act that is O.K. I think humor is an underdeveloped sense in us. Women have a lot of humor, there's just not a venue for articulating it. I think we as women walk around thinking things absurd and funny but you know the old joke that women can't tell a joke. I think this may be true because the language of humor is male based or has a long tradition of being spoken only by men. I think with "Parking Garage" I did get at a sense of humor that is mine. If the humor is located then the formal issues fall into place. You find the most efficient and acceptable way to make the joke and not fall flat. It's a complicated piece, not just a one liner, but my sense of humor is infused in the sense of scale, the material, in the object itself. And the perversity of parking garages and the profusion of them in our world . . . the repetition of them, the same structure, over and over, that is supposed to be so rational. I am always hysterical in parking garages. I can never find the exit, it's so disorienting in terms of one's spatial experience. Even if you're used to a car, you're not used to a car in the building that has specific limitations.

Butler: Do you think that the sense of humor has something to do with your choice of materials, trying to find the juxtapositions that will be the most extreme or best express certain extremes or ironies?

McBride: Definitely. I think in the past I have had to keep the work at a simplistic level conceptually and that I was relying on the material to complicate or to add humor. For instance with "Added Window Space," the idea is underdeveloped. Or the ficus pieces. I think I am really onto something which is about humor. I have been collecting images of plants and I'm fascinated by the profusion of green in our lives that sort of frames interviews on the TV screen, product catalogues. There's always the potted plant. Or the plant in a bar that nobody has watered for centuries but nobody will throw it out. It has such personality. I don't know how to locate that, how not to sound silly talking about it, but it's something I'm totally into. Working with the Murano glass I don't think I was totally able to get that sense of humor across. The glass is so incredibly kitsch but the leaves turned out to be so beautiful as objects that the irony was lost, as much as I try to be intentional with their configurations and placement. They are meant to be just part of the surroundings - "What would a room be without a plant?" I have made them out of paper and all kinds of stuff, but maybe the material is not the issue. They just turned out too precious.

Butler: And do you feel the same is true with the clear-glass "Potted Plants"?

McBride: They are too massive. Those were supposed to be ghost plants and take up the space in a peripheral way, somewhat the way we choose domestic plants, or plants that have been domesticated in some sense. They have too much presence. The green framing of the ficus leaves is less serious, more flippant.

Butler: And what about color? It always seems to have a very one to one relationship to a space or object

McBride: Color is a problematic thing for me. It's never just about seduction.

Butler: Could you expand upon your relationship to language and where or at what point do you locate ownership of it?

McBride: There is a set of myths which are setup when you are a child and are tied to certain experiences. Like my experience of the German-settled Amana Colonies in Iowa. When you do your first report about Germany, for example, you look it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica and you see the Bavarian Alps. There are other myths about marriage and rituals of womanhood for example. The stuff from Seventeen magazine. These are the languages we have as women. Basically I thought by traveling so much, getting married, I would get rid of these myths. It was unconsciously an obsession with me. There was such a disjunction for me between what was known and what was written and what the actual experience was. It was my distrust of the language. Somewhere along the line I must have read something closer to my own reality.

Butler: So it was about unlearning and creating situations that might be so disorienting, even linguistically, that you would find a center.

McBride: And really understanding what those codified situations are. Now I feel like I express myself the way I want to. Though I still pepper it with things that I think will legitimize what I say. That's an example of theory. I know the key words, but dropped it.

Butler: It's about ownership of the words.

McBride: About disempowering, is that even a word?

Butler: It's becoming one anyway.

McBride: My spell-check went crazy with that one.

Butler: Spell-check is basically useless . . .

McBride: Especially when it comes to postmodern theory. Language is so imprecise. As a kid I remember spitting out clichés and having to use male words — being forced to talk and saying what everybody else wanted to hear. These languages which allow women to sit at the dinner table with men are just codified clichés of experiences that women never really have. I remember copping a phrase from some boy and not meaning it. Not knowing where the entry was into the conversation. "If I start using your language will you understand me, will I start to have a voice?"

Butler: No sense of authorship.

McBride: Not at all. Having the sense that it didn't match up. And I remember when I finally felt like I had learned English and could use it to say what I wanted to say. I was about twenty five, when I moved to Madrid. After my marriage was over. Because that was the language you were supposed to speak as a female and once that was gone, I didn't have to pretend anymore. I started being comfortable with a lot of slang and dropping the structure, which might have come from being in a foreign place where English wasn't being spoken. If you're not speaking Spanish to them you're speaking a kind of "pig English" with a kind of distillation that is necessary like throwing out the qualifiers to make it simpler. I think that then I started adding my own words. I dropped talking about theory and using that language which I did know once, very well. Now I basically can't even recall it.

Butler: And that was a conscious rejection operating in your work after Cal Arts?

McBride: Yeah. I felt very unsatisfied illustrating theory in my work. It was really great to have had it and I'm sure it operates somewhere in my brain but it was pretty stifling.

Butler: Do you feel that your aggressively going after new processes and techniques, that that's part of evolving a new feminized vocabulary that in some way reinforms a historically male realm?

McBride: I think it's more about getting rid of that need, taking that need away, demystifying the whole thing. The machine thing is so antagonistic to women. It doesn't have to be. They're just machines that are fetishized by men. So what if I had to break machines to learn? Becoming facile with them has never been important. It's also about putting myself into those situations to diffuse the importance of them.

Butler: That is a kind of liberation I think. One thing that has always been disarming about your work has to do with how you think about a studio, materials, time or production, is all not romanticized at all.

McBride: I am more willing to find answers within a process. I think it's also a product of all the moving around that I have done. You just don't have time, or energy . . .

Butler: In that context, how would you talk about the rattan pieces? You obviously felt compelled to go to the Philippines to have them made.

McBride: There are two parts to that. One is very personal about my crazy Aunt Anne (the adjective dates from my childhood when no one could think of a better one for an independent woman who was curious, adventurous and had a taste for the bizarre), who spent a lot of time in Manila and brought back clothes and artifacts. These objects became the definition of the exotic, and she the embodiment of eccentricity and courage. Going to Manila was therefore partly nostalgic because, of course, I got there too late to understand Aunt Anne's motives. But on the other hand, it was an amazing journey that lead me to the only place that had the right combination of raw materials, expertise, and most importantly, the interest on the part of the Filipino Rattan "factory" workers. What happened in my first three days in Manila — earthquakes and floods — was so mind boggling, it was fate. I definitely acted intuitively and instinctively.

Butler: What about the decision to make a car?

McBride: The piece was always about the historical process by which the small entrepreneur goes abroad to make a fortune (in this case an aesthetic one not a material one). The point was to immerse myself in the world of small-time import/export and be informed by the culture of "free trade." I needed a sculptural framework. The car was perfect. I proposed a bunch of projects to the different factories and the read their response. That was a big part of it too — what really interested them as craftsmen. They wanted to make the "Toyota." It was totally collaborative.

Butler: Is that one of the things you think was misread about the car, that fact of the collaboration, the choice of the subject?

McBride: That and a total repulsion for the material. When I did another rattan show, with miniature houses arranged on the floor in the shape of a cul-de-sac, . . . just dealing with the smell . . . people just didn't know how to deal with it. It's so outside of any art material in terms of what it signifies. That will keep me working in that material forever. And that project with the rattan houses was also much more about the rattan industry and less about a collaboration with a couple of craftsmen. I realized that I was, in the end, bucking their manufacturing system and that it wasn't something they were necessarily that interested in. It was actually one small factory owned by a woman, which hadn't had any work in three months and that was why I was able to do the project there. I became interested in doing something highly multiple which was more along the lines of what they do. But the show, the rattan cul-de-sac at the Margo Leavin gallery in Los Angeles, was dismissed as beautiful.

Butler: What about this notion of beauty?

McBride: Humor is beauty, I can't quite bring myself to say that truth is beauty — truth is just sort of pretty. About material beauty, it's nonsense. All material is beautiful. One of the things I like about Mike Kelley's work is that he can actually make very ugly things. That's why it's not boy art, because it is about being ugly. I think it gets misconstrued as being a celebration of it. He is like the overweight standup comic making jokes about himself. I often think about artists, "What kind of standup comic would they be?" And I think of myself that way. What joke would you deliver? It's a way of positing my aesthetic relationship with the world.

Butler: And what joke would that be?

McBride: It's totally undefined. Comedy is a trip. My first memory of really laughing was Candid Camera. Or the comedy of Buster Keaton, which is very much about the body. I always laugh when people trip. I laugh when I trip. It's such an absurd moment I love that moment of pure chaos. That's one reason I like Rebecca Horn, though she's very German. I'd much rather look at that than Lichtenstein. Unfortunately, in the work of most women artists, you can see the effort. Except some from another generation like Louise Bourgeois. She is amazing and humorous.

Butler: You do have something in common with her work in the conflation of biomorphic references and architectural forms.

McBride: I'm really excited by her work. But, there are no role models. Most women comics are pretty horrific. I appreciate good comedy more than anything. More than art. But I hate that, as an artist, you have to be seventy to let the sense of humor come out.

Butler: There is, again, the fear that people won't take your work as seriously.

McBride: You have to be an eccentric old lady. I can't wait for that day.

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the authors.