In the vivid oil paintings and breathy watercolors of Monica majoli, the landscape of psycho-sexual identity is explored, Through her intense and explicit imagery – piss, pain, isolation, deprivation and suffocation — she weaves a narrative of community, solitude, personal experience, and shared imagination.
Paulina Nowicka McFarland: In your work you emphasize the psychological aspects of a sexual and physical experience, what fascinates you about the body and that raw physicality?
Monica Majoli: I think of the body as the vehicle and interpreter of experiences and container of consciousness. It’s challenging to work within the figurative continuum because of the weight of historical precedence and the objectification of the body that has created disassociation between the viewer and the subject depicted. My use of sexuality revolves around the desire to stimulate a visceral response in the viewer to the actualities of our physical nature. SM, which has been the dominant form of sexuality that I employ visually, is useful to me, as it highlights the psychological nature of sexuality and consciousness.
PNM:When did you first decide to take up the subject of, human, specifically gay, sexuality in your work?
MM: In 1990 I began addressing overt sexuality in my work, until that point my work was covertly sexual. I was compelled to deal with gay sexuality and the AIDS epidemic in 1990. My close friend, Paul – who I came out with in high school – contracted HIV, and the fear and grief I experienced at the thought of his untimely death was expressed in my desire to document his life and activities. Thankfully, he’s thriving more than 20 years later. I’ve found that the use of gay male sexuality has been especially liberating for me in the studio, as my relationship to the subject is both familial and, at the same time alien, too. This dual response allows me to both identify intimately with the figures and activities, depict and project onto them – which gives me a feeling of freedom in my work.
PNM:Does the oil medium and the painstaking process of applying paint in layers relate to the eroticism of the paintings, or the subject matter?
MM: I’ve discovered that the attenuated process of layering or repetition is crucial to my attachment and identification with my subject. I’m drawn to working out my feelings and confusion about relationships in my work, so the process of painting and repainting is emotionally driven. The liquid quality of the glazes makes the process especially sensuous and increases the luminosity of the subject, which I find very beautiful.
PNM:A lot of your 90s oil paintings of piss parties seem to express isolation rather than the joy of sexual encounter. Can you talk about the mood of these paintings?
MM: Yes, that’s perceptive of your My work isn’t about the pleasure of sex, as much as it’s about the complications of intimacy. The desire and impossibility of connection has been the motivation behind the work from the beginning. This theme has been the underlying issue throughout the various bodies of work I’ve made. Just to clarify, that isn’t to say I don’t find sex in actuality pleasurable and satisfying! Merely, for me, it poses itself as a perfect site for exploration of vulnerability, exposure and discovery of self and other. I use sex abstractly, as my subject matter, to activate the unwieldy forces within us that shape our self concept. Hopefully, this resonates within the viewer, too. The specifically sorrowful feeling of the early orgies had to do with the sadness I felt, as I said earlier, of my friend’s possible death in relationship to HIV.
PNM: In contrast to the oil paintings, the watercolors seem very light and eerie. Why did you make the choice of painting something so sexually charged in such a delicate way?
MM: I wanted to expand on the philosophical aspects of my work. It became increasingly important to me to make the bigger issues that motivated my practice visible. My work has always been motivated by deeper issues of consciousness for me. The removed, tonal palette and ethereal nature of wet-in-wet watercolor allowed this opening to occur. I attempted to recreate the balance of the physical nature and the non-material aspect of being in the body by choosing watercolor as a medium.
Also, I’ve tried throughout to avoid confrontation in the materialization of my ideas. The oil paintings, while extremely explicit, were small, really miniature, in scale – in the realm of 12″ x 12″. The watercolor provides a sort of buffer and transforms the potentially alienating aspects of the activity, to make the underlying motivations for release more apparent to viewers.
PNM: What beauty do you find in SM? What draws you to it aesthetically and emotionally?
MM: The extreme psychological aspects of SM and it’s ritualizing of sexuality both resonates within me and presents itself as way to speak symbolically about the layered quality of lived experience. It’s as if in SM the most primary drives are externalized, made visible to others but in a coded way. SM presents sexuality as a way to define oneself in the world, it describes the dramatic dimension and impact of sexual experience — which has been true for me. I enjoy the intensity of the visual nature of SM, both aesthetically and subjectively.
PNM: The figures in the watercolors have no real features because of the hoods, but bodies are also generalized —they are merely contours. Why is that? Did you feel the need to simplify the human form?
MM: I wanted to communicate more directly – in a primal way – the contours provided enough information. I wanted to empty the vessel of the subject of its individuality, while allowing the edges to denote psychological complexity. I felt the need to move away from form, which had dominated my practice for so long. I wanted the challenge of creating enough form for the subject to be present, but, just barely. The hoods also perform well in that they allowed the viewer to seek information that was unavailable – in this sense the image ultimately acts as a mirror. The denial of information creates a screen for projection of the self in the Rubberman works…
PNM: What have you learned about your own sexuality while painting, for example, a self portrait with a dildo in your mouth or from the paintings of male SM scenes?
MM: All the early works were from factual experience. So, the subject matter of the work was defined by actuality, not fantasy. It’s in the act of painting and exposure of the most personal parts of myself that I can’t say I’ve ever really found comfortable! Not even now, 20 years later. The works are incredibly revealing and depict things one might haltingly display during sex when one loses all sense of propriety and control! Needless to say, I haven’t come to terms with the work on many levels. I simply needed to make the images and so I did.
PNM: You made this statement in a letter to your audience about the earlier paintings from the 1990s: “I haven’t figured out why dildos are the central ‘props’ in those paintings. I think it has to do with this false tool — that the mind wants to make real. Using a fake device to try to communicate with a lover or comfort oneself -so in a way this communication or connection is ultimately doomed.” This last sentence interests me, can you explain this sense of doom and have you figured out what the dildos are about or has your outlook changed?
MM: The dildos, I’ve come to understand, fit into the impulse in my work to address absence and desire. Dildos, while providing pleasure, also evoke feelings of lack or inadequacy. Maybe false power, to me. The dildo functions very differently than the fist, for instance. The concept of absence has permeated every body of work I’ve made, including the one I’m presently engaged in. In the Rubbermen, the absence became most directly stated, but, the sense of absence embodied in voyeurism was an element of the male scenes, and continued in the prop of the dildo in the autobiographical scenes. This preoccupation with doomed and disconnected encounters probably has to do with the absence of my father, whom I’ve never met.
PNM: What is next and where can we see your art on display?
MM: Currently I’m working on images inspired by the wall sized panels of black mirrors installed in my bedroom. I bought a house in Highland Park three years ago, and much of my fever in buying it was due to the master bedroom, which was remodeled in the 70s. Three of the four walls are covered with black mirrors! The room feels like a time/sex/death vortex, which has really captivated me. The images are not depicting mirrors per se but, rather, the effect of black mirror — reversals, absorption, removal. The dislocation of the body and disappearance of the subject is the focus. The work, when it’s completed, will be shown at Gagosian Gallery. I’m shooting for next year!