Catfight! – Kirsten Johnson and Dayna McLeod

Kirsten Johnson

 

Nurse Fight 3

 

Stewardess Fight 3

 

Geisha Fight 4

 

With rich strokes, drips, highlights and watertight washes, Kirsten Johnson’s latest series, Catfight, vibrantly captures our complex and complicated fascination with girl-on-girl violence. Decked out as Geishas, stewardesses and sexy nurses, Johnson’s girls scratch, gouge, pinch, poke and hair pull their way through a fetishized landscape that isn’t always paved with the male gaze. An incredible painter, she talked with me in her Toronto studio about her work, her process, and how incredibly fun it is to get your gal pals together, dress them up, and stage fake fights, because who doesn’t love a woman in uniform?

Dayna McLeod: You do commission work as well as maintain a vibrant artistic practice. What are the differences between these two realms?

Kirsten Johnson: The commission work is largely portrait work, and on that level, I approach it like they’re characters. I just get to know people, jam back and forth. It balances me out because when I’m doing my own stuff, I go deep into my head and what’s on my mind. I spend huge amounts of time by myself, so the portraits are this delightful social outlet.

DMC: Tell us about Catfight.

KJ: I’m fascinated by women and violence and how that’s fetishized, like if you think of 70s movies where women are fighting, and why is that such a glorious sexualized thing? It makes no sense. But then it does if you think women aren’t allowed to express physical violence towards each other- it’s not part of our culture, so the idea that we do it badly and viciously with hatpins and fingernails and pulling of hair starts to make sense.

DMC: And as soon as the shirt is ripped and the boobs come out, it’s game over. It no longer becomes about the fight or legitimate disagreement, it becomes about the male gaze and satisfying that.

KJ: Exactly. But what is it about these stereotypical roles that seem to be a huge part of it? And what is it about the uniform?

DMC: As a woman, you can’t be professional. You can’t just be a nurse, you have to be a sexy nurse.

KJ: Yes, look at all the Halloween costumes that come out like, “sexy pirate!” What the hell is that? Obstetrician!

DMC: Sexy Obstetrician! Sexy Pediatrician! Talk about an anti-feminist agenda that undermines women as professional.

KJ: And we’re culpable in that. Again, look at Halloween and the amount of people who want to hike up their skirts and become the sexy pirate.

DMC: Sexuality becomes a costume.

KJ: There is something about the uniform too that creates this anonymity. If you think in military terms and there’s a whole bunch of people, then you’re not individuals, you’re a group and the objectification becomes easier because you’re not an individual, you’re part of this army or core of nurses, of geishas or majorettes or what have you.

DMC: How do you use the codes of fetishization within your work? Your paintings are super sexy, and following the logic of this type of fetishization, it seems that if your models weren’t fighting, then they’d totally be making out.

KJ: And probably fighting over a guy who is not in the painting, but definitely close by.

DMC: You use real models…

KJ: And real actors. These are all friends of mine, performers of varying degrees, and everyone I ask -I always approach it rather sheepishly as I consider it to be a favour- they’re always, “Are you kidding me?! What can I bring, and when can I be there?” People just love it. I think partly because they love that I say, “I’ve made these costumes for you, can you please come over”, and then they love the idea that they’re going to be fake fighting because we just never get to do that. We haven’t been trained or perhaps we’ve been trained out of it.

DMC: How do you direct the sessions?

KJ: I’ll describe scenarios. Basically, I tell them a story. “Here we are at the airport, and the flights are all delayed and a voice comes over the speaker. It’s the pilot. You over there, you are having an affair with the pilot, and you, he just left you, and who did he leave you for, but her! And she’s just getting a promotion…” So I sort of work out this dynamic where everyone hates each other, and it varies and it switches and they hate each other for different reasons, and everyone’s really hard done by. Anyway, then we just talk, talk, talk through it and it just kind of snowballs from there and after a while, I don’t have to say anything, they just come up with their own ideas and people will use things from their own life because they haven’t got it out of their system. We have the slow, simmering, lasting-for-several-years-without-speaking thing. I wish we didn’t but we do. I think it would be a lot healthier on some level to actually fight it out, but physically. I mean, I say that and I don’t say that because on one level, I think that it’s barbaric to be fighting it out physically but then on some level, we are animals and at least it would stop the slow simmer.

DMC: What about female boxing?

KJ: I want to fight the way puppies fight. Fake fighting. I don’t really want to loose brain cells. I want the imagery of fighting, I want the pretend fighting. That’s what’s fun for me, like in 70s movies, this ridiculous fake fighting that doesn’t make any sense. And it has as much to do with the line of your hair and the head tossing as it has to do with a well-placed blow to the temple.

DMC: You’ve got stewardesses, nurses, geishas- what’s next?

KJ: I think what’s next is majorettes and magician’s assistants. Whenever I mention this series, people have tons of suggestions and I’m finding that I have a very strong idea of what I don’t want. Things like nuns, which I just think is stupid. It would be tired and done. For some reason, that strikes me as particularly lame. And school girls have also been suggested to me, and that’s just a little bit next door to creepy. It’s right up there in the top 5 of Halloween costumes, but I want adult women. Someone also suggested mothers. But there’s something with the uniform that I find attractive and mothers don’t really have that.

DMC: Like the Mad Men wives going at it.

KJ: I’m slowly figuring it out. It’s also about the outfits. The majorettes with the epaulets and the hats.

DMC: The majorette hat is awesome. Will you have the scepter? Doesn’t the lead majorette always have a staff or a stick or something to lead everyone with?

KJ: The majorettes have batons, and the fighting always happens in the core. There’s an element of these roles that are put on women in terms of sexiness that’s very restrictive- like a tension that gets internalized and that’s why we beat each other up.

DMC: Are these cat fights therapeutic female bonding?

KJ: Exactly. Everyone’s excited to be part of it and everyone’s really excited to wear these great outfits. Every time I have gals over for this, it’s turned into this screamingly hilarious cat fight party. And everyone is loving each other so much in the hating each other. Everyone’s had such a good time.

DMC: You paint from photographs. Walk me through a shoot.

KJ: I’m shooting on stills- really sort of rapid fire. I set up a backdrop and just talk through it, take a ton of pictures. Every now and then I’ll have sketches in advance because sometimes it gets very technical, and let’s say your arm’s out here, but then I can see that that’s not quite working the way that I want it to and then I talk them to make it look like it’s just happened because they might need to back it up to get into that position. They’re all such experienced performers, they really help me out. If I completely told them what to do, we wouldn’t see the same light in their eyes. They’ve got to rely on their own instincts.

DMC: What draws you to painting?

KJ: The colour is so seductive to me. It’s so vibrant and juicy and gorgeous just the way it moves. I love it. The way that it feels. I love people visiting my website to see my work, but I always want to put a disclaimer on there saying, “Please if you can, if you like the work, come on out. You don’t have to buy anything, just come out and see it live.” Anytime you go to a gallery, you’re always shocked by anything that you’ve seen in a book and then you see it live and you go, “Whoa!” I don’t know, it gives me shivers. I get weepy in art galleries.

I’m always doing this dance between my life as a performer and my life as a visual artist, so I’m very attracted to human emotion and as time goes on, the emotions have become more extreme and the movement has become a larger element than it was before. In earlier work, I would create these stages, almost tableau, but now I don’t know, I just want to have it move.

I’ve also been working with water based oils which I was completely in doubt about when I first started with them, but I had to change for health reasons, and just having the paint get less and less solid as it moves down the panel -I paint on wood- by the end it’s like water colour.

DMC: What is the difference between painting on canvas and painting on wood?

KJ: I paint on oak veneer from Quebec. I switched brands because I didn’t want to use something like mahogany or anything that was in trouble, and then all of a sudden I look at the back of it, and it turns out I’ve been getting my oak from Indonesia which I absolutely didn’t want to do. I chewed out the good people at Rona and then I found a different supplier. Working on wood started initially because my apartment got broken into 15 years ago, and they broke in through the front door, which was a solid, wood door. It couldn’t be used as a door anymore, and I hated to see it like that because it was so beautiful, so I stripped it and painted on that. Ever since then, the way the paint sits on wood- it doesn’t get sucked into the canvas, which is always going to make things softer, and there’s so much of a graphic quality with wood. It’s a very different effect. I just love wood.

DMC: I really like how you’ve incorporated the grain of the wood into the sky within the stewardess painting.

KJ: Well that’s how it started as sky for the nurses, but it was also inspired by Anime- you know those crazy suggestions of movement that they have in backgrounds. I love those.

Kirsten Johnson is a Toronto-based visual artist whose work appears in private and public collections all over North America, Europe, Australia and Japan. Her work often involves a fusing of her visual work with her strong background in performance. Her latest series, Catfight, will run for a month at XEXE Gallery in Toronto September 24th to October 24th. XEXE Gallery is at 624 Richmond Street West in Toronto. www.kirstenjohnson.com


Comments from old site:

Submitted by dayna on Sun, 10/18/2009 – 19:49.

Check out the awesome video Kirsten made about her work:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcIq7dOCpdE#

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 09/01/2009 – 13:31.

Amazing – would be awesome to see more images of her work here.

Submitted by mel on Tue, 09/01/2009 – 18:04.

There you go!