Interviewed by Juliet Jacobson
I showed up on Rachel Howe's doorstep on Sept 6th at 2 pm. It was a nasty muggy day. The kind of New York day that smells bad. She opened the door and here's what we each looked like, starting at the bottom: ballet flats, black cotton dresses, skinny white arms, long brown hair, bangs, sweaty. The vague look alike and big drawings are not all we have in common. We both could have been seen in 6 hole Doc Martins in 1997, loving then like now the Cure and Siouxsie—staples of girl rebellion, more sad than angry. Last week, we emailed each other at exactly the same moment, confirming my suspicion that we are indeed members of the psychic friends network.
The following document is a record of our studio visit, gmail chat, and questions emailed back and forth.
JJ: Hi Rachel! I think I should pick out appropriate music for our chat. What do you think, Christian Death or Bauhaus?
RH: Bauhaus!! Definitely.
JJ: Do you listen to music to match your drawings? Are the trappings of goth culture close to your heart because of your biography or for other reasons?
RH: Yes, I do sometimes, but more like noise music like Burzum or the Thrones, for concentration. I like the whole goth thing because it's a real acknowledgement of difficult aspects of life, like conflicting aspects of outside/inside, melancholy & aggression, death & life... and it's all worn outside to really send a message. I was not really goth when I was younger, but I identified on the inside with a lot of that stuff.
JJ: Do you associate these ideas with adolescence or think of the imagery used in your drawings as juvenilia?
RH: I don't want to pin it down to that only, but it's definitely a real source. It's not about teenagers being cool or attractive, but since so many emotions & ideas are being formed in adolescence, we are really forming who we are in adolescence, I think its a powerful association to use these cultural things that are most common in adolescence... When you are experiencing things for the first time, they are really intense, and so you look for things outside of yourself to make meaning of it; that is the aspect of it that I'd like to use the most, that yes, there are more goth teenagers than adults, but in using those visual cues, its like a quick tool to talk about things like inexpressible emotions or aggressive impulses, which can then be applied to adult ideas as well.
JJ: Adolescence is universally marked as a period of change. Sometimes it's associated with sexual development but mostly with the search for a social identity. The adolescent is sort of a symbol for the end of innocence—a figure in which right and wrong, good and evil become confused while the innocent egocentric child starts to place her or himself socially. Do these themes surrounding adolescence have a resonance in your work? Change, ethical confusion, or struggling with social norms…
RH: Yes, definitely, especially using image & figuration to talk about adolescence. I’ve written about adolescence and those changes you mention a lot, like in relation to school shooters and how they are directing their fates based on their confusion about how to work in the social structures that have been set up, which are sort of inimical to the natural ways that people develop. But, exploring this visually is a different problem, since appearance and image is an important aspect to developing an identity. I’ve thought about how since you don’t see yourself, as an image, or how you interact with the world, you can’t see yourself living; how you develop how you think of yourself visually is so much based on looking out at other people and things, not back at yourself. And in adolescence this is really accentuated, in a school setting full of all your peers. You almost disappear, because you never see yourself in action, and you can’t really step back and see how you fit into the world. A lot of my drawings have obscured or unfinished faces, because I think that blindness about yourself and your own image is really significant in how one’s identity is formed. I remember the first time that I saw a video of myself (a candid video, so my gestures and everything were natural), in junior high I think, and I was so shocked at how different the video image of me was from the image I had in my mind about myself.
JJ: Something about the drawings—maybe their scale and sensitivity—suggests self-portraiture. Can you talk about the role of identity in your work?
RH: Well, in a way, they sort of have to be self-portraiture... that's not the intention, but I'm investigating things in the drawings because I feel an attachment to them or because I'm thinking about them. I guess they have to be somewhat about me! But the idea of identity is important to me. I've always felt and been interested in the disjunction between perception & reality, especially as it relates to forming identity. If you're defining your reality through your emotions, it in some way negates the physicality of the world, and yourself even. And so it has to be put back together, or created whole again, from its fractured state. One way to do that (I'm talking both in life & in my drawings) is to use cultural cues that are already infused with meaning, from the outside. So the defining of one's identity becomes this process of breaking & repairing. I'm looking for a parallel process while making the drawings.
JJ: I’ve been doing some research—Goth spans decades. I always thought it this was just my sloppy relationship to it, but it really takes many forms: New Romantic, Deathrock, Industrial, and so on. Personally I love the term mallgoth. Most of the band logos and lyrics you use are from the 70s. The classic period. Is it fair to assess this as nostalgic?
RH: Oh, the Goth terms... baby bat, kindergoth, spooky kid! (I think these are all derogative terms for beginners or posers) I do like the classic period the best; I am drawn to the basic & truest version of things. I think its not so much nostalgia as that it's what was current during my childhood, its what I experienced first. It's just what my idea of goth is, that has the most intense associations for me. When you're young I think that you relate emotions to music much more readily than as an adult. When I was in high school I would drive around at night listening to the Cure or the Smiths and just totally wallow in my depressive feelings, just create this totally depressive atmosphere to mirror my feelings, to the point where I can barely stand to listen to some Cure songs today! ("A Forest", if you must know!) You don't really do that as an adult.
JJ: Mostly you've talked about really strong feelings but your drawings also have an emptied out quality. It's in the kid's expressions, the logos, and the text you include, phrases like, "nothing to lose" talk about absence. Formally also, you tend toward economy and let the vacuousness of the blank page dominate. What is this emptiness about?
RH: Well, one of the strongest feelings I've felt, as a depressed teen, was this extreme boredom & emptiness of meaning in everything. So the absence or lack can hold a lot of intensity in it. Mourning, or despair, has a lot of emotion held within loss or absence. But it also relates to the incommunicable quality of some emotions, or how rage turns to sadness through repression... the emptiness in the drawings could be sort of a visual equivalent of inexpressible angst. Or un-understandable emotions, or confusion about what exactly one is actually feeling or thinking; even in the newer drawings with the full textile background, there is still information missing, there is a lack of a recognizable setting or a context, as if it were blank.
JJ: Something about the figures posture suggests victimization. They lie at the bottom of the page under thick black logos and their hands gesture toward the last vestiges of their bodies disintegrating into blank space. Their eyes are down cast or they stare blankly past you. Do you ever think of them this way? If they are victims who or what is the victimizer?
RH: They could be victims of themselves. I am really interested in how girls express rage at the world inward, as opposed to boys expressing it outward. It's like taking a huge burden onto & inside yourself. I do think that the fracturing of identity that I talked about earlier is a really violent thing that happens to girls, (I'm not saying it doesn't to boys as well, but I think it can be more extreme in girls' cases). So when I'm thinking about that, I want to show this violent fracturing, or fragmenting, in a physical way.
JJ: Are they all girls? While totally twee, the busts in your drawings are pretty androgynous. How do you think of them?
RH: Yeah, I moved from drawing boys who were really identifiable as part of a goth subculture, or a school shooter subculture, to drawing more androgynous figures, who are probably girls. I don't want to make art about sexism, but there is a really specific way that girls get lost, or lose themselves, that is really sad and that I want to explore.
JJ: When you were drawing boys they would always be holding weapons but now the figures and weapons get their own drawings. With weapons isolated like this they still imply physical violence though it's ambiguous as to whether it's associated with an aggressive subject or a victim. In some of your drawings the subject's face actually dissolves to reveal a skull beneath. Some of the drawings have doubles or mirrors. Can you talk about your work as a confusion of inside and outside? What does the doppelganger mean?
RH: Yeah, that also goes back to the goth idea, I sort of think of goths as being both aggressive and defensive, or using an aggressive image as a defense mechanism. Or death metal, or whatever other subcultures who use the idea of death as both a shield and a sword. The drawn weapon is powerless but at the same time has power in its meaning. The thing's meaning is more meaningful than the thing. (The image is stronger than the thing). The ideas of doubles or mirrors I really like, because it holds this contradictory idea of thing & meaning.
JJ: A lot of what I'm hearing you say is that your drawings represent a feeling of the material being as irresolute and a spiritual or emotional life as much more "real." Your emotions are experienced as undeniable but your physical manifestation in the world is called into question. These drawings describe a physicality that is projected from the spirit. Ciphers associated with goth culture become a way to mark an image or projected identity in the world. While the feelings are pretty deep the visual cues are pretty surface. They are icons from pop culture—their meaning is mutable and mobile. Can you talk about this contradiction a little?
RH: I do sometimes feel like I can’t really show what I’m trying to make art about, for the reasons that you are asking about, because its about these invisible & intangible emotional perceptions. I guess making a totally black drawing would get close but also be pretty boring and derivative by this point. So, part of the process is finding imagery that can suggest these things, while not really replicating them. These icons and logos and props can only really act as indicators because I haven’t found how to show exactly what I mean. I’m really inspired by spirit photography from the 19th century, which to me seems an attempt at showing the unseeable, and what they came up with are things like ectoplasm, which is formless matter, and basically doing what I do, taking imagery from the media of the time and inserting it into the picture, where it impersonates a ghost.
JJ: Goth has associations with horror and the supernatural largely it owes these to the Gothic novel. This is were the monsters come from too, ghosties and Dracula and stuff. As they filter through German Expressionist film and American Horror they become campier and more self-conscious. I usually think about monsters in terms of liminal zones, like vampires neither dead nor alive, or werewolves literally being shape shifters. Which aspects of monsters resonate for you? Why do you choose to use them in your work?
RH: Definitely, monsters are representative of a sort of “dusk” or threshold space for me, a liminal zone as you say, where things change or contradictions exist simultaneously. I like vampires and ghosts for their qualities of being dead/undead, having qualities of both life and death. Ghosts are literally what you talk about earlier, purely spiritual and totally immaterial. But I’m also interested in what culture has done to them, turned them into symbols and removed them even further from actual death. I am actually really interested in real ghosts, or leftover energy & how its thought of in occultism, but more related to visual matters would be how ghosts are thought of and depicted historically in media, Halloween, visual imagery, etc. The vampire persona also is like death cartooned, or death with all the death removed. The Dracula myth is all about the fear of death, but there is really only this chain of un-deaths, or death in statis, forever in the process of dying. It’s interesting how property and land ownership is a central plot aspect in the book Dracula, which is sort of an alternate way of gaining immortality, although not physical. The monster myths seem to me a way of talking about certain difficult or hard to express conditions or feelings. When I read Frankenstein I felt that it dealt pretty directly with ideas of understanding yourself & facing suicidal desires, through the device of the monster; there is sort of a parallel between the monster & the creator as they try to fit into their worlds & fail.
JJ: You write about death languidly in an almost matter of fact manner. Your interest in death doesn't come across as a fascination with an unknowable threshold either ecstatic or material, nor does it work like a momento mori. Can you talk a little about your unaffected treatment of death?
RH: It may lead back to the intensity in emptiness thing, that without any sentimentality there is a clearer picture of death. But, it may be more that it’s not really about death itself, but the associations around it. It’s more of a stand-in, a signifier for some sort of negative atmosphere. In talking about death, I can allude to feelings of loneliness, fear, hopelessness… It’s sort of a device. I started writing these scenes of death when Sue de Beer & Ian Cooper sent me an interactive project they were working on a few years ago and part of it was that you write a description of your own death as you would imagine it, and I wrote about a car crash, and I liked how I could explore situations and emotions using a death as a plot anchor. So the death is really like a setting or background for the real stuff.
JJ: Can you talk a little about your process?
RH: I work slooowly. I’m a little more productive now, since I can finally use my hand again after breaking my arm pretty badly in May; I wasn’t able to draw all summer, so I’m so excited now that I can again. But I still do take a lot of time to think about things, and look at images online or in magazines, and let connections come to me, and it sort of has to all be right or it doesn’t work and I trash it. I hardly ever start drawing just to see what comes out, but I also don’t use projectors or map too much out beforehand. It’s a pretty equal mix of intuition & concrete planning. When I use text, I trace the letters and do a low-tech transfer method with tracing paper and pencil graphite. The rest is all free-hand, so my hand has to be in the mood; some days I just can’t draw! I also take photographs or write, if my ideas aren’t working with drawing.
JJ: You have any upcoming shows?
RH: I have a two-person show upcoming in December at Bespoke Gallery, with a close friend of mine. A sisters-in-darkness show.