Interview with VCAM Philadelphia Artist-in-residence Mariel Capanna pt 2

Multidisciplinary artist Mariel Capanna has been working in VCAM for the first three weeks of April 2018 as Haverford’s first VCAM Philadelphia Artist in Residence. Learn more about her work in the following interview with the Hurford Center’s Kelly Jung, and stop by VCAM Create Space 006 on Tuesday, April 24, noon – 1pm for an “artist talk” with Mariel in the form of a casual, quasi-moderated conversation over a lovingly prepared lunch.


KJ: The way in which your work is informed by time is fascinating. Has your experience working with fresco influenced you to pose a time limit on the other mediums you work with as well?

MC: I worked with moving images before I learned about fresco, and I’m finding that my attraction to these two ways of working — from moving images, and into wet plaster — has helped me make sense of my relationship to the passing of time. Both processes feel nostalgic, or attached to memory. With the oil paintings, I’m working from my shallow memory: I’ve just seen an image, the image leaves my vision, and I need to paint from whatever fuzzy-edged echo of that image I’ve held onto in my memory. With fresco, it’s an antiquated, traditional medium that no one uses anymore. The fact that it is a fresco attaches it to a deep art history and I’ve been interested in the idea of deep and shallow history, or civilizational and personal history. I look at a lot of folk art and craft as models for making, but what I look at more than anything are wall paintings found in tombs; paintings attached to architecture built for the dead. I love the idea that tomb paintings are offering a kind of present tense and a place that people from the past can live in. With my work, I’m trying to do kind of the opposite: to find ways of allowing the past to have a material role in the present. How can I continue to spend time with things that are gone or lost? How can I make physical reminders of the past without being mournful or overly sentimental?

KJ: That seems to directly relate to your use of old family photographs for inspiration. How did that come about?  

MC: I learned to value images as packages of nonverbal information because that’s how I got to know my mom as a kid. I had no memory of her, and people weren’t talking to me about her very much, but I had hundreds of photographs of her and as I looked through them I felt like I was getting to know her. So the photograph has always been an important thing for me, and it has made sense for me to work from slideshows of old images because I have an attachment to the color palette that comes from photographs of the late 80s and early 90s. I like the way that the photographs from that decade are saturated and flattened. And I like the awkwardness of the poorly taken photo, and I like the bits of evidence that I can find in the background and the edges. Sometimes I see little still life objects on the edges of photographs that I recognize as objects I can still find in my house. The photographs contain bits of evidence that I’m still living in the same world with the same things as the people I’ve lost.


KJ: So I’ve noticed that in your work, I see a bunch of different objects and things, but not necessarily people. Why is that so?

MC: For me, including an image of a person or a figure makes the image too specific, too personal, too attached to a particular time. I don’t want to freeze figures in time, and I don’t want my paintings to deny the fact that people move, leave, grow old, pass on. One thing I liked about making paintings from movies is that the movie tends to have a linear narrative arc, but I can paint it in a way where everything is happening at the same time. It’s all at once. I am happier picturing time that way . . . not as a linear series of dramatic moments, but as a sprinkling of simultaneous happenings in a particular place. I look at the old family photos and the people in them have grown up or they’re gone, but the place might still be the same. I’m trying to find ways to keep good company with people who are gone. And one of my ways of keeping their company is to collapse the present and the past and treat them as the same. There is a lot of anachronism in my work . . . objects that are obviously from a very distant past, sitting next to objects that we attach to the present. I like the idea of past and present coexisting in the world of my paintings.


KJ: This conversation is reminding me of a philosophy class I took about time, and we were reading about a lot of philosophers who were rejecting the linear construct of time, and articulating what a non-linear and sporadic understanding of time would look like.  

MC: That reminds me  — something I should stay about the Little Stone, Open Home project in North Little Rock is that for fresco, when I’m making a painted mark, it’s a wall tattoo. But I can scratch the fresco a bit, create a new tooth on the surface, and can put a new layer of plaster on top. One thing that’s a possibility for me in North Little Rock is that I can cover the wall with a new layer or plaster and work in a new way. It’s permanent and fixed, but it’s also flexible. When you asked me about community-specific work, about how I deal with the fact that I’m an outsider coming in, well, for that project, because it’s a long term project, I actually have room to grow and figure that out slowly. For the first iteration of the fresco I worked with old family photographs, but as time passes and I get a better handle on how I want to function as an art maker or facilitator or as a host of the fresco space, as I find new ways to do it, I can layer on top of what I have already done. The fresco painting I made last year, if I cover it up there will be no real loss; the thicker the wall is, the stronger it is, and the more moisture it will retain so it will give more painting time in the future. Every clumsy attempt I make at getting this thing “right” will help the physical strength of the fresco. My plan is to go for a month every year for several dozen years.

KJ: Talking more about your residency at Haverford, I’m curious how your experience has been and specifically how the different class visits have impacted the piece you are currently working on.

MC: I’ve been overwhelmed by the resources here. My major feeling is that three weeks doesn’t feel like it’s enough. I sat in on the Food and Religion class, Politics of Memory, and the Conceptual Art class, all in VCAM. The classes are wildly well curated, there are different conceptual echoes and rhymes I’m hearing in each class and I’m still figuring out what to do with it all. Something about going from the Food and Religion class to the Politics of Memory class has made me think in a deeper way about these immersive paintings that I make . . . I’ve realized that they do serve a ritual purpose for me, that I’m developing a ritual that takes the form of painting to deal with loss and find a productive alternative to a more private kind of mourning. I’m thinking about turning the painting I’m making in the Create Space into a visitable place where I can host a meal and invite people in. A lot of the tomb paintings I’ve been studying involve images of food offered to the dead or to the gods . . . in the Food and Religion class small groups have been preparing meals, and I’ve decided to take that on as a project as well. Instead of this painting being something you can look at from a distance, it’s a painting that you walk into; where you can hang out, have a meal, have a conversation. So, I’m going to look through all the photographs I’ve been working from, mine the collection for tables of food, and put together a meal based on those photographed memories.

I’ve also been poking my head into the Maker Arts Space pretty often, and that has been really exciting. My process is obviously attached to the handmade: there is a clumsiness, a naiveté to it. I’ve developed a way of painting that is childlike, easy, quick, simple, so it’s been exciting for me to think about how, as someone who is very attached to the handmade, I could incorporate Maker Arts Space technology like the CNC machine. The space’s coordinator Kent Watson and I have been talking about a small clay maquette I made of this French car I found in an old family photograph — a Renault 11 from the mid ’80s. I was curious to see what happens if we scan the maquette, enlarge it, and turn it into a 3/4 scale foam structure that could then be a substrate for a fresco sculpture. Kent thinks I should use this program called Fusion 360 to model the car instead of 3D scanning. It’s all new to me, but I do think there are ways for me use this kind of technology while maintaining a sense of the clumsily handmade . . . so, we’ll see!

All photos by Lisa Boughter