Each week, The Mac Weekly interviews one senior majoring in an artistic field. This week, I had the opportunity to meet with Julia Sillen, who is in the midst of completing a series of self-portraits for the upcoming senior show.
So Julia, where are you from?
I am originally from Cape Town, South Africa and then I moved to the states when I was 11. I moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, which is where I went to middle and high school, but the whole time my dad lived in New York, so I also spent a lot of time there.
Did you come to Macalester knowing you were going to be a studio art major? How did that come about?
No, not at all. In high school when I decided not to apply to art school, I basically decided I’m not going to study art, or I’ll continue to make art, but it will be on my own time, not in a formal way… In the end, I took Drawing I the second semester of my first year and had this feeling that it was definitely the most productive that I felt at school, and I know that learning is not all about being productive—there is so much more to an education than what you can produce—but I could see how I had improved in a really tangible way and that was really exciting and I ended up spending way more time on that class than I did for all my other classes. I was almost neglectful of everything else… Then the following year I took Printmaking and really fell in love with the department and the other students, and felt more settled in to the art department culture.
Your main medium is printmaking?
Yes, but actually I haven’t done any prints this semester. So far I’ve been working on a collage. The project will be a series of self-portraits, full body self-portraits, and what I’m mainly interested in is the construction of the female nude and the contexts of the female nude in art history…in western painting and sculpture the female nude has come to stand for this symbol of fine art and western cultural accomplishment, and it’s sort of like the ultimate subject that connotes Art with a capital A—this reclining female nude that I see as nothing really to do with how a body actually works and is and moves. So I want to do a series of self portraits that try to get this sense of how we move from a naked body, which moves and eats and menstruates and does all these things and has all these orifices and is permeable in a lot of ways, to the production of a rational, coherent hermetically sealed subject, which is the female nude in this western art tradition.
So are you trying to portray the biological aspect of the female body? How did this project develop?
This semester is awesome because I’m in senior seminar, women’s health and reproduction, which is a biology class, and a Spanish erotic poetry class, so all of these things are sort of coalescing. In my erotic poetry class I’ve been thinking a lot about the distinctions we create somewhat arbitrarily between the erotic, the obscene, and the pornographic, and where those distinctions lay and are they totally bogus to begin with, which I think they are (laughs). So that’s one side of it. Another thing is, I’ve been in this women’s health and reproduction class and we’ve learned about ovulation, menstruation, and all these cycles and hormones and things that are going on in your body and how all of these processes are really just trying to get you pregnant, that is what the biology is working towards, regardless of what each individual woman wants for herself. And so it’s interesting to me the way the body can kind of act independently of your best interests, or what you actually want…so initially I didn’t think that was part of my project, this biological aspect, but increasingly I’m like, “I gotta do something with this.”
So how do you convey these ideas through your art?
There are two things I’m working on. One that I’ve been working on so far is this collage that’s a self portrait in a bath, and so looking at these tropes of the female nude—the reclining nude on a fancy couch or the nude bathing or at her toilette—and how the nude bathing is a really plausible place for there to be a naked person, so there was an excuse [for nudity]. So I want to do some self portraits in those contexts but the way the image is framed is from the perspective of my own head. So if you can imagine…looking down at your own body, there’s no head in the image. I think of it as more of a direct self-representation because it’s not mediated by a mirror or by a camera lens or any of these devices that we use to see our own body from head to toe, which we could never do without those devices, without those mechanical interventions. It’s the context that we’re so used to seeing nude female forms, in the bath, laying on the couch, but from my own head’s perspective.
So this relates to self-representation?
Yes, it definitely has a lot to do with self-representation, and something I think I’ll get more into, or hope to get into, after I finish these things that I’m working on now is this idea in our contemporary digital age of the selfie and how some people react and they’re like “it’s a sign of the times, the demise of our youth culture and their narcissism and vanity.” And I think that, something I’ve encountered when I’ve told people about my culture and I say I’m doing a series of self-portraits, they say “oh, it’s just all you, isn’t that narcissistic?” And so my reaction to that is that “well, no” because if you go into any museum, the majority of the images of women you’ll see were painted by men…and so I see it as a reaction to that precedent and I think that, in many ways, girls taking, or young women taking, selfies with their iPhones is a feminist practice because they’re practicing self representation and determining how they are seen, which is cool… Back to what I was saying about women bathing as a trope and at their toilette, dressing. So a lot of these images have mirrors and women looking at themselves in mirrors and that being like a kind of vanity, but its also a way to legitimate the viewing of these bodies as sexual objects and the patterns of looking and the gaze that they receive because they are complicit in this act of looking at their bodies. But I think that this idea of vanity and narcissism of women has precedent. It’s still a pushback that women who work with their own bodies are narcissistic.
What else are you working on for the senior show?
Another thing I want to do… a lot of what traditional portraiture of nude women has been about has been taking this body that does all this awesome stuff and exerting control on [it], this unruly body, and turning it into this coherent, contained, regulated form that’s not going to spill out of the picture frame. I want to do some pieces that document the actions of my body. Janine Anton is another artist I’ve been into lately and she has this piece called Lick and Lather and it’s two busts, one of chocolate and one of soap and she’s sort of eroded into both of them… She did one where she put on mascara and blinked on a piece of paper and her eyelashes made a mark, and so I think those are really cool to think of as a type of self-portraiture because if a self portrait is a record of a person, that’s almost more interesting to me, the record of the action versus the image. So I want to explore that.
Do you have any ideas for that?
A lot of what I’ve been doing, I’ll be like “what is an interesting action that I do?” Something that I’ve focused on a lot is when you first, with your fingernail, pierce an orange to peel the orange. It’s a very specific action, but when else do you do something like that? Or the way I squeeze lemon juice is to bite on it because your jaw is actually a lot stronger than your hand. And so I’ve been saving a lot of orange peels… So we’ll see what becomes of that…
How has your art changed over the years?
I think what’s interesting is that something I have always come back to is self-portraiture. Even in middle school and high school, I have so many paintings and drawings that I did that were self-portraits and I think that what attracts me to that is that… well I have a friend who is a runner and the way she talks about running is so interesting to me because she’ll be like, running is the best because you can show up in whatever city and you can go running. You don’t need equipment or a soccer field, there’s nothing that you need, and I think in a similar way, if you put an artist in a completely white room with no stimuli, of course you would have your imagination, but as a reference all you would have is your own body and that’s really cool. So I think that similarly in times when I’m having a hard time coming up with ideas or being inspired, because there are times when I feel like I need to make a project about everything…but then there are times when it’s the opposite and for the life of me, I don’t know what to do with myself. It’s always something you can come back to because you’re never the same. And I also think of it as a cool kind of record because I do have a lot of anxiety about memory and worrying about my past and especially coming from South Africa, being like “I’m forgetting all this stuff, I’m forgetting so much about my childhood but I really don’t want to.” I always make myself try and write in a journal or keep some kind of record, but I never do because it’s not my style. The one thing I do have is self-portraits since I was like eight. It’s a different kind of record keeping. So I think that’s been something sort of constant.
Any last words of advice for future art majors or about the art making process in general?
I would just say that the new building is so glamorous, and if anyone ever had doubts about taking an art class, those doubts should be swept away! I think that really the faculty is so amazing and the community is so wonderful. Everything is great and now there is an awesome facility to match.