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Interview: Vivian Liddell


Detail installation view at 621 Gallery, Tallahassee, FL, 2019.

Mixed media soft sculpture:

Truck windshield with hand painted artist’s monogram and Boy Scouts stickers, stuffed boys' pants, men’s pants, hand dyed batik fabric, amended MAGA hat, pompoms, smiley balls, feathers, yarn, chains crocheted by the artist’s grandmother, embroidery, ribbons, found crocheted blanket, synthetic polymer paint, popsicle stick flag, paint cans, pine straw bales, Budweiser bottles, SOLO cups, boys’ boots.

48 x 78 x 100”

1) Could you introduce yourself? What do you make paintings about? Where did you study art?

Sure. Thanks for checking out my work and taking the time to interview me. In addition to my art career, I’m also a professor, mom of two and host a podcast (Peachy Keen) interviewing women about art and the South. I have an MFA in painting from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn (where I lived for about a decade on and off) and a BFA in Photographic Design from the University of Georgia in Athens, where I currently live. Since I started painting in the late 90s, I have mostly focused on expressive figurative painting although I’ve moved deeper into abstraction and begun incorporating various media into my work over the past five years or so. The content of my work varies with each new series, but generally I would say that issues of gender, class and power are touchstones that I come back to.

2) How do you try to show the arbitrary nature of assigning certain colors, patterns, and shapes separately to femininity and masculinity in your work, such as “MAKE A (ma)MAN II: Independence Day?”

In that particular piece, I was purposefully trying to subvert color and gender associations. It’s mind blowing to me the way that pink is so staunchly entrenched in our girlhoods now like it’s this ancient tradition, but it wasn’t actually associated with girls until the 1940s. MAKE A (ma)MAN I & II are both based on Louise Bourgeois’ spider—a piece that is about the feminine (the mother/maman). But my spider is more ambiguous in terms of gender. The legs are made from boys and men’s pants, and the spider is wearing a MAGA baseball cap—all things I would say are more masculine on the spectrum. But then there are pastel hair scrunchies and glittery ribbons. There’s a truck windshield (like actually from a real truck) with pink monogram letters on it (my initials). I feel like there’s a masculine vibe to trucks and their traditional association with manual labor, but that’s a perception that’s been upended in my time here in the South—you’re really just as likely to see a woman driving a truck as a man.

3) How does your work show the interwoven nature of masculinity and femininity - in that mothers raise boys into men, and men are attracted to women and vice versa?

So that’s kind of exactly what the MAKE A (ma)MAN sculptures are getting at. There’s the political aspect of MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN being edited to say MAKE A MAN, and then there’s the art historical reference to the making of a mother spider. It’s an uneasy marriage but it somehow makes sense in my head. Both are related to gender, fear and overcoming fear. I think using materials and techniques (fabric, sewing, embroidery) associated with women and femininity help soften the masculinity of the red MAGA hat and balance it out. Some of the pants that are used in the spider’s legs belonged to my kids and had been mended by me with cute little embroideries of whales and whatnot before being finally chopped up and transformed into art supplies. I was thinking a lot about my role as a woman in making men while I was working on this piece. Women have more power now to steer their children on gender issues. I’m raising boys, but what does that really mean?

4) If what is traditionally considered masculine can be assumed by women, and what is traditionally feminine be assumed by men, is there no longer a need to define what is masculine or feminine? Are femininity and masculinity perhaps just one continuous range of personalities and roles that people can assume, in which case the labels would no longer matter?

Yes, exactly. It would be great to get rid of those labels in a perfect world. Gender is on a spectrum. I hope for my kids to have that complete freedom of expression without being judged or sidelined for their gender presentation(s). But we are a long way from being in that perfect world in most of the United States—especially outside of the urban centers. Where is our first woman president 100 years after women received the right to vote? There’s still physical violence and discrimination against women, especially black transgender women. We have to address the inequalities in the system we currently have. As long as these inequities still exist, labels still matter because we need them to have conversations about these problems. The gender binary has dominated our culture for a very long time, and it is not going away overnight or without a fight. Where I live here in the South, not only is the gender binary still very much the norm but it’s also still really stifling for both men and women. It can dictate expectations and get inside your head even when you vehemently disagree with it. I would consider it progress in the short term to provide more room within this binary for greater gender expression.



Oil and oil pastel on canvas

24 x 20”

5) Do you feel a sense of attraction to the male figures in your work?

Ha! No.

Well…there’s one painting out of all of the paintings I’ve made of men so far where I was like, this guy is kind of sexy. But he was definitely sexy in a creepy way. Like the guy you know you should NOT be attracted to and you feel icky about it. And if I’m being totally honest I think it’s not particularly the figure that’s sexy but the vibe of the whole landscape he’s in (I was imagining a kind of seedy beach town corner gas station at night…) and the prior knowledge I have of the source material I used when I was making the painting—an old photograph of Lemmy from Motörhead that I used for the tattoos and an image of an 80s Fiero with louvers. So, the painting is basically a nostalgia trip to the Florida panhandle of my teenage years. It’s called “Man, Smoking (Florida Nights)” in case you want to share my deviance with your readers!

6) What makes your titling your works “Men” simple, but Willem de Kooning’s titling his works “Women” bold? Or was this a sarcastic pun?

I had to take a second look at my artist statement on this one. Maybe it’s somewhat sarcastic? I have a hard time tamping down my sarcastic tendencies; they were definitely my main defense mechanism throughout my youth. But I’m going to try and say that in this case, I was mostly being sincere. I often title my artworks with overly wordy literary, musical or art historical references so when I took on de Kooning’s naming conventions the resulting titles seemed simple and terse in comparison. I’m both amused and astonished at the audacity of de Kooning’s titles: Woman I. Woman II. Woman and Bicycle. The titles alone have the effect of reducing complex people (women) into a kind of monolithic other–perfectly suited to his paintings. But don’t get the wrong idea, I definitely am sincere in my appreciation of his paintings of women. I remember reading or hearing somewhere that he hated the “idea” of women in the 1950s—maybe from a MoMA panel discussion I listened to with Cecily Brown? The cut-out magazine images of the mouths of smiling perfect housewives that he used in his paintings convey this. But I also hate the “idea” of a perfect 50s housewife! If you interpret his work that way, he and I have a lot in common. I love men, but there is a certain presentation of masculinity that our culture not only allows for but encourages that I’m ready to cut out.

7) In your signature style of painting, men appear as faceless beings with hairy bodies. How do they contrast the nude female in traditional western painting? In what ways are they similar?

I’ve been into Baroque figure painters—especially Velázquez and Rubens— for close to 20 years. Currently I’m more interested in their depictions of class and power than in their representations of nude women, although their female nudes definitely play into both. I’ve gotten more and more into abstraction because at this point it’s more technically challenging to me and therefore just more fun, but I’m still drawn to the figure. One of my goals with this particular series was to get closer to merging my figures into their ground—very tricky. Willem de Kooning is a true master of integrating the figure into an abstraction; his women are super blocky and have no necks. As soon as you put a face on a figure, it creates such a strong focal point that it becomes damn near impossible to have the figure merge into a nonobjective composition. The added bonus of having no face is that the figures can become everymen. The hairiness serves the same goal in terms of abstraction—it becomes a vehicle for mark-making that can come and go off of an actual limb. I’m also very interested in body hair in our society as a masculine/feminine indicator. Interestingly, body hair is not something you usually see on female OR male nudes in traditional Western paintings.

So, I’d say these men that I’m painting are closer to modern nudes than to traditional Western figure painting in terms of style, and that the subject matter and to some extent the compositions are more related to traditional paintings of male nudes than female nudes. I don’t really want to look at or even analyze female nudes anymore—I’ve seen enough! But I have been purposefully seeking out male nudes from Western art history to reinterpret. Recently I’ve been especially interested in Roman sculpture and the Romantic periods in painting, in addition to my steady fascination with the Baroque.

8) Seeing women or men as purely sex objects is objectification and wrong, but what is the fine line between feeling sexual attraction and desire, and seeing a person as a sex object? What was essentially problematic about so many Modern (and some Contemporary) male artists who depicted a female nude?

In broad terms, I think that’s a question every sexual person will have to answer for themselves. In terms of painting, I have no interest in paintings that are basically jerk-off fodder. Desire is only one small part of the human spectrum of emotions, but it’s played an outsize role in art historical depictions of women. I guess you can look at some of the early odalisques as the acceptable porn of the time, all being made by men for men. You ask specifically about the problem with Modern/Contemporary male artists depicting the female nude, but there isn’t much difference in my mind between Modern artists and traditional Western artists in this regard. It’s tough to boil it down to only one essential problem—sexism is so ingrained in our artist as hero narrative— but for starters I would say that these images of female nudes depicted by men were and are part of a power structure that centers a white male heterosexual viewpoint on beauty and desire as the default viewpoint.

9) When male artists are not allowed to paint the female nude without getting intense scrutiny, but female artists can paint both male and female nudes with ease, do you see a problem, or is this a step toward making progress?

I disagree with both parts of your question here. Men are still allowed to paint female nudes and there is still a market for this work, it’s just not as high-profile or as profitable as it used to be. And I wouldn’t say the art-world scrutiny for men painting female nudes in the past couple of years is any more intense than what the average female contemporary artist of my age has regularly encountered just trying to exist as an artist. But I’m still here making work. If men feel that painting female nudes is important for them to do, they should just keep doing it. I fully support men (and all artists) in their continued right to paint whatever subject they would like. But certainly men (again, like all contemporary artists) should be aware of how their work fits in with art history if they aim to be competitive in the fine art market. There are always some styles of work and content that are at the forefront of the zeitgeist and I don’t think it’s realistic for men to expect their paintings of sexy nude women to be relevant in the art world right now.

As for female artists being able to paint both male and female nudes “with ease”—maybe I’m over thinking it, but I don’t find either to be that easy. Just because I’m a woman painting female nudes doesn’t mean that the male gaze ceases to exist. I can’t control the viewers and I don’t want to paint women in a nude and vulnerable state for the pleasure of men. This isn’t to say I can’t or won’t paint female nudes, but when I do, I will definitely be putting a lot of thought into how to do it without becoming complicit in a hundreds-of-years old Western art history narrative that has contributed to the oppression of my gender. In painting male nudes, I’m challenging this same very long history of both acceptable behavior for women and acceptable depictions of men. Sure, the average New Yorker could care less, but I can tell you as an artist who lives outside of an art center in the American South, there are many, many people (both male and female), who are uncomfortable with my paintings. I’m happy for anyone to try and prove me wrong on this point. Would love for a museum with a big family audience to take in some of my male nudes!


2020 Oil and oil pastel on canvas 12 x 12” (Quadriptych; each panel is 6 x 6”)

10) It is true that male artists tend to paint female nudes, but female artists also tend to paint female nudes more because they find them much more interesting or beautiful. How should we reconcile the imbalance in power dynamic between the male artist/intellectual and the female muse/subject, and the fact that people just like to paint female nudes more, in general?

When you say that people just like to paint female nudes more in general the assumption is that you are talking about a certain type of female body that people are fond of saying is just more beautiful than a male nude—most likely a youthful, curvy (but not too curvy) cisgender woman who is not living with a visible disability. This is a direct result of men in the Western world having the power to decide what is beautiful. Perceptions of beauty are cultural (not innate) and will take time to shift. It serves the purpose of patriarchal power structures to protect men’s bodies (showing them clothed and less vulnerable). Historically the same constructed idea of beauty has been applied to skin tones. Many people (even people with darker skin tones) might say that lighter skin tones are more desirable—not because they are, but because culturally we’ve been told that that they are because it suits a racist power structure. We need greater representation of diversity in imagery to broaden our perspectives about what is beautiful in order to shift these cultural norms. If 50% of artists, editors and other visual power brokers throughout history had always been women, I seriously doubt women today would be saying that women’s bodies are more beautiful than men’s. We just aren’t used to male nudity as something to be appreciated because it hasn’t suited men for us to be used to it. I’ve been wanting to paint male nudes for most of my career but knew that it would be career suicide because people are so afraid to be confronted with male nudity and they especially do not like the idea of a woman being in charge of how that nudity is presented. So, I’m up against at least two cultural norms in painting male nudes. But cultural norms can and do shift, and I think that’s what we are looking at right now. I’m excited for my work to play even a small part.

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