WB: I think American craft is something deeply rooted in your practice, and I know you recently went to the Museum of Appalachia, a place a lot of people would think is antithetical to the larger purview of contemporary art. What was your motivation, how does the craft conversation fit into your curriculum?
CM: The Museum is incredible because it is someone's passion project. All the wall text is handwritten with a Sharpie marker on small pieces of paper. Anyone who cares that much about the objects of their area, their history, and the way things were made is fascinating to me. It is also a matter of taking an object that someone lived with, or maybe slept with, or wore, or used for work daily. Even in the MET, most objects were originally used in a religious context or in someone's home. Ceramics and clothing and furniture and decorative arts. It's all things that were once contextualized in a totally different way. And so, I guess when I go to any Museum, I'm thinking about usage and story.
WB: What do you think drives people who run such niche regional museums?
CM: I mean, I think what drives them is pride and wanting to preserve some of the histories of regional identity. As far as pride goes, I go back and forth on, say, American pride, what we've done as a country in some ways is terrifying and in other ways, I am proud of it as a collective work in process. As far as specific objects in that Appalachia Museum, I realized when I went there, although I'm working with a lot of these very refined, beautiful Shaker objects I suddenly felt connected to the way I grew up; fairly religious and working class. When I went to the Museum of Appalachia, I felt so much closer to the way my dad would make something. It's like "oh I happen to have, a giant old bucket in the yard and some wheels and some extra wood, maybe I can make something to transport rainwater over to the garden." That's an actual project my dad's been working on recently. Even though it wouldn't be called art, it's the way I learned how to make things. Rethinking what you have accessible to you and problem solving it into being something else. This is a toilet bowl, we turned into an instrument, that kind of thing there's ingenuity there.
WB: Do you think this sentiment relates to the character of American identity? A national character of ingenuity? Where there's a connection between this cult of personality in what it means to be American and the anything-goes style of American craft itself?
CM: I think, one of the weird and awesome things about America is it's just geographically so huge that there are so many different American identities. National identity is impossible, to sum up as one thing, the array of experience is sometimes part of the issue with the conversations we have about national identity. As far as craft goes, I've been reading the essays in this book from the exhibition called, With Pleasure, Pattern and Decoration and American Art from 1972 to 1985. It's interesting because the show explores the idea of how abstraction was never a Western invention, that it was always a significant part of the decorative arts in the East. It's such a Western thing to think we invented everything. In fact, it is really helpful for me as an artist and as a professor, to recontextualize what abstraction is. It helps fill in gaps where abstraction and art can seem so intimidating. Where, fine art is something very expensive and far removed from daily life, so much so you can't even touch it. Yet if you start to think about it in terms of, Islamic tiles or Kimono designs or anything like that, you realize you actively live with abstraction every day. Pattern and decoration have been historically looked down upon for either being too feminizing or part of, like, an otherized cultural tradition that's not considered high art.
WB: I think that your paintings make it apparent because I feel you always leave the viewer in limbo between high modernism and humanist craft, but the paintings go further than this, beyond this very apparent association in Shaker material culture. How does this appear in the formal results of your art? Are you really taking two dialectical opposites and putting them into the same space?
CM: For me, I don't see anything as separate, I recall Joseph and Annie Albers and the craft of and within their painting and textiles. It is working symbiotically I think so much about their influence on the way the contemporary visual arts developed in the US through Black Mountain College, in Rauschenberg, and other's work too. I carry on that conversation in my own personal way working through issues around gender, materiality, and labor. Even when I make a painting now, I think of it, to some extent in the classical imperatives of gender, where I'm like, this painting is getting too feminine it needs some masculine energy to balance it. I'm always hoping a painting can be both inviting and then a little bit frightening at the same time. In that way, it can contain complexity, and live in some fluid place. I guess in that way, I think of fine art and craft as being both, like two sides of the same coin, that there's always these opposites within ourselves. No one is just one thing, so why should a painting be that way?
WB: I love that. I think looking at your early works and thinking about this idea of objects being gendered based on historical precedence or attention to fabric as women's work. You take this deeper into the construction of the fabric, the engineering that takes place to actually make a beautiful textile. Tell me about this idea of gender, gendered objects and fabric, and women's work, and how maybe your work might either perpetuate or reject that?
CM: When I think about gender or feminist politics, there's so much that's already been done as far as, fabric arts and textiles. There is a part of me that was like, I want to be able to explore the concepts of these things without having them located specifically on the body. It feels so exposing to have it be about a body. So I started thinking about the things the body might touch in some other way, like a stand-in for the body. I think it is fairly American to think about fabric as being gendered. Another Westernism, but like if you look at for example Mexico, weavers are historically men and the dye is done by women. The intersection of working-class labor and feminized labor comes together. And that's something that I've noticed when there's something handmade and intensive like sewing or weaving. One thing I've been getting into recently is learning about chair canning, my grandpa was teaching me how to do it.
And it's funny because if you watch the YouTube videos, it's always men doing it. And I was like, this is a weaving that's specifically masculine in American culture. Is it because you use reeds and cane instead of something soft? This factors into why I'm interested in putting them into painting because it becomes something I place on the wall and suddenly it has the use-value of being art, but nothing else. Kind of like the transition of where the value sits through the actual object itself.
WB: Exactly, your paintings are always intimating functionality or they're contemplating it. Looking at this current body of work, there is this repeated motif of the bonnet, which I think is a loaded accessory, do you agree? I want to talk to you a little bit about when you first were drawn to the bonnet. Why is there surrealism, seriousness, and absurdity in these paintings?
CM: I think it came about first because I was just looking through the online archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And they have images of everything they own, basically. You can type in a word, and it will come up with 3,000 hits. And I kept finding beautiful hats and bonnets specifically and then looking for more. In these paintings, there's a space where the body should be and the body is not there. It also is very much about thinking about what you can't do when you're wearing one. Bonnets were originally designed for modesty when people would ride in their carriages and they wanted to be seen, but not seen in a way. To appear to be a modest woman who wasn't trying to be seen. But then when one wears it, you can't really see out of it or hear out of it very well. So it becomes like horse blinders where you have this thing on either side of your eyes, and you can't see out and you can only see directly ahead. I actually made some bonnets at one point, and when I was researching patterns, I found more warnings, "Don't try to walk on the side of the road!" There are things that you do to appear a certain way, like to appear modest, but they might end up really holding you back in some other way when you can't see out of them. Then it evolved into a larger idea of the things that we as humans do to appear a certain way, but can often limit our view of the world and what we're allowing in. And in that way, it seemed interesting for this project where I was trying to think of bonnets that were specifically oriented toward different parts of the United States. Like what you might wear for the prairie to keep the sun off, or what might be seen as a bonnet one would wear in an east coast city, a very ostentatious purple velvet, which totally cuts out the function of modesty altogether.
WB: Isn't it funny how the material redefines itself, redefines the function around the bonnet symbolically, even though the two might have essentially the same shape?
CM: True, I was thinking a lot about this ramping up to the election when I was working on these. And I just kept thinking about in what way we were missing each other. Not getting the full story of why someone had the impulses they had politically in one way or another. As far as voters go, just that we have a way of thinking about ourselves, that it often isn't necessarily what you get out of having a conversation face to face. I mean, I think the bonnet has been in a lot of ways, a great kind of metaphor for the subjective system we live in. No matter what walk of life we come from, you have some kind of blinders on or are unable to see everyone fully, are even let ideas in that might seem immodest or challenging. So I love the bonnet as a conceptual device.
WB: Tell me more about this idea of the four directions and how regionalism plays into these paintings?
CM: Let's see, with the one that's for the West, I was thinking about, all the issues around expansion, like the way that you learn about Western expansion and always looking outward as a value. Which I think is such an issue that we have in this country. With that one, I wanted it to be sort of like facing out, which is why it has, a second canvas or it's actually a wood panel. Even the idea that the bonnet is looking outward always struck me as kind of, like a covered wagon shape, it sits heavy on the surface and has so much that's really ornate to it.
WB: How do the rope and heavy iron impasto connect to the South in that direction painting?
CM: There's actually a funny story, during COVID quarantine I found the time to actually just be. I said I'm going to work on this series for months. I was in Knoxville when I was working on that one and thinking a lot about what was happening in the United States last spring with the protests. So I made a gritty background from dirt clay in Tennessee mixed with iron oxide paints and I just wanted to associate the literal Earth of the country, and that one that I was standing on in that moment. How much it has seen and been through, it was really moving to be in Tennessee, to see people come out and either observe or participate in the protests. That piece came out of this experience, and I made a three-part canvas that is sort of about the connection, even though it's fractured. Then with the Northern one, I'm from the Northeast and I wanted that to be a Shaker bonnet specifically. That was also a very intensive part to paint. It's a woven bonnet that has lace over it. From researching the Shakers, I know that there were points where the bonnets would get more beautiful and elaborate, and shaker elders would kind of crackdown on it and be like, this is too much vanity. You need to, like, hold it back a little bit, which I think is something I think about as an experience of being in the Northeast. There's, very much a sense that you don't want to be too vain about something.
WB: I always think about Mondrian when I look at your work. I see you intimating modernism, but also as a meditation on the second Enlightenment or the relationship between the history of the Industrial Revolution and the sort of humanist retraction against which we relate to each other. I wanted to just ask, if that component of modernist art history, is something you're actively conscious of?
CM: I do think it is something I like to think about in my work. Like, how can something both be universal and be personal at the same time? I'm interested in a rewriting of history where modernism isn't quite so sterile and distanced from us.
WB: The Shakers were essentially an industrious religious cult, without the traditional mechanisms of the industry but instead they used the body as the mechanical instrument. Is that why you are drawn to their working designs and production?
CM: It's such a weird thing they had going where they hated the Industrial Revolution and the factories of the 19th century, but they also were kind of creating these human factories in a way. They generated extremely well-made objects instead of factory-made objects. That balance between industry and the hand-made made is always appealing to me.
WB: You can't ignore the variable of Christianity. And I want to just ask you, how often do you think about Christianity? Do you think that has something to do with the mechanical structure they came to realize?
CM: It's interesting because I got really into thinking about, the difference between Protestant religion and Catholicism at one point. I grew up Baptist, but my mom had grown up Catholic, and I remember asking her a lot of questions about it and her talking about the differences between the physical Church when you're inside of it. There is so much luxuriousness and voluptuousness within the catholic tradition, within both the physical space of the sanctuary and the traditions -the figurative imagery, the fabrics, patina, gold, and pearls. Since Protestants were generally against imagery and frivolity, churches like the Baptist church I grew up in were very simple and plain. When I began to look more deeply at the Shakers, I was kind of finding ways you can worship through objects that aren't necessarily religious objects, that making furniture or growing vegetables, was a way of giving of worshiping or giving praise. I think all of this relates to art-making in different ways – thinking about a deep connection with image, material, and creating.
WB: You were recently in a show entitled Lost in America, with some amazing American Artists, like Sam Durant and John Miller who I know you used to assist. Tell me for a second what you think about that title and what you think about your work being localized in that show? Exported to a whole other European context, to talk about what's going on in America, not just what's going on in America, but like what's been going on in America for the last hundred years?
CM: It's such an incredible show, an amazing selection of artists. We did a panel talk at one point that was like Dan Graham, Cameron Roland, and I, and it was interesting to think about these different pockets of history that each of us was engaging with. Cameron's work is very much about the prison industrial complex and the history of race and the structures around it in the U.S. And Dan Graham talks mostly about a project he did about housing developments and I talked about my work with the Shakers and other early American architectural structures. It was interesting to see history approached in a show about the U.S.. Dan and Cameron and I talked a lot about design as well, and how that can be used to shape culture.
It felt great to be in that show because so much of my work is engaged with history. I sometimes feel like my interest in history is a weird, nerdy thing carried over from being young but in that context of that show, it all fits together like a puzzle piece. It's really awesome.
WB: Well, I think on a lot of those other practices that really meditate on American historical, social, and racial themes, your work provides such a meditation, too, because, again, we come back to this absence of a figure in your work. And I think that in the place of that figure, one can always insert the metaphorical body of the country itself.
CM: Yes, I think that lack of a body in the work definitely relates to thinking about a Protestant image-making that I discussed earlier. And of course to feminism, and wondering how to make an image about being female without portraying a body. I think it's interesting because being a painter at this point in history, there's this whole language to work with, different modes of painting bring different histories. For instance, I'm interested in pop art because it was not taken seriously, even in my own art history classes. Perhaps because it related more to women or queerness or consumer values and graphic language. Anytime something's not taken seriously, it makes me want to take it extra seriously. I have the language to work with where I may use splashy color, to bring out one kind of moment or I stay tighter and more graphic and it can bring about something else.