From Life Magazine to Women in Space: A Conversation with Paula Gillen

Wendy Vogel, September 18, 2020
From the 1970s onward, artist Paula Gillen has worked in photography, installation and collage to critique societal expectations and reductive media stereotypes. Her practice is grounded in appropriation and photographic re-enactment, aligned with the work of feminists like Barbara Kruger, Martha Rosler and Cindy Sherman. Unlike many artists associated with the Pictures Generation, however, Gillen approaches subjects such as gender oppression, racial strife, crime and politics with funky sets, saturated color schemes and a punchy wit.


As a young artist, Gillen lived in Baltimore and Chicago, finding freedom and inspiration in these cities to develop an aesthetic all her own. In “Charm City” — Baltimore’s nickname coined in the mid-‘70s as part of a civic boosterism campaign — Gillen worked in documentary and staged photography, influenced by the burgeoning punk scene, conceptual art and the subversive camp of cult auteur John Waters. In the early 1980s in Chicago, she turned to dark, psychological subject matter, employing theatrical lighting and projection techniques to conjure a postmodern noir sensibility. Gillen then pursued a career as a photo researcher and editor in New York for two decades. Her recent digital collages draw from her extensive research background, combining vintage imagery with new photography to imagine a feminist utopia in outer space.


Her exhibition at Ten Nineteen takes its name from Gillen’s self-published book Head Trip: The ‘80s, a survey of her photography produced between 1975 to 1985. The show pairs work from her early career with collages from her series “Superpower Women in Space” (2018–ongoing).


-Wendy Vogel

Wendy Vogel: The exhibition at Ten Nineteen brings together work from the first ten years of your career (1975 to 1985) and work that you’ve made over the last year or so. How did your early years in Baltimore influence your career? 


Paula Gillen: I received my undergraduate degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. It’s a very traditional school, but also a very urban school. Because it was cheap, there were a lot of working-class kids from all different parts of the country. MICA’s foundation program was intense, six to seven classes each semester. The skills I developed from my drawing, painting, 2D and 3D classes I still use today. However, it was only when I picked up a camera in my second year that I felt liberated and free. I liked the quick, diaristic way the lightweight 35mm camera could be used to document your life and environment. Photography is what I concentrated on after that first year. 


Students at MICA lived in the downtown area and we crossed paths with students from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). We walked and none of us had cars, so the streets were our hallways. Stan VanDerBeek, an experimental filmmaker, directed the visual arts program at UMBC, so the film and video department was quite strong. We were the generation that followed John Waters and his films were a big influence on us. We were all energized by each other and created things for our own entertainment. Everyone chipped in with their skill set. Some directed, others were actors or actresses, some did costumes and choreography. MICA students were more into printmaking, painting, poetry, and punk bands. I enjoyed listening to Da Moronics and going to such ad-hoc events as the 24 Hour Sleep Deprivation party. Everything we did was documented by film, photography or video. Naturally I got into shooting stills of my friends’ pieces. Early on I tried to do some performative things myself, using myself as a model, but I wasn’t that terribly successful at it. My work really came alive when I used my friends as models and directed them to create staged photographs or recorded their performances. 


WV: Were you directing the shoots, or was it more collaborative?


PG: Early on it was capturing candid quick moments I caught hanging out with friends. I always had my camera around my neck. A few words of direction were used, such as “stand there by that sign, drape yourself over that statue,” etc. Other times we used our apartments as stage sets. Props and outfits were made or gathered from what we found in thrift stores. The sets got more elaborate as time went on. I eventually got involved with the stencil craze and I created painted backdrops. In 1979 I had a residency at School 33 in Baltimore, and that was helpful, as I had a big studio to work in. I was attempting to act out the scenes I imagined, but once I started shooting I worked improvisationally. We tried things until something clicked. It was acting for the camera with the hope of creating a psychological photo. Some images were more successful than others; it takes a lot of clams to get a pearl. 


WV: When you were at MICA, did you have a lot of teachers coming down from New York? Were you influenced by what was happening there?


PG: I studied directly with Lila Katzen. She was a New York–based sculptor. There was a strong visiting artist program: Avant-garde composer John Cage, poet Allen Ginsberg, critics like Clement Greenberg and Roberta Smith, photographer Walker Evans and performance artist Pat Oleszko all passed through and gave talks at MICA. I ended up working closely with Pat Oleszko after I saw her perform at MICA and asked to be her assistant. I would go to New York to document her performances and attended a few artist residencies with her. When I visited Pat I stayed at her loft in downtown TriBeCa. While in town I saw the works of Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, John Baldessari, Carolee Schneeman, and Hannah Wilke. It was an exciting time. Later in the ‘80s I was looking at Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. I was close to the city in 1980–82 while I was teaching black-and-white photography in New Jersey. 


A lot of my art education was a lot of hitting the streets and going to galleries, alternative spaces and seeing exhibits in museums. Like everyone, I was absorbing feminism, women’s art, conceptual art, images with text. I was very interested in how artists of the ‘70s were using photographs in a conceptual way. What I would do is take a lot of Polaroid SX-70s and pair them and sequence them. The caption was used as part of the piece to add a layer of meaning to the works. 


WV: In your very early days, you weren’t making collages per se, but that sensibility entered your work. I would say there’s even a Surrealist take on composition. Was that a movement you were looking into as a young artist?


PG: Yes, I admired the work of Dada and Surrealist artists Louise Bourgeois, Hannah Höch, and Salvador Dalí. I was also drawn to the photographers Ralph Gibson, a Symbolist black-and-white photographer, and Duane Michals, who worked in photo-sequences with text. I looked at Lucas Samaras a lot and was inspired by the colorful intensity of his work. His SX-70s were small, dense with colors, patterns and they had a pressured energy. Seeing Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s film Un Chien Andalou was scary and transformative. I was attracted to the disjointed, unconscious clash of things and how that clash uncovered a feeling of floating or standing in a titled room. Raised Catholic, Surrealism’s naughty anti-bourgeois tone fit my rebellious nature. 


WV: The press release for the Ten Nineteen show defines you as part of the Pictures Generation. But the term Pictures Generation is one that has only been applied in retrospect, well after Douglas Crimp curated the exhibition “Pictures” at Artists Space in 1977. Crimp then revised the “Pictures” essay, which was subsequently published in October in 1979. That revised version analyzed the work of a slightly different group of artists, including Cindy Sherman. Now the term has opened up a lot wider to describe a group of artists who weren’t personally connected, but who were using similar strategies of montage, appropriation and conceptual photography, in response to media culture. What are your reflections on that generational marker?


PG: I admire the artists and Crimp’s ideas from both essays and shows as being culturally important. It's the art movement that I most relate to as an artist. Maybe it's because we are all born around the same time. I spent a lot of time as a child sitting in front of the TV and looking through Life magazine. The cultural motifs found in TV shows, journalism, movie stills, magazines, and advertisements from the ‘50s and ‘60s are the subjects we absorbed as kids. I think it was a natural step for the Pictures Generation to utilize appropriation and montage to reveal the constructed nature of images. I am also focused on using the photograph as a psychological object. I am fascinated by the way media images communicate taste, ideology and how they reinforce social values. Richard Prince worked in the tear sheet department at Time-Life; I worked at Time-Life as a photo editor/researcher. Barbara Kruger early on was a designer and photo editor at Condé Nast, where I also worked. To be a good photo editor/researcher you must understand how images are used to communicate ideas nonverbally. Richard Prince re-photographs photos to comment on their power structure and to question individuality and authorship. I am less interested in authorship issues, and more inspired by media images. I mimic these photos to speak to their cultural tropes. Cindy Sherman was a big influence in how she explores women’s roles using herself as an actor. I liked her early works (all that raking light, sweat and psychodrama) in the Centerfolds series. It was exciting to be in New York to see her work when it was first exhibited. My artwork also delves into social commentary about women’s roles, but maybe with a bit more camp fun that I allow myself to indulge in.


WV: You went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for graduate school. How did you find the scene in Chicago compared to Baltimore? 


PG:  Similar to Baltimore, a lot of the artwork coming out of Chicago was either figurative or colorful and had an oblique narrative. I enjoyed the Hairy Who group and admired the political artists Leon Golub and Nancy Spero. When I was visiting New York I looked at works by David Wojnarowicz and was blown away by his bravery, concepts and technique. 


SAIC crits were definitely tough and rigorous. The town was also tough, big and bold, cold and cruel, and sections of the town were poor and hardscrabble. Living there you understood why the Blues had a solid home in Chicago. The school had good resources, talented faculty, and The Art Institute of Chicago museum was divine. The works and shows I saw there broadened my horizons. I was influenced by Joyce Neimanas and Robert Heinecken and their use of appropriated media and collage. Everyone in the photo department seemed to be doing something other than straight photography. Performance, collage, sculpture, installations — it all seemed to be flowing together between departments. I lived in the industrial neighborhoods and poorer areas of Chicago, where it was cheap to live, and again without studio space I used loft spaces or apartments as stage sets.


WV: Your techniques were becoming more theatrical, as opposed to the earlier images that are staged but made to look like happenstance. You used lighting effects and projection to conjure a different psychological space.


PG: My Chicago images are psychologically darker while at the same time my lighting technique became more sophisticated. The images also became more aggressive as the topics I was exploring included my experiences as a young woman in American society. Gender roles, identity issues, sexism, crime, race, and politics are touched on. 


My last year at SAIC I started using a slide projector to project images onto the model's face and figures. I was working in a photography lab and would come across slides that were being discarded and I used these found images. I was interested in layering images on people to suggest that consciousness is a type of performance. We have a public and private version of ourselves that we project or hide from others. We all inhabit interior and exterior psychological spaces simultaneously at the same time. 


WV: When you were doing your MFA in Chicago, did you think you’d end up in magazine work? 


PG: No, I had no idea that I would end up working in publishing. I gave a talk in an art history class which was heavily illustrated and the teacher told me afterward, “You’re really good at research.” I said, “No, you’ve got to be kidding me,” because I was never very academic. She said, “You did a great job, you’re good in the library.” After graduate school I got a Fulbright to go to Malaysia (I was married at the time to a British SAIC grad) and like most people, we ended up in New York. I had heard that there was a job called photo researcher. My expertise was in photography and a curiosity to investigate subjects in depth so I fell into a good job with my tendencies and skills. 


WV: Is that when your work turned toward collage, because you were already working with researching images?


PG: My work turned toward collage after I started using a digital camera in 2002. To take a photo is to appropriate reality; a digital photo is a readymade collage element. I started to learn Photoshop and using my own images was a natural way to start doing photomontage. I started to add existing images along the way. The computer allowed me a degree of fluidity that I enjoyed. 


WV: What effect has your career in photo research had on your digital collages?


PG: I learned about copyright issues while working as a photo researcher and photo editor in New York. This background informs which images I appropriate in my current work. I use public domain images, book plates, government imagery from Library of Congress and NASA, or works where the copyright owner is long gone and doesn’t have a gallery where their work is sold commercially. The basic premise with using existing imagery in a new work is that you do not take away any monetary gain away from the original copyright holder. I also have a legal license for stock images which I use in my collages.


WV: I’m curious to hear more about how outer space operates as a kind of utopian space for the women in your recent series, “Superpower Women in Space.”


PG: History hasn’t been written yet in space, so I figured I better get there first! With everything going on here on Earth, I thought, where can I breathe a little bit of freedom? Here it just feels heavy with global warming and the rise of authoritarianism around the globe. Space was a place where I could play with fantasy in a fun way. There is no gravity, the moon makes a great stage set, and with lots of stars and planets there’s a lot of real estate to occupy. I’m definitely not following the rules, because the women in the collages aren’t wearing bulky space suits — sometimes they’re almost naked. My multiverse is a place where men aren’t allowed and women can dominate and shine with empowerment. Some of the pieces reference social issues back on Earth, but the fact of them taking place in space makes the investigation more tangential and easier to approach. If you try to make political art it can often feel like propaganda. I would rather toy with an idea rather than hitting you over the head. The sociopolitical content of a photomontage is also found in the captions I create.

WV: I read recently that there was a US government plan in 1959 to detonate nuclear missiles on the moon, which doesn’t seem so far-fetched when you think about the Trump administration. His establishment of the Space Force is linked to potential resource extraction from the moon. The content that you’re working with, imagining the moon as an alternative space to life on Earth, seems very relevant to the current political conversation.


PG: The question is who gets to colonize what. It's a grab for resources and power always. Does the current political structure get repeated or does it get upended? Black women science fiction writers such as Octavia Butler and NK Jemisin have written about dominant narratives repeating in space but also about new worlds and possibilities for all women. Their stories allow us to escape, but at the same time they let us interpret the power structures on earth in new ways. In my works some of the images allude to women of color actually dominating and thriving in space, and other times the collages refer to the same problems that we’re having here on Earth.

WV: Can you describe your process in constructing collages using photographs of women of color in dominant scenarios?


PG: I often start the process by photographing my friends as models in my studio. I carefully pose and light them to communicate strength and confidence. In my collage “Riding High Over The Ocean of Storms," my friend Taishya is the central figure standing guard over a bridge. The Ocean of Storms is an actual spot on the Moon, and its name serves as a metaphor for all the troubles Black people have experienced on Earth and on bridges. After Hurricane Katrina, people fleeing the flooding on the Danziger Bridge in New Orleanswere shot at by police. Two were killed and four were wounded; they were all African Americans. The Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama is the site where police attackedCivil Rights demonstrators with brutal force. In this collage, the gatekeeper for the bridge is a Black woman so the power structure is inverted. For “Exploring the Origins of the Milky Way,” I again photographed a friend of mine, Adama, in the landscape against the sky. She has long, flowing hair and wore fashionable aviator glasses with a pair of great boots. The view is looking up at her from below, in a pose of authority. She stands next to her space capsule, brave, and self-assured. I added flowing Renaissance drapery (taken from a painting by Italian artist Jacopo Tintoretto) to create theatrical majesty to her pose. In both of these collages the women are claiming the space as their own. 

Wendy Vogel is a writer, critic and independent curator. A former editor at Flash Art International, Modern Painters and Art in America, she writes regularly about art and culture for a number of publications, including Artforum, art-agenda and MOUSSE. Vogel has curated or co-curated exhibitions at the Hessel Museum at Bard College (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY), Künstlerhaus Schloss Balmoral (Bad Ems, Germany), The Kitchen (New York), Abrons Art Center (New York), VOLTA NY, bitforms (New York) and EFA Project Space (New York). She currently teaches in the photography department at Parsons School of Design. In 2018, she received a Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant in Short-Form Writing.