February 19, 2014

Spotlight: Forsyth Harmon

Forsyth Harmon is no one's suburban teen queen.

When I was a teenager, I didn't have a very marketable adolescent experience. I dreamed of being an all-American cheerleader with Twin Peaks-type problems, when in reality I was a bookish, solitary English girl who never got anywhere near a cigarette, or a convertible. I didn't go through most of the rites of passage I heard about on TV or in movies. I never went to prom. I never even drank Coke until I was twenty. I always felt I was missing out, somehow by not having a more photogenic adolescence, in which I wandered around in Virgin Suicides dresses and cried beautifully. I became obsessed with art that showed me this strange other teenage kingdom, infinitely more exciting than my own. I have always been fascinated by the myth of the teenager. I have a love-hate relationship with the iconography we use to describe these brief years that for many, turn out to be so disappointing.

When I discovered the work of artist and writer Forsyth Harmon, I knew I had found someone who shared the same fascination. Her work is youthful, nostalgic; high-fashion, low-fashion; a thought-provoking way of presenting the ordinary, the over-familiar. I asked her some questions about teenagers, celebrity and brand affiliation, and how they relate to her work and their tight grip on modern society.

THE LE SIGH: You're both an artist and writer - how do those roles fit into your life and creative process? Are you one before the other? Or does your writing inspire your art and vice versa?

Forsyth Harmon: Have you noticed most graphic novels are either beautifully drawn but poorly written, or well written but badly drawn? And in either case, there's often too much narrative overlap between image and text; the words just describing the image, or the image illustrating the words? In one cell, you see a couple kissing paired with the caption: "We kissed." It's boring. There's an opportunity in graphic storytelling to "think outside the cell," to remove repetition and use unique image/text combinations to generate new meaning.

Objects tell stories; they work as symbols or hieroglyphs. Think about how people post carefully staged photographs or their possessions on Tumblr or Instagram. The specially selected object combinations become curated self-portraits: stories we tell about ourselves. These objects are what we spent the week working to pay for, right? There's so much information there. This is how I use object drawings throughout my text, to build characters, places, situations. A bottle of pills, lip gloss and Louder than Bombs. Or Stakes is High, a blow pop and rolling papers. Get it?

TLS: Definitely. In your piece "Teen Dream," your illustrations depict a whole adolescent life through objects; some are familiar, some sentimental, others mundane. Could you tell us a bit about the project and how you see the teenage experience, now as an adult?

FH: I drew "Teen Dream" during a life transition that felt like a second adolescence. I envision the teenage years expressed as two sets of shifting objects: one falling away while the other comes forward. I'm fascinated by the place these sets intersect: an object-oriented representation of change, the co-mingling of bubble gum and cigarette smoke.

TLS: A lot of your art touches on pop culture and celebrity. I particularly love your portraits of people like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. What attracts you to a certain celebrity subject - you seem to pick famous people with a story behind them, or those that are notorious, in some way controversial. Is there a kind of biography in those portraits?

FH: Like much contemporary art and writing, "Crazy Famous" is interested in celebploitation. We all make things of ourselves, celebrities just more so; they become hyperobjects. And here's where we get back to that same "self-identification through objects" idea, which acts as a kind of shorthand. Think about all those BuzzFeed and Zimbio quizzes. Which Downton Abbey or Mean Girls character are you? Which nineties alt rock girl are you? If I'm Lady Grantham, Regina George and Courtney Love, that means a certain thing, and it's a little bit scary.

TLS: I did the nineties alt rock girl one! I got Alanis Morissette. I'm not sure how I feel about that. Anyway, tell us a bit about your illustrated novel-in-progress, The Woo, and its protagonist, Alison Starlow.

FH: I'll let Alison answer your question: "Go ahead. Read my diary. I'm sick of pretending to be who you want me to be. I got into college. I don't care. I'm done being your suburban teen queen. I'm gonna break up with Chuck. I'm gonna break the law! Watch me throw down my pompoms and pick up a bong. This summer I want the wrong job, the wrong friends, the wrong guy. Who are we without the good grades? Who are we under the self-tanner, the flat-ironed hair? And how far do I have to go to find out?"

TLS: You're New York-based, and studied at Columbia. What do you love and hate about the art world in New York, and how has the city influenced your own work?

FH: Aren't there a lot of "art worlds" in New York? Like tonight, my Facebook event calendar shows three readings, two art openings and a book launch. It gives me so much decision stress that I'll probably just stay home. Also, it's freezing. But to think that on any given day you could, say, go see Diane Arbus and Cady Noland at Gagosian in the afternoon, head over to the Drawing Center to hear Bob Grenier speak that evening, then catch Blood Orange at the Bowery Ballroom later that night or whatever - I guess it's a better problem to have, yeah? If I'm bored, then that's clearly my problem.

TLS: Big brands and famous household names feature in your work a lot - do you enjoy exploring the relationship between label, image and individual, and the associations we all have with brands? Is there a brand you would love to work with in the future, or that you find fascinating?

FH: I worked in advertising, with a particular focus on retail, and I continue to be both fascinated with and disgusted by self-identification through brand affiliation.

TLS: I see. In your most recent project, "Downward Mobility," you drew a series of one hundred illustrations of things you'd bought on shopping sprees – luxury items that amounted to a small fortune. You describe the process of drawing them as a kind of penance, and the items depicted as being "ghosts of ghosts." Can you tell us a bit about that project and how that whole experience changed your way of life or outlook?

FH: Let's call "Downward Mobility" an extreme case of buyer's remorse. I grew up working class, surrounded by kids who were better off than me, and I think it made me angry and ambitious. I started a business and worked for years without taking a day off, but when I finally sold the business, I found the money wasn't its own reward. I didn't feel any better. And so, just as obsessively as I worked for the cash, I burned it. I bought clothes, bags, first class airfare, art, hotel stays, spa visits. It was addictive. I was high off purchasing power, which is really a conflict of terms for those of us who've never been financially educated. When the money ran out, I had to move into a tiny studio, and was faced with the problem of what to do with all the stuff I'd bought. I really had no choice but to sell and consign it. I was embarrassed and angry with myself. As I parted with the objects, I drew them, as you mentioned, as a kind of penance.

In the act of drawing, I started to see little difference between the objects and the marks on paper. Both are ephemeral. The objects weren't expensive because they had inherent value; they were illusions of wealth and status a working class girl thought she could buy.

TLS: Do you think human beings are all more obsessed with money, consumerism and status than we should be?

FH: Yes, probably. I read Walden recently and maybe everyone should, especially the "Economy" chapter. Thoreau says, "None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty." I guess that's problematic since "voluntary" assumes the privilege of even having a choice, just like I could only draw relinquished objects after having had the money to buy them, which I guess is part of what's made "Downward Mobility" surprisingly polarizing.

TLS: I love your portraits of hip hop video vixens! Do you listen to music for inspiration? I read you tend to listen to songs you like on heavy rotation.

FH: Music is an important way for characters to self-identify in The Woo. It takes place on Long Island in the nineties, so I listened to a lot of time and place specific music while I wrote: everything from Billy Joel and Mariah Carey to Erik B. & Rakim and EMPD. Movies have soundtracks and I think books should, too. There's an online playlist that includes every song mentioned in Pynchon'sThe Bleeding Edge, which incidentally takes place only a few years later than The Woo. So you get Britney Spears in both.

TLS: What do you believe to be a true artist's way of life, if there is one?

FH: The art of life is probably what's more important, whether that includes making art or not. Duchamp said, "my art would be that of living: each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere." Yeah, our most essential work is probably how we spend the time we have left.

Check out more of Forsyth's work here.

Holly Cassell, an artist and blogger who loves to travel and has a longstanding love affair with hotels. Her floor is always covered in glitter. She writes about her world here.