June 6, 2014

Spotlight: Maggie Dunlap

You are now entering girl world.

The word "intimate" is a strange thing, with a multitude of definitions. You can be "intimate" with someone, or move into a space that feels "intimate." Even underwear is often referred to as "intimates." But they all mean relatively the same thing, with connotations of closeness, or feeling connected to someone by means of bringing them into your inner circle. And even though Maggie Dunlap's work comes in a variety of mediums, each one has unmistakable threads of intimacy.

Whether she's using slips and underwear as canvases, inviting us to watch her performance art, or creating small, personal spaces and inviting viewers inside, her pieces force others to move into a space inherently not theirs. We're instead brought into the lives of those around us, examining their worlds as they might do. Even looking at embroidered underwear begs the question, did someone actually wear that? And what does that mean if they did – is it okay that I'm here, looking at a piece of clothing that's quite possible the most intimate thing on somebody's body? Perhaps what's most important is that we don't know, and are instead left to interpret what the objects or spaces might mean to others. We asked Maggie the themes and meaning behind her work, her favorite place in the world and what's up next.

THE LE SIGH: Your art comes in a lot of forms embroidery, installation, performance, photos and drawings – do you have a favorite? What's a medium you've always wanted to try? 

Maggie Dunlap: I can’t say I have a favorite medium to work with because I enjoy them all equally in different ways. I hope to never be confined to one art-making practice, and to continue to explore and grow as an artist. I love working with space and environments, and I would like to continue to do so on a larger scale. I'm also interested in exploring internet-generated art, and using cyberspace as my media. I wholeheartedly embrace the internet (without it, I wouldn’t be answering these question right now!) and what it means to be an artist in the digital age.

TLS: Using underwear and slips as canvases for your embroidery is a really intriguing concept that I feel probably has a story behind it – what does using these unusual backdrops for embroidery do? Why use them over a typical canvas, as you do in some cases?

MD: Clothing like underwear and bras are so intimate and universal. Much of my work is about female adolescence, sexuality and memory, and to me, undergarments are the perfect visual representation of those things. I enjoy giving a voice to inanimate objects and creating a narrative with them. My best friend calls it “little glimpses of human poetry.”

TLS: Your piece "Jungfrukällan" (pictured above) really caught my eye – I googled what it meant, so I know the story behind it to an extent, but can you explain to everyone else (and me too) where the idea came from, and what you hope it achieves?

MD: Thank you! I was attending an art school when I made "Jungfrukällan," and our assignment was to choose a topic to write and create art about. It was the first artwork I’ve made that was accompanied by a research paper, and my topic was rape culture in America. In a rape culture people are bombarded by images, language, laws, customs and other everyday phenomena that validate, excuse and perpetuate rape. Because of the pervasive nature of the topic, I wanted to create an immersive space that completely surrounded the viewer. I took inspiration from blanket forts I made as a child and dove into the idea of lost innocence. The name itself, "Jungfrukällan," is the original Swedish title for Ingmar Bergman’s film The Virgin Spring. The story originates from a 13th-century ballad about the rape and murder of a young girl and subsequent revenge by her family. At the opening of the show, I had many women and girls sit inside it with me and talk about rape culture and their experiences. It sparked a lot of dialogue amongst my peers, and I had many people thank me for making the art and talking about the problem. That was so touching and rewarding, I couldn’t have hoped to achieve anything more.

TLS: Though embroidery is an art that seems to be coming back steadily, it's still, in a sense, regarded as something of the past. What got you into the art? Why do you think it's making a come back?

MD: That is very true. It's a craft that's usually associated with femininity and domesticity--two themes that occur in my art quite a bit. I never formally learned how to embroider; I instead approached it as an artist and thought of it as “drawing” with a needle and thread. It's a mindful and deliberate process, and I believe it makes the images and text used even more powerful. I also think because of its connotations, it can be a humorous or poignant delivery system for whatever message you're trying to convey. I have a series that I even titled, “not your grandma’s embroidery.”

TLS: A lot of your pieces seem to explore traditional objects/ideals associated with femininity. What themes and ideas interest you, or do you like exploring within your art?

MD: I've gotten some backlash from my male counterparts about my art being so feminine. I believe there to be a stigma surrounding feminist art, that it's not as important or worthy as more masculine art. Big surprise, right? But I find power in the femininity and delicacy in my art. I never set out to be a political artist, and I don’t think I am. My art is about the female experience because that's all I know. Though some of my work may be political, it's all first and foremost personal. I don’t aim to shock for the sake of shock; I create things I think are beautiful, and I hope to validate and empower other teen girls. It's so rewarding for me to get an email or comment from a young girl saying that she can relate to my work, or thanking me for making what I do. That's worth more than anything.

TLS: How did you get started with performance art? The art form seems like a medium even more under-utilized than embroidery, especially amongst younger artists. Do you ever get self-conscious, or is it something you're able to totally submerse yourself in and shut everything else out?

MD: Both of my parents are artists, and I was lucky to be raised in the art world. I was exposed to many different forms of art from a young age, including performance art. I've never thought it was any less valid of an art form than painting or drawing. Neither have I ever gotten self conscious. I find it important for my performances to be self aware and sometimes tongue in cheek. I appreciate performances that know they are performances, and performances that are visually striking.

TLS: You're just 18 and you've already accomplished so much. What comes next?

MD: I wish I knew! Life is strange and unpredictable. I’m in the process of moving from Miami to Manhattan, and have some pretty exciting projects in the works. Namely, the show THE LE SIGH and Portals are putting on at The Silent Barn in Brooklyn! After that, I’m hoping to start curating some group shows of my own in NYC and Miami, and collaborating with other New York-based artists. I’d also love to start participating in talks and lectures in the city. I believe dialogue is key to growing and evolving, especially as a young artist.

TLS: If you could make a quiet little clubhouse like some of the other installations you've created, one that you could spend lots and lots of time in to escape, what would that look like? If it could be anywhere in the world, where would it be?

MD: My favorite city in the world is Helsinki, Finland. There is a small island off the coast of Helsinki called Seurasaari. In the summer, the sun never sets and people celebrate the longest day of the year with traditional bonfires, skinny dipping and picnics. That's where I would build a place for myself to escape to. Because I grew up moving around so much, I never really felt at home anywhere, until I spent time in Finland. I sort of adopted it as a home away from home, and one day hope to study abroad there.

TLS: Some of your performance art is you dancing and singing to Beyonce tunes. If you could do a performance piece with any cultural icon, who would it be?

MD: Other than the obvious (Beyonce, of course), it would probably have to be Marilyn Manson. I’ve been a huge fan of his for the longest, and I think our respective styles could mesh well to create something pretty interesting and exciting! It would be a dream to work with him. Hey Marilyn, if you’re reading this, hit me up.

See more of Maggie's work here.

Written by Molly Morris