This interview is special because this is the very first interview they have done since Mandem expanded from being two bodies to being three bodies. While they were artists-in-residence in Florence, Italy this past Spring, their five-year-old daughter Kitsuko informed them that they were also Mandem. Since then, they have been exploring how to integrate little Mandem’s skill set and artistic vision into all of their projects. Kitsuko's impact and influence on the work has always been present, and this transition has happened very organically as they have come into their own as an artist, but their parents never wanted to force them into taking the Mandem identity – they were pleasantly surprised when Kitsu explained their being Mandem to them. And when Kitsuko completed their first paintings under the identity of Mandem, they decided that the publication they wanted to submit to was Hermeneutic Chaos. And we are honored to feature it as our artwork.
Q. A lot of writers and artists prefer the practice of solitary work over collaborative ventures. However, a successful artistic partnership allows all its members to grow both intellectually and aesthetically. What was the genesis of Mandem? How has it evolved over the years?
Like many artists, none of the members of Mandem actually prefer collaboration, per se. One of the problems with collaboration is that you can end up with “art by committee” and an end product that no one is fully invested in or satisfied with. But Mandem isn’t so much a collaborative group as it is a conglomerate. We are not multiple artists working together – we are one artist with multiple bodies. Mandem, the artist, can outvote any or all of its members.
Moco and Maize met online (in the days of a plain-text Internet) and began collaborating (in the traditional sense) as writers at the ages of 13 and 14. By the time we were “of age,” we were queer punks living on the streets of Cleveland together and branching out into interdisciplinary art, while slowly turning into a conglomerate (or, as we called it then, a two-headed monster). The name MANDEM was given to us by those who knew us as a single person in two bodies: “Moco and Maize” became “M and M” became “MANDEM.” Maize pursued the academic study of Interdisciplinary Humanities, Classical Civilzations, and Critical Theory, while we continued together on our “self-taught artist” path (then with a strong focus on digital painting). But when our child Kitsuko was born, something was awakened in Mandem, and we realized that for us, as art historians, the answer to art was not writing about art – the answer to art was art. (Though we also write about art.) Maize entered an MFA studio art program and explored the arcane methods and materials of the Old Masters alongside contemporary understandings of abstraction of color.
Our formerly digital art practice became integrated with (and often usurped by) oil paint, artist books, silent films, and other physical media. Kitsuko’s birth – and Maize’s subsequent entry into the MFA world – was the genesis of our forger’s aesthetic, which is now a thread that ties together our work in multiple media that might otherwise seem unconnected.
Q. In many of your interviews, you have discussed the way in which your art imbibes influence from various mythologies and the various postmodern punk movements. How do you accommodate your interpretations of these discourses in your work?
We have always been interested in mythology – Maize’s first graduate degree and thesis work was in that field. Most of our early visual work was created in response to the intersection of mythology and critical theory.
Being self-taught, we were responding to critical theory in a way that was not closely aligned with how visual artists traditionally responded to the same critical theory. For example, our response to Foucault might have been to paint a realist picture of a surveillance state, whereas historically the art history response to Foucault was to move away from realism.
It’s very common for our work to reference critical theory in a way that is more familiar to the literati than to our fellow visual artists – which is probably why we are so engaged with the literary community. We think like writers when we’re painting.
We have been working out how to integrate both historical art responses to theory and also literary ones. One way we do this is to literally include text in our paintings. But there are also more subtle influences in the way that critical theory has changed how we think about the world. For example, theoretical ideas about how painting is dead or realism is dead mean that we approach realist painting like a necromancer, approaching classical traditions with a sense that we are forging something real, rather than making something real. But like a 19th century archaeologist, we are creating the artifacts we wish to find in the past. We wish that in the art history cannon, there was representation of queer love, and people with disabilities, and a magical universal mythology that wasn’t part of a colonial agenda – and so we go back and make them. But we don’t take the extra step of presenting it from the past – we make self-conscious forgeries, and the audience can choose to suspend disbelief and see these works in the context of Caravaggio and the Renaissance, or they can instead see them in the context of modern figure painting. That is their choice. But we’re not usually trying to be in dialog with contemporary art – we are in dialog with ancient things….. except in the sense that contemporary art, drawing on the same critical theory that we are, is all about authenticity versus simulation, and in that respect we are within the contemporary dialog.
Q. Once you conceive an idea for a particular artwork/project, how do you bring it to life? Is there anything about your process or way of working that you think is challenging and/or motivating?
Our process has, historically, been heavily reliant upon research. We would have an idea for a topic we wanted to explore, and we would dive into peer-reviewed journals and other reference materials and spend days, weeks, or years absorbing the history of this thing we wanted to discuss. It took almost 20 years for us to go from conception to finished painting for our Trials of St. Sebastian series, in part because we needed to learn the techniques to forge Old Master paintings, and partly because there is a lifetime of studying to be done about the history of St. Sebastian’s intersection with Apollo. However, the introduction of Kitsuko into has shaken things up recently – Kitsu is both spontaneous and talented in abstract painting, both of which had previously been ’s weaknesses. So now, sometimes art…. just happens.
Q. How has your background as artists influenced your child Kitsuko? Do you think having parents who are artists inspires their creativity?
Having artists as parents does not inspire Kitsu’s creativity– it enables it. We had a brush in Kitsu’s hands, with real canvas and real paint, before they could walk, and we just let them play. We gave them real materials and the freedom to do with them whatever they wanted. Recently, we have begun actually teaching Kitsuko how to use more advanced materials and methods, and we have started giving them the same kind of feedback that we would give any other art student.
Both Moco and Maize had families that told us we weren’t good enough at art to deserve art supplies or lessons, and it delayed our artistic development. We have never met a young child who could not make worthwhile art – so anyone out there who has kids, please give them art supplies and space to develop their own aesthetic.
Like Kitsu says in response to the frequently-asked question of whether they want to be an artist when they grow up: “I am an artist.”
Q. How is Kitsuko involved in your art? How are their aesthetics same/different from yours?
Before Kitsu officially joined MANDEM, they would frequently model for us, and they would work on their own paintings while we were painting, but they were not directly involved in what we were doing. That has changed now that Kitsu is MANDEM. We intend for Kitsu to be engaged in the majority of MANDEM’s work from this point forward. is currently in residence at Negative Space Gallery in Cleveland, and Kitsu is in the studio daily.
For example, today the “Little MANDEM” was painting abstract backgrounds on boards that we will be using for small paintings in the Hypermobility series. They also spent the morning helping us bind artist books (for which they also modeled and helped us determine content). We are quickly reaching a point where Kitsu will be so integral to that we could not make art by without them.
Little MANDEM likes much brighter colors and a more abstract, gestural approach than we have ever used before, so bringing them into the conglomerate is making something very new happen. At the same time, they have been absorbing MANDEM’s work for their whole life (calling our paintings their “friends” since they were an infant), so they have a solid foundation in our aesthetics and philosophy to build upon.
Q. Your latest series of paintings, Hypermobility, stunningly captures disability as a form of beauty. How do you think art can effectively respond to the various misconceptions, stigmas and prejudices of the society?
Art cannot effectively respond to the stigma and prejudice of society. People need to do that. A painting is not a ramp. A sculpture is not access to medical care. When it really comes down to it, art is not activism.
What art can do is encourage people to want to take effective action. It can raise awareness. It can comfort the oppressed.
Our Hypermobility paintings depict studio models who, like Moco, have the connective tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS). The average delay for getting an EDS diagnosis, after the onset of symptoms, is over 20 years because doctors gaslight their (majority female) patients and refuse to believe them about their experiences with pain and symptoms. Moco spent decades working through misdiagnosis and mis-treatment, coming to a point of extreme physical disability before finally receiving a diagnosis that would allow for better management of symptoms. Part of our inspiration to work on Hypermobility is to give visibility to a disorder that is often invisible to doctors and chronic-pain patients. Using art to bring attention to the clinical presentation of EDS has already made a difference: several people have informed us that our paintings and artist interviews about this work allowed them to open dialogue with their doctors about EDS. However, awareness is not the only goal of the series.
During the months we spent in Europe this spring, we found that wheelchair/disabled access to museums and cultural sites was often insufficient, and that institutions were often laid out in a way that displayed art and artifacts beyond the view of disabled patrons. Our work before Hypermobility already discussed the absence of respectfully-represented disabled bodies in the Western art canon; historically the few disabled bodies that are represented appear as either grotesqueries or objects of pity/healing. Hypermobility works in the tradition of classical realism and figure painting to show disabled bodies as valid and beautiful. Additionally, when we exhibit this work, we insist on hanging and lighting the work in such a way that all images and labels are visible from wheelchair height, and that the venue itself is accessible. We can help bring disabled bodies into the realm of art, both in terms of self-representation and in terms of accessible environments. Many members of the EDS and disabled communities have spoken glowingly of their experiences with our paintings; both models and viewers have spoken of feeling beautiful and physically valuable in a way they have never conceived of themselves before. Representation matters.
Q. What, according to you, is the real purpose of art?
We think Little MANDEM said it all:“Art should exist because if it didn’t, artists would have nothing to do except wait.”
H E R M E N E U T I C C H A O S J O U R N A L
A N I N T E R V I E W W I T H M A N D E M
We are delighted to receive an opportunity to feature an interview with MANDEM in our latest issue. We are grateful to them for contributing one of the paintings from their current series as the cover art of Issue 15, and for allowing us to gain an insight into their creative processes. You can view more of their work by visiting their website
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