IPMM Exclusive Interview – Megan Van Groll
Words by Evan La Ruffa
“I enjoy the fantastical result of creating a painting of something you can’t photograph. That’s been an effective tool for visual engagement, it’s also pretty fun.” – MVG
Megan Van Groll studies her own relation to body, function, and gender through her neo-realist interpretations, and does so in a way that feels mundanely human while rendering each piece particularly poignant and oddly evocative. Her ability to recreate scenes where egos and their respective bodies collide is truly a gift, especially since she uses it as a personal reflective tool, not as some thrift store badge of pseudo-hipsterness. Instead, her artwork serves as an honest intersection point – a place, outside our dreams, where we’re able to relive and rework the dynamics at hand, all the while cuddling and cajoling the aspects of personhood that some of us would surely like to see go by the wayside. Her unabashed undertaking of food and femininity sets the stage for work that could spiral off in various directions, and we’re glad to have caught up with her while she solidifies her current approach.
As masks of identity are peeled back by Megan’s culinary art, her intense, seemingly over-pixelated images are so real that they veer over the top; all the while allowing the viewer enough space to come to a variety of conclusions. If you need something more abstract, off you go… but when it comes to food for thought, Megan Van Groll has an appetite.
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EL: Your work admittedly prods at the way women relate to food….for as much as it appears in your work, would you rather people make their own judgement, or is there a specific message you’re trying to get across?
MVG: This is a tricky question. Some people feel that all art is political — that it’s impossible for the artist to separate herself from her beliefs or opinions when creating a work of art. Others feel that art with any kind of agenda is propaganda, not art. I want to make art that asks a question, not that delivers an answer. I want to make art that inspires introspection among its viewers. I don’t have answers to my own questions, if I did, it wouldn’t be interesting enough for me to base a painting on. The process of creating the painting and hearing the perspective of viewers inspires a better understanding of the topic at hand.
EL: Your aesthetic is fairly honed in. All your stuff almost feels like part of a series. Has your work always followed a theme?
MVG: The questions and topics that personally interest me certainly play a role in determining what kind of art I choose to make. I often work by deciding upon a theme or approach for an entire series at one time, and write down examples for possible subject matter, along with a first draft for a future artist statement. Only after much writing and introspection will I begin work on the first painting in that series. It takes a painfully long time for me to uncover a pattern or theme in my ideas that I feel has a solid chance of becoming a series, so there’s usually a long period of thinking, digesting, and waiting…but when the time is right, inspiration will come as a flash and within thirty minutes or so I’ve begun to plan every painting in the series.
EL: How do you think you came to settle on your aesthetic? What aspect of your life made your particular expression what it is today?
MVG: I love to make visceral images that immediately engage the viewer, and for my work, a neo-realistic or narrative style is the most effective for this. I also love the process of painting realistically. My left brained, perfectionist, list-making side, absolutely loves the hours agonizing over the tiny details of the human form, and the countless brush strokes that finally achieve a human likeness. My work is definitely a stylized form of realism, and one of the things I want to explore with future paintings is how I can more effectively use this disconnection from complete photorealism as a communication tool in and of itself.
EL: It feels to me like you’re trying out real-life situations through the fantasy of painting yourself into the scene, kind of like a dream…how do u view it?
MVG: There’s an element of surrealism to this aspect of my work. I of course wouldn’t be able to have a fight with myself, or walk around naked in public spaces. If I could, photography would be the most effective medium for me to use. I enjoy the fantastical result of creating a painting of something you can’t photograph. That’s been an effective tool for visual engagement, it’s also pretty fun.
EL: “Bakery Brawl” seems like a scene you were actually a part of, in fact, you describe it as a “double self-portrait”…explain that…
MVG: I love to watch my initial ideas unfold into something unexpected. Every painting I make turns out, in retrospect, to reflect whatever is going on in my world or my mind at the time that I make it. Bakery Brawl is a great example of this. I found a photo of two prostitutes at the beginning of a catfight and that was the basis for the pose of the two women in that painting. I recreated it with new reference images and I ended up using myself as the model. I didn’t intend for it to become a double self portrait when I first planned the painting, but I think it’s interesting that it did. The aggression reflected on a personal point of tension in my life as a young person — and a young painter — figuring things out, figuring myself out and where I fit in this world — and particularly the art world. When I became cognizant of this, I realized that this personal dialogue parallels the rather complicated current state of gender roles. In its own way and without intending to, Bakery Brawl marked the expansion of my artistic focus from the personal to the interpersonal, exploring identity construction within the framework of female relationships and communities.
EL: In your artist statement, you say “I’m fascinated by the obsessive, erotic, and somewhat dark role of food in the female consciousness.” How do you see food as both erotic and dark? Can they be so at the same time?
MVG: Food is such a sensual matter. Even just texturally speaking; it can be soft, lush, sweet, dripping, messy, fleshy, warm, spongey… It nourishes us, and satisfies our hunger and cravings. We have a complicated relationship to our food, especially women and especially American women. We both crave certain foods — and are even addicted to these foods — and fear and loathe them. A cupcake, to name an example, is not just a cupcake. It’s a loaded cultural symbol — for guilty pleasure, for excess, for reward, for personal responsibility, broken goals, self-loathing and for everything we don’t like about ourselves. For everything personal we know is in our power to change, and we can’t get there.
EL: Do you find that people are often perplexed by what you’re getting at, or do folks usually interpret your work the way you do? how does that affect what you decide to do next? or does it?
MVG: I want people to be a little perplexed. I don’t want my work to be a one-liner. I want it to be both accessible enough that you don’t need a Masters degree in Art History to feel that it holds cultural value for you, but complex enough that you feel compelled to explore the visual and psychological space of the image. That’s the challenge of painting semi-realistically and the anxiety of realistic painters: that the image might only be interpreted literally.
The process of choosing what to paint next is a natural evolution of my past work, the interpretation of it by others, and the dialogue that results. Hearing the perspectives of other people about my work has helped me understand new dimensions I didn’t anticipate. That’s the best part, for me – engaging the viewer in a dialogue, opening a portal for discussion. I encourage feedback. The interpretations of viewers does make its way into my future painting decisions, and any artist who claims otherwise is either fooling themselves or lying. However, it’s a delicate balancing act to choose when to listen and when not to; focusing too much on the potential reactions of viewers is paralyzing, unproductive, and clogs innovation.
EL: Besides making a commentary on food as it relates to femininity, what other aspects of your world view inform your art?
MVG: My father was in the Army for over twenty years so I moved around a lot when I was a kid, spending five of my earliest years in Germany. Constantly readjusting to new places every year or two and not having one place to honestly call a hometown resulted in a fascination with the psychology of identity formation. How we become who we are and how we come to understand ourselves relative to other people, societies, and cultural expectations such as gender roles or racial stereotypes is an underlying theme in all of my work.
EL: Are there other social dynamics, internalized or otherwise, that you look forward to engaging through your work in the future?
MVG: Absolutely. I’m very interested in exploring themes of identity — and my future work will likely be more immersed in this topic than my last few paintings, and probably in a more personal way.
EL: What are you working on now?
MVG: Just this week I had one of the aforementioned flashes of inspiration and began planning a new series. I’m not yet ready to talk about it more than I have, though. I’m still in draft mode.
EL: Name one artist or musician IPMM readers should check out…
MVG: I’m really enjoying the intricate, colorful paintings of Michelle Hinebrook. I recently purchased a print of one of her pieces titled Sugarcoat from 20×200. 20×200 is a great site for discovering new work and it’s affordable – prints start at $20. This photograph by Youngna Park is going to be my next purchase — I’m just in love with this image.
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