Friend of Cheap & Plastique Heather Morgan interviews Chicago-based painter Amanda Joy Calobrisi for Issue 9.

Heather/C & P: You refer in your work to childhood systems of belief and fantasy. How does your own childhood inform your work?
Amanda: My childhood definitely directed me toward image making. I was raised in White Plains, New York by a single mom. It was the 80’s; we watched a lot of MTV. Depending on how you look at it being poor limited or expanded my childhood activities. My first two records were Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual and Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain. Those album covers were spectacular pictures, colorful, dynamic and highly emotive. I remember holding Purple Rain and staring at the flowers on the back cover while the record played. I’d say Cyndi’s color clash and Prince’s body language taught me the power of pictures. Fantasy was everywhere in the 80’s and I was a kid filled to the brim with fantasy. The parking lot next my apartment building was the blank canvas for all types of high jinx and adventures.

Heather/C & P: Much of your work is based on the self-portrait. Some of these figures seem like artist-as-model, others more mythical. Tell us about the different characters you create, and how they relate to yourself.
Amanda: I refuse to adhere to a fixed notion of identity. Or reality for that matter. How boring life would be if reality was absolute. Identity is flexible, changeable and influenced by experience. Yes, I pose for the initial photographs for the paintings. Although, if we are in constant transformation I am not sure if in the end I could confidently say that they (the people in my paintings) are any longer me…
“Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish lifting up all these faces.” Claude Cahun

Heather/C & P: Is there a self-portrait by an artist you particularly admire?
Amanda: Van Gogh’s Portrait as Bonze. Van Gogh’s obsession with Japan goes a bit overboard in this painting. That’s part of the reason why I love it. This painting was part of an exchange with Gauguin and Bonnard. It was Van Gogh’s attempt to share a dream—I don’t think that Gauguin ever understood. A Bonze is a Japanese Buddhist monk and upon close inspection, you will notice that Van Gogh altered his features to play the part. He slanted his eyes, made his head rounder and his cheeks more narrow and sunken. The electric mint background that his portrait is painted against is what first drew me to this painting. I visited it often at the Fogg Art Museum in Boston. It was in the room with Picasso’s Mother and Child. I always anticipated the blue of Picasso’s piece as I ascended the steps to the second floor. That blue would scream down the hall but became somehow more humble as you drew closer to it. Van Gogh’s self-portrait was much smaller and hung to the right of Picasso—it was hung low, right in your face. One of his eyes confronting you and the other somewhere else (maybe in Japan). Something about that shade of green made me feel more alive. Whenever it was out on loan the whole room felt dismal.

Heather/C & P: Your most recent work depicts cats, real and symbolic. What do these cats represent? Do they have a personal meaning for you? Are you a “crazy cat lady?”
Amanda: When I finished graduate school, three years ago, all I craved was privacy. I wanted to hole up in my studio and sift through, digest the copious information I had been fed for two years. I like people, don’t get me wrong, but I was kind of sick of hearing what everyone thought. Being in my studio is being at home, since I have a live/work space. The cats lounge about the studio, so I guess it was natural progression that they made more appearances in the pictures. The “Catlike” series of paintings were inspired by a ceramic cat; a large Maneki Neko Charlie had got for me in Chinatown in Boston. Maneki Neko literally means beckoning cat. It is a popular Japanese sculpture believed to bring wealth and luck to its owner. Hence its appearance in many shop windows & restaurants. Its origins are explained only in folk tales and legends. My Maneki Neko was unfortunately stolen when my first apartment in Chicago was broken into. I got obsessed about its abduction and frustrated, I loved that thing! Where was her luck and where did that leave mine? Smashed in some alley for a few pennies… I couldn’t let it end that way, so I decided to rewrite the story…my beckoning cat was not carried off by desperate folks but instead it had enough of immobility and came to life. I imagined Maneki Neko as a girl/woman whose behaviors were only those learned from the real cats that moved, slept and played around her.

I also see a correlation between the solitary studio life of a painter and the indoor cat. We both have these elaborate internal lives full of stories. I often find myself envious of my video and performance friends who get to interact with other people while making work. But in all truth I feel most content when I am alone in the studio. So, yes I am on the road to crazy cat lady status—but not yet.

Heather/C & P: You have spent time in Austria and China. Tell us about how travel has influenced your work. What other destinations do you have in mind, and what kind of art will you explore there?
Amanda: Travel is always the most amazing mind shifter. One’s sense of the vastness of the world becomes more tangible and overwhelming. Vienna was my first trip abroad alone. I was awarded a travel grant to study the life and work of Egon Schiele. I was living in Boston and it would be my first time on a plane after 9/11… I ended up not going alone. Charlie and I brought 15 rolls of film. We wandered and explored and documented every moment. I was a shy blossoming art student with visually hungry eyes. Going from museum to museum viewing paintings and drawings I had only seen in books. I was ecstatic. Schiele was very important to me. His self-portraits were brave and his watercolor drawings are full of sensuous line and fascinating choices of vibrant of color. I related deeply to his tortured soul. When we returned home and had the film developed and all 360 of the pictures were vertically half black and half image—apparently the shutter wasn’t functioning properly (Life was hard before digital photography). In retrospect, the dozen or so photos I kept from this trip are somehow poetic. I’ve returned to Vienna twice since.

China was sensory overload. I was happy to have a camera on this trip because there was too much going on for it to sink in completely in the moment. The photos upon returning helped me organize my memories of it. So much of that trip was non-language because of the complete language barrier. Happening upon the English alphabet (even when used in nonsensical ways) woke up a part of my brain that seemed to be dormant for most of the trip. Everything felt overwhelmingly visceral.

I would love to go to Rome and see some Caravaggio…but I would go just about anywhere that would have me. Really.

Heather/C & P: What painters have you been looking at most recently?
Amanda: I honestly haven’t been looking at much painting lately. Thanks for reminding me. The last noteworthy painting show I went to was Luc Tuymans at the MCA. I had been to an epic lecture of his while a grad student. By epic I mean it was long, three hours I think. The show was unexpectedly amazing. The paintings we alluring from a distance and kind of like fading memories up-close, they were made up of big brushy marks, mint greens, and powder pinks. He really made paintings out of his found source material. I was impressed. I also met a new friend at the show; we were both drooling over the same painting.

Heather/C & P: Your palette has shifted from cool, earthly tones to fluorescent color that mirrors the increased theatricality of the images. Did the subject matter inspire the color choice or vice versa?
Amanda: Actually a local back-alley treasure hunter named Eddie enabled the addition of moments of fluorescent color in the newer paintings. I had been experimenting with pushing the color for a while now, trying different brands of oil colors. I could get really bright colors with gouache and watercolor but with traditional oil colors it was challenging. Of course half of the battle for intense color is more about the relationship between colors and not so much the color itself. I stumbled upon a few water-soluble colors that up the temperature of traditional oil colors and then Eddie found some discarded fluorescent oil paint sets made in Mexico. They are tiny tubes. They won’t last forever. A friend from Mexico recently told me that they are traditionally used to paint Alebrije, Mexican folk art sculptures. I particularly love the reds and pinks, they are just hot enough to use in the flesh without looking hokey.

Heather/C & P: Your use of pattern sometimes appears to comment on the figure, other times creates a dizzying environment for your figures to inhabit. What draws you to the use of patterns, how do you choose them? How has their presence in the paintings evolved?
Amanda: It’s unbelievable to think that I have been working with figure and pattern for seven years. I think that firstly I am attracted to patterns, I have always been. I have strong visual memories of rugs and drapes from my childhood. I like the feeling of getting lost in a repetition. The left side of the brain kind of gives up and the right side takes over. When this happens is when I most understand being “in the zone.” My first experience of this was in my first intro to drawing class. Ever since then I can’t wait to get in the studio and go there. I guess I want to share that experience of looking with the viewer. And you’re right in that the patterns function differently from painting to painting. Sometimes they seem to be part of the implied narrative and other times lending to the mood of the picture. The biggest evolution in the patterns is probably to touch of the paint. The older works have more of an all over equal touch—kind of like the even surface of a photograph. I have been trying to loosen it up just enough to let it breathe and make it feel like a painted surface. I’ve also been using a bit of wax to suspend the paint, make it more matte, less opaque and velvety. I’ve spent a good amount of time making pictures, now I am learning to make a picture a painting.

China definitely had a huge impact on my pallete. If you want to experience synthetic color in a natural setting, China is heaven. Even the trash was beautiful and colorful against a mountain landscape. I have the photos to prove it. Red, hot pink, indigo and silver against green lush mountain scapes…gorgeous.

Heather/C & P: Having recently performed Butoh dance, do you see yourself expanding the worlds of your paintings into three dimensions, using elements of performance or installation?
Amanda: No. I’m happy working in 2D. But being in the studio stationary for so many hours makes it mandatory to move when I am not working. Dancing seemed to be a way to do this. I have a fascination with Japan. It comes primarily from Japanese woodblock prints and Japanese cinema. I’ve used Japanese paraphernalia; kimono, tabi socks and geisha hair-dos in paintings and I’ve been accused of exoticism because of this. Taking a butoh class was partially to widen my knowledge of Japanese dance. I was first introduced to Butoh in a Japanese cinema class in graduate school. It immediately seemed related to German and Austrian expressionism in mood. I think of the morbidly-obsessed Egon Schiele who believed “Everything is dead when it lives”… or Mary Wigman’s Witch Dance. Of what I have experienced of Butoh, I like the restlessness and the juxtaposition of fluid movements against uncomfortable right angles. I look at it like a painting, something that needs to be deciphered. I don’t know that much about it but I am curious to learn more.

Heather/C & P: Tell us about your passion for vintage clothes, and how your thrift finds become part of the process of constructing your images.
Amanda: I have always thrifted. I was ashamed of it when I was kid because it was out of need not desire. By the time I was in high school I knew all the good spots and branched out of suburbia to NYC and frequented vintage and army surplus shops that were affordable. In college I ended up working in a vintage shop in Harvard Sqare in Boston. I was there for about eight years. Being in that environment really changes how you think about clothes. Everything you touch is a piece of history, recent or otherwise. Each dress has a story imagined or real. Having access to these objects imbued with past lives became part of my life and I am now addicted. For better or worse, Chicago is thrift heaven! This city is unbelievable. Don’t get me started…

Everything in my life works its way into the paintings at some point. I collect vintage fabrics and I have all kinds of clothes from various eras. How I put items together varies from painting to painting. Sometimes the fabric comes first sometimes the costume. Either way I like making clashing patterns and colors become harmonious in a painting.

Heather/C & P: What are you working on right now?
Amanda: I have just begun a new project. I am going to be doing paintings of my artist friends living in Pilsen. I am excited to look outside of myself and work with so many interesting and complex individuals. We were all attracted to Pilsen for the same reasons—in order to have time and space to make art. Chicago has a huge advantage over other major cities in that artists don’t need to make much money to survive here.

That said I want these paintings to go beyond documentation. In order to do this I will be placing them in worlds I have created for them based on my interpretation of who they are through their artwork.

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