Brian Sherwin: Rhett, you were represented by Zolla/Lieberman Gallery at Art Chicago. How did the exhibit go for you?
Rhett Poche: Yes, I have been represented by Zolla/Lieberman since 2004, and have shown with the gallery at Art Chicago for the past two years. Art Chicago attracts international attention, and any opportunity to exhibit during the fair is a reward in and of itself. I have yet to sell work during Art Chicago, but I "pretend" to have the luxury of not worrying about sales (that’s my dealer’s job anyway). I have a great relationship with Zolla/Lieberman, and the gallery is very supportive of my work. I couldn’t ask for more.
BS: A lot of critics had said that the success of Art Chicago and the Bridge Art Fair would decide if Chicago remained a hub of the art world or not. It seems to me that Chicago is still in 'the game', so to speak. Do you agree?
RP: Chicago is definitely in "the game." Naturally, New York and Los Angeles are still considered to be the major hubs of the American art world. Other smaller markets, such as Miami, are gaining considerable exposure and periodically receive attention similar to that which is focused on New York and Los Angeles.
Chicagoans do tend to suffer from "Second City" syndrome, especially when comparing Chicago to other major cities such as New York. However, the Chicago art scene is just as relevant as any other. Its longevity is a testament to that. Luckily for me, as well as many other painters, Chicago tends to value well-crafted, hand-rendered art above all else. Historically speaking, Chicago has always been dedicated to conventional image making. However, more "experimental" and "non-traditional" art forms have not been displaced. Chicago’s scene is very traditional, yet diversified, and that’s part of its charm and success.
BS: You obtained an MFA at the University of Notre Dame. Who were your mentors at Notre Dame? Can you tell our readers about their art department?
RP: I studied under Maria Tomasula, who, in my humble opinion, is one of the most brilliant and talented American painters. She is a true master, and I consider myself fortunate to have studied under her. Maria has definitely set the bar for working artists, as well as artists who also happen to be academics. I will always have the utmost respect and admiration for her as a mentor, as well as a friend.
Given its Catholic identity, Notre Dame strikes many art professionals as a conservative, and therefore strange, place for one to pursue an MFA in Fine Art. Primarily, I chose to attend Notre Dame for the opportunity to study with Maria (I was also her TA for a year).
In all honesty, my experience at Notre Dame could not have been any better. Every graduate student receives waived tuition and a fairly generous stipend in exchange for working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (instructor of record). The teaching experience alone is priceless and does give students a leg up when applying for university jobs. The program is very nurturing and supportive of its graduate students. My early graduate work was sexually provocative, perhaps even more provocative than my more recent work. Yet, the faculty at Notre Dame was willing to critique my work with fairness and objectivity. I found the professors to be very open-minded despite the assumptions of a catholic university being otherwise.
BS: Rhett, you were born and raised in New Orleans. How did growing up in a pleasure-seeking and sexually charged environment influence your future work?
RP: New Orleans is unlike any other place in America. It is truly unique, and has its own idiosyncratic culture, and a very rich culture at that. It’s certainly cosmopolitan, drawing people from all over the country, but it’s also like a European, even Caribbean, city. Obviously, it gave the world Jazz, Creole and Cajun cuisine, and it’s own version of carnival, but other less known cultural eccentricities hold the greatest fascination for me. New Orleans is a very poor city, but poverty gives way to invention; things are constantly reused, traditional modes of expression reinterpreted through improvisation. I can think of no better example than the Mardi Gras Indians, those groups of working class African American men who sew (yes, men who sew) elaborate Native American-inspired costumes every carnival and sing songs inspired by Creole and afro-Caribbean rhythms infused with funk. One will have difficulty finding a live performance of this music anywhere else in the world.
In relation to my work as an artist, New Orleans’ repertoire of offered experiences frequently revolves around excess. New Orleans has always had a reputation as a "party city," one that caters to any imaginable excess (be it food, alcohol, gambling, or sex). This reputation has been withstanding since the city’s French colonial days. Growing up, I remember walking through the French Quarter (on Bourbon Street) during several outings. Back then, the French Quarter was even more "adult-oriented." I remember passing bars and strip clubs that had sexually explicit photographs of naked women (and in some cases, men) in sidewalk display cases. I remember peeking into adult "bookstores" out of curiosity. However, at night, the pictures on Bourbon Street come to life. As an adult, I have seen drunk people puking, pissing, and flashing in public. Public sex was never out of the question. This behavior is not indicative of the city’s residents, though. These "revelers," especially during Mardi Gras, are visitors who want to participate in an artificial, and supposedly liberating, experience. I have seen things that would make a stripper blush, and I suppose I have always been fascinated by how excess, especially sexual excess, can function as a vehicle for how one performs his or her gender.
BS: Your experiences have led you to create work that asks questions about the hypersexual gender performances within contemporary youth culture. Why do you focus on these themes? What is your goal in revealing the social implications of these actions and behavior?
RP: I grew up in a single-mother household. My mom had to be both mother and father of four boys, three of whom are identical triplets (I’m the middle triplet; the weird, artistic one). I literally learned how to "be a man" from my mother’s example. From a young age, I associated traditional masculine roles and codes, such as that of provider and disciplinarian, with femininity. A particular feminine grace and tender nurturing also accompanied my mother’s "fatherly" role. That dynamic has always stuck me as a testament to the fluidity of gender roles and codes, and how (and by whom) they are performed.
I have always had an interest in how we as a culture perform gender. Young women of today seem to be performing versions of femininity that I see as contrary to what I know as liberated and enlightened conceptions of femininity and sexuality. Now, I’m not prudish. I’m not taking a puritanical stance against feminine sexuality, quite the contrary. I’m merely concerned that young women (and men) are squandering their rights to gender equality by confusing sexuality with gender, (two concepts that are intrinsically different) and conflating them into one cultural construct.
My goal in revealing the social implications of these actions and behaviors is not to offer a solution, nor is it to judge. With my work, I intend to highlight the problem, and hopefully encourage dialogue and debate. Unfortunately, we no longer have a consolidated feminist movement. There is no entity to blow the whistle and set things right. In fact, many well-educated, young women completely disavow themselves from feminism and dismiss it as old-fashioned, man-hating rhetoric. My hope is to get young people to reevaluate their conceptions of gender and its performance.
BS: Would you say that contemporary society has fostered a form of gender confusion-confusion in that roles and anti-roles of gender have been defined, re-defined and exploited by popular culture to the point that gender equality is now just a hodge-podge of scattered notions as to what it is to be male or female? Is this a bad thing?
RP: Ironically, I believe that our current situation is symptomatic of the sexual revolution, the very movement that was intended to free us from binding notions of gender. Old-guard feminists (both men and women) fought for, and won, equality (with varying degrees of success). However, with freedom, comes great responsibility, and today’s youth culture does not seem to hold themselves responsible for upholding the hard-won advances made by their mothers and fathers. Young women of today own their bodies (this much is true). However, they are abusing this right (a right granted to them by the feminist movement) in an attempt to satisfy themselves, as well as men, sexually.
I actually would like to think that gender equality is a "hodge-podge" of different ways to demonstrate one’s maleness or femaleness. If that were the case, traditional binary codes of gender would be obliterated and true equality could be achieved. Young women in particular are not formulating new ways of performing their gender. They are merely adopting stereotypes of masculine sexual identity in a proclamation of their own sexual power and equality. The problem arises when this sexually masculine version of femininity causes women to knowingly label themselves as sexual objects, perpetuating subordination to men. Young women are revealing themselves in highly provocative ways that open the door for objectification and misogyny.
I do think popular culture bears some responsibility for reinforcing antiquated notions of gender that are mistakenly seen as progressive. For example, "celebutants" such as Paris Hilton present us with a very theatrically sexual version of femininity; one that reinforces gendered clichés that are inevitably emulated by other young women, continuing the cycle of regression and repression.
BS: What other threats to do you see in regards to the success of gender equality... and how do they play a part in your work? Do you blame the media for some of the struggle?
RP: I believe that the attitudes of young men (perhaps even more so than that of young women) also threaten gender equality. Young women seem to be giving their male counterparts "permission" to view them as sexual objects, and young men are eager to oblige. I try to demonstrate this dynamic in my work by creating images that project a gender-neutral gaze, one that could either be from a feminine or a masculine perspective. I am very interested in presenting work that can be seen from either perspective, allowing viewers to both receive and project masculine and feminine codes.
I don’t know if it is entirely fair to blame the media for our current situation. Media outlets are responsible for making this dynamic more visible and, to some extent, they perpetuate the cycle. However, I do not think they are solely responsible for the negative gender codes and roles we currently see. In my opinion, the responsibility lies with individuals, and a lack of awareness of our history as a gendered society.
BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the artworld?
RP: I would like to see more young artists produce work that is passionate and not so apathetic. There seems to be a great deal of apathy and self-indulgence injected into the work of many young artists. To me, art that does not contribute to or critique culture is "art for art's sake," and I find such work incredibly boring and irrelevant. I want to see art that is intellectually engaging and teaches me something, instead of merely telling me something. I want to see artists who have passionate opinions and actually care about issues and debates broader than themselves.
Thanks for reading my interview with Rhett Gerard Poche. Remember, you can create a www.myartspace.com gallery (sample above) and network with Rhett and the many other artists that can be found on the site.
Take care, Stay true,