Thursday, January 24, 2008

Art Space Talk: Kirsten Rae Simonsen

Kirsten Rae Simonsen's work has been described as a "fairy-tale gone wrong" (Margaret Hawkins, The Chicago Sun-Times). Fred Camper of the Chicago Reader writes: "Simonsen's main subject...(is)...the loss of human identity." Her work has been exhibited in Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Seattle, New York, London, and Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She is represented by Whitespace Gallery in Atlanta, Georgia. After studying art in Bali, Indonesia, she received her MFA from the University of Chicago. Her summers are spent leading an Art and Design Program in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Honolulu.
Brian Sherwin: Kirsten, you are interested in the idea of children as transgressors in suburban and small town life... with your work you observe how children act beyond the norm that is expected of them as far as acceptable social behavior is concerned.What motivates you to explore this societal observation that you have made?

Kirsten Rae Simonsen: I am very influenced by Martha Stewart and the current obsession with babies and domesticity (observe all of the craft and cooking magazines) in our culture. I see a real move back to the 1950s these days. Also, too many people in our culture have too much disposable income, and they create interiors, exteriors, and, indeed, entire lives based on images in magazines. What does not fit well into these images are messy and unpredictable children (and animals, for that matter). I love the idea of the child with its fingers in the cake, or screaming bloody murder at a birthday party and messing up mommy's beige or taupe carpet (see my "Birthday" series). Another thing that does not fit into the world of formica and cream/ecru colored couches is aggression or even violence: violence between children and/or between adults (see "Stories for Girls" and Stories for Boys").
The Story of a Girl, Mixed media on wood, 11×14, 2007

BS: Critics have noted that your work is visually deceptive. By visually deceptive I mean that your work appears charming on the surface, but further investigation reveals a darker world where children are not exactly innocent. What interests you about this form of disconnection between what is expected from the viewer and what is actually displayed within the context of your work-- would you say that your work is a psychological play on the expectations of the viewer?

KRS: Yes, my work absolutely is a psychological play. I actually have had adults in the art world, highly trained in the discipline of art, ask me why I make illustrations for children's books, as in, "aren't you a little old for that?"

I see my work as exceedingly dark, and the point is proven when a collector balks at actually buying the work and taking it home because "it won't match my couch" or, more often, "I love it but I can't look at every is too disturbing." I work with a wonderful art dealer in New Jersey who completely "gets" my work and she explains it to others. I often feel it is helpful to have dealers and reviewers describe, explain, and interpret your work; in some ways I feel that should be the job of those people.

BS: Does your own childhood creep into your work? By exploring these themes are you attempting to gain a bettering understanding of who you are and what you have lost-- or is it more of an exploration of our collective experiences? Who are you placing under the microscope, so to speak?

KRS: As far as my own childhood goes, I suppose it only creeps in in a very abstract way. More than that, I am quite interested in the Victorian era, especially Dickens and the cult of the child. At the beginning of the Victorian era, life for children was quite harsh: many were sent to work in factories as soon as they were able. Many children grew up near factories, suffering from ill health and bad nutrition. In contrast, children from the upper classes were expected to dress well and behave like little adults: be seen and not heard. While the poor children were working, the rich children were attending parties and upper class schools.
By the end of Victoria's reign, the view of children had softened: education had become more emphasized, and adults realized that children needed protection and love. The view of children had become more sentimental, as popularized by Charles Dickens, who had a great affinity for the poor and disadvantaged members of Victorian society. Other influences on my work include fairy tales, especially "The Little Match Girl," a Danish fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, also Victorian ( In this rather sentimental but very sad little story, a ragged little girl dies trying to sell matches on Christmas eve.

The Victorian view of children as workhorses or as China dolls has greatly influenced me. I am putting this view of children under the microscope, because I feel to some extent it has not left us. To some extent, even in (or especially in) America, some children are exalted and placed on a pedestal, and others are ignored and left to their own devices, dropping out of the education system and turning to drugs and crime. More often than not, even in our country, this is still based on class. More than anything, I would like to examine this cult of children that exists now (just pick up any celebrity gossip magazine to see all the happy mommies and their broods). This cloying, sickly sweet vision of the lovely, innocent child popularized in the late Victorian era and in these current magazines really fascinates me. I want to see that lovely, sweet kid with mud on her face after playing all day in the woods.

The designing of lifestyles in magazines like Blueprint and Martha Stewart's Living is related to the cult of babies in the celebrity and even fashion magazines: the baby is touted as the ultimate accessory. In a recent Vogue spread, a model was seen from the waist down only in very fashionable shoes and skirts: in every image, around her feet lay an expensive purse, costly and colorful toys, and a smiling, happy baby. This is the yummy mummy: hot, thin, and fertile.

BS: It seems that with each generation innocence is lost. In a sense, children are growing up faster than they would have in the past. Children are dropping their toys for the remote control and for the computer. Thus, in many ways one could say that technology and the media has caused this reaction. I'm not suggesting that children are maturing faster... they are just barraged with a gambit of experiences on a daily basis-- and some of these experiences are very adult in nature. What are your thoughts on this? How does this play a role in your work?

KRS: Two of my pieces, "A Girl's Life" and "Story of a Girl" speak directly to the experience of growing up as a girl in America, trying to navigate through technology, societal pressure, and expectations to form an identity. I am very impressed by my two closest girlfriends, who are trying very hard to raise their girl daughters so they do not end up addicted to technology. They also are raising these girls in non-suburban atmospheres (New York and Chicago), which I find very inspiring. I think there is definitely a move away from all this technology in parenting now, and I wholeheartedly support it. Letting children just "plug in" is a big problem.
Running Scared (detail), Mixed media on wood, 11×14, 2007

BS: Kirsten, you are represented by Whitespace Gallery in Atlanta, GA and Artspace in New Haven , CT. Your work can also be purchased from Domo Gallery in Summit, NJ. What exhibits do you have scheduled with these galleries in 2008? Also, can you discuss the importance of the relationship you have with these galleries-- perhaps you have some advice for emerging artists who are seeking gallery representation?

KRS: I recommend that artists take control of their work and their career; do not be afraid to switch galleries if you feel your work is not being represented properly. Galleries change quickly and they can fold as easily as any business. And remember a gallery is a business like any other business. It's really important to have someone representing you who understands your work and does not try to get you to change it. I have been represented by Peter Miller Gallery in Chicago in the past, and now am represented by Whitespace Gallery in Atlanta, GA. My work is also in the Flatfile in Artspace in New Haven, CT. I also have a wonderful dealer working on my behalf in New Jersey. I feel very fortunate that all of these people understand my work and where I am coming from.

Here's some advice regarding juried group shows I'd like to share with artists:

1. DO send your work to THEMED shows. If you make work about submarines, and it is pretty good or very good work, and you apply to show about submarines, there is a high likelihood you will get in.

2. DO look at the curator of the show. Do they work at the MOMA? Are they nationally or internationally recognized? Apply to that show. You want those types of curators seeing your work. On that topic, RESEARCH the work that curator likes before your send your work in. If the curator likes installation and you do traditional glass blowing, there is less likelihood she will like your work.

3. DO donate your work to auctions. That's where people who, frankly, have money will collect your art.

4. DO send your best work to shows and galleries. You really have to control what work of yours is out there. What if you become famous and you have all this really bad, early work floating around?

5. DO change your style or subject matter (not drastically) about once every three years.

6. DO NOT send your work to un-themed, all-media juried group shows unless the curator is someone you really want to see your work. Those shows are too much of a free-for-all in my opinion, and hard to get into.

BS: You mentioned a return to the 1950s... are you concerned that a form of glass culture is on the horizon? A culture that is filled with falsehoods and big fake smiles-- one that could be easily shattered?

KRS: I am concerned about the Disneyfication of America...I blame the media, for putting forth this idea that "every little girl wants to be a princess," for example...and for obsessing over celebrity stories of good girls gone bad, bad girls gone good, etc. It turns people's real lives into narratives that involve female self-destruction, subjugation, and redemption. In a way, the celebrity stories with the happy ending with the baby and handsome husband are the worst of all...the ultimate Disneyfication. Yes, these narratives do create an imagined culture, filled with falsehood and people smiling behind white picket fences.

Before I moved to Honolulu this past September, my husband and I lived in Florida, which is a fascinating place. We visited the Orlando area and drove around Celebration, Disney's planned community (residents can drive straight into Disney property from their neighborhood; more info at:,_Florida and at It really was the world of "The Truman Show;" everything was in its place and every house looked perfect, each with a rocking chair on the front porch (no joke! And it was the SAME rocking chair!). But the funny thing is, the place was almost deserted. We went back again the next day and still it seemed hardly anyone was living there. It was eerie. The local paper's biggest story (and it was a very long story) was about how to keep your kids from catching intestinal bugs from Celebration's public pool.
Special Day (detail), Mixed media on wood panel, 11" x 14", 2007

BS: Are you interested in any specific theories of psychology? You may have noted from my past interviews that I'm a fan of Carl Jung... does his theories apply to your work?

KRS: Though I have some problems with Jung's ideas, I do believe in archetypes, the collective ideas we are all born with such as parenting, initiation, and death, the idea of mother and father, etc. Many of my works are based on something that is part of the Western, privileged collective unconscious that has been LOST: for example, the ruined birthday cake (symbolizing the ruined birthday celebration), the burning automobile (loss of material objects that are important to us), the beautiful little girl (with lost identity), the loss of innocence in general. Although some of the imagery and outfits I use for my characters is Victorian, much of the iconography I use is meant to trigger memories for middle to upper class people who grew up in America since the 1950s: party dresses (usually light pink), communion dresses, birthday cakes, bows (for hair), cars that one has in high school (see Drag Race, Ghost Car), yearbooks.

I also am very interested in the psychology of girl culture (see the photographer Lauren Greenfield) and in the writing of Naomi Wolf (The Beauty Myth). Both of these people make a study of (among other topics) eating disorders...the ultimate attempt by womankind to disappear, to control, to have willpower, to feel free (the motivations are many for anorexia, for example).

BS: Would you say that the Victorian era view of children-- as you interpret it --has never really left... in that there is still a division between how one child is treated compared to the next? Would you say that we, especially politicians, describe children as hope for the future when in reality there is often little hope for our youth? For example, people will donate thousands after viewing a commercial with crying impoverished children in another country, yet when they see poor children in their own communities they look in the other direction. How is that reflected in your work?

KRS: Yes, it's true. It is a much safer, neater, easier, and cleaner activity to write a check to a organization that helps children in foreign countries than it is to help poor and impoverished children you see every day on our own streets. I think this is a colonial attitude as well...there is something "exotic" about caring about children in other countries, plus it helps one feel smug. I don't mean to sound so negative and judgmental...I hardly work for the UN myself...I am just trying to say it is important to care for and about ALL children, rich or poor, in ALL countries. And (this is a side note) one topic my work DEFINITELY touches on is how hard life can be for rich, well-off children too...that is true as well.

BS: Do you have any specific concerns about the state of the art world at this time?
KRS: I love the way artists are taking charge and managing their own careers now, through sites like myartspace and others. We should not feel at the mercy of the white cube art gallery. I also love that drawing has come to such prominence.

I am concerned about art education in colleges and universities, though. I see a division over and over between old-school, pure technique-based ways of teaching and new-school, conceptually-based ways of teaching. i believe students can be taught using a healthy mix of the two. The worrying part is that many technique-based professors are being hired now...ONLY technique, NO concept. When I see this, I feel elementary art education is creeping into the university, where I feel students should be challenged to think conceptually as much as possible. Luckily where I teach now, this is not the case.
BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your work?

KRS: I think that is it. Thank you so much!!
You can learn more about Kirsten Rae Simonsen by visiting the following page-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

1 comment:

Picking up Women said...

Critics have noted that your work is visually deceptive.