Artists in Conversation: AM DeBrincat x Karen Mainenti
Karen Mainenti is a Brooklyn-based artist working in drawing, painting, collage, and sculpture. Her work pays loving attention to the overlooked objects that fill our daily lives, such as supermarket circulars, a stick of deodorant, or a bottle of face cream. Mainenti uses these objects as a jumping off point to examine societal expectations, gender roles, and the role that consumerism plays in defining our sense of self-worth. Through word play and careful observation, these everyday objects are transformed into art and become a lens through which we can better understand ourselves.
AM DeBrincat: You make beautiful, delicate graphite drawings of makeup and beauty products. What attracts you to this subject matter?
Karen Mainenti: I’ve always been fascinated by the elusive concept of the feminine. As a young girl with an older brother, I was invariably made to feel aware of my gender and how it defined me within the world. I began to realize that as much as I wished to revolt against these ideals of perfection, beauty and care-taking, I was, at exactly the same time, instinctively drawn to them.
My graphite drawings of makeup and beauty products are a way for me to reframe marketing messages like Dior’s “Capture Youth,” L’Occitane’s “Precious Cream,” and Philosophy’s “Hope in a Jar”, in order to show the humor and absurdity of our societal expectations. The intimate artistic process of rendering the small details of branding, typefaces and claim copy allows me to fully consider these meaningful pieces of information that usually fly under the radar, revealing them for the fabricated constructions that they are.
Tell us about Packaged Curves, your absolutely gorgeous series of slip-cast clay sculptures. We're presented with the very recognizable forms of beauty product containers, but without any of the identifying labels...
Back in 2015, I saw the retrospective of Robert Gober’s work, The Heart is Not a Metaphor, at the Museum of Modern Art. I was struck by a simple line drawing of his kitchen sink, in which an Ivory dish soap bottle from the 1970s looked alarmingly like a woman’s silhouette with an apron tied around her waist. I wondered if this exaggerated feminine shape was merely ergonomic or was it purposefully meant to evoke a woman’s body?
Packaged Curves is the culmination of my exploration of these feminine forms in porcelain. Using the slip-casting technique, I was able to duplicate the bare shapes of the containers, but with the subtle imprint of my hand in every piece. Each step of the lengthy practice—from mold making in plaster to glazing and firing the final forms—contained an intimacy with the objects themselves. Through the process of stripping down the product containers to their bare shapes, I hope to reveal the gender references that we so unthinkingly encounter each day.
"Through the process of stripping down the product containers to their bare shapes, I hope to reveal the gender references that we so unthinkingly encounter each day."
I'm really interested in your recent series which depicts men's toiletries with taglines that reference both male public apologies and attitudes used to sell beauty products to women. This work feels so powerful and relevant in this era of the #metoo movement...
Shortly after completing my Packaged Curves sculpture series, I began to get interested in the very messaging on the beauty product labeling that I had chosen to disregard when my focus was solely on shape. While I embarked on a series of drawings of women’s beauty products, I noticed that the items in my own medicine cabinet had shameless inferences of imperfections. As I was working on these drawings, the #MeToo movement began to gain momentum.
Reading these rich and powerful men’s public apologies, I was struck by how common it was for a woman to admit (and readily purchase products) in order to correct her many “flaws”, but completely unexpected for a man to admit any of his failings. This lead me to switch gears and “redesign” ubiquitous consumer products targeted at men — Irish Spring Soap, Barbasol, Speed Stick Deodorant. I replaced the product names that we know so well with actual quotes from their public apologies.
"Reading these rich and powerful men’s public apologies, I was struck by how common it was for a woman to admit (and readily purchase products) in order to correct her many “flaws”, but completely unexpected for a man to admit any of his failings."
If you were hosting a dinner party in which geography, time period, and language weren't barriers, who would you invite?
Helena Rubenstein, the cosmetics entrepreneur, for her moxie in marketing and business and the lasting impact she made on the beauty industry (this is the woman who invented the concept of “dry,” “oily” and “combination” skin!)
Georgia O’Keeffe, the American painter, for wholly indulging her own artistic impulses in the company of domineering men, including her own husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, for his visionary perspectives on sex and freedom of expression, despite what it wrought for stereotypes of women in the 20th century.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Supreme Court Justice, for her continued advocacy of women’s rights and shrewdly arguing to end gender discrimination.
Martha Stewart, the illustrious homemaker and businesswoman, for a multitude of reasons, but most importantly the fact that I spent eleven years of my life working and designing at Martha Stewart Living.
Lastly, I’ll be sure to seat Krista Tippett, the American journalist and host of the podcast On Being, at the head of the table to ask the most penetrating questions.
What do you hope viewers bring to an experience of your work, and what do you hope they take away with them after viewing your work?
A sense of humor is essential. I particularly love when someone walks up to my work to take a closer look, and then after a few quiet moments lets out a chuckle! Through my work, I hope to invent a new way of looking at something that changes the way you look at it permanently.
Tell us about any upcoming shows or projects that you have on the horizon...
This year I have had the pleasure of being an artist-in-residence at the Bard Graduate Center Library alongside fellow Gowanus artist Spencer Merolla. The library’s unique collection focuses on material culture, design, and anthropology, so it has been nothing short of a treasure trove for me!
To mark the end of the residency, my site-specific exhibition entitled Objects of Desire will be on view within the Bard Graduate Center Library through the month of August. This new work is inspired by my research of gender studies, beauty, religion, mythology, Americana, and a style of 18th century Korean painting called Chaekgeori, which depicted coveted personal objects on bookshelves. With a nod to our Instagram culture, I’ve created a large-scale drawing depicting otherworldly beauty products, as well as an installation which brings this Chaekgeori concept to life in three dimensions on library display shelves.