Interview with Rebecca Farr January 10, 2012 1.10.12

Deb Klowden Mann: So, how did you start exploring the theme of Manifest Destiny and Westward migration? Where does the story start for you?

Rebecca Farr: When I was in college, I read a poem—I believe it was Mary Oldes—about these pioneers moving across the West, and it was really evocative. They start with this enormous wagon, and in the imagery everything was so full of the push towards this unknown future, psychologically as well as physically. They were carrying all of these historically precious things (both personally to them, and things we would find precious now), and then part of the way through the reality— the cost of the journey—sets in, with half of their posse dead, and grandfather clocks hanging on the side of a mountain. By the end of this poem, they have come from this totally idealized hope down on the side of a fantasy that has been completely de-shelled. That poem, and what it evoked, really captured something that has driven most of my work for a long time, in terms of looking at these stories of migration and ways in which the manifestation of it doesn’t match the head space that motivates it, and places the figure in a disjointed relationship with its environment. The whole narrative really interests and excites me, and it feels like a real representation of the fabric of my mind and the external culture that surrounds me, so it really feels like it speaks to My culture and Our culture. One of the things I’ve found as I’ve explored this whole theme is that it’s very emotionally complex, and that there are real positives along with the negatives. There’s freedom and excitement, something romantic and at the same time isolating and sorrowful and tragic. Maybe tragic isn’t the right word… Lonesome. Existentially lonesome.
So, this work began because basically, after I did my last show, which dealt so much with daily migrations and personal transit, I thought, “I want to go back into what really drives me around these migration stories”, and I went back in and started thinking about this push West. And man, [laughs], this one was really a “Let’s take the bull by the horns and go for it!” It really took me on a ride. Westward expansion is an enormous subject, with hundred years of technical history, spanning from the Civil War through Japanese internment camps, and it’s truly one of the saddest narratives in terms of the consequence and the cost, both human and environmental, of this widespread ideology and desire. It really gets to the root of Anglo Saxon power organizing and informing this culture and this culture’s ideological and physical occupations of space and peoples.
DKM: With something this dense and, as you said, with such a long extensive history, how did you begin the process?


RF: I read, went to Japanese interment camps, read about gold mines, pushing of immigrants to assist with all these other hungers, the taking of Mexico, all these stories of cultural tragedy in the name of this movement forward.I didn’t really know where to settle. I thought, “Well, I’ll start with railroad…” but then, I wanted it to have a voice and relationship to now. Every time I looked at these old photographs, I got lost in the old imagery and didn’t feel a lot of room to speak to something contemporary. And when I tried to paint with them, it began to feel so quaint and synthesized by its own wagon wheel and placement in time. It felt like there was almost no way, when we have so much visual information, no way for it to be activated by the present moment.
DKM: So how did you break out of that feeling, and begin to move forward?
RF: The collages. I started working with these images, taking them from old history books, any material that I could find, and started to collage with them, and then paint from that, and it started moving in all of these different directions and that felt really exciting—allowing the historical imagery to move into almost a mythology or a dreamscape of the original idea. And then that process started synthesizing not a specific event, but four core riffs that went through everything of this 100-year period. First was this relationship to this vast expanse of space, be it positive or negative, whether it was something evil or dark, or savage, or scary. Or if, as it did when manifest destiny evolved, it became something where the vast space was seen as a gift from God, a source of abundance to be taken and used and cultivated. And the second theme I was dealing with was the idea of being Chosen. As I went through these narratives, I found that no matter what the relationship to this vast expanse of unknown, there was always a sense of my
presence as a Chosen Being. And that Being, the white Christian body, illuminates, saves, strengthens, nourishes, blesses. And of course, in the name of that blessing there would be massive genocides and deforestation beyond compare—so many lessons of jaw-dropping terror in the name of this ‘divine white body’ coming and blessing this ‘savage space’. Third, I was also really drawn to this thematic sense that was driving the whole train around the End of Time, and the impending sense that by [activating Manifest Destiny] you were quickening the relationship with the divine and concluding this earthly drama. And then also an anxiety of needing it to hurry up and get it over with, and kind of constantly being surprised—almost like the nutsos who are always saying, “Oh, it’s all going to end on May 12th!” and then that date passes and they say, “No, wait a minute, I meant September!” That Manifest Destiny throughout that hundred years really had that sensation of saying, “We are the chosen people, we’ve come to the new land, we’ve cleared it, we’ve cultivated it, and God keeps not showing up to rescue us.” It keeps being difficult. It never really becomes milk and honey, and it’s kind of an incredibly fanciful relationship with sustaining that idea, even though generation after generation after generation, [life] is still hard. And fourth, just the pure mythology of light vs. dark, these intense dualities that drive our cultural myth of savage vs. saved. Both the light of the skin, light of the sun, this extreme duality of good vs. evil. So, I was playing with this a lot, and still really searching for a way to paint this and feel connected to this on a contemporary level. I was working with these natural spaces, and did a bunch of paintings at parks. I was really trying to look around at how we relate to vast space now… what do we do with it? So, there were all these interesting studies at these parks, and the kind of hunger for [the vast natural space] but also desire to be alone in it. So, [we see people] near each other, but alone, so it’s my usual subject matter that I like, this kind of dance between connecting and disconnecting. And then, on a foggy day I went down to the beach with my dog, and it just Clicked! In this really exciting way, to feel this end of the West, the end of the Earth, the end of this vast space, this limit. This natural border being contained. And it felt like we really are in an interesting period in terms of what we are going to be able to do with this mythology—that’s driven intense transformation of our culture and country—in that we’re running out of resources, there is this a way more global field, God is in a different place to us, but [we’re] still feeling the echo chamber of that dream. We’re kind of confronting the edge of that. I really loved feeling like these creatures [in the paintings], the figures on the beach, could feel like they could have climbed up out of the sea. This evolutionary moment, these little blinks, and also the power of a big empty space to us, physically and psychologically. I really particularly like the foggy, thick, atmospheric days for studying this, because I feel the emotion of what I was looking at.
DKM: For the paintings, did you execute them classically?
RF: I work almost strictly off of photography, just for the sheer fact that they are figurative paintings and it’s helpful to have [photography] as a tool. But I did go down to the beach several days and study the color palette. It’s a sized canvas or board, traditional oil painting, fat over lean, mediums, limited palette, really limited palette at this point, even more so [than my usual practice].
DKM: What do you think that the limited palette allowed you to achieve?
RF: Technically, I think I’m always drawn to limited palette because that limitation or restriction controls the band of extremes of color that I’m going to use, which reads to me as more realistic. When I use the full spectrum of cadmium reds and blues, it feels like it’s just blowing the eye out. And that’s this great thing that oil painting can do, is pull in this full range of purples inside of a shadow or whatnot, but I really am drawn to this kind of contained bandwidth of color that we’re going to read as something specific. That emotionally is just delicious to me, and also feels like it reads to the eye more naturally. Also, for this subject I was drawn to these really thick atmospheric days, where figures and objects would get swallowed up by this mist of gauzy white layers, and it just created this mood of vagueness or lack of description which felt really great for what I was speaking about, and allowed it to move into almost a playing of these abstract edges of that space.
DKM: What do you see, in relation to Manifest Destiny… You talked about reaching the end of the world thematically, but when you’re looking at the emotional atmosphere of these pieces, what do you see that to be, and how do you feel that’s related to the kind of contemporary reimagining of this historical narrative?
RF: I read these as both pretty dualistic in their emotion, that there’s a way in which they’re comforting, and in fact I was a little disturbed by how comforting they were turning out, like, “euh, This is my big edgy discussion after reading 100 years if torture and decimation?
I come up with this?” But there is, there’s this soft sweetness to being at the end of the world like that, and at the same time there is this kind of edge of time, feeling of lonesomeness and lost, or a bit of a wandering disassociation or disconnection from the place that you are, that this is a no-man’s land. I think psychologically I was really looking for something to reflect. How could that be any different than the mythology we’ve carried so intensely? And again, I think a thematic thing for me, beyond this body of work, is just this relationship with being connected and disconnected at the exact same time. Most of these paintings, the figures have a relationship with totally belonging with each other just as figures on the beach, and also utterly little tribes and groups and associations and disconnections, where it really doesn’t matter to each what is happening with the other.
DKM: And do you feel like that disturbing comfort, double-edged sword of it, also has to do with dealing with what this legacy means as somebody who is occupying this white ‘chosen’ body?
RF: Yes, in my own personal experience of it, yes. I think that it definitely is a personal journey as looking at this as a person of the Chosen Manifest Destiny – and saying, ‘Huh?’ Where does this belong, and what happens now? Because it does kind of feel like it’s at the end, to me, of what’s possible with that ideology, but there’s also this huge legacy, and it’s definitely sustaining itself on a global level as well. And Manifest Destiny wasn’t just about the United States—all of the Caribbean was moved in during that period, with big intentions in Mexico, and we’re just now continuing on and extending that sense of territory, but the physicality feels quite impossible to sustain because it’s pretty much wrapped up. And something about that, I feel in my own self. Not to say that power and privilege isn’t still alive and well in my own self as
well as the world I’m in, but it’s quivering.
DKM: I think it’s really interesting, in terms of the metaphor of what happens in the space at the end of the world…the fact that we can still walk to the shore and see all of this possibility, even though the Santa Monica beaches are the most polluted beaches on this stretch of the coast. And then we can be horrified by that fact, but still grab a plastic water bottle at the gas station…
RF: Yes, these disassociations of understanding.
DKM: And you, who are driving a converted bio-diesel car…
RF: [laughing] But I might drive it to get a steak at Houston’s or something, which I totally could do!
DKM: Right! And once you start to recognize how much we’ve built upon these systems and systems and systems of ideology so invested in our way of life, you have to really ask yourself what do we do now, and where do we go from here when we’re so dependant on where we’ve been?
RF: And I don’t have an agenda of concluding. In fact, that was really important to me, because it’s such a weighted political discussion, and I personally have very, very strong feelings about the wrongness of many of the actions taken over that period of time. But that feeling of coming to a conclusion or driving the viewer to a state of shame, or even a specific emotional disturbance—you really don’t feel that. And as you look at the paintings it almost feels like the ocean still keeps rocking right into the sound even though it’s polluted like crap, and there’s this benign environment in a way (and also not, in that the reality is that that environment is definitely responding and getting sicker…). But I am interested in that space where it hovers over a question. I think painting is really built for that. I don’t feel a specific political agenda of what I want the viewer to experience, but instead just have them play with these edges, those components of that mythology, and feel the story in themselves, feel it in the reflection. That is much more interesting to me than my telling them the story of what happens next, of what is now the face of Manifest Destiny.
DKM: I think it’s interesting, too, because the painting, the way you’ve realized them—and also the fact of oil painting itself—is in some ways comforting, but also allows this whole discussion. You’re getting people into a comfort zone to just push this hint of…
RF: [laughing] But watch your whole world fall apart with my argument! Boom!
DKM: [laughing] Exactly. And now to go from world-exploding arguments back into the world of process…. About the collages, which I know you painted from in a thematic way, even though the paintings obviously aren’t a visual re-articulation of the collages. Did you find yourself, in your process, searching for images that fit a particular idea that you had?
RF: At the beginning I really did. And I think that after reading so many historical storylines about Manifest Destiny, I felt like I was drowning in it. It just felt huge and kind of overwhelming, and the collages were a way to basically organize the mythic structure. So, in the beginning, I was really going okay, this one is about the railroad, and this one is about gold.
It was really trying to piece these stories in a way, and then they started weaving in and out of contemporary images, and magazines, and newspapers from the Sunday Times, and I started feeling confidence in the playing with the different strings of this mythology, and being able to bring in and touch them… Which was really one of my biggest interests with the collage, was to be able to feel that I could bring life into this story. It’s such heavy imagery that it’s very hard to see it and not feel a disassociation from our present moment, and how does it get re-activated?
So now, at this stage, they can be all about one thing, or some are just about the color of skin, others are a merge of five different stories of all contemporary images from the Sunday Times, but that becomes irrelevant to me. It’s more about playing with core mythic ideas.
DKM: And would you mind re-articulating the four core ideas for us, since we got pretty complex in discussing them before?
RF: Simple? Light versus Dark, or dualistic thinking—light/dark, good/bad, evil/saved. Next, the end of time. Then, encountering vast unknown space. And finally, being chosen. And really, it’s about this whole way of experiencing space as something to be taken, and the way it that feels like a legacy that has really reached its end.