Panther Party, 2020
Catherine Couturier Gallery is pleased to share gallery artist Patty Carroll's most recent interview with Public Offerings Ltd, a London based art agency and publisher.
Published January 10th, 2021
Filled with a macabre humour, the work of photographer Patty Carroll explores the often fraught relationship between women and domesticity. Creating visually bold compositions of excess, her “unportraits” of anonymous women create emotional landscapes of conspicuous consumption, isolation and confinement. We spoke with Patty to look further into the world of her characters, her inspirations and creating images with personal resonance with the viewer.
POL: First up, can you introduce our readers to yourself and how you would define your work?
PC: My work is a colourful hybrid between reality and fiction. I create full-size studio still life images that mimic rooms in a home, where the woman of the house is overwhelmed in her domestic activities and things.
Anonymous Women: Demise is about merging women and home. The woman is hidden among her domestic objects, activities, and obsessions. The still-life narratives comment on the mania of collecting, accumulating, decorating, and working at home. In the series, the objects take over, and the woman is crushed by her own possessions and activities, leading to disaster and mayhem. My photographs are metaphors for the interior lives of women; how we substitute everyday objects and artifice and turn them into obsessions.
POL: You're best known for your multiple Anonymous Women series. Where did this idea of a woman obfuscated by her domesticity originate?
PC: We moved to London and lived there for 4+ years for my husband’s job. Although I had been known back home as a professional photographer/teacher/person in my own right, no one really knew me that way. I also acutely realised that in more traditional societies, most women are still seen through the lens of their domestic status, for instance as Mrs. So, when everyone kept calling me Mrs. Jones (which I am, but continue to use my maiden name,) I was startled. It led to a small identity crisis, and my response was to photograph a model with objects on her head hiding her eyes and her identity. All of the objects were related to the home. I became obsessed with the idea that women are only seen via their husbands, or domestic position in the world.
POL: We love the phrase “unportraits”, which you use to describe these images. Where did this phrase come from? Why did you choose to focus on woman as a symbol rather than creating someone more particular through your imagery?
PC: I did not want the images to be of a particular person because I felt hidden and not acknowledged for my own self. Many women feel this even if not overtly stated. We are seen through our roles as wife, mother, nurse, teacher, cook etc. In order for others to relate to the imagery, it seemed important that my woman be a symbol for and about others.
In the later, more narrative parts of the series, the woman performs her tasks and appears in the home chaos she has created. I have seen women look at the images and say, “that one is me!” It is important to me that others can related directly to the work, therefore if it was a particular person, it would make it about that person, not any or all of us. The idea of the “unportrait” is that yes she is there, but not about only one specific person.
POL: These works have very rich internal narrative and character building. What’s your process for world building? When you’re constructing your images do you approach them with an internal story pre-defined or does this come whilst shooting?
PC: It completely varies from picture to picture. Sometimes it is easy to build a picture on an idea, such as a recent one called, World on Her Shoulders. With the pandemic, the election, people confined to home and feeling a lot of anxiety, the idea was floating around everywhere, and I searched out a few globes and needed a large one to rest on her. Other pictures can start from a fabric or a prop. For instance, the picture Red Balls is about trying to keep all of her balls in the air at once, but nevertheless, failing. It started with the fabric which I found in a little store in Miami and fell in love with the pattern and color. When I realised it had all these red circles in it, the idea of balls hit home. None of the pictures are pre-defined. Sometimes I start with a very loose sketch, but often we are making stuff up on the spot, which can be really stressful!
Red Balls, 2019
POL: We’ve read that you see your images as loosely inspired by the game Clue, and you can see that in both the domestic setting but also the sometimes quite macabre nature of what your work depicts. How did you begin thinking about this relationship to your work?
PC: The work went from the progression of a single, white torso with an object hiding a face, to the drapery hiding the entire figure, to including objects and collections of things, to the latest part of the series, where the woman is overcome in her domestic life. As I wanted it to appear that her activites and things were killing her off, I thought of the game of Clue because each room might be where the murder takes place with various household weapons. I also read a lot of mystery novels.
Mostly I think that the work is often humorous, and humour usually begins with something dark. In my family, my mother had a great sense of humour, and the only way to get through any of the unfortunate situations we experienced was to laugh and make fun of them. I see life as an endless supply of bizarre and wonderful jokes that are based in relentless sorrow. If my women are in absurd situations in the pictures, then hopefully, viewers will get a chuckle or two from them. I try to make the disasters over the top to emphasise farcical situations.
POL: In your work there are echoes of other art forms, from renaissance still life paintings, to Pop Art and vintage movies - where do you draw inspiration from? Do you have any artworks or artists who you look to for inspiration?
PC: I get inspiration from a variety of sources not just other artists. However, my favourite artists are the surrealists and a group of Chicago painters in the 1960s- 70’s that were called the “Hairy Who”. Their style was rich in color and absurd figuration. Also, my favourite movies are old musicals from the 1950's and 60's because of the saturated color in them, and they usually have an imaginary sequence.
I have always loved bright, saturated primary colours, maybe the way a kid does. Colour is emotion, life, and energy. The initial imagery of the head and torso was influenced by white marble statues seen in museums worldwide. Since we were living in Britain, it was easy to travel to other parts of Europe and have the traditional paintings and sculptures make their way into my perview in a more direct way. I also started loving De Chirico then, not just the other surrealists.
POL: Looking across all of your imagery there is a sense of nostalgia evoked, but this nostalgia is often quite pointed. Every work is tinged with an unease, since your images can on the one hand be very glamorous but are yet also imbued with an explicit criticism for the social politics of the past (and present). How do you find a balance between evoking a visually rich sense of time and place without romanticising it?
PC: I am not nostalgic about the past, but rather wish we could live the myths instead of the reality of today or even then, whenever that was! I am trying to both critique and celebrate situations in the imagery. It is a hard line to hold, but I think that is where humour and beauty can help. If an image is visually rich, it is easier to look a bit further into it and digest other meanings. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”.
POL: Your works can be very serious in subject matter and political importance, however there is always a sense of humour in your imagery. Do you think humour can be a powerful tool for inciting progressive change?
PC: I certainly hope so! Sometimes you have to turn things around to get the point across. Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued for gender equality by using the argument that it applied to men as well as women. So sometimes, we have to look at issues from another perspective to actually see the real problem. I think humour provides the opportunity to often see things as they really are.
Plant Lady, 2020
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