Photography: Courtesy Gina Beavers
Gina Beavers has taken it upon herself to paint the things that most of us reserve solely for digital preservation — namely, lurid makeup tutorials, painstakingly documented food porn, and occasionally, the ultra-bizarre convergence of the two (think hamburger-inspired eye makeup). There are Tumblr models and Instagram memes and various odd spectacles that may or may not have been created with Photoshop. Her oeuvre is a bit like the infinite scroll come to life and it’s every bit as fun and thought-provoking as you might imagine.
It comes as no surprise that artwork that mimics social media also finds success there. Like many others, I first discovered Beavers’ work on Instagram. But what reads as merely witty in photographs suddenly becomes so much more in person. Her canvases are surprisingly sculptural, with individual eyelashes crafted from acrylic that seem to somehow be growing from the canvas, and skin that looks like it’s supporting Sephora’s entire foundation aisle. It’s Pop art for the internet age, crafted with a level of technical skill that makes the subject matters all the more ironic.
BULLETT sat down with Beavers at her cozy Greenpoint studio to talk social media, her recent show “AMBITCHOUS” at GNYP in Berlin, and the effects of the 2016 presidential election — which, by the way, took place on her birthday — on the art world.
The two themes I’ve noticed most in your work are food and beauty. Can you talk a little bit about what draws you to want to paint those things?
Well, I love that you found me on Instagram, because that’s where I really select my images from. There was a time when I was looking at the world outside my phone and then 2010 I got my iPhone and suddenly all my work started to be about my phone, just because that’s where my eyes are. Also, my husband had a restaurant called In Vino for many years, so a lot of his friends are foodies [and] I started noticing all these food photographs in my feed. This was about 2012 probably. So I started making paintings of them because I thought it was really interesting that people are composing these modern-day still lifes. But they’re also kind of showing off in a way. I worked on that series for a while, and then I was struck my these makeup tutorials, this idea that if you’re making paintings [of them], the painting is kind of painting itself because it’s using pencils, it’s using brushes and pigment. And it’s looking at you. I start with the eyes, and I like the idea that the painting is showing you how to make itself and it’s also trying to make itself beautiful for you.
I’ve also done a series of memes. They have humor but they also have that thing where you’re not sure what’s real and what’s not real, because there’s so many Photoshopped, funny images out there, like Earl Boykins or all of these different accounts posting things. It’s harder to find ones though that I really want to make paintings, ones that I think would really translate.
Are you a beauty and makeup person?
I don’t know if you can tell, but I have no makeup on! When you work by yourself — and when you don’t have someone to impress after years of working out in the world — it’s kind of scary how quickly you can just stop giving a shit. I’ve never been a huge makeup person. Actually, I recently had makeup done for an event and it was — she was wonderful, and she did an amazing job — but I was honestly like, I could have a full face of clown makeup on and it wouldn’t feel any different because it just felt so heavy. And that’s not an insult because I know how many people love it and how great it can be. It was a good experience for me to have that, having made these paintings, to be on the other side of that.
Your paintings really reflect that kind of caked-on aesthetic. I was so excited to see them in person, because on the computer, I could tell that there was a really sculptural quality to them. For me, it sort of emulates that exact feeling of wearing makeup. What’s the process behind creating them?
So it’s all acrylic, which is technically an adhesive. But it’s paint that artists have been using since the middle of the 20th century because it dries quicker than oil and you can really build it up. I build it up without pigment for a couple layers and then I start adding pigment in and then I paint the surface.
One of the paintings that I love of yours is this girl with braces and then red lipstick and she’s making all these kind of pseudo-sexy gestures with her mouth. I think it’s this really interesting statement about beauty standards and also coming-of-age and that time in your life when all you want is to be grown up and sexy, but you like, still have braces.
Yeah, absolutely. That was a Tumblr image that I found, and I made that painting and then showed it to my students, since I taught middle school, and they had seen the original photo before on Tumblr. I thought it was funny, because they were really familiar with it, and I’m like 20 or 30 years older than them, so it’s funny that we’re both looking at these things.
So you’re sourcing a lot of these images from Tumblr?
Yeah. Or sometimes I make something with a friend’s food photos and they don’t even recognize their own photo in the painting because the process kind of changes the work. A lot of the photos were originally really glamorous and then by the time I’m done with them they’re kind of funky. The vibe really changes.
That’s interesting, the idea of making an analog version of something that was originally digital. There is another image that I really like, of nail art that looked like the Mona Lisa. It’s a painting of a photo of a miniature version of a real painting, which is just so many layers.
The funny thing about that one that I guess I didn’t really acknowledge — sometimes I’m working on this kind of subconscious level and I can only know how they really function when they’re done and on the wall — was that it’s also like a “coke nail.” Like, a Mona Lisa coke nail. Which I thought was really funny … I like creating a story or a narrative in work, but also kind of taking things out of the culture and re-presenting them. It’s kind of like a readymade — looking at culture and then putting it back so people can look at it and think about it.
Can you tell me about your show at GNYP Gallery in Berlin?
It’s mostly costume makeup tutorials and I made a really big, six-foot-tall one. It looks great, it’s a beautiful space. The space has only been open for a year and they’ve done half a dozen shows and they came to New York and were super smart and so nice. It was just really awesome. And I love being in Berlin. People were really enthusiastic about [my work] but then were also kind of like, ‘wow, this is really weird.’ Because you go to the Hamburger Bahnhof, which is their contemporary art museum, and I would say especially with the palette, it’s a lot more grays and neutrals, so this work feels really colorful and in-your-face. And at the same time, people like Beuys or Kiefer, there are these German artists who use a lot of texture, so there is a framework for them to kind of get what I’m doing. But it does look very American.
Pop is a very American phenomenon.
Yeah, and I’m walking around Berlin and all their stores are closed on Sundays, which I think as an American is a really hard concept for us to appreciate. The consumer part of Pop — I understand in some ways why it doesn’t 100% translate because they’re not growing up in the culture that is so incredibly consumer-driven. It’s becoming more and more, but it’s not the way we grow up, where you’re just immersed in pop culture and movies and TV.
I’ve been asking everyone I interview these days how the election and everything that’s going on politically right now has affected them and their practice. What has your experience been like?
It’s hard. I titled my show in Berlin “AMBITCHOUS”, which is kind of an internet word. But I felt like it was related to this election and having this ambitious woman and seeing how that functions in the world and how people freak the fuck out. That was a huge, eye-opening thing. Because even in the art world, even people who are on the left, some of the reactions to her were not great. I know that it’s going to affect my work, but I don’t consciously know how yet. I’m spending a lot more time on Twitter and being more politically engaged. I’m working with this union, which is something I think a lot of people are doing, where you meet and figure out ways to be active. I know that it’s going to come into my work, I’m just not sure yet.
It’s affected me personally as someone who is self-employed, and who is potentially going to lose Obama Care. Myself and all my friends who are not going to have health insurance now — that kind of thing is really depressing. You feel under assault as a community, not to mention the National Endowment for the Arts and all these other things that he’s sort of so gleefully talked about cutting. It’s symbolic and it’s really important for how you see yourself. My birthday was actually on election night…
Oh my god, I’m so sorry!
Yeah, I had a party and I invited all these people who volunteered for Hillary and stuff because I thought, ‘oh, this will be a celebration!’ And we had a cake, and people were just like leaving crying. I kept thinking the next day — and I know that this is what a lot of people were thinking — our president bragged about grabbing women’s pussies. And now he’s our president. So you feel like here’s this person who disrespects you as a woman, as an artist — I just feel like my whole identity is useless now or something.
On a happier note, who are some of your artistic influences?
I started out with underground comics, like Julie Doucet or Twisted Sisters. Women’s underground comics were a really big thing for me. And then I spent a couple years making abstract painting and then went back to doing more of this funky, figurative thing. I’m actually not as influenced by someone like Marilyn Minter, but people bring her up to me all the time. The funny thing about Marilyn Minter is she’s had such an influence on fashion photography that sometimes some of the images I use, I’m like ‘that looks like a Marilyn Minter,’ with the glitter and the eyes. So that’s sometimes in there, but I think it’s because I’m sometimes taking from images that have themselves been influenced by her. That’s kind of a cool thing to see. And it’s really nerdy but my fascination with texture and stuff goes back to early experiences with Van Gogh and that kind of really creamy oil paint. And then other people like Claes Oldenberg and other Pop artists. I’m in that vain. I didn’t start out or set out to be, but I am.
So you actually started out doing more abstract stuff?
I started doing underground comic stuff and then I went to grad school and they kind of beat that out of me. I ended up doing abstract painting, but they were kind of more like caricatures of abstract paintings. They were fluorescent or silly or just kind of what I thought abstract painting should be. So then I sort of cycled back. But when I was making abstract painting, I was really interested in design and Photoshop gradients and things that were from the language of advertising, so I think that Pop is just in there and I can’t get it out. It’s in there with the narrative, it’s just rooted.