I am excited to introduce you to an incredibly talented artist, Marsha Mack. Marsha was a featured artist this fall at our gallery ATC DEN. She displayed a stunning solo exhibition titled, “Miss Vietnam.” We are excited about Marsha’s upcoming endeavors in the art scene and sat down with her to catch up on her studio and professional life. Also, be sure to stay up to date with Marsha by following her on Instagram.
Artist Interview: Marsha Mack
What inspired your path to becoming a studio artist?
There are two primary motivations that inform my practice that trace their way back to my earliest memories. One is the instinct to make, which for me means constant tinkering and manipulation of materials, textures, and senses. The other is developing concept with nuance and humor. For Miss Vietnam, on the one hand I was pushing aesthetic qualities with material usage and installation elements, and on the other I was experimenting with an identity narrative that is not characteristic of my practice. This body of work gave rise to more questions than it answered, which makes it stand apart as a success in my mind. The familiar tension between art creation and desire was very much realized while making Miss Vietnam.
I have long pursued my inquiries through my artwork, from being a child drawing pictures to use as currency with my parents, to today where I am trying to solve aesthetic and conceptual problems by creating aesthetic and conceptual problems. Though my childhood drawings did not have the same self-awareness that my work now aspires to, the satisfaction of feeling a connection with something I create has always been present. As long as I can remember I have been energized by my peers and thrilled to exhibiting work. Would you believe that on my first resume I listed that I won first place in the Prettiest Jellyfish Competition in first grade? Well, believe it because I did both and from that first arts and crafts accomplishment I have been hooked.
How did your schooling influence how you make work today?
The 5.5 years earning my BFA at San Francisco State University were some of the most intensive and formative years of my life. I was living in the Mission, scraping by working part time in cafes, and spending every other minute of every day in the ceramic studio. I learned and lived the virtues of discipline and focus, but also the limitations of medium specificity. The famous question everyone in ceramics scrambled to answer by final crit was “why clay?”. Though I cobbled something clever together at the time, after a while I had to accept that my goals were only really sated when I stepped out of my comfort zone.
When I began my MFA in ceramics at Syracuse University, it was the first time I was encouraged to experiment with materials in order to push concept. This came as a revelation to me and completely transformed my practice. I went from creating free-standing figurative sculpture in full representational color, to multi-sensory installations, sculptures, and video experiences. Though my undergraduate professors would be horrified by my mixing of ceramic with other unfired materials, I would not change a thing. I am grateful for everything I have learned and the culmination of my experience.
Who are the artists who have shaped your way?
I have heard such incredible tales of mentors in the arts, however, I haven’t experience this in my career yet. I don’t have any one particular artist who personally nourished me and my practice and opened professional doors for me, but I have had brilliant, hard-ass professors knock me down time and again. From being subjected to years of the crucible of ruthless critique only the most integral, researched, and authentic parts of my practice have survived. I’m thankful for the scrutiny because now, coming out the other end and still making work, I’ve internalized the voices of Sam Van Aken, Laura Heyman, and Peter Beasecker asking “Why should anyone care about this?”. This mantra has helped me separate self indulgence from intention in a way that I feel fortunate to have distinguished.
Can you talk about the different visual and conceptual components of your current solo exhibition, “Miss Vietnam”?
Miss Vietnam endeavors to blend borrowed memories, desires, and cultural narratives, obscuring them in a way that mimics the illogical, jumbled experience of someone who has lost touch with what is real and what is fantasy. To accomplish this, there are several primary motifs throughout the works in the exhibition. My ideas are best expressed on a project-based basis, so for Miss Vietnam, I sought to activate multiple elements that play off each other while informing one another.
The first motif involves recurring symbols of Vietnamese femininity, namely a woman in a traditional Vietnamese áo dài dress. This came about as the result of my first and only trip to Vietnam in 2016. I have no contact with or knowledge of any of my Vietnamese family, nor do I speak any Vietnamese, so my two-week trip was very much an exploratory first glance. I traveled to multiple cities up and down Vietnam and was struck by the recurring image of a woman in a yellow áo dài dress that was ubiquitous on magnets, bookmarks, paintings, t-shirts, etc. Once I locked onto this symbol I started buying up these tchotchkes, which I understood as a marketable image the nation itself was using to represent Vietnamese culture to outsiders. This commercial element paired with the image of a young Vietnamese woman struck me as something I immediately identified with and yet was eluded by.
Another visual element of the work is generic jungle imagery. Much of my perception of Vietnam is formed from fragments my Mother’s stories, but where the ends are frayed I’ve filled in missed areas with my imagination and desire, as well as movies, media, and the stereotypes that come along with them. I liked the idea of cobbling together jungle elements that speak to the fantasy of a place rather than an authentic experience or first-hand knowledge. Synthetic bamboo, various store-bought palms, and non-native tropical plants formed the entryway into the gallery and served as a makeshift memoryscape to set the tone. There’s a hodge-podge feeling to the occasional bamboo garland hanging in the gallery, which works as a three-dimensional collage of authentic longing and synthetic material.
Imported Asian candies are a recurring theme throughout the exhibition that corresponds to my most solid, lived bond with my understanding of my own mixed race. I do not speak Vietnamese and am not familiar with any traditions or values, but I have always been very at home in Asian grocery stores. Food is my bond to my Vietnamese heritage. Though I did not learn any of my mother’s recipes while she was healthy enough to teach me, I would often accompany her to Asian grocery stores where she would reward me with sweets. Of the many delights found in the average Asian grocery store, there are three very popular candies that were far and away my favorites: Strawberry Pocky, Botan Rice Candy, and White Rabbit Creamy Candy. Though these candies are mass produced in countries other than Vietnam, my childhood enjoyment of them was impervious to this fact. Tying into much of my previous bodies of work, I am imagining sugar and sweetness as a metaphor for temporary comfort or placation. Rather than the powerful cultural and familial heirloom of traditional recipes, I have a taste for imported, mass-produced candy. I see a desperation and a hopelessness in this gesture that I feel limited by but can also manage to chuckle about.
Lastly, I tied in a reference to Charlotte Perkins Stetson’s 1892 short story The Yellow Wallpaper. Commonplace in high school and/or college English classes, The Yellow Wallpaper stood out during my studies as a powerful critique of the toxic blend of patriarchal convention and poor treatment of mental illness. Bringing in this reference introduced a powerful visual element while also gently introducing tough subject matter. My mother was deeply traumatized by her experience of the Vietnam War and was lucky to escape via helicopter evacuation during some of the worst bombings of Saigon. Once a refugee in the United States, repeated traumas aggravated what would later develop to major mental illness, which has been present the entire time I have known her. Not only does she feel reluctant to recount her horrific experiences of her hometown in flames, but her illness adds additional obstructions to those memories. I got lost in the details while creating Miss Vietnam, and am very pleased with how various disjointed elements became bound by personal narrative. I see myself reflected in the resultant exhibition, complete with desire, humor, and contradiction.
“Miss Vietnam” works with several mediums, from found photos to candy. Can you share a bit about your process of finding objects and how they relate to the context of your subject matter?
I’m interested in materiality and the potential for pre-existing associations and the intrinsic nature of objects to carry cultural meaning. For example, when thinking of my most established childhood links to understanding my Vietnamese heritage I did not want to create images or sculptures of Strawberry Pocky, it was important for me to use actual Pocky. There are veils of memory and interpretation throughout the exhibition, but the Pocky, for example, is authentically itself by virtue of what it is. It was important to have some grounding elements in this way since there is a lot of blurring of reality in the show. I think that side-stepping artifice by using meaning-bearing materials brings another level of complexity to the work.
Though I’ve been working with colored PVC vinyl for about two years now I still find new ways to present and think about this material. With this exhibition, I was thinking of encapsulating souvenirs, found images, candy wrappers, and áo dài in vinyl as a means of preservation. Like a butterfly collection kept secure and appreciated for its beauty, the largest and most ambitious examples of this process are the three preserved áo dài that make up the focal point of the exhibition. From the first fiber tapestry piece when you enter the show, to a found commercial noodle box at the opposite end of the gallery, the image of three women pop up throughout the works. Playing with this imagery translated across various constructed and found objects, I came to think of the groupings of three as a sub-motif embedded in the exhibition. The beauty of jewel-toned vinyl juxtaposed with the textures and colors of fabric and printed media showcase the properties of each material. Incorporating specific subject matter into a familiar process brought excitement to a familiar process.
When executing a project, some materials I am already actively working with, such as vinyl wrapped frames previously mentioned, and some materials I seek out to serve the concept. The incense is an example of the latter. The final element added to Miss Vietnam, the three rice bowls with burning incense and Strawberry Pocky offerings were a simple gesture and one of my favorite parts of the show. I am always looking to add a scented element into an exhibition as it associates scent with the memory of the work, and with the incense bowls, there was a surreal blending of function and symbol that has held my interest.
How do you see working on this exhibition affecting future bodies of work, if at all?
My biggest takeaway from creating this exhibition is that it is okay to add personal narrative into the concept. In the past, I have been wary of work that focuses too much on identity, because I do not see identity alone as a means to an end. However, I think when used judiciously and intentionally, it can add a weighted richness. Typically my concepts are constructed with mass-produced synthetic materials that allude to consumption and the increasingly seductive language of marketing. However, the level of honesty and vulnerability I felt while creating Miss Vietnam has proven productive. My fear of creative stagnancy means I am continually trying to convince myself to push through doubt and make better, weirder work. This risk-taking certainly does not always have a favorable outcome, but I am quite happy with Miss Vietnam and want to incorporate fragments of memory and symbol into projects with broader themes.
How does your studio practice serve as a tool for addressing what’s going on in the world, both the current political space and personally?
Art has its limitations; a successful body of work is not going halt the atrocities of humanity. However, historically, art-making is the mark of a healthy society, so I know that as long as my friends and I can create work there must be at least a little hope. During the Obama years, I felt the most combatant with my practice, sternly critiquing culture via feminist theory. Now in what are undoubtedly darker times, I am having a Dada-esque recoil from reality. Perhaps I am just contrarian, but when violence and assuredness are the norms, radical vulnerability and a little nonsense are my artistic solutions. It is not my style to address specific political events in my work, but I am an engaged, active voter who listens to NPR more than music these days and am not impervious to the cultural moment. Through osmosis, some level of my politics must make their way into my work or at least affect how I am processing ideas.
When art is properly functioning it should work like a dog whistle, not a bullhorn. It has long been my opinion that if artwork does not resonate with the cultural moment it is created in, one should not waste their time with it. I think we should allow ourselves to be discerning in regards to what feels relevant and what is smart. I do not think these are times when pretty pictures or purely visual work should hold any sway. But then again, I have always been grouchy that way.
What helps you out the most when you are stuck creatively in the studio?
The last time I was really stuck on a project it was in the concept development phase. My first instinct is often to create something painfully literal which I then edit and rearrange until it reemerges as more considered, often with the consult of my artist friends. Overall, I think the best way to get from literal and boring into a more interesting subconscious place is to simply spend time in the studio. Much like Chuck Close, I believe that waiting for a lightning moment where a brilliant idea is zapped into your head from the “other side” is completely ridiculous. Good work takes more work, there is no way around it. For me this typically involves playing with materials, pairing things together in unexpected ways, and allowing for unlikely elements to come into the work. My practice is a negotiation between the intelligence of the hand and the mind, so as much time as I spend writing, researching and thinking, I must also spend tinkering. However, no matter the project, my baseline understanding of form and composition is grounded in the tactility of ceramic sculpture. I have an ongoing fascination with texture, structure, and function that confronts and informs my material sensibility, and by extension, concept.
Name one ambitious project you hope to accomplish someday.
I would love to create a relational work in Southeast Asia that involves street food. Perhaps I could be live streamed into the New Museum walking from cart to cart, eating different delicious treats as a performance. Years ago I did a live mukbang performance piece where I applied full makeup and then ate an entire cream pie in front of an audience. I got the tone all wrong and it was an undeniable failure, but in taking the risk and doing a thing that scared me, I learned a lot. Back then it was a critique of societal conditioning. This time around it will be about enjoying life and eating grilled meats on skewers.
Photos by Sara Ford