Katie Commodore is an old friend. I am biased to be certain, but I feel as though Katie’s work, mostly small and always erotic, is worth notice and critical attention. Her imagery is witty, attractive and seductive. Whether ink or enamel, embroidery or scrimshaw, they are highly detailed and dirty. Katie often pairs patterns with her portraits, causing an effect that I liken to visual euphoria. The optic overload gives way to a definition of form among pattern.
Though I am Katie’s friend first and her interviewer second, I think that this Atlas Discussion will be a fun one.
Jeff Bergman: Since I know you forever and everybody else here doesn’t, can you tell us how and why you make erotic art?
Note: I feel as though many artists who make erotic or explicitly sexual art divorce themselves from their practice. They act coldly toward their subject. I feel like you have a real engagement with your subjects and your subject. (Am I way off?)
Katie Commodore: Why do I make erotic art? That’s easy: if you were asked which you would rather draw all day long, what are you going to choose: a still life or nekid people? Easy.
But in reality, I do have a very real engagement with my subjects, for the past 10 years or so, my artwork has concentrated on creating intimate portraits of my friends, often focusing on how they express their sexuality. Not whether they prefer men or women, but sexuality in the broader sense- what is it that makes them feel sexy, how do they express that physically, and then since I’ve been working with the same theme (and friends) for years I’ve gotten to watch what that is about them change over the years.
I try very hard to approach it without any form of judgment, I’m all about showing the world what real people do to feel good. And sometimes that involves sex, sometimes that involves sitting on the couch in a three piece suit, and everything in between. No objectification, just reality. I don’t give them instructions, I don’t suggest poses or outfits, anymore than I would tell them who to sleep with. I’m there just as a documentor. I want everyone to be as comfortable as possible, which is why they’re my friends, because otherwise people revert to what they think is sexy and start making pouty faces and Playboy poses. But we all know that there’s a very real difference between porn and reality, so I’m trying to capture the real moments. The moments even beyond the act, and to capture the most intimate of intimates.
Which I’m sure sounds weird to many people, but it’s sort of an honor that so many of my friends want to let me into this very private part of their world.
JB?: And how did you then start to make the move towards adding the background patterns?
KC: Years ago, when I was still in grad school, my images went from very bold relief prints to more subtle, delicate drawings. I wanted to move away from the idea of bashing viewers over the head with imagery that they could just turn away from and not think about to something that would draw them in and then they would have already seen the images before they realized it and the idea of positive sexuality would have wormed into their thought process. So I started doing smaller, delicate pencil drawings, but I found they were too clinical. I was taking something completely personal to the sitter and taking all the personality out of it. Which lead me to start experimenting with pattern.
The pattern originally was a way to just hide the imagery so people would be drawn in and get up close before they realized they were looking at a graphic image. And then it turned into a way for me to add in a bit of an additional window into the personalities of the sitters. Since i know everyone that poses for me, and in most cases have known them for years, I know who they are. I can choose something that plays off their personality (both as an emphasis and the opposite- I often choose patterns I know the sitter would hate). And then I think it became more about me. It turned into a way for me to put myself in the picture. I’m so detached from the creation of the source imagery, it became a way to insert my presence. The fact that I take weeks to hand paint a repeat pattern as the background or the furniture or their clothing is my way of bringing something precious into the image, and it’s a good way to focus my own OCD tendencies.
But then again on my personal side, all lot of the decorative nature of my work has to do with the idea of me, being a woman, making erotic art, and how women in the arts were often relegated to the decorative side. I choose obscure and outdated media (watercolor miniatures on ivory, wood engraving, lace work, painted ceramic, gouache) because in the early days (and in some the later days) of the mediums they were women driven crafts. So although that’s not the driving force behind what I do, the thought is there behind each project. The idea that I’m subtly reclaiming something that was the proper realm of women and bringing it into a space that is still thought of as male dominated.
JB: I remember some work from a few years back. You were already employing patterns, but in this work you chose to focus on tattoos, hair and the patterns of the few pieces underwear still left on by your subjects. Essentially you used the patterns the people had chosen for themselves, rather than inserting your own. Since the subjects were not outlined, their presence was this adornments and personal icons.
Then more recently, the vinyl pieces used pattern all over the body, rather than your use of patterned background.
Tell me how you chose what to use and what to discard from images (I assume photographs)?
KC: The first drawings you are referring to were kind of anomalies. I had done a shoot with a friend and her boyfriend and they both had a lot of tattoos and piercings, and as I was working on several pieces of them I decided to try a couple of images of just their additions: so their tattoos, piercing, any clothing they were wearing, and then the girl’s hair extensions. But sad to say, the friends that pose most often for me aren’t as covered in tattoos so it just doesn’t work with other people. Although it was just two images, I’d love to explore it more, it’s one of the downfalls of using your friends as models, I am strangely limited by which friends want to volunteer. You hear that tatted-up friends? Pose for me! You know you want to…
And the other series actually came out of me just wanting to really push the roll of pattern in my work, and also as a way to start creating something that didn’t take months to create. The way I draw portraits, if you knew them personally, or even saw them at the opening, you’d recognize that person, so I wanted to see if I could change the dynamic of the figure/pattern relationship so that they were still recognizable but with none of the information besides their silhouette. Also I had bought myself a vinyl cutter for Christmas a few years ago, which I named Marissa and called her my intern, but I had to see what Marissa could really do!
So for those, I’d hand draw the outlines (usually with details like faces because I just can’t help myself, even though in most of them that part is left out) and then draw in the patterns (I’m really bad at drawing in the computer). I’d scan them, clean them up in the computer, and vectorize them so they could be cut on my vinyl cutter or on a laser cutter. It turned out Marissa can handle pretty much everything I threw at her (with some tweeking).
But ultimately it was my stepping stone between drawings and lacework. I really wanted to start working in lace, and creating the figures out of patterns, but it’s pretty intimidating and I didn’t know where to start. Babysteps, right?
JB: That is a perfect lead in to talk about materials. You have been doing lacework recently, but over the last few years you have worked with scrimshaw and miniatures. Some of these pieces have been intimate (in size). Why do you feel compelled to work smaller and more intricate?
KC: Technically, I’m currently using a form of embroidery called white work, or drawn thread embroidery. It’s precursor to lace. I haven’t made it to actually learning real lace work yet…but someday!
I’ll admit that on some level, I like working small because it’s a girl stereotype. The tinier the better! Doll house furniture! Tiny animals! Tiny anything! As a kids I had a million micromachine toy cars, I had a box (and still may) of HO train people, I used to collect these tiny ceramic animals from Disney World. Like so many girls the tinier something was the more I wanted it.
But in reality, the size of the piece is often a bi-product of the materials. So when I first tried working in scrimshaw, I had bought a bunch of ivory piano keys on ebay (before they changed the rules on selling ivory), so all of them are tiny (1” x ¾”) because that’s the size of the tip of the piano key. But at the same time, I wouldn’t want to do work like this if I was intrinsically drawn to tiny things. There’s something really fun about being able to carry a work of art in your pocket. Or like the first time I showed them, I carried the whole show in my messenger bag (I brought, like, 50 pieces to curate from! All in my bag!).
Whereas the watercolor miniatures I did of peoples’ dirty cell phone pictures I tried my hardest to keep them as traditional and historical in technique and materials as I could. The ivory is all pre-ban sources ivory that is custom cut for me by a guy out in the woods of Washington State, that I then cut in half thickness wise by hand (because he can’t cut them thin enough to get the glow you need). The frames are replica miniature frames that I buy from a dollhouse framing supply company in Maryland and a replica frame manufacturer in England. And then they’re painted not using water, but oxgall (which is a wetting medium made from boiled down ox gallbladders), because ivory is oily and non-porous. I even try my hardest to use the same pigments as would have been available and used in the 16th-18th century.
There is a preciousness to almost all of my work, not in a value way, but in way that I hope comes across as love. Even if the image is something we take in a cavalier mood and send off at the push of a button, it’s done as an expression of love. Every person in every dirty picture taken and sent means something to someone on the other end, and that makes me happy. So I wanted to create a body of work celebrating that.
JB: I think that is an important distinction and something that people might miss in your work, or possibly in erotic art in general: love and eroticism sometimes only know one another in a fleeting moments. You extend that moment.
When do you get the most enjoyment out of what you put out there? Is it in the making, the showing, the response?
KC: I enjoy each phase of the creation of each piece, but in very different ways. Taking the photos is exciting and fun, but strangely exhausting. So I’ll often not look at the photos until a few days after the shoot just because my brain needs to come back down.
And then when it comes to the actual pieces, I find painting the patterns incredibly meditative and calming. Until I get to the end, and then my anxiety levels sky rocket, I’m convinced I’m going to ruin it, but I’m almost done, and I just have to finish this one part, and it’s 3 am, but I just need to finish this one part, and my hands are shaking, and it becomes all consuming. I often put a piece away for days or even weeks between elements because the closer to finishing the piece the more anxiety it causes.
And then magically it’s done. And it has mistakes. And I post some pictures of it online. And I put it in a drawer. And eventually it’ll show. I’m surprisingly completely neutral about when it comes to showing my work. I not a huge fan of openings, they’re crowded and you have the same conversation over and over and over. I like seeing my friends, but I’ve never found openings to be the highlight of the whole art making experience.
But I love the reactions of people as they look at my work. I love watching their eyes light up when the realize the pattern is painted, or a look of complete disbelief, and then when they sometimes blush when they realise what is going on in the scene. I love listening to the dialog they create.
– Jeff Bergman May 2015