In Venus, a piece by artist Erin McGean, a surfer rides a tremendous wave of ocean froth, his arms extend to the sky for balance. High above both wave and rider, the form of a woman emerges, cradling the curl of water and the man within. This is McGean’s version of Mother Earth — the harmony of man, woman, and nature rapt in the joy of existence.
McGean’s medium is collage, the assembling of found imagery into something new. In her series You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, McGean collects photographs from vintage magazines, nude women, in which only the photographers are credited. The models exist only as objects, devoid of name, released from their personality and individual voice. In each image, the model is simply there, posed as a structure of flesh and bone, a still life for the photographer. McGean takes ownership of these women, lifting them from erasure, renewing in them the voices lost to an antiquated world view.
In each collage, McGean is building unique puzzles from disparate sources. Shapes and textures vary, perspectives skew and colors rest against each other, fresh ideas formed. Once assembled, her puzzles reveal the natural beauty of her own voice. McGean explores what it means to be female, and more specifically, what it means for the artist herself to be female. Her pieces are intimate reflections on singledom through motherhood, as object of desire and beloved friend. McGean’s work evolves as she does, art and and artist moving in tandem.
CJ: You began with painting and drawing – what lead you towards collage as your main creative medium?
EM: I turned to collage out of necessity. When my kids were small it was hard to find time to paint, there’s a lot of set up and clean up and at that time my kids needed a lot of physical attention.
That combined with my new iPhone and Instagram which had pretty much just started, is where collage began. I began using my phone to shoot and edit my own photos. Those edits became more and more involved and took on a collage-like look. But eventually I missed studio work, the mess of physical materials and the tactile nature of working with your hands. I got bored of creating everything digitally. So, my digital collage evolved into analog collage.
I totally understand how having kids can change your art! I’ve streamlined my workflow so there’s no mess and I can do it at the kitchen table while they do homework. Curious to know, outside of moving into collage, has parenthood changed your art in other ways?
I would say parenthood has changed the themes of my art. Overall, my art became more positive and optimistic after I had kids. It was quite angsty and dark before they came along. I also found myself exploring themes of fertility also especially after I know I wasn’t going to have any more kids. There is a kind of sadness that came over me once I knew my body was done with this stage of my life. As horrifying as breastfeeding can be its also an incredibly intimate and bonding experience and I kind of missed it when it was done.
However recently, some darkness has returned to my work as I explore themes of domesticity and male gaze. I’m not sure my kids have anything to do with that though. It might have come from the pressure I feel as a woman, balancing my career as a teacher and as an artist with my responsibilities as a mother and wife.
Are you treating a collage as either digital or analog? Are you scanning in photos to work with?
When I first started to cut and paste paper I did so with the intention of scanning them and altering them further digitally. So, I was kind of sloppy with my cuts. After awhile, I felt like this was cheating and I worked on cleaner cuts and techniques so that the original collage stood on its own.
I had trouble entering exhibits as a digital collage artist, so I worked at mastering my analog techniques. With that I became very picky about my materials and the quality of the paper. I really enjoy materials from the ‘50s but looking through these periodicals definitely fueled some of the fires of my feminist views. I’m sure you can imagine.
Now with NFTs I’ve gone back to reworking my analog work using my old skills and digital tools. It’s really been fun to mix the two mediums again.
Your pieces have a wonderful balance about them – the disparate pieces coming together to say something new. When working with existing pieces to create your work, when do you feel the original photographs you use stop being the work of someone else and move into being yours?
Well, I’m a big believer in the Dada philosophy so essentially as soon as I select a picture, even a single picture, I’ve made it mine.
I look at selecting photos from books and magazines similar to a photographer selecting locations or models to shoot, or perhaps a painter selecting a color. In most cases, artists are selecting things they think are beautiful or interesting to make their art out of, so I guess what I’m saying is it’s in that initial selection of a single image, how I find it, why it resonates with me…that makes it suddenly mine.
I do enjoy working with just two images a lot. So that the viewer can really see the original image because that is part of the meaning of my work, to dissect the original meaning and context of the images themselves.
Outside of the original pieces available to collectors, you’ve moved your work into the NFT space. Has a move from an analog final product to a digital one changed how you work? Are you creating with the new size and format in mind?
Yes, for sure. I create many collages, usually at least one a day. I don’t share them all because they’re not all good. But I have found that since joining the NFT space I’m creating collages again with the intention of digitizing them. But this time…I still want the original collage to stand alone as a beautiful, finished piece.
I’m really enjoying the return to digital because I’m getting a chance to use some of the skills I learned years ago when I was making mostly analog collage. I look at the NFT space as a chance to find new fans of my work, both physical and digital.
Your series You Don’t Bring Me Flowers is rather heartbreaking. On Twitter, you said of the series, “The series is my attempt to reclaim theses nudes taken by men so long ago. The models who posed in these old books I’ve cut up are not even named…only the photographer.” In each, the female figure is isolated, her face lost to the flowers. You’ve removed the intention of the photographer, turning his story into your own. When you first saw the photographs you used in the series, was the lack of credit to the model the initial inspiration?
No, not really. I think the inspiration came from my interest in the male gaze and how many images of nude women are created by men. I’ve used the female form in my work since I was a teen as a way to represent myself and my experiences.
With this series I’m exploring the social pressures and obligations I feel as a woman, as a wife, as a mother. I guess I’m examining where some of these expectations come from and how they’ve played out in my own life. For me the series is about the balancing act most women play between our public and private lives, between domestic and sexual, between beauty and objectification.
Something else you mentioned on Twitter was quite a powerful insight, “When men portray the female nude in their art it is presented as an object beauty/desire, for they cannot truly understand the experiences of being a woman and in some ways, they are exploiting feminine beauty for their creative gains.”
As a man that does draw the female nude, I totally understand that, and agree that I cannot create work that would speak to a woman outside of a way that would be truthful for me specifically – the mother, the daughter, the sister, the friend, and confidant. I would say as of now, my visual art has portrayed women as friend and as figure of attraction. Are there female artists that you feel have successfully portrayed their own experiences as women?
I do think though since our conversation that night on Twitter men can use the female form in their art as a way to explore other things besides sexual attraction, even if the woman is nude. I think in some art there’s a genuine curiosity and admiration that radiates.
As for female artists that have successfully portrayed their experiences as a woman, yes, I have many. Going back historically I’d have to mention Frida Kahlo, Ruth Bernard, Hanna Hoch and contemporary artists: Cindy Sherman, Wangechi Mutu, and Elizabeth Zvonar.
If we’re talking about artist in the NFT space I’d like to mention Ayla El-Moussa and her striking self portraits, Kelly Hsiao‘s ethereal underwater photography, and images of mothers and children by Victoria West.
With your work being highly feminine, or at least visually using the female form — have you played with using men in your work?
It’s funny you ask because I really haven’t. I have some men in a few of my collages but just as tiny distant figures in a landscape. Never nude and intimate like most of the photos of women I work with. That being said, I’d like to try.
When you begin a piece of your own, are you thinking of what it will say to the audience or is your focus more personal?
I think my focus is definitely more personal, I make images that satisfy me or explore curiosities and emotions I feel most often. That being said, I definitely do think about the audience and I want them to “get” what I’m trying to say.
There are a lot of directions a conversation on the male gaze can go – beginning with making men aware of how it makes women feel to see their existence only as an object of affection is an important starting point. I can’t help but wonder if the male gaze in art (real life may be another story!) is a perspective that has any value? How would like to see women portrayed, if at all, by male artists?
I think on some level…yes. It’s fine to look at how beautiful or interesting the human form is and use it for subject matter, that be male or female and regardless of the artist gender. I think that’s human nature. I just think that we live in a time where it has become very unbalanced, and women are over sexualized in the media which perpetuates poor self-image for young girls and violence against women. So, I guess what I’d like is more variety and how women are depicted especially in the media but also by artists.
Your Twitter conversation on the male gaze in art and the Twitter Spaces you hosted after had a lot of male artists trying to figure out how the criticism should affect their work, and there were female artists who shared their stories of the impact of the male gaze in the real world. What struck me about the topic is the need for the art of more women to be seen. The NFT space seems to be a very welcoming creative arena for all who step into it. Have you found support and community in that space?
Definitely. It has been one of the most supportive artistic communities I’ve been a part of. The fact that we even had that conversation in the Twitter Space is a testament to the community that we’re all building here. I’ve met many so many amazing women and MEN who have supported me or each other.
There are definitely fewer women than men in the space, but the women that are here are working hard and loud to make the voices of all women heard. And there are many men too who are working towards a better balance.
As an art teacher, do you bring your personal work into the classroom? Are you bringing any of this conversation up to your students to get them to think about different perspectives?
From time to time I share my work or sometimes make work in front of my students. For sure we discuss this topic along with other historical ideologies that need to be challenged and changed. The stories the students share with me are enlightening. I learn just as much from them as they do from me. They all share stories of the pressures they feel because of society norms or popular culture. It’s quite heartbreaking to hear, actually. Many years have been shed in my classroom.
One thought on “Ownership & Renewal: Interview with Collage Artist Erin McGean”
Big fan of the artist. Nice to read about how she feels about her art. Nice article. Nice insight.