(Create)ive Change
KAREN MAINENTI

What are some of the issues that are present in your work?

 

I am particularly interested in the unreasonable expectations created by the social constructs of gender and femininity. Much of my work investigates the role media messages have in shaping our thoughts, dreams and fears, and wrestles with the enduring struggle to achieve perfection. 

What is your objective when creating art?

 

I generally begin by noticing something in my everyday life that I find troubling, funny, or often a bit of both. I aim to transform ordinary objects or ideas into artworks that forever change how you perceive them.

Your work often involves research. Can you tell me about your process and how you utilized your research residency at the Bard Graduate Library?

 

Much of my inspiration comes from connecting contemporary experiences with historical evidence. Often, ideas are cyclical in nature, and what we observe today is merely a mutation that builds upon what we think of as antiquated ideas from the past. Researching at the Bard Graduate Center Library allowed me to delve into archives of original magazine advertisements from the 1940s-1960s. Now, these have become the source material for a new series of drawings which investigate the ideas of belief and faith in cosmetic products. 

Am I correct in understanding that you started out by being fascinated by beauty products which then developed into criticism? When did this change happen?  

 

As a young girl, I was always fascinated by the trappings of femininity. I coveted behaviors and appearances that had feminine associations and wondered what it meant when I did not exhibit these. In a land of Jacquelyns and Stephanies, even my name was suspect. As I reached my teens, I entered the magic world of primping and pampering, curious about all the magic beauty products promise to impart to those who seek, while suspecting they could not truly repair my flaws. Since then, I have struggled with the cognitive dissonance between my belief and skepticism.

How has educating played a role in your work? 


I don’t set out explicitly to educate with my work, although I do make an attempt to lead others to discover a new perspective. The response to showing my #MeToo Boutique work has been especially gratifying because others appreciate it so quickly for both its incisiveness and the levity that it provides to the current political climate. My art is undeniably a vehicle for me to connect —I enjoy speaking publicly about the important issues for women both young and old contained within my work.

You have a series separately addressing advertising towards men. How did you approach this topic differently, and what observations did you make during your research?  


Although the #MeToo Boutique series scrutinizes the apologies made by men who have been accused of sexual harassment, the concept for the work is rooted in the female experience. Back in 2017, at the time that the movement began, I was drawing women’s beauty products with an interest in the marketing messages featured on packaging. Each one shamelessly identified a flaw that needed correction: large pores, thin lips, wrinkles, unruly brows, short lashes. It occurred to me that as women, we’re used to apologizing. So, when hearing rich and powerful men beginning to admit they have flaws, they had done something wrong, and they are sorry, this was flipping the script. I began to draw classic men’s consumer products like Brut Aftershave, Irish Spring Soap, and Barbasol Shaving Cream with quotes from their apologies replacing the actual product names, aiming to bring attention to the differences in societal expectations between men and women.

How has your work criticizing beauty advertising affected your own relationship with beauty products?


Let’s put it this way… I’ve stopped using eye cream, but I’m currently in the throes of attempting to bleach my age spots. It is a three month process of both morning and evening applications.

Can you tell me about your use of mirrors and how you think about reflection? 


In preparing for an upcoming solo show this October at Ground Floor Gallery in Brooklyn, I’ve begun to explore the relationship of mirrors to our use of social media. While I see much more diversity in  imagery and advertising today than when I was growing up (models with stretch marks?!), I find it curious that young women today feel even more pressure to live up to standards of beauty and acceptance. Our “mirrors” have become so public, that it’s almost as if you can’t sit in your bedroom and pop a pimple without the whole world knowing.

Society’s expectations are often ingrained in us. How can we break free from these constraints that are rooted in consumerism?

 

For me, looking at things very carefully has led me to new conclusions. When drawing a product for days, weeks, or months, my thoughts are free to roam. I notice small details of typefaces and packaging design that have been meticulously constructed to create a specific feeling or image for the customer. By reproducing them in my own hand and calling attention to them in a new way, I’m able to rewrite these powerful narratives for myself.

Your upcoming solo show, Message in a Bottle, will transform the Ground Floor Gallery into an immersive installation. How does installation work allow you to develop concepts differently?

 

Much of my artwork begins with an idea that I want to draw attention to: the beauty of toilet paper; the rarity of men’s harassment apologies. The installation, therefore, provides a bigger platform to do just that. All the details of the environment can create a visual message that’s much stronger than a single drawing. I come from a design background that approaches branding in a similar way, i.e., conceiving each design element so it adds up to a larger story.

 

For “Message in a Bottle,” I'm transforming the gallery space into an upscale beauty boutique and filling it with my subversive versions of cosmetics, advertising and signage. In making new work for the show, I’ve been investigating the contradiction of women’s simultaneous embrace and skepticism of beauty products. Creating an immersive environment allows me to take it a step further and make a broader critique on the absurdity of the beauty industry by replicating the place where women often encounter these messages.

© Sina Basila