Interview: Cathy Wysocki & the Poisoned World

On May 1st Cathy Wysocki opened up the Main Gallery with her bold and confrontational show, Gripped. Have you seen it? It's an impressive and provocative body of work that will send your mind reeling and your soul searching for a cool beverage. And that's just her point. I had the good fortune to sit down with Cathy and chat about her work. Here's what I learned:

Your current exhibit here in The Harwood’s Main Gallery is titled Gripped, and is billed as an excerpt from a larger collection Poisoned World. Have you shown the complete work yet?

Well, I started the Poisoned World series back in 2006 and the ideas are still coming through me. Right now it includes 22 or 23 pieces, 16 of which are showing in Gripped. So no, Poisoned World has yet to be shown in its entirety.

This exhibit is extremely political and confrontational; would you say it’s representative of your work?
I’ve never been overtly political in my work before and some friends who know my previous work are extremely surprised by this new content. But it’s me now. This is what is coming out of me.

If this body of work is thematically new, then what have you focused upon in the past?
I’ve always been intuitively drawn to the narrative and the mythological in my art work, and I’ve also always worked with lots of different media. For example, most of the shows I had while living in San Francisco and Boston illustrated mythical tales (loosely relating to my own life) and included text, sculptures, masks, canvases or painted boards, and sometimes live performance. Some of those shows were pretty dark, but they were also always humorous. That’s something really different about Poisoned World – the humor in my work is gone or very, very dark.

In terms of style then, the energetic busting-out-of-the-canvas that happens in Gripped isn’t new?
No. Art has always been about freedom to me. I first fell for art in high school when it offered me relief from both my busy thoughts and the structure of school. It was as if a wall parted and opened up a new way for me. Ever since then, making art has been a very free and freeing experience for me. I guess I’ve never felt like I should confine myself to the boundaries of a rectangle or to two dimensions.

That’s not to say that I never stick with a fixed shape. Both Corparboreal and Birth, Death, and Rebirth (shows I did back east) were in the rectangle.

Did you plan out the three dimensionality of the work in Gripped?
Not really. Sometimes I’d break the rectangle at the start of a piece by attaching additional boards to the main canvas. It can be a good problem to solve. You know – what do I do with this jutting form? But then further down the line I may decide I don’t want the extension anymore. So, out comes the saw. At other times I’ve started working within a rectangle and later realized that I needed more room. Like I said, I work very intuitively and organically. I mean, I have this notebook full of thoughts that I jot down, but when I start to work I just let it come right through me.

Ok, on to the content. It’s clear just looking at your paintings and sculptures that something is awry in the world, but what exactly does the word “Poison” mean?

Poison refers to the three poisons discussed in Buddhism: greed, hatred and ignorance. The pieces in this series address the consequence of these poisons. On the gallery wall I wrote, “You can’t prescribe the antidote until you know the poison.” Similarly, if you’re bit by a snake, you have to know its name before you can appropriately treat its venom. I suppose I’m trying to shine a light on the snake here in this work.

What’s that process been like? Was it jarring for you to shift to such political and grotesque work?
It wasn’t jarring to me, but like I said, it was surprising to some friends who knew my old work. You know, I really didn’t set out to make grotesque socio-political work and I never consciously decided to do bloody things. It just came out of me, which is where that intuitive part plays in.

Art is how I creatively react to the world. When my husband and I moved out here to Corrales, NM five years ago, our country was engaged in an illegal war. In 2006 when I started this body of work we were still in the war. It was claiming countless lives, greed was rampant from the government on down, too many people were engorged and stupefied by their material consumption, and I was disgusted. I got fired up. I think it was my repulsion that transformed my moral convictions into an urgency – that people should be compassionate, respect all living things, and create peace.

Too often we turn away from suffering because it’s uncomfortable, but we need to face it. I’ve turned away from things or let them go for years. And then suddenly I couldn’t anymore. It was like a socio-political awakening for me and I suddenly couldn’t keep working the same way. That meant my creative energy was suddenly consumed with reactions to war, corporate greed, self-absorption, consumption, and complacency.

I’m not trying to illustrate anything or create a linear story here. I’m just opening up the valves and reacting to the way humans crave power and end up dominating and suppressing freedom in the midst of people who refuse to look and act.

Do you think your unapologetic politics and confrontation affect your desirability within the art market? I mean, how does this work affect your exhibiting within commercial galleries?
[Laughs] Listen, I’m not trying to decorate anyone’s house. I don't do my work with commercial galleries in mind.

My work has always been challenging on some level – whether because it was unusually active or cryptic or whatever. The idea for me is about my own freedom. So if that flow of energy creates work that’s difficult to sell, so be it. I can’t and I won’t alter my honest expression.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love for my work to sell! And I’d love to confront the masses with my work. I think the masses need to be confronted. But right now I’m pretty sure that most people who seek out my work are already interested in or actively engaged in fighting against injustice. Still, we do all need to be confronted and challenged.

You’ve taught a class at here at The Harwood called, Art as activism. How do you see art impacting our collective politics?
Activism has many manifestations and mine is art. Just like some people are community organizers, fighting issues on the political field, my means of creating social and political change is through art.

The outlet for activism really depends on the person and where they are in time. We have to engage wherever we resonate so that our actions come out with power. The process of making art is my learning. It’s my digestion and perspective. And right now I hope that it affects people’s willingness to face the brutality and injustice in our world. So yes, I see art as an activist tool just like anything else.

It’s been so great talking to you Cathy. Can you leave us with a few names of artists that you connect with in your work?
Sure., let’s see… in no particular order: Sue Coe is an intensely political contemporary artist who addresses both human and animal rights. Neo Rauch is another socio-political artist I admire. Edward Kienholz and Leon Golub were both artists whose works were dense with social & political commentary. Louise Bourgeois, who’s probably in her 90s now, has always been very independent and done her own thing. Oh, and I’m a big fan of the German Expressionists, for both style and content.

Thank you Cathy.
Thank you for interviewing me.

To see the actual exhibit, stop by The Harwood’s Main Gallery this evening (May 15th) from 6-8 pm for our Third Friday Evening hours. Or stop by weekdays 10 am 4 pm. Gripped will be up through Thursday May 28th. Don’t miss this powerful body of work!

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