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Ekphrasis- Gracie Kendal by Rowan Derryth

My art, in whichever medium, is based on spontaneity and change. – Gracie Kendal

Faces of Gracie, by Rowan Derryth.

Gracie Kendal appears on the Designing Worlds show at 2pm SLT Tuesday 6th April. Click here for more details.

In 1971, in the early days of feminism, the Art Historian Linda Nochlin wrote a groundbreaking essay titled ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, which considers the problematic question of ‘greatness’ and artistic genius against the historical roles of women, and the ways in which their position in society precluded them from seriously pursuing art careers.  Nochlin’s article not only challenged the way (male-dominated) art history had been written, but also questioned attempts by female scholars to ‘re-insert’ women artists who seemed to have gotten ‘lost’ in the art historical canon – artists such as Artemesia Gentileschi and Rosa Bonheur, for example.  What this rather short essay managed to do was open up the entire art historical discipline for review and debate, actually enabling a re-thinking of the way we view women artists, and consequently opening the door for their future inclusion and success.

So with that rather erudite introduction, I come to my point.  In my SL youth, I was very disturbed to find I was asking myself the question ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists in SL?’  Or, more specifically – and with apologies to my gender – I realized that all the work I’d seen that truly blew me away was by men.  I found this rather disheartening, and yes, I was convinced that I needed to look around more!  Since then, I am happy to report that I’ve found plenty of women artists (and let’s avoid the questions of RL/SL gender swaps just now) whose work fits my manifesto – not just resonates but rezzed; not just rezzed but resonates – that will be featured in upcoming articles.

But the FIRST great woman SL artist I found, who brought relief to my worried young SL heart, was Gracie Kendal.

‘I Sing the Body Electric’, 2009

Now, I will admit that I kind of hate the fact that the first woman I write about is being set up in the framework of a feminist question.  I think one of the amazing things about SL is that it provides us the opportunity to transcend these questions.  But Kendal’s work does in fact deal with issues of gender and identity, so I cannot be too much of an apologist for this lens.

Gracie, whose RL name is Kris Schomaker, has been showing her paintings successfully in SL for three and a half years, but it is her recent work ‘The Gracie Kendal Project: A Conversation with my Avatar’, which has kicked off a flurry of interest.  I asked to meet Gracie in her studio, because on a prior recon I had noticed a poster of a Jeff Koons‘ work there… and I’m always fascinated when artists I love are inspired by artists I can’t stand (see my Ekphrasis on Ragamuffin Kips and his enjoyment of Barnett Newman). What followed was a rather irreverent conversation in which we soundly trash some of contemporary art’s luminaries.  Well, I do at least:

Gracie’s studio, with offending bunny at centre.

RD: So if you’ve read the column, you know… I like to talk to people about their influences, etc., and I know you are an art historian too, so this should be fun… BUT I came to visit your studio when you weren’t here, and I was APPALLED… Gracie: (grinning and laughing) uh oh RD: (pointing at a poster of Jeff Koons’ “Rabbit”, 1986) EXPLAIN YOURSELF! Gracie: (laughing hysterically) RD: (peering at the the image to its left) And next to poor Jasper Johns! Gracie: (still laughing) It’s a poster… let me show ya (she moves over some of her paintings so I can see the bottom, which says “Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art from the Broad Collections“) It’s part of the wall, but yea.. I totally hear ya… (laughs some more) RD: So you can’t get rid of it? Generic ‘artist loft decor’? Gracie: Yeah.. it’s part of the texture… although mirroring that wall is Warhol’s Marilyn. RD: Yes, I noticed that. So… here I was thinking these are somehow your artistic influences, and I didn’t quite get it. Gracie: (still laughing) Noooooooooo

Chatting with Gracie in her studio.

RD: Koons is the artist I LOVE to loathe. He’s a f*cking moron when he speaks. Gracie: Yeah, him and Hirst… although some of Hirst’s work is beautiful… the butterflies… oh my god! RD: Now with Hirst it is a love/hate thing.  I hate that I am intrigued by his work. Gracie: Yes exactly. RD: Do you know the work of Tracy Emin? Gracie: (smiling) Of course. (We blurt simultaneously here) Gracie: LOVE her work. RD: HATE HER (then crack up) Gracie: She is intriguing too and so wild… and crazy…. I don’t know… and so in your face RD: Ugh, her manky ‘Bed‘? Gracie: (laughing) Well yeah… but who else would have the guts to do that?  And ‘Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With’? LOVE that. (Author’s note: this work was sadly destroyed in the famous Saatchi warehouse fire, even I can’t be happy about that) I thought about doing a similar piece with names from SL. RD: I just find her SOOOO self-indulgent, and not in an interesting way Gracie: (laughs) Yeah, well that is true. I guess a love/hate thing too. RD: Now, THIS is interesting (gesturing at posters from her recent performance at the Eostara Gallery {see below})  You both are dealing with similar issues, biography, but what you are doing is SO MUCH MORE INTERESTING.  So… let’s pick apart this Emin/Gracie thing a bit.  You both are using very personal biography. She draws on personal trauma quite a bit, but she basically just takes her diary and throws it on the wall. I went to a retropective of her work in Edinburgh last year, I thought ‘GO see… THEN judge’. My favourite work… she had little slides set up (actual slides, not projected) of her paintings from art school… the ones she burned. They were SO MUCH better than the rest of her work. And the work itself was interesting, in terms of being about loss, and misguidance. (grins) But I thought most of the rest was crap. Gracie: (laughs)

Black Pearl Beach, 2009

RD: When I first saw your paintings a couple months ago at Exposure Gallery, I liked them, but I was also struggling with this idea of artists rezzing RL work and not changing or working it in world… I still struggle with it, even though I own one of yours, and have it in my house. Gracie: Ahhh… why do you struggle? RD: Hmmm… good question… no one really asks that! Most often, they happily agree! Gracie: (laughs) Seriously… it’s a great debate. RD: Yes, well, I think that… I can see that it is a way to promote your work, get it to be known. But… hmm… Ok, first of all, I think prob 90% of what gets rezzed is garbage. So many who say ‘Oh, I think I’ll be an artist today’. Gracie: (smiling) Yes I agree, anyone can be an artist. Well its roleplaying I think. RD: (Same with ‘I think I’ll open a gallery’ without knowing the FIRST thing about being a Curator.) Gracie: (laughs) Yeah. RD: (grins) Man, this article is going to get me in trouble. And… if I may… Gracie: you may… RD: Your paintings here, I KNOW they are large RL. Gracie: umm, you do? RD: I’ve seen pics of you working on them… they can be in scale here or not… Gracie: Well some of them are small in RL though so it depends… some are only like 24×24 inches and I really enlarge them here. I’d love to go bigger in RL …but no space or car to transport. RD: Interesting. So in a way you DO manipulate them here.  SL allows you to do things with them you aren’t able to. Gracie: Yeah… it does. I used to also show just details of my work here and sell them as paintings in themselves. I don’t do that anymore though. I like the idea that if it’s available here, it’s available in RL too. RD: Well, I certainly see a lot of grey areas in my ‘struggle’.  And I see paintings that I LOVE, and am happy to have found.  BUT I have to say… that I’m most interested in work that really USES SL… whether in build, photography, prim manipulation, etc. Gracie: Oh yea, I understand… and that is what is cutting edge about SL. Especially for the real art world.

Gracie’s most recent body of work is, in fact, all about using SL as a medium. How she came to it is an interesting tale. She had been studying for a Masters degree in Art History and had been deciding whether to write a thesis about Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, or even the intriguing analysis ‘Comparing Second Life Art Community to Paris of the 20s and NY of the 50s’. But, as she had been an artist for over 12 years, she realized that her passion truly lie in the making, and decided to switch to a studio focus. “It was THE best decision of my life.”  She was also able to continue as a practicing art historian, teaching as an adjunct at a local Junior college.  “That is probably what I am going to do when I graduate, go back to teaching. Anything to stay immersed in art… It’s my love.”  Her students will be lucky as, in my view, the best art historians are also practitioners.

When Kris submitted her portfolio to enter her program, she included images of her showing work in Second Life.  However, when she began showing her painting in critique, she “didn’t get as positive feedback from them…. It was ok.. but very critical…”, as she was being compared to modern era Abstract Expressionists such as Pollock.

‘One: Number 31′, 1950 by Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956) 1950. Oil and enamel paint on canvas, 8′ 10″ x 17’ 5 5/8″ (269.5 x 530.8 cm). Museum of Modern Art, Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund (by exchange). © 2010 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As I said to Gracie, she is GREAT at that style of painting, and people don’t often understand the skill involved with it (and Gracie has updated the technique by using things like hair dryers to move her paint, rather than just Pollock’s brushes and sticks), but her professors were correct that it isn’t really cutting edge.  She agreed, and knew she had to do something to bring her work ‘into the 21st cenury’:

“I met with my professor a couple times, who suggested I delve deeper into SL. So the next critique, I had a cut out of Gracie on a collage piece I was doing. I had ideas of bringing SL into my artwork. That was a year and a half ago, and since then my paintings ARE more contemporary, especially with the outlining I’m doing.  The project though… well I had an idea to do a piece that had 50 1×1 foot wood squares with cut outs of different avatars on them. I was going to call them the ’50 Most Beautiful People’ a spoof on People magazine dealing with identity in SL. So the idea was already spinning around up there.  People started getting more interested in SL: what it was, and who I was in it. My professor gave me tons of amazing ideas… thinking about the idea of what an artist is, what an avatar is, the idea of beauty here… etc.”

“I don’t remember an exact moment but a few months ago, I started realizing I need to put myself more into my art.  My paintings are kind of detached in that aspect I think… I put myself into them…but not in the same way. I started to ask myself why I am here in SL, what all this means, asking myself who I am… and I have not a clue.  I have been dealing with personal issues, of weight, anxiety, loneliness, for a while now and it came to a forefront 2 years ago when I had a panic attack. It scared the hell out of me, and my life changed. So I’ve started to look inwards. Trying to figure myself out. I think I realized, I could do that with art, especially thinking of SL as a tool to do that, which is what I’ve been doing for the last 3 and a half years. I got into SL because I was suffocating in RL.  SL allowed me to breath.”

Gracie is being creative in addressing issues which I think many struggle with, and brave enough to fess up about it too.  On Nov. 1st last year, she started the blog which, through a series of side-by-side RL and SL images, compares her life with Gracie’s, and converses with her too, so we are privy to Kris’ inner dialogue in a way that separates her identity into two selves.  As readers, we begin to forget that these two people are actually the same person… then when we remember this fact, the narrative become equal parts amusing and melancholic.

In some ways, the narrative is as we expect: the artist, in her real world anxiety and self-consciousness, is envious of Gracie’s world, with her ‘perfect’ body, wealth, and vibrant social life.  Gracie seems to embody all Kris wishes she had.  If the story ended there, it might be somewhat cliché.  But what is truly fascinating is the way in which we see Gracie being jealous of Kris, too.  One of my favourite panels expresses Gracie’s own disembodied angst at not being able to experience the real world, in particular, the rain falling on her skin.  (Her lament ‘I can’t feel anything’ becomes even more complex when the viewer notices that what Gracie sees out her studio window is a pre-9-11 view of the New York City skyline, the World Trade Center standing prominently in her line of sight.)

Thus the co-dependent nature of this relationship is cleverly expressed.  The ways in which they need each other (for there obviously can be no Gracie without Kris) are eloquently conveyed, and in fact Gracie’s dependence becomes more pronounced as time goes on, with the phrase ‘Kris! Where are you? I need you!’ used with increased frequency.

As an outsider reading this, I began to wonder if this was a way for Kris to reclaim power from her Gracie identity; a reminder that although she may be the virtual manifestation of Kris’ own desires, Gracie ultimately IS Kris, and cannot exist without her. I asked her about this:

“Oh yeah… I think so… even though Gracie has a lot of influence over Kris… Kris is definitely showing her power more I think.  Hmm… not sure that comes across right.  I think Gracie and Kris are struggling right now… maybe it’s a power struggle, I don’t know… they are finding their places within each other maybe. I think they both wish they were the other, and they are both questioning why that is.  And are yet to answer that question.”

One cannot help but consider that in addition to dealing with issues of identity and power, that she is also addressing body issues that are particularly keen for women (and if fact, these issues are at the heart of the art of two of her self-confessed biggest influences, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger).  In looking at her work, I wondered how men might respond to what she is doing:

RD: When I interviewed Glyph Graves, he said ‘I don’t hold with the notion of girl’s art and boy’s art;  I think that silly.’  I agree with him in general, and would certainly say that applies to work based in the formal.  But some work, often more conceptual work, definitely deals with issues of gender.  Barbara Kruger is a case in point (as is Emin, I am loathe to say).  Your work deals with more universal ideas of identity, but gender is a huge part of it.  Clearly men also have body issues, but I wonder, do you think men ‘get’ your work as much as perhaps a woman might? Gracie: Oh wow, great quote…I would actually say yes, they do get it… Men seem to be just more “quiet” about it I guess. I mean if you look at the avatars in SL, do you see many overweight male avatars? RD: No, not often. Gracie: I think in RL there are many more magazines about women, promoting the “ideal” image. RD: That’s what I was wondering… clearly they can relate, but do they think about it as much? Gracie: Yeah they can relate, because my project is not just about weight and body image, but life in general. Even though it’s a very personal project… about me… I think both men and women go through this type of process of finding themselves… for men, I think it shows in what they just call “Mid-life crisis” maybe? RD: (laughs) Fast cars, faster women (or men)? Gracie: (laughs) Yep, so true. (pauses) I’m afraid of what they will think of me after this. RD: Well, me too… We’ll stick together.

Gracie: Even though its personal…  it’s very universal. And I do agree with Glyph… Yes, women have had a hard time, and yes, we still do in some respects… I used to teach a women in art course… and I believe it needs to be taught because of the history of women artists weren’t really known until the 70s… I think there is still the old school curators, gallery owners who hinder women’s work… but… I believe now especially in this postmodern era… that there are just as great women artists as men, and just as crappy women artists as men. RD: You might be happy to learn that I am leading off your article talking about Linda Nochlin. Gracie: (laughs) Nice, that’s great! RD: She opened the door. Gracie: Absolutely. RD: You love the Guerilla Girls, don’t you? Gracie: Oh yeah, absolutely! I did a talk on them in school and invited them to talk, but it didn’t work out. RD: Aw, that’s too bad. I actually have a theory that Nochlin is one of them. And maybe Kruger. Gracie: (laughs) I wouldn’t doubt it. RD: I want that to be true, anyway.

In much the same experimental and performative manner as the Guerilla Girls, recently, Kris/Gracie pushed her fascinating experiment even further by attempting to switch places.  For the week or so leading up to March 6th, Kris went through a physical makeover to make herself more like Gracie, including wardrobe, cutting and dying her hair, and even piercing her nose.

Meanwhile, Gracie’s transformation was displayed in a performance piece at the Eostara Gallery on the 6th.  The piece, which was conceived as a collaboration with the Vaneeesa Blaylock Company of Second Life, involved 16 avatars: 4 Gracie’s, 4 Kris’, and 4 each of two transformative states inbetween.  Three different outfits were chosen and worn by each set, with the fourth set being nude (save for some wicked black heels).  The avatars then stood in a grid, the piece inspired by the performances arranged by the RL artist Vanessa Beecroft, and in fact the work is titled like a Beecroft as well: ‘VB15 Gracie/Kris’. As Gracie states: “I wanted to introduce my avatar based on my RL self and talk about body image by showing the difference between our realistic selves and our virtual selves.”  She filmed this experience, and the final cut will appear on her project blog.  The work is powerful and to my mind extremely successful.

‘VB15 Gracie/Kris’

However the experiment, for Kris, did not have it’s expected or desired result: “The transformation for Kris to become Gracie… I would call for lack of a better term a ‘failure’… it was definitely not how I expected it to turn out. I think I expected I’d feel like Gracie… I’d feel more comfortable with who I am… but I wasn’t.. I was even more uncomfortable because I became something I’m not… well in a way… it was more because I put on this ‘costume’ and that doesn’t change a person. Gracie is pretty confident…or has been for a long time now… although she seems to be in a slump too. But that is because of who Kris is… I don’t know… it’s so complex. (laughs) I think the real purpose for both is to find a balance.”

This is an intriguing statement, as I think this artist has struck a balance that perhaps she cannot yet see herself.  There is balance in the co-dependent relationship between these two evident in the ‘Project’ pieces.  But there is also balance in the way each identity works as an artist.  Kris uses Gracie as a creative character in her own personal narrative to explore identity issues.  But by the same token, Gracie uses Kris’ RL art, appropriating it and transforming it into something new.  Perhaps the best example of this is the massive, 250 prim sculpture she built for the Step Up sim a few months ago, which has just been reinstalled outside the Designing Worlds studio at Northpoint (along with a wonderful exhibit of the rest of her work).  “Making Connections” is a series of 4-5 smaller sculptures textured with both her own painting and other patterns she likes (and she re-textures them at will), which she arranges in a site specific manner.  I watched her install the work, and was reminded of the way in which artists like Andy Goldsworthy respond to their environment as they work.

‘Making Connections’ towering outside the Designing Worlds studio.

Gracie Kendal is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the SL art world, with her work being shown at every turn.  She will also be participating in the ‘Ambiguity of Identity’ exhibit at Caerleon Island alongside artists working with similar issues such as Artistide Dupres, Sabrinaa Nightfire, Botgirl Questi, and Chrome Underwood.  In addition to her exhibit at Northpoint, there currently is a wonderful display of her paintings at the Noetic Gallery in Avalon. And if that isn’t all, Gracie/Kris was just chosen as one of the faces of Second Life itself. She was selected as one of only 9 people in the “SL Faces, A campaign to find a few good avatars” competition, and will be seen in Second Life advertisements aimed to dispel the ‘fat old man in the basement’ myth.  I for one cannot think of a better, more intriguing, and more beautiful representative for this, in either world.

(Reprinted with the permission of Rowan Derryth and Saffia Widdershins and

New to Ekphrasis?  Catch up on the previous posts here:

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