Q+Art: Painter Meredith Bakke Provokes the Primal Emotions of Shame and Disgust
Our first impulse is to look away: Meredith Bakke’s female subjects are rudely posed, covered in menstrual blood, and by the looks of it, proudly perverted. Based outside of Austin, TX, the Figurative painter Meredith Bakke pushes social boundaries by confronting our impulse to shame and our capacity for disgust.
“I am a painter who creates depictions of women in unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or unusual circumstances,” Bakke writes in her artist statement. “These situations range from changing a tampon in the jungle, having sex in a barn, to giving birth in the middle of the forest.” Purposefully composed to trigger maximum face puckering, Bakke’s painterly scenes provoke “the forgotten emotion” of disgust in all but the most desensitized viewers. Her female subjects are brazen exhibitionists, offering us crude, splay-legged postures considered vulgar in most places outside a gynecologist's office.
Bakke isn’t priming our gag reflex for pure shock value, though. Her work touches on the interplay between disgust and moral judgement, a modern phenomenon that evolved as humans developed social mores and religious codes. Before germ theory, humans dodged death and illness by relying on their sense of smell—the pungent odor of feces, vomit, and rotting flesh warned our supersocial species away from the sort of communicative diseases that explode in close quarters.
Bakke’s expressive work points out that humanity’s sense of revulsion survived our evolution into the modern age, a viewpoint supported by recent scientific studies. Humans, the literature suggests, make moral judgments based on subliminal emotions rather than logic and reason, much to the chagrin of Enlightenment philosophers everywhere. Visceral disgust—the smell or sight of something we perceive as disgusting—is capable of manipulating our moral beliefs about a person or action. This is especially troubling given the emotion’s sexist history. Bakke’s work explores the ways we shame women for their bodies by looking back at the long history of the male gaze in art: “In conversation with the male-dominated history of painting, I combine abstraction and Expressionism to paint figures representative of the physically demanding expectations placed on women and their bodies,” she muses.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Meredith Bakke discusses the importance of primal emotions in her work, exploring her own gender identity, and how to fully engage with a work of art.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Meredith Bakke: I think it is most helpful for artists to have a collection of books that contain images they are attracted to. Books on other artists, pop culture magazines, and children's picture books are all really good to have. I have a growing number of books on other painters, but I occasionally collect magazines, photos, and posters I find. Having so many images readily available helps when I have certain imagery come to mind while I am painting. I'll pull out any picture that I feel is related to what I am working on–I usually end up with at least ten books open around me at all times to look at. By surrounding myself with related imagery, I have more visual ideas pop into my head that I wouldn't have otherwise. Anything that encourages me to think of new ideas in the form of images and not language is one of the things that has helped my practice the most.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
MB: A lot of my interests resulted from reading Julia Kristeva's Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. In her essay, she outlines abjection as "the state of being cast off," and it is used to describe anything which disrupts identities and cultural norms. The experience of abjection relates to primal emotions like disgust and shame, which I have heard psychologists theorize to be adaptations that keep our bodies and our culture safe. Although strong abjection is rare to experience (Kristeva states that the ultimate experience is "one's reaction to gazing at a human cadaver"), it seems common for most people to experience some sort of cultural pressure to avoid certain things. Perhaps we evolved that way, and it could make sense that things we deeply avoid vary depending on the culture. Though I cannot say with certainty what every person in my culture deeply avoids, I do see the majority of people in my personal life, as well as on social media have an intense aversion towards anything that brings discomfort. There seems to be an overwhelming inability to endure boredom, an avoidance of confronting others with honesty, constant complaining about individual inconveniences, and most of all, a refusal to openly listen to any opposing perspective—regardless of experience or expertise. I think a lot about these observations, and I find this inability to endure mental and emotional discomfort to be a big inspiration for creating work that pushes these social boundaries.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
MB: Paul Gauguin. I am currently reading his journal, and I find it fascinating. In the introduction, he explained that though he intended for the journal not to be a formal autobiography, he did want it to be published after his passing so that his life would be remembered as well as his work. He also mentioned something about how he expects people in the 20th century to read it, but he was certain that no one in the 21st century would read it, for reasons unstated. Perhaps he believed humanity to be doomed, and we wouldn't make it that far, or maybe he thought that he would simply be forgotten about. Regardless, I find it amazing that his voice still lives on even past his original expectations. I acknowledge the solid criticism he faces for the time he spent in Tahiti, but I also can see the deep value of his work, and I think that he would be the most interesting artist to have a conversation with. Though he seems cynical, misogynistic, and egotistical, I personally think he would have the most interesting thoughts on all the cultural changes that have happened over the last century, as well as the current state of the painting.
What are you trying to express with your art?
MB: Most of my art is inspired by my personal experiences throughout my life. Though I was born female, I have always struggled with my identity as a woman. I have never felt particularly feminine, but I also have never felt masculine either. I have always just felt like me. However, I admire other women's beauty and femininity, and I find myself wanting to obtain the same thing. For most of my life, I have felt right on the edge of womanhood but constantly unable to enter into it. This has caused great discomfort about my identity especially in regards to my body, as well as feelings of inadequacy with other women my age in spite of a growing desire for female friendship. So much of what I express in my paintings has to do with expressing the uncomfortable experience of what it is like being in a female body, wanting to be a woman but never quite feeling like one.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
MB: I wish I learned how important it is to focus on work that makes you excited, not work that will get a good grade or impress teachers. I learned this on my own eventually, partially thanks to being separated from the painting faculty and working at home due to COVID-19. But I see many of my peers stay within their comfort zone and make works knowing that it will get them a good grade, but hardly ever take risks with the fear of making a bad painting, and thus a bad grade. Sometimes programs will be structured more around encouraging students to take risks with their work, but children who enter into the public education system often leave with an overwhelming pressure to maintain a high GPA to be successful—myself included. I wish art school rebelled against this more and taught students how vital it is to learn how to take risks. How the most successful people are high risk-takers, not people who have the highest GPA. And arguably more important than success, taking risks is often the way you develop stronger work and move closer to your identity as an artist.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
MB: The main thing that helps me is scheduling my day by using time blocking. I try to decide ahead of time what my plan is for the next day, write down all the tasks I need to get done, and then structure chunks of time to work on those tasks. When I do that, my days are much more organized. However, the hardest thing for me is always the hard stop in the evening. I constantly feel like I don't get enough work done because there is always one more thing I could do at the end of the day, so I have to set a strict time for me to stop working no matter what I am in the middle of. I feel lucky to have a partner who helps me with this. I find that the responsibility of having a family–even if it's just the two of us–helps tremendously with maintaining the boundaries between my work and personal life. Knowing that I have a responsibility to support my partner puts a loose framework on what is expected of me and my day–If I want a healthy and happy relationship it's not like I can consistently skip dinner, or work every weekend. If it wasn't for him, I don't think I would make any time for my personal life.
What does generosity mean to you as an artist?
MB: To me, true generosity means spending time engaged with my work. Most people on average only take five to seven seconds to look at a piece of artwork before they move on. Once a mental judgment has been made on the subjective experience of the work—after they have decided whether it is beautiful, ugly, boring, interesting, or the like—many people move on, expecting no other information to be acquired from the work. When I see people give more of their time to sit with my work longer than expected it always makes me feel deeply appreciative. Similarly, I have found other artists to be generous when they set aside time to speak with me about my work and provide me lots of valuable feedback and insights. I have such a huge desire for long conversations about art but not many opportunities for that to happen, so I find myself feeling deeply touched when people seek out those conversations with me or my work.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
MB: This one is tricky. There is an aspect of financial competence when considering success as an artist, which varies depending on the individual. For me, as long as my work provides the revenue for my equipment, studio space, and some costs of living for my family, I am satisfied. I do not think of money as a key marker of success, and frankly, I think doing so misses many other possibilities of what success could look like. In terms of art, however, I think the reason why some artists find great success rarely has anything to do with their talent. Rather, it's because of their ability to consistently challenge themselves to keep moving forward with their work. The artists that persevere in the face of judgment and criticism are the ones who have the highest chance of success. I think most people dislike that answer. They would like the answer to be dependent on things outside of control, like talent or connections, and not on their choices. That way if they fail, they aren't to blame. However, I believe that tiny choices compound to exponential results over time. I view my personal success, not by looking at the things I have achieved, but by determining if my attitude aligns with where I want to be headed in the future.
If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?
MB: I would much rather be a historically significant artist, which really boils down to what I value more: freedom or remembrance. As a commercially successful artist, the financial revenue gained gives freedom for your personal life. Freedom to live and work where you want, freedom to travel, and have more than what you will ever need all by doing what you love. I admit that is compelling, but I think the downside would be that I would be creating art as a consumer good, which would constrict me to a set style or subject. Though I see the value in having financial freedom, the ability to have my work grow and change is ultimately the biggest form of freedom to me. There's also something to be said about how parts of people live on through the creations they leave behind, and how their stories become part of something much larger than themselves. I value the idea of my artwork being remembered and looked back on as impactful on human history much more than being wealthy in this life and forgotten in the next. I would rather suffer from poverty with the assurance that my story will live on through my work for hundreds of years than being overflowing with financial success during life and forgotten forever after I die.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
MB: I am working on my final body of work for my BFA Thesis Exhibition and I plan on applying to graduate school this fall. It is an exciting time for me, not just because of the closing of this chapter, but because I finally see myself developing my identity as an artist. Painting is the one medium that I am deeply interested in but does not come naturally to me. I have been working with oils for over four years now and I am just now feeling that I sort of have a grip on the material. It is exciting to see my rapid progression of understanding from painting to painting, and the things I am working on now are challenging but also I can see myself finally start to get how I like using paint. For the past year or so, I have been trying to understand how to use paint more sculpturally instead of using it to draw. Part of that means using different color properties to give volume to figures, but also to create a sense of space, time, and atmosphere. In the painting I am currently working on, I see a huge leap forward with these ideas, and seeing both my technical skills and my conceptual ideas evolve into something way more complicated is extremely promising.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
MB: The biggest thing that I have discovered that maintains my sense of mental peace is understanding how to have proper self-narration. When we communicate events that happen in our life to others, we use sequential storytelling, not factual lists. It would make sense that we wouldn't do this just when communicating with others, but also for all of our consciousness as well, even if we don't realize it. I think the way one tells their story to themselves makes a significant impact on how they interpret events, explain the existence of problems, and determine solutions within their life. I also believe that self-narration is a skill that can improve over time. The thing that helped me the most when learning how to be a better storyteller to myself, is to first be an honest and truthful one. Journaling helps with this tremendously. It helps me solidify my subconscious thoughts and feelings into a real written narrative. From there I can more accurately edit the story I am telling myself to be closer to the truth. After practicing this for years, this way of thinking is more or less habitual, but I still on occasion have to sit down and write it out.
How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?
MB: I live in between Austin and San Antonio. Both major cities are around an hour's drive away on a major highway that is notorious for fatal car accidents. Both cities have amazing arts, but I tend to avoid the drive most often because of time and safety. Right now that's the most detrimental thing for me; not being able to regularly see a large number of works in person. On the bright side, living in a more relaxed environment helps lower the number of distractions and keeps me focused on making my work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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