Aspen Art Museum artist-in-residence Cheryl Donegan discusses her painting exhibition and fashion performance
Cheryl Donegan’s work is in art history books and in major museum collections. But she’s usually identified as a “video artist,” based on her funny, fierce and feminist video work of the 1990s.
Donegan is all right with that, she said, but she’s a painter.
“I’ve always painted and identified as a painter,” she said Thursday before opening her exhibition of more than 40 paintings at the Aspen Art Museum, where she is the 2018 artist-in-residence. “People want to categorize to keep things neat, so people say, ‘Oh, she’s a video artist because that’s what we’ve seen from her.’”
Her best-known videos, she noted, almost always depicted herself painting in some way. Or, as she put it, “burlesquing painting.”
The Aspen show is the first U.S. museum exhibition devoted to Donegan’s painting. She credited Aspen Art Museum director Heidi Zuckerman for bringing the seemingly disparate strands of her painting practice together in this cohesive collection, titled “VEILS.”
“I think what Heidi has done is to completely laser-focus to show that there are these links — they just haven’t been seen before,” Donegan said. “That epitomizes the curator’s job. To be a guide though this kind of territory that the artist roams — to map it.”
Among the links made clear in the show is the way that Donegan plays with patterns and disrupts them with artistic gestures. There are gingham patterns broken up by folds (one spools off the wall and onto the floor) and there are depictions of crumpled leather (with actual leather ruffles popping off the canvas) and dazzlingly colored paintings of jumpsuits laid out with their arms cut off, along with checkered patterns painted onto a rough jute fiber surface that seems to mangle the design.
“It’s a battle between the virtual and the physical,” Donegan said. “Something that is controlled and then something that is spontaneous.”
The paintings cover the four walls of the museum’s second-floor gallery, while in the center 10 mannequins display Donegan’s newest garments.
Titled “GRLZ,” these slip dresses take their names from the ubiquitous air conditioning grills that poke out of street-level windows in New York and often get covered in graffiti by passersby.
“I think of them as little spontaneous abstract paintings that appear,” she said of the graffiti works.
Donegan spent years photographing graffiti on the grills and has manipulated those photos into patterns on these garments.
Donegan’s interest in fashion came with the advent of print-on-demand technology and the slow fashion movement, she said. Like all of her previous fashion designs, the GRLZ line will be available for purchase online through Print All Over Me.
“I don’t think I would have ever encountered making clothing this way if it weren’t for print on demand and giving consumers, through the internet, the ability to interact with the making and distribution of products,” she said.
(Donegan also has made some bespoke versions, which she’ll sell separately as an “upcycle collection”).
She used her post as artist-in-residence at the museum to put together the new painting exhibition with Zuckerman and to create a fashion show for her “GRLZ” garments in collaboration with performance artist Alix Pearlstein. In February, she held an open casting call for local models and has put 15 Roaring Fork Valley residents into the show, which the museum will host today.
“I didn’t want just a catwalk,” Donegan said. “I wanted it to be more of a performance. But I’m incapable of doing that, so I brought Alix in.”
The pair spent a week here this winter perfecting the fashion performance, which Donegan described as “movement and sound and interaction between people.”
But clothes, the way a body wears them, and why, also has been a career-long inquiry for Donegan. In her best-known video works — which have been art school standards for decades and have found a new audience in the YouTube age — she often turned the camera on herself for performance. In “Head,” she wears a lavender tank top as she suggestively catches milk in her mouth as it squirts out of a green milk jug. In “Kiss My Royal Irish Ass,” she wears a green thong and squats in green paint to make shamrocks with her buttocks.
“I was always aware of how I was presenting myself, what kind of role I was playing, what I was wearing,” she said. “So in ‘Kiss My Royal Irish Ass’ I had a G-string on but it was really important to the video that it was green. … Green lingerie just seems like something really weird and more humorous and offbeat, and it went with the Irish theme.”
It was a natural progression, Donegan said, from those kinds of aesthetic decisions to launching fashion lines.
“There was no neutral way to appear on camera,” she said. “I was really concerned about that. And that morphed into thinking about clothing in general, which is something I’ve always been interested in.”
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The Aspen Winter Words series will host four in-person author talks at Paepcke Auditorium in Aspen and two online-only events.