Mary Mocas in conversation with Danielle Lawrence on May 12, 2021
DL: Hi Mary! Great to connect with you about your art and practice!
MM: Hi Danielle!
DL: A main point of appreciation I have for your work is there are multiple entry points into rich conceptual content and culturally poignant subtexts. I am also struck with your punk DIY collage aesthetics and raw authenticity in combining an array of mediums, styles and dimensions. There is fearlessness in how your work approaches and addresses very large and pressing political issues such as feminism, class, environmental and social justice concerns.
DL: How did you become interested in and involved in art making?
MM: I began drawing at 6 or 7 years old and continued to draw, paint and collage throughout high school. However, when considering majors in college my father’s guidance was to choose a profession that I could make a living at, so I majored in English. It took only one art elective and one semester to realize that I needed a double major. I then added an Art major to my curriculum. After college, I stayed in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio and taught art in elementary school. Eventually, I escaped Ohio to see the world by taking a job with an airline, which ended up being a long lasting career. For many years as an airline attendant, art making was an afterthought. I had a brief stint in commercial illustration, and some attempts at a second art income that were not successful due to the irregular schedule and competing hours dedicated to my “day” job. Eventually, I was able to create an art centered yet adjacent career as an art consultant for corporate clients. My art consulting business lasted thirty years during which I realized that creating art was the thing I was being compelled to do. In 2010 I re-entered a full-time art making practice in earnest.
DL: How do you choose subject matter? What is the initial impulse, spark or urgency behind the meaning conveyed by imagery and titles?
MM: My work focuses on and is often inspired by current events, institutional inequities, trauma and the impact of exploitation on people and the environment. The process of dealing with how these issues affect me on a personal level is also part of how the work evolves.
DL: Will you walk us through how a piece is made – say, Notice of Development or Elect? How did the work get started? What is your process like? Do you have a title in mind before the process of making begins or do titles come later?
MM: Both Notice of Development and Elect began with a single gesture. I began Notice of Development with a giant brush-stroke, moving from the top of the panel to the bottom. Once the surface had been marked, I added different bits of paper and layers of paint. Finding the right compositional harmony is a push pull process – parts that are added or subtracted must be counterbalanced. I think of it as a conversation or puzzle. One move must be met with another until it feels complete. A large part of my collage process is collecting paper from urban walls. Wheat pasted advertisements, protest posters, neighborhood notices all figure into my work. The title Notice of Development came about as I sifted through piles of scrap paper for color and texture. I discovered a newspaper headline describing the gentrification of San Francisco’s Mission District. Seeing that I had already chosen architectural imagery and text that included words like house and plumbing, I decided to pair the existing imagery and text with the newspaper article content via the title.
MM: The initial action for Elect, was to spray paint the surface of a panel. I then began layering some beautifully distressed and dimensional poster paper. The collage grew and took on a large organic shape that then became a focal element in the overall composition. I also decided to extend netting material off the frame of the panel and physically attached a piece of found plywood that had already been written on. I chose the title Elect because as I was making this piece abortion rights were once again being challenged in our court system. Who we elect literally determines the quality of our lives and freedoms. The orange construction netting is a physical material that delineates territory and alludes to a patriarchal framework and ideology that is specifically about control – of land and body. Elected officials unfortunately exert power and domination via patriarchal systems over marginalized bodies. I felt it crucial to leave the powerful and anti-authoritarian message of ‘Fuck the Police’ on the piece of found plywood intact.
DL: How do you think the physicality and imagery is experienced? Or better yet – how do you want your work to be experienced?
MM: I think that the physicality of my work is experienced in jarring ways, it is gritty and urban, not finely drawn. The work incorporates aged protest posters and discarded found objects. I hope that it has a visceral impact on the viewer. I want the work to be conceptually and visually unraveled and not be heavy handed. It is important to have the work hold space for viewers to impart their own meaning based upon individual experience. Whether one has a reaction of disgust or understanding – at least there is landing and connection with material and content.
DL: The titles Notice of Development, Melt the Ice and Elect point to very specific political agendas and imply systems of domination, exploitation and control over the environment and the wellness of poor folx as well as black, brown and indigenous communities. Can you speak to your engagement with these themes?
MM: I think the more these issues are given a spotlight the more opportunity people have to contemplate their individual positioning. My work is offering a space for contemplation.
DL: Let’s circle back to the backside of Elect, the sign reads: “Fuck the Police”. Do you see your art practice as activism?
MM: I see my art as a re-offering of artifacts left over from activism or activist efforts.
DL: The sense or somatic experience I am aware of when viewing your work is that there is a currency of energy akin to urgency or a repetitive confrontation with the accumulated surface of a work, how a piece performs in 3D space, layered content but also with a deeper subconscious internal terrain. A few of your pieces remind me of the feelings I have after I watch the news or read the newspaper. The ideas of accumulation and mapping (physical, emotional and psychological space and place) are important to you. Some pieces feel like recordings of very specific moments of time and experience and a confluence of culturally specific signifiers pulled from what’s happening in the world. They are emotionally charged and cathartic.
DL: Do you think of your work as mapping – both individually and collectively? What is your relationship with collecting things physically and metaphorically?
MM: Yes, creating art is a means by which I record or map my experience of the world as I move through life. It is both an individual and collective engagement and at times a cathartic purge. I collect items that show lived experience through wear and tear and sometimes abuse. I also walk a lot during which objects will often appear on my path that are strikingly aligned with what I am thinking about. Other times an intriguing item will live with me for years until I know where it fits in the work.
DL: Can you speak about any specific connections you have with place(s) and how that has influenced your practice? In what ways does your work reflect aspects of your identity?
MM: I have been fortunate to be able to live in multiple cities and to travel to many more. From my birthplace Niagara Falls, New York to my childhood home, Dayton Ohio, to places I’ve lived as an adult, Chicago, San Francisco and, even the places in my travels where I observed the aerial view, all are locations of influence. Nostalgia, remembering what was and also wondering what could have been plays a part in mapping these site-specific locations and their influence. I like to re-imagine them as they reflect life today in their technological advancements and, sometimes as a violent, media frenzied present.
MM: Artworks in which specific places play an important conceptual role include One Day in July and Two Days in August which references mass shootings in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Ohio Lament nods to the opioid crisis in Southern Ohio and personal associations of loss left over from when I moved away from the state. The aerial view of Chicago in Silver Lake and Night Lake from 2015 pays homage to a flight’s final approach into O’Hare Airport that I experienced bi-weekly for 12 years. In 2021 I painted Vortex, which includes an aerial of Niagara Falls, New York, my birthplace and earliest memories were formed.
DL: The majority of your wall works defy the academic figure ground relationship found in traditional paintings. Is there a conceptual reason behind why your compositions interplay between landscape, portraiture and three-dimensional surfaces and sculptures?
MM: My work is fed from both a frontal and literal engagement of place and a steady stream of peripheral cognition. The latter can be described as an unconscious reception of visual and audio information and input. This experience manifests in the work through connecting seemingly unrelated imagery into a new whole. The results are akin to a flood of information that becomes intertwined and jumbled – messing with organized and structured space. Viewing a landscape from above and from the side, adding something found on the ground to a cloudscape, all intermix with messages seen in media and on found paper to create a “disorganized” picture plane. Screens, social media, the news cycle, the exposure to tragedy minute by minute is overwhelming and my use of multiple perspectives is a way to depict sensory overwhelm related to the technological reality of contemporary culture.
DL: I am fascinated by your hanging 2-sided paintings. These not only spit a regurgitated traditional figure ground relationship out compositionally but also throw painting’s conventional anatomy to the wind. What is your relationship to painting and why make 2-sided works?
MM: The two-sided works began as a way to use found paper that was interesting on both sides of the page. The decision about which side to use in a collage and which side to hide forever by affixing it to a surface was so fraught that I would end up not using the paper at all. The process originally began by using plexiglass as a substrate in order to exhibit both sides of found paper. The realization that I could make hanging art that had no substrate was transformational. As the skins evolved, the paper became less important and the reference to the body became primary.
DL: The titles of these hanging works are called skins and have a lot of possible references. What is the narrative or content here?
MM: Initially, the narrative referred to the political atmosphere during and after the 2016 presidential campaign. The rampant misogyny felt like the actual rending of female bodies. The objectification of the female body, the racist and sexist language used and the reality that the POTUS spoke unapologetically about “grabbing women by the pussy” led to reactions of anger and despair. I thought about what his assaults would look like on a body or what they would feel like hitting against ones skin. I was full of rage. I used the skins as physical sites of wounding.
DL: How do the “skins” get made? Are spontaneity and accidental interactions between materials and surfaces important to you?
MM: Most works begin with fragments of found paper and an initial spray painted or brushed gesture applied to a plastic drop cloth. Poured acrylic medium and paint are added on top of the paper. Cheesecloth, netting, broken glass and a variety of other found items are then added. The work is intuitive and takes great patience as layers of items and poured paint can take days and up to several weeks to fully dry. This is when I can finally see the results of my first efforts and choose to make additional moves. Skin #1 was begun in 2016 and not completed until 2019. These works are ephemeral and have the potential to deteriorate. I see the work as collaborative engagement with time and the nature of change.
DL: What kinds of materials do you use? What draws you to these materials and processes?
MM: A primary source of inspiration is naturally distressed and accumulated paper found in public spaces like urban walls. I am also constantly looking for discarded objects – books, glass, bottles, plastic items, shelves, broken car parts and signage etc. I also pull from a collection of personal ephemera. I find worn paper and discarded materials to be visual metaphors for the impermanence of life.
MM: The process of covering and revealing through layering materials and marks drives my decision-making. Sometimes I’m thinking about control and restriction and use gestures and grid like netting, cloth and fencing to cover imagery and suggest confinement. I often use materials that extend off the panel, and for me this is a nod to rebellion. I have always been the “good girl” who did not deviate from what was expected of me. As an artist I envied the freedom of street artists who created graffiti under threat of arrest, who broke the rules and painted on walls without permission. Extending materials off the edge of a painting is my version of breaking traditional rules and limitations.
DL: There are various patterns in your work. Crisscrossing lines, architectural structures and more ambiguous blob like shapes recurring in your compositions. How do these come about? Do you use source imagery?
MM: The blob like or organic forms are often just the shape of the paper I collect from billboard walls. Many times, the fragmented pieces are used as is, or sometimes I cut or trim them down. The diagonal and crisscrossing lines and grids evolve compositionally. Source imagery is derived from snapshots I take of detritus, nature and daily routines. Imagery found on the internet can also become a source.
Notice of Development, 2019, Acrylic, found paper, spray paint on panel, 80” x 50”
DL: Additionally, very large brush strokes appear. Is there a conceptual or art historical framework you are referencing?
MM: Large brush strokes began as an experiment but have conceptually evolved to create a conversation between my feminist content and imagery and masculine historical tropes. I like to think of this act as a feminization of the historically male dominated artwork of Abstract Expressionism. Many women were historically inspired to feminize the male gesture, but my immediate influence is the work of Wendy White. She mines the history of abstraction to challenge and dismantle the language of male mark making and the myth of a heroic gesture.
DL: How did your work begin? What were you making and thinking about when you were in grad school at CCA? I remember seeing portraits and work that reflected a very specific personal experience of being a flight attendant.
MM: My grad school practice began as a reflection on my lived experience as a young woman. Including rethinking choices that I had made based on the strong influence of societal norms and expectations of women in the late 1960’s. At the time, I was not able to see beyond gendered and socialized limitations. At CCA, I created faceless self-portraits of a malleable self while reimagining other choices I could have made. However, once I embraced the person I was then, I began to make artwork that celebrated the choices I had made, the career as a flight attendant and the freedom it allowed at a time when many women had very few viable career choices. The work I began making celebrated being a flight attendant and the agency it granted. My perspective expanded and compositionally my work included an aerial view of the world and multiple viewpoints in the picture plane.
MM: Abstracted aerial depictions in my paintings are directly related to my job as an airline attendant and views from airplanes. The memories of these fragmented landscapes and my experience of being groundless were showing up visually.
In Zoomscape: Architecture in Motion and Media, Mitchell Schwarzer writes about the array of perspectives afforded by air travel. He discusses three aerial viewpoints, the oblique, or bird’s eye view, the view that peers straight down and makes landscape two dimensional, and the zoom shot, that moves from tranquil to speedy. This combining of perspectives persists in my work and is a repeated compositional component. The work I make now has direct ties to the work made in grad school through notions related to memory, identity and self-portraiture. The use of paper, collage and found items is another through line.
DL: I am intrigued by the work titled Don’t Call Me Girl and Pretty Scrap. My sense is that there is feminist content here. The hot pinks and oranges remind me of Judy Chicago’s palette in her series Atmospheres. She used colored smoke and vapor to “soften” the So Cal landscape, which was also a male dominated art scene and society. What are your intentions behind these titles and the color palette you’ve chosen?
MM: Don’t Call Me Girl is definitely a reaction to the subjugation of women. My use of the mainstream gendering of the color pink is reclamation. I want the color pink to be associated as a hue of strength and power.
Don’t Call Me Girl, 2019, Acrylic, found paper, spray paint, spiderman toy on panel, 36” x 36”
DL: Do you see your work in conversation with other artists?
MM: Yes. I see my work having formal and conceptual relationships with many artists.
Linda Benglis, Wendy White, Donna Nelson and Kerstin Bratsch and I share the freedom to break the picture plane, inhabit unlimited space and challenge male art historical tropes like the drip and the large brush stroke. Utilizing collage to articulate and define socio-political issues are Ellen Gallagher, Isa Gentzken, Nick Cave, and Mark Bradford. When I identify with the work of Amy Silliman, Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Terry Winter and Charlene Von Heyl, I feel the joys and challenges of painting.
DL: If there was one thing you would want people to understand about your work – what would that be?
MM: Art making is a way to process intense emotional and psychological states and content – it is a cathartic release of trauma and joy. While my work develops from a subjective viewpoint, I am also in deep communion and relationship with the world and hope that others are able to find themselves reflected in what I make too.
DL: Wonderful insights on your work! Many thanks for sharing Mary.
Danielle Lawrence is a San Francisco based visual artist, educator and independent writer. Her artwork and teaching focus on the conceptual nature of hybridity and unconventional practice in painting. Her most recent article was written on the Vija Celmin’s retrospective entitled Artifacts of Presence: A Common Ungrounding for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Lawrence’s artwork has been featured in numerous exhibitions in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, CA and Brooklyn, NY and is included in a number of important public and private collections, such as the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, San Francisco, CA, C.H.O.M.P., Monterey Bay, CA, Fidelty Headquarters, Boston, MASS, Mills College Art Museum, Oakland, CA and the Triton Museum of Art, Santa Clara, CA.
She is currently an Adjunct Faculty member in the Painting Department at California College of the Arts and the San Francisco Art Institute. She has also taught at Mills College in Oakland, CA.
For more about her work, please visit: danielleelawrence.com or on Instagram @d__lawrence
Mary Mocas (b.1949, New York) is a San Francisco based visual artist who focuses on the language of painting through mixed media, collage, and gestural mark making. Her work merges painterly sensibilities with tactile 3-dimensional accumulations, bridging the realms between painting and sculpture. She received her BA from Marietta College (1971) and received her MFA (2016) from California College of the Arts.
Mocas has exhibited extensively in the Bay area, including shows at Southern Exposure, San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, Sanchez Art Center, Gearbox Gallery, Berkeley Art Center and Minnesota Street Project. Mocas is represented in numerous private collections and in the public collection of Visa International.
For more about her work please visit marymocas.com or on Instagram @marymocas.