Bean Gilsdorf is an interdisciplinary artist, critic, and editor based in Portland, Oregon. In late July 2018, her solo exhibition State Dinner opened at Cincinnati, Ohio's Anytime Department. The installation reveals a three-year examination of female political figures - First Ladies who served in the last thirty years more precisely - and how “soft power” is both produced and mediated by mass media imagery.
HAF Senior Editor Roula Seikaly spoke with Gilsdorf about image sourcing from history books, covert political power and how it is exerted, and crafting three-dimensional objects that convey the public personas of women we think we know but do not.
Roula Seikaly in conversation with Bean Gilsdorf
Roula Seikaly: How would you describe your diverse practice?
Bean Gilsdorf: The answer I've been resting on lately is, at heart, I am a collagist. I think there's a collage instinct in everything I do. My sculptural works are generally about taking an image apart and putting it back together. When I write, I often overwrite and then cut up pages of text and lay them out on the floor. I need to take things apart and put them back together in a way that makes sense to me.
Gilsdorf: The work I proposed is an extension of a series of stuffed works that I started in 2015. I'd been working with images of [male] political figures, and I shifted to working with women, and that proved to be a much slower process. My emotions around the women were much more complicated, and I had to make decisions about portraying them in a different way.
For this show, I decided to look closely at the last nine First Ladies, and investigate the way that political imagery frames who these people are supposed to be. A First Lady is a celebrity in a very tightly controlled space. There are so many expectations incumbent upon her relationship to her spouse, her family, her country, and to her own agency. Historically, First Ladies have expressed their contingent power through fashion choices, state dinners, and soft diplomacy.
We're never sure how influential they are, or if they affect policy decisions, or if they are to be held responsible for them. Right now, there are questions about how much Melania Trump knows, how much she cares, how much she participates. These women are fascinating, as are the images of them. We're trying so hard to figure out who they are from images that are often carefully crafted.
Seikaly: Could you talk about image circulation and sourcing? Is the source important, and why?
Gilsdorf: I use images from mass-market American history books, the cheap TIME/LIFE home-library series kinds. I work from books only, because I want to work from a specific, vetted image archive—cropped, decontextualized, and openly propagandistic. The objective of these books is to show America as a place that—if it isn't already righteous and just, then it is a place that is always moving toward righteousness and justice. That's a fascinating lie.
Seikaly: So, you're getting at who shapes the visual discourse and how?
Gilsdorf: Exactly. These images are filled with signs and symbols, and the reason they seem simple to us is that we can decode them. We've been looking at them since we held our first history books. I'm thinking about who gets to write history and who figures in that history, and how.
Seikaly: Do you think about other image sources, specifically the Internet, as you research? Does image multiplicity concern you?
Gilsdorf: I blow images up until the raster dots are visible. I want people to know that they come from a non-Internet archive. It's not pixels you're seeing, it's the CMYK dots of printing. I want people to understand that it comes from a particular space of validation and authority, unlike the Internet which is non-authoritarian.
Seikaly: What's the relationship between the image and the sculptural presence it takes on? How do you decide which images you use, and how to use them in these three-dimensional pieces?
Gilsdorf: For this series, I sourced images that were all taken when the First Ladies were in the White House. I looked at the garments they wore. Nancy Reagan wore a lot of high-necked and ruffled pieces. Barbara Bush wore wool and plaid. Laura Bush wore muted tones, while Michelle Obama wore jewel tones.
Their fashion choices garnered a lot of attention, and that attention was by turns both positive and full of censure. I drafted all of my own patterns for these pieces, and added side and back panels. The construction is similar to that of a slipcover, and though these are living subjects, they are also objects. To me, Melania is the most object-like. She is the most constructed, and I chose a luxurious but very stiff fabric for her. The stiffness matches her persona, the idea that she is meant to be looked at, but not touched.
Seikaly: What was it like to see these fully realized and installed?
Gilsdorf: It was great! I had never seen them all together before because my studio is much smaller [than the gallery]. I put four of the living and active First Ladies on tripod stands on the floor. I wanted them to take up space, and the tripod is an interesting format to use for them because it alludes to the original image and to photography. It also, literally, gives them legs. They're spidery and creepy.
Seikaly: There's something very disjointed and unstable about them, though the tripod is arguably the most stable form.
Gilsdorf: They aren't perfect triangles, and that evokes instability.
Seikaly: These women are associated with power, but aren't *in* power. Does that affect your treatment of them?
Gilsdorf: The tension we've discussed—being associated with but not in power—slows me down. Nancy Reagan is a good example. I think that she was a terrible, cold person with a lot of very detrimental ideas about the way that America should be run, and who should benefit from its policies. And yet, there's something that holds me back from making her as visibly monstrous as I think she was internally. It is exactly that she was a woman, and that her power was not her own. I don't know if it's feminism or misdirected solidarity... I don't know what category I'd put it in. There's an inability to be fully hateful, even for a woman who does terrible things, because she occupies a different position in society, to begin with. I feel like I can never truly understand the space of her psychology and motivations.
Seikaly: What was it like working on this series, particularly the pieces involving Hillary Clinton, during the 2016 presidential campaign?
Gilsdorf: I started this after Trump was elected. I didn't have to deal with that space, otherwise, all of these would be drenched in tears. I'd have to add that to the materials list: cotton, wool, tears…
Seikaly: In the creative process, does the fact that you started after the election give you critical distance where Clinton's portrayal is concerned?
Gilsdorf: I was trying to figure what to do with her dress, and in the end, I went with a gathered skirt because it's very demure. In her days as First Lady, Hillary wore very prim garments, even though the Hillary of right now is very much about the pants suit. I wanted to talk about a particular time frame and keep it within that space. I was trying to show her, visually, as First Lady Hillary Clinton, not the candidate Hillary Clinton.
Seikaly: The men to whom these women were married are included in the exhibition, too. Could you talk about that?
Gilsdorf: The exhibition is called State Dinner because that's where a lot of these women exercised their power. The First Ladies are in the front gallery, and nine ceramic plates depicting their husbands are in the gallery's back office—I wanted viewers to see them last. They're a riff on commemorative plates, but in some ways, they're anti-commemorative. They force you to look at something you don't want to look at again.
Bean Gilsdorf will present the lecture Soft Power at San Francisco Arts Institute on Friday, November 2, 2018. For details and ticket information, follow this link.