The Indefatigable Spirit of Williamsburg Artist Tara McPherson
On a recent Monday morning, five days before she’s due to appear at Iguapop Gallery in Barcelona for a solo show of her artwork entitled “Silent Heroes,” Williamsburg artist Tara McPherson wipes teal paint off a palette knife, the only dirty instrument in her impeccable storefront studio on South 1st Street. Three paintings, two on the wall and one perched on an easel are in various stages of progress. The canvases (her first on linen — she usually paints on birch) each features one of McPherson’s signature beautiful babes, and each incorporates little blue, embryonic globule-like creatures—the latest additions to her fantastical world on paper. McPherson had just been asked to contribute an additional six more drawings to the exhibit, as songwriter Devendra Banhart had pulled out at the last minute (“What? A musician being flaky?” she joked), and all but one of the new pieces were still in early phases, just sketched enough to recognize the incorporation of McPherson’s tiny unsung heroes in each.
With a book signing at a comic convention on the weekend’s horizon and dinner plans with friends who only have the pleasure of seeing McPherson intermittently as she travels the globe in promotion of a new art book, collectible toys and gallery shows, McPherson estimated she would be up working in the studio to the sound of Spanish language tapes until 5am every morning until her departure. And yet, as she sat on a Victorian olive couch in her studio, blond-banged and smoky-eyed, sipping on an iced coffee from Verb on Bedford at 11am, she was calm as the early summer air.
“I work great with deadlines. If it’s like, ‘you have an art show in a year,’ I’m like, all right, I’m gonna go to Hawaii. Hang out on the beach for a month. You tell me this is due Friday, and I can organize my life around that.”
For the last fifteen years McPherson has been planning her life and schedule around the creation of a world comprised of distinct line drawings and illustrations that are both twee and devilish, sweet and heartbreaking, enlightening and soul-crushingly sad. Over time, McPherson has assembled a collection of coy, sleek and humanistic mutant/freaks—men and women with their hearts cut out, unicorn girls impaled through the abdomen by horned sea creatures, phantoms whose bodily malfunctions and abnormalities symbolize everyday battles of heart and spirit. She has populated the world of rock poster art, collectible toys and most recently, fine art, with her cast of other-worldly characters—a child vampire named George, blossoming skull-flowers, buoyant, wide-eyed balloons named Mr. Wiggles, all of whom relay the most basic of human emotions, impulses and desires. Even the most deplorable and unappealing of attributes—helplessness, selfishness, heartache—are portrayed with a macabre loveliness.“She’s dealing with love and loss in her work,” notes Jonathan Levine, owner and proprietor of Jonathan Levine Gallery in Chelsea, where McPherson exhibited her first solo painting show in 2007. “That sort of human condition is the main theme although she’s gotten into other sort of metaphysical ideas as well. Her most personal work is about unfulfilled love, the nature of the heart, which is something a lot of people relate to.”
McPherson’s ability to construct images and worlds that people can relate to is only half the achievement. The other half is a result of an unfailing commitment to her craft. Having grown up in Los Angeles, with most of her family originally hailing from Hawaii, she brings some of that California sunshine to Bedford Avenue, often punctuating sentences—especially those about her work—with “Yay!” (“And then he offered me a solo show, and I was like, “YAY!”). Yet this four-year Williamsburg resident’s work ethic is distinctly that of a New Yorker.
“What I love about New York is that it is tough to live here, and if you can’t cut it, this city will just eat you up and spit you out,” she says. “I like that you have to bust your ass, and up your level of production. You have to want it to thrive.”
And yet, McPherson’s devotion to her work keeps her away from the city that fuels her productivity. She has traveled so much in the past year, when she has reached with her tattooed arm for the keys to her Bedford area apartment, it hasn’t been to stay for longer than two weeks—just enough time to grab a coffee at Verb, eat some Korean (“I crave Dokebi!”), and DJ a quick gig at Union pool, “where all my friends work.”
“Just like artists tour to support their album, I tour to support my artwork,” she says. “I am very goal-oriented. I know what I want to do. And if it takes me four years to do it, that’s fine.”
For example, two years ago, McPherson had a meeting with Dark Horse Comics about putting together an art book of paintings that, at the time, existed only in theory. Seventeen paintings later, Dark Horse released Lost Constellations, Tara’s latest art book (her second produced by Dark Horse)—the tome she is currently on tour to promote. The book highlights among other things, the work done for McPherson’s 2007 solo show at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery, a three-painting series called “The Weight of Water”, that explores, through surrealist female portraiture, the element in its three natural states.
Now a forerunner in a fine arts movement most recently dubbed as “Pop Surrealism,” (McPherson doesn’t think the term “lowbrow” applies to her artwork—“That’s hot rods and stuff,” she says), she plays with the physical manifestation of thought, depicting beautiful women with lavish, bubbling flowers sprouting atop their heads. She intentionally blurs the line between underwater and starry, atmospheric environments to show “how the deepest of the oceans are just as foreign to us as the depths of space.” Her contemporaries include talents like Esao Andrews, Jonathan Viner, Marcos Chin and Eric White, all artists who dabble in dreamlike imagery with dark edges, and many of who share McPherson’s passion for representing the female form.
What sets Tara apart from most of her fine art world compatriots is her willingness to explore the more commercial aspects of artisanship. McPherson first made her mark on the rock concert poster circuit, a world that straddles the line between consumable artifact and art for art’s sake. She embraces her name as a brand, and her images are well-suited for merchandising. Her new line of toys, called Gamma Mutant Space Friends, was released just a few months ago by Kidrobot. Her website now offers a slew of McPhersonated products including faux-suede pillows, lighters, laptop skins, and a set of semi-permanent car decals. “I wanted to do more merchandising and cool stuff—stuff that I like to get,” she says.
This marketing/promotional aspect of the industry is one of Tara’s unfailing strengths. Because of the accessibility of her images and the easy relationship viewers have with her artwork, Tara is one of a handful or artists who has been able to forge a career that is both as successful in the commercial realm as it is in the world of fine arts. She even teaches a class at Parsons called, “The Dark Side,” on how to explore a narrative in your artwork, and make it commercially viable as well as gallery friendly.
Tara McPherson is currently on tour promoting her second art book, Lost Constellations, and will be a part of the American Artifact Rock Poster Art Show in NYC on October 15. See more of McPherson’s upcoming events, work and products at taramcpherson.com.