Queer Forms: A Micro Interview with Terry Castle
by Elaine Sexton
ELAINE SEXTON: When did you first apply your precision with details, keenly observed, to making visual works of art? In one striking essay in The London Review of Books you wrote about your last visit with Susan Sontag, a verbal portrait of her as she “flapped her arms and shook her big mannish hair....” Here, we catch a glimpse of Terry Castle, the critic and scholar, as Terry Castle, the image maker. And, why collage?
TERRY CASTLE: Your question is somewhat embarrassing because I can’t say I am particularly conscious–either while writing or doing artwork—of evincing any special “precision with details keenly observed.” (But thanks for saying so. Elaine!) For what it’s worth, I don’t think I’m hugely focused in advance on replicating something out there in the “real” world naturalistically–at least not in the way a reporter would be, or, say, a trompe l’oeuil painter. I seem to have missed out on any quasi-scientific, “slice-of-life” ambitions. One wants instead a bit of style and fancy–some phantasmagoria. As for how I “apply” my observations to visual images, I really don’t know! I observe the world in what seems to me the only way I can observe: namely, the way I do observe. Forgive the dopey circularity! But as I’m rapidly realizing, I can’t explain any of it beyond “I am (not) a camera.”
One thing I can say is, whether writing or making art, I experience the urge to articulate as some-thing pressing and personal coming from within, not from the outside per se. Rather than going “reportorial,” I get caught up in–even intoxicated by–a kind of inward, goofball, burlesquing impulse so powerful I can’t suppress it. Sometimes I find myself organizing entire essays around little jokes I want to make; everything else becomes set-up or wrap-around. Though obviously something “out there” provokes it, the desire always feels, paradoxically, self-generated. It’s all about spoofing, lampoon, comic exaggeration, avoiding the pieties, veering away at the start from the “official” or “routinized” version of a subject. The Knight’s Move. Easy enough with Sontag, who was a larger-than-life personality, akin (I always thought) to some of the great comic characters of Charles Dickens or Henry James. For one of the most celebrated American intellectuals of her time, she was in fact stupendously bizarre. One wanted to capture that. But that meant–upfront–a certain stylization of the truth, a move toward the fictive and caricatural. One had to edit out those things–keenly observed or not–that were merely banal or ordinary about her.
Since my later twenties (when I started making art again after a ten-year hiatus), my artwork has often reflected a similar comic-satiric urge. (I did art as a kid—but always of a morbid “troubled little girl” sort. There was a period when I was six or seven during which I drew nothing but ultra-gory crucifixion scenes. Very Mel Gibson as a seven-year-old.) Another way of putting it: much of the art I’ve created as an adult, like the writing, has begun in an impulse to make myself laugh. To cheer myself up. As for deciding what’s funny, my own laugh-o-meter is the immediate guide; I worry about whether anyone else will laugh later on. Obviously I enjoy the “send-up” mode: being in fact a professional sender-upper, emitting what I imagine to be a witty little stream of farts at the world.
Not to say writing and art-making are always psychologically congruent activities: the writing is so much more tortured. A hard job to do, always. Puttering around with paints and crayons and rubber stamps, meanwhile, seems stress-relieving almost by default—jolly, fiddly, absorptive, time-suspending, pretty much mindless. I write and teach to make a living; perhaps that’s why art has become a sort of psychic detox center for me, a place where I can live for a while in a private world of cathartic tomfoolery. Reality—that is, the real real—is too horrifying and sad to stick with 24/7.
As for choosing collage–I guess the short answer is that I never really did choose. I can’t draw very well. Unskilled labor. Definitely part of the Coloring Books for Adults Demographic. (Even my Zentangles are poor.) A more considered response would be to acknowledge how much of my artwork of the last decade has been created using digital tools, at least somewhere in the process. Buying my first scanner in 2003, learning to use the “baby” Photoshop editing program that came with it, these were crucial steps for me–a huge liberation. Suddenly, under the influence of the god Adobe, one’s computer drastically simplified the art-making process in so many ways–made it so much faster to get interesting results, to edit out mistakes, to work around one’s technical limitations, to build and store a capacious image-archive (I have 30,000 images on my iPad alone). But the digital revolution has also opened up some striking new visual paths. Despite my facetiousness, it doesn’t do to regard Photoshop only as a kind of labor-saving device, or as an easy way for a “deskilled” bumpkin like yours truly to claim artist status. It’s a philosophically serious program; an infinite program. A real Alpha and Omega Thing.
As far as my own art goes, the “layer” command has been the talisman, the catalyst. It’s been the royal road to collage-making–no doubt because it keeps me from trying to control everything. (Always a problem.) In its own blippy, trippy way, the Photoshop program can approximate, at least for me, some of the aleatory methods of the Surrealists and Fluxus artists of the last century. The layering and blending system injects a powerful shot of chance or play–serendipity even–into the image-making process. You plop one layer atop another–then filter, tweak, add or erase, as you wish–and if you’re fortunate, you come up with some truly surprising and uncanny results: startling, uncensored images that could not have produced any other way. Photoshop is also particularly freeing when it comes to color. The onscreen options encourage one to take a break–a little holiday apart from–one’s same-old same-old, heavily fetishized color palette. (In my case this means foregoing a certain charming and anodyne Dufy-on-the-Riviera blue; little wispy-white cirrus washes; a very special “chaste” and delicious rococo-orange; the plucky little dabs of black and cadmium red). Again, it’s so easy to change things (and then recover) that you suddenly find yourself, like Victor Frankenstein, experimenting with the very same ghoulish, groovy-pukey, sex-perversion colors (yellow ochre, Magic Marker pink, certain vomitous shades of green) you’ve struggled to avoid your whole life. Chroma-slumming, yes. Real Office Depot art-supply-aisle vileness. But at times one ends up liking the results in spite of oneself.
Granted, doing collage the “old-fashioned” way is still lots of fun–snip smirk glue snip snip tee hee. It’s probably one of the best methods for wasting-time-on-purpose ever invented. (It’s a bit like those videos you watch to help you fall asleep: someone is slowly folding towels, or performs some other repetitive household task, while also describing everything she does in a soft-voiced, utterly stupefying monotone.) Cut-and-paste collage is no doubt a time-suck, but it can also be monkey-balm to the mentally afflicted. Like me. So, thank you, Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Hoch, André Breton–and thank you, dear Jess. (We miss you in San Francisco.) But the digital business is also truly delightful. Not so much super-ego! At least for a while.
ES: While you don’t confine yourself to portraits, or exclusively to collage, for that matter, this combination takes full advantage of your evident gift for composing with color. By choosing and altering existing images you often reference the subject of gender, a subject your readers will recognize from your writing. Do you see a link between your primary professional preoccupations and what happens, here, when you let go of language?
TC: Fabulous question, Elaine, but where to start in reply. Yes: sex and sexual identity (I’ve gone off the word gender lately) have always been urgent topics in both my personal and scholarly writing. From early days–I began teaching 18th-century British literature at Stanford in the 1980s–I was very aware of smuggling autobiographical elements into my academic research. While mostly closet-bound–really tangled up in the wire hangers–I was nonetheless increasingly fascinated with certain quasi-taboo intellectual themes: sexual travesty and impersonation, the evolution of sexual stereotypes, “queer” forms of masquerade and carnival, the social and cultural history of homosexuality. It took me a while to get to a place where I could be honest about the personal stake I had in such topics. (The Apparitional Lesbian from 1993 was a step toward transparency; likewise, my memoir-like 2010 essay collection, The Professor.) At this point, however, I’ve pretty much moved beyond my once-encrypted, painfully uptight academic mode. I try now to deal with any weirdo pet themes as directly as I can.
And, if anything, the thematic links between the verbal and the visual have only become more conspicuous. I’m currently writing an essay, for instance, on someone I call the Not-A-Woman–a woman, born female, that is, who has no apparent interest in “femininity” as a set of time-consuming practices: doing one’s hair, applying cosmetics, wearing high heels, dressing so as to signal one’s constant sexual availability to adolescent boys and men. Instead, the “Not-A-Woman” behaves as if femininity (not to mention the whole armature of commercial products and stratagems it underwrites) has nothing to do with her. Not that the refusal is always conscious: the classic “Not-A-Woman” often seems to have merely “forgotten” her femaleness– left it behind, unregarded and unclaimed, as if in some sort of psychic storage locker. Discreetly or freakishly, she will usually strike one as “mannish.” or butch. (Classic examples would include Gertrude Stein, Anna Freud, Janet Flanner, Willa Cather, Erika Mann, Eleanor Roosevelt, Patricia Highsmith, Janet Reno, Susan Boyle at her debut, even Susan Sontag, in middle age and after.) The contemporary surge of interest in the transman–a woman who undergoes hormone treatment or sex-change surgery in order to become a man “after the fact”–is no doubt the latest and by far most self-conscious chapter in the development of the “Not-A-Woman” phenotype.
Of course, by focusing on the “Not-A-Woman”–inventing her, really–I find I am writing (again!) scenes from an autobiography: a displaced version of my own (mostly mock-epic) history of gender alien-ation and sex-change fantasy. Don’t make me wear makeup. Or a dress. I refuse. Bittersweet. But I realize my artwork has for years been autobiographical in just the same way: a sort of ongoing “Not-A-Woman” tribute or testimonio. I’ve depicted myself as her/him so many times, and never more blatantly than in certain pictures I think of as travesty “self-portraits.” Coincidentally (?), five of the twelve images you selected to accompany this Q and A are self-portraits of exactly this kind: ones in which I have layered myself “into” or “onto” an apparently masculine body. Weirdly, I used the same source-image in four of the collages: a fairly grim photograph of myself, taken in my kitchen in the early 2000s, that almost cried out to be defaced. Interestingly, the images you selected are also all among the very first I ever made using the computer. I find myself not really liking them much now; they look old and primitive and a bit muddled, if not muddy. Particularly horror-inducing is the one in which I look totally deranged and brutish and yet have, disgustingly, what looks like orange lipstick, the trace of a some Beauty’s kiss, on my chin. Really, ¬not funny!
Still: what am I doing here other than trying to “man up” through sexual masquerade? It actually doesn’t really matter to me–post-manipulation–if I end up looking absurd or grotesque or plain old fugly. An unattractive fellow. In some cases there’s a whole fantasy history at work. When I made these first Photoshop pictures, I recall, I was bizarrely obsessed with the man known as the Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud. (He’s a sort of local hero, of course, having contributed mightily–like Alcatraz itself–to the San Francisco Visitors’ Bureau and hotel-tax collector.) I was particularly intrigued by how he looked in his first mugshot–it’s reproduced in Raynal Pellicer’s 2010 Mug Shots: An Archive of the Famous, Infamous, and Most Wanted: -handsome, highly intelligent, deeply strange. (Forget Burt Lancaster.) Stroud’s haunting face is the one–shocking little blue eyes and all– in the second picture you chose. The composing process here was multi-stage: I had scanned and printed my picture of him on cardstock; then painted on the cardstock with gold and blue acrylic and a tiny bit of red; then scanned the whole thing over again; then combined it with other digital “faces” I had. You can see the wool coat collar in the original repeats in a couple of my “self-portraits,” including the especially hideous one. But whatever possessed me to layer a Death-Row inmate into what became one of my least attractive self-portraits ever? Plainly: a lifelong desire to be a Not-a-Woman. Otherwise known as– A MAN! A famous murderer! A canary-fancier to boot! The Birdman of Alcatraz!
ES: There’s humor and levity in many of these portraits, however dark. Would you say a few words about your process? what about the raw image speaks to you, and what about it asks to be altered?
TC: Me–dark? Oh, heavens. But, you’re right– there is some levity there, too, usually self-deprecatory, rueful, annoying to many. Easily confused with spleen. I’ve already said a bit about my “process”–gosh, how pretentious that sounds when I say it of myself–so I’ll just add that many of my artistic forays start with images from my photo and ephemera collections. I’m a compulsive collector of 19th-century tintypes and cartes-de-visite, vintage postcards, World War I memorabilia, archival news photos, anonymous photographs, mugshots, Sarah Bernhardt stuff, Mexican retablos, gay and lesbian crossdressing pictures, old paper money, theater programs, Polaroids, photographs of early Hollywood stars (especially Garbo, Fatty Arbuckle, Conrad Veidt); and much else. (I have a blog, A Postcard Almanac–http://apostcardalmanac.blogspot.com/ –where I put recent acquisitions up, as I also do on my Instagram feed.) As for choosing raw images to work with, it’s probably not too hard to guess my criteria at this point: I like anything tastelessly amusing (intent-ionally or unintentionally); people in ludicrous or androgynous costumes; pictures of people (and dogs and cats) I find beautiful or arresting; portraits in which the sitter seems to stare out at me, uncannily, from the Past–whether it’s the 1860s or 1870s (as with many tintypes) or the World War I years. But I also collect accidental “abstract” cards, misprints and double exposures, snapshots in which the photographer has unwittingly recorded his or her own shadow. (This last kind has become a bona fide “genre” for serious collectors, so the prices are going up and up.) I like the photography of fiasco and unintended consequences.
Primarily known as a writer and critic, Terry Castle has been making art “in her spare time” for many years. The late Susan Sontag once described her as “the most expressive, most enlightening literary critic at large today.” Castle has taught at Stanford University since 1983, where she has held the Walter A. Haas Professorship in the Humanities since 1997. She is the author of eight books on diverse subjects, including Masquerade and Civilization (1986), The Apparitional Lesbian (1993), and The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny, and the prize-winning edited collection, The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall (2003). She is also a well-known essayist and has written frequently for the London Review of Books, BookForum, New York Review of Books, the Atlantic, Harper’s, Frieze, and many other periodicals. Her book of personal essays, The Professor: A Sentimental Education, was published by HarperCollins in 2010 and was a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Many of Castle’s essays have to do with the visual arts: witness recent pieces on Claude Cahun, “Outsider Art,” the influence of the rococo style on early modernism, Vivian Maier, Nicole Eisenman, Agnes Martin and Georgia O’Keefe in Santa Fe, early photography by women, and popular art and design. She and her partner live in San Francisco with a miniature Schnauzer named Archie. website: http://www.terrycastle.com art blog: http://terry-castle-blog.blogspot.com