Karen Mainenti: Message in a Bottle at Ground Floor

Message in a Bottle, installation view at Ground Floor Gallery, 2019, photo courtesy of Jordan Rathkopf

In Message in a Bottle, the current solo installation show at Ground Floor Gallery in Park Slope, the Gowanus based artist Karen Mainenti transforms the gallery into what at first glance looks like an upscale beauty boutique. Mainenti uses this platform to explore the mechanisms at work in the packaging and marketing of beauty products over time, drawing on her own complex relationship to the products themselves. Much of Mainenti’s work examines the subtle but powerful societal expectations of women that show up in ordinary objects. The delicately cast porcelain replicas of her own cosmetics highlight the way objects can be gendered, even when reduced to their elemental forms. Often using humor as a sly way to invite the viewer in, her drawings of creams, lotions and serums using marketing language from real products highlight the inherent contradiction in the ways we read these messages as absurd, yet suspend that disbelief at the cash register when we buy them. Having visited the show when it opened, I was delighted to have the opportunity to chat with Karen about how this exhibition came together and how the various series within it have developed over time.

Heather Topcik: We first met a few years ago when I asked you to exhibit your work at The Society for Domestic Museology. The title of that exhibition was Cosmetology and you showed series ranging from a collection of toilet paper squares, to your witty Playboy collages, image from mid-century cookbooks and your series on lipstick names. How has your work evolved from those earlier series into this current exhibition?

Karen Mainenti: In my work, I’ve always wrestled with the expectations that society places on women. My focus has ranged from the unattainable standards of physical appearance (plastic surgery, youthfulness) to behaviors deemed acceptable or desirable (housewives, sex kittens). Much of this earlier work that we exhibited in your apartment gallery was inspired by an observation of ordinary objects that grabbed my attention at the time. Why is a lipstick color named Ravish Me Red such a great seller that it’s been on the market since the 1950s? Who decides to emboss sheets of toilet paper with delicate and intricate patterns of flowers, bunnies and hearts to make them appealing for women to purchase? Message in a Bottle evolved from a deeper dive I took into exploring the marketing and advertising of the beauty industry, with all its claims, hopes and promises.

Message in a Bottle, installation view at Ground Floor Gallery, 2019, photo courtesy of Jordan Rathkopf

Heather Topcik: Your exhibition at Ground Floor Gallery is immersive, and in fact, has been mistaken by a number of visitors for an upscale beauty boutique. How did the idea to present your work in this way develop?

Karen Mainenti: Creating an environment for my work is something I’ve been doing since I was a child, transforming my room into an attraction for my family to visit—a zoo, an aquarium—fabricating all the details down to entry tickets. Several years ago, I stenciled the floor of my studio with a floral pattern to make an installation of my work for the annual open studios event in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Of course, I had an impossibly tiny studio, so this required a Herculean process of puzzling my furniture around to get it done! The idea of creating a beauty boutique slowly formed. Krista Scenna, the owner of Ground Floor Gallery, who I’ve known for years from our involvement in the arts community in Gowanus, approached me with the idea of doing an installation of my work. Since the gallery is a storefront space with big windows, it seemed perfect to play up these features and transform it into a faux boutique.

Product “Portraits”: Another Woman Within You, Unseen But Beautiful, graphite on paper, 11 x 8.5in, 2019 and You Can Already Feel Yourself Becoming More Beautiful!, graphite on paper, 11 x 8.5in, 2019, photo courtesy of the artist

Heather Topcik: Hyperallergic describes your work as “hilarious, moving and pretty dark all at once” can you talk about how you use humor and satire to address serious issues?

Karen Mainenti: I’m interested in taking things out of their original context — whether it’s toilet paper, men’s apologies or product names — and showing them in a new light, forever changing how people perceive them. Because issues like sexual harassment or feminism can be very polarizing, I find that people generally come to them with fixed notions. Those in support of the cause love it and those against it immediately dismiss it. By approaching these topics from a humorous, off-center angle, I’m able to engage people in a different conversation. Let’s face it, it’s also cathartic to bring a sense of humor to troubling topics! This is particularly true for my #MeTooBoutique series, recently featured on The Believer, where I appropriated apologies from statements made by men who have been accused of sexual harassment and pair them with popular consumer products like Irish Spring, Barbasol and Speed Stick. For instance, taking Brett Kavanaugh’s half-baked assertion that he “might have been too emotional’ and combining it with a frat-boy Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can was a humorous way of getting at the multiple layers of emotion that many women felt listening to those hearings. Often, viewers look, chuckle, and then say, “Thank you for making this!”

Message in a Bottle, installation view of Packaged Curves sculptures at Ground Floor Gallery, slip-cast porcelain, 2019, photo courtesy of Jordan Rathkopf

Heather Topcik: You work in a wide range of media, from drawing to ceramics, to collage and gold leaf, yet in this exhibition they all connect to a central theme. How did each of these bodies of work come together?

Karen Mainenti: The root of my work is really in the concept itself. From there, I begin to think of the best way to convey it. For instance, with my exploration into beauty products, I started by examining what was in my own medicine cabinet and resolved to reduce these shapes to their essential forms. This led me to work in sculpture for the very first time, taking classes and learning how to slip-cast in porcelain—ultimately reproducing the products in a way that revealed their implicit gendered shapes. Later, when I turned to exploring the often ridiculous messaging on these products, drawing was the best way for me to explore the text and typography. Alternatively, sometimes source material leads the way. For instance, I was gifted some vintage LIFE magazines by a friend. Flipping through the pages got me thinking about how stereotypical notions of femininity feel so dated, but at the same time are the same standards we continue to measure ourselves by today. This led me to use gold leafing to highlight the hairstyles, bras, nails, lips and cosmetics featured in beauty advertisements from the 1950s.

Bringing these series of work together in an immersive environment allows new associations to be made. In Message in a Bottle, the porcelain sculptures become actual products for sale in my boutique. Above these product displays, works on paper with gold-leafed slogans derived from mid-century beauty advertisements — Have You Lost Touch With Your Skin?, Reincarnate Your Beauty—are featured. Making connections between the different series of works, I am able to infuse new meanings that are greater than the sum of the parts.

Message in a Bottle, installation view at Ground Floor Gallery, gold-leafed vintage advertisements, 2019, photo courtesy of Jordan Rathkopf

Message in a Bottle, installation view of Product Portraits drawings at Ground Floor Gallery, 2019, photo courtesy of Artist

Heather Topcik: In my mind, one of the things that is so successful in this show is the way that viewers are presented with products that seem so real they believe they are. I am struck by the precision of your beauty product drawings. They are almost photoreal and their titles are spot on, yet they are also products of your imagination. Can you talk about the way you play with fact vs. fiction in this exhibition?

Karen Mainenti: I filled one wall in the gallery with small drawings of individual products displayed in a grid to simulate the experience of scrolling through Instagram, which is where, like most people, I’m seeing most of my beauty content today. Included are portraits of real products that seem unbelievable, ranging from La Prairie’s Skin Caviar Luxe Cream (a 3.4 ounce jar retails for $835.00) to a brightening eye gel by the vegan beauty brand Versed called Vacation Eyes (“Use if you and your eyes could use a vacation.”). Alongside these, I’ve depicted products that are my own inventions—for example, a jar of face cream named “Another Woman Within You, Unseen But Beautiful” or a bottle declaring “Make Your Mouth Prettier Than It Is.” But, I confess, these aren’t quite invented! I’ve actually appropriated quotes from the headlines of mid-century beauty advertisements found in the Vogue archive which were rampant with backhanded compliments. What I’m trying to get at with this work is the fact that whether women are trying to catch a husband or take a break from work, the beauty industry is continually refueled by our desires and packaging them back up for us to correct our lives. I’ve begun to refer to these drawings as “portraits” because it seems that the products we choose to use say more about us than we might like to think.

Message in a Bottle, installation view at Ground Floor Gallery, 2019, photo courtesy of Jordan Rathkopf

Message in a Bottle, installation view at Ground Floor Gallery, 2019, photo courtesy of Jordan Rathkopf

Heather Topcik: This series has been evolving over time. Is this something you plan to develop even further? Or do you have a new direction you would like to explore?

Karen Mainenti: Researching the beauty industry for Message in a Bottle caused me to fall down the rabbit hole many times. Thematically, I’m interested in exploring the concept of the “battle against aging” that is rampant in beauty advertising. I’d also like to delve more deeply into the efficacy of these products that are sold within an industry that is largely unregulated. Specifically fascinating are magazine advertisements from the 1980’s that were full of claims for new ingredients and “scientific” discoveries. Formally, I always look to push myself out of my comfort zone and learn new skills, so I’m planning to challenge myself to use color in my renderings.

Karen Mainenti, Message in a Bottle at Ground Floor Gallery

343 5th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215

The show runs through November 10th

Heather Topcik is the founder and curator of the Society for Domestic Museology, a social collaboration for exploring art and ideas at home. Initially inspired by the problem of what to hang on a blank patch of wall in the Hell’s Kitchen apartment she shares with her husband and two children, she created Domestic Museology with the ambition to transform domestic space into a communal venue for exhibiting and discussing contemporary arts and ideas. A graduate of the University of Michigan’s Residential College, where she studied art history and fiber arts, Heather earned Master’s degrees in Art History and Library Science from Pratt Institute. She is Director of the Bard Graduate Center Library, where she established an Artist-in-Residence program to create a dialogue between artists and the library’s unique collection of books and resources on decorative arts and material culture.

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