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Interview in Coagula Art Journal
Coagula Art Journal
Published on 5/11/2006

Issue #79 features an interview by Molly Crabapple.
Read the transcription below!

Coagula Art Journal
"Illustrator's Vindication?"
Article by: Molly Crabapple


I first saw Tara McPherson's work at a friends house. One of her big-eyed girl paintings hangs over his bike. It's extravagantly framed, with paint strokes so delicate they look like her brush was wielded by nixies.

I stopped dead in envy. I'm an illustrator; I know a bit about the limitations of the media and good acrylics are hard to pull off. But Mcpherson's blue-skinned, flip haired waif had all the fluidity of an oil painting. The surface was smooth as glass. It glowed.

She sure can paint, I though, before getting home to do some retaliatory stabs at my sketchbook.
As I poked around the internet, I realized that Tara McPherson is what I and so many art school comrades aspired to be. She's an illustrator of impressive credentials- rock posters for Beck and Sleater-Kinney, Fanta ad campaigns and many covers for D.C.'s edgy Vertigo line. But, she's not just that. McPherson has dipped her brush into fields from toy design to merchandising to fine art. And In doing so, she's ignoring limits on what illustrators are supposed to be.

The fine art world's long viewed illustration as its cheap and slutty sister. When the Whitney threw a Rockwell show, critics puffed their ascots and slammed him as kitsch. Even high artists like Andrew Wyeth get dismissed as "just illustrators".

But McPherson is a pop surrealist- part a generation of picture makers who don't see much of a difference between the two genres. In Pop Surrealism, a largely West Coast art phenomenon, skilled, representational painters take on pop culture's strange permutations. Chronicled in the artmag Juxtapoz, pop- surrealists have toy lines, books, and a network of galleries across the country. And with pop-surrealist Mark Ryden's paintings selling for 200,000 dollars, they can get prices as high as the legit fine art world.

Like Dali, DaVinci, and Keith Haring, pop surrealists are notorious jacks-of-all-trades. Gary Baseman animates, paints and illustrates. Tim Biskup does limited edition silk-screens and limited edition clothing. And Tara McPherson has left her sweetly creepy mark on everything from stickers to high art oil paintings., from hot-pants to hand-painted toy cars. It's art that's as accessible to broke high school kids as to pretentious little intellectuals like me.

In person, McPherson, with her tattoo sleeves and magenta highlights, looks like the indie rock wet dream. She shows up at the coffee shop fresh from bight slaving at the drawing board and orders a giant, syrupy iced coffee. While I fumbled with the tape recorder, she fills me in on her past.
McPherson dropped out of high school and took a stab at studying astrophysics before transferring to Los Angeles's prestigious Art Center. Before school, she absorbed Japanese influences and good bookkeeping practices from managing a designer toy store. But it was a brief marriage that gave her her absorbing theme of lonely hearts.

Tara draws a lot of hearts. She draws girls blowing heart shaped bubbles through the heart shaped holes in gentleman's chests. She draws flip-haired gamines cutting their own valentine's shaped holes. Her big eyed, gothy damsels who she tentatively calls "Miss Lonely Hearts" are riffs on a tradition going on Wednesday Adams to Emily the Strange. And she draws them for reasons more selfish than didactic.

"My art is very personal" McPherson tells me, before repeating a quote of Norwegian master-painter Odd Nerdrum (who's a challenge to modernism in his own right). To draw without politics or grand message, according to Nerdrum, to just draw someone on the beach, because you feel like it, is kitsch. And Nerdrum says his work is kitsch, though the fine art establishment disagrees. "My work is definitely kitsch in the regard", say Tara, enthusiastically.

What I like about Tara might be a note of illustrators vindication. During an ill-advised semester of fine arts, "illustrative", meant "shallow and vapid". But the line between illustration and fine art is historically blurry, and when fine artists gave up on illustrators, they also forgot how to paint.
Tara's someone who bridges the gap, who makes bank as commercial artist and gets renown as a fine one. And who shows how awesome illustration can be. And that hard work and creativity, rather than the typical psuedo-intellectual posturing, make the girl.

It helps that she can paint. Her compositions are tight and as japanese-inspired as a Toulouse Lautrec. Her colors are muted, pale blue, pale pink, mint and grey, but acrylics have rarely sung with such a luminous glow.

Besides upcoming gallery shows at Jonathan LeVine, Tara is hard at work on Fables on Donor, Vertigo published graphic novels. She's also going into toy design, with Kid Robot casting vinyl versions of her sweetly evil creations. This summer, Dark Horse is publishing 'Lonely Heart: The Art of Tara McPherson'.

She's also teaching a class at Parsons. She chuckled when I asked her what advice she has to artistic youth of America. "Work really hard. Pull 15 hour days. And knowing the right people never hurts."