In the Studio: MANDEM

1. Tell us a little bit about MANDEM and how the triad got to where they are today.

MANDEM_ArtistPhoto_2019 (1)Mandem is one artist with three bodies. It’s not exactly an artist group nor a collaboration, though we’ve been described as both. Rather it’s a constructed identity — or a conglomerate —  that is inhabited, embodied, and created in a joint effort by (currently) three people: Maize, Moco, and Kiki. We are collectively Mandem, individually Mandem, and in theory, like Theseus’s Ship, Mandem could outlive any of these bodies. Mandem identifies as a disabled, neurodiverse, genderqueer artist because each of us is independently neurodiverse and queer in some way (is having three bodies and one identity is an inherently neuroqueer way of being?).  One of the bodies is also permanently physically disabled due to Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which is the genetic disorder that forms the core subject of our Hypermobility series.

We suppose that technically, we got to where we are today by driving in our Chevy Suburban (which, according to the letters on the door, identifies as a Tacoma Truck).

2. What is MANDEM’s creative process like?

At best, it’s highly integrated with daily life. We all enjoy the absence of a work/life binary, and as a family we have spent our happiest months living in the same space where we were working, moving fluidly back and forth between painting and playing, without a lot of outside distractions. That’s peak flow — painting until the work requires a drying break, sleeping and living, and then painting again as soon as the canvas is ready. That’s amazing. We could just never leave the studio if the world would let us (which is why artist residencies are so amazing), and never get tired of it or struggle for new ideas. For every idea that makes it to canvas, we have a thousand things we wanted to do and didn’t have time. It’s turning off the creative process that’s so hard.

In the real world, the process is often broken up into days (or sometimes horrifically long months) in which we are hijacked by medical issues and adult responsibilities and the daily struggle to survive, and just waiting anxiously for a chance to finally get back to the studio. And when that chance comes, it can be really hard to pick back up where we left off if there’s only a single day unscheduled at a time. But if we can get 48 consecutive hours free? Then we’ll paint for the entire time straight, without sleeping and sometimes without eating, just to try to make up for lost time, painting until we literally collapse. Having to work in short concentrated bursts and then going for a long time with it all bottled in, that’s hard, like treading water and only being able to breathe in gasps. Burnout for us isn’t in working too hard on the art, it’s from having to put it away over and over again.

3. The Hypermobility series obviously has roots in traditional painting as well as performance. In the artist statement, MANDEM stated “…the [Hypermobility] series has expanded to explore paintings as a form of performance…” How does MANDEM feel the “performance” aspect of the work has progressed and challenged the traditions of the mediums explored?

MANDEM_Hypermobility_WIP-Photos-Web.jpgThere are at least two significant elements of performance within these works. The most obvious performance element is that for specific pieces within the series, we have created them in part or in whole as live paintings. That’s something we ordinarily don’t do, because the usual creation process is painfully slow and requires long wait times.  But the very large diptych in the series (which combined is a total of 20 feet wide and 8 feet tall) was created over the period of two artist residencies during which we would leave it installed in a public space and let people experience its evolution and incorporate their comments, feedback, and sometimes their own painterly additions into the work. It became a living dialog in that way. Live painting isn’t a brand new challenge to painting — it’s been part of underground art scenes and festivals for a long time —but doing it in a way where audiences see their own ableist statements integrated in a disfiguring way to the piece? That’s a bit more antagonistic.

The other performative element has to do with the way in which these paintings function as self-diagnostic and awareness-raising materials. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is a genetic, congenital disorder. The average time between when patients with it begin seeking medical help for symptoms and the time that they finally get a diagnosis and begin receiving helpful treatment is a horrifying twenty years — which means that for every lucky teen to be diagnosed within a year, you have people who have been begging for help for the last forty years and still having doctors tell them that they’re just malingering or otherwise misdiagnosing them. This is despite the fact that the most common type of EDS is a clinical diagnosis consisting largely of a very simple checklist of unique outward manifestations that people who don’t have some form of connective tissue disorder are physically incapable of duplicating. It’s a strange phenomenon; our bodies are dramatically different from the average body in appearance, but there’s not education about it for doctors or patients, so people just grow up feeling “like freaks” without realizing that it has a medically-relevant relationship to their health problems.

Our paintings not only show these different body types, but generally also show the models recreating one of these diagnostic checklist items. When these paintings are exhibited as a group, you’ll see people standing in front of them flexing back and forth as they try to imagine being in these poses. We’ve had so many people come to the shows and try to recreate the poses themselves or ask friends to try it, and when we find someone who can actually go to each painting and reproduce the pose, it opens the dialog to ask them if they have chronic illness that doctors can’t seem to pin down. We have heard from dozens of people who learned about genetic connective tissue disorders because of the Hypermobility painting series and subsequently found answers to their lifelong health mystery.  The paintings become this locus of dialog allowing people to recognize their own bodies in the work and get educated about something that can literally save their lives.

Art is always capable of tremendous immediate impacts, but it’s not usually something that’s quite this directly active in getting people to consider their own bodies and what makes them unique in a way that’s medically significant.


4. What is it that MANDEM hopes a viewer will take away from this particular series?

First, we want to challenge the dominant dialog in painting by which disabled bodies —and especially gender-nonconforming disabled bodies (over half of our models are trans, nonbinary, or otherwise genderqueer)— have historically been portrayed as objects of either horror or pity or both. Figure painting has a very long history of being tied up with these ancient classical ideas about beauty and goodness, whereby the perfection of the human form represents a perfection of the human spirit. It may have begun as a sort of homoerotic hero worship in Greece, but by the time it passed through the Roman Empire and into Renaissance art (remember that the Italian renaissance was funded in large part via colonization of South America) and eventually into the arms of fascism, this ideal of “beauty = morality” had metastasized and was being used to dehumanize not just disabled people, but also people of supposedly undesirable classes such as Jews, Roma, gender non-conforming and queer people, the urban poor, and non-Europeans as a whole. People don’t really talk much anymore about the connection between figurative work and fascism, but it’s part of the reason that more liberal artists in Europe and America started moving away from mythological and figurative work. But here’s the rub: bodies are cool. They’re valid and important and we should talk about them. It doesn’t help anybody to replace idealized bodies with idealized abstract geometries and call the work done. So for us, the answer is to go back and reclaim the idea of beauty from the fascists and the classicists, and take it for ourselves.  Let’s proclaim the right of disabled bodies to be beautiful.

We’re not alone in this instinct for reclamation, of course. There are a number of amazing women of color, for instance, who are responding to the Western canon by seizing the means of production, so to speak, and painting their own bodies with the respect and love that they deserve — Harmonia Rosales, for instance, who repaints Renaissance images to feature black women instead, or the formidable Lina Iris Viktor, who combines amazing figurative work with bold geometric gold leafing. By nature, these acts or re-insertion need to be a form of self-portraiture (or, to be clear, portraying one’s self by portraying one’s community) in order to function as they ought…. Which I guess gets back to the element of performance. Being genderqueer and being disabled, we painted first our own bodies and then our own community back into the canon.

5. Has social media played a role in MANDEM’s studio practice?

Sometimes.  In the diptych we mentioned, some of the audience engagement that was “quoted” in the piece was from social media. But that’s a rare event. Usually we try not to let feedback like that into the studio process. What we did depend on for this whole series, though, is the way social media connects us with other people who are living with connective tissue disorders like EDS. It’s a relatively rare disorder — not nearly as rare as doctors make it out to be, mind you, more “rarely diagnosed” than truly rare — but it’s still only a handful of people per city. So without social media, we no doubt would have had a lot more difficulty connecting to models. We’ve worked with models as far away as England, but we never could have made connections like that without social media.


6. A question that I always include: What advice has MANDEM been given that has the most influence?

Hmmm…  the best business advice ever was “You should get a man in a suit,” by which the speaker meant that we were doing fine with creating our art but had invested zero work in marketing or promoting it, and if we didn’t get help with that we’d never get out of the metaphorical woods. We bristled a bit at the time, because who likes to be reminded that white men have all the privilege when it comes to walking into a room and automatically commanding respect just because of their clothes? But the intended point regarding marketing chops was still a good one. As it happens, we never did get a man in a suit to do that for us, unfortunately, but we did start setting aside specific times for “man in the suit days” where we put on our adulting pants and actually submit to things or answer emails.

As related advice with a slightly more aspirational tone, one of our painting mentors, Lilian Garcia-Roig, describes this as the vital “why not me?” attitude required by women and other art world minorities. Whenever you see an opportunity, instead of thinking to yourself “I’m not what they’re looking for,” do what a trustfund kid with no qualifications would do and say “why not me? I’m as good as anyone else!” and just apply for it.  Leave it to the curators to reject you, rather than rejecting yourself.  Most of the time this doesn’t work out, but sometimes it does.

Apart from business, the most practically influential advice had to do with color —now, this wasn’t so snazzily phrased, so we can’t quote her directly— but the gist of it was this: The longer you look at a thing, the more colors your eyes will be able to decode in it. Because of [complex scientific reasons I could explain in four pages but not in one paragraph], cameras flatten those colors out and can’t capture them. People who don’t paint aren’t trained to see them and so they won’t. But you can see them if you’re willing to sit with a thing and look at it — what a camera sees as black is more likely a deep color like indigo or umber or dark green or blue. Not only is the existence of white and black skin a terrible lie, but human skin also isn’t just plain peach or brown — it’s always a wild mix of yellows and blues and greens and purples and pinks and dozens of shades of brown. Learn to see colors as they really are or could be, not the short-cuts that your brain takes when it’s just trying to give you survival-related information.

Which leads to the next part of this conversation: If you put a strawberry in a dark room and shine a green light on it and take a photo, in the photo you could color-sample the berry and it would be indisputably gray. Without red light waves, the berry physically cannot reflect red rays and look red. But if you actually looked at the berry in real life, your mind would still tell you that it was red, and you would “see” it as red. Because what you think you see in “reality” is little more than a lie fabricated by your nervous system to make it so that your brain will cooperate in keeping your body alive. Yay!

7. What’s next for MANDEM?

We often work on multiple projects at once. We’re still officially working on the Hypermobility series, though taking a short hiatus from the full-size paintings in that series to expand on our Medical Trial of the Saints series. We have some upcoming solo exhibits that will show these series side-by-side in a discussion about aesthetics, illness/disability, and self-creation. We’re also working on creating a new-to-us photographic workflow that combines digital photography with analog old school photographic techniques to create impossible surrealistic “forgeries” of antique photos (yep! Reinserting ourselves in that history too)  — but there’s a lot of experimentation that’s going to go into figuring out exactly how we want to make that work. Traditional photography is a form of alchemy, and it requires a lot of dedication and experimentation to get it right… even before you introduce the goal of integrating it with digital forgeries and hand painting.

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